Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“To Boldly Go” – Shabbat Lech Lecha, Friday, October 15, 2021

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Mon, 2021-10-18 15:45

Captain’s Log, Stardate 11-13-2021

The recorded response of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise – also known as actor William Shatner, who on Wednesday boldly went where no one his age has gone before, as one of four passengers who reached just into space in the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience,” Shatner told Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos after landing back in the Texas desert. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”[1]

Shatner’s ten-minute flight — including a few fleeting moments floating in zero-gravity – did just reach into the final frontier, 66 miles up from earth and four miles beyond what is considered the edge of space. It may have been akin to the blink of an eye compared to the career Shatner has had playing Captain Kirk on a Hollywood soundstage since 1966. But the power of the blast-off, the view of the earth from above, and the miracle of a safe and soft landing was obviously and deeply profound.

“To boldly go where no man has gone before . . .” Even those of us who grew up on Star Trek in all its incarnations will always hear Shatner’s voice speaking those words in the original series intro. And how timely it was that he should fulfill that mission for himself during the week when the Torah gives us a story about another powerful journey that carries its own cosmic importance.

Lech lecha, God says to the Chaldean man Avram, son of Haran. “Go forth from your native land, from the land of your birth, from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.”

Lech lecha. What a curious and unique command. Not just lech – “Go!” – but Lecha lecha. “Betake yourself.” “Go for yourself.” Some commentators dismiss it as an idiom, a mere feature of the Hebrew language.

But we want more. We look for a deeper message. After all, as author Aviva Zornberg points out: “For the first time [in the Torah], a journey is undertaken, not as an act of exile (Adam, Cain) or a quest for domination (the generation of Babel) but as a response to a divine imperative.”[2]

And so the Midrash gives us the gift of this inherent meaning: “Lech Lecha: Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”[3]

But there’s a twist: God does not call Avram by name. His calling is unique, and the details of his journey intensely personal. But the call is not inherently his alone. And so we are free to imagine ourselves as the one being called. We may well see ourselves in Avram’s place, feeling the urge – the necessity — at some point in our lives to boldly go where we have never gone before, feeling that the time and the travel are right.

Many of us left the places where we were born and where we grew up long ago. We have journeyed across the country, or even around the world. We go for love, we go for professional challenges, we go for the sheer adventure of going.

Some of us go when we are young, with nothing holding us back or keeping us in place. Some of us change the trajectory of our lives when we are older. Maybe not 75 like Avram, or 90 like William Shatner – but old enough to know that the chance to boldly go doesn’t happen every day. We seize the chance and embrace the unknown.

Today, our country is filled with travelers doing just that. They pack up and go. As Abby Vesoulis wrote this week in Time Magazine, “If April 2020 was the month of pink slips – as the rapid spread of COVID-19 resulted in the loss of 20.5 million jobs – then Fall 2021 is the dawn of their revenge. A record breaking 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August across an array of industries . . . meanwhile, the 7.7 million people who remain unemployed aren’t, for the most part, jumping at the roughly 10.4 million job openings.”[4]

A lot of people are just fed up with their nasty, back-breaking jobs and lousy working conditions. With low wages and unaffordable child care weighing on them, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it, “Workers are burned out. They’re fed up. They’re fried. In the wake of so much hardship, and illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.”[5]

For these travelers, the pandemic has been a stark reminder of the hardness and fragility of life that Captain Kirk saw passing by him out the window of the Blue Origin capsule this week:

“To see the blue color whip by you and now you’re staring into blackness,” Shatner reflected back on earth. “In an instant, you go, ‘Whoa, that’s death.’ That’s what I saw.”[6]

I always wonder what blackness Avram must have seen in his life to be so utterly and immediately willing to boldly go on God’s command. Was it the pointless idolatry that surrounded him in Haran – his friends and family worshiping imagines that they had carved with their own hands? Was there hunger? Violence? Or did he simply lift up his eyes, as he would when God sent him on the next part of his journey, and see that blue sky calling him out of the blackness?

Avram would lech lecha, go forth to find himself in a place where his gifts would flourish. He would be tutored by the land and the trees. He would learn from the sky and from the voice that called to him out of the heavens.

We, too, learn and grow and change and dare from so many influences in our lives: The people we meet. The people we love. The books we read. The flavors we eat. The colors at which we marvel. And, especially lately, the air we breathe, the smiles we reflect, and the care we give to one another. The very power of being able to awaken each day. These are the gifts that we learn never to take for granted.

Some of us “betake ourselves” to lands unknown. But even for those of us who find these gifts in the immediate vicinity where we grew up, every day offers us challenges and opportunities. Life is not static, anywhere we are.

Change is an integral part of life. We can try to resist it. Or we can “boldly go” – as our ancestors did – to become the people God meant us to be.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth, and to the final frontier. As we say together: Amen.

###

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/10/13/shatner-blue-origin-space-tourism/

[2] Aviva Zornberg, as quoted in the footnotes for Genesis 12:1 in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 70.

[3] Mei Ha-Shi-lo-ah, as quoted in the footnotes for Genesis 12:1 in Etz Hayim, loc. cit.

[4] https://time.com/6106322/the-great-resignation-jobs/

[5] Ibid.

[6] From the Associated Press article datelined Van Horn, Texas, published in Altoona Mirror for Thursday, October 14, 2021, page C-1.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Open the Gates to Joy

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Tue, 2021-09-21 14:38

I have to hand it to our man Moses – God’s beloved, and our most revered prophet. After all the grumbling and kvetching and threatening in which Moses has engaged through much of his farewell address to the Israelites – after all that, he finds the right words at just the right tiAs we’ve discussed for weeks now — going chapter by chapter in Deuteronomy on these Friday nights through the summer — Moses has spent an inordinate amount of time warning the people of the threats they face from the Canaanites who live just over the Jordan River. Chief among these threats is idolatry – the fear that the Israelites will find life just too hard on their own, and they will think it’s easier to blend in with the people who already live in the Promised Land. Including worshiping their gods. Everything Moses has worked for since God’s call to him at the Burning Bush could be lost to the lure of idolatry.

He’s tried to literally put the fear of God in them – warning them of the divine punishments that await them for their sins.

But in this morning’s reading, which comes close to the end of his oration, Moses pulls back on the pummeling and instead focuses on the promise.

The Eternal your God, says Moses, is establishing you “as the people whose only God is the Eternal, as you had been promised, and as God had sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses assures them that all future generations of their children, and all who will choose to join the Jewish people, are part of that covenant — as though we ourselves were standing on the banks of the Jordan.

And then, he gets to the most important message:

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote. It is not in heaven … nor beyond the sea…No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.”[1]

Moses is no less worried that Jews will find it much easier simply to stop living like Jews, eating like Jews, praying like Jews, or dressing like Jews. He’s still afraid they’ll find acculturation – or even assimilation – too powerful a draw. He’s, frankly, terrified that the experiment in Jewish self-reliance and self-governance will be too intimidating for the Israelites to do for themselves, once God has left them to their own devices.

But instead of threatening them with punishment because of their presumed weaknesses, he blesses them with kindness and promise and a future of freedom and joy because of their intrinsic strength.

And I’d like to take my cue from Moses this morning.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I focused on the threat that we all face from rampant anti-semitism, from the right and from the left. Of the Jew-hatred that lies at the heart of conspiracy theories of all sorts that spread like a plague in our country today. Like Moses, I warned what would happen if we capitulated. If we decided it was too hard for us to be Jews, and just assimilated into the larger society. In other words: What will happen if we let the bullies win.

But there’s another way to beat the bullies. And that’s not only to stand up for ourselves but to fully affirm our Jewishness. Embracing it. Rejoicing in Jewish life, in all its fullness.

