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May 3, 2017 / Rabbi Laura

Becoming Pure

I am honored to have written this d’var Torah as part of Matan’s weekly blog series in which we find lessons linking the concept of inclusion to each and every Torah portion. You will find it cross posted there.

This year, Shabbat Acharei Mot falls on one my favorite weekends of the year, when Rick and I serve as rabbinic faculty at the Jewish Learning Works Special Needs Family Camp.

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Why are we talking about Yom Kippur now?

This week’s parsha, Acharei Mot gives us the commandments related to observing the Day of Atonement.

“And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made to purify you of all your sins and you shall be pure before Adonai.” (Leviticus 16:29-30)

These verses show up between much longer passages about arcane rituals of purification and detailed prohibitions regarding sexual relations. What strange bookends for a set of instructions about how to observe our holiest day of the year. Yet, of course nothing is random in the Torah. So, there must be a reason behind placing the description of the rituals of Yom Kippur at exactly this point in the Torah.

When we look at the commonalities between the different elements of Acharei Mot, we see two intertwined themes emerge. Acharei Mot is about creating purity. Purity of space. Purity of body. Purity in relationships. In order to define what is pure, one has to also define what is not pure. So, our parsha also sets boundaries. It helps us come to understand where pure space begins and where it ends. It helps us distinguish between when the body is pure and when it is tainted – both physically and spiritually. It classifies which relationships are sacred and which are abhorrent.

What is curious about the definitions given in Acharei Mot is how they differ from those given in previous parshiot. In earlier sections of Torah, in order for a human body to be considered pure, it had to be clear of any wounds or imperfections. Similarly, in order for an animal to be worthy of sacrifice, it had to be free of any blemishes. No such restrictions or expectations are articulated in this parsha. Acharei Mot offers us a much more inclusive vision of what it means to achieve a state of purity. Purity is no longer about achieving perfection.

Rather, purity is about both the state of the body as well as a state of mind. In this parsha we see that the body, the spirit and the mind are always in flux, moving on a spectrum between opposing states of purity and impurity. Neither state is permanent. There is always a means of return to purity for all.

Yom Kippur offers that us path of return. Yom Kippur is that time when we all are expected to do that work of returning to purity, returning to God. If we look back at those verses above, Leviticus 16:29-30, and pay attention to the Hebrew, we notice an important factor in this process that is not visible in the English.

These verses are directed to the whole collective community, Israelite and non-Israelite alike. The words are grammatically in second person plural, as if to say, “you all, or y’all.”

“For on this day atonement shall be made to purify y’all of all y’all’s sins and y’all shall be pure before Adonai.”

Additionally, the Torah recognizes that the members of the community are different. The text recognizes that some are Israelite and some are not.

“…And y’all shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among y’all.”

The Torah is inclusive of the diversity of the people in the community.

Thus, Yom Kippur is that time when we work together to find purity of body, mind, spirit. Doing that work together creates space and acceptance for everyone to participate each in their own way. Each person will find themselves at a different place on the spectrum between impurity and purity. Some will have a longer path to walk to reach purity. Some may do their work of purification in a different way than others. Some may need assistance and some may help carry others along the way. Regardless, the community reaches that place of purification together.

January 28, 2017 / Rabbi Laura

Stay at it

Below is the d’var torah I offered at the annual gathering of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE) this past week.  I have the honor of serving as the president of the ARJE, and shared this with my colleagues and fellow ARJE members on Monday, January 23, 2017.

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“Lace up your shoes.

Show up.

Stay at it.”

 

Not quite enough syllables for a haiku, but these nine simple words say so much. They are not my words. They are former president Barack Obama’s, from his final speech to the nation uttered just 10 or so days ago.

Lace up your shoes.

Show up.

Stay at it.

These nine words exemplify three important aspects of what it takes to be a leader.

Leadership is about preparation. We “lace up our shoes.” We get ready to do the work, building the skills, putting the tools and resources we need in place that will enable us to do what needs be done.

Leadership is about showing up. It’s about being present. We have to be at the table, in the conversation, on the march, letting our voices be heard.

Leadership is about having the confidence to keep at it. The work can be hard. But we cannot give up. We have to “stay at it.”

In our parsha this week, we see Moses challenged by the third of these basic principles. God comes to Moses and says to him, for the second time, “ Go and tell Pharaoh, king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” And Moses replies, “The Israelites would not listen to me; now then should Pharaoh heed me, me – who gets tongue-tied!” (Exodus 6:12)

This isn’t the first time we hear Moses’ doubts about his own abilities to lead the Israelites. It is at the burning bush that Moses first claims his deficiencies for leadership, saying that he was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” which many of interpreted as meaning he had a speech impediment. Is he saying the same thing here?

Some commentators suggest in this moment Moses is speaking more about his capacity for leadership than his self-perceived physical challenges around it. Is he worthy of transmitting the divine word? Does he have the ability, the power, the confidence?

Well, let’s see. Is he prepared to be a leader? Has he “laced up his shoes?” In this instance, we might consider that actually his act of removing his shoes at the burning bush, his encounter with Ehyeh asher ehyeh was a moment of preparation – perhaps the ultimate moment of preparation – to do the job he was called to do. After removing his shoes, he had to put them back on, and with God’s blessing, leave that sacred space and sacred moment to begin the journey of bringing his people to liberation.

Did Moses show up? Yes, he did. He showed up for his people when he witnessed the Egyptian taskmaster beating the slave. He showed up for his people when God called to him from the burning bush and Moses responded, “Hineini – here I am.” And he showed up when he first gathered the elders of the Israelite community together to organize them and prepare for the action of escaping from Egypt.

So, why this moment of doubt? Why, when defeated by his first appearance before Pharaoh does Moses lose his confidence? Perhaps he didn’t think he could make a difference.

I’m sure we have all be there, like Moses feeling as if our small contributions wouldn’t make a difference.

Yet, do you really believe that? I don’t.

An African parable tells the story of the hummingbird who discovers a forest fire. She flies to the lake, scoops up a few drops of water into her tiny beak, carries that water back to the forest and drops that water onto a burning tree. Back and forth she goes, making little impact on the raging fire. Soon the other animals start laughing at her. The elephant says to her, “little hummingbird, do you really think you are going to be able to put out that fire all by yourself?” Her response, similar to our own Rabbi Tarfon’s, was: while I may not get the fire out, it is my duty to at least try.” Hearing her brave response, the other animals join in the effort, and together they put the forest fire out.

Alternatively, perhaps Moses didn’t believe in himself and his ability to succeed? This was a watershed moment – he was reaching the point of no turning back – and chickening out?

I’m sure we’ve each felt that too. We’ve thought, its just too hard to make this change really happen. The finish line is too far away, so I’m just not going to try.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot live without that hope and vision for the future. Do we really want to give up and just stay “stuck in our Egypts.” That’s not how we roll, as Jews. Otherwise, why would we say each year at the end of our seders, “Next year in Jerusalem.” – next year in a place that is ear-shalem, a place of wholeness.

Moses had his moments of doubt, just like we all do. Taking on the role of leadership is hard and sometimes scary work. Yet, in the end, Moses does succeed. He brings us out of slavery and into the Promised Land. That isn’t to say he is perfect. We know he wasn’t. Yes, he lost his patience at times. Yes, the Israelites complained to him and about him. Even his closest advisors – his brother and sister – complain. But, he keeps at it. He had to find is confidence and believe in his ability to make the change God and he dreamt of.

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Former President Obama’s final words to the nation on that night in Chicago were, “I’m asking you to believe in your ability to bring about change.” This is what it means to “stay at it.” Believe in yourself.

As we begin these 3 days together, learning about and exploring our roles as Jewish educational leaders, I pray that we can find comfort and inspiration from our teacher Moses. He had doubts. He had fears. The road ahead was going to be long and hard. Yet he kept at it and didn’t give up. And I pray that we can be emboldened by the words of President Obama. Believe. We must believe in our abilities to bring about the changes we seek, so that we can each reach our Promised Land.

May we all:

Lace up our shoes.

Show up.

And stay at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 17, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

A blessing for voting

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Are we commanded to vote?

As a regular respondent in Moment Magazine‘s Ask the Rabbi column, when asked, I responded that yes indeed, it is a mitzvah – an obligation – to vote. While not commanded in Torah,

…voting is so important that one should sell one’s tefillin (phylacteries) —a symbol of one’s commitment to observing the mitzvot (commandments) —in order to do so. I would suggest that for us, today, voting is more than a right or a privilege. It is an obligation incumbent upon us as equal citizens in a democratic society.

During this election season I have been working hard to get out the vote, making phone calls to registered voters, encouraging them to exercise their right to vote. I receive a plethora of responses to my calls. Among the most distressing are those from people who tell me they do not plan to vote.  “Regardless of who you select, you must vote. It is your right, your obligation as a citizen of this country.  If we really believe in democracy, it is incumbent upon each of us to let our voices be heard.  We do that through our electoral process.  Vote!”

The most pride-filled moments of these calls are when I speak with a young adult, an 18-19 year old, for whom I know this will be their first time voting in a presidential election.  I ask, “are you excited about this opportunity to help select our next president?”  I encourage them to take that responsibility seriously. I want to say, “Mazel tov!”

My instinctual “Mazel tov” response triggered something for me: I, as a voter, view this civic obligation also as a sacred act.  It is worthy of a “congratulations!”  In the same vein, perhaps it is worthy of a blessing as well.

Others have written kavannot (meditations) to be read before voting.  Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote a Voting Prayer, and Michael Lerner has written a meditation before going to vote.  Yet, neither of these are constructed as blessings in accordance with Jewish tradition, which should start with these words:

…ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam…

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe…

Our Jewish tradition helps us mark many sacred acts with blessings. We say blessings for both ritual experiences as well as for day-to-day occurrences which are worthy of being elevated to and set in a sacred frame, such as seeing a rainbow, eating a first fruit of the harvest, or meeting a wise scholar.  Why not a blessing for voting?

So, I offer up this blessing:

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שמצפה מאיתנו לעסוק בעבודת אזרחות המדינה

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam,

she–me׳tzapeh me’itanu l’asok b’avodat ezrachut ha’medina.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe,

who expects us to engage as citizens in our country.

When you step into the voting booth – or before you seal the envelope on that vote-by-mail ballot – consider sanctifying the moment.  We are blessed to live in a time and a place in which we as Jews can freely vote. Treat that obligation with the reverence such an act deserves – with a blessing.

Not yet registered to vote? You may still be able to do so!

October 14, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Doing our Sacred Work Together

This blog has been cross posted on the Union for Reform Judaism’s Inside Leadership blog.

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Education.

Engagement.

What is “it?” What does “it” look like when we do “it” successfully?

Where do they intersect? Where do they diverge?

These questions are being asked in many circles: in the halls of Jewish academia, like HUC-JIR, Brandeis University and JTS; in the synagogue staff meetings, between directors of education, religious school principals, directors of youth engagement, youth group advisors, rabbis and cantors; in camp visioning and planning conversations; in central agencies such as the Jewish Education Project’s recent research and recommendations in Generation Now.

Without even knowing the answers, one thing Jewish educators of all varieties have come to understand is that we need to work collectively in both asking and answering these and many other related questions. Some Jewish education settings have already successfully eliminated those silos, creating holistic visions and structures for doing the work of education and engagement. No longer can we function in detached and erroneously separated silos of “youth engagement” and “Jewish education”, or “informal” and “formal.”

The recent merger of ARJE and RYPA is one way that Jewish educational leaders in the Reform Movement have taken action to create a more collaborative approach to our work. This merger brings together all Reform Jewish professionals who engage and educate youth in synagogues, camps, and other Jewish organizations. As one organization, the Jewish educational leaders of the Reform Movement are able to:

  • Serve as a collective voice for the Reform Jewish education, in all its varieties of settings
  • Authenticate in one professional association the close relationships that exist on the ground in our day-to-day work settings
  • Provide common support and advocacy for professionals who may have diverse portfolios yet collectively embrace the ARJE mission to advance the profession of the Jewish educator and inspire excellence in Jewish education
  • Create space for a diversity of professionals to network, explore curiosities, ideas, varied practices and approaches together through our rich professional learning opportunities

The grammars of “education” and “engagement” are distinctive. As a more diverse community, we, the members of the ARJE, are committed to learning from and with each other. We are committed to developing an understanding of each other’s vocabulary, each other’s practice, as well as each other’s successes and challenges.

