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Liberty, Humanity, Community – An All-American Sermon for July 12, 2019

Sat, 2019-07-13 14:06

We haven’t been together to pray since before the long July 4th holiday weekend, so let’s catch up.

I usually love July 4th. Because whatever is going on in my life, your lives, and the world in general, it’s one time in the heat of the summer that we can just breathe a little easier. We relax, grill out, go to parades, and watch the fireworks. A few hours amidst the toils and tribulations of life when we can revel in the joy of our American experience.

And that SO didn’t happen this year. July 4th was, for a lot of us, full of invective that was unpleasant and unnecessary, and fully contrary to what we think the spirit of July 4th ought to be. So thank God we had July 7th. Remember July 7th? Last Sunday? The tail-end of the holiday weekend, and the day of all-American joy and celebration that we so badly wanted and needed. That was the day that the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup.

The Women’s Team members are brash and mouthy, but they back up their bravado with immense skill and power and pride. They are what we Americans strive to be: winners in our own right, working hard and playing by the rules – well, maybe pushing the envelope a bit but doing it with style, grace, humor, and, above all, unity. That’s why, in the words of Lauren Peace writing this week in the New York Times, ‘They’re the most American thing we’ve got going right now.”[1]

The teamwork the women displayed was impressive. The way they lifted each other up was heartwarming. The way they each took turns hoisting the championship trophy was a two-tissue tearjerker.

But here’s what caught my attention.

Before they got to the winner’s stand, each of them exchanged their game jersey for a new one – one that had a fourth, gold star embroidered on to signify the fourth such world title for American women. But instead of having their individual names and numbers on the back, every one of these jerseys said, simply, “Champions” with the number 19.

For all that we often laud America as the land of individual achievement, in the end we know that what really makes us great is what we achieve together.

We children of immigrants understand this. Like many of your families, mine didn’t come all at once. My great-grandmother was sent here at the age of 16 by her family, hoping to get her out of the poverty and oppression of Poland to live under the protection of Lady Liberty’s torch. With hard work and the support of a sponsor, she brought her family over, one by one, the last one arriving at Ellis Island just before the outbreak of the First World War, when the gates to freedom closed.

Family-based immigration – what is now derided as “chain migration” — is the way many of our families got here. It works because religious and ethnic groups provide all kinds of support to their members, physically, financially and emotionally.

And one generation helps another. The masses of Eastern European Jews who fled persecution – sometimes whole shtetls at a time – found support from the German Jews who had come before them and wanted their co-religionists to succeed.

They had set up places like the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in Pittsburgh, to help their fellow Jews acculturate into American life. Today, newer immigrant communities create similar support systems to welcome members, for everything from job creation to English education to child care.

WE children of immigrants understand this power of WE the people. Not a melting pot, as our nation once was envisioned, but what anthropologist Frederik Barth called a “plural society” – one in which defined ethnic communities live side by side, interdependent on one another, each with a unique contribution that supports and enriches us all.

That’s the WE of America. That’s the strength of America. And nobody has said it better than US Women’s World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, as she danced her way through the ticker-tape parade through New York’s “Canyon of Heroes””

“There’s nothing that can faze this group,” she said told the enormous crowd.

“We’re chilling. We got tea-sippin’, we got celebrations. We have pink hair and purple hair, we have tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between. Straight girls and gay girls. . . It’s my absolute honor to lead this team out on the field. There’s no other place that I would rather be.”[2]

That’s the America I love – and there’s no other place that I would rather be. An America that’s a land of opportunity for all, where there’s respect for differences and avenues for doing the hard work together, no matter the color of our skin or the color of our hair. A place where we pull each other, not just ourselves, up by the bootstraps.

I want every day in America to be July 7th, 2019.

When I saw our women that afternoon, one by one, hoisting the championship trophy above their heads, I really imagined them holding up Lady Liberty’s lamp. I saw them the way Emma Lazarus described the welcoming statue, as “a mighty woman with a torch.”

Alexandra Gold, in an essay some years ago in Lilith Magazine on the Jewish nature of the Statue of Liberty, commented that “Lazarus imagines the Statue’s torch as an enduring reminder of a tradition passed down through the ages, the light (and strength) of the Jews.”[3]

But not just for the Jews. We know what it means to come from oppression to freedom, from a sense of exile to a place of welcome, from a land of darkness to one bathed in liberty’s light. We live that journey in every generation – just like the one that took us from the exodus from Egypt to the glory of the Promised Land.

And like that journey of ancient days, we know that we can reach the goal only by walking as one, with all the difficulties and concessions and cooperation and mutual support that this demands.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” cries Lady Liberty at the conclusion of The New Colossus. This lamp, and its message of welcome, is the gateway to America. Not just for our ancestors but for us and for all who wish to be part of WE THE PEOPLE. Every purple-haired, tea-sipping, arm-waving, unapologetically and irreplaceably celebratory one of us.

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


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/womens-world-cup.html?searchResultPosition=1

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/07/10/megan-rapinoe-speech/?utm_term=.d295d500f31a

[3] https://www.lilith.org/articles/is-the-statue-of-liberty-jewish/

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

We Are A Family – for Shabbat Shelach Lecha[1], Friday, June 21, 2019

Tue, 2019-06-25 13:58

You may remember that a few weeks ago, as we were beginning this year’s reading of the Book of Numbers, I pointed out a distinct change in the approach of the text to the condition of the ancient Israelites. Rather than looking backward at the legacy of slavery, Numbers began with God’s plan for the people’s future by commanding a census of all the young men who would be eligible for military service.

And the book, I noted, is filled from beginning to end with mitzvot that would guide the people when they settled in the land that God had promised to them, and to which Moses was leading them.

This week’s Torah portion provides an important example of how ready the Israelites were – or were not – to fulfill God’s plan for them.

Shelach lecha, God says to Moses: “Send you men to scout out the land of Cana’an, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” And then God instructs Moses to “send one man from each of their ancestral tribes each one a chieftain among them.”

On the surface, this would indicate that God wanted to make sure that each of the 12 tribes had buy-in to the plan. That each would feel included and empowered. But there’s some indication in traditional commentaries that the plan was inevitably flawed.

Don Isaac Abarbanel, a 15th-century Portuguese commentator, sees this clearly. “Why,” he asks, “did God tell them to ‘send one man from each of their ancestral tribes’ for a total of 12? Two men would see just as much as 12 – or 100 – and arouse less suspicion.”

And don’t forget, that’s exactly what Joshua would do when it came time to actually cross over the Jordan into the walled city of Jericho – as though he learned the lesson from the disaster that’s about to befall his predecessor Moses here.

But our tradition teaches that this wasn’t just a tactical blunder. We read:

“Each tribe sent its own representatives. No tribe trusted any other, and each group chose its own person. There was no unity among them, and they were divided into separate tribes and groups. However, when Joshua sent the spies, he sent only two. That showed the unity of the nation and their mutual trust, and that was the reason for the mission’s success.”[2]

So God and Moses are preparing the Israelites to battle their way into the Promised Land. But the Hebrew text itself also gives us clues that, while the people, while they may no longer think like slaves, still don’t look at themselves as one nation with a Divine mission.

In many English translations, Moses charges them with this task: “See what kind of country it is, are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many, is the country in which they dwell good or bad?” The language is in the plural – are they strong or weak? Is the country where they dwell good or bad? But that’s not what the Hebrew says.

The Hebrew refers to “ha-am” – the nation, in the collective singular:

מַה־הִוא וְאֶת־הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב עָלֶיהָ הֶחָזָק הוּא הֲרָפֶה הַמְעַט הוּא אִם־רָב

“And what of this people which dwells on the land: Is IT strong or weak; is IT few or many. . . . Are ITS towns open or fortified?”[3]

Moses acknowledges by his own language that the Israelites – who still identify by their tribes and their ancestral houses – will be up against a true, unified nation in the Canaanite people. And the spies use the same language to report back:

אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד

“Wow, the nation that dwells there IS mighty and the cities are fortified and large. . . We cannot attack that am – that people, that nation — for IT is stronger than we.”[4]

The Hebrew tells us something really important that is missing in the English. The spies first describe the inhabitants of the land – the Amalekites of the Negev to the south, and the Hittites and Jebusites and Amorites of the hill country of the north, and the Canaanites along the sea and the Jordan river – but then they refer to them as am – one people, one nation, united by the fact that they all see themselves as am.

And that is something that, clearly that the scouts themselves lack. They think of themselves as sons of Levi or Judah or Benjamin. They are not yet Am Yisrael, the People Israel, as we know it today.

The people who left Egypt relied completely on God to see them through the forty years of existence in the wilderness: God gave them everything they needed from clothes to food to the protection of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. So they could afford to stick with their families and their tribes. Even God recognized this when they were commanded to muster by tribe when they traveled. It wasn’t until Joshua led them across the Jordan and they were responsible for their own self-care and their own decisions that they realized what it meant to be Am Yisrael.

A community’s self-identity, then, is the key to its success, to its ability to prosper where others fail, to sustain itself – again using the singular – in the face of challenges and even existential threats. Which means that the existential threats to Am Yisrael today aren’t just from Iran or Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza; some of them must lie within our community.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the head of ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America – brings us a teaching this week from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the retired chief rabbi of Great Britain and a great scholar of both traditional Jewish text and contemporary Jewish life.[5]

Rabbi Sacks, he says, wrote that, in classical Hebrew, there are three different ways to describe community: Edah, tsibbur, and kehillah.

Edah means witness, and it refers to people who stick together because they came from the same place. But identifying a place of origin doesn’t tell us anything about their personalities, their opinions, or their politics.

Tsibbur comes from the word for heap or pile; a group of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time for the same purpose, like the tsibbur that comes together to pray, but otherwise may have little in common.

And then there’s Kehillah. As Rabbi Weinberg writes:

“A kehillah is different from the other two kinds of community. Its members may be diverse (like a tsibbur). But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. In short, a kehila has a mission. When we identify as part of a Kehila, it is not only the place we pray as a Tzibbur but a shared sense of mission to which we adhere.”

I think it’s easier to identify in and with a Kehillah on a small scale, like we do here at Temple Beth Israel. In fact, we don’t see ourselves just a kehillah kedoshah, a holy congregation, but as a mishpacha kedoshah, a sacred family. Yes, we identify a collective undertaking, a collective contribution to make. But our mission is internal as well as external. We take care of our own, as Bruce Springsteen sang. We feel each other’s joys and sorrows. No one is anonymous in a small family like ours. And no one is ever alone.

I often wonder what it would be like if Am Yisrael thought of itself as one big family. Not always happy, not always getting along. But cognizant of the real responsibility we have to the mishpachah as a whole. In the State of Israel today, they’re about to embark on a second round of elections because petty rivalries and power trips meant nobody could get together and form a new government.

In the American Jewish community, many national organizations based in major cities have far less reach and influence than they used to – but also no longer make a point of staying connected with small-town Jews like us.

And even here in our small town, where we maintain strong links through Eidah and Tsibbur, through where we came from and how and where we pray, we often have to remind ourselves to be sensitive and inclusive of our mishpachah on one side of town or the other. I think we’re doing better with that, because we can see what happens elsewhere, when those family ties break down.

