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Meeting Ranya Kelly for the first time you would never guess that this quiet petite woman once brought a major corporation to its knees in the city of Denver. She never intended to be a controversial celebrity but, when you get to know her you will find that Ranya never backs away from a fight when she is in the right.
Several years ago she found herself in need of a good sized box to send out a gift. She went in back of a strip mall store that sold shoes to find such a box but, when she opened the dumpster, found 500 pair of brand new shoes instead. The store, and its parent company, had a policy to discard merchandise that did not sell after a certain amount of time.
Ranya took the shoes home and invited her family and friends to take what they wanted. But she still had hundreds of pairs of shoes left – and would not throw them out. She ended up driving to a homeless shelter to donate the shoes. There, she had an epiphany. As she put it, “I never knew about the shelters or the people who really needed anything. I grew up in an upper middle class family. I was never involved with poor people. There was a pregnant woman standing in the doorway, her pants dragging on the floor. She had a two or three year old in tow and had not shoes. It was the middle of January. I just couldn’t comprehend that somebody didn’t have a pair of shoes when I had just found 500 pair.”
Ranya went back to that dumpster and began collecting discarded shoes. She was caught, almost arrested for theft and almost sued. When they could not stop her the store began shredding the shoes to stop her.
Finally, after the press got involved and both sides began talking Ranya was allowed to continue. Today, over one million shoes later, she has created an organization that brings stores which habitually discard unsold merchandise together with people who are in need. Ranya’s organization, the Redistribution Center, channels millions of dollar’s worth of materials every year.
I have known Ranya for more than twenty years and have facilitated redistribution programs in New Jersey, Mississippi and Kentucky. Opening the trucks and watching our “clients” see what is inside brings tears to our volunteer eyes. I remember one director of a program in Newark, New Jersey blessing us all – reminding us again and again how much life we were spreading around.
And sometimes I cry as well. In part I cry because I don’t realize how much a brand new pair of jeans means to a Mississippi teen who has to wear torn sweatpants because even now, years after Hurricane Katrina, the family can’t afford clothing. I cry because a Kentucky schoolchild will have a new backpack instead of a plastic garbage bag for her school supplies.
And I cry because as sensitized as I have become to the needs around us, I still live in an upper class community known for its wealth and high educational standards. I remember quite clearly when I approached a local minister to co-sponsor Ranya where we would be able to bring thousands of dollars of new clothing and household goods for those in need. He said, “There are no poor people in our town.”
For those of you who live in north/central Jersey: Ranya will be here in May – come and find out about a truly saintly woman, and help fix the world.
This week’s Torah portion commands us to swear off cheeseburgers. Well not exactly. It was the rabbis that created the prohibition against mixing meat and milk products, but the foundation of the matter is indeed found in the Torah. Parshat Kee Tisa contains one of three instances in which the Bible warns us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
To understand the rationale behind the ‘cheeseburger clause’, we may have to go back to the Book of Genesis. When Jacob, upon re-entering the Land of Israel after a prolonged absence, is brought word that his brother Esau is rapidly approaching accompanied by a band of 400 armed men, he is “greatly afraid and distressed”. The Torah records his apprehension in a heart-rending prayer in which he turns to God and begs to be delivered “from the hand of Esau … lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children”. Our forefather’s greatest fear is that mother and child be killed together.
Another biblical source that highlights the same underlying sensitivity is found in the prophet Hoshea. In describing the horrors and wanton destruction brought about by war, he depicts it as a time “when the mothers were dashed to pieces with their young”.
The Bible is keenly concerned to avoid the terrible tragedy feared by Ya’acov and described by Hoshea, and its spreads forth its mercy not only upon human beings but upon animals as well. The Book of Leviticus warns “whether it be a cow or a ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day”. In addition, the Book of Deuteronomy warns against plucking a mother bird from her nest together with her young. Rather we are commanded to send away the mother bird guarding her nest before one takes the eggs or the chicks. If you must take the young, then the mother bird is to be spared.
The illustrious Maimonides pinpoints the focus of the Torah’s concern in both these cases on the suffering of the mother, who is forced to witness the demise of her progeny: He explains in his Guide to the Perplexed that “the prohibition of slaughtering the mother and her offspring on the same day is a safeguard, lest one come to kill the offspring in front of its mother”. Similarly, in the case of the commandment to send away the mother bird guarding her nest before one takes the eggs or the chicks, he writes, “by doing so, her anguish is minimized when the eggs and chicks are taken away”.
