Day Seven

Corona pic

This morning, we did not rush to get the kids off to school. We lingered in pajamas.  We let Daddy sleep in.  The boys began their 5th game of monopoly.  Day seven.

There are gifts in this time out of ordinary time. This involuntary worldwide Shabbat.

In our community’s online zoom sessions so far, we have been able to see the faces of members from Sonoma to Benecia to Pacifica to San Francisco, people we have missed in our geographical scatteredness.  Last week we were joined for Shabbat blessings by a guest in another time zone who missed a local service but found us online.  We are connecting in ways that reach beyond our previous capacity. In some paradoxical way, our apartness is bringing us together.

This is not to minimize the seriousness of our moment.

The suffering is real.  I just had a zoom session with rabbinical colleagues all over the country and heard stories of caring for toddlers while running a synagogue from home, a virtual funeral, family members with fever and cough unable to get a test, overseeing painful lay-offs, and caring for vulnerable community members who live in poor neighborhoods with high concentrations of the virus.  And from what we know, things will get worse before they get better.

But eventually, things will get better.

Humanity will make it through.  And in the process, we will learn so many things.  About our interconnectedness.  About vulnerability and compassion.  About the value of being together in a room making music unmediated by screens.

To me it is helpful to remember, our people have been through much worse.  We have many spiritual resources to turn to in this time. Eventually, this trial will make us stronger. And on the other side, just think of how sweet it will be to gather!  When this all ends, what celebrations we will have!

When the children of Israel were fleeing from Egypt, there was a moment of terrible fear.  Ahead of them, the Sea of Reeds blocked their way forward.  Behind them, the chariots of Pharaoh closed in.  Some cried out in despair, “It would have been better to die in Egypt!”  But Moses reassured them, “Do not be afraid.  Stand fast together and witness Adonai’s salvation… be silent and still.” (Ex. 13:13-14).  Right now, as we face this grand collective challenge, may we find our courage, standing together in new ways, supporting those in need.  And may we be blessed to find the gifts and the learning in this time of remarkable global stillness.

Awakening to Simple Joys


My heart jumps as I hear a loud screech coming from the general direction where last I saw my 6-year-old.  It’s enough like a human cry that my mother instincts send me into motion before the more rational parts of my brain kick in.


By the time I get to the living room to see my son, red in the face, blowing into an animal horn, I have already remembered that I brought home the shofar and probably left it out on the table.


Now I’m somewhere between relief, annoyance, and pride, enduring the discomfort of the raw ancient call as I near my child practicing his shofar blasts way too early in the morning.  I stop myself from stopping him.  He needs the practice.  And I probably need to be more awake.

The month of Elul began this year on September 1st.  Elul, the moon-cycle preceding Rosh Hashanah, during which it is customary to hear the shofar blast every single day (except Shabbat).  By the time we get to the New Year, we have theoretically been in the process of awakening for quite a while, hitting snooze, as it were, on that shofar alarm clock, till finally on Rosh Hashanah we take in a full 100 blasts and find ourselves unable to slip back into our spiritual sleep.

What do you need to awaken to?  You know best.

For me, I feel already brutally awake to the dangers of our moment – the climate disaster unfolding in slow motion, the decay of Democracies world-wide, the revitalization of anti-Semitism.  Those alarms have been blasting for a few years running.  I don’t want to start ignoring them, but nor can I sustain a continual state of emergency.  The awakening I need right now is not about realizing our world is at risk.  That shofar blast I have already heard loud and clear.

This summer I experienced a different kind of awakening.  My husband had a health scare, and I had thankfully had already booked several weeks of rest at home. Our summer became a time to awaken to the simple blessings of home and family, wholesome food, reading books, and gardening.  So many mornings, lazy and slow, cuddling with my kids, I wished I could engrave the experience into my soul, knowing more than ever the preciousness of life, love, and health.

As the year begins to accelerate with school and the holiday season, I pray that I can stay awake to the small blessings that sustain me moment to moment.  Even as I hear the blasts calling me to transform the world and myself with every fiber of my being, I hope that I can also remember to stay awake and make time for the joy and delights which are what make that effort worthwhile.


After Israeli Elections, What Do I Mean by ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’?


L’shanah haba’ah biYerushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem

This last line of the traditional haggaddah challenges me more this year than ever.  What does it mean to say these words in San Francisco, 2019, after the most recent Israeli elections?

First I wonder, what did these words mean to my ancestors?

