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?

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

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

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

Please,
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.

Toward Understanding: A Journey in Search of God

It has been a long time coming but I’m about to cross the finish line in my journey to become a rabbi. My thesis has been presented and accepted. It is 94 pages long so rather than post the whole thing, you can download it below. I look forward to your thoughts over coffee, on a bike ride or via Zoom.

Link to Thesis Presentation

https://1drv.ms/v/s!ApTVSjtM5PYq8yp84cASi3nHs45T?e=NQaBqb

Here’s to the journey,

Jamie/Reb Jamie

God’s Presence Dwells in our Zoom Room

In this week’s Torah portion, Trumah, we read, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a donation from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation….And they shall make me a Tabernacle, that I may abide in their midst.”   The word for Tabernacle in Hebrew, Mishkan, literally means abode or dwelling.   The Children of Israel are the instructed in minute detail, several chapters in fact, of how to create a portable sanctuary that will go with them where they go on their journey. What are the lessons to be learned from all of this detail? 

First off, the sanctuary is portable.  Why is this significant? Why, because the sanctuary goes with them wherever they go.

What exactly is a sanctuary?  Dictionary.com defines it “as a place of refuge or safety.”  How does this definition relate to what God is instructing the Israelites to build?   They are told to build a Mishkan, from the root, shin-chaf-nun, so that God will dwell among them.  The word for God’s presence in Hebrew is Shekhinah, which comes from the same root – shin-chaf-nun.  In modern Hebrew, a neighbor, one who dwells in proximity to you, is a shochen/sheichna…all come from the same root.

My father is a regular in a Friday morning Torah study which I attend.  It is comprised mostly of 20 men in their late 70’s or more who have been meeting every Friday morning in downtown San Francisco at 8am for 50 years. They were meeting in our building and I would periodically attend when I wasn’t in Las Vegas.  When the pandemic hit, they begrudgingly moved online because they had no choice.  Now, a year later, the group has doubled in size, I can attend weekly, and there are folks joining for LA, Paris, Idaho, and all parts of the Bay Area.  My father is able to join because they are online and the group has become really meaningful to him.  He has found a group of passionate like-minded people and it is a powerful highlight of his week.   There is a community there for him that he didn’t have before.  And he is there every week.  He finds friendship, learning and community.  He feels safe and accepted and it is a spiritual refuge from the often wild world in which we live.

Why do I bring this up?  Because the Shekhina/God’s presence dwells in that Friday morning zoom room.  It is a sanctuary, a Mishkan, and like the sanctuary in the desert, it is 100% portable.  One can join from anywhere in the world.  So how does God’s presence dwell in a Zoom room when there is no actual physical place?   How does God’s presence dwell among us at P’nai Tikvah when we do not have a physical home?  How is God’s presence dwelling among us in this Zoom room as I speak?

Our Torah portion says, “Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a donation from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation.”  As his heart shall urge him… That isn’t only a reference to the amount of money one might donate, but to the individual skills and passions that each individual brought to the effort.  If everyone hadn’t had a hand in the outcome, in the creation of the Mishkan, then God’s presence wouldn’t have dwelt there.  And God’s presence is made manifest because the people worked hand-in-hand, because they formed friendships, they were selfless in their giving, and they were on the same page as to what they were creating – a sanctuary in which God would dwell.  Like our service tonight, many people have had a hand in making this the moving, unique service that it is.  And by sharing in the creation of the service, we created a sense of ownership and belonging.  And like my father, we find friendship, learning and community here in our sanctuary, in our Zoom room, because the friendships, the learning and the community that we sense, that my father senses. and that the Israelites sensed when God’s presence dwelt within them, that TRANSCENDS a building, a physical space.  God’s presence followed the Mishkan wherever it went because God’s presence wasn’t house IN the Mishkan, it wasn’t IN the portable sanctuary, and it isn’t IN beautiful buildings.  It was, and is, housed within the people.  And like the Israelites, God’s presence dwells within us, in this Zoom room, in the sacred space that we create when we come together as a community.  This space is more than the sum of the each of our individual efforts.  When God’s presence dwells among us, we are greater than the sum of our parts as we have created a kehillah kedosha – a holy community.   And so, let us remember that the Shehkinah/God’s presence dwells WITHIN US. It is portable, it come with us, when we gather together to form our kehillah kedosha – our holy community. And like my father, may we feel safe, accepted and find a spiritual refuge here at Congregation P’nai Tikvah from the often wild world in which we live.

