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Remarks From Nebraska Appleseed vigil to support refugees, Jan 12, 2017

Like many of you I have had some intense conversations with people since Nov 8. Over Facebook, one of my more heated exchanges concluded with a friend saying his biggest concern was my belief in supporting Syrian refugees. My answer to him is this…

The Torah teaches,

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings [the Hebrew here is “nefesh,” which is more akin to the soul] of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

You understand the depth of the soul of the ones who are oppressed.

The classical Jewish commentator, Nachmanides explained that God was saying:

I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there is power, and I deliver each one from him that is too strong for him….
[and] you know what it feels like to be a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, He will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you, God had mercy, not because of your merits but only on account of the bondage [and likewise God has mercy on all who are oppressed.]

God cares about the oppressed, and by extension so should we because we are the ones who are in a position to act.

But I don’t need this to know supporting Syrian Refugees is right. I know it in my heart. I feel it in the depth of nefesh, deep in my soul. For those who speak Yiddish, I feel it in my kishkes.

I know it from experience. I have shared my pulpit with a Syrian refugee. I have heard her story. I have never felt threatened by her or her family, only the kinship of peace. Furthermore, I know only friendship from those who the ignorant would assume to be my enemies.

When my Temple received a bomb threat last spring and my life was threatened, there was an outpouring of support from our community, from law enforcement to faith and civic leaders. But I want to point out, the support in the faith community for our little synagogue was driven by my good friend Farida Ebrahim, an Afghan refugee who also helped to mobilize leadership from the Bosnian mosque who came to our Sabbath worship service in a show of unity. The refugees, the Muslim community, they sense the fellowship that comes from fearing the same enemies. We stand as friends, with anyone willing to join together in the face of all terror whether it comes from fundamentalist, radicalized religion or white nationalism which poses the most immediate threat to minority groups in America.

Ultimately, it boils down to this:

Refugees need a safe home, and they need friends. It is my human, civic, and religious duty to help them find both. We. owe them nothing less.

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Benediction for Nebraska State Commemoration for MLK

As we reflect on the meaning of this day, we thank Officer Moore for her service to our community and for her inspiring comments today. You have shown us that the Police are not only our protectors, you are our teachers too. I also thank these young people, the essay award winners, for their words for giving us hope for the future. We look forward to you joining us in the cause and to one day having you become the leaders of tomorrow. The future looks bright.

So, let us consider these words spoken by the man whose memory and legacy we honor today. On the last night of his life, Dr. King said:

[If] the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars…. And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

As we go forth from the is place, let us go forth advancing the legacy and dreams of the great dreamer, Martin Luther King, Jr. Let us always embrace the NOW never despairing in the darkness, as dark as it may be. Let us work to bring light into dark spaces. Let us look to our left and right, forward and backward and see in all people, in all places potential partners with whom we can grapple with and solve the problems which have plagued us since the beginning of time. May we always choose to live Now, for is the only time we know, as we work for a brighter future, for the future is all that we can look forward to. Now is the time, the only time, to embrace our shared existence, protecting life and guaranteeing dignity for all men and women. So now, let us continue Dr. King’s great work and at last bring equality and peace to our world.

Master of all things, Creator of the Universe, we pray that you give us strength and guide us as together we work to bring justice to the world.

Let us say. Amen.

Invocation for MLK Freedom Breakfast

img_3917As a young man, just before I began my rabbinical studies, I was working temp jobs in Memphis, TN. One of those temporary placements put me in the offices of the Church of God in Christ. During my time, I mostly answered phones, collated files, and maintained a database. Good work. Not too exciting. One day, my work took me to the Mason Temple where when I was shown their sanctuary I was truly filled with awe. In that space, Martin Luther King, Jr, spoke on the last night of his life, delivering his famous mountaintop speech.

In that speech, he said if God could place him in any time throughout history, he would choose the NOW. Despite the trouble of his time, he said, “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” The sentiment is just as important today as it was in April of 1968.

Dr. King was known as a dreamer, but buttressed by optimism and faith, his words rang as the voice of a prophet. From where did this optimism come? He explained it well in the lecture he gave four years earlier when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. They are words we embody in our gathering of brotherhood and sisterhood this morning.

Dr. King said:

We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.

This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men…. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.

So as we gather in this house together, let us pray, Master of all things, creator of the Universe, thank you for the life and inspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who continues to teach us the true meaning of the brotherhood of man. As we break bread together, may the peace we model in this room have a ripple effect beyond these walls, through our city, across our state, to the borders of our great nation, and help bring peace to the four corners of your world. May this day cause us to embody the teaching in the Book of Proverbs, that all our ways be ways of pleasantness, and may all our paths lead us to peace.

