Category Archives: Hazzan’s Monday Morning Quarterback

Stand, Kneel Together

Our lives are marred by inconsistencies. Some of us are formulaic, by-the-book people. Others, we march to the beat of our own drum. Neither type of person escapes the truth that we inhabit a world filled with both uncertainty and order. Life is complex. While I may not agree, I have still found common ground with those who think Israel is an apartheid state. I have found common ground with those who demonize liberals.

I am constantly uncomfortable. I resist posting responses or sharing articles out of fear. Sometimes I feel that liking a status is my form of silent rebellion. This isn’t a healthy way to live. And so today I’ll be as honest as I can be about the complexities and inconsistencies that I see layering on top of one another.

During the 10 days of repentance, I look to two distinct lessons of this season: God is ultimate judge; and the idea of cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul. We are reminded that we should not judge others, especially if we have not sat in their place. Maybe we can look inward before expressing outwardly. Maybe we can see that those who protest do so not out of hate. We have professional football players kneeling during the national anthem—intently, with purpose. Not lying down, or spitting on the ground, or burning a flag. Kneeling intently, with purpose; with deep love of this country. When you love someone, you expect more of them; you challenge them. Some will use this platform to expect more of our country.

We have the right to feel offended, and we have the right to feel proud. And we have right to be curious about motivations. There is nuance to this movement.

As Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers teammate, Eric Reid, put it: “What Colin and Eli [Harold] and I did was peaceful protest fueled by faith in God to help make our country a better place. And I feel like I need to regain control of that narrative and not let people say what we’re doing is un-American. Because it’s not. It’s completely American.” (Update: Reid expands on his intentions here)

There is a debate about standing or sitting for the Shema prayer. Many Reform congregations stand for the Shema because standing signifies its importance. Most Conservative and Orthodox congregations sit because of a tradition that one sits as if in chevruta (study partnership) when reciting words of Torah. Nuance. There is meaning in both choreographies, but one has to ask the “why” to further your own informed perspective and create a layer of respect for the other practice.

And while we debate a choreographic move, Colin Kaepernick has followed up on his symbolic gesture with action—he’s done a lot of community outreach and philanthropic work in the past year, so much so that he was honored a few weeks ago by the NFL Players Association.

To those who wonder about the “right time and place” of the protest, I have begun my own research into the Star Spangled Banner, and would like to share a few thoughts. The anthem is a symbol of patriotism, of our love and respect for our military, and of those who have served our country. That’s what it means to many, but not all.

Francis Scott Key, the author of the anthem and District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833–1840, defended slavery (as a slave owner) by attacking the abolitionist movement. A few highlighted articles:

http://www.salon.com/2012/07/04/francis_scott_key_on_trial/

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/wheres-debate-francis-scott-keys-slave-holding-legacy-180959550/#gU1AFUEWvIR5jsDR.99

https://cdn.loc.gov/service/rbc/rbcmisc/lst/lst0092/lst0092.pdf

The anthem’s third stanza (of four) speaks about slavery. And yet, during Civil War, the Star Spangled Banner was an anthem for Union troops. Talk about confusing. By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors.

It’s hard to unpack the author from the message, even if the message became a rallying cry for the opposing team. The (first verse only of the) Star Spangled Banner became our national anthem in 1931. It has been standard to play the anthem before sporting events since World War II. Its original use at sporting events is undeniably bound to our honoring of the military.

And yet, Jackie Robinson spoke about playing in his first World Series game, “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion…As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

It was only recently, in 2009, that NFL players came out to the field during the national anthem. Soon thereafter, the United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard [paid] $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies as part of military recruitment budget-line items.

The anthem protest controversy is what is making headlines in a sport plagued by issues regarding domestic violence and other criminal offences, a sport that has widespread concussion issues. Yet for all the claims that the players are entitled rich little kids, this is a sport in which many of its players would be otherwise unrecognizable without a jersey number, where players wear helmets covering their faces and who are looking for a time and space for introspection as well as action. This is a sport that since 2008, the average career across all positions is only 2.66 years, where bad financial advice often leads to bankruptcy. The lifespan of a playing career and a social impact career is shorter than most realize.

At the end of the day, the NFL is a private business. The owners have expressed their views just as owners of other enterprises share their own views on issues of the day.  One can boycott Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby or Target or the NFL. Whatever path you do take, I hope it’s one filled with openness to learning and building together. That message was clear from owners and players alike this past weekend.

Praying to God is often in the polarities of life—in the comings and goings, at the rise of a new day and in the tucking in at night. We pray before games—for success in our craft, in triumphing over life’s challenges. We pray following games. “God is good,” the athlete proclaims after scoring the winning touchdown.

I pray for a time when I won’t open up my social media feeds to find friends judging others, friends combatting fear. I pray that I find this not out of a skewed friendship list or algorithm, but because I hope that the weight has been lifted by the many acts of kindness and moments of introspection. This won’t happen tomorrow, or the day after. Pain and fear will unfortunately always exist, but it is how we show support and love for one another and how we fight for positive change that lessens the hurt and the sorrow.

I am uncomfortable. I am searching for answers. When I prostrate to the floor during the apex of our Yom Kippur service, I will commit myself to being better in the year ahead. I will commit myself not to finding the answers, but to continuing the search for good throughout the world. And I commit to listening, being patient when patience is required, and acting when action is necessary. May we bring light and understanding in the year ahead.

New Year’s Resolution: Let your intentions be known!

