A Time to Pause, Reflect, and Rebuild: Tisha B’Av in 2019 by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

A Time to Pause, Reflect, and Rebuild: Tisha B’Av in 2019 by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

When the topic of back-to-school supplies turned to bulletproof pack backs, I knew that my teenage sons had become citizens of a new world. We went as far as to research price and performance of these new “essential” items. This is the conversation that ensued:

The older one asked: “Will these really protect us from Semi-automatic weapons? The review just says handguns.”

            The younger one retorted, “I don’t need a bullet- proof backpack. If there is a shooter, I am going to tackle him. I can take him down, don’t you think?”

            “You wouldn’t”, he was corrected,  “You would run in the opposite direction. you You will see how it goes in active shooter drills. The protocol is: Get off campus as quickly as possible. They train you to run away.”

             “Or play dead.” I added. “That seems to be effective.”

We all agreed – don’t rush the shooter.

Back to school has a whole new layer of meaning.

For these I weep. (Lamentations 1:16)

We must weep. We must prevent ourselves from becoming numb to the fact that our children are coming of age in a time when mass shootings, hate speech, fear mongering and xenophobia are pervasive.

What can we do with our feelings of despair, anxiety and rage?

The Jewish calendar provides a space in which to contemplate and reflect upon our current events as well as the events of the past.  Tisha B’Av or the 9th day of the month of Av is a dedicated day of national mourning that has been observed for thousands of years.

Even before there was a Temple, the Rabbis held that the 9th of Av was preordained to be a time of tragedy for the Jewish people. In the Bible, this was the day on which the twelve spies offered a negative report about conquering the land of Israel. Their profound display of mistrust in God’s power set off the forty year detour in the Wilderness (Numbers 13-14). “You wept without cause; I will, therefore, make this an eternal day of mourning for you (bechiya l’dorot). It was then decreed that on the  9th of Av, the Temple would be destroyed. (BT Ta’anit 29a).

Many other tragedies are recorded on this day in history.  According to the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6), both Temples were destroyed – the First in 586 BCE by the hands of the Babylonians and the Second in 70 CE by the hands of the Romans. Bethar was captured (a Jewish insurrection against the Romans, and Jerusalem was ploughed up.  In later history, the expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the outbreak of WWI, many Pogroms in Eastern Europe, and the atrocities of Holocaust, all occurred at this time of year.

Bitterly she weeps at night, her cheeks wet with tears. There is no one to comfort her of all her friends. Her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.” (Lamentations 1:2)

Observing the 9th of Av

These historical events have been etched in the psyche of the Jewish people. The  destruction of the Temple transpired more than 2000 years ago. However, in all of Judaism’s wisdom, the events remains in our consciousness generation after generation. On the 9th of Av each year, we keep the memory alive through ritualized mourning.  For 25 hours, we reflect on our history, contemplate our present, and brace ourselves for possible future outcomes. We gather in community to read the scroll of Lamentations and related dirges. We sit on the floors of our sanctuaries or homes, chanting the texts by flashlights. We digest the haunting words of Jeremiah, the perceived author of the text: “Her enemies are now the masters, Her foes are at ease…” (ibid. 1:3)

After the Temple was destroyed, the Talmud records a conversation among rabbis who were so traumatized by the events, they forsook music and entertainment, wine and meat.  They were ready to give up all the pleasures of life in order to keep the memory aflame. But the thrust of Jewish history is to move forward. To rebuild. To remember, but not to become paralyzed by the past. And so our commemoration has become localized to a three week period of mourning which intensifies on the 9th of Av with fasting and abstaining from all pleasurable activities.  Even the study of Torah is prohibited on this day.

Extending the Boundaries of the 9th of Av: Modern Terrorism

At times we may feel that we are still sitting among the broken stones. Adding to our historical awareness, our concern as Jews also extends to the State of Israel’s current safety and security. It is heart-breaking to hear about attempted terrorist attacks and murders.The persistent aggression on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict demonstrates that peace is no where in sight. Outside of Israel, we also have legitimate concerns. We are pained to witness terror attacks on Jews all over the world. The mass shootings this past year in Pittsburg and Poway keep our tears hot. Each time we hear of another mass shooting, no matter who the target is, we feel their pain.

