Holidays in Nissan-Iyyar, 5/3/24

In addition to the ongoing Sefirat HaOmer (counting of the Omer), May (Nissan-Iyyar) is a period with several important contemporary Jewish holidays. Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is on the 27th of Nissan, this coming Sunday, May 5 at sundown through Monday at sundown.  One week later, on Iyyar 4 (this year it’ll be on Iyyar 5, Sunday May 12, as Shabbat trumps all other holidays), Israelis observe Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims. The very next day, Israelis celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day.

Starting my first year after returning to Israel in 2009, I attended the Joint Memorial (Israeli and Palestinian) organized by Combatants for Peace and the Bereaved Families Forum, in Tel Aviv.  One year, when West Bank Palestinians were not allowed into Israel for this ceremony, I watched it in a crowded hall in Beit Jala  – a Palestinian town between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  Since the pandemic, I have been watching it via livestream, which I intend to do again this year.  Please read the info about the Joint Memorial near the bottom of this newsletter, register and tune in on May 12 at 1:30 EDT.  Or simply register here. (You can also watch past ceremonies on youtube.)

It’s surreal to be in Israel on the eve of Yom Ha’atzmaut, as the heavy, somber mood of the previous 25 hours tapers off and everyone starts celebrating. It always feels very unnatural to go from mourning, especially in a country where for so many, the mourning is fresh and personal – to festivities. It will be even harder for everyone this year.

I remember joyfully and proudly celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in 1979 (my first visit to Israel). In my recent 12 years there, I observed those days differently.  In 2010 and 2011 I wandered the city, from Israeli folk dancing in one square to loud pop music at other squares. Jerusalem was a sea of people with balloons and little plastic hammers bopping one another on the head. It seemed inane to me, as well as way too loud. I couldn’t get into the mood.

In 2012 I started going to an alternative Yom Ha’atzmaut event in Jerusalem, a torch lighting honoring peace and justice activists. In 2014, I was invited to a “Nakba-Atzma’ut” weekend in Nazareth, organized by an independent group of Israelis and Palestinians (not an NGO).  Understandably, very few Palestinians want to be with Jewish Israelis on this day, so we were about 85% Israelis with a few Palestinian friends, most of whom were also presenters and facilitators. The next few years we met at Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), the joint Jewish-Palestinian village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Then at Eilabun, a Palestinian village in the Galilee.  Three years ago we met at the ruins of a village in the Jezreel Valley, the population of which was absorbed into Uhm El Fahm, a city of about 60,000 Palestinians. For me, this was a meaningful way to observe Yom Ha’atzmaut – acknowledging the impact of our Independence on the majority of the residents of the Land in 1948, and the legacy of the Nakba.

Visiting the ruins of a Palestinian village
near Uhm El Fahm (not far from Haifa)
at the annual Nakba-Atzmaut gathering.

I feel it’s important to clarify that I chose to do this every Yom Ha’atzma’ut, knowing that none of the Israelis grappling with the Nakba at those observances thought that Israel had no right to exist as a Jewish State with equal human and civil rights for all of its citizens, which was the original intention as expressed in its Declaration of Independence. Perhaps some of us would be equally happy with an official binational state. I am certain that none of the Jews at those Nakba-Atzma’ut gatherings would have picked up and left the country with the idea that it should all be returned to the descendants of the Palestinians who fled in 1948.

One essential paragraph in Israel’s Declaration of Independence says:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Unfortunately, much needs to be changed in Israel to fulfill the above intention.  And of course, after 1967, the rights and lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been eroded and destroyed, the present period being the worst in Israel’s 76 year history.

And still, I am very grateful for all of my years in that Land, and for all of my ongoing friendships with people on both sides of the Green Line.

Israel has brought a lot of good not only to the Jewish People but to the world.  Unfortunately, right now, all of Israel’s positive contributions are darkly overshadowed by the destruction of Gaza and the intensified restrictions on West Bank Palestinians, and the marauding by Extremists in the West Bank under the cover of this war.

I pray for the light and love of Israel to shine brightly, together with the light and love of Palestine.

Rabbi Amita

רב אמיתה

This Seder is Different from All other Seders, 4/19/24

Every year, before every Holiday (and for that matter, every Torah portion) my inbox is filled with creative commentary and innovative suggestions for how to approach the Torah reading or holiday.

In the past 6 months, the volume of new material has increased exponentially. In the weeks and days leading up to Pesach, I have received dozens of emails about how to approach the Seder from a variety of perspectives. As I wrote last week, we will be using a combination of the J-Street haggadah from 2020, and Bayit’s brand-new “This Broken Matzah.” BAJC member Patti Frankel just sent me a link to an excellent new Haggadah supplement from the Hartman Institute, which, had I seen it a week ago, I might be able to integrate into what I have already planned together with BAJC member Marsha Stern. If curious, you may download it at https://www.hartman.org.il/program/in-every-generation/#66c4723

I know and deeply respect several of the contributors personally.

I invite you to listen to Hadar’s beautiful version of Min HaMeitzar (from the Narrow Place), Psalm 118:5-6. This is part of Hallel, sung at the Seders and on every day of Pesach as well as most other Holidays https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMe4-ggSkdY

At the 2nd Seder we begin the exciting practice of Sefirat HaOmer.

Sefirat HaOmer is not merely counting – although counting in itself can be worthwhile – the awareness of each day/step of the journey between Pesach and Shavuot, Egypt and Mt Sinai, Redemption and Revelation.  This is a Kabbalistic practice of contemplating divine emanations.  Put simply, in this 49 day period we explore different qualities within ourselves and how they interact.

The first week is the week of Chesed (lovingkindness), the 2nd week is the week of Gevurah (discipline, boundaries), etc.  So for example, day 8 (the 1st day of week 2) is the day of Chesed within Gevurah – i.e.  the quality of lovingkindness within the quality of discipline.  As one Omer Counter (by Simon Jacobson) suggests, on day 1 of week 2, we might ask ourselves: “When I judge and criticize another, is it in any way tinged with any of my own contempt and irritation? Is there any hidden satisfaction in his failure? Or is it only out of love for the other?”

There are many Omer counters with meditations for each night. Here’s Simon Jacobson’s free online Omer counter on the Chabad website: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/130631/jewish/Sefirat-HaOmer.htm

For anyone who sees “Chabad” and shuts down, I hope you will reconsider your judgment. Although you (and I) may differ with Chabad’s social, political and religious perspectives, there is much to learn from Chabad spiritually/psychologically.

If you prefer to look elsewhere, there are MANY Omer guides you can purchase, and I suggest doing so today, before we begin counting next Tuesday night. Some recommendations:

The newest one I know of is Benji Elson’s Dance of the Omer, 2021, fascinating with an overwhelming amount of information, involving water – stream, ocean, clouds… https://www.amazon.com/Dance-Omer-Step-Step-Transformational/dp/965929171X

Yael Levy’s Journey through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer is short and sweet.

Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide, by Min Kantrowitz provides a practice for each of the “4 worlds” for each evening: action, feeling, wisdom, spirit.

Those three (+ Rav Simon Jacobson’s paperback) are the ones that I own and have used, as well as my very first Omer Counter, purchased 35 years ago, which I think is no longer in print:  49 Gates of Light by Rabbi Yonassan Gershom. (Andi Waisman still uses it).  I just found Y. Gershom’s blog here, Notes from a Jewish Thoreau: http://rooster613.blogspot.com/2014/04/since-my-old-website-went-down-people.html

Shabbat Shalom, with Blessings for a Meaningful, hopeful Pesach, wherever you will be for the Seder/s. 

Rabbi Amita רב אמיתה

On the subject of Hope, I invite you to watch, listen, FEEL this 15-minute April 17 TED talk with Aziz Abu Sarah and Maoz Inon:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0juLRi90kRg

And in the spirit of one of Passover’s central messages, “All who are Hungry Come and Eat,” consider donating to World Central Kitchen and/or the International Rescue Committee either directly or via the New Israel Fund here .

 

THIS BROKEN MATZAH, 4/10/24

As I wrote last week, we will be addressing Israel-Palestine in this year’s seder.

The main Haggadah we will use will be the J-street Haggadah from 4 years ago.

Our world – and especially the world for the people in Israel-Palestine – has changed radically since then. However, the questions posed in this 2020 Haggadah remain relevant.  The seder is a night of questions, and Judaism in general is a religion and culture of questioning.  Our seder is a space for questions, contemplation and discussion, not for arguing.

One person wrote to me that he felt it was strange for Jews to be indulging in such opulence at the seder meal while famine ravages tens of thousands of Palestinians.

I am sure he is not the only one with such qualms. If you would like to participate in the seder and feel this way,  you are welcome to register and pay $10 to cover matzah, maror, karpas, grape juice, rent and security.  I am sincere in this invitation.

Another person said she felt like using drops of her own blood instead of wine to represent the plagues.  You are welcome to bring a sterile needle and do this. (Again, I am not being facetious).

Today I saw another new Haggadah from Bayit’s Liturgical Arts Working Group, called * This Broken Matzah, featuring work by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, Joanne Fink, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, Steve Silbert, and R. David Zaslow. They write:

“How do we celebrate Pesach in a year like this one? Everything about the seder lands differently after the last six months. This offering emerges out of our grief and our hope. No two pieces are coming from exactly the same place. There are so many emotions — even within a single heart, much less around any given seder table. We hope these prayers, poems, and works of art will help you make this Pesach what you need it to be.”

We will integrate parts of that Haggadah into the J-Street one.

One piece of the 2nd night seder that does not occur at the first night seder is Sefirat HaOmer – Counting the Omer.  This is a meaningful contemplative practice that begins on the 2nd night of Pesach and leads us to Shavuot, 50 nights later.  I will be including some teaching about Sefirat HaOmer in next week’s Intro to Jewish Prayer class on Friday, April 19 from 4:30-6:00 pm.  Come at 5:15 to learn about this practice if you are interested, whether or not you are interested in Jewish Prayer.

A DARK, HEAVY CLOUD, 4/4/24

A dark, heavy cloud has been hanging over all of us for nearly 6 months. From the moment I wake up each morning and say “Modah Ani L’fanecha” (bowing to the left giving thanks for the past, to the right giving thanks for the future, and to the center giving thanks for this moment), I feel this heaviness.  I do feel thankful for my past – individual and collective, and I open with gratitude to whatever blessings and opportunities the future will bring for me and for us.  I feel thankful to wake up healthy in a warm house, knowing there is plenty of food, clean water, beautiful nature, love and safety here and now.  And I also feel heaviness, fear for our collective future – both in Israel-Palestine and globally, and grief, shock, anger, shame, horror.

I find some solace in Jewish ritual, prayer, learning, culture and community, especially Shabbat.

April is a full month at the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community – Shir Heharim.  Tomorrow we have another Kabbalat Shabbat with dinner and “TED” talks – the 5th such evening since February 2023.  I feel that these “TED” talks dinners are one of the two most successful, community-building programs I have introduced at BAJC, the other being the Yalla Chaverim Family Education program.  If you have not been to a “TED” talks evening, please join us and see/hear/feel for yourself.  RSVPs by 12:30 tomorrow – when I will shop at Trader Joe’s – would be appreciated but are not required. There will be enough food.

Next Saturday evening, April 13, Stephanie Abrams has organized a Vaudeville evening with the same acts that were planned for the Purim Palooza that had to be canceled. The Vermont Jazz Center is available (thanks to Eugene Uman) and the Butterfly Swing Band is also available, so we can enjoy most of what we missed on Purim, minus the spiel and the hamantaschen.

And then comes Pesach. I have been wrestling with what to do at our community seder this year.  I see no way to approach this holiday with integrity today without relating to the situation in Israel-Palestine.

