On the Backs of Those Who Most Need Our Help

I spent today at the Capitol with over 200 other members of faith communities from across the state to participate in Interfaith Advocacy Day, sponsored by the Faith Action Network. It was a day of learning, of inspiration and action. Connected to the work we did today is this piece I wrote for the Jewish Soundwa capitol (formerly the JTNews, and thanks to them for the headline), published in this week’s issue:

Here is a scenario: a synagogue is faced with a tight budget. Examining its options, the board of the congregation decides not to do any additional fundraising, but instead decides to just cut programs.

Doesn’t sound too realistic? As a congregational rabbi myself, I understand that there is a limit to cutting programs-how far does one cut back? Do we get rid of our youth education program? Deny well- deserved pay for our staff? Instead, prudent spending cuts need to be coupled with examining new avenues of fundraising: do we raise the expected annual commitment? Have a special event? Maybe a special High Holiday appeal?

This is the situation our state is facing. Bound by law on much of its spending, our state is facing a tight budget. So there are two choices: cut services, or raise revenues. And with many of the services on the chopping block social services to help the most in need in our state, it becomes imperative that we look at new areas to raise revenue in order to secure the social services that are so desperately needed.

But the need for more revenue rather than balancing the budget on the backs of those most in need is only one major issue of economic justice facing our state. Our state taxation system is extremely regressive-it puts more of the burden of those who can least afford it. In other words, the poorest in our state are paying a higher percentage of their earnings in taxes than the richest in our state.

How regressive? Out of 50 states, Washington ranks 50th.

According to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, an independent think tank that studies federal, state and local tax issues, Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the United States. According to its most recent report (which can be found on its website http://www.itep.org), the poorest citizens of our state are taxed at a rate of 16.8%, while the richest-the top 1% of wage earners-pay only 2.4% in taxes.

[Again, to the synagogue analogy, it’s like expecting your poorest congregants to pay more in dues than your richest congregants.]

And if we combine the two issues, we see that failing to raise revenue while cutting social services will mean a double hit on our poorest: they will be paying the most in taxes while services meant to support them are being cut.

I often find it interesting that a state that seems to be progressive when it comes to social issues-the voters of the state of Washington passed by ballot marriage equality, gun control and marijuana legalization (the first two with the official support of the organized Jewish community)-continues to be so regressive when it comes to economic policy.

As our legislature is meeting here in Olympia, they will need to wrestle with this dilemma. Already our Governor has introduced various revenue packages for consideration. And there are other issues of economic justice in front of our lawmakers. A raise in the minimum wage is another, for example, that should be seriously considered.

I’m not an economist or a policy analyst, so I will hesitate to weigh in on the pros and cons of various solutions; I don’t know what the right answers are. But I am a rabbi, and I can say that budgets are moral documents, they reflect a community’s priorities and values. And to continue to maintain such a regressive tax system, and cutting social services without raising new revenue, is immoral.

We as Jews need to be concerned with economic justice, it is rooted in our text and tradition. This coming Shabbat is parashat Terumah, in Exodus. Having escaped from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites-through the gift of Torah-are to build a new society for themselves. One aspect is the ritual and ethical laws we explored in last week’s Torah reading. Another aspect is the communal institutions that will serve as a centerpiece to the community.

In this week’s portion, in Exodus 25:8, God tells Moses “let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The portion continues, describing in detail the plans and materials that will be used to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings. And those materials come from the people. All the people.

The economic issues facing our state are our issues, not only as citizens, but as Jews. We all must contribute to the development of our community. That is what our tradition teaches. And it also teaches that we do so justly and fairly.

Philip Levine: An Appreciation

Those who attend the services I lead know I incorporate a lot of poetry into worship. On the High Holidays I punctuate each service with poems, and each Friday evening, between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv, I read a poem–without commentary– as a kavannah (intention) for that Shabbat. The poem is drawn from the vast world of poetry, and chosen to reflect the season, or current events or simply a thought that arises that week.

I didn’t grow up reading a lot of poetry, I wasn’t an English major in college. What drew me in, what kindled my love of poetry, what taught me that a poem can touch the soul is a time about 20 years ago when, during a time of personal

Philip Levine

Philip Levine

transition that included much introspection, I came across a poem by Philip Levine. I feels almost too personal to share what was going on for me at that time (other than saying a general crossroads of young adulthood) or to share that particular poem. But Philip Levine touched me deeply.

Levine died earlier this week. Zichrono l’veracha–May his memory be for a blessing.

This poem came across my inbox this week from one of the poetry services to which I subscribe (poets.org). A choice selection: yesterday on the President’s Day holiday we took a ride out to Ocean Shores. With this beautiful weather and clear skies we were not only able to take in the ocean, but also the Olympics and Mount Rainier. Truly magnificent.

