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Friday, 18 June 2021

The Returning Exiles Sermon – June 18th 2021

As I mentally prepared for our first full Shabbat back to services, I found myself wondering what the overriding metaphor of this moment would be, and the theme of returning from exile seemed most appropriate. Exile has been the predominant metaphor of Jewish existence throughout history – the Babylonian exile, the exile from the land after the destruction of the Second Temple, the exile of God in Jewish theology, exile from countries all around Europe throughout the Middle Ages due to expulsion after expulsion. The precariousness of Jewish life, the fragility of Jewish existence, has been a constant theme, until the modern age when Jewish communities finally felt established and safe. The COVID-19 pandemic upended that and once again made us all exiles, from our community, from each other and from our usual way of life. For perhaps the first time in our lives, we have had a taste of the trauma of exile.


The other day when my interfaith colleague Rev Harry Eberts from First Presbyterian and I spoke on the radio, we discussed chapter 3 of the book of Ezra, which describes the emotions of returning from exile. It describes the mixture of joy and sorrow expressed by the people. Joy is obvious – the return to community, the return to a physical minyan, the return to a sense of sacred place, to a physical centering of the community. But sorrow? Why would there be sorrow? In the Book of Ezra, that sorrow is due to people remembering the way things once were and feeling a sense of profound loss at what once was and can never again be. Some of our members still express that concern of the new way of life, and the impossibility of ever fully returning to what once was. More than that, though, there are some who feel loss in our community as we return to on-site services. Last Friday, for example, one member of our regular Zoom worship community shared an impassioned reflection of what they will lose when we return to physical services. For 65 weeks, we have held online services, most of which have been on Zoom. In those services, we have prayed facing each other – seeing each other’s faces, we have not had to look down at a siddur and then up again at the community because they were all together in one view. We formed an intimate community within the community, a close group of companions travelling through the pandemic together, helping each other through the darkest times on a weekly basis by studying together, praying together and socializing online together. My hope is that in the coming weeks, we can hold as much as possible onto that sense of intimacy socially and spiritually, together. For those currently following online, please know that even though you may not be physically with us, you are still an essential part of our community, and the journey we have gone on in the past 15 months will be one that I always treasure.


My mind therefore goes to the Torah portion of Nitzavim, to the covenant with God. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai – you who are standing here this day before the Eternal your God. (Deut. 29:9). But who else does this passage specifically mention? V’lo itchem l’vad’chem anochi koret et hab’rit hazot v’et ha’alah hazot, ki et asher yeshno poh imanu omeid hayom lifnei Adonai eloheinu, ve’et asher eineinu poh imanu hayom. Not only with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath with those who are standing here with us today before the Eternal our God…. but also with those who are not here with us today. (Deut. 29:13-14). Jewish tradition has always understood “those who are not here with us today” as future generations from that Biblical moment, but today it means something else – it means those who are not able to be with us physically today because of their differing risk to catching COVID-19, even post-vaccination. The last 15 months has created two differing prayer groups under the umbrella of our Temple Beth Shalom community. One is comfortable with in-person services… indeed has been craving them and has found online worship isolating, the other is comfortable watching services in their PJs while sipping margaritas on the couch. And, of course, there are many people in-between, some of whom were planning on coming this evening but once we relocated indoors due to the heat realized that they could not attend.


When this pandemic started and we moved totally online, many Rabbis asked the question – how are we going to bring people back once the pandemic is over? The answer most people gave was that people will rush back because they’ll have so profoundly missed each other. Now I realize that the question assumed that the return to in-person services and the end of the pandemic would happen at the same time, but that’s clearly not the case. There is still a pandemic, we are still living in a pandemic, there are 100 new cases in our state every day, people in this state die from this pandemic every day. The pandemic is not over, and so we are here this evening not because it is over but because we are the lucky ones. Most of us present this evening are, on the whole, the healthy ones who have been vaccinated and for whom the vaccine is effective. We here today have now therefore been given an awesome, essential responsibility – to reach out to those who are not here physically with us today, to be compassionate with those present who do not want to hug or shake hands, to give space to those who still have much to fear from this pandemic. This moment has the potential for extreme compassion…. a demand for extreme compassion, a chance to see that not everyone is as lucky as we are, a chance for us to listen without judgment and with love to the many differing responses to this pandemic expressed in our community.


