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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5776•2015: Giving Community

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning • 23 September 2015

Giving Community

Earlier this month, I traveled to Fayetteville, NC to join America’s Journey for Justice. The NAACP organized this 40-day march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC to bring national attention to ongoing racial injustice. At rallies along the way and at the capitol, activists urged state and national lawmakers to enact reforms in voting rights, criminal justice, education, health care, and economic sustainability.

I went because Reform rabbis organized to carry a Torah scroll the entire distance of the 860-mile journey. Each day a handful of rabbis shared the responsibility of holding the scroll during the 20-mile daily stretch.

I went because I still remember a black and white photo (pun intended) of Martin Luther King alongside two rabbis, one of them holding a Torah scroll. That rabbi was Maurice Eisendrath, then president of the Reform Movement. The other was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, great sage and prophet of 20th-century American Jewry. Heschel famously said of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, “I felt like my feet were praying.” Heschel’s academic work in Europe before the war was a major study of the Hebrew prophets. Then he fled the Nazis, settling in the United States to find this black Christian preacher who spoke like a Hebrew prophet. That prophetic voice called America to do cheshbon hanefesh — the soul-searching we strive to do on this holy day — and to recommit itself to its founding ideals of freedom and justice.

I went on the march because my immigrant grandparents found in America not just a haven but a home. Grateful for the opportunities afforded to them here, they modeled a life of caring citizenship and giving back to the community. Their hard work paved the way for me to have privileges and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. With that privilege comes the responsibility to pay it forward, to ensure equal opportunity and justice for others.

I went on the march because I love this country. I don’t talk about this much, but I am a sappy patriot, a sucker for Americana. I get emotional when I hear God Bless America. I get excited for the 4th of July — not the parades and BBQs so much as the actual commemoration of the revolution. I can't wait to reread George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, RI, declaring America a land that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Never before had a nation made such a promise to the Jews. It makes me swell with pride and gratitude — and also humility, as I think of other groups who have known bigotry and persecution all too well in this country. I love this country both for what it is and for what it promises to be. The Journey for Justice felt like a chance to celebrate both the progress and the potential of America. 

On the march, I met activists who were there for the day and others who were on their 31st day of marching. They were black, white, Latino; young and old; Jew and Christian. There was an 85-year-old white woman who led the pack at a brisk pace. She was part of a local group called “The Raging Grannies” who like to get into trouble for justice. There was a black teenager who complained about the heat while getting on the bus for a break. I shared his feelings, because it was very hot — 90 degrees, sunny, and humid. One of the elders turned to this boy and said, “Your ancestors endured much worse, picking cotton all day in the hot sun with no breaks.” He didn’t complain after that. I thought of what our people have endured — in the Shoah, pogroms, the Inquisition, Egypt. I thought of the imperative, never forget. I thought of why we brought the Torah on the march in the first place: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; see also Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19). I thought about our Jewish slavery narrative, how we retell it every year to our children, how it calls us to value freedom and justice, and to remember our kinship with the oppressed.

I realized later that I put a lot of pressure on the march to transform me. In an unexpected way, it did: it reinvigorated my drive to be more invested in this community’s well-being. The Journey for Justice was an important symbolic statement and rallying cry at the state and federal level. But my revelation was about my calling to “do justice and love mercy” here in this valley. Here, with this congregation, I can have the greatest impact. My community, the context in which I live out my values, is here.

I’ve shared with you before a quote by E.B. White that has become a mantra: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Here in the Roaring Fork Valley we’ve mastered the “savor” part. Whether we’ve moved here or visit part-time, the natural beauty, outdoor recreation, small-town feel and slower pace of life bring us joy.

On this day of soul-searching, of teshuva - returning to our core values, I challenge us to work on the “improving the world” side of the equation. Let’s cultivate the will to better this place. I know there are hundreds of non-profits here, and I know our members are active in dozens of projects to improve well-being in the valley. Today, I want to push us to become more involved as a congregation, to make social responsibility a cornerstone of who we are.

Two of our core values, as mentioned in our mission statement, speak to this:
Tzedek u'Mishpat - צדק ומשפט - Righteousness & Justice: Fostering a commitment to the mitzvot of Tzedakah (obligation of giving) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Organizing and volunteering to make change for the good of our communities.    
Or La-Goyim - אור לגויים - A Light to the Nations: Living our Jewish values publicly within our communities for the benefit of all. Promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation.  
They’re beautiful words, and I say that not just because I helped write them. They express our people’s highest calling.  More complicated, though, is how to embody them as a sacred collective. What does it actually look like?

As a step toward answering that question, I’ve been involved over the last couple years with an interfaith valley-wide conversation convened by the Manaus Fund. Recently, I joined their board of directors. The organization was founded about eight years ago by George Stranahan, local philanthropist, education reformer, and strategic troublemaker. The Fund set out to combine the strengths of social entrepreneurship and community organizing to build a better valley community.

What they — now I can say we — are trying to do is change the way we relate to each other in this valley. Our lives are so individualized, so atomized, that we rarely know what’s going on for someone behind the veneer of “How are you?” — “Fine, how are you?” Think of how impatient and uncomfortable we get when someone gives a real answer! That’s true not only across group boundaries — racial, religious, socioeconomic — but also within groups, even with the very people we’re supposed to care about most. It’s a shame that people keep their struggles private when there could be public solutions within our collective grasp.

The key to transforming our community, both within these walls and throughout the valley, is to build relationships. There are techniques to learn and best practices to emulate, but in the end it’s not rocket science. It’s about relating to people by sharing concerns and interests, by being vulnerable and curious, and most importantly by listening.

The Manaus Fund has already had success through this method with the Valley Settlement Project. They hired a community organizer to go into low-income, mostly immigrant Latino communities — and listen. They found extreme isolation. They heard stories of struggle around employment, transportation, education, childcare, language. Out of that listening came several projects, for children and adults. A pre-school on wheels — El Busesito — brings early childhood education to those without other access to it. Neighborhood groups convene for parents and young children to promote healthy choices even before pre-school. For adults, a Lifelong Learning initiative in Spanish literacy and math lays a foundation for employment, passing the GED, and self-sufficiency. The Parent Mentor program trains and supports parents to be advocates in their children’s schools and to help address large class sizes as well as language and cultural barriers.

We often think of charity or justice work as something “we” do for “them.” We the privileged can give a better life to the less fortunate. In Jewish tradition, as articulated by Maimonides in his ladder of Tzedakah, the holiest form of giving is to enable someone to become self-sufficient. In the language of community organizing, it’s called the Iron Rule: “Never do for someone else what they can do for themselves.”

The truth is, these initiatives within the Latino community advance our entire community. When they organize to improve their employment readiness, their neighborhood networks, their parenting and school support — the entire community benefits. I know we have a number of congregants who are deeply involved in the local public schools, as parents, volunteers, and professionals. I think they’d agree that improving the quality of the valley’s schools is not something one group can simply do for another. That kind of positive change only comes from partnership, from relating to each other across lines of race, class, and faith that usually divide us.

