Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Prayer for all Those who have Immigrated, delivered Shabbat Vayetzei 11/20/2015

Mi sheberach avoteinu v’imoteinu, may God who blessed our immigrant ancestors, who left their homes and often their families because of the pain and violence inflicted upon them and who entered new lands facing challenges that could not be imagined, who left Egypt, who left Spain, who left Russia, Iraq, and Greece, who left Germany, Poland, and other beloved countries, bless them for their vision and for the sacrifices made.  Their courage and stamina laid a foundation that we stand upon today.
May God bless all who continue to come to this country seeking refuge, Jew and non-Jew alike, who come with the hope of finding first and foremost safety as well as opportunity.
Each and every Shabbat eve, we acknowledge our connection with the immigrant experience, zecher l’tziat Mizraim, we sing.  We recall not only that we were once strangers in foreign lands, but we praise God for bringing us out of Egypt, a place to where we had immigrated, and for carrying us back into the land of Canaan, a land that though understood as homeland was for the generation entering it, a new and foreign land filled with obstacles for this immigrant generation.
Let us acknowledge that we live in a country that holds itself out as a place of promise.
'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the Golden door!'  --   The poet Emma Lazarus imagined Lady Liberty calling across the river to new immigrants arriving to this country at the turn of the twentieth-century.
 Let us also acknowledge that despite our pride in our country being a place of refuge for those in need, our immigration policies are broken.  They are far from satisfactory.
As we stand in the sacred presence of Torah on this Shabbat following a week in which our Governor has declared nothing short of a closing of Maryland’s borders to the stranger in our midst—May we not only remain open to the possibility of comprehensive change in our immigration system, but may we remain open to hearing the cry of the millions fleeing horrific conditions in Syria due to civil war.  We were once in not so different shoes.  Let us not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to their pleas for refuge and their desperate need for safe haven. 
May we strive to balance our own concerns for safety, our own need for reassurance, with the very real and present needs of those actively seeking refuge.  Ufros aleinu sukkat sh’lomecha, May the Holy One of Blessing provide a sheltering presence to all who are in need, and may we not let our own fears stand in the way, amen. 
(This sermon/prayer is broadly adapted from a prayer written by Adam Stock Spilker for Rosh Hashanah worship, 2013.  His Mi Sheberach is published on rac.org)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Lesson of Halloween, delivered Shabbat Vayera, October 31, 2015

         Halloween is one of my favorite holidays.  I know, it’s a bit odd for me – a Rabbi, a Cantor – a Jewish leader, to admit from the bema, no less, of a synagogue.  Halloween, historically, is not at all a Jewish custom.  Our modern day celebration of scare, pumpkin, and candy grew out of an ancient Celtic holiday (Samhein) that marked the transition between the fall harvest season and winter.  The ghoul factor came into the picture due to the fact that in that period the transition between seasons was viewed as liminal space, a bridge, if you will, between the worlds of the living and the dead. 
         It is perhaps the fascination with the spiritual world of the dead that makes traditional Jews rally against the celebration of the holiday.   It simply isn’t Jewish to be concerned with such things.  Arguably too, its adoption by the Catholic Church as an erev precurser to All Saints Day hasn’t helped the Jewish community’s interest or desire to embrace this Festival of Candy.  Again, how dare Jews celebrate such a thing?
         Perhaps we need to get over ourselves.  Let us not forgot the origin of some of our own customs.  The Hashkivenu prayer of our evening liturgy came into being as a verbal amulet, of sorts, to protect us in our sleep from what may lurk in the night.  The use of spices in our Havdalah ritual may have roots in the idea that sundown on Shabbat was a scary time of transition (not unlike Samhein) where we needed protection from the underworld.  The walking dead is not a new idea.  The ancient Celtics weren’t the only folks to fear such things.  
         Our resistance against Halloween, I believe, stems more from a fear of giving into, of assimilating too far into American culture as if this holiday marks a boundary beyond which there is no redeeming us.  We’ve given into the reality that Christmas will over take December, so here we want to draw a line:  religious schools insist on being open on the evening of October 31st  when we educators know that few will attend; day schools say “oh, okay” to kids wanting to dress up but only as long as you stick to story book characters being studied.  No ghosts or goblins.  There is a concerted effort at controlling just how far we are going to cave into this pagan nonsense, as it is termed.
         It is time that we just accept the reality that Halloween isn’t so bad for the Jews.  Accepting Halloween will not be the singular factor that leads to the demise of the Jewish community in America.  If the demise happens, there will be plenty of things on which to hang the hat of responsibility.  It won't be due to our celebration of Halloween.  Our participation in it is, for sure, a sign of acceptance and acculturation. Halloween is an American pastime that is intimately tied to the passage of seasons in this country.  But, Halloween may also have some very redeemable Jewish value. 
         Halloween is one of the few times during the year when we as a general rule actually behave like Abraham in this week's Shabbat Torah reading.  When else do we stop what we are doing and rush to the door to great our neighbors and offer them food?  When I first moved to a suburban neighborhood, Halloween was when I met my neighbors face to face.  In another neighborhood, it was a time for festive communal gathering and sharing of goodies.  Everyone was welcome and included.  All you had to do was show up.  In a world where there is discussion of building walls between us and our neighbors, or where the rising Speaker of the House has to formally denounce any and all support for immigration reform, we could learn a lot from a holiday whose primary customs include going door to door to greet each other and share some sweetness. 
         So let’s talk about immigration.  How many of us can claim to be natives of this country?  I have roots on one side of my family that extend at least as far as the civil war era, and may reach back to the period of the American Revolution, still my ancestors were once foreigners.  The other side of my family is perhaps more like most of us with my dad and his sister being first generation Americans.  We were strangers here, so when did we forget how to be more welcoming to those who follow in our footsteps?  When did we forget how to open the door and be hospitable?
         An article by Matthew Hutson in this month’s The Atlantic ponders why Americans are so motivated by the idea, as he puts it, of “keeping just ahead of the Joneses.”  He has taken note of studies that seem to indicate that it isn’t sheer advantage that makes us tick but rather relative advantage.  An example of this is that people making just above the minimum wage are among those least supportive of a minimum wage hike.  We seem to prefer to be a step ahead of at least somebody.  I had a professor of American Jewish History hypothesize that the popularity of Chinese food restaurants among Jews in the mid-20th century was because visiting those new-immigrant owned establishments reinforced that sense of our having made it.  There was someone else who hadn’t quite gotten as far as we had. 
         I’m not sure I agree with this professor’s hypothesis, but I do wonder if our good fortune and success has caused us to become a bit callous towards others who are seeking similar opportunities that we have had.  Hard work isn’t the only ingredient to success.  Opportunity, luck, and arguably a big dose of welcoming hospitality are critical ingredients as well.

         Tonight, many of us will model Abraham and Sarah as we celebrate Halloween.  We will open our doors, greet and give candy to any one who knocks on our door – young, old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, American, non-American.  We don’t ask.  It doesn’t matter.  We will greet everyone with equal hospitality.   Too bad, we don’t do that a little more often.