There was a cartoon going around Facebook last week that I really related to. It showed Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard. But instead of writing “I will not pull my sister’s hair” or “I will not eat my homework,” this time, Bart had a little kippah on his head, and he was writing: “I will not count the pages left in the machzor.”
I loved it because it reminded me of my childhood – flipping through the book, counting how many pages were left. (Then starting my stopwatch as the sermon began so that I knew precisely how many seconds of my life I lost to the rabbi.) I suspect those practices hasn’t disappeared, although I’m not asking for a show of hands….
This is the time of year when we get up close and personal with the prayerbook. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we hold a siddur or a machzor in our hands. Never more than during the High Holy Days do we read from it, pray from it, sing from. And never more than during the High Holy Days do we struggle with the ideas behind its words.
Yom Kippur is hard for us – not only because we’re hungry and services are long – but because so many of us are uneasy with what the prayerbook has to say about God. We struggle with God as creator of the world. We struggle with Torah as divine word. We certainly struggle with the book of life and the idea of God rewarding and punishing for sins. And so we are left counting the pages of the machzor.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where does God live.” He answered, “God lives wherever we let God in.”
And as nice as those words sound, the truth is that in today’s world, more than ever, we struggle with God. We are, after all, the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust and of the Enlightenment, and those event which have forever changed our ability to believe in what traditional Judaism tells. And because we struggle with God, we struggle with the prayerbook and with the act of prayer itself.
Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme write:
Today, there are large numbers of Jews who avoid speaking about God altogether. Unable to accept the notions that have been presented to them as authoritative, they read themselves out of their religion in a theological sense.
But struggling with God doesn’t have to mean rejecting God. The beauty of Judaism is that it has always given us the freedom to form our own beliefs.
According to tradition, there was one moment in history when God appeared to all of our people. At Sinai, our ancestors are said to have heard God speaking. But the Midrash doesn’t tell us what they saw and heard. In fact, what it tells us is that the 600,000 people present that day had 600,000 different experiences of God. No two people saw or heard the same thing.
Elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim. Two differing opinions can be reflections of the same God.
Earlier this year, a group of our congregants learned a similar lesson, as we undertook to study what are termed “radical” Jewish views on God. We learned about God as found in nature; about God who is accessed through morality and through relationships. What we discovered was that the radical wasn’t so radical. We discovered that the God that we sometimes have trouble grasping is not the only Jewish possibility. We discovered that we struggle because, to paraphrase an old song, we’ve been “looking for God in all the wrong places.”
Today I want to share with you the ideas of three of those thinkers that we studied. I do so in the hopes that we modern Jews can begin to view our own beliefs as authoritative and authentical. I do so in the hopes that perhaps we can stop counting pages and start seeking new meaning in the act of prayer.
There is a story of a man who was told that he would find God at the top of the highest mountain. He climbed to the top and began to wait. After what seemed like a long time, he noticed a sunset: reds and purples and blues filling the sky. But the man raged at the sunset, “Stop distracting me! I am waiting to see God.” And the colors were silenced by the night.
Sometime later, a flock of birds flew directly overhead. Their sound filled the earth like the music of an enormous orchestra. But again the man raged, “With all of this noise, I will never hear God.” And he scared the birds away, and continued to wait.”
And again time passed, until the man felt a tap on his back. He turned around to see that his family and friends had come to be with him. But he was angry – “You cannot be here. I am waiting to encounter God.” And his family left. And the man continued to wait.
After much, it was time to descend the mountain. Disappointed, the man returned home and lived out his life – but he never found God.
The tragedy of the story is that the man looked God in the face and didn’t know it. He didn’t find God because God is not to be found in some high up and far away place. As this morning’s Torah portion says, Lo Bashamayim Hi – Not in the heavens, but inside of you, inside your heart.
Mordecai Kaplan was a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the middle 20th century. He is best known for being the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. And whether you know what that is or not, odds are that what he had to say about God has probably influenced your own beliefs.
He taught that God is to be found in nature. But not only in the way that we might think – in the beautiful sunsets and the vastness of the universe, but specifically in the human ability to make sense and to make meaning out of that universe.
