Category Archives: Tikkun Olam

Portents of the Eclipse

solar eclipseLike most things meaning is often something we ascribe rather than something intrinsic. An eclipse is a fact of the physical world based on orbiting bodies and the shadows they cast when sun moon and earth interact. They are knowable and predictable.

Our tradition has suggested that an eclipse portends an unfavorable time for the world. A lunar eclipse was a bad omen for the Jewish people in particular, perhaps because of our connection to the lunar cycles in our calendar. I particularly like the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s z”l understanding that this is an opportunity to increase prayer and introspection. I do not know whether an eclipse would prompt certain bad behaviors to come out. This idea seems to lapse into the realm of the bubbe meise or superstition. But anything that makes us pause and consider things a bit more deeply about our circumstances is worthwhile. We have portents and signs all around us if only we would recognize them. Often we do not and even more rarely do we use it as a call to action.

I recall my first solar eclipse. It happened when I was a child living in the “holy city” of Monsey, NY. My father fashioned a special viewer so I could watch the progression. It was essentially little more than a cardboard box with a peephole. I was transfixed as the eclipse took place. The silhouette of the sun showed it being obscured and the sky turned a strange hue. I vividly recall being cautioned by my dad not to look at the sun because I would go blind. But I could not resist at least a quick glance skyward to see this extraordinary event directly and so I looked.   Thankfully my sight was preserved, although at the time I was concerned. My recollections, however, are of the silhouette crossing that white piece of paper in the cardboard box my dad made for me.

What we do with this amazing event is, like so many things, up to us. I suggest that for those who can see it, watch the eclipse with a sense of wonderment and awe for the extraordinary world in which we live, contemplate your place in it, and act.

 

*I thank Chabad.org for sharing thoughts of the Rebbe.

Challenges of Yom HaShoah

Monday evening, local synagogues gathered to jointly commemorate Yom HaShoah. There was power in our being together. This moving event included an insightful author, powerful readings, and a beautiful choir performing stirring and poignant music. I could not help but notice three things that were missing. There weren’t any young people; although there were four congregations gathered, the sanctuary was barely full; and the program was very particular, focused on the Holocaust as a Jewish event without broader implications.

Were it not for the choir, there was barely a handful of young people (under 55, let alone kids) in the audience. The meaning of this seminal event of the Jewish people cannot be lost when first generation witnesses and their children die. How do we keep the message of remembrance alive and relevant?

With four congregations gathered, the sanctuary should have been filled to overflowing. The choir took a substantial portion of the sanctuary space. Judging by attendance, the Holocaust is becoming a distant detached part of our past. The March of the Living has become increasingly popular, but this is a minuscule percentage of the Jewish people actively remembering every year. We are challenged to find ways to connect to the world that is disconnecting from the memory of the Shoah. Why is it so easy to forget and what does that say about us as a community of caring people?

The Holocaust is an event unique to the Jewish people. But genocide is not. The particular experience of the Jews needs to become a universal cry to humankind for humanity. This explains perhaps why survivors speak to all children everywhere sharing their stories, not just with Jewish children at Jewish schools. Part of the Shoah’s power is that it happened in a time and place where it seemed unimaginable to many, and it was permitted because of silence and complicity in the atrocity. It happened to the Armenians, it happened to others, and it is happening now even as I write these words.

Do we have the moral courage to speak out and act, or will we find a rationalization to ignore the carnage that does not directly affect us? It is the great question for the civilized world and the great teaching moment of the Shoah. Will we learn and effect change from our experience?

 

This week’s Torah speaks to our world today

Tazria by Christina Mattison Ebert

Our world seems to be in a particularly harsh place. On all fronts we seem to be ailing. People seem unable to talk with one another; our government and institutions are unresponsive to our needs; countries withdrawing from one another, many spiraling into brutal regimes. Anger, fear, and frustration divide us rather than hope guiding and uniting us. This is the backdrop to the double portion of Tazria/Metsora (Leviticus 12; 1-13:59, Leviticus 14:1-15:33), which interestingly addresses these very issues.

 

These Parshiot contain peculiar rituals that are actually timely messages. The ailments that afflict us are more than skin deep according to the Torah, indicating perhaps some spiritual or emotional sickness perhaps that causes the infirmed to be separated from the community. Because these ailments can infect bodies, clothes and even buildings we recognize that there is something more here than meets they eye. It runs deeper and we are compelled to question what might the Torah be cautioning us about. Torah’s message rarely stops at the edge of The Land so we can engage what these portions say about us. But first, let us examine the Parsha a bit closer.

Tazria continues the conversation about ritual impurity from the previous chapter, Shemini. The Parsha moves into the conversation surrounding Tzaraat, an affliction affecting people. It is often referred to as leprosy because it manifests itself as scaly white patches, but more interesting is the decision to bring in the Priest.

The Priest, instead of a doctor, views the afflicted person to decide if indeed this is Tzaraat. The priest instead of the doctor raises our collective eyebrows. We are not the first to grapple with the texts here. Two of our classic commentators, Rashi and Abarbanel, wonder about this too. Rashi hones in on the phrase that notes the Priest is called when the white patch seems to go deeper than the skin of the afflicted person’s body. Arbarbanel focuses in on the idea that the priest is called instead of a medical Specialist to provide treatment for the individual.

We know that medical treatment options were available. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans practiced sophisticated medicine. In Exodus and 2Kings Abarbanel notes the use of medical treatments. Our texts speak of something besides some physical problem.

