“The Seven ‘Whys’ of Spiritual Community” (Erev Rosh Hashanah 5783)

I entered into these High Holidays with excitement, and also with some trepidation, with some curiosity. Because, I didn’t know what was going to happen tonight and the days to come. Years prior I knew what to expect, the hum of the sanctuary, the excitement of return, the convergence of all of us here in one space. When the pandemic began, then too, it was clear in a way: we all stayed home, turned on our computers and joined together in a new way. I reached out to you across the wavelengths and yet we were still together, still connected—it was a different type of excitement, and one that was no less potent. And last year we did the same, with a few more people in the sanctuary, again demonstrating that we are able to create community in new ways.

This year, with the doors of the building as well as the zoom room open, I really didn’t know what to expect. How many people would be in person, and how many on zoom. How can we maintain the same feeling if connectedness when we are not all in one place (for hybrid is different, whether in person or on zoom, previously we were all in one place.) But we are not going back, for we have learned that hybrid grants broader access and accessibility that we need to maintain and we will maintain.

When we started going hybrid a few months ago the numbers were weighted in favor of online attendance, and they have remained that way. Most people stayed on zoom. And I understand that—the pandemic is not over, we are not free from Covid. Our congregation developed a robust policy, a path to move forward, and we move forward from there.

One thing I need to keep reminding myself is that the how questions are different than the why question. That is, how we do spiritual community is changing, has been changing, over the past few years (if not longer, even before Covid.) It is—and this is the main source of my anxiety—unclear as to what that change is, and what spiritual community will look like moving forward. We are continuing to adjust, rethink, and tinker with the how. There is no going back, but I’m not really sure where we are going. Except for the fact to know that we are a community congregation.

On the other hand, the why question—why is spiritual community important—is a different. And those answers, I believe, are established even if they are not known. We don’t often think about the why of spiritual community. Perhaps it comes to us intuitively. Perhaps we are just not sure.

As I often have, I have come to you on Erev Rosh Hashanah with a list of lessons learned or insights gleaned over the past year. And this past year has been another one of navigating a pandemic and learning how to do things differently. It got so overwhelming for me this past year that I needed to take a step back, and I am so grateful to this community, for this congregation, for granting me a 6-week sabbatical so I could restore myself. And no, this is not the seven things I learned on my sabbatical so if that’s what you thought I’m sorry.

No, what I want to share with you are the answers to the why question. Why is spiritual community important. So here are my seven answers to that question. Here are seven reasons why spiritual community important. And my hope, is that if I share with you my perspective on the why question, we will be able to address the how question together.

We need a place to eat with other people

One of the things we have lost due to Covid that we have not yet fully regained here is the sharing of food. Whether it is an oneg of snacks after our Shabbat service, or a communal Shabbat dinner, or bagels and lox at Torah study, or our Passover Seder, or the apples and honey we share on Rosh Hashanah or the Break Fast on Yom Kippur, we have not yet as a community come back to our communal eating. And the sheer number of examples I have just mentioned indicate how central our shared food experiences are to our communal Jewish experience. They are not an addition to but an integral part to what we do. They are ways we celebrate, they are ways we console, they are ways we maintain our traditions.

And they are ways we strengthen our connections with each other for our own benefit.

People have studied the benefits of social eating, communal eating. It’s been determined that social networks are important in combating mental and physical illness. In one such study, Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford notes that a significant proportion of survey respondents “felt that having a meal together was an important way of making or reinforcing these social networks.”

And sacred community is one of the places where it is natural to have a communal meal. When we eat with others it is usually in smaller groups: family dinner, or a night out with friends, or a work lunch. How important it is to draw together in larger numbers—including those outside your family, or friendship circle, or work cohort; sitting down to eat even with people you don’t even know.

The synagogue is one of those places that facilitates and prizes communal eating. Our tradition teaches this, not only by making some of our ritual practices and holiday celebrations dependent on food, but overtly when it teaches, “Three who dine at a table and exchange words of Torah are considered as having eaten at God’s table” (Pirke Avot 3:4) Social eating is important to our well being, and spiritual community is one place that we do that. And it is my hope that we can find our way soon to once again safely creating these opportunities for sharing food.

Being a part of spiritual community gives you an opportunity to strengthen social bonds over food.

We need a place to sing in public

Without intentionally joining a choir or a chorale, I can only think of three places where we regularly sing together in public: a concert, the ballpark, and a faith community.

Where everyone who walks through the door. Ok so it’s a bit of an exaggeration but think about when and where you sing in public. Not many places. But psychologists again have studied what maybe we know naturally, that singing together is good for us. Studies have been shown that singing is good for the immune system, and learning new songs is good for brain function. Singing in general improves wellbeing, happiness and improves one’s mood. It is a way of making music that is accessible to everyone–everyone can sing–creates a shared emotional experience, and—like sharing a meal—fosters social connections which have been shown to be vitally important. By being one of those places that regularly engages in communal singing as a central part of our liturgy and worship, faith communities thus have the ability to harness these benefits on a regular basis.

Of course it was a choir event that was one of the first superspreader events at the beginning of the pandemic, a choir rehearsal that made the news, and thus has been a challenge. And yet we are finding our way back, slowly and carefully, joining together our voices in song.

