Judaism - Torah

30 Days After Pittsburgh – Who are the Righteous Up-Standers?

I wonder if whoever wrote the expression, “May you Live in Interesting Times” had a prophetic window into today’s world. As we near the end of 2018, I can’t help but think about how it has certainly been an… interesting… year.

For many, interesting isn’t a strong enough word. It’s been a downright tough year for people who care about antisemitism, political civility, the success of the #MeToo movement, addressing the worldwide refugee crisis, and more. It seems as though we never have to look too far to find something that arouses frustration, anger, and fear. So often, these feelings add up to a sense of abject paralysis: what can we really say or do to make a difference?

I was considering this while reading this week’s Torah reading, Vayeshev. It features part of the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers – seething with hatred – gang up on him, plotting to kill him. Even though he is a blood relative, they think Joseph is different. They don’t see him as one of them. And out of malice and groupthink, they conspire to murder him.

It’s an 11-on-1 brawl, as Joseph is totally overpowered and overwhelmed. But in a moment of either patience, or sudden moral insight, or guilt, one of Joseph’s brothers – Reuven – rises up and speaks out against this act of violence. He’s not able to stop his brothers from the attack, but at the very least, he persuades them not to murder Joseph: “Throw him into a pit and leave him there, instead,” Reuven argues.

Reuven refuses to be an innocent bystander. We can argue whether or not his act of defiance went far enough, but at the very least, Reuven saw a potential injustice and acted to right it as best he could.

Reuven’s act should be a continual inspiration to us. “Today’s Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question – when to get involved,” notes Rabbi Bradley Artson. So when faced with feelings of anger and fear, one of the ways we can restore a sense of calm and hope is to look for inspiration from those who refuse to be bystanders. 

Who answers the eternal call to get involved? Who are the righteous up-standers today?

I was moved to tears last month, when the Sixth & I sanctuary burst at the seams with over 1,200 members of our extended DC community who showed up to offer support to the Jewish community in the wake of the antisemitic Pittsburgh shooting. It was a bittersweet reminder – one we wish we didn’t need – that we are not alone in the fight for justice and peace.

And, of course, we should do more than just look for up-standers, we should be righteous up-standers ourselves. If you’re looking for a way to offer support in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, there are still numerous ways to help the victims, their families, and the wider community.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is addressing the trauma that many children are experiencing by providing age-appropriate books that address loss and grief, that focus on kindness and tolerance, and that remind children that we can still build a better world together.

    You can donate funds to support the purchase of these much-needed books.

  2. Donate funds directly to the Tree of Life Synagogue through the verified GoFundMe campaign.
  3. Donate to HIAS – an international nonprofit that works to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands because of who they are, including ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. Anti-Semitic gunman Robert Bowers negatively referenced the organization on his social media accounts prior to the massacre.
  4. Donate to the Jewish Federation Pittsburgh Solidarity Fund, which is collecting donations to fund psychological services, support for families, medical bills for all those involved, reconstruction, and security.
  5. Support and join the Anti-Defamation League in their work responding to anti-semitism, bigotry, and hate crimes in the United States.

Please join me in taking one of these steps to learn from the lessons of Reuven, Joseph, and their brothers. It may seem small, but – like Reuven – you can stand up for what is righteous and just. It’s a way you can reflect some hope and light into our shared world.

Wishing you a week of peace and inspiration.

Judaism - Torah

Showing, not Seeing

I am Canadian. Often, this is immediately noticeable – I have an extensive collection of plaid shirts, an unabashed love of cold weather, and I tend to apologize a lot.

It’s important that you know this, not just because I’m proud of my heritage, but because it’s a key part of one of the most significant and trying events I’ve had in my life. An event that, remarkably, has changed my thinking on this Refugee Shabbat.

A little over three months ago, on the very first day when I was supposed to start working here at Sixth & I, I learned of a monumental bureaucratic error that meant I didn’t receive proper authorization to work legally here in the United States.

I was told that it could be up to a year before I would receive authorization.

I couldn’t officially start my job. So I volunteered my time and energy. But I couldn’t really be recognized for this thrilling new step in my life. I couldn’t post anything online, for fear that someone at Homeland Security might misinterpret it as me doing something illegal.

For the past three months, I’ve been waiting in the dark limbo that is United States Citizenship and Immigration applications, FBI background checks, and paying fees to the Department of Homeland Security.

I have felt as though I’ve been living in hiding. Never have I wanted so badly to have a Microsoft Outlook calendar and meeting invites – the markers of normalcy. Continue reading “Showing, not Seeing”

Judaism - Torah

Moral Outrage | Yom Kippur 5779

Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Draco Malfoy – one of the antagonists in the Harry Potter series – is an elitist. He lacks compassion and empathy, revels in bullying, and – depending on where you stand in your reading of the books – he may have been an attempted murderer.

If you are not among the legions of those who have read or watched the Harry Potter canon, bear with me for a moment, as I paint a scene of Draco Malfoy’s malevolence. And if you know the series by heart, pay attention, because you might discover something new, like I recently did.

There’s this moment from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – my favourite of the books:

While Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, are waiting in line for dinner, Draco Malfoy parades in. He’s obnoxiously reading aloud a newspaper article highly critical of Ron’s father. And then he fires off a crude insult about Ron’s mother’s weight.

Harry comes to Ron’s defense. He takes a pot-shot of his own at Draco’s mother.

And this is when Draco Malfoy casts a spell aimed at Harry, while his back is turned.

Like I said, Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Nearby, one of their teachers, Mad-Eye Moody, has been watching. Not wanting Harry to get shot in the back, he casts his own defensive spell, turning Draco into a ferret. With magic, he torments the Malfoy ferret, tossing him around from floor to ceiling.

And this is when the calm, yet stern Professor McGonagall shows up. She puts an end to the draconian punishment. And with her trademark stoicism, she informs Mad-Eye Moody that this is not how they punish students.


This is from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, and by now, our brewing anger and disdain for Malfoy has reached a boiling point. We’ve spent three and a half books learning of his cruelty toward Harry, and yet he never gets judged or punished. We feel morally justified in our anger toward him – just like Harry and Mad-Eye. Which is why it’s so satisfying to us when Draco is turned into a ferret.

But while a commitment to morals is one thing, resorting to outrageous and divisive acts in its name is another thing entirely.

I’ve been re-watching and re-reading the entire Harry Potter canon. It started off as pure entertainment, but the last time I read the first book, it was half a lifetime ago. Today, I’m struck by how remarkably they touch on some of the very challenges we confront every day: Fear of the stranger. Divisiveness. Unease at public dissent. Moral outrage. Continue reading “Moral Outrage | Yom Kippur 5779”

Judaism - Torah

Spiritual Jet Lag | Kol Nidre 5779

It was 3:00 AM, and I was in a hotel room in Azerbaijan, lying awake. I was on the first night of a trip through Central Asia, jet-lagged, and disoriented. I groped around the room, looking for the alarm clock. I was so frustrated. Eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, my body thought that now would be a good time to get things going for the day. Somehow, I had convinced my body to fall asleep a few hours earlier, but jet lag is among the most powerful of forces. Despite my will, it would not be tamed after just one night. While my mind craved sleep, my body was busy making other plans. All I could do was lie in bed and – since it was evening on the East Coast – play HQ on my iPhone.

Jet lag is a vicious, vicious fiend. Continue reading “Spiritual Jet Lag | Kol Nidre 5779”

Judaism - Torah

If you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah

Last week, this Forward article by Bethany Mandel popped up in my feeds: Please Leave Politics Out Of Your High Holiday Sermons.

Some version of it appears every year. Different author. Same message. Everyone quibbles about it.

Now there’s a twitter poll asking rabbis what they think.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when a community member said to me, with just a *tinge* of sarcasm: “Well, if you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah.”

The Torah *is* a political document. The Tanakh *most definitely* is a political document. The Talmud is seeping with political wisdom.

If you don’t read the Torah and think about our responsibilities to the immigrants and refugees in our midst; if you don’t read the Tanakh and think about our fundamental religious obligations to lift up the most vulnerable; if you don’t read the Talmud and think about how to engage in civil discourse… then you’re missing some of the most fundamental messages of these texts.

Continue reading “If you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah”

Judaism - Torah

“Love your Neighbour as Yourself.” But not all Neighbours are Loveable… | Rosh Hashanah Shacharit 5779

A little over a year ago, we watched, horrified, as torch-wielding Neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, including “Jews will not replace us!” Since then, white supremacist violence has raged in ways most of us never thought we would see again in our lifetimes.

And then white supremacists told us they would march again, this time through the streets of our city. Though outnumbered, the hate was palpable.

I must admit that it feels almost absurd to give a sermon or try to teach Torah about white supremacy. For one – you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that Nazis are evil. And even more so, isn’t our time better spent mobilizing in response?

When this hatred rises, there have been, and will continue to be counter-protests, and teach-ins, and vigils. We will stand up for a vision of a world that affirms that humanity was created out of one being – adam harishon – the first human – so that no person could ever say: “my ancestors are better than yours.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

We will stand up for a vision of the world that says humanity was created out of the dust from every corner of the earth, so that no person could ever say: “the place I come from is better than the place you come from.” (Rashi on Gen. 2:7; Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer 11)

Hate will be confronted with love.

There will be a lot of love.

But there’s still a lot of hate.

What do we do with it? Continue reading ““Love your Neighbour as Yourself.” But not all Neighbours are Loveable… | Rosh Hashanah Shacharit 5779″

Judaism - Torah

It’s Going to Be Okay | Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

In the middle of the night on June 18th, 1947, on Pan Am flight 121 from Calcutta, India to New York City, an engine stopped working.[1]

Which caused the other engines to overheat, which in turn caused a fire.

Which caused a panic.

While the pilot attempted to land the plane, the 25-year-old co-pilot unbuckled himself.

He left the cockpit, going back into the main cabin to help with the passengers.

He saw a young woman who was alone, crying in fear.

He sat next to her, and told her it was going to be okay.

He told her this as out the window, he watched the engine continue to burn.

He told her this as he watched the engine fall from the wing.

He told her this as fuel lines became exposed, as fire overtook the aircraft, and as the plane pitched downward.

“It’s going to be okay.”

He told her this knowing that every single person on that plane was about to die. Continue reading “It’s Going to Be Okay | Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779”