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Black Friday Winners and Losers – Sermon for Chayei Sarah

My foster kids are still working on understanding what it means to live in a Jewish house— which holidays we do, and which we don’t. What foods we eat, which we don’t. One of them asked me the other day, “Do you celebrate Black Friday?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I think Black Friday is celebrated by many, and dreaded by others. Personally, though I’m not agoraphobic, the thought of being in those crowds freaks me out. I think I saw on TV this morning that the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in New York had 16,000 people lined up waiting just to get inside. No thanks. I heard that there were riots in South Africa over discounted toilet paper. It makes me shudder. In past years people have died, being trampled as they rushed into Wal-Mart to take advantage of the holiday sales. Folks…. at some point, isn’t this beneath our dignity? Couldn’t we spend 50 more bucks for a television or 20 more dollars for a pair of boots just to keep our sanity? We have to ask ourselves, what is the price point on our dignity? We’d have to ply ourselves and spend a little more. Especially for toilet paper, we could triple ply ourselves, cushion the blow, and be more absorbent to the sticker shock, and pay what it’s actually worth.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good discount as much as the next guy. I have driven across town two and three times looking for the best deal on a computer. With a conservative calculation for gas and mileage, I basically broke even. What I’m trying to say is, every now and then, it’s worth the extra expense to escape aggravation.

This is part and parcel of what our father Abraham teaches in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. The life of Sarah comes to an end, and Abraham needs a special place to bury her. Just like today, we don’t just bury in any old place. We seek special grounds, often locations adorned in beauty. Our Mt. Lebanon in Wyuka is a fine example. People picnic there. They perform Shakespeare in the summer. I will never forget the first week I was in Lincoln, and I went to do the funeral for Richard Sachs, and I was greeted by a pair of beautiful swans. The Wyuka Cemetery is no ordinary plot of land. This is precisely the type of place Abraham sought for his beloved Sarah, practicing the Jewish value of kevod hamet. That is honoring the dead with heartfelt devotion, just as much if not more than they were honored during their life. He doesn’t think long and decides on the cave at Machpelah in Chevron, in the land of the Hittites, on the property of Ephron the son of Zohar. The commentators have a field day with the name of this place just to glorify this piece of real estate. Machpelah, Rashi says, means double (from the root kaf-feh-lamed)… it has a lower level and un upper level. Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam says it is called, “double” because it not only includes the cave, but also the field leading to it. And if you really like a garden view, the Zohar book of mysticism, teaches that Machpelah means double as it bridges this world to the Garden of Eden. I think a realtor would say, “It’s literally the ultimate green belt!” So what would you pay for such a plot of land? Do you follow the MLS listings, wait to see how many days it is on the market and see if the price drops, or do you just know that’s the place you want and you taking no risk on losing out to another buyer?

Abraham wastes no time. Machpelah is the cave he wants, and he wants to honor Sarah by returning her to the Earth as quickly as possible. He announces to the Hittites who live in the area that he will go to Ephron who owns the land and will pay full price. So intent is he, that even when Ephron offers to just give him the land, Abraham insists on paying. There is no reason, he feels to bargain for something so important. It is Ephron’s land, and he is entitled to compensation. Furthermore, by paying the market value, and doing so publicly, in front of the other Hittites, no one can question the fairness of the transaction or question the transfer of ownership. There are no hard feelings on any side.

What it all boils down to is this. We are living in an era that places a lot of emphasis on winners and losers. The stakes are all or nothing. It seems that sports fans have lost the ability to celebrate success and going deep into the playoffs, and end up mourning in frustration for losing at the highest level with the championship on the line. Fans of the Buffalo Bills only talk about losing 4 Super Bowls in a row, rather than the fact that they had an improbable streak of playing in 4 consecutive Superbowls. I can say, after the 2014 World Series, I did not feel better until the end of the 2015 World Series when at last the Royals won…. But still, I’ll never forget the bitterness feeling of seeing Alex Gordon standing on 3rd base as a weak popup ended that series. I and others had to remind ourselves that sometimes the victory is the excitement, the fun, the exhilarating feeling of hope, and the learning we do, being engaged in new, high stake situations reveling in the satisfaction of having fought hard in an environment of complete fairness. If we could think this way, we could all can be better off for the experience. Some are victorious. Some are runners up. But if we really do it right, we all can be winners.

