Toldot, November 17, 2012
Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Kol Tzedek Synagogue
“Jacob & Esau: From Conflict to
Shalom. A Sabbath of Peace.
say these words each Shabbat, most of the time taking for granted that peace is
the circumstance of our lives; it is the norm in which we experience life.
this Shabbat is not a Shabbat of peace – for our brothers and sisters in Israel
and our brothers and sisters in Palestine. Where one marks the beginning of this most recent round of bitter conflict and violence
depends much on one’s perspective or narrative.
But in the most simplistic version, this new round of violence began when
an increasing number of rockets from Gaza into Israel instigated retaliation on
the part of Israel against Hamas. These
targeted attacks on Hamas leaders have put Palestinian civilians into harm’s
way. The attacks on Hamas and the
civilian injuries and casualties in turn have led to rocket fire. These rockets are for the first time in
decades reaching Tel Aviv and for the first time in Israel’s history hitting
Jerusalem—the rocket fire is endangering and killing civilians which in turn leads
to more attacks on Gaza –more deaths, more injuries all around.
Shabbat, Israelis wished each other a “Shabbat Shalom” in miklatot—shelters, huddled in together not knowing what would come
next. This Shabbat, Palestinians spent
the day in fear, not knowing whether they would be a casualty of an attack on
Gaza’s political infrastructure. This is
certainly not a Shabbat Shalom for those in harm’s way, those who are filled
with fear for their lives and the lives of their families.
what’s even more heartbreaking about the current situation is the fact that
this “new” round of conflict seems strangely and eerily familiar to previous
ones. Certainly, some facts on the
ground may have changed but there are some ways in which it feels like a “repeat”
button has been pressed.
these two peoples enter into another deadly cycle of escalating violence, we in
America are watching by the sidelines – with varying levels of heartbreak and
engagement. Whether we are deeply
engaged or connected to those people and those lands or not, we wonder: how do
we make sense of this? Will be ever be
able to break the cycle of violence?
This Shabbat, I am not intending to weigh in on who
is right or who is wrong or who is “how right” or who is “how wrong”. I have my own opinions and I trust that many
of us have our own sensibility about these things and if not, there is an ample
supply of twitter feeds, blogs, and articles that we could read and analyze. What
I want to do today is do what Jews have done for thousands of years and do
every week and for some, every day – which is to look to the torah to see what
we might find to help us make sense of the events which are happening in our
world and help gives us some inspiration for the journey.
week’s Torah Portion is Toldot. Jews all
around the world are reading about the famous conflict between the two brothers
Jacob and Esau. In a very sad and painful way, this parsha seems particularly
appropriate. Here is the story of two
brothers who fight for dominance over the other. While they are two individuals, they are also
much more than that—they represent as is said in the beginning of our torah
portion, “two nations…two separate peoples” that will struggle and fight with
one another for dominance. They are both
struggling over a perceived inheritance – a birthright and a blessing that
seems to be able to go only to one and not the other. Even though Jacob is, according to the torah,
the predetermined winner of the inheritance and blessing, his route to achieving
it is tainted with haughtiness – (he demands his brother sell him his
birthright when he is at the point of desperate hunger) and trickery – (in
order to get the blessing, he cooperated in an elaborate scheme concocted by
his mother). While he is the determined
winner, he achieves his success through unscrupulous means. Esau finishes the story in tears, completely
shaken by his father’s rejection of him in light of Jacob’s victory. His hurt and pain give way to anger and he sets
his mind to kill Jacob if he were to ever see him again. Hearing this, Rebekah sends Jacob away. Now, Jacob is in exile – from the brother who
shared his womb.
the story is so very different than our own, we can hear some of the
resonances: two peoples living side by side who are destined to struggle with
each other, who are driven through fear and distrust to hate each other. Two brothers with two different narratives of
their relationship to their inheritance. Two brothers that seem inevitably bound to despise
each other for eternity.
sadly, at this moment in the story, the torah doesn’t necessarily have anything
uplifting to say about this situation or this relationship. This is a story that begins and ends in
tragedy. In the womb, it is determined
that they will struggle with each other and Jacob will win dominance over
Esau. In the end of the parsha, we find
this tragedy manifested – Jacob does win but is now a man with a tainted past,
having won his birthright in the way he did and Esau—an angry and lost soul
determined to get revenge. It seems as
though the only resolution to this conflict will inevitably be a tragic one.
is where our torah portion ends, but it is not where the story ends. Fast forward: years have passed; Jacob has
many life experiences since that time, including serving his father-in-law
Laban in order to marry Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. He builds his patriarchy with two additional
maidservants and acquires many possessions and fathers many children. While we
don’t know as much about Esau’s journey in between, we find him next standing
with four hundred other men – clearly he has a strong clan. These two brothers are destined to meet each
other as Jacob crosses into the country of Edom, the country of his brother, in
the story we read in two weeks, during Parshat Vayishlach. Even though many years have passed, given
their rocky past and the fear and ill feelings held one by the other, we might
expect that tragic ending that seemed to be the determined fate at the end of Toldot.
But instead something else really
sends messengers to Esau to inform him that his family is crossing over. The messengers come back saying Esau is
coming out to meet Jacob, along with four hundred of Esau’s closest
friends. Jacob naturally fears for his
life and begins to divide his family and his possessions up in case Esau were
to overtake them. Interestingly, the
famous torah commentator Rashi says that Jacob feared both for his life and for
the damage he might cause Esau if his own anger and resentment were to take
over. Given this and given Esau’s
resentment over the past (which we might guess has been brewing and growing
since that day), it is natural for us to expect a physical altercation that is
not going to end well.
this is not what happens at all. Instead,
Jacob looks up, sees Esau, and chooses to act of out of his best instincts –
bowing his head on the ground as a sign of respectful greeting (and perhaps
apology) to Esau. Now for the even more
amazing part: Esau runs to greet him!
The torah says that Esau embraces Jacob, falls on his neck, and kisses
him. And then, these two grown men, with
their families and community around them, start weeping. Instead of a moment of violence, there is an
experience of forgiveness. Instead of a
moment of anger, there is an experience of reconciliation.
story that started out as a Greek tragedy—with a seemingly pre-determined fated
outcome ultimately ends with a loving embrace.
The past hasn’t been erased but a
new future is created.
it is impossible to – and not my ambition to—draw direct parallels between
Jacob and Esau to the Israelis and Palestinian conflict. It would be oversimplistic to say that these
people are just “two brothers that misunderstand each other” or that just “have
a bad history” – and if they only listened to their best instincts, they could
solve their problems. I would love to
believe this but it is a lot more complicated than that. That
said, I think we can and should draw out lessons from this story to help us
find hope and inspiration to work toward a brighter future for everyone in the
region. In my understanding, this story,
the long view that takes us from Toldot to Vayishlach, is a teaching about the ever-present
possibility of tikkun, repair and reconciliation. What seems like the most intractable,
impenetrable conflict is transformed and forgiven. There can be no greater lesson for today.
I believe that we will see much more violence in the coming weeks before this
conflict is over and many more lives lost. Sadly, I think we will see many more
people digging their heels in and refusing to stop and listen to the other
side. But what I am hoping we can
never lose in the midst of all of this is our hope that one day a brighter
future can be created.
is worth noting that between Jacob learning he would see Esau and the confrontation
itself, Jacob had his famous wrestling match with a mysterious being and is transformed
into his new name and identity “Israel.”
Whatever happened in that wrestling match, Jacob had to do a lot of soul
searching and hard work to get to a place that he could confront Esau and bow
his head to him. We don’t know much
about Esau’s story but we can guess he had to do a lot of introspection and teshuvah
(forgiveness, repentance) in order to move from wanting revenge on his brother
to embracing him and kissing his neck. In
thinking about issues as daunting as the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians,
we know the road is going to be long and hard and challenging but Esau and
Jacob show that it is always possible to
move from hardened hearts or hearts full of fear to hearts open and willing to
In the face of a repeated cycle of violence; in the
face of ongoing conflict and conflicting narratives; we can choose to believe
that things will never change or we have the choice to believe in what seems
impossible. And perhaps in choosing what
seems impossible, we will be moved to act as agents of that change.
Brokenness, Finding Tikkun (Healing)
Kol Nidre 5773 (2012), Rabbi
Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
I had a particularly poignant pastoral encounter. A man came to me for some guidance. He had recently lost a dear friend, who died
quite suddenly and well before his time.
He was struggling in his relationship to his adult son, with whom relations
were strained and communication was infrequent.
These losses and disappointments brought up pain from his past, and she
shared the pain of losing his mother at a young age. After I spent some time listening with
compassion, he looked at me with sincerity and sadness and asked: “Rabbi, why is
there so much suffering in life? Why is
there so much brokenness in the world?”
Of course, I could not and would not pretend to have
the answer to one of life’s
greatest mysteries and existential dilemmas.
So, instead, I took a breath. I
held his hand. And I shared with him the
teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic on “Shevirat
HaKelim”—the breaking of the vessels. Rabbi
Luria revolutionized Kabbalah, Jewish
mysticism, and bequeathed influential and quite radical teachings to future
generations, including this interpretation of the traditional Creation story:
the process of Creation was underway, Rabbi Luria taught, light-- that emanated
from the Divine-- was poured into vessels that were meant to contain that
light. These vessels however could not
contain the intensity of God’s light and ultimately shattered, falling into
pieces onto the earth. We may not be
able to see these pieces, but according to Luria, they are there, and human
beings can, through their actions, lift up those divine sparks and enact
healing and repair.
This story may be best known to us through the term
“tikkun olam,” repair of our (broken) world – an idea that has become adopted
into contemporary Jewish life and discourse.
While the tikkun olam teaching is most often linked to social action and
social justice, Luria’s original teaching involved two shatterings and two
types of repair – tikkun ha-olam (repair
the larger world) and tikkun hanefesh
(repair of our soul.)
is the aspect that addresses the brokenness of our souls that I wanted to lift
up for this man who came to me in pain and for all of us this evening.
to Rabbi Luria, at the very heart of Creation – of the origin of all life—is a
shattering, a breaking. Brokenness is
literally part of the fabric of life, woven into our experience of the
world. I find this unflinching
acceptance of brokenness -- seeing it as intrinsic to creativity and to life--
as incredibly comforting. Instead of
feeling isolated, we can gather strength from knowing that brokenness is
instead just part of the human experience.
