Friday, August 22, 2014

There shall be no needy... Parashat Re'eh Flasback - 5773

There shall be no needy... Parashat Re’eh
August 2, 2013 ~ 26 Av 5773
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

We ran bags of winter coats down broadway, hung them on the racks,
turned our backs, and within 10 minutes they were gone.

It was freezing in New York City that winter. Filenes Basement, may its memory be a blessing, was going out of business. The flagship store in Union Square had rows and rows of racks and racks stocked with discounted winter wear: coats, hats, scarves, gloves.

We had 45 minutes, a huge store credit to spend, and the HUC Soup Kitchen’s clothing rack awaiting our purchase a mere 10 blocks away.

As I marched around that winter in my tundra-looks-like-a-sleeping-bag- down winter coat, multiple options for hat and scarf to suit my daily outfit
or mood, warm gloves, usually a hot cup of coffee in tow - I knew that the winter wear we were purchasing was not as insulated, not as aesthetically pleasing, not as comfortable, not as nice - and simply not as warm - as I felt each day out in the cold.

I also knew that the amount of time I wore a winter coat to protect me from
the gray, harsh, turn-your-lips-blue cold was far less time than those
whose homes or lack of homes were always cooled by the gray, harsh, turn-your-lips-blue cold.

So when we ran bags of winter coats down Broadway (we took a cab), hung them on the racks, turned our backs, and within 10 minutes they were gone - and it was freezing in New York City that winter - I felt guilty in my tundra-looks-like-a-sleeping-bag- down winter coat.

As we headed back toward the subway, I said to my sister: Why did we even bother? We bought 20 coats, but there were 40 people who needed coats. Did we really help anyone if we didn’t help them all?

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, draws our eyesight to a great deal of teachings.  Literally “Re’eh” it compels us - “See, notice, focus!” Focus on our pilgrimage festivals; notice our human capacity to choose between blessing and curse; pay heed to the need to find central locations for worship; and notice, engrain in your minds eye, the laws of kashrut, the sabbatical year, how to treat slaves, and a prohibition from worshiping other gods.

Each teaching a sermon in itself, there is one quick sentence halfway through most compelling.

“There shall be no needy among you...” Parashat Re’eh teaches us.
Efes ki lo yi’hiei b’cha ev’yon.

“There shall be no needy among you — since God will bless you in the land that God is giving you as a hereditary portion...For Adonai your God will bless you as promised: [and] you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself.”  (Deut. 15:4-6)

When the text says “no needy among you” it means no needy Jews, but we know that’s not true. Even if its not always apparent to us, we know there are Jews in need.

The text continues, and I paraphrase: When you encounter another in need, “You must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs...Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so....For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”

This imperative to help the needy among us exists throughout the Torah
not just here, but this time its harder to hear.  This time, Torah suggests,
that no matter what you do to help there will always be needy ones in your land.

It’s exhausting, debilitating even, to think of all the people in need among us.  To think of all the systems our country has in place, all the mitzvot and tikkun olam projects communities like ours have in place, all the teens, all the families, working hours to collect goods, to serve food, to house the homeless, to feed the hungry. It’s exhausting to know that
with all of our effort there will still be needy among us.

But it’s a first world problem to be exhausted and upset by all the need in the world. It’s far more exhausting to be the mother trying to feed her children, to be the father trying to keep a roof over their heads.  It’s far more exhausting to find work that pays a living wage. And it’s far more exhausting to navigate the many systems created to help the needy among us.

And while many have their critique about why people are ‘needy’ in the first place, the bottom line is that from the beginning of time there have been needy among us.  And till the end of time we are obligated to help them.
And while some of that help is direct service - like raising money, goods, or serving food - much more of the work we need to do deals with attacking root causes. The work of: repairing global hunger while also feeding the globally hungry; creating systems of equitable education while also teaching youth already in the broken system.  

*
As we headed back toward the subway, I said to my sister: “Why did we even bother? We bought 20 coats, but there were 40 people who needed coats?.  Did we really help anyone, if we didn’t help them all?

Also an aficionado of summer camp music, many songs of whose lyrics
come from Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of Our Fathers, she responded thoughtfully. “You know that song? Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor/It’s not your responsibility to complete the work...”

