When Darkness Taints the Festival of Lights

Hanukkiah at Ein Hod

Thursday I pulled into the CKA driveway for the first time since returning from our splendid and inspiring congregational trip to Israel. I came bearing joy, having witnessed the continuing growth and prosperity of our fellow Jews in our homeland, Eretz Yisrael, but also facing the darkness of what has happened here, in our home, while we were gone. Two events cast a shadow over the light of the holiday: a series of violence occurring and reoccurring throughout Hannukah directed at Jewish traditional communities of New York, culminating in the brutal machete attack in Monsey, as well as the horrific shootout in a house of worship here in Texas. Worrisome.

Yet, as I pulled in, I looked at our new lawn menorah and dreidel by the entrance (thanks Steve!). They were, as I expected, unmolested…except for the two hyperactive squirrels running up and down the hannukiyah. Its new counterpart displayed on Morriss Rd (thanks Michael!) was likewise intact, glittering in full glory.

I made my first task to bring them into the building, now the holiday was over. As I hauled in these sizable displays, I was comforted by the mundanity of these tasks. Though we hear and see frightening things from afar, our reality up close, as Americans and as Jews, is still remarkably prosaic and secure. For the vast majority of us, blessed light burns undiminished, every day.

Yes, there is a disturbing and inexplicable (even the experts seemed baffled) uptick in violence directed at Jews in places around the country. And yes, we are painfully aware that places we once thought to be truly safe can become subject to sudden violence, but the fact remains that we are continuously blessed. To be an American Jew at the second decade of the 21st Century is still to have one foot already firmly planted in the messianic era. We are more likely to die of obesity than of famine. Pestilence is no longer regularly taking the lives of our loved ones prematurely. And even violence, thankfully, is mostly seen only from afar.

These events frighten us, but they also remind us of the two-fold nature of Hanuukah and what it teaches. The first is about resistance – fighting back against an unjust and cruel present. This we are doing at CKA, through enhanced security, preparation, and vigilance. But the other, the second dimension, is about creating what we want for the future. Promoting light to roll back the dark, extending constructiveness, love, and compassion when a brutal few are fixated on destruction, hate, and cruelty. Let’s rejoice in the overwhelming ordinariness and the everyday security of our lives, but let us also carry forward God’s light; in fact, let us be the light, shining with the confidence, faith, and hope that our tradition represents.

Happy new year, my fellow Jews!

From Gay Pride to Jewish Pride

Jewish Pride Flag

It was some time back, perhaps on my last trip to Israel, that I first saw a rainbow pattern kippah (Jewish ritual skullcap). I don’t know if it was meant to be a “Pride” kippah, but that’s how I interpreted it, and I bought it. My brother is gay. I performed his wedding to an Israeli man (a doctor! Sigh of Jewish pride).

So, when Pride Month rolled around this year, given the amount of push back people in the LGBTQ community have endured in the last couple of years, I felt like I had to represent. I could have pulled out my “Proud of my Gay Brother” T-shirt, but it was old, and now so am I, so I opted for the kippah, instead.

Now this is a little out of character for me. I am a Reform rabbi, and one of the reforms of Reform Judaism 200 years ago was the community decision a Jew need not wear Jewish-distinctive garb anymore. Being invited into modern life, Reform Judaism encouraged Jews to dress as modern people. Thus, few Reform Jews wear kippahs or tzitzit (ritual fringes, as commanded in Numbers 15:38) outside the synagogue anymore. This was true of me also. Thus, wearing my queer Pride kippah all the time was a departure.

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The Goring Details of an Epidemic

Vaccination

I was floored. Not by the news that over 500 children in Brooklyn had developed measles. I have seen the anti-vaccine movement gain steam over the past two decades. No, I was floored that most of these children were Hasidic Jews, an insular branch of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. Why should that surprise? 

It surprised me because, while I am not an Orthodox rabbi, I am fairly conversant in Jewish medical law (Halacha) as expounded and practiced in Orthodox circles, and I know that their religious authorities are ferociously pro-medicine. The great scholars uniformly say, in the name of biblical law and the principle of pikuach nefesh, preserving life and health, it is mandatory to make full use of any and all medicine, includes vaccination.

But, of course, you might say, “Well, the Bible never mentions vaccines. In fact, the Bible rarely even alludes to medical treatment in any form.” Absolutely true, but in the quest to keep the teachings of Scripture relevant in different ages, rabbis have shown considerable creativity in applying biblical law, composed in the Iron Age, to changing and novel developments of the past 3000 years. Vaccines are a case in point. How do we know the Bible mandates vaccination? Stick with me.

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Sukkot – Dwelling in a House of Dreams

Our holiday of Sukkot – part harvest festival, part historical reenactment – is the holiday of insecure dreams. We are commanded to build a shelter for ourselves, but only the most flimsy, temporary shelter, to remind us of our own fragility, the transitory nature of life, and what it was like to be refugees from Egypt, with only the good will of a great power to sustain us. But then we are commanded to dwell in it. We are to welcome guests: our neighbors, the poor, and even our wandering ancestors, to be with us. And then, ideally, we sleep in it, the star visible above us. And we sleep with  the promise God made us in the desert, the promise that a more permanent home awaits us in the future, a promised land. No longer landless, stateless, we sleep knowing we are headed toward a better future. We sleep with a dream in mind before we even lay our head upon our pillow.

And knowing that, we are commanded to rejoice. Sukkot is meant to be our happiest holiday – not joyous like Passover, or riotous, like Purim, but a holiday of contentment, knowing our harvest is secure with us for the coming winter.
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Sermon from Rosh Hashanah 5778

So today I thought I’d talk about the concept of the klutz kasheh. This is a Yiddish term which literally mean a ‘klutzy question,’ or a ‘silly conundrum.’ The great Jewish tradition of grappling with silly difficulties goes back to the Talmud, where the Sages liked to pose unlikely, seemingly ridiculous problems to each other. A classic is one where someone poses the question, “A person with two heads, does he put tefillin on one head, or both?”

A favorite from medieval Jewish tradition was the question of whether, being short a tenth person, could a golem be counted in a minyan for public worship. These are indeed silly questions, pointless questions, but there are surprisingly profound implications to them. In each of these, the underlying question is, what makes a person? Who is a Jew?

This year a colleague posted online this question. God forbids Jews to write or complete a task during Shabbat or a major holiday, yet on Rosh HaShanah, we say that God “Writes” in the Book of Life of RH and “Seals it” on YK. Is God bound by the rules God imposes on us?

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I’ll Follow the Sun (with apologies to Lennon and McCartney)

Did you hear the one about the fellow who stayed up all night wondering where the sun went? It finally dawned on him.

The sun. It’s easy to take it for granted, even to resent it, living in Texas. But of course it’s a start point for everything on this planet that interests us. Without the sun constantly bombarding the surface of our planet with energy, life on earth would not have been able to defy the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and evolve into the magnificent diversity we see and know today. Think of the things you don’t take for granted: trees? No sun, no trees. Kittens? No sun, no kittens. Hawaii? No sun, no Hawaii. No us.

Which brings me to a something Jewish. Jews bless the sun – the birkat-ha-Hammah. Many Jews are aware we have a blessing for the moon. It’s well known because it’s recited once a month. The blessing for the sun, by contrast, is off our radar screen because it’s only recited once every 28 years. That makes it a once, twice, or with excellent timing, a thrice in a lifetime event. It’s the Halley’s Comet of Jewish prayer.

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Spiritual Grandeur

I have this theory. It goes something like this: You can gauge the way people feel about God by the way they feel about inclement weather. As for me, I appreciate storms. Windy days invigorate me, and volatile weather — lightning storms, torrential rains, blizzards — enthrall me. Even though they make me uncomfortable or frighten me, I am moved by the display of power; storms remind me of my relatively humble place in the cosmos.

Others, I know, dislike violent weather. They have a marked preference for moderate, serene, and placid climates. A few people I know go even further – if it were up to them, nature would remain at a constant 72 degrees with a 3 MPH wind.

And I suspect, if I were to do a poll, I would find that people feel about the same way about of a disturbance in God as they do about a disturbance in the weather. For those of us moved by the power of nature, the idea that God becomes righteously indignant at the behavior of people does not trouble or offend us. On the other hand, I imagine that those who are disturbed by intemperate weather are likewise uncomfortable with the idea that God get angry.

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Signs and Wonders in Denton County

A Christian vandal? Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Yet Congregation Kol Ami has had to deal with just that. In response to the ongoing crisis in New Orleans and Alabama, like churches and synagogues around the nations, CKA went into tzedakah (“charity”) hyper-drive. As part of that, we posted a new message on our roadside marquee board in front of the synagogue:

CHARITY SAVES FROM DEATH  –  PROVERBS

TZEDAKAH HELP ALA MISS LA.

Past postings on our board have included such zingers as UNDER THE SAME MANAGEMENT FOR 3500 YEARS and HAPPY CHALLAH DAYS, so I thought what could be more innocuous then a Scriptural quote? Yet Monday morning when I came in to help deliver a load of charitable donations to Jewish Family Services for distribution, I found the sign had been altered to read:

CHRIST SAVES FROM DEATH

SHAZAM.

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And after the fire, a small still voice (I Kings 19)

The German Philosopher Ludwig Wittenstein declared, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” So what are we to make of something that leaves us speechless? Something so incomprehensible, so alien, that words fail us? Such an otherworldly event seems to have overtaken America on Tuesday when, in coordinated attacks, suicide terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, crashed airplanes filled with travelers, and massacred as yet untold numbers of innocent people. And to add to the horror (is it possible at this point?) is to realize how the killers actually used, not only themselves, but also many of their victims as weapons to kill others. It seems otherworldly in its evil, truly diabolical in the root sense of the word – the work of demonic forces.

On reflection, However, these actions are all too human. When my wife said to me, “It’s like something out of a Schwarzenegger movie,” I was shaken out my dumb horror. Of course, as Hollywood shows us in movie after movie, human imagination can conjure up such a plan, and human ingenuity can make it real. The sobering truth is, infernal fires burn brightest in the human heart. Alas, poor humanity.

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