We often turn to the natural world for reminders of what lies beyond. This is as true today as it was 200 years ago, when the Yom Kippur Yizkor service was first celebrated at the world's first Reform synagogue. Poetry drawing on this theme helps us remember our loved ones and to dwell on the meanings of life and death.
Sometimes, the deck seems stacked before we even begin the game. The events of the world appear larger than life, out of our control. And yet, Rosh Hashanah teaches us, we CAN have an impact on the world around us. We can change the course of destiny with the powerful tools of tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah. This works as we look inward at our own lives as well as outward at society writ large.
Each year, around July 4, I offer a teaching about a figure from America's founding. This year, made famous by Hamilton, is Hercules Mulligan, spy extraordinaire.
We each face moments of being an insider or an outsider, though what's at stake in those moments differs depending on our gender and our race. A story from this week's Torah portion highlights these dynamics of power and privilege, which remind us that the issues of today have roots that are long and deep.
Next week, the birthday of gay rights activist Harvey Milk falls on the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer. They share some common themes, symbolized by the shared icon the rainbow, which urge us to come together in our diversity work for ever-expanding inclusion.
How does it affect our reading to think of the Torah as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? And what implications does it have for the way we bring Torah into our daily lives?
There's a difference in the United States between what is Constitutional and what is constitutional, that is, what is written down in the founding document versus the settled norms of our society that *constitute* who we are. The same can be said for Judaism with respect to the Torah - we need to look beyond the written word to discern the true values our tradition stands for.
We usually think of Pharaoh as the main villain of the Exodus story, but rabbinic tradition (and, I believe, the Torah itself) also holds the Egyptians themselves responsible for persecuting the Hebrews. But not only did the Egyptians enslave the Israelites, they also enslaved *themselves* to the Pharaoh, who would ultimately betray and sacrifice them on the altar of their own greed. This is an eternal lesson to us to be wary of our own base impulses and to avoid seeking a strongman to serve as our appointed savior.
There may be no more indelible ethical mandate in Judaism than to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In today's world, the most vulnerable strangers who need our help are refugees, and the current administration's shameful abandonment of our moral responsibility demands a Jewish response.
The story of Noah and the image of the dove remind us of the importance of hope in the midst of tragedy. How much the more so do we rely on hope during the normal course of our lives, in the valleys of our troubled times, endeavoring to remember that there is much around us to remind us of the world's beauty and our sacred purpose within it.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”