fight for 15

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on November 13, 2015.

On Tuesday afternoon, I skipped my halakha class in order to attend a “Fight for 15” rally downtown. This local effort was part of a nationwide day of action, a “March for Racial and Economic Justice,” aimed at increasing the minimum wage in our state to $15/hour. Outside of Faneuil Hall, we listened to a dozen plus speakers, and then we marched with our signs about a quarter of a mile to the state house, where we heard from state Sen. Dan Wolf about a bill that would mandate a $15/hour wage for fast food and big box store employees. The bill has moved out of committee and now heads to the full Senate. If implemented, the policy would effect more than 200,000 workers in the state, many of whom now make less than $10/hour.

My friend and classmate Ben and I at the "Fight for 15" rally in downtown Boston. photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

my friend and classmate ben and i at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I learned about the event through an organizing class that I’m taking this semester: The local group JOIN for Justice is pioneering an online course called “Don’t Kvetch! Organize!” The class has participants from all over the country. At the rally I met up with several of my Boston-area classmates, as well as a few JOIN staff members. The action was meant to be a way to put into practice, or at least witness, some of what we’ve learned so far.

The speakers at the rally represented a wide variety of workers: All people of color — and more than a few undocumented immigrants — they included students, home health care workers, fast food employees, adjunct college professors, and child care providers. One woman spoke about her eldest daughter, the first in the family to get into college — and then told of her sadness at the family’s not being able to afford that college. A fast food employee testified that he was striking that day — for the 11th time in three years — for $15/hour and the right to unionize at the McDonald’s where he works. The adjunct compared her insufficient full-time salary, and the paltry wages of the university’s staff, to that of her college president, who makes $3 million/year. They had in common long hours, exhausting work, job insecurity, lack of benefits, and painful choices around spending because of their paltry compensation.

I am proud to report the robust Jewish presence at the rally. Besides the JOIN students and staff, also represented were the New England Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Moishe Kavod House, and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, plus just some individual, good old fashioned Jewish activists — some of whom are part our community here in JP and at Nehar Shalom. And this is just here in Boston: All over our country, from L.A. to Chicago to Miami, on Tuesday Jews marched for racial and economic justice.

This demonstration of our commitment to justice as Jews got me started thinking about the Jewish values that underpin that commitment. I’ve learned — and will teach as a rabbi — lots of texts that speak directly to those values and that commitment. But this week, as I learned part of our parshah to chant tomorrow morning, I wondered about workers’ issues in relation to Toledot.

This week’s parshah, as so many in Genesis, is filled with the continuing family drama of the Abrahamic line. Rivka gives birth to twins Esav and Ya’akov, who spend their lives at odds with each other, starting in utero. The tension between them, the text explains, stems from their differences.

Esav is a character derided by the Jewish tradition. Depicted as a brute, unintelligent, and powerful man of the field, Esav is often seen as the opposite of the rabbinic ideal of his brother Ya’akov. Rashi even sees a religious difference between them: He claims that at bar mitzvah age, Ya’akov went to yeshiva, and Esav turned to idol worship. But before being swindled out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, Esav comes home from working in the field all day. The Torah makes a point of noting that he was עָיֵ֖ף, “tired.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the significance of this verse: “Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed . . . [And so the verse says], Esau came from the field and he was tired . . . Focused solely on physical success, Esau finished his day existentially exhausted: unfulfilled, demoralized, and disappointed.”

Before I explore this further, I want to note that this interpretation of Ya’akov and Esav is uniquely Jewish. Growing up a Protestant, I learned the story of the warring twin sons of Yitzhak quite differently: I was taught to strive to be like Esav, not Ya’akov, who in my tradition was regarded with great suspicion because of his dishonesty. The difference in Jewish and Christian traditions in their interpretations of this story continues to be one of my most surprising experiences as a convert.

emily and helen, with signs from interfath worker justice, at "fight for 15" rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

emily and helen, with signs from interfaith worker justice, at the “fight for 15” rally in downtown boston; photo by salem pearce

As a Christian I learned to valorize Esav’s unvarnished physicality, and I saw a bit of this value in the clergy invocation offered at the beginning of the rally on Tuesday. The Christian pastor prayed for workers’ continued mobility and physical stamina, that with Gd’s help they might have the strength to get up each day and run, and that we at the march might continue the walk to justice. I have to say — as a future rabbi who hopes someday to be asked to give an invocation at the beginning of a rally — I was disappointed at the ableist language that he used. And yet asking Gd for vigor wasn’t totally out of place. It’s physically draining to be a fast food worker, or a child care provider, or a home health aide in way that it’s just not to be, say, a rabbinical student. The pastor recognized that and prayed for the need he saw in the workers at the rally. To bring the metaphor back to our parshah, he identified them with Esav.

As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow morning I’ll be chanting Torah here, and since we’re in the third year of the triennial cycle of Torah reading, we’ll be looking at the end of parshat Toledot. As I practiced the leyning, I found myself quite moved by Esav’s distress at the discovery Ya’akov’s deception of their father Yitzchak. Incredulous, he wails, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” And then וַיִּשָּׂ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ: “Esav raised his voice and wept.” We’re also told that he cried a great and bitter cry, וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה. Much of this vocabulary will later appear at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the pain of the Israelites reaches Gd’s ears. It’s hard not to see some anticipation of the slavery in Egypt in Esav’s reaction. So even though traditional commentators have been quite harsh with Esav, I see points of strong poignancy in the text with regard to him.

What I hope for us is that seeing the story of Esav through the lens of the struggles today of hourly workers might engender some understanding — and maybe even some righteous indignation — about the situation of both. The vitriol that I see directed at Esav by traditional sources is quite troublesome to me: He is almost universally condemned as wicked, a adulterer, and a despiser of Gd — predicted to be — and later accused of being — a murderer. I see in the rabbis’ attitudes toward Esav a parallel to some of the unflattering narratives that our society creates around the working poor.

But I think the Torah actually creates sympathy for Esav’s plight by comparing his pain to that of the later, enslaved Israelites. And like many workers today, Esav is completely depleted by his work. Like many workers today, Esav suffers because of others’ perception of scarce resources. Like many workers today, Esav is forced into painful tradeoffs for basic necessities. We can and should feel compassion for people in these situations. The jobs that the workers at the rally describe are generally not ones that we do want or would want for ourselves and our loved ones.

I marched on Tuesday because I believe that low pay is not worthy of the dignity of human beings. I see the racism that underpins the fact that low-paying hourly jobs in service industries are often filled by people of color. It’s not good for our communities when families struggle to make ends meet. And even though as a rabbi I don’t expect to make a comparable hourly wage, I think that our obligation as Jews is to act boldly for the common good — and that our real birthright — available to us all, not just the firstborn or his trickster younger brother — is our commitment to this kind of everyday revolution.

king of salem

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on October 24, 2015, Shabbat Lech Lecha. I originally wrote it as an assignment for my homiletics class. (If you want citations — not here because this text was for preaching — let me know!)

As a Jew and as a rabbi-to-be, I believe one of my main goals, both personal and professional, is to make meaning of Torah today — to ask, how is this relevant to my life and the lives of others? Put another way, my job is to find myself — and to find us — in Torah.

There are times when this job is harder than others, as in parshat Nasso, when we read the deeply misogynistic text of the Sotah, or on Yom Kippur, when we read laws of purity that have been distorted to justify homophobia.

And there are times when it’s just handed to me on a silver platter, as in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, with the appearance of King Malchitzedek of Salem.

This little known figure shows up in our text shortly after Avram and Lot split ways: Uncle and nephew decide to go in opposite directions to avoid competing for resources in the land of Canaan. But soon after, they are reunited, when Avram rescues Lot and his family, taken as prisoners of war in an puzzling episode known as “the battle of the kings.”

This short incident in Genesis 14 has only a tenuous connection to the previous narrative of Avram’s wanderings. Indeed, this chapter has often been noted as unique. It associates the patriarch Avram — not yet Avraham — with pseudo-historical events and presents him as a shrewd and revered military leader, a role unattested for him elsewhere in Torah. The story is of four kings who wage war against five others; after Avram’s successful campaign to recover Lot and his family, he declines the proffer of the defeated king of Sodom.

But the visit of the king of Sodom is interrupted by a brief interlude. He comes out to greet Avram, but the rest of their interaction is postponed by the interpolation of three short verses (Gen. 14:18-20) — about yet a tenth king not mentioned as part of any of the preceding battles.

.וּמַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם, הוֹצִיא לֶחֶם וָיָיִן; וְהוּא כֹהֵן, לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן
And Malchitzedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine; and he was a priest of God the Most High.

.וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, וַיֹּאמַר:  בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
And he blessed [Avram], and said: “Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth.”

.בָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר-מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל
“And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Avram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Only then, after these three verses, does the narrative of King Sodom resume.

Malchitzedek as priest -- with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

Malchitzedek as priest — with Abel and lamb and Abraham and Isaac. Mosaic at Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

King Malchitzedek appears out of nowhere, both textually and contextually. I’ve long been interested in this mysterious figure, most obviously for his provenance. Most translations, including the JPS that I just quoted, render מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם as “king of Salem.” As you might expect, “Salem” is understood as a name for Jerusalem.

Underscoring the peculiarity of the Malchitzedek story is the fact that the verse in Genesis is the only place in Torah to refer to Jerusalem by name. No other patriarch is connected with Jerusalem. We are told of many places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob build altars — “but,” says one Biblical scholar, “there is no association with the one place that was later to monopolize the Judean cult.” As central as Jerusalem becomes in the development of Judaism, the city as such has almost no role in Torah.

As it turns out, it is the invocation of this king in Christian scripture that is the source of my name. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is repeatedly compared to Malchitzedek. A verse explains, “His name, in the first place, means ‘king of righteousness’; next he is the king of Salem, that is, ‘the king of peace’” (Heb. 7:2). This inspired my parents, and they hoped for a peaceful child, my mom says. As a regular confounder of expectations, I am not sure that is always what I have given her.

And lest you doubt that the universe has a sense of irony, it is pointed out in the Jewish Annotated New Testament that the Letter to the Hebrews, the source of my name, has the dubious distinction of “the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish text.”

Beside the fact of him as my namesake, I’ve also been drawn to Malchitzedek for another reason. As a convert, I sometimes struggle with the idea of Jewish ancestry. Officially I am Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah — but neither of those two of our ancestors particularly resonates with me. When I say the amidah, I include Bilhah and Zilpah — the handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, and the mothers of four of the later tribes of Israel — because often feel that I relate more to women not native to the Abrahamic line. Though Malchitzedek does not explicitly express belief in Avram’s monotheism, tradition identifies him as a priest of the Hebrew Gd — making him, in Nahum Sarna’s words, “an example of the biblical idea of individual non-Hebrews who acknowledge the one God. Such a one was Jethro; another, Balaam; a third, Job. Melchizedek thus belongs to this category.” In this way, he is sort of proto-convert. One commentator even declares unequivocally that he is Avram’s convert.

A mentor once suggested, as I worked on framing my Jewish journey for a “story of self” for activist work, that Malchitzedek might be a source of inspiration and identification. And so I wondered, is there more than etymology and provenance to recommend this “king of righteousness, king of Salem” to me? Who is this strange figure? What does the Torah mean by including such a singular character in the Abrahamic cycle?

Malchitzedek really comes to life only in rabbinic and later literature, where he is almost universally identified as Shem, one of the sons of Noah. We know almost nothing about him from Tanakh. Besides the passage in Genesis, Malchitzedek only mentioned elsewhere in Psalm 110 (v. 4), where Gd is said to swear:

אַתָּה-כֹהֵן לְעוֹלָם עַל-דִּבְרָתִי מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Malchitzedek.”

This psalm refers to a royal priesthood: Noting that this hymn has the epigraph לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר, “a psalm of David,” the rabbis explain that the Shem/Malchitzedek character was a progenitor of the Davidic monarchy, which descended from Judah and Tamar, a daughter (or sometimes granddaughter) of Shem. Also in the line of David? Ruth, the Tanakh’s most famous convert. This convert king, whose convert descendant was the great-grandmother of דָוִד המֶּלֶך, might indeed be a good ancestor for me.

Interestingly, the Christian tradition understands this verse from Psalm 110 as an allusion to Jesus, with its references to the offices of king and priest in one man. All the more reason to recommend him to my Christian parents!

Indeed, in many early Christian traditions, Malchitzedek is Jesus. In one Gnostic text, the king lives, preaches, dies, and is resurrected. The book of Hebrews makes essentially the same point, focusing on the divinity of Jesus, when it claims that Malchitzedek is “without father, without mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of Gd . . .” (Heb. 7:3).

Jewish tradition gets similarly carried away: In various sources, Malchitzedek is the son of a virgin who is already dead at the time of his birth; the teacher of Torah to the patriarchs before it was given at Sinai; and is spirited by the archangel Gabriel to Gan Eden to escape Noah’s flood. The rich variety of lore that arose around this enigmatic character speaks to how compelling those three short verses in Lech Lecha have been through the ages and through traditions.

These interpretations are indeed fascinating — and they actually go on and on and on — but I think meaning for us may first be found simply in the placement of the Malchitzedek incident, obviously interposed into the interaction of the King of Sodom with Avram. Abarbanel claims that, in doing so, the text is trying to show the striking contrast between the behavior of the king of Sodom and the king of Salem. Drawing on conventions of war, the Or HaHayyim explains further:

The interpolation regarding Malchitzedek is introduced to reflect credit on the righteous and show the difference between them and the wicked. The king of Sodom went forth to welcome Avraham empty-handed, though he was under obligation to repay him generously. The wicked went empty-handed, whereas Malchitzedek the righteous, with no obligation, behaved generously and welcomed him with bread and wine.

