Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela and Joseph--A Lesson in Empowerment and Reconciliation

In memory of Nelson Mandela and his legacy, the end of apartheid -- possibly the greatest human rights victory of our generation -- I offer you this dvar Torah that was published in The Jewish Advocate this week. Mandela’s story is remarkably reminiscent of the story of Joseph, who was treated as a slave by his brothers, suffered in prison, and rose to become their leader. In this week’s portion, Vayigash, Joseph brings peaceful reconciliation to his divided family. Though we will be observing Human Rights Shabbat next week, Mandela’s legacy is appropriate to remember on International Human Rights day, December 10.

May Mandela’s memory inspire us to use our power, even when driven by pain, toward a better world.

VAYIGASH:  What can happen when we truly meet one another?*

Slavery is a word that Jews associate with the Exodus from Egypt. Slavery is a practice that Americans believe ended with Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. Slavery is not a word most of us would use in the same sentence with Florida. Yet, in recent years nine successful slavery prosecutions have led to the liberation of over a thousand men and women in Florida who worked without pay in the tomato fields by day and were often chained at night to prevent them from escaping.

When migrant workers finally began to share their stories of abuse in the tomato fields, they recognized that they were not alone. They formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as a source of power to make life better for the people who pick the luscious red tomatoes that we eat in salads and sandwiches. Not only did the CIW succeed in putting the guilty crew bosses in jail, they discovered that they had the power to speak to the owners of the fields and demand justice.

What did justice look like? Was it a violent confrontation? Did they seek revenge for being sold into slavery in South Florida? Did they demand compensation for their lost wages, lost time with their families, abuse, or sexual harassment? Instead of revenge, the CIW created the Fair Food Program, stopping future abuse and harassment by making the field owners accountable for the behavior of the crew bosses.

Joseph was also once a slave, sold by his own brothers. But now as Pharaoh’s economic czar, Joseph has power over his brothers. Meeting his brothers in Egypt surely aroused painful memories of being bullied by his older brothers and anger over his forced separation from his father. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers in this week’s portion, Vayigash, he also chooses not to seek revenge for their hateful behavior.

As our portion opens, older brother Judah, the crew boss who had suggested killing Joseph before agreeing to sell him as a slave, steps up to offer himself rather than imprison Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin. This act demonstrates to Joseph that his brothers are now accountable for their actions. In that poignant moment, Joseph dismisses the Egyptian attendants and reveals himself as the lost son of their father Jacob, to the shock and consternation of the guilty brothers.

In Midrash Tanhuma, the Rabbis imagine this moment as a mortal crisis. In response to the shocking news that Joseph is indeed alive and standing before them, “their souls flew out….and the Holy Blessed One performed a miracle for them and their souls returned.”  What caused this heart-stopping moment? Disbelief? Guilt and shame? Fear of retribution? All of the above? One miracle is that they survived the shock of hearing this news.

A second miracle can be found in Joseph’s capacity to look his brothers in the eyes and believe that they have indeed repented of their sin and become trustworthy men.

What occurs in the meeting of Joseph and his brothers that enables them to reunite and reconcile? How is it possible for someone who has been treated as a slave to face his or her oppressors as Joseph did, and not turn into an oppressor himself?

Still hiding behind his Egyptian disguise, Joseph proves his identity by announcing, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3)  In that moment, Joseph regains his dignity. He is no longer paralyzed by his childhood memories, and no longer exploits his authority as an Egyptian overlord. In that moment, Joseph stands before his brothers with authenticity and integrity, as one of them. Rather than dwell on their transgressions, Jacob inquires about his beloved father, Jacob. When his brothers do not appear to believe him, he invites them “Come forward to me….You can see with your own eyes who is speaking to you.” (Gen. 45:4, 12)

It is only by looking into the eyes of another that we can see the truth. When we avert our gaze, when people become invisible, when our experience is only based on our own pleasure or pain, division results and everyone loses. When the Florida growers could not see how the tomato pickers were being treated, they had no reason or desire to help them. But when presented with the claims of the CIW, they agreed to join the Fair Food Program. Likewise, when we choose to buy tomatoes from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or others who have also signed on to the Fair Food Program, we too can see the eyes of the migrant workers, smiling in gratitude.

Despite all that his gone before, Joseph and his brothers are united as B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. Joseph’s first act is to bring the entire family to Egypt where food is plentiful during the famine. Whether he has forgiven his brothers is not clear; nevertheless, he is willing to work with them for a better future for their family.

Both sagas, the Joseph tale and the achievements of the migrant workers of Florida, could have ended in confrontation. Instead, both resulted in a win-win. Joseph is reunited with his father and feeds his family. The CIW workers gain dignity and reward for honest labor while we, the consumers, can eat fresh-picked tomatoes untainted by the poison of slavery.

