In God’s Image; Working for Justice

A short invocation I gave on November 8, 2020, in Norristown, PA at the invitation of People 1st PA and other progressive organizations.

Good afternoon!

My name is Rabbi Maurice Harris, I live in Montgomery County, and I’m honored to start us off with a few words. I’ve been asked to speak for a few minutes and to offer a prayer. In my tradition learning is itself a kind of prayer, so I’d like to share some of my recent learning with you, and close with the kind of prayer that can be summed up in two words: “Help us.”

First, the learning part. You’ve probably heard before that all of the major monotheistic religions teach that every human being is created in God’s image. The first place we find this idea in the Hebrew Bible is in the very first chapter of Genesis. There we read:

And God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, patterned after our design. And God created humankind in God’s image; in the image of the Divine, God created the first human; male and female, God created them.”

Some of you might be asking, “Wait, what about the Adam and Eve in the garden story?” That story is in the Bible too, but there are two accounts of the creation in the Bible, and the one that speaks to this moment, and to the work of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, is the one I’ve just quoted from. The one in which the first human created by God has no specific gender, is the ancestor of all humans to come, and is created in God’s image. All people – you, me, our neighbors, our ancestors, our allies and our oppressors – all of us bear the seal and imprint of the Creative Consciousness at the heart of Reality.

Continue reading “In God’s Image; Working for Justice”

“Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon

Rabbi Maurice Harris

String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation

Shana Tova. It’s an honor to be with the String of Pearls community this year for the High Holidays. Though we are connecting online and not in person, we are connected by many invisible lines extending across distance and time. 

Tonight I’d like to talk a little bit about coping. Coping with fear, with uncertainty, with loss, and with the stresses of living in some of the hardest times we’ve shared as a society. I’d like to offer up an exercise, especially for when the craziness of life feels like it’s just too hard. It’s a practice that I call “Trust, Release, Ask.”  

Trust. A lot of what goes on in the world of religion attempts to instill fear in people. Fear that God is going to judge them and punish them. Fear that people will be hurt or tortured, if not in this life, than in an afterlife. We don’t have as much of this kind of thinking and teaching in modern Judaism as in some other religions, but we have our versions of it. The everyday world we live in also gives us plenty of opportunities to be fearful – I don’t think I need to list out what the past months have brought all of us in terms of shock, anxiety, disillusionment, outrage, and despair. It’s been rough.

It was already rough for so many people who tend to get overlooked or diminished in this world, no doubt, and at the same time there’s no question that the past year has been intense in its particular combination of terrible things. Our fears are understandable, and yet at the same time, our tradition teaches that fear is not a foundation to build a life upon. We ultimately have to decide whether we want to fear the Universe we are a part of, or whether we want to try our best to trust it – trust that whatever suffering may come and go as part of life and death, that the Universe holds us and that we belong to it.  

What I wish all of us would do, whether as part of our religious teachings or our general social values – is to help children from the youngest age develop a deep, abiding sense of inner trust that they are part of something greater – something creative, wonderful, and alive. That they are part of the Life of the Universe itself, which many of us call God – and that even though this life includes joy and pain, birth and death, it is something eternal and good that they are a part of that they can fully and entirely trust with all their being. Imagine if you had been told this every day of your life from the moment you could first understand the words, and others around you over and over again reinforced the message that you are part of something greater, the mysterious force of Life itself, and that you are loved and held by that power in a way that will never end. 

Continue reading ““Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon”

Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020

I shared this talk with String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation on September 27, 2020.

Good Yontiff. For those of you who joined us for Rosh Hashanah, welcome back. And for those just joining us for the first time, it’s good to be connected with you tonight.

Tonight I’d like to talk about what Valerie Kaur calls “Revolutionary Love.” If you haven’t had the chance to read or listen to Valerie Kaur, you are in for a wonderful discovery should you decide to look her up. She is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and is the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which I’ll say more about in a moment. She is also a Sikh-American – a member of the Sikh religion. If you’ve ridden a subway or gone to the grocery store and seen people wearing cloth turbans, there’s a good chance they are Sikhs. 