Changing the conversation around how we do Tzedakah also means changing how we think about power. Jews tend to have some discomfort with the concept, since we have found ourselves too often persecuted by those in power. But power, simply defined, is the ability to get things done. And if we care about acting on our values, if we care about embodying Tzedakah and justice in this valley, then we have to care about power. We may need to dismantle some of our misconceptions around power, since we in this room tend to think of ourselves as empowered, with the financial and social capital to get what we want.

But consider this counter-example: members of our Jewish community struggle with finances, housing costs, employment, childcare, isolation. Step one is to stop pretending that all Jews are affluent and doing just fine, because that misconception blinds us to real needs in our own backyard. 

And consider a second counter-example: the recognition of Jewish holidays by the public school districts. I have made some headway on this in Aspen in the last five years. I built relationships with parents, the school board, and school administrators to express to them our concerns around the scheduling of major school events during our holiest days. The new district calendar now includes a special color code for Jewish holidays. And yet, the conflicts continue: even as I share these words on Yom Kippur, the Aspen High School Experiential Education program is currently underway, leaving many of our families to make a difficult choice. It’s not a failure of will — it means we haven’t built enough power to change it. What a fascinating thought — that this group doesn't have enough power! It’s a little surprising. Think of the wealth of resources and experience and professional success in this room right now — and yet, on this issue, we’ve hit a wall. Now, imagine if we were organized. Imagine if we were part of a coalition of Latinos and whites, of Jews and Catholics and Protestants, of parents and teachers and engaged citizens, who could bring real leverage on this issue. And then — imagine what else we could accomplish together.

How many of you have expressed concerns about aging in place here in the valley, without adequate assisted living facilities? When the Basalt Continuing Care Retirement Community fell through, in part because an outside consultant thought it would be too hard to attract and retain nurses here — doesn’t that keep you up at night? How many worry about the lack of affordable housing, as more and more families move further downvalley, and parts of Aspen become, as one pastor told me, “a ghost town”? How many parents worry about their kids getting a quality education, and why do so many of our kids go to boarding school? How many of us lose sleep over pockets of anti-Semitism in this valley, often rearing their heads in nasty letters to the editor? How many parents wonder how to raise socially conscious kids in a bubble of privilege?

The truth is, we can’t address any of these questions alone. In fact, the more we retreat inward, the worse our problems become. We have to redefine Tzedakah not as what “we” do for “them” nor even as what “we” do for each other — but as what we all do in partnership for the good of our community. If we want to face our concerns and act on our values effectively, we can’t act alone. We need power — and power comes from organized relationships.

Look for opportunities in the coming year to build public relationships with people who are often invisible to us — both within and outside our walls. Look for chances to identify new leaders and develop your leadership potential. One of my mentors calls it “liberating talent.” Look for our congregation to be focused less on what programs we can serve to you, and more on what aspirations we can realize together. Look to be challenged to test your assumptions about who needs help, who has power, and what it means to be in community.

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the rewards of being a giver. Today I call us to the public, collective expression of giving. We are about to read in the Torah: atem nitzavim ha-yom kul-chem — “You stand, all of you, this day,” ready to enter into a communal covenant (Deut. 29:9). What if we were to see our relationship to this community as a covenant, with duties and expectations? What if we were to invest in the empowerment of others, to advance the community together instead of advancing ourselves without regard for others? What if we had faith that these are the ways to improve our world? What would it take for us to realize that pursuing justice will transform us along the way? 

This thing which God commands us to do is not beyond us or out of reach…  No, it is so very near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, to do it. (Deut. 30:11, 14)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kol Nidrei Sermon 2015•5776: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Kol Nidrei 5776 • 22 September 2015

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Picture the year 2158. Medical science has found the fountain of youth. Anti-Gerasone, an elixir created 102 years earlier, in 2056, stops the human aging process. Made from mud and dandelions, it is cheap and widely available. There’s no more bodily decline, no more debilitation, no more death by natural causes.

Sounds pretty good, right? To live in such a paradise — it’s what we all long for.

Or is it? What I’ve just described is the premise of a 1954 Kurt Vonnegut short story called “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” If you know Vonnegut, you can guess that his version of 2158 is a dystopian future. The fountain of youth has some severe side effects.

In 2158, we zoom in on the Schwartz family, four generations living in a cramped three-room apartment in outer New York City — what used to be Connecticut. With natural death overthrown, the world is overpopulated. Food and space are scarce. People eat seaweed for every meal and squeeze into small homes. 

The Schwartz family spends all their time trying not to upset Gramps, the patriarch of the family. If you get on his good side, you get preferred bed placement; if you cross him, you get demoted to sleeping in the hallway next to the bathroom. Gramps spends his time rewriting his will to disinherit whichever relative is bothering him today, and to appoint a new favorite as the heir to his private bedroom.

It’s a grim picture of something we think we want — immortality. It’s also a warning. Even something as precious as life — which Jewish tradition commands us to “choose” in no uncertain terms — even the pursuit of life can become a kind of idol-worship. Vonnegut’s cautionary tale prods us to ask, not simply, “How long can we live?” — but also, “What are we living for?”

Vonnegut’s imaginary anti-aging medicine may have felt futuristic in 1954. But with regard to longevity, today we are heading toward an unprecedented reality. More people than ever will live to 100. At first glance, what a blessing! Think of how many more of us will live to see grandchildren married, great-grandchildren born, businesses and causes we supported thriving beyond our wildest dreams. 

And yet, what of the darker side of longevity? How many more of us will suffer from cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia? How many of us will endure incurable chronic decline?

When I was 13, my grandmother Lillie Segal (for whom our son Levi is named) collapsed suddenly while playing bridge with her friends. She was 82 at the time, sound of mind and body. It turned out she’d had a massive stroke that rendered her braindead. She was kept on life support until the family said their goodbyes and then let her go. What stuck in my 13-year-old brain was how the adults around me reacted. They said things like, “She was lucky” and, “That’s how I want to go — great health into old age and then, one day — [SNAP].” I didn’t understand it at the time. As a teenager, I thought, “A sudden death means not getting to say goodbye. Wouldn’t it be better to die slowly, with notice, surrounded by family?”

Now I’ve seen others die a prolonged death — my own loved ones and patients for whom I’ve served as chaplain. It’s not better. To watch people suffer, to watch their loved ones watch them suffer — I understand why they said Grandma Lillie was lucky. More than we fear death, we fear suffering. We fear loss of control, function, independence. 

There’s an old folk tale about the Jewish jester of Baghdad. He was a favorite of the Sultan, until one day he told a joke that offended his ruler. The Sultan summoned him to his court. “Dear jester,” he said, “for offending the crown, I sentence you to death. But because of all the years of joy and laughter you gave me, I will let you choose the manner of your death.” 

“If it’s all the same to you,” said the jester, “I choose death by old age.”

