The Weeping Prophet of El Paso

This week's haftarah portion, a selection from the prophets, is from Jeremiah. Often described as the "Weeping Prophet," Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE.

He preached through the reign of five kings, and he is said to have authored the books of Kings and Lamentations, in addition to his own book or prophecies.

He is often compared to Moses, and his son Ezekiel followed in the family business: scolding the Jewish people. From his name we get the English word jeremiad, "a cautionary or angry harangue."

AJ Heschel saw Jeremiah as a middle-man of sorts, writing,
"Standing before the people he pleaded for God;
Standing before God he pleaded for his people."

In this week's verses, there is rebuke and warning, and great disappointment on the part of God.

וָאָבִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ הַכַּרְמֶ֔ל לֶאֱכֹ֥ל פִּרְיָ֖הּ וְטוּבָ֑הּ וַתָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ וַתְּטַמְּא֣וּ אֶת־אַרְצִ֔י וְנַחֲלָתִ֥י שַׂמְתֶּ֖ם לְתוֹעֵבָֽה׃
I brought you to this country of farm land 
To enjoy its fruit and its bounty; 
But you came and defiled My land, 
You made My possession abhorrent.
Jeremiah 2:7

I imagine Jeremiah standing in the paring lot
of a mall in El Paso, surveying a
country of farm land defiled.

Jeremiah counts the victims
20 dead
26 injured
blood in the aisles of a WalMart
          news helicopters covering the

"To enjoy its fruit and its bounty,"
he quotes himself.
Is this how they farm the land?
If this is what they are reaping,
What kind of seeds did they sow?

Perennial fear
Annual hatred
Succulent violence
Climbing vines of supremacy
Deeply rooted suspicion
Shade-hardy racism

And the land is defiled
and abhorrent
before its creator.

Standing before the people
Jeremiah pleads

Standing before God
Jeremiah pleads

For the Kid with a Gun


You don't know me. I'm just some random adult on the internet who is thinking about you today.

I am wondering if you will be inspired by the school shooting yesterday in Highlands Ranch.

I am wondering if you have spent today on the Internet, looking up the details of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Arapahoe and imagining yourself with the gun, wandering through the hallways, shooting your fellow students, your teachers, your principal.

I am wondering how the fantasy ends for you -- shot down in a blaze of glory? Wrestled to the ground and walked out in cuffs? Blasting off your own head with your final round?

I am wondering if you go to my child's school.

I am wondering if your parents own handguns or rifles they don't secure properly. And I am wondering if they taught you how to handle them safely as a child and are trusting you to remember those lessons, so you don't shoot yourself or a friend accidentally, tragically.

I am wondering if they every imagined that you would shoot someone on purpose, and that learning how to handle a gun safely wasn't enough.

I am wondering if you have made a plan you're just waiting to carry out. I am wondering if there is a sign or signal you are waiting for.

I am wondering if you have tried to tell your friends and family about your intentions and have they missed the cues.

I am wondering if any of us really know the signs to look for.

I am wondering if there are any signs at all.

I am wondering if you idolize previous mass shooters, see their 'fans' on the Internet and think, I want that for myself.

I am wondering if you walked up to me right now, would I sense anything was off? Would I be able to tell murderous intention from teenage sulky reticence?

I am wondering if you are cruel. I am wondering if you are violent. I am wondering if this will be the first time you injure another human being.

I am wondering whether you're broadcasting your intent on the dark corners of the internet and are people are cheering you on, encouraging you.

I am wondering if your parents know about your struggles and have done everything in their power to help.

I am wondering again if they've locked up their guns.

I am wondering if you understand mortality on more than a superficial level.

I am wondering if we have failed to teach you the value of one human life.

I am wondering if we have failed to teach you how to be kind, and how to accept kindness.

I am wondering if we have simply never said clearly enough that hurting other people is not OK.

I am wondering when you learned, and when you forgot, the lesson about treating others as you would want to be treated.

I am wondering what else on earth could satisfy your blood lust and enable you to solve your problem a different way.

I am wondering if we glamorize villains to our own detriment. I am wondering how many docu-series, documentaries, and 'tortured hero' shows you have watched.

I am wondering if I should have any sympathy for you at all.

I am wondering if you can be stopped.

I am wondering again if you go to my child's school.

Dear Parents (II)

Shalom Religious School Families,

It has been exactly six months since I wrote a very similar letter to you on a somewhat similar Saturday night. Once again, we come out of Shabbat reeling from news of another shooting at a Jewish institution -- this time the Altman Family Chabad Community Center in Poway, California.

Today was not only Shabbat, a day of peace, it was also the final day of Passover, the holiday where we teach our children a story of terrible oppression and a miraculous journey to freedom. We are all wrestling with and trying to process this latest shooting. The early news is that the killer, a 19-year-old male, hated Jews and espoused some of the most harmful and ludicrous conspiracy theories about us.

One person lost her life and at least three people were injured. These congregants had come to synagogue for the exact same reasons we do: to study, to pray, to observe the ending of a holiday, to say Kaddish and observe Yizkor, the Jewish memorial service.

