A Sabbath from the Speed of Life

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Shanah Tovah. To each of you — to the members of our KKBE family, and your visiting family and loved ones; to those traveling in Charleston and members of the wider community who are here to celebrate with us this Rosh Hashanah morning — to each of you, I wish you blessing and good health, abundant joy and enduring peace, as we enter the new year of 5779.

5779 — what does that number represent? According to tradition, it’s the number of years that have passed since the creation of the world. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since God separated heaven from earth, darkness from light, land from sea. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since God hung the moon, sun, and stars in the sky. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since plants began to sprout, birds began to fly; since human ancestry began.

Of course, few of us here subscribe to the ancient story as a literal accounting of creation. We understand that nearly every component of the created world goes back not thousands, but millions and billions of years. Yet there is one part of creation that is much more recent than the others. One that didn’t exist until Jewish tradition brought it into existence. One that may very well be five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years old — and the only creation in the entire story described as holy: “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches: “The first holy object in the history of the world” was time. Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World, writes: “The first week was the first temporal division not tethered to the sun or the moon.” The concept of a week, and a Sabbath at its end — to be mindful of the idea of time, to keep one week from simply bleeding into the next — had to be created. Shabbat, and its unique way of helping us to value and sanctify time, has been described as the greatest gift God has given to the Jews, and the Jewish people, in turn, to humanity.

So how are we doing with our gift? Are we cherishing time, savoring it, keeping it holy? I think we know the answer. I think our souls feel it. How many of us have commented that, in one way or another, time continually feels like it’s slipping away, like we’re racing to keep up with our own lives? The speed of life is one of the biggest spiritual challenges we face as we enter this new year.

“When will today’s fast be tomorrow’s slow?” an advertising banner asked at the top of a webpage I was looking at recently — and I felt my pulse quicken, terrified. I already feel like life is moving faster than I can sometimes handle — how much faster can time possibly go? Thomas Friedman says we’re living in an age of acceleration. Think about how it feels to ride in a car, a plane: When we’re cruising, we often don’t feel the speed, or if we do, it’s the pleasurable sensation of wind in our hair, the landscape rolling by. But when we accelerate, everything tenses. We’re thrust back against our seats. We physically feel pressure — and it takes a toll. When two people greet one another on the street, the phone, at services, what’s the universal refrain we hear? “How are you doing?” “I’m so busy.” Or, if we can’t afford time for a complete sentence: “Busy, hectic, tired, stressed.” The Chinese pictograph for ‘busy’ is composed of two characters: heart and killing. That is exactly what “busy” — what today’s speed of life — is. [1]

We need to slow down, every single one of us. No one is exempt, and there’s no guilt or shame in doing so. We need to take a break, stop, catch our breath. Especially when we’re bombarded with messages encouraging us to go faster, to increase the busy-ness of our lives, how important it is to remember that five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years ago we were commanded to: “Slow down… you move too fast.” Yes — Simon and Garfunkel are right there in the Torah! We need, every seven days, to let go of at least some of the stress in our lives and accept the freedom Shabbat has always granted. We need the three forms of respite from speed Shabbat offers, if only we reclaim our holy gift.

First, we need Shabbat’s respite from the speed of knowing. Matte Barón works with corporate executives. “I teach them how to be present,” he says. “Stress and anxiety happen when you’re managing the future.” [2] Can we hear the chutzpah in that phrase, “managing the future”? Humans plan, God laughs. Yet how much energy do we expend, how much stress do we incur, in our racing to know what things mean and how they’re going to turn out… right now!

There’s an old Taoist story about a wise man on the northern frontier of China:

One day, for no apparent reason, his son’s horse ran away and was taken by nomads across the border. Everyone tried to offer consolation for the man’s ill fortune, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?”

Months later, the son’s horse returned, bringing with her a magnificent stallion. Their household was made richer by this fine horse, which the son loved to ride, and everyone was full of congratulations for the son’s good fortune. But his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” 

One day the son fell off the horse and broke his hip. Once again, everyone offered their consolation for his bad luck, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?” 

A year later the nomads mounted an invasion across the border, and every able-bodied man was required to take up his bow and go into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other. [3]

The moral of the story is not that nothing is as it seems, or that it’s utter futility to try and understand our lives and the world around us. But everything is always changing. Our limited vision yields a picture that is never complete. Under those circumstances, what is lost in taking a one day break? A day on which we admit we’ll never really know, so let’s, just for this one day, let it go, and anchor ourselves firmly in the present. 

“Every person needs to take a day away,” Maya Angelou wrote. “A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future … a day in which no problems are confronted, no solutions are searched for.” Shabbat is our day of freedom from knowing how things are going to get done or turn out. And we need this freedom now more than ever.

Sometimes that from which we need freedom seems like a good thing. But the old adage is true: Everything in moderation. Mindful of every sermon in which I’ve emphasized how important it is to be engaged in tikkun olam, repairing the world — even from this, we need a break. Specifically, we need Shabbat’s respite from the speed of today’s activism. 

Marches, rallies, protests. Speakers, films, book discussions. Town halls, vigils, council meetings. If we care about today’s world, tikkun olam can easily become our full-time job. Yet “the frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace,” in at least two ways, says Muller. “It destroys our own inner capacity for peace.” And it shields us “from the actual experience of suffering.”

In 1973, two social psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, conducted an experiment with students on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary.

First, the researchers ran tests to determine each student’s personality type. Then they announced that the students would have to give a talk. Half of them were asked to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan [the parable in which Jesus encountered a wounded man, had compassion for him, and paused in his travels to care for him]. The other half were told to discuss the job prospects that faced them as future ministers. All were instructed to report to another building, where their audiences would be waiting for them. 

