Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rabbi Robert Tabak on Jonah: Endings to the Story

Minyan Dorshei Derekh, Germantown Jewish Centre, Philadelphia
Mincha Yom Kippur, 2015
Rabbi Robert Tabak

Jonah: Endings to the Story

This dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of my father, Sol Tabak z”l who for many years read the Jonah story in English at his congregation, Adat Shalom, in San Diego.

Rabbi Gail Diamond, quoting Uriel Simon asks, if teshuvah (repentance) is at the center of the book of Jonah, where is it in first 2 chapters – the prophet fleeing , the boat, great fish, etc.?  The sailors are presented as good, moral people. Jonah is fleeing God and also declares his awe of God.  But no one is called on to repent.
However, teshuvah is at the center of the story, and at the center of Jonah’s anger in the last two chapters.
The Rabbis teach that teshuvah is one of seven things created prior to creation – (BT  Nedarim 39b/Pesachim 54b)
  שבעה דברים נבראו קודם שנברא העולם, ואלו הן תורה
 תשובה וגן עדן וגיהנם וכסא
הכבוד ובית המקדש ושמו של משיח.  
   - *תשובה - 
   "**בְּטֶרֶם הָרִים יֻלָּדוּ...  וַתֹּאמֶר 'שׁוּבוּ בְנֵי אָדָם!'*".
Seven things were created before the world, viz., The Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah….Repentance, for it is written, Before the mountains came into being [yuladu-were born], before you formed the earth and the world . . . You return humans to dust, you decreed “Return [shuvu] you mortals.” (Ps 90:2-3, “Tefila l’moshe ish ha-elohim”)

In this list of seven things – one of them is not like the others – only teshuvah is a quality, or potential quality, of human life, for all people.

At the end of chapter 4, why is Jonah angry? He says, I knew you were El rahum (A merciful God) , using the same language as Exodus 33-34 after the Golden Calf.
Again: Why did Jonah leave the city? (4:1-4) the text says, because he sees that God is forgiving . Jonah wants a God of absolute justice, of din (at least for gentiles).” Please take my life from me” (twice!)– God  asks (as Rabbi David Steinberg notes, seemingly with sarcasm) “Are you that deeply grieved”? and again after the plant dies.
Ruth Loew asked me a great question:  What happened to Jonah next?  The biblical story ends with the people of Nineveh changing and God telling Jonah about God’s compassion . We don’t hear anything of Jonah’s life after his mission to Nineveh.  Is there a capacity for Jonah to change as well?
Our interactions with others change us – something that I learned in many years working as a chaplain.
The rabbis taught in Leviticus Rabbah (34:8) It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua:  The poor person does more for the householder (who gives tzedakah) than the householder does for the poor person. (trans from Danny Siegel, Where Heaven and Earth Touch vol 1, no.53) Sometimes we think we are “helping” others, and we will be helped, or changed, more by that interaction than the other person will be.
Once when I was a chaplain, I met a minister and a rabbi who were both hospital patients on a transplant floor.  Both were from South Jersey, but they had hardly known each other – meeting only once or twice at clergy meetings.  The minister heard that the rabbi was getting sicker and sicker and needed a kidney donor.  She said to herself, maybe I can do this.  She was tested, they matched, and both were in the hospital for the transplant. (They also told their story to the newspapers, so it is not confidential).  I don’t know if my visits as a chaplain to each of them helped them or not.  But these visits affected me and made me see how deeply hesed (lovingkindness) can affect people who hardly knew one another.  We may all not be able to be organ donors, but we can show kindness even to those we do not know.
The story of Jonah as written ends with God admonishing Jonah, with teshuvah possible, even for the evil deeds (hamas –  violence or theft) of the city of Nineveh.  At the end of the book we just read this afternoon, the sukkah is gone. The plant is dead.  The king and people have changed.
And presumably Jonah makes the long journey back from Nineveh to the land of Israel.  What is in an imaginary Chapter 5?
I don’t want to give a single answer, but will share a few possibilities for Jonah, Chapter 5
1)      Jonah returns home, and is still resentful of the hesed (lovingkindness) of God, which overruled strict justice.  He goes around grumbling, and saying “Nineveh, its king and citizens were probably faking.  They didn’t mean it—they just wanted to save their necks.  The first chance they get they will cheat and will probably attack Israel, too.”
Jonah was a messenger who still did not believe in the message he had carried.