Some have physical wounds to recover from, and we will pray for the complete healing of the victims:
We will mourn the dead.
We will come together as a community to grieve, question, and try to wrap our minds around yet another violent attack on Jews.
We will fight against all forms of anti-Semitism and not shy away because the task is hard. As our sages taught,
      It is not your duty to complete the work.
      Not up to you to finish it.
      But neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2:20,21)

My continuing task is to create a supportive and welcoming Jewish community for you and your children. In that spirit, Religious School will open tomorrow morning as usual at 9:00 am. Please come inside with your children for the all-school shira, which this week includes a special performance by the kids in our PreK/B'resheet program.

... Remind your children that the adults who work at Har Shalom care about their safety. We do this in all sorts of ways: having buildings that lock, having an adult with them at all times, having a security guard onsite, etc. Their teachers will review safety procedures with them -- not to alarm, but to reassure.

A Space for Parents
Please take the time to escort your children into the sanctuary tomorrow and join us for our beginning-of-the-day shira (song) and tefillah (prayer) sessions. We will sing songs of peace and hope, and songs that remind us of our place in healing the world.

After the children are dismissed, we will have time to gather as parents before the community-wide service at 10:00am. We will have an opportunity to draw strength and ideas from one another, and we can discuss how to talk about these events with our children.

Letting the Children Lead
I know not every child will be aware of the attack in Poway, especially the littlest ones. In the classrooms, the teachers will let the children be the guides. There will be space for them to express their feelings and share concerns, and the teachers will be a calm, reassuring presence.

If you have any questions about tomorrow's schedule, security, or just want to let me know something about your children in particular in advance of school, just reply to this email..

You and your children are dear to me, and I look forward to seeing you at school, where we will learn, pray, sing, and study the ways of peace together. May we be strengthened by our kehilah kedosha, our holy community.



Haftarah-telling, 5779. Hannah demands some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Dear Sarah, Mother of Isaac, Wife of Abraham,

Chana here. It’s our day again – Rosh Hashanah, Take 1. The rabbis must have had something special in mind when they added two of the most famous barren women in the Torah to have their stories told on one of the highest traffic days in the synagogue. 

Did you ever think they’d be telling our stories, Sarah? My son? Yes. But me?

We lived 800 years apart, you and I, and I was around 3,000 years before any of the people in this room were born. But our stories are all here, together, now. (Your family’s story continues tomorrow, but you may not want to read ahead. At the very least, if Isaac asks to go on a hike to Mount Moriah with his Dad, say no.)

We are all here in conversation together. We barren women. We women of hope. You. Rivkah. Rachel. Me. Michal. And Samson’s Mother (Z’llppunith – such a name. No wonder we all just know her as “Samson’s Mom”.) But she had a name, and she had a story.

I am not a prayerful woman, Sarah. My approach was always a little more “Are you there, God? It’s Me, Chanah” than pious devotion. And unlike you, I don’t get angels as regular visitors to my home.

We come to Shiloh, to the temple, this ridiculous family of mine. My husband, Elkanah, always offers the right sacrifices, enough for that wretched second wife of his, Peninah, and all  of their children. I get one portion. I deserve a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You’d better Think, I wanted to tell Elkanah. Think about what you’re tryin to do to me.

Peninah’s worth increases with every child she has following her skirts.

My worth withers as each season passes. And all the while Elkanah is telling me I am his favorite. Do you know what he says to me, Sarah?

“Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”

Well, yes. And… no.

And Peninah… year after year she taunts me, reminding me of what I can never forget.

I can usually save face, but this year…this year my heart was overflowing with anger, bitterness, and anguish. I was distraught, Sarah. I could not sleep. I could not eat. I could not stop crying. And all the while Elkanah asking me, why? Why? Why?

My heart broke--it broke into more pieces than I knew it had.

So I left the feast and came to the temple alone.

I can admit this to you, Sarah – I did not have faith, but I had hope, a desperate hope that drew from me an unimaginable promise. I made a deal, a bargain. If God would remember me, notice me, and give me a son, I would dedicate the boy’s life to the service of the Lord. I would have promised anything in that moment. Anything to make the pain stop.

There will come a time, Sarah, when prayers are written down, and people will follow along to someone else’s words. I doubt I could have read anything in that moment.
No, that prayer was ripped from me like a terrible sickness. I threw myself onto the Temple steps and let my despair rush out of me. 
Fall on your knees.

Oh Sarah, you should have seen the priest Eli as he approached me. He thought I was drunk! Can you imagine?

"How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? "’Sober up!".

I told him, “I am not drunk! I have been pouring out my heart, my anguish, my distress.”

He didn’t apologize, but he gave me a little blessing as he gently escorted me out. "…may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him."

At that moment I had no way of knowing if my prayer had been heard, but it had been said. God didn’t answer right away. I had no surety, Sarah, but… maybe even if the gates of prayer are shut, the gates of tears are not.

Elkanah’s ritualistic sacrifice had given me no comfort.
The festive meal no joy.

But the moment of desperation, pleading to be remembered, to be noticed…getting all that ugliness out was like a purge.