When Jews said “next year in Jerusalem” in medieval European ghettos or the far away corners of Asian trade routes, they were not making pledges about their travel plans.  They were expressing hope, exercising the redemptive imagination.  Next year in Jerusalem – next year may we be safe at home, next year may we have the freedom to travel to our most sacred place.

Even as the phrase names Jerusalem, and forges strong attachment to a real place in the physical world, it has never been intended on a purely literal level.  For thousands of years, Jerusalem has been both a physical place AND a mythological symbol in the collective Jewish imagination.  The classical Jewish way to name this duality is to say there is a “Yerushalayim shel mala” a heavenly Jerusalem, and a “Yerusahlayim shel mata,” an earthly Jerusalem.

Good things happen when the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem align.  Bad things happen when they don’t.

Classically, the Jewish story of Jerusalem is that we lost it because we could not bring the ideals of the heavenly Jerusalem down to earth when we had the chance. Jeremiah and Ezekiel, contemporaries of the destruction of the Temple and the exile, believed that these tragedies were Divine punishments for our sins and that our suffering was a call to repent.  Likewise, Rabbinic interpretation assigns responsibility not to ancient geo-politics, but to us.  The destruction of both temples and the exile are understood to come out of our own moral failings – idolatry, immorality, bloodshed, and hatred (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b)

In Jeremiah we read:

The word which came to Jeremiah from Hashem said: Stand at the gate of the House of Hashem and proclaim there this word…Thus says the Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place… if you do justice between one person and another, not oppressing the stranger, the orphan and the widow, and if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, if you do not follow other gods to your own hurt.  Then, only then, will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time. (Jeremiah 7:1-7)

A few years ago, I was living in the earthly Jerusalem, walking its footpaths on my way from buying fresh challah on a Friday afternoon.  In my mind, I was in the heavenly Jerusalem, feeling deep joy to live by the Jewish ritual rhythm in a place where the community around me was doing the same, a place with such depth and meaning to my people.

Suddenly, in the midst of my reverie, Jeremiah popped into my head and yelled:  “You may love fresh challah from the local bakery, and you may love the glowing Jerusalem stone catching the light of sunset as Hebrew prayers quiet your neighborhood on a peaceful Friday night – but you know, just beyond your neighborhood are other neighborhoods.  Jabba Mukabel, Issawiya.  Places where the roads are not paved and the trash is not collected.  Places where homes have been destroyed and lives have been ruined. In your name!  These villages are also Jerusalem.  East Jerusalem.  And they cry out to God from behind that winding concrete barrier…. Mend your ways! Do justice!  Do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, the widow! … Only then will I let you dwell in this place…”

And now, April 2019, Jerusalem staggers further to the right.  An alliance is forged between those who see only the heavenly Jerusalem and those who care only about controlling the earthly Jerusalem.  The chances of Jerusalem on earth living up to its heavenly potential seem smaller than ever.

To some progressive American Jews this means it’s time to stop saying Next year in Jerusalem at the seder, time to stop participating in a myth gone bad.

I understand the issue — how can I say next year in Jerusalem after an Israeli election full of fear-mongering and hate? An election many say has buried the prospect of peace and Democracy if not the long term viability of a Jewish or a Palestinian state? Would I really want to live in today’s Jerusalem, where the religious right declares me not to be a rabbi, or even a Jew, because they do not like rabbis to come in female bodies?  How can I express any solidarity in any way – symbolic or not – when so many people in Jerusalem and Israel just voted for a corrupt, oppressive regime that fails in so many ways to live up to core Jewish values?  In 2019, can I still say, “next year in Jerusalem”?

For me, the answer is still yes.  I do still want to be part of it, broken though it may be.  I refuse to relinquish the sacred symbolic language or ideals of my people to those who would corrupt them with narrow, fear-based politics.  I refuse to let religious extremists “own” Jerusalem or define Judaism.  And still I hold out hope that the heavenly Jerusalem can yet manifest in that earthly city I hold so dear.

But when I say, next year in Jerusalem come Pesach, I will also have Jeremiah in my heart.  And I will be praying, with all my soul, that the Jewish people can yet mend our ways and prove ourselves worthy of the great gift and responsibility of sovereignty with which our generation has been entrusted.

When I say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ at my seder this week, this is what I will mean:

Next year in Jerusalem, may there be peace and justice for all who dwell there.

Next year in Jerusalem, may there be hope, may there be love.

Next year in Jerusalem, may there be freedom – for Jews, for Muslims, for Christians, for people of all faiths.

Next year, may my small life in some real way, move the earthly Jerusalem closer to its heavenly potential.

Taken with Women of the Wall at the Kotel — March 2016

There are no shortcuts

Appreciate the perspective and positivity! Thank you, Rabbi!

The Accidental Rabbi

Like many of my fellow progressives, my first reaction to Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report is disappointment. The daily grind of enduring the Trumpocalypse is so draining that I hoped that the report would be unequivocally damning, revealing smoking guns that no presidency could survive. Instead, we’re watching Trumpists crow and the mainstream media in a position to potentially flub the story and echo RW talking points. Which narrative will win out in the coming days? The Trumpist narrative that the Mueller Report is totally exonerating? Or a fact-centered narrative, pointing out that Barr’s letter to Congress states that Mueller’s report does not exonerate Trump of Obstruction of Justice charges? Or something else entirely?

Will the whole report be made public? Will the Dems go all in on continuing to investigate what happened? If they do, will the public side with them or decide that Trump has been the victim…

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Walling In, Walling Out…

wall with wire

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” So says Robert Frost in his famous poem, Mending Wall. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know – what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”

There are those who imagine walling in all of the wealth of the Northern Hemisphere.  Maybe sharing it out in trickles, charitable donations from the pockets of kind donors to the less fortunate, but keeping the dam high and making sure that most of the water stays on our side.

There are those who like to imagine walling out the bad guys, their drugs and weapons and crimes, their poverty … As if, on our side, we have no home-grown terror.  As if we weren’t the ones making the guns and buying the drugs.  As if, caravans of women and children seeking asylum are a military threat…

Stadiums of rally-goers these past few years have learned to chant, “build that wall!” as they are told tales of Illegal Alien Beings from Elsewhere Invading to take their share of the crumbs.  Somehow, these same people seem not to mind golden toilets and tax cuts to the rich and other grotesqueries – only the thought of poor foreign-born children sucking stolen shares of food, education and healthcare from their scant provisions…

In case you can’t tell, there’s definitely something in me that doesn’t love a wall.  And I find myself unconvinced about the need to spend billions more walling in and walling out at our Southern Border.

As I’ve witnessed the national debate, the government shut down, I keep thinking – there must be something symbolic going on here.  Something archetypal.  We can’t just be debating about concrete and security. Why is there such passion?  What is it in my political opponents that loves that wall even as I side with Robert Frost?

This week’s Parashah, Terumah, is devoted to detailing a different ambitious building project, the mishkan or Tabernacle.   Not a wall, but a traveling sanctuary, whose boundaries are curtains, whose guardians are priests.  A mobile sacred space which will accompany the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings and even into the Promised Land.

You could say that the tabernacle is made in some sense to contain the very Presence of God, and yet, its edges are not made of rock or metal, but fine embroidered linen.  It’s flexible, movable, beautiful, some might even say flimsy.

And I wonder… if it was strong enough to contain the Holy One Blessed be She … what could we learn here that we might apply to the boundary between Mexico and the Southern United States?

Lest I be accused of advocating “open borders” I want for a moment to explain that I do very much see the need for boundaries.  Even my kindergartner can tell you about respecting personal boundaries. It’s one of those kindergarten rules, you know.  And a good one.  And if it weren’t for cell walls, and skin, and the walls of our houses, and the firewalls protecting our computers we’d all be freezing from exposure, plagued with viruses, and leaking life blood and data.  We do need to wall in our blood and our bones and to wall out parasites and harmful bacteria.  It’s a matter of survival…

I can see why a person might want to build a wall.  If she was feeling under threat.  If he was feeling so insecure that it seemed he might lose the means to thrive…

Trump was right when he named the class issue that drives the people to love the wall.  In one of the most striking lines of his State of the Union, he pointed out that the people who love the wall are the ones who can’t afford their own private protections and privileges.  Yes.

What he didn’t say was that his political power has been built on their backs — setting up the White American Working Class in a battle against immigrants.  What he didn’t say is that as long as the poor people in this country are busy fighting Outsider Boogymen at the Southern Border, they will fail to unite with their working class immigrant counterparts and demand an end to the income inequality which actually drives their misery.  And as long as all eyes are focused on that wall, we are not looking hard enough at the exploitation and neglect that leave poor people of all backgrounds without the education, healthcare, jobs and safety that government could provide if it wasn’t so busy building walls and the weapons we use to defend them.

In the end, it’s not what you’re walling in and walling out.  It’s how you behave wherever you are.  Even the highest, strongest wall can’t keep out crime or poverty or mortality – the root of all fear. And you can’t wall in health and happiness any more than you can wall in God.

You see it’s actually a mistake to think that the mishkan was all about getting God to come down and set up shop in the Holy of Holies.  When the Israelites made the tabernacle, and even when they later built the Temple, they weren’t making a house for the Holy One Blessed Be He.

When we talk about making a place for God in our world, we aren’t talking about the physical relocation of God from UP THERE to DOWN HERE.  Rabbi Ishmael in the Talmud, Baba Batra 25a explains that “the Shekhina, God’s Presence, is everywhere.”  Or in the words of Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta in the midrash, “The Holy One is the place of the universe, but the universe is not God’s place,” (Gen. Rabbah 68:9).  Or as the Kotzker Rebbe put it, God is where you let God in.  Making a place for God in the world is more about opening our own hearts than about building something Out There in the physical world.

So then why the Tabernacle?  If God is actually everywhere and the Israelites are not trying to entice God to physically move down to Earth, then what is going on?

I think it’s more accurate to say: it’s not about moving God, it’s about moving US.  Us limited humans.  Who need physical boundaries to remind us about holiness.  Who come together with a whole community to designate certain times and places for the sacred dimension of life.

In truth, all of life and every moment is infused with God and holiness.  But it’s hard for us to see it.  We need the conventions of the ritual calendar and beautiful sanctuaries to remind us.  To change, not where God is in the physical universe, but HOW we behave.  What we DO in order that WE may Perceive God’s Presence.

We set up boundaries in time and space with the explicit intention of lifting up the holy dimension of life.  Those lines are in some ultimate sense arbitrary.  Shabbat could just as well be Tuesday as Saturday, but it helps for us all to align our practice and do it together.  The Holy of Holies in the middle of the tabernacle traveled around in the desert for 40 years in many different locations.  What made it holy was not inherent in a particular plot of land, but what the Israelites did in that place.

And I ask again — what would it be to consider our national boundaries more like that?

To remember that what makes our nation good and desirable and prosperous is not which military power is in control of which plot of land.  It’s not about keeping the right people in and the wrong people out.

What makes our nation good and desirable and prosperous, and maybe even holy, is about how we behave, and the degree to which we embody the vision of our founding: that all human beings were created equal, endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The boundaries we need to defend right now are the boundaries defined by the human rights and freedoms at the heart of the American project.  And if, in our attempt to defend the physical boundaries of America, we violate the best of what America stands for, then what have we become?  Surely not the Sacred Society that we aspire to be, and that we can create, if only we remember the potential for Holiness in every place, and the spark of Divinity in every human being.


Why I Spoke and Will March at the SF Women’s March


Almost exactly a year ago, I had the honor of being invited to speak as the sole clergy voice at the second Women’s March in San Francisco.  That moment, and others like it since the fall of 2016, gave millions of us nationwide strength, inspiration and the joyful power of collective action to fuel a transformational 2018 election.

Backstage that day, I met Zahra Billoo, the Executive Director of the Center for American Islamic Relations- SF Bay Area, who spoke right before me.  As we embraced on the podium before tens of thousands, she in her hijab, me in my tallit and pussyhat, we were not just two people in that moment.  We were, in that embrace, embodying a symbolic aspiration that is powerful and important that I gave voice to in my opening words:

“There are those who would prefer to divide us, race by race, religion by religion – but we are not going to let that happen!  We are here to celebrate and strengthen one another in all of our beautiful diversity!”

Even then, some voices in the Jewish community were objecting.  After the march, rather than write about how a rabbi was the only religious speaker at the SF March, our local Jewish newspaper instead published a piece from a woman who attended the march in Oakland and complained (probably rightly) that the speakers singled out Israel for critique and made many Jews feel unwelcome.  Falling into a familiar media trap, our local Jewish press amplified the drama of negativity and conflict and ignored a joyful positive moment of good news. Instead of lifting up a story about positive Jewish leadership in a multi-cultural movement, the story of Jews being “othered” was given far more attention.

Now, in the weeks leading up to the 3rd Women’s March, waves of critique batter the national leaders and demand that Jews and their allies boycott the marches.  In NYC and other cities, simultaneous separate marches will ask demonstrators to choose between marches that align with the original Women’s March or marches that emphasize welcoming Jewish women.

Meanwhile, the official statements of the Women’s March nationally and locally condemn Antisemitism and hatred in all of its forms.  Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers for the national Women’s March who has been accused of Antisemitism, has written an eloquent piece denouncing Antisemitism and apologizing for a slow and clumsy response.    Yet many are still deeply disappointed in Tamika Mallory, one of the top leaders, for failing to properly denounce Louis Farrakhan. Stories circulate about how one of the original organizers, a white Jewish woman, was pushed out of leadership after the first march.