There is no person that is immune from it; there is no person who has
not experienced some kind of fracture in their own lives, some kind of
disconnect. This is simply how it
this teaching, I turned to the man in my office and said: “The question is not
“Why is there brokenness and suffering in our world,” rather: “How are we to deal with or respond to
those broken places in our hearts and souls?
How might we find healing and
questions are universal – yet they also feel so particular to this day, Yom Kippur and even more so, Kol
Nidre night. The contemporary poet Merle
Feld says that on Kol Nidre, we stand before God “naked,” “without disguise,
without embellishment.” With the
vulnerability that comes from entering into the holiest day of the year, a day
of self-examination and truth telling, comes a sense of honesty about the
places of pain and hurt in our lives. Even
those who consider ourselves lucky or blessed, whose days are more happy than
frustrating, may come to synagogue on Yom Kippur full of memories of losses and
disappointments experienced over the course of our lives. Tonight is a time in which we can more
readily tap into our own brokenness.
By “brokenness,” I mean any kind of loss, pain,
struggle, or disappointment. They are,
as Estelle Frankel, a Jewish therapist and author, says: “times when our lives,
as we have known them, are shattered by the intrusion of fate or
disappointment.” These shatterings could
include the loss of a loved one, whether recent or decades ago; traumatic
experiences we have suffered through in our life; strained or lost relationships;
loss of possessions or hope; rejection in all its forms; pregnancy loss or
struggles with infertility; divorce or separation; ongoing struggle with
illness of oneself or a loved one; disappointments at our sense of “success” or
“accomplishment” for our lives.
are also affected by the brokenness that exists in our society, including homophobia,
transphobia, the breakdown of civility in our culture; the brokenness in
want to take a moment of pause here and invite you to think about what is in
your heart tonight, what you are bringing with you, what brokenness you are
holding tonight – perhaps something I mentioned or didn’t mention.
one of the reasons we feel safe to feel and acknowledge our brokenness on Kol
Nidre is because Jewish tradition itself gives space and honor to our broken
places. There are powerful Jewish teachings that instruct us not to run away
from our pain or our lost longing, not to try to hide our brokenness – rather
to embrace it and to wrest meaning and blessing out of it. In fact, some teachings even indicate that
the way toward healing and transcendence is through bringing our whole selves
to God. Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, a rebbe
and spiritual teacher of the early 19th century aptly said: “There is nothing as whole as a broken
is a wonderful midrash, commentary/story on the torah, which illustrates this idea. It is a teaching about the two sets of
tablets the Israelites received on Mt. Sinai.
we start with the story in our torah. Let
me paint the picture for you: The
Israelites – newly freed from slavery -- are wandering in the wilderness for
over a month. As you may remember, these
former slaves are not the easiest group to please. Moses has gone up to Mount Sinai to commune
with God. Well, a bit too much time goes
by and Israelites get restless and decide to take matters into their own
hands. They demand that Aaron build an
idol for them – a calf made from the jewelry taken out of Egypt. What does Aaron do? He acquiesces! I invite you to see it in your mind’s eye: Here
are the dancing, idolatrous Israelites, utterly unprepared for the commandments
they are about to receive.
their merry-making becomes known to God and not surprisingly, God becomes very,
very angry. Moses also learns what
happened and begins to plead on behalf of the Israelites, begging God for mercy
and understanding. God finally gives in
to Moses’ pleas. Now, Moses heads down
to his people. Then, Moses goes down –
and as soon as he sees the terrible scene-- his compassion disappears and his
anger is stirred. Seeing the Israelites’
baseless behavior, he hurls the two tablets onto the ground, smashing them into
some time & reconciliation, God asks Moses to carve out two new stone
tablets for the people.
is noteworthy that the torah—normally full of great details—does not say anything
about what happens to the first set of tablets.
We are left to wonder: In the wake of that dramatic moment, what
happened to those shards? Did someone
clean them up and throw them away? Were they left on the ground? Buried?
silent spaces in the torah are of course, fodder for the interpretation of later
generations. With incredible insight, the
rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the broken tablets were placed in the ark alongside the two new
tablets. And these two sets of
tablets, both broken and whole, traveled with the people into the Promised
What an incredible image – what an evocative
teaching! It is my understanding that our
ancient rabbis were not trying to simply solve the problem of a textual
oversight. Rather, the rabbis were teaching
us a profound message about brokenness, about mistakes, about shame, saying: Do not bury your broken places. Instead, you should honor them. Our rabbis tell us the Israelites put the
broken pieces (it could have been hundreds of them!) into the aron hakodesh—the
holy ark – the most sacred place for the wandering nation, the place in which
we found connection with the Divine. We
cannot give them any more seat of honor than to be right next to (or as some
commentators say, as the foundation for)
the whole tablets, the instruction of the law.
It is as if to say: Our broken places are part of us – cherish them and
hold them with loving care.
This is a teaching that deeply moves and touches me.
I know that when I am confronted with the broken, unseemly parts of myself,
parts I am ashamed of – my natural inclination is to try to bury them or put
them aside. I am guessing I am not
alone. How many times have we pretended
to be “ok” when we are not? How many times do we bury our own feelings of pain
or hurt, not giving ourselves the permission to accept, acknowledge our
feelings? Yet, according to the wisdom
of this midrash, this act of burying our pain, burying our hurt does not serve
us and does not serve God. Instead we are
to treat them with tenderness, to honor them as real, authentic and integral to
who we are.
ark becomes an embodiment of our own hearts-- that are whole in their
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a contemporary theologian,
adds another dimension to this teaching on wholeness and brokenness. He adds to
the Kotzker’s statement, saying: “There is nothing as whole as an OPEN broken
heart.” Rabbi Greenberg here addresses a
powerful truth: the broken places that we have experienced in our lives can be
opportunities for blessings and healing, if
we keep our heart open to them.
want to be clear. The notion that the bad things that happen in our lives are
given to us in order for us to learn from them or for some greater purpose is
not an ideology that I ascribe to or want to promote. I am not suggesting that the disappointments
or tragedies in life occur for the purpose of instruction or testing. This does not, in my mind, negate our ability
to learn from them, to grow from them, even to wrest from them a blessing.
As Parker Palmer, a contemporary teacher and writer,
says, “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an
integral part of life. Knowing this give
me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours – need not be a utopian dream, if
we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.”
people know that I lost my father, quite suddenly, 12 years ago. My father had just turned 60. Until a few months before, he had never had
any serious health issues. He was being
treated for heart disease but died from a rare allergic reaction to a
medication, given to him in the course of that treatment. Just like with so many of the tragic events
that have happened in the lives of people in this room, there are no words to
adequately describe the enormity of sadness, regret, longing that surround my
Within the experience of profound loss and grief, I also experienced incredible
moments of blessing. I vividly remember
how, on the first day of shiva, the president of my father’s Brith Shalom lodge
(whom I have never met) took me aside and told me how my father spoke so
proudly of his daughter, the future rabbi.
My father died just weeks before I was beginning rabbinical school, and
while I sensed his happiness, I also knew that as a more assimilated Jew
without much Jewish background, he didn’t necessarily understand my religious
and spiritual fervor. I never heard him
express his pride to me directly. In a
fleeting moment, this man gave me a gift that will literally last me a
lifetime. Another blessing was seeing
how much my father’s gentle presence impacted people – including the people who
worked at the front desk of the tennis club where my father played on Sundays –
who somehow found out about his death and made the time to attend his funeral
in order to express their own grief, shock and sadness. Another blessing, was hearing my mother speak
for the first (and probably last) time in public, sharing words, broken up by
tears, at my father’s unveiling.
Above and beyond the blessings I received from
others, my father’s death was also a great spiritual opening for me. During that year, I gave myself over to my
grief – I just let it wash over me.
There were not enough times in the day I could cry or talk or cry again. Wearing the patience of close friends and
even family, I found myself alone with my feelings. So, I imagined that God was an accompanying
presence and I began to talk aloud as if to a friend. Without realizing it or
intending it or willing it, I found myself supported by an unseen Source of
Support and Comfort. This experience was transformative – and I only think it
was possible because I was in such an open, vulnerable space.
I share my story as an invitation to find blessings
in the many forms they can come to us, even and perhaps especially in moments
of pain or struggle. Often, the
blessings are found in the comfort of family or friends or unexpected sources
of support. Sometimes the blessing is in
finding forgiveness, of self and of others, that helps us heal ourselves or a
broken relationship. Sometimes the blessing might be finding a spiritual
opening. Perhaps the blessing is finding
the inner resources and courage we didn’t know we had to deal with a past or
the paradigm of Rabbi Luria and the shattering he describes, the moments in
which we can lift up from darkness light, finding blessings in our pain or
wisdom through hard times, are moments of tikkun hanefesh, healing of our
souls. When we forgive ourselves or
others, when we find wisdom and strength even in the midst of struggle, we can
lift up those broken shards and make them holy once again. This is a window to healing and to
The possibility of tikkun is present every day, but perhaps especially on these Days
of Awe. These days of Awe have real,
significant power and promise. They
offer us the chance to go deep inside ourselves, reflect, and redirect. It is said that we can remake ourselves during the 10 Days of Teshuvah-- that we can truly
begin again or change the course of direction of our lives. These are days that can wake us up from our
spiritual slumber and rattle us into awareness and into action. If we take the call of these days seriously, we
might yet be transformed.
I ask us, all of us with broken hearts or broken souls or struggles that we
wrestle with or memories of loss that we hold – I ask us: Can we make our heart into an aron hakodesh, a
holy ark, which has the capacity to hold darkness and light together, broken
and whole together? Can we seek blessing
in challenge? Can we imagine, even
visualize, what healing might look for us, in this coming year? Who might we need to forgive, ourselves
included, in order to lift up the fallen spark?
What pathways might we need to create for ourselves to move forward on a
journey of healing?
I asked the man who visited me a few weeks ago: The question is not why is
there brokenness, rather what are going to do with that brokenness? How
are we to deal with or respond to those broken places in our hearts and
I hope and pray that on this Yom Kippur, a day of reconciliation, we can embrace our broken places and seek healing.
all of us – our whole selves – broken and whole pieces together – be
our broken hearts become open to wisdom, strength, and blessing.