There are so many ways that Judaism influences the way we behave every single day. Beyond worship and study and lifecycle events, our Jewishness permeates the way we see the world, and the way we live in it

I was inspired by a recent essay by David Harris of the American Jewish Committee. Harris took time away from his own regular warnings about antisemitism to pen an OpEd entitled “Time to Affirm Jewish Pride.” And I want to share with you my own version, in hopes that you, too, will be inspired to work for the better world that Judaism imagines for us all.[2]

I’ll use the model of Edmond Fleg’s iconic reading, “I Am A Jew.”

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion of the one and only Creator God who established this world in all its beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion that all of humanity is commanded to care for this world, to sustain this beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the astonishing idea that every single human being is equal in God’s eyes – and therefore must be equal in our own.

As the Torah teaches over and over, without qualification: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And as the rabbis taught:

“All of humanity emanates from one single human being in order to maintain peace among people – so that one person cannot say to another: my father is greater than your father . . . .

“Any person can stamp out several coins with one seal and they’d look alike. Only God stamped people with the seal of Adam, the first human being, and not one of us is the same as any other. And since all humanity descends from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: ‘The world was created for me’ – since any one of us could be the source of all humanity.”[3]

I am a Jew because our experience of slavery reminds us that any group of people in any generation can be imprisoned by fear or hate – and because it is our responsibility to toil unceasingly for the redemption of anyone else who is enslaved. As Elie Wiesel said at his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance regarding the oppressed of the world, we must remember . . .

“that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”[4]

I am a Jew because, when we have been abandoned by the world – literally left for dead – we resurrect ourselves and recommit ourselves to not only surviving but thriving in the most inhospitable circumstances.

I am a Jew because I am so very proud that, generation after generation, my people have overcome the limitations and discriminations imposed upon us. With hard work and brains and creativity, both in Israel and around the world, we have helped the world cure diseases and explore the universe and purify drinking water — and create beautiful music and art and dance and literature and theater in astonishing volume and quality, far beyond our numbers.

I am a Jew because I believe in the responsibilities of mitzvah and tikkun: to spend each day looking for ways both to be grateful for what God has given me, and to look for ways to make life better for others.

As someone who has been through life-threatening illness, I have a deeper appreciation for being able to open my eyes every morning – and a deeper sense of responsibility for how I’m going to use the hours I/ve been given. As a Type-A who wants to complete every task with perfection, I accept what Rabbi Tarfon taught: “You are not required to complete the task, but you are also not free to refrain from it.”[5]

Or, as my wonderful commentaries professor Rabbi Ed Goldman taught: God expects us to do the best with what we’ve been given – no more, but no less.

I am a Jew because, as the song goes, wherever I go, there’s always someone Jewish. I can walk into any congregation in the world and lend my voice to the communal pleas and offerings and thanks to God.

I am a Jew – in short – because it brings me such joy. The lightness of Shabbat when it starts and the lingering sweetness when it ends. The smiles around the Seder table, and the eagerness of children to answer the four questions and find the afikomen. Dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, and dancing the hora at a bat mitzvah. Standing under a chuppah with a couple as they pledge themselves to one another according to the traditions of Moses and Israel. Seeing the proud tears of a parent at a bris or baby naming, knowing that their love of being Jewish remains alive in another generation.

I am a Jew because, every year, God grants me the gift of forgiveness and the possibility of advancement, using my brain and my heart and my hands to make this year better than the last.

I am a Jew because I have the honor of being part of a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, that is dedicated to advancing Jewish life, and Jewish learning and Jewish prayer — year after year, generation after generation, with intense pride and immense joy. Despite the pains of loss and the pains of advancing age, despite the shrinking numbers and the financial challenges, I know that – in this new year — you all (WE all) will step up as one, and bring the world a little closer to tikkun, to the way that God intended for the world to be.

On this most sacred day – on this Sabbath of Sabbaths — Moses comes to remind us that we must look beyond the fear of failing, to the joy of success. There is no greater gift in living our Judaism this way, each and every day. It is very near to us. It is here, in our mouths and in our hearts. We can do it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission here on earth, as we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-14

[2]https://act.ajc.org/site/MessageViewer;jsessionid=00000000.app20122b?em_id=10685.0&dlv_id=8761&NONCE_TOKEN=BB871A5817E8C3334C9E3D639E0F02ED

[3] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, expanded.

[4] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/26054-elie-wiesel-acceptance-speech-1986/

[5] Pirke Avot 1:16.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Who Do You Think You Are?” – Kol Nidre 2021

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Tue, 2021-09-21 14:34

On Friday, April 12, 1907, the British newspaper “The Jewish Chronicle” highlighted this upcoming Bar Mitzvah on its front page:

“GERSHON – Samuel, second son of Mr. and Mrs. L. Gershon of 93 Downs-road, Clapton, N.E., will read a portion of the Law at the South Hackney Synagogue on the Sabbath next April 13th.”

Now, that would not be especially noteworthy – except for the fact that Samuel Gershon was the great-grandfather of Harry Potter himself, actor Daniel Radcliffe. And it was a fact – and a heritage — that Radcliffe knew little to nothing about until he appeared on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Daniel Radcliffe was just an ordinary British lad growing up in London. But his maternal grandmother, whom he knew as Muriel Gresham, was really Muriel Gershon – and her whole family were Jewish immigrants from Europe. Her father Samuel, the aforementioned Bar Mitzvah boy, inherited a jewelry business from his father, Louis Gershon. But it foundered so badly in the hands of Samuel and his brothers that they faked a robbery in order to collect the insurance – a scheme so shameful that Samuel later committed suicide.

The ancestry show, “Who Do You Think You Are” goes for the gut – the emotion, the huge revelations, the celebrities learning family histories that are usually heartwarming and sometimes lurid. But the basic question is the one all of us ask at one time or another: Who do I think I am?  

And it’s not just a human question. It’s also a Jewish question. In fact, it’s the Jewish question on Yom Kippur.

Throughout this Day of Atonement, each of us is asked to go on a journey. From belief to reality. From self-delusion to self-awareness. We will try to come to grips with where we have fallen short in the past year, how our understanding of ourselves may somehow have gone astray, and how we need to change our patterns of thought and behavior to get on the path of life we really want.

Now, we know that the journey is never as easy or straightforward as it seems. It’s not a wide, straight path like a boulevard. Our journey to self-realization is complicated and sometimes unpleasant. We might take steps backward before we can move ahead. And sometimes we simply can’t separate belief from fact, or fantasy from reality.

In fact, scientists now tell us that everything we perceive in the world around us is filtered through our own prior experiences. This sometimes-heated conversation between our senses and our memory can be such a balagan that one researcher called it a “controlled hallucination” – something that, as columnist David Brooks wrote, “is the closest we can get to registering reality.”[1] 

Researcher Nadine Dijkstra phrased it a little more nicely: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” [2]

Think of the ways our past can influence what we see around us. If we think we’re bad at math because we’ve failed tests before, we’re going to go into the SATs with a preconceived notion about what we can expect from ourselves. If we are coming out of a bad relationship with someone who has been insensitive – or even abusive – we might tend to overreact to things that a new partner says and does, or take them the wrong way, presuming the pattern will repeat itself.

We may see clearly the statistics that the COVID vaccines work, and the fact that masking helps prevent transmission IF everybody wears them. But if we are filtering that information through past feelings of helplessness, or bad past experiences with getting a shot, we might act on emotion rather than information.

In other words, writes Dijkstra, “our perception of the outside world is strongly influenced by what we believe.”

What science is telling us is important, and we have to understand this about ourselves. It’s really, really hard to challenge or change a set of beliefs that has guided our behavior– even if the result has not been what we’d like. It’s hard to get off the hamster wheel, or out of the rut, or even out of a life of self-abuse. It’s how we are wired as imperfect human beings – and our circuits sometimes go ka-floo-ey.

But hey – especially considering everything we’ve all been through for the last year and a half — it’s okay to acknowledge that change is hard, and it’s scary, and it’s painfully slow. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s absolutely necessary.

And Judaism understands that.

