Sunday, June 30, 2024

Busy Being Born

Thirty-six years—which is to say, double “Chai” or two Jewish lifetimes ago—I received my rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College.  On that occasion, my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, had the honor of addressing the congregation of teachers, classmates, friends and family.  He acknowledged the holiness of the hour, then reminded us that every rabbi’s authority is a gift bestowed by the community that they serve.  He opened with a verse from that morning’s Torah portion, Beha’alotchah:

Bring the Levites forward before the Holy One, and let the children of Israel lay their hands upon the Levites. . . 

Commenting on this passage, Dad noted: 

The people ordain!  Your communities will teach you about God, and their lives will be Torah.  You will celebrate with them in their joys and bring them comfort in their sorrows, for they will give you access to themselves that they will extend to no one else, in the highest and lowest moments of life.  They will shape you and you will become different because of those whose lives touch yours.  

As I reflect upon three decades as your rabbi, my father’s words feel prophetic.  Over the course of our journey together, we have shared so many sacred occasions.  We have danced at weddings, kvelled at baby namings and b’nai mitzvah, rejoiced at birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries.  We have also mourned heartbreaking losses—deaths and divorces, debilitating illnesses, unemployment, infertility—and endured countless ordinary setbacks and indignities.  We’ve marched for justice at MLK Day, partied for LGBTQ equality at Pride, demonstrated for democracy and human rights.  We have fed the hungry, housed the homeless, rallied for refugees and welcomed new Americans.  We’ve also davened from an evolving array of prayerbooks, Reform and Conservative, in this historic sanctuary that we moved from its original home on State Street—and in local parks, on Payette Lake at our annual retreat in McCall, and in the Owyhee and Sawtooth wilderness for desert seders and teen backpacking trips.

Over the past thirty years we have more than doubled in size, growing together with the Treasure Valley through boom and bust, prosperity and pandemic, tragedy and triumph and everything in between.  We’ve lived through times of war and peace, for Israel and America, and supported one another in this alarming season of skyrocketing antisemitism.  In a stridently polarized world, we strive, always, to embody inclusive, caring and compassionate community, to truly listen to one another in ways that both respect our differences and celebrate our shared commitment to our tradition’s highest calling: to uphold the ultimate dignity of humanity and all Creation.

My friends, working in partnership with this holy congregation has been one of my life’s greatest privileges.  As Psalm 119 teaches: Mi kol m’lamdai hiskaltiFrom all of my teachers, I have gleaned wisdom.  Just as my father foretold, I have learned—and continue to learn—from my entire community.  I have had the honor of serving with an evolving and deeply gifted staff and countless extraordinary volunteers—each and every one of you has essentially shaped the rabbi and the person that I have become.  

I do not take this distinction for granted.  I know, all too well, from troubling conversations with colleagues, that this is not always the nature of the rabbi-congregational relationship.  I’ve heard many trying tales of intractable conflict and chronic ill-will from peers who lament, “It’s dark out there!”  But that has never been my experience and such accounts only remind me just how incredibly lucky I’ve been.  While we have experienced a few disappointments and disagreements along the way, as even the best long-term partnerships inevitably bring, I can honestly note that I’ve never doubted that our contract was anything but a true brit, a sacred covenant grounded in mutual respect, love, and light.  Every morning, I can unequivocally affirm the beautiful line embedded in the Shacharit service: 

Ashreynu, mah tov chelkeynu, mah na’im goraleynu

How blessed I am, how good my portion, how fortunate my fate!


Beloved CABI members and friends, as I have been privileged to both grieve and celebrate with you in your lives’ defining passages, so, too, have you stood with me and my family over the course of our own.  You were with us through a divorce and a second marriage, my father’s too early death, a pregnancy, and the coming of age of all my children.  You accompanied us even when the roads we chose did not necessarily follow custom or convention.  You walked with me as we found our way, bountifully extending your love and support.  When I came here in 1994, you were my congregation.  Over the ensuing years, you became my community.  Thank you.

As for my family, having grown up the son of a rabbi myself, I know a bit about the challenges of being part of a rabbinic household.  I recognize that while I freely chose the public pressures of this path, for Janet and Tanya and Rosa and Rachel and Jonah, it was part of the package that came with having me as their partner and father.  Yet over the years, they have each, in their own way, worn this inheritance with unsurpassed grace.  For their unerring support, unconditional love, boundless patience, creativity, compassion, and wisdom, I am grateful beyond measure.

In this moment, I recall a beautiful passage from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s reflection on the life of Moses.  He writes:

In the grace after meals in the Jewish tradition, we ask God to bless us, “as You blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with a brachah shleimah, a full and complete blessing.” But the Bible tells us of how their lives were marked by fertility problems, quarrels with neighbors, conflicts between husbands and wives, between parents and children.  What sort of blessings were these?  I can only understand the phrase “a full and complete blessing” to mean the experience of life in its fullness, taking everything that life has to offer, the bitter and the sweet, the honey and the bee stings, love and loss, joy and despair, hope and rejection.  The blessing of completeness means a full life, not an easy life, a life that strikes the black keys and the white keys on the keyboard so that every emotional tone is sounded.

That is exactly the kind of blessing that you have all given to me over the past thirty years.


Now we enter a season of change.  The coming months offer what I faithfully believe will be a time of fruitful transition, as I settle into retirement and CABI’s journey continues with Rabbi Appel as interim and then, God willing, with a gifted settled rabbi.  Those passages will certainly pose their challenges, as almost no significant transformations come with utter ease.  We will be in a place that our tradition—including this week’s Torah portion and the biblical book that contains it—refers to as bamidar, in the wilderness.  Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s description of that geographical and metaphorical locale offers both instruction and a kind of hard-won consolation, as he writes in Honey from the Rock:

Wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself. In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time. 

With this in mind, I ask your forbearance as I conclude with just one piece of soon-to-be rabbi emeritus advice by way of a classic Jewish story:

There was once a community whose longtime rabbi was nearing retirement.  The congregation loved this rabbi, who had served them well for much of her adult life.  They were accustomed to her ways, comfortable with her style, and content under her leadership.  So it was with a heavy heart that they took on the task of finding her successor.

But the decision, at least initially, proved surprisingly simple: they decided that upon the rabbi’s stepping down, they would hire her daughter.  This, they were convinced, was the perfect solution, providing the continuity that they so desired.

Well, as planned, the rabbi retired and her daughter assumed her position at the synagogue.  But it wasn’t long before some of the congregants started to notice that the new rabbi’s manner was quite distinctive from her mother’s.  She followed some divergent customs and took a very different approach to problem-solving.  This confused the congregants, so the board of directors decided they needed to clarify matters.  They scheduled a talk with the young rabbi.

When the time arrived, they invited the rabbi into the conference room and got straight to the point: “Why,” they asked her, “do you do things so very differently from your mother?”

To which the young rabbi calmly replied: “I do exactly as my mother does.  She always blazed her own path as this congregation’s rabbi, refusing to imitate anyone else.  I follow that same course.”

My friends, in that spirit, the single kernel of counsel that I urge you to consider—the lone request I make tonight—is that while honoring our community’s core values, you also remain open to the new visions, pathways, and proceses that my successors will undoubtedly bring to the table.  For while we do not know for certain what forms Jewish community will take in the years to come, and we possess no assurances of what will bring success, of this we can be sure: doing the same old thing, year after year, is a surefire guarantee of failure.  As my rebbe Bob Dylan noted long ago, he not busy being born is busy dying.   And so I end with the time-honored words that Moses offered to Joshua as he passed the mantle of leadership to the next generation:

Chazak v’amatz—go forward, with boldness, strength, and good courage.

Keep busy being born.

Ken y’hi ratzon

Monday, January 15, 2024

People Get Ready: Lessons in Liberation from Moses and Motown

Special thanks to the Idaho Human Rights Commission, for the opportunity to speak at today's MLK celebration, and to Cherie Buckner-Webb, for bringing the songs to life

Social justice work is hard even under the best of circumstances; in tough times and adverse settings, it can feel impossibly daunting.  For human rights activists here in Idaho, the current landscape is extraordinarily challenging.  Economic inequity deepens; hunger and homelessness strain our streets, gun violence proliferates.  Racism, misogyny, antisemitism and Islamophobia poison these halls; too many of the legislators charged with protecting the rights of our most vulnerable citizens instead seem to revel in bashing immigrants, eviscerating reproductive rights, and endangering lesbian, gay, queer, and trans Idahoans. Most of the majority party is in thrall to an authoritarian ex-president who feeds on rage, foments insurrection, and despises democracy.  Year after year, the worst extremists run roughshod over common sense and decency while moderates who know better too often lack the courage to stand for their convictions.  All too often, walking through the door of this statehouse feels like entering Dante’s gate to hell, with its infamous inscription: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

But this is not an option.  With lives on the line, we dare not surrender to futility. Instead, on this sacred day, dedicated to human rights, let us seek solace and wisdom from those who have traveled the path before us.  Dr. King’s vision of hope was hewn out of a mountain of despair. And even Moses, the great liberator of the Hebrew Bible, experienced shattering dejection before leading his people out of Egypt.  When he first promises to free the Israelites, they cannot hear his message of redemption, due to what Torah describes as kotzer ruach (Exodus 6:6-7).  While the exact meaning of this phrase is open to interpretation, one prominent commentator understands it as a kind of spiritual impatience, suggesting that the Israelites briefly took heart but grew demoralized as the plagues wore on, failing to recognize that freedom does not blossom overnight. It’s a cautionary tale of how dashed expectations can quickly turn to despondency.

 So how do we make our way through Idaho’s howling political wilderness toward our vison of the Promised Land?  Alas, I have no sure roadmap for that journey.  The best I can offer this afternoon is some modest advice gleaned from a couple of my favorite teachers: Moses and Motown.  I’ve already introduced the former; we’ll approach the latter through three of the civil rights movement’s most influential anthems: Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”; Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”; and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets”.


There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long

But now I think I'm able to carry on

It's been a long, a long time coming but I know

A change gonna come, oh yes it will.

            -Sam Cook, "A Change is Gonna Come"

Through countless trials and tribulations, Moses recognized that the liberation journey would extend beyond his own lifetime. So he spent forty years preparing the next generation to cross the Jordan and died gazing on the plains of Canaan from afar.  Echoing that experience, Dr. King spoke prophetically the night before his own death: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”  So, too, Sam Cooke was fatally shot two weeks before his classic, “A Change is Gonna Come” hit the airwaves.  Like Moses and MLK, he reminds us that the pursuit of justice is a marathon, not a sprint.  It’s a long time coming, he achingly acknowledges; there are no short cuts on the road to freedom.  

We forget this wisdom at our peril.  Too often, understandably hungry for immediate returns after decades of electoral losses, we expend copious time and money on big ticket races only to inevitably lose badly.  Sam Cooke suggests that we are better off playing a long game, creating a justice campaign that grows from the grassroots up rather than trickling down from the halls of power. We need to think bigger than two-to-four-year political cycles.  Instead of pouring millions of dollars into currently futile statewide races, we can build a movement starting with PTOs, school boards, county commissions, highway districts. Home by home, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Consider the example of Reclaim Idaho, whose strategy is straightforward: One campaign at a time, we seek to grow a movement of local leaders and volunteers with the power to demand change. It isn’t glamorous but it works.  Year after year, our legislature refused to expand Medicaid even as countless Idahoans unnecessarily sickened, died, and fell deep into debt with medical expenses.  So Reclaim Idaho campaigned tirelessly behind the scenes to create a ballot initiative, and in 2018, over 60% of Idahoans voted for Medicaid expansion.  Here was hard evidence for a truth I think we all knew in our hearts: Idahoans are better than the extremists we elect to represent us.  When we take the long way, making our case door by door, we can accomplish great things.  

My colleague, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, teaches that we generally overestimate how much we can realize in a year, but underestimate what we can achieve in ten.  Another wise teacher, Wes Jackson, takes this principle even farther.  Back in the early 1970s, he recognized that contemporary agriculture is fundamentally unsustainable and set out to develop a radically new agrarian practice. For the past five decades, he has toiled at that task, breeding new perennial hybrids to feed healthy human communities. A few years ago, a journalist asked him, “How long will it take before you succeed?” Jackson replied: “I believe we’ll find our answers within the next twenty-five years.”

The questioner followed up: “But you are well into your eighties!  It seems extremely unlikely that you’ll live to see that day.  Isn’t it terribly frustrating, to labor so long without witnessing the fruit of your efforts?”

Wes Jackson paused for a moment, then responded: “If your life’s work can be completed within your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come


People get ready there's a train a-coming

You don't need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming

Don't need no ticket--you just thank the Lord

            -Curtis Mayfield, "People Get Ready"

Curtis Mayfield’s anthem, “People Get Ready” is a masterpiece in a long line of Black American hymns that invite the listener aboard the freedom train bound for a better world.  While Mayfield pointedly denies admission to the truly malevolent who would “hurt all mankind just to save his own,” he emphasizes from start to finish that this railroad promises hope for everyone else.  It’s picking up passengers from coast to coast, no baggage, no ticket required.  You just get on board.  That inclusive spirit of beloved community is the engine that drives the whole train down the tracks.  We move forward only when—and because—we travel together.

