Gratitude then, gratitude now

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God has given you, and have possessed and settled it….” These words serve as the Torah’s introduction–in this past week’s portion Ki Tavo— to the thanksgiving ritual of bikkurim, or first fruits. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, the Israelite is to appear in the presence of the kohen, bearing his basket of produce, and offer a scripted monologue detailing the history, context and expression of gratitude for the bounties bestowed.

The timing of this ceremony is a subject of debate among the rabbis. Specifically, does the language of the verse quoted above indicate that  the ceremony is performed upon entry into the land, or only after the land has been settled? How this question is answered informs our Jewish understanding of the concept of gratitude. If thanksgiving is to be offered immediately upon entry, the gratitude expressed is in appreciation of God’s goodness, a promise kept, a gift given, even though the gift received has not been opened yet! On the other hand, if thanksgiving is to be offered only after the land has been settled (and it would take years before the land would be entirely settled!), the gratitude expressed in the first fruits ceremony would be accompanied by a very different intention. The gift’s recipient would have had the chance to unwrap the gift, open the box, and make use of the gift. Gratitude would be accompanied by a rational appreciation for the thing itself.

I am certainly not suggesting that we write two thank-you cards for every gift we receive. The trait of gratitude we cultivate, however, should be informed by both perspectives. We should appreciate the generosity of others for the consideration they show us, regardless of the gift itself. And we should recognize and acknowledge the gift itself as we come to recognize its unfolding impact on us.

On this sixteenth anniversary of the life-shattering events of 9/11/01, I remain deeply saddened by the stories of suffering, especially those of individuals who have recently lost their lives as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.

But I also feel gratitude. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy, I was grateful to those who showed supreme heroism, selflessness and compassion in the darkest hours, many of whom gave the gift of life at the cost of their own.


With the passage of time, I have also come to appreciate how these self-sacrificing individuals and their communities of volunteer and professional servants have shaped our neighborhoods and communities. “We are one family” is a refrain I heard repeatedly this morning, and a theme I saw play out in our broader community. As our OJC community joined together in commemoration with our neighbors and volunteers in Tappan, and as we joined in learning with the faith community of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, a true sense of brotherhood and sisterhood prevailed.

I am grateful for the care we show one another in the wake of tragic events, and for the human and institutional actions we have witnessed in response to natural disasters Harvey and Irma. Today, I express my gratitude–with a basketful of intentions–to those who serve us each day and to those who work toward creating the kind of community we aspire to be.

In peace,

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Unite the Fight (against Hate)

Earlier this evening, more than two hundred people gathered at the Allison-Parris County Office Building in New City to speak out against the rise in hateful action and rhetoric. After the terror of Neo-Nazi white supremacists spewing anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic speech in Charlottesville, VA, Rockland Pride Center joined forces with the Jewish and African American communities to stand up for acceptance and understanding. You can read more on Facebook and watch a video of the rally at Unite the Fight, #UnitethefightRockland.

 

I share with you here, in part, my words in the hope that it will motivate all of us to take action in some large or small way, every day.

When I was a kid of twelve or thirteen, some of my friends got into a big fight, choosing up sides and being mean to each other. I remember growing so tired of the whole situation and complaining to my dad, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”

My dad answered, “Tough. You have to deal with it… because they are your friends and they matter.”

I’ve gotten a little bit older since then, and my circle of concern has gotten a bit broader. Today, not just my friends and family matter. All people, because we are all created in God’s image, matter. But some days, I really want to say, “I just don’t want to deal with it anymore!”

That’s when I hear my dad’s voice reminding me: You have to deal with it, because people matter.

We have gathered on an auspicious day, the first day of the new month of Elul, when Jewish people look forward to the New Year and attempt to return to our best selves in a process called teshuva, repentance. We cannot do it all at once. But each of us can effect change one degree at a time.

This hopeful thought can allow us to say, “If we are able to change ourselves by one degree, then all of us together can change the direction of our country with that same one degree of change.

Consider the fact that we all showed up here in New City today. Instead of turning on our neighbors, instead of finding differences, we are committed to identifying all that brings us together.

