Emma Lazarus, “Mother Of Exiles” – for Shabbat Cherut, Friday, July 3, 2020

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Pretty much all of us recognize these words written by poet Emma Lazarus in 1883. The sonnet was composed for the art and literary auction that was to raise money to build the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal – and the plaque containing these words remains on display inside that pedestal to this day.

But many of us don’t know much about the author, other than the fact that she was a Jewish-American woman. So, in honor of our Independence Day Sabbath, our Shabbat Cherut, our Shabbat of Freedom, I’d like to tell you more about her.

Emma Lazarus was about as American as any Jew could be. Her father’s family traced itself back to America’s very first Jewish settlers, who had come to the colonies from Spain and Portugal in the middle of the 17th century.[1] The Lazaruses were originally from Portugal. They were cultured and they were rich. Her father, Moses, was a successful sugar merchant who provided the best life, and the best education, for all seven of his children. Moses was proud and supportive of Emma’s early attempts at writing poetry – so much so that he privately published a volume of her work to send to his friends. And – because, why not? – Moses also sent a copy to the famous writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thought Emma’s writing quite brilliant. He became her mentor and friend, and she dedicated the main poem in her second published collection to him.

Moses Lazarus ran in the most exclusive circles in New York, hobnobbing with the Astors and the Vanderbilts, and going so far as to build his family their own summer “cottage” – a euphemism for the grand estates in Newport, Rhode Island, to which New York’s wealthy retired in the summer.

And the fame of “The New Colossus” is directly linked to Emma’s life among the elite. After her death, it was her best friend, Georgina Schuyler, who led the effort to have the words immortalized at Liberty Island. Georgina Schuyler – of those New York Schuylers, and – yes – the great-granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton.

Emma Lazarus led quite the charmed life, didn’t she? But where is that life in her poetry? She didn’t write about lunch at the Knickerbocker Club with the Astors or summers in Newport with the Vanderbilts, or shopping with the Schuyler sisters. Her greatest poems are about poverty and loss. They focus on themes of exile and loneliness. Of what it means to be a stranger, to be treated as the “other.”

What in the world would Emma Lazarus know of such things?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

I mentioned before that the Lazarus family traced its lineage back to the Sephardic Jews who were very first group of Jews to settle in the Colonies. They became privileged and well-respected even though they were Jewish. They lived well in port cities like New Amsterdam (later New York) and, to the south, in Baltimore, Savannah, and Charleston, South Carolina, where religious tolerance of Jews paved their way.

But let’s not forget why the Sephardic Jews left their home countries. The Jews of Spain and Portugal who did not embrace Catholicism after the pogroms of 1391 were being forcibly converted in the century that followed. And those who refused were expelled – from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal five years later. But even those who did convert – and their children and their grandchildren — were persecuted and tortured during the Spanish Inquisition, lest they be practicing Judaism in secret, as indeed some did.

Seeking religious tolerance they were unlikely to find in Europe, many of these secret Jews emigrated to colonies in the New World: To the Dutch West Indies, to Brazil, and eventually to New Amsterdam.

But in 1654, when twenty-three Jews migrated from Brazil to New Amsterdam, Governor Peter Stuyvesant didn’t want them, and he tried to deny them residence. The only reason they got to stay was because his bosses at the Dutch West India Company overruled him.

So Emma Lazarus knew that she came from people who had been forced to flee their homeland and wandered in exile. She even wrote about it in her poem “1492” – a year both of Jewish exile and of Christopher Columbus’s inaugural mission from Spain:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,

Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,

The children of the prophets of the Lord,

Prince, priest and people, spurned by zealot hate.

Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state.[2]

But those were ancient family stories by the late 1800’s. What she saw in New York opened her eyes to the desperate lives of the millions of Jews who were arriving from Eastern Europe and Russia with no support, no money, and just a little bit of hope.

Lazarus did not look on this enormous wave of immigration from afar. She started to work with detained refugees who were being held on Ward’s Island in the upper reaches of Manhattan’s East River. Ward’s Island was the place in New York where the unwelcome were sent. It was home to an immigration station and a huge hospital for sick and destitute immigrants – as well as the New York City Asylum for the Insane.

Lazarus recognized how little she had in common with these Jews, and how little her life of privilege prepared her to deal with them. She would joke, “What would my society friends say if they saw me here?”

But that didn’t stop her from writing powerfully and regularly about the plight of her fellow Jews. In her poetry and her newspaper essays, Lazarus spoke out against the persecution and pogroms of Jews across Europe, and she laid bare the growing antisemitism in America. She promoted the cause of Zionism and of a Jewish home in the ancestral land of Israel. She published translations of the works of great medieval Jewish like Judah ha-Levi and Solomon ibn Gabirol, who lauded the greatness of the Jewish people. And her own poems reflected these themes.

In “The Banner of the Jew,” Lazarus calls on Jews to remember their glorious history and their divine calling:

Oh deem not dead that martial fire, Say not the mystic flame is spent!

With Moses’ law and David’s lyre, your ancient strength remains unbent.

Let but an Ezra rise anew, to lift the Banner of the Jew![3]

In The Dance to Death: An Historical Tragedy, Lazarus evokes her own family’s exile as she transports the despised Jews of her time into the pogrom-gripped Europe of 1391, as Jews prepare for death and martyrdom:

Oh let us die as warriors of the Lord.

The Lord is great in Zion. Let our death

Bring no reproach to Jacob, no rebuke

 To Israel. Hark ye! let us crave one boon

 At our assassins’ hands; beseech them build

 Within God’s acre, where our fathers sleep,

A dancing-floor to hide the fagots stacked.

Then let the minstrels strike the harp and lute,

 And we will dance and sing above the pile,

 Fearless of death, until the flames engulf,

 Even as David danced before the Lord.[4]

These words were published in 1882, when Lazarus was 33 years old, A year later, she wrote “The New Colossus” – her most elegant and emphatic poetic statement of the struggle of Jewish immigrants, and the open arms with which America ought to be embracing them.

It is also, I think, the ultimate statement of Emma Lazarus’s own Jewishness. The fact is that her father Moses all but abandoned the faith of his fathers, for which he and his children were made pariahs in the Lazarus family. He was determined to be accepted and treated as a peer by the Christian elite of New York – exemplified by the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Schuylers. And that meant making sure that his children had Christian friends almost exclusively.

But Emma was always aware that they referred to her as a “Jewess.” And she knew anti-Jewish prejudice lay just beneath the surface of such polite society. “I am perfectly conscious,” she wrote, “that this contempt and hatred underlies the general tone of the community towards us.”[5]

So I believe that she also was perfectly conscious of how Jewish she had made “The New Colossus” – weaving together clear Jewish historical references with her clarion call to America to aid the Jews of her own time as a timeless moral imperative.

In a 2011 article for Lilith magazine entitled “Is The Statue of Liberty Jewish?” poet Alexandra Gold parsed out some of the Jewish references in its verses.[6] Here are a few of her literary observations and some of my own:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land:

Here, notes Gold, Lazarus clearly contrasts Jewish oppression by the ancient Greeks – including the evil Antiochus Epiphanes, the mortal enemy of the mighty Maccabees in the story of Chanukah – with what ought to be welcome and religious tolerance in America.

A mighty woman with a torch.

Not a man like that “brazen giant” but a woman with a torch, lighting the way of welcome as the “Mother of Exiles.” Jews, of course, are the world’s ultimate exiles – forced (like her own family) to move from place to place around the globe and never feeling completely safe. I would add, as well, the words from the prophet Jeremiah, of the matriarch Rachel, weeping as her children are exiled from their land. Lady Liberty’s visage was meant to be stoic. But it also could be seen as sadness for what these millions of immigrants have endured to reach her shores.

I lift my lamp.

Here, Gold writes, we see a reference to the ner tamid, the eternal light over the ark in each and every Jewish congregation – a reminder of God’s redemptive presence in our midst as well as throughout our history.

But I also see what Jews bring to the rest of humanity. “For mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is a light,” we read in the Book of Proverbs (6:23). And the Jewish people ourselves – we are “or l’goyim” in the words of the prophet Isaiah (49:6):

“For God has said: ‘It is too little that you should be My servant In that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

Emma Lazarus would die at the age of 38, just four years after she wrote The New Colossus. In this poem, she leaves behind a handful of verses that perfectly embody all of her passions and her hopes for the United States: A nation that must open its arms to the most threatened and frightened and destitute of the world – and a nation that would ultimately be judged on the fulfillment of this promise.

Kein yehi ratson. On this Shabbat Cherut, on which we celebrate our cherished freedoms, let this be God’s will. Let it be our own. And let it be the will of our country. As we say together: Amen.

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Much of the history noted in this sermon comes from “Emma Lazarus” in the Jewish Women’s Archives. Accessed at https://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46790/1492

[3] Emma Lazarus, Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death, and Other Poems (New York: The Office of The American Hebrew, 1882), p. 56.

[4] https://www.bartleby.com/400/poem/2266.html

[5] From the jwa.org web article. See Note #1.

[6] Alexandra Gold, “Is The Statue of Liberty Jewish?” Lilith Magazine. Accessed at https://www.lilith.org/print/?pid=4362&type=article.