Our tradition has seen afflictions as a punishment for sin against God. Nachmanides says the Divine Spirit keeps bodies, clothes, and homes in good appearance. But when one of them sins, ugliness appears on his flesh, clothes or his house. Later, the text tells us that if the affliction reappears, the clothing is burned and houses were taken down. Sforno, another commentator, suggests that perhaps the seven-day process of isolation of the afflicted is meant to rouse the sick person to repentance. We might build upon the ideas of our teachers to suggest our goal is to remedy and repair, performing Tikkun upon “people,” “clothes,” and “houses” instead of tearing them down.

Afflicted people are those who are motivated solely by their own selfish considerations. The “clothes” represent the identities or communities with which we recognize our place in the society, the roles and responsibilities of our jobs that serve others or only ourselves.   The “houses” are the institutions established to promote the common good, but have become corrupt perhaps undermining their missions, supporting very wrong they were intended to redress.

Judaism teaches us to care for the needy and weak. Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for the widow and orphan is our charge. Our American tradition should measure our success by how well we care for the weakest among us. Freedom, liberty, and justice are our core values. They have made us a light to the nations. Our text gives us the opportunity to review what we do and consider course corrections to keep our sacred mission working. But the work begins with us.

Buber reflects that a person cannot find redemption until he/she recognizes the flaws in their own souls. A people likewise cannot be redeemed until it recognizes its flaw and attempts to efface them. Redemption comes only to the extent to which we can truly see ourselves. Redemption is not an act of grace; rather it comes when we make the world worthy of it. Only through our faith and deeds can we make so.

We are charged with a holy mission to be agents in the process of Tikkun and creation. We each are part of bigger things that begin with our own selves: family, country, and the world. How do we assume our responsibility in the work? It starts by living up to the standards to which we aspire, acting with kindness and respect for each other, and finding common ground to promote the common good; we must ensure our institutions embody our values, and actively support organizations that promote those values, here and in the world. Tazria/Metsora challenges us to act as though we are each a priest and to act embracing that each of us is B’tzelem Elohim, bringing the holy where it may not exist and effecting the changes we aspire to see in our lives.

 

 

Dayenu- as partner in the miracles

Dayenu~

 

Nachshon

It would have been enough for us.

This is our response to each of the many miracles we enumerate at the Seder table. Thank you God for doing each of these great things; if you stopped at any point along the way that should have been enough to satisfy us.

But our response is incomplete.

We celebrate God’s presence in the miracle of the Exodus. However, we cannot forget our role. It is as if God continue to tighten the string, pulling back on the bow further and further until the people are ready to spring forward into action. God is preparing us, inciting us, readying us to take on the challenge that lies ahead. It is as if God is saying, “get ready,” I am handing this off to you as you engage as my partner in the active unfolding of history to create the world that should be.

This message has never been more important.

As we go to our Seder tables next week, we will recite God’s miracles and recount the tale of our liberation from the life of slavery to the hope of freedom. But freedom requires work to overcome the forces that would return us to the days of old, the days of slavery. We must use this modern-day Seder as our rallying point to commit ourselves to pursuing the freedoms that started with a miracle, back in Egypt or here in Philadelphia. The values that we hold dear of life, liberty, and justice are under threat by hostile forces. The miracle of our freedom is done, the time for our action to fight for what our freedom means is at hand.

So at this Seder, when you say Dayenu, mean it; be grateful for the miracles and express your gratitude by becoming a partner in the ongoing work of bringing our values forward so all may be so blessed.

Wishing everyone a zissen Pesach!

 

Shabbat Shalom- A Reflection from Mt. Carmel

I have just returned from Mt. Carmel Cemetery to provide presence and support to the volunteers who came here. I was moved, being with people honoring the past and affirming their identities.

 

As Americans and Jews, we arise with a sense of unity and rededication of purpose. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we stand arm in arm with all victims of hatred and domestic terrorism. Our values bring us together.

 

Although disturbing acts underlie this awakening of spirit, we need to focus on the good that has come from these cowardly and ugly actions. From ugliness comes beauty, from despair comes hope, from aloneness comes community, and from hatred comes love.

 

We stand together against hate.

Hate has no home here.

Shabbat Shalom.

Giving Tuesday- The day-after Challenge

givetuesday_700xOn Giving Tuesday, almost everyone in the philanthropic world asked for your financial support. Giving money is extremely important, but enduring change requires great effort we cannot relegate only to others. Permanent change requires each of us to roll up our sleeves and get involved.

I remember when I decided to get back into shape; buying the treadmill was not enough, working out on the treadmill created the change I sought. Learning the piano required time at the keyboard learning and practicing, not merely buying the instrument. Dieting required a fundamental change in how I approach food, not simply a weeklong restriction on the intake. Philanthropy is likewise.

To create real change in the world, we need to give money to the causes we believe in but also help to implement the changes we hope to see. For too long we have sloughed off the real work of change to the professionals. By providing the financial support we thought we had fulfilled our responsibility. However, there is more to do. Success comes when change becomes the new normal. This is an organic process, from the bottom up. Change is rarely sustainable when it is imposed from the outside. The new normal only happens when we all embrace it as our own.

So I hope you gave generously on Giving Tuesday because your financial support makes the work possible. Now commit to giving of yourself as well to that cause you believe in so the work becomes a reality. We are the change we want to see. It cannot happen without each of us.