This has been a strange week to be part of the American Jewish community. Many of us may be feeling a general sense of unease in the wake of a series of statements and tweets from the resident of the White House, each one more "off" than the one before it.
There are happy times in the Jewish calendar, and there are sad times; fortunately the happy outnumber the sad by a big margin.
In a summer where there is more than enough hard news to go around, this Sunday's victory by the US team at the Women's World Cup is a wonderful cause for celebration in and of itself! If it had just been a win by the US Women's Soccer Team, with a couple of Seattle players in pivotal roles, dayeinu, it would have been enough! But it was so much more than that, and a great reminder of what we're trying to embody here at Kavana.
In this week's Torah portion, Sh’lach L'cha, the Israelites near the end of their 40 year journey through the wilderness. As they stand on the eastern banks of the Jordan river, wondering about the promised land that lies on the other side, God instructs Moses to send out twelve spies (one from each tribe) to scout out the land and bring back a report.
This week's Torah portion, B'ha'alotcha, begins with a command to Aaron, that as preparations for use of the Tabernacle (mishkan) are completed, he is to "set up the menorah, and let the seven lamps give light." Perhaps you can picture the seven-branched menorah, famously featured on Israeli coins and also in a carving on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The menorah is a central symbol of the Jewish people, dating back to ancient times. But why are there seven branches, and why is it emphasized that each of the seven lamps must give off its own light?
Thank you for choosing Kavana, and for choosing to make this Seattle Jewish community the richly-textured one that it is! Before the month of June is over, we will close out our programming year with so many great options for ways to engage in Jewish community on your own terms. Whether you join us for tomorrow night's Friday night service (the last one of the year, before we move into summer mode in parks!) or Saturday night's inter-community Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or a family education program or a singing circle or a social meet-up, know that we appreciate the fact that you have opted in, forging your own path for "personalized Judaism in a community context."
Torah is true both that ancient Israelite texts have been preserved intact and lovingly transmitted from generation to generation, and also that at every time and place throughout Jewish history, our ancestors have interpreted and re-interpreted these words (sometimes quite radically!) to keep Torah speaking relevantly to each generation. In this way, Torah represents both tradition and change, and the act of Torah study is famously considered by rabbinic tradition to be as important as all of the other mitzvot put together ("talmud torah k'neged kulam").
I had been eagerly awaiting my first Kavana Partner Meeting. We brought the whole family, showed up early to help set up, and looked forward to being pleasantly surprised by whatever this much-talked-about event would bring.
Sometimes it's hard for me to wrap my head around the time scale of Jewish history. A week and a half ago, we recalled the Exodus from Egypt, an event that took place some 3500 years ago, while sitting around seder tables much like our rabbinic ancestors might have done 2000 years ago. Our Jewish tradition connects us to the ancient past, and that is part of the great power of it.
Yesterday morning, many in the Kavana community were marking the 8th day of Pesach with a truly beautiful and uplifting Shabbat/Festival morning service. Unbeknownst to us at the time, 1250 miles south, Jews similarly gathered were experiencing a terrifying attack on their synagogue. Just six months after the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it leaves a pit in our stomachs to think that perhaps this is becoming a pattern.
At Kavana, too, we pause for a moment to celebrate the achievements of the week -- the interactive and meaningful communal Kavana seder that took place last Friday night, and countless other seders in your homes, which we've heard contained creative games, meaningful discussions about contemporary issues (from racial justice to the global refugee crisis), delicious food, and wonderful company. And then, immediately, we pivot and look ahead to the programming that will take place over the coming weeks, while we wander from Passover to Shavuot during this Omer period.
Last week, Kavana deepened our efforts to help address Seattle's homelessness crisis with an opportunity to learn more. Two dozen people gathered to watch a screening of Trickle Down Town, a documentary that sheds light on roots of the homelessness crisis, introduces a variety of people working to address the problem, and, most importantly, reminds us that people experiencing homeless are people with complex and rich lives.
n recent years, I've become more cognizant of how often my answer to the question "how are you?" is "busy." Being busy -- multi-tasking, moving from one assignment to the next, juggling many commitments at the same time -- seems like the dominant paradigm in our 21st century American society. And, this condition is only exacerbated by the non-stop inputs we get from media and technology... sometimes to the point of overload!
Purim reminds us that the line between those who are in and who are out is very thin, and can change at any time, so we do well to bring those on the outside in. We hope you'll join in these efforts.
