Dvar Torah for Shabbat Hazon: listening to the holy space between

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered this morning at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


שָׁמֹ֤עַ בֵּין־אֲחֵיכֶם֙ וּשְׁפַטְתֶ֣ם צֶ֔דֶק בֵּין־אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵין־אָחִ֖יו וּבֵ֥ין גֵּרוֹ

Hear out your fellow man, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger.

This line leapt out at me this year. Literally the first phrase means “Listen between your brothers.” Listen to the different perspectives of your brothers, your kinsfolk, those who are part of your tribe. Because even your kinsfolk will have diverse opinions and perspectives. And it’s important to listen not only to “each side,” but also to the Torah of the in-between, the space between their perspectives in which is held the truth that multiple truths can coexist, that “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”

Our mystics teach that each letter of Torah is holy, and even more holy is the white space of the parchment which contains the letters and the infinite possibilities between them. The lived Torah of every human experience is holy, and even more holy is the space between us, the space in which we can choose to interact with lovindkindness and compassion, even when we disagree. Maybe especially when we disagree. It’s easy to relate in an I/Thou manner which acknowledges the full dignity of every human being when we’re on the same side. That becomes a lot harder when our disagreements are impassioned and heartfelt.

Listen between your brothers, and bring justice and righteousness to bear on how you respond. Bring tzedek to interactions between your kinsfolk, and also to interactions between your kin and those who are different from you. If someone of our community is in a disagreement with an outsider, an “other,” we’re still called to treat both parties with tzedek, justice and righteousness. Imagine the ultimate “other,” the kind of person who are you naturally inclined to mistrust and to doubt. Now imagine one of “those people” disagreeing with one of “us.” Now imagine what it would mean to respond to that disagreement with justice and righteousness, instead of with anger and fear.

The space between us is holy, like the parchment surrounding the letters of Torah. Because on white space, anything can be inscribed. It’s infinite possibility. The Torah, midrash says, is written in black fire on white fire. The white fire is the blank parchment; the white fire is the endless universe of our interpretations and commentaries. The white fire is the space between us, and the space between us is holy. But how often do we fill the space between us with the stubborn insistence that one party is right and the other party is misguided? That one party knows the truth, and the other party is deluded?

As we approach Tisha b’Av, that day when we commemorate calamities from the shattering of the first tablets of the covenant, to the destruction of both Temples, to the expulsion from Spain, to the Chmielnicki massacres, to the expulsion from the Warsaw Ghetto, to every brokenness we experience in the world even now… As we approach Tisha b’Av, knowing that the fear, suffering, and devastation in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza are at an extreme… As we approach Tisha b’Av, it is our job to remember the holiness of the space between us. To treat one another with justice and righteousness, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, even when our perspectives differ.

 

Ranana Dine on religious symbols and BRCA

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Those of you who had kids in our Ne’arim (“Youths” — our 5th through 7th grade b’nei mitzvah prep program) class this past year had the chance to meet Ranana Dine, the Williams student who taught Hebrew to some of our beginners and also tutored our three bar mitzvah boys in Torah reading practice.

Ranana is spending the summer engaged in research at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, and her research project was inspired by her time at CBI. She recently published a blog post on the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s blog which explains how her work at CBI sparked her research. I thought her work might be interesting to many of you, so I’m sharing a glimpse of it here. Here’s how her post starts:

When I began teaching Hebrew school this past year, I never imagined the experience would inspire a major research project. Each week, I would arrive at the small synagogue and try to get 11-year-olds to think that the Hebrew language was cool by playing them music by Idan Raichel (alas, they seemed to prefer American rap music). While this experience was interesting and challenging on its own, it didn’t quite inspire my academic imagination like my school readings on feminist Biblical scholarship or American landscape painting. But as I returned each week to teach about the letter yud or play hide and seek with Hebrew vowels, I could not help but occasionally find myself in the women’s restroom. And there inspiration struck…

You can read her whole post here: Should religious symbols be part of the BRCA Discussion? (The BRCA gene test is a blood test that uses DNA analysis to identify harmful changes in either one of the two breast cancer susceptibility genes, mutations which are more common among Ashkenazi Jewish women than in other populations.)