Having just returned from a short time away, I’ve been thinking a lot about vacations. Vacations make no promises. What we immediately think of as periods of recreation, they commit to nothing more than the act of vacating one space for another. Yet to be away for even a short period of time can be therapeutic and refreshing, regardless of how many deep tissue massages or rounds of golf are on the docket. There can be fixed plans- meeting up with friends at a predetermined location, attending a sporting event at a fixed time. Even spontaneous road trips can be fixed when you plan even remotely ahead of time. On the other hand, preplanned road trips can be spontaneous, when the GPS malfunctions or someone has an allergic reaction to their veggie burger and requires Benadryl. No matter how much you plan ahead of time, life throws curveballs, fastballs and knuckeballs daring you to adjust the game plan.

Driving back from South Florida on Thursday night, I had a car full of Holzer ladies sleeping soundly through the second leg of a 5 hr journey home. Long drives remind me of when I ran cross country in high school- no walkmen to blast music, just time to think. While I was thinking about the sermon I had wanted to write a week ago, a car zoomed up beside me. Realizing that his lane, the right lane, was somehow moving under 90 mph, the driver decided to create a previously unopen space between my car and the car in front of us. I honked for a moment, proceeding to a take a look at the license plate of the car now nestled in front of me. H, U, T, Z, P, A, H. Hutzpah. I thought to myself, well he did warn me by clearly stating his intentions with a license plate like that!

Our sages teach of a balance between Keva, fixed, and Kavanah, the spontaneous. While we may focus on their relationship vis-à-vis prayer, that as 11th century moral philosopher Bahya Ibn Pakudah stated, “prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul,” the balance is vital to the fulfillment of mitzvot as well. To be so obsessed with process without allowing room for purpose, mitzvot will lack meaning and intention.

In this week’s torah portion, Joseph tests his brothers in an elaborate plan that our sages struggle to rationalize. Joseph makes the climb from “Hebrew youth” in an Egyptian jail cell to Vizier in charge of all the land of Egypt at the age of 30. He seems to have it all figured out. The text states,

“And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” Genesis 41:41-2

Like the coat of many colors beforehand, or the robes that Mordechai wore around Shushan as reward from the King, Joseph looks the part of special individual amidst the unrobed masses. He looks like he has it all figured out. Yet there are allusions to where Joseph’s heart lies.  As the text puts it:

“Joseph named the first born Menashe because,  ‘G-d has made me forget all my troubles and even my father’s house'” (Genesis 41:51).

Has Joseph assimilated into Egypt? Yes. But son #1 is a constant reminder of what he’s supposedly forgotten.

“He named his second son Ephraim because “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Genesis  41:52).

Assimilated into Egypt? Maybe not so much.

A somewhat spoiled, self-centered, pretentious young man is now the man honored by the king with the compassionate task of feeding others. Once again, the text is straightforward.

Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. (Genesis 42:6-7)

Joseph devises a plan to test his brothers, not out of bitterness, but hope. He needs to see if they are remorseful for their actions. Teshuva, repentance, comes when they show intent to do something different this time. Amidst this plan he listens to his brothers go back and forth:

They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them.

And how does Joseph respond?

He turned away from them and wept… But he came back to them and spoke to them; and he took Simeon from among them and had him bound before their eyes.

Later, upon seeing his brother Benjamin for the first time, the text states:

With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and—now in control of himself—gave the order, “Serve the meal.”

They had just left the city and had not gone far, when Joseph said to his steward, “

Up, go after the men! And when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why did you repay good with evil?’” (Genesis 44:4)

He’s almost there, allowing his private emotions to become public. This will be the key to his brothers opening up to him…but then we go back to this master plan. As a reader, I keep thinking, “he’s gonna blow this chance again.” Joseph hides behind the process, waiting for the plan to unfold rather than letting his intentions be known.

While we can ask why Joseph did not reveal himself earlier, it’s hard to ignore the power of his emotions at that moment. Whatever plan this is, whatever Joseph has built up in his mind, it almost destroys the potential for renewed relationships with his brothers. From every word and every action, the bitterness towards his brothers continues through the plan he has set out. Commentators explain that this was all a master plan to not embarrass his brothers. However, Joseph’s emotions speak volumes as to how he really wanted this all to go down.

We have to wait until next week’s parashah, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. At that moment,

“his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear…He embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.”

Joseph’s unadulterated tears break the curse. Moving forward, Joseph is able to provide for his family during the years of famine- food and land for his brothers, burial needs for his father. But the text never speaks of an embrace with his brothers again. There is reconciliation, just not the founding of a new healthy relationship. Joseph was too caught up in the fixed plan, the formality of Egyptian society, that he almost misses out on the much needed moment of healing.

We sit here on Erev-Rosh HaChanukkah, the eve of a new year. It’s a time in between last minute donations and those first minute resolutions. We look during these liminal times to recommit ourselves to causes, to lifestyle changes, to fostering friendships or a stronger work/life balance. We are all well-intentioned people, but life gets in the way and sometimes, we don’t hit a bullseye, or even the target itself.

These yearly markers are, in essence, no different than a random Tuesday in the middle of the summer. We can plan to make a call to an old friend for the next holiday or birthday, or we can make a call tonight. If you’ve been holding in, waiting to find a time to reconnect, connect and just spit it out already. We can plan to visit someone on the mi shebeirakh list when our “schedule allows,” or we can send a note to let them know we are thinking of them. Don’t wait for the perfect plan to take shape. Things will undoubtedly come up, but within the pockets of time filled with the mundane, fill those with intention.We have to learn to get over ourselves. Show our intent through our words, our gestures, and our actions. Intention is not everything, but it is vital to our relationships to share it with others. Be transparent. Be raw. Be real.

