Saturday, August 7, 2021

Equality and Wealth--What Moses Teaches Us

I delivered this as the d'var Torah (sermon) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on August 7, 2021.


All of us face moments when we very consciously are at the intersection of before and after, of past and future. It may be as we plan out a career change. As we leap into parenthood. As we leave a home where we’ve built a life, to start a new stage in our journey. Or as we end a period of drifting and begin to build a settled life.

That last type of transition is the intersection of past and future at which the Israelites find themselves before crossing the Jordan, and in Parasha Re’eh Moses helps them to establish clear distinctions between the two. At the same time, he draws some threads between them, so we have forever remained bound up with yet separate from our time as wanderers in the desert.

If the Israelites don’t know they are at this at this crossroads—or more accurately cross-river—Moses is going to make sure they figure it out.

As soon as they enter the land, he tells them, they must reaffirm the covenant in a ceremony that will be described when we get to Parasha Ki Tavo in a few weeks. This points to just how transformative it will be to cross the Jordan, that it requires a sort of reboot of our covenant with God.

Then they must destroy any site of worship or sacrifice that will not be the central one. This seems like it would be connected to ensuring there is no vestige of Paganism. But that doesn’t seem to be to be the whole story. Because it’s not only about destroying the prior sites. They also cannot establish any such site anew. There is only one, and it is fixed. Wandering in the desert, the place of God’s presence was, like the entire community, a roving site. But now connection with God, where God inhabits and can be worshipped, is rooted firmly in place. This is so critical, that the people are given permission to slaughter and eat meat where they live, so long as it is not a sacrificial slaughter, so the urge for meat can be satisfied without worrying about creating sacrificial sites that are conveniently close to home.  With the settlement of the people comes the settlement of God in their midst, and by laying it out Moses clearly signals a new phase, the passage from past to future.

I find especially interesting the advice Moses gives on discerning true prophecy from false. Those giving “a sign or a portent” should not be heeded. Instead we must listen to the message –“God’s commandments alone”—and know the difference. We must not be distracted from the substance of God’s word by what appear as wonders. Yet God provided Moses with the ability to perform signs and wonders in order to be believed, in the desert we know God’s presence through visual wonders—a pilar of cloud and fire. So again, the Israelites understand that their world is about to change, and they must change with it. They must live by the firm and fast words of the commandments and no longer be distracted by the types of bells and whistles that until now pulled their attention where it needed to go—but now would only serve to lead them astray.

So what are they learning about this imminent future?

It’s a different life—so different, the covenant needs affirmation there. The change will be so jarring, that they’ll need this ceremonial reminder, this reassertion.

It’s a fixed kind of life—so fixed, that even sacrificial worship, even God’s inhabitance, has one and only one place. No urge to connect with God, wherever one may be,  can warrant sacrifice elsewhere.

It’s a serious kind of life, one that requires substantive discernment to overcome the lure and distraction of visual enticements.

As Moses says, it’s a disciplined life, where “[y]ou shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases.” In return for the land and the security it affords, we have to change. And with that security, we have the wherewithal to change. The insecurities and physical challenges of wandering without a stable home or homeland, with only a memory of slavery behind us, has not left a lot of time, energy or focus for the level of discipline and clarity that Moses is describing.

There’s another big change, which also derives from entering a more secure and stable life. As Rabbi Shai Held puts it in The Heart of Torah, this is a point of “transform[ing] Israel into a community of mutual care and concern.” In this parashah we are told to tithe to sustain the Levites, the strangers, the orphans and the widows; to forgive debts; to “open your hand” to the needy so they will have what they require; to free slaves and when doing so to give them the sustaining assets they need to forge an independent life.

It’s interesting that just before telling the Israelites to care for the needy, Moses says “There shall be no needy among you.” This may seem like a contradiction.

But I believe that it is at the heart of these commandments to care for those in need. It’s a statement of our fundamental equality. Some may need financial help, but we are equally endowed as members of society, and what we do to redistribute wealth more equitably is simply in the service of that basic equality. As Rabbi Held puts it, “The Torah exhorts Israel to remember that socioeconomic status tells us nothing at all about the real worth of people.” Quoting biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, he adds “…economic realities are not definitional; rather what is definitional is a common memory of the Exodus; a common blessing in the land; and a common allegiance to the God of Exodus and the land.”