In fact, Judaism knew this well before scientists did. That’s why we were given the gift of these Days of Awe and this day of Yom Kippur in particular.

This is the day we get off the wheel and out of the rut and into God’s space and God’s time. A whole twenty-four hours with nothing to do but reflect and refresh. To admit that what we believe about ourselves — and other people — can and must change. To acknowledge that what our experience teaches us – and how it colors the way we see the world – may well be faulty. To accept that the world outside of us is not static, and our own stubbornness is not going to hold it back. So, as the world evolves, so must we. To believe that, as Moses assures the assembled Israelite nation in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, we can handle this. So:

“Who do I think I am?”

I am an imperfect creature. I was created from clay but with the breath of God giving me life, simply trying to navigate this life as best I can. Hillel taught me that the fundamental truth of Torah is: “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else,” and it’s up to me to recognize when I’ve reached that line.[3]

I am an important creature. I have been born into a world that is fractured and troubled. But humanity, created at the close of Creation, was put here to heal it. As God said to Adam: “Take care of My world. If you do not, there will be no one to do it after you.”[4]

I am a redeemable creature. I make a lot of mistakes, often based on past experience, or faulty perceptions. But the rabbis have taught me: “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not stiff like a cedar.”[5] I have to be willing to change my ideas about other people, and the events of the world as they unfold, as well as my own behavior. Or I’ll end up unable to function in the world at all.

I am a creature who deserves to love and to be loved. As God said to Israel: “My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another.”[6]

I am a creature resolved to elevate my life from day to day, and from year to year. The school of Hillel taught that, in matters of holiness, one should always begin in darkness and conclude with light. And, for me, every day of my life is a matter of holiness.

Who do I think I am? I was created in the image of God. And so, like God, who said to Moses at the Burning Bush, “Eheyeh asher eheyeh,” I am what I choose to be.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.

######

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/02/opinion/brain-reality-imagination.html. Quoting neuroscientist Anil Seth of the University of Sussex.

[2] https://nautil.us/issue/104/harmony/the-fine-line-between-reality-and-imaginary?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=fineline&fbclid=IwAR0ss2T4zEv_YupgakcmV6N1GdetlScyyKDvIR9GWkJp-DvUBPZmDI56Yxg

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

[4] Midrash Kolelet Rabbah 7:28

[5] Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 20a.

[6] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 26., as included in Bialik and Ravnitsky’s The Book of Legends: Sefer ha-Aggadah, English edition trans. William G. Braude, p. 646.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2021: Reclaiming Our Joy

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Tue, 2021-09-21 14:29

I have to admit, after almost a dozen years here in Altoona, I’m still sometimes taken aback by random questions I get about Judaism – from lay people and even from pastors. Some are pretty sophisticated and respectful questions about theology and practice. Some are as basic as: “So Jesus was Jewish?” And “Where do you do your sacrifices if you don’t have a Temple?”

For years, we had a great annual interfaith series that explored a lot of issues of faith and fiction, and conflicting narratives and beliefs. That kind of played itself out before COVID, so we’re left with conversations on the congregational or individual level. I always appreciate it when I’m invited to teach about Judaism instead of having non-Jews trying to figure us out for themselves using their own texts and theology.

And what I’ve figured out is that at least some of the misunderstandings about Judaism evolve from this morning’s Torah portion: the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, at the command of Abraham’s God. In fact, this one story – which is never mentioned at all in the whole rest of the Torah – becomes fundamental to the two monotheistic faiths that were spawned by ancient Judaism. But fundamental in a way that leads to a lot of confusion and some occasional bad feelings.

In Christianity, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his own beloved son Isaac is superseded by God’s total sacrifice of his beloved son Jesus, and therefore the unique Divine covenant shifts away from us to Jesus’s followers.

In Islamic tradition, the child who is saved is Ishmael and not Isaac – which means the Divine covenant belongs, not to Isaac’s descendants (that would be us) but to Ishmael’s.

And maybe that’s why we read the story of the Binding of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah. For us, the New Year means a new commitment to our behavior, and to our treatment of other people and our world. But it’s also a time for renewing our covenant with God and our faith. When we hear the sounding of the shofar on this day of judgment, we ask God to remember the selfless act of Abraham, the binding of Isaac – and the covenant that is binding in all generations of their descendants, both by blood and by choice.

It’s a reminder, not just to all Jews but to all humanity, that it was our Torah and our people and our prophet that brought to the world the whole concept of Divine love – and of the joy that we share in the Divine promise of redemption.

We rabbis talk a lot amongst ourselves about how to talk to non-Jews. My experience tells me that we have to meet people where they are, and start from what they know, what they don’t know, and what they think they know but really don’t. But first, we have to suss out whether it’s worth having that conversation at all.

I think of it in terms of the four children we read about at the Passover Seder: The wise child; the wicked child; the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask.

For the person who does not know how to ask – we must start the conversation, as the Haggadah teaches us: “This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.” We explain that we see ourselves as though we ourselves are of the generation that was redeemed – and that the existence of us as a Jewish people today depends on our ever-present appreciation that redemption is a gift to be savored and shared.

For the person who is simple, we have to take things one step at a time. We must be patient in explaining how we Jews moved from Biblical ways of life two millennia ago. We must teach how Judaism was reborn and restored in a world without a Temple or priests or sacrifices – and that the genius of the early rabbis was their ability to create exactly what God promised to the people through Moses:

“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself,” God said. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:4-6)

The person who is wise already knows that our notion of Jews as God’s “treasured” people does not deny or disrespect anyone else’s beliefs. It doesn’t make us superior. Nor does it endow us with any right to control anyone or anything beyond ourselves.

In any of these three situations we can sit with neighbors and colleagues and friends, and we can have rational and honest discussions about – well, pretty much anything, from the nature of the world to the responsibilities of humanity.

It is the fourth person – the person who is wicked who is the cause for concern.

In the Haggadah this is the child who says: “What is this observance to you – to you and not to me.” Today, this is the person who sees the Jew as the “other,” as something less than human, as something to be feared, and despised, and defeated. Today, this is the anti-Semite, the Jew-hater. Today, on a day of joy at the coming of this new year, the anti-Semite creates among us a sense of dread that this year will be just as scary as the last.

It’s no secret that antisemitic incidents remain at an historically high level in this country. Even with the pandemic, 2020 saw a total of 2,024 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to the Anti-Defamation League.[1] Now, we haven’t had any violence in our area – although I know some of our members are still afraid since Tree of Life, even with the hardening of our building security. But we have had other incidents. Antisemitic leaflets have been distributed in Altoona in the past year, as well as in State College. And many congregations whose congregations rely on live-streamed services have been Zoom-bombed by Jew-haters who get into the service and scream horrific threats at Jews at prayer.

But here’s what I think is the worst and ugliest aspect of antisemitism today: It comes at us from both sides.

It comes from the far-right: From neo-nazis who beat up Jews walking to synagogue and vandalize Jewish cemeteries with swastikas. From white supremacists who scream “Jews will not replace us,” in their torch-lit marches, and fill the internet with lies about the Rothschilds and George Soros paying for black and brown people to come to this country to de-populate and pollute the blood of the white Christian majority.

These horrific lies have been repeated by elected officials at all levels, who are too gullible or too bigoted to be able to separate truth from clear and crazy fiction. Antisemitism is an old and vile conspiracy theory that now links other conspiracy theories together in new ways, in new social media avenues that spread as quickly – well, as quickly as a virus in a pandemic.

But antisemitism also comes at us from the far left. It comes from Jew-hating demagogues who are leaders of organizations like the Women’s March and the Chicago Dyke March and Black Lives Matter, who hijack their groups’ purported goals of freedom and equality, and who reject or deny the facts of Jewish minority persecution throughout history.

Antisemitism comes from left-wing groups on college campuses across the country, where Jewish students are subject to harassment, physical threats and emotional intimidation – because of their commitment to the existence of the State of Israel or regardless of it.