Tonight we finally end 2016. Scientist were even kind enough to add in a leap second to this tumultuous year. For many this was a, “ughh” year- we lost family, friends, sports icons, rock and movie stars; we lost our fantasy football championships thanks to Dez Bryant’s heroics. This was the year that lacked civility, the year plagued by hidden government plots and politic agendas- we continued to demand more transparency. And yet, for all the transparency we desire from our leaders, we should demand the same for ourselves, expecting nothing less from our own relationships. In this age of speaking you mind, really whatever is on your mind, it is imperative that we speak from the heart.

The modern miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasts for 8 days, but that there are Jews who continue to be committed to lighting it again each and every day. When the lights go out, we fill the chanukkiyah with new candles. We are partners in that miracle. We may usher in a new year amidst the mitzvah of Hanukkah- pirsumei nissa, the publicizing of the miracle. As Joseph gave in to his emotions, so too may we publicize our intentions, our hopes and our dreams for the coming year. Shana tova im kavana– a year of health, happiness, and intention for us all.

Home for the Holidays

Where do we find the pulse of a people? How do we engage and inspire those around us? We look to music; we look to art; we look to entertainment, as the outward manifestations of our own hopes and desires. In my case, you need only look at what’s on my DVR to see what’s going on in my head and in my life. Surely our TV shows have shifted over the years. What began as a series of Law and Order and crime shows has morphed into a collection of narratives that now parallel our own life experience (luckily the crime shows were not an outward manifestation of my own hopes or desires OR parallel to my own life experience). “New Girl,” the story of loft-mates trying to make it as young professionals, comes in third now behind two new shows. The first, “Life in Piece”s, has four interconnected storylines- one for each branch of the Short family. There is an older couple with three grown children, who have their own relationships that develop throughout the show. When the show debuted last year, I would often gravitate to the narrative of the couple with a young child. While the story takes place in Los Angeles, it is very Jacksonville- the intergenerational day-to-day involvement in each other’s lives; every day is like Thanksgiving.

To top our show list is a new drama, “This is Us.” It is the story about the family lives and connections of several people who all share the same birthday.  A key birthday takes place during the fall of 1980, 36 years ago. Each week, I cry a little. Each week, I reminisce of what it meant to grow up in the 80s. Each week, I obsess with the historical inaccuracies of the storyline.Each week, I am reminded of how relationships are formed: where the notions of grudges and favorites are cultivated and how a moment in time can affect our future. The more we watch, the more we affirm that the story of This is Us is the story of “us.”

This week, we encounter another storyline spearheaded by another late-30something character experiencing a life change of his own. Medieval commentator Rashi estimates that Isaac was 37 years old when his mother passed away. At the age of 40, Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (Genesis 24:67).

 

 

Three years after her death, Isaac brings his wife to his mother’s tent. Three years of mourning. Three years of not being able to talk about his feelings, of not being able to enter his mother’s tent- to be able to reflect upon his mother’s life as well as his own upbringing. Only through Rebekah is he finally able to come home.

 

Coming home- for holidays, for liminal moments both bitter and sweet, takes us to a familiar, albeit disorienting place. A Huffington Post article from last December entitled, “How to Avoid Reverting to your Teenage Self Over the Holidays” stated:

 

There’s a joke that captures the feeling of “regression” that many adults experience when they go home to spend the holidays with their families. It goes like this: For every day you’re home with your family, you lose five years. So you should keep your trip short enough that you’ll be old enough to drive away.

 

“It’s variable. At different stages of your life you might regress more or less,” Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Emory University and editor of the Journal of Family Psychology, told The Huffington Post. “Maybe you go back to your room, which may still be more decorated like a child’s room. You return to the patterns you had when you lived there. It’s challenging, especially early on, to find your way as an adult.”

 

We all fall into old habits. Grown adults talk to their parents with teenage drama, while parents treat grown up children like middle schoolers. We revert. We take steps back. We hold grudges from years long ago. And even when we are not attending a family gathering,  we could easily be attending one of those gatherings where we pray none of our real feelings slip out at the dinner table.

 

Coming home means sometimes moving backwards- in time and in relationship building. As a recent S.C Johnson campaign put its it, “When families gather, things get messy.”

 

There is one tradition related to coming home that has changed my outlook. It is the nostalgic art of “going through stuff.”

 

Our family is currently undergoing a process of high level de-cluttering. I would characterize it as a “triangle of memory” in constant rotation. We inherit toys, books, and outfits from friends who are gracious to share so that our girls might enjoy what their children once enjoyed. As our own parents downsize, we inherit books, tchotchkes, art projects and more from our own childhoods, while simultaneously deciding what we should retain as keepsakes for our own daughters. It is a unique position to decide which of my own handprints to hold on to as I think about all of the take-home projects I continue to stockpile. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by watercolor and who by puff-paint?

 

One such heirloom in my possession is a time capsule from almost a quarter century ago, intended to be opened in the year 2000.   Well I opened it up…two years ago. Most obvious was the folded up Worcester Telegram & Gazette sports section dated Wednesday, May 12, 1993. At first glance I noticed the 4-0 shutout pitched by Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, an article entitled, “Baseball Ignores Tradition,” chastising the creation of a wild card.  The NBA and NHL playoffs were in high gear, with Michael Jordan once again wrecking the Cavs’ dreams. May 12,1993 was a week before one of the most highly anticipated series finales of all time. Sam Malone, played by actor Ted Danson, would finally close up the bar “Cheers,” where everybody knew your name.

