Havurat Shabbat Shalom – 5/15/2015
Rabbi Englander's Blog

Havurat Shabbat Shalom – 5/15/2015

Erev Shabbat Shalom,

The sun is back out after a brief but intense shower.  Now you are up to date on the weather.  This will be the last regular edition of “Havurat Shabbat Shalom” until we pick up again in the late summer.  I think I kept to my commitment of not missing an edition on a week when we had a scheduled service, though like today, some went out later than others.  I thank all of you for reading these letters and for your replies or comments.

Tomorrow, we will be together for Havurat Shabbat but instead of reading from the Torah we will have an extended text study on the weekly Parasha.  We will end a little bit earlier than our usual ending time (I know, “promises promises”!) because thanks to Zena Gruda we have a wonderful extended Kiddush to celebrate Havurat Shabbat leaders, regulars, and any guests that are with us tomorrow.  All of this will take place in the Weiner Cultural Center beginning at 10 am.

From Monday to Wednesday this past week I was in Washington, D.C. participating in the American Jewish World Service annual Policy Summit, when people from all over the country come together to learn about issues of concern to AJWS, which are Jewish and humanitarian issues too.  Human rights and global poverty are their core concerns, and this particular conference focused on the rights of women, girls, and the often persecuted LGBT population around the world.  We heard from AJWS grantees, from the global envoy for LGBT rights who was appointed just weeks ago by the President, and we practiced for and then participated in lobbying sessions with our Florida delegation.  We saw B’nai Torah’s own Congressman Ted Deutch who is an original sponsor of the International Violence Against Women Act, Congressman Lois Frankel who is also a strong supporter, and we met with the offices of Senators Nelson and Rubio – the issue is a bipartisan one and the bill has significant co-sponsorship on both sides of the aisle.

Here’s a pic of me and Congressman Deutch in his office.
I’m the one with the (gray) hair.

Not having ever lived in D.C. I never got used to just “being at the Capitol” or seeing the monuments or the architecture of our nation’s capital.  It was both an honor to participate in something I believe in strongly at this level and to exercise the democratic right to “lobby” our representatives, a rare blessing in human history and one that should never be taken for granted.  Plus it was inspiring to see participants from high school age (led as part of the New York delegation by my contemporary Rabbi Abby Sosland) to those older than me, the rabbis I will be traveling to Guatemala with in August, and the esteemed president of the organization, Ruth Messinger, heading to the hill.

As the season comes to a close I want to thank everyone who has helped to make the year a very solid one in Havurat Shabbat, to all of our regulars, Torah readers, daveners, and general helper-outers.  In particular I want to thank Sam Hitner for manning the door each week and greeting everyone, Jason Goldstein for stepping up as gabbai, Cantors Paul Goldstein and Scott Demsky for some occasional professional-level davening, Cantor Tisser for the winter “season”, and especially Linda Ehrlich, whose invaluable volunteer work as senior gabbai is deeply appreciated by me and everyone who comes to our service.

All that said, if you have any suggestions for nudging Havurat Shabbat in an even more positive direction, please feel free to respond to this e-mail with that feedback which will be read and valued.  And if you need a long time to prepare a Torah reading, I could make something happen for this coming fall – just let me know.

Below, “What I meant to say last week,” a sermon on Parashat Emor.

Hope to see you tomorrow.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi David Englander

Shabbat Parashat Emor 5775
Rabbi David Englander

Reading from the Torah is surely the most difficult synagogue skill of them all.  I always have a laugh when I share with bar mitzvah students that reading a Haftarah and reading from the Torah are pretty much the same thing, except that for reading the Torah we take away the musical notes, the vowels, and the punctuation.  Torah reading takes preparation, I don’t care how fluent in Hebrew you are, and a well-read Aliyah or portion is a source of pride for both the reader and the congregation.

Me and Torah reading have a turbulent history.  I started late – I did not read more than the very short maftir Aliyah at my bar mitzvah, and did not read again until years later.  Let’s say based on how that reading went, it was a while before I tried again.  You have to take almost a leap of faith and say yes, I know this text well enough to dive right it.  I won’t forget the notes, or the pronunciation.  You can get very Zen about it and just let it flow, but it only flows if you have done your work.  Otherwise it is a nerve-wracking experience, both for the reader and the congregation.

These days, thanks to excellent volunteer readers over in Havurat Shabbat (we always have room for more, by the way) and Joe who reads so proficiently here in the sanctuary week to week, I do very little Torah reading.  And my daughter is quickly becoming a much better reader than I ever was or will be and so I’m counting on her to pick up any slack.  But on Saturday afternoon at mincha, we have to go pretty far down on the Torah reading depth charts so me and Cantor Tisser generally will split these thankfully short readings, and part of my Saturday afternoon is spent in preparation.

