In the Wake of the Police Shooting in Olympia

I got behind in my usual posting, etc. because of the events in our Olympia community over the past 48 hours: the police shooting of two African American men in the early morning hours. Without getting into the facts of the shooting, it is enough to say that the fact of it happening raised a lot of emotions in our community. And rightfully so.

The initial struggle is how to turn those emotions into something concrete. Beginning Thursday morning, plans were being made to hold a forum, sponsored by local clergy, where community members can come together to express what they thought and felt. City officials would be on hand to listen.forum

With the incredible coordination of Danny Kadden from Interfaith Works, it came together in amazing fashion. Temple Beth Hatfiloh–our “house for all peoples” as the quote from the Book of Isaiah adorning our Ark says–was the chosen venue. At 6:00 p.m. the sanctuary was full with almost 20 members of the clergy acting as hosts, local attorney and civil rights leader Reiko Callner acting as moderator, and with city officials, including Mayor Buxbaum, Chief Roberts, City Manager Steve Hall and others on hand to listen.

People spoke eloquently and with emotion. People spoke with respect and with passion. People spoke openly and firmly.

At the same time as this forum, hundreds gathered on the west side of town at Woodruff Park and then marched down to City Hall. Rather than being in conflict, both of these events were important and served a purpose. Many voices were raised to address this rift in our community.

And address it we must. As one speaker said at the forum last night, “we have become one of those communities.” But the hope is that we can do things differently, we can say what we need to say, hear what we need to hear, and listen to whom we need to listen.

Last night was a start.

Here is a comprehensive write up of the forum. The Olympian created a video of some of the speakers:

And these were my introductory comments:

Welcome to Temple Beth Hatfiloh.

This space, this sanctuary, is meant to be a community space. Oftentimes we gather in this space at times of community celebration. Other times, as we do tonight, we gather for difficult community conversations.

We are here because two African American men were shot in the early morning by an Olympia Police Department officer. I for one am not going to get into facts or allegations beyond that, simply to say that this event strikes a note of discord in our community, especially as it reflects our national conversation on law enforcement, race and gun violence.

We all come to this room this evening with our feelings. Feelings of anger, sadness, pain, helplessness, fear. I invite you to check in with yourself now to see how you are feeling at this moment.

And we come to address it head on. And we are convened here not just by myself but by my clergy colleagues from many different faith communities, and I invite them now to rise to join me in welcoming you here this evening.

And so we are here. We know we are not the only gathering tonight. Right now on the west side people are gathering in Woodruff Park to meet and plan and march. That is OK—we act in concert, we are all one community.

And so we are here with intention, with purpose, with open hearts and hands, with emotion, with passion and with prayers for peace, justice and healing.

Welcome, and thank you.

Shavuot: Learn, Teach, Read Ruth, Plant, Eat Fruit, Eat Dairy, Commit

Poor Shavuot.

In our Jewish calendar, we have minor holidays that get the major holiday treatment. Hanukkah, for example. It is not a biblical holiday, it does not strike major theological notes, yet since it falls in the winter around Christmastime, it tends to get much attention and observance.

Then we have major holidays that get the minor holiday treatment. And Shavuot is the perfect example. Shavuot (literally, “Weeks”) is a biblically-ordained festival and is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot and Passover, on the calendar. (“Pilgrimage festival” because it was a festival in ancient times during which people would go to Jerusalem to the Temple to celebrate and make offerings.) That puts it just below Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as to importance. But because it falls in Spring when we are occupied with other things (end of school, Memorial Day) and because there are no major rituals connected with it, it tends to get forgotten.

Ritual is a big thing. It’s true, unlike the Passover Seder and the Sukkot, well, Sukkah, there are no big and flashy rituals The_Ten_Commandments_(Bible_Card)that go with Shavuot. Yet since it celebrates the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Torah and the formation of the covenant, the gift of the sacred text that is to be our foundation, it is heavy on the theology. The rituals, or lack thereof, do not do it justice. (And just so you think I am too harsh on the holiday, note that I authored the chapter on Shavuot for the recently published Guide to Jewish Practice (from the Reconstructionist Press). The most common observance these days is a tikkun leyl Shavuot, a tradition to study Torah all night long.