So let’s do more. Let’s do more in our community. We have our wonderful choir. I started learning the guitar a few years ago. There are others out there who have musical talent and interests, and there is so much Jewish music being released into the world. Let’s lean into music in our community. Let’s bring everyone together to do a music summit here where we all come together who are interested in music and learning new music and bringing new music to our community to our services and our communal life.

Being a part of spiritual community allows you to use your voice and give expression to your emotions and feelings to connect with yourself, with others, and with the spirit.

We need a place to contain our traditions

I hate to share some bad news on this day of celebration, but the Queen has died. If you didn’t know Queen Elizabeth II has died after over 70 years on the throne of England, which triggered not only the succession of King Charles III but an elaborate ritual of mourning and burial. It was fascinating to watch for me because all the pageantry and participation of the funeral had not been done in 70 years. The people who were at this ritual last time were children, most people were not alive when King George VI died. And yet, the elements were in place and went smoothly.

Which means that there was planning. The rituals: the processions, the services, the lowering of the casket, the breaking of the wand—all of these rituals needed to be maintained and held by a group of people who would be ready to carry it out when needed and able to direct all the parts and participants.

I thought about this in reflecting on our institutions—our synagogues. Our Jewish communities are also the repository for our traditions, our rituals, our practices. These rituals and practices are so vitally important because they provide a container for the ups and downs of our lives. We need ways to frame what happens in our lives that are both personal and communal, both contemporary and timeless. In this way spiritual community helps us shape the narrative of our lives.

Judaism is meant to be practiced every day, in our personal space, in our homes. But it is also practiced in community. And while we individually may not have all the information or guidance, all of us collectively contain the practices and minhagim of our people. None of us, myself included, can hold the entirety of our tradition by ourselves. Everyone is needed.

And in addition, it is by joining together in spiritual community that we give life to our practices and traditions even when you do not personally practice them. We need a place, we have a place, regardless of our own personal practice, where we observe our traditions, where we can say oh we don’t eat that here, or we only do certain things at certain times–blessings, holidays, foodways—because we are a Jewish community and when you are a part of it, it gives you that opportunity to practice and engage in our traditions.

Being a part of spiritual community gives you a connection to the past and a foundation for the future.

We need a place to teach values

You may have already heard but we have introduced a new youth education program this year. We have lovingly retired our “Beit Sefer”—which means school—and introduced a program which “Darchei Noam”—which means “pleasant paths.” It is a program that moves away from the Sunday School model and incorporates Jewish learning on Jewish time, and allows families to build their own education program based on a variety of offerings. And also allows more integration of our families with the rest of the congregation, where anyone can be a teacher.

And I say this not just as a means to plug a new program here at TBH, but to emphasize how important spiritual education is, and perhaps now more than ever. Our children have also lived through this pandemic—their schooling, their socialization, their development, interrupted by separation and isolation and fear. But I say this without judgment—it is what it is, and there was learning that happened because of the pandemic not despite it. and we are so grateful to our kids who do what they need to do to be safe and keep others safe.

And the spiritual needs are there. The need to belong, the need to have a place, the need to be accepted without judgment. And spiritual community is a place to do it.

And our youth program is not there just to teach kids how to be Jewish. Of course that is a part of it—Hebrew, holidays, Shabbat, customs, prayers—these are all a part of the curriculum. But spiritual education, like here at TBH, is there to teach kids how to be humans. We teach values. We teach character traits.

This is not something that would necessarily be taught in the public schools, where the emphasis is on skills and performance. But it is a necessary part of a child’s education. And so we partner with parents and families to make it here. When others won’t or can’t teach values, then we will. And if the forces of book banning ever reaches this community then I can guarantee those books will be on our shelves.

Being a part of spiritual community prioritizes the creation of the whole person, in all our intricacies, and gives us the tools we need to be our full selves.

We need a place to work for justice

Our values lead to action. And we are a values-based organization not only so that we as individuals can grow, and be fulfilled, but so then we will go out and work in our community. This is not the only place where one can organize and work for justice. But this is a place. And it is our place. And so if you are looking for an opportunity to engage in justice work rooted in spiritual values, then you can be connected to spiritual community. Especially too if you don’t know where to start, here is a place to focus your passion.

One of the things that I think is so powerful about doing this work of social justice through spiritual community is that it provides a narrative, a framework for the work we are doing that is beyond charity, and beyond the needs of the individual. The story of the Exodus, that foundation story that we repeat year after year around the Passover table, tells the story of a people liberated from oppression and brought to safety not so they could live in peace for themselves, but so that they can live in peace for themselves and then work for the liberation of others. How can we expect to transform the world if we don’t have the vision of a world that can be transformed?

We have developed a number of opportunities, deeply rooted in our identity as a Jewish community, to support the work of justice and tikkun olam. We have a Green Team that is leading us in our own environmental sustainability. We have our Immigration and Refugee Task Force, which has done a tremendous job with our sanctuary work over the past few years and continues to advocate. We started a homeless task force this past year, to guide us in contributing to supporting our houseless neighbors here in Olympia. We have advocates for gun responsibility, and in the works are members organizing around racial justice and exploring reparations work. And maybe, in light of recent events, we can begin to do more on reproductive justice.

