Categories
Shavuot Torah

Standing At Sinai

If ever you meet a fellow Jew and you can’t place where you’ve met before, after a game of “Jewish Geography,” you might just concede and say, “well, at least I know we were together at Sinai.”  For it is said, that the souls of ALL Jews (even those who choose Judaism later in life) were together at Mount Sinai to receive and witness the revelation of Torah.

As we rejoice in the holiday of Shavuot- the holiday that commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we actually have an opportunity to remind ourselves that the Torah and the wisdom of Judaism continues to be revealed to us each and every day.

Thanks to my friend and mentor, Rabbi Jeff Sirkman I have learned to call any moment of revelation a “Sinai Moment,” in honor of the fact that we all have a chance to “stand at Sinai,” we all can have a sense of revelation that in some way deepens our connection to Torah, our faith and Judaism in general.

Without going into all the “mushy details,” for me, a major “Sinai Moment” in my life came on my second date with my husband. As he stood outside the Karaoke restaurant where we were to meet, I looked up and just felt a sense of revelation- I knew something was different, I knew I was experiencing something incredibly special in my life.  I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew something was being revealed to me.  Some of you may even be able to pinpoint one or hopefully multiple “Sinai Moments” in your own life.  Was it the birth of a child? Or when, thank God, you overcame something terrible in your life? Or was it something else?

Right now and at all times we should be open to witnessing a “Sinai Moment.” At this very moment, each of us can live out the words expressed in Deuteronomy 29:14, and be like our elders who stood at Sinai and those who weren’t there, but still accept Torah. We can make the decision to accept Torah, in that we must take on the challenge to live out what it means to be Jewish and to be part of a community, in whatever way it is revealed to you.

Like all of the souls at Sinai, we need to actively accept the yoke of being a Jew and being part of a community. Together it is up to us to do our part to remember the past, celebrate the present, and secure the future of Judaism by being open to “Sinai Moments” and all moments of Revelation.

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, PA.  She also blogs about the recent loss of her father at www.kaddishformydad.com

Categories
Shavuot Torah

Shavuot and Closure—An Acknowledgement of the Past Before Offering First Fruits and Welcoming Revelation

This year Shavuot coincides with the end of the school year, the end of the fiscal year, and, for our family, the end of living in the home that we have occupied for the past seven years.  Past are the trials and triumphs of acquiring new knowledge and navigating challenging social situations in the previous school year; present are the last appeals for gifts before July 1; and the future is unknown for how it will feel to walk away from the home that has witnessed so many firsts in our family: the first time our sons met each other after our second son was born, the first Havdalah when the sons commenced the ritual of adding tasting to the smelling of the spices, the first family movie night when everyone actually agreed on the same movie.  Even in the excitement of the firsts of the coming year, letting go of the place that held the firsts of yesteryear is difficult.

In some ways, the biblical custom of offering the first fruits on Shavuot seems to acknowledge this.   The ritual as described in Deuteronomy 26 includes a storytelling mechanism that allows the person offering the fruits to share the challenges and feats of the past.  And while in this case it is the sharing of a collective past of the Israelites—starting with their ancestor who was a wandering Aramean—by the time that the person gets to the end of the ritual, instead of speaking in the collective voice, the offerer speaks individually:  “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, Adonai, have given to me.”

Assessing our own individual past, acknowledging it and coming to terms with it, seems a healthy way to move forward as we ready ourselves to accept the gifts of our future.  Judaism gives our communities collective ways to reflect on personal life experiences and our responses to them.  This year, during the time of Counting the Omer—amidst the packing, the schlepping, and the stress—I have taken time out to reflect not only on the past year, but the past seven.  This process helps my find a bit of closure as I look to the future that I hope will be filled with new adventures, sacred moments, and revelation.

Our cherished and wise colleague, Rabbi Cindy Enger, gave me a great tool by which to do this in her brilliant teaching when I heard her speak some weeks ago.  She shared with her community a teaching by Rabbi Nancy Flam who drew from the pioneering work of a Jewish educator named Rachel Kessler (z”l).

Nancy suggested four areas to reflect on when coming to closure—in preparation for a new beginning.