I nodded yes as the train whizzed us back to Brooklyn.

“Well,” she continued, “it concludes like this: Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor/V'lo ata ben chorin l'hibatil mimena.  It’s not your responsibility to complete the work, Jen...but neither are you free to desist from doing it.”

Little sisters can be very wise.

The Torah teaches us that even though there will probably always be needy among us, and even though 20 winter coats are never enough for 40 cold people, and a truckload of food collected at the high holidays is never enough for two truckloads of hungry people - even though there will always be needy among us and both root causes and immediate causes for which to respond - even though it may not be our responsibility to complete the task, we must remind ourselves when we notice all the need around us, that as overwhelming as it may be, and so much easier to avert our gaze...

Re’eh, we must see it, we must notice it, we can never desist from it, we can never refrain from it. V'lo ata ben chorin l'hibatil mimena - Re’eh! We are never free to look the other way.

To donate to Hebrew Union College's Soup Kitchen, among many worthy causes - click here.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer 1964

Our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer
Parashat Korach and the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Summer
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
June 20, 2014 ~ 23 Sivan 5774

You can imagine the heat.
The sun beating on backs, the sweat beading on brows, the sense of justice boiling up in hearts.

Equality! they fought! Integrity! was their demand. Brotherhood! was their expectation.

A rebellion, really.  A rebellious hotbed of anger, violence, disenfranchisement.  A rebellious hotbed of faith, truth and hope.

You can imagine the heat. Freedom Summer 1964.
The sun beating on backs, sweat beading on brows of an African-American Christian
and two white Jews. The sense of justice boiling up in their hearts under the politically hot sun of Mississippi as they worked to register African-Americans to vote.

Freedom Summer 1964.
You can imagine or maybe you remember it.
A rebellion, really, of thousands of civil rights activists, many of them white college students from the North, many of them Jews, who rose up against the powers that be to descend on Mississippi and other Southern states, fighting to end long-time political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Although black men won the right to vote in 1870, for the next 100 years, as we all know, many were systematically prevented from exercising that right and many others.

So you can imagine, or maybe you remember, the heat and the sense of justice boiling up in hearts, the rebellion of faith, truth, and hope.

*
You can imagine, then, a different scene some years earlier.
The sun beating on backs, the sweat beading on brows. The sense of justice boiling up in hearts.

Equality! they fought! Integrity! was their demand. Brotherhood! was their expectation.

A rebellion, really. A rebellious hotbed of anger, violence, disenfranchisement, a rebellious hotheaded Korach and his followers rising up against and challenging the authority and leadership of Moses and Aaron and God.

Our sages teach that Korach embodied characteristics of jealousy, madness, ego, and anger.  Still, it is difficult for anyone with a passion for democracy not to be stirred for a moment by Korah's powerful message. So some debate that Korach was a champion - that when he challenged Moses and Aaron saying to them: "All heard at Sinai the commandment,  "I am the Adonai your God"! If you alone had heard it while they had not, you could have claimed superiority. But now that they have all heard it, “why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?” His challenge was justified, some believe, a rebel with a cause. (Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma Korach)

Midrash Rabbah on the book of Numbers argues otherwise. “Korach, like all who rebel with no cause, contradicts himself. First he maintains that Israel needs no leaders, since all Israel is holy and Adonai is among them. Then we discover that Korach and his Levite followers wish to replace Aaron and the Kohanim in the worship at the mishkan. They wish no leaders but themselves.”

And for all that, Korach and his followers, the Freedom Slummers, rose up only to be swallowed down into the ground.

*
Not so for our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer, among the many leaders, activists, followers, participants, champions of the Civil Rights movement.  Of course, as there often are, there were hierarchies in the leadership of Freedom Summer, but that reality paled in comparison to the greater vision of their efforts. For the inability to vote, they understand, was only one of many problems blacks encountered amid the racist society around them.  

But the Civil-rights officials who decided to zero in on voter registration understood its particularly crucial significance just as well as the white supremacists did. An African American voting bloc would be able to effect social and political change in tremendous ways. So as our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer went down south to raise up their voices and power for justice and equality for others, they, too, were swallowed up into the ground, by those who wished to silence their message.