“I have called on Your name. O Lord, from the depths of the pit. Hear my plea…” (ibid. 3:55)

 The Divine Presence in Exile

On the 9th Av, we are reminded that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, was exiled from Temple as well. The Midrash teaches that God is with us in Exile. God hears our cries. God is waiting for our return just as we await God’s.

             The Divine Presence departed from the Holy of Holies of the Temple, after its destruction: “And the divine Presence kissed the walls and embraced the pillars, sighing, ‘farewell, o my house and my sanctuary! Farewell o my palace, o my dear home! Farewell to You!’ – Blessed be Your name, God, you who shall return the divine Presence unto Zion.” – Pesikta de Rav Kahana, 1868:

As we experience the 9th of Av this year, we have much to ponder with regard to the pain and suffering that persists – in the States, in Israel, and around the world.  This is a time to pause, reflect, and formulate our own constructive solution. The prophet Isaiah insists (Isaiah 58:6) “This is not the kind of fasting I have chosen…”  We are called upon to envision and work toward a better future – free from our enemies, free from bullet proof pack packs, bigotry, racism, and violence.   There is something that each and everyone of us can do to be part of a solution.

An Antidote: Curtailing our Contempt

There is a well known teaching that the Second Temple fell, in part, on account of the baseless hatred (sinat chinam) that was prevalent at that time.  The people of Jerusalem treated each other with contempt. Instead of standing strong against their enemies, their weakened community was susceptible to attack.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the philosopher and first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in British Mandate Palestine wrote regarding this:

If baseless hatred has the power to destroyed us, then we have the power to rebuild through baseless love (ahavat chinam). (Orot Ha’Kodesh 3:354)

We too, can redeem and be redeemed with baseless acts of love.  There is something that each of us can begin to do this day to work toward a healthier, more positive community, family, self. Yes, the 9th of Av was preordained to be a time of mourning, but it was also preordained to be a time of future celebration. So powerful is this drive toward love and renewal, it is believed that in future days, the mourning aspect of the 9th of Av (and the related fast days) will be annulled, and these days will be a time to celebrate.  What will be your part to make that a reality?

Help us to Return to You, and we shall return, renew our lives as in days of old. (Lamentations 5:21)

May we see the day when our love and respect for one another will outweigh our fear and contempt.

May we see the day when children will not fear for their lives as they go to school to learn.

May we see the day when these days of mourning are truly days of celebration.

May we see our way into a rebuilt Jerusalem, a rebuilt America, a more perfected world, paved with our good deeds and blessings from above.

One Holiday – Many Journeys by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

“One Holiday – Many Journeys” by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Passover is the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar.  It is no wonder – a home-based holiday, families gather around set tables, savoring rituals that have been passed down through the generations.  It also helps to have a script to follow – Seder plates filled, Hagaddahs open, wine poured, discussions flow. Families are encouraged to interpret the rituals their own way. The premise of the Seder, after all, is the open door – even the “Wicked Child”, who cares little for the traditions of the past, reluctantly takes her place at the Passover table. 

Passover welcomes each of us with its varied entrances and deliveries. There are those who enjoy the traditions and others who prefer a fresh look. Some come for the food, others for conversation.  Many focus on creating shorter child-friendly experiences, others opt to start at dark, debating the intricacies of interpretation throughout the night.

The emphasis on diversity at the Seder is reflected in the nature of the holiday itself. Widely known as “Passover” in English, it is also known by four other celebrated names:  Chag Ha’Pesach (The Passover Holiday), Chag Ha’aviv (the Holiday of Spring), Chag Ha’Matzot (The Festival of Unleavened Bread), and Z’man Chei’ra’teinu (The Time of our Freedom). Each of these titles offer a different perspective through which one can appreciate and celebrate the depth of the season. 

