Dress for Success: What Biblical Clothes Can Tell Us About Modern Leadership

This week’s sermon on Purim and Parashat Tetzaveh. Cross posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Every year, when I sit down to do my taxes, I scroll through my Amazon history to determine what I spent on books, office supplies, and other work-related items. When I get to February and March, I am filled with gratitude that I am in a profession where a Marilyn Monroe wig is a business expense.

Purim is upon us, and that means we are paying special attention to our clothing. We dress in costume, of course (a reminder that this year we will have prizes for doing so!). But the theme of clothing is also woven through the Purim story: who is wearing it, and who isn’t wearing it. The King asks Vashti to appear before his friends wearing her royal crown—perhaps, the rabbis suggest, only her royal crown—and she refuses. After banishing Vashti, the King places that same crown on Esther’s head. Mordechai wears sackcloth and ashes when he hears of the edict to execute the Jews of Shushan, and the king’s own royal robes, when a jealous Haman is forced to honor his rival. Esther employs perfumes and cosmetics to win the king’s heart, and puts on royal robes to change the king’s mind. And while Haman’s famous hat doesn’t appear anywhere in the biblical story, we all know to associate its triangular shape with evil, or possibly, with prune filling.

Clothing is more than what covers our bodies. It is part of what defines us as human beings. As Nechama Leibowitz points out: “Humans are the only creatures in the universe who do not rest content with their natural skin” (Etz Chayim, p. 504). Clothing sends a message both to the wearer and to the outside world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, where we learn the design of the clothing of the priesthood, particularly the elaborate garments of the high priest.

In a society where most clothing would have been overwhelmingly beige, the colorful design of the high priest’s outfit indicates his elevated status. The embroidery alone requires the work of many dedicated Israelites. Gold, blue, purple, and red dyes—all expensive to produce—figure prominently in the high priests’ outfit. Precious stones and metals decorate his forehead, shoulders, chest, and ankles.

These fancy pieces did not just serve to show the Israelites who is boss. In fact, it is likely that they did exactly the opposite.

high priest outfitWhile the other priests wore simple, modest linen garments—tunics, sashes, turbans, and pants—the high priest’s outfit included a more decorative item called an ephod, which resembles a heavily embroidered apron. The centerpiece of this ephod was the choshen mishpat, the “breastpiece of decision,” containing the Urim and Thummim, a pair of stones used to divine God’s will. The choshen is embellished with 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, on each of his shoulders, the high priest wears one of two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 tribes. “Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28: 30).

Why would God insist that the high priest be so…bedazzled? Wouldn’t all that bling be heavy to carry around?

While the use of precious stones was an indicator of the high priest’s status, the engraving on the stones serves a dual purpose. The first is so that, when the high priest appeared before God, God would remember the covenant God had made with all the Israelites. The second is so that neither the high priest nor the Israelites would ever forget that the high priest was their representative. Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers writes that the breastplate, “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478). One rabbi adds that the gemstones “serve as a perpetual and humbling reminder to him that he is the representative of the entire community of Israel before God” (Etz Chayim, p. 506).

This means that, every day, when the High Priest puts on the ephod and the choshen, the gemstones force him to literally feel the weight of his responsibilities bearing down on his shoulders. He may be, as the gold piece on his forehead states, “Holy to the Eternal,” but he is also, in essence, a servant of the people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like that for our leaders today?

When I was training to be a camp counselor at URJ Camp Eisner, the director read us a letter from a first-time camper’s parent. I don’t remember exactly what it said, only that the parent was grateful, and that the child’s name was Emma. I remember this because, after reading about the great summer the camp had provided for her, someone printed up stickers saying, “I do it for Emma.” I still have the sticker on my now rarely-used camp counselor clipboard. While I’ve long since forgotten who Emma was (I don’t even know if I ever met her, though she’s probably 25 by now) the sticker still serves as a reminder that a great deal of what we do as leaders needs to be remembering whom we work so hard for.

No matter what our profession or calling, it helps to keep a reminder of why we do what we do, and whom we do it for, close to our hearts. And no one needs this reminder more than our elected officials.

As I was reading this Torah portion, I couldn’t help but imagine what a choshen mishpat might look like for our government leaders. Would the president wear a stone for each of the 50 states? Would a senator’s breastpiece feature the names of all of their districts? Would a representative engrave their constituents’ zip codes on their shoulder stones? What would it feel like if a local, state, or national leader had to carry the weight of their constituents with them wherever they went?

We don’t have ephods or breastpieces today: not for our Jewish leaders, and not for our political ones. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to remind our leaders whom they serve. Rabbis get these reminders when we meet with our lay leadership, and when people come to us directly to tell us what they need or want. Although we cannot possibly please everyone, even in a small community, knowing what our community is thinking and feeling helps us to be better rabbis. It helps us to point ourselves in the right direction, not necessarily where we want the congregation to go, but where we believe the congregation itself wants to be.

Politicians get these reminders when we visit, call, or write to them. In the wake of recent events, some organizations are suggesting we do this every day. This is relatively new territory for me, as I previously only spoke to my representatives on a handful of designated advocacy days. Now I receive daily reminders to call, write, or visit our local, state, and national leaders, to remind them who I am, what my values are, and that I will support any effort the government makes to take better care of the people.

On the flip side of this, as a leader myself, I am feeling the weight of our community’s needs. Many people we serve here at Vassar Temple have expressed a desire to advocate publicly for Jewish values in partnership with our synagogue community. Just as many of our people have expressed a desire for the synagogue to be a refuge from political activity, and we respect that desire as well. With six on one shoulder and a half dozen on the other, we aim to strike a reasonable balance.

