Tag Archives: rememberance

Devarim– Moses teaches about him and us

 Devarim is the great repetition that isn’t.  Moses’ speeches in Devarim are a wonderful retelling of a story, but so much of it is not true; at least much of is does not comport with the stories of the previous books of Torah. So what is going on with Moses?

 Viewing Moses as a person and not the mythic Prophet, Teacher and leader, Moses is doing what so many of us do. He is trying to understand his place in history, trying to figure out whether his teachings and leadership from slavery to peoplehood was really worth it. In simple language, Moses asks himself what we ask ourselves in the sunset of our lives: “Did I do good, did I make a difference?” Even the great Moshe Rabbeinu seems to question if he did the right thing and if ultimately he will make a difference in the world. For us, the answer is an unequivocal yes, but for him in that place, he was unsure.

 Moses’ stories are retold with a tweak here and an embellishment there. In these Deuteronomy versions, Moses recalls himself prominently and his actions are above reproach. Here at this place in his life, Moses knows he is at the end of his journey and what he has done is all that he can do. There is a sense of authority in his voice, as he needs to reassure the people who will continue forward without his leadership, and there is a sense of desperation as well as he needs to reassure himself.  It is here that we can relate to Moses the man, as we sometimes find our loved ones doing as he did.

 For those of us with older parents or grandparents we too see similar behavior in their retelling of their exploits during the journey of their lives. And the subtext of their stories echoes the issues and fears of Moses. We are our most compassionate when we lovingly hold them and respect their stories as recounted. It is our way of saying to them yes my dear one, you do matter, you did make a difference to me. I will love you and remember you for these and all the other gifts you have shared.

A somber Shabbat

Last night I participated in the vigil at Mother Bethel AME church. People of all faiths joined to grieve these senseless tragic murders based in hate. We countered with a message of love and a call to action. In that sacred space we declared, “We are all AME” and we will move forward together to put a stop to this kind of violence that is all too common in our country.

 It is incumbent upon each and every one of us, not only to speak out but to also take action. Words are not enough to affect change. Without actions, words alone are hollow. All of us are diminished by this tragedy. Serious conversation about the underlying issues must lead to thoughtful and deliberate actions to stem the tide of hatred and violence. It is long past time. President Obama admitted to being stymied by the constraints of Washington. So we must look to ourselves, our communities and our states to find solutions to this horrible blight. It all begins with us.

 Today we grieve. Tomorrow we must act.

 Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat where we might find Peace

Memorial Day

Today, this Memorial day, we remember with awe and reverence those brave men and women who sacrificed their lives in the defense of our nation. All lives matter, but they were among our best and brightest.

 We honor their memories best by re-dedicating ourselves to the struggle to make our country live up to its values, a place for all of us and worthy of the fallen and those who returned home willing to make that sacrifice and forever changed by their extraordinary service.

 A blessed and happy Memorial Day to all.

Selma- It is our story

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma. As Americans and as Jews we are proud of this landmark achievement in our nation’s history and our part in it. Jewish Americans have been on the forefront of civil rights movement and we continue to champion civil rights and social justice for all. But the march in Selma is a seminal moment and we burst with pride, kvelling, at the sight of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel along side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We are deeply moved that so many American Jews stood bravely and fought during the struggle, most notably including those who gave their lives for these ideals.

This was our story. We Jews had found our place in American society and we found our voice. The prophetic ideals that are a foundation of our Jewishness galvanized us to support the civil rights movement because we believed that until all were free, none were free.   So Jews stood proudly along side the African-American community demanding change.

However, the movie Selma does not tell this story. In fact, unless you looked carefully and unblinkingly during the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you probably missed the man in the kippah off to the side.   The story told in Selma, is moving, but it is not a story that includes us. It is told from the perspective of the African-American community and glorifies the struggle that was theirs. Although the time is the same, the march is the same and the facts are the same, the stories however are different. But that is okay.