We cannot simply avoid oppressing. We must actively seek to help, taking part with intention in equalizing the stability and security that is endowed to us as we cross the Jordan. If we don’t help the poor, in fact, they should cry out and God will find our lack of generosity beyond toleration—we will be punished. Economic viability is in the service of community viability, and that healthy social fabric is contingent on the economic health of each and every individual.

After Moses lays down these and many other rules for the land and life to come, he moves on the pilgrimage festivals. The Passover sacrifice followed by seven days eating unleavened bread; seven weeks later, to mark the end of the harvest, the Feast of Weeks; and then once the produce is processed, the Feast of Booths.

We have just been lectured on the strikingly different life we must lead in this future, and now we are told to observe festivals that will interweave that future with the past we are leaving.

Passover connects us to our departure from Egypt as we struck out to be desert wanderers. The harvest pull us forward again to a life rooted in a fixed agricultural society. And then Sukkot returns us to our uprooted existence in impermanent structures.

Why should the parashah end this way?

We cannot advance our future without knowing where we are from. Remember Brueggemann’s observation that “what is definitional is a common memory of the Exodus; a common blessing in the land; and a common allegiance to the God of Exodus and the land.”

There is no severing those connections. As sharply different as a future stage in life may be, we build it on and in reaction to the experiences of our past. When Moses tells us to free our slaves, he reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt. By nestling the celebration of the harvest—the quintessential bounty of wealth and security in a settled land—between the experiences of the exodus and our nomadic wandering, we remember where we came from and the hardships we endured on the way to crossing the Jordan. And in remembering that, perhaps we can remember to do our part in equalizing our wealth and security, and thus strengthening the social fabric for all.

 

 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Poetry

Adapted from the d'var Torah (words of Torah, or sermon) that I delivered at the virtual service of Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on Saturday, September 12, 2020

From today’s double portion of Torah readings, I want to focus on just two statements, one from Nitzavim and the other from Va-yeilekh.  

We’ll start by looking at a very short phrase from Deuteronomy 31:19. The Etz Hayim humash (book of Torah and commentary)—on page 1177—translates it as “Therefore, write down this poem and teach  it to the people of Israel….” In the Hertz humash—page 888 of my 1956 edition—the translation reads “Now therefore write thee this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel….”

In notes from a Torah class I took some years ago, I’ve jotted in the margin of my Etz Hayim that it is better translated as “You will write for yourself this poem,” which is closer to the Hertz. And Rabbi David Finkelstein of Temple Beth Israel (Waltham, MA) further clarified for me both the imperative and the plural in the Hebrew, yielding:  “Write for yourselves this poem.”

As we hone in on the language, we can begin to understand. But first, what is this poem?

Though a poem does follow, when we get to Parashat (Torah portion) Ha-azinu, that merely is a snapshot—a representation—of the entire poem that is the Sefer Torah. The poem that we are commanded  to write for ourselves is the Torah in its entirety.

Now let’s go back a little in the text, to Deuteronomy 30: 11-14. In Etz Hayim, at the bottom of page 1170, it translates to: “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

What is “this Instruction?” The Hebrew is  “ha-mitvah hazot,” translated in Hertz as “this Commandment,” and the 13th century rabbi and Biblical commentator Nachmanides says that it refers to the specific commandment of teshuvah, or return to God, that is referenced in the prior sentence. However the medieval rabbi and commentator Rashi, as well as the prevailing wisdom of the Talmudic Sages, teach us that it refers to the whole of the Torah.

The Torah is a complex text, filled with human stories from which we discern how to act…and how not to act, the establishment of a judicial system, the imparting of laws, the recounting of lineages, humor, tragedy…we can go on and on. We read it throughout the year, every year, we discuss and debate it, we build midrash (interpretation) on it, because we never can conclude our learning of and from it.

Yet this is the text, the Instruction, the great Poem that we should not find baffling. As elusive as the meaning may sometimes seem, in fact it is within our reach. It is so accessible that we can—and must—write this Poem for ourselves. How is this possible?

I suggest that it is so accessible because its very complexity offers us so many routes into Torah. I mentioned earlier, when looking at the phrase “Write for yourselves this poem,” that the precise language offers insight.

The word “poem” suggests that we are speaking of Torah as a form that embodies imagination, powerful imagery and emotion, allowing for individualized experiences in accessing this force of literature. And we have the requirement of us in the plural: “yourselves.”

Each of us experiences Torah in our own way. The poetry reaches us each differently. Because of this individual experience, we find Torah within our reach. And because we find it in within our reach, we can author our own poetry of Torah—in the way we live our personal Torah.  When each of us does this, then collectively we “write for [our]selves this poem.”