So what is a white Jewish rabbi to do?  Despite the mess, I’m glad I didn’t sit it out last year and I don’t plan to sit it out this year – for reasons both selfish and strategic, practical and principled.

The stakes in this moment are as high as they have ever been in my lifetime.  After the 2016 election, I awoke to realize that the basic institutions of American Democracy I have taken for granted will not automatically continue.  If we do not activate citizen participation, if we do not stand together with allies who believe in the rights and freedoms that are the bedrock of our nation, then even America could fall into the kind of authoritarian nightmare that is now sweeping many once-liberal Democracies world-wide.

This is not the time for the Left to splinter itself over the purity of our identity politics.

And yes.  I am disappointed in Tamika Mallory and others like her.  I am angry to see Antisemitism on the Left that is real and that we have ignored for far too long.

I also am pained to admit that there is real racism within some Jewish communities.  I am ashamed to see prominent Jewish leaders champion some of the worst xenophobic rhetoric and policies spewing from the Trump White House.  I am heart-broken that the State of Israel falls so far short of my own Jewish ideals for justice as it creates untold suffering for so many Palestinians.  Without excusing them, I can understand why some of our allies might have swallowed anti-Semitic poison in the absence of real cross-cultural relationships.

AND — I do not believe that the way to heal these problems is to walk away from the table of diversity and solidarity back to our tribal groups and shout accusations from the other side of the room.

The Women’s March is not best defined by the politics of a small leadership circle.  The Women’s March is part of a worldwide movement for the liberation of all human beings with women at the forefront.  Boycotting the entire enterprise is self-defeating, short-sighted and unlikely to change the problem.

Jewish ideas and voices have a lot to offer in the struggle for justice, from the template of the Exodus in the Torah and our long tradition of critical thought, to the historical experiences of oppression and struggles against it, to the power we do hold in today’s context of relative Jewish acceptance.  The movement will suffer if we are not at the table.

AND – for our own sake, selfishly, if we want to protect the rights and well being of our own tiny group, the best way is to stand in coalition with others and lift up the rights and freedoms of the most vulnerable among us.

Ultimately, hanging in there with our imperfect partners is a smarter strategy than letting our own justifiable feelings of hurt break our bonds.  If we want Tamika Malory and others like her to face and transform Antisemitism, it will not happen through public shaming.  It will happen through hard, loving, long-term relationships where all parties hold one another accountable even as we stay connected.

I was proud to speak at last year’s Women’s March in SF.  I am proud to march tomorrow.  I have faith in the ability of my sisters to grow and embrace a more loving and open-minded approach, and until they do, I refuse to believe that I must choose between my Jewish and Feminist loyalties.  I hope to see you there and may our presence strengthen a movement for freedom and justice that can transcend and overpower the forces that would seek to divide us.




Plagues and Miracles, Suffering and Song

64a05124cd5a8df81e9b9dab2cd7ba4fWe, readers of Torah in 2019, jump in and out of the Exodus story in different moments, ourselves becoming different characters:

an Israelite slave, toiling in despair,

a midwife, resisting immoral commands, 

a hard-hearted Pharaoh, fearful to lose power,

a reluctant prophet, trembling and amazed by the call of a fire that burns without destroying…

Lately, we all know what it is to live through plagues. The plague of gun violence. The plague of corruption. Rising seas and super storms.  The pestilence of xenophobia. The darkness of spreading normalized lies, manipulated masses turning away from the light of Truth.

From inside the story, no one knew when, or IF the Happy Ending would come. Living through plagues was just terrifying and painful. Birth-pang, rock bottom suffering, increasing till no one left could stay asleep.

And then the moment came. And everyone got clear — from the prisoner in the pit to Pharaoh up on high — it was time for change.

By then the people were ready. Ready to sprint. Before Pharaoh’s heart could spasm itself shut again.

And they ran. To the edge of the impossible sea. And then God met them with an impossible unexpected miracle.

The sages ask — when did they sing and dance? Was it after they were safely across? Or was it AS they crossed, still not knowing, chariots behind them, walls of water around them? Did they, Could they, dance through the uncertainty of the sea?