As the students left the first building, a researcher urged about a third of them to hurry, because they were already late. He assured another third that they were right on time but shouldn’t dawdle. He told the last third that there was a slight delay in the proceedings but that they should wander over anyway.

As the students walked to the second building, they passed a man slumped against a doorway in an alley. They didn’t know it, but this was the real test. As each student approached, the man coughed and groaned. If the student stopped, the man told them in a confused and groggy voice that he was fine but he had a respiratory condition; he had taken medicine that would begin to work any minute now. If the student insisted on helping the man, he allowed himself to be taken into a building nearby.

After the data was weighted and the variables analyzed, only one thing consistently predicted who would stop to help and who wouldn’t. The important factor was neither personality type nor whether a student’s career or the parable of the Good Samaritan was foremost in his mind. It was whether or not he was in a hurry. … Those who felt themselves to be in a rush didn’t realize that he needed help until after they’d passed him. Time pressure narrowed their “cognitive map,” and they raced by without seeing. [4]

Ask yourself, for all that you care about, and care deeply, in this world — for all the urgency you feel behind the need for change — are you willing to sacrifice recognizing your fellow suffering right beside you? If the experience of life increases in direct proportion to being present in the moment, is there anywhere that a break from the speed of life is more important than in the realm of compassion and justice? On Shabbat, one day in seven, we need to slow down, caring for our own souls as well as those around us.

And what is it that fuels so much of the busy-ness that occupies our time? What is overwhelmingly responsible for the rate of acceleration we feel in so many areas of our lives? The speed of technology. From this, more than anything, we desperately need the respite Shabbat offers. 

Thomas Friedman tells the story of a king who was deeply impressed with the man who invented chess and offered him any reward for his achievement. The inventor asked for rice, one grain of rice, placed on a corner square of a chessboard. “One grain?” the king asked. “That would hardly feed a mouse, much less your family.” One grain, the inventor insisted, but if the king would, double the amount on the next square: Two grains of rice. “Certainly!” the emperor agreed. “In fact, I’ll double the amount on each of the board’s squares.” The inventor agreed, but little did the emperor realize — doubling one grain of rice 63 times would yield something like 18 quintillion grains of rice by the end of the board — enough to feed not only the inventor’s family, but the whole village.

This kind of acceleration is precisely what we’ve experienced in the realm of technology. For one generation, the singular defining advancement was the telephone; for another the TV. But “because of the explosive power of exponential growth,” Friedman writes, “the twenty-first century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress.” [5] When advancement happens this fast, how can we not feel out of control — and it just keeps coming. There’s nothing inherently bad about technology; far from it. Look at all that humankind has been able to achieve. Yet in 1951, long before the invention of smart phones and tablets, Abraham Joshua Heschel already understood: “In spite of our triumphs,” he wrote, “we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.” We don’t have to renounce the technologies and gadgets at our disposal, he taught, but we do need to attain some degree of independence from them.

Five thousand, seven hundred and seventy-nine years ago, we were given permission; this year, more than ever, we need to take it: A respite from the speed of life. “The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God,” wrote Heschel. Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik called Shabbat, “the most brilliant creation of the Hebrew spirit.” (p. xviii-xix) And we miss it. “When we pine for escape from the rat race; … when we fret about the disappearance of a more old-fashioned time, with its former, generally agreed-upon rhythms of labor and repose; when we deplore the increase in time devoted to consumption; … whenever we worry about these things, [our souls] are remembering the Sabbath….” [6]

But all we have to do is reclaim it; it’s ours for the taking. Shabbat “does not require us to leave home, … go on retreat, or leave the world of ordinary life. We do not have to change clothes or purchase any expensive spiritual equipment. We only need to remember.” (Muller, p. 8) And the seventh day doesn’t have to be the arduous “picture-perfect” observance we imagine, either. “In the poetry of the prayer book,” writes Shulevitz, “the Sabbath is a bride greeted by an impatient bridal party with an almost anguished relief. In the more prosaic dominion of my house, the Sabbath sees herself in and sits down to wait.” [7] And. That’s. OK. Shabbat is all about embracing freedom, including freedom from a perfect Shabbat. Stress over Shabbat would defeat its purpose. Candles, Kiddush, challah? You’ll decide. A home-cooked meal? Maybe, but not necessarily. Most important is that you carve out time; how you decide to fill it can evolve later. 

Begin by keeping your calendar open. Make it a personal practice not to schedule meetings or commitments on Shabbat — even for something fun like dinner or a movie. Give yourself the ability to do what your soul tells you it needs to do when you take the time to pay attention to it. Meet a friend on Saturday afternoon because you feel like doing so — not because you’re keeping a commitment that you would. Refrain from doing things which fulfill a goal or purpose, complete something begun before Shabbat, or prepare for something that will conclude after Shabbat is over. With practice, the chores of daily life — folding laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying — will drift away on Shabbat, and what could get done on Saturday will be content to wait until Sunday. And you will, too.

Practice not answering emails on Shabbat — and since you’ve committed to not answering them, why read them either? Phones, television, social media — these are tricky and personal. Each can bring joy, connect families, lift one’s spirits. But they can also make demands, help us to pass time rather than inhabit it, deplete our souls and spirits, as well. So pay attention to how you feel, and remember that, if you wish, Shabbat grants you permission to turn it all off.

This New Year, as we hope and pray that our names will be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life, let our reclaiming of the sacred gift of Shabbat be our first commitment toward that end. As the poet Marcia Falk has written:

Three generations back

my family had only

to light a candle

and the world parted.

