Riding Down the Road, Talkin’ Torah

It is the kind of spectacularly beautiful day that takes your breath away. It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m pedaling through the Livermore wine country. My cycling buddy and I are deeply engaged in a conversation about the weekly Torah portion and how it might shed light on our modern lives.

Some might wonder if riding down the road dressed in spandex is a good setting to engage with Jewish ideas, and I would answer wholeheartedly, YES. Seemingly secular activities — such as cycling, golfing, or participating in a book club held under the umbrella of Jewish values — draw people in. Many people are more interested in expressing their Jewish identity through activities that engage them in ways that seemingly “religious” activities may not. They want to interact with Jewish culture, and more and more of that engagement happens outside of traditional Jewish institutions.

At Hebrew Free Loan, we practice “big tent” Judaism, welcoming Jews across the continuum of Jewish practice and affiliation. I am struck by how many of our loan applicants are secular, with little formal religious observance but a strong sense of Jewish identity. Others grew up with minimal connection to their Jewish heritage and worry they may not be “Jewish enough” to belong. What benchmark must one meet to feel entitled to belong? Observance of certain rituals? Ethnicity? Belief in God? Birth? Conversion? A shared common history? Is there an accepted commonality to being Jewish?

According to the Pew Research Center study of Jewish Americans in 2020, “U.S. Jews do not have a single, uniform answer to what being Jewish means. When asked whether being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, ancestry, culture or some combination of those things, Jews respond in a wide variety of ways, with just one-in-ten saying it is only a matter of religion.”

Jewish identity is made up of many factors (birth, ethnicity, conversion into a specific denomination, etc.), and few of us have all of them. In some communities, certain specific factors or practices may carry more weight than in others (Shabbat observance, dietary laws, etc.). Some of us do this and not that, and some of us see the world or our Judaism differently than others, but hopefully that doesn’t make us feel less Jewish or not a part of the community.

At Hebrew Free Loan, our loan recipients come from Jewish families like yours, like mine, or like their own and no one else’s. Our families may have very little in common, but the great thing is that we all belong. Hebrew Free Loan is here to help all of us.

This Friday, May 26, 2023, Hebrew Free Loan is co-sponsoring the 35th Annual East Bay Tikkun for Shavuot. The holiday of Shavuot begins Thursday evening and commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And while tradition teaches that everyone stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, not everyone heard the same thing. “Each Israelite heard what was in his power to hear.” (Sh’mot Rabbah 28:6). Beginning in the 1500’s, a tradition developed to study all night long on Shavuot, and it is in this vein that the East Bay community comes together to learn about a wide variety of subjects. Topics include Spiritual Dieting with Kabbalah; The Loneliness Crisis: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help; and A Neo-Hasidic Approach to Revelation and Creation, to name just a few of the over 30 classes.

If you’d like to witness the strength of our Jewish community, the diversity of ideas, and a broad display of what it means to be Jewish, come to the Tikkun. I’ll be leading “Talking Torah While Peddlin’ Down the Road,” a discussion on finding gratitude and community on a bicycle. Come learn with me (I am teaching at 3 PM in Room 7 of the East Bay JCC) or attend another session that calls to you.

May the wind be at your back as we cycle down the road of life.

Chag Sameach,
– Rabbi Jamie

Embracing diversity with open minds and hearts

“Hey Rabbi Jamie, what does Judaism say about…?” How many times have I heard this? People like to think that Judaism will give them a definitive answer about a given issue, but that isn’t always so.

An early Jewish sage named Ben Bag Bag said, 

:בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה

“Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” (Avot 5:22)

Ben Bag Bag is referring to the Torah, and his words remind us that in a world of multiple and varied perspectives, our tradition teaches us to look at issues and challenges from different angles. We need to recognize that others may glean different answers from the same texts and be flexible enough to find a solution that works for a specific situation.

Hebrew Free Loan operates in the same way. As an organization made up of warm and caring individuals, we recognize that no two applicants’ stories are the same. Each has some facet to their situation that makes it unique. Like the sages of the Talmud* who probed and poked at issues from all sides, we explore issues from multiple sides and perspectives, to find solutions that help people in our community meet life challenges and take advantage of life opportunities.

That you can see things afresh, no matter how many times you have looked at an issue, was apparent to me at Purim, which was celebrated last month. And as I plan for Passover, which begins Wednesday evening, April 5th, one would think that by now I would have culled each holiday’s embedded ideas, and each year’s celebrations would be the same. Why should I expect to experience Purim or Passover differently from year to year given that we read the same core texts every time (the Book of Esther for Purim and the Haggadah for Passover)? Because each year, I read these texts with the fresh eyes of my growing life experience and awareness of changing world events.

