The Spirituality of Volcanoes

This posting was originally posed on the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. You can read the original here.

While perhaps we are more familiar with the destructive nature of earthquakes and hurricanes and tornados, since they occur more frequently and make the national news more often, I have come to understand the risks and power of volcanoes.

We don’t generally think of volcanoes here in the US, but many of the major peaks in the Western United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) are volcanoes, the most famous of which is Mount Saint Helens in Washington State which erupted in 1980, killing 57 people and doing tremendous damage. Mount Rainier, a peak that has an impressive place in the skyline of where I live, is a volcano that last erupted 1,000 years ago which the United States Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program rates as having a “very high” threat potential.

And now Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is erupting, spewing toxic gas into the air and creating lava flows that have entered residential neighborhoods and destroyed homes.

I think about volcanoes as we draw closer in the Jewish calendar to the holiday of Shavuot, the once-agriculturally-based festival whose primary association now is with the biblical story of the revelation at Sinai. The Torah relates how after the Israelites left Egyptian slavery, the story we marked on Passover a few weeks ago, they made their way to Mount Sinai where they received the Torah from God. The Torah formed the basis for the covenant between the people and God, and would serve as the foundation of the new society created by this newly freed people, a foundation that has been passed down to us. This is what we mark on Shavuot, through prayer and dedication to study.

The revelation at Sinai is not a quiet affair, as we read in the book of Exodus, “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” (Exodus 19:18)

Sounds like a volcano to me.

The point is not to explain away biblical stories by pointing to possible natural reasons behind the descriptions. The point is that the description of a divine revelation complete with smoke, fire, and quakes has a parallel in nature that can inform our understanding of the experience of the event.

What I find remarkable and interesting about volcanoes is that the forces that cause them to erupt are both visible and hidden. Visible in that a volcano is a mountain—it stands out, it is a known location, one could mark it on a map. And at the same time, the forces that cause it to erupt lay beneath the surface. A known volcano can be dormant for centuries, until it erupts. Or, in other words, a volcano is just a mountain, until it is not.

Much like Mount Sinai in the story. It was just a mountain, until it erupted with the divine presence, until it took on the significance of being the place that God and humanity met to form a new bond and deepen their relationship. It wasn’t even known as the tallest of mountains—an ancient midrash (commentary) relates how other, taller and larger, mountains made the case to God to be the site of revelation. But, as the commentary concludes, Sinai was chosen specifically because it wasn’t the tallest, serving as a symbol of modesty and humility.

We model that humility by seeing anything—a modest mountain, an unassuming person—as a potential source for divine power. The external tells us one thing, but the internal may tell us another. Our sources of inspiration, of challenge, of growth may come from anywhere, we just need to be prepared to receive it.

What the Criticism of Joel Osteen Says About Us

This post originally appeared on the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning, you can read the original posting here. It’s subsequent posting to Facebook garnered a lot of conversation, which I always hope to spark through my writing.

We are all transfixed and devastated by the images coming out of Houston. The tremendous level of displacement and destruction wrought by Harvey has been heartbreaking and we stand witness to much suffering. At the same time we hear of heartfelt stories of communities coming together in aid and neighbors helping neighbors during a time of need.

Many emotions have been brought up from the storm and its aftermath, including anger, specifically anger directed at Joel Osteen, the pastor of the Lakewood Church, a mega-church in Houston. Osteen has come under criticism for not doing enough to support flood victims, specifically not opening up his church—which can seat 16,000 and once housed a professional basketball team—to those fleeing their homes.

I don’t know Osteen. I will assume from what I know if him that our theologies and approaches to the spiritual life diverge. The scale of our pastoral work is strikingly different. We may disagree on a lot of things. But I couldn’t help but feel that some of the invective and criticism leveled against him was unfair, specifically for the following reasons:

We don’t know the whole story. After initial reports from the church that flooding prevented the opening of the facility to the public, people went onto social media with photos and videos of the building and the seeming lack of flooding surrounding the building. Osteen today spoke to the media about how they worked with civil authorities on the possibility of opening as a shelter, but was told that initial sheltering efforts would happen elsewhere, and that when those overflowed, then Lakewood was approached to open as a shelter.

The truth, I suspect, is somewhat in between. Opening as a shelter for a major disaster like this takes major coordination and volunteer effort. A congregation can’t just open its doors. My small synagogue has served as a winter daytime warming center for the homeless and just providing basic amenities to up to 100 people put a real strain on our facility and the volunteer managers. Not that we wouldn’t do it again, but sheltering takes effort beyond just opening doors. Before criticizing, especially publicly, we need to have the humility to recognize that we may not have the whole story.