2)      Version 2.  Jonah returns home, deeply affected by his encounter with human transformation.  He is overwhelmed, even smitten, by hesed/lovingkindness.  The people of Nineveh, he realizes, did not repent because of his great oratory or skills (he spoke in a foreign accent) but because somehow the content reached their hearts.     On the long, hot road home, Jonah thinks about the dead plant he had been willing to die about, and realizes that all of God’s creatures – human and beast, Israel and gentiles, and even plants that die in a day are somehow connected to a wider reality.  Even the thief who steals his donkey and backpack one night is one of God’s beloved creatures.
3)      Version 3.  Jonah returns home.  He realizes that people can change, and that God can forgive. He also knows that not all the people of Israel, not all the people of Nineveh, not all the beasts are kind and loving.  He knows some are capable of great evil. But people are also capable of good, and more significantly, capable of transformation.  Jonah realizes that he is not the center of the story.  At most, he is a messenger.  Jonah has to confront his own anger that God is el rachum v’hanun  (a God merciful and forgiving), that God who somehow forgave the Golden Calf and the Ninevites might forgive him, and might forgive Israel, if they truly change.

I  want to conclude by sharing a midrash that connects three essential qualities (tzedakah, teshuvah, tefillah ) of the Days of Awe to one verse that we don’t often read, from Second Chronicles when King Solomon dedicates the First Temple in Jerusalem :  (Pesikta d’rav Kahana, BaYom HaShemini Atzeret 28:3).

Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Elazar:
Three things-
prayer, Tzedakah, and turning-to-Menschlichkeit [Teshuvah]
eliminate [unfavorable heavenly] decrees. (shelosha hen she-matbilin et ha-gezerah).
and all three can be derived from a single verse:
“When My people, who bear My name,
humble themselves, pray,
seek out My face,
and turn from their evil ways,
I will hear in My heavens,
and will forgive their sins,
and heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)
“pray” (va’yitpallelu)- this refers to prayer
“seek out My face”—this refers to Tzedakah
as it is written elsewhere “I through Tzedakah (tzedek) shall see your face.” (Psalm 17:15)
and “turn from their evil ways”—this is turning-to-Menschlichkeit [Teshuvah]
And what is the conclusion of the verse?
“I will hear in My heavens
and forgive their sins…”
[R.Tabak adds the final words of the verse, not quoted in the midrash: “And I will heal their land.” (v’arapeh et artzam)]
trans:  Danny Siegel, Where Heaven and Earth Touch vol. 3, no.38) 
I can’t tell you the ending of the Jonah story.  We have to try to write our own endings, with our life stories, as best we can, with help from one another.

Song:  K’chu imachem d’varim  v’shuvu el-hashem (Hosea 14 – haftarah for Shabbat Shuva)– Take words with you and return to Hashem.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rabbi Tamara Cohen Rosh Hashanah 2015: The Binding of Isaac and Black Lives Matter

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5766
Rabbi Tamara Cohen

This Dvar Torah was born a few times over this year.

I think the first place it was born was in the powerful experience of giving birth to a beautiful baby, who among many other things is a white Jewish boy with blond hair and blue eyes in a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement was reaching a new level, in a moment when the stories of parents mourning the deaths of their children of color due to police violence were all around me. We took Kliel to a Hanukkah Black Lives Matter protest for his first outing. He was barely a month old. Why? In part because I wanted to be there and in part because I was struggling with how to allow myself the joy of this new baby knowing that all around America and Philadelphia and even Mt Airy other parents were also celebrating new babies, babies with all different colors of eyes and skin and hair, and that all of us lovestruck parents, wanting to do everything for our children, feeling acutely aware of their vulnerability, also had different relationships to the vulnerability of our kids because of the systemic racism in the America in which these babies were being born.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to nurse and realizing that this waking in the night was core my current spiritual work. It was a way to teach my baby's little body and deepest self: yes, it's true, there is nothing I won't do to care for you. You are safe in this world and can take root. You are loved and cared for. Each time you cry out, or murmur, or show me your need, I will respond. And then it occurred to me that the difference between my parental instinctual hearing and spiritual instinctual hearing was this: I wanted to be and to raise my children to be, people who wake in the night when they hear not only the cries of their own babies but the cries of every and any baby.  The kind of people who can respond with love and surrender each time they hear a cry of human being in need, even in the dark of night, even when we would rather sleep.