God, he said, is “the sum of everything in the world that renders life significant and worthwhile.” God is “the Power that makes for the fulfillment of valid ideals.” God is “the Power that impels man to become fully human.”
For this great thinker, and for many of us, God is not an all-powerful creator and enforcer, but a power in the universe that gives meaning to our lives.
What, then, is prayer? Prayer is our attempt to acknowledge that there is meaning in this seemingly chaotic universe, even if we have to make it ourselves. Prayer is a source of strength in difficult times, and an expression of our thankfulness in good times. It is an act of looking inward.
Believe it or not, the Talmud actually expresses a similar idea. It teaches us that not only do people pray; but God also prays – for mercy and fairness. To whom does God pray? To Godself, of course. Who else is there?
For us as well, prayer can be an act of self-training and self-discovery, an act of finding meaning in our own lives and our own choices. This is a particularly powerful message during the High Holy Days. What is it we hope for by the end of Yom Kippur? Not some vague sense of forgiveness from on high, but rather the strength to better ourselves and our lives.
It has been said: “Those who rise from prayer better people, their prayers have been answered.”
But it would be selfish to say that prayer is all about us. And would be self-serving to assume that God is only inside of ourselves. In fact, for many of us, it is in relationships with other people that the divine is to be found.
As a teenager, I once heard a rabbi tell a story about his own life that stays with me to this day. He told about being in a terrible car accident. He told about being in pain, about the deep sense of fear as the paramedics lifted him off the ground into a brightly lit ambulance. And he told about a man – probably one of the paramedics – who accompanied him into the ambulance. Who held his hand and stroked his head and whispered “It will be OK.”
“That man,” he said, “got me through the terrible ordeal. I don’t know who he was, and I never saw him again. But as far as I am concerned, I met an angel of God that day.”
It has been said that God is not in you and not in me, but in the space between us.
It was Martin Buber who taught that God is what we encounter when we enter into true relationship with others. That there are two types of relationships, he said. One is the type in which we see other people as “It,” as serving some function in our lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We need people to bag our groceries and deliver our mail and fix our cars. But every once in a while we enter into a relationship in which we see the other person not as “It” but as “Thou” or “You,” not as a function but as a human being. And every Thou, he says, “is a glimpse of the Eternal Thou,” that is God.
Rabbi Larry Kushner puts it a different way:
Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Everyone carries with them many pieces to [others’] puzzle[s].
And when you present your piece
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High
The Hebrew word for messenger is malach, or angel. So in truth, Judaism tells us that we are all angels, all messengers of God. When my rabbi told me that an angel spoke to him in that ambulance, I believe he meant it quite literally. Think of how many people have touched your life in different ways. How many people have taught you something or given you something or sacrificed something for you?
Every person is a reflection of the divine. And it is by gathering together in community, by praying together, by striving to see people as people, and by working together that we bring God into the world.
We bring God into the world.
The Bible tells of another Jew on a spiritual quest, much like the one in our original story.
In the book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is told to stand on a mountain and to find God.
There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks; but God was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake — fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12 )
Elijah found God not in the great and the loud and the terrible, but in the still small voice that told him what was right and what was wrong. For us as Jews, God has often been in the still small voice. The still, small voice that told Abraham to leave his home and set out for the land of Canaan. The still small voice that told the prophet Micah that we needed to do a better job doing justly and loving mercy. The still small voice that told Herzl that “If you will it, it is no dream.” The still small voice that told Rabbi Heschel to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a voice inside each of us telling us wrong from right. Where is God if not in that voice?
It was the great philosopher Hermann Cohen – one of the fathers of Reform Judaism – who wrote about God as the “ground of the moral universe.” Within each person, he says, there is is an innate knowledge of morality, an unlearned and un-learnable ability to tell right from wrong. That, he said, is where God resides.
And if God is found in the difference between wrong and right, in the difference between this world and the world as it should be, then prayer exists to motivate us to go out and repair the world.
When we say “Sim Shalom – Give us Peace,” we are really saying, “Give us the strength to make peace ourselves.
