Friday, January 25, 2008

Parashat Yitro - 2008

A few thoughts before the arrival of Shabbat:

There was a fascinating article in Harper’s Magazine, the January 2008 edition, titled “The God of the Desert: Jerusalem and the Ecology of Monotheism” by Richard Rodriguez. The cover of the magazine adds: “Richard Rodriguez in the Barren Birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” It is not a lite article. Rodriguez views desert as emptiness, most holy places as spaces designed to contain THE Emptiness, and speaks mostly of loneliness. And yet, it is desert where Moses, and the children of Israel, encounter God, to whom we refer as HaMakom, THE Place, the opposite of emptiness.

On Sunday, I am taking Mira and Amalya to Ein Gedi, on the edge of the Dead Sea, for few days (Elan is in Atlanta for the weekend and Becca has lots of rehearsals for The Man of La Mancha). Ein Gedi is an Oasis, a spot of rich beauty, of water and sustenance, at the lowest point in the world. It is also, I believe, and excellent metaphor for finding God, and not Emptiness, in the desert. In our modern world of urban sprawl, of constant noise, of traffic and ambient sound, the city can often be a place of utter loneliness. Despite the cacophony of humanity, the individual is often lost, forgotten, lonely, empty. In the desert, senses are heightened and we find the ability to perceive and experience God in a different way. It is no wonder that Moshe and B’nai Yisrael, at the foot of a humble mountain in the midst of the desert, are able to experience Revelation. Instead of loneliness, they find God.

I am not sure what we will find at Ein Gedi on Sunday, but based on prior experience, I think we can count on a pretty powerful, and Divine, encounter.

דבר אחר

This past week in Atlanta, there was a conference about expanding Camp Yofi: Family Camp for
Jewish Families with Children with Autsim to other Jewish camps across the country. When the children of Israel, and all of us as well, stood together at Mt. Sinai, children with autism and their families were included in the Revelation. Torah, and membership in the Jewish People, was given to them equally and it is time for the leadership of the community to recognize this and act on it. It is my hope that this conference will lead to a spreading of the model across the country so that more lives can be touched and the entire Jewish people strengthened.

The first Camp Yofi would not have taken place without the vision of Ramah Darom. Camp Yofi could not have gotten started without the generosity of The Barry and Judy Silverman Foundation, the Covenant Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camping, and many others. Without the support of The Marcus Foundation, neither the expansion to a second session nor the conference could have transpired. And without the exceptional talent and dedication of Susan Tecktiel and Dr. Sue Kabot, the entire endeavor never would have gotten off the ground. They were our Moshes.

Now, it is time for other Moshe’s to step up, to hear the call, and make this important program happen across North America. Many of them showed up in Atlanta this week. Whether you are a Jewish camp helping to expand this program, new leaders to execute it, or new funders making investing to make it possible, I hope you will, to paraphrase – and modify Hillel the Elder: “Go and Learn and Do!”

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Becca and Mira Debuts in Israel

Becca is starring in the Man of La Mancha in the role of Aldonza. You can see the promotional poster at Tickets for Jerusalem performances are available at 02-671-8281. Jerusalem dates are February 13, 14, 16, and 17. Tickets for Tel Aviv and Raanana performances are available at 03-636-4007. The performance in Tel Aviv is on February 11 and the Ranaana performance takes place on February 18. Becca will also be playing the role of Glinda the Good Witch in the upcoming performance of the Wizard of Oz, where Mira will make her international debut as a munchkin.

Parashat B’Shallach – 2008

The city finally returned to normal since President Bush’s departure last Friday - well normal for Jerusalem anyway. During his visit, downtown resembled a cross between a ghost town and a police state. Citizens were nowhere to be found while 10,000 soldiers and police officers occupied the center of the city. It was truly stunning.

I couldn’t see a thing from my mirpeset on Thursday morning. It was dark and the fog was incredibly thick. The traffic was unbearable because the fog grounded the President’s helicopter and he had to drive to Ramallah for his day with Abu Mazen. The cab driver wanted to spare me the time so he asked if he could take an “an alternate” route. “Of course. Whatever will make this faster.” He turned into Abu Tor, a mixed Jewish – Arab neighborhood, into Silwan, through Wadi Joz and Sheikh Jarah until we reached French Hill and the University.

I had not driven through the above mentioned neighborhoods since 1983 on Ramah Israel Seminar. Back then, we visited churches, the Mount of Olives, etc. With the advent of Intifada II, however, visitation for the most part ended. I forgot how beautiful the view was, if, of course, you ignored the decrepit state of East Jerusalem. Baka-land this was not.

I could not help but notice that the “darkness, cloudiness, and fog” I was driving in was a foreshadowing of last week’s parashah. The penultimate plague, Darkness, is described in exactly those terms , words that indicate ambivalence and fear. Fog is deceptive. You never know what is beyond it – good or bad, safety or danger. And this is a foggy place and a foggy time in the Middle East. What does the future hold?

The optimist in me wants to tell you that suddenly, in the middle of class, I looked out the window and the fog was gone, the golden tiles of the Dome of the Rock blazed in the late morning sunlight atop the Temple Mount, a siman min hashamayim – a sign from Heaven – that Peace was possible, that it was in the offing, that something more immediate would come from the President’s visit. All of that, up to the Peace part, actually did happen. But then there were more rockets on Sderot, the fog started to return, and I was reminded that before the Exodus, there was the final plague, the death of the first born children of Egypt, a measure for measure consequence for Pharaoh’s decree against the first born male children of the House of Israel. Before radical reordering of the world came the painful death of children on all sides.

This part of the world has been in the” painful death of children” phase long enough. It is time to cross the major barrier, the Sea, and perceive what could be for all the children of this region in the future, the beauty and the glory and the life. It is time for all parties to learn from Pharaoh’s greatest limitation his inability to change, to see past what was in order to see what could be. In the end, Pharaoh couldn’t do it and he and his army were wiped out. But from that came a radical reordering. So to here, now. The stormy sea before us will consume those on all sides who cannot see what could be. And those who can will stand together and sing songs of Joy and Praise.

May we all be counted among their number, and soon…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes

Friday, January 4, 2008

Parashat Va’era – 2007

In one of my previous posts, I cited one of my favorite quotations which is ascribed to Albert Einstein. Einstein defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The next two weeks of Torah readings present us with an excellent application of Einstein’s definition of insanity. Pharaoh is given multiple opportunities to give in to Moshe and to God by releasing the Israelites from slavery. Each time, he gives the same answer – NO! - and each time he, his people, or his land (or all three simultaneously) suffer disasters of, well, Biblical proportions. Even after the suffering of every house in Egypt from the tenth plague and his finally giving in, Pharaoh cannot deviate from his standard response. He gathers his army and goes out with the troops to either destroy or re-enslave our ancestors. If this is not insanity, I don’t know what is.

Not only does Pharaoh make the same mistake over and over again, he avoids accepting responsibility for the national consequences of his choices. While not the intent of the Divine story, we never hear Pharaoh apologize to his people for going down the path of destruction, let alone to the victims of his opression. He never accepts responsibility, personal responsibility, for the consequences of his poor leadership choices. He never resigns. He is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power and to divert blame for failure. He has no vision, is incapable of changing direction, of making a different choice in light of the facts. In the end, what is left of Mitzrayim is a shadow of its former glory, and a shrunken people with less soul. In the end, Pharaoh is a flawed and failed leader.

Jewish leaders – professional and lay, clergy and educator, fundraiser and philanthropist – should read the Pharaoh narratives closely, for we are charged with having vision for the future. We are charged with recognizing when the status quo is no longer enough. We are charged with changing direction, of seeking out and giving different answers. And we are charged with accepting responsibility and apologizing for our failures. If we put those failures in vision and in repetition on others, then we fail our People, our God and our mission in this world.

Recently, I read articles in the Jewish press from national leaders who bemoan the current state of commitment and engagement with Jewish living – and learning – and then place the blame exclusively on local professionals or local lay leaders. In so doing, they ignore their own responsibility for the crisis.

Another set of articles I am exploring advocates again and again for less – less learning, less knowledge, less depth, less meaning, less doing – as if all that stops the Jewish People from growing is that we are not disciples of Mies Van Der Rohe, the famous architect whose approach was “Less is More.” We have been down that road for at least thirty, if not forty or fifty, years. This approach is the embodiment of not only Van Der Rohe, but of Einstein definition of insanity. It is clear that lite does not equal long term commitment.

Fortunately, I am reading another set of articles regarding the impact of independent minyanim; on new directions for Israel education; on innovative approaches to continuity (see Continuity and Discontinuity by Cohen and Kelman) ; and on new understandings of the concept of Jewish Peoplehood. That is, I am exploring innovations that could make a significant and positive difference in the future of our People. It is to this third group of articles, the ones that speak to depth of learning, depth of experience, depth of Torah, to which we should look for leadership for the future.

Pharaoh cannot choose, or chooses not to choose, differently. We can and we must. We must look with new vision. And we must look to depth, to content, to meaningful long term Jewish interaction. We must be leaders, or expect from them and from ourselves, no less. We must hold leaders and ourselves accountable for leading in the right direction. That is the key to our future. It is why we are set free in this world by God in the first place. It is one reason why Pharaoh fails and Moshe succeeds. And why we will succeed, or fail, in the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes