Sunday, December 8, 2013

Israelite & Jewish Identity in Black & White: Shabbat Vayigash - Dr. Wil Gafney Davar Torah

presented by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. - 12/7/2013, Minyan Dorshei Derekh

*Vayigash Mandela. Mandela stood. And now he is at rest. I dedicate this drash to the memory of Rolihlahla, Nelson, Mandela, Madiba. (Vayigash, “he stood,” is the first word of today’s Torah portion, Gen 44:18-47:27.)
Ex 46:20 To Joseph in the land of Egypt were born Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asenath bat Potiphera, priest of On, gave birth to for him.
I was going to begin: “Jewish folk and black folk have shared experiences of diaspora, involuntary and voluntary.” But that language is not quite right. Those binary categories presume there are no black Jewish folk (or African Israelites). We know that’s not true, and no, I’m not about to convert. But what language should I use instead?

Slavery. Freedom. Diaspora. Migration. These are some of the themes that drew enslaved Africans in the Americans to the stories of the Israelites in spite of the best efforts of the slavers – black folk are the only folk in the United States for whom reading was illegal, primarily to keep my ancestors from reading the bible and concluding it called for their liberation. Though to be clear Africans were not dependent on slavery, white folk or Western Christians for their introduction to either testament, Judaism or Christianity.
Africa looms large in many of our hearts this week as one of her lions has taken his final rest.
South Africa is one of the spaces in which Jewish and African identities meet and mingle, in the very kohenic DNA of the Lemba people. (The Lemba are South African and Zimbabwean African Jews with genetic links to the Kohen, priestly gene, previously identified in Jewish populations.)
Joseph’s Egyptian sojourn complicates the issue in interesting ways. On the one hand, Joseph marries an Egyptian woman so the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh are half-African. Westerners have worked really hard at separating Egypt from Africa although we don’t separate any other northern countries from their continents. American Biblical scholar Martin Noth writing in the 50’s and 60’s was scandalized by Egyptian art and wrote that the Egyptians were quite simply wrong to portray themselves with brown skin and wooly hair as though they were Negroes. (Clearly a Freudian reaction to issues at home.) I see similar motivations in the claims that aliens or the residents of Atlantis built the pyramids, anyone other than Africans.
Generations of folk of all races have asked what the Israelites looked like, for many, in order to identify with literal, cultural or spiritual ancestors. According to Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1: R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are כְּאֶשְׁכְּרַע like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Well, that settles that. According to Jastrow eshcara-wood is either box-wood – which looks to me like wood-colored wood, kind of tan – or eshcara-wood is ebony, which completely changes things. I published an essay on blackness and whiteness in rabbinic literature last year and am borrowing some of that today:
It Does Matter If You’re Black or White, Too-Black or Too-White, But Mestizo is Just Right
Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish says in Bavli Bechoroth 45b:
 לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק
שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא מהן טפוח
Lavan lo yisa’ lavanah sh’me’ yatza’ lahem boheq
shachor lo yisa’ sh’chorah sh’me’ yatza’ lahen t’fuach
A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child. It is important to remember that the rabbis are discussing their own kinfolk, black, white, red, spotted and speckled, who are also their skin-folk.
The texts are about how to tell when someone has a plague spot on their skin and how skin-color affects the inspection and determination. Given the range of skin tones evoked by the range between “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” – ebony, ivory, cocoa, mocha, caramel, sandalwood, perhaps even peaches and cream, along with black coffee – no sugar, no cream, how will the nega, plague spot appear on all of these skin tones?
