And Justice for All

There is a passage in Bo, this week’s parsha, where Moses & Aaron are negotiating with Pharaoh for the freedom of the Israelites. There have been already seven plagues against the Egyptians — blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, cattle disease, boils, and hail. Following each curse, Pharaoh suggested he was ready to relent and release the Israelites, only to change his mind yet again. After the hailstorm, Moses and Aaron are told they can go, on one condition. Only the men can be released; women, children, and animals all must remain enslaved. Exodus 10:10-11 says, “But he [Pharaoh] said to them, ‘The Holy One be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly you are bent on mischief. No! You men may go and worship the Holy One, since that is what you want.'”

Pharaoh’s arrogance and skepticism about G-d is manifest in these lines, as Pharaoh assigns the same likelihood of the Holy One being with the Israelites as he does to the likelihood of the children being permitted to go worship as they wish. He clearly does not mean to release the entire population of B’nei Yisrael, anymore than he regards the Israelites’ G-d as being real. It’s even more cynical than that. This particular gambit is meant to ensure the destruction of a people. Were Pharaoh to release only the men, B’nei Yisrael would die out within a generation.

Later in the parsha, Pharaoh offers all the people but not the animals. Yet in an agrarian society, this, too would have spelled annihilation.

Moses and Aaron recognize a bad deal when they see one, and they refuse to leave without the whole of their society.

In many ways, we are in a similar moment now. The Pharaohs that hold us back – racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia – have given us a bit of progress in the hopes we’ll go away and stop asking for more. We have made strides, there’s no doubt: We have, thank G-d, moved well beyond drinking fountains and buses and share many spaces across cultures, genders, and orientations. Women, African-Americans, LGBTQ people, and immigrants take leadership roles in their work lives, have their relationships acknowledged and affirmed, and speak out against injustice. A century ago, we couldn’t have imagined that the Supreme Court would be made up of anything other than old white men. Fifty years ago, it was impossible to predict a woman could direct a major film, run a Fortune 500 corporation, or earn the majority of the popular vote in a presidential election. Even as recently as a generation ago, having an African-American President of the United States would have been unthinkable.

These hard-earned victories are symbols of the slow bend of history’s arc toward justice. Yet that bend is slow indeed. Today, high government officials and private citizens alike use vile language to talk about black and brown people, language that betrays the racism that still roils this country. LGBTQ people are discriminated against in large ways and small, from gay bashing (yes, it still happens) to refusal of service. In the #metoo era, we must reckon with the appalling history and present of men in positions of power pressing their advantage over others in humiliating fashion. And policies continue to be put in place that jeopardize the health, safety, and well-being of many in our country, in favor of the profit and security of a few. We are a long way from the shore, and right now the winds do not seem to favor us.

In many ways, we hold little power. Yet we can engage in small, meaningful actions. Today, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, the entire community at my sons’ school spent the day in learning and action on the theme of social justice. The tefilah was complemented by relevant King quotations and tunes reminiscent of the protest era, children heard from speakers connected to social justice and protest movements, and the entire school spent the afternoon engaged in direct acts of service, preparing gift packets, school supplies, and dinner to be delivered to a family shelter. The boys came home from school and went straight to their tzedakah boxes to make a contribution in Dr. King’s honor. (They chose the NAACP.)

Something else we can do is mind our words. This morning I attended the MLK Day of Learning and Service at Brandeis, sponsored by Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. One of the sessions I attended was on microagressions, those small slights and insults (both intentional and unintentional) that are strong enough to cause offense but subtle enough to be deniable by the speaker. This topic has been much on my mind lately, as I search my conscience for ways in which I have tried to be kind and missed the mark. A recent experience has made me especially introspective about it.

Before I had heard about the H&M monkey controversy, a dear friend posted to her Facebook feed about her astonishment that white parents call their children monkeys. I waded (nah, stomped) into the conversation, saying how much I loved calling my children monkeys and what it meant to me in the context of my family. My friend very patiently suggested I learn more about the history of white people calling black people monkeys. Which I did. Hint: it should be the M word, because when you call a human being an animal and tell them to go back to the jungle and you know that in this case “jungle” means the home continent from which their ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved…it’s not so cute.

It is my privilege as a white person that I didn’t need to know about this history. For me, that word was neutral, even sweet. Yet for my friend, and for others whose people suffered the holocaust of slavery, it is anything but. As I came to understand this, I realized I couldn’t continue to use that word for my children, even though to us it is a loving expression. Ultimately, any word that causes pain to others is not a word I want to use. This led to a beautiful conversation with the boys, in which I told them what I learned and the three of us easily agreed that it simply wasn’t worth it to express our love in that way. I have slipped a couple of times, and they have reminded me. A thirteen-year-old habit will not end without hiccups. Yet I am committed not to continue this microaggression and am grateful to my friend for teaching me.

Just as Moses & Aaron rejected Pharaoh’s offer to allow only some of the Israelites the religious freedom which they all craved, I reject the notion that the only insults that matter are the ones that hurt me, or that the only societal problems I should care about are the ones having to do with me directly. As civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Our Torah teaches us to pursue justice, and so we must continue to reject the partial offer. When it comes to equality, it means nothing if it does not include everybody.


Back to Basics

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman, has given me the honor of chanting Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon at Temple Ohabei Shalom. It’s a short reading — just four p’sukim — but full of richness. The reading comes from Leviticus 19, the beginning of what’s known as the holiness code. In it, G-d tells Moses to speak to the entire community of Israelites in order to teach them why and how to be holy. The why is (deceptively) simple: the people shall be holy in imitation of their Creator. The how takes up many, many p’sukim to follow, but my portion is refreshingly basic: revere your mother and father, keep Shabbat, and do not turn to idolatry.

As so many things — family, work, nation — seem to swirl into ever more confusing and complicated duststorms, it is a gift to return, in this season of return, to core teachings. My daily life can sometimes seem a series of fire drills, panics, dramas, and interruptions upon interruptions. How glorious to focus my mind on basic reverence: for my elders, for my tradition, for my Creator.

On Sunday afternoon, Bill and I took the boys to the river to do a family tashlich. As we stood in a clearing in the woods, we talked about what we wanted to throw away from the past year and what we wanted to do better. What struck me — with both hope and rue — was how much our comments resembled those of years past. The things we want to do less of in the coming year — arguing, thoughtlessness, impatience, meanness — are exactly the things we wanted to do less of in the year just ended. Did we really do such a bad job at it the last time (and the time before and the time before the time before) that we have to try yet again this year? It is discouraging to name the same things year after year, to set the same intentions as the year before and know that I’m likely to be setting (or re-setting) them at the same time next year.

Shouldn’t we be keeping these basic intentions in mind throughout the year?

And yet I love the way our tradition builds this habit of introspection into the calendar and offers us this annual chance at realigning ourselves. These ten days of awe give us a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves of what matters most to us, and to get back to our basics.​

Darkness at Two

Sometimes everything comes at once, and sometimes the natural world can provide you with a perfect metaphor for viewing it all. Today we will experience darkness at midday. In a rare solar eclipse, the moon will temporarily block the sun and daytime will look like night. Our tradition talks a lot about G-d’s power to create light and darkness and to separate the two. We read it in B’reishit, and we mention it in evening prayers. Jewish thought is a constant project of joining things which belong together and separating – making havdalah – those things which are distinct from one another. So when the sun and the moon appear so close in the sky that one crowds the other out, it warrants attention.

There could hardly be a more exact image for what we are experiencing as a nation. Dark forces are gathering on the ground and in the highest offices of government. White supremacists have removed their hoods and are unabashedly practicing intimidation. They get away with behavior that was once considered shameful, and they get away with it partly because the president himself equivocates as to the appropriateness of their actions. I have heard it said over and over, and I feel it myself: I never imagined that Nazis would openly demonstrate in American cities and not be unambiguously condemned. It is hard to fathom. Alongside friends from many communities, I go about my daily work in a state of disorientation. How did we come to this? How did it happen so quickly? Where will it end?

Yet there is also light. There always is. Even amidst the awful events of Charlottesville a week an a half ago, there were people who lent their support to the Jewish community there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with security guards to protect the synagogue and praying alongside members of the shul. And here in Boston, over this weekend just past, we saw an astounding turnout – more counter-protest than protest – that turned back the forces of white supremacy. Their so-called free speech rally, a thinly-veiled show of white supremacist force, withered in the daylight, as tens of thousands peacefully demonstrated their commitment to diversity, acceptance, and kindness.

The partial eclipse we will see in Boston is the very picture of how our city refracts the national mood. The darkness is still there, but more than a little light will peek out. Though day feels like it is becoming night, the transformation will not be complete. We know that the white supremacist movement is out there, and that they think the guy in the White House is their guy, but those who would defend civil rights, women’s rights, human rights are still here, still fighting, and still determined not to see the nation fall prey to dark forces.

That tonight is Rosh Chodesh Elul merely sweetens the metaphor. In Elul, we turn inward and prepare ourselves for the refiner’s fire of the chaggim. Elul is a month of soul-searching, of peeling away the layers of excesses and irrelevancies to see what we are made of and what matters to us. What a perfect time to be doing so. (It always is!) As we make the transition from one year to the next and engage deeply in t’shuvah, we have the opportunity to examine our own assumptions, our privileges, and the ways in which we can redouble our efforts serve others with more love.

In Jewish tradition, our days begin in darkness. As darkness falls in the middle of the afternoon today – and then dissipates – let us all ask ourselves the urgent questions. What do we want from this new day? What can we do to bring about the change we wish to see in the world? In this moment, the forces of darkness are attempting to crowd out the light. The world needs you (yes, you!) to bring your mightiest effort to dispelling the darkness. Reach out to others in sincerity and humility. Be there for those who are in need, and allow for the possibility of t’shuvah, in yourself and in others.

With each day, this task becomes more urgent. A day like today – a day that starts twice – is the perfect moment to begin.

Finding our Place

I’ve been thinking recently about being lost & being found. Having been to several B’nei Mitzvah lately (you’d think I have a 13-year-old son or something!) I have witnessed over and over again that lovely tradition that maybe you’ve seen so much you’ve forgotten to see it: the way that those gathered around the Torah scrolls help the reader to find his or her place, and the way the reader in turn shows the place to those giving the blessings for the aliyah. It’s a simple thing, but the metaphor is rich. Those who give voice to the teaching – and those who are gathered round to bear witness – they have each other’s backs. Sometimes the person seemingly in the driver’s seat needs someone in the passenger seat to read the map, to point the way, to say, “This is where we are now. You are among friends, and we will not let you be lost.”

The first time I received a call from a congregant whose husband was dying, I heard the pain and fear in her voice: “Naomi, I’m lost. I don’t know what to do. Charles is dying and I don’t know where to start.” I had been to visit with him recently, so I knew that this was not a surprising turn. Still, when it is real, it is real. With all the courage I could muster, I said to her, “I’m lost too. We’ll be lost together.” I spoke with her about calling the funeral home, about aninut and aveilut, about the value of sitting shiva, even though neither she nor her husband thought themselves to be religious. While she did not see herself as worthy of claiming that part of the tradition, I knew that sitting still with her community and allowing them to take care of her would benefit her in ways that she couldn’t imagine.

Sometimes confusion seems to swirl around us, and it is easy to lose our way. What anchors us? What holds us steady in trying times? For me, the answer is – always – community. When I am overwhelmed, or when I have more sadness than I know what to do with, nothing brings my life back into perspective like time spent in community, a call from a friend, or even just a thumbs-up on Facebook.

We read in Psalms: “Essa einai el he-Harim, I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where will I find help?”

For me, the help that comes from the people around me is the help that comes from Adonai. My community is G-d’s hands and feet, as I hope to be for others who are in need. Sometimes you’re the one holding fast to the scroll with sure knowledge of your place, and sometimes you’re the one whose eyes search and search. Knowing that we each have the capacity for both roles strengthens us to fulfill them. Go and learn it.

Interesting times

This week has been interesting. Chinese-curse interesting. Like the curse says, we are living in interesting times, and the events of this week leave me wracked and raw. It isn’t only that my candidate didn’t win – although that hurts – it’s that the meanness that this  campaign season has brought out seems to have no bottom.

Election campaigns are always negative and divisive: the very nature of the enterprise brings out the most competitive instincts in all of us. Candidates are typically people with strong personalities and deeply-held opinions, and the closer they get to the finish line, the more ruthless they become. That’s ugly but normal. At the same time, it is usually the case that once the race has been won and lost, there is a sort of reset button. People stop insulting each other and, at least for a time, they speak of reconciliation, unity, and patriotism. The loser concedes the race and encourages his or her followers to support the new president. We lick our wounds and move on with our lives.

This time it seems different. The level of nastiness and name-calling has not abated, and despite both President-elect Trump’s and Secretary Clinton’s calls for unity, quite the opposite is playing out. The day after the election, which just happened to be the anniversary of Kristallnacht, shop windows were broken and swastikas spray-painted alongside Trump’s name in Philadelphia. In sleepy old Wellesley, some frat boys sped around waving a confederate flag and intimidating folks. Even the banter on Facebook has been just mean. From friends I’ve known a long time, whose politics differ from mine, I’ve witnessed racist slurs and been baited and teased. Although not everyone has acted this way, many have chosen to, “go low.” The loss is more than an office.

I keep hearing people whose politics are like mine saying that we live in a bubble. It’s easy to think – whether you’re in Newton or Ann Arbor or meeting in the ether – that everyone in this country sees things as you do. This week has taught me how wrong and dangerous it is to be lulled into that notion. This great fractious nation is teeming with opinions and feelings and fears. The way others see the world is as real to them as the way I see it is real to me. I share none of the principles that the most vocal Trump supporters are espousing, but I must acknowledge their humanity and attempt to see others as deserving of basic rights…just as I wish that they would see “the other” as themselves.

What to do about it? I wish I had a five-point plan. All I have is a general notion that we – all of us – need to overpower the hatred with kindness. We need to take the social risks, talk to strangers, smile at people who scare us, go where we don’t belong, defend those who are being intimidated or persecuted. We need to break the bubble before it breaks us.

Today is Veteran’s Day. We know the consequences of allowing disagreements to escalate into violence. We must make different choices. We have some terrible healing to do, and the work waits.


After this morning’s Rosh Hashanah service, at which I was both staff in charge and Torah chanter, I came home to have lunch with two grown-up boys. They’d started the cooking while I was out, and the three of us easily and naturally teamed up together to prepare the table and serve each other the food.

We set out on an errand walk after that – to the library and the grocery and then back home. With Little still little enough to hold my hand, it felt almost like being a stay-at-home mother again. There were multiple conversational threads, interruptions, silly jokes, singing – all perfected by the golden autumn sunlight.

There is a text we sing each week that never fails to catch in my throat: chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Though it is typically translated as, “renew our days as of old,” a dear friend taught this paradoxical line to me as, “Renew our days; make them like before.”

At this time of year, we hear that text more frequently and more insistently, as we contemplate what it means to start another year. We want more days, more time, yet it is hard to let go of the time already past. We want it new, but not too new, not at the expense of the sweet bits we already miss.

So when my afternoon turned unexpectedly into an autumn-lit walk with my two best people — those adorable, agonizing people who need me but don’t — it was truly a gift, a thick slice of heaven. As we made our way home, they decided to break away and race me home: them through the woods and me through the neighborhood. I gave them the backpack containing my phone and keys, and waved as they skipped ahead, chasing each other and giggling, a spontaneous Brother Party in the making.

I turned the corner and when I did, I saw a woman walking with two young boys: a toddler and a preschooler. They held hands, skipped, tumbled, laughed — and I saw in the glinting sunlight an echo of the old days, those days which can never be fully renewed and yet which sometimes brush against my cheek like a beloved ghost.


I’m scheduled to read Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at the synagogue where I work. My aliyah is the very first one in the Torah, from B’reishit, detailing the first day of this world. It is the very essence of Rosh Hashanah, which some people call the birthday of the world. In these five short verses, the world begins the journey from chaos to order. (I’m not quite sure where or whether that journey culminates.) Separations are made, categories are drawn, things begin to be put in their proper places. Earth and sky get organized, and the lights go on. From the jumble of undifferentiated time comes evening and morning, a first day.

It is curious to me that for all the separation and categorization of this aliyah, it concludes, like the Sh’ma, with the word echad (one). There is a constant tension in Jewish thought, with separation and unity dancing around each other. We make a point of separating meat from milk, Shabbat from weekdays, the holy from the everyday. And yet we pray three times a day a reminder that there is one G-d, that our most important thought is the unity of the force that animates us.

Life, as always, is very full. As I work through the planning for the chaggim, I am making list upon list, categorizing and recategorizing. Sometimes when my mind gets overwhelmed with details, I’ll take a blank piece of paper and take all the scrambling thoughts and put them into categories. And when the scraps and notes on my desk pile up and threaten to choke the life out of me, I stack them all up into one big pile and make a fresh list, taking the gleanings from each scrap and giving them a fresh start on a new piece of paper. The feeling of knowing the landscape helps me know where to step first. Like G-d on that very first day, I separate the to-do from the done, and I survey it. Sometimes I can even say that it is good.

When chaos reigns, we cannot tell which end is up, just as on that first day of creation neither heaven nor earth was plain to see. Separating things into useful categories helps us see the spaces between – and that’s where the light is.

Yet when we look at the Sh’ma, we see that all the categories, all the days, all the meats and milks, the evenings and the mornings – all the things, as the young people now like to say – add up to the same thing. The One who created all the categories is somehow immune from category. For myself, the categorization creates the necessary breathing space so that I can feel the unity more clearly. The two seem to lean on each other in an interesting and paradoxical way. I don’t know what to make of this dance between separation and unity, and it pleases me to think that perhaps G-d needs both and values both.

As the new year comes barreling toward us, I wish us all the perspective to see the categories and the unity that underlies them. L’shanah tovah!