Another moment when this D’var was born was on a phone call with my friend Y. after Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell. Y. was saying something like “What’s going on? What’s going on? This is America.” And there was an urgency in her voice, a terror. I had read a headline or two about the case but I hadn't yet taken the time to read more. I was busy, planned to get to it soon. But something in my friend’s voice, something said to me in a starkness, painful and real, that the difference between being a good white friend and ally and being a black mother in that moment was the difference between my upset at the story and her terror. And I saw it clearly. I saw her daughter, 17, headed to Princeton after graduating as the only black Jewish girl from her yeshiva high school. I saw her suddenly, briefly through her mother’s eyes. I saw the terror of having to release one’s child, one’s black child, to an unknown world, the terror of having to allow one’s baby to drive on a street through Princeton. Anywhere really. And I felt shaken awake in a new way to the difference in my reality and in the reality of my dear friend, both of us Jewish mothers who love our kids and would do anything to protect them, one of us white and one of us black.
            I tasted for a moment the physical terror in her voice. And then I went into my house to have dinner with my family and she went into her house to have dinner with hers. But before we got off the phone I made a promise to her, yes, we would do something, no I wouldn't forget the moment, no I wouldn't let this fear and anger and horror all sit solely on her shoulders.

            The third place this dvar Torah was born was in my reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s amazingly beautiful, powerful and heart-wrenching book Between the World and Me, which I read this summer, thanks to the fact that the GJC Racism group decided it would be a good thing to do together. For those of you who have not yet read this book, and I strongly commend you to read it, what you need to know for now is that the book is written by a black father to his fifteen year old black son. The book tells the story of how Ta-Nehisi, in his words, has made the struggle to live free in his black body in America the central meaning making struggle of his life. He writes about his childhood on the harsh streets of inner city Baltimore, his struggles with school, his period of valorizing and learning from Black Power and Malcom X, his awakenings at Howard University to the deeper complexities of race and racism and blackness, and about becoming parent. He shares the story of the loss of a peer to police violence and of his intense visit with the mother of this murdered son, a professor and dean, who had raised her son in the suburbs, sent him to private schools and given him so much, none of which protected him from being murdered by a police officer in the prime of his life.

            These three experiences led me to feel compelled, if still somewhat anxious about, giving this dvar torah. So here’s the essence of what I want to say:
            For me, this year, the Binding of Isaac is a story different from any other year I have read it. This year it is a story about an Abraham who loves his son but who is so terrified by the realization that he could be taken away from him that he almost kills him himself.
            This year for me, Abraham is a black father. And Isaac is his beloved son. And what happens in the story is that Abraham, through binding his son on the altar, passes on to his son the terrifying truth that his body could be taken from him at any moment.
            Isaac and Abraham are both afraid. Fear is something they live with and know. Indeed fear becomes part of Isaac's name (as Gideon Ephrat points out in a blog post on the use of the phrase Pachad Yitzchak after the Akeida).

            I want to briefly read you a few quotes from Between the World and Me that may help you see how I have arrived at this reading of Akeidat Yitzchak.

Coates writes: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.” He continues, “That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mothers hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods.” - p. 82

            So, what happens when we read these two texts, Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Genesis 22 together? A few things happen.

            One of the most difficult and important things that Ta-Nehisi Coates asks his son and his readers to do is to accept a radically different and more violent narrative of America than the one we generally believe in. He asks us, as does the Black Lives Matter movement more broadly, to recognize that what has gone on this year have not been the acts of some bad cops, but instead a reflection of and carrying out of a policy of systemic racism consistent with the basic tenets of the American Dream in which the of safety and prosperity of people who get to claim the identity of “white” get that through the plunder, ownership, and terrorizing of Black bodies.

            I hear in this two calls to us as a community of primarily white Jews.

            The first is that we recognize how much we have benefited from the process of mostly losing, at least in the United States, the marker of having Jewish bodies, and of being accepted as having white bodies. But we can’t stop there. We must also take the step of deciding to stop believing in the whiteness of our bodies, while still fully acknowledging white privilege, and of no longer acquiescing to the system that gives us advantages because of our supposed whiteness on the backs of those whose skin is black.

            Another equally hard and important move that I invite us to make is for us to be willing to look at the Torah and at Israelite civilization with the same hard scrutiny with which Coates looks at America, and also, through the course of the book, at blackness.

            He writes, "The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own” (p.53) and also, "Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it."

            I think its important for us as Jews to be ready to admit that indeed our beloved Torah is not exempt as a story in which some great power is elevated through the violent exploitation of other human bodies. Despite the power of the Exodus narrative, in the Torah, in the end, Israelites bodies are the chosen bodies. It is the bodies of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan who are plundered and destroyed in order to pave the way for our Dream, for the conquest of the Promised Land. This is a very troubling way to look at the Torah, just as Coates presents us with a very difficult read of America. But the fact that it makes us uncomfortable doesn't make it not true.

            And if we can tell the truth, tell the truth about America, and tell the truth about the Bible, and tell a more whole truth about our changing and evolving position as American Jews in the civil rights struggle, not just about Heschel in Selma, and Andrew Goodman, and the stories we are proud of, we will be moving closer to being able to make necessary radical change.

            Let’s return to Isaac, bound and trembling with the knife raised above him. On the one hand I am seeing him and asking you to see him as an American boy with a black body. I am doing this because black bodies are the bodies in America today that hold the position of Yitzchak, the position of fear, of lack of freedom, of being struck, bound between the promise of a grand and fruitful future and the very real possibility of immanent unexplained and incomprehensible death.

            But at the same time that I want us to hold the image of Yitzchak as a black child, I also want to hold him as every child.

            The binding of Isaac is a story that reveals that actually we all have bodies. And that actually every one of our bodies is vulnerable. Every one of our bodies would cry out "I can't breathe" if it was put into a chokehold and we had asthma. Every one of our bodies would be destroyed if it was bound and driven around in the back of a police van.

            Isaac is our reminder that really race is a construct that creates an unnatural line between those bodies that are vulnerable and destructible and those that are strong and invincible.
            Our narrative does not end with Yishmael cast out and Yitzchak  protected as the chosen one. Yitzchak ends up vulnerable in today’s Torah reading just as Yishmael did in yesterday’s. Isaac's body lies there bound and afraid, just as Yishmael sat in the desert thirsty and in danger of dying. Both of them together remind all us that all of our bodies could be taken from us for reasons we don't understand and will never understand. Each is dependent on an angel shifting their parents vision in order to enable their survival.

            So on the one hand I am saying that some bodies are more vulnerable than others and on the other hand I am saying that all bodies are equally vulnerable. Yes.

            Racism and the American Dream's dependence on it makes it true that black bodies are far more vulnerable in America than white bodies. But this is not an inherent truth. This is the result of a system built to protect and construct white bodies and to control and destroy black bodies, families, and communities.

            When we recognize that whiteness is a construct, that blackness is a construct, that race is a construct, we take one important step. We then need to take another. We need to take the step of saying that we want to exchange of our sense of distance from the reality of the vulnerability of the body for a society in which all bodies are equally vulnerable and equally free.
            We don't yet live in that society. The Torah doesn't live in that reality either. But Isaac's bound body and the rabbis choice to force us to look at it every year is perhaps a way in to that worldview.

            That's where we want to go. To the worldview where the color of Isaac's skin doesn't make him more or less likely to be bound or unbound, where the color of his skin doesn't make him more or less likely to live with a constant underlying sense of fear.

            As Jews we often read this story in a way that focuses us more on the intellectual, spiritual, philosophical questions raised by the Akeida. I have felt compelled this year to stay with the body. With the embodied terror of Isaac and of Abraham. And beyond them of Hagar and Yishmael. And even Sarah.

            I have felt compelled to stay with the deep experience of bodily fear that is not right now equally shared in this country. But which perhaps we can begin to more deeply understand through our bodies than through our minds.

            Racism can only partially be unlearned through the mind. The racist’s fear, the fear that the supposedly white body carries of the black body is also a bodily fear. And so perhaps we can get more to the root of racism if we go to this body place. And perhaps this year that is where Isaac is inviting us to go.
            At least it is where his body invited me to go this year. His body and a mother’s terror, and the crazy sad fact of Sandra Bland's death, and all the lives taken this year because of police violence and the powerful gift of Ta-nehesi Coates’s words to his fifteen year old son — his act of father to son truth telling that somehow calls out to me across time and space as an answer to Abraham's deafening silence during his three day walk with his son.

            Towards the end of the book, Coates addresses his son: ”Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real—when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities—they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact... I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” (pp.107-8)

            May we keep learning, may we keep struggling, may we raise our next generation — all of them, to be conscious citizens of this terrible and beautiful world. May the shofar keep blasting and shaking all of us awake.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Only Connect: Dorshei Derekh Yom Kippur 5776, by Rabbi Dayle Friedman

[As I get settled at the podium, I pick up my phone. I  lower my head and begin to tap and swipe away, looking up occasionally to say: oh, so sorry, I gotta take thisuh, just a secbe right with youoh, rightthe dvar torah!]
Missing the moment
What I just did was a jokebut also NO joke. As I have engaged in חשבון הנפש spiritual accountingduring Elul and these 10 days of repentance, I have felt particular remorsenot for all of the moments in which I missed the mark, ,חטאתי I sinned, but for all of the moments I missed. How many times was I in the car supervising my kids as they learned to drive when I responded to a text, read an article, or grazed over to Facebook? How many times when I was in our room after our 10 p.m. computer curfew, talking to David, but also playing solitaire? How many times was I having a meeting when my phone went off and I reached down just gotta check thiscould be my kids and checked my text messages?
       I doubt very much that I am alone in this experience of engaging with a technological device instead of being fully present in the moment. I will not ask for a show of hands. But I do very much hope that exploring distraction, its causes and costs, can help not just me, but all of us, to retrain our sites on the target from which we have strayedwhat E.M. Forster captured in his memorable phrase: Only connect. If not, while I am talking, feel free to plan your work schedule for tomorrow, or fantasize about your post-fast feast.
      The late Rabbi Alan Lew taught about the importance of staying focused. As he analyzed the rules in Parashat Shoftim about exemptions from the obligation to go to war, he noticed commonalities. The Torah teaches that you cannot be required to go to war if you have:
1)      built a new house and not inhabited it
2)     planted a vineyard but not harvested it; or
3)     are betrothed and have yet not married
Rabbi Lew taught that people in these situations are excluded from obligation because of טירוף הדעתtheir mind is pulled in multiple directions, and hence, cannot fully engage in the life-or-death decisions required in battle.
Their minds are pulled in multiple directions.
      OUR minds are pulled in multiple directions. We might not be engaging in battle, but we are making life-or-death decisions every time we get behind the wheel of a car. And also every time we cross a street.  And it might not be life-or-death decisions, but we are surely losing real connection when we engage in a conversation while operating a phone, computer or iPad.

 Why Are Our Minds Pulled in Multiple Directions?
     The easiest and most immediate answer is that we are not alonewe are constantly in the company of all of these incredibly enticing devices. They offer news (though honestly, how many times a day do we NEED to check the latest headlines?), entertainment (I can listen to edifying podcasts!), and the promise of connection (better check my e-mail, maybe somebody needs me!). And oh, the apps: I even have an app for meditation!
      But beyond the sheer seduction of worlds upon worlds available in the palms of our hands, there is more going on. I notice that I tap, tap, tap my phone when I feel bored, when I feel anxious, when I feel frustrated, or sad, or mad. I can take myself away from the challenge of the moment with a tap or a swipe. I dont have to tolerate difficult emotions.
      And I am an impatient person. I dont like waiting. The other day I was in the doctors office. The nurse asked me to wait while draped with a paper blanket on the examining table for the doctor. Would you be surprised to hear that I grabbed my phone and was looking at my calendar when the doctor entered the room? That was nothing compared to the long and angst-filled waiting in the years of my late sisters illnesswaiting for news of a treatment, waiting for test results, waiting with dread for a phone call. Those moments, sometimes days, sometimes months, of waiting, were agonizing. I felt I couldnt engage fully in what I was doing because I might have to take the call,  or cancel a professional engagement and jump on a plane. Not surprisingly, my Solitaire addiction ratcheted up to an unprecedented level during that period. Just one more gameand another..and anotherthough, to be honest, my angst was not salved in the least.