This understanding has much to recommend it: That the king of Sodom acts inhospitably foreshadows the destruction of the city of Sodom a few chapters later.

Though both of these commentators focus on what the incident suggests about the king of Sodom, I am interested in what the incident suggests about the king of Salem: What we do know about Malchitzedek from Torah is that he lives up to his name as a righteous man. Without prelude or pretext, Malchitzedek offers Avram a meal and blesses him — and then blesses their shared Gd, as creator of heaven and earth. Simply and humbly, Malchitzedek honors Avram.

The Yalkut Shimoni draws on the tradition of Malchitzedek as Shem, the son of Noah, to make even more explicit what his interaction with Avram means. The midrash imagines a longer conversation, after the flood:

[Avraham] said to Malchitzedek, “How was it that you [merited] to go out of the ark?”

[Malchitzedek] replied, “Because of the tzedakah that we did there.”

[Avraham] said, “What tzedekah did you do in the ark? Were there poor people there? Isn’t it the case that there was only Noah and his children there? So, for whom did you do tzedakah?”

[Malchitzedek] said, “For the cattle and the animals and the birds. We didn’t sleep for tending to this one or that one.”

Then Avraham said, “Had they not done tzedakah for the cattle and animals and birds, they would not have [merited] to go out of the ark! It was because they did this tzedakah that they went out. If I do so for human beings, who are in the image of Gd, how much more will I [merit]!

And then, we’re told, Avraham acts: Consistent with our understanding of this patriarch as the paradigm of hospitality, he opens an inn for needy travelers, providing them with food, drink, and funeral escort. It’s the king of Salem who first models for Avram this particular act of righteousness, when Malchitzedek acts with unfettered generosity towards a virtual stranger. And, as the midrash teaches us, Avram does the same in turn.

I don’t know that my parents are deep readers of Biblical text: In the church I attended as a child, I was taught that there was always one, literal meaning of any part of scripture. But I can’t believe that King Malchitzedek, King of Salem, King of Righteousness, my namesake, came into my life by accident. This border crosser, this convert, this mysterious figure claimed by both Jewish and Christian tradition, this king of Salem — Malchitzedek is a character that I can see myself in.

This deeper understanding of my name has made me start to think about the markers that our parents set out for us, knowingly and unknowingly. My parents definitely did not anticipate that I would find a spiritual, intellectual, and activist home in Judaism — but in naming me for Malchitzedek, they did bless me with the hope of peace and righteousness. Ultimately, they gave me what I needed to find my own way.

In parshat Lech Lecha, we generally focus on Avram’s call from Gd and his leap of faith.

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
“Go forth from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.”

Avram, we usually say, began his pioneering journey of monotheism, as the first Jew, by literally setting out on a new and unknown path.

But last week, at the very end of parshat Noach, we’re told that it’s actually Terach, Avram’s father, who begins the journey by setting out with his family from אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים. Does Terach know what is in store for Avram? Is Terach helping Avram by initiating the first stage of his wanderings in a new land? We can only guess. Knowingly or unknowingly, like my parents, Terach acts in a way that allows his child to find his own path and identity. Avram develops a relationship with the one Gd and becomes Avraham — and later, Avraham Avinu, the father of us all.

I wonder if Avraham ever realized what Terach had done for him. I like to think he did. I like to think that somewhere along the way Avraham acknowledged that he didn’t actually become who he became through his actions alone. It was Terach, in leaving his home, who first blessed him with the model of fearlessness and faith. I like to think that Avraham spent his life trying to live up to that blessing — as I will strive to do with my parents’ blessing of naming me for King Malchitzedek, King of Righteousness, King of Peace, King of Salem.

it’s not in heaven

I gave this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on Friday, September 11, 2015 (and then again the next morning), on my first Shabbat as the rabbinic intern.

Today is September 11.

Long before that date came to stand for national tragedy, as the twin towers that long stood over the New York skyline crumbled, it was the birthday of my favorite aunt; she long stood as a positive example for me in childhood.

She and my uncle divorced when my cousin, who is close to my age, was very young, and I watched my aunt step bravely into the role of, essentially, single mother to a grade schooler. She took a position as an English teacher at a prestigious college prep school and later became head of the English department. She eventually left as the head of the upper school, to take a position of head of school at another institution.

I recently recommended to my aunt a podcast called “Mystery Show,” which I’ve been enjoying. Each episode, the host solves a different puzzle, and in the most recent one I listened to, she investigates a license plate she saw years before while standing at a red light: It read “I-L-U-V-9-1-1” — “I love 9/11.”

The host is shocked — and then determined to find out the story behind a plate that is probably not owned by a terrorist, as an initial reading might suggest. I won’t give away the ending, but I knew it was something that my aunt would also enjoy.

And the truth is, I love 9/11. September 11 is the anniversary of my conversion. Six years ago, I was standing in the mikveh and made brachot while several rabbis stood nearby as witnesses. I emerged a Jew.

And in a strange turn of events, today is also the day that my divorce becomes official. It’s just a fluke — a combination of court bureaucracy that scheduled the hearing and state law that requires the judgment entered that day to be final some months hence. Last spring, I stood before a judge and averred that my marriage had irretrievably broken down.

This date stands for
The towers stood above
My aunt stood as
The car stood at the light
I was standing in the mikveh
The rabbis stood over me
I stood up in court.

In this week’s parshah, Nitzavim, we stand as the people Israel to enter into the covenant with Gd. אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים, the parshah begins: “You are standing.” And it is most definitely we, the people in this room, who are standing.

The covenant that Gd makes is with those who were there in that moment in the distant Biblical past — but also with us, the people who were not there that day: וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם. And my standing in the mikveh all those years ago affirmed that I, too, stood with all of them and with all of you.

The Torah emphasizes the breadth of the covenant by enumerating a list of the different sorts of people that stood that day to accept the covenant: the leaders of the tribes, the elders, the officers, children, women, the strangers in the camp.

Also mentioned are two other groups: the woodchoppers and the waterdrawers. I love this strange, ordinary detail. We’ve already been told that everyone is there: כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. Why are these two random professions mentioned at the end of the long list of, let’s face it, more distinguished groups of people?

I think it’s because this point really paints a picture of the day: That day, the last day of Moshe’s life, the day that would come to be known as the one on which the people of Israel accepted our covenant with Gd, a woodchopper gets up and begins to go about his day.

He exchanges words of affection with his family. He eats his manna. He talks with his neighbors. He walks to the woodpile. He picks up his axe and begins to swing. And then Moshe summons everyone . . .

כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל is abstract. It’s hard to picture. It’s when we’re told just a small, specific detail about one of the people that stood with everyone else that we can begin to see the scene.

