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July 28, 2017

07/27/2017 01:37:37 PM


Yair D. Robinson

Parashat D’varim


In several of his books, Martin Buber tells the story of a famous Hassidic rabbi, Abraham Yaakov of Sadagora. The rabbi insisted that something can be learned from everything, even from the inventions of his time.

"Everything can teach us something, and not only everything God has created. What man has made has also something to teach us."
"What can we learn from a train?" one [student] asked dubiously.
"That because of one second one can miss everything."
"And from the telegraph?"
"That every word is counted and charged."
"And the telephone?"
"That what we say here is heard there."

This week we begin Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name is “Words”, Devarim. Specifically, these are the words Moses shares before Israel enters the land, the words Moses has chosen to inspire and educate his people before they fulfill their destiny without him. The rabbis imagine him not just speaking from the mountaintop, but also speaking quietly to each Israelite in the way he or she could understand, taking the time to speak to each person with care. Compare that to our current experience with words. It seems that every day we see what happens when words are treated thoughtlessly, and the damage that can happen when we fail to account for our words, or who might be listening. Whether it’s damaging and offensive words in a tweet or hurled directly at someone with whom we disagree, regardless of relationship, our words and the timing of those words matter.

Next week is also Tisha B’av, the holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and the Rabbis of the Talmud understood the reason for that destruction being sinat chinam, senseless hatred, inspired by callous and careless words. I don’t observe the 9th of Av for a host of reasons, but let me suggest that we should spend this week reflecting on how we use our words. Are we taking a good account of our words? Are we mindful of who is listening? Are we taking the opportunity to speak lovingly with one another? May we fulfill the words of our prayerbook, the words of the psalms, O God, open our lips that our mouths may proclaim you Glory, in all we say. Amen.

May 19, 2017Rabbi Robinson·         Proclaim Liberty throughout the land” . Where do we find these words?o   On the Liberty bell, and also in this week’s Torah portion ·     

04/28/2017 09:28:40 AM


Rabbi Robinson April 28, 2017

Once Rabbi Elimelekh had his friend Rabbi Mendel as a guest for dinner. As it happened, that night, Rabbi Elimelekh’s servant forgot to set out a spoon at Rabbi Mendel’s place. Everyone was eating except Rabbi Mendel, who sat looking at his soup. The Tzaddik observed this and asked: Why aren’t you eating? Well, said Rabbi Mendel, I don’t have a spoon.

Look, said Rabbi Elimelekh, one must know enough to ask for a spoon, and a plate too, if need be!

There are two ways to look at this story. One is that Rabbi Elimelekh should have made sure that Rabbi Mendel had a spoon. Quite rude and unwelcoming. But the other is Rabbi Elimelekh’s point; that Rabbi Mendel, seeing his situation, should have asked self-advocated, and asked for help. We can’t wait for someone to notice whether we’re in distress; we have to ask.

And here’s the thing; we’re not good at asking for help. We’re great at offering help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited someone in the hospital after surgery and asked if they wanted the caring committee to reach out, only to be told with a dismissive wave of the hand that they used to be on the caring committee. We’re happy to be the one who supports; we’re less thrilled to be on the receiving end. Maybe it feels infantilizing, or as Americans, it feels weak. I don’t know. What I do know is that our tradition teaches us that the point of being in community is as much to have a shoulder to lean on as it is to offer that shoulders to others. And that no one is keeping score. We see that in our torah portion, which talks about a person with Tzaraat; sometimes called leprosy but really some kind of spiritual skin disease. We are told right at the beginning that as soon as a priest hears about the person having tzaraat, he’s to go to that person outside the camp to address his needs. This tells us that someone had to tell the priest, and that the priest has to go to that person as soon as he hears of their suffering. I know that sounds self-evident, but too often I find that we’d rather suffer in silence or hope someone notices that we don’t have a spoon than admit frailty and get the help and support they need. And when we close ourselves off like that, in a way, we push our friends away, we tell them that we don’t trust them to be there for us. And we tell ourselves that we aren’t worthy of love and support.

Rabbi Mendel deserves a spoon. The metzorah—the person with tzaraat—deserves to be seen by the priest, to have his illness attended to so he can reenter the camp. And we are deserving of love and support. But sometimes, folks, we have to ask. Let’s be brave enough, trusting enough, to do so. Amen.

Rabbi Robinson, May 26, 2017Sermon

04/28/2017 09:28:40 AM


Yair Robinson

Parashat Bamidbar


It’s late May and early June, which can only mean one thing: graduation. Next weekend is high school graduation, and for the last several weeks we’ve seen article after article, Facebook post after Facebook post celebrating various college graduations throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania and Maryland and beyond.

One graduation that was especially poignant this week was at Bowie State University, more for who was not graduating than who was. A seat was left with the cap, gown and stole of Richard Collins III, who would have accepted a business degree before taking his place as a second lieutenant in the US Army. Instead, his family accepted his diploma, for Richard Collins III was dead, killed in a knife-attack. And not just any knife attack (as if that isn’t bad enough). Richard Collins III, who is black, was killed by a man who belongs to a white-supremacist group. Here was a young man who was preparing to serve his country, who was going to make something of himself and his life, but instead, mostly likely because of the color of his skin, is now only a memory, an unfulfilled promise. 

Did Richard Collins III matter? Did his life matter? Should his life matter to us? Does he count?

That question is the question before us in our Torah portion this week. What does it mean to matter, to count, and be counted? That is what our Torah asks us this week in parashat bamidbar, the first Torah portion in the book of numbers. God commands Moses to take a census of Israel, but not any kind of census. Moses and the elders are to count the able-bodied men of Israel, to prepare to enter the land and, really, invade it, or at least be ready to combat the locals. By definition, that means that this census is exclusionary; we don’t count women, the old, the young, the non-Israelite, and so forth.  For the text, it seems clear that not everyone necessarily matters for everything.

In our lives we are counted in various ways. The census, to be sure. Various statistics. Every click we make online. We are measured and evaluated through our behavior, our apparent wealth or lack thereof, our ethnicity, the way we talk or walk—or don’t. All of that is used to size up whether or not—or how—we matter.

And yet, the command to take the census begins with the words Take a census of the whole Israelite community, literally, “lift up the heads of all the Israelite community”. Well, that’s very different. This isn’t exclusive but inclusive. And even more than that; to lift up their heads, as the midrash says, to lift them up to greatness. In that same Midrash God says “I have made you like Me. Just as I hold My head up high over all the creatures of the earthy, so too with you.” Israel is not merely to be counted in its entirety and not merely to be counted for the sake of going to war but each person is to be counted to lift them up, to remind them that they are created in God’s image, that each one has value and merit and holiness.

It seems to me that the difficulty that is taking place in the text is the same difficulty we as a nation are wrestling with right now. Who do we count? Do we only count certain people—because of their wealth, or position, or status, or ethnicity, or gender—or do we acknowledge the inherent value of each and every person? Do we only matter as commodities to be sold goods and services, or are we truly in God’s image? Was Richard Collins life one of value, of worth, or was he another sad statistic?

To be sure, not every data point is relevant to every issue. But can we truly say that Richard Collins III didn’t matter? As his parents mourn him rather than celebrate his accomplishments and potential, shouldn’t we join them in mourning his loss as well? For me the answer is yes. For me the text challenges us to see those around us not merely as data points, but as lives to be lived, people whose heads should be lifted up—by each one of us. And so long as we only count those we choose to count—those who look like us, sound like us—then we cannot say we are ready to enter the land God has promised us. So let us lift up the heads—the lives—of all, and remember that they—and we, and you—count.

April 14, 2017

04/13/2017 02:45:49 PM


Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Chol HaMoed Pesach


I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s a holiday this week. That’s right, Passover isn’t just one or two nights but a week of carb-free bliss. Or something like that. I certainly noticed at Rotary when the person next to me had the chicken salad sandwich on croissant and I had the fruit cup. Oh, well. I would argue that the opportunity to be with others and celebrate our freedom is worth skipping the occasional sandwich or pasta dish.

It’s not just our dietary habits that get interrupted this week, but our Torah reading as well. Rather than continue with the text of Leviticus, we take a detour and jump into Deuteronomy, specifically a recitation of the holiday calendar, especially the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals of the Bible: Shavuot, Sukkot and Pesach. Our text tells us that we should have nothing but joy, in our festivals, that when we come to the place where God will make the Divine Presence known we shouldn’t come empty-handed. Rather, each person, we are told, should bring gifts, as God has blessed us.

There’s a lot to unpack in this text. More obviously is this idea that you should bring gifts as God has blessed you.  What a deep understanding of our condition! Not all of us have been blessed with the same gifts. The economist and pundit Robert Reich talks about how, no matter how much he loves the game of basketball, he can never play it at a high level, at least in part because he’s less than 5 feet tall. It’s just reality, but that reality doesn’t make him less of a person because he’s not LaBron James. Likewise, that LaBron James has never been a cabinet secretary doesn’t make him less of a person either. To recognize that our gifts, our blessings, no matter how different, are still of value, still worthy of presenting to God, should be an inspiration to us.

