Tuesday, April 7, 2020

My Commentary for the World Union For Progressive Judaism on Pesach

Pesach 5780 for WUPJ
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Congregation Albert, Albuquerque, NM USA

Perhaps, this year, the question we should be asking at Seder is:

מה נשתנה הפסח הזה    Ma nishtanah haPesach hazeh? – Why is this Pesach different from all other Pesachs?

With the COVID-19 pandemic there are some obvious answers. 

  • Going out to buy Pesadik foods will give us pause. Some will go and shop. Some will have others shop for them. Others will shop online.

  • Many families separated by distance can, for the first time, share Seder online.

  • For the first time, families separated by distance can share Seder online.

  • During Yizkor we will also remember those who died from this plague.

But there are other answers as well. Torah teaches us that if someone is in a state of ritual impurity s/he can bring the Pesach sacrifice on Pesach Sheini (a second Pesach) - 14th of Iyar. Perhaps then we can wait to celebrate Pesach and move our Seders to Thursday evening May 7th, the 29th day of the Omer. But if the plague hasn’t abated would we need a Pesach Shlishi (third Pesach) or even a Pesach Rvi’i (fourth Pesach).

I am going to take a different path this year and follow an example of our ancestors. My household will have Seder on 14 Nisan as we do every year and “keeping Passover” for the proscribed week. Then we are going to follow the example of our mystic tradition and have Lag B’Omer style celebration. (Click here for information about Lag B’Omer) This celebration may not fall on the actual date for Lag B’Omer, tMonday night May 11. But, as soon as we are freed from our self-isolation, we should have a grand celebration. Picnics, campfires, singing, and Israeli Dancing.

Yes, we will mourn those who died from COVID-19. We will also celebrate those who heal and survive. We will remember the lessons we learned. Lessons on how to handle a future challenge like the one we face now, and lessons on how to transform our traditional synagogues into the synagogues of the future.

Pesach Resources and Virtual Sedars

Dear Friends,

I titled my Pesach column for the World Union For Progressive Judaism (WUPJ): Why is this Pesach different from all other Pesachs? While every Pesach is different, in the midst of this pandemic, we find ourselves physically distanced from our families of origin and our families of choice.

Most of us here in The Land of Enchantment understand being distant from friends and family. For some of us, and the vast majority of our children, the only Judaism we have known has been here in Albuquerque and, in particular at Congregation Albert.

Instead of looking at our isolation as a plague, perhaps for these first nights of Pesach, our forced isolation can be a blessing. We have the opportunity to connect online with family, friends and strangers around the world.

Below you will find resources to use with your own personal seders, as well as opportunities to experience Pesach in the many places Jews live.

Be creative. Use these resources or find your own.

I will be leading a brief Pesach evening service at 5:00 on Facebook Live on Wednesday evening

As we read in Torah and in the Haggadah, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Let us wander together to wondrous places for Pesach.

Chag Samei’ach

Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld

Cantor Finn and I were honored to participate in the: The Middle Matzah Haggadah: A Digital Telling for a Time of Brokenness. Dozens of Rabbis, Cantors, and lay people from across the country and Israel collaborated in creating this unique online Haggadah. You can use it with your own Seder or just watch it during the holiday. Just click here: https://youtu.be/GvEECSy0tRA.

Here are more resources for you. Just click on the titles to follow the links

Union for Reform Judaism

For those who want some in depth learning about Pesach:

From the American Jewish Committee

From WUPJ, Seders around the world. Contact each synagogue/organization for times.

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Thomas Synagogue, Charlotte Amalie https://zoom.us/j/263565592

The Union for Progressive Judaism has a special page that lists online services, Passover seders, and classes using online meeting platforms.

Jewish Community of Tokyo www.jccjapan.or.jp

Kehilat Shanghai www.kehilatshanghai.org

Beit Shimcha: Simcha, Sheket, www.facebook.com/grisha.abramovich 
and Tamar

Shaarei Shalom, St. Petersburg Zoom Meeting

Shirat ha-Yam, Odessa Zoom Meeting

The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism has created this Hebrew resource page with information, educational links, and more. 