I got up off that floor, dried my tears, and went home with Elkanah, Peninah, and her children.

By the time the next yearly pilgrimage came around I was a mother of a son, Samuel (Shmuley to me), whose name means: "I asked the LORD for him."

As soon as I saw him, though, I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake by dedicating him to Temple service. How could I have made such a vow? How would I keep it?

Every year when we returned to the Tabernacle, Elkanah would ask, “So? Are you bringing the boy this year?” and every year I’d put him off.

He’s not old enough.

He doesn’t know his aleph-bet!

He’s not ready.

The truth was, I was not ready. But I did it, Sarah. I kept my vow. I brought him to the temple, and I left him there.

We all do it, don’t we?
We mothers.
We fathers.
At some point we all release our children.

Oh, it’s not always as dramatic as dropping them off for a lifetime of temple service…sometimes it’s the first day of preschool, the bus stop for summer camp, the end of the driveway, an airport gate, a college dorm room. 

We all do it. We open the circle of our embrace and let them walk out into the world. And we stand there, arms wide, waiting for them to step back in.

You did let Isaac go on his trip up the mountain with Abraham. It may have butchered your heart, but you waved good-bye, and you watched them go.

They all go. They all find other men and women to love; they leave our houses and make homes of their own. We give them to the universe and we hope, and maybe pray, that the universe treats them kindly.

Parenthood can make anyone turn to prayer:

Lord, help me get through this day!

Lord, keep her safe…

Misheberach…Please, God, heal him.

So many of the stories we tell from this bimah end in the middle. (Most good stories do.) 

You died offstage, Sarah.  There are 54 parshas in the Torah. One is named after a woman, and you die in the first verse.

After my triumphant declaration of victory at the end of this haftarah, I’m never heard from again. 

My first prayer was the anguish of my heart
My second was a record of my joy, my thanks, my conquest!

It’s not how I’d wanted to be quoted, honestly, and if I could go back and change it, I would.

There’s a little too much bragging.

It’s very self-serving, all “I gloat over my enemies… the barren woman bears seven; the mother of many is forlorn…”

That barb for Peninah was unnecessary. I know you understand the sentiment, Sarah.

It’s so easy to say yes to that ugly impulse inside us, to want to win.
To want someone else to lose.
I understand Peninah much better now.
I’m betting you “get” Hagar as well.

When we felt unnoticed, we were cruel.

When we were blessed, we forgot to be kind.

It was a miserable journey home after leaving Samuel at the temple for the first time. My arms ached with the weight of his absence, feeling his phantom body in my embrace.

We returned to Shiloh every year, and as time passed I had more children to shlep along.

And every year…. Every Year… I’d bring Samuel a new set of robes, guessing how much he’d have grown.

Before I knew it, he was taller than me.
He’d tease me, but I secretly enjoyed looking up to my son, the leader, the prophet, the musician, the artist.

I hope he does not judge me too harshly for my vow, my promise made for him without his permission. It was my words, but his life.

He went on to become a big deal, a real macher. 

He was the last of the judges, and he appointed the first of the kings.  He fought with his elders, and he was a warrior who protected the holy ark, and the covenant inside.

He was gifted with prophecy, but he was always my baby, my little Shmuley. 

My first born. 

My gift from the universe and back to it… the prayer of my heart.

Hollow Words

for Ben

After Sandy Hook, we told you that you are safe. There are over 33,000 elementary schools in the United States, and there has been a shooting at one.

After you heard about Aurora, we told you that you are safe. Millions of people go to the movies every year, safely. Meanwhile we check emergency exits reflexively during films and plan where to run.

After Orlando, we told you that you are safe.

After Paris, we told you that you are safe.

After Las Vegas, we told you that you are safe.

We told you it was OK to go to concerts and festivals and large outdoor gatherings. We played the numbers game.

It’s more likely that you will
  • Get hit by a car
  • Crash a car
  • Get run over by a bus
  • Fall down the stairs and break your neck
  • Be hit by lightning
  • Lose a fight to a wild animal in the woods

We tried to comfort you and assuage your fear by listing other ways you could die.

It’s more likely you will live to 75 and get to know your grandchildren than get shot by someone in your school, a movie, theater, a club, a concert, your workplace, a synagogue.

As you grow older and you listen to the news and your friends and follow social media, where shootings are turned into memes, our “new math” doesn’t diminish your fear. You see the error in the calculus.

Videos of kids huddled in classrooms look like you and your friends. That could be me, you think.

You drill and drill and drill and lock down and lock down and practice for what we tell you is an infinitesimally small probability.

And when you march in protest, someone puts a sticker on your chest that says #AmINext?

And it scares you.

And it scares me.

You walk up to me with that sticker on you and all I can see is that you might be next and that playing the odds is no way to play this game when the house always wins.

My 16 year old son is scared to go to school.

It’s been 19 years since Columbine.

It’s been 5 years since Sandy Hook.

It’s been too many years that we have been trying to keep the barrage of mass shootings from entering his world. The shootings just kept coming, and his access to the media and the news and his friends kept bringing them into his world, into his mind, and into his psyche.