But I want to focus on this earlier text, the idea that we don’t come empty-handed. That’s not exactly what the text says. Rather, it says that we should not come ‘reikim’, literally empty. Sure, the pshat, the plan meaning of the text, is that it’s talking about bringing stuff, but let’s explore that idea of emptiness for a minute, especially in a week where we’ve cleaned our houses out. What does it mean that you shouldn’t come to God empty? Well, read it in the context of the other two commands, that we should have nothing but joy and that we bring as God has blessed us. What if this is not about bringing a physical offering, but rather taking the opportunity to look inside: to see who we are and what we’re about, to see our own inherent value, the gifts we’ve been given, the person that we are. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time to reevaluate the person that we’re becoming, to correct the flaws that we see. What if Pesach is a time to accept ourselves, to see our own worth, to fill ourselves neither with haughtiness nor pride but with a real sense of our blessings.

Rabbi Dennis Ross, in one of his books, talks about overhearing one end of a phone conversation, presumably between spouses, where the one says to the other, “If you can’t do that, then what good are you to me.” We spend a lot of time worrying about being on the receiving end of that call, of worrying about what good we are to others, of evaluating our self-worth in relationship to other people’s gifts, other people’s blessings; and we spend a lot of time dismissing those gifts God has blessed us with. Pesach invites us to see ourselves full of God’s blessings, our own blessings. May we bring those blessings forward, and as a result have nothing but joy. Amen

March 3, 2017

03/03/2017 11:29:30 PM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.  I’m really tired.  Tired of cemetery desecrations, and bomb threats—attacks on our own community.  Tired of mosques being burned.  Tired of people being killed because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity.  Tired of having to focus on security instead being able to focus on program.  I’m quite simply exhausted.

I was speaking with a colleague yesterday—one of the colleagues with whom I am studying in the Executive Masters program through Hebrew Union College, to get a Masters in Religious Education.  This was the program with which I traveled to Israel recently, as part of our studies.  My friend reminded me of our trip to a community near the Gaza border, Moshav ntiv haaserah, at which a woman who lives there told us about her experience living there, particularly during the summer of 2014, in which rockets were fired into their community from Gaza daily, thousands in all.  Because of the Iron Dome, very few caused any real, physical damage.  However, as she showed us one of the rockets that fallen into her backyard, she said words that stayed with me, “This is a psychological weapon.”

And, indeed, while I understood what she meant then—I get it in a much deeper way now.  There are weapons that are meant to do physical damage—and those are awful.  But there are other weapons that are designed to hurt psychologically.  To bring fear, to make us wonder, to attempt to destroy the spirit—those weapons, I believe, are just as awful.

An hour later, we saw something else at that same Moshav—we saw the huge, enforced cement blockers which mark the border between Gaza and Israel.  We heard the sound of gun shots, from the Israeli Army practicing.  We saw exactly how close we were.  And on those giant barriers, we saw something else.  We saw what fueled the woman with whom we spoke, what fueled the community we were visiting, and indeed what fuels the world—we saw hope.  We saw hope in the form of a project called N’Tiv L’Shalom, the Path to Peace, a mosaic project on the border wall, created by individual contributions of on-site visitors, “in the hope that one day our collective desire for a life of tranquility and peace will be fulfilled.”  The mosaics are full of bright colors, rainbows and flowers, houses, trees and smiling faces.  And the name of the place, with its hope and perhaps its internal prayer, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.  And, perhaps, it is only this sense of hope, this sense of working towards peace in small ways, that is the counter weapon against psychological warfare.

That same day, while we were still at the Moshav, we heard about a terror attack in Jerusalem—a truck ramming into pedestrians at a bus stop. Later, as we visited S’derot, a city devastated by rocket fire, we all wrote home or posted on social media that we were safe—we were safely in S’derot and near the Gaza border.  It was a surreal moment.  And it was only 2 days later, sitting in a cafe, enjoying dinner with my cohort of educators from across the country, that the first Bomb Threat was called into the JCC here.  I happened to be sitting next to an educator in Kansas City, who well remembers the shooting at the JCC there just 2 years ago.  She understood. She also understood that my concern didn’t subside when I learned that there was no bomb—little did either of us know that this would be only the first round of bomb threats put upon the Jewish community.  A month or so of psychological terror attempted.

And, I’m tired.  I’m really tired.  But I’m also comforted, knowing that the community is around us.  Knowing that the students at the Religious School at the Islamic Center of Delaware each made cards last weekend, to be sent to each of the synagogues here in Delaware as statements of support.  And knowing that the Interfaith Service that was put together primarily by the African American community this past Wednesday gathered together Jews with Christians and Muslims to stand together in solidarity and comfort.  Standing hand in hand with so many, singing We Shall Overcome—as tears came to my eyes—I believed it.  And I had hope.  And I knew that it was through hope that we shall, indeed, continue to thrive, as our people have done for millenia.

And I also know that our tradition gives us a guide of how to persevere.  This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is at the heart of this guidance—giving us a moment at which where we are in the Torah is perfect for what is going on in the Torah.  In this portion, Moses is given instructions to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary to carry through the wilderness, in order to bring God’s presence throughout the desert and into the promised land.  

God commands, “Asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.”

“Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” 

Within this verse is the recognition that humanity needs things which are holy—we need sacred space, and here is the original creation of such a thing.  Previous to this, there had been instances of places being recognized as holy—but this is the first time that something is made by human hands (although by Divine instruction in this case) for the sole purpose of being sacred.  Two terms in Hebrew are used to designate the Tabernacle: mikdash and mishkan.  Literally, a place of holiness and a place of dwelling.  Indeed, both descriptions are apt in describing a holy space such as this.  By way of recognizing that a space is holy, we allow God’s presence to be in that space. 

Whatever our personal conception of the meaning of “God’s presence,” that presence is invited in when we treat a space as holy, as sacred—as valuable in a way that no other possession can be valuable.  Sanctity is a matter of human declaration.  Through our actions and through our words does a space become holy.  We intuitively know how to treat such spaces in order to designate them as holy, and how to treat them once we understand that they are holy.  In modernity, we continue to create such spaces.  We are within one right now.  We created them and see them created in so many different places.  And it is these places that give us a sanctuary—not only as a holy place, but as a hopeful place—a place away from those aspects of the world which try to take hope away from us.  This is our sanctuary.  Not just the room we are in, but the community we are with.  

Because physicality isn’t always important—it’s what lies within which really matters.  Honi the Circle Maker, a character from rabbinic literature, is named so because he drew circles on the ground, and stood within them to pray.  The most simple way of creating a sacred spot…not building anything, but drawing shapes in the sand.  Standing within the circle, he was able to pray most honestly to God.  His prayers were answered.  If a circle of ground can be holy, then certainly any space can be holy as well.  If we treat a place as sacred, then it is.

And when we are a k’hillah k’dosha—a holy community—we are able to bring that sanctity to every space where we dwell.  

Wherever we are, it is when we recognize that within each of us is the Divine Spark, and treat each other as if God is a presence within the relationship, and within the community, this is truly a sacred space. 

This synagogue—our synagogue—is a sacred space.  Each time we treat this place as sacred, we engage in the constant process of creating this modern Tabernacle.  This place was built in order that God may dwell here.  We need to recognize that inherent sanctity, as we continually work towards building it.  And through that, we find the hope we need.

But we do not finish there.  Abraham Joshua Heshel taught that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time.  If we recognize that our tradition offers not only holiness in physical spaces, but also sanctity in moments, then we can recognize that our lives are full of opportunities for sanctuary—for refuge, for comfort, and for hope.

As we wish each other a Shabbat Shalom, may those words move us beyond the realm of greeting to the realm of hope.  May Shabbat bring us a sense of Shalom, of peace and of wholeness, for each of us, for all of use, and for the world.  May this Shabbat offer a sanctuary to us all.  May this Shabbat bring us the rest that we seek.

Shabbat Shalom.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

February 24, 2017

02/23/2017 10:10:42 AM



Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Mishpatim

February 24, 2017

If you went to Oberlin back in the 1990s then you would know that mild February weather would bring a special visitor to Tappan Square. Brother Jed. Who was Brother Jed? We never got his full name, but he was a part of a Christian religious organization where clearly part of the mission was to go to places of so-called godlessness and hedonism and bring the Gospel. So he would stand there in dress shirt and slacks with a sign quoting the Bible to justify some hostility to homosexuality (usually) and a Bible and would proclaim his values in a calm but loud voice. This being Oberlin there would be all kinds of shenanigans as a result: gay couples would frolic behind him, an Orthodox buddy from Hillel once stood about 15 feet away and countered his statements with quotes from the Talmud, and a lot of people just ignored him. But a number of us would gather, listen, and debate and discuss with him. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour. This was a liberal arts college, after all, and at liberal arts colleges you engaged in discourse. One time, as Brother Jed was packing up for the day, he made an off-hand comment about how he loved coming to Oberlin. It was hard to tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic so someone asked him why that was. He said it was because we actually engaged with him and listened to him. We talked to him. At the other colleges and universities he went to, they would throw beer bottles, yell obscenities at him and one time even chased him. They were hostile, they were cruel. To be sure our discussions could get heated and no one ceded any ground, but at no point were we cruel.


We weren’t cruel. This week we read parashat mishpatim, the portion of laws. It follows right after the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and it always feels, narratively, like such a downer. After this amazing transformational moment Israel gets to listen about personal injury law, property management, criminal justice, witches, sexual morality, how to care for a slave, animal husbandry, holidays, a whole potpourri of regulations that seem to have nothing to do with each other. Except they do. Taken together, they are all an exhortation against cruelty. How you treat the slave, the widow, the orphan, your neighbor, the stranger, the animal in the field, how you participate in communal life--all pointing to a life that minimizes cruelty to others. That to be God’s people, to live by God’s light, to receive God’s blessing, we simply cannot treat others as obstacles, as things, as objects, as enemies. As Monsters. But people. And people are deserving of respect and love. Again and again, exhaustively, as my friend Josh Garroway wrote this week in Voices and Values, our portion exhorts us to care for the least of us, to protect the least of us, to see them not as strangers but as neighbors, as brothers and sisters.


We don’t have to be cruel. I have been thinking about the idea of cruelty more and more this last month, seeing families separated by religious bans, headstones overturned in Jewish cemeteries, as ICE agents take parents from their children at their kids’ football practices, and guidance come down reminding vulnerable transgender kids of their vulnerability. I’ve heard from teachers in the Christina school district that parents won’t come to conferences because they’re afraid it’s a trap set by ICE to take them away. The liberal thinker Richard Rorty often wrote that the choice before us wasn’t one of conservative versus liberal, but of solidarity versus cruelty. Were we going to, in policy, in behavior, in our expression of our values, act out of cruelty, or were we going to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable, the most exposed to harm. Is it possible to disagree about values and beliefs without resorting to open hostility and cruelty? Well, we did it with Brother Jed. Why couldn’t we do the rest of the time?


Our Torah declares: You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; nor shall you speak in a cause to incline a multitude to pervert justice. That text speaks volumes today. Our age is presenting us Richard Rorty’s question, his choice, which is also God’s choice, though I doubt he would have thought of it that way. Will we act out of cruelty, hate, anger, hostility? Or will we act in solidarity, recognizing the humanity in the other, refusing to make the other ‘Other’ at all? The desecration of Jewish graves in St. Louis was met by a Muslim organization raising over $100,000. The Muslim Ban and Refugee restrictions have been met by Jews and Christians, including in our own community, saying loudly and proudly you are welcome here. Linda Sarasour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, has said “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression & denial of my humanity and right to exist.” We can disagree and still love each other. We can choose solidarity. We don’t have to be cruel. We can choose solidarity. We don’t have to agree, we can hold onto our beliefs and cede no ground, but we can do it with respect and compassion for the other. But only if we choose. May we choose wisely, amen.

January 2017

01/21/2017 03:32:32 AM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

In rabbinical school, we had many homework assignments, unsurprisingly.  Many were meaningful.  Some were, well, not.  And several were somewhere in the middle.  One sticks out as incredibly monotonous and apparently meaningless, but from which, in the end, I gained Torah--unexpected wisdom and perhaps even truth.

The assignment, one of the first in our Bible class during our second year of rabbinical school—soon after we got back from our year in Israel, when the “real learning” began, was to find every time the phrase “Beit Yisrael” The House of Israel appears in the Tanach (the Hebrew bible).  It appears a lot.

First off, before that sounds completely overwhelming and unacchievable, it was, in part, a task in teaching us how to use the Concordance (lift up conCordance)—this big book that lists every word in the Hebrew bible, every time that it is used, in every form that it’s used.

Now, students these days have it easy.  This is all computerized—there’s even apps that can do this work.  In my day, by the end of rabbinical school, there was one program that could somewhat search for words by root—and it was incredibly helpful.  But it wasn’t good for nuanced searches like this, especially not with very common words--or words that could be confused with other words (like beit and bat).  Also our professors had a somewhat inherent distrust of technology (and, at the start of my education, it didn’t really exist yet—or at least we didn’t know about it or have access to it).  And the technology just wasn’t there yet for it to be a truly usable tool.  Also, books are an essential part of Judaism, and remain an important tool.  Rabbinical students still learn how to use a concordance--they just don't actually use it as much as we did.

And, believe me, we used the book.  It was a book we used a lot in Bible class. It’s helpful for understanding Biblical Hebrew, by seeing how words are used, by their context throughout their usage.  I admit, I’ve even looked things up in the concordance since Rabbinical school.

But this assignment—looking up Beit Yisrael? This was tedious.  Because, well, as you can imagine, the phrase appears a lot.  I mean, think about how many times The House of Israel comes up.  But, well, it did teach us how to use the book well.  But, here’s what was truly interesting--and made me learn to appreciate the concordance.

It showed us explicitly that Beit Yisrael means 2 different things: in some places, especially early on, it means Israel’s Household—Jacob’s wives and kids, essentially.  But, in other places, it means the House of Israel—what becomes the Jewish people.  And, it’s in the first paragraph or so of Sh’mot—the Book of Exodus and this week’s Torah portion, that the meaning shifts.  It’s at that moment that our ancestors transform from an extended family into a people—into our people.  Into the House of Israel.  So what I took from that assignment and that idea, is that our people is still connected to the connection of having once been a family.  So what does it mean to be a part of this House of Israel?

Other than the fact that we are at our source, one big, extended, sometimes messy family, what does being the extended House of Israel call us to do?

Looking at this week’s portion, we can see in our own ancestors, the models of Moses and Miriam that it means that we need to be connected.  We need to look out for one another, and we need to keep an eye on each other, even when it isn’t obvious.  We need to make sure that each other’s well being is being taken care of.  And, we need to recognize that we aren’t perfect—none of us.  Sometimes, we make mistakes.  Sometimes, situations get out of our control—but that doesn’t remove us from the household. In some cases, even leaders make mistakes.  And, if those leaders are able to learn from those mistakes—do t’shuva, so to speak, they can still be great leaders.

And we can see in others, like Shifra and Puah, the Egyptian Midwives, that even those that are not of our people, are still part of our house.  These women, who defied the King’s orders to save the Israelite babies, working bravely for what they knew was right.  They were not part of our direct family, but they were certainly part of the greater House of Israel.  In today’s parlance, we’d call them allies.  

We can see also the wisdom of Jethro, a Midianite Priest who becomes both father in law and advisor to Moses.  And Zipora, who gives Moses love and shows wisdom of her own.  And their son Gershom, who is named for being a stranger there—for as the house of Israel we have so often been strangers where we have dwelt—a minority, even when accepted.  And yet we have also learned from this that we must—we MUST—welcome the stranger—it is our mandate, our sacred obligation.

We are a people who stands strong, who does not give up, who does not submit or give up, or become weak, but a people that thrives despite the odds.

This is our heritage.  We are the House of Israel.  This is who we are and who we always have been.

And looking more broadly, we are the House of those who struggle with God.  The people who always must question.  They people who always seek answers and ask questions.  And the people for whom an answer usually leads to even more questions and sometimes even takes the form of a question.

We are a people for whom prayer comforts the afflicted and yet afflicts the comfortable, so that we help one another, and yet always seek to find that in the world which needs to be fixed.

We are a people who is taxed with tikkun olam, repairing a world which is irreparably broken, knowing that the task is insurmountable, yet having been taught that even if the task is great, and we are not responsible to finish it, we are also not allowed to run from it.

We are the house of Israel, a people responsible for one another, and yet responsible for those around us more vulnerable than ourselves.  A people at times unsure of how to strike that balance.

I got back last week from a trip to the land of Israel, a place as complicated and complex as the people for whom it is named, or is the naming the other way around?  The bulk of my trip was a seminar with the Executive Masters Program I am doing through the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion towards a Masters in Religious Education.  The trip was amazing, as trips to Israel often are.  I could say much about it.  I probably will at many later dates.  But at this moment, I share just a few words.  The main focus of our trip was the idea that there are many narratives that make up the story of Israel—there is no one single story, no one lens through which Israel can be viewed or understood.  There are sephardim and ashkenazim and mizrachim, there are Haredim and Reformim and secularim and Masorti and Masorati, There are Jews and Arabs and Arab Jews and Christians and Muslims, there are right wings and left wings and those in between, there are those that want to fight and those that want peace that just want to live their lives, there are those that want to make conversation and those that make the city streets their canvas and those that want to make music.  And they all tell their own story. There are so many truths and narratives and stories, all of which are held together in the swath of land we call Israel.  

And I think that is also at the essence of what it means to be part of the people we call the House of Israel.  We are a people that holds together contrasting and, perhaps, conflicting truths.  Not always at the same time, but sometimes.  Not always in the same person, but sometimes.  And yes, when there are 2 Jews, there are quite often 3 opinions.  Because that is who we are.  And it is how we continue to be the continuation of what was once just a family. 

