I have lived in Colorado for nearly thirty years. I cannot imagine awakening with anything in my heart but joy for another day, another opportunity to make life better. Not a day goes by that I am not appreciative of living in what I have come to call my piece of heaven and in the United States.
Then, as the day evolves, being the news junkie I am, I let myself out of my heart and into my head. Who shall live and who shall die, we ask? And how? How shall it occur? I am wholly aware that on the other side of the world Jews are at risk. We are still fleeing from and being transported from harms way every year. Christians are at risk in the Middle
East. Dozens of churches have been burned, though for some reason, until the latest Egyptian uprising, this was not making the nightly news. In India, Hindus and Muslim have been in constant conflict, and children have been attacked for singing their national anthem, though this, too, did not make our national news.
Americans are sorely at risk. My prayers are with those who provide our country with strength and protection, who are
devoted to their chosen professions of service to the country. May they return to their families safely and with honor.
At a time in history when half the world is recognizing the human rights and dignity of people of every race, creed, color, ethnic and sexual persuasion, it seems that the other half of the world is racing head long in the opposite direction. Most of us are familiar with the phrase, tzedek, tzedek terdof, Justice, justice shall you pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 20) but not everyone knows what precedes those words.
18 You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. 19 You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. 20 Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
In the bronze age, the time in which Torah was written, humanity already knew some things about the human soul. They
knew that pride and power could distort a person’s judgment. They knew that an individual could bring an idea but a group was needed to implement it, the power of numbers – we might call it peer pressure. Maybe that’s why we need ten adult Jews to form a minyan, ten to pray. They knew that the soul is weak when tested and the body is weak when tempted. They knew that it is easy for wealth to blind the eyes of the wise and that words of the just - are just as easily confounded by gain.
They knew that people needed a focus. They needed to be able to engage their senses. They needed to turn their hearts and reach their hands toward something tangible. They needed to be involved.
Recently, while listening to a speaker, I was completely taken by a throwaway line because it was like a light bulb going off – it was just so true. He said, “It all began with the clicker.” It all began with the clicker. Suddenly, with no effort at
all, one could turn away from the sights and sounds they didn’t want coming to them over the TV. You didn’t even need to get out of your chair. Enjoying a light hearted show – click – now I don’t need to hear a plea for UNICEF. Getting into the rough and tough western – click – don’t tell me how many have died in battles. Fantasizing about living in that future world – click – I can’t be bothered with sink holes swallowing houses and resorts, or disappearing bee colonies.
We want things to exist but we no longer want to be responsible for that existence. Institutions are included in those things we want to exist. We want the Temple or at least a Jewish community available when we need it, but we want to “click” the rest of the time. We want Israel to exist so we feel we have a refuge, or maybe a nice place to visit. We’ll even celebrate it on the holidays and chant ‘next year in Jerusalem’ when it is appropriate but otherwise, click – we have our own problems. And, indeed, we do.
It should send a chill down the spine of every Jew who knows even the merest trace of Jewish history that Russia is rounding up people based on their life style. The reform Jewish community is in the forefront of the LGBT human justice issue. I would go so far as to say that anyone who says, “I am not related to and have no friends who are part of the LGBT community”, that they can say that because most likely the people around them know how they feel and simply are not being open and honest. Who by hatred? Who by fear? Justice shall you pursue.
As a country we are facing many issues. Issues that are further dividing us rather than helping us find unity. The World Health Organization has found gender violence to be the most common human rights abuse. “Worldwide, women aged 15-44 are more likely to be killed or maimed due to male violence than by cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.” Were it not for the Violence Against Women’s Act, enacted in 1994, the effects in the United States would be
even worse. Thanks to this Act, in the past 20 years the number of individuals killed by an intimate partner has decreased 34% for women and 57% for men. Who shall live and who shall die at the hand of the one they love? Justice shall you pursue.
Prior to entering the clergy world, I was a social worker. While I worked with several different societal groups including run-aways, the psychiatric unit at the VA, home health watch which has since become termed hospice care, my primary field for nearly 12 years was reproductive health care. I can’t help but look at what is happening in a third of the states in this country and wonder why they want to turn back the clock fifty years when it comes to women’s health care, family privacy and freedom of choice. Justice shall you pursue.
