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High Holiday D'var Torah in time for the election!

Here is one from the beginning of school for my Jewish Traditions class, but as it is election appropriate I will share! 

As the days of awe or Jewish high holidays approach I am struck by the idea of communal responsibility. As jews we are accustomed to the idea that we each have the power to change our own fate by partaking in mitzvot, or good deeds. During the high holidays we are judged for the good deeds that we have done, and repent for the times when we have sinned. We undergo personal teshuvah or return by asking for forgiveness in our lives, we apologize to our loved ones, and we reflect on ways we have transgressed promising to renew our committment to torah and righteousness. We are given the opporunity to pray for mercy and inscription in the book of life. But what would it look like if the high holidays were about communal forgiveness and responsibility?

In reading Eliyahu Kitov's "The Book of Our Heritage" he speaks not only of the individual but additionally of the communal. He writes, "Each person has merits and transgressions. If one's merits exceed his transgressions-- he is a tzadik; if one's transgressions exceed his merits -- he is rasha; if both are equal-- he is beinoni. The same applies to each country. If the collective merits of its inhabitants exceed trangressions, it is deemed a just country.  If their transgressions exceed their merits, it is deemed iniquitous. And the same applies to the entire world. .... if a countries transgressions exceed its merits, it is subject to immediate destruction. This judgement is not quantitative one however, but a qualitative one."

But how do we measure a countries transgressions? How do we know if our merits exceed our transgressions? In the United States where we have varying opinions on how we inact freedom and whose opinion is right it certainly seems like a hard task to judge. Do we measure by what laws seem just, what attitudes seem appropriate, or what acts of kindness outway our policies? If our whole country felt that each decision they made would be judged in terms of merit or destruction would they we be able to work together for the sake of the countries survival?

As I watched the democratic convention this past week I related to Past President Bill Clintons speech when he cited the mere fact that the discussions revolving around the upcoming election has changed from statements about the issues our country is facing to statements about individuals themselves. Bill said, he was not raised to hate replublicans whereas implying that todays generations are taught that their opinions vary so much from the oppossing party that they don't even attempt to see the goodness in the others opinion and therefore we have become a divisive country rather than one which works together.

Bill says, " Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats. After all, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High and built the interstate highway system. And as governor, I worked with President Reagan on welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals. I am grateful to President George W. Bush for PEPFAR, which is saving the lives of millions of people in poor countries and to both Presidents Bush for the work we've done together after the South Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake.
When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody's right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our lives between those two extremes. Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is the enemy, and compromise is weakness. "

How are we suppossed to live in a divided country like this? When we view eachother as the 'other' and not see ourselves as sharing responsibility for our countries merits how will we face gods judgement together? It seems that politics in our country has turned into the blame game more than ever before because we find ourselves in a depressed situation where we have dig ourselves out and each party thinks that they have the answers and if elected they will enact them. What we don't realize is that we have so much work to do just to speak the same language again. Each party talks about hope, and change and the capacity to build greatness while each party maintains that  they will not give in to the opposing side. Regardless of who is elected we must committ to working together to shared goals of kindness and the qualitative goals not the quantitative numbers for either side to achieve. In order to be a country that is worthy of other nations respect we must take communal responsibility for the transgressions we have communally committed.

As Kitov shows each person plays a role in this communal judgement. He says, " Each person should therefore see himself-- during the entire year-- as if he were half meitorious and half guilty. Likewise (should he see) the entire world as half meritorious and half guilty. If he commits one sin-- he tips the scale of guilt for himself and the entire world and causes its destruction, as well as his own. If he commits one mitzvah, he tips the scale of merit for himself and for the entire world and causes its salvation as well as his own.' Kitov sites Rambam with this idea.

This is not the first time in Jewish history where destruction for sin was at stake. In the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah Abraham pleads with god to save the cities if he is able to find righteous men, when he is not able to find enough rightous men the cities are in fact destroyed. I fear that our country too may get to the point where we are no longer able to outway our merits with our transgressions. Everyday that we continue to produce hate for one another is another day when we are not moving forward towards mitzvot.



Tol'dot:The Ethical Actions of Authority (Genesis: 25:19-28:9)

After a hiatus to focus on life pursuits I’m back to tackle the torah!

In our Lives:
I think the shock of hearing about unethical news in our lives comes from our own struggles with what to do when faced with tough ethical decisions. Do we stand up for what is right, or hope it fades into the background (and that no one notices)? The news lately has been a series of tragedies and lies: The Penn State scandal, presidential candidates fumbling their way through policy positions they don’t seem to understand, big banks continuing to post record profits, or the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme we have seen questionable ethics. We have seen the use of power and authority in our government acting unethically or amongst private companies who don’t look out for the best interests of even their employees!