Being part of a spiritual community reminds us that we are part of a greater whole, and we have a responsibility beyond our own selves and our interests.

We need a place to be comfortably uncomfortable

We have spoken to the point of cliché of the polarization that is plaguing us at this point. Common ground is far and few between, we are in our silos of opinion. It seems that we are losing shared spaces where we can offer ideas, hear others in return, and allow ourselves the humility to learn and grow.

I believe that the synagogue is one of those places, or must be. When we speak of the Exodus, as mentioned earlier, we speak of the erev rav, that it was a “mixed multitude” that left Egypt. Traditionally this is understood as Egyptians who were fed up with their society fleeing Egypt along with the Israelites, and joining together in their journey or cause. Another way to understand it, perhaps, is that there was an erev rav within the Israelite community itself, a community brought together by a shared journey, but of different mindsets, experiences, backgrounds.

Indeed we see this throughout the Torah, as time and time again we have stories of the Israelites arguing, rebelling, challenging. The powerful thing is not that these stories exist, but they are kept in sacred text. Challenging each other is holy. Disagreement is holy. This is an ethic that continues throughout our literature, primarily the Talmud, whose literary style is dialogue and argument among rabbis, with minority opinions not excised from the text but preserved.

Spiritual community is one place in our society where we should be able to come together like the ancient Israelites—a community brought together by a shared journey, but of different mindsets, experiences, backgrounds. A place where we can learn from each other. For how do we change if not pushed to consider ideas, to compromise, to question, to empathize, to be humble—that in and of itself, is spiritual work.

And we must be a community here that affirms and celebrates radical inclusion, and so must be a place for Jews of all backgrounds, gender identities, abilities, sexual orientations, linealities, racial and ethnic identities and paths to Judaism to find a home here. And that any practice that violate this value of inclusion, even though they fall within the exercise of Judaism, can not play a part in this congregation.

And indeed this radical inclusion itself can be a source of the comfortable discomfort that allows for learning and growth. And I think of my own experiences: I have misgendered people. I have limited access to others. I have said or done things that excluded. When these have been pointed out to me these have been learning opportunities, and we as a community can only grow in our inclusivity if we learn from others.

And this is the heart of teshuvah, of the work that we are doing now, to recognize where we have done harm, and how we can rectify it. And teshuvah doesn’t end with an apology or even forgiveness. In fact, those might not even be part of the teshuvah process. It ends when we have changed our behavior away from our past harms to another way of being and doing. Teshuvah itself is uncomfortable. Spiritual community though can contain that discomfort and, in fact, welcomes it.

Being part of a spiritual community gives us a place to belong, engage with others, and to grow.

And the seventh why of spiritual community, and perhaps the most important and the most difficult, is:

We need a place to bring our pain and our loneliness

I hesitate whether to share this, because its hard to say and talk about, these last few weeks have been very difficult for me as I learned that a good friend from my growing up took his own life. Although we had fallen out of regular contact in recent years, he played a significant role in different parts of my life.

I do not wish to share details of his life or his name or circumstances of his death, and there is still much I do not know. I can not say anything for certain. Can we ever, in circumstances like this. But it has got me thinking deeply about suicide, and the profound sadness that usually precedes it. And how that sadness can be brought about or compounded by isolation.

We are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness in our country. A recent survey out of Harvard University, determined that 36% of respondents reported serious loneliness—feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey. This included 61% of young people aged 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children. About half of lonely young adults in our survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.” In older individuals, other studies have shown that people who are lonely have a greater risk of premature death, of dementia, of heart disease, of stroke, of anxiety, or depression.

We have seen over the recent past more mutual aid groups pop up assisting people with their basic needs. And we also need to be able to assist people with their emotional and spiritual needs. We so desperately need a place to bring our pain, to bring it to others, not to be fixed, not to be advised, not to be remedied—but to simply witness. To share it. To be reminded that we are not alone in it. Brene Brown has this great quote, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away, but church isn’t like an epidural; it’s like a midwife. I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, I’ll sit with you in it.’”

That’s exactly it. Indeed, all of us walk along the same path. Sometimes we are the ones with the pain, and sometimes we are the midwife. And what is spiritual community if not a place, a vessel, to contain that hurt. And to emphasize the fact, that we all carry it. Each week we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish at our service. Each one of us will at some point stand to recite the kaddish, and each of us will have it recited for us. The Kaddish can not be said outside of community—you need 10 people in order to say it. You must bring your pain in public, into this safe vessel. Each week we read names, each week people stand, each week the invitation is there to share grief and loss.

Our congregation may not be able to take away all the pain and sadness that we carry, because of illness, because of trauma, because of the world we live in. But we must be the place to bring it, without judgment, without stigma, to be the antidote to this epidemic of loneliness. We need a place to belong. We need a place that we are not alone. We need a place to see and be seen. And this, like other spiritual communities, is that place.

So if you are here this evening, and you need to hear this right now, I will tell you:

I love you.

