Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Wells of Liberation (portion Toldot)

In the sacred work of repairing the world, we cannot afford take our progress for granted or rest on our laurels.  Strides toward justice and compassion are all-too-easily turned back.  The good achieved over the course of many years can, alas, be very quickly undone with a short lapse of benign neglect. 

Our Torah portion, Toldot, offers a powerful metaphor for this truth.  Genesis 26:18 tells us: “Isaac dug anew the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had blocked up after Abraham’s death, and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.”  Many of our tradition’s classic commentators read this as a sort of allegory for spiritual and social justice work, which must be renewed in each generation.  Every time and place is blessed with a few revolutionaries and pioneers who, like Abraham and Sarah, break new ground.  The rest of us have plenty of work to do just to sustain the gains made by our predecessors—and that work, too, is holy.

Last week, we lost a mighty presence and dear friend.  Pam Baldwin was the director of the Interfaith Alliance and a tireless leader in Boise’s progressive faith community.  She was a voice for the voiceless, a defender of the defenseless, and an exemplar of the kind of prophetic faith that speaks truth to power.  When our education center was tagged with anti-Semitic graffiti a little over a decade ago, I called Pam—and within a few hours, she had volunteers from every walk of life, of all faiths, and of none, gathered at our home to scrub it away.  That’s just how it was with Pam—like Martin Luther King, she knew and lived the creed that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Boise’s homeless shelter, Interfaith Sanctuary, which our synagogue has supported since its inception, exists because Pam saw people freezing in the streets and called our community’s faith leaders together to do something about it.  She did the same thing after 9/11: when reactionaries responded with ugly threats against our local Islamic center, Pam organized Jews and Christians and Buddhists and atheists and everyone else in her enormous email list (which was earned by the sweat of her brow) to come together to support that beleaguered community. 

And just two weeks before she died, she convened a conference on implementing the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) so that fewer Idahoans would be denied the basic human right of decent healthcare.  Economic justice, equal rights for the LGBT community, fair housing, separation of church and state, immigration, concern for migrant workers, openness in politics—on all of these issues and many, many more, Pam led the way.

In other words—in Torah’s words—Pam dug a lot of wells.   She was brave and strong.  And she wasn’t na├»ve.  Although she died before her time, she knew that there will always be those who would prefer to block up those wells of justice and compassion.

Now she is gone, but her legacy and her example endure and inspire.  May we, like our father, Isaac, keep those wells running strong.

Shavtem mayim b’sasson, mi-ma’aynei ha-yeshua.  With joy shall we draw water from the wells of liberation.

May the memory of our community’s righteous friend, Pamela Day Baldwin, be for an enduring blessing.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Priority of Kindness (portion Chayei Sarah)

“Keep us far from bad people and corrupt companions.”
            -traditional Shacharit (morning) liturgy

A great deal of who we are and what we do is determined by the company that we keep.  The people closest to us inevitably (and sometimes unconsciously) exert a profound influence on our behavior, for good and bad alike.  It therefore behooves us to be very conscientious and careful in choosing friends, co-workers, and, especially, spouses and partners.

So what should we look for when making those decisions around with whom to share our lives?  Torah offers guidance in this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah.  Shortly after Sarah dies, Abraham commissions his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son, Isaac.  Interestingly, Abraham gives Eliezer precious little to go on here, insisting only that he find someone from Abraham’s birthplace rather than a local Canaanite woman.  So how does Eliezer know what to look for?  What criteria would indicate a fitting mate for Isaac?

We get the answer in a prayer that Eliezer utters upon arriving at the communal well in Aram at watering time.  He beseeches God: “Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac.”

In his prayer, Eliezer intuitively recognizes what matters most: compassion and generosity.  When Rebecca shows up, just as Eliezer finishes speaking, she fulfills the criteria, graciously drawing water for him and his camels—no small feat given the prodigious amounts the animals would have consumed after a long desert journey.  She proves to be the embodiment of kindness, the single most important quality one should seek in a companion.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught: “When I was young, I admired clever people.  But now that I am old, I admire kind people.”  Heschel’s wisdom echoes that of Abraham’s servant Eliezer, and its truth endures for us.  If we are, in large part, who we choose to associate with, then we do well to seek kindness, above all else, in our companions.