When we say, “Kol Nidrei Ve’esari – may my unfinished promises be forgiven,” we really mean, “Give me the ability to complete the work that I have begun.”
Page after page after page in the prayerbook we beseech God to do things that are really our job. Visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved, feeding the hungry, repairing the world. God is found in the actions of those people whose actions make the world a better place.
Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields,
Nor mend a broken bridge,
Nor rebuild a ruined city;
But prayer can water an arid soul,
Mend a broken heart,
And rebuild a weakened will.
The Talmud tells that the great Rabbi Joshua once met the Messiah. He asked him, “When are you coming to redeem the world.”
The Messiah said, “Hayom – today.”
So Rabbi Joshua returned to his yeshivah and he told his students to stop studying, stop praying, stop working, because the Messiah is coming! But the Messiah didn’t come that day. And so Rabbi Joshua returned to ask him why not.
And he answered: “You didn’t let me finish. If you had, you would have heard me quoting Psalms – ‘Hayom im b’kolo tishma’u’ When will the world be redeemed? “Today, if only you can listen for God’s voice.”
It is in our hands to bring God into this world. God is not on top of a mountain, or in the depths of the sea…. but rather in each moment, in each person, in each day… if only we can listen closely enough.
Where is God? Wherever we let God in.
May we hear God’s voice in the wonders of this world, and in the command to build a better world.
May we see God’s face in the people we love and in the mirrors that reflect our true selves.
May we do God’s work through our loving relationships and our acts of Tikkun Olam.
And may the pages of this prayerbook be for us a wellspring of tradition, a source of inspiration, spurring to spend the new year building, and seeking, and loving, and dreaming, and searching for God in the moments of our lives.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.
The Architect Frank Lloyd Wright tells about a memory. He was nine years old, and he was walking across a snowy field with his no-nonsense uncle. The boy wandered this way and that, collecting reeds and taking in the scenery, while his uncle walked straight across the field. Upon reaching the top of the hill, to two looked back. Uncle John pointed to his straight line of footprints, and then to Frank’s meandering path and he said sternly, “There’s a lesson in that, you know.”
Frank Lloyd Wright later said that that moment had shaped his philosophy. While Uncle John had intended to teach about the virtues of avoiding distraction, “I determined right then not to miss [out on] life, as [he] had.”
Life is too precious to miss.
Life is too precious to be spent looking down rather than around, to be spent working rather than playing.
But it seems today our world is constantly throwing at us new ways to miss out on life. New devices that teach us to look down rather than out. New excuses to bury ourselves in our work and our daily tasks and forget about what really matters.
On the High Holy Days, we take time to reflect on our lives and our choices. We ask ourselves: Do my daily actions reflect my values? Am I living the life I would like to be living?
Today, it seems that the boundaries between our work lives and our real lives are being constantly eroded. “Work-life balance” is the buzzword of the day, because balance is the thing that we are all missing. It used to be that our parents and grandparents would get in the car in the morning and drive to the office. Today, we carry our offices with us. Today, we can edit digital documents at the dinner table, answer emails from our beds, and text our colleagues from red lights (though it’s illegal, thankfully). With our smartphones in our pockets and our Bluetooth devices on our ears, we are accessible 24/7/365. We spend more time looking down than out; we spend more time working than living.
According to a government survey, “one in four Canadians works 50 hours per week or more.” Ten years ago it was one in ten. And those of us with smartphones – forget about it! – they put in an extra 365 hours a year. That’s 15 days a year that we spend answering emails on our tiny little screens when we’re supposed to be paying attention to our families and ourselves.
In the 21st century, our technological advances and our lifestyle changes have blurred the line between our work lives and our real lives. And it’s our real lives that are suffering.
This may seem like a uniquely modern problem, but our texts tell us that even our earliest ancestors struggled to balance their obligations with their private lives – some with more success than others. In fact, the Torah gives one example of a Jewish figure who became so completely all consumed by his work that his family fell apart. Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name is Moses.
We know Moses as the great prophet and leader of our people. But it’s easy to forget that he was also a human being with a family. And we forget with good reason, because according to Torah, for much of his life, Moses’ attention was focused anywhere but on his family. Here is a man who was so important, who had so many responsibilities, that they consumed his entire being.