Shavuot is called “weeks” because it falls 7 weeks after Passover, a period known as the Omer. Originally of agricultural origin, the Omer period links the two holidays—the festival of freedom with the festival of Torah. So as we prepare to celebrate Torah and the covenant, here are 7 ways (one for each week!) that you can observe Shavuot:

Learn: Torah is not a static document, and so when we celebrate the Revelation at Sinai, we celebrate the ongoing revelation that is interpretation and commentary. Torah is also an expansive term that applies to all Jewish texts, not just the Five Books of Moses. It is a spiritual practice in Judaism to “learn Torah”—which means to study, read, engage, argue with and make meaning from. So do a little learning. And don’t limit it to Torah. Use Shavuot as a time for learning in general, and find something you wanted to know and look it up—read a book, an article, watch a YouTube video. Finish the day a little more knowledgeable than when you started.

Teach: The corollary to Learn. Find the opportunity to teach something new this Shavuot. It could be something small or large, give a lecture or send a friend a link to an interesting article. We can not learn unless we are guided by someone either through direct instruction or by example, so use this opportunity of Shavuot to teach someone something.

Read Ruth: The Book of Ruth is associated with the holiday of Shavuot, and it is customary to read this short biblical book during the holiday. So, pick it up and read it. Its themes of joining the covenant resonate with the holiday, and the agricultural practice of leaving gleanings for the poor is a major plot point. But there is much more in there to explore: family relationships, especially between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law; communal obligations; personal and communal identity; in-group and intergroup relationships. And there is a sex scene. Ruth it is revealed at the end (spoiler alert) is the ancestor of David and thus the Messiah, so there are echoes of messianic hopes as well.

Plant: Biblically, Shavuot is an agricultural holiday. One of its names is Festival of the Harvest (Chag Hakatzir) since it marks the end of the spring grain harvest. And while later tradition puts the emphasis on the “historical” celebration of the giving of the Torah, we should still acknowledge its earthen roots. One of the traditional ways this connection was observed was decorating the synagogue with greenery. We can do this as well by decorating our home with some freshly cut flowers or a new houseplant. Or we can go outside and plant some seeds or a new shrub—something to deepen our connection with the earth.

Eat Fruit: Similarly, Shavuot in the Torah is also called the Festival of the First Fruits (Chag Habikkurim): a time in which farmers would bring their first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as a donation. It is a sign of gratitude for the land and other gifts of nature that allowed one’s harvest to be successful. During this season we too are becoming closer to the land as we plant gardens and witness the bounty beginning to make its way to farmer’s markets. And although “fruits” is a translation to mean “bounty” rather than actual “fruit” specifically (though it can refer to fruit), we do know that just now in the Northwest the first strawberries are ripening on the plant, and other plants are beginning to ripen and bear fruit. In celebration of these first “fruits,” find something you haven’t eaten yet this season and eat it intentionally over Shavuot.

Eat Dairy: There is also a custom of eating dairy on Shavuot. Why? It’s unclear. Some say that it is because the Israelites, having received the dietary laws at Sinai, didn’t have any properly prepared kosher meat on hand and therefore ate only dairy. Some say it is because the Bible in the Song of Songs equates Torah with “honey and milk.” But whatever the reason, grab a fork or spoon and dig into some cheesecake, or ice cream, or blintzes. Look for some recipes and get creative. (You can even combine dairy and fruit together!)

Commit: More than anything, Shavuot is a holiday in which we reaffirm our commitment to our tradition. The revelation at Sinai was an important theological event because it created the covenant of the Israelite people—the mass of people liberated from slavery becomes a people at Sinai with a new social contract to bind them to each other and to the divine. We are the inheritors of that covenant. So at Shavuot, we can demonstrate our recommitment and reaffirmation of that covenant. Some are a part of the covenant by birth, and some are a part of the covenant by affiliation and association. Some have affirmed this connection through conversion and Shavuot is a special time of celebration because Ruth (see above) is seen as the biblical ideal of a convert. But no matter how we find ourselves a part of the Jewish people, Shavuot is a time to celebrate and acknowledge that connection. How one does this is a matter of personal choice, but simply taking time out during the holiday to reflect on your connection to this tradition is a wonderful observance of this sacred day.

