There Is Only Us

Tonight is “Just Shabbat”.

In Hebrew, the word for Justice is tzedek. It’s related to the word for charity – tzedakah and to the word for a righteous person – tzaddik.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes someone a tzaddik, a righteous person.

This past week, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. and the victories of the Civil Rights Movement.

It was an age of tzaddikim – of righteous people.
Righteousness abounded.

As many of you hopefully know, American Jews played a significant role in the founding and funding of some of the most important Civil Rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC).

Additionally, from 1910 to 1940, more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and twenty black colleges were established in whole or in part by contributions from Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. At the height of the so-called “Rosenwald schools,” nearly forty percent of southern blacks were educated at one of these institutions.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference, which for decades was located in the RAC’s building.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of whites involved in the struggle. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Leaders of the Reform Movement
were arrested along with Rev. King in St. Augustine, Florida,
the same year, after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations.

And most famously, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in his 1965 March on Selma, prayed with him in a protest at Arlington National Cemetery, and stood side by side with him in the pulpit of Riverside Church.

As Rabbi Heschel’s daughter Susannah writes: The relationship between the two men began in January 1963, and was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes. As King encouraged Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel encouraged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Rabbi Heschel’s sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker they invited was King. And when Rev. King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.

Heschel, like King, used Exodus imagery when writing about civil rights, and he used the imagery to rebuke white audiences for their racism. American Jews, too, were Egyptians, in Heschel’s retelling.

At his first major address on the subject, at a conference on Religion and Race on January 14, 1963, the occasion where Heschel and King first met, Rabbi Heschel opened his speech by returning the present day to biblical history:

“At the first conference on religion and race,” he said, “the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses….The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

At another conference, held at a time when white resistance in America was increasing, Rabbi Heschel reminded his audiences, “The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt.
Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai!”

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are standing just there – at the foot of Sinai – and it is in this parsha that Moses relays to them the following words from God:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. If you mistreat them, I will hear their cry when they cry out to Me, And I will be furious

Part of what made Rabbi Heschel and Rev. King tzaddikim – righteous people – was their refusal to allow others to hide from God’s furry.

They shouted it from their pulpits;
They taught it to their people.

It was Rabbi Heschel who taught, “The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference,” as well as the famous statement, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

The Jewish community has internalized this teaching, in its continued support of civil rights laws addressing persistent discrimination in voting, housing and employment against not only women and people of color but also in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities and the disabled community.

Judaism teaches respect for the fundamental rights of others as each person’s duty to God. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”, our Sages wrote. Equality in the Jewish tradition is based on the concept that all of God’s children are created in the image of God. From that notion flows the biblical command: “You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike: for I Adonai am your God.”

I am proud of this heritage,

But I am also saddened
when I look out at our Jewish leaders and communities today.

We seem tired.
We seem apathetic.
We seem to have difficulty motivating one another to get up and march.
This doesn’t feel like an age of tzaddikim
It feels like we’re waiting for someone,
for something,
to motivate us to action.

But Rabbi Heschel and Rev. King are gone.
There is no one here but us.

This month, I’ll be kicking off a Read Along with the Rabbi series, and the first book we’ll be reading is called: There Is No Messiah, and you’re it.

This book is a call to see ourselves as the fulfillment of, rather than the anticipators of messianic change. In other words, “we have to be the change we want to see in the world.”

And we don’t all have to be great leaders like Rev. King and Rabbi Heschel.
Sometimes tzaddikim are just regular folk.
But don’t mistake me, they do not go unnoticed.

Yesterday, I was devastated to find myself at the funeral for Jessica Horrowitz, who had recently joined our Temple Beth David family
as our weekday office administrator. Jessica was tragically killed in a car accident on Monday night.

When we hired Jessica, it was because she was a great fit for the job. If only we had known how over-qualified she truly was.
We didn’t have a chance to know her well, but the kind of life she lived was attested to by the 500 or so people who came to her funeral.

Jessica wasn’t just a secretary.
She wasn’t just a wife and mother.
She was a really, really good person.

She was a tzaddik.

She and her family have been involved in the Jewish community, through Temple Israel and the national movement of Conservative Judaism for many years.

She was a great hostess, a giver of tzeddakah,
a lover of children and animals.
She was a teacher. She served on temple committees.
She supported her husband as a member of the brotherhood
and her son as a leader in the youth movement.
She was a good friend.
She was a killer-shopper and a great-finder of bargains.
She was always cheerful. She had much to give.

The amount of people who came to mourn her attests to the fact that she was as much of a tzaddik as Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King, although apparently she was also quite modest and would have hated to have me say so.