The Costs of Distraction
     There is a rabbinic teaching that, when we are brought before the Throne of Glory for our ultimate judgment, we will be called to account for every lovely flowering tree that we failed to notice and enjoy. So easy to do, when we are caught up in thoughts, or conversation.
      The rabbis were talking about the sin of missing the moment. Imagine if we were called to account for every sight, smell, or sound we missed as we were plugged in to our phones or other devices.  Even more terrifying: imagine we were called to account for every emotional connection we missed when we were multitasking when we should have actually been thereour attention drawn elsewhere when we should have been listening, looking, and feeling what the other was communicating!
      In I and Thou, Martin Buber posited that there are two fundamental and very different ways in which humans can relate, I-It, and I-Thou. In an I-it relationship, we are relating to the other, whether the other is a person, a tree, or an animal, as an object. We are interested in the utility we can find in that other. In an I-Thou relationship, we are encountering the other with our full being, without agenda. When we meet the other as a Thou, by which Buber meant the most intimate, familiar YOU, we are truly alive, we are truly present in the present moment. In this kind of genuine relating, we become fully human. Even more than that, says Buber:  When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.  We experience Gods presence precisely in the moments of I-Thou encounter.
      When we attempt to be with another AND check our email, we are involved in an I-it relationship.
      When we go out for a meal and leave our phones out on the table because we are expecting an important call, we are making an IT out of the person across from us.
      When we sit on a conference call while reading the news on our computer, we are objectifying each and every person with whom we are supposedly in conversation.
      More than that, though, we are making an IT out of ourselves, robbing ourselves of our deepest humanity.
      When someone tells you they are multitasking, they are not. They are I-itting.
      We have forgotten Bubers precious teaching: all real living is meeting.
     How shall we live our days in the year ahead? Surely not in continuous I-Thou encounterswe might be attracted to that, but no one can live at that level of intensitywe would never pay our bills or get our laundry donethough perhaps we could grow to be more present even amid those mundane tasks.

The Promise/possibility
     I want to offer you a teaching from my favorite rebbe, Shalom Noach Berezhovsky, the Slonimer, as a vision and promise for us.
The Slonimer Rebbe holds Avraham Avinu up as an example of presence and mindfulness. At the end of his life, it is written of Avraham,
 אברהם זקן בא בימים וה׳ ברך את אברהם בכל
Abraham was old, had entered his days (come of age), and God blessed Abraham in everything. The Slonimer asks: why do we need to learn that Abraham was come of age if we already knew he was old? He answers: each of us is given a portion of Torah at birth, and each day, a small piece of that portion is revealed to us. In addition, each of us has a task a tikkun/repair that is ours alone to do. One persons task cannot be done by another, and one days task cannot be completed at another time. What was it that the Torah wants to teach us in telling us that Avraham ba bayamim?
      Abraham came into his dayshe inhabited each and every day of his life. He learned something new, and he performed some act that healed or aided the world daily. Maybe one day he apologized to Isaac for the trauma of the Akedah. Maybe he found new neighbors with whom to make a covenant of peace. But perhaps his acts of tikkun/repair were not always so dramaticperhaps one day, he gave a friendly greeting to a lonely soul; maybe on another day, he listened really well to Keturah, the wife of his old age.
      Because he truly was present to the moment-by-moment learning and healing of each day, each of Avrahams days was full, and rich until he died at age 175. God truly blessed Abraham in everything.
     May we come into our days in the year ahead.
     May we experience the wonder of doing just one thing at a time.
     May we feel the power of paying our full attention to the person we are with, whether at work, at home or at shul.
     May we pry the phones, or mice, or tablets from our hands and learn to be with our own experience.
     May we meet many Thous, and may we discover the exaltation of being an I.
     May we experience the electricity of Gods presence surging through and between us and those we truly meet.
     May we come into our days in the year ahead.
     May God bless us in everything.
     Ken yehi ratzon.
Sholom Noach Berezovsky, Netivot Shalom on Hayyei Sarah.
Martin Buber. I and Thou. Martino Fine Books. 2010 (reprint of 1937 edition).