I care about you.

I’m sorry you are in this pain.

I am here for you.

You are important to me.

You so not need to be alone in this.

Everything we do here at TBH. Every program, every class, every service has this at its heart. This must be at its heart.

Connection.

Companionship.

Love.

Being part of a spiritual community is being a part of something with love at the center.

What is next for our community? Outside of our beautiful new courtyard that we are going to build, I’m not sure. What I do know for sure is that dictum from Rabbi Hillel in that ancient text Pirke Avot, Al tifros min hatzibur “Don’t separate yourself from the community.” Not just because community needs you, but because we all need it.

My Pig is a Blessing

This Shabbat ushers in the new month of Elul, which in turn ushers in the High Holiday season. Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and the new year, and so invites us to use these next four weeks as opportunities for reflection and preparation for the spiritual work of atonement and repentance we engage with over the holidays.

Lesser known is that Rosh Hodesh Elul is its own new year, the New Year of the Animals. A traditional rabbinic text teaches that there are actually four new years. The most familiar is Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees. Not as popular–probaby because they haven’t developed contemporary observances, are the new year of kings, traditionally marked to count the years of a king’s reign, and the new year of the animals, traditionally observed to know which animals were old enough to be sacrificed.

The latter, though, does have some conemporary proponents and liturgies and rituals are being developed to celebrate our animal companions. For this new year is specificially a recognition of our domesticated animals, and while we are no longer raising cows and goats for ritual sacrifice, we do maintain relationships with animals as pets.

So this Rosh Chodesh Elul, take some time to celebrate your pets and mourn the ones you lost this year.

My own menagerie has been steadily growing. We now have two dogs, four cats, five chickens, a turtle and–as you may have heard–a pig.

Our pig Oswald came to us this fall when Yohanna’s cousin put out on Facebook a need to rehome her animals. Yohanna had always wanted a pig someday and volunteered to take Oswald. A few weeks later he arrived in an RV and we welcomed him into his new home.

We had a crash course in pig keeping–literally–as his rooting behavior led him to knock over everything in our kitchen. We soon adapted, learned his eating habits and likes, created a corner and bed for him, and got him into a routine. Pigs, we learned, don’t like change but are very smart, and it was not long before we all settled into a routine with this pig, who was housebroken and used to living indoors.

Once we got through the winter, we built a pen and shelter for him outside, and now he lives in his own corner of our yard and enjoys burrowing in the straw and eating all the scraps that we share with him.

Of course, going into it, we anticipated the questions and comments. Not that many people keep pigs, and perhaps even fewer are Jewish households with two rabbis. It is well known that pigs are not kosher, and therefore traditionally not eaten by Jews. Our ongoing joke is that this is the safest pig in all of Olympia, for there was no chance we would ever choose to eat him.

But the negative connection of Jews and pigs goes much deeper and there is seeming an aversion within Judaism not only to eating the animal, but to the animal itself. [Though no one has confronted me about it, I have heard of a few in our community who are concerned with the optics of a rabbi owning a pig.] A pig is not kosher because it doesn’t fulfill the two criteria of kosher animals: that they need to have cloven hooves and chew its cud. Pigs have the former but don’t do the latter. In this week’s Torah portion we have a recap of the dietary laws, and the pig is specifically singled out and defined as unclean:

But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the daman—for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs—they are unclean for you; also the swine—for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud—is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses.

Deuteronomy 14:7-8

Our traditional commentators ask why swine are mentioned specifically. There must be some significance since there are other animals that fit the same criteria that pigs do. Here we see commentators imagine that the pig must be particularly unclean. An example is from the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides:

The principal reason why the Law forbids swine’s flesh is to be found in the circumstance that its habits and its food are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks. A saying of our Sages declares: “The mouth of a swine is as dirty as dung itself” (Talmud Berachot 25a).

Guide for the Perplexed 3:48

From my experience, Maimonides had it wrong. A pig isn’t more objectionable than other animals. Plus Jews keep animals that they don’t eat. (Plus I’ve seen my dog eat out of the cat’s litter box.) Perhaps its time to retire this negative stereotype of the pig.

One way that I have done that is to live with one. Now I’m not suggesting everyone get a pig, but simply pointing to the fact that very often our prejudices and our biases are removed through actual experience. Or the testimony of those we trust as to their experiences.

In that way, the fact that the New Year of the Animals falls on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the formal beginning of the High Holiday season, is very fitting. We can reflect on our own experiences and listen to the testimony of others to reevaluate our own behaviors and ideas, eliminate stereotypes, learn new things, and continue in our desire to become our best selves.

Tisha B’Av: Teaching the Past to Save the Future

Tisha B’Av is a challenging holiday for me in a number of ways.

According to Jewish tradition, Tisha B’Av (“the ninth of Av”) is a day of mourning in observance of the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem and other calamities that have struck the Jewish people over the centuries. It is observed by fasting, refraining from fun activities, and adopting other practices from Jewish mourning ritual such as sitting on the ground and not greeting others in a normal way.

I’ve always been challenged by the fact that a day of mourning comes during the summer, a time for relaxing and fun activities. Especially in western Washington, when we live through months of rain only to be gifted with majestic summers, the casting aside of any day for mourning feels unfair.