When we hear of such news we wonder if we ourselves would act better? How are we educating future generations? Are we teaching (by example) to only look out for ourselves? Do we consider how these acts of deceit effect others? Ultimately it seems the truth inevitably comes out but at what sacrifice? For me, when thinking through decisions where ethics are at play I like to think that I consider who will get hurt, what would by the favored outcome, and is it “just”? Not all decisions are easy but all should treat people fairly. And I think the consequences should adequately reflect appropriate punishment for unethical choices. Otherwise we are simply letting power breed power in our society. And if you aren’t sure what to do heed my mother’s advice “you get more flies with honey” it works every time!

Occupy wall street has been an interesting way to think about the consequences of treating US citizens indifferently by big businesses. While I am unclear of their demands and the common message they represent it is clear that Americans are unhappy. The economic gap has grown to 99% vs. 1% where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer and some of those in power are seeing to it that this discrepancy remain. Occupy wall street and other Occupy movements are working to regain the people’s right to democracy, to voters views mattering and being heard. The popularity of this movement has signified to me that injustice has consequences and people have re-recognized their ability to hold others accountable for their actions.

From the source:
The upcoming parshat this week Toldot deals with the story of brothers Jacob and Esau and with common themes of stealing, hatred and lying. But the plot runs deeper as the lies are intentional and done with power by authority. Rebekah, mother of twins Jacob and Esau tricks her husband Issac into giving the birthright to the younger son Jacob since he is her favored son (and Rebekah thinks more deserving of the blessing). Rebekah, acting authoritatively in her roles as wife and mother lies and aids Jacob in stealing the birthright. But as a result of this act Jacob must leave his family due to what he has done and Rebekah is without her favored son. I think this can serve both as a lesson to those with power to act ethically since the consequences of selfish acts can be grave, and to those without power to not just go along with what the authority says but to stand up for justice and to ask yourself if the act is ethical and if not what you can do about it! While the reasoning behind Rebekah’s acts may be for a more favorable outcome of Issac’s blessing. I am more concerned with the lying and deceit that those with power partake in (as shown above). If in fact Jacob was the better son to receive the birthright then it should have been bestowed upon him because of his merit and not by way of an unethical act. Jacob is the one who is held accountable for Rebekah’s actions not Rebekah even though she assured Jacob this would not be the case. These actions seem similar to Americans having to carry out their promises to banks or fulfillment of laws even though the banks and the rules keep changing and not upholding their end of the deal. It cause me to question if those in authority don’t even lead by example who will?



The Modern Haggadah Part 2: New Voices and the Reactionary

This year I tried something new at my family’s Seder. We used a new Haggadah! After researching various Haggadot, I picked: The Wandering is Over Haggadah: Including Women’s Voices, created by, and the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. These two organizations represent my liberal Jewish values, and the voices of various Jews, including Jewish women. I thought talking about women’s rights’ as part of our annual reflection on liberation would be a good first choice for my family due to the many strong women and emphasis on education our family has.

While I did not expect it to be a smooth transition, I was shocked by the backlash I received. The argument against a newly introduced Haggadah was that I had re-written Jewish history, and that Judaism is about tradition, the story of the past, and not the current political struggles we face. It caused me to question how we successfully enact change. If things are to remain stagnant in our history and we are simply to retell the past what purpose does that serve? What are we learning, discussing, and how are we using our history to create change? I recognize that change is slow, but to me learning about our Jewish past ensures that we as Jews have empathy for others current need for liberation.

One of the most common phrases repeated in torah is “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We learn as Jews not to oppress the stranger. That phrase from the Torah is Jewish tradition, and a value that we are told to pass on, it is a piece of our history. Do we recognize the strangers in our current society? Are we able to understand their need for liberation and how we as Jews can ensure that they are not oppressed since we faced a similar fate in Egypt?

I learned that storytelling is only a powerful tool if we are highlighting all our voices. This new Haggadah never once changed the rituals, and history of the story that my family was used to, instead it added the narrative of women in both biblical times and liberation that is more recent. Aren’t the stories of the women who were present also needed to get the full picture of our Jewish history? Just because past Haggadot may have been written in a different time, where men dictated the story, does not mean we still live in that world today. As we make ripples towards change, we need to make sure our goals for equity are synonymous with our actions.

We have the ability to highlight voices that were a part of the Passover story such as Shifra, Puah, and Miriam who saved Jewish babies from being killed in the Nile. Their actions helped lead the Jews towards liberation! I refuse to stand by hearing the history of my ancestors and learn nothing from it except a heart-warming story of our freedom. The story in the Haggadah teaches me to fight for others’ liberation and justice. It teaches me to discuss reforming policies in our country and to help the stranger around the world. I struggle with how to create change with the reactionary’s aversion to new ideas.

If you did one thing this year at your Seder, I hope it was prompting discussion on current needs for liberation. Change happens slowly but when we tell our story of liberation we do so to challenge ourselves and others, to remember our own liberation, and why it is important to feel as if we were personally slaves in Egypt. By remembering our enslavement, we “recall” what history has taught us, and what it feels like to be the other. When we tell the story of liberation, we strengthen our need to not stand idly by in others’ struggles towards freedom.

Further reading:
Nytimes article: Put yourself in the story of Passover
Nytimes article: An Oyster on the Seder plate
JWA: Jewish Women's voices in the seder



משׁפטים– Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18); Embracing the needy, the enemy and strangers among us.