We have gathered for freedom, democracy, and our trust in justice. This week in the Torah portion we read:‏ ‏צדק צדק תרדוף

Justice, justice you shall pursue. The way that we pursue justice now is by rallying together and uniting the fight.

When Brooke Malloy, Executive Director of the Rockland Pride Center, asked me to speak tonight, she suggested that I share how the Jewish community is feeling now after the events of Charlottesville a week and a half ago. I can’t speak for the Jewish community as a whole, but I can tell you how I am feeling. My response is encapsulated in the story of the president of the Charlottesville synagogue who stood on the front porch with two hired guards while white supremacists and neo-Nazis walked by shouting, “There’s the synagogue. Let’s burn it down!” and “Jews will not replace us!” As a congregational rabbi, nothing steals my breath as much as the fact that fifty people inside, finishing their Shabbat morning prayers, were told to sneak out the back door of their synagogue for their safety. In the United States of America.

As I thought about what Brooke asked me to do here, however, I realized that sharing my story is only the beginning. My work against hate must continue by asking questions instead of telling. What does this violence and hatred mean to you as a gay person? As an African-American? an Hispanic or Asian or a person who came from Haiti or Dominican Republic?

Our task is to prove that love truly is stronger than hatred despite the evidence of the past weeks. Love arises from knowing the other. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing God to remake me in His.”

Let me return to the idea of one degree of change. As Rabbi Scheff taught in his sermon this past Shabbat, we could create change if all of us dedicate ourselves to get to know one new person every day, a person we do not know, a person who might look different from us. Try looking someone in the eyes who is in your office or in your class or at the store where you shop… someone you have never spoken with before. Say hello. Tell them who you are. Ask them who they are. And let us change the world together one degree at a time.

Because love is stronger than hate.

With prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill Speakers

The call for moral leadership

As this Hebrew month of Av draws to a close in the week ahead, leading us into the reflective month of Elul, I am reminded of a teaching by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred – sinat chinam, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324). The destruction to which Rav Kook refers is that of the Holy Temple; but his teaching is as equally valid today as we experience again and again the destructive force of baseless hatred all around us.

Flowers and a photo of car ramming victim Heather Heyer lie at a makeshift memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 13, 2017. 

These times demand moral leadership. The actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups in Charlottesville–marching with torches, toting guns, chanting hate-filled slogans, intimidating Shabbat worshippers, and ultimately inciting deaths and injuries—or anywhere else, for that matter, cannot be countenanced without a response. In the moment, we cannot afford to be bystanders, though we are not required to put ourselves in harm’s way; in the aftermath, we call for moral leadership. We demand swift and unequivocal condemnation from those elected or appointed to positions of power. Over the past few days, we have read many such statements from organizations and individuals representing our communities. Frankly, I am underwhelmed by all of them.

Statements are important; but they are nothing compared to actions. Of course, we should call out—or expect our leaders to call out—that which we find despicable, abhorrent and unacceptable. But how have we truly changed our world in relying on someone else to speak what we are feeling?

Moral leadership must indeed be demanded; Judaism, however, dictates that we demand it of ourselves. We must be the moral leaders of our day; others may speak for us, but only you and I, individually, can change the landscape. And Judaism tells us how in this week’s reading of R’eih: “Do what is right and good in the eyes of God.” Feed the poor, care for the stranger, let the land regenerate, show gratitude for what you have, don’t take time for granted. Love (the verb).

Love. We’ve been reading all about love in the Torah weekly throughout this month of Av. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your essence.” “Love the stranger.” In response, I commonly hear expressed the struggle with the notion of being “commanded” to love. How can love be commanded?

If I had to define “love” in the context of what the Torah tells us, it would be the feeling we experience when we give to another at our own expense. The Torah wants us to serve the Other–and others–through our choices and with a generous spirit. (A moral leader is defined typically as a leader whose purpose is to serve, as opposed to be followed.) But we aren’t born with that desire to love. We are taught how to give love by being loved and by loving. Love may be an emotion, but it is also learned by experiences and actions.

But hate is stronger than love,” I hear. My response: Hate is taught, just as love is taught. Perhaps hate is taught more easily, because hate appeals to our base instinct of self-preservation. Teaching love through our actions demands self-sacrifice, vulnerability and risk-taking. Teaching love means overcoming our reticence, our fear of the stranger, our complacency.

