The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Architects of Sacred Time

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
22 August 2014 • Parashat Re'eh
Natasha Kotzubei Bat Mitzvah
Pelican Hill Resort • Newport Beach, CA

In a setting like this, it's easy to feel like you're away from it all. Beautiful spaces, the ocean view, the food and drink – it all makes this like a paradise village. In places like this, you can really feel the transcendent.

That's why, I think, in this week's Torah portion God is so worried about the sacred sites of the tribes living in Eretz Yisrael, and commands the Israelites to destroy them all, "on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree" (Deuteronomy 12:2). There's an anxiety that we will start to worship them, as in, all hail the god of Pelican Hill! I'm joking of course, but breathtaking places and spaces do something to us, something profound. The setting matters.

Our tradition often pictured God in a Palace, because in the ancient mind, the most powerful thing was a king. Preparing for entering the Promised Land, the Israelites receive the command not to worship any longer however they please, wherever they please. Now it's time for a temple, THE Temple, centralized in Jerusalem. One true palace for the one true King.

But the Israelites and we Jews also learned the hard way that palaces crumble over time, and they can be destroyed. So we learned a new way to meet God, to connect spiritually and in community.

It's how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat: building a palace in time. Making the effort to set aside a moment and to invest the intention to make it as transcendent in time as a palace is in space.

Space matters, too. Don't get me wrong. Coming here to mark this life cycle milestone makes it special, sacred, memorable. We can create a feeling here that is unique to this special place. The challenge, then, is how to sustain and cultivate that sense of the sacred, so immediate here, in our everyday lives.

A Hasidic rebbe once taught: just as, when looking at a beautiful mountain (or ocean view), a mere thumb placed in front of the eye can block the whole thing from view – so too does our every day routine obscure the holiness that surrounds us in every moment.

And so, an invitation, a challenge, for all of us: can you be so present this weekend, as witnesses to the miracle of this threshold moment in Tashi's life, that the sacredness of it continues to resonate throughout the next week, month, year, more? Can we, inspired by this palace in space, learn to be architects of sacred time, building a palace where we can dwell in holiness no matter where or when we find ourselves?

Shabbat shalom. May we find peace and wholeness together this weekend, and may we carry it with us when we leave this place.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Some thoughts about Israel

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 25, 2014 • Parashat Masei

I have been reticent to speak or write about the current situation in Israel. In trying to articulate exactly why I've been so hesitant, I came up with three reasons. There may be more.

First, it is still very emotional for me. Every time I read about the conflict, in particular about casualties, it touches an already raw nerve. I'm usually a news fiend, checking Facebook constantly to see what people are reading and posting and discussing, but I've had to stop. 

The second reason has to do with what typically happens when we talk about Israel. If you saw the Daily Show recently, you know what I'm talking about. Jon Stewart started to speak to his previous coverage of the Israel/Gaza conflict, but as soon as he uttered the word "Israel" or "Hamas", four other correspondents jumped up around him and shouted him down. That's often what it feels like to talk about Israel these days. It's less an exchange of ideas and more a series of emotional outbursts. There has been so much nastiness and misinformation online, too, and especially on social media. Friends I otherwise respect have posted Facebook updates that make me angry and concerned. Yet another reason I've had to take a hiatus.

Third, it often feels like I have nothing to add to the whirlwind of punditry and journalism that publishes opinions and reports on the conflict every minute. Either I'm saying what's already been said, or I'm saying something that will be obsolete momentarily.

In spite of these reasons, I want to share some thoughts with you tonight, to give you a sense of how I've been thinking about Israel and the conflict. I share these thoughts not because I expect you to agree. Perhaps you will find something in my words that resonates with you. Perhaps you will, in reacting against what I say, clarify how you think and feel.

First: there is no question in my mind that Israel is justified in using force in its own defense. I feel that's especially true given the revelation of the Hamas tunnel network, and their plan to send Hamas fighters dressed as IDF soldiers into Israel to massacre Israelis. [Since I wrote this, new details have come to light – surprise – indicating that Israel knew about the tunnels for about a decade already. Read J.J. Goldberg's round-up of Israel news on the topic here and here.]