Valerie Kaur

Sikhism is a 500 year old religion that was founded in the Punjab region of what is now part of India and Pakistan. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was a witness to terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims, and he founded a new monothesitic religion based on core beliefs that are similar to those of many of the world’s religions and prophets. Sikhism teaches that all are equal before God – a teaching that we emphasize in Judaism through our practice of burying our dead in a simple cloth shroud in a modest coffin. Sikhism also stresses the obligation to treat everyone equally, to be generous with all in need, and to be brave and stand up to defend those who are being oppressed. 

It’s that last part that may distinguish Sikhism a bit from the other monotheistic religions. What I mean by that is this: all of the monotheistic religions share the same core values. We know this. One God. Do unto others. Justice, justice shall you pursue. But there are different insights, emphases, and commitments that jump out from different religions, in the same way that all doughnuts are made of dough and taste good, but they have different fillings and icings that distinguish one kind from another. I know: did the rabbi really just make a food analogy when we have only just begun fasting? And did he mention doughnuts, no less? 

Guilty as charged. I ask for your forgiveness.

Continue reading “Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020”

Yom Hashoah 2020 / 5780

Primo Levi wrote: “Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

So much of what he described characterizes our time, here in the US, and in so many other parts of the world. It’s in the macho strutting of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the craven racism of Netanyahu and his allies, the smirk Putin wears, the raging tantrums of Trump, the successful con-artistry of Nigel Farage, the entitled murderous manipulations of MBS. Here we are.

Thankfully, there are a zillion people refusing to consent to these authoritarian delusions. Levi also wrote of his time in Auschwitz, “…We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.” There are, all over this country and throughout the world, all kinds of people who are repeatedly refusing their consent. I put my faith in them, and in my own determination to be counted among them.

I see a connection to a very different text – a biblical text from Psalm 146:

אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ עַל־ה’ אֱלֹהָֽיו׃

Happy is the person who has the God of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the ETERNAL ONE,

עֹשֶׂ֤ה שָׁ֘מַ֤יִם וָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּ֥ם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑ם הַשֹּׁמֵ֖ר אֱמֶ֣ת לְעוֹלָֽם׃

maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who safeguards truth throughout all times and places;

עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗ים נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים ה’ מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים׃

who makes justice for those who are oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The ALMIGHTY sets prisoners free;

ה’ פֹּ֘קֵ֤חַ עִוְרִ֗ים ה’ זֹקֵ֣ף כְּפוּפִ֑ים ה’ אֹהֵ֥ב צַדִּיקִֽים׃

The ALL-SEEING ONE restores sight to the blind; the SOURCE OF LIFE makes those who are bent stand straight; the TRUE JUDGE loves the righteous;

ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

The SOUL OF THE UNIVERSE watches over the stranger; God gives courage to the orphan and widow, but makes the path of the wicked go crooked.

May the power we hold, to refuse our consent to authoritarian rule, and to continue to seek fairness, justice, peace, and empathy, be nourished by the Source of Life and the True Judge. May we strengthen one another’s hands in this effort. May the memory of the 6 million Jews and the millions of other peoples and groups who were murdered by the wicked Nazis and their supporters be a blessing and an inspiration for all of us to continue working for a world redeemed.

PrimoLeviquote

D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)

D’var Torah ­ T’rumah 5769 – Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

By Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)

Parashat T’rumah details the construction of the mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built and took with them during their 40 year journey through the wilderness. The early rabbis noticed the high frequency of similar words used in this story of the creation of a holy sanctuary and the language used in Genesis to describe the creation of the world.

The portable temple – the mishkan – is the Torah’s early preview of the permanent Temple that would be built centuries later by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Jon Levenson, a Bible scholar and the teacher of my Bible professor, Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski, wrote that the parallels between the Torah’s account of the creation of the universe and the Exodus chapters detailing the creation of the mishkan provide “powerful evidence that, as in many cultures, the Temple was conceived as a microcosm, a miniature world.”

For this week’s Torah portion, the ancient rabbis chose a haftarah, the public reading from the books of the Prophets, that accompanies the weekly Torah reading, from the book of First Kings. That text describes Solomon’s building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most commented upon verses we find in the description of this massive construction project reads as follows:

“When the Temple was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the Temple while it was being built.” [1 Kings 6:7] Continue reading “D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)”

D’var Torah – Chukat (5771 / 2011)

D’var Torah: Parashat Chukat – 5771 – July 1, 2011 – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat [Num 19:1 – 21:2], is fascinating. We open the parashah still in the second year of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert following their exodus from Egypt, but by the time we reach the end of the parashah we’re in year number 40. There are strange laws and unusual episodes, the deaths of leaders and of dreams, pitched battles, winged serpents, temper tantrums, water miracles, and leadership transitions, all within the contours of a single week’s reading from the Torah.

Chukat starts with a description of the priestly ritual that the Israelites are to follow whenever they come into contact with a corpse. The priests are instructed to take the ashes of a red cow and use them as part of a purification ritual. The laws of the parah adumah, or red heifer, have perplexed rabbis for thousands of years, and continue to be the subject of speculation to this day.

Then, the Torah portion jumps forward 38 years in time, leaving us to wonder what happened to Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and the Israelites during all those long years in the desert. When the story resumes, we read about the death of the prophet, Miriam. Shortly after losing his sister, Moses and Aaron face a grumbling, thirsty population of Israelites clamoring for water. God instructs Moses to take his rod, approach a particular rock, and speak to the rock to give forth water for the people. Amidst the peoples’ complaints, however, an over-stressed Moses finally comes unglued. With Aaron watching helplessly, Moses throws a fit in front of the entire assembly, yelling at them for their endless rebelliousness and striking the rock repeatedly with his rod. Water gushes forth, but in the aftermath of this drama God informs Moses that he and Aaron will not be accompanying the Israelites into the Promised Land. It’s a shattered dream following almost 40 years of shepherding this difficult flock.

 

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat (5771 / 2011)”

D’var Torah – Nitzavim-Vayelekh (5770/2010)

D’var Torah – Nitzavim/Vayelech 5770

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR

Shabbat shalom to everyone on this, the last Shabbat before the Jewish New Year of 5771 begins. I hope to see all of you this Wednesday night, Thursday morning, Thursday night and Friday morning for Rosh Hashanah services, and then again Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat Shuvah services. It’s a lot of davenning, a lot of togetherness, and I pledge to bring my breath mints if you will too.

In our annual journey through the Torah, we’ve gotten very close to the end of the scroll. This week we’ve arrived at the double Torah portion known as Nitzavim/Vayelech. It begins with well-known words, spoken by Moses to the Israelites: atem nitzavim kool-chem ha-yom leefnay adonay. One translation reads: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God.”

It’s a moment in which Moses tells the Hebrews that they are about to enter into a covenant with God and in the fullest sense, become a nation bonded with God. There are several moments of covenant between God and Israel in Torah, and this one stands prominently alongside the pact made between God and the people earlier in the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Now, the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land in just a matter of days or weeks, though, sadly, Moses won’t be making that journey with them. But for now, Moses informs them that they are about to ratify, once again, their sacred agreement, their eternal pact with God, as they get ready to transform from a wandering tribe of Hebrews to a nation within a land.

Moses goes on to remind the Israelites that if they keep the covenant they will create a just and prosperous society, and enjoy peace with their neighbors. If they violate the covenant, however, there will be sad and painful consequences. Ultimately, the land will spit them out, and they will find themselves in exile. Their beloved promised land will fall into ruin and destruction on such a scale that neighboring nations will pity them.