Additionally, I am personally not a fan of fasting. I do not mind fasting on Yom Kippur as I am deeply invested in the day as well as focused on leading services and programs throughout the day, so the fast tends not to impact me too much physically. There is usually less to do on Tisha B’Av, and so I am more aware how the lack of food and drink makes me feel. [So to be honest, I tend not to fast on Tisha B’Av, but rather modify my eating in other ways.]

These, admittingly, are petty reasons perhaps. But I am also challenged by Tisha B’Av theologically. By romanticizing the Temple, aren’t we engaging in a difficult form of nostalgia? The Temple, in the Jewish imagination, was a place of great holiness, a place when the Jewish people and God were the closest, the focal point of spiritual energy from ancient times. Yet while the destruction was a difficult moment in Jewish history, it was that event that predicated the formation of the Judaism we observe and celebrate today. The destruction of the Temple paved the way for the replacement of a Judaism that was rooted in hierarchy and exclusion with one that is rooted in democracy and inclusion.

The tendency to rewrite the past is also seen in this week’s Torah portion of Devarim, We begin reading the fifth book of the Torah this week, Deuteronomy, which is for the most part a long speech by Moses to the Israelites prior to them entering into the land. They have wandered for forty years, and now Moses needs to prepare them for their new life both by retelling their history and reminding them of the laws.

The book begins with this first part, with Moses recounting the story of the Israelites. Though he takes liberties that interestingly put him in a better light. This is primarily true with the story of the institution of the judicial system that we first read in Exodus. [Biblical criticism of course recognizes this as two different source texts, but we can read it as one redacted literary narrative.]

In the original story in Exodus 18 , it was Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, who devises the system for a pyramid-shaped court system wherein the community is divided in the smaller sections and appointed judges hear the “lower court” cases, while only the big cases are decided by Moses. In Deuteronomy 1, Moses says,

How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! Pick from each of your tribes candidates who are wise, discerning, and experienced, and I will appoint them as your heads.” You answered me and said, “What you propose to do is good.” So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced people, and appointed them heads over you: chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of tens, and officials for your tribes.
Deuteronomy 1:12-15

Why does Moses do this? Perhaps it is just a shorthand way of telling the story without getting too much into details, perhaps he wants to just make himself look good. Regardless, this portion–and the impending observance of Tisha B’Av–reminds us of the importance in noting how we tell our histories, and that the telling of history is sometimes more about the present than the past.

So in the case of Tisha B’Av, what is gained by remembering an ancient event that indeed ultimately proved to have positive (albeit unintended) consequences?

The answer I believe lies in events underlying the destruction of the Temple. The ancient rabbis of the Talmud and later tradition would seemingly have a similar relationship to the events of the Temple’s destruction, for they were the beneficiaries of the removal of the priesthood and the sacrificial system that defined communal spiritual life during the days in which it stood. But they too saw that the loss needed to be acknowledged.

Their answer was to focus on the “causes” of the destruction. While ostensibly the fall came from outside conquering forces, there was less of a moral lesson in that. Rather, the rabbis looked inward, and told stories about how interpersonal ethical failings–such as ravenous hatred among groups and individuals, public shaming, and the inability to speak up for victims–set in motion a chain of events that led to the fall of the community. The rabbis, like Moses, relate the history in a particular way because that is the way their communities needed to hear it.

Acknowledging Tisha B’Av is therefore not nostalgia for a lost past but a warning for the future. Like the rabbis, we retell the story of the Temple in this way because this is how need to hear it now.

We are living at a time too when we are seeing ravenous hatred among groups and individuals, public shaming, and the inability to speak up for victims. Tisha B’Av reminds us that these forces can ultimately threaten the stability of our communities and our institutions. What was lost once, can be lost again. And by telling the stories of the past, we can prepare ourselves for a better future.

Time for Something New?

A brief note: I know I have been posting less frequently in recent times, as I have also been exploring different media. I have been putting many of my thoughts and teachings in video form on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook as of late, so you can find me there as well.

Sometimes we need to take radical action.

A fable with a talking animal defines this week’s Torah portion. In the story, Balak, the king of Moab hires a seer Balaam to curse the Israelites. He has heard the stories of the Israelites leaving Egypt and their various travels, and he is fearful of them. He hopes putting a curse on them will protect him and his kingdom.

God is not pleased about this plan, and seeks to stop Balaam from carrying out his task. After some back and forth, Balaam saddles up his donkey and sets out to deliver his curse. God then places an angel with a sword in front of them, but Balaam can’t see it, only the donkey does.

The donkey then swerves out of the road, and Balaam, thinking the donkey is being stubborn and defiant, beats him with a stick. The donkey then pushes up against a wall, and again, Balaam hits him. Finally, the donkey sits down and Balaam is furious. Then the story goes,

Then God opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

Numbers 22:28-30

This is such a powerful argument from the donkey: you know me, and I have never did anything like this before. And Balaam realizes, yes, she has never done anything like this before. So therefore, something must be unique and important about this situation. Balaam then realizes what is up, reconsiders his position, has a change of heart, and ends up blessing the Israelites rather than cursing them.

Balaam’s initial response to the donkey’s actions was to hit her (there is something about animal cruelty here but that’s for another time), something he did three times to no effect. Balaam is like us much of the time: doing the same thing over and over again with little change in the outcome. We stick to bad habits, put faith in outdated institutions, hold on to relationships that do not serve us. We sometimes make small changes or reforms, but they are not enough.

The donkey, however, takes radical change. In order to open Balaam’s eyes, she does something she has never done before. And it was that unprecedented step that was successful in bringing about a new result.

Nationally we are witnessing long standing norms under attack. Personally we are all still reeling from Covid and the pressures of these times. Perhaps the time has come to heed the donkey, and in response to all these challenges, to do something we have never done before. In that way we may open our eyes, open the eyes of others, and head down a new path that will lead to blessings, not curses.

On the Overturning of Roe v. Wade: It’s the Men

I, like many others, especially in the Jewish community, are reeling from this morning’s decision from the Supreme Court: the 50-year-precendent Roe v. Wade was overturned, eviscerating an established constitutional right and allowing government to exert control of bodily autonomy.

Today is a day filled with sadness and rage. The conservative long-game has won. Donald Trump’s ability to seat three (three!!!) Supreme Court justices is paying dividends. Roe v. Wade was decided in July, 1973. I was born six months later. I have never lived during a time when this fundamental right did not exist. And here we are.

The Jewish view of abortion is well documented. While Judaism, like other faith traditions (like many people, I would assume) is not pro-abortion in the sense that it is desirable, it is permissible. Judaism teaches that life begins at birth, that a fetus is a part of the carrier, and that the health of the parent takes precedence over the life of the potential child. Judaism is both sensitive to the loss and grief that comes with fetal demise, and open when it comes to decision-making about ending a pregnancy.

It has been pointed out and argued that governmental bans, therefore, are a violation of religious liberty in that they enshrine in the law one particular religion’s approach to life without accommodating different religious perspectives. That is certainly the case, and we need to identify the role Christian hegemony in this country (and particularly evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity) has brought us to this moment.

But that is an incomplete story, as we know, as this is also an issue of patriarchy. Of the perpetual project of men to control the lives and bodies of women. (The attack on transgender health care is another expression of the desire to control bodily autonomy.) Our institutions going back millennia–and I include Judaism in this–are created by men for men and thus therefore seek to categorize and control those who are not men. Men throughout the generations have witnessed the tremendous power it is to gestate and create life, and rather than honor those who possess it, sought to limit it.

The decision this morning is just the latest iteration, as a majority of men made a consequential decision that goes against precedent, progress, and popular opinion. A decision that privileges a theoretical reading of a text over the real lived human experience. A decision that favors the possible over the actual. (Ironic too as in the day before, by limiting gun-regulation, the Court expanded the ability to take away life in the name of “self-defense.”)

In the Torah portion this week, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends out spies to scope out the land of Canaan in advance of the settlement of the Israelites. Twelve are chosen–one from each tribe–and they return with the same report: the land is rich and abundant, and the people living there will make it difficult to inhabit. A majority of ten of the spies try to dissuade the people from moving forward over the objections of the minority of two. The people rebel, and are punished by 40 years of wandering in the desert.

The opening words of the portion are explicit: “Shelach lecha ANASHIM, send forth MEN.” While this has been translated as “scouts,” or “spies,” the literal meaning is just that: “men.” And not surprising too as the Torah is a text rooted in patriarchy, with men as the leaders of the tribes, the priesthood, the community institutions as a whole. (Isolated examples like Miriam notwithstanding.)

Shelach Lecha is a portion in which a majority of men make a decision that sets a community back 40 years, just as in today’s Supreme Court decision a majority of men make a decision that sets a community back 50 years.

Judaism does teach, however, that time is not linear but cyclical, and that progress comes not with a straight line but with twists and turns and steps backward and forward. Today is a day of mourning and despair, yes. And it is also a call to action to fight for the rights and autonomy of all.

And that fight, especially for men like myself, is to work to change the cycle. To come back with a different report. To do teshuvah for what has been. To rethink institutions and power. To do things we have never done before.

That is the way to the Promised Land.

Raise Your Banner and Be Who You Are

I will admit, the first portion of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, is a little tough to sink one’s teeth into. In preparation for the journey into the wilderness, God asks Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites. Much of the portion is the census numbers of those who make up the community.

In the organization of the community, the Israelites are divided into tribes, each named for one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob. What was once a family is now a nation, but the local and familial associations are carried forward and retain meaning. Certain tribes are given specific roles in the community, the tribe of Levi most notably is charged with the sacred Tabernacle and leading the spiritual life of the people.

We are told in this week’s portion that not only are the people counted, and that they are organized by tribe, but that the tribes are all organized physically around the Tabernacle–each tribe is to be in a specific place whenever the people are encamped, and that place is to be marked. “The Israelites should make camp in divisions, each person under their banner.” (Numbers 1:52) Each tribe had a flag of some sort, just as nations, or states, or cities have today.

