On Exodus, the Election, & the Struggles that are Going On Out of the Spotlight

Mark Rothko no-8-1952

From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.

Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on. Continue reading

Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Seventh Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the seventh Hanukah light.חנוכיה

The Hanukah lights are about the boundary—between inside and outside, between public and private, between the market and the home. Also between the past and the present, and between ourselves and others.

The Torah portion that we read today in synagogue recounts the Joseph story. It is called miketz, at the end. The portion begins at the end of Joseph’s seven years of imprisonment on the false charge of attempting to rape his master’s wife. Joseph is called to Pharaoh from his cell to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he does successfully. He is rewarded with the highest position in the kingdom—second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is given authority over all the lands and resources of the kingdom, authority to collect food and prepare Egypt for the famine to come. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fourth Night of Hanukah

IMG_1553Tonight we light the fourth Hanukah light.

One of the things that the Sages of the Talmud do best is designate times for rituals. Often according to the cycle of the sun—first light on the horizon, sparkling of the sun, sunrise, midway through the sun’s cycle, twilight, sunset. These time measurements (for prayer, for starting the Sabbath, for beginning and ending fast days and holidays) are relatively objective. It is surprising then that we find the following time designation for the Hanukah candles:

The obligation [of lighting the Hanukah candles] is from the setting of the sun until everyone has left the market. (Bavli Shabbat 21b)

Why do the Hanukah candles have to be burning until the marketplace is empty, rather than, say, two hours into the night, or some other “objective” marker?

There are two blessings for the Hanukah candles. One blessing is upon lighting the candles, and the other is for seeing them (and being reminded of the miracles God has done). When a person lights the candles, she makes both blessings since she has both lit and seen them. However, if a person is just passing by, he may make the second blessing, for seeing the candles without having lit them. This is where the marketplace comes in.

Hanukah lights are lit on the boundary of private and public with the intention that they are seen both inside the house and in the market. The purpose is to shine light on the marketplace. Flame, the symbol of the Divine, is sorely needed in the marketplace. The spiritual need for justice and righteousness is most acute in the market, where the illusion that “this is all the work of my own strength, my own hands,” is most rampant. The dazzling idol of wealth can blind one to the demands of justice, to the righteous needs of workers, to our covenantal obligation to the earth. The flame of the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, shines a light into the marketplace, binding us to the demands of justice. “Do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; commit no lawless act, and do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Third Night of Hanukah

IMG_1548Tonight we light the third Hanukah light.

We place the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, on the boundary between inside and outside, at the place where private meets public. The flames, except in times of great danger, must be seen from the public spaces. The public space is not nobody’s space—it is everybody’s space. It is the place in which democracy happens, in which people gather together to bring about change. It is the place in which we must play out our responsibility to everybody. Placing our hanukiyah in the window, or outside next to the door, is making the statement that the boundaries between my house and the world are permeable. I do not retreat to my house so as to shut out the injustice and pain of the world. I retreat to my house to gather my strength with my family and friends so that I can go out and make a change in the world—so that we can stand together in the public spaces, the streets, the halls of political power, and demand accountability, and articulate a vision for a more just city, and country, and world.

The public space is also, for some, a cold and threatening space. It is the only place that some folks have to lay their weary bodies down to sleep. When I place my hanukiyah on the permeable boundary between my house and the world, I also embrace those people who only have the public place, a dangerous and cold space—where our prayers are not enough, and nothing less than radical change will suffice.

A Kavanah [intention] for the Second Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the second Hanukah light.

The original Hanukah story is told primarily in the first Book of Maccabees (Sefer HaMakabim), which was written in near proximity to the second century BCE events which are recounted therein. Some scholars think that the original author was a witness to the events. I Maccabees, the book, tells the story of the victorious military revolt of a band of faithful Judean priests over the forces of the Hellenizers (called “sons of Belial”) and the army of the empire. The climactic scene is the capturing, purification, and renewal of the Temple in Jerusalem. The eight day holiday of rededication (from whence the name Hanukah/dedication comes) was originally a thanksgiving celebration for the miraculous military victory of the Hasmoneans over their internal and external enemies.

Hanukah, one of the two post-biblical holidays in the Jewish calendar, was recorded in the Scroll of Days on Which it is Forbidden to Fast. When incorporated in the Talmudic discussion (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b), the explanation for the holiday is radically changed.

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil in the Temple, and there was not enough oil to light [the candelabrum]. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they searched but found only one cruze of oil sealed with the seal of the High Priest which had not been defiled. There was only enough oil to light for one night. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days.

From the point of view of the Hasmoneans, the rabbis seemed to have buried the lede! The military victory of the few over the many is overlooked in favor of the miracle of the oil. This was no simple oversight. The rabbis time and again, choose the path of nonviolent spiritual struggle over the bloody path of military victory. (The miraculous appearance of fire, is also a well-known sign of the presence of God.)

The rabbinic tradition is not necessarily a pacifist tradition—the Bible itself is filled with war and violent mayhem—however, the rabbis in their ultimate homeland, the house of study, labored to create a world of spiritual struggle rather than military clashes. Rabbinic heroes, such as Rabbi Akiva, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the decrees of the Roman empire—and paid the ultimate price for it. As we light the candles tonight we embrace the legacy of spiritual struggle, the nonviolent path of righteousness and justice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

A Kavanah [intention] for the First Night of Hanukah

Tonight, we light the first Hanukah candle.

Beginnings, true beginnings, are always hard. We live in a culture in which every week or so some gadget or technological innovation is trumpeted as the beginning of something new, something that will change the way we do things forever, a disruptive technology which will undo the old and start something else. In our tradition there are few truly disruptive moments. When Abraham saw through the fog of idolatrous power and recognized that there was one God, the God of everyone, and that therefore everyone was equally worthwhile—that was truly disruptive. When the People of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the voice of that God—a voice that said that cruel oppression is the opposite of the Divine way, that bearing one’s fellow’s burden is the prerequisite of accepting the Torah—that was truly disruptive.

Tonight, as we light the first Hanukah candle, we hope to take part in a truly disruptive moment. A moment where the cultures of oppression, of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia are overthrown. With this first light we embrace the hope of more light. “For the light of God is the soul of a person.” (Proverbs 20:27)

Isaiah’s State of Emergency (on homelessness in LA)

The good news is that Los Angeles has declared a State of Emergency on homelessness. This will enable the city to focus $100 million in resources towards housing those on the streets and preventing others from falling into homelessness. The bad news is that there has been a homelessness crisis for years. In fact, for much of that time, the city was part of the problem. At the beginning of the summer, City Council passed an ordinance which allowed LAPD or other city workers to confiscate (“steal”) the private property of people living on the streets—including their ID and medicines. While the summer in the poverty and homelessness committee of City Council has been spent in an attempt to gently walk back parts of the ordinance (which our mayor didn’t sign, but did not veto, and therefore it became law), the basic idea that being homeless is a criminal activity deserving of punishment still standsIMG_1393.

It is therefore a positive development that the same Council members from the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, were those who were, with the mayor, announcing a state of emergency. One, however, remains skeptical. In the last budget, approximately $100 million was allocated for homelessness. However, out of that $81 million was for LAPD while only $13 million was for homeless services. Criminalizing and jailing homeless folks will not solve the problem. This morning, the mayor again promised $100 million for fighting homelessness, and again said that $13 million would be put towards housing. In Los Angeles’ insane housing market, when there is not enough existing housing stock to house all those who need housing, $13 million is woefully inadequate. Luckily, along with members of the business community (a lot of the same folks who opposed the $15 an hour wage) there was a strong showing of housing and homeless advocates at the press conference this morning, to remind the mayor and the council that we will be keeping a wary eye on where the money ends up, and whether the community has serious input into those decisions. Continue reading

Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi. Continue reading

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—eighth night

The deepest yet also the simplest truth of Hanukkah is that it is a holiday about a miracle. The real power of the miracle, however, is not that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple was defiled by occupying forces. Neither is the real power that that one cruse of oil burned for eight days when it should have burned for only one day. The real power is the story of the miracle itself.

In the earliest accounts of the Hanukkah story (the Books of Maccabees) and even in the earliest liturgy (the al hanisim prayer that is still recited today) the focus is on a military victory. The Rabbis refocus the holiday to celebrate a miracle of light. This is the powerful story. A narrative of uncontrolled violence—which is what every armed conflict becomes—is replaced by a vision of light.

Tonight as we shine the full power of the Hanukah lights into the public domain, let us draw from that miracle and proclaim that violence only ever begets violence and darkness. Only light begets more light. This is our charge. This is our time.