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Yom Shlishi, 8 Sivan 5778

A Divine Blessing of Food and Security

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, is about blessings and offerings.

Upon the creation of the Tabernacle, God instructs Moses to share God’s blessing with the people of Israel. In one of the most famous passages of Torah, God outlines the Priestly Blessing, which we still recite today:

May God bless you and protect you
May God cause God’s face to shine upon you, and may God be good to you
May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

In return, the Levite clans offer a very different kind of gift to God: material goods, such as oxen and goats, silver dishes, flour and oil.

The juxtaposition of these two very different gifts – God’s face shining upon you versus a sack of flour – is jarring. Is the lesson of Naso that humans are inherently materialistic, and cannot possibly give a gift as meaningful or powerful as God’s Priestly Blessing? Perhaps.

Or perhaps there is another lesson here, one that forces us to consider how humans can bless one another in divine ways, with the resources we have at our disposal. At its root, the true gift of the Priestly Blessing is not God’s face. Rather, the gift is God’s recognition of the Israelites’ dignity and humanity through the lifting up of God’s face unto them.

While material in nature, gifts of food and financial security affirm the dignity and humanity of the most vulnerable among us. Sadly, according to the USDA, more than 40 million Americans do not have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” In one of the most prosperous nations in human history, 13 million American children – one in five – live in households that struggle to put food on the table.

Hunger and food insecurity is a major problem, but as a country, we already have the tools to address it. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), created in 1964, is one of the United States’ most effective anti-poverty programs, and our single most important anti-hunger program. Currently, the average SNAP participant receives $126 in monthly benefits, around $1.40 per meal. A little over a dollar of support per meal certainly doesn’t sound like a divine gift, until you consider that SNAP lifted more than 3.5 million people out of poverty in 2016.

For the parent who no longer has to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table, SNAP is a divine gift. For the child who no longer has to go to school hungry, SNAP is a holy blessing. Food assistance and financial support may be material gifts, but they affirm and enable the full flourishing of human dignity – the same goal the Priestly Blessing achieves, as we’re taught in this Torah portion.

I do not know how to offer someone a blessing as profound as shining the light of God’s face unto them – nor do I think any human being ever could – but I do know that I can act to secure access to food and other basic needs for millions of vulnerable children and families.

On Friday, SNAP narrowly avoided a serious threat when the House rejected the Farm Bill, which included provisions that would have restricted or eliminated access to SNAP benefits for two million Americans. Reform Jews and other faith groups played a key role in urging Congress to protect SNAP, but much work remains to ensure that our leadership focuses on polices that uplift the poor and marginalized among us. For this reason, the Reform Movement has joined the Poor People’s Campaign for 40 days of moral, nonviolent direct action this summer to awaken our nation’s consciousness to the plight of poverty in America. There are still four weeks left in this campaign: find out how to get involved in your state.

Initially, the Levite clans’ material offerings pale in comparison to the beautiful and powerful Priestly Blessing. Yet, perhaps the Levites were conveying something deeper with their gifts of goats, flour, and oil. By giving gifts of food, security, and other basic needs, we affirm the dignity and humanity of the most vulnerable amongst us. With our gifts, we lift our faces unto them, just as God does in Naso, and say, “We see you in your need, and we are here to help you find peace and prosperity.”

What could be more divine than that?

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Why Do We Read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot?

No story in the Bible demonstrates more fully than the Book of Ruth the extraordinary power of love, channeled as hesed– kindness or generosity – that goes beyond the expected obligation.

No book better models what it means to love the stranger and what it means to demonstrate hesed in a way that not only repairs a ruptured family history but also creates a community into which one wants to bring a child.

Megillat Ruth (the Scroll of Ruth) is about kindness and audacity. Through its depiction of Ruth, her actions and influence, the book illustrates just how one can cultivate such virtues so as to bring about personal and even national transformation. The concluding genealogy weaves this transformation into the larger tapestry of Israel’s epic narrative by tying Ruth to David, Israel’s most illustrious king.

The story traces a journey from Bethlehem and back, a journey from famine to fullness, from futility to fertility. Famine drives a family of four (husband, wife, and their two sons) to leave Bethlehem in Judah for the land of Moab. The husband dies, and the sons marry Moabite women. When these men also die, the three widows – Naomi and her Moabite daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth – head back to Bethlehem.

At Naomi’s urging, Orpah soon returns to her home, but Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi, pledging herself with the immortal words “Wherever you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16).

In Bethlehem, Ruth the Moabite goes out to find food for the two women. She meets Boaz, a wealthy landowner, who, impressed by all that Ruth has done for her mother-in-law, graciously extends privileges and protection to her. Because Boaz is related to Naomi’s family, biblical traditions entrust him with certain responsibilities toward destitute relatives. In light of these kinship obligations, Naomi instructs Ruth, at the end of the barley harvest, to approach Boaz at night and alone.