According to Exodus 18, Jethro had to teach Moses how to delegate so that he wouldn’t try to do everybody’s jobs for them. According to the previous chapter, Moses sent his family away for extended periods of time. According to Exodus 4, he forgot to circumcise his own sons. The Torah doesn’t even mention the birth of his second son Eliezer; it’s not clear that he was even there.
In fact, the text calls Moses’ family not by their names but as “Ishtecha Ushnei Vaneiha – your wife and her two sons.” Her two sons, taught Rabi Hiyya, because she, and not Moses, had raised them.
In that sense, Moses is a tragic figure: one who achieves extraordinary things, but does so at the expense of his private life. Moses is undoubtedly the greatest teacher, prophet, rabbi, judge, and leader in the history of our people. But as a husband and father… he was kind of lousy! In fact, the Torah is full of prominent people who mismanaged their personal lives because they were too busy doing great things. There’s Abraham, whose dedication to his mission manages to estrange both his wife and his son. There’s Joseph, who gives up his Jewish identity in Pharaoh’s court. There’s Isaac, who sows seeds of discord between his children that last for generations.
And although these stories are extreme, we may be able to see glimpses of ourselves – of our bad habits, of the choices that we wish we were making differently. And if we look closely, perhaps we can find solutions as well.
Rabbi Larry Kushner writes about a friend of his, an Episcopal minister, who – like many of us – had a desk full of papers. Once a month, the minister would take every piece of paper, and throw it away! So Rabbi Kushner once asked his friend, “What if there’s something important on your desk?” The minister explained, “If it’s important, it’ll come back.”
The problem with our lifestyle today is not that we have too much to do. The problem is that that it’s hard to remember what matters most, when you are constantly inundated by all the details.
Before going any further, it needs to be said: From a Jewish perspective, there is nothing wrong with working hard. Hard work and a fulfilling career are great virtues. Why else would the Torah tell us that David was a shepherd and Adam was a gardener? And many any of the earliest Rabbis were known by names like “Rabbi Yochanan the Sandle-maker” and “Rabbi Hillel the wood-cutter.” (By the way, I’ve always wanted to be known as “Rabbi Micah the Rock-Star,” but it hasn’t taken off yet.)
So our earliest rabbinic role models also defined themselves around their careers. But the reason they were great rabbis is that they found time for personal study, for teaching, and self-betterment. That’s not easy to do.
Rabbi Meyer Twersky wrote:
The Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) works hard to keep us too busy. That way we have no energy left to think, to reflect, to better ourselves.
Fortunately for us, there is an institution in Judaism that was created precisely for the purposes of thinking, reflecting, and bettering ourselves… and it occurs every single week.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.
It is said that very Friday night 2 angels follow us to our doors. If they find a home prepared for Shabbat, a meal ready to be enjoyed, a family spending time together, then they bless us, saying, “May it always be so.”
Shabbat is Judaism’s answer to the challenge of finding balance in life. Once a week, we Jews are commanded to withdraw from the working world – to go 25 hours traditionally without cooking, mending, lighting fires, working at our professions, or in any way trying to control or own the world around us. It is through Shabbat that Judaism attempts to give us freedom from our enslavement to our everday obligations. In fact, you might say that the Jews invented the weekend.
But there’s more than that. Shabbat is, at its core, a matter of human dignity. It is a concrete manifestation of the idea that every person deserves to rest. It’s a reflection of the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, since God also rested on the seventh day. Most importantly, it is the way that we as Jews are meant to care for ourselves, so that we can better care for the world around us.
The story is told of a woman who would walk back and forth each day between her home and the well of water outside the town. She always carried two buckets – and one them had a hole in it. And while many people believed it was just broken, it most definitely was not. Each bucket had its own job, the woman would explain: with one bucket she cared for own needs – she carried water to her home. And with the other bucket, the one with the tiny hole in the bottom, she shared her water… with the earth, the animals, with the plants that needed it. And if either of the buckets had ever been lost, the whole task would have been rendered useless.
