Friday, July 24, 2015

We need Deuteronomy - because slavery is not over

I just finished reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, an extraordinary work on the travesty of mass incarceration today in the US, particularly of African Americans.  I haven't yet recovered from what Alexander achieved in this work, essentially a telling of the facts, the reality, the truth about a state of injustice that I simply can't wrap my head around completely.

Incomprehensible - to think that at this moment the US has a greater percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any other country in the world....  That incarceration of the African American community is greater now in this democracy of ours than in South Africa at the worst moment of the Apartheid....

This week I began another book - Deuteronomy.  The Greeks called it Deuteronomy (deuteros nomos, "second" and "law") because essentially it was a re-telling, a revision, in fact, of a collection of stories from Exodus through Numbers that explained who we were and what we needed to do about it.  The imperative to retell, to revise the popular narrative, is an imbedded aspect of our tradition.  It's in our DNA.  Most scholars believe the author, or more likely, authors, of most of Deuteronomy knew the other 4 books.  If that's the case, then these anonymous writers and storytellers had a point to make-- they saw that the dominant narrative, the myths of origin, and their subsequent obligations needed a new reality check.  So little is known about the ancient mysterious authors- our ancestors- who began this age-old process of creating what we now call Scripture, sacred literature, which we believe (or, if you will, we hang onto hope) that it can lead us into relationship with the Divine.

I don't believe that only ancient texts lead us into relationship with God.  Just as the Prophets isn't the only canon of literature that can wake up a people to their obligations to humanity.  There indeed seems to be, at least in my conscience, a stitching between the end of The New Jim Crow and the beginning of Deuteronomy.  Race relations today need a "deuteronomy" of sorts because slavery is not over, it's just hidden.  No, worse, we are hiding it.

Mass incarceration is the new slavery.  And as a Jew, an heir to a myth of origin that says, "because you were slaves in Egypt," no less than 36 times in the Torah, my social conscience is aching.  I hear in my heart the voices of the Prophets crying out from generations past.

Following the reading of Deuteronomy tomorrow morning, in our haftarah the Prophet Isaiah will have the last word (excerpted):
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Eternal has spoken: Children I have reared, and brought up, and they have rebelled against Me....O what a sinful nation....  Learn to do well; pursue justice, relieve the oppressed....


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Being Played, Playing along, and Praying for Facts

A reflection- on my Times of Israel blog- on the haunting way in which this war flared up.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The "Sermon" of the Summit- Pursuing Sh'lom Bayit/Family Wholeness

An abbreviation of this blog entry was first published on "Double Booked," the blog by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, devoted to the struggles of working families in the 21st century.

The great "rabbi" George Burns said, "The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible." It's advice to which I've aspired and never adhered. But I suppose the lesson is clear enough: if there's really something vital to say, just say it; make your point clear and compelling.  The White Summit on Working Families was just a single day, but the crisis prompting the summit was so clear, so compelling, that the day itself felt like a great sermon.  The bottom line was this: families are working harder than ever, and our workplaces haven't caught up.  Also, family itself requires extraordinary work, and not only the work of raising children but in caring for aging parents.  

I was stunned by the data provided the Center for American Progress (mostly from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Department of Census).  I couldn't believe that 70 percent of American children live in households where all adults are working.  In 1975, just a generation ago, more than half of all kids had a stay-at-home parent. Now, fewer than a third of kids grow up with a parent at home. Meanwhile, the annual cost of child care for an infant in a child care center is higher than a year’s tuition at the average four-year public college in most states!  

This fact hit home, as a parent of a sixteen month old.  As a rabbi, I typically work more than 60 hours a week, and my schedule is subject to the community's needs.  My wife works per diem as a social worker.  This means what when our little Caleb gets a cold and sent home from daycare with a low-grade fever, we lose a day's pay. This past year he was sick almost every week, and as the policy goes he had to stay home the next day as well; docked another day's pay. For most of our friends, this is how it goes.  This is our "normal."  My wife Nicole and I are still so conscious of the fact that we are among the more privileged; we don't live with food insecurity like 20% of US homes with kids; but we find it so hard to make our wonderful family work.