So too with the death toll of the attack on the World Trade Center. It can be hard to comprehend the number 3,000. In his review of the 9/11 memorial in New York City, which stands now where the towers once stood, New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik writes about the power of the spontaneous memorials that emerged right after the attack:

“In truth, the simplest memorials of the first days after the disaster, those xeroxed handbills with ‘Missing’ emblazoned on them and the photographs and descriptions of the lost below, still move us more than any other remembrance. ‘MISSING One World Trade Center, 100th Floor, Roger Mark Rasweiler’ ‘We’re looking for Kevin M. Williams, 104th Fl. WTC’ — these signs were made with the foreknowledge that the missing were in truth dead. There’s a wall of them within the museum. They voiced a refusal to accept their passing without protest and insistence: he died here, not some office worker. (Since we take pictures of the ones we love mostly on holiday, some bore apologetic inscriptions: ‘Was not wearing sunglasses on Tuesday.’)

The handbills still move us so because they touch so entirely on a central truth: these people came together one morning with no common purpose beyond making a living, and were killed by people whose evil lay in the belief that without a common purpose life has no meaning. The lesson of these handbills is simple: that life is tragic and precious and fragile, that there is an irreducible core of violence in the world, and of fanatics in love with it, and that we failed once in our responsibility to protect ourselves from them, and from it.”

as beautiful as this cap cod sky is -- the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא: as beautiful as this cape cod sky is — the torah is not there; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In parshat Nitzavim, we are given our common purpose as we stand together as a people before Gd: Torah.

I go back to the mikveh each year to commemorate my conversion. I say shehecheyanu, thanking Gd for another year as a Jew. It’s also my tradition to say during these annual visits the blessing over Gd as giver of Torah, Baruch ata Hashem noteyn ha Torah. Torah is what brought me to Judaism and what now sustains my Jewish identity. It is my belief that I have a stake in our sacred book that made me want to be a rabbi.

Indeed, we are given that most wonderful of gifts in parshat Nitzavim, when Gd tells us לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא — the Torah “is not in heaven.” It continues: כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשׂתוֹ — “Rather, it is very close to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”

It’s in this last statement that the pronouns change: When we are told that “you are standing,” it’s אַתֶּם, the “you” plural. Y’all. But when we are told that Torah is “in your mouth and in your heart,” it’s “you” singular. In the midst of the crowd of Israelites standing in the desert, Gd gives Torah to each one of us, individually, down to the humble watercarrier and woodchopper.

Parshat Nitzavim reminds us what we have always known: that there is power in standing, just as 9/11 brought home for us the devastating lesson that there is equal power when what once stood falls.

I had to stand before a judge to make the oath dissolving my relationship with my husband — and we all had to stand together to make the oath formalizing our relationship with Gd. These big moments in our life require nothing less than that we rise to meet them. In so doing we indicate our commitment, our intentionality, our seriousness, our authenticity. We stand in order to say: “We know what is at stake.”

Right now, we are all now standing at the gates of repentance. Rosh Hashanah, the new year, begins on Sunday evening. The gates open then, and they close again on Yom Kippur. My blessing for all of us is that we rise to meet Gd, the giver of judgment, just as we rose to meet Gd, the giver of Torah: together, all of us present.

I want for all of us to know that even as we take responsibility for our individual shortcomings and make atonement for our individual mistakes, that we do so as one people, standing before the Gd of the covenant, whose greatest gift to us was accountability on a human, not divine, scale. Gd gave Torah to us, to our mouths, to our hearts. It is not in heaven. It is right here.

forfeiting the right to worship gd

I originally gave a version of this d’var Torah at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue on January 18, 2015, on the Shabbat of MLK Weekend. It also appeared on jewschool.

“We forfeit the right to worship Gd as long as we continue to humiliate Negros.”

Using the language of his time, so said Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to Pres. John F. Kennedy, just before their meeting. Heschel was talking about the structural racism of the 1960s: He had just met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King at a conference and was getting more involved in the civil rights movement. With this message, he signaled his desire to move the religious community to take action and make personal sacrifice in solidarity with the black community. “Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent . . .The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spirituality audacity.”

Heschel was a poet as well as a rabbi and a scholar, and even though — or maybe because — his medium was a telegram, I know he chose his words carefully when he made this radical statement.

On the one hand, “forfeit” can have an active connotation of relinquishing, or letting go. In this sense, “forfeiting” means you surrender a claim: When you plead guilty to a crime, you forfeit trial by jury.

On the other hand, “forfeit” can have a more passive connotation, of something being taken. In this sense, you are deprived without your assent: When you are convicted of a crime, you forfeit your freedom.

I think Heschel wanted to say both. Moral action is a prerequisite to relationship with Gd. For Heschel, racism means that we are saying no to Gd. And it also means that Gd is saying no to us.

Parshat Vaera, which we just read, is dominated by the story of the many plagues on Egypt and the grand confrontation between Gd and Pharaoh. It’s easy to overlook that what sets the stage for the high drama is actually the Israelites. Gd promises to Moshe the people’s liberation and its inheritance of land, but when Moshe tells the Israelites of the promise, he is rebuffed (Exodus 6:9):

.וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

This is usually translated as something like: “And Moses said so to the children of Israel, and they did not listen to Moses, from anguish of spirit and from cruel oppression.”

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Literally, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, translated above as “anguish of spirit”, means “shortness of breath.” It’s the only such occurrence of the phrase in Tanakh. Everett Fox renders it “shortness of spirit.” Ramban wants to suggest that that the Israelites were “impatient” for their salvation. It is no doubt hard to hear a promise of redemption while waiting for freedom. We can hardly look to the future while we’re focused on the present.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: What we learn is the Israelites were weary in soul and body. But it’s the spiritual bondage מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ that is forefronted. It is the principle problem.

Alternatively, we can understand רוּחַ – spirit, breath — as the divine, as in the primordial force of creation, the רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים/spirit of God that hovered over the chaotic universe (Genesis 1:2).

So the Torah then is making a very specific theological statement here: Gd is in short supply. Gd is as limited a resource as the straw that the Israelites no longer have to make the bricks that they are still expected to produce. That in fact the Israelites are cut off from Gd.

In the Exodus story, it’s a given that Pharaoh and the Egyptians aren’t in relationship with Gd. Indeed, Gd says on more than one occasion that what is happening is so that Egypt will know that Gd is Gd. But it turns out that the Israelites are in no better of a state.

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ: The Israelites are cut off from Gd. The Israelites have forfeited their relationship with Gd.

Both King and Heschel would appreciate the coincidence of this parshah and this holiday. They both saw the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt as powerful metaphor for the civil rights struggle. Sometimes we celebrate this holiday as if the work is done. We like to think that we abolished slavery in this country in 1863. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with Jim Crow laws that established systemic segregation in public resources. And we like to think that we struck down Jim Crow in this country in 1965. But we didn’t. We just recreated it in new form, with a criminal justice system that functions to enact racialized social control.

