You Shall Pursue

April 5, 2014

The Brilliance of Communal Storytelling

Filed under: Choosing Life, D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:30 pm

Someone shared this on my wall recently; it is from Sermon Slam New York. If you are a person who loves people talking about Judaism, go to the Sermon Slam website and hear people speaking in amazing and intelligent ways about Torah

I so deeply love listening to religious women talk cogently about their faith. There is so much strength and power in giving space for us to critique the systems that we love and hopefully, to change them for the better.

Some translations for those who aren’t so familiar with the lingo:

The Hebrew that she’s reciting is from the Morning Blessings that Jews say every morning. They thank God for things like waking up, giving strength, freeing captives.

One of these blessings is gender differentiated in Orthodox tradition. Men say “shelo asani ishah” meaning “Thank you God for not making me a woman” and women say “sheasani kirtzono” meaning “Thank you God for making me according to Your will.” Liberal Jews say “sheasani b’tzelmo” meaning “Thank you God for making me in Your image.”

She uses the term “agunah” at the end which means “a chained woman” or a woman whose husband refuses to give her a proper Jewish divorce.

March 20, 2014

Sermon: Celebrating the Joy in Ritual Obligation

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:33 am

This week in class, I am reading the Mishneh, which is a collection of Jewish laws and stories, about looking for leavened bread on Passover. These rules are endless in their specificity, down to what time of day you have to look. I don’t know about any of you, but I have tried to follow these exacting rules while cleaning for Passover in the past, and they are exhausting.

And this is true of much of Jewish law. The rabbis care deeply about minute details, and try a thousand different cases in order to figure out the exact parameters of each individual law. For many Jews, this attention to minutiae and detail is a hurdle to be overcome in participating in Judaism. I have heard so many times, from the mouths of friends and family, “It’s too much! It’s needlessly complicated!” And sometimes I agree with them! But what strikes me when reading these laws is how living in this system is, in its way, profoundly spiritual.

We have just finished with one of our most raucous holidays, Purim. And Passover is one of our more rigidly structured holidays. And moving into this period has me thinking about ritual and spirituality, and how to find meaning in a religion of rules.

We in America tend to think of spirituality as intensely inward focused. We consider how any given ritual makes us feel, and how it transforms our inner landscape. But for our ancestors, spirituality was about conforming to God’s law.

This wasn’t always easy for them. Obligation didn’t always lead to profound spiritual insights, as is evidenced by this quote from the Jerusalem Talmud, “Rabbi Chiya said: All the days of my life, I never had kavana, which means spirituality as we think of it, a deep emotional connection to the prayers. He continues: One time I tried to have kavana and focus my attention and ended up wondering about who would meet the king first: a Persian leader or the exilarch. Shmuel said: I count birds. Rabbi Buni the son of Chiya said: I count people. Rabbi Matnayah said: I am grateful to my head that it knows when I get to “modim” that it bows on its own.” Even the greatest of our rabbis got bored in synagogue. I think this lets all of us off the hook a little bit if our mind should wander from time to time!

But these rabbis still went three times a day and prayed, even if they were bored or frustrated. And similarly, the fact that connecting to ritual can sometimes be a challenge doesn’t mean that we should abandon these hard practices at first opportunity. Our rabbis teach us that Torah is not just about studying the book; ideally, it should lead to the practices of lovingkindness, caring, and connection that make for a holy society.

To take the example of Passover, since we are coming into that season in a little less than a month, the holiday, with a seder full of long winding digressions in Hebrew and Aramaic and severely proscribed food rules, seems like a strange ritual to the non-Jews in my life, especially when they have to listen to me complain about the taste of matzah for a week straight!

But Passover has provided me with endless growing and learning opportunities. Giving up bread on Passover was one of the first acts of piety I took on independently from my parents. In college, the LGBT feminist seders at Columbia Hillel introduced me to new ways of reading our texts that gave voice to those who traditionally had none. And hosting my own seders in my own apartment helped me create joyful Jewish practice, and bond with chosen family of close friends. This practice, which I must do every year because I am commanded, has expanded my life more than I ever could have thought possible.

While we may or may not get a warm fuzzy feeling practicing kashrut or coming to shul on the Sabbath or cleaning our house top to bottom on Passover, there is a method to the madness. In Reconstructionist Judaism, we say that the past has “a vote but not a veto.” This means that we do not believe that halakhah, or Jewish religious law, as handed down by Orthodox rabbis is binding without question. Rather, it means that these traditions are profoundly important for our sense of community, our sense of history, and our sense of self. While certainly there are some Jewish laws that we must reject because they are sexist, or unethical, or prevent us from participating in the world, we should see the Jewish law as an opportunity, rather than a painful burden.

Because at their best, when done with the proper intention, these practices help us to get outside our own heads and needs, to remind us that we are beholden to our tradition, our communities (whether they are Jewish communities or not), and to God. That it is our job to put things other than our own personal satisfaction at times, in order to build the sorts of communities of which we would like to be a member.

In Hebrew, the term Mitzraim means “the narrow place.” And so in the spirit of getting out of the “narrow place,” I encourage you all to seek out some way to use the rituals of Passover to break you out of your routine. Maybe you will have a chametz hunt, and search for leavened bread all over the house with your children. Maybe you will bring some new personal stories to your seder, to inject it with some new questions, because the seder is a time when we are commanded to ask questions. Maybe you will use the memory of our plight in Egypt to donate to those in our communities who are less fortunate. Whatever you do, do it because you are commanded, and do it regardless of how it makes you feel. If you try something and you don’t feel particularly moved, commit to trying it again next year. Our rabbis teach us that it is the system, and being willing to live within the system, that brings the transformation.

Many Jews think that God brought the Jews out of Israel so that they could be free. This is not actually the case. Rather, Moses tells Pharaoh that the Jews must go out from Egypt so that they can worship God. The people move from service to a tyrant to service to an ethical and loving ruler. And as we come into this season of testing, of waiting for that inevitable Exodus, I would like to encourage you all to think about how and why you take on obligation, and how it might set you free.

March 16, 2014

Sermon: Jews, Crimea, and the Importance of Diaspora

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:22 am

A few years ago, when I was living in Israel, I had the privilege of visiting Cairo with a group of friends during the Passover break (and yes, the irony is not lost on me). As part of our vacation, we went to the Etz Hayim synagogue in Cairo. The synagogue is beautifully maintained by a Muslim historical preservation group.

And while it was a joy to see a piece of Jewish history, I couldn’t help but mourn that there were no Jews left to pray in this synagogue, no children left to celebrate becoming B’nei Mitzvah, no couples to celebrate weddings. Most Egyptian Jews have immigrated to Israel, and built a life for themselves there, but there is a real loss of a community that has existed continuously for thousands of years.

And speaking of loss, in recent weeks, Ukraine has been in turmoil, and Russia has sent troops into the Crimean peninsula. One of my professors just came from a mission in the area, and she spoke movingly about the fear and confusion in the Jewish community during this time. People are scared, and confused. And on Wednesday, an envoy from the Ukranian Jewish community was refused a meeting with the Israeli government. And I worry, yet again, about what this means for the Jews.

According to current population estimates, there are about 70,000 Jews living in Ukraine, and about 17,000 of them live in Crimea. Before World War II, the Crimea was an area of remarkable autonomy for the Jews. There was agriculture, and yiddishkeit, and a thriving community supported by American philanthropy and a nascent Zionist can-do attitude.

But the War and Stalinism decimated that vibrant Jewish community, and now the Jews living there are mostly old, and there is only one synagogue.

The strength of the Jewish people has long been its interconnectedness. From the time of the earliest Diasporas, in Alexandria and Babylonia, there has been a tremendous amount of communication and movement between Jewish communities all over the world.

In the time of the Gaonim, the great early Medieval Rabbinic decisors in the 5th to 11th centuries, Jewish communities from Spain and Europe and even the Land of Israel wrote to the great academies in Persia, and so developed prayer books and practical marriage laws and many aspects of Judaism that we take for granted today. And as Babylonia shrunk in importance, the community in Spain grew in scholarship to take its place. And so to Eastern Europe, and so to America.

At the height of the Soviet Union’s persecution of the Jews, the American and Israeli Jewish communities worked together to protest and provide safe-haven for their Soviet brothers and sisters. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel staged missions to bring the persecuted Jews of Ethiopia, Yemen, and Morocco to the land. We are unique among the nations in that our commitment to protecting our own is backed up by explicit national policy.

So then, why not just send planes into the Crimea, airlift out the 17,000 Jews living there, and bring them back to Israel? Besides the fact that Israeli governmental policy has moved away from such dramatic missions, I don’t think aliyah is always the answer.

In my opinion, we are a people that is strongest when we have a healthy relationship between diaspora, and Israel. We are a people that has grown into its own scattered among the nations, carving out a place of more or less autonomy, and more or less acceptance, always surviving, and sometimes thriving. We have always been, in the words of Mordecai Kaplan, a people of two civilizations, the Jewish civilization and the civilization in which we find ourselves, and in that hybrid comes our strength.

Author and co-developer of Birthright Israel Gidi Grinstein speaks of the Jews as a people of “flexigidity.” Our customs, our language, our Torah, has remained remarkably consistent over time, which contributes to our sense of continuity. But we are also a people remarkably good at drawing from the cultures around us, at creating fluid hybrid cultures that serve our contemporary moment. Without both of these aspects, without the ability to maintain our unique pocket cultures, we lose access to the brilliant variety of experience that makes our people so vibrant and so durable.

