Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Healing and Hope after Sandy Hook?

This letter, written for the congregation I serve part-time in Colorado, says just about everything I have to say right now about last Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Dear Friends,

Over the weekend, still raw with anger and sadness at recent events, surrounded by the children of our congregation who had come to celebrate Shabbat and Hanukkah with us, we acknowledged briefly, and in general terms, our own pain and confusion. We said prayers for the healing of those families so senselessly made victims in the all-too-human disaster that unfolded Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. We expressed our hopes that the light of the Hanukkah candles, so incongruous with the mood of the day, might inspire us to act, to build a world worthy of the joy they represent.

On Sunday we devoted our weekly adult chat to the question we must all ask at times like this, “where was God?” It was an hour full of emotion. Still the confusion. So many questions, so many different faces of God, hiding from and seeking us; so few real answers.

Now a few days have passed. I have returned home, had the opportunity to fold my own children into my arms with gratitude and relief (relief that once again, this time, by chance, my family had literally dodged the bullets). So many colleagues, friends, and strangers have helped me, in the interim, to process my grief and outrage at this latest national tragedy. Through eloquent prayer, activism, Torah, personal narratives (I was particularly moved by this and this),  and professional opinions, I have slowly begun to piece together my own response, my own answer to the question of where is God, and a sense of what I believe we all must do next.

Through all of this my thoughts were heavily informed by the words of Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform Temple , who has characterized the Newtown massacre as “this most recent image of a world desperately in need of hope and healing.”

I carry Rabbi Blake’s phrase with me everywhere, now.

It lingers in the back of my mind as I read the opinions of those who would direct their anger primarily at Friday’s gunman. A former classmate, whom I love and respect, invokes Jewish custom to support his belief that Adam Lanza, in the company of  “Haman, Hitler, and the like,” should “rot namelessly and unlamented.” I cannot agree.

I do understand the problem with potential copycat murderers witnessing the excessive, obsessive news coverage that in their minds glorifies the perpetrator, and thus the impulse to quiet some of the noise now flooding our global communications networks. I would argue, however, that the young man wielding the guns on Friday was no Haman, no Hitler, no powerful despot with a heart full of calculated hatred and a carefully constructed plan.

He was, rather, a deeply troubled, lonely, misfit child, making desperate and chaotic choices; moreover, a child of God. Without dismissing the notion of personal responsibility, which with the death of the gunman became a moot point in this case, I think it is possible, and perhaps even desirable, to see Adam Lanza as himself a product of “a world desperately in need of hope and healing,” as Rabbi Blake has given it to us. To dismiss this aspect of the truth is to dismiss our hopes of learning from the travesty of life and humanity we have witnessed. If we cannot see that it is the world that needs healing, the way things work in the world, the way we, as a society, have structured our world, I fear there will be no healing.

On Sunday morning one of you asked whether I thought the events at Sandy Hook were evil. I didn’t have a good answer then. I saw there the results of evil, yes, but what was its source? We live in a country where it is easier to acquire military-grade weapons and ammunition—legally!—than it is to adopt a stray dog, or get a driver license. We live in a country that has shuttered its psychiatric hospitals, slashed funding for public mental health care, and left parents and other caregivers without resources to help those children and adults who struggle with diagnosed or undiagnosed pathological brain chemistry. As a result, the population of mentally ill prison inmates has skyrocketed in recent years, and prisons have become the largest providers of mental health care—such as it is—in this country. This, my friends, is the source of the evil we witnessed on Friday, an evil to which we are all party.

Sensible gun control, adequate mental health care, these are things we can change, and only when we do change these things, will our world receive some of the hope and healing it so desperately needs. In the meantime, I for one do not wish the personal wounds we feel at the carnage we’ve witnessed to heal up too soon.  Forgive me if this seems callous, but the pain we feel now pales in the face of 26 bereaved Connecticut families’ pain. It pales in the face of the pain we will feel when this happens again, the pain we will feel if, God-forbid, it happens again but in our town; in our school or shopping mall or movie theater; in our family. There will be time enough for us to heal from the pain we feel now after we have allowed it to goad us into doing something to promote the healing of our world.

Hope, on the other hand, we’ve got in spades: the hope symbolized by the Hanukkah lights, a light which we must in turn bring into the world; the hope that our democratic institutions may function the way they are intended to if enough of us become unhappy enough about these wounds, our wounds, to speak up and make our voices heard where it will make a difference.  The hope that we can, as President Obama said on Sunday night, do better. My friends, hold onto this hope. And let us act together to make this hope real.

And where was God on Friday morning? God was in the teachers and administrators who gave their lives to protect their schoolchildren. God was in the activists who have for years fought to heal the ills that allow our society to suffer such mass killings so regularly. And God was in the heart of every survivor in Newtown, and in every one of us, who looked on, weeping. God was weeping for what we have not yet done, and God is in us now, spurring us to do everything we can do to heal our world.

This is a conversation we will continue as a community. In the meantime, here’s what you can do:

Please let me know what I've left out.

Together, we can make the world better. As Rabbi Tarfon said, It is not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.

With prayers for strength and the light of dedication (hanukkah) to sacred causes,
Rabbi Debra Kassoff

Friday, August 24, 2012

#BlogElul: A Little Faith

Recently, I was talking with a congregant about a project that she had been working on, long and hard, for months. She had decided on a course of action that might lead to the best possible conclusion of her project, but that also could, just as easily, lead to the undoing of all the effort she had put in. I pointed this out, suggesting that by following this course of action she might find herself quickly back at square one.  I will never forget her reply.

"Oh, but Rabbi," she exclaimed, "I believe God provides! Don't you?"

Instantly, I felt both humbled and grateful for this impromptu lesson in faith. My personal theology does not ever lead me to make statements such as, "I believe God provides." But it does require me to remember, every once in a while, that some things are beyond our control, and that we need to have a little faith that somehow things will work themselves out in the end; that releasing our death-grip on life and giving over a little responsibility to God, or the animating energy of the universe, or whatever (or whomever) it is that you credit for all the world's unsolved mysteries, we will eventually find our way to some meaningful coincidence of events.

I haven't seen the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but I have heard enough about it to have adopted what is arguably its most famous line:  “Everything will be alright in the end… if it’s not alright then it’s not yet the end.” I have always believed this strongly: somehow, things will work out. We may not love how things work out, we may not have chosen the way things end up working out, but one way or another, we will be alright. We will find our way, our plan B, our new normal. So why not relax, once in a while, into the arms of

A friend of mine once told me that when her small granddaughter would cry, whether from a scraped knee or a bruised ego or a frustrated will, she would hold her and rock her and say, "It will be better soon." There are no guarantees that things are going to turn out the way we want or the way we planned, but if we allow ourselves our hurts, our disappointments, and then allow ourselves to heal, well--it will be better soon.

I need to remember all this more often. For example, when I feel beset by bad news, by a proliferation of the ugly side of human nature, whether in world events or at my own dining room table. I need to remember this as I prepare for Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, as I consider all the times I have truly repented and then sinned again. There's still the good. Even if we've failed before, we still might succeed this time. We can make change in the world, even if we can't take responsibility for changing the whole world, all at once.

As for risk-taking? What other option do we have? The most conservative, cautious person in the world still has her plans blow up in her face now and then. The world is unpredictable. Our lives can change in a second. But have a little faith. It will be better, soon.

This post is part of #BlogElul, created and organized by Ima on (and off) the Bima, who writes:

The Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holy Days, is traditionally a time of renewal and reflection. It offers a chance for spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe. It is traditional to begin one’s preparation for the High Holy Days during this month with the Selichot, the prayers of forgiveness. We look to begin the year with a clean slate, starting anew, refreshed.

Visit The Ima or follow her on Twitter to see others' contributions, and please return (!) here, where I plan to share one or two thoughts before the month is through.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

#BlogElul: Return In Love

Image shamelessly copied from my blogging mentor Rebecca Einstein Schorr

Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month that brings us to the doorstep of the most sacred days in the Jewish calendar, outside of the regular and profound holiness of Shabbat. Yamim Nora’im, or Days of Awe,  begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and end at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, ten days later.

Today also happens to be my eleventh wedding anniversary. Eleven years ago, August 19th fell on the Rosh Hodesh Elul, as well.*

Aleph, lamed, vav, lamed. These are the Hebrew letters that spell the name of the month Elul. Which, in turn, forms an acrostic for “Ani ledodi vedodi li.” I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: words from Tanakh, the Bible, Song of Songs. A passionate poem of love, manifestly describing the relationship of two human lovers, it was read by the sages of our tradition as an allegory, describing the relationship between God and God’s beloved Israel.  Passages from Song of Songs are also traditionally sung at a wedding.

Return, the literal translation of teshuvah, repentance, is the central theme of the season that begins today. It being my anniversary, my thoughts naturally return to that day in August 2001 when I became my beloved’s and he became mine, in holiness, in faith, in the presence of God and our community. I remember the joy of that day, and also the innocence of it. Not only my own, though that was notable, for although Alec and I had known each other over five years by the time we married, had been in a serious relationship with each other for much of that time, and had already helped each other navigate several difficult life passages together, I had no idea of the depth of challenges yet to come that would test us and our love for one another.  

But that was still several years off. As we stood under our huppa, and rejoiced with so many of our dearest friends and family, and flew off to our honeymoon in the Canadian Maritimes (without anyone asking us to take off our shoes or remove liquids from our luggage) a terrible and tremendous loss of innocence loomed for our country, indeed for much of the world. Three weeks later, the world changed, dramatically.

It still amazes me to consider how much has changed since Rosh Hodesh Elul 5761, that August day in 2001. We all have lost so much—individually, as a society, both materially and spiritually—and yet, ineluctably, we have gained. Babies have been born, degrees earned, milestones achieved. Some battles for justice have been won, and new ones taken up. Technology and human knowledge advance at an incredible pace, and yet, at the same time, poverty increases, and freedom by some measures diminishes. Tens of thousands of people still die in hospitals every year because someone neglected to use soap and water between patients; others die because they have no access to medical care in the first place. We gain insight, and yet we continue to have the same arguments with our loved ones, over and over again, about matters large and small. Nation still lifts up sword against nation; every time, humanity and the universe sustain wounds that may never heal, and a path to peace grows ever more elusive. We have gained, and we have lost, greatly.

So here we are, again, at the beginning of this season of repentance, and we are asked, commanded, even, to “return.” Return to our true selves. Return to some sort of original purity. “Renew our days as of old,” we pray.

Is return possible? What would that even look like?

We do not wish to give up some of the ways in which we have changed over time, our increased discernment, even wisdom, hard-won by experience. We cannot erase our scars or others’, though we might wish to. There are things we can never take back, or give back.

When I think of “return” in the context of teshuvah, in the context of Rosh Hodesh  Elul, I think,  perhaps inevitably, of the words “Ani ledodi vedodi li,” I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. There are so many ways in which we cannot recapture our lost innocence. But today I think there is at least one way in which we can. It is the way of love. Of rekindled passion, and compassion. Of renewed hopes.

Just as a long-married couple can, through love and generosity, remorse and forgiveness, feel again the joy and gratitude and excitement they felt on their wedding day at the sheer wonder and blessing of the connection they share, so can we return to the wonder we experienced "of old," with God, however we understand God. Our relationship with God, after all, mirrors our relationship with the rest of creation: the earth and its inhabitants, humanity, the universe. We can return, in love, in compassion, in our commitment to tikkun olam—to making the world a better place. We can return, through forgiveness and love, to a version of ourselves and our relationships that we may have thought lost.

Jewish tradition encourages us to do this every day, every moment: live each day as if it may be your last—because it may be! But as this becomes difficult and exhausting, as we are imperfect and forgetful, our tradition gives us a big wake-up call each year. With the blast of the shofar, with the new moon, with Rosh Hodesh Elul. we are called to return. We are called to return to our beloved: family and friends, God, our self. 

Here is the task, and the promise, of our season of repentance. How will you return? We have 40 days to figure it out.

*Alec and I were married on the 30th of Av, which fell yesterday on this year's secular calendar, but it was, nevertheless, Rosh Hodesh Elul, which is always a two-day celebration.

 This post is part of #BlogElul, created and organized by Ima on (and off) the Bima, who writes: 
The Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holy Days, is traditionally a time of renewal and reflection. It offers a chance for spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe. It is traditional to begin one’s preparation for the High Holy Days during this month with the Selichot, the prayers of forgiveness. We look to begin the year with a clean slate, starting anew, refreshed.