Shaming is not ok. The intention behind the initial criticism of Osteen took a nasty note because of the size of the church and Osteen’s well-documented wealth, and that because he is a religious person, he was labeled a hypocrite for not opening his church right away. Related to the fact that his critics may not have had the whole story, an effort to publicly shame someone is shameful in and of itself. As re read in the Talmud, “One who shames their neighbor it is as if they have spilled their blood.” (Baba Metzia 58b). An effort to publicly embarrass should never be tolerated, something which, unfortunately, is all too easy in our age of social media. And as for the charge for “hypocrisy”—I find it hard to find anyone, religious or not, who are able to navigate their lives without some contradiction or competing values.

Criticizing clergy compensation is a slippery slope. What I heard in the criticism of Osteen is not just that he was a pastor not opening up his church, but that he was a rich pastor not opening up his church. And therefore what I heard in the criticism was that there was a problem with clergy being wealthy. Maybe the scope of his wealth is excessive, but who is to say? Not every denomination involves a vow of poverty, but it seems that this is part of the popular imagination, that clergy should not be allowed to be compensated well. And for us clergy the fact that we expect to be compensated fairly, as professionals and commensurate with our role and training, is a hard subject to broach in congregations. I know that God is not going to pay my mortgage, or student loans, or health insurance premiums, but the general public might not know that.

We can not expect religious institutions to serve the public good without giving them the same benefits. One of the other factors not talked about much in the aftermath of Harvey is that religious institutions are not eligible to receive FEMA funds because of church-state issues. (A story in the Forward covered this.) While we tout this separation as a foundation of our American enterprise, we need to realize that it is a grey area with some measures aiding religion but others hurting it. The fact that congregations cannot get FEMA funds is an example of the latter. And so to call out Lakewood Church for not providing a public, civic good while at the same time knowing they would not benefit from public, civic funds to help rebuild should they have needed it, is problematic.

Whether or not Osteen deserved legitimate criticism for his role or lack thereof is at this point moot as Lakewood has opened up its doors as a shelter. We need to focus on rebuilding and healing from this natural disaster. But the echoes of this particular criticism may linger, as they reveal deeper ideas of how we view religious institutions and clergy in this country.

Don’t Just Mark the Jewish Holidays, Mark the Jewish Intervals

This post originally ran on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

The Jewish calendar is a bit interesting since we also live on Gregorian time. The fact that it is a lunar-based calendar means that every year the Hebrew dates shift vis-a-vis the “regular calendar” so that certain holidays, while they fall around that same time each year, will fall on a different date of the Gregorian calendar.

Internally, the Jewish calendar is also interesting in its composition, with its cycle of festivals and special days. While the Jewish calendar, like other calendars from other traditions, has a sequence of holidays to mark natural seasons and historical events; it also gives us the opportunity to focus our thoughts and spiritual energy on important ideas and values. Additionally, the Jewish calendar has a series of important “intervals” that link the various holidays, not just highlighting important days, but important times.

These times can be the holidays themselves—Passover, for example, is not one day but a week, giving us a period of time to remember the Exodus and reflect on the themes of oppression and liberation. In the fall when we celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we do not just mark those individual days, but the period of time between them takes on heightened importance as the Yamim Nora’im, “The 10 Days of Repentance”—a week and a half to reflect, repent and take stock of our lives and behaviors.

On the contemporary calendar, we just recently marked both Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The former marking the greatest tragedy of modern Jewry, and the latter marking one of modern Jewry’s greatest projects. And the six days between these two days give us the opportunity to reflect on the interplay between them: not just how the historical fact of one contributed to the historical fact of the other, but how tragedy and renewal, despair and hope, mourning and celebration are a continual cycle in our lives.

And now we are continuing through the period of the Omer, the seven-week period that links Passover and Shavuot, the festival marking the events of Sinai—the creation of the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. A biblically-ordained practice to literally count the 49 days, the Counting of the Omer has its roots in ancient agricultural cycles. Today, it serves as a means to link the themes of the two holidays: how simply breaking the chains of oppression does not lead to true freedom, but rather developing a system to guarantee those freedoms does. The Omer allow us to continue the process of leaving behind that which binds us that we began on Passover and to prepare ourselves for the new wisdom and insight that we will receive on Shavuot.

