Thursday, September 21, 2017

RH Kavannot II & III

From Tree Stories, A Collection of Extraordinary Encounters:  “Think Like a Tree” by Karen I. Shragg

Soak up the sun
Affirm life’s magic
Be graceful in the wind
Stand tall after a storm
Feel refreshed after it rains
Grow strong without notice
Be prepared for each season
Provide shelter to strangers
Hang tough through a cold spell
Emerge renewed at the first sings of spring
Stay deeply rooted while reaching for the sky
Be still long enough to
hear your own leaves rustling
Be still long enough during these days of awe to hear our own deeds reflected in those around us.  Help us understand our impact on the life unfolding around us and embrace the uplift of Rosh Hashanah and the challenge of Yom Kippur.

The Akedah Revisited

The Akedah narrative - one of the great Master Stories of the Jewish textual tradition - tells the story of the binding of Isaac on an alter by his father Abraham in response to a request from God.  It is a fast-paced narrative of events:  Abraham’s readiness, setting out for Mount Moriah; the child’s question, “Where is the ram for the burnt offering?”; the father’s answer that God will provide, the binding of Isaac itself, the vision of the angel admonishing Abraham not to harm the boy; and the appearance in the brambles of a ram caught by the horns.  Teaching us further on this piece of our history, the great Israel poet, Chaim Gouri wrote the following poem entitled, Yerusha - Inheritance:

The ram came last of all; And Abraham did not know that it was the answer to the question of the boy, who is his foremost strength at the twilight of his life.
The old mane raised his head; When he saw he was not dreaming a dream, and an angel was standing by, the sacrificial knife fell from his hand.
The boy, released from his bonds, saw his father’s back.
Isaac, as recounted, was not offered up in sacrifice.  He lived a long time, experience the good, until the light of his eyes grew dim.
Nonetheless, that hour he bequeathed to his descendants, an inheritance.  They are born and the sacrificial knife is in their hearts.

Not more than a month ago, some of us studied this powerful text and this connected poem.  We dove deeply into the meaning of this troubling text.  I was overwhelmed with great learning from our community.  I have always read that last line of the poem as the ways in which we, as Jews, are almost always sacrificed - interpret as you wish.  But, my point has been that we are all Isaac, we are all the descendants with that ma’achelet - sacrificial knife in our hearts.  Yet, one of our community, Sandy, taught us it is more.  She said:  We all are almost always Abraham.  In other words, we are both the sacrificed and the one holding the implement of destruction…how will we hear this story this year?  Will we see ourselves as being forced to make sacrifices?  Or, will we be the one holding the implement?
Rosh Hashanah 5778 - September 2017

Responsible Listening - Responsibility

Walking into a preschool room can be a source of anxiety, maybe even fear.  For others, a source of energy and excitement.  The noise, the seeming chaos can certainly feel overwhelming.  But, for those who have been in the presence of truly amazing, patient, loving and skilled preschool teachers, there is an amazing reality in their classrooms.  The respect they hold for the little ones in their care and the love they show them while simultaneously providing structure and healthy discipline is awe-some; it is a balancing act worthy of cirque de soleil.  Their brand of listening and paying attention exudes passion for their work and the responsibility they hold dear. 

I recall a few opportunities to spend time in such sacred spaces, playing, learning and exploring with these young students.  Once, I was charged with exploring the Jewish value, the middah, of Shmiat HaOzen - A Listening Ear literally, but best understood as attentive listening, and I got to explore this with a group of three to four years olds.  With the support and creativity of my mother, my eternal source of teaching ideas, I devised an activity to model the skill of listening. 

It began with me asking questions about the students lives’ and trying to listen to them all share at the same time.  A classroom of fourteen three to four year olds…..all answering questions about their siblings, what their mommies and daddies do for work and even the names of their  pets.  After a few moments of the chaos, I asked them:  What do we need to be able to listen and to hear our friends.  They unanimously agreed that:  All we need is our ears.