Antisemitism comes from those who wrap their hatred of Jews under the banner of anti-Zionism – as though singling out the Jewish homeland, the only democratic nation in the Middle East, for condemnation isn’t bigotry at its worst. As though harassing and threatening American Jews for Israel’s mere existence isn’t as obvious a hatred as Nazi salutes.

And it comes from those who have used America’s current reckoning with race as the lens through which they demand all the world be judged – including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is not racial at all. It’s about two semitic peoples with dueling narratives about history and land. It involves an Israel where only a third of Jews today trace their lineage to Europe – and more and more are from Africa and parts of Asia.

But a pretty good chunk of American Jewry seems ignorant of all this. A national survey this summer by the Jewish Electoral Institute showed that 25 percent of respondents agreed that Israel is an apartheid state, and 34 percent agreed that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.[2]

And, yes, partly because of this, antisemitism also comes from some young Jews who are eager to prove their credentials as progressive activists.

They march with pro-Palestinian protesters who demand the land “from the river to the sea” – which requires the destruction of the State of Israel. They are willing to discard a key part of their identities: their Judaism – the faith tradition that gave much of the world its moral foundation in the first place.

Antisemitism is a travesty of humanity. It is patently absurd that there should be such paranoid hatred of point-two (0.2) percent of the world’s population.

And here’s the irony. We American Jews – especially in the non-traditional streams of American Judaism – we are steadfast defenders of everybody else’s rights. Immigrants. Gays and lesbians. The homeless and the hungry.

And we should be. As God’s “treasured” people, we have a unique responsibility to fulfill the moral imperative of the Torah to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have thousands of years of experience of being the “other” — and we know that nobody deserves to be a paranoia-filled punching bag for anyone else. Not immigrants. Not people of color. Not women. Not poor people. Nobody.

But: We also have the responsibility to fulfill the teaching of the great sage Hillel the Elder:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

We are often taught that Hillel was going from the lesser mitzvah to the greater, encouraging us to think beyond ourselves to all of those who are persecuted or disadvantaged or vulnerable. But I would suggest a slightly different reading.

I think Hillel deliberately started with the phrase “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I think he firmly believed that we Jews must stand up for ourselves first. Because if we don’t – we won’t be here for anyone else. We’ve talked a lot about personal self-care in this past year. But we have to start talking about national self-care, too.

Every generation of Jews has faced an existential threat in some place, from some group. Every generation of Jews has been persecuted, hated and feared for no other reason than that we exist.

 Every generation of Jews has been the object of absurd and obscene paranoid conspiracy theories, from blood libel to white-supremacist replacement theory to space lasers.

But we have survived because we believe in ourselves. In our divine purpose. In the promise of our homeland, restored after two thousand years, even with all its flaws and failings. And we believe we are responsible for handing the covenant that we celebrate today to the next generation, and the one after that. We would not be here today, at the beginning of this New Year, without that belief in ourselves.

We have to stay vigilant. And we have to remain united. We must ensure that our children are neither the ones who don’t even know how to ask – nor the ones who absent themselves altogether. And we cannot be silent in face of hatred. As Elie Wiesel once said: “Neutrality helps the oppressor.” 

Last night, I spoke of the joy of just being human. This morning, as we tell the sacred story of our origins, I speak of the joy of being Jewish – of living and loving and praying and helping in this world, in the way Judaism teaches. A joy that no one has the right to take away from us.

Let this New Year be the one in which we reclaim our joy. A New Year when we can openly celebrate our faith in God and affirm our moral covenant with humanity. Let us demand freedom from fear and baseless hatred. If not now, when?

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin  

[1] Numbers according to the annual ADL Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, issued for 2020 on April 27, 2021, the second anniversary of the deadly antisemitic attack on Chabad of Poway, California.

[2] Jewish Electoral Institute National Jewish Survey of 800 Jewish voters, conducted June 28-July 1, 2021. http://www.gbaostrategies.com

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2021: A Case of The Twisties

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Tue, 2021-09-21 14:24

I’m looking out at all of you tonight — and even though we are completely on Zoom once again, I can’t help but smile. Mostly because you are you. And I love every single one of you. And I love that you are all here for yourselves, and for each other. I know it’s not where we hoped to be tonight. But regardless of the fears and the challenges and the distractions all around us, we are here. Good job, everyone.

It’s so hard to express what we have gone through in these months of pandemic. But a recent event half a world away gave me the exact word I’ve been looking for. We have all had a case of the “twisties.”

I’d never heard of that word until last month’s Covid-delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when American gymnast Simone Biles – considered by many to be the greatest in history – suddenly withdrew from competition after a major scare during practice.

Biles had some trouble on the uneven bars. Then she tried to rehearse her floor routine and found herself literally in uncharted territory as she attempted her tumbling. “That’s when the wires just snapped,” she later said. “Things were not connecting, and I don’t know what went wrong.”[1]

What went wrong, apparently, was that Biles had developed a case of what they call the “Twisties” – a sudden lack of awareness of where she was in mid-air. Biles is renowned for adding all kinds of twists and contortions into her flips and somersaults as she soars through the air, including a double-twisting somersault dismount on the uneven bars that makes her look like she’s weightless in slow-motion.

 And then, suddenly, she couldn’t do it. “My body and my mind weren’t in sync,” she said. “That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around.”[2]

I cannot think of a better way to describe what each of us has gone through in the past eighteen months. Our bodies and our minds out of sync with each other and with everything going on around us. Our sense of powerlessness overwhelming us, as everyday tasks that were once routine became obstacle courses that constantly changed – or like a maze with no beginning and no end. Remember, in the Harry Potter movies, the stairwells at Hogwarts that kept shifting and taking the students anywhere or nowhere? Yeah, like that.

We started out with so much energy in the spring of 2020, presuming a brief shutdown that surely would end by late summer. We fell into “languishing,” as the current vernacular calls it, when we realized we were in it for the long haul. The ups and downs have only accelerated in the past few months: Vaccinations became widely available but then half the adult population rejected them. People desperate to get out of town flocked to vacation spots on the shore or in the mountains or in the parks – but then were exposed to the Delta variant that attacks even those who have gotten their shots. School systems planned all summer for full openings, but then in late July, kids started getting really sick. Heated rhetoric and disinformation continue to cause emotional whiplash.

Back in May of this year, columnist Kathleen Parker wrote how wonderful it was to attend the Carolina Cup Steeplechase Races down in our adopted second home of Camden, South Carolina:

“The sight of so many smiles and cheeks and noses and chins was both jarring and joyous, as well as somehow unexpected,” she wrote. “I joked to my husband that I didn’t recognize people without their masks.”[3]

Two months later, at the end of July, Parker wrote of the brewing civil war between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. She even compared it to the worst sectarian violence of the Iraq War when neighborhoods and families were torn apart by their differing responses to the U.S.-led invasion of their country.[4]

Of course we have a case of the “twisties.” How could we possibly avoid it?

But, you know what? Somehow we are negotiating all of this amazingly well. For the imperfect, stiff-necked humans that we are – somehow we are maintaining our bearings. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty. But I think each of us is doing pretty well in the worst circumstances most of us have ever experienced.

I think our pandemic-induced case of the “twisties” has made each of us feel more vulnerable. And even with a sort-of end in sight, we still can’t gauge just where we are – we just still seem to be floating in mid-air. One reason, I think is that, whatever “normal” looks like at the end of this is not going to be the “normal” we left 18 months ago.

There have been techtonic shifts in education, employment, and housing. We may be facing new choices about where we live, how we work, what we expect from our kids and what we are able to leave to them. We’re seeing huge gaps in job availability, child-care accessibility, and housing costs. And we have seen tens of thousands of workers lost to drug addiction: By one account, prescription opioids accounted for forty-four percent of the decrease in men’s labor force participation in the past twenty years.[5]

Among those of us gathered to welcome our New Year tonight, some have lost jobs. Others have suffered terrifying illness. A number of us have lost a loved one – and have not been able to mourn them as we would want. All of this will pose challenges to us that will seem insurmountable. But somehow, we will get our sense of “air awareness” back again.

