Friday, May 18, 2012

You Say Goodbye, And I Say Hello

NOTE: This, my final blog posting for Temple Solel and, will be double posted as the inaugural entry on my new blog ("Seventy Faces").  Please take a moment to explore the new blog and companion website (still under construction!).  I welcome your feedback about how I can improve it.

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All endings birth new beginnings.  And all new beginnings start with endings.

I have lived those dual realities since my new friends at Scarsdale Synagogue (in Scarsdale, NY) invited me to become their new rabbi (as of July 1, 2012) this past fall.  I am honored and overwhelmed to be taking this next step in my career and in my rabbinate.  And my family and I are most excited to be returning home to the East Coast to our family and friends.  And yet: there is also much sadness: Because this new beginning of our's necessitates a certain 'ending' to the life we have loved and known here in San Diego.

As we prepare to wish everyone in California farewell, my family and I have been struck by a profound sense of gratitude. And so, if you will permit me in this final Solel blog posting, I'd like to briefly reflect on the Jewish notion of gratitude, as I say to you all: thank you. Allow me to begin by recommending Alan Morinis' chapter on gratitude in his book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar.  Morinis is a master teacher who has breathed new life into the practice of mussar over the last few years. All of us can benefit from the practical wisdom that he distills.

He opens his chapter by quoting from the Talmud (my own adapted translation): "Ben Zoma used to say: A good guest says: 'How much my host has toiled for me!  He put so much meat in front of me, so much wine, so much bread - all his exertion was just for me!'  A bad guest says: 'What did my host do for me?  I ate just a tiny roll, a single piece of meat, and I drank just one cup of wine - all of his exertion was on behalf of his family.'"

With tears in my eyes: I look back over these last seven years, and I proclaim: "How much my host has toiled for me!"  There are no words to describe how grateful I am to my fellow staff members, and the lay people I was privileged to work, partner, study, celebrate, and mourn with...for sacrificing a bit of yourselves as I learned from you what it means to be a rabbi.  My new community at Scarsdale Synagogue will be the ultimate beneficiaries of your chesed.  Though the gifts you have given me are far too numerous to mention individually, please know that I cherish each and every one of them - as I cherish each and every one of you.

The only thing that has amazed Amy and I more than the professional kindnesses showered on me as a rabbi has been the way that the entire Temple Solel family welcomed and extended itself to our family.  How blessed we feel that Temple Solel was the place where we had the chance to begin our family.  When I think of our building, I will always think of it first as the place where Siona was named in 2006, and where Avi's bris was held in 2010.  It was in the midst of those rituals that Amy and I learned the essence of what Solel is all about: a place of deep love and warmth.  Like you, we came to intimately appreciate the presence of Rabbi Frank, Cantor Robbins, and more recently Cantor Tiep as we marked those two holy moments in our lifecycle.  What else can we say, but thank you for those memories.

Most of all, I remain humbled by the fact that the temple's Assistant Rabbi Search Committee saw a glimmer of potential in the "green" graduating rabbinical student they met in the winter of 2005.  For the faith that you had in me in that season: I will forever be in your debt.

That same sense of humility is something that I am very much aware of, as I look forward to beginning my new tenure in New York...and as my family excitedly looks forward to our coming move, and the new life that awaits us there.  While it is true that I know much, much more now about what it means to be a rabbi (as compared to seven years ago), I am also aware of the new responsibilities and expectations that await me in Scarsdale.  And so it is that I am in Scarsdale Synagogue's debt as well, for the sacred trust you will shortly place in my hands, and for your belief that we can work together to write the next chapter of SSTTE's history. To my new friends there: I can only say how privileged and delighted I am to be able to begin to dream big dreams with you about what a vibrant 21st century progressive Jewish community can look like.

So, to friends old and new, I say: THANK YOU.

Morinis concludes piously by quoting Psalm 92: "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High, To proclaim Your goodness in the morning, And Your faithfulness at night."