So I asked one youngster to tell me more about her dog.  As she started to describe her dog Larry to me, I turned my ear towards her, but focused my attention elsewhere, looking around the room as she talked.  As I did this, she expressed frustration and said that I wasn’t listening.  Immediately, we all identified together and decided that:  To listen, to truly take in what others are sharing with us, we need more than our ears.  Listening we agreed is a full body experience.  Listening is more than hearing.  Listening is more than the vibrations and sounds entering our ears.  Listening demands our attention, our focus and our presence.  Listening leads to learning.  Listening requires responsibility.

On Rosh Hashanah, we find a unique b’racha - a blessing, that we articulate to remind ourselves of our obligation to this skill - to listening.  We recite each and every year as we prepare for the sounds of the shofar:  Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to hear the sound of the Shofar.  We can recite this b’racha, and we can respond with the requisite Amen and simply listen to the tekiah, the shevarim and teruah and even the tekiah gedolah, but we all know our Jewish tradition’s charge that we dig deeper into our liturgy, our texts and even our rituals for deepening meaning.  In his Machzor Hadash, Hershel Matt writes about the shofar blasts:  "The blasts of the shofar call us to repentance, to renew our loyalty to God, to defy false gods, to remember Sinai, to keep the mitzvot, to renew our devotion to the Land of Israel, to recall the vision of the prophets when all peoples shall live in peace, the blasts of the shofar reminds us of the flight of time and to live our lives with purpose.” ( The Sound of the Shofar by Hershel J. Matt, Machzor Hadash p.244)

Matt is making sure that we hearken to more than the sounds of the ram’s horn alone.  These primitive sounds are a call to not only listen, he teaches, but also to learn and then to do.  They are a call to action….they are a call to be responsible in our listening and ensuring we take on the tasks that life presents us. 

Over recent weeks, engaged in my preparations for these Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe, I have found a struggle that is unfamiliar.  My eternal source of inspiration, my wife and friend Rachel, has encouraged me in so many ways, reminding me that this year, there is so much to talk about.  There are so many headlines, news stories, opportunities to improve our community, our nation, the world, to urge our elected officials forward.  And while I agree wholeheartedly, it seems that while there is so much to consider, what has been so unfamiliar in this struggle to work on my high holy day messages, is that it has become so increasingly difficult to discern what really matters, what’s actually happening and what the reliable sources of information are…. and how to take the first steps towards a more just, moral and equitable world from our current reality.   

Listening has become harder and harder.  As we are increasingly overwhelmed with dissonant messages…  Over the last year, and perhaps more, we have been continually bombarded from all directions.   Whether it is politics or natural disasters, international crises or concerns for justice and equality, or whether it is with real news or fake, the kind of information and the quantity is simply overwhelming.   We have witnessed events around our nation while attempting to make heads or tails of the them.  We have been over-loaded with information about the world we inhabit, the world we share with seven point five billion others.  There is no shortage of people lamenting the headlines among the talking heads on cable and network news.  The heated and challenged reality of politics in our great nation has stirred long held beliefs for many, it has ruptured relationships between long time friends, it has given license to those in mental health fields to dub the term Election Stress Disorder.  Some argue the last twelve months has only exposed what has always been there.  The seemingly endless onslaught of information via news, social media, written sources, neighbors, family and co-workers has continued to fuel this kind of stress.

It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to see the good in the world around us.  In the endless barrage of negativity in the headlines, we can easily turn either to despair or worse, in my estimation, to a lack of care and concern.  Amidst the chaotic newsfeed including Iran, Irma, Charlottesville, Houston, North Korea, an embattled president, the Jewish identity of our beloved State of Israel, immigration, building walls while tearing others down…..all demanding our attention, requiring us to listen…to make value judgments.

But what shall we listen to?  How can one even begin to discern the responsibility in the listening, in the hearkening to what is a step forward, just one step, when its so hard to see examples of good, just and right and weigh truth from fiction, real from fake? 

