Monday, September 1, 2014

Asking for Help

Summer is over, September is here, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lie just around the bend.

During this time of preparation for those Days of Awe, our tradition enjoins us to take a kind of spiritual accounting of ourselves, known as cheshbon nefesh.  We look back upon the year gone by, consider our failings, and focus our energy on how we can do better in the coming year. 

One of my goals as I enter this sacred season is to learn to get better at asking for help.  I recently finished reading M. Nora Klaver’s excellent book, “Mayday—Asking for Help in Times of Need” and have since been reflecting on why most of us find it so difficult to request assistance.  I’ll be speaking on this topic on Yom Kippur morning and it will also be the subject of our Yom Kippur study session to follow.

Ms. Klaver describes numerous attitudes and fears that deter us from turning to others in difficult times.  I’ll share many of these in my sermon.  But I’d also like to include some of your own thoughts on the topic.  So, please, take a moment and send me a short email,,  in which you share your musings on the challenge of asking for help.  Let me know what makes it challenging for you—and how you have managed to overcome the challenges and request assistance, despite your fears.  And if you have stories of how asking for—and receiving—help made a positive change in your life, I am very eager to hear them!  I’ll try to weave some of your collective words of wisdom into my Yom Kippur morning sermon, anonymously, of course.

Meanwhile, may this ongoing month of Elul be a time of reflection and growth for us all.

L’shanah tovah,

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guarding Our Gates (Portion Shoftim)

The service that concludes Yom Kippur is known as ne’ilah, roughly meaning “the hour of the closing of the gates”—a reference to the last opening afforded to us for repentance and renewal as the Days of Awe draw to an end.

As this sacred season ends, so it commences.  This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is always read at the beginning of Elul, the month of self-reflection and preparation that precedes the fall holy days.  It opens: “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.”  On a surface level, this injunction calls us to establish a legal system, but most commentators delve deeper into the imagery of gates.  The Hasidic teacher Mei Shiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica) reads the passage as a spiritual imperative, identifying the gates with the seven physical openings through which we take in the world: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth. 

What does this metaphor teach us?  If we understand the “gates” in the passage to be the instruments of our sensory perception, what would it mean for us to appoint “judges” over each of them?  Mei HaShiloach implies that we must carefully govern both the information we seek to acquire and the ways in which we use that information.  Our challenge is to make every effort to view the world through positive attributes such as justice, kindness, compassion, and honesty.  If this was true for Mei HaShiloach almost two centuries ago, all the more does it apply to us, for we live in an age of information overload.  Our senses are bombarded daily with images and ideas—many of which are far from positive.  What we choose to take in goes a long way toward determining what we, in turn, put back out into the world.   Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant guardians of our “gates.”

In his wonderful book on our fall holy days, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us: “Judges shall you put in all your gates.  This is how Teshuvah begins.  When Elul comes around again, watch the window.  Keep a mindful eye on the gates of the soul.”  As Elul begins, this Tuesday, and through the days that will bring us to Rosh Hashanah, try paying closer attention to all that enters your “gates” and how it affects your emotions and actions.

Idaho Statesman 20th Anniversary column

With this piece, I mark my twentieth anniversary as a Statesman columnist. When I joined the paper’s rotation of clergy writers, shortly after moving to Boise in 1994, I could not have envisioned that I’d still be doing it two decades later.  I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity, and to all of my editors, who have been, without exception, wise and very patient.  It has been a great pleasure to work with them all.  Through this experience, I have gained enormous respect for all of the professional op-ed writers, national and local, who somehow manage to publish two or three articles every week—my bi-monthly deadline is more than difficult enough for me!

I am taking this milestone as an occasion to look back at my collected columns and try to discern some running themes.  Although a lot has changed since I started writing in an age before internet and email, I do find some common leitmotifs.

 I’ve dabbled a bit in the expected religious topics: debates over doctrine and practice, biblical interpretation, Jewish theology and tradition, God and prayer.  I’ve shared personal stories about growing up as a rabbi’s kid and raising my own family, confessed my ambivalent relationship with Facebook and social media, and offered tributes to some of my personal heroes: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink.  I’ve written dispatches from distant places while on sabbatical, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Ronda, Spain, and even sent one in from a month-long trek in Nepal.  And, of course, I’ve done numerous stories from Israel, our Jewish homeland, where I have lived and worked on several occasions.  Many of those focus on the normalcy of daily life, which is rarely portrayed in the media, but I’ve also addressed the critical issues of war and peace from my perspective as a proud progressive Zionist.  This can be tough going; as I re-read my 2009 column on war in Gaza, I was struck by how little emendation it would need to speak to the situation now, five long years later.   That breaks my heart.