From the universal concept of Am Yisrael to the intensely personal need for mishpachah kedoshah, unity is what makes us strong. Not dismissing our backgrounds, our political differences or our choices on observance as insignificant – but acknowledging them and accepting them as we would the differences in any extended family. The Torah’s story of the twelve scouts helps us understand the power of how we see ourselves as one.

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



©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin



[1] Note: As a Reform congregation, we follow the Israeli calendar rather than the traditional Diaspora calendar that is based on additional days for festivals. Therefore (and because the schedule for Passover this year meant we concluded our seven days on a Friday night while traditional congregations observed through Saturday and thus are a week behind on the Torah reading cycle) on the Shabbat of June 21-22, we are reading “Shelach Lecha,” while traditional congregations are a week behind in Beha’alotecha.

[2] Torah Gems, ed. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Volume III, p. 60, citing “various sources.”

[3] Numbers 13:19

[4] Numbers 13;28, 31.

[5] Rabbi Josh Weinberg, “Let Your [Old] Guard Down.” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxwChJnSGTjtSJGQVlNZNlppcPTk

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Watch Where You’re Going, Not Where You’ve Been – Shabbat Bemidbar, Friday, May 31, 2019

Fri, 2019-06-07 10:15

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. This was one of Grandmom Freda’s favorite phrases. Probably because I was (and still am) such a klutz, that otherwise I’d do some serious damage to myself. Trip over an uneven point in the sidewalk. Smack straight into a lamp-post. Get run over by somebody else’s basket at the supermarket.

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. Our little Beagle puppy Freddie should have heeded that advice this week on one of our frequently rain-soaked walks. He was so obsessed with the big chocolate Lab behind him down the street – the one that’s eleventy-thousand times bigger than him and would squash him with one swipe of a paw – that he completely missed the bunny rabbit that scurried across the street right in front of us. Addie, the shepherd, spotted it. But bunnies are supposed to be a Beagle thing. And Freddie missed the very first one of the spring.

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. That should be the grandmotherly theme of the Book of Numbers, Bemidbar, which we begin reading tonight. Genesis took us back to the hoary origins of humanity. Exodus took us back, too, to the foundation of our people Israel. Leviticus harkened back to a long-ago time of priests and incense and oils and sacrifices pleasing to God. And, coming up, the Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’s rewriting of all this history from the perspective of a man who was never permitted to see the land that held the promise of Israel’s future. All four of them are reminiscences of times past – combinations of mythology and wishfulness and wistfulness.

But not the Book of Numbers. Of the five books of the Torah, this is the only one that starts out looking where we’re going, not where we’ve been.  The Book of Numbers essentially picks up the wilderness narrative where the end of Exodus left off. But the end of Exodus left us dealing with internal issues within a community still forming, still catching up with the idea of freedom. Here, at the beginning of Numbers, there’s a 180 degree turn.

Two years and one month into the Exodus from Egypt, God summons Moses to the Tent of Meeting and commands him to take census of the Israelite community – tribe by tribe, clan by clan – to identify those young men who would form the Israelite army. The army that would protect the women and the children and the elderly as they moved into unknown territory. As they moved farther from Egypt, farther from Sinai, farther from anything they knew.

In Exodus chapter 13 we learned that God did not take the people along the sea route, by the land of the Philistines, ki karov hu. That’s usually translated as although it was near – that is, although the sea route to the Promised Land was a quicker journey, God chose otherwise. But a more insightful translation of the phrase ki karov hu is BECAUSE it was near:

“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, because that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.”

In Exodus, God didn’t want the Israelites running scared, back to Egypt, back to slavery and probably to their deaths. But by the first verses of the Book of Numbers, God sees that the Israelites are no longer drawn to the past. God now can focus their attention on where they are going, and not where they’ve been.

The striking about-face in these first verses of the Book of Numbers doesn’t just mark a literal turning point for our ancestors. It gives us some important insights about our lives today – about the pull of the past, maybe as it was or maybe as we imagine it to have been. About moving forward with our lives based, not on what our lives might have been, but on the choices that life presents us today. Try as we might, we cannot turn back time. We cannot, so to speak, go home again.

Did anybody else watch the re-produced episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” this past week? ABC brought series creator Norman Lear back and re-staged two episodes in front of a live studio audience.

All new casts – including Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei and Anthony Anderson – didn’t just re-create the episodes. They didn’t just use the original scripts as they aired 40 years ago. They took on the character traits of the original actors: Archie’s cigar-infused Bronx bluster that belonged to Carroll O’Connor, Edith’s screechy vocal quality that forever will be identified with Jean Stapleton.

I wanted to enjoy this. I really did. Norman Lear’s shows – “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” – I grew up on them. They were the programs that influenced my social views throughout my adolescence.

They laid bare the social upheavals of the 1970s and the struggles that communities and neighbors across America had with integration, the empowerment of women, and the specter of the Vietnam War. They were of that time and of that generation. These shows were unlike anything anyone had ever seen on television. Norman Lear used television as a mirror on his audiences, forcing us to look at ourselves in a way that nobody had before. That’s what made them so powerful.

And that’s why this re-boot didn’t work.

When the most significant moment of the entire hour is Jennifer Hudson in a humongous Afro owning the stage with her rendition of the theme song to “The Jeffersons” – you know something is amiss.

I don’t know if these characters would work today under any circumstances. We aren’t “All in the Family” as much as we are “Modern Family.” “The Jeffersons” was about the first black family on the block, the first inter-racial couple in the neighborhood. But CBS, the network that originally aired so many of Norman Lear’s shows, is now running “The Neighborhood,” where it’s the white family from the Midwest who are the interlopers in a very not-white neighborhood in L.A.

It’s not that people like Archie Bunker don’t exist anymore: Bigots who don’t even realize they are bigots. Anti-semites who will insist they can’t be, because one of their best friends is a Jew. Working-class white people who are conned into believing that black people moving ahead in society must be gaming the system or getting something that they’re not.

It’s not that strict gender stereotyping or the denigration of the work and worth of women is a thing of the past. Not when the #metoo movement has painfully laid bare the cost of saying no to a powerful man. Not when millions of women around this nation are now realizing we must fight the same battles we thought our mothers won forty years ago, when these shows first aired, including the battles for control over our own bodies (as anyone who remembers that episode of “Maude” knows well).

And it’s not that television cannot or should not hold up that mirror to our country today and make each and every one of us take a good long look at ourselves untouched and unfiltered, rather than in the photo-shopped way we would like others to see us. In fact, I think we need that more than ever.

One critic wrote: I’d like to see Archie Bunker deal with today’s issues, not those of 40 years ago. And maybe that would work, I don’t know. Norman Lear is a genius. What he did in the 1970’s was new and honest and astonishing and uncomfortable – for its own time. And maybe he could do something equally astonishing and honest for our time.

But, my friends, we have to watch where we’re going, not where we’ve been. Nostalgia will not touch us, or disturb us, or inspire us to face today’s challenges. Like the Israelites of old, we cannot yearn for what life was – or what we now imagine it was, distorted, as that may be, by our own fading memories.

In these first few verses of the Book of Numbers, God is making sure that the Israelites will be looking in the right direction.

They will be armed with the mitzvot that shape their years in the wilderness — the same rules and ethical values that guide us today.

The laws about how we wage war, for which the census sets the stage.

The laws of our feast days and fast days that have shaped our national character from generation to generation.

Care of the land that has been entrusted to us.

Care of our neighbors – those who work and eat and pray alongside us – regardless of where they come from or what they look like.

Care of the strangers who come to our communities, in the full knowledge that we are now the ones with power over other people’s lives.

Aaron will die, and life will go on. Miriam will die, and they will still move forward. One generation will take over from another. And the generation that had not known slavery – that had no reason to look where they’d been – will be granted the gift of completing the journey to where they were going.

We must be that generation. We must be honest enough to withstand that scrutiny in the mirror. We must be brave enough, and kind enough, to build a world – one block, one neighborhood, one community at a time – that reflects the values the Torah gave us thousands of years ago.

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


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

A Woman’s Voice, A Woman’s Place: For the 30th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. Shabbat Pekude – Friday, March 8, 2019

Sat, 2019-03-09 16:56

Today was destined to be an auspicious day, the confluence of three important events. It was International Women’s Day, which for more than a hundred years has celebrated the role – and the promise – of girls and women throughout the world. It was the 30th anniversary of Women of the Wall, which has shown as a beacon of strength and determination and joy in Israel. It was Rosh Hodesh – the new moon, on which women’s prayers are considered especially auspicious – which meant that Women of the Wall would be celebrating this anniversary by praying at the Kotel. And not only was it Rosh Hodesh, it was Rosh Hodesh Adar, the month when we read the story of Queen Esther’s courage in saving the Jews of ancient Persia.

And it all went about as horribly wrong as I had feared – and expected – that it would.

The signs beforehand were ominous. Literally.

Flyers handed out throughout ultra-Orthodox communities in and around Jerusalem read like fake newspaper covers, calling essentially for holy war on the Women of the Wall. “The Reform have conquered the Kotel!” – the explosive headline read. “We must prevent it! All of us to the Kotel, Friday, 6:45 AM!”

So by the time members of Women of the Wall and the men who support them arrived at the Kotel – the holiest space in all of Judaism – the entire plaza already was crammed with Haredi men and boys and girls bussed in from so-called religious schools across the area.

They were not there to pray the prayers for the new month – but to prevent this group of women from doing so.

I was watching the live feed on Facebook in the middle of the night. Here’s what I saw:

Not only had the request for a sound system by Women of the Wall for the large group they expected been turned down by the Haredi rabbis in charge of the Western Wall Plaza – that sound system had instead been set up in the men’s section, where it was turned up full blast to drown out the women’s prayers.

Not only was there no security for the women, but the Jerusalem Police blamed them for inciting a riot by coming to the women’s section to pray – as they have done every month for three decades.

Not only were the women jostled and pushed and punched and scratched by these so-called religious girls who screamed at them and tugged at their prayer shawls and their tefillin – but the Men of the Women of the Wall were displaced and physically abused as well. Among them several of the famed paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem in 1967 – true national heroes being treated like garbage.

The scene was a calamity – and a dangerous one at that. The women trying to pray together were pushed apart and separated, so that they couldn’t even hear each other, much less pray a coherent service. They eventually had to be evacuated to Robinson’s Arch, a separate space for egalitarian worship, in order to hold their Torah service.

Let’s be clear about this. Women have the right to pray together, and to pray together at the Kotel – both by traditional Jewish law and by Israel civil law as upheld by the courts over and over again.

But the worst violence against them in at least five years was precipitated by an ultra-Orthdox patriarchy that cares nothing for either halakhah or civil law but only for amassing power. And it has been enabled and emboldened by an Israeli government – led for the last decade by Benjamin Netanyahu – that has a nasty co-dependent relationship with this Haredi patriarchy. It is a relationship based on power and patronage and male domination.

There are many people in Israel who would consider themselves chiloni – secular – and don’t care much about what happens to Women of the Wall. But they should. Because the travesty at the Kotel this morning is just one symptom of life in Israel that is increasingly erasing women from both religious and civil life.

In religious communities – and even outside of them – signs have appeared ordering women to walk on one side of the street and not the other, or to dress in more modest garb, or to avoid going anywhere near the neighborhood synagogue even when men are not at prayer.