  1. First articulate the gain: What are the gifts that you’ve received by being part of this past experience?
  1. Second, acknowledge the loss: Having experienced the feeling of strength and gratitude that comes with realizing the gifts of having participated in this experience, it is important to acknowledge the sadness that may come with closure.
  1. Next, establish personal power: Where else in my life do I have or can I create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this past experience?
  1. Finally, establish realistic continuity: While not denying that we are coming to a true ending, is it possible that there will be places of continuity with people and practices established as part of this experience?

This season of anticipation—of receiving our ultimate guide for taking new steps in our lives—seems especially apt for my family and me.  Yet, for so many of us, as we enter the summer, we each have the opportunity to reflect on the past year, appreciate special experiences within it, and move forward with both excitement and gratitude.  So if you, like me, will be awake through the wee hours of Saturday night and Sunday morning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, you just may have the opportunity to reflect on an experience from the past that would help you embrace the promise of an enlightened tomorrow by following these prompts:

  • What I’ve received from this experience that I will always take with me is…
  • What I will miss about this experience is…
  • Other places where I have or can create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this experience include…
  • I hope to establish realistic points of continuity by…

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.

 

Categories
Inclusion

Each of Us is a Letter

Three years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I knew very little about disabilities and disability inclusion. I certainly valued the idea that the doors of our synagogues be wide enough for all to enter, but didn’t realize that unless the bathrooms were accessible, the print in our prayer books large enough or the hallway width 48 inches, none of our welcoming words would matter.

Very quickly, my family started our journey not only to support our child, but to educate ourselves about the practical realities of inclusion within the Jewish community. We met amazing individuals along the way – members of our synagogues, our professionals and lay leaders deeply enmeshed in this work and with immeasurable knowledge to share.

However, at the same time (let’s be honest!) the practical, everyday reality of building welcoming, inclusive community is hugely challenging. What can we do when our bema is not accessible and it is not practical or affordable to change our prayer space? Our synagogue community, Temple Shalom of Newton is able staff our education program with an inclusion coordinator and other special education professionals. What happens to children in communities unable to locate or hire this type of staff? And these are only two small examples.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, “[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters.” This month, we celebrate Shavuot and during these days, we stand at Sinai, each of us adding a letter to the story of the Jewish people. This true moment of power – when our identity as a people is established is also a moment of perfect inclusion. We all stood at Sinai, distinct and separate but joined one to the other, holding an individual letter adding up to a whole. Clearly at Sinai, the hallways were wide enough, the print just the right size and the bathrooms easy to access.

When we do not explore the difficult questions, when we do not challenge ourselves to expand our reach, our staffing, our spaces and ultimately our vision for sacred, inclusive community we lose people who hold letters, words and sentences vital to the integrity of our Sefer Torah. We lose people who stood with us at Sinai.HeadshotwZach

How can we practically begin this work in even the smallest of communities? Meet with members of your organization who experience disability in their life. Have coffee with disability professionals, the parents, caregivers and partners who have abundant knowledge and can help brainstorm, educate and dream. Listen to their stories – no matter how difficult they are to hear. Share your challenges with Jewish communal partners, create strategic plans (I will happily share ours!), think outside the box, share a SPED professional with another synagogue, ask a member of your community with professional experience to consult, start small and set goals you can attain. Achieving one small goal opens the door and hallway just a little wider than before.

Three years after my son’s autism diagnosis, I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn. I take incredible pride in each of his accomplishments, struggle to discern when to advocate and when to step back, and remind myself to cherish each infinitely beautiful and messy moment. Inspired by those already engaged in this sacred work of inclusion, I am grateful I am not alone on this journey.

May our celebration of Shavuot be a reminder that each of us is a letter in the scroll of the Jewish People. As Jewish professionals, we have the power to add letters to that scroll by striving to create that moment of perfect inclusion embodied at Sinai. It is not too late to begin the work. The story is not yet finished.

Rabbi Allison Berry serves Temple Shalom in West Newton, MA 

Categories
News

On Welcoming

My family’s move from New York City to Westchester last summer reminded me about the fine art of genuine welcoming. We had explained to the few people we knew in Larchmont how it seemed an idyllic place to raise a family. To make a home. To grow old together. My husband and I commented on the quality of the schools, the abundant options to enjoy the outdoors, and the outright friendliness and enthusiasm of everyone we encountered during our touring. The few people we knew were so encouraging. So were those we met along the way. It is scary to uproot a family of five, yes, but we could do it, they said, and make our lives alongside theirs. They fielded endless questions and offered their ready and helpful friendship.

