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.
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.