Today, Friday afternoon,

I disconnect clocks and phones.

[But] when night fills my house

with passages,

I begin saving

my life.

 

[1] Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delightful in Our Busy Lives, pp. 2-3.

[2] Teddy Wane, “The 7-Day Digital Diet,” New York Times, February 9, 2014.

[3] Muller, pp. 187-9 (adapted).

[4] Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, p. 24ff (adapted).

[5] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, p. 201.

[6] Shulevitz, p. xxix.

[7] Ibid, p. 3.

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A Back to School Blessing for Reluctant Students

Not every student is excited for the first day of school.

 

Not everyone is inspired by the blank pages of a brand new notebook.

Not everyone easily relinquishes shapeless summer days for the confines of a set schedule.

Not everyone looks at ten months on the calendar as a glass more than half full.

No, not every student is excited for the first day of school.

 

But, oh, the excitement when one corner of the world suddenly shines in the light of new understanding. 

The pride of a hard earned Way to Go! and Job Well Done!

The inspiration of a book, a subject, a skill you never even knew how much you would love.

That extra inch taller you feel when, even as you look up to older students, you realize there are younger students looking up to you.

 

So to all reluctant students on their first day of school:

May these joyful moments so fill each of the days of the school year to come that, before you know it, you really will be excited—celebrating the glorious last!

Moses in Montgomery.

Parashat D’varim

This Shabbat we begin D’varim, the book of Deuteronomy — “Moses’ Last Stand.” Not a military campaign, though this final book of the Torah certainly has those, too. But Moses isn’t remembered as a warrior. He’s Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. And in just a few months’ worth of parashiyot, the Israelites will be continuing their journey without him. The Israelites will enter the Promised Land; Moses will not. Graduation, if you will. So Moses, the teacher, digs his heels into the wilderness sand and commits to making sure they take the most important educational lessons and values of their journey with them. He wants to ensure that these teachings are not just stored somewhere in their memories, but etched upon their hearts — it’s that important, they need to be. So he pulls out all the stops…

For the audio learners, he repeats virtually everything he’s said and taught in the other books of the Torah — and sometimes, as we well know, he repeats it again and again and again. For the visual learners, he uses props — carving the Ten Commandments into tablets of stone, for example, and fashioning an ark in which they can be carried with them always. And for the kinesthetic learners, Moses gets their whole bodies engaged — pronouncing blessings from Mount Gerizim and curses from Mount Ebal; six tribes on each mountain, with the Levites in between, like a camp-wide game of Red Rover.

All of the tactics Moses deploys are for a purpose: So that the narrative of the Israelites’ journey — their degradation in slavery, their deliverance to the wilderness, their covenant with God, and their hopes for the future in the Promised Land — will be remembered and serve as inspiration from generation to generation to generation.

Never again will there be another prophet like Moses, we are told. And that’s probably so. Every prophet is her own person; has his own style and techniques. But there have been inspired orators, courageous organizers, masterful teachers who, if not made from the same mold as Moses, seem to be cut from similar cloth. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., bore the comparison more often than most, and seemed to embrace it — never more fully than when, on the day before he was assassinated, he declared, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And [God’s] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not be there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” And the fact that King’s words, like Moses’, endure — the narrative he told, the way he encapsulated history, the success with which he turned the past into abiding courage for the present and inspiration for the future — tells us the comparison might have been warranted indeed.

I believe there’s another who deserves consideration, as well. Have you heard the name Bryan Stevenson? Civil rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson? If not, you should. Get your hands on his book, Just Mercy. Look up his organization, (EJI) The Equal Justice Initiative. Listen to his TedTalk, “We Need to Talk about an Injustice.” Read the memoir of his client, Anthony Ray Hinton, called The Sun Does Shine. (Oprah made it her summer book club pick, and we’ll be discussing it this fall in Adult Ed.) And if you’re as inspired and blown away by all of it as I’ve been, then take a trip to Montgomery.

Last weekend, a friend and I made what might be described as a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama. It was from Montgomery that I had flown back to Charleston in 2015, following the terror that infamous June night at Mother Emanuel. So while I had been to Atlanta and Selma, Jackson and Memphis, I had not seen the civil rights landmarks of Montgomery — and there are several. Last weekend we toured the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center. We saw Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the only church Martin Luther King, Jr., ever served as solo pastor. (He preached from his father’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.) Only one block from the Alabama State Capitol — nearly in its shadow — we saw the footprints painted on the street outside the church’s doors, commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights. And we walked around the grounds of the Capitol building, noting the Confederate flags that have come down; the statues that remain — the discussion of which was prompted by the same devastating event that had necessitated my flying home three years ago. 

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But the main reason we had felt called to Montgomery didn’t exist three years ago: A new museum and memorial established by Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative that, to paraphrase the New York Times, are unlike anything this country has ever seen. And both, in the tradition of Moses, employ a wide range of educational and technological tools to exceptional effect.

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The Legacy Museum, established on the site of a former warehouse that once imprisoned enslaved blacks, traces our nation’s foundational history from enslavement to mass incarceration. It tells this single story in four chapters: Kidnapped. Terrorized. Segregated. Incarcerated. But it’s one story; four iterations. Eventually (though with a stunning lack of speed) our legal system outlawed slavery, lynching, and segregation. But laws have merely sublimated certain expressions of white supremacy, allowing others to take their place; they haven’t eradicated its existence. And if there’s any doubt there’s a straight line connecting each chapter back to slavery, consider one image in the museum: A prison in Louisiana. The prison is built on the grounds of a former plantation. In the photo, a supervisor, on horseback, drives a line of dark-skinned prisoners performing labor farmed out for cheap and for which they will never receive a cent. As disturbing as the scene is, it finds grounding in the Constitution, whose Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.”