Moses teaches the same lesson at a critical junction in his struggle with Pharaoh.  With the plague of locusts devouring every growing thing in Egypt, Pharaoh’s courtiers persuade their boss to offer a compromise: he will let Moses, Aaron, and the Israelite men go and worship their God.  But Moses knows better than to divide the people, whose strength lies in their unity. Without a moment’s hesitation he replies: We will all go together, young and old, with our sons and our daughters alike.  Then, as now, our capacity to prevail depends upon our unbreakable solidarity.

Alas, too often in our contemporary human rights work, we create barriers and baggage, demanding that our fellow pilgrims pass litmus tests to earn their tickets to ride.  Instead of working through our legitimate differences on assumptions and tactics, we divide into competing tribes, prioritizing ideological absolutism over consensus and compromise.  In his essay, “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” activist Maurice Mitchell argues that to effectively combat rampant racist and authoritarian forces, we must nurture pragmatic partnerships.  He warns against the kind of unyielding purity that holds anything less than the most idealistic position as a betrayal of core values and evidence of corruption or cowardice.  How can we move forward, he asks, if we self-righteously refuse to engage with those who do not already share all our views and values? 

If this cautionary note holds true for Maurice Mitchell, who lives in deep blue New York surrounded by progressive allies, all the more so for us here in Idaho, where we can scarcely afford to alienate potential coalition partners.  In our environment, unity creates possibility; division spells doom.  As with Moses and the ancient Israelites, our liberation journey depends upon our ability to travel together.  We need to march side by side: vegans with hunters in support of wilderness; socialist academics with blue collar unions for fair wages; radical queer activists with mainstream libertarians for gay rights; liberal Democrats with moderate Republicans for open primaries; Jews and Muslims and atheists and liberal Christians against white fundamentalist nationalism.  For as Dr. King reminded us: We may have come over on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.

We are stronger together.  You don’t need no ticket—you just get on board.


Callin' out around the world

Are you ready for a brand new beat?

Summer's here and the time is right

For dancing in the streeets

            -Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Emma Goldman famously proclaimed: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”; Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit “Dancing in the Street” provides the groove.  Legend has it that the song’s writers, Mickey Stevenson and Marvin Gaye were driving through the streets of Detroit when they saw children of different races playing and dancing in the water of an open-fire hydrant. That image of integration inspired the two men to create the song.

For the hard work of justice to endure, it must be suffused with joy.  The night before the Israelites left Egypt, Moses declared a communal holiday, celebrating the Passover before it actually happened: This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall rejoice in it as a festival for all time.  Though much hard labor lay both ahead and behind—though Pharaoh’s legions would soon be in furious pursuit—it was nonetheless essential to make time for gladness and thanksgiving.

In her article “Black Justice, Black Joy,” Lindsay Norward of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund writes: 

For weeks following the horrific murder of George Floyd, protesters took to the streets. Brimming with passion and energy, the sounds of their despair and exhaustion at persistent injustices reverberated. At the same time, though, lively chants, speakers blasting protest anthems, rhythmic drumming, and joyous song saliently filled the air, harmonizing against the clash of tear gas and violence directed at them as they rallied for justice.

Within these sounds, despite and amid the pain, were expressions rooted in Black joy. 

These simultaneous expressions of deep sorrow and hopeful elation are an enduring part of Black people’s present and past in the United States, existing in various forms throughout the long and winding fight for civil rights and racial equality. . . Voting rights foot soldiers in 1965 crooned “Freedom Songs” as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, despite facing unspeakable violence and harassment from law enforcement. In sharing joy amid sorrow, Black people have not only challenged injustice with triumph —they’ve envisioned the unwritten and unseen within the future, imagining what could be possible. 

Make no mistake: our demonstrations are deficient without dancing and graceless without gratitude.  Even as we live amidst cruelty, suffering, and bigotry, let us remember that this world is also filled with beauty, courage, and delight.  Without those precious stores to draw upon in times of trial, we would soon deplete ourselves of the holy energy we need to bend the arc toward justice.  So look around this room.  Celebrate the faces and look into the eyes of those who stand here, together, side by side, and smile.  Take good pleasure in this soulful congregation of friends and strangers dedicated to the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.  Savor the blessing—the unquenchable joy—of Cherie Buckner-Webb’s extraordinary voice and know: the time is right for dancing in the street!


My friends, I believe that a change is gonna come.  I don’t expect the work to be finished within my lifetime, but I know, with all my heart and soul, that one day this Capitol dome will ring with liberty and justice for all Idahoans.  

So, people, get ready.  

There’s work to be done.  

Let’s dance.