The terms boheq and t’fuach, “excessive whiteness” and “excessive blackness” are not always negative in the rabbinic lexicon. Boheq means “bright” and “brilliant” and “beautiful” in reference to jewels and candlelight and Sarah’s beauty and the brilliance of scholars across the tradition. (Cf: Yerushalmi Pesachim 27b, Bavli Kiddushin 33a, Gittin 11a and Sanhedrin 100a.)  “Excessive blackness,” t’fuach, is related to a particular type of pitcher used for hand-washing, t’fiyach, – leading to Rashi’s interpretation “black as a pitcher;” no one seems to know what sort of black pitcher Rashi meant, but it was certainly not pejorative. There is a secondary lemma that refers to “grass” and “grain” leading Jastrow to say that t’fuach might refer to the skin discoloration of a person dying from starvation due to lack of grain. Following Rashi t’fuach was the same shade of black as a well-known household object, now obscure but with no negative associations. So then, according to Resh Lakhish, thekohanim (and likely the rest of the Israelites) range in skin-tone from blacker-than-black to whiter-than-white with only the extremes on both ends perceived as problematic.
The full Mishnah Nega‘im 2:1 text:
The bright spot in a German (girmani) appears as dull white, and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel – may I be an atonement for them! – are like eshcara-wood neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.
Germani is used in rabbinic literature to refer to the inhabitants of the Roman province of Germania, the ancient Cimmerians (related to the Thracians), the biblical Magog and stereotypical white folk. FYI: The Cimmerians have crossed over into popular culture as the people from whom Conan the Barbarian emerged, played by the Austrian (not-quite-Germani) actor Arnold Schwartzenegger and by the half-Hawaiian – mestizo? – actor Jason Momoa.
Bringing us back to today’s parshaBereshit Rabbah 86:3, identifies Joseph as GermaniEverywhere a Germani sells a Nubian, while here a Nubian is selling a Germani! This refers to the sale of Yosef by an Ishmaelite, descended from Hagar the Egyptian.
Which brings me back to Joseph and Asenath and their children in our parsha. My ancestors looked to the ancient Israelites as spiritual kin and proof of a liberating God active in the world. Generations of lay and professional biblical scholars have charted out complex relationships between people of African descent and beney Yisrael, especially in the places where they overlap and intersect, like the land itself, a bridge that connects Asia and Africa. The ancient Israelites and Biblical Hebrew are characterized as Afro-Asiatic by scholars. Yet whiteness and Jewishness go together in the popular and rabbinic imagination though in neither are they completely inseparable.
Each of us is a series of interwoven and overlapping identities. We operate out of multiple identities at a time. As I offer this drash I am most aware of being a member of Dorshei Derekh, a biblical scholar and a black woman. Others may be more aware of my Christian identity than I am myself at this moment.
My questions are about identity:
Which of your multiple identities are at the forefront of your self-articulation in differing contexts and why?
Are you aware of others perceiving you through the identities that are more important to them than those that are for you?
So much of the bible and its interpretive literature is about constructing and maintaining identity, which of those constructions are still meaningful and which are being reconstructed in your life and religious practice?
Michael Jackson famously sang, “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” The space between unacceptable blackness and unacceptable whiteness in Bavli Bechoroth 45b, what Soncino translates as “excessive blackness” and “excessive whiteness” is to borrow a term from the Latina and Latino interpretive lexicon, a mestizo space. Implicit in the prohibition, A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce, t’fuach, a-too-black-child, is the solution, that black and white people should marry each other and produce beautiful mestizo babies. Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Barbara Breitman - Parashat Vayeshev and Climate Change