Ken yihiyeh ratzon.  May it be so.

Fortune Cookies and 2021

Parashat Vayihi, 2021

Last Thursday night was Christmas Eve and like many Jews around the world, I celebrated with take-out Chinese food and Kung Pao Comedy.  The garlic eggplant and moshu vegetables were delicious but the fortune cookies were extraordinary.  My first fortune read “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”  Wow, that was a modern and politically motivating idea. The second read “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.”   WOW! There we go again. Modern and motivating, but where have we heard those ideas before? 

Jewish tradition, even 2000 years ago, would have served as a great source for fortunes. In the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, we read:

וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה

Study is not the most important thing, rather action.

Bingo!

2020 is thankfully in the rear view mirror and for most of us, 2021 couldn’t have come fast enough. Though the shift from 2020-2021 is an arbitrary one, and nothing magically changed at 12:01 this morning, we all breathed a sigh of relief.   Or as my husband’s fortune cookie read, “A fresh start will put you on your way.” 

I am up to my ears in reading and writing for my rabbinical thesis/capstone project which deals with different understandings of God over the span of Jewish thought.  As I devour my readings, I’ve been thinking a lot about P’nai Tikvah, who we are as a community, who we are as individuals, and what are the unexamined assumptions that we each bring to the table.  None of us come with labels on our foreheads.  If we did, mine would read “My image of God, what He or She expects of me, what kind of relationship we should have, was formed by a strong Jewish cultural identification in my youth which that later was deeply influenced by the born-again Christian understanding of God I encountered in college, which was later reinforced by antiquated translations of Hebrew when I began to explore Jewish ideas and practice in depth.”  Hmmm…I ask you, “How would your label read?”

As I read the piles of books on my desk, I am deep into what is known as Process Theology.   Process Theology puts forth that God, is not an external, all-powerful, all-knowing being who can make miracles outside of the rules of nature. God is understood to be a participant in a larger creative process, so that God influences and is influenced by other entities. God participates and interacts with a changing world.  Most importantly, God’s power to create change in the world is persuasive rather than coercive and exercised within the limits of natural law. Noted Jewish theologians who ascribe to aspects of Process Theology are Brad Artson, dean of the AJU Conservative rabbinical school in LA; Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism of which P’nai Tikvah is affiliated;  and noted theologian, Martin Buber, to name just a few. 

I am serious when I ask you “How does your label read?” I bring this up for two reasons. First, different ideas of the nature of God are playing themselves out all the time in our lives at P’nai Tikvah, we just don’t always note it head on. We see this in the effort it takes for us to write our community prayer and whether some of us feel comfortable saying “Oh, Most Merciful God” as we did at the beginning of this week’s prayer.  A Process Theology understanding of God does not contain these human attributes of mercy. We see it in our Torah study where some feel that God has a clear plan for the Jewish people, and others feel that God is not sentient or planful around a specific people, rather that godliness is found in our kind deeds as we build a better world.

The second reason I bring up ideas of Process Theology and Reconstructionism is for a teaching moment.  When I guide us in Shabbat candlelighting, we say the blessing “v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat” … who has commanded us to light the Shabbat candles. When I translate that for you into English, you hear me say “who has commanded/who has compelled us…”  This is a purposeful addition to our familiar translation and it reflects my understanding of our relationship with God through the lens of Process Theology.  

Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism wrote “God is the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.”  With this understanding of God, we are persuaded to light candles because we are part of making cosmos, or order, out of chaos.  I do not feel commanded to light Shabbat candles, coerced by the fear that if I don’t, a lightning bolt will strike me down. Rather, I feel compelled to light candles, pulled by the knowledge that in doing so, I am making sacred the time that  I will spend with friends and family in learning and rejuvenation over the coming 25 hours.  This urge, this lure to observe Shabbat and a day of rest to improve the world is God working though me.