May we be inscribed for a year –
and a lifetime—of broken wholeness, of healing and transformation.
on Waking Up: Gun Violence & Inequality
Hashanah 5773, Rabbi Lauren, Kol Tzedek
“Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your
you slumberers, awake from your slumber!
your deeds and turn in Teshuvah….
to your souls and better your ways and actions.
Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish commentator, wrote these words about the SHOFAR, reflecting on the power
and potency of this humble hollow instrument.
According to Maimonides, it is as if the Shofar
cries to us: Yo!!!! Stop sleeping! Wake up!
Today, on Yom HaDin -- The Day of Judgment -- it’s time to face some
difficult truths! It’s time to awaken to
what we may be consciously or unconsciously ignoring! It’s time to examine our own actions and inactions! It’s time for us to change our path so that
we are better serving God and Truth.
Rosh HaShanah, as the shofar is sounded, I am aware of what I hard truths I am
awakening to. For through the very process of preparing for the High
Holidays, I have found myself in the midst a “wake-up call,” which is shaking
me out of my complacency and calling me into action. Today, I want to share that wake-up call with
My journey toward waking up began on July 21. I was staying with the kids at my mom’s house
the evening before. When I woke up the
next morning, my mother told me about the shooting at the midnight showing of
Batman in Colorado. Jon, my husband, a
fan of the recent Batman movies, had been planning to go to a midnight showing
that opening night. I breathed a sigh of
relief – he didn’t go! He was safe! Now, even though there were no incidents in any
Philadelphia movie theatre– the very idea of a mass shooting 1700 miles away
from us was enough to shake me up to the idea that I could lose him in a split
second. The randomness of the violence,
the idea of innocent people doing the most American thing possible – watching a
Hollywood Blockbuster -- just all seemed so crazy and unbelievable. I joined with much of the nation in the shock
of this tragedy.
then, the summer continued and the shootings continued. A terrible assault motivated by hate and
ignorance left six members of a Sikh religious community dead. Then, on August
24, a disgruntled former employee fired a gun in the middle of Manhattan,
shooting eight people and killing one. Three
days later, a Baltimore, Maryland boy opened fire on the first day of school.
fact that these incidents occurred so close in time, compounded by the complete
silence of either presidential candidate on the issue of gun control, propelled
my desire to address the growing violence in one of my talks on the High
initial focus turned to the proliferation of guns in our country, the easy
access of guns and of course, the illegal sale of guns that enables those with
criminal backgrounds, mental illness, or who are underage to acquire firearms. In that process, I learned some harrowing
statistics. There are nearly 90 guns for
every 100 people in this country. More than 30 people are shot and murdered
each day, half of them are between the ages of 18 and 35. In Philadelphia, on the average, at least one person has been murdered every day over the
last 25 years — and more than three-quarters of them have been killed with a
But in my search, something happened – something moved
me, challenged me, even changed me – that was learning about – understanding --the
interconnection of gun violence and
The way in which these two toxic aspects of our society (easy access of
guns and vast economic and racial inequalities) co-mingle, creating a society
that ignores, devalues, and abandons poor and minority communities.
article, a commentary by Gary Younger in The Nation, written in the
aftermath of the Aurora shootings was particularly enlightening and instructive. Younger critiques the culture of “shock” in
relationship to gun violence in America, saying that while violence like the
massacre in Aurora is abhorrent, it is not
at all shocking or random. Violence and
death due to guns is part of the fabric of our country – it happens all the
time, every day, it’s just that we don’t necessarily hear about it.
Younger notes that the night after the Aurora shooting, twenty two people were shot, three
fatally, in Chicago. The Philadelphia
organization GunCrisis, which through photos and journalism, brings to light
the seemingly ceaseless violence in our city, noted that in the four weeks after Aurora, there were more
than 115 victims of gun violence in Philadelphia– and there were more than 140
shootings in the city of brotherly love in the month of August alone.
debunks the notion that guns and gun access is the only thing responsible for
the violence of our society. He points
out there are other countries with a high number of gun ownership --countries
like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland-- that do not have a high number of gun murders. Younger writes, “What links America’s high
concentration of guns and relatively high level of gun deaths are the country’s
high levels of inequality, segregation and poverty.”
his article, Younger says words that sting with painful truth: “There are
places in America where you are supposed to be safe—shopping malls, suburban
schools, cinemas – and there are places where people are expected to be
vulnerable: poor black and Latino neighborhoods. The possibility of arbitrary death…is just
understood as the price you pay for being black or Latino in America.”
experience of reading this and really taking it in – was like having a loud,
piercing tekiah gedola sounded right in my ear.
I was in disbelief about a movie theatre shooting—which of course was terrible
and heinous —but I didn’t know about those crimes that happened in my own city,
not to mention other cities, in the days and weeks following. One of the reasons I decided to live and raise
a family in the city is so that I specifically wouldn’t be sheltered from these
truths -- How could I so easily tune out and keep segmented the realities that
are so close to me – literally, just a few blocks away from where I
live, shop, walk, pray?
the reality of violence and its pervasiveness in our city and the country is
not “new information.” I do live in
Philadelphia after all, the most violent city in the country. I even had direct exposure to some of what
goes on every day through pastoral work at The Hospital of University of Pennsylvania
which I did after graduation from rabbinical school. During the monthly overnight visits, I saw
teenagers coming in with bullet wounds.
I was there with families who were arrived to learn that their son or
brother or father had been shot and was going into emergency surgery which may
or may not save them. And since then, from
the safety of my own home on 45th Street, I have heard noises coming
from a close distance, and hoped upon hope that they were fireworks or a car
backfiring but knowing that was likely not the case.
Yet, there is a difference between “knowing” – with
my mind -- and “knowing” with my heart and soul. It is the difference between on the one hand,
having some nebulous understanding of a national problem and on the other hand, being present with the magnitude of
what’s happening day to day, being affected by the stories and by the tragedy
of it all. It is letting my heart open to the pain of sons and daughters
lost, of hope lost.
want to share a story I heard over the last few weeks which was particular affecting.
Marla Davis Bellamy, director of CeaseFire PA, tells a story that speaks to the
brokenness of a society in which violence is normalized. She
describes the scene a case worker witnessed while hanging signs on a street in
North Philly. It was a nice summer day,
people were sitting on stoops and about 100 kids were playing on the
playground. Suddenly, a young man took
out a gun and opened fire. All the kids
ducked. When the shooting stopped, the
kids simply got up and started playing again—like nothing had happened at
all. Not a single parent or guardian
came out to take their child inside, not a single child ran home to take
comfort or protection from an elder. No
person reacted as if this was anything out of the ordinary. Can we imagine if such a thing happened at
Another story that touched me deeply was the story
of Kianna Burns, a teenager who spoke in an interview on Radio Times about
witnessing her father’s murder (which happened as he intervened to break up a
fight involving her brother) and who herself was shot in the leg trying to
escape the incident. Despite the
gruesome details of the story—of which I will spare you – what hit home most
was her sharing how she is afraid to leave her house because of the violence
that surrounds her . She travels to and
from school, still hoping to graduate, but other than that—she stays at home as
much as possible. It is near impossible for
me to imagine that a young person –who should be hanging out with her friends
and doing what teenagers do – feels that she can only “make it out alive” is if
she stays inside as much as possible.
to a new understanding and opening my heart to these and other stories, -- I
have woken up. And I am angry. I am angry that I live in a country in which
people are dying every day, kids fear for their lives, and safety is elusive. I am ashamed and upset that I, an educated,
progressive person who cares about inequality, can live in such blissful ignorance
of my own privilege, that I can so easily ignore this problem. I am deeply pained that we live in a society where
poverty is a predictor of not only your future success but of your future
at the risk of being hutzpadik, I think that all of us should also be
angry --and pained and saddened by what goes on just a few blocks from where we
are sitting and all over our city and our country. We should be angry that teenagers use guns because
they feel they have no other way. We
should be disturbed by the fact that our media mourns shootings that are deemed
“out of the ordinary” but doesn’t take special note of the day after day
murders that happen in poor and primarily African-American neighborhoods.
We should be saddened by the fact that children are
“accustomed” to the sounds of gunshots and the rituals of funerals. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that
separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and
despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live
on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.”
But this is not where the wake-up
call ends. This is where call begins. Being angry or frustrated or pained or
dissatisfied can be a good thing –
but only if it spurs us into action, only if we choose to take those raw
emotions and channel it for something that is better.
This is, in fact, what Maimonides teaches us
about the shofar. He says that the
piercing blast of the shofar call to us, beckoning: “Awake, O you sleepers, awake from
your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from
your slumber! Search your deeds
and turn in Teshuvah….Look to your souls and better your ways
and actions. “ The call of the
shofar is actually twofold: the first call is to wake up: the second call is to turn our wakefulness into action.
We are to look to our souls, to discern what it is that we can do, and
to better our ways and actions.
the spirit of this teaching and in the hopes that we can turn and better our actions, I want to offer some direction for
how we might stay awake and engaged in the coming year and beyond.
may sound simple, but in order to stay awake, we need to know what is going
on in our city. If we do not educate
ourselves and stay informed, it will be easy for the violence in our city to
fade again into the distance.
Through this process of discernment and education, I
learned about an invaluable resource for keeping me informed. GunCrisis.org,
through photos and daily updates and analysis, documents the crisis of gun
violence in Philadelphia, filling in the gaps in the media’s coverage of the
problem. Using awareness as a tool, we
can speak out and challenge the culture of our media which deems some events
“tragic” while others not even “newsworthy”.
We can let our voices be heard against both the proliferation of guns (especially
illegal guns) in our society and about the interconnection of gun violence and
inequality. When an incident happens
around the country, we can name the truth that gun violence is not a “random
event” but a crisis that threatens the lives of our young people and diminishes
Being aware of the problem is an important step,
being aware of solutions is even more vital.