Unlike the jester, we don’t get to choose. Sadly, some of us will have to cope with debility and loss of independence. Some of us already face these challenges as caretakers of aging spouses, parents, loved ones. 

Leaving the jester’s tale aside, let’s focus on what we can control. We can own our attitude and our communication with our loved ones around death and end of life. It starts with a conversation. Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, suggests starting here:
Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding? (Gawande, 259)
(I’ve also compiled a list of questions for guiding these conversations which you can find as you exit tonight, as well as on our website after Yom Kippur.) Too often, we wait to have these conversations until we’re already in crisis mode. Emotions run hot, so it’s hard to think clearly. Sometimes the person whose life hangs in the balance is not fully present to discuss their health care priorities. Families are left to do their best to respect what they guess their loved one’s wishes are.

In other cases, we face choices around a terminal illness when the treatment stops working. Gawande describes a “breakpoint discussion,” which involves
a series of conversations to sort out when they need to switch from fighting for time to fighting for the other things that people value — being with family or enjoying chocolate ice cream… At root the debate is about what mistakes we fear most — the mistake of prolonging suffering or the mistake of shortening valued life. (Gawande, 185, 244)
It is hard to know when to keep fighting, and when to let go. These are difficult conversations, and they take time and raw honesty. There’s no prescription I can give from the pulpit to resolve every dilemma. I can encourage being open and proactive in discussing end of life questions with your family. Of course, advanced directives and power of attorney paperwork are vital. But as important is the talk you have with your loved ones about what is in those legal documents, and the values behind them. Speaking as a doctor, Gawande reminds us:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. (Gawande, 259)

That is our job. As a sacred community, that’s why we’re here tonight — to better understand why we’re here. To explore larger questions of purpose, to find the “why” of our life. This night of judgment asks: What are you living for?

*   *   *

I was listening to the radio in my car the other day, and for reasons I can’t quite explain I turned to the local Christian rock station. I guess I was checking out the competition, or something. In between songs, an ad came on for a documentary film about a pastor who was in a terrible car accident and pronounced dead at the scene. For the next hour and a half, the narrator said, his soul experienced life like he never knew before. The film was called 90 Minutes in Heaven, guaranteed to reassure you about what awaits after you shuffle off this mortal coil.

People ask me all the time, “Rabbi, what do Jews believe happens after we die?” There are a lot of answers. Ancient answers, medieval answers, modern answers, with sources and prooftexts. I just taught a class on this topic last spring.  We talked about the immortality of the soul, purgatory, communion with God, and the resurrection of the dead under the Messiah’s rule.

But if you’ll permit your rabbi a moment of public skepticism and vulnerability: I don’t know what happens after we die. Maybe that’s obvious, but I wanted to say it out loud. Furthermore, no one knows what happens after we die — not with certainty, anyway. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask the question, or study how various cultures have answered it — on the contrary, go and study. I’m just saying, we won’t know for sure until we get there.

That said, I do know with certainty a few things that happen after we die. Our loved ones sign paperwork. They make decisions about remains. They sort out inheritance. They go through our stuff. They also begin the process of remembering us.

“The living know they shall die,” says Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The living know then, too, that one day we will live in the memory of those we met along the way. One of the responsibilities of living is preparing for dying — preparing to live in memory. I don’t mean a morbid retreat into despair or nihilism. I mean seeing your life from a God’s-eye view, as a bridge between past and future, a finite span inside eternity. 

There’s a story I read with my b’nai mitzvah students when we start studying together. Once there was a young wave who lived in the ocean. All day long he danced and sprayed, happily rushing along in the currents. Then one day he was startled. He saw that the waves in front of him were crashing on an unknown beach and dissolving away. He got scared and started to cry. An older wave rolled over to him and said, “Young wave, until now you have known only your own crests and troughs. You thought you were alone. Now you have learned you were never alone. You were always part of a huge ocean, a greater force. You have been shaped by waves who crashed long before you, and the ripples from your break will be felt by other waves long after you reach the shore.”

*   *   *

At the end of the Vonnegut story, Gramps the patriarch gets the last laugh. He fakes his death and leaves a note telling his descendants that all of his belongings will be divided up evenly among them. Of course, there’s only one master bedroom… As the family members stake their claims, the tension escalates and a riot ensues. The police arrest them all and throw them in prison. They are ecstatic: in prison, they each have their own bed and washbasin, and the rarest commodity of all, privacy! They hope out loud that their lawyers can get them a long prison sentence, maybe even solitary confinement.

As for Gramps, he returns to a blissfully empty apartment. When he sits down to watch TV, an ad for Super-Anti-Gerasone comes on: “In weeks — yes, weeks — you can look, feel and act as young as your great-great-grandchildren!” Gramps smiles for the first time in years, at the thought of not just stopping but reversing his aging. “Life,” the narrator tells us, “was good.” Amusing as it is, this ending is also dark and hollow. Gramps is a hoarder — of square footage and of years. The single-minded obsession with cheating death — this idolatry of time — has turned people into selfish husks, lacking purpose or depth. Loved ones see each other as hurdles to happiness, obstacles that take up space rather than sources of love, support, meaning, and memory.

The short story’s namesake is even bleaker. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in a soliloquy the title character utters upon learning of Lady Macbeth’s death. Soon after this speech, Macbeth meets his own demise.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time;And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5:5, 17-28)
These are devastating words. But our faith teaches us that life is more than just strutting and fretting around until our time is up. We are here to do something of consequence — too add value, to advance the world, to be a blessing. We come from a people who looked up at the heavens and asked, “Why are we here?” Heirs to that tradition, we are still looking, still asking, still telling stories and singing prayers that reach toward an answer.

The sages taught in a midrash:
When a person comes into the world, his fists are clenched, as though to say, “The whole world is mine, and I shall inherit it.” But when he departs from the world, his hands are spread open, as though to say, “I have inherited nothing from this world.” (Kohelet Rabbah 5:14; Book of Legends 583:75)
In line with so much of the liturgy of the holidays, this midrash — like Macbeth’s speech — reminds us that we are but dust and ashes, our days on earth a passing shadow. As they say, you can’t take it with you.

But there is another way to read the midrash, a more life-affirming way:
When a person comes into the world, his fists are clenched, as though to say, “I’ve received the baton from those who came before me, and I’m ready for my leg of the relay.” When he departs from the world, his hands are spread open, as though to say, “I’ve run my race, and now I make my handoff to the future.”
My friends, fellow relay-runners, we are all interims. Our forebears invested in us; posterity depends on us. We’re given an allotment of years, God only knows how long, and we’re expected to run with it. When we reach the end of our track, let it be not just a letting go but a handing off.

The best way to live is to be part of something bigger than yourself. 

It is also the best way to die.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon 2015/5776: A Value-Added Life

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776
September 14, 2015
A Value-Added Life

Two women stood before King Solomon with competing claims. Both had recently given birth, but one of the children had died. Now both women claimed that the other had stolen her live child in the night and replaced him with the lifeless one. “And they went on arguing,” says the Bible, “before the king” (1 Kings 3:22).