However, Maimonides’ predecessor, the exegete and philosopher Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, takes a slightly different tack. The objective, he seems to opine, is not so much to limit the emotional pain experienced by the mother bird as it is to prevent the development of moral callousness in the hearts and psyches of human beings.
That being the case, he connects the prohibition in this week’s Torah reading against seething a calf in its mother’s milk to this commandment concerning the mother bird. Both, as well as the prohibition against slaughtering the mother and its young on the same day, are fences against human cruelty. What could be more symbolic of the worst sort of cruelty than to take the mother’s milk that was created to nurture and nourish the young animal, and to use it as an instrument of the youngster’s destruction? What greater perversion could there be of the beneficent ways of the merciful God? As such, this precept comes to uplift and to sensitize, serving as another bulwark against the malignant cancer of callousness that is so likely to spread in the human soul as we engage in the slaughter of animals and the preparation of their flesh for our food.
No wonder, then, that our tradition built once fence after another, mandating the complete separation of meat and milk, in an effort to keep us forever distant from the cruelty of heart that would turn life giving milk into an agent of death. Yes indeed, there is much more to the great American cheeseburger than meets the eye.
Do you want to be happy?
Then here’s my advice: don’t try to be happy.
That idea comes from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He tells us that significant research suggests that many of the ways we try to get happy (“Set a goal! Think positive thoughts! Imagine the life you want!”) are actually counter-productive.
Instead, he argues, we should realize that we may not achieve our goals, that negative thoughts and feelings are part of life, and that scary things happen.
…t]he notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong. Or, to quote [philosopher Alan] Watts, “when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float,” and that “insecurity is the result of trying to be secure…” (8)
He calls this method “the backwards law,” and it’s a perfect message for Purim. which is the day when “everything gets turned upside down.”
On one hand, Purim is clearly a fun holiday. We wear masks and costumes. We hold parties. We have carnivals and celebrations. We let our hair out.
One the other hand, the Purim story itself is filled with tremendous anxiety and uncertainty. Will Esther be brave enough to speak to King Ahashuerus, even though it might mean she’d be killed? What would have happened if Mordechai hadn’t overheard the plot to kill the king, or if his courtiers hadn’t realized that Mordechai needed to be rewarded? Most of all, will the Jews survive Haman’s murderous plot?
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the word “Purim” comes from the word “pur,” meaning “lot” — as in “lottery.” Purim, at its core, reminds us that life is uncertain, scary and often gets turned upside-down.
Yet it’s that very lack of security that can lead us to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. As Burkeman explains,
…[t]o seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life,” [Alan] Watts writes, “I am wanting to be separate from life.” Which brings us to the crux of the matter: it is because we want to feel secure that we build up the fortifications of ego, in order to defend ourselves, but it is those very fortifications that create the feeling of insecurity…
“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing,” concludes Watts. “To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest, in which everyone is taut as a drum as as purple as a beet.” Even if we temporarily and partially achieve the feeling of security, he adds, it doesn’t feel good…”We discover [not only] that there is no safery, [and] that seeking it is painful, [but] that when we imagine we have found it, we don’t like it.” (146-147)
Ultimately, Purim reminds us that we don’t have complete control over our lives, and in fact, trying to desperately hold onto safety makes us deeply unhappy, since we are not truly living life to its fullest. Instead, if we can embrace the fact that life can be scary and unpredictable, we can then be totally present in moments of joy.
In other words, to truly be happy, we need to turn our ideas of happiness upside-down.
John Lennon once wrote in lyrical desperation, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Without any conscious intention, I woke on this morning before Purim, with Lennon’s aching voice circling my spirit. I smiled a teary grin, as I sang to myself, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.” Lennon’s song bemoaned that it felt impossible for him to discern the authentic truth through the rhetoric of political chatter and its associated punditry.
And that is all I want. Just give me the truth. The air waves are full of so much noise. The more black and white our politicians try to paint it, the more grey it all feels to me.
I love Israel. I stand for Israel. Please excuse the drama when I say that I would die for Israel. I believe that Jews only live with a measure of comfort in the Diaspora because of the fact that Israel exists. And Israel cannot merely exist. Israel must thrive and be strong.