The well-known English name, “Passover”, is derived from the Exodus narrative in which the Angel of Death “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, sparing them from the tenth plague – the death of the first born. The tenth plague is the catalyst for Pharaoh to cede to the Israelite God, finally releasing the Israelite slaves into freedom. While it is natural to celebrate our freedom, even God silenced the angels from singing when the Egyptians were drowning, a sign of mourning for his creation.  While the name “Passover” isn’t going anywhere, we can challenge ourselves to explore some of the other uplifting themes of the holiday, through the passageway of Passover’s other names.

First, let’s consider Chag Ha’Pesach, the first iteration of this Biblical holiday. In Exodus (12:1-8) , God commands the Israelites to prepare for the journey with a communal meal. The beauty of the ritual is that they are commanded to share this moment of celebration with their families, neighbors and friends.  The Biblical ritual of the sacrificial lamb is as much about family and celebration as it is about placing the blood on the door post.  That is why when the Temple was destroyed in antiquity, the rabbis could easily pivot from the sacrificial rite to an emphasis on gathering and discussion. The celebratory meal was already an essential part of the core experience.

The focus on observing the holiday as a gathering around the family table, without the need for a lot of liturgy or synagogue-based ritual, creates a grand threshold for Pesach observance.

Chag Ha’Pesach

The name “Pesach” can be taken in an entirely different, but equally energizing direction. As the Hassidic masters have noted – Pesach can be read Peh-Sach, “the mouth that speaks”. The primary observance of the holiday is “v’higadeta l’vincha” (Exodus 13:8) – “and you shall tell your children…” – We are obligated to sit around the table and tell the story of our freedom, to learn from one another, to inspire inquiry and share our personal and collective narratives.  Story telling makes the Seder experience rich and personal.  Our stories, meshed with those of the past, invigorate the ritual, creating a living tradition. The personal infused with the communal, keeps the Seder experience creative and fresh, letting the next generation know that their stories matter, too.

Chag Ha’Matzot

The Torah refers to Passover as Hag Hamatzot, the “Feast of Unleavened Bread”: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the Lord.” The Matzah is both the “bread of freedom” and the “bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). We are instructed, “You shall not eat anything leavened with it; for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly – so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your    life.”  (Deuteronomy 16:3).  For a simple cracker, the Matzah holds a significant weight of memory.

How can Matzah be both the symbol of our freedom and of our slavery?  Made of just flour and water, without yeast or leavening, it is symbolic of degradation and slave rations. But seen another way, Matzah represents the hurried nature of their freedom – they didn’t have the time to let the dough rise. That is to say, although they were slaves, they didn’t eat food like Matzah, they were accustomed to leavened bread. Had there been more time, they might have taken delicious breads and cakes on the way.  But the nature of their freedom was such that their bread was compromised. They could take only unleavened. Matzah then, is the bread of freedom – no matter how plain (and tasteless) – it is beloved for what it represents.

Chag Ha’matzot calls us to attention – to shift our perspective from slave-minded to free-minded.  Matzah tells us, we can eat all the bread we want and still be enslaved.  Or we can eat meager rations and feel completely liberated.  On Passover, we switch the paradigm so that we can focus our attention and energies on what really matters – on what sets us free.

Chag Ha’Aviv

Chag Ha’viv, the “Springtime Holiday”, evokes delightful imagery of the natural world emerging from winter slumber. It is the beginning of the grain harvest, tethering the start of this festival to Shavuot, which takes place seven weeks later.  Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count down the days of the Omer, recalling the barley harvest and daily measure that was brought to the Temple in ancient days.  By commemorating our holiday through the lens of Spring, we enter into the season of renewal.  The symbolic foods on the Seder plate, the parsley and egg, remind us of the sprouting of fresh greenery and the cycle of life.  The Springtime also points to an awakened state of mind, joyously renewing ourselves in the spirit of vitality and youth.

Spring is also the season of lovers.  An accompanying text of the season is Shir Ha’Shirim, the Song of Songs, recited in many communities on the Sabbath of Passover, and continuing throughout the season. The Song of Songs colorfully describes lovers frolicking in the apple orchard, stretched out beneath the trees. It is typically read as a metaphor for the love between God and the Jewish people.

A Midrash highlights the Exodus story as the moment when God and Israel join into union.  God, as it were, had been peering through the lattice, eagerly waiting for the moment when the Israelites would be freed so they could unite and move forward together.  This metaphor conjures up the image of God and Israel sanctifying their union on Mount Sinai, with the Torah offered as their Ketubah, their official wedding document.

