Remember and forget: a dvarling for Shabbat Zachor

Amalek-soferet

Today is Shabbat Zachor — the Shabbat of Remembrance. That’s the special name given to the Shabbat before Purim.

It’s traditional today to read Deuteronomy 25:17-19 (from the end of parashat Ki Teitzei), describing the attack by Amalek. Amalek attacked as we were fleeing from Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the winding train of footsore refugees. Amalek attacked those who were vulnerable and in most danger. The Talmud recounts a tradition that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. As we prepare for Purim, we remember Amalek who attacked from behind. 

Tradition instructs us to blot out the name of Amalek — to erase the name, the identity, of those who harmed us. I see in this injunction an echo of those who today say that when there are, God forbid, mass shootings and acts of terror we should not publicize the names of those who committed the atrocities, because the perpetrators want to be known. Their twisted egos want fame for their horrendous acts, and therefore we shouldn’t talk about them by name, we should deny them the fame they crave.

And tradition also instructs us to remember. Today is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance or Memory. We blot out the names of those who harm (indeed, there’s a tradition in sofrut, the scribal arts, of writing the name of Amalek and then crossing it out with a bold stroke of ink)… even as we remember our wounds and our traumas, because those harms are part of what has made us who we are. Because we owe it to the victims to remember their names, and never to let their sacred memories die.

Today we reach Shabbat Zachor in the immediate aftermath of a horrendous terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. A white supremacist who proudly called himself a fascist opened fire during Friday prayers at a mosque and at an Islamic center. When I woke to this news yesterday I had no words. I still have no words to wholly encompass my horror or my grief — or my fury at a person who would attack others in sacred places of prayer and community. I stand today with our grieving Muslim siblings.

The gunman in this horrendous, atrocious, unspeakable attack is Amalek: attacking the vulnerable, attacking those on the margins, attacking innocents at prayer because of their different mode of prayer or dress or connection with the Holy One. 

The gunman in the Pittsburgh shootings at Tree of Life synagogue a few months ago was Amalek. 

The gunman behind the Pulse nightclub shooting of GLBTQ people a few years ago was Amalek.

The gunmen behind every school shooting, every house of worship massacre, every predatory attack on children and worshippers and those who are “different” — those at the “back of the community,” those who are vulnerable — are Amalek. 

And today we are called to remember and to mourn — and also to blot out the names of those who would commit such atrocities. Blotting out their names doesn’t (only) mean redacting news articles to deny them publicity. It means blotting out the identities of hatred, the self-concept that would lead anyone to pick up a weapon and attack the innocent for any twisted reason. It means blotting out white supremacy and white nationalism, homophobia and hatred, antisemitism and Islamophobia and xenophobia.

It means we must build a world in which those virulent hatreds are no more. Only then will we truly be able to honor the memories of those whom Amalek has taken from us. Y’all know that I am mourning my mother right now, and you have seen me weep — you will see me weep again! But she died surrounded by family, at 82, after a life that was long and full of blessing. Those whom Amalek attacks do not have that luxury. And those who mourn them experience an entirely different kind of grief.

May we blot out the hatreds that animate Amalek in every generation.

May we stand in solidarity with all who are victimized.

And may our actions bring about the Purim when these hatreds are inconceivable, and when no one ever need mourn again as the Muslim community around the world is mourning today.

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at shul this morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Image source: soferet Jen Taylor Friedman

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Vayikra

Dear all,

Shavua tov! Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel. This week we’re reading from parashat Vayikra.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by Rabbi Rachel and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert:

Build for loving balance: fire and water, justice and repair

And here are commentaries from the URJ on this week’s parsha:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Liana Barenblat z”l

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

By now you may have heard the news that my beloved mother, Liana Ljuba Epstein Barenblat z”l, has left this life. I am headed to Texas for her funeral and for the first few days of shiva. I aim to return home on Sunday so that I can sit a few days of shiva here, as well.

In the ordinary course of events, it is my responsibility and my great honor to care for y’all in your times of need. I am grateful to be your rabbi and to have this sacred task. My mother’s death brings about a reversal: in coming days and weeks I will need you to take care of me.