“Our Valley” by Phillip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

Taking Another Step to Reducing Gun Violence: My Testimony on HB 1857

Here is the scenario: you discover a loved one who has struggled with mental illness recently purchased a gun. What do you do to prevent him from harming himself or others? As of now in Washington, there is no measure that can be taken to legally remove the gun from that person. But a bill working its way through the state legislature will create that measure.

When the voters of Washington passed the universal background check initiative last election day, we as a citizenry took an important step to reducing the amount of gun violence. But there is more work to do. Yesterday I was honored to represent Jewish and other faith communities in support of HB 1857, the Extreme Risk Protection Act, which would create a means to protect those who are at risk from potential gun violence.10420096_906629809357283_8188437738861861523_n

Here is my testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday:

Chair and members of the Committee, my name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein, I am a rabbi serving the Olympia Jewish community and I am here as a member of the clergy and representing the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and umbrella Jewish organization.

I am here as a representative of Jewish and faith communities from across the state to appeal to you to support HB 1857 as a measure to take the ethical and just path of maintaining a safe and secure environment for families and the public.

Our American society has been founded on rights and due process. At the same time the rights of one must be balanced against the rights of others, and the rights of an individual must be balanced against the responsibilities to public welfare. All of the great faith traditions of our day teach the responsibility we must have for each other’s welfare. We demonstrate this in our daily interpersonal interactions, but sometimes we must also guarantee this through legislation and government oversight.

When there are those at risk of becoming the victim of violence, either because of mental illness, or substance abuse, or an altered emotional state, we have the moral obligation to do what we can as a society to mitigate that violence and stop those who may do harm to themselves or others.

There is a passage in Scripture, in Exodus, that says, if you have an ox that is prone to goring other oxen—in other words, it is dangerous—and you know about the danger, and you do nothing about it, then you are both legally and morally liable for the damage it causes.

This bill gives families and our honored law enforcement the tools needed to tame that ox. It helps families and communities prevent a crisis from turning into a tragedy, and helps build a stronger and safer and more just society. For that, I believe, it deserves your support.

Thank you.

The “Fake News” and the “News Fake”

I love the Daily Show. And hearing of Jon Stewart’s departure is sad, but we know it is not imminent, and he is going out on top. And while I don’t watch TV news that much, I respected and enjoyed Brian Williams, who is now on a six month suspension from NBC News. I had the opportunity to reflect on both of these transitions in my most recent blog post on MyJewishLearning.com via Rabbis Without Borders:

The “Fake News” and the “News Fake”

Shabbat Morning Quarterback: My Take on the Seahawks Loss

“The thing you are doing is not good.”

These are the words spoken by Jethro to his son-in-law Moses in this week’s Torah portion. The Israelites are settling into their new life since leaving Egypt and adjusting to being a newly freed community. Moses is adjudicating all of the disputes of the Israelites, who line up all day and all night to present their grievances. This prompts Jethro’s response, who advises Moses to set up a more efficient court system.

“The thing you are doing is not good.” These words are a variation of what has been repeated all week, after the stunning loss of the Seattle Seahawks in the Superbowl. In the final seconds of a thrilling game, the Seahawks found themselves down by four points with the ball on the Patriots one yard line. A touchdown would win the game. On second down, quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, and the Patriots intercepted. The game was over with a heartbreaking loss after being so close to victory.superbowl

What made the loss that much painful is the choice to throw the ball in the first place. The Seahawks have one of the best running backs in the NFL, Marshawn Lynch, known as “Beast Mode.” Lynch, who can barrel forward bringing defenders with him. Lynch, whose strength and skill is seemingly made for this type of play. Why did the coaches decide to throw the ball instead of just running it into the end zone?

Since the game I have read way too much commentary and analysis on the play. Some are calling it the worst call in Superbowl history. Others analyze the thought process and understand why a passing play might have been appropriate. One of the more interesting articles analyzed the call in relation to game theory. But in any event, whether it was a bad call, or a bad execution or both—the Seahawks came very close to winning a second Superbowl and blew it in the end.

Not long before the Superbowl, I came back from a retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, as part of my 18-month Clergy Leadership Program. It was an amazing experience of prayer, song, meditation, yoga and study. And now, as I am back from retreat, I continue learning with a weekly hevruta (study partner).

[I should say that my hevruta is a rabbi in the Boston area, and he showed up to our weekly Skype session this week wearing a Patriots jersey. Sigh.]

