Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Valuing Life

Last week I was given the honor of giving a D'var Torah at Shabbat morning services. The Parshah was Chayei Sarah. The first half of what I wrote has been percolating for a long time. I am convinced Abraham failed the Akedah. The second half has been a long time coming. Midge vVas Nunes was already a matriarch of our community when we arrived in 1995. She became a very important person to me and my family. Life was hard as she entered triple digits, as her mind and body both began to let her down. We celebrated her life this past weekend. I am honored to share a bit of it.



Shabbat shalom.


Our parshah this week Chayei Sarah – begins with the death of Sarah. Some commentators speculated that her death, coming right on the heels of the binding of Isaac, was a direct result of her waking up and discovering Abraham and Isaac had departed. They suggest she knew that Isaac was to be sacrificed and it broke her heart.


I want to suggest that her heart was broken. Not because she believed that her husband was about to kill her only child. I am pretty sure that she expected that God’s promise that her son would be the beginning of a great nation would come true. I think she was heartbroken by Abraham’s failure.


Yes, I said failure. Last week the Torah told us that the Akedah was a test. When I went to Hebrew school, we were taught that Abraham passed the test. He was prepared to offer his son, proving his loyalty to God. The angel came and stopped the killing, saying “for now I know you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” Personally, I think the angel was offering the consolation prize, basically saying “thanks for playing.”


You see, only a chapter earlier, Abraham argued – ARGUED – with God to save the lives of a city full of strangers. Most of whom had been judged wicked by God. Abraham had demonstrated that he understood that God valued life more than anything else. It is what distinguishes Torah from all previous legal codes. But as soon as God “tests” Abraham, out comes the knife. Seriously.


And then what happens?


One.

Abraham comes down the mountain to return home with the servants. Where is Isaac? I assume anywhere far from his father and his knife. Some commentators say he went to study at the academy of Shem and Eber – Noah’s son and great grandson, somehow still alive after 8 generations – near Tzvat for three years and the end of chapter 23.


Medieval commentators, writing at the bloody time of the crusades suggest that Isaac actually died on the mountain top and went to heaven. Later, in mercy, God restores Isaac to life – reflecting the fears and reality of those writers.


Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, in Woodstock, NY, suggests that Isaac went to visit his brother Ishmael. He suggests that the brothers were very close, until Sarah forced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Isaac couldn’t go home with his seemingly homicidal father, so he went to his brother.


Two.

Sarah dies. She must have heard about the debate over Sodom and Gomorah. She understood that their God was a God of life, not death. The Torah doesn’t say whether Abraham told Sarah what God had asked him the night before he set off with Isaac. It also doesn’t say he kept it a secret. Abraham and Sarah were together a long time. I am certain – based on my experience – that marriages built on keeping secrets don’t last that long.


God has been talking to Abraham for as long as Sarah has known him. The story of the Akedah is the tenth conversation. Previous conversations caused them to leave their homeland. I have trouble seeing Sarah just going without some kind of explanation. (Of course I am layering my own 21st century values on them. But that is what we do with interpretation – we put ourselves in the text. And God does include Sarah in at least one of those conversations – when her coming pregnancy is announced. So I think she gets what God is talking about.

When she gets up in the morning and sees they have left, she must have shried “Gevalt!” because she realized then that Abraham had missed the point of the lesson. If God is willing to spare an entire city of deviants if there are ten righteous people among them, certainly God has no intention of killing the young man whom God had given them to live out the promise of more descendants than stars in the sky. She knew that Abraham’s identity was completely interwoven in his relationship with God. And she now knew Abraham had failed the test. And it broke her heart, because she knew this would break the man she loved. Why?