One place I saw that listening and love perfectly represented in our community over the last few months was in the Reopening Committee, the group of people who are responsible for us being able to even be here this evening. In that committee of deliberately widely varying opinions, members listened to each other, learned from each other, and compromised. These members meet for hours every week, and communicate via innumerable emails, to try to balance the widely varying needs of our community members. It is thanks to Wendy Steinberg, Marlene Schwalje, Debby Stein, Edward Borins, Carol Tyroler, and Robin Roffer, that this evening’s in-person service could happen at all. These people have exemplified what is now so essential in our community – listening and learning, compassion and compromise. These members heard all the voices in the community and responded appropriately. We owe them a debt of thanks.


This pandemic has been physically and psychologically exhausting for most, if not all, of us. We were confronted with immediate traumas – the sudden loss of physical presence of friends and family, the debilitating feeling of isolation, the realization of the precariousness of life. In time, other traumas came to us – the loss of trust of unknown others leading to the fear of the stranger, and even the shock of discovering that the social contract is less robust than we may have hoped and that some people will bend or break rules for their own benefit while ignoring the potential risk to others. Perhaps when we think of Ezra 3 and the people who wail at the loss of once was, we can empathize, and we need to be especially careful over the coming months to help each other come to terms with the trauma of the last 65 weeks.


And yet, we have remained connected. Many members have said that they have never felt so connected to our community as in the last year. Ecclesiastes says (3:4) there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. It turns out that those are not differing times, but the same time, and that time is now. As much as we pay attention to the trauma of the last year, so, too, we have so much to celebrate from the past year. We celebrate the staff and volunteers of our community who have just kept going despite everything thrown at them, drawing on extraordinary reserves of energy, willpower and love to keep our community members connected. We ran online Torah breakfasts, book studies, and two Tikkunei Leil Shavuot, both of which ran long into the evening despite us all being oyzgezoomt. We created online services and meditation sessions, online (and, in the most urgent of cases, in-person) pastoral visits. The Preschool, the Religious School and the Youth Group continued. We ran online events, including speakers from all around the world. We spent almost every evening one week in a virtual tour of Israel. We organized It Takes A Village to connect younger and older members of our community and to support kids through the long summer. We held weekly online Havdalah services. We sent out a reflection on a mishnah from Pirke Avot every day for months. We started the Pre-Shabbat messages on YouTube. We ran a Racial Justice Circle and connected with other events around the world that challenged and empowered us. Our members created stunning liturgy for the unique High Holy Day services and for our Pesach S’darim, which were watched by hundreds more people than ever before. We maintained a presence in the Interfaith Leadership Alliance, helping create memorials for New Mexicans who had died from the pandemic. We joined with the Jewish Federation in their cross-communal rituals for Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut. We restarted the Conversion Course, now attended by more people than in the last seven years at least. We brought in more new members. We even had a New Member Shabbat that was catered in the new members’ homes. We held the community’s first totally online bar mitzvah ceremony. We finished an extraordinary Strategic Plan and started implementing it by creating new committees and by running a hiring process which has resulted in our hiring of the wonderful Cantor Lianna Mendelson as our new Cantor-Educator. We have done all this and so, so much more. And throughout these last 65 weeks, whenever one of us faltered from exhaustion or sickness, someone else from the community would step up instantly. Aaron Wolf and Fred Milder stepped in to lead services, Scott Nadler, Dana Densmore, Ziva Gunther and Rachel Kowarski led Torah study, Ellen Zieselman stepped in to lead the Religious School, Meredith Brown stepped in to lead the B’nei Mitzvah program. Countless members provided meals to those in need, especially to those suffering from short- and long-term effects of COVID-19. These are some of the many examples of communal love and support that we have seen repeatedly throughout this pandemic. What we have learned since March of 2020 is that a pandemic is like an amplifier, bringing out everything that is truly within, so angry people became angrier but loving people became more loving. Our Caring Congregation therefore became more Caring. Our supportive extended family became even more supportive. We were tested hard by this pandemic, but we did not crack… if anything, we became stronger and even more extraordinary. Tonight, we celebrate the strength of our community to endure, and we commit ourselves to taking care of everyone in our community in the coming weeks and months as well.


So, whether or not everyone in our community could join us physically today, our being able to reopen services on-site is miraculous. When we give praise and thanks today, we do so not just for the wonder of our community, but also for the wonder of the healthcare professionals and all the essential workers who have sustained us and brought us to this occasion. We give thanks for the technology that has enabled us to stay connected through this time, and we excuse the technical glitches as moments of normalcy in a sea of miracles. We give thanks to the staff in our community, those who started the pandemic with us and who are no longer working with us, as well as those who are still with us. Their dedication to this community has been extraordinary. We also give thanks to those who have supported the staff of the Temple – the volunteers, Board members, and Exec members who have not only held us through this most extraordinary time but who have helped to develop our community at the same time. One of those people I must single out in particular – our Temple President Michelle LaFlamme-Childs - who has been a rock of support, a calming voice, an empowering leader, a confidante and friend. The members of our community will never know how much Michelle has done over the last year for us all, but I promise you it has been absolutely mind-blowing.


Speaking personally, there were times in the last six months in particular when the burden of this pandemic was too great, when the weight of the community combined with personal challenges was too much. It was during those times that, like Aaron and Hur in the book of Exodus (17:12), I was supported the most by this loving, extended family of Temple Beth Shalom, the rock of stability and love upon which I could rest and be refreshed. The members of this community held my arms up high when I did not know where to find the strength to do so. As we write the history of our Temple, I truly hope that this chapter is remembered as one of connection, of support and of love because that has certainly been my experience of it.


Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem – You who stand here with us today, either physically in our Sanctuary or with us online – you now look out at a land flowing with milk and honey… you now see in front of you a time of opportunity and reconnection. This is the moment – “this is the hour of change.” (q. Leah Goldberg, p.31, Mishkan T’fillah). This is the moment of celebrating how lucky we are, to be members of our wonderful community at this unique time in history. This is also the moment that makes demands of us, to reach out, to care for those still in need in our community. It is, therefore, a moment of celebration and of simultaneous responsibility. It is an awesome moment and it is a moment that I know we will embrace.


For over a year, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4) and God and community have been with us. May God continue to guide our steps forward, guide our community forward. May God comfort us as we confront the trauma of exile, inspire us to reach out to take care of those not here with us today, and be with us as we celebrate our extraordinary return to our extraordinary community, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Divine Authority and Tyranny (Korach 2021)