Chag sameach!

When a Win is Not a Win

I’m back from my trip to Israel with Interfaith Partners for Peace. It was an incredible journey-I saw and learned a lot and I am looking forward to sharing it with you.

Just not yet. Not because I’m not interested, but jet lag (still) and getting caught up from being away for two weeks is Rodneygetting the best of me. Plus there is so much to process, so much to think about from my journey that I want to be sure that what and how I share things are clear and well thought out. So with your permission, give me a little time.

But here is something to read and reflect on…my monthly blog post from Rabbis Without Borders. The schedule was such that my appointed time was when I was away, but I was able to write in advance and send it off so that I didn’t miss my scheduled day. It was posted on Facebook, but if you didn’t see it there, I share it with you now. Click on the link below:

When a Win is Not a Win

I Am The 0.0009%

Oftentimes in describing the details of life we talk about the percentages. I realized recently that I am one of the 0.0009 percent.

No, this isn’t a reference to income inequality (wouldn’t that be nice). This is a reference to two years ago, when I was struck down by bacterial meningitis-an inflammation of the layers surrounding the brain-and wound up in the hospital for a five days (half in the ICU) and on antibiotics for a few weeks after that.

So what’s with the percentage? One day I was playing around with numbers. At first I didn’t realize how rare meningitis is-you read about outbreaks in the newspaper every so often. But then it settles in that the reason is it newsworthy is because it is rare. So I looked up some statistics: Bacterial meningitis strikes about 4100 people a year in the United States. Of those, 500 die. And of those who survive, 1 in 5–or 720–have permanent disabilities. So I am one of the 2880 people in the United States each year who contract bacterial meningitis and survive without permanent injury.

And with a U. S. population of 318.9 million, 2880 is 0.0009%.

This Friday I recently learned has been designated World Meningitis Day by the Confederation of World Meningitis Organizations. Worldwide, meningitis kills or disables about 1.2 million people a year, and bacterial meningitis kills about 120,000 people a year. World Meningitis Day is a day set aside to raise awareness for the disease and its potentially devastating effects. A day to become educated on the warning signs and symptoms and the possibilities for treatment. worldmenigitisA day to offer support for those who have been stricken by meningitis or lost a loved one to the disease. And a day to remember that there is a vaccine that can help prevent meningitis outbreaks. (I wrote about vaccines last week.)

This weekend, in addition to being World Meningitis Day, is parashat Tazria/Metzora in our weekly Torah reading. On Shabbat we turn our attention to this double portion, one of the more esoteric and foreign in our text. We are in the midst of Leviticus, and up until this point we have been reading about sacrifices and the priesthood and the dedication of the Tabernacle. And while we may struggle with the details, we can understand the underlying values of spiritual community, ritual, worship and communal organization.

But then we get to Tazria/Metzora. And the Torah turns its attention to purity and impurity (or cleanliness and uncleanliness), and especially how it relates to bodily functions. We are also introduced to metzora, commonly translated as leprosy, in texts such as this from Leviticus 13:

When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. If the priest finds that it appears lower than the rest of the skin and that the hair in it has turned white, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a leprous affection that has broken out in the inflammation. But if the priest finds that there is no white hair in it and it is not lower than the rest of the skin, and it is faded, the priest shall isolate him for seven days. If it should spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an affection. But if the discoloration remains stationary, not having spread, it is the scar of the inflammation; the priest shall pronounce him clean.

So what’s up with this? On the one hand, we see in the text the demonstration of the practice of medicine: a skin blemish needs to be checked out, brought to the local “doctor” who makes a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Very simple.

The later rabbis, however, have some difficulty with it. What is the reason for the leprosy? If a priest is involved, there must be a spiritual component to it. So they determine in the midrash (commentary), through a bit of word play, that if one suffers from leprosy it is because he engaged in the sin of hurtful speech. They read the word metzora (leprosy) as a short version ofmotzi shem ra (“one who brings out a bad name”)-or one who speaks ill of another.

