Hanukkah and Power: #BlackLivesMatter

Like with much of our religious traditions and sacred stories (or really anything for that matter) what we learn as kids is revealed to be much more complicated as adults.

Take the Hanukkah story for example. The general narrative is of the Maccabees, a Jewish family which lead a revolt against the oppressive tactics of the ruling Greek empire which suppressed Jewish practice and expression.. The revolt was successful at driving out the Greeks, and led to the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by idolatry. Lighting the sacred lamp (menorah), it was discovered that there was only enough consecrated oil to last one day. It lasted for 8, however, a miraculous event that we mark.

As we reflect on this story, it gets complicated. For example, the 8 days of Hanukkah are also associated with a delayed celebration of Sukkot. Additionally, the story of the oil appears to be a later addition of the rabbis of the Talmud, and is absent in the historical records of the Book of Maccabees.

The themes of lighting up the darkness, and the pursuit of the right to individual and communal religious expression, survive any scrutiny of the story–these are universal themes which over Hanukkah are expressed through the Maccabee story, themes which are worthy of celebration.

One other complicating factor draws our attention this year. This complicating factor is one we don’t usually talk about, because it is what happens next, after the events we mark on Hanukkah. For after the rededication of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom, the ruling Hasmoneans (the family of the Maccabees) established a regime of their own, using violence to solidify their rule.

(This also has echoes of the earlier violence, which, though directed at the Greek regime, also included elements of civil war, as the Jewish population was divided in its support for the ruling parties.)

Regimes using violence and oppressive tactics to exercise authority and power, these issues persist to this day. Mindful of the Hanukkah story and its excesses, our job is to be mindful of this tendency towards institutionalized oppression and work to oppose it.

Our nation recently has been confronted, once again, with these issues. Cases of African-Americans being brutalized and killed by the police have transcended their local impact in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland to break open a larger conversation of institutionalized racism and its dangers, especially when that institution is the police.

art by Zoe Cohen from chanukahaction.org

art by Zoe Cohen from chanukahaction.org

We carry a legacy of racial discrimination in this country which continues to this day. And even though racial bias increasingly lacks a legal imprimatur, other discrete forms of bias persist in ways both overt and covert. When this is combined with an institution given authority and the public trust (not to mention weapons) it is imperative that we seek it out and identify it, else we stand no chance of overcoming it.

One way to have the conversation about covert forms of biases is to examine and recognize white privilege, the ways our society favors the white experience and gives a distinct advantage to those with white skin. This concept should not be foreign to us, for we as Jews understand that it is like to be at the receiving end of (culturally) Christian privilege especially at this time of year, when we do not see our experience and culture reflected in the dominant culture. (And when we do, it sometimes feels like tokenism.)

So we Jews need to be part of the conversation. Both because of our own historical experience in this country, but also because of our sacred teachings. We are taught that we are created b’tzelem Elohim–each in the image of God. This means that each person is worthy and deserving of respect. This means that all lives matter. This means that Black lives matter.

And Jewish groups are recognizing this. Jewish groups, along with other faith communities, are at the forefront of the conversation. This is only fitting, as it is not just a policy conversation, it is a moral conversation. And as we turn our attention to the celebration of Hanukkah, it is a fitting time to focus our spiritual energy on this important conversation. See Chanukah Action to End Police Violence or vsGoliath, for example, for information and resources to add this kavannah (intention) to your own observance of Hanukkah as I am adding it to mine.

The story of Hanukkah teaches of the promise and peril of institutional power. The peril comes when a good and helpful and important institution like the police gets tainted with racism and abuse of power. The promise comes, however, in our ability to over come it and shine a light on this particular darkness.

Investing in Oil, Lighting our Future

We are perhaps all familiar with the story of Hanukkah, which begins this coming Tuesday night. In the second century BCE, the Jewish community was under the tyrannical rule of the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who imposed a series of harsh anti-Jewish measures on the population. He forbade the practice of Judaism, imposed Hellenizing policies and event went so far as to turn the Temple in Jerusalem—the most holy spot and the center of Jewish life at the time—into a shrine for idol worship.

A band of rebels led by a priest named Mattathias and his sons, known as the Maccabees, led a revolt against the Greek army. They succeeded in overthrowing the Greeks, establishing an independent Jewish state and recapturing the Temple.