Ruth does so, asking for his support, “for you are a redeeming kinsman” (3:9), and Boaz enthusiastically consents. The plot thickens when Boaz calls Ruth’s attention to a complication: a closer kinsman must be approached first for support. The next day, at the city’s gate, Boaz summons a public assembly to sort out the widow’s situation. He succeeds in clearing all obstacles to his suit and then announces his marriage to Ruth, which the community blesses. The couple’s great-grandson is King David.

Jewish sources offer six explanations for the custom of reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai:

  1. Both the Torah, which was given on Shavuot, and Ruth are all about kindness and generosity (hesed).
  2. At Sinai, Israel took upon itself obedience to the Torah; Ruth likewise takes this obligation to the Torah upon herself.
  3. According to one tradition, David was born and died on Shavuot; the Book of Ruth ends with the lineage of David.
  4. Shavuot is connected to the barley harvest (also called bikkurim in the Bible); so, too, is the story of Ruth.
  5. A midrash (a teaching from rabbinic literature) claims that the Torah can be adequately grasped only by those who have suffered; Ruth suffers poverty and hardship (Ruth Zuta).
  6. The Hasidic master known as the Sefat Emet offers additional explanations for the link between Ruth and Shavuot:
  • Reading Ruth teaches us that actions, not mere study, are the essence of “righteous living” or “goodness”; Boaz exemplified this teaching through his actions of hesed and his observance of mitzvot;
  • Having received the Torah at Sinai, Israel is now ready to bring near anyone who seeks to receive it, including proselytes like Ruth – the welcoming of Ruth is an example of this readiness;
  • The Torah helps Israel gather the holy sparks scattered among the nations; such is the case with Ruth;
  • In taking the Torah upon themselves at Sinai, the Jewish people all became proselytes.

The story of Ruth, believed to have been written around the fifth century B.C.E., is like a well-cut gem; its many facets gleam brightly as one turns and turns it again. Its four gentle and elegantly crafted chapters profoundly engage difficult issues, such as the complexities of love and loyalty, the nature of responsibility in a time of scarcity, the relation to “the other, the redemptive power of persons; and intermarriage.

If the prophets express on a national scale what Abraham Joshua Heschel describes as “spiritual audacity and moral grandeur,” then Ruth situates these powerful virtues in the domestic sphere and in the lives of ordinary people, who, facing more circumscribed choices, likewise grow to such audacity and develop moral grandeur.

This article is adapted from The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, the Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, former Professor of Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 

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On Shavuot: "Re-Covenanting" as a Unified People

And Israel encamped [at Sinai] as one person with one mind.
-- Rashi on Exodus 19:3

Remarkable unity characterized the Jewish people in the days before receiving Torah at Sinai, an event we commemorate on Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. As a student in Jerusalem one year, I experienced that unity powerfully on Shavuot. At the end of the traditional all-night learning session, I joined thousands of others streaming toward the Old City. We poured into the Western Wall plaza and I nestled myself in with one prayer group among the hundreds. Tens of thousands of people packed the plaza, a sea of white prayer shawls and people swaying together to the sounds of our ancient liturgy. Indeed, my sense of oneness with the Jewish people at that moment was “like one person with one mind.” 

The next year was very different. I finished the night of study in Jerusalem with friends from one of the liberal Jewish seminaries. Again, we joined the masses walking to the Old City, this time with our own Torah scroll in hand. When we arrived at the Western Wall plaza we set up our prayer service toward the back, away from many of the other groups. My friend started the morning blessings, our group of men and women standing around him.

Almost immediately, a man with a prayer shawl ran up to our table and yelled at us in Hebrew, motioning with his hands for us to leave. “Forbidden! Forbidden!” he called out repeatedly, gesticulating wildly. He was drawing attention and more people began to approach. A guard told us to move to an area in back of the plaza and up some stairs. We were not prepared for a major confrontation, so we moved to this area called “The Archeological Garden,” a quiet and lovely place to pray, so we began again.

Again, within moments, a man stuck his head out a window in his home near the garden and yelled those same words, “Forbidden! Forbidden!” My friend walked over and spoke quietly with him, assuring him that we were permitted to pray – men and women together – in this area. After a short conversation the man calmed down and we continued until we were finished.

The unity and the feeling of the year before were gone. I felt marginalized, separate, and disrespected, humiliated and furious all at once. This was my first experience with the depth of divisions in the Jewish people, divisions so deep that the Orthodox majority felt empowered to marginalize liberal Jews who came to celebrate receiving our shared inheritance, the Torah. I realized that the unity I had felt a year earlier was merely an illusion. Could a Jewish community this fractured ever be whole enough to stand again at Sinai?

This ancient story about receiving the Torah provides a way forward. The Talmud, in Shabbat 88b, tells us that when the Torah originally was presented to the Israelites, God held the mountain over their head and basically said, “I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse. Accept the Torah, or else.” Commenting on this coercion, one of the rabbis of the Talmud explained that the Jewish people can’t be held accountable to fulfill the Torah because they only accepted it under duress. Another rabbi agreed but added that, during the time of Esther and Mordechai, hundreds of years later in Persia, the Jews accepted the Torah voluntarily and thus are obligated in its fulfillment.

In the language of community organizing, the two different models of receiving Torah are called “power over” and “power with.” A power over model features domination and coercion.  God, so to speak, forced a unified acceptance of the Torah. A power with model invites people into participation, as Esther did by making herself vulnerable and asking the Jews of Shushan to unify together in a three-day fast.

In a power over model, the dominant group forces its vision and understanding of the world on everyone else – which is what happens at the Western Wall. Those who reject the dominant perspective are marginalized, threatened, and discounted. A power with model emphasizes sharing power and raising up previously marginalized voices for the good of the whole.

Only the power with model will help the Jewish people – in all our diversity of thought – achieve unity. The more one segment tries to impose its will on others, the more resistance and division it will create. If you sense your community is unified, who might be on the margins, not feeling that unity? In what ways does the dominant group in your community impose its will on the collective? 

The key is for us to employ a power with approach – listening, not telling; cultivating curiosity for Torah, not imposing our approach; and making room for diverse perspectives. Although a power over approach may be easier, it won’t create unity. Knowing that real unity involves every voice, on Shavuot, let us commit to learn how others make sense of our shared Torah and bring people in from the margins.

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A Week of Trauma and Triumph

This past Monday, the U.S. opened its embassy in Jerusalem. On that same fateful day, more than 60 Palestinians lost their lives on the border with Gaza. In response to these divergent events, people experienced a range of  emotions. 

This confusing, difficult day took place right before Jews around the world will gather to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Although originally conceived of as a harvest holiday, after the destruction of the Temple, Shavuot transformed into a day celebrating the receiving of Torah at Sinai. We learn all night long to mark the centrality of Torah in our lives; we eat sweet dairy desserts because we were guided to a land flowing with milk and honey. But the sweetness is mixed with bitterness too, not just this year in light of current events but also when the Torah was first given.

Our tradition teaches us that all Jews were present at Mt. Sinai. Think for a minute what it must have been like. There are some who might have felt triumphant that the Egyptian army was defeated and that now we were coming into our own as a people. There are those who may have been traumatized having looked back over their shoulder and seeing the Egyptian army drowning in the sea. In that moment, we rejoiced over our salvation and freedom, but even then, there was fresh pain.

The Rabbis in their wisdom – as many rabbis also will do this week – remind us that the voice of angels reprimanded the Israelites for celebrating as the Egyptians died:

Maaseh yadei tovin bayam v’atem omrim shirah lifanai” (“My creation is drowning in the sea and you rejoice before me”) (Talmud Sannhedrin 39b).

They reminded us that those people who lost their lives were people too. That this moment – when in one day more than 60 people lost their lives – is about crying and weeping for God’s creation that has been killed. It is about asking God, why despite past violence, do their loved ones have to weep for them?

This year we have an opportunity to treat Shavuot as a moment of balance. Together we can walk a tightrope between two conflicting feelings about what has happened in Israel this week. We can rejoice over the redemption of the Jewish people in Israel, and we can celebrate further recognition of our national sovereignty. We can also mourn the loss of life along the Gaza Strip and express concern to our leaders over this violence. 

Standing at Sinai, we have to maintain that balance between what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls the Covenant of Fate and the Covenant of Destiny -- between the suffering fate of our people as slaves in Egypt and the moral and ethical teaching that was passed down to us on Mt. Sinai. 

This week we, a nation that is both traumatized and triumphant, got the recognition we deserve. Jerusalem, our eternal capital was recognized by the great superpower of the world. We did it. We can say Shehecheyanu (a blessing of praise). And still, we must not let this moment thwart our moral fortitude and resilience. Now we must stay up all night learning Torah, examining what the Torah and God expect of us. 

This week, as we prepare to receive the Torah anew, we return to that vulnerable place we once were leaving Egypt, realizing we are a people susceptible to attack and the target of ire, hatred, and resentment. But as we turn back to Sinai, we also know that we are a goi kadosh – a holy people – who must act with great moral clarity and even, at times, restraint.