For this to work—for our collective living of Torah to form the poem—we must give each other ample opportunity to carry out our individual expressions of it. We must accept, embrace and enable these differences of Torah expression.

I expect that, for most of us, how we most fundamentally live Torah is influenced of our formative experiences. I’ll use myself as an example. The Torah of justice is my legacy. It is described simply and concisely in Day 59 of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s daily guide, “The Book of Jewish Values,” where he writes that the character of Moses in the Torah teaches: “First, you should stand up when you see an injustice being committed. Second, you should involve yourself in fighting injustice, whether it is a fellow Jew who is being hurt…or whether it is non-Jews who are being oppressed.” It’s easy to see from my history why this is my Torah.  When my mother died in 1973, my father wrote of her: “Zelda believed in loving, in joy and in freedom. …[S]he grieved that those basic conditions of a good life were not available to all human beings, and she worked hard that they should be. …[S]he was religious in her dedication to the Jewish values of equality and social justice.” I watched her live out this Torah, for example, in her work for prisoners’ rights. And well before my memory, she researched and wrote a book for the Legal Division of The National Mental Health Foundation with the purpose of protecting the civil liberties and rights of people with mental illness.

Eleven years later, upon the death of my Grandma Sadie—Zelda’s mother—my father again described this legacy, writing of Sadie: “Her deep-felt, well articulated concerns for social justice, for the poor, for blacks, for those who couldn’t make it on their own, never flagged. …She was one with Jewish values and with the Jewish people….”

Then there is Toni, who stepped into the role of mother to me when I was 15. The year she retired from legal practice at Foley Hoag, the firm dedicated the annual report of its Foundation to her because, as it stated, “With a clear vision of the law as central to the social, economic and political structure in which we live and work, Toni took on some of the most pressing issues facing our society, particularly those involving minorities, women or the economically disadvantaged.” The connection between her Jewish identify and her pursuit of justice always has been clear to me, and it is no surprise that one of the organizations for which she volunteered in leadership was the Jewish Women’s Archive.

And finally, my father. President of the Philadelphia Chapter and member of the National Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union. Vice Chair of the International Legal Education Section of the World Peace Through Law Center. One of thirteen Harvard Law faculty—in 1965 when he was a visiting professor before coming permanently eleven years later—signing a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson protesting police action against the demonstrators in Selma, Alabama and urging federal intervention. As we can tell from how he wrote of his wife and mother-in-law, his own actions were rooted in his Torah, learned from his childhood—for example seeing first-hand the profoundly and sometimes tragic inequitable impact among his sphere of friends of the poverty of the Great Depression, and having a father—my Grandpa Nat—deeply committed to his career in public service as the Chief Clerk of Philadelphia’s City Council. 

The point is simply this: my Torah is the Torah of justice. It is my heritage; it is my legacy. It is the way in which the fundamental poetry of Judaism sings for me.

For others, the poetry sits elsewhere. It is easy for me to connect and collaborate with others for whom justice work is central, but to ensure we write for ourselves this poem, our work also—as I noted earlier—is to accept, embrace and enable those for whom the poetry of Torah reads differently.  What might this look like? For me, it’s being present for prayer. I wasn’t raised to be a regular at services, and though there are elements that I enjoy it is not the setting in which I feel readily inspired or spiritually connected. But for others, prayer is their Torah. So to support them in writing their portion of the poem, I show up to be counted in minyan. I run the technology on many Shabbat mornings at my synagogue. I ensure that within the synagogue—virtual as it is now, or physical—there is a space for their Torah.

My hope is that each of us can have such a space within our synagogue. A space for the Torah of prayer. A space for the Torah of learning. A space for the Torah of supporting mourners, of visiting the sick.  A space for the Torah of hearing the Shofar blast. A space for the Torah of nature’s bounty. A space for the Torah of resistance.* A space for so much Torah—including the Torah of justice. In this way, collectively, we “write for [o]urselves this poem,” and perhaps in that writing we share and learn from the personal stories that make our Torah so poignant and urgent for us.

This also is how Torah becomes accessible—not baffling, in the heavens, or beyond the sea, but “close to [us], in [our] heart.” It’s within reach because each of us grabs the piece that sings for us as poetry, each of us brings that stanza of Torah to life within our community, each of us enters the covenant, each of us welcomes and encourages and aids the other in our expression of Torah whether it is familiar or uncomfortable to us, and together we make Torah whole and tangible. 

