Monday, September 14, 2015

All Standing Trial: Rosh HaShanah 5776

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
These words from a poem by E.E. Cummings carry so many Rosh Hashanah truths: we thank God for this amazing day. We call today the Birthday of the World.  We celebrate Creation, the Universe, and Life: all with our ears awakened by the shofar, and our eyes wide open. 
The truth is, we spend so much of our lives with our ears asleep and eyes closed.

I recently heard a story of a man who asked his doctor if there was anything that could be done for his snoring.  The doctor asked if it disturbed his wife.  The man said, “no, just the rest of the congregation.” 

*  *  *

Unetaneh Tokef, our Rosh HaShanah poem, is our “wake-up call” for this Holy Day, so let’s try awakening our ears and opening our eyes to what this text actually says.

The poem begins:
Let’s proclaim the holiness of this day — for it is amazing.” (In other words, let’s talk about what this day really means).  
It continues—and I’ll excerpt its clearest imagery: 

Today awakens deepest awe and inspires highest praise for Your dominion, for Your throne is a throne of love; Your reign is a reign of truth. And here is the truth of this day: You are Judge and Plaintiff, Counsel and Witness. You inscribe and seal. You record and recount…. Behold, this is the Day of Judgment! ….

On Rosh HaShanah this is written; on Yom Kippur this is sealed:
How many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it;
who will live and who will die;
who will reach the ripeness of age,
who will be taken before their time;
who by fire and who by water;
who by war and who by beast;
who by famine and who by drought;
who by earthquake and who by plague;
who by strangling and who by stoning;
who will rest and who will wander;
who will be tranquil and who will be troubled;
who will be calm and who tormented;
who will live in poverty and who in wealth;
who will be humbled and who exalted….

Perhaps you’ve heard the legend behind this poem, describing the martyr Amnon of Mainz, who, during the days of the Crusades, was dismembered for refusing to convert. Legend has it Unetaneh Tokef were his last words. Most storytellers recount Amnon’s fate gruesomely, to instill vicious dread.

However, today, this year, the most relevant detail of Amnon that is rarely if ever recounted is not the brutality inflicted on him, but the beauty embodied by him. Amnon is described as “yafeh to’ar vifeh mar’eh - well built and handsome.” These are the exact words that are used to describe only one other person in our tradition, and that is Joseph in Genesis (39:6).  

The key to unlocking the meaning of Unetaneh Tokef is to examine the story of Joseph. Why? Because Joseph is the one character who can relate most viscerally to the judgment, the dread, the trial of this Rosh HaShanah poem. 

“Joseph, well built and handsome….” (And did he know it!)  If we were to read only that first part of the story of Joseph and his brothers, and nothing else, we, the readers, might actually feel like the brothers, they got it right—that God, unmentioned at that point, may have been on their side. Joseph the oblivious dreamer shows off his wealth, he gloats that he's the favorite one. He practically threatens to enslave his brothers, telling them vivid dreams in which they worship him as their lord. Simply put, he's a conceited brat.

Thus, overwhelmed by jealousy and fear of subjugation, the brothers take action.  Acting as judge and plaintiff, counsel and witness, they conspire and throw their sinfully arrogant brother into a pit. In a most unusual manner the Torah describes what the pit looked like: “Haborah reik. Ein bo mayyim - the pit was empty.  There was no water in it."  Two sentences that are obviously redundant – If the pit is empty, we can assume that there’s no water in it.

Our sages picked up on the problem, and they interpreted the verse to mean that the pit wasn’t empty of everything- it was just empty of water. Inside the pit, they said, there were actually scorpions and snakes.

What could be more horrifying than being stuck in a pit with nothing but scorpions and snakes!

This is the first instance in the Torah of imprisonment, and it comes in the form of solitary confinement—a loneliness far beyond anything we’ve read up to this point: a stark aloneness that Adam, the first human being, doesn’t experience. Even Noah, in a story about wiping out all of humanity, is told to bring along his family—and a bunch of animals.

Joseph’s loneliness tops it all: starving, terrified, with nothing around him but scorpions and snakes. Unetaneh tokef, who shall live and who shall die.

Let’s imagine, now, if we never read on beyond Joseph stuck in the pit—if the eyes of our eyes never followed him from the pit to slavery to prison and eventually to the palace.  Imagine if our eyes read on to follow other stories, perhaps of lesser import, leaving Joseph out of sight, out of mind.  What if the Torah curtailed the Joseph story right there – on his Yom HaDin, day of Judgment. 

