There’s a guy in Texas who owns a furniture company. His name is Jim Mcingvale. Maybe you’ve seen some reporting about this story. He has this huge warehouse store and when it became clear that Texans were in serious trouble, without electricity or heat or water, he opened his store to anyone who needed refuge. Seniors and kids sitting on his mattresses and recliners. Children curled up on their parents on his couches, watching his televisions. He’s not even worried that their shoes are all over his furniture. He was worried that they were alone and freezing and afraid and out of options with no one to come help them.
In my family, we occasionally need to talk about consequences. We have an almost four year old who I hope you will all get to know in time. She’s awesome. And she, like many almost four year olds, sometimes makes questionable decisions.
Why is asking for help so hard? Why do we resist it so much?
Russell, your d’var Torah explored this parasha and the issue of Pharaoh’s hardened heart in a totally original way, as you explored the terrifying feeling of being out of control in our emotions. You showed us that not only is this a universal human experience, it is an experience that the Torah tells us God shares with us. And you questioned whether it was okay, whether it was moral, for God to artificially impose or exacerbate that experience within Pharaoh.
Joe and Sylvia, your divrei Torah today are aiming at the questions of what is true and what is right. Joe was asking what caused the ten plagues, a question that could be answered scientifically (whether through scientific theory or archeology), religiously, or literarily, through text criticism. This is a question of what is true.
I felt the need to speak to you this morning, though it was not part of our original plan. I felt the need to speak to you in the week that the Reverend Doctor Raphael Warnock, John Lewis’s pastor, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr was baptized, gave his first sermon at age 19, and served as pastor for the rest of his life—the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Reverend Warnock became the first Black Senator from the state of Georgia. I felt the need to speak to you in the week that Jon Ossoff, John Lewis’s intern, became the first Jewish senator from the State of Georgia.
Among the silver linings of this terrible time through which we have been living has been the opportunity to be part of the CBE community since last March.. I am grateful to Rabbi Timoner for allowing me to share some thoughts with you this Shabbat.
What does it take to love flawed human beings? In the last parasha of the Book of Genesis, Vayechi, Jacob cannot teach us this. But his son Joseph can. As we welcome 2021, let’s see what we can learn from them both.
We need dreams. Hanukkah ended yesterday, and the longest night of winter is still ahead. Vaccinations began this week, thank God, but it will be many months until we can enjoy their protection. Dreams will be what carry us through the long, dark winter. Dreams are our light in the dark.
It’s not an accident that Hanukkah encompasses the longest, darkest nights of the year. That’s because it contains the new moon closest to the winter solstice, combining the lunar calendar with the solar calendar for maximum darkness.
What are we doing when we pray?
My guess is that this is a question that many of you have asked yourselves before. Presumably if you’re here this morning, many of you find something within prayer that’s worth drawing you away from other holiday weekend festivities.
Among the clergy at CBE, I am probably the least likely to ask the question: What are we doing when we pray?
Last night was a sad night for a lot of people. Even if you made a full meal and had your family around you, even if you zoomed in with family and friends all around the country or world, few of us were able to gather with the joy and feeling of fullness, with the full mishpacha we would usually enjoy.
Aaron and Sam, I love that you wrote one d’var Torah together. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone do that before, and it was as if your medium was your message. And your message, about the particular closeness of twins, was a great way to approach a question for all human relationships and really all human existence.
Hannah, I really like how you brought us so many different Rabbinic perspectives on Abraham’s motivations in this parasha. I also think that your idea that Abraham was trying to feel equal to the Hittites is smart and perceptive. I was particularly taken by the idea that Abraham was trying, through his actions, to secure God’s promise that the land would belong to him and his descendants forever.
Norah, you taught us that we are descendants of Abraham, meaning that we live in the tradition and by the example of our first ancestor, who had the courage and temerity to stand up to ultimate power. And that means that living in his lineage obligates us to do so as well. Yes.
I could not agree with you more. This is a week when our society stood up to power. It looks like we have just averted a full scale autocratic attempt. We used the institution of democracy to vote out fascism. Narrowly, yes. But let us remember that fascism and autocracy have toppled governments, distorted minds, and wasted civilizations around the world for generations. Perhaps before 2016 we thought we Americans were immune from the great lure of a strongman, but by 2020 we learned that any society in the midst of profound change and resultant insecurity is vulnerable to populist appeal and compelled by fascism. For those of us who felt disappointed that so many of our fellow Americans seemed to choose cruelty, hatred, white supremacy, patriarchy, regression, and incompetence on Tuesday, let us remember how difficult it is to defeat fascism. We fought a world war over it. Our people perished because of it. It is no small thing. And so far, we are on the path to rejecting and defeating fascism. We still have a long way to go, but this week we came back from the brink.
Let us celebrate the strength of our democracy, all of its weaknesses having been revealed and exploited. Those weaknesses must be addressed in time. Still, we had an election. It was remarkably fair. There was voter intimidation, there were large scale purges of voters from the rolls over the course of the last year, there were lawsuits attempting to prevent voting, the postal service was hobbled and that did prevent some ballots from being counted. But more than 150 million people voted.
And a majority of them cast ballots to unseat a fascist. Tens of thousands of ordinary Americans gave of their time and their resources with extraordinary dedication to register voters who’d been purged, to notify voters about how to navigate the obstacles that had been placed before them, to monitor the polls, to bolster our democracy while it is under threat. Like Abraham, we stood up to power in all of its terrible might and allure.
But let’s not miss the why. Standing up to power is often a good thing to do regardless, but Abraham’s motivation was specific, and it was similar to ours. Abraham was primarily concerned with the sanctity and the preciousness of human life– of every human life. Each life. And that’s why he pushed God to consider the lives God might be ignoring, caught up as God was in anger at the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. But what about the innocent lives? Abraham asks: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty! … Far be it from You! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?!”
Rashi explains that Abraham is saying to God, “it is a profanation of Yourself” “People will say,” Rashi says Abraham is arguing, “that You, God wantonly destroy life, like you did with the flood, that You are insensitive to life, are willing for people to die, that You do not care about the individual, about the minority, that You are willing to sweep away the innocent along with the guilty.” This verse concludes with a rhetorical question: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth practice true justice?”
This raises the question, what is true justice? Ramban argues that Abraham is concerned here that God is not balancing the attribute of justice with the attribute of mercy, by which every life is held and valued. True justice, Abraham is arguing, is a blend of justice and mercy. True justice values every life, sees every life, honors each human being in full dignity, without exception.
And how does Abraham stand up for human life? He calls upon God to count, as we have been asserting that every voice must be heard and every vote must be counted, because every life matters.
Abraham did all of this not knowing if his actions would make a difference. We acted not knowing what impact we’d have. One thing we have learned this week is just how much what we do matters. Out of millions of votes, the margins are in the thousands. We think about people like Stacey Abrams, Tameika Atkins, Helen Butler, Nse Ufot, and Deborah Scott in Georgia, who were difference makers there. I think about our members Adam Barbanel-Fried who started Changing the Conversation Together and has been training and leading teams to do deep canvassing in Pennsylvania for four years. Or Harlene Katzman, who ran a massive nationwide network of attorneys doing election protection. Or Gale Kaufman, who was the Brooklyn office of Reclaim our Vote, registering thousands of voters who’d been purged from the voter rolls throughout the south. And so many more of you. You are nobly upholding the legacy of Abraham.
And this basic principle, that every voice, every vote, every life matters, is the way forward, over the next few months and the next many decades. It means Black Lives Matter. It means protecting women’s lives and bodies. It means we care about immigrants in detention, and children crying for their parents. It means health care is a human right and we do we everything we can to stop the pandemic in its tracks. It means low wage workers, and unemployed people deserve a living wage. It means addressing the chasm between rich and poor that is preventing so many people in this country from feeling like anyone cares about them. It means listening to people who disagree with us in ways we find intolerable, while holding fast to the ending oppression and upholding human dignity.
Julian, you saw something really important in this parasha, beyond what Abraham saw, which is that it’s not only human life that matters, but all life. The entire web of life of our planet, the entire ecosystem of the earth. And that if we go forward only concerned with saving and honoring human life as Abraham did, it will not have been enough. But in the way that we learned this week that our actions matter, in the way that we saw that we can come back from the brink of fascism, we can come back from the brink of ecological devastation and collective destruction.
So together, Norah and Julian, you have taught us on this first Shabbat after the election, that we must create a world together that honors all life. That holds all life to be sacred. That acts with mercy-laden justice. That stands up to all forms of power that would seek to destroy, to exploit, or to dominate.
In the lineage of our ancestors, let us continue to protect and restore our democracy, so that we can your vision real.
Laila and Oliver, I’m so proud of you both. You added your voices to Torah today, becoming our teachers while showing us a new facet of Torah we may never have seen before.
At a time when progressive Zionists have united in opposition to annexation, Peter Beinart’s provocative essay in Jewish Currents, and his New York Times op-ed, divides allies. Beinart’s contention that a two-state solution is unattainable, and that a binational state provides the only path to achieving a just resolution to the conflict, has challenged the conventional wisdom and ignited a vigorous debate.
With each passing year, as with each passing day, we pray for peaceful transitions from work, to rest, to renewed wakefulness. This brooding, poignant melody, originally set to the text of Psalm 121 (“I lift my eyes to the mountains…”), brings out our essential human vulnerabilities but also calls us to reaffirm our faith in God’s essential grace and compassion. And it reminds us that no matter how scary the night may seem, we find courage by traveling through it together, as one community.
The month of Kislev heralds shorter days and colder weather, and the Jewish people respond by gathering in the warmth of community and kindling lights. In the midst of Kabbalat Shabbat, Psalm 97 draws an explicit comparison between increasing light and increasing happiness, and Psalm 98 exhorts the entire world to shout and sing with abandon at the wonders in our midst. Our medley of these two psalms incorporates melodies which match the unbridled joy of these ancient words of praise.
As the Jewish community emerges from weeks of holidays and enters the month of Marcheshvan, we take comfort in the simple weekly rhythm of Shabbat.
Ki HaMalchut Shel’cha – Friday Nights at CBE: Sounds of Shabbat
At the heart of Rosh Hashanah morning liturgy lies “Aleinu l’shabeiach,” an affirmation of God’s ultimate, singular sovereignty over everything that is.
For the past several years, CBE has been experimenting with how Friday nights feel, look, taste, and sound. We have assembled a core community of dedicated regulars, a world-class jazz quartet in partnership with the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, and a unique collection of melodies that together transport us out of the workweek and into Shabbat: a sacred time of rest, refreshment, reflection, and utter joy.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner recently appeared on an episode of the Beliefs Podcast, a weekly news podcast covering religion, faith, and ethics. Rabbi Timoner and Dr. William Baker had a meaningful conversation about progressive activism, Zionism, the great potential of the progressive Jewish movement in America, and the crosswinds and squalls for American Jews during the Trump Administration.