Thursday, January 12, 2017

Wisdom. Power. Wealth. Honor: A Primer for our Elected Officials


When the Massachusetts General Court (House) opened its 190th biennial session on Beacon Hill on January 4 and the members of the House were sworn in, I had the privilege to give a blessing to the chamber.

As the session came to a close I shared a teaching from Pirke Avot, a 2000-year old Jewish text on ethical living. The passage that I chose is a classic Jewish upending of our usual assumptions, and speaks to the noble responsibility of those who hold elected office. Here is the teaching, and my blessing.


The ancient Rabbis ask four questions:
Who is wise? Who is powerful? Who is rich? Who is honored?
And they answer the questions in surprising ways.

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.

Who is powerful? One who shows restraint over one’s impulses.

Who is rich? One who is content with one’s portion.

Who is honored? One who honors others.

We call on the Holy One, the Source of All, to bless these officers of the Commonwealth, their families, the staff, and all those who work in this building. Bless them all with your gifts of wisdom, power, wealth, and honor.

May these public servants gain wisdom by listening to others, to the thoughtful voices of experts and to the quiet voices of the poor and the needy, to advocates and plain citizens alike. May they gain wisdom from those with whom they disagree as well as those who share their views.

May these public servants use their power, first and foremost, to control their own worst impulses. May they be mindful to restrain the impulse to use power coercively and corruptly, and always to give their very best to the people of Massachusetts.

May these public servants enjoy the wealth that comes from knowing how blessed they are to serve. May they be satisfied with what they have and dissatisfied with what the people lack.

May these public servants be honored for their integrity, compassion, and commitment to justice and bring honor to their office, to this House, and to our Commonwealth.

Amen.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

The UN Insecurity Council

The upshot of last week’s UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements has caused a great deal of insecurity in the American Jewish community. Too often, hurried statements from Jewish organizations (fueled by the Israeli government) increase the heat when what we need is light.

FB posts and tweets in response to events seem reckless, especially in comparison to the hour-long oration by Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday.

Listening to the entire speech on Wednesday, I found Kerry’s rebuttal to the claims made by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his followers in the US comprehensive and thoughtful. Giving the background to the vote, as well as an historical perspective on the all the previous Security Council resolutions and the US continued condemnation of settlements, Kerry’s words were balanced, honest, and based in both Israeli and American values. One headline in Haaretz today even called his remarks “superbly Zionist.”

It’s time for the leadership of the American Jewish community to pay attention to the power imbalance, the economic disparities, and the inequitable systems of justice applied to Palestinians on the West Bank. It’s time for American Jews to meet Palestinians, to visit their villages, and to see, in contrast, how well-developed bedroom communities for Israeli settlers are choking off Palestinian life and establishing what currently looks like a one-state solution.

This assessment does not ignore the challenges from the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority is considered corrupt by the average Palestinian. The PA has not succeeded in stemming terror attacks on settlers. The peace process has stalled for lack of leadership—on both sides.

Yet, short of signing a peace accord, the government of Israel could relieve much suffering. Instead, they have stifled the Palestinian economy, limiting Palestinian control over their own land, their own towns, and their own destinies. While Israelis build on land that they do not legally own, and are protected by the Israeli army, Palestinians are refused permits to build and their homes are demolished on a regular basis. Israeli powers prevent Palestinian entrepreneurs from establishing businesses that will create jobs. Roads that connect Israel and the West Bank, extending well into Palestinian-controlled areas, ease travel in and out for Israelis while Palestinians are stymied from traveling daily from home to work or school (often in their own neighborhoods) by closures and checkpoints.

While respecting the concerns of Israeli citizens and settlers for their safety, I find the current blind responses extreme and short-sighted. Thankfully, groups that support the voices of opposition within Israel, including Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and JStreet have given American Jews a different way of looking at the situation, a middle way that supports the long-standing commitment to a 2-state solution while decrying tactics like boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

My personal position is most aligned with T’ruah, whose statement reflected what Kerry subsequently stated. The full text is also included below.

I offer a few other links to thoughtful posts to help us all move past the rhetoric and come to a deeper understanding of the Obama Administration’s decision to allow the Security Council resolution to pass 14-0. These posts probe both sides of the argument and raise interesting questions for us all to consider.


David Remnick in The New Yorker, "The Obama Administration's Final Warning on the Middle East Peace Process"


T'ruah Statement on UNSC Resolution
תניא, רבי אומר: איזו היא דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם - יאהב את התוכחות, שכל זמן שתוכחות בעולם - נחת רוח באה לעולם, טובה וברכה באין לעולם,ורעה מסתלקת מן העולם
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said, “What is the correct path that a person should choose? Love tokhecha (rebuke/correction), for as long as there is rebuke in the world, comfort comes to the world, good and blessing come to the world, and evil departs from the world.”—Talmud Tamid 28a
Over the past few days, we have heard significant pain and anger from the Jewish community and from the State of Israel regarding the recent UN Security Council Resolution and the decision by the United States to abstain, thus permitting it to move forward. It is true that the UN has a history of paying disproportionate attention to Israel. In the past, T’ruah has spoken up against problematic resolutions, including the UNESCO resolution this fall that ignored the Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem and to our holiest sites there.
In this case, however, the tokhecha contained within this resolution simply reflects decades of U.S. and international policy that affirms the goal of “two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, liv[ing] side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders,” and decries settlements as an obstacle to achieving this vision. We encourage those concerned about this resolution to read it in full before responding.


T’ruah has long advocated for an end to occupation, which violates the human rights of Palestinians while threatening the safety and security of Israelis. The expansion of settlements involves land theft, as well as the blocking of access to land and of freedom of movement for Palestinians. Within Area C of the West Bank, where the settlements sit, Palestinians and Israeli citizens living side-by-side are governed by two different systems of law, in contradiction of international law and of the biblical principle, “You shall have one law for citizens and strangers alike.” (Leviticus 24:22)
The settlements and the entrenched occupation also threaten the well-being of Israelis, including those soldiers who risk their lives to defend an ill-fated policy; the Israelis who see their tax dollars diverted from needed health, education, and welfare programs in order to allocate disproportionate funding to those living in settlements; and Israelis and Jews around the world who face increasing isolation as a result of the policy of occupation. No less a figure than Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the return of territory may be permitted--or even obligatory—for the sake of pikuach nefesh—saving life.
Despite accusations that the resolution is one-sided, we welcome the call to the Palestinian Authority for “confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantling terrorist capabilities, including the confiscation of illegal weapons” and the condemnation of “all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement, and destruction.” T’ruah has always condemned terrorism and rejected any claims that political aims justify violence against civilians.


The capture of East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War restored Jewish sovereignty over our holiest sites for the first time in modern history. We pray and work for a two-state solution that will preserve Jewish access to these sacred sites. However, the continued policy of demolition of Palestinian homes;  the lack of permits for Palestinians to build in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods where they live; the expansion of settlements in these neighborhoods, often by shady legal tactics; and the failure to provide basic city services to East Jerusalem Palestinians living on the wrong side of the wall that cuts through the “eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people” simultaneously violate human rights, fly in the face of Jewish law and values, provoke anger among the Palestinian population, and make the goal of peace harder to achieve.
The rhetoric on the part of the Israeli government and some segments of the Jewish community that caricatures the UNSC resolution as an erasure of Jewish history or as a rejection of our connection to Jerusalem only blurs the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, and reinforces the perception that standing up for Israel requires defending occupation. In fact, we should celebrate the resolution’s distinction  between Israel within the Green Line and the occupied territories, and its rejection of the one-state solution increasingly called for by many in the BDS movement. Standing up for the future of Israel and for the safety of Israelis and Jews around the world requires distinguishing between our commitment to Israel and the current policy of occupation, and working toward a two-state solution.
We affirm the call by the UNSC resolution for “all parties to continue, in the interest of the promotion of peace and security, to exert collective efforts to launch credible negotiations on all final status issues.” The expansion of settlements, including so-called “natural growth” changes the facts on the ground before territory can be negotiated. Even the areas that, according to most maps, will end up in Israel must be negotiated as part of a final status agreement. We also affirm the call to Palestinians to end the terrorism and incitement that frightens Israelis from taking bold steps toward peace, as well as rejecting “Price Tag” attacks and other violence and incitement on the part of Jews.


Much of the Israeli and Jewish communal response to the UNSC resolution, as well as to all tokhecha regarding settlement growth, has emphasized the failure of Palestinians to accept past agreements, or focused on terror as the primary obstacle to peace. While there is certainly reason to find fault with both sides—as the UNSC resolution does—Zionism, ultimately, is about taking our future in our own hands, rather than waiting for someone else to determine our future. This means both accepting responsibility for the misguided and dangerous policy of settlement expansion, and taking it upon ourselves to do what is necessary to bring about peace.
In permitting the hotly contested peace agreement with Egypt, including relinquishing land captured in war, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy wrote:
We have great doubts regarding this peace agreement. That is to say—it’s possible that it will be temporary until the Arab world gathers the strength necessary for another round.
But it’s also necessary to remember that it’s possible that it will continue for a long time. . .Therefore, it is incumbent on us, without considering their ultimate intentions, to cultivate this peace, and to do whatever is in our power that it should develop and set down roots, out of hope and faith that time will heal all wounds, and that a new generation will rise that has not personally suffered the defeat of war and the humiliation that follows. (Aseh L’kha Rav 4:1)

The obligation to pursue peace weighs especially heavily as we approach the momentous fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War. Just as the biblical yovel year—the fiftieth year of the agricultural cycle—brought liberation and a fresh start, we commit to using this moment to move forward toward peace, a two-state solution, an end to occupation, and a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

How to Increase the Light

Why do Hanukkah and Christmas come on the same day this year?

Hanukkah falls on Kislev 25, just as it does every year.
This year, incidentally, the Hebrew month of Kislev coincides with the month of December.

And that’s how we end up lighting the first candle on Erev Christmas.

I’m thinking about how best to light up Hanukkah in eight different ways.  “We have come to banish the darkness” is a contemporary Israeli Hanukkah song that speaks to the darkness many of us may be feeling (whether due to personal issues or anxiety about our country and the world).

Here are suggestions for bringing more light into the world for every night of Hanukkah. Read them all now so that you’re ready to welcome the lights of Hanukkah next week!

Night 1 (Saturday night, December 24)—lighting up the world for 65 million refugees
When you say the blessings for the first night and say the shehecheyanu to give thanks for being alive to celebrate this holiday, add this prayer from HIAS for the world’s refugees.

Night 2 (Sunday night, December 25)—lighting up our intergenerational community
Second Night Light promises to bring light to HBT members and friends of all ages with fun, joy, family, and friendship. Come spin the dreidl with our youngest members and hear stories of Hanukkahs past. Discover the magic of the HBT community. Bring your own hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) to light up the social hall.

Night 3 (Monday night, December 26)—lighting up with an inspiring book/video
Snuggle up and enjoy Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. Did you know that Keats was Jewish? Read the classic book that changed children’s literature in 1962,celebrate the author’s 100th birthday, and watch the streamed animated special with a Hanukkah twist.

Night 4 (Tuesday night, December 27)—lighting up with Guilt-Free Gelt
No, it’s not calorie-free. T’ruah offers fair-trade Hanukkah gelt (in milk and dark chocolate). Read this kavvanah and enjoy your chocolate while lighting up your conscience!

Night 5 (Wednesday night, December 28)—lighting up our own spirits
Maybe you can’t escape those feelings of fear, anxiety, and loss. Maybe candles aren’t enough. RitualWell offers prayers and rituals to find healing in hard times. Have you ever visited a mikveh? If you haven’t watched it, see the Mayyim Hayyim video that features HBT, Rabbi Penzner, and member Forbes Graham. Or watch it again.

Night 6 (Thursday night, December 29)—lighting up the baseball diamond
Spring training is just eight weeks away!
Get a taste of spring by celebrating baseball—Jewish style.
Remember, relive, or become acquainted with Hank Greenberg. Not only was he the first famous Jewish player in the major leagues, but he had a social conscience, too. Watch the film, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (a terrific present for Hanukkah fans and baseball fans alike!)

Night 7 (Shabbat, December 30)—lighting up the spirits of people who are alone
This short essay in Hadassah magazine can inspire you to be with someone who might be alone right now. Invite them for Shabbat and candlelighting, or bring Shabbat and Hanukkah to them. Cherish the moment. (Full disclosure: a FB friend drew my attention to this article because the author quotes me in it. Besides that, it’s a very moving piece.)

Night 8 (Saturday night, December 31)—lighting up the New Year with rededication
That’s what Hanukkah means, after all. How will you pick yourself up after 2016 and bring your light into the world? Start off 2017 with resolve to recommit yourself to live the values you espouse. Will you add an hour or two each week or each month to write letters, volunteer, show up at a rally? Will you add a little more to your donations to the organizations you believe in most? Will you add an act of kindness every day? Will you come to HBT one more time each month to support and sustain our community and nurture your soul? Make a list and put it somewhere where you will see it every day.


Hag urim sameyach! Happy Hanukkah!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"We pledge to be stronger together" - My prayer at the meeting of the Massachusetts Presidential Electors

Today I attended the ceremony where the Massachusetts Electors for President of the United States met at the State House to cast their votes for President. All 11 of the Massachusetts electoral votes went for Hillary Clinton. 

The presiding state Secretary of State received thunderous applause when he reflected back on Massachusetts' role in the 1972 election of Richard Nixon: "I'll conclude by reminding you that 44 years ago this day, at this proceeding, Massachusetts stood alone as the only state not voting for the constitutional winner of that election. Less than two years later, he was no longer president." 


I was honored to be chosen, along with a Catholic Priest and Muslim Imam, to deliver an invocation before the balloting. 


Watch:



This was my prayer (slightly edited):


We pause in this moment to give thanks to the Holy One, the Source of All, who brings us to this historic moment to witness the fulfillment of the historic duty of these electors, representing the diversity of our people and the values that are representative of this Commonwealth. We give thanks to the Holy One for the good that has come from the historic administration of the first African-American president of these United States. And we give thanks for the goodwill that resides in the American people, we give thanks for these leaders, and for all who are committed to the highest ideals of this democratic republic, we give thanks for those who believe in the ideal of public service and good governance, and for the ideal of working together for the common good.

In the Jewish tradition, we mark the ending of a sacred book by standing together and proclaiming, in Hebrew chazak, chazak, venitchazek, meaning “be strong, be strong, and we all will become stronger." As we close the book on one era and prepare to open another, we speak to one another as a sacred community and say, “I will be strong, you will be strong, and together, we will be stronger."

We pledge today to be stronger together to resist the forces that seek to divide us.
We pledge today to be stronger together to support one another when faced with bigotry and hatred.
We pledge today to be stronger together to preserve our planet’s life and health.
We pledge to be stronger together to defend the Constitution.
We pledge to be stronger together to protect human rights.
We pledge to be stronger together to sustain our democracy.


Chazak, chazak, venitchazek. Holy One, Source of All, give us all the strength to stand together through adversity and challenge as we have stood together through prosperity and progress. Stand with us, Holy One, and make us stronger as we face the days ahead.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

BREAKING DOWN WALLS WITH LOVE

Walls are going up everywhere. Great Britain wants to create a virtual wall from Europe, and European nations want to erect walls to keep out immigrants. Not to mention the wall that Mexico is going to fund to keep immigrants out of the US.

There are other walls inside our country. We are walled off from people who are different from us. In detention centers, walls separate families. Those in prison are surrounded by walls. These walls divide prisoners and their loved ones. In solitary, walls divide one human being from the entire world of experience, human connection, human touch, life. These are walls that sap the strength and deaden the lives of human beings. Human beings who need to be tended and mended are buried alive behind walls.

We could take hammers to smash the walls that divide us. That might feel good in the moment. But violence doesn’t bring walls down. Violence only helps erect new ones. How we take down the walls is related to how we make peace.

Making peace is hard. Shimon Peres, after a lifetime of leadership, making mistakes and ultimately committing himself to peace, said in an interview not long before he died,
“Whoever you try to negotiate with is not a partner. You start from animosity, not from peace. The purpose of negotiation is to convert somebody who is not a partner to somebody who will be a partner,”

Making peace is hard. I did not come back from Israel with a grand vision for peace. I came back from this trip, my 20th time in Israel, with a shift in my thinking about Israel, Palestine and peace, and how to break down the walls.

In two and a half weeks, I visited my favorite people and places and was reminded of all that I love about Israel. And my eyes saw and ears heard the disturbing aspects of life in Israel and in Palestine. I felt love and joy, distress and discomfort, kindness and generosity, fear and anger. And heartbreak.

For nine days, Brian I joined Rabbi Toba Spitzer, members of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, and a few HBT members for an unusual tour run by MEJDI. This company specializes in “dual narrative tours.” We had two guides, an Israeli woman named Morgie and a Palestinian man named Nabil, whose personal stories became part of our itinerary. We stayed in hotels in Tel Aviv, Nazareth, and East Jerusalem and visited sites in Israel as well as the West Bank. Wherever we went, we heard different narratives from our two guides, and we met Jews and Palestinians doing work for coexistence in Israel and in Palestine.

[I hope you will each consider signing up for an HBT dual narrative tour that I hope to lead in February 2018, 1 ½ years from now.] I believe that every Jew, whether a supporter of Israel or a critic, should go on a tour that tells the Palestinian narrative as well as the Jewish one. In between the hard conversations on this trip, we also got to know the pleasures of Israel in its fullness, from welcoming Shabbat in Tel Aviv at the port, to eating shakshuka in a crowded restaurant in Yaffo, to visiting olive groves and eating honey from the comb in the Galilee, to wandering through the Arab shuk in Akko, in Nazareth, and in Jerusalem. It was the best tour I’ve ever taken.

After only one day of touring together, our group gathered to share first impressions. Over and over, people shared this observation: the situation is complicated. That summed up every day afterward.

In my time in Israel, there was almost no one that I agreed with wholeheartedly. Not even my closest friends. And that’s ok. That’s the nature of being human. We are all puzzle pieces, and they don’t always fit together to make a coherent picture.

Instead of finding agreement, my purpose was to listen to everyone with an open heart. What I want to share on this Yom Kippur night are those places where I found open hearts that left me with reason to hope. Not a messianic hope. Not a Niagara Falls of hope, but the drip drip drip of small acts of everyday people that over time, wears down mountains. The unending stream of small hopes that lead us, someday, to a river of peace.

I have chosen this path to help us bridge our divides, to move us away from the paralysis and fear of expressing our opinions, and to give us direction as a congregation. I want to adapt the mission of Kids4Peace: “to change the conversation, to bring new questions, and new answers to the struggle for peace, ones that are based in real relationships of trust and understanding.”

Let me share three places that we visited on the tour that filled us with hope:
Sindyanna olive cooperative in the lower Galilee.
The three-fold mission of this cooperative run by Arab and Jewish women:
·         providing fair wages to agricultural workers
·         improving the agricultural sector of the Israeli Arab community
·         women’s empowerment.
Our group walked in the olive groves and saw how Sindyanna’s trees flourished, went to the visitor’s center in Kafr Kanna, where we bought olive oil products (also available at Whole Foods!). We ate a delicious lunch prepared by the women of the cooperative, watched a video about Sindyanna’s empowerment program teaching women to weave baskets, and met the women from local villages whose lives had been changed. By the end we had a full experience of the success of Sindyanna and its hopeful vision. Jews and Arabs working together to improve the economic life for everyone in the region, creating new friendships in the process.

Roots. Some of us had already heard the founder, Ali Abu Awad, tell his story in the Boston area over the past two years. Ali is one of my heroes. His personal story is one of growing up in the West Bank in a home dedicated to the PLO. He served time in an Israeli prison for throwing rocks, then read Gandhi and Malcolm X and a host of other books while in prison. After Ali’s brother Yousef was killed by Israeli soldiers, Ali made non-violence his life mission. At his family home located in the midst of the Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, Ali brings people together who otherwise don’t speak to one another. Ali has cultivated a number of settlers and rabbis who share in his vision. As Ali put it, “There is no peace without truth. Not one truth, but the two truths.”

While we sat in the shaded hut drinking Turkish coffee, we heard from a settler named Shaul Judelman and then Ali spoke. They each told their personal story, their pain and struggles, their connection to the land and why each believed they had a right to live there. They spoke without apologies or defensiveness and listened to each other with respect and friendship.

Ali asked: “What is justice? The only justice is to bring back my brother Yousef to his kids. Short of this there is no justice. Revenge appears to be justice. Reconciliation is the best revenge. Suddenly the devil has a face and he’s not a devil, he’s just like you and he has paid the same price as you. We have both lost but our life conditions are not the same. The best weapon that I never use is inside me. My humanity.”

Yakir Englander is another one of my heroes. He too comes with a complicated personal story. Yakir grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic family in B’nai B’rak, and left at age 22 to see the wider world. First he served in the army. His job was to collect the human remains after terrorist attacks. He went on to get his PhD, no small feat for someone who had never had secular studies. Now he is fully committed to peace-making. For several years he was director of Kids4 Peace in Israel, bringing together Jewish, Muslim and Christian teenagers. (You will have the chance to hear him in November.) Here is Yakir’s vision:
“I don’t believe in peace. I believe in making peace. Oseh shalom is in the present. It’s not a future goal, it’s what you do.”