The Hasidic master Isaac Meir Rothenberg Alter, also known as the Chiddushei Ha’rim or the Gerer rebbe, notes that the Torah portion Bamidbar is always read just prior to the festival of Shavuot. Originally a harvest holiday, Shavuot is now associated with the story of the revelation at Sinai when the Israelites, having escaped Egyptian slavery, travelled to Mount Sinai in the desert to receive the gift of the Torah from God. Each year on Shavuot we mark this by affirming the role that Torah plays in the life of the Jewish people.

The Chiddushei Ha’rim writes,

Parashat Bamidbar is always read immediately preceding Shavuot. This is because we read in Bamidbar, “each person under their banner,” which is to say the each person will be in their proper place. And this is the reason for the commandment of setting bounds just prior to the giving of the Torah.

Here the rebbe is noting how in the Torah prior to the story of the revelation in the book of Exodus, the Israelites are told to create a boundary around the mountain. He connects this to the idea of the tribes being under their banner in the book of Numbers. Both imply people being in a specific place which, he notes, is necessary for the revelation of the Torah. In order for us to be receptive to the gift of the sacred, we need to be where we need to be.

So what does this mean? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky have a beautiful interpretation of this in their book Sparks Beneath the Surface. They write,

[Isaac Meir Rothenberg] reasons that we have to be standing where we are supposed to be before the Torah will be given to us. If we try to be somebody else (and therefore be someplace else), the truth of Torah will only elude us. The process of receiving Torah…is lifelong. In this sense, for the Gerer rebbe, the giving of Torah becomes the ultimate expression of knowing who we are. The minute we are who we are, we are able to be changed and grow. What keeps us from realizing ourselves is trying to be someone whom we are not.

In other words, the wisdom of Torah itself is knowing who we are, and not trying to be someone else.

This teaching is a gift and a challenge. Sometimes we feel that our true self eludes us, we put on masks of who we think we are supposed to be or what we are supposed to do. And sometimes those masks act as boundaries between us and others. But the more we are able to remove those masks and shed those illusions about who we think we ought to be, the more we are able to to express our true selves, our true interests, and our true desires, then we are able to live fully into our lives.

[It is particularly powerful to think about this during Pride month, when we celebrate those in the LGBTQ+ community and the ability to live into our true identities especially around sexual orientation and gender identity, while at the same time acknowledging there is much more to be done. Waving the rainbow flag as a sign of Pride gives new meaning to the verse in Numbers, “each person under their banner.”]

While the story of revelation of Torah in the book of Exodus describes an event, really the revelation of the Torah is a process. Its a continuous unfolding of wisdom and experience that changes for us over time, that is bringing us closer to the knowledge of our true self. May you have the clarity and power to raise up your banner and be who you are.

Is America the Land of the Free?

If you can not go to school without the fear of being shot, then you are not free.

If you can’t leave your job because you will lose your health insurance, then you are not free.

If you choose not to seek medical help because you are afraid of getting high bills, then you are not free.

If you can only pursue higher education by going into debt, then you are not free.

If financial donations are considered speech, and you do not have as much money as others, then you are not free.

If you do not have autonomy over your body, then you are not free.

If you must overcome hurdles in order to exercise your right to vote, then you are not free.

If you are required to return to work too soon after having a child, then you are not free.

If you are impacted by racism or xenophobia, then you are not free.

If you are impacted by homophobia or transphobia, then you are not free.

If you are impacted by anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, then you are not free.

If the necessities of life are not available in your local store, then you are not free.

If you are not guaranteed basic housing, or a living wage, or security, then you are not free.

If you can not unionize, then you are not free.

If you can not guarantee that others will act with consideration to support public health, then you are not free.

If you carry a greater burden of the impacts of climate change, then you are not free.

America is not yet the land of the free. But it is the home of the brave.

And if the brave can rise up together and fight for a just, peaceful, compassionate society, then we will truly be free, and we will all be able to “lie down to rest, untroubled and unafraid.” (Leviticus 26:6)

This Land is God’s Land

Land management and economic justice are subjects of this week’s Torah portion Behar.

We are first told that after six years of being cultivated, land is to rest and lie fallow during the seventh year in order to be renewed; this is the practice known as shmita. And then we are to count seven seven-year cycles, and on the 50th year land ownership is to be released and debts forgiven. This is the law of the yovel, or Jubilee year. During both of these years, one is to subsist off of whatever the untended land produces, and one must share this yield with those in need. In addition, the Torah teaches that we are to be fair in our business dealings around the buying and selling of land in general.

The value underlying these practices is expressed in this simple verse:

But the land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

Leviticus 25:23

While we may manage, steward, farm, and build upon the land, ultimately we do not possess it. The land is God’s, and we are but temporary residents. Human “ownership” of the land is only temporary.

Even if most are not farmers today practicing shmita and yovel, we still have the principle of land ownership. And beyond that, we as humans have found other ways to express dominion and power over the land. We divvy it up not only among individual owners, but we divide the land into towns, states, and countries. We create boundaries and borders, and then use force or walls to enforce those boundaries and borders.

But again, as the Torah teaches, the land ultimately is not ours to divide.