So how do you teach a narrative in which we are still so immersed as a nation? The EJI knows there’s only one effective way: You immerse the learner in your teaching. 

The first chapter of this story is slavery. After a film that dramatizes the emotion of a father torn from his daughter, and an animated map that conveys the rapid growth of the domestic slave trade and its widespread displacement of parents and children, husbands and wives, visitors descend a dark ramp. Behind bars, in 5 or 6 cells, holograms, white as ghosts, share firsthand accounts of their imprisonment in the space in which you stand. As a mother begs the listener to, “Please find my children… I know they’re here somewhere; I can feel them,” and a brother and sister a few cells down call out for their mother, the connection to our present moment in history is immediate and visceral. Once in the main warehouse space, quotes are not merely displayed on walls, they’re printed on panels of silk mounted from floor to ceiling — and so you have to weave your way among descriptions that alternate between a slave trader’s catalogue of his “stock,” and testimony of those torn from their families and “sold down the river.”

In the second chapter, the widespread terror of lynching is made tangible through a display of earth collected in clear jars on long shelves. Each jar’s contents, ranging from near black soil to red rock, were collected from sites where the Institute has documented a lynching took place. Individuals’ names, the county and date of their lynching, are printed in white. In this way, the scope of more than 4,000 documented lynchings, 185 in the state of South Carolina, begins to sink in… 3 in Dorchester Country, 9 in Florence County, one in Georgetown County — in 1941! But there’s even more immersion at the nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Here there are 800 steel monuments, one for each county in which lynchings are documented to have occurred. Visitors walk between the monuments — reading states, counties, names, and dates — until the floor descends and the monuments appear to rise up, invoking the physicality of the lynchings themselves. And then you’re walking beneath the monuments, reading now the “reasons” for which the lynchings took place: Participation in a protest, speaking to a white woman, “standing around” in a white neighborhood, daring to cast a vote.

Back in the museum, in the third chapter, the utter absurdity and deep entrenchment of segregation takes shape. Another floor to ceiling display reproduces the wide ranging laws that kept blacks and whites separate in this country, from water fountains to barber shops to card games. Another display, resembling a periodic table, catalogues Supreme Court cases whose decisions either expanded civil rights or contracted them. Complicated court history is distilled down to literal black and white: 20 landmark decisions upheld the civil rights of minorities in this country; 47 ruled against them.

And then in the fourth chapter, the current chapter, we confront our era of mass incarceration. Here there are reproduced letters, desperate, written to the Equal Justice Initiative by prisoners. There’s a film that takes you inside notoriously violent St. Clair Correctional Facility, against which the EJI filed a successful class action suit on behalf of its prisoners. But most powerful are these: Reproduced visitation booths in which you, the visitor, sit down in front of a screen, pick up a black wall-mounted phone, and listen to former prisoners tell you their stories of wrongful imprisonment, juvenile life-sentences, and harrowing prison treatment. 

With each of these immersive teaching techniques, the data of each chapter — the narrative — not only emerges, but sticks. Ivy League colleges selling enslaved Africans to fund scholarships for white students. An advertisement by the Dallas County Citizens Council in a Selma, Alabama, newspaper: “Ask Yourself This Important Question,” the headline reads, “What have I personally done to maintain segregation?” (The implication being, have you done enough?) The findings of a 1960 report that “if school integration in the South were to continue at its 1959 rate, it would take 4,000 years for all Southern Negro children to achieve their right to educational opportunity.” (Remember that the next time you hear a public official imploring a minority population to just be patient.) The statistic that 13 states have no minimum age for prosecuting a minor as an adult, including sentences of life imprisonment without parole and the death penalty (South Carolina included). Or that 2/3 — two thirds! — of those sitting in jail on any given day are awaiting trial.

Rabbi David Novak says of Moses: He dealt with people who came from many perspectives — those who accepted the covenant (their history), never looking beneath the surface; those who refused to affirm they were part of the covenant; those who affirmed the covenant, but who struggled to understand what that means, what it demanded of them. Yet Moses never gave up on his people. Martin Luther King affirmed his faith in humanity and their arrival in the Promised Land. And with the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and memorial, Stevenson isn’t giving up either. It’s hard to imagine any American encountering these immersive exhibits and not leaving changed, charged, challenged in some way. 

As you exit the museum, a series of photos summarize much of what you’ve seen. But this time, they ask questions, as well. Do you believe all slavery should be abolished? Why does it say about us as a society that we imprison – that we execute – both the old and the young? And as you reflect upon their answers, there’s one more exhibit: A large interactive touch-screen that asks: “What Do I Do Now?” At this display you can sign a petition to change the Thirteenth Amendment and abolish all forms of slavery, once and for all. You can sign a petition to integrate schools in Alabama. (That’s right, integrate schools in Alabama. According to the Alabama state constitution, integrated schooling is still illegal — and state referenda to change the Constitution have failed, in 2012 most recently.) And perhaps most important of all, there’s a tab on the screen where, if you have not already, before you leave the museum, you can register to vote. 

When I told people I was going to Montgomery, they asked, “Why?” When I told them I was going to learn about slavery and lynching and mass incarceration, they said, after a beat, “Have fun?” And, no, it wasn’t fun. But it was incredibly empowering — because that’s what good teaching, from a good teacher, does. Armed with knowledge of the past, you can impact the future. Understanding the story, you write the ending. 