I think of American Jewish culture. Our opportunities to grow in creative writing, literature, theater, and music. Our brilliant thinkers and writers who are able to flourish and publish in a culture with separation of church and state. The way that klezmer and African and European music blended together to create the blues. The fact that someone like Michelle Bachman will use a word like “chutzpah,” even if she can’t pronounce it. America has been good to the Jews, and good for the Jews. And so was Egypt. And so was Spain. And so was Babylonia. And so was Prague.

And this is why it is our duty to use our voices and our influence to protect Jews in other lands of the Diaspora, and not just in Israel. This is why it is so important to keep writing, and speaking to Congress members, and sending money for rabbinic missions all over the Jewish world. Because our survival and existence depends on a multitude of experiences. It is how we have become who we are today.

Next year, I will be studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And along with me, there will be several students from the Abraham Geiger Kolleg Institute of Potsdam in Germany. Yes, I will get to study with German rabbinical students. If that is not an example of a Jewish community resurfacing from the ashes, I don’t know what is. And I am sure that our shared studies will leave us all the richer. We as a community can come out from the ashes, if we support each other and help each other to grow. And we, as a community, will all be the richer for it.

D’var Torah: Parshat Tsav

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:11 am

Starting my freshman year of college, I wanted to learn to lay tefillin. It seemed like an important next step in my journey toward becoming a more religious Jew. I looked for someone to teach me, but couldn’t find the right teacher, until last year, my first year of rabbinical school. One of my professors brought me a learner’s set of tefillin, and taught me the intricate process of wrapping it down my left arm, and around my hand in the shape of a shin, and the proper blessings and kavanot, or ritual intentions. I was thrilled, and nervous. And then the tefillin were on for the first time, and I realized that I was the only person in my secular Jewish family who had wrapped tefillin in decades, who even knew how to wrap tefillin, and I sobbed like a baby.

This week’s portion, tzav, begins the long process of installing Aaron and his sons as priests. They are washed, and anointed, and dressed in special clothes. They perform sacrifices, and are purified. And Moses tells them that this is the beginning of an ordination that will take seven days.

This portion emphasizes the importance of rituals in marking life changes. Before this ritual begins, Aaron is Moses’ brother, a leader among the people. At the end of the ritual, he will be unique among the people, the first High Priest, responsible for mediating between the people and God. The stakes are high; the consequence of failure is death and God’s withdraw from the people. And so God creates for him a ritual, one that will both render him ritually pure but also, I would argue, to transform him into the role that he has been chosen to inhabit. God understands the mental weight of what he has given to Aaron, and he gives him an opportunity to experience a change into a priest.

I often like to joke that coming of age rituals are all about surviving inflicted trauma. Whether the trauma is being sent into the desert to have a vision quest, or standing on a bima in front of all of our friends and relatives to lead a service in a foreign language, these occasions are usually accompanied by feelings of excitement and dread (I, for example, seriously considered running away from home the week before my Bat Mitzvah, and see how well that turned out). But the moments they mark are even more auspicious. Changing over from a child to a teenager and eventually an adult, becoming an independent moral actor, this is a scary thing. And the public and emotionally invested nature of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah really emphasizes the nature of the change. It is a big deal. And I can remember every detail of that outfit.

There are many such examples in our society of these sorts of rituals. Rituals designed to mark time, to mark status changes, to move us from one part of our lives to another. In the words of the great anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in his book A General Theory of Magic, “Ritual acts… are essentially thought to be able to produce more than a contract: rites are eminently effective, they are creative, they do things.”

And often those rituals, those changes in our status, are accompanied by a change in appearance. Whether it is the first time in a tallit, a first business suit at a first interview, or our first pair of reading glasses, clothes have weight.

But so often there are little moments, like the first interview, like the transition into middle and old age, that are tremendously weighty, but that we don’t necessarily mark with ritual. But the beauty of Judaism is that anything can be recognized with a blessing, with a ritual, with an opportunity to reach out and connect. And as rabbis, it is part of our job to create these rituals. My classmates and I have written rituals for moving into a first apartment, for leaving a long-time family home, for entering menopause and for surviving trauma. As a people, it is our privilege that we have the opportunity to live our every minute recognized, celebrated, and commemorated.

But this is not just our job. Moses, brilliant prophet though he was, was not a member of the Temple cult when he ordained his brother. He was a lay person who helped move Aaron from being a leader of Israel to being a High Priest, he arranged the ceremony that would help ease that transition.

And each of us, though not rabbis, have the ability to mark the moments of our lives and make them sacred. Whether that is a weekly Shabbat dinner, or the gift of a mezuzah to children going off to college, or saying the traveler’s prayer before going on vacation, there are a thousand little things that we can do to mark the momentous moments of our lives. Because doing so changes these moments from momentous to holy, in the service of God.

