Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tolerance, Intolerance & Identity: Who We Aim to be As Individuals, as Jews and as a Nation Yom Kippur 5778 - September 2017

Tolerance, Intolerance & Identity:  Who We Aim to be As Individuals, as Jews and as a Nation
Yom Kippur 5778 - September 2017
Temple Bat Yam & North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation


Listen to these words.  Think about the where, the what, the when maybe even who.  Consider what they could be about, their setting and their time in history.

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace [DO NOT READ:  as envisaged by the prophets of Israel]; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; (Israel’s Declaration of Independence).

What do you think?  Do they sound familiar?  Nod, raise a hand if you have a sense of their origin.

These words stand among the ideas and the ideals that have shaped the institution of Democracy, along with so many inspirational statements that have outlined clear visions of our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations.  Great thinkers, leaders, theologians, politicians, activists and countless others continue to give rise to the frameworks in which we experience life:  The service clubs, our businesses, government and so on.  These words could have been written by numerous thinkers in recent centuries.  Yet, they are the founding words declaring the Modern State of Israel in 1948, less than seventy years ago.

These words craft in our mind a nation founded on the democratic principles we cherish.  They speak to a tolerance, an acceptance of the other unequivocally.  Surely, in the aspirational moment of declaring independence, hopes are articulated and they require work to be realized.  For certain, Israel has and continues to be at the forefront claiming these human values in many ways and not so in others, there is room for improvement and growth.  America, our home, our own expression of these cherished values lives these growing pains too.  Following the events in Charlottesville, we spoke here in this congregation, in this room, about our fears, our anxieties, our frustrations, our anger about the clear and present feelings that these ideals were not being lived, or worse they were being abandoned.

Following that Shabbat, I wrote a piece for our local paper and shared the following:

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 this moment is whether or not tolerance has run its course. In other words, is tolerance always possible?  I learned last month, 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 wide enough to include and embrace the intolerant. (http://www.tahoedailytribune.com/news/opinion/tolerance-meets-its-test-and-its-the-intolerant/)

This clarion call is real.  It demands our attention to understand who we aim to be as individuals, as Jews and as a Nation.  Can tolerance versus intolerance be a litmus test for us?  When national debates rage and fill our senses to their limit, we must ask which are intolerant; which resonate exclusivity rather than tolerance and inclusivity.  When Israel struggles to uphold equality for all valid and authentic Jewish religious expressions, let alone those of its citizens and neighbors, we must ask:  Is it a picture of growing tolerance or a non-starter of intolerance.  Our great sage, Bachya Ibn Pakuda, wrote in the 11th century:  Days are like scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.  Do we want our scrolls to be inked with the growing pains of tolerance or do we aim to inscribe our days in the Book of Life with isolation and intolerance?  It is about a conversation that must continue.  I spoke to you about listening on Rosh Hashanah, true active and generous listening so that we can grow and evolve as individuals, as a society in the ways that will foster a future that we can and will be proud of.   

Yom Kippur, this day of days, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, I believe, is a contributor to this conversation too.  The hallowed and, sometimes if not always, challenging words of this day both articulate a vision of a life well lived, a community well maintained AND almost more importantly create the avenues to understand our missteps, failures and growth left to be experienced. 

The words of the Kol Nidre itself may be the best example.  The opening volley of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, gives us the script to say:  May all the commitments I make be absolved if after honest effort I am unable to fulfill them.  When I asked my dear friend and Dean of the Hebrew Union College, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, about the value and import of the Kol Nidre he responded, “Oh my - where do I start!?”  he said, “The Kol Nidre is the most amazing piece of our liturgy of the High Holy Days in the sense that it forces us to face our humanity in the face of a perfect divinity (construct).  It has everything to do with our human inability to live up to our own expectations of ourselves.  In this text,” he went on, “we are finally forced to come to terms with our failings and our inability to commit to keeping our word to ourselves and to others.”   

Yes, this Day of Atonement is about the missteps, and it is ALSO about the aspirations.  It is about examination of our values, of the way we live, the way we want to live and the way we ought to live.  It is about using the microscope the day provides to observe our world, the institutions we cherish and what they both need from us to continue as God’s partners in shaping Creation - which is the totality of human experience.