How was Solomon to know which woman was telling the truth? How could he test whose heart was in the right place, and who was being selfish?

This tale of King Solomon’s judgment would make a good case study for Adam Grant, Wharton professor and bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Grant has spent his career studying “reciprocity styles,” dividing people into three categories: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers go out of their way to help others; takers claw their way to the top at others’ expense; matchers exchange favors tit-for-tat.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the takers from the givers. “Fakers” are takers who act nice to your face and then stab you in the back. So Grant advises us to get good at “sincerity screening” — devising tests to separate the fakers from the true givers.

King Solomon was 3,000 years too early for Grant’s book, but in his famous wisdom he devised a simple and powerful sincerity screening. After hearing the women’s claims, he announced his solution: “Fetch me a sword… Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other” (I Kings 3:24-25). Solomon never intended to execute this order. He needed data — and he got it when the women reacted to his barbaric plan. The child’s true mother objected immediately because “she was overcome with compassion for her son. ‘Please, my lord,’ she cried, “give her the child; just don’t kill him!’” (1 Kings 3:26). Even if the other woman hadn’t responded callously, “Cut away!” — Solomon already had his answer.

The woman who spoke up against her own claim to motherhood was the true mother. She cared so deeply for her child that she placed his survival over her own interest. By a certain standard of negotiation, she gave up. But she felt, and Solomon knew, that something bigger was at stake. 

We may be tempted to say — that’s a nice Bible story, but we live in the real world. In the real world, it’s dog eat dog. In the real world, you have to take from them before they take from you. In the real world, it’s zero-sum, don’t give an inch, winner take all.

But Adam Grant and his colleagues beg to differ. They say, the numbers tell a different story. Nice guys don’t always finish last, takers don’t always win, and givers don’t always lose. In fact, they’ve found that living generously is a key to success.

Take, for example, Jon Huntsman, Sr. He is a billionaire chemical company CEO, on the Forbes list of the 1,000 richest people in the world. Twenty-five years ago, he was negotiating a corporate acquisition with Charles Smith, the CEO of another chemical company. Smith’s wife died during the negotiations. Rather than keep pushing, Huntsman took the deal where it stood. He reflected later:
I decided the fine points of the last 20 percent of the deal would stand as they were proposed. I probably could have clawed another $200 million out of the deal, but it would have come at the expense of Charles’ emotional state. The agreement as it stood was good enough.” (Grant, 180)
Some of us might be saying to ourselves: What was he thinking! Too bad about the man’s wife, but business is business. You should never leave money on the table.

We live in a culture that undervalues helping. We tend to see people who need help as incompetent or needy; we see people who give help as soft do-gooders or even suckers. We assume that success comes to those who are hard-nosed rather than caring. We tend to elevate forceful extroverts who look out for number one, bend others to their will, and win lucrative contracts and flashy promotions. But maybe our emotional and moral compass is out of line.

Huntsman would say that being empathetic, not pushing for every last penny — in other words, being a giver — is good business. Those qualities are signs of strength of purpose, not weakness of will. Real success comes to those focused on a bigger picture, beyond any one negotiation.

Huntsman even believes that giving is what made him wealthy. Believe it or not, there are studies to suggest he may be right. As you’d expect, as people earn more, their charitable giving increases. 
But something more interesting happened [when researchers went deeper]. For every $1 in extra charitable giving, income was $3.75 higher. Giving actually seemed to make people richer… Surprising as it seems, people who give more go on to earn more. (Grant, 182)
I’ll say that again, because it’s hard to process: “Surprising as it seems, people who give more go on to earn more.” It’s not exactly intuitive. Researchers suggest that we underestimate the returns from giving: “giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others… There’s a wealth of evidence that the ensuing happiness can motivate people to work harder, longer, smarter, and more effectively” (Grant, 183). 

So we can get ahead by helping others get ahead? It’s not only counterintuitive, it’s countercultural. Our market culture teaches us to compete and commodify. It tells us to scrape away at the pie to increase our slice. If others get less, that’s just the cost of doing business. 

But when it comes to relationships and community — and, according to the data, in business too — those values are backwards. Of course it’s not just about money — that’s just easy to quantify in studies. I see the benefits of giving firsthand within our congregation, when people show up for each other. When you join a minyan for someone saying kaddish, when you tutor a student in Hebrew, when you welcome newcomers on Shabbat or into your home, when you build a house with Habitat for Humanity or visit someone in the hospital — anyone who does these acts will tell you, it benefits you as much as those you’re helping, and maybe more.

Here lies an irony in synagogue life. We work so hard at marketing ourselves. We ask: How can we sell our product to the unaffiliated? We position ourselves as here to serve your needs, as if you are a consumer of the services we provide. To some extent, I suppose that’s true. But too often we lose sight of our transcendent mission. We forget that the key to a life of meaning is showing up for others. It may be countercultural, particularly in this valley, where people come to disconnect and get away from it all — especially organized religion. But Jews have always been countercultural. And so we stand proudly for the belief that the deepest way to serve you is to make demands of you. Let me say that again: The deepest way to serve you is to make demands of you. If I’m selling anything, it’s the idea that your life will be enriched when you live for others. We have to train ourselves to stop asking, “What can the community do for me?” Instead we should ask, “How can I give to others?” The ultimate irony is that if we focus on creating a culture of giving, the question of “what’s in it for me?” will take care of itself.

*   *   *

As we began with King Solomon, we conclude with a story about two other Jewish sages, who lived a thousand years later. According to a midrash, 
…It happened that a certain gentile came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” At that point, Shammai repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When the man went before Hillel, [and said, “Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” —] [Hillel] said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn it.” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a)
Shammai had a right to be annoyed. Here was some stranger barging in on him with a flippant demand. Shammai had no patience for someone who seemed to be deliberately wasting his time. 

Though not known for his openness, it’s possible Shammai was having a bad day. The text says he chased the man away with an amat ha-binyan, a builder’s cubit — basically a yardstick. Rashi says it was a tool you’d use to measure the work done by a builder. (I’m sure we have some builders here today — just know that what I’m about to say is not about you.) Everyone has a story about getting swindled by a contractor — the work wasn’t finished on time, it was way over estimate, it was shoddy. I think Shammai had his yardstick out to double-check some work being done on his house. When the stranger interrupted him with this “on one foot” demand, he had just confirmed by his own measurements that the work wasn’t built to spec. He’d been scammed by a builder — taken by a taker! Now he was primed to see this newcomer as a taker, too. Adam Grant’s findings agree: takers are more likely to think that most people are takers, while givers are more willing to lead with trust.

Trust is what Hillel did when the non-Jew came to see him. He could have shunned the irreverent man, but he chose a different approach. Pirkei Avot teaches (1:6), 
וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת: 
“Judge everyone according to the side of merit.” In other words, start with the benefit of the doubt. Hillel was known for this virtue, and he decided he had time for what Adam Grant calls a “five-minute favor.” When someone makes a request, do you have five minutes to try to add value to the world, regardless of any expected reward for yourself?