Dvar Torah:  Parashat Vayeshev   
Bobbi Breitman, Minyan Dorshei Derekh   November 23, 2013

Today’s parasha begins:  “Now Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned…”  Gen 37:1.  Va yeshev Yaackov b’eretz m’gori aviv…   You might be surprised that with this narratively rich parasha, I am going to focus here….but I am. 
            From Aviva Zornberg, I learned that this short phrase was the focus of microscopic attention by the earliest midrashic commentators who offered some rather troubling interpretations of this seemingly innocuous verse. Rashi, for example, comments:  “Jacob wished to live at ease, but there leapt upon him the troubles of Joseph”.   It seems likely that Rashi noticed that Chapter 37, which begins with Va’yeshev, ends with Joseph being sold into slavery as Jacob mourns for the beloved son he believed had been ripped apart by a wild beast.  After his tumultuous life, Jacob sought, finally, to live in peace, but this desire of his old age was, at least emotionally, savaged. 
            Zornberg guides us to what she believes is the source midrash for Rashi’s commentary on this verse:  Quoting Bereshit Rabba: “When the righteous settle in peace….. (that is) seek to settle in peace in this world, Satan comes to accuse them.”  What a strange aphorism to the contemporary ear!  Isn’t peace a high value toward which the righteous should aspire?  Apparently not.  The rabbis seem to be asserting that the righteous make themselves vulnerable to Satan’s attack by their over-weaning desire to live at ease, to settle in peace, in this world.  Peace is for the world to come.  It is a grievous error, according to Chazal, to desire to see history resolved, sojourning over, in one’s lifetime, and in this world. 
            Zornberg comments further:  When Jacob tries to ‘settle in peace’, he looses vengeful furies not because his is a moral offense, but because it constitutes a wrong understanding of the human condition.  The wicked may seek to gain quick release from angst; but the righteous are asked to suffer it, not to turn away from it.  “To seek peace prematurely is to beg off from reality.”  To face it, and to act wisely, is the responsibility of the righteous.
            This morning, standing on the scaffolding provided by Zornberg, I want to emphasize the second part of this short verse “to settle in the land where his father sojourned, and hear how the Torah might be addressing us today.  Standing of the shoulders of my ancestors, I interpret the verse:  When we seek to settle with ease in our current world, as if we are living in the same world where our parents lived, we loose vengeful furies on generations to come.  It is a wrong understanding of our current condition to think we are living on the same earth on which our parents sojourned.
            Bill McKibben, the head of, has been warning for years:  “Global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all.  It is our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways…The world as we know it has ended.  We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind.  But they’re not.  Earth is a different place.  A different planet.” (from Eaarth:  Making a Life on a Tough New Planet)  While humans have been the cause for the sudden surge in greenhouse gases and hence the rise in global temperatures, the heat we’ve caused now triggers ominous, systemic feedback effects so that the earth is changing much more rapidly on its own than scientists ever anticipated. 
            We are all aware of the catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines and that Naderev Sano, representative of the Philippines to the 2013 UN Conference on Climate Change which has been meeting in Warsaw these past two weeks, put himself on a hunger strike out of desperation.  His protest came at a moment when the negotiations were at a deadlock. The world community has not been able to agree on either a timeline for cutting greenhouse gas emissions or providing financing to developing countries for loss and damage, adaptation to the severe climate impacts of climate change and the transition towards renewable energies.  As of last night, it appears there may be a bit more agreement on a few points; the US joined the EU on backing a time-table, but it is still not clear what will finally emerge.  The science is clear that we cannot wait any longer to make drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. 
            For a number of years I’ve been part of a small of group who’ve been studying and discussing climate change as we support each other to make personal lifestyle changes and engage in a variety of public actions against fracking, the XL pipeline, and prepare for the possibility, even likelihood of engaging in non-violent civil disobedience if President Obama approves the XL Pipeline.  It is now emerging that we may well need to become active over the mile-long trains that have started coming through Philadelphia carrying crude oil.   Just over a year ago, the 140-year-old Sunoco refinery near the airport was on the verge of closing its doors. Now, the facility has become a key player in America’s energy boom as the single largest consumer of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. These are the same kind of trains that derailed and exploded on Friday, November 8th in Alabama, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. The train carried the same fracked fossil fuel which killed 47 people this summer when a similar train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Canada.  It is the same fracked contents in the mile-long trains that are now coming through central Philadelphia twice a day, every day.
            Over these years, I’ve learned a lot and it has become increasingly clear to me how climate change results from the interlocking systems of the earth’s ecology, our economic system, and our spiritual/religious world view.  In an act of collective insanity, I participate in a civilization that depends on non-sustainable fossil fuel extraction that works in direct defiance and opposition to the natural structure of the biosphere. 
            The radical and extreme extraction of fossil fuels through fracking, drilling deep in the ocean, and exploiting the petroleum deposits known as Tar sands are the logical outcome of the industrial growth society we live in. And though I am addicted to a life-style I’ve become accustomed to in this society, I see ever more clearly how it is based on a system of values and beliefs that I, and most people in this room, do not believe in:
·         Human beings are separate from each other and from the ecological system that we are part of, rather than part of an interconnected and fragile web of life. 
·         The earth is a storehouse of resources that can be extracted at will for human consumption with no regard for non-human life and ecosystems
·         Profit and money is valued over people and Life itself
·         Individual survival is possible when communal survival is threatened
·         It is most profitable to focus on the needs of the present and not on future generations.
·         Survival of the fittest, rather than cooperation and partnership, is the best strategy for life.
Many religious and inter-faith organizations and communities have been publically declaring an alternative vision like the
            Interreligious Eco-Justice Network  &  Connecticut Interfaith Power & Light

Who wrote
And Which has been circulated to interfaith communities around the United States .This letter states, in part:
As members of the faith community, we have a deep obligation to understand the full dimensions of this growing problem, which the scientific community has documented with overwhelming consensus in the past few decades.
  • Safeguarding all creation on earth is a sacred trust that is placed upon us – to love, to care for and to nurture. We accept this trust as a universal moral imperative, one that we share across all human societies, religious faiths and cultural traditions. 
  • Given the urgency of the current situation, we solemnly pledge to:  
    • Foster a reflective and prayerful response to the threat of global climate change.
    • Work together as people of many religions and cultures to live sustainably on planet Earth.
    • Encourage members of our faith to develop and implement energy conservation plans and to use safe, clean, renewable energy.
    • Be an authentic witness for action on climate change and environmental justice through teaching, preaching and by letting our voices be heard in the public sphere.
    • Advocate for local, state, national and international policies and regulations that enable a swift transition from dependence on fossil fuels to safe, clean, renewable energy.
As far as I know (and I humbly admit, I may well be wrong because I have not been a regular attender at this minyan), we have not, as a minyan and Shabbat community, spoken together about climate change, though I know we’ve made changes in getting rid of disposable dishes in favor of washing plastic ones.  I imagine people have been making changes on their own and in other contexts, today’s parasha called me to bring the conversation here this morning.
              Before opening up for discussion, I want to share something from an article I read recently that describes a workshop led by a complex systems researcher, named Brad Werner,  at the 2012 Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, titled “Is Earth Fucked?:  Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”.  Guiding a conference group through the advanced computer model he was using to answer this question, his bottom line was that the global industrial growth economy has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that earth-human systems have become dangerously unstable.  He explained, however, that there is one dynamic in his model that offers some hope:  ‘movements of people or groups of people’ who ‘adopt a certain set of dynamics’ that does not fit within the industrial growth culture, which could represent a source of friction to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.  Werner made his argument not as a matter of political opinion, but as a geophysical reality, by including human resistance as part of the great ecosystem that is the earth.
            Thomas Berry wrote:  “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments…when their story of the universe and the human role in the universe becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.  We live at such a moment”….. Connecticut Power and Light declared this week:
There comes a time in every generation when a matter of great urgency requires that we, who belong to a diverse faith community, express our concerns with moral clarity and with a unified voice. That pivotal moment has arrived. We can no longer ignore the plain facts of climate change.”
             I felt called by Chazal’s words….’ When the righteous settle in peace….. Satan comes to accuse them” to bring these issues to this faith community, so we might listen deeply and see where we are.  
  • How do you think about climate change?  
  • How do you hold your day to day life and the ominous realities of what is happening on our planet?  
  • Where and how do you find inspiration, support, and hope?  
  • What kinds of activism are you engaged in and what would you like others here to know about what you are doing and who you are working with? 
  • How can we as a community at GJC continue to come together around these issues?
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light is a community of congregations, faith-based organizations,and individuals of faith responding to climate change as a moral issue, through advocacy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, and the use of clean, renewable energy.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Minyan Dorshei Derekh's Kiva Loan Portfolio 2013

Kiva Logo
We have just relent money from loans which were repaid, and here are our new microfinance clients.  yashar kochachem - may they succeed in their endeavors.

