Community Before Self

A late post this week as I have been distracted, as we all have been, by the events in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman last week killed 17 people in a high school. And while this is not the first time this has happened, this one has hit me particularly hard for a variety of reasons: it is a location I am familiar with, as my grandparents lived in the general vicinity; the impact on the local Jewish community feels greater than in other mass shootings; and with a son in high school, I could relate to the community, the students and the parents.

With this latest school shooting, we also return to the familiar cycles of civic ritual: mourning and grief, vigils and memorials. We also return to the familiar cycles of sound bytes and platitudes: politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” followed by a chorus proclaiming that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. And the dance by many lawmakers around any other reason for the shooting other than the most obvious, the accessibility and ease of procuring guns themselves.

I don’t have much more to add to the overall conversation. I too mourn the loss of life. I mourn too the inability of our society to do anything about it. I’ll just repeat that we need to recognize that one of the biggest deterrents to mass shooting accidents is gun responsibility legislation.

There will still be violent people, of course, who seek to hurt others. But if they do not have access to lethal means to hurt others, then fewer people will be victimized. One can still do damage with a knife, or a club, but the damage will be much less than a semi-automatic rifle. People still die in car accidents, that is not an argument to stop wearing seatbelts.

While limiting and qualifying gun ownership is the biggest need to stop similar incidents, there may be some truth to the statement that it is not just guns that are the problem. While the right likes to defer to “mental illness,” and there are those on the left who point to “toxic masculinity,” I think that the real underlying factor is “radical individualism.” We suffer at times under a society that values the self over the community, rights over responsibility, the one over the many. Governments, authorities, societal structures are suspect.

We are always in need of improving our communal institutions, but we can not live separate from them. The Torah portion this week is a object lesson; parasha terumah describes the building of the ancient mishkan, or Tabernacle, the central institution of the Israelites. It is to be the gathering place of the people, the center for worship, the place where God dwells among the people.

The fact of the Tabernacle in and of itself is a lesson–we need communal norms and structures, and we can not exist independently. This is made more explicit in the description of how the Tabernacle is to be built. While a few people were selected as the craftspeople, everyone contributes the raw materials. At the beginning of the parasha we read: “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.'” (Exodus 25:1-2)

In other words, everyone contributes to the building of the mishkan. It can not be built in isolation, everyone has something to give. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are dependent on, and responsible for, each other.

In this case, our own “right” to own a firearm does not outweigh the need to protect fellow citizens and preserve public safety. This goes beyond distinguishing between “law abiding” and “not law abiding.” In some cases, those categories should not even exist. The key should be to restrict and limit guns, not just ownership.

To do so in our country, we need to recognize that “rights” are not absolute. People wrote the Constitution, and they can rewrite it. But more than just the technical aspects of legislation or amendments, we need to embrace the value that community sometimes comes before self. Too many lives have been lost already because we have failed to see this. Let it be that our hearts so move us to make a change.

Creating Holy Space by Turning to Each Other

A few weeks ago I attended the 40-Hour Professional Mediation Training sponsored by the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County. The training was an intensive practicum in mediation, and we learned the formal technique of a mediation, which follows a proscribed formula and agenda in order to hopefully lead to a constructive resolution of a conflict, whether it be between an employer and employee, co-parents, neighbors, landlord and tenant, or other such relationship.

I took the class not because I was necessarily interested in doing formal mediations, but because I heard that the training was useful in many different settings. And indeed it was, I learned about interpersonal communications, how to manage disputes, conflict styles and negotiations—all skills which I know would be helpful in my current position and volunteer work.

The formal mediation process follows a series of steps to help people resolve their conflicts, even going so far as to provide for a particular room set up. Each mediation has two mediators who sit at the end of a table, and the disputants sit on either side of the table facing the mediators. During the beginning of the mediation, they share their stories with the mediators, who then repeat it back to them to indicate they understand it. The disputants then set an agenda for specific topics they would like to talk about and negotiate. And as the mediation moves into the negotiation phase, the disputants literally turn their chairs to face and speak to each other.

This turning of the chairs struck me as a key part of the process, for it was a particularly powerful moment. It means that those in a conflict must address each other in order to find a mutually agreeable resolution.

Dispute resolution is at the heart of a new/old holiday that falls today on Thursday, February 18. The Hebrew date is the 9th of Adar, and our tradition teaches that this day is should be a designated fast day. Although the practice was never formally instituted, it is on the books, and the reason given stems from a dispute between two rabbinic houses of study, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, during the first centuries CE.

This is ironic, because while these two schools are traditionally at odds with one another, their disagreements were upheld as examples of a machlochet leshem shamayim, a dispute for the sake of heaven. In other words, they were in dispute—over points of law, over approaches to Judaism—but they were able to maintain mutual respect and fellowship. Their disputes were in pursuit of a greater good.