Moving my family, while continuing to build a rabbinate around interfaith and conversion work, has made me extremely sensitive to these facts: Adjustment to a new way of life is difficult. Belonging takes time. And perhaps the most important: Every encounter in a new place– especially the first one– is a potential game changer. Those very first words and acts of welcome leave an indelible mark. The follow up care and concern only solidify the foundation.

Leviticus 19:33 saysThe stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself… My understanding of this verse is that we are not only commanded to accept non-Jews and converts into our community but we are to show love and kindness toward them. Abundant, abundant kindness, as we would the natural born Jews among us.

We don’t have to turn interested parties away three times, or bring up three hardships they might encounter, or put any other obstacles in front of them. They’ll do it themselves. They’ll doubt themselves, doubt their intentions, doubt religion, doubt their choices. Our job is to walk them through the inevitable vulnerability and insecurity and steadily march them toward their goal. We must be the steadfast and solid voice of encouragement: You can do this. Our community wants you. You belong with us.

Isn’t it true? We should be so lucky that anyone is interested in Judaism. It is a fabulous, modern phenomenon that non-Jews want to marry into our community, much less become Jewish themselves! This was not the case throughout most of history. There is no reason not to feel utter respect, compassion, and excitement toward anyone remotely interested in our tradition. It deeply angers me to hear the stories (which I am treated to weekly) of rejection, humiliation, insensitivity, and discouraging first encounters with clergy. To what end were these actions meant? The tradition is not ours to give or withhold. Judaism belongs to whoever will have its blessings and join its struggle. Was Naomi standoffish, arrogant, and nasty with Ruth?

We need to be fearlessly inclusive. We must have a visible, remarkable openness to those who want to join our ranks—conversion or not. Our past validates this: Hillel, Maimonides, Saadia Gaon and many more wrote about embracing the gentile. And our future depends on it. The landscape of liberal Judaism is inextricably linked to how we handle issues of interfaith marriage and conversion. The borders of our community are not fixed. We are privileged to augment our numbers with those attracted to our tradition and teachings.

My worlds collided when I was waiting on a friend to have coffee with me in a Larchmont bakery. I ended up sharing my story with a stranger at the next table. “I’m not Jewish,” she said, “but we always have Passover seder with our neighbors and for years our kids celebrated Hannukah with a family down the block.”

Her comment reminded me of initial meetings in my office when people recount experiences from their childhood with Jews. They pave the way, they say, to being open (and attracted) to Judaism. At a recent Bet Din of a 79 year old, she spoke to us about the very first Jew she knew—a warm, kind, open, inspiring woman who was the principal of her elementary school. Seventy years ago, a Jewish principal left an impression on a young girl who would then go on to seek out Jews her entire life, marry a Jew, raise Jewish children, and convert in a late chapter in her life.

In every encounter, a Jewish future hangs in the balance. We must personify being a light unto the nations. It is commanded of us as Jews, and demanded of us as Jewish professionals.

Rabbi Lisa Rubin is the Founding Director of Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism & Conversion Program. Exploring Judaism, operating since 2010, serves 80-100 people a year who are considering living a Jewish life and/or converting to Judaism.

Categories
omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

We All Count: Shavuot

This blog is the eighth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

Each day of intentional counting through the period of the Omer, as the attributes of mercy, spiritual strength, beauty, truth, compassion and justice shape us, we are brought to the night of Shavuot when, through our learning together as community, we glimpse the way the world can be.  From Passover to Shavuot the bread with no ego of Matzah and the simple barley of the Omer prepare us for the Challah; the symbol of being able to taste the sweetness of freedom without having our freedom and our privilege dependent on the oppression of others.  We pray that we will be able to enjoy the puffed up Challah without becoming so full of ourselves that we forget the lessons of our journey and that we will always remember never to do to others what was done to us.

Shavuot  is the climax of our story as Jews, to accept a Torah, a guide for living, that creates a world where all can flourish.  The Talmud dares us to fiercely defend the rights of all humanity to have infinite worth, to have a level playing field, and to be able to be creative and unique.  This is a radical vision in a world of have and have-nots, of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and by destroying the environment, of state sponsored laws and cultures that dehumanize and even brutalize other human beings.  Today there would be signs on the mountaintop that proclaim that black and brown lives matter, that Palestinian lives matter, that Jewish lives matter.  Signs that lift up the voices of those who are marginalized, who cannot find a place to be free from prejudice, who suffer the oppression of being judged by the hue of skin color instead of who they are.  Signs that affirm that these lives matter as much as all other lives.

Based on the models of truth and reconciliation sessions that have been used in South Africa, Rwanda, and in Greensboro we launched our first of ten sessions in St Louis this week.  As I listened to the black and brown truth tellers speak across lines of age, gender and class to the panel that practiced radical listening without defense and with open hearts, I heard a common agonizing thread.  Each person spoke from a strong place of self.  I could hear them saying, “I may be different from you but I am a whole human being of infinite worth, why don’t you see me and treat me as such?” They also said, “I do not want your pity or your sympathy but you must reach within to find a place of empathy.”

I thought about an article by the feminist lesbian woman of color Audre Lorde, in which she says that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.   Lorde wisely teaches us that “those who have been forged in the crucibles of difference,” must learn to take difference and make it a strength outside the structures of oppression and build a new world where we can all be valued.  I also heard the truth tellers (and Lorde) say that it is not their job to educate the oppressors.  It is an old tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.  “Tell us what you want?”  is a diversion from the source of the problem that lives within the souls of those who do not see themselves as a part of the suffering of people of color in this culture that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, old and new.  We are all a part of the problem and the Torah teaches us how to be a part of the solution.

The blacklivesmatter movement is challenging us to change the systems of policing and mass incarceration that threaten those lives daily.  Our demands are for basic the human dignities that come with access to health care, a living wage and a government that serves all the people.  The Torah teaches us that when we are more upset about the destruction of property than we are about the loss of these lives we are committing the sin of idolatry.  Make the counting we have done each day to arrive at this holy time of learning on Shavuot open the heart of the world to the healing necessary to count each and every life and make sure that every life counts.

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, MO. Central Reform Congregation recently was the recipient of the Fain Award for their work on Ferguson Activism. 

 

Categories
omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We All Count: Stacked Against The Underdog

This blog is the first in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

In Philadelphia, the Rev. William Barber and the Hon. Robert Reich, along with so many colleagues, inspired us to think about justice. We were challenged to consider: what roles might we play in breaking down structural inequality? What roles do we play, however unwittingly or unwillingly, in maintaining an increasingly unfair system? In what ways are we responsible for the fact that, in 2015 America, certain lives matter more?

This conversation coincided with the release of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. In his new book, Putnam explores growing inequality in America, considering both its causes and effects. Much was written about the book in the days leading into our convention. I haven’t read it yet, but I find myself agitated by Jill Lepore’s lengthy review essay in the New Yorker, and columns by David Brooks and Ross Douthat in the New York Times.

These lines, from Lepore’s assessment of Our Kids, are at the heart of my discomfort:

“Our Kids”…has a sad helplessness. Putnam tells a story teeming with characters and full of misery but without a single villain. This is deliberate. “This is a book without upper-class villains,” he insists in the book’s final chapter. In January, Putnam tweeted, “My new book ‘Our Kids’ shows a growing gap between rich kids and poor kids. We’ll work with all sides on solutions.” It’s easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame.

By not taking sides, Putnam leaves room for Brooks and Douthat to assert that the erosion of character and morality are at the heart of America’s growing inequality. Brooks takes the softer tone, writing about “habits and virtues” lost in a rush to relativism, while acknowledging that structural inequality exists as well. Douthat is more unforgiving, offering a weak acknowledgement that economic policies can’t be entirely ignored before launching into yet another all-too-predictable denunciation of the 1960s, Hollywood, and the public schools (complete with helpful links to some of his earlier columns).

It was against the backdrop of that reading that Barber and Reich spoke to me. I heard in their words a compelling rejoinder to Brooks and Douthat, bringing the focus back to where I believe it ought to be: the fight against structural inequality itself (and not only its negative effects).