Second: there is no question that civilians are dying in Gaza. Saying that and feeling deeply saddened by it does not undermine Israel or our support for Israel. Rather, it confirms our humanity. And there's no way we can credibly claim the moral high ground, as we like to do in this conflict, unless we care about Gazan civilian deaths.

Third: Yitzhak Rabin used to say, "We shall fight terror like there's no peace process, and pursue peace like there's no terror." As far off as peace may seem right now, I do stand with Israel and the USA in continuing to aggressively pursue a negotiated resolution. If we stop aspiring to peace, even in the midst of war, then what have we become? Power and self-defense are not ends in themselves. Israel exists both to protect Jewish lives and to cultivate a nation rooted in Jewish values. Let's stay committed to both and resist the false choice of taking only one or the other.

Fourth: In this week's haftarah, Jeremiah denounces the Israelites' idolatry and blames that for their defeat by foreign powers. This is a classic move by many of our prophets. Jeremiah castigates Israel for trusting in "wood" and "stone" – that is, the works of their hands – rather than the spirit of God. So even as I stand behind Israel's use of force in Gaza against Hamas – even as I support Israel being a sovereign power despite the cost of exercising that power, both for Israel's youth and for innocent Gazans – even then, I continue to stand behind the need for a peace process. Because, as strong and exemplary as the IDF is, military force is a necessary but insufficient tool for bringing a lasting resolution to this conflict. Let me say that again: military force is necessary but insufficient for bringing about a lasting resolution to this conflict.

Fifth: It is altogether fitting and proper (as a great American once said) to mourn Israel's fallen heroes. Some have suggested, in recent days, that American synagogues should read the names of the Gazans killed in the conflict when we say Kaddish as a community. I know this idea is coming from a goodhearted place, a humanitarian place, but it doesn't feel quite right to me. I believe there is a time and place for reading those names, each of them suggesting a story of loss and a family forever changed – a peace vigil, a news story, a worship service of their faith. But here, our first responsibility is to mourn our own, locally and globally.

Let that not be taken as a call to care only for Jewish lives, to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. No. Quite the opposite. As we mourn our own, let it be a reminder that all humanity lives in concentric circles of loyalty and affection, starting with the self. Let it also remind us that empathy and care for the other start with proper care for the self.

As we mention these 35 names [the number has risen already since last Shabbat], let us also feel gratitude for their sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people, for us. And let us feel responsible in our own ways to the greater good of the Jewish people (e.g. Stop the Sirens). May we honor their memories by working toward the peace they died fighting to achieve.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Proclaim "liberty" throughout the land...

Rabbi David Segal
Guest Sermon
Aspen Community United Methodist Church
Sunday, 11 May 2014

“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10)

For all you American history buffs, this verse should ring a bell (sorry…). It was inscribed on the Liberty Bell in 1751, based on the King James translation of Leviticus. The Liberty Bell wasn’t known by that name until a group of abolitionists named it in the 1830s. The bell’s symbolism resonated with their mission to abolish slavery and thus “proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

It’s a beautiful message and a powerful symbol of our nation’s values. Only one problem: it’s not a very good translation of the verse in Leviticus. It is rather an example of something we are all probably guilty of in one way or another: taking a Bible verse out of context to express an idea we care about, with little sensitivity to the original intent of the text.

The verse appears in Leviticus in this past week’s Torah portion (B’har), which we just read in my congregation on Shabbat. It’s part of the description of the Jubilee year. 

First we hear the rule about the farming Sabbath: just as we must rest on the seventh day, so too shall our fields rest in the seventh year. It’s a Shabbat for the land, known as Shmita. No reaping allowed, although whatever grows naturally may be eaten by us, our servants, our laborers, and our animals. It feels like letting the land return to a state of nature, living for a year as gatherers who depend on the land rather than as farmers who dominate it. Perhaps it’s a way of expressing gratitude to the land for its sustenance, and to God.

One commentator I came across finds another message in this Shabbat for the farmland: “Sometimes the wealthy don’t believe that poor people are actually suffering, suspecting that they are just too lazy to provide for themselves. Let the wealthy undergo the experience of not knowing whether there will be enough to eat, and their attitudes will change.”

This economic justice context frames the appearance of the Liberty Bell verse. Moving from the Sabbatical year to the Jubilee year, the text tells us to count off seven weeks of years –seven times seven, or 49 years. Then in the 50th year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), sound the shofar and observe the Jubilee. (The word Yovel, Jubilee, comes from the word meaning ram’s horn.) In that special year, not only is there no sowing or reaping, but there is also to be d’ror proclaimed throughout the land. The King James and Liberty Bell translate it as “liberty,” but that’s not exactly right. More accurate would be, “release.” The text continues: “Proclaim release throughout the land… and each of you shall return to his holding and to his family” (Leviticus 25:10).

So what is this “release” and “returning to holdings”? It refers to people “evicted from their homes and farms due to foreclosure” (Etz Hayim, p. 740, note on Leviticus 25:10). In other words, every 50 years there is to be a radical release from debt, a systematic loan forgiveness program, and an undoubtedly inconvenient process of people moving back to their original homes.

Jewish tradition has a complicated relationship with this law, because it presents a hardship for farmers, not to mention landlords and lenders. It throws real estate into confusion every 50 years – can you imagine instituting that rule here in Aspen! To make it simpler, the law has been interpreted as applying only in the Land of Israel. The rabbis found other ways around the hardship, for example by permitting Jews to sell their farmland to non-Jews during the seventh year so it could continue to be plowed, and then to buy it back after the shmita year ends.

These laws and loopholes got me thinking about the conversation going on in our country now about the economic challenges we face. In particular, there is a hardening of opposing views in an increasingly divisive political arena. On one extreme we have liberty being defined as getting the government out of our lives and out of the economy; on the other extreme, there’s a call for radical redistribution by government intervention. Not only do we disagree on how to alleviate poverty, but it seems like we can’t agree on whether it’s even our responsibility to address it.

On this question – if you’re a religious Christian or Jew, if you take the Bible seriously – then there’s not much room for argument. Our traditions and our God demand that we care for the poor and address economic injustice. I know we are gathered here in a Methodist Church being addressed by a rabbi, but Pope Francis has much to teach us in this regard. He has been a godsend by refocusing the Catholic Church back on the authentic biblical legacy of care for the poor. He even tweeted last month, in Latin, Inequitas radix malorum – “inequality is the root of evils.” Since his election, he has been pushing an anti-poverty agenda and criticizing capitalism to a surprising degree. The point is, you can disagree with his proposed solutions, and even with his diagnosis, but not with his emphasis. We should be talking about this problem, of the great disparities in poverty and wealth, of systemic inequity and economic injustice. These are global problems, moral challenges that confront us as Christians, as Jews, as Americans, as citizens of the world.

It is possible to rise above the partisan bickering, hard as that is to imagine. For one example, let us turn to Israel, and new Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. Calderon is a Talmudic scholar and founder of a groundbreaking “secular yeshiva” – a place for Israelis of all religious backgrounds and beliefs to come study Torah, to learn the tradition, to benefit from its wisdom. Calderon is applying the spirit of the law of shmita and jubilee, of letting the land rest and releasing debts, to contemporary Israeli society. She has called on other Members of Knesset to make the Shmita year 5775 (starting September 2014) a year of meaningful activism, awareness, and responsibility.

She is advancing an economic recovery program, in which Israeli families in dire financial need are selected for help. Then, through a public-private partnership, the families will get debt forgiveness and help with loan restructuring and repayment. Banks will cut interest rates, government subsidies will provide some aid, and the families will be required to pay off part of the remaining debt themselves. It’s a practical and compassionate solution, rooted in biblical values, and transcending the usual mire of left vs. right politics. I started to do a thought experiment about the US Congress undertaking a similar initiative… but it got so depressing I had to stop. Still, I believe there is hope, as far off as it may seem at times. 

A few verses after the jubilee, we read God’s words: “the Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”(Leviticus 25:23). What would our politics, our business, our everyday lives look like if we lived as if we were merely sojourners here? If we saw ourselves as stewards of this place, responsible to an eternal presence much greater than ourselves? 

This perspective doesn’t dictate any one political solution but rather an attitude, a spirit in which we should approach our neighbor, and our social problems. In the end, the Bible doesn’t call us to be a Republican or a Democrat, or to support the nuts and bolts of one economic policy over another. It charges us to be responsible, humble, and grateful. It demands that we care, and that we act.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Cowboy's Prayer" by Badger Clark

I heard this a few weeks ago at a local funeral and was very moved. Thought I'd share it.

A Cowboy's Prayer
Badger Clark (Written for Mother)

Oh Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day You finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That's sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That You have made my freedom so complete;
That I'm no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I've begun
And give me work that's open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won't ask a life that's soft or high.

Let me be easy on the man that's down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I'm careless sometimes, Lord, when I'm in town,
But never let 'em say I'm mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that's done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Purim: On Bending the Rules

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parshat Tzav • Purim • 14 March 2014

Consider the following two statements: 
• “That new rabbi is really assertive.” 
• “That new rabbi is really bossy.” 

In your mind’s eye, was there a gender difference between the two, assertive and bossy? If Sheryl Sandberg is right, there was: women are called bossy; men are assertive. 

Sandberg’s view has gone viral with the success of Lean In, her book on women, the workplace, and leadership. She is on a mission to strike “bossy” from our vocabulary. As a word, it is used not merely to describe, but to deride and marginalize women.

Writing today in Tablet Magazine, Rachel Shukert offers a tongue-in-cheek counterproposal to Sandberg’s anti-“bossy” crusade. We will still need, she asserts, a word to describe people like that – people who look over our shoulder and dictate how we should be doing things – you know, backseat drivers. Let’s follow Sandberg’s lead, she says, and choose a word that doesn’t have all the anti-feminist baggage of “bossy”, but rather “merely” some anti-Semitic resonance: how about “pushy”?

She explains, 
It’s a word mainly applied to things like jostling for bar mitzvah dates and looking for loopholes in medical-school applications, and you know what? I say we give it back to the world. True, it’s not a perfect synonym for “bossy,” but it’s close enough, and once it’s everyone’s, it’s no one’s. Maybe this time next year [since we’ll have reappropriated “pushy”], we’ll be debating a new term for the person cutting in line at Bloomingdale’s –for example, “Jewish.”
Every year, Purim confronts us with a story of gender and power, of blurred identities, of leadership that is either bossy and pushy or bold and assertive, depending on your perspective.

This year, as Batya Ungar-Sargon reports, two viral Purim videos from Orthodox corners of the Jewish world made their own gendered statements about this holiday. One, a parody of “What does the fox say?” entitled “What does Haman say?” casts the Haman-Mordechai conflict as the central narrative of the story. Esther has barely a bit part and doesn't speak at all. 

Another, entitled The Story of Lester, removes Esther entirely. In this hour-long computer-animated tale, a young yeshiva boy who is responsible for producing his shul's Purim spiel hits his head and time travels back to ancient Shushan, on the eve of the Purim events. Knowing the ending, he warns Vashti what will happen to her if she doesn’t obey the King – so she isn’t banished, and Esther never appears. It’s Lester’s job to save the day.

In both stories, anxiety about a female heroine – for whom, lest we forget, the biblical book and the ritual fast are named – prompted the substitution of male characters (in Lester’s case, quite literally) for Esther’s queenly leadership. But as the article points out:
...any child who understands the bare minimum of the holiday’s text—the Megillah—will be forced to confront the gloriously discomforting fact that a woman with power was given her own holiday. And not just any woman; a woman with what can only be called sexual power becomes a leader of her people by using said power to save the Jews. So while we might (please, let’s!) debate whether the text is a feminist text or not, there is no question that the text is not only about female power, but about...canonizing it.
She goes on to warn readers that if they are deeply concerned about exposing their children to this discomforting, gender-role-bending, provocative story – then they definitely shouldn't go to shul on Purim.

And especially not to OUR shul, where we’ll be taking the gender-bending theme to a whole new level… It’s not just for the cheap thrill of seeing a man in a dress or a woman in a mullet wig (although that may be worth the price of admission). There’s something deeper going on that gets to the heart of what the holiday of Purim is all about.

When we talk about gender-bending, we are talking about bending the rules. In this case, rules about gendered clothing. Tomorrow, when you see men in skirts, and women with mustaches, you may be both amused and somewhat uncomfortable. That’s because of how deeply we have internalized our culture’s rules about gender identity and presentation.