Knowing how hard this is, Yakir believes that peace making requires hearing the other’s pain. Like Ali, Yakir will meet with anyone. Yakir brought with him a young Jewish Israeli named Oren who has been active in Yakir’s newest program, Dialogue to Action. This group brings together everyday residents from both the Jewish and Palestinian communities of Jerusalem to meet one another and work together in concrete ways for change.

Oren described how he was afraid to attend a meeting of Dialogue to Action because it took place in East Jerusalem. But then, he told us, “I shattered a wall and went to East Jerusalem.” While having a conversation about peace-making with a Palestinian on the roof of a house, he got an idea. Let’s start right here. So they worked together to clean up the roof. They painted a mural on the wall. For Oren, this was a success: “small enough to work and big enough to do something.” Now he is a leader, building a network of peace-makers across Jerusalem.

These three hopeful examples (Sindyanna, Roots, and Dialogue to Action) are but a few of the many grassroots efforts that we rarely hear about, programs that bring Jews and Palestinians together, among them the Abraham Fund, Sikui, Hand in Hand Schools, Givat Haviva, Galilee Foundation for Value Education among many other groups, most of them with supported from the New Israel Fund.  

Oren said he “shattered a wall” to go to East Jerusalem. Where was that wall? It wasn’t a concrete barrier. It was an internal wall, a wall that divided Oren from himself.

The hardest wall to break down is the wall around our hearts. These walls defend us from change, from our fears, from becoming vulnerable. But the walls that protect us can harden and choke us off from love. That is the wall that Oren shattered. And that was the wall I learned to shatter. This was the most instructive lesson of my time in Israel, because breaking down the wall around our hearts is something we can all do, we all need to do, to make peace here at home. The story of breaking down the walls of my heart is the story I want to tell you tonight.

One of the reasons I planned this trip to Israel this summer was because my niece, Moriyah, invited me to her bat mitzvah. She even changed the date of the party to suit my schedule. Of my four siblings, I was the only one who would be at the celebration. The only problem was a big one: the party was going to take place in the West Bank.

My sister Devra has lived on the West Bank for over twenty years, but recently, she and her family had moved from Ma'aleh Adumim, a bedroom community close to Jerusalem where Brian and I had visited numerous times. Now she lives on a small religious yishuv (settlement) outside of Hebron.

Devra and I have had an agreement for years not to discuss Israeli politics. We’ve found a way to discuss our Jewish religious differences with respect and mutual interest, but since the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, we've avoided anything political. We enjoy getting together when I’m in Jerusalem, but I stood my ground against going to a remote settlement, because I have opposed Israeli settlement policy for most of my adult life. That has always created some distance between us.

As plans for the bat mitzvah changed, the venue shifted from Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim, to Kiryat Arba and eventually to Ma’ale Hever, the yishuv itself. After much soul-searching, I finally agreed to go. After all, Devra and her family have come to the States for all of our family simchas. She and I both knew it would be hard, and we both ended up being grateful for the other’s kindness.

The yishuv, Ma’ale Hever, is a 45-minute drive south of Jerusalem, past Bethlehem and Kiryat Arba. I was nervous about going there. My sister rented an armored bus, used primarily by settlers to protect them from possible attacks. As I boarded, many of the other guests greeted me warmly. Looking around, I realized that all the women covered their hair, all the men wore large knitted kippot, and every person on that bus lived on a settlement of some kind. I was totally among strangers, and amid people with whom I disagreed about religion and politics. I was about to enter a world that I really didn’t know, and up until that day, didn’t care to know. The day turned out to be filled with surprises.

One of the first surprising things I learned was that several guests had chosen not to come, because they were afraid to travel there too. A few days before, a Palestinian from the area around Hebron had entered a home in a settlement and murdered a thirteen-year-old girl in her bedroom. The entire country was in mourning over this brutal and unprovoked attack. It was understandable that others were afraid.

When we arrived safely at the party, my five nieces and nephews embraced me with joy. I danced with the girls and women behind a partition. I watched my sister sing and dance with the same wild abandon that I’ve felt at a Springsteen or Grateful Dead concert. Though I’m not a fan of segregated dancing, I was again surprised to see how these 12-year old girls were having so much fun, playing games, dancing with their friends. They were dressed in pretty party dresses, not slinky black evening wear like bat mitzvah parties I’ve seen here.

I bounced back and forth between enjoying being at the simcha with my family, and feeling alienated by things I heard.  “Next is the wedding!” they shouted to the twelve-year-old. In her dvar Torah, Moriyah spoke of the imperative to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. And as we stood on my sister’s patio looking out at the desert, my brother-in-law proudly showed me where Abraham walked in his neighborhood, proving his right of ownership. (But I held my tongue.) On the other hand, I was deeply moved by my family’s closeness and the way they adored their younger sister (singing a song they wrote for her, with one of her brothers accompanying the family on the guitar), and by the genuine hospitality and mutual support of their guests.
I discovered the human side of the people I had only known, and opposed, as “settlers.”