But her life, cut so tragically short, should be a powerful reminder to us that we don’t have to lead the Civil Rights Movement to change the world

We can change the world one life at a time;
One friend at a time;
One child at a time;
One task at a time.

But we cannot be indifferent.
We cannot exempt ourselves from responsibility.

Rabbi Heschel described the March on Selma as having spiritual significance. He wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

On this Shabbat, we pray, in memory of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel and Jessica Horrowitz, and for the sake of our world and our future:

may each of us strive to be tzaddikim;
may each of us motive ourselves and each other
to rise up against injustice;
may each of us declare this age, our age, to be an age of tzaddikim.

Heschel and King and Jessica are not here.
There is only us.

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The Suddenness

it doesn’t matter if it’s happened to you before

you never get used to it,

the suddenness of loss

 

you fall asleep next to someone you love

and wake up next to a stranger;

you say “see you next week”

but next week never comes

 

they’re just suddenly gone

and with such finality

 

it is what differentiates sad from tragic

it is what differentiates losing someone and having them

torn from you

 

the suddenness of loss

 

I barely knew you but you mattered much to me

there is so much I should have said

I should have thanked you more

all the cliches hold true

 

and no official titles

or degree of closeness to God protects us from it

 

God catches us, surely but

not from the suddenness it seems

 

not from the breathlessness and the shock

not from the not-knowing what to say

 

I know that God is in the friends that call

in the communities that come together

in one person holding another up

 

but the suddenness is something we each face alone

that first moment of absence and awareness

 

the suddenness of loss

And May We Begin With The Trees

It’s no secret.

Anyone who’s ever read Shel Silverstein can tell you.
Trees give.
They give us shade and fruit and wood and oxygen.
They give us lovely places to rest.
They give us shelter. They give us life.
Trees give.

I recently learned about the phenomenon of tree-hugging.

It turns out that hugging trees is good for you.
And if the idea of hugging a tree makes you a little uncomfortable, rest easy – because you don’t have to hug them to derive benefits.
You don’t even have to touch a tree!
Just being in its vicinity can positively effect your health.

In a recently published book called Blinded by Science, author Matthew Silverstone explains scientifically that the vibrational properties of trees can improve many brain-related health issues, such as concentration levels, reaction times, depression, stress, and other forms of mental illness. Trees may even be able to alleviate headaches!

A major public health report has affirmed the association between green spaces and mental health, concluding that, “access to nature can significantly contribute to our mental capital and wellbeing.”

Studies also show that children who interact with plants and trees demonstrate significant psychological and physiological improvements in their health and well-being. Specifically, they function better cognitively and emotionally.

Although the term “vibrational properties” sounds complex, it’s actually quite simple: everything vibrates, and different vibrations can affect biology. Thus, when you touch a tree, or spend time in close proximity to one, it’s rate of vibration, which differs from your own, can affect you in positive ways.

It’s pretty fascinating. But what’s even more fascinating is that what science is just now proving, religions have known for thousands of years.

In Jewish tradition, a tree is one of the most potent symbols. Trees symbolize a bridge between heaven and earth and they also symbolize Torah, as well as human beings and God’s Divine structure.

According to Midrash, trees are sentient, meaning they have awareness and can perceive or sense what is happening around them.
That may seem pretty “unscientific”, but then again, the trees in the Garden of Eden were said to have had healing powers, and as we just heard, science has proven that to be plausible.

Whether or not we go so far as Midrash in our thinking about trees, it is clear that trees are more than just symbols of power.
Trees have power.
Trees have transformative power.
They make us feel better!

Even the first humans sensed this.
Adam and Eve were drawn to the Tree of Knowledge – drawn to it’s transformative power – long before humanity had the ability to explain why scientifically.

“Once upon a time,” Rabbi Daniel Swarz writes in an article about Judaism and nature, “we knew less about the natural world than we do today. Much less. But we understood that world better, much better, for we lived ever so much closer to its rhythms.”

Rabbi Swarz reminds his readers that the Bible is a story about, “people who cared about and knew intimately the land around them.
That knowledge,” he writes, “is richly, even lavishly, reflected in the language of the prophets and psalmists, in the poetry of the Song of Songs and Job.”

For example, when Isaiah compares Israel to a terebinth oak in the fall, his audience could immediately appreciate the double-edged nature of his metaphor, for while the terebinth is at its most glorious just before all its leaves drop away, it is also one of the hardiest of trees and can even re-sprout from a stump.

But to our modern ears, distanced as we are from the natural world, the metaphor is lost. Most of us aren’t intimately familiar
with the characteristics of the terebith oak, or of any other tree for that mater. We live among trees, if we’re lucky, but how many of us take the time to really learn about them? And how many of us stop to notice whether or not we feel differently around them?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in 18th century Eastern Europe, knew that he felt differently when surrounded by trees and nature.
He wrote this now famous prayer:

Grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awaken at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing thing, which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my hands to You in worship…

Rabbi Nachman knew the transformative power of the trees.
They transformed him,
they transformed his ability to pray and connect with God,
and they transformed the prayers themselves.