Yesterday, an annular eclipse helps those who have lost track of the Hebrew date, because eclipses always happen on a new moon. So, how might we connect the new moon with Korach, the apparently rebellious priest after whom this week’s Torah portion in named. The answer is in the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah (2:8-9). In order to declare the new moon, and thus the new month, witnesses needed to appear before the court. In this Mishnah, two witnesses came to the Rabbinic court at Yavneh and said that they saw the moon in the east on the morning of the 29th and they saw it in the west in the evening. Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri said that they were false witnesses. However, Rabban Gamaliel accepted their testimony, assuming that they had just made a mistake with their morning sighting. Two more witnesses came along and gave a differing testimony – that they saw the moon in its proper time. However, the moon did not appear to the Court as predicted but Rabban Gamaliel nonetheless accepted their testimony. Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said that they were false witnesses. He asked, “How can they testify that a woman has given birth when, on the very next day, her stomach is still up there between her teeth?” In other words, how can we say there’s a new moon when no-one can see the new moon? Rabbi Joshua said to him, “I can see your position.” In other words, Rabban Gamaliel, the head of the court, has accepted the testimony of the witnesses who, it turns out, are false witnesses. Rabbi Joshua agrees with Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who challenges how the court – specifically Rabban Gamaliel – came to accept false testimony. So, then something fascinating happens. Rabban Gamaliel turns to Rabbi Joshua and says, “I decree that you come to me with your staff and purse on the Day of Atonement which is determined in accordance with your counting.” Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas has provided a challenge but instead of answering that challenge, Rabbi Joshua has furthered it, essentially starting a group of people who have challenged Rabban Gamaliel’s authority. So Rabban Gamaliel’s response is to tell Rabbi Joshua that if he counts the calendar differently, he should demonstrate his apparent rebellion publicly. Is it rebellion, though? Yes, Rabbi Joshua is questioning how Rabban Gamaliel’s method for examining witnesses, but is it an innocent query or is it open mockery of the leader of the court? It could be read both ways. Rabban Gamaliel takes it as publicly questioning his authority, so he reacts by showing strict authority. Whether it was intended to be rebellious or not, Rabban Gamaliel’s response turns it into a rebellion that must be ended.


Rabbi Akiva finds Rabbi Joshua greatly troubled and explains that everything that Rabban Gamaliel has done is valid because Torah says “These are the set feasts of the Eternal… which you shall proclaim” (Lev. 23:4). Whether they are in their proper time or not, the key is that God has given authority to the Rabbis to proclaim the calendar. Akiva, ever the peace-maker, then went to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas and said, “If we’re going to take issue with the court of Rabban Gamaliel, we have to take issue with every single court which has come into being since the time of Moses to the present day.” He quotes the book of Exodus which talks of “Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel…” (Ex. 24:9) “Why,” he asks, “have the names of the elders not been given? To teach that every group of three elders who came into being as a court of Israel are equivalent to the court of Moses himself.” We assume that Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas is calmed and accepts the authority of Rabban Gamaliel to determine the dates of the festivals because when the court decrees them, that’s when they are, even if the calendar doesn’t match totally with what is in the sky.


Next we read that Rabbi Joshua took his staff with his purse in his hand and went to Yavneh, to Rabban Gamaliel, on the Day of Atonement according to his counting. In response, Rabban Gamaliel says to him, “Peace, my master and disciple – my master in wisdom and my disciple in accepting my rulings.” What Rabban Gamaliel saw as a rebellion has now been contained peacefully.


In our Torah portion, Korach challenges Moses, God’s emissary, the man who speaks with God, the man who literally glows with the Divine Presence. His challenge isn’t one of subjective rulings – is it the new moon or not – but a challenge of authority. Korach says that Moses takes on too much because all the people are holy, not just Moses. Essentially, he’s saying that Moses is no better than anyone else. That, of course, stands in complete contradiction with the word of God, since God clearly states at Sinai that only Moses can come up the mountain and that anyone who even touches the mountain shall die. God also says that no-one can see God’s face and live but God nonetheless lets Moses see God’s back, a privilege not granted to any other Israelite. So Korach’s challenge is one against not just Moses’ authority but actually against the whole structure of the Jewish community. Judaism sets up a community which has specialists – the priests were the specialists in sacrifice and the Rabbis are specialists in deciding halakhah, Jewish law. Rabban Gamaliel is the supreme specialist in the court, so questioning his decision-making ability is essentially like questioning God.


This, I believe, is what leads to the perceived rebellion – divine authority that supports human decision-making is inherently dangerous, since human beings are flawed. It is clear that Rabban Gamaliel made a mistake with the witnesses but the system that was established gave divine approval to his mistake. It made the incorrect correct. That’s very difficult for those who want a court with no mistakes, like Rabbi Joshua, who was clearly right to ask his question about the correctness of the decision. It’s not rebellion to question a leader’s terrible decision, and to ask how that can be enshrined in law. What’s fascinating is what else happens – after Rabban Gamaliel seemingly humiliates Rabbi Joshua with the demand regarding the date of Yom Kippur, their colleagues are so shocked by Rabban Gamaliel’s behavior that he is ousted as the head of the court! Although he is later returned to his post once he and Rabbi Joshua are reconciled, there continues to be a power-sharing agreement moving forward.


