Saturday, January 21, 2017

Becomings (Portion Vaera)

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, God tells Moses, “I appeared to your ancestors. . . but I did not make myself known to them by my name, YHVH. “  As Rabbi David Cooper notes, this sacred (and unpronounceable) name is, in fact, a verb, implying “being”—or, better yet, “becoming.”  Moses is the first to experience God as God truly exists—not as a noun, but a verb, an eternally unfolding process.

This wisdom has radical—and beautiful—implications for humanity.  For if, as Torah teaches, we are created in the divine image, then we, too, are verbs.  Perhaps this is at the root of the term “human being.”  As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen notes, “Each of us is unfinished, a work in progress. Perhaps it would be most accurate to add the word ‘yet’ to all our assessments of ourselves and each other . . . If life is process, all judgments are provisional, we can't judge something until it is finished. No one has won or lost until the race is over . . .”

I love this notion that we, like God, are always becoming.  Life never stops offering up obstacles, challenges, and opportunities to grow.  As my favorite musician, and recent Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan notes: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” 

This is my last e-Torah before I start my sabbatical.  From February 1 through August 1, I will be away: traveling, reading, renewing family ties, exploring my roots, and re-tooling for the future.  During this time, at home and away, I hope to learn new skills, discover new strengths, seek new wisdom, and push myself to grow as a rabbi and as a person.  My goal is to return to you reinvigorated and re-inspired as I enter the final years of this congregational-rabbinic journey that we share together.

I know that during my time away, you, too, will grow.  New leaders will step up in my absence, and experienced leaders will find new callings.  The congregation is in good hands—all of your hands—during this season.   CABI will flourish in the months ahead.

I am deeply grateful to the CABI board and staff, and the entire leadership team that has made it possible for me to enjoy this extraordinary opportunity, and I look forward to sharing many new stories together come August.  Meanwhile, you can follow my travels on my blog at:

May our journeys—our becomings—individual and collective, bring blessing to us all. 

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong and let us strengthen one another.

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Time to Resist (Portion Shemot)

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah,  “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.                         (Exodus 1:15-17)

The king used all sorts of devices to render the midwives amenable to his wishes.  He approached them with amorous proposals, which they both repelled, and then he threatened them with death by fire.  But they resisted.  Indeed, instead of murdering the babies, they supplied all their needs.  If a mother that had given birth to a child lacked food and drink, the midwives went to well-to-do women and took up a collection, so the poor infant might not suffer want.
                                    (Midrash cited in Legends of the Jews)

Our Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—feels incredibly timely this Inauguration week, as it describes the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience.  When an immoral tyrant—in this case, Pharaoh—issues an unjust decree, the midwives Shifra and Puah actively resist, bravely refusing to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys.  The midrash goes even farther, suggesting that they continued to actively aid the babies and their families after the births.

This is a bold—and essential—text.  Under ordinary circumstances, our tradition calls us to show utmost respect for the civil authorities.  As the Talmud notes: Dina d’malchuta dina—the law of the land is binding on the Jewish community.  To which Rabbi Chanina added: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”  Yet the Rabbis recognized that this principle of dina d’malchuta dina does not apply in the case of unjust laws and authorities.  When rulers and policies undermine the Torah’s core ethical teachings, we are morally bound to resist them—as Shifra and Puah taught us.

I suspect that in the coming weeks and months, we will need to draw on their courage and resolve.  May the Holy One of Justice and Compassion guide us on the forthcoming journey.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Light in Dark Times (Portion Vayechi)

Upon his deathbed, Joseph revealed visions he’d had, in which the future of Israel was made known to him.  He closed with these words: “I know that the Egyptians will oppress you after my death, but God will lead you to the land of promise.  You must remember to carry my bones with you, for if my remains are taken to Canaan, the Eternal will be with you. . .”   (Midrash Rabbah)

This week’s Torah portion, Va-y’chi, closes the book of Genesis.  It concludes with the death of Joseph, and the midrash above elaborates on that scene.  Joseph has always been a visionary, with the God-given ability to foresee future events.  Now, as he prepares to die, he shares his last prophecy.  He recognizes that difficult times lie ahead—and notes that they will end with the promise of redemption.  He also insists that when that moment of liberation arrives, the Israelites should take his bones with them as they journey toward the promised land.

This message seems especially timely.  This is a challenging season for our nation.  Many of us see dark days on the horizon.  It is worth remembering, though, that the light will, ultimately, return—if we keep faith and work for justice and compassion.  Now, more than ever, we are called upon to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  Our calling is to preserve the best of our country’s historical legacy, and to carry it forward through the struggles, just as our ancestors kept faith with Joseph, taking his bones out of Egypt and into Canaan.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”  So may it be for us.  May we partake of our forefather Joseph’s vision, looking toward redemption even—especially—in the most trying of times.