Congregação Israelita Paulista Sao Paulo www.cip.org.br/aovivo/

South Africa 
Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue Zoom Meeting
Beit Luria Progressive Shul Zoom Meeting

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

My D'var Torah for the World Union for Progressive Judaism on this week's portion, Vayera

In this week’s Parasha, Vayera, it is as if we meet two different Abrahams. One a man of faith and strength, willing to stand up for justice, even against God. The other a man of faith who blindly follows God, regardless of the justness of the command.

Throughout my childhood, and in Rabbinical school, I only learned about the Abraham who begins a defining trait of Jewish tradition; the questioning of God. Moses carries on this tradition, as do the early Rabbis, the early Chassidic masters, and our own Progressive Jewish Movement. To this day, that is the Abraham I try to emulate and encourage others to do the same, by questioning injustice.

But, we cannot ignore the “other Abraham”. That is the Abraham that twice allows his wife Sarah to be taken into the harems of kings. The Abraham who twice sends his son Ishmael into the desert, perchance to die, because Sarah asked him to. The Abraham who meekly follows God’s order to take his son Isaac to the mountain top and kill him as a sacrifice.

In the case of Isaac, the text tells us that God was testing Abraham. The question is: what was God was testing? 

I believe that God was not testing Abraham’s inherent faith but rather, the need for even a great person like Abraham to repent his sin and be sure he understood of the value of human life. It is obvious from earlier parts of this week’s and last week’s Parshiyot that  Abraham lacked the understanding that the preservation of human life supersedes nearly all other commandments and was willing to murder his own son Ishmael by sending him out into the desert to die. Abraham, who stood up to God in defense of Sodom and Gomorrah did not stand up to his human wife and twice banished Ishmael and Hagar.

We know that a central part of our repentance involves a commitment to not repeat behavior that falls short. Now the test begins to make sense. Has Abraham repented his near murder of Ishmael? Obviously not. Abraham obediently takes Isaac up the mountain, binds him on top of the altar, and reaching for the knife prepares to slaughter him. Abraham fails this test of the sincerity of any repentance or remorse of leaving Ishmael to die in the desert.

How can we know Abraham failed? Because God never again speaks to Abraham. “And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. “Then a messenger of the Eternal called to him from heaven: Abraham! Abraham! And he answered, Here I am. And the messenger said, Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. …

The messenger of the Eternal called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, By Myself I swear, the Eternal declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.
All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” (Genesis 22)
Yes - Abraham tried to obey God’s command and in doing so earned a blessing for himself and his descendants, but failed the test. God never speaks to Abraham ever again even though he lives for several more decades. Their personal relationship has come to an end even though Abraham always put faith and obedience to God first and foremost in his life. Abraham fails the test because he forgot that each person, including his sons, is made in the image of God and his or her life is precious. In his old age Abraham has become a fanatic. He hears God tell him to kill his son and, even though in the end he stays his hand, he loses everything. He never sees his wife Sarah until she dies and he needs to bury her. Isaac and Ishmael, the sons he tried to kill, never see him until he dies and they come to bury him.

While Abraham eventually remarries and has more children and wealth, but what of Isaac? Here I agree with the poet Barbara D. Holender who, in her poem “The Binding” writes:

“Of course Isaac was sacrificed--
what else can you call it?
Three days on the road and no answer, 
and then the answer--the knife,
no need to plunge it in….

They say it came out right
at the last minute,
it didn’t really happen.
I say the wounding lasted forever.

So Abraham came down from the mountain
and went on his way.

And Isaac? He’s still up there
trying to figure out
who can you trust in this world.”