 

My eye gravitated to the scoreboard and transactions section of the paper, a somewhat mundane and trivial section, yet an area I would routinely memorize each day as a child. Some notes elicited a smile:

 

“The Seattle Mariners optioned Mike Hampton, pitcher, to Jacksonville of the Southern League.”

 

That probably wouldn’t have meant much to me if I had opened the capsule back in 2000. Other notes elicited a sadder response:

 

Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis was cleared to resume his basketball career after doctors discounted an earlier diagnosis of a possibly life-threatening heart ailment. Doctors say Lewis suffers from a neural condition that can be treated with medication.

 

Two months later, Lewis collapsed at an off-season practice at Brandeis University and died at the age of 27.

 

We often look into the mirror to ask, “What if I could go back? What could I tell my younger self? How could I guide me through stages and events in my life differently?” Or, we look at childhood as an escape…a world oversimplified, naïve, pediatric, scheduled, ordered.

 

I realized I should look at this the other way around: how can my childhood, my view on life, my hopes and dreams, reenergize me to be a better father, a better husband, a better person?

 

 

And so the time capsule continued to convey messages in a series of letters to my future self:

 

“Favorite Superhero in my time”: Superman

 

It’s shifted to Batman, but a strong choice nonetheless.

 

My hobby: Politics

My future: Chief Rabbi and lawyer of the state of Israel

 

My family’s hobbies:

 

My father’s are going shopping at either BJs or Spags, making corny jokes, and acting like a very little kid. My sister doesn’t have any hobbies or interests now because she has a well organized social life and relationship. My mother’s hobbies are just being nice, helping others, and just being happy.

 

The letters go on and on. Much of the language of my messages to my future self revolve around peace, love, and harmony, reading very much like a personal prayer at a Bar Mitzvah. So…what would we think if we read our Bar or Bat Mitzvah speech? Would we find it trivial and over-simplistic? Or would we gravitate to its positivity, to the message of change and to the aspirations of a maturing young adult?

 

Our story, every story, has a beginning. As the animated film, “Inside out” envisioned, the core memories from our childhood power different aspects of our personality.

When we dismiss the frustations of our youth, when we dread turning back to our teenage self, we may inadvertently block the thoughts and dreams that make up our core self.  We may be swift to dismiss or shove it all aside as being over idealistic, but I believe that kids have it right. While each of us may not have a physical time capsule, we all have windows into our childhood.

 

So when you do revert (we all do), when you step back in your relationships with old family and friends, when old grudges take center stage, take that step back as an opportunity to delve into your youth once again. What would it mean to thank God at night for your 3 closest friends rather than the 30th like from a friend on Facebook? What would it mean to sing loudly without inhibition because no one’s taught you yet that doing so would be embarrassing? What would it mean to take the stigma out of the word “juvenile” to appreciate the teachings that our childhood brings to the table?

 

 

 

Look back at your earliest aspirations. Transform that innocence, that hope into action; reaffirm who you want to be. And if we look back only to see pain and frustration, take the struggles of our youth as a guide through the pain that tomorrow may bring.

 

Every story has a beginning. It grabs our attention and brings the reader in. As we give thanks to all of the gifts in our lives over this holiday week, it seems most important to appreciate our own narrative. We look to other stories to inspire, when sometimes, we have to turn our own story on its head. In knowing ourselves, embracing our opening pages as much as the latest chapters, we allow a rich narrative to take shape.

Informed Uniform: What Cause to Wear?

I’ve never had luck with jerseys. Maybe it was the allure of free-agent money, but it always seemed like a player would be traded or sign elsewhere the second I bought his jersey. Later on this manifested itself as owning “retro jerseys” even if that was not the original intent. Early victims included Charles Barkley’s #34 Suns Jersey, Grant Hill’s #33 Pistons Jersey, and Shaquille O’neal’s #32 Magic Jersey. When my parents moved to Seattle, I immediately bought a Ray Allen SuperSonic’s jersey. He was traded 6 days later (to the Celtics!!).

My sour luck extended to baseball. I would try to select a jersey of the Red Sox player LEAST likely to join the Yankees. After the 4th jersey went to the graveyard (thanks Damon, Lowe, Ellsbury, and Youkilis), I threw in the towel.

A few years have gone by since the jersey curse of the 1990s/early 2000’s. While today is in fact Jersey Day in my office, jerseys are now normally relegated to a day off or the weekend errand run. The question, “What jersey to wear?” wouldn’t normally cross my mind.

With the return of football, all eyes have been on San Francisco backup QB Colin Kaepernick and his decision to not stand during the national anthem. The easiest way for fans to show their support has been through jersey sales. His jersey sales have skyrocketed to #1 in the National Football League. Kaepernick, in turn, is donating the proceeds of his jersey sales to communities in need.  Wearing gear with a company logo, an athlete’s name, has more meaning than just fandom.

I’ve joke of the prospect of treating my high holiday kittel like a NASCAR vehicle, decked in potential endorsements. While I may never go to that extreme, I have found meaning in supporting causes, victims, and research in the garments I choose to wear. Modern fundraising allows those of us fortunate enough to buy a new t shirt once in a while to support in dollar and in visual manifestation of such causes.

In the past few years, I was fortunate to donate to a number of what I would call “wear it, share it” causes:

Sending Pizza to IDF soldiers

Supporting Victims of the Boston Marathon Massacre as well as the One Fund

Showing Solidarity with Jason Collins, the 1st openly gay athlete on an NBA roster (and donating funds to the Matthew Shepard Foundation

Showing support for Devon Still and his family as his daughter beat pediatric cancer (with proceeds going to pediatric cancer research

Supporting Victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting through charities such as Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS, and Somos Orlando

I showed support to a number of causes through charitable gifts, but receiving something tangible in return allows me to be a transparent advocate moving forward. When you are picking out that t-shirt to wear to do grocery shopping or to attend your kid’s soccer practice, what would it mean to find meaningful causes close to you, to go beyond your checkbook? Wear those shirts that show who you’re thinking about. Wear it, share it. At the very least, it’s a conversation starter, but at its peak, you have the chance to share important causes with others.