Today is Rosh Hashanah – the day we celebrate as the birthday of the world. It comes around every year on the first day of the month of Tishri – but the cycle of the year is not a perfect circle. It does not come back to the same space where we left it last year. It’s more like a spiral – like a Slinky toy that coils back near where it came from, but farther ahead. Even if we wanted to go back to where we were a year ago – or two years ago — we couldn’t.

We have to move forward, whether we like it or not. We have to grapple with change and new challenges and doors that open in front of us while other doors close tight behind us. That old reality no longer exists.

Today is Rosh Hashanah – the day we fear as the day of judgment, when – according to our tradition – the good we have done in our lives is weighed against the not-so-good.

Our prayers will tell us that life and death hang in the balance. Our Torah readings will teach us that we can choose life – physical life, spiritual life, emotional life – not by being perfect. But by being human. Not by trying to emulate someone else, but by being the best of ourselves.

The famed Chassidic master Rabbi Zusha – an old story tells us — was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his teacher, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Rabbi Zusha answered, “[But] When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham.” Rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ And then what will I say? [6]

Then what will I say? That’s the question each of us asks of ourselves tonight.

In one sense, these Days of Awe pose this tremendous challenge to each of us. But in some ways, I think they’re designed to remind us that we should cut ourselves some slack. That, even (or especially) on this “Day of Judgment,” God expects each of us to strive, not for perfection, but to be the best “me” that we can be. That is what will bring us a sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief, and – most of all – a sense of joy. Joy at just being us. Joy at just being human.

That’s what I thought about when I saw the photo of Simone Biles right after she finished her balance beam routine – the one and only event she competed in, at the very end of the Olympic gymnastics competition. It wasn’t her best performance of all time. It wasn’t her most difficult.

She had to take out the twisting moves on the dismount that had made her famous – and substitute one that was just hard by the rest of the world’s standards.

She did it. She did it well enough to earn a bronze medal. And she – Simone Biles, the perfectionist, the “greatest of all time” – was really good with that. She wasn’t judging herself against anyone else’s standards. “I was,” she said, “just going out there doing this for me.”[7]

And that photo. Her hand over her heart, a lightness in her step. A smile on her face. Not the forced smile all gymnasts flash before they start a routine. But a genuine glow from inside of her – happy at re-discovering, maybe for the first time in a long time, what it is that made her fall in love with gymnastics in the first place. What made her feel grounded in a world suffering from the “twisties.”

Today is Rosh Hashanah. The birthday of the world and the day of judgment. A day of reflection and of celebration. A day when we take stock of the past and move into the future.

As we celebrate our world, we also celebrate ourselves. All through the six days of creation, God took stock: “Vayar Elohim ki tov” – and God saw that it was good. It was only after the sixth day, the day that humans were created, that God saw and: “Hinei tov me’od” – behold it was very good.

The world is better – MUCH BETTER – because we are in it. As the gates of prayer and forgiveness open wide to us on these Day of Awe, the choice each of us faces now is simply how to make our very presence something full of purpose and of joy. Tonight, you all got a very good start. Good job, everyone.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.

######

©Audrey R. Korotkin 2021

[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/simone-biles-olympics-gymnastics-beam-11627983483?mod=searchresults_pos2&page=1

[2] See Note 1.

[3] Kathleen Parker, “Thankfully, We Get To See Faces Again,” published in the Altoona Mirror on May 29, 2021.

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/30/will-delta-variant-turn-americans-against-one-another/ accessed on line August 9, 2021.

[5] “Mystery of the Missing Workers,” Bloomberg Businessweek, August 9, 2021, pp. 29-31. Article cites May 2018 research paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

[6] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/115569.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/08/03/sports/gymnastics-olympics-biles-beam-final

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Leap of Faith: Shabbat Eikev, Friday, July 30, 2021

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Sun, 2021-08-01 16:19

Here we are, reaching the climactic scenes of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Indy has found his father, kidnapped by the Nazis (and as we know, he hates those guys). His father has been deliberately shot to force Indy to pass through three deadly trials to reach the Holy Grail, whose cosmic power of giving eternal life the Nazis seek to possess.

Indy has cleverly solved the riddles of the first two tests; only one now stands between him and this powerful relic. “Take a leap from the lion’s head” – the test now commands of him. As he rushes to complete the task, he is stopped in his tracks. The “lion’s head” is an image carved into a sheer rock face that empties out into a bottomless and wide chasm. It is impossible for him to jump to the other side, where the prize waits for him.

He wracks his brain for an answer, based on the clues his father has left him from his lifelong search for the Grail. Suddenly, he realizes – the “leap from the lion’s head” is not a clue in an old, dog-eared notebook. The “Leap from the lion’s head” is a leap of faith. Somehow, he must believe with all his heart that he can cross the abyss – that he can walk through thin air – even though his brain tells him it’s impossible. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath – and, instead of gingerly tiptoeing into the cavern, he raises his leg and stretches it out as far as it will go, leading with his heel.

A leap of faith. Indiana Jones knew that he could not be tentative. He could not put his toe out there as though he was testing the water in a swimming pool, where he could draw back if it was too cold.

No, a leap of faith required taking the biggest step he could, knowing his momentum would propel him forward no matter what happened.

Indy he lowers his leg in front of him. The heel comes to rest on a stone bridge that has miraculously appeared in his path, holding him up and guiding him to the Grail.

It was that heel, in that moment, that saved the Jones boys.

The heel in Hebrew is called akeiv. And the great Torah commentator Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki – does a brilliant word play and links it to the word eikev that begins this week’s Torah portion.

עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה

the parasha begins:

Eikev: Because of – on the heels of — your obedience to these rules, and your observance of them, the Eternal your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant made on oath with your fathers. God will favor you and bless you and multiply you.”[1]

Eikev.

“If you do obey . . . you shall be blessed above all other peoples.”[2]

All you have to do, God tells the Israelites, is take that leap of faith – raise up that leg, lead with the akeiv, and stride confidently and with perfect faith across the Jordan River and into your new life.

Eikev. I’ve done my part, God says. I’ve gotten you this far. I’ve given you all the tools and all the rules. Now it’s your turn.

Moses reminds the people of the long way that they have traveled in the wilderness these forty years, the tests that God has given them to prepare them. But God also had given them total protection: from hunger, from thirst, from attack. Would they, Moses asks them now, be prepared for the challenges that await them on the other side of the river? Had they really evolved, on this long journey, into a nation that could be self-ruling and self-sustaining in the Promised Land?

Eikev. You need to take that leap of faith, Moses says. Not only your faith in your God. But your faith in yourselves, and in one another.

In the past year and a half, many of us have felt like we have stood on that precipice, looking out into a yawning and unending darkness, with no clear path forward. At first, we packed up the Temple, set up our home studios and thought – we can do this! A few weeks on an iPad, and we’ll be back by late summer, for sure.

But late summer turned into late fall, into winter and into another year. We had such high hopes this past spring, and came back together this summer, like this, as safely as we could.

Now, with the Delta variant exploding in communities with low vaccination rates we are once again witnessing the horrors of hospital beds filling up, ICU units expanding, and front-line medical personnel exhausting what little strength they had left. School systems are being encouraged to re-impose mask mandates. Cities are requiring vaccination of their workers, and even the federal government is saying to their employees: get the shots, or deal with the limitations of being unvaccinated.

We know we are vulnerable here in Blair County, with only half our adult population vaccinated. Months after we thought we’d be free, our faith in one another is being tested like never before.

I imagine the Israelites felt this way. Moses is reminding them that they have often behaved selfishly in the past – and I can visualize the people standing there, giving each other side-long glances and thinking: “That would be you, neighbor. Thanks a lot, buddy.”