Hillel was not only virtuous but also shrewd. He devised a five-minute favor that was also a sincerity screening. 

I can give this guy the whole Torah on one foot, he thought, and then open a door. If he’s sincere, he’ll “go and study.” If not, he’ll leave. Not too much of my time wasted if I’m wrong. But if I’m right — then who knows what gifts he might bring to our community?

The midrash ends before we learn how the potential convert reacted. Maybe he was just a prank caller. Or maybe Hillel’s invitation stirred some deeper yearning in him. Maybe he joined Hillel’s school, became a great sage, and brought up more disciples.

The text invites us to self-reflection. Are we more like Shammai or Hillel? Do we act like takers, with no time for anyone who isn’t obviously useful to us? Or are we strong enough to embrace the chance to add value to the world, regardless of whether we will benefit directly?

Takers who call the world an unforgiving place forget what givers know: the world is what we create it to be through our actions. We will either suffer from self-fulfilling scarcity, or reap the rewards of generosity. As one writer explained, “Givers advance the world. Takers advance themselves and hold the world back” (Grant, 258). Which one are you?

It’s clear which one we ought to be. A thousand years before Solomon, God called Abraham, the first Jew, to “be a blessing.” That was in our first mission statement not because the world is perfect, but because the world needs blessing. We too are called — as children of Abraham, of Solomon, of Hillel — to be a blessing, to be givers, to add value, to advance the world.

In the end, when we step through the door to our final passage, to that mystery beyond this life, no one is going to ask us how much money we made, how many deals we closed, how quickly we were promoted. One last sincerity screening will confront us with a single question: did you give more than you took?

L’shanah tovah tikateivu — May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year of giving.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Penguin Books, 2013.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Humility, Gratitude, Responsibility: Choosing Life through Text

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parashat Eikev
07 August 2015
Humility, Gratitude, Responsibility:
Choosing Life through Text

This week, Israel laid to rest a beautiful soul. Shira Banki, 16 years old, was among the six people stabbed by a religious fanatic at the Jerusalem Pride Parade. Tragically, Shira succumbed to her wounds a few days later.

Her parents said she was “full of life and love,” an “intelligent, gentle, curious, musical girl.” She had been a concert pianist from a young age. Her parents went on to say, “All of her innocence, beauty, happiness and goodness fell on the altar of hatred, malice, cruelty, and ignorance… We are left with pain, longing, and shock that every parent would rather die than feel.”

One Israeli rabbi said: “In what upside-down world are the Bankis considered secular and the murderer…considered religious?” To do that is to cede to extremists the religious tradition we claim to uphold.

Certainly, the parade attacker Yishai Schlissel, may his name be blotted out, used religious language in the anti-gay pamphlets he circulated. He described the parade as “blasphemous,” a “march for abomination.” “It is incumbent upon every Jew to risk beatings or imprisonment and together to stop the desecration for the sanctity of His name. If we refrain from declaring war, they’ll feel free to spread this shame all over the world.” He also said on an ultra-Orthodox radio station that it’s worth doing “something extreme” to stop the Jerusalem Pride Parade.

So he acted in the name of Judaism. He acted in our name. And he had Jewish sources to back him up. Leviticus says that homosexual behavior is an abomination. Biblical stories depict zealots rampaging murderously for God, and being praised for it. That darkness is embedded in our texts, and if left unchecked it has consequences that are terrible and very real.

The question for us then is: what is the Judaism that we stand for? How is it different, what does it value, what is its vision? 

It is not biblical literalism, and we should be proud of that. We understand the Torah to be a product of people situated in particular social and historical settings. However divinely inspired the authors were, new contexts render some of their words less relevant in each age. We do not practice bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. Are we selective in our interpretation? Of course. Everyone is. The best anyone can do is be intellectually honest about it. 

God placed before the Israelites life and death and told them: choose life, that you and your children shall live. We also choose life: we choose a life-affirming approach to our text and tradition. We choose a path that doesn’t lead to murderous rampage in the name of religious piety. We reject a death-dealing Judaism.

We choose humility, and responsibility, and gratitude. I’ve spoken about these virtues before, and I find them shining through anew in this week’s portion. There are dark passages here too, about slaughtering all the nations in our way, leaving no one alive. But there is also light.

Let’s start with humility:
“Know, then (says God), that it is not for any virtue of yours that Adonai your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deut. 9:6) Lest all the talk of chosenness go to our heads — God reminds us God loves us in spite of ourselves, not because we somehow merit God’s rewards and blessings.

Next, gratitude:
Moses describes the land of plenty into which the Israelites are about to cross, and how full their fields and bellies will be. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deut 8:10). When you settle and prosper, never forget where you came from. Be grateful for the blessings in your life, earned or not.

These culminate in responsibility:
“Cut away…the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For Adonai your God is God supreme and the Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). Lest you think conquering tribes and settling their land is all we’re about, hear this: God is a champion of the vulnerable, the marginalized, the outsider. Being a follower of this God — being a Jew — means taking up these causes. 

The Pride Parade attacker, like the Jews who burned a Palestinian family home in the name of Judaism, killing the toddler Ali Dawabsha who was inside, thought he was doing God’s will. They call themselves Torah-True Jews. 

But they fail at humility, unwilling to admit their cosmic limitations. They fail at gratitude, so discontented with their lot that they burn to make others suffer. They fail at responsibility, forgetting the command to befriend the stranger, for we were strangers, too. They fail, in the end, at Torah by turning it into an idol. They destroy God’s image in their fellow human being.

To say Kaddish now for Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsha, along with our own, is to accept the burden of their memory. Zichronam liv’racha — may their memories be blessings by reminding us of the Torah we stand for, and agitating us to act more humbly, more gratefully, and more responsibly — in the name of Judaism — for as long as we walk this earth.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"The Man Upstairs?" Concert Reflections

Aspen Jewish Congregation
5th Annual Summer Concert
August 4, 2015

The Man Upstairs? Questioning God Through Music
Rabbi’s Reflections
(Italics indicates songs from the concert program)

In the Beginning
God Shuffled His Feet


Part 1

A watchmaker who wound up the universe and stepped back to let it run?
A puppet-master whose will spins galaxies and electrons, and everything in between?
A man upstairs sitting stone-faced on his throne, a cosmic Lincoln Memorial?
A jealous father, a loving mother, a wizard, a warrior?
A universal force, a caring presence?
Nature’s awesome power, or a still small voice?

We search, we seek. Like a rabbit yanked from a top hat, we try to gaze into the magician’s eyes. In moments of hush, or bliss, or woe, can we catch a glimpse? 
As soon as we turn our head, back into the hat we drop. 
It’s like trying to grasp a wisp of smoke.

Is God there winking at us from a darkened window? 
Is God just around the next corner, so close we almost see, yet always out of reach – 
a mystery that beckons with one hand while the other keeps us at arm's length?