May we never fail the test. May we follow the example of our Jewish and Progressive forebears and always stand up for justice and call those who commit unjust acts to account, regardless of their position, even if it is God.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Erev Yom Kippur 5780 Change vs. Transition

Every year, the finals of the International Bible Contest are held in Jerusalem. While not as glamorous, or as enriching as America’s Got Talent, American Idol, or Dancing with the Stars, or the National Spelling Bee, in some circles it is considered to be quite prestigious. In the months leading up to the finals, national contests are held and only the best of the best make it to Jerusalem. I know we have folks here on this Erev Yom Kippur who “know their Bible” so I thought I’d begin tonight with some preliminary questions. Please do not shout out the answers or raise your hands, but if after hearing the questions you think you have what it takes to win, drop me a note and I will submit your name.

1)    Why do we spend forty years wandering the desert after the Exodus?

2)   Why do we need the period of the judges before we can have our first king – Saul?

3)   Why could Saul’s reign not be successful or David’s kingdom remain whole after the death of Solomon?

While the International Bible contest is real, these are not actual questions and you cannot qualify by answering them. In fact, though, these questions lead to a deep truth about Jewish survival and finding a path to a successful Yom Kippur.

Let’s review the answers.

1)    We spent forty years in the desert because a people enslaved for 400 plus years could not quickly transform into a people ready to be free. It took those years in the desert to recover from the trauma of oppression and allow a new generation to move forward.

2)   After all those years in the desert as a loose confederation of tribes, we needed the period of the judges to allow us to move slowly to a more united people, much like the United States first had to have the Articles of Confederation and only then, the Constitution.

3)   Why did the Kingdom need to split apart? Because evidently the reality of living under a new governmental system was a burden we were not fully ready to accept.

The answers contain both the reason I picked the questions and their connection to our personal and communal Yom Kippur work. Each of these stories represent a major change in our historical mythos and the transition surrounding the change, successful or not. They reinforce that when we make changes we need to understand and prepare for the often-bumpy road that we call transition.

In 2000, my first High Holy Days at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo we had just concluded the N’ila service and was leaving the bema. An older man, was escorting two women toward the exit. The kindly motioned for me to step in front of them. The man then said, “That’s not how Rabbi Fink (who by the way had retired in 1956) conducted High Holy Day services!” One of the women jumped in and agreed with him. I stopped and smiling I turned around and said: “Rabbi Fink was a progressive thinker and leader in the Reform movement who always kept up with, and sometimes led changes in Reform practice and ritual.” The other woman replied: “You know he’s right about Rabbi Fink. Maybe he would have done things differently today.” Without missing a beat, the man jumped in and simply said: “Nah”. Forty-four years and three rabbis later, this gentleman had never adapted to the change in services. Decades later he still had not transitioned from the past and thus rejected possibility the changes could be positive

For years, “change management” has been a part of business culture and practice. We know that every change presents new challenges, small or large. Change management practices tend to focus on the practical aspects of making change but often ignore the emotional toll it takes on the people impacted by the change.

Historian and business consultant Dr. William Bridges altered our understanding of change and transition. Following the death of his wife, he saw that when change happened, a period of time, a transition, was needed to adapt to the change. As he writes: “…transition occurs in the course of every attempt at change. Transition is the state that change puts people into. The change is external (the different policy, practice, or structure that the leader is trying to bring about), while transition is internal (a psychological reorientation that people have to go through before the change can work).” At this time of year, as we examine our behavior and evaluate the positive changes we need to make, understanding transition need to come to the fore.

Bridges then outlines the three processes of transition: Saying Goodbye or endings; The Neutral Zone (explorations); and Moving Forward (new beginnings.)

Think about the behavior you would like to leave behind and the behavior you hope to move to and as I speak, think how the three processes of transition will challenge and support your change.

Saying goodbye to a behavior starts with knowing you want or need to change. Some may seem easy but in reality, challenge us. I am going to use a relatively benign example. Your job is to apply it to the behavioral changes you have chosen during this season of repentance. 