This is a nice commentary, and I think we can all agree that hurtful speech has negative consequences, which is what the midrash is trying to teach. But how that message is conveyed is probably even more problematic than the original text. For here the rabbis offer a theological reason for illness, a leap which I don’t think any of us want to take. I certainly don’t. To accept this is to accept the fact that anyone who suffers from physical illness has some spiritual deficiency.

And at the same time, we can sympathize with the rabbis’ motivations. Illness is scary, especially when there is no apparent cause. A direct causation makes sense. It provides comfort.

When I was playing with the numbers, and I came up with that percentage of 0.0009, I was humbled. Why did I get ill? I don’t know. Why did I survive? I don’t know. Why did I survive without major complications? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that I am grateful.

World Meningitis Day for me is a day of awareness and sympathy and connection and gratitude. I’m glad I learned about it. And parashat Tazria/Metzora teaches that while we may get ill with various afflictions, we can also heal from them.

We know that is not always the case, and even with survival comes challenge. And yet we persist, sometimes despite and sometimes because of, the percentages. Because that’s life.

The Perils of Individualism

This week’s portion, Shimini, carries us deeper into the book of Leviticus.

The first half of the portion is the initiation of the sacrificial cult: the Torah describes in dramatic fashion the first sacrifices Aaron and his sons carry out in their role as priests. They slaughter various animals corresponding to the different types of offerings, they splatter blood on the altar and fire consumes the corpses. Aaron and his sons then bless the people and the people fall on their faces.

The second half of the portion is an explication of the dietary laws. We are told specifically which animals are kosher and which are not: we learn that kosher land animals have cloven hooves and are ruminants, kosher birds are not birds of prey and kosher sea creatures have fins and scales. We also learn some other regulations as to what may or may not be eaten.

As with other passages in Leviticus, Shimini is heavy on ritual, some of which we may struggle to connect to. The sacrificial system is not practiced today so seems particularly foreign. (Though, I would suggest, the power and pageantry of ritual in general is something we can identify.) The dietary laws are still practiced today, though this passage in Leviticus reminds us that the reason for them is not explicit in the Torah. (Though later tradition applies reason and meaning.)

In the middle of these two ritual-themed passages is an equally challenging narrative:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant when God said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

There are many questions raised by this short passage, but we can understand from the text that Nadav and Avihu did something wrong, and they were punished for their transgression.

Put in context with the passage that came before, we can have an understanding of what perhaps their transgression was. The Torah says they offered “alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.” Earlier in the parasha, when describing the initial sacrifices, the Torah says, at various times, “this is what God has commanded,” and “according to regulation” andNadav and Avihu “as Moses had commanded.” What the Torah is telling us is that while the first set of sacrifices was what was commanded, what Nadav and Avihu offered was not. Essentially what they were doing was offering a sacrifice that was outside the norm of the ordained and organized system of sacrifices.

It seems very extreme, though. Did they really deserve death for a slight deviation from the norm? And besides, is what they did so wrong? It can be argued that what Nadav and Avihu did when they offered the additional sacrifice was to further glorify God—they were not offering something in contradistinction to, but rather in addition to, what was proscribed, due to their zeal, or desire to serve, or love of Torah.

This may be, but what perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us in this story is the perils of individualism. The extreme nature of the story aside—and this isn’t the first time a story in the Torah is extreme it its details—the Torah is showing us that by branching off on their own Nadav and Avihu were violating their communal responsibility and trust to the detriment of the whole. They system of sacrifices for the entire Israelite community was set. In making their own offering outside these norms, Nadav and Avihu were placing their own desires above the norms of the community. They were acting in their own self-interest. But for Nadav and Avihu, who were leaders and priests, it can’t just be about them. It has to be about the whole.

This mindset does not just fall upon our leaders, but upon all of us who live in community. When we fail to take into account our communal responsibility, and we privilege ourselves over others, we privilege individualism over communalism, we weaken our social bonds.

Individualism is different than individuality. We are of course all individuals, we have our own likes and dislikes, ideas and dreams, needs and desires. We make our own choices and set our own path. But we do not live in a vacuum, we are part of a communal whole. We pursue our own paths within the context of others, and we have a responsibility and obligation to keep the needs and desires of others in mind as we seek to fulfill our own needs and desires.