If there is any trace of Miriam within me, I ask her, and she tells me…


They sang and they danced along the way. They did not wait for joy. They did not wait for some assurance of security first. Even before they crossed — AS they crossed. Right there in the middle of the story, before that Happy Ending. Even while they were on their way and it was still dangerous and they still didn’t know it would all turn out alright, and they still had a long long way to go – there in the middle of the struggle – they sang and they danced and were free…

Joseph, Structural Evil, and Karmic Retribution

karmic cycleIf you read too quickly, Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) looks like the Torah portion of happy endings.  Judah demonstrates his repentance for the mistakes of the past, Joseph forgives his brothers, Jacob is reunited with his long lost son, the family survives the famine by moving down to Egypt where Joseph is the second-most powerful man in the government … What could go wrong?

But if you’ve ever read the book of Exodus, you know – we should be worried.  We know what’s coming, even if Joseph has no inkling. We know that the Children of Israel won’t return to the Promised Land when the famine ends.  We know that only after 400 years of slavery, a series of supernatural disasters, and the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds will they even begin their journey back to Canaan.

This week, the seeds of that story are planted.  And not just for the reason you might think.  You see the problem wasn’t just that the Israelites came to Egypt.  The problem, hiding in chapter 47 of Genesis, is that during this week’s parashah, widespread slavery came to Egypt.

And I have more bad news I’m afraid.  It seems that one of the primary architects of the Egyptian slavery system was Joseph.

You see after his family came down and settled, the famine continued for several more years.  At first, the people brought money to procure rations. And Joseph gathered all the money for Pharaoh.  When the money ran out, they brought all of their livestock.  And then, when they had sold all of their possessions, in desperation they said, “Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we will be serfs to Pharaoh, that we may live and not die and that the land may not become a waste.”  So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland and all of the people of Egypt for Pharaoh (excepting the priestly class).  He gave them seed to plant, but he passed a law that forever after, Pharaoh would own the land and the people and take one fifth of the harvest.

Yes.  The difficult truth seems to be that Joseph used his position to enrich his boss and institute a powerful system of exploitation.  When his descendants generations later find themselves trapped and toiling in anguish, they are the victims of a structural injustice that their own forefather instituted in a moment when he had power and the rest of the world was on its knees.  Little did Joseph imagine, the system of inequality he cemented while he was on top would come to crush his great great grandchildren when they had their turn at the bottom.

I was telling my Dad this story a couple of days ago and I watched as his face fell and a thick quiet filled the space.  “But wasn’t he supposed to be some kind of hero?” He asked.

Yes.  And he was a hero.  He opened his heart and forgave the sins of his brothers.  He helped the whole region survive a devastating famine!

But it’s complicated.  Joseph may have seen the future – the years of plenty and the years of drought.  But he could not see beyond the limitations of his own tribal worldview.  Raised and educated in a time when slavery was commonplace, he could not imagine an alternative.  Even though he himself had been a slave — when he had power, our hero Joseph re-enforced a devastating legacy of injustice that came back to haunt his own descendants.

The AMAZING thing is that the Torah includes this story at all.  And painful as it is, I believe that if we can face the heartbreak of seeing Joseph’s mistake, WE can learn the lesson, instead of repeating it.

Let me be clear. It’s not that Joseph was a bad person.  If we limit our analysis to his personal gifts and flaws, we miss something much more important.

The problem is that when he had power, he used that power to strengthen a structure of injustice instead of dismantling it when he had the chance.  At the time, he surely told himself that he was protecting his own tribe.

But the karmic arc of the Torah suggests that Joseph made a huge mistake when he thought this way.  The system of injustice proved to be more powerful than Joseph’s intentions, or his personal relationship with the Pharaoh.

This becomes a cautionary tale for anyone in our moment who may find themselves in positions of power or influence.  Don’t imagine that your connection to the man at the top will protect you or your people forever.

For the Steve Millers and the Jared Kushners of the world – when you champion xenophobic immigration policies and fan the flames of hatred against other religious groups – beware.  It won’t be long before those policies and that hate will come back to bite you – and us.  They already have.

And for those of us who are watching the media discuss whether or not particular people are anti-Semitic or racist – I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial.  It actually doesn’t really matter.  That line of thought is a distraction.  Was Joseph an anti-Semite?  No.  Was the Pharaoh at his time personally anti-Semitic? Maybe so, maybe not.

The Israelites who suffered centuries of slavery were not enslaved by the personal opinions of Joseph and Pharaoh, they were enslaved by laws, policies, economic structures and system of enforcement that the two of them set into motion.  Slavery does not work because of a lot of evil individuals.  Slavery is better understood as a structural evil.

I wish I could claim credit for this idea but I can’t.  I admit – I took it from the Catholics.