This Sunday, at 7 p.m., the Vassar Temple Advocacy Group will be meeting to set its course for the coming year. While this group does not represent Vassar Temple as an institution, it provides an opportunity for our members to engage in advocacy that is in line with our Jewish values, in partnership with our sacred community. We work in conjunction with Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, which is a non-partisan group that advocates on issues including hunger, reproductive rights, and equality for women and the LGBTQ community. While we do not expect the entire Reform Jewish community, or even all of Vassar Temple itself, to be aligned on how we approach these issues, we cannot deny that these are concerns we all share, and that part of being Jewish is standing up for what we believe in, whether we do this individual, or together.

Like the stones on the choshen mishpat, we are called to remind our leaders who it is they serve, to be the weight on their shoulders, and the precious stones that they display proudly to the world.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Purim, which, if we look beyond the elaborate costumes, celebrates the different ways we stand up against injustice. May we be like Vashti, who stamps her feet in protest. May we be like Mordechai, who supports and guides a new leader as she finds her voice. May we be like Esther, who uses her position of power to protect the vulnerable. And let us even give a little credit to King Ahasheurus who, when challenged by those he respects and admires, manages to do the right thing.

Whose stories are we not hearing?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s Shabbat sermon on parashat Yitro. Crossposted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal
of what he saw,
of what he heard,
of what it all meant to him.

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t—
I’m always holding a baby,
one of my own,
or one for a friend,
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down.

And then
as time passes,
the particulars,
the hard data,
the who what when where why,
slip away from me,
and all I’m left with is
the feeling.

But feelings are just sounds
the vowel barking of a mute.

My brother is so sure of what he heard—
after all he’s got a record of it—
consonant after consonant after consonant.

If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying.

This poem by Merle Feld gives us a personal perspective of one of the most important collective experiences of the Jewish people: Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Because this moment, captured in this week’s Torah portion, was such an important part of the Jewish story, rabbis have spent centuries arguing about exactly who was there, who heard what, and who said what in response.

For instance, some rabbis argued that this historic gathering was not limited by the bounds of the space-time continuum. Therefore, it included the future prophets of Israel, the souls of those yet unborn, and the souls of future converts to Judaism (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). One rabbi imagined that the bellies of pregnant women became like glass, so that the fetuses in their wombs could affirm their commitment to the covenant (Midrash Aseret Ha-Dibrot).

But oddly enough, some rabbis argue over whether or not women were included, and whether they received all commandments, or just the most basic ones. One progressive amongst these rabbis concluded that the women must have been addressed first because they were “prompt in fulfilling the commandments” and would “lead their children to the study of Torah” (Exodus Rabbah 28:2).

Modern feminist scholars point out that Moses’ instructions to the people seem to imply that women were not to be included at all. This exclusion, they argue, did not come from God, but rather from Moses’ own biases. While God instructs Moses to make sure the people “stay pure,” Moses tells the people—or at least, the men—“Do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19: 10-15). In doing so, Moses has implied that “people” means “men,” and that “pure” and “woman” cannot exist in the same space.

Tikvah Frymer-Kensky wrote that “At this defining moment of revelation, Moses has introduced into Israel both gender exclusion and the separation between sexuality and spirituality. Two major concepts—and they are not divine” (Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, pp. 70-72). Judith Plaskow puts it more simply, “At this central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible” (Contemporary Jewish Theology, pp. 255). Given that, last week, the Torah amplified the voices of women–singing, dancing, and drumming on the shores of the sea– their silence here is almost audible.

And while these contemporary voices point out the exclusion of women from the Sinai narrative, these aren’t the only voices that we aren’t hearing. The Torah would have us believe that close to a million people were standing at Sinai. Surely they did not all have the same experience! But we only really hear about Moses, and God, and the Israelites as a collective entity. The experience of the individual is lost.

For instance, my friend Matan Koch once gave a brilliant sermon about the phrase “standing at Sinai.” Matan uses a power chair, and while he can make it go up and down when asked to “rise for the Barchu,” he cannot physically stand. He asked us to consider what his fate might have been at Sinai. Would God have miraculously enabled him to stand for the giving of the Torah? Would his fellow Israelites have propped him up to a standing position? Or would God have accepted him as he was, a person who cannot stand and therefore enters the covenant in a seated position?

All of this got me thinking about whose stories we might not be hearing, at Sinai, and now.

In a recent interview, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discussed her now-famous quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” This quote is beloved by activists and feminists everywhere. Some of us even have it printed on tote bags. But Ulrich had not meant for her words to serve as encouragement for revolutionary behavior. She had had actually been talking about the difficulty of her own research into the lives of ordinary women in the 19th century. All she had to work with were the journals of a handful of “well-behaved” women, because the patterns of their everyday lives were not considered newsworthy. Nor did the men around them take note of their behavior, unless it was erratic.

I have long been obsessed with stories, both real and imaginary, about people ordinary and extraordinary. In addition to my love of biblical stories and midrash on their characters, I enjoy storytelling podcasts and memoirs. Personal stories give me perspectives that differ from my own: such as what it was like to grow up poor in Appalachia and then go to Yale, or how it would feel to travel to Korea to impress one’s future husband’s grandparents.

One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate are the stories I hear when guiding people through the life-cycle. B’nai mitzvah parents tell me what their children were like as babies, trying to escape from their cribs, or tasting solid food for the first time. Wedding couples tell me why they love each other and how they knew it, or how many times their partner asked them out before they said yes. Families preparing for a funeral have the impossible task of telling me their loved one’s entire life story in about an hour, but they do it with tenderness and humor. These are the stories of ordinary people, everyday stories that rarely get told outside the inner circle of a family. There are many commonalities, but each one is different, and learning each other’s stories is vital to building meaningful relationships and sacred communities.