Maybe our nation’s politics could benefit from such a view.

Elections are no longer about deciding who can lead us with a uniting vision. They have instead become about whose ideology can subjugate the other. In a democratic society, we are supposed to focus on the mutual benefit, not the suppression of the opposition. This is not only about the recent election, but in general. It has been a growing trend for many years. Elections no longer end with mere celebrations and congratulatory statements. They are punctuated by gloating and demands for the losing side to admit abject defeat that the percentage difference is a repudiation of their ideas. Leading up to the election, there was discussion on both sides about whoever won, their party would be in disarray and have to figure out how to rebuild from the ruins. It’s just not likely that both parties could be teetering that close to demise. In actuality, both were probably going to be okay over all, just needing to re-organize, and apply a new strategy. In this environment of perceived winner take all, half the country stops being able to work with the other half of the country. No one is allowed to lose with honor. And winners choose not to win with dignity.

In this environment, we are all losers.
It follows the trend of where I started this talk, the Black Friday sales. We are obsessed with getting the upperhand, finding the best deal, at the expense of others, so much that we ultimately lose ourselves in the process. It is not fun to fight over the last discounted Big Screen TV, or roll of toilet paper, when the ultimate cost is our own humanity. The feeling of satisfaction when we get the deal is fleeting at best. It is counterproductive to living under the rule of loving our neighbors as ourselves— the most important command in all the Torah.

What Abraham did was demonstrate this basic love of the neighbor through fairness and consideration. When he purchased the cave at Machpelah for a fair price, he simultaneously did a lot of things. He protected his own reputation as a fair player and honest broker. He likewise allowed Ephron to be perceived as a straight shooter and good business man. The Hittites looking on, they too gained because they never had to doubt whether these men could be trusted or if they would uphold the greater good. And they learned from this model the lesson we all learn, that when we value and respect our fellow men with fair negotiations, fair prices, and fair competition, everyone is happy and everyone wins in the end.

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Those who love God, Hate Evil- Sermon for Shabbat, November 18, 2016

Friends,

I am going to start by saying something kind of controversial. Despite what you may have been told,  what you might believe, it is okay to hate. This sounds strange coming from a rabbi, right? Well there is a Jewish way to hate, and no, I’m not talking about guilt. It is okay to hate racism.

In Psalm 97, we are taught, in command form, “Ohavei Adonai, sinu ra. You who love God, hate evil.” There are few evils worse than racism, and racism is a mere stepping stone to those other evils. So yes, let us hate evil and hate racism with all our hearts.

Now I want to be clear, when I talk about hating racism, I am talking talking about hating ideas, not the people who hold them. Admittedly, it is hard to differentiate between them, but we have to. There are restrictions and limitations to permissible hate. Defeating an idea allows us to maintain our humanity when the battle is won. If our goal is to defeat people, it causes us to push for complete humiliation of the opponent. It takes us too far down a dangerous road which can elicit the worst parts of our own humanity which we have to keep in check. It is important to offer the opportunity for every person to lose with dignity. To brag, or belittle, or intimidate, or dominate another in defeat is antithetical to Jewish ideals. Even if our opposition has behaved in such a manner, we are prohibited from doing the same.

We find instruction in the Torah laws of engagement which demand that, in war, the Israelites maybnever completely surround a city, thus offering a chance for citizens to retreat (Hilchot Melachim 6:7). Even our enemies deserve a chance at continued life, during which we hope they will re-evaluate their ideas. Additionally, Jewish law permits us to do only the minimal amount it takes to win. Maimonides teaches further in the Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Melachim 9:4) teaches about self defense against one who follows you to do harm. If one can stop an attacker by just injuring his leg, but one goes ahead and kills him, then that is tantamount to murder. The law is there to curb our inclination for blood thirst and total subjugation of another. Once the aggression has ended, we move on. So if we are able to defeat an idea, we can leave what’s left of the person intact. We can move on in peace, causing no undue harm to an already damaged person. That is the just way. That is the Jewish way. So let us set our sights on defeating the ills of hatred and racism, not to squash the haters and the racists. Who knows, they may one day become repentant and turn into strong allies. Our congregation knows this history personally with Larry Trapp, who died repentant for the harm he caused as a Klansman. It is also evident in the Nate Phelps, son of the the deceased Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist Church once protested our Temple. Nate left his father’s church to become an outspoken advocate against his father’s wretched ideals and for LGBT rights. Complete humiliation or annihilation of people might have prevented these people from turning around so they could have s chance to reach more and bring them to a path of truth.

