Rabbi Gross launches A Year of Chesed – A Year of Kindness
Rabbi Gross launches A Year of Chesed – A Year of Kindness
Friday is Juneteenth, and while it is not a Jewish holiday, it is a celebration of freedom that deserves recognition in our community. Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States, and its origins are directly linked to Texas.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger led thousands of federal troops to Galveston to announce that both the Civil War and slavery had come to an end. In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth a holiday. Other states have followed, as the recognition of freedom and equal rights for all citizens is a cornerstone value of the United States.
In recognition of Juneteenth, the music of our Sharing Shabbat experience will be from our Gospel Shabbat service which took place in January. We believe that the powerful voices from Church Without Walls will serve to lift our spirits and inspire us to action as we continue to learn about ways to pursue justice in our world.
A second way to observe Juneteenth is to participate in The Dialogue Project: Vital Conversations with our Community. This virtual conference is being provided by Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. It features three stalwart clergy from Houston: Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, Rabbi Samuel E. Karff, and Reverend William A. Lawson. These three spiritual leaders have been called The Three Amigos as they have taken the lead in interfaith relations in Houston for nearly 40 years. Information about joining this program can be found below.
Finally, in the spirit of Juneteenth and in support of the Black Community of Houston, please consider supporting these black owned businesses and organizations: https://www.thrillist.com/lifestyle/houston/how-to-support-the-black-community-in-houston.
May this Juneteenth be a celebration for all of us as we remind ourselves of the value and importance of freedom in the world.
Called In NOT Called Out
On this day following the funeral of George Floyd and in the midst of ongoing protests around the world, we have an opportunity to pause and reflect. This is a time to take a collective look in the mirror. These days of conflict and protest within our cities call every American to take a serious look at the inequities and disparities which surround us every day.
These marches for justice should not serve to call all us out – for guilt over the wrongs of the past does very little bend the arc of justice in a positive way. Rather, these marches and protests must serve to “call us in.”
As the conscience of our nation has been stirred to its core, each of us must be stirred as well. We need to open our eyes to the uncomfortable truth that at the foundation of countless institutions that serve us every day are injustices and inequities rooted in racism. We need to see that at the heart of many of the neighborhoods within in our cities, the schools that are available to our children and the policies we have designed to protect us are disparities which treat people differently because of the color of their skin. We need to recognize the uncomfortable truth that – no matter how good we think we may be and no matter how caring we may think we are – most of us remain blind to matters of race that demand our immediate attention.
These ongoing realities of inequity and injustice do not call us out, they call us in.
We are “Called In” to examine our hearts;
We are “Called In” to examine our thoughts;
We are “Called In” to examine our actions;
We are “Called In” to take accountability for ourselves.
The truth is that justice and change rise up ONLY when good people refuse to be bystanders, ONLY when good people refrain from being silent, ONLY when good people choose to do inconvenient and uncomfortable things for the greater good.
To this task of personal accountability, each of us must consider ourselves “called in.” To this task of personal accountability, I challenge each of us to look in the mirror every day and ask:
“What can I learn from the anger and frustration raging in the streets?”
“How might I broaden my understanding of race-based injustice?”
“What can I do in the pursuit of justice, mercy and peace in my daily interactions?”
“How can I do better?”
In the weeks and months to come, issues of social justice will remain at the forefront of our efforts at Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism. We are all called in, for as we are commanded in the Torah, “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live. . . “ (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Our Torah portion this week contains a very famous blessing which has been used throughout history to bless our people at times of joy and celebration. This blessing is used by Jews and Christians alike, and creates a spiritual bond between our faith communities. For the Jewish community, this blessing is recited at weddings, baby namings, brises and b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. Parents use this blessing every Friday night to bless their children for Shabbat, and throughout the Jewish calendar year, this blessing is used to invite God’s grace and love on the entire community of Israel.
The blessing is often referred to as the Priestly Benediction, as it was extended over the Israelites by the priests according to the explicit laws of the Torah. As it is written:
May God bless you and protect you!
May God be mindful of you and be gracious to you!
May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!
If ever there was a time that we needed this blessing it is today. As our nation finds itself in a state of chaos and despair, we (as individuals and as a nation) long to know that there is hope and healing ahead.
Yet, hopes and prayers are not enough. If we truly long to receive blessings in the future, we need to work together in the present, and that demands empathy and action.