In the story of Creation, in the Book of Genesis, we find an interesting analog to this kind of chaos.  We learn that what we recognize as our world, our Earth, was chaos, it was what our tradition calls tohu vavohu - unformed and void - lacking order.  As the creation story continues with the events of each day, God identifies and labels the evolving natural world around us.  We find the familiar phrase from this story:  וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב, often translated as:  And God saw the light and that it was good.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, points out in his book, To Heal a Fractured World, that there are different ways to understand this moment in our text.  He quotes the nineteenth century Rabbi, Zvi Hirsch Mecklenburg and reminds us of a deeper understanding of this simple phrase.  Mecklenburg taught that the Hebrew ‘ki', translated here in the story of creation as ‘that’ is better understood and more often translated as ‘because’.  Therefore, “God saw, not, ‘that it was good’ but ‘because God is good”. ( Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan.  To Heal a Fractured World.  p. 40.)  When we read it this way, our first understanding of God, in the story of creation, is that God is able to see, to recognize and to listen to the good in the world because God is good.

Amidst the chaos, the unformed universe in disarray, God creates a world of goodness through God’s own attribute of goodness - God is able to recognize what is good, because of that same quality within.  Perhaps we can too, if what we hold inside is good.  This is our model of recognizing the good in our world, listening to the needs for learning and doing, to make the world better, to decipher the countless and often competing messages inundating us so that we can move towards action that is good, just, right, equitable.  It begins with being able to listen, not solely with our ears, but with our whole being.  Listening as a responsibility, actively so that we may engage more in our world, not less.   

It sounds cliché to just say listening is the answer.  We are reminded at every turn the importance of communication, whether at work, in relationships and beyond, so it may seem obvious that listening is the key to success, to moving forward.  Yet, if it were so easy, maybe we’d be better at it…  We listen to what is comforting, to what agrees with our already established views and beliefs.  But listening, from our Jewish perspective, is not the charge to only hear and heed what suits, but rather, it is even more crucial to listen, to always listen even, or especially when we disagree.  This is a responsibility.

If we only read the agreed upon sources, we aren’t really doing anything…not even listening.  Being knowledgeable and “up” on the realities around us requires energy and effort.  Two weeks ago, two educated professionals who are dear friends, two mothers - Lauren Alredge and Caitlin Quattromani - led me on an amazingly powerful intellectual journey.  During one of my drives between the North Shore and the South, I listened to their short Ted Talk.  One poignant segment of the the talk was Mrs. Alredge sharing what happened while driving her sons to school, and she said, “My younger son says to me:  Mom, we don’t know anyone who voted for Trump, right?”  She goes on to say, “I paused, took a deep breath, yes, we do, the Quattromani’s.”  “and his response was so great, he kind of got this confused look on his face and said, but we love them!”  “And I answered, yes we do!”  “And then he said, but why would they vote for him.”  She continued, “I remember stopping and thinking that it was really important how I answered this question.  Somehow I had to honor our own family values and show respect for our friends, so I said:  they think that’s the right direction for this country.  And before I even got the whole sentence out of my mouth, he had moved on to the soccer game he was going to play at recess today.” ( “How our friendship survives our opposing politics.”  Caitlin Quattromani and Lauran Allege - Ted Talks Daily, September 11, 2017.) 

This segment, nearing the end of the talk, highlights exactly what listening, what Shmiat HaOzen - Our Jewish value of listening is all about.  It is about living and honoring our own values and showing respect for those of others.  It is about knowing that we disagree with those we love.  These two women shared over the course of the podcast about their struggles to engage in discourse.  One of them mentions the reality that over 40% of Americans report that the November 2016 election negatively impacted a personal and important relationship.  These two women chose to avoid political debate and rather engage in dialogue in order to maintain their self described bi-partisan friendship.  They identify moments when they may have been fearful to engage, but they chose to ask, then to listen - to dialogue, rather than allow things to fester, to boil over and fuel negative emotions.  This tactic, among others, ensured they were not only listening to each other, but they were learning from one another, they were making more possible.  At one moment, one of the women identifies the importance of listening to what’s unfolding around us for the sake of learning.  She says, “…the most important thing about this conversation is that it happened at all.  Without an open and honest dialogue between the two of us, this would have been the elephant in the room for the next four years, pun intended!”