In the world we currently inhabit, our struggle to build these relationships is twofold. First of all, we might be too plugged in, too busy, or too uncomfortable to sit down with people in our circle to ask questions about their lives.

Our second challenge is that, even if we were to uncover the life stories of everyone we knew, we might still not hear the stories of those beyond our circle. We are a nation made up of diverse opinions and life experiences. This can cause a lot of tension between those who hold different viewpoints. What would it be like if everyone in our nation took the time to hear the stories of individual immigrants, refugees, people in poverty, people in business, people in law enforcement, those who live in East Coast cities and those who live in the rural Midwest, people of color and people of privilege, people from different religions, and, most of all, people from opposing political parties?

So while I try not to make a habit of telling you what to do, I’d like to suggest three action items to consider over this long weekend:

First of all, we can ask a loved one to tell us their story. The StoryCorps website and app have great lists of questions to ask.

Second, we can find someone in the synagogue that we don’t know very well, and make time to meet with them and learn their story. We’ve been talking a lot about how we might navigate these tumultuous times as a community. Sometimes we will be called upon to act together, sometimes to support one another. But what if the synagogue was a place where we could experience the stories of those who are not like us? Because even if we are all part of the Jewish community, we are not all the same.

Finally, we can seek out opportunities to hear the stories of those whose experiences and opinions might be different from our own. You might find them online through StoryCorps or The Moth, but also in our community. For instance, we are working with our Jewish, Muslim, and Christian neighbors to create joint programming where we can get to know each other better.

We also have an opportunity to hear stories on Saturday, March 25th, when the TMI Project will be hosting an evening called “Black Stories Matter” in Kingston. This is an opportunity to hear about experiences different—or perhaps not so different—from our own in an apolitical setting: just real snapshots of pivotal moments in other people’s ordinary lives.

There are those who believe that the Torah was given in 70 languages, so that everyone in the world could understand (Shabbbat 88a). One rabbi suggests that, just as manna tasted different to every Israelite, so the commandments sounded different to each individual: “Come and see how the voice went forth to all of Israel, to each and every one in keeping with their particular strength [koach]—to the elderly in keeping with their strength, to young men in keeping with their strength, to the little ones in keeping with their strength, and to the women in keeping with their strength” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9).

The better we know each other’s strengths and stories, the better we can speak to one another in the right language. Because even though the Israelites might each have heard or experienced something different at that Sinai moment, they all stood at the same mountain, they all had to adhere to the same covenant, and they all had to walk through the same wilderness, together. The same is true of us: our experiences may be different, but it is still incumbent upon us to move forward together. Then we might, as Merle Feld suggests, “recreate holy time, sparks flying.”

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting the Plague of Darkness

Rabbi Berkowitz’s remarks at the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March. You can watch a video of the speech here. Mid-Hudson welcomed its first refugee family, from Congo, this past Tuesday. The family our community has volunteered to welcome is delayed indefinitely.

For the sin of silence,
For the sin of indifference,
For the secret complicity of the neutral, 
For the closing of borders,
For the washing of hands,
For the crime of indifference,
For the sin of silence,
For the closing of borders.
For all that was done,
For all that was not done,
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of
Glory;
Let there be remembrance within the human heart;
And let there at last be forgiveness
When your children, O God,
Are free and at peace.

From Chaim Stern, editor, Gates of Repentance (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978).

This week, the Jewish scriptural readings find us enslaved in Egypt, inching ever closer to that moment of liberation, but with many roadblocks along the way. With Pharaoh’s heart so hardened that even his most trusted advisors cannot sway him, God brings about the ninth plague: “a darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21).

Unlike many of the other plagues, this one fell only on the houses of the Egyptians. What was the nature of this strange and selective darkness? The rabbis tell us that this is not a physical darkness, but a spiritual one, “the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors” (Etz Chayim 377).

This is a story that has recurred too many times in our history. Too many times, we have drawn the curtains and shut off the streetlights, turned off the television and silenced the radio, so that we did not have to bear witness to our neighbors’ suffering, so that we would not be held responsible for our inaction.

But we are here this evening to say: we will not give in to the darkness of ignorance and indifference. We will shine the light of solidarity, even in these dark times. Because, as the ancient rabbis tell us, the break of dawn is the moment we can first recognize the face of our friend (Berachot 9b).

We are here tonight, to say to our neighbors, to our faith communities, and to our public officials: We will not let the actions of our national leadership prevent us from seeing the humanity of our neighbors, whether they are our Muslim brothers and sisters living among us now, or our refugee cousins who are, in spite of everything, still hoping to make a home in our community. We will not allow our nation to fall victim to the plague of darkness.

We are here tonight to say to our neighbors.

Our lights have not been extinguished.

Our curtains are not drawn.

Our doors are not closed.

Our ears and eyes and hearts are open:

We see you.

We hear you.

We are you.

We are standing beside you.

We will welcome you.

And we will fight for you!

 Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lirdof tzedek ule’ehov et ha-ger.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through sacred obligations, and commands us to pursue justice, and to love the stranger.

A Referendum on the American Dream: Rabbi Berkowitz’s Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5777

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem, written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. These were the first words that many of our ancestors saw upon arriving in New York Harbor. They might not have been able to read them, but the message came across loud and clear in the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm. Its torch lit the way to what, for many of them, was considered a “Goldene Medene,” a new Promised Land.

Fleeing persecution and poverty, our ancestors set their sights on a land that promised freedom and opportunity. Once the harrowing journey was over, they would have the chance to build better lives for themselves and their children.