Purim commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from a threatened massacre in ancient Persia. As a child, we dressed up as the main characters – Queen Esther, Queen Vashti, Mordechai – though today you may find a teenage ninja turtle or a Harry Potter thrown in. For many, Purim is a raucous celebration of “they tried to kill us, they failed, and now let’s eat.” But when I look at the holiday through my adult eyes, other themes emerge. I see the feminism of Queen Vashti, who stood up to King Achashverosh when he demanded she dance before him. I recognize that to stay safe as a minority in a foreign land, one must have friends in high places, like the Jewish Esther who becomes queen and saves the Jews through her proximity to the king. In the Purim of my childhood, difficult passages of the story were skipped over, such as the passage where revenge is taken on those who could have harmed the Jewish community. The Jewish people haven’t often been in a position of power or able to take revenge. Perhaps these verses were a retributive fantasy, but this darker message – that a Jewish community was capable of causing indiscriminate harm to others – hits me hard.

Passover commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt to living as a free people. And as I prepare for the conversations at our seder dinner, I am cognizant that the world is changing, and so am I. This year, rather than thoughts of Moses and the Israelites’ exodus from slavery to freedom, my mind turns to the hard work ahead to change our ways, if we want to live in a world that we feel good about passing on to our children and grandchildren. We need to work to save our planet and to protect the democratic liberties that we value, here and in Israel.

As we strive to address these challenges, like the sages of the Talmud we don’t always agree on what to do. Two of the Talmud’s most famous figures, Hillel and Shammai, had very different approaches to issues. Hillel was known for moderation, and Shammai took more of a hardline approach. Still, they modeled that inquisitive exploration of an idea from all sides, and showed us the value of continued dialogue.

At Hebrew Free Loan, we are proud that our tradition guides us to embrace the broad diversity of our Jewish community with open minds and hearts that want to help. When you approach us for assistance, know that we will be engaging in a thousand-year tradition by examining your situation from many sides to find the unique solution that meets your needs.

“Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

Happy Passover,

Rabbi Jamie

 *The Talmud, a record of rabbinic debates from the 2nd to 5th centuries, documents all these differing angles of inquiry.

Tu b’Shvat, Jewish Teachings, and our Relationship to the Environment

Rabbi Jamie’s Corner is a periodic column at Hebrew Free Loan where I serve as the Director of Development.
February 2023

Tu b’Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, is also known as the birthday of the fruit trees. Falling on February 5-6 this year, it is considered a minor festival, but for environmentalists, Tu b’Shvat is an ancient Jewish connection to contemporary ecological issues.

If you have driven up to Tahoe lately, you’ve seen that the trees don’t look so healthy. The drought has taken its toll, the trees are suffering, and we have played a role in bringing this about. The ways that we live on this planet are clearly having an effect on the natural world. What can we learn from Jewish teachings about our relationship to the environment?

The Torah presents two different models for how we are to be in relationship with the environment. In the first, we as humans are given dominion over the earth. “They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth” (Genesis 1:26-28). In the second, Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden to “tend and till” (Genesis 2:15). The first approach is about control, and a “do with the land as you will” mentality, with humans at the top of the heap of fish, animals, and the earth. The second presents a nurturing and caring relationship to the planet, with humans as stewards of something precious.

What is the Torah trying to teach us with these seemingly incongruent messages? We are not being asked to pick one or the other, rather to consider both. While we may have the power to “have dominion over the earth,” we must choose to “tend and till” the garden, this precious planet of ours. As we use our natural resources, it is our responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions.

Nurturing and caring about the well-being of our community and thus, by extension, the environment, is the mission of Hebrew Free Loan. In considering how to tend and till our world, Hebrew Free Loan has long aimed to create a new loan program to move us towards a cleaner environment. While we’re still waiting for funding to create a dedicated environmental loan program, we currently provide a limited number of loans to people interested in “going green.” Loans can help with upgrades to improve the energy efficiency of homes, such as solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, double-paned windows, etc. They can also fund transportation needs, such as the purchase of hybrid or electric vehicles or installing vehicle charging stations in homes.

The recent weather has reinforced how precarious our situation is when it comes to the environment. We have been naïve and arrogant in exercising our “dominion over the earth,” using the resources of the planet for short-term gain and profit, losing sight of the long-term consequences for ourselves and for future generations.

We have poured cleaning and pest control products — so harmful to our hands that we wear gloves when we use them — down our drains and spread them on our lawns. Our chemicals have damaged the ozone layer of the planet, and we have built sprawling suburban communities far from where we work, which necessitate long commutes, often in cars powered by polluting fossil fuels. These and other human actions have contributed to changes in our climate. Climate change has brought unusually fierce weather, with torrential rain causing flooding in unexpected places. One recent storm brought road closures and submerged vehicles three blocks from my suburban home. I do not live next to a river or stream, but the volume of water was more than our human drainage systems could handle.

I had the opportunity to travel to Argentina recently, and we spent several days near Bariloche, Patagonia, which is a region filled with remote lakes. The water was so clear and clean you could see fish swimming several meters down, and away from the city it was quiet and still, the night sky filled with stars. Where I live in the Bay Area, it is never fully dark or quiet. The city light obliterates the stars, the freeway noise is always in the background, and I would never drink the water flowing through the creeks in the hills nearby. We forget what a pristine environment feels like, what it smells like, how it sounds. Click here to experience the beauty and peace of the pristine Patagonian environment.

Tu b’Shvat reminds us that while we may have the power to “have dominion over the earth,” it is our responsibility to “tend and till” the garden. A wise person once said, “If you are not part of the solution, you must be part of the problem.” Hebrew Free Loan wants to be part of the solution to save our planet by creating a Clean Environment Loan Program. Tending the garden is an awesome responsibility, and we all have a role to play.

Happy birthday to the trees! Yom huledet sameach! May you grow tall and strong, providing us with oxygen to breathe and shade to protect us from the sun.

Rabbi Jamie

P.S. New loan programs require a $150,000 donation to get started. If you or a group of people are interested in making a lasting impact by helping us to launch our Clean Environment Loan Program, please give me a call at (628) 231-2911.

For rabbi touched by Las Vegas shooting, Colorado club shooting raises the same old questions


The shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs hit really close to home. Until last month, I served as the rabbi of Congregation P’nai Tikvah, a warm, welcoming and affirming Las Vegas synagogue known to have many LGBTQ members. This attack, like the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, felt like it was aimed directly at our members and friends.

It is ironic that in last week’s Torah portion, when the patriarch Abraham goes to the Hittites to purchase land for his wife Sarah’s burial, he says, “I am a resident alien among you.” In that moment, Abraham, known for his hospitality and welcoming of strangers, feels that he does not belong, and as he doesn’t own land, he has no permanent home.

We all seek a sense of permanence and a feeling that we belong.

In discussing this passage at our Torah study, a trans woman related how Abraham’s sense of alienation resonated with her. She explained that she often feels like “the other,” and she longs for a place of belonging.

On a road trip to Colorado Springs last month, she sought out Club Q as a safe space on an otherwise lonely journey. Club Q provided her a much-needed oasis, and it is devastating that the shooter presumably felt so threatened by the LGBTQ community that he would resort to violence against innocent people gathering on a Saturday night.

Life is fleeting, and we never know when it will end.

In 2017, the night before the Route 91 Harvest country music festival shooting in Las Vegas, I dropped my then 79-year-old mother off at the Tropicana hotel, which is adjacent to the concert venue and across the street from the Mandalay Bay. The noise from the festival was thunderous, and my mom commented that she wished she had stayed across the street on the highest floors of the Mandalay Bay.

Hours later, bullets rained down from those same floors onto the innocent concertgoers below.

Yes, life is fleeting, and we never know when it will end, but as Jews we are taught “Justice, justice, pursue.” We work to build the world that we want to come.

That a shooting of this magnitude could happen again is unacceptable.

I ask what others have asked before me: Why does a private citizen need a high-power rifle that can kill so many, so quickly? And how can it be that after we have lost so many to gun violence, we can’t get high-capacity weapons banned?

Gay, straight, trans, teenagers, Jews in prayer, Christians in Bible study … After so much loss, are human lives that expendable that we can’t overturn a bad law?

We send condolences to the family and friends of those lost, and prayers of healing to the wounded. We stand with the LGBTQ community at this dark time as we work to build a world where no one feels like they don’t belong.

Published in the J, the Jewish News of Northern California

Kedoshim and Roe v. Wade

The Torah portion Kedoshim begins with the charge

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

“You shall be holy, for I, your God יהוה, am holy.”

What does it mean to be holy?  What does one do to become holy?  What is the source of holiness?  Is holiness something that is bestowed on us by external forces, or is holiness a state that we can cultivate?   Is holiness relative?  Is it defined differently in other religious traditions? And when are you supposed to be holy?  All the time?  When you pray?  Visiting the sick?  Cooking dinner?  Scrubbing the bathtub? 

Dictionary.com offers several definitions, two which I offer here:

  1. Specially recognized as or declared sacred by religious use or authority; consecratedholy ground.
  2. Dedicated or devoted to the service of God, the church, or religion: a holy man – saintly, godly, pious, devout – a holy life.

It is the second definition, dedicated or devoted to the service of God, that is articulated in our Torah portion. Parashat Kedoshim contains a series of “must-do” commands.  It lays out a foundation, a roadmap, of actions to be holy:  revere your mother and father, leave the edges of your fields for the poor, and treat each other with kindness (do not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind), abstain from forbidden sexual relationships, and treat one another fairly, whether in business or in judgement. 

Over time, our tradition developed more practices, ways of interacting in the world, to elevate even the most private moments.  We say a blessing after we use the restroom to thank God that everything opened and closed the way that it should.  We prepare ourselves for intimate relations with dips in the mikvah.   

I ask these questions as the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and a key issue is when does a fetus become an entity with the right to life?  

The Talmud teaches that a fetus, up through the first eight weeks after conception, is “like water.” This means that Jewish law permits abortion on demand through eight weeks. From that point, until the head emerges, the mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus. In cases of threat to the mother’s health such as cancer or ectopic pregnancy, there is complete agreement that the mother’s life should be preserved. 

Jewish law also accommodates abortion in cases involving threats to maternal well-being growing out of psychological distress. Jewish law permits a woman, in consultation with her Rabbi, to determine if the psychological harm is sufficient to permit an abortion. There are cases where such permission is automatic, such as those involving rape, incest, or a fatal fetal anomaly. We understand Jewish law to permit abortion in such instances[i].

I live my life according to the precepts laid out in the Torah, and I am guided by the lens of Jewish tradition, and Jewish tradition teaches that abortion is permitted much later than what will become the law of this land.  That doesn’t mean that I take abortion lightly but should I be faced with the necessity, I rest a bit easier knowing I am living a life of holiness, even in the most difficult moments.

I’ll give you three vignettes that are floating in my mind as I stand more on the sidelines of this sea change, more passive than I might have at other times in my life.

#1)       It is 1976.  I am 15 and I have just begun to date.  Abortion is legal and easy and safe, and for me, a seemingly breezy option.   I was a boundary-tester as a teenager.  I was a bit “in the doghouse “ as I had stayed out much later than I should have with the boy I was with.  I turned to my mom, the authority figure, and asked, “What would you do if I came home pregnant?”   She looked at me and said “Darling, you are asking the wrong question.  What would YOU do if YOU came home pregnant?” Truth be told, I don’t know what I would have done but I stopped staying out late.

#2)       I am 32 and have had my first child.  I am working at Stanford Hillel.  I head out to my car and as I get in, I see there is a flyer on my windshield.  I grab it and glance down, assuming it is for a student program.  My mind doesn’t comprehend what I am looking at immediately, and then I realize it is a picture of an aborted fetus.  Light, breezy option, gone forever.

#3)       I am the block parent to all the young adults in our circle.  A young woman from a devoutly Catholic family comes to me.  She has had an abortion that her parents didn’t know about and now she was trying to reconcile what her faith community taught her growing up with the reality of her real-life decision.  She feels she has sinned by taking a life.  She is too scared to contact the church herself, lest her parents find out.  She asks me to I reach out to the local parish priest who recommends the Valley Pregnancy Center, a Christian organization whose mission is “to empower women in making confident and healthy life choices.”   As I get to know them, I come to understand they will never counsel someone to have an abortion, but if one has already occurred, and like my young woman, the person is struggling afterwards, they will help them find resolution with kindness and understanding.

So, what do Roe vs. Wade and “Tihyu Kedoshim, you shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy” have in common?  Each of these vignettes, taught me something.  The first, that no one else can make these decisions for me, even if I don’t want to make them.  It is my life and my body, and I am the one to make the decisions over what happens to it.   The second experience shocked me into understanding that abortion this isn’t a light, breezy decision.  At some point, there is a life involved.  And the third experience taught me that people of good intention, and of strong faith, reach very different conclusions and those conclusions frame their thinking when they vote and when policy is created.

What is the role of our faith traditions to inform our policy decisions?  Are medical developments that lead to increased chance that fetuses will survive earlier in their gestational periods what should drive our policy decision?  What about socio-economics factors?  

These are complicated issues but the personal choices that I have made, were just that, personal.   As we are charged to lead lives of holiness, let us strive to build a society where we respect difference, where our faith traditions give us wisdom but do not mandate the way for everyone.

Quoting from our parasha, as we strive to be holy,

לֹא־תַעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֙וֶל֙ בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א פְנֵי־דָ֔ל וְלֹ֥א תֶהְדַּ֖ר פְּנֵ֣י גָד֑וֹל בְּצֶ֖דֶק תִּשְׁפֹּ֥ט עֲמִיתֶֽךָ׃

let us not render an unfair decision, and let us judge our kin kindly.

Ken yihye ratzon.

[i] Excerpted from Clergy Letter of Abortion from Kol Emeth, Palo Alto, May 6, 2022

Counting the Omer

Chag Pesach sameach!

At last night’s seder we began to count the Omer. Counting the Omer begins a 49-day journey of transformation from the 2nd night of Passover to Shavuot. From slavery and servitude in Egypt to a full-hearted embracement of the Torah, her ideas and practices, at Mt. Sinai.

These 49 days are a time of transformation. Each day as we count “Today is the first day, the second, the third,” we take small steps toward bigger change in our personal lives.

There are many tools to guide one on the journey. This year I am using Lev Tov: Cultivating a Good Heart during the Omer. It has deep ideas accompanied by beautiful chanting. I can feel that I will be carried to a different place by this path.

I don’t know why this year will be different. Perhaps that I have finally graduated and am settled with my community? Maybe there is more space in my brain and my heart now? Or maybe, finally, I know who I am. There is strength in feeling more whole. From a place of groundedness, I am open to ideas that before, I would have been closed off. I am ready to explore something new.

May your journey be a meaningful one. See you at Sinai!

Rabbi Jamie

VaYishlach – Kyle Rittenhouse and Jacob…

This week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, began with Jacob preparing to see his brother Esau, with whom he was estranged, after many years. He sent messengers ahead to scout out the meeting. The messengers return saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him. Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”

What was Jacob thinking? His brother was approaching him with 400 men. Would the encounter be friendly? Would Esau attack Jacob? Jacob didn’t know. Were Jacob’s fear and anxiety justified? Was he doing the right thing to try to engage Esau?

In our Torah portion, it all worked out well. Jacob and Esau saw each other, they ran and embraced. They forgave each other and they moved on. They were not particularly close going forward but they were not at war…

Our portion and its story is particularly timely today. On Friday the verdict was issued in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse who, claiming self-defense, was exonerated of all the charges laid against him for killing two people and wounding a third. Now I am in no way justifying the actions of the Rittenhouse, but I am drawn by the similarity of the situations between Jacob and Esau. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense. He stated he was in fear of his life and so he took the lives of others to save himself.

Our text says, “Jacob was greatly afraid AND anxious.” Rather than anxious, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates the Hebrew

וַיִּירָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב מְאֹ֖ד וַיֵּ֣צֶר ל֑וֹ

as distressed.

Why the two verbs – afraid and anxious?  Afraid and distressed?   What is the difference between the two?

Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who quotes Rabbi Judah bar Ilai as he presents the following ideas “Are not fear and distress identical?  The meaning, however, is that “he was afraid” that he might be killed: “he was distressed” that he might kill.  For Jacob thought:  If he prevails against me, will he not kill me; while if I prevail against him, will I not kill him?  That is the meaning of “he was afraid” – lest he should be killed; “and distressed” – lest he should kill.” The difference is that to be afraid is a physical anxiety; the second is a moral one.   It is one thing to be afraid for yourself, it is another to worry that you will take a life. Rabbi Sacks asks “What does the Torah say about taking a life, specifically about self-defense?  When is it permitted in Jewish law?” 

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 72a we read, “If someone comes to kill you, forestall it by killing him.”  If you are in mortal danger and you fear for your life, you are allowed to take a preemptive move… BUT, we also read “If the [one] pursued could have been saved by maiming a limb of the pursuer, but instead the rescuer killed the pursuer, the rescuer is liable to capital punishment on that account.”…. Jacob is worried that he might kill some of Esau’s men when merely injuring them, would have been enough.  In today’s language, he is worried about collateral damage. 

Jacob is faced with a moral dilemma…. If he is forced to fight and to kill, he will either be killed, or if he is victorious, he will have taken a life, possibly injuring others, and he will have lost his brother. But Jacob holds two emotions at the same time. He is both afraid and distressed – it is a lose-lose situation. His soul is troubled… In fact, the night before the encounter, as he sleeps, Jacob encounters a man/an angel with whom he wrestles all night. There are many interpretations as to who this man is, but one is that Jacob wrestled with himself, with his conscience, being highly troubled at the prospect of the coming encounter with Esau.

Using force, taking a life, is sometimes necessary. In fact, we are taught that to save a life is the highest value and that begins with saving our own. If two people are in the desert and one has water and one doesn’t, rather than share and have them both die, we are taught that the one with the water should drink it and survive. Which isn’t to say that the one who lives doesn’t have survivors’ guilt or makes the decision lightly. But the use of lethal force is not forbidden.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks about these mixed feelings “These mixed feelings were born thousands of years earlier, when Jacob, father of the Jewish people, experienced not only the physical fear of defeat but the more distress of victory.  Only those who are capable of feeling both, can defend their bodies without endangering their souls.”

I can’t speak about what Kyle Rittenhouse was thinking as he set forth that night, armed with a rifle and bullets, but I can say that should we ever be in a situation where we are forced to use lethal force, may we be both afraid and distressed.

Shabbat shalom.

Living a Life Well-Lived

Lech Lecha

Every Friday morning I facilitate a Torah study group where the average age is 80. The zoom room is filled with a group of people who have been studying together, every Friday morning at 8am, for more that 50 years. The group was started when these men, and for a long time it was only men, were all working in downtown San Francisco and their offices were in the financial district. It is a window back in time to hang out with them and as you can understand, they are very close.

This morning we focused in on the opening words of our Torah portion “Lech Lecha.”  As the portion begins,

“God said to Abram, “Go forth from your homeland to the land that I shall show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”

How does one translate the words “Lech Lecha?” Some translate Lech Lecha as “Go!” Others as “Leave!” Deciding to go, and being told to leave, are two different things. That the words Lech Lecha is interpreted in many ways shouldn’t surprise us. It isn’t unusual for there to be multiple interpretations / translations of a phrase in the Torah.

Paraphrasing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks* who gives four interpretations, “Rashi, translates the phrase as “Journey for yourself.” According to him, God is saying “Travel for your own benefit and good. There I will make you into a great nation; here you will not have the merit of having children.” Sometimes we have to give up our past in order to acquire a future. “Go for yourself ” – believe in what you can become.

A second interpretation – “Go with yourself ” – meaning, by travelling from place to place you will extend your influence not over one land but many:“Go with yourself” – your beliefs, your way of life, your faith.

A third interpretation: “Go by yourself.” Only a person willing to stand alone, singular and unique, can worship the God who is alone, singular and unique. Only one able to leave behind the natural sources of identity – home, family, culture and society – can encounter God who stands above and beyond nature.

Lastly some take the phrase to mean, “Go to yourself.” The Jewish journey, said R. David of Lelov, is a journey to the root of the soul. In the words of R. Zushya of Hanipol, “When I get to heaven, they will not ask me, why were you not Moses? They will ask me, Zushya, why were you not Zushya?”

In the Friday morning Torah study group, we are blessed to have a centenarian.  Rabbi Ed Zerin.  Rabbi Zerin was a congregational rabbi for 30 years and then switched careers and was a therapist for another 40 or 50 years.   At 101 1/2, he is sharp as a tack and when he speaks, everyone listens.  Sadly, last week he lost his 97-year-old his kid brother  and 3 days later, his sister-in-law.  Married for 70 years, they passed away within 3 days of each other. 

The conversation turned to the longevity in Rabbi Zerin’s family and while clearly his family was blessed with good genes, one of the reasons for his longevity has to do with our Torah portion today.  “Every morning I wake up and there are things I want to do.  I have a purpose.  Yes, my legs hurt, and I don’t hear so well, but there are things I want to do.  There are articles I want to write, people I want to talk to.”   Rabbi Zerin is like Rabbi Zushya of Hanipol.  He is living life to the fullest.  He is being the best Rabbi Ed Zerin he can be.

Coming to terms with who we are, with our strengths and our weaknesses is also a lesson of Lech LechaLech lecha, go to yourself, turn inward, take stock, see who you are and make the most of the gifts you have been given – be the best you can be.  I’ll never be a brain surgeon, and I would make a pretty terrible accountant, but I can be the best Jamie Hyams, the best Rabbi Jamie that I can be.”

And so, each morning when wake, may we be inspired to Lech Lecha, to be a blessing to those around us and to the world.  May  we be blessed like Rabbi Zerin with a long life and a sense of purpose to get out of bed, even when our legs hurt; and may we be the best Rav Zuzya, the best Rabbi Jamie, the best we each can be, as we live life to its fullest.

Ken yihiyeh ratzon

*Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Four Dimensions of the Journey (Lech Lecha 5779)

Ki Teitzei: When you go out to battle… Afghanistan

I try to keep services fresh… to not have the repetition of prayers and songs become so rote that they no longer resonate.   Lately, as I read the list of names of those In need of healing, I come to entry “the 1000’s of separated families.” I remember when it was added over the issues at the U.S. border several years back, and I’ve been wondering if we should take it off?  Has the listing lost it effectiveness by repeating it week after week, now that the issue isn’t top of mind?

It is the month of Elul, a time of introspection and self-assessment as we approach the new year.   How do we want it to be different?  What can we do now that will make it different?   What are the steps we can take, big or small, to make the world for us, and for others, better?

In last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, we read “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof”…”Justice, justice, you shall pursue”… What does it mean to pursue justice?  What does this pursuit look like in our daily lives??  What do we actually need to do in the pursuit of justice?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei begins כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ “When you take the field against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power, and you take some of them captive…” The Torah is raising awareness of the humanitarian concerns that arise when you set out to battle.  When the battle ends, how you treat the people who remain?  This is especially apropos as the U.S. military exits Afghanistan.   Our organized community is not remaining on the sidelines.

Quoting from a Jewish Community Relations Council communication, “Whatever ours views on events leading up to this moment, the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes in Afghanistan is heartbreaking, alarming, and in need of urgent community action. Our Jewish American experience has taught us that taking in such refuges whenever possible should be a priority.”

The recent statement from HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) reads “The unfolding situation in Afghanistan is devastating. We’re watching in real time as a humanitarian crisis engulfs the country, and desperation and panic strike untold numbers of Afghans whose safety is now at extreme risk.

Because of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, few options are available for those at risk of violent retaliation. Borders to neighboring countries are officially closed, and in-country refugee processing is not a possibility. HIAS is therefore pressing for large scale humanitarian evacuations for those whose lives are in danger. This includes not just Afghans who were affiliated with the U.S. mission, but also human rights activists (especially women and girls), journalists, and religious minorities.

HIAS is calling on the Biden administration to get Afghans safely to the U.S. or willing third countries for expedited processing. Through their network of affiliates, HIAS will help to ensure that newly arriving Afghans are welcomed and able to access opportunities to start their lives in safety in their new American communities.”  

How different would it have been for many of our relatives in Europe, if when the borders closed and danger was imminent, if there had been open arms to welcome them out of harm’s way?   To pursue justice means to act in the moment, not to wait, to do what is right, NOW.   Reconstructing Judaism, the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council are providing information on how to help and information that individuals and communities can take to help people in peril in Afghanistan, and to support refugees coming to the U.S. 