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, there has been a call in this country for recognition of the fact that black lives matter. The killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the nearly 1,000 other black people since then have only intensified the call for an end to the state violence that seeks to control black bodies and souls.

This summer I worked at an organization that was part of several coalitions working to end the use of solitary confinement in New York jails and prisons. As if our penal institutions aren’t bad enough. We put human beings in cages. And then within those cages, we put those human beings into other, smaller cages.

I had the privilege this summer of working with two formerly incarcerated men who spent time in solitary confinement. They survived, and and they now spend their days trying to make sure no one else has to. The other, who was a teenager behind bars: “I felt isolated, sad, helpless. I remember crying a lot. When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence. Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul.”

We, they, the free, the incarcerated, the criminals, the police, the oppressors, the oppressed, the Israelites, the Egyptians, everyone. We are all “cut off from Gd.” We have forfeited the right to worship Gd.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hold in state control — behind bars, on probation, or on parole — seven million Americans, or one in every 31 adults today.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we disproportionately incarcerate black folks, when 13% of the population constitutes 40% of people behind bars.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we kill a black person every 28 hours.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fail to hold accountable a man who kills a teenage boy walking home from the grocery store with Skittles and iced tea in his hoodie.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we sentence a black woman to 20 years for availing herself of the same Stand Your Ground laws that excused the killer of that teenage boy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we leave a black man’s body in the street for 4.5 hours after we kill him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we can offer black transgender women an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we fatally shoot a 12-year-old black kid with a BB gun in a park seconds after spotting him.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we text a union representative after a police shooting instead of calling an ambulance.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that require a 24-year-old to spend life in prison for three marijuana sales, a decision that the sentencing judge calls “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we have been so derelict in indigent defense that our American Bar Association says, “The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when we hide behind a slogan of “tough on crime” a system that can only be described as a tool to maintain white supremacy.

We forfeit the right to worship Gd when, for selling loose cigarettes, we strangulate a black man on the street, his last words, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner was מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ.

When we can’t breathe, we forfeit the right to worship Gd.

Every year on this Shabbat, we talk about Heschel and King. We tell how Heschel marched with King in Selma. We show the picture of the wild haired, bearded rabbi linking arms with the cooly quaffed reverend, the whole group festooned with leis. And we reflect on Heschel’s words: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel is our way into the work that King did. We can celebrate the extraordinary impact that King had on this country because we were part of it. Heschel’s commitment to King’s work is illustrative of the Jewish community’s solidarity with people of color.

We’ve got to stop telling that story. That was half a century ago. If after 50 years, we don’t have anything else, we’ve forfeited the right to tell that story.

I think we may have something else. I see it in the arrests of Jews on New York’s Upper West Side last month in response to a call to action by communities of color with whom Jewish racial justice organizations are in relationship. I see it in the active participation by young Jews last month in a meeting in Boston’s Jamaica Plain for white racial justice organizers, following black leadership. I see it in the Chanukah action organized last month by the Boston Jewish community, which many in my community attended. I see it in the fact that you are reading this now.

Today, I want us to begin a new story, a story of how we recognized this moment in history for what it is, and we could not be silent, and we could not be still; a story in which we bore witness to the degradation and violence that we sanction every day; a story in which we acknowledged that until we are right with each other, we cannot be right with Gd.

I want us to tell that story to our children.

solitary confinement is not worthy of us

This is a cross-post from Torah by T’ruah, in which rabbis (and in some cases, rabbinical students!) connect the weekly parashah to human rights issue of our day. I wrote about last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech.

Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parshah, speaks powerfully to our fundamental human need for connection to each other and to Gd —and therefore to the isolation that is an anathema to it.

The covenant of Torah that began with the distant and dramatic display of Gd’s power at Mount Sinai is sealed here as Israel stands before (nitzavim lifnei) Gd. This immediacy of acceptance of Torah is in sharp contrast with the fear and trembling of receiving of Torah.

Indeed, part of that covenant, Moses says, is the ingathering of those who are dispersed, on earth and in heaven —underscoring the importance of physical proximity for this final step. For their part, the Israelites are to love Gd bchol lvavecha uvchol nafshecha, “with all your heart and with all your soul”—a spiritual proximity.

Most vividly of all, the parshah ends with a poetic description of the location of Torah: It is not in heaven, and it is not across the sea. Lo rekhokah hi . . . ki carov eilecha . . . meod: “It is not far off . . . but very close to you.”Torah is inside us, in our mouths and in our hearts.

Significantly, the Israelites stand together “to cleave”to Gd (uldavka bo). A list is actually enumerated: chiefs, elders, men, women, children, strangers. The breadth is staggering, as Gd promises this covenant with those present and with those absent (veit asher einenu bo). This is no individual teshuva: This is a community, everyone and everywhere, reaching out and hanging on to Gd.

And this is the capstone of Gd’s relationship with Gd’s people, whom Gd has been preparing since Abraham heard the call generations earlier. Covenant means relationship, and relationship means intimacy.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA's office, demanding accountability for the death of a man -- ruled a homicide -- held in solitary at Rikers Island.

At a protest in front of the Bronx DA’s office, demanding accountability for the death of a man — ruled a homicide — held in solitary at Rikers Island.

This summer, as part of my participation in T’ruah’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Fellowship in Human Rights, I interned at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, working on its coalition for prison and jail reform in New York.

Currently, one of the main issues for advocates is the use of solitary confinement behind bars. The situation is bleak in New York, where isolation is regularly used as a punitive measure, and at rates above the national average —but the state is not unique in this practice.

Nationwide, there are estimated to be more than 100,000 people in segregation in prisons, jails, detention centers, juvenile facilities, and military installations. Terms can be days, weeks, months, years, or decades.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has decried solitary confinement in the U.S. as such, and for good reason. People in solitary confinement are usually held in cells the size of a parking space —with no windows and doors with only food slots, through which communication with guards, therapists, and doctors is conducted —for 22 to 24 hours a day. Visits are severely curtailed, and TVs, radios, and books might not be allowed. As a punishment, solitary may be meted out for the most minor of infractions, and there is little oversight or accountability in the process.

Every study of the subject tells us that solitary confinement is an affront to humanity. In isolation, human beings suffer “irreparable emotional damage and extreme mental anguish,”in the words of one expert. After 12 years in solitary, one prisoner noted: “I lost the will to live. I lost hope . . . Day after day all I saw was gray walls, and over time my world became the gray box.”

What we learn in our parshah is that intimacy is required for relationship with Gd and community. What we learn in our prison system is that intimacy with either is impossible in solitary confinement.

Isolation of human beings for extended periods of time is an abomination, with heartbreaking emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects. The Torah calls us, in its final, poignant moments, to move close to Gd and to others. As a community, we must ensure that all of us are able to do so.

Solitary confinement is not worthy of us as a people in relationship with Gd.