And his mother keeps telling him that he is safe.

And he says, Mom you keep saying that.

You keep saying that.

You. Keep. Saying. That.

You know who else said that Mom?

Every parent of every kid who died in Florida and Vegas and Paris and San Bernadino and that church in Texas and 100 other places that I can’t even name.

Their moms said to them, you are safe. It won’t happen here.

What do you have to say to me now, Mom?

What do you have to say?

8 Songs of Chanukah: 2. Put Your Lights On

Hey now, all you sinners
Put your lights on, put your lights on
Hey now, all you lovers
Put your lights on, put your lights on

Hey now, all you killers
Put your lights on, put your lights on
Hey now, all you children
Leave your lights on, better leave your lights on

8 Songs for Chanukkah: 1. Scarlet Begonias

(Disclaimer: I haven't blogged a lot lately. To be completely transparent, taking on the role of the Religious School Director at my synagogue has made me overthink my posts, and there are many many drafts which I just haven't had the courage to publish. So let me say at the outset, any opinion expressed on Western Jew is mine, mine alone, and it not endorsed, approved, proofread, or in any other way associated officially with the Congregation Har Shalom Religious School. It's all me.)

8 Songs for Chanukkah: 1. Scarlet Begonias by The Grateful Dead.

Tonight is the first night of Chanukkah, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the victory of the Maccabean warriors over an anti-Jewish king (Antiochus) and his army, who had desecrated the holy temple in Jerusalem in 167 BCE and did their best to force Jews to give up practicing Judaism. Antiochus made it illegal to observe Shabbat, study Torah, or even celebrate the new moon, which is how the Jews scheduled holy days.

It was a dark, dark time, but the Maccabees took up the fight, eventually defeating their oppressors and rededicating the Temple. As part of that dedication (the literal meaning of the word Chanukah) the menorah in the temple was re-lit, and just a little bit of oil miraculously lasted for 8 days. Imagine your nearly-dead phone battery lasting an entire day without a recharge!

Not a chill to the winter, but a nip to the air.

It's remarkable warm this winter in Colorado. But the early setting of the sun has not been delayed along with the cold temperature. These are dark, dark times. Darkness is one of those things you can only appreciate by knowing its opposite. Many of us felt a sense of lightness about America from 2008-2016.

  • Gay marriage legalized nationwide. 
  • The Affordable Care Act, if not perfect, acknowledged the health care gap in America. 
  • A bi-racial @POTUS. 
  • Three women on the Supreme Court. 
  • Intentional diversity in The Cabinet and among presidential appointees.
  • Increased visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ people. 
  • Justin Trudeau. 
  • Always Justin Trudeau.

That hopey-changey thing was actually working pretty well for me.

These past 12-and-a-half months have been like a never-ending descent into a bizarro America, where the light has not only faded, it has been purposely snuffed out, with glee and a sneer.

People in my community have been digging deep for ways to fight back against the wave of darkness. We snark on Facebook, we donate to every organization we can who is fighting the good fight, we stand on street corners, we text and email our representatives, and we vote in every election every time.

It's exhausting. And honestly, it doesn't feel like we're getting anywhere. It is literally and figuratively getting darker and and darker earlier and earlier every day.

It could be an illusion, but I might as well try, might as well try.

Chanukkah makes us do what perhaps we should be doing anyway -- seek the light. Tonight, the light is pretty small. We light just one candle, and if you haven't seen them, Chanukkah candles are pretty small as far as candles go. They stay lit for about 45 minutes or so, less if the wick is wonky. It's a short respite from darkness, but we should not discount it just because it's quick.

We can perhaps be accused of creating a temporary illusion of light on Chanukkah. But I fully support our absolute right to refuse to engage in the darkness for as long as the flame can hold out. I do it by shutting off the news, changing to my "cute animals only" Twitter feed, reading romance novels, going to see live music, and watching kind and gentle TV like the Great British Baking Show, where even the fiercest competitors are supportive of one another and every episode ends in a group hug. Lighting the menorah certainly fits into that category.

Seldom turns out the way it does in a song.

I wouldn't normally light any candles on a Tuesday night, and certainly not for 8 nights in a row. What an amazing power we have, to strike a match or push a button and create what Torah tells us God created with just words: Vayehi Or.

Let there be Light.

In the story of creation, darkness does not disappear when light is created. Instead, the light is separated from the dark, but they turn over and over and switch places in a never ending cycle, night becoming day and day becoming night. Darkness will always be there, but...

Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Chanukkah is a strange little Jewish holiday. It's not mentioned in the Torah, or the Writings (Ketuvim), or the Prophets (Nevi'im). It's message of religious freedom, bringing light to darkness, and shining a light into the world is ancient, and timeless. Hag Sameach friends.

Watch this space tomorrow for Song #2.

Abraham Sits By The Tent

In the cycle of the Torah, we are spending lots of time with Abraham. In the last parsha, Lech Lecha, God came to him and said, “Hey. Abe. Get up, leave your family, take your wife, and go. Where? You want to know where? I’ll show you later. You want to know what the land is called? Later, later. Just go.”