In Isaiah we read, “Is not this the fast I ask for: To unlock the shackles of evil, To loosen the thongs of the yoke, To send forth crushed souls to freedom, To tear every yoke in two! To tear up your loaves for the hungry, To bring the poor wanderer home, When you see the naked, clothe them, When you see flesh and blood, do not turn aside! Then your light will burst forth like the morning and new flesh will cover your wounds.”
He further says to reach out to the soul of the hungry and ease the soul of the bruised; to remove the menacing hand and the abusive words and the oppressive yoke.”
Jews have known disenfranchisement and subjugation in so many lands, not just Egypt and not just 2500 years ago. This is why our prayers are dotted with the reminder that we were strangers in a strange land. Our Torah is spotted with ‘you shall be holy for I your God am holy’. That is why our history is marked by involvement in civil rights wherever and whenever they appear.
When Jews appeared on these shores in 1654, Stuyvesant tried to send them back to whence they came, the Portuguese Inquisition. When told by the Dutch West Indian company that they were to stay, (there was a no return policy) he enacted laws that restricted those colonists. They could not serve in the military but because they did not serve in the military they had to pay a tax for not serving in the military. They were not allowed to build a synagogue. Colonial voting laws were set locally and so in many regions, Catholics and Jews, Native Americans and African Americans along with all women were NOT allowed to vote.
English jurist William Blackstone wrote in the 1700s: The true reason for requiring any qualification, with regard to property, in voters, is that it gives a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with
general liberty. Yes, they knew that in 1700.
August 26th marked the 93rd anniversary of voting rights for women. That week, Hadassah announced VISION 2020: Five goals to be achieved by the centennial anniversary of the 19th amendment:
Women in senior leadership positions
Family-Friendly workplace policies
Youth Education and civic engagement, and
Voter Mobilization promoting participation in the political process.
From the voting booth to taking care of the poor, the children and the minorities, Justice, justice shall you pursue.
Why justice twice when we are told the Torah uses words sparingly? Justice has two sides. We forget that when we
rally for a cause, there is someone on the other side. When we celebrate victory there is someone who is not rejoicing. Rabbi Pinchas HaCohen Peli (1930-1989) a tenth generation rabbi of the 20th century and Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature at the Ben-Gurion University, wrote, “It is, indeed, much more difficult to find a way between two claims, both of whom have justice on their side, than to decide a priori which of the two sides is absolutely just and must be be aided.”
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, an eminent Chassidic sage and the second Gerrer Rebbe of Warsaw, Poland, 1847 -1905, wrote commentary on the Torah. In his view, justice and truth are synonymous and neither is obtainable. Therefore, the pursuit of justice is endless as is the pursuit of truth.
The pursuit of truth. There’s a notion. The truth is ----- we are a nation in turmoil, Americans, yes. Jews even more so.
For nearly 25 years, women have sought the right to pray at The Wall, The Western Wall, HaKotel, wearing tallit and tefillin, and to read from the Torah as a group. As a group they are known as WOW which is the acronym for Women of the Wall. During the last week of July, when it was NOT Rosh Chodesh – Rosh Chodesh is a the holiday that celebrates the new moon, the new month in the Jewish calendar - ten women prayed in tefillin and tallitot without incident at the Kotel. Why? Because, in truth - most people are not bothered by this. They need to be incited to throw rocks and chairs and spit at men and women who want to beseech God for peace and blessings.
The courts have stated that it is not WOW that is causing the disruption at the Wall but those who are protesting their presence. Yet, while prior to the ruling many of the women, both Israeli and visiting Americans have been arrested or detained, the current protesters are not approached by the Wall police. Even the whistle blowers – no, not the Edward
Snowden type, these are men blowing whistles just feet from the women praying – even they are not bothered by the Wall police who do not view whistle blowing as ‘creating a public disturbance’, A PUBLIC DISTURBANCE - the crime for
which the women in prayer had been arrested so often.
In truth, do the protesters enhance their own kavannah (intention for prayer) through such actions while at this sacred site? In truth, how many of those who block the women’s section from the members of the WOW (Women of the Wall) would come there to pray on their own rather than come to protest as a group? Indeed, we know a large percentage are
gathered only for the purpose of disrupting the prayers of the WOW.
And this is not the only difficulty in my beloved Israel. Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, a prominent leader in the haredi
world, and I quote Rabbi Iris Richman in Moment Magazine, “instructs his followers that Jews who serve the land of Israel and want Haredim to become educated participants in Israeli life, with the civil obligations of all Israeli citizens, are the greatest enemy of the Jewish people. The followers of this rabbi are praying three times per day, every weekday, that (other) Jews should be “destroyed in a moment” for supporting an Israel where all of its citizens live together in shared responsibility and unity.”
