Friday, July 17, 2015

Deserving (and Earning) a Second Chance - D'var Torah for Parashat Mas'ei - July 17, 2015

The Torah reading for this Shabbat includes the instructions for the Israelites to establish six cities of refuge.    Each city of refuge - in Hebrew, IR MIKLAT - was a place where a person who unintentionally took another person's life   could find sanctuary until the death of the High Priest.  At that point,   he - or she- would be able to go free.  The grieving relative of the victim who had been killed, who sought to restore the blood balance between the two families, could do nothing to take vengeance for this inadvertent act.  
    We learn in this passage that intention matters. The Torah openly distinguished between one who committed premeditated murder and an individual who unexpectedly caused a death by accident. 
The presence of the IR MIKLAT, the city of refuge, served the purpose of sheltering the community from further violence.   
     In a way, the IR MIKLAT offered the ROTZAYACH - the manslayer - a refuge during which he or she could contemplate his or her unintentional error for months or years.   It was a sentence that would assure that one more life would not be taken.   
     To understand the feelings of the manslayer who was confined to the city of refuge, we might consider how we felt after making an unintended and regrettable mistake in something we said or did. 
How we would love to take back what happened, to turn back the clock, to avoid any negative consequences that ensued!
      Errors like these have the potential to cause loss of friendship, or a job, or self-respect, or the respect of others.  At those times, we ourselves might want to flee to a place of refuge that would allow us to regain our self-confidence and deal with feelings of remorse and regret.      
    Hopefully, there are people in our lives who create a space for us that is like an IR MIKLAT, an equivalent to a city of refuge.  Friends, family members and colleagues are often present to provide us with unconditional support as we heal from unwitting actions that hurt us and others as well.     Their fellowship and advice can bring us back to the community with the possibility of healing any wounds that may continue to linger. 
   The news of this week  led me to consider another dimension of the concept and purpose of the IR MIKLAT. 
After the fatal shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee yesterday and the verdict handed down in the trial of the Aurora, Colorado shooter,  we may feel that we as a society are in desperate need of refuge from such tragedies.     
    Add to those events the fears expressed before, during and after the negotiations that resulted in the agreement with Iran which was concluded this week.   Those apprehensions are serious and real.  For some diplomats involved in discussions with Iran, there may be hopes that are real as well.  Will this pact engender trust and cooperation?  Or will it offer opportunities for further proliferation of power, violence, tyranny and hatred?   
     In our daily lives, we harbor the hope that we can find some degree of refuge which would provide us with second chances that will enable us to move beyond past mistakes with renewed self assurance. We need time to contemplate regrettable episodes so that we can deepen our personal insight to guide our behavior in the future.  And we pray that anyone who promises to act with less aggression will move further along that path even if they had no intention to do so. 
The practices related to the city of refuge taught that ritualized restraint has the potential to allow, as we often say, cooler heads to prevail.   
May that wisdom from the Torah lead us to the understanding that can, in our own lives, turn fear into hope, conflict into cooperation, indifference into concern, and enmity into peace.      

Numbers 35:22-29
[22] But if [a man] pushed without malice aforethought or hurled any object at [the victim] unintentionally,  [23] or inadvertently dropped upon [the victim] any deadly object of stone, and death resulted - though not being an enemy and not seeking to harm – [24] in such cases the assembly shall decide between the slayer and the blood-avenger. [25] The assembly shall protect the killer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil. [26] But if the killer ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled, [27] and the blood-avenger comes upon him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood-avenger kills the killer, there is no bloodguilt on his account. [28] For he must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; after the death of the high priest, the killer may return to his land holding.           [29] Such shall be your law of procedure throughout the ages in all your settlements.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"'Who will go out in front of them'- What makes a leader?" - D'var Torah - Parashat (portion) Pinchas - July 10, 2015