The "great sermon" of the summit identified the real problem behind our situation: Workplaces are still structured for a family of the 60's.  Most are designed for families in which one parent stays home, lacking policies that actually take care of our families-- specifically, paid sick days (including care-giving for sick kids and aging parents), equal pay for women, and flexible working conditions.  

We heard from our leading politicians, including the President, the First Lady, the Vice-President, and Dr. Jill Biden; they spoke of the need for policy changes-- minimum wage increases, paid sick days, etc.  But we also heard from CEO's like Bob Moritz, Chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, whose company went unlimited with paid sick days and saw that the number of sick days actually taken went down, while productivity rose. Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY, said his company rewards its teams for flexibility-- and in so doing finds increased productivity from its employees.  But Weinberger also said something that prompted me to think about my own context, that of the synagogue.  Speaking about the solution for this overall societal problem, he said, "it can't be an initiative, it has to be a culture."  

In a room of more than a thousand folks, I was one of but a few rabbis the room.  And when I hear the word "culture," my mind's eye pictures the synagogue.  Synagogues are workplaces too.  The "great sermon" preached by this summit is as pertinent to our own houses of worship as any workplace.  How are we synagogues doing?  I don't think anyone empirically knows the answer to this question-- no survey or studies have been done.  I would like to think that we're ahead of the game, but I'm also aware that religious institutions are permitted certain exemptions, like from offering unemployment insurance for employees. As a rabbi in an institution that deeply values its employees, I left the Summit eager to learn about how we and congregations across the country are really doing; what are the best practices, and how can we learn from each other, as each of our communities works to improve our policies to reoriented ourselves to the new reality of working families?  We all want synagogues to model compassion not only in our programs but in our policies.

Yet synagogues are also more than workplaces; they are places designed to help families work. The focus of my work at Temple Israel of Boston is two-part: (1) to organize for social justice in our community and greater Boston and (2) to engage and connect to a young adult population that tends to be disengaged by conventional synagogue life.  In both areas of my work, I face families who are working so hard to make their families work; boomers who are overwhelmed by the balancing act of working full-time while moving their parents into retirement communities, or caring for them as they decline in health; new parents, whose kids are always getting sick, and whose jobs don't seem to "get it" by supporting them through those times.  How are we, in our communities, supporting each other through this unprecedented struggle?  Are we reckoning with our families' needs vis-a-vis childcare and "parent-care"?  

Among the most supreme Jewish values is Sh'lom Bayit, typically translated "peace in the home" but it may also be rendered, "family wholeness."  There are so few institutions families can turn to in order to find "shalom" or wellness.  In the past the Jewish community was tightly knit enough for us to support one another with greater ease, with more intuitive compassion. That was then, and this is now.  In the past, the synagogue has been viewed as a "meeting house," a "house of worship," a "house of study"; perhaps the time has come for us to add to the list: a resource center for family wholeness (Sh'lom Bayit).

The religious Zionist Rav Kook famously said, "Hayashan yitchadeish v'hachadash yitkadeish-- what is old must be made new, and what is new must be made holy.”  Our families need help, and our congregations have a unique role in the work ahead-- through advocacy for civic change, yes, but also in "renovating" our own synagogues to be places where working families can find peace.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Belief Beyond Boredom: Shavuot 5774

Sermon delivered to the Temple Israel Confirmation Class of 5774
June 4, 2014/5774

Shavuot is about receiving the Torah at Sinai.  Confirmation is about receiving this tradition, symbolized by the Torah at Sinai.  (Are you with me so far?  Good.)  Sinai, in the Bible, is considered the most “interesting moment”— it captured the imagination of the entire community.  That’s what we always teach you, right?  

