Saturday, July 28, 2012

Benediction for the Human Trafficking School at St. Thomas U

The very first chapter of the Bible teaches about an intense week as well. God creates the entire world and everything in it. On the sixth day God fills the earth with animals, and finishes with human beings. Genesis 1:27 says: Vayiv’ra elohim et ha’adam b’tzal’mo, b’tzelem elohim bara oto. Zachar un’keivah bara otam. God created human in the Divine image. In the image of God humans were created. God created male and female. We learn from this that all human beings are created in the Divine Image and should be treated as godly. God’s week ended with a day of rest. Of course, God was not tired. God did not need to sit down for a day on the Lazy Boy in frnt of the TV. God wanted to create a day of rest for us. The Sabbath is a way for human beings to spend time in reflection of the holiness that we create over the course of a given week. My friends, you have created much holiness here this week, and there will not be much rest for you. There is much to be done with the tools you have acquired this week. You will be building upon the foundation of support and education that you have created. It is written in an ancient text, “Be among the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.” The sages of antiquity knew very well how easy it is for people to pay lip service to justice, and to mouth platitudes of righteousness, virtue, and of loving kindness. They understood that to be an ahuv shalom, a lover of peace, was not really sufficient. One must also be a rodef shalom, a pursuer of peace. It is also written in that same text, “Students bring peace into the world.” May it be the will of the Divine that we will be the generation of students that puts our knowledge to its highest and most noble purposes. May we be the ones who become pursuers of peace, and to rid the world of violence, war, and atrocity. May we become disciples of Aaron—lovers of peace, and pursuers of peace, acknowledging the godliness that is implanted in every human being. Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe, favor us with knowledge, understanding, and discernment. Give our hands the strength to fight evil, and the tenderness to care for its victims. Give our hearts compassion and fortitude, that we might take on our mission with steadfastness of purpose. Enable us to go from strength to strength on behalf of our people, our community, and our nation. Amen.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Waiting for Silence

On the 5th of September, a little before 5am, 8 terrorists stormed the dorms of the Israeli athletes in Munich.  They took the Israeli Olympic team hostage, demanding the release of 234 prisoners being held in Israeli jails.  The kidnapping resulted in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.  It remains one of the lowest moments in modern Jewish history.

That was 40 years ago.  Next Friday evening the Games of the 30th Olympiad will begin in London.  40 years and 10 Olympics after the Munich Massacre, and the International Olympic Committee refuses to observe a minute of silence in memory of the Israeli team of 1972.  They claim that the 21 Arab nations who participate in the games would refuse to participate if there was a memorial for Israelis.  So 40 years ago 8 terrorists held 11 people hostage.  Today, 21 nations are holding Israel hostage.  It is a shame and an embarrassment to the world that they are allowed such power.

According to the IOC’s web site, the very first listed responsibility of the IOC is: “To encourage and support the promotion of ethics in sport…and to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned.”

What greater ethics is there than to band together to decry the violence that they would ban from the Olympics?  Or do they limit their ethics and their view of violence to the sports field and not to the real world?

What makes this even more tragic is that the Olympics this year begins on the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning and memory.  It is an opportune moment to show global solidarity and respect for human life.  So that is exactly what we will do at Temple Sinai.

Next Saturday morning at the end of Shabbat services we will hold a mini-Yizkor service in memory of the victims of the attack on the 1972 Olympics.  We will be more than just silent.  We will raise our voices in prayer and in memory.

Meanwhile, please take the time to sign thepetition to the IOC in hopes that they change their mind.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Why I Love Jewish Summer Camp

When I was in high school a lot of my friends spent time with their families over the summer. I went to camp. In college my friends took extra classes, went on long vacations, or got jobs over the summer. I went to camp. In graduate school my classmates got internships or researched their thesis material over the summer. I went to camp. Even now a lot of my colleagues go to Israel over the summer, while I am perfectly happy going to camp. I just got back from my 15th summer at camp. This year it was two weeks at URJ’s Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA. It is a gorgeous camp situated in the rolling hills that further north and west develop into the Smoky Mountains. The surrounding area is dotted with small towns and other summer camps, and even a few vineyards. And yes, I brought back a bottle for the boss. The camp is built around a lake that they call Lake Shalom, and most of our days are spent walking from one side of the lake to the other just to get from activity to activity. This year there are, I believe 350 kids at Camp Coleman ranging in age from 7 to 17. There is activity going on from 6 in the morning to after midnight, and no shortage of incredible programming. It’s a great place to be a kid, either physically or mentally. On my drive home I was thinking about what makes camp so great. Kids can swim, play sports, hike, and eat terrible food at camp, but they don’t have to be at camp to do those things. Sure, it’s fun and beautiful, but so is the beach. It’s educational but so is school. It’s spiritual but so is the synagogue. And yet something about camp has staying power. The current camp director has been there for 20 years. There are staff members who have gone from youngest camper to veteran staff member, including a woman named Lauren for whom this is her 37th summer. And this year is only the camp’s 50th year! What makes camp special isn’t about the activities or the location. It has to do with the community. Camp Coleman has built up an amazing community of Jewish people mainly from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. They give the children an incredible sense of what I call guided independence. They have no parents but they are watched by counselors. They are children being watched by older children, essentially, who in turn are being counselored by their unit heads, who are usually in or just out of college. Every summer they build an incredible community of like-minded Jews who are there to have a good time together. They go back for the community. Camp Coleman, and every camp I have ever been to, is like a small town. The director is like the mayor, and the cabins are like the town homes. The camp has its set of rules and regulations, and each cabin has its set of rules as well that either reinforce or occasionally subvert the meta-rules of camp. It is a system that runs on little sleep and lots of coffee for 8 weeks a year. In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis teach us, al tifrosh min hatzibur, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” They knew how important it is to be a part of something bigger. A collective of people who stays close for safety, for comfort, and for support. The Jewish community is together when babies are born, when Bat Mitzvahs are called up to the bimah, when couples join in marriage, and when loved ones die. The Jewish community prays together every day, shares meals together, and even has its rules that are followed by the larger system and then interpreted in the particular homes or sub-communities. Being a community is such an important aspect of Jeiwsh life that we have a blessing that declares our communal responsibility to praise God as one. It even ends with the hope that we will come to a day when all people will be one and praise God as one--bayom hayu yiyeh Adonai echad.... That is the lesson we can take from camp. When we gather for a singular, peaceful purpose, we feel it. We know that we are one, holy community, and that we are agents of a higher purpose.

Health Care Reform

In Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol,” the third book in the trilogy that also includes “Angels and Demons” and “The DaVinci Code,” protagonist Robert Langdon quips that he is on his way to take part in a blood-drinking ritual while kneeling at the foot of an ancient torture device.  He refers to his weekly communion.

Symbols fascinate me.  I am often entertained to learn the origins of a society’s symbol or the meaning behind symbols I thought I understood.  One of the more common symbols of modern medicine actually is derived from this week’s Torah portion.  We read in Numbers 21:5-9:

The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food."  6 Adonai sent venomous serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.  7 The people came to Moses and said; "We sinned by speaking against Adonai and against you. Intercede with Adonai to take away the serpents from us!" And Moses interceded for the people.  8 Then Adonai said to Moses, "Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover."  9 Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.

The serpent has long served as a symbol of healing.  It is thought that the serpent-pole described in our parashah influenced the Rod of Asclepius, held by the Greek deity associated with healing and medicine.  Perhaps this is because many antidotes for snakebites are made with a small amount of the venom from said snake.  A lesson from nature that the very same medicine that can hurt can also heal.

We are hearing a great deal about the Supreme Court decision to uphold most of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare (which I can't decide if it is a pejorative or a compliment).  Allow me a brief summary:

This act, signed into law in March 2010, provides a great deal of support to lower income families and individuals who are seeking and using health insurance.  Some highlights:

·         Insurance companies are now required to offer the same premium to all applicants of the same age and geographical location without regard to most pre-existing conditions

·         An individual mandate has been established, requiring everyone to be a part of an insurance program, choose a program, or pay a penalty.  

·         Medicaid eligibility has been expanded.

·         Insurance exchanges will be established, and individuals purchasing insurance at these exchanges will receive federal subsidies.

·         Minimum standards for health insurance policies will be established and coverage caps will be banned.

·         Firms employing 50 or more people but not offering health insurance will pay if the government has had to subsidize an employee's health care.

·         Co-payments, co-insurance, and deductibles will be eliminated for preventative care.

·         Chain restaurants with 20 or more stores will be required to post calories, fat content, and other health information on their menus.

But how do we fund such wide-spread generosity of our government?  Well, a series of taxes are also written into the bill.  High income taxpayers have a larger Medicare rate.  There is an annual fee for health insurance providers.  People with excessively high health insurance policies will pay extra taxes on the higher coverage.  There are also fees and tax increases on other entities such as drug manufacturers and medical device producers, as well as a raised floor on medical expenses deductions.  (**This is why we have been hearing anti-PPACA commercials that claim the law will raise taxes.  They will, but not on most people, and certainly not on much of the middle class.)

So there are good things on the bill and bad things on the bill.  Money that people don’t want to pay and health care that people previously couldn’t pay for.  It makes sense that the way we have chosen to symbolize health care is with the serpent.  That which can heal can also harm, apparently.

In reading through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it is really difficult for me to understand what the problem is with this bill.  Perhaps that is because I read it from a Jewish perspective.  According to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, health care is first on his list of the ten most important communal services that a city should offer its residents.  According to Joseph Caro, the writer of the Shulchan Orech, a health care provider who withholds services should be perceived as shedding blood.  And in the Talmud, six of the ten things listed as necessary for a town to provide its residents have to do with health care.  To the Jewish people, providing health care to the community is of primary concern, and is the responsibility of the entire community.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote in the Huffington Post, “We are seeing the end of a pitifully inadequate health insurance system that caused horrors every day so tragic that they could rip the heart out of a stone. The American people no longer need to fear that every one of us could lose our health insurance at any time.”  With Rabbi Yoffie, I say, thank God for the wisdom of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.  Thank God for their echoing of Jewish values and American ideals.

May we be able to hold back the serpents who will bite at the heels of this law in the coming months and years.