Swinging Across the Jordan

I didn’t post last week because I was away at summer camp. Each summer for the past few years I have spent a week as a faculty member at URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp in Arlington, WA. I spend my week leading services, tutoring for b’nai mitzvah, teaching Torah, hosting a reception for the counselors and overall spending time with campers (some from my congregation) and staff.

It is also a bit of a retreat week for me as I get to spend the week away from home and work with nice accommodations, three meals a day and a beautiful setting up north. I use some of my down time to relax, but also do to preparation work—think about the High Holidays, do some planning for the year ahead, and read and study.

Getting outside is also part of the camp experience, of course. The camp sits on a lot of land, so I had occasion to hike around the camp lake, and into the woods in search of a waterfall. The former was easy, the latter was a bit of an adventure into the woods on a poorly marked trail, but my friend and fellow faculty member and I forged ahead and found it.

Leaving camp is also an option (as an adult its possible to leave camp, but it still feels weird in any event—if you have been to overnight camp you understand what I mean). I do usually leave camp once or twice—there is a nearby spot that I like to visit when I am at camp, a swimming hole on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River.

The swimming hole is off of Jordan Road, and I thought it was funny that there is a Jordan Road near a Jewish camp, especially as the weekly Torah reading cycle during mid- to late-summer brings us to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are camped out on the eastern side of the Jordan River preparing to enter into the Promised Land. After their forty years of wandering, the Israelites are ready to move forward, but not before Moses gives one last speech. The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially this speech: part retelling of the journey, part review of the laws, part pep talk, part admonition for good behavior.

If you have been to Israel you know the Jordan River is not that impressive. It is a surprising modest body of water. The Stillaguamish off Jordan Road near Arlington is more impressive. The swimming hole I go to is at a slow part of the river, the rocky and sandy riverbed serves as a nice beach, and the water is deep, calm and cool.

There is a rope swing there, and while I was there this past week a bunch of kids had commandeered the rope. They took turns jumping off into the water. One girl was excited to try for the first time, but noticeably nervous. Her friends and her parents were there watching. Her father coached her on the proper technique—to wait until the rope is at its farthest point and then let go, he even said he would tell her when to let go. She was hesitant and stood there for quite a while as her parents and friends coaxed her on.

It was a tense moment, and I watched with interest. It was a moment that I felt in my gut— I thought back to times when I was in the situation of that girl, coaxed on to do something risky and scary, how nervous I was, and the feeling of internal and external pressure. And I felt it as a father, I understand those times when you are sensitive to pressuring your kids too much to do something they don’t want to do, while at the same time wanting to encourage your kids to stretch themselves and try something new.

Moses’s speech to the Israelites is in that same vein: coaxing them to do something risky, something nervewracking, all the while knowing that while it will be scary, it is a necessary step into the unknown that will allow the Israelites to grow as a people. Two rivers, two leaps forward.

The girl swung, and the look of joy, relief and accomplishment on her face when she came out of the water was electric. She swam over to her father and gave him a big bear hug. Her fears overcome, her goal accomplished, she offered appreciation to one who had shown her love and support at her leap.

In that moment I realized that we are all in that position at times, that of the Israelites or the girl on the swing: while we naturally want to be cautious, we know that ultimately without risk, without swallowing our nerves and taking a leap forward, we are not going to know what we are truly capable of.

The One Biblical Verse We Need to Remember When We Discuss Guns

The New York Times did something extraordinary this Saturday—it ran an editorial on the front page.

This was extraordinary in both senses of the word. On the one hand it was unusual in that this is the first time since 1920 that the Times ran an editorial on the front page. And on the other hand, it was also impressive because it took on one of our most pressing social issues of our day—the prevalence of gun violence in our country.

In the wake of this most recent mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, the Times called for renewed attention to and, more importantly, action against the ease by which guns can be obtained in this country. The Times writes, “It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency… America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing….”

This is a call that resonates. As a citizen, I find the statistics of gun violence to be staggering, both the numbers of victims and the number of incidents. I find it shameful that our government has even prevented research into the epidemic of gun violence, to examine it as we would any other public health issue.

And at the same time, as a member of the clergy, I feel the “moral outrage” when we allow such violence to continue, when we don’t act on our power to take reasonable measures to protect human life, when we maintain conditions that makes it easier for people to violently act on their impulses, or cause self-harm, or create situations for accidental mayhem.