In spite of these differences, what is most important is that our core values are aligned. We share a commitment to excellence in Jewish education, Jewish learning, and Jewish engagement. We share a vision of the future in which our communities are vibrantly living and learning Jewishly. We know we are stronger when we do this sacred work together.

How is your community is addressing these questions about engagement and education? What have you done to break down the silos that may exist? What have been your challenges and where have you been successful?

 

July 28, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Words to Remember, Words to Live By

As I wait, in anticipation, for tonight’s HISTORIC nomination acceptance speech by Hillary Clinton, I am reflecting on the powerful words that have been spoken in the past 48 hours at the Democratic National Convention.

Last week, I was scared. Each night I went to sleep wondering, what has our nation become?! I did not grow up in a country that embraces xenophobia, racism & bigotry, bullying, and violence against those different than us in body, mind or faith.  We are supposed to be the country that fights AGAINST those things!

Jefferson ingrained our core values:

“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.”

Emma Lazarus words are inscribed on our Lady Liberty: ”

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This week has made me proud to be an American. Proud to stand on the shoulders who fought – and to support those who continue to fight – for freedom, democracy and for every human being’s God-given rights.

All these words make me think forward into our future – not just November 2016 and January 2017 – but into a future in which my children and (God-willing) grand children will live and prosper.

I’ve pull together what I think are some of the most poignant, salient and powerful words I’ve heard, so that I can come back to them, remember them, as we continue down this challenging election road. For when I get scared again, I know these words will give me hope, will inspire me to action AND participation in the democratic process.

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First Lady Michelle Obama, July 26, 2016, Democratic National Convention

With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are their most important role models….I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our Founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story. And when crisis hits, we don’t turn against each other. No, we listen to each other, we lean on each other, because we are always stronger together.

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President Bill Clinton, July 26, 2016, Democratic National Convention

Those of us who have more yesterdays than tomorrows tend to care more about our children and grandchildren. The reason you should elect her is that in the greatest country on Earth, we have always been about tomorrow. Your children and grandchildren will bless you forever if you do

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Vice President Joe Biden, July 27, 2016, Democratic National Convention

That’s why, that’s why I can say with absolute conviction, I am more optimistic about our chances today than when I was elected as a 29 year old kid to the Senate. The 21st century is going to be the American century. Because we lead by not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. That is the history of the journey of America. And God willing, God willing, Hillary Clinton will write the next chapter in that journey. We are America, second to none. And we own the finish line. Don’t forget it.

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Governor Tim Kaine, July 27, 2016, Democratic National Convention

“Thomas declared all men equal, and Abigail remembered the women. Woodrow brokered peace, and Eleanor broke down barriers. Jack told us what to ask, and Lyndon answered the call. Martin had a dream, Cesar y Dolores said si se puede, and Harvey gave his life. Bill bridged a century, and Barack gave us hope.

“And now Hillary is ready. Ready to fight, ready to win, ready to lead.

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President Barack Obama, July 27, 2016, Democratic National Convention

We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way.  We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union.

That’s who we are. That’s our birthright — the capacity to shape our own destiny. That’s what drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny and our GIs to liberate a continent. It’s what gave women the courage to reach for the ballot, and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma, and workers to organize and fight for collective bargaining and better wages. (Applause.)

America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together — through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.

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July 10, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Hate is hate, no matter who it is against

As I sat home yesterday afternoon watching various live streams of the #blacklivesmatter march in Fresno that went on for 5 hours, 6 miles of marching, I had mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I felt a tremendous sense of guilt.  I should be out there marching with them.  Showing my support. Standing alongside my fellow clergy to hear the pain, to help keep the calm, to show my own outrage at the senseless death and discrimination we see in our country today.

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On the other hand, I was scared. Scared that what happened in Dallas would happen here in Fresno.  Those who love me most didn’t want me to put myself in the path of possible danger.