 *Thank you to Penina Weinberg for her inspiration to add “the Torah of resistance” to this paragraph.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Unearned Freedom

Rounding a curve during a lunchtime walk, 

a woman drove by,

slowed, 

a double-take, focusing her gaze to my left upper thigh.

I looked down to my hand swinging there, holding my cell phone, 

and realized the sun was reflecting off of the device

catching her attention. 

In the short time it took me to notice, she’d driven on.


While I walked, I thought 

about that momentary alert on the woman’s face, and what it might have meant 

were my skin a different color or my hair a different texture. 

My body not within her norms.

If I didn’t present as a cisgendered white person. 


Would the appearance of metal shimmering in my hand, 

catching attention, 

have turned her alert to further reaction? 

Would she have assumed a weapon? 

Called the police? 

Cornered me with her car? 

Possibly not. But quite possibly. 

That uncertainty, that possibility.


Because of who I am, and who I am not, 

I don’t head out for my walk fearing. 

I don’t think 

to take the precaution 

to keep my cell phone—any object—

out of my palm. 

My unearned freedom, everyone’s right though

denied, to feel safe in one’s body.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Guilty

My nephew was arrested today. He was freed this evening. He is a member of the press who was covering a small, peaceful protest in Philadelphia. He showed his press credentials yet was detained, as were the protesters. The police confiscated all of the detainees' masks, denying the protection they were responsible enough to wear against community spread of COVID-19.

Earlier today, a friend who is about my nephew's age commented to me that older people now have a chance to redeem themselves for ignoring or resisting the civil rights movements of their time. But I told him that's not what needs redemption.

Far worse is that we assumed the civil rights movements before us could be ignored—as though finished—as we pursued the ones of our time. And so women like myself, who benefited from the work our mothers did, still left a world of inequality and the insidiousness of resentment and fear for our daughters to face. We left a world of inequality and the insidiousness of resentment and fear for people of color to face. We congratulated ourselves for DOMA and moved on to protest for immigrants' rights while leaving a world of inequality and the insidiousness of hate and fear for everyone not gendered in a way society labels as normative.

We have to stop thinking that a civil rights movement is of a time. Civil rights activism, across the board, is for all time.

I am watching on the news lengthy coverage of the looting that is occurring in the vicinity and on the tail of an earlier, peaceful protest in Boston. They are barely remarking on the protest itself. And most critically and awfully they are not mentioning the violence against black people in our country that is spurring protest.

Peaceful protesters are arrested. Members of the press are arrested. People are being killed for being black. And we all are guilty of letting us get to this point.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Taking on the Mantle of the Priest

I deliverd this as the d'var Torah (sermon, or literally "words of Torah") on Saturday, April 25, 2020 at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA.