It behooves us to know about and to support people and organizations
that are making a difference. Through
this process, I have learned about organizations like CeaseFirePA, which aims
to stem the tide of gun violence in Philly’s 22cd district, the most violent in
the city, and to raise awareness of this issue on the city and state level. A month ago, I didn’t even know about this
organization; now, I plan on giving my support financially and through
participating in the advocacy work they do. Supporting those who are doing work
in the field to seek peace and change communities is integral way we can stay
awake and engaged on the issue. As our
tradition teaches, giving tzedakah is not an act of charity – it is about using
our resources to balance out the scales, to move us toward a more just (Tzedek)
Perhaps most importantly, we can also join with
others to address the problems in our neighborhoods and communities. In particular, we can connect with Heeding
God’s Call, a Philadelphia organization made up of churches, synagogues, and
mosques, whose mission is “to inspire hope, raise voices, and take action to
end gun violence.” After a spike in violence or a particular
incident, members of Heeding God’s Call will go out to the spot in which the
homicide took place and literally stand witness, in order to both humanize the
losses that happen day after day and to draw media attention to these
did not know when I started to write and share my story that the High Holidays
this year bookends International Peace Day, which is this coming Friday,
September 21. In honor of this
international day, Heeding God’s Call is holding a ‘Walk and Witness Against
Gun Violence.’ There will be a gathering
in this neighborhood of West/Southwest Philly and joining in prayer,
song, and silence at Cedar Park – just two blocks from Calvary!—They will be
marching to at least two of the sites of local shootings and lighting candles
for all 242 murder victims that have taken place so far in 2012. I plan to be there – and I hope you will join
me. While standing witness to those who
died will be harrowing, I imagine seeing people join together across religious,
racial, and economic lines will be heartening and inspiring.
anticipate what some of you may be thinking: Rabbi Lauren, even these actions will not
truly alleviate the crisis in our city and our nation. This problem is too complicated, too
entrenched for us to really make an impact.
I definitely understand this concern.
And I feel that fatigue that comes when looking at problems that seem
beyond what I can do to fix.
But, in the face of the enormity and intractability
of injustice and inequality, I take comfort and inspiration from the words of
Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who said: “Daily we should take
account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate
the evil, to prevent humiliation? Our
concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only
publicly, but also privately; not only occasionally, but regularly. What
we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals.”
Heschel points to: it is not the task of someone else “over there” to change
what needs to be change: it is our task.
To remember that it is not someone else’s responsibility to care for our
neighbor: it is our responsibility. To
recognize that while we cannot necessarily complete the task, we are not free
to abandon it.
year, when we hear the piercing blasts of the shofar:
Let us awaken out of our sleep! May we be able to fully listen, to be present
with what is difficult and challenging in our city and in our world so that we
can be true and faithful witnesses.
Let us look at our souls and turn
in Teshuvah! Let us look inside and consider what each one
of us can do to better our neighborhood, our city, our world. Let us turn toward the problem and not away
Let us examine our deeds and better
our ways! Let the
shofar blast be a clarion call to action.
May those actions, no matter how seemingly small, inspire us, our
neighbors, and our community. May this
Rosh HaShanah be a year of blessing, of equality, justice, and peace
for all who dwell on earth.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4
Gary Younger, “With Aurora, Another Mass Killing Shocks America. Why? The
Nation, July 25, 2012.
Interview on Radio Times, August 24, 2012
Martin Luther King, “Where do we go from here,” Speech to Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967
Is this Not the Fast: Justice &
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
a few moments ago, we heard the powerful and stirring words of Isaiah. Isaiah, like many other Hebrew prophets,
stands aside and above the community, able to see the faults of the nation and from
that place, calls those who are not heeding God’s ways to task. In our text, Isaiah sees a community of
people who may be accomplishing the rituals they are supposed to perform but
who are violating the ethical dimension of God’s law. He specifically highlights the way in which a
community is oppressing those who are less vulnerable and society and gives
them the clear reminder that their role as religious people stretches well
beyond the gates of their own home. The
fast that God desires is one in which we share our resources, where we look
upon the most vulnerable in society, those who are threatened by outside forces
and to help offer protection.
Every year, when we hear Isaiah’s words, it is a
reminder to us that the religious and the ethical are united and that the
Jewish sacred tradition places responsibilities and obligations onto us, to
help ameliorate the oppression that is happening in our society and to work
toward a just society. Then, as Isaiah
famously says, then our light will burst forth like the dawn, then we will cry
out and God will say: Hineni, Here I am!
the passage we read on the holiest day of the year, Isaiah speaks about this
obligation in terms that may be familiar to us and that have resonances in
other parts of our tradition—giving bread to the hungry, clothing the naked,
offering shelter. But he also speaks
about a broad vision for justice: unlocking the chains of wickedness, loosening
exploitation, freeing the oppressed. Isaiah
reminds us that our obligation is to both to help and to transform.
Isaiah’s prophecy also reminds us – perhaps even
more so in a world without prophets or prophesies—of our obligation to call out
the injustices we see happening in our society. The injustice that I want to highlight and
think together about for a moment or two – and
what I perceive Isaiah might come to talk to us about if he were alive this Yom
Kippur – is the oppression happening in our society through the vehicle of voter suppression. Across our country, (currently still on
the books in 23 states) a series of strict laws have been introduced and in
many cases, upheld, across the country, to require photo IDs with current
addresses, in order to vote in November.
At first glance, this doesn’t sound like an egregious
thing. I do not necessarily believe that
all efforts to stop voter fraud are necessarily oppressive or that there may
not be some way in the future to figure out a just system that could work. But, these laws (which have been criticized by
Democrats and Republicans alike) were pushed through swiftly – without plan to
make sure that everyone eligible to vote can vote, without the time necessary
to give the information and distribute a proper ID to those. As has been discussed over the news and even
in the mouths of politicians, it does not appear so coincidental – for who
might be affected – seniors, minorities, students have particular party
leanings. Those that introduced these laws did not have democratic
motivations, rather political, and partisan, motivations.
of these laws, millions of people (including students, minorities, senior
citizens, people with disabilities) will be deterred from voting or denied the
ability to cast their ballot. A new
published on September 12, states that with these voter ID laws, as many as 700,000 young minorities (under 30
years of age) would be unable to cast a ballot in November. If the Pennsylvania law is upheld, it is
estimated that 37,000-44,000 young minority voters will be impacted and experts
state that up to 43% of eligible voters, or up to 1 million people, could be
affected in our state alone. If this
many voters could be impacted in Pennsylvania, can we even imagine how many
might be across the country?
Another deeply troubling part of this new initiative is that it reminds me of the ways
in which voter suppression have been used in our country to keep people with less
power from having a voice. Even after
African-Americans were granted the right to vote after Civil Rights, there were
(and have remained) tactics of intimidation --both through legal and non-legal
means-- aimed at keeping them from voting. It reminds me that people suffered
and died in order to earn the right to vote for those who were denied – and
make this a right of any citizen.
is not a partisan stance to object to these laws. Because taking away a person’s right to vote,
the basic way we express ourselves in a free country, is a threat to our values
and a threat to our democracy. Because
passing laws without offering a path of access is a form of injustice.
Isaiah the prophet told us to loosen the chains of
oppression and to do what we could to ameliorate the inequalities we see. In that spirit, I want to offer us a few
suggestions as to how we might not only call out this kind of oppression but
also work toward a more just outcome.
First, we need to register to vote
& help to register others. Second, we
can work to help educate people about these laws and to help get out the vote. Kol Tzedek is part of
an organization called POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and
Rebuild. POWER is very involved in this
issue and we are working with them (and their national team PECO) on this
issue. They have information on those who
may be at risk for this law and are helping congregations such as ours organize
to educate community members and get out the vote.
we speak, the lower court judge is reviewing the PA voter ID law. Many, many
briefs have been sent; much advocacy has already happened. It is now in the
hands of this judge. If the judge
upholds this law, it is upon us to work diligently to offset the impact of the law—to
help educate and get out the vote. If the
judge recognizes that the law places an unfair burden on people and would
disenfranchise voters, yes, there will be a victory and a reason to celebrate! Yet, even if this happens, (God willing), I
want to still invite us to hear Isaiah’s voice ringing clear. This is still a national problem, with laws upheld
in many other states. And, this issue
will come up again, likely in the next election cycle in April. This is an invitation
for us to be aware, diligent and pro-active.
the fact that the right to vote has been threatened in our state (and remains
in other states) can still be a wakeup call to remember the preciousness of
democracy and the need for us as Jews and allies to, in that spirit, help
people access their vote by getting involved with turnout efforts for this
Yom Kippur, I pray that we be filled with the vision and gumption of Isaiah;
that we remember our sacred duty as inheritors of this sacred tradition and
that we find ways to ameliorate the inequalities in our society and work toward
a future filled with justice. In the words of Isaiah: “Then our righteousness
will travel before you, and the glory of the almighty will encompass you… You will be like a well-watered garden, a
spring whose waters never fail.”
Kol Nidre 5772/2011
weeks ago, my mother looked at me, and with a sense of intensity and urgency asked:
“In your High Holiday sermon, can you talk about how to cope in such tough
times? About how to find hope and
perspective when things feel so hopeless?”
about my mom’s question-and her earnestness, the worry I could hear in her
voice—stopped me and gave me pause to think.
mom doesn’t usually lobby me for sermon topics. In fact, I’m not sure she has even
once, in ten years, offered a specific suggestion or idea. So I knew that I needed to pay
Even more striking than my mother’s special
request for the holidays was my immediate sense that she was not alone in her
feelings of frustration, helplessness and hopelessness. With unemployment remaining steadily at 9.8% nationally
and 10.8% for Philadelphia and many more who are jobless; with federal, state,
and local cuts to social and educational programs; with the gap between those
who have and those who don’t have widening with each year; with the number of
uninsured people (close to 50 million) on the rise and approaching its all time-high,
with a global debt crisis which experts just this week warned were going to
throw the U.S. back into recession, it understandable that we enter this High
Holiday season with feelings of insecurity and worry. It is easy to understand why people are Occupying
even worse than our troubled economy is the vitriol and gridlock in Washington,
where ideology trumps service, where acrimony and political posturing dominate;
where politicians seek to balance the budget on the backs of working and middle
class. As someone I spoke to the other
day said, “It seems as if the corrupting influences of money and power are more
intense than they have ever been before.”
In light of these global concerns, combined with our own personal
struggles, I imagine that many of us may be wondering, as my mother is, how to
cope in these times? How to find meaning and hope?