Ultimately, I came home from Montgomery with everything the National Memorial for Peace and Justice asks us to hold dear:

With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.

With courage because peace requires bravery.

With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.

With faith because we shall overcome.

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Tov.

Parashat Balak

This week’s Torah portion is one of those gems — a hapless king, a grand mission, a bumbling prophet. There’s even a talking donkey. The whole thing has a Princess Bride-like quality to it; with perhaps a touch of Shrek. And words we find toward the culmination of the story have made their way into our daily liturgy, so that whenever we gather for worship we maintain a connection to this Torah portion and its bold prophecy.

Balak, king of Moab, hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. After Balaam’s donkey does his part to thwart the mission (and I do totally imagine him doing so sounding like Eddie Murphy), Balak succeeds in taking Balaam to an overlook where he can see a portion of the Israelite encampment. But when Balaam opens his mouth to pronounce the curse he’s been hired to deliver, lo and behold, words of blessing emerge instead. So Balak tries again, taking Balaam to a different spot. “Maybe it’s the view that was the problem,” Balak reasons — “try here.” But when Balaam begins to speak this second time, his proclamation is even worse — blessings for the Israelites, and now curses for those who seek their harm, as well. “Stop, just stop!” Balak says, now doubting the wisdom of this great plan. And then finally, from yet another overlook where Balaam can see the entire encampment of Israelites, his “curse” comes out as the famous phrase: 

“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael — 

How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” 

Clearly it’s a blessing, as has been everything that’s come out of Balaam’s mouth. But what is the prophecy saying? What does that one little word “good,” so key to the blessing, mean? Perhaps if we look to other places where we see the word tov in our sacred texts, we might gain a better understanding.

So let’s begin with Psalms (133:1) — much like Mah Tovu, another popular opening song:

“Hinei mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad — 

How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together.”

As the Jewish Study Bible teaches, we often think of this verse as a reference to brotherly harmony in a broad, general sense; the good feeling of a group of people — any people — coming together in a warm and joyful spirit. But the verse actual has a very specific context: Against the backdrop of a deep civil divide in ancient Israel, it’s “a hope for the reunification of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.” It’s a call for two sides — two factions, a split nation — to come together. 

Ordinarily, this is where I would draw parallels between the ancient text and our own day. But there are just too many examples from which to draw, too many ways in which we each feel the divisiveness of our time. So suffice it to say: Is there any doubt we could desperately use a prophecy for this kind of restorative, healing goodness right now?

Of course, we encounter the word tov much earlier than Psalms in our biblical text; we find it throughout the very first story of the very first book of Torah — the story of Creation —  culminating in Genesis 1:31:

“Vayar Elohim et-kol Asher asah v’hinei tov m’od — 

God saw all that God had made and, behold, it was very good.”

Here “good” might mean “beautiful” or “pleasing,” but more precisely it seems to indicate “everything working the way it was meant to.” We get a picture of God surveying all that has been created, and then consulting the blue prints while declaring “tov” — everything is in fine working order.

Nathan Albert, a pastor and storyteller, writes: “Our call as people of God is to be a community where everything is good, beautiful, and working the way it was created to. We are to be tov in a world that desperately needs to get a glimpse of tov; of heaven and earth. … We are to be a community that looks like God. A community where all people have their needs met, where there is no inequality, where injustice cannot have its way, where forgiveness, peace, and joy reign, where mercy always supersedes judgment, and where people lay down their lives for each other. We are to be a community that is so peculiar we actually look a little like heaven on earth; a community where everything and everyone is tov.”

What a beautiful thing it would be if this prophecy of goodness, too, came true.

And both of these ideas of tov, of goodness, seem to fit with what the many rabbis and sages have written about our verse in the prophecy of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak (Numbers 24:5). Once again:

“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael — 

How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

What exactly does Balaam see when he ascends to a lookout one last time and can finally take in the entire span of the Israelite camp? A community living close together, the sages say, in more than just physical proximity. A nation that clearly cares for one another, protects each other. And — observing the fact that no single tent opening apparently looked into the sightline of another tent opening — a community that respected one another, as well. A community of goodness, worthy of blessing indeed.

Like many of you, I imagine, I’ve been struggling with the lack of this kind of goodness in our community — in our society, in our country — as of late. As I’ve found myself preparing for the Fourth of July this coming week, and an All American, patriotic Shabbat at KKBE next weekend, those descriptors haven’t felt good. It pains me to say it, but America just hasn’t felt like something worth celebrating right now. But then I reread a story, written by Ede in New Mexico a couple of years ago:

Yesterday, my daughter, Karly, had a tough day—Ede wrote. She learned that she had just lost her job. It was a new role as a project lead and she was very excited about it. Due to funding cutbacks, however, the grant money that she had been promised had to be taken back by the state. So, too, Karly’s position. She was devastated.

But life goes merrily along its way and so we must do what we must do. And off Karly went to get groceries.

A short note about my girl here. From day one, Karly has been the kind of human that has never met a stranger. She is Native American and Anglo. She has deep brown/black eyes and dark brown hair (well, most of the time—she is twenty-five; it gets colored quite often). But there is something about her that is approachable, attractive, and friendly. People of all kinds talk to her, randomly, often, and about all kinds of things, young and old.

Yesterday, as she approached the store, there was a gentleman outside the store, who was cold and hungry, who asked her for money to get some food. Karly told him she wouldn’t give him money, but she would be happy to buy him something to eat. She didn’t say anything to him about the fact that she had carefully planned out her shopping list so that she could get everything she needed with the cash she had just withdrawn from the credit union. Instead, she asked him what he would like to eat. 

He said it would be really nice to have a rotisserie chicken since it was already cooked and hot; it was so cold outside. Karly said she would be right back and went in to buy his chicken. When she came back out, she gave him the food. She also went over to her car and got out a coat and gave it to him. She then went back into the store to do her shopping.

She carefully went through the store checking off each item on her list and adding everything up so she did not go over the total dollar amount she had in cash. As she proceeded to the checkout lane and was getting ready to cash out, the gentleman behind her in line told her he was going to pay for her groceries.

She was completely caught off guard.

He told her he had seen her act of generosity and kindness to the man in front of the store and he wanted to pay it forward by buying her groceries. He insisted and paid for everything.

This, Ede writes, is the America I choose.

Where we craft lives of service toward each other with simple acts of grace and dignity. A meal and a warm coat. An acknowledgment of a kindness.

In the rumble of our differences there are all manner of similarities, all manner of commonalities. All we have to do is show up and pay attention. We only lose if we give up. 

This is the America I choose, not red or blue, but a rainbow of possibility.

As I look ahead to the patriotic commemorations of the coming week, this is the America I choose to celebrate, as well. To be sure, we have a lot of work to do to expose and magnify her goodness. One thing we know tov can never mean — whether in regards to our country, the ancient Israelite nation, or anyone — we know it can never mean perfect. 

“What is the difference between true and false prophets,” asks Toledot Yaakov Yosef, who considered Balaam to be a false prophet. “True prophets in most cases come to rebuke the people. They point out the blemishes and the deficiencies of the people and seek to have them mend their ways. False prophets tell the people how wonderful they are, and that there is nothing that needs to be rectified. True lovers of their people, though, are the true prophets.” Victor Frankel wrote: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

Well, in that case, I guess the good news is the stage is set and conditions are ripe. We have tension. We have striving and struggling. There are many ways in which we need to mend and repair our collective ways. This Fourth of July and throughout the coming weeks and months, may we create the harmony of “Hinei mah tov u-mah na’im…”. May we demonstrate the kindness and mutual care of “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov…”. And may the society, the country, we restore with true patriotism cause God to look down upon us and say once again of these United States of America: “V’hinei tov m’od.”

naytinalbert.blogspot.com, 1/22/13

Pantsuit Nation, Libby Chamberlain (editor), pp. 240-241 (adapted).

Unconscionable.

A prayer for our country.

1,995 minors seeking safety and asylum in this country were separated from their parents between April 19 and May 31 of this year, a period of 6 weeks — and 2 weeks have passed since then.

1,940 adults were separated from their children, in this country, during the same period.

Years ago, during a visit to Yad Vashem — not my first visit to Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, but my first as a parent — I stood utterly devastated in front of a small display of toys and cards with which children were sent on trains as part of the Kindertransport — these small mementos their only enduring connection to the safety and loving embrace of their families.

I put myself in the shoes of a parent and cried. How could one make the impossible choice of sending their child away? I imagined selecting a single toy to accompany my son, and just dissolved in tears. Then I put myself in the shoes of a child and cried. How could a young child even remotely grasp what was happening, the desperation of a parent who would make such a choice? Would they even be aware that a choice had been made?

Never, while I stood there, did it even occur to me to consider that the shoes I might someday wear would be those of a citizen in a country where the inhumane practice of forcibly separating parents and children — asylum-seeking refugees — would be the sanctioned law of the land. Like so many in our country tonight, I face this unconscionable reality… and I cry.

“Thoughts and prayers” don’t even come close to touching the desperate urgency of this moment. But this is the time in our service when we pray for our congregation, our community, and our nation — and this is the space to which we come to recalibrate our moral compass. And so we must pray:

On this Shabbat of Father’s Day Weekend — still feeling the echoes of Mother’s Day celebrations, as well — may the leaders of our nation speedily and clearly see the unequivocal error of their ways. Let the rising indignation of religious communities throughout our country crescendo into a singular, resolute voice declaring Your sacred command — the most repeated in Scripture — “Do not wrong a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Indeed, as long as children are being torn from their parents and parents left to anguish over the wellbeing of their children, it would seem we are all still in Egypt.

Having desperately lost our way, this Shabbat may we speedily find our way back to being a Promised Land.

And let us say: Amen.

 

Liberation.

KKBE Women’s Seder, Story Slam: “Liberation”

The microphone might as well be a sword, as petrified as I stand trembling before it. In my mind’s eye, its bulbous mass looms so large I can see every black mesh dimple and dent — yet not so large that it obscures the 250 expectant faces looking up at me from beyond. 250 faces constituting the most terrifying audience for a terrified teen: My peers.

How on earth did I get here??

Here is MoVFTY Spring Conclave (as we called such events then) for my NFTY regional youth group. Our temple is hosting, and I — a high school sophomore — am a co-chair for the event. Everyone is gathered in the basement of our synagogue, the temple youth lounge that, over the past year, has become my home away from home. I’m incredibly excited for the event, have been planning for it for months. There’s just one problem: I’ve never been to a regional conclave and have absolutely no idea what to expect.

How did I come to be co-chair then you ask? Well, it went something like this… The president of my youth group takes me aside during a Super Bowl Party, seconds left in the game, the losing team about to attempt what would be a winning field goal, and asks: “Hey, Stephanie, what do you think about co-chairing Spring Conclave?” And I respond — not with fact-gathering inquiries about the nature of a conclave or the responsibilities of a co-chair — but instead ask the all-important question: “If I say yes, will you let me go back to watch the game??”