 

 

 

Our city, Our Jacksonville

The following ran as the Lead letter to the Florida Times Union. Tuesday, February 23, 2016.

A word of explanation (since the letter had to be trimmed to 350 words):

In supporting the expansion of our HRO, it goes without saying that I support the LGBTQ community. One need only to speak with members of the LGBTQ community who have been marginalized or discriminated against to see that this is a real issue. Police reports and court cases only tell part of a much grimmer tale. The goal of writing this letter is to create a conversation about moving beyond sustainability and about getting Jacksonville to thrive. It is about the symbolism of exclusion in an area of the country shrouded in racial and economic divide. If we want a “bold” city, we need bold and bright. We need them to want to move here, and return here. I welcome your thoughts!

Expanding Human Rights Ordinance viewed as key to city’s future

Last week, I ran back from a city council meeting and rally to find the welcomed site of my forward thinking congregation, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, collaborating and visioning with lay-leader and senior staff during our monthly board meeting. During this process of strategic planning, the congregation’s leadership is undergoing a conversation on what our synagogue will look like in 5, 10 and 20 years.Will newly minted plaques honoring bold leadership be filled or left empty?  Will congregants find meaning in our worship services? Will people even fill the pews?

Throughout this exercise, I kept thinking to myself, “Will Jacksonville itself be a place that enables our congregation to thrive (and not just survive)?” Will movers and shakers, innovators and future collegians, want to come to a backwards Jacksonville when they can choose a forward thinking Charlotte or Nashville? Will housing, businesses, and restaurants aimed to revitalize our neighborhoods, exist in in a community that vilifies citizens for wanting the basic human necessities of food, shelter and self-worth? Would our Jacksonville born and raised want to stay in such an environment. The answer is NO.

The truth of the matter is that my place of employment, my house of worship, a house established over 100 years ago, would not be the thriving congregation I hope it to be in 20 years, if the Human Rights Ordinance is NOT expanded to include all of the citizens of Jacksonville. It is a human dignity issue. It is symbolic of who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to be viewed by the world. I am disgusted when fellow clergy use pulpit power to teach intolerance and spread hate of fellow human beings. Read the Human Rights Ordinance. Study its exemptions. Read the bible. Study all of its complexities.        

March 7 will mark the 44th anniversary of East Lansing, MI passing the first non-discrimination ordinance to protect sexual orientation. Forty Four years. Over 200 cities have protections for all. Let us not be left behind for generations to come. I hope my children can grow up with a sense of pride for our city. I hope they will love living here BECAUSE it is Jacksonville,  not in spite of it.

Combatting Hate with Joy

As Jews, we are keenly aware of the role symbols play in the celebration of our calendar. Our symbols have withstood the test of time, and although they have been reinterpreted and reinvented for modern day relevancy, their core purpose remains.

Not all symbols avoid the wrath of those who bastardize and reinvent, creating new brands that connote hate, exclusivity, and shameful acts of violence.

Derived from the Sanskrit meaning “good to be making,” this once was a symbol of eternal life, emblematic of the element of earth- a seemingly appropriate symbol for our harvest festival. It was a symbol of good luck. That all changed when the swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920. And now, the symbol of hate permeates our news feeds. Swastika found painted on a concrete wall in an enclosed courtyard of a Spokane Washington synagogue. On the same night, Swastikas are found plastered to the entrance of an Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity House at Emory University. We cannot wash away the fear we feel when Graffiti is on our walls and hateful speech fills the streets.

A few weeks ago, my sister, living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, encountered a similar bout of hatred. Swastikas etched into the wall right outside her apartment door. The only Jewish person in her complex had been the victim of a hate crime. The Hate Crimes Division, of which there is only one in all of the five boroughs of New York, did their best to find the perpetrator to no avail. No cameras in her complex, no fingerprints on the etching meant no answers for the police or for my sister. Could it have been a delivery guy who got a bad tip? A disgruntled neighbor? Or was a deep hatred of Jews the real motivation? It is tough not knowing the circumstances surrounding the act. We are overwhelmed with what this symbol means given its associations for us as Jews.

Fear. Angst. These feelings are compounded.

We hear of rallies across the globe, acts of ignorant masses. Anti-Semitism is an object in our rearview mirror, much closer than it once appeared. Vandalism, and more specifically hate crimes, rob us of our choice to freely express our Judaism lovingly and outwardly. We are intimidated. We second-guess. We fear the unknown motivations. We shutter ourselves because these cowardly defaming acts etch themselves in our memory.

As Jews it is our obligation to erase the negative imagery of the swastika, to focus on all of the positive reminders we are instructed to use so that we may practice Judaism to the fullest extent- the reminders of tefillin, of tallit. The minhag of kippah. The reminder of mezuzah as we enter and leave a space. The mitzvah of Sukkah- reminding us that even in the darkest of moments, we can find shelter in each other and in the divine. We show our true selves in our response to the darkest of moments.