Seriously, how hard is it to not answer an email when it arrives. You feel the vibration or hear the sound, or see the icon bounce, there is no need to read it or look at it. You know you should be focused on your task at hand, your family, your friends, but to actually stop, to say goodbye, to leave behind the quick glance takes a great deal of effort, thought and commitment. Why? In part because it is what you expect of others when they receive your email. In part because it has become society’s expectation of you. Be honest now, in part because you want to feel that important.

Once you have made the commitment to not to continuously check your email and you have actually stopped, now comes the difficult part, exploring the neutral zone.

To quote Bridges: “Even after people have let go of their old ways, they find themselves unable to start anew… The neutral zone (explorations) is uncomfortable, so people are driven to get out of it. Some people try to rush ahead into some (often any) new situation, while others try to back-pedal and retreat into the past. Successful transition, however, requires… time in the neutral zone.” He goes on: “It’s like Moses in the wilderness: it was there, not in the Promised land, that Moses was given the Ten Commandment; and it was there, and not in the Promised Land, that his people were transformed from slaves to a strong and free people.”

Isn’t easy to just look at your email one, two, or maybe just 3 extra times? Or maybe, even though you’ve committed to just check your email “when you rise up and when you lie down”, you quickly discover that you really do need to check your email once more time “while you walkest by the way.” Until we begin the change, we cannot predict if we will slide back into the behavior or slide into zealotry. Each change will take more or less time in the neutral zone. Without the appropriate time in the neutral zone at best the change fails, at worst it becomes oppressive.

Finally, we can begin to move forward toward new beginnings, and even more positive growth. But wait for it, yes, moving forward into the new beginning, we realize our new behavior leads us to another change and process of transition. As Bridges cites the need for wandering through Sinai before entering the Promised Land, once there, we changed from nomads to settled agrarian and urban people. First the judges and then the prophets were needed to push us to return and grow along a path of goodness and righteousness. Similarly, the cycle continues throughout our lives. Just as each year we find ourselves at these days of awe, challenged to change for the better. Challenged to successfully transition. Moving from our own Sinai, through our own desert, through our own promised land.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Responsibility, Faith, Forgiveness - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

I cannot remember ever struggling with writing a sermon as much as I have with this one. If I ever did it was long ago.

In part, my struggle writing this is a reflection of the exhaustion from dealing with the pain and angst engulfing our country and much of the world. Every day endless media streams bombard us with images and sounds of people fighting for their own benefit, fighting for their own egos, instead of for the common good.

In part, my struggle writing this is a reflection of the pull of optimism that calls us to hope that our community is truly on a positive upswing. We want to hope. We yearn to believe. Yet, we struggle with the fear that we will be disappointed yet again.

In part, my struggle writing this is a reflection of the difficult year it has been for so many of us in both our private and public lives. I have been honored that you have shared with me your stories of pain, disappointment, loss and angst. I have been honored that you have shared with me your stories of joy, happiness and fulfillment.

In part, my struggle writing this is a reflection of the wave of disbelief, disillusionment, and betrayal that continues to suffuse our beloved Congregation Albert. Led by our President, Dale Atkinson, we are taking all the right steps to recover from the embezzlement while continuing to grow and become an even more positive force in your lives and our community as we recover from the shattering of our trust. Yet, we still hesitate to trust. 

We call this time the Days of Awe, because we are tasked with doing the awesome. We are called to dig deep to forgive, let go of our pain, and begin again to trust. We are called to dig even deeper, to step up and own our responsibility, not because we trusted too much, but in not trusting each other even more and allowing Congregation Albert, our safe haven, to be fractured.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, through his book To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, gave me reminders of, and new understandings of, the strength that Judaism gives us to move past our feelings of betrayal and the shattering of our ability to trust.