Maybe the destination didn’t have a name yet. Maybe God was just keeping secrets, or maybe the place needed to earn its name like Beth El, or “House of God,” where Jacob built his altar. Regardless, Abraham went. Last week was the shabbat of going forward, going out.

This week we read from Vayera (And God revealed himself). Abraham isn’t wandering anymore. In fact, we meet at his tent. He’s recovering from his days-old circumcision and God himself is paying a sick call.

One thing to note: Abraham is sitting outside his tent. In the rabbinic imagination, Abraham’s tent was open on all sides in order to welcome the wanderers and wayfarers. The other people who weren’t quite sure where they were going.

Abraham was sitting and waiting for these travelers when God stopped by for a visit. They kibitzed and schmoozed, caught up on this and that, yadda yadda.

In the middle of this talk, Abraham spotted three travelers. He jumped up, left God, ran to greet them and asked them to rest a while in his tent.

He did not stop to ask what they believed, what they held valuable, where they were from, where they were going, or who their leader was. He stood and, despite his own pain, began the welcoming.

Rest here.
Eat here.
Be my guest.
Nourish yourself. Nourish your self.

There are two ways to live in this world. One is to live with the doors and windows closed and the other is to throw them wide open. If you live with the doors closed, you concentrate on the needs of your house -- security, food, safety, shelter. And these are all important things, but it’s easy to shut out the world and forget about the needs beyond your doorway and your wifi connection.

In the writings of the rabbis, having your concerns bounded by the walls of your house is called Sodom, which is also in this week’s portion. The sin of Sodom was the elevation of private property to the level of religious belief, to the level of idolatry. God destroyed Sodom after hearing the cry of a young woman who was being tortured for the sin of sharing her food, her portion, with another person. Kindness was a sin. The rabbis knew that Sodom is the sad, logical, tragic end of “What is mine is mine. What is yours is yours.”

Abraham is the opposite of that. And in fact, in the ultimate act of chutzpah, he challenges God when the holy one decides to destroy the people of Sodom for their wickedness.

Abraham, the spiritual father of mankind and its protector, rose to their defense:

“Shall you destroy the righteous together with the wicked?”
“It would be sacrilege for you to do such a thing… shall the judge of the world not do justice?”

To God he says this.

God offers a bargain. If he finds 50 righteous people, he will spare the entire area for their sake.
Abraham spoke up again and said, “I have already said too much before my Lord.  But what if there are only 45?”

God says he will not destroy it if there are 45.

What about 40? Abraham persists? 35? 30? 20? 10?

We know how the story ends. There were not even 10 righteous ones, and God destroyed the cities, judging them irredeemable.

Every year we read it the Torah sends us a different message. This is not the same Abraham I met last November, or 5 years ago.  

This Abraham brings with to me a message of hope.

It only takes 10.

If there were only 10 righteous people in the city, everyone would be saved. Did the others suddenly become righteous? Worthy of being saved because a minyan among them was good?

Of course not. But the power of those 10 held the possibility of change.

The possibility of influence.

If as few as 10 were like Abraham and offered radical hospitality, radical empathy, radical compassion, and radical understanding to their neighbors…. Those neighbors might change.

And then there would be 11, or 12, or 15, or 20, or 50. They would be an ever-growing light in the darkness, for only the light can drive away the darkness and the fear and uncertainty and the walls that come with it.

Abraham did not believe that the boundaries of his house were the boundaries of his responsibility or his humanity. He moved fluidly through the public and private spaces, the inside and the outside, his and not his, the friend and the stranger.

It is time for all of us to go and sit outside and see who is wandering by. If there is a way to build a more perfect union, community, kehilah, state, or country, it starts by leaving our tent -- even if God dropped by for a chat -- to take responsibility for those wandering on the road. Perhaps if we offer rest, a nosh, and a compassionate ear, we can give it a worthy name when we arrive.

We can call it justice.
We can call it Shalom.

We can call it home.

A Short Drash on Shabbat Bereshit: Exonerating Eve

"C'mon Adam, you know you want it. Take a bite!"

No biblical story has had a more significant effect on the real lives of women than the creation of woman (isha) in Genesis 2. We all know the story.

On the 6th day, God created Ha'Adam, the first human. God placed ha'Adam in the garden and then thought to himself, "Huh. It's not good for Ha'Adam to be alone. Let's get him a helpmate*!" I don't know what God was thinking at this point, but He created and paraded all the wild animals of the earth and sky before the man to name and, if he felt the urge, choose one as a helpmate.

He's this guy:

"You don't like the horse? No problem. I got a beauty of a water buffalo right over here that is perfect for you. Zero miles. Just created it myself...."

The man met and gave names to all the animals and birds, he didn't find any suitable to be his helpmate, his ezer k'negdo (עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ) -- his helpful counterpart, his co-warrior. You have to wonder if God knew what he was doing here, parading all of these unsuitable matches before Adam, so that the pinnacle of this event, this roll call, is disappointment. And then, to save the day, God created an ezer k'negdo just for him, from part of him. Flesh of his flesh. Bones of his bones.