All that by way of introduction to tell you that I had a problem this past Saturday afternoon, when we began to read our parasha for this morning, Emor.  I’ll admit that I am not always paying close attention to the meaning or interpretation of the words that are being chanted – usually, in a very un Zen-like way, I’m too nervous about losing the tune to focus on that as well.  But I found myself deeply troubled by a verse that happened to be in an Aliyah I was reading.  It reads, “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire.”

Now when you read this verse in its context, which is some of the rules of the members of the priestly class who would be responsible for implementing and maintaining the central ritual activity of the Tabernacle and later the Temple, you can understand, I suppose, that the reputation of the priestly families and tribe was to be protected.  And who knows if this was ever meant to be a practical instruction.  Much like other so-called difficult-to-read verses from the Torah, this one was probably quickly interpreted to be applied in a most restrictive fashion.  Or perhaps, like the most disturbing verses in the Torah, such as the stubborn and rebellious son who was taken out to the city gates and stoned, or the eye-for-an-eye justice described in our portion, or the layers and layers of conditions that were placed on a capital offense actually resulting in the death penalty, this law also was all but interpreted out of existence.

But still, it is there and at one point it had to represent the idea of the proper consequence for the daughter of a priest who participated in what was in that time unacceptable behavior.  Whether it was God who authored this law or man who wrote it down, someone asked themselves the question:  how far are we willing to go to protect this value, to guard the sanctity of the priesthood?  And the answer was:  pretty darned far.  Sometimes the outer boundary of a value has to be drawn in a place that is meant to keep what is inside of that boundary safe and secure.  I hope – I really hope – that was the intention of a verse in the Torah that ends with the announced punishment of ‘ba’eish tisareif’ – she shall be put to the fire, that it was a statement of value and not an actual punishment.  And even though I had these hopes, I still had trouble reading those words about anyone’s daughter, priest or not, being condemned to an end that we find abominable.

So what did I do?  Of course I read it anyway – our people is unified over very few things but I have yet to be in or hear of a community that has chosen to remove a verse from the Torah scroll.  I can only be grateful that as our tradition has evolved it has moved away from capital and corporal punishment and it has emphasized ethical behavior that creates ‘kiddush ha-shem’, the sanctification of God’s name.  How has that expansion happened?  Because while one generation asked itself ‘how can we best protect the sanctity of the priesthood and prevent sexual immorality from tainting it’ another generation asked ‘how can we best uphold an ultimate Jewish value of the sanctity of life, how can we guard the holiness of our laws by drawing people to observe them rather than by threatening them with harm for breaking them?’  And the answer has in many instances resulted in building on the foundations of ethically sensitive living that are laid down in the Torah.  Some of these ideas appear in our parasha, like a form of kindness to animals and reserving some of yield of your crops to feed the poor.  Throughout the Torah the ways the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself are expanded on and taught in ways that are admirable and that make me continually proud to bear this relatively underrepresented title, not that of rabbi, but of Jew.

I recently started both reading the Tweets of others and Tweeting out some messages myself – you can follow me if you like.  It has been something I thought might prove to be a waste of time but I have been pleasantly surprised.  I get Mets’ scores in real time, and Rabbi David Wolpe can say more in 80 characters than I can in 800.  (He is the one who once mentioned in class the writer who sent a letter to a loved one and said I’m writing you a long letter because I don’t have time to write you a short one.)  I can keep up with what the United States Ambassador to New Zealand, former B’nai Torah president Mark Gilbert, is up to halfway across the world.  And once in a while I’ll find something I almost definitely would not have heard of were it not for someone re-tweeting an idea or a report of an event.

One of these was written by a former camper of mine at Camp Ramah, and I’m always pleased to see former campers doing good.  Now Rabbi Dan Ain participated in something called the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards.  It honors, well, disruptors – people who see a problem, ask a good question, and then answer it with an innovation that previously people either had not thought of, or not implemented successfully, or said about it “that’s impossible.”  While there was a Jewish component to the awards I want to give you an idea about the concept from some of the ‘secular side’ awards.  Someone wanted to travel and not sequester themselves from the local population at a hotel but instead live with and like a local and also save a few bucks and that idea became Airbnb, where you can book not a hotel room but a bed in someone’s house.  Someone asked why surfing had to be limited to liquid water, why could it not include frozen water, and the founder of the biggest snowboard company in the world answered that he thought people would enjoy surfing down a mountain, and they do.  Formula One racing wastes a lot of gasoline – are there any alternatives?  Formula E Racing, the world’s first fully electronic racing series was the answer.  What are the boundaries of corporate philanthropy, and can they be pushed even further out?  Ask the president of the Ford Foundation, which now gives away more than 500 million dollars a year in social justice grants, and who won a disruptor award for their work.  Why are women underrepresented in technology jobs?  Because they are taught at an early age that they just aren’t good at science.  Enter Girls Who Code, a national non-profit to prepare, yes, girls for jobs in tech.  And it goes on.