My grandmother didn’t come through Ellis Island. Seeking to enter the United States in the early 1920s, my great-grandparents entered New York by way of Canada, to establish British citizenship and circumvent quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. My great-grandmother, previously one of Warsaw’s elite, scrubbed floors, while my great-grandfather candled eggs, until they had enough money to open a grocery store in Harlem. They enrolled their three children in the New York public schools and cheder, and saw to it that all of them went to college. Their hard work ensured that their children and grandchildren would have access to a good education, gainful and meaningful employment, and a level of material comfort that they could not even imagine for themselves.

Many of us have stories like these, great “American Dream” narratives of coming here with nothing, working hard to make something of ourselves, and giving a better life to the next generation. These would be great “lift ourselves up by our bootstraps” narratives, except for one thing. We did not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. In some shape or form, every one of us had help getting to where we are today.

There was private assistance: the relatives who sent money and set us up with our first jobs. There was also a vast network of Jewish and secular benevolent societies that provided education, medical care, free loans, and legal aid to people who were new to this country. State and local governments stepped in to assist and protect new Americans: providing funding for benevolent societies, free public education for the children of immigrants, and regulation of threats to public health and safety posed by tenements and sweatshops.

Public and private assistance to new Americans wasn’t perfect, but it was widespread, in both the Jewish and public spheres. This is because welcoming the stranger is deeply rooted in both the Jewish narrative and the American narrative. We, the Jewish people, are a nation of exiles. And we, the American people, are a nation of immigrants.

Jews have been immigrating to, and settling in, America since a group of Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. While there were not yet quotas keeping us from entering the Americas, Jews and other religious minorities faced discrimination and intolerance in early American settlements, and even after the founders declared that, “all men were created equal.”

The question of what role Jews would play in this nascent country came to the foreground in 1790, when George Washington himself visited the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. In a letter to the congregation, Washington stated that tolerance of diversity was not an indulgence, but a basic human right, and that the country he served as president would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

For a people who had been repeatedly pushed down into the status of second-class citizen—or denied citizenship altogether—America felt akin to Canaan, the biblical Promised Land. For the first time in millennia, it felt like we might be able to stop our perpetual wandering.

But even the Promised Land isn’t promised unconditionally, as we read in this morning’s portion, Nitzavim:

“And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Eternal has inflicted upon that land…just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorroh… all nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do thus to the land?’ … They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal … made with them when God freed them from the land of Egypt….So the Eternal … uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land” (Deut. 29:21-27).

This passage was likely written by a people already in exile, trying to understand their displacement from the land given by God to their ancestors. The Promised Land wasn’t something we thought we could lose. Suddenly, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land, wondering how we got there.

It shouldn’t have been such a mystery to us. The narratives of the Torah are rife with stories of punishment, destruction and exile. Adam and Eve lost their place in the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s command. Noah and his family watched as the rest of the world’s corrupt inhabitants drowned in a flood. The architects of Babel were scattered into 70 nations for attempting to storm the gates of heaven. And the people of Sodom and Gomorroh disappeared beneath a maelstrom of fire and brimstone.

Why is it that the people of Sodom were targeted for destruction? The plain text attributes Sodom’s fate to the perversion of its inhabitants, who attempt an assault on two strangers staying in the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But the rabbis suggest that the people of Sodom didn’t come after the strangers because of their depravity, but because of their unwillingness to share what they had.

One might think this kind of miserliness comes from a place of scarcity. But the rabbis tell us that Sodom was a place of great wealth. Neither human beings walking below, nor birds flying above, could see through the dense foliage of the fruit-bearing trees. Gold flakes clung to the roots of their vegetables. The people of Sodom didn’t become stingy because they had too little, but because they had too much!

Rather than feel blessed by their abundance, the people of Sodom began to fear that foreigners would take what was rightfully theirs, saying: “We live in peace and plenty…What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land!”

So the people of Sodom developed an elaborate anti-wayfarer campaign. They charged people four zuzim to cross the bridge into their town, and eight zuzim if they tried to evade the toll by wading through a river. If a wayfarer was too tall or too short for his bed, they would cut him or stretch him to fit. If he begged in the street, people would give him coins, but instruct the local shopkeepers not to sell him food. When the stranger inevitably died, the people would retrieve their money from his pockets.

The animosity of the people of Sodom was not reserved for the stranger. They also stole from each other, were violent towards one another, and refused to feed the hungry amongst themselves, even to the point of torturing those who took pity on the stranger.

The rabbis explain that God’s punishment of Sodom is a response to the outcry of Lot’s daughter, who had been secretly sustaining an impoverished person. When the townspeople discover her transgression, they burn her alive, and she cries out: “God of the universe … exact justice and judgment in my behalf from the Sodomites” (Book of Legends 36:30-32).

The price of their selfishness and greed was exile and destruction. Not because of the isolated actions of its individuals, but because, according to Rabbi Eliezar, “wickedness became public policy endorsed and approved by the authorities” (Pirke De Rabbi Eliezar 25).

We might hear this and think, “What does it have to do with us? We would never do anything like that in our country!” But only two years ago, a 90-year-old WWII veteran named Arnold Abbot was arrested multiple times for violating a local ordinance against feeding the homeless in public spaces in Florida. This may sound like just another irregular news item. But policy-making and political rhetoric against those in need is not. Those seeking public assistance are treated as a nuisance and a drain on our society, rather than the responsibility of a nation built by the tired, poor, and the tempest-tost.