To balance this experience, I had decided beforehand that I would need to do an act of tikkun, healing, to reclaim my principled opposition, after the bat mitzvah party. As it happened, the very next day T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, was offering a day trip for rabbis. The trip was sponsored by Breaking the Silence, a controversial organization of former soldiers who document the injustices that they witnessed and participated in while serving in the West Bank. It was eerie, heading in another bus—this one without armor—down the same road into the South Hebron Hills, passing the same settlements and hearing a different narrative.

We stood on land in the village of Susya that belonged to Palestinians, where the army had demolished homes and clogged up the wells. We heard about the different justice systems for settlers and Palestinians. Palestinians are under military rule; Israeli citizens are subject to Israeli civil law. When settlers complain about Palestinian attacks, 98% of Palestinian suspects are convicted. When Palestinians complain that settlers are killing their flocks, burning their olive trees, and harassing children walking to school, every day, they have to call the Israeli civil administration, which is a half hour to an hour away. 90% of complaints against settlers are never brought to court.

These were very difficult to see and to hear, as I’m sure they are for you as well. The message of the tour was that the Israeli government is working to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they would rather leave than stay. At the same time, I had noticed that the Israeli settlers seemed so at home, driving easily from Jerusalem into the territories. It was as if the West Bank was already part of Israel.

Your head may be spinning from these dramatically different stories. Believe me, so was mine. I was confused for days, alternating between anger and despair. I saw no hope for the end of the occupation. No hope for peace. My heart was broken.

That all changed in the coming days. Eating lunch with the people of Sindyanna, sitting in a kind of sukkah with Ali and Shaul, and hearing Yakir’s story on Shabbat morning in the dining hall of an East Jerusalem hotel—all woke me up from my paralysis and pointed me in a new direction.

Hearing their stories gave me the courage to take what I had learned into my own life. My heart was broken open and I decided to take a risk. I had to open up to my sister.

Back in 1997, President Bill Clinton inaugurated his Initiative on Race, saying:
“I believe talking is better than fighting. And I believe when people don’t talk and communicate and understand, their fears, their ignorance and their problems are more likely to fester.”

That became clear to me when I arranged to meet Devra and her husband when we returned to Jerusalem.  Over falafel and pita in an outdoor cafe, we talked about things that matter to us, things we’ve never discussed. Through an indirect route, we ended up talking about dialogue between settlers and Palestinians.

It was a very difficult conversation, and yet we were both grateful for it afterward. I learned things that I had never really known about them. Things that surprised me. It didn't change my political views, but it did create an opening for us to speak more openly, to understand what we share as well as how we are different. Since my return home, we have used email to ask each other probing questions and share some of our heroes, like Yakir and Ali. I am hopeful for this to continue, not knowing exactly where it will lead.

Professor Harlon L. Dalton, professor of law and expert in critical race theory, once wrote, “When we are open and honest with each other; when we abandon our hiding places, take risks, and own up to our own self-interest, when we place on the table our assumptions, fears, trepidations, and secret desires, by that very act we are connecting with one another as equals.”

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Israel and Palestine, or race, or any other issue. When we can see each other with the heart, knowing our joys and sorrows, we have the power to bring holiness to our world.

Parker Palmer put it this way:
“imagine the heart broken open into new capacity—a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome. As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.” 

Walls are held together by fear. When we bring love to others who are fearful, when we listen to their pain without turning away, we can chip away at the fear and destabilize the wall. When we break down the walls of our own hearts, we open up the possibility for reconciliation, whether with a sister or brother, a parent or a child, a friend or even an acquaintance. It's those small acts of opening the heart that drill holes in the walls that will, slowly yet surely, break them down.

To arrive at a place of understanding, of holding both/and, suffering and joy, despair and hope. That is the work of tikkun olam, repairing our world. That is where I believe God dwells. That is where we begin to work for peace.

Ken yehi ratzon.



Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Kol Nidre 5777
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Moral Revolution for Change: Seven things we can learn about Teshuva (Repentance) from the Election, and vice versa

A story from an earlier time. Imagine a Norman Rockwell painting:
A young boy walks into a drugstore to use the pay phone. He dials a number and asks to speak to Dr. Bergson.

“Hello, Dr. Bergson, would you like to hire someone to cut the grass and run errands for you? Oh you already have someone? Are you satisfied with him? You are? Ok. Thank you. Good bye.”

As he is about to leave, the proprietor of the drug store stops him and says, “Listen, if you’re looking for a job, you can work for me.”
“Thank you,” the boy replies, “but I already have a job.”
The proprietor, confused, asks, “but didn’t I hear you ask Dr. Bergson if he needed someone to work for him?”
“Well, not exactly,” answers  the boy, “you see, I’m the one who works for Dr. Bergson and I was just checking up on myself.”

This is a time for us as individuals to be checking up on ourselves.
It’s also a time for our nation to check up on ourselves. How are we doing? Are we satisfied?

I imagine most of us would answer that in this election season we are far from satisfied. This election is dramatically different from any other election in my lifetime. In most American elections, what is at stake are two differing views of how to resolve our country’s problems. But in this election, what is at stake are two differing views of reality. In most elections, we are asked to consider issues and compare plans. But in this election, we have been bombarded by a populist wave of white supremacy, xenophobia, scapegoating, and misogyny. In most elections, we are participating in a process that enables democracy to thrive. But in this election, we are spectators to disdain for the rule of law and dismissal of the principles of the Constitution, and to what amounts to a willful disregard of the ideals of democracy.

