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Ki Tetzei, August 24, 2018

08/24/2018 10:14:27 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Congregation Beth Emeth

Parashat Ki Tetzei


I’m not sure if you heard, but Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner. I mean, of course you’ve heard. Rob Knapper blew the shofar last week at the end of the service. We’ve been singing high holiday themed tunes all night tonight. I’ve already gotten two Rosh Hashanah cards (thanks Charlotte and Jeffrey). Let’s face it, Rosh Hashanah is at hand.

As we all know, the High Holidays have three themes, the themes that will appear on our Torah Mantles at Selichot, the themes that appear in the prayer unetaneh tokeph: T’fillah, Teshuvah and Tzedakah, usually translated as prayer, repentance and charity. These are the things that are supposed to lessen, or help us cope with, the severity of the decree. Often we focus on the first two when we talk about the high holy days. And why not? We spend a lot of time praying, and a lot of time fasting, and reflecting on the past year and our actions. Prayer and repentance seem like good things to focus on this time of year. And they are, but I want to focus on the third: tzedakah.

Tzedakah is usually translated as charity, and that’s how many people think of it. As a kid, tzedakah meant the quarter I brought in to Sunday School to give to the teacher. It was what you did. Just a thing. But of course, tzedakah means something else. It means Justice. What does justice have to do with prayer and repentance? Charity would make more sense, right? We pray, we ask forgiveness, and we give of ourselves. What’s this justice all about?

When we talk about justice we talk about two different ideas; legal justice and restorative justice. Most of the time we talk about legal justice; Law and Order stuff. There’s been a lot of legal justice in the news lately. You may have noticed: plea deals and trials and convictions and other stuff.

That is one aspect of justice, an important one. But it isn’t the only one. Restorative justice is a term that’s more in the news these days as well. Restorative justice recognizes that there are always those in our society who are mistreated legally. Who, by the pure letter of the law, are allowed to suffer, but that we as a society recognize that suffering and wish to alleviate it. Not out of the goodness of our hearts, but because it is right. This is the justice of the prophets, the justice we talk about when we mention social justice. Without a doubt, rule of law is important and necessary; but sometimes our laws don’t create the kind of conditions that allow for full equality, the alleviation of poverty, and the recognition of the holiness in each individual. So we need both. And both appear in our Torah portion. Yes, it’s a potpourri of laws about warfare, loved and unloved wives, rebellious children, not wearing wool blend clothes, and the like. But it also includes reminders that we mustn’t charge fellow Israelites interest, that we cannot deprive the poor, even if they owe us something, that the gleanings of the field belong to the poor, not to us; and the text I read, that the escaped slave must be allowed to go free. Think about that; in the time this portion was written, slavery was legal in every respect. It was a natural outcome of warfare or debt. But the Torah recognizes that, despite its legal status, it’s still wrong. It’s still unjust. So it is with us. We know many who, in spite of the law, still suffer. Our task, then, is to alleviate their suffering. To make their suffering ours. And just as prayer and repentance relieve some of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, practicing justice, like any other spiritual practice, brings us closer to our best selves, and brings our world closer to the world God envisions for us, if only we would heed God’s voice.


Rabbi Robinson's Sermon, July 20, 2018

07/18/2018 09:27:58 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Devarim


This was not a good week for reading the news. Once again, your best bet while reading or watching the latest reports were to have a paper bag, perhaps a scotch or a pint of Haagen Daaz or whatever your poison of choice as close at hand as possible. But there was one thing on NPR that made me less miserable, and it wasn’t France’s win at the world cup.

Eritrea and Ethiopia, two countries we rarely think about except in the context of famine or evacuating Jews, have been fighting a war for 20 years, ever since the former separated from the latter. It has been a bitter, awful fight, claiming 80,000 lives and resulting in expulsions from both countries. But recently there’s been a thaw, negotiations, an official end to the fighting declared, and even an embrace between Ethiopia’s young prime minister and Eritrea’s longtime leader.

How would you respond, knowing your country and its neighbor are no longer at war? What would that look like, or feel like? For people in these two countries, it elicited an interesting response. They started calling each other. Not long-lost family or former neighbors; they started calling, like, random people. An Ethiopian would get a call from a random Eritrean, and vice versa. It was already a miracle that they could reach each other; the phone lines had been cut off from each other for decades. But there was something about this moment that compelled people across a border to call each other and express their happiness with total strangers. One example reported was that of Selehadin Eshetu. I’m quoting the news report here:

 It took Selehadin Eshetu three days of dialing random numbers to connect with someone in Eritrea. On Wednesday, as he was getting dressed to go to work in Addis Ababa, someone picked up.

Eshetu said hello; they said hello. The person asked, "Who is this?"

Eshetu said: "I am Selehadin and I am calling from Ethiopia. And I am calling randomly to say hi and to tell you how happy I am."

"And [the person called] said, 'I am going to save your number; I am going to call you regularly. We will be family,'" Eshetu said.

We will be family. Those are powerful words. Even if they never speak to each other again, those words are transformational. The act of picking up the phone and calling a random person that only a few days before was your bitter enemy and hearing them say those words, we will be family, is empowering. We need those words. My God do we need those words. If it is powerful for people of warring countries to say this to each other, how much the moreso for us as Americans to say this to one another, when we are so profoundly at war with ourselves? When a day doesn’t go by when we look at those with whom we disagree and we call them the enemy. Or we are called the enemy, with devastating and violent results.

A few minutes ago I read from Deuteronomy, the introduction to the book, which begins with admonition. As I said before, quoting the various sources, the book opens with a reminder of the places and moments when Israel sinned, delaying their arrival to the promised land. And we need those words too. We need the criticism, the reminder of our mission as a people; we need to be challenged. But we can agree that there is a difference between admonition and hate, a difference between criticism and hostility. On this weekend of Tisha b’av, a day commemorating the destruction of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty for 2000 years, we are reminded that it was words of hate that led to our self-destruction as a people, and that we need those words of comfort, those words of celebration, those words of empowerment as well. And while Devarim, which literally means ‘words’ begins with admonition, it concludes with inspiration and comfort. It begins with reminders of our past failures, and it ends with a reminder that we are all family.

I am not a believer in observing the 9th of Av, you know that, not when Israel exists, with all her faults and challenges. But it is worth our pausing this Friday to reflect on our words and how we share them. We are, sadly, too far away as a country from being able to call strangers over the phone and call them family, but we can try, and we can begin today. We can use this time to repair the breaches as we see them, to share words of comfort and love with each other. We can call each other family. So we pray as the psalmist did, Adonai, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your glory. Amen.

Rabbi Robinson's SermonParashat Mattot-Masei

07/13/2018 10:57:32 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson

Parashat Mattot-Masei


This past week I had the privilege of teaching at Delaware State University. They, in partnership with the Urban League, run a fellowship for community organizers and people working in non-profit and civic engagement here in Delaware. Specifically, the fellowship seeks to “train young people of color to be change agents empowered to create and execute solutions to pressing social problems.” They wanted me to come out and speak to this group about the Jewish community and congregational engagement. So, dunks in hand, I showed up at their building on Kirkwood Highway, studied a little Talmud with them, and talked about the challenges and benefits of community engagement with religious organizations in general and Jewish organizations in particular, and generally blathered at them for an hour and a half.

It was an engaging morning. Inspiring, really. As is often the case, I found this group both humbling and a bit intimidating, and probably learned more from them than they learned from me. Here I am, being brought in as a so-called ‘expert’, and here are young people who are already working in the schools, in the office of the public defender, on the North Side, the West Side, literally on the front lines actually walking the walk and talking the talk of community organizing and engagement, trying to move the needle for communities desperately in need. Not that we don’t do good work, mind you, both as a congregation and a Jewish community, but we aren’t living it, for the most part. We come in and do our project: we volunteer for Family Promise or cook meals or raise funds or tutor kids or do one of the myriad other Tikkun Olam endeavors that do help, and then we get in our car and go home, home being somewhere else, somewhere in the bubble that is the North Wilmington Jewish community. These folks are deeply invested because it’s their community.

And I’ll tell you what: being with these folks: these lawyers and phd students and teachers who could do truly anything with their lives and choose to work in the community, was exactly what I needed. I needed to see people who are not deterred by the cruelty of individuals in power, who are energized by the needs around them, and who sees the potential for this community to be, well, better than it is. It was inspiring to talk to these folk, each one smarter and more determined than the next, who were committed to the work out of a sense of urgency but are clear-eyed about what that work involves, and why the work must be done. As one of the participants said: she sees her work as selfish, because as long as there are individuals and communities that are suffering, she cannot consider herself to have any success or happiness.

It’s an important reminder to us as we get into the weeds of our Torah portion. Amidst the reframing of the journey of the Israelites, and the recapitulation of various laws and encounters Israel has faced, and the boundaries for each tribe in the land of Israel are established, the tribes Reuben and Gad make a request to settle outside the land, beyond the Jordan. Their leaders have a vision for their people, and see that the land they would choose to settle is, frankly, better suited to their needs than the land they would be given east of the River. Moses, fearing another revolt like the one involving the spies, cuts them a new one, until they insist that they are not doing this to abandon their fellow Israelites. In fact, they offer to go as the vanguard, the shock troops, ahead of everyone else. While on the surface they are not fighting for themselves, the Gadites and Reubenites get that for their tribes to be successful, all of Israel needs to be successful, for them to have prosperity, all of Israel needs to experience prosperity.

And so it is with us. How can we call ourselves prosperous, or happy, so long as children suffer, so long as people in our community go hungry, or experience violence? The answer is, we cannot. Not yet, not until we can say truly that we have gone ahead as a vanguard to help those in need around us. If we cannot say that we have alleviated even a modicum of pain in our midst, can we really say that we have lived well?

For me, the most fun I had with the fellows was studying Talmud with them. There’s something cool about introducing people, Jewish or non-Jewish, to text study. The text we studied was from Sotah 14a. In it, the rabbis ask about the verse “we should walk after God” and ask how it’s possible to do so. The answer is that we should follow the attributes of God: as God clothes the naked, tends to the sick, comforts the mourners and buries the dead throughout Torah, so should we. And that when we do so, we are affirming the dignity of those who need our help. It doesn’t say “Jews only”, and it certainly doesn’t say “Americans only”. Nor does the text say we even have to like the people we’re helping. Only that, to walk after God, we must act, to go like Reuben and Gad as the vanguard knowing that, while the task isn’t obviously to our benefit, in the end it is. You know what? The fellows got this text intuitively. I hope that we can as well.

07/11/2018 10:53:40 AM


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05/25/2018 10:57:55 AM


Update this content.

Parashat Naso May 25, 2018

05/25/2018 09:24:17 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Last night Rabbi Koppel and I had the blessing of being at the Islamic Society of Delaware’s Interfaith Iftar. For those who don’t know, Iftar is the ritual breaking of the fast each evening of the month of Ramadan, marked with prayer and a festive meal precisely at sundown (last night it was 8:18pm, exactly). I’d been to the New Castle County Iftar at Rockwood last year, but hadn’t been able to go to the one in Newark, so when I got the invite I jumped at the chance to celebrate with our brothers and sisters for one of their holiest days of the year. It was wonderful; they hosted religious leaders from across Delaware—Black and White, Protestant, Catholic, Jew and Sikh, men and women, as well as elected and appointed governmental officials. The governor was there, along with Senator Carper, County Executive Matt Meyer, and many others. Their Imam spoke, the governor spoke, the senator spoke, and the food was delicious. But the most impressive speech, the one that made the most impact on me, was by the head of their sisterhood, who quoted from her favorite verse of the Koran. In it, God asks a question of the people, saying, “so which of the Eternal’s Blessings would you deny?”

What a great question! It could have come out of the mouth of the prophet Isaiah or Micah rather than the mouth of Mohammad. And it’s a perfect reflection for this week, as we read the priestly benediction. Now, as I indicated already, Aaron and Moses have already blessed the people back toward the beginning of Leviticus, but here we have the actual text of the blessing. And in reciting this blessing, Israel and God are connected one to the other, inextricably linked. But it’s more than just Aaron’s responsibility. This blessing, birkat shalom, is also the blessing we say at the holidays and the festivals, and most importantly, the blessing we recite over our children. Birkat Shalom is NOT a special events blessing, it’s a reminder that we and God are interconnected, that we and the world are full of God’s glory.