But Pirkei Avot (5:17) promises that their message will endure. It teaches that “Every controversy that is pursued l’shem shamayim for the sake of heaven, is destined to be perpetuated; and that which is not pursued for the sake of heaven is not destined to be perpetuated.  What is considered a controversy that is not pursued for the sake of heaven?” The text asks. “This is the controversy of Korach and his congregation. And what IS considered a controversy pursued l’shem shamayim for the sake of heaven?”

I would answer - such is the Civil Rights ‘controversy’ pursued by our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer.  For the sake of heaven it is surely destined to be perpetuated.   

*
It is easy in the freedom that is summer to forget, to become so relaxed that we become lax- that we celebrate independence in a few weeks, but forget those who got us there. That we can speak freely our opinions in public domain, but forget those who fought so we could.

It is easy in the freedom that is summer or fall or winter or spring to become apathetic such that when we have opportunities to vote in elections big or small, we may not consider the election significant enough to vote at all, forgetting those in our own community who fought so that all people could have that basic right. We forget those who, Simon and Garfunkle remind, “died so their brothers could be free” and were swallowed up into the ground. It is easy in the Freedom of Summer to forget that voter equality, or human equality, is still a dream unrealized.

We mark this week the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the yartzeit of our 3 Boys of Freedom Summer
Mickey Schwerner
Andrew Goodman
James Chaney

In the freedom that is summer, as we enjoy the heat of the sun beating on our backs, with the sweat beading on our brows as we sit poolside with a cup of relaxation and calm filling our hearts -

In the freedom that is summer, even though it is much easier to completely vacate our dreaming, fighting, our pushing towards shleimut, the pursuit of wholeness for all -

In the freedom that is summer, don’t be a Freedom Summer-er. Don’t get swallowed whole by things that pale in comparison to your most deeply held values.

Instead, echoing Pete Seeger, “with those 3 on our mind,” even in the freedom that is summer, may we perpetuate dreams unrealized, lives unfulfilled, controversies for the sake of heaven.

And may we continue to champion an inner and outer rebellion of faith, truth, wholeness, and hope.

Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Parashat Sh’mini - Hearing Silence

Parashat Sh’mini - Hearing Silence
In Memory of Elissa Froman, z'l
April 5, 2013 ~ 26 Nissan 5773
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
Source texts drawn from Nehama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Vayikra

There was a hush in the room.
What to say?
What not to say?
Amid the silence,
memories, stories, feelings came alive.
And though she was no longer,
and we were speechless,
there was so much to say,
and yet no one spoke.
But the silence
as it often does
said more
than words ever could.  

In the beginning
and in the end,
we listen -
for a sign of breath,
for a sign of life...
In the last breath,
and before the first breath -
we listen into the silence.
Silence is technically
the complete absence of sound.
But living, we know,
breathing
is quite noisy.
And so actually
is silence.
We listen,
we hear
even in the deafening quiet.
**

In this week's Torah portion,
Sh'mini,
Vayidom Aharon
And Aaron was silent.
His sons,
Nadav and Avihu
are consumed by a fire from God.
Moses,
his beloved older brother,
appears to try to console
and make meaning of Aaron's loss.
Vayidom Aharon.
But Aaron was silent.
What is one to make of his silence?
Why is he not screaming out with grief?
His life has literally gone up in flames.

Silence is technically
the complete absence of sound.
But we can hear
Aaron's silence across the generations.
We can hear even
in his deafening quiet.
We know
as daily live-rs
that Aaron's silence
in this moment of extreme loss
is in fact the noisiest sound of living.

Vayidom Aharon       
And Aaron was silent.
Very simply stated,
but our commentators
could not accept his silence either.
They, too, sought
to listen for a deeper meaning.

Vayidom Aharon -
Rashi amends the sentence to read:
And Aaron was silent and did not complain
and consequently
he was rewarded for his silence.
Rashi implies that
Aaron understood within his loss
divine judgment.
Vayidom Aharon
And Aaron was silent and did not complain.