So, while not there in person, I was there in spirit.  I sat at home, obsessed, ceaselessly clicking back and forth between my Twitter feed, the live Facebook video streams, clicking through the TV channels to check which news stations were covering it live.

I took a brief break when my son and his girlfriend came over for a little bit.  We updated each other about what we had been hearing. We took a short respite for them to teach me how to hunt #Pokemon. We joked about how so many people in town were either out marching in protest or out hunting #Pokemon in their neighborhoods.  We laughed, and felt safe, and as if everything was normal.

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It took me a long time to fall asleep last night. I was too worked up. Overwhelmed with emotions.

And this morning, I am realizing again why this is so gut wrenching for me.

Yes, Black Lives Do Matter.

Yes, All Lives Do Matter.

No one life is more important than any others, BUT…

NOW is the time for us to do the work to correct the wrongs being done to people of color, black and brown. Now is the time to look in the national mirror and see the victimizing and judging and profiling that exists, just because of the color of one’s skin. Now is the time to do the hard work of change!

I, as Jewish woman, am lucky. I can hide behind my whiteness. Yet, that wasn’t always true.  There was a time when Jews were also the targets of discrimination and hatred.  Perhaps if we had social media and hashtags then, we would have also said #Jewishlivesmatter.  We in the Jewish community are in a better, safer, more inclusive place these days. No, it’s not perfect. There is still anti-Semitism in this country.  Yet, for better or worse, we have achieved “whiteness” and hold “power” and empowerment in ways that we haven’t before.

How can we justify fighting against anti-Semitism and not fighting against racism and Islamophobia and other forms of marginalization, discrimination and hate?! Hate is hate is hate, no matter who it is against.

So today, I will walk.  Not march, but walk, with colleagues and friends from Faith in Community to hear people’s stories, to hear their pain, to offer support and consolation, to bear witness.  And God-willing, we will build bridges; we will give hope and love; we will find opportunities for reconciliation; we begin to find spaces of peace and safety, and make change.

 

July 5, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

What is in your Promised Land?

What is in your promised land?

 

Less stress.

No anxiety.

Breakfast burritos.

Mint chip ice cream cake.

Time and space to be creative.

Loving relationships.

Safety from violence.

URJ Camp Newman.

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I’m home from camp. Clean and dirty clothes are still stacked up in their respective laundry baskets. The various accoutrements of our camp-style living are waiting to be packed up or put away.  Yet, I’m still thinking about the conversation I had on Shabbat morning with the Avodah-niks and CITs (rising 11th & 12th graders).

Parshat Shelach-lecha, Numbers 13:1-15:41, tells the story of the Israelite spies going ahead into Canaan, to see what they can learn about its inhabitants.  The scouts come back with differing  reports.  Ten of the scouts are pessimistic and doubtful, concerned that the giants living in the land will overcome the Israelites.  Only Caleb and Joshua are optimistic about the possibilities that lay ahead; it is a land flowing with milk and honey.

The parsha is traditionally interpreted to be about a test of faith in God, which Caleb and Joshua pass with flying colors, and the other scouts fail miserably.

Yet, I saw a different lesson in the story: a lesson about perception; a lesson about vision.

Caleb, Joshua and the 10 other scouts all witnessed the same things during their reconnaissance mission. Yet, they returned to the Israelite community with different visions of the Promised Land.

So too, with us, we each have our own visions of what the Promised Land looks like. The Avodah-niks and CITs, their visions were for spaces of safety and love and support. Spaces with yummy foods and community.

Together we noted that there may in fact be two different types of Promised Lands. The external Promised Land is where we find mint chip ice cream cakes and good friends, and supportive communities.  Our internal Promised Land is one in which we eliminate that which holds us back – stress or anxiety – and embrace that which projects us forward – creativity and love for others.

Promised Land

Neither of these Promised Lands is unattainable.

Both Promised Lands are within reach.

Together we have to do the work to make our visions into realities.

Camp does give our young people a taste of what those Promised Lands can be like. (Except for the breakfast burritos, but I hear the CIT’s are starting a campaign for those!)

Now that I am home, my work is to help make those visions for our Promised Lands a reality in the “real world.”