This is true any time we bend the rules. It is destabilizing, even threatening. It invites chaos, anarchy. It might just feel wrong. But when we dwell in that discomfort, we can begin to learn the powerful lesson of Purim. 

Jews are a people of rules. We have a tradition of halakhah. We have 613 mitzvoth. This week’s parashah, Tzav, contains detailed rules upon rules about making sacrifices. Mitzvoth pervade our tradition – and mitzvoth are good! They define our relationships to God and others, they teach us our obligations to the world and ourselves, they allow us to maintain a functioning society and enforce justice, they train us to walk in the ways of righteousness. Mitzvoth and halakhah are paths to goodness.

Except when they aren’t. As with most things in our world, even mitzvoth, even rules, can become idols. They can become ends in themselves, disembodied from the real lives and situations they affect. When we become too fixated on rules, too obsessed with the letter of the law, we risk losing its spirit. We compromise our humanity. Rather than paths to righteousness, rules can become obstacles to what really matters. They cause us to forget that every human being is a unique soul, created in God’s image, who often doesn’t fit the neat categories that the law or social convention lays out for us.

And so on this day of Purim, we bend and suspend the rules. We dress up (and perhaps cross-dress). We get rowdy (and perhaps tipsy). It’s like Thomas Jefferson said (although he wasn't talking about Purim): “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical” (letter to James Madison, 1787). Well, it’s necessary in the religious and spiritual world as well. For one thing, a night of irreverence helps us celebrate and laugh as a community, and that’s a holy thing. Everyone’s soul has wounds and dark places that welcome the soothing light of laughter.

But it’s not that alone. Purim’s suspension of rules, its blurring of lines, should shake us out of complacently following rules without minding their purpose. It should ease our fear that the sky will fall if things aren’t always “by the book.” No one’s going to get struck by lightning because a man wears a dress and heels, or a woman puts on a fake mustache. 

Of course, it’s not just about breaking down traditional gender roles. It’s about seeing all people for who they are beneath all the layers of stereotype and artifice that culture and religion and good manners impose. Purim is trying to teach us to see past disability, language, faith, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political party, age, intelligence, net worth – all the ways we let ourselves be defined and define others – too look past those things and really see each other as a neshamah kedoshah, a sacred soul with its own God-given dignity.

Don’t worry though, the only stripping we’ll be doing tomorrow during the spiel is the stripping away of preconceived notions, of judgment, of insecurity. In Purim’s perfect irony, we dress up in costume to dress down our shortcomings. We put on masks in order to really see each other. And in light of the very serious and difficult work we have to do, as individuals and as a community, to walk in God’s ways, we can’t help but laugh.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Purim Sameach.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar...

Our 40th Anniversary Comedy night fundraiser is now online, thanks to GrassrootsTV!

Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar...

The Aspen Jewish Congregation's 40th Anniversary FUNdraiser at the Belly Up bar in Aspen, CO. Featuring Rabbis Matt Soffer, Molly G. Kane, and David Segal. Doug Weiser as MC. Sunday, February 23, 2014, at the Belly Up Aspen.

Order of the evening:
Doug Weiser opens (FYI, this segment contains some profanity)
6:05. Rabbi Matt Soffer performs stand-up and songs
25:05. Doug Weiser
26:50. Rabbi Molly G. Kane performs stand-up
42:55. Doug Weiser
45:03. Rabbi Soffer and Rabbi Kane perform original duet "A Rabbi in Aspen"
49:46. Rabbi David Segal performs stand-up
1:06:42. Finale: Three Rabbis sing "They Ain't Makin' Jews" by Kinky Friedman (modified lyrics)

This event was generously sponsored by:
EKS Events, Bruce Etkin & Tania Dibbs, Daryl & Henry Gelender, Marian & Leonard Lansburgh, Sandy & Mark Rothman, Shereen & Jordan Sarick, Nina & Joshua Saslove, Mary & Patrick Scanlan, Julie & Steve Schlafer, Michelle & Ken Stiller, Lynda & Doug Weiser.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Master-Disciple (Exodus 24:9-11)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
24 January 2014
Parshat Mishpatim

CLICK HERE for the audio of last Shabbat's sermon, based on this passage from the weekly parashah:

9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; 10 and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. 11 Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.