[This letter, to which I am proud to attach my name, was published in the Buffalo News on January 14. I consider it a true blessing to be able to partner with the Reverend George Nicholas of Concerned Clergy, Bishop R. William Franklin of the Episcopal Church and Bishop Richard Malone of the Catholic Church in the fight against poverty here in Buffalo.]
By George Nicholas and R. William Franklin
Pope Francis has said that in a world with so much wealth and so many resources, it is unfathomable that so many live in poverty. He calls poverty in today’s world a “scandal.” Poverty strips people of their dignity. To see it so rampant in our city is indeed a scandal.
While Francis speaks as the leader of the Catholic Church, the truths about which he speaks transcend Catholicism and even Christianity. Across faiths, there is a call to ensure dignity for everyone.
Whether that sentiment is expressed as “love your neighbor as yourself,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or to “regard your neighbor’s loss as your own,” the command is the same – to work toward the dignity of all of God’s children.
As clergy, we feel the call to heed this commandment. It guides our actions and shapes our ministries. It has foundational significance for each of our religions and allows us to reach across faiths to unite with the singular goal of alleviating poverty in Buffalo.
Our historic union of religious leaders established a working group to discuss how we could better the economic circumstances of our brothers and sisters in Buffalo.
As we explored options, we heard from many that another “handout” was not the answer. Social programs serve as safety nets and don’t provide permanent solutions to the problems of unemployment, underemployment or the absence of opportunities. It is said that the highest rung on the ladder of charity is to “help people help themselves.” This is what people are asking for – a strategic effort to bring opportunities to the most impoverished sections of Buffalo.
To this end, we put our collective voices behind the efforts of Assemblyman Sean Ryan and call for the establishment of the Hiring and Investing in Real Employment program (HIRE Buffalo) to connect high-quality jobs to the sections of the city facing extreme concentrations of poverty.
We are grateful for the economic boom that has come to Buffalo. But, if a decade from now, businesses have brought jobs to the area, yet portions of our city still have a poverty rate over 50 percent, then the economic renaissance is a mirage. The measure of true resurgence is found not in how much wealth the rich can accumulate, but by how many we can lift out of poverty.
The poverty rate was a key reason Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the Buffalo Billion. We call on Empire State Development to complete the circle and connect the jobs coming to Buffalo with our brothers and sisters in need.
It is our duty to live a life that protects the dignity of everyone; it is also our duty to call on others to do the same.
[In addition to the Rev. George Nicholas and Bishop R. William Franklin, this letter was signed by Bishop Richard J. Malone and Rabbi Gary Pokras.]
Filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand has spent almost forty years photographing the world to better understand our planet. Recently, he dedicated three years to create a new project: "Human." The scope of "Human" is breathtaking. He and his team traveled to sixty countries and spoke with 2000 different people, recording their stories on film. Each story is a precious gift, a window into the meaning of human life and death: our struggles, our loves, our pain, our triumphs.
Francine Cristophe is a French Jew who, as a child in 1944, was interred in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Do yourself a favor, watch and listen as she tells her story.
She's worth it,
and so are you.
For more stories
and information on "Human"
please click on the photo
We live in seemingly dark times, which is why more than ever, we need to bring light into our world.
It is easy to be afraid of the dark, to fear things that go bump in the night, because we can't see our surroundings. Instead, our imagination takes over so that everything around us is transformed into "danger." Fear is a natural response to danger, and we have a primal urge to protect our ourselves and our families from the dangers we can see, and from those hidden by the dark.
Terrorism spreads darkness in our world.
Terror attacks do more than kill people. The despicable horror of the acts themselves, in combination with the stealth that sometimes makes them difficult to anticipate (and therefore prevent), gets inside of our heads and feeds the darkest part of our imaginations. When we begin to act out of fear rather than out of principle, we begin to forget who we are.
We begin to accept the darkness.