That is the rough history, the story that we tell. The details always add more nuance to the general narrative, but the story provides some key understandings of why we celebrate Hanukkah: a celebration of Jewish identity, the value of religious tbh-3liberty, the importance of communal self-determination.

And then, of course, there is the folklore associated with the story, primarily the story of the oil. As the story goes, after the defeat of the Greeks, the Jews went to rededicate the Temple. They removed any evidence of idol worship and rededicated (Hanukkah means “dedication”)the Temple to Jewish practice. A key part of Temple practice was the menorah—a candelabrum that was continuously lit. (The ner tamid “eternal light” in our contemporary synaogues are meant to recall this light). The Maccabees found only enough sanctified oil to last for one day, when lit however it lasted for eight.

The volume of one vial of oil multiplied eight-fold. Some call this the miracle of Hanukkah. Others may call it a very successful return on investment.

It’s what we all hope will happen: we take something small and turn it into something big. Gardeners and farmers hold on to this hope each growing season—that from a small seed a large bounty will be produced. We use our communal resources to educate our children, hoping that as they grow they will use their knowledge and experience to make their own contribution to community and society.

And in the financial world, we put aside some money now, invest it and let it grow so we can reap the benefits of it later.

As a Jewish community in Olympia, as we celebrate that investment in oil futures that we mark on Hanukkah, we are in the process of investing in our own future with the Building Strength Capital Campaign.

It has been 10 years since we moved into our new home at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, and now is the time to secure the future of this home by building an endowment that will allow us to care for our sacred communal space in perpetuity. We have never had an endowment at TBH, and we are one of the few congregations in the area that does not. Our building requires a lot of care and attention, and our congregational leadership has wisely decided that rather than come hat-in-hand each time we need to do a maintenance project, we build an endowment that will pay out over time the costs associated with upkeep and repair.

[And our congregational leadership has planned this out, developing a spreadsheet of projected maintenance and replacement projects over the next 30 years.]

We know that a community or congregation is not defined by a physical structure. Our building does not make us who we are: a community dedicated to Jewish tradition, to education, to communal service, to social justice, to love and support. But our building gives us a place to live out our ideals and values, and provides us a central address where we can connect and make our Jewish home.

And not just for us. Our building has become a gathering place for other organizations, has hosted community events and concerts, has provided a warm shelter for the homeless.

The Building Strength Capital Campaign has been progressing very successfully, but we need more support. I have pledged, the Board has pledged, many community members have pledged. I invite you to join me in this endeavor. You can click here for the campaign materials and a pledge form.

Unlike our last capital campaign that produced our building, we won’t get something exciting to look at out of this one. An investment account and the promise of a future roof replacement are not very thrilling, I know. But we are investing in something more important—an idea. The idea that the Jewish presence in Olympia is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community in Olympia are valuable to us and to the generations to come.

We would do well to remember this as Hanukkah approaches. For while the story of the rededication of the Temple is the focal point of the holiday of Hanukkah, even giving the festival its name, we remember that the Maccabees were not just fighting for a building. They were fighting for the same idea: that a Jewish communal presence is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community are valuable throughout the generations.

And here we are, celebrating Hanukkah.

So as we celebrate Hanukkah and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, let’s recommit to the dedication of our Temple here in Olympia. If we do so, we can also witness the miracle of the light of Judaism continuing to burn bright.

“I Nearly Died. This is What.” (On Redemption)

One of the joys of travel on a Sunday is the ability to read the New York Times Sunday edition cover to cover. Since rabbis work on Sundays, my duties usually preclude this, and I dole out the sections over the course of the week. A few weeks ago, however, I found myself on a plane headed to Philadelphia to attend the board meeting of my rabbinical association (I am currently an at-large board member), and so had the luxury to read through the entire paper.

One column that week in the Sunday Review section that caught my eye was by the writer Meghan Daum: “I Nearly Died, So What?” Without even having to read the article I was drawn to the starkness and power in the title, and guessed at the content. The author would recount a near death experience, then struggle to find meaning around it.

The original artwork that accompanied the article in the New York Times, by Jon Han

The original artwork that accompanied the article in the New York Times, by Jon Han (from http://www.nytimes.com)

And I was correct. Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, recounted how four years ago she developed a severe case of typhus brought about by flea bites, which resulted in complications including liver failure, meningoencephalitis and others. She was in the ICU in a medically induced coma for several days, received numerous transfusions and IV antibiotics and had a spinal tap. Her chances of living were not good, and if she did survive, there was a strong chance of permanent damage.