Here is a list of things that we can do as we try to navigate this period of chaos and confusion:
We Can Mourn Together
1. Next week Tuesday, George Floyd’s funeral will be taking place in the City of Houston. There will be many ways to participate, support and express our love. Setting aside the time to honor the memory of George Floyd can go a long way in opening our hearts and our minds to creating a better understanding of pain and anger at the heart of this crisis.
2. Pick up the phone and call a friend who is black. Share your love with them. Listen to their story, and allow them to express their feelings.
3. Pick up the phone and call someone you know in law enforcement. Share your love. Allow them an opportunity to mourn and to express their fears and frustrations.
We Can Learn Together
There are countless resources available which can help us gain an understanding of the complexity of the issues at hand. While learning is just the beginning, it is an important part of gaining the empathy necessary to drive knowledgeable conversation and action.
Here are some resources (many of these authors have given TED Talks as well):
How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
The Color of Love by Marra B. Gad
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum
We Can Act Together
We are currently in the process building coalitions for action within the faith communities of Houston. In the meantime, here is a list of things you can do:
As we venture forth in these troubling times, let us commit ourselves to bringing blessings to the world. Our Torah portion looks to God for such blessings, our world today is looking to each of us.
May we bring blessings to humanity through our heartfelt efforts to heal the hurt that surrounds us.
Shavuot is a holiday that comes and goes each year with little fanfare. Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will begin the observance of this ancient harvest festival, which, as you will see, has been re-invented and recontextualized over time.
For two thousand years, Shavuot has been celebrated as the holiday of the Receiving of the Torah. This connection is so central to our understanding of the holiday, that one would think that this is how it is discussed in the Torah itself – but this is not the case. In the Torah we find a very different record of how this ancient festival was to be observed, and surprisingly, there is no mention of Sinai; no mention of revelation; no mention of the Torah whatsoever.
The ancient Festival of Shavuot was primarily agricultural. Its observance is described in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 26 (as well as elsewhere in the Torah).
“When you enter the land that Lord your God is giving to you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil that you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where God will establish the divine name. You shall go to the priest in charge and say, ‘I acknowledge this day [with this fruit as my witness] that I have entered the land that Lord swore to our ancestors to assign us.”
This passage describes how Shavuot was observed for nearly 1000 years. It was a holiday devoted to the land. It was concerned with establishing a three-part covenant between God, the Jewish People and the land of Israel.
For nearly 1000 years, the Temple stood as the central location for each of the Harvest Festivals (which included Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), but this all changed with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans. Without the Temple in Jerusalem, the primary connection to the land became a secondary consideration.
In a state of diaspora from the land of Israel and no place to offer their sacrifices to God, the Jewish people needed a completely new model for observance. In response to their new realities in exile, the rabbis of the first century CE were faced with a two-fold challenge. They now had a holiday (Shavuot) without a ritual, and they had an event (the giving of Torah at Sinai) without a holiday.
It may be difficult to imagine; but the Torah does not give a specific date for the Giving of Torah at Sinai was never coupled with a specific date. The only thing we do know is that, according to the Torah, we are taught that revelation occurs in the third month after the Exodus from Egypt. Behold! A connection!!
This connection was an easy one for the rabbis, for in the Book of Exodus, the Torah also teaches us that the Summer Harvest was to be observed 49 days after Passover. This gave the rabbis a perfect way to reinvented and re-contextualized the customs associated with Shavuot.
Therefore, for the past 2000 years, Shavuot has been associated with Revelation. In this way, our sages were able to preserve the values and teachings of our heritage and faith after the destruction of the Temple. This is our challenge in every generation – how to keep our faith alive in an ever-changing world.
In our Torah portion this week, God commands Moses to take a census. For our ancestors, keeping track of the community was of vital concern. Among the many needs addressed by this biblical census were military concerns as well as the equitable distribution of resources.
This year, our nation is in the process of collecting a census as well. Every household has received a census survey from the United States government, and it is up to us to fill it out. This census helps the government calculate and distribute resources for the next ten years, so every response is extremely important.
If you are like me, unless I fill out a form upon receiving it, the form is often placed at the bottom of a stack and never found again. Take some time this week. Find your census document or request a new one online. Fill it out and send it back. If it was good enough for Moses, it is good enough for us!
It has been nearly ten weeks since we have been able to worship together in person, and I wanted everyone to know how much I miss our personal time together. I miss the joys of welcoming Shabbat with our community in our sanctuary. I miss the beautiful energy generated as we bring our voices together in song and prayer, and I miss being able to socialize and catch up at our onegs following our services.