The national identity in our country is certainly being obscured by the headlines, by the behaviors of some and the words of others.  Keeping pace with the societal changes and natural ebbs and flows of our human experience shakes the very ground we stand on.  Yet, we know that change is the only constant.  And, over the course of time, we know too that the guidelines that frame our communal life need constant examination and revision, for Yom Kippur is not solely about our own personal accounting.  Inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial, we read: 

"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." (Southeast Portico of the Jefferson Memorial, -Excerpted from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.)  

And in our own Jewish tradition, we resonate this reality.  Our sourcebook and what binds us to one another, our story - Torah, is celebrated on the holiday of Shavuot in the Spring - what we call Z’man Matan Torah - the Time of the Giving of Torah.  And note this is the giving of Torah, not the time Torah was given…in the past.  Rather it is an ongoing, living and breathing reality.  So too, it is with how we embrace, how we live and uphold this ideal of tolerance.  It must and will always be a moving target that will be reached in some moments and missed in others. 

The heightened concerns, the very real concerns, about anti-semitism, about hate speech and violence is shaking the moral compass of our nation.  The experience over the last year and longer, is making it increasingly difficult to discern where this arrow of that compass points.  Not necessarily because we are less aware of where we stand, but rather because the institutionalization of these sources of hate, of anti-semitism of intolerance has grown and gained strength.  As Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar in Los Angeles so poignantly articulated to her community on Rosh Hashanah,

“Charlottesville did not happen in a vacuum - it is the inevitable outcome of racism being met with anything short of forceful, explicit condemnation.  There’s a reason white supremacists didn’t wear hoods to march in streets this summer.  They didn’t feel that had anything to hide…” (http://ikar-la.org/wp-content/uploads/RH1-RBrous-Sermon-THE-BUG-IN-THE-SOFTWARE-OF-THE-WEST.pdf)

When intolerance becomes enshrined above tolerance; when fear, exclusion and denial of the other is the first offering rather than, as we shared, listening and exploring what we can become together, then tolerance hasn’t run its course, rather it has been abandoned.  And this, my friends, is a very real concern.  It is our reality, that is teetering between intolerance, isolation and fear on one side and tolerance, acceptance and learning on the other.  It is up to us to know how we can lean towards tolerance and to shape our future with the materials of our own rich history entwined with that of those with whom we share this nation, this Earth. 

Sometimes, though, this litmus test of tolerance versus intolerance can be harder and more difficult to apply.  Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists and White Nationalism is easier to identify as a source of intolerance than other forms of protest. 

Surely we’ve all been surrounded by the ongoing and very public protest of professional football players and other athletes.  I recall moments not too long ago when we, as a culture, bemoaned the way we uphold professional athletes as role models, yearning for more and better behaviors from them.  Well, we’ve arrived in a sense.  What began down the highway from us in San Francisco has snowballed into a real, and crucial, national debate.  The NFL versus the President is a conversation growing louder faster than fingers can tweet.  From one perspective, it may seem like a controversy that will fade, maybe its not worth our energy.  Or, perhaps this is another expression of tolerance versus intolerance. 

When we aim to live Jefferson’s prescient words about the progress of the human mind and hold dear the reality of our aim to live tolerance and ensure its place on the mantle of the future we are creating, protest will certainly remain as a critical and effective tool in our belt.  Let me be clear, I am not going to express an opinion about the how, the when or the where of these public statements.  But, I will state clearly that this conversation, this debate, this kind of protest is exactly what should engage our intellect and our souls as we examine which of the arguments uphold tolerance and which preach intolerance.  That is a task for each of us on this day of Yom Kippur. 

When I began these words, I shared the sacred words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  A statement of aspiration, a vision of a future for our beloved State of Israel - a place I hope to visit with you this June - please join me.  Yet, there too, this litmus test must be applied.  I firmly hold that I do not deserve a vote in the State of Israel.  I am a Zionist, I am an Ohev Yisrael - a lover of the Land and People Of Israel.  And while I do not get a vote, I do deserve a voice - is it our Jewish State.  It is one founded on these principles of tolerance, equality and acceptance, in its own words, “irrespective of religion, race or sex.”  And yet, over recent decades there is an increasing volume of protest among and between Jews.  This, to me, is one of if not the most pressing issues facing the State - that is its Jewish identity.  Some in this very room have family members who fought boldly for the right to a Jewish State and in order to remain so, it must continue to aspire. 