It is not a coincidence that our country’s entrance bears the verse, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” In Emma Lazarus’s day, welcoming the stranger to this land of opportunity was a major point of American pride. But just over a century later, when the plenty in our land has only increased, we speak of replacing our golden doors with high walls, in the interest of preventing, and forcibly removing, those who seek to make a home here.

While it is impossible to speak of the American Dream without mentioning our immigrant past, it is not only immigrants and refugees who suffer from our scarcity mentality. Citizens of this nation also fall victim to the rhetoric of “us versus them.” Those of us in positions of privilege and power have become so concerned with protecting what we have, that we allow others to be oppressed in the name of our own security and comfort.

We support policies that deny workers fair wages and the most basic assistance in caring for themselves and their families, so that we can have cheap labor, cheap goods, and a lower bottom line. This doesn’t just impact the people at the bottom. Skilled workers and educated professionals too find themselves struggling to make ends meet, in a society that provides little help in the way of childcare, loan forgiveness, and pay equity.

We support a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color, so that we can feel safe, or even, in our worst moments, so that corporations might profit from the business of incarceration.

We balance our budgets on the backs of our public education and health care systems, as well as by cutting funds to other agencies that assist those living in poverty. Then we blame the poor for somehow not being gritty enough to pull themselves up, like we did.

We are so concerned with voter fraud, something that only happens only a few hundred times per election, that we would allow laws to pass that deny voting rights to tens of millions of American citizens, mostly the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Many of us are so disgusted by our political system right now that we are tempted to throw up our hands and not participate at all. But it is not enough for us to hope that the rest of the country makes a good decision, or to resign ourselves to whatever the outcome of this election may be. Apathy is not an option for us, as Jews or as Americans, because every election is a referendum on the American Dream.

american-dream-word-cloud
This sermon as a word cloud.
Every election is an opportunity for us to decide who we want to be as a nation. Do we want to perpetuate the “bootstraps” myth of rugged individualism, or do we want to acknowledge that even the most tenacious and persistent of us would not be where we are today had we not received help from our community and our country? We have survived centuries of discrimination and persecution in this country and all over the world. Will we stand idly by as our country continues to push down its weaker citizens: its immigrants, its people of color, and even its women? Do we want to be a nation that tightens its borders and starves out the wayfarer, or do we want to be a nation that cares deeply for its own citizens, and welcomes the stranger, as we have been welcomed and cared for?

This election comes down to this: do we want to be Canaan, a land of promise and plenty, or do we want to be Sodom, a land of fear and self-preservation?

This question is very real to us as we begin this new year. We have just learned that Church World Service has been approved to open a Voluntary Agency for the resettlement of refugees in Dutchess County. Vassar Temple is working with local religious institutions, universities, and non-profits to support individual refugee families who will be resettled in our area.

Our community will be called upon to provide assistance in many different ways. I know that we will welcome these families to our community with open arms, and with generous support, because that is who we are as a community.

But what will we do for the 65 million others who are persecuted in, and displaced from, their home countries, as we once were? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the very agency that helped many of us settle in this country, has shifted its focus to helping immigrants from outside of the Jewish community. They are calling upon us to support their work of helping refugees settle here and abroad. They are also asking us to urge our government leaders to increase the number of refugees we are accepting into this country. That number is now only 10,000, a small fraction, even of the 1% of refugees who are eligible for resettlement in the first place, and who have passed through our rigorous screening process.

This is what we can do for those who are strangers in a strange land. But what will we do for those citizens of our country who do not yet know the freedom and equality upon which the United States was founded? Our first step is to ensure that all of us can participate in the election this November. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has launched a campaign to increase voter participation and voter protection in this election, because ensuring that all people have the right to vote is the first step in ensuring that so many of our other rights will be protected.

I encourage you visit their websites, to learn what you can do to increase access to the American Dream, by welcoming more people into this great country, and by empowering those who are already here to make decisions about our nation’s future.

The RAC has named their campaign after this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which means, “you stand together.” At the start of this Torah portion, we hear who is standing on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Promised Land: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 29:9-11).

Even in the patriarchal, particularistic religion of ancient Israel, Moses goes out of his way to mention groups that we might expect to be left on the margins. The speech is addressed, not only to the elders, the officials, and the men, but also to the women and the children, the day laborers, and the strangers in our midst.

God reminds us: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29: 14). “Those who are not with us today,” includes those of us who are sitting here this morning.

Every year at Passover, we remind ourselves that, in every generation, we are obligated to regard ourselves as if we, personally, went forth from Egypt. Even as we sit reclining at our dining room tables, we are commanded to remember the pain of slavery as a personal trauma, so that we will never lose our empathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed. The same can be said of our much more recent experience as new immigrants in this country.

We as Jews aren’t a people who believe that one can start from birth at zero. Even as we enjoy our comfortable lives, we carry with us the history—no, the memory—of previous generations: who wandered, who struggled, who knew persecution and discrimination, and who relied on public and private assistance to survive and to flourish in this country.

When we stood on the banks of the Jordan, we entered into a covenant that demanded that we help the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. Centuries later, when we passed through the “Golden Door” into this great country, we also entered into a sacred covenant, to take every opportunity that was granted to us, and to make sure that others would have the same opportunities that we once did.

As we open the door to a new year, may we honor these covenants. May we be ever-vigilant to protect the rights of the homeless, the poor, the stranger and the tempest-tost. May we remember that we are a nation whose founders swore to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And may we work diligently to fulfill that vision of a Promised Land inscribed on our nation’s entrance, “I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”  And let us say, Amen.

Rosh Hashana’s Messages Aren’t “Mixed,” Life Is. #BlogElul #HHDs

Cross-posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like. Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon from Friday, September 30th.