Please know that these shared experiences will be available to all of us in the not too distant future. Know, also, that our staff and leadership are working diligently to come up with plans to ensure the safety of our membership for such gatherings. Until then, however, we must continue to bring a sense of shared community virtually. Friends, shared Shabbat experiences are literally at your fingertips. Each week we provide two beautiful opportunities for worship and inspiration. Each of these Shabbat program addresses a separate need, and each strives to keep us connected in sacred ways.
Sharing Shabbat is a weekly Shabbat experience which includes all of the basic elements of a traditional Shabbat service. We welcome Shabbat with songs and rituals; we recite the shema and other blessings; we express our prayers for the sick; we observe yahrzeits with the mourner’s kaddish; and we there is always brief sermon. These Sabbath experiences are put together every week with music that has been pre-recorded by Jane Becker, Mike Kahn and Yana Didyk, and the setting for our worship experience is our beautiful sanctuary. We believe that each of these elements come together to provide those who watch a sense of sacred time in our sacred space.
Welcoming Shabbat is a weekly experience on Facebook Live. This Shabbat event takes place every Friday night at 6:00 and is recorded for those who are not able to join us live. The experience takes place in the home of a different member each week. Through the lighting of candles, and the blessings over wine and challah, we have an opportunity to share an intimate moment as we welcome Shabbat together.
We may not be able to come together in person for a while, but these two Shabbat experiences are designed to keep us connected in spirit. Every week you will continue to receive links to each of these Sabbath events. We hope you will join us, and we cannot wait for the time when we will be able to do this again in person.
In this week’s Torah portion (Emor), the Torah provides an early glimpse of how the Bible attempts to shape the sacred nature of our lives by setting celebrations and events along the course of a calendar year. In it, we find a very rudimentary version of the Jewish calendar we use today. Included in early calendar we find commandments regarding a weekly Sabbath, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and the three Harvest Festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot).
It is interesting to note that each sacred observance involves some kind of sacrifice. On the Sabbath we sacrifice work, during the festivals we sacrifice the harvest and on Yom Kippur we sacrifice consumption of any kind. These sacrifices help make time sacred and holy. They bond us as a people. They enable us to express appreciation for all we have.
This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and while it may not be in the Bible, the day is sacred to mothers, fathers and children alike. It is a day set aside to express our gratitude for all the sacrifices made by our mothers, and it is a way for us to elevate the sacred nature of motherhood.
Happy Mother’s Day to all moms. May this be a day filled with blessings of love, joy and gratitude.
Yesterday, Jews around the world observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This annual day of remembrance designates sacred time devoted to recalling the horrors of the past as a way to shape the present and the future.
We must never forget that the atrocities of the Nazis demanded a complicit society. We must never forget that the horrors of the Holocaust were rooted in socially accepted fear, intolerance and hated. We must never forget that the human capacity for genocide is not something that is unique to the Holocaust.
It is our obligation to collectively remember what happened to us in the past and dedicate ourselves to fighting the human capacity to hate in future. “Never Again” can only be realized if the entire world is committed to overcoming the voices which perpetuate and promulgate hateful rhetoric in society at large. On this week of Yom HaShoah, let our sacred remembrance compel us to action.
In the Torah portion we read on this Sabbath, two sons of Aaron (Nadab and Abihu), take it upon themselves to present their own personal offerings to God. Each of them takes a fire pan, places fire and incense in it, and presents it to God as an offering. The response to these offerings is shocking. Instead of receiving their offerings, God consumes Nadab and Abihu with fire.
This passage has troubled readers of the Torah throughout history. It seems to suggest that innovations and new ways of doing things are not to be tolerated and points to a truth that is as ancient as our faith: People and institutions do not like change.
The truth is that we are creatures of habit. We like what we know, and we know what we like. We like what we grow up with. We like what we have learned, but when it comes to learning new things, we typically put up a lot of resistance.
Our global lockdown is challenging this human resistance to change. Sequestered in our homes, we are forced to find new and innovative ways to connect with each other, shop for food and get work done. In many ways, we are forced to be like Nadab and Abihu, who offer new ways to get to the same end.
It is my hope and prayer that these innovations will not be rejected, and that, when we finally get to the other side of this pandemic, institutions around the world find ways to embrace the new along with the old.