In our day this can take many forms. The recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland brought the issue of vaccinations—and those who opt-out—to the fore. Locally the issue led to the public revelation of vaccination rates, and Yohanna and I discovered that Erez’s elementary school had one of the highest unvaccinated rates. This was startling and unnerving. I don’t need to get into issues of “herd immunity” or scientific detail, but to simply say that vaccines work because we all agree to use them. They are part of a social contract—we agree to abide by certain guidelines when we live in community, and when we privilege the self over the other—individualism over communalism—then we violate that contract.

Yes, we need to honor the individuality of each person, and do what we can to support those individual journeys. But we need to be mindful so that individuality does not become individualism.

Nadav and Avihu broke the rules. There are times we go must outside the box, and we need to do things differently. There are times we must think creatively, and we need to challenge the existing norms. But we must ask, to what end? If it is to serve others and a greater good, then that is something we should pursue. But if it is to serve our own self interest at the expense of others, then, as in the case of Nadav and Avihu, it is a transgression and there will be consequences.

MLK’s Dayenu Moment

This week I wrote my monthly entry in the Rabbis Without Borders blog, reflecting on the confluence with the beginning of 348px-Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lectern (1)Passover and the Seders with the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For my weekly message, I share what I wrote, and fitting as we move out of Passover this week.

The seventh day of Passover, beginning tonight, is a full holiday, and it is the day associated with the crossing of the Red Sea. That is the final act of redemption. With the crossing of the sea and it closing upon the Egyptians who were in pursuit, the Israelites were assured of their freedom. But just as one journey ends, another begins.

So as we move out of Passover, I invite you to reflect on what you are taking with you. What steps of liberation did you take this year, and what steps do you still need to take? Were you able to identify a personal or societal Egypt (in Hebrew Mitzrayim, “the narrow places”)? And as you celebrate and give thanks for how far you have come, were you able to marshal the strength to cover the ground that is in front of you?

I hope you have had a sweet Passover. And I wish you many blessings in your coming journey.

Chag sameach!

04-08-2015 09:00:03 AM

This past weekend, as I gathered for Passover seders, first with my family and friends, and then with my congregation, I could not help but notice that these sacred occasions coincided with the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, […]…»

Passover: Eat Differently, Clean House, Give Birth, Become an Ally

The holiday of Passover is upon us, beginning tomorrow night. The week-long festival marks the onset of spring and the story of the Exodus, the Torah story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery. The story is an important theological anchor for Judaism: the journey from redemption to freedom is a paradigm we refer to often, and is an underpinning of our understanding of personal spiritual growth and social justice (“do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,” the Torah tells us often.)

We begin Passover with the Seder, the ceremonial meal held on the first and second nights. During the Seder, when we retell the story and eat symbolic foods, we have the recurrence the “fours.” We drink four cups of wine, the younger children recite the four questions to prompt the telling of the story, we tell the story of the four children to relate the Exodus in different ways.

So as we begin Passover, here are another group of four—the four observances. The means of observing Passover can be involved and intricate, and there is much on which to reflect. Here are four ways you can make your Passover a meaningful one.

Eat Differently: Each Passover we revisit the ceremonial foods which form the centerpiece of the ritual. (Literally too since we put them on a special Seder plate). We may engage with the story differently each year, but the foods remain the same. Bitter herbs, salt water, parsley, boiled egg, charoset and matzo all appear year after year to provide us with a visceral understanding of the events and their meaning. And beyond the seder, it is the custom to put aside our leavened products—bread, pasta, cakes, etc.—and eat only matzo and its unleavened derivatives for the entire week.

So, do it. Eat differently. Put aside the leaven and focus on the matzo. Adopt the different set of eating guidelines this week (even if you don’t keep kosher normally). It is a way of understanding the story in a new way, and also has the impact (I speak personally on this one) of causing us to evaluate our relationship to food. Matzo is called both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation: it is simple and plain and the opposite of luxury, and yet also the result of bread not having enough time to rise because of the rush out of Egypt. When we take on the eating practices of Passover, we experience both as well—the affliction of limited resources and the liberation of the ability to make choices. It is a good spiritual practice to experience both.