News flash! Extra, extra, read all about it! High Holy Day services are boring!

That’s what my social media feeds start to look like every year around this time. I find this especially amusing, since about 60% of my network of friends are some kind of Jewish professional or a lay leader in a synagogue. There’s always an article about the pitfalls of our holiest days of the year, how we can change them, why we should put up with them, or why we should ignore them altogether.

This year, the headline was particularly dramatic. Jay Michaelson, who spoke at our Shabbaton last year, published an article in the Forward under the title, “Why You Shouldn’t Go to Synagogue on Rosh Hashana This Year.”

But honestly, for all of its click-bait sensationalism, there isn’t much new or controversial about what Michaelson is saying. Here are his arguments:

  • The High Holy Days have become a performance, both by the spiritual leaders of congregations, and by participants who have made these services into “the Fashion Week of Jewish life.”
  • The complicated theology and the guilt-inducing messages of the High Holy Days can be off-putting when taken out of the context of the rest of the Jewish calendar.
  • Rosh Hashana in particular sends a “mixed message,” in that is presented both as the joyous Birthday of the World and the terror-inducing Day of Judgment.

I don’t disagree with Michaelson’s arguments. I’m grateful we have Shabbat every week and High Holy Days only twice a year! Expectations and anxieties run high on these High Holy Days, and sometimes it does feel like we are putting on a show. The preparation can be very stressful for our staff, our volunteers, and our members. I never see people fighting over seats or parking spaces on Shavuot. If I could get rid of all that stress for our community (and, to be perfectly honest, for myself), I would.

As far as context is concerned, I’ve often wished that as many people would join us for Purim as do for Yom Kippur. The message of Rosh Hashana’s grim language is an important one: that our lives are finite, and that we must consider each action as if these were our last days on earth. But taken by themselves, the ideas of the Book of Life, the Day of Judgment, and the Throne of Glory can be harsh and unsettling.

The High Holy Days are supposed to be a part of a “balanced breakfast,” as the cereal commercials used to say. We can no more live on celebration alone than we could live only on a diet Fruity Pebbles. Conversely, we can no more live on repentance alone than we could live only on Bran Flakes. Our cycle of Jewish holidays is supposed to mirror the ups and downs of any given year, and of any given life. That’s one reason why, just four days after the solemn Day of Atonement, we have an eight-day celebration of the harvest. So while I agree with Michaelson that one shouldn’t only come to synagogue on the High Holy Days, we’d be missing out on some pretty important spiritual nutrients if we skipped them altogether.

Which leads me to the argument I found most troubling: that Rosh Hashana contradicts itself by being both the solemn beginning of the Days of Awe and the joyous Birthday of the World. “The day itself is confused,” Michaelson writes, “an amalgam of celebration and repentance, conviviality and sobriety. Are we supposed to celebrate the Birthday of the World or get busy with apologizing to God? Do we wish each other a happy new year or a serious, pious new year? …which is it, a funeral or a quincanera?”

The answer is, it’s both. And I don’t think that’s contradictory at all.

I don’t have to tell you that life is complicated. How many of us have had a birthday where we didn’t experience both the joy of celebrating with friends and family, and the anxiety standing alone in front of the bathroom mirror, counting wrinkles, hunting for gray hairs, wondering if we can accept, and embrace, who we are becoming? How many of us have celebrated a holiday or a simcha without shedding a tear over the people who are not celebrating with us anymore, or without wondering who might not be in the family photograph next year? And how many of us have been to a funeral where nobody laughed telling a story about the very person they were mourning?

Tomorrow night, I’ll officiate at the last wedding of 5776. Weddings always seem beautiful and romantic from a distance, but from where I’m standing, there is none without complications. Weddings are not unlike the High Holy Days, with their high production value, and the heightened stress levels that comes with that. The couple, their family and friends, bring all of their drama and baggage to this major turning point in their lives. There are people missing and people not speaking, people who wish they could be there and people who wish they could be anywhere else.

Even at the most joyous, uncomplicated union of two people in love from two families that get along great, we don’t let ourselves slip into pure happiness. We shatter a glass, some say to remind ourselves of the destruction of the Temple, others suggest that it wards off evil spirits, demonstrates the groom’s virility, or keeps the guests from getting too rowdy. But the shattered glass also reminds us that, even in one of life’s peak moments, we never leave behind our brokenness. But it also reminds us that our brokenness doesn’t prevent us from experiencing joy.

One of my favorite poems, by one of Israel’s greatest poets, Yehudah Amichai, tells us that:

“A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.

 

A man needs to love and hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.”

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Life is a mixed bag.

This is true of being Jewish, but also of being human. We often need, as the poem suggests, “to laugh and cry with the same eyes.” There is no holiday, no life-cycle, not even any ordinary day, that contains only frivolity or only solemnity. We must have faith that we as human beings have the capacity to hold both joy and sadness in our hearts, because we continue to do so, every single day.

The Torah portion this Shabbat, Nitzavim, which we will also read on Yom Kippur, warns, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity…blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:15, 19). This is presented to us as a choice, a reward or punishment for adhering, or not adhering, to the commandments. But in many ways the dichotomy is false: in any full life, we will have both life and death, both prosperity and adversity, both blessings and curses. They don’t fit into neat little compartments, and often, we experience them simultaneously. The blessing is that these experiences and emotions can balance, and even enhance one another. Our sadness is what makes it possible for us to recognize joy. And our joy is what sustains us through times of despair. This complexity what makes our lives rich and full and meaningful.

What better way to usher in a new year than by acknowledging that?