In Philadelphia, Rabbis Organizing Rabbis took our first steps in a campaign focused on the structural inequalities that lead to injustice. With the commemoration at Selma and last summer’s events in Ferguson still fresh in our minds, we talked about how Reform rabbis can organize for power across lines of race and economic attainment. Sixty-two colleagues attended the session, and committed to spending sefirat ha’omer in conversation with each other, holding one, two, or even three relational meetings with colleagues. Trainings are coming at the Consultation on Conscience and by webinar, and this summer we’ll explore partnerships and coalitions, and (re)build and strengthen relationships in our local communities.

Seven colleagues will advance this conversation throughout the omer. Each week, one of us will share a story of bearing witness to structural inequality and how we feel the call to act.  Our series is guided by the principal that “we all count.”  During the sefirah we recall wandering in the wilderness, and we count these days in order to pay attention to and illuminate what we often ignore. This year, the lives of Black men and boys lost very publicly and painfully rendered a conversation about mass incarceration and racial inequality unignorable. This year, our country has accommodated economic inequality at levels not seen since the Roaring  Twenties. This year, we are especially called to acknowledge that everyone matters, everyone counts. Please read our blog postings on RavBlog and the CCAR and ROR Facebook pages. Add  your voice to the conversation in the comments section, and repost.

What will we learn over through this campaign? Perhaps we’ll learn that there is room to talk about values and culture (Brooks and Douthat aren’t entirely wrong), but that most important work lies elsewhere. Our justice system, our health care system, our voting system and our tax code are all stacked against the underdog. Leading (by and large) privileged lives does not give us license to ignore those facts. On the contrary, our privilege compels us to organize in solidarity with those who are beaten down by these systems. Avadim Hayinu.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis invites all of our CCAR colleagues to be a part of this conversation, through the sefirah and beyond. We all count.

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso, Texas.

Categories
News Passover Pesach Reform Judaism

Making Each Day Count: Getting Ready for Omer

How does this happen? That busyness reigns supreme, that ambition drives the day, that exhaustion connects moment with moment, that, well, we simply forget to pay attention to what is noble and grand and really important. That we ignore what is truly beautiful and possible.

How does this happen? Days pass by and we are mostly oblivious. We simply pay little or no attention to our potential power, to the passage of time, to wonder, to the incredible beauty that emerges when shadow dances with light. We tend to be deeply uninvolved and forget how we have emerged from the days that we were afraid to be ourselves, the days when we were hesitant beings.

product_image-1.aspRemember those days when we blinked and twitched as we tried to find our place in society, to discover our way through family craziness? Do you remember when we desperately searched for a strong sense of self that would withstand the push and pull of life? I remember. And if I were to be completely honest, I don’t have to reach back into memory. I still blink and twitch and I am still discovering my way. Maybe that’s why we choose to be so busy, so distracted by nothing much, because to be aware is, can be, complicated.

But we are invited every so often by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar to transcend our very human tendency towards oblivion. We are invited to gain a sense of footing, to lift our eyes beyond the mundane and think and learn, consider and see, really see what is possible and interesting and fantastic in our lives. Now, with the ever-slow emergence of spring and sun and warmth and the undeniable regrowth of color we have our chance.

Seven weeks, forty-nine days, separate Passover and Shavuot. And for those forty-nine days our tradition gives us a simple command – to count. Count each day, for forty-nine days, one at a time, and pay attention. Take time back from oblivion and to notice.

Though the counting of the omer is an ancient tradition connected with the harvest in the Israel, today it has become a spiritual practice. Like all spiritual practices there are tools, which help us stay focused on the journey. For years, during the counting of the Omer, I have sent daily emails, short passages, some from Jewish tradition, some from the wisdom of great thinkers, some original writing. Every passage ends with the short blessing, which counts the sequence of days from the first to the forty-ninth. These passages are like a bit of sweetness delivered to your mind and heart; a daily invitation to breathe, to pause, to reflect.