As she writes, “Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. Nor did I have brain damage. I do have tinnitus and some very minor hearing loss. When I complained about this to my neurologist, he told me that I shouldn’t be complaining about anything, given the “miracle” of my survival.”

With her physical challenge behind her, she wrote about the next emotional and spiritual challenge, facing the constant inquiries from friends and family as to how the experience changed her. In responding to these questions, she put them in context to her own experience a year prior asking the same questions of her mother who was dying of cancer, trying to find some form of narrative or wisdom to put everything in context.

Now, confronted with the questions based on her own experience, she was not so sure. While grateful not to have died of course, she did not feel different, nor did her behaviors and attitude change so much. And furthermore, she challenges, the questions themselves are perhaps unfair. We as Americans, she notes, seek redemption and happy endings, and want to tie up difficult events and crisises into neat packages. That, she notes, is misguided; redemption may not come. As she closes the article, “I’m not a better person. I’m the same person. Which is actually kind of a miracle.”

This article struck a deep nerve in me because I have wrestled with the same question: “I nearly died, so what?” As I have shared, two years ago I woke up to a pounding headache the like of which I had not had before. After not being able to communicate clearly, the paramedics were called, I was whisked to the hospital and after a spinal tap given a diagnosis of bacterial meningitis. I was in the hospital for five days, half of which was spent in the ICU, and sent home with a regimen of IV antibiotics. Clearly my ordeal was not as severe as Daum’s. The similarities lay in the fact that meningitis could be fatal or leave permanent damage—I, too, escaped both.

And I was faced with the same questions about meaning making and redemption. For me, the questions came less from outside than inside. As a religious person, committed to a spiritual life, I believe in the idea of transformation and redemption. So I continued to ask myself, now what? How am I different? How can I change my life to warrant this second chance? How am I better? But I keep coming up empty and slipping into old habits.

Am I just buying into false notions?

Yes and no. The notions weren’t false, but the common way of thinking about them is. We are not wrong, as Americans or humans, to look for redemption and meaningful narratives. We are just wrong in where we commonly look for them.

Daum notes how her friends and family wanted to give meaning to the episode because they sought “closure.” Closure, for one, doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as closure on any event in our lives. We can learn this, for example, from our Jewish traditions around death; Jewish mourning practices teach that one never stops mourning. The intensity wanes, of course, but after the immediate period of shiva (the seven days following a death) and shloshim (the first month of grief), we still observe yartzeit, the yearly anniversary of the death.

There is no closure in healing, either. While I am past the illness that almost killed me—plus the two neurosurgeries I had to address another, unrelated, problem—I think about them every day. The scar for my IV port and my surgeries are visible, and I see them constantly. Every time I get a familiar twinge or pain I am transported back to that moment. Whenever I forget a word or something, I wonder if the meningitis didn’t do something permanent. And whether we carry physical scars of emotional scars from having gone through an ordeal, we are constantly in a process of healing.

But just because there is no closure does not mean there is no redemption. We just need to think about redemption differently. We tend to, in our popular imagination, think of redemption as an event, an immediate transformation in the face of challenge. That idea is repeated in our popular culture; it is what we expect and look for, as Daum notes.

Meghan Daum. Photo credit: David Zaugh (from www.meghandaum.com)

Meghan Daum. Photo credit: David Zaugh (from http://www.meghandaum.com)

But redemption is not an event, it is a process. We are continually coming to terms with and making meaning from the events of our lives. (Daum’s article comes four years after the events which prompted it). The questions can not be immediately answered, nor may they ever be completely. But every moment of life lived after the escape from death is a possibility for renewal and meaning making. Redemption will come not because of the near death experience itself, but because of the fact that we continue to live, and wrestle, and seek to improve.

Perhaps the distinction comes from different theological narratives. Perhaps our popular “American” notion of redemption is influenced by the Christian narratives of redemptive events—the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

On the other hand, the normative Jewish narrative of redemption is the story of the Exodus from Egypt as told in the Torah, when the enslaved Israelites were freed under Moses’s leadership. That story is less about a particular event than a journey, a process. And even after the leaving of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, the redemptive journey wasn’t finished as the Israelites spent the next 40 years in the desert trying to get the Promised Land.

