Plagues and Miracles, Suffering and Song

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

an Israelite slave, toiling in despair,

a midwife, resisting immoral commands, 

a hard-hearted Pharaoh, fearful to lose power,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

Joseph, Structural Evil, and Karmic Retribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awaken

Image result for jacob dream

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

Genesis 28:16-17

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

But also, darker things.  Dangerous things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Awaken also — to our power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Tongue

words have power

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

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

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

Words can heal, but words can also hurt.

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

The First Amendment States:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shmini Atzeret and Political Anguish

rain pic

Around 1 in the morning Monday night, I awoke to the sounds of it.  The soft pattering quiet I had not heard for a season.  Unmistakable.  Rain.  The first rain of the season soaking the bamboo roof of my Sukkah.

The timing seemed supernatural.  The next day was Shmini Atzeret, the little-known holiday at the tail end of Sukkot whose primary ritual act is to pray for rain.  Twice a year, the liturgical calendar asks us to switch out a tiny phrase in the Amidah prayer, traditionally said three times a day.  Usually for me the line is a semi-conscious blip in the course of a service.  Sometimes it lifts me up into an awareness of seasons and the preciousness of water.  Twice a year, it expands into a beautiful poem of hope and vulnerability as we acknowledge the Earth’s cycles and our human dependence on rain and dew to feed our bodies.

Eloheynu v’Elohei Avoteynu v’Imoteynu – Our God and God of our ancestors: 

B’gishmei orah ta’ir adamah — With raindrops of light, illuminate the Earth,

B’gishmei bracha, t’varech adamah — With raindrops of blessing, bless the Earth,

B’gishmei gilah tagil adamah — With raindrops of rejoicing, give joy to the Earth…

The prayer is an acrostic, moving through the Hebrew letters and praying for every kind of goodness to wash over us as the rains begin.  Then it introduces the phrase which will be said in the midst of the Amidah until the end of Pesach as the season shifts again.

She’atah hu Adonai Eloheynu rav lehoshiah, mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem – for You are Adonai our God, whose power to save is great, the One who makes the wind blow and the rains fall.

This morning, a few days after Shmini Atzeret, as I obsessively checked for news, I had all but forgotten the Earth and its seasons shifting around me, the powers of the planet and its rains and winds.  Caught up in the pain of the moment, the outrage and disillusionment happening on our human scale, I had completely given in and cut myself off – running my life by the cycles of headlines and scandal rather than the cycles of prayer, water and sun.

Painful as it is – I am glad to be awake.  I know that for the sake of my children, and God willing their children’s children, I need to pay attention to the politics of our moment.  I need to remember what I committed to on Yom Kippur for the sake of the world.  I need to do more than I did in 2016 when that consequential election loomed. Actions like making calls, giving to campaigns and getting out the vote not only make a difference in the world, they also (more selfishly) make a difference to my distressed inner state.

I also know that all of our human structures of government, technology and community are built on a foundation of Earth.  In Hebrew, the first human beings are called Adam – from the word Adamah, Earth, that features so much in the prayer for rain above. We are formatively and linguistically — creatures of the Earth.  And that quality reminds me that there is a frame here beyond the momentary dramas on the political scale.

I find myself longing for grounding.  For perspective.  Yesterday I sat with a family who was planning to bring a 101 year old great grandmother to attend a Bar Mitzvah service.  I mused about how I would love to ask her how she sees our moment.  I wondered if she feels it is as unusual and troubling as it seems to me – or if it is just another cycle, far less worrisome than others she has lived through.

Not all of us have access to clear-minded elders who have lived through a century of human craziness.  But all of us do have access to the Earth and the Sky and our own community gatherings.  In our part of the world, we even have access to the ocean.

As these next weeks of political intensity unfold, we will all no doubt be tempted to cut ourselves off from our Earthliness, and our fellows humans, losing ourselves in hours of screen-time, reading every update.  But I hope in the midst of this tumult, we can all find times to connect with our spirits, with one another, and with our Earthliness.

I trust in that. I do.  It’s not just that I run to a shabbat service or the outdoors as an escape.  It’s that I know good things come when I take time to ground myself in the prayers of community and the natural world.  Clarity, peace, insight, inspiration: these are not just luxuries to seek in the redwoods or a room of singing voices when the fight is won — they are qualities we can find and bring to the struggle as we go.  May our voices joined together and our beautiful Earth remind us of who we are and what it’s all for, and may this season bring us much needed raindrops of hope and transformation.