In what are supposed to be secular government public events, women have been barred from speaking, or even appearing.

Posters – paid advertisements – for women running for public office have been effaced from the sides of public buses.

And just this week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against IKEA – the consummate example of modern secular consumerism – because their Israeli catalog included not one photo of a woman or a girl, but only of black-hatted, bearded religious men and their sons.

And even men who are supposed to be reasonable, open-minded allies are not always helpful. Netanyahu’s ever-more reactionary ruling coalition is being challenged by a new, more moderate Blue-and-White coalition, which says it will support the expansion and renovation of the Robinson’s Arch egalitarian prayer area. But the coalition’s number-two, Yair Lapid, stepped in it big time last week when he was asked at a public event why there are so few women on the group’s candidate list for the upcoming elections. There are only nine women in the top 30 and 13 in the top 40.

First, Lapid gave the rather lame excuse that, yes, it’s regrettable, but the list was done in haste in last-minute negotiations. Then, according to the Times of Israel newspaper:

“After offering his answer, Lapid introduced the party’s second-highest female candidate on the list, Orna Barbivai, a retired army major-general who is in tenth place, to stand up and acknowledge the crowd. But she declined and Lapid responded with a smile and said: “We have a small number of women candidates and even they lack discipline.’”

I was told by an Israeli colleague – well, that’s just Israeli self-deprecating humor. But Lapid wasn’t making fun of himself. And frankly there’s no excuse for a coalition that purports to be centrist and broad-based but does not recruit candidates of all races and backgrounds, men and women alike, from the get-go. That it wouldn’t occur to them to do so shows just how far to the right Israel has moved. And it is deeply, deeply disturbing.

All of this comes at a time when we American Jews are being bombarded here at home with hardened and emboldened antisemitism from both the left and the right, and when we have suffered (close to home) a spike in hate crimes against us and our communities. But, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder to justify support for Israel on the grounds that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, when it looks and acts increasingly like something very different.

For the nearly nine years that I have been your rabbi, I have been proud of the support our community has shown for Women of the Wall. My first year here, we did a photo shoot of women and girls and their families wearing tallitot and holding Torah scrolls. One year, we decorated oranges for our seder plates with Women of the Wall slogans. This year, our Confirmation students have been inspired by meeting via the internet with my Jerusalem-based colleague and friend Rabbi Susan Silverman. Susan is a longtime member of Women of the Wall who was arrested along with her then-17-ear-old daughter Hallel six years ago – for the simple act of wearing prayer shawls during worship at the Kotel.

It is so important that we continue to support Women of the Wall into the next decade of their advocacy for women and girls in all walks of life. They are an example of courage and determination that should inspire us all of us.

Every single month, they walk the gauntlet, knowing they will be cursed and spat on and pushed and shoved and knocked down – all because they want to pray in peace, and they want to pray for peace.

Every single month, they show us what an eishet chayil, a Woman of Valor, really looks like.

Every single month, they hold the ground against an ever-more powerful patriarchy that is determined to sideline and disempower women from both religious and civil life in a land that was founded to be both Jewish and democratic. And if they can push back, with the challenges they face, then so can we.

Every day ought to be International Women’s Day. Every day ought to bring us one step closer to equal pay, equal rights, and equal opportunities – without fear of harassment, or threats of punishment for our impudence.

We were warned. We were given an explanation. Nevertheless, we persisted. Let that be said of all of us on this International Women’s Day, on this Rosh Hodesh, on this first day of the month of Adar, when a woman’s voice is heard and a woman’s courage is celebrated.

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


© 2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Making Space for God – Shabbat Vayakhel, Friday, March 1, 2019

Fri, 2019-03-08 12:42

Gold and silver and copper for vessels. Blue and purple and crimson yarn for weaving curtains. Fine linen and goat’s hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins for the tent walls. Acacia wood for the altar tables. Oil for lighting. Spices for anointing. Aromatic incense for ceremonies. Precious gems for the priestly vestments.

These are among the precious possessions that the Israelites are summoned to bring to the artisans who are constructing the Tabernacle in the wilderness, at the start of this week’s Torah portion. Somehow, a rag-tag group of escaped slaves has access to such things in such great quantity, and is eager to give them so willingly, that Moses actually has to tell them to stop giving – because it’s more than God needs.

The truth of the matter is, of course, that Israel’s God needs none of this. But the people believe God does – and right now, in this Neverland between the Egypt they have left and the land they have been promised as their own – right now, that’s what matters.

The land is full of Temples and altars to the pantheons of Gods that were were worshipped across the Ancient Near East. The gods always got the best of what the people had – from the precious metals and gems to adorn the temples, to the animals sacrificed on the altars, to the skills of the artisans and weavers and goldsmiths. This is what the ancient peoples believed: If we care for our gods and their needs, then they will care for us and ours.

But as we are overwhelmed by the details and the minutiae, it’s all too easy to forget that this temple, this altar, is unlike any other. For God has commanded that these wanderers in need of love and protection create a portable tabernacle that will go with them: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham: Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”[1]

Let’s just stop and think for a moment about what an extraordinary statement that is.

In the ancient world, everybody else believed in a vast pantheon of gods, each of whom had a specific role and a specific realm. A god of the sun and a god of the moon. A god of the mountains and a god of the sea. A god of rain and a god of the harvest. Each one had to be worshiped and fed and obeyed, in his or her own temple. The people went to them.

But Israel’s God is like no other – one God of creation, revelation and redemption. One God overseeing the workings of the whole material world. And instead of insisting that these wanderers come to God, God is saying – wherever you go, I will be with you, and this Tabernacle will be My home. V’shachanti b’tocham.

The three-letter root for the Hebrew word “to dwell” is shin-khaf-nun. In these same Biblical passages, it is at the root of the word Mishkan – the tabernacle itself.

And from this same root, the rabbis create the Divine persona of Shechina, the indwelling, close presence of God. The nurturing feminine aspects of a God previously portrayed as celestial, accessible only to Moses on Mount Sinai, and masculine, capable of destroying whole armies with a wave of His hand.

The Shekhina, for the rabbis, is that facet of God that the Israelites need in times of distress, loneliness, and fear. Not just in the wilderness, but anywhere we go – by choice or by force. By invitation or by exile. And not just thirty-five hundred years ago, but even now.

As the great Rabbi Akiva taught: “Shekol makom she-galu, shechina imahem, Wherever Israel goes into exile, Shechina is with them.”

What an astonishing notion! A God that is willing to go into the wilderness, into exile, into danger – to protect an entire nation, in every generation. Never before had the world seen such a thing! But that’s not the end of the story.

During my month away, I’ve been – among other things – studying the Zohar, the foundational text of medieval Jewish mysticism, with the brilliant scholar Daniel Matt, who spent eighteen years of his life creating a modern, annotated English translation of this esoteric and complicated piece of literature. Created in 13th-century Spain and written by Moshe de Leon in pseudo-ancient Aramaic, the Zohar plumbs the depths of the words of Torah seeking the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe – and opening the gates of heaven themselves.

The gate-keeper to the celestial heights – to those facets of God so far from us and so incomprehensible – is Shechina. She is, Dr. Matt told us, actually the star of the Zohar. But here, she is not a mere facet of God’s nature. She actually represents a concept of Deity that Judaism sorely lacks: the feminine half of God.

Keep in mind that peoples of the ancient world had, at the head of their pantheons, a male god and a female god reigning together. Isis and Osiris in Egypt, for example, or An and Ki in Mesopotamia.

But as the Israelite religion evolved, the feminine, the goddess, disappeared. The God of Torah is described in masculine terms, in masculine language. The Rabbis turned the Mishkan – the place of God among us – into Shechina, the nurturing element of God among us. But the Kabbalists gave Shechina her own realm, her own powers. She is the bride sitting as an equal with her bridegroom, the masculine element of God they called Tiferet, or what we would call yud-hey-vav-hay, Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, Adonai, or Lord.

So what does it mean to bring the feminine back into our notion of God? The union of the male and female makes God complete. And we here on earth are responsible for making that happen. The rabbis taught that the way we behave on earth has consequences for the world. The kabbalists taught that what we say and do has consequences for God, who created our world. We speak of Tikkun Olam as repair of the world – usually through tzedakah and g’milut chasadim, giving and doing in God’s name. But tikkun, for the mystics, is – as Dr. Matt taught – about something very specific. It’s about weaving together the elements of God that make God whole. And making God whole is the way we make our lives and our world whole.

Now, that is a far greater responsibility. But it starts, Dr. Matt says, with the basic responsibility of studying Torah. It is Torah’s words, after all, that created the world. It is Torah’s words that hold the secrets to at least some elements of God’s nature. It is Torah’s words that bring us closer to our own unity with God – and ultimately to the unity of God.

Ever since Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we humans have been exiled from one-ness. As Dr. Matt taught, there is something beautiful and also something terrible about the splits, the tears in the weaving, that the exile created. On the one hand, we understand – as Adam and Eve did in that moment that brought them shame — that we are unique creatures, separate entities from one another. And that individuality is what gives us the spark of creativity that we need to make the world better.

On the other hand, being separate can be very, very lonely. We all know that. We all feel a sense of abandonment – some of us more deeply than others, and some of us in different situations than others. But that’s why, ever since then, we humans have searched for, and worked for, ways of coming back together. Of creating Tikkun.

Our goal, then, is – in essence – achieving oneness. Oneness with the divine. Oneness within the divine. Oneness by creating healing within ourselves. Oneness by creating healing between us and other people.

Repairing the cosmos is too big a job for any one of us even to comprehend. But starting by repairing ourselves, and our relationships to other people, is a life-altering start.

In coming weeks, we will see the change in the world around us – new life sprouting from the old, green from brown, dynamic colors emerging overnight. It’s like the earth is healing itself naturally, regularly, just as God intended.

And so it should be with each of us: finding in the new life around us the inspiration to find new life and inspiration and love within us and in the people around us, with the support and guidance of the Shechina, who is always with us.

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

©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Exodus 25:8.

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

“Miriam and the Women Danced” For the Blair County Women’s March: Saturday, January 19, 2019

Sun, 2019-01-20 12:05

This morning, I want to tell you a story. It’s actually a story about THE story, the ultimate story in Jewish history. The story which, owing to a convergence of events on today’s calendar, is also THE portion of Jewish scripture that is being read TODAY in temples and synagogues all around the world.

You all know the story, I think. The Israelites fleeing Egypt are now trapped between the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army coming up fast from behind. God instructs Moses to hold out his hand over the waters, the sea miraculously parts, and the jubilant Israelites cross to freedom on the dry river bed.

Moses, the man who didn’t even want this job because, as he told God, he was “slow of speech,” now is inspired to sing of the peoples’ redemption in a magnificent, extended and richly detailed poem of praise to God known as the “Song of the Sea.”

Or so we are told.

But following this long poem attributed to Moses, the book of Exodus gives us this:

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver have God hurled into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)

Without waiting for orders or encouragement, Miriam and the women take it upon themselves to dance right into the middle of the sea-bed – in full faith and trust in God that they will be redeemed.