The theme of our study is an examination of middot (character traits) that we are meant to focus on and inculcate within ourselves. The practice is to make us better people, and thus better leaders. The study is drawn from Jewish texts, mostly from the Hasidic tradition, but we also read a wonderful article by the contemporary spiritual writer Parker Palmer.

In that article, Leading from Within, Palmer identifies 5 “shadows”—or negative traits—that affect leaders today. One is—in a beautiful phrase—“functional atheism.” That is, the belief that responsibility rests solely with me as an individual. Our IJS teachers have presented us with five middot that are meant to balance the shadows. The middah that my hevruta and I studied this week that is meant to “counter” that shadow is bitachon, or trust.

Why trust? As I understand it, it is because when we live under the shadow of functional atheism, we operate under the assumption that we are the only one that matters. That whatever we do or don’t do is the sum total of everything, that it all begins and ends with us. But this is misguided, it is an ego response. Having trust—in God, in the greater system, in each other—allows us to understand that it isn’t all about us, but that we are part of a larger whole that works in ways that sometimes we can not fully understand. Having trust allows us to see beyond ourselves, and understand that nothing can be reduced to one thing, one act, one person, one choice.

So here is my Superbowl analysis: No game can be defined by one call, one play. In sports, we tend to need a “goat,” someone to blame when things go wrong. But that is the wrong response. The game could have been different at many different times. The Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw an end zone interception which could have been a touchdown. There are other plays that could have turned out differently, other choices that would have had different results. Just because they didn’t happen at the end of the game doesn’t mean they didn’t have an effect on the outcome.

That last play didn’t lose the game any more than it would have won it if it was successful. The Seahawks unfortunately lost because of everything that happened on that field. And heartbreaking as the loss was, we can have trust that a team is not just defined by one play or one game.

And there is always next season.

I Am Your Healer

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, is famous for the Song at the Sea. The Israelites, having survived centuries of oppression, and having witnessed the plagues which struck the Egyptians around them, finally make their way to freedom. Although at first confronted by the Red Sea in front of them while the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit, Moses splits the sea in two to allow for safe passage. As the waters close behind them, they enact their first impulse of liberation: to sing.

The fact of this song makes this Shabbat a special celebration, called Shabbat Shira, the “Sabbath of Song.” Congregations around the world—including our own—will use this as a special opportunity to celebrate the place of song in Jewish tradition.

There is an interesting turn of phrase immediately following the song. Soon after, the euphoria wears off and the Israelites need something to drink. While they find bitter water, God instructs them to toss in a piece of wood, which has the effect of making the water sweet. The people are satiated.

God then reiterates the covenant, and says, “I am Adonai your healer.” (Exodus 15:26).

The “healer” language in this instance is interesting. We often invoke the idea of God as healer in our liturgy—we offer a prayer for healing every time we gather for a service. And while theologically we may struggle with a deity that both creates and removes illness, the fact of praying for healing provides a sense of strength and support for those who are ailing, and a means of demonstrating that support for those who are connected to the patient.

In this case in Exodus, God is not claiming the role of healer in response to a particular disease or ailment. As the Israelites begin their journey, and they are in need of provisions along the way, God says “I am your healer.” The implication being, moving forward, I will take care of you.

An object lesson for us. As we move forward in our journeys, we have the obligation to be the healer, the caregiver, for one another. If one is facing bitter waters, it is our obligation to throw in the block of wood to make it sweet. We may not be able to fully cure that which is troubling our neighbor, but we can do what we can to show support and ease the way.

There are times, though, that we can be true healers, one of the most important obligations we have. To participate in pikuah nefesh—saving a life—is of such paramount importance that we are allowed to override other mitzvot and sacred acts in order to carry it out. (One must eat on Yom Kippur, for example, if his or her health depends on it).

As some of you may know, one of the teens in our congregation of Temple Beth Hatfiloh was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and is currently undergoing treatment in Seattle. He is getting great medical care, and the family—temporarily relocated up north—has much support. Yet the desire to do something is so strong that we are taking action here as well. This Sunday we will be holding a bone marrow donor registry drive to increase to pool of potential bone marrow donors.


While it is unknown at this point whether our friend will need a bone marrow transplant, by holding the registry drive we are doing two things: we are showing him our support by letting him know we are thinking of him in his recovery, and we are creating a situation in which we are increasing the possibility that one of us will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh and save a life.

[The drive, run through Gift of Life, will take place at TBH between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.—before the Superbowl! Eligible donors need to be between the ages of 18 and 45 and in relatively good health. All that is required is a cheek swab! All are welcome!]