  • Elida Victoria Carhuaz, Peru
    loanA loan to to buy merchandise.
  • Zulfa Likoni, Kenya
    loanA loan to to purchase stock such as sugar, rice, maize, wheat flour, and cooking fat.
  • Lorena Del Carmen El Salvador
    loanA loan to to buy clothes to sell.
  • Rosa Adela Managua, Nicaragua
    loanA loan to to buy cement, sand, iron, bricks, toilets and other plumbing items.
  • Fatuma Likoni, Kenya
    loanA loan to to purchase sacks of charcoal for resale.
  • Hamida Bhera, Pakistan
    loanA loan to to buy a wide variety of cloths in different colors and designs.
  • Antonia Moncagua, San Miguel., El Salvador
    loanA loan to to buy oil, sausages, bread, bananas, napkins, etc.
  • Kristine Taperavan village, Ararat region, Armenia
    loanA loan to to purchase cable and pipes and pay for the workforce and the water bills to prepare her vineyard for the Autumn.
  • Nga Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
    loanA loan to to buy food and beverages to restock her general store.
  • Arlyn Oroquieta-Dullan, Aloran, Misamis Occidental, Philippines
    loanA loan to to buy bags of rice, cases of soft drinks, soap, noodles and other products for sale.
  • Oralia Margarita Pueblo Rico, Colombia
    loanA loan to to buy equipment and supplies for her salon business.
  • Mbeyu Tiribe, Kenya
    loanA loan to to purchase one bale of clothes for resale.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Fritzie Platkin z"l - Cinnamon Walnut Sour cream Cake

There were only a few bakeries in Fargo, and the Jewish women rarely purchased anything at them.  They were great bakers.  This was a cake my mother baked regularly, a favorite of my dad's.  I'd never actually made it before now, but seeing and tasting it really brought my mom back.  I can see her wearing a cobbler apron, facing her ancient MixMaster on the counter, adding ingredients, concentrating on the procedures at hand.

This makes a very large, rich, moist cake.  It's quite similar to the Moosewood Cardamom Coffee Cake, so you could, in addition to the cinnamon, add cardamom.  It's also well-known as a Hungarian Sour Cream Coffee Cake.  Whatever you call it, it's wonderful.
She made it in a bundt pan.*  Bundts were all the rage in the 60's and '70's.  (footnote below).

Take out butter to soften.
Preheat oven to 375°
Spray a large bundt  or 10" tube pan with oil

¾ c butter (!) = 1.5 sticks
1½ c sugar
3 eggs
3 c. cake flour
¾  t salt
1½ t. baking soda
1½ t baking powder
12 oz sour cream (non-fat or low-fat is fine) - [they come in 8 or 16 oz containers]
¾ t almond extract or vanilla

Nut Mixture:
¾ c. chopped walnuts
¾ c. sugar
1½ t cinnamon

In large bowl (or mix master), cream the butter with an electric mixer.  Add the sugar and eggs and cream very well.

In another large bowl mix the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder, or just mix it into the mix master bowl in you are using a stationary mixer.  Alternate adding the sour cream + extract and the dry ingredients.  (I have no idea why this recipe calls for cake flour, but no arguing with a recipe.)

In a big plastic container with a lid, like a deli container, add the walnut/sugar/cinnamon, put the top on securely, and shake. (This is where you'd add the same amount of cardamom to be Moosewoody.)  A double size hummus container was perfect!

Add 1/3 of the batter to the oiled pan - this is best done by using a spatula and dropping it in rather than pouring, since the batter is very thick.  Add half the cinnamon mixture, spreading it evenly. Add the second 1/3 of the batter, top with the remainder of the nut mixture, and finish it off with the last third of the batter.

Bake at 375 about 50-55 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool.  To take the cake out of the tube pan, gently cut around the perimeter of the pan to loosen the sides and around the tube.  I now use a non-stick tube pan, so it means using a plastic spatula/knife.
Pull the cake and tube out and set it on your tray.  Gently scrape the bottom of the cake to loosen it from the bottom and also loosen the cake from the tube itself.  You can then either lift the cake up and pull out the pan,  or invert the cake onto a second plate, pull out the tube, and tip it back on the tray so the rounded side is face-up.

