Sunday, March 15, 2015

Hearing God's Call (Portion Vayikra)



One of my favorite verses in Torah comes when Jacob awakens from his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth and declares, “God was in this place and I did not know it.”  I love that moment of  holy recognition, when we realize something has been before our eyes all the time without our previously noticing.  It is the beginning of our becoming more awake and aware, of living a more conscious and conscientious life.

This week we start the book of Leviticus.  Of all of the sections of the Torah, this can be the most difficult for contemporary Jews.   While most of us find it relatively easy to relate to the stories, ethics, and teachings of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the sacrifices and laws of ritual impurity that take up much of Leviticus strike our modern sensibilities as profoundly strange, alien, and archaic. 

It helps, then, to remember that at the heart of all of the ancient sacrificial rites lies the book’s opening word, which comprises its Hebrew name: Vayikra—“And God called.”  Ultimately, for all of its strangeness to the contemporary reader, Leviticus is all about hearing God’s call in our lives.  The Divine Voice never ceases to beckon.  It calls to us in the music of the natural world, in the love of family and friends, in our ability to learn and grow, in the beauty of human arts and culture, in the creation and sustenance of caring community, and in our work for justice and peace.  Our challenge, like Jacob’s, is to become more fully aware of that sacred presence and acknowledge it.

It is no accident that the final letter in the first word of Leviticus, Vaykira is an aleph.  It’s the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is silent.  And here, in the opening of Leviticus, it is also much smaller than any of the other letters on the page, hovering slightly above the line.  This makes it look like the word could be Vayikar, which means, “God chanced upon. . . .”  Torah is asking us to read—and look and listen—closely, to experience, in the silences, what Elijah will later describe as God’s “still, small voice.”   When this happens, what once seemed like chance becomes constant calling—to holiness and life and blessing.

When we experience life this way, then, like our father Jacob, we might have the privilege to proclaim: “God was in this place, and I did not know it.”

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Fashion, Fast and Slow (Portion Vayakhel-Pekude)




Everyone knows about fast food, but have you heard of fast fashion?  This is the term for the clothing that is the bread and butter of stores like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara, which bring in new shipments—and new looks—of cheaply assembled garments weekly.  The goal is simple: to get customers to buy as many clothes as possible, as quickly as possible.  Most of them will fall apart after just a few wearings—which is the whole point.

But just as healthy eaters have launched a slow food movement, so, too, have conscientious retailers and customers begun to promote slow fashion.  Folks like zady.com are now producing ethically-sourced, well-made clothing designed to last for many years.  These garments will never be the “it” items at any given moment, but they are built to last and look good in a sustainable long-term wardrobe.

This slow fashion movement is in keeping with the Jewish values in this week’s double portion from the Torah, Vayakhel-Pekude.  As Exodus draws to an end, we get a detailed description of the garments worn by the kohanim, the priests, in the portable sanctuary.  These clothes were not trendy.  But they were beautiful, hand-sewn, dignified, and sturdy.  They were created to serve and honor the Holy One, and did just that.

We live in a throwaway culture.  More than 2.5 billion pounds of our used clothing ends up in landfills each year—an average of 67 pounds for each of us.  Our tradition urges us to do better.  It teaches bal tashchit, meaning, “thou shall not waste!”  The challenge is to learn to better value our God-given resources, both human and natural, as our ancestors did.

Now—what color was that dress?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Model and Mission (Portion Ki Tissa)


When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1)

In a very thought-provoking piece on the future of church attendance, Pastor Cary Nieuwhof draws a critical distinction between model and mission.  Models are, essentially, means, while missions are ends—which we confuse at our peril.  For as Nieuwhof notes: The difference [between congregations that will ultimately succeed and those that fail] will be between those who cling to the mission and those who cling to the model.  Look at the changes in the publishing, music and even photography industry in the last few years.  See a trend? The mission is reading. It’s music. It’s photography. The model always shifts….moving from things like 8 tracks, cassettes and CDs to MP3s and now streaming audio and video. . . Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the method (Kodak).  We need to stay focused on the mission and be exceptionally innovative in our model.”

This is as true for us in the Jewish world as it is for churches and corporations—and it always has been.  In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, Moses' prolonged time away atop Mt. Sinai throws the Israelites into a panic.  They fear that in the absence of the man who has led them out of Egypt, God will abandon them.  And so they commission Aaron to build them a golden calf.  Without the customary model—a powerful, charismatic leader—they forget the mission: the service of the Holy One.

As we move our CABI community forward, let us be careful to heed this warning.  Our mission is timeless: to empower our community to live richer Jewish lives grounded in Torah (life-long learning), Avodah (spiritual growth), and G’milut Hasadim (acts of lovingkindness).  But the way we achieve that mission requires innovation and creativity, so that we can remain relevant in a rapidly changing world.  In other words, we must be open to changing how we do things—in order to preserve the core of what we do.

This week, consider: How, in your personal and communal life, can you be more open to creativity in your model in order to better fulfill your mission?

Thank you to Rabbi Seth Goldstein for calling my attention to Pastor Nieuwhof's piece.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Calling Evil By Its Name (Shabbat Zachor)


Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Eternal your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!  (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

When we are confronted by genuine evil, it behooves us to muster the courage to speak its name and confront it honestly.

In the Harry Potter books, it is no accident that the villainous Voldemort is ultimately defeated by the only wizard who dares to refer to him directly rather than addressing him through euphemisms such as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”  JK Rowling reminds us that we cannot hope to triumph over that which we are afraid to name.  Only when we openly acknowledge the nature of what threatens us can we begin to make headway against it.

Thus the paradox at the heart of the special portion for this week, known as Shabbat Zachor, in which God commands us to blot out the name of our arch-enemy Amalek—for in order to blot out the name of those who prey on the vulnerable, we must, of course, first speak it aloud.  And so on Purim, we repeatedly speak the name of Amalek’s descendant, Haman—and raise a ruckus each time we do so.  It’s all in good fun, but it’s deadly serious, too.  We speak of the evil—and in doing so, destroy its power over us.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, columnist Roger Cohen critized President Obama for his failure to label the horrific acts of groups like ISIS and the murderers who struck in Paris and, most recently, Copenhagen, as Islamic extremism.  Cohen—who is a left-leaning journalist and frequent critic of Israel—speaks out here and argues:
To call this movement, whose most potent recent manifestation is the Islamic State, a ‘dark ideology’ is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate. There is little point in Western politicians rehearsing lines about there being no battle between Islam and the West, when in all the above-mentioned countries tens of millions of Muslims, with much carnage as evidence, believe the contrary.” (to see Cohen’s entire column, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/opinion/roger-cohen-islam-and-the-west-at-war.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Froger-cohen&_r=0)


I understand why many on the political left are wary of speaking of Islamic radicalism.  They are reacting to many on the political right who can be far too quick to label all of our adversaries as evil, and to castigate all Muslims for the sins of their most fanatical brethren.  Anti-Islamic bigotry is a real and present danger in our culture.

But so, too, is na├»ve vagary around an ideology that is currently behind so much brutality spreading around the globe.  If we are to defeat Islamic radicalism, we must first call it what it is—and enlist the support of anti-Islamist Muslims who are, in the end, the only ones who can save their tradition from the extremists who would use their tradition to terrorize and destroy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (Talk given at the induction of newest members of Boise Police Department)


Note: I gave this talk to the newest members of the Boise Police Department at the invitation of Police Chief Bill Bones.  The setting was the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial.  Other speakers were Chief Bones, who gave a powerful charge to his department, and Steve Martin, the director of the LGBTQ Pride Foundation.

Thank you, Chief Bones.

I am honored to be present as we celebrate the first class of police officers to be inducted under your tenure. 

It is a special privilege for me to be present with you in this place, which I take as holy ground.  This Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial is at the heart of our city—and not just geographically.  For our newest policemen and women to begin their service here is a remarkable and powerful thing.  I pray that the words of the courageous people of all races, creeds, nationalities, backgrounds, and origins will always be at the heart of your own mission as civil servants, as you strive to secure the safety and the general welfare of all of Boise’s residents.

I’d like to briefly share with you two charges today.  I offer them from a dual perspective, as a rabbi and as a father.

My first charge is straight off a poster that hangs on my son’s bedroom wall.  Its wisdom comes from Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman.  Like most of the comic artists who invented our modern pantheon of superheroes, Mr. Lee is a Jew who drew on the teachings of my tradition. 

He reminds us: With great power, comes great responsibility.   

My friends, this is both your burden and your blessing.  For you to be able to protect us, we, the citizens, vest you with great power.  I urge you, now and always, to never forget from whence that power comes and why it is given to you.  I pray that you never use your badge and your force of arms to bully.  May your always remember that they are bestowed upon you by the people that you serve so that you can ably protect the vulnerable and make our community a kinder and more peaceful place to live.

This brings me to my second charge, which is really just a corollary of the first.

Once, while gazing at this poster on his wall, my son Jonah asked me, “Dad, are you afraid of bad guys?”

I told him, then, what I reiterate to you: that while there are, on rare occasions, real bad guys in this world, that’s not what we usually encounter.  What we see, far more often, are decent people who sometimes do bad things.

In the work that you do, you will see a lot of good people doing bad things.  And given the incredible stress that you will labor under, it can be all too easy to harden yourself and start to see your calling as an endless effort to contain the bad guys.  I pray that you never give reign to this impulse to see those you struggle against as evil.  Remember that even the people you are called to stop and contain and sometimes arrest are mostly not bad guys but decent people doing indecent things—even when they are acting very badly, indeed.  Deal with them justly and be firm as you must in order to do your duty—but do not write them off them as evil.  Do not let the hardships you will surely face wear away your compassion and empathy.  Do not harden your hearts.  For when you stop thinking of the people that you patrol—even the ones acting out in insidious and ugly ways—as fully human, then you lose your own soul.

With great power comes great responsibility. 

And with great responsibility comes the tremendous challenge of maintaining your humanity, your empathy and your compassion even when it seems undeserved.

May you serve and protect us all. 

And I thank you, with all of my heart, for your commitment to doing just that.