Ranana will be studying abroad in the fall, but we hope that she will lend her expertise and her energy to CBI once again in early 2015.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Tisha b’Av: Monday, August 4 at 8pm

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

On Monday evening (August 4) at 8pm we will observe Tisha b’Av at CBI with an evening service which will feature poetry both classical and contemporary, psalms and prayers, lamentations and hope.

Tisha b’Av is the anniversary of the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, and the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE. In our own day, Tisha b’Av beckons us into the darkness of inner exile, so we can emerge into the Season of Teshuvah. Enfolded in community, we invoke the depth of Tisha b’Av for the purpose of rising anew.

This year we will use a renewed liturgy for Tisha b’Av. Excerpts from the Biblical book Eicha (Lamentations) will be interwoven with contemporary poetry (by Toge Sankichi, Yehuda Amichai, Mark Nazimova, Hannah Stein, and others) and with a simple evening service.

The service is brief, but hopefully its emotional impact will linger — and will become the springboard from which we will ascend upwards toward the Days of Awe. Please join us.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov (and chodesh tov!) Looking forward to Shabbat D’varim

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to you! And also chodesh tov, a good new month to you; welcome to the new lunar month of Av.

This week we’re reading the Torah portion called D’varim in the book of Deuteronomy. The name of the Torah portion is a hyperlink; click on it to be taken to the Torah portion in English if you want to read the portion before coming to Shabbat services. If you would like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are a few:

return-to-shabbat

This Shabbat, our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for morning services will be Rabbi Rachel. We extend a hearty thank you in advance to this week’s service host. If you would like to join the shamashim (“helpers”) who welcome people to our Shabbat services and who host our light kiddush afterwards, contact Pattie Lipman.

We also thank our member Helene Armet for the home-baked challah!

We hope to see you soon at CBI. Have a great week!

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Masei.

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to you!

This week we’re reading the Torah portion called Masei in the book of Numbers. The name of the Torah portion is a hyperlink; click on it to be taken to the Torah portion in English if you want to read the portion before coming to Shabbat services. If you would like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are some which Rabbi Rachel has shared over the years:

And here’s a link to the Union for Reform Judaism’s page for this Torah portion, which contains several different Reform commentaries:

return-to-shabbat

This Shabbat, our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for morning services will be Rabbi Pam Wax. We extend a hearty thank you in advance to this week’s service host. If you would like to join the shamashim (“helpers”) who welcome people to our Shabbat services and who host our light kiddush afterwards, contact Pattie Lipman.

We also thank our member Helene Armet for the home-baked challah!

We hope to see you soon at CBI. Have a great week!

Taking care of ourselves when Israel is fighting

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

I know that many of us are struggling with the news out of Israel and Gaza. I’ve been hearing from people who are unable to fall asleep because they can’t stop thinking about the images of destruction and grief, or who wake up and immediately start agonizing about the conflict or worrying about loved ones.

For some, the realities of what’s happening there provoke a crisis of faith. For others, those realities provoke profound anxiety. I too have been struggling to maintain my emotional and spiritual equilibrium in the face of the violence, destruction, and fear.

Maybe the first thing we can do is honor the reality of the struggle. A colleague just pointed me toward research showing that media exposure to trauma can create trauma in those who are watching, even from afar. The researchers did intensive studies, first after 9/11 and later after the Boston Marathon bombing, and their research showed that people who watched more than an hour of daily disaster-related tv (news programming and so on) experienced increases in post-traumatic stress symptoms and physical ailments.