This cake is truly worthy of a nice footed cake server.  It makes about 24 slices, plus some pretty spectacular crumbs.

Betsy Teutsch - Bat Sheva bat Freida

Nordic Ware's Founders

Dave & DottyAll it took was $500 and a good idea back in 1946, when Dave and his wife Dotty, started a business venture in the basement of their home, and from that point on, the company 's first bakeware products took-off. The Rosette Iron, Ebelskiver Pan, Krumkake Iron and Platte Panna Pan, became the first products, as well as the ethnic specialties in which the foundation was laid for the newborn company.
In 1948, the Dave and Dotty purchased Northland Aluminum Products, combining their own line of aluminum products with Northland's, and began producing bakeware and household items under the Nordic Ware trademark. Dave was an entrepreneur at best, and often was heard to say, "If you can sell it, you can usually make it."

The Bundt Pan

In 1950, the landmark pan was introduced, after the Minneapolis Chapter of the Hadassah Society asked Dave and Dotty to produce a kuglehof pan, similar to the one the society's president had received from her grandmother in Germany. Dave produced the pan from cast aluminum for the Hadassah Society and a few for the Nordic Ware trademark, which he sold to department stores using the name, bund pan. (The word bund means a gathering-thus a bund cake, with its characteristic fluting, was a cake suitable for a gathering or party.) Nordic Ware created the pan and filed for a trademark to protect its creation, renaming the pan the Bundt pan.
Ella Helfrich, in 1966, used a Bundt pan for her winning recipe of Tunnel of Fudge Cake, in the 17th Pillsbury Bake-off. Following the contest, Pillsbury was overwhelmed with more than 200,000 requests from people that wanted to purchase a winning Bundt pan. In 1971, Pillsbury launched a line of Bundt cake mixes, licensing the name from Nordic Ware that continued the nationwide quest for Bundt pans. Now, Nordic Ware markets its own line of Gourmet Bundt® Cake Mixes.
"Today, there are nearly 60 million Bundt pans in kitchen's across America," Nordic Ware President David (Dave & Dotty's son). said. "Almost a Bundt pan in every pantry." The Bundt pan has continued its growth in popularity. It has been a guest on TV cooking shows, featured in an array of magazines and also used by some of the world's famous bakers. It is likely the most popular baking mold in the world.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Tzelem Elohim and Teshuvah: Kol Nidrei 5744 Adina Abramowitz

I apologize for the outline format, which enables me to speak more naturally. I hope there are sufficient words here for this to make sense. Please feel free to ask me questions or discuss this Dvar with me.  
adina at

        I.            Introduction
  Baruch Atah Adonai, Ruach Ha’Olam, She’Asani Btzalmo. Blessed are you the Creator who made me in your image. Those of you who get to shul at the very beginning will say this brachah with the community.
  It is amazing that even on Yom Kippur, when we are most aware of our faults, we are reminded that there is Tzelem in each of us.
  Comes from Genesis 1:26, where God says: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
  According to our tradition, the tzelem is in all of us, not just Jews or just men, or not just whomever we consider to be “us.” The original Adam, who contains all future diversity, including Zachar U’Nekeivah – all genders – is the one imbued with the tzelem.
  Concept has tremendous implications for Teshuvah
  I will discuss the concept of Tzelem and Tshuvah on three levels, and at the end of each section I will pose some questions for reflection:
  With others in your circle
  With the larger community
  Secular concept of B’Tzelem is empathy; in last 10 years there have been tremendous advances in understanding how the brain works and what it means on a biological level to experience empathy.

