Category Archives: Rabbi Message

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.”

Between You and Me – January 2019

An appeal to fellow Americans following the Pittsburgh Shootings

The deadly attack on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was by far the worst anti-Semitic incident in our nation’s history. But it was hardly the only one. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 57 percent in 2017 to a total of nearly 2000, the largest one-year increase ever. We can only wonder how many unreported incidents might make that number rise. The most public incident was Unite the Right rally of “white nationalists” in Charlottesville just fifteen months ago. That August weekend, men in fatigues bullied and taunted the members of Charlottesville’s Jewish congregation by standing outside the synagogue with automatic weapons while they worshipped after a Nazi website suggested it be burned down. The people who were brave enough to come to temple that morning had to scurry out the back door carrying their Torah scrolls with them. Anti-Semitic mantras like “Jews will not replace us,” and specifically Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil” were chanted and the day culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer and the injuring of dozens more.

These were extreme events. But there are other things we cannot shrug off as the mute sounds of a dog whistle. Listen carefully for the persistent diatribes against “globalists”—a word widely understood among neo-Nazis and their ilk to mean “Jews.” The man accused of the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh included that in his vocabulary of hatred and it is regularly tossed around by public leaders, perhaps disparaging Jews. Denunciation of news media as “enemies of the people” is dangerous to a free democracy, is associated with the accused perpetrators of the mail bombs which targeted CNN and Jewish philanthropist George Soros, and it comes directly from anti-Semitic political propaganda of the 20th century hatefully insinuating that Jews control the media. History bears sad witness to the intent—and effectiveness—of this kind of propaganda appealing to prejudice, inciting fear and leading to violence rather than bringing out the best instincts of humanity.

“It can’t happen here,” is what we’ve said to comfort ourselves. Unfortunately, it is happening here, in Asheville. I moved here in 2008 and in those early years, I was called into the school system once but also heard anecdotally from other students in the congregation that they were bullied by peers saying they were “Christ-killers.” For about five years, no incidents were brought to my awareness. However, since the 2016 elections, I’ve been called in to speak to school administrators following anti-Semitic taunting and bullying no fewer than on six occasions. Middle-schoolers, primarily, making swastikas of their math manipulatives, sending suggestive Instagram pictures of gas chambers, using Heil Hitler salutes and shouting “chase the Jew,” on the playground are just some of the incidents popping up. This touched me personally when my own daughter was a freshman at Asheville High School, and the administration turned a blind eye to a young man dressing in a Nazi Brownshirt uniform at school while my daughter had a real possibility of being sent home if her skirt was shorter than fingertip length.

Crimes borne of hatred do not “just happen.” They are the inevitable consequences of a dangerous climate that is growing in our country directed against Jews, but also against immigrants, refugees, people of color, transgender individuals, and those who support them. History and current events abroad bear sad witness to the intent—and effectiveness—of hate-speech and propaganda appealing to our prejudices and fears rather than to our best human instincts.

Fortunately, there is a powerful antidote: activating our best instincts by showering support on targeted communities. After the JCC bomb threats, my colleague, Reverend Brent Norris, offered to have 50 people standing outside our doors if we felt scared to come to temple. More than fifty clergy ascended the dais at the impromptu rally downtown in support of the Jewish community following the Pittsburgh shootings. I was stopped at a local café by a neighbor who lives behind the temple, who assured me that she literally has our back. I received cards of support from faith communities and caring individuals all over Western North Carolina. These expressions of support were powerful and they were vital. They helped my community know that there might be a few who choose to hate, but that we are at home here, and folks won’t stand by or tolerate hate or injury of any kind.

Certainly, we owe it to ourselves to keep demanding at the ballot box that our political leaders actively promote unity and bi-partisanship. But we also need them to know pushing divisive policies by stirring fear and hatred that targets any group diminishes us all. We need to call out propaganda when it rears its ugly head because it’s wrong and because physical violence is likely to follow.

Jewish sages of old said, “In a place void of humanity, we must strive to remain human.” They taught this not theoretically but at a time rife with violence. They could have advocated that their people keep a low profile and hope that things wouldn’t get worse. But they chose to rise up with the best they had in the face of the chaos around them. Inhumanity must not guide our way forward either. Let us resist fighting hatred with hatred. Know your neighbor and love her as you love yourself. As diverse as we are, let us seek harmony and unity and prove that America is better than our fear and division by spreading the seeds of compassion and justice that reside within us all.

With gratitude to those with whom I drew counsel in authoring and shaping this letter. It is a reflection of what is possible when dialogue between people with different political views come together and unite behind our common humanity and values.

Between You and Me – December 2018

Light the lights…but replace them with LEDs!
Hunkering down for the dark, cold winter, our ancestors knew we needed to add light and warmth to our lives. Today, light and heat come to us at a high cost – in dollars and in impact on the world. I invite you to consider these easy ways that you can tighten the belt, as it were, and make a personal difference.
1. LED bulbs and tubes not only consume a fraction of the energy consumed by incandescent bulbs, they have the double benefit of being mercury free and long lasting. By doing nothing but switching to LEDs in your home, it is possible to reduce your carbon footprint by a whopping 6 tons and save 6% in lighting costs annually. This savings is equivalent to reducing your gasoline consumption by 700 gallons per year! Fun fact: In 2017 the world saved 570 million tons of CO2 by converting to LEDs.
2. Lowering your thermostat by two degrees during winter nights can save 10% of your energy usage for heating and cooling. And depending on what mix of energies your house uses, that could translate into a 2000 pounds of carbon savings!
3. Did you know that 2 minutes of the shower running without you in it (5 gallons of water times 365 mornings) wastes 342 lbs. of CO2 per year? Get into the shower as soon as it is hot and reduce your shower time to only what is necessary to get the job done!
4. Play with your washing machine settings. See if it makes a difference in your laundry when you turn the water setting to warm with a cold rinse, instead of warm wash with a warm rinse. You could be saving 62 lbs. of CO2 per year.
5. Call all those venders who send you unwanted catalogues. Remember the trees which give their existence to become catalogues are our best defense against CO2. Canceling 10 catalogues is a net savings of 154 lbs. of CO2 a year.
6. Unplug all your energy vampires – appliances like coffee makers, toasters, cell phone chargers that use energy even when you are NOT using them. Turn off your computer at night and when you go away on vacation. You could drop hundreds of pounds of CO2.
7. Call Duke Energy and get an efficiency evaluation of your home. You never know what simple fixes you might do that could save you money and save the planet.
None of the above suggestions takes the place of advocating for the most impactful ways we can limit our human contribution to climate change. Did you know reducing food waste, eating an increased plant-based diet, tropical reforestation and educating girls and teaching them family planning are the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh best ways to reverse climate change? Nevertheless, every pound saved by you now is a wonderful Hanukah present for your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Happy Festival of Lights!