When people believe that they act on divine authority, their leadership can easily slip into tyranny. Nonsense laws are backed up with humiliation aimed at anyone who dares to disagree. In some sense, we see this same phenomenon with Korach as represented in Midrash. For example, when Moses tells the people that God instructs them to wear a blue tassel on their clothing so that it catches one’s eye and we remember God’s commandments, Korach asks what to do if their entire garment is blue? The Rabbis suggest that Korach asks these questions because he’s a trouble-maker, but I cannot see him that way. I believe that Korach sees divine authority being directed through one man, who is clearly very flawed, and who therefore tests the problematic system. It’s not that Korach rebels against God – he rebels against Moses because he is the only arbiter of divine authority.


The end of the Korach story is humiliation. Talmud (Bava Batra 74a) says that there is a spot that Rabbi bar bar Hana visited where he heard Korach cry up from the ground the words “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars.” That’s not fair. God tells the Israelites to be holy (Lev. 19:1) and Korach says that all the people are holy. That’s not a liar. He says that Moses has taken on too much, which is exactly what Moses’ father-in-law Jethro said back in Exodus 18(:14). Korach says that God is in the midst of the people. Well, that one’s a stretch – God is clearly centered around the Tabernacle. But once the Second Temple is built and then destroyed many hundreds of years later, the Rabbis end up saying essentially the same thing as Korach does in our Torah portion – that God is not focused on one specific location. If anything, then, Korach is a visionary. But he is humiliated just as Rabbi Joshua is humiliated, because any system that claims divine authority can easily tend towards terror and violence against anyone who disagrees with it.


Moses was flawed and Rabban Gamaliel was flawed. Moses ends his life without being able to cross into the Jordan because of his failure. Rabban Gamaliel ends up in a power-sharing arrangement because of his failure. That, I believe, is a wonderful lessons for all leaders – that if you think you came to this position because you’re perfect, you will end up failing. And this can, indeed, be a lesson for everyone – to hear those who would disagree with us without accusing them, to learn from their questions about how we may be wrong, to embrace humility, to be less certain of ourselves.  For some of us that’s more of a challenge than for others. But a religious community that tries to encounter God is not the same as God – we’re not perfect and that’s the point. We learn from our flaws instead of pretending that they don’t exist.


So, may God be with us as we embrace our imperfection, as we celebrate the opportunity to learn and grow from our interaction with others. May we embrace being questioned and challenged. And may we all question and challenge each other with love and respect, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Shelach Lecha Sermon 2021 - At the Border of Change

Earlier this morning, I led a service from the Bimah in our Sanctuary. It was the first time I had led a Shabbat service there in a year. The last time I did so, it was to a totally empty Sanctuary. I knew that many members were watching online, but the Sanctuary itself was totally empty and it was an extremely lonely experience. I returned to the empty Sanctuary for the High Holy Days because the internet connection at our home wasn’t reliable enough. Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and all the way through Yom Kippur I led services to a totally empty Sanctuary. There were moments in those services when I sang and my voice was the only sound in the entire room, and it was incredibly moving for me personally to fill a sacred space with my own voice. There was an immediacy between me and God that I have only felt a few times before in my life. At the end of the Yom Kippur services, once the Ne’ilah service finished, once we had wished shanah tovah to everyone, once I ended the online streaming and was left alone in the Sanctuary, though, I started crying. It wasn’t just due to exhaustion or stress, although there was certainly much of that at that time. It was fundamentally because of the loss of essential human interaction during a time when human interaction is so necessary. Yes, having my rendition of sh’ma koleinu fill the Sanctuary was powerful, but can never be as fulfilling as leading a service with a community. A one-to-one connection, a moment of I-Thou in our Sanctuary between God and me is something to be treasured, but it doesn’t compare to sharing sh’ma in a minyan, because we don’t celebrate festivals alone. The Jewish community experiences time communally, and observes special moments in that time – Shabbat and the festivals – communally.