Several years ago I was traveling in El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service, learning about the difficult history of the country, the role of the US in supporting and training a brutal military dictatorship who terrorized citizens there.  (In fact, you could say that the stream of refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries are in some ways the legacy of US foreign policy of the 70s and 80s – but that’s another story).

So while I was in El Salvador, I also learned about an inspiring religious leader who was recently made into a saint: Arch Bishop Oscar Romero.  He was influenced by a stream of thought called “liberation theology” which has a lot to say about injustice.  And one insight that has stuck with me is this concept of “structural evil.”

The idea is this – when we talk about evil in the world, it is not enough to recognize problems on the level of particular people.  All of us swim within a stream of culture, legal structures, economic structures, and so on.  Those structures themselves can create suffering or healing, justice or tragedy.

So when you hear the news of the 7 year old girl who died last week from dehydration in US custody – it is devastating.  I have a 7 year old.  And if I open my heart to really let that story in – it is too painful for words.  Too painful.  Even just one child suffering or God forbid dying in our care is too much.  One child.

This tragedy did not happen because of one father’s bad judgment, as the Department of Homeland Security has implied.  Nor is it the fault of any particular guard who should have seen the warning signs.

If we want to understand how this happened and prevent it from happening again, we have to look beyond the individuals in this story and their small decisions.  As long as we do not address the immigration system on a structural level, tragedies will only keep happening.

You could make the same argument for gun control, political corruption, healthcare, housing.  In our American individualistic culture, we focus too much on the single people caught in these stories – the White Supremacist crazy with a gun, the crooked politician, the incompetent bureaucrat, the drug addict who lives on the streets.  But all of those bad actors and all of their victims are actually entrapped within structures that perpetuate bad outcomes over and over again.  If we are going to fix the problems, we have to do something about the structures that are bigger than any particular people.

So — if Joseph lived within structures of injustice and if we too are swimming in a stream of structural, historical, and cultural injustice almost beyond visibility, if individual interpersonal racism or open heartedness do not really impact those enormous societal forces… what can we do?  How can we ever hope to do better than Joseph, the very deputy of Pharaoh?

Well we do have one thing that Joseph didn’t have. We have the stories of Joseph and the Exodus.  And that is no small advantage.  I believe that if we can bear the pain of reading honestly, we can awaken to his mistakes and make different choices when we too have power.

And not only do we have the story of Joseph’s mistake.  We also have the story of how his descendants one day threw off their bonds and found a way to imagine and live their freedom EVEN THOUGH they had endured 400 years of structural evil.  We have the examples of real historical movements – abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights – that show us how with vision, patience, solidarity and strategic collective action we CAN and one day WILL overcome the structures of injustice that persist.  May the stories of our ancestors’ mistakes and triumphs give us the vision to wield our power wisely, and the courage to believe in the possibility of freedom and justice even when we have a long way to go before we get to that Promised Land.


Image result for jacob dream

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely YHVH is in this place and i, I did not know it. And he was amazed and said, Mah Norah Hamakom Hazeh, “How awesome is this Place! This is none other than the House of God, and the very gateway to heaven.”

Genesis 28:16-17

God was in this place but i, I didn’t know it.  Love.  Yes. Blessing. There unseen all along.

But also, darker things.  Dangerous things.

Hatred and Antisemitism were in this place and i, I didn’t (really) know it.

Mass media spewing lies into dark digital corners and until 2016 I wasn’t paying attention.

Downward-spiraling white people struggling and seething, and i, I haven’t cared enough.

Slavery’s legacy ripping through a broken criminal justice system this place.  And i, I’ve been white enough not to have to worry too urgently.

Immigrant children imprisoned (not just now but for years), and though my own father arrived here seeking asylum, a Spanish-speaking teen without his parents – i, I have been unaware.

America’s freedoms are fragile and vulnerable, and i, I didn’t know it.  I took them for granted.

America, America, so beautiful and free, oh you could be the House of God — but we have been asleep.

“These truths may be self evident, but they are not self replicating,”

Dan Rather reminds us, “Each generation must renew these vows.”

…that all human beings are created equal. Endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…

So Awake, and stay awake – to the suffering and the corruption and the abuses that fester and grow when they are ignored.

But Awaken also — to our power.

To the light and the good right in front of us.

To the beauty of a sunrise reflected on water’s surface, radiant maple leaves in autumn, whatever nature offers near home.

Awaken to love in our families and friendship in our communities.