 

 

 

Prayer Thoughts from a Rabbi Mom on her son’s prayer book dedication sticker…

Prayer is …

More than the words in this book,

though these words will guide you, and teach you,

if you let them.

Prayer is …

Time out of time — to notice

in the silence, in the distracting thoughts, in the still small voice within,

Change and stillness,

Knowing, and heartbreak

Remorse and forgiveness

Hope and resolve

Gratitude and compassion

Prayer is not …

a spectator sport.

It is not passive,

though it can be effortless.

The recitation of words can be rote, thoughtless and unconscious –

or it can be Practice — inscribing words on your heart.

Sometimes, a phrase suddenly jumps out of the stream and glimmers in new light.

This happens especially, as you learn to understand Hebrew.

[Oy, and then there are more challenges — when the Hebrew is not just a                                 meaningless mantra, and the words are not ones you would choose to say –                         curses on enemies, songs of victory, endless strings of lavish praise upon a                           God you don’t believe requires or desires those particular phrases                                           — that kind of thing.

Don’t get confused.  Still you can pray in your own words, or in silence.

Just keep rising, level after level.]

Advice?

Be careful not to dismiss, judge, or otherwise miss the value of where you are and what has been given to you from your people.

Be careful not to become spiritually complacent, arrogant, stubborn, stuck.

Don’t give up when it’s hard.

Music is important.

Singing with others together,

lifting voices,

generating joy,

dancing,

holding silence,

finding harmonies,

creating beautiful sound.

Words are important.

Moving the heart.

Teaching across time and generations.

Silence is important.

Making space to listen, to receive.

Prayer is…

interactive and solitary

Paradoxical — Revolutionary

Prayer is a gift you give to your soul.

 

Thank You but No Thank You

If you have heard me speak of Jerusalem, you may know that I hold a love for it that is deep and not entirely rational.  You may have heard me tell stories of encounters I’ve had there with Palestinians losing their homes to unjust Israeli policies.  You may have heard me tell stories of the joy I felt during my sabbatical there to see my children experience Jewish holidays and Shabbat as part of the mainstream culture around them.

It’s complicated.

I love Jerusalem with the love of generations of my ancestors who have dreamed of returning there.  AND – I am not blind to the ways my people have misused their newfound power.  I have worried for my own safety and the safety of my children as I’ve lived in Israel during waves of terror and warfare, and I have seen with my own eyes Israeli forces violating the human rights of Palestinians.

It’s complicated.

When I heard President Trump’s announcement, validating the Jewish narrative of that place, asserting a hope for peace – some small part of me nodded and smiled.  But most of me shook with fear as I wondered whether a lighted match had just been thrown into a pile of oily rags (the metaphor my teachers once used to explain the events leading up to the first and second World Wars.)

After a year of constant assaults on the rule of law, the free press, the integrity of public service, the environment, the rights and dignity of every vulnerable group in our great and diverse nation, this President is the last man on earth I would trust to make a  risky international move “because it’s the right thing to do,” as he claimed was his motivation yesterday.

In the coming weeks, as the Muslim and Arab communities world-wide react to this inflammatory move, I pray that they contain their outrage and refrain from violence.  I pray that they finally see the wisdom and power of a non-violent response.  But if they don’t, (which seems likely), I pray that in our country, Israel, and the Middle East, this moment does not become the opening to a new chapter of terrorism, crackdowns, Islamaphobia, war, and all of the other plagues that follow on the heels of the politics of fear and hate.

Whatever satisfaction I felt at hearing the President of the United States recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, (something I hope and pray for in the right time for the right reasons), I could not celebrate yesterday’s announcement.  Even as it appears to bring Jews closer to fulfilling ancient and powerful dreams, those dreams will mean little if we awake every morning to a reality of violence, injustice, and fear.  So thank you, but no thank you, Mr. President. You have not won over this rabbi by pretending to champion the cause of my people while you damage the prospects for peace.

High Priests, Politicians and Presidents – Bound by the Law to Serve the People

At the outset, I would like to make a shout out to our Commander in Chief for his recent Executive Order weakening the wall separating church and state.  I would prefer That wall to remain high and strong BUT as long as it’s wobbly, I suppose I should be grateful that the President wants to “give our churches back their voices.”  So I feel I must say two things – Thank You, but No Thank You, and, in the meantime, Brace Yourself.  You will not always win when you invite the voice of morality to weigh in …

So – what does the “voice of the church” have to say about the events of the moment and their intersection with scripture? This week in Parashat Emor the book of Leviticus turned to some of the special rules that apply only to the ancient priests, a caste of Israelites who lead the ritual life of their people.  They must maintain a level of ritual purity far stricter than that of the ordinary citizen. This impacts who they can marry and who they can mourn and other dimensions of life.  As is the case now, there are slightly different expectations of our leaders, usually higher expectations.  Usually…

On the other hand, Torah makes it clear that even if we hold leaders to different standards in some ways, no one is above the law.  Even the High Priest.  He may have the power to atone for the sins of the whole people.  He may have the privilege of access to the Holy of Holies, where no other person may enter.  He may get a lifetime supply of animal sacrifice barbecue in return. But he still has to obey the 10 commandments (613 actually) and he is still held accountable for his sins.  In fact, he is not allowed to exercise his power and privilege to atone for others until he has atoned for himself (Lev. 16:11).

This basic idea – that even the most powerful leader must follow the law, that even the most powerful leader should be held accountable for his mistakes, is one which seems to have some people confused today.

This week we saw it as Kellyanne Conway brazenly defended Trump’s latest power grab – who are we to question!?  He has the authority.  It’s his prerogative.  Yes, he has the authority, but even Presidential authority does not endow one with immunity from the law – civil, criminal, and moral law — which even a President must not break.

Kellyanne Conway was right about one thing.  The President does have the authority and power to fire the head of the FBI – even while that person is leading an investigation which brushes closer and closer to the President and his inner circle.  (Anyone who can remember Watergate knows that Presidents can fire investigators and special prosecutors.)

The question is not whether the President holds the power, the question is whether he is using that power to interfere with the checks and balances which are meant to hold him accountable to the law.

If we let this breach go unchallenged, we risk losing the separation of powers which is the deep structure protecting our Democracy. As David Frum writes in The Atlantic, “liberty must be defended … with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them.” (“How to Build an Autocracy”, The Atlantic, David Frum.)

The institutions which make our Democracy possible are under attack.

Our ‘High Priest’ has forgotten (if ever he knew) that he’s there to serve God and the people, rather than his own selfish ends.

At times like these I am glad to be a person of faith.  Faith in the triumph of Truth.

As Proverbs 12:19 teaches, “Truthful speech abides forever, a lying tongue but for a moment.”

And there is Truth.  By the way. Objective, fact-based, not-opinion, not-“alternative” Truth.  A reality so real that it’s realer than reality TV.  The kind of Truth that doesn’t go away or disappear when it’s inconvenient or even downright damning.

If leaders choose denial, deception, and manipulation in order to seize and stay in power, one day they will pay.  One day they will no longer be able to fool the masses.  One day this Democracy will no longer allow the party in power to draw district lines in their own favor or stack the deck with corrupt local judges.  One day we will stop the flow of obscene amounts of tainted money into vitriolic political attack ads.  One day the people will learn how to avoid being sucked in by the quicksands of lies and misinformation on the internet.

On that day the people will awaken and see that they were duped by the schemes of a powerful meddling international criminal who figured out how to manipulate free countries through lies and deception, skillfully placed and timed, consumed by the open, uncritical minds of under-educated, over-stimulated American citizens. And when we awaken, we will reinvigorate this Democracy, keep our land free, and reclaim the content of our own minds.

When that day comes, any politician and any party who has chosen to support a regime ready to destroy the foundations of American freedom will lose the future.  If ever they had a chance to be a part of it.

Our congressional leaders must do the right thing now if they ever hope to be worthy of public trust and respect down the road.  Appoint and fund an independent investigation to follow the truth wherever it leads, without fear of retaliation.  Defend the institutions of our free country now — for the love of the United States of America.  Remind the High Priest that he is accountable to a higher power, and bound by the laws of the land.