There is another common denominator in the tragedies mentioned above: all of these terrorist murderers were motivated specifically by white supremacist ideology. Although today’s attack took place half-way around the world, we live in a global world, and it seems that the twisted inspiration for this particular attack came specifically from a global network of online extremists. Of course, we have all seen manifestations of white supremacy, racism, Islamophobia, toxic masculinity, abuse of the internet, and the idolatry of the gun closer to home as well…. enough to know that we must stand up to these destructive forces wherever we see them.
The Purim story is set in a kingdom where priorities are completely out of whack. King Achashverosh is more interested in his own self-indulgence than in governing. Misogyny and xenophobia fester in Shushan, and Haman (boo!) hatches a plan to annihilate the Jewish people. Thankfully, Esther and Mordechai, the heroes of the story, are able to foil this evil plot. However, the megillah's tale ends with a mix of light and darkness... as the Jews' relief over having been saved resolves into both celebration and revenge.
Here at Kavana, where we strive to "empower each of us to create a meaningful Jewish life and positive Jewish identity," we must create the space in which members of our community can try to unravel these strands. In our pluralistic community, there is no assumption that we all share a single perspective, or that we would all unravel this ball in exactly the same way. However, we are all committed to being "in the work" together, with more nuance and a lot less yelling than what we see playing out in Congress and in the press this week.
Even more, though, we appreciated the opportunity to really be "in it" with other rabbis and staff members from our sister communities in the Jewish Emergent Network. In seven different locations and in seven different ways, each of us are working to build organizations that serve as "holy vessels" -- to contain, connect and inspire Jewish community.
At Kavana, since our inception, we have described "risk-taking" as a value of our organization. However, we've always meant that in the entrepreneurial sense... in that we have taken risks in our approach to Jewish education, ritual, community-building, and more. Where we have NOT taken risks -- nor do we care to do so! -- is in any situation where thesafety and well-being of our community members are on the line. (Jewish law supports us in this, and incidentally, the value of "pikuach nefesh," "saving a life" was the topic of our last Havdalah Club event... among other things, the kids talked about proactive steps we should take to ensure the safety of ourselves and others.)
Last Shabbat, Jewish communities everywhere read Parashat Yitro, which tells the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments and describes revelation at Sinai, a peak moment of closeness between the Israelites and God.
It's easy to get caught up in what's NOT working these days... from the "via-doom" traffic situation here in Seattle, to the Federal government's partial shut-down. We know that these situations are real and that their effects can be felt... mildly, by some, and much more severely by others. Gridlock, whether physical or metaphorical, is painful.That said, at Kavana, we have always prided ourselves on our ability to focus on what IS working, what possibilities there CAN be, and where there is potential for FORWARD MOTION.
Our Torah readings this month couldn’t be more in synch with the world around us if we had planned it this way...
We’re right in the thick of the struggle for liberation. It has begun, and what happens here will determine its success or failure. Am I talking about our moment in our cyclical reading of Torah – this week’s Torah portion, called Va’era – or about our moment in history right now? The answer is yes.
For the past dozen years now, Kavana has functioned as a cooperative community, calling on people to self-obligate by joining. In doing so, they become “partners” (as opposed to “members”) – signifying their sense of ownership in the community – and take on a set of obligations which include annual financial support, volunteer roles, and regular (at least monthly) attendance.In this post-modern age, I believe it makes sense that the new version of commandedness is an opt-in model. And, in general, we’ve found that people take these self-obligations quite seriously.
This configuration rings true to me today. I picture volunteers in my community working shoulder-to-shoulder in the kitchen preparing meals for homeless “tent city” residents or a multigenerational group marching for justice and equality arm-in-arm, like a wall of planks.
In this quiet pause, it's awesome to be able to reflect on the theme of this week's holiday. Thanksgiving isn't celebrated widely in Israel, of course, but it does have a Hebrew name: Chag ha-Hodaya, literally, the Holiday of Gratitude (or thanks or acknowledgement). You might recognize the root word from so many of our Jewish prayers... it's conjugated into forms like "modeh ani" ("I give thanks") or "modim anachnu lach" ("We give thanks to You") or, perhaps most famous of all -- a line repeated during the Hallel service or at a bris -- "hoduladonai ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo" ("Give thanks to Adonai who is good, for God's lovingkindness endures forever.")
Last night, I went to bed with the mixed election results fresh in my mind. This morning, I woke up thinking about a powerful image that appears at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Toledot. In last week's reading, Abraham's servant had traveled to find a wife for Isaac, and he had selected Rebecca based on her incredible generosity and compassion (as our Moadon students have learned, she offered water not only to him but also to his camels!). This week, we meet Rebecca again, now pregnant and uncomfortable. She seeks divine intervention, and is told that two nations are struggling in her womb. In the pshat (the simple, plain meaning), this means that she is pregnant with a set of twins. On the level of drash (deeper interpretation), these twins, Jacob and Esau, represent two very different modalities of being, and it is these that are struggling within her.