Returning to the question of whether to leave the 1000’s of separated families on the list, sadly, we’ll leave it for now. It is a weekly reminder that there are still families who are torn apart by politics and war. We need to act now in whatever way we can, so that someday, we’ll be able to take it off our prayers for healing.  

Earlier tonight we read Psalm 27, a prayer for the protection which is traditionally read during Elul.  May the following version, for the people of Afghanistan, be heard at the gates of heaven. 

Ken y’hiye ratzon. May it be your will. 

Psalm 27 for the People of Afghanistan
By Martha Hurwitz

How desperate do Your people need to be
To cling to a soaring plane?
Willing to choose the certainty of death
Over living with no hope of redemption?

God of Justice
Look upon the men
Whose enemies besiege them.
Raise them up to a stronghold.
Do not hand them over.

Protector of Sarah
Look upon the women
Shelter them in Your sukkah
In the secret recesses of Your tent.

God of Compassion
Look upon the children
Assailed by evil people
Their flesh devoured in the agony of war.

Maker of Peace,
Let them see Your goodness
In the land of the living.

Barukh atah Adonai, oseh haShalom.
Blessed are You, Maker of the Peace.  

It’s Complicated

I have been perseverating about this drash all week.

What is a drash if it isn’t timely and in relation to what is going on, which meant to not address the situation in Israel would be irresponsible.  I sat down to put pen to paper, with the understanding that “it’s complicated.”  

Like many of us, I have a life-long relationship with Israel.  I made aliyah at 22, lived and loved there for years, have family and friends there, and I know that I am safer in the world because Israel is there as my home base.

This round of the conflict feels different than previous ones. While the layer of imminent danger of the missiles falling was one component, the effect has been deeper within the circles that I run in. Not only has it grown into street violence between Jewish and Arabs Israelis, it is eating at bonds within the Jewish community, and at the American-Israeli political alliance.

I was in Israel for a month in 2015, when the last conflict started. You may remember that 3 teenage boys had been kidnapped, two weeks passed until they were found murdered and the county roiled. I flew home just as the missiles started to fall. In the afternoon before my flight I wandered around downtown Jerusalem where I had lived for almost 4 years. Jerusalem had changed of course but the change was less about the street configuration and the new light rail than about the range of viewpoints I saw on the streets. In my day, our energy was focused outward, bus bombings and grenades were aimed AT Jews and Israelis by Palestinian terrorists. That afternoon I saw two demonstrations by Israelis… the first was mavet l’Aravim (death to the Arabs) spelled out in candles with a large crowd surrounding them; and a second group of demonstrators waved flags that read Shalom l’kulam (peace for all). A clear divide between Israeli society was spelled out in front of me. That gap has only grown, and now it is eating at the fabric of what it means to be both a Jewish state and a democracy.

This time around while the missiles present one form of danger, even more dangerous is the dissolution of unified Jewish support for Israel and the weakening of American support for her. Our idealism of the utopian Jewish state has come into conflict with the reality of making tough choices on the ground of real-life modern Israel. I present to you 4 short vignettes as to the different perspectives and the where “hamatzav/the conflict” is playing out far beyond the Israeli borders.

Vignette #1 – My friend Smadar is of Yemenite descent, whose family fled to Israel in the 50’s. Smadar is safe in the world today because there was a Jewish state to give them refuge. A secular Israeli-born kibbutznik whose family was not easily accepted into the Ashkenazic society created by founding fathers, Smadar now lives in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, in Israel proper, in an upscale Israeli neighborhood. She spent several nights in her building’s bomb shelter and was afraid to drive to her friend’s home nearby lest she be caught in the car when the missiles fell with nowhere to shelter. She has no Palestinian neighbors, and feels the conflict deeply for its effect on Israeli society, and that her 17-year-old son will be called for army duty this fall. She works from within the system to make change but after 3 failed elections, she is disillusioned that we will ever find a political solution.

Vignette #2 – My friend David and I met just after we both graduated college when we lived and studied in Arad.  An Ashkenazi Jew originally from Cleveland, he made aliyah at the same time as I. A Jerry Garcia look-alike, he stayed in Israel while I returned to the States.  Over time he became more observant and now lives in Tekoa, in the West Bank, 20 km northeast of Hebron and 16 km south of Jerusalem.  There are 4,000 people in Tekoa, mostly religious Zionists and secular Israelis. The former chief rabbi of Tekoa, Menachem Froman, maintained close ties with PLO and Hamas leaders. Rabbi Froman taught at the local hesder yeshiva headed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.  Which is to say, David has contact with his Palestinian neighbors.   The 3 boys who were kidnapped and later found murdered lived in a neighboring settlement and were friends of his family.

When I visited David at his home in Tekoa in 2015.  We drove through checkpoints, barbed wire and signs that read “This area under Palestinian Authority.  The risk is yours if you get out of your car.”  His wife carries a gun in her car when she heads to work outside of Tekoa’s gate. David knows the dangers of living in the territories. I asked him why he lives in a settlement when his neighbors clearly don’t want him there. He said, “When you and I spent Passover together and we read that God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm and gave us the Land of Israel, I was the one who believed it literally.” 