One year on the 9th of Adar, however, tradition teaches that they came to a sharp dispute over several points of law. And rather than resolve them amicably, the disputes lead to fighting, discord, anger and hatred. (Some sources say even murder.) This then is what is commemorated by a fast—it is meant to be a day of mourning over the break that can occur when conflict tears at the very fabric of community.

Although the fast was never practiced, a contemporary practice has developed around this day. The Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, a center for Jewish learning in Jerusalem, has developed a project called The 9Adar Project: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict. On the 9th of Adar, Jewish communities are encouraged to study and what it means to be in constructive conflict and to undertake commitments, not to eliminate conflict and disagreement (for that may never happen), but to approach those conflicts and disagreements from a place of respect and understanding, from a place of recognizing the concerns and hopes and fears of the other.

Last week in the Torah reading we read the description of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary of the Israelites, as well as all of the vessels and tools they would use for worship. One of the first vessels described is the Ark of the Covenant, the chest that will contain the tablets that Moses brings down from Mount Sinai. It is to be the repository for the physical manifestation of the law and covenant, for the relationship between God and humanity

From “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

The Ark is a wooden box that is overlaid with gold. On the lid are to be two cherubim, angelic figures who are facing each other with their wings outstretched. In a lovely d’var Torah, Daniel Roth, who heads up the 9Adar project at Pardes, notes that the positioning of the cherubim provides a nice image for what it means to be in constructive conflict. He quotes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

The whole nation of Israel is represented not by one cherub but by two, by a pair of cherubs…. Israel will become a pair of cherubim who, in mutual respect and consideration, are peacefully directed one to the other, each one there for the other, each a guarantor for the other, each entrusted to the other – in brotherly co-operation, a whole nation keeping and protecting the whole community….

What Hirsch writes for the Jews can apply to anyone in conflict. That the goal is to approach each other in peace, and see how divisions can be bridged for the greater good.

In the Torah, the Tabernacle is meant to be the place that God’s Presence is made manifest within the Israelite community. More specifically, God’s Presence is described as having been made manifest on the lid of the Ark, in between the cherubim. Thus in between the image of God’s creatures facing each other, God dwells.

The divine and holy can dwell between two facing each other. When I saw in my training disputants physically shift their chairs and their bodies to face each other, there was an emotional and spiritual shift as well. Each person, rather than tell their stories to a neutral third party, now had to address the other directly. The mediators are on hand to make sure that the negotiations were constructive, not destructive, but it was in the hands of the disputants to draw close to the other to resolve their conflict. Truly holy work.

Today, on the 9th of Adar, ask yourself what it would mean to turn to another in constructive conflict. What would you say, or not say? How would you say it? How could you state your position and truly hear the position of another? One technique we learned during our 40 hours was the use of the “golden questions”–questions that can help move a conflict by allowing a person to express themselves and see each other. The questions are: What is your greatest concern? What do you most want to see happen? What do you most want the other person to understand? If we can turn toward each other, answer these questions for ourselves and hear the answers of another, then we have made tremendous strides.

When we do that, we are truly acting for the sake of heaven. When we do that, God will dwell among us.


Let Them Make Me a Sanctuary, and I Will Change the Toilet Paper

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is the Torah portion that launched a thousand capital campaigns.

Having transmitted the 10 commandments and other laws to Moses—the laws that will frame the covenant and give new organization and meaning to the newly liberated Israelites—God tells Moses to build a sanctuary, a tabernacle, that will serve as a physical center for the Israelites. At the beginning of Exodus 25 God says,

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;  blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;  tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;  oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.  And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.  Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.

From this passage we learn that a physical space is important to serve as a vessel for divine energy, this physical space should be well appointed, and that the materials to build the structure should be freely offered and come from every member of the community.

What we don’t learn from this passage is that people are going to leave their dishes in the sink, wine is going to be spilled on the floor, the coffee maker is going to go on the fritz twice in one week for two different reasons and people are going to dump their garbage in your bins in the alleyway.

Physical spaces are important and inspiring. And require constant maintenance. There are tables to set up and take down, repair people to call and paper towel rolls to replace. And while when I went to rabbinical school I didn’t anticipate becoming a building manager, because of the size of our congregation some of these duties have fallen into my lap. Two weeks ago I attended a training at a small local church, and when the toilet began to overflow the immediate response of the trainers was to call the pastor, a colleague of mine. Needless to say, I understood. It can be tiring at times, and I sometimes feel that building concerns take me away from what I would like to be doing, or what I should be doing.