“May all the foliage of the field…send the powers of their life into my words of prayer.”

Knowing what science has now confirmed, about the benefits of trees to our mental health, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Rabbi Nachman, a great teacher, scholar, and spiritual seeker, struggled with mental illness throughout his life. At an early age he was marked by an exaggerated sense of sin and morbidity, and he was subject to rapid mood swings and bouts of paranoia.

But under the trees, it seems, he felt better.

How many of our daily aches and pains,
how many of our daily sorrows and woes,
how much of our unhappiness,
could be cured by spending a little more time around trees.

Rabbi Swartz writes: “Most have us have wandered far from our earlier understanding, (and) our long-ago intimacy (with nature). We take for granted what our ancestors could not, dared not, take for granted; we have set ourselves apart from the world of the seasons, the world of floods and rainbows and new moons…”

Our Torah, our very own Tree of Life, urges us to care for trees, to learn from them and to tend to them. In a war, we can destroy just about everything BUT fruit trees, and even if the Messiah himself arrives, should we be in the middle of planting a tree, we must finish planting before going to greet him. That’s how important trees are.

Adam and Eve knew it.
Our psalmists and sages knew it.
Rabbi Nachman most certainly knew it.
Children know it.
Maybe you knew it, once.

Rabbi Swarz questions whether, “our modern sophistication can be married to the ancient intimacy (he describes); whether we can move from our discord with nature to an informed harmony with this, God’s universe.”

If we can, it begins with hugging trees.

Yesterday was Tu B’Shvat: The New Year or Birthday of the Trees.
“Jewish Arbor Day”, if you will.

I celebrated it by going out and hugging a tree, and I’m not gonna lie, it felt pretty good!

If you haven’t hugged a tree lately (or ever) then I suggest you find one and give it a try.
If someone sees you, you can tell them your Rabbi told you to do it.

May each of us, on this Shabbat,
the Shabbat of the Trees,
refuse to be complacent in accepting the ills and sorrows of our lives;
May we seek out ancient and modern cures alike;
And may we begin with the trees.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

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To The Princess Aurelia

Welcome to the World!

Your mom and I have been friends all our lives, and as young girls we did exactly what young girls in the 80’s and 90’s were taught NOT to do – we pricked our fingers and rubbed them together and declared ourselves Blood Sisters. And we have been ever since (although I’m not sure it was public information until now, but as you are being born into the age of inappropriate public sharing on social media it seems as good a time as any).

In any case little one, this makes you my Blood Niece. And though we haven’t met, I love you already.

Recently, I discovered a Boston Globe columnist named Jeff Jacoby, who wrote letters to his son Caleb on each birthday. Reading through them has inspired me to write to you today, and perhaps begin a new tradition of sending you a letter each year on your birthday. Your big brother Sabian will start getting them too, and hopefully he will forgive me for neglecting to write for the first two years. 

You see, your brother was born at a difficult time in my life – a time when it was very hard for me to think about one day having children of my own, which made it difficult to think about my friends having children of their own. I thought maybe we would grow apart. I thought maybe there wouldn’t be a place for me.

Lucky for us, your brother has done a fabulous job of stealing my heart, and your mother has done a fabulous job of reassuring me that our friendship remains strong even though our lives are so very different.

Even though my career is fulfilling but my family has yet to arrive; even though her beautiful family keeps growing while her career isn’t quite what she’d like it to be; even though we’ve both changed so much over the years…what hasn’t changed is how much we love each other. And so, by extension, I love you.

So welcome to the world!

Your name, Aurelia, strikes me as one that belongs in a fairy tale or Disney movie. The Princess Aurelia. 

Princesses are either wonderful or horrid creatures. Either they are beautiful and kind and everyone loves them, or they are spoiled and rotten and not nice to be around.

So, little one, here is my first challenge to you: if you are going to be a princess, be a kind and gentle princess. You will undoubtedly be beautiful either way (you already are!). But be beautiful on the inside too please. Be gracious and loving and good. Be nice to others. Appreciate what you have. 

Because you have so much to be grateful for.

Your parents are good people and loving people and they will work with you to help you be so too, but at some point it will be up to you. So please, don’t waste their efforts.

I can’t wait to meet you in person and I can’t wait to see how you grow and who you become. Even though I won’t be there every day, know that I love you and that I’m always here for you.

Welcome to the world Princess Aurelia.