Consider the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness. Never mind that with their own eyes they saw the Ten Plagues that brought Egypt to its knees. Never mind that they witnessed the parting of the Sea and walked through on dry land, and then saw the waters close over Pharaoh's chariots. Never mind that they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and felt the ground shake, and heard with their own ears the voice of God speak from on high. The fear felt by the Israelites was so profound that despite the horrors they knew of Egyptian slavery, and the miracles they personally witnessed, they could not embrace the Promise of a new future. Instead, they complained and rebelled over and over again. They began to accept the darkness. The generation that was freed from Egypt would not, could not, reach the Promised Land. Over forty years of wandering, a new generation needed to be born and to grow up, a generation that was not enslaved by their fear.
Fear leads to hatred. Hatred leads to violence. Violence leads to fear.
It takes courage to break this cycle, courage and faith. We must be brave enough to take risks in the face of our fear, and have faith that we can ultimately prevail.
Since the attacks in Paris last week, a new wave of fear is sweeping through the West. Here in the United States, this has been expressed as a backlash against accepting Syrian refugees. Why? Because we are afraid that cells of sleeper terrorists might be embedded among them.
We are beginning to accept the dark.
More than thirty sitting governors said that no Syrian refugees will be welcome in their states. The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday to freeze any further Syrian refugees from being granted asylum until some time in the future when the refugee resettlement program can be reevaluated (whatever that means). In my own neighborhood, in Western New York, where for years we have helped refugee populations from all over the world, some of our political leaders now want to close the gates and the county legislature is even considering a public referendum on whether or not to admit any refugees fleeing from Syria.
They are beginning to accept the dark.
We Jews know what happens when refugees are turned away. We know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. Our Jewish values teach us to welcome the stranger, and to care for the most vulnerable in society. This principle is so important that it is repeated no fewer than thirty-three times in the Torah. It is at the heart of who we are:
We are commanded to bring light into the darkness.
Closing our borders to refugees plays right into the hands of the terrorists. It is exactly the kind of response they are hoping for, because it creates a sense of alienation and resentment among those who are desperate for relief. By closing our borders, we not only reject our own values and principles, but we turn the very people who need us against us. We are helping the terrorists to create a new fertile recruiting ground for future rounds of violence.
All of the evidence suggests that there is no real danger to the United States from refugees, because each candidate for asylum is rigorously vetted through a two to three year process. According to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ("They Are Us," Nov. 19, 2015) of the 785,000 refugees admitted the States since 9/11 only three have been arrested on charges related to terrorism (and apparently they were out of the country). Kristof goes on to note that embedding a terrorist in the refugee population is far more difficult and time consuming than just sending them over on student visas, or as tourists from Europe (where they may already have citizenship). He asked pointedly if we should close our borders to foreign students and tourists?
As Jews we are commanded to bring light into the darkness. As Americans, immigration is central to our history and to the ethos of our great nation. Providing safety to those who flee oppression is a cornerstone of who we aspire to be.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Let us fight terror not with fear but with strength and with faith. Let us fight terror not only with weapons of war, but with ideas and values. Let us remember who we are and live by the principles that make us great. Let us demonstrate to those who have suffered horribly and have fled for their very lives, that here things are different, that the United States is truly a land with justice and liberty for all.
Let us fight darkness not with more darkness, but with light.
The story is legendary, and seemingly simple. Cain and Abel are brothers, the children of Adam and Eve. They offer sacrifices to God, but because Abel offers his best to God and Cain does not, God only accepts Abel's sacrifice. In a fit of anger or jealousy (we're not sure which) Cain kills his brother and then lies to God about it, famously asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9)
Look more closely at the story, however, and another frame emerges. "In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to God from the fruit of the soil; and Abel for his part brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock." (Genesis 4:3-4)
God doesn't ask for a sacrifice, but after a period of time, Cain decides to show some gratitude and respect. There are no instructions, there is no established practice of rights and wrongs, just the idea - and Cain decides to invent a new thing we now call 'offering a sacrifice.' Abel, possibly seeing what Cain is doing is moved to do the same, but improves upon Cain's idea by choosing to offer not just anything, but his very best.
I can imagine Cain's indignation. It was his idea! Abel stole it and then beat Cain at his own game!