Awaken to the transformation possible we have when we make effort for what we value – a power we have yet to fully exercise or appreciate.  All along these have been here too.

Waking up, we overflow.  It’s too much.  But we can strengthen one another to stay present to it all.  Somehow we will find a way to swim without drowning through waves of headlines,

awake to what’s important, without exhausting our capacity to care,

Awake to the people right in front of us, un-moderated by screens and sound bites.

Awake to daily moments that remind us – people are good.

People can be fooled.  Fear can lead us into darkness.

But we can also wake up and find — we are made out of light.

It is there deep inside. It has always been there.  Mah norah hamakom hazeh – how awesome is this place.  This moment.   How amazing, what a gift, to be awake.

The Power of the Tongue

words have power

 “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

So it is written in Proverbs, 18:21. And it’s true. Speech has the power to create and to destroy, to heal and to hurt, to incite, to convince, to deceive, to ruin a reputation, to inspire and to shape the future.  With words we bless and with words we curse, with words we condemn and defend.  Words can outlive generations of human lifetimes.  Language is a power both human and Divine.  What we say matters.

This past Sunday evening as we gathered to find comfort and strength in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy, words helped us to heal.   We turned to words from our most ancient sources. Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam, God’s lamp is the human soul, Proverbs 20:27 greeted us in the lobby as those entering lit candles.  We passed around a stone carved with the word, “ometz,” courage in Hebrew, that I brought home from Jerusalem a couple of years ago.   People spoke and heard spontaneous words from the heart.  The words of Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, Eli Eli and Esa Einai have never resonated more deeply.

Words can heal, but words can also hurt.

For this reason, both American and Jewish traditions have extensive laws and norms about language – a topic I have been thinking about with a sense of urgency in the past two years.

The First Amendment States:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Jews have a unique relationship to the first amendment in this moment.  On the one hand, the first amendment protects our freedom of religion.  It is the foundation upon which American Jewry has built a relatively safe and prosperous life for centuries in this place.  Laws stemming from the first amendment are among those violated by the Pittsburgh shooter.

On the other hand, all too often in recent years, the first amendment has been used as a shield for hate speech and incitement.  Activists who claim to be defending the first amendment, have used its protection to create enclaves for false conspiracy theories, and platforms to spread fear and xenophobia.  The President has made incitement to violence a cornerstone of his rallies and his rhetoric – calling for the crowd to beat up outliers and naming his political critics “enemies of the people.”

The freedom of speech is a right designed to protect journalists who expose unflattering truths about those in power.  It is designed to nurture an educated citizenry who can think critically with access to multiple sources of information.  The first amendment was never meant to enable leaders to lie with impunity.  It was never meant to foster social and digital spaces where bigots and fanatics can validate one another and spread false conspiracy theories that lead to murder.  The first amendment was never intended to provide a path for our leaders to call others to violence and then deny responsibility.

As a Jew, I would never want to weaken the first amendment.  Its protection is essential to my religious freedom.  But nor do I accept that the first amendment is itself a guide to ethical speech. Those who use the first amendment as a shield for hate claim a false moral high ground.  In America’s rights-based system, the first amendment protects sacred freedoms, but it also protects morally repugnant and dangerous language.  In the absence of some other moral or ethical code, we are left with a system that allows the abuse of language in the name of protecting language.  That’s where I turn to the Jewish teachings on the ethics of speech.

Judaism has always recognized the profound power of language.  For that reason, the first chapter of Genesis imagines God creating the entire cosmos with nothing but words.  In practical terms, Jewish tradition has an enormous set of guidelines for the proper use of speech.  Through careful analysis and case study over centuries, our ancestors have considered many values with which to guide our speech – for example, Truth and Kindness. They have thought about what to do when these values come in to tension. The best known work on Jewish speech ethics, the Chofetz Chayim, written by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, synthesizes it all and concludes that the ultimate test for ethical speech is the potential for harm.  For speech (or silence) to be ethical, it should ideally be truthful and kind, but most of all, it must not cause harm.

As we head into the final few days before a fateful election, I pray that our leaders and pundits can learn from the painful week that has passed and finally stop the inflammatory rhetoric and the spread of false conspiracy theories which have caused immeasurable harm.  For those who are not capable or willing, I pray that their supporters will awaken and stop their support.  But most of all, I pray that the good people who have been opting out of our Democracy will see that we need them to stand up and speak in a very important way right now — through the ballot box.  Just as words can do harm, so can silence. Right now, voting is the most important way we can use language to transform our world for the better.  May our words be words of peace bringing hope and healing to a world in need.  Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be so.