Because Three.
  • God never speaks to Abraham again. Ever.
  • After that, Abraham seems to just be going through the motions of life.
  • Our portion today begins with Abraham in mourning.
  • He rises up from shiva and negotiates the purchase of a field with a cave to create a cemetery.
  • He sends his servant Eliezer back to the old country to find a wife for Isaac once he returns.
  • He takes a new wife, Keturah and has children with her. We hear nothing of his or their lives, just that they existed.
  • He leaves almost everything he has to Isaac and then dies.

I think his heart must have broken when he realized how completely he had failed. And I suspect God was also bereft, at least until he turned to Isaac to continue the covenant.

Finally.
Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” Later in the parshah, after his return, Isaac moves into Sarah’s tent and mourns her as well. By all accounts Sarah lived a very full life. She lived and loved and was loved. And she gave birth to the Jewish people. And we miss her.

Midge vas Nunes lived to be 104 years old…and tomorrow we will bury her remains as Abraham did Sarah’s. And we will mourn.

When I first came to Bridgeport, among of the first people I got to know were Manny and Midge. Midge always described their story as one of the great eternal loves, like Antony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet – although with far less drama. She described Manny as Sephardic royalty and was proud that their wedding was conducted by the great Rabbi David de Sola Pool, of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. They were blessed with a long and rich marriage.

Midge often regaled me with stories of her family and B’nai Israel.

She has seemed to me to have many of Sarah’s qualities. She will be missed by many, whether they know it or not. I will leave you with my favorite story, one she delighted to tell and retell.

Her grandfather was a dry goods merchant on Golden Hill in the 1850’s and one of the founding members of B’nai Israel. She said he was no taller than her. He told her that he had been entrusted with acquiring our first Torah scroll just before the civil war.

It was purchased through a broker from a family in Europe and arrived by ship in the port of Bridgeport – the name is not a coincidence. When he came to collect it from the customs agents, he realized it was too heavy for him to carry back up the hill by himself. So he left it with the agents, walked to his shop, and returned with his stock boy. He was not a boy but a man, an African American, free man. She said her grandfather described as a shtarker – a big, strong man. And she giggled with delight describing this hakafah – a Torah procession of two: a short, stout Ashkenazi Jew leading a tall, muscular black man carrying a Torah scroll as they climbed Golden Hill. And she would often ask me to take that scroll out of the ark for her to touch.

Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” As we read from Chayei Sarah, I invite you to remember the life of Midge vas Nunes.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Encountering Truths, Opinions and One Another

I have I have waited to post about the presidential election results. I wanted to make sure that what I said here is what I truly want to say. I will likely share several postings on the topic. One thing I have decided is that since my blog is primarily about Jewish Education, I am not going to focus on the politics of the elections nor my concerns for what will happen next politically. At least for now.

Although there are protests going on in several places, until something changes through legal means, I am going to assume that on January 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States. And I do know that there are several educational and spiritual issues before us. 

I serve with two rabbis, Evan Schultz and Jim Prosnit. They are my partners in education and teachers in spiritual connection. Reeves Shabbat Lech Lecha, the first following the election, Evan shared the following sermon. I believe he captured some essential truths and rephrased how we need to think about politics, ideas and one. Another in a way that is brilliant, authentic and right.




My words to our community this evening:

Lech L’cha 5777

“Now Melchitzedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High and blessed him, saying “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, who has given your foes into your hands.”

I share this verse with you tonight, just days after a presidential election that has in so many ways deeply separated us as a country, that has brought us to realize there are so many in this country who we in no way understand, that has brought many here this evening scared and deeply anxious about the acts of hate, antisemitism, and bigotry that already are plaguing our schools and our streets.

Many of us have undoubtedly read countless articles and opinion pieces on why the election went as it did, and no matter where each of us stands politically, there now is a sense of soul searching and real questioning as to where we want our country to go and what we want it to be.

As I too engaged in this process over the past two days, and undoubtedly will for weeks to come, the realization I have had is this one:
I surrounded myself with people who shared the same ideas as my own and dismissed those with alternate views.  I read articles that furthered my own beliefs about the election and the future of this country, and dismissed any other point of view.  I stereotyped and generalized and characterized those who did not agree with my point of view as ignorant, stupid, and gullible.