On our last Shabbat of 5776, I wish all of us a rich, full, and meaningful New Year. May our joy be enough to counterbalance our sadness, and may our sadness carve out space for us to fill with joy.

Here’s another response to Michaelson’s article, and a reflection on how we can make High Holy Day services better.

“Designed Just for Me”: The 6 Points URJ Sci-Tech Academy Experience

I spent last week at URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy, where every morning after Modeh Ani, we blow something up. It’s called Boker Big Bang. Check out Friday morning’s explosion here (after the first explosion, skip to 2:30 to find out why the experiment didn’t work the first time)!

As a rabbi, educator, and former camp counselor, I’ve been on a lot of field trips over the last 15+ years. I’ve taken groups to beaches and amusement parks (fun but terrifying in terms of keeping track of kids); gone hiking, camping, and rock climbing (not my favorite); visited museums, synagogues, and historical sites (not the kids’ favorite).

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Earth and Sky Workshop simulating volcanic rock formation.

I have never, EVER seen a group as well-behaved as the one I accompanied to Google’s Cambridge offices on this week’s Trip Day with URJ Six Points Sci Tech Academy. The dozen campers filed off the bus and across the street without seeming to notice that there were stores and restaurants lining their path, selling all types of items either forbidden or unavailable at camp. They listened carefully to instructions, showed kavod (respect) to our guide by dutifully following her everywhere, and asked thoughtful questions of a panel of Google employees.

It wasn’t until we were back on the bus that I realized what had happened. It’s not that Sci-Tech campers don’t sometimes struggle to pay attention to instructions. It’s not that they don’t want to binge on candy  (they did that later when we stopped at Boston’s Museum of Science). It’s not even that the Google offices are incredible to behold (they are!).

It’s that, for this particular group of kids, there was nothing more exciting to do on a sunny Tuesday morning in July than to learn about how a major technology company operates.

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Making s’mores with the Forensic Science Workshop, after a lesson on arson!

This realization filled me with joy. I felt so happy for these kids, that they had found a place tailored to their exact interests, with dozens of like-minded kids for them to connect to. Even within the camp, campers are able to split off into subgroups based on what excites and inspires them: Biology, Earth Science, Robotics, Video Game Design, Web and Graphic Design, Forensic Science, Digital Film, Programming and Coding. While we were touring Google, other workshop groups were scattered across the Boston area, learning about earthquakes, playing with DNA in a crime lab, and meeting video-game designers, among other things.

Though I was never a science kid, I’ve been a fan of Sci-Tech for awhile. I’ve promoted it to Jewish families as an alternative to traditional overnight camp. But Sci-Tech actually provides something that even my own, much appreciated, Jewish camp experience did not. Sci-Tech gives campers an opportunity to nurture their talents and interests in a Jewish context, and connects them with kids who are, in many ways, just like them.

In my camping experience, the only thing that all of us had in common was Judaism. We managed to figure out for ourselves who enjoyed sports and who preferred the arts, but we didn’t really put much energy into either while we were at camp. We just liked being together. The Jewish part of camp ended up becoming one of my major interests, but other passions of mine–writing, music, theater–were usually confined to a few periods a week, or relegated to my life outside of camp.

This is exactly what the Foundation for Jewish Camping was addressing when they began providing incubator grants to camps like Sci-Tech. Noticing that many Jewish families were not opting into Jewish overnight camp, they looked for ways to make the Jewish camp experience more appealing and accessible. Sci-Tech provides the option of two-week sessions (not available at traditional camps past a certain age) in which a camper can be completely immersed in a subject they are passionate about.

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In addition to leading Jewish activities, this time I also taught arts and crafts. Here’s the result of a “design challenge” to make a lanyard Torah.

(A side note: I didn’t know specialty camps were a thing until I was an adult. My brothers and I had unwittingly attended a sports-based day camp where my mom worked as a nurse, until we were old enough to go to URJ Camp Harlam. Years later, I worked at a JCC  camp that specialized in the visual and performing arts. I came home and said to my mother, accusingly, “Did you know there were camps where they do theater and music and pottery ALL DAY!?!?!”).*

I’m not the only one who realizes how amazing this is for kids who may not have been interested in Jewish camp for the sake of Jewish camp. The campers notice too. Walking with a first-time camper to make s’mores–after a forensic science lesson on arson, of course– I asked her how she liked camp.

“I love it!” She bubbled. “It’s as if they designed this place just for me.”

*By the way, URJ Six Points’ next project is an arts-focused camp. I can’t wait!

Survival Requires Both Sustenance and Sweetness

(Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like)

Rather than create my own haggadah for our 2nd night seder, my family builds upon a basic template like The Promise Haggadah or, this year, The Kitchen Passover Game. We add readings, songs, and reflections (one of mine appears on the Jewish Women’s Archive Blog, “Jewesses with Attitude”), as well as a break for discussion just before dinner. This year’s discussion topic appears below:

The earliest version of the Passover seder appears in the Mishnah, a rabbinic text from 2nd century Israel. While most of the rules deal with commemorating the Passover sacrifice, the final chapter lays out the rites and rituals of the seder itself. The very first instruction is this:

“On the eve of Passover from the time of the afternoon offering, no one must eat until nightfall. Even the poorest Israelite should not eat on the night of Passover until he reclines at his table. And they should provide him with no fewer than four cups of wine, even if the funds come from public charity” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).

The rabbis took their responsibility to care for the poor very seriously. Though the members of the Jewish communities of that era were by no means part of the one-percent, they pooled resources and provided handouts to the poor on a daily basis, assessing each person’s need and responding accordingly: whether that was bread and water, wine and meat, a horse and driver, or even a house and a wife! (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67a-68a).