The art of dialogue is also the art of listening.  It is making sure we engage in the information, don’t shy away from what is uncomfortable, maintain a sense of respect and compassion for others’ ideas.  As the speakers in this talk conclude, they mentioned that they have chosen to be willing to listen even when they disagree and therefore open themselves up to limitless learning.

The learning is, in the end, what really matters.  It is, after all, the ultimate goal of our Jewish tradition as well.  Being engaged in life-long learning endeavors is part of our modus operandi as Jews.  Our tradition reminds us each morning in our liturgy that Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam - the Study of Torah is equal to all other mitzvot because it leads to them all.  When we engage in our tradition, we cannot miss the presence of dialogue, of debate, of listening to one another, regardless of the opinion.  Many of us are familiar with the constant debates in our Talmudic tradition between Hillel and Shammai, each offering different views on ritual, ethical and practical elements of Jewish life.  From the value judgments on white lies, to the treatment of those seeking to learn more about Judaism and even including the type of candles to be used on Hannukah, these two great sages model for us, what Caitlin and Lauren model in their TEDtalk:  That dialogue is about being genuinely curious about each other’s ideas, it is about opening ourselves up to limitless learning.  In fact, one could arguably say that the entire Talmud is based disagreement.  And, the Talmud doesn’t work, it loses its force if we fail to listen to each step of that disagreement, that dialogue, that discourse.

At this season, at the time of the Yamim Noraim - Days of Awe, we engage in many forms of listening.  As we shared, we listen to the blasts of the shofar.  We are called to recognize that these ancient and primitive sounds are a call to action, not for passive hearing, but to listen and heed their call.  As Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalom zichrono livracha taught:  The root of the word shofar - the shin - pey - reish also makes the Hebrew word L’Shapeir - to improve - it is listening so that we can grow, learn and improve.  We listen to the liturgy, we experience the imagery of a courtroom drama unfolding as we put ourselves on trial before the world, God - whatever is our belief - and we listen to our hearts speak truths about ourselves and our world, however uncomfortable it may be at times.  It is not meant to be easy, and nor is listening, true, active and generous listening - it is a responsibility. 

When we pick up a newspaper, when we turn on cable news and when we hear a fellow human being share information, it is up to us to first listen.  Once we are sure we are present, open and actively listening - with our whole being - then we must do the work of vetting, of deciphering the meaning of what we are learning.  How does it stir us towards action?  Towards actions that are good, just and right.  Using God, again, as the model from the story of Creation, if we are upholding our attribute of goodness, if the drive for which we are aiming is towards a more right, just and equitable world, then we, perhaps, are able to listen too, and see, because we, too, are good. 

In a preschool room, the children are innocent, I trust we can all agree on that.  They all have so much to share with their teachers, with their peers.  The noise in that setting can be deafening and beautiful simultaneously.  The balance that is struck by masters of that environment is the responsibility of listening.  It is about a responsible listening for the needs of the students, aiming to the goal of creating a fair and loving environment, it is about accepting everyone and ensuring there is healthy structure and discipline.  So too, it is with our responsibility to be active and engage in the discourse of our communities, our nation and our world.  We must hear and listen to the needs of others.  We must aim for as fair, just and equitable society the moment allows, we must listen to others - no matter how much we may disagree…but listen, wholly and generously.  And, we must be disciplined to be able to be open to the limitless learning that follows.  And finally, this responsibility of listening must stir us to action - speaking out and honoring our family values, our strongly held beliefs so that others will listen too.  We must ensure those who lead and hold positions of power practice that same kind of responsible listening.