Standing on Shaky Ground: Shabbat Korach, Friday, June 19, 2020

It’s mid-June and we are moving into the hot season. The grills are going. The grass needs cutting. But summer is never really summer without baseball.

There is no baseball. No major league games on TV. No Curve games at the Altoona ballpark. The Curve are smart enough to have drive-through Curve Burger days. But, as yummy as they are, a Curve Burger minus a Curve game is a less-than-satisfying substitute (except for Don. Don really only goes to Curve games for the burgers).

I miss baseball – a pastime I fell in love with as a child when I went to the ballpark with my dad. It must have been love. My home team was the woeful Washington Senators.

Now, I know the lack of baseball seems like a minor-league issue (so to speak) when we’re dealing with a pandemic that is already roaring back in many states – including down here in South Carolina.

Here’s the way my top sports theologian, Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal, put it into perspective this week.

“There are serious crises in this country,” Gay wrote, “history-defining moments for public health, the economy, and equality and justice – and the absence of baseball just doesn’t rise to the top of the list of Most Important Things.”[1]

No, it doesn’t. But it is a symbol of the tectonic shifts that this pandemic has wrought in our country. It is a sign that we will likely never go back to what was considered “normal” just a few months ago. The way we shop, the way we work, the way we amuse ourselves and educate our children, the daily choices we make on where we go and what we do and who we are with – all of that is changing. Maybe permanently.

Navigating a safe path when the ground seems to shift beneath you on a day-to-day basis is never easy. But it’s made more difficult by those who have dismissed the coronavirus as a hoax, or who have derided the restrictions as somehow un-American, or who have tossed caution to the wind and floored it when the light goes from red to yellow to green.

Many people have learned to balance on uneven ground, finding new ways to be kind and patient and considerate of others who may be more vulnerable to the virus. But others exhibit whole new ways to show how selfish and inconsiderate they are.

Our ancestors knew something about tectonic changes, as they quickly departed Egypt – where at least they knew where they stood and how they would be treated – and spent a lifetime in the wilderness, where they hadn’t a clue. As we saw in last week’s story of the twelve scouts, some rose to the challenges for the sake of the community, and some of them retreated into themselves.

But in this week’s story, the people face a literal earth-shaking moment as their faith in their leaders (and in God) is tested. Korach – a Levite born to stature and privilege in the Israelite community – has decided to take on the leadership of his fellow Levites, Moses and Aaron.

He riles up a crowd among the Israelites – including tribal leaders – on the premise that there ought to be more equality in the camp. “You have gone too far!” Korach declares to Moses and Aaron. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation!”

Moses does not take the bait. Instead, he falls on his face, a posture of supplication and humility to God – and a reminder to the people that he himself did not want to be in charge, did not lust for power. It was God who chose Moses and put his brother Aaron at his side.

The challenge does not go well for Korach and his followers. God warns Korach’s followers to stay away from him – physically far from him – because God’s wrath will soon be upon them. Sure enough, the ground begins to shake, it bursts open, and Korach and anyone who stayed with him is swallowed up by the earth, along with all their wives and children. And the earth closes over them.

Why does this happen? What it is about Korach’s demand for power-sharing that’s so wrong?

The rabbis point to the very first words of this Parashah: Vayikach Korach. “Korach betook himself.” Rashi and other commentators understand the phrase this way: “Korach took himself to one side, splitting off from the community in order to protest Aaron’s being given the priesthood.”

Let’s think of Korach as the equivalent of a social-media influencer of today – somebody who, through self-promotion and pure chutzpah, makes himself into a passing celebrity and entices other people to follow him. His goal isn’t to enhance other peoples’ lives but to enrich himself.

What Korach really wanted was the prestige of the priesthood but not the responsibilities. His dispute was completely selfish. And those who were fooled by him were destroyed with him.

Korach would be the guy, in our community, who refuses to wear a mask and refuses to social distance and refuses to wash his hands – because, he contends, the community should be free of such encumbrances.

In fact, he just doesn’t like to follow rules, even those that are created to protect the community. And those who follow his example are at far greater risk to become ill, and to pass the illness onto their loved ones.

The rabbis have a description for this. In the rabbinic text known as Pirke Avot, the ethical sayings of the early rabbis from the 3rd-century law code of the Mishnah, they hold up the example of Korach וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם -as a dispute that is “not for the sake of heaven.”[2] That is, Korach did not have the best interests of the community at heart. He was selfish and greedy. He thought only of himself.

There couldn’t be a stronger contrast to Korach’s behavior than the Temple’s annual meeting, which our President, Michael Holzer, led on Zoom Wednesday evening. We had to have a hard discussion about what to do with upcoming services and events, including the High Holy Days.