Asked to recount from memory the process of this creation story, most people will say that God put Adam in a deep sleep, took out one of his ribs, closed the wound and made the woman from that rib. 

I've always preferred the translation that means "sides" instead of "rib". It's a perfectly legit translation, and I think it supports a more feminist reading of the text.

A woman made from a rib is a second-best effort made from a spare part, a part so unimportant that the man can easily live without it. He can say to the woman:
You were made from me.
You have no part in me. 
I will always have part of me in you.
Now imagine that first creation, that earth creature, a hermaphroditic, intersex, non-gendered creature, Ha'Adam, being cleaved in two, right down the middle. God has to "seal up the man's wound" by creating half a person, who, when whole, will become the ish, the man. 

God has to do the same amount of rebuilding and creating to fashion the woman, isha. Ish and Isha came equally from the first earth being, Ha'Adam. They are set above the animals on the earth and below God in the heavens, so they get each other in the middle. 

A step back. Before Ha'Adam was split into two, before ish and isha were created, God gave a warning. "Go ahead," he said. "Eat anything you want. It's all for you." 

"Except for that tree. 
Don't eat from that tree, or you're gonna die."

Right after saying this to Ha'Adam he knocks him out cold, cuts him in half, turns half of him into a man and the other half into a woman. They wake up "become one flesh," and go tromping off to live in the garden.

If you ask me, it would have been great for God to reiterate at this point his earlier warnings about the trees and the eating and the dying.

But no. Instead, he left the freshly-created Man and Woman to land out in the garden with "the most cunning" animal, the serpent. This is not the way to "set your kids up for success," God.

The serpent slithers up to Eve and asks her, "So, you can't eat any of the tree in the garden. Did God really say that?"
Eve corrects the serpent: "Oh, we can eat everything, except that one in the middle there. We can't eat it or even touch it or we will die"
"Is that so?" says the serpent. "You won't die. That's a God scare tactic. In fact, if you do eat it, you're eyes will be open and you'll be like gods. You'll know everything."

Oh, Eve.

One misunderstanding of what God said may have just cost you everything.

God did not say you could not touch the tree, He said you couldn't eat from it.

When Eve reached for the tree, one part of what she thought God said was proven wrong.

Imagine her revelation: "I can touch the tree, and I'm not dead! Maybe the serpent is right. Maybe we won't die, but we will know all things."

She's being rather logical, but her syllogism inputs are off:
God said eating or touching the tree = death
I touched the tree and didn't die
Therefore, I can eat of the tree and not die.

"Then she gave some to the man who was with her and he ate."

This is the big "Temptation of Adam" we have used to construct powerful social assumptions about men and women and who's at fault when a man does not control his own behavior.

Look at this painting again.

 Look at Adam, struggling to resist the forbidden fruit that Eve is offering him. He looks taught and tortured by his indecision. And she, pushing the apple forward, that pleading look on her face. He didn't want to eat it, but she... she tempted him and he could not resist, so he ate! And so the sin has fallen on Eve. 

My children and I have talked about why different versions of the story matter. What do women live with in 2017 that has been supported and perpetuated because of the belief that Eve was a temptress and Adam was hapless.

When God questions Eve, she said "The serpent tricked me!"
And the serpent was punished.
And Eve was punished: with hard labor and tough pregnancies. "And your desire shall be for your man and he will rule over you."
And you, Adam, your punishment is because you listened to her and ate. Good luck toiling that field.
Now, get out.

My child: "Why didn't Adam just not eat the apple? He knew what the consequences were."
My child: "Did they eat from the tree on purpose, to know more, to get out of the garden?"
My child: "Why was she punished for being tricked?"

All great questions that I'm not sure I have answers for. 

But I do have some.

As you study these books, my children, be aware of how these stories have made their way off the page and into our culture and society. Take a look at the headlines, the man sitting in the Oval office and ask:

Why are women blamed when men can't control their impulses?
Why is it important for a woman not to be a 'temptation' to a man.
Are men so easily tempted, distracted, and led off the path?

We discussed mechitza -- an idea based on the fact that women can be so distracting to a man that even just a peek, or being able to hear kol isha -- the voice of a woman -- can distract him from his prayers.

We talked about how people will say "she deserved it," when a woman wears a sexy outfit and a man "cannot" control his reaction.

We talked about all the ways the story of Adam and Eve has been used to sell a dangerous and distorted view of how men and woman can and should live together.

Eve was created as the ezer k'negdo and, after one transgression, demoted to someone Adam will "rule over".

In the end, my child and I concluded that you can't change the words of the Torah, but you can most certainly change how you read it, and better than that, everyone can look closer at how they act on it.

Eve was the victim of a trick.
Adam was a victim of his own inability to refuse to take something he wanted.

Eve deserves an exoneration.
Adam deserves a lesson in self-control.

And my students and my children will continue lessons in Torah with their feminist teacher guiding them. We will reclaim and rescue this Torah for them so that when they accept the responsibility of carrying it, they know where the real weight comes from.

