Letter to the President from My 10 Year-Old Son

Getting invited to the White House for a Hanukkah party tonight prompted a great conversation over the weekend with Yadid. I am proud that he had the idea of writing the President a letter. I am honored to serve as his shaliach, emissary. I am curious what kind of response he will get. No matter what it is a great lesson in civics. Happy Hanukkah to everyone and here is the letter from Yadid to President Obama.

Dear President Obama,

Thank you for inviting my parents to your Hanukkah Reception. You are a amazing person and great president, so I will say it again Thank you. Here are a few questions I would like to ask you.

1. I’m honored that you hosted this reception, But why do it when we are only 2.11% of the american population?

2. What can I do to help this racial divide in our country?

3. What are your hopes and fears for the next administration?

Sincerely,

Yadid Frydman

Orlow P.S I’m 10 years

old.

Table of Brotherhood: Joseph, MLK, and Race in America Today

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion,  Joseph tells his brothers of his dreams that their sheaves will bow down to his sheaf and that their stars will bow to him(Gen. 37:7-9). Jacob makes it clear to everyone that Joseph is pompous, but still his chosen son. These dreams and their father’s open display of favoritism moves Joseph’s brothers to the brink of fratricide. Once they get him alone they throw their little brother into a pit and cruelly sit around and eat lunch (Gen. 37: 24-25). Eventually Joseph gets sold into slavery in Egypt. There, Joseph lived through the nightmares of slavery and imprisonment. Through an interesting turn of events Joseph finds himself in a position of security and power. During a famine, his brothers, seeking food, come to bow before him. Sure enough in the passing of time Joseph’s dream becomes a reality. What is the meaning of this through-line of the brother’s eating?

With all of events in Ferguson and New York in mind and in light of Joseph’s dreams I pause to reread Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  “I have a Dream” speech from August 28, 1963. Where Joseph’s dreams spoke of his hubris and ends with him in a pit, King’s dream describes the situation of Blacks in this country being in a pit and King’s aspirations for us all to live as equals. There he said:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

King delivered this iconic speech on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  In his speech he referenced it being 100 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. With all of the recent events, it is crazy to realize that it has been 51 years since King’s speech. Unfortunately the question of how someone could kill or enslave a brother is both timeless and  still so timely. The fraternal order of police along with the rest of us need to look into the mirror and determine how we allow this plague of fratricide to continue.  As king says:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

When none of us are in a pit we can see each other as equals. At that point we can break bread together and sit with each other at the table of brotherhood. Just because this problem has existed since the time of  Joseph and his brothers, does not  mean it is not urgent. We all have a lot of work to do.  How many more brothers need to die before King’s dream becomes a reality?

Kickin’ Up Dust : Protesting Racism

In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion, we read that, “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:25-29). Rashi explains “vaye’avek ” the wrestling in a literary way to mean that they became “dusted”. The word vaye’avek is related to the word avak, meaning dust, because they would raise dust with their feet through their movements. In their struggling and grappling with each other they stirred up dust. And in this process Jacob became Israel.

This past few weeks there have been a number of court cases that brought some of the systemic racial divides in this country to the surface. In response to these issues there have been many protests decrying the racial problems that exist in fabric of this country.  Many have pushed back at the protesters claiming that they are the real problem. But, there is not doubt that they are part of the reason that more people are struggling with important conversations about racism today.

When does this dust turn to dirt? When have the protesters causing a problem? There is no doubt that every real struggle needs people with integrity to work towards progress. As the people of Israel, our destiny will always be to struggle and kick up the dust. In last week’s Torah portion we read of Jacob’s dream. He is blessed that his offspring will be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen. 28:14). To ensure a better future, we might just have to risk getting a little dirty helping kick up the dust.

Giving Thanks to Our Heros on Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

With the advent of Thanksgiving we reflect on the narrative of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. What was the nature of the meal shared by Native Americans and the Pilgrims?Even if it did not happen as we “remember it” how do we make meaning of a yearly ritual of giving thanks? We celebrate this day with its cornucopia of fall harvest in honor of those who came before us.  What about the Native Americans?

Charles Alexander Eastman, a Native American physician, writer, national lecturer, and reformer, once said, “It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. . . . Children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving. . . . The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have—to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.”  We have a tremendous amount to learn from the Native Americans.

This idea of giving is resonant with the idea of Shmita. According to the Torah this year we are supposed to let the land in Israel lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden. Under Jewish Law any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed hefker-ownerless and may be picked by anyone. A variety of laws also apply to the sale, consumption and disposal of Shmita produce. All native debts were to be remitted. The Midrash describes those who manage to keep shmita properly as “angels of God, mighty warriors doing God’s will, listening to God’s words”. (Vayikra Rabba 1:1) It is normal for a person to do a mitzvah- commandment for one moment, for one day, one week, one month, and even for 49 days. Could it be for the rest of the year? Yet, the owner sees his field empty, abandons his vineyard and pays taxes and is silent.

Too much blood has been spilled in the name of land conflict. What can we learn about the warrior who fights from within? Just as we learn from Eastman we learn in Perkey Avot, “Who is strong? He who conquers his inclination” ( Avot 4:1). May this Thanksgiving during this year of Shmita give us pause to rethink our connection to the land and each other. The giving person is the true hero.

Holding It All Together: Reflections After Recent Tragedies in Jerusalem

This week has been filled with more heart wrenching stories from the ongoing tragedies in Israel. In this context someone shared with me a poem of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. The poem is called “The Diameter of the Bomb”.

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

What is the full impact of violence? Is anyone truly spared from the effect of destruction in the world? The words “no end” in the last line in Hebrew אין סוף- ein sof  is one of the ways we refer to God. So in some sense this violence itself might impact God or even be an act of deicide . Does violence know any limits? In a very poetic way Amichai is describing the etiology of tragedy inside the “thirty centimeters” of a bomb.  What did this world look like before this big bang?

I was thinking about this when reading Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, when we read about the pregnancy of Rivka. There we read;

And the Lord said to her: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger (Genesis 25:23).

At the simplest level Rivka learned about her discomfort with being pregnant with twins. The prophecy did not just warn her about carrying two fetuses in her womb; she had “two peoples” in her body. There is no wonder that she is not comfortable; she was to give birth to entire nations with her body being transformed into a proverbial clown car. On a deeper look, while this might have been said to allay her biological fears of a difficult pregnancy, she is left with the psychological horror of having to parent two children who will be at each others’ throats. Her womb is holding together a history of war similar to  Amichai’s bomb.

While we are all God’s children, God is alone in seeing the unfolding of our history of bloody sibling rivalry. The pregnant Rivka embodies the internalization of the pain of the clash of civilizations. She represents the discomfort of knowing that there will be strife in the future between two people who share much in common and should love each other as brothers. I am not saying that Rivka and Yitzhak were the best parents, but I do want to connect with her fear for the future. This reminds me of what Golda Meir said to Anwar Saddat, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” When will we both be ready to struggle together to achieve a lasting peace? I hope that we can keep the hopes and aspirations of a pregnant mother in mind.

 

Little Becky : Feeling at Home for the First Time

Years ago I heard a story of a girl named Becky. She grew up in a small town where she was the only Jewish child. She had many friends, but she was still a little lonely. There was part of her that yearned to be with others who shared her faith, practices, culture, and history. From her earliest days she remembered her family telling that there was a place for her to be with her people. So when she was old enough she decided to go there. She went with someone who had been there before  who took her to this special place. As her companion saw the sites signaling that they were getting close Becky echoed that person’s excitement.  By the time she got there her heart was palpitating. The minute her foot hit the ground she felt at home for the first time in a place she had never been before.

For any of us who grew up going to camp we can relate to little Becky.  Even today there is a special feeling going up to camp that reminds me of that first time I stepped off that bus so many years ago.  I was privileged to grow up in a large Jewish community attending a Jewish day school. Thinking about Becky I think about my camp friends who grew up in the coal-mining communities  in Pennsylvania. For them it was transformational to live in a vibrant Jewish community of their peers. Seeing their experiences enriched mine. I never took camp for granted and it made me love that community even more. Jewish camp is that home that we need desperately need for the next generation.

The only other place that I have had this kind of experience of homecoming to a place I had not been previously is Israel. So, it will not be surprising if you were to learn that the place she went in little Becky’s story was Israel. It might surprise you that this story is actually taken from Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. Truly years ago, it is the story of Rivka Imeynu, Rebecca our Matriarch. She left the place she grew up to come home to the land of Canaan. Echoing Abraham’s answering God’s call of Lech Lecha-  to Go, Rivka says”Ailech- I will go” (Genesis 24:58). Following in his footsteps she goes home to a place she has never been before.  It makes me think of Rainer Maria Rilke the German poet when we said,“The only journey is the one within.” We are a nation of seekers.

Wait for Me Until I Welcome: Further Reflections from an Orthodox Rabbi to his Gay Children

As a religious person I am moved by a sense of divine purpose. While we as Jews do not use the word “calling”, I do feel that I work in the service of realizing God’s will on earth. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal servant I have a sense of what it means to sacrifice happiness for a cause. How many nights do I spend away from my own children working to enrich the lives of other people’s children? Avraham is a model of someone who lived with divine purpose. Even if God directed Avraham, as a father it is hard for me to imagine that Avraham kicked Yishmael out and almost sacrificed Yitzhak. Did he not love his sons? If he did, why didn’t Avraham protest on behalf of his sons as he did for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 33)? In that case, God actually listens to Avraham and engages him in debate. Or even better, why didn’t Avraham just politely “take leave” of God for the sake of his sons?  At the beginning of the Torah portion, three strangers approach Avraham in the desert.  Commenting on this, the Midrash says that “he turned to God and said, ‘with purity of heart, Master of the world, let the Shekhinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’”(Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 18:2).

What was Avraham thinking when he drove his son Yishmael away and made him wander in the desert? What was Avraham thinking when he brought Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? In the case of Sodom, God is willing to engage in debate. In the case of the strangers, God understands that Avraham’s turning away is not disrespectful, but it is in service of another value. Is anything so sacred that we would be unable to welcome those who feel marginalized, are in danger, and need our help? What if they are our own children?

Since the publication of Promises for My Gay Children, Pastor John Pavlovitz and I have carved out some time to Skype. We have only begun to talk, learn, and reflect together, but we have much to share regarding how we decided to come out in support of people who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or  Transgender (LGBT). We realized that despite our differences of our faith, religion, and culture, we both share some fundamental things. The most obvious one is that we both have a profound love of our children as well as a deep love of all of God’s children. For both of us it is our faith itself that has lead us to where we are. We were also both moved to speak about the staggering statistics. Here are a few:

  • A LGBT youth is more than twice as likely to be homeless ( National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Family rejection of gay and transgender youth often leads to attempted suicide. According to a 2009 study, gay youth who reported higher levels of family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their gay peers who did not experience family rejection. They were also 5.9 times as likely to have experienced depression, 3.4 times as likely to have used illicit drugs, and 3.4 times as likely to have had unprotected sex. ( Center for American Progress)
  • A Columbia University study showed that roughly 20% of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of straight teenagers. That is five times more likely.

Rejecting who our children are is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice themselves on the alter of our expectations. With these stark numbers, we cannot be silent. Shetikah KeHodaah Damia – Silence is Acquiescence ( Ketubot 14b).  We need to argue and debate as if our children’s lives depended on it.  Not being intentional and explicit about our unconditional love might drive them out of our lives.

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read all of these stories of Avraham’s trying to manifest his divine purpose on earth. We should humbly choose which narratives of Avraham to tell in order to ensure that our children are not made to feel like strangers. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aha depicts a speculative dialogue between Avraham and God at the binding of Yitzhak. There we read:

When I [God] commanded you [Avraham], ‘Take now your son,’ [to sacrifice him] (Genesis 22:2), I will not alter that which has gone out of my lips. Did I tell you, ‘Slaughter him?’ No! But, ‘take him up’ (Genesis 22:2). You have taken him up. Now take him down.  (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)

If we think our tradition demands we risk our children’s lives by not accepting them, like Avraham maybe we are misreading our tradition. God does not need our defense and God will most certainly be there when we get back. All of our children are angels who are just waiting to be welcomed into the tent.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,756 other followers

Archive By Topic


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,756 other followers

%d bloggers like this: