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Transforming Anger

Sermon for Rosh haShanah Day 1 5780

I heard a story on the radio this summer that stopped me in my tracks.  Content warning: It contains violence that may be hard to hear, but it does have a happy ending.  It was about a woman in Austria, who was out for a bike ride and was hit intentionally by a driver.  He got out of the car and continued to assault her.  Then he hauled her injured body into his vehicle, he took her to his remote house where he tied her up and proceeded to find various ways to hurt and maim her.   She later told reporters that she thought he would kill her, saying, “He was full of hatred.”  

But the thing was, she had just become a mother 14 weeks earlier, and her little son was waiting at home for her.  So she drew upon every bit of her wits and observed her surroundings.  She noticed that there were orchids all over the house and so she complimented him on them. It changed everything – he became nice to her!  He told her that he was a gardener and started talking to her about his difficult life – the death of his father, his alcoholic mother, and the girlfriends who had betrayed him.  He told her that he had done what he did because he needed to vent his anger through violence.  

She had taken some courses in psychology and knew enough that she should express sympathy for where he was coming from.  She listened to him.  And when she saw an opportunity, she suggested a way out of their predicament; that they pretend the whole thing was an accident if he would simply let her go.  He agreed, and actually went so far as to drive her home.  It was only after she was safely inside with the doors locked that she called the police.  (Source: Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung, August 1, 2019)

This story is amazing to me because it is a miracle.  As a parent, I know I would fight like she did to escape her ordeal and return to her child.  And, also as a mom of two 3-year olds, I know how difficult it is to get through the storm of anger.  This woman saw a window, a way of possibly returning to her baby boy, and she grabbed it.  But there was no guarantee that it would work – she just had to try.

And so it is with us.  We are living through a storm of anger in this country and in this world.  We are witness to the kind of rage, darkness, and hopelessness that impels people to take up firearms and kill innocent bystanders.  The kind of anger and fear of immigrants that enables a horrible kind of callousness, permitting to be families to be separated and little children neglected in crowded detention camps. The kind of anger that makes permissible bullying, hate speech and acts of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. This is the kind of anger that kills, just as it killed my friend Jerry and ten other Jewish souls at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. 

And if I may: we have a president who was elected in part because he understood and tapped into the anger many people were feeling in this country.  And now, with the impeachment proceedings, his opponents, who have been incredibly frustrated and angry at his behavior, are gleefully and hungrily waiting for him to go down. It is a cycle of anger; a continued storm of fury.  

I cannot guarantee how or when it will pass, but like the woman who was captured, we have to be ready for the windows of opportunity as they present themselves to deescalate the situation, to show empathy, to present solutions that may or may not work. 

How do we transform anger, whether it is someone else’s or our own? 

I am reminded of the classic 1976 movie “Network,” where the character Howard Beale, a newscaster, is played by the actor Peter Finch.  Here is a bit of his famous monologue:

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad… It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter…We know the air is unfit to breathe, our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad. Worse than bad… It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in a house as slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster, and TV, and my steel belted radials and I won’t say anything.” Well I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad. … You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being. G-d Dammit, my life has value.” So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!””

We laugh, because this all still feels terribly relatable today. And that anger he has, that righteous anger, it is powerful and it is good.  But while anger can be a necessary and healthy response to injustice, it is dangerous to remain angry or resort too easily to anger. It is not a new thing, this anger in our country, but the level of it has been rising for decades – imperceptibly but surely as the seawater levels.  I feel we are now at a breaking point.  Being ignorant or becoming numb is only an option for the most privileged among us.  But hopefully, there are windows of opportunity if we act with skill, love, purpose. 

Let’s talk about anger, yes today of all days, because Rosh haShanah, the head of the year, is such a window, calling us to reflect on and challenge the cycles of destructive behavior that we have become accustomed to over the course of time.  Now is the time for change. 

Anger is right here, in our Rosh haShanah Torah and Haftarah readings that we read every year.  The backdrop of our Torah portion is that, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had long been frustrated that she could not bear a child.  Her maidservant Hagar had a son by Abraham, which incensed her.  So, Sarah mistreated her, and Hagar ran away as a result, and then came back.  Now finally, Sarah conceived and bore a son, and this is where our parsha today begins.  But Sarah, even though she celebrated and felt joy at Isaac’s arrival, wanted Hagar and son gone. Abraham, though troubled, allowed it to happen because God assured him that Ishmael will live and will be the head of a nation. Sarah’s jealousy and rage toward Hagar sets the entire drama in motion.  Imagine if she could have somehow allowed Hagar and Ishmael to stay – would today the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael be adversaries?

And in our Haftarah, we will hear of Hannah’s infertility and how she prayed to God and made deals with God in order to have a child.  She is driven to the God’s temple to pray in sadness, desperation, and yes, anger, at her plight.  The text explicitly uses the word ka’as – anger – multiple times to describe Hannah’s feelings.  Not only was she sad about not having a child, but her husband’s other wife Peninah would frequently provoke her because Peninah had children and lorded it over poor Hannah. Hannah would then get so upset she would cry and could not eat. When God at last did grant her a child, she promised her son Samuel to God’s service as a priest.

Here we have two very different models in our holy texts for how to deal with anger. It is not for me to judge whether their anger was justified or if one approach was more right than the other, but I do find it interesting that their anger is not usually discussed in traditional commentaries.  I think there is a reason for that.  Classical Jewish texts instruct us to avoid anger and keep it in check.  A few actually liken it to idolatry.

Here is a well-known example from the Talmud, tractate Shabbat 105b: 

R’ Shimon Ben Elazar said in the name of Chilfa bar Agra, who said in the name of R’ Yochanan Ben Nuri: One who tears his clothing in anger, or who smashed vessels in his anger, or who scatters money in his anger – he should be in your eyes like an idolater. For this is the way of the evil inclination: Today it tells him to do this, and tomorrow it tells him to do that, until it tells him to worship idolatry, and he goes and worships.

That is to say, that terrible storm of anger that makes you see red?  It is a strange god that threatens to overpower you and leads you to make poor choices at best; destructive choices at worst.  In psychological terms, anger is created by ego, an image of our esteem or importance.  Anger is a byproduct of the ego feeling threatened.  

But anger, in my view, should not be dismissed; it is an important indicator that our boundaries, our healthy limits, might be under attack.  Sarah was angry because she felt her son Isaac’s future was being undermined.  And we may rightfully be angry when someone breaks into our home and steals our stuff.  Anger is a healthy response to a violation or trespass of any kind.

However, anger is not a primary emotion.  Psychologists will tell you another feeling always gives rise to anger.  For example, say you were cut off on the road, and you felt angry at the other driver.  But in the exact moment the accident almost happened, there was, even for a split second, another emotion, and that was probably fear.  Anger comes, actually, to soothe.  Just like in the case of the man who assaulted the woman biker, he used anger as a way of soothing his loneliness and sense of rejection and powerlessness.

Many of us are self-medicating with anger against all sorts of psychological pain.  It hardly gives us a sense of inner harmony, but anger does help give us a certain comfort.  After all, we’re not wrong, or bad, or selfish or inconsiderate – it’s our spouse, our child, our neighbor, our co-worker.  It’s that bigoted or naive person on the other side of the political aisle. In the face of a sense of powerlessness, anger helps us feel more in control.

And so in that way, anger can be a drug, an addiction, indeed, an idol we erect.  It is so easy, so tempting to resort to anger and to blame.  If we let anger numb us, if we let anger control us, we lose ourselves, we lose our soul.

The second century mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in his work Metok miDvash, describes how anger chips away at our souls. He says:

The Hebrew word for “soul” is neshama; the word for “breath” is “nesheema“. This explains why breathing exercises affect the soul. It is also the reason why anger – called “kotzer ruach“, or “short breath” – weakens the soul by affecting the breath. Another name for “anger” is “af ” which means “nose”. Anger is expressed by the snorting of the breath in the nostrils. Controlling anger with a long breath reasserts the soul. 

We must figure out how to respond to anger, to transform it and use for good.  In this way we can reclaim our soul.

Anger, when honored, has something deeply important to tell us about ourselves and about the concerns or needs of another person.  When you are angry, it is telling you something – so, what is it saying?  Perhaps we can ask it, “Why, anger, are you here?” And then listen.  

In his book, simply entitled “Anger,” Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, instructs us that listening without judgment or blame is the quickest way for the anger to dissipate.  This kind of intentional listening is deeply compassionate and humane, restoring a person’s sense of dignity.

It may seem counterintuitive, because we may instinctively want to push away or dismiss anger, either our own anger or that of another person.  In our haftarah this morning, when Hannah, in her anger and pain, came to pray at the temple, the priest Eli misjudges and scornes her.  He accuses her of being a drunk. But Hannah wisely names and honors her anger. She says to him, “No sir, I am a woman sore in spirit, and no wine have I drunk. For I was only pouring out my soul to God…I was just speaking out of great preoccupation and anger.”  Eli then joins her in prayer, saying “May the God of Israel give you what you ask.”

Anger is neither bad nor good, it is energy – it is telling you something valuable about yourself – your limits, your values. To ignore it is to ignore your voice, your values.  But it cannot have the last word.

The poet Maya Angelou famously wrote, “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

So the next step is to talk back, with love, to our anger. Anger must be responded to proactively, lest we become bitter or resentful.  When someone treats you badly, we must find a healthy, constructive way to respond.  Maybe you decide to speak with the person, or maybe you resolve not to engage in that behavior yourself.  With sacred intention, we can use anger to create a better, loving world. In this way, anger is essential to our healing and also to our teshuvah process, our path of returning to God.

In our daily life we run continuously.  We rarely give ourselves the capacity or opportunity to stop and look deeply into our life and our feelings.   But if we can take time for reflection and sit with anger or other difficult feelings, they will speak to you.  

Like Hannah, you can ask yourself, “What positive action can I take to transform my feelings of anger?” For her, it was prayer; for ourselves, it could be meditation, writing, speaking out, or acts of social justice or compassion.  This High Holiday season, let us give ourselves that gift – to breath, to pray, to sit, and hopefully to take constructive action.  

Lest your anger become an idol, you must take your anger and transform it into something healthy and positive.  Proverbs 16:32 encourages us not only to be slow to anger, but to master our passions.  This Rosh HaShanah let us remember that our true power lies in mastering our passions – understanding our anger and our desires and responding to them with our truth. When we are able to live and serve others in connection with a vision of a world fulfilled we will not become bitter and we will naturally be slow to anger. 

Keyn yehi ratzon – may it be so.  Shana tova.

Statement on Poway Chabad shooting

We are heartbroken, and angered, to write you again concerning the shooting at another synagogue, this time at the Chabad in Poway California, exactly six months after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. Truly, it is a unique form of evil to shoot people while they are praying. We are sickened to see yet another house of worship attacked and we mourn the loss of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, a pillar of the Chabad Poway community.  The shooter in Poway has also claimed responsibility for an arson attack on a nearby mosque last month. Americans, Jewish and all others, deserve to be safe.

The attack occurred on the final day of Passover, our festival of freedom. There is a curious passage in our haggadah called “V’hi sheh-amda” which declares that “in every generation our enemies have tried to destroy us, but God has saved us from their hands.”  If we are really free, why are we singing about unending violence against us? After this attack, it is a sobering acknowledgement that though we are no longer slaves, we are never fully free from so many other evils. We must continually rely on God’s saving power and our own strength to keep going. Singing this line becomes an act of resistance: in spite of ever-present evil, we are still here. They will not destroy our spirit.  We refuse to accept such violence as normal.

But the sobering new reality is that Jewish communities in the United States now must reckon with the possibility, however remote, of terrorist attacks directed at us.

At Kol Emet, enhancing our security measures is a vital part of our response. Since Oct 27th we have been continually making improvements, and additional security cameras are being installed this week. 

But security cannot be our only answer to the rising expressions of anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry we are seeing today. Minorities of all faiths, colors, and backgrounds are vulnerable. We must continue to stand for what is right and good, comfort those in pain, build strong relationships with our neighbors, and show up for one another. This Passover, the bitterness of hatred still lingers in our mouths, but we stand together, clear in our resolve to bring more light into this world. 

On Shabbat morning at Kol Emet, we celebrated a beautiful festival service and surrounded ourselves with the memories of our loved ones as we honored them with our Yizkor (memorial) prayers.  On Sunday morning, our Kadima/Mechina classes met downstairs, while upstairs adults gathered to learn with Fran Fried about the Holocaust and its lessons for today. Our mourning, celebrating, learning, and growing is continually intertwined. In this very real sense, Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel live.

In a moving video clip, Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein, who was injured in the shooting, suggested that one thing that we can all do is to show up for Shabbat next week. We have a Heymish Shabbat scheduled for Friday night, and I hope you will choose to join us to share a Shabbat dinner together and hear Jonathan Snipes talk about food insecurity and sustainability.  

These acts of terror will not stop us. May our resolve only increase as we stand with our community and bring more love into our fractured world.  

Leviticus on danger and evil

I am thinking about evil more often than I’d like to these days. The death of Samantha Josephson, the college student who was murdered by a man she thought was her Uber driver, hit very close to home. Her funeral was held at Beth Chaim, just across the river in New Jersey. Also, two of our members are connected to her family. One person said to me that, for her, the case wasn’t about someone getting into the wrong car, it was about a person intent on evil.

I am not naïve enough to think that each of us doesn’t have the potential to do something terrible. But we are taught right from wrong, love and commitment, responsibility and kindness. I don’t believe more people have evil in their hearts today than in days gone by, but I do think, however, that there is more of a permissibility granted these days for incivility and isolation. And that leads directly toward violence.

For the ancient Israelites, the sense that God would save them from evil and danger was quite literal. I often think of the classic book “Purity and Danger,” in which the sociologist Mary Douglas discusses how the book of Leviticus is really a manual about how to keep people safe from harm. It is often viewed as entirely anachronistic; we no longer do sacrifices, so why read Leviticus? But sacrifices were the way to ensure that God would remain with the community, thereby protecting it from danger and evildoers.

Wandering in the desert as they were, life was fraught with danger and uncertainty for the ancient Israelites. Today, I search the book of Leviticus, not to re-create some ancient protective technology, but to reflect how I might ensure that divine presence and Godliness remain in our midst, enabling me and our precious community to feel more safe and whole. 

On the eve of Adar’s 7th birthday weekend, something I wrote for her birthday parsha, Tetzaveh

Seven years ago, my oldest daughter, Adar, was born in the early morning hours of Shabbat Tetzaveh. Josh and I had decided that her first name would be for the Hebrew month of her birth, but we weren’t sure what or if she would have a second Hebrew name. We went back and forth with names, unable to commit. But, when little Adar was in my arms and I read the first words of this Torah portion for guidance, I knew. 

Moses is told by God, “You shall further command the sons of Israel to use pure olive oil for kindling the light of the lamps. Aaron shall set up this light to burn continuously in the sanctuary. It will serve as a light for God for all generations.” (Exodus 27:10)

It is no small thing, this commandment. Where would the Israelites procure the oil? How could they be prepared to have this special pure oil continuously available so that this light would burn eternally?

When I think about the responsibilities we take on, how many of them do we commit to in perpetuity? In this day and age, we can let go of almost everything. We can sell the house. We can get divorced. And even religious obligations don’t seem to carry the same weight as they used to, no matter how hard we religious leaders try. But parenthood is a sacred responsibility we can never be relieved of. No matter what happened, I would never un-become a mother. My heart would forever live outside my body; my greatest commitment would always be to her and any children that would come after her.

So, Adar’s second Hebrew name is Meirah – light. This week, I invite you to consider your most eternal commitments. What lights you up and gives your life purpose and meaning? How do you ensure that you are prepared to keep your sacred fire burning? 

May your fire burn strong and bright, without fail.

Rabbi Anna

On Parshat Vayakhel and gratitude

After much anticipation and many detailed instructions, the building of the mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle begins in earnest. Moses again calls for contributions from the people, both in wealth and in skill, from all whose heart so moves him or her.  Israelite men and women respond so fully and generously that Moses is forced to ask them to stop bringing gifts.

Imagine that. Imagine such generosity, such overwhelming abundance, and–with regularity. The text says, “And they brought additional contributions every single morning. (Exodus 36:4)

While there is much that I could write about the importance of giving, especially with several special and amazing fundraising events coming up in our congregation (Designer Bag Bingo, Candy Bingo, Make Me Laugh Comedy Night). I want to focus on something else.  How do you properly give thanks for something when is offered every day without fail? 

People give all the time in our community, in big ways, but mostly in small ways. We give $18 to honor a loved one’s yahrzeit. We offer to come to help set up for an event. We fill in at the front desk. We bring food. We pick up someone’s else’s kids after school. The list goes on and on. As someone in the building all the time, I see it all. One can become inured to it and take the regularity of the giving for granted. 

It is humanly impossible to say thank you every time.  But it isn’t enough to say thank you once and move on. Don’t just say “thanks for dinner.” Appreciate the time and effort it takes to plan a meal, shop for groceries, peel and chop the vegetables, and stand over the stove on tired feet.

It is easy to give one time, but it is much more difficult to give with regularity, and even more so, every single day. How difficult and how beautiful. I am struck, once again, by all the detail in this parsha about the gifts and the mishkan, and it occurs to me that perhaps the giving of these details are the Torah’s way of reminding us that God sees and appreciates all the work and every single offering, no matter how simple or how ordinary. 

Let us grow in our awareness and gratitude of all the little and most regular gifts in our lives. And, so too, let us be aware of God’s constant appreciation that even our smallest contribution builds up our community, our families, and our world. 

Talk at Macedonia Baptist Church MLK Day, January 21, 2019

Thank you to Deacon Phyllis Teat and Reverend Lillian Gail Moore for inviting me to speak tonight, and to Susan Millner and Jeanlu Ryersbach for such a loving introduction. I feel very honored and humbled to have the opportunity to reflect on the legacy that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bequeathed all of us and to share my thoughts with you.

I want to dedicate my words tonight to my three beautiful, strong daughters, two of whom were born the day after Martin Luther King Day three years ago. This auspicious weekend, every year, is always a women’s march in my house.

My remarks tonight are also given in memory of my friend Jerry Rabinowitz, who was brutally murdered along with 10 other innocent souls at Congregation Tree of Life on October 27, 2018 by a violent anti-Semitic white supremacist.

There is so much I want to say, so much I feel… Jerry was a beautiful light, extinguished without mercy. It is shocking that such hate and anger exists against someone who treasured softness and goodness, and who lived it every day of his life. Jerry was the kind of person who regularly set up for services before others came in, who as a doctor recognized the dignity in each one of his patients. In the 1980s he held the hands of his AIDS patients. After he died, his friends and community, including myself, found out many amazing things he had done because he never sought recognition for his everyday kindnesses or accomplishments.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr lived a much more public, pulpit centered, in the spotlight, Nobel peace prize winner, kind of life than Jerry, but it appears that they were equally vulnerable to the murderous violence that hate begets. And I am sorry to say it, but it is getting worse out there. I’m not sure if it is the times we live in, or perhaps because I’m a mother to young children, or because I am a rabbi, but I am really feeling the so-called “ten plagues” of our society:

-the plague of poisoned water and absence of nutritious, affordable food for all
-the plague of people dying because they are avoiding the expense of seeing a doctor or getting medication
-the plague of addiction
-the plague of fear and demonization of foreigners and outsiders and those look or behave differently
-the plague of being silenced, disbelieved and shamed
-the plague of depression and isolation
-the plague of infighting and division within movements, fracturing of a shared vision
-the plague of hatred and violence
-the plague of lack of leadership
-the plague of human complacency and denial in the face of rising waters and temperatures.

There are actually more than ten – but I will leave it there.

We need Dr. King’s full-throated message of racial and economic equality, as well as basic human decency and his vision of the Beloved Community now more than ever. We are gasping for it.

These past weeks, Jews around the world have been rereading the story of our liberation from Egyptian slavery. And it began with a cry. In our narrowness of spirit, the Israelites could not bear it anymore, and they cried out from their immense burden. And God heard their cry. The whole premise of the Exodus story is that God hears our cries and, like a parent, responds fiercely.

Oh God of mercy, hear us as we cry out to You today! Help us carry our burdens more lightly, and share with us a vision of your peace. Encourage us to see what must be done, and rouse us.  

We are suffering from more unabashed and openly expressed hatred, more racism, more anti-Semitism. And it is no coincidence – from my vantage point, I see that the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the past few years strongly correlates with the deadly uptick in all forms of racism and bigotry. African-Americans remain the most frequent victims of hate crimes in the U.S.; Jews are the most common religious group so targeted. But rises in recent years of hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs, LGBTQ, and other minority communities have become commonplace.

Truly, when the safety of one minority group is threatened, all of us are in danger. The irony here is that hate, ultimately, is indiscriminate.

It is worth sharing King eloquent, prescient words at this point. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written 56 years ago, he wrote these words, which are truer today than ever: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

We have got to turn this around.

Let us make justice a threat to injustice everywhere.
Let us make love inescapable, let us make love our single garment of destiny.
We cannot afford to see anyone outside the bounds of this love.
Let our love be indiscriminate.

If King’s words are true, then let us commit to love because it will surely affect us all, if not directly, then indirectly.

I will be specific: I have been on the receiving end of this boundless love, and it has been transformative. After the Pittsburgh shooting, this community responded with an outpouring of love – towards me, towards my synagogue and to the Jewish community as a whole. Strangers were giving me hugs, and I know I was not alone. At our synagogue Shabbat dinner the following weekend, we were joined by people of so many faiths – Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and
people of no faith who wanted to express their support. It was incredibly moving, humbling, and healing.

And I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who reached out in support and kindness.

And that is what we need to do for one another – show up. Show up in a mosque to stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer, show up at a funeral for someone you didn’t know personally but was somebody’s baby, show up at a vigil for victims up gun violence regardless of how you feel about the Second Amendment, show up at an AME church no matter what color skin you have. We need to cross those barriers, even though it may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first. Not because those differences are not real – we must not be blind to the very real differences between us that impact our everyday lived reality. But if we stay only in our own houses, we will never know and appreciate one another’s uniquenesses, and we will never fully grasp our interconnectedness and shared vulnerability.

In May, when a group of people from Kol Emet decided to go to a local mosque to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters whose families were directly impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the so-called “Muslim ban,” some others in my congregation thought it was crazy.  (Luckily they didn’t tell me until much later!) Because, you see, previously, when Jews were victims of anti-Semitic attacks, it was rare for anyone to stand with us or around us. But I had gotten the idea from another synagogue in New York City that has offered flowers and support to Muslim worshippers entering for Friday prayers EVERY week for the past TWO years.

And so, when those same Muslims who we stood with at their mosque showed up at our synagogue the week after Pittsburgh, it was humbling. I was at a loss for words. We knew we were not alone. It gave me courage, strength, healing and hope.

You see, the hope that I see is the flow from deep networks of interconnectedness with our neighbors of many faiths and backgrounds today. What happened here in Bucks County in response to the attack in Pittsburgh was replicated all across the North America; thousands of communities organized multi-faith vigils. Such acts of solidarity are more than random acts of kindness. They are INTENTIONAL acts of kindness, and they reflect deep connectivity among our faith communities that has been built over many decades.

When we and they show up for each other as a normal part of our civic lives and religious responsibility, when we work together to confront the explosions of hate crimes and hate rhetoric, we are modeling our vision for America.

And that vision began with King. He is the one who said that it is critical and fundamental for us to show up for one another. In that same letter from the Birmingham jail – he wrote this in jail, folks! – he continues, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”

Standing together doesn’t mean you always agree with one another – indeed sometimes these alliances can be painful, or at least inconvenient. We are diverse, we are not always going to agree on how we get to the Promised Land– but we know that we need one another to get there. We must always keep the vision first. We live in a time where there is no one visionary leader like Moses or Miriam or Dr. King to carry us out of oppression – we each must carry one
another’s burden and lift each other up. We must find ways we each can lead.

With this realization, after Pittsburgh, I decided to throw my passion and energy into interfaith justice work. I, along with fellow clergy across Lower
Bucks, began a local chapter of POWER: interfaith, a faith-based advocacy group for peace and justice. It is a Philadelphia based group that is expanding into the Philly surrounding areas. My passion for POWER stems from the realization that we cannot transform our communities for the better if we are not united. Yes, individually we can feed the hungry, but if we are to address the systems that allow hatred and injustice to fester, we need to come together to offer a different vision and work toward it. It starts with listening to the cries within our neighborhoods and townships. We pray, God, that we will hear and heed the calls. I invite you to join me in this holy work.

I want to share a deep teaching based on the other holiday that fell today – and that is the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. It is popularly known as the Jewish New Year of the Trees. We have several new years in Judaism, and this one is ecological – knowing that even though is frigid outside, deep inside the trees are the first signs of renewal. On Tu Bishvat, the sap deep within the tree is beginning to rise. We can begin to count the days until spring.

There is a story from the Talmud that is often associated with Tu Bishvat, that of a man named Honi. He was walking one day, and saw an old man planting carob seeds. Now, a carob tree takes 70 years to bear fruit. He asked the man, “How can you be sure that you will live to eat the fruit of this tree?” The man replied, “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”

We do not know how and when the seeds we plant will bear fruit. We plant with the faith that they will indeed. Justice is a long term project. We must have patience. We must take it step by step. Hold onto your vision, and when it feel tenuous, lean on your community to remind you of the promise you seek. Dr. King promised us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I want to close with the prophetic, prayerful poetry of Mary Oliver, who died last week. This is her poem: Song of the Builders, from the book “Why I Wake Early” (2004).

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

Building the Beloved Community here in Bucks County

The Martin Luther King holiday is coming up this weekend, and every year as it approaches I consider how to make it a meaningful observance for myself, my kids, and our community as a whole. It has become a day of service for people all across our country, which is wonderful, but I know acts of kindness and service were but just a slice the full legacy that King left us. He was a civil rights activist who preached a clear-eyed vision of racial equality, universal human rights, and peaceful co-existence he called the Beloved Community. He issued scathing indictments of war, poverty, and materialism that made many Americans, who led contented middle-class lives, quite uncomfortable. 

As a Jew, when I read the difficult parts of Torah such as the plagues or the death of the first-born, I am uncomfortable. I question whether the collective punishment that the plaques wrought was effective, much less moral. It may be perhaps a traditional approach to stand in awe of God’s might and power as the plaques are unleashed, proving our God the victor, both morally and magically. 

But if we are to truly be the more righteous people, made more compassionate through our suffering and servitude, then we must pay attention to the gap – both in the Torah, and our society today. How have we become complacent, accepting of injustices both small and large? Where have we not spoken out when we should have? What is our part in creating the Beloved Community? Where do we have privilege in our society, and how can we stand with and support others without that cushion? These are uncomfortable questions that we must explore and face, and that is what this special weekend dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King calls me to do. 

I hope you will join our beloved community at Friday night services at 7:30pm as we welcome Barbara Simmons, Pastor Danny Thomas, and Gayle Evans, all of the Peace Center, to share with us their vision of how we can each do our part in created the Beloved Community in Bucks County. We are so honored to have all three of them to share Shabbat with us. Also, on MLK Day itself, I will be speaking at two events – one at the First United Methodist Church of Hightstown, NJ that is in part a family service opportunity and part an interfaith dialogue, which begins at 10am (the interfaith dialogue begins after 11am). In the evening I am honored to be the speaker at our Newtown/Yardley annual interfaith Martin Luther King service at Macedonia Baptist Church in Newtown at 7pm.  

I hope both your participation in both service and vision will be part of this special weekend!

On Good Endings

My message this week (the final one of 2018!)

This week, we complete the book of Genesis. In this portion we have a multitude of conclusions: Jacob blesses his sons as well as Joseph’s two sons (Jacob’s grandsons), and then he dies. Then, after assuring his brothers that he bears them no ill will, all is forgiven and that he will provide for their “little ones” – the family’s future generations, Joseph dies. Amazingly, after all the family drama, division, and rancor, Genesis ends with family leaders having a peaceful, even good, death. Further, the family that is soon to swell into a tribe and then a nation is set on a stable and prosperous course, even as they live in a foreign land.

Isn’t that the kind of ending we all could only hope for? As December is rapidly heading toward the close of the 2018, I know many of us are feverishly trying to complete everything we need to do to be ready for the end-of-year break and quality time with family and friends. Some of us (like Zach Schnitzer and Alexis Miller) are experiencing job transitions, which makes this year end even more of a pronounced change! I want to take this space to thank Zach for all that he has done for our community and for being a most gracious and welcoming gate keeper and grounding force in our office. And, we are excited to grow and learn with Alexis as she takes on this central role in our community. Welcome, Alexis!

Endings can really be fraught, not only with details, but all the mixed emotions we may feel at times of change. Let us notice the tender feelings we may be experiencing during the American holiday season, with all the expectations of joy and family it brings, and be kinder to one another. I hope we can set growthful and realistic goals for the new year that are truly good and healthy for us.

Joseph’s last words to his family’s next generation were, “God will surely take care of you!” May it be that you feel God’s nurturing care in all of your preparations and all of your transitions.

Happy (secular) New Year! 
Rabbi Anna

Mitzvah Opportunity with Syrian Refugee family and Kol Emet

Dear KE community,


You may know that Kol Emet, in conjunction with other congregations in the area, has been supporting a couple of Syrian refugee families. One family has a two young daughters, one of whom is getting ready to attend preschool. She is wetting her feet (as it were) at Kamp Kol Emet. We are excited to welcome Y, as she begins Kamp starting on July 5th!

The family does not have a car, so she will need rides to and from camp. This effort is being coordinated by our well-organized local refugee settlement committee. I want to emphasize that KE is not assuming responsibility for finding drivers or for the actions of the drivers – this is simply an opportunity (and a need) to which people who wish to help this family can respond. If you might be able to assist in this effort, even in a limited extent, please read on and let me know if you are interested. I will then give your name and contact info to a liaison for the family.

Kamp is three days a week – Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – and begins at 9am and ends at 1pm. The family lives not far from Kol Emet. The morning driver needs to take A and R (the mother and younger daughter) along with Y to preschool and then take R and A back to their apartment. The morning pickup time at the apartment will be 8:45. The afternoon driver needs to pick up A and R at their apartment at 12:45 and then take everyone home afterwards. The morning and afternoon drivers for any given day need not be the same. If the driver for a day is going to be the same, they can leave in the car seats (which will be provided) in between pickups.

There is a central coordinator organizing rides for the family. When people sign up for the driving pool, they are not committing to any specific responsibilities – they will merely receive notices of the needs and opportunities and they can respond (or not) at that point. The postings will give the specific information each driver needs to know.

If you can help, please send me an email.  We would be so very grateful.

Rabbi Anna

A Few Ideas for Your Seder

Eating matzo is

Best when spread with the stories

of where we come from.

-Susan Barocas


Wise, sly, simple, mute-

These, the four children, who knew?

Members of Congress.

-Dena Goodman

Passover is full of haikus and stories– the personal and the political, stories from long ago, and stories still unfolding.  On Passover, it seems like all those kinds of stories come together into one, giant, epic story we call the Haggadah, the Telling.

I am so looking forward to sharing Passover with many of you at our first Second Night Community Seder!  For those of you who can’t make it, please feel free (pun intended) to incorporate these aspects of our seder into your celebration.  Here are a few things you can bring to the seder so you can be prepared to leave Egypt with us:

  1. A PillowLet’s get comfortable together, as we luxuriate in our freedom.  The seder was originally modeled after a Greek symposium – think heaps of food, adult beverages, and pillows galore.  The ultimate in freedom.
  1. MoneySeriously?!  Yes, I realize this isn’t a traditional item at a seder, and we don’t usually deal with money on Jewish holidays.  But we are not a traditional congregation… At a certain point in the seder, we will be giving tzedakah to ten different causes of our choosing.  You can choose to give to all ten, or just a few you are especially passionate about.  This will be our way of helping to address ten modern plagues of our time.
  1. Your questions and your thoughtful engagement This is a Night of Questions, and at the seder, I will be asking YOUR questions.  Please write down whatever question you have, no matter how simple or complex it may be, on a piece of paper and bring it with you to our seder.  When you come in, there will be a box at the leader’s table in which you can place your questions. Throughout the seder, I will take out a few at the time and read them out loud.

So now many of you may be wondering and fretting about the length of the seder!  Not to worry, you will be eating dinner before 7:30, I promise.  And, we will serve a robust karpas (root vegetable hors d’oeuvres) toward the start of the seder, so no one will go hungry. 

Lastly, I want to thank Randi Davis, who has gone above and beyond her responsibilities as our president to cook and coordinate all the food preparation for this seder.  Passover would not be as joyous, liberating, and tasty without her efforts.

Have a sweet, sweet Pesach!

Rabbi Anna 

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