I Own a Nazi Flag

My Nazi flag is sizeable, probably 4-feet by 6-feet. The red background, the white circle, and the black swastika haven’t faded in the 72 years since my grandfather captured it during his service with General Patton’s Third Army and brought it home to Dorchester, MA in 1945. ( Whereupon my grandmother promptly hung it up to air out from the front porch. In Dorchester. In 1945. Oy!)

It’s not the standard Nazi flag in one way, however – the white circle is filled with the names and hometowns of the men in his unit. I’ve always wondered if each man in the unit got his own personalized fabric trophy to bring home, marked with the names of his Band of Brothers.

The Nazis were certainly not shy about manufacturing flags. Every US soldier could have brought one home and there would still be thousands left to burn and destroy. Hundreds to keep in museums as exhibits of megalomaniacal power gone horribly awry.

I am also the owner of a large banner for a Nazi organization for women and an SA* officer’s dagger, which has “Alles fur Deutschland” engraved into the blade. The one in the photo below isn’t mine, it’s for sale on the internet. For a few hundred dollars, you can get your own.

These items live in a plastic shopping bag that has moved from under my bed to the back of the closet and, more recently, back to my father’s house. They are trophies, and artifacts, and have familial and historical importance, but they are also symbols of the deep hatred of Jews. They are not replicas, bought from an online store for some angry white man to carry on the streets of Charlottesville.

My Nazi flag was made for and used by the Nazis. Under the women’s banner, women met in safety, knowing their beliefs, religions, and bodies were not under attack. That banner meant, for them, safety. I tell myself that the dagger was only used for ceremonial purposes, but we tell ourselves a lot of things to keep our minds from the dark places – the places where the dagger could have been used to hurt someone like me.

Neo-Nazism isn’t really all that “Neo”

Being raised Jewish in America during the 1970s and 1980s meant absorbing a keen awareness of the power and presence of anti-Semitism. It was a topic at Pesach seders, Shabbat tables, and Sunday School. This sign, seen at a post-Charlottesville protest, resonated deeply with me.

If you’re a Jew my age you either had family killed in the camps, survive the camps, or miraculously flee to America before the final solution was put into effect. I remember the old people in our synagogue who had faded yet legible numbers tattooed on their arms. They would catch children like me staring at them and turn away, or roll down their sleeve. And if you did not have someone in your family or synagogue with a tattoo, you had a war veteran. My grandfather never spoke to me about his time in the war, but I knew what he had done and what he had seen the Third Army liberated a concentration camp. He saw Jews.

“People don’t think it can happen here, Susan,” I was told more than once, “But no one thought it could happen there either.”  

The Nazis weren’t obliterated from the earth, we learned. We blew up their statues and monuments, put many on trial, and executed the worst of the worst. But many went back to their normal lives in Europe when the war ended. Many fled to other countries, including America. In fact, there was a Nazi party in America until the USA got involved in the war in 1941. After the war, they took down their colors, but they didn’t change their minds.


I was 7 years old when the National Socialist Party of America (Nazis) won their case in the Supreme Court: the Nazi flag was protected free speech and the group had the right to march in Skokie, IL.** The Jewish community pulled together, found support from non-Jews, and ultimately the march took place in Chicago, not Skokie, with considerable counter-protest. They made movies (Skokie with Danny Kaye and Never Forget with Leonard Nimoy) that we watched as a family with discussions during every commercial break and for weeks afterward.

Neo-Nazi marches in the 70s led to the right-wing anti-Semitic hate groups and militias of the 90s, which helped give birth to the white-supremacist anti-Muslim mania of the 2000s. Progressives were so happy to see Barack Obama in the White House that we ignored the bubbling undercurrent of racism in the birther movement and the hatred of the President and his black skin. The country had made a turn it could never go back from, we thought. The racists could never be in power again, we thought.

Know your history. Know your enemy.

Jewish kids in America receive a pretty thorough history lesson about WWII and the Holocaust. I thought everyone grew up with the same knowledge of the Nazis, the same lessons learned:

The way they took power in Germany, not by force, but by force of will.
The power of rhetoric and scapegoats.
The complicity of so many average German citizens.
The horrors of the camps, the terrible mental and physical scars of the survivors.
The signs that were missed.
The opportunities for people in power to act early on that were squandered.

I was so very wrong. It’s hard enough to learn from history when you’ve studied the history. When you’ve never heard the history, it’s impossible to progress from it. The gasping, chest-clutching surprise on social media in reaction post-Charlottesville has revealed how truly blind so many have been to the continuing racism and anti-Semitism in this country.

Do they see now? The white supremacists in the photo below were “protecting” a statue of Robert E Lee, but they were chanting “Jews will not replace us!”

To everyone who has posted the famous Martin Neimoller poem to their Facebook feed or changed their profile photo on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or hashtagged Never Again, do you see? 

Now that you’ve seen, what will you do?

* The SA was the Sturmabteilung, literally Storm Detachment, Hitler's stormtroopers. Read about them here: they were horrible people.
** For the record, I supported the Nazi's right to free speech and, even now, do not believe that banning the symbol is a way to ban the hate. The ACLU defended the Nazis all the way to the Supreme court, as they should have done.