The Chasidim tell a tale about the Rebbe’s grandson, who was playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He found a hiding place and waited for his friend to find him. After a long time, he came out of his hiding place, but his friend was not there. He realized that his friend had stopped looking for him, and left. The child burst into lonely tears and ran to his grandfather. As the boy cried that his friend had given up on him, the Rebbe, too, began to weep. He said, “Dear boy, now you know how the Almighty feels: ‘I hide myself,' says God, 'and yet they stop looking.’”

Adonai S'fatai (me to God)
Psalm 121 (Rossi)
A Nign
Waiting for Life
Yah Ana Emtsaacha
Kadosh Ata


Part 2.

I lift my eyes to the mountains, and I feel... something – wonder, awe, reverence – or something more? Is that “something more” simply a sense that there is something more? That I’m more than this sack of cells, that the world is more than a chunk of rock, that the universe, against all reason, cares?

There are those who say that God is merely a projection of the human mind. I think they need a refresher on the meaning of the word “merely.” If God is how we lift up our hopes and fears; if God is where we distill our values and visions; if God encompasses the collective human striving for purpose – then what more vital study can there be than this so-called projection? 

So let us project. Let us sing, exalt, thank, beseech. 
Let us, indeed, pray.
But what is it to pray, if we don’t believe, exactly, in the addressee of our prayer?

Theodore Bikel, of blessed memory, said that “even though [his father] was an atheist, he liked to go to synagogue because that was the only place you could argue your atheism.”
Not believing, with others, can be a sacred act.

But what of suffering? Of pain and loss that no God we want to worship would allow?
For that, let us question. Let us accuse, indict, impeach! Let us demand, with Abraham, that the Judge of all the earth do what is just (Gen. 18:25)! Let us declare, with Job, that we insist on arguing with God (Job 13:3)! After all, that, too, is prayer.

Elie Wiesel once said, “For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But to simply ignore God, that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference to God, no. You can be a Jew with God; you can be a Jew against God; but not without God.”

Min HaMeitzar- Joey Weisenberg
May I Suggest
Bless the Lord


Part 3.

My wife’s grandmother, Nana, who died a few months ago at 98, was not an overtly religious woman. But she prayed every night to God: please watch over my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren. Her list numbered 27 descendants, and she mentioned each one by name. Her love and pride for her family kept her spirit alive. She was blessed.

I once met a man, Steven, with no legs. Complications from diabetes had led to a double amputation. Back in the hospital with failing health, now he was on dialysis. He was a devout Christian and a youth pastor to troubled teens. He called for a chaplain, and I came to his bedside.

He was in pain. 
Pain of the body from labored breathing, fading eyesight, fatigue. 
Pain of the heart from missing his youth ministry and his own children. 
Every visit, I held his hand as he prayed to God: “Thank you, God, for all the goodness in my life. Please, God, give me strength and faith.”
One day, his ill health made it hard for him to speak. That time, I held his hand and I prayed on his behalf – words he couldn’t say, but needed. 

A week later, during morning rounds, I learned Steven had died in the night. Why wasn’t he blessed with long life? Why didn’t he live to see his children’s children?

We want answers. We want to know that there’s a God out there, listening to our prayers, taking care of our loved ones. We want to know that everything will be alright. 

But sometimes it’s not alright. We want answers then, too. Especially then. Why? Why me?

We cry out from the depths – but to what? To whom? The same phantom who failed to provide, failed to heal, failed to appear in the hour of need? 
Are we just spinning our spiritual wheels? Or is there, somehow, solace in the seeking?

One of my mentors says that the question mark is the most Jewish symbol. I like that. 
Maybe God, after all, is the question; and we, in our holy brokenness and yearning, are the beginning of an answer.

Eileh Chamdah Libi
The 23rd Psalm
Laughing With
Avinu Malkeinu Z'chor Rachamecha
Water is Wide / Mimaamakim

Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering Theodore Bikel, the "Universal Jew"

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
for Tisha B’Av 5775

July 24, 2015

Remembering Theo Bikel

Theodore Bikel died this week at the age of 91. He was a legendary talent, creating the role of Baron von Trapp in the original Broadway production of “Sound of Music” and playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” for decades. At an award ceremony in 1999, Bikel said: “One applauds logevity but that alone is not an accomplishment. A taxi driver recently told me, ‘You look like Theodore Bikel, he should rest in peace.’” Now we pray he does rest in peace, עליו השלום / peace be upon his soul.

Several months ago, Leon Wieseltier spoke at a YIVO event at the Center for Jewish History in NYC, honoring Bikel with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In tribute to Bikel’s memory and legacy, I want to share with you tonight that speech, entitled “A Universal Jewishness.”