When I was reflecting on some of these ideas at my congregation over Shabbat, I was approached after the service by a congregant who is a runner. He explained to me that to be a successful runner, one needs to pay attention to the intervals—the time between runs. It is his belief that the intervals are as important if not more important than the runs themselves. We need to be able to rest and recover from one run in order to perform at our best at the next one.

The Jewish calendar and yearly holiday cycle contains similar wisdom. We celebrate and mark the important occasions. But we also need to pay attention to the intervals, the time between those occasions. They are as important as the days themselves, for they allow us to fully integrate the spiritual teachings of one holiday and prepare us to fully prepare for the next.

For Passover and the Exodus, think Rivers not Seas

This column first appeared in the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. You can read the original post here.

It’s spring break in our school district, so we are taking a road trip.

We left our home in Olympia on the Puget Sound and drove to Boise, ID, where we have family. We drove south towards Portland then east across the length of Oregon. It’s a drive we have done many times before on family trips. This time we are taking a different route home, driving up through Idaho and Eastern Washington so we can drop my older son at a regional robotics competition.

It is a little anxiety-producing going away the week before Passover. Passover is one of those holidays that requires a lot of preparation both personally and professionally. We need to get our house ready, cleaned of all leavened products and stocked with all the special Passover foods. And I need to plan our congregation’s community seder—monitor registration, interface with our caterer and of course prepare the ritual and special readings.

But with the kids out of school, it is important to spend family time, especially when we can take time to visit extended family. And the trip, while interfering with some of the physical preparations for Passover, provides good opportunity for some spiritual preparation.

The story of Passover is a fundamental narrative within Jewish tradition and theology. Found in the Torah in the Book of Exodus, the story begins with the enslavement of the Israelites by Pharaoh in Egypt and concludes with their liberation by God through Moses. The details—the Israelites crying out, the harsh decrees of Pharaoh, Moses’s call at the burning bush, and the series of demands for freedom by Moses each accompanied by a plague—round out this overarching story of deliverance and emancipation.

The story is fundamental because of this narrative arc from oppression to liberation. It is a paradigm for personal transformation, and it is a paradigm for social change. Indeed, when we retell the story at the Passover seder, it is our requirement to make connections between the biblical narrative and our own lives and situations.

The climax of the narrative is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea): having left Egypt the Israelites find themselves pursued by the Egyptian army. They arrive at the Sea of Reeds and seeming have no place to turn; before them is an impassable sea and behind them is at best return to slavery and at worst death. Through both divine guidance and the human motivation for freedom, the sea is split in two and the Israelites move forward on dry land before it comes together again on top of the Egyptian army.

It is this part of the story that I have been thinking about on this road trip, as much of it has taken us by water. But not seas, rivers. We have passed by and along numerous rivers, primarily the Columbia River, which serves as the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean.

Driving alongside the Columbia, and stopping at times overlooking it, I realize that I may have been imagining the story of the Exodus all wrong. Personally, I always imagined the Sea of Reeds as a vast, endless body of water. (Maybe that was the influence of the movies.) But maybe a river is a better image. With a river one is able to see the other side, and so the potential for crossing over to a new life is attainable. And rivers themselves provide means for a journey, connecting locations over vast distances.

And the image that struck me most from this trip is when we stopped alongside one of the numerous dams that dot the Columbia, dams which harness the power of the water to create energy and electricity. Humans have learned to harness the power of the flowing river. And isn’t this what happens at the Sea of Reeds, when the waters are dammed up providing new energy for the people?

[Indeed the life-giving power of rivers is already hinted at in the story, with Moses being saved from a death decree by being sent down the Nile River, and the journey to liberation was begun by Moses turning the Nile into blood.]

Engaging with our natural world and rivers on this trip has allowed me personally to think about the Passover story in new ways. And no matter how you envision the story, no matter what images stand out for you, it should be in keeping with the essence of the story: that it is a story of movement, and we must end up in a different place than where we started.

Make Your Voice Heard

Once again I had the opportunity to contribute to the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the My Jewish Learning website. I wrote on raising up our voices, keeping the flames burning and drawing strength from one another. And specifically too an initiative at my congregation to engage more in political advocacy. You can read the original here.

A strange thing happened in the wake of the election, and is intensifying now that the inauguration is next week.

People want to be together in new and powerful ways.

