Category Archives: Rabbi Message

Between You and Me

“If you stop doing hard things,” she said, “you’ll stop being able to do hard things.”  That was what my health instructor said during class a couple of weeks ago.  She was lamenting how her mother, who used to be on her feet all the time while she was working, had retired, joined the YMCA and gravitated towards doing chair yoga as her primary movement practice.  Because her standing muscles slowly atrophied, she took a fall in the locker room and was heading into surgery to repair various injuries.

When she said that, I realized that my whole life has been guided by a similar principle.  If I had allowed my natural shyness to win the day, I’d have never taken a public speaking class in college.  If I had never taken that class and gained experience facing my paralyzing fears, I might not have summoned the chutzpah to apply to Rabbinical school.  If I’d have given myself over to those persistent and unpleasant nerves for the first 15 years of my rabbinate (!), I may have given up on being a rabbi. It’s not that I’m never nervous before speaking.  It’s not that all my talks are amazing.  It is that I’ve built a strong muscle for doing things that are hard for me because I’m doing them all the time: earning 3 black belts in TaeKwonDo, engaging in training programs that provide new challenges for my professional and personal life.  There are easier paths.  I’m almost 50.  I could just keep doing what I’ve always done.

The truth for all of us is that the hardest aspects of life are usually in front of us.  If we stop doing hard things, if we take the familiar road, we may stop being able to do hard things like let our children grow up and leave home, retire and find new ways to spend our time, live with new physical limitations, grieve a beloved, give up our homes and independence.

In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt famously said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Living in the arena and daring greatly has made all the difference for me.  You may reflect and discover the same is true for you.  I am grateful to you for all the opportunities you’ve given me to learn and teach and stay in the arena so that I can better serve as your rabbi.

Between You and Me – May 2019

Carpet Story

A story from Iran: When a certain Muslim had been swindled by a Jew in business, the angered party went to the regional governor and prevailed upon him to issue an official edict requiring the conversion of every Jew by a certain date, upon pain of death.

As the deadline approached, the Jewish community was paralyzed with fear.  With two weeks left, the various elders finally buried their long-standing differences and held a solemn conference at the house of the chief rabbi.  After much thought, they agreed to send a delegation to the governor, but had no idea how to persuade him to change his mind.  The rabbi’s wife said, “Leave it to me and my sisters.”

When the time came, the Rabbi’s wife presented the delegation with two enormous silk rugs, woven by the women in the province.  She gave them specific instructions on what to do when they faced the governor.

A few days later the delegation stood trembling before the Governor. “There is nothing that will make me change my mind, but since you are here, what have you to say?”

“We have brought you a gift, as a token of our gratitude for these many long years during which we have been privileged to live quietly and obediently under your powerful protection.”  The governor liked gifts.  The elders had both of the carpets brought in and unfurled at the ruler’s feet.  “On behalf of the Jewish community of this province, we place these two humble offerings before His Excellency, and request that He choose one of them as our tribute.”

Both carpets were broad, plush, tightly woven, and made out of the most exquisite material.  The first one was covered with colorful curving calyxes and designs of gold and green and turquoise, intricately intertwined with whirling waves of purple petunias which spiraled ceaselessly and centripetally towards the median.  The second carpet was red.  That’s all it was.  The whole rug was just one sprawling, solid red mat, from warp to woof, from end to end.  “I should have you all decapitated for such insolence!” said the Governor.  “Do you take me for a fool?  Who in his right mind would not choose the first carpet—and who in full possession of his faculties would choose the second?”

The most senior member of the Jewish delegation stepped forward from amongst his peers and looked the governor straight in the eye.  “The silk rugs are the territories under your benevolent sway.  Today that province is filled with peoples of every imaginable culture and creed and in this way, it resembles the first carpet.  Would Your Excellency, then, exchange the first carpet for the second?”

Which rug, which neighborhood, which country, which world do you want?  At times, even I long for the ease of a plain rug.  It’s just easier to figure out how to make it work in my home.  But the monochromatic rug doesn’t dance in the light or offer my mind the possibility of seeing how green and blue do go together, especially when I’ve convinced myself that they don’t.  However, uniformity is not a worthy aspiration of an enlightened soul because it doesn’t accept the truth that the world by its nature, is and will be, full of dazzling diversity.  True peace and well-being will come when we can find a way to weave every difference into the whole so it finds its unique light.

May , 2019

Between You and Me – April 2019

The Hagaddah does a great job telling the story of the Israelite’s enslavement at the hands of the mighty Pharaoh.  How with an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders, God redeemed us from captivity.

Many of us will reflect at our Seder tables about those who are victims of tyranny today at the hand of modern day Pharaohs: the Syrians at the hand of Assad, the Venezuelans at the hand of Nicolas Maduro, the children who labor illegally in the flower markets in Columbia and Ecuador, the degradation of human beings at the hands of human traffickers of all kinds, the oppression of women all over the world, the slow destruction of planet earth at the hand of humanity.  There is no shortage of victims and violators.

If the Hagaddah reminds us of the tragedy of involuntary enslavement, the Rabbis of the Midrash chose to point out the sin of voluntary enslavement in this story.  They argued that the book of Exodus tells about two enslaved peoples and concludes with the liberation of one of them and the destruction of the other.  The only difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians was that the Egyptians chose to become enslaved to Pharaoh.  “Why were the Egyptians compared to maror?  To teach you that just as the maror, the beginning of which is soft while its end is hard, so were the Egyptians…” (Pesachim 39a).  In other words, the Sages of the Midrash claimed that the Egyptians started out neutral but became complicit with their leader as the Exodus unfolds.  Pharaoh’s xenophobia directed at the Israelites leads him to deploy his own people to do the dirty work of murdering and enslaving them.  The Egyptians, say the rabbis, are guilty of self-enslavement because they followed their despotic leader.  Any moral Egyptian had a choice to walk away from his fellow countrymen and from his leader and be on the right side of history.  According to the Rabbis, some of them realized the error of their ways and did join the Israelites in exile.  The ones who remained, however, even when they saw they were on the verge of ruin, became Pharaoh’s instruments once again in his last ditch effort to salvage his rule, giving chase to the Israelites and meeting their end in the angry sea.