Access resources to become involved in the response to solitary confinement through T’ruah or the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

guest post: ableism in kedoshim

july4My first guest post: a d’var Torah by the awesome Emily Fishman!

The oft-quoted Leviticus 19:18, “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ– love thy neighbor as thyself,” literarily comes to summarize a list of how to set up your world to be a just one, where the vulnerable are protected and the powerful have their privilege checked.

One of the specifics in the section is לֹא-תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ–וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר, לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל, “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind,” verse 14. This verse, especially the bit about the stumbling block and the blind, is quote frequently in halakhic literature as a shorthand for entrapment, luring someone into sin. For example, an adult is forbidden to hit their parent, that is a matter of law. The parent, though, should not hit their adult child lest the child be tempted to hit back — that is a matter of lifnei iver. Another example: A nazirite is not allowed to drink wine. Therefore you are not allowed to offer wine to a nazirite because of lifnei iver.

By contrast, veahavta lereiacha kamocha is hardly heard in legal discourse, outside of a few citations by the Rambam. And I can imagine how helpful it could be! Don’t hit anyone — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t overcharge in business — because love they neighbor as thyself. Don’t throw loud parties at 3am — because love thy neighbor as thyself.

But no, it’s the bit about the blind person that gets dragged out time and time again.

In interpreting biblical verses, giants in the tradition, such as Rashi and Rambam, pull on the Talmud’s statement, “Ein mikra yotzei midei pshuto” (Shabbat, yevamot) — a verse’s interpretation may not contradict its plain meaning. Though it isn’t universally applied, let’s try it here.

What is the literal meaning of lifnei iver? The halakhic implications of not putting stumbling blocks in front of the blind would surely include tucking your backpack under your chair rather than leaving it in the aisle at the library. Making sure that all announcements posted on the bulletin board are also conveyed auditorily. Taping down the edges of rugs so they don’t get folded and become tripping hazards.

Using lifnei iver to name a category of situations where a person is drawn to forbidden acts not only obscures the simple meaning of the verse, it also subliminally erodes the esteem in which we hold blind people. They lose their agency, becoming faceless victims to circumstance, led into horrible situations because they can’t control their own environments.

We have a similar problem in English. We say that someone is “deaf to the cries of those in need” or “blind to the plight of people.” What we actually mean is “willfully ignorant.” We use “schizophrenic” to describe an incoherent argument and “obsessive-compulsive” to describe our coworker’s tidily organized desk.

But this leaves us open to harming others in our inarticulate use of language. How would it feel to be a deaf person and have your identity constantly used to mean “ignorant”? How would it feel to be struggling with anxious repetitive behavior that caused clinically significant impairment and have your diagnosis dismissed as behavior typical of precise or controlling personality types?

Perhaps we are drawn to expansive readings of lifnei iver because we convince ourselves that we would never be so careless as to place an actual barrier in front of an actual blind person. And it feels daunting to try to shift our language around any of these issues. There are too many people asking too many things of us. And maybe I don’t understand why they are asking me to change my language from an intellectual or emotional perspective.

How would the halakhic category of caring for each other’s vulnerabilities be different if we framed it as Veahavta lereiacha kamocha instead of lifei iver? If we came from an angle of thinking through and asking how we can be of service to another human like ourselves, rather than taking a patronizing tack and assuming we know how to best serve a person who is unlike us?

Veahavta lereiacha kamocha relationships are admittedly harder than lifnei iver relationships. It requires us to learn about each other’s experiences, act with compassion and humility, give benefit of the doubt, and trust that everyone else is doing the same. But what we stand to gain is a life where we learn about each other’s experiences and community characterized by compassion, humility, trust, and second chances.

Kamocha means that the person in question is fundamentally like me, relatable. It pushes against our instinct to view ourselves as separate from each other. Kamocha encourages us to see difference as incidental rather than fundamental. This solidarity lends itself to compassion. Problematically, the lifnei iver frame puts me in a place of approaching an “other” who is fundamentally different from me. On the other hand, the veahavta lereiacha kamocha tack lends itself to broadly defining who we mean when we say “us” and using language to both reflect and encourage inclusive notions of community.

In the mindset of lifnei iver, if I don’t understand the utility of putting effort into changing language, then it isn’t incumbent upon me to try. I don’t have evidence leading me to believe that what I do is going to trip them up. Additionally, I have no responsibility to be proactive, to think about and ask about other people’s needs. If I just care about avoiding stumbling blocks, then I am only responsible for the harm I do through action, but not the harm I do through inaction

But if we work the same situation from a frame of veahavta lereiacha kamocha, we come to a very different conclusion. A human being has told me that they want me to change my language around a particular topic — gender, mental illness, disability, race, income, whatever. They seem to have a real stake in the issue. Veahavta lereiacha kamocha does not invite me to weigh whether I think this language should or shouldn’t matter to them or whether it will or won’t radically change society.  It invites me simply to respect another human’s stated experience and join them in creating the world they wish to live in.

shlepping to shul

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

Continuing the story of my visit to Birmingham, on Saturday morning we went to shul. We could go to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, an orthodox synagogue, or Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a Liberal congregation. Though I knew that I would probably appreciate the davenning more at the orthodox shul, I chose BPS because I was curious about egalitarian Judaism in the UK. To be a little snide, this service out-Reformed a Reform synagogue in the U.S.: To some extent, what happened was almost unrecognizable to me.

After a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the synagogue before services started at 11:00 a.m. — which seemed quite late. Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in synagogue before services started; because the ones I attend on Shabbat morning tend to be about three hours, I (like many people) drift in 30 or 45 minutes late. So we actually sat for a little while, and the very nice member of the congregation who welcomed us explained that because of the summer holidays, attendance would be sparse, and asked those of us who were Jewish to please sing out during the service. Indeed, there were perhaps 25 congregants, and almost no young people. The rabbi (who is a woman) was away, and in her place a congregant (also a woman) led the service.

The service was quite abbreviated, with none of the prayers — including the Amidah — said (or even printed) in full. Many were replaced by responsive readings in English. I knew almost none of the melodies, and I think (though I’m not an expert) that the ones used were difficult to sing, and not that spirited. Honestly, I felt like I was in church, which is not bad per se, but not what I would want in a synagogue.

The Torah service was in the same vein. The procession of the scroll happened only after the reading, and there was only one aliyah, meaning that only a very small part of the parshah was read. And the tallit of young girl who had the aliyah was longer than her overall shorts. (I realize that makes me sound crotchety.) The Torah reader gave a short d’var and then did just that: read the Torah. He didn’t chant it; he just read it from the scroll. He then offered his own translation. I’ve never seen this tradition before, though I was told it is standard practice in these congregations in England. The reader did gain my affection by talking about the points of grammar he considered when making his translation; he even used the words “infinitive absolute”!