God speaks directly to Cain, to reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. If Cain tries again and offers his best, then God will accept his sacrifice as well, but, if he instead chooses to not do his best, then "sin will crouch at the door" (Gen. 4:7).
Perhaps Cain was too upset, but regardless of his reason, he ignores God's advice. Instead of making a second, better offering (not to be confused with offering his second-best), he chose to kill his brother. In other words, he put the blame on his brother, not on himself, and acted to eliminate his competition. He was wrong, even if we can sympathize with his pain, and he paid a terrible price..
We can derive two lessons from this. First, life is not a race, and success is predicated, at least in part, on learning from each other. We don't need to be first to succeed. Second, and I think more importantly, we have the ability to choose how we respond to adversity. We can do as Cain did, and blame (or even harm) others when we don't bring our best; or we can learn from Cain's tragic mistake and strive to always bring our best.
Reading this story seemed strangely and uncomfortably familiar. Far too many of us act more like Cain than Abel, and this seems especially true in politics - where it is common practice to be say little and do less, and make sure to blame the other guy (or gal) for what is wrong in the world. Imagine what would happen if, in our personal lives and in our political discourse, we all tried to be less like Cain and more like Abel.
I am an unabashed Zionist. I love the State of Israel. I love its people, its multiculturalism, its place at the center of the Jewish world. I love the values that drive so many Israelis, who face constant existential threats, to pour their energy into education, research, arts and culture and into providing aid all around the world in times of need. I love the sacred history that connects us to our ancient homeland, and I love the hope symbolized by the State of Israel as a safe haven for Jews in an increasingly dangerous world.
So it breaks my heart to see the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continue and intensify, and to see the loss, suffering and pain of both peoples.
I pray for peace, and I hope you do as well: peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. I pray for a peace that will allow us to live next to each other, with mutual respect and security, prospering together as neighbors, embracing not only our similarities but our differences, and reflecting the image of the Divine to each other. I offer my prayer as an expression of hope and faith - even as I worry that we are farther than ever from achieving that peace
The latest round of violence started because of tensions over the status of the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sarif. The Temple Mount (as it is called by Jews) is the single holiest site in the world for Jews because it is the place where both the First and Second Temples once stood. Muslims call the site al-Haram al-Sarif (the Noble Sanctuary) and have built both the Dome of Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque on its grounds. For them it is the third holiest site in the world, after Mecca and Medina.
Israeli law guarantees freedom of religion for all peoples, however, as a goodwill gesture towards Muslims, Israeli law also states that only Muslims may pray at the top of the Mount. This law has been scrupulously enforced since 1967, when Israel gained control over the Old City of Jerusalem. Please note that although it allows people of all faiths to visit, the law - passed by the Jewish State - prevents Jews from praying at our holiest of holy sites. It is an extraordinary concession that continues to be ignored not only by the Palestinians, but by the world.
Tensions increased over the summer, as the number of Jewish visitors to the site began to increase. Two groups of Palestinians organized separate campaigns on the Temple Mount to harass Jewish visitors. As a result, Israeli security forces banned those groups from entry to the Temple Mount.
Almost immediately, Palestinian leaders accused Israel of trying to take al-Haram al-Sarif away from the Muslims. According to one commentator, this is equivalent to walking into a movie theater and yelling "fire!". Never mind a proven history of Israel's commitment to the exact opposite, and a constant stream of assurances that the Israeli government remains committed to maintaining the status quo. The result has been a series of violent and often deadly attacks by Palestinians incited against Israelis. Israelis have, in turn, used force, sometimes lethal force, to defend against the attacks. Both sides continue to mourn their dead.
Here in Buffalo I mourn as well, and offer my prayer, feeble as it may be, in the hope that one day it will be answered:
For a Palestinian perspective on how to achieve peace, here a powerful article recently written by peace activist Bassem Eid:
For sixteen years, I've been using the same 2x4s to build our family sukkah. Over time they have weathered and warped, so much so that for the past few years our sukkah has started to bend and list. When the wind blows,. we know it, and this has been a particularly windy Sukkot! The rabbis call Sukkot 'zeman simchateinu' - the time of our rejoicing. We are supposed to enjoy our time in the sukkah, sharing the experience with friends and family. When the weather gets too wet we are required to go back inside our homes, because who likes being cold and wet?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches two things that we can learn from our time in the sukkah . First, the sukkah is a temporary and fragile structure. When we are in it, we are far more exposed to the elements than when we are inside our homes. The sukkah reminds us of the precious fragility of life. Second, we are to specifically make this a time of joy, because while this life may be fragile, it is all we have and it won't last forever. So why not make the best of it?
I love his insight. We spend most of our time living as if we are anything but fragile, and it's easy to understand why. Everything we have, everything we are, can disappear in a moment - even our very lives. If we dwell on our fragility, then we might be overcome with terrible anxiety. Yet, we have a choice. We can react to our many vulnerabilities with fear, or by trying to ignore them; or we can accept our fragility and celebrate the miracles that each new moment brings.
Here in Buffalo, we had an unusually cold and rainy week, and it severely limited our ability to spend time in our sukkah. There was a little window for a short visit on Friday and today, thank God, is beautiful! No matter how we might plan, we are not always in control, and with our wood warping a little more from each day in the rain, we have to make the most of what we have, both material and time.
Tonight we will celebrate Simchat Torah - the joy of Torah. On Simchat Torah we end and begin the annual cycle of reading Torah with dancing and with exuberant joy. Why is Simchat Torah attached to the conclusion of Sukkot? What possible connection could there be between living in a sukkah and celebrating the annual cycle of Torah? The sukkah is temporary, but the Torah is enduring. As we celebrate Simchat Torah let's remember that the sukkah may disappear, our lives may be fragile, but Torah (and God) are always with us, providing us with support and guiding us along the way. I like the sound of that, don't you?
A new symbolism for the lulav and etrog: what if these four species of Israel represented the four largest streams of Judaism? If so, then on Sukkot all Jews - Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist - all are symbolically gathered together as one family. Why not? We all worship the same God and study the same Torah - we are all b'nei Yisrael. Sure we each understand and live Judaism in our own different ways, but wouldn't be great if on Sukkot we were reminded with every shake of the lulav that, in the end, we are all in the same booth?
(Based on my Erev Shabbat sermon about parashat Ha'azinu delivered on 9/25/15)
This Shabbat, poised as we are between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we read Ha'azinu, Moses' final speech before he dies. Ha'azinu is Biblical poetry at its best, and in the fourth verse Moses triumphantly proclaims:
The Rock! - His deeds are perfect,
The poetry, especially in the original Hebrew, is sublime; yet the content of this verse is challenging. If God's deeds are perfect and God's ways are just, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? How can a just God tolerate such injustice! Rabbinic commentators provide a number of possible answers, most of which fall into one of two 'buckets.' The first group takes the approach of theological humility: how could mere humans understand what God understands? We cannot but have a narrower view, and what may seem unjust in the moment may be necessary for the ultimate establishment of some greater justice. It's very hard to argue against this position, because we don't know what we don't know, no matter how much we may think otherwise.
That said, a significant number of commentators take a very different approach. They ask, why blame God for our troubles? The world is broken because we, humanity, have broken it! So it is up to us, not to God, to set things right.
I don't usually do this, but for some reason I logged onto Facebook just before heading down to the synagogue this evening. And what did I find? A post from a colleague and classmate of mine, Rabbi Joseph Meszler, who serves a congregation not far from Boston. What caught my eye was a photograph he shared unlike any I had seen before. Apparently, Rabbi Meszler went into Boston and purchased some signs from homeless people. You know, the kind that ask for help. He purchased them so that he could bring them back and hang them in their congregational sukkah.
Wow! This really took my breath away.
During Sukkot we are commanded to live in our sukkah, a fragile, temporary structure that evokes our wandering through the Wilderness. It is simultaneously a time of joy (Yom Kippur is behind us and we are on our way to the Promised Land), and a reminder of the fragility of life. Until this year, I framed sukkot as a farming or nature holiday, our chance to reconnect with Creation. I also focused on how generous God is to give us a world with absolutely everything we need not only to live, but to thrive. I continue to understand sukkot in both of these ways, but this year we can add another beautiful layer of understanding - one with practical implications!
The intersection of Ha'azinu and Rabbi Meszler's sukkah post reminds us that there are many people in our midst for whom life in a sukkah would represent a step up. Each sukkah we enter should serve as a reminder that we are not secure until all of us are secure, and that the Promised Land is not just about geography.
Here in Buffalo, I can think of a half-dozen organizations that provide support to the homeless, all within walking distance of our synagogue. Jewish Family Services, right here in this building, operates a refugee resettlement program and needs help setting up apartments. Wherever we live, we are surrounded by opportunities to make a difference, and we are all capable of more than we realize. This sukkot as we shake the lulav in our sukkah we will symbolically orient our hearts, backbones, lips and eyes towards God. May we be shaken as well. Let's take on one additional commitment to help fight homelessness or hunger or poverty, or to help settle a refugee. Let's start this week. before the end of sukkot, but let's continue after the festival ends. Let's not just symbolically orient ourselves towards God, let's live our values.
Hag Sameach! May this sukkot be filled with meaningful acts of loving kindness, so that we can truly celebrate with joy.
What is the meaning of the Shofar's blast?
Over the years I have encountered dozens and dozens of answers. Saadia Gaon, the 10th century head of the great rabbinic academy in Sura, actually gives ten separate authoritative meanings! In my estimation, the more answers we have to a question, the less we really know.
That said there is wisdom in these many answers, and each year we can discover something new. Today, I'd like share an interpretation that comes from the 16th century kabbalistic rabbi Isaac Horowitz, and I really love his teaching. Rabbi Horowitz observes that the shofar calls begin and end with a tekiah - a single whole blast. In the middle are the shevarim and teruah calls, both blasts broken into several separate notes. Rabbi Horowitz writes:
The theme of Rosh HaShanah: We begin whole. Along the path of life we become broken (through pain, mistakes, loss, failure, illness, weakness, etc). The end is whole - we will be whole again. There is hope. (Shnei Luchot HaBrit - the Two Tablets of the Covenant)
This is the purpose of the High Holy Days - to renew ourselves, to make ourselves whole again, and to learn from our past so that in the year to come, with God's help, will be better than the year that has passed. The final blast, the tekiah gedolah, is a single long note often held for as long as the shofar blower is able to sustain it. For me, this is a reminder that every little break we repair leads us one step closer to the messianic age, - the entire world as God envisioned it should be, unbroken and whole again.
Rabbi Netaniel Cadle offered a very different but equally intriguing explanation during our Selichot panel discussion. He observed that the shofar is really nothing special. It is the horn of an animal, either a ram or any other kosher animal except for bovines. We hollow it out and that's really it. Yet when we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah we experience holiness. Rabbi Cadle sees this (and also the Torah itself which is really nothing more than animal skin and ink from vegetable products) as emblematic of our ability to take anything in the world and make it holy. The blast of the shofar is a reminder to us of what we can do, and inspires us to build more holiness into this world.
For at least five years, our Western New York Jewish community has gathered on the evening of Selichot to worship and study together. The study section consists of a panel of rabbis, led by a moderator, who asks a series of questions based on a theme selected for that year. This year, I was honored to sit on a panel with Rabbi Perry Netter (conservative) and Rabbi Netaniel Cadle (orthodox) moderated by Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein (reconstructionist). Our theme was the sound of the shofar, and we were asked to describe what the shofar means to us, and if the sound changes as we move through the different sections of the shofar service.
These are incredibly thoughtful questions, and they provoked us to dig deep. I was moved by what my colleagues shared, and want to share some of their insights with you (along with a few of my own). However, that will come later. First I would ask you the question: What does the sound of the shofar mean to you? What do you hear when the shofar blasts?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras