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).

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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.

Hope.

Closing Charge and Prayer,
CAJM Team Assembly @ St. James Presbyterian Church

There is a rhythm to the annual CAJM calendar, marked by certain key events. And, for those of us who have been involved in this for a few years, we each have our favorites. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of house meetings, when we hear the deepest concerns of our friends and neighbors. Or the sense of focus at our Community Problems Assembly, when we determine the singular issue to which we will devote our attention and efforts over the coming year. Perhaps it’s the commitment of the Research Kick-off, when we realize how much there is to learn, but take heart in how many are willing to help shoulder the burden of doing so. Or the enthusiasm of the Rally, when we realize there is something concrete we can do as a community and that a roomful of people are excited and energetic to make it happen. Perhaps it’s the creative tension of the Nehemiah Action, when we realize that, uncomfortable though tension is, there is simply no other way to bring about meaningful change, so we sit with it, use it, bring it to the surface — so that the tension so many live with on a regular basis might, that night, become a productive tension for the betterment of our community. Or maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment of our Celebration, noting the milestones we have reached, the successes we have achieved, the power that, collectively, has become a tangible force in our community.

But for me — this, our gathering tonight, is my favorite night of the CAJM year. Yes, we have heard so many stories of disappointment in our community; the ways in which lack of leadership or policy or even just concern manifests itself in the lives of our brothers and sisters. It would be easy to become discouraged. And yet every year, when I leave this meeting, I always feel uplifted — because is there anything more hopeful that coming together in truth?

A patient goes to the doctor with an unknown ailment. He doesn’t know why he’s hurting, just that he is. And so he does his best to describe it to his doctor. He tells her his symptoms, catalogues his fears, does his best to be as thorough and precise as possible. The doctor take it all in and makes a diagnosis; gives a name to his symptoms, outlines a course of action. Is the patient cured when he leaves her office? Of course not. Is the doctor’s work done? Far from it. But in that place of mutual meeting, something profound happens. The patient feels relief simply from being heard and understood. And the doctor, too, I have to imagine feels a deep sense of meaning, as well — for why did she enter into this most difficult of professions if not to care for her fellow human being; and how can she do that unless he can first share his burdens and let her in?

Tonight we embrace the Power in the Universe we know as Hope —
It’s been a difficult year, and there are times when it’s felt that You, Hope, are distant, dimmed, diminished. But tonight, we are fortified by Your presence. You are present in those gathered here, and the commitment they have made to this year’s CAJM journey.
You are present in the papers that line the walls of the room, enumerating the most pressing issues revealed in our house meetings — an indication that we are really talking about what really matters. We feel You here tonight, and we carry You with us
into our congregations, our neighborhoods, next week’s voting booths.

As we leave here tonight, let Hope travel with us and may we use it to build the power
of our Community Problems Assembly. For, as we’re taught in my tradition: “It is not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” We’ve heard more tonight than we can possibly tackle in a single year. But we can do something. We can change something. And with truth, community, and hope — indeed, we can do a great deal.

So, with Hope in our hearts, let the journey to healing begin tonight! And let us say: Amen.

Journey.

A word of Torah.

“Adonai said to Avram: ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. Avram went forth as Adonai had commanded him, and Lot went with him.
Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons they had acquired in Haran. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Gen. 12:1-5, adapted)

Thus begins this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech-L’cha — an exploration of journey and change, calling and adventure. Indeed, Abraham (still Avram in this early Genesis portion) is often looked up to as a hero in this week’s Torah reading. How so? For his courage to venture out from his homeland, embark upon an unknown course, accept a bold and uncertain call. Yet if we exam the text a little more closely, is what Abraham does really so heroic?

Yes, leaving home is hard. Any of us who have had to do so — for college, or service, or even summer camp — know this to be true. For some more so than others. But Abraham is 75 years old when he’s asked to “go forth … from [his] father’s house.” I mean, it’s kind of time, right? And if our response is, well, that’s a lot of shlepping for a 75 year old… note he gets to take his nephew, Lot; two youthful hands to help him along the way. Not only that, he gets to take this journey with his wife. So it’s not like he’s leaving his family behind. His hometown? Yes. But Abraham’s father has died, his younger brother is no longer living, and his middle brother is married with a family of his own. Abraham even gets to take all of his wealth with him, including his many servants. Some might say: Married, without kids, in possession of a small (or perhaps not so small) fortune… it’s the perfect time for something new!

And not only that, but he’s not exactly doing this on a hunch either. This isn’t some random idea tossed out by one spouse to another over dinner and quickly hatched into a half-baked plan pursued on a whim. Abraham is doing this because God told him to. “Adonai spoke to Avram, saying: ‘Go forth.’” If anything, the courageous thing might have been not to go. I mean, can you imagine Abraham saying: “Yeah, God, I’m gonna have to turn that offer down — we’re good here. But so kind of you to think of us. Thanks!” Now that would have taken courage.

But perhaps I’m being too critical of our tradition’s treatment of Abraham. Because while he gets to take his family, has the reassurance of divine directive and protection, is encouraged by the promise of blessing, Abraham is missing one key piece of information — Where is he going?

“To the land that I will show you,” the text says.

God doesn’t send Abraham off with a GPS; there’s no blue line pointing him to a singular and specified destination. God doesn’t hand him a TripTik, with a highlighted path to get him from Point A to Point B. Abraham doesn’t even know what Point B is. All Abraham knows is this will be a journey, and only once he’s a ways in will God help to illuminate the path, give him perspective, paint the picture of where he’s been, how far he’s come, and where he might yet, with purpose and drive, still go.

Which is to say, that this week’s Torah portion isn’t so much about Abraham and his particular journey, as it is about life. For even when we know the place, do we really know where we’re going?

Seven and a half years ago, my family — Aaron, Eli, our adorable dog, and I — journeyed from the Midwest to Charleston, South Carolina. In many ways, it was as much a calling as Abraham’s — the term is even used in ministry. We were called to this amazing congregation, KKBE, with its rich history, vibrant present, and exciting future. We were called by the wonderful, warm people we met on each of our visits, and the opportunity to share our journeys together. We got a glimpse of what the move might hold for us, not much more, but much like Abraham we embarked upon the path anyway encouraged by the sense that it would be one of blessing.

It has been — beyond our greatest hopes and expectations. Who would have guessed that the move, preeminently driven by the job I was taking, would have opened so many doors in Aaron’s rabbinic career — more than he’s been able to enter. He’s now in his seventh year of service to Beth Israel Congregation in Florence, SC, and regularly teaches and officiates at funerals and weddings in and around the Charleston area. In just the past two weeks, he’s taught prophets to Jewish religious school students in Florence, and the basics of Judaism to adults in a church and sixth grade students in a school here in Charleston. He officiated at a wedding in town and a funeral in Georgetown. I don’t think we ever imagined that, in South Carolina, he’d keep so busy and be so fulfilled.

Who would have known that, coming to Charleston, our son would be so deeply influenced by the beauty and topography of the Lowcountry — a savant in all things marine biology, undoubtedly the future owner of a vehicle with a prominent bumper sticker declaring, “Gone fishin’.” What would his interests and passions be today if he didn’t drive over marshes, an eye out for dolphin, on his way to and from school each morning and afternoon? If the salt water at the beach, and the rarified air in our annual retreat to the mountains, weren’t a part of the rhythm of his year?

And even I, who had the most clues about what future life in Charleston might look like, could never have imagined the path it would take. Not particularly drawn, in previous communities, to interfaith study, much less community action, how could I have guessed that my involvement in the interfaith, and particularly the interracial Charleston community, would become as meaningful and important to me as my work within the congregation and larger Jewish community?

I think about the first time Aaron went to Florence, the first time we took Eli to the beach, the first time I sat down with a small group of interfaith clergy… Never would I have known — nor could I have — that each of those moments would begin new chapters in our lives, new chapters in the book that might ultimately reveal what this journey to Charleston was really all about. But that’s the thing about firsts: They aren’t firsts when they happen. In the very beginning of the Torah, after God creates heaven and earth, light and darkness, it doesn’t say: “There was evening and there was morning, a first day.” It says: “There was evening and there was morning, one day.” Only after there was a second day, a third day, a fourth day, would God be able to look back and realize where it had all begun — the first day. Until then, there was just a step. A decision. A journey.

“Adonai said to Avram: ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Lech L’cha is often read as a call to make bold first steps. And maybe some of us are at a point in our lives when that’s what we need to do, or we face the possibility that we may yet still. But, for me, Lech L’cha is an acknowledgement that most of us probably already have taken first steps — the question is, have we taken the time to look back, to reflect, to realize how or when we did so? Have we asked God to show us — to illuminate the path, give us perspective, paint a picture of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and then where we might yet, with purpose and drive, still go?

I’m drawn to the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who once saw a man running in the market place. “Why do you hurry so?” asked the Chasidic master. “I am pursuing my livelihood,” the man replied. “Well, how do you know that your livelihood lies before you?” asked Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. “Maybe it lies behind you and rather than running after it, you’re running away.”

By all means, if great courage and resolve are required of us, and we need to take first steps — to answer the call of L’cha L’cha and “Go forth” into the unknown — then may this Shabbat find us bold and resolute, fortified for the journey, excited for its prospects. But, on this Shabbat of Lech L’cha, may we each also be granted with vision and insight to see the great distance we’ve already traveled, and appreciate it. For life, from its first moments to its very end, is a journey. As we continue down its path, may we be granted the wisdom and awareness to make it journey of blessing. Amen.

Ya’aleh v’Yavo

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Once upon a time, 1987 to be exact, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi had been invited to a New York seminary to teach a session on prayer and spirituality. But on the way up to the classroom on the second floor, Reb Zalman and the dean who had invited him to speak got stuck in the elevator. When they tried the Emergency Call button, they were told a maintenance person wouldn’t be able to come for hours. “I’m so sorry,” the dean said to Reb Zalman. “Perhaps you have an idea?” Reb Zalman looked up and, in his resonant voice, said: “Ya’aleh v’yavo!” – a reference to liturgy meaning may our prayers rise up and incur God’s favor. The echo of Reb Zalman’s booming voice had hardly finished reverberating when the elevator began to move! Moaning and groaning, it managed to make it to the second floor. Reb Zalman was able to teach his session, beginning with living proof of its lesson: the power of heartfelt prayer to bring help in any situation.[1]

Friends, Yom Kippur is the time for confession, and I have a confession to make. In the past year, chatati, I have sinned: I turned away from prayer. In fact, there were times in 5777 when I all but gave up on it. Not all kinds of prayer, mind you. Prayers of gratitude? No problem. Prayers of awe and amazement? I was moved to offer those, as well. But words of supplication – asking for things, praying for divine intervention and involvement – this is where I went astray. Which is to say, had it been this rabbi stuck in a rickety elevator – we may very well still be stuck there today.

I don’t know precisely when petitionary prayer and I began to separate. But I know when I first realized we had. It was right before a CAJM meeting, when members of our justice ministry were standing outside City Hall, about to meet with the mayor. I was still co-President at the time, and my fellow co-President and friend, Rev. Charles Heyward, was gathering a group together who would stand outside praying for the success of our meeting. And the whole thing suddenly struck me as absurd. Either the mayor would be moved by our conversation or he wouldn’t. What did prayer, much less prayer taking place outside the room where it happened, have to do with it? I was convinced we’d look ridiculous.

And so I pushed back – and that’s when it happened. I had this sort of out-of-body experience and heard a rabbi (who couldn’t possibly be me) tell a minister on the steps of City Hall: “There’s no point to praying and we shouldn’t be doing it.” A far cry from Reb Zalman in the elevator. As I said: Chatati, I have sinned. And I’ve been wrestling with why ever since.

It’s not that I haven’t seen prayer work. I’ve been blessed to be part of many awesome, holy, powerful prayer moments with several of you. I’ve felt the change in a hospital room as words of prayer brought, if not healing exactly, tangible relief to inscrutable pain. I’ve held hands with those who were dying and watched their features relax as we sang songs for peace. I’ve witnessed the fact that words of prayer truly can release someone who desperately seeks release, whether from anger, anxiety, or guilt.

Yet I can also identify specific moments that have pushed me away. Perhaps you’ve felt them, too. When politicians and leaders of all kinds asked us, time and time and time again, to pray for victims, pray for their families – and then did nothing else of consequence to help or protect against another tragedy in the future. When offering invocations at community events or prayers at meetings, and not a single item addressed on the ensuing agenda – nor, often, the way in which it was addressed – fulfilled the goals I had been asked to outline in prayer.

But there’s more to it than that. Sometimes I think I’m afraid of what we might look like to God when we pray. How chutzpadik to turn to God for a solution when we surely haven’t done everything we can to try and address the situation ourselves. In these moments, I still remember the disappointment of my first grade teacher when instead of trying to sound out the spelling of a word myself, as she had asked me to do, I snuck out to ask the school librarian how to spell it for me instead. I don’t want God to find me guilty of taking shortcuts, at best; of hypocrisy, if my actions don’t match my words, at worst.

Then there’s guilt. I like to think I’m a reasonably informed person. I have at least a small sense of the greater problems and suffering in the world – and I know that many are far more devastating than my own. Like the congregant who hesitated to put her name on the Mi Shebeirach list, saying: “Rabbi, there are so many people who need prayers far more than I do” (as if prayer were a finite resource), I too worry about seeming insensitive, naïve, self-absorbed in God’s expansive sight.

Still other times, I think I’m afraid of what God might look like to us – if our prayers are answered, or if they’re not. As we all braced for Hurricane Irma a few weeks ago, and the storm changed course a bit to the west, I read a post from someone who wrote that she had been “davening” for it to do so, to miss loved ones who had been in harm’s way – and was so relieved it had worked. As I read this, I found myself growing tense. So God controls hurricanes?, I thought. Had to be reminded that those for whom it was headed would suffer? What about the other communities where it’s new path took it? God didn’t care about them? Or they just didn’t pray? Or not hard enough?

All of these feelings intersect and I find myself concluding: Best not to pray at all. Let me do what I can do in more concrete action, and God will do God’s thing, as well. What does God need to hear from me anyway?

But then, as we approached the High Holy Days, I read this story.[2]

Rabbi Goldie Milgram was driving through a dicey neighborhood. She’d been on the road for five hours and hadn’t yet stopped to eat. So she pulled into the parking lot of a small Jamaican restaurant. Inside, the take-out line was short, but growing. Only one customer sat at the old diner-style tables; a large, powerful-looking man in a red T-shirt with tall white letters that read: “Did I give you permission to talk? Shut the ___ up!”

“Where the %@# is my refill?!” he bellowed, and the counterwoman brought him his bowl of soup. “Reggie, it’s so nice to see you again,” she said softly. “Let me know should you want anything more.” Reggie responded kindly, “Thanks, Alinda, thanks.” Alinda returned to the counter and everyone’s shoulders relaxed at Reggie’s polite response.

Orders were taken and the eat-in tables filled quickly. Alinda hustled as best she could. Twenty minutes later, Rabbi Milgram was debating leaving without her food when, “suddenly, from behind,” she writes, “I feel a light shove.”

*****

It’s Reggie, pushing past all of us, holding up a ten-dollar bill. Instead of handing it over, he balls the bill up in his hand, lifts his thick, muscular arms on high, and then smashes both fists down on the counter. “I am so worn out, defeated, and lost,” he declares. “I would rather be dead.”

Everyone backs up about three paces. The fellow to my right fingers what might well be a gun tucked into his waistband. Big Reggie looks at me and, with head slightly lowered, eyes fixed on mine, says: “Sister, did you hear me?! I’d rather be dead, girl, dead.”

Considering the situation, the many church store-fronts in the neighborhood, and the fact that he’s addressing me directly, I respond softly: “Have you… asked God to help you?”

Reggie glares. “I’m so tired of that crap… (pause). I’ve been a Christian all my life, and it’s all completely useless.”

So much for my projections. I note the chef’s hands are now under the counter and wonder if he’s surreptitiously reaching for an alarm. I respond as I would to any congregant: “You’re suffering and lost, worn out and defeated. You feel betrayed by God.”

“All that prayin’ and believin’… and nothin’ comin’ of it,” he says.

We sit down at a table that just opened up. No one argues that it’s really their turn.

“Reggie, what happened that’s got you so low?” I ask, as kindly as I can.

Reggie places his warm, thick hand over my small fingers, and I consciously bid my hands not to tense up. “Thing is, lady,” he shares, in a quieter voice, “I’m a simple man, and I lost my job twice this year to companies downsizing. You tell me ‘pick that heavy thing up,’ I can do that. You tell me, ‘put it over there,’ I can do that. But you want me to figure a good or right place to put down what you told me to pick up? I can’t do that. I need a job, a simple job. I bartered my good old Pontiac car this week for money to live. If I miss my next rent payment, I live on the street. God don’t deliver. God don’t care.”

Just when we’re getting somewhere, the chef calls out my order: “Goldie, curried fish and plantains!”

I rise reflexively, but Reggie lifts his index finger in the language of “hang on a sec” to the man at the counter. I return to Reggie: “You’re a simple man, and you want a simple job, and God does not provide.”

He looks into my eyes the way you know you’ve got a friend for life and asks: “Are you some kind of Christian?”

“Actually,” I reply softly, “I’m a rabbi.”

“A rabbi?! No way.” He looks around as though expecting a surprise TV crew to pop out. Then Reggie takes both my hands in his and passionately pleads: “Rabbi, what am I gonna to do? I’m scared. It’s too tough now out there to make it. I know lotsa folk got no job. I’m two minutes from sleeping on the street. What am I going to do?”