After kiddush, we went back upstairs so that the non-Jews could look at the Torah scroll close up. The congregation has four scrolls, which is quite a lot for a 300-member shul. (Most synagogues do have more than one, to avoid constant scroll rolling, since a holiday might make it necessary to read from different parts of the scroll.) The building, too, was quite modern and expensive, which seemed out of sync with its anemic congregation. As it turns out, the synagogue moved just a few years ago: Its original building was bought by a developer planning to build a skyscraper on the property. So the congregation had to pay only about 10% of the cost of the building.

After lunch, we split up into groups to go to different parts of the city to try to get a sense of the multicultural and multifaith character of the city. I’ll just note that I found this exercise a little problematic, for reasons that I don’t want to go into here. But one of the things that I noticed were the near ubiquitous signs reading, “This area monitored by CCTV cameras.” My association with these cameras in the U.S. is the over-policing of low-income areas and neighborhoods of people of color, particularly under the pretext of the drug war — so I found the situation horrifying. But two native Brits confirmed that this level of surveillance is standard (or at least has become so in the post-9/11 and post-2005-Underground-bombings world). None of the natives I spoke to gave a thought to the cameras, and one even characterized Americans as “uptight” for opposing them.

Finally, we finished up the day at dinner with more guests, interfaith community organizers from Sparkbrook. We heard about The Feast, which brings together Christian and Muslim youth, and then from Rev. Richard Sudworth of Christ Church Centre (the first stop in Birmingham, where we heard from awesomely named Mohammed Ali), as well as from Javed Khan, who works in the community around Christ Church, which is majority Muslim. Rev. Sudworth talked about his church’s role in a community that is not reflective of its membership: A new experience, they’ve stepped back and concentrated on supporting the work that is already being done by groups in the area. It really resonated with me, as I think it’s a good model for the kind of work I want to do in a Jewish organization with other groups.

Next up . . . we attend church!


Next week is Tisha B’Av (literally, the ninth day of [the month of] Av), a holiday in the Jewish year cycle that commemorates the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem. Tradition also ascribes to this day various other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Observance often includes fasting and reading the book of Lamentations — as befits a day of mourning.

Preparation for the holiday begins three weeks before, on the 17th of Tammuz, when (according to the Mishnah) Moses is said to have come down from Mount Sinai, with the first set of the 10 Commandments, seen the children of Israel worshiping the golden calf, and smashed the tablets. My teacher Ebn Leader connects this event with Yom Kippur, when it is said that Moses came down again from Mount Sinai with the second and final set of tablets, and thus the people knew that they were forgiven. Indeed, during these many weeks between 17 Tammuz and 10 Tishrei (Yom Kippur), we carry out a process of forgiveness.

But first we mourn. This has been a powerful metaphor for me lately. I’ve faced some painful realities, and so I’ve had to give up hope for a relationship of mine. (I apologize for the lack of specificity: I’m trying to be discreet without being overly cryptic. And it’s not my husband!)

I’m not sure what mourning looks like in this context. I feel loss. Devastating loss. But I am still in relationship with this person — it’s just not going to be the relationship that I had hoped. And certain limitations mean that this person will likely never be aware of the shift. So I’m dealing with this on my own, and I’m left to wonder: What can that relationship look like now? Am I able make the adjustment? How do I deal with my feelings about the change? Where can I find what I need (what I had once hoped to get from this relationship)? Will I ever be able to forgive the many ways in which this person has let me down?

As Ebn notes in his d’vrei Torah about Tisha B’Av (and it’s really worth reading the whole thing!):

The ninth day of Av is the day we acknowledge Hurban Yerushalayim. We usually translate this as the “destruction of Jerusalem,” but Jerusalem is also “yir’eh shalem”: a vision of wholeness. Tish’ah b’Av is the destruction of the vision of wholeness that we may have had, that may even be the driving force of our life, that is now shattered on the rock of evil and suffering. When we acknowledge that shattering, our love gives birth to disappointment, anger and deep sadness.
I don’t know the answers to any of the questions that I have. This situation and this realization offend my commitment to recognizing the humanity in every person: I don’t ever want to give up on someone. And I know I can’t keep making myself vulnerable in the ways I have in the past. That pain is overwhelming.

why have kids?

First: I don’t know whether I want children. I’ve never felt a strong desire for children. I have felt pressure from my mom and from (what I perceive is, more on that below) Jewish tradition. I’m mostly undecided, and I think I could be okay not having kids. I do wonder though, if it were socially acceptable, whether I would just decide not to. Which is strange to me, since I am not usually ruled by others’ expectations. I think part of it is the fact that relatively few people choose not to have kids, so I wonder if I’m missing something. I also wonder how to know that I won’t regret that decision. Deciding to become a rabbi has only intensified my anxiety about this issue: I don’t know any rabbis without children.

Over the holidays I read (on my Kindle app on my iPhone) Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. It’s a short and quick read, and it in no way answers its own question. I was left with the overwhelming feeling that there is no rational reason to have kids. People do it because they want to, because they are expected to, because they were faced with an unintended pregnancy — all valid reasons. But it’s not necessarily going to make you a happier or more fulfilled person (at least not for a long while).

The book is divided into two parts: LIES and TRUTH. The first category includes “Children Make You Happy,” “Breast is Best,” “‘The Hardest Job in the World'”; the former, of “‘Bad’ Mothers Go to Jail,” “Smart Women Don’t Have Children,” and “Women Should Work.” Obviously, some of these are provocative, but Valenti does manage in some way to take on some of the sacred cows of motherhood. Much of the book draws from first-mother accounts, and the stories, quite frankly, are horrifying — and played into my worst fears. The standout in the book is her (unfortunately ill-formed) argument for the need in our country to move from individual to community parenting — thus requiring us to advocate for “government and workplace policies that honor parenting for everyone.” That’s a world into which I would want to bring children. Valenti just doesn’t really offer a way to get there.

Interestingly, related issues were raised last Shabbat in a Jewish context; at Temple Beth Zion, a congregant, the aunt of one of my classmates, gave a d’var Torah about the Biblical imperative to procreate, from the weekly parshah, Bereshit. In the first account of the creation of humans — the only humans at the time — in Genesis 1:28, G-d tells them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The talk was intensely personal, and it deeply resonated with me.

At my request, she sent me a copy of her d’var. Speaking from her perspective as “a Jewish woman who chose not to give birth or be the primary raiser of children,” she talked about her struggle with that decision and her exploration for its validation in Jewish tradition. She grew up in a different time, when women were told that being a mother was part of having a full life. (I’m actually not sure that things have changed that much, though perhaps the messages are less explicit.) She began to speak with women older than she and discovered that this might not be the case. After much agonizing, she related, “I felt at the end of the day that primary parenting is a huge responsibility and a lot of work that, while potentially quite wonderful, was not one of the major life works that I wanted to take on.”