Only kindness matters. . . 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Jews, We are a-Changin' (portion Vayera)

During the past few weeks, the institutional Jewish world has been abuzz over the results of the Pew Research Center’s study of the state of Jewishness in America.  Among the findings: 22% of American Jews claim to have no religious identity, and 58% will intermarry.  Not surprisingly, many have interpreted these results with despair, lamenting the beginning of the demise of the liberal Jewish community.
(To see the results of the Pew study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, go to: and for some thoughtful commentary and debate on that study’s meaning,see:

I am not among the pessimists.  I believe the survey is an overdue wake up call.  The progressive American Jewish community is not dying, but it is changing and its venerable institutions—especially synagogues, including our own—are lagging behind.  As Bob Dylan put it fifty years ago, “The order is rapidly fadin’. . . for the times they are a-changin’.” (And for a great and pertinent update on Dylan’s classic song, see Rabbi Jeff Salkin’s version, “The Jews, We are a-Changin’”:
Those who want secure a place in the emerging new order of American Jewish life will have to re-envision our mission and reconsider the way we do business.

But this is not new.  The only constant in Jewish history is change.  We have always risen to the occasion and found ways to renew Jewish life, and there is no reason to think that we will fail this time around.  In fact, we find an excellent response to today’s challenges in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera.  Abraham is sitting in the entrance to his tent on a sweltering desert day when he sees three strangers (who later prove to be angels in disguise) off in the distance.  Significantly, he does not wait for them to approach; instead, he runs out to greet them.  He embraces them, and invites them to partake of his and Sarah’s wonderful hospitality: “My lords, if it please you, do not pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.  And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves, then go on. . . .”

Abraham and Sarah are our role models, four thousand years later.  Today’s young Jews who do not describe themselves as religious are not likely to seek out our CABI community.  But that does not mean that they are lost to us.  Like Abraham and Sarah, it is up to us to take the first step, to find them and reach out to them, where they are, both literally and metaphorically.  Instead of offering them outdated answers, let us meet them in their places and learn, with and from them, what moves them to identify as Jews.  Instead of beginning by handing them forms for dues and membership, which are an archaic model for this generation, let us offer them our hospitality and openness—and work with them to find new ways to speak to their souls, enrich their lives, support their work of tikkun olam and sustain our community.

May we be true children of Abraham and Sarah, using ancient wisdom to meet new challenges, welcoming our people wherever they are found and bringing them—and, in the process, ourselves—under the wings of the Divine Presence.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Staying the Course (Portion Lech L'chah)

The difference between success and failure often comes down to spiritual and psychological strength.

At the end of last week's Torah portion, Abraham's father, Terach, sets out from his home in Ur-Kasdim to move his family to the land of Israel.  However, halfway to his intended destination, he settles in Haran.

This week, in portion Lech L'chah, Abraham completes the voyage.  We read: "Abraham took his wife Sarai. . . and they left to go to the land of Canaan--and they came to the land of Canaan."
He leaves--and arrives.

The contrast between the journeys of Abraham and Terach raises an important question: what factors allow the son to succeed where his father failed?  The commentator Ovadiah Sforno tells us that the difference between Abraham and Terach does not lie in their abilities as travelers.  Both were adept and courageous.  But, notes Sforno, Abraham was distinguished by his commitment: "Terach left Ur-Kasdim fully expecting to reach Israel, but the perils of the journey proved too great.  But Abraham, at the very outset, was fortified with a greater level of dedication to his goal, which proved to be the key to his success.  Outwardly, their departures were identical.  But inwardly, Abraham left with a fiery zeal that eventually made the difference months and years later."

I learned this lesson twenty-five years ago, when I spent six weeks backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.  I met many thru-hikers along the way, all seeking to complete the six-month, 2100 mile trek from Georgia to Maine.  I saw some go on to finish the task (long after I ended my much-shorter hike) and watched as others dropped out early--and I noticed that the ones who endured were not necessarily those in the best physical shape.  Some incredibly fit people in their twenties gave up, while others, in their sixties and not in top condition, would make it to the finish.  I learned that attitude--determination, persistence and resilience--mattered more than age and conditioning.

Now, as our fall holy days recede into the past, the challenge facing all of us is to persist on the path of teshuvah that we embarked upon at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Starting is relatively easy; finishing is hard.  This is where we must muster all of our spiritual and psychological resources to carry on.  As the classic Mussar collection, The Majesty of Man, teaches, pursuing our undertakings "with a powerful desire to complete them can spell the difference between the unfulfilled aspirations of a Terach and the satisfaction and success of an Abraham."  May we follow in the footsteps of Abraham.