 

We Need Science and Science Needs Religion

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This past Saturday, April 22nd, two worldwide conversations happened simultaneously.  In honor of Earth Day, tens of thousands of people gathered in over 500 cities world-wide to March for Science.  A sampling of the best signs according to Slate and others includes: “Science is Real, Denial is Deadly”, “I Can’t Believe I’m Marching for Facts”, and “Got the Plague? Me Neither. Thanks Science.”

While the crowds marched, Jews all over the globe also read Parashat Shemini – a section of Leviticus that some would say clashes with our contemporary sensibilities. Here is a sample of the Biblical material:

These are the living things which you may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth: Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews its cud among the animals you may eat. … the swine, which parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, it is unclean to you… anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters … is an abomination to you… and these shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey… the hoopoe and the bat… (Leviticus 11:1-4, 7-10, 13-19.)

Reading Leviticus with an awareness of the other global conversation, this list becomes more than a bunch of arbitrary rules; instead it presents a snapshot of known species 2500 years ago; an early classification system. In a word — science. (A primitive and limited sort of science to be sure, but still, science). And yet, if we read the Levitical list as if it is meant to replace or compete with a modern scientific treatise on bio-diversity, we miss the point entirely.

Thinkers often oppose “science” and “religion” as if the two are in some inherent cosmic struggle.  One cannot “believe in the Bible” and “accept the truth of science” at the same time.  But to me that seems a deeply false dichotomy; a mistake which misunderstands both science and religion.

Religion and science may both seek the Truth in some sense, but they explore different arenas of human inquiry.

Science can help us to understand the microscopic makeup of our bodies and the cosmic movements of the stars.  Science gives us reliable, evidence-based descriptions of our world that we can apply to build bridges and subways, engines and weapons, computers and medicines. Ignoring, denying or undermining scientific inquiry and scientific facts is foolish at best, and gravely reckless as a basis for public policy.  I cannot believe that in 2017 there is a need to defend the very institution of truth and evidence based science but here we are. Onward marchers world-wide!

And yet, science is not all inherently good.

In fact, “good” is a category poorly captured by the scientific approach.  Morality in general is not going to be “discovered” as a principle of the physical universe.  We may be able to use social sciences to describe and predict human behavior, but that is different than the fundamental judgment call of whether or not a person’s actions are “good.”

This is where the Torah comes in.  From the very beginning of Genesis, “goodness” is a basic building block of creation.  Check out day three (Gen 1:9-13).  This is not a truth claim about how long evolution unfolded in order to bring forth plants on the face of the earth.  It’s a poetic description in an ancient text about a time before humanity.  And it introduces something extremely significant into the mix.  “God saw that it was good.”  Goodness. A moral dimension.  A value judgment.

Science by itself lacks this key ingredient.

Science by itself can make medicines. Science by itself can make weapons capable of destroying all life on the planet.  Science is a tool, maybe the most powerful tool we have.  We human beings are the ones wielding that tool.  And we must discern together how to wield it for the good.

So what does Leviticus say about learning to use our science for the good?

Remember that ancient taxonomy of species and which ones we can eat? Without getting caught up in the details, I want to point out one overarching takeaway in the moral dimension.

Whatever animals make it to whatever lists, the whole system teaches us that there are rules about how human beings are meant to relate to the creatures of the earth.  We are not allowed to consume endlessly, whatever we want, whenever we want.  There is a moral dimension not only to how human beings treat each other, but also to how we relate to our planet and our fellow creatures.

Do we have the power to eat pigs and shrimp and bats and vultures and bugs?  Well, some of us do.  But Should we?  That’s the question the Bible introduces.  Should we?  What Should we do or not do in order to maintain the “goodness” woven deep into the fabric of our world? We need more than science to answer this question.

Kohelet Rabbah, an ancient rabbinic text, tells a story of the first human being.  After creating Adam in the Garden of Eden, God takes him on a walk and says, “See how good are My works… think about this.  Do not destroy or corrupt my world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to come after you to set it right.”

Or as the organizers of the March for Science put it, “There is no “Planet B.”

As we humans continue to develop the gifts of both the intellect and the soul, may we be blessed with a deepening understanding of our world and a strong moral sensibility.  May we be blessed to pursue not only what is possible, but also what is right.  May our scientific advances help us to heal what we have damaged and protect what is precious, beautiful and good. And may we and our leaders also develop in the moral dimension, cultivating the integrity, courage, and love for future generations that it will take to face inconvenient scientific truths and place people and planet ahead of short term profit.

 

A New Pharaoh Arose in Egypt…

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(The following is a mash-up of Saturday morning’s Shabbat sermon and my words at the SF Women’s March that afternoon as we prepared to pray with our feet. Above is a photo of a tiny fraction of the crowd in front of SF City Hall.)

It’s time.

Time to tell the story again. One of the greatest stories in our sacred human inheritance. A story which has inspired people in times of trouble all over the world for generations. It’s a story that gives us a template for the struggle against tyranny and slavery of all kinds.

I’m talking about the story of the Exodus, in Hebrew, Yetziat Mitzrayim. On the morning after the inauguration of America’s 45th President, even as millions marched worldwide, Jewish communities in every corner read and discussed the story of Moses confronting Pharaoh which began in the week’s Torah portion.  It’s a story Jews remember every day in our prayers, every winter as we read through the Torah, and every Spring as we celebrate Passover.  I have studied and told and listened to this story thousands of times in my life and I can’t think of a moment I felt I needed it more than I do now.

So I want to tell you the story…

A new Pharaoh took office in Egypt who did not know he was not God.  He said to his people, “Behold, there is a people in our midst, the Children of Israel.  They are different from us.  They are dangerous.  What if they were to join with our enemies and rise up against us?!”

Using fear and hate, this new Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites to build with hard labor.  Pyramids rose – towers, reaching to the heavens, glorious monuments to Pharaoh’s name.  Yet still he was afraid and commanded the midwives Shifrah and Puah to kill every baby Hebrew boy at birth.

And there the resistance began.  In the first example of civil disobedience ever recorded in human history, the midwives followed their God-given sense of right and wrong and refused to follow immoral orders.

The Children of Israel continued to multiply until Pharaoh commanded all of his people to kill newborn baby boys, making his whole society complicit in a policy of killing innocents.

But one baby boy survived when his mother floated him down the river in a basket. An Egyptian princess, Pharaoh’s own daughter, took pity on him and loved him and raised him as her own.

That baby, Moses, became the hero of the story we know.

God called to him from the burning bush and said, “I have a job for you,” and Moses agreed.  Even though he doubted his own ability.  Even though it would have been easier to stay safe shepherding flocks in the desert.

Lord knows we need some heroes today.

We need leaders who will go to the powers that be and say, as Abraham said to God Himself, “Far be it from You to behave this way!”

We need leaders who will say,  “Far be it from you to proclaim America’s greatness even as you trample the institutions and values that make our Democracy function – freedom of religion, free and fair elections, an independent truth-telling press, public education, human rights, civil rights!”

Yes, we need those courageous leaders who will be Moses and stand up to Pharaoh.  But we also need the midwives and the princesses.  Resisting evil decrees, using positions of privilege to protect the vulnerable.

We even need the slaves, who finally finally, after 400 years, turned away from their twitter feeds and facebook pages and awoke to their own suffering and cried out to God. Only after their cry did God pay attention and act to free them.

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Today we march with the stories of our ancestors in our hearts, offering guidance to us now as we face our own struggles.

Today we march remembering the moral courage of the midwives and the kindness of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Today we march remembering how Moses stepped out of his comfort zone to answer God’s call.

Today we march because the struggle for freedom and justice did not end when the Israelites crossed the sea.  That struggle continues to this day.  And we too are a part of this sacred story.

Today as we march for women’s rights, for human rights, for civil rights, we lend our bodies to story much bigger than one lifetime.

As it is taught in the ancient rabbinic text, Pirke Avot, it is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.  Today, we all take up that sacred work, which even Moses did not complete.

May we come to see the day when all human beings are free and safe, when nations use their powers and their wealth to protect even the most vulnerable in their midst.  May we live to see the day when men and women of all colors, religions, sexual orientations and abilities are treated fairly and equally under the law of the land.  May we live to see the day when fear and hate give way to love and respect in our public discourse, and America lives up to its aspiration to be a land of liberty and justice for all.