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Today, as we were cleaning the bathroom, Mariel told me, “An elephant can fit in God’s ear.”
“Is that so?” I replied. “I didn’t know God has an ear.”
“Yes,” she continued. “Because God is everywhere. A thousand elephants can fit in God’s ear! And the universe never ends.”
I have always loved how small children will spontaneously talk about God and unselfconsciously mix cosmology with theology (and of course, it’s especially fun now that I have small children of my own).
We tend to lose that talent as we grow up. We lose a lot of spontaneity and God knows we lose our unselfconsciousness, but we also all too often lose our sense of curiosity and wonder about the world, the parts of it we can see and the parts of it we can’t. Artists and scientists manage to hold onto it, or perhaps sometimes they are retrained into it. For the most part, though, we human beings can get used to anything—however strange or beautiful or awful—in fairly short order, so unless we practice noticing and questioning the universe on a regular basis, we fall right out of the habit.
One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi is getting to ask people questions about this part of our lives that too often in our busy, business-like, goal-oriented, no-nonsense western society gets lost: the noticing, questioning part; the life of the spirit.
When a community helps one of its own celebrate a life-cycle event, whether it be a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or baby naming, a wedding or a funeral, this is what happens: we remember to notice things like love and loss and growth and the emotions that go with them. We remember to ask questions, like: “What is this one life we get to live all about, really? How much attention am I giving to the things I say are most important to me?”
The experience is most intense for the family or individual celebrating this special moment, this punctuation mark in the story of our lives; but these occasions of celebration or lament, of just noticing the universe as it would like to be noticed, to borrow a thought from a character in John Green’s brilliant novel The Fault In Our Stars, impact the whole community.
For the first time since I began serving this congregation, this month Temple Or Hadash will celebrate not just one but two young people becoming B’nai Mitzvah, full “adult” members of our covenanted Jewish community, with all of the ritual and ethical rights and responsibilities appertaining thereto. David and Johnnie will not yet be adults in all ways—we humans enjoy (for better and for worse) a long adolescence, especially at this point in the twenty-first century. But they will have arrived at a new stage of their lives: Jewishly, and otherwise.
On May 31st, they will to stand up in front of the community and affirm their Jewish identity. They will make a commitment to life-long Jewish study and gemilut hasadim, righteous deeds. Their parents will have a chance to reflect on the quick passage of thirteen years, and on the sweet fruits that have been born thus far of their often arduous labors in the enchanted field—sometimes a paradise, but almost always an inescapable cell (for better and for worse!)—of childrearing in general, and Jewish childrearing in particular.
But every single one of us will have a rare opportunity to notice, and reflect: What are we, as a Jewish community, teaching our children, and why? What is it all about, what’s most important to us, as individual Jews, as a congregation, and are we spending our resources accordingly?
Too many congregations see the Bar Mitzvah service as a private matter. Far from it. It is an opportunity for each one of us to take our spiritual pulse, to consider where or what or how God is for us, and to reflect on whether we live, together and alone, according to our most deeply held beliefs. I look forward to seeing you there.
The Cost of Freedom
Passover is our festival of freedom. Every year, the story we tell and the rituals we enact around the Seder table invite us to ask: What is freedom? Who is free? If the answers we find are ambiguous, so much the better. It is well for us to both feel gratitude for the freedoms we have and recognize the freedoms we lack or deny to others. But push even deeper, and Passover contains another message for those who seek it, a message about the ambiguous nature of freedom itself.
I was vividly reminded of this last month as I witnessed three actors unfold the complex narrative and psycho-spiritual webs of The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez that tells the story of three Jews—two who have been called slaves, one who has been called free—celebrating Passover in the year 5625, April 1865.
Lee has surrendered, the Confederacy is gasping its last breaths, the Civil War has effectively ended, and Lincoln lies dead by an assassin’s bullet: these events provide the backdrop of the most harrowing Seder you will ever witness.1
This is good, and not only because it makes all others look delightful by comparison (including the seemingly endless endurance tests Great-Uncle Izzy used to conduct entirely in Hebrew from the Maxwell House Haggadah, and that one year Aunt Sarah became so angry with Bubbe she stormed out of her own house and refused to attend the Seder she was hosting). It is good because, in addition to reminding us of how incredibly blessed we are not to be living in a burned-out war zone before the advent of modern medicine, it powerfully presents us with important insights that lie at the heart of every Seder: oppression (in any one of its many forms) is brutal and insidious, often ensnaring master as well as slave; and freedom, a heavy responsibility, can be painful, too.
The story of Passover tells of a journey from degradation to dignity:
From agony to joy,
From mourning to festivity,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption.2
We are meant to rejoice; yet, simultaneously we read, “Now we are all still in bonds. Next year may all be free.”3 Until we achieve the messianic ideal of universal peace, justice, and compassion, until there is freedom and justice everywhere, our freedom, our redemption is always incomplete. As long as we live in a still-broken world, a world still in need of repair, of tikkun, freedom is never free.