Love,

your Tante Emma

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For the Honey & the Bee-Sting

One winter day in Plattsburgh, NY, as I was driving and listening to an audio-book, a line of text caught my attention.

The book was called “The Dove Keepers” by Alice Hoffman. It’s a fictional account of a group of women who survive the Roman sack of Jerusalem, and come to live with the rebels on the mountain called Masada.

The line that caught my attention was this: “our lives our shaped by our sorrows.” 

At first, I found myself agreeing. I could look back at my own life and easily trace how it has been affected by various losses, broken hearts and disappointments. Even though I believe that suffering can often (but not always) have value, and that the heard-knocks in life make us stronger, I couldn’t help thinking back on the different low points in my personal history and seeing the shape that my life has taken accordingly.

I found myself nodding my head along as I thought it over.

Our lives are shaped by our sorrows.

But over the next few days I found myself mulling over it. Even though I had agreed with it initially, something was gnawing at me. I felt like I was missing something. When I sat down to read through the portion of the week, B’shalach, which is also this week’s parasha, I began to see things differently.

It is within Parashat B’shalach that the Israelites are finally set free.

Pharaoh let’s them go, then chases them down. The sea parts. God ‘s mighty hand is stretched out. The Israelites cross to freedom. They praise God. They experience the miracles of water coming from rocks and of manna falling from the sky.

It is a high point in our history.

Actually, it is THE high point in our history.

In Plattsburgh, one of my rabbinic responsibilities was to teach the Introduction to Judaism course at the college. Since there’s a lot of Judaism to fit into just one semester, only one class was able to be devoted to Jewish history. It’s a lot to fit into three hours, so we only focused on the most important moments; the moments that have shaped the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people.

Often, when we study Judaism’s history, it can seem like the defining for our people was the destruction of the Second Temple. After all, that event transitioned us from a sacrificial cult –tied to one special location – to a religion of prayer and mitzvot, that can be adhered to in any place, at any time.

If we determine that the destruction of the Temple was the defining moment in Jewish History, we can agree that “our lives are shaped by our sorrows.”

After all, much of Rabbinic Judaism centers around mourning the Temple and preparing for a time when it can be rebuilt. But Parashat B’shalach reminds us that there’s more to it.

When I teach the important moments in Jewish history – at SUNY Plattsburgh or anywhere else – I don’t start with the destruction of the Second Temple. I start with The Exodus.

In the textbook I used with my college students, our textbook referred to the episode of the Exodus as “the Redemptive Event of the Jewish People”. I asked my students what they thought that meant. At first, they didn’t answer, unsure of how to define a redemptive event.

So I asked them: What was the Redemptive Event in the history of African Americans? 

“The Emancipation Proclamation!” one student called out. “The Civil Rights Movement!” another ventured. 

Correct.

And just as those moments forever changed the history of African Americans, so too did the Exodus forever alter the Children of Israel. 

Even though much of Jewish tradition is shaped by our sorrows, much of it is also shaped by our triumphs. Chanukah, which we celebrated a few months ago, and Purim, which is a few months ahead, are both celebratory in nature, as is Passover.

So it’s not all bad.

Our religion is not only shaped by our sorrows. And if Judaism isn’t just shaped by its sorrows, then it stands to reason our lives aren’t either.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the power in the message of how our religion is structured.

I thought about how Orthodox Judaism, which so often dwells on the sorrows of our people, is one of the smallest Jewish denominations, even though they have many more children than liberal and secular Jews. 

I also thought about how Passover is the one holiday that secular and disaffiliated Jews are most likely to celebrate. The message of freedom and hope is so much stronger – so much more attractive – than the message of grief and mourning.

Our lives can’t just be shaped by our sorrows, any more than our religion could.

If Judaism was only a sad, dark religion, it would not have survived until today…But at the same time, it also would not have survived just based on its celebrations.

I once had a conversation with a non-practicing Jew who told me that even though he felt strongly that religion was the cause of many problems in the world, he couldn’t completely eschew his Jewish identity.

 “I don’t really understand why,” he said, “but I always come back to the idea that so many people died for the sake of their Judaism. There must be something important about it. Who am I to renounce what so many of my ancestors died for?”

In our parsha, God brings the Israelites into freedom, only to begin immediately pelting them with hardship. At first, there is no food or water. Then they are attacked by Amalekites. “Why would God bring us into the desert to die?” They ask Moses.  

Moses doesn’t answer them, but the history of the Jewish people speaks for itself: Our suffering makes the miracles all the more profound. Our suffering makes our victories – few and far between though they may be – all the more sweet.

Judaism is shaped by our sorrows and our blessings. So too, our lives.  

May each of us this week, recognize the joys and pains that shape our lives, and may we be wise enough to thank God for them both.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.