Part of our liturgy is the prayer shema koleinu - beseeching God to hear our voice in prayer.  On this Rosh Hashanah, as we enter 5778, I offer the following in addition: 

שמע, יי, לקולות העולם תן לנו את הכח והשכל לשמוע ללמוד ולעשות עם חסד עם אהבה ועם כבוד

Listen, O God, to the voices of the world, give us the strength, the intellect to listen, to learn and to do with compassionate kindness, with love and with respect.  Amen

Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

RH 5778 Kavannah I

From Tree Stories, A Collection of Extraordinary Encounters:  Branches of Delight by Robert C. Fuentes.

    As a child, the street I lived on sat smack in between the freeway on one end and the railroad tracks on the other.  With five older brothers and sisters to add to the situation, it did not take me long to learn that moments of peace in my life would be precious and few. 
    Hence, it was my surprise to discover that climbing the elm tree in our backyard during the summer could take me to another world. 
    There, nestled within its limbs, I would float off to sleep, away from he train whistles and car horns, barking dogs and screaming children.  The cool breezes fanned away the day’s heart as the leaves spoke in silent whispers, I listened, learning more about myself than I could have otherwise.
    My parents sold their house on my twenty-third birthday.  By my twenty-fourth, the new owners had cut down the tree and old it for firewood.  But, to this day, I know that its roots are buried there deep in the ground alongside mine.
As we begin this New Year, and embrace the ten days of repentance from now until Yom Kippur, let us find ways to listen, to learn more about ourselves and our world.  Let us find ways to bury our roots deep and strong, connecting us to each other and our world…

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Seeing After Charlottesville:  A Response Based on Parshat (Torah Portion) Re'eh Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 By Rabbi Evon J. Yakar, submitted to the Tahoe Daily Tribune

As the last week concluded, I could not decide what exactly was agitating me.  We can name the events in Charlottesville or the words shared about nuanced approaches and descriptions of those events pointing to them as the source of our discomfort, our anger, fear…our agitation.  Yet, while I do not diminish those realities as part of why I was so unnerved, I am not sure that is it. 

Maybe it was the lack of moral rectitude, the equivocation from the highest moral pulpit in the land, the president.  Perhaps it was the symbols, the images forever ingrained in my mind disseminated throughout the world from the Unite the Right protestors in Charlottesville.  Maybe it was even the discomfort I feel by knowing that some counter protestors stepped outside of the moral framework I expect and fomented violence themselves.  Or, it could have been be the moral equivalency drawn between the two, even if there were only two, sides in Charlottesville, attempting to equate their violent acts, their behaviors.

But I am not sure I was agitated for exactly those reasons, while they certainly contribute to the lack of comfort I am feeling as an American Jew, there was a root cause of my discomfort.  I believe there is a question I am struggling with.  For as long as I can recall, tolerance has been preached from the synagogue, in secular school, on sports teams - really in every group of which I have been a part.  It is an American value we hold dear and treasure almost as a moral precept.  It is a value that demands of us both awareness of the other and a modicum of respect for those different, in whatever ways, than ourselves. 

This great nation we call home, the United States of America, has been a bastion of tolerance which has been tested in every generation.  Through the generations this evolving society stretches its arms wider in an effort to uphold this idea.  But the question plaguing me, perhaps all of us, at his moment is whether or not tolerance has run its course.  In other words, is tolerance always possible?

I learned last week, in attempting to devour every article, blog post and interview I could, that tolerance, however, does not mean being tolerant of those who preach intolerance.  There are limits to this value.  Tolerance cannot spread its arms widen enough to include and embrace the intolerant.  This agitating question leads me to another one:  Are the events of the last week, including the equivocation and moral failure of our society and leaders a failure of our ever evolving tolerant society, or rather, is it a very difficult and painful growing pain?

I am agitated because this reality forces me to question the moral ground on which I stand.  They demand that I dig deep within myself, within my Jewish tradition to learn ways to express, to articulate a vision, a view of a better tomorrow. 