In America, Jewish heritage is a lively and noisy affair. We have correctly understood that we live in a country that does not require anyone to inhibit themselves in the assertion of identity, and we have tossed aside our inhibitions. We celebrate our origins, our characteristics, incessantly. It is a rich era for Jewish expression, for Jewish identification. All the realms of our existence, all our values, all our interests, all our pleasures, all our pains, are given a Jewish gloss or a Jewish source. American Jewish culture, high and low, is a plenitude, a cacophony, of Jewishnesses.
By the standards of Jewish history, then, we are almost unimaginably blessed. Or more precisely, by certain standards of Jewish history. We are free, we are respected, we may formulate our universality in the terms of our particularity without embarrassment and without opprobrium—but there are qualities of Jewish identity, parcels of the Jewish tradition, that are being lost or renounced amid all our good fortune. There are many disappearances and many abandonments, and they are drowned out in the festive din. More of the Jewish tradition is vanishing in present conditions of security and prosperity than ever vanished in past conditions of oppression and poverty. Speaking strictly, what we are celebrating in America is not Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference, but what is left of Judaism and the Jewish tradition and the Jewish difference.
We in this room are among the saving remnants, gathered to honor one of the greatest saving remnants of all. The joy on our lush island of Jewishness is real, but we must soberly recall that it is indeed on an island that we are toiling and flourishing and reveling. We are surrounded by a vast sea of Jews who are not Jewish except ethnically and biologically. Many of them take pride in a tradition that they know almost not at all. Not long ago Theo Bikel came to Washington and performed his magical one-man show about Sholom Aleichem. The theater at the JCC was full, and the men and women in the audience glowed with enchantment, and when he spoke or sang in Yiddish they understood little or nothing. The less they grasped, in fact, the more they glowed. They were enjoying a warm experience of contentless authenticity.
The diversity of Jewishnesses in America today is no doubt some sort of cultural strength; but I want to suggest, as a way of expressing what I admire about my brother Theo, that it is also some sort of cultural weakness. The Jewish tradition in our community has been splintered and customized. Even when we go deep, we do not go wide. We live in a golden age of partial Jewishnesses. The American Jew is, to borrow a term from a scholar of Jewish law, a yehudi l’hatza’in—a partial Jew. Religious Jews know almost nothing of our secular traditions and secular Jews know almost nothing of our religious traditions. Jews who live in Hebrew know almost no Yiddish and Jews who live in Yiddish—now there is a saving remnant!—know almost no Hebrew, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews anyway live, arrogantly and ignorantly, in no Jewish language at all. Jews who are fluent in the siddur are strangers to Bialik and Amichai. Jews who still sing the old Zionist songs are dead to klezmer, and Jews who are devout about klezmer sometimes act as if their music is all that is required for Jewish continuity. How many students of Jewish film are also students of Talmud, and how many students of Talmud have a shred of an acquaintance with the history of Jewish art? An alarming number of poor souls among our brethren seem to feel that all they require for a genuine Jewishness is Woody Allen and Philip Roth and Jerry Seinfeld.
Everybody, in sum, appropriates only what suits them, what tickles them, what affirms them, without any sense of obligation toward the totality of our resources, without any appetite for the work that would be required by a more comprehensive fidelity, without any sensation of responsibility for the legacies of Jews who are not like themselves. These ardent but truncated commitments amount to a new manner of sectarianism. The only Jewish thing that every American Jew knows about is politics.
I am not against any of these parts and pieces of our culture. I am for all of them—but all of them is precisely what almost none of us any longer commands. There are currents and strains, movements and organizations, but almost nowhere is there a general Jewish cultivation. As we edit and shrink our patrimony to suit our tastes and our moods and our ideologies, we become masters of subtraction; but we must teach ourselves to add. Not Maimonides or Mendele, but Maimonides and Mendele: a universal Jewishness. Philosophically, of course, all the Jewish figures and the Jewish ideas do not go together—indeed, they are sometimes bitterly at odds with each other. Feuding is also one of the great Jewish traditions. But there is an important way in which they emphatically do cohere, and that is as the elements of a civilization.
What is missing from American Jewishness now is a sense of the whole—a robust and natural awareness of our inherited abundance. We lack the consciousness that we are nothing less than a civilization. A great Jewish historian, adapting an ancient Latin adage, famously remarked that “nothing Jewish is alien to me.” Who can say this now? Who has, or aspires to have, an appreciation and a knowledge and a love of this scope? Who any longer remembers how to be an heir to it all?
I have at least one answer to that question. The answer is, Theo Bikel remembers. He is a man of the whole. The range of his Jewishness is as exhilarating as it is rare: He is immersed in the entirety of Jewish expression. He possesses the languages and he possesses the literatures. He knows all the songs, and the meanings of all the songs. He knows how we daven and he knows how we demonstrate. He is a son of Vienna and a son of Tel Aviv and a son of New York and Los Angeles—of the center and the peripheries, the homeland and the dispersion. He does not choose among them; he represents, and cherishes, and refines, them all. His Jewish cultivation is breathtaking. His many agitations on behalf of human rights and social justice have always been conducted in a Jewish vocabulary—he has been an ambassador of our ethics to the world.
Theo is one of the greatest of our culture’s guardians, and of its connoisseurs. His company is an intense—and almost giddily delightful—experience of Jewish cultivation. His laughter is itself a high form of yiddishkeit. A culture’s best shorthand, after all, is its humor; and if one of the measures of the decline of a grander and more synoptic Jewishness is that there are fewer and fewer people to whom one can tell our jokes, then I wish to proclaim, as a summary of Theo’s reach as a Jew, that he is the man who gets all the jokes and tells all the jokes. He relieves a certain Jewish loneliness. So here at YIVO you have chosen brilliantly: I can think of nobody who more richly deserves an award that extols Jewish heritage than this man, this universal Jew. It has been one of the privileges of my own life as a Jew to have been a Jew together with him on this cruel and beautiful earth.

I hope that Bikel’s memory will be a blessing. On this eve of Tisha B’Av, I challenge us to get better at being universal Jews, heirs to it all. 

Of course, none of us is going to be an expert in everything Jewish. But we can all be experts in Jewish curiosity. We can cultivate more openness toward all things Jewish — ideas that differ from our own, Jews who are not like ourselves.

Sometimes as a rabbi I’m asked, “How much does one have to know to be a good Jew?”

My answer: “Always more than you do now.”

Let me add to that a question that presses us with great urgency as we sit on the threshold of Tisha B’Av and look out at a world of great Jewish blessing and uncertainty: How much do we have to care for Jews who differ from ourselves?

The answer: “Always more than you do now.”

Then will Theodore Bikel’s memory be a life-affirming blessing.

Friday, July 10, 2015

What to Look for in a Leader

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Friday, July 10, 2015
Shabbat Pinchas

“May God appoint someone over the community” (Num 27:16). As Moses nears the end of his term in this week’s parshah, he starts worrying about succession, as any good leader should. He asks God to appoint someone, and they bring Joshua before the priest and the whole community to install him as next in line.

Perfect timing. Tonight we recognize our outgoing board members and welcome new ones. I will call them all up in a moment, but first, a word about leadership, and a charge.

God singles out Joshua as the next leader of the Israelites. Why? Because Joshua is an איש אשר רוח בו / a person in whom there is ruach, spirit. An inspired man, skillful and insightful. 

There’s more to it. Our rabbis have much to say about what it means to have ruach within you, and why that qualifies you for leadership.

A midrash:
When Moses asked God to appoint someone over the community, he said: Master of the universe, the disposition of every one of them is revealed to You — the disposition of one is not at all like the disposition of another. After I depart from them, when You will be setting another leader over them, I beg you, set over them a leader who will put up with each and every [one] according to his disposition… Moses asked: Will the man You set over the congregation have within himself the spirits of sixty myriads, so that he will be able to converse with each man according to his particular disposition? 
In other words, will our leaders have the kind of constitution that allows them to put up with everyone? (It’s a lot of Jews, after all.) Or, better: Will our leaders have the breadth of spirit to meet people where they are, respect them for who they are, appreciate the unique personality, talents, and interests they each bring?

It’s a tall order. And it gets taller. Another midrash says something different about Joshua having spirit within him, defining him as a person “who will have the capacity to stand up to the spirit of each and every one” (Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Book of Legends 727:45). While a leader has to meet people where they are, a leader shouldn’t simply see which way the wind is blowing and run there. A leader must also have strength of conviction. A leader must sometimes do what’s unpopular. 

Another translation of the same midrash seeks a person with the capacity to face up to the spirit of everyone. Here, it’s a call for accountability. A true leader is responsible to the community, not above it.

It is a tall order indeed, to balance those kinds of spirit. The spirit of including, listening, welcoming; the spirit of leading, pushing, risk-taking; the spirit of answering to those you lead. It is a high and worthy aspiration.

So it seems Moses has asked for a leader who can be all things to all people. We do that, too — we set up unrealistic expectations. The midrash continues with God’s response to that kind of thinking:
The Holy One replied: Moses, you have made a proper request… He showed him that Joshua would rise up in his stead, and Joshua would turn over his authority to Othniel, as will all subsequent leaders to their successors. Then the Holy One said to Moses: Each of these I showed you has one disposition and one spirit. But as to what you asked for earlier, at the end of time there will be a person within whom…there will be but one spirit, but it will have the capacity to bear the weight of the spirits of all men — that person is the Messiah. (Book of Legends 101:134; Yalkut Pinchas, 776; Sif Zuta Pinchas, 16; Yelammedenu)
We ask our leaders to aspire to the highest standard, as we should. But we acknowledge that we are only human. We will all fall short in some way — until we can convince the Messiah to join our board. And we all know when that will happen.