The first way that you can take care of me is by joining me for shiva on Monday and Tuesday nights. Stay tuned for information about that — which will probably come to you from Steven Green (our Spiritual Life chair) or from our member Sandy Ryan. Here is an explanation of some of the customs of shiva.

Another way to take care of me is to join me at services in coming months so that I can say mourner’s kaddish in community. Saying kaddish in community enables a mourner (ideally) to feel held, witnessed, and cherished. Here’s a great video about mourner’s kaddish.

And the third way that you can take care of me is by bearing witness to my grief, and welcoming me as a part of our shared community even when I sometimes feel sorrow. Please do ask how I am, and don’t be alarmed if my answer to that question sometimes involves tears!

Please do ask me about my mom. There will be times when I can’t tell stories because the ache is too profound, and times when sharing stories about her will help me celebrate and uplift my memories of her. Remember that grief is not linear, and does not have a simple trajectory.

When I lead prayer, when I want to take y’all to an emotional / spiritual place (awe, wonder, gratitude) I need to truly “go there” too. I can’t just pretend to pray: I have to really feel it. I aspire to be real with you, and real in my prayer. I also aspire to be real with you in my grief.

Being in community means taking care of each other. I know the CBI community to be generous and caring, and I thank you in advance for your generosity and care. I thank you too for letting me be not only a servant of this community, but a member of this community, in this tender time.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel

Tetzaveh: becoming mitzvot, bringing light

One-candle

This week we’re in parashat Tetzaveh. The Torah portion takes its name from its first word, which means “You shall command.” (It comes from the same root as mitzvah, commandment.) God is telling Moses to command us to kindle an eternal light in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. That’s a mitzvah that we still fulfill today — now with the eternal light in every sanctuary.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet reads this verse in a beautiful way. First he notes the verse from Proverbs, “The candle of God is the soul of a human being.” When we are in dark places, we light a candle to help us see. And God’s response to dark places is us — we are the candles that God lights in order to bring light into the world. It’s our job to bring light.

I want to say that again, because it’s so beautiful to me. We are God’s candles. There’s a ner tamid (eternal light) in every synagogue sanctuary, but the point of that lamp isn’t just to be a lamp: it’s there to remind us that it’s our job to be sources of light in the darkness. The darkness of grief, the darkness of cruelty, the darkness of fear. We can dispel those with our light.

That word tetzaveh, “you shall command” — the Sfat Emet reads it creatively to mean, “you shall bring mitzvot into the souls of the children of Israel, so that they themselves become mitzvot.” Bring mitzvot into our souls, and we ourselves will become mitzvot — holy acts, connected at our root to the Source of all goodness. That’s what it means to be a light in the world.

The blessing for a mitzvah — lighting Shabbat candles, or affixing a mezuzah — contains the words אשר קדשנו במצוותיו / asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, “Who makes us holy in connecting-command.” The Sfat Emet is saying that this goes deeper than just blessing God Who gives us mitzvot. When we bring mitzvot into our hearts, we ourselves become connections with God. 

Rabbi Art Green writes in his commentary on the Sfat Emet that this is actually the purpose of our lives as Jews: to so thoroughly embody the mitzvot that we ourselves become mitzvot. To so thoroughly embody Jewish practices and values that they become who we are. And maybe that’s another way of saying what Proverbs says, that our souls can be God’s candles.

In Proverbs we read that a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light. A mitzvah is a candle, an opportunity to bring light into the world. And Torah is light — we sing those words every time we dress the Torah scroll, תורה אורה / Torah orah!  For our mystics, the physical Torah we study in this world is a stand-in for the supernal Torah on high, and that Torah, the real Torah, is light.

So let’s recap: our souls are light — we’re God’s candles. The mitzvot are light — they too are candles waiting to be lit. And Torah is light. Which takes me to the other words we sing when we’re dressing the Torah, from the Zohar: ישראל ואורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוה  / Yisrael v’oraita v’kudsha brich hu chad hu, “Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One of Blessing, are all One.” 

Us, and Torah, and God: the Zohar teaches that these are all fundamentally one. Our deepest essence is that we are One with Torah, we are One with God, we are One with the source of all light. Right now it’s Shabbes: we can bask in that light. And in the new week, we can strive to live it — to embody Torah, to embody the mitzvot — so that we can be bearers of light in the world.

Rabbi Rachel adds: This is the d’varling that I offered at CBI on Shabbat morning, and it is cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi. It is offered here with gratitude to my Bayit hevre for studying the Sfat Emet with me each week.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Tetzaveh.

Dear all,

Shavua tov! Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel. This week we’re reading from parashat Tetzaveh.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert:

Also, it’s been brought to my attention that last week’s Builders Blog link was an incorrect link. Apologies! Here’s the correct link for last week’s commentary from Bayit: Building for Mobility: Spiritual Life on the Move by R’ David Markus.

And here are commentaries from the URJ on this week’s parsha:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Terumah

Dear all,

Shavua tov! Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax. This week we’re reading from parashat Terumah.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by Rabbi David Markus and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Right speech beneath the sapphire sky

MishpatimYou must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

There’s a very similar instruction in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus 19:16, “don’t be a talebearer.”) Speaking ill of someone has a name in Jewish tradition: lashon ha-ra, evil speech.

Jewish tradition holds that lashon ha-ra is equivalent to murder. Talmud (Arachin 15b) teaches that “Lashon ha-ra kills three: the one who speaks it, the one spoken of, and the one who hears it.”

Maybe you know the parable of the man who gossiped and then went to a rabbi seeking forgiveness. The rabbi took a feather pillow, cut it open, and let the wind blow the feathers away. And then he said, “lashon ha-ra spreads even more thoroughly than these feathers.” Because speech, once heard, can’t be un-heard.

The worst form of lashon ha-ra, our tradition teaches, is motzi shem ra, telling lies about someone. That’s false tale-bearing — the thing explicitly forbidden in this week’s parsha, Mishpatim. That word means rules, or laws, or justice-commandments. This week’s parsha is packed with justice-commandments.

Torah is made up of both narrative, and legal material (commandments, ethical instructions). And I know that for many of us the stories can be more compelling than the legal sections. The stories are interesting, or thought-provoking, or occasionally distressing. The lists of laws can leave us yawning, especially when those laws seem out of date for today’s realities.

Like “If an ox gores someone” (Ex. 21:28) — I mean, who among us has an ox, these days? Though of course that verse is really about responsibility for someone else’s harmful behavior, and tradition teaches that ultimately we are all responsible for each other. Still, I’ve noticed over the years that in our Torah discussions, people often engage more with story than with law.

That’s why often, when we reach this portion in the Torah each year, I focus on the beautiful tale of Moshe and the elders ascending to God and their vision of the floor that was like bricks of sapphire. It’s poetry: there’s so much meaning to be found and made there! I love that story. I love singing Nava Tehila’s setting of one of those verses, as we’ve done here today.

But I think Torah is wise in juxtaposing our poetic stories with our prosaic laws. Poetry doesn’t mean anything — beautiful visions of God’s presence don’t mean anything — if not grounded in ethical behavior. Without the emotional and spiritual safety that come from right conduct and right speech, pretty visions of holiness are hollow at best and spiritual bypassing at worst.

One of my favorite teachings about the tchelet, the thread of blue that winds through our tzitzit, is that it reminds us of the Sea of Reeds — our place of liberation. And it reminds us of the sapphire pavement upon which God is described in this week’s parsha. And sea and sky can be mnemonics, reminding us of tzitzit, which remind us of mitzvot, including right action and right speech.

May every glimpse of sea and sky and tzitzit remind us that the path to the sapphire heavens and the Holy One of Blessing must be paved with ethical choices. Otherwise our holiness is false and even dangerous. We may yearn for celestial brickwork of sapphire, but what really matters is building a community of holiness, right speech, and ethical choices here on the ground.

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)