Back to our fortune cookies… “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”  With all my reading and the insights I am gaining, it will be for naught if I don’t share it with you. P’nai Tikvah is an inclusive, warm, embracing community AND quoting from our website “the Congregation has close ties to both the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. Reconstructionism provides a progressive view of Judaism as an evolving civilization, a way of life rich with tradition, where the past has a vote, not a veto. In addition, the congregation is inspired by the emerging Renewal movement, dedicated to the Jewish people’s sacred purpose of partnership with the Divine in the inseparable tasks of healing the world and healing our hearts.”

My second fortune read “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.”  We are clearly not indifferent.  By studying and understanding our roots in the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, by identifying the unique lenses through which each of us views the world, by opening ourselves up to the myriad of Jewish ideas on the nature of God and what it means to be Jewish, we develop deeper, more self-assured, more meaningful, and grounded Jewish lives.  More assured in who we are, we are moved to be active in the world, and through our actions, we will build the world we want to come, in 2021 and beyond. 

Ken yihi ratzon. May it be so.

Jamie/Reb Jamie

“We vs. Me” for the Greater Good

Reb Jamie, 12/04/202 – Parashat Vayishlach

Yesterday the governor of California announced a return to the strictest level of pandemic restrictions with masks mandatory outside of your house, period, through at least early January. I was listening to the radio broadcast of the announcement and someone asked if there would be fines if folks didn’t comply? Can mandates like this really be enforced? No. What will make this effective is voluntary compliance when people choose to do something for the greater good.

What would compel someone to comply voluntarily? Several of us have been exploring the question of “what Jewish texts have to say about voluntary compliance in a time of pandemic”*? We’ve explored several ideas including societies whose laws and values harm the victim and reward the perpetrator – like Sodomite society of which we read several weeks ago. We’ve explored the idea of “lifnim meshurat hadin” – discretion to choose NOT to do something, even though it is within your legal rights to do so.

As individuals we have rights, but as a society, we have responsibilities to one another.  Where is the line between the two?  How do we know when we should pull back on our individual rights (lifnim m’shurat hadin) for the good of the society as a whole? Our Torah portion Vayishlach gives us some hints.

We are in Genesis and you’ll remember that after Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, the two became estranged. Now, years later, they have arranged to meet. Jacob has sent gifts of apology to smooth the way and to appease his brother Esau but Jacob is clearly agitated. The text tells us:

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he (the man) saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.  Then he (the man) said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he (Jacob) answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”

Who is the man/the being with whom Jacob struggles? Is he an angel, a messenger from God? An actual person? Or is Jacob struggling with his own guilty conscience and his own demons over what he did to his brother? Perhaps he is grappling with his individual desire to let the whole matter be in the rearview mirror and to do nothing, but he knows that for shalom bayit “peace in the family,” he needs to eat crow and apologize. Perhaps he genuinely feels sorry. In thinking about who the being is with whom he struggles, we are specifically NOT told the name of other, “You must not ask my name!”, but after the encounter, Jacob is changed. He is changed because he has encountered God. He “has seen a divine being face to face, yet his life has been preserved.”

I am struck by three things here:  Jacob is changed by the struggle.  He doesn’t know the name of the being with whom he struggles, and he looks into the face of the divine and his life is preserved.

First, Jacob is changed by the struggle. When thinking about the pandemic, or any aspect of living in a society in a time of crisis, I struggle with my individual rights and responsibilities. Should I go visit my mother? Am I risking my health or my husband’s by going into Walmart? Do I really need to wear a mask in the park? What happens if I do not and I run into someone rounding the corner? As I consider how I will respond to the tension between the need to go to the market, the need to get out of the house, and keeping myself and other people safe, I have wrestled with this and this struggle has changed me. I now consider every action I take through the lens of wearing a mask and my responsibility to my family, my neighbors and my friends.

Second, Jacob doesn’t know the name of the being with whom he struggles. Why did Jacob want to know the name of the individual with whom he struggled? The Italian rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno suggests that a name “describes your essence, your function, and how you would go about performing same.” By naming the being you begin to understand who they are, to define them… you see them a bit clearer…you start to know with whom you are dealing. And once you know with whom you are dealing, you can dismiss or validate them. Personally, I think Jacob wanted to know with whom he struggled to confirm his faith in God, that God would be with him as he faced a difficult morning ahead.