The Joseph story ended happily, but future generations of B’nai Israel were enslaved by a new Pharaoh. Likewise, the threat of slavery in Florida remains as long as some growers can get away with it. To ensure that the Fair Food Program can reach every worker in the tomato fields, the CIW continues to pursue others to sign on. The current focus is on Wendy’s, the only major fast-food corporation that has not agreed. To learn more about how to support the CIW and the Fair Food Campaign, and to look into the eyes of these courageous workers, go to

The next time you eat a tomato, remember Joseph.

 *In The Jewish Advocate, this column was entitled, “Two Powerful Stories End a on Happy Note”
All rights reserved, The Jewish Advocate

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Spiritual Nourishment in the Thanksgiving Feast

At our temple-wide pre-Hanukkah celebration this past Sunday, we invited kids and adults to share their thoughts about what makes Thanksgivukkah so great. Like so much of the conversation in the blogosphere, many comments highlighted creative menu items, like cranberry applesauce or smoked turkey on bagels.  I am personally looking forward to my daughter’s challah stuffing.

What else might we discover as we enjoy our Thanksgiving meal? Even the food that we eat on Thanksgiving can open our minds even as we open our mouths.

In the Torah reading for this week, Miketz, our hero, Joseph, rises to manage Pharaoh’s agricultural output during 7 years of plenty and the subsequent 7 years of famine. In the Hasidic commentary, Maor vaShemesh, Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus Epstein of Krakow draws the conclusion that in times of plenty and times of famine we might not treat food so differently. He teaches that even in times of plenty we can choose to eat less and still be satisfied:

“we are to draw out the spiritual holiness to the food and produce so that when we eat food it will be its spiritual aspect, its innerness which is appointed in it. This is how there can be satisfaction from the food.”

Rabbi Kalmish teaches that stuffing ourselves silly is no more satisfying than suffering from famine. When we eat with awareness, we not only enjoy the food more (and potentially eat less). We might also come to find a higher purpose in our food.

What spiritual lessons might accompany a Thanksgiving feast?

1. Seeking Democracy, Inclusion and Civil Harmony
When President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation for the new republic in 1789, he declared it:

“a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Rather than celebrating the harvest or even mentioning the Pilgrims, Washington invoked the importance of democratic ideals. In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the first annual Thanksgiving proclamation, he hoped that the holiday would lead to “peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

The Thanksgiving meal that Americans enjoy today has both political and philosophical roots. Though vegetarians seek other options, turkey was a democratic choice, an inexpensive and plentiful bird that served a large crowd. Likewise, pie was welcomed as an easy dessert (in comparison to fancier fare) that any cook could create at home. When we go around the table on Thanksgiving Day, perhaps we too can consider the principles of democracy that unite the many US residents of different religious traditions, races and countries of origin in celebrating this holiday. And what work is still needed to realize these ideals?

2. Remembering those who raise, pick, slaughter, prepare and package our food.
“Why do I spend time harvesting food every day for the rest of America and then have to stand in line at a food pantry on Thanksgiving for a plate of food?”

Gerardo Reyes, a tomato picker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers asked this question as the CIW mounted its “Fair Food” campaign.  Likewise, last week at a Walmart in Ohio, management set out containers marked “Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.”
Social media picked up the photo as a rallying cry for raising the minimum wage (and to support the protesting Walmart workers.

 Supporting food pantries at this time of year is an important and laudable way of celebrating our own gifts. But what is going on in our wealthy country when working people can’t afford their own Thanksgiving meal?

3. “Most people worry about their own bellies, and other people's souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people's bellies.”
This is probably the best-known quotation from Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century rabbi and teacher who is credited with founding the movement of character development known as Mussar.  The implications of this statement are without limit. How might this principle affect our stance on food stamps? Religious coercion? Taxes? Health care?

4. Simple gratitude
In some families, discussions like these may be in conflict with another Jewish value: shalom bayit (peace in the home) or kibud av v’em (honoring one’s parents).  If one of your Thanksgiving values is making pleasant family memories, proceed with caution.

It may be enough to stick to the simple formula:  today/this year I am grateful for… having enough food to eat, having a day off from work, and living in freedom.

Happy Thanksgiving
Happy Hanukkah
Happy Thanksgivukkah

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why is this Hanukkah different from all other Hanukkahs?

Hanukkah is in three weeks. What are you doing about it?

HBT wants to help you get ready for this historic EARLY Hanukkah.

First, we will celebrate together on Sunday, November 24 with Hanukkah Kulanu Yachad/All of Us Together. Our Sunday morning event will help us all prepare by singing songs, buying rainbow candles, and sharing family time together. We will also prepare by reflecting on which Hanukkah message we want to share this year. Young and old, with families or not, please plan to be at HBT and bring friends too. This will be a terrific way to share what makes HBT such a special place.

Our theme will be “Thanksgivukkah,” an unusual occurrence that won’t happen again until 2070 (those predictions of 79,000 years until this happens again were just plain wrong.) Still, that’s a long time from now, which most adults will not experience unless immortality is one of our future Hanukkah gifts.

Let’s think about the correlations between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. Themes of survival, standing up for religious freedom (Pilgrims and Maccabees), and dedication to a cause quickly come to mind.  We might also consider the place of community service as a way to celebrate both holidays.

What I find interesting is that Hanukkah juxtaposed with Thanksgiving can be a very different kind of celebration than Hanukkah juxtaposed with Christmas.

This means more than latkes with cranberry sauce or turkey-shaped hanukkiyot (Hanukkah menorahs). When we bump up against Christmas, the surrounding culture encourages an unhealthy material competition: how many presents did YOU get? However, with just twenty more shopping days until Hanukkah, we are out of synch with the shopping season.

When Hanukkah arrives in November, perhaps we can alter the focus, at least for one year, from gifts to gratitude, the central theme of Thanksgiving. Both holidays can bring us together with our families. After all, we will be lighting most of our candles during a four-day holiday weekend when many of us will have time off from work. This year, Hanukkah could mean watching a movie together by candlelight, or lighting candles after a hike in the Blue Hills.

Hanukkah gratitude might lead to giving to others. Check out this extensive list of organizations and causes, Jewish and otherwise. Once Hanukkah is out of the way, we can plan to join a service project when December 25 rolls around, and help others enjoy their holiday.

I was moved by “The Thanksgivukkah Manifesto,” a serious treatment of the possibilities raised by the convergence of these holidays by Rabbi Mishael Zion on the Huffington Post. Rabbi Zion writes:

“Thanksgiving is a much needed model for an increasingly secular American Jewry….Thanksgivukkah is an invitation to celebrate the places where Jewishness enriches America, and where America enriches the Jewish people.”

Not everyone is enamored with Thanksgivukkah. Because we believe in diversity, for those who are already tired or skeptical of the hype, I commend my colleague, Rabbi Daniel Brenner’s rant ‘Why I will not be celebrating Thanksgivukkah.’ and his “Anti-Thanksgivukkah Anthem.”

My take? I think that an event that brings together two holidays that appeal to Jews, includes food, and only occurs once in our lifetime is worthy of a little humor and the kitsch that comes along with it. (Learn the Thanksgivukkah anthem here!)Come, spin the dreidl and think about the great miracle that happened---where? Plymouth Rock? Jerusalem? Or maybe, West Roxbury? We’ll find out in three weeks!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

This Column is Not About the Red Sox

It’s true. There is more going on in the world than the World Series. I love the way the Red Sox unite our city, even among non-fans. With 900 channels on tv, and with ipods, Pandora and Googleplay replacing standard radio listening, it’s nice to have a shared experience that brings us out of our neatly autonomous lives. But there are times when we’re not watching games, or otherwise talking, reading or tweeting about sports. This column is one of them (for this week, at least).

So you might not be aware that this has been a big week for the Reconstructionist movement.

Last week, I received two brand-new copies of volume two of A Guide to Jewish Practice. If you haven’t yet seen volume one, “Everyday Living,” it’s the first in a set of three, comprising a Reconstructionist guide to everything from Tikkun Olam/Social Justice practices to organizational ethics to keeping kosher to everyday spirituality. This first volume received the prestigious Myra Kraft Memorial Award for Contemporary Jewish Life from the Jewish Book Council in 2011. Feel free to borrow a copy next time you are at HBT or order your own copy.

In the second volume, “Shabbat and Holidays,” you will find two chapters that I authored. Whoever can guess which two holidays I chose gets a chocolate kiss. (email me: In addition, I contributed commentary on the other holidays in the book. The commentary is what makes this such a rich and cutting-edge resource on Jewish holiday observance. Each commentator adds an individual spark – a creative understanding, an unusual practice, an insightful teaching – to the main text. We have one copy for the congregation’s library. I would recommend you get a volume for your home to renew and inspire your family celebrations. The Shabbat chapter alone is worth the entire volume.

In an historic development this past week, the Reconstructionist movement announced the appointment of Rabbi Deborah Waxman as president-elect of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the movement. I have known and admired Rabbi Waxman for many years as a scholar, a leader and a rabbi who is deeply attuned to the real life of Jews today, grounded in an appreciation for the gifts of the Jewish past.

As I listened to Rabbi Waxman share her goals for the movement in a teleconference on Wednesday, I heard a vision that responds to a new generation of Jews and a 21st-century approach to Judaism, one that will “give us and the next generation ways and reasons to be Jewish, to connect and grow through engagement with our rich tradition and with our community.”

Her top two goals for the movement are about creating meaningful Judaism and bringing our religious perspective to issues of the day:

v         The Reconstructionist movement should be a place where people “encounter wisdom or action, a ritual or person or experience that illuminates the moment in which they are living, that lights at least the next few steps of the path forward and hopefully leads to sustaining community.” She aspires to make sure that “Judaism is at least one place that people turn to, hopefully the first, but at least one place.”

v         Rabbi Waxman also seeks to promote the Reconstructionist commitment to living a life of social justice into the public square, to ensure that progressive religion will be “a strong counter-force to fundamentalism.” With a vision well beyond the needs of Reconstructionist communities, her intent is to demonstrate emphatically that “it is possible to be sustained by a religious perspective that respects and does not delegitimize the other.”

While it may be obvious that Deborah will be the first woman to lead a rabbinical seminary or a Jewish movement, we should also be proud that she is the very openly gay/lesbian leader as well. To read more…

Finally, to launch the newly-structured Reconstructionist movement, this coming Sunday will be the first business meeting of the newly-constituted plenum of the Reconstructionist movement. Craig will be on the call as our congregational representative and I will participate, along with other congregational rabbis, as an ex-officio member. We look forward to sharing an update with you next week. We have much to celebrate in our small, yet influential, movement.

Having said all that,
Go Sox!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Another View about Pew

In the past two weeks, our community has been brought together by the most intensely emotional experiences. Three congregants have passed away in the short time since Simchat Torah, each an important influence in their own way: Roz Mainelli, Eileen Darman and Larry Diamond. Each has left aching hearts within our congregation and beyond. Roz and Eileen, both vital women who lived 86 years, nevertheless surprised those who knew and loved them by their sudden passing. Larry’s death came as a total shock. At age 71 he appeared strong and healthy as recently as Yom Kippur, when he led a discussion, and on September 22, when he moderated the forum prior to the Boston mayoral primary. His sudden hospitalization and rapid decline were incomprehensible to us all. All of these losses compounded the passing of several parents of members in the past two months. We extend our condolences to their families and to all who mourn them.

This past weekend we also celebrated a major life milestone: Debi and Ashley Adams’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. Ashley and Debi chose to mark their anniversary celebration with a renewal of vows ceremony on Sunday, preceded by a special Shabbat service. Family and friends, including many HBT members, were inspired by their marital commitment to spend every Friday night together. Their love for each other, coupled with tremendous respect for the different ways they live and act in the world, gave us all reason to believe in the power of marriage to transcend life’s many bumpy roads. Our sanctuary  and social hall were filled with expressions of pure joy.

Holding sorrow and joy together may be an art, but I believe that even more importantly, it is a practice. Each requires attention to the moment. Having a community to share all of these emotional experiences is a tremendous gift.  I believe that creating space for these emotions to unfold, providing a loving community to embrace one another in sorrow and joy, and practicing rituals that draw our attention to the moment are among the key reasons that we exist as a synagogue.

Two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about the recently published study by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  A week ago, a post by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Gail Diamond, reminded me that there is more to Jewish life than this report portrays:

When I graduated rabbinical school 20 years ago, I was happy to get a job at a 100-family synagogue that had been built right on route 95 in Attleboro, MA. We were in a growing suburban area and soon we had over 120 children in the religious school. “Demographics are everything in this business,” I thought as I watched colleagues in nearby Taunton, MA and Woonsocket, RI, struggling with synagogues in what seemed to be the “wrong” locations. “These are the problems we want to have,” I told congregants as we worked to fit all these kids into a tiny building, built 25 years prior with only two classrooms. I was wrong. In the decades since I have learned that my work and the work of my colleagues transcends demographics and statistics. What matters, as my colleague Rabbi Barbara Penzner told me back then, are moments of connection and religious meaning, and the ways in which we connect these moments together to make a whole.  (See more)

Of course, I was flattered to read Gail’s tribute. But more importantly, her message gave me hizuk, strength, as it reminded me, during a time of overwhelming stress, of what we are all about. We may not be able to predict the future of the Jewish people in America. We may not know exactly how to respond to the demographic trends. But what we all know, every one of us, is that we are here for those moments of connection and religious meaning. They may feel few and far between (and may the sorrows of our lives continue to be few and far between). However, because we have lived through them over the years, as our children grow up and we grow older, as we hold one another up through times of trial and spread our joy through times of celebration, as we talk Torah together and stand up for justice together, as we bring food to the homes of mourners and make donations to Family Table – the cumulative impact of all this binds us together into a meaningful whole.

As we often read in our siddur (prayerbook) just before the Shema:

We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled,
ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;

We are loved by an unending love                            (Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

Whatever is in store for us, for our synagogue community, for us as individuals, or for the entire Jewish people, it is that love, we pray, that will embrace and sustain us. It certainly did these past two weeks.



What can the Dead Sea Scrolls Teach us about the Pew Research Study?

The big news in Jewish circles this week is the latest demographic study of the American Jewish community. The first comprehensive survey in ten years, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” was not commissioned by Jewish groups as in the past, but by the Pew Research Center.

This survey will be the source of much conversation in coming months and, while I’ve only read the chief findings, I suggest we all to read it so that our community can learn from the findings as well. The most dramatic trend is surprisingly, not about intermarriage, but about the “nones”—Jews with no religion. Overall, Jewish identity remains high, and the majority of individuals surveyed are proud to be Jewish. But the number of those who identify with Jewish religion decreases from older to younger. Among Jews born between 1928 and 1945, only 14% identify principally with their Jewish ancestry and culture, but not Jewish religion. Among Jews born after 1980, 32% identify as “Jews of no religion.”

As a Reconstructionist, I respect that Jews identify in many different ways, and that we express our Judaism through social justice, family holiday celebrations, Jewish culture and support of Jewish causes. However, I also subscribe to Mordecai Kaplan’s description of Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization” of the Jewish people. I recognize that American Jews may be reluctant to define themselves as “religious.” But Judaism without a religious basis strips that civilization of what I consider to be the core. I need to understand better what being a “Jew of no religion” actually means.

What is striking about this trend, which is no different from similar surveys of the overall American population regarding religious identity, is how it impacts the next generation. Among those who consider themselves religious, 71% are raising their children as Jews. Among those who do not identify with Jewish religion, 67% are not raising their children as Jews. In this scenario, intermarried families are more likely to raise their children with some religion, while only 37% of intermarried parents choose to raise them with no Judaism.

There will undoubtedly be many who foresee the end of Judaism in this survey. This is certainly a classic Jewish response. Remember the telegram which read: “Start worrying. Letter follows.” I am inclined to agree with Donniel Hartman, who published a column in The Time of Israel that urges us resist pointing fingers or seeking to promote one particular form of Jewish life over another, and to work together to respond to the reality of these trends.

I look at these numbers with a long view. My vantage point is the Museum of Science in Boston, where the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is continuing until October 20.

Having visited the exhibit (and viewed the IMAX film “Jerusalem” that same day—definitely worth the trip), I believe we have the tools, and the experience, to think calmly and creatively about the Jewish future.

When you visit the exhibit, you will discover some interesting artifacts of life in ancient Israel that demonstrate how Judaism survived an era of turmoil and transition.  The religious ritual items on display include horned altars used for burning incense and small figurines that appear to be representation of goddesses. Ancient Israelites held onto ancient pagan roots even as they developed monotheistic rituals.

The scrolls themselves are a testament to the rise of scribal arts which created a common culture that survived the Roman destruction and exile. However, during the time they were written, Jews were divided into a variety of sects. No one knew which ones would ultimately prevail. While most of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain identical writing to what we find in our Hebrew Scriptures today, some include alternative texts. Those familiar with the Ashrei(Psalm 145) will discover that the scrolls actually add a verse that is not preserved in our Bible or prayerbook. They alter an ancient Psalm!

In our day, we are witnessing a period of turmoil and transition, a time of divisions and multiple interpretations of what it means to be a Jew. What Judaism becomes in the next generation may not be recognizable to us, just as the artifacts from ancient Israel bear little resemblance to our Jewish practices today. I’d like to imagine what a writer of the Dead Sea Scrolls might think of our Jewish practice today. Would it qualify as “religion” in their experience?

The Pew Research study points to what Jews today find important. I’m not sure what it means to be without religion. I know from working with people over the years that as many people age, the religious practice can become more accessible and more appealing. And from history, I know that we Jews are a creative people, an enduring people, not because we gave up on Judaism and not because we refused to change, but because we have continually reinvented the religious civilization of the Jewish people. On paper, the task may seem daunting. But let’s not be fooled into thinking we are different from those who faced similar challenges in our past. On parchment, we are a people who survives by continually learning and growing.