But for a moment, I’d like for us to focus not on the “interesting” Sinai, not on the “imaginative” Sinai.  Because, I suspect, it wasn’t all interesting, all the time, for all the people.  What about when Moses was up at the top of the Mount, overstaying his welcome with the big G? The Israelites, they were bored.  They were bored beyond belief— literally!  Which is why they built a golden calf.

So let’s play out the possibility that the real “story” of Sinai is one of overwhelming boredom, and then overcoming boredom.

Raise your hand if you've ever been bored in religious school.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever been bored reading the Bible.  Raise your hand if you've ever been bored in services.  On behalf of your clergy, I'd like to say: You're welcome.  

I recently read a book about boredom.  And let me tell you: nothing is more boring than reading a book about boredom. Except, perhaps, listening to a sermon about a book about boredom.  But on this morning, the morning of your Confirmation, your Sinai moment, if you will, I feel so utterly obliged to address the issue of boredom—and in so doing hopefully not bore you to death.

There’s a story told of a mother who one Saturday morning calls to her child, “C’mon, son, it’s time to go to synagogue!”
 The son calls back from his bedroom, “Aw, mom, I don’t wanna go. It’s so boring, nobody likes me, nobody ever listens to anything I have to say. Can’t I just stay home in bed?”
 The mother replies: “Absolutely not!  You have to go!”
 The son:  “Give me two good reasons, mom.”
 “Well for one thing,” says the mother, “you’re thirty three years old.  And for another, you’re the rabbi.”

For the first 14 years of my life, the Hebrew school classroom was the epicenter of boredom, the “holy of holies” for dullness, where we toiled in the Torah of tedium.  That’s why many people dropped out, and why many still do. 

This problem is actually widespread.  As the Jewish community learned recently from a PEW study released this year, disengagement and disconnection from institutional Jewish life—synagogues, JCCs, federations—is a huge problem.  The normal “sites” – the places that were fashioned to feel like Sinai, to capture the imagination of the Jewish people are, by and large, doing a lousy job at that.  In other words, our community is suffering from boredom. 

But boredom is nothing new to the story of Judaism.  We get it in the Bible from the very start.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant read boredom into the story of Adam and Eve.  He wrote:
“If Adam and Eve had remained in Paradise…. boredom would certainly have martyred them, as well as it does other men in similar positions.” 

The implication is clear: The whole exile from Eden serves the function of making life interesting!

And the Rabbis too understood the invasive, contaminating stench of boredom.  This is one reason why they created midrash.  Yes, I know, we told you midrash is designed to "fill gaps," to "solve textual problems." What we really meant to say was: they made midrash so that they wouldn't be so bored.  They made midrash so that we, you, would NOT be like the Israelites, so bored beyond belief that we get our spirituality elsewhere.

Take this midrash, which I promise you pertains directly to Shavuot, and to the statement that you are making by being present here at your Confirmation.

Here’s the context of the midrash: the Rabbis are reading the first line of the book of B'Midbar—the book of Numbers.  It begins, "Vay'daber Adonai El Moshe B'Midbar Sinai Leimor."  It's a weird beginning to a book.  Because usually it's "vay'daber Adonai el Moshe Leimor" - 70 times in fact, we see it that way.  But here's it's different—"And God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai saying…."  So the Rabbis were confused: What do you mean, IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI, Torah was given?  Isn't that obvious?  Or could this suggest that Torah was given in a bunch of other places too?

The Midrash answers: “Why does it say "in the wilderness of Sinai?" Our Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: through fire, through water, and through wilderness.” 

And the Midrash goes further:
Why was the Torah given in these three ways? [What do these three things have in common?]  Just as these are free and open to everyone, so too are the words of the Torah free and open.

Think about that for a second: Torah is free and open.  The synagogue does not own this text.  Your rabbis don’t “own” this story any more than you do.  Your teachers, the great ones or the ones who bored you beyond belief, have no greater claim to this treasure than each and every one of you!

And in case you’re still bored having heard that, don’t worry, the Midrash isn’t done yet; it continues:
Why the Wilderness of Sinai? (it asks again).  Anyone who does not make oneself open, like a wilderness, cannot acquire wisdom and Torah.

This year we challenged you to become un-bored.  Throughout your Monday Night School experience, and I know personally in our Jewish Thought and Practice class, you were pushed- and you pushed each other – to open yourselves up to the possibility that Torah, that Jewish wisdom, that your obligations in this world, aren’t lofty and beyond your own story.  They are within you.  You have made yourselves “open like a wilderness.” And you discovered, in each of your own ways:

That Torah can be found in the fire of your anger and passion!
That Torah, wisdom, can be found in the water of your spiritual well, in the sea of your deepest thoughts,
That Torah can be discovered along the winding path of your own river.
That Torah can be found in your wilderness, when you’re lost or afraid….  Or, in the wilderness, when you discover who you really are.

Having once been bored, and now having escaped, you have each become so interesting and interested. 

And that gives us immense hope.  Because our community needs you now like never before.  Because Jewish boredom is different from other kinds of boredom. 

As Dr. Erica Brown writes in her book Spiritual Boredom, Jewish boredom is “unlike the boredom where we perceive that there is nothing to do in a generalized way.”  With Jewish boredom, more is at stake.  Because Judaism isn't a tradition of theories. It's a tradition of action and impact; of looking around, seeing hatred and injustice and doing something about it.  We can’t do that if we’re asleep. 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip.  They set up their tent and, in time, fall asleep.  Some hours later, Holmes wakes up his faithful friend.  “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me ... what do you see?”  Watson opens his eyes, yawns, stretches, and then replies, “I see millions of stars.”  “And what does that tell you?” Holmes asks.  Watson ponders a moment.  “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.  Timewise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three.  Theologically, it’s evident that God is allpowerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow!  Holmes, what does it tell you?”  Holmes is silent for a moment, and then speaks.  “Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent!”

Karl Marx, who called religion “an opiate to the people,” or some kind of sleeping pill, got it so very wrong—our tradition isn’t a lullaby, it’s an alarm clock!  It’s a wake up call!  It’s a reminder that “someone has stolen our tent” – and it’s on us to do something about it, to make things better, to make things right, to ease suffering, to make your mark.
You are here for a purpose.  Today that purpose is confirmed.
And together you are powerful.

So if you were bored in 2nd, 3rd, 4th grade, maybe that’s “on us.”  But here’s the thing: now, if you’re bored: it’s on you.  Because now you know the important difference between lacking faith and just being bored.  You, Confirmation Class of 5774, embody the brilliant confluence of faith and doubt, of questions and discoveries—that confluence, so long as it propels us toward responsibility—is the crux of Reform Judaism.

And so your mission, if you choose to accept it—and by being here we take that as a “yes”—is to partner with us to move each other, to move our community, to move our people, from boredom beyond belief to belief beyond boredom. 

Ken y’hi ratson, May this be God’s will.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Campaign to Kindle Community

In Jewish tradition, the lighting of candles is an exceptional blessing.  It’s a backwards blessing: With the other blessings we BLESS and then DO.  With our candles however we DO (light) and then BLESS.  Doing and then blessing.  But we're beginning a new book-- a book that is filled with oddity and anomaly-- so the "backwardsness" of lighting Shabbat candles seems almost natural when beginning this book.

The book we began was B’midbar.  A complicated, peculiar beginning— from the very first sentence, which plunks us down in the Wilderness with Torah.  As always, the midrashist was keenly attuned to the problems of this wilderness:  

Numbers Rabbah 1:7
" . . . The Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai . . . " (Num. 1:1). Why "in the wilderness of Sinai?" Our Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: through fire, through water, and through wilderness. 
Why was the Torah given in these three ways? Just as these are free to all creatures, so too are the words of the Torah free, as it is said, "Let all who are thirsty, come for water, [even if you have no money . . . .]" (Isa. 55:1)
Another interpretation of  "The Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai . . . ": Anyone who does not make oneself open like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah; This is why it says, "in the wilderness of Sinai."

It’s not every day we stumble upon a midrashic voice like this, which is so utterly challenging to the orientation of our - or any - fixed Jewish community.  And by “fixed Jewish community” I mean an institution.  Institutions, like the federation, the synagogue, the community center, are by their very nature wired to be, in some sense, anti-wilderness.  We “institute” because of the threat of change, be it the horrid extremes of large scale annihilation (God forbid) or assimilation, or smaller-scale retraction from purpose and mission.  We institute because we want to ensure continuity, sameness over time.  We want our same heritage, our values, or culture; to last longer than we each do individually.
This text challenges the notion of a fixed Jewish community, on a variety of levels. It tells us that the Torah wasn’t given in the Promised Land, nor in the Temple. It was given in a dessert, a wilderness.  Second, the midrash tells us that Torah speaks in a variety of ways and places.  And most destabilizing, perhaps, it tells us to make Torah “free,” even using the Hebrew word “liknot,” to purchase or acquire.

Synagogues are the primary houses of Torah— and they can’t survive without contributions. We know that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” so how can there be such a thing as a “free Torah”?  The midrash is clear: Torah grows in the wild; it demands an organic attitude.  And as part-2 of our midrash reinforces, our ability to acquire it demands that we ourselves are “b’midbar,” free, open.  Where in our lives are we experiencing Wilderness?  Where is our community in Wilderness?  How do we make ourselves, individually and collectively “wilderness-ish.”
We can’t answer any of these questions without looking at the ever-changing ELEMENTS in our lives— the fire, the water, the wilderness.  
How do we “kindle” the natural and wild elements in our tradition?  We have a word for this, a ritual in fact.  The very beginning of the Torah, our first chapter, suggests to us that the most difficult and wild element in our universe is actually not physical at all, its temporal— time.  We organize time by carving out one day, Shabbat.  Time runs wild, like fire, like water, like wilderness— and that’s why when we enter Shabbat we do so by KINDLING fire. We give it a wick to burn, and wax to stay calm, and a spark, with our own hands.
Right now our community is engaging in the practice of Wilderness-Dwelling.  We took a congregation-wide survey called Shaping Our Future, the Temple Israel Project.  We learned a lot about who we are and what we need in order to endure— we learned, in fact, that Torah IS given in a variety of ways— fire, water, and wilderness.  Our community members seek a variety of ways of entering sacred space.  And similarly what the broader PEW study on the Jewish community, the largest of its kind to date, taught us was that institutions need to become less institutional if they are to adapt— institutions need to be more “b’midbar—wildernessy.”
Our midrash gives us a clue how to do so:  if we want to acquire Torah, OSEH ATZMO KA-MIDBAR HEFKER: make yourself a like a wilderness— open yourselves up, hefker, this word connotes being ownerless and open to encountering anyone who comes your way.  This is about relationship, learning about each other, and discovering the Torah within our souls.
Therefore,Ohel Tzedek, our tent of justice, is complementing our survey work by engaging the congregation in a relational campaign—in order to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our community— face to face.  Ohel Tzedek kindles the flame of Relational Judaism in our community.  So we’re calling this campaign, MADLIK.  
Madlik means kindle.  It’s the word we say when we say, “l’hadlik neir” - when we kindle the lights that usher in holy time. And then bless.  In this place the real way that “anachnu MADLIKIM neirot” - that we kindle lights and find blessing - is through relationships.  That’s why every Shabbat after we light the candles and sing l’cha dodi, we meet each other. When we took our survey we had a more successful response rate than any other congregation.  That’s because what we really yearn for is relationship, what we yearn for is connection. That’s our challah and butter!   So this campaign is community-wide and completely open—like a wilderness.

And what we’re asking people to ask each other is quite simple: Who are you? How are you? What is this community to you, and what could it be? This is the “Wilderness” question, we’re just asking it in real ways.  This campaign will have 3 stages and it'll go into next year:
11)   The first is individual connections, 1:1 meetings.  
22)   The second is group gatherings, house meetings in the fall.
33)   And then the third phase is discerning: What are hearing and what do we want to do about it?

If you’re comfortable being a part of this wilderness, ask me about it; drop me a note to sign up.  I know I speak not just for myself but also our Madlik Co-Chairs, Ted Greenwood and Sally Mechur, and our Madlik Leadership Team—all of whom are eager to connect. 

Perhaps most exciting part of this campaign is that we are not alone: more than 40 other congregations throughout the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) are doing it as well. We will get a chance to mix it up with other people of faith. If we hear something at TI that resonates elsewhere, our ability to “do something about it,” if we want, is exponentially greater.  
We are supported in this campaign by the professional organizers that our communities invests in— individuals like Larry Gordon, GBIO’s senior organizer— experts who help us hear each other and do something about it.  
So we are beginning a new book, B’midbar.  The book that tells us that Torah is given in the Wilderness.  And if we want it, we have to make ourselves open and new.  We have to make ourselves like fire, like water, b’midbar-like wilderness.  So we will.  And after doing so, after kindling the light of our community, we will find blessing.  
Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir shel ha-tzibur
Blessed are you Eternal our God Sovereign of the universe who commands us to kindle the light of the community.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Seeing & Reading the Sea of Reeds: A PEW Reflection

Sermon by Rabbi Matthew Soffer, delivered January 10, 2014 at Temple Israel of Boston

We have arrived at the Sea of Reeds.  Every year we read this multiple times.  Most obviously we encounter this text during Passover, when we not only read the story but also digest its key elements literally.  And we read it now, this week, in Parashat Beshalach. 

When we read text in Judaism we don’t read for simplicity, for summaries of events that occurred.  Nor do we read for comfort, at least not when we engage in the study of Torah.  When we read we read for complexity; for irony; for contradictions.  We read to challenge ourselves.  Which is why this Torah portion so exceptional.

It pushes us beyond our comfort zone, in recalling the moment in our people’s sacred myth when we were least comfortable.

You might say, “wait a minute, how could we possibly regard this moment as less comfortable than the enslavement that they were fleeing!”  But in our text we hear the Israelites counter to Moses, as Pharaoh and his troops were chasing the Israelites:

“They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there weren’t enough graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?... It would be better for us to be slaves to the Egyptians than die here!’”

We the Jewish people inherit the whole narrative of Exodus, with all of its peaks and valleys.  The pretty part of it all is fun to tell as we recline comfortably around the Passover table—the glorious edible journey from slavery to freedom to revelation to eventual homecoming.  But the ugly parts, like this fatalistic kvetch we too inherit.

We the Jewish people are conditioned to read our lives into the story and this story into our lives: It’s a part of our DNA.  And this moment, when the Israelites stand there in between the Egyptians and the frightening apparent dead-end of the Reed Sea, this situation is still a part of the people Israel’s self-conception. “It’d be better for us to be slaves to the Egyptians than die here!” 

This pinnacle of discomfort has only been reinforced by the lessons of our history of tumult, afflicted and inflicted by the other as well as the self.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why our community today is so invested in studying itself.  Jewish demography is a field that has grown tremendously over the last 3 decades.  We are obsessively assessing our state in the world, sensing the threats all around us.

By now you’ve probably heard about the most recent PEW study on the Jewish community released just a few months ago.  It’s a fascinating snapshot of the American Jewish community.  Frankly, there’s not much reason for Jewish leadership to be comfortable right now.  

More than one in five American Jews now describe him or herself has having “no religion,” and among the youngest generation of adults that figure is about 1 in 3. These numbers accord with PEW data trends broadly across religion in America. Interestingly 45% of Americans who identify as having no religion (the so-called “nones”) actually do say they believe in God.  Which suggests that the problem is in the institutions, the actual organized religious community.

And this is perhaps most relevant for us, as a community of individuals who choose to enter this space to enliven Judaism. Now of course we know that Temple Israel itself has some radical approaches in comparison to the average synagogue—they way we organize for justice, engage people who are otherwise Jewishly bored—we’ve long been “renovators” of Jewish life. But this doesn’t make us immune to the macro-trends that the PEW is showing. In fact, we change because we listen to them.

The overall number of people who identify as “belonging to a synagogue” is declining.  My/our generation in particular doesn’t hold the same connection to the concept of membership as our parents and grandparents, and the problem isn’t just about the millennials.  The overall percentage of those who invest in the synagogue to advance their identity is shrinking. 

Why this matters is not only existential—Judaism doesn’t exist for the sake of existence. As Hillel said “uch’she-ani laatzmi mah ani—if I exist for my own sake, what am I?”
A Judaism that exists entirely for itself is nothing more than narcissism.  Engaging in self-demographics can always runs the risk of narcissism, of obsessing over oneself eternally.  

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter from Thespiae who was obsessed with his own image and his own stories.  His nemesis, who name was….Nemesis… Nemesis attracted him to stare a pool, where he looked upon the body of water and saw his reflection.  He fell in love with it, and he stared at it for the rest of his life. Some say he tried to kiss it, leading to his own death.

The great Jewish demographers, whether it’s Steven Cohen, Leonard Saxe, or the PEW’s experts, they too take us to a body of water.  But it’s not the pond of Narcissus, it’s the Sea of Reeds. Like the Israelites, we don’t know what the future holds, and there’s no shortage of fatalist readers of our story. 

In the story of the Sea of Reeds, we know what happens, there are a number of versions of the tale.  The Reed Sea parts, forming two walls.  The Israelites pass through the two halves of the sea.  The walls then cave in, crushing the enemies of Israel.  Israel rejoices.

The Parting Sea is the critical moment in the journey toward the Covenant with God at Sinai.  And not only because of its role in the plot, but also because of its allusive significance, the symbolism of the parting sea.  This is not the first time that parting plays a part of the story. 

The Torah, our sacred story, has been parting since the creation of the world.  When God creates in Genesis, it is through making divisions that the world comes into being.  It’s not by chance that the very concept of Covenant involves splitting.

The Hebrew verb associated with the making of a covenant is karet (b’rit), to “cut a Covenant” – for the ancients, of course, it pertained to the Ancient Near Eastern custom of cutting an animal in half and offering it to the gods.  This was how two or more parties made peace; this was how they affirmed an agreement and made it holy.  In fact, this is the origin of the term “cutting a deal.”  The ancient Israelites imported this concept of cutting in half, parting to symbolize any time that God and human beings established a new and refreshing vision for the future.  Covenant—the idea that we are in this together and that we can make a future together that defies the reality on the ground: that’s the lesson of the Parting Reed Sea. 

Covenant has always been and still is the “value proposition” of the Jewish enterprise.  And by the way, yes we have to be clear about our value proposition.  Because what the PEW study makes clear, what we all know: Today, we live in a spiritual marketplace. It wasn’t always this way throughout Jewish history, but it is now. We live in a spiritual marketplace, and it is essential that we understand our value proposition—that is, what is indispensible and exceptional about this thing we call Judaism. 
What’s still worth enlivening, sustaining, and guarding?  It’s the courage to be in Covenant, in a holy relationship with each other and with God (however you define the Sacred).

Getting your religion on, whether you call it spirituality, justice, culture, or free food, is now – like it or not – counter-cultural.  Stepping foot inside this community means being a part of a counter-culture. 

But that’s nothing new. How do you know a fish is alive, asks the old Yiddish Proverb.  You know it’s alive if it swims upstream. Covenant, this thing we call Judaism, has always been challenging and uncomfortable.   We’ve been swimming this way for thousands of years, and we’ll continue swimming this way for as long as we have the courage to be in Covenant. This is the way we read and see the Sea of Reeds.

Shabbat Shalom.