Clean House: The traditional practice is not only to eat matzo rather than leavened products (called chametz), but to actually rid your house of chametz all together. One is traditionally not supposed to be in possession of chametz during the week, so people will begin to use up their chametz in the days and weeks prior to Passover. That which isn’t eaten can be donated to the Food Bank, or composted or fed to animals. Some have the custom of putting aside the chametz and “selling” it so that it is technically not in one’s possession. (A good option if you want to follow this practice and not waste food.) And then, a big cleaning of the house ensues to find the what is left—the Jewish version of “spring cleaning.”

Take some time over Passover and do your spring cleaning. You can do a physical cleaning and do those infrequent cleaning jobs you have been meaning to get to. You can clean out your closet, and get rid of the chametz—the clothes that you are hanging onto for no good reason, that don’t fit, that you don’t care for anymore. Donate them to someone who will care for them. And do some spring cleaning of yourself, find the chametz within your own soul and swap out the puffed up haughtiness of the leavened for the humility of the unleavened.

Give Birth: When we clean out the chametz, we have room for the new. Passover is a time of renewal—the Israelites are renewed in the process of leaving Egypt—but it is also a spring time festival that honors the renewal of life all around us. The parsley on the seder plate reminds of the new buds of spring, and the egg is a symbol of fertility and new life. We can look around and see rebirth all around us.

So ask yourself, what do I wish to give birth to this Passover? Where do I want to be renewed, and what new endeavor or project or journey (either inner or outer) do I wish to begin? Passover is a time of new beginnings—for our people, for our world and for you. Take the first steps.

Become an Ally—The point of retelling the story during Passover is not just to recount history but to relate the story of the Exodus to the present day. Indeed, the historicity is not even important. What is important is the narrative: an oppressed people is able to see and articulate both its oppression and its vision for a new world and by doing so is able to leave the narrow place (the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, is related to the word for “narrow”) to the great expanse of liberation.

In the Haggadah, the special Passover prayerbook, we are told that we are to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. We are to experience the oppression and the liberation ourselves. And if we are able to not only see the story but live it for ourselves, then we will be able to more deeply understand the struggle for liberation. And if we more deeply understand the struggle for liberation, then we will be more likely to assist those in need of liberation. The Torah speaks of a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and Egyptians leaving Egypt, and there is a midrash that speaks of the Egyptians rising up against Pharaoh. The Exodus wasn’t isolated, we needed allies. And as we tell our story, let’s think about how we can be allies to others in their stories.

And a bonus fifth (like the fifth cup of wine—the cup of Elijah—we put on the table): Recline. We are meant to recline when we do the seder as a symbol of being free. So recline—not just during the Seder but the whole week. Passover has deep theological significance and provides much fodder for reflection and thought. But it is also a holiday, so have fun! Find a way to enjoy the week, experience nature, enjoy good food, do something different and fun.

Chag sameach!

Torah from T’ruah: Parashat Tzav

I was honored to write the weekly d’var Torah for T’ruah, an organization dedicated to connecting Jewish tradition and the issue of universal human rights. Here it is on the T’ruah website. I’ve put it below as well.

Torah from T’ruah: Tzav

A few weeks ago I sat in a hearing room of the Washington State House Judiciary Committee. I was there to testify on behalf of a coalition of interfaith and Jewish groups for passage of a bill that would hopefully limit gun violence in my state.

The bill would create an “extreme risk protection order,” which would allow individuals and families to petition a judge, after due process, to order law enforcement to remove guns from a person at high risk for hurting him/herself or others because of mental illness, substance abuse or threatening behavior. This provides another tool to protect families and communities from the scourge of gun violence.

I was there to make the moral argument that anything we can do to protect the lives of individuals—a fundamental human right—was necessary and rooted in sacred teachings. And although the voters passed by initiative universal background checks on gun purchases, this bill died in committee and never made it to the floor of the Legislature.