March 9, 2014

D’var Torah: Sacrifices of the Heart

Filed under: D'var Torah — marleyweiner @ 11:04 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Paula Deen. After her offensive comments last year, she is back in the news. And I am remembering all of the flurry around those comments. So often, when someone in the public eye says something offensive, they deflect by saying that they weren’t intending to be cruel. It seems almost impossible that people can be wrong gracefully in public, and this leads to lots of hurt feelings, and very little change in behavior.

This week’s portion offers an antidote to the way that Amercians talk about being wrong in public. It talks about the offerings of animals and grain and oil that the Isralites brought to the Temple for a variety of situations, to give thanks and to atone. I want to focus on the sin offering. As God lays out the various aspects of the sin offering, we learn that we must bring a sin for individual sins, for communal sins, for sins that we commit knowingly, and for sins that we commit unknowingly. ALL of these are sins. All damage the integrity of the community, and a ritual must be performed to set the community right.

God understands, and seeks to teach the people, that it doesn’t matter the intention behind the statement sometimes. What matters is that someone has been hurt. Whether this sin is intentional or not, the Israelite must bring his or her sacrifice, and whether or not we intend to hurt, we must seek to address our wrongdoing.

How many of us have been in a position where we discovered that we had offended, or hurt, and were required to make it right in public? Whether having to apologize to a group of friends for an insensitive comment, or at work for an error in our duties, it can be hard to admit that you have done something, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that has hurt someone else.

On Yom Kippur we all confess our sins together, but in Leviticus, there is a different model. The sinner must come to the Tabernacle and bring a sacrifice. The Israelites know what it means when someone arrives before the Tent of Meeting with a particular offering. It is a way for the sinner to publicly show that they have incurred guilt, and that they are making right. It may have been painful for the person bringing the offering to recognize that the community would know about their transgression, but they are required to do it to keep the community intact.

Last year, a close friend of mine went through a very challenging time. They were hurting, and in pain, and often angry, and so often spending time with them was an experience in going through the emotional ringer. And I was busy with my own life, so I was not nearly as supportive as I could have been. It came time for Rosh Hashanah, and I knew that I needed to apologize for not being a better friend. But it was so hard. What if they didn’t forgive me? What if they lorded my bad behavior over me in the future? Saying that I was wrong was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but it was necessary for keeping our relationship alive.

Sometimes we must sacrifice our pride on the altar of loving relationships. To be willing to atone, out loud, for our wrongdoing. According to the Malbim, a nineteenth century Russian Rabbi, the most important thing that a leader can do is to be scrupulous about bringing sacrifice for sins, because he can serve as an example to others. And so can each of us serve as a leader, by being willing to stand up and admit our wrongdoing. Our relationships will be that much stronger, and the people around us will hopefully, be willing to sacrifice their pride as well and admit to their own wrongdoings.

But there is another side to this story. It is not only important to atone, there must also be acceptance of the atonement of others. And how do we make this possible?

We learn that as well from the portion. “The priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the error that he committed unwittingly, and he shall be forgiven.” When someone comes before us in genuine repentance, it is a moment in which we are like a priest, with the power to grant pardon or to withhold it. Just as we come before our fellow with remorse and openness to change, so too must we greet the sacrifice of the apology with an acknowledgment that it is a sacrifice, that the person is giving something of his or her self to stand before us.

Repentance is inherently a challenge. In the Bible, we gave of our material wealth to make up for our sins, and today, we must give of our hearts. But just as Leviticus serves as a blueprint for a functional Israelite society that was able to maintain holiness, so too should we see sacrifice as an integral part of building a stronger and holier community today.

February 10, 2014

God in the Details: Parshat Tetzaveh

Filed under: D'var Torah — marleyweiner @ 12:06 pm

This week’s portion is one of the, let’s say, challenging ones. One of the ones that B’nei Mitzvah students hope that they don’t get. It describes, in minute detail, the vestments of the Priests, and all of the sacrifices needed to install them in their new office. As Jews, people of the Book, we are always looking for ways to make the text relevant to our own lives, to mine it for themes. So what do we do with a text like this? How do we take a text, that seems like it’s chock full of irrelevant and extraneous detail, and read lessons out of it?

The fact is, our lives are full of the equivalent of descriptions of sacral vestments. The majority of our lives focus more on the mundane details, the routines, than the life-changing moments. In between Sinai and the River Jordan, the people have forty years of sacrificing, embroidering the Tent of Meeting, and complaining about the food. In between the birth of our children, our weddings, the beginning of college, and other life defining moments, we get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, talk to our partners if we have partners, play with our kids if we have kids, watch TV, go to bed.

And yet, those mundane details are what make our lives. A tunic is just a tunic, until it is the tunic that Aaron will wear on his first day as High Priest. A dress is just a dress, until you put it on and get your hair done and your nails and go to prom, or your wedding. And just as descriptions of ancient clothing are mundane until they are the Word of God, so are the details of our lives mundane until we realize how they are the foundation of our most important moments.


As an example, I turn to a film that I went to see over Christmas with my parents, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In it, Walter is a man with a life that seems dull and humdrum to him. He has an office job at LIFE magazine, is close with his family, and doesn’t have much success with dating. Through the film, he goes on ever more wild and magnificent adventures to all parts of the globe in search of a photographer who as taken the ultimate photograph for the cover of the last print issue of the magazine. But at the end, when the photograph is discovered, it is a simple black-and-white shot of Walter himself, staring with rapt attention at a sheet of photo proofs. Through his attention to detail, the small things, Walter is able to bring a world of beauty and amazement to the American public.

Many of us are like Walter; we only realize the importance of the little details after the moments have long passed. In the moment, we go through life on autopilot, longing for an adventure. So how do we shift our thinking? How do we realize, in the moment, the importance of those details?

My answer comes in a story from my childhood. From the time I was an infant until the end of High School, my family spent two weeks most summers at Long Beach Island in New Jersey. We stayed in the north part of the island, up by the lighthouse, where nothing much happens. And yet some of the fondest memories of my childhood, catching sand crabs, getting sick in a fishing boat, walking down the beach for miles, took place at that beach.

And it wasn’t because I saw those moments as more profound than they were. It was because in that moment, I was happy, and I took the time to say, in my own eight year old way, I am happy right now. Living in the moment, wringing every scrap of joy out of it, left me with good memories even today.

God could have told Moses that he was to build a tabernacle and fine outfits for the priests and left it at that. Similarly, we can gloss over the details in our lives, living on autopilot. But God takes the time to set the stage, to describe, in loving detail, exactly how splendid the Temple and the clothing of the Priests will be. And so should we take the time to revel in the details, to drink them in, and to find meaning in their small pleasures that can add up to a life of joy.

The challenge that I want to extend to you today is to take the time to notice, and to appreciate. To take the time to notice the potential for joy, divinity, learning, growing, in even the most mundane of moments. There is the potential for preciousness in all things, when we take the time to notice them, whether standing on top of Mount Sinai, or in embroidering the decorations for a tunic.

January 24, 2014

In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 10:51 am

This week, we read the Ten Commandments. These laws are seen as the bedrock of our civilization. But how many of us actually consider their meaning, and how they might impact our everyday behavior?

Today, I want to focus on the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” At at first glance, it seems pretty obvious how to avoid breaking this one; just don’t murder anyone.

But the rabbis have a very broad interpretation of what it means “to kill.”

They are not only concerned with preserving life, but with preserving life with dignity. In their moral worldview, slander is equivalent to murder. A person with a ruined reputation will face such challenges that for some, life will no longer be worth living, a fact that we see all too often with young people tormented and bullied by their peers.

The rabbis take this concern about reputation and apply it to their maintenance of the poor as well, giving them an opportunity to live with their pride in tact. It is considered a sin to force the poor to beg in public. The great Jewish thinker Maimonides taught that the highest level of charity was to give a poor person a job so that he could support himself rather than asking for support. And traditional community funds designed to provide for dowries and for extra food on holidays meant that the poor could lead lives with some measure of joy and dignity.

The rabbis understand that preserving life is one of the most important things that we can do, but they also understood that preserving life is not only a matter of maintaining physical existence. It is about giving people the tools that they need to build productive, happy lives in which they can feel respected and accomplished.

On Monday, we celebrate the life and work of an American hero who understood all too well that life alone was not enough, and that life without dignity is no life at all. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who believed not only in equality, not only ending segregation, but in advocating for an American in which all citizens were free to lead lives of dignity and opportunity. In his “I have a Dream Speech” from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (and how many of us forget that this was a march for economic opportunity as well as to end the scourge of segregation), he said:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

King keenly understood, as did our rabbis, the true broadness of the statement “thou shalt not kill.” To him, as to our rabbis, it meant “thou shalt not deprive someone of the opportunity for a life well lived.” He understood that, when hope is gone, when the feeling that life is worth living is gone, is when people are transformed in their own minds and the minds of those around them from the authors of their own destiny to merely existing day to day. And merely existing day to day is not living.

And so King worked tirelessly all his life, against a great tide of opposition, through struggles and jailing and eventual assassination, but always with dignity, to hold the American people to the commandment “thou shalt not kill.”

How do we help to move our community towards a culture of life? How do we live up to the teachings of our forefathers, and of Dr. King?

The best way to keep from killing is to affirm the sanctity of life of every human being, and to reach out with profound empathy towards those who are struggling. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, King references the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who teaches that the highest form or relationship is “I-Thou,” in which we see one another as full human beings with hopes and joys and, most of all, the desire for a good and comfortable life. If we can look at each human being, and see a person who is struggling toward fulfillment, we will not take actions, either consciously or unconsciously, to cut off their sense of dignity and self respect.

This starts small at home, with friends and family and showing utter respect and caring. Seeking to fulfill the needs of those who love us, to help our children and spouses and siblings and friends grow into the best people they can be by listening to and supporting their dreams, goals, and authentic personalities.