As it happens, this short two-line song may well be the original – or at least the most ancient – telling of the redemption of the Israelite nation. It may just be that this simple, short and beautiful first description of what the women said and did was later overshadowed by the extended and more famous poem attributed to Moses – who, after all, is the hero of the Exodus story as it has been handed down to us.

Some scholars even believe that the entire “song of the sea” should actually be attributed to Miriam. After all, in the ancient world, it was the role of the women to compose and perform songs of triumph to greet victorious troops as they returned from battle. One ancient manuscript actually calls this “The Song of Miriam.” But in the end, Moses is given the credit.

We are fortunate that the remnants of the original story remain in the final redaction of THE story. Because they teach us how powerful these women were when their faith in God was strong, and their trust in one another was, perhaps, even stronger. Miriam could not have pulled this off alone. It took all the women, singing and dancing across the dry river bed to freedom, who made such an impact that their simple act of faith remains with us more than three-thousand years later.

What happened to Miriam’s song and the story of the women are part and parcel of the patriarchal narrative of life – not just the life of the Ancient Near East but the life we live today. The movement that we call the Women’s March began in 2017 as a message to the world that the women of America would not step back. We would not see our accomplishments neglected or belittled. We would not politely wait our turn to step up into positions of leadership and power – any more than the Israelite women waited for somebody else to tell them to march forward.

The speed at which this is now happening at all levels of public life has been astonishing. It literally takes my breath away. I found my place in the feminist movement back in the 70’s, raised by a father who taught me I could do anything and be anything I wanted to be – and inspired by his mother, my Grandmom Freda, who took no nonsense from anyone, and by her mother, my Bubbie Rose, who arrived at these shores from Poland, all alone, at the age of 16, with nothing but a letter of introduction and enough talent in the kitchen and the sewing room to earn passage for the rest of her family.

The young women I am fortunate enough to teach and to pastor take for granted the broad horizons open to them. Which is exactly what my generation of feminists fought for.

The wonderful Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz (who’s married to some politician in Ohio) wrote this week of what she learned watching her own mother’s regret that she had lived by the limitations that others had put on her. Connie wrote:

“We women have always had our ambition – and by ambition, I mean wanting to do anything that runs contrary to the relentless and time-honored tradition of keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.”

“Keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.” I love that phrase. I think it captures perfectly our struggle against those patriarchal traditions. The women of my and Connie’s generation had a long learning curve about stepping out of the shadows of our own lives. We had to learn, as Connie wrote, that our restlessness is an asset and a strength – and not, as we may have been taught, a sign of impolite selfishness.

And we are overjoyed to see how easily and gracefully the women who are our daughters’ ages – and even our granddaughters’ ages – have followed their (your) restlessness, stepping into the light and, like Miriam and the women, singing and dancing their (your) way to the front.

I was so lucky and blessed to be raised by inspiring and empowering women, who did not wait for someone else to give them permission to live their lives. That gift led me to what are still considered “non-traditional” careers for women: broadcast journalism, sports journalism, sports marketing. And now my true calling as a rabbi – a teacher, a preacher and a pastor for the past twenty years.

We women rabbis are still very much in the minority, even in Reform Judaism, which is the most inclusive and progressive stream of Judaism. But we are making our mark in congregations large and small, where we are a living embodiment of the joy of stepping out of the shadows of our own lives — and of other peoples’ pre-conceived notions of who and what a rabbi is supposed to be.

The women gathered here today – and in towns and cities across the country – come from all different ethnicities, faith traditions, and families of origin. But we march together because, like Miriam and the women, we understand we are stronger together. We are bolder together. And God knows, we are louder together. To those who would try to weaken us by driving wedges between us – I say now, you will not win. We see what you’re trying to do. We know your game plan. And we always will be three moves ahead of you.

We have a Hebrew phrase that we use at times such as these – times such as Miriam and the women faced – when we have rid ourselves of servitude but face unknown challenges in the path ahead. We say:

Chazak! Chazak! V’nitchazek!

Be Strong! Be Strong! And we will be encouraged.

The first part is in the singular: You be strong! And you! And you!

The second part is in the plural. Every time you or you or you shows how wonderful you are, you inspire the rest of us to stand strong together.


©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin


The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), commentary to Parashat B’shalach, Exodus 15:1-21), p. 387-88.



Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Yom Kippur Morning 2018: “It’s You I Like”

Thu, 2018-09-20 15:00

It started out as a simple act of kindness.

It was a scorching hot day in the neighborhood, and Mr. Rogers was trying to keep himself cool by dipping his feet in the cold water of a kiddie pool. So when the neighborhood’s friendly policeman, Officer Clemmons, stopped by, Mr. Rogers naturally invited him to roll up his trousers and do the same – and so he did.

We might not think much of it now. But this was 1969. And Officer Clemmons was black.

Of all the public accommodations that had been at the center of racism and protest – from water fountains to lunch counters to public schools – swimming pools were among the last holdouts of segregation. Since the 1920s, when public pools became gender integrated, they became racially segregated – because white swimmers objected to the specter of black men swimming with white women. There was even a riot at Pittsburgh’s Highland Park Pool – the only city pool where men and women, and boys and girls, swam together – in which white swimmers attacked blacks with clubs and rocks, to keep them from entering the pool.

In the period after World War Two, when public officials formally integrated public swimming pools, many southern cities simply shut theirs down. And in the north, whites fled for the suburbs, where they could maintain de-facto segregation. Or they joined private clubs, where only whites were admitted as members.

In 1969, the long hot summer that followed the race riots after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King a year before, racially charged emotions were high again. And Fred Rogers, as he always did, showed the way by sharing his little pool with Francois Clemmons. Because that, he taught by example, is simply what neighbors do. At a time of intense anger and tension in our country, Mr. Rogers fulfilled the pledge he had once given:

“The world needs a sense of worth,” he said. “And it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”

With all the prayers and the petitions and the verses of Torah we share on the High Holy Days, Mr. Rogers’ simple message conveys the essence of what we hope to take away from the Days of Awe: Each of us – every human being – is worthy, regardless of race or color or gender or background or economic status. Everyone is worthy of being our neighbor.

Here’s the way Mister Rogers put it, in one of the songs he often sang on his television show:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,

Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

Today, we live in a world where bigots and bullies feel emboldened and empowered to attack – both physically and emotionally — people who do not look like them, or who do not pray like them, or who do not speak like them, or who do not otherwise conform to their narrow vision of belonging in their neighborhood, which they define with a single racial, or religious, or gender identity.

As barriers rise, bridges fall. And a lot – a lot – of people suffer. And, as Mister Rogers knew full well, a lot of the victims are children.

In Oklahoma last month, as families were preparing for back-to-school time, a transgender 7th grader named Maddie was forced to move to a new school district for the second time, after parents of other students threatened her on social media

They called her “it,” and “maggot.” “If he wants to be female, make him a female,” one parent wrote, “a good sharp knife will do the job really quick.”

We are not spared here in Altoona, where we are dealing with the devastating aftermath of the suicide of another 7th grader, after what his father’s lawsuit against the school system calls “a particularly brutal day of bullying.” We may live in a very white neighborhood – but there are differences among us that are more than skin deep. So don’t for a moment think the gay kids, or the trans kids, or the kids who struggle with learning challenges, or the kids who are just socially awkward, or the Jewish kids – always fit in just because of the color of their skin.

Mister Rogers started his television show because he knew that children needed to be loved. More than that: They needed to know they are worthy of love. The inexplicable viciousness of these attacks on children are one way in which we who are different are told we are not worthy. These attacks are coming from adults, or from children who learn this hatred from adults. It is shameful. It is unacceptable. And it is contrary to God’s command to all of us, which we hear most powerfully on this holiest of days.

In our public, civic life, we seem to have no way to talk to one another that is not nasty and hurtful. There seems to be no place today for civil discourse, for actually listening to someone else’s perspective and acknowledging it, even if you don’t agree with them. And the world of truthiness – a word coined in jest a few years ago by television satirist Stephen Colbert – has lost its irony in a deluge of outright lies.

Lies designed to divide us along racial or gender or religious lines. Lies designed to make us believe that if someone else’s life is improving, you are paying the price. Remember the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats? Now it’s shark week, every week of the year.

Columnist David Brooks describes this as the rise of the wolves – leaders who, he says, “don’t so much have a shared ideology as a shared mentality.” And that mentality, he writes, is this:

“Wolves perceive the world as a war of all against all and seek to create the world in which wolves thrive, which is a world without agreed-upon rules, without restraining institutions, norms and etiquette.”

We are, Brooks writes, in a battle over how we establish relationship: We can do it either at a high level, “based on friendship, shared values, loyalty and affection” – or at a low level, “based on mutual selfish interest and a brutal, ends-justify-the-means mentality.”

“The grand project for those of us who believe in a high-level, civilized world order,” Brooks writes, “is to find ways to restore social trust. It is to find ways to restructure power – at all levels – in order to re-inspire faith in the system. It is to find common projects – locally, globally, and internationally – that diverse people can do together.”

It is time to take back our neighborhood from the selfish and the brutal, from the bigots and the bullies. We need to step out of the echo chamber that recycles and dresses up old hatreds in new language, and step into a wind-tunnel that will blow all of that away and make room for fresh air.

Balloons and kind slogans are not going to cut it. We have to get into the difficult work of those common projects right here in our own neighborhood – projects that we diverse people can do together.

Our Temple family does what it can. Donating and packing nutritious lunches for at-risk neighborhood children through the Altoona Mountain Lion BackPack Program. Serving tasty home-made meals to neighbors in need at the Love Feast at Simpson Temple. Some of us volunteer at Habitat for Humanity – which recognizes the dignity and responsibility that come with home ownership. Others have helped rebuild broken-down neighborhood playgrounds, knowing that fresh air and exercise are good for both the body and the spirit. And the Jewish community has been, from the beginning, part of IDA – “Improved Dwellings for Altoona” – a faith-based non-profit that insures that over a thousand needy people in our neighborhood have a safe and healthy place to live.

We do all of this – and we must do much, much more – not because we feel like it but because God commands us to do it.

The Holiness Code – Chapter 19 of Leviticus from which we will read later today – commands us to care for the poor and the hungry, to speak with integrity and truth, not to pervert justice, not to spread lies about our neighbors.

It commands us not to oppress strangers – those who do not look like us, or who do not talk like us, or who do not come from the same background as us: “The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens,” says God, “V’ahavta l’re-acha-kamocha. And you shall love them as yourself.”

We may take a cursory glance around our neighborhood and see almost all white faces. But just because we have few neighbors with brown or black skin, or few neighbors who speak a different native language than us – that does not absolve us from the task that God sets for us today.

As Mister Rogers himself taught, using the language that we Jews understand, “We are all called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.”

Fred Rogers made that public call for neighborliness in a special public service announcement created in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, when Muslims and Arabs were under siege in this country. It was a time when, like today, racism and panic and the building of walls took hold among some among us, when what our neighborhood needed most was compassion and reasonableness and new bridges of understanding.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Home We Build Together, wrote: “The best way of breaking down barriers between people or communities is through simple, unforced acts of kindness. One act can undo years of estrangement.”

One act of kindness. How about if we start there? Let’s make it something brave and unexpected and simple, like Mister Rogers sharing his wading pool with Officer Clemmons. One act, when we can say to another human being, created in the image of God: “It’s you, yourself. It’s you I like.”