While my testimony was meant to provide an ethical framework for the bill, the most compelling testimony came from those whose lives were impacted by gun violence. One woman, seriously wounded at a shooting at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, shared how her attacker, despite issues of mental illness, was allowed to purchase a handgun. Another woman broke down talking about how she found her daughter, who had struggled with depression, after she had committed suicide. Previously, when she learned her daughter had purchased a gun, she contacted the police, who could do nothing more than check up on her.

These stories were powerful; their voices trembled with emotion. They said more than any fact or figure or quote from Scripture ever could.

Parashat Tzav, which we read this week, brings us deep into the esoteric nature of the ancient Tabernacle ritual. Most interestingly, Aaron is ordained into the High Priesthood by his brother Moses through an elaborate blood ritual. Aaron is now charged with the maintenance of the sacrificial cult.

The words may say much, but in this case, the sounds say even more. When the Torah is read in the synagogue each week, it is chanted using a system of trope (cantillation) marks. The trope is meant to not only break up the verses, but to augment the meaning—fitting for a text that was originally oral. Parashat Tzav is one of only four parshiyot which contain the trope (cantillation) mark shalshelet.

Shalshelet is quite rare and fancy as far as trope marks go—you can hear it here. It is found in our portion in Leviticus 8:22-23: “[Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of the its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” The shalshelet is on the word “slaughtered.”

Why the rare trope here? We know that slaughtering is commonplace. But what makes this slaughter stand out is that it is the ram of ordination, the ram that symbolizes the transfer of power from Moses to Aaron. The shalshelet, with its long drawn out notes (almost 30!) adds a sense of hesitancy to what Moses is about to do. And while some may say he is reluctant to turn over his power to Aaron, perhaps he is simply overcome with the enormity of the moment. He knows what he must do, and when he does so, the voice of Torah trembles with emotion.

This plays out in the three other places we find shalshelet in the Torah. In Genesis 19:16, it is found when Lot “lingered” in Sodom before it was about to be destroyed. In Genesis 24:12, it is on the word “spoke,” when Abraham’s servant offered up a prayer before trying to find a wife for Isaac. In Genesis 39:8, it is on the word “refused,” when Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife. In each of these cases, we can understand that while Lot, the servant, and Joseph know what they must do, they hesitate, they too are overcome with the enormity of the moment; again the Torah trembles with emotion. But ultimately they make the right choice, ultimately they do what they are called upon to do.

The fight for human rights is not easy. The road may be long and the challenges great. We may, in the face of doing what is right, hesitate and feel overcome. Our voices may tremble with emotion. Parashat Tzav, with its rare shalshelet, teaches us that this is a normal response. The key is, when fighting for human rights, to keep fighting despite that initial hesitation.

The shalshelet teaches that it is necessary, as the activist Maggie Kuhn said, “to speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”

Testimony against Payday Lending (SB 5899)

For the last time this session, I made my way to the Capitol to testify on a bill. When I go, I am there usually at the behest of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, an umbrella Jewish organization, and the Faith Action Network, a statewide interfaith organization which works on issues of social justice. Each have a legislative agenda. There are other rabbis and ministers who testify of course, but for these 8:00 a.m. hearings, it is usually the Olympia clergy who are called upon.wa capitol

This morning, representing FAN, I spoke against SB 5899, a payday lending bill. These are the loans, sold by Moneytree and other like companies, which charge high interest rates and fees. Because they tend to trap people in debt and are most often used by those more disadvantaged, a coalition of poverty, labor, immigration and faith groups are opposed to such loans in general and this bill in specific.

There were two bills this session, one in the House and one in the Senate. While the House bill failed to come up for a vote, the Senate bill passed after two and a half hours of floor debate. It is now in the House for consideration.

While others speak to the specifics of a bill, I usually offer the “moral argument”–that the decisions we make are not merely legal or economic, but moral, and we need to take that into consideration. Here are the words I shared this morning:

Mr. Chair and members of the committee, my name is Seth Goldstein and I am a rabbi serving the Olympia Jewish community, and I am here representing the Faith Action Network, an interfaith statewide organization representing Washington communities of faith working for social justice and the common good, in opposition to SB 5899

For people of faith, responsible lending is not merely an economic concern, but a moral concern. We are taught in our sacred texts and traditions to extend our hand to our neighbor in need, and to help provide for their needs. Sometimes this involves direct gifts, and sometimes this involves a loan.