We live in a society comprised of individuals and strangers. It is impossible to know everyone, in fact, in our daily comings and goings (perhaps in the old world, if not now). We don’t know the names of 99% of the people around us. Who are they? If I don’t know them, why should I care about them? Why should they care about me? What would cause them to care about me?

Lastly, “he (Jacob) looks into the face of the divine and his life is preserved.” What would cause the unknown people who live around me to care enough about me to choose to act in way that circumscribes their rights, whether it is wearing a mask today, or putting up blackout curtains in World War II, or not taking 2-hour showers in a drought? Mutuality and reciprocity would cause people to circumscribe their rights, or in the wording of texts, to act “lifnim meshurat hadin.” When I feel I will benefit in some way by circumscribing my rights, now or in the future, I will do so. I will join with my fellow citizens for the benefit of our greater good.

We are all created in the image of God. Each of us carries a spark of the divine. When we forget that, when we ignore that, then our neighbors become nameless “others.” Jacob looked at the being with whom he wrestled, he looked into the face of the divine, he recognized in the “other” the image of God, and because of that his life was preserved.

As we enter into a period of new or continuing restrictions, let us remember that like Jacob, while we may struggle with the line between personal freedom and community responsibility, when we look into the face of the other, into the faces of those around us, let us see the image of God. By looking into the face of the other, may we see the face of the divine, may we act for the greater good, and may life be preserved.

Ken y’hi ratzon

*In grateful acknowledgement of the stellar teaching of Elana Stein-Hain of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Steady as She Goes

It’s been quite a ride between the lockdown, the protests against racial injustice, the reopening, the continuing partial shutdown…. couple all of that with the particulars of our lives, and I think most of us are exhausted. Personally, I really want some peace and quiet, to sit INSIDE at my favorite coffee house, with an iced decaf coffee.

What I am craving is calm, constant, and familiar.  As I mapped out our Shabbat service, I sensed it wasn’t a night to innovate; it was a night to sink into the reassuring mundane.   

When things are swirling around us, how do we quiet the noise?  Our coming together for services quiets the noise for me.  I see familiar faces, I hear familiar melodies; and I carve out time to rest and rejuvenate. 

Our liturgy speaks of constancy…Ma’ariv aravim (brings on the evening)… m’shaneh itim(“changes the times”),  goleil or mipnei choshech v’choshech mipnei or(“rolling light away from darkness and darkness in front of light”),  u’maavir yom umeivi lailah(“causing day to pass and bringing on the night”). Every day we experience constancy as we know the sun will rise and the sun will set.

This week’s Torah reading is double portion Mattot/Masei. The second portion, Masei, begins by recounting the endless wandering of the Israelites before they conquered Canaan and entered the land. Almost 50 stops along the journey.

What can we learn from this exhaustive here and there, up and down, left and right…? Rashi comments that these journeys are recorded to make the Omnipresent’s benevolence known that He was with them on the journey. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments “We are all on a journey. And we must all rest from time to time. That dialectic betweensetting outandencamping, walking and standing still, is part of the rhythm of Jewish life.” I think this detail is there to remind us that our landscapes are always changing. That the ups and downs are nothing new.

If we break down out lives into the specific detail of every year, “I was born in LA, moved to SF at 6, Menlo Park at 8, Piedmont at 12, Palo Alto at 14, Portland at 17, Jerusalem at 21, Oakland, Menlo Park, Fremont, Pleasanton and now San Ramon,” it feels like a lot. But when we take the long view, we see that as Rashi says, God, the Omnipresent, is always with us; that as Rabbi Sacks says, we are all on a journey; and I said, change is constant.

So as we ride out this part of our journey with the ups and the downs, the shutdowns and the unexpected, let us remember that all journeys are filled with twists and turns; that as the sun is setting tonight, it will rise tomorrow; that the familiar faces of our caring community are here with you tonight; and that the Omnipresent is with us always. Here’s to the mundane that quiets the noise, and here’s to sitting INSIDE at our favorite coffee houses, with an iced decaf coffee.