Here’s Moses trying to cajole, coerce, and plead with a stiff-necked people to get their act together and think of each other. To get out of their comfort zones and do the right thing for the community. We can relate to that, can’t we?

Eikev. Patients who are now hospitalized with COVID are begging their doctors and nurses to give them the vaccine – and are being told, I’m sorry, it’s too late for that. Their families are horrified: We thought it was a hoax, they say. We thought it would never come here. We thought it really wasn’t a big deal.

Eikev. Our Torah reminds us: Never forget what you have seen with your own eyes. More than six hundred thousand Americans have died. Infection rates and deaths are rising again. It IS a big deal.

We’re all trying to do the right thing here. But I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’re missing a few regulars. And it breaks my heart that they’re not here.

It breaks my heart to know there are congregants who want to be here, now, but are afraid.

It breaks my heart that so many stiff-necked people in our own community can’t see how their lack of care affects so many other people.

It breaks my heart to tell our Religious School parents that their kids will need to wear masks when they come back into our classrooms.

It breaks my heart to know that we as a congregation – we who have worked so hard for so long to feel that warmth and joy that comes from being together – that we are once again being left on the precipice by events that are largely out of our control.  But that could be controlled if more people just cared.

And it breaks my heart to hear so-called leaders of any faith tradition telling their people to reject masks and vaccines because, somehow, God will provide. As though God isn’t already providing, as doctors and scientists use their God-given abilities to work beyond the limits they thought possible, and to create the miraculous vaccines that have saved untold lives.

It breaks my heart because Judaism is not by any means the only faith tradition that teaches that we must care for one another – each and every one of us, and particularly the most vulnerable among us.

The Torah uses the examples of the orphan, the widow and the stranger. But we would also include the very young, the elderly, the sick, and the ignorant and the selfish – who sometimes have to be saved from themselves.

Eikev. We’re always looking in Torah for guidance for our own lives. This one little word uttered thousands of years ago rings in our ears today – powerfully reminding us of what we can do when we believe — in God, in ourselves, and in each other. Like the Israelites of old, we can be the nation we were meant to be. All it takes is that leap of faith.

Kein yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deut. 7:12-13.

[2] Deut. 7:12, 14.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Higher, Faster, Longer: Shabbat Vaetchanan, Friday, July 23, 2021

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Sun, 2021-07-25 15:50

I just want to say: Wally Funk is the coolest, most amazing woman in the universe. The fact that, at 82, she became the oldest person to travel in space is the least of it. When she took off with Jeff Bezos in the Blue Origin spacecraft on Tuesday, she finally achieved a goal that was denied to her six decades ago.

Wally Funk – the pilot with the shock of white hair, the amazing smile, the great laugh – was once a member of a private space program we now call the Mercury 13 but then was called FLAT: First Lady Astronaut Trainees. In 1961, at age 21, she became a star among a group of women getting the same training as the men of the Mercury program who made the first forays into space. William Randolph Lovelace, who had once worked for NASA, wanted to show that women could handle the assignment as well as men. And, in fact, many of the women did better in the training. Wally’s scores were higher than John Glenn’s – and she was only the third best woman![1]

But the program was shut down. Not a single FLAT ever went into space. There actually was one congressional sub-committee hearing about it, where two of the FLAT participants begged for the chance – and where John Glenn himself opposed it, saying that including women in the space program “may be undesirable.”[2]

Mercury 13, in many ways, became a victim of what I personally would describe as the testosterone-fueled space obsessions of the Cold War. Ironically, while the Soviet Union sent Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963, no American woman would do so until 1983 – when Sally Ride joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger.[3]

And Wally Funk? The woman who dreamed of flying at such an early age that she jumped off the roof of a barn in a Superman costume when she was five years old, thinking the suit could keep her airborne?[4] Who had piloted her first solo flight at the age of 16 and became a professional aviator at age 20?

She applied twice to NASA, in 1962 and 1966, during the Gemini programs. She was turned down both times for lack of an engineering degree – which had been denied her at her local college. And which, it should be pointed out, John Glenn also lacked. She was always ready. NASA was not.

But Wally Funk was not a quitter. She found other ways to fulfill her personal motto of “Higher, Faster, Longer.” In many ways, she succeeded. She logged 19-thousand hours in the air. She became a flight instructor and taught 3-thousand other people how to fly. She became an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. In 2012 – when she was already in her 70s – Wally Funk even learned how to fly a Black Hawk Helicopter.

In the meantime, other women were finally getting their shot. Two years after Sally Ride finally shattered the galactic glass ceiling in 1983, Eileen Collins became the first woman to actually pilot a space shuttle. By then, Wally Funk was too old to join the program.

And so she had the ride of her life on Tuesday – July 20th, 52 years to the day after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, surely a day that Jeff Bezos deliberately chose for the first flight of Blue Origin. She giggled through her few minutes of weightlessness, and marveled at the darkness that enfolded around the capsule as it reached the altitude where space begins. When the crew was greeted back on the ground, she exited the capsule jumping over the threshold, arms open wide, and a grin from ear to ear.

Wally Funk finally had gone where she ought to have been sixty years ago, had sexism and politics and personal prejudices not gotten in her way. In the press conference afterwards, Wally declared: “I loved it! I can hardly wait to go again!” When Jeff Bezos turned to her and said: “Amen! Next stop for you is the moon, Wally,” she replied, “Yes, it is.”[5]

I think of Wally Funk in the same pioneering spirit of our Israelite ancestors, who are being prepared by Moses in this week’s Torah portion to venture into the unknown. Like Wally Funk, they had a very long wait to get to where they belonged all along. Not as long as her 60 years – but long.

And just as Wally may not get to the moon, which would have been her Promised Land, not every Israelite completed the journey. A whole generation died in the wilderness, including Aaron and Miriam. And even Moses had to hand the reins to Joshua to see the people across the Jordan River.

As it happens, Moses’s rhetoric in this week’s parashah reminds us just how much we always have dreamed of reaching up into the heavens — where the weight of the earth disappears and reality takes on a whole new form.

“You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you,” Moses says, “ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other, has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known?”[6]

No, it hasn’t. The heavens – ha-shamayim – remain a place of wonder. To reach its heights, and to experience the miraculous and beautiful world that God has created from its vantage point, remains our greatest desire.

But reaching into the heavens is also a symbol of broader human accomplishment. Moses’s description of transcending the bounds of earth goes hand in hand with the demands that God makes of us while we are here. And so here Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments given on Sinai, which direct our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. When Moses urges each of us to seek God with all our heart and soul – b’chol l’vavcha uv’chol naf’shecha – he calls on us to follow God’s path of personal faith, mutual compassion, and communal responsibility.[7]

Higher. Faster. Longer. Let Wally Funk’s motto be our inspiration. Let us never be deterred. And let us say: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://peoplepill.com/people/wally-funk

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jun/24/ill-be-flying-till-i-die-why-wally-funk-wont-give-up-her-lifelong-space-mission

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/19/science/wally-funk-jeff-bezos.html

[4] https://peoplepill.com/people/wally-funk for this information and all that follows.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kmpb7xJJ10I

[6] Deuteronomy 4:32.

[7] Deuteronomy 4:29.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

From Disgrace to Dignity: Shabbat Devarim, Friday, July 16, 2021

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Sun, 2021-07-18 13:39

Tonight, the finale of our five-act play begins. As the curtain opens and the Book of Deuteronomy begins, the saga of our ancestors’ wanderings is over. Now, we see Moses standing at the banks of the Jordan River, which he knows God will not let him cross. The people are assembled and awaiting his farewell address.