And it broadens, and deepens. In the same way we have empathy to our loved ones, we can have empathy in the broader community, and it can change lives. This past summer, when there was rioting in Egypt, I made it a point to ask every person I saw listening to the news from Egypt what they thought. Usually, I was talking to an Egyptian shopkeeper. I heard stories of families torn apart by tragedy, fervent condemnation of bloodshed, and a desire for peace in their homeland. By keeping my mind open, I was able to learn about the conflict from people who were experiencing it firsthand. And from a small dose of empathy like that, great things can come.

People’s circumstances may be wildly different from our own. We may not always fully understand what it might be like to be in those circumstances. But we can struggle mightily to get there. Reaching out to other people and keeping their dignity utmost in their minds will build a world in which we are all kinder, and more equitable to those around us, because it will allow us to see their true concerns.

And, little by little, by keeping in mind that it is a matter of life and death, and of our most fundamental commandments, we will come to build a world that truly embraces life.

January 4, 2014

D’var Torah: Parshat Bo

Filed under: D'var Torah, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 12:42 pm

My family is very particular about food. On Thanksgiving, my aunt always brings sweet potatoes, and I always bring pie. On Rosh Hashanah, I make my grandmother’s Jewish apple cake. Dinners with my aunt always involve her brisket, made the same way every time. And on Hanukkah and Passover, my mother makes matzah ball soup with chewwy matzah balls, big pieces of chicken and vegetables, and parsley, not dill. And I’m sure some of you are imagining my mother’s chicken soup and protesting in your heads that the soup should be made with clear broth, or with dill, or with big pillowy matzah balls. But matzah ball soup that is different from my mother’s, or brisket that is different from my aunt’s, or any pumpkin pie that I did not make from the recipe in the Silver Palatte cookbook just feels wrong to me, somehow. Every family has their rituals; a particular way of doing things that, if they were to try something different, the holiday or the time of year would just feel wrong.

And this portion, Parshat Bo, is about that very same issue of ritual. This portion is the first time that the Israelites are given a law to follow. A ritual of sacrifice and strange food, of family togetherness and telling of the story. Everything must be prepared just so; the same type of meat, cooked and eaten the same way.

But why are the Israelites commanded to do it? It is a ritual commemorating gratitude to God. God protected us from judgment and pain, and led us out of Egypt, and in exchange we ritualize and memorialize that protection every year throughout the generations.

How do we demonstrate gratitude? It is not enough, sometimes, to say thank you. Sometimes, the only way to properly express the depth of one’s obligation is through our actions, our rituals, our social habits. A gift does not feel like a proper gift unless it is given wrapped in pretty paper. A holiday does not feel like a holiday without that one particular recipe.

I was an anthropology major in college, and a theorist named Marcel Mauss teaches that gift giving, and the obligation that it brings, is what binds a society together. That when we are given a gift, we feel the need to give in return, and that endless cycle of giving and receiving is what helps to foster strong relationships. And these gifts to not only need to be the gift of a new sweater or an iPad. We are obligated in moments of vulnerability, of love, of compassion. When a parent died, and our friends organized food throughout the Shiva. Or when we were sick in the hospital, and our friends came to visit us every day with silly jokes and flowers. Or even when we were having a hard time, and some person took a moment to listen, to share the burden of our grief and anxiety. Those moments of genuine human connection and love are the gifts we give to one another, which keep our society moving.

So, I ask again, how do we express our gratitude? The first step is realizing that we are truly, deeply blessed. Cultivating thanks for our gifts of strength, and talent, and knowledge, and good health when it exists, and loving family when it exists. And the next step is to make use of those gifts. To show through our actions how much we love our community. To use our talents for making the world a better place. And to use our relationship with God, our Jewish community, our ancient teachings, to make the world a better place.

This is what the Israelites are commanded to do. They are given this ritual, in order to express their thanks for their salvation. The ritual of Passover is our gift to God in exchange for protection, love, and relationship. But it is not only one generation that gives God the gift of the Passover sacrifice. It is every generation thereafter. The most important part of the ritual is that it serves as a teachable moment for the children, and the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren, to come into relationship with God and all that God has done for the Jewish people.

And, like the gifts we give to the people around us, our gifts to God also help us to construct societies and relationships. Our gifts to God come in our celebration of Shabbat, in the Passover seder, in the kindling of the Hanukkah candles, in fasting at Yom Kippur. Every penny we give in tzedakah, every line we study of Torah, every mitzvah that we perform, is a gift to God in exchange for the blessing and the gift of life. And as we give those gifts, we give to one another. We form bonds with our families, and our friends, and our broader community, and the world, that make our human society a better place to live.

And so my wish for all of us this Shabbat is for gifts. The gift of seeing the blessings that are in our lives. The gift of feeling profound gratitude. And the gift of using all that we have been given to continue to give back in return.