“Let the Eternal One,
God of the spirits of all flesh
appoint a person over the congregation
who will go out in front of them
and will come in in front of them
and who will bring them out
and who will bring them in
so that the congregation of the Eternal One
won't be like sheep without a shepherd.”
That was how Moses asked for a successor
given that he would not be allowed to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan.
With God's guidance, Moses chose his assistant, Joshua, ISH ASHER RUACH BO,
a man with spirit inside of him,  to eventually take the people into their promised land.
This Torah passage raises important questions for us today.
What do we expect in a leader?
How do we determine criteria for what makes for
effective leadership?
Numbers Chapter 27 contains a few hints that could provide material for a new bestseller on "the qualities of the inspired, competent and visionary leader."     
    So what leadership traits were implied in the passage from this week’s portion, Pinchas?
    Moses was asked to appoint a person over the congregation.
Ideally, a leader recognizes that he or she is called upon to be responsible for and to be responsive to every member of the community.
It may take time to learn everyone's name and to gain a sense for individual stories and prized values.  
During that process of getting to know the people being served, a good leader discovers modes of speech that can reach everyone.  
Everything that he or she says may not comport 100% with every person's views, but it is helpful when at least some of leader's words resonate with the entire community.
   We can examine the rest of this section of the Torah reading  phrase by phrase to gain greater insight into specific components of leadership. 
Who will go out in front of them....
  What does it mean for a leader to go out in front of the community?
  That phrase could refer to the physical place which the leader occupies when standing in front of the people.   It is as if the leader, within himself or herself,  symbolizes the totality of the community. 
   I believe that "going out in front of them" also directs the leader to be open to absorbing new ideas from outside sources.   Conventions, retreats, travel, reading, conversations with colleagues, and personal study represent ways for leaders to "go out in front of the people," to broaden their personal foundation of knowledge in order to deepen their understanding of the skills they need for the duties they perform.
Who will come in before them...
 After seeking sources for new ideas and fresh perspectives on how the community can experience growth, the leader must return to the people to share his or her vision.  Such an approach doesn't mean that the leader would ask the people to completely jettison the past.   It would work within the existing framework of community life to draw the leader and the people closer so that they can move forward together.  
Who will bring them out....
   This phrase can envision the creation of partnerships that will offer the people an opportunity to enhance and augment their leader's vision so as to make it their own.  That can only happen when the people go out along with their leaders to familiarize themselves with new insights necessary to create positive change.
Who will bring them in....
The leader and community members, having shared and fashioned a new vision in which everyone has an investment and responsibility, apply their new knowledge and plans based in trust, mutual respect, and cooperation. 
 So that the congregation won't be like sheep without a shepherd.
Even with an ongoing partnership based in a perspective and approach that the leader and people share, a leader and his or her most trusted advisors still assume the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of the people.   A shepherd offers direction, sustenance, and protection.   That is what a leader still must provide for the people so that they will move forward with hope and without fear. 
An individual with spirit inside of him/her.
What is the spirit that we expect from our leaders?  
In the section before the passage I will read, the five daughters of Zelophchad asked for something new.   Never before had women been allowed to inherit their father's possessions after his death . It had always been passed on to other male relatives.   Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah had no brothers. They made their plea to receive their inheritance without any guarantee that they would be granted their request.   In this case, Moses went to God to ask what to do.  In this unique tale in the Torah, God said yes.   Moses went back to these women to tell them the good news.  Even Moses learned that the law could change when a request was presented based in loyalty, logic and fairness.  
 I believe that the spirit we want in our leaders should be based in wisdom, dedication, and, as in this episode in the Torah, openness towards new ideas.
Perhaps that is what we saw in South Carolina with a decision not to fly the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds.  As I am sure many of us have heard, one speech supporting that decision came from a descendant of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. 
Perhaps that is what we have seen in certain decisions by the United States Supreme Court and by  governmental and community leaders over the years that have broken new ground, leading us towards fairness and justice. Leaders want us to think, to ponder, to feel, and, sometimes, to put ourselves in the position of others so that we can consider what changes might be necessary to create a society which grants a greater sense of equality.  And I believe that good leaders want us to follow the statement of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:  "All the world is a narrow bridge.  The important thing is not to be afraid."  
Whether we lead or follow, may we do so with a sense of trust and an approach of shared responsibility.  May we move forward based on our determination to create a community that walks together across that narrow bridge as one people, all the while knowing that because of our unity, we need not be afraid.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I am who I say I am! Recent responses (on Facebook) to statements about Jews not being real Jews and Reform Jews not being real Jews...sigh...

July 3, 2015
    I have had a few people, over the years, call me and say that I am not a "real Jew," and I don't mean someone from another branch of Judaism. It is someone from the outside who claims that Jews from Eastern Europe were late converts to Judaism and therefore have no direct lineage to the Middle East. I would assume that someone making this claim would probably assert that the the 23andme DNA testing is rigged if it came up with a different result. Just as I thought, according to 23andme, my Ashkenazic/Eastern European Jewish ancestry also includes a major component that goes back to the Middle East 2000 years ago. It was sad to hear that an activist used this worn-out canard - that Ashkenazic Jews were late converts to Judaism - while speaking at the convention of a major Protestant denomination this week in order to undermine what I and other Jews would consider to be our story. How about this....I am willing to listen to your story if you just tell it without trying to pull the rug out from under mine. Share your story well, be willing to listen to me, and I will listen to you. And if you don't want to listen, then do we really have anything to talk about? I hold out hope that civility and a meeting of the minds is still possible in almost any situation to reach a resolution...even the Middle East. That continues to be my prayer.

July 7, 2015
PLO ambassador endorses Protocols of the Elders of Zion 
What was declared at the gathering of church members and leaders of one denomination is now spoken openly in a diplomatic setting. This is anti-Semitism that will not disappear, and it has nothing to do with the State of Israel, as the Protocols forgery was a product of 19th century hatred of Jews as an "out-group." When I was in Cairo and Amman with an ARZA Rabbinic tour in 1996, we heard about the Protocols being sold in both of those cities despite peace accords between Israel and both of those countries. The linking of these falsehoods (the Protocols plus the-Jews-are-descended-the-Khazars-and-therefore-not-legitimate) together by a leader like this, and by other activists in his cause, should be condemned. It will not lead to peace. The Karols of Akmine, Lithuania from whom I am descended knew who they were, and I know who I am.

Reform Jews can't be considered Jews (Minister Azoulay)
(July 7, 2015) 
April 1977 - I was a first year rabbinic student in Jerusalem. I went on a bus ride with a college friend who was at Yeshivat Hamivtar for the year to what I didn't totally realize was an early version of an newly-identified settlement (no buildings yet) in Judea, probably a few miles beyond the green line (the 1967 border). The whole area was under Israeli control at the time. 
One of the other Americans on the bus started giving me the third degree. Eventually, I told him that my "studying" in Jerusalem was to be come a Reform rabbi. Then came the question. "On Yom Kippur, I fast so that I can atone for my sins before God. What do you do?" 
Me, with a slight sense of indignation but definite force: "I do the same thing you do!" 
Not out to prove anything myself, but I hope Minister Azoulay has some sense of the debate between Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai from 1900 years ago on the fundamental principle of the Torah. 
Akiba said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." 
Ben Azzai said, (Genesis 5:1) "This is the record of the line of humanity: When God made humanity, God made humanity (ADAM) in the divine image." 
Yes, Minister, we are both commanded to treat each other with respect and consideration. And we are both created in the divine image. 
I quote that a lot, because that quote is all too relevant in a world that tries to divide itself rather than seek more cooperation and unity. 
And on Yom Kippur, Minister, I do the same thing you do.