The tellers of this story needed to share their perspective, which did not have room for us. Selma was about empowering their heroes to assert themselves. It is not an unreasonable thing to look through a different lens and tell a different story that has meaning even though it is not the telling of the story we might choose. That does not detract from the contribution that Jewish leaders made, nor does it lessen the pride that we might feel for their participation. It only shows that there are particular and more universal stories that might be told about the same unfolding of events.

As we approach the Pesach Seder, this gives us an opportunity to re-examine the telling of our quintessential freedom narrative. What do we emphasize and what do we leave out? Many different versions of the Exodus story will be told this night, each of them valid, each of them part of the larger story. The recollection of events only remains meaningful when we can make the connection to those events in a way that speaks to us. Only then is it more than a recounting of events, but rather a moving story that evokes emotion and prompts us to action. We share at our Seder tables the hope that “Next year may we all be free,” but until that time, may our stories keep the dream alive.

 

 

G*d’s Burning Questions: A Tribute to Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha, and Razan Abu Salha

The following is a re-post of Rabbi Michael Bernstein’s piece.  Thoughtful and wise as always, Rabbi Bernstein’s words are worth contemplating.

Shabbat Shalom

 On Tuesday, February 13th, Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu Salha were shot to death by a man living next door to them at an apartment complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Because they were observant Muslims and the man who murdered them had expressed what he called anti-theist views against believers of all faiths, there is an open question as to what motivated this murderer to pull the trigger and whether the killing was an act against the faith professed by these three students – whether they died because they were Muslims in America. For me, however, as I learn more about the incredible acts of devotion, kindness, and service to humanity performed by newly wed Deah and Yusor, and Yusor’s younger sister Razan, I am moved above all by how being Muslims in America shaped how they lived.

  Deah Barakat was a dental student who, among other projects, raised money for and led a mission to Turkey in order to provide urgent medical procedures and preventative oral care for Syrians whose lives had been ripped apart by war and turmoil.  His work on behalf of those in need also informed his messages on behalf of seeking peace for all without exception.  While the  views of the world and its conflicts he expressed were in solidarity with Palestinians and other Muslims, he explicitly spoke out against violence done against Jews and against anyone who thought killing was the answer.   He was a supporter of interfaith programming, including participation in sharing Ramadan with Beth Meyer Synagogue in Chapel Hill.

   What would be the last months of his life was a celebration of his love for his wife Yusor, a Muslim woman and fellow dental student.  Yusor spoke powerfully about the blessing of being a Muslim in America on this StoryCorp recording and posted on social media about the practice of wearing the hijab, a full head covering, from the perspective of women’s empowerment.  Her sister, Razan, was an award winning artist who, along with Deah’s brother Farris, was instrumental in helping to create an incredible video that affirmed the forward looking and hopeful mindset of Muslim students at North Carolina State University in a way that also showed the playfulness and individuality of a community often treated as monolithic by others.

  Deah, Yusor and Razan spent a significant part of their lives responding to a burning question read this week in the Book of Exodus (Mishpatim).  This question arises in an unexpected place, an enumeration of laws of civil behavior that is explicitly concerned with not favoring any party in a dispute or legal proceeding.  And yet in the midst of cases involving oxen being gored or goring others, and the laws of lending to those in need, the text breaks out of its legalistic tone and demands to know what would happen if a lender insisted on taking the only coat of a poor person as collateral and did not make sure to return it before the sun set.

  “This is his only cloak, in what will he sleep?”  If a person has no cloak, no wealth, no protection either from nature or from malice, no one to care about his or her well-being —- “In what will they sleep?” And in many ways it was questions such as this that led Deah Barakat to dedicate his talents and his time to trying to alleviate suffering in Syria seeing what he could provide as a dentist as his version of the cloak. It is the revelation that G*d demands our attention for each person’s well-being  that drives the kind of reflection on faith that inspired Yusor and Razan to articulate so powerfully how their beloved traditions must lead to understanding between different people and be a source of communal responsibility.