The process of redemption does not come all at once, it happens step by step. It happens in small moments, not in grand gestures. Plus, we don’t know the impact of our experiences some times until much later after the fact. Were we transformed by a near death experience? Maybe, maybe not. But more likely, we don’t know yet.

We are, and will continue to be, in process. The question, “I nearly died, so what?” is a good one. But it is, and remains, an open question.

The First and Future Thanksgiving

One of my challenges as a rabbi is to make Judaism relevant across demographics. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that what necessitates how we teach Judaism to kids is different than how we teach Judaism to adults. And very often I find that people who study Judaism as adults are surprised by what they discover because they did not feel the Judaism they were taught as kids spoke to their adult sensibilities, and so were, for a  time, turned off.

Well, of course. Judaism requires life-long study and engagement. What we learn as kids is not going to be the same as adults because what we need, what we understand, what we can grapple with is different as an adult than as a child.

This idea shouldn’t be foreign to our civic education as well since we are oftentimes stuck in a childhood vision of what our early American history and especially Thanksgiving is all about: stories of Pilgirms and Native Americans and a shared feast of mutual respect and understanding.

As adults, though, we know the story is much more nuanced and deeper than what we learn in elementary school. The history of the Native population in this country is a tragic one, complete with the ravages of colonialism, the forced exile, and the persistence of inequality.

Every year, it seems, articles are published to remind us of this. While these articles are of course necessary, they remind me of something—that our education must extend beyond elementary school, and that meanings of events change over time. We tend to forget this. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When we are children we are told simple stories to acculturate us. As adults we are obligated to seek out the more nuanced truth behind these stories. Our mature minds require a mature understanding.

After sitting through our wonderful local Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration this past Sunday, I was struck by the fact that Thanksgiving has a completely different meaning to me now that it did when I was younger. As a child, I was told the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, sharing food in a spirit of fellowship. It was a historical celebration. As an adult, the themes of gratitude and the value of sharing dominate. It is a spiritual celebration.

The story of the “first Thanksgiving” is a myth in the classic understanding of the term—not an untrue story but a story thatexodusgodsandking is meant to convey deeper truths beyond particular events. Myths are not meant to write (or rewrite) history, they are meant to write the future. The mythic story of the Exodus from Egypt (soon to be a major motion picture—again) was not meant to tell the events as they happened, but to tell a paradigmatic story of redemption that is meant to shape our future.

The myth of the “first Thanksgiving” was one of unity and harmony across cultures. It was about an existing population welcoming a newly arriving one. It was about the promise of religious liberty in a new land. On the one hand, this covers up a tragic history. On the other hand, it embodies the ideals for which we hope and strive.

As with the story, so too with the celebration. The Passover seder is not meant to recreate an ancient Israelite meal of days gone by, but rather it is to serve as a symbolic feast of future redemption. That is why we find meaning in the meal, with the symbolic foods of bitterness and redemption not referring exclusively to the biblical story of Egyptian bondage, but to the places we recognize oppression in our own day.

When we sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, we would do well to do the same. The meal is not meant to recreate a historic meal that may or may not have happened. [Though one of the things I find powerful about Thanksgiving is that it is a seasonal celebration as well, and eating seasonal and native foods connects one to this land and time.] The meal is meant to be a time to reflect on where we find gratitude right now, but also where we are falling short as a nation in pursuit of those values of equality, liberty, mutual respect and pluralism.

And we are falling short. The struggles of our Native population persist. We are in a new national conversation about immigration—about who we are as Americans, about the extent of the American dream, and how we as a nation of immigrants treat those newly arrived at our borders.

hands upAnd this week, with the failure of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO to hand down an indictment in the shooting death of an unarmed African-American youth, we are once again confronted by our national legacy of racism, white privilege, and institutional forms of oppression. The failure of our criminal justice system to even be open to the possibility of a trial rightfully inspires anger, fear, suspicion and disappointment.

We have much work to do.

As we mark this Thanksgiving, we do recall that story of the “first Thanksgiving”—but not as some pretty historical gloss. Rather, we recall it for what it really is: a story of promise and pain that contains within it both a devastating history and our highest ideals. Our job is to recognize the all of it, and by doing so, we will be able to transform ourselves and our communities.