      II.            Tzelem and Teshuvah with yourself
  Rabbi Yoel Kahn said: “Everyone, including ourselves is deserving of respect and forgiveness because we are made in God’s image, somehow a reflection of the divine on earth.[i]
  What is the Tzelem inside us? I think it is made up of two somewhat opposing concepts. The first is the values we all hold inside us of compassion, loving kindness, truth seeking, and forgiveness. These are values we ascribe to God in the 13 attributes and that we are challenged to imitate, to live up to. The second concept of the Tzelem is the spark that makes us unique and individual. This is celebrated in our tradition by the Midrash about that when an early king makes an image of himself on a coin they all look the same, but when the Holy One made us all in His/Her image, we all came out as individuals.
  There is appropriate remorse and then there is beating yourself up. Research suggests that difficulties with self-forgiveness are linked with suicide attempts, eating disorders, and other problems. However self-forgiveness that isn’t genuine can be a crutch that produces a moral sense of righteousness and can actually reduce empathy for others. Healthy way[ii]:
  Don’t get rid of guilt, but do let go of shame. Remorse, rather than self-condemnation is key to healthy self-forgiveness.
  Own up: without this self-forgivers are likely to repeat their bad actions
  Pay your dues: make it up to yourself in a concrete, reparative way.
  Self-forgiveness need not be all or nothing. It’s a slow process; an act of humility and honesty.
  The Name and self-description of the one in who’s image we are made is Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, I am as I am, or I will be as I will be, or as Rabbi Annie Lewis taught us on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I am not yet what I am not yet, a translation by Lawrence Kushner.
  Our God-likeness is at the essence of being human. “On YK when we are inclined to self-doubt and harsh criticism, we can be uplifted and regain our lost dignity in the sure knowledge that however we have failed ourselves, the Tzelem within us gives us permission to say Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh, I am as I am. (Yoel Kahn)
  To honor the God image in yourself means to be growing and changing. Teshuvah gives us the opportunity to grow and change into our best self, a reflection of the Tzelem inside us.
  Martin Buber taught: in order for the divine image to unfold in human life the “human task in not being but becoming.”
  YK is a day of acceptance of who we are and who we could become.
  Questions for reflection: What are some of the ways you can recognize the Tzelem in yourself, and turn towards your best self? How can you encourage more becoming and less being?

    III.            Tzelem and Teshuvah with others in your Circle
  A few moments ago during the Kol Nidrei, we gave ourselves permission to “L’hitpallel im HaAvaryanim” To pray with the others – the ones from the other side, the imperfect ones, the others who also are made B’Tzelem.
  Tradition tells us that we must ask for Teshuvah from another person up to three times, in other words we have to engage in a real conversation. 
   Buber says in I and Thou that God exists in the space between people, when we are truly present for each other. This involves shutting down some of our own ego and assumptions to be in that place with someone else, especially those we find harder to be with. To recognize the tzelem in the other is a profound act of being present.
  With some people, easy to recognize the tzelem, others harder. B’Tzelem asks us to recognize the holiness in each person no matter who they are or how difficult they are.
  Many times when we think about interacting with a difficult person we have imaginary conversations in our heads, usually about all the ways that it could go badly. Tradition asks us to have real conversations, to shut down the imaginary voice in your head and interact on the I-Thou level.
  Other people it may be hard for any of us to see the Tzelem in include
  Vastly different perspectives
  Mental illness
  Evil (one definition of a sociopath is a person without empathy)
  “While nothing is easier to denounce the evil doer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  Empathy can be learned – empathy appears to be like a muscle – it can be strengthened through exercise that actually causes physiological change.
  Study by Helen Weng et al “Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering”[iii]:
  One group of subjects learned to practice what’s called “compassionate meditation” by focusing on a specific person while repeating a phrase like, “May you be free from suffering.”  The subjects concentrated on five different people: A loved one, a friend, themselves, a stranger and then someone they were in conflict with. Another group of subjects performed general positive thinking. Both groups did the exercise 30 minutes a day for two weeks. Then everyone was asked to spend money to help a fictional character who had been treated unfairly. And the subjects who did compassionate meditation were more likely to spend their money to help than those who trained to just think more positively. The researchers also did brain scans of those who behaved most altruistically, before and after training. And people who were most altruistic after training showed the biggest increases in activity in brain areas involved in empathy and positive emotion.
  Tillet Wright created the “Self-evident Truths[iv]” project in 2010 response to the opposition to equal marriage. Her goal was to take 10,000 pictures of people all over the U.S. who consider themselves “not 100% straight.” As of the last update, she has travelled to 25 cities and taken pictures of 4,000 faces. The idea was to show the anti-marriage equality people who we are. She says: if a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a face is a whole new vocabulary. Visibility is key; familiarity is the gateway drug to empathy[v].
  Questions for reflection: In this coming year, what can you do to grow your empathy muscle?  What will you do to acknowledge the tzelem in others even if they are vastly different than yourself?