December 10, 2013

Joseph’s Homecoming

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 2:29 pm

This D’var Torah was delivered at my student pulpit last Saturday, December 7

When Joseph reunited with his brothers, he wept so loudly that you could hear it in pharaoh’s palace.

The last time Joseph saw his brothers, he was a slightly bratty seventeen year old boy, spouting off about dreams. Now, he is second only to pharaoh in the hierarchy of Egypt. Decades and countries have divided this family. The brothers have endured their own grief, built their own families, and, through pain and trial, grown into a mighty and prosperous family. And Joseph spent the time building a life for himself; a successful career, a beautiful wife, two sons. An idyllic existence.

And yet. When Joseph discovers his second chance, he runs to take it. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, it is as if no time has passed at all.

For most of us, our relationships don’t suffer from such abrupt severances. We see our relatives, we watch them grow, we grow with them, and it is easy to take them for granted. And then one day we realize that everything has changed. We may realize that our child has grown up and moved away, while we still see them as the five year old asleep in our laps. We may suddenly look at our parents and realize that they have grown old and sick, and that suddenly we need to parent them a little bit, or a lot. We may look at nieces, nephews, cousins, and find that suddenly they are sprouting up like weeds, becoming sullen teenagers while we still picture them as infants.

The comfort of seeing people every day often severs us from them, and leaves us unable to truly see them.

Reading the story of Joseph and his family makes me think about my relationship with my sister. We are very different people; I’m an academic, she’s an artist. I tend to be very measured and methodical in my decisions, she’s outspoken and goes by her gut. She is, in a lot of ways, braver than I am, but her willingness to always say exactly what she thinks has a tendency to get her in trouble. And for years, we fought like cats and dogs, the way that very different sisters do. I found her immature and rash, and I worried about her; she thought I was self-righteous and hypocritical.

And now, seven and a half years after moving out of the house, I find her suddenly a grown up. All of those differences, tempered by maturity, have her growing into the type of person I am glad to count among my family; sure in her goals and beliefs, moving forward with a vision of who she wants to be and how she wants to be in the world. I trust that she is going to be okay.

We are finally able to talk as equals, to see each other as human beings.

And so it is with Joseph and his brothers.

What is amazing about Joseph in this situation is that he could have chosen to focus on the past behavior of his brothers, but he did not. Certainly, he had reason enough to distrust them, to throw them out of his palace. But that is not what happened. Instead, he was able to focus on the present reunion, and welcome them with open arms.

But, neither did he reveal himself to his brothers automatically. He needed to see, after that long absence, whether or not he could trust them. And so he devised tests, seeing whether they would be willing to put the wellbeing of their family, of their father, and of their younger brother, over their own self-interests. Judah, in his monologue to the disguised Joseph about the state of his family, shows remarkable maturity and grace; the beloved younger son who was killed, the other beloved younger son whose loss would kill their father, he understands and accepts it all. The moment that Judah passes Joseph’s tests, and not before, is the moment that Joseph reveals himself, and he cries so loudly from the relief of homecoming that they can hear him all the way to pharaoh’s palace.

How many of us yearn for that relief of homecoming?

How many of us continue in roles with our loved ones that don’t quite fit us, because we are terrified of changing the dynamic for ill, and so we suffer on for years under the belief that we cannot be our true selves? How many of us continue to be “the failure” or “the successful one” or “the peacemaker” while resenting that role all the time?

And conversely, how many of us refuse to see the beautiful or not so beautiful changes in our loved ones, because nostalgia or pain or anger or fear makes us resistant to a change in the relationship? How many of us continue to see a particular sibling as “the immature one” or a particular parent as “the perfect one” even as they reveal their growth and maturity, or their many flaws?

In Jewish theology there is a concept of “the world to come,” Olam HaBa. Most people translate it as heaven. One of my professors, Rabbi Ira Stone, translates Olam HaBa as the ability to look towards the future, to look outside ourselves, and grow and change as circumstances demand.

In order to reach Olam HaBa, we cannot linger in the past, holding on to old hurts and resentments. Nor can we remain focused on the present, thinking only of what will serve us best in this moment. Rather, we must see what those around us need and strive to meet those needs. It is only by acting in the world that we are truly able to move forward. It is only by really seeing each other, and helping each other, that we are able to reach a place of serenity and joy, of paradise.

As we move forward into this week, let us each take a moment to open our eyes and really see each other. Our true flaws, our true strengths, our true needs. We are beautiful in our ability to change, and when we allow each other to do so, we can finally find the strength, and the healing, that comes through homecoming.