Loaning money can empower those in need. At the same time, lending can be used to exploit those in need. We are warned against usury—charging excessive interest. We are warned against taking advantage of those in our debt. We are warned about the installment loans in this bill with their high interest rates and excessive fees.

Loans should be a means to self-sufficiency and independence, not continued debt and dependency.  The type of loans in this bill—and this type of lending in general—easily allows people to fall deeper and deeper into debt and can worsen rather than alleviate conditions of poverty and economic disparity. And when one is enriched at the expense of others, we need to really examine what is fair and just in our society.

It is our concern, as communities of faith, that we protect the most vulnerable among us. Past reforms have worked, and we do not need another product that could potentially have such harmful effects. For these reasons, we urge your opposition to SB 5899.

Thank you.

I’m Going to Jerusalem. And Ramallah.

In one of his last gestures before leaving his position as Government Affairs director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, my friend Zach Carstensen put in my name for a trip run through a program called “Interfaith Partners for Peace.” The idea behind the trip is to pair up rabbis and ministers from the same geographic area to travel to Israel and learn together.Jerusalem

Aside from visiting Jewish and Christian holy sites, the majority of the trip is visiting with organizations and individuals who are working on various projects of peace and understanding, mutual recognition and concern. Projects that seek to build connections between Israelis and Palestinians in order to help bring about reconciliation and a better future. We travel to Tel Aviv/Yaffo, the Galilee and Jerusalem. And we travel to Ramallah and Bethlehem.

I’m very excited for this opportunity.

[Also excited to meet and travel with my partner, Stephen Crippen, an Episcopal Deacon in Seattle. Zach paired us up, we have never met. However, we did work together when we both served on the Faith Cabinet of the R-74 campaign which brought marriage equality to Washington. We know each other by conference call and Facebook.]

It has been a long time since I was in Israel-12 years ago, while I was in rabbinical school. During seminary we spend a year studying Hebrew and Jewish studies. It was a wonderful year for me and Yohanna and one-year-old Ozi, travelling a lot, spending a lot of time with Yohanna’s extended family all over the country.

And it was a difficult year as well. It was during an intifada, and there were many attacks and bombings of public places. I remember hearing some from our Jerusalem apartment, including one evening when we were reading online about one attack only to hear another go off nearby. And that year a young man serving in the IDF who lived in our building was killed during an attack at a checkpoint. His name was Erez.

It was that year (2001-2002) that lead to the building of “the wall”-the separation barrier that creates a physical division between the Israelis and Palestinians. Since I have not been back, I have not seen it. It is one thing I am anticipating experiencing, along with the many other changes that have taken place in the past 12 years. (A newly redesigned Yad Vashem/Holocaust museum, for example. Cousins who were once kids are now adults, for another.)

I’m reflecting on this upcoming trip following the elections earlier this week. While Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats in the Knesset, there is still the need to form a government. And while the Israeli electorate on the one hand affirmed the status quo, the Arab joint list made new gains and the Orthodox party suffered greater losses than they had in the past. I don’t know what the political environment will be in two months when I am there.

I don’t know a lot about how things will be. But I do know that both Israel and I have changed in the past 12 years. I go with an open heart and an open mind, expecting and hoping to be challenged and, hopefully, inspired.

And not only am I different, but I will experiencing Israel in a way I haven’t before. I will be experiencing Israel in part through the eyes of Christian leaders, who have their own relationship with this Holy Land. And I will be learning from those who are committed to creating a new reality through mutual understanding and co-existence, though an understanding of the differing narratives and through the refusal to create divisions, “sides” or “the other.”

Some may remember on Yom Kippur I spoke about “What About Palestine!?” While it started as graffiti on our synagogue’s building sign, I reflected back to us that this is a question that we as Jews need to address. We need to care about both Israelis and Palestinians. I look forward to this (one, not the only) opportunity  to engage again with this question myself and to bring back what I learn.