Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Welcome and thank you so much for coming. It is heart warming and encouraging to see this response to our invitation. It is rather fascinating how an act that promotes hatred and xenophobia actually provokes the opposite response - a show of solidarity and community support for one another. When faced with darkness, we seek out the light- when faced with hatred we seek out connection.
I’d like to thank Tabitha Poole-Mohr, of the NAACP, first and foremost for the impetus and invitation to create this Community Forum to discuss the recent Hate Speech action at the Rutland Free Library. Tonight, let us learn together, let us grow as a community and let us create new light to dispel these shadows.
Our ancient Jewish text- the Torah- known to our Christian brothers and sisters as the Old Testament teaches that God created the world through 10 acts of speech. The first utterance recorded was this: and God Said, Let the be light; and there was light.
The second utterance: and God Said, Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water. and God made the expanse. And later: God Said Let the waters beneath the sky be gathered into one place that the dry land may appear- and it was so… And God Said let the earth bring forth every kind of living creatures, and it was so… So on and so forth, 10 acts of speech through which the world is created. Our sacred text reveals a profound truth in its very first words: Speech is a creative act. Speech has within it the power to create the kind of world we live in. And therefore it is also the case that speech has the power to destroy the world we live in.
Whether the tool is the spoken word or the written word, we understand this kind of power. As Jews we know the destructive power of speech that Hitler channeled, both in spoken form and in a written form in his hate-filled treatise Mein Kampf. As Americans we know the power of speech to inspire us to embody the better angels of our nature. We recall Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose words continue to lift us up, strengthening our hearts, and giving us the fuel to continue to work for civil rights and human rights.
So now, at this moment, when faced with these words and images stuffed into my community’s bookshelves, my response is to ask myself- how might I use my words to create a more kind and peaceful world? While I cannot erase the images, I can be ever mindful of the words I choose in every interaction. Before I speak, I can ask myself- will my words build this relationship or damage it? Will my words create an opening or a closing?
Will my words elevate the conversation or degrade it?
Each of us is responsible for the words we choose and thereby, the worlds we create. And We are also responsible for the words we allow to be spoken in our community. We speak often about political correctness and this term gets a lot of flack in our society these days. But why not elevate that term- why not take the politics out of it and instead consider a more fundamental concept- Kind and Considerate Speech. And when we witness hate speech, let us call it out and refuse to condone it through silence.
When Tabitha asked me, what is my response to these flyers- I say, let them be the impetus for us to recognize our shared humanity. Let them be the impetus for us to strengthen our community connections. Let them provoke us to be ever more mindful of our speech. Let them spark us to build a community of kindness.
Gratitude is a Choice Parashat Emor
It has been just over a month since we celebrated Passover- the Festival of Freedom. Around our tables we enacted the journey from slavery to freedom. Perhaps we liberated ourselves a little bit more from the ways we enslave ourselves through unconscious habitual devotion to repetitive patterns in our own lives.
To be free is to have a choice. But one must be awake to realize that choice is possible. The degree of our own unconsciousness expresses the degree of our enslavement. When we become awake and aware, then we have the ability to make choices and then we become truly free. Simply knowing one does in fact have a choice in every situation is the mark of freedom.
In the Passover story, the Israelites left the land of enslavement and began a journey into the wilderness toward an unknown destination. Tradition teaches us this journey lasted for 49 days and culminated in the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai.
In this week’s Torah portion- Emor- all the festivals of the Jewish calendar are listed including the commandment to count the 49 days from the day after Pesach until the 50th day. This tradition is called counting the Omer.After these seven weeks we are instructed to celebrate a harvest festival called Shavuot which means weeks.
Like all Jewish practices related to the calendar cycle, there is both an agricultural land basis to the traditions as well as a spiritual significance tied to the narrative of the Jewish people. In this case, the yearly counting of the 49 days between the first barley harvest at Passover time and the first wheat harvest at Shavuot, became tied to the 49 day journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Mt. Sinai.
In both cases the expression of life renewing itself through an unfolding process over time is revealed; first physically, in the springtime cycle of nature’s rising energy as barley and then wheat come to fruition and also spiritually, through the gradual awakening of the people out of slave mentality to the freedom of choice. Slaves who have never experienced the freedom to choose anything are released from bondage and arrive 50 days later at Mt. Sinai where they make a choice to accept Torah declaring – na’aseh v’nishmah- we will do and we will listen.
So too do we possess an ongoing potential for renewal and refinement of ourselves. During this period in our calendar, in which we count the days between Passover and Shavuot, we can become aware of our potential for growth and change. Jewish mystical tradition teaches that each of the 49 days of this Omer period is linked to certain spiritual traits which we may focus upon and cultivate each day.
The beauty of the Omer counting practice, much like the practices of teshuvah/repentance in the Fall, is that it acknowledges that all growth is a process, never accomplished in one day or one season or even one year. We are all in process, traveling a spiral path round and round, but never in quite the same place each year. And so, each spring, after the elaborate ritual of the Passover Seder in which we become more deeply aware of the liberation struggle within ourselves and the world, then, do we embark upon the 49 day journey through the wilderness of our lives.
This Shabbat, beginning tonight and through tomorrow is the 35th day of the Omer. On this day we culminate a week devoted to the quality of gratitude. When we experience true gratitude our focus expands beyond our sense of limitation. We become the recipients of blessing as we experience goodness in the world. How we see the world directly effects how we experience our daily lives. When we expect the worst or feel a constant sense of lack, our experiences will validate those beliefs. When we live in a state of lack we nurture a kind of insatiable hunger within. However, when we train ourselves to seek out blessings, the little gifts that surround us every day, our experience of life will be changed. In our earliest collection of Rabbinic teachings we have the words of Ben Zoma who said: “Who is the rich person? The one who rejoices in his portion.” For it is true that the one who can see the gifts, who can rejoice in the blessings in their lives, is rich in happiness.
I offer to you tonight a simple practice with far reaching benefits. Consider an evening practice of recalling and writing down five things which occurred that day and for which you are grateful. Try to increase the number over time. See how your attention may change during the day if you knew you had to report on your blessings each evening. Perhaps you would seek out moments for gratitude otherwise unseen? These do not need to be momentous happenings. They can and are simple moments; when someone offers you a smile, or the sun shines on your face, or a favorite song comes on the radio. Whatever it is, take note and write it down in the evening. We all have countless moments for which to be grateful if we are looking through the lens of blessings.
These days our society is hyper-focused on improving one’s physical health, looks and physical body. Yoga, pilates, special diets, supplements fill the marketplace. The emphasis on physical beauty is everywhere. Jewish practices are also concerned with self-improvement, but of quite a different nature. Our practices are rooted in honest self- examination and the recognition that we can refine our inner lives and bring more holiness into the world.
This Omer count from Passover to Shavuot- from freedom to receiving Torah- has often been described as a ladder, counting up, not down, to the moment in which revelation becomes a possibility. As we commit ourselves to becoming, to entering into a process of refining the heart and opening our eyes, then, we can come more into contact with our Divine nature. In this sense do we become conduits for revelation, that is, channels for revealing holiness in the world.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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