Visit The Ima or follow her on Twitter to see others' contributions, and please return (!) here, where I plan to share one or two thoughts before the month is through.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Thickening Around Your Hearts

The following is an adaptation of my d'var Torah from this past Shabbat.

Outside the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, last week
image found at
The Sikh Temple shooting has received so much less coverage, so much less outcry, than the mass shooting less than two weeks earlier in Colorado. Is it the Olympics? Compassion fatigue? Or is it plain old racism, or xenophobia?

Or, is it something less sinister but more insidious than that? Is it simply that average Americans can’t relate because, as Robert Wright wrote in The Atlantic, “They can imagine their friends and relatives—and themselves—being at a theater watching a batman movie; they can't imagine being in a Sikh temple.”

As a Jewish community, perhaps we can relate better. We are, after all, a minority people and religion in this nation and all others around the globe but one. And so we have stories like this from JTA, and this press release and blog entries such as this and this from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Still, I wonder how many of us followed the news of the Wisconsin temple shooting with the same level of interest as the Colorado theater shooting coverage.  After all, Jews are not Sikhs. We get top billing in the great “Judeo-Christian tradition” so many Americans are fond of claiming, and thus strike most Americans as not nearly as foreign as our Sikh brothers and sisters, with their turbans and their saris and their little-known eastern faith. The Sikh temple shooting is tragic, sobering, but I can imagine there were a few of us out there getting back to business as usual after breathing a secret prayer of thanks that it wasn’t one of our temples.

Except that, essentially, it was.

The day of the Sikh shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, I wrote a prayer that concluded, “We’re all in this together.”

When things like this happen in our country, a nation that we celebrate for its embrace of “liberty and justice for all,” we’re all implicated. And we’re all in danger. Because when one group in our society becomes the target of hateful acts for who they are, everyone’s rights are in danger. And all of us are responsible for speaking out against such persecution.

Several media outlets and commentators have observed that there has been an increase in attacks on Sikhs and Sikh communities since 9/11, because many people mistake Sikhs for Muslims. Does that mean this shooting would have been less tragic had the white supremacist gunman shot down innocent Muslims instead, the presumed “proper” target of his attack?  

We’re all in this together. On Monday, the day after the Sikh temple shooting, a mosque was burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri. It hardly received any press. Since then, mosques and Muslim worshipers in California, Rhode Island, and Illinois have been targets of vandalism or violence. I had to search for these stories to find them. It is an outrage, a string of events that should cause us to feel shame—as Americans, but also as Jews. Not because as Jews we are in any way more responsible for these events than anyone else, but because as Jews we are particularly warned against this sort of unconcern and blindness.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, chronicles one of Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites as they muster on the east side of the Jordan River, preparing at last to enter the Promised Land. Moses exhorts the people to remember how much they have been given:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty...and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” (Dt. 8:12-14,17)

At one point in his discourse, Moses literally tells the people, “don’t think it is because of your virtue that you will possess this land” (Dt. 9:5) rather, he continues, it is because of the virtue of their ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and, moreover, it’s because of the wickedness of its current inhabitants. Try that on for size, and see how it feels. Did we choose our ancestors? Have we never behaved wickedly? Remember the Golden Calf, Moses reminds the people? See those people you are about to dispossess? See those people less prosperous than you? Poorly housed? Poorly fed? But for the grace of God, we are them. They are us.

Our Torah text continues: what does God want from us? God wants us to do the right thing. To remember that there is, essentially, no ethical difference between ourselves other people. Fortune? Misfortune? The luck of the draw. A turn of the wheel. God wants us to empathize with everyone:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening around your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God...shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.  You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Dt. 10:16-19)

And, as we should well know, we might easily become strangers again. Befriend the stranger.

Can this feel overwhelming? Yes, it can. Can we solve all the world’s problems? Not alone, and not all at once. As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “Yours is not to complete the task; neither are you free to desist from it.” We can send letters of solidarity, letters to the editor, material and monetary donations, to help those suffering all around us. We can ask questions, vote, march, organize. We can talk about things we usually avoid talking about. We can look at faces we usually avoid looking at. We can seek out the stories we might otherwise not hear.

“Cut away...the thickening around your hearts” is a loose translation of the Hebrew umaltem et orlat levavkhem—literally, "circumcise the foreskin of your hearts." Remove that protective layer. Make yourself vulnerable. What have you got to lose? We’re all in this together.

How will you circumcise your heart?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Temple Shooting: A Prayer For All Of Us

I can't think of today's shooting at the Sikh temple without feeling sick
and hopeless
for all of us:
victims, perpetrators, onlookers;
both physical and spiritual,
literal and figurative.

And so, a prayer.

For all of us, strength: to survive, to heal, to love, to change, to work.
To keep battling ignorance and hatred.
To find a better way.

For all of us, compassion: to forgive, to grow, to change, to love.
To heal.
To mend every broken heart.
We're all in this together.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Letter Home, A Voyage Out

The following was written for and featured in the URJ Jacobs Camp Blog. My daughters and I are in the midst of our annual Jacobs Camp experience. Wish you were here!
First Letter from Camp

Today I received my first-ever camp letter.

Written by my oldest child, it is unmailable. It bears no address beyond “I miss you Dear Ima” printed in pencil on the back of the envelope. It is stamped, on the upper left corner of the back of the envelope. It also sports a 3-D foam sticker on the outside of the envelope. I’m not sure how the Postmaster General feels about 3-D adornments on the outside of envelopes sent through the U.S. Postal Service, but I’m guessing it’s not good.  Fortunately, I’m at camp, so I received this (by some measures deficient) missive during lunch at the staff table without any trouble.

(Note to first-time camper parents, especially younger first-time camper parents: don’t just provide the address labels and stamps when you send your child to camp. Put them on the envelopes. Or, at the very least, provide your child with a template showing where the address and stamp should go. And drill your child in its correct use in advance of the first day of camp. The image you have of an orderly cabin-wide letter-writing session, concluding in the children addressing and stamping their envelopes under the direct supervision of a counselor, doesn’t happen.  With deep appreciation and respect for the wonderful counselors: I’m not sure exactly what does happen, but it’s not that.)

Everything about this short, sweet, incompetently posted note warms my heart. I’ll be keeping this one forever.

I know I’m lucky. As a rabbi on faculty at Henry S. JacobsCamp, I get to spend a week here each year, and each year, my kids come with me. Previously, they’ve roamed camp with a babysitter while I worked and played with the campers. This year, my daughters are campers, too: one in Olim, the other enjoying her first spin with K’tanim, Jacobs’ week-long day camp for 4- to 6-year-olds.

True, I have a lot more access to my kids than other camp parents do. Still, I don’t really know what they’re up to for the most part, outside of what they or their counselors might tell me in letters, in hurriedly brief verbal reports, or after the whole thing’s over next week. I’m busy teaching older students, or planning a service, or angling for a chance to climb the Tower when it won’t interfere with the campers’ scheduled activities.  Not to mention, when it comes to my Olim camper (as opposed to anyone else’s!), extensive interaction is not encouraged. A quick hug at mealtimes, often just a wave, is about all I hope for.

Also true, this gap in my knowledge of my children’s experience is not unprecedented. Since each of them was only a very few months old, I’ve left them in the care of others for significant periods of time each day while I worked.

And yet, this is the first time either has been away from me most of the day and all night, not for one or two nights at a friend’s or with Bubbe and Poppy, but for ten nights. It’s the first time my oldest child is having an extended, significant, potentially life-changing experience without me.

As a parent of very young children, this milestone is, admittedly, bittersweet.

Letting go of the all-encompassing nature of the early parent-child relationship means letting go a bit of the euphoria and intense intimacy of this phase of parenting.

But I don’t mind the idea of letting go some of the physical exhaustion and intensely irrational exchanges of this stage of the relationship (I know, I know, the irrational part will be back in a few years….) And how proud are we parents of our first-time sleep-away campers for their newly discovered and expanding repertoire of emotional, physical, and social skills; their growing independence?

As a rabbi, all of this—my oldest daughter’s camp experience, its impact on her development and our relationship—reminds me of Torah. Of course.

The stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs, of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, of the years of wandering in the wilderness—these stories are terse, elliptical, with many details of time, space, characterization, and other narrative elements left blank. This might have frustrated our ancestors; we may have been driven away from this confounding tradition before it properly began. Instead, our sages, and Jews to this day, have filled in those gaps with wonderful and wondrous works of midrash, a genre of classical rabbinic and contemporary literature that answers the questions these blanks suggest.

The phenomenon of midrash, both the body of work and the act of creating it, has infinitely enriched, complicated, and nuanced our relationship with Torah. Were all the answers already provided, every detail known, would the text have drawn us as powerfully and as eternally as it does? Would we be tempted into hours, years, of study, reflection, argument, and discussion about what it means? Our knowledge of such a Torah might be more complete, but almost certainly more superficial.

My daughters have always had to come up with their own midrash on my life. They’ve asked and imagined stories to fill in the blanks of their knowledge of me, both the years before they were born and the times since, when I’ve left them in another’s care, certain of where to find them when I returned, while I went gallivanting off, from their perspective, who-knows-where to do who-knows-what.

In one incremental way, this summer, my relationship with my daughters grows a tiny bit more balanced, anticipating the day when we will relate to one another as adults, as equals. It grows a little deeper as they begin to collect their own private stories and mysteries, ideas and opinions, fuel for a lifetime of study, reflection, argument, and discussion.  I can’t wait to see where it all leads.

Sylvia’s letter from camp is the perfect beginning to this journey.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ask Three Rabbis

For nearly two years now, I have been serving on the Jewish Values Online Panel of Scholars.  Here's how it works: you (or anyone with access to the site) submits a question. The question is assigned to three scholars, from three different streams of Jewish tradition (OrthodoxConservativeReformReconstructionist, etc.). Each panelist submits an answer. You've heard of two Jews, three opinions? It's kind of like that, only more so.

I posted my latest response today, to this question: Should we still be spending time and resources on prosecuting Nazi war criminals, many of whom are old and sick? 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

All Prisoners, All Free

#BlogExodus: Freedom

I originally wrote a version of this post for the April 2012 Hebrew Union Congregation Temple Topics, our monthly bulletin.
Image found at

I have never led a Passover Seder in a prison, but each spring, as we begin our extensive preparations for the holiday, I find myself wondering: what would that be like? I consider the question with an uncomfortable curiosity, a combination of longing and aversion.

Passover is our festival of freedom, our celebration of Israel’s storied redemption from slavery in Egypt. In every generation, we read in the Haggadah, our guide to the Seder, each of us must feel as if we, personally, had come out of Egypt. As if we ourselves tasted the sweetness of liberation after long oppression. In the traditional text we recite:
Therefore, let us rejoice
At the wonder of our deliverance
From bondage to freedom,
From agony to joy,
From mourning to festivity,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption.[1]

And yet, the Seder also reads: “Now we are all still in bonds. Next year may all be free.”[2] 

I wonder how the first passage might sound to a convict in prison, a homeless person, a political captive, anyone whose existence is dominated by oppression, loss, or suffering.

And I wonder how the second text is heard by those of us whose existence is dominated by blessing: physical comforts, political freedom, the love of family and friends.

My first thoughts always go to how painfully our traditional words of celebration and gratitude must prick those who find themselves in bitter circumstances, and to how unthinkingly the formulaic words of persistent bondage, of incomplete redemption, must roll off the tongues of those whose lives are sweet.

Yet I know it is not necessarily so. I know there are people in the most terrible of circumstances who, like Viktor Frankl in the Nazi concentration camps, still maintain the inviolability of ''the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.''[3] And I know there are those who, in the midst of personal well-being, maintain a consciousness of our broken world, an appreciation of the idea that none of us is redeemed, none of us truly, wholly free, until all are free.

Might we aspire simultaneously to both of these truths? That in the midst of oppression, we maintain a certain freedom, to transform the future and change our lives; and that in the midst of blessing, we maintain a sense of our responsibility for those less blessed? This year, when we conclude our Seder with the traditional cry, “Next year in Jerusalem!”—next year in the messianic age of peace and justice, next year may we be free, redeemed from every Egypt—might our words should truly reflect our intentions (if not our expectations), and guide our future actions? May it be so, at all of our Seders, wherever they may be.

Image from Teshuvafilm's Blog
In the mean time, I intend to find out whether any Mississippi prisoners are in need of an in-house Seder this year.  