We’d do well to consider the importance of the moral standard the rabbis establish in their Midrashic reading of the Exodus.  It is always hard to stand up against the tide, to speak out when we see our people, our nation going astray.  But the rabbis say the difficulty of the task does not dismiss us from undertaking it.  We are not wholly responsible for everything that happens.  But in those matters in which we can be voices and actors on the right side of history, we are challenged not to enslave ourselves to the Pharaohs out there and be followers of our better angels, a greater Leader, and a truer Truth.

Between You and Me- March 2019

There is a folk legend that King Solomon, the wisest person ever to have lived, once posed the following riddle: What can you say to a happy man to make him sad, that will also make a sad man happy?”  Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: Gimel, Zayin, Yod.  “They stand for ‘gam zeh ya’avor,’ this too, shall pass.”

The primary theme in the Megillah’s tale is a corollary to Solomon’s teaching:  v’nahafoch hu.  What is true in one moment can, in the blink of an eye, turn upside down.  An adored queen can become public enemy number one, like Vashti.  A condemned man may one day rise to supreme power, like Mordecai.  With a heaping helping of heavy handedness, the Megillah reminds us just how topsy-turvy the world can be.  No wonder breaking the regular “rules” of decorum is the rule on Purim.

I chuckle to think Tannaim of the Mishnah took the time to warn against thinking v’nahafoch hu applies to reading the Megillah backwards, a practice they ruled does not fulfill one’s obligation on Purim (Megillah 2:1).  In classic Hasidic fashion, the Ba’al Shem Tov turned the Sages’ caution inward by adding, “one who reads the Megillah backwards is a person who only reads it in retrospect and neglects to pay attention to how its spirit is alive in his own day.”

In our day, the demands are great and time is short.  We need our cars to start, our co-workers to show up, and our bodies to function well because we have a lot to do.  It is also true that days will come when the very things on which we depend on will fail.  Therefore, we are wise to regularly meet and befriend the Megillah’s living truth that v’nahafoch hu, our human experience is always changing.  By slowing down each day, turning our focus inward, we can observe firsthand that restlessness arising one moment might flow into stillness in the next.  A niggling muscle ache may, in time, release ever so slightly.

Mark Twain’s advice about the weather in New England is a comforting instruction as we track the climate in our minds and bodies: “If you don’t like it, wait a few minutes.”  The more lived awareness we cultivate of the constant unfolding and changing in our inner world, the deeper we learn that we are not condemned by Solomon’s riddle in the outer world.  We can both endure sadness and disappointments with confidence that they will pass and savor the joys and successes even knowing they are time-limited.

Within the lived awareness that everything is perpetually unfolding is another powerful recognition in the spirit of Purim: we, ourselves are works in progress.  Every moment and each breath is an opportunity to start again, a chance to unmask and reveal a new face, to be in the world in ways that better serve ourselves and others.  Every moment of awareness is an opportunity turn ourselves around.  Just as Mordecai and Esther turned the Jewish people’s mourning and grief into light and joy, happiness and honor, so may we find our way to do the same in our lives and in our day.

Between You and Me – February 2019

A foundation of spiritual practice is the truth that we can hold two opposing feelings all at once. We can feel joyful as we grieve, we can experience hope in our despair, we can be certain in our uncertainty and, if we are wise, always be uncertain in our certainty. The weeks leading up to, and following the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday were both incredibly simple and infinitely complex.

Simple was the joy we felt both welcoming and being welcomed by St. James African Methodist Episcopal Congregation over the weekend prior to Dr. King’s birthday. Our choirs seemed to blend effortlessly to offer devotional song in both houses of worship. Both Reverend Edwards and I had a chance to speak to our congregations as we joined in Sabbath prayer on Friday and Sunday. Some of our youth children went to church and some of their youth came to temple. In my experience nothing felt forced, people met the unknown with openness and everyone came away moved, wondering whether reaching out across social, racial and religious lines to find friendship, healing and reconciliation can be as simple as that was.

Concurrently, during those same weeks I was part of a group of Jewish and African American leaders who were preparing for the very high-profile visit of Tamika Mallory, activist and leader of the National Women’s March, who was invited to speak at UNCA to honor Dr. King’s legacy. The event drew national coverage as it came to light later that Mallory’s relations with the Jewish community became strained over anti-Jewish remarks she allegedly made as well as her refusal to distance herself from ties to Louis Farrakhan, who is known not only for his organizing and support of vulnerable African American communities but also for his extreme hate speech against Jews. Whether or not the allegations against Mallory were true, the layers of identity politics that required navigating that were instigated by her visit were anything but simple. People who are not friends of the Jews often point a finger at us for our privilege and our economic and political power. When members of the Jewish community were insisting that nothing short of Chancellor Cable rescinding Mallory’s invitation to speak would suffice, that unfortunately played right into that harmful stereotype. And yet, in the current climate of division and hostility against Jews, how could the Jewish community turn a blind eye?

As I write this, we are still preparing for that visit. But here’s what I know ahead of it all. I know that the truth is complicated and people are complicated. Some things are easy for us to agree on, and some actions are easy to take. Others are difficult and the way forward isn’t clear. But I do believe that right now, people sitting down together, in dialogue or in prayer, gets us closer to where we hope to be. In the words of Kohelet, “There is a time for everything under the sun.”