There is no singular way to deal with the forces of hate and racism, but we have no choice but to combat them. Racism fills our world with darkness. Clouds of hate envelope us, but again, we can turn to Psalm 97. Soon after the command to hate evil, we are told, “Or Zarua latzadik, ulyishrei lev simcha. Light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright.” So if we, in righteousness hate evil, not only can we defeat it, we bring light into the world. If it sounds easy, it shouldn’t. If it sounds overly simplistic, it is not. You see, the Torah speaks very little about feelings. It is mostly about actions. That’s what our form of hate needs to be. If we allow hate to be merely a a feeling, it can become all consuming and overwhelm us. It can reduce us to tired and bitter recluses who lose sight of the greater goal, to live in peace and love. So the command to hate that we hear from the Psalmist, does not allow us to become embroiled in anger. Sitting back, embittered in our rightness and bathing in cynicism achieves absolutely nothing. The directive in Psalm 97 is compelling us to take acton.

Consider for a moment what our tradition teaches about the opposite of hate– love. It’s so much more than a feeling. Love is action. We are taught to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our being. We show love for God when we lie down, when we rise up, when we walk by the way (Deuteronomy 6:5-7). We learn from this that feeling love is not enough. It can fill our hearts, it can even overflow. However when love is not expressed, whether it be love of a spouse, love of a child, love of a friend, love of our earth, love, as a mere feeling, can only be unrequited because the object of that love receives no benefit. That kind of love is pointless. And thus, the same can be said of hate. If we do nothing about it, it is like poison inside of us, harming only us who bear it.

I looked at today a passage of Leviticus, and understood it like I have never understood it before. It’s in chapter 19 verse 17), part of the holiness code. It teaches, “Do not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him.”

Wow. Hating in your heart. That’ resentment. Reproving. That’s action. Incurring no guilt, that is actively taking down repulsive ideas, without, as Rashi says, “bringing him embarrassment,” degradation, or undue harm.

This is where we begin. It does not matter who you voted for. The election is done. But we combat the hate-filled rhetoric which filled the campaign. We trust that there will indeed be policies which are good for America. But, that which is distasteful, we clear our voices and raise them up as loud, and as often as possible. I attended a rally on the campus of UNL today, and suffice it to say, there are a lot of people, gay, white, black, asian, native american, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, who are genuinely frightened for the uncertain future because the only things they know to be true are the words which have been spoken and the policies which have been proposed. Those fears deserve to be taken seriously.

Since November 8, I have had some fascinating conversations that have given me some hope. I have found people on both sides of the aisle who genuinely care about some of the same issues as I do. Some really care for LGBT rights. As those issues arise, we can join together with anyone willing to lend their support and knock down those ideas. I have found others who actually care about a woman’s right to choose. So we seek our allies, and knock it down. There are people on both sides who do not support the Muslim registry, so again, we work together to knock that down. Whatever the issue, we hate the ideas and we accept any ally, regardless of their vote or political leaning to reject those ideas we hold so dear.

Most pressing right now is how we address the formation of the new Presidential administration. Many of us have made a mistake by describing individuals themselves as white Nationalists and anti-semites. While it may be true, we cannot definitively prove either statement. What is quantifiable however is the presence of at least one adviser, who in his own words, provided a platform for the alt right, which is a euphemism for white nationalists, which is another word for Nazis and Klansmen.

Another way to look at this is to consider a great enemy of the Jewish people we read about in Exodus. The terrible Amalek attacked the most vulnerable Israelites from behind just as they were leaving slavery in Egypt. And we are to be at war with Amalek throughout the ages. A midrash (cited by Rashi on Deu 25:18) explains why Amalek is so hated. It was not that he attacked the Israelites. The rabbis believed that with God’s help, they could not be defeated. What Amalek did by attacking was to make it appear that other nations, who would otherwise know better, could do the same. And so Amalek’s sin was to open the floodgates for other nations to attack as well. So let us be cautious with our comparisons. We are not talking about Hitler, or even Goebbels. We are talking about a modern day Amalek, giving voice to racism and senseless hate, making it mainstream, and giving the appearance that others may do the same.

Again, it does not matter who you voted for. As Jews, we have to speak out against the forces of hate, by hating them in return, not in our hearts, but with our words and our deeds. We need to appeal to our elected leaders and tell them this is not ok. We need to call upon our president elect not to allow policies to be shaped by people whose presence instills fear in large groups of American communities.