This post is part of #BlogExodusa pre-Passover initiative started by rabbi, mom, & friend Imabima. To see more blog postings on Passover themes, follow #BlogExodus on Twitter.

[1] Translation from BaskinHaggadah, Revised Edition, CCAR 1994.
[2] Ibid.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

You Don't Know Anything!

#BlogExodus: Learning and Teaching

How did I never make the connection before? We make such a fuss about the Passover Seder being an important, entertaining, but most of all educational event for the children...why? Because we want to transmit the essence and implications of its story to the next generation? Sure, that, too.

But as I reflect on the relationship between teaching and learning, on the hackneyed but inescapable truth that we teach in order to learn, that our students are our best teachers, well, really, why this hullaballoo over the Passover Seder? 

Why else?  It's because this is the lesson we adults most need to learn, ourselves. Think about it: what could be harder than transforming an experience of slavery into a source of strength and integrity and compassion; of internalizing qualities like humility, gratitude, and hope; of freeing ourselves and one another from the shackles that limit and distort us; of bearing up under the responsibilities of freedom? There's work enough for a lifetime-and-a-half.

I've been teaching two different Introduction to Judaism classes this year, nearly simultaneously: one at a synagogue, another at a liberal arts college. You know, the kind of course where each session's topic could become a year-long course. Thanks to my students and their need for a nodding acquaintance with some three-to-five thousand years of Jewish history (depending on where you start counting), I can now reel off a lot more dates in connection with specific historical events than I could have a month ago. I also have a much better idea of how I might teach all of Jewish history in an hour, next time. 

It's funny. Teaching can simultaneously humble us, highlighting all the things we don't know (or have forgotten); and build our confidence, reminding us of how much more we do know than when we first began learning.

This week, in a session on Israel and Zionism, one of my students asked, "What is the definition of Zionism?" My first thought was, "OMG! What is the definition of Zionism?" followed immediately by, "Duh! How could I have not looked that up before tonight's class?" But once I was through with my ritual moment of panic and self-flagellation, I realized that I actually had an answer, and that while it might not match the dictionary definition (though it came fairly close!), it was a legitimate and more nuanced definition than Merriam-Webster could offer (though perhaps not quite as nuanced as this definition). Oh, right. I'm a rabbi. I do know something about this stuff.

My older daughter, all of five years and eight months, has recently taken, from time to time, to shouting at her younger sister (almost four years old), "YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT LIFE!" My husband told me last night that he's decided to have a talk with our older girl exploring what exactly she knows about life and whether she know what's most important in life (like, say, kindness to her sister). Which led to a rousing, if brief (due to practical considerations, not for lack of material), conversation about what we think is most important in life. When we teach, we are required to both review and push the boundaries of what we know.

Thank God, truly, for our students, our children. Think of all the information and insights we'd never gain without them, the blind spots we'd never even know we have, the convictions we might never discover in our own hearts. The Passover Seders we might not fuss over, were it not for them.

This post is part of a Passover project, #BlogExodus, the brainchild of ImaBima.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Narrow Places of Mitzrayim, or Where Do You Get Stuck?

This was the question I asked my Sunday school students as we sat around a table in the social hall having our snack of graham crackers and green grapes.* I explained that Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, also means “narrow places,” and I asked them to think about where in their lives they feel the oppression of Egypt, when in their lives they feel constrained or stuck.

“School,” said one, just as our prescient congregational president/resident Sunday school teacher simultaneously said, “And ‘school’ doesn’t count!” (I shushed Mr. president/teacher.)

“Practicing violin,” said the other, with a sideways glance at her mother, enthusiastic proponent of violin lessons, sitting nearby.

This led to an interesting conversation about whether aspects of our lives that ultimately benefit us (the one child does aspire to a high school diploma, and the other loves performing violin, which she does beautifully, thanks to the despised practice sessions) could be compared to the biblical Mitzrayim, a site of bloodshed, suffering, and degradation for our biblical forebears. (The answer: No. And yes. Of course. Try it yourself, and let me know how your conversation goes.)