If you joined us last night for our Kavana community vigil, we hope that you found something you needed. For our part, what we needed most was to be with you, so we thank you for coming. Judging by how full the room was -- full pews, people standing in the back -- we were not the only ones who felt that need to be together! For those who did not make it, we hope you’ll reach out and stay connected, to us and to each other. In times like this, we need each other more than ever.
Today, tragedy feels incredibly close to home once again, with news of this morning's shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. This is the home community of one of our Kavanapartners, Michal Inspektor, and there are bound to be countless others in our Seattle community who have close ties to Squirrel Hill as well. As was the case in the 2006 Seattle Jewish Federation shooting, it seems that in Pittsburgh today, it was anti-semitic hatred that motivated the shooter to commit these horrifically violent acts.
We at Kavana will not cave to this bullying. And, we are serious about the Torah’s insistence: “ve-ahavtem et ha-ger, ki gerim hayitem be-eretz mitzrayim,” “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. We recognize assaults on human rights and human dignity when we see them, and we are brave enough to name these as morally wrong. We know that our tradition teaches that every human being was created b'tzelem elohim, in the Divine image. (Or, as a friend and colleague of mine posted on social media: "Do you know what we call transgender people in my house? People!")
As residents of the Pacific Northwest, we already have first-hand experience with the early effects of climate change... this summer we choked under the smoke of wildfires, and witnessed an orca mother grieve for her dead baby as their species faces an existential threat. As Jews, we have countless texts and stories that support the core notion that human beings have a role to play as stewards of the natural world. If we ruin our planet, we will suffer the consequences (teaches the second paragraph of Shema). If there is repair that needs to be done, the responsibility to do so sits squarely on our shoulders.
Although this topic is hard, it’s quite appropriate to be talking about it here on Yom Kippur. After all, this is a day when the traditional Torah reading at mincha on this holiest day of the year tackles sexual boundaries, forbidden relationships, and taboos head on. A day when we pray in the plural, about how “we” have sinned... because even though not all of us have committed abuse or harassed others, all of us have been part of a society that too often protects the bad actors rather than the victims. A day when we move outside of our physical bodies and enter the world of the spirit, but we can’t forget that we do have bodies on the other 364 days of the year. A day when we pray for forgiveness, for the chance to call a “re-do,” and to start over fresh. A day when we remind ourselves that we are all equal in life as in death... that there is an intrinsic human dignity that belongs to each of us, and how we treat one another matters – not only in public but also, especially, in private. A day for digging deeper, for feeling accountable, for finding it in us to change ourselves, our community, our society and the world.
n Rosh HaShanah day I pointed to tears – woven by tradition into the sound of the shofar – as an important signal to listen to, a signal that leads us first to that broken heart, and ultimately to compassionate action to relieve suffering and make change. We in Kavana now have a unique opportunity engage in some important action that could give more people the power to make changes for the better.
Last night I talked about our broken hearts. I spoke about the way our heart breaks reading the news each day, about the way it breaks for all the ways we ourselves make missteps, modest as they may be. And I spoke about the holiness of a broken heart – as the tradition says, “God is close to the broken hearted” – about the vitality and love that a broken heart holds, and about the way that a broken heart can lead first to teshuvah and then to tikkun olam.
Think of some specific areas that particularly make you want to cry – maybe its our nation’s current treatment of immigrants – thousands of lives ruptured; or climate change with its myriad manifestations; or refugee crises around the world; or any of a number of other catastrophes unfolding daily in our newsfeed. Each of them just a chapter heading in a global book of things that are in need of teshuvah, each with a thousand subpoints, scrolling before our eyes daily. Feel your reaction to that, the reaction you have every day, or perhaps on those rare occasions when you have the breathing room to let it in.
Coming to terms with rot, corruption, sin and imperfection -- whether we're thinking about our sacred task as human beings to protect the planet that we've been bequeathed, about our core values as a society and who we elect to lead us, or about how we become numb in the face of hate-filled propaganda -- this is precisely our task in the month of Elul! This is the month for reflection and introspection, for scrutinizing our actions, and for spiritual preparation to "return" as we begin the next cycle.