We cannot care for our world unless we care for ourselves. We cannot be at our best in our jobs and our schools and our communities unless we have taken the time to rejuvenate our bodies and our souls. Shabbat is a gift to help us find rest and strength and balance in our lives.
“Big surprise!” you’re thinking. “The Rabbi is giving a sermon on Shabbat.” But before your eyes start to glaze over, let me just say that I’m not giving the sermon you think I’m giving. This is not part of the sermon where I’m going to tell you to come to shul more often, or to read more Torah, or to start saying more blessings.
No, this is a different sermon. Because I believe that a new century calls for a new approach. That instead of the same old same old, it is time to find fresh ways to celebrate Shabbat – ways that make sense in our world. That is the Jewish way.
There’s an old joke that tells about Moses standing on top of Mt. Sinai, and God enumerating the commandments:
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: Does that mean we shouldn’t eat any dairy with milk?
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “So, we should have separate dishes for milk and meat meals, and then another two sets for Passover?”
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “Got it — we should have two separate dishwashers. And we should wait eight hours after eating brisket before having any cheesecake.”
God: Fine, have it your way.
As Reform Jews, we recognize that Jewish practice has changed through the ages. And that means that it must continue to change, continue to evolve, in order to meet our needs. All joking aside, our movement has put a lot of thought into redefining some of the important institutions of Jewish life. Our belief in egalitarianism led us to redefine what it means to be a rabbi. The environmental crisis led us to redefine what it means to keep kosher. And in the information age – in a time of unprecedented access to technology and unprecedented demands on our time – we will need to redefine and reclaim Shabbat as our own. We need it too much to let it go.
A few years ago the Union for Reform Judaism released a set of Shabbat cards with ideas for ways to make Shabbat meaningful. Not the traditional ways, but new ways. I’ll read a few:
- On Shabbat, I have something special for lunch. Our favourite is falafel with salsa.
- Whenever possible, we spend Shabbat outdoors: hiking, gardening, or skateboarding.
- Unlike the rest of the week, our children aren’t allowed to wake us up on Shabbat morning.
- I do not run errands on Shabbat.
- I don’t open mail on Shabbat.
- I turn off my Blackberry on Shabbat.
All of these are things that ordinary Reform Jews around North America are doing because they recognize just how powerful that Day of Rest can be. And what makes these ideas so powerful is that they address real needs in our lives. The Talmud doesn’t know about smartphones, but they are certainly the greatest intrusion on our time. The sages would have told us that gardening wasn’t approproate on Shabbat, but in a world where we are so disconnected from the earth, what better way to get back to nature. As Reform Jews, it is our right and our mandate to find modern and meaningful ways to live our Jewish values.
If Judaism says to eat your favourite food on Shabbat, and you like sushi better than chicken soup, then have sushi for Shabbat dinner. (And then invite me!) If Judaism tells us to appreciate nature, then for God’s sake go tobogganing on Shabbat afternoon. Our Shabbat may look completely different than our great-grandparents’ Shabbat. It may even look completely different from our own preconceptions, But it will be just as authentic, just as real, just as meaningful, because it addresses the real lives we are living.
I’m proud to announce that this year, Temple Kol Ami will be launching an initiative called “Reclaiming Shabbat.” It is a challenge to ourselves to find meaning in Judaism’s oldest and most important holy day. I’m challenging each member of our congregation to celebrate 2 Shabbats a month – on in sul and one at home, and to find creative ways to do so, beyond coming to services and Religious School.
So starting this morning, I want you to start brainstorming, about how you can Shomer Shabbat – how you can observe Shabbat in a way that will work for you and your family, and we’ll share those ideas with each other – through the Voice, through the Kol Ami blog, and on the bulletin board outside this door. Maybe it’s a weekly trip to a favourite restaurant. Maybe it means DVRing your favourite TV show and saving it for Saturday afternoon, or writing haiku on Friday afternoon about the events of the week, or, like Frank Lloyd Wright, taking a meandering walk through a snowy field – not to get from one place to the next, but simply to enjoy being where you are.
Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat, he said, is the institution that has kept us Jewish. It has set us apart, it has sustained us, it has made us holy. It’s time we return the favour.