The issue of boundaries and borders are at the center of immigration policy. Nations wish to control who is a part of their country, so they control who can enter. The United States is no different, and over the past few years we have seen an increase in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric and policy, from Muslim bans to border walls. It is a disturbing trend for a nation much of whose residents can trace their roots to immigration.

Some of that policy has been rolled back, others not. One policy that is hanging in the middle is Title 42, under which the Trump Administration used the cover of Covid to block immigration from the southern border. Title 42 uses public health as an excuse to impose harsh immigration policies by summarily deporting people or refusing entry to those seeking asylum, returning them to the oppression from which they were fleeing. The Biden Administration has announced an intention to roll back Title 42, something that is meant to happen this coming week. This policy change is in jeopardy however–there is currently bipartisan legislation making its way through Congress that seeks to continue the policy.

As Jews, we know that immigration is an important part of our story, from the sacred narrative of the Exodus in the Torah to the many stories of immigration in our personal histories. My congregation has hosted and supported an asylum seeker in sanctuary to prevent deportation. And national Jewish organizations like HIAS and T’ruah are heeding the call to fight for a just immigration system. (I’m honored to be a member of the T’ruah Immigration Working Group.)

The most recent message coming out of those organizations is that although we have had a change of leadership in our country, there is still the need to fight for those who seek asylum. Educating on the issues, being in touch with lawmakers, welcoming asylum seekers, telling the stories of immigrants–these are all important steps in the continued fight for policy change. Ensuring that Title 42 is overturned is the most immediate focus. [You can act now by joining me and signing a letter to your congressional representatives here]

I recognize that boundaries and borders are necessary at times to maintain group identity and meaningful community. At the same time, when we recall the teaching that the land is ultimately God’s, we need to approach these boundaries and borders with a spirit of humility, and know that they must be fluid, not rigid. We need to build bridges, not walls. We can be responsible and welcoming at the same time.

Title 42 must go not only because it summarily punishes a group of people fleeing oppression on dubious grounds, but because it further stigmatizes migrants by collectively associating them with the spread of a deadly virus. We can take the teaching from Leviticus further: if all of it is God’s land, then none of us is a true “owner” of the land. And if none of us is an owner, then all of us are equal. When we remember this, we are compelled to act differently, toward the land, and toward each other.

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Save our Sacred Salmon

I was honored to speak at a gathering and demonstration to pressure Washington State leadership to remove the dams on the lower Snake River, thus freeing salmon runs and promoting a better relationship with our land. These are the words I shared.

Shabbat Shalom. Thank you, it is an honor to be here today to represent myself and other members of faith communities, many of whom are also connected to Earth Ministry. Each one of us, in our way, understands the natural world to be sacred, infused with divine energy. Creation is something that we all share, and it binds us together. We recognize that we are a part of, not separate from, the natural world that surrounds us.

Caring for the earth, therefore, is a spiritual imperative, a way of partnering with God in the ongoing work of Creation. And as faith communities in the Pacific Northwest, that means recognizing the important and sacred role salmon play in our ecosystem, and doing what we can to protect them, the orca, the water, and the land.

I want to share a piece of scripture with you, from the Hebrew Bible:

“You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals.” (Exodus 23:10)

I share this particular passage because according to the reckoning of the Jewish calendar, we are currently in one of these sabbatical years, the last year of a seven-year cycle. And while the specifics of how this year is observed has changed since biblical times, the values that underlie this decree are still relevant to us today.

For one, it reminds us that the earth is a living thing, and that it needs to rest and recover, just as we do. There is a parallel between the Sabbath, the day of rest each week for us humans, and this sabbatical year for the land. We are obligated to see ourselves in relationship to the earth, not as exploiters, but as partners.  And more than that, this text reminds us that economic justice and environmental justice are linked—it is not one or the other, but both/and. And, these words teach us that we are in particular relationship with the wild animals with whom we share this earth.

These values expressed in these Scriptural verses are particularly relevant for today’s gathering, as we honor our relationship with a particular “wild animal”—the salmon, this iconic and sacred fish that is so important to this region and its peoples, and recommit to live up to our duty to honor and protect it. And that we do so not at the expense of economic viability for our region, but with the recognition that we can do both. We can uplift the flora and the fauna and the human community at the same time, for we all depend on one another for our ecological, economic and energy future. We are all interconnected.

We are in the throes of a climate crisis. Human behavior has created a tremendous impact on the environment, and brought about near irreversible change. With humility, we must recognize the role we have played, and admit that we have not been good stewards of this gift, we have let down our end of the partnership. Too often we have treated the Earth as the other, not as our neighbor.

But also with humility, we can say, we can change. We can atone and repent for our past missteps and commit to a better future. Sometimes our past deeds can not be undone, and we must commit to acting better moving forward. Other times, our past deeds can be undone, and we must commit to taking those steps to remake the past. A dam can be built, and a dam can be taken down. A river can be blocked, and a river can be set free.

Faith communities teach that God creates, and we steward. Let the voices of the faith communities, and all who have a vision and hope for a better future, join this cause to save the salmon, to save ourselves, and to save our world.

Thank you.