Moral leadership means accepting these challenges for ourselves, and not giving in to insecurity, fear and despair. Moral leadership means embracing and living by the notion that there is a shared code of conduct or set of values, that calls upon us to serve one another and “do what is right and good.” Moral leadership is the constant and intentional endeavor to behave morally and to love.

Some of you struggle with the idea that, as Jews, it is our mission (calling? obligation? command? responsibility? — call it what you wish!) to pursue love in the world, just as we are taught to pursue justice or peace. Love needs to be practiced, exercised and cultivated, just like any other discipline, muscle or character trait. And the more we love, the easier it gets. Trite? Perhaps. But when was the last time you went about your day consciously choosing to give love beyond your friends and family circle? To your neighbor? To a stranger? Try it, and you will soon discover that love is stronger than hate.

What does God/Judaism want of us? To live with a consciousness of our connection to others that guides our choices and our behavior. This is what God hopes will shape the kind of love we experience and bring into the world, the kind of moral leadership you and I provide for the world of tomorrow.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

 

Confronting the Unthinkable

This blog post is dedicated with love to the memory of Daniel Ae Roo Beer, age 11 years and six days. And it is dedicated to his grief-filled parents and brother as they put one foot in front of the other, moment by moment, day by day. I pray that my words are healing to the Beer family, to the many communities who mourn Daniel, and to anyone who faces sudden, traumatic loss. May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Daniel Beer zl
There is suffering and sorrow in the world. We do not look it in the face every day; we push it away because we have lives to live and children to raise and joy to seek. We know that suffering exists in this world, but thank God, we choose life.
So when sorrow hits us hard, when the loss is personal, breaking our hearts, we are in shock. We ask, “How could this be? How could this happen?”
Some of us believe we have answers based on our experience or belief or non-belief. I am familiar with the theories and the theologies. But when I face suffering as a member of a community, when I am a part of the sorrow, there is only one thing that I know. I know that I do not know why.
The loss of Daniel cannot be fixed. Answers to the question of why it happened cannot fix the reality of Daniel’s being gone from our lives. It cannot be fixed. But it can be healed.
Judaism teaches us how to heal: we heal by choosing life. Daniel showed us how by embracing life for 11 years, every moment of it, and all its fullness and luxury and joy. How can anyone in the community who loved Daniel find the way back to that kind of living from out of suffering and sorrow?
How does anyone find a way back toward life from out of the depths of loss?
Each one of us understands that we are part of concentric circles of caring. An immediate family, in the grip of loss, is the innermost circle. That is where our focus must go.
From our place outside of the most inner circle…
We choose to be quiet rather than offer theories.
We choose to be silent rather than offer opinions.
We listen first, with open hearts, without judgment, rather than distract with details and stories and any conversation other than that which is before us.
We understand the unique nature of every loss rather than offer our own experience without being asked for it.
Ultimately, Judaism teaches that healing begins when we offer nothing but our presence. Think of all the concentric circles. Imagine the power of everyone offering loving presence, directed inward toward the innermost circle, hoping to begin the process of healing.
All of us who knew and loved Daniel Beer learned from him that the world is a joyous place. Daniel’s life taught us that curiosity, limitless love, humor and kindness are the best way to live a life. Everything has changed now, except for one important thing: Daniel’s life lessons remain. The healing begins when we turn toward the joy that defined Daniel’s life.
HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim. May the One who is the Place of Comfort give comfort to you among all of those who mourn in our communities.
L’shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

 

House and Home

Mah tovu–How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5, from this week’s parasha, Balak).


The Bible’s poetry often appears as a parallelism, where elements of a sentence are identical in construction and meaning. On a first reading, we might understand the quote above, spoken by the prophet Balaam, as an example of this technique. Traditional rabbinic commentaries, however, attempt to show that this verse is more than simple repetition of an idea for the sake of poetry, that “Jacob” and “Israel” are not parallels, that “tents” and “dwelling places” carry different connotations.

According to the Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic commentary by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, “Jacob” is the Jew who wanders (in tents) outside the Land of Israel (in Poland, in his case); “Israel” is the Jewish People in the Land, connected to the home of the Temple (the dwelling place). “Beauty” (or holiness), he argues, attaches to both.