Praying (Again) for Peace and Safety

This week’s attack in Jerusalem hit a particularly deep nerve.

If you haven’t heard by now, two cousins, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, entered a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday morning with guns and knives, attacking the people who were there in prayer. Five people were killed in the attack: four rabbis who were there for morning prayer services, and the police officer who responded to the scene. Several others were injured and the attackers were killed.

Photo from jta.org (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Photo from jta.org (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Three of the four rabbis were American-born, one was British. The police officer was a member of the Druze community in Israel. And one of the rabbis killed was Rabbi Moshe Twersky, who was a grandson of the very influential American Orthodox Jewish thinker Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

This attack strikes a particularly deep nerve not just because of its brutality, and some of the images circulating from the scene were indeed wrenching. And not just because it is an attack on civilians, something we see all too often across the world in the many conflicts raging. But it strikes a particularly deep nerve because it took place in a synagogue, during a time of prayer.

On the one hand, an attack upon people during a prayer service should not be any more tragic than an attack on people at the grocery store, or at the bus stop, or walking down the street.

On the other hand, an attack at a house of worship feels different, a violation of a sacred space. But not only because it is a space we dedicate as holy—set aside for a special and divine purpose, but because as a sacred space it is a place that we hope to feel particularly safe since it is a place we make ourselves feel vulnerable.

Imagine your own experience in services, in prayer. We take our minds elsewhere. Usually we are not focused on the affairs of the world outside the doors of the synagogue; we attend services as a break from the mundane and day-to-day. Services are a time to be with our community. They are a time to sing and be in silence. They are a time to offer up our deepest wishes and hopes, express our most profound gratitude, give voice to our apprehensions and fears. The time spent in prayer is a time to access our deepest humility.

So to have this attack occur in a time and place in which the victims were in a state of spiritual vulnerability feels especially tragic.

We all pray for a world of peace, but we also pray for a world of safety. We wish to feel safe in our homes, our schools (which makes each and every school shooting all the more terrifying) and in our houses of worship. When that safety is violated in one place, it is violated in all places. With this attack we are reminded of our own vulnerability perhaps, and our own feeling of lack of security. We recognize what it is to be targeted as Jews. And we may feel maybe a little less comfortable the next time we attend services.

Seeing images of tallitot (prayer shawls) and siddurim (prayer books) stained in blood makes this particular attack a part of our story. Those are our sacred objects, sacred words, sacred space violated. We offer up our condolences on the tragic deaths of the worshippers, who were speaking words that we speak when they died. And we offer up our condolences to the police officer, who sought to protect those who were targeted.

This Shabbat, in the wake of this attack, I will seek to honor the victims by once again offering up my most fervent prayers for peace—that all will recognize the futility of hatred and violence, and look upon each other as we all should, as created in the image of God. And at the same time I will seek to reclaim the synagogue for what it must be—a space of safety and comfort where spiritual vulnerability is encouraged but physical vulnerability is absent.

The Unclaimed Dead

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, and begins with the death of Sarah.

After the ordeal of having to nearly sacrifice his son, Abraham returns home to the death of his wife. (Some commentators connect the two events, saying Sarah died when she heard about what Abraham had done.) Abraham then begins the difficult process of making arrangements, something we all find ourselves in the middle of after a passing. The grief is there, but the mourning can not fully start until the arrangements are made.

The same is true in our contemporary mourning practice. One is not considered a “mourner” until after the burial. Between death and burial is an intermediate time known as aninut during which one makes the necessary arrangements.

Abraham sets out to make the arrangements. Having left his ancestral home, he is living among the Hittites in Canaan.  He goes to see the local chieftain, Ephron ben Zohar, to inquire about purchasing a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron knows of Abraham’s reputation as a leader and man of God, and so offers to gift him the cave. Abraham insists however on paying for it, and a deal is struck for Abraham to purchase the cave, and he proceeds to bury Sarah within.

There is much that can be said about the merits of a sale versus a gift. Gifts imply an ongoing relationship (a subtle expectation that the gesture of a gift will be returned at some point) while a sale is a clear transaction. Gifts are open ended. A sale is final.

So while some will read this about land claims, it perhaps has to do more with the need to make “final arrangements” when it comes to mourning a loved one. Part of our mourning practice is to provide some formal act of transition between experiencing the death of a loved one and the beginning of the mourning process. This is the function of the funeral and burial. Sometimes circumstances require a service at a later date, or unconnected with burial. But the need to do right by our loved ones so we can begin to heal is a powerful motivator, the need to honor those who have died with ritual and acknowledgement is a necessary process. Abraham’s actions demonstrate this.

Two weeks ago I had the honor to participate in a commemoration organized by Interfaith Works in conjunction with the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. It was a memorial service—held in conjunction with All Souls Day/Dio de los Muertos—for all the unclaimed dead this past year. These were the people who did not have anyone to care for their bodies, or unbelievably, those whose families did not want to take responsibility and walked away.

The ceremony felt very much like a tikkun, a repair. To leave the dead unacknowledged felt like a tear in the fabric of what is right. These seven people did not have anyone to ritualize their passing, did not have anyone to offer a prayer or some words. Since this usually falls to the family and friends, and there weren’t any, it then falls to the community to do so. We, like Abraham, insist on making the arrangements for our honored dead.

I was asked to offer a eulogy, an interesting prospect for people I did not know and for whom there is no one to fill in the details of the life lived. I opened with the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk. And then here is what I shared:

We recall the names.

Names are often what we leave behind. A name etched on granite, on a headstone, on a wall, printed on paper.

Or a name etched on our hearts, on our minds.

We know the power of names. Our ancient biblical ancestor Abraham, as we know him now, but his name was originally Abram, his name changed to Abraham, father of many nations, when he was granted by God with the covenant.

His grandson Jacob, also in covenant with God, whose encounter with an angel in the middle of the night resulting in a blessing and a change of his name, from Jacob to Israel, “one who wrestles with God”, a name that will come to define a people for millennia to come.

The power of a name.

Think about your own name. Maybe you were named after someone at birth. Why were you given the name you have? What hopes and dreams were meant for you when your name was bestowed upon you? What family history is wrapped up in your last name? Do you have a nickname? Did you change your name? Did you choose your name, perhaps after some significant life event.

For we know that a name is much more than a name. A name is a life, a life of meaning.

We come to remember these honored dead. Defined, as we remember them here, only by their names. We do not have the stories that made up their lives. But the name is only an entry way into understanding their life.

These people: Annette Paula Emerick, Edward Harvey Epstein, Cleveland Anthony duBois, Jordan C. Silver, Juanita K. Hinchliffe, Christoper J. Rabe, Larry G. Ryan. Someone gave them the name that they have. Someone bestowed upon them this blessing of a name. What was in their minds when they did so? What family history was in their last name? Was the middle name “Harvey” after a beloved uncle? Or what is the story of the “Hinchcliffe” family? Someone thought and cared to bestow upon a name. They are not just individuals but members of a family, a lineage, a heritage.

And as we think about these beloved dead, let us not just stop at their names. Let us think about the person who gave them the name, who held them in their arms and whispered their name. Or used their name in scolding them, telling them to cut it out. Or who called out their name in fear and panic and reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street.

And let us remember the fact that they were called by this name by family and friends. Spoken as an invitation to get a beer after work. Or called out in joy by a young niece or nephew. Or spoken softly by a beloved partner.

Their bodies might not be claimed at death, but throughout life their lives were claimed by anyone who sought them out by name.

It is in this way we can bestow our love and empathy upon them. As we recall what it is like to be called by our names, the love shown when our name is spoken by someone, the pride and heritage we carry when we sign our surname, we can project that same feeling upon these honored dead as we call their names.

And just as they were claimed in life, they are claimed in death. By calling their names. This is what we honor here today. The blessing of their names. The blessing of their lives.

The need for ritual at the end of life is so important, whether carried out by a loving husband, as Abraham did for Sarah, or by a faithful community, as we did for the unclaimed dead of Thurston County. It is in this way we give honor not only to those who have died, but to those of us left behind. It is both a final, and a first, step in the healing process. All lives are thus claimed.

Next up: Liberalism and Conservatism


And a little something from “A Rabbi and a Pastor Walk Into a Bar.” Next conversation is Sunday. Shabbat shalom!

Originally posted on A Rabbi and a Pastor Walk into a Bar...:

The election results are in.

Here are a few things we do know: it is going to be harder to purchase a firearm in Washington State. The Republicans will control both houses of the U. S. Congress. The Washington State delegation will stay the same. The makeup of the Thurston County Commission will change.