Reflection. It is the nectar of a considered life. And our lives are worthy of our consideration. Each day. One day at a time. Making our days count for something grand.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar is the senior rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield Illinois. She is the author of several books including Omer: A Counting, published by CCAR Press in both paper and as an ebook. This book includes passages for counting the Omer as well as seven spiritual principles to consider each week. You can also sign up for her blog at karynkedar.com.

Categories
Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We Stand With Ruth as We Get Ready for Shavuot

Tomorrow, on Sinai, we will affirm the purpose of our freedom from Egypt.
Tomorrow we will remember our history and our values, our mitzvot.
Tomorrow we will stand with Ruth.

We invite you to speak – even in the briefest of ways – to the Ruths of today.
We invite you to use whatever part of this liturgy speaks to you and your community.
We invite you to stand with Ruth.

And if you do, please let us know by clicking here

On this Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. We stand with rabbis and their communities across the continent in calling still for comprehensive immigration reform. Why? Congress has debated reform for far too many years while millions of aspiring Americans remain in the shadows, their lack of legal status barring them from good jobs and rendering school scholarships almost unattainable. We will not give up. Over the past seven weeks, we have counted the days from Egypt to Sinai, and we will not stop counting until all the Ruths have been welcomed home.

And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?

Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).

Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:

I am Ruth.

With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.

We are all Ruth.

I am Naomi.

I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter.

On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.

We are all Naomi.

I am Boaz.

I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.

We are all Boaz.

* * *

On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.

We stand with Boaz who looked into the face of the stranger and accepted responsibility, welcoming Ruth and teaching for the generations the ideal of chesed/loving-kindness, just as his grandfather Nachshon demonstrated action by leading others into the Red Sea.

We stand with Naomi who sought the well-being of others, who defied the example of her husband, Elimelech, a man who fled from his responsibility to others, whose narrow vision, selfishness, and jealousy led to his own demise.

We stand with Ruth who graciously said:

“Your people shall be my people,” who was the immigrant becoming citizen, the outsider becoming insider, whose descendent King David gives us even now a sense of promise.

On this Shavuot, may we be inspired to act with chesed with aspiring Americans, as we stand with Ruth.

Categories
Immigration Rabbis Social Justice

We Stand with Ruth of Moab, And We Stand With the Ruths of Today

This blog is the last in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the Omer to Immigration Reform. This Shavuot, we recommit ourselves to working with the modern-day strangers among us. This Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. Learn more and join the mailing list.  

We Stand With Ruth of Moab 

The Book of Ruth begins with the introduction, “It happened in the days when the judges judged” and concludes with the birth of King David, the representative figure for Malchut, the sephira of sovereignty.  The book itself is a kind of cri de couer for a better time—free of this book’s rampant poverty, loneliness and maltreatment (in Ruth 2:9 Boaz warns his workers not to molest Ruth, implying that they regularly molested other women).  We know that that is the Biblical view of the period of the Judges, when periodically “Israel did what was wicked in the eyes of Adonai” (Judges 4:1 et al.) because “in those days there was no king in Israel; each person would do what was right in one’s own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

For while it was a time when the Judges judged, they did not seem able or interested to judge how they might stop the famine which had sent Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi and her family into exile in Moab to seek food.  In our own time, so many people come to the United States to flee famine, drought, poverty or political oppression, often because they have given up hope that the powers in their own countries will be able to assist them, or care about assisting them.  They too are searching for a sovereignty which cares for them.  They have learned to believe that Americans do care.

To leave Eretz Yisrael for another land was a major decision, just as it is today.  To leave the country of one’s birth, however oppressive its living conditions, remains a difficult decision, never made lightly.  Today’s immigrants, like those in the Book of Ruth, have to abandon family, friends, the only language they know, sometimes the only place they have known.  Naomi, widowed by the man who led them into Moab, speaks of herself often as a bitter woman.

Her husband’s name was Elimelech, “My God is Sovereign”.  Yet what is sovereign in this book?  Naomi seems to believe that for each person—at least in her family—homeland is sovereign; in the book’s most famous passage, 1:14-17, three times Naomi urges Ruth and her sister Orpah to return (shovna)to their homesthe source for the custom of turning away potential converts three times.  They were all immigrants, Naomi held, and with their husbands dead, the sisters should return to the place from which they came.  But Ruth perceives a higher obligation—a higher sovereignty, if you will; using the same word as her mother-in-law, Ruth says, “Don’t entreat me to abandon you, to turn back (la-shuv) from you.”  For Ruth, to “return” to her own home would be to turn away from her proper home—the home she felt called upon to go to, because of her loyalty and love for Naomi.  If this book is a tribute to the rewards that come from following the precepts of the Torah (obedience to parents [or in-laws], caring for the stranger, leaving grain for the poor, etc.), Ruth turns to the sovereignty of God rather than the sovereignty of her own native place.  But the sefirah of Malchut also has a human dimension, representing kenesset Yisrael, the community of Israel—since it is through the community of Israel that God’s sovereignty is manifest.  When Ruth embraces the people Israel in choosing to go with Naomi, she embraces this dual dimension of Malchut as well.

The implications of this decision for today’s immigrants is instructive.  While we usually attribute primarily economic motives to contemporary immigrants’ desire to remain in the United States, we do our country a disservice by playing down a motive similar to Ruth’s: a belief, or a desire to believe, that the United States is a more caring country than the one from which they came.  How often do we tarnish that belief with the insensitivity, fear, and hostility we show particularly to undocumented immigrants, but often to all immigrants! How insensitive we often are to the still present American commitment to being a beacon to the oppressed—to the malchut, if you will, of the “American dream”—and of the American people as, at their best, the embodiment of it.

As a result of Ruth’s decision to remain with Naomi, the older woman feels an obligation to care for her.  A word that pervades the book, chesed, usually translated “love” or “lovingkindness”, really means love borne of a covenant.  Ruth shows chesed to Naomi, Naomi shows it to her, and Boaz shows it to both of them.  This covenantal love stems from the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, which the Holy One will renew with us when the period of the Omer climaxes with Shavuot.  Devotion to the covenant is a sign of acceptance of the sovereignty of the God who made it—ol malchut shamayim, the “yoke” of the rule of heaven, and ol mitzvot, the “yoke” of the mitzvot.  Ol in Hebrew is related to the word al, above, with the sense that the yoke links us to the God above, rather than the more usual image of joining two creatures on the same level.

Are we ready to feel a sense of “covenant” with the undocumented immigrants of our time?  Are we ready to link them with the memories of grandparents or other relatives who endured many hardships to reach these shores—often out of the same motives as today’s undocumented?  And if we say, “Well, our ancestors came legally,” we forget that most of them came here at a time when immigrants were wanted, invited, encouraged by the state.  Now that the state is hostile to immigrants, to which sovereignty are we going to be loyal, that of a welcoming, covenanting God, or a too often frightened state?  Or, in the language of the Book of Ruth, are we going to be  citizens of a too often uncaring rule of Judges, or of the ideal, embracing sovereignty of God’s Malchut?

The season in which we read this book makes our choice quite clear.

We Stand With the Ruths of Today

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom of Chicago speaks with Erendira Rendon, Lead Organizer at the Resurrection Project in the Pilson neighborhood of Chicago. As Naomi stood with Ruth of Moab, Reform rabbis are standing with the Ruths of today – undocumented immigrants like Ere. Watch the Youtube video. 

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.  

 

 

 

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Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

We Stand With Ruth: Staying Connected to Our Families

This blog is the sixth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the Omer to Immigration Reform. This Shavuot, we recommit ourselves to working with the modern-day strangers among us. This Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. Learn more and join the mailing list.

In this week’s post, Rabbi Joel Simonds and Reuben Banks, President of University Synagogue youth group and a member of Reform CA, share a powerful video message for the 6th week of the Omer. (Youtube Video)

“As we prepare for Shavuot, as we prepare to receive Torah from Sinai, and all of the beauty that is wrapped in our Torah, this week, the week of the foundation of yesod, We Stand with Ruth. We stand with all our brothers and sisters who seek to keep their families connected, who seek to keep their families together, who seek to keep their families – the foundation of this country we love so much. We stand with Ruth, we stand with all our brothers and sisters.”

Will you stand with Ruth? On this Shavuot, we recommit ourselves to working with the modern-day strangers among us. On this Shavuot, ROR stands with Ruth – and so can you! Pledge to participate in ROR’s Shavuot campaign, “We Stand with Ruth.”