Even as we in leadership set the bar high for ourselves, we should keep our feet planted firmly on the ground, among our community. In one final midrash, God explains His pick of Joshua like this:
You know how long Joshua has served you, how much honor he accorded you, how he came early and stayed late in your meeting place, arranging the benches and spreading the mats. (Ibid.)
Leaders should not be spotlight-seekers. Indeed, much of the work of leadership is not glamorous. Setting up chairs, putting tables away, passing out books — these tasks are not glitzy. But they are holy. Serving is part of leading. And as someone said to me recently: You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up.

Together these voices of midrash invite us to be confident and humble, strong and inclusive, entrepreneurial and accountable, visionary and aware of our limitations. They call us to be self-reflective leaders invested in self-improvement, dedicated to the building up of a community that will outlive us. They ask us to remember that we are all interims, preparing to pass on our sacred purpose l’dor vador, to the next person of spirit who steps up to lead.

Now I’d like to invite up our outgoing board members; in thanks for your years of service, we’ve made a donation to a cause in honor of each of you:
Lee Rittvo - Aspen Film
Esther Navias -
Michelle Stiller - AEF
Julie Wagner - Hope Center
Stuart Fine - Children's Hospital Denver

And now our new board members, please come to the bima:
Craig Navias
Chuck Shenk
Judy Craig
Alan Levey
Goldie Knurr

Mi Shebeirach for Aliyah

Friday, July 3, 2015

People Like You

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 3, 2015

The world lost a quiet hero this week. Sir Nicholas Winton, of England, was 106 years old when he died on Wednesday. Before WWII, Winton organized the escape of nearly 700 children, almost all of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia.

His story is riveting, and it only came to light years later when his wife found old records in the attic. (I recommend reading more about him.)
In December 1938…, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany. “Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend…advised in a phone call.
England’s Kindertransport program was already underway. It rescued 10,000 German and Austrian children before the war, but there was no such plan for Czechoslovakia. 

At great cost and risk to himself, Winton organized one. He bribed the Gestapo, hired trains and boats, did mountains of paperwork, and fundraised and recruited foster families in England to get 900 children registered and ready to get out. In the end, 669 children escaped because only 7 of 8 trains made it out. The eighth train was scheduled to depart on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. When the borders closed that train, with its precious cargo of 250 children, disappeared.

Winton was a hero because he risked his own life to save others. I was moved near to tears reading his story, as I remember feeling similarly moved in the Righteous Gentiles room at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. His story, and others like his, move us because he stuck his neck out for Jews, for the marginalized Other. He could have sat comfortably behind his privilege, telling himself it wasn’t his problem, convincing himself it wasn’t his fight.

*   *   *

Our times are not as dark as Europe under Nazi occupation. But consider: seven churches in two weeks. Nine black Americans murdered at Bible study, and then seven black churches burned to the ground. The media seems hard pressed to find time in their 24-hr news cycle for this horrifying story. It’s nothing less than racial terrorism in our midst. This is not the first time black churches have burned in this country. During the Civil Rights Movement, infamously, a church bombing killed four young girls. When a place of sanctuary becomes a place of devastation, it’s an especially cruel kind of terror.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine a week in which seven synagogues were burned down, on the heels of the massacre of a minyan of Jews during Torah study. Imagine the outrage, the fear, the criticism of the media for not reporting on it enough, the calls for decent people of all faiths and races to stand in solidarity with us Jews and speak out against hate.

Now consider: if we want others to stand up for us in our moments of crisis, don’t we need to stand up for them? If we want to honor and emulate Sir Winton’s example, shouldn’t we reach beyond our own group to be in solidarity with the marginalized other, even at risk to ourselves? Or should we hide behind our privilege, easing our conscience with the tragic misconception that it isn’t our fight?

So then, why don’t we speak up? Are we afraid of ruffling feathers? Of making our friends feel awkward?

Why don’t I speak up? Am I afraid of job security? Am I too concerned with being liked to say anything provocative?

Maybe we’re confused or ashamed about white privilege. We Jews today comprise a strange duality of identities and histories. All of us have immigrant ancestors, most of whom fled some kind of persecution, some of whom even survived the Holocaust. So of course we feel like persecuted victims. At the same time, and without diminishing that narrative, we benefit from white privilege. We don’t face the barriers or stigma of so many other minority groups in America. But it can be difficult to confront these questions. As Talia Cooper writes, “Do I really want to dive deep into my family history and investigate that the fact that we have money comes from this weird stew of running from anti-Semitism and also gaining white privilege?”

The caveat here is that there are Jews who aren’t white — they are black, Arab, Asian, Hispanic — just to name a few. The sad irony is that our collective unwillingness to confront white privilege among Jews also blinds us to them, who are marginalized in multiple communities.

We’re not all going to be Sir Wintons, or Oskar Schindlers, or Raoul Wallenbergs. But let’s at least demand of ourselves and our leaders honesty about race relations and our role in improving them. Let’s not be afraid of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Let’s not be so quick to call protesters thugs. Let’s not be defensive about naming and negotiating our own privilege. Let’s not be threatened by calls for solidarity with those seeking equality, justice, peace. And for God’s sake, let’s not be scared of empathy. 

Liberation doesn’t come a la carte. It’s all of us, or none.

*   *   *

I’ll close with a story I heard from Ruth Messinger, director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which does anti-poverty work throughout the developing world. She often speaks about AJWS at synagogues. One such evening, during the Q&A, a man approached the mic and asked, “Why do you devote so many resources to helping non-Jews, when there are so many Jews in need? Why don’t you just focus on helping our own?” That kind of question being a common occurrence for her, Messinger had an answer ready — something along the lines of, “Fair enough, so what are you doing to help Jews in need?” 

But that night, before she could answer, a diminutive older woman marched up the aisle to the questioner. She addressed him directly, shaking her fist in his face: “I survived the Holocaust. But my entire family was murdered because of people who only cared to look after their own kind, people who told themselves it wasn’t their fight — people like you.”

Get Involved - for Charleston
  • Donate to the fund to help the victims' families and church of Mother Emanuel AME Church: click here
  • Donate to efforts to rebuild the churches that have been burned down: click here, or send a check to Aspen Jewish Congregation (memo: "Rebuild the Churches"), 77 Meadowood Drive, Aspen, CO, 81611
Get Involved - Nationally

Get Involved - in the Roaring Fork Valley
  • Join the Industrial Areas Foundation and Manaus Valley Project's effort to create a broad-based interfaith coalition in the Roaring Fork Valley that can act powerfully for justice: contact Rabbi Segal at 970-925-8245 x.1 or