*  *  *

Today, in the United States, there is a class of citizens whom we “read” precisely in this way, like a person thrown into a pit – reik, ein bo mayim – empty with nothing but scorpions and snakes, who remains there: out of sight out of mind.  I’m speaking of those of us who are incarcerated for our crimes—our asurim, our prisoners.

In the United States today, more people are imprisoned, in the pit with Joseph, than any other industrialized nation. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world. The Unites States makes up about 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world's prisoners.

How we arrived at this state of mass incarceration is vibrantly discussed and debated among historians, politicians, and legal professionals. We’ve recently seen a surge of bestselling books and articles now shining the light of awareness into this dark pit.  This is not “news” to us, it’s a part of our world that we hear with our ears and see with our eyes.  Our picture of the asurim, the prisoners in our midst, our understanding of their conditions—the scorpions and the snakes—has become hauntingly clear and spiritually abominable. 

*  *  *

As Bryan Stevenson relays in his bestseller Just Mercy,
-       The prison population has increased from 300,000 in the early 70’s to 2.3 million people today. 
-       6 million people are on probation or parole.
-       1 in every 15 people born in our country in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison. 
-       Stevenson writes, “For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole,” about 3,000 kids sentenced to die in prison.

The late legal scholar William Stuntz in his seminal work, The Collapse of the Criminal Justice System, offers his insightful, provocative reading on how our nation dug this pit, the many factors that got us to this point, including the “war on drugs” declared in the 80’s and the significant lengthening of sentences for nonviolent and violent offenses.

Stuntz laments that one of the primary causes of mass incarceration is the movement toward what he calls “discretionary justice” – which he describes as the shifting of power in criminal justice away from the courts, and toward the empowerment of legislators and law enforcement officers, who now exercise increased discretion over guilt and innocence, over what crimes to punish and how severely to punish them.  Stuntz argues that “discretionary justice too often amounts to discriminatory justice.” 

We cannot stare into the pit of mass incarceration without naming the scorpions of discrimination and the snakes of racism. 

The claim of “colorblindness” is worse than naïve; it is pernicious. Race matters. Today we hear the cries in the public square, voiced with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.  Our hearts ache over black deaths that matter:
·      Treyvan Martin, killed by [a citizen exercising] discriminatory justice.
·      Eric Garner, killed in a chokehold that millions of Americans watched on YouTube, with the eyes of their eyes, welling up with tears. Discriminatory justice.
·      Michael Brown, shot to death before the eyes of the eyes of his community. Discriminatory justice.

His mother was interviewed, right after he was killed. Here were her first words to the local news station: “You took my son away from me…do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate?”

What an expression of grief! Before anything else, she talked about how hard it was to keep her son from dropping out.  Race matters.

It matters that people of color experience society differently than people who are white.  It matters to see how being perceived as white determines so much of one’s life experience.

There is no community in America that is more ravaged by incarceration than African Americans, in particular black men.  This devastation is detailed in Michelle Alexander’s bestseller, The New Jim Crow. 

As Alexander notes, “the [US] imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” In some major cities afflicted by drug wars, as many as 80% of young black men have criminal records.

Studies show that black people don’t use drugs more than white people do, but they are 9 times more likely to go to prison for drugs. Racial minorities are more likely to get arrested, convicted, sentenced harshly, and are far more likely to be sent to death row than people whose skin is whiter.  

And then, once imprisoned, Alexander writes, “as a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” 

*  *  *

We need not imagine what it would look like if the Torah were to have left Joseph in the pit…. because we see this story when we confront the reality of the treatment of those whose poverty or pigmentation makes them so much more likely to end up in the enslavement of incarceration.

Mass incarceration is getting a whole lot of coverage, we see it, but the eyes of our eyes, remain closed to seeing our Joseph in the pit. We hear stories on the news, but the ears of our ears, are so far removed from the cries that are- frankly- so close in proximity. A mile or two in each direction from where we pray, from where we recite the words of Unetaneh Tokef—our poem about criminal justice—are communities in which everyone knows someone locked up—a best friend, a cousin, a brother, a father.  But the social walls between us are virtually soundproof. 

Unetaneh Tokef K’dushat Hayom:
How can we hear with the ears of our ears what this day really means?

How do we keep the sound of our shofar from becoming “white noise”?