And so here I am. But now that I’m here, there’s apparently a second problem: My president has matter-of-factly handed me the microphone and said: “We need to make announcements about the plan and schedule for the evening.” A simple enough task, for most people perhaps —but not for me. I’m terrified of public speaking. I can still vividly remember lip-syncing through my junior high choir performance, absolutely petrified that if I tried to eek out any sound, I would throw up all over my shoes.

But now everyone is staring at me; I can’t hide in a chorus. So I squeeze the microphone… ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”… take a deep breath… and start to talk.

And of course the worst things that I imagine happening, don’t happen… what does happen is even worse. When I squeak out the words, “I have some announcements to share,” everyone starts singing!… “Announcements, Announcements, Announcements! A, double-N, O, U, N, C, E, M, E, N, T S…”

I’m mortified. I’m humiliated. … But then I realize: “Hey — I’m not dead.” Even more importantly: “I didn’t throw up!” Yes, they’re singing — loudly, obnoxiously — and clearly I missed some important memo along the way — but they’re smiling and laughing… and the world didn’t end.

Eventually that interminable song does end. And, when it does, I hold the microphone a little more comfortably. And with a smile on my face, I start again. Liberated.

Stand Up Shabbat.

Parashat Bo

Passover may still be a ways off, but in this week’s Torah portion, we find a number of components from our Haggadah and the Passover story front and center. As we take the opportunity to reflect tonight — as dozens, if not hundreds, of congregations around Charleston and throughout the state of South Carolina are doing this weekend and next — on the prevalence of gun violence and our need to pass meaningful, commonsense legislation to curb it, these themes of Passover resonate deeply.

Locusts, darkness, death of the first born… This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, begins with the end of the ten plagues — the last three to be exact. The purpose of the plagues in the Exodus story was multifaceted — to demonstrate God’s power, to be sure, but toward what end? To amaze the Israelites, such that they would believe, they would have faith, they would put their trust in Adonai, come what may, having experienced all that God did to free them from Egypt. But, perhaps most importantly, the ten increasingly devastating signs of God’s power were designed to put fear into the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. For anyone in their right mind, we would imagine, would reach a point when, after so much senseless destruction, so much needless loss, they would say: Enough already! They would change, evolve, grow. And yet…

Eileen Soffer, National Coordinator of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, has written:

“With each plague, Pharaoh was frightened and promised to do the right thing – to free the Israelite slaves. But when [each] plague ended, he changed his mind, and with hardened heart, continued to enslave the people, to prolong their misery, and to profit from their suffering.

“With every mass shooting — in schools, military bases, movie theaters, city corners, even first grade classrooms and places of worship – Americans find themselves horrified, heartbroken and angry. They vow that something must be done to end the carnage and suffering. But with hardened hearts, the forces pushing back claim ‘it’s too soon;’ they fight against common sense measures that evidence shows can save lives and create safer communities while they continue to reap profits and maintain their power.

“And the plagues continue [remove a drop from the Kiddush cup for each one] …

1. Columbine
2. Virginia Tech
3. Fort Hood
4. Aurora
5. Tucson
6. Sandy Hook
7. Washington Navy Yard
8. UC Santa Barbara
9. Charleston
10. San Bernardino

“These mass shootings [just 10 of many] capture the headlines and rightly appall us, but account for less than 2 percent of annual gun deaths. It’s the shootings that don’t get much attention — the ones taking place in parking lots, bedrooms, and street corners across America — that are responsible for the vast majority of injuries and deaths from guns. With our eyes and hearts opened to the loss of life and the suffering caused by gun violence — whether it makes the headlines or not — may we be moved and motivated to raise our voices and act to help end this scourge plaguing our country.” [1]

It takes 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh, but the last one seals the deal — how could it not? The death of children, of Pharaoh’s own son. And yet… Are we, as a nation, really so stiff-necked and hard-hearted that even that which changed Pharaoh’s mind has had so little impact upon us? It has been 19 years since the shooting at Columbine High School. It has been 5 years since 20 students, six- and seven-year-olds, were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. Since 2013, there have been 279 school shootings in America — and we have done nothing. Nothing but make our children practice drills for the possibility of a lockdown situation and an active shooter. Instead of stepping up to pass legislation that might protect our kids, we’ve only made the anxiety and burden they have to bear that much greater.

This week’s Torah portion also contains the origins of the Four Questions and the Four Children — the wise child, the challenging child, the simple child, and the one who does not know how to ask a question. “Now we have a Fifth Child,” Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes. “Alongside the one who does not know how to ask, we must now include the one who can’t ask, not because she’s stuck in a Gulag or Gaza’s prison, but because he’s been killed, right here in America. This is the child whose inquisitive mind has been stilled forever by the magazines of a maniac’s assault rifle, or by the single bullet of a parent’s unlocked handgun, or at the hands of an abusive caregiver, or as result of incessant bullying and unremitting cruelty. If Egypt is a metaphor, then we are enslaved not to Pharaoh, but to our own prejudice and anger — and to our pervasive culture of violence.

“There are far too many Fifth Children out there — [nearly 1,300 in the United States every year] — and we’ve allowed that to happen. We have produced a society where child sacrifice is once again in vogue. …

“The children of Newtown need a voice. So do the four children of Shirley Chambers, the Chicago mother who lost all four of her children to gun violence.” [2] Perhaps one who was wise, one who was challenging, one who was simple, one who didn’t even know how to ask a question. They need our voice.

So let’s turn to the name of this week’s Torah portion: Parashat Bo Vayomer Adonai el-Moshe: Bo el-Par’oh. “God said to Moses: Go to Pharaoh.”