A few years ago, when another member of our congregation was fighting leukemia, we held a similar drive. I got my check swabbed then, and didn’t think much of it. A few years after, while standing in Target, I casually checked my email to find out that I was a potential match. I was excited, nervous and emboldened to recognize that I could be in the position to save a life.

A few days later a blood collection kit came in the mail, which I took to a local lab for a blood draw. It was sent off, and then nothing. I didn’t hear anything else. I guess I wasn’t enough of a match once the more extensive testing was done. I was a bit disappointed, but understood.

God tells the Israelites, “I am your healer.” We can tell our neighbors the same thing, “I am your healer.” There are many ways to do this sacred obligation of looking after and caring for our community. And one very special way starts with a cheek swab.

Against Wage Theft: My Testimony in front of the WA House Labor Committee

Through my political action, I have the occasion to testify in front of the Washington State legislature several times over the course of a legislative session. Rarely, though, do those opportunities come so close in time. Much of what appears to be on the legislative horizon this year is about economic justice–namely, how to not forget those in need at a time of difficult budgeting and the need for new revenue and spending cuts. On the other hand, there are opportunities to make the case for other issues of economic justice. In the past I have lent my voice in the fight against payday lending. Today, I had the opportunity to speak out against wage theft, and support a bill that would provide remedy for those whose wages have been unfairly withheld. And as a rabbi, I can tell you that this practice is in clear violation of the Torah! Here is my testimony:

Chair and members of the committee,

My name is Seth Goldstein and I am a rabbi serving the Jewish community of Olympia. I am here representing the Faith Action Network, a statewide organization representing faith communities off all denominations dedicated to advancing faith based approaches to justice.

And I come here in strong support of HB 1518

As a faith community leader, I am reminded of the verse from Scripture, in the book of Deuteronomy: “You must pay a worker’s wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.”

I do not site this verse to imply that Washington civil law should be based on biblical precedent. I do site these verse to point out that there is a deep and abiding ethical concern enshrined in our sacred texts that is mean to support those who labor, to oppose the exploitation of workers, specifically through the of duly earned wages in a timely manner. The treatment of those who work for us is of paramount concern—it is a pillar of a moral society.

And we continue to fail on that regard. It should be a common expectation that you show up to do your job and you get paid for your time and effort. You have earned that money, it is yours. Sadly, workers suffer from various forms of “wage theft”—having wages withheld through a variety of means.

And these violations, while in and of themselves unfair, also unfairly target those who have been traditionally marginalized in our society: women, immigrants and minorities. And when the poor and vulnerable are trapped by these violations then it makes it that much harder for them to provide for their families and make the rent or a car payment for example, and are caught in a cycle of dependency.

We support HB 1518 because it provides means to break this cycle. It provides a means to address wealth inequality and create a more just society. It gives the tools people need to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: not only their lost wages, but their dignity as human beings who have the right not to be taken advantage of, looked down upon, used and abused.

Our support is not about punishing the business community, it is about doing right by our workers. Let us rectify a wrong so that all citizens of Washington are treated fairly and justly.

Thank you.

Video here: http://www.tvw.org/index.php?option=com_tvwplayer&eventID=2015011180#start=4478&stop=4660

For Equitable Revenue: My Testimony in front of the WA Senate Ways and Means Committee

One day after MLK Day I had the opportunity to testify in front of the WA Senate Ways and Means Committee on behalf of the Jewish Federation and the Faith Action Network about the state budget and opportunities for new revenue. I believe that our state taxation is excessively regressive, and there are means to examine new ways of funding important and needed programs. Here is my testimony as delivered:

Chair and Members of the Committee,

My name is Seth Goldstein, and I am a rabbi serving the Jewish community here in Olympia, and I am here representing faith communities and specifically the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the statewide interfaith organization, Faith Action Network.

As we gather for this legislative session, I do not envy your position. There is much demand for the programs that serve the needs of the citizens of the state of Washington. There are many decisions that need to be made.

Our concern is this: that you take a broad vision in your crafting of a balanced and sustainable budget, and address the issue of our regressive tax structure which puts most of the burden on those who can least afford it. We support the institution of new revenue sources that would distribute the burden more fairly and equitably among all. We ask that you recognize that it takes a shared sacrifice to meet the needs of all of our citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable among us. Indeed, the maintenance of the status quo on revenue will have the double negative effect of maintaining a regressive tax structure while at the same time cutting services to those who need them most.

I think about the story of the Exodus in Scripture, of moving from slavery to freedom to the Promised Land. It was a story that inspired the contemporary spiritual leader Dr. King that we celebrated yesterday. And it is a story which continues to inspire us, for it teaches us the vision of a new reality.

We can create that new reality. We look to the institutions of government to bring about that vision of a “beloved community.” We ask that you exercise the authority and the trust place upon you by the citizens of this state to do so through means that are fair, moral and just.