That is not the world we want to live in, and hand to our children, so it is incumbent upon us to reprove our fellow citizens, to show them the positive force of hate, as we demolish destructive ideals, and set our fellow kinsmen on the path of right. We must hate evil, because that part of loving God.

Chazak ve’ematz. May we be strong and of good courage so that we may stand up for justice in the coming days.

Shabbat Shalom.

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A Prayer For Our Nation

I just want to add this after my most recent post. Prayer is good. We must be thoughtful about what we pray for. I cannot say it any better than this prayer:

From Mishkan Tefillah: A Reform Siddur- Shabbat, p. 258

O GUARDIAN of life and liberty,
may our nation always merit your protection.
Teach us to give thanks for what we have
by sharing it with those who are in need.
Keep our eyes open to the wonders of creation,
and alert to the care of the earth.
May we never be lazy in the work of peace;
may we honor those who have died in defense of our ideals.
Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.
May they govern with justice and compassion.
Help us all to appreciate one another,
and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.
May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,
and our country be sound in body and spirit.
Amen.

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One Nation, Under God… But Which Version?

There has been an internet meme that people prayed about the election, and those prayers brought them victory. Aside from the obvious, that no religious group voted unanimously for Donald Trump, there is a more disturbing sentiment in this statement. Proclaiming  one form of prayer victorious plays into a narrative of religious triumphalism, a notion that makes people of other religions nervous. It turns our election into a battle of prayer, who prayed harder, and whose prayer God preferred. This was how wars were settled in the Ancient Near East, god against god. Each nation would carry an effigy into battle, and the clash of armies would reflect the battle of the gods. Whichever army won, their god was superior. That god’s effigy would earn a higher place in the pantheon of gods. Is that what American elections have become, an effigy of an elephant vs. a donkey carried by candidates through debates, and rallies, and advertising until votes get counted to decide the victor? I hope not. To turn our elections into battles between gods would be pagan. It would also mean democracy was in the hands of the divine, not the citizens here below. Furthermore, most of us, regardless of how we vote, are talking about and to the same god. Even most atheists are talking about that very same god they don’t believe in. It is hard to imagine God fighting against Godself. It might look like the Monty Python sketch where a man wrestles himself into submission. Of course some religions could see a 3-on-1 fight, but that hardly sounds fair. So can we cut out the triumphal religious overtones? A candidate got more human votes. If any god or gods had anything to do with it, then one could rightfully argue that it was rigged.

Ok. For the sake of argument, let’s go with the “we prayed for this,” scenario. If prayers for the election were answered, that means that the victor has been anointed by God. Didn’t we throw a bunch of tea in Boston Harbor to get away from divine right? By the way, there is a religious word for “anointed one”- it’s Messiah. If we elected the Messiah, we have a lot more to prepare for than a simple inauguration. We would have to clear the way for Elijah’s coming. We are more likely to see Elijah Cummings, who is not thrilled about any of this. I for one think it would be a mistake to call Donald Trump the anointed one. Again, to quote Monty Python, “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” He won the election fair and square, but this was no divine act, so let’s stop pretending.

As a rabbi who works hard at building interfaith dialogue and understanding, I want people to quit saying “my god is better than your god”, especially when it is the same God. It is impossible to feel respect or love from someone who considers your belief and practice inferior to their own. If we are truly going to love our friends and neighbors, unconditionally giving them their due respect, people need to understand how others feel when they are told their prayers are inferior, especially when the supposed proof is a man-made election. It is fine, actually right, to be grateful, to pray for the health and wisdom of a leader, and to pray for their success. But humility, which is demanded by all religions, demands we recognize the prayers of sadness and regret on the other side, equally accompanied by prayers for the future of our nation. God takes no sides in elections, though arguably God is most needed to comfort and strengthen the losers. Still none of us can say for sure that any of this was God’s will. God’s will is for peace and understanding, freedom for all mankind, all of those things which, as we awakened on November 9, were still distant dreams. So, it might be wise for us to quit turning earthly triumph into religious triumph, rejecting non-believers or heathens who dare to vote another way. It is time that we all start praying for the same things, health, safety, prosperity for all the Earth, and to stop bragging that our vote was some sort of divine emanation through which God showed our beliefs to be right. Our democracy prohibits the establishment of any religion, so even if God wanted to tamper with an election, our Constitution demands we resist. The issues before us are too important to wait for divine validation. Life is too precious. Time is too precious. Democracy is too precious. We have to, instead, be one nation, indivisible, under God, each according to our own understanding of God, and challenge our leaders to turn our shared prayers into reality.