Here are some things we don’t know: What this all means moving forward.

We often speak of politics as operating on a continuum of liberalism and conservatism, or their directional shorthand, left and right. Sometimes we talk about religion as operating internally on that same spectrum (i.e., liberal Judaism vs. conservative Judaism). And then there is the intersection of religion and politics. Do religious conservatives naturally hold conservative political positions, and vice versa?

What does it mean to be a liberal and a conservative? Must a political position be one or the other, or can it…

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Wear Your Bike Helmet

Here is my scientific observation based on empirical evidence: while children are susceptible to head injuries and drowning, once they reach adulthood they are immune from such injuries. Isn’t this correct? My evidence is based on the large number of people I see riding their bikes with their kids where the kids have helmets on but the parents do not. The same is for boating: I see kids wearing their personal flotation devices (PFDs) while adults just have them nearby.family-cycling-2010-photo

I’ll think more about this but first, now that the elections are over, the post-election punditry begins.

I’ve been reading some, not a lot, of articles trying to dissect the recent elections. Most of the speculation remains just that—speculation. What will happen with a Democratic President and Republican Congress? We don’t really know until we get there. So many talking heads will speculate, but the reality will need to present itself in time.

I would rather read backwards and dissect what did or didn’t happen on Tuesday. I am very happy that our state took the initiative and supported universal background checks for gun purchases, a landmark vote that will hopefully reverberate throughout the nation—a dedicated citizenry taking steps to create some measure to curb gun violence in our country. The organized Jewish community supported this measure and worked hard to get it to pass.

But aside from that, I read with interest about turnout. This always is an issue for examination, especially during these midterm elections. Analysts examine how many people turn out, who turns out and for whom do they vote, picking apart the electorate by demographic. Voting in midterm elections is notoriously low, and this election was no different.

One of the demographic analyses I read had to do with the “millennials”—those ages 18-30 who turned out in low numbers. Commentators have taken note that the electorate in this past election skewed older, and that if younger voters had turned out, based on the political leanings found within this demographic, the election might have been different.

While I haven’t done the research, this strikes me as different than what happened six years ago when Obama was first elected, when Obama rode the tide of young voters into the White House, and that attracting young voters was a key part of the strategy. Of course, the population of who makes up those “young voters” is constantly changing. Those first eligible to vote in these elections were 12 when Obama was first elected in 2008, and this demographic shift is greater (moving from teenager to adulthood) than say moving from the 30-45 age bracket to the 45-60 one.

[I remember this hit home for me once a few years ago when I was talking to a class at South Puget Sound Community College. I was there to talk about Judaism to a class in world religions, and after my presentation I had an open Q and A session. Most had to do with Jewish practice and belief, but one person asked me if I thought a Jewish person would ever be a candidate for national office. It struck me as odd that he should ask remembering how Joseph Lieberman was the Vice Presidential candidate on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000, until I realized that he and his classmates were probably 9 or 10 at the time of that election.]

It is this last statistic of young voters that is interesting to me, and I would be curious to dig deeper. I don’t know if anyone keeps these stats, but since turn out is generally low in elections, I’m curious as to how many of the parents of these non-voting millennials also didn’t vote. Do non-voters beget non-voters?

My hunch is that there may be a correlation. If kids get the message when they are growing up that public participation isn’t worthwhile or important, then when the time comes for them to take an active role in the political process, they won’t. And I don’t mean that parents must instill a particular ideology in their offspring—that may not work—but if parents have respect for the process and act on the importance of civic engagement, then that message will be passed to our kids.

And we do this by modeling. Back to the bike helmets and the PFDs—by not wearing helmets or PFDs while insisting that our children do so, we are sending the wrong message. First of all, it is extremely dangerous. We know adults can have major head injuries from bike accidents or drown from boating accidents; those who don’t wear protective gear are taking a huge risk. And second, by not doing so, we are passing along these bad habits and conveying the message that “this is for kids, but not for adults.” We can’t just tell our children to do it and not do it ourselves, for when those kids get older, I bet they will also stop wearing their helmets.

And what goes for voting, and what goes for personal safety, goes for Judaism as well. If we want our kids to live engaged Jewish lives, then we need to as well. We can’t just tell them to, or send them off to synagogue when we don’t engage ourselves. We can’t say, “this is for kids, but not for adults.” We need to do it ourselves. There is no one right way to do this, and our children’s Jewish lives may end up looking different than ours, but if we don’t model spiritual connection, meaning making, respect for tradition, engagement with learning, and participation and practice, then our kids will leave Judaism, like their ballot and bike helmet, behind.

And when that happens, we may not like the results.

Your Impact Is a Blessing

This week we are introduced to Abraham.

Our Torah portion this week, Lech Lecha, begins with God calling Abraham, and inviting him to go forth from his homeland to a new land. But the call to move geographic locations is simply a physical manifestation of a deeper, more spiritual move: Abraham is changing the direction of his life in order to become God’s representative on Earth, to enter into a covenant with God.

Part of this “call” has to do with a blessing. God says:

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase. What does it mean that those who bless Abraham will in turn be blessed? What does it mean that others in the world will bless themselves through Abraham?

God is telling Abraham, here at the beginning of his mission, that he has the potential to make an impact. That he is going to make change in the world, and through his righteous action, that change is going to be overwhelmingly positive. He will be a blessing.

Righteous action brings change and makes an impact. Righteous action is a blessing.

The time has come again for us to demonstrate that we can bring change and make an impact. Election Day is upon us. We in Washington State, of course, have had our ballots for two weeks now as we vote by mail and so the day itself has less of an impact. But the fact of our voting, participating fully in our democracy, is something that should not go unnoticed. At a time that voting rights are being challenged, and the ability to easily vote curtailed, we are mindful that the ability to vote in our system is a blessing. Our acting on that ability makes our actions a blessing.

While it is a “midterm” year as they call it, vis a vis the presidential election, every election is important. This year we vote for Congress, several local elections and the usual slate of referenda and initiatives. One ballot measure, though, jumps out this year: I-594, which will make background checks mandatory on the sale of all firearms.

It jumps out not only because of the plague of gun violence that is sweeping our nation, but because of the plague of gun violence that is sweeping our local communities. The latest school shooting (and even to have to say “the latest school shooting” seems beyond the pale) took place right here in Washington State, in Marysville, north of Seattle. The details are continually being revealed, but 15-year-old Jaylen Fryberg premeditatedly invited his friends and cousins to meet him for lunch in the cafeteria where he proceeded to gun them down. Two people died, three wounded and Jaylen committed suicide.

We may never know all the details, the hows and whys of what Jaylen did. The reports are that he was a good kid, played football, was elected a homecoming prince. Reports are that he was in a dispute over a girlfriend (adding elements of domestic violence to this shooting). No indications of mental illness.

And the gun was legally purchased. This last factor will lead some to beg the question, would I-594 have even done anything? Indeed, that is one of the arguments against the initiative: that it still wouldn’t prevent criminals from obtaining guns.

First, while it may not do everything, it will do something, and that is important. If every piece of legislation had to solve every problem completely, then we would not pass any laws.

But irrespective of what it actually does regarding gun control, passing this initiative sends an important message. By passing this initiative we say this: that as a society, we will not let gun culture go unchecked. That guns are not just about individual rights, but communal responsibilities. That as we honor an individual’s right to own a firearm, we also honor an individual’s right to be able to go to school without fear.

For whatever Jaylen’s motivation, he was clearly comfortable with firearms. We need to stop saying as a nation that we are comfortable with guns. Guns shouldn’t be “comfortable” or “normative.”

A few years ago a mentally ill man attacked the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one person and wounding several. For this reason, among others, the organized Jewish community in Washington has come out in favor of I-594. And if you recall, last year at Rosh Hashanah I gave a sermon on the subject drawing on Jewish sources, you can find it here.

When Abraham set out on his journey, he knew that he had the potential to bring blessing or curse. And that blessing or curse would have wide impact. So I invite you to exercise your ability to make an impact. First, vote. No matter for whom you vote, no matter how you vote on the initiatives, just vote. It is the simplest, most powerful act we have to be engaged citizens of our community.

And I invite you to join me in voting for I-594. Let’s take a step towards tighter controls on guns. For some it doesn’t go far enough. For some it may go too far. But anything we can do to send the message that the right to gun ownership must come with responsibilities, and that measures are needed to ensure public safety, can only be for a blessing.