But equally appropriate would be the words of the The Beatles.  To my Solel friends: You (We!) say goodbye....And to my Scarsdale friends: I say hello!


Friday, May 11, 2012

The Corners of Our Fields

This week's Torah portion (Parshat Emor) contains one of the Torah's iconic notions.  According to Leviticus 23:22: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, and the gleanings of your harvest you shall not gather.  For the poor and the stranger you shall leave them, I am Adonai your God."

More than any other image in the Torah about the giving of tzedakah, and the obligation to feed the hungry, this is the one that speaks to me the most.  In plain terms, the Torah is making a radical statement: that just because a person might own a given piece of land...It does not mean that he/she actually has the right to claim/keep all of the monetary value of that land to herself.  Let's say the landowner grows corn...According to this week's Torah portion and the mitzvah of peah (literally: a corner), the corn in the corners is left unharvested.  The farmer doesn't get to sell it in the market, or eat it in his home.  It remains in the field.  So that the poor can come by at their convenience (perhaps at night so as to minimize public shame) to eat and be filled.

I also love this idea because it is so radically destabilizing to the capitalism that we have all been brought up to believe in here in America...that what we earn: we get to keep for ourselves!

Not so, according to Judaism. We should be humbled to know that whatever wealth/materialistic comforts we have are gifts that are but lent to us.  And the time is going to come when we are going to be expected to return them.

In the meantime, we are specifically commanded to share what we have with others.  (This would be the cue for Craig's "Share and Be Nice" song...)

The agricultural imagery of the Torah portion might lead you to think that none of this is relevant today.  After all: how many Jewish farmers do you actually know?

But I would argue that the farming piece is the least relevant part of peah.  

Consider, for a moment, the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who wrote this about this week's Torah portion (gender sensitive translation!): "For the wealthy person who cares for the needy of her people merely fulfills her duty to God.  This duty was thrust upon her with every grain of produce that God caused to grow in her field.  This concept of tzedakah is the greatest of the Torah’s social triumphs."

The triumph that Hirsch is referring to is not about farming per se.  It is the reminder and realization that our wealth (represented for us by a physical paycheck, or the numbers on the screen of the webpage of our bank account) comes to us from God...or some other power or Force in the world, depending on your theology.  According to Judaism: we have to share our wealth....because the wealth actually doesn't belong to us in the first place. 

Given how trendy and hip Eastern spiritual practices are right's worth noting that karma is also a long-held Jewish idea.

In the 15th century, Rabbi Isaac Caro (teacher and uncle of the more famous Rabbi Joseph Caro) wrote: "The reason that the poor person is poor is because the rich person is rich.  When your star ascends, his star descends.  [Our tradition teaches us that you, the rich person]  are the reason that he is poor.  And if you do not give to him, what will God do?  God will rotate the universe in such a way that the star that is on top will sink to the bottom, and the star that is on the bottom will rise to the top."

The material wealth that we enjoy is simply the result of a cosmic accident, according to this view.  The wealth had to be split up somehow...and it fell to us, and not to "them."  But if we don't exercise a little humility about that...and if we fail to support those whose needs are significant, then...according to Caro, God will punish turning our worlds literally upside down, so that everyone's economic position is reversed.

The lesson here is clear: if we want to avoid having our universe upended, we need to plant our feet firmly to the stay humbly grounded about who we are, and what it means to be able to acquire and spend wealth.  We are commanded....not invited...but specifically ordered to share what we have with others who need it more than we do.  How wonderful it would be if that generosity of spirit might touch us all, and enable us to feed the world, and heal it, by transforming it into a better place.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

PS: If you are interested in the topic of Judaism and Social Justice, I highly recommend Rabbi Jill Hammer's There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition.  

PPS: 3 organizations that you might make a small donation to (whether it's $3, $36, or $360 - and do it in honor of Mom this Mother's Day weekend!) are:
  • - Mazon is the foremost American Jewish response to hunger.
  • - American Jewish World Service is a leading Jewish organization that sends volunteers to impoverished communities around the world.
  • - Bend the Arc is a new Jewish partnership to fight for a greater sense of justice in our world.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Shout Out to SL: Revisiting Domestic Violence

In the email message that I sent out to my Etanu followers with information about last week's blog posting, I invited readers to request a topic for my final three blog postings.

S.L., a longtime devoted reader of Etanu, wrote back and asked for a re-posting of his favorite I wrote more than 3 years ago (before the etanu website went up!).

Domestic violence remains a troubling issue today.  Since this message was originally written on March 13, 2009 approximately 11 million new incidents of domestic violence have taken place in the United States.  This is based on the statistic that a woman is beaten or assaulted in the US once every 9 seconds.  If that statistic does not make you ill, I don't know what will.

As for Chris Brown and Rihanna...there's mad speculation that they are/were back together (again).  That raises interesting questions about the forgiveness piece mentioned below.  I'd love to hear your thoughts about this important, pressing, and relevant issue for our time.

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Have you been following the maddening/saddening (is that a word?) celebrity news out of Hollywood that has chronicled the incident of domestic violence committed by Chris Brown against Rihanna?  (Check out the blurb in People Magazine.)

Although all domestic abuse is a terrible tragedy, the one good thing that comes out of cases involving celebrities is that at least it gives us an opportunity to be reminded that this is still a major problem facing our society.

You can read all of the statistics on DV here and here

The interesting thing about the Rihanna case is that, soon after being beaten, she decided to (forgive??) or at least take Chris back.  It is now widely reported that they have reconciled and are back together, even as his criminal case is making its way through the Los Angeles court system.

Are there certain things in a relationship that are unforgivable?  And if so, is domestic abuse one of them?  Oprah, a victim of domestic violence herself, seems to think so.  She has publicly admonished Rihanna for getting back together with Brown, warning her that he will hit her again.

I share all of this for two reasons.

First, and most importantly, this really IS a good excuse to take a moment to reflect on the dangers of domestic violence (the video here is very helpful in this respect).  And, we can take this opportunity to remind everyone that there are amazing resources in our communities to help people who are being victimized (or think they might be victimized) by domestic violence.  We have the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at 866-331-9474.  And we have the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE.  Much closer to home, we have PROJECT SARAH, the San Diego Jewish community’s response to domestic violence.  Find them here or call 858-637-3200.  Or call me instead.  Please reach out to someone if you need help.

Secondly, I mention all of this because I think that the central question that Rihanna’s plight raises – about whether or not there are things in a relationship that are forgivable – is a very Jewish kind of a question.

Although this week’s [March 2009] Torah portion (Parshat Ki Tisa) makes no mention of domestic violence, it is very much interested in the question of forgiveness.

This week’s parsha includes the story of the Golden Calf – the ultimate act of spiritual assault that our ancient Israelite ancestors committed against their partner: God.  In worshipping the idol, they violate the sense of respect and sanctity that exists between them and God so profoundly that I have always read it as an act of violence.

And yet, even before this week’s parsha is over, Moses is able to convince God not to destroy the Israelites who have realized the error of their ways.

I’m always a little bit surprised that Moses was able to pull that off.  How was he able to convince God to forgive those Israelites who so brazenly disrespected God?

For some commentators, they use this as a chance to write about humanity’s imperfections.  We’re always going to fall short, in the eyes of God.  Part of God’s essential self is the attribute of mercy, because God knows that if God wants to be in an ongoing relationship with us, God will have to find a way to forgive us every time we inevitably mess up.

And that is true, to a certain extent, in the relationships we share with other people as well.  The only way that any relationship works is if both people constantly find it within themselves to forgive each other. 

But that brings us back to our original question.  Are there limits?  Are there certain things in romantic relationship that are unforgivable?  Are there certain things that – if we do them – they should automatically lead to the end of the relationship? Is domestic violence one of those things?

I’m not sure what the answers are to those questions.  But I would love to hear what you have to say about it.  

With prayers for the end of all violence in the world…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeff Brown