A week ago I was privileged to march with the NAACP in rural South Carolina with my daughter Stephanie, a journey that took three days in all with travel time factored in. After a one day break, we left for another three-day trip -- this one to Canyon Ranch, a luxurious health spa in the Berkshires where I occasionally teach Mussar.
The contrast could not have been more stark. On the march I became part of a no-frills community walking in formation over a combined 867-miles. We marched peacefully to bring attention to the profound racial injustices that still permeate our nation. Most participants slept in churches or army barracks, and we were supported with food, water, medical care and police escorts to help us get through the day, Raising awareness of the problem can lead to a national change in mindset, and then we hope, to the change in policies we need to effectively make race-based economic, educational and political injustices things of the past.
At the far more exclusive Canyon Ranch I experienced the polar opposite. The guests, who were overwhelmingly white, were pampered (us included) and presented with an amazing array services and classes carefully designed to promote physical health and spiritual wellness. The focus was on the self rather than the community, and no effort was spared to provide a comfortable and relaxing stay.
Truth be told, both of these experiences are well outside the norms of my daily suburban life. I am sheltered from racial tensions and the plight of many American minorities. It's not a lack of caring, but rather, a lack of experience and awareness - I have not directly encountered the kinds of injustices that can define growing up black in America. I have benefited, without even knowing it, from white privilege.
Luxurious spa living is equally outside the realm of my middle-class suburban life. This kind of treatment is generally reserved for those with far greater means than my own! Moving from one end of the spectrum to the other in just a few days generated a real dissonance of perspective.
Yet oddly enough, these two seeming opposites may actually have something in common: they both seek to correct imbalances. The march seeks to correct a horrible imbalance on a national level while the spa focuses on a personal level outside the realm of politics. In an ideal world, we would have no need to seek for either kind of balance, because we would already be nationally, culturally, communally, socially and personally balanced. In the real world, we would do well to recognize that these different kinds of balance are interconnected, and that we cannot succeed in creating balance in any one of them without cultivating all of them. In an ideal world, we would not need justice marches, nor would there be a market for spas. In the real world, we need to reach out to each other, hold each other close, support each other and care for each other. We also need to care for ourselves, and let others reach out to us, hold us close and support us. The more we give and receive, the more balance we restore to our world, to our homes and to ourselves.
Co-Authored with Rabbis Judy Schindler and Ken Carr
The shofar was sounded, summoning us to join America's Journey for Justice sponsored by the NAACP -- a 40-day 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC. After a summer of racial tensions, church burnings in the South and murders in Charleston, close to 200 rabbis responded from all over the nation, each committed to march a one day leg of the journey.
We were privileged to be among the ten rabbis who joined today's march. We would march side by side with our congregants and with our partners from the NAACP both lay and professional. At the front was the American flag, the Torah (which each of us took turns carrying) and today the president of the NAACP Cornell William Brooks. We were escorted on both sides by police as we journeyed towards justice through rural South Carolina.
We encountered various reactions along our way. The march drew some opposition including a group of people gathered around the gas station to boo and catcall us. One man flew a confederate flag from his truck and drove back-and-forth following us through the day. However, for the most part those views were overshadowed by the smiles, support, waves, welcomes and warmth with which we were greeted.
One shop owner, Cody Weaver, was so distressed by the Confederate flags that were brought out just for us that she rushed ahead to her supermarket to chop up some salad and cook some hot dogs so that we would all be well fed. She nourished not only our bodies but our spirits.
As we shared meals and miles, we strengthened our bonds and our commitment to our common cause. We listened to each other's struggles and shared our stories. Now we return to our respective cities inspired and determined to bring the journey for justice home.
This afternoon 75 people from four congregations - two Jewish and two Presbyterian - got together to speak honestly and directly with each other about Israelis, Palestinians and peace. Our time together was divided into three parts - a continuum exercise (more on that in a moment), small group conversations and then lots and lots of food for our shared picnic dinner.
The background for the gathering is this: last year the Presbyterian Church USA narrowly voted to divest from three companies that do business with Israel in the West Bank. The decision was widely seen in Jewish circles as supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement. This is problematic for many Jews because significant elements of the BDS movement seem stridently anti-Israel, and more recently have even taken positions that are anti-Jewish. Because Temple Beth Zion, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Congregation Shir Shalom and North Presbyterian Church have a grassroots history of neighborliness, we thought it important to have a conversation together. Our purpose was to better understand each other in order to strengthen our communal bonds and also to solidify our commitment to a secure and lasting peace. We did not seek to create a joint policy statement, but rather to listen and learn from each other.
We began with a continuum exercise, in which participants were asked to line up between two poles to physically demonstrate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a series of progressively provocative statements. After each statement, a few individuals from different places across the continuum were asked to explain why they held the positions they did. Anyone could change their position at any time if they were moved by what someone else shared.