The next question is what do we do about it?
What would the young caller do if he heard his employer Dr. Bergson wasn’t satisfied with him? Would he attack Dr. Bergson for being unfair? Would he give up and move to Canada? Would he quit and work for the proprietor of the drug store instead? Or would he find out what needed to be done to restore his reputation, to become the best employee he could be?

That is our task: to become the best human we possibly can be. In these ten days, we must determine to set right where we have fallen short. And in these five weeks until the Election, our task is to become the best country we possibly can be. From now until November 8, we must work to restore the moral values that have made America great.

Today we celebrate the Creation of the universe. The midrash (Pesachim 54a) teaches that when the earth was created, it had no foundation. It was unsteady, unstable. And so God created teshuva, the possibility of repentance, the human capacity to grow and to change.

As a Chasidic commentator explains, “Therefore, it must be the case that the power of teshuvah is implanted in every creature, and so too, and most essentially, in human beings who are microcosms of the world.”  (Pri Ha’aretz, on Re’eh)

Thus, one of the greatest teachings in Judaism is that teshuva is the foundation of the world.  It is hard-wired into us: the remarkable capacity to assess our deeds and the opportunity to change our ways. This is what we celebrate today on Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the Creation of the World.

But when we are not self-aware, when we refuse to reflect on our deeds, and most importantly, when we are opposed to admitting our own wrongdoing and we are incapable of saying the words, “I’m sorry,” the world loses its foundation. Indeed, without teshuva, the world is poised to plunge into chaos.

We come together in the urgency of this New Year to do nothing less than to repair our damaged souls, rebuild our moral character, heal our broken relationships, and revive our faith and our hopes.

We come together in the urgency of this election, at a time when we face enormous challenges in America: to bring prosperity to the poor and middle class; to combat the corrupting relationship between big money, elections, and governance; to heal our racial divide; to remake our criminal justice system so all Americans receive equal treatment under the law; to respond with compassion to refugees, immigrants, minorities and people on the margins of society; to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, to repair our inequitable education system, and to reduce the disparities in health care; and to reverse the looming climate crisis.

These are all major challenges to the future of our United States. None of them can be solved by any president alone. If American society is flawed, if the democratic system is broken, then each of us, as citizens, is responsible for its survival; each of us is obligated to restore it to full health. Our votes count, not just the votes for President or Representative or Senator, but the votes for city councilor and sheriff and register of deeds. Democracy depends on ensuring a moral foundation at every level of government. So if you believe that the system is unfair, it is unfair not because the system has abandoned us, but because we have abandoned it.

Rebbe Nachman taught, “If you believe you can ruin things, then believe you can fix them.” In other words, do not despair! Neither are we, flawed mortals, so beyond hope that we are not capable of change, nor is our country beyond hope and incapable of repair.

In fact, that is the point of having elections, just like it’s the point of coming together for the Yamim Nora’im. It’s a time for us all to do some tikkun, some repair, and without delay! So if the election is important to you, then the work needs to begin right here, right now. Before we can change our world, we must begin by changing ourselves.

This fall, the Moral Mondays movement launched a voter drive called “a Moral Revolution of Values.” (You may have seen & heard one of its leaders, Rev. Barber speak passionately at the Democratic National Committee.) The movement’s stated goal is
“to support state-based fusion movements to combat extremism in state and national politics, and to be a catalyst for a resurgence of political activism in order to end poverty, racial inequalities, and the most pressing issues in our country.”

Three Mondays ago, I joined a Moral Mondays procession around the State House on Beacon Hill, led by 100 members of the clergy. We were part of a movement that took place in 25 states. That morning, we read the Higher Ground Moral Declaration on the State House steps, as people were doing in all those others sates. Afterward a delegation met with Governor Baker to proclaim the Moral Revolution right here in Massachusetts.

Rosh Hashanah is the time for a moral revolution. Revolution and teshuva are both a kind of turning that starts with each one of us. And with our honest commitment and hard work, it will have an impact far beyond the nearest horizon.

Here are seven things we can learn about teshuva from the Election, and ways that teshuva can give integrity to this Election.

1    1.     WE ARE ALL SUBJECT TO THE LAW
At the pivotal moment when the Israelites are about to enter their own land the Torah warns that they should beware of setting up a king, “He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.”  And should they go ahead and set up a king, “he shall have a copy of the teaching written for him on a scroll. Let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere godliness and observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:14-16)

The king, if you are so desperate to have one, must engage in perpetual teshuva. The king, or any leader, must know the law, have a moral code, and consider himself subservient to that code.

The Torah does not speak of democracy, but it values law and is suspicious of a concentration of power. That suspicion also led to the Declaration of Independence and to the creation of American democracy.

      2.      SHOWING UP IS NOT ENOUGH
Rabbi Harold Kushner has written:
Teshuvah means a remaking of the self, a new ordering of priorities, so that something which seemed irresistibly important to us before is now seen as much less important. Repentance means becoming virtually a new person in terms of our values and priorities. That is why the classic test of repentance in Judaism resides in finding yourself in the same situation to which you had formerly responded weakly, that is, sinfully, and meeting it differently this time--because your understanding of what you stand for as a person has changed.”

Teshuva is not a quick fix. Change is most effective and sustainable when we attend to it steadily over time. Examining our deeds and our thoughts may eventually lead to a breakthrough as long as the ground is prepared.