Here’s a first hand account to a Sukkot experience, some 70 years ago, at a time and place where Swastika reigned supreme:

“Hassag. It was called a labor camp, but it was a slaughterhouse- no more, no less. We were the remnants of the Chenstochover ghetto. Our families had been sent to their death. Only a few remained- like limbs torn from their bodies, writhing in pain, living a life without life…

Sukkot, the festival which brings farmers and city-apartment house dwellers alike into temporary huts, somehow found its way to Hassag. We discovered an unused corner between two factory buildings. Lumber was piled up, as if in storage, for the sukkah walls, and somewhat above these walls, branches were unobtrusively stacked for the sukkah. We slide in and out of this temporary dwelling with our treasured crusts of bread, thinking of the protective booths in the wilderness.

So we had our Sukkot in those stolen moments, for the experience of eating in the sukkah, no matter how makeshift it was, was a genuine experience…”[i]

Even in the ghettos of the Shoah, Jews felt an obligation and spiritual connection to Jewish practice. As we approach each day knowing that hate crimes and anti-semitism are rising up again, we cannot retreat to the ghettos of our inward selves, fearful of our outward Jewish expression.  We may think IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY, the anti-semites, the haters, WILL COME. How do we combat this?

Ecclesiastes states, “lakol zman v’et lchol cheifetz, tachat hashamayim”-a season is set for everything, a time for ever purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to laugh, and a time to cry.

Our poet, King Solomon, prescribes a formula to overcome adversity. We combat loss with a search for meaning. We combat hate by fostering love. We combat those who break down by building up. We battle hatred and ignorance, key ingredients meant to break us as proud individuals and communities, by building up…

To paraphrase the Modizbozer Rebbe:

On Rosh Hashana, Yom Hazikaron, our day of remembrance, we pray with our minds

On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, we pray with our hearts

On Sukkot, Chag Ha’asif, the in gathering festival, we pray with our hands

On Simchat Torah and its energized Hakafot, we pray with our feet

Zman Simchateinu, our time of happiness encompassing both Sukkot and Simchat Torah, is linked to our hands and our feet.

One way to combat outward expression of hate is by utilizing these outward actions that express our joy for Judaism. For the observance of Sukkot is the most outwardly expressed moment on the Jewish calendar. Whereas some holidays are reserved for synagogue or the home, by erecting a Sukkah, however temporary, we acknowledge God’s role in our lives and proclaim who we are as individuals by building a sukkah in public view. The sukkah symbolizes God granting us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace by protecting and providing. The pride we feel is coupled with an even deeper humility, knowing that the fragility of the sukkah mimics our own temporary place in this world. It is a sentiment expressed in our reading of Kohelet on this Shabbat Chol Hamoed:

Chapter 2 Verse 11:

“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.”

We enter this world with empty hands. We leave this world with empty hands. But what we do with those hands while inhabiting this world is what matters. What we build for one another matters. We can raise our hands to give up. We can raise our pointed fingers to others. Or we can raise our hands to build a joyous experience for one another. Graffiti and slander may fill our minds with scary thoughts, but our hearts and our hands have an obligation, to ourselves and to the Jewish people, to continue expressing our Judaism outwardly- beyond this building, beyond the inside of our homes. It is not a moment of despair. It is not a moment for irrational behavior. It is a moment to show that pride and joy in Judaism can overwhelm those who wish to instill sadness and unrest in our lives.
Like the Sukkah, life is fragile. Life is temporary. And yet we still build a Sukkah knowing that in few days we will disassemble it. No matter how fragile and temporary life is, we still must live it. Fully. We must build a life filled with love of Judaism. We must continue to build a Jewish home with the openness of a sukkah, knowing that God is a shelter of piece.

If you build it, they- the informed neighbors, the future generations, will come. If you don’t build it, they- the hateful, will have won. As a people, our Sukkah has weathered storms far greater than the ones we see today.  Even when the Sukkah falls, it has always been a mitzvah, an obligation, to put it back up. Let us continue to weather the storm. May God bring us peaceful skies in the year ahead and all the years to come.

[i] Goodman, Philip The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology (Holiday Anthologies Series)

Sanctify This Day

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There are three forms of sanctity in this world: sanctity of time, sanctity of humanity, and sanctity of space. As people around the world light a yellow candle in commemoration of this Holocaust Memorial Day, the three forms collide.

By igniting a flame, we create a sacred moment to reflect and to remember. Our task is to remember every day, so that faces take the place of statistics, so that our family story serves as caveat to our history books.  This is the sacredness of time.

By igniting a flame, we recognize the millions of souls whose dreams and aspirations were extinguished by the Nazi regime. We tell their stories. We share with others.

By igniting a flame, we memorialize the sacred spaces of our past: the spiritual centers for European Jewry for hundreds of years; the places marked by death that, while troublesome, are holy places because our loved ones are buried amidst the ashes. We mark sacred space in the present, in order to create a legacy built upon love to those who perished.

May we all find sacred moments, communities and spaces, so that we may continue to learn, to grow, and to heal.

Shabbat Shira 2.0: A Day to Celebrate the Arts

With last night’s Golden Globe Awards and this Thursday’s Academy Award nominations, we find ourselves in a period in which all forms of theatre- on stage, on television, and on the big screen, are put under the microscope.

What do we look for in a nominee? What makes us get beyond one person or the other? It is not an answer reserved solely for the arts. In any scenario, we look for believability. We hope that this person can transport us to their world- through costumes, through dialogue, and through acting. It is believability and vulnerability that catch on with the people, allowing them to begin to believe in something greater. In the bible, there is no greater moment for us as a people than the triumphant song delivered by the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. This Shirat Hayam (song of the sea) is more than a melody. It is great theatre. It encapsulates the baggage that years of slavery places on a people, the fear that a sea that will not part as an Egyptian overlord does not give up in his pursuit. It is the literal crying out to a God that finally listened. It is a cry of relief, a cry of hope.