Here are just a few of the lessons we learned from each other today:
1. Presbyterians are split on how to understand this issue
2. Jews are also split on this issue
3. There are many thoughtful nuances to the various positions we have taken
4. Many of us are passionate in our concerns for Palestinians, Israelis or both
5. There are two competing narratives that frame either Palestinians or Israelis as 'bad' or 'evil.' This viewing each other as 'other' creates an enormous barrier to developing the trust that is necessary to eventually achieve peace.
6. We don't know as much as we think we do.
This is only the beginning of our conversation. We plan to invite several scholars and academics with expertise to share their broad perspectives with us over the course of the year. And with a little luck, we hope to travel together to Israel -- to meet with Israelis and Palestinians, and to deepen our geopolitical understanding -- and also to experience the land that all three Abrahamic traditions hold as holy,
What do you see when you look in the mirror? We each have our own default tendencies. Some of us naturally search for our faults and imperfections, often with a hypercritical eye, while others of us would rather admire ourselves, and gloss over the rest. Sometimes we vacillate between the two, depending on our mood, or how we are perceiving our lives.
The Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, is really about self-reflection. Throughout the month we are presented with a spiritual mirror, and given the urgent task of placing our souls in front of the glass to look at who we really are. We are taught that we write the narrative of our lives with our choices and actions, especially those that impact our relationships with each other and with God. Who we really are is the sum of what we do.
I would like to suggest that when we look in the mirror, we embrace the totality of who we are. We need to acknowledge the choices that we regret, and learn from them so as to do better in the year to come. We need to find our imperfections and work to improve ourselves. Yet we also need to remember that as human beings, we will always be imperfect, and that's also OK. We need to remember that we are far more than the sum of our mistakes, for we do much good in the world, or at least we try.
If we are going to be honest with ourselves, which in my opinion is the only way to grow spiritually as human beings, then we must look past our default tendencies for self-reflection. So for those of us who focus on admiring ourselves, let's make sure to pay attention to where and how we can grow and improve. Or to put it a little differently, let's strive to recognize that our time here is limited, and is a gift from God. We have the ability to shape how we move through the time that remains in meaningful and life-affirming ways, all we have to do is act. On the other hand, those of us who tend towards self-criticism can look into the mirror with a little more self-compassion, and remind ourselves that what we see is the very image of God. We can embrace ourselves, and celebrate the greatness that shines from within.
What will you see the next time you look in the mirror? And how will your reflection inspire you to act?
A coincidence? Perhaps.
Early Sunday morning, I will jump out of bed and drive the last short leg on my way to pick up my son from URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish sleep-away camp in the Pocono Mountains. I can't wait to see him, and on the drive back home, to hear all about his experiences at camp. Sure, we were able to access a few photos online, and yes, he did send a handful of cryptic post cards our way, but there is something really special about the trip back home. Then there is the actual homecoming, when we will be reunited as a family. It goes without saying that we will joke about how filthy his stuff from camp is, send him straight to the shower and do our annual sort of post-camp clothing into two piles: laundry and furnace. We will also hold him close and cherish this time before the school year begins again.
The coincidence, is that this Sunday is also the beginning Elul, a new month in the Hebrew calendar. Elul is the month in which we prepare for the High Holy Days and begin the process of teshuvah. Teshuvah is often mistranslated to mean 'repentance' but what it really means is 'return.' Each year we are given the opportunity to reflect, look for the ways we have wandered away from our spiritual home (meaning Judaism) and do our best to return to the path. Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches that all of Jewish spirituality is the repeating cycle of exile and return, exile and return.
When my son returns home, everything will not only feel more right, it will be more right. When we collectively return home during the Holy Days, then the same can be true for all of us. However, the journey back takes time. The trip from Camp Harlam to Buffalo is only about five hours. The trip back from our spiritual wanderings takes much more time, which is why we have the whole month of Elul. There are no shortcuts, but the way forward is open and clear, and home is just around the bend.
A friend and colleague of mine, who is a master storyteller, used to quip that half of the stories he tells are actually true. Well, I've got a story for you, and it happened just last week. My wife and I don't have the luxury of getting out much, so with one kid at camp and another busy working in a theater during the evenings, we've been trying to make up for lost time! Last week we decided to go with friends to a Mexican restaurant a bit of a drive away, just past the southern border of Buffalo. We made a reservation and set off on our adventure, only to discover that the restaurant was closed. There was a poorly written sign on the door that basically said they had decided to close for the evening. I don't remember the exact wording on the sign, but in the last line, written at a sloppy angle was a single word: 'relax.' Not, 'we're sorry for the inconvenience,' just, 'relax.'
Who ever heard of a restaurant closing on a night when it had at least one active reservation? And why didn't they bother to call us?
Well, we thought that relaxing was pretty good advice, so that is exactly what we did -- at a different establishment! While we had a great time, I can tell you that we will not be making the drive to give this other place a second chance. They made it clear to us that they were not interested in our business or in us.
New York restaurateur Danny Meyers wrote an excellent book about the opposite end of the spectrum called 'Setting the Table.' He has built up one of the most successful restaurant groups in the nation by focusing on hospitality. And just so that we are clear, he's not just talking about hospitality towards his guests. Meyers built his business model on taking care of his staff, his customers, and his community all while staying true to his core values.
Although Danny Meyers may not be aware of it, this model is a very old one indeed. According to Jewish tradition, God chose Abraham specifically because of his holistic and heartfelt hospitality. Sadly, most synagogues today are not nearly as hospitable as they think they are. Too many of us are more like that place with the note that says, 'we're closed, relax.' We create tensions within our communities with exclusionary policies and unfriendly actions, or by taking the approach that we are not here to serve our congregants, but rather they are paying dues for the privilege of serving the congregation. Then we are surprised when people decide to disengage.
We need to be more like Abraham, and we can learn from Danny Meyers as well. Our success ultimately depends on us, and I believe it begins with cultivating hospitality at every level, starting with our staff and moving outward in concentric circles. It won't be easy, because we are if nothing else, creatures of habit and a stiff-necked people. Yet, if we can find the strength and courage to reorient ourselves back towards true hospitality, then we can all really relax, confident in the knowledge that we are building communities worthy of our commitment.
If you would like to purchase a copy of Setting the Table click on the picture of the book to be redirected to Amazon.com - I highly recommend it!
Today is Tu B’Av, a day for lovers in Jewish tradition, a day filled with weddings! Tomorrow morning for Shabbat we will chant the Shema and V’ahavta from parashat Va’Etchanan, the quintessential passage from Torah about our love for God.
It makes sense that both of these happen soon after Tisha B’Av, our painful commemoration of many of the worst tragedies that our people have faced throughout our history, and survived. We must acknowledge our pain, andlet ourselves grieve, but then we must pick ourselves up and embrace life. Grief, anger and pain cannot be the building blocks of our lives, or of our civilization. Rather, light should follow darkness, and our response to our suffering should be love. For us, that is the purpose of this time, the cultivation of love for each other and for our God.
We were heartbroken by the news from our beloved Israel this morning of several heinous acts of hatred and murder committed by extremists who are also Jews. Yesterday, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem. This very same man attacked marchers at the 2005 Pride parade, and was just released from prison.
Then, at four o’clock the next morning, two Palestinian homes were firebombed in the West Bank village of Douma. The words “Long live Messiah the King” and “Revenge” were painted on the walls. An 18-month old baby was burned to death, and his 4-year old brother and both parents are in the hospital, his mother in critical condition, burns covering most of their bodies. The language on the wall makes it clear that people who claim to be religious also committed these crimes.
We condemn these senseless acts of violence and terror, and repudiate their perpetrators. They have cultivated hatred in place of love, and have chosen destruction, assault and murder as a result. We are outraged by their twisted acts, mourn for the dead, and sit in solidarity with the victims. They DO NOT represent Judaism or the Jewish people, and in committing these crimes they have violated us all.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded to love God, but just before that we are commanded to listen, with the Shema. Love begins with listening, with allowing room for another (whether it is God or a person or group of people) in our lives. We cannot commit violence against anyone we love; violence requires disassociation, the separation of ourselves from the other. We all have been suffering for far too long, and the cycle of hate and violence is only repeating and intensifying. And it is not just in Israel – racial tensions continue to grow here in the United States.
Without listening to each other, we will never be able to heal. Without healing, we will never be able to love. Without love, we will have no future.
Shema Yisrael! Listen O Israel! Let us love God with all of our hearts, our strength and our souls! And let us begin today – not tomorrow – with love for each other.
Yesterday I received a synagogue voice message from a woman named Rose, who found a Starbucks card in front of a supermarket with my name on it. She explained that she knew how valuable these cards are, because she has one herself. As I was the only Gary Pokras she could find, she asked me to let her know if the card was indeed mine.
What a wonderful act of kindness! This lovely human being went way out of her way to help a total stranger.
As it turns out, the card was mine. I called her back, and left her a message of gratitude, letting her know that I would be happy to meet at her workplace so that she would not have to go any further effort to return it to me. This morning I received another message from her. It was already in the mail. You see, she was leaving for a week's vacation and did not want me to have to wait.
There was a time when is was fashionable to talk about random acts of kindness. A whole movement developed out of this concept, encouraging us to look for random and unexpected opportunities to do a kind deed. It felt great to perform these random acts, but do you know what feels even better? Daily acts of kindness. Do we really think that "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is about occasional or random behavior?
Rose was not doing a random act. She was clearly operating from a deeper place. If we could all do the same, if we could all go out of our way to act with kindness and compassion every single day, then we would truly be bringing the Levitical commandment to life, loving each other as ourselves. Compared to most of our experience, THAT would be ... unexpected.
Va'Etchanan is a real 'block buster' Torah portion, in that it contains both the reprise of the Ten Commandments and the Shema - our most profound statement of faith. In this video for Rosner's Domain, Shmuel Rosner asks a wonderful question from the parasha: can we really be commanded to love God?
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