Alan Lew. This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. Little, Brown and Co. 2003.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Melave Malkeh with Joey Weisenberg at the Chestnut Hill Meeting SkySpace

Havdalah, September 26, has a lot of convergence: it is the end of the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. And it the weekend when Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia, and several million Catholic pilgrims are expected in our City of Brotherly [and Sisterly] Love. Road access to the center of Philly will be blocked.

Hence, it is a special time to gather and add our songs and prayers for peace and justice to those of Pope Francis and his flock.

Please come early. The SkySpace has limited seating. Also, since the roof literally opens up, bring a jacket.

All are welcome. Light refreshments will be served following Havdalah.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Parshat Pinchas: The Daughters of Tselophehad and the Daughters of Botswana

Wikipedia Commons
Bold, determined women are challenging these discriminatory norms. While researching my new book , I was astonished to encounter a 2013 High Court ruling in Botswana, the culmination of a five year legal battle waged by four elderly sisters, Edith Mmusi (then 80), Bakhani Moima (83), Jane Lekoko (77), and Mercy Ntsehkisang (68). These gutsy women petitioned, appealed, and ultimately triumphed in their quest to inherit their father’s property. Sound familiar?

Their nephew had attempted to evict them, claiming that he, the only surviving male descendant, was by local traditional law entitled to their family compound. Botswana High Court Justice Key Dingake upheld the sisters’ claim, writing:
“It seems to me that the time has now arisen for the justices of this court to assume the role of the judicial midwife and assist in the birth of a new world struggling to be born. Discrimination against gender has no place in our modern day society.”
These modern Daughters of Tselophehad, like the five sisters who successfully challenged Moses and the Elders of Israel (Numbers 27:1-11), petitioned legal authorities and prevailed.
In the Torah portion Pinchas read this week, Tselophehad’s daughters Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah argue they should receive their father’s land since he had no sons (Numbers 27:1-11). While this case does not give women equal land rights (had there been even one son, he would have been the heir) like the case in Botswana, it is an inspiring example of the disenfranchised identifying and protesting injustice.

Another Supreme Court Justice, our own Anthony Kennedy, recently observed, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.” One wonders what gave Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah the ability to see gender injustice when others saw only the norm of the day. Not only did they discern the injustice, they protested it. This took confidence, chutzpah, and grace.

These five sisters stumped Moses with their logical legal argument and solution. Moses famously agreed, stating “The daughters of Tselophehad speak right…you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them.” The text does not share the reaction of those who lost out due to their triumph, but we can assume these women had to face many who opposed their petition. In Botswana and many other countries where tribal legal systems discriminate against women, many defend these cultures’ traditions—essentially using loyalty to ethnic traditions to reinforce their privileges. Even though the proverbial arc of history bends towards justice, it does not do so without resistance.

Legal changes create new facts, but it is no easy matter for individuals, shaped by the old status quo, to change. This is one explanation for Israelites who escaped Egyptian bondage being denied entrance into the Promised Land. Their psyches were shaped by the experience of enslavement, making them unable to fully adjust to freedom. It is their children, raised as free people, who can embrace that identity.

Many of us who recall the many limitations on women’s academic and professional options are amazed to see the progress of the past few decades. But equal opportunity has not translated into parity. Much ink has been spilled trying to explain gender gaps in politics, academia, and industry. Countless forces undermine girls as they mature in our culture, diminishing their confidence and discouraging their ambition, ultimately thwarting their climb to the highest professional levels.

Even when there isn’t overt discrimination, internal forces can be self-limiting. Pressures to follow more traditional feminine scripts have huge power over most of us, and men raised with gender inequality, likewise, do not get with the program.

The same holds true for most disadvantaged groups achieving legal equality. Our country is painfully aware that the legacy of slavery and racism impacts our country through and through. Much progress has been made, but as I write this essay, many Southern Black churches are burning.

It takes great courage, self-examination, and resolve to break out of old patterns. How remarkable that these nine women, five sisters in the time of Moses and four in our own times, persisted and triumphed in their determination to be treated fairly. May they empower others by their example.

Betsy Teutsch is the author of the recently published “100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women.