So, which of God’s blessings would you deny? Because our world is full of blessing, full of opportunities to lift up and sanctify our experience. Yes, even now, when the world is on fire, when we are acutely aware of the pain in the world and the suffering of our neighbors, there is opportunity for blessing. There is a tradition in Judaism that we should say one hundred blessings every day. Which sounds like a lot, but many of them are baked into the three services we’re supposed to observe. Factor in bedtime shema, hamotzi before meals and birkat hamazon after meals and you’re most of the way there. But it’s worth looking at so many of those blessings. As I teach our b’nai mitzvah students as they prepare to lead the morning service, so many of the blessings we say are for seemingly mundane things. In the course of the morning service we say blessings for getting up, putting on our shoes, belt and hat, for roosters knowing the difference between morning and evening, cleaning out eye boogers when we go to wash our face, and even for going to the bathroom. That’s right! Go look in the morning service and you will find those blessings. Which, I remind our kids, means that everything we do has the potential for holiness, everything we do can be worthy of blessing. Everything we do can connect us back to God and God’s world and those created in God’s image.

So, which of God’s blessings would you deny? Let us instead embrace every opportunity for blessing. Or, rather, let us embrace every experience as potentially sacred, potentially holy, and therefore worthy of blessing, connecting ourselves back to God, and to each other. Amen.

Parashat Shemini April 13, 2018

03/23/2018 09:08:26 AM


Rabbi Robinson

A nice Jewish boy made news this week, but for all the wrong reasons. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, was up on Capitol Hill offering mea culpas and trying to explain how his creation, which was meant to bring people together and create community online for millions—even billions—has become a twisted tool of those who would sow hate and discord. Increasingly we have seen how social media has been used to create divisions in American and European society, as well as be used as a tool of choice for communicating hatred by terrorists and bigots, even being used in Burma to perpetuate atrocities against the Rohinga people. This platform that Zuckerberg created, that was touted for so long as a way of bringing people together seems, increasingly, to be a tool to drive people apart. We saw it coming, of course. The bubbles we created for ourselves as Facebook and Social Media in general became our source for news and found ourselves preferring sites and pages of sources we agreed with, sources that were increasingly strident, and as we’re learning more and more each day, may have been weaponized to make us see “the other side”, and you can decide who that is, as the enemy.

And the problem wasn’t that people were doing these things with Facebook, in collecting and manipulating our data. The problem is that it worked. The problem is that, when faced with the opportunity to see our neighbors, our fellow Americans, our fellow Jews, as our fellows or our enemies, too often we chose the latter. And perhaps we continue to choose the latter. And I mean choose. I wonder whether, 15 months after the last presidential elections, there is any way back for us to relate to and among each other. I wonder, and I worry. I worry that the damage to our precious community and sense of community is so severe, that it may never recover. I worry that my son will grow up in an era of discord and conflict rather than shared support and humanity. I worry that we will not let go of our anger, as we continue to look for blame, rather than solutions.

I worry, but I hope as well. Not a naïve hope; not ignorant of what is happening outside these walls and around the world, but the hope that grows out of shared love and support. The hope that comes out of hearing our youth speak out for justice. The hope that comes from seeing 80 or more of us gathered this past Saturday to greet our new cantor, but also catch up with one another in sacred and personal fellowship.

This week, we read in the Torah how Aaron, now the high priest of Israel, goes to bless the people. He raises his hands, and…nothing happens. So, he and Moses, his brother, go back into the Tent of Meeting, come back out, bless the people together, and then the presence of Adonai manifested and fire came forth; the prayer over the people had been recognized.

Why did it need to happen twice? Aaron was the high priest, after all. Why did Moses have to do it with him? Did Aaron do it wrong, as some commentaries suggest? Did Moses have to demonstrate how? Did his voice falter at the thought of such an important responsibility? Whatever the reason, the text is pretty clear that the blessing doesn’t count unless it’s done together.

The blessing doesn’t count unless it’s done together.

It is important for us to lift this up, and to lift it up in this moment. In the Torah, this moment happens not just at the ordination of Aaron and his sons, but the ordination of Israel itself as God’s chosen people. This is a moment in the Torah that is beyond survival, beyond mere physical needs, and speaks instead to the mission of Israel; to be a nation of priests and a holy people. That’s true in our moment too. We are still that nation of priests and that holy people. We are in this moment, no less terrifying than the moment after Sinai when Israel realized it had a long journey ahead of them. Perhaps our wilderness is different, but the mission remains the same. We are called, all of us, to do this work. And we’re called to do it together. Together we can be strong even when one of us doesn’t feel it. Together we can be loving even when one of us is wounded. Together the work we do to make a difference becomes not only meaningful, but transformative. Each of us as individuals can only do so much, but together, together our blessing counts for so much more.

That, fundamentally, is why we come here to this place. Not for our own personal needs, not to satisfy our own desire for entertainment or relaxation or memory, but because when we’re together, we’re something more. Because together—young and old, of every gender and no gender, Jews by choice and by chance and those who aren’t Jewish at all, with all of our myriad different experiences—become something else entirely. In that moment, we become Israel, and it is when we come together as Israel that the blessing becomes real.

We are counting the Omer right now, each day from the second day of Passover for fifty days. Each day is just a day, full of potential realized and squandered, full of tasks and moments that are thrilling and challenging in equal measure. There’s nothing special about each day. But the last day is Shavuot, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The days, gathered together, matter. The work we do, gathered together, matters. The blessing we offer, when done together, matters. For that reason, we must find a way to come back, each of us, all of us, together.

Parashat Tzav

03/15/2018 09:42:35 AM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Tzav

March 23rd 2018

I want to talk to you about antisemitism. Well, I don’t want to talk talk to you about antisemitism, but with the Forward's recent critique that the American Jewish community isn’t responding to the increase in anti-Jewish action and rhetoric (to which many leaders of the American Jewish community responded “really”?), I figured we really should have a chat.

Because it is a serious concern. The anti-defamation league reports a pretty massive increase in antisemitism in our goldene medina, along the lines of what we’re used to seeing in Europe or South America. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had members of the leadership of the Women’s March have to rush to the aid of one if their own due to her recent support of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. You had an actual Illinois Nazi win the Republican nomination for Congress in his district, and I hate Illinois Nazis, and a Washington DC city council member claim that Jews, more specifically the Rothchilds, control the weather. All of this Coming amid a backdrop of increasing anti Jewish animosity on college campuses and online, as well as in the public square, not so long after the disaster of what happened this summer in Charlotte.

And in truth, we…wring our hands. We shry gavult on Facebook. We make funny memes in response (if Jews controlled the weather why the humidity?). We let the ADL and other Jewish Organizations put pressure, but why aren’t we doing more? What else should we be doing?

It’s possible that, despite the increase, we aren’t personally effected by it. Or, we’re used to a certain low-level simmer with non-jews. Who hasn’t had someone say something vaguely antisemetic, more out of ignorance than malice? Some comment about how great Jews are with money, for example. I remember a teacher in high school describing a particularly anxious character in a book as a Jewish, Woody Allen type. Perhaps we’re just desensitized? Or, perhaps as bad as it’s getting, it’s just not what people of color experience. Antisemetic incidents, as bad as they are, are in the category of schoolyard taunts, the kind of ethnic jokes that have mostly gone out of style. That’s different than the constant fear of violence and bigotry marginalized people often experience in our country.

Perhaps. But I don’t think that’s it. It’s clear that something else is happening now, in the last year, something far beyond punk kids spraying swastikas. And while each of us have experienced low grade foot in mouth disease among acquaintances and colleagues, what we’re seeing now is much more powerful.

That’s because anti-Semitism is different from other forms of bigotry. In our case, it’s a conspiracy theory, as Yair Rosenberg (among many others) have pointed out. The idea that Jews control the weather, the economy, horde “infamous gold” as Jorge Louis Borges wrote, that we are all ‘globalists’, whatever the heck that means, is in many ways a far more powerful set of ideas than thinking we are beneath contempt. Instead, we are something to be feared and looked upon with suspicion. And, as Rosenberg wrote this week, it’s not that the conspiracy theories exist; ever since there were Jews there were conspiracy theories about us—just ask Pharaoh, who opens Exodus with one. The issue is that, instead of consigning these tin-foil hat ideas to the dustbin of history, people—elected officials, college educated individuals, people who have the means to know better—continue to peddle in them, seemingly without consequence or any real effort to correct or stop them. That is what should scare us. It’s not that Louis Farrakhan exists; it’s that he manages to show up despite his irrelevance and swallow whole people’s political careers. It’s not that the term ‘globalist’ is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, it’s that folks from Wall Street to Main Street—and the White House—use the term as if they’re describing the weather. It’s not that crackpots deny the Holocaust—it’s that people running for congress on major party tickets and the leader of the Palestinian Authority deny the Holocaust. That is what is scary?

In this regard, the critique that we’re not doing enough to combat antisemitism is on point, and I’m as surprised as anyone else. In the Torah portion I just read, it talks about how the fire on the altar, meant to be kept burning always, must be fed “boker boker”, every morning, literally morning after morning. The fire won’t stay lit, after all, unless it has fuel fed it by the Kohein. So it is with combating hate. We can’t laugh off the off-color joke or the half-thought out comment anymore. We can’t ignore the comment or the episode, and then fight it out in our heads later. We have an obligation to respond each and every single time. Just because we’re doing pretty well as a minority doesn’t mean we must silence our voices when vitriol emerges, for if they come for us, be sure that they’re coming for any other marginalized or minority voice: women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the immigrant, etc. We must be vigilant in a way that we haven’t had to be in a generation or more. Which doesn’t mean we come down like a hammer on every person. We cannot combat hate with hate, with anger and yelling and screaming. We cannot stoop to their level. We have to be strategic and thoughtful. Sometimes we need to take the opportunity to make a gentle correction, to clarify the person who means well but doesn’t have experience. And sometimes, we need to respond more sternly, righteously, even if our voice shakes; but not with anger. With the rectitude and knowledge that sometimes, a person won’t get the message unless he’s told directly and forcefully that his words and actions are wrong. Even if that doesn’t change who they are—the Illinois Nazi isn’t going to change his stripes—but it will give courage to those around us, and rally allies to the cause. And we must call out the bigots in our own midst. We cannot keep the flame of God lit if we have Jewish leaders, like the Chief Rabbi of Israel, who recently compared people of color to monkeys, wallowing publicly in their own bigotry. We cannot be a light to the nations if there are those of our people who would dim that light. So when we hear fellow Jews saying something, even jokingly, about minorities, or women, or the marginalized, we must speak as loudly and as strongly. Again, without hate, but with the knowledge that we are right and they are wrong.

Pesach is next Shabbat. We will gather around our tables and share our story of Freedom. We will say we were slaves but now we’re free. Free people call out hatred. Free people silence bigotry. Free people teach and correct misguided individuals. Free people keep God’s light lit for all to see. When we conclude the seder we will say “next year in Jerusalem”. I hope this time we’re right, but it’s going to take all of our efforts. May we work toward it. Amen.

Sermon for March 16, 2018

02/16/2018 02:19:58 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayikra

March 16, 2018

It was deep in the winter—so goes the Hasidic story—and the rebbe was walking along the snowy path when he heard a cry: “help, help!” from just off the road. He went and found a wagon overturned next to a mule and driver, who was trying to right it. “Come and help me!” cried the frantic man by the wagon. The rebbe came and tried to lift, but it was no use; his limbs wouldn’t let him lift the wagon back on its wheels. With a resigned sigh he said, “It’s no use. It cannot be lifted.” “No,” said the driver with a fierce look in his eye, “you’re just giving up; you’re not really willing to help.” Stunned, the rebbe looked at the man, and tried one last time, whereupon they lifted the wagon back on its wheels and he sent the driver on his way.

I have to tell you, this story has been rattling around in my head the last week; while walking around New York City, while studying with colleagues, while watching teens and kids walk out of schools this week to protest and mark the period of sheloshim since Parkland. There’s something about this story, about the passionate, frantic calling out of the wagon driver and the rebbe’s two responses, first his ambivalence, then his stronger reaction, that is really speaking to me right now. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s that ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed; the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute reminders of how broken and sad and cruel our world can be. But maybe it’s something else as well.