She explained that she made that decision with the belief that it was in opposition to Jewish law and practice. At the time, she identified as a secular Jew, so whether there was support for her choice in Jewish tradition was not of import. When she became more religious mid-life (when having children was no longer an option), she began to explore what Jewish texts actually have to say on the issue. There are in the Tanakh examples of women who do not have children — most notably Dvora — which is to say nothing of the men and women who cannot have children. She also cited the story of Jacob’s reaction to Rachel in her despair over not having children; a 15th century rabbi interprets it as anger at her forgetting her basic worth as a human being.

Wrapping up, she asked, “What does it mean to be a mensch (human) in regards to procreation and the domination of the planet by human beings in the 21st century? What is our holy work and what is our holy work today as we explore our connection back to the very first mitzvah — of procreation?” Citing the writing of Rav Kook (the first chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) on the issue — his view is that procreation is not mere instinct but pursuit of divine goodness, to be found everywhere — she concluded,

From my point of view this means that procreation originally set the precedent for human holy activity that now includes all activity that nurtures the human race.

Oh my God! I forgot to have children!Thus, her work as a mentor and advocate for Jewish women is her holy work — born of the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”

This decision weighs on me, and it’s something I’ll continue to wrestle with as my window for having children continues to close because of my age. The d’var giver joked that she didn’t want to have the realization of a woman in a t-shirt she saw: “Oh my God! I can’t believe I forgot to have to have children!” Like her, I want “to make an active, intelligent decision about whether or not I [am] going to give birth and raise children.”

first services

On Monday I led my first service all by myself, an hour-long morning service for Rosh HaShanah. (In June, at my bat mitzvah, I just led two parts of the service: the Amidah and the second part of the Torah service.)

rosh hashanah prep; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

A little over a week ago, the community relations coordinator at an assisted living facility about 10 miles north of Boston emailed the school to ask if there was a rabbinical student available for three one-hour services (on both days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur). The director of job placement at the school then emailed the student body with the plea — and noted that it would be a great opportunity for someone with little experience, that it would be a real mitzvah for the center, and that the center would pay for the services. The first certainly described me; the second pulled at my heartstrings; and the third sealed the deal. I volunteered.

Helpfully, the center had a shortened service booklet (above) that had been put together specifically for its services, so I was able to work from that. I added a few parts and wrote a d’var torah; found tunes for parts of the liturgy that I’m not that familiar with (because they’re specific to the High Holidays, which are only once a year); got a crash course in shofar from a fifth year student (who was an awesome teacher!); and outlined and timed the serviced. And I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. At least as much as I could in a few days, during the first week of classes.

After the first day, I was just glad it was over. About two dozen people came, as predicted by the community relations coordinator. A few were the children of the residents, and I think they were my toughest audience. The residents were of varying cognitive and physical ability: about half were from the assisted living side of the center, and the other half, from the skilled nursing side.

I didn’t feel particularly nervous, but I performed with only mixed success. I did the parts I knew well (except when I started the Amidah in the wrong tune, which happened both days for some reason). And I was pleased with what I had written to say: an introduction, a kavanah (intention, or meditation, for the service); a preface to the shofar service; and my d’var. And, per the advice of the rabbi in charge of job placement — who sat down with me last week to offer advice — I greeted, and introduced myself to, and chatted with everyone before the service started. I think this went a long way in earning me some goodwill in spite of my mistakes.

Ah, yes: The mistakes. I just forgot most of the tunes for the High Holiday-specific parts of the liturgy. I do not have much singing ability, despite my performance at my bat mitzvah — which came after months and months of practice. And when I did remember how a part started, I usually got off track in the middle. These missteps were made worse by the fact that the tunes didn’t seem to be known very well — at all? — by the service participants. So it was just my poor singing that filled the room. I had wanted to learn them, though, to break up blocks of just plain reading in Hebrew; I think if I were a more skilled song leader, I could have repeated the refrains and gotten more participation.

I’m pretty sure that after I finished one “song” I heard a woman say, “This is terrible!” My husband maintains that the speaker was probably talking about something else, but I’m not sure she was wrong. I felt terrible at not doing well by the residents in their celebration of the holiday, and I felt even more terribly about representing Hebrew College poorly. I had, after all, told everyone where I studied when I introduced myself.

downtown boston from tobin bridge; photo by lehcar1477

When I left, I felt sick at the idea of going back the next day. I started to calm down as I drove away — and I began to feel better when I started to pay attention to the program that happened to be airing on Boston’s NPR affiliate: author Brené Brown spoke about her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I almost laughed aloud as I listened to Brown explain that “Overcoming shame, and allowing ourselves to take risks and ask for help is important not only for our personal and professional success, but also for our success as a culture.” Then I began to marvel at the view of downtown Boston from the Tobin Bridge (left), feeling grateful to be living in such a beautiful city and to have such unique opportunities.

By the next morning, I felt much less embarrassed and much more determined to do (and capable of doing) a better job on the second day. And so it went.

I slowed down and made sure to get the transitions from piece to piece right (calling out page numbers, opening or closing the ark, explaining the prayer that followed, etc.). I also decided to take one of the sefer Torahs from the ark. I wasn’t able to read the portion for that day (the akedah), but I knew the songs for the Torah service well, and people generally love to touch the scroll. I didn’t flub the Hebrew, and I remembered the tunes. After the service, I stood at the door and shook everyone’s hands, wished them a happy new year, and chatted briefly. It was a nice way to end the service; I wish I’d done it on the first day. Plus, it gave all of the participants a chance to tell me what a lovely service it was, which many of them did. Many also asked whether I’d be back for Yom Kippur.

Side note: As a rabbinical student (and as a rabbi, too, I imagine), the “holidays” are overwhelming. I spent all my free time before and during the holidays in preparation (for the services or the meals), and then three to seven hours a day at holiday meals. Several families associated with Hebrew College generously hosted me, but the majority of the people at these meals were unknown to me, and meeting new people as a rabbinical student can be exhausting. Rosh HaShanah is now over, and in a way I feel as though it didn’t really happen. Davenning as a service leader bears little resemblance to doing so as a service participant, and I didn’t have any time to do the reflection on the new year that I spent much of the last month preparing to do. Welcome to the rabbinate, I suppose. I need a chag from my chag.

Back at the assisted living facility, I was especially proud of the fact that I seemed to have won over a woman who was very cranky when she arrived. She sat down and basically began heckling me. At 10 minutes before the hour, she called out, “Let’s get this service started already!” Then she offered, “I suggest you introduce yourself to everyone before you begin!” When I told her where I went to school, she shook her head. “I’m very familiar with all of the rabbinical schools, and that’s not a rabbinical school.” Later she asked, “What will you call yourself? A rebbetzin?” She wrinkled her nose and gave me a doubtful look when I said that the term would be “rabbi.”

What took the cake, though, was her remark after the service. She came up to me and beamed, telling me what a great job I had done. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight at me.

“You’re going to make just a wonderful rabbi’s wife!”

UPDATE: The community relations coordinator called me on Thursday, two days after the second service to tell me how much the residents loved my services! She said they especially appreciated how I greeted each of them, asked their names, and then took the time to talk with them.


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