Rabbi Margie’s Farewell Message

8/24/2018

Falling in Love

Seven years ago I stood before you for the first time – one month after receiving rabbinic ordination, one month before meeting Jeremy and beginning the journey that led me to have my own family.  I had become a rabbi to do faith-based social justice work, and assumed I would be at Sha’arei Shalom and in the congregational rabbinate for a year, maybe two, tops.  But something happened that first year, that has continued ever since.  I fell in love.

First I fell in love romantically with Jeremy.  But also I fell in love with this community and with the beautiful experience of being your rabbi.  I chose to stay all this time, including five years AFTER I began working almost full-time at my dream job doing the faith based social justice work I had always planned to do.

I fell in love with the way that people in this community care for each other, the way the children ask deep questions and the adults take the time to answer.  

I remember in my first year, how Leah, Becca, Josie, and Ryan formed a dance team and performed after Rosh Hashanah services a dance about t’shuvah and transformation to Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror.  It was adorable, but it was also one of the most real expressions of what the HIgh Holidays could mean that I have ever witnessed.

I fell in love with the way that people take Judaism seriously here.  It isn’t that Sha’arei Shalom is religiously observant in the traditional sense. But students and parents – including popular and athletic boys – regularly cry at their b’nei mitzvah because they know that something deep and meaningful is happening in their lives.  Congregants come to me with open hearts after hearing my sermons and ask real questions about their lives. Kids and families come to me to share how the songs we sing have permeated your homes and car trips

And I also fell in love with the models of family that I have witnessed here — where parents are deeply invested in their children’s learning, where kids are bursting with so much energy, passion, and curiosity, where elders and young people are connected with one another.

 

A Bittersweet Crossroads

So that as I have been blessed to grow my own family, you have inspired me to envision building that kind of loving family for myself.  You have inspired me to be the kind of open hearted and focused mom I want to be.

As I have learned from all of you what I want from family and motherhood, I have come to this bittersweet crossroads.  Now, I still love this community and the individuals in it. I still love being your rabbi. But in order to be the kind of mom I want to be, the kind of mom you have inspired me to want to be, I know need more time to be with my family, especially as this new person enters the world, and while my children are little and still WANT me to be their whole world.

I know that this isn’t goodbye forever, since I will be back to lead b’nei mitzvah in the coming year.  And, as has been true for me, some of my past rabbis have always remained one of my rabbis.  So, if I can be one of you rabbis and continue to support you, I hope to.But this is a farewell from my role as the rabbi of Sha’arei Shalom and from the time when I will see you regularly.  So as I prepare for this leavetaking, I want to offer some thank yous, and some blessings.

 

Thank Yous

Kids, I want to thank you for all your singing and thinking and asking hard questions.  The Jewish tradition is yours to inherit. I hope you can use it to add meaning to your lives and to transform the world into the one you want to pass on to YOUR children.

Adults, I want to thank you for demonstrating love in so many different ways – by modeling what it looks like to take community seriously, to take caring for other people seriously, for taking seriously your own journey to be the best person you can be.

Elders, I want to thank you for teaching all of us that learning, praying, participating is a life-long journey, for modeling care and connection and wisdom in every stage of life.

To the ritual committee, I want to thank you for being my partners in creating spiritual and religious experience here at Sha’arei Shalom.  So many long meetings at the Heckers and the Spitzers filled with practical decisions, off-topic storytelling, theological discussions, and lots of popcorn.  You all work so hard to make this community a spiritual home and I am grateful to know that I am leaving that project in your capable hands

To our dedicated board, our wise school committee, our amazing teachers, to our incomparable Shabbat Live band, to all our powerful lay leaders, thank you for your tireless work to make this community your own and to make my job as rabbi so much more enjoyable.

You all do so much more than is normal in typical congregations. You OWN the community.  You make everything happen. Where in other synagogues a professionalized staff manages and makes decisions, produces websites and newsletters and social programming, plans classes and curricula and school events, here at Sha’arei Shalom, YOU make this all happen with tireless dedication and willingness to go above and beyond.  The gift you give is generous, but it also makes Sha’arei Shalom a different kind of place from those professionalized synagogues with huge budgets and staffs but often tiny attendance, participation, or personal investment.

Because of your dedication, you have created a community to use American terms – for the people and by the people.  You have created a community where each of you matters, where people know and care about each other deeply. You have created a community that is nimble, that can shift and change as is needed because YOU are the ones making the decisions.