Torah portions typically derive their names from the first unique Hebrew word or words of their text. So the first parasha of the entire Torah is B’reishit — “In the beginning;” later in Genesis there’s Chayei Sarah — “The life of Sarah;” last week’s portion was Va’era — “I [God] appeared.”

By definition, the name of this week’s Torah portion is unique — no other Torah portion is called Bo. That’s the point in giving names to Torah portions — being able to distinguish one from another. But the word itself, the instruction to Moses to go to Pharaoh, is nothing new or unique at all. Instead Parashat Bo continues what has been happening in Torah for the past two weeks: Moses going and going and going again to Pharaoh until the latter relents to the Israelites’ demand, to God’s will. Parashat Bo begins with the eighth of ten plagues. So seven times before this, Moses was commanded by God to “Bo—Go to Pharaoh” and tell him to free the Israelites or suffer the consequences of blood, frogs, vermin, beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail. Several more times before that, Moses and his brother Aaron were commanded to “Go before Pharaoh,” to deliver the divine message with magical signs and warnings.

Yet it is precisely the repetition of the word Bo that makes it so powerful. Go, and go, and go again… There are times when giving up is simply not an option; when human dignity, safety and freedom demand we stay the course until those with the power to change prevailing circumstances relent to the people’s will. And sensible gun legislation that could have a meaningful impact on curbing gun violence is the people’s will. 84% of all South Carolinians want background checks on all gun sales — that’s 86% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans.

Two years ago this month, an organization founded to promote the passage of common sense laws to curb gun violence, created a concept they called Stand Up Sunday — or, for those of us whose day of worship is other than Sunday, Stand up Shabbat. The idea was powerful in its simplicity: Congregations from across the state of South Carolina would dedicate one weekend on their worship schedule to raise awareness about the dangers of gun violence; educate about common sense legislation that could positively impact the prevalence of violence — legislation that enjoys overwhelming support throughout the state of South Carolina; and ask their congregants to literally Stand Up and pledge their participation in a day of advocacy in Columbia later in the year.

We did this two years ago.
We did this last year.
And here we are again.

Our legislators’ minds have unfortunately not yet been changed; collectively they have failed to pass any piece of legislation that could have a positive impact on the public health crisis that is gun violence. So we must Bo — go, and go, and go again.

Bo — Go to the website of the Religious Action Center and send a letter to our U.S. Congressmen calling on them to reject the SHARE Act (H.R.3668) that would weaken an 80-year-old federal law that regulates the sale of gun silencers.

Bo — Contact our state legislators and urge them to stop the SC House bill (H.3240) that would provide concealed carry reciprocity and allow individuals to carry concealed firearms in our state without meeting the standards South Carolina has established for obtaining a permit.

Bo — Insist that our legislators stop the bills in both the SC House and Senate (S.449, H.3930) that would allow anyone to carry a gun with NO permit, NO training, NO vetting — open or concealed — in unprohibited areas like beaches, restaurants, parks, and stores. Read the bills online and see the strikes through lines and lines and lines of legislation — all the legislative work of decades ago that would be undone by these bills; far from a step forward, passing this legislation would be a giant leap back.

Bo — Join an organization like Arm in Arm: South Carolinians for Responsible Gun Ownership; Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; Rabbis Against Gun Violence — you don’t even have to be a rabbi! Join one of these organizations, or others, and get legislative alerts and updates when your voice can make a difference and your involvement can be instrumental.

Bo — Make a pledge, as I have, to continue to make this issue a priority, and insist that our elected officials do the same. As I’ve previously written:

When I go into the voting booth, I have one responsibility above all others: To protect my child and others from threats to their safety and wellbeing — not perceived threats, imagined threats, fabricated or trumped up threats — but real threats; the ones that keep me (and him) up at night.

So join me in making a pledge: If you are an incumbent (in national or state office) who introduced or voted for legislation that would make it easier to access, use, or carry deadly weapons, you will not get my vote.

If you are an incumbent (in national or state office) who failed to work to introduce or vote for sensible gun legislation, you will not get my vote.

If you are a candidate (for national or state office) and your website or the flyers in my mailbox show backing by the NRA or make mention of the Second Amendment, you will not get my vote.

And if there’s no one left to vote for — shame on all of us.

I mentioned earlier that — in addition to the plagues, the Four Children, and Moses’ advocacy before Pharaoh — the Four Questions have their basis in this week’s Torah portion, as well. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” How many times have we stopped in the wake of a terrible shooting and said: Something has to change? How many times have we assumed after this shooting, after this tragedy, surely something must be done? How many times have we preached about this topic from this very bimah? (This is our third Stand Up Shabbat, so at least three, at least.)

Let this night be different because of us. Let us turn conversation into doing and awareness into commitment and action. Let us see that there are concrete steps we can take to save lives and create safer homes and communities. Let our resolve for change be so strong that the hardened hearts of our legislators will have no choice but to move. We can gradually walk ourselves back from the brink. Common sense gun regulations can and will make a difference. Universal background checks would be a small step, but an effective one, and a step in the right direction.

This is how redemption happens. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. Never losing courage, never abandoning hope. [3] Asking ourselves always: If not now — then, by God, when?

And if you’re so inclined, I invite you to say: Amen.

 

[1] Rabbis Against Gun Violence: Passover Seder Supplement 2016, p. 7 (adapted).

[2] Interfaith Seder, Interfaith Council of SW Connecticut, 2013, p. 2.

[3] Based on Rabbis Against Gun Violence: Passover Seder Supplement 2016, pp. 4, 6.