David wrote on his Facebook page this week…”If you could prevent a genocide by speaking up, would you? This isn’t a rhetorical question. My people are in danger of being slaughtered by angry mobs at the instigation of a leadership that thinks lobbing rockets into civilian population centers is ‘diplomacy’. If you would like to see millions of Jewish citizens of Israel deprived of their right to exist, just say nothing. If you would rather not see that happen, the time has come to speak up.  What can I say, you ask? You might want to say Jews are people. They have rights, just like me. I would not expect my government to ignore rocket attacks and violent mobs, and I do not expect that of the government of Israel. He continued “I never post political stuff on SM. Unusual circumstances require unusual responses though. We saw millions of Jews die in Europe in WWII. We learned our lesson though. We will never again stand idly by and watch that happen.”

While David may face dangers every day, and I may or may not agree with his justification for living in the territories that God gave us the land, he is living in the land that keeps the Jewish people safe by its very existence.

Vignette #3 – This week 100 rabbinic and cantorial student from reform, conservative and trans-denominational schools published a letter in the Forward expressing sympathy for the Palestinians.  It read in part “We can only make change when we replace our watered-down prayers for peace with tears of heartbreak. We can only build – and rebuild – when we start from our tears. For those of us for whom Israel has represented hope and justice we need to give ourselves permission to watch, to acknowledge what we see, to mourn, and to cry. And then, to change our behavior and demand better.”

For me, this letter was unprecedented, and I have very mixed emotions. Was it over simplistic and did it show a lack of deeper understanding and nuance? Was it treasonous? Was it brave? Will these folks ever find jobs in the mainstream Jewish community? Should professional concerns silence one’s willingness to speak out? Or will they come to represent a new mainstream view? Time will tell.

Vignette #4 – One of my closest friends is a fresh-faced Indiana-born American homecoming queen who isn’t Jewish but used to be married to a Jewish man. She loves to garden, to cycle and to cook. Middle East politics is not her thing and Israel is something she pays attention to with only 1/2 an ear… so my BFF is now dating a lovely non-Jewish, Iranian-born engineer she met on Hinge.com. He fled Iran with the fall of the Shah and made a new life in California. They have spent last couple of years riding their bikes, drinking good wine and enjoying each other’s company. This week though, unexpectedly for her, he is VERY upset about what is going on in Israel. While he himself is not religious, his two sons are devout Muslims, and he has strong feelings in support of the Palestinians. He is flabbergasted that my BFF doesn’t know much about the situation and is on a learning curve. I walked into her living room Monday night to an hour-long barrage of questions that I am sure I answered differently than he would have. My point here is that “hamatzav/the situation” is reaching into American living rooms in Martinez, CA, into non-Jewish circles, in ways that it has not before, and we are seeing the effect in the erosion of support for Israel.

As I said, it’s complicated. I close with the paraphrased words of the American-born Israeli author Yossi Klein HaLevi, who wrote last week in the New York Times.

“The framers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence defined Israel as both Jewish and democratic: the homeland of all Jews, whether or not they were Israeli citizens; the state of all its citizens, whether or not they were Jews. An Israel that would no longer regard itself as a continuity of the Jewish story and protector of the world’s vulnerable Jews would lose its soul; an Israel that would no longer aspire to fulfill democratic values would lose its mind.

‘Balancing those two increasingly contentious but foundational elements of our national identity defines my Israeli commitment. There are voices on the left and the right who call for abolishing either Israel’s Jewish identity or its democratic identity. I stand with the large, if embattled, camp of political centrists that insists on holding both. We know that Israel’s long-term viability depends on managing the tensions inherent in our identity and reality.

For Israelis to form a shared civic identity, Jews need to fulfill Israel’s founding promise to grant full equality to all citizens and reassure Arabs that “Israeli” is not a synonym for “Jew.” Arabs need to come to terms with the fact that Israel will not abandon its Jewish identity and commitments.

In my building in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, nearly half the families are Arab Israeli. They are lawyers, doctors, civil servants, who bought apartments here because they want their share of the Israeli dream. The violence that erupted in the poor mixed neighborhoods would be unthinkable in middle-class French Hill. When Arabs and Jews meet in the parking lot, we sigh and reassure each other that things will get better because they always do and we have no choice.

Most Israelis — Arabs and Jews — are practiced in the habit of decency. But we are also practiced in self-justification. We know the routines of neighborliness, but rarely consider the other’s reality. We avoid the hard questions that threaten our certainties, our insistence on the absolute justice of our side. What is it like to be a Palestinian citizen of a Jewish state that occupies your family? What is it like to be a Jew who has finally come home, only to live under constant siege?

The current violence wasn’t triggered by any one event but, in part, by our inability to ask those questions. Perhaps we can begin building a better Israel from that place of shared brokenness.”

Shabbat shalom.