What a revolution we might start! What a neighborhood we might build.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our commitment. And let us say together: Amen.


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin



Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Yom Kippur 2018: “King Friday the Thirteenth: Nothing Must Change”

Thu, 2018-09-20 14:57

February 19, 1968. The debut episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from WQED in Pittsburgh. The first time that the trolley would take viewers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of the real world to the Neighborhood of Make Believe – a land populated by creatures and characters drawn from Fred Rogers’ own vivid and expansive imagination.

It’s a place where a tame tiger lives in a clock with no hands – because you can make it any time you want it to be. A land where the mischevious and magical Lady Elaine Fairchilde has the power to literally turn the neighborhood upside down. A village where X the Owl, wise as he is in his old oak tree, admires Ben Franklin and has an insatiable thirst for learning. In other words, a place where anything and everything is possible, and the world can change from one moment to the next.

Which is a problem if change makes you uncomfortable. And that is the problem for King Friday the Thirteenth, titular ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, from the very first episode of the show.

In the real world, Mr. Rogers tells his viewers, he has been painting and changing around the furniture in his home, and putting up a new porch swing and some new pictures. He admits that he needed some time to get used to the changes, as we all do.

But in the Neighborhood of Make Believe – that place where anything really IS possible – there is chaos. Lady Elaine, it seems, has made some magical changes in the neighborhood – moving the clock here and there, switching the Eiffel Tower from one side of the castle to the other. Other creatures in the land are making do. But the king is furious. Change in his kingdom! Change without his permission! Change that isn’t his idea! Unforgiveable. Unacceptable. Arrest her, arraign her – he orders those around him.

By the second episode, the king has made both his aide Edgar and his niece, Lady Elaine, into border guards in uniforms, marching from one end of the palace to the other. He demands all visitors to the palace prove they are who they say they are, including his own family. Name, rank, and serial number.

“Remember our battle cry,” the king calls out: “Down with the changes!”

Edgar obediently chants: “Down with the changes, down with the changes! We don’t want anything to change.” To which the king adds: “’Cause we’re on top.”

And that’s the crux of his fear. After all, he’s the king. And it’s good to be the king. You boss people around to make yourself feel big and, maybe, to make others feel small. You make the rules, you call the shots – all to your own benefit.

Any hint of change might cause a crack in that armor of total authority. So he literally puts on armor and declares a state of emergency.

He acts as though the entire kingdom is at war, which terrifies its residents. But it’s really his battle alone – a battle to keep things just the way they are. Because he’s on top.

By the third day, it’s not the changes themselves that have people upset and sad in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, it’s the king’s reaction to them. Visitors are being turned away from the castle because they cannot provide a rank or serial number to go with their name.

And when, out of kindness and respect, a good friend, Chef Brockett, delivers a beautiful, special cake to the king, he slinks away – offended and unappreciated – when the king has it chopped into pieces to check for secret messages of change –  “poisonous materials,” as the king calls them. “You never know,” the king declares. “There are changes about, and utmost care must be taken.”

The king’s paranoia grows by the fourth episode, when everyone in his Neighborhood and Mr. Rogers’ own neighborhood is given a punch clock. Everyone must punch in and out every time they go in or out, so that the king can track everyone’s movements. But that’s not enough for King Friday the Thirteenth. He heartily approves of the ring of razor-sharp barbed wire that’s been added around the castle grounds, just in case anyone tries to sneak in and change something.

By the fifth day, the residents of the Neighborhood are at the end of their rope. They have gotten used to Lady Elaine’s changes – in fact, they are enjoying them. The physical changes have opened their eyes to other positive changes they can make in their lives.

But they have to get that message to the king. Complaining hasn’t helped. The king ignores it. Complying hasn’t helped, either. The king just demands more. So Lady Aberlin tries a different tactic. She takes a bunch of helium balloons, ties to them messages of peace and love and tenderness and peaceful coexistence, and floats them over to the castle.

At first, he king fears he really is under attack when he sees the balloons coming toward him. But when he reads their messages of love – in that single moment, his heart melts, and his mind opens, and he understands that, if everyone else in the Neighborhood can handle change, then so can he.

The barbed wire disappears. The smiles return. And as the very first week of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ends, the Neighborhood is once again a place where everyone accepts one another, trusts one another, and loves one another.

That’s how things go in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, where anything and everything is possible. Barriers can come down. Trust can triumph over fear. Change can be embraced rather than rejected. And the world’s problems can be solved in five days.

In our Neighborhood – in our world – it’s not quite as tidy, not nearly as simple, as floating balloons. But the struggle of King Friday the Thirteenth teaches us an important lesson on this holiest of days: Change will, and must, come into our lives. It will float in, in many different ways.

In times of uncertainty and constant turmoil around us, we may feel threatened; we may recoil from change and refuse to acknowledge or embrace it. We can put up our own barriers – physical or emotional. But whether the change is evolutionary or revolutionary, none of that will stop it from coming.

But accepting the changes around us requires us to allow change inside of us. In fact, that’s where the real power is. The power to embrace all our own potential allows us to see the potential in others. Opening our eyes to what we have to give allows us to see what we can give to others, so that they can fulfill their potential for good in this world.

King Friday’s struggle also leads me to re-think an old Jewish folk tale about how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. Here’s the way it goes:

Back in a small town in Poland lived a poor shopkeeper named Moshe, who earned just enough money to take care of his family. Not poor, but with no money to spare on anything but the bare necessities. Yet Moshe always managed to help others who were worse off than him. No visitor who came to his home ever left hungry. No destitute person was denied a few precious coins. But Moshe and his wife were happy. They ate simple food and lived a simple, but good and kind, life.

One day an elderly stranger passing through town stopped into Moshe’s little shop and noticed how kind and generous he was with everyone. Moshe treated the stranger the same way, inviting him to dine in his modest home and even spend the night.

The next morning, Moshe gave him a few coins and a sack of food to see him through to the end of his journey. The stranger, in turn, gave Moshe a blessing for happiness and prosperity beyond his wildest dreams, and then he went on his way.

That day, Moshe found his shop filled to bursting with people wanting to buy his wares. There were even more the next day, and the next. Moshe had to restock the shelves over and over again, with finer and finer things. He couldn’t believe his luck! Over time, Moshe became well-off, even rich. He bought a new house for his wife and they filled it with every luxury you could imagine.

But as he became richer, he also became stingier. He didn’t feed the hungry, or clothe the poo,r as he used to. His secretary handled any requests, and his staff ran his shop. He stayed mostly at home and admired his lovely things – the thick rugs, the heavy wooden furniture, the soft velvet drapes. He was especially fond of a grand mirror he’d acquired, with a coating of shiny silver and a massive and intricate gold frame. Glass and silver were precious – so the mirror was the ultimate symbol of wealth. Moshe would preen in front of it all day, admiring himself in his elegant wool coat and shiny leather boots. He was content with life. And he wanted everything to stay just the way it was.

One day, about a year later, a visitor knocked on the door of the home, which Moshe’s servant, of course, answered. It was, he told his master, a rabbi, who insisted that he must see Moshe in person.  Moshe couldn’t be bothered, but the rabbi pushed his way into Moshe’s salon. He turned out to be that poor wayfaring stranger whom Moshe had treated so kindly a year before.

Moshe greeted the rabbi warmly, showering him with thanks for the blessing he had bestowed, treating him to a sumptuous meal, and showing off the riches that resulted from that blessing. “I’m particularly fond of this grand mirror,” Moshe boasted to the rabbi, “and how perfectly it reflects images.”

The rabbi called to Moshe and asked him to stand in front of the mirror. “What do you see?” he asked.

“Why, I see myself, of course,” replied Moshe. “My own reflection. And the many beautiful things in the room behind me. That’s all.”

Then the rabbi pulled Moshe to the front window. “What do you see now?” he asked.

Moshe looked out. There was so much activity on his street, so many people passing by. Moshe knew them all. The poor widow with many children, toting a basket hoping people would fill it with food. The water-carrier who was getting too old for his work. The young tailor who never had enough money for his family. And so many more.

“How strange it is,” marveled the rabbi. “A mirror and a window, both made of glass. When it’s just glass, you can see the whole town. But when it’s completely covered with silver, you can only see yourself.”

The rabbi left the house with Moshe was in tears. He finally understood how he had changed since he became rich. He finally understood how he had squandered the blessing of the rabbi – who had hoped that Moshe would use his success to help others as he always had done.

So that night, Moshe threw a house party and invited everyone in the town, rich or poor or anyone in between, including the widow and the tailor and the water-carrier. He promised he would always be there for them. And he showed them he was serious by taking a knife and, slowly and methodically, scraping off every bit of silver from the mirror until it was perfectly clear.

The moral of the story, as I understand it, is that we all need windows and not mirrors. We need to think of others and not ourselves. But I think the lesson is more complex than that.

Can you imagine if we only lived in houses of mirrors? All we would see is us and what we already have, or what we wish to obtain, to add to that shiny image of success. Remember the Mirror of Erised in the Harry Potter books? It was a magnificent mirror, as high as the ceiling, with an ornate gold frame, standing on two clawed feet – exactly like in our story. And it was said to have magical properties, so that anyone standing in front of it would see a reflection of their heart’s desire.

But in a way ALL mirrors are designed to do that – to flatter us, to focus on us – to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.

The danger with mirrors is that, like Moshe, our world would become only what we see in the mirror. We would never be encouraged to learn something new, or meet someone different. We’d never even see the people and the places in our very own neighborhood. It would never occur to us that someone outside the limited vision of one reflective surface might want or need our help. We would shut out the possibility of change and growth.

That’s what King Friday the Thirteenth tried to do. He built high walls around his castle, with barbed wire on top, to stop his world from changing. To keep new people and new ideas out. They were, he believed, a danger to him and his placid, comfortable life.

But if we only had windows – if we only saw what was going on outside – maybe that wouldn’t be so good, either. We might forget what King Friday the Thirteenth eventually learned: that the most powerful change happens from within. The messages that floated in on the balloons would not have worked if King Friday had not allowed his heart to open and realize that they were right and he was wrong.

What he did, we must do: Take the opportunity to reflect on ourselves – literally and figuratively – and to perform that nefesh chesbon, that spiritual checklist, which makes these high holy days a time of necessary growth, and change, and even transformation.

So: What if we had a mirror on the wall right next to our front window? We could look outside and really see our neighbors and what they have and what they need, just as Moshe eventually did. And then, we could take two steps to the right and take a good look at ourselves and think: When’s the last time I made a change that helped someone else. What can I do to make the world a finer place? The rabbis teach us that the Torah itself has seventy faces. Seventy ways of understanding what God wants from us. How wrong it would be if we only stood looking at one.

We actually can’t choose just one or the other. The necessary and inevitable changes in the world begin with the changes in ourselves. And that requires that we have both.

In the Haftarah tomorrow morning, we will hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, chiding across the millennia for looking into mirrors and not out at windows as well. Of thinking only of ourselves and our self-aggrandizement and not of the poor, the hungry, and the lonely. Not even bothering to look up at our own neighbors and welcome them into our homes and our hearts and our lives.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, retired chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once wrote:

“Change is not threatening, so long as we keep firm hold of the values by and for which we live. We can travel with confidence so long as we have a map. We can jump with safety, knowing that there is someone to catch us as we fall.”