Indeed, that is the 30 billion dollar question. So I do the only thing left inside. In a strong, firm voice everyone in the shop can hear, I pray: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.”

Folks turn and stare at me. I’m aware of their surprised, but not frightened, faces. I’m aware of feeling angry – at God, at government, of a glowering impotence that just isn’t acceptable. The prayer, my clear petition, pours out again, louder: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.” The restaurant is completely silent; even the two children in the place fold their hands in prayer.

The chef clears his throat. “Ma’am, your order’s getting cold. $11.50, please.” Reggie lets go of my hands in an incredibly tender way, his huge brown eyes brimming with tears that don’t fall.

As I shift to my purse, trying to focus on securing $11.50, the chef’s voice turns thoughtful: “One more thing. Reggie. You can work for me. I’ve got a bad back these days. You pick it up; I’ll tell you where to put it. Every morning be outside at 7 am for deliveries. You can also push a broom and bus tables; Alinda can’t cope since Orly quit yesterday. You can work a full day. Free meals, minimum wage. But – and it’s a big but – you have to keep it together, stay on your meds, and treat folk respectfully.” He tosses a sky blue shirt with the restaurant’s name and logo on it to Reggie. “Get rid of that darn T’shirt for starters,” he says.

*****

It’s a beautiful story and, by all accounts, true. But, See!, my inner prayer critic responds. God doesn’t answer the prayer; the chef does! Yet even as I say it, I realize the gaping hole in my logic. Since when can’t God use instruments?

I imagine we’ve all heard the story of a man whose house is being flooded. As the waters rise, someone drives by in a truck and offers him a ride to escape. “God will provide,” he declares, and declines. As the waters rise higher, he stands on his porch. A man paddles down the street in a boat and offers him a ride. Once again he declines, declaring, “God will provide.” When the waters inundate his house, he climbs to his roof. A helicopter comes and lowers a basket for his rescue. “God will provide,” he still declares, and yet again declines. Eventually the water overwhelms his property and he dies. When he gets to the pearly gates and meets God, the man is incensed. “God, I’ve been a man of faith my whole life,” he says. “How could you not provide for me in my hour of need?” But God was angry, too. “Not provide? I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you need?”

God might use any instrument as a response to prayer, not least of which are you and me – our hands, our hearts, our minds, our mouths. Perhaps our very act of prayer is God’s instrument itself.

So, as we make our way into this New Year, let’s not be afraid to open our lips and give voice to our strongest desires, our deepest anxieties, our greatest needs. On this holiest day of the year, let’s not be afraid to just put it out there. Maybe something like this…

Holy One of Blessing, these people need a break – a break from the roller coaster that was 5777. There’s just been so much.

God, enough with the super-storms. Perhaps You can’t alter the course of a hurricane any more than You could the path of the sun or stars, but enough is enough already. Help us find the determination to do what we can, not just to prepare for storms, but to live in such a way that we might reverse the global changes our careless living have brought, and keep the storms from happening in the first place.

And God, we need strength in the face of illness. Strokes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer… We need cures. Help medical professionals and researchers build on the discoveries of the past year and unlock even more understanding and answers that can bring healing, life, and hope. And, by all means, where medicine and treatment do exist, help us ensure that everyone has easy and affordable access to the care they need.

God, this one is really important. We need our leaders – of all stripes and at all levels – to think before they speak. And not to tweet. Not. At. All. Give our leaders the courage and compassion to put our most important priorities – peace, health, equality, education – above the distractions of any given day. May they listen before they talk, consult before they threaten, and practice restraint in everything except the pursuit of justice.

Holy One of Blessing, there is so very much more. Each person in this sanctuary has their own personal needs and challenges. There are finances to be restored, relationships to be repaired, broken hearts and broken dreams to be mended. And the New Year will bring its own share of difficult decisions; who knows what new challenges await. So, perhaps, above all else we need this: We need You to help us keep talking, God. Don’t let us turn away from prayer. Help us to know You’re there, like the confidante and friend to whom we unburden ourselves without expectation or guilt; the simple act of opening up helping us feel both stronger and lighter.

And, if it’s not too much to ask, O God – where it feels fitting to do so – give us each the chance to be the answer to another’s prayer. That might be the greatest blessing of all.

Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha – May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable prayers. Ya’aleh v’yavo – May they rise up to You.

 

[1] Adapted from “The Elevator that Wouldn’t Go,” Shohama Harris Wiener, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.

[2] Adapted from “The God of Curried Fish,” Goldie Milgram, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.