This is Moses’s last opportunity to impart wisdom, warnings, and blessings to the generation he birthed in the wilderness over forty years. You’d think that the opening scene would be high drama – highlighting Moses as law-giver, as beloved of God. But instead, this is what we get:

א אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף

בֵּין־פָּארָן וּבֵין־תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב: ב אַחַד עָשָׂר יוֹם מֵחֹרֵב דֶּרֶךְ הַר־שֵׂעִיר עַד קָדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ: ג וַיְהִי בְּאַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּעַשְׁתֵּי־עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָֹה אֹתוֹ אֲלֵהֶם: ד אַחֲרֵי הַכֹּתוֹ אֵת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֵת עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן אֲשֶׁר־יוֹשֵׁב בְּעַשְׁתָּרֹת בְּאֶדְרֶעִי:

ה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab, it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route.—

“It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the LORD had given him for them, after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who dwelt at Ashtaroth [and] Edrei.

“On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. . . . saying…[1]

No emotion. No reflection. What we get from the text is a GPS readout, and reminders of two recent military victories, before eileh had’varim, before Moses gets a chance to speak.

So of course I sit here and I wonder: why. Why does Torah put the start of Moses’s final sermon in abeyance for a moment to give us this particular information. Why does the Torah re-interate for us these particular details, out of the entire first four books.

So of course I go hunting, scanning these verses for some clue. And I found one. Actually, I found two. Two clues. Two words that might explain it all.

The Torah conjures up two defeated kings, to whom this rag-tag bunch of second-generation former slaves looked like Pharaoh’s army at its most mighty. King Sihon, we are reminded, lived in a place called cheshbon. King Og was from a place called bashan.

Bashan is a form of the word bashnah or ba-yi-shanut, which means “shame” or “humiliation.” Cheshbon is Hebrew for reckoning or calculation – for taking account of something or, in modern Hebrew, for a bill at a restaurant or a ticket at a shop.

In the context of the original story, it makes sense that the two kings that Israel defeated be depicted in their shame and degradation, puzzling over just where they went wrong and taking stock of their losses.

But tonight, in this context, what’s the take-away for us?

As it happens, this introduction to the notions of shame and self-reckoning lead us directly into the saddest and most troubling day in the entire Jewish year.

Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, begins twenty-four hours from now, at sundown. It was on this day – according to tradition – that many of the most tragic and calamitous events in Jewish history took place, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples, major exiles through the middle ages, and significant events in the Shoah during World War Two.

Tisha b’Av is a day of fasting and sitting on low stools, reciting prayers of mourning and reading the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations, or Eicha in the Hebrew, was written in the wake of the First Temple’s destruction and the exile of the people to Babylon. Much of it not only recounts the horror of destruction – but acknowledges that it was due to the communal sins of the Jewish people, who beg God to take the penitent back in love.

Eicha– alas!” – the author cries out!

“The precious children of Zion; Once valued as gold— Alas, they are accounted as earthen pots, Work of a potter’s hands!  . . . The LORD vented all His fury, Poured out His blazing wrath; He kindled a fire in Zion Which consumed its foundations. . . . It was for the sins of her prophets, The iniquities of her priests, Who had shed in her midst The blood of the just. . . .The LORD’s countenance has turned away from them, He will look on them no more. They showed no regard for priests, No favor to elders.

“Even now our eyes pine away In vain for deliverance. The crown has fallen from our head; Woe to us that we have sinned! . . . Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!”[2]

Reminders of shame and degradation – which open the book of Deuteronomy tonight – are only a prelude to what is to come. For the next seven weeks, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the New Year, we are going to be taken on an intensely personal emotional and spiritual journey that echoes the way the Haggadah describes our ancestors in the wilderness: from catastrophe to consolation. From disgrace to dignity.

Tonight we get the warning. Tomorrow night, we will be dropped into the abyss of destruction and lament, loneliness and separation. But from then on, we rise from the darkness of our mourning.

We uncover the mirrors of mourning to see ourselves in a different light. We put the shame behind us as we develop our cheshbon nefesh, the accountings of our lives. What did we lose this year, that we need to regain? What did we take on that holds us back?

We think of this as the work we do in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But, oh no, the work starts tonight.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in the Land of Israel during the British Mandate before independence, taught that people gave all kinds of chesbonot – all kinds of calculations – as to why they couldn’t move to Israel when they were called. But those calculations were really excuses for not doing anything different.[3] When we write out our cheshbonot – our self-assessments – we must calculate all the reasons why we must change the way we think and the way we behave. Only then can we move forward.

That was the message I think that Moses was trying to send to the Israelites as he prepared them to cross the Jordan and begin their new life in the Promised Land. And that’s the message Torah gives us tonight, as we move, step by step, from darkness to light, from isolation to community, from an old year littered with loss to a New Year full of promise.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.

####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Deuteronomy 1:1-5

[2] Lamentations, excerpted from chapters 4 and 5, http://www.sefaria.org.

[3] Torah Gems Vol III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1992), p. 173, commentary to Parashat Devarim.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Finding Our Refuge – Shabbat Matot-Masei, Friday, July 9, 2021

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Sat, 2021-07-10 11:58

Don and I have been living in our home in Duncansville for three and a half years now – and I have yet to go through all of those boxes that got shoved into the storage room three and a half years ago. You know the ones I’m talking about: The boxes that contain all the stuff you didn’t have the time or the energy to sort in the old house – the stuff you just threw into boxes, taped them up, marked them as “collectables” or “office supplies” and promised you’d figure it out . . . later. There are a lot of precious things in those boxes, but it just takes time and patience to do the sorting.

That’s kind of what I feel like, when I read this week’s Torah portion. It’s the very end of the Book of Numbers, which means it’s really the very end of the wilderness story. Starting next week, Deuteronomy gives the microphone to Moses, who recounts the entire ordeal based on his own personal reflections, before the people enter the Promised Land without him.

So this week’s reading is the last chance for the editors to include all the last-minute precious details they want us to know. And I mean all of them. The rules about making an oath and sticking to what you promise God you’ll do. The vengeance that God demands the people take on the Midianites. God’s setting of the boundaries of the land on the other side of the Jordan for each tribe, and the reticence of two tribes to cross. The provisions for the Levites. And the final disposition of inheritance rules for women.

Isn’t it nice of the rabbis to make this a double portion, so we can sort through all of these precious items at once?

With so much to choose from, I want to thank my great friend and wonderful colleague Rabbi Richard Address, of Jewish Sacred Aging, for directing me to one concept – to one word – that speaks to us tonight.

The word is miklat. And it’s the word for refuge that’s used in connection with the “cities of refuge” to which manslayers are to flee, to avoid punishment for a death they have caused unintentionally. It’s not the same word as we use for “God is my refuge” elsewhere in the Bible. The word miklat is only used in the phrase arei ha-miklat, the “cities of refuge.” And it only appears in this portion at the end of Numbers when God commands the set-aside of the cities, and in the Book of Joshua, when Joshua chooses the specific cities in each tribal region.[1]

These arei ha-miklat, these cities of refuge, are safe spaces for people whose lives would be in danger from people seeking revenge. And so the use of the word in the Bible is something akin to how we would understand it. Rabbi Address teaches: “A dictionary definition says that refuge is ‘a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger or trouble.’” That’s why, in Israel, the safe room people run to in their homes when there’s a threat of a terrorist attack is called a miklat.

From the Bible, we know where the manslayers found their refuge. This week, Rabbi Address asks: Where do we go to feel safe? Where do we find our refuge.[2]

We all have that happy place that we go to, that place where we relax, take a deep breath, do some reading just for fun, play games, or sit and chat with old friends or our parents or our children.

Maybe it’s a room. Maybe it’s a backyard. Maybe it’s a city by the beach, or a quiet little town in the mountains. Maybe our miklat is even a person. It’s who or where we go to get away from the stresses and the demands of our day-to-day lives. It’s where or with whom we find joy. It’s where we go to renew our strength when we are tired, or who we seek out when we are in doubt. And we need this miklat. We need it desperately.