And, I love the United States of America. Despite our profound societal problems, I feel privileged to live here. I don’t take the breadth of my rights for granted. Even though I want so much more to be better here, I believe that we are the shining city on the hill.
What’s the truth for me? The truth is that I was angry at Prime Minister Netanyahu for coming to speak in the greatest auditorium in the world without an invitation from the US President. I believe he acted disrespectfully to the Office of the President. I believe that it is bad form to use the US Congress as a political tool and campaign stop just two weeks before an Israeli election. I believe that the politics of this all might have, in fact, obscured the grave and serious facts about the real issue at hand: Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And finally, I think the speech created a potential for greater partisan fissure, when for most of our recent history, the support of Israel has been an agreed upon partisan issue. That is why congress shows up in such great numbers to the AIPAC Policy Conference annually. I am moved by their attendance every year, both Democrats and Republicans.
What is the truth for me? Once the Prime Minister was intent on speaking, I lobbied in every way possible for every member of congress to show up. Israel is too important for anyone to misinterpret a boycott of a political situation for a boycott of Israel herself. Too many of my own congregants were pointing to anti-Semitism when I believe the truth was more about politics than it was about being against Jews and our Homeland.
What is the truth? The truth is that Prime Minister Netanyahu brought me to tears. I love Israel and believe that Iran has evil intentions. I believe Iran when its leaders say they want to wipe Israel and Jews off the map. I believe in “Never Again” because too many of my own family members were wiped out by the Nazis. I believe that we can’t be innocent or foolish in our assessments of Iran and its ruthless leaders. I fear for Jewish safety.
What is the truth? The truth is that I was moved to tears because of my love for Israel and I also felt, at the same time, the nagging feeling of being manipulated by political theater. I wish that the leaders of the lands I love the most would spend their time not giving speeches, but instead strategizing in Situation Rooms, every scenario possible towards mitigating the Iran problem. Iran’s intentions were made loud and clear yesterday. But very few options were given. War might be the only option, but the drumbeat towards conflict should be accompanied with every other alternative possible. Our lives are worth too much now….as much before a conflict as they would be after such an event.
What is the truth? The truth is that we are frightened and we have to be very careful not to be paralyzed by our fear. It is up to our political leaders to just give us the truth. Not their nuanced versions of narrative to help build either of their political resumes. But a line of reasoning which binds us together as Jews and Americans towards a course of survival and flourishing. I have come to the point where I vote Jewish first. I just pray that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu care as much about our survival as they do about their ownership of power and political legacies. And perhaps they should spend more time hearing and learning from one another and less time making political theater…..all of which makes the truth so much tougher to discern.
Tonight we are told to don masks and disguises to celebrate Purim. We add layers of truth and dare by virtue of our celebration. When the raucous Purim parties end we will arrive home sweaty with joy. The first thing we will want to do is rip off our costumes. We will want to stop pretending. We will want to be us again. We will look in the mirror and see the truth of who we are without façade.
When the holiday of masks and disguises is over, once again, we will sing, “All I want is the truth, man. Just gimme some truth.”
If I close my eyes and sit quietly, I can still picture the expression on her face. My breath catches in my throat. I remember the tiny sob that escaped as I tried to say, “Amen.”
Two weeks ago, I experienced a spiritually charged moment in synagogue. In my experience, that’s pretty rare. Like many people I know, I enjoy the social aspect of attending synagogue and endure the lengthy services and sermons. I feel closer to God in silent mediation.
However, on the morning of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah, every word of the morning prayers seemed to be infused with divine energy. Dalia has autism and is non-verbal; she cannot communicate with words what this moment meant to her. Still, her excitement was palpable throughout the service. It was unlike any Bat Mitzvah and just like every Bat Mitzvah I’ve attended, only more so: more joy, more crying, more coming together as one community.
Dalia’s mother, Rebecca, and I forged a friendship when she approached me more than a year ago. She thought my input both as a mother and rabbi would help her as she designed a ceremony that would accommodate her daughter’s special needs. I’ll never forget our first lunch meeting; Rebecca brought a legal pad filled with notes and questions that she had essentially already answered. I reassured her that she knew, better than anyone, what Dalia could learn and achieve.