This week, in the spirit of consolation, I'd like to focus on one more image of children: happy kids at Jewish summer camp. It may sound trite, but it's not at all. With all the ups and downs of Jewish history, it was never a given that so many children would be assembled that we would need to build more places for them to settle, per Isaiah's vision. And yet, there has been lots of demand for positive, educational, fun, immersive Jewish experiences in this generation -- so much so that over the past decade or so, new Jewish summer camps have been popping up everywhere: regional camps, sports camps, arts camps, tech camps, and more.
We so want to contribute; to make a difference; to give expression to our caring, our passion for justice, our worry, our righteous anger, our heartbreak, and our aspirations for the future. Yet it’s so hard to know how! We want to do right and to be part of the solution, but where to begin?! The problems seem so numerous, and vast, and outright overwhelming, it’s hard to know what our first step should be.
What if we could radically shift our mindset about bar/bat mitzvah and view it as a real portal into an engaged adult Jewish life? An innovative and pluralistic approach would captivate the interest of a wider range of our Jewish community. This would be a powerful tool for engaging not only our teens, but also their families.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this has been a funky week in America, hasn't it?! We are strangely in synch with the Jewish calendar, though... descending through stages of mourning and grief in reverse, until we hit the low-point of Tisha B'Av (celebrated this year on this coming Saturday night/ Sunday), which commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and the depths of brokenness in the world.
It's my first week as Kavana's new Rabbinic Fellow, and I want to reach out to you to introduce myself and try to convey just some of my immense excitement for being here working with you
What I do want to share is just how horrified I feel when I hear Jeff Sessions or Sarah Huckabee Sanders use biblical text or religion in support of these policies. The purpose of religion should be to foster connection, to nurture moral character, and to inspire us towards lives of holiness and purpose... not to justify cruelty and moral cowardice. The Bible I read may not be perfectly in synch with our modern sensibilities, but it is clear in its emphatic insistence on treating the stranger fairly, kindly, and with love!
We are living through an uncertain time, a clear pivot point in our Jewish story... but it's not yet clear which way history is pivoting, here in the U.S. or in Israel. As we approach Shavuot this year and recall how our ancestors once stood at the base of Mount Sinai to receive Torah and enter into a covenant with God, I'm reflecting on these words (from Exodus 19:5-6): "Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." What do these words mean for us, in our generation? What does it look like to internalize the idea that the earth belongs to God and not to humans at all? What can we do to try to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation"? How can we actively pursue justice and peace, as the Torah instructs us to do, and to replace fear and hatred with compassion and love?
Today is Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel's Independence Day and also its 70th birthday. Make no mistake, Israel is complicated, and Jewish community politics about Israel are equally complicated (locally here in Seattle, nationally, and globally). Here at Kavana, we strive to build bridges of authentic connection, to delight in the miracle that is the modern State of Israel, and also to continue to give voice to the ways in which our dreams and visions have yet to be realized. As with our approach to our own American society, our lens on Israel is nuanced in being both appreciative (celebrating the good that is), and critical (calling out injustice when we see it). Our hope is that we never lose sight of the founders' aspirations and dreams, and that we can also add our own, continuing the process of dreaming and building.
As we move through these middle days of Pesach, my kids are beginning to grumble. Just a few days ago, they were excited to share matzah with their classmates at school, and thrilled to be leading songs at our Passover seders. But now I'm hearing such whining: "I'm sick of matzah. When can I have a bagel and cream cheese again?!" My kids don't even know how right on cue they are!
This coming Shabbat, we are presented with two holy paths. Both are expressions of core Jewish values; both are opportunities to be in solidarity with your Jewish community; both are in-line with Kavana's purpose of "empowering each of us to create a meaningful Jewish life and a positive Jewish identity." And, we hope that we will have solid Kavana community representation at each of these two important events!
It's not a stretch to think about Pesach as "the Holiday of the Child." It's not, of course, that the themes of this holiday aren't quite mature and complex (they are!). But, Passover and its rituals actually center around our obligation to teach our story to the next generation... not only because we adults need to teach, but more importantly because they, the children, demand to understand who they are and what world they are inheriting.
Reflecting on the experience afterwards, I realized that this was the classic Purim experience in microcosm - “venahafokh-hu.” What first seems terrible can be wonderful; what first seems wonderful can be dangerous; power can change hands in an instant; the world can turn on a dime, flipping and flopping between upside down and right-side up.
Why -- it's easy to wonder -- does the Torah spend almost the same amount of time and energy walking us through the intricate blueprints for the construction of the mishkan/ Tabernacle, that it does moving through our most important meta-narratives such as yetziat mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) and revelation at Mount Sinai?
Whether we turn our attention skyward to the moon or earthward to the trees and plants, Tu B'shevat's focus on the cycles of nature reminds us of our place in the cosmos!