Nidre is the time when we pause from our daily lives, reflect on this past year
and the year going forward, and seek meaning through our shared tradition. How might the wisdom of our ancestors come to
bear on our lives and help us shape a better future for us and our
society? What might our tradition have
to teach us about where to find the strength, courage, and faith to move
forward with our lives in a positive direction?
Kol Nidre is also the time we seek personal transformation. Can we transform our anxiety and fear into perseverance;
our hopelessness into hopefulness; our anger and frustration into determination?
So I would like to answer my mom’s
question—which is likely a question many of us share – by highlighting three
aspects of Jewish tradition that help me find solace, strength, and courage
when facing difficult times. I share
these because I believe these teachings can serve as spiritual resources for
us, to help us find perspective, lift us up, and restore hope and inspiration
as we enter the New Year.
The First Teaching: Looking to Jewish History
is a great Yiddish folktale that goes like this:
man lives with his large family in a small hut. The noise and fighting is
driving him crazy so he goes to the rabbi to help him solve his problem. The rabbi asks if he has any animals and the
man says, "Yes, some chickens, geese and ducks." "Bring them into the hut with you." The man is
confused, but trusts in the wise rabbi and does what he says. With the
chickens, geese and ducks in the small hut the noise only gets worse until the
man has to go back to the rabbi. "Rabbi,
I can't stand the noise! It's too much." "Do you have any other animals?" asked the
rabbi. "I have a goat."
Says the man. "Bring the goat into your
home." Again the man is confused, but does as the rabbi says. Again the noise gets worse and the man
returns to the rabbi and complains. "Rabbi, why did you tell me to bring
the goat into my house? The noise is even worse than before!" "Do you have a cow?" the rabbi asks. Exhausted
and frustrated, the man replies yes. Again the rabbi tells him to bring the
animal into his home and again the poor man complies.
Time passes and the small hut is
even more crowded and noisy than ever and finally the man goes back to the
"Rabbi, I'm going crazy. There's no
room and the noise is out of control!" "Put the
animals back outside." Relieved,
the man rushes home and puts the animals back into the yard. That night the man
and his family have the most perfect night of rest. The next day he rushes to
tell the rabbi. "Rabbi," the man says, "I slept so well
last night. I finally had some peace and quiet." "Just remember,"
the rabbi replied, "When you think things are bad, remember: it could always be worse."
I love telling this story not only because of
it is an entertaining way to teach a life lesson, but because it is a quintessionally/such
a “Jewish” message. Things can always be
worse! Things have been worse!
When I look around at the circumstances around me that seem so dire, so
disappointing, it is helpful to hear this lesson, (it could always be worse!) straight
out of the mouths of Jews a century ago who in many ways had a much tougher
time than we do today. This kind of
perspective helps me put my personal struggles and our societal ones into
perspective, which in turn enables me to relax and breathe and have faith that
“this too shall pass.”
part of Jewish history is not only a teaching that “things have been worse,” it
is a reminder that over and over again, against all odds, Jews have survived
incredibly dark and challenging times. As
Rabbi Robert Levin says, “The continued survival of the Jews alone is an
argument against despair, a warrant for human hope.” If the Jewish people have endured so much
throughout our history and survived, so can we survive these challenges and
come out stronger as individuals and as a people. This sense of perspective and
hopefulness is articulated by Rabbi Toba Spitzer when she says, “It is helpful
to me to place myself in the millennia-old course of Jewish history and
ritual. There have been such great highs
and such devastating lows for our people, for the world, during the past few
thousand years- and yet, our traditions have endured, our people as endured, as
has the hope that perhaps this year will be the year when, finally, we human
beings get it right. This is the
great gift of being part of such an ancient tradition. We have the long view,
the understanding that the momentary highs and lows of history are not all that
on the strength of our ancestors does not make the problems of our world go
away and may not even diminish them.
But, seeing the “long view” can help give us perspective, relieve some
of our anxiety and worry, and strengthen us to face what needs to be
2: The Theology of Perpetual Renewal
their core, the High Holy Days are about the possibility of renewal. That with the blank slate of the New Year and
teshuvah, repentance, all things are possible.
That no matter how intractable something might seem, they can
change. That no matter how stuck we are
in our lives, we can get un-stuck, we can find a new way.
This concept, that the world renews itself every year, is part of a larger
Jewish theology about the perpetual and ever-present possibility for change and
redirection. Not only every year, but every
day. In the morning service in our
liturgy, we say “B’Tuvo M’chadesh B’chol Yom Tamid Ma’aseh v’reishit”: Every
day the work of Creation is renewed. Our
ancestors saw creation not as a singular act, rather as an ongoing
process. If each day is entirely
different than the next, therefore, each day, we have an opportunity to
start all over again.
Further, our tradition expands, not only is
every day new, but each moment is full of unknown
possibilities. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a
Hasidic master, teaches [on the verse “Kol HaNeshama T’Hallel Yah: Every Soul
or Breath Praises God”] that we are renewed, with each and every breath. According to Levi Yitzhak’s interpretation,
each moment we breathe is an opportunity to experience teshuvah, change or
redirection and therefore, at each moment, we can become new creatures. Can we imagine if we truly took this teaching
to heart and saw every breath, every moment full of possibility and newness?! That things can change at any minute, that
those problems in our lives and those problems in our society that we think are
intractable, impervious to change are simply not so.
For me, this theology of change is an
inspiration for radical hope. Why can’t this be the year where wars
cease, where people act toward each other as if they are btselem elohim, made in the divine image? Why NOT? Why can’t this
be the year that human beings get it together and begin to express their divine
purpose, to love and to build, to cherish and to care for the stranger and one
another? Why is 5772 not the year when
things shift and change?
The concept of “Why not” is not simplistic or
far-fetched. I invite you to consider
the incredibly dramatic changes that have taken place in our world in this past
year. Would anyone sitting in these
seats last year have thought to themselves that this would be the year in which
peaceful, non-violent, courageous protests would come to the Middle East,
ousting oppressive regimes and paving the way for a new society affords dignity
and freedom to its people?
Would anyone have dreamt that these revolutions
would have inspired Israelis to camp out in tents, on the wealthiest street in Tel
Aviv, demanding economic justice and fairness in their country, leading to a
mass protest that would involve close to half-a-million Israeli citizens, including
Sephardi and Ashkenzi, Arab and Jewish, young and old to come together and
demand change? And could we have
imagined that these acts would inspire a nascent movement being born in the
United States right now? (As we sit here,
several Kol Tzedek members and other Jews and allies are observing Kol Nidre
Services at Occupy Philadelphia and we wish them also a Shana Tova and G’mar
While we know the march toward sustainable
and substantive change will be long and will involve some steps backwards as we
move forwards, we can have hope, faith and trust that the road is leading
toward greater freedom and equality for all.
As Martin Luther King so beautifully said, “The moral arc of the
universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
On this Kol Nidre evening, when we seek to be
transformed and to be uplifted, I invite us to consider taking this teaching
into our hearts, that no matter how challenging things may seem, no matter how
intractable, there is always the possibility for change, there is always a
reason to hope.
3: The Power of our Individual and Communal Actions
the most inspiring parts of Judaism for me is the very fact that our people,
our religion, three thousand years of history starts with one person. One individual had a hunch, an intuition, a
“calling” that things could be different. That people God could be accessed
anywhere and everywhere, that people could be a blessing to others. And from there, life as we knew it changed. Whether Abraham was a “historic figure” is
irrelevant; the idea that one person
could change the world is a story worth teaching from generation to
what’s even better than one person changing the world? People changing the world,
together. After all, the central
narrative of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Though Moses is a central organizer, the
Exodus cannot happen without people who, though scared and afraid, find the
courage to leave the narrow places and forge a new path.
central Jewish narrative, which has been a source of inspiration for many
liberation movements, has come to signify the power of people to rewrite their
fate, to topple structures of power, and to change the course of things. As Michael Walzer so beautifully says (a
quote that I have taught from time to time): “We still believe, or many of us
do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach,
about the meaning and possibilities of politics and about is proper form:
-first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second, that there is a
better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that ‘the
way to the land is through the wilderness.’ There is no way to get from here
to there except by joining together and marching.”
to share with you a story about people in our city coming together to make a
difference. It is the story of POWER, P.
O. W. E. R., Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild, a new
grassroots, faith-based organization, of which Kol Tzedek is a founding member. Eighteen months ago, an organizer [from the
national network of PICO/faith-based community organizations] came to
Philadelphia and began talking to some religious leaders about the possibility
of an organization in which people could lift up their faith and their values
for the purposes of addressing and correcting the disparities and injustices in
our city. Thirty-five clergy decided to
take a leap of faith and began identifying leaders in their congregations to be
involved in this effort. Soon,
two-hundred and fifty leaders (which included several KT members!) received
training in community organizing skills and were invited to have one-to-one
conversations with members of their congregation about issues of concern to
them. By the fall of 2010, those efforts
resulted in over 1,000 conversations with people about their fears and hopes
for our city. Through these
conversations and meetings with experts, POWER leaders decided to narrow its
initial focus to addressing joblessness, setting its ambitious goal for the
promotion and creation of 10,000 new jobs in the next five years.
Just two weeks ago, I, along with about 20
other Kol Tzedek members, attended the organization’s Founding Convention. All my dreams and hopes for this event were
surpassed. As I approached Tindley
Temple on Broad Street that evening, I saw bus after bus pulled up, dropping
off dozens of passengers at a time. Entering the building, navigating my way
through crowds of people, I saw people that truly represent the diversity of
this city— of all religious, economic, racial, geographic lines. As the crowds came pouring in, a gospel choir
sang, people clapped their hands and reached out to each other in friendship. The
night was filled with beautiful prayers, inspiring reflections, personal
testimonials, and fiery speeches. Every
speaker, even Mayor Nutter (who was kept to a strict time limit and asked to
make commitments to the organization) drew upon the sources of their tradition
that point them to seek justice and righteousness. It was, for me, a holy experience.
In total, about two thousand people were
gathered in that church that night. Two
thousand! That just doesn’t happen in
Philly, right?! Two thousand people acknowledging
the problems our city is facing and lift up solutions that we can accomplish
together. Two-thousand people
recognizing that we cannot accomplish anything unless we join together toward
common goals. P.O.W.E.R. is now poised
to make positive changes in our city. But
just as our tradition instructs, power lies in people coming together to make a
difference. Our actions matter. P.O.W.E.R will only be successful if those people
in all 40 member congregations participate in bringing the organization’s agenda
forward. Kol Tzedek is part of this
effort. On this night, when we
contemplate the direction of our lives in the coming year, I want to challenge
each of us to get involved with this effort —attend or plan an action, do
one-on-one relationship building for example.
Regardless of our time and resources, we can all find ways – big or
small—to get involved. By doing so, we
can live up to our name, “Kol Tzedek: Voice of Justice.” By doing so, we can help make Philadelphia,
as the P.O.W.E.R. slogan says, “a city that works for everyone.”
to conclude with a prayer from Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlov and a wish for all of
us for the New Year:
of the world, author of her story,
me the courage to participate in the world’s design,
in the unfolding of her story.
want to share in the responsibility of this world—
for her welfare, to care for her needs, to safeguard her treasures,
for her rectification.
--Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlov
this year be filled with courage and hope.
May we be granted the ability to see the long-view, the understanding
that renewal and change are always available to us and the world, the
confidence to see that our actions matter, the courage to join with others to an
unknown promised land and the perseverance to keep doing what needs to be done,
day in and day out, to heal ourselves and our world.
7 Things I
learned about Teshuvah/High Holidays from a Pre-Schooler
Grabelle Herrmann, Rosh HaShanah 5772
Tova! It is wonderful to see so many new
and returning faces here at Kol Tzedek. This
year, the holidays feel especially like a time of reconnection and
reunion. As many of you know, Jon and I
welcomed our second child, Nadiv, on June 30 who joined big sister Aviel, who
turned four in September.
year, as we move toward a new year and a new High Holiday season, I am amazed
and awed by the majesty and power of these sacred days. Tradition asks us, every year, to dig deep
inside our souls so that we can return to being the best and most authentic
versions of ourselves. We are asked to
forgive and to be forgiven, to turn ourselves into new directions. We are reminded that anything is possible for
ourselves and our communities in the New Year.
In the course of my rabbinate and my
life, I have studied many beautiful and inspiring texts and prayers about the
meaning of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, and about teshuva, the process or
reflection, renewal and change that is at the heart of these days. Yet, I always find that I learn the most
about teshuvah and the power of the High Holidays from experiences in my life. Three
years ago after the first year of my daughter’s life, I shared some of the
“torah” that I learned about the Days of Awe from my first year of parenting. This
year too-- perhaps because I spent the months leading up the holidays focused
on family – I found myself coming back to lessons I learned about Teshuvah from
parenting-- this time, from parenting a curious, intelligent, and willful
share these stories and lessons because I believe that in the particular, we
can sense the universal; because I believe these stories can help illuminate
different aspects of the High Holidays and invite us to imagine what is
possible for us in the New Year. Here are 7 lessons I have learned about
Teshuvah & the High Holidays from a pre-schooler:
Live with Awe
of the great joys, I find, about parenting a pre-schooler is going to fun
places like the zoo, the science museum, the aquarium. One of the less joyful aspects of parenting
is going to these places over and over and over again.
Recently, my daughter and I went to the Camden Aquarium to see, among other
things, the giant hippos. She was very
excited. I was less so, in part because
we have seen those hippos probably at least 20 times and let’s be honest: they
don’t do all that much but sit there. When
we entered into the hippo area and she caught sight of one of those ginormous
creatures, she shouted with joy, as if it were the first time she ever saw
them: “YAY! The hippos are out! Look!
Look! They are so cool!” I took a
breath, looked at those hippos, and remembered how awesome they are indeed.
Rosh HaShanah is also called HaYom HaRat
Olam, the day the world was birthed into being.
On this day, today, we celebrate the grandeur of creation, the beauty of
our earth, and the awesomeness of every living being on this planet. Rosh HaShanah is an invitation into seeing
the world with “radical amazement,” to offer a phrase by Rabbi Abraham Joshua
seem to naturally intuit an awareness of the greatness of Creation, the wonder
of the tiniest bug and the majesty of the largest creatures. We grown-ups may have moments of such
awareness, but often are distracted with the busy-ness of our lives to notice
or we allow things we see regularly to become “ordinary.” Today, our ancestors taught, is the
anniversary of the world’s birth. But
just as our tradition teaches that creation was not a onetime event, rather an
ongoing act, we have the opportunity on this New Year to experience awe and
wonder, not only today but every day.
Know when to say
a year ago, I took Aviel and her first cousin to Dutch Wonderland, an amusement
park. Now let me explain: Alexa, Aviel’s only first cousin, is 18 months older
than her, and in Aviel’s eyes, can do no wrong.
Everything that Alexa does, Aviel wants to do. Everything that Alexa says, Aviel repeats.
You get the idea! Now, at Dutch
Wonderland, Alexa, the older, adventurous cousin went on every roller coaster
in the park! Any ride she saw, she was
willing to try. Interestingly, Aviel,
who would normally follow her cousin’s every move, was very clear: No roller
coasters for me. No matter how much
pushing or prodding from her older cousin, she would not budge. Not only did Aviel know her limits, she made
no excuses or apologies. She simply said
Over the High Holidays, we examine where
we have missed the mark. One of the ways we often “miss the mark” in life is in
regards to our own boundaries. I hear
over and over again in my conversations with friends and Kol Tzedek members that
saying “no” for many of us is exceedingly challenging. Without negative intentions, we say “yes”
when we mean “no” – often in order to make others happy, often because we
really want to do something, yet we are not aware in the moment that our doing
so will stretch us beyond what we can take on at a particular moment. At this time of year, when we think about
turning and moving in the right directions, can we be more in touch with our
needs and our own limits? Can we get
back to or cultivate the honesty and self-acceptance of a three year old who
knows how and when to say “no”?
six months ago, Aviel, who was normally quite easy to put to bed, suddenly
became frightened and paralyzed at bedtime.
She cried and cried and would not let Jon or I leave the room. “Aviel, what’s going on?” “I’m scared.” she said. I asked, “What are you scared of?” She responded, “Monsters.”
and I looked at each other, not quite sure how to respond. After a second pause, I blurted out what I thought
might comfort her (and what made sense to me as a rational adult), “Sweetie,
there aren’t any monsters! There is nothing to be afraid of!”
not surprisingly, that didn’t help! In
fact, it made things worse that night. After some more time and cuddling, we
got her to sleep finally that night. I
then did what every thoughtful parent would do: I did a Google search! One site
I trust read, “Never tell your children that there aren’t really monsters.” Woops! I guess I missed the mark on that one! It went on to explain that monsters are very
real for young children. When someone
tells a child that there are no monsters, this only invalidates the child’s
fear, rather than giving her resources to cope with them.
next night, Aviel and I worked together to make a big, very clear sign on her
door: “No Monsters allowed.” We hung the
sign on her door and talked to the monsters before she went to sleep. “Monsters!
You are not allowed in Aviel’s room so please go away!” We repeated this process every night for many
weeks, adding other tricks that helped her sure up her courage. While she is still afraid from time to time,
she is learning to face her fears and becoming stronger because of it.
We call these days in Hebrew “Yamim
Nora’im,” “Nora’im” comes from the word “yirah,” which means fear.
These are fear-inspiring days in many ways. Through the internal process of teshuvah, we
are invited to look each for him or herself at what is holding us back from
being who we are, from doing what needs to be done—what are we afraid of?
Failure? Intimacy? Lonlineness? Can we face those fears for the sake of our
growth and happiness?
on a very tangible level, the holidays are about facing the ultimate fear: the
fear of death. We see this in the
imagery of the Book of Life and Death and when we wear a kittel on Yom Kippur,
but perhaps this is most keenly felt when we recite the Untane Tokef prayer [we
recited earlier]: which reads, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom
Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…” Boom! There it is in front of us—the fear we
often ignore or dismiss or deny-- the reality of our mortality and that of our
loved ones. It is truly scary to face
the unknown, to come to terms with our vulnerability. It is extremely hard to face the fears that
get in our way. But we have clear
choice: We can choose to say “No monsters here!” “Everything’s ok!” Or we can look right at our fears, we can own
them, and we can find the courage to face them. And God willing, doing so will inspire us live
our lives more fully and more intentionally.
Use Your Words.
recently fell down a set of our steps and was both shocked and hurt. After an initial few minutes of comforting
and kissing boo-boos, I walked her over to the steps so she could tell the
steps exactly how she felt about that. “I didn’t like that, steps!” she said
emphatically. When I first saw one of
Aviel’s teachers doing this a few years ago, I thought this tactic – of
communicating one’s feelings to inanimate objects-- was a bit funny and
strange, yet I also saw it as an effective tool. After all, we want our children to
acknowledge and express their feelings.
We want to give them the tools to deal with hurts and injuries, physical
or emotional, so that they can thrive in a world in which they will inevitably
fall down, over and over again.
I have coached Aviel to express her feelings, I have also become aware of how
much I myself could benefit from this coaching. I am sure I am not alone in this: how many
times do we use our words wisely, do we speak our needs and feelings to the
person who needs to hear them? There are
many situations in which instead of expressing our thoughts and feelings, we
withhold. Other times, instead of
expressing to the one who has wronged us we might turn to others and engage in
LaShon HaRah, gossip.
we engage in teshuvah, we are asked to think about what we have done wrong, not
only with our actions but also with our tongues. On Yom Kippur, when we recite the Al Heyt
prayer, a litany of our wrongdoings, there is a striking number that have to do
with sins of speech. All of these sins
of speech can be contrasted with positive and direct speech that helps us
express our feelings and experience connection. This process of self-reflection and of
confessional invites us to see what is possible if we were to use our words
A few weeks ago, Aviel was having a play
date with her best friend Henry. Aviel
and Henry are very close and typically play very well together. But this time, things were not going so
well. Henry took Aviel’s toy car; then
he pulled her hair. Aviel was
livid. I mean you should have seen
her! She put one hand over the other,
stamped her feet, and screamed, “I’m mad!”
She then proceeded to walk away and tell me Henry wasn’t her friend
anymore. In about 10 seconds, Henry came
up to Aviel and offered a simple apology.
Arms still crossed, enjoying her own drama, I wasn’t sure what she would
do. But she took a breath and said,
“Ok.” They held hands and continued with
their play date.
heart of teshuvah is forgiveness: asking for forgiveness from others and
oneself. And while it is not a
requirement to forgive others, it is encouraged to do so. Not only for their sake, but for the sake of
one’s own healing and wholeness.
Of course, the fights and arguments
between three year olds are much more simple and straightforward than the fights
and disagreements between adults. Having
someone take your toys is not the moral equivalent of someone lying to you or
hurting you, for example. Yet, I wonder:
can we learn from young children who forgive as easily as they anger? Who really can give someone who asks for it a
blank slate, a new beginning? Can we
free ourselves by forgiving others?
Passing of the Years
spent about 11 months counting down to her fourth birthday. She would say “I’m three and a 1/4!” Then, “I am three and a half!” Then, “three and ¾!” And my favorite, for the month of August,
Aviel would tell friends and strangers alike, “I am three and eleven-twelfths!” Now, she goes up to people randomly on the
street and says, “Guess what? I am FOUR!” in the most excited voice, so that
even the most disinterested stranger smiles.
As Aviel was growing more and more
excited to turn four, I noticed my own internal resistance. To quote the great Fiddler on the Roof,
“Sunrise, Sunset: Where is this little girl I carried?” If these four years have passed this quickly,
in the blink of an eye, pretty soon, she will be in college! I am not ready! Can we please press the PAUSE button? Or at least slow motion? And, if I am being completely honest, I was
resistant not just for her but for myself.
If Aviel is four, that means I am getting up there too!
year, without fail, Rosh Hashanah arrives and invites us to celebrate another
year of the earth turning. The holiday
teaches us: We cannot stop the clock,
nor should we. We can look to the past
but what’s even better, we can make the most of our present and we can
determine our future. And further, why
should we resist the passage of time when this year is full of possibilities
that we cannot yet imagine?! There is no
going backwards, only forwards. Embrace
it with joy!
The Freedom to
As a parent of a pre-schooler, I am
always providing choices. Aviel, do you
want a purple or pink shirt today? Do you want a banana or an apple for
breakfast? Noodles or a hot dog for dinner?
Sometimes though, Aviel gets a different kind of choice. For example, a few nights ago, at 7:30pm,
Aviel wanted to play outside for an hour. I knew she needed to start bedtime
soon. I made my offer: “Aviel, you can choose to play outside for 15 minutes or
not play outside at all.” With a
sigh—and a grin—“Ok, I choose 15 minutes.”
in the aspect of turning and changing directions in our lives is a true
affirmation of our free will as human beings.
We are not forever stuck in a particular pattern or habit; in a
problematic relationship or work situation. We are not victims of our situations. We have the capacity to choose.
Inevitably, there are many situations in
which we do not exercise as much or maybe even any control over and sometimes
the circumstances of our lives limit our choices, yet the message remains: we
still have choices. We can choose to be
angry or resentful or we can choose to embrace and grow with our
challenges. We can choose to stay too
long in the mode of self-pity or we can recognize that things just happen and
it’s ok. As Sylvia Boorstein, a Jewish
teacher of mindfulness, writes, “The moment in which my mind acknowledges ‘This
isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I got’ is the point in which suffering
disappears….Having given up the fight for another reality, it is free to allow
space for new possibilities to come into view.”[i] We have the power to choose.
Over Rosh HaShanah
and Yom Kippur, we repeat and sing these words from the Book of Lamentations: “HaShivenu Elecha V’Nashuva, Hadesh yameninu
k’kedem. Return us, O Holy One, and we will return; renew our days as
K’kedem -- "as
before," can also be interpreted as “like when we were young.” Return us,
Holy One, to the spirit of our youth. This High Holiday season, may we be able to turn and return,
to change and to choose, to grow and to learn, to accept and to love, to
forgive and be forgiven, to bless and be a blessing, and let us say Amen.
Boorstein, Happiness is an Inside
Two Pockets, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5772
Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
Tonight, we begin the
Aseret Y’mei Teshuva, the 10 Days of Repentance. The mission of these 10 days is to enact
change: to apologize and reconcile; to reflect and redirect; to renew ourselves
and renew our commitments to others and to tikkun
olam (healing our broken world). The
promise of these days is equally powerful.
In the words of the midrash:
“The Holy One said to
Israel: Remake yourselves through teshuvah (turning or repentance) during the Aseret
Y’mei Teshuvah, the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and I will
regard you as a newly made creature.”
When I think about the challenge
and the possibility of these 10 days and of the promise of a New Year, I
feel excited and hopeful. At the same
time, when I consider all that needs to be changed in myself and in the world,
I also feel overwhelmed and intimidated.
I imagine that many of us approach these holidays with a similar mix of
emotions. On the one hand, we may say to
ourselves, “This is it. This is the year that I am finally going to -- FILL IN THE BLANK: Exercise more, take
better care of myself, spend more time with my loved ones, become more involved
with a cause I am passionate about. On
the other hand, we may say to ourselves, “I have been coming to services on
Rosh HaShanah services every year for 5, 10, 20, 50 years and I have never --FILL IN THE BLANK: Exercised more, taken up that hobby, reconciled
with that family member, made that change in my life that I really wanted
to. So why bother trying?
Most likely, we find
ourselves somewhere in the middle. We
earnestly want to make change, but we know it is not easy and that we have not
always been successful. We genuinely
seek to make a difference in our communities and the world, yet we recognize our
time and energy is limited. Given all of
this, how do we make the most of these 10 days?
Tonight, I want to
offer a teaching that has helped me gain a sense of perspective and purpose
through this season, that I hope will be meaningful to you. It is the teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of
Pershycha, a hassidic leader and teacher of the 18th century. He
taught: "Every person
should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili
'for my sake was the world created.' In the second, [there should be a note
that says] anokhi k’afar va'efer, 'I am dust and ashes.' One must know how to use them, each
one in its proper place and right time.”
It is said that Rabbi Bunem would take out each note as he needed, to
help build his sense of worth or quiet his ego. I want to invite us to consider what it might be like to try
on this practice, at this most sacred time of year.
“V’anochi K’afar v’efer: I am but dust and ashes.”
Written on one pocket
are the sobering words from the Torah, “I am but dust and ashes.” These words remind us of truths we might
always want to face—that we human beings are mortal and that our days on this
earth are short; that we are small in the face of the cosmos, that our actions
are not as significant as we might hope them to be. A stark reality.
Yet, in my mind, the
affirmation of our lowliness and insignificance need not lead us to depression or self-negation, rather toward a
stance of profound humility. Martin Buber tells the story about a disciple
who confessed to the Sage, “I try so hard to atone. I try to wrestle with
temptation. I try but I do not succeed.
I remain mired in the mud of transgression. Help me extricate myself from sin and to
truly repent.” The sage answered,
“Perhaps, my dear friend, you are thinking only of yourself. How about forgetting yourself and thinking of
As Buber wisely
communicates, this work of teshuvah is not all about you! Stop beating your chest for your own
wrongdoings, as if you were responsible for the world’s faults. Remember, there is a greater universe out
there to tap into and to work to heal. Recognizing our limitations can also
help us put our lofty goals to change the world in some perspective. Many of us, me included, take on the worries
and the burdens of the world on our shoulders.
We want as Rebbe Nachman said so beautifully, “to participate in the
Our desire to feed the
hungry and fight injustice comes from a place of deep caring and concern. Yet,
when our desire to heal our broken world comes into conflict with the
limitations of our time and the intractability of society’s ills, we risk fatigue,
frustration, and burn-out. For me,
looking into this pocket enables me to breathe again, to remember that I am
just one person, doing the very best I can.
It helps me lift Herculean –like expectations off myself and others so
that I can set realistic goals to make a difference in the best way that I can.
slip of paper reminds us that we human beings are merely mortal, that we can
only do so much.
Lest we end up feeling
disparaged or despondent about the impact of our actions or the significance of
our teshuvah, we turn to the other pocket, on which is written:
“Bishvili Nivra Ha’olam.”
For MY sake, the world was created.
Especially at this
season the year, when we examine our deeds and try to turn toward the good, it
is so affirming to hear these words: For my sake, the world was created.
There is a midrash that
I think demonstrates this message well:
Yehoshua ben Levi taught: “An entourage of angels always walks in front of
people, and messengers call out.” And
what do they say?” “They say, ‘Make way for the image of the Holy Blessed One.’”[ii]
consider this image: that the lofty, otherworldly angels have the distinct
pleasure and honor of walking in front of us in order to announce our God-like presence to others. The angels, in this passage, serve us—and
they announce our very worth, saying that each human beings is significant
because each one is a manifestation of the Divine. This story demonstrates, in my mind, the message
of this second pocket. Each one of us is
created b’tzelem elohim, in the image
of the Divine; each one of us is utterly unique and as such has something
distinct and unique to contribute to the world.
The phrase on this
pocket can give us confidence to recognize and utilize our unique talents and
gifts toward tikkun, healing of self and healing of the world. Moreover, it can remind us that we are capable of making the changes we
need to make. It doesn’t matter if we
have made a mess of our entire life, we can turn it around. It doesn’t make a difference if we have said
we will change over and over yet haven’t, because this could be the year. We have the resources within ourselves to do
what needs to be done. This is the
teaching that invites us to dream big for ourselves and for this world for 5772
and beyond. Who says we cannot
profoundly make a difference? If the
first pocket instills in us the quality of “humility,” then this is the pocket of
Rabbi Simcha Bunem’s teaching ends
with the instruction: “One should know how to use [the two pockets], each one
in its proper place and right time.” When we are feeling
down-hearted, down-trodden or insecure, Rabbi Bunem teaches, dig into this
pocket and find these words: For My Sake the world was created! When we feel like too much depends on us or
notice our ego seeking gratification or assurance, we can dig into the other
pocket and remind ourselves: I/we are but dust and ashes.
The ultimate goal of
course is that we find a balance between these two extremes. In this way, I can see the two pockets as two
measures on either end of a scale. When
we have an excessive amount of humility so that it leads to self-negation or
low-self esteem, we need to tip the scales to get back into balance. And when
we have an excessive amount of ego and self-worth so that we lose sight of
others or of God, we remind ourselves of the other truth, so we can restore
that balance. Ultimately, we seek a
place of integration and wholeness so that we can walk in the world, full of a
sense of self-worth, but also aware of our limitations, inspired with courage
and hutzpah to take on what seems impossible while also filled with compassion
for our own brokenness.
In honor of Rabbi
Simcha Bunem and in honor of the work we are here to do over these holy days, I
want to invite you to take home this practice.
And so, we will momentarily be handing out slips of paper with the words
written on it: “For my sake the world was created” and “I am but dust and ashes.”
During these ten days—and maybe beyond—place
these two slips of paper in your clothes or pants pocket and use them in the moments
you need them. Look into those pockets to
inspire you to be bold and audacious and humble and aware.
May we be blessed
during these holy days and beyond to be able to examine our lives, to turn and
return with honesty and with integrity, with humility and with hutzpah. Shana Tova!
Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, page 162
Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah, Reeh 4
D’var Torah Parshat Behukotai 5771, May 21, 2011, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
the end of a long series of laws and instructions in which the Israelite people
are instructed to be an “am kedusha,” “ a holy nation,”Moses gathers the
people around and impresses upon them the seriousness of instructions that God
has given them.
B’hukotai telechu, v’et mitzvotai tishm’ru va’asitem otam…”
you walk in God’s ways and observe these mitzvot and do them…” then things will
go well with you: you will be granted blessing and sustenance, satisfaction,
security and tranquility, peace and strength, and a sense of God’s
you do not, well, let’s just say: things will not go well for you. You will be spurned, cast down; you will
people over the centuries have taken issue with this torah portion, with its
conception of Divine reward and punishment and its chastisements. I certainly agree believe there are
theological assumptions in this text that we do not share and I recognize that
the descriptions of the curses for non-compliance feels weighty and harsh.
the same time, this torah portion seems to be sounding an alarm—maybe a sort of
shofar blast— with a message that we as a society need to hear, especially at
this moment in time. It is a message
about the way we are to create and structure our society, about the way we are
to treat one another-- and the blessings or curses that flow forth from our
choices in this regard.
read this passage as God calling forth the people, exasperated, with one more
chance to get the message across, saying:
“YO! Hey you!
Since you have left Egypt, I have been telling you over and over again
how to live together, righteously.
Remember when I told you in no uncertain terms that ‘you should not
oppress the stranger, the orphan or the widow?’
Remember all those times I told you to create dignified means by which
people that have less can take care of themselves, like being able to go into
the vineyards of those who are prospering and take what they need to survive
and thrive, without fear? Remember all
those things that I have been telling you—if you do them, you are going to
create a kind, compassionate society in which even those with less can
experience some abundance. But if you
don’t, you are going to suffer and cause suffering. I have given you the tools, now you choose.”
message cannot be timelier than it is right now. In the past few months, as the country has
begun its efforts to rein in spending and states are trying to balance their
budgets, we have seen an alarming trend of proposed and real cuts that affect
the middle and lower classes, especially those who are most vulnerable:
seniors, children, and the poor. This
situation has hit home especially in the past month, as threats to our public
school system in Philadelphia become more and more real. This affects those of us who are line for
those schools with resources but even more those who are already underserved.
want to be clear that I understand in a difficult economy that sacrifices need
to be made. And I understand that it not
healthy or responsible for us to amass deficits that future generations will
have to contend with. That said, the
fact that the balancing of those budgets and the “tightening of the belt” seems
to automatically fall on the working class and on those who are most vulnerable
is deeply troubling and unacceptable— AND it is against the values and
instructions that our Torah outlines.
Buhukotai telechu, v’et mitzvotai tishm’ru va’asitem otam…” If you follow my paths, my instructions, they
will lead to blessing. What are those paths, those mitzvot that are outlined by
our discerning ancestors in the torah?
What are some of those ways in which we are instructed to create a
“You must not
ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you
mistreat them, I will heed their outcry.” (Exodus 22:21-22)
shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.”(Exodus 23:6)
“When you reap
the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your
field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your
vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave
them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.”(Leviticus 19:9-10
“When a stranger
resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to
you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers
in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
hallow the fiftieth year. Proclaim
release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each shall
return to his holding and each shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:10)
“Do not wrong
one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)
Torah is unequivocal when it speaks about the vision for society. Parshat Behukotai becomes an alarm or a
shofar blast, reminding us of the power of our choices. We can choose to continue to move down the
path we are on, of balancing our budgets on the backs of those who need the
most, but if we do, we should be warned: people will suffer, and because we are
connected to everyone else, we all suffer.
we can choose to move in a new direction, where our concerns for fiscal
responsibility are balanced with an ethos of compassion and caring, especially
for those who are most vulnerable. We we
can try to lessen the disparities between the most wealthy and the most
needy. We can try to address the system
causes of hunger and poverty and set up some basic security measures for all
people. And if we do, then people will thrive and then, we as a society can truly be an
am kedusha, a holy people.
1910, the Industrial Ladies Garment Union launched a 14-week strike on business
owners who were profiting off the backs of immigrant women and girls with low
wages and dangerous conditions. The
strikers eventually won some concessions from most of the business owners. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was among the
(Jewish) business owners who did not concede to workers’ demands. One year later, almost exactly 100 years ago
today, tragedy ensued with the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. On the eighth floor of a high rise building,
a fire ignited and spread to the ninth and tenth floor. Workers who were literally locked inside (as
it was the practice of the factory owners to keep doors locked and openings
inaccessible) fought to escape in elevators.
Many jumped out of windows, as the tallest ladder of the NY Fire company
reached only to the 6th floor.
In the end, the fire claimed the lives of 146 people—most of whom were
young, Jewish immigrant women.
This tragedy became a wake-up
call. The fire inspired a series of
regulations about worker safety and eventually laws guaranteeing worker rights,
including regulations about time-off and work-week structure. The tragedy was and is also a reminder of the
centrality of unions as a vehicle for workers to fight for their rights. If the strike of the year before had been
successful and the factory owners had been held accountable for their unholy
working environment, then conditions such as open doors and better fire escapes
would have been met and the story of the Triangle fire would not have had such
a tragic ending. As Melvyn Dubofsky
points out, since the national regulations have been in place, unions have been
a vehicle ensuring that businesses are implementing those regulations and
empowering working class people and public sector employees. Though like anything, unions are not perfect,
they have been and remain one of the ways to establish and ensure the dignity
of workers and of the workplace environment.
One hundred years later, the
centennial anniversary of the Shirtwaist Factory Fire – which is March 25—is an
opportunity to celebrate the courageous immigrant women and girls who fought
for their rights and died because they were not guaranteed them and to
acknowledge the historical connection between Jews and the labor movement.
One hundred years later, remembering
and memorializing this tragedy has become especially important as we witness
the attack by public officials on unions, the effort to curtail or take away
altogether the collective bargaining rights of unions, and the assault on
public sector employees, especially on teachers. We have seen this, of course, most
dramatically in Wisconsin, where public sector employees and allies of all
kinds have banded together to fight back against this vicious attack. But the undermining of unions is a national
concern, and we are beginning to see similar threats in Ohio, Indiana, and New
The Jewish connection to labor and
worker rights if of course not limited to the historic connection of Jewish
involvement in the labor movement. The
belief that employees have rights and should be conferred basic dignity finds
expression in our Torah. In Leviticus,
we read: “You shall not defraud your fellow…Do not hold back the wages of a
hired worker overnight.” In Deuteronomy,
the torah is clear: “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and
needy…Pay them their wages each day before sunset, for he is poor and sets his
heart on it.”
The Talmud goes further in
exploring rights for workers and Jewish law expands from there, affirming such
principles that wages must be sufficient and bring dignity to the worker and
that workers may band together for various purposes, and there must be
“Shabbat” – days of rest for workers. Jewish values such as the kavod/honor or dignity of all people,
the centrality of education and educators urge us to support public sector
employees in their fight to keep unions strong and central in the face of such
It is imperative that we in the
Jewish community draw upon our Jewish values to stand up against the attack on
unions. When we do, we will ensure that
the memories of those who perished one hundred years ago in the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory Fire will be for a blessing.
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El Madison spoke about this in his
February 21 statement at the Wisconsin capital.
For additional resources from Rabbi Biatch, www.rjrblog.blogspot.com.
By Kol Tzedek Member, Karen Lefkowitz, Reflection on Involvement with new
community organizing effort, POWER
Told 2/11/11 at Kol Tzedek
About a month and a half ago I was driving my daughter home
from dance class along 52nd St. when she noticed a line of people
standing outside a building. It was evening and already very dark out. She
asked me if I thought they were waiting for a soup kitchen. I said that seemed
The following week we were driving back again, and this week
the weather had turned really bitter cold, the wind was whipping and she saw
the line of people again. She asked again if I thought they were waiting for a
soup kitchen. The idea that these folks were out in the terrible weather,
waiting, hungry enough to need to stand in line on this very cold evening made
me so upset that I was nearly speechless. I guess I sputtered about how wrong
this was, that people in our city, so close to our neighborhood didn’t have
enough food so that they could stay home and eat. Then I realized I could say
more to her.
For the past several months I have been taking time, always
time away from my daughter, asking friends to watch her while I attend POWER
meetings. I’m a single working mom, and I don’t like to spend the time away
from her, and she really resents the time I give to this group. Also, it is a
little odd for me, since I do not think of myself as a person of great faith,
and I really don’t talk the “faith” language. But Rabbi Lauren had faith that
this was the beginning of an important political group and that our synagogue
could benefit in various ways (which other folks will describe) from our being
involved, so I made a commitment.
That cold dark night in the car with my daughter, I was
overwhelmingly grateful that I had gotten involved with POWER. I could validate my daughter’s observation
that there were hungry people standing in line, and that she was right to be
concerned about it. And I was able to tell her, “You know those meetings I go
to? Well this is what we are working on. We all think it is wrong that people
in our city are hungry, and we are doing something about it!”
It is very important for me as a mom to show my daughter
that I can take care of problems, and that her natural concern for others is
appropriate and does demand action. But it takes a broad swath of society to
make significant changes in entrenched social problems. An awful lot of people
from other faith organizations have joined with POWER, and more come to each
meeting. I wish you could see how many different regions of the city are
represented, and with that, different social classes, ages and traditions. I also invite you to see how quickly working
groups are formed and concerns get solidified and transformed into plans.
I hope for your own reasons that you will investigate this
movement and help Kol Tzedek to use its voice for justice.