To be clear, this is an influential rabbi speaking specifically about [Yair] Lapid [Israel’s Finance Minister, and her Education Minister Shai Piron) as Amalek – the worst enemy of the Jews. It is from Amalek that Haman and
Hitler were to have descended and according to Torah, Amalek is deserving of death.
For nearly 25 years, I have prayed in a tallit, worn tefillin and read from the Torah. I did not have to endure rocks and chairs, merely snide comments, barbed looks, questions and shunning. I went through back doors to be accepted and had to prove myself repeatedly to rank and file. However, I am no longer the unusual female davener clad in
I cannot understand leaving a house of worship, any house of worship, wanting to do harm to others. I quite frankly
do not want to begin to contemplate what I might need to say to you to not only make you think it ok, but to encourage it. I cannot comprehend teaching and preaching hatred when fear is already a menacing pursuer.
Rabbi Peli again, “While there are those who perceive justice to be always on their side, there are others, who in
their fervour to do justice to their opponents, tend to forget that there is justice also on their side.” Justice, justice shall you pursue. Remember to see both sides of justice. At this season, we ask God to temper justice with mercy for we know we are each, from time to time, on either side of that justice.
There is a parable of a king who had cups made of delicate glass. The king said, “If I pour hot water into them they will expand and burst; if cold, they will contract and break. So he mixed the hot and cold and they remained unbroken. So, too, did God say, If I create the world with mercy alone, its sins will be great; if only with justice how will it endure? So, God created the world with both justice and mercy.”
How far does the world need to regress - to devolve? Fifty years? 200 years? Back to the bronze age, the 2nd Temple generation?
A short tale from Shlomo Carlebach as retold by Diane Wolkstein (in Mitzvah Stories) and adapted here.
Shlomo Carlebach’s father, Naftali Carlebach, was the rabbi of a large synagogue in Berlin in the 1930s. This was a very intolerant time, even among the Jews. In Naftali’s synagogue, a German Jew stood by the entrance, and if any Jews came from Poland, he would tell them that they had to sit in the last two rows of the synagogue. At that time in Germany,
Polish Jews were not allowed to stand at the pulpit to give the blessings of the kohanim during the high holidays. Shlomo’s father began the custom of allowing Polish Jews to join German Jews at the pulpit at Yom Kippur to offer blessings.
After one holiday, a German Jew who was a multi-millionaire, found himself standing next to a Polish Jew whose socks were torn and who smelled terrible. The next day he sent a letter to Shlomo’s father. The letter said:
Dear Rabbi Carlebach:
Yesterday in synagogue, I stood next to a Jew whose socks were not only torn but he smelled so terrible that I could not pray. Either you end this new custom of allowing Polish Jews to stand as kohanim or I quit.
Signed: Max Kugelman
Rabbi Naftali Carlebach wrote back to him:
Dear Mr. Kugelman:
Thank you for your letter. I was expecting a letter from you. But the letter I had hoped you would write said:
Dear Rabbi: Yesterday in shul, my heart opened as I noticed my neighbor was was standing next to me. He must have
been so poor he could not afford to bathe or buy new socks for the holidays. I thought, ‘I have so much. How can I help this man? If his socks are torn, maybe his heart is also torn.’ Tell me,
Rabbi, what can I do?”
Rabbi Naftali Carlebach
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, said, “I do not believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” He was right. It was not and is not. What you may not know is that two Jewish organizations were officially recognized as sponsors of that March: the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today the Union for Reform Judaism) of which this congregation is a member, and the American Jewish Congress. Rabbi Richard Hirsch, Founding Director of the Union’s Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. was one of the organizers of the march and it was inside the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, that the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights was housed. It was there that the civil rights act was signed.
It was not Rabbi Hirsch, but rather Rabbi Yoachim Prinz, who serving as president of the American Jewish Congress 50
years ago, spoke on that late August day on the steps in Washington DC, that day whose anniversary we just observed. Prinz was an immigrant, a refugee from Germany. Prinz stressed that the greatest sin of the German masses under the
Nazis, when confronted by the evils of discrimination, persecution and social injustice, was the sin of silence. Justice, justice shall you pursue.
Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father Our King,
Chaneiynu v’aneinu be gracious and answer us
Asey emanu Do for us
tzedak v’chesed justice and kindness.
And together we say,