This past Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world began reading the Book of Exodus. The story begins, of course, with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt... the paradigmatic example of oppression. In Chapter 1, we quickly encounter two unlikely heroes: the midwives Shifrah and Puah who, according to the text, "feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but rather let the baby boys live."
Today, Chanukah is often taught in the American Jewish community as a holiday celebrating the value of religious freedom. On the side of evil: Hellenism and its attempt to quash minority groups and their practices; on the side of good: resistance against oppressive regimes, and standing up for our own rights as Jews to practice our Judaism freely.
This week we marked the one year anniversary since the 2016 election. Over the past year, so many of us have experienced feelings of disappointment, anger, grief, and (at times) despair, as our core beliefs -- values like justice, equality, human dignity, compassion, and love -- have been attacked from every angle. This week's election provided a glimmer of hope.
Yom Kippur is the right time to consider all of this. It’s a day for contemplating death, and in so doing, trying to connect with the meaning of life! It is a somber day… but somehow by tomorrow night, 24 hours from now, we are supposed to resolve the somber mood into one of relief, appreciation, and joy. How do we get from here to there? Tonight, I want to suggest that our tradition is filled with tools for resilience… specific elements that can help us weather this storm of anti-semitism and hatred, and uncertainty.
I promise this sermon will not be entirely political, but last week, the headline in The Jewish Week read: “Rabbis to Tiptoe around Trump”. Not this rabbi! So, I do want to start with the political world, so that you can follow my thought process and together we can arrive at a more interesting question.
As Jews, we know what it is to be a minority group under attack, and it's our moral imperative -- as I've said at many other times this year -- to stand in defense of our fellow minorities who are being targeted with the cruel rhetoric and policies of this administration. The Torah emphasizes this point in multiple ways, both in the positive -- with the commandment to emulate God in loving the foreigner in our midst (Deut. 10:18) -- and in the negative -- with the prohibition against oppressing or perverting justice for them in any way (Exod. 22:20, Deut. 24:17).
This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitze, takes up a relevant set of questions: what should you do upon discovering that your neighbor has lost property, or is waylaid on a journey? Whether the property is an ox or a donkey or a garment, whether the neighbor is your friend or your enemy, the Torah teaches that you have an obligation to assist, even if that means going out of your way, exerting great effort, or incurring expense. "Lo tuchal l'hitalem," the text states emphatically in Deuteronomy 22:3: "You must not remain indifferent!" (Some of you may recognize this quote as the one we chose to print on the large Kavana banner we've marched under at various rallies over the course of this year!)
As Jews, we know that words are powerful. The Torah teaches that God created the entire universe through the power of language, and rabbinic tradition builds on the idea that our words too create realities and shape worlds. Words, when used correctly, can help to unite, build, empower, heal and redeem. Words used carelessly, or wielded as weapons, have the power to divide and destroy.
This Monday, the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island received a bomb threat and had to evacuate its facility. And then this morning, I was supposed to have a phone meeting with a colleague in another city but it was cancelled when her child's school received a bomb threat.
Since inauguration weekend, political news has felt unrelenting, fast and furious. To many of us, the very experience of living in the U.S. in these recent weeks has felt like an assault, and it can be tempting to shut down. However, I have continued to be impressed by the many members of the Kavana community who are responding in beautiful ways.
This past week, Kavana has done a lot of what we do best: building Jewish community together, welcoming and supporting a wide range of practices, teaching and learning, davening, celebrating, and finding meaning. From the Book Club to the Baby/Toddler playgroup, from Living Room Learning to Prep & Practice, from Gan and Moadon Yeladim to life cycle events and communal prayer...
One week ago, the morning after the election, many of us were reeling from an outcome that we hadn't anticipated. In the week since, the Kavana community has been home to many intense emotions. Some of us have truly gone into mourning and observed something of a shiva period -- a week of pausing to grieve and offer comfort. Some of us have read every news article we can get our hands on; others have avoided the news almost completely. Some of us feel scared and vulnerable; some angry and resolved. Many of us have found opportunities to engage in conversation with one another, and those discussions have been far-reaching and intense.
I know that like me, many of you are reeling from last night's election results. I've seen some of your tears this morning, received your frightened emails, and read of your tremendous disappointment and shock on Facebook.
I've just returned to Seattle from a wonderful and very intense summer, most of which I spent learning and teaching in Jerusalem. In the middle of my time in Israel, I had an opportunity to spend four days traveling around the West Bank, together with a group of other American Jewish leaders through the Encounter program.