  For me, this bittersweet opportunity to learn more about these three remarkable people, “three winners,” as those dear to them have chosen to name them, has made me think of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, may their memories be a blessing, dear friends murdered  nineteen years ago by Hamas terrorists practicing a faith that is so unlike the understanding of Islam that these three students professed .  Unlike the killers of Matt and Sara, it is not clear that the man who murdered Deah, Yusor, and Razan hated everyone like them.  However, like Matt and Sara it is clear that the murderer’s cruel, unfathomable act of violence took from the world people whose incredible faith, talents and commitments to do good would have brought so much more compassionate insight into a world so in need of love. I imagine them having much to learn from each other should they meet  beyond this world.

  A beautiful commentary called the Kli Yakar (“Precious Vessel”) reads the question “In what will he sleep?” also as a reference to the tradition that when a person dies their soul is cloaked in the good deeds they have done on behalf of others.  If a person refrains from helping someone in this world, “In what will that person sleep” in the next world?  Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu Salha are, I believe, among those clothed now in the deeds of the righteous.  Yet we are poorer for not having the new answers that they would have provided to G*d’s burning questions.

 May G*d, to whom we call by many names, provide for these witnesses an abode in Paradise, may their memories be a blessing to all they touched and the entire world.

 Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Michael

 

A Time for Somber Reflection

It is more than just bad policing

We are in the throes of mourning the death of two New York City Policemen, on the heels of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We are raw. Emotions have spilled like blood from deep wounds. We need time to process. We need time to grieve. We need to catch our collective breath.   We need time to come to grips with the tragic series of events that have shaken our country. What we do know is that the violence is overwhelming and somehow we must get it to stop.

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have galvanized people across the country. Initial protests over the deaths of these two individuals increased dramatically in the wake of the Grand Juries not indicting the police officers involved. Uncovered a deep gulf between the police and the people they serve.

My concerns run deeper than whether indictments were handed down. There are other frankly more important issues that must be addressed. I am deeply troubled when a man repeatedly pleads 11 times that he cannot breathe and the police who have subdued him are unable to move from actively bringing him under control to actively engaging in the humanity of helping him once he was down. I am deeply troubled that a man’s body remained laying in the street for four hours rather than being treated with basic dignity. The lack of humanity is deeply distressing, and it goes far beyond bad actions of particular police.

Our problems are a deep divide separating whole segments of society from the institutions that are supposed to protect, defend and nurture them. Oppression is the result of the separating segments of society already prejudged as unsavory from the rest of “civil” society. It is more than a new approach to policing and re-examining the way our criminal justice system metes out punishment, as important as these changes are. It goes to the fabric of our country. It permeates our society and cannot be simply fixed by changes implemented at the top. All of us have responsibility to understand what is wrong and how we might change it.

Government can make the police of Ferguson look more like the people of Ferguson. But it is the people of Ferguson who must also invest in the infrastructure the schools and the families to build minds and to instill values. It is up to the locals and their police to be sensitive to each other. It is up to the broader society to bring economic opportunity and the possibility of upward mobility, the opportunity to aspire to become something more. It is up to us.

Marching is important if it serves as a first step to spur the people. Now the next step is to organize and develop goals and a strategy with political clout to effect change. And the rest of us need to support this work knowing that through this process we are all strengthened. This is the beginning of the next important phase of the Civil Rights movement in our great country.

The Attorney General of the United States seems as perplexed as many of us and has ordered a Federal Investigation into the death of Eric Garner. This might shed light on a process that many found disappointing to say the least. But this investigation cannot provide justice for Eric Garner; it is for our future. The civil rights advances of the past did not happen solely by new law or court order. The advances happen and endure only when there is sufficient will of the people to demand we overcome the status quo and demand better of our institutions and ourselves.

Our demonstrations proclaim “Black Lives Matter.” All lives matter. Everyone deserves to live. We are a nation of laws. And those laws must apply to all to protect the weak so that all may have the opportunity to pursue, free from violence and fear, the inalienable rights upon which our nation was founded.

But for now, let us take time to grieve and bury our dead. Then let us return and start the process of making change.