But the reason I asked my students this question, the reason I’m writing this in the first place**, is that I had been thinking about this question—“What is our Mitzrayim?”—during my entire drive from Jackson to Greenville on Friday afternoon. (I live in Jackson, Mississippi, I serve the congregation in Greenville, Mississippi, 110 miles away. A more coherent introduction to me and my crazy life in another post.) I was thinking about this question in conjunction with the Trayvon Martin shooting, and also, especially after reading my friend Beth's thoughtful (and poignant and brilliant) blog post, in conjunction with the shootings in Toulouse and the guilty pleadings of three white teenagers in Jackson, Mississippi to the racially-motivated killing of James Craig Anderson, a black man.

So much hate. Is hatred our Mitzrayim?

But, why the hate?

We learn from the Passover Seder that each of us must feel each year as if we ourselves left slavery in Egypt, as if we ourselves experienced the redemption. No formal commemoration, this. Not even a reenactment. This is real, Jewish tradition teaches us. Every year, we feel the oppression. And then we experience the release. We are meant to put ourselves, as nearly and as truly as possible, in someone else’s shoes sandals.

And that, in fact, is the problem. Because we can’t actually, truly walk in another person’s shoes, can we? Not simply by attending a Passover Seder. It’s the stuff of fantasy and undercover spy stories and psychological studies, the idea of experiencing another person’s reality.  

Nevertheless, it is our obligation to try, each year at Passover, and, I would argue, every day of the year: You shall welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, the Torah repeatedly exhorts us. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not do to others what is distasteful to you. We are all created betzelem elohim, in the image of God. Put yourself in the other’s shoes.

Because when we don’t, it leads to injustice. The other remains other: distant, alien, threatening…. When we can’t put ourselves in another’s shoes, it opens the door to hatred.

As I drove and thought, the flat Mississippi Delta plains stretching out in every direction from under the wheels of my car, I thought a new question, a terrible question: Do people, my people, the people of my own congregation, whom I love, want to put themselves in The Other’s shoes?

Now, I am not completely na├»ve. I know that none of us always wants to put ourselves in another’s shoes. It’s hard work. The Torah wouldn’t constantly command us to do it if it were easy. Even when we want to do it, when we mean to do it, we often fail. And I know there are plenty of people out there who make bad choices, even wicked choices, who through some sad injury or perversion lose all contact with their yetzer tov, the good that God put in them, and intend ill toward others.

But I suppose I’ve always assumed that people of good will, even when we are failing to do the right thing, even when to do the right thing is difficult or unpleasant, in some part of our being, want to do it. In some corner of our consciousness feel indignation when injustice is brought to our attention, and want to do something to correct the injustice, to change and heal the world.

Beth, in her blog post, wrote, “I began to fear, not for the first time, that perhaps I have too much faith in humanity.” When I read that, I felt terribly sad for Beth, but the closer my wheels took me to Greenville, the more I began to wonder the same about myself. I began to wonder when, and even whether, people, even good people, truly aspire to walk in another’s shoes, aspire to recognize The Other’s basic humanity, especially when that other is of a different race, or class, or creed.

When I arrived in Greenville, I got ready for our Shabbat service. During the service, I shared some of these thoughts and questions with my congregation. And then, after the service, I had a conversation about all of this with a good friend, a good person, a person I have known and loved for many years, and suddenly, vividly, I saw how good people can become resigned to others’ otherness, and to hatred, and injustice. Good people can become embittered and worn down by a lifetime of slights, and insults (even as it is also a lifetime of blessings and friendship—for don’t we all too often remember the bad and forget the good?), and outrage, personal and communal.

This then, is our Mitzrayim: our failure to walk in another’s shoes. Or even worse: our failure to want, or even to try, to do so. It’s perpetuating the cycle. It’s holding us back. We’re stuck, as long as we stay here.

My religious school students don’t know this yet, which is perhaps, given their youth, appropriate. My congregants…some know it, some believe it, others not. Myself? I think I, like the rest of us, have my work cut out for me.

I have finally taken the big leap into the blogosphere partly thanks to Ima on (and off) the Bima's #BlogExodus initiative. Yes, I am a few days behind on the #BlogExodus schedule. So we're starting off on the right foot! More about myself and my blog another day.

*Wow, I had entirely overlooked the alliterative quality of our snack til this very moment! I guess I was having a great day. A gimel-ish day. A yom gadol, perhaps. But I digress.
**Aside from imabima, that is.