The previous conventional wisdom had been that indirect media-based exposure to trauma is “not clinically relevant.” But these researchers found otherwise. After the Boston bombing they looked not only at how much TV people watched, but also print news and radio, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. They discovered that those who consumed a great deal of bombing-related media in the week after the bombings were six times more likely to report high acute stress than those were at the Boston Marathon itself.

I am not suggesting that those of us who are following stories out of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza from afar are experiencing more trauma than those who are there. I recognize that from here we can only barely begin to grasp the terror and the trauma. My child is safely watching cartoons; other peoples’ children have been terrorized and killed. There is no comparison. What I am suggesting is that the media we consume has an impact in all four worlds: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and even physical.

It is easy to be drawn to the news or to social media because we care about what’s happening and we want to know more. But engaging with the news can have a profound emotional impact, and engaging with reports from our friends, family, colleagues, and loved ones even more so.

It’s important that the realities of this conflict be expressed. I know that it’s important to those who are experiencing the tragedy and trauma of war that their stories and images be shared with the world. I understand that and I honor it.

And that makes it extra-important that we who are watching from afar — whether via television news, or social media, or both — exercise the good judgement to take care of our own emotional and spiritual boundaries. (I wrote about this on my blog a few weeks ago, Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.) Overexposure to trauma, even from afar, can be damaging.

Rabbi Jay Michaelson recently wrote an essay for the Forward called 5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame. It’s a terrific essay and I recommend it to you — both because he does a beautiful job of exploring the entrenchment of different narratives, and because he suggests simple ways each of us can take control of our interactions. He shares the questions he asks himself before posting, forwarding, or amplifying news about Israel and the Palestinian territories.

What we take in, through reading or viewing, enters our hearts and minds. Some of us can manage that without experiencing trauma. Some of us are more emotionally porous and may be hurt by the repeated exposure. (And any given person may be at a different place on that spectrum at different times — maybe one day you’re able to manage what you’re reading or watching, and the next day it becomes too much.)

If watching the news or reading your Facebook feed leaves you struggling with crying jags, panic attacks, nightmares, anxiety which won’t let up, you are not alone, and what you’re feeling is real. Different people heal in different ways, but I’ve found that the best tools include disengaging for a time from social media and the news, and when the obsessive anxious thoughts recur, just noticing them, without judgement, and redirecting my thoughts in another direction. For me that usually means prayer, but use whatever works for you: music, exercise, thinking about an event you’re looking forward to, calling a loved one, whatever works.

Marinating in a perennial bath of horrific news can actually cause harm. Whatever obligations you feel to those who are frightened or suffering, you aren’t helping them by harming yourself. Please take good care of yourself — you are precious. And please know that I am here to listen anytime you want to talk about how you’re feeling — about Israel or about anything else.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

 

Much of this material also appears in a longer post at Velveteen Rabbi: How news and social media can hurt us.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Matot – and our special Rumi Shabbat

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

Shavua tov / a good week to you! This Shabbat, our shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for morning services will be Rabbi Rachel. This week we’ll be holding a Rumi Shabbat Service, in which the prayers of our morning liturgy are interwoven with poems by the Sufi mystic poet Rumi. Our Torah study on Shabbat morning will be a conversation about the Rumi poems and our prayers and how they reflect and refract each other.

This week we’re reading the Torah portion called Matot in the book of Numbers. The name of the Torah portion is a hyperlink; click on it to be taken to the Torah portion in English if you want to read the portion before coming to Shabbat services. If you would like to read some commentaries on this week’s Torah portion, here are some which Rabbi Rachel has shared over the years:

And here’s a link to the Union for Reform Judaism’s page for this Torah portion, which contains several different Reform commentaries:

return-to-shabbat

We extend a hearty thank you in advance to this week’s service host. If you would like to join the shamashim (“helpers”) who welcome people to our Shabbat services and who host our light kiddush afterwards, contact Pattie Lipman.

We also thank our member Helene Armet for the home-baked challah!

We hope to see you soon at CBI. Have a great week!