December 4, 2013

Sermon Slam

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 1:01 pm

I recently delivered a sermon about Hanukkah for Sermon Slam Philadelphia, an event like a poetry reading or a storytelling contest, but for sermons and other religious works. You can find a podcast of the event here. There were a lot of amazing, creative, and diverse works shared at this event, so please check it out. So many thanks to you guys for letting me share my preaching! And here’s the text of the sermon:

I’d like to start with a Hanukkah story, and one that you have probably never heard. In the days of Jason the High Priest, the days just before Antiochus the tyrant’s merciless attack on Judaism, several Jewish men were sent as representatives of Judea to the Herculean games at Tyre. They were sent with a hefty sum of money to fund sacrifices at the games, sacrifices to the god Hercules.

Imagine being those men. The honor and the privilege of representing Judea to the rest of the Greek world! The thrill of traveling to a new place, seeing the empire, and coming home as heroes, as champions. And yet, they have money in their pockets to sacrifice to Hercules. And so what do they do? What can they do? They can participate in foreign games, but they cannot bring themselves to worship foreign gods. The money never goes to sacrifices. Instead, it goes into the Greek war chest, to fund several new battleships.

I feel very close to the Jewish athletes from this story. Because I know what it means to feel the seductive pull of a broader culture. Those men most certainly spoke Greek, were gymnasia educated, and likely studied Plato and Aristotle. My native language is English, I was educated at Barnard, a secular college, where I majored in anthropology. I watch American TV, I listen to American music. My life, all of our lives, are deeply, strongly, American.

And that pull goes deeper for me than for many, especially future clergy. In this time of year, the time of light in the dark months, is hard for me. Because on Christmas, I’m going to be sitting in a church pew with my Presbyterian grandparents. I’m from an interfaith family, an overlooked but not uncommon occurrence among a new generation of American Jewish leaders.

The Maccabees did not like Jews like me. Their books rail against the Hellenization of their fellow Jews, calling them “evil” and “lawless” and claiming that they “abandoned the holy covenant.” Let alone marrying out.

The war of the Maccabees is not only a war against religious oppression. It is also a culture war, a strong statement against the forces of Hellenization. The Maccabees not only want to remain a free people, they also want to remain a people apart.

Given that, what does it mean to celebrate Hanukkah? How do I keep celebrating a holiday that commemorates a group that would have gladly driven my parents and me out on a rail?

For the answer, I wish to turn to this week’s Torah portion, to a man with many brothers, Joseph. Joseph who lives most of his life in Egypt. Joseph who takes on high positions of political power in court. Joseph who marries and Egyptian woman and has sons by her. And Joseph who, when the time comes, saves his brothers and welcomes them into his home with open arms.

Joseph is a master of “both/ and” thinking. He is a high ranking Egyptian official AND anxious to receive his father’s blessing. He is married to an Egyptian woman AND an interpreter of God’s visions. He straddles both worlds, and through the stretch and the straddling, he manages to save both the Egyptian people and his own family.

And so it is for me. I make one grandmother’s Christmas cookies and the other’s Jewish apple cake. I read Talmud, and then talk to my grandmother about how well I’m doing at my student “church.” I discuss atheism with my Jewish father, and kabbalah with my agnostic mother, and Aramaic with my atheist housemate who once wanted to be a priest. I study the historical context of the Lord’s Prayer, marvel at its similarity to the kaddish, and I can reel it off from memory because I learned it at a church Bible camp with my best friend when I was ten years old. And I am not alone. My Judaism filters down through both sides of my family, and all of my community, both Jewish and not, and it is the stronger for that.

What does this mean for us, we who come together to celebrate the great miracle that happened there? What is the miracle? I would argue that Hanukkah, is not yet another case of “they tried to kill us, we survived let’s eat” (although latkes are delicious). Rather, it is a powerfully complicated story about lines in the sand, and how those lines shift and move as the landscape also shifts, and how we ride that wave to lives rededicated to Judaism.

How do we know when to adapt, and when to stand firm? When can we act as the Jewish athletes, and go forth to the games, and when must we act as the Maccabees, and keep our Temple pure? Both are legitimate Jewish reactions to the same set of circumstances.

As actors in the broader world, we face these challenges every day.

Can we live out the Jewish value of Shabbat, in a world that favors being plugged in 24/7?

Can we live out the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, when our society remains jingoistic and committed to deporting undocumented teenagers?

Can we live out the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, in one of the few nations in the developed world that still executes prisoners, and bombs clinics in the name of saving babies?

Can we live out the Jewish value of communal responsibility, when so often our lives drag us away from one another, and make it so very difficult to commit to building a supportive and vibrant Jewish community?

And when should broader human values intercede; the value to protect the poor of all religions, the value to promote peace between all people, the value of honoring family and friends and loved ones, no matter what their religious background?

We must remember that we have tremendous power; the power to include and the power to exclude, the power to celebrate diversity and ecumenicalism and the power to celebrate our unique heritage. We are blessed, and cursed, to live in a world where the choice of where to draw our lines is truly our own. And while our lines in the sand may not be in the same place as the Maccabees, or the Jewish athletes, may we all have the power to stand firm in our convictions, knowing that we do so under the authority and blessing of God.

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