Building on Rashi’s Commentary,
the 19th Century
Polish commentary,
Shem Olam -
points to an understanding of silence
based on word choice:
“Scripture chose vayidom
rather than vayishtok...
a synonym for silence,
we know vayishtok
from trying to quiet a room with Sheket B’vakasha!
“The latter,” he writes,
“signifies the abstention from speaking,
weeping, moaning
or any other outward manifestation...
The verb domem however,
connotes inner peace and calm...
Accordingly
Scripture describes the saintly Aaron
as vayidom and not merely as vayishtok,
thus emphasizing that his heart and soul
were at peace within,
that rather than questioning
the standards of God,
he justified the Divine verdict.”

Rolling back centuries,
Vayidom Aharon -
Rambam reads this to mean:
And Aaron became silent.
He writes,
This means that he had cried aloud,
and then he became silent.
It is not the silence of acceptance
that Rashi or Shem Olam describe;
but a silence of struggle.
It is a silence that attempts to understand
the mysteries of God
the mysteries of life.

Vayidom Aharon:
Abravanel,
15th century Portuguese scholar,
riffs on Vayidom -
when Aaron was silent -
“that his heart turned Vayidom -
k’domem
to lifeless mineral stone
and he did not weep
and mourn like a bereaved father,
nor did he accept Moses' consolation”
for he had no more strength,
his soul had left him
and he was speechless.

Or perhaps a final interpretation:
the 18th century Hakorem teaches,
that Aaron was intentional about his silence,
suppressing his grief and weeping,
in order to show publicly
his acceptance of Divine Judgement -
Aaron knew his public role modeled behavior
and he wanted to keep the Israelites
on the track of accepting
all that God had to offer
while maintaining his authority and authenticity.
But he goes back to work
too soon after his grievous loss
and fails to accurately carry out
the sin-offering sacrifice
required of Priests.
11th century Rashbam
creates this conversation
between Aaron and Moses:
"Would it be pleasing
in the sight of God
for me to partake
of the offering in joy
while my heart is full of grief and sorrow?"
Aaron asks.
Hakorem and Rashbam
depict an Aaron
who has great depth,
and deep humanity -
They suggests two sides of Aaron -
the public and private Aaron -
the Aaron he showed the masses,
and the Aaron whose inner being
he kept private
but for his inner circle and God.

Vayidom Aharon:
the Torah teaches that
Aaron was silent;
he did not complain;
his inner being was quiet;
he cried aloud,
then he became silent;
he struggled;
his heart was like a stone
his soul left him
he was speechless.
He was intentional
he was self aware.  
So many component parts
of Aaron’s being.

Some of these commentaries
feel truer
or more real
to our own life experience
than others -
and who are we really to ask
What Aaron’s silence meant?

Whether it was
speechlessness,
stillness or submission
or all of them...
or none of them...
We stand witness
to what our leader Aaron
chose to offer us in that moment...

That is what it means
to fully bear witness
to another’s grief.
That is why
when we enter a house of mourning -
we say nothing
until the mourner speaks.
They get to choose
in that moment
what that moment of interaction
will look like.  
We are entitled
to the most public displays of grief,
renting our clothes, wailing in despair;
and we are also entitled
to a most private experience.  
And the silence
that might hover
between the mourner and ourselves
could feel uncomfortable,
awkward,
endless -
and we might want to fill it
as did Moses,
with words of consolation
or meaning making,
but this is that time to be silent
that Proverbs speaks of.

We are to wait...
and we are to sustain the silence,
and be silently present in the silence,
until by the mourner,
the silence is broken.

Only one other being
can break that silence.
After Nadav and Avihu’s death,
after a lengthy break in communication,
finally
V’yadaber Adonai el Aharon L’aymor
God speaks to Aaron.  
God gets to break the silence.
**

While silence may be
the complete absence of sound.
We know that living
is quite noisy.
And so actually
is silence.
We can listen,
we can hear,
we can be,
we can comfort
even
in the deafening quiet.

*
There was a hush in the room that day.
What to say?
What not to say?
Amid the silence,
memories, stories, feelings came alive.
And though she was no longer,
and we were speechless,
there was so much to say,
and yet no one spoke.
But the silence
as it often does
said more
than words ever could.