What does it mean to call or be called to? A call is an attempt to get our attention, sometimes out of anxiety, sometimes out of affection, sometimes both. Regardless, the idea of a call is that it’s something that we have trouble tuning out. Like a baby’s cry, a real call grabs our attention and won’t let go, we have to respond. And a call is intentional; it’s not merely a crying out, but something that pierces the heart.

This week our Torah presents us with a call as well: מוֹעֵד מֵאֹהֶל אֵלָיו יְהוָֹה   יְדַבֵּר וַ -מֹשֶׁה אֶל וַיִּקְרָא. God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.

Rashi reminds us that the word Vayikra i וַיִּקְרָא s used with intention here. Why else would the text present two words for the same thing: Vayikra and vayidaber: God called and God spoke. You only need one, and God doesn’t waste ink, so what gives? Well, as Rashi explains, all oral communications of the Eternal to Moses were preceded by a call. We might think this is merely to get Moses’ attention, but we’re also told that it is a way of expressing affection, the mode used by the ministering angels when addressing each other, as it is said (Isaiah 6:3) “And one called unto another [and said, Holy, holy, holy is the God of hosts]”, the same verses in the kedusha when we go up on our tiptoes. Sure, the words that will follow are meant to be transmitted to Israel, which is a pretty important task. But there’s a personal connection, a kind of loving and insistent grabbing of Moses’ elbow, as it were. A moment of trust, where God knows Moses will listen.

We shouldn’t take that for granted, by the way. Why assume just because God speaks that people listen? Even through fire, through flame, God can be like our wagon driver, calling for help but no one is listening. But Moses will listen. Moses will hear, whether there’s fire or not.

The real question isn’t whether Moses will hear the call. The real question is whether we will hear the call. And don’t tell me there isn’t a call. The call is all around us; it’s deafening. The truth of the matter is that we’re being called to by God all the time. Perhaps we don’t think of it that way or realize it, but there it is: in the paper as we read about human suffering, directly in front of us when we confront it in teens so afraid and angry they stage a walkout, and the poor person made so humble they can barely ask for their God-given right to dignity, and so many others. God calls to us, and we have do decide how we’re going to respond. We can read the paper and feel bad for a minute about the Rohingya or the kid who got shot or whoever and then feel good that we felt bad, but that doesn’t seem like enough, does it? That seems like the rebbe’s first reaction, pushing against the cart without really making an effort. What would it mean, then, for us to respond more fully, less ambivalently, more wholly? Does that mean giving our money? Our time? Our sweat equity? Does that mean looking for opportunities to step up rather than opportunities to opt out? Does it mean using our prayer time on Friday nights not just to enjoy the music and relax and unwind but to spend some real time within our souls challenging ourselves about what we should be doing? The word to pray in Hebrew, after all, means to judge one’s self.

I ask this as an honest question, and a question I struggle with every day. Sometimes I give to the homeless person, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I actively look for those moments to make a difference in the community, and sometimes it seems like it’s too much, the wagon won’t right. Sometimes I can hear that voice, with affection and urgency in equal measure, asking me whether I’m doing enough. I especially hear that voice when I look at my family, at my son, and wonder what he thinks of the work I do. And I think of something my teacher Rabbi Shai Held reminds me of again and again: what’s the point of studying Torah if it doesn’t lead you to be a better person? What’s the point of ANYTHING we do as Jews if it’s merely a social or academic exercise? How does that help us answer the call, answer God’s call.

God calls to us out of love, and we must answer the call with all our might. We simply must. Because here’s the thing: what does the call in Vayikra lead to? It leads to forgiveness through the sacrifices, and it leads to holiness in the holiness code. The same is true for us: hearing the call and answering the call leads to repairing the fabric of the universe around us, and leads to holiness, to whole-ness, for ourselves and those around us. May we recognize the call, so we may fulfill the words of Torah: Na’aseh v’nishmah: we will do, as we have heard. Amen. 


February 23, 2018 Parashat Tetzaveh

02/16/2018 02:19:18 PM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

In the synagogue where I worked in NJ, we would take our 8th and 9th graders each year on a weekend retreat with several other synagogues in the area.

I will never forget the look on the face of the educator I worked with, when she came back to our table after getting more food at Shabbat lunch during one of those weekends.  Lisa, the educator I worked with, told us of the following exchange:

As she stood in line alongside Grace, a student from our synagogue who happens to be blind.  A young man from another synagogue stood in front of them and offered to let them go ahead of him because he “certainly didn’t need to get to the food first.”  (This was a young man who was a little bit overweight and who is often misunderstood and judged based on his appearance, rather than the quality of his character.)  Grace looked confused, and leaned in to Lisa to say that she didn’t understand what he meant.  Lisa explained to her that the young man had just made a self-deprecating remark about himself in reference to his weight. Her response was “Oh,” and while it was clear that this made her feel bad, she just had no real frame of reference for what he was saying.  And that’s when it dawned on him.  Lisa watched his face light up, his whole demeanor change and he addressed his next comment to Grace directly.  “Wow,” he said to her, “You are so lucky! You never have to judge people on their appearances!” 

This young man gave Grace—and Lisa—and all of us who heard the story, an amazing gift—by recognizing and defining Grace’s own gift—a gift that comes as a result of something that most would perceive as a deficit.  It is so easy to look at a person who has a disability and miss the person, miss their gifts, and only see the disability. 

Rabbi Lynn Landsberg, after suffering a traumatic brain injury that physically and mentally impaired her, talks about going into stores using a wheelchair, where she had shopped regularly before her accident.  Salespeople who had helped her spend money for years would suddenly ignore her.  She quips when talking about this, “What, because I can’t walk, I can no longer use a credit card?”  

Sometimes, we overlook the individual and often, we miss the gifts—those gifts that are tangible, and those that are not.  But indeed, it is sometimes exactly as a result of what we usually call a disability, that people are able to have, and to give, a unique gift. I’m reminded of 2 examples of gifts I was given:

When I was a rabbi in Port Washington, NY, our synagogue was located around the corner from the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults.  Over the course of my time there, a young woman came to live and learn at the center who was Jewish and wanted to come to services.  

I found a generous donor who helped to fund this, paying for the aid who accompanied her and transportation.  And each Saturday morning, she’d come to services.  Following along in a braille edition of the prayer book, experiencing the prayers, and communicating through her aid with touch based sign language.  She became a regular and I always enjoyed greeting her and welcoming her.  

After a month or so of her coming each week to temple, her aide told me that she had created a sign for me, which is something that people who communicate through sign language do for significant people in their lives—she used the sign for rabbi, using a K instead of an R.  I will always remember and treasure the moment I received that gift.

And then, back to the synagogue in NJ, when I received another gift, on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah (this is a synagogue where they do 2 days of services for Rosh Hashanah).  I was not feeling well that day.  A bit stressed about the sermon I was about to deliver, and I was also coming down with something.  I had slept horribly the night before. Between not feeling well and being nervous, I was distracted enough that I forgot to put on a kippah, a yarmulke, that morning.  And I didn’t realize it until about half way through the service, when I went to scratch my head.  I probably had a look of surprise on my face at this realization, but I went on.  

A few minutes later, I noticed Wayne, a teenager with autism, who frequently and enthusiastically attended services at our synagogue, as well as being an active participant in our youth group and our NFTY region and camper at the Reform Movement's Kutz Camp;  Wayne was, at that moment, walking up to the bimah.  When he had seen my moment of distress, he immediately noticed what was off, got up, walked out of the sanctuary to the bin where we kept extra kippot, grabbed a kippah, and brought it to me.  A pure act of kindness and concern.  Truly a gift.

We are told in the Torah that the Mishkan, the Tabernacle—the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them through the wilderness—the first sacred space constructed—was made out of gifts brought by the community.  We are in the midst of several weeks of Torah portions that talk about this idea—as well as the clothing the priests wore, and the creation of ritual items that went into the Mishkan. 

In these descriptions, we are told about Betzalel, the artist who crafted this structure—a man who was singled out by God—who was filled with the spirit of God in wisdom, and understanding, and knowledge in every kind of craft.  A man, surely, of unique spirit.  And God also assigns Oholiab to work with him, and other skilled members of the community to help, as well.  

Each year, as I read these portions during February, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Betzalel was someone whose gifts were often overlooked because of other aspects of his person.  The Torah doesn’t tell us much else about Betzalel—which gives us the freedom to interpret it—to create modern midrash—to write the back stories.  

And in my midrashic imagination, Betzalel is a man who is singled out by God for his unique gifts, because the community itself might not have noticed the gifts he had to offer.

And what a model that offers us.  First, he’s given an aide—someone who can help him to be successful—who can make sure he has what he needs—some extra help to negotiate that which is more challenging for him.  And other members of the community as well.  

Because the community needs to be part of this—so Betzalel has more help, so he isn’t alone, so Betzalel is truly part of that community.  And by calling him forth in front of the entire community to do this sacred work, Moses gives him a place of honor.  Recognizing his gifts publicly. 

And Betzalel is the one who gets to have the holy task of creating the holy space built so that the Divine can dwell with the people in that space.

And, indeed, it is only when we honor the gifts of all members of the community—when we put systems in place so that all members of the community are welcomed—when we have removed the stumbling blocks that are huge, as well as the ones that no one had even noticed were there—it is then that we can truly create holy community.  And receive the gifts that each member of the community has to offer.

Let us learn from this—may Betzalel be our reminder to create a community—to create a world—in which all are welcome—are embraced—not despite a disability that someone has, but because we value the gifts that only that individual can bring.  Gifts that are the essence of their spirit.  Gifts that others might ignore.  Gifts that we need, in order to create sacred space.

February 16, 2018 Sermond

02/09/2018 09:06:03 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Terumah 2018


Permit me the luxury of ruining Gilbert and Sullivan, or perhaps even music, for you.


Prithee, pretty maiden—prithee, tell me true

(hey but I’m doleful, willow willow waly)

Have you e’er a lover a-dangling after you

(Hey willow waly-o!)

I would fain discover

If you have a lover

(hey willow waly-o)

This song, Prithee Pretty Maiden from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta Patience has been STUCK IN MY HEAD since Saturday afternoon. Literally I’ve been walking around—throughout DC during L’taken, at home, in the office, at the hospital, humming this tune, tunelessly. Why? Well, it first got there this past Saturday, at my wife’s concert Performance of the Chester County Gilbert and Sullivan 30th anniversary Gala., which became a who’s who of the local G&S circuit. But it wasn’t just because it was performed at the Gala. Being an anniversary celebration, they asked past performers to come and revisit their old favorites. Interestingly, the song—which is a duet between two potential young lovers—was not sung by someone who had played the role in Chester County. Instead, it was sung by a 70-ish year old woman and her 90-ish year old longtime partner, who first played the role when he was a young man in the D’oyly Carte (those of you who know something about Gilbert & Sullivan will understand that that is a Very Big Deal). I’d heard them perform together before, of course, but to hear a nonogenerian sing a song meant for a callow youth, and sing it beautifully for someone that age, and with all the weight and gravity of decades of life experience, made a profound impression on me. Seeing the two of them on stage and hearing his voice in particular, was truly magical. You could hear the echo of his younger self in the performance, but with all these other layers of life, all at the same time.

As I’ve been unable to let go of this Victorian earworm (and by the way, you’re welcome), I’ve been thinking about the truth in the layers of this performance. What do I mean? Well, let me quote journalist Sarah Tuttle Singer for a moment. She wrote this week “The thing about the Old City is it's built on layers and each layer is true.” She’s talking archeology and culture, but I think there’s a truth there about life and memory as well. In the Old city of Jerusalem, we have a modern house built over a Byzantine church built over a Roman shop built over a Judean granary. And each existed in its own time and had its own integrity, which the archeological record allows us to see, and none could exist without the other, each structure literally supported by the other. And that’s true in the Torah, as layer upon layer of commentary and interpretation helps shape our reading and understanding of scripture, each influencing and relating to the other, and each with its own deep meaning. Each layer is true. And in our lives we have memory stacked on top of memory on top of memory. We remember our childhood and our youth and draw comparisons to who we are today, and each has its own integrity, and one cannot exist without the other. Each layer is true. So when we come to a synagogue, a sanctuary, we use the prayerbook that is there now, and sing the songs that are sung now, and hear the words of the rabbi who is there now, but we remember the texture of the prayerbook of our childhood, and the sound of the voice of the cantor of our youth, and the words of the rabbi when we were young parents. We look at the carpet today and remember the parquet floor of yesterday. We look at the Eternal Light of today but we remember the light that shone over our child’s bar mitzvah celebration. We hear the voices of the people around us, but we remember the voices who used to sing joyfully with us from before. Sometimes, when we sing Ein Keloheinu I can hear the voices of the old men who sang with gusto when I was a child, or when I pick up Mishkan T’fillah I can feel the pink ribbon from the blue Gates of Prayer between my fingers, or the rough, cloth-like texture of the Gray Gates. And sometimes when I read a prayer I can hear the voice of one of my teachers reading that prayer as I recite it, or I remember what it was like to stand on a bimah the first time and hear the congregation read responsively as I read. And all those layers are true. I know I cannot go back to the sanctuary of my youth, to the prayerbook and the music, to say nothing of the congregation; the past is in the past. But it is present within me, and it informs me, and as I pray today’s prayers in today’s sanctuary I give honor to those layers of experience. And all of those layers are true. And all of those layers are sacred.

A few moments ago we recited from the Torah God’s command to bring gifts, in order to make God a sanctuary that God may dwell among us. And we could spend a lot of time on the minutia of the various gifts and what it means to make a physical sanctuary, a mishkan, a tabernacle. And there is a truth to that understanding, of wealth utilized for sacred purpose. And, I would suggest to you that, among the gold and silver and lapis lazuli and dolphin skins and crimson thread, one of the gifts we bring is the layers of our experience and memory. And that when we share those layers we are sharing what is most true about ourselves, our experience, our love: our past and present and even our future. And more than that; the prophet Jeremiah, in what could be taken as a commentary on this portion, said, “I did not speak to your ancestors nor command them in the day that I brought them out of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices; rather, this is what I commanded them, saying: ‘listen to my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. You shall walk in all the ways that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” Through our memories, through the layers of our experience, we can hear God’s voice, we can feel ourselves renewed and inspired again to fulfill God’s mitzvah. Different now, because we are different. But honoring and celebrating what came before.

The past is a gift, the layers of memory an offering, and from them we build a sanctuary of meaning and inspiration. And in that sanctuary we encounter holiness. And like the Torah, like the Old City of Jerusalem, like the song of a young man sung by one who’s lived a lifetime, it is true. Hey, Willow waly-O.

February 9, 2018

02/09/2018 09:04:59 AM


Rabbi Robinson

Update th

Parashat Mishpatim


I don’t know if you heard the news, but Wilmington has a Kosher restaurant for the first time in years, perhaps decades. And it’s not what you’d think. Last month, the Va’ad certified Dropsquad Kitchen, on the riverfront at Justison Landing, as our first kosher eatery. This is a big deal; sure, we’ve had froyo and ice cream joints and a cupcake shop with kosher certification, and you could get kosher food at Lodge Lane and the JCC, but it’s been a while since you could buy lunch or dinner out at a kosher place.


The question then becomes, what is Dropsquad kitchen? It’s not a new place; they’ve been on the riverfront since 2012. They’re a vegan, African American owned and operated soul-food restaurant. The name was chosen by the owner, Abundance Child, who took it from a Spike Lee movie. It’s a quirky place, filled with books and board games, the kind of place I would have loved to hang out in when I was in high school. The staff (who are mostly family) are thoughtful and welcoming and kind, and the food is delicious.

I’d been there before they got their heksher, and you know something? I’m absolutely thrilled. I have to tell you, I love the fact that it’s not what you’d expect from a kosher place; it’s not a deli, not a bagel place. Nothing about it says ‘Jewish’: no kreplach, no latkes, and certainly no gribnes. But so what? Why does that have to be our idea of kosher? And why not an African American business, downtown on the Riverfront as opposed to another eatery in Trolley Square or on 202 in North Wilmington? We had our DERECH meeting there this Tuesday and it was so great to get out of our own ruts, our own comfort zones, and I can’t wait to see as others in the Jewish community do the same.

For Dropsquad Kitchen to become kosher (and for the Va’ad to give them the heksher) is, of course, a business decision. But it’s more than that; it’s an experiment in radical empathy. Will Jews who want Kosher be willing to go downtown and eat vegan tacos (which are pretty awesome by the way), and will Dropsquad Kitchen want to welcome these folks in? Why wouldn’t the restaurant stick with its usual clientele and the Va’ad wait for someone to open up a more “classic” Jewish eatery? Specifically, because it gets us to see each other as part of a shared community, a shared experience. By eating kosher soulfood, it challenges us to understand the value of kashrut as more than just a particular ethnic cuisine but as a collection of values that are meant to lift us up and better ourselves and the world around us. When we get beyond our own boundaries, we stop being strangers to each other, and we become neighbors. And I can think of nothing more Jewish than that.

A few minutes ago I reminded us that the idea of loving and caring for the stranger, something that we are so familiar with in the Torah that it verges on pablum, is one of the most radical ideas in the ancient world and, I would argue, today. To say that we should take our shared experience of being the stranger, the resident alien, in Egypt, our narrative of being oppressed and ostracized, and transform that memory into radical empathy, is nothing short of revolutionary. As Rabbi Shai Held reminds us in The Heart of Torah, Scripture could have said, “since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you?” But that’s not what it said and not what I read; “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our memory is transformed from ethnic experience to intense ethical obligation, from an act of remembering for its own sake to one of moral responsibility. It’s not rational; we aren’t told “be kind to strangers because you might get something out of it”, or, “be kind to the resident alien in case they take over and you find yourself on the wrong end of a sword,” or, “let’s be kind to the resident alien, but only the good ones, the right ones who look like us and bother to get off the couch.” The appeal is entirely emotional. We’ve been there, we know what it’s like, and because we do we have an obligation to help when no one helped us; the immigrant Dreamer who dreams American dreams, the refugee fleeing persecution and death, and the African migrant coming to Israel hoping for safety and refuge, raising families and children, converting sometimes to Judaism, only to be told by the Jewish state that they should go to Rwanda. To forget our shared experience, our narrative, or to think it doesn’t make a moral demand of us, is to betray God, our Torah and ourselves. That’s what makes Dropsquad kitchen being kosher so amazing; a simple act of radical kindness. And that’s what makes our current debate around immigration, both here and in Israel, so infuriating. Yes, there is a comfort in hiding behind walls of our own making, but Torah compels us, compels us as surely as it compels us to keep the Sabbath or the holidays, to do differently, and to do better. That’s why we must act and work with JFS Rise program to welcome refugees. That’s why we must join with the Religious Action Center to call for a clean DREAM act. That’s why we must do what we must do to make sure those who are not from here, the resident alien, the stranger, know that they are welcome.

One of my favorite stories goes like this (you might know it from that great source of midrash, The West Wing): "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.

"A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

"Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

"Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"

We’ve been down here before, and we know the way out. And Torah reminds us what to do; we jump into the pit with them. Just let’s grab some vegan kosher tacos for the road first.

December 20, 2017

12/20/2017 09:29:26 AM


As Wilmington’s largest and most progressive Jewish congregation, we are saddened by the “for sale” sign out in front of our neighboring synagogue, Adas Kodesh Shel Emeth. The article in Monday’s News Journal describing their plans to sell the building and move was painful to read for the entire Jewish community and we will continue to be supportive of our friends at AKSE in whatever ways we are able.

As the leadership of a Congregation Beth Emeth, a thriving synagogue, we take exception to the allegation that synagogues in Delaware are in a race to the bottom that AKSE got unlucky enough to win. Our mission continues daily as we enrich and inspire each other and our greater community through teaching, learning, and rejoicing in our Jewish ideals and traditions while remaining committed to pluralism, diversity, and inclusivity.

The Reform movement of which we are a member, stresses building community both with our Jewish or non-Jewish brothers and sisters. We are working hard here in Delaware to connect people to an inclusive and joyful Judaism. And while yes, that Judaism may not resemble “traditional” Judaism, it is no less grounded in investing in a Jewish future than any of the other congregations in our state. We will continue to provide diverse and meaningful experiences for any who choose to be a part of our community, fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah, that we shall be a house of worship for all people.

Sermon October 27, 2017, Me Too

10/03/2017 01:33:39 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Me too.

Those are the words we're hearing and seeing again and again these few weeks. Girls. Women. Mom's. Grandmas. Black, white, Jewish. Affirmations that they, too had been sexually harassed.

Started as a campaign years ago by an African American activist, me too came back to the fore as a result of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which turns out to be a cascading scandal of Hollywood and political leaders being outed as harassers, abusers of power and authority.

Like many men, I've been watching and listening, horrified. What can one say to seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of responses from family and friends and allies and colleagues about their experiences?

I teach Torah. Torah is the lense through which I see the world and I look to the Torah and see another Me too moment. Sarai (eventually Sarah) and Avram (eventually Abraham) will, after reaching the promised Land, go down to Egypt to avoid famine. There, Avram will ask Sarai to pretend that she is his sister, fearful that Pharoah will kill him for her. So she plays along with the rest, and see enough, Pharaoh wants Sarai for his harem. As her brother, Abvram benefits beautifully with great wealth-a bride price. It takes a plague by God to stop Pharaoh, who banishes Avram and Sarai due to Avram’s actions.

Me too, says Sarai. Me too, victim not just of Pharoah’s power mad antics but also her husband's fear and failure to see his spouse as anything more than a bargaining chip.

We might say his story is a product of its time, but the text itself seems to be calling out Avram for his behavior. Certainly the rabbis pull all their hair out trying to justify, rationalize, and indeed, call Avram on the carpet for his behavior.

Me too, says the Torah.


Each of us have, at some point, witnessed harassment. How many times did we stand up against it, take the offending person behind the woodshed, sounded the alarm? How often did we meekly apologize to the victim, and make excuses? How often, after hearing accusations, did we try to justify an abuser's actions? How often did we do nothing?


The text holds up a model of behavior for us. Not Avram and certainly not Pharaohz but God. God intervenes. God stops the actual abuse. Now, we can't hit folks with a plague, but we can speak out. We can stand up. We can take victims’ stories seriously. We can and must. Even when it's hard. Even when we are fearful. If these women are brave enough to describe their moments of abuse and harassment, can we as bystanders really say we lack courage?


Sarai says Me too. God says: be a blessing. Let's choose to be a blessing.

Kol Nidrei 5778 Sermon

09/30/2017 09:33:54 PM


Rabbi Robinson

Tomorrow, thousands of people will gather in a communal act of love and justice. Actually, Two. One, is the holiday we begin tonight, a holiday that calls us to task and asks us to be our better selves. The other is the March for Racial Justice, a march taking place on Washington on a day, tomorrow, that is incredibly significant for African Americans, a day commemorating the massacre of hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919, one of too many days in American history drenched in blood. But by scheduling this march on Yom Kippur, it appeared as if the organizers were purposefully excluding Jews, who have been at the forefront of racial justice in North America, from David Einhorn and the abolitionists before the Civil War, to the Jewish Freedom Riders and rabbis who went to the south to fight for desegregation and voting rights, to today. It looked bad…until a day in late August, when the organizers put out an apology. A heartfelt one, recognizing the shared crisis of racism and antisemitism we are facing in the United States today and their own failure to recognize the date of Yom Kippur being in conflict. They could have stopped there, but they didn’t. They asked for forgiveness in the spirit of the holiday, recognized that self-denial and fasting is not just a spiritual act but one of resistance, and that we use the holiday to reflect on the ills of society and not only our personal failings. And while they couldn’t change the date of the primary march, they were adding other events afterwards and in other cities to create opportunities to include Jews as allies and partners in the work of racial healing and social justice.

In other words, they made Teshuvah.

Tonight, we begin our Day of Atonement, our last chance to reflect on our actions from the past year and decide what kind of people we want to be. The next 24 hours we will be focused, as commanded, on self-denial, mostly fasting, and concluding these 10 Days of Awe, themselves part of several weeks of penitence; a final, last-ditch effort to make Teshuvah, to turn in true repentance and try to live up to our better selves. Even more than that, the scholar Adin Steinsaltz describes Teshuvah as “the ever-present possibility of changing one’s life and the very direction of one’s life”, and “the possibility of altering reality after the fact.”

When we talk about Teshuvah, repentance, and kapparah, atonement, we often talk about the idea of selicha, of apology.  Classically, Teshuvah is made up of three parts: we are supposed to apologize for what we’ve done wrong, make amends or restitution to those we’ve offended, and make changes in our lives so that we don’t make the same mistake or cause the same harm again. But the focus is so often on asking forgiveness. Our liturgy emphasizes that idea of verbally saying “I’m sorry”, and we see all over social media and in person people saying something like, “if I have offended you I apologize and I forgive anyone who has offended me,” a catch-all reciprocal act of forgiveness. But Teshuvah is more than just the words we speak; it must be predicated on our actions as well. To merely ask for forgiveness without doing the hard work of literally turning ourselves around is really an invitation to failure. It’s setting an expectation that we will do better and be better without having prepared ourselves to do either. It’s the spiritual equivalent of running a marathon without having ever done any exercise; without the training, the buildup of muscle and endurance, both physical and mental, the race is already lost. Doesn’t matter if you paid the registration, got your number and had every intention of running and finishing; without the prep work, it’s over before it starts. The same is true for Teshuvah. To apologize is to set an expectation; that things will be different, that I will be better. That I will just somehow miraculously stop doing whatever it is I was doing to make the other person miserable. But without recompense and change in behavior, without doing some real hard work within my soul, then the words are only sounds.

And we each know someone who simply cannot apologize. To ask them to say, “I’m sorry” is a step too far. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people or incapable of being thoughtful or self-reflective; they just can’t say those words. Or perhaps that description resonates within us, ourselves. Maybe it’s too embarrassing, or it feels like weakness. But for whatever reason the words “I’m sorry”, meant to be a phrase that facilitates catharsis, instead becomes an obstacle to real Teshuvah.   

Is real Teshuvah, real repentance, possible without an apology? That’s tough. For many of us, hearing an apology is a necessary moment of engagement; it’s that point where we evaluate the sincerity of the offending individual. And, frankly, it’s sometimes self-satisfying to be told by someone that they were wrong and we were right. It’s gratifying to have someone come to us in humility. But is it truly necessary?

To understand that I want to share what I think is one of the greatest examples of contrition and Teshuvah in the modern experience, and the words “I’m sorry” were never spoken.

Many people wondered what President George W. Bush was going to do when he left office in 2009. At the time a deeply unpopular president, one who had presided over a Recession, two enormous wars, and one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States, “Dubya” was never one to apologize. In fact, he cast himself as a man of steely resolve, the “Decider” who, despite initially wanting to create a humbler presidency, never could admit a wrong, at least publicly. Surely there were tears shed privately, as we learned later, when confronted by the parents of soldiers sent off to war only to return broken, or not at all. But that was never articulated to the public.

So, it was a surprise to learn that this least-introspective president had taken up painting. Taking lessons and self-teaching, he seemed to be cultivating a quirky hobby in his political retirement, painting self-portraits, including of him coming out of the shower, which no one wanted to see. There were a lot of laughs at his expense as a result. But it turned out all of this was practice, laying a groundwork to focus on a specific project. Last year, it was revealed that former-President Bush had been learning to paint so he could paint the portraits of men and women he had ordered to serve in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom were profoundly wounded, either physically or psychologically. He released a book this year of his portraits, called “Portraits of Courage”, which highlight the biographies of the former soldiers he painted, many of whom suffered post-traumatic stress and brain injuries. The proceeds from the book go to an organization that helps wounded warriors with employment, treatment and recovery for their injuries, etc.

Friends, George W. Bush never apologized in the way the organizers for the March for Justice did. He never apologized for the forever wars we are still fighting. He never apologized for sending our children into harm’s way. He never asked this country’ forgiveness for his choices, and we’ll never know if he apologized to those men and women who did their duty, be it with enthusiasm or reluctance. But is there any other way to understand this effort? And how could we not open our hearts to this action, this choice, this act of contrition, no less profound than that of the March organizers gearing up for tomorrow. Each in their own way made a choice to alter reality after the fact, to open themselves up to the possibility that they could turn, and in turning, be reborn. That very same choice is before us; tonight, tomorrow, and each and every day. It’s only up to us to resolve that we will embrace those opportunities to alter ourselves and our experiences. May we have the courage to do so. Amen.



Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5778

09/22/2017 09:20:27 AM


Rabbi Elisa Koppel

When I was in sixth grade, a classmate of mine drew a swastika on the cover of one of my text books.  I’m not going to name him, because it doesn’t really matter.  And because I don’t think he really understood what he was drawing.  And because he’s a nice person.  And because we’re facebook friends and I don’t want to shame him.  I saw him at our last high school reunion and had a great conversation about religion and our own personal journeys.  I think that, at the time, when we were in sixth grade, he wanted to pick on me, knew I was Jewish, and knew that drawing that particular symbol was a way he could accomplish that—I doubt he really knew why.  I don’t really remember how I responded.  I think I erased it and tried to move on.  I’m fairly certain that I didn’t tell a teacher or my parents.  

The phenomenon of victims of hatred based acts, due to any kind of hate, no matter how small or large the act, not saying a thing, is a common one.  More than half of hate crimes go unreported, according to the Department of Justice.  Perhaps because those who are the receivers of such acts don’t want to make waves, or are embarrassed that something happened to them, or because they don’t think anything will realistically be done about it…too often, things happen and no one says a thing.  Which has the effect of the perpetrator of the act never learning that what they did was wrong.  And of any sort of real, systemic change being slow, because few realize or recognize the reality of what happens to individuals.

For this particular instance I shared, I think I just wanted to move beyond it.  Maybe to pretend it didn’t happen.  I’m fairly certain that this man does not recollect this incident—I don’t think it was a defining moment of his childhood, and I don’t think he did then or does now actually hate Jews.  

But quite frankly, the fact that this was a fairly innocent act, and not a hate fueled statement, actually makes the whole thing all the more frightening to me.  Because it shows that a swastika is a common enough symbol, that even someone who was neither Jewish nor a Nazi knew that it was antisemitic.  Because casual antisemitism was a thought that crossed the mind of this boy in the mostly white middle class suburb where we grew up.  Because such an act of hate was not something that likely had a lasting impact on him.  Because while I understood that this symbol on my book would worry the adults in my life, I wanted to hide it.  Because, to this day, I still think he’s a nice guy.  A nice guy who drew a swastika on the cover of my text book.

Antisemitism, prejudice, various forms of hatred have existed in this country since the beginning of its history.  But we’ve been able to largely pretend that they no longer exist, or that they aren’t at all wide spread.  Until recently, at least. 

When our JCC had repeated bomb threats earlier this year. When news of swastikas defacing all sorts of places became regular news stories, including some drawn on message boards outside of some dorm rooms at my alma mater, Brandeis University, just this week. And this summer, when we all watched images of torch bearing white nationalists, wielding confederate flags and nazi flags, marching in the streets of Charlottesville, VA.  Shouting, “Jews will not replace us.  YOU will not replace us.”  Forcing the members of a synagogue that was along the path of their march to leave Shabbat services through a back door, sneaking the Torah scrolls out to keep them safe, as well.  I don’t need to go into the violent details of that day,  which woke a lot of us to a realization that racism in this country is a real and present problem.

For many of us, the color of our skin does not mark us as different, so we often don’t think of ourselves as victims of racism.  But, in fact, by virtue of our connection to Judaism, our whiteness is conditional.  We, of course, are able to hide our Judaism—we are able to pass as white. But our passing whiteness doesn’t remove the hatred that exists. Charlottesville made it clear that racism and antisemitism not only go hand in hand, but are one in the same. 

We live in an odd time, in which Jews can and have risen to the highest of positions, but at the same time, face roadblocks and hatred.  While the glass ceiling may have been shattered for us, we still exist within glass houses, and have been taught not to throw stones.  Which, when stones are cast in our direction, becomes challenging.  And when stones are cast at others—because of their difference—we may want to help, but we don’t want the hatred to spread to us.  And we’re not the ones who are hating.   And we’re not sure what to do.  And, all too often, we do nothing.

The words of Martin Niemoller echo in our heads:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

A message both powerful and troubling, speaking to the need to speak out for others—and yet limited to speech and so focused on inaction, that they serve more as a confession than as an inspiration.  Earlier this year, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz wrote the following in response to Martin Neimoller (z”l):

First they came for transpeople and I spoke up -- because God does NOT make mistakes!

Then they came for the African Americans and I spoke up—

Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.

And then they came for the women and I spoke up—

Because women hold up half the sky.

And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—

Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.

And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—

Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.

And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—

Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.

They keep coming.

We keep rising up.

Because we Jews know the cost of silence.

We remember where we came from.

And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—

and THAT just won’t stand.

Indeed, the hatred we see in our world cannot stand—we must speak out and we must stand up.  Whether the hatred is against us because we are Jews, or against others because of the color of their skin, racism is real and we cannot stand for that.

We can do better.

We can start by listening.  To noticing hateful acts when they occur.  And to really hear when others point out racism that they’ve seen or experienced.  To not argue against it but to accept that the person experienced it, and consider how we can help them, or even how we ourselves can act differently.  And maybe even ask questions so that we can learn more. And enter into dialogue to better understand.

It’s been virtually impossible this past week to not be aware that something is happening with the NFL, other than football games, as some players from every team knelt or stood arm in arm with teammates during the National Anthem, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the anthem last year, to protest racial oppression.  At first, he sat during the anthem.  But then, Nate Boyer, a former green beret and NFL player, wrote a public letter to Kaepernick, in which he expressed, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.”  Kaepernick responded by inviting Boyer to sit down and have a conversation—and then the men talked.  Eric Reid, another player, joined them.  According ESPN, “Boyer, Kaepernick and Reid agreed that the divided nature of the country right now is making it difficult to communicate clearly about complicated issues. They hope that people see and understand their conversation, and that it will lead those who can effect change to have similar discussions.”  It was out of that conversation, honoring the views of each of the 3 men, that the 3 men collectively decided that Kaepernick should kneel instead of sit—an act still problematic to many, but one that was formed out of 3 people having a complicated conversation, which can lead to others having such discussions, which is the only way that we can see change.  And they’re right.  

Change needs to happen.  And change is difficult and sometimes messy.  But change is necessary.  And we can only see that change when we hear each other, when we listen to each other, and when we try to understand the perspective of another.  To learn to use the experience of others in order to notice and respond to the racism around us.  

We should do better.

Let us be aware that this is a problem that exists even within the walls of synagogues.  A rabbinical student, my friend Eric Uriarte, in his recent student sermon at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, spoke about his experience as a Jew of Color.  He said, “When we take off our Jewish garb, our skin color and our ethnic markers continue to make us the target of white supremacists.  But when we put them on, I’m sorry to say, those same elements can make us feel excluded in Jewish spaces.”  His experience is not unique.  For many Jews of color, they have been welcomed into Jewish spaces with questions of their legitimacy as Jews—what they are doing there, what their Jewish background is—or assumptions are made that they do not know how to follow a service.  That they must be at the synagogue for another reason, other than to pray.  That because of their color, they must not be Jewish—or not really be Jewish. 

None of these stories are ones that I have heard about this community.  But I’ve heard enough such stories—and even witnessed some—that I recognize Jews of color not feeling included is an ongoing challenge for the Jewish community as a whole. 

We must do better.  

I am not suggesting that racism is the fault of any of us.  I am not suggesting that any of us are racists. 

But let us remember that the Hebrew word for sin, het, actually means missing the mark—it’s an archery term.  And that definition recognizes that even when we are trying our best, even when we are aiming to get things right, sometimes we make mistakes.  We must be open to that idea, and we must determine to continue to try.  We must know that even though we are not racists, we might sometimes do something or say something that has been perceived by a person of color through the lens of race.  Just like we can name moments at which someone innocuously said something to us or around us that we experienced as antisemitic, even though they didn’t mean it, we must be open to the idea that sometimes we have unintentionally participated in racism.

And I do believe that we bear a communal responsibility.  Our liturgy on these High Holy Days reminds us of that with the plural language of our confessional prayers; words that we all read, even if we ourselves have not committed a particular act.  We have gone astray.  We have sinned.  We have done these things.  We might not have acted through hatred based prejudice, but we still confess.  We might not be racists ourselves, but we know that there are others who are.  We may not be the cause, but we still participate in, and sometimes even benefit from, a system in which racism is inherent and bias is real. Al chet shechatanu l’faneicha—for all the ways through which we have missed the mark in ending racism, we pray for forgiveness.  And we resolve to change.  

We will do better.

We must speak out.  Just as thousands are marching against racism in Washington today, as Rabbi Robinson spoke about last night, I am protesting racism through my words today.  I hope that we all take our place in the chain of Jewish tradition of Kivie Kaplan and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and speak out against the systemic racism that still exists.  This is the prophetic voice that must inform us.  This is the fast, as Isaiah reminds us, that is demanded.

We must speak out and we must also speak up.  We must not stand for racist comments—and let it be known when we observe racism happening.  And we must do this for ourselves, as well.

Allie Gurwitz, a student of mine from San Antonio is now at Georgetown University.  In response to swastikas being painted around her campus, she recently posted the following:

I don't normally post things like this on Facebook but as Elie Wiesel said, "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." To whatever individual or group is responsible for the growing number of swastikas being painted in different locations on campus: I am not afraid. We are not afraid. The Jewish community at Georgetown is strong and proud. Your hate has no place here and will not be tolerated. Spread love today.

She’s right.  We must speak out.  We must not be afraid.  And we must combat hate through love.  And darkness through light.  To pursue justice is our sacred mandate.  Our holy task is to bring the light of justice into our world.  We are taught so many times in the Torah that we must care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Through our communal history, and through our personal experience, we must remember that we will not stand for hatred expressed towards us nor towards anyone else.  We must act in accordance with building the world that we want to see—to be the light for justice so that we can know a world of justice.  A world of righteousness.  A world of peace.  

Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Ken Y’hi Ratzeinu, may this be OUR will.

Rosh Hashanah Sermon

09/22/2017 09:16:00 AM


Rabbi Robinson

In the village where I grew up, down the street from the home-made ice cream place and the library, across the street from the playground where I went as a kid and I used to take my son, there is a magical place. It’s a red-painted barn- like building, kind of out of place for New England, with the words 1856 Country Store on the side, but everyone knows it as the Penny Candy Store. It’s the place in the village to get sweatshirts, soap, doodads, knickknacks, a newspaper, and yes, penny candy. It’s the perfect spot to meet your friends or take your kid after story time or some time on the playground, and the best spot to stand in front of to watch the Memorial Day parade every year. On either side of the door are two white, painted benches; one says “Democratsdemocrats” on it, the other “Republicansrepublicans”. It’s supposed to be for a laugh, these two benches divided by the entranceway, a cute photo you take. This past summer as I was walking with my family past I looked at those benches, and suddenly it wasn’t so cute any more.

There’s been a lot of discussion since last high holidays on how divided we are, and how ugly and angry those divisions have become. We read about neighbors who can’t stand to look at each other anymore getting into screaming matches and even spitting on each other; racist and anti-Semitic and homophobic attacks in the wake of the election. And it isn’t just Rightright vs. Leftleft; it seems to me that we’re increasingly in the middle of an all-out scrum of all versus all; left-wing organizations shunning Jews because of Zionism, right-wing groups and individuals threatening those who don’t observe intellectual purity. And all those discussions have been filled with a great deal of blame and accusation; whose fault is it that we’re so divided. Which, of course, fosters more division, more hostility, more anger. I don’t know about you; maybe you’re over it. Maybe you feel like this issue has been talked to death and you just want to be left alone. For me, as a father, as a rabbi, as a man, it’s scary. It’s exhausting. And it’s sad. It’s increasingly clear that we cannot move forward as a country and a community in this fashion. As human beings, we ache for connectivity; we are social animals and we want to be able to be in relationship with one another in peace. Forget about politics for a moment; in my neighborhood, there are two neighbors that are having a constant war with one another about the Lord knows what, but it’s constant and they are always trying to suck everyone else into this fight. Perhaps you have had similar experiences. It’s really uncomfortable, to the point of worrying about folks’ safety. I’m not saying we all have to be best buddies, but a minimum level of civility goes a long way to keeping the peace. We hunger for that civility, need to reclaim it and restore it to a prominent place in our society.

Therefore, as Jews, as human beings, we are compelled to act. Our tradition teaches us the importance of peace: in text after text we are reminded that the pursuit of peace is among the most important tasks before usu. Famously we are taught Bakesh shalom v’rodfei hu; Seek peace and pursue it. And the sages of old have understood that text to mean that, while other mitzvot are conditional, circumstantial; perhaps we could do whatever we’re commanded to do, perhaps not; this. This mitzvah, however, is not conditional. If there is no opportunity to make peace, we make an opportunity to make peace.  And in the spirit of the new year, I’d like to suggest that we now could make that opportunity, to start over, and spend this year in our daily lives rebuilding what has been broken, healing the divisions we see in our midst.

To pursue peace, we must ask the question: what do we mean by that word, peace? The word can too easily conjure up a certain kind of cynicism; “can’t we all just get along” type stuff. Let me be clear by what I mean by this action, and what I don’t mean. In the spirit of Maimonides, I’ll begin with what I don’t mean. I do not mean capitulation on deeply held beliefs. I do not mean moral ambivalence or relativism, that somehow ‘many sides’ can all be equally right. Peace doesn’t merely mean quiet or order. This is not about shutting people up or shutting people down. Indeed, I’d argue that doing so is no peace at all. Many of us feel quite strongly about a whole range of issues, have attended rallies and vigils and protests; peace does not mean going home and shutting up. It does not mean minimizing folks’ lived experiences. None of those things lead to peace. They may lead to quiet, and it might lead to order, but the ache, the anger, the issues that were there before will still seep out, will still curdle our relationships with one another. I’m guessing all of us have apologized at some point or another for something we didn’t feel guilty of, just to get the conversation over and avoid the conflict. And I’m also guessing each of us have tried to share a deeply held belief—perhaps even with close friends—only to be shouted down, perhaps without the other person even understanding our point of view. Maybe we were doing the shouting. How many of us are still carrying the scars from that, still holding onto the anger we felt, the frustration we felt. How many of us are still carrying that around with us? Does that sound like peace to you?   As we read in the prophets, we are forbidden to proclaim “peace! Peace! Peace! When there is no peace.”

So, what is the pursuit of peace, really? What does our tradition mean when it compels us to seek peace and pursue it? First and foremost, it means recognizing our shared humanity. If we take seriously the idea from our Torah that all of us are created in God’s image, then we have a moral obligation to lift that up for ourselves and each other. Sounds easy, but it’s really, really hard. To stop for a moment, stop our own anxieties, our own agenda, our own business long enough to look at the person and see that it is, in fact, A PERSON you’re looking at, requires a great deal of compassion and patience. Especially if they’re yelling at you. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who has done a tremendous amount of conflict transformation work, especially between Jews and Palestinians, talks about when she’s in difficult conversations, sometimes painful conversations with others, and before she responds with her own anger, her own need to be right, takes a deep breath and, looking at each person, says silently to herself ‘betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim.” –“Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image.”

In those moments, when we want to just take the other person apart, to respond defensively, it takes a willingness to put down our own weapons, to not, in conflict, fight to win. Rabbi Elisa Koppel last year shared the idea of makhlokeht l’shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven. Our tradition does not presume that conflict will cease to exist; there will always be conflict. But, how can we make said conflicts constructive, thoughtful, and productive?. How can we avoid demonizing the other side, making broad generalizations of everyone who disagrees with me? It might feel good in the moment, but is the hangover worth it? I’ve been a Rotarian for a few years now, as is my father, and the hallmark for the Rotary organization is something called the Four-Way test. The Four-way test asks us to take the following questions into account before we speak with one another: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill? Is it to everyone’s benefit? It’s meant to be nonsectarian and nonpartisan, but I can’t help but think of it as awfully Jewish. Can you imagine having those four questions in your head before you spoke? I don’t know about you, but I think it would help make a whole lot of conflicts much more meaningful, and who knows, perhaps we might learn something from the other as a result.

That idea of learning, of being open and curious rather than closed and determined, is essential to the work of pursuing peace as well. That doesn’t mean being soft. It doesn’t mean giving up what we believe. It does mean being humble; listening to the other without interruption, even when it is hard. Perhaps especially when it is hard. It means being quick to listen carefully and slow to interject. It means being aware of one’s own feelings in the heated moment and recognizing them as authentic but not letting them drive the conversation. I’ve often shared my teacher Rabbi David Ellenson’s story of how, when he and his wife would get into a disagreement and the conversation got too heated she would say “David, this is where you can either be right or be married.” Our need to win cannot and should not take precedence over our need to maintain a relationship; we must respond graciously and acknowledge our own limits. So, when the person shares their pain, their own lived experience, we would be wise to listen respectfully, and expect the same from the person we’re speaking to, and apologize quickly if what we say in reflection turns out to be hurtful. That’s not being politically correct, it’s not being policed, it’s being a mensch; it’s being kind. And I think we can agree that we could use a little more kindness. Last Sukkot Ivan Thomas, who created #wearelove, came and led our congregation in a process where we could listen deeply and respectfully to each other’s stories. I doubt anyone who was there that night could say that they didn’t learn something new about the world, the person they interacted with, or themselves. And when we open ourselves up, when we respond with curiosity, we create the opportunity to do exactly that kind of learning. In contrast, Rabbi Eilberg recounts in her book From Enemy to Friend how she went to an academic panel where the moderator asked each panelist to ask the other a question, and one admitted she honestly couldn’t think of one question she could ask the others. They were so used to articulating their point of view, defending their point of view, that they hadn’t thought what it would mean to listen to one another.

By now you’ve probably realized that the kind of peace I’m describing is hard to achieve, especially in a world where it’s easy to go on the internet, see something that makes our blood boil and then go bananas. To do this work takes intentionality, self-awareness, humility and courage. Yes, courage: the courage to be vulnerable in the moment, to open yourself up to someone else’s world view. It takes compassion, honoring the holiness in the other, and a generosity of spirit. It’s not easy; we’ve fallen out of the habit. We want to repost memes and scream into the face of the other—and there’s always an “Other”. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. What if we committed to taking these values and, when we encounter someone with whom we disagree, someone with whom we’re in conflict, work to make them a part of the encounter. What if we strive, each one of us, to be a little more curious, a little humbler, a little more willing to listen to each other. A little more willing to hear someone else’s pain, and be aware of our own. A little more willing to transform the conflict rather than avoid it. Look, we’re not going to magically become the Dalai Llama or Reb Nachman of Bratzlav or Pope Francis—and frankly, each one of them have had moments they weren’t proud of. Each one of us, no matter how hard we try, will fall. God knows I have. But that’s not the point; the point is to pursue peace. We may never achieve it, not fully nor perfectly, but we must still seek out those opportunities and embrace them to the best of our abilities. Maybe we only change one conversation; sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference in this world.

The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote the following:

In the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow in the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled like a yard.

But doubts and loves dig up the world like a

Mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place where the

Ruined house once stood.

Do we want to be right or in relationship? Do we want to continue to trample the ground and each other in service to our rage and pain, or do we want to plant new flowers of love and understanding? In this new year, I am going to commit myself to pursuing peace. I am going to commit myself to seek understanding, to respect and reflect, and to do what I can to shape the conflicts I encounter into conflicts for the sake of Heaven. And I deeply believe that, if each of us commits as well, we can begin to change the world around us, to move toward a culture of peace. As you leave today you will find the Rodef Shalom Agreement, a brit, a covenant you make with yourself. I encourage you to take one, and begin to do the work of exploring what it would mean for each of us to be that person in our lives. May it be so. Amen.


Erev of Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017

08/24/2017 01:05:06 PM


Rabbi Robinson

It was a hot day this past July, and it looked like the Old City of Jerusalem was going to explode. A few days before, three Israeli Arabs had killed two Israeli Druze police officers near the Temple Mount. Security forces had closed off the area and then reopened it with metal detectors. Israeli Arab leaders and the leadership of the Waqf, the religious authority that supervises Muslim holy sites in Israel, staged a protest, and began calling for a day of rage. Three Israelis were killed when someone broke into their home, and three Palestinians were killed in rioting. For those of us watching this past summer, it appeared that once again Israel would be embroiled in violence.

In response to the increased tensions, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an American Israeli journalist who has been living in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, stood outside and, with a few friends, handed out popsicles to passersby. She started with popsicles she had paid for out of pocket, and by the end of the day merchants were donating them entire boxes.

She wrote the following of the experience:

On Thursday, a group of us stood in front of the Austrian hospice at the intersection of Al Wad and Via Dolorosa and handed out (parve) popsicles to anyone who would accept.

Men carrying prayer rugs on their way to the Mosque.

Guys going to the Western Wall.

Families walking north and south and back again.

A baffled looking priest and two nuns.

A guy in Border Police with braces on his teeth.

A pilgrim from Russia wearing a giant cross and strappy sandals.

A bunch of tourists from Ohio.

Lots and lots and lots of kids.

Anyone who would accept a popsicle got one.


Because it's *** hot out.

And we may come from different cultures and religions, we may speak different languages and see the world through different eyes, but we are all a sum part of chemical and biological processes, and we all get hot.

And when we get hot we get irritated and the tensions that are already there can ignite.

Also, the Old City is my home and I believe in treating my neighbors with respect during good times, and bad.

As it happened, the next day, Israel removed the security apparatuses and tensions were calmed.

I suspect many of us, as touched as we are by Sarah’s gesture (on her birthday, no less) find it lovely but Pollyanna-ish. How do popsicles solve the crisis between Palestinian and Jew in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan RIver? How does this account for the Waqf’s incitement, fanning the flames of violence? How does it deal with the Palestinian Authority continuing to pay the families of terrorists, including the three who killed the Druze police officers? How do popsicles deal with olive groves destroyed by settlers who build on hilltops that don’t belong to them? What do popsicles do to protect our kids at college when someone paints a swastika on their dorm room door? How does this really resolve anything? We see the picture of Sarah handing out popsicles, and it’s lovely, and kind, yet by the time we’re done thinking about the matzav, the situation, we get ourselves so worked up that it feels futile and hopeless and irrelevant.

When I was a kid I had a book from AIPAC called “Myths and Facts”, a guide to talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, that was meant to help someone who would get caught up in a conversation about Israel and quickly get overwhelmed. That’s because the conversation is overwhelming. Because when we speak of Israel, we are often very quick to speak of technicalities: dates and maps and green lines and technical marvels, who did what when, who is to blame and who is responsible, who really actually truly cares about others? And what’s worse, the diversity of Zionist organizations on the left and the right has created increasing fracture within the Jewish community, including here in Delaware. Myths And Facts was meant for Jews to speak with non-Jews, but it seems that we have reached the point where we may feel that we need it internally, not just externally. It was one thing to combat well-meaning non-Jewish peaceniks who would carry the claim that Zionism was racism. Now we have the ZOA, AIPAC, J-Street, ARZA, IfNotNow, Open Hillel and many other organizations whose relationship with Zionism is complex and nuanced, which would be great, if we were living in a time of complex and nuanced discussion and debate. But increasingly, we have been living in a world of alternative facts, fake news, insistence that if the person across from me disagrees with me even in the slightest bit, they are not just wrong, they are my enemy and the enemy of all I hold dear. To be a J-Street supporter in the eyes of many is to betray the Jewish state to an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, while to be an AIPAC supporter is to capitulate to an Israeli Prime Minister unwilling and unable to make peace. Is ARZA fighting to create space for Reform Jews to practice an egalitarian Judaism at the Western Wall, or a distraction undermining the fabric of Israeli society and Judaism as we know it? Does the ZOA advocate for a strong Jewish State or is it a racist organization advocating bigotry against Arabs? These are actual discussions that are taking place, if you can call them ‘discussions’. More like weaponized sentences, screaming matches, skirmishes that have casualties. As one example, a student of mine, now in college, shared this experience with me: She was getting ready to go on a birthright trip, one geared toward LGBT individuals, that would coincide with Israel Pridefest. She wrote: “Before the trip I had gotten anti-Israel hate on campus (anti-Trump protests saying if you didn't vote to divest then you don't believe in human rights, friends saying Zionism has no place in feminism) and my best friend told me she cancelled her trip with me because she couldn't "morally go to Israel" but nobody was like actually attacking me for going cuz I kept it on the down low since I knew so many of my friends legitimately hated Israel and would make laugh about terrorism on twitter. Only after I went did I have people be blatantly anti-Semitic to me on twitter because of my trip and people passive aggressively post articles about pink washing the day I got back” . Can you imagine having friendships ruined, trips ruined, relationships blown apart? That is what is happening, and this is being repeated over and over again. My friends, we are tearing each other apart.

Friends, if we keep talking about Israel through technicalities, as if it were a zero-sum game, without nuance or complexity or an acknowledgement of each other’s lived experiences, then we are not going to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. We are not going to stop dumb college kids from saying dumb and terrible things and doing dumb and terrible things. We aren’t going to be able to support the kind of Israel we want to see—strong and diverse and safe. We are creating a no-man’s land within the Jewish community; no one wants to talk about Israel. I’ve seen it for years: a survey came out two years ago of rabbis across all three major movements that indicated the majority refrained from discussing Israel because they feared for their jobs; one prominent rabbi in the Northeast who does a great deal of social justice work told a group of us ten years ago to approach the topic of Israel gingerly, and treat it as a third rail in synagogue politics. And we see it in Delaware. How many people are still giving to ARZA, or are willing to go to an AIPAC or J-Street policy conference, or at least tell others? How many look over both shoulders while at Temple before talking about Israel so as not to get into a fight? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been without an Israel Advocacy Chair for more than two years, a Board position! Because no one wants to touch it.

So let’s go back to those popsicles, shall we? Did some blonde woman from LA who now lives in Jerusalem handing out popsicles resolve the borders, water rights, Palestinian Right of Return and the boundaries of Jerusalem? Nope. Did it resolve the issue on the Temple Mount? Nope. Did it bring back the lives of those killed—the policemen, the family, the young people at the protest? Sadly, no. But it was a human gesture, a recognition that the people shared a city, shared a love for that city, and a love for each other as well. It was neighborly, it was kind. And it allowed the people to be people, to recognize the humanity in one another, even for one brief, cool, sweet, drippy moment.

We need more of those moments. We need more opportunities that are safe, where we can sit with our fellow congregants and speak from our lived experiences, talk about what Israel means to each one of us personally. We need to start not at 30,000 feet, at borders and drip irrigation and the like. That doesn’t mean that isn’t interesting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool, but that’s not our starting point. Our starting point needs to be each other. Why do we care about Israel? What does that look like to me, or to you? Where does it come from? How does it relate to the rest of our lives? How can we listen and affirm that connection, deepen it, relate to it, let it resonate for ourselves? How does Israel challenge us, upset us? How do we create space to listen to one another, not scream the so-called correct answers at one another?

This year, I want to try an experiment; an experiment in listening. Over the course of this year, there will be sessions, held over several months, beginning in October and culminating in May. The purpose of them is to create the space to talk about Israel, to listen to each other in a safe space, and to build relationships. No other agenda, no convincing one another of being right or wrong, no yelling, no screaming, no Myths and no Facts. Only listening deeply and seeing the humanity in one another, and acknowledging each other’s experiences. I can’t promise there will be popsicles, but my prayer is that we’re able to come together and speak honestly and compassionately, to hear one another even when it’s difficult. Because it’ll be no good if we only speak platitudes and avoid the subject; that’s what we’ve got now and it’s not doing anything either. We need to be able to be honest, but to be able to hear one another clearly as well, not just prepare our next fusillade. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, in her book From Enemy to Friend, talks about “skilled disagreement”, and this will help guide our conversations. Ideas like: we can be critical of ideas but not people, we can separate our personal worth from criticism of our ideas, we listen to everyone, even when we don’t agree, we try to understand one another and stand in a posture of curiosity, asking questions. I’ll be going into greater detail about those ideas tomorrow, but that is the intention. I cordially invite you—all of you, each of you—to come and participate, to share, to be present, to create those moments of empathy with one another. Perhaps it will lead to something concrete for the synagogue—a new Israel committee, a new program—or perhaps it will just mean that the participants got to know each other better and learned how to speak thoughtfully. Perhaps we will choose to extend the conversation: to the rest of Delaware’s Jewish community, to the non-Jewish community, or perhaps not. What’s most important is that we do it. Because if we do not start here, each one of us, in this congregation, then I fear our relationship with Israel will become increasingly tenuous, and our relationship with one another ever more brittle. And should that happen, then we cannot advocate for Israel, at least not effectively. And are we really ready to give up on the Hope and the dream of a Jewish people, Free in our land?

The rabbis of old ask, “Who is the hero of heroes? The one who makes an enemy into a friend.” May we, through our listening and our kindness learn to keep our friends “friends”, and see those around us not as enemies but as potential friends, then may our words be as sweet to one another as a popsicle on a summer’s day. Amen

Rabbi Robinson Sermon August 25,2017

08/24/2017 01:02:44 PM


In the summer of 1958, Groucho Marx took his daughter Melinda, friend Robert Duan and Robert’s daughter Judy for a six week trip to Europe, including a visit to Germany. While in Germany, they attempted to visit the cemetery where Groucho’s grandmother was buried, only to find the entire Jewish section had been eradicated by the Nazis. A few days later, Groucho hired a car to take them to East Berlin, where he asked to see the remains of Hitler’s bunker and last resting place. They found it much the way it was right after the war; a heap of wreckage and rubble. Marx got out of the car, stood atop it, and proceeded to do a frenetic Charleston routine; an ultimate act of defiance. No one laughed. They left Germany the next day.

It’s worth reflecting on that image, of Groucho Marx literally dancing on the grave of Hitler, without even a hint of humor in the moment, as we continue to process the events of the last few weeks. Rabbi Koppel, in conversation with me, reflected that it seemed as if the march in Charlottesville sent the entire Jewish community into shock, and that we were—are—still wrestling with what we should be doing. I mentioned this to a non-Jewish colleague, who said that he shared with his congregation the following question, based on the prophets: are we responding to the Tiki-torch Nazis out of righteousness or out of rage?

We might ask the question whether or not it matters; why shouldn’t we respond out of our own rage and pain? Wouldn’t we be justified to react in that fashion? To meet the forces of evil—and lets be clear, we are discussing evil—in the same manner they approach us?

This week we read in our Torah those words that we as Jews, and especially as Reform Jews, have clung to for generations; tzedek tzedek tirdof, Justice, Justice you shall pursue. The Hasidic leader Rabbi Simcha Bunim understands the repetition of the word tzedek—Justice—to mean that we must pursue justice in a just way. We cannot, must not say the ends justify the means, for to do so means that we are no longer truly pursuing a just, compassionate and sacred world. Instead we are pursuing our own agenda, one filled with bad intentions. Or, through our actions, no matter our intent, instead of spreading justice, we create the fertile ground for more injustice in the world. We have seen this again and again as people who once pursued righteousness now seek to feed their own egos, or well-intentioned programs and efforts turn out to backfire on the very people they were supposed to help. So it is with us as well in this moment. I know it’s scary right now, and exhausting, and sad, and infuriating. The old punk in me would like nothing better than to curb-stomp some skinhead thugs. But that isn’t justice; it’s not even close. Surely the times demand that we act and act we must. But we won’t become them. We will not allow their hate, their penchant to violence, their disdain for justice to make us act out of fear and rage. We will not let them dictate the rules of the game. No; we will act with a defiant love in our hearts, a love for God and this world and our neighbors and our tradition as radical and provocative as dancing on Hitler’s grave. We will not shrink from our mission as Jews, but step forward, reminding others of God’s hidden light in the world, that will only be revealed when we lift up the poor, support the oppressed, and care for the stranger in our midst, for we know what it means to be the stranger. We will act with courage, but not hate, strength but not rage, justice but not zealousness. The moment is calling to us, and we must answer the call, to do justice justly in the world and cause the shadow of hate to crawl back under the rock.

In 1941 Woody Guthrie put the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. His music was his weapon against tyranny and hate. Groucho’s weapon against injustice was a crazy Charleston. Our weapon is Torah, guiding the work of our hands and the words we speak. We move forward, mindful of the words of the psalmist we say from now until Rosh Hashanah, Hope in God! Be strong and of good courage. Hope in God! Amen.

08/24/2017 01:02:23 PM


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Scattering Light: Shabbat Sermon August 18, 2017

08/18/2017 09:41:41 PM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

If you'd prefer to listen to this sermon, click here:

It’s been a challenging week in the world. A week full of hatred. Full of violence. Full of fear. A week in which torch wielding Nazis rallied in the streets. A week which brought injury to many and death to one who opposed the white supremacists. A week in which Boston’s Holocaust Memorial was vandalized for a second time this summer. A week in which multiple vehicle attacks led to one of the most violent days in Spain’s recent history, injuring hundreds and killing more than a dozen individuals. A week in which reports on those attacks indicate that even worse violence had been planned. A week for which I have no words, and yet for which silence doesn’t seem to suffice either. 

A week in which, the world felt smaller. Drawn together through sympathy and through empathy. Drawn together around scattered computers and televisions and smart phones—hanging on to bits of news as they came in, and sharing in a diverse chorus of prayers for the well being of all who have suffered from the events of this week. Drawn together through fear of what comes next, and what this all means. Drawn together by shared emotional shock, and the need to respond, and not knowing how to even begin.

A week in which many of us bought glasses to safely view the coming solar eclipse, as we watched an unfiltered moral eclipse form around us. In the face of the reality of evil, theologian Martin Buber suggested that there is an Eclipse of God. That God is present, but hiding. Rabbi Jeff Salkin, my colleague, mentor, and friend, who will visit us in February for our Scholar in Residence Weekend, wrote a piece this week in which he (in his words) picks a fight with this theology. He writes: 

"As compelling as it might sound, and as powerful the image might be, I do not believe that God is in eclipse when evil happens.

What went into eclipse in Charlottesville, and in the days after Charlottesville?

Yes, it was a coming attraction of the solar eclipse.

What went into eclipse was:

    •    The human conscience.

    •    Human decency.

    •    The ethics of historical memory

…It is not human sinfulness that creates eclipses (as the sages taught; that is why there is no Jewish blessing for the sighting of an eclipse).

Rather, human sinfulness pushes our own humanity into eclipse."

As we watch the eclipse this week, perhaps we can use it to remind us of what is eclipsed in our world—and as a call to us towards action. To right that which is wrong—to bring the light of justice and righteousness to a darkened world. 

Rabbi Neal Gold wrote this week about Charlottesville. He notes that,

“In this week’s Torah portion we read two seemingly contradictory verses:

אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן

There shall be no needy among you (Deut. 15:4)

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ

There will never cease to be needy ones in your land (Deut. 15:11).

Which is it? Will there be people in need in the future or not?”

Citing the commentary of Richard Elliott Friedman, he continues: 

"Verse 11 doesn’t mean that there will always be people in desperate straits; the Hebrew word yehdal ("cease") means that it won’t come to a stop on its own. If you want suffering to disappear, you’ve got to do something about it, reaching out to hurting brothers and sisters.

So it is with extreme hate. It isn’t just going to go away—not unless people of good faith come together and clearly articulate our vision of a decent and just society, and demand that elected leaders make it so."

That must be the vision towards which we rise.  That vision of a world that is brightened as the eclipse fades into memory is what we must work towards.  And while we cannot complete this task on our own, the rabbis remind us that it is still our responsibility to begin this work.  This is our mission: to stand up against hatred with messages of love, of justice, and of righteousness.

Exactly 227 years ago (to the day), President George Washington wrote his famous letter to the Jews of Newport, RI. His words hearken as true today as they were likely read in their original time. He speaks of the United States government, “Which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  And in the final lines, he offers the following hope:

"May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. 

May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy."

May we know a time in which all citizens of this country, of this world, know a world of peace in which none are made to be afraid. May this week, as we usher in a new month, leading up to a new year, bring renewal, hope, and light. May light be scattered upon each of our paths, and our collective paths—and may we be among those who scatter that light. 

Ken Y’hi Ratzon

08/18/2017 09:40:43 PM


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08/18/2017 09:39:14 PM


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08/18/2017 09:38:54 PM


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08/18/2017 09:38:38 PM


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08/18/2017 09:38:22 PM


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July 28, 2017

07/27/2017 01:37:37 PM


Yair D. Robinson

Parashat D’varim


In several of his books, Martin Buber tells the story of a famous Hassidic rabbi, Abraham Yaakov of Sadagora. The rabbi insisted that something can be learned from everything, even from the inventions of his time.

"Everything can teach us something, and not only everything God has created. What man has made has also something to teach us."
"What can we learn from a train?" one [student] asked dubiously.
"That because of one second one can miss everything."
"And from the telegraph?"
"That every word is counted and charged."
"And the telephone?"
"That what we say here is heard there."

This week we begin Deuteronomy, whose Hebrew name is “Words”, Devarim. Specifically, these are the words Moses shares before Israel enters the land, the words Moses has chosen to inspire and educate his people before they fulfill their destiny without him. The rabbis imagine him not just speaking from the mountaintop, but also speaking quietly to each Israelite in the way he or she could understand, taking the time to speak to each person with care. Compare that to our current experience with words. It seems that every day we see what happens when words are treated thoughtlessly, and the damage that can happen when we fail to account for our words, or who might be listening. Whether it’s damaging and offensive words in a tweet or hurled directly at someone with whom we disagree, regardless of relationship, our words and the timing of those words matter.

Next week is also Tisha B’av, the holiday commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and the Rabbis of the Talmud understood the reason for that destruction being sinat chinam, senseless hatred, inspired by callous and careless words. I don’t observe the 9th of Av for a host of reasons, but let me suggest that we should spend this week reflecting on how we use our words. Are we taking a good account of our words? Are we mindful of who is listening? Are we taking the opportunity to speak lovingly with one another? May we fulfill the words of our prayerbook, the words of the psalms, O God, open our lips that our mouths may proclaim you Glory, in all we say. Amen.

May 19, 2017Rabbi Robinson·         Proclaim Liberty throughout the land” . Where do we find these words?o   On the Liberty bell, and also in this week’s Torah portion ·     

04/28/2017 09:28:40 AM


Rabbi Robinson April 28, 2017

Once Rabbi Elimelekh had his friend Rabbi Mendel as a guest for dinner. As it happened, that night, Rabbi Elimelekh’s servant forgot to set out a spoon at Rabbi Mendel’s place. Everyone was eating except Rabbi Mendel, who sat looking at his soup. The Tzaddik observed this and asked: Why aren’t you eating? Well, said Rabbi Mendel, I don’t have a spoon.

Look, said Rabbi Elimelekh, one must know enough to ask for a spoon, and a plate too, if need be!

There are two ways to look at this story. One is that Rabbi Elimelekh should have made sure that Rabbi Mendel had a spoon. Quite rude and unwelcoming. But the other is Rabbi Elimelekh’s point; that Rabbi Mendel, seeing his situation, should have asked self-advocated, and asked for help. We can’t wait for someone to notice whether we’re in distress; we have to ask.

And here’s the thing; we’re not good at asking for help. We’re great at offering help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited someone in the hospital after surgery and asked if they wanted the caring committee to reach out, only to be told with a dismissive wave of the hand that they used to be on the caring committee. We’re happy to be the one who supports; we’re less thrilled to be on the receiving end. Maybe it feels infantilizing, or as Americans, it feels weak. I don’t know. What I do know is that our tradition teaches us that the point of being in community is as much to have a shoulder to lean on as it is to offer that shoulders to others. And that no one is keeping score. We see that in our torah portion, which talks about a person with Tzaraat; sometimes called leprosy but really some kind of spiritual skin disease. We are told right at the beginning that as soon as a priest hears about the person having tzaraat, he’s to go to that person outside the camp to address his needs. This tells us that someone had to tell the priest, and that the priest has to go to that person as soon as he hears of their suffering. I know that sounds self-evident, but too often I find that we’d rather suffer in silence or hope someone notices that we don’t have a spoon than admit frailty and get the help and support they need. And when we close ourselves off like that, in a way, we push our friends away, we tell them that we don’t trust them to be there for us. And we tell ourselves that we aren’t worthy of love and support.

Rabbi Mendel deserves a spoon. The metzorah—the person with tzaraat—deserves to be seen by the priest, to have his illness attended to so he can reenter the camp. And we are deserving of love and support. But sometimes, folks, we have to ask. Let’s be brave enough, trusting enough, to do so. Amen.

Rabbi Robinson, May 26, 2017Sermon

04/28/2017 09:28:40 AM


Yair Robinson

Parashat Bamidbar


It’s late May and early June, which can only mean one thing: graduation. Next weekend is high school graduation, and for the last several weeks we’ve seen article after article, Facebook post after Facebook post celebrating various college graduations throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania and Maryland and beyond.

One graduation that was especially poignant this week was at Bowie State University, more for who was not graduating than who was. A seat was left with the cap, gown and stole of Richard Collins III, who would have accepted a business degree before taking his place as a second lieutenant in the US Army. Instead, his family accepted his diploma, for Richard Collins III was dead, killed in a knife-attack. And not just any knife attack (as if that isn’t bad enough). Richard Collins III, who is black, was killed by a man who belongs to a white-supremacist group. Here was a young man who was preparing to serve his country, who was going to make something of himself and his life, but instead, mostly likely because of the color of his skin, is now only a memory, an unfulfilled promise. 

Did Richard Collins III matter? Did his life matter? Should his life matter to us? Does he count?

That question is the question before us in our Torah portion this week. What does it mean to matter, to count, and be counted? That is what our Torah asks us this week in parashat bamidbar, the first Torah portion in the book of numbers. God commands Moses to take a census of Israel, but not any kind of census. Moses and the elders are to count the able-bodied men of Israel, to prepare to enter the land and, really, invade it, or at least be ready to combat the locals. By definition, that means that this census is exclusionary; we don’t count women, the old, the young, the non-Israelite, and so forth.  For the text, it seems clear that not everyone necessarily matters for everything.

In our lives we are counted in various ways. The census, to be sure. Various statistics. Every click we make online. We are measured and evaluated through our behavior, our apparent wealth or lack thereof, our ethnicity, the way we talk or walk—or don’t. All of that is used to size up whether or not—or how—we matter.

And yet, the command to take the census begins with the words Take a census of the whole Israelite community, literally, “lift up the heads of all the Israelite community”. Well, that’s very different. This isn’t exclusive but inclusive. And even more than that; to lift up their heads, as the midrash says, to lift them up to greatness. In that same Midrash God says “I have made you like Me. Just as I hold My head up high over all the creatures of the earthy, so too with you.” Israel is not merely to be counted in its entirety and not merely to be counted for the sake of going to war but each person is to be counted to lift them up, to remind them that they are created in God’s image, that each one has value and merit and holiness.

It seems to me that the difficulty that is taking place in the text is the same difficulty we as a nation are wrestling with right now. Who do we count? Do we only count certain people—because of their wealth, or position, or status, or ethnicity, or gender—or do we acknowledge the inherent value of each and every person? Do we only matter as commodities to be sold goods and services, or are we truly in God’s image? Was Richard Collins life one of value, of worth, or was he another sad statistic?

To be sure, not every data point is relevant to every issue. But can we truly say that Richard Collins III didn’t matter? As his parents mourn him rather than celebrate his accomplishments and potential, shouldn’t we join them in mourning his loss as well? For me the answer is yes. For me the text challenges us to see those around us not merely as data points, but as lives to be lived, people whose heads should be lifted up—by each one of us. And so long as we only count those we choose to count—those who look like us, sound like us—then we cannot say we are ready to enter the land God has promised us. So let us lift up the heads—the lives—of all, and remember that they—and we, and you—count.

Sat, October 19 2019 20 Tishrei 5780