The reciting of the epic-lyric poem Shirat Hayam during Parshat B’shalach is the main reason we call the portion Shabbat Shira, a Sabbath of song.  As we see, beyond the melody, it is the backstory and theatrical nature of the moment that make it meaningful generations later. Each morning we recount the Shira experience in our tefillot. We realize that the song can only be a triumphant one if we had each person play their part: To Nachson, who took the first steps in the water; To Moses, the most unlikely of leaders who played the role so well;  To an Almighty that created that shock and awe that made a people believe for the first time. Shabbat Shira is more than just a Sabbath of Song- it is the backstory, the appreciation of what it took to get to that moment in time. It is a time to appreciate the artistry of that moment, when we became one for the first time.

Welcoming the Familiar Face

A little “Who’s Who”: His aspirations were to become a professional soccer player, but a series of ankle injuries while playing at Pedro Pablo Sanchez High School dashed his hopes. After graduating from high school at age 16, he worked six-day weeks on a commercial boat captained by his father, catching shrimp and sardines The job was “way too tough” for this individual, who was more interested in becoming a mechanic As a 19-year-old, he had to abandon a capsizing 120-short-ton commercial boat, all but convincing him to give up fishing as a career. If the tide had turned, he may have remained in his native Panama, catching shrimp instead of throwing baseballs.

Six years later, he’d make his major league debut with the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher. Today, we know him as the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.

As Rivera is set to retire at the end of the season, opposing teams have honored him in their respective ballparks during his farewell tour.

The Boston Red Sox, my Red Sox, the sworn enemy of the NY Yankees, honored Mariano Rivera Sunday night on the occasion of his final regular-season game at Fenway Park.

A few of the highlights from the evening (as depicted by the Boston Globe):

  • When Rivera was introduced, he jogged to the mound, where the entire Red Sox team awaited him. He received hugs from players David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and some gifts from the club.
  • First, the Red Sox presented Rivera a painting of the unscripted and delightful moment in April 2005 when he was greeted with a standing ovation from the fans during pregame introductions on the day the 2004 World Series flag was raised at Fenway.
  • Rivera, who realized that the fans were thanking him for his two blown saves in the 2004 ALCS — along with his two blown saves in the Yankees-Red Sox series that opened the ’05 season — broke into a big smile and raised his arms in bemused thanks. It was that moment that was captured in the painting.
  • The Red Sox also presented Rivera the panel from the manually operated Green Monster scoreboard that had his number “42” on it. It was signed by every current Boston player.
  • Rivera also received a Fenway Park seat from 1934, a pitching rubber from the visiting bullpen and an undisclosed donation for his charitable foundation from the Red Sox owners.
  • Rivera then shook hands with the Red Sox players as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (Rivera’s theme song) played over the loudspeakers and highlights of Rivera succeeding against the Red Sox came up on the centerfield scoreboard. Earlier, the Boston Cello Quartet played “Enter Sandman” to open the ceremony after finishing the national anthem.

What a beautiful night for both Rivera and Boston. There is something special about appreciating a player who made your team sweat, who made your players lift themselves to a higher level and outperform, brought an entire Red Sox Nation from years of frustration into years of plenty, years of championships. A nation that ascended because one player brought the best out of them.  There is something sacred about treating your guests in the highest regard and the greatest respect. Although I am surely biased, the classy Red Sox exhibit the value of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests, a mitzvah highlighted on this festival of sukkot. It is the value of ushpizin, welcoming guests into Fenway Park, what is for many of the players and staff a home away from home, a temporary dwelling, a holy place, a sukkah.

With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite these Ushpizin, one of seven exalted individuals to take up residence in the sukkah with us. The Zohar states,

“When a man sits in the shadow of faith (sukkah) the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) spreads Her wings on him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones of God (and David with them) make their abode with him? A person should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests. Upon entering the succah, Rav Hamnuna Sava would rejoice and, standing inside the doorway, say “Let us invite the guests and prepare the table.” Then he would remain on his feet and bless them, saying, ‘IN sukkot you should dwell. Be seated exalted guests, be seated; be seated guests of faithfulness, be seated.’ He would then raise his hands in joy and say, ‘Worthy is our portion, worthy is the portion of Israel, as it is written: For God’s portion is his people.’ Then he would sit down.” (Zohar Emor 103b)

Each day we welcome not only an individual, but the ideals that they embodied.

The seven sefirot, or divine energies, we are fed by the ushpizin are:

First day: Chesed—the attribute of “Benevolence” or “ Love”—personified by Abraham.

Second day: Gevurah—“Restraint” and “Discipline”—embodied by Isaac.

Third day: Tif’eret—“Beauty,” “Harmony” and “Truth”—embodied Jacob.

Fourth day: Netzach—“Victory” and “Endurance”—Moses.

Fifth day: Hod—“Splendor” and “Humility”—Aaron.

Sixth day: Yesod—“Foundation” and “Connection”—Joseph.

Seventh day: Malchut—“Sovereignty,” “Receptiveness” and “Leadership”—David

In modern times, we welcome seven female figures in Jewish history who embody similar positive attributes. While the selection of these 7 individuals often differs, here is one assortment of female leaders that we recognize as Ushpizot.