Two weeks ago, after countless hours of preparation and endless attention to detail, including several rehearsals, Dalia showed just what she was capable of doing. Using her communication device that was programmed with visual supports/prayers from Gateways’ resources and wired to the synagogue’s sound system, Dalia sang the blessings before and after she signed the Shema as her Torah reading: “Praised are you, God, Giver of the Torah.” The congregation of more than 150 honored guests answered, “Amen.”
As a mother, I know what this rite of passage meant to Rebecca. We both want our children to feel they have a place in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. As a teacher, I share Rebecca’s belief that “kids with autism are so capable, it just takes time and patience to help them succeed in their own way.” Each of us strives to fulfill the biblical instruction, “Teach a child according to her path; she will not swerve from it even in old age.” (Proverbs 22:6)
One reason Rebecca encouraged media coverage of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah is she hopes that parents of children with autism who Google “autism” and “bat mitzvah” will see Dalia, will see what can be possible for their children to accomplish.
I also have hopes. I hope to see Dalia, and other kids with autism, in our synagogues all the time. I hope to see articles about their b’nai mitzvah in my Facebook newsfeed all year, not only during Jewish Disability Awareness Month. I hope to experience more joy, and more crying, as each child finds his or her path to Torah.
When I think of the Purim holiday, I tend to think of noise-making, carnivals, costumes, and cookies. It was definitely one of the more fun Jewish holidays when I was a kid. But, as an adult who has actually read the Book of Esther, I realize that there are many parts of the story that are not so kid-friendly.
1. While I did dress up as Queen Esther for at least one Purim carnival as a child, it turns out that the story does not treat women well. Ahasheurus’ first wife, Vashti, was asked to parade naked in front of the king and his friends. She refused, and was replaced as Queen because of her unwillingness to appear nude before a group of drunken men. It was Esther, a woman who was willing to do this, who was rewarded by the King and became a hero of Jewish tradition. Throughout the text, there are several troubling details about how women are treated throughout the story, including in the king’s harem, where women were kept as concubines whose role it was to please the king.
2. There is a lot of murder in this story. The Jews felt threatened during the story until thanks to Esther, the king decided to save the Jews. The catch was that the decree to kill the Jews could not be reversed, so the king instead allowed the Jews to defend themselves. The oppressed (Jews) become the oppressor, killing not only their attackers and the sons of Haman, but also 75,000 Persians. Personally, I find it hard to claim that murdering more than 75,000 people was self-defense.
3. Revenge is a powerful theme associated with the Purim holiday. On the Shabbat prior to Purim, the traditional Torah reading is the story of the defeat of Amalek. The Bible speaks of the Amalekites as cruel people, and thus the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Amalekites. The connection to Purim is that its villain, Haman, is said to be a descendant of the Amalekites. Thus, when one reads about wiping out the Amalekites and then reads about the Jews committing murder at the end of the book of Esther, one might conclude that violence and revenge are celebrated in these texts.
4. Drunkenness is celebrated on Purim. In the Talmud, it says that one should drink to the point where he no longer can distinguish between the bad guy (Haman) and the good guy (Mordechai). This is clearly an adult angle of the holiday.
5. And remember those good cookies? Hamantaschen! I always learned the three-cornered cookies were representative of Haman’s hat or his ears. It turns out that they may more closely resemble female genitals. Lilith Magazine’s Rabbi Susan Schnur writes:
So … . can I prove that hamantaschen are contemporary sacred vulva cakes? No. But it certainly makes academic and gut sense to me: that parthenogenetic (self-fertilizing) hamantaschen—pubic triangles traditionally filled with black seeds—are pre-spring, full-moon fertility cookies, suggesting the potency of female generative power, and heralding women’s and the Earth’s seasonally awakening creativity.
What does all of this mean? Should we skip the Purim fun for kids just because the holiday has adult themes as well – and in some parts, disturbing messages? I don’t think so. I think it’s important to celebrate the holiday across the ages. And, then, my hope is that every child grows up and wants to learn the “rest of the story” because those details are fascinating and important as well. They shed light on the biblical authors and their worldview.
On Friday, Leonard Nimoy, an actor most famed for his role in a science-fiction television show, died.