This summer, the State of Israel reneged on its promise of equality at the Western Wall, a struggle our Progressive Jewish friends, and some of us, have protested for, have yearned for.  The growing intolerance we are experiencing by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel towards our Judaism is simply unacceptable.  It, in my mind, does not pass this litmus test of tolerance versus intolerance.  The ongoing struggle over the status of conversion in the State of Israel continues to be problematic as well.  We long for the day when those committed to engaging with Judaism and becoming Jews will be fully, unequivocally accepted as such in the Jewish State…this commitment is enshrined in those words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

In our own country and in our beloved State of Israel aspirations towards our Democratic principles will always evolve, there will be always growing pains throughout our lives and those of our grandchildren.  And, they will require our effort to remain within reach.  One way we have to respond as we realize these very real and challenging growing pains of democracy is to learn, to understand better from where we are coming. 

In our Mishnah, Akavya ben Machalelel taught:  Reflect upon three things and you will not succumb to sin:  Know from whence you came and to where you are going, and before whom you will give an accounting. (Mishnah Avot 3:1)

To know from where we came is to know our past and that of previous generations.  To know where we are going is to know that, though our physical lives will end, we will bequeath a world, a society, a community to our descendants.  And, before who will we give an accounting?  Surely before God, the Mystery of Creation, whatever is our belief.  But it is also before the world, before others - those with whom we share this Earth.

I don’t believe it is enough for me to talk form the bema and you, in your seats, to listen.  I don’t believe we, as Jews, are those kind of people.  This is the year for US to learn, for US to challenge, for US to interpret.  Let us commit to investigating together this year.  So, as we move closer to celebrating Israel’s 70th year, over the coming months, we will examine the past decades of our own nation and that of Israel together.  We will share from this bema perspectives to question and learn, we will engage in discussions as we study text and Torah and we will create formal opportunities to learn.  We will look at our Reform tradition’s track record with regard to issues of justice, we will reflect them in the mirror of our American and Israeli history and in this way, we will gain tools to shape our future - to know where we are going, so that when we stand here next year in judgment of our world, ourselves, our community we will be doing one part in crafting the world we want.  We will be becoming the individuals we aim to be as Jews and as a nation. 

G’maru Chatimot Tovot - May we all merit goodness, on our behalf and that of our children, in the coming year.  Shanah Tovah.

YK Kavannot 5778

Kol Nidre Welcome 5778 (Sept. 29, 2017) - TBY
Between Kadesheinu & R’tzei

Jennie Jerome Churchill, the mother of Sir Winston Churchill, said, “Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light.”  In the embrace of Yom Kippur, as we examine ourselves, our deeds our own souls, it is also a time to ensure those around us are loved as they deserve.  It is a time to ensure every other human being and the souls in our communities are embraced for all they good they are in our world.  Let us find the light within ourselves, so that when we look upon others, their best deeds, their best attributes shine bright enough to light our way together into 5778.
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Yom Kippur Morning 5778 (Sept. 30, 2017) - NTHC
Welcome

On this day of Yom Kippur, as we ponder the State of our Souls, let us consider also the way we engage with others, the way we care for and love our fellow human beings.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught, “It is easy to criticize others and make them feel unwanted.  Anyone can do it.  What takes effort and skill is picking them up and making them feel good.”  Let us find ways to pick others up.  Let us find ways to make others feel good.  Not so they will do the same for us when in need, although that would be nice, but because it requires of us the deepest kind of love.  It demands of us the highest of our character.  And then, when we embrace the highest of our own character, what ripples outward like a stone thrown into a pond, will be far greater than we could have ever imagine.  For, after all, that is the power of this day. 

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.

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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?
Responsible Listening - Responsibility
Rosh Hashanah 5778 - September 2017
Temple Bat Yam & North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation 


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