On Shavuot, we remember that the Torah was given only to us and it is a Tree of Life to which we must hold fast.

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Is There a Blessing for a Blintz?

When you marry someone, you not only get a spouse, you also get another family. When I married my husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, I inherited his mother and father, his siblings, their children. I even inherited his grandmother: Jeannette Multer. Jeannette wasn’t “Nana” or “Bubbie” or “Safta” or “Gramma.” She was “Grandmother.” Grandmother. And the properness of “Grandmother” embodied who she was: exacting, precise, and at times a bit rigid.

But Grandmother was also a voracious reader (she had once owned a bookstore), an astute student of politics and world affairs, a lifelong, dedicated Reform Jew, and a passionate Democrat left-wing voter who wrote letters to politicians with whom she both agreed and disagreed. Her cooking was legendary and holiday tables were overflowing with family favorites: matzah farfel muffins and an almond torte for Passover, assorted fruit pies for Thanksgiving, an amazing sour cream coffee cake, and for Shavuot there were Grandmother’s blintzes.

Shortly before Grandmother died, she shared the secret to the blintzes with me and my friend Rachel Andress-Tysch. We stood alongside Grandmother in her Beverly Hills kitchen and watched her mix and pour batter and flip from pan to plate the “bletlach” (Yiddish for crepes). Two, small aluminum steep-sided pans moved back and forth across the stove’s gas flames and with a quick “zetz” (Yiddish for smack or hit) to the pan’s handle the blintz turned.

“The first one you throw away…it’s greasy and it’s useless…but taste it, “she said.

It was light and airy and not too sweet. And as if we were in our own Food Channel episode, she taught Rachel and me how to make blintzes. The kitchen was perfumed with toasted butter as we poured and flipped and filled and rolled and fried again. We stuffed half the thin pancakes with a cream cheese-farmer cheese recipe and the other half were filled with Grandmother’s recipe for a cheese-less fresh fruit filling. And those crepes that were not perfectly round and browned – we sprinkled them with powdered sugar and devoured them standing around the stove.

At the end of the cooking lesson, Grandmother gave me a Nordstrom’s shopping bag. Inside were the two aluminum pans additionally wrapped in plastic bags: “You take them. Use them. Make blintzes for your friends with them. Just throw away the first blintz. Always throw it away.”

When we moved to Israel – made aliyah – in July 2013, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we were moving from a large, four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment. But I kept Grandmother’s pans. They were a link to the past: to heritage, to history, to family. They were carefully placed in a box filled with lots of other kitchen paraphernalia: wooden spoons, a flour sifter, drawer dividers, a colander I especially liked for draining pasta, an orange zester, a variety of baking pans, a set of plates for serving asparagus, and other items I was convinced I’d never find in Israel. (Indeed, I’ve never, ever seen asparagus plates here in Jerusalem.) But when our cargo container finished its voyage from Los Angeles to China and into the port of Ashdod, that box was missing. The pans (along with the asparagus plates and my favorite colander) had disappeared.

Last year, I was cleaning a cupboard above the refrigerator when I noticed a Nordstrom’s bag pushed back into the corner of a shelf. Inside was a plastic bag and inside that were the blintz pans. How they got there is a still-unsolved mystery. At the bottom of the shopping bag was a note in Grandmother’s distinctive cursive penmanship that said:

2 blintz pans.
Use them for Shavuos – or whenever.
Wherever you may be.
Love, Grandmother

I’ve used the pans for Shavuot – and on other occasions. And now, “wherever you may be” is in Israel – in Jerusalem. As I mix that first batch of batter and melt the butter in the pan (” Never use oil!!”), the spirit of Don’s grandmother stands next to me thousands of miles from that kitchen in southern California and her unseen hand guides my fingers as I pour those first spoonsful of batter into the pan. I wait for the bubbles to appear on the surface indicating the bletlach is almost ready. As I see the edges of the blintz brown, I take the spatula and gently pull it from the pan but as I place it on the plate covered with a tea-towel, I instantly remember Grandmother’s cardinal rule of blintz making: “Throw out the first one!” But rather than tossing it away – I roll it up, sprinkle it with a bit of powdered sugar, and in lieu of a blessing (I wonder, is there a blessing for a blintz?) say to myself:

Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu umah naim goralinu umah yafah y'rushateinu!
Happy are we; how good is our portion; how pleasant is our lot; and how beautiful is our inheritance!

That, for sure, is a suitable blessing for a blintz handed down with love and care through the generations.

Chag sameach!

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Celebrating the British Royals and Reform Judaism on Victoria Day

Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, I looked forward to Victoria Day, which falls this year on Monday, May 21, as the official start of the summer season. With it comes some combination of beach, beer, barbecue, and, finally, an excuse to wear sandals and a t-shirt. This year, the long weekend will mark a more historic moment for the British Crown and the rest of the Commonwealth – the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

I admit I am a royalist, but it comes naturally; my mother is British. Waking up in the early morning hours of July 29, 1981 to watch Lady Diana Spencer marry her prince, I am excited for another royal wedding. And yes, I am eager to see Meghan in her dress. I am a hopeless romantic at heart. But this time, there is a stirring of something harder to name – a sense that change is upon the royal family, and by virtue, on all of us.

I called this an historic moment, but what makes it so?

First, some history. In 1936, King George V died and his elder son, Edward VIII became king, but only for a few months. He was in love with Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American woman, and since the king also is the figurehead of the Church of England, he could not, in that era, be married to a divorcee. Edward chose love and abdicated the throne. His younger brother Albert became king, taking the name George VI, and served until his death in 1952. Because he had no sons, his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, became Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and is, indeed, the same Queen Elizabeth who rules today. She’s also Prince Harry’s grandmother.

The future duchess, Meghan Markle, is a well-known American actress. She is also divorced and biracial, the child of an African-American mother and a white father. Even though the likelihood that Prince Harry ever will see the throne is extremely low (there are currently five people ahead of him), this marriage even 20 years ago might have been frowned upon. It is heartening to see British royalty evolve and reform in this way.

This evolution reminds me of the story of Reform Judaism and the strides it has made to reform and renew Jewish life. In its early days, the movement made changes to worship, including introducing musical instruments and adopting family pews, sometimes called mixed gender seating. Later on, Reform Judaism ordained women rabbis and cantors and welcomed interfaith families, same-sex couples, and transgender Jews. In Israel, too, our movement offers alternatives to the ones offered by the state-sanctioned authorities.

The creativity and pioneering spirit offered by Reform Judaism plays out in other ways, too. Recently, Temple Shalom in Newton, MA, named Rabbi Allison Berry and Rabbi Laura J. Abrasley as co-senior rabbis, marking the first time two women will serve together as senior rabbis of a Reform congregation. In many ways, the 1972 ordination of Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi in the Reform community, paved the way changes such as this one.

So, what will I be doing this Victoria Day weekend?

I will be hoping for warm weather for my fellow Canadians, wherever they are; I will be watching Meghan and Prince Harry marry; and I will be reveling in pride at Reform Judaism, the largest and most diverse movement in North America, and its ability to evolve and adjust in response to events and changes in the world around us.

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May We All Be Disciples of Our Aaron

This past weekend, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform Movement’s seminary, announced that President Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., age 53, died tragically in the crash of a small plane he was piloting on Saturday, May 5. He served as the 12th president in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history. What follows is the eulogy Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivered at Rabbi Panken’s funeral earlier this week.

I first met Aaron Panken at HUC-JIR in the late 80s when I interviewed him to be my rabbinic intern at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Based on his resume, I tried to figure out what he was like; a degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins? Really? If I was looking for a guy to run the AV equipment maybe, but I also saw that he played guitar, had been a NFTY advisor and so much more. This guy was either a complete misfit or he was one extraordinarily multi-faceted human being.

In five minutes, I knew I was in the presence of a brilliant and immensely personable future leader of our people. And when I learned that Rabbi Jack Stern had just interviewed him to be the rabbinic intern of Westchester Reform Temple (WRT), I knew there was no chance he’d take our job. And, as a former WRT intern myself, I told him he’d be crazy to work with anyone other than Rabbi Stern. I knew at that moment that if I was really lucky one day, I might get to work closely with this remarkable person.

The Torah teaches that: “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breast piece of decision over his heart….” (Ex 28:29)

Midrash Tanchuma elaborates: “When Aaron had to make a decision regarding a fellow Israelite, he was to consult not only the rule book but his heart as well….” (Tanchuma Sh’mot 27)

Aaron Panken was cut from the same cloth as our ancestor; the depth of his heart matched, if not exceeded, the breadth of his brilliant mind. In the past few years Rabbi Panken has not only recruited, taught, mentored, ordained, and graduated a new generation of Jewish leaders, but, more significantly, he has modeled for each of them how to live a Jewish life of depth and integrity, embodying instead of merely espousing our Torah’s timeless teachings. Greatness and goodness flowed forth from this remarkable man.

I was blessed to have Aaron as a close friend and, until six years ago, to be the rabbi of his family’s congregation. It was on this bimah that Aaron dazzled WRT with incisive and provocative readings of our sacred texts, especially the Book of Jonah each Yom Kippur. It was here that Eli and Sam lovingly received Torah from their parents and grandparents and at URJ Eisner Camp and on our URJ EIE Heller High semester in Israel they deepened their own Jewish journeys. Before I had the chance to work with Aaron, I had the supreme blessing to work closely with his amazing wife Lisa Messinger during her years as president of WRT. Lisa, by the way, was very timid at first and I take pride in having helped her come out of her shell.

Fast forward. I was invited to lead the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and in 2014, Aaron became the president of HUC-JIR. What a blessing it has been to work so closely with Aaron. There was only one other time when the Union and the College were more closely aligned and that was at the beginning, when Isaac Mayer Wise held both positions simultaneously.

Aaron Panken didn’t enter our Reform Movement through the front door. Three weeks ago, at our Scheidt Seminar in Atlanta, Aaron shared with 87 incoming congregational presidents how he came to Reform Judaism.

He shared: “It all began when I was in the fifth grade. Inexplicably, one afternoon as I walked home from school in Manhattan, I entered the Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Amsterdam Avenue.”

“I’d like to go to religious school,” I told the receptionist. The next thing I knew, the cantor appeared and asked, “How can I help you?”

“I’d like to go to religious school,” I repeated. “That’s lovely,” he said. “Could I talk to your parents about that?”

Sitting him down later that day, his parents, Peter and Beverly, said, “Aaron, we’d prefer that you go to a place where what they teach is a little closer to what we believe.”

And so, starting at age 11, Aaron attended religious school at New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Rabbi Sally Priesand, our movement’s first woman rabbi officiated at his bar mitzvah and the rest is as they say history. Thank God we didn’t have our specialty camps back then because Aaron would have been a stand out at 6 Points Sci-Tech and Lisa would have been a champion at 6 Points Sports, but luckily, they found each other at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA.

Aaron knew from his experience and his vision that Reform Judaism is truly a movement, not merely a collection of organizations and his leadership covered every part of it. You could have dropped him into any role anywhere in our movement – camp, campus, youth group, pulpit, scholarly seminar, social justice rally, Israel, chaplaincy, you name it; he possessed all of God’s leadership gifts especially humility and kindness.

Aaron didn’t just write about justice. In March 2015, at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Panken spoke in Selma, Alabama, in front of 400 activists, including Reverend William Barber, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Peter Yarrow, Rabbi Jonah Pesner and host of other leaders in the battle for equality. Aaron said:

We remember the period’s frightening moments when unabashed hatred battered the good and robbed people of life and opportunity; when authorities who we looked to for leadership, morality and fairness used their immense influence for evil and not for good, and when the powerless suffered mightily at the hand of those who held them down.

And Aaron’s love of Israel was full throated and constant. The new Taube Family Campus at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem represents his deep commitment to expanding and intensifying the place of Israel in our movement.

When 16-year-old Shira Banki was murdered during the Jerusalem Pride march three years ago, Aaron reached out to the Banki family and in partnership with the U.S. embassy created a program that brings together teachers and their young students to learn about the different groups living side-by-side in Jerusalem. These educators who are Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, religious and secular, have to face the fear of the “other,” the stereotypes, and sometimes the hatred. Aaron knew it was not enough to hope for peace.

This past November during the HUC-JIR Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem, Aaron ordained the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi, signaling the transformative impact the College-Institute has had in shaping a more inclusive and pluralistic Israel. Aaron has modeled sacred partnership with the College-Institute’s lay leadership and especially with his board chair, Andy Berger. Andy and Aaron were always in synch, always deeply respectful of each other.

And if you think Aaron was only a gentle, mild mannered individual, you should have seen him assertively carry a Torah scroll past the security guards as we entered the Kotel (Western Wall) plaza to finish our celebratory prayer service in honor of the four newest Israeli ordinees. Not only did Aaron proudly carry the Torah, he plumbed its deepest layers and lived its most demanding imperatives.

Our tradition commands us: “Raise up many disciples.” (Pirkei Avot 1:1)

Many attempt, and some succeed but only a few, including Rabbi Aaron Panken, have their disciples spread out around the world. Pirkei Avot doesn’t only want many disciples; it specifies which kind; it says, “Be disciples of Aaron.”

And how do Aaron’s disciples conduct themselves? Do they only sit in the academy studying all day and night?

No, the disciples of Aaron spend their days “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving their fellow creatures and bringing them close to the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:12)

Today, this sanctuary and our movement overflow with the many disciples of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, especially Aaron’s beloved sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken. The biblical Aaron and our Aaron inspire us to bring many others to the deep water of Torah and from there, find strength and inspiration to pursue peace and love all of God’s children – not just the ones who are just like us.  Indeed, that was Aaron Panken’s way. May we all be disciples of our Aaron; may we never stop teaching and living his Torah.

In the Talmud, there are some sages who are simply irreplaceable: “Woe to those who are lost and cannot be replaced.” (Sanhedrin 111a)

Today we are the ones who are lost, and Rabbi Aaron Panken is the one who cannot be replaced.

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An Israeli Hospital of Humanity and Hope

With every new day there seems to be nothing but bad news coming out of Israel. We read of corruption, civil unrest, deportations of asylum seekers, and assaults on basic democratic principles. Many of us who are ohavei Yisrael – lovers of Israel – find ourselves asking, “Is there no good news? Is there nothing we can feel good about these days?”

There is.

On a recent visit to Israel, I witnessed extraordinary acts of human kindness at a hospital near the Syrian border.

The Galilee Medical Center regularly serves a demographically mixed population of about 600,000 Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. For the past five years, it has also treated more than 3,000 Syrian civil war causalities.

The hospital’s senior surgeon in the neurosurgery unit is Dr. Samuel Tobias, a Mexican Jew trained in Cleveland who is a world-renowned expert in treating catastrophic war injuries, the kind that Israel sees all too often.

Tears ran down the surgeon’s cheeks as he described what it is like to treat people who had always considered Israelis their sworn enemies. He told us about the counseling the hospital staff receives to help them overcome any ambivalence they might feel about helping these patients, and the varied reactions of the wounded when they wake up in an Israeli hospital. One patient, fearing that he’d be tortured, pulled the tubes from his mouth, chest, and arms and tried to jump out the window.

On another occasion, the team fought hard to save a man whose main artery to the brain had been torn by a bullet. The next morning, unable to talk, the patient signaled for a paper and pen. First he asked where he was. Then he wanted to know why they had saved him. He did not want to be alive. “The last thing I saw before being wounded,” he wrote, “was my two children, age three and five, being shot.”

An adolescent soldier Dr. Tobias treated returned a few months later, severely wounded. The doctor asked him angrily, “Why didn’t you learn your lesson last time?” The young man replied, “You have smartphones and PlayStations to play with, and we have hand grenades. What do you want from me?”

“Their stories make us cry,” Dr. Tobias said.

The hospital staff treats everyone brought to them, not knowing whether patients are innocent civilians, ISIS or Nusra Front fighters, or defenders of the Assad regime. Faced with the reality that there are no functioning hospitals on the Syrian side, Dr. Tobias follows the dictates of his humanity, his Jewish values, and the Hippocratic oath.

To make the patients feel more at home, Arab hospital workers bring them food and taped episodes of a popular Syrian soap opera. All the kibbutzim in the area donate clothes, and every discharged patient leaves with a care package. Documentation of their medical treatment is written in English and Arabic on paper without the hospital’s logo, and there can be no Israel-related information on food or clothing labels.

In most cases, the hospital staff never learns the fate of their Syrian patients, once the IDF takes them back to the border.

“If we manage to change the opinion of just one person,” Dr. Tobias said, “we have done our job. If I treat one man, 50, 1,500, and they go back to Syria, their families will be grateful. At some stage the child or grandchild will ask about their scar, and they’ll explain that the Zionist enemy treated them and saved their lives.

“When asked if they had a message to deliver to the world, the wounded all had the same one, which goes something like this: The entire world is looking at Syria and doing nothing. There’s nobody to help us, but God and Israel. May all the nations of the world intervene and end this war.”

Although this story may not rise to the level of good news, it left me feeling tremendous pride in the humanitarian work this hospital is doing. And, my visit left me with hope that our shared humanity will usher in a time when Jews and Arabs will live in peace.

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How Torah Connects Me to the Israelites and Their Values

I do not typically read through Torah portions in full. If I am interested in learning more about a specific story or portion, I usually turn to the internet for summaries or other brief commentaries of the text and its key messages.

A few weeks ago, though, I challenged myself to sit down and read B’har, the first of the two portions we read from the Torah this week, from start to finish. As I read through the full text line-by-line, I grew frustrated, particularly with this text, which explains the jubilee year:

It is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves... These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kin, no one shall rule ruthlessly over another (Leviticus 25:44-46).

From summaries, I knew that Leviticus tells us a jubilee year is celebrated every 49 years: all land purchased during the previous 49 years is to be returned to its original owners and all slaves acquired during the same period are to be freed. Nowhere in the summaries or conversations about this portion did I read or encounter a difference between Israelite and non-Israelite slaves. This piece of context feels vital—though uncomfortable—and yet was left out.

Is the Torah telling us that we could still own slaves as property in perpetuity, as long as they were not from our Israelite nation? Is the redemption of the jubilee year not granted to everyone? As I struggled to understand the passage, I thought to myself: This isn’t the Judaism I know. The Judaism I know believes everyone is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, and teaches us to build relationships with and help vulnerable populations, rather than contribute to the systems that oppress them.

Then I realized that when I read summaries of the Torah, I do not have to think about context. The process of considering the circumstances surrounding the text – to create a more complete picture and discover the larger message behind the words – has already been done for me. Such summaries also may, on occasion, shield me from having to confront the pieces of our sacred texts that are unpleasant and make me question, wonder, and even disagree.

In my work at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I must always think about context. During the LGBTQ Rights program at our L’Taken Social Justice Seminars, I make it a point to teach students to consider context and interpretation when reading lines of text from Leviticus that often are used to justify the marginalization and oppression of LGBTQ people. I ask them to consider how we can evaluate the words, so they make sense today.

Similarly, although “gun control” was the phrase we used years ago to describe measures to promote gun safety, we now say “gun violence prevention,” which we believe better articulates what we are doing – working to prevent the devastating violence that results from firearms.

As our thinking around social justice issues continues to grow, our words and (or interpretations of them) and actions evolve accordingly. However, the values driving our work stay the same. My social justice efforts are strengthened when I consider the history and full picture of issues I care about. Only in this way can I understand the issue’s beginnings, so my values drive how I interpret this information and turn it into meaningful action.

I appreciate that reading the text of B’har directly – without a summary or interpretation – has led me to consider history, context, and our enduring Jewish values as they relate to the text. Writing this piece has required me to interpret the portion for myself, helping me realize that granting freedom to Jewish slaves during the jubilee year in the time of Leviticus was, in its own way, treating people with dignity and compassion – the same values I learned growing up as a Reform Jew. Although the way we think about slavery and issues of privilege now is quite different than ancient Israelites’ thinking about these topics, the values we strive to live by remain consistent with theirs. When I think about this, I feel even more connected to the words of the Torah and the Jewish people.

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Shavuot: Counting Up to the Celebration

Riding home from school in the car the other day, my youngest daughter excitedly exclaimed, “Mom! We counted today that there are only seven weeks of school left. If there are five days each school week, and seven times five equals 35, that means there are only 35 days left of school!”

Every year, when my kids have this realization, it stops me in my tracks and I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Chaos is coming, I think, as the countdown to the end of school begins. The ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve is another big countdown – and likely the most well-known one of all. For some reason, despite the promise of a new year, I often feel a bit of sadness at this countdown, perhaps because counting down can represent a desire to make time pass more quickly, even though once it’s gone it can never be regained.

When the kids begin to count down to the end of school, I notice that they, like me, also express a sense of sadness. The end of the school year represents a change in what they have come to know and expect in their daily lives. My oldest daughter is moving into middle school next year, creating a sense of sadness about leaving elementary school behind. Although summertime will bring visits with family and friends, new experiences, and swimming lessons, there still is a sense of sadness in the counting down that will lead to this transition.

In contrast, counting up has an entirely different connotation.

Recently while leading t’filah (prayer) for some of our Hebrew school students, I guided them in reciting the blessing over Counting of the Omer. We discussed how we count up from the second night of Passover all the way to Shavuot – a total of 49 days – which symbolically covers the period from our Exodus out of Egypt until we received the Torah at Mt Sinai.

One student shared a “lightbulb moment” when he realized we do the exact same thing for Hanukkah.  Indeed, there is a classic debate about whether we should add one candle every night to increase our joy and light, a position espoused by Rabbi Hillel, which ultimately won out over the suggestion of Rabbi Shammai that we should start with eight candles and remove one on each consecutive evening. According to Rabbi Hillel, “Maalin bakodesh, veein moridin,” which means holiness should only increase and not decrease.

Increasing our holiness is the tradition we adhere to in our celebrations today. Just as the light grows as Hanukkah continues, so too do our joy and excitement grow as we count the Omer for 49 days on the way to Shavuot.

Counting up toward an event is something I can relate to in a personal way, too. My birthday falls on January 12th and every year as January 1st hits, it is a natural practice for me to count up toward my birthday, adding numbers and excitement as each day passes. (Part of this excitement stems from the great birthday traditions in our family, including multiple signs around the house, balloons, special meals, and long-term planning of parties and gifts.)

As our Jewish community counts up toward receiving the ultimate gift of the Torah in just a few weeks, we’re also planning the rituals and routines of Shavuot: participating in late-night Torah study sessions that include cheesecake, ice cream, and other dairy foods to remind us of the land of milk and honey; reading the Ten Commandments as part of the festival worship service; and, in some congregations, celebrating confirmation and honoring those students who have continued their religious education beyond b’nai mitzvah.

Chag sameach!

This year, Shavuot begins at sundown on Saturday, May 19. Check out these Shavuot family activities to help young children connect Torah to the holiday.

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