On This Day: Go West Young Jew Style

I love how Facebook lets you see your "On This Day" memories. It's (mostly) good to look back and remember where you were in this season over the years. I wish blogs did the same, but looking back for bloggers is a manual chore.

Five years ago I wrote this drash/good-bye speech for the graduation Shabbat at my synagogue.
One year ago Ellie chanted and studied from the same portion (Behar) and I was her tutor.
This year I helped another family shepherd their son through Behar for his bar mitzvah.

Three points in time. Same portion. Same Torah. Much different (perhaps) me.
GoldaLeah (2017)

Original Post (June 2011)

When my office was right over there, in what is now the kitchen. I used to have a sign hanging on my wall. On it was a quote from Rabbi Mecham Mendel, about whom I know next to nothing. And I mean that – nothing is over there, and over here is what I know. But I know he spoke Truth. The quote was, simply,

“If you truly wish your children to study Torah,
study it yourself in their presence.”

That sign got lost in the move, and I never did bother to make another one, and now the time for that has passed, but that saying was always in the back of my mind – it was my guiding principle as principal.

Rabbi Mecham Mendel was a sneaky one, of course. Any parents who takes upon his or herself the study of Torah because they want their children to also study gets a double benefit – they get to study Torah, and they raise someone to study it with.

In this way, I have learned so much more than I could have ever imagined teaching in the walls of these buildings, this school, this shul.
Crop rotation patern from Behar.

Every time some pesky high school kid asked me a question that required grabbing the Chumash for an answer, I was blessed.

Every time a young child imitates a madrichim’s movements during shira, or follows them in a dance, learning is happening…twice.

Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Rabbi Mecham Mendel tells us: Be the Jew you want to see in the world. As Jewish parents and educators, this is important … much more so than the stories we tell, or even the Torah we read. You never know what a child will take from those.

A quick story:
One year, a fourth grader, Isaac, was asked by his mother what he had learned in Sunday School.
"Well mom," says Isaac, "our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his combat engineers build a pontoon bridge and everyone walked across safely. Then, he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent Seal Team Six to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved."
"Really Isaac," says his mother, "is that really what your teacher taught you?"
"Not really mom," replies Isaac, "but if I told it the way the teacher did, you'd never believe me."

The Judaism you tell your child may be dismissed; the Judaism you live will get into them, down in the kishkes, and that stuff never leaves.

Speaking of leaving, then. This week's Torah portion, Behar, is not one that will inspire much disbelief. There are no talking snakes or donkeys; no magical splitting of the sea, just what seems like mundane advice for a future agrarian society, what I like to call the TRFF (turf) -- Torah Rules for Fair Farming.

God tells Moses, while they're having a chat on Mount Sinai that every seven years the land gets a year off, a shmitah year. No tilling, no planting, no sewing, no hoeing. It is, literally, "released" from its burden.

We are guarantors of a sacred trust -- this land, this earth -- and we must find a way to balance productivity, reset, and release.

After seven series of seven years, in the 50th year, the Jubilee year, not only does the land lie fallow, but ownership returns to the original owner. Indentured servants and slaves are freed, and everyone returns to their homes, their families.

And we rest.

And the land rests.

And we enjoy the work of our labors that we have stored up for six years...and we breathe

kol ha neshaman tehalel yah ... halleluyah ....

Punctuating the productivity of life with long pauses lends perspective and encourages us to express gratitude for our bounty, and what can be produced without our work, but with our gratitude

kol ha neshama tehalel yah ... halleluyah

And so this time in my life is a punctuation mark as well. At this point, I'm not sure if it's a comma, a period, a question mark, an exclamation point or one of those little smiley face emoticons.

I imagine many of the other graduates in the room feel the same way. It is the end, and the beginning. The path to many hellos and perhaps a few too many good-byes. Accomplishments writ on paper and your hearts, and blank pages to come before you. Change happens.

But I'm not too worried about feeling like I have a good grasp of the ways and workings of life just yet, although some of you here perhaps should be.

Between Pesach and Shavuot, in the afternoons, we are to study Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. If any of you have seen Yentl, this is the book she and her father are studying. Who is rich? He who is happy with lot, etc.

Near the end of the book the rabbis get presumptuous and lay out the milestones of a life, by age.

At 5, a child is ready for scripture.
at 10, mishnah
at 13, an observer of the commandments
at 15, gemara
at 18, chupa
at 20, pursue a livelihood
at 30, full strength
at 40, understanding
at 50, offers counsel
at 60, attains seniority
at 70, tips old age
at 80, strength
at 90, stooped over
at 100, as if dead...

So, I am a full 7 months away from full understanding.* But to quote the great tzadik of our time, Oprah Winfrey, there is one thing I know for sure.

Delve into Torah
and delve into it again
for everything is in it
look deeply into it
grow old with it
and share all of this, as I have shared it, with your children.

Shabbat Shalom.

*I was 39 when I wrote this. Understanding didn't magically come at 40, but at 45 I do feel half-way between understanding and offering counsel.