Dr. Andy Gurman, our ritual chair and a former president of the American Medical Association, made a strong presentation and a call for on-line services only, a proposal with which I wholeheartedly agree. We love the High Holy Days. We love seeing in the New Year together, sharing the bimah with so many of you, hearing the beautiful and haunting music that is unique to the Days of Awe.

But we also know that you can be as cautious as possible, adhere to the rules as much as possible, and still cause harm. Just this week, a church gathering in Lewisburg, West Virginia, led to at least 33 diagnosed cases of Covid-19. “We do not understand the source of the outbreak. To the best of our ability we followed the guidelines that were given to us,” said a leader of the church.[3] But the virus doesn’t care. So we have to.

We were prepared for a difficult conversation Wednesday night. But that didn’t happen. The members of our kehillah kedoshah, our holy community, chose the path of safety and protection for us all. This, truly, was a conversation l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Exactly the path a holy community should take.

I want to say one final word about baseball, because there’s a story in today’s Wall Street Journal that is a perfect example of how this concept of l’shem shamayim works in life outside of religion.[4] Jared Diamond writes about the Kansas City Royals, who have signed five undrafted players listed in Baseball America’s Top 500 rankings. No other team, writes Diamond, has signed more than three. Why are young players flocking to the Royals?

Because they are selflessly taking care of their own.

Nearly every other major-league baseball team has released scores of minor-league players, after waffling on even paying them at all during the pandemic. The Royals kept every single prospect.

It doesn’t make much financial sense. But their general manager, Dayton Moore, had other reasons:

“The minor-league players, the players you’ll never know about, the players that never get out of rookie ball or High-A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game as a 10-year or 15-year veteran player,” he said. So while other teams were more selfishly looking after their bottom line, the Royals are thinking of the welfare human beings, as well as the future of they game they all love.

As we move through these turbulent times, we become more and more aware that whatever awaits us in the future will not be the “normal” of the past. Maybe it will be better. Maybe it will make us stronger, more appreciative, more caring. At our Shabbat services on Zoom, we’ve had many regular attendees who would not be able to attend in person, and more than a few who live far away and have found our on-line community to be a great comfort.

We will use this model as we move forward. We will do our best to make our on-line High Holy Days as beautiful and meaningful and personal as we can. I’m so proud to be a part of this congregation. As I begin my eleventh year as your spiritual leader, I admire you all so greatly. Thank you for being courageous and for taking care of one another as well as yourselves.

And we will do it all l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Jason Gay, “If There’s No Baseball, Will You Miss It,” Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, June 17, 2020, p. A16.

[2] Mishnah Avot 5:17.

[3] Jessica Mouser, “WV Gov Says ‘Please Wear Masks’ After 5th Church Outbreak,” June 15, 2020.  https://churchleaders.com/news/377305-wv-greenbrier-church-outbreak.html?fbclid=IwAR3PgdW8knyXqfrHXFSjZR9DNityvIUzKZngZ0HBrORpEEHyFhY-wl3EmrM

[4] Jared Diamond, “The Royals Are Taking Advantage Of a New Market Inefficiency,” The Wall Street Journal, Friday, June 19, 2020, p. A14.

And We Were Grasshoppers: Shabbat Shelach, Friday, June 12, 2020

Tonight, I want to share with you the story of a kind and gentle soul – a child of God seeking the strength and the wisdom he feels he lacks. Seeking affirmation for the person he is. His story and his struggle are uniquely his own – but many of us will see ourselves in his mirror.

His name is Noah Hepler. And he’s the head pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church of Atonement in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Now in his 30’s, he only been out thirteen years – and has found it hard to acknowledge his queer identity because of a childhood in North Carolina where he was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist denomination that taught that queer people would be consigned to hell. In his seminary years, he even tried marriage to a woman, thinking that would solve his issues – but he ended up coming out to his wife, getting a divorce, and then moving to Philadelphia to fully realize his identity.

That’s where the Fab Five of the Netflix program “Queer Eye” come in. Last summer, they responded to a – calling, so to speak – from members of Noah’s congregation, who wanted him to love himself fully and embrace his role as a leader. Noah was the subject of the first “Queer Eye” episode of the new season, entitled “Preach Out Loud.”

The guys arrive to find a man who is introverted and almost invisible in many aspects of his life – the way he speaks, the way he dresses, the way he lives – and even the space in which he lives. He has consigned himself to live in the parsonage next to the church, which is such a wreck that it’s unsafe and really uninhabitable.

Bobby Berk, who handles the design challenge, has to physically remove Noah from the manse and create a bright and cheery space for him in the church itself while the parsonage is renovated. Bobby also breathes new life into the church’s communal space and into the sanctuary itself.

But there seems to be a deep emotional reason why Noah accepts the way he lives, and this is what Karamo Brown finally coaxes out of him:

“I wasn’t able to come out until much later in life,” Noah tells him. “I wasn’t at the forefront of people leading the church into greater acceptance. I feel guilty. I have a severe case of impostor syndrome. Like – am I really the best person for them here?”

I think that, in some way, Noah had the courage to express what many of us feel – especially these days. If we don’t quite feel like impostors, many of us feel less than adequate to handle the Herculean tasks that have been thrown into our laps for months now. We may be home-bound parents, or physicians, or teachers, or front-line workers, or retail clerks – asked to perform double- and triple-duty for things we were never trained to do. I can’t tell you what a panic my fellow rabbis are in now, with High Holy Days fast approaching, because we are called upon to be preachers and pastors – but also epidemiologists and video producers and bouncers. That’s not quite our skill set.

And with all this, we now bear witness to the upheaval in our cities, where months of lockdown have added to the explosion of raw emotions since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Even those of us who have for decades been (so we believed) active and committed to the cause of civil rights and the recognition of the dignity and worth of every human being – we are overwhelmed by the immense and rapid national movement of Black Lives Matter from the fringe to the forefront in a tense, hot summer. And we are called on by Jews of Color to actively and quickly develop programs of racial justice, equity and inclusion in our own communities.

This feeling of inadequacy, this guilt, this collective case of “impostor syndrome” – like, are we the best people for this job? – has echoes in this week’s Torah portion. God has told Moses to appoint a dozen scouts from among the tribes and send them into the Promised Land to see what lies ahead for the children of Israel.

Upon their return, only Joshua and Caleb call on the Israelites to move forward. They do not sugar-coat the challenge but insist, “surely we will overcome it!” (Num 13:30).

But ten of the twelve are so overwhelmed by what faces them in this unknown land – that they cower at the thought of fulfilling their God-given destiny:

“The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers,” they report back. “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size. We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must surely have looked to them!” (Num 13:33).

“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must surely have looked to them!”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, a Hassidic leader in 19th-century Poland, says this was the sin of the scouts. We can understand, he teaches, the first part – because maybe that is how they saw themselves. But what difference should it make how we appeared to them? And what right did they have to say that, anyway– to presume to know how others see us?[1]

This is when our feelings of failure – that we are not smart enough, or brave enough, or strong enough — take over our lives. We not only feel our own inadequacy – we also believe that everybody else sees us for the impostors we are.

And so Pastor Noah acknowledged to the world – and personally to two immensely important forebears and role models in his church: Bishop Guy Erwin, the first openly gay bishop of the Lutheran faith, and Pastor Megan Rohrer, the first openly trans pastor in the Lutheran church.

“I keep running a negative script about myself in my head,” he told them, “because I didn’t step up within the larger story of the queer community. I haven’t gotten over it.”

But Bishop Erwin and Pastor Rohrer persist. They see Noah far differently than he thinks they do. Not for what he hasn’t done in the past. But for what he is doing now in his writing, in his preaching, and in his living example – which they assure him have touched many lives beyond the walls of his own church, and inspired and encouraged many in the LGBTQ community that they are welcome in sacred spaces.

“Our world needs you right now, it’s calling you,” Pastor Rohrer tells Noah. At which point he begins to see himself as far more than the modest little grasshopper. And he tells them the story of the one young man in his church whom he’s been waiting for years to come out – and who finally has, with Noah’s encouragement and love.

Bishop Erwin reinforces Noah’s new-found self-worth: “Every word of grace we say, it has an impact, whether we see it or not . . To do so as an out gay pastor, even without saying more than that, who you are preaches. And people need to hear that.”

This is the essence of the message of the spies. Joshua and Caleb will be chosen to lead the next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land, not because of their words but their example: their emotional strength, and their unyielding faith that God has great plans for the people.

And this is the essence of the message to us. Whatever we feel about our own inadequacies, people see us as loving and committed and trying our hardest to help – in the face of the greatest personal and professional challenges many of us have ever known. We may not be giants. But we are not grasshoppers.

“One of the greatest gifts of the Queer Eye team,” Pastor Noah said afterward, “is the gift of being able to see yourself through someone else’s eyes. Even though I constantly talk about God’s unending forgiveness and grace with others — I would rarely let that apply to myself.”

It’s time to apply self-care, patience, and forgiveness to ourselves.

As the sages of old teach us, it is not our job to fix the whole world – only to do our part. Sure, we may have a stiffer learning curve than we did six months ago. But cut yourself some slack. As everyone else knows, you’re worth it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

 

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Torah Gems, Volume III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House Ltd., 1992), p. 67.

A Single Breath – Shabbat Naso II, Friday, June 5, 2020

A month ago, in the terrifying depths of the Covid pandemic, I urged everyone to heed the advice of the wise and wonderful columnist Connie Schultz: Don’t forget to breathe. (Breathe).

The simple act of relaxing our bodies, taking in fresh air, and then releasing the stress and the pain and the toxins we hold too tightly inside of us. (Breathe).

A single breath. What a simple act of freedom. And, a month later, we realize: What a simple gift from God that can be taken away all too quickly.

It has been eleven days since George Floyd, a 46 year-old black man suspected of passing a counterfeit 20-dollar bill, died in Minneapolis, after a white police officer held him down and pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while his fellow officers kept onlookers at bay. During the last three minutes, Floyd was unresponsive. But throughout the first five minutes, Floyd pleaded for officer Derek Chauvin to release him. “I can’t breathe,” he repeated over and over again. “I can’t breathe,” he begged. Until he couldn’t breathe anymore.

That gift from God, breathed into the dust of the earth to create the first human being, was taken away all too quickly.

For months, Americans have been terrified to take a breath in the wrong place, with the wrong people, lest we are struck down with this insidious virus. A virus we cannot see. A virus we cannot seem to track. A virus that can, and has, returned in places where people have dared to gather once again.

But Covid-19 is not the only viral threat to our nation right now. Bigotry and racism are also viruses that can spread through a community, any community. Like Covid-19 – like any other virus – bigotry and racism are carried and spread by hosts – people and web sites and social networking venues that spew hatred of the “other” – whoever that other may be. And as we have seen, over and over again, our nation offers far too many hosts, whose breath is a foul stench that taints everything with which it comes in contact.

We Jews understand these diseases of paranoia and ignorance and stereotyping and conspiracy theories. We know how terrifyingly quickly they spread. We know how dangerous they are. We have been targeted as “the other” for two millennia. We have been dispersed, expelled, and slaughtered en masse. And even here in 21st century America we are not safe, as the Tree of Life murders have taught us so clearly.

The fact is that hatred of the “other” is hated of all “others.” Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, women. Anyone who does not fit what some people in this country have decided is the epitome of being a true American is a potential target. That’s why, long before Covid-19 shut us out of our Temple building, we had fortified it so that we could feel safe within.

As Jews, we have been targeted. But as a group of mostly middle-class white people, we have little to no clue what it’s like to be targeted every day. Bicycling while black. Jogging while black. Shopping while black. Bird-watching while black. Coming to the attention of police while black. Former Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards wrote this week, “I do not know a black family that does not have a story.” But I don’t know a white family that does have a story.

And George Floyd is the latest in a long list of names of those who took their last breaths at the hands of those charged with protecting them:

Tamir Rice, LaQuan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. And so many more.

(breathe)

George Floyd isn’t the only reason for the protests – both peaceful and destructive. He is only the latest. I do not in any way condone violence and the destruction of property. I am heartbroken for the small-business owners who have waited so long during the pandemic until they could reopen their doors – and now have no doors to reopen. I am sick for the people who depend on the businesses and the jobs that have gone up in flames. But I also cannot condone unthinkingly brutal tactics by those whose job is supposed to be keeping the peace. Violence cannot stop violence. It can only stoke its flames. Flames that suck up all the oxygen and leave all of us breathless.

But breathless for us is different from voice-less for people of color. Dr. King taught us that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Though he disagreed with the use of violent tactics, he surely understood its cause. “I can’t breathe” is the final gasp of human beings who have been ignored, beaten down, rejected, demeaned, deserted.

When Dr. King went to Memphis, where he would be assassinated, he did so in support of black garbage collectors who were being paid a pittance. They wore t-shirts that said, simply “I Am A Man.” All they wanted was for people to listen to their pleas and dignify their existence.

(breathe)

The language of our Torah brings us to the recognition of this dignity. In the Torah portion that many communities around the world continue reading on this Shabbat, God commands a census – one of many in the Bible. This time it’s a counting of the clan of Gershon, Levites who have the honor of serving in the Tabernacle. But an on-line essay by Chaplain Barry Pitegoff, who serves on the staff of Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York, drew my attention to the actual language of the Hebrew: “Naso et rosh b’nai Gershon.”

Now, this could mean simply to count each one of the Gershonites. But naso et rosh literally means “lift the head” of each person, individually. Lift the head. Look into that person’s face, look into his eyes. See each person’s inherent worth. Acknowledge to this person in front of you that they do, indeed, count. Acknowledge it publicly and powerfully.

The dignity of every human life is a fundamental belief in Judaism. The Torah condemns the spilling of blood. The rabbis teach that one person’s blood is as precious as another’s. The Mishnah, the foundational work on which all Jewish law is based, teaches that we all were created from one single human being so that no one – of any place, of any race – could claim superiority over another. We are all equal in the eyes of God, and so we should be in the eyes of each other. There is no “other.” There is only “us.” Naso et rosh – and see and listen and honor.

(breathe)

If the protests of this past week have taught us anything, it is that every single human being has the right to be heard, and seen, and honored, and that every single human being has the right to demand this right for themselves and for others. Behind the Covid-19 masks that so many marchers have worn are the faces of the young and the old, the professional and the student, people who are white and people of color, people who have jobs right now and people who do not. People who fear law enforcement – and people who are part of law enforcement.

In Columbia, South Carolina this week, news cameras captured a remarkable and beautiful sight. As a group of protesters sat and prayed silently in front of the state house, a group of city police officers on the opposite site of the barricade faced them and knelt down silently with them. The chief of police was among them.

All over the country, we have seen places where violence born of anger, resentment and frustration has been stoked by heavy handed tactics of police and military in riot gear, shooting – sometimes targeting — with pepper balls and flinging gas. And we have seen places where the violence has abated when police and military take a calm posture – and even take a knee in acknowledgement of human dignity.

It isn’t happening everywhere. But it is happening. People are looking into each other’s eyes and seeing, not an enemy to be feared or attacked, but a human being to be acknowledged, seen and heard. Naso et rosh.

(breathe)

Yesterday morning, as we were walking our dogs through our little neighborhood down here, we saw that the daughter of one of our neighbors had drawn two posters that she hung from the back-yard fence. One was a rainbow, and over it she had written, “We are all in this together.” The other was a quotation from our prophet Jeremiah – a rather a-typical quote for a man known more for his chastising than his cheeriness:

“For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you – declares the Eternal – plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a hopeful future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Jeremiah’s promise is given in the plural — aleichem – to all of us. But God’s hope-filled plans can only come to fruition when we work as God’s partners – work that all of us do for the welfare of all of us.

But: Rabbi! What is the work that we’re supposed to do?!

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve read and received a lot of advice from a lot of people this week on how to respond – to the anger, to the violence, to the systemic racism that has been part of this nation since before it was a nation. One suggestion does not fit all people or situations. And while I’m not one to rely on memes to get a message across, here’s one I’ll share with you that might be helpful:

Some are posting on social media

Some are protesting in the streets

Some are donating silently

Some are educating themselves

Some are having tough conversations with friends & family

A revolution has many lanes – be kind to yourself and to others who are traveling in the same direction.

Just keep your foot on the gas.

 

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

“Returning To Sinai” – Shabbat Behar-Bechukkotai, Friday, May 15, 2020

This was the week I finally did it. I made time for a project that I have put off for the past two years since we moved into our current house – and, truth be told, for some years before that. This was the week I started opening up boxes and bags of family memories bequeathed to me by my late father, Big Art. He seems to have never thrown anything away – including his own elementary-school report cards, lots of photos of a very little me – “Number One Child and Grandchild” – and my “Baby Book.” All of which unveil all kinds of information that I never knew before.

Back in the day, baby books were not scrapbooks. They were records of a baby’s family and early experiences.

I know from this baby book, for example, that I laughed out loud for the first time at age three months, at which time I also made very clear my likes and dislikes. I learned to climb stairs at nine months. And I was continually walking by the time I hit 13 months old.

Here, under health, I discover that I had both Chicken Pox and German Measles within a few months of each other before I turned seven, and that my first train ride was when we lived in Colorado. I was in kindergarten, and we rode all the way to Philadelphia and back.

The information has been meticulously recorded, through most of elementary school. Some things are a surprise – I was obsessed with Popeye, for example. Some things shouldn’t be a surprise at all – like also being obsessed with Lassie.

Many of these details explain a whole lot about how I became who I am today.

This Shabbat, we conclude our reading of the Book of Leviticus with a double portion, B’har-Bechukkotai. The title “B’har” refers to the first verse:

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר:

God spoke to Moses on Har Sinai, on Mount Sinai[1]

Now, that statement by itself seems unremarkable, right? God talks to Moses all the time. But the timing here is a little bizarre. As my colleague Cantor David Berger of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago writes in this week’s on-line commentary,[2] “Why mention that now? Why, after the whole Book of Leviticus with all its many laws and details, does the Torah suddenly return us to Mount Sinai?”

Cantor Berger explores a number of traditional sources, but the one that draws my attention is that of Nachmanides – a Spanish sage of the 13th century also known as the Ramban. The Ramban doesn’t think this statement is out of place at all. It is, he believes, one step in the larger story. First came the revelation to Moses on Sinai, then the second set of tablets after the peoples’ idolatry with the golden calf. That’s when Moses explained God’s command to build the Tabernacle, so that the people would be assured of God’s presence in their midst and not turn to golden idols.

After that, says the Ramban, the people needed to understand how to use the Tabernacle and the altar, so God gave the priests all of their rules about the cult and the sacrifices that make up the book of Leviticus. Here, at the end of the Leviticus, God returns to the laws that apply to every Israelite, as a reminder that Torah is for everyone.

Writes Cantor Berger: “Returning to Sinai, according to Ramban’s teaching, means connecting our immediate story to the larger narratives of our people and our tradition.”

That is, of course, what we do at every Jewish festival – including our re-enactment of the acceptance of Torah at Sinai in our upcoming holiday of Shavuot.

But I think each of us returns to Sinai in our own way, in our own time, for the same reason: To connect our personal life stories to the larger narratives of the families we come from, and to their traditions.

Like the Israelites of old, we sometimes need to be reminded of where we have come from – and of how far we have journeyed. Returning to Sinai, for us, means opening up memories that help us understand what has made us the people we are today.

Those memories can be both happy and painful. I found that, this week. They remind us of the people we have loved and lost along the way, and of places we yearn for that no longer exist or no longer belong to us. The Jewish nation is like that, too. Many Jews still mourn the destruction of the Temple. We all mourn the destruction of European Jewry.

But we are all grateful for the great rabbis and the unknown ordinary Jews who made new lives for themselves wherever they found themselves, and who used Torah and tradition to create the rules and structure that united their communities.

So, too, each of us finds joy and comfort and confidence in our own journeys.

There’s one big difference, though. For the Jewish people, the revelation at Sinai is a single momentous event that shaped the destiny of an entire nation. For each us individually, I think, our Sinai is really a string of smaller events and situations that we internalize and build on, that take us from there to here.

Here’s my baby book again. Under “Baby’s Diet,” there was not a single new food introduced to me that I did not like, including fruit, vegetables, and Jello. (Yeah, that sounds about right). One of my favorite TV shows, it turns out was “Lassie” – something I did not remember but which makes perfect sense to anyone who has been to my house any time in the last 30 years.

There are also detailed descriptions of my first five birthdays, and my first four years of school after that. Every birthday was celebrated in a different place, including four different homes. And from Kindergarten through third grade, I already had attended four different schools in three different cities, in two different states.

My dad was a government contractor. We moved around – a lot. I would go on to attend a dozen schools before I hit college, including three overseas. All that moving got to be common. And it never has bothered me to move from place to place. But some of my siblings didn’t fare so well and don’t cope so well with change. And that, too, has shaped who they are today. Even sharing many of the same childhood experiences, our own personal Sinais are very different from one another’s.

In a way, I think our ancestors’ experience of the revelation at Sinai had that same effect. Some remained faithful. Some rebelled – with tragic consequences. Some passed their faith, and their history, and their traditions down to their children and their children’s children. Some fell away.

As the Jewish world approaches the festival of Shavuot, we mark this event that brought us together as a nation in so many different ways. Some of us revere the traditional ideas about what Torah is – concepts that were crystallized by the great rabbis of the Middle Ages. Others of us see Torah through a modern lens and fresh interpretations that keep Torah alive and relevant for us. But somehow – in some extraordinary way – our own personal journeys from Sinai have brought us to the same place – to celebrating the same holy day. No matter how we got here – here we are, together. Not just as a community, but as a people.

So yes, after all this time since we made that covenant – after being buried in the details of building the tabernacle, and establishing the rules of the priesthood and the sacrifices; after being snowed under by all of the regulations about families and communities and business deals and our judicial system – after all that: Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe b’har Sinai. The Torah takes us back to what’s most important.

Judaism does not live in the rules and regulations. It lives in the relationships – with God, with each other, and within ourselves. It lives in the vow we swore to be faithful, as God is faithful. To be loving, as God is loving. To be committed to each other, as God remains steadfast with us.

Throughout our lives – just like for our ancestors here in the Torah – our hearts and our minds will be brought back to Sinai. We will remember how we began, and how we have journeyed, and how we have become the people we are. We may not know where our journeys from Sinai will lead us next. But we know the strength and the wisdom and the relationships we have cultivated up to today will guide us through the challenges of what may come.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Leviticus 25:1

[2] Cantor David Berger, “Are There Limits to the Revelation Received at Sinai?” published May 13, 2020 on https://reformjudaism.org