Let us resolve in the coming year, not to miss out on our lives – not to spend our precious minutes looking at screens and focusing on things that, in the end, do not matter. Let us resolve to spend one day a week, or one hour of one day, building relationships, rejuvenating ourselves, living the life that we would like to be living.
 Quoted from Rabbi Evan Moffic at blog.rj.org.
My two older sons recently did something very strange and surprising: they started reading a lot! The reason is that they found a book – or actually a series of books – that they really like. It’s called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s a fictional, first-person account of something most of us would rather forget: Middle School. And it comes complete with little gems like this one:
Let me just say … I think middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day.
Just like being 12, this book is sometimes funny, and sometimes not so funny. And as I’ve been reading it with my kids, it’s become very clear that even at their young age, they and their classmates can relate to a lot of what’s described in the books, including things like peer pressure and bullying. Even at age 6 or 7, kids, know what it’s like to be picked on by someone who is stronger or bigger. It’s just a reality of life for them.
So much so that the Ontario provincial government recently introduced anti-bullying legislation which – among other things – allows schools to expel bullies, and which gives strong support for student anti-racism groups, gender equality groups, and Gay-Straight Alliances. All in an effort to build the support system for kids who may be perceived, or who may perceive themselves, as weak or vulnerable or different.
Of course, being weak and vulnerable is nothing new to our people. It’s pretty much the story of Jewish history. And in this week’s Torah portion, we read about our escape from a bully of Biblical proportions. And that, of course, is Pharaoh. The Torah tells that after Ten plagues and 430 years of oppression, Pharaoh finally said:
“קומו צאו מתוך עמי – Get up and depart from among my people. Take your flocks and your herds, and begone!” (Ex 12:31-32)
And our people did as they were told: they beed gone.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Next week, we’ll read about Pharaoh’s change of heart and the parting of the sea. But the end is the same: our people are leaving Egypt and going out into the desert. And there, in the desert, something very important happens. A group of slaves will become a people. The mixed multitude of vulnerable groups will become Am Yisrael.
Our tradition teaches that there is safety in numbers. It teaches that we need each other, and that we build community based on the things that we have in common. Our vulnerability turns to strength when we find those types of supportive communities.
Some rabbis have objected to the current legislation because of the support for Gay-Straight Alliances. And while I wouldn’t take a position on the legislation from the bima, I do feel I have an obligation as a Rabbi to point out that there is another Jewish take on that issue. Yes, an Orthodox Jew may object to homosexuality on religious grounds. But you can’t use religious grounds to object to people forming a safe and supportive community with others who are like them. That’s exactly what our people did when we fled Egypt. And it’s something that we all need: whether it be a Gay-Straight Alliance, a single-parent support group, or a Temple Youth group, we need to be surrounded by people like us; people who share our beliefs and our struggles. That’s how the vulnerable become less vulnerable.
That’s what Judaism teaches: that all people are created in God’s image, that all people deserve to feel worthwhile and respected. That no person should harass or isolate or harm another because they are different.
And the sad irony of that statement is that, that’s exactly what’s going on right now within one segment of our own people.
Last week, a 27 year old woman in Beit Shemesh was attacked by several Ultra-Orthodox men. According to Haaretz, “They surrounded her car and pelted it with stones… and punctured her tires. One stone struck [her] on the head…”
And this is the latest in a long line of such attacks. All of these incidents lately have surrounded the issue of tzniyut – modesty. These women are being attacked because the men in that particular neighbourhood don’t feel that they are dressed modestly enough, or believe that they are behaving in ways that are at odds with their ultra-Conservative Jewish values. And none of this is new. For years, women riding through Haredi neighbourhoods have been forced to the back of buses. Ink has been thrown at women praying at the Kotel. 2 years ago a woman was assaulted at a bus stop because she has T’fillin marks on arms. And all of this has become more and more public, more and more audacious, as the ultra-Orthodox community grows larger and more radicalized.
And it all came to a head last month in Beit Shemesh when a little girl – a little 8-year-old Orthodox girl, dressed in a long skirt and long sleeves – was spat and called prostitute on by Ultra-Orthodox men – because her path to school happened to take her through their neighbourhood, and because – according to the New York Times, “her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.”