There are those times, however, that building maintenance work can be uplifting, and a bathroom signvehicle for social justice. Recently at Temple Beth Hatfiloh we changed all six of our single-use restrooms, which were labeled “men” and “women,” to gender-neutral signage. There was seemingly no reason to maintain the signs as they were when we first built our building, and having bathrooms clearly marked for use by anyone of any gender is an important step towards inclusion and justice.

The change in signs was important because it also reflected the spiritual aspect of our community. For ultimately, the reason for a congregation or community to maintain a physical space is to reflect the spiritual nature of that community. Our space is a gathering place, a place for prayer, for study, for sharing, for connection, for social justice. Our space is a place to honor that important Jewish value that each one of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Our space is a place for all of us.

And since it is a place for all of us, we should heed the words of the Torah in describing the Tabernacle, that the means to not only build it, but maintain it, should come from everyone. We recently held a successful campaign to create a building endowment, an important step. But there is more that one could do. So next time you see dishes in the sink, don’t ask who left them there, wash them. See a pile of dirt on the floor? Pick up a broom. Out of paper towels in the restroom? Don’t just tell the rabbi, ask how you can change the roll.

When we all pitch in to care for our sacred spaces, God dwells within.

On the Backs of Those Who Most Need Our Help

I spent today at the Capitol with over 200 other members of faith communities from across the state to participate in Interfaith Advocacy Day, sponsored by the Faith Action Network. It was a day of learning, of inspiration and action. Connected to the work we did today is this piece I wrote for the Jewish Soundwa capitol (formerly the JTNews, and thanks to them for the headline), published in this week’s issue:

Here is a scenario: a synagogue is faced with a tight budget. Examining its options, the board of the congregation decides not to do any additional fundraising, but instead decides to just cut programs.

Doesn’t sound too realistic? As a congregational rabbi myself, I understand that there is a limit to cutting programs-how far does one cut back? Do we get rid of our youth education program? Deny well- deserved pay for our staff? Instead, prudent spending cuts need to be coupled with examining new avenues of fundraising: do we raise the expected annual commitment? Have a special event? Maybe a special High Holiday appeal?

This is the situation our state is facing. Bound by law on much of its spending, our state is facing a tight budget. So there are two choices: cut services, or raise revenues. And with many of the services on the chopping block social services to help the most in need in our state, it becomes imperative that we look at new areas to raise revenue in order to secure the social services that are so desperately needed.

But the need for more revenue rather than balancing the budget on the backs of those most in need is only one major issue of economic justice facing our state. Our state taxation system is extremely regressive-it puts more of the burden of those who can least afford it. In other words, the poorest in our state are paying a higher percentage of their earnings in taxes than the richest in our state.

How regressive? Out of 50 states, Washington ranks 50th.

According to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, an independent think tank that studies federal, state and local tax issues, Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the United States. According to its most recent report (which can be found on its website, the poorest citizens of our state are taxed at a rate of 16.8%, while the richest-the top 1% of wage earners-pay only 2.4% in taxes.

[Again, to the synagogue analogy, it’s like expecting your poorest congregants to pay more in dues than your richest congregants.]

And if we combine the two issues, we see that failing to raise revenue while cutting social services will mean a double hit on our poorest: they will be paying the most in taxes while services meant to support them are being cut.

I often find it interesting that a state that seems to be progressive when it comes to social issues-the voters of the state of Washington passed by ballot marriage equality, gun control and marijuana legalization (the first two with the official support of the organized Jewish community)-continues to be so regressive when it comes to economic policy.

As our legislature is meeting here in Olympia, they will need to wrestle with this dilemma. Already our Governor has introduced various revenue packages for consideration. And there are other issues of economic justice in front of our lawmakers. A raise in the minimum wage is another, for example, that should be seriously considered.

I’m not an economist or a policy analyst, so I will hesitate to weigh in on the pros and cons of various solutions; I don’t know what the right answers are. But I am a rabbi, and I can say that budgets are moral documents, they reflect a community’s priorities and values. And to continue to maintain such a regressive tax system, and cutting social services without raising new revenue, is immoral.

We as Jews need to be concerned with economic justice, it is rooted in our text and tradition. This coming Shabbat is parashat Terumah, in Exodus. Having escaped from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites-through the gift of Torah-are to build a new society for themselves. One aspect is the ritual and ethical laws we explored in last week’s Torah reading. Another aspect is the communal institutions that will serve as a centerpiece to the community.

In this week’s portion, in Exodus 25:8, God tells Moses “let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The portion continues, describing in detail the plans and materials that will be used to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings. And those materials come from the people. All the people.

The economic issues facing our state are our issues, not only as citizens, but as Jews. We all must contribute to the development of our community. That is what our tradition teaches. And it also teaches that we do so justly and fairly.