Similar questions arise to those that arose at Purim.  Who is the Pharaoh?  What is Mitzrayim? (Mitzrayim = Egypt, aka the narrow place, and even more apropos –– and also a literal translation of מצריים  –– the double bind).  Who are the Israelites?  What is the meaning of Dayenu in this context? What other questions must we ask?  Each symbol and each of the 15 steps of the Seder can be related to Israel-Palestine. This is not new.  At least 25 years ago I acquired and used a haggadah that I think was called the Seder of the Children of Abraham, i.e. Muslims and Jews, and more specifically, Palestinians and Jews.  (I tried unsuccessfully to find it online now).

This year, the presence of this conflict and the troubling questions that accompany it are more pressing than ever before.  At first I thought I would address this in the beginning of the evening – acknowledge the huge elephant in the room, dedicate some time to presencing our feelings about it, and move on.  Move on because we also need a break from this dark cloud.  It’s nourishing and grounding to be together as Jews, to retell our collective story, to sing some familiar songs and eat our traditional Passover foods.  There are so many meaningful ways to approach this holiday.  Personal psycho-spiritual liberation is always relevant, whatever the political situation.  I am planning seder content with Marsha Stern and Rachel Lovins. We have not yet decided exactly what we will do, but contemplating the crisis in Palestine/Israel will certainly be part of our process. Your contributions are welcome and I invite you to email me with your suggestions at  ravamita@bajcvermont.org .

I sincerely hope that everyone will feel welcome and comfortable at this seder, regardless of your feelings and views about this disastrous, reality-shattering war. There will be space for contemplation and discussion, but not for arguing. I do not want to impose a particular perspective on anyone. The seder is a night of questions, and there is never one right answer to any Jewish question.

The new moonth (not a typo) of Nissan begins at sundown this coming Sunday, April 8.  May Nissan be a month of liberation for the hostages and their families, and also a month of liberation for all Palestinian administrative detainees and prisoners who have not been convicted of violent crimes.  May this month be a month of enough food, water and medicine for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, a month of restoration of freedom of movement for West Bank Palestinians, a month of safety and healing for Gazans, a month in which the soldiers come home and the evacuees from the north can safely return home as well, a month of hope and significant movement towards peace in the region, a month of unexpected miracles.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, שבת שלום וחודש טוב

Rabbi Amita  רב אמיתה

Experiencing Our Shared Participation
2/16/24

Tomorrow we read parashat Terumah, the first of 5 portions which will bring us to the end of the book of Exodus. Terumah תרומה means contribution, and is related to the verb “to lift up.”  This portion, and the next four, detail the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary which we carried with us through the Wilderness.Unless you are an architect or a costume designer, these descriptions can be painfully boring. But there is a meaningful message here about the importance of attention to detail when doing something we care about. This week in particular, the central message is that community is created by building something together.The most famous verse is this week’s portion is: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  Exodus 25:8.For generations, commentators have emphasized that G!d did not need us to build a sanctuary for G!d to dwell in, but rather, the collective process of constructing it is what allowed G!d to dwell among us.About 35 years ago, when I participated in the Insight Transformational Seminars, I remember the invitation:

“Participate in your experience, and you will experience your participation.” 

Every single one of you has something unique and valuable to contribute from your heart to this community. Regardless of whether you are currently in a place where you feel called or able to serve on the Board or a committee, your participation matters.

Simply by showing up – at Shabbat services, meditations, book group, Yalla Chaverim, Tot Shabbat, an Israel-Palestine Listening Circle, Mah Jongg or attending a TEDx talk dinner where fellow BAJC’ers and friends speak about anything they (you) are passionate about – you contribute your life energy to creating and maintaining a Jewish community in Southeastern Vermont.

Another important teaching in this portion is implicit in Exodus 25:22:

“There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two kruvim (cherubs, angels) that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”

G!d/Love/Truth/Wisdom does not reside in any one of us, but in the space between us.

An Eye for an Eye?
2/8/24

Last week, in Parashat Yitro, the Israelites received the 10 Dibrot at Mt Sinai.  Often translated as commandments, Dibrot is better translated as utterances.  In the past few years, I have seen it interpreted as 10 practices, which resonates with me.  We will have another chance to re-experience standing at Sinai and receiving Torah including these 10 practices during Shavuot in June, 50 days after Pesach.

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18, in which 53 more laws are transmitted. Among them, Ex: 21:24: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…”   Jews were disturbed by this verse and this approach to “justice” many centuries before the quote, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” attributed to Ghandi, became popular. Historically, this form of “eye for eye” retribution was apparently never practiced by Jews.

There are many critical rabbinic commentaries on this verse. For example, Saadia Gaon, (c.892 – 942, born in Egypt, immigrated to Israel, and later to Babylonia):

“We cannot interpret this verse according to its plain meaning. For if a man struck his neighbor’s eye and the eye lost a third of its sight, how is it possible to punish the culprit with an equivalent blow, that is, with a blow which is neither greater nor lesser? There is a possibility that the culprit will lose his entire eyesight. Burns, wounds, and strikes present even greater difficulties, for if they were inflicted on a dangerous area it is possible for the culprit to die. The mind cannot accept this.”

My friend, Rabbi Vivie Mayer, wrote:

“In the Jewish rabbinic system built upon Mishpatim, there is an intricate system of understanding responsibility for causing damage. Who is responsible, how fully responsible, and how do you make up for what you have damaged?

The intricacies of these laws (as they are expounded through Midrash and the Talmud) offer a way of understanding the intricacies of the thousands of threads that tie us to each other, reminding us that everything we do matters deeply.

There is a fine line between using a system to teach responsibility or using it (abusing it) to cast blame and push people down. We humans straddle that line all the time in families, organizations, society, and politics. I think the deciding factor as to which side of the line we land on is whether we are standing in a moment of love. In love, the laws have the possibility to actually be mishpatim, i.e. expressions of justice, mishpat.”

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether Israel is acting in accordance with the Torah’s eye for eye teaching today, or the commentaries that tempered it, or some other approach entirely.

Shabbat Shalom v’Chodesh Tov

Blessings for good month — today is the 1st day of the month of Adar I. (It’s a leap year).

 

How Do we Know Where to Go?
1/27/24

This Shabbat we read Parashat B’Shalach, “in [Pharaoh’s) sending,” in which the Israelites finally leave Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, asks the question: how did the mass of Israelite slaves know where to go?  How could Moshe, Aharon and Miriam lead so many people, without smartphones, radio or even megaphones?

Malkah Binah: We knew where to go because, according to the Torah, we were guided by YHVH in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

How do we know which way to go as the Jewish People today?

If only we had such clear Divine guidance!

Without it, we may look to trusted friends or to “experts:” teachers, therapists, political leaders, spiritual leaders.  Some believe they have direct access to the voice of YHVH. And yet, absolute certainty about G!d’s will can also create huge problems between individuals, groups and nations who are absolutely certain that G!d wants something entirely different.

Many of us have been struggling fiercely these months with which way to go vis a vis the war between Israel, Hamas and other entities seeking Israel’s destruction, as we witness the ongoing death, destruction and suffering of > 2 million human beings in Gaza, and a similar number in the West Bank who are being squeezed.  (Very few West Bank Palestinians are allowed to enter Israel to work anymore, and they also cannot travel freely within the West Bank since Oct 7).  We are also in deep distress over the suffering of the Israeli hostages (if they are still alive, please G!d), and their loved ones, and the survivors of the massacre, and the many now mourning their sons and daughters who died trying to deactivate the mines in the tunnels, and the 250,000 Israeli citizens who cannot return to their homes.

Perhaps the most famous midrash about the Crossing of the Sea is that when the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites with their chariots were drowning, the angels wanted to sing, and G!d stopped them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?!’

This Shabbat is also called Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, because of the song that Moshe and Miriam sang, and led us all in singing, after the crossing. (One verse of this passage appears in our liturgy twice each day – Mi Khamocha…)

Why was G!d not angry with the Israelites for singing and rejoicing?

Having just escaped great danger, it was only human that they express their relief and their joy. But the angels were supposed to have a broader perspective.

It’s easier to have this broader perspective from across the globe.  It’s more challenging for people who are in the midst of so much suffering – both Palestinians and Israelis – to have the spaciousness to feel the humanity of those whom they see as the primary or sole cause of their suffering.

I asked a friend in Israel, another rabbinic colleague whom I deeply respect, whether she thinks it’s time for ceasefire. Her response was to quote this teaching, apparently Irish in origin:

“Did you know there’s a prayer called the “I don’t know” prayer? You just go off somewhere quiet and hidden and you walk right up to the heart of God and you say,

“I don’t know.”

I don’t know where to go from here. I don’t know how to process this. I don’t know what to do with these emotions. And then with whatever dusty little grain of faith you have, you say,

“But You know.”

And you leave it there.

G!d most certainly hears that prayer.

Some of us are in action mode now, in one way or another. There is a tremendous sense of urgency in us, and in the world, to stop the bloodshed. Even as we act in whichever ways we feel compelled to act, may we all be humble and stay open to hearing one another’s voices as well as the voice of YHVH.

Hard Heartedness
1/19/24

This week we read Parashat Bo – the 3rd portion in the book of Exodus. The last 3 plagues are brought down on Egypt – locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn.  After the 10th plague, Pharaoh tells Moshe to take all the Israelites and leave.

Throughout this story we are confronted with the disturbing phenomenon of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  In last week’s portion, when YHVH (G!d) tells Moshe what is going to unfold, YHVH says that YHVH will harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to multiply his signs and marvels in the land of Egypt so that everyone, the Israelites and the Egyptians, will know that YHVH is G!d.  Does Pharaoh have any real control here? This raises the timeless, unresolvable question of free will – one that I will not attempt to address here.

In the first plague, blood, Pharaoh’s heart is unmoved, because his own magicians are able to turn water to blood. During each subsequent plague, Pharaoh’s heart softens and he pleads with Moshe to ask YHVH to stop the plague.  He says he will let the Israelites go worship YHVH. But when each plague subsides, he hardens his heart again. The verb forms used in the first 5 plagues indicate that he hardens his own heart.  By the 6th plague, the language changes to YHVH hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

Pharaoh sees, hears and smells the suffering of the Egyptians.  During each new plague he repents and relents.  Each time, his heart grows hard again, until the last blow – the slaying of the first born, including his own son – karma for his earlier decree that all the male Hebrew babies be killed.

One cannot help but apply this story to Israel-Palestine today, where hard hearts prevail in all corners.  Both the Hamas leaders and the current Israeli government can easily be seen as Pharaonic. Jewish tradition recognizes that there were many innocent Egyptians – thus the spilling of the 10 drops of wine from our cups at the seder. Most Israelis today recognize that most Palestinians in Gaza are completely innocent. The suffering and death of millions of innocents on account of poor decisions by stubborn leaders has happened everywhere throughout history.  Sometimes these leaders are megalomaniacs.  Most leaders feel that they are acting in self-defense.  Whether or not it’s legitimate self-defense, they believe that what they are doing is just and necessary for a greater good.

Perhaps a more useful way to engage with this story is to bring attention to the state of our own hearts.  How and when do we harden our hearts?  What supports us in softening?  Are we aware when our hearts are numb?  Do we feel like these states (of our heart and other areas of our bodies) are happening TO us – caused by something outside of us, or do we feel our own agency and responsibility for the condition of our hearts and rest of our bodies?

When Pharaoh’s heart becomes hard, whether by his own doing or by YHVH’s, his resistance is self-destructive. I imagine many of us have experienced the suffering caused by our own resistance. The longer we resist, the more difficult it often becomes to let go, even when a strong inner voice cries out for us to do so.  In this way, each of us is Pharaoh.  May we have compassion for the Pharaoh within, and may that compassion allow our hearts to soften first towards ourselves, and then towards one another.

 

Numbness, Compassion, Burning, Co-Creating the Future
January 5, 2024

On 25 Tevet (January 6) we began the book of Shemot (Exodus).  Exodus begins by listing the names (Shemot = names) of the 12 sons of Israel (aka Jacob) who came down to Egypt.  They and their generation pass.  A new King arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph, i.e. how he saved the population of Egypt during the 7 years of famine.  Afraid that the Israelites will turn against him (no reason given for this fear, other than that they are numerous), the new Pharaoh enslaves them and orders the midwives to kill all the male babies. Shifra and Puah disobey this order.

You may have read this Jan 1 NYT opinion piece: “That Numbness You’re Feeling?  There’s a word for it.” https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/01/opinion/israel-war-empathy-pain.html 

The writer, Adam Grant, suggests that numbness is not only caused by apathy, but also by empathy. “More specifically, it can be the result of what psychologists call empathic distress: hurting for others while feeling unable to help.” … “Although they’re often used interchangeably, empathy and compassion aren’t the same. Empathy absorbs others’ emotions as your own: ‘I’m hurting for you.’ Compassion focuses your action on their emotions: ‘I see that you’re hurting, and I’m here for you.’”

In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe’s mother Yocheved puts her beautiful baby boy in a waterproof basket in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter sees the basket, opens it, and sees a boy crying. She has compassion for him and says, “This must be a Hebrew child.”  She saves him.  If not for the midwives’ courage, if not for Yocheved’s act of faith and surrender, if not for Miriam’s watchful eye and proposal that Yocheved be the infant’s wetnurse, and if not for Pharaoh’s daughter’s active compassion, Moshe would not have survived and the Israelites would have remained slaves.

What compassionate actions can we take in relation to Israel and Palestine?  

Adam Grant: “The victims of violence in Israel and Gaza are in the center ring. Their immediate family members and closest friends are in the ring surrounding them. The local community is in the next ring, followed by people in other communities who share an identity or affiliation with them. Once you’ve figured out where you belong on the dart board, look for support from people outside your ring, and offer it to people closer to the center.”

If you know people in Israel and/or Palestine, I am sure you have been in touch with them regularly since Oct 7. It’s very difficult to contact people in Gaza now, since Israel has been limiting their internet access. I wired money to a friend of a friend in Gaza on 12/24, and when I last heard from her, a full week ago, she had not been able to collect it due to airstrikes.

For some of us, the way to express compassion is by calling for Ceasefire. For others, it’s sending money to humanitarian relief organizations in Palestine and/or Israel. (See www.charitynavigator.org for the most effective ones).

For others, it’s supporting Israeli-Palestinian shared society initiatives. I encourage you to listen to the recording of the “Holding onto Hope” webinar from Jan 3, featuring the work of three courageous and dedicated activists for co-existence and shared society in Israel/Palestine. https://vimeo.com/899844319

It’s possible to do all of these things.

One of the most significant moments in this portion, and in the entire Torah, is when Moshe sees a bush that is burning but is not consumed. Many of us are oscillating between numbness and burning. One participant in Wednesday night’s Circle said that they felt the fire in the room. Can we be with the emotions churning and burning within us and not be consumed by them?

When Moshe stops to look, G!d calls to him from within the burning bush. After G!d tells Moshe his mission, Moshe asks: “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is [God’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?” G!d replies, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (I will be what I will be).

The G!d/force that connects us with our ancestors, our personal and collective histories, is the same G!d/force that will carry us into our personal and collective future. Let’s all imagine, pray for and work towards a future that we want to see for ourselves, for future generations, for Israel, for Palestine, for all humanity and for Mother Earth.

Let’s do this without losing our connection to our roots, without forgetting the past, but without being tied to the cycle of revenge that the past seems to dictate. That future will come into being through a partnership between us and G!d, who will be what He/She/They will be.

Chanukah, Yalla Children’s Prayer, Hopes for Israel-Palestine
December 14, 2023
On Sunday, Dec 10, our Yalla Chaverim families shared a joyful Chanukah celebration.

Rebecca Golden guided our 10-12 year olds in composing a collaborative poem based on Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s Blessing/Poem We Kindle This Light

The children read their combined words before we lit our Chanukiot:

We kindle this light in honor of truth
May we never lose sight of our goals no matter the distraction or hardships
We kindle this light to power
May we accept it humbly but not grow fond of it or let it cloud our thoughts
We kindle this light in honor of joy
May we always hear laughter instead of fighting
We kindle this light in honor of friendship
May we never forget how important it is
We kindle this light in honor of our differences
May we recognize that we are all different and all the same at once, and to never judge someone because of differences
We kindle this light in honor of understanding
May we have the ability to empathize with others despite our differences
We kindle this lights in honor of love
May our hearts grow full and shine their light
We kindle this light in honor of friendship
May we never hate.

While the older children met with Rebecca, the younger kids made Chanukah cards with Rhonda Wainshilbaum and Judith Reichsmann, and also learned some Hebrew words via a song with movement. The parents and I, sitting in a circle in the sanctuary, heard their happy stomping feet overhead.

Parents were invited to share memories of Chanukah from their childhood, as well as their childrens’ experiences with Chanukah at home and in school, which vary widely.   A few parents spoke of their experience of spiritual darkness and pain during Chanukah this year, in the shadow of the war between Israel and Hamas.

After lighting the candles, we sang, with Robin Morgan leading us on guitar, and ate latkes, applesauce & sour cream. Wendy Bayliss added salsa and cranberry sauce to the toppings.  A totally new family of four who found us on Facebook came with a large batch of yummy gluten free latkes to supplement Trader Joe’s surprisingly good ones.  Wendy and a few parents worked hard in the kitchen to keep everything running smoothly.

For me, and for all of the parents and teachers, our Yalla Chaverim Chanukah celebration, the Yalla Chaverim Kabbalat Shabbat service and dinner on Dec 1, the Yalla Chaverim Shabbat morning services on Oct 21, Nov 11, and the pita-baking event in our outdoor oven on Nov 5, have all been much needed medicine during this heart-wrenching period.  Whatever our political differences, we put them aside when with the children.

The children both compel and allow us to be present in the moment.  It is a great joy to witness them enjoying being Jewish together — not something to be taken for granted in Vermont.

Two Opportunities to Share Fears and Hopes about Israel-Palestine

In Jewish tradition there is the concept of Machloket l’Shem Shamayim – “constructive disagreement for the sake of heaven.”  Such was the case between Hillel and Shammai, as well as between many other famous chevrutot in our tradition, as recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud.

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, can we debate “for the sake of heaven”?  What is our intention when we interact with someone who does not share our views?  Are we able to engage respectfully and constructively?  Can we be compassionate and curious?  Can we stay in contact with ourselves and also feel one another?

I have been incredibly impressed with Ezra Klein of the NYT.   He interviews people with radically different views about Israel-Palestine, and does so in a remarkably present, genuinely curious, sensitive way.  I have learned so much from him and his guests, both in terms of content and style.  I highly recommend his podcast.

I would like to offer a space for members of BAJC to gather and listen to one another about this delicate topic.  We did this last April when tensions were much much lower.

This will not be a dialogue, but a Council style sharing circle.  No cross talk.  People will have 2 minutes to speak and to be heard.  There will be a 30-second pause between speakers. After each person has spoken, we will have another round. What is shared will be strictly confidential.

The Goals of these Circles are:

1) To bring awareness and give expression to the core values, fears, or hopes that shape the way we each look at the current situation in Israel-Palestine.

2) To better understand and to learn from one another.

3) To develop and nurture relationships with other Jews in the Brattleboro Area, including those with whom we strongly disagree, and to feel safe with one another.

If you are reading this on the website and are not on our mailing list, please email me at (ravamita@bajcvermont.org) if you want more info about these Listening circles.

With prayers for a true, just, lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel.

Rabbi Amita

רב אמיתה

 

 

Divrei HaRav, VaYishlach

December 1, 2023

I am writing this on Dec 1st, exactly two years since I began serving as rabbi of this community. This Shabbat also happens to be the Torah portion called VaYishlach, in which Ya’akov (Jacob), through his wrestling, becomes Yisrael.  One of the translations of Yisrael is God-Wrestler.  This was my Bat Mitzvah Torah portion, at age 29, and the day that I adopted my name, Amita אמיתה, meaning Truth.  I chose this name because it described(s) me in several ways.  a) I am honest and direct, sometimes to a fault.  b) I wear my heart on my sleeve and am without pretense.

c) I have always made sincere efforts to discern the truth in any situation, whether personal or political, i.e. to the extent that it is possible to uncover the Truth.  Is there ever one Truth?

I also chose the name Amita אמיתה to inspire me to continue to grow into my Truth… not on an intellectual level, but in a fully embodied life. Living our Truth – which is not a static thing, but an evolving process — is an important part of the work and play of being human.

We often take a mental snapshot of a person or a People and form a fixed idea of who that person/People is/are, obscuring the reality that we are each a movement, not a fixed object.

This continues to be an excruciatingly painful, frightening period for anyone with any connection to Israel or Palestine.  Some people come down clearly on one “side” or the other.  I continue to wrestle.  In my all too rare, peaceful moments, I sit calmly holding the whole complex, tragic mess. I am not interested in the “peace” of separating myself from the situation. Yes, sometimes we need to walk outside, enjoy the natural beauty around us, enjoy our friends and families. We need to pause – allow ourselves Shabbatot – from the agony of what is transpiring in the Holy Land. And then re-engage, in whatever ways we can, without going off the deep end.

I include here a link to a piece in the VTDigger for which I was interviewed this week.

https://vtdigger.org/2023/11/29/after-burlington-shooting-faith-leaders-feel-community-support-strength-and-fear/

On a positive note, last week I began participating in a Zoom study group using the book The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories (Contesting the Past) 2nd Edition, Neil Caplan. It was a very well facilitated, safe sharing. I am very inspired to offer the same opportunity to you – a structured yet spacious discussion.  Thus far, 2 people have expressed interest.  I will facilitate this group if there are a minimum of 6 committed people for a 6-week period, 2 hours per session.  We will meet on Zoom.

If there are 6 of you who are interested, we will look for a time that works for everyone.

I look forward to being with many of you this Shabbat, at the Yalla Chaverim family service at 5 pm, at which all are welcome.  If you plan to stay for dinner, please bring food to share.  (We already have plenty of pizza!)  Nearly 80 people (80 is the max capacity) have RSVP’ed for dinner at Next Stage Arts tomorrow evening, Dec 2. I am excited to see you there. Please plan to arrive at 4:45 so that we can begin the meal as close to 5 pm as possible and start cleanup at 6:30, before the concert goers show up.

I also include here a link to a piece by my dear friend, Roberta Wall, from her blog Torah at the Intersection: Writings from the Intersection of Torah, Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication. Trigger warning! I was triggered by parts of this, but that’s life. Do we want to grow beyond our triggers, and if so, how might we accomplish that?

https://torahattheintersection.com/wrestling-with-narrative-making-meaning-of-our-experience-torah-at-the-intersection-vayishlach/

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Amita רב אמיתה

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In Mitzrayim – The Double Bind
October 26, 2023

I feel that the Jewish People are in a more agonizing situation now than we have ever been in.  Of course the Shoah involved a far greater loss of life.  But during the Shoah there was no moral dilemma for us.  We are now living with multiple layers of anguish.

1st, more than 1300 innocent people were brutally tortured and massacred, and over 200 taken hostage. It is especially agonizing that so many of the victims were dedicated, courageous peace activists –  the very people who had been helping Bedouin in the Negev and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for decades.

2nd, Israelis have so much blood on our hands now, we are suffering as victims and perpetrators at the same time.

I participated in a study session with T’ruah (Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) earlier this week, in which we studied several texts, including a traditional rabbinic commentary on Genesis 32, in which Jacob is informed that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.  “Jacob was very frightened and distressed.”  Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Ilai said: The fright and the distress are not the same. Rather, he was frightened lest he kill, and distressed lest he be killed. He said: ‘If he overcomes me, may he not kill me, and if I overcome him, may I not kill him.’”

3rd, almost every Israeli and every Palestinian in Israel-Palestine is now living in fear of one other.  This is especially true in and around Jerusalem.

4th, the “Arab street” in all the surrounding countries is inflamed and the whole region is becoming destabilized.

5th, this has kicked up a huge wave of global anti-Semitism, especially on the Left.

I have spent hours deliberating about what I want to share with you here. Type and delete, type and delete.  I know that whatever I write, I will upset some of you.

One of my closest friends in Jerusalem for 12 years has unfriended me.  I know that he is in deep pain and feels betrayed by me.

I argue (mostly in my mind) with people calling for continuing the bombardment and invasion until Hamas is destroyed.  And I argue (also mostly in my mind) with those who criticize Israel for its reaction to the Oct 7 (Black Sabbath/Simchat Torah) massacre.

I go back and forth and tie myself up in mental and emotional knots.  I know many, many Jews – both here and in Israel – who are tied up in these knots.

Israel is in the worst Mitzrayim (literally, double bind) in our history. 

We cannot live alongside Hamas. Most people around the world do not understand how tiny Israel is (the size of New Jersey) and how close Gaza is to the communities where the massacre took place.

Lewiston, Maine, where a crazy person went on a killing spree Wednesday night, is much farther from Brattleboro than Gaza is from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Yet when the doorbell rang at 10 pm Weds night (which turned out to be my housemate who had forgotten her key), I freaked out.

As another American Israeli friend wrote:

“There are many people who blindly support Hamas as if they represent the Palestinians, and justify the merciless attack on unarmed civilians. They turn a blind eye to the utter repression that Hamas has visited on its own people, depriving them of a decent life and livelihood at the expense of arming as well as enriching themselves.

Hamas has built hundreds of miles of tunnels under the Gaza strip to hide their weapons and to be able to make their way into Israel to carry out attacks against civilians; yet they have not seen fit to build bomb shelters for their own people. The opposite is the case: They use their own people, including women and children, as human shields in the hope that Israel will kill them and thus score a media and diplomatic victory.”

And at the same time, the fact remains that the IDF has killed and wounded thousands of people since Oct 7.  And I do not believe that Hamas can be destroyed.  So how will all of this killing help Israel? Many Israelis believe that after this war, after the destruction of Hamas, the people of Gaza will thank us for throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. They fantasize that Gaza will then become a model society, like Germany after WWII.  I do not see this happening.

I feel the need to clarify for anyone who is not aware, that the phrase “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free!” is a call for the destruction of Israel. The Left is using this rallying cry, and I think (at least I hope) that many well-intentioned people do not realize that it is a genocidal statement.  Where will the Jews of Israel go?   And why do the Palestinians deserve the right to national self-determination while the Jews do not?  It is one thing to call for a Two-State Solution, and quite another to use the River to Sea slogan.

It’s so easy for people in North America and Europe to criticize Israel.  The self-righteousness of the Western Left, including many Jews, is deeply disturbing and one-sided.

I am absolutely furious with the Israeli government and the Settler movement, but I also love so much about Israeli society and I love so many Israelis.

I am not comfortable with criticism of Israel from people who do not also deeply love Israel. It’s much easier to receive criticism from people who love you than from people who dislike you or who don’t even know you.

It is easy to call for freedom and justice from the comfort of the Green State.  It’s so easy to pronounce land recognitions and support the Abenaki in theory, knowing that no Abenaki are going to slaughter us.

I am an Israeli citizen. I lived there for 18 years.  And I am also a US citizen, with the privilege of being able to live here now.  The majority of Israelis do not hold dual citizenship, and have nowhere else to go.  We cannot undo history.  Yet, somehow, Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to live together.

The people I respect the most are the Israelis and Palestinians who stand together and refuse to be enemies at this agonizing time for all of us.

Here are links to a few pieces I have read or listened to in the past week, representing different views. I imagine that many of you have already read or listened to these and to many other sources.

Rachel Goldberg’s plea at the UN on Wednesday:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BULds4Wmlm4

https://www.npr.org/2023/10/17/1206359243/survivors-of-the-hamas-attack-on-kibbutz-beeri-describe-the-apocalyptic-scene

Pleas for Peace by Israelis whose family members were slaughtered or abducted

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/gaza-hamas-hostages-israel-palestinian-b2433971.html?fbclid=IwAR0Ob1fo84OZNZvj3NxsoX13J_KuPA2SbElRN2g9s5W7riyjZQVF8khOnhY

Israeli and Palestinian Peace Activists

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPB1Ejj_9o0

Hamas Slaughtered My Wokeness

https://www.tabletmag.com/…/hamas-slaughtered-wokeness

The Sin of Moral Equivalence (this was easier to hear when published on Oct 12 than it is now.  A bit simplistic, but I still think it’s worth a listen)

https://www.samharris.org/blog/the-sin-of-moral-equivalence

I am leaving on Sunday for a retreat with my teacher, Thomas Hubl, and 220 people with whom I have been learning and practicing for nearly 2 years.  Thomas, not a Jew, was born in Austria.  He is married to an Israeli artist whom he met in Berlin. They live in Tel Aviv with their teenage daughter.  His work and teaching is about personal, ancestral and collective trauma integration.  Thomas said that the current situation is not for us to understand with our minds.  

I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes we have no choice but to sit in the dark and accept that there are things we cannot understand.

May all of this pain and suffering miraculously be transformed into a peaceful way forward for Jews and Palestinians – a way that most of us do not yet see.

Rabbi Amita  רב אמיתה

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Message fromRabbi Ben Weiner of Jewish Community of Amherst in response to the attacks in Israel. This was also read at BAJC’s Vigil on October 12th.

Dear Friends:
Our goal for tonight is to be in solidarity with each other—and I understand that word to mean not lockstep unity, but loving relationship—holding reality together, despite the tensions that may also exist between the different ways we see some aspects of it. I hope we will be in solidarity tonight amongst ourselves as a Jewish community, with the Jews up and down this Valley who are gathering together at this very moment—at Temple Beth El in Springfield, at CBI in Northampton, as well as here–with global Jewry, with our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel, with all innocents who are impacted by hatred and senseless violence.
We gather in this place—in our sanctuary—to express our grief and anger, our fear and despair, our confusion and our resilience, and to seek, at least for a time, comfort and consolation in the experience of being together, and being joined in our experience of the reality of all of these things.
I’m going to try to articulate some thoughts. I want to first apologize to you in advance if any way in which I do that causes you some discomfort and upset. I feel—to use a metaphor that is all too apropos—like I am underneath the rubble of a collapsed house, trying to lift one heavy beam after another off of my crushed body, as I try to come up toward some sense of clarity and response to the horrors we are experiencing. These thoughts are not particularly organized, or in the service of one particular agenda. They just represent my efforts to try to lift up some of this debris.
–What is happening now in Israel is happening to us. There are members of this very community with loved ones who are missing, who are injured, who are dead, who are prisoners. This is not some cliched moment of blue-and-white social media memes. By virtue of love and kinship we are one body, we are all participants in the Jewish experience of history and place, and this has happened to us.
-Jewish historical experience has not afforded us the luxury of the kind of moral purity that others might profess, to know exactly what is right and wrong, and to live in the fantasy of a pure consonance between our ideals and our actions. We have moral responsibility, and we can point toward clear examples of the failure to exercise it, but we also live out the terms of a survival that has been dictated to us by history, by oppression, and by our own right to survive.
-Israeli Jewish blood is not cheap, and it is not licensed to flow in the streets because somehow “they deserve it”, because “the chickens have come home to roost”, because they are themselves responsible for its being spilled. It is spilled by butchers and criminals; and when it is spilled like this, indiscriminately, unfortunately, the response cannot just be grand gestures of universal goodwill, but efforts to put a stop to terror and murder. I am, indeed, as a passive person, sorry that this is so, and I recognize concerns about how this is done and don’t discount them. But we need to understand that such actions, at their core, are efforts by people who love other people to not have those people murdered, terrorized, kidnapped. These are not “genocidal acts of a settler-colonial project”, but, on some essential and immediate level, acts of self-defense that I think most of us, if we really thought about it, would also advocate for if we found the buses in which we put our children being blown up by suicide bombers; the houses in which we live subject to indiscriminate rocket fire, our beautiful youth massacred at dance parties, our babies and elders terrorized and mutilated. Anyone who says otherwise, I suspect, has not really thought it through.
-Many of us have long harbored concerns for the actions of successive Israeli governments, especially this one, for the direction in which is has been leading the country, both with regard to internal policy, and the endless and intensifying brutal military occupation and settlement of the West Bank, and the agony of Gaza. There are many acts of Palestinian resistance and self-emancipation that deserve our attention and, perhaps, allyship, as a Jewish community concerned about justice and human rights. This was not one of them. This is the most egregious in a long legacy of orgiastic acts of violence, bankrolled by powerful governments with imperialistic ambitions, undertaken by exploitative thugs with their own ambitions, and dripping with authoritarian and genocidal intent. While we might, in a generous frame of mind, understand why a downtrodden people will rally behind butchers who wreak violence in their name, we must not confuse one for the other, and we should be courageous ourselves in opposing even those in our progressive circles who choose to see no difference.
-When I have seen images of a father in Gaza cradling his dead child in his arms, I respond with the anguished empathy of a father. There is some feature in my conscience that sears this images even deeper into my psyche than the images of Israeli suffering, and I wonder if I, too, have imbibed the self-immolating narrative of the left that Israelis are not “real people”, just as I know some of my family feels that way about Palestinians. Maybe it is out of awareness that our side is far better resourced and theirs will always suffer more in the end, though we will continue to debate who is to blame; or that their misery is a by-product of our survival, or maybe it arises because I get to live in Deerfield and not Sderot. I only know for sure that they have, are, and will continue to suffer horribly, and this is also one of the beams I am trying to lift off my crushed body.
Somebody asked me a day or two ago what we should hope for, and, in the wisdom of my flippancy, or the flippancy of my wisdom, I responded, “We should hope for hope.” We do this by holding on to our resolve, even in the absence of resolution—by knowing and committing to all of the things we must continue to stand and advocate for: the life, well-being, and defense of Am Yisrael, the grieving for victims and the release of captives, our dignity in the face of a world that would judge us without understanding, and without walking in our shoes, the difference between justice and depravity, between the oppressed and the butcher, the inextricability of our pain from the suffering of our counterparts.
We must find resolve within ourselves to lift up all of these causes, even as we wrestle with the confusion and despair in our spirits. And we do this—we hope for hope—by continuing, relentlessly, to lift up beam after beam, beam after beam, beam after beam, while dreaming that we can somehow salvage from this rubble enough timber to knock up the frame for a house of peace.
Divrei HaRav — Rabbi’s Words from Jerusalem

July 28, 2023

I arrived on Wednesday, July 19.  I wanted to participate in the demonstration against the judicial overhaul last Saturday night, but was unable to keep my eyes open due to jet lag. Sunday was the culmination of the national march from Tel Aviv to the Knesset, but I did not have the energy to join that either.  I had to pack up and move across the city to Ein Karem due to a sudden change in plans of the friends whose home I stayed in the first days.  Ein Karem is a magical place – a village within Jerusalem, near Yad Vashem, on the edge of the forest. Late at night I heard bands of jackals howling. Eerie and beautiful.  On Monday I was determined to go to the protest.  The Knesset was voting that day on a measure limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to review the reasonableness of government decisions.  I hitched a ride up the hill.  The man who picked me up was also going to the protest.  He turned out to be the founder of Hava v’Adam, an eco-educational farm I’ve known about for 13 years but never visited.  https://ecoisrael.org.il/about-the-farm/   We walked ½ hour and then joined the throng, going our separate ways.

I participated in many demonstrations in Israel during the years I lived here – 2009-2021 – never anything like this in character or magnitude.  Normally, at any demonstration, whether in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, I see many people I know.  On Monday I was surrounded by unfamiliar people.  The 100s of 1000s of protesters were “regular” people from all over the country, many of whom had slept in tents on Saturday and Sunday nights in Gan (Park) Sacher.  It was a very strange, novel and moving experience to be protesting in a sea of Israeli flags.  (See Micah Sifry’s, recent piece in the New Republic: Capture the Flag – What Can Americans Learn from the Israeli Protests?  https://newrepublic.com/article/174231/). The night before, I had listened to the webinar with Rabbi Amy Klein, a co-coordinator of the protest movement in the northern Galilee region.  She explained very clearly and convincingly why it was (is) important that the emphasis in these demonstrations was (still is) on the judicial overhaul, and why it would be counterproductive to muddy the waters with messages about our relations with the Palestinians, even for those of us who feel that the Occupation is a fundamental evil and must be dismantled/transformed.  You can watch the recording of that webinar here:  https://youtu.be/koyamcD4Z5k.  (The only person I saw at Monday’s protest whom I knew was Amy Klein, totally by chance. See first picture below).

The current protests are filled with centrists and people to the right of center, as well as leftists. The central cry is “Democracy!”  Friends have told me that at the weekly Jerusalem protests (unlike the national one I went to at the Knesset), fully ⅓ of the people are religious, men in kippot and women with head coverings.  See this video of a passionate speech by MK (Knesset Member) Rabbi Gilad Kariv, former Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, the day before the vote. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGaHO4muyR

The government voted in favor of doing away with the “reasonableness” standard.  The protests will continue.  If you want to support the movement to defend Israeli democracy, you might consider donating to https://www.standing-together.org/en . There are many other organizations that have grown out of this movement. I will send you more information as I gather it.

Wednesday night, Erev Tisha B’Av, I attended a public chanting of Eicha, the book of Lamentations, in Zion Square, the central square in Jerusalem.  There were about 500 people there.  Straw mats were placed all over the square, as it’s customary to sit on the ground for the reading. Eicha means “How.”

After the reading, which was chanted in 5 different melodies by 5 beautiful singers, men and women (Ashkenazi, Moroccan, Yemenite, and other modes I didn’t recognize), there were about 10 simultaneous discussion circles on various topics relating to Israeli society. I found it difficult to hear and thus difficult to follow, but the atmosphere was very peaceful and hopeful, even though Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning and fasting. On this day we mourn the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples and Jerusalem (576 BCE and 70 CE), the suffering and starvation of the people of those periods, the exiles, and all the catastrophes that have occurred on or close to the 9th of the month of Av over the centuries, the latest one being Israel’s current crisis and Monday’s vote.

The following morning (yesterday), I went on a pilgrimage with Rabbi Arik Ascherman to Palestinian and Bedouin communities in the West Bank and the Negev that have been destroyed, attacked, or threatened with destruction.  I did the same thing last year and several years prior.  To me, and for all who participated, it’s a very meaningful, relevant way to observe this day.  For pictures and videos, see Arik Ascherman’s facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/arik.ascherman   Just as I feel it’s important to immerse myself in documentation/stories/films of the Shoah at least once a year, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I find that Tisha B’Av has become for me a time to open my eyes and heart to the ongoing destruction we (Israel) are allowing – and thereby responsible for – in Palestinian communities.  As much as I already know, I am shocked and pained each time I am confronted with what is going on – the strategy of squeezing people out of their land and homes.  You can help by contributing to Rabbis for Human Rights and Torat Tzedek https://www.torat-tzedek.org/ HaMoked https://hamoked.org/ .  There are many other organizations helping people on the ground. I hope to share with you more about this journey with a slideshow on Zoom/Hybrid in November.

The surviving cats whom I fed on my back porch for 9 years recognized me immediately when I returned to the sidewalk in front of my former home.  Today I was at a gathering to honor the memory of a brilliant rabbi and friend who left this world 11 months ago.  On Saturday night I will attend a concert by Neshama Carlebach, the daughter of Shlomo Carlebach, z”l.  There is much more to share.  I am very grateful for this month of reconnection and renewal in my other home.

 

Receiving the Torah at Sinai, and Why We Eat Dairy on Shavuot
May 25, 2023

Today is the last day of the 49-day Omer Counting period, the journey from Liberation to Revelation. At sundown this evening, Shavuot begins.

It is well-known that on Pesach we are instructed to re-experience coming out of Mitzrayim (the archetypical tight spot). On Shavuot we are invited to re-experience standing together at Sinai, hearing God speaking clearly and directly to each of us, in community. The community piece is essential. We are the only religion with the foundational understanding that Divine Truth was revealed to an entire people, not just to one individual.

We believe (or at least imagine) that the soul of every Jew alive today, whether a Jew by birth or by choice (conversion), was present at this moment of Revelation.

Jewish holidays are an invitation not only to mentally remember mythohistorical events (the border between myth and history in Torah is blurry), but to re-experience the essence of those events with our hearts and bodies as well as our minds, whether or not they actually took place.

                   

This week I attended a Jewish meditation group in which for the first time I heard the suggestion to think of the Ten Commandments, which in Hebrew are called the 10 Dibrot (from the root ד–ב–ר / d-v-r, meaning both utterance and thing), as 10 Practices. (This approach was suggested by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg). We will explore this together on Shabbat morning, May 27, the 2nd day of Shavuot.

May we each feel our connection to that moment of collective revelation in our mytho-history, and may we each open to and receive new, ongoing insights and revelations to guide us into our collective future.

Why Dairy on Shavuot?

I have been asked this question several times over the past few weeks. As with almost all questions about Jewish tradition, there is more than one answer.
The explanation that I like the best is that Torah is like mother’s milk
A human baby can live and even thrive on formula.
A Jew can thrive on the wisdom of other spiritual and cultural traditions.
And, if we learn to latch on and nurse, I believe we can all receive yummy, healthy nourishment from Torah.
We are blessed to live in a time and place in which we can continue to drink and delight, learn and grow from other sources and in other communities.
And, there’s no place like home, and nothing as wholesome as mother’s milk.

Rabbi Amita
רב אמיתה

PS — When I asked the children in Yalla Chaverim what we do on Shavuot, they remembered with enthusiasm from last year: “Stay up all night and eat ice cream!”

We just passed through Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe
April 27, 2023 
 

This is one of our names for the period starting on Erev Rosh Hashanah and ending with Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur.  Israelis sometimes refer to the period between Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day (which this year fell on April 17-18) and Israel’s Memorial Day immediately followed by Israeli Independence Day (April 24-26), as the Israeli Days of Awe.

A few of you were able to attend the international  Zoom event inspired by Etty Hillesum for Yom HaShoah. This annual ritual is skillfully, wisely, lovingly facilitated by peacemakers Dina Awwad-Srour (Palestinian) and Emma Sham-ba Ayalan (Israeli).  You can watch the recording of the ritual at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKdB9lYbH-Y
Others of you were able to attend our BAJC Zoom presentation with Paul Davidovits, father of BAJC member Michael Davidovits.  Paul survived the Shoah in Slovakia as a young child, due to the ingenuity of his beautiful, courageous, highly principled mother – and of course due to good Mazal, as so many others did not survive, regardless of their virtues.

Last Wednesday night I was deeply moved by the hometown (Northampton, MA) premier of an extraordinarily inspiring film: Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance and Bravery in WWII.  Visit http://www.jewishpartisansfilm.com/ for screenings in New England, NY and elsewhere this spring, summer and fall, and look for it on streaming platforms in the winter.

Last Sunday, 23 of us gathered on Greenleaf for a dinner catered by a Palestinian friend of mine, and an open sharing of our complex feelings about Israel.  Seven of you joined the discussion via Zoom.  It was an amazingly civil sharing, deepening the sense of trust in our community.  

Thank you to Chris Mansfield, Sue Lederer, Kim Effron, Richard Evers and Donna Hadjipopov for their help with dinner set up and/or clean up.  (Please forgive me if I forgot you!) 

Some of you were able to view the 18th annual Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial this past Monday, live from Tel Aviv.  Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, is the most somber day of the year in Israel, even more than Yom HaShoah, since half of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrachi – i.e. people born in or descended from those born in North Africa or the Middle East, and do not feel personally related to the Holocaust.  Access a recording of this moving ceremony, where Israelis and Palestinians share their grief, their hope, and their commitment to peace & justice, with English subtitles, at  www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxbkR9_ZTrw

As this is the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, there are many more programs (in person and Zoom) in the coming weeks.  This one caught my attention:

On April 30th The Center for Jewish History presented a symposium: ZIONISM AND AMERICAN JEWS: BRINGING US TOGETHER AND PULLING US APART.

And from the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (where I have studied — brilliant, creative faculty!): https://www.hartman.org.il/program/israel-at-75/?mc_cid=3ea5f26b88&mc_eid=3bd020458c

I believe it is important for all of us to engage with Israel in some way.  Whether your primary emotional response to Israel is pride or shame or a combination of the two, or even if you are totally numb (a common response these days), we are all related to Israel simply by virtue of being Jews. It is upon us to educate ourselves, visit Israel AND Palestine, and find organizations in Israel-Palestine that we want to support financially, even if we are of modest means. 

The Modern State of Israel Turns 75 on April 23, 2023  
On the eve of this significant anniversary, Israel is going through a painful but apparently necessary process. I pray that the mass protest movement in Israel will bring about a serious change for the better, not just protecting the threatened power of Israel’s Supreme Court and maintaining a democracy for Jews, but reckoning with the corrosive effects of the 54 year Occupation. Tragically, Israel also needs to reckon with the fact that there is an inherent contradiction in the idea of Jewish Democratic state, when even within the green line, 22% of Israel’s citizens are not Jews. I say this as an Israeli citizen, and one who deeply loves Israel.

I deeply resonate with Gershon Baskin, an Israeli Peace activist whom I have known for > 30 years, specifically in his Jerusalem Post column two months ago:     https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-731720. Gershon writes a weekly column in the jpost.  Here is the link to his April 20th column about the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial ceremony.  https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-739699

This Sunday evening, April 23, from 6-8:30 pm, we will carefully enter into a sharing of our feelings about Israel today. In that discussion, I will invite you to see yourselves as one or more of the 4 children in the Seder – the “Wise” One, the “Rebellious” One, the “Simple” One, and the “One Who Does Not Know What to Ask.”  All of these children – all of you – deserve a place at the table, and in this community.

This is not an informational session.  It is an opportunity to listen to one another.  After an initial invitation to share in groups of 3, we will form one circle and I will keep time, limiting each speaker to 3 minutes.  No one can speak a 2nd time until everyone who wants to express something has spoken.  

Why Palestinian and not Israeli food?

The simple answer is that Yalla Vermont is closed until May 4.  As it happens, my friend Ismail Assad recently opened a food truck in Greenfield.  I met Ismail at EcoME,https://ecomecenter.org/en/about-us/ an experimental, intercultural community on the road to the Dead Sea that operated for 8 seasons (October-May, as between June-Sept it is intolerably hot there with no AC). EcoMe offered courses in NVC, Yoga, Dance,  Hebrew and Arabic languages, permaculture, and hosted many events. I attended workshops there. Ismail actually lived there with Israelis, other Palestinians, and internationals for 4 seasons.  When I returned to New England to be the BAJC rabbi, a mutual friend informed me that, serendipitously, he was living nearby.  (BTW, he is desperate to obtain permanent US residence status, with an appeal for his immigration case scheduled in Boston on June 6.  Please contact me at ravamita@bajcvermont.org if you know of a good immigration lawyer in MA or are able to help with legal fees).

Unfortunately, Ismail cannot join us for this discussion, as he has to work.  This discussion and dinner has been moved from Friday to Sunday because the month-long fast of Ramadan ends with Eid el Fitr on Friday night, and he will be celebrating through Saturday night.  (He has been cooking and serving food all month while fasting).

I hope to see you and hear your voice at this discussion

Rabbi Amita
רב אמיתה

Renewal – The Next Phase of our Journey Begins

April 4, 2023

Modah Ani  (I give thanks).

It’s been 5 1/2 months since our Board invited me to extend my relationship with BAJC beyond June 30 of this year.  It’s been a long, complex, demanding journey for all of us engaged in the process of negotiating this contract, which has finally been agreed upon. Halleluyah!  I offer my sincere thanks to the 9 dedicated members of our Board, especially to President Chris Mansfield.  Thanks also to Tom Franks and the other 3 members of the Human Capital Campaign committee. And thank you to all the other members of this community who have been passionately engaged in this process with us.  I have learned a lot through this.  Learning and growth often involve some pain. I see this as a birthing process for Shir Heharim-BAJC.  We are moving into a new stage. There have been contractions and there has been pushing.  It has been painful and scary at times. Now we have come through it together and I feel relief and excitement. I hope you do too.

Hineni. I am here.  We will move forward together, one step at a time.

Pesach is also about birthing – the birthing process of our
People from Mitzrayim, the narrow, familiar place of slavery, through the Sea, into the unknown Wilderness. Passover is the most familiar, beloved holiday of American Jewry – the holiday when extended families gather. Most of us have clear memories of the Seders of our childhoods. Those of us who grew up with Jewish parents, even if they were not at all religious, celebrated this one holiday (and maybe also lit Chanukah candles, but there is far more content to Pesach than Chanukah).  We all have favorite traditions inherited from our families, and also traditions we have collected along the way.  There are literally tens of thousands of Haggadot, all following the same order (seder = order), but with different emphases, different approaches, different interpretations. It is a mitzvah to expound upon the story.

I share here a link to a brand new Israeli Haggadah, hot off the presses, of today’s protest movement. It includes photographs. The supplementary readings are translated into English. Be patient flipping through the Hebrew ‘til you come to the next English section. It loses something in translation, but you can get a sense of the anguish and anger that many Israelis are feeling.

When I was a child, I thought that Passover = 2 Seders.  Being from a secular family, I didn’t know that Passover  goes on for 7 days (8 in the Diaspora).  In my grandmother’s kitchen in Queens, we ate matzah brei for breakfast  after the seder, but if we stayed more than 2 days, we also ate bagels.  (In those days, there were no good bagels  outside of NYC).

Passover itself is only the first week in a 7 week + 1 day (50 day) journey, leading us from slavery to birth to marriage with the Divine at Sinai.  Throughout the 49 days between Pesach (Redemption) and Shavuot (Revelation), there is a practice of Counting the Omer each evening, beginning at the end of the 2nd seder.  Jewish traditions evolve. In the Torah, Sefirat HaOmer was literally counting sheaves of barley that we carried up to the Temple.

In medieval times, this was transformed into a mystical practice of refining ourselves through contemplating divine emanations. There are many Omer counters with meditations for each night. Sefirat Ha’Omer is a process of reflecting on where we are in relation to each possible combination of the lower 7 Sefirot (Divine Energies) in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Here’s a free Omer counter online.

May this month be full of blessings. As the earth softens with the spring, may we soften, exhale, expand, and feel the
support of both heaven and earth in each step of our journey together.

Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Amita

What is Hidden in Purim? (Not just for kids)
March 2, 2023

Purim is a minor Jewish holiday. Since I was about 12 years old, it has been my least favorite. I have been averse to raucous partying my whole life, challenged by masks and costumes, uncomfortable acting, and I’ve never liked the effects of alcohol. In short, you might say I’m overly serious.

At the other end of the spectrum, Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday.  It is the culmination of a 40 day period of reflection and making amends, a day of prayer, fasting, and awe.  On Yom Kippur, we are reminded that we are tiny specks in the universe, fragile, mortal,  and that ultimately, our fate is in the hands of forces beyond us.

These two holidays are connected in several ways.  In a literal way, they are almost the same word, as another name for Yom Kippur is Yom Hakippurim  יום הכיפורים, which literally means the Day of Atonements, but could also be translated as “the day like Purim.”  An implication of this is that what seem like opposites are often very similar when you delve deeper.  This is suggested in the mitzvah that on Purim we should become so intoxicated that we cannot distinguish between “Blessed is Mordecai” and “Cursed is Haman.”

On a physical level, both fire and ice burn.  Emotionally, deep grief and tremendous joy can feel similar – they meet in Love.  Individuals with intense, polarized opinions are often very similar.  Those who make great efforts not to be like their parents usually end up realizing how fundamentally similar they are.  Take some time to think about how, in your experience, apparent opposites are similar.

Purim is also about the reversal of fortune. Haman, the King’s vizier, plots to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire because Mordecai the Jew won’t bow down to him.  In the end, Haman is hanged and Mordecai becomes the vizier.  This story is recounted in the biblical book of Esther.  While Orthodox Jews believe that the Purim story is historical, there is no evidence that any of it actually took place.  It is both a farce and a revenge fantasy of an oppressed People.

Another important fact about the Book of Esther is that God’s name does not appear in it even once.  Esther, the name that Hadassah (her birth name) is given when she goes to compete in King Ahasverus’ contest for a new queen, is based on the name of the Mesopotamian goddess of love and sexuality, Ishtar.   But also, in Hebrew, Esther אסתר shares the root        ס – ת – ר  of the word for hidden.  This hiddenness has a double meaning in the story.  Esther must hide her Jewish identity from the King, and God is hidden in the frivolity and farce of the Purim story and the entire festival. But hidden does not mean absent.  While it appears that everything in the story happens through either human agency (Esther’s courage) or through chance (Purim literally means “lots,” as in lottery) the miraculous twist of fate can also be seen as divine intervention.

So although I began this piece by saying that Purim is my least favorite holiday, this serious rabbi must admit that there is more to it than meets the eye.  I promise to make an effort to embrace the silliness and fun this year. I may even imbibe half a glass of wine.  I’ll definitely be dancing!

L’Chayim!        לחיים ולשמחה

Rabbi Amita   רב אמיתה

Terumah- Offerings
February 22, 2023

This week’s Torah portion, Exodus 25:1 – 27:19, is Terumah, meaning contribution, donation or offering.
“YHVH  יהוה spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.”
After specifying the gifts that are needed, YHVH instructs:“V’Asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.”  
“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

Herein lies one of the most central teachings of Torah: It’s not about the material stuff itself, but the hearts that are moved to contribute.  Many Torah commentators through the centuries have pointed out that God did not / does not dwell in the physical sanctuary, but rather that the collective process of building something together, with generous hearts, is what drew/draws YHVH (God/Holiness Light/Love) to dwell amongst us.  
Note that the word for dwell has the root  ש – כ – ן as in שכינה – Shekhinah, aka the Indwelling Presence, also understood as the feminine aspect of God. 

{Look for an announcement in the March newsletter about a class on the magic of Hebrew words and letters.  No previous knowledge of Hebrew required}.
                                           

It’s not that the specific instructions don’t matter at all. 
If someone asks for tulips and you bring roses, or apples and you bring oranges, or a hug and you give advice, it doesn’t mean you don’t love them or you’re not a good person; but YHVH is most present when requests are fulfilled with a generous heart. 

(If you ask for tulips and I begrudgingly bring them to you, is that better or worse than lovingly giving you something other than what you asked for?)

Terumah contains the root (ר – ו – ם) — “to raise up.”   By both paying attention (which in Hebrew is translated as “putting heart”) to what is being requested, and giving with a generous heart, we are each lifting ourselves up, and also elevating the energy of our community as a whole.

Thank you to all of you who, in the past 3 weeks, have pledged to the human capital campaign for the sake of elevating/growing/injecting life and energy into Shir Heharim-BAJC.   

Thank you to all who contribute gifts of the heart as an annual statement of membership and support. 

Thank you for the enormous amount of time and energy that so many of you invest in BAJC. 

And thank you for whatever time, energy and skills you contribute, even if it’s not an “enormous” amount.

(Specific thank yous will appear in the March monthly newsletter and all monthly newsletters).

And thank you in advance to those who will share a bit about something you are passionate about this Friday evening after Kabbalat Shabbat and dinner.  That too is a gift of the heart. 

Today, Feb 22, 2023, is Rosh Chodesh (new Moon of) Adar. 
The Talmud teaches: “When Adar enters, happiness increases.” (Tractate Ta’anit, 29a). 
Ken Y’hi Ratzon — May it be so!
Chodesh Tov! 

Laws to be Proud of, Perplexed by, and to Ponder
February 16, 2023

This Shabbat we read Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1–24:18, which contains 53 laws, a mixture of ethical and ritual. Some align with our contemporary values and some may seem meshuganeh.  In contrast with every other portion since we began the Torah cycle in late October, there is very little narrative in this one.  But some of these laws contain colorful scenarios to contemplate, be shocked, intrigued and entertained by, and many to be proud of.

Many of the laws in this portion have to do with preventing abuse of the vulnerable: servants, wage laborers, orphans, widows, the poor.  One is the commandment: “You shall not oppress a Ger (stranger), for you know the feeling of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”  The Talmud points out that the Torah repeats some version of this law 36 times.  Ger is a term which has been interpreted in many ways, some of which exclude Palestinians, as they are seen by some, including the current extremely nationalist Israel government, not as strangers who dwell among us, but as enemies. (You can guess my opinion on this).

When I was at Amherst Regional High School, there was an English elective in Bible.  One assignment was to keep a scrapbook throughout the semester in which we recorded and pasted sightings of Biblical references on the street and in the media. One of the most famous, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…”  is in this Torah portion.

We also find here laws about what to do about a woman who miscarries when pushed while caught between 2 brawling men, manslaughter, a goring ox, a wandering ass, an accidentally spreading fire, a tunneling thief, prohibitions against accepting bribes, against eating treyf (literally flesh torn by wild beasts), and many others.

Whatever our concerns about the legislature and judiciary in the US and in Israel (never mind law enforcement, which is not dealt with in Torah), imagine creating an entire legal system from scratch.  Is a legal system essential?  I believe so.  This is what the Torah begins to do in this portion, coming right after the 10 Dibrot / Commandments / Utterances.  According to the Torah itself, the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, but one can see in the civil laws here that they did not arise in a vacuum. There is clear borrowing and editing from other legal codes of the Ancient Near East, e.g. the Code of Hammurabi.

Last year we divided the Hebrew School Chaverim (now Yalla Chaverim) into groups of 2 or 3 and asked them to come up with what they felt were the 3 most important laws.

What 3 or 10 laws would you emphasize in creating a just society?

Join us this Shabbat morning from 10-12 for morning services with plenty of singing as always, and at around 11, a Torah reading with thematic aliyot and discussion of some of these mishpatim (laws).   After the service, we will eat a shtetl menu lunch together, catered by our own Chelsa Roy, funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.   Afterwards, some of us will go together to BUHS for the matinee of Fiddler on the Roof.

Before signing off this week, I would like to add 2 things (note: in Hebrew, “word” and “thing” can both be translated as d’var דבר ):

1) Prayers for the millions of people affected by the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey.  I hope that in addition to other tzedakah commitments, you are able to give something to help people impacted by this immense disaster. Visit https://www.charitynavigator.org/  for recommendations of where to donate.

2) Thank you to all of you who have expressed your love and dedication to the vitality of BAJC with pledges to the Human Capital Campaign.  If you have any questions or concerns that you would like to address to me — in addition to Tom Franks and Chris Mansfield who are ably heading up the campaign — feel free to email me at ravamita@bajcvermont.org.

Rabbi Amita
רב אמיתה

 

What does Kabbalah mean?
February 9, 2023

This past Tuesday was the 1st meeting of the reignited BAJC Meditation group.  Thank you to Ami Ji Schmid for facilitating so beautifully.  We meet Tuesdays from 6-7 pm with rotating leadership. All are warmly welcome. Anyone can lead, but willingness to lead is not a requirement for participation.  Contact Laura at options@myfairpoint.net for more information. Before our 20 minutes of silence, Ami asked what arises in us when we hear the word Kabbalah.  Each of the 8 of us who were present this Tuesday had a different response. This was mine:

Kabbalah קבלה means receiving.  Since each letter in the Hebrew Alphabet (Aleph-Bet) has spiritual meaning, I sometimes look at the letters for deeper insight into the word.  Kuf ק is the only non-final letter that goes below the line.  To me, the leg of the ק that extends below the line feels grounding.  The next letter, Beit ב means house/home. The lamed ל connects us with the sky/heavens.  As I shared during the High Holidays in the context of the word Melech מלך, (King/Sovereign), the lamed ל is the letter of transmission, learning, teaching. The hey ה at the end is not part of the root of the word. However, it does affect the meaning, as ה , appearing twice in the 4-letter ineffable name YHVH, signifies God.  When attached to קבל, it implies Receptivity to Divine Source.

So the root word קבל (K-B-L) invites me to feel my roots in the earth, notice and feel that I’m at home, wherever I am, and allow myself to receive light, inspiration and Love through my crown.  (Of course we can also receive through our hearts and through our whole embodied selves, from one another and the earth).

This week’s Torah portion is called Yitro (Jethro), named for Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest.  The Revelation at Mt Sinai occurs in this portion.  We as a People receive the 10 “Commandments” (10 dibrot actually means Utterances) and the entire Torah.  This event is called both Matan Torah (the Giving of Torah) and Kabbalat Torah (the Receiving of Torah).  If the Torah were given and not received, then the giving would be fruitless.

I imagine we all know what it feels like to attempt to give to someone(s) who is not willing or able to receive what we are offering. And I imagine we also all know what it feels like to be unable to receive from someone who wants to give to us.  Unsuccessful transmission is painful from both sides.

May we continue to grow in our ability to both give and receive, with a balance of Hesed (generosity, loving kindness), and Gevurah (clarity, discernment, healthy boundaries).

Rabbi Amita   רב אמיתה

 

Growing Jewish Community: Vision, Momentum, Enthusiasm, Commitment
February 3, 2023

Energy, excitement and engagement are growing at Shir Heharim-BAJC.

Since September, beginning with the the Yamma Ensemble dinner (attended by 60) and concert (attended by 150), then the first joyful meeting of this year’s Yalla Chaverim family education program at Green Mountain Orchards, the High Holidays, Sukkot, and every single meeting of Yalla Chaverim, I have been seeing the fruits of my labor, and of our shared labor.

In only a year, we have been able to:

  • Engage veteran members who had drifted away and attract new members

  • Engage non-members with BAJC

  • Do outreach via the high school

  • Secure a $8500 grant to create a vibrant Family Education program and start a monthly Tot Shabbat for 1-6 year olds and their parents.

  • Secure a $7000 grant for teen programming. Teens are a challenge to engage. We are hopeful that a group will come together to build an outdoor oven on our property this spring.

  • Secure a $1000 grant for Sukkot programming attended by 45 adults.

  • Offer other meaningful opportunities for engaging in Jewish life and building community, among them:

    • Humans of Israel Photo Exhibition with two programs in which members shared personal, moving Israel Stories.

    • Weekly Spiritual Texts group via Zoom for 4 months last year

    • Bring new participants to the Bimah and the piano during the High Holidays

These initiatives have awakened a positive Jewish identity in some. Outreach in the high school is also countering the spread of anti-Semitism through an accessible, non-judgmental presentation of Judaism and Jewishness. Our Yalla Chaverim program is cultivating an energetic community of engaged children and parents.

Coming this month!

  • Shabbat lunch with a shtetl menu, before the Feb 18 matinee of Fiddler on the Roof!

  • The first in a series of TED talks after Shabbat dinner, where members and friends of BAJC will share your passions with others in the community.  The TED talks series idea came to me because each person I’ve spoken with here for more than 10 minutes has impressed me with your passions, life stories, wisdom, and depth of presence. I am excited to continue to get to know you, and for you to get to know, enjoy and be inspired by one another.

I am passionate about connecting Jewish people with Jewish traditions, Jewish community, and the Jewish parts of ourselves.

I believe that we Jews have all been handed a gift, and many people never open the package.

We each have the potential to heal and integrate the traumas of our personal pasts in this lifetime.

We each also have the potential to heal our ancestral and collective trauma.

We may grow new branches and be deeply nourished by other communities and through other traditions, but I believe that we cannot be fully integrated, healthy people if we cut ourselves off from our roots.

 

Is YHVH Everywhere?
January 26, 2023

In Parashat Bo, the 3rd portion in the book of Exodus, Moshe and Aharon continue to plead with Pharoah to let the Israelites go.  In this portion, the Egyptians are smitten with the last 3 plagues: locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born.

One of the most “drashed”  (interpreted) verses in this portion is the first one: Exodus 10:1: “Then יהוה said to Moses, Come to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them…”

While most translations change בא Bo to “Go”, the literal translation is “Come.” In the craft of interpretation, every word receives attention. If the author of the Torah (be that author human or Divine) had meant to say “Go”, they would have said written it that way.  There are plenty of other places  in Torah where the word “Go”  (Lech לך) is used, such as in the 3rd portion of Genesis, when YHVH tells Avram (not yet Avraham) “Lech Lecha” – Go forth, another highly drashed phrase, oft interpreted as “Go to Yourself.”

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (better known as the Kotzker Rebbe, 1787-1859) taught that Bo implies that YHVH is reminding Moshe that YHVH is everywhere, and God will be with him when he approaches Pharaoh, as in “Come with Me.”

Another way to look at this, very popular in the Jewish circles I travel and Zoom in, is that God was/is/will be actually IN Pharaoh.  This is a very difficult concept to swallow.  Easy to say, hard to really believe and live by.  What does that mean?  What can we learn from such a perspective?

Some believe that God is only Good, or IN the Good.  Others believe that God is Everything, or IN everything.  I relate to YHVH in all of those ways, depending on the moment, and don’t demand of myself to choose.  It can be entertaining and engaging to discuss theology, but what matters is how we live with ourselves and others.

With International Holocaust Remembrance Day upon us (Jan 27), acknowledging that God was in Pharaoh is the near equivalent of saying God was in Hitler.  (For me, Hitler is a much tougher character to find God in than Pharaoh. I have empathy for the Egyptian ruler, whose heart was hardened by YHVH).  Nevertheless, it’s a thought to sit with, breathe into and notice our reactions.

It is incumbent upon us all to look at the ways we harden our hearts toward others, and first and foremost towards ourselves. I strongly believe (I even daresay I know, from my own inner explorations) that heart-hardening starts within, towards ourselves.

May we all be aware of the ways we harden our hearts, and grow in compassion for ourselves and others.

Rabbi Amita 
רב אמיתה

Coming out of the Narrow Place Singing
January 20, 2023

As is always the case, we begin reading the book of Exodus (Shemot ) sometime between late December and mid-January, 13 weeks after Simchat Torah, and several months before Pesach.  We retell the story of our slavery and liberation in detail at the Passover seder(s) every year, reflecting on the ways we are enslaved and the ways we are free.

The Torah portions in the beginning of the book of Exodus, which we began to read on January 14 this year, are packed with essential moments. Moses is born, is rescued by the love and ingenuity of women, grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, awakens to the oppression of his kinsfolk, slays a taskmaster, travels to Midian, marries the daughter of a Midianite Priest, becomes a shepherd, and experiences Revelation.  God appears to him in a Burning Bush as Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh – “I Will Be What I Will Be.”  (We could easily discuss that scene alone for several hours.) Ehiyeh tells Moses to return to Egypt to liberate the Israelites.  Moses resists the call, but God doesn’t let him off the hook. God tells him to team up with his brother Aaron, an eloquent speaker.  After their first confrontation with Pharaoh, Pharaoh reacts by making the slaves work even harder. 

In addition to reading the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim (Exodus) on Passover and during the annual Torah reading cycle in early winter, we are reminded twice each day of our collective Coming out of the Narrow Place, when we chant Mi Kamocha.  Torah tells us that this was sung by the Children of Israel after crossing the Sea.  We will chant from that portion on Feb 4, on the day referred to as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Singing, in our communal home on Greenleaf Street with a chanting circle led by Itai Gal.

When I was a rabbi in midcoast Maine from 2004-2009, there was a tradition initiated by a family an hour north of the shul, to go cross-country skiing and snowshoeing through the woods and across a frozen lake, simulating the biblical crossing of the Sea.  We stopped every 10 minutes along our snowy trek to chant a part of the service, and after “crossing the sea”, we chanted the Song at the Sea (Shirat HaYam) from photocopies of that section of the Torah portion.  

I had hoped to do this with Shir HeHarim-BAJC this year, but there is no guarantee of snow on the ground or even a pond that is frozen enough to promise safe crossing.  So we will enjoy a chanting service facilitated by Itai, and then those who feel able and inspired will walk down to the stream on our property, and return to our sanctuary to hear the chanting of Shirat HaYam from the Torah scroll. 

After the service we will enjoy a Tu B’Shvat Seder based on the mystical seder created by Isaac Luria (aka the Ari) and his disciples in 16th century Tsfat. The Tu B’Shvat Seder is an ever-evolving celebration, combining Kabbalah and contemporary environmental values.  

Shabbat Shalom v’Chodesh Tov       
Rabbi Amita     רב אמיתה
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A Shabbat to Remember
January 12, 2023

Last Friday 40 people shared a wonderful evening at the shul.  It had snowed all day, but the roads were clear and the planned event with the cast of Fiddler on the Roof took place with excellent attendance. 17 Brattleboro Union High School students and 23 adults came to 151 Greenleaf.  6 more people joined in via Zoom.  At least 9 of us (9 that I am aware of) were Jews who had not participated in any activities with Shir Heharim-BAJC in the past, or if so, it had been decades ago.

The students were all attentive, curious, and respectful.  Collectively we entered into the sacred time/space of Shabbat when the candles were lit and we all brought in the light 7 times (for the 7 days of the week), from our crowns to the soles of our feet.

                                                                                         

Rick Bayer spoke of the transition from experiencing ourselves as “human doings” to human beings.  He and I both shared the feeling of Shabbat “coming in” in Jerusalem or Tzfat (Safed)… all the hussle and bustle of preparing for the Holy Day followed by a hush that descends over the city.
The students asked thoughtful questions such as, in a place and time like Anatevka, with no cars or screens (TV, computer, phone), what made Shabbat different from other days?  They asked what the ark was, and I explained the symbols on it – including the Tree of Life.  The Torah is called a Tree of Life, and the Tree of Life also refers to the 10 Sephirot – emanations of divine energy, which are one schema for the composition of the world, and which are also mapped onto the human body like the chakras.  I also explained that the Hebrew letters are understood mystically to be the building blocks of creation, and each letter has its own energy.  Stephan brought our attention to the Ner Tamid, which represents the golden Menorah that burned constantly in our wilderness Mishkan (sanctuary/tabernacle).

We sang Lecha Dodi (Come My Beloved to Greet the Bride) – the bride being Shabbat herself, and, as was the custom of the Kabbalists in Tzfat who developed the entire ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat, we all went outside to greet her for the last verse.  (They would sing and pray all of Kabbalat Shabbat in the fields.  We only sang the last verse out in the cold!)

Before eating, we all did the ritual of Netilat Yadayim.  I explained that the Shabbat table represents the altar in the Mishkan. We wash and lift up our hands as the Cohanim cleansed themselves before performing the sacrifices.  It’s customary not to speak from the time we do the ritual hand washing until we say HaMotzi, but often people hum niggunim (wordless melodies) during that interval.  Being 40 people, it took a good 20 minutes for everyone to do the handwashing.  Each student took this so seriously, embracing the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Shabbat experience as they prepare to be the Jews of Anatevka.  We hummed melodies from Fiddler on the Roof as well as traditional Shabbat melodies.

There was no talking or eating until everyone had their cup of grape juice and piece of challah.  The students agreed that the first bite of bread tastes all the more delicious when you wait so long in silence and bless it together before eating.

At the meal each person introduced themselves and shared who they are in the musical.  I had promised that after dinner, I would show them the Torah.  A few had to leave after the meal, but most stayed, and were very excited to see the scroll up close.  I explained what it is made of, and that it takes about a year to write it, with a special quill and special ink. I know several Sofer Stams (Torah scribes).  The one I know best lives in Jerusalem, and goes to the mikveh every morning before he begins to work.

I let them hold the Torah, but when the first young woman felt how heavy it is, she was afraid to try to hold it herself, especially since I told them that if it falls, the congregation has to fast for 40 days (1 person per day).   [Later, I read that this is not true. One who drops a Torah is supposed to fast for 1-3 days.  The whole congregation does not have to participate in a rotating 40-day fast, although I do know of communities who have chosen to do this]. 

I love experiencing the Torah and Judaism through the eyes of people who know little or nothing about it, and who are comfortable with their Beginners’ Minds.  It’s human nature to enjoy sharing what we love with interested people who have not been exposed to that ‘something’ before, whether it’s a particular trail in the woods, a favorite dish we like to cook, a work of art, a book, or a good friend. 

I am extremely grateful to Rebekah Kersten, the theater teacher/director at BUHS, for organizing this with me.  I am grateful to all the students, teachers and parents who came last Friday, and to every member of BAJC who was here to welcome them.  Thanks to Judith Reichsmann, Teresa Savel, her friend David, Sue Lederer, Kim Effron and Marsha Stern for all their help with set up and clean up, and to Lizi Rosenberg for baking challah. (My sincere apologies if I am forgetting someone who helped a lot!)  Everyone brought plenty of yummy food. 

On Saturday morning, the fun and learning continued in joyful community with another Yalla Chaverim family service, during which we completed the book of Genesis.  After the service, we all ate Chelsa’s delicious challah and amazing rugelach baked by Anna May Seaver. The children learned Hebrew and acted out selections from the Joseph story while the parents had a meaningful discussion about challenging sibling relationships and other sensitive subjects.

I’m always a bit sad when we leave the intimate book of Genesis, with its complex family dynamics, and move on to our collective national story in Exodus.  God willing, we’ll all be alive to dive into Genesis again next year.

Chazak Chazak v’Nitchazek  –  חזק חזק ונתחזק  – Be Strong, Be Strong, and May We Be Strengthened (and May We Strengthen One Another).


Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Amita     רב אמיתה

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Rabbi’s Column
January 2, 2023

We Jews live in two civilizations, so although Christmas and the secular New Year are not Jewish holidays, they affect us, and many of us celebrate these days along with our Christian friends, and in many cases family members.

I have never been big on celebrating the secular New Year. I’m grateful for Rosh Hashanah, which holds and offers meaning that the turning of the Gregorian year does not.  We can of course choose to insert meaning into the Gregorian new year, e.g. some people make New Year’s resolutions, and some spend the moments just before and after midnight on Dec 31 in meditation.

One question that arises in me as we approach 2023:  What is time?   How do I experience time?  When does time seem to speed up and when does it slow down?  How is it possible for the moments to drag and the years to fly by?  I remember watching a film about time in a high school physics class that totally blew my mind.  It demonstrated that time can actually move backward.  (Don’t ask me to explain.  Physics is the only class I ever dropped out of).

In Hebrew, the word for time is z’man זמן, which is the root of the word הזמנה ––  invitation.  
What is this moment, this hour, this day, week, month, year, inviting you to do / feel / express?


Secular time feels linear to me.  Jewish time is cyclical.  I am especially grateful for Shabbat, which AJ Heschel called a “Palace in Time.” [See elsewhere in this newsletter three Wednesday evening webinars organized by the Shalom Center in honor of Heschel’s 50th Yahrzeit this month].

Even though I do not currently observe Shabbat halachically, I always light Shabbat candles, with the kavanah (intention) to bring light and blessing into each day of the coming week. I don’t shop, I make an effort not to think about finances; I am aware of it being Shabbat from sundown on Friday ‘til the first stars appear in the night sky on Saturday.  It’s much easier to feel Shabbat in Israel, especially in Jerusalem or Tzfat (Safed), where every one slows down and a peaceful atmosphere reigns for 25 hours.  It takes more intention to create that atmospheric shift in Vermont (especially since it’s generally more peaceful in Vermont to begin with!), but it’s not impossible.

It was a joy being together with many of you for the eight nights of Chanukah this year, some in person, some via Zoom. I always feel sad when the last dancing flame in the Chanukah menorah dies out.  And I simultaneously feel tremendous gratitude for Shabbat, with the peace, warmth and light of the Shabbat candles every week.

I hope to see you on Friday evening, Jan 6, to welcome Shabbat and to welcome members of the cast of BUHS’s Fiddler on the Roof, which will be performed Feb 16-18. Please bring vegetarian food to share.

L’Shalom,
Rabbi Amita Jarmon   רב אמיתה

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Joseph, Forgiveness, Light
December 23, 2022

On December 17th, we began the Joseph Novella, which unfolds over the course of four Torah portions, Genesis chapters 37 through 56.  The characters have greater psychological depth than those in any of the other Torah stories, and the plot is ingenious. Many of us first learned the Joseph story not through the Torah, but from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s telling of it in the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”  

I recently listened to Stephen Mitchell’s brilliant, poetic Zen Midrash: Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Story About Letting Go, published in 2019. Mitchell points out the this is the only book in the entire Bible the teaches us how to forgive. Jesus, through the Gospels, speaks repeatedly about the importance of forgiveness, but does not actually teach us how to do it.  Joseph’s life is an inspiring example of how to cultivate forgiveness.  I highly recommend reading this, or listening to the author’s soothing voice on the audiobook.   

In Parasha VaYeishev, Joseph’s innocent self-centeredness, fed by his father’s loving and favoring him over all his other 11 brothers, naturally arouses his brothers’ jealousy.  When he, with clueless excitement, shares his dreams, their jealousy turns to rage and they toss him in a pit (in Hebrew, בור).  In the mystical understanding of Hebrew letters, aleph א represents God.  When an א replaces the letter vav, the בור becomes a באר, a wellspring for Joseph’s insight and transformation.  

God does not “appear” in the Joseph story.  God doesn’t speak to Joseph as he spoke with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But Joseph realizes while in the pit/well that his predicament is part of the Divine plan / the Great Way.  In Mitchell’s retelling, Joseph moves from shock and confusion, to being able to see himself through his brothers’ eyes.  He realizes how and why his words and actions affected them, even though there was no ill intent on his part. At first he feels terribly guilty and heartsick, deeply ashamed.  Then he is graced with the insight that it’s all part of the Divine Plan/Great Way. With this realization he is able to forgive himself and is infused with Peace.

The reading of the Joseph story always coincides with Chanukah.  In both our Torah text and our Solstice season holiday, there is a movement from darkness to light.  For Joseph, there is a back and forth from darkness to light.  It’s not a straight line. But because of Joseph’s high level of consciousness, even when his situation appears dark, he is able to zoom out and see the bigger picture and the greater Light. 

May we all feel and see the Light in ourselves and others during Chanukah.
May we remind others of their light and reflect it back to them when they have lost sight of it.
May we all develop Joseph’s ability to see the big picture and trust in the Great Way.

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“Thanksgiving, Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Celebrating Cultures”

November 24, 2022

On Thanksgiving most residents of the US gather together with family and/or friends for a festive meal regardless of country of origin and regardless of religious tradition. Whether one is religious or an atheist, today is a day to pause and give thanks for whatever is good in our lives.  In recent years, dozens of books have been published about the benefits of gratitude and how to practice gratitude. 

Jewish tradition instructs us to give thanks each morning immediately upon waking.  The first thing we say is, “Modeh (masc) / Modah (fem) / Modet (non-gendered) Ani…”  “I give thanks before You… for compassionately returning my soul to me … how great is Your faith in me.”  I say this each morning in the same way I do it when leading services – bowing to the left giving thanks for the past, bowing to the right giving thanks for the future, and bowing to the center giving thanks for this moment.

Three times each day in the Amidah (standing prayer), the penultimate blessing begins: “Modim Anachnu Lach…”    “We give thanks before You…”  and ends with “…l’cha na’eh l’hodot,”  “It is good/pleasing to give thanks to You.”  This particular blessing has us give thanks for the miracles that we experience each evening, morning and afternoon.   

It is good to give thanks.  By saying these words, we are reminded of what we are grateful for, no matter how challenging our day has been, no matter what is not going well in our lives or in the world, even when we are ill or bereaved. 

This year, Thanksgiving coincides with Rosh Chodesh Kislev – the new moon of Kislev.  

As Mordecai Kaplan said, we Jews live in two civilizations.  This is true today, and it has always been true.  We live in Jewish civilization, and we also live in the “host” civilization.  In our case, that host is North America, which in itself is a mix of many cultures. In recent years, there is a growing awareness of our responsibility toward the descendants of the First Nations.  It is incumbent upon us to learn about the Abenaki, whose bodies and culture were almost completely wiped out by the Europeans who colonized Vermont in the early 18th century.  We might individually consider contributing to an organization that supports Abenkai or other Indigenous peoples.

Celebrating Thanksgiving, which may include acknowledging the complexities of this day, is a practice of the host civilization we live in.  Looking up and noticing that we cannot see the moon on a clear night when we do see stars, is a practice of Jewish civilization, as is singing a partial Hallel (selections from Psalms 113-118) the next morning. 

Last night, I joined a group of eight women rabbis in Israel via Zoom (for them it was already this morning), singing Hallel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh.  While I believe it is important for us to support the preservation of Indigenous cultures, I obviously also believe it’s important to preserve our own culture, which includes paying attention to the cycles of the moon.

Each month has its own energy.  My friend Mindy Ribner, a student of both Reb Zalman and Reb Shlomo, wrote Kabbalah Month by Month, 2002.  She has a great deal to say about each month.  Here is some of what she says about Kislev: 

“Kislev is about transcending what is logical, actualizing dreams and visions and going forward. Kislev is known as the month of miracles. During the month of Kislev, we become more aware of Divine synchronicity.

Kislev is a time of deepening faith and trust. Living with faith enables us to not be bound by the reasoning powers and limits of the mind. It is faith, not the mind, that opens us to new possibilities and new dimensions. It is faith that enables us to go forward in ways we could not do previously.

The month of Kislev is about learning to more fully trust in the Source of All Life. Kislev is about reclaiming the dreams of the inner child. Kislev is about taking risks to move forward to live more authentically and embody more of our soul potential. In Kislev, we are better able to access the guidance of our very own soul and live with greater confidence.”

Blessings for a day of Gratitude and Joy, Chodesh Tov, and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Amita  רב אמיתה      

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