I do believe it is the religious response to want to implement meaningful gun legislation in our country. And in examining my sacred textual tradition, there is only one biblical verse to which we need to turn to find a  basis for meaningful action regarding guns.

gun bible

No, it is not “thou shall not kill,” famously part of the Ten Commandments. And no, it is not even “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” found in Leviticus, which teaches about the need to act on behalf of our neighbors, especially when they are suffering.

Rather, we need to look to Deuteronomy 22:8: “When you build a new house, you must build a parapet on the roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any person falls from there.”

In other words, we must do what we can to mitigate risk. It does not mean we need to ban completely certain activities that carry risk. But if we don’t take rational steps to minimize injury, then we are guilty of any harm that comes because of our neglect.  No one is saying don’t build a house. But when you do, build a railing so someone doesn’t fall off the roof.

This ancient verse speaks to our contemporary gun situation. It may not be possible or desirable to completely get rid of guns. But we must do what we can to minimize risk. We must “build the parapet” of gun legislation in our country.

Research has shown that gun safety measures can lower gun deaths. We must, as a nation, think creatively, rationally and spiritually to implement means to reduce the harm caused by guns.

The other day I sat with my oldest son in the orientation for his driver’s education class. Having turned 15 and now eligible for his learner’s permit in Washington State, we learned about the requirements he would need to fulfill in order to become a licensed driver: A course of education with supervised driving time. A minimum of 50 hours driving practice. Written and practical exams. Insurance requirements. Here, then, measures taken to minimize risk and increase protection for a necessary yet potentially dangerous act—driving. Will accidents happen? Of course. Will deaths occur? Unfortunately, yes. These are the risks that come with living. But just because we can not eliminate all risk does not mean we do not do what we can to eliminate some.

The New York Times has lent its voice to the growing chorus calling for more reasonable gun laws. It is a position that all people of faith should support, for the original call came thousands of years ago, in a verse of Scripture.

Against Wage Theft: My Testimony in front of the WA House Labor Committee

Through my political action, I have the occasion to testify in front of the Washington State legislature several times over the course of a legislative session. Rarely, though, do those opportunities come so close in time. Much of what appears to be on the legislative horizon this year is about economic justice–namely, how to not forget those in need at a time of difficult budgeting and the need for new revenue and spending cuts. On the other hand, there are opportunities to make the case for other issues of economic justice. In the past I have lent my voice in the fight against payday lending. Today, I had the opportunity to speak out against wage theft, and support a bill that would provide remedy for those whose wages have been unfairly withheld. And as a rabbi, I can tell you that this practice is in clear violation of the Torah! Here is my testimony:

Chair and members of the committee,

My name is Seth Goldstein and I am a rabbi serving the Jewish community of Olympia. I am here representing the Faith Action Network, a statewide organization representing faith communities off all denominations dedicated to advancing faith based approaches to justice.

And I come here in strong support of HB 1518

As a faith community leader, I am reminded of the verse from Scripture, in the book of Deuteronomy: “You must pay a worker’s wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.”

I do not site this verse to imply that Washington civil law should be based on biblical precedent. I do site these verse to point out that there is a deep and abiding ethical concern enshrined in our sacred texts that is mean to support those who labor, to oppose the exploitation of workers, specifically through the of duly earned wages in a timely manner. The treatment of those who work for us is of paramount concern—it is a pillar of a moral society.

And we continue to fail on that regard. It should be a common expectation that you show up to do your job and you get paid for your time and effort. You have earned that money, it is yours. Sadly, workers suffer from various forms of “wage theft”—having wages withheld through a variety of means.

And these violations, while in and of themselves unfair, also unfairly target those who have been traditionally marginalized in our society: women, immigrants and minorities. And when the poor and vulnerable are trapped by these violations then it makes it that much harder for them to provide for their families and make the rent or a car payment for example, and are caught in a cycle of dependency.

We support HB 1518 because it provides means to break this cycle. It provides a means to address wealth inequality and create a more just society. It gives the tools people need to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: not only their lost wages, but their dignity as human beings who have the right not to be taken advantage of, looked down upon, used and abused.

Our support is not about punishing the business community, it is about doing right by our workers. Let us rectify a wrong so that all citizens of Washington are treated fairly and justly.

Thank you.

Video here: http://www.tvw.org/index.php?option=com_tvwplayer&eventID=2015011180#start=4478&stop=4660