Thank you very much.

You can also see the video here:



The Significant Anonymous

As a rabbi, people often ask me who my favorite character from the Torah is.

Well, actually, no one has ever asked me that. But I will answer anyway. And while it is hard to choose, my vote for one of my favorite characters is the mysterious man in the Joseph story.

Who, you may ask?

Let me say at the onset that I am fudging a bit. Our weekly Torah reading this week is Shemot, the beginning of the Exodus story: the birth of Moses, his coming of age, his flight to Midian after killing an Egyptian task master, his call at the burning bush, etc. Now a major motion picture—again. We just finished reading the Joseph story, which comes at the end of Genesis. So this is a reflection backwards not forward. (Though our monthly Temple Beth Hatfiloh Torah study group will be beginning the Joseph story this Saturday.)

Ok, back to the mystery man. The outline of the Joseph story is perhaps familiar to us. Jacob had 12 sons with four wives. His favorite is Joseph, the first born son of his favorite wife Rachel. He shows him favor and gets him a fancy coat, which does not endear him to his brothers. Joseph also has the gift of dream interpretation, and has a series of dreams that tell him he will one day be raised above his brothers. In the spirit of honesty (or foolishness) he tells them of his dreams.

One day, Joseph is sent to find his brothers who are herding their sheep. When he is approaching, the brothers make a plan to kill him, and they take him and throw him in a pit. A caravan of traders pass by, and the brothers change their plans—they haul him out of the pit and sell him into slavery instead. They do tell their father that he was killed by an animal, and brandish his torn and bloody coat as “evidence.”

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is first a servant and then a prisoner after being falsely accused of assault. And through a series of steps involving dreams of the Pharaoh, Joseph is given a high position in the government overseeing food collection and distribution. When famine hits, his brothers leave Canaan for Egypt in search of food, only to be reunited with Joseph. This then sets up the Exodus story, as Jacob (also known as Israel) and the rest of his family move down to Egypt. The saga of the Israelites begins.

So where was the mystery man? There is an interesting detail in the story. When Joseph is sent to find his brothers prior to them selling him into slavery, the Torah tells us:

One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. (Genesis 37:12-18)

Joseph arrives at Shechem where he believes his brothers are, but they had moved on to Dothan. But, there would have been no way for Joseph to know this. If the man had not been there, Joseph would not have known to go on to Dothan, where his brothers would seize him and sell him into slavery. Therefore, it is this mystery man “wandering scarecrowin the field” who sets in motion the course of action that results in Joseph being sold and sent to Egypt, meeting the Pharaoh and rising to authority, and the Israelites moving to Egypt. This man is one of the most important in all of Torah.

Who was he? Some commentators say he is just a man, some other commentators say he is an angel.

But regardless of who he was, we can all recognize him. We can all recognize that we have people like this in our lives: anonymous people who have made an impact on our life’s journey, people whose names we don’t know but whose guidance and influence have been huge. We may have understood their impact in the moment. Or our interactions with them may have seemed insignificant at the time, but become significant much later. Or we were not ready to hear what they had to say in the moment, but their words resonate after the fact. But in any event, we would not be who we are without them.

We may be on our way to Shechem, but really need to be in Dothan, but we may not have made the journey ourselves. We needed someone to show us the way.

As we travel life’s path, there are those who seem significant to us, and those who seem insignificant. But ultimately everyone is significant because they make us who we are. Think for yourself who you saw “wandering in the fields” of your journey and who set you on a new course, or helped you along the way, or shared words that helped sustain you. Their names may be known to you, or they may not. In any event, offer up some words of gratitude for them for making you who you are. (I personally have been thinking recently about the doctors and nurses and EMTs who have helped me through my health challenges, many of whom I do not know.)

Which does take us to this week’s portion: when we are introduced to Moses at the beginning of Exodus, the Torah first introduces us to Moses’s parents. But the text does not tell us their names, only “a man of the house of Levi” and “his wife.” This allows Moses’s arrival to be that much more dramatic. But it also tells us that significance lies not in the fact of who one is, but what one does.

And sometimes, the seemingly minor engagement with an anonymous person can change everything.

Happy 2015!

I wrote this yesterday as my Facebook status, thought I’d share on my blog as well:

Today is a day to celebrate and plan. December 31 has particular resonance for me as a time of renewal because it was this day 2 years ago that I was admitted to the hospital with what would turn out to be bacterial meningitis. I survived, but it could have been otherwise. So two years of rebirth later and ready to face another turn of the calendar with humility, gratitude, perspective and commitment. Happy 2015!