It goes without saying that this is beyond wrong. I’m only preaching to the choir here, but it’s important that our voice be heard, that we stand up and say in no uncertain terms that our Jewish values and our way of life are being twisted into something ugly, hateful, and decidedly un-Jewish. Anyone who would choose to harass and bully women and girls, to attack weaker people, is not practicing Judaism. Those people are much closer to Pharaoh than they are to Moses.
Thankfully, Israeli society is beginning to speak up. In the last month, there have been rallies and protests in Beit Shemesh calling for an end to this madness. There was a women’s flash-mob – you can see it on You Tube – to send the message that women have the right to express themselves. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke out, saying : “This is a phenomenon that contradicts Jewish tradition and the spirit of the Bible, with one of the most central [ideas] being: Love your neighbour as yourself.” Even an ultra Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchok Adlerstein, wrote that we must “condemn with passion, conviction and without qualification” these acts.
It is time for the Jewish world to speak up about the Pharaohs in our midst – the bullies who believe that it is their God-given right to oppress the weak and vulnerable who are different than they are. It is time for Israel to take a deep look at its political system which gives these people power and money. And it is time for us as Diaspora Jews to make clear that that is what we expect of the Jewish state at this moment in its history.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is right. At the center of the central chapter of the central book of the Torah stand the words “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – Love your neighbour as yourself.” The Rabbis of the Mishnah debate whether loving God or loving your neighbour is the most important value in Judaism, and they determine that the two must flow from each other. We show our love for God by showing love for our fellow human beings. We show our love for God by standing up for the rights of the weak – in our neighbourhoods, in our kids’ schools, and across the world.
Because we Jewish people have been the “wimpy kid.” We’ve been the oppressed before. And that gives us a special obligation to do what’s right.
It was about a month ago that our dog Jastrow died. He was 3. He escaped from the yard and got hit by a car. Our kids were devastated. So were we.
Jastrow’s name was the proof of my rabbi-nerdiness. (Only other rabbis realized that he was named for the Marcus Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud.) But beyond the name, he was never my dog – he belonged squarely to the kids. Jastrow would play with them, sleep in their beds, lick their faces, and sit right on top of them. We called him our therapy dog because he was always good for providing our son who has Aspergers with the “deep pressure” he needed on rough days! Jastrow was the young, fun dog while April (our 10-year-old lab mix) was the old, boring dog.
So the kids were hit really hard when he died. This was, thankfully, their first real experience with death. (When their great-grandmother died nearly four years ago, they were too young to really be aware of it.) Their reaction was both heartbreaking and fascinating. You could see Kubler-Ross at work as they shuffled wildly between angry shouting, hopeful bargaining, tearful storytelling, and asking the same questions over and over again…. In the end, what they wanted was to “do something” for Jastrow. Maybe we could say a prayer for him, they suggested. Or maybe draw pictures and tell our favourite stories, and find a place in the woods to “visit” him. Without knowing the words Shiva, or Kaddish, or Funeral, our 3, 6, and 7 year old boys were asking instinctively for some ritual to help them through the mourning process.
Even our older dog was mourning. April’s sleeping and eating patterns changed, and she kept trying to run out the front door, apparently in an effort to go find her friend. It was as though she also needed something to happen – some kind of closure to let her move on.
Our need for ritual is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Judaism offers us ceremonies to help mark the emotional moments of our lives – the Brit Milah/Brit Bat, the wedding ceremony, the funeral and mourning rituals. This is part of the particular genius of our way of life – that it is able to provide us with guidance during these universal moments in which we all need it. And if you leaf through the Reform movement’s On the Doorposts of Your House, or search the works of Marcia Falk or the pages of ritualwell.org, you’ll find hundreds of new ceremonies and blessings for moments of life that were never before ritualized: retirement, miscarriage, menopause, sending a child to college, quitting a job, ending a relationship. Some of these are hokey and contrived, but they speak to a need that is very real and very powerful.
I never saw that as clearly as I did while watching my kids mourn their dog. May his memory be a blessing.