The only way we can trust that there’s someone else to catch us, is if we’re willing to be the one who will do the catching next time. Traveling along the path of life, we must be prepared for changes and chances and re-directions in our lives. Reflection on ourselves is useful and necessary, if it leads us to an acknowledgement that our reflections never, ever, are exactly the same twice.

Change – real change – most often, and most powerfully, comes from within us. It comes naturally – even joyfully —  when we overcome our fears, and open ourselves to the possibilities of the new and the needs of the many. That’s when we can move with confidence into a world, and a year, of limitless possibilities. And THAT is when the world of reality turns into the Neighborhood of Make Believe, where anything and everything is possible.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our commitment in this new year. As we say together: Amen.


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2018: “Daniel Tiger: Am I a Mistake?”

Fri, 2018-09-14 14:08

So, shana tova everybody! Here we are – at the start of a brand new year, with the opportunity for a clean slate. New challenges to face. New opportunities to overcome them. New ways to right past wrongs. That’s what we talk about most at this time of year, isn’t it? But that’s not the only conversation many of us are having with ourselves this morning. And it’s certainly not the conversation many of us have with ourselves every other morning of the year.

In a cosmic sense – looking at the really, really, big picture – we sit here, pondering the creation of the world, and we wonder, “Why am I here? How do I fit in to God’s plan for the world? How do I figure out what my role is supposed to be?”

But the question also nags at us on a very small, intimate level: “Why AM I here? Do I really belong? Where do I belong? Or is my very existence some kind of mistake?”

The need to belong is an ache that each of us feels deep within. The need for purpose. The need to fit in, and not to be different. The need for companionship, so that we are not alone.

Of all the lessons that Mr. Rogers taught us, perhaps the most important one of all was this: Each of us is beloved. Each of us is precious. Each of us belongs. It’s a lesson that Mr. Rogers himself took to heart – the answer to a question that seems to have nagged him personally all of his life.

Fred Rogers not only wrote most of the scripts for his program, but he also did the puppetry. And while he voiced most of the characters, one character also echoed Fred Rogers’ own voice.

Daniel Tiger was not just a character. He was the mouthpiece that allowed Fred Rogers to say things that he was afraid to say for himself, to ask questions or challenge ideas that he felt he couldn’t do on his own. One of his most poignant and important questions came in a conversation with Lady Aberlin, in which he shared his deepest fear:

“I’ve been wondering if I was a mistake. For one thing, I’ve never seen a tiger that looks like me. And I’ve never heard a tiger that talks like me. And I don’t know any other tiger who lives in a clock. Or loves people. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too tame. . . . I’m not like anyone else I know. I’m not like anyone else.

Daniel Tiger might have given voice to the childhood fears that Fred Rogers still had, the scars he still bore. But he also speaks for many of us, who feel different. A woman in a man’s world. A gay person in a straight world, or a transgender person who is in between worlds. An older worker passed over in favor of youth. An impoverished person in a sea of wealth. An abused spouse who is deliberately isolated. A person whose disability is sometimes doubted because it is invisible, be it a learning challenge, a phobia, or deep depression. Am I mad all the time? Am I sad all the time? Am I a mistake?

Hedda Sharapan, who has been a part of the Mister Rogers Company since 1966, said that this conversation was her favorite Daniel Tiger moment on the program. And apparently not hers alone.

“I used the video,” she said, “at a conference where I was speaking for therapists and mental health counselors. When I showed this particular video, the room just broke out into this warm, appreciative applause.”

Those in the room understood how important it was for Daniel Tiger – or anyone else – to be able to express their fears in a safe place. And how life-affirming it is to hear from another human being that, as Lady Aberlin sang back to Daniel: “I think you are just fine as you are.”

Fine doesn’t mean perfect – by some subjective standard. It doesn’t even mean totally healthy or healed. When the Torah says, in the book of Deuteronomy (18:13) תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ– “You shall be tamim –  perfect – before Adonai your God” – every single major commentator instead renders the phrase, “You must be wholehearted with God.”

“Follow God wholeheartedly and look expectantly to God,” says Rashi. Adds Nachmanides: “We must unify our hearts with God’s and believe that God alone does all and knows the reality of all that is to come.”

Tamim means treasured. It means loved. It means that being different – or even unique – is not a mistake. In fact, in the grand cosmic scheme of Jewish thought, it is the way God intended for us to be.

Think about the creation of the world that we celebrate today. God made everything else before human beings, the one creature described as being “made in God’s image.” But what is God’s image? Look around at humanity. Look at its vast array of skin colors, religious and faith traditions, sexual and gender identities, levels of cognitive ability, levels of physical ability, levels of emotional wellness. All of that has to be part of God. Nobody is a mistake. Everyone simply represents a different, unique facet of divinity in this world.

This isn’t some 21st-century new-age doctrine. It’s as ancient as our Jewish tradition.

It starts in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the first post-Biblical collection of Jewish law compiled almost two thousand years ago. There, the Rabbis teach us why – when all the other animals were created two by two – why all of us descend from only one original human being, Adam, a hermaphrodite who carried all the physical traits of what we all would become:

“Man was created singly . . .” they wrote, “to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God. For man stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike. But the Sovereign of all Sovereigns, blessed be God, stamped each man with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, ‘It was for my sake that the world was created.’”

God deliberately created each and every one of us unlike everyone else. When Daniel Tiger says, I must be a mistake because I’m not like everybody else – we say (and Judaism says), NO – you are not like everybody else because God made you that way. And I think you’re fine the way you are. Not perfect. Maybe not whole. Or entirely healthy – for now. But blessed. And treasured. And loved.

And anyone who attempts to abuse you, or belittle you, or reject you because of what you look like, or who you love, or how you pray, or how emotionally challenging it can be for you just to get through a single day – is rejecting God’s intent for this world.

As Mr. Rogers put it, “I think those who would try to make you less than you are . . . that is the greatest evil.”

Today, even more than in Mr. Rogers’ time, our world is full of people with a sense of superiority and entitlement, who seem to believe that God gave them and them alone the right to make the rules of society – rules that allow them to accrue most of the power and nearly all the wealth, because others are inherently less deserving.

We see them marching in Charlottesville, to the chant of “Jews will not replace us.” We hear them spewing racism at rallies and physically threatening people of dark skin. We witness countless attempts to deny basic public accommodation to people who are gay or trans. And even in an age of #Me Too, when men of power are being taken down by that sense of superiority, we see the institutions they have created perpetuating their misogyny.

They, in Mr. Rogers’ words, try to make the rest of us less than we are. And we must never let that happen.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the retired chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes about the essence of this goal:

“There is only one non-utopian way of creating the good without the harm, and that is to create programmes of what in Hebrew is called chessed, in Latin caritas, or in English, loving kindness, across boundaries. We must love strangers as well as neighbours, in the simple sense of love-as-deed, practical help. That imperative flows from the covenant of human solidarity.”

Chessed is the essence of what Mr. Rogers worked for, what Daniel Tiger was really asking for, and what all of us, on this first day of the new year, pray for.

Once, Mister Rogers challenged us: “Let’s make goodness attractive in the next millennium, people caring for each other in a myriad of ways and not knocking each other down.”

This morning I challenge you: “Let’s make goodness attractive in the next year. Seeing and treating each other as equals. Respecting each other’s differences.”

“Man was created alone,” say the rabbis of old, “for the sake of peace among peoples.” And true peace can only come from deep reverence for the majestic and intentional diversity and equality of God’s creation.

This is the way to sustain the world that God created for all of us.

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



©2018  Audrey R. Korotkin

Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Fri, 2018-09-14 14:06

It all begins with modulation. Fred Rodgers, his hands hovering softly over the piano keys, describes in musical terms the core idea for his iconic program, which put Pittsburgh and public television on the map and helped shape a generation of American children.

Modulation is the art of changing from one key to another, to give structure and tone to any piece of music. Some of these modulations, Mr. Rogers explains, are easy because they are natural progressions from one key to a similar one. But some modulations are more difficult. They might sound strange. They might be harder to play. My job, says Mr. Rogers, is to help children handle modulation in life.

This is the opening scene of the wonderful new biographical film about Fred Rogers entitled, appropriately enough, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

But “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is more than a well-worn theme song.

It’s the core of what Fred Rogers wanted to achieve by helping children navigate the modulations of life: creating a human being who was comfortable with himself and caring of others; a human being who presumed that life was meant to be lived in community; a human being who took it for granted – by the time of adulthood – that her neighborhood would be big, broad, diverse, inclusive, and, above all, loving.

For children to navigate modulation in life – the successes alongside the failures, the progressions along with the regressions, the atonal dissonance of anger and loss that accompanies the rich beauty of serenity and growth –

– for children to navigate those modulations, they need the assurance that they are loved and are worthy of love, and that they are capable of giving love to others, who are equally as worthy.

That’s a beautiful message for children to hear. But what about the rest of us? After all, here we all are, on the eve of this new year, eager to be reassured of God’s love for us, of feeling that we are worthy of receiving divine forgiveness and blessing for this new year. Don’t we need to hear that message, too?

Of course we do.

But we need to understand that the two parts of Mr. Rogers’ message must go together. One cannot exist without the other. If we are worthy of love, so is everyone else. V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, says the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as Mr. Rogers puts it: You shall love your neighbor and yourself. It is impossible to navigate the modulations of life until we acknowledge and fulfill both parts of that message.

We do it through time. We do it through space. We do it through others.


Time is one thing we never seem to have enough of. As grown-ups we exhaust ourselves trying to accomplish everything on our to-do list, flitting from one task to another as the little bell goes off on our cell phones, reminding us of yet another deadline. And because we think that’s the way life ought to be, we instill that in children at an early age, and they become slaves to schedules and deadlines.

If they play basketball, they have to practice every single day and be available for every single game or they get kicked off the team. If they take pride in learning, they become terrified of missing one single day of school, for fear that will put them perpetually behind.

Downtime is now looked at as mere idleness. Something to be avoided at all cost. It’s best to stay busy, we believe, because that’s how we better ourselves. That’s how we succeed.

Leave it to the Israelis to burst our bubble.

Not long ago, a team of researchers from Ben Gurion University studied the psychology of the soccer goalie. We all know that the outcome of a soccer match can often come down to what’s called a penalty kick. That’s when a team tries to shoot the ball past the goalie who’s standing directly in front of them, from just 12 yards away.

The goalie has to stop the ball while remaining on the horizontal of the goal line. Before the ball is kicked he has to choose which way to go – to the left or to the right. We’ve all seen when the goalie gets it right and literally saves the day. We’ve also witnessed what happens when he zigs while the ball zags. But at least he moved. At least he did something to try and help his team win, right?

Except that maybe he didn’t.

In reality, this study shows, if the goalie had just stayed put, he would have had as good a chance as if he’d moved one way or the other. Goalies never do that of course. They go to the left about 49 percent of the time and to the right about 44 percent of the time. Which means they stay in place less than seven percent of the time.

But kicks actually go to the left 32 percent of the time and to the right less than 29 percent of the time. They go down the center over 39 percent of the time. Goalies are actually more likely to stop a ball on a penalty kick if they just stay put.