We read these words with dramatic irony. As readers we know that not one but two bitter and catastrophic exiles await the Israelites in the centuries after Moses’s life. After warning the Israelites that exile will be the cost of breaking the covenant, Moses tries to offer them hope should they ever find themselves in exile in the future. Here’s some of what he says:

When all these things happen to you [meaning when you do inevitably violate this covenant and find yourselves exiled from your land] … should you take [all that I’ve said] to heart amidst the various nations to which the Eternal your God has banished you, and should you then return to the Eternal your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and spiritthen the Eternal your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in motherly-love. God will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Eternal your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the sky, from there the Eternal your God will gather you, from there God will fetch you. And the Eternal your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; and God will make you more numerous than your ancestors were.

If we stop and look at this passage closely, we start to see how extraordinary it is. Here is Moses, giving his final speeches to a people he knows is deeply flawed, yet full of promise.

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Nitzavim-Vayelekh (5770/2010)”

D’var Torah – Re’eh (5770 / 2010)

D’var Torah – Parashat Re’eh  5770

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR

Shabbat shalom.  This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, and in it we continue to listen to Moses’s final review of the laws and statutes that the Israelites are to observe as part of their covenant with the One who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, the Eternal One.  Moses goes over many different topics in Re’eh, and tomorrow morning Ethan, our bar mitzvah, will focus on an area having to do with kashrut, the laws governing how we make eating food a holy act. In another part of this parashah, however, Moses gives an overview of the rituals involved in the celebration of the great festivals of the people of Israel.  The three pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, get special attention. Tomorrow morning, when Ethan chants the maftir, or last few verses of the portion, he’ll be chanting words that describe some of the things we’re supposed to do on Sukkot. Listen to what the text says:

After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths, chag ha-sukkot, for seven days.  You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your communities.  You shall hold a festival for the Eternal you God seven days, in the place that the Eternal will choose; for the Eternal your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.

You might have noticed the emphasis on happiness and joy in this passage.  There’s a key word that recurs in the Torah’s discussion of sukkot, and that word is sameach, or grammatical variations on it.  Sameach is the word for happiness or joy, and in fact one of the various names for the holiday of Sukkot is Zman Simchateynu, or “Season of our Joy.”  In the passage I just quoted above, the Hebrew root sameach comes up twice.  We hear it first with the words “you shall rejoice in your festival” – v’samachta is the Hebrew for “you shall rejoice.”  Then, towards the end of the passage, it says “ you shall have nothing but joy.”  The Hebrew reads, v’hayitta ach sameach.

Eric Mendelsohn, a past President of Congregation Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, writes the following:

The grandchildren of the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, building on his commentary, note that the word “Simcha” … – “Be happy !” occurs three times in the description of Sukkot (and with the extra command “Ach Sameach” – “[really] be happy”, it is almost like a parents’ reminder — “Have a good time and by the way, have a good time.”) On the other hand, [even though this Torah portion also describes the other 2 great pilgrimage festivals, the word]  “Simcha” is mentioned only once for Shavuot, and not at all with regard to Pesach.

In a d’var Torah he gave at his synagogue, he asks why this might be.  Here’s some of what he writes:

The agricultural basis of these holidays provides a simple explanation. Passover is the time of lambing and the sign of spring, but there is great apprehension about the crops to come. The winter wheat is in but the barley and vegetables will take seven more weeks. At Shavuot – the barley is in and one can breathe somewhat easier. But Sukkot is the grand Thanksgiving feast, at which rich and poor alike are assured enough sustenance. Judaism teaches that one has the right to enjoy the material benefits of this world and we are enjoined to rejoice in having them.

The Rabbinic linking of the three festivals to history also provides a reason for the differing amounts of required happiness. At Pesach – Egyptian soldiers have been drowned; we cannot rejoice when others are suffering. At Shavuot we can be happy that we have received Torah, but there was the incident of the Golden Calf which mutes our joy. But Sukkot celebrates the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle of the desert). It provides the wholeness of having a spiritual center that moves with one — and that is cause for unbounded joy. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Re’eh (5770 / 2010)”

D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak

Chukat-Balak D’var Torah 5769 / July 3, 2009

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week we’ve come to a double Torah portion, pairing Chukat and Balak, two of the portions that bring us to the final chapters of the Israelites’ forty year saga of journeying through the wilderness.  

The parasha opens with a famously intriguing description of a ritual of purification involving the ashes of a red heifer.  The priests are to take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create sacred waters which are sprinkled on individuals who have come in contact with the dead to ritually cleanse them.  

Until now, the book of the Torah we are in – the Book of Numbers – has told us stories that have taken place during the first two years of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But now the narrative takes a sudden 38 year jump forward. The generation that witnessed the 10 plagues, that left Egypt, that miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and that experienced the thundering presence of God at Mount Sinai has died now in the wilderness.  With the exception of just a few elders like Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, a new generation born in the wilderness has now taken the previous generation’s place. With this 38 year jump, our Torah portion presents us with, in fact, a new nation of Israelites with a new mission.  The previous generation’s mission was escape from slavery and the receiving and incorporating of the laws that God provided the nation at Mount Sinai. This generation’s mission will be to maintain those laws and traditions, and to enter and establish themselves in the Promised Land. So our story presents us with a new generation still led by the previous generation’s elders.

But that changes quickly.  Quickly we learn about the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh.  Following her death, Moses and Aaron are faced with a crisis. Here’s how the passage reads in translation: Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak”

D’var Torah – Vayetzey

D’var Torah – Vayetzey 5771 – November 12, 2010

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah portion is called vayetzey, and it is found in the book of breisheet, or Genesis in English.  Our story begins with a young Jacob fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau.  As you may recall from last week’s Torah reading, Jacob deceived his dying father, Isaac, by pretending to be his twin brother, Esau, and by means of this deception Jacob made off with the special blessing Isaac had intended to give his first born son, Esau.  Having been stripped of first-born privileges twice by Jacob at this point, Esau began muttering to himself that he would murder his brother once he got the chance. And having overheard Esau’s plotting, Rebecca sent Jacob away to her brother, Laban’s, household in the town of Haran.

This week’s parashah begins with young Jacob on the road to Haran.  He stops for the night at a certain place. He takes a stone to use for a pillow, drifts off to sleep, and has a life-changing dream.  Angles, or divine messengers, are ascending and descending a ladder connecting heaven and earth. God appears standing above the scene and blesses Jacob, saying:  “the land upon which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south.  Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing. And here I am, with you: I will watch over you, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.”

Jacob awakens from his dream, astonished and alert.  “Truly, God is in this place, and I did not know it!” he says aloud.  And he adds, “mah norah ha-makom ha-zeh: how awesome is this place!  This is none other than a house of God, and this is a gate of heaven!”

Jacob’s dream of the angels traveling up and down a ladder to heaven is famous.  Something I find interesting is that the entire story up to the point that Jacob awakens and realizes that God was in this place takes the Torah only 7 verses to tell.  But the element of this famous story that I’d like to focus on tonight is a single word that dominates the story – the Hebrew word makom, which means place.  The Torah’s storytelling style is sparse on words and fast on action.  So when a single word is repeated several times in the course of a story, you can bet that there’s special symbolic significance to it.  In this case, the word makom appears 5 times in the 7 verses that tell the story of his dream and his awakening, and 3 of those occurrences take place in one of those verses alone.   The narrating voice tells us that Jacob arrived at a certain makom, took one of the stones of the makom to use as a make-shift pillow, and that he lay down in that makom.  When Jacob wakes up, startled by his amazing dream, he says that God is in this makom and that this makom is awe-inspiring. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Vayetzey”