For just over a year, we’ve been streaming services on Zoom which allowed members to see me and have some sense of shared festival experience, although I could not see them because I had to focus on the slides. Over the last year, leading Shabbat services went for me from a shared journey to a weekly presentation of Jewish spirituality, enabling others to experience something that I could not. My spiritual role shifted from guide to presenter, from spiritual artist to professional sacred space holder, from companion to enabler. That’s why I genuinely want to return to in-person services so that we can share something spiritual together once again. At the same time, though, I’m nervous. I’ve got so used to leading services in my slippers from the comfort of my couch or my study that the transition to a new spirituality is nerve-wracking. For this morning’s Preschool Shabbat, I chose to force myself across that boundary, which was especially helpful as a taster of things to come since in two weeks’ time, we open up in-person Shabbat services for those who want to return physically.

With that in mind, I want to share my experience of Preschool Shabbat this morning. The first thing that struck me was when one of the older kids walked into the Sanctuary and said, “Rabbi Neil, I haven’t seen you in a long time.” I felt seen and so valued and had forgotten how wonderful it feels to be seen by members of a loving community.From the get-go, I was amazed that I remembered all of my shtick – all of my jokes and songs that I do with them – even though I haven’t uttered them for a very long time. When we lit the Shabbat candles, my voice broke a little and I had to hold back tears because we sang the brachah together and we were engaging in Jewish ritual together when for so long for me it has been a solo performance. I didn’t realize how much it had hurt my soul to not hear others praying along with me. When it came time for challah, I took a piece and tucked it into my mouth under my mask but the kids had to wait until lunch to have theirs. Suddenly, that communal act of breaking bread together not being able to happen reminded me that we are still in a pandemic and that coming back to services will feel profoundly different.

Once the Preschool kids left the Sanctuary I had a momentary pause. I was in shock. It was nice but it felt a little odd. It was returning to the old but in a new way. It was a return, but only partially. It was communal prayer for the first time in a year, which felt transformative, inclusive, shared, communal, and supportive, but it was also distanced, changed, and limited. I had finally experienced the wonderful but disjointed reality of an in-person pandemic prayer service. What I needed, and what I’m really going to start working on over the next two weeks, was a transition ritual, a ritual of return. I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but now it has become even more relevant.  

As I started to consider this ritual, I remembered this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha. In it, the Israelites send twelve spies into the land of Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the land that was promised to them by God, and yet they are too terrified to move forward. The challenges facing them overwhelm them psychically. Their report back to the people is called “evil” by the Torah, because it strikes fear into the people and they yearn to go back to Egypt, to the worst of places, simply because it was familiar. The entire people become demoralized by the account. In response, God tells Moses that the entire people will be wiped out and will start again with Moses, but Moses argues that that cannot happen. He gets it. It’s not about the community leader. It’s about the people, some of whom are ready to go into the land and some of whom are not. In the end, most of them are banned from entering because of that hesitation when the time was right. Immediately regretting missing their window of opportunity, they rush to make amends and pour into the land where they are soundly defeated by the inhabitants because they’re not prepared.

This Torah portion helps me prepare the ritual of return in a few ways. It needs to acknowledge fear of change, fear of personal harm, trepidation of crossing the threshold, that some people will feel. It needs to hold those who remain on one side of the border while others cross over. It needs to acknowledge that it is not good for a prayer leader and the prayer community to be physically separated. It needs to acknowledge the transition of the prayer leader from nebbish with a Powerpoint presentation back to emissary of communal prayer. It needs to acknowledge a physical and psychological divide that was forced upon our community and that also needs to celebrate that it is slowly going away.

Like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, we are near the border of a transformative change. We won’t rush in blindly but we’ll also not yearn to go back to the worst out of fear of change.  Together, we will find a balance. May God help us as we search for that balance, together, as a community, and let us say, Amen.