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Rabbi Rant: There’s a Jewish Holiday This Week

rabbi rant

This Saturday night is Tisha B’Av, a holiday that is less familiar to many American Jews. On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the major Jewish calamities that happened on this day, most significantly the destruction of the two Temples. The loss of our “religious home” was coupled with the loss of our actual homes. As we read in Lamentations 5:2, “Our heritage has passed to aliens, our homes to strangers.” Tisha B’Av, then, is also a time to think about being away from the places, people and feelings we associate with home.

I recently got back from a three-week vacation to Tanzania, so, naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about traveling and being away from home. The Sfat Emet, a late-19th-century chassidic rabbi in Poland, says that humans are called “travelers” because we “need to always travel from one level to the next level.” Journeys, he says, disrupt our sense of rest and complacency, compelling us to grow.

I don’t take many vacations, certainly not for three weeks at a time, so this past month, I decided it was time to push myself to travel. It was certainly a disruption from my comfortable life here – I climbed Kilimanjaro, “safari-ed” in the Serengeti, and explored Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar. These experiences helped me grow in powerful ways that I’m still processing and trying to understand.

kilamajor

But being “on the go” doesn’t necessarily lead to growth. Traveling can easily become aimless wandering. That’s why, according to the Sfat Emet, we need to balance our “journeys” with our “encampments,” just like the ancient Israelites in the desert. Life is about vacillating between states of rest and restlessness.

Each of us tends to prefer one state over the other. Some yearn to wander, associating it with freedom, the opposite of being “tied down.” Others yearn to feel more grounded, associating wandering with God’s curse to Cain after he kills his brother – “You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Genesis 4:12). This may be a grass-is-greener situation – those who seek to wander often feel stuck, and those who seek to set down roots often feel lost. But I think all of us have both voices within ourselves.

Perhaps, then, Tisha B’Av is a day to confront the downsides of journeying and to make a little space for the part of ourselves that longs for a greater sense of home.

Even Cain, cursed to ceaselessly wander, ultimately settles down, in the land of Nod. Rashi, the famous French commentator on the Torah, explains the apparent contradiction: “Nod is a city of wandering exiles.”

DC can sometimes feel like Nod – a transient city full of wanderers and world travelers. We push off getting our DC license or registering to vote in DC, telling ourselves we’ll only be here for a year or two. We live here, but it’s not home.

Although we may not permanently settle in DC, our lives don’t need to be completely unsettled. Tisha B’Av can be an opportunity to ask ourselves:

  • How can we incorporate more of a sense of stability into our lives?
  • Where have we avoided making commitments, fooling ourselves into thinking we can be just as invested without that commitment?
  • How can we feel more at home, not just in DC but within ourselves?

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning.  There is sadness and pain in confronting the ways we’ve wandered too much or too far. But Yom Kippur is just two months away, calling us to return to ourselves, to return home.

camping

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: The Age of Redemption

 

This past Saturday, I joined well over half a million other people in DC at the March for Our Lives rally against the gun violence epidemic in this country. What made this rally especially powerful was the prominence of voices from those who are under 18 years old. There was a hopeful sense that the change we desperately need will come from the leadership of this younger generation.

It’s fitting that Passover, a holiday especially oriented towards the youth, is just a few days away. The obligation to retell the story of our exodus from Egypt is framed in the Torah as a response to the questions of children. Just before the Israelites are about to be redeemed, Moses repeats – three times – the commandment to teach this story to our future children.

Why the focus on children? Cynics will offer answers like, “because children are easier to brainwash” or “because the story is fundamentally juvenile.” Pragmatists will say this is the best way to preserve the narrative.

I’d like to suggest a different answer, one rooted in the major theme of Passover: redemption.

The word redemption has a lot of religious connotations, but it can also be used to simply describe an improved state of being. This can occur through miraculous means, like the one we read about at the seder involving hail, locusts, splitting seas, etc. But it can also happen through the hard work of applied idealism.

This hard work starts with the ability to imagine a future that is different than the present. The older one gets, the harder it is to do. Perhaps this is why God made the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years before entering the promised land. To build a new society that was not rooted in oppression, God needed to wait for the older generation that was born into slavery to die off (Numbers 14:31-34).

Perhaps this is also why Moses highlights the questions of future children at the moment of exodus. As we read in the Haggadah: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt.Every generation must go through an exodus – a paradigm-shifting change. That change begins by listening to the questions of the children.

For those of us who don’t have children, there is still a relevant message here. Youthfulness doesn’t reflect an age but a mindset. Each of us must leave our own personal “Egypt,” our own confining place (the Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means confining place). To see the way out, we first have to rediscover our childlike wonder and imagination. That redemptive journey starts with a question: “Is there another way?

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: 5 Ways to Celebrate Tu B’Shvat!

Fun fact: Today is the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat (literally – the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat), the new year for the trees. In terms of popularity, Tu b’Shvat is a bit of a “late-bloomer.” While today it has become a type of Jewish Arbor Day / Earth Day, it’s never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, and originally its main purpose was for determining when fruits in ancient Israel were tithed.

Although most Jewish holidays are rooted in the agricultural cycles of Israel, Tu b’Shvat feels especially connected to the land of Israel and thus, especially disconnected from our lives in DC. After all, look outside – there are no trees blooming. *womp* (Meanwhile, right now in Israel the almond trees are the first trees to begin blooming.)

This makes Tu b’Shvat the perfect lens through which to address the question: how do we connect to a religion that originated in a different place and a different time?

I’d like to suggest five different ways to celebrate Tu b’Shvat that can also serve as five different ways of thinking about Diasporic Judaism more broadly.

Connect to the land of Israel. Long-distance relationships are never fun, but Tu b’Shvat could be a yearly opportunity to reconnect with the land of Israel. This could be accomplished by looking through photographs of hikes from your Birthright Israel trip, eating a few of the seven species to remind you of Israeli produce, or donating to an Israeli environmental group.

Throw a party. For many cultural Jews, Jewish holidays are a great excuse to get together with friends and family. Hanukkah was almost 2 months ago, and Purim isn’t for another month… Tu b’Shvat may not be the holiday you know anything about, but it’s the holiday you need. So, go gather your favorite people together, eat some fruit, drink some fruity beverages, and play “Apples to Apples” – that should hold you over for a month.

Learn about, and act on, Jewish environmental values. There are many great online resources for you to explore. If you’re doing it right, that should inspire you to act – as the Talmud says: “study is great because it leads to action.” (BT Kiddushin 40b)

Host (or participate in) a Tu b’Shvat Seder. As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes in his book The Jewish Holidays:For [the Kabbalists], trees were a symbol of humans, as it says, “for man is like the tree of the field.” (Deut. 20:19) In line with their general concern for Tikkun Olam – spiritually repairing the world – the Kabbalists regarded eating a variety of fruits on Tu B’Shvat as a way of improving our spiritual selves. To encourage this flow and to effect Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), the Kabbalists of Sfat (16th century) created a Tu B’shvat seder loosely modeled after the Passover Seder.” There are guides online that you can follow, or, like the Kabbalists of 500 years ago, you can make up your own ritual to help us feel spiritually connected to the earth.

Make the cherry blossom festival your “American” Tu b’Shvat. Unlike most cities, DC is actually pretty attuned to its blossoming trees. Instead of seeing this festival as simply a DC activity, make it a Jewish experience. There are many ways to do this. One easy way is to make a blessing on the tree. There are several examples in the Talmud for blessings over trees and/or beautiful sights. My favorite is short but sweet: “May it be God’s will that all the trees planted from your seeds should be like you.” (BT Taanit 5b)

 

Judaism is compared to a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). It’s not always easy to find relevance in a tradition that is over 2000 years old. But we are deeply connected – physically and spiritually – to our environment. A holiday that reminds us to mindful of this relationship feels just as necessary today as ever.

 

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

 

Rabbi Rant: The Struggle Is-real

As the great poet Kanye West once pondered: “And the weather so breezy; man, why can’t life always be this easy?”

Life is hard, and it seems to get harder the older we get. Like all great minds, Yeezy simply gives expression to our deepest desires.

It’s no wonder, then, that some people have often turned to religion looking for reassurance, the ability to transcend our daily struggles, the comfort of knowing we are doing the right thing, or the guarantee that it will all work out in the end (if not for everyone, then at least for us).

Don’t believe this is how people actually relate to religion? Ask your rabbis (or other clergy) what happened to their attendance in services after the election last year. (Not that numbers matter all that much… they clearly didn’t for the election.) This “religious” drive is why Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people” – many people relate to it as a calm-inducing drug.

The Torah offers a very different understanding of what it means to be religious, and to be human. In the very first sentence of this week’s Torah reading, we read: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1). Nothing all that remarkable.

Yet the rabbis read into the word “settled” a deeper longing for tranquility. Jacob has had a difficult life; in his old age, he justifiably wants some peace and quiet. In direct response, God disrupts his life once again through the ensuing drama of his son Joseph (whose brothers sell him into slavery while convincing his father he was killed by wild beasts).

As the biblical commentator Rashi explains: “[When] the righteous seek to dwell in tranquility – God says: ‘Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in tranquility in this world?’”

Life isn’t supposed to be easy – you can rest peacefully when you’re dead.

Instead of encouraging retreat from challenge, Judaism pushes us toward it. The tough moments in life are the moments where we grow the most.

Almost 2000 years before it became a workout slogan, Rabbi Ben Hei Hei said: “According to the pain is the gain.”

It’s ironic that Jacob wanted to settle down, because his name was changed to Israel (which means, “to wrestle with God”) after wrestling with a man/angel just a few chapters earlier. Yet he still retains the name Jacob, which means “heel” and alludes to his tendency to run away, perhaps reminding us that we can never fully overcome our urge to avoid the harder moments.

This is why we need Judaism. Not to provide the easy answers, but to ask the hard questions.

We are called the children of Israel. To live up to our namesake, we must constantly choose to wrestle, instead of escape. It’s the critical first step in improving ourselves and the world around us.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant – Proud, Jewish and Disconnected? Beyond the Tent Might be the Answer

You don’t have to look very hard to find an excuse for not wanting to connect Jewishly.

Many of us can find one by simply thinking back to childhood:

-You hated Hebrew school.
-Synagogue was boring.
-Your Hillel was too religious.
-A rabbi once said something offensive or hurtful.
-Being Jewish made you feel like an outsider at school.
-You or your family were judged or even alienated for “how” Jewish you were or weren’t.

Others of us may gravitate toward present-day excuses:

-You feel you don’t have enough Jewish knowledge to engage.
-You didn’t have the same experiences that every other Jew seems to have had.
-Your beliefs and values seem incompatible with the Jewish community.
-You’re worried about Judaism eclipsing other important pieces of your identity.
-Jewish programs seem overly focused on helping you find a partner.
-It feels like everyone already knows each other.

These (and there are many more) are all legitimate reasons to leave your Jewish identity unexplored, and I’m sure most people reading this will find one or more of these reasons resonates.

Yet, an overwhelming percentage of American Jews (94%) are proud to be Jewish.

And herein lies the paradox of 21st century American Jewry – we’re proud of something that we feel disconnected from and haven’t taken the time to seriously explore.

It’s not that we’re not open to exploring our Judaism or feeling more connected to it. It’s just that we have so many paths out and so few paths in.

This is why GatherDC created the Beyond the Tent Retreat – to present a few alternative paths into Jewish life that are compelling and meaningful for us today. This retreat won’t erase your Jewish baggage or resolve all the problems with the Jewish community. But it will validate your experience and allow you and other like-minded Jewish 20s and 30s in DC to take ownership over your Jewish identity.

It’s not hard to find the type of Judaism that doesn’t work for you. Why not spend a little time searching for a type of Judaism that does?

Our upcoming retreat is July 21-23, so if you’re interested and available, you should apply today! Early applications close on Friday, May 26.

 

Rabbi Rant: The Real Lesson in “S-Town”

If you haven’t listened to the S-Town podcast yet, you should.

Not only because everybody else is doing it (though that does seem to be the case – it’s the fastest podcast to ever reach 15 million downloads or streams on Apple Podcasts).

And not necessarily because it’s the greatest podcast of all time. (I think it’s a great piece of storytelling through journalism, but it’s neither revolutionary nor profound.)

Its beauty stems from the simplicity of its aim – to get to know someone else as best as possible, without judgment.

This endeavor is perhaps best encapsulated in a short dialogue between Brian Reed, the host and journalist, and a man named Tyler.

Tyler: Do you see me being a bad person?
Brian: Do I?
Tyler: Yeah.
Brian: No man, I see you as a complicated, normal person, you know?
Tyler: Yeah.
Brian: I mean, I, I disagree with some of your decisions, but you also, you’ve had a very different life experience than I’ve had.

This attitude, of openness to others’ unique stories, is the key to good journalism.

It’s also one that Jewish sages encourage and that more of us should embrace.

By prioritizing curiosity over judgment, we can let go of both the illusion that we understand each other and also the need to force each other into our ideological boxes.

Perhaps this is why the rabbis of the Talmud offer a surprising blessing for one who sees a large congregation of Jews:

Blessed are you God Who knows all secrets. [Why this blessing? Because] their minds are unlike each other and their faces are unlike each other (BT Brachot 58a).

When confronted with differences, our tendency is to try to focus on similarities. This blessing reminds us to lean into our differences. We may all be in the same place, but we’ve all taken a different path to get there. Remembering this, paradoxically, may be the only way to keep us together.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Soul(less) Cycle

rabbi-rant-bannerI hate to be the one to say it, but spinning is not a spiritual act.

Feeling healthy, releasing endorphins, pushing yourself to the limits… all great things. It’s important to exercise and to feel good about your body, which Hillel the Elder says is made in the image of God (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3).

But co-opting the word “soul” distracts from the fact that SoulCycle and other places like it are fundamentally focused on the physical body. Without explicit checks and balances in place, I believe that focus can lead to the opposite of spirituality: an approach to life that is concerned only with what can be seen and measured.

Certainly, a person can access spirituality through physical means. In fact, a spirituality divorced from physicality is equally as problematic as physicality trying to pass itself off as spirituality. Connecting spiritually does not require magical chants or escaping to foreign lands. Jewish spirituality, according to the Torah, is grounded in our present reality and accessible in our day-to-day lives. “It is not in the heavens… nor is it beyond the sea…” (Deuteronomy 30:12-13).

Spirituality happens in the intersection between body and soul. It connects the physical to that which lies beyond the physical. Some might call that God. Others might call that our inner conscience. And others might call that the unknown mystery of the universe.

Whatever it is, it’s really hard to connect to. And without an intentional practice, hard work and constant vigilance, that connection to beyond the physical can easily be broken.

It’s definitely nothing like riding a bike.

Do you do find spirituality in spinning and want to counter-rant? Let me know in the comments…

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Community Gone Missing

community

The line I hear most when getting coffee with Jewish 20s and 30s around the city is: “I want to get more involved in the Jewish community.”

Let’s set aside, for now, the disquieting reality that “the Jewish community” doesn’t exist. Our organization’s name, Gather the Jews, might fuel this misconception by implying that there is a central place where ALL the Jews gather – spoiler alert: there isn’t. (If you’re interested in reading more about a variety of issues related to “the Jewish community,” check out the most recent issue of Sh’ma Now, for which I wrote the introductory essay.) And let’s also shelve the questions of what “getting involved” in a Jewish community looks like and why that is so important to Jews.

Before we can have those important conversations, we first need to address a more basic issue that is not unique to being Jewish: We have lost the concept of community. So what is a community? I’ve heard the word used to describe people at a concert, a yoga class, a local coffee shop, and fellow commuters on the Metro. When it is used to describe any gathering of people, it loses its meaning and we lose the aspiration to belong to one.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker elder and activist, recently shared: “I went to Washington, D.C. and became a community organizer working on issues of racial justice. Five years later, I realized that I was trying to lead people towards something that I had never really experienced for myself, namely community.”

What components are critical to help create an authentic community? I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts, but here are four criteria of mine:

1) A community is more than a feeling – you need to actually communicate with each other, learn about each other holistically, and know what is going on in each others’ lives. That you recognize the same 15 people at your spin class each week is not enough.

2) A community is not limited to a particular time. Of course communities can dissolve, but they don’t form instantly and shouldn’t have a pre-set expiration date. Something that happens once or twice – like High Holiday services – constitutes only an isolated experience or program and is not the basis for an ongoing community.

3) A community is also not limited to a particular place. There needs to be a way for people within the community to encounter each other regularly, and a particular location can help facilitate that. But a community cannot be defined by any one place. Sorry, Birthright bus, but if you don’t stay connected after returning to the States, then that community has ceased to exist.

4) A community is more than a group of friends – it brings people together for a larger purpose. That purpose can be artistic, political, or intellectual (to name a few) but it must be more than social.

Few of us, if any, have experienced a community that meets all of these criteria. These types of communities are hard to find and difficult to build. But our tendency to put the label community on any gathering of people might reflect a desire to belong to something deeper. And acknowledging this need might provide us with the motivation to start exploring ways to fulfill it.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.