1) Eve, for her passions and connection to the Earth

2) Sarah, for nation building and destiny

3) Leah, for motherhood, giving and selflessness

4) Miriam- for vision, initiative and expressiveness

5) Deborah – for leadership, strength and power

6) Beruriah- for intellect and wisdom

7) Ruth- for unconditional love

It is in stark contrast with our High Holiday liturgy in which we often speak of our transgressions rather than the values that SHOULD define our lives. Values of vision, strength and initiative empower us to go forth into a year of “Yes I can” rather than “No I’m sorry.” No more beating our chests for the sins in our lives, but rather the positive attributes we should all embody. All this from harkening the call of our ancestors, the heroes of yesterday. From Moses to Miriam to Mariano.

One might be confused why I can devote a speech to the evil empire with the knowledge of my Red Sox affiliation. In our evening prayers we recite the Hashkiveinu prayer asking for a “sukkat shalom”, a shelter of piece from our enemies. Isn’t Mariano Rivera my enemy? At the end of the day, Mariano Rivera is not my enemy. In a few weeks time, he will be something other than a baseball player. But to any Red Sox fan, “Mo” is what I’d call a “familiar face.” He hasn’t shared our clubhouse, our traditions, the inner workings of our organization, but we invite him into our sukkah, into Fenway, because maybe he has something to teach us about ourselves; reveal to us what we are made of. He is a frequent guest, a respected guest, a familiar face.

The Ushpizin are not unfamiliar characters- they are some of the more prominent individuals from our Tanakh.  They are meant to be familiar faces. For familiar faces have the opportunity to drive us to improve ourselves, to teach us, to remind us of some important values that can drive our lives.

In its temporary nature, the sukkah acts as an open book, a glass house where everyone, close friends and even the casual acquaintance see right through. We are exposed.

We can treat the sukkah like a shark proof cage- giving us a glimpse of the outside world while protecting ourselves from the harsh realities? We can glance at the gloomy cloud above dampening our chances to invite our acquaintances in to our lives. We can worry about spreading ourselves too thin. Or, our sukkah, in theory, can act like its counterpart, the chuppah, open on all four sides, ever expanding our social network in tangible, authentic way. Of all the ushpizin and ushpizot, of all the values that we are reminded of, be it wisdom, strength humility and so forth, two values ushpizin stick out. Our first male guest, Abraham, and our final female guest, Ruth, share the same value, unconditional love.

We are taught “Vsmachta B’chagecha”- that you should rejoice in the holiday; our joy based on inviting friends and family but also giving to the needy in our community. We are often reminded of these two polar relationships in Judaism- those closest to us, and those on the fringes. Rarely, however, do we focus on those in the middle- the familiar face, the friendly acquaintance. Maybe it is time to bring them close to us as we gather in for our harvest season.

May this holiday’s harvest be plentiful, may we share that plenty with all who we come in contact. May we seek out those familiar faces in our lives and deepen our relationships with them, for we never know what values they may teach us, what lessons we can learn. May we offer up unconditional love to all who enter the temporariness of our lives.  If we are reminded of the values of Abraham and Ruth, of unconditional love, then next year, we can look at our Sukkah, acknowledge those Ushpizin who shared their love with us and joyfully proclaim, “This is the house that (Abraham and) Ruth built.”

 

 

 

 

 

As a side note, here are the 7 “Rivera”ism that we can welcome on Sukkot:

First day- The value of The Cutter; the out pitch. The cutter’s movement is created by Rivera’s long fingers and loose wrist, which allow him to impart more spin on the ball. Over 80% of his pitches are cut fastballs. To know that you have a way out when you are in a tough spot

Second day:  The value of Relief. He is the majors’ all-time regular season leader in saves (651)

Third Day: The value of consistency. Rivera saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons

Fourth Day:  The value of Longevity. 19 seasons

Fifth day: The value of clutch moments. 16 Postseason records

Sixth day: The value of yesod, foundation. The Mariano Rivera Foundation, which helps provide underprivileged children with an education, distributes more than $500,000 in the US and Panama through church-based institutions

Seventh day: The value of composure. Rivera, the closer, comes into the game at tense moments. 3 outs to go. Game on the line.

Rosh Hashana, Vampire Slayer

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Friday the 13th and its correlation to Kol Nidrei evening. These Days of Awe can be filled with darkness. We can  often act like zombies in shul feeling disconnected to our liturgy. We can often feel like ark opening after ark opening, responsive reading  upon responsive reading suck the life-blood out of the service. If only there were such a concept as a Jewish vampire slayer (Does Buffy  count?!)

Last Friday I taught an early morning class entitled, “High Holiday Playbook” as we highlighted the value of Torah study on the second day  of Rosh Hashana. While covering the 4 major themes of High Holiday liturgy (Kingship, Creation, Judgment and Remembrance), our  conversation took a turn for the unusual when we somehow started talking about connections between our Jewish lunar calendar and  vampires coming out at night. To get us back on track, we looked for a connection to light.  In covering the topic of “Creation”, an obvious  theme for the birthday of the world, we came across the theme of light found in the opening section of our Shaharit morning service:

 

orolam

“Infinite light stored away in life’s treasure house; ‘Light out of darkness’ said God- it was so.” The theme of light is common to every morning service, as we make reference to a divinity that fashions light and creates all. The line above, found only on the High Holidays, reiterates this notion but focuses on “Orot M’ofel”- creating light out of darkness. As we go through these days of awe, it is comforting to know that no matter what darkness seems to envelop our lives, we can create light even in the darkest of moments. No matter how scary life is, it becomes more and more significant that the light isn’t at the end of the tunnel, but in our very own hands. We have the capacity to create a year filled with light if we mimic the actions of God in this verse- if we create the mantra and affirm it.  We will affirm to create light out of darkness, and it will be so.