Today, we find ourselves in a society in which we debate whether the poor are entitled to assistance even to meet their most basic needs. Lawmakers and commentators argue about whether the poor deserve “luxuries” such as fresh produce, quality education, or even disposable diapers.

Here, the rabbis make a powerful statement about how we care for the poor. In the Mishnah, including the poor in the celebration does not stop with providing ha lachma anya, the bread of affliction. We must also provide the most decadent aspects of the seder experience:

Though the Torah commanded to eat the original Pesach offering with “your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…hurriedly” (Ex. 12:11), the rabbis demand that even the poorest among us have the freedom to stop working for several hours and recline. How many of today’s working poor would have that same freedom? How many on public assistance could afford to buy a bottle of wine, and not face any judgment for doing so? Though the Torah mentions nothing at all about four cups of wine, the rabbis insist that we provide even our poorest neighbors with this luxury.

Which means, of course, that the rabbis did not define these provisions as luxuries, but rather as necessities. The celebration of a festival such as Passover was not an “extra,” but an integral part of every Jewish life. Survival, then, is not about meeting one’s most basic needs. Survival requires joy and celebration. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

At the end of our seders we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and throughout the seder we remember God’s promise to “bring [us] into a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). This reminds us that true redemption requires both sustenance and sweetness.

Milkhoney

As we gather around our seder table we ask ourselves: What is it that a person needs in order to survive in our society today? What is it that a person needs in order to thrive? And how can we be a part of providing both sustenance and sweetness to everyone in our community?

Questions to ask at your Passover Seder:

  1. What is something you need in order to survive?
  2. What is something you need in order to thrive? What brings you joy?
  3. How might we help those in need to have access to what brings them joy?

Chag sameach and a Zisn Pesach (Sweet Passover) to all!

Vassar Temple’s Torah Visits First Congregational United Church of Christ

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On Wed. evening, 2/25/16, Rabbi Berkowitz and Vassar Temple took our Torah on a road trip for our “Torah-to-Go” program to the First Congregational United Church of Christ (on Mill St). We teamed up with their congregation at their FCUCC’s Lenten Soup Supper in order to provide their congregation a special chance to see a Torah scroll up close and personal. Their congregation made us feel right at home by making and serving matzoh ball soup and challah! How thoughtful, and yummy!
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Andi & Paul Ciminello of Vassar Temple said, “We were so very proud to assist Rabbi Berkowitz with the Torah-to-Go program. Leah gave a basic introduction for Reverend Heather and her enthusiastic parishioners, most of whom had never even seen a Torah. The presentation was excellent and the group got to see first-hand a Torah scroll, as Rabbi Berkowitz took us on a journey through the five books.
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The Torah-to-Go program serves a multiple important purposes. To begin with, we are caring for our scrolls. By unrolling and rolling the scrolls we are helping to keep the parchment/skins which the Torah is written on soft and pliable so they don’t crack and are less likely to tear. For another, we are building relationship with other faiths and faithful people in our community. Our clergy and our congregations can benefit it ways that we can’t even calculate. Last but not least, everyone learns and has a fun time! So please join Rabbi and friends at our next Torah-to-Go event, which will be promoted in our bulletin, email announcements and on Facebook.
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Check out Rabbi Berkowitz’s Guest Spot on You Leading You!

This was my first “audio” interview. I was so fortunate to work with Sean Ackerman from You Leading You, a great podcast on leadership and self-actualization. Sean was an encouraging interviewer and asked thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.

Here is the link to my conversation with Sean Ackerman: You Leading You Episode 130: Leadership and Faith in Life with Rabbi Leah Berkowitz.

If this podcast appeals to you, subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher

With many thanks to Vassar Temple President, Bob Ritter, for introducing me to Sean and You Leading You!YouLeadingYou

Eight Nights of Mitzvot, Part V

Rabbi Berkowitz shares eight things you may not know about Chanukah to fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (Jewish Learning)

Watch Rabbi Berkowitz’s Video!

Activity ideas: Play “Torah Jeopardy” (give the questions to which Torah names and places are the answer); make a play of the Torah portion of the week (usually part of the Joseph story, very dramatic!); make Torah scrolls with citations or pictures of our favorite verses of Torah in them, gift to one another; draw a picture of how you imagine your favorite biblical hero or heroine looked and tell his/her story to your family; download and play “Middot-opoly  – it’s a game for learning Jewish values! 

Watch for these videos every morning in your inbox, or check the  Vassar Temple YouTube Channel.

We hope that you will join in the celebration by lighting, and celebrating these mitzvot, in your own homes!

How to Light Chanukah Candles

You can also celebrate religious freedom by joining Women of the Wall’s “It’s My Right To Light” Campaign, which is fighting for the inclusion of women in Israel’s national Chanukiyah lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Don’t forget….Annual Chanukah Dinner and Service Friday 12/11
5:30 p.m. Annual pot-luck dinner. Bring a dairy dish for 12; Sisterhood will provide latkes, applesauce, challah, salad and beverages. Cost: $18 per family or $6 per individual. RSVP by Tuesday 12/8 to Roni Stein 223-5804 or roniagt99@aol.com Send your check to Vassar Temple Sisterhood with “Chanukah Dinner” on the memo line.

7:00 p.m. Our beautiful family-friendly Chanukah Menorah-Lighting Shabbat service, to which everyone is welcome and encouraged to bring a menorah and candles.

More Chanukah resources:

Union for Reform Judaism Chanukah Resources Page

My Jewish Learning Chanukah Resource Page

May your Chanukah be filled with light and joy, and may we all bring light and joy to those who need it most!