Freedom is never free. Caleb, the Confederate soldier who has lost his faith, learns this as he is forced to rely for his very life upon the human kindness of his former slaves. John, Caleb’s slave and playmate from childhood, spiritually stunted by the institution that created him, learns this as truths about his past overpower his desire for material comforts. Simon, the former head house slave who raised both boys and holds all the family secrets except the one that matters to him most, has always known this: freedom is never free.
Freedom is costly and elusive. It demands struggle. What’s more, it shifts. The freedom that beckoned a moment ago may feel like a prison the next. The only way to be truly free, then, is to know one’s self, to know one’s strength—its source, scope, and limits—and to never stray from the path that knowledge lays out for you, however it may wander.
Freedom may not be what you expected. You will not always have it, and when you do, you may not always like it. But freedom—knowing ourselves, and acting on that knowledge—is the only way to redemption. I highly recommend, should you ever have the opportunity, that you attend a performance of The Whipping Man. In the meantime, may your Seder—like Caleb, John and Simon’s, only (I pray) more gently and joyously—bring you one step further along that difficult, lifelong path.
1 General Lee surrendered April 9th; Passover began that year the evening of April 10th, and Lincoln was assassinated April 14th, on the fifth night of Passover. The play is set over the course of 48 hours that include the night of the assassination. It is certainly plausible that circumstances may have prevented many Jews from celebrating the Seder promptly, as the play imagines.
2 Translation from Baskin Haggadah, Revised Edition, CCAR 1994.
I love Purim, and here’s why: it’s a festival of contradictions. This is true of many if not all our Jewish holy days, but even more so at Purim. And I like it that way: life is messy and complex; why would we pretend otherwise in our most sacred moments? Wonderful fun for children juxtaposed with a bawdy text much more appropriate for adults; a story that never once mentions God, yet all but demands that we consider our own relationship with God; a festival of masques, an opportunity to conceal the face we usually show the world and to try on different roles, that, when enjoyed with the proper intention, helps us to unlock forgotten or hidden aspects of our personality, revealing us to ourselves. An occasion for prescribed mayhem and debauchery, it is nevertheless stringent in its demands of us, asking us: who are you, really? What is most important to you? For what cause or value would you—like Vashti, like Mordecai, like Esther—willingly risk everything? Your home, your community, your very life?
Recently columnist and blogger Harold Berman in The Times of Israel criticized Reform Judaism for “an approach that has replaced obligation with personal autonomy as its overarching value”; in other words, he charges, Reform Judaism never asks us to make any personal sacrifices for the sake of the community. Though I would respectfully disagree that Reform Judaism makes no rigorous demands of us, Berman does identify a real phenomenon in Reform Jewish life: we are often not inclined to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of Judaism, the Jewish community, and the values we claim to uphold.
We live full, demanding lives, and we like to believe we can have it all: secular success and spiritual fulfillment, conviction without inconvenience, family and career, work-life balance. Sometimes we can. But what would happen if we, like Esther, like Vashti, like Mordecai—even like Ahashverosh in the end—were forced to choose between our comfortable, everyday faces, standard operating procedures, and our deepest values? Is it enough to give as much tzedakah as feels good, or must we give beyond the point of comfort to truly repair the world? Is it enough to light the Shabbat candles when it is convenient, or must we discipline ourselves to make it a regular practice, even when it might cut into other plans, or require us to make what is usually a private family ritual more public than we might prefer? Do we miss holiday observances because the rest of the world does not stop working or going to school? Or do we make arrangements and sacrifices to be with our community, to practice the rituals and customs from which our values flow? In each case, what is lost, and what is gained?
In the Scroll of Esther, again and again, characters surprise us. The passive, beautiful Esther turns out to have a steely commitment to her people. Ahashverosh, a king without convictions, ends up doing the right thing—more than once! Each one of us has more than one dimension to our character, and to our Judaism. Purim gives us a safe space to try on unaccustomed roles, uncomfortable practices. In fact, it challenges us to uncover and explore our own contradictions. Which is the mask, which is truly us?
This Purim, may we have the courage to explore some of these tensions, to test the limits of the different aspects of our identities, to figure out what’s most important to us, to discover the cost of comfort and the strength of our convictions. Chag sameach—may your Purim be hilarious, joyful, affirming of family and Jewish values. And may it make you a little uncomfortable. And may it change you, deeply.
The Long Way to Eden
Judaism starts with a vision. It’s born in a world that’s full of slavery and evil and war and oppression but its dream is of Eden, the Garden of Eden. It says this world can and should be made into a paradise. –Rabbi Irving Greenberg in Road to Eden: Rock & Roll Sukkot
It was a rare weekend at home, packed with family time, household chores, and an unusual number of cultural events and social engagements. It was, for the most part, a wonderful few days, marked by many memorable moments. But two stand out.
The first came at noon on Shabbat, when I first learned three people had died by gunfire that morning in my hometown at the charming and sunlit “Mall in Columbia,” setting of many childhood memories. This was not wonderful. I felt a sickening chill reading the news, even as I received reassurances from friends and loved ones who live nearby.