So why don’t they? That’s the question that fascinated Professor Bradley Staats from the University of North Carolina’s business school. Recently, in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, he gave us the answer:

“The problem is that we have an action bias: We would rather be seen doing something than doing nothing. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, right? This idea is so deeply ingrained that we are afraid to give the appearance of doing nothing, even when it is the best strategy.”

The goalies, when asked, said they preferred to dive to the left or to the right – and that they’d be more regretful about missing the ball if they stayed still. In other words, says Professor Staats, “they wanted to be seen to be doing something, even if that something was wrong.”

I call this “compulsive action.” And compulsive action is quite different from actually getting something accomplished. Studies show that employees who get to work early and stay late are seen as more committed or more dedicated to their work. But they are not necessarily actually more productive. In one study of managers who thought their employees should spend more time at work – and who penalized those who didn’t – they actually could not tell the difference in the quality of work between the two groups.

Busy-ness – compulsive action – doesn’t make us better. It just makes us more busy. And more tired. And more stressed.

Professor Staats challenges our basic notion about the value of busy-ness this way:

“We live and work today in a learning economy. We can’t just be knowledge workers; we must also be learning workers. And learning requires recharging and reflection, not constant action. . .

“When we sit at our desks and debate whether to take a short walk or to brainstorm for five minutes on the problem at hand, we may think that the time spent not acting is wasted. But we need sufficient time to rejuvenate during the workday, between workdays, and on vacations, if we are to be able to learn successfully.”

Mr. Rogers understood the value of time. He once asked: “Want to see how long a minute is?” – and then he set an egg timer and watched and waited until the timer went off. It turns out a minute is a very long time. And we have a tendency to think that every minute has to be filled up.

Mr. Rogers showed us that time is too valuable to fill up with busy-ness, just as we are. As film reviewer Joe Morgenstern wrote, “Rogers chose to let time slide at whatever pace suited him as he looked little kids in the eye and told them with steadfast conviction that they were loved, and lovable just as they were.”

Think about how you feel when someone you’re trying to have an important conversation with is busy looking around for five other things to do at the same time, or checking her phone for text messages – not making eye contact, not spending those valuable seconds focused only on you what you are trying to say. Now think if you’ve done the same thing to someone else. I’d guess it’s happened, and more than once.

A minute is a very powerful thing. A minute of your time is precious. But a minute of someone else’s life is just as important.

We adults sometimes forget that. When Mr. Rogers ended his children’s show the first time around, he tried to translate that to an adult program – where he would slow down time and ask his guests to explain or explore something patiently and quietly. And the show did not succeed.

My theory is – that’s because we, as adults, have become slaves to compulsive action. We won’t allow ourselves to stop. We think of it as leisure time we don’t have, that a precious minute would just be wasted. In radio, we call it ‘dead air’ – when someone just stops talking. Dead air is bad. Every second has to be filled with someone’s voice, even if he or she isn’t saying anything of value.

Adults teach children to hate dead air. Mr. Rogers became an anomaly, even in children’s programming. Watch any children’s television show or any film that’s geared to kids. They are loud and fast. That’s the way children consume everything now, and the way they learn to repeat it. They grow into adults who consume movie sequels where the second film, and the third, has to be bigger, and louder, and faster than the original.

Why can’t we simply take the time to learn something fully, and to grow from that knowledge? Why can’t we learn to stop acting for the sake of being busy?

That’s a skill that would help us in this world of non-stop sensory stimuli.

In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, he could just slow things down to talk fully through one important feeling or event or problem. In our neighborhoods, we are constantly bombarded by information and allegations and half-baked conspiracy theories – much of it perpetuated by those who rely on the fact that we won’t slow down and won’t take stock, and won’t investigate what’s true and what’s not, or what’s fair and what’s not, or what’s helpful and what’s not.

Or what’s kind and what’s not.

What a nicer neighborhood we would have to live in, if we took that precious minute to really sort out life’s modulations. We’ll return to that minute shortly.


If time is a gift to be cherished second by second, then space is one to be explored inch by inch. In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, space was always divided into the “real world” and the Neighborhood of Make Believe, with a little toy trolley ferrying us between the two.

In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, things pretty much stayed the same from one day to the next. It was status quo. But on the other end of the train tracks, in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, anything could happen.

Its space was not limited by norms or expectations. The colors and the shapes and the inhabitants of the land of make-believe taught children that anything was possible. Im tirtsu ein zo agadah, as Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, once declared. If you will it, it is not a dream.

But the space that most of us inhabit today is status quo to the ‘nth’ degree. We have created neighborhoods that are static, that feed on themselves, that expand but do not grow. We live with people who look like us, and work like us, and talk like us. Instead of thinking and dreaming of what is possible, we settle for what already exists.

How many of you have one of those voice-controlled devices at home, like Amazon Echo or Google Home? Echo is an ironically perfect name for it, right? There’s a built-in interface that makes it seem like you’re communicating with a sentient being when you’re really just talking to yourself:

Here’s how the Amazon web site promotes Alexa:

“Using Alexa is as simple as asking a question. Just ask to play music, read the news, control your smart home, tell a joke, and more—Alexa will respond instantly. Whether you are at home or on the go, Alexa is designed to make your life easier by letting you voice-control your world.”

“By letting you voice-control your world.” Exactly. You tell the system what you want, how you want it, when you want it. Voice-activation is all about control, not about exploration. Compare that to, say, one of those old fashioned television remote controls. In the old days, when cable tv was new and exciting, we would spend so much time channel surfing – moving from one channel to the next to the next to the next – in search of something that caught our attention. We’d find programs or films or sporting events we never thought about before, or never thought we would like, or never even knew existed. We discovered enjoyment outside of our preconceived notions about what we thought we wanted.

When we use voice commands, we’re really talking to ourselves. It’s just an echo back. So we shut off all possibility of something new. We ask Alexa to start our playlist of choice. We command the Xfinity controller to switch to a familiar movie or TV program. Our world becomes smaller and samer.

I still use the clicker. And when I do, my point of reference about the world grows. Sometimes it’s the “Great British Baking Show.” Sometimes it’s a documentary about victims of war in Syria. But I always learn more, and appreciate more, and am in awe more, about the world when space expands around me.

In a way, when we use those clickers to expand instead of demand, we become like the children Mr. Rogers had such faith in. The ones who pay attention to, and learn from, everything in the space around them.

A few years ago, Alison Gopnik wrote a book called “The Philosophical Baby,” in which she speculated that children might actually be more aware of their surroundings than adults are. And adults wrote to her in agreement.

“A store detective,” she says, “described how he would perch on an upper balcony surveying the shop floor. The grown-ups, including the shoplifters, were so focused on what they were doing that they never noticed him. But the little children, trailing behind their oblivious parents, would glance up and wave.”

Psychological tests seemed to confirm Gopnik’s suspicions. In tests that involved a group of adults and a group of 4 and 5 year olds, everyone was asked to watch a colored panel for changes in green objects and ignore the red ones.

The adults were great at noticing changes in the green objects, as they’d been directed to. But the children were better at spotting changes in the red ones in the background.

“We often say,” writes Gopnik, “that young children are bad at paying attention. But what we really mean is that they’re bad at not paying attention, that they don’t screen out the world as grown-ups do. Children learn as much as they can about the world around them, even if it means that they get distracted by the distant airplane in the sky or the speck of paper on the floor when you’re trying to get them out the door to pre-school.”

The lesson that Gopnik takes from her studies is really a lesson for grown-ups: to take the time to explore the space around us. As she writes, “We are so often focused on our immediate goals that we miss unexpected developments and opportunities. Sometimes by focusing less, we can actually see more.”

Mr. Rogers counted on children being more open to time and space, more adaptable to change. He cultivated it, knowing that they had not yet been caught up in the echo chamber of voice commands and selected news feeds, and compulsive action. They did not yet bear the imprint of narrowed vision, lowered expectations, and acceptance of the status quo.

Mister Rogers hoped that their neighborhood could be the land of make-believe, even when they grew up. Tonight is the night we might start to make his hopes come true.


But we cannot do that alone. Just as we, as Jews, do not pray alone and do not pray for ourselves alone – just as there’s a reason all of you are in the pews tonight, all together, side by side, sharing this sacred time, your spaces intertwining with each other’s – just as we do this as Jews, we must do this as human beings. We live in neighborhood. We live with, and learn from, and learn to cherish, one another.

Professor Staats – the guy from the University of North Carolina – tells this story from the early days of the career of Thomas J. Watson, who would go on to be the head of IBM. Meeting with a group of sales managers, Watson was frustrated that his employees simply were not coming up with good ideas to grow and expand and advance the business. Said Watson: “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough.”

And here’s why that was happening: Thinking requires communication. Thrashing out ideas with other people. Giving people the time to be creative, and sharing that energetic space with them.

In rabbinical school, we learn to study in hevruta, in partnership, with another student. I’ll confess, I hated that. I just like to be by myself, working on my own thing at my own pace. But the world of hevruta is the lifeline to growth. If we become stuck in one mindset – or one way to understand a text – we close ourselves off to all the myriad possibilities that other people might come up with.

The rabbis say that Torah has seventy faces. I could never think of 70 different ways to understand a verse of Scripture on my own.

But in my hevruta – whether it’s in class, or at a convention, or during an on-line learning program – I am astonished and awed by what my colleagues show me. Continuing education is now considered a requirement for members of my rabbinical organization. As it should be for everyone.

Because of hevruta, my intellectual neighborhood is bigger – in space and in time – than it ever was. It is more exciting. It is more inclusive. It is more fulfilling.

But we have to find a way to translate that into our physical neighborhoods, the space where we live and work and play and eat and pray. And we must consider: What, exactly is our neighborhood? Where is it? Who’s in it? How do you get in? And who decides who our neighbors will be?

There was a fascinating – and troubling — article in The Atlantic monthly this summer, in which Matthew Stewart wrote about what he called “the birth of a new aristocracy.” Not the upper point-one percent – but the nine-point-nine percent just below it – which prosper because of opportunities that the other 90 percent do not have.

That 9.9 percent is where Matthew Stewart grew up. “We are,” he wrote, “the people of good family, good health, good schools, good neighborhoods, and good jobs.” All things considered, that’s also where most of us fall.

Now, that’s not to say our story of our good fortune is the same as his. Unlike Matthew Stewart, whose great-great grandfather made his millions as the chairman of Standard Oil of Indiana, our grandparents and great-grandparents came here penniless from Russia and Poland and the Ukraine.

They escaped poverty and pogroms, in the hope that their children – all of us – would have a better and happier and more prosperous life.

They toiled away as cobblers and dressmakers and dry-goods salesmen and civil servants. Their children got a free public education and earned enough to go to college.

We are the beneficiaries of their backbreaking dedication to this country and to all of us. They knew the world was not a land of make-believe. Their time and space were impacted by the limits of their education, and their language skills. But they spent their lives toiling away so that we would not be held back by those limits -that the world would be, for us, a place where anything was possible.

So of course we pass whatever advantages we have down to our children and grandchildren. Of course we do. That’s what we have to offer them. And we should not be ashamed that we are able to do that for them. But neither should we ignore the fact that others who have striven just as hard are not succeeding as we have. Neither should we accept the general stereotype that those who remain mired in poverty or in ignorance or in danger in their neighborhoods are less worthy, or have all brought it upon themselves.

Matthew Stewart points to a myriad of reasons why other neighborhoods are not like ours: The expense of parenting and the physical dangers of motherhood; the attacks on family planning and reproductive rights; regressive tax laws that increasingly allow the wealthy to keep more and the rest to pay more; law and order policing that divides families for a generation.

But there is also, he writes, “some garden-variety self-centeredness, enabled by the usual cognitive lapses. Human beings are very good at keeping track of their own struggles; they are less likely to know that individuals on the other side of town are working two minimum-wage jobs to stay afloat, not watching Simpsons reruns all day”

From this self-centeredness has arisen fear, stress, and – most of all – resentment. Resentment of what other people have and how they got it. Resentment that, somehow, life is unfair. Resentment that other people are scooping up the goodies and leaving us with less. “Other” people – that is, people not of our neighborhood. People of a different color, or ethnic background, or religion, or social status. It is this resentment – stoked by ever-present social-media feeds and self-serving information bubbles – that creates the polarization of Amercian life today.

But as Stewart keenly observes, “resentment is a solution to nothing.”

Resentment does not alleviate the inequality that is growing between neighborhoods in American life today. In fact, it’s designed to perpetuate inequality – by convincing some people that the only way they can keep what they have, is to prevent other people from getting more. By propagating the notion that the space we inhabit is not big enough for others – that it cannot be made big enough for others. Even though Mr. Rogers taught us all as children that space – like time – is bigger than we think.

As Matthew Stewart writes: “It’s going to take something from each of us. . . we need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbors.”

Over the course of the High Holy Days, we will explore the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the opportunities it offers us to break down the walls we build around ourselves and invite in those who make our lives richer than they could ever have been, had we closed them out. Alongside our prayers for ourselves and those we love, we will be reminded to pray for others. Alongside our voices pleading for God’s compassion and mercy, we will hear the voice of God from Scripture calling us to accept and assist the stranger, the other, the vulnerable and the troubled.

For now, I want to try Mr. Rogers’ experiment in time, with a little twist. How long do you think a minute is? Let’s find out.

Right now, I’d like you to close your eyes and remember someone who has made a difference in your life. Not just anyone. Pick someone who isn’t just like you. Someone of a different color, or a different ethnicity, or a different religion, or a different economic or social standing. How did you meet. How did they change you? How did they became your neighbor?

I’ll give you a whole minute. The egg-timer will be running . . . .

(the egg timer clicks after a minute)

Tonight, of all nights, as we look out at the expanse of space and time that is our New Year, we owe it to ourselves acknowledge that the world that God has given us is more spacious and diverse and generous than the tiny little bit of eternity that we inhabit. This world is our neighborhood. And it is our God-given responsibility to sustain it for all our neighbors.

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


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin







Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog

Beyond Seventy – on Israel’s Birthday       Friday, May 4, 2018

Mon, 2018-05-07 11:27

Yossi Klein Halevi just wants his Arab neighbors to understand what Israel, Jews and Zionism are all about. That, he says, is the purpose behind his new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which comes out in about ten days. In previous books, he’s reflected on the stories, ambitions and personal histories that his neighbors have shared with him. Now, he says, it’s his turn. And he’s made sure his neighbors have the opportunity to understand where he’s coming from: the book is available in Arabic, for free, on line.

“This book isn’t about optimism or pessimism,” he says, “but an attempt to explain the Jewish and Israeli story to our neighbors – why the Jewish people never game up its claim to this land even from afar, why I left my home in New York City in 1982 to move here. . . . We defend our story to the whole world, but we don’t bother explaining ourselves to our neighbors. We’re rightly outraged by the daily attacks on our history and legitimacy that fill the Palestinian media and the Arab world’s media. But we’ve never tried to tell them our story.”

Klein Halevi says the book is not about optimism or pessimism – but maybe it’s about both. And maybe that’s a good way to explain Israel and Jews and Zionism to the Arab world. An Arab world where, on one hand, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and the PLO continue to refuse to recognize the Jewish nation’s right to self-determination; and on the other, where Israel is finding allies in Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia that fear the power of Iran. Optimism that the shifting landscape throughout the Middle East gives Israel an opening to tell its story; pessimism that, after decades of lies and false narratives in the Arab world, the Jew hatred is entrenched so deeply that our story might not be hold.

And that has never been truer than it is this week, when the current Palestinian powers in both Gaza and the West Bank showed that they truly do not want – and will not seek – peace and recognition of the State of Israel as it approaches its 70th birthday.

In Gaza, Hamas has once again chosen to use the destitute population as a human shield for its attacks – encouraging men, women and children to riot along the border fence with Israel, setting fire to piles of tires to camouflage the terrorists who are trying to shoot and bomb their way across the border. Molotov cocktails have been hurled. Kites are now being set alight and landing with devastating effect in Israel’s tinder-dry wilderness.

Week after week, Israeli troops have pushed back, sometimes with deadly force. Week after week, western media outlets like the New York Times have put the blame squarely on Israel’s shoulders, without an acknowledgement that Hamas – which once promoted itself as a charitable agency – has been sacrificing its own people like this for years, while it wastes the vast resources the West has provided, smuggling weapons and digging tunnels instead building infrastructure and creating a functional civil society.

Hamas faces no dilemma here because it has no desire for peace, no plan for creating civil society. It is a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel. When it talks about the “occupation” it is talking about the whole of the State of Israel, which it has vowed to wipe off the face of the earth.

On the other hand, Israel, at 70, does face many of these dilemmas and is struggling to make sense of them.

“My public life,” writes Klein Halevi, “has been devoted to upholding what I consider an essential realism about Israel’s dilemma – that we can’t permanently rule another people but also can’t make peace with a Palestinian national movement that denies our right to exist as a sovereign nation.”

That continuing denial was brought into sharp focus this week when Mahmoud Abbas gave a long speech in Ramallah to the Palestine Liberation Organization – a speech that included just about every anti-semitic trope in the book. The Jews of Europe, he said, brought the Holocaust on themselves. It didn’t happen because of European antisemitism, he insisted, but because of the Jews’ usury, banking, and what he called their “social function.”

He reiterated the old canards that Jews have no place and no history in the Middle East, that Jews are not originally from the Middle East, and that Israel was a World War Two Colonialist project that had nothing to do with Jewish history or aspirations.

He brought up the lie he began perpetrating some 30 years ago – that Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis to move more Jews into what would become Israel. A lie that is clearly contrary to the facts and the record of the partnership between Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. At their meeting in 1941, Hitler promised the Mufti that, as soon as German forces had broken through from the Caucasus into the Middle East – and this is a quote from the minutes of their meeting – “Germany’s goal will be the extermination of the Jews who reside in Arab territories under British rule.”

Such lies been pervasive in the PLO’s self-promotion for decades. Lies that are, in part, designed to distract from the incompetence, corruption, and avarice of a Palestinian leadership that has walked away from multiple offers of peace from Israel, and that has instead responded to those offers with violent uprisings and calculated, targeted killings.

Abbas’ language was roundly condemned even by organizations that have not been friendly to Israel. The United Nations special coordinator for peace in the Middle East called it “unacceptable, deeply disturbing.” And even the New York Times, whose coverage of the violence at the Gaza border has been stridently anti-Israel, apparently has enough. “Even in this gloomy climate,” wrote the Times Editorial board on Wednesday, “Mr. Abbas’ vile speech was a new low. . . . Palestinians need a leader with energy, integrity and vision, one who might have a better chance of achieving Palestinian independence and enabling both peoples to live in peace.”

I have said before that I do not agree with many of the policies of various Israeli governments, including this one. I do think there have been missed opportunities in Jerusalem. But the Times is absolutely correct that the Palestinian leadership has failed – failed to unify the West Bank and Gaza, failed to alleviate the desperate circumstances of its people.

Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has reached the limit of his. He has publicly scolded the Palestinian leadership, told them to shut up, stop complaining, and stop rejecting Israeli offers for peace.

So, yes, maybe Klein Halevi’s book is coming at the right time to be heard in the Arab world. But there’s another important opportunity here – not just for his Palestinian neighbors but for all of us. Because it’s not just the Arab Palestinian national narrative that has flaws in it. Some aspects of the modern Zionist story, too, are problematic. Because if it only starts from 1948, if we are only celebrating 70 years, then we are doing ourselves and our cause a disservice.

Just focusing on the founding of the modern state of Israel plays into the lie that Jews were plunked down in the middle of the Arab world to assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. It’s a lie that is promoted deliberately by people like Abbas and by the anti-Semitic leadership of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, who rely on the sheer ignorance of most of the population of the world about the origins and history of the Jewish people in their land.

As Liel Leibovitz wrote just today in Tablet magazine:

“When everyone from Mahmoud Abbas to Natalie Portman speaks of Israel as a direct outcome of the Holocaust – one with malice, the other out of ignorance – it may be refreshing for the passionate and the progressive to hear about the millennia that preceded Auschwitz, about the Temples and the exiles, about the deep and immovable roots that bind us to the land and from which Jewish self-determination had bloomed for thousands of years.”

If we are going to try get others to see us as something beyond colonialists and interlopers, we need to make sure that our own narrative is clear and strong. Not just 70 years but thousands of years. Not just refugees but rightful heirs. Not just particularists but universalists.

This is, I think, what Klein Halevi is striving for here, when he asks his Arab neighbors not just to hear with an open ear, but with an open mind and a willing heart. He writes:

“Dear Neighbor . . .

“. . . We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless cycle. Not a “cycle of violence” — a lazy formulation that tells us nothing about why our conflict exists, let alone how to end it. Instead, we’re trapped in what may be called a ‘cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty. The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.

“That is the cycle we can only break together.”

I do not know if either side has the courage, or the leadership, or the willingness right now to break this cycle of denial. But I know that, like a good 12-step program, the first step is acknowledging the problem. And here, both sides have to do that. If not, we cannot move forward, step by step, to the future of peaceful coexistence many of us envision.

At the end of his book, Klein Halevi reflects on the celebration of Sukkot in Israel, and building and living in his sukkah. This is, he writes, “an expression of defiance against despair. This open and vulnerable structure is the antithesis of the fortified concrete room in my basement, which every Israeli family is required by law to build, against possible missile attacks. We live with that threat as a constant reality. But the sukkah is our spiritual air raid shelter, promise of a world without fear.”

As we prepare to celebrate the modern state of Israel’s 70th birthday, we must remind ourselves not only of the thousands of years of our history on the land, but also of the important and sacred times that cycle around each and every year, which have sustained our people for these thousands of years, in Israel and outside of it. Feast days and fast days; days when we recite Psalms of rejoicing and of remembering; days coming up soon, like Shavuot, when we celebrate the creation of our people in ancient times, bound by the covenant made at Sinai; days we farther along in the calendar, like Sukkot, when a temporary hut can be turned into a symbol of permanence and peace.

Let us look back on our history as stepping stones that take us, not just to how far we have come today, but where we want and need to be tomorrow. And let us say together: Amen.


©2018 Audrey R. Korotkin




Categories: Rabbi Audrey's Blog


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