Z’man Cheiruteinu

Finally, “Z’man Cheiruteinu” means the “Time of our Freedom”.  At Seder we recount: “In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt”.  This isn’t just a role play we take on at the table; it is an invitation to feel more free, to be more free, to dedicate ourselves to ensuring freedom for others. The Torah reminds us 36 times to “care for the stranger,” “don’t oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in a strange land.” On This holiday, we strive to create a little more freedom for ourselves and for others.  We commit to attending to whatever is holding us back and whatever is holding our society back.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is not just a place name, it refers to a“narrow place” –  a state of being or a state of mind.  The call to freedom is a call within. We ask ourselves – what are we slaves to on this day? What can we do break free? The Midrash tells us that our descent into slavery was slow. The Israelites were comfortable in the land of Goshen for many years. All of their needs were met.  By the time they realized how ensconced they were in Exile, it was too late, they were on the road to Egyptian toil. Z’man Cheruteinu harkens to shift our focus, to notice what is tugging at our attention. What discomfort are we avoiding, what leap of faith is calling us forward?

There are many pathways into this beautiful holiday. Whether you are in it for the food, the ritual, the conversation, or the inner path, may each step on the journey lead you to greater freedom, satisfaction, and blessing.

 

What Miracle? by Rabbi David Weizman

What Miracle?  by Rabbi David Weizman

Upon settling in Pinellas county in the summer of 2002, I received some friendly advice from a long time resident. “Do you wear that kippah on your head all the time? ‘Cause if you do, you need some eyes on the back of your head too.” Not too long after that, there was a swastika painted on the sidewalk of the path we take home from shul. On another walk home on Friday night a guy was ranting from his garage about so and so, “that dirty Jew.” We have had people yell anti-Semitic things out the window and a group of girls once saluted us with the hiel Hitler sign. It was at that moment that I realized, we are not in New York City any more. It’s the kind of thing that most Jewish people in America thought was left back in Europe under the ashes of the Shoah. But last year, 2017, was a banner year for anti-Semitic acts according to the Anti-Defamation League, who keeps track of these things. One might think that after Charlottesville, there would have been such a public outcry to denounce the conspiracy theory that “the Jews will not replace us,” which would have pushed back such hate speech into the realm of the taboo where it was hibernating. That bear was awoken evidently, feeling hungry. And then there was Pittsburgh. I am not a guy who walks around in fear of getting shot for being a Jew, but you have to wonder … what’s going on here?

That’s exactly what the rabbis of the Talmud asked about two thousand years ago: mai hanukah? What is the reason for a Hanukah celebration? Surely they knew the whole story from that best seller, Maccabees I & II. What they conclude is that a miracle occurred, and it was not that a small band of brothers defeated Antiochus Epiphanies, a guy not so keen on Judaism. The miracle was that a small cruse of purified oil lasted for eight days until they could acquire more for the Menorah of the Holy Temple. Maybe the rabbis were trying to justify eating latkes and doughnuts with their focus on the oil, or maybe they liked the metaphor of making a little bit go a long way. It characterizes us as a people: few in number but able to shine a great light into the history of the world. Reflectors of the Divine light, of course, that manifests in creativity and productivity, in kindness and mercy.

The Talmud instructs us to place our lights of Hanukah outside the door so that it can be seen from the street, pirsume nissah, to publicize the miracle. But in times of danger, it is sufficient to leave them on the table. Is this such a time in America today? Who would even notice, with all of the Christmas lights, a little menorah in the window? But when the whole house is dark, save those few candles, people notice. Keep on shining.

Hag Urim Sameachi,

Happy Hanukah,

Rabbi David Weizman

 

 

#Time’s Up: Purim 5778 By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

#Time’s Up: Purim 5778

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

There is much to enjoy about Purim – costumes, revelry, gift baskets and a focus on social justice. But this “day of joy, light and gladness for the Jewish people” also has a dark side. Have you read the Megillah lately (A.K.A the “Scroll of Esther)? On the surface, the story is harmless enough – the triumph of light over darkness, the disenfranchised minority over a fickle authority, and the uncanny celebration of being in the right place at the right time. As an added bonus, Esther is funny. In the topsy-turvy world of Shushan (the stage of the narrative) a close reading reveals a tremendous amount of wit, slapstick, and tongue in cheek humor.

At the same time, Esther presents a challenge to the modern reader and modern Jew. What do we do with the overt message of unchecked violence to women so prominent in the narrative? To give a few alarming examples – consider the opening scene in which the King throws a raucous and lavish party –  the drinking game was called “No restrictions” – “…For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes.” (1:8) – the subtext speaks for itself.  When the king orders his courtiers to bring forth Queen Vashti wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials (1:11), the sages suggest that the King was actually requesting that Vashti be brought in only her crown.  Vashti protested, naturally, and was subsequently banished from the kingdom. As a result of this domestic guffaw, the king’s court advised, effective immediately, that a new rule be implemented in which women would now know that “every man should wield authority in his home.” (1:22)

When you read Esther, of course it’s funny.  An academic analysis highlights the parodic insight. (Consider the JPS Bible Commentary: Esther by Dr. Adele Berlin). But Jewish communities throughout the centuries didn’t need the literary analysis to produce wildly popular, light-hearted Purim“shpiels” and parodies. The text begs for a comedic presentation.

Funny, the Megillah may be, but it’s jagged edge cuts deep. Continue reading Esther and you will find a beauty pageant drawing from the kingdom’s virgins – prodded, prepped and fawned over during a lengthy palace stay. For what occasion?  Only to suffer the humiliation of a one night stand with the king and a walk of shame the next morning. Check out JT Waldman’s chilling graphic novel of the Book of Esther, for more creepy detail than you could imagine: http://www.jtwaldman.com/project/megillat-esther/.  The casual reader doesn’t consider whether the women in the contest participated by choice or who or what they left behind. In one frame, Waldman’s portrayal suggests a form of brutal sex trafficking.

And then there is Esther – lucky – perhaps, that this young Jewish woman was chosen to be queen. But Esther is burdened as well. She must keep her religion a secret until the right moment when this great reveal will save her people from wholesale slaughter. The reader can only imagine the humiliation she suffers and the anxiety of being a hidden Jew under a death warrant.  In the denouement of the text, Esther discovers that it is no less than the hand of God (although that isn’t explicit in the text) that guides her to this unique position to change the course of Jewish history. As her uncle Mordecai cautions: “If you keep silent in this crisis, help will come from another place…Perhaps you have attained to this royal position to avert such a crisis” (4: 14). HIs words form a timeless and stunning challenge.

Yes, Esther has a happy ending, and Purim, the holiday for which it is based, has been fodder for centuries of revelry and the emergence of Spring-time amusement. But, in the era of #Me Too and #Time’s Up, Esther’s readers have an obligation to notice and challenge the violence in the text. We certainly can’t change what is written. But we can employ the disturbing passages as mirrors for the assault that continues in our day, including objectification of women’s bodies, sex-trafficking, un-equal footing at home and at work.  If Vashti, Esther and the stolen harem girls of Shushan had a voice today, we know what their hashtags would be.

Purim need not be ruined.  We will observe the beautiful rituals and hallmarks of the holiday. We will still pay close attention to the Megillah reading – the absurd and the frightful.  But the texts that make us cringe, should push us act – not gloss-over or contextualize. Stunningly, we have the necessary call to action built into the Jewish calendar. The day preceding Purim is marked as the Fast of Esther, the only fast day named for a woman in the Jewish tradition. Esther initiated her fast as a form of spiritual preparation for the hard work that lay ahead to save her people (4:16).  But her fast is a prayer as much as it is a call to action, tethering us to the spirit of responsibility.

Esther prods us to ask ourselves: “Who knows why we are here at a time like this?”  Actually, it is a blessing to have the opportunity to change the system, to write new texts, to tell our stories. This is an unprecedented time when women can indeed do more than just fast for our cause. We are reminded that the time is now and #time’s up.  I would bet on a good Vashti costume this year – (dress included).