As I dug deeper, I realized the world that I had created for myself.
A world in which I had, at some point along the way, mistaken my own beliefs and opinions for truth.

I, a Reform Jew, who joined this movementprecisely because we outwardly state that we do not have a stronghold on the truth,
have over time staked many truths firmly in the sand.  I turned a blind eye to those with other opinions, I dismissed them.

Just yesterday, as I sat in a room full of Reform rabbis and educators at Eisner camp, I realized how I have never shared with our kids and teens an opposing opinion on many social issues.
We take our tenth graders to the RAC, The Religious Action Center in Washington, DC,and they hear the Jewish position on social issues such as women’s rights, on gun control, on abortion.
We have presented these not as our opinions, not as our beliefs, but as truths to our children.  As if there is only one right way to think about this issue.

I recall a couple of years ago, on our trip to DC with our teenagers,
a student from another congregation, who I did not know, told me he was pro-life during one of the issue sessions.  I didn’t know what to say to him, there was no space for him in a room filled with teens committed to a women’s right to choose. And this was another Reform Jew.  I didn’t ask him why.
I didn’t try to understand him.
I didn’t raise my hand and point out there’s a student with a different opinion.
I shut the door on him.  Shame on me for that.

And I know the same thing happens on the other side.  Each side has essentially turned opinion into truth, we’ve staked our ideas deep into the ground, and look at the result, look at the dangerous world we’ve all now created.

I know there are extremists on both sides, I’m not here to talk about them tonight.  We know that bigotry, hatred, anti-semitism and misogyny are deep manifestations of evil and it is our obligation to fight that with no hesitation.

And I do know there are certain issues which have been irresponsibly turned into matters of opinion, such as climate change, and it is certainly our job to call out people who deny what science has proven over and over again.

I’m talking tonight about the many people who shut out the other side on issues that really do have two sides, who live in their own Facebook feed, who characterize the other side as just plain wrong, or even worse, idiots for believing any other way.

Our country is in need of healing.  And that is why I started with the biblical verse that I did.

This verse, from Genesis chapter 14, is a rare moment in the Biblical text.  Abram, who has just come victorious from battle, sits down with a non-Israelite king-priest name Malchitzedek.  The two come from opposite sides, opposite peoples, opposite places.  And what does Malchitzedek do, he breaks bread with Abram.  He pours him a glass of wine. And he blesses Abram.

Talk about a calling for what we need right now.

Yesterday I thus committed myself to two things.

One, more face to face conversations with people who have opinions and viewpoints different from my own.

Two, reading more literature and books that take me outside of my own ideas and opinions.

I am not na├»ve, I know there is immense work to be done and a great deal to be concerned about after Tuesday.  But in times of uncertainty I look to the Torah.  And if anything this verse pushes me to sit down and break bread with those who have different opinions and viewpoints from own.
It prompts me to listen.  To remind myself that my positions on many issues are opinions, they are deeply held, strong beliefs, but they are not Truth with a capital T.

I have begun the work.
This week I’ll be sitting down with a person from our community who holds positions very different from my own.  I said to him, I don’t want to talk issues. I don’t walk to talk policies.

I just want it to be two human beings, sitting down,trying to understand each other.
He agreed and welcomed the talk.
I know it is not going to change the world.
But it’s a small step in rebuilding a bridge that has fallen apart.

Our Torah portion this week begins with the charge to Abram –
“lech l’cha m’artzecha,” Go forth from your land. In other words, now is the time to slowly step outside of our own circles of ideas and opinions – and I say this to both sides, both sides who are here in our synagogue and community.

Now is the time to offer an invitation, to reach out, with a sense of curiosity and empathy, with a hope of repairing the bridge,
with a faith that like Abram and Malchitzedek, there is good in breaking bread together,of offering blessing to one another.
It is a first step on the journey as we go forth.

Please God, give us the strength and courage to do this work,
help us to see the path we need to forge together. Amen.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Morning After

My friend Mark Borovitz, rabbi of Beit T'Shuvah in Los Angeles is a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians. We fantasized about attending one of the World Series games together. And he actually made it to game 1 in Cleveland along with his brother and sister. I made it to games 3 and 4 in Chicago, attending with my uncle Stanley, 3 of my first cousins and my college roommate and his wife. Mark and I spoke as I walked to the train for game 4 and talked about how the family connections are what brought a spiritual connection to the series and our appreciation. He posted this on Facebook on Thursday morning, following game 7. Thank you Mark. You are right - as usual.

The Neshama of Baseball (Bonus Edition)

The Morning After

Mark (center), his Brother Neil and sister Sheri
on their way to Game 1
I am sad and elated today. After watching my Indians give everything they had and losing by 1 run, I am elated that they never gave up! The Cubs played a Great Game! We Indians Fans have nothing to be ashamed of... Our team played it's heart out and this was as exciting a 7th games as ever played in my lifetime!

I have watched the ways that all of the fans, Cubbies and Indians, have come together as One Family. I know that we can build on this energy to bring all of us Americans, humans together to BE ONE FAMILY.

Families have differences AND we come together to help each other. Families can fight with each other and be there in good times and bad. I believe that we, Americans, need to come back together in love, Justice, Truth, Kindness and Compassion rather than the bifurcation and hatred that has been rampant over the past decades. We have the technology- Team Spirit; we have the path- what our country was founded on; and the only question left- do we have the will to surrender to God's Will of finding ways to live together, fight together, argue together and love together?

I am sad that my Indians lost this game and so elated and proud of all they accomplished with the odds against them! I am elated that the Cubs Fans are celebrating their victory. Lets join each other in both commiserating and celebrating for both teams and use this as the model for how we deal with victory and defeat! Doing this makes us all winners.

Let’s Play Two…

I do not typically share the articles from my Temple Bulletin on my blog. Their purpose is usually more focused on our congregation. This was my October article, and I want to use it (somewhat edited) to finish my 5 part series on the Neshama (soul) of baseball.)


The Neshama of Baseball

Let’s Play Two…

This has been an amazing summer for me. In our family we have had new jobs, a high school graduation and the last child is off to college. Special for us, but most of you have those things happening as well. If not this summer then another. Those of you that know me are aware that this summer has been amazing for me in particular for one other reason: The Chicago Cubs.

My Red Sox fan friends now chortle “Now that we’ve had a few World Series, it might as well be your turn.” And I remind them that Red Sox have NEVER been the longest suffering team in baseball. They missed that honor by ten years. And in 1918, they beat…the Cubs. But I digress.

My beloved team has been in first place the entire season. They last did that in 1969, and Mets fans know how that turned out. I digress again. I mention this here for two reasons: because I want to shout it from the roof tops and because I need to explain the baseball bat in my office. It is a metaphor for Jewish learning.

The bat is signed by Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, one of the heroes of my childhood and was a gift to me from B’nai Israel on the occasion of my 10th anniversary as educator. Whenever someone said “Hey Ernie! It’s a beautiful day for a ball game!” he would respond: “Let’s play two!”

I would tell this story whenever teaching about the Yotzer or Ma'ariv prayers. These are prayers we say as part of our regular worship service, praising God for creating the world in which we live. (We say Yotzer in the morning and Ma'ariv at night.) I would explain that Ernie believed that when it is a beautiful day, we need to show God our appreciation by doing the things we love best and by sharing it with others we love. For Ernie it was playing baseball and sharing it with all of Chicago. I was fortunate enough to meet him in the 80’s and confirm that is what he meant.

So what does the bat have to do with Jewish learning? Jewish learning – doing it myself or facilitating it for others – is thing I love doing best. Ernie’s bat reminds me that no matter the weather outside, it is ALWAYS a beautiful day for Jewish learning.

Whatever your age it is a beautiful day for Jewish learning.

Our Bonim Pre-school gets fully underway next week (We write these a month prior to publication), followed quickly by Religious School and Merkaz. Our Religious School Vision Team has already begun learning as part of the URJ Reimagining Jewish Education Community of Practice I described last June.

And our Adult Jewish Learning program, chaired by David Herbst, is also underway. I invite you to check out our offerings this month on page 6 of this bulletin. And I invite you to join me at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 12, which is Yom Kippur afternoon. Instead of going home, stick around for some Jewish learning on the topic of gratitude - something I hope to have an extra reason to express at the end of the post-season. We will spend an hour together and then have a little time before the afternoon service begins.

When it comes to Jewish learning, let’s play two!

L’shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah!


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight

If you have followed my blog or Facebook, and are not living under a rock, you know that I am a bit bleary-eyed today. The Cubs made history last night, ending the longest (by forty years) championship drought in modern sports. After 108 years, the Cubs are champs. This morning a friend (and LA Dodgers fan) asked me what I will do now that THIS season is over. I replied "Wait 'till next year!" The traditional Cubs-fan greeting has a different ring to it now. I can't wait!

I have one more piece of my own on the Neshama (soul) of Baseball. It will run tomorrow morning. First, I want to bring this terrific piece to your attention. This, appropriately, arrived from eJewishPhilanthropy this morning. Warning: it is based on some seriously nerdy Baseball thought. It is also, I think, brilliant. Stick with it. Rabbi Harris brings home in the end.


The Neshama of Baseball, Part IV

Measuring Good:
Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

If Sabermetrics was a religion, Bill James would be the Messiah who was sent to reveal the Truth, Billy Beane his first prophet, and Theo Epstein the current High Priest of the Temple of Baseball. And if you have no idea what the previous sentence means, then permit this humble rabbi to invite you to into the garden of baseball nerdery.

I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” and the 2011 movie it inspired.

Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.

Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.

Sabermetrics works by applying probability math to a very large amount of baseball data. It claims to deliver a higher probability of winning games over a long stretch of time. The regular baseball season is 162 games long, and typically the best teams at the season’s end win no more than 60% of their games, and the worst teams no fewer than 40%.

Applied over many seasons, the model has produced impressive results. For the first 10 years the A’s used Sabermetrics, their winning percentage was 52.1%. That may not sound that amazing, but it actually is. Historically, out of 30 major league teams and over 100 years of stats, there are only 3 teams with a higher all-time winning percentage – the Yankees (56.9%), the Giants (53.8%), and the Dodgers (52.5%). The team with the worst overall record throughout its history, the Tampa Bay Rays, still has won over 46% of its games.

Now, finally, we come to the spiritual insight in all this baseball meshugas.

Judaism is an optimistic yet realistic tradition. Every High Holy Days, we’re reminded of the sages’ teaching that we should all think of ourselves as people who probably do roughly the same amount of good deeds and bad, and that by taking a moral inventory and doing teshuvah, we have the power to tip the evenly balanced scales towards the good. We’re also taught that the world is profoundly broken, but that we collectively have the power to improve it. And, at least in liberal Judaism, we tend to believe that the world includes accidents, random events, and uncertainty.

Judaism’s attitude towards the power we have as human beings to improve the world is very sabermetrical. This is true of individuals and it is true of our organizations and congregations. If a group of us works hard to do good in a proven effective way, does that mean good outcomes will happen next week? Who knows? Too small a sample set. But if we stick with it over the long haul, our faith is that the cumulative effect will bend the moral arc towards righteousness.

This isn’t to claim that all the world’s problems can, or should, be addressed with comfortable incrementalism. That would be a misunderstanding of the Judeo-Sabermetric Tradition! Global warming needs dramatic action, for example, in part because we’re reaping the awful harvest of many decades of harm.

No, the faith of the rabbinic Sabermetrician is a faith that accepts the existential fact that even if we do the most good that we could conceivably do to address a great problem, the probability is that we only improve the odds of success by a few percentage points. For those of us worried about climate change, we have to reckon with the possibility that even if the entire world suddenly cooperates with massive clean energy reforms, we may be too late to avert lasting terrible consequences. That said, our best chance at making the world a better place, whether regarding global warming or, say, Jewish engagement, is for us to develop the most effective strategy to improve the situation and then implement it with discipline and consistency.

Adopting a Sabermetrics approach forces us to ask: are we asking the right questions? Perhaps it is not total membership households that defines a congregation’s success, but some other measurable? Or should we even be talking about members anymore – maybe we should instead be categorizing peoples’ involvement and participation in Jewish communal life differently, and measuring it in some novel way that tells us more about how effective our work is?

Another thought: we live in a world of probabilities, and our tikkun olam work, if done well and over time, will shift those probabilities. Trusting that that is true – that the universe is wired that way – goes hand-in-hand with accepting that we can’t control the outcomes. Even if we make it more probable than not that justice will prevail, it’s still possible that injustice will win out in any given situation. Similarly, Sabermetrics is quite reliable at getting baseball teams to finish with a good enough record to get into the playoffs, but it loses its predictive powers in the face of a short series of games.

Sabermetrics and Judaism guide us towards comparable approaches to the work of improving baseball teams and human society, respectively. They say to us: 1) do the research to find out what specific work needs to be done to succeed – understanding that the best strategies may be novel ones; 2) do the best you can do as a team (or as a community) to implement that plan, and 3) accept the uncertainty of the outcome in any given situation but keep on keeping on.

To put it more succinctly: Study. Take action. Accept what happens next. Repeat. Have faith in this process. Play ball and/or Amen.

Rabbi Maurice Harris is associate director of affiliate support for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/ Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.




Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In the BIG Inning

The Neshama of Baseball, Part 3

Ari and Rachel
Rachel Margolis is an educator in Chicago and my partner in crime as co-chairs of the Communications Team for the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE). She and her husband Ari, a rabbi serving Congregation Or Shalom in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Ari and I have never actually met. When Rachel and I get together with our colleagues, he is usually home parenting their three spectacular daughters. But he has weighed in while Rachel and I have texted while watching the Cubs this post-season. He wrote this drash for Parshat Bereshit this past week. Rachel posted it on Facebook and The CCAR Blog picked it up as well. He gave me permission to post it here.



An ode to the intersection of this week's Torah portion, Bereshit, and my beloved Cubs:


In the beginning. . .

There was a team that experienced an abundance of success. They went to the World Series three times in a row. But they fell from grace after two straight championships. Expelled from the Garden of Greatness, they lost their way, squandering opportunity after opportunity. They experienced a deluge of misfortune, a famine of talent and success as they turned away from the land of the World Series, winding up in the bondage of ineptitude. They wandered, searching to find the promised land for 71 years, escaping the oppression of poor management and indifferent ownership, never losing hope.

Suddenly, a new team arose who knew not the Cubs of the past. Together with new ownership, sabermetric analysis, young talent, and innovative management, the long suffering crew has found its way to back to the World Series, standing on the precipice of the promised land.

By next week, we will all know the outcome of this part of our story, yet to be written. But what we do know is that sure enough, a new baseball season will come next Spring with new opportunities for redemption, renewal, and understanding, just as we have opportunities to find the same in our own hearts during this next year of reading our Torah.

Here's hoping that the team that taught me to understand the narratives of our people, always striving to return home to the promised land, will have found their Jerusalem. And whether they do or not, as we say at the end of Passover ... Next year in the World Series!

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