Shabbat shalom. 

Silver Linings in a Virtual World

So, a friend sent me a joke – “Jewish irony~ Passover cancelled due to plague.”

While I know it supposed to be funny, I just keep thinking “Mother Earth woke up, looked around, and boy, is she pissed.”

Her skies were filled with carbon monoxide, her oceans were choking and polluted from millions of plastic bottles, and the people themselves were so caught up in the pace of modern life, no one really noticed.

In our daily liturgy, in the 2nd paragraph of the Shema, we read:  “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. … Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the LORD’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the LORD is giving to you.”

Liberal movements of Judaism often skip this paragraph because they don’t like to think of a retributive, of a punishing god.   I suppose it depends on how you view God, on what God is…. I understand God to be everything that ever was, everything that is, and everything that will be.  By this definition, everything is God.  Everything is interconnected.  Everything is One…. Adonoi eloheinu, Adonai ehad…. We are having a pretty good demonstration of this interconnectedness now.  What started half a globe away in a marketplace has rippled around the world…  People forgot that everything is interconnected – that viruses can move from animals to people, and then spread like wildfire.

These are unprecedented times, and I am saddened by so much loss and economic insecurity, and I am scared for all of us.  But, there are silver linings…

The pace of modern life is slowing as we acknowledge that everything is interconnected and we must at accordingly.

As the pace of modern life slows, distance is no longer a barrier to participation in things I never thought possible.  Most mornings when I wake up near San Francisco, I say Modeh Ani, I roll out of bed, and I head the VBS morning minyan. In the evening, I join a class at one of the local shuls in Las Vegas, and then I head off to sleep listening to a free concert from Nefesh Mountain in North Carolina on Facebook. I have been gathering weekly with my cycling friends from across the country.  My son’s girlfriend in Ladera Oaks started a book club to introduce me in a casual way to her mother and sister in Austin and San Luis Obispo.And we’ve been invited at least once a week to meet them for dinner.  All of this has happened via zoom.

I’ve made havdalah with Rabbi Mel, had a happy hour with Bob Levy, live-streamed Friday night services from my kitchen and Torah study from my home office. I joined with people all over the world as we laid their father to rest in Mexico and on Wednesday night, I’ll gather with my father and stepmom in Idaho, my brother in Pasadena, and my son in Irvine for the first night of Passover. My life has been enriched by our communal adoption of online gatherings and while my physical world has grown smaller, my communal and spiritual life has grown exponentially.

As the pace of modern life slows, people are nicer to each other. V’ahavta et ra’echa c’mocha – love your neighbor as yourself….When the only people you see if you venture out to walk the dog are your neighbors, you begin to recognize their faces, and to know where they live… and you begin to feel a stronger sense of community, of belonging.

As the pace of modern life slows, Mother Earth is feeling better too. All over the world people are observing a dramatic decrease in the level of polluting emissions from cars, trucks, power plants and factories. The decrease in emissions has led to fresh air and a beautiful bright blue skies.  Water quality is improving, and in the morning, I can hear the birds chirping.

Passover is right around the corner.  In Deuteronomy we are told at Passover to read verses 26:5-11 which include “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and “God led us out of Egypt with signs and wonders.”  For whatever reason, when the original haggadot were compiled, they chose to leave out verses 9-11 “. “And God gave us a land, and now we bring the first fruits of the land, which you God, have given us.”  With Pesach upon us, let’s acknowledge that this planet is the land that God has given all of us, this it nurtures and sustains us, and that how we treat her has consequences, that the beauty of interconnectedness is a double-edged sword.

When the virus clears and we feel comfortable to move more freely, let us remember the silver linings of these days that everything is interconnected.  Let us remember, that distance doesn’t have to be barrier to participation. Let us recognize and get to know our neighbors. And let us live in awareness of this interconnectedness, of this Oneness, of Ehad, so that the skies will be blue and the air will be clear as we treat the planet with respect;

So that we may live מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם on the good land that God has given you.

Chag Sameach, Happy Passover