The Text:

At this point in Torah, in the telling of the Jewish Exodus journey, the land of Egypt has been left behind, and the Jews have received the Ten Commandments.[1] Last week’s torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, goes on to list numerous laws that will govern the Jewish people. More specifically, through these laws, Jews are taught how to act towards issues regarding slavery, thievery, the needy, owning and borrowing livestock, bestiality, sorcery, crop sharing, and many more. We are shown the ancient laws of how to treat the enemy, the needy, and the stranger. Within Mishpatim it is stated, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) In many ways these laws seem to be stated to create order, and ensure that Jews are not taking advantage of the other, or the other's property including land and animals. If the only portion of Torah you were to ever read was parashat Mishpatim you may feel as if you were reading a series of legal documents concerning stealing your neighbor’s oxen. In many ways these series of laws seem inapplicable to the current way we live, but hidden among these laws are presently valuable ethical guidelines for treating the ‘vulnerable’ among us.

The Implication:

Who is not a stranger among us? Do we really live in a society where there is a clear norm, and a clear defiance of the norm we have created? What is normal, and who qualifies? I feel in so many ways individuals are constantly redefining what normal is because we feel like we just don’t fit in among everyone. Instead shouldn’t we question if ‘normal’ exists? Therefore aren’t we all strangers within any new situation? At one point we were the new comer to a community, family, or group of friends. In any new situation, we may each be a stranger in a strange land. When we venture somewhere new we want to be embraced and treated with respect and dignity, meaning we must remember to act similarly towards others entering a land we may already be familiar with as well. “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) We must remember to not outcast the newcomer, since historically we ourselves were outcast for being ‘the other’. To me, the concept of being a stranger in a strange land is applicable to so many groups of people in both our local and global world. Some ‘strangers’ within the United States include: immigrants in their fight for citizenship; the glbt[2] community in their quest for gay rights; differently-abled people advocating towards inclusive disability rights; feminist women eradicating gender inequalities; black Americans struggle towards racial equality; and the fight of the American muslim community against prejudice due to post September 11th racial profiling. All spend countless time in their struggle overcoming unequal treatment in the search to be treated ‘normally’. Where do we learn how to treat our neighbors? What acts as our ethical and moral guide when we come into contact with challenges in our lives that cause us to take action in either a positive or negative way?

I currently work in the world’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender inclusive synagogue, CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah). Recently a man called the office to question both our mission and where in the torah I personally felt that it was ok to be gay. At first I was unaware where the nature of his questions was coming from. However, his hatred quickly became clear to me as he shouted, “being gay is an abomination.” The most upsetting part of the conversation was trying to comprehend where this fellow Jew had learned his deep seeded hate towards the ‘strangers in his midst’. I’m reminded that Judaism teaches us that each individual is created in G-d’s image “betzelem eloheim”, and parshat Mishpatim teaches us by Jewish law the opposite of this man’s oppression, we are taught rather to treat the needy, enemy and stranger with indistinguishable equality to how we treat ourselves. As a Jew, I’m astounded as to where in the torah he found laws condemning the glbt community. The Jewish laws found in Exodus protect the stranger, enemy, and needy among us. Equally, whether we are in agreement or opposition by Jewish law we shall not treat those different from ourselves with anything other than compassion, and justice. And while I strongly disagree with the position my fellow Jew takes towards strangers among him, I am taught by torah to treat my enemy just as fairly as my neighbor, the stranger, and the needy. If only we all stuck to the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated.

The Application:

In concept we know to act justly towards our fellow strangers, since we were once strangers, but what are the concrete things we can do in our lives to help the vulnerable and needy among us? Rabbi Jill Jacobs in her book There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition writes about the poor among us. Rabbi Jacobs defines poverty and the ways in which humanity act towards economic justice in the United States. Her powerful book shows how social justice is found within the torah, and how it already is applicable to our daily lives and social justice struggles. Rabbi Jacobs illustrates that each individual is a manifestation of G-d, therefore showing that by treating the needy among us repulsively, we are in turn treating G-d poorly. The idea is that G-d made each individual purposefully; we must not view the stranger as different from ourselves, neither should we view the needy as differently. While the poor may rely on other’s money and food to survive, we may each be outcast of some group based on our own ‘abnormalities’ based on race, religion, gender, class, and sexual identity. Parashat Mishpatim acts as a guide of how to treat others, for we were all once the needy, the enemy, and the stranger. There is no group of people who was not as some point the target of persecution.

Maybe the next time you see the needy among you don’t think of how you’re different but rather think of how you yourself could easily be among the needy, and in turn think of how to help rather than further isolate the stranger. Picture yourself in a land foreign to the one you know. We may not yet know the new territories we will encounter in our lives but we can remember to always respect and treat each other fairly whether it be the needy, enemy, stranger of friend among us.

Rabbi Jill Jacob's Vision.

[1] See last week’s post about commanded to rest.

[2] An acronym for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.