For all of the talk of division and schism in this country, there also is a galvanizing and unifying force that is bringing people together to work for social change in a way that feels somewhat unprecedented. For the majority of Americans — and the majority of Jews — who did not vote for the president-elect, and who find his rhetoric and actions to be anathema, there is a renewed effort to come together to both react and act.

It reminds me of a Hasidic story quoted in several places, one version as retold by Rabbi Harvey Meirovich in the collection Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation edited by Dov Peretz Elkins and Arthur Green, about a disciple who goes to his master to talk about his feelings of sadness. As they talk in front of the fireplace, the fire begins to die out until the rabbi reaches over to stoke the coals.

“Do you see,” pointed out the rabbi, “what happened when I gathered the embers close together? They came back to life. When the coals were separated they generated little heat; but when they were close together they received warmth from each other and the fire was renewed.

“It is the same with people. When we are alone and separated our spirit is in danger of dying out. But when we stand close together we get warmth and comfort from one another, and hope is renewed.”

I see this in the community that I serve. Immediately following the election, there was a felt need for people to come together to share their feelings of hurt and pain at what felt to many like a national sanction of bigotry, a threat to gains in civil rights, a rollback in advances in combating climate change, a challenge to the safety net so carefully woven over many years. We gathered in our sacred space, we sang and we shared by filling out cards to express both our hopes and our fears which were then read aloud. Without any plan for next steps, people simply drew on the heat of one another to revive their spirits.

Over the next weeks, it seems that new groups were popping up left and right. In my town people are gathering in living rooms, in community centers and yes, in synagogues and other faith communities, to draw upon their collective energies and to strategize as to how to bring about change and to not let the agenda they championed go by the wayside. Connections were made over social media, articles shared, tactics proposed and debated. Again, people drew upon the heat of one another to see what they could make happen.

In my congregation, a new group emerged which took on the moniker, “Make Your Voice Heard.” Channeling the energy of frustration into creative action, a group decided to work together to research issues, develop talking points and ultimately plan letter writing campaigns to speak out on issues. After hosting an evening of “Civics 101,” in which we brought in speakers to teach us about the best way of communicating with our elected officials, we set out to work on advocacy. The group plans to meet weekly to learn, share, write and act.

The fact that this group emerged within our congregation and Jewish community was interesting. While there is overlap with other groups in our area doing similar work, members of the Jewish community felt compelled to do this work specifically as Jews. I believe this is because of (1) our general inclination towards community involvement and (2), the resurgence in anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery which we are experiencing in the wake of the election. And while right now the group is examining the pressing issues of political appointments and potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, we may take on issues specifically related to the Jewish community and Israel.

For me, it was important to see this step towards advocacy taking place in my congregation. If we really want to think about our contemporary understanding of the Jewish value of tikkun olam—“repair of the world”—then we need to think beyond just the charitable giving and direct service that we often do as Jews. We need to think about how we can make real social change in our world. And for us living in the United States in 2017, working for social change means organizing, being politically active, reaching out to our legislators, writing letters and expressing our opinions.

To renew hope, as the story goes, we need to draw close to one another, comfort one another and draw strength from one another. And to renew hope, we also need to remember that we have the ability and obligation to make our voices heard.

The One Thing We Need to Stop Saying to our Kids at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah

It was my turn again on the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bar/bat mitzvah recently, about what it means to kids and families and how I as a rabbi am responsible in part for crafting an experience that helps make meaning. The performative aspect is one part that I have become more suspect of, and this blog post is reflects some of what I have been thinking. I hope to write more about communal expectations and how we “do” bar/bat mitzvah at a later date.

The One Thing We Need to Stop Saying to our Kids at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah


Why Tim Kaine is Good for the Jews (and It’s Not Because of Israel)

It’s convention season, so I’m glued to the TV as are many of my fellow citizens. After Hillary Clinton’s selection of Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate, I penned this blog post for my weekly turn on the Rabbis Without Borders blog:

Why Tim Kaine is Good for the Jews (and It’s Not Because of Israel)


Funding Innovation is Nice. Now Let’s Redistribute Wealth.

My latest on the Rabbis Without Borders blog, in which I address issues of inequality within the Jewish community, not among Jews, but among Jewish institutions. Differing access to resources can result in what Jews have access to. Can’t we make it so everyone benefits from what the Jewish community has to offer?

Funding Innovation is Nice. Now Let’s Redistribute Wealth