I’ve never put much stock in the idea that “it can’t happen here,” wherever the speaker and whatever “it” is. Violence, tragedy, illness, and suffering know no boundaries. I don’t know any of the families of the three dead (two victims and the gunman). My grief for them is no different from the grief I feel over lives lost to gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut, or Oak Creek, Wisconsin, let alone Aurora, Colorado, or Pearl, Mississippi, places very near the two congregations I serve. Still, I can’t deny that the whole incident feels quite different when the dateline on the news updates reads “Columbia, Maryland,” where I was raised and where my parents still live.
Which brings me to the second notable moment of the weekend (if a “moment” can last several hours). On Sunday afternoon I attended the Mississippi premier of a remarkable new film, Road to Eden. It was part rock & roll documentary, following the Jewish musician Dan Nichols and his band Eighteen on a concert tour through the American South. More importantly, though, it was an extended meditation on the festival of Sukkot, which may be, as one contributor to the film put it, “Judaism’s most underappreciated holiday”: Nichols and his band deliberately chose to schedule their winding road trip during this eight-day festival that celebrates redemption by literally throwing us out of the house, commemorating the Israelites’ wanderings out of Egypt, from Sinai to the promised land. When we sit in our sukkot today we get to reflect on how we might replicate and extend their journey by continuing to seek and to build the Garden of Eden, a paradise of justice, compassion, and peace here on earth.
What does Sukkot and Dan Nichols have to do with the tragedy of innocent lives lost to gun violence? Sukkot, the festival of booths, strips us of the illusion that we are separate, safe, and self-contained, each in our own sturdy home. As Nichols reflected after an inspiring meeting with the Reverend Billy Kyles at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee: Sukkot, which removes us from our comfort zones and places us at the mercy of natural elements, vulnerable to outside threats, also serves to remind us of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wise words, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I hope you will all have an opportunity soon to see this wonderful film. But that’s not the point of my message today. My purpose in mentioning it here is to raise a question, one that all of us should seek to answer, one that Judaism calls us to answer: how do we balance the justice of law-abiding citizens wishing to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms against the injustice of innocent lives sacrificed every day in this country to that right?
The status quo is unacceptable. I do not yet know the answer, but I know that we must not stop asking ourselves and our lawmakers the question. If we wish to continue on the Road to Eden, we must make a change.
Why I Am Shaving My Head
In honor memory of Sam Sommer, Shmuel Asher Uzziel ben haRav Michael Aharon v’haRav Pesach Esther, November 8, 2005–December 14, 2013
For the last year and a half, Michael and Phyllis Sommer—old friends and former rabbinic-school classmates of mine—have walked a terrible and painful road. Their eight-year-old son Sammy, dubbed “Superman Sam” by his fans, had been battling acute myeloid leukemia (AML). On December 16th, that road came to an even more painful end, and now a more terrible new road lies before them: Phyllis and Michael, accompanied by over 1,000 grieving friends and family members, arrived at the cemetery with Sammy, and left without him. He died two days earlier, on Shabbat.
I’ve spoken of Sammy in our congregation before. I felt so proud of our community in September, when we participated in a nationwide High Holy Days Bone Marrow Donor Drive in Sammy’s honor.
In November, when I learned that Sammy was terminal, I felt I had to do something more. Then Sammy’s mother and our colleague Rabbi Rebecca Schorr announced their “crazy” idea: what if thirty-six Reform rabbis would shave their heads to call attention to the woefully inadequate funding of childhood cancer research (only 4% of federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers) and to raise $180,000 for this essential work? (That initial goal has been surpassed and doubled.) Thus the 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave was born, and I signed up.
Several dozen of us will be shaving our heads in March, on the occasion of our annual Reform rabbis’ conference, in memory of Sam, in support of all the kids and families fighting this battle. I am doing it as a tribute to Sammy, his parents, and his three surviving siblings. This family has had a profound impact on my life and the lives of so many of their friends, not to mention readers around the world who followed their blog, www.supermansamuel.blogspot.com, which is an amazing testament of strength and grace, of love and faith.
I’m doing it as a prayer—of thanksgiving, that it hasn’t been my family’s battle; of supplication, that it should never be; of healing, for those whose it is—and as an acknowledgment that—God forbid—this battle might yet become any of ours, any time. And, though I’m not generally superstitious, as a sacrifice (why not?!), in case theurgy is real, to hurry the day when we find a cure.
So many of you have suffered all manner of afflictions in your families. I have had the solemn privilege of accompanying some of you on these journeys. By joining this effort in memory of Sammy, I do not say that his journey is more touching, his cancer more terrible, or his memory more worthy than any other. We are, every one of us, children of God, created in God’s image, and when any of us suffers, God suffers, and we all suffer. And then we are called to do what we can, to bring healing, to do tikkun olam, to repair the world.
Today, this is what I can do. I hope that besides advancing the fight against childhood cancers, my slightly meshuggeneh action may inspire you to take steps of your own, to make a difference in your world, to choose a place to bring healing, to relieve suffering.
If you also feel inspired to contribute to the 36 Rabbis’ efforts, and my personal goal of raising $5,000, I hope you will follow this link: www.stbaldricks.org/participants/mypage/660886/2014
The Talmud teaches: save a life, and you save an entire world. We lost a world when we lost Sammy. Let’s try not to do that again.