Showing up for Rosh Hashanah isn’t enough to achieve teshuva. Showing up on Election Day without considering the impact of your vote is not going to lead to change. You might get a sticker at your polling place that says “I voted.” We won’t give you a sticker in synagogue saying, “I sat in a pew.”

3    3.      IT’S UP TO US
The Talmud teaches that Yom Kippur does not atone for wrongdoing between one human being and another. God won’t forgive you if you don’t lift a finger to seek forgiveness yourself. And God won’t help our nation if we don’t step up and vote. Whether repenting or voting, we can’t leave this up to others, not even God.

Teshuva and voting are alike in this way: there are plenty of people who avoid it, refuse to do it, or consider it unnecessary. Not only do they miss out, but they harm the rest of us by not making the effort. Part of our task is to seek out the uninterested, to persuade them of the seriousness of this endeavor.

It is not our responsibility to change the minds of people who oppose us. But if we believe in the democratic responsibility of voting, then we need to work on getting out the vote, reaching people who have given up, people who feel there’s no good choice for president. With voting as with teshuva, the world is better off if everyone does it.

4.      ONE SMALL STEP  
I’m not quoting Neil Armstrong, but the Book of Deuteronomy again:
Perhaps you will eat and you become full, you will build nice homes and become settled... you will become very rich and will have plenty of everything. And then you could become arrogant; forgetting the Almighty... And then you may say, "My power, the strength of my hand, made me all this wealth." (Deut. 8:12-17)

We might think, I’m well-off. I’m not a terrible person. I’m a pretty good person. In fact, I believe I’m the best I can be. Why should I have to work so hard to do teshuva? What do I really have to change? This is a kind of arrogance.

We might believe that one vote is meaningless. We might feel that elections don’t really change anything. This is a kind of arrogance as well.

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked, “what is the difference between East and West?” And he answered, “ein klein drei,” one small step. Whether we think everything is going just right, or is completely hopeless, a small change can make a huge difference. We can all turn. As we learn in the Talmud (Avot 5:26): L'fum tzara agra – "according to the effort is the reward."

5    5,     HELPING ONE ANOTHER FIND THE WAY OUT
The Midrash tells the story of a woman who was walking in a forest, lost for many days. She couldn't find the right path. Each time she thought she was getting somewhere, she found herself even more lost. For days and days she wandered in the thick woods. Eventually, she came upon another just like her - someone else who had been wandering lost in the forest. "Now that I have found you, you can show me the way out," she said.
"I don't know the way out either," said the second. "But I do know this, do not go the way I have been going, for that way is not the right way. Now let us walk on together and find the light."

None of us has the whole truth, so when we find others who are also searching, we will have a better chance of finding our way. Humility resides in knowing when to speak up and when to stay silent. And when to ask for help. We all need support to make the most important changes in our lives. No one can do it alone. Even a president can’t make changes without the support of Congress, and the constitutional approval of the Supreme Court.

Don't give up, organize! Don’t isolate yourself. Too often we get lost in our own self-importance. We perpetuate squabbles with others that, principled though they may be, help no one. To do teshuva requires admitting that the way I have been going is not the whole truth, not the right answer, not the only way. Likewise, voting responsibly requires listening as well as speaking, sharing our hopes and dreams as well as our disagreements, and working together for change. None of us can do it alone.

      6.     LET IT GO    
The Midrash expounds on a verse from Psalms (Ps. 102:19):
“May this be written down for a coming generation, that people yet to be created may praise God.” The rabbis ask, why does the verse say “people yet to be created”? Up until now have we been waiting for a new nation to be created? Rather, this verse refers to any generation guilty of evil-doing and injustice. If they do teshuvah, and pray on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, because they make their actions new, God (re)creates them as a new being. That is the “new generation.”

Today is the day for us to make our actions new. We are the generation who are witnesses, and thereby accomplices to, evil-doing and injustice. But if we take this task seriously, we, and our nation, may be recreated as if we are new beings.

What does it mean to be like a new being? When we start over, we also have to let go. We let go of old ways, old habits. Starting over also means we let go of some control and allow something new to arise.

Voting is a form of letting go. Each of us can make a small contribution, but ultimately none of us will get everything we want. It takes faith to vote. It takes faith to accept the newness of change.

7    7.    WORDS MATTER   
In one of the haftarot of this season, the prophet Hosea exhorts us, “Take words with you, and return to godliness,” Kechu imachem dvarim, shuvu el Adonai. (14:3) One of the most deadly weapons that has ever existed are words. Most of the sins we confess on Yom Kippur are sins of speech: we have spread lies, we have given bad advice, we have mocked, we have scorned, we have gone astray and have led others astray.

Words can also be weapons for love. Words can express compassion and forgiveness. With words we ask questions and provide thoughtful answers. Words can instruct and inspire. We have to choose our words carefully, starting with, I’m sorry and I forgive, and with them, eradicate words of hate.

“Take words with you, and return to godliness.”
If hate wins, America loses. If hate wins, we lose democracy.

Today, we need a moral revolution in our hearts. And that moral revolution should compel us to a moral revolution in how we vote and how we choose our representatives and how we govern. We need a moral revolution to root out hatred and prejudice. We need a moral revolution to say “yes” to justice and equity.

I call on every person here, as you spend these ten days in the process teshuva, to commit to take a moral stand in the next five weeks, to stand up for democracy, and to stop the hate.

Ken yehi ratzon.  May it be so.


Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, Boston, MA
Rosh Hashanah 5777, October 2016