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.


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.

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
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.

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

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.

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.

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 —  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

April 2016

Rabbi’s Letter

by Margie Klein

Dear Friends,

I write to share the teaching I offered this past Shabbat.

We are now about halfway between Purim and Passover.  On Purim, we usually focus on the costumes and the silliness.  But before we put the holiday behind us fully this year, I want to offer a teaching about a part of the Purim story that I believe is especially relevant today.

As most of you know, Purim tells the story about how the orphan Esther and her uncle Mordechai save the Jews from near annihilation.  I will sum up the story.

The Jewish orphan Esther becomes queen to the King of Persia, Ahashverosh.  Following her uncle Mordechai’s advice, she keeps silent about her Jewish identity.  One day, when Mordechai is visiting Esther at the palace, he runs into the King’s evil prime minister Haman, who asks Mordechai to bow down to him.  Because Jews only bow down to God, Mordechai refuses.

Haman becomes so furious with Mordechai and the Jews that he offers to give the King ten thousand talents of silver if the King will only pass a decree commanding his people to massacre the Jews.  The king agrees, and the Jews seem doomed, unless Esther can do something to stop Haman’s evil plan.  You know the ending.  Esther saves the day, Haman gets hanged, and instead of getting killed on the 14th of the month of Adar, the Jews vanquish their enemies.

But before the fairy tale comes to a close, before the happy ending, there is an interchange that I find very powerful.  Let me set the stage.

When the news of King Achashverosh’s decree to massacre the Jews on the 14th of Adar reaches the Jews, they all start crying and wailing and fasting, and they put on their special mourning clothes of sackcloth and ashes.  Mordechai wants to tell Esther what is going on and ask her to do something, but he is wearing his mourning clothes, a sackcloth, which was basically like wearing a giant potato sack.

Now, everyone knows that when you go to visit a king and queen, you have to get dressed up.  In Shushan, it was actually forbidden to wear sackcloth when entering the King’s court.  When Esther learns that Mordechai is standing at the gate of the palace half-naked, she sends her servants to bring him some fancy clothes that are more appropriate for the palace.

Now, until this point, Mordechai has been pretty good at fitting in.  Yes, he didn’t bow down to Haman, but he has played along well as a good citizen of Shushan, and was careful to tell Esther to hide her Jewish identity.  Mordechai is a guy who doesn’t like to make waves, who knows how to play the system.  But now, facing this imminent tragedy, Mordechai refuses to keep playing along.  He refuses to change into royal clothes, as if everything is okay.  He refuses to blend in.

So Esther sends her servant to ask Mordechai what is going on, and he sends back a message about the King’s decree for the people to massacre the Jews on the 14th of Adar.  Through the messenger, Mordechai asks Esther to go and plead with the king on the Jews’ behalf.

Esther responds to Mordechai, and I paraphrase, I can’t go to the king.  Everyone knows that if you enter the king’s inner court without an official invitation, you are sentenced to death, unless the king extends his royal scepter to you, granting you life.   But Mordechai, I haven’t been summoned for 30 days!  You are asking me to risk my life!

Now, here is the passage I find so powerful, from fMegilat Esther 4:12-4:17.

Mordechai sent back word to Esther: “Don’t imagine that you alone among the Jews will escape to the king’s palace, and that this will save your life.…Maybe it was for just such an occasion that you were made queen!”

Esther sent back word to Mordechai:  “Go and gather all the Jews in Shushan, fast for me: do not eat or drink for three days and nights. …Then I’ll go to the king — against the law — and if I perish, I perish.”

Mordechai left and did all that Esther had commanded him.

So let’s break this down.

After months of Mordechai telling Esther to play it safe, now Mordechai is asking Esther to risk everything for the sake of her people.  He says, “You may think you are safe, because you live in the palace, but don’t let the trappings of wealth and royalty fool you.  You and your family will be killed just like everyone else.”

Then, Mordechai challenges Esther – “Maybe it was for just such an occasion that you were made queen.”

In other words, you might think that your power and privilege will protect you from having to deal with this injustice to your people.  But actually, your power and privilege obligate you to take action in the face of injustice.  

These words affect Esther deeply, and change the course of her life and the life of her people.  Realizing her power, Esther speaks with her own voice for the first time in the whole Megilat Esther.  Instead of just taking instructions passively, as she has done up until now in the story, now she instructs Mordechai and the whole Jewish people on what to do – to fast and pray with her for three days.  And she says, “then I will go to the king, against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther here has found her courage.  She knows what she must do, and she knows that she will stand for her people even if it costs her life.  For me, this interchange and the story overall feel relevant on a number of levels.

Megilat Esther tells the story of a hateful man who tries to abuse his power.   Out of anger and insecurity, he uses his position, wealth, and influence to attempt to destroy a vulnerable and marginalized population whose dignity no one cares about enough to object to.  To me, this feels hauntingly familiar.

To quote a public statement from Truah, a large association of rabbis,

“This election season, one candidate for President of the United States has built his campaign on fear-mongering about Muslims, Latinos, and immigrants, and on disparaging language directed at women, Jews, and other minority groups. When his supporters have translated this angry rhetoric into physical attacks, he has done nothing to quell the violence, and has even appeared to encourage it.”

We might think that this isn’t our problem — that we don’t have to act, since mostly those targeted are Muslims and Latinos.  Perhaps because of our successes and stability we are safe.  Yet, as Mordechai said, don’t think that just because you are a bit more privileged, that you will be safe from the hatefulness you are trying to ignore. In our own middle schools, kids in our own congregation are confronting a rising tide of anti-semitic slurs and jokes about how Jews belong in ovens.   The culture of disrespect and callousness that we tolerate for others is a culture that will hurt us, too.

As the Truah statement says,

“History has taught us too many times that nationalistic and white supremacist vitriol spares no minority group. We know too the danger of violent incitement. It is no surprise that the same group of supporters who chant ‘Go to Auschwitz’ also have punched African-American rally attendees, or that the candidate who declines to condemn the Ku Klux Klan also smears Latinos and other immigrants.”

But, perhaps more important than any direct threat to our well-being, it is our moral responsibility to speak up and take action.  Most of us are citizens of the U.S., are white people, and are members of a religion that is generally considered acceptable today in America.  So in comparison to immigrants, people of color, and Muslims, we Jews do have privilege and power.

As people who have faced oppression in the past, it would be easier to sit back and say – now it is someone else’s turn to bear the brunt of hatred.  Yet, learning from Mordechai advice to Esther, our triumph over past adversity has its greatest meaning if we carry forward our memory of past oppression, and work to create a society that protects the dignity of those who are marginalized.

Though it is not my place or the place of any synagogue to tell you whom to vote for, as Truah’s statement writes, “we cannot remain silent in a climate that breeds hatred, negates the tzelem elohim, God-given-dignity of certain ethnic, racial, and religious groups, and contributes to violent actions.”

What does this mean in practical terms?

Well, first of all, it means that like Esther, we need to be ready to risk discomfort to work for justice and to stand with those who are marginalized and vulnerable.

For our own middle school students, perhaps more painful than the fact that one boy told holocaust jokes was that his friends didn’t say anything to stop him.  My guess is that the friends knew these jokes were uncalled for but stayed silent out of fear of social consequences, of being judged or disliked for criticizing a peer.

If we hear people around us making comments or jokes that dehumanize marginalized individuals or groups, it is our responsibility to speak up and teach our kids to speak up.  Rather than being guilty bystanders, who let injustice happen on their watch, we must become “upstanders,” who work to stop intolerant speech, disrespectful humor, and bullying.

Second, we need to work toward policies that create equal opportunity and dignity for all in our commonwealth and country.  One significant way to support this is to work on reducing incarceration rates in MA.  According to the Washington Post, the U.S. incarcerates people at a higher rate than any county in the world, and we have a big problem

And, as I have spoken about before, people of color in this country are given harsher and longer sentences than white people for the same crimes.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Black men get sentenced to an average of 19.5% longer prison sentences than white men for the exact same crimes, and Black men are 25% less likely to get out early than white men.

This past week, I was invited to stand with Governor Baker as he signed a bill into law that I worked to pass that will make it easier for ex-prisoners to get drivers’ licenses, thereby increasing their chances of getting jobs and staying away from crime.  In the coming months, the Pew Charitable Trust will release a report, commissioned by the State Legislature, with an analysis of the challenges in our prison system and recommendations for how to move forward.

In the coming months, our congregation will be choosing social action goals that we will work on as a community. Whether our community supports proposals that emerge from the Pew study, or other legislation that works to make our state more equal and just, I encourage our congregation to follow Esther’s lead, get out of our comfort zone, and work for the safety, dignity, and freedom of all of our neighbors.

I close with a blessing.  May we all have the courage to speak up in the face of hatred.  May we all have the vision to build a world of mutual respect and inclusivity.