And it is in that spirit of disruptive innovation – not on the scale of girls who code or electronic formula one racing – that I want to share a reflection and a few questions that I began thinking about when I listened to Rabbi Steinhardt’s sermon from last week, which if you missed it was a powerful and articulate call to empathy with the plight of the permanent underclass in Baltimore that recently expressed its rage through riot.  Quoting Dr. King he spoke about the ways that riots have been the protest of last resort for a muted and powerless segment of the populace.  And he spoke about some of the difficult life situations that people in the part of Baltimore much in the news, and in other pockets of other cities throughout America, face.  We have to follow the adage taught by Hillel in Pirkei Avot, not to judge another until you stand in his place.  Perhaps what Hillel is saying is that since you can never fully stand in someone else’s place and see the world through their eyes, you should never judge anyone else.  Or maybe he is saying that empathy is a powerful but underutilized emotional connection.  What would you do if you were in the same situation?  How can you possibly know?  Hillel’s point is you can’t know, you can only try to understand, and where possible, to help.

So my question during that excellent sermon was what do the messages coming out of Baltimore mean to us?  Is it so far away that we can say it is someone else’s problem?  I doubt most people in shul on a Saturday would say that.  Can we possibly say that there are no economically disadvantaged people closer to home, who are trying their best but who function in a system that makes it very difficult to get ahead and to leap to the next state of the economic security, in which they will not be in fear of going hungry before the next paycheck arrives? What are the disruptive ideas, or the disruptive questions that could lead to disruptive ideas, that offer an answer to the question:  what can I do?

At one time someone had the disruptive idea that the market should not determine the lowest wage you could pay a worker.  I don’t know if the minimum wage was ever enough to provide a basic subsistence for a family but today we know – and Rabbi Steinhardt spoke about this last week – that it is not.  We also know that there are businesses that could get away with paying workers less but who choose to pay them more – sometimes a little more, sometimes quite a bit more – than they have to. What if you opened your Shabbat brochure, or got an e-mail from your synagogue, that listed local businesses that have determined to pay their workers a livable wage, even if they could get away with paying less?  Would you feel encouraged to patronize those businesses? Is this the role of a synagogue?

Many years ago someone decided it would be a nice thing if synagogues established ‘sister synagogue’ relationships with other synagogues, mostly in Israel.  We can agree, I think, that in Baltimore the mostly Christian clergy played a significant role, and for the most part an outstanding and brave role, in quelling the violence in the streets.  Should B’nai Torah have not just sister synagogues but also a sister church or two, perhaps one in a poor neighborhood in Miami or Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach – and would we invest in them by providing them with material or educational support out of our own pockets and budget?

Rabbi Steinhardt has bravely and wisely spoken of establishing a literacy program through B’nai Torah.  We are still working on implementing it.  We know that literacy is the gateway to success in school which in turn is the gateway to economic potential.  Something that you also know is that your synagogue charges you dues, we have to in order to maintain our building, schools, program, and staff.  What if on our new member application we had an additional requirement to join the synagogue, a certain number of hours of serving the community in some way, a kind of “dues of time” in the literacy program or somewhere else, with your synagogue investing resources in further establishing and organizing relationships with local organizations that have need of the care, concern, and expertise of our members?  If that proposal came up at an annual meeting – would you vote for it?

Like many of you I have cousins in Israel.  In addition to many other stories worth telling you about them, one of them right after he got married moved with his new wife and his law degree to an outlying community which was in a much lower economic condition than he could have afforded.  They spent a couple of years there, participating in, helping to build, and generally serving as  good role models for its residents.  Having spent a Shabbat with them once, I observed the impact they were making.  We know that internationally the Peace Corps places people temporarily in some of the poorest places in the world, and domestically we know that programs like Teach for America and Americorps do the same to help improve the lives of those who do not live the way most of us do.  Now I know what you are thinking:  rabbi, it’s a little late for me to spend two years in Ecuador or to teach in the Bronx.  But what if your child, or your grandchild, said hey I’m thinking about applying for a program like this.  Would you encourage them?  What if they didn’t ask you – would you recommend it?

The Torah is a living repository of disruptive innovations.  Some are pretty radical and others are a half-step up from what people used to do, with the invitation to continue to improve and then to improve some more, all toward affirming human dignity and building a world that better reflects the idea that everyone is created in the image of God.  Some of the Torah’s laws, by the rabbis’ own observation, are the product of a different time and era and call for interpretation, which they and to a lesser extent we too try to do in an honest and careful way, while other teachings from our holy Torah ring just as loudly in their plain form as they did when they were first put to parchment.  So much, so much of our tradition is an answer to the question that Cain asked God after he did away with his brother Abel.  You remember the question he asked:  Hashomer achi anokhi?  Am I my brother’s keeper? Judaism answers the question for us every day, and the answer…is yes.