Imagine living a world where—in fear of a poorly understood illness that presents in varying ways—people are forced to isolate from society and even stay away from their place of worship, the center of their community. Imagine that we are unsure of how the illness might live on and spread from surfaces, so we worry about keeping our homes and clothing sanitary. What would this be like, if it were hard to pin down how long we should isolate, or to understand the implications of various complications? And what would we do if it began to impact our financial security?
In the past, when reading Tazria and Metzora—today’s double portion that describes how to deal with  skin disease and other states of impurity—this all seemed like an anachronistic concept that we could barely imagine. Now, it seems more familiar…yet still so strange. Many of us talk about what we’ve been experiencing over the last months as something out of science fiction, or a crazy world from which we will eventually return to normal.
But it’s real. And those in the public health arena, particularly those who subscribe to the concept of One Health, have not been surprised. They have expected a pandemic. One Health describes the collective health of people, animals, and the environment in which they live, and in particular the effect that each of these has on the health of the others. Through that lens, we see that our impact on the planet as a whole, and on all of its components, directly affects human health. And as we practice a global economy—yet often isolate politically—we intensify shared threats while building barriers to joint solutions. When we place conveniences of modern society and commerce over the health of our planet—rather than finding ways to live, conduct business,  and govern in balance—we put ourselves in jeopardy. I say this neither as a political stance nor as an accusation, but as a statement of recognition. We all bear responsibility—such as the decision Brad and I made to experience and celebrate the great human, animal and plant diversity of the world when we spent last November traveling Australia and New Zealand, yet we actively supported the harmful impact of the carbon footprint as we took more than twelve airplane trips over the course of those 3-1/2 weeks.
During our virtual Shabbat dinner last night, our daughter talked about conversations she’s held with recent alumni of the Master of Public Health program in which she works; they all tell her that, because of their One Health education, they knew that this—the seemingly science fiction world in which we’re living—was scientifically very likely.
The day-to-day impact of Covid-19 will end. The key difference between the Biblical story and our own is the advent of science. There will be treatments, and there will be a vaccine. But for now, we live with something that feels oddly similar to the world described by Tazria and Metzora. So what can we learn from that world?
Rabbi Shai Held, in The Heart of Torah, reminds us that Leviticus seeks to create order by setting clear boundaries. The examples of impurity that arise in in Tazria occur where the boundaries are blurred. This creates not a moral ambiguity but a ritual one. In the example of childbirth, which is the first subject of the parashah, new life emerges in a process that puts the mother’s life at risk and requires great loss of blood—the life force. This blurring of the most critical of boundaries, the one between life and death, yields a state of ritual impurity that needs to be repaired. Clearly morality is not in question—the Torah encourages procreation—so impurity is in no way a moral issue.
Rabbi Held argues that Metzora—the skin disease—is described as similar to decomposition,  placing the afflicted firmly in that blurred state between life and death. It is no wonder that it signals impurity. This state of impurity suddenly moves us away from a Torah that preaches visiting the sick—bikkur holim—to one that forces their isolation.
And this is exactly where we are today. We want to visit our sick, to sit shiva with mourners, to celebrate a b’ris or a baby naming—but doing so blurs the lines between life and death—it places the rituals of living our lives together directly in the path of the disease.
But something else is happening in the parashah. At every turn, we not only are enforcing isolation, but also considering how to mitigate the hardships and how to return to community.
Isolation is not intended as punishment, much as it may feel punishing. As in our situation, it is part of a process intended to allow for assessment, cure and reintegration. Though not always successful, the priest repeatedly examines the afflicted person with the hope of declaring their purity and returning them to society. In fact, it is so important to effect reintegration, that upon learning of a person’s healing the priest must at that moment leave the camp to conduct the lengthy purification process.
The ritual includes specified offerings, yet with more affordable options for those who are poor. Everyone, regardless of means, deserves healing and community. In fact, little could be more equalizing that the experiences of isolation and return.
The text then turns to a similar plague in the stones of a building—likely a mold or fungus, but in the context clearly associated in some way with the skin affliction. Both are seen as an eruption that causes impurity. Just as we now are weighing the human cost of Covid-19 against the economic hardships of its containment, the Torah seeks to mitigate the impact of a plague while protecting a family’s personal economy. Given that nothing is impure until the priest declares it to be, he has the house emptied of possessions before he examines it. Thus, if he declares the space impure, the possessions remain pure and usable so the family can survive financially.
Each of us is experiencing our current plague in a different way. We share the common experience of separation from each other and from our place of worship and community. But some of us are entirely alone, some are co-isolating with family members or friends, and some are on the front lines. Some of us are able to continue working and getting paid, and some suddenly are without income. Some of us are fortunate to be young and healthy, while some are at risk due to age or underlying conditions. Some of us worry about loved ones who have tested positive, some of us have lost people to the disease, and for some it has not yet hit that close to home. Some of us are in a demographic less likely to be heavily impacted by Covid-19, and some of us are in communities being devastated by it.
With these differing experiences, what can we learn in common from Tazria-Metzora? I hope that all of us who are healthy enough can take on the mantle of the priest.
Taking on that mantle can mean checking in on the afflicted with a loving phone call, whether they suffer from the illness itself or from the pains of loneliness. We are fortunate that we have the technology to create virtual community and spiritual space. And we can begin to plan the steps toward eventual return to our physical space.
Taking on that mantle can mean mitigating the financial impact on someone who no longer can work, or the domestic impact on someone who needs groceries and medicines brought to their door. We can finally recognize the critical need to overcome society’s structural inequalities, as they are brought into such stark relief by the unrelenting way this disease disproportionately harms people who are poor, people in communities of color, people in immigrant communities, and people who are homeless—inequalities that lead to our friend, congregant Zach Roe’s husband Padre Angel Marrero, to have officiated at seven funerals in the week…and that was just as of Wednesday, with four in that day alone. We can admit that, despite how foreign and anachronistic Tazria and Metzora may have seemed in the past, we now know first-hand the fear and anxiety of a confusing and threatening disease, and the resulting isolation and loss of community. Perhaps we can begin to learn and respect the delicate balance of living globally, in an integrated world of human, animal and environmental health.