Since then, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with tributes to him. This actor, who, although he also had some success in directing film, photography, writing of various sorts, and other television and film work, is likely to have his most enduring work be his portrayal of an alien in a science fiction series. And, despite the fact that television is not “serious” in the way that doctors saving lives are, or politicians when they can bring themselves to pass legislation can feed the hungry or bring justice to millions—Nimoy’s life’s work, being an alien—a role he first struggled against, and then came to accept—was also a form of greatness.
When I was very young, I used to watch reruns of the original Star Trek with my father, and I was lucky enough to also have caught the animated series on television. In that world, racial diversity was a matter of course, even while the series creators’ failed to pay Nichelle Nichols the same wage that the other actors received, and initially failing to include George Takei and Nichols in the animated show’s casting. Nimoy was the one who stood up for them in both cases, insisting on her salary being equivalent (in the 60’s!), and on including both her and Takei in the series, insisting on their importance as proof of diversity in the 23rd century.
Aside from the commitment Nimoy had to the values of the show in his life—values that he demonstrated in his Jewish commitments, including his work for peace in Israel, his feminism, and his commitment to diversity throughout his life—it was nevertheless his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that is behind the outpouring of love for his memory from those of us who never knew him as a person.
Plenty of people have written about how Spock’s outsider-ness gave them hope, allowed them to be okay with being a geek. Me, too. Spock was my hero. Not just because he was physically different, with his pointy ears and green blood, someone who looked at the other kids from the outside and longed to join them but didn’t really understand their interests or fit in—but he managed nevertheless to be buddies with the irascible McCoy and the very normal, sporty, Kirk.
Spock was gently teased by his friends for not having emotions – but it was clear that he DID have them. As a half-Vulcan, he had been raised to value reason, but his internal struggle was not to have emotions, it was to understand them and have them serve reason. And they did. It was his refrain of “fascinating,” that underlined the ethos of Star Trek—differences, whether of the skin or the heart, were of interest, to be sought and understood. One of my favorite episodes, The Devil in the Dark, has Spock mind-meld with essentially a living rock—the Horta. The episode starts with the assumption that it is dangerous and violent, and only Spock’s intervention allows them to ultimately understand the real issue—that the Horta is a rational creature protecting her young.
Throughout the years of the show and the films, these values showed through: he was fascinated by not only human reactions, but by those of all the peoples that they encountered. His friendships with Kirk and McCoy were deep and lasting—full of humor, in which the character of Spock made himself the knowing straight man—and full of love.
IRL, we know that in fact, reason can’t exist without emotion: we have a good bit of accumulated data that shows that people whose brains are damaged in a particular way so as to impair their emotions are unable to make choices because they cannot weigh one thing against another. Values, it turns out, require emotions to drive them. This is the reason that Star Trek remains so potent despite its green scantily dressed alien ladies and highly amusing production values: it gives us hope for ourselves, hope for a future in which we can look at our differences and say, fascinating.
We loved Spock because, in a way, all of us are Spock. We fail to understand the people around us, struggle to fit in, strive to know ourselves and often fail to see that all the things we fight so hard against are part of what make us loveable. We hope that our differences will make us useful to someone, that some gift of ours will be valued. In his portrayal of the lonely alien who fits in nowhere- Nimoy brought the best of himself, and his values, and gave them to us. Thank you Mr. Spock, and thank you, Rav Nimoy. Because that’s Torah.
As has been said by a number of quicker people than me: We are, and always will be, your fans.
I have been thinking a lot again recently about the correspondence between one of the great Orthodox luminaries of the 20th century, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg z”l and Professor Samuel Atlas z”l, a leading thinker of his time at Hebrew Union College, the flagship academy of Reform Judaism. In particular, one line from a letter Rabbi Weinberg wrote to Professor Atlas in 1957 has provoked much thought for me:
“I see that in the end there will be a split in the body of the nation.”
Rabbi Weinberg was referencing an upcoming Congress for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in which there was great controversy over who was or was not invited. In the letter Rabbi Weinberg makes note that the Haredi community both simultaneously poured fury on those who chose to participate and were furious more Haredi rabbis were not invited to participate. It is in that context that he makes his stark and devastating prediction that there will indeed be a split in the Jewish people.
Was he right? If so, where are the fault lines in that split?
Much has been written about various divides within the Jewish community. There are the well known denominational divisions between the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Orthodox. There are the differences between historic ethnic communities; Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Persians and Yemenites, Bukharians and Syrians. Perhaps less well known in larger audiences are the current disputes within Orthodoxy between various sectors, left and right; Modern, Centrist, Open, Yeshivish and Chassidish.
Yet, what if the split Rabbi Weinberg predicted would come was not a split along denominational lines or ethnic communities or even something internally within Orthodoxy but was a meta-divide happening across the entire spectrum of those people who are committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity? (A separate but important conversation is the place of the large and growing percentage of Jews who are opting out of the Jewish community entirely.)
I recently attended and presented at Limmud New York for the first time. I have participated and presented at two other Limmud conferences but had not had the chance prior to attend the New York Limmud. Throughout the Shabbat and weekend in the hotel surrounded by hundreds of Jews from all backgrounds, all types of Jewish practice and Jewish ways of living, it occurred to me that the split Rabbi Weinberg was so afraid of was a split between what I am calling the maximalists and the minimalists.
The maximalists are those people who seek to maximize their definition of the Jewish people. They seek to engage in conversation and dialogue with as many Jews as possible and be part of the broadest Jewish community (see this thought-provoking article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo on a related topic from 2014). The minimalists are those people who seek to narrow the definition of the Jewish people to the most particular definitions of Jewishness. They seek to maintain a Jewish community that is as homogeneous as possible.
Minimalists and maximalists transcend denominational, ethnic and ideological lines. There can be Orthodox maximalists and Reform minimalists and vice versa. At the most recent Limmud NY weekend one could find Jews in payos and bekishes and Jews with nose rings and tattoos. This dynamic is not one concerned with theological difference or denominational integrity but rather about one’s outlook on Jewish peoplehood.
When one conceives of an impending split in these terms one can see two vibrant but distinct communities evolving. On one hand there is the community of Jews who attempt to learn from each other, share in Torah study and build bridges to each other while on the other hand there are micro-communities within a larger community of Jews who value ideological purity and communal conformity above all else. Both of these visions of the Jewish people are thriving. Both are competing for the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in reflecting on his career as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in 2013 published a pamphlet entitled A Judaism Engaged With The World and in it he lays forth the powerful idea that:
“In the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.”
Rabbi Sacks powerfully articulates in this pamphlet an Orthodox approach to a maximalist Jewish community. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks continues to be an inspiring figure for this approach. The language he uses to express his ideas is an Orthodox language, the ideas are rooted in Orthodoxy and this pamphlet would look different if it was written by a Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi. This is because, as said earlier, the divide between the minimalists and the maximalists is not a denominational divide. There are Orthodox maximalists, like Rabbi Sacks, just as there are Orthodox minimalists. So too, there are Conservative maximalists and Conservative minimalists.
In this era of two competing trends for the Jewish people, let us commit ourselves to the trend of Jewish maximalism so that we will find “our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.” We cannot decide for others what kind of Jewish community they seek to create. We cannot prevent others from isolating and presenting narrower and narrower definitions of who is in and who is out. However, what we can do is demonstrate the joy of a Jewish people that is broad and diverse, that welcomes the many and learns, celebrates and lives together. If we do so in a compelling fashion, perhaps and just perhaps, we can maintain a single Jewish people into the future.
This week our Torah portion (Tetzaveh) will open commanding the Israelites to “light lamps that will burn day into night and night into day,” eternal lights. If I read our sacred mythology as Jung would read a dream, every object is the dreamer—me/us, and so I wonder what it is to be a flame always burning. A lamp generates heat and light—energy. What might my role be as a ready source of power maintained in a perpetual state of warmth and illumination?
The Book of Proverbs teaches: “The human soul is the lamp of the Lord.” Does this means that we have the capacity to light God’s way, or, even more significantly, to light God’s fire, warming God’s heart, arousing God’s creative and sustaining impulse? To be a lamp of the Lord suggests that I am empowered to fashion myself as a medium of divine accomplishment. Perhaps I have what it takes to nurture God in God’s work. Perhaps God welcomes, or even needs, my participation. If my soul is a flame fueling God’s spiritual irrigation of the world, then keeping my wick wet and my fire burning gives me agency in the outcome of it all, and agency give me hope in the face of the very real darkness that exists.
I like to imagine a circuit of energy that connects me to my Creator in a give and take that quickens the flow between us. Our relationship is in that flow. God streams spiritual light into the world on what the Zohar calls a River of Light. God’s light imbues all I encounter with a vitality that has the potential to transform the quality of my life and all life. Our mystical tradition teaches that it is our human work to discover and release the sparks of godliness embedded in Creation so that they fly free, revealed. Affected by God’s light as I encounter it in the world, I can be moved to raise my behavior in the manner that we call “mitzvah,” acting with awareness and appreciation. In turn, God is gratified by all that I notice and honor, and God’s desire is stimulated so that She overflows Her bounty yet again and more light flows from Eden.
I even like to imagine that, as a lamp to the Lord, my dedicated attention to particular mitzvot can shine light on specific needs in our world, inspiring God’s empathy to express itself in ways that stream divine grace into those suffering sectors.
Our Torah portion calls for “pure oil pressed from olives” to fuel the eternal light. Proverbs also teaches that “mitzvot are a lamp and Torah is light.” The Midrash says that we fuel the wicks with which we warm and ignite God, and light Her way, with a purity of action pressed from us like oil is pressed from olives. Pressing ourselves, we put pressure on ourselves to continuously behave in ways that respect all inhabitants of the earth and all that we borrow from God’s Creation. Our mitzvot bring light to the world directly, of course, making it a better place, but through this lens acts of goodness also empower us to affect God, increase God’s light and the way in which it shines upon us.
God’s job is to perpetually renew the act of Creation, ours is to perpetually light God’s fire. Maybe that’s what it means to partner with God creating our world.
Note: This post is inspired by a teaching offered by Rabbi Sara Leah Schely on the occasion of the end of her year of mourning for her mother, may her memory be a blessing.
Growing up I had fond respect for the senior rabbi of my congregation. I learned much from him, but I never truly connected with him on a personal level. Other rabbis around town were the ones with whom I had more meaningful discussions and the rabbis I would later point to as influences for my own path toward the rabbinate.
I was thinking about this recently when I was asked what a successful rabbi looks like in the 21st century. Certainly, rabbis today must be intelligent, engaging, personable and funny. That hasn’t changed since the time of the Mishnah. The questioner found my response intriguing when I included that a successful rabbi today watches popular television shows and goes to the multiplex to see the latest movies everyone’s talking about. What did I mean by that?
Pop culture unites us. An office environment in which both the rank and file employees as well as the boss not only watch the same television shows but also gather around the water cooler (or Keurig) to discuss them the following day will enjoy a camaraderie that leads to more collaboration and productivity. A school teacher who can engage her students by discussing the latest trends in Hollywood will earn their respect and show she is able to talk to them about their interests. A politician who doesn’t only talk to his constituents about politics, but also connects by talking about the latest sports story will remove the barriers that often exist.
So too it is with rabbis, or any religious leader for that matter. I’m not suggesting rabbis should ease up on their scholarship or reference jokes from How I Met Your Mother in all their sermons. Rather, in the 21st century I think people are looking to connect with their spiritual leaders through different access points. A generation ago if people felt their rabbi was there for them in their time of need or was a kind presence during a family celebration, then that was enough. Today, rabbis score points if they can connect to the teenage youth group by discussing the latest Twilight movie or recount the best highlight from that morning’s Top Ten on SportsCenter. If they open a sermon with a reference to last week’s episode of Homeland, they will grab everyone’s attention.
When people say they love how easy it is to connect with their rabbi, they don’t just mean that “rabbis are just like us” in an Us Weekly sort of way. Rather, they appreciate how their rabbi is able to connect a message – ethical, spiritual, historical, ritual, etc. – to pop culture. A few years ago, together with an Orthodox rabbinic colleague, I created PopJewish.com. The focus of this blog was to give rabbis a forum to connect Jewish teachings with the pop culture of the day. Essentially, it takes what people are talking about anyway and brings in the Jewish message.
The times when a rabbi wasn’t considered a regular person who took out the garbage, had cereal for breakfast or binge watched an entire season of House of Cards are over. There might be some negatives to rabbis letting their guard down and schmoozing with congregants about a mindless fiction book they just downloaded to their Kindle or what they thought of the Oscars last week, but ultimately it makes us more human and more relatable. And that’s a good thing.