He reminds us that book of Job is among the hardest books to understand. The book makes no sense. We find Job, a totally righteous person, suffering because of his righteousness. Job, his family before they die, his friends, all ask the unanswerable question: “Why me?” “Why Job?” Rabbi Lord Sacks writes: “The question most often asked by theologians and philosophers is: how, given what we know of the world, can we be sure that God exists? The question asked in the book of Job (as in later rabbinic midrash) is the opposite (emphasis mine): how, given what we know of God, can we explain that humankind exists? Why did a wise, good, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator, having constructed a universe of beauty and order, introduce into it one form of life, Homo Sapiens, capable of destroying the beauty and creating disorder?”

His answer: “The question answers itself, and the answer is profoundly counterintuitive. The Bible is not humankind’s book of God; it is God’s book of humankind. It takes for granted that God can construct a home for humankind. The question that endlessly absorbs it is: can humankind construct a home for God?”

My answer to that question is yes. Regardless of the many different theologies in this sanctuary tonight, we can continue to build Congregation Albert into, as Sacks puts it, “a home for God.”

But what is “a home for God”? In my mind it is a place where we act Godly. Please put aside, for at least a moment, your particular understanding of, or belief in God and see these for the examples they are. What does it mean to act Godly? Judaism teaches that it means we are to imitate God by following God’s example of how to act as we are taught in Torah. God clothed the nakedness of Eve and Adam, so too are we to clothe the naked. God visited Abraham as he was recovering from his self-circumcision, so too are we to visit the sick. God buries Moses on Mount Nebo, so too we accompany the dead to their final resting place.

But, as Jews we are called to go to deeper in acting Godly. First, Torah teaches us that when God brought us out of Egypt it created a symbiotic, albeit unequal relationship. In Exodus chapter 6 God says, “I will be your God and you will be My people.” That phrase is repeated several times throughout the rest of the Tanach – the Hebrew Bible. Through the various forms of the covenant between God and the Israelites there is one constant. We are responsible to God and for God, and God is responsible for us and to us. Our tradition takes this monumental concept and calls upon us to implement it within our own lives, within our relationships with each other. In the Talmud, tractate Shavuot (page 29a) we are taught: Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh – Every Jew is responsible for, and accountable to, every other member of our community. Just as we have a covenant with God, we have a covenant with each other. 

What does it mean to be responsible for and to each other? On the surface we have an obligation to care for each other’s physical needs for food, shelter, clothing…. But on the deeper level, when one who is a part of our community sins, we all share a degree of responsibility for allowing that sin to occur in our midst. We all have the responsibility for doing Teshuvah, repentance for our part in the sin. We all have the obligation to ensure that there is no opportunity to repeat. Thus, during this season of repentance, all our confessional prayers are plural: “For the sin WE have committed…”

The other way that we need to imitate God and act Godly is through faith. Judaism does not mandate faith in God. Judaism mandates faith in each other as individuals and in humankind. Again, as Rabbi Lord Sacks writes: “In making humankind God was taking the risk that one of his (sic) creations might turn against its Creator. Even for God, creation means the courage to take a risk.” I extrapolate from this that we are to be in relationships with each other and that involves risk. Further, if God’s creating humankind was a risk, then God had faith in us that, for the most part, we would choose to do good.

If God, as it were, could have faith in us, how much the more so should we imitate God and have faith in each other, even after one of our own turned against us?

The Torah is the story of how our people turned against God over and over, and yet each time, God had enough faith in us to reinforce and keep the covenant. We have been betrayed. One of our own turned against us. Now, as we are taught God did in Torah, no matter how hard it may be, we have to have faith in each other. Again, as Sacks writes: “Faith does not mean certainty. It means the courage to live with uncertainty.”

Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk told this story: For days, a person was wandering lost in the woods losing faith and hope of ever returning home. Finally, seeing another, the first person asks: “Do you know the way out of these woods?” The second answers: “I do not. But hold my hand and we will find our way through the woods together. And so, they walked, arm and arm, with hope and faith that they would find their way through the woods to a better place.”

Can we do any less?