In synagogues around the world last week, we read words from the book of Deuteronomy that began with a puzzling line, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11:26).  It is puzzling because the verb, see, expressed as a command doesn’t fit perfectly with the object:  Blessing and curse.  Jewish tradition urges us to notice that this command is grammatically directed to each of us as individuals.  That is, we each hold the responsibility to see what lies before us.  Each and every human being, every citizen of this land bears the responsibility to recognize, to pay attention, to see the blessings and curse before us.  I choose blessing.  That means, I choose to see this as a growing pain and one we must not only manage but ensure the growth is towards greater tolerance, love and strength - building a nation of more enduring values than hatred and bigotry, but rather of love, of tolerance.  I choose to say tolerance has not run its course, but rather it has to better understand its limitations, and also its promise. 

This requires of us conversations with every neighbor and friend, to ensure our values are expressed and articulated.  It demands of us our voice is heard by those who hold positions of leadership so that should they lead, they do so knowing that we see that blessing and must work towards it. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Invocation delivered to the NV State Senate March 7, 2017

Rabbi Evon J. Yakar
Invocation - Nevada State Senate 79th Session
March 7, 2017 - 11am - Nevada State Capitol

March 7, 2017
Good morning to all of you and thank you for the honor of being here today.  Even more I express my gratitude to you for your efforts on behalf of the citizens of the State of Nevada. 

On Sunday, Jews around the world will mark the holiday of Purim, celebrating the heroine Esther from the biblical narrative bearing her name.  It is a tale rivaling some of the greatest stories.  It is full of good versus evil, life and death and the triumph of the spirit.  Each year, when we recount this story and read the Scroll of Esther, we are reminded of one character who does not appear.  God is absent throughout the entirety of the account.  As Esther garners the courage to stand up for her identity as a Jew, to save her people, she does so drawing on her own strength and sharing the truth, exposing the reality around her.  It is a moment in our history when we recognize the imperative to seek the truth around us and to stand up for our beliefs, our values and life. 

While God, at least by name, does not appear in the Book of Esther, it is the Divine acting through each of us that helps us discover the truth and to know the realities of our lives.  We ask that the same power that Esther held may be found in each of us, may it be found in each of you as you do this sacred work of governance.  As this time of year in the Jewish calendar draws near, may this legislative body honor the power invested in it by seeking truth, by standing up for beliefs and values that ensure a healthy, vibrant and sound tomorrow for all the citizens of the State of Nevada and our Nation.

We pray:  HaMakom - May the One Who is Ever Present, grant each of us the power to discern truth and to honor it; may we know the strength implanted within us all to stand for our beliefs and our values.  Amen

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Shared with the TBY Community on January 29, 2017


This greeting, ‘shalom’, is a word with which most of us are familiar.  Its meanings include:  Hello, Goodbye and Peace.  Yet, there is a deeper meaning to this word and that is connected to its Hebrew root:  Shleimut, meaning wholeness.  Right now, at this moment in our national history as Americans and as Jews I am praying for Shleimut, wholeness.  This feeling is in direct response to the decisions of our national leadership to separate us from our American values that guide us as a beacon of hope, freedom and possibility.  All of us at some point in our history are descendants of immigrants and many of us claim refugees as ancestors.  For many among the American Jewish community, Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty remain a strong reminder of this past:

“…Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It is this value inscribed on our shore that has served as a constant reminder of the American Jewish Experience and one we MUST continue for all those in need.  Certainly an eye towards the security of our nation must always see clearly, yet our character as a nation is corroded when we fail to live up to this highest of ideals.  Even more, we are reminded of our own z’man cheruteinu - time of our freedom (Passover) when we consider the ways our country must continue to serve as shelter for refugees around the globe.  Part of that Passover story is what we are reading in Torah this week in parashat Bo (click here>>>) as we conclude the plagues and prepare or liberation.  Last week, at Torah study in the valley, one learner raised an intriguing question:  What would the 11th plague have been had Pharaoh not heeded long enough to allow our escape?  I fear we may be battling one possible answer to that question today.  The problem, serving as a sign, of complacency and divisiveness around our values is plaguing us now. 

As we learn in Torah:  When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34).  It is our ultimate responsibility to protect against this apathy by standing up for our American and our Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, of caring for the refugee and upholding the foundational principles that under-gird our Jewish identity and our American ideals. 

