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

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