Friday, December 14, 2018

Tender Threads Anchor Our Path (Vayigash 5779)

At times we wander aimlessly, but most often we walk with purpose. Leaving some place, heading to another. Or to boost our heart rate or lower our stress. To be by ourselves or to meet someone else. 

The Torah this week opens with a walk of purpose -- of approach and encounter. It occurs when Judah approaches the viceroy of Egypt who Judah does not recognize as his brother Joseph (yes, the same Joseph that Judah and their other brothers sold into slavery decades earlier). Their encounter with each other is dramatic and powerful. It is as if they were drawn inevitably toward reconciliation with each other by invisible threads of history, purpose, and family.

Those threads bring to mind author Anne Lamott's favorite story about the seemingly invisible threads that guide our lives. She heard the story on the radio about university research with adults who could not change direction, action, or focus. These subjects of the study had been unable to walk alone. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Quieting Our Assumptions (Vayeishev 5779)

More than 30 million people traveled through airports for Thanksgiving. Traveling to be with family has its challenges. Fictional books and movies, along with real life, remind us that big family gatherings can "breed festering emotional wounds" with one report finding three-quarters of us have at least one family member who annoys us. All of that -- along with my favorite airport story and this week's Torah portion -- came to mind when stuck in heavy SFO traffic dropping off some of our (delightful!) Thanksgiving guests. 

In the Torah narrative this week, the biblical Joseph (of technicolor dreamcoat fame) is sent out to find his brothers. His reunion with them ends very badly for him. Joseph's older brothers toss him into an empty pit, leaving him to die. Then they sell him into slavery and tell their father he was killed by a wild animal. That part of the Joseph tale is introduced with a verse, his brothers "saw [Joseph] from afar, but before he came close they conspired to kill him." (Genesis 37:18) Talk about "festering emotional wounds!"

I'll return to that verse in a moment. But first, my favorite airport story:

It is about a woman about to take a long flight. At an airport shop, she buys a book for the plane and a package of cookies. Putting them in her bag she heads toward her departure gate.  The lounge area is full so she is grateful to find two empty seats. One for her and the other for her stuff.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Be the Stranger in the Pick-up Truck (Vayetzei 5779)

As the week began on the Tuesday after Veteran's Day, we came to school with heavy concerns close to our hearts - in Israel - and close to our homes - in northern California. 

Close to our homes, the Butte County Camp Fire already had destroyed more than 7,500 structures, devastated 125,000 acres (an area about four times the size of San Francisco), and 42 lives lost. [Sadly, the fire has continued destroying lives, homes, and property.] 

Close to our hearts, there was death and destruction in Israel early this week when Hamas fired several hundred rockets into Israel from Gaza. Those rockets caused terrifying damage, many injuries, and one death. The rockets indiscriminately terrorized Israelis of all ages. In Ashkelon, on Israel's coast, a Hamas rocket killed a Palestinian man who was in Israel on a work permit that gave him permission to spend weeknights near his work in Israel. 

Close to our homes and close to our hearts: an individual in each place is linked, it seems to me, to this week's Torah portion. Close to our homes, it's fire-survivor, James Betts. Close to our hearts, it's rocket-victim, Mahmoud Abu Asabeh. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Grounded Resident or Alien Stranger: Reflection and Call to Action After Pittsburgh


On Monday at JCHS - Jewish Community High School of the Bay -  we reflected in a number of ways on the horrible tragedy in Pittsburgh. I am writing to share what I said at Monday’s school-wide gathering and to encourage you to support the Pittsburgh community of Jewish day schools (see link at the bottom). I hope you will join us in taking action to embrace them at this difficult time.

Since Saturday’s shooting, my JCHS colleagues and I are grateful for the many touching expressions of sympathy and support we’ve received from educators across the Bay Area. In that spirit, here is a picture from the makeshift memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue on Sunday as members of the Pittsburgh Muslim community step-up in support. (Photo by Alexandra Wimley, Post-Gazette.)

Here’s what I told JCHS students and educators on Monday:

This morning during Tefillah you had a chance to reflect individually or privately on the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh. We are making time now as a unified community to seek to understand, relate to, and stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community and Jewish communities everywhere.

What happened in Pittsburgh touches us deeply, close to home -- even at a distance of 2,500 miles. Some of us are feeling shaken or saddened. And some of us are not sure what to feel.

For many centuries now, the Jewish community has developed a well-exercised muscle for juggling tragedy and the life-affirming activities of daily life. We do that to ensure that daily life is not swallowed up by those who impose tragedy on our community, or by those who seek to extinguish the light of our community. We do that so that tragedy does not swallow our lives or our communities.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Folly of Imagining There's Only One Path (Noach 5779)

Tower of Babel by Dr. Seuss
This week JCHS welcomed undergraduate guests from Shalem College in Israel, whose motto is "leadership for Israel begins here." We enjoy our annual encounter with these students because, in a country where many college students specialize as undergrads, Shalem undergrads dedicate themselves to four years of conversation across the ages and disciplines. 

For them, “shalem” (lit. completeness) does not come from developing expertise in a single academic or professional discipline or following a single path, rather it comes from integrating diverse disciplines, being in conversation with a diversity of voices and perspectives. We love hearing that their JCHS visit is a highlight of their Bay Area tour because of the school community's vibrant, living laboratory of intellectual and Jewish pluralism. 

All of that is amplified by an infamous story in this week's Torah portion: The Tower of Babel. Its infamy always has intrigued me because the Tower could easily have been swallowed up by the even more famous introductory story this week's Torah portion: Noah and the Flood. Torah's Noah narrative is told over four full chapters with lots of detail and drama. By comparison, the Tower tale uses a mere nine verses. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Wisdom, Scrutiny, Insight: How We See Ourselves and Others (High Holy Days and Ha'azinu 5779)

This post comes just after Yom Kippur in the midst of the Jewish season of profound introspection and reflection. This season demands courage to admit our mistakes. And strength to commit ourselves to a better way of doing things, in the new year.

But courage and strength mean nothing if we are unable to see the impact of our behavior on others or let ourselves be blinded by superficial appearances or if we simply refuse to look deeply at what motivates our conduct. All that requires clarity and authenticity.

In this weeks Torah portion, remarkable in part because it is composed almost entirely as a poem, suggests a formula for avoiding those errors in vision and authenticity. When speaking about the failings of the ancient enemies of Israel, Torah speaks not of their physical weakness or ineptitude, but rather their failures of vision, of not being able to see, truly see what was in front of them.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Mastering Our Impulses: Not Being Mastered By Them (Vayeilech and Yom Kippur 5779)

A panel from The Beat Within (TBW) annually presents to the school community at Jewish Community High School (JCHS) during the Jewish High Holy Day season when our minds are directed toward deep self-reflection and assessment. It is a time of judging our behaviors in order to return to the highest goals we have for ourselves. 

Since 1996 TBW has been giving incarcerated youth the encouragement and opportunities to share and publish their art, ideas, and life experiences. It also is the name of its publication of arts and writing from inside the juvenile justice system. TBW is a powerful bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive lives. They have learned to master their impulses rather than having their impulses master them. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Power of Community: Invisible Lines of Connection (Nitzavim 5778 and Rosh Hashanah 5779)

A friend likes to picnic on Shabbat in the Shakespeare Garden of Golden Gate Park. She fills a picnic basket on Friday afternoon and sets it under a stone bench in the garden. That way the basket is waiting for her the next day as she finishes a long Shabbat morning stroll through the park.    

Recently, my friend was surprised to see an elderly woman standing on the grass in the Shakespeare Garden with a fishing rod. The old woman was casting her fishing line across the grass. Over and over again the woman cast her line. But the woman seemed more and more frustrated each time there was nothing on her line.  

My friend watched the old woman for a while. How sad, thought my friend. It seemed as if the poor woman was trying really to catch fish on the grass! My friend asked the old woman, “Fishing on the grass?” 

Friday, August 31, 2018

One Person Makes a Huge Difference on the Path (Ki Tavo 5778)

Mahalia Jackson at March on Washington August 28, 1963
Photo by Bob Parent, Getty Images
This week marks the 55th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington -- with 250,000 participants it was the largest political rally for human rights in American history. One of the most memorable and moving moments from that day was Martin Luther King Jr’s I have a dream speech.

But today it is not King's words themselves that move me. Rather it is how one person by encouraging King to speak those words links up with an evocative passage in this week's Torah portion and to how one person's caring regard for an orphaned family made it possible to sustain Jewish life in a small community for generations. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Returning Home: First Day of School (Ki Teitzei 5778)

The tremendous paired excitement and anxiety of the first day of school seemingly is seemingly predicted in the seasonal alignment of this week's Torah portion and next week's. The name of this week’s portion is Ki Teitzei, literally "when you go out" and next week's is Ki Tavo, literally "when you enter" or "when you return." The start of a new school year pivots from going out to distant places toward entering back or returning home. 

At JCHS this week, just before I welcomed students back from summer, the student body president encouraged them to appreciate and celebrate the small treasures that can be found every day taking the opportunities available to learn and to grow. Her encouragement to seek out the sometimes hidden treasures brought to mind a folktale about Reb Izzy of Krakow.* 

Reb Izzy lived in a very small home. He always dreamt of something bigger, grander. Reb Izzy's house was so small . . . 

How small was it?