We are the house of Israel; we are Jacob’s kids.  We struggle with the divine in the universe, and with the world around us.  We try to do what is best, and sometimes we err.  We watch out for each other, and for those who need help.  We try to make a better world.  We defy authority when righteousness is on the line.  We know what it is to be the stranger.  And we try to prevent others from feeling strange.  And we do our best when we ourselves feel strange.  We are the House of Israel.  We struggle because it is our essence.  It's what our family has always done.

January 6, 2017 Sermon

12/21/2016 02:35:16 PM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Parashat Vayigash 1/8/17


This past Tuesday I saw a Facebook post from a friend who works at the University of Cincinnati, up the street from the Hebrew Union College, where I went to rabbinic school. He passes by the sign for the college every day, and ever since the election has been waiting with trepidation to see if something would happen. Sure enough, Tuesday morning, someone had spray-painted a Swastika on the sign for the oldest Jewish seminary in North America still in existence. As far as I’m aware had not happened before, though I’m sure someone will correct me. Certainly I didn’t experience anything like that in my time there.


It’s ironic that this would happen to an institution that was formed to help shape an American Judaism, an American rabbinate, one that would be native to this country and speak to its Jewish and non-Jewish populations in a way that was both wholly Jewish and wholly of this nation and its values.


In so many ways this begs the question of assimilation; where do we draw the line at separating ourselves from society at large, and where do we maintain our own distinctiveness. It’s an important question, one every Jew asks of him or herself probably on a daily, if not hourly basis. Do I hide my Judaism, do I mention it? Do I make choices that make it more difficult to interact with non-Jewish society; where do I make compromises, and to what end?


We see something of that question in this week’s Torah portion. After reconciling with his brothers, Joseph wants to bring his family to Egypt to wait out the famine. But it’s not that simple; Joseph needs Pharaoh’s permission. And even though he is the number 2 in the whole land, he seems edgy about the request in the text. Joseph warns his brothers about calling themselves Shepherds, because Shepherds are ‘an abomination’ to Egypt; an idea that Rashi upholds. When he goes to present his family he takes only 5 of his brothers, Rashi suggesting that he only takes the weakest ones. What’s going on? Joseph seems to be embarrassed about his origins, and ashamed of his brothers, his family, and their Canaanite ways. Ironically, his Brothers are not embarrassed, and proudly proclaim that they are shepherds. Not only are they not embarrassed, neither is Pharaoh, who gives them legal protection, the land of Goshen, and puts them in charge of his own livestock.


So what are we to make of this?

Joseph is the first example of assimilation; he has left Canaan for Egypt—against his will—and as a result has found tremendous success. But that success comes at a price, where he had to surrender something of his difference. Not only that, but he’s found that history embarrassing, something to be ashamed of; he’d rather be more like those around him, and if that means losing some of his identity, then so be it.

His brothers are comfortable with their identity, and aren’t so interested in casting it aside. They don’t see what’s wrong with who they are—their Canaanite, Israelite, Shepherding ways. And they are able to accomplish much for themselves while maintaining their own authenticity.

And that is the question that every Jew must face all the time, and the question that is most important today. How different are we, really, from the people around us, and how different do we want to be? How much do we want to compromise our own Jewish values in order to be counted as part of society, and how much are we willing to stake out a position where we acknowledge our differences and use them to call those around us to task? Are we Joseph, who sees our dissimilarity as a sign of weakness and embarrassment, or his brothers, who see that same dissimilarity as a sign of strength, an ability to speak truth to power?

The spray paint on the sign gives us a choice: to hide or to stand up, to shrink back and try to disappear into white America, or to continue to put ourselves out there, our voices out there, and challenge injustice and wrong where we see it. I can’t tell you what to do, but I choose to side with Joseph’s brothers, to be a shepherd, even when it’s hard, perhaps especially when it’s hard.

Update this content.

Parashat Vayetzei - 12/9/16

12/15/2016 12:29:57 PM


Yair D. Robinson

So this past week I met Marisa at the new diner on Marsh Rd. There was a couple of women there with their kids, and the kids were being pretty terrible. Adorable. Sweet, but terrible. At one point one of the mom’s was letting her kid sit on the table itself. The waitress was clearly having a time of it. Now, what would you do? We could have sat in judgement, we could say something. When I got up to pay for our meal, I tipped our waiter, and then tipped the waitress of the kids table as well.  Was it the right thing to do? The best thing? No idea. But at least it was doing something to acknowledge that waitress.

When I was a teenager and I used to go to youth group events, my favorite song at song session was Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, by Andy Vogel. Like most kids reared on Debbie Friedman and Kol Beseder I learned my Pirkei Avot in the form of a song I could dance to with other nerdy Jewish kids like me. I never really thought about the lyrics—nobody did—we were too busy stamping our feet and injecting various “oh ohs” and the like. The words, of course, come from Pirkei Avot 4:2—One Mitzvah leads to another, while one sin leads to another, and when one acts justly it is very good.

It doesn’t get sung nearly as often these days—it’s thirty years old at this point—but I feel like we need to start singing it again. Or at least be reminded of the text: one mitzvah leads to another. Our kindness, our actions—no matter how small—matter. The way we treat each other matters. And we can choose to live in little bubbles insensitive to the needs of others, drawing up the drawbridge and hiding behind our own ramparts. Or we can choose in our everyday actions to acknowledge the needs of those around us.

We see that clearly in our Torah portion. Jacob has left Canaan, has dreamed his dream, and has come to Haran, whereupon he sees Rachel and sees the stone covering the well. It should say “there was a large stone on the mouth of the well” but that’s not the actual order of the text. It actually says “the stone was large on the mouth of the well.” The s’fat emet understands this as a metaphor: the stumbling block—our evil urge—may be everywhere, but it is heaviest and largest on the mouth of the well. What is the well? Our words, our mouths, our hearts, our intentions, our own actions, pick whichever one you want. The point is, once Jacob understands the situation, he by himself removes the stone from the well. He takes the action. Now, we know this is in part to impress Rachel, or at least inspired by Rachel, but so what? He does what is right in that moment. His actions improve the lot of the shepherds around him. His actions mattered.

Jacob’s actions matter and so do ours. When we chose to act with kindness, even if the action is small, it changes the life of that person. To do otherwise is to leave the stone upon the well, to allow ourselves to act selfishly, to allow people’s pain to persist. May we each find the strength to move that stone and live those words: then surely our lives will be just and it will be good.Update this content.

A statement from Rabbi Robinson about the Presidential Election

11/09/2016 12:33:58 PM


And after the fire, a still small voice… (I Kings 19:12)

This morning, we as Americans woke up to a different world, a world transformed. After the most contentious election in a generation, one filled with animosity and enmity, and far too much anger and pain, we have felt the earth shift under our feet. But as our scripture reminds us, God is not found in the thunder, the earthquake or the fire, but in the still, small voice.

At Rosh Hashanah I asked us, begged us, to find a way to hear each other's’ stories. To listen beyond partisanship and listen deeply to what each other is truly saying. To create space for respectful disagreement while still loving each other. I reiterate that call now. We clearly have a lot of work to do, and we as a congregation will continue to do that work, just as we did at Sukkot with Ivan Thomas and #wearelove. We may be tempted, depending on our political outlooks, to rage, to point fingers, to gloat, to blame, to turn our feelings outward. Today, I ask us instead to embrace, to support, to listen, to be present for one another. To be, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, repairers of the breach. We have enormous brokenness, and now is the time of repair and rebuilding.

We know there are people who are hurting right now, in our community and beyond it. And there are many people who are terribly afraid. We see you. We love you. And Beth Emeth will always be a safe space for you. If you are struggling on this day, please reach out to our clergy team for support. We will have an opportunity to process the election results on Friday, November 18th immediately after services. I invite us to join together in prayer and healing, and to hear one another’s voices.

As a Reform synagogue, we remain committed to the values of equality and justice, and a democratic Israel. We will continue to partner with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions locally to repair the world under God’s sovereignty. Our next opportunity is November 20th, when we will gather at Christ Church Christiana Hundred at 4:30pm to pack Thanksgiving meals for the needy. I invite you to share in that work. Long term, I invite you to join our delegation to the Religious Action Center’s Consultation On Conscience April 30-May 2. It’s time to go to work.

On the outside of our building, and inscribed in every prayer book we give to every b’nai mitzvah student, are the words of the prophet Micah: Do Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly With Our God. Previous generations chose those words for a reason; let them be our mission, moving forward in love, in justice, and in humility. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek. Be strong, and together we will strengthen one another.

Yom Kippur Morning: Changing the Course of Discourse

10/18/2016 04:58:35 PM


Rabbi Elisa Koppel


To paraphrase William Shakespeare: I come to bury this election, not to praise it.


More precisely, I wish not to not actually discuss the upcoming election itself, but instead I want to talk about how we talk about this election.  It goes without saying, I hope, that it is our mandate to take part in democracy and to vote; it is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to do so.  We should educate ourselves in order to make make informed choices in our voting—for President and for all other state and local decisions for which we have the opportunity to vote.  I could speak this High Holidays about that idea, about how it’s a very Jewish idea, but that is not what I wish to address this morning, nor what I feel I need to address.


Last week, Rabbi Robinson spoke about our need to listen—to radically listen.  And I affirm that need.  Today I want to add the sequel to that sermon, and talk about how we respond.  Yes, surely, we need to listen, but I also believe that we sometimes have a need to engage in discussion—to have dialogue—to share our own story, even as we hear the story of another.  When Rabbi Robinson and I sat down months ago to discuss our sermons, we realized that we each had themes that were both distinct and connected.  And that both were vital to this Holy Day season.  And so, we decided to each give our sermon both to stand alone, and also to be offered as a larger message in 2 parts.  On Rosh Hashanah—how do we hear.  And on Yom Kippur—how do we engage in conversation.


And I fear that we’ve forgotten how.


A few months ago, someone who is on my friend list on Facebook but I do not know personally, posted something in support of a candidate, espousing views which are counter to Jewish values as I understand them.  Knowing that this person takes his Judaism seriously, I questioned him about it—wanting to understand his approach—how the same set of text and tradition could lead us to vastly different conclusions.  Knowing that the other side of any issue generally comes from a place as honest and real as our own, I sought to understand.  By the end of the conversation, after being called a bully, overly nosey, self-righteous, and told I was only asking the question to feel superior, I came to the conclusion that it is so rare for us to talk to people with opposing viewpoints, about those opposing viewpoints, that it had somehow become natural to assume that my purpose was one of negativity.  When did we forget how to have a conversation about ideas that are different from our own? Or forget that doing so could be a positive act?


I am not claiming that we should agree with everyone.  I am not saying that we should not make known our opinions and stand up for them and for what we believe is right.  I am not saying that a leader’s words or behaviors should not be brought to light.  But what I am saying is that we can do all that with a sense of civility.


I have lost count of how many comments I’ve heard in person or read on social media, disparaging supporters of the other candidate—comments that come from supporters of multiple candidates.  I have, at this point, taken for granted that many of my Clinton and Trump and Johnson and Stein and Sanders supporting friends will almost undoubtedly unfriend and possibly block people who believe another way.  Almost daily, I see messages posted about how another person was blocked because of their viewpoints.  I hear stories about how family members aren’t speaking to each other until after November and of relationships destroyed.  And I’ve seen and heard in countless conversations, a shutting down of disparate opinions and a digression towards playground taunts. 


I understand the need to create spaces for ourselves in which we can feel safe—and I appreciate the need to remove ourselves from individuals who cause us hurt—or to avoid people whose responses may lead us towards behaviors or words that we want to ourselves avoid.  But, that said, it saddens me that so much of the disagreement that causes that reaction is so full of hatred and anger in the first place that it brings people to the point of wanting to avoid any conversation at all.  It saddens me that too many conversations about important ideas devolve into personal attacks being thrown at each other—and towards the leaders and potential leaders of this country.  All too often, even between those leaders.


I find it hard to believe that this is the discourse of democracy that our founding fathers sought.  And, assuming that the early cabinet meetings weren’t actually rap battles, I believe that when they discussed ideas that were diametrically opposed, that they did so with a sense of respect for each other’s ideas.  They did so with a sense of respect for each other. They debated, but with due honor.  In recent months, I do not see that this is how this election is being discussed—in recent weeks, I do not see this in the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates.


I do not believe that this is an issue that is unique to this country or to the topic of politics.  But this election has made it more than evident that as a society, we’ve lost the art of discourse—the ability, or at least the willingness, to engage in respectful disagreement.  No, not always, and no, not all of us.  But like we read the Vidui, the confessional prayer with the collective “We,” we are all part of the society that has forgotten how to disagree.  And we have all taken part in some part of this—even if only as a bystander.  


Perhaps we need a communal vidui for this season, an Ashamnu for this Age, An acrostic of our society’s behavior during this election cycle:


We all have committed offenses; together we confess these human sins: The sins of Abrasiveness, Body Shaming, Callousness, Disregard, a lack of Empathy, Failing to see injustice, and Gaslighting.  The sins of senseless Hatred, Insensitivity to the suffering of others, being Judgmental, Kicking out those who are different, Letting fear eclipse reason, Mocking people because of differences, Numbness to tragedies, Othering, and abuse of Privilege.  Of Questioning the intelligence of people because we disagree with them, Racism, and Sexism.  Of Tolerance of injustice, Using shame as a weapon, and Violence in words and in deeds.  Of Willingness to believe whatever we read, Xenophobia, Yelling, and Zoning out when we should be paying attention.


And indeed, I pray, that God will forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.  But we know that we are only granted that Divine forgiveness when we have done t’shuvah.  When we have turned ourselves around from the wrongs we have done, made right what we may have made wrong, and determine to be different in the future.  


And I do believe we can change—each of us and all of us, and those beyond these walls.  We can change the course of discourse in our time.  And, indeed, that is what the ideals of Judaism teach us we must do.  


We see this in Rabbinic Literature in the relationship between Hillel and Shammai.  If these names are new to you, they are both rabbis who lived around the year 0.  The most important thing to know about them is that they disagreed.  A lot.  The Talmud includes more than 350 examples of disagreements between them or, later, between their followers: The House of Hillel (Beit Hillel) and the House of Shammai (Beit Shammai).  They were known for their disagreement in their own time and through history.  In fact, Hillel Street and Shammai Street in Jerusalem are parallel to each other—like the ideologies of their namesakes, the 2 never meet.  But, despite their differences, these men and their followers showed loved and friendship towards each other—the followers of one school would even marry the followers of the other.  Their disagreements are viewed as being for the sake of Heaven—having lasting value.  They were both attempting to find truth—to interpret the tradition in the way that each felt was best to meet the needs of their generation.  And they both listened to each other and honored each others’ opinions.


The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) tells a story about a disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that lasted 3 years.  Each side insisting that their way was the right way.  For 3 years: “The law is in agreement with our views.”  NO! “The law is in agreement with our views.”  Until finally, there came a Bat Kol —a Divine Echo, a Heavenly voice.  Essentially, the rabbinic version of Deus Ex Machina.  And what did this Bat Kol say? “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim.  These and these are the words of the Living God.”  


What a concept.  The notion that our ideas and interpretations are, themselves, Divine Speech is itself profound, as is the idea that Divine Revelation is ever-present and continuing.  But that 2 different interpretations—2 opposing opinions—are equally Divine is astounding.  Both sides are equally true.  Perhaps because both sides exist, there is an even greater truth.


But then the Voice goes on: But the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel.  


From this, we learn that sometimes, the discussion has to come to an end—there has to be a conclusion. We can’t argue forever.  And the question we may be asking ourselves as we hear this, is asked and answered in the very next line of Talmud: If both these and these are the words of the Living God, then why does the Law become fixed according to the views of Beit Hillel? It is because they were kind and gracious.  And they taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from Beit Shammai.  And not only that, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.


It is hard to imagine a world that is built on this value: of kindness and graciousness being the deciding factors in the choice of authority.  And in which those who are chosen teach the ideas of those who are not, even before they teach their own.  And in which it is understood and appreciated that the Truth of one can be as True as the Truth of another.


There is a concept in Rabbinic Literature that there are several practices that are accepted mipnei darchei shalom: For the sake of the paths of peace.  These practice are all things that set up to prevent disagreements between people; avoid unfairness or unintended hurt, especially for those who are vulnerable; and to avoid disputes between members within and outside of the community.  What is interesting about this phrase is that it speaks of darchei shalom, the paths of peace, and not derech shalom, the path of peace.  The very language teaches us that there are multiple paths towards peace, and that it is because of those different paths that wholeness can exist.  To disagree is not bad—it is necessary and even good. But our disagreement must include paths towards wholeness, and not roadblocks which keep this world divided—instead of fragmented pieces, we must work towards peace.


Perhaps the Bat Kol ended the years long debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, mine darchei shalom.  Perhaps, for this same reason, we can begin to change the way we disagree in our own age.


Perhaps we can have arguments that are for the Sake of Heaven.  Have the recognition that these words and these words are both the words of the Living God.  That while we take many different paths, those paths all can move towards peace.  And that we realize that the person on the other side of a debate on an issue that we hold dear, is equally passionate about wanting a better world.  None of this is easy.  But we are Yisra-el—the people who wrestle with God.  Disagreement is in our name and is an element of our very essence.  And so, let us do t’shuvah together—and turn ourselves away from the destructive discussions, full of disrespect.  And turn towards building a society in which our conversations can include both disagreement and respectful discourse.



I dream of a time when it isn’t newsworthy to see a joyful embrace between the First Lady and a past president, even though they are from 2 different political parties.  I dream of a time when there are more friendships like that between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I dream of a time when parents do not need to question if their children are old enough to watch a presidential debate.  I dream of a time when we can discuss challenging topics with those with whom we fundamentally disagree—and do so with respect.  I dream of a time when we do not disparage others, neither because of their beliefs nor because of their difference.  I dream of a time when in disagreements and debates, we talk to each other and not at each other.  I dream of a time when we recognize not only that the words of 2 sides of disagreement can both be the Words of the Living God, but that the people on both sides of the disagreement are both made in the Image of God.  I dream of a time in which together, we travel the paths of peace.


I believe that this dream is possible.  But it is up to us to build it.  We can begin by taking the smallest of steps, and consider how we can change our own conversations and our own responses to different ideas.  And at the end of the evening on November 8, may we hear through the buzz of reports of who won each election, a Bat Kol ending this argument, and reminding us that the paths of peace are right in front of us, for us to step towards healing and wholeness.

Erev Yom Kippur: I Am Not God

10/18/2016 04:56:20 PM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Yehuda Amichai: The Children: 
Every day the children run on the playground
They run on their little legs, which rotate the planet like a circus
They want to be acrobats and magicians
Every night the children thank us for having brought them into the world
With beautiful politeness, they take their gifts and with their small arms they
Cling to the future stubbornly, as they cling to their parents, and their toys.
Then they lie on their backs 
In order to paint beautiful skies
Like the ceilings of the synagogue...
I sit next to the children until they fall asleep
And I say seven times
As the closing prayer of Yom Kippur
“I am not God.”
Seven times
“I am not God.”
There is an account in the Talmud (Bavli Eirusin 13b): 
For two-and-a-half years the house of Shammai and the house of Hillel argued. Shammai said:
Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. And Hillel said: 
Better for man to have been created that not to have been created. 
This is an extraordinary debate: would it be better for humanity to exist, or not to exist? 
It is especially extraordinary for the times we are living in, as we anxiously raise the question, fundamentally: whose life matters? Does my life matter? Does anything matter? 
In the end, they counted and decided: 
Better for man never to have been created than to have been created. Now that he has been created, he should examine his actions.
We spend so much of our lives trying to be God, trying to be in control: over our own lives, the lives and choices of others, the lives of our children, perhaps especially our children. And we curse and criticize those who struggle with their inability to be God over their own lives. 
We try to pretend that we are in control. 
But we are not God. And no matter how tempting it may be, we cannot be. We oughtn’t be. 
We do this because we see the space between our is and our ought to be and we struggle with that space. We try to cover it up, to pretend it isn’t there, to make that space seem very small, because we are afraid that, should we expose it, should we let people see, if we exposed it, we would plummet into the chasm between what is and what should be. 
We can’t be God. But that doesn’t mean we don’t matter. It doesn’t mean our choices don’t matter. Rather, we can choose to live our lives and examine our actions carefully. We can take that space, that wide space of our failings, and leave it open. We can keep ourselves open-hearted. We can say to each other, to our children: I am not God, I am not perfect. Nor am I merely accepting my failures either. I’m struggling, just as you are. And I accept your struggle, and hope you accept mine. 
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz, in his book Prayer, wrote: “appealing to God’s mercy and lovingkindness, we ourselves must believe in mercy and lovingkindness, otherwise, there is no ground left of us on which to stand…” And it’s true. We must believe in mercy and lovingkindness; for ourselves AND FOR OTHERS. Otherwise, what right do we have? 
My friends, on this day of Atonement, let me say: you matter. Each and every one of you matters, deeply and profoundly. 
Our choices matter, and our choices must be examined, sifted through carefully. 
Our forgiveness matters. 
Our ability to be open-hearted matters. 
On this day of Atonement, I ask you to say, seven times, before the gates close: 
I am not God
I am not in control: of my circumstances, of everyone around me
But I have choices, I have freedom.
And I matter
And my choices matter.  
And the people around me matter. 
I am not God, 
But I matter. 


Rosh Hashanah Morning: Truly Hearing

10/18/2016 04:52:51 PM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

A man is standing outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He is standing next to a sign that says “free listening”. Mostly what people have shared are stories about their travels to Cleveland for the convention, their family and work lives, mundane stuff, but soon a woman comes over, looks carefully at the man, and says that she doesn’t believe that abortion should be legal, that it is murder.

What would you do? Would you challenge her statement? Would you smile weakly and thank her for her response, and let her go on her way? Would you get into a shouting match? Would you post angrily to social media or share your disdain for this person with your friends?

This man did none of those things. Instead, he invited her to share her story. To tell him how she came to that conclusion. He offered to listen more.

The woman, at first defensive, then went on what we might call a rant about why she thought abortion was wrong and terrible. And then, at some point, her speech shifted, and she began to talk about how she was told as an 18 year old woman that she couldn’t have children, that she would never have children of her own. She talked about her sense of unfairness, of lack of justice, that other people who could have kids were choosing not to, while she was left barren.

I’ll be honest with you, when I first read about this from the blog post by Benjamin Mathes, I struggled mightily. I struggled because I think of myself as a pretty good listener, someone who does this professionally, after all, and I’m not sure I would have had the willpower or ability to stand there and listen to this woman’s story. And I suspect many of us are in the same boat, especially over something as controversial as abortion. I know I would want to rush in and tell my stories—the texts I’ve studied, the learning I’ve done, the stories of friends and loved ones who have each had to struggle with this issue from a personal, rather than a political or academic posture. And sometimes it seems that’s how we all are, fighting to get a word in edgewise, or waiting until we have the perfect response and sharing it later on Facebook. After all, we already know the right answers, don’t we? We, jaded and world-weary, exposed to so much media, so much data, so much raw information, have already come to all of our own conclusions. Sometimes it seems like we have nothing more to learn from one another, and even if we did, would we want to teach it anyway? Or do we merely want acknowledgment and affirmation of our own truth? Do we really want to sit in judgment of the people around us?

 And yet, I think it’s clear that Mathes’ approach—letting this anonymous woman tell her story without judgment or interruption—was valuable. It was loving. It allowed both of them to get to the truth of the matter, to get to, what he calls, the biography, not just the ideology. It was forgiving. It was sacred.

This is a strange time of year for us as Jews, and a strange time as Americans. We are in the midst of our days of judgment and our days of awe, but when we call them that, when we talk about this being the time when even the hosts of heaven are judged, we are reminded that WE are not doing the judging. We are, in fact, the ones coming to be judged—by God, by our own consciences, reflective of the past year and the choices we’ve made. But it is also our time of forgiveness, of atonement, when we release others of their sins, and we look for release ourselves. We cry out “Shma Koleinu”: hear our voice! And I suspect many of us worry—or already presume to know—that no one is listening.

I believe that God, however we understand her, is listening. That someone hears our cry; hears us when we second guess our choices, when we look back on the year and focus so much—too much—on where we stumbled, hears us when we turn our victories to defeats, hears us when say we want to do better, to be better, but we don’t know how to get there. I truly believe this, even if it is only the part of us that we hide away, that we dare not reveal, that hopes beyond hope that we can live up to our best selves, that still small voice within us, I believe with perfect faith that we are heard.
But I would suggest that part of the reason we worry that there is no audience for our cry is because we have stopped listening to each other. And I mean really listening, listening in the way that Benjamin Mathes did. We don’t hear each other’s stories. We don’t create space for dissent, for difference, to be challenged. We can only be right.

It’s very American, isn’t it? And has been for years—this is not a new phenomenon. Even Alexis de Tocqueville wrote back in the 1800s that Americans don’t discuss, they don’t even argue, but make speeches at one another. And that’s what we’re used to, that’s what we’re trained to do, we make parallel speeches in the same way that toddlers parallel play alongside one another, not really engaging the person in front of us.

It’s very American, but it isn’t very Jewish. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing Jewish about the idea of not listening to the other person. Even when they disagree. Especially when they disagree. Especially when they say things that challenge us to the core of who we are. I’m not speaking of antisemetic attacks or slander, now, but rather the kind of discourse that happens in a free society between diverse people. Jewish tradition has always been about listening. Think of how often in the Torah we read the word shema—hear! Hear O Israel! Hear the voice of God! Hear the voice of the Mitzvot! Hear the voice of the generations that came before; the voice of conscience within ourselves. Again and again we are compelled to listen, and listen deeply. Words are precious to us as Jews, more than any other art form, and we take those words seriously. Think of the generations of Jews who study Torah not cloistered in some room as an island alone, but with a study partner, the text between them, sharpening their thoughts against each other, challenging each other, each bringing their own perspective and world view and experience to the other in order to arrive at a new understanding, a new idea. We joke that it is Jewish to disagree, and it is true; but in saying that we acknowledge that it isn’t Jewish to dismiss the voice of the other, or to make the person across from us the other at all.

And yet, and yet, that is what we are doing, at every level, macro and micro. And not just about the election. We do it around Israel. We do it around the way we express our Judaism, what movement we affiliate with. We do it around policy and programming. We do it, fundamentally, around each other’s stories. When we dismiss an idea or a position, when we try to change someone’s mind, when we argue passionately against the person in front of us, without intending it, we run the risk of dismissing their story, their journey to where they are. In our own anxiety at being right, we lose the opportunity for understanding.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. And it’s hard; this kind of listening takes time, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to put aside our need to be right all the time, and our own anxiety that, deep down inside, we may be wrong.

Friends, I don’t know what you have resolved to do in this new year of 5777, but if you choose nothing else, I would ask you to listen more, and listen better. To invite people to share their stories, to speak to their believes and ideas, to not rush to judgment or to win. Someone posted online, you don’t need to attend every argument you’re invited to; wouldn’t it be great to, yes, respond with regrets to those arguments, but also find ways to make them real discussions, a chance to share beliefs? When we talk about the value of African American lives, before we respond with our own dismissal and anxiousness, can we ask where they’re coming from? When someone says they don’t know how they feel about Israel, can we ask them to tell their story? The same for the way they worship, the way they vote, the way they live their lives and make choices. It doesn’t mean we need to be persuaded by their arguments, or change our mind; it doesn’t mean we need yield ground on an issue we care deeply about. It does mean we need to let our guard down and acknowledge and accept—really accept—that the other person’s experiences, the other person’s life, is sacred. And in doing so come to a greater understanding.

D'var Torah September 23: Themes of the High Holy Days

09/30/2016 01:44:50 PM


Rabbi Elisa Koppel

A story told by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Over fifty years ago, the rabbi of Brisk, a scholar of extraordinary renown, revered also for his gentleness of character, entered a train in Warsaw to return to his hometown.  The rabbi, a man of slight stature, and of no distinction of appearance, found a seat in a compartment.  There he was surrounded by traveling salesmen, who, as soon as the train began to move, started to play cards.  As the game progressed, the excitement increased.  The rabbi remained aloof and absorbed in meditation.  Such aloofness was annoying to the rest of the people and one of them suggested to the rabbi to join in the game.  The rabbi answered that he never played cards.  As time passed, the rabbi’s aloofness became even more annoying and one of those present said to him: “Either you join us, or leave the compartment.”  Shortly thereafter, he took the rabbi by his collar and pushed him out of the compartment.  For several hours the rabbi had to stand on his feet until he reached his destination, the city of Brisk.


    Brisk was also the destination of the salesmen.  The rabbi left the train where he was immediately surrounded by admirers welcoming him and shaking his hands.  “Who is this man?” asked the salesman.  “You don’t know him? The famous rabbi of Brisk.”  The salesman’s heart sank.  He had not realized who he had offended.  He quickly went over to the rabbi to ask forgiveness.  The rabbi declined to forgive him.  In his hotel room, the salesman could find no peace.  He went to the rabbi’s house and was admitted to the rabbi’s study.  “Rabbi,” he said, “I am not a rich man.  I have, however, savings of three hundred rubles.  I will give them to you for charity if you will forgive me.”  The rabbi’s answer was brief: “NO.”


    The salesman’s anxiety was unbearable.  He went to the synagogue to seek solace.  When he shared his anxiety with some people in the synagogue, they were deeply surprised.  How could their rabbi, so gentle a person, be so unforgiving.  Their advice was for him to speak to the rabbi’s eldest son and to tell him of the surprising attitude taken by his father.


    When the rabbi’s on heard the story, he could not understand his father’s obstinacy.  Seeing the anxiety of the man, he promised to discuss the matter with his father.


    It is not proper, according to Jewish law, for a son to criticize his father directly.  So the son entered his father’s study and began a general discussion of Jewish law and turned to the laws of forgiveness.  When the principle was mentioned that a person who asks for forgiveness three times should be granted forgiveness, the son

mentioned the name of the man who was in great anxiety.  Thereupon the rabbi of Brisk answered:


    “I cannot forgive him.  He did not know who I was.  He offended a common man.  Let the salesman go to him and ask for forgiveness.”


I long understood this story to be about how we ask for and find forgiveness from others.  But, as I’ve grown and gained experience, I see it differently—as a story about how we forgive.  The rabbi in the story needed not forgive because he was not wronged—he can let go of the incident because it had nothing to do with him.  The person that was wronged, however, is the one that needs to forgive.  And, in this case, that person does not even exist, and so cannot be asked for forgiveness.  Just as importantly, the salesman needs to forgive himself.  Perhaps this is a story, instead, about how we find forgiveness ourselves, outside of or even despite the other party.


    When we are wronged, when we are hurt, we feel anger, resentment; we blame the party that hurt us.  Sometimes that hurt was intentional, but often it was not.  Sometimes the other party knows they hurt us, other times, they do not.  Sometimes the other party is someone we can approach and work towards repair, but often—perhaps too often—that’s not the case.  Perhaps we are angry at the universe, angry at God.  Maybe we have been hurt by someone that no longer wants anything to do with us or with whom we’ve cut off contact.  Sometimes, we need to forgive someone who is no longer alive and cannot forgive us or accept our forgiveness.  


    I think this leads to an important conclusion—forgiving someone else is not about them.  It’s about us.  It doesn’t really matter if they are sorry or if they have repented.  It does not matter is they are no longer there to ask forgiveness or to hear our forgiveness.  And, more often than not, their hurting us was, even if intentional, not really about us, but about them.  Forgiving also is about us.


    When we forgive, we let go.  We do not necessarily forget, but we move beyond.  We are able to take a situation and accept that it happened. Know that it happened.  And acknowledge that it happened. And, even if we do not condone the behavior that led to the situation that hurt us, we can accept that it happened and allow ourselves to move on.  That’s what forgiveness is really all about.


     And that’s how our own healing really begins. The story is told: 


Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping, because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.


But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. The younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. He went on this way for a long time.


Finally, at the end of the day the older monk turned to the younger one. "I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her all day.”


    How often do we carry these things? The wrongs of ourselves, the wrongs of others even.  How often do we hold back forgiveness? But these holy days remind us that we must.  Because forgiveness helps to bring us to wholeness.  Forgiveness helps us to heal.


    Forgiveness is about us.  It’s not about the one that we are forgiving—it’s about us.  We often think of it as easy to forgive another—think that it’s just a matter of accepting an apology.  But, truly, it’s more than that.  It’s about us not just vocalizing but truly believing and feeling that we accept the current reality. Someone may have hurt us, but we are still ok.  We can move on and we will move on.  To forgive is to accept our own possibility of moving forward.


    When we hold on to hurt, we allow the other to continue to hurt us.  When we move on from that experience, when we forgive, we enable ourselves to begin to heal.  As we enter the season of the High Holy Days, I invite all of us to challenge ourselves to allow ourselves to begin this new year with with a reborn spirit—one that has started to heal.  One that has forgiven and therefore started to move forward.  To heal. To learn.  To grow.


    Forgiveness is about us.  It’s about the internal process.  And by engaging and embracing that process, we ourselves become more whole.

Sermon July 1, 2016

07/21/2016 05:36:03 PM


By, Rabbi Peter Grumbacher

To the Heights!

On the 240th Anniversary of our Great Country

Peter H. Grumbacher, Rabbi Emeritus

Congregation Beth Emeth - Wilmington, Delaware

July 1, 2016


  Can you believe that it's been forty years since the Bicentennial of the United States? Forty years since Beth Emeth held that phenomenal party for that milestone occasion in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the congregation! OK, so some of you aren't forty yet, let alone those who weren't affiliated in 1976. But it was a bash!  I remember - and still have - the beautiful wine glass given as a memento. We all drank a "L'chaim!" and wished each other 70 more years as a vibrant congregation and two hundred more years as a free nation.

  How many of you recall the logo for that event? It was the Hebrew letter Ayin whose numerical equivalent is 70 according to gematria. In Gematria each letter has its numerical value and vice versa; that's why 18 is chai, which of course means "life." The Hebrew letter chet equals 8 and the letter yod equals 10. If you pronounced the yod before the chet (which you can do), you'd get YUCH. Surely Chai sounds so much better.

  So 2016 is the 240th anniversary and I decided to do a little gematria. Two hundred is Reish and 40 is Mem. Reish and Mem when put together as a word - or better the root and heart of a word - actually give us two meanings which can be seen as the exact opposite of each other. You get RaM which could mean the "heights," as in the Conservative movement's summer camps Ramah. Or you can get arum which is used to describe the serpent in Genesis' Adam and Eve story. The serpent was deceitful and creepy crawly. So maybe this gematria is telling us something...that looking at the anniversary of our great country we can see that which has been on the one hand elevating, and on the other hand that which has brought us to the depths.

  At the time of the Bicentennial the Civil Rights movement had achieved a great deal; surely not perfection by any means, but a noticeable advance in the rights of African-Americans. Thirteen years had passed since the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. King, and we might say that thirty-two years after the Bicentennial celebration, we reached the heights as the first African-American president was elected President of the United States. Who would have believed it! 

  It would take forty years after the Bicentennial for a woman to be the nominee for president; the glass ceiling in politics might be broken in just a few short months. And who was her major opponent for the nomination but a Jew! He's not a Jew who wears his religion on his raincoat sleeve; he left it in the closet in Brooklyn, but he sure isn't Presbyterian or Catholic. Yes, we once had a woman on the ballot for vice-president, Geraldine Ferraro, as well as an observant Jew, Joseph Lieberman on another ticket. But now the heights in that regard have been reached.

  Civil Rights for the LGBT-plus community are far from being achieved in full. Yes, in 1969 New York police officers raided the Stonewall Tavern because homosexuality was against the law, but that famous venue was just designated a national monument, a significant step in our climb towards equality for all.

  But, alas, the climb up can be, you should pardon the expression, "stonewalled" by those who would fight against progress at any cost, those who would crawl like the serpent, not stand tall like the champions of gay rights. We don't know the true motivation of the mamzer who shot and killed fifty innocent people and wounded over fifty more, but we do know that the Pulse nightclub was a haven for Orlando's gay community.

  Can there truly be any haven for when at any moment an accursed individual with assault weapons can enter a nightclub? When a mentally ill young man with an assault weapon can wreak havoc in an elementary school; when terrorists with assault weapons can shoot up a cafeteria for employees; when movie theaters, malls and any other venue you can think of isn't safe if someone chooses to shoot it up? No haven at all when the innocent are massacred, their families destroyed, and the dream of a bright and fruitful future, a dream which every American has, goes up in smoke!

  The sacred second amendment of our Constitution - and truly sacred it is as are all the amendments - loses its status of kedusha, holiness, when there are those who cannot say l'havdil, there's got to be a difference between one kind of firearm and another, a weapon for target practice, even for legitimate self-defense, as opposed to a weapon designed strictly to wipe out as many people in a few seconds as possible, whether those people are enemy combatants or little school children.

  Immoral morons are they who crawl on their bellies in defense of what I truly believe is the indefensible!

  Speaking of the slimy and the serpent, oh, how I could make a case that the one most capable of keeping America from the highest mountain, the one who could plunge us to the depths not even a snake could see, it's that deep, is the billionaire from New York. Well, don't worry, I won't!

  The heights and the depths...the gematria of 240. We should know only the heights, and we should climb higher. We've got women and Jews, Hispanics and African-Americans sitting on the Supreme Court, a rainbow of folks in the halls of the Senate and the House. We thought we have known the depths looking back on the days before so many of the disenfranchised of America didn't think they had a chance at all. It's not perfect, and I don't want to seem both naive and patronizing in these words, but while we have to achieve greater progress, look from where we've come!

  This Shabbat we read about the twelve spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land its inhabitants. The majority report of ten spies said that those the Israelites would face make them look as small as grasshoppers; they were too mighty to confront. The minority - Caleb and Joshua - didn't disagree with the overall picture but reported that with God's help they would prevail. I'm praying real hard that the majority in 2016 remembers where we were and the heights achieved in just a relatively few years. I'm praying that we get back to our senses, that making America great again means joining together on the mountain, and not dwelling in the fill out the rest.

  On Monday, let us drink a "L'Chaim!" to LIFE.

D'var Torah, June 3, 2016

06/08/2016 01:53:05 PM


By Rabbi Elisa Koppel

Just over 15 years ago, my rabbinic and cantorial classmates sat for a few hours one afternoon, in the sanctuary of Rodeph Sholom in New York City,  as we gathered for Ordination Rehearsal.  After explaining the general flow (despite the fact that all of us had attended at least one ordination ceremony at this point, as the classes ahead of us completed their schooling), they called us each up to the bimah, as they explained to us when to stand and sit as a row, when to go to the edge of the stage, when to walk up to Norman Cohen at the ark for our personal moment of blessing, where on the bimah to go to get our ordination certificates, and then how to exit the stage.  As I remember it, they explained this in detail for each of us, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t actually that bad.  There were 42 of us being either ordained as rabbis or invested as cantors in the ceremony—so even if we just did a run through, it took a LONG time.  It was tedious and we were all getting ready to finish school and were in the midst of all the logistics of moving into a new stage of our lives.  We somewhat resented being required to be there and felt that we were being infantilized.  So, in response, we may have not been acting at our most mature and were not exactly cooperating the entire time.

Plus, several of us had recently purchased Palm Pilots—after all, we were about to become professionals, and, this being May of 2001, Palm Pilots were new and exciting.  The Palm Pilot was the most popular of the early Personal Digital Assistants, or PDA’s.  It was a pocket sized device that you could hook up to your computer, in order to keep track of your schedule, contacts, and to do lists.  It was the early prototype of what would become the smart phone.  But at that early time, it didn’t have internet , and there were only a few programs that you could add to it—a couple of games existed, but you could mainly only share files.  To put things in context, the word app didn’t yet exist.  But it was new and exciting.  And it did allow you to share files from one Palm Pilot to another.

And that’s what we were doing.  Sharing with each other what interesting things we had found (like the mirror, which essentially gave you a darkened screen which provided a fairly good reflective surface).  And, more interestingly, The Torah.  It amazed us that we could have a file of the entire Torah on our pocket sized device.  And, as a group of people who were about to become rabbis and cantors, this was truly exciting.  And so, one of my classmates started to beam The Torah to me.

We made the connection, and my screen read, “You are being sent The Torah. Select OK or Cancel.” OK!

“Sharing The Torah.  Do you accept The Torah!” Yes! Yes I accept the Torah. 

“Are you sure?” Yes! I am sure, as I thought to myself how this would some day make a great story to share in a sermon, about how this ordination rehearsal truly gave me the opportunity to affirm my readiness to accept The Torah.

“Receiving The Torah….Receiving The Torah…”

And then my screen gave me a different message: “You do not have enough memory to accept The Torah.”

And so, I did not accept  The Torah that day.  Although I did a few days later—both on my Palm Pilot and in my life, as I walked up to that Bimah and received my blessing.  But that moment of unsuccessfully attempting to receive Torah taught me a better piece of wisdom—that memory and Torah are necessarily connected.

It’s not the first time that technology has taught me Torah.  I understood Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of radical amazement, when my uncle sat with my grandfather at my parents’ kitchen table and decided to demonstrate that you can find pretty much anything on the internet.  “Dad, name something that happened in your lifetime that I’d like to see the footage of.”  “I don’t know…” my Grandfather answered, “Neil Armstrong.”  My uncle, on a laptop connected to wifi, searched and showed my grandfather a youtube video of the Moon Landing.  “But how did you get it there? How did it know?” I believe was the question he articulated, the look of wonder apparent on his face.

And truly, I understand awe when I think about technology.  Because that story I shared about ordination—that was only 15 years ago.  That’s not a lot of time.  But the technology that was so new then is now an artifact.  And yet, the memory of it, combined with its limited memory, allows for its continued relevance.   And I’ve been thinking about technology a lot lately—partly because I like thinking about technology, but also because I bought a new laptop this week and I am fairly certain that it has more memory on it than every computer that I have ever owned, combined. Including the Apple 2 Plus that my family had when I was in middle school and high school.  I learned Torah from that computer too, incidentally—and not just because I typed the d’var Torah for my Bat Mitzvah on it.  But it was a computer that was not brand new when we got it, and it had some glitches.  Mainly that it used to periodically turn off while you were in the middle of using it.  Which meant that I learned early—always save your work.  It was many years later, when I had to reload windows on one computer that I owned, that I learned the lesson that one should always back up.  Both those lessons are also true for our own memories.  And our collective memories.  These too, are Torah.

But here’s the truth about technology.  It’s amazing.  And it develops at an exponential rate that is truly astounding.  It’s really extraordinary.  And we can learn from it—both by the lessons it affords us and also by utilizing it.  But at the end of the day, it’s just a tool.  Books were once technology.  Even scrolls were.  Writing itself was technology.  And like any tool, it’s neutral.  For as many ways that we can think of that it helps us and guides us towards bettering ourselves and improving the world, we know that it can also be abused.  For every viral campaign there has been to create positive change, there has likely been a child cyber-bullied.  But it’s not the technology that makes the good or bad circumstances of its use; it’s the people using that technology—and the choices that they make of how they are going to use it.  How we are going to use it.  And, as it turns out, the more memory we have of how we have used it—of how we have witnessed it being used, the better equipped we are to make good decisions.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read a list of blessings and curses which will happen to our ancestors, based on whether or not they listened to the words of Torah being given to them.  At its essence, this idea teaches us that Torah is also a tool…it can be used or abused, and the way it is used can bring negative or positive results.  Just as it was up to our ancestors to determine how they used Torah, it is up to us.  And as we use our individual and collective memory, as we see how it has been used, and misused, in our people’s history and in our personal history, we call upon that memory in order to use it best at this moment—whenever that moment is.  And we call upon that memory to understand it, in new ways, each time we read the text, because our memory has changed us.  It is as if the Torah is always new and exciting, every time we turn it over and turn it over, considering it and renewing it for ourselves and for each other.

And this is why we need memory to accept Torah, in the ongoing process of receiving it throughout our lives. To know what it has meant, to know who we have been, in order to inform the current meaning.

As we finish each book of the Torah as we do this Shabbat, we recite the words, “Hazak, Hazak, v’nithazek.” Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen ourselves and each other.  Both technology and Torah can give us strength.  They can teach us lessons. They can bring us comfort.  They can connect us to others in powerful and unique ways.  They can give us power.  It is when we allow ourselves to use that power responsibly, when we share that power with the world around us in positive ways, that we each become stronger.



Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784