   IV.            Tzelem and Tshuvah with the Wider World
·         The concept of the tzelem in others is what inspires me to do social justice work. If we are all made in the tzelem, how can it be that there is widening inequality and where the zip code where an American is born does more to determine their health, educational and economic outcomes than any other factor?
·         To acknowledge the tzelem in a person from another place, another culture, religion, set of assumptions is a radical act of empathy, or of seeing the tzelem. This is even more difficult if you have been through a personal or political tragedy.
·         Why do some people react to tragic events with revenge and others with forgiveness? According to Michael McCollough, professor of psychology at the University of Miami, and the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct says we need to acknowledge 3 truths[vi]:
a.       The desire for revenge is a built in feature of human nature - found in over 95% of cultures studied
b.      The capacity for forgiveness is a built in feature of Human nature – also found in over 95% of cultures studied
c.       To make the world a more forgiving place, don’t try to change human nature – change the world!
·         An interesting example in the Torah of changing the world instead of human nature are the Arey Miklat – the cities of refuge – that a person who commits an accidental killing is supposed to escape to, in order to not be killed by the revenge seeking relative. The Torah doesn’t think it can eliminate revenge, but rather that people can create structures and systems to contain and limit revenge.
·         In his book Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin calls humans “Homo-Empathicus and contends that we are soft wired for empathy.  He talks about how neurologists have discovered that humans have what are called “mirror neurons” that are triggered when one person is engaged with another. So if I see a spider crawling up your arm, I will also feel a creepy feeling on my arm.[vii]
·         He shows how as technologies evolved, humans were able to empathize with wider groups of people:
·         Hunter gatherer could empathize only with family, tribe.
·         Then with great agricultural advances it went to theological empathy, where we could empathize with those of the same religion.
·         In the 19th century, Industrial revolution, we created a fiction called the nation state and we can empathize with people in our country. 
·         Then he asks this radical question - Is it really a big stretch to connect our empathy to the whole human race? We have the technology to think viscerally as a family – earthquake in Haiti – twitter and email got us all empathizing with Haiti. What can we do in our institutions  bring out empathic sociability and lay the groundwork for the empathic civilization?
·         Or in other words can we see the tzelem in all people on earth? (“L’taken  Olam B’malchut Shaddai”) 
·         It is in the wider community where it is often hardest to see the tzelem in others who may seem other, may seem like part of “those people” who have different values than we do.
·         Question for reflection: What would you like to commit to tonight to do in the coming year to see the Tzelem in a group of people you currently see as the other?

     V.            Conclusion
·         There is a beautiful Midrash in Talmud Pesachim (54a) that says that before the world was created, God created seven things. Among them was Teshuvah. Since human beings have free will, it is inevitable that they will make mistakes, that many times it will be hard for them to see the tzelem in themselves and others. But Teshuvah is a prerequisite to the world’s existence, and it is always available to you as a way back to the best in yourself.
·         At this moment I ask you to try to believe that you your core spirit is a reflection of Godliness, a piece of the Tzelem, that you are welcomed into a holy community, and that you are capable of Teshuvah, of becoming your highest self, towards yourself, your loved ones and friends and your larger community.
·         Whenever you come into the service tomorrow, I invite you to say the Brachah, Baruch Atah Adonai, Ruach Ha’Olam, She’Asani Btzalmo. Blessed are you the Creator who made me in your image.
·         I wish everyone an easy fast and to be inscribed into the Book of Life and wellbeing. Shannah Tova.

[ii] See Juliana Breines, August 23, 2012, “The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself”

[iv] See the Self Evident Truths Project web site at

[v] Listen to Tillet Wright’s TED talk titled “Fifty Shades of Gay” at

[vii] For a summary of the concepts of this book in an animated talk see: