Friday, January 5, 2018

Our Most Precious Relationships and Places (Shemot 5778)

Last week, during winter break, we were in Israel and I spent a few afternoons in the Jerusalem neighborhood where I lived 25 years ago. Jerusalem - the place and the relationships nourished there - is still on my mind this week. Inspired by Jerusalem, this week's dvar Torah about the places and people most precious to us is in three parts.

Part 1: When I was living in Jerusalem, the (then 30-year old) comedian Jon Stewart would tell a joke about the intensity of claims to Jerusalem. "Israel is a tiny, tiny country. Yet every monotheistic religion began in Israel. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all began in Israel. All began in Jerusalem. All began within like a two block radius of each other. You know what this means? It means Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses all went to the same high school!" Stewart would get a lot of laughs - precisely because it is so untrue as the three lived several centuries apart and neither Moses nor Muhammad ever lived in Jerusalem. 

Part 2: There is a Jewish folktale about land claims. One version of this story* tells it in the name of Reb Chaim ben Isaac of Volozhin (18th century Lithuania). As head of the local rabbinical court, Reb Chaim presided over a dispute on a single parcel of land. Two men each claimed the land belonged exclusively to him. These men were obstinate. They refused any offer of compromise or resolution. Each wanted only one thing - to validate their exclusive claim to the disputed land. After listening patiently to the men, Reb Chaim asked to go to the parcel under dispute.

Together they went. At the parcel, Reb Chaim bent down and placed his ear directly on the ground. You know that expression "put your ear to the ground"? That's just what he did. As if listening to the ground. After a few minutes, Reb Chaim stood up. He said, "Gentlemen, I wanted to hear what the actual ground had to say about your disagreement. You know what the land said?"

Reb Chaim paused. "The land said, 'Why are they fighting over me?!? The land does not belong to them. In fact, they actually belong to the land.” 

For me, the deeper truth is that the talking land of this story is only partially correct. For me, our most precious relationships with people and places depend on mutuality -- that we experience both holding and belonging. 

Part 3 - A familiar passage from this week's Torah narrative hints at a five-part framework for developing relationships enriched through that type of mutuality. The passage describes Moses encounter with the "burning bush." A different element of the framework, it seems to me, is found in the opening verses of this passage.  

The first element is empathyAfter Moses' early years that begin the Torah portion, he grows up to become a shepherd. (Exodus 3:1) Shepherds are famous for their empathy. Their success depends on the extent to which they can understand the instincts and feelings of other living things and protect those who are most vulnerable.  

The second element is wonder. While tending his flock one day Moses encounters the phenomenon of a bush that's on fire but is not consumed by the fire. (Exodus 3:2) Presumably, other shepherds could have seen this, but only Moses pauses to take in the wonder of it. Only Moses brings a sense of curiosity to his wilderness experience. (Exodus 3.3) 

The third element is being present. The passage continues with God calling out to Moses from the midst of the bush. Hearing that call Moses has a unique reply, "Here I am." (Exodus 3:4) Even before he can understand it, there is nothing casual about this encounter for Moses. He is completely mindful and present. 

The fourth element is authenticity. God asks Moses to take off his sandals. (Exodus 3:5) To stand directly on the ground with nothing external, not even his sandals, mediating Moses experience of the land. His bare-feet can directly feel the land, connect to it. 

The fifth element is humility. As the conversation between Moses and God begins, Moses hides his face. (Exodus 3:6) Moses demonstrates a deep awareness of his place in the world. His ego is not inflated by experiencing the divine. Rather, he keeps his ego and sense of perspective respectfully in place.

It seems to me these are the five essential elements for nurturing relationships with the people and places that are most important to us. At JCHS, for example, we use these elements toward building a school community where every student feels as if they belong and each student feels as if the school belongs to them. 

Those relationships of both person and place depend on our capacity for empathy, wonder, presence, authenticity, and humility. In other words, through these elements, we build relationships with those people and places not only that we claim as belonging to us, but also that have a claim on us. 

* With thanks to Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum of Hebrew Academy of Cleveland for introducing me to this story through his prodigious and profoundly rich dvar Torah anthologies. You can find his version of the story online here

Friday, December 15, 2017

I Can't Hear You: Could It Be the Banana In My Ear (Miketz 5778 and Chanukah)

Banana in Ernie's Ear Shows He Isn't Listening to Bert
How often do we see others in pain, but ignore it? How often do we hear the cries of others, but don't listen?At this season of short days, our vision often is obscured by darkness. Our hearing often is dulled by long nights in our own homes. 

This week's Torah portion and the festival of Chanukah come together this week as a kind of warning and an inspiration. 

The warning comes when Joseph's brothers believe that they caused their own current distress two decades earlier when they first tried to kill Joseph then sold him into slavery. They are not yet even aware that the Egyptian viceroy who is toying with them is, in fact, Joseph. They say to each other, "We saw [Joseph's] pain and ignored it. We heard his cries, but paid no attention to them." (Genesis 42:21.) It is a startling revelation.

Friday, November 3, 2017

"Who is silent? Who speaks?" (Vayeira 5778)

2017 Limited edition MetroCard
Photo by Job Piston in the New York Times
This week New York city's transit authority released some limited edition MetroCards with pointed questions about privilege created by artist Barbara Kruger. A version of the conceptual art cards reads, "Who is healed? Who is housed? Who is silent? Who speaks?" Kruger has expressed these questions through her art since 1991.

This particular MetroCard seems to echo recent news stories about sexual harassment. This extreme misconduct often is hidden (or enabled) when some voices are privileged and others systematically silenced.  This MetroCard also seems to echo the arc of this week's Torah narrative, which is among the most profoundly complex interpersonally, emotionally, socially, culturally and nationally of all Torah. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down . . . Or Do We? (Noah 5778)

Camp Newman Star Survives on Hillside Blackened by Fire
Many imagine that the nursery rhyme phrase, "ashes, ashes, we all fall down" is a dark reference to 17th century London's Black Plague. But origins for this phrase seem more difficult to comprehend or explain.

It is even more difficult to comprehend or explain the northern California wildfires that in recent weeks have killed more than 40 people and destroyed more than 100,000 acres. It seems too much to take in. Included among the more than 7,000 properties that were destroyed, was much of Camp Newman (the beloved Jewish summer camp that succeeded Camp Swig where I was a camper, record producer, assistant director, and board member).*

These fires have created losses that are immeasurable -- of precious life, treasured livelihood, and valued property. Whole worlds were destroyed. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

In the Dark Shadow of a Las Vegas Massacre (Sukkot 5778)

2010 Sukkah Made from Signs From the Homeless
Our school community held its weekly gathering on Monday in the dark shadow of Sunday's Las Vegas massacre in which more than 500 people were wounded and nearly 60 killed. 

There are no words adequate to make meaning of such a monstrous tragedy. We are stunned. We are angry. We are afraid. We are speechless. 

Yet, something about Las Vegas calls to mind a story often told by my colleague, Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, about his young daughter, Nessa's fear of alligators under her bed or monsters in her closet. Inspired by his story I shared its themes with

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ask the World, Why? Ask Ourselves, Why Not? (Rosh Hashanah and Ha'azinu 5778)

Apple Laffy Taffy & Bit-O-Honey
given to each JCHS student for Rosh Hashanah
This evening starts the new Jewish year of 5778. The timing of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is in sync with the start of each school year. These new beginnings bring the opportunity to visualize our path and our learning in the year ahead.

Echoing the custom of dipping apples in honey at Rosh Hashanah (see below), I hand out lots of Apple Laffy Taffy and Bit-O-Honey at this time of year. Usually, Laffy Taffy riddles are juvenile. But this year, I discovered three that were (nearly) existential! 

#1 - Why was the boy covered in gift wrap? His mom told him to live in the present. #2 - What kind of tea is sometimes hard to swallow? Reality. #3 - What would you do without your memories? Forget.  

Embedded in these three riddles is the secret of this season that begins with Rosh Hashanah -- a season of reflection, introspection, and renewal. We have to be deeply present in order to reflect on our memories of real, authentic moments from the year past to inform a commitment to doing better in the new year. 

Along with the Apple Laffy Taffy and Bit-O-Honey, I shared an insight this week with our students from Rabbi Israel Salanter (19th century, Lithuania). He taught we have two eyes for a reason.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Measure for Measure: As You Judge Others, So Will You Be Judged (Ki Tavo 5777)

A blog post this week in three parts. A folktale. A framework from this week's Torah portion. And an apology.

The folktale*: There was a very wealthy man who loved only two things in life: work and cake. When he wasn't working he was admiring or eating cake. He had a favorite bakery that sold the most beautiful and delicious cakes. He went there every day on his way to work.

Once when he was walking out of the bakery with a beautiful slice of cake, the man stumbled. His cake fell to the ground. His piece of cake rolled in the dirt where it was covered with pebbles and grass. On his way back into the bakery to buy a replacement piece of cake, the man noticed a homeless person peering into the bakery's window. The man picked up the dirty piece of cake, handed it to the homeless person, and went inside to buy more for himself.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Orphans, Widows, and Foreigners Lives Matter (#Charlottesville) (Ki Teitzei 5777)

Earlier this week, we brought the school community together to reflect on Charlottesville. An educator and a student shared each their personal reflections about Charlottesville (see below) as we deepen our work to make JCHS among the most emotionally inclusive and intellectually diverse high schools in the country.

Yael Krieger, the educator, challenged us, “What would it look like for JCHS to be a school that celebrates the diversity within the Jewish community [and] committing itself to the principle of human dignity?” Mira Kittner, the student, exhorted us, "It's an important time, don’t check out! When the spirit of hate, bitterness, and division seems stronger than ever, each of us must tune-in and step-up.” 

For me, recent news about neo-Nazis and White Supremacists combined with the frightening scenes from Charlottesville -- including chants of "Jews will not replace us” and “America belongs to white men” -- brought me back to when I was about 10 years old and very different images of "Nazis." And as if Charlottesville did not fan the flames against those who are vulnerable as foreigners or strangers, the US government seemed to throw gasoline on the flames by announcing a repeal of #DACA

Friday, August 25, 2017

Home is Where the Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Nose Are (Shoftim 5777)

See No, Speak No, Hear No, Smell No by Angela Quitoriano
Greeting the largest entering class ever at JCHS, I was excited yesterday to "welcome home" all of our students.

Coming home from summer vacation, whether one travels near or far, or simply changes one's daily routine can be both exciting and confounding. It is comforting to be back with things that are familiar, and it can time time to readjust and fit back in. Friends got accustomed to getting along without us -- and us without them. Others sat in the places that we used to call ours. It is a time of mixed feelings. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

A mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi walk into a ... (Graduation 2017)

My precious students*: Earlier this week, I was reading my notes from your first day of school at JCHS when I encouraged you to avoid the kinds of intellectual blindness and emotional deafness that reflect a fixed way of experiencing the world. 

Also, I encouraged you to seek out classmates who are profoundly different than you are -- so you might learn from and be inspired by those differences. And to discover that one other person at JCHS who has exactly what you are lacking and to discover that one other person at JCHS who needs exactly what only you can share. As we heard from your classmates this afternoon, you have actively embraced each of these. 

In a moment I will share my gift for your graduation -- a mash-up mixed from one mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi. But just a few more thoughts about your first day of high school.