But the vast majority of my columns over the past twenty years deal with issues at the intersection of faith and politics: stewardship of God’s creation, separation of church and state, hunger and homelessness, religion and reproductive rights, economic justice, gun control, health care as a human right, feminism, education reform, and the battle for full equality for the LGBT community.

Above all, I see that I have returned, again and again, to the question of how our culture cares (or fails to care) for its most vulnerable members: racial and religious minorities, the poor, immigrants, the elderly and the sick and handicapped, lesbians and gay men.  These matters cross the boundaries between religion and journalism because they are, in fact, the fundamental concerns of all human beings living in community.  It has been a privilege to be able to wrestle with—and write about—all of them, and to share my thoughts with you, my readers.  I look forward to continuing the discussion for many years to come.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Looking Backward, Looking Ahead (Portion Re'eh)

“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.”
            -Deuteronomy 11: 26, opening of portion Re’eh

“The past is a source of knowledge and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”
            -Stephen Ambrose

The entire book of Deuteronomy is, essentially, Moses’ farewell speech to the people he has led for the past four decades.  Now 120 years old, he will soon die, and Joshua will lead a new generation of Israelites, born into freedom in the wilderness, into the Promised Land.  As he speaks, Moses recalls the past, again and again, as a source of guidance for the future.  He is afraid that as they establish themselves in Canaan, the people will forget from whence they came and grow ungrateful, taking their manifold blessings for granted.  And so he urges them to remember their history and learn from it.   He teaches us that by reflecting on the choices that we have made—for both good and bad, blessing and curse—we can learn and grow and choose more wisely on the road ahead.

This is critical for us, both collectively and as individuals.  Looking at current events, I often see signs of a deeply disturbing national forgetfulness.  Just consider some of the vituperative rhetoric (and policy) on the subject of immigration.  How have we so quickly forgotten that all of our forebears, save for those of the Native American population among us, came to these shores as immigrants?  When we remember our own history, we should realize how callous it is to deny others the same opportunities that have proven so advantageous for us.

And as individuals, we Jews have a special obligation to reflect on the past in this sacred season.  The Hebrew month of Elul begins in just a little over a week, on August 26.  That marks the commencement of our traditional period of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Days of Awe.  Our tradition urges us to use this time for a spiritual accounting (cheshbon nefesh) of our actions of the past year.  We consider our choices, our blessings and curses, and use our insights to help us improve our deeds in the year to come.

Financial advisors always caution: “Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.”  To which, in the spiritual realm, I’d say: “Thank God.”  Knowing the past, we can change the future.  Now that’s a miracle for which I’m very grateful, indeed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

My testimony at the sentencing hearing for Add the Four Words

Your honor, my name is Daniel Fink.  I am a twenty-year resident of Boise and the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel.

You have heard (and will hear more) stories of LGBT citizens and their families, detailing the harm that they have suffered because our state does not extend them legal protection from bigotry and injustice.

As a straight male, I am privileged.  I can live and work free of fear, without hiding who I am; no one disputes my right to love and marry and parent and be buried with my partner.  My immediate family and I have suffered no direct harm on account of our sexual preference or gender identity. Why, then, did I end up here in this courthouse today?

I am here because as a rabbi, I speak not only for myself but also for my Jewish community.  I serve all Jews and their families, gay and transgender and straight: LGBT Jews and their parents and partners and grandparents and children and brothers and sisters—and quite a few of these members of my congregational family have, indeed, suffered harm.  I can speak for them here and now because I am privileged and can speak openly, while too many of them still live in fear of bullying, bigotry, and bodily harm.

I am here because I, as a rabbi, know all too well that, alas, the very legal injustices that have caused grievous harm to the LGBT community have often been justified by and even grounded in words taken from my faith tradition.  I am here because I believe this is the worst profanation of God’s name; that bigotry perpetrated under the guise of religion is the most horrific of idolatries.  I believe that if we are honest, we people of faith must see that we bear significant responsibility for the harm done to our LGBT brothers and sisters, and therefore have serious amends to make. My work with Add the Four Words was the least that I could do toward that end.   

And finally, I am here in this courtroom today because I believe with all of my heart that when the God that I serve sees inequality and suffering, She weeps with us and then demands that we, Her partners, do our part l’taken olam—to heal the wounds and bring repair to all that is unjust and broken.  This is the most basic Jewish obligation, a moral imperative born of our own history of persecution.  As Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel reminds us all, when harm is being done, there is no excuse, ever, for inaction:  “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Your honor, I thank you for this opportunity to share my story, and the stories of those I represent that are all too often untold on account of fear and oppression.  I am inspired by the brave community around me today, and look forward to a time, in the not too distant future, when in the words of the prophet Amos, justice will roll down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.