*  *  *

Our Prophet Isaiah bewailed the mistreatment of not just “the stranger, the widow, the orphan,” but also the prisoner!  When he talks about the purpose of Israel, why we exist, what it means to become holy, he says: 
I… called to you in justice, taking hold of your hand in a Covenant, to become a light unto the nations, to open blind eyes in order to free prisoners and those who sit in houses of darkness…and [to] transform the darkness into light…. (Isa. 42)

If only it were that easy.  Prophets famously bemoaned injustice but were far from being practical agents of change. 

There is no quick fix for this crisis. However, there’s more traction now than there has been in decades:
·      Anti-recidivism programs emerging, with opportunities for our involvement.
·      A believe-it-or-not bipartisan political consensus around the alleviation of mass incarceration.
·      The U.S. Sentencing Commission has diligently addressed the issue.
·      And here in our own Commonwealth we have thought-leaders, activists, and opportunities to make change on a local level, where, frankly, we lag behind in many ways. 
·      We have a growing cohort of folks in our community and our interfaith community who are ready and eager to roll up their sleeves and get to work. 

In this community we are no strangers to this kind of work: it’s a part of who we are, how we pray, and how we read.
We read the whole story of Joseph.   
We know that the arc of his story bends from slavery to freedom to redemption.
We know that Joseph brings us to Egypt, foreshadowing another story of moving from slavery to freedom to redemption. And every year when we sit around the dinner table telling that story of Exodus, we read, “b’chol dor vador, in every generation the responsibility of being human is to see oneself as having come of Egypt.”

With the eyes of our eyes we see ourselves alongside all who are shackled;
With the eyes of our eyes we see ourselves with Joseph in the pit, with scorpions and snakes;
With the eyes of our eyes we stare into the darkness and affirm our prophetic purpose to “become a light.” 

Unetaneh Tokef K’dushat Hayom- we proclaim the holiness of this day, a day of awakening: today is the Day of Judgment!  And here is the truth of this day: We are all under spiritual indictment!

Unetaneh Tokef, And as we speak these words, we embrace in our hearts those for whom trial is no metaphor, but a dreadful reality. 

As we speak these words, we yearn for the day that we can judge our brothers and sisters with the compassion that we ourselves ask of God, k’dushat hayom, on the holiness of this day.

As we speak these words, in 5776, we pray for a year of just mercy, of matir asurim, freeing the captives and transforming darkness into light. 

Blessed are You, Eternal our God… who frees the captives.
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Matir Asurim.

# # # 
 Rosh HaShanah 5776 Sermon by Rabbi Matthew Soffer, Temple Israel of Boston

Friday, September 04, 2015

Deed by deed, letter by letter

Our Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, involves some of the most famous and enduring language of our tradition.  In particular, Moses instructs the Israelites on how to show their gratitude, ki tavo, when they enter the land.  Generally speaking, the recipe for Israelite success in the Land of Israel can be summarized by saying, “whatever God tells you to do, do it – trust me.”

But the particulars are unusual in this portion because, unlike most other “thou shalts,” here the Israelites are given actual scripts for what they should say, literally – confessions that must be uttered, word for word.  The first script is the more famous of the two, that of the First Fruits.  We read it regularly during Passover—
Arami oved avi, my father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number.  There he became great, mighty, and populous, etc.”

You know the rest, and if you don’t, I don’t want to give it away—you’ll have to wait in suspense for Passover to arrive again.  The second Confession is the Confession of Tithing.  Less famous but no less interesting.  Our text reads:

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield -- in the third year, the year of the tithe -- and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they may eat well among you, you shall declare before the Eternal your God:
     "I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, just as You [God] commanded me;
     I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was impure, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. 
     I have obeyed the Eternal my God;
     I have done just as You commanded me.”
                                                                           (Deut 26:12-14)

This Confession struck our commentators as unnecessary, at best.  The 15th century Italian commentator Rabbi Isaac Abravanel asked: "What need is there for the person to boast orally about what he has done?" Another contemporaneous commentator, Isaac ben Moses Arama, similarly pondered, “What point was there in demanding that the worshipper recount what he did and did not do, so long as he performed the commandment properly?”

This question – what need is there to articulate our deeds aloud, whether a deed of sin or of merit—is as relevent to us today as it was in antiquity.  On the one hand, we can imagine what it’s like for someone who follows the rules, colors between the lines, does exactly as he or she is told.  Whenever you look back and see that you did something exactly the way you should have – it feels pretty good.  And there’s a part of us that enjoys the recognition. 

On the other hand, there’s also the stigma of being a braggart. Why do these most important things need to be verbalized? After all, we read in the ethical treatice Pirkei Avot, to “say little and do much” (1:15)?  For a tradition that time and again tells us that we’re judged not by what we say but what we do, we sure have a lot to say.  Is this text urging the Israelites to brag, to disobey the prophetic demand to “walk humbly before your God”? 

Our commentators teach us that this text is not about bragging at all, it’s a text about the nature of speech, about how speech and action are interconnected.  Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century list of the Commandments of the Torah, perhaps authored by Rabbi Aharon HaLevi, said this about our 2 Confessions:
“The mind and the imagination of people are deeply impressed by what they say….  The reason for [the tithing commandment] pertains to man’s unique gift, setting him apart from and above animals—his power of speech. Most people will recoil from dishonoring their word, their distinctive give, before sinning in their actions.”

How counterintuitive: “the minds of people are impressed by what they say” – isn’t it the other way around?  You think, then you speak?  Your words reflect your actions?  Apparently not.  Apparently, you are what you speak. 

There’s good precident for this line of thought: God speaks and then creates.

The 19th century Hasidic master the Kotzker Rebbe said: “most people do the right thing in public, and the wrong thing in secret.”  So he taught the opposite: “keep your good deeds private,” he said, “and do wrong only in public—since fear of exposure will reduce your misdeeds.” 

This is why the liturgy that we will read from in 9 days from now, on Rosh HaShanah through the end of Yom Kippur, is so utterly essential to our ethical integrity. 

The name of our new Machzor, our High Holy Day Prayerbook, is Mishkan HaNefesh, the dwelling place for the spirit or soul.  This is a collective articulation of our spirit.  And the spirit can only dwell in the present tense. The fact that we will be praying from a Machzor that is brand new means that this year we are afforded an opportunity to encounter liturgy that is “in the present tense.” A teacher of mine once said, if you want to understand the heart of the Jewish community at any moment in time and space throughout our expansive history, there is no better place to look than their prayer book.

The two “Confessions” that we read of in our portion– that of the first fruit and then of the tithing – arrive in timely anticipation of own ultimate annual Confession, the Vidui that we say on Yom Kippur.   Our short confession, Vidui Zuta, famously begins with these words:

Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Dibernu Dofi – “We are guilty, we betray, we steal, we scorn…” The confession continues, listing a total of 24 sins.  Why 24?  (I’ll give you a hint, it has nothing to do with a famous television show starring Keifer Sutherland.)  24 - One for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. 
Ashamnu- Alef. 
Bagadnu- Bet,
Gazalnu - Gimmel,
Dibernu Dofi – Dalet… and so on and so forth. 

The words that we use that confess our sins compose an acrostic, spanning the entire Hebrew alphabet.  This acrostic intimates the human need to push our language to the limit, to verbalize in the most maximal manner.

And not because we are loquacious.  (Although we are…quite loquacious.  What, we’re people of the book…  it so happens to be a very, very long book.)

No, our liturgy reflects an economy of language, althewhile reaching toward the Infinite One. As Sefer HaChinuch teaches us, our minds are changed by what we say. 

And as we will see this year, Mishkan HaNefesh, our Sanctuary for the Soul, offers readings which—in the present tense—add layers of heartfelt confession, poems that recognize failures of integrity, failures of justice, failures of love, all failures of which none can plead inculpable.

Thus we, heirs to the tradition of Israelite Confession, we verbalize, we admit everything.

We confess in full voice. 
We confess with fullness of language. 
We confess with each and every letter of our holy tongue. 
We confess in order to potentiate our embodiment of holiness.

Pirkei Avot may tell us, say little and do much. 
But this time of year, we say much
so that we may do so much more,
so that we be so much better….
     Deed by deed, letter by letter.

D'var Torah delivered by Rabbi Matt Soffer Temple Israel of Boston on August 4, 2015/5775


Friday, August 21, 2015

9 Words for 9 Innings

A Word on the Word, “Word”… and other Words:
9 words to take with us to the game, 1 per inning.
August 18, 2015/5775

This past Tuesday Temple Israel went to the Holy Land of Fenway Park, 40 strong, for Jewish Heritage Night. As we gathered before walking together, I offered this quasi-irreverent D’var Torah, to  complement our peanuts & cracker jacks:

A D’var Torah is Hebrew for “a word” of Torah.  Davar means “word.”  So let’s take with us to the game a word on the word, “word” along with a few other words….

Our portion this week is called Shoftim.  It’s one the parashiyot in Deuteronomy that does not begin with the word VAY’DABER.  As in, “(God) spoke to Moses saying….”  Vay’daber comes from the same root as “davar,” which as you know now means “word.”  So the first word we’ll toss in our pocket and take with us to the game is just that – Davar.  Word.

1.  Davar. DAVAR is among the most fascinating and multivalent words in the entire language.  It means not only “word” but also thing, speech, sentence, message, report, advice, request, promise, command, decision, theme, story, reason, teaching, event, and, my personal favorite, a commandment. All of these meanings packed into the word for word.  The message is clear—in Hebrew, in Judaism, and indeed in life, the power of language measures up to concept of mitzvah, of commanded action, of doing the right thing OR ELSE…. And speaking of the “or else,” word #2:

2.  Shoftim.  Our first word in this week’s portion, shoftim, refers to judges.  God in our portion commands Moses to appoint judges.  A singular judge is a shofeit, but more often to we see another form of this word—with the same root—mishpat, meaning justice or law.  In our portion, we see this word paired with another word—a word that perhaps matters more than any other word, at least according to my own bias.  The judges, the shoftim, are commanded to judge fairly, to follow what the text calls mishpat-tzedek, a form of justice that is just plain…just.

3.  Tzedek.  Our portion commands, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.”  It’s the only time we see a doubling of a word in this kind of way.  It means, “justice, justice you must pursue (or chase after).”  Tzedek was the obsession of our prophets, the vision of the world as it should be, a world in which every human being is treated with dignity and has a fair shot and making it.  I remember growing up when tickets to a baseball game were $3.  Now the cheapest ones you’ll find – group rates – around $25 or so.  That prices out a huge segment of the population, the under-resourced who perhaps would benefit most from the recreation and sheer joy of baseball.  The very notion of tonight’s game being Jewish Heritage Night is recognition that we’ve made strides.  2-3 generations ago Jewish identity wasn’t something worth celebrating in the public eye, it was a burden that the community had to overcome.  Tzedek, justice, equality, fairness, is something that we have chased and continue chasing after. 

Enough on this week’s portion, now transitioning to the holy words of baseball. 

4.  Kana (kuf nun alef).  This is the closest word in the Bible for being fanatical or zealous.  It’s as close as we come to being a fan.  Now, I’m not saying that if you’re fan you’re insanely zealous.  But there’s some very real connection between being a “fan” and being “kana,” insanely fanatical.   I’m going to break the rules here and make the next word English.

5.  Fan. The word “fan” in English has two meanings.  The first we know quite well, deriving from the Latin word “vannus” or “ventus” meaning “wind”—to vent, to fan.  But what I’d really like to vent about is the second definition, for it’s this meaning that pertains to our game tonight. In 16th century Latin, the word “fanaticus” meant an insane person, inspired by a god.  It made its way into modern English meaning an insane extremist, or, more moderately, a devotee. And thanks to American baseball in the 19th century the word evolved further into the abbreviated form “fan.” Definition two: an enthusiast of the sport of baseball.  And, a only later, an enthusiast for sports in general.  Thank you, Oxford English Dictionary and Muhlenberg College English Department.

(Hang in there—4 more words to go, and the first pitch awaits.)

6.  B’reishit.  The very first word in the whole Torah.  It means: “In the big inning.”  ….I had to.  It’s the worst Jewish baseball joke known to mankind; if I didn’t throw it in I’d hear about it from my dad.  You can bust my chops for that one on our walk to Fenway.  Speaking of…

7.   Halicha, which means “walk.”  We’ll be walking from here to Fenway, about a 15 minute brisk halicha.  You may recognize a variant of that word “halacha,” which means Jewish Law.  That’s not accidental.  “Halacha” actually literally means “way,” a Jewish way.  Holech means walking, lalechet means to walk.  God says to Abraham, lech l’cha—Go!  (In baseball language: Play ball!)

8.  Chalat.  This is the verb for “brewing,” whether beer or tea.  A “brew” is a chalita.  The letters are chet lamed tet, which in the rabbinic period meant engaging in some process of cooking that involved boiling water.  Those same letters, incidentally, make up the verb for “to decide,” l’hachlit – a hachlata is a decision.  Now you know this word – use it carefully.  Don’t confuse chalita, a brew, with “chalcholet” – a word meaning rectum.  That’s different.

9.  This one’s devoted to all who have not listened to single word I’ve said, and to validate your boredom by giving you the opportunity to walk away saying that you learned at least 1 word: the Hebrew word for baseball.  Ready for it?  Baseball in Hebrew is…. Beis-ball.

That’s it.  9 words for 9 innings.  Batter up!  Word?