In this past year, many of us have found our miklat inside our own homes. That’s the place we and our loved ones could be the most safe from the spread of a deadly disease. We re-made and divided up open spaces into classrooms and offices and quiet corners and mini movie theaters.

Some of us still feel that way. For others, as the months have dragged on, and especially now that the world is opening back up, our miklat has become anywhere but home – which has taken on the feel of a lock-up more than a refuge.

Which brings us to Rabbi Address’s question: Where do YOU find refuge? Where do YOU go – or to whom do you go – for peace and comfort and security.

I want you to just take a minute. Close your eyes. And imagine your happy place – your miklat. The person or place where you feel safe. Where you can be you, and do you, and find you. Just take a few deep breaths and imagine yourself there . . . and think about when you are going to make that happen.

And, as you do, know that you don’t have to do all the work. The root of miklat, kuf – lamed – tet, also is the verb that means to aborb, to receive. That space – that person – embraces you and lets you lose the angst and the anger and the fear and the doubt that fills you up.

Like the trees and the plants around you that take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, your miklat absorbs from you what harms you and replaces it with what heals you.

As we all feel the pressures to re-integrate back into the world, to re-construct the “before times” – know that it’s okay if the future looks different from the past. That it’s okay if your miklat now is different than it used to be. And that wherever you are and whoever you are with – when you feel that embrace and that sense of security, know that you are in your refuge and you are safe.

As for me. I’ll be holed up in my miklat, sorting through those boxes for more precious items that have been hidden away.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] See Numbers 35:10-15, Joshua 21 and the tribal land assignments.

[2] https://jewishsacredaging.com/matot-masaei-numbers-302-to-end-of-numbers-where-can-i-find-refuge/

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Sly Move Toward Jew-Hatred Shabbat Balak: Friday, June 25, 2021

Rabbi Audrey's Blog - Sat, 2021-06-26 10:24

This week’s Torah portion takes us almost to the edge of the Promised Land. The Israelites have been journeying through territories and kingdoms that skirt the east bank of the Jordan river as they head north to the crossing at Jericho, as God is guiding them. They had just asked the Amorites really nicely if they could pass through their kingdom in peace, promising not to take anything or veer off the main road. And when the Amorite king rejected the request and sent an army against them instead, God mustered the Israelite men – they devastated the Amorite army and took control of the entire kingdom.

As we pick up the story this week, the king of Moab – the one remaining kingdom between them and the crossing at Jericho – has heard of the Amorites’ defeat. He, too, would like to deny Israel entrance to his kingdom – but now he fears the result if he resorts to violence. So he tries something a little more subtle and a little trickier. He resorts to something akin to witchcraft.

TORAH READING: Numbers 22:2-6

“Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinsfolk, to invite him, saying, ‘There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.'”

Now, I don’t want to spoil this for anyone. But Balak’s attempt at trickery does not go well at all. The pagan Balaam – who is considered both prophet and a master of magic powers – is co-opted by Israel’s God, and every time he tries to curse the Israelite nation, words of blessing come out of his mouth instead. Not once, not twice, but three times he blesses the Israelites with greater passion and promise – the third time uttering the words we still use in worship today: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishk’notecha Yisrael: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!

Looking at how the story unfolds, I think King Balak’s attempt to wipe out Israel is doomed from the start. Why? First, he won’t go up against them himself – he’d rather hire a prophet with magical powers to wish them away. Maybe he’s a coward. Maybe he wants plausible deniability about his role if things go south.

And second, he’s doomed because his premise for the whole thing is a lie from the start. He uses the same excuse to destroy Israel as Pharaoh had used: “There is a people that came out of Egypt, and it hides the earth from view and it is settled next to me. Come and curse this people for me, for they are too numerous for me.”

Are they too numerous in terms of the size of their army? Or is it just that he doesn’t want all those Israelites as neighbors? Is it fear of conquest – or is it basically an early episode of Jew hatred?

That question occurred to me this week after I read a story on the Daily Mail web site about the ugly debacle in Philadelphia, where an Israeli food-truck was un-invited from a Father’s Day food truck festival. “Moshava,” a food truck selling Israeli street food, was launched in May at the monthly Taste of Home food festival, where a local group called Eat Up the Borders promotes small businesses run by immigrants. Chef Nir Sheynfeld, who was born in Israel, would seem to fit the bill, and everything went great. But this month, he was asked to stay away.[1]

Eat Up the Borders released a statement that read, in part:

“In order to best serve our guests, we decided to remove one of our food vendors for Sunday’s event so that we could deliver an optimal experience to all. This decision came from listening to the community we wish to serve and love. We do stand by our initiative to give vendors from all nationalities a platform to showcase their talents and provide an awesome experience for all.”

Huh, that’s interesting. A platform for “all nationalities” – but apparently not for an Israeli food truck. They didn’t really say why it was okay to have Moshava there in May, but not in June. But frankly, that’s the kind of language that makes my spidey senses tingle: we are open and inclusive – they seem to say – but we still are disinviting the Jews.

One eventual excuse from the organizers was: well, we had agreed that both the Palestinian truck and the Israeli truck would come to our events. And since the Palestinian truck couldn’t make it, we cancelled out the Israelis too.

But Chef Sheynfeld, who was of course disappointed, explained it another way. He was told to stay away, he said, after threats of violent protests made to the organizers over his presence. Here’s how he explained it to his followers on Instagram:

“The organizers of the event heard rumors of a protest happening because of us being there and decided to uninvite us from fear that the protesters would get aggressive and threaten their event. We were hoping that the organizers @eathuptheborders and@sunflowerphilly would step up to the plate and defend local, small and immigrant based businesses, no matter where they are from (as per their so called ‘mission statement’) but by the looks of it, fear, violence, and intimidation got the best of them.”

“We really do hope that in the future you don’t succumb to such antisemitic and dividing rhetoric and keep true to your words of a safe environment for all religions and nationalities – not just all of them except Israel and Jewish ones.”

To which I say: Bravo.

The fact that the organizers did not disclose the threat of violence may be a sign of cowardice on their part. But it also may be that they thought disinviting the Jews was no big deal. They certainly weren’t willing to stare down the haters and racists and anti-Semites. We don’t even know if they even notified the police. Surely a police presence would not only have provided protection, it also would have sent a clear message that potential violence would not be tolerated.

Fortunately, the backlash toward the event organizers was swift and powerful – The Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League immediately weighed in publicly with a statement that read, in part, “the decision to bow to this anti-Semitic intimidation by disinviting Moshava was wrong.” Two state representatives condemned the organizers’ surrender to the threats from bigots, which promoted division instead of unity. And the web site “Israelly Cool” suggested that the organizers looked at threats against Jews differently than threats against other groups.

In the end, the organizers decided to cancel the entire event because of what they call only the “ongoing situation” with Moshava.

The “ongoing situation” – what the Israelis would call the matzav – is taking place at a time when attacks on Jews in this country are rising once again. The conflict between Israel and the Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas certainly enflamed anger. But that anger led to attacks on Jews in this country who have nothing at all to do with what’s going on in the Middle East – except that they are Jews. According to the ADL, there were 127 reported hate attacks on Jews in the two weeks before the conflict – and 222 reported during it. They – we – are being attacked for who we are, not for our political positions. That is hated, pure and simple. And it cannot be tolerated. Not here, not anywhere.

As for Chef Sheynfeld, he said he was disappointed by what happened and told his followers he’s working with the organizers. And he thanked the public for all their love and support. He deserves better. We deserve better. We deserve for the bigots not to win. We demand that Jews not be blamed, or be forced to bear the burden, for antisemitism, as they were this week in Philadelphia.

We deserve not to be the bogeyman of hate-mongers who materialize in every generation as they did in this week’s Torah portion – as King Balak of Moab looked out on the wandering Israelites trying to get home, and saw a pestilence that had to be destroyed one way or another.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9707329/Israeli-food-truck-BANNED-Philadelphia-food-festival-causing-fierce-backlash-cancellation.html

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

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