 

Farewell Blessings

As I leave my role as rabbi, I offer some blessings.

May you be blessed to keep prioritizing Sha’arei Shalom’s children, knowing that they are our future and our legacy

May you be blessed to continue to develop and decentralize the leadership of this community, so that no one person or small group has the burden of handling everything.

May you be blessed to keep exploring how Sha’arei Shalom can balance the values of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, learning, prayer, and social justice.  

I know that our expansion of social action programming was a concession for some, who followed because it was so important to me.  And yet I couldn’t have been prouder of our congregation than when our middle schoolers Abby, Rachel, and Josie met with Senator Spilka this spring to share why they believed as Jews and young people that MA should protect immigrant families.  Or when Abby, Jordana, and Jessica collected thousands of dollars worth of sheets for the Bed for Every Child Initiative.

So kids, may you be blessed to be our social justice leaders, and continue that work when I am gone.

May you be blessed to you find a rabbi who truly understands how special this community is, who falls in love with you as I have and comes to be loved and treated with honor and respect.

And finally, may you be blessed to continue to make this community a reflection of the world you want to create.

And let us say, AMEN.

This Summer, Support Those Not Feeling Too Sunny

I hope this season of blooming and warming is allowing you to spend more time outside, breathe a little slower, and soak up the sun.

Yet, even as imminent summer activities urge us to be carefree, LIFE is still happening, sometimes in challenging ways.  While some of us may be romping in fields of dandelions or firing up the barbeque with friends, others may be feeling lonely, remembering summers with lost loved ones, or anxious or depressed that life isn’t going the way we had hoped.  How do we as a community embrace the joys of summer, while also creating space for people to be real with one another if they aren’t feeling so sunny?

As I shared last Friday night, I have a good friend, whom I’ll call Judith, who is part of a highly professional and successful Jewish community.  At her synagogue, people regularly share about their promotions, the awards their children are winning, the exciting vacations they are planning.  Amidst all this success, Judith has mainly kept quiet about difficulties in her marriage and in her family’s finances.  But a few months ago, at Kiddush, another young mom asked her how she was doing.  After stumbling to come up with something positive to say, Judith began to cry, and shared that she was feeling really hopeless.  She noticed that people were staring at her, but she was tired of holding everything in.

The following week, Judith got a call from the rabbi.  “Judith,” he said, “I heard that you were crying at kiddush.”

Judith hoped the rabbi was calling to offer support in her time of need.  Instead, he continued, “Judith, the way you were crying like that out in the opet, people wondered if you were drunk.  So I wanted to let you know that it is not appropriate to get drunk in synagogue, and we would appreciate it if you didn’t do that again.”

When Judith called to tell me this story, I was flabbergasted.  Was this rabbi TRYING to reenact the Rosh Hashanah Haftarah story, where the high priest wrongfully accuses Hannah of being drunk, when actually she is just fervently praying?!  What kind of rabbi would shame a congregant about drinking, instead of finding out why she was upset?  And what kind of community would gossip about a person in pain, instead of reaching out?!  “Well,” said Judith, “I think a lot of communities are like that.”

Now, Judith’s story reflects an unusual lack of caring.  But I think she is right that often, people come together in community to celebrate or to mourn less-complicated loss, but don’t know how to create a space where it is safe to be vulnerable when things get messy.  How do we make it safe for someone to share a struggle with mental illness, addiction, or marital distress?  How do we respond in a way that meets the suffering person with love and compassion?

For me, it comes down to the kind of Jewish community we want to build, and the kind of people we want to be.  I know that I want to be part of a community where we can come as we are, and leave better for it.  I want us to bring our strengths, challenges, and imperfections.  I want us to be there for each other, not to fix each other.  I hope you want the same.

So, as we enter summer, I pray that we can not only be joyful with one another, but more importantly, that we can be REAL with each other.  And, I pray that we may meet each other’s strengths and struggles with compassion, kindness, and caring.

Blessings,

Rabbi Margie

March 2017

Rabbi’s Letter

Dear friends,

I hope you are well!

As many of you have likely heard, I suffered from a bad fall in early January, and have been healing from a concussion and skull fracture ever since. This experience has been challenging and sometimes scary, but has also made me appreciate our community even more.

For the first few weeks after my fall, I had to lie by myself in a dark and silent room for hours on end.  Each day, Jeremy would come and read messages and cards sent by congregants, which did wonders to lift my spirits. As I have begun to return to life, I have been inspired and moved by learning of the many ways that people have stepped up – leading services, supporting our students, and coordinating holiday celebrations in my absence.  Thank you especially to the Clays, Dver-Weinsteins, Gordons, Mermelsteins, and Spitzers for your extra help, and thank you to everyone who has sent prayers and good thoughts my way, including adorable pictures and messages from the Hebrew Schoolers.

I am very much looking forward to returning to our community for services on March 10th and for our Purim celebration on March 12th.

Blessings,
Rabbi Margie

January 2017

Rabbi’s Letter

Practice Self Care: It’s a Mitzvah!

Dear Friends,

Happy 2017!  If you are like me and millions of other Americans, you have recently made New Year’s resolutions.  According to NBC News, the top eight most popular categories of 2017 resolutions focused on self-care.  As I made my own resolution to go to sleep and exercise more, I found myself asking, “The world is in so much pain!  What right do I have to focus on myself, when I could be doing something to make things easier for others?”

This got me wondering: What does Judaism have to say about self-care?  Is it a right, a responsibility, or something to beware of overdoing?  I will speak more about this on Friday, but I share the following story as an initial response, a midrash (legend) from Leviticus Rabbah.

Once, Rabbi Hillel the Elder went walking, and his disciples followed him.  “Where are you going?” they asked him.”
He answered, “I am going to perform a mitzvah.”
“What mitzvah?,” they inquired.
Said Rabbi Hillel, “I am going to the bath house [a Greek institution normally avoided by Jews, which often had statues of Greek gods within].
“The bathhouse?!” shouted the students.  “How could going to the bathhouse be a mitzvah?!”
“It is a mitzvah, indeed,” answered Rabbi Hillel.  “We have statues of the King set up in theaters and circuses, and the city hires officials to scour them and wash them down so they look clean, shiny, and beautiful.  How much more so am I required to scour and wash myself.  We are each created in the image of God, in the likeness of God.  We are all God’s representatives of the world, and are preservers of God’s image.  How much more so are we required to keep ourselves clean, shiny, and beautiful, as it is written, “In the image of God was humankind made’ (Genesis 9:6).”

Like me, Hillel’s students doubt that it could be holy or pious to focus on caring for one’s physical being. Yet, as Rabbi Hillel teaches, we are each created in the image of God, God’s representatives in the world.  Of course, there is a line between self-care and self-indulgence, and we must not be so focused on our appearance as to forget how we treat one another,  But, by honoring ourselves as worthy and beautiful creations, we honor our creator.

‪May we all be blessed to care for ourselves generously in 2017,
Rabbi Margie

December 2016

Dear Friends,

Today was the first snow.  I woke early for a work trip, and amidst my rushing out to the car, I noticed how quiet the world had become. I stopped for a minute and stared up at the sky as the snowflakes swirled around me, and I felt grateful that nature had reminded me that the world is bigger than I am.

As we enter into winter, I invite you to try to find a moment each day to slow down and look outside.  Breathe. See what you notice. Imagine that God has hidden a message for you there.

In the spirit of noticing the first snow, I share with you a poem by that name that I love by Arthur Sze.  Sze invites us to remember that despite our big plans and amassing of things, the world has only been lent to us for a time. This is cause for reverence.

First Snow
A rabbit has stopped on the gravel driveway:
imbibing the silence,
you stare at spruce needles:
there’s no sound of a leaf blower,
no sign of a black bear;
a few weeks ago, a buck scraped his rack
against an aspen trunk;
a carpenter scribed a plank along a curved stone
wall.
You only spot the rabbit’s ears and tail:
when it moves, you locate it against speckled gravel,
but when it stops, it blends in again;
the world of being is like this gravel:
you think you own a car, a house,
this blue-zigzagged shirt, but you just borrow these things.
Yesterday, you constructed an aqueduct of dreams
and stood at Gibraltar,
but you possess nothing.
Snow melts into a pool of clear water;
and, in this stillness,
starlight behind daylight wherever you gaze.

Warm regards,
Rabbi Margie

November 2016

Rabbi’s Letter

Dear Friends,

I write to you the morning after the election.  Trump will be our next president.  It should not be surprising that I am deeply disappointed and troubled at this turn of events, and concerned for our country’s racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities.

For me, this moment brings us three great challenges and three prayers, whatever your political leanings.

First, it is clear that our country is deeply divided and in need of healing.  How can we be there for those in our communities that feel despair, fear, and anger right now?  Whether you opposed Trump or supported him, I invite you to find a way to be there for someone that is hurting.  Ask them how they are doing, what they are feeling, and what they need to get through this moment.

Harofeh lishburei lev, God who heals broken hearts, bring our country and all those who are hurting a refuah shlemah, a full healing of body and spirit.

Second, it is clear that people underestimated Trump and his followers, ridiculing their message and dismissing them as stupid and hateful. If we want to move forward, we must strive to understand those who disagreed with us.  Can we find compassion to hear the pain and fear hiding behind the angry rhetoric?

Harachaman, God of compassion, strengthen our compassion, and have compassion upon us.

Third, we must explore where we go from here. How might we work for justice and kindness over the next four years?  How might we unite less-affluent white people who voted for Trump with Black and Brown people (and others) who fear what Trump stands for?  How might we work for a world where groups that are hurting share a sense of outrage and common cause against a system that fails so many of us, instead of blaming that failure on one another?  How will we protect the most vulnerable in our communities?

Ohev Tzdakah Umishpat, God who loves righteousness and justice, help us to respond righteously to this moment.

In prayer and love,

Rabbi Margie

September 2016

Dear Friends,

The High Holidays are a time of sacred possibility.  We imagine that despite the habits and shortcomings that have held us back in the past, this year, we have the capacity to be different.  This year, we have the capacity to be our best selves, to forge the best relationships we can, create the best world we can.

How can we start anew?  And what does spending three days in synagogue praying in a language many of us don’t understand have to do with starting over?

First, changing our lives so often requires our faith that change is possible.  We come together at High Holiday services to lift each other up, to breathe life into the dreams of all those around us.  It is easier to believe we can change when we support one another to do so.

Second, the High Holidays offer us time and space to reflect on our lives, take stock, and figure out how to move forward.  We take time to reflect on our deepest longings, hopes, and fears.  We give each other courage to be honest with ourselves about where we need to grow, where we might offer apology or forgiveness in order to let go of guilt or hurt.

Third, the High Holidays are holy.  On these three days Jews around the world stand before God and chant the same haunting prayers and hear the same cries of the Shofar as many of us heard as children before we even knew how to talk.  We utter the same words that our ancestors spoke 1000 years ago.  There is power in these ancient rituals.  They ground us deeply in who we have been and give us strength to transform into who we hope to be.

I hope you will join us this year, to dream, to reflect, to transform.  As Mary Oliver writes,
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to come as you are, present to the possibility of who you might become.

Blessings,
Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin

August 2016

Rabbi’s Letter

Violence and Hatred in America: A Jewish Response

Dear Friends,
In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak, King Balak sends his prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Bilaam tries three times, and each time, with the intervention of an angel and a talking donkey, Bilaam winds up blessing the Israelites instead. Then, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, there is a terrifying story on which I would like to focus.

The Israelites enter the land of Moab, and many of the Israelites have carnal relations with the Moabites, despite God’s strict prohibition against it. In the dramatic end of the Torah portion, when an Israelite leader named Pinchas sees a Jewish man Zimri and a Moabite woman Cosbi caught in the act, he zealously charges them with his spear and kills them.  Responding to this action, Moses tells Pinchas that God thanks Pinchas for his heroism and offers him a covenant of peace, promising that Pinchas’s family will be priests for many generations to come.

On the surface of it, this passage seems deplorable. Pinchas doesn’t like the immoral behavior of some of those around him, and so he kills them?  And even more problematically, in the Torah, God apparently rewards murderous actions.  Yet, as Steven Bayme from the American Jewish Committee writes, in grappling with this passage, our ancient Jewish sages were equally troubled by the Torah’s seeming approval of Pinchas’s over-zealous behavior.

First, in Psalm 106, the Psalmist uses the word for Pinchas’s zeal not to connote violent action, but instead to connote passionate prayer.  Second, in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that God gave Pinchas a covenant of peace to “calm his mind and restore his sanity.”  In other words, according to these rabbis, the covenant of peace was not a reward, but a kind of drug to restore him to health after his violent actions had demonstrated temporary insanity. Third, the Talmud imagines that Moses wished to excommunicate Pinchas on account of his zealotry.

Finally, the Talmud calls Pinchas a rodef, a violent pursuer that the one pursued has a right to kill in self-defense (Sanhedrin 82a).  In other words, the Rabbis felt the need to completely recast the story, teaching us that Pinchas is NOT our role model, but someone who needs healing.

What might we learn from this message today?

The violent events of the past few weeks have felt to me like driving by a car accident – I can’t look away, but I know that looking won’t be good for me.  We have witnessed the deaths of Philando Castille in St, Paul and Aaron Sterling in Baton Rouge  — two young Black men shot by police, and then the shooting of five police officers in Dallas by a Black man seeking revenge, and another shooting of police in Baton Rouge.  Our reactions to these events have been deeply polarized.

We have witnessed terror attacks in France and in Germany, and a coup attempt in Turkey.  Again, our reactions to these events have been deeply polarized.  It feels easy to blame the other side for all the problems we face, and to hate them.  Indeed, too many prominent politicians and pundits encourage this.  It makes for good news ratings.

Yet, if the rabbinic responses to this week’s Torah portion teach us anything, it is that our feelings of anger and condemnation can lead to deadly action. The rabbis recognize that we cannot create a society where violence is justified in the name of God or Torah. And, I think they recognized that acting in word or deed out of fierce anger is dangerous.

What does this mean for us?

Watching the news, it is so easy to take sides, feel angry, and assume those who disagree with you are not only wrong, but stupid and evil.  I know that in this congregation folks won’t be inclined to act with physical violence, like Pinchas did, but still we may be inclined to act like the Prophet Bilaam, and set out to belittle or curse those with whom we disagree.

Of course, there are moments when we have to make choices. Moments when we need to take a public stand, perhaps through voting, or speaking with a legislator or attending a rally.  But the rest of the time, I wonder what it would do for our souls if instead of cursing each other and acting and speaking with zeal.  We might seek to bless each other with our curiosity and generosity, assuming good intentions even from those with whom we disagree.

Over the past 10 days, as part of my work for the Essex County Community Organization, I have organized trainings and conversations on the North Shore between community and police, and between white, Latino, and Black people of faith.  At each, the tension was palpable.  People came in ready for a fight.

And yet, by the end of one of the conversations, I heard an African-American woman say, “You know, I walk around feeling terrified for my sons, like my community is under siege.  But what I realized today is that the police feel like that, too.  They feel like they are a walking target, like their good work is disrespected, like they are being blamed for problems that our whole society causes.”

I heard a white policeman say, “when I came in here today, I kept thinking, stop all this ’Black Lives Matter’ bs.  All lives matter, and you aren’t better than anyone else.  Today, I heard people say – all people’s lives matter, and Black lives matter, too.  We in the police have to get to know more people in the Black community, so that people feel like we care about the value of their lives.”

I don’t mean to imply that this conversation was life-changing, or that the police and the Black community in Lynn, MA now truly understand each other.  But I do believe that it was an important step, and I believe it is important for us to strive to understand why people take the positions they do, and what values and experiences and fears are motivating them.  Maybe, just maybe, that can lead us to new pathways of understanding, and, as with Bilaam, our curses will be turned into blessings.

Warm regards,
Rabbi Margie
rabbi@shaareishalom.org

June 2016

Rabbi’s Letter


Emor and social action
Dear Friends,
Happy summer!

As you know, our community is in the process of choosing our social action focus for the next year.  We have narrowed it down to two choices: homelessness or climate change.  In this letter, I will present how confronting each these issues is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, and also, depending on which we choose, what concrete steps our congregation might actually take moving forward.

To vote on which issue we will choose, click here.

Homelessness
The characters of the Torah are no strangers to homelessness. Adam and Eve lose their home in the Garden of Eden.  In Parashat Lech Lecha, God commands Abraham to leave the only home he’s known and travel to a new land that God promises to Abraham’s descendents.  And of course, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites wander homeless in the desert for 40 years.

Finally, in the later books of the Hebrew Bible, the Amos, Micah, Isaiah and other prophets all call upon us to ensure that everyone is assured a safe and permanent home.  Indeed, on Yom Kippur we read the words of Isaiah 58, in which God says, “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.  Isn’t this really the fast that I have chosen, that you loose the chains of injustice…clothe the naked and bring give shelter to homeless people.”

God’s outcry in Isaiah not only tells us that it is our duty to house the homeless, but actually argues that if we want connection and forgiveness from God, relieving homelessness is at least as central a religious duty as fasting and praying!

In my own life, working with homeless families has taught me how important and meaningful it is to give immediate help to people who are struggling to survive, and it has also taught me that it is also critical to address the root causes of that struggle, to create policies and programs that eradicate homelessness more broadly.

So, what are the dimensions of the problem we’re facing? Here in MA, homelessness is on the rise.  According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 21,237 people in Massachusetts counted as experiencing homelessness as of 2014.  As of August 14, 2015, there were approximately 4,250 families with children and pregnant women in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program.  In one of the richest states in the wealthiest country in the world, it feels wrong that so many people in MA experience the pain and shame of homelessness.

Thankfully, MA is also home to the MA Coalition for the Homeless, an inspiring and effective group that works with congregations and community groups around the state to eradicate poverty and homelessness in the Commonwealth.

If our community were to focus on homelessness in the coming year, we would address the issue through both education and action.  We would learn about homelessness in Hebrew School and at services, and invite representatives from the MA Coalition for the Homeless (or another group) to come speak.  We would continue our service work with Family Promise, and, we would choose a policy issue to work toward longer-term solutions, likely with the MA Coalition for the Homeless.  For example, we might work together to prevent families with children who are being evicted from subsidized housing or terminated from shelter from having to stay in places not meant for human habitation.

Whatever we chose, through learning, prayer, and action, we would work together toward a world where everyone has a stable place to live.

Environment and Climate Change

As we say in the second paragraph of the Shma:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving Adonai your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late…

But if, as a people, we disobey God’s commandments, as we read last week at Ben Weinstein’s bar mitzvah in Parashat Beha’alotecha, the Torah tells us our actions will have ecological consequences – we will have flooding and famine, earthquakes and dangerous storms.

What should we make of this?   Traditional Jews take these words more or less literally. If you follow the mitzvot, you will be rewarded through the earth’s yields.  And if you don’t follow God’s commandments, you will be punished through famine and natural disaster.  For many of us, of course, this is troubling.  We don’t want to imagine God as a disciplinarian, and we notice that our complicated reality doesn’t reflect a simple relationship between virtue and reward on the one hand and sinfulness and punishment on the other.

For these reasons, I much prefer the translation of the Shma by my teacher Rabbi Art Green:

If you listen, REALLY listen to the teachings of YHWH, the Breath of Life, especially the teaching that there is Unity in the world and inter-connection among all its parts, then the rains will fall as they should, the rivers will run, the heavens will smile, and the good earth will feed you…

In this version, bad things don’t happen because God is punishing us.  Rather, the Shma teaches us that all is One, that everything is interconnected, that we are all part of a greater whole.  If we honor that wholeness and care for the rest of creation — both because it has value in general because we know it affects us — then we will experience harmony and abundance.  Or, in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s terms, if we “shatter the harmony of life,” and become disconnected from the rest of creation, then we will experience flooding, drought, and disease.  Becoming disconnected from the rest of creation is exactly what we do when we live our lives without thinking about how our actions will have consequences for the planet, for future generations, and for other species.

So, how big a threat is climate change?  According to the New England Aquarium, temperatures in MA have risen 2 degrees and sea levels have risen 11 inches.  By 2100, temperatures, precipitation, and sea levels are set to rise even more.  This will likely lead to coastal flooding and an increase in diseases like West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever.  It is eerie how similar the Bible’s threats are to the realities of climate change.

Each year on Tu Bishvat we share our commitment to caring for creation, and many of us go green in large and small ways.  Yet, what would it look like for us to respond to climate change as a congregation?

First, let me share what other MA congregations are doing.  MA congregations and faith organizations have come together through the MA Interfaith Coalition on Climate Action (pronounced MICAH) to work for a clean and just energy future for our Commonwealth.  MAICCA is working to ensure that our state invests in clean and renewable energy sources, so that we can actually meet the goal that the MA State Legislature has set out to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

If we were to work on this issue, we would learn at services and in Hebrew School about Jewish teachings on the environment and our responsibilities to it.  We would also invite representatives to speak, from the MAICCA Coalition or other groups, to share personal stories of climate action and how faith communities have made a difference.  We would join together in community service by working together on the cleanup of a beach or state park.  And, we would work together with MAICCA (or other groups) to ask our legislators to invest in renewable energy – perhaps advocating that we lift caps on solar energy development, increase funding for wind energy, and invest in programs like Mass SAVE that help individuals make smart choices.

Whichever choice our congregation makes — either combating homelessness or climate change — we have before us powerful opportunities to make our world better.  I hope you will join us in making this decision, by voting here.

The Talmud teaches that the world stands on three pillars, Torah learning, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness – al shlocha devarim ha-olam omed: al ha-Torah, v’al ha-avodah, v’al gemulut chassadim. This formulation has guided Jewish communities for generations to balance their efforts around study, ritual, and social action.  By strengthening our own commitment to learning and action in the coming year, I hope we can become an even stronger and more holy community.

Blessings,
Rabbi Margie

Social Action Survey


Dear Sha’arei Shalom members,

Please fill out a brief survey to help choose our social action focus for the coming year. Below is a brief summary of what each choice might entail.

HOMELESSNESS – If our community were to focus on homelessness in the coming year, we would address the issue through both education and action.  We would learn about homelessness in Hebrew School and at services, and invite representatives from the MA Coalition for the Homeless (or another group) to come speak.  We would continue our service work with Family Promise, and, we would choose a policy issue to work toward longer-term solutions, likely with the MA Coalition for the Homeless.

CLIMATE CHANGE – If our community were to focus on climate change, we would learn at services and in Hebrew School about Jewish teachings on the environment and our responsibilities to it.  We would also invite representatives to speak, likely from the MA Interfaith Coalition on Climate Action (MAICCA), to share personal stories of climate action and how faith communities have made a difference.  We would join together in community service by working together on the cleanup of a beach or state park.  And, we would likely work together with MAICCA to ask our legislators to invest in renewable energy in order to meet the goal that the MA State Legislature has set out to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

Click here to access the survey

May 2016

Rabbi’s Letter

by Margie Klein

Admitting Our Mistakes

Dear Friends,

I want to share a teaching I read from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, which I spoke about this past Shabbat.  Rabbi Sacks publishes the sermons he has given every week for the past several years under a series called “Covenant and Conversation.”   You can find it online at www.rabbisacks.org —  highly recommend them!

Around the year 2000, Rabbi Sacks was visited by Philip Lader, who was then the US Ambassador to England.  Ambassador Lader reported to Rabbi Sacks a practice that he and his wife have been doing since 1981.  As Lader was rapidly advancing in his career, he and his wife started inviting their similarly successful friends to regular study retreats to share ideas, build relationships, and think through challenges.

According to Ambassador Lader, the most interesting thing all these A-list people learned from one another was how hard it was for all of them to admit their mistakes.  Realizing that this was an important skill, the Laders instituted a practice at each retreat of having some titan of industry or politics give a talk called, “My Biggest Blooper,” where the speaker would discuss something he or she did but was ashamed to admit.

I’m not suggesting that at Sha’arai Shalom replace my sermons with a round-robin of “My Biggest Blooper” talks — but I do think Rabbi Sacks is right that it’s very hard for us to openly and publicly admit our mistakes — and often, the bigger the mistake, the harder it is to talk about.

This process of coming to terms with our mistakes, misjudgments, regrets — with our sins — is the essence of Yom Kippur in Judaism.  Not coincidentally, Yom Kippur is the subject of Chapter 16 of Leviticus, the opening piece of this past week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot.

As described in the Torah, in ancient times, the High Priest would make atonement for the sins of the people by entering the Holy of Holies, meticulously performing a sacrifice and then transferring the sins of the people to a scapegoat that was released into the wilderness.  I am not sure if any of that ancient practice would resonate with us today.  But, in any case, now that we don’t have a Temple or Tabernacle, the rabbis teach that it is up to us, both individually and collectively, to confess our wrongdoings and pray for forgiveness.

For the Ambassador Lader and his wife, the “Blooper sessions” were a way to create an environment where people felt safer to confront and admit their errors.  For Rabbi Sacks, one of the central elements of Yom Kippur is that we confess to our sins collectively – Al chet shechatanu lefanacha – for the sins that WE have done before you.”

Rabbi Sacks argues that this practice has created a culture within Judaism where it is more acceptable to say, “I made a mistake.”  Yom Kippur teaches us every year that we can and should admit our mistakes — not just on Yom Kippur, but all year round.  And yet, most of the time, people do not admit their mistakes.

My husband Jeremy and I have a joke that when one of us points out something that the other has neglected to do, the guilty party says, “Well, I blame my mother, and society.”

Then we apologize (at least usually).  We are kidding, but our joke gets at how hard it is, even in a rabbi’s house, to admit that you’re wrong.  As Sacks asks, how much more common is it to rationalize, justify, deny, or blame others?

Importantly, our inability to admit our errors often exacerbates dangerous situations and impedes our ability to take corrective action.  For instance, doctors make deadly mistakes because they don’t want to admit they were wrong and reverse a course of treatment.  According to a report on NBC News this past Wednesday, preventable medical error leads to 200,000 to 400,000 deaths annually in the U.S.  We don’t know how many of these deaths were related to doctors being too proud or scared or pigheaded to confront their errors, but it’s not unreasonable to estimate that the number is in the hundreds or even thousands.

Similarly, bankers and economists also find it hard to admit their mistakes.  Despite all the signs, and despite that experts like Warren Buffett warned as early as 2002 that the financial industries unsustainable practices would lead to a crash, virtually all of Wall Street made choices that continually put the market at risk. Reaping enormous profits from trading hard-to-understand financial instruments that were linked to the unstable housing market  — instruments even they didn’t fully grasp — the world’s largest financial institutions jeopardized and nearly succeeded in bringing down the entire world economy. The result was an economic debacle from which the poor and middle class still haven’t fully recovered.

And yet many of these same people still proclaim themselves “financial experts,” still preach their advice — often the same advice as before, as if the financial crisis never happened.  And they have never admitted that they were wrong.  Over and over, they just say things like, “It was unavoidable given what we knew at the time.”

But maybe it was avoidable.  And, if they would have the courage to understand how they could prevent a similar disaster from happening again

In my own family, my father worked for 30 years as a tax lawyer for Deutsche Bank, one of the culprits behind the 2008 financial crisis.   He retired in 2014.  My dad is one of the kindest and most ethical people I know, and his department was mostly uninvolved in the mortgage crisis.  But even he, immersed in the culture of the bank and its rationalizing of what happened, was loathe to admit that the bank had done anything wrong — until this past year, when he watched The Big Short, a movie about the financial crisis.

Upon coming home from the movie, my dad said to me, “Honey, you know how I kept saying we didn’t know what we were doing?  Well, watching that movie is making me realize that while some people didn’t know, a lot of people did know and buried their heads in the sand because they knew there was money to be made before everything fell apart.”  He added, “I am really glad that my new job is taking care of Uriel.”

My Dad had almost nothing to do with the financial crash — but still it was hard for him to admit that his company had done something seriously wrong.  So, how hard must it be for us to admit when we do something wrong that we know caused harm to someone else.

Rabbi Sacks points out three gifts that Judaism gives us to help us admit our mistakes.

First, Jewish tradition makes a clear distinction between the sinner and the sin.  Surely, almost everyone will break many of the 613 commandments.  Still, we believe that we are inherently good.  We sin not because we’re evil, but because we have taken a wrong path; we can condemn the path without condemning the traveler.  Judaism teaches that no matter what we do, somewhere deep inside of us, we are still good, and capable of good.

Second, Yom Kippur itself creates a culture throughout the year where we are less ashamed to acknowledge our wrongs, because we know that one of our most fundamental beliefs as Jews is that change is always possible.

And finally, at the root of the first two our tradition teaches that God is a forgiving God.  We learn that God doesn’t ask us to be perfect, or expect that we’ll never sin.  Rather, God asks that we acknowledge our mistakes, apologize, and work to be better.  In return, God is ready to forgive us.  A midrash, or ancient Jewish legend, beautifully illustrates this point.

A king’s son had travelled a hundred-day’s journey from his father. His friends advised him, “Return to your father.”

He said to them, “I cannot. The way is too far.”

His father sent to him and said, “Go as far as you are able and I shall come the rest of the way to you.”

Thus the Holy One, blessed be God, said to Israel, as it is written in the Book of Malachi, 3:6.  “Shuvu alai, v’ashuva aleichem. Return unto Me, and I will return unto you.”

In other words, if we are willing to try and change to return to the righteousness at our core God will meet us halfway

May we all be blessed to know that at our core, we are deeply good.  May we be blessed to find forgiveness from God, each other, and ourselves.  And may we come to have the courage to admit our wrongs, and in doing so, move past them.

Rabbi Margie