I beseech all of us to consider our President’s recent executive order titled:  Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” (click here to read the text>>>)  And, while considering its text in theory and its potential in practice, I ask us to respond based on our values.  Our Reform Movement of Judaism’s Religious Action Center has provided us a statement to consider in forming our own autonomous position - click here>>>.  And, should you choose to act, here are resources to contact your representatives - click here>>>. 

At this moment, during which I believe we will all be judged by future generations for our action and inaction, we are reminded of our words of our sage Hillel:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, who am I?  And, if not now, when? (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)  We all share this Earth, and while countries and countless other realities may divide us at times, we must balance our human connections - our wholeness.

B’Kavod - Respectfully,

Rabbi Evon

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Be like Abraham and Speak Up!

    Our rabbis of old ask an important question.  They wonder what was the difference between Abraham and Noah.  We may wonder why this is such a crucial question.  Yet, when we look at the rise of both characters in our Torah past, we see similar accolades.  About Noah, Torah teaches, “Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his generation.” (Gen. 6:9).  And about Abraham, in last week’s portion, we learn, “Abraham was to walk in God’s ways and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1)  At first glance, they are similar, almost seeming to be on the same level.  Yet, Noah was blameless in his generation.  There is a stark difference for when we pay closer attention to the generation of the flood, we are reminded that it was referred to as corrupt and lawless (Gen. 6:11).  When the rabbis ask about the difference between Abraham and Noah, they understand the value of how others view our deeds and learn to compare and contrast the behaviors, attitudes and values of the two great people.  Abraham’s legacy grows even more in this week’s Torah portion when he stands up to God.  It is the moment when he argues with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In this episode of Torah, we learn a great deal about Abraham and the legacy he leaves to us, what we must do in our own age.  Abraham stood up to what he saw as an injustice, a moment when he questioned God and said, “Shall the judge of all the Earth not deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25) 
    This past week has provided us (okay inundated us) with opinions, views, anxieties, events, hatred and so much more on the national landscape.  It is becoming harder (as if it wasn’t already hard enough) to sift through the information overload and make informed, educated and value based decisions.  There is no secret that every source has some form of bent that must be understood, at least a little.  As Sunday rolled into Monday, much of the Jewish world was up in arms about President-Elect Donald Trump’s engagement of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.  This discontent is certainly also strong within our own community as I have responded to communication from our community members asking for a congregational response.  It is not within my desires, nor is it legal, to speak for our community.  Yet, I have been led to the belief that our community would like to know my response and whether it is echoing that of many Jewish organizations.  So, I DO NOT speak for the congregation, but rather to our community as a friend and community member.
    There is much that each of us must do to make our own informed decisions.  However, I was inspired by a wise colleague of mine who put the reality clearly before me.  What I read made it abundantly clear that this appointment may be an act of appreciation and loyalty.  Yet, this individual bears the responsibility of communicating ideas and ideals antithetical to our Jewish value system.  As the executive of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon bears responsibility for the hateful content of the site.  With hateful headlines appearing under his leadership, it is enough to question and, for me, to speak against his role in our government.  Some examples of such titles are, “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer,” “The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple:  Women should log off,” or “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.”
    When titles, and the accompanying articles, express hate, prejudice, racism and beyond, we must be vigilant to the way such information is understood, used and justified.  It is our responsibility as Jews to always stand up for the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the oppressed….anywhere.  Now, the purveyor of these “news” headlines and their hateful messages is engaged as a strategist for the highest office in our government and I must, as did Abraham, stand up and speak up.  Whatever Mr. Bannon’s personal beliefs, he is culpable for spreading problematically hateful words.  Our government, for and by the people, is no place for him.  As Abraham questioned God, as the judge of all the Earth, I urge Mr. Trump, as our President-Elect, to relieve Mr. Steve Bannon, so that our government is not fettered by hateful rhetoric, or worse hateful behaviors.

Rabbi Evon