We can also draw a distinction in the blessing between the temporary (tents) and the permanent (dwelling place), the fleeting and the fixed. Whether we are on the move or settled at home, out in public or in the privacy of our space, we have the ability to evoke a sense of holiness by virtue of the ways in which we interact with the people and the world around us.


One more distinction that I derive from this blessing, which we are meant to recite every time we enter a place of prayer, is that between body and soul.

For me, the tent represents the physical and tangible things with which we surround ourselves–our homes, our clothing, our financial resources–even as we struggle like Jacob to discover our true identities. These things may be impermanent, but they are necessary, and they can be put to use in a way that garners appreciation and evokes a sense of holiness.

The dwelling place, in contrast, is where the soul resides. It represents the intangibles of our lives–our values, character traits and relationships–that lie at the heart of what it means to be connected with one another as the People of Israel. These things are always part of us, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter where we wander. We welcome beauty and holiness into our lives when we learn to access this dwelling place, this internal sanctuary.

Can we live in two places at once? Can we create for ourselves both a house and a home? Can we open to others both our doors and our hearts? When we are finally able to do so, no matter where we find ourselves in life or in the world, we will find the blessing of God’s presence.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Interfaith Weddings: Responding to the Questions


My daughter called from Israel yesterday at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. “Mom, where have you been? Our family has been texting for hours about all of the social media regarding Conservative rabbis and interfaith weddings. We haven’t heard from you at all.”

It was one of those days, trying to get everything done before leaving for a week of vacation. I had not checked into our family text group or Facebook all day. When I finally opened the texts, there they were – my kids waiting for their mom, the family Rabbi, to offer an opinion.

The family discussion was mostly a furious-paced posting and re-posting of various statements that had been published by my colleagues throughout the day. So I read many of the opinions all at the same time. The idea that struck me first was how proud I am to be a rabbi. As I read the comments and opinions, I observed that rabbis ask more questions than offer absolute answers. For the most part, rabbis advocating officiating at interfaith weddings and those opposed wrote with thoughtful consideration and respect for each other. In the modern day pages of Talmud that we call Facebook, I did not see very much disparagement or lack of respect (though I did certainly read some of that). The same cannot be said about the pages of our esteemed Talmud!

I was not available for the family conversation yesterday, but today I am ready to answer my children and their questions. (Full disclosure: They are all in unanimous agreement that Conservative rabbis should not officiate at interfaith weddings.)

Dear Drill kids,

Dad and I are grateful for and proud of the people you have chosen, and are choosing, to spend your lives with. You have fallen in love with good people whose core values match your own. And you have all chosen Jewish people as your partners. We do not take these facts for granted.

I do not say that I am grateful for your choosing Jewish partners out of prejudice or closed mindedness. I do not say that I am proud as if somehow your parents did all the right things that led you to choosing these people. Many people raise their children just as we raised you and not all of them choose to marry or partner with Jewish people. Falling in love is a very personal matter. I could never take credit. The four of you have taken the foundation we provided and moved forward in your own ways.

Still I am grateful and proud. Judaism is a particularistic religion in a world that seems to prefer universal open-mindedness. Being counter-cultural is not easy. It leaves one open to criticism of backwardness, naïveté or bigotry. But as you, my children, have heard me say since you were very young: Judaism is a very long chain and I do not want to be the one to break it.

I love my children more than anything in the world. If you had chosen (or choose one day in the future) a non-Jewish partner, neither I nor your Rabbi, Craig Scheff, will officiate under a chuppah with you. The blessings recited and the ritual enacted there contain holiness when they are completed by two people who share the same covenant with God. It is my obligation as a rabbi and also as a Jewish mother to draw the lines of distinction even when they are painful.

And yet I think you know, that if you chose a non-Jewish spouse, I would welcome that person into our family circle and teach him or her to love and respect Judaism. I would hope that with family and community influence, your future home would be a Jewish one. I know that is not easy, but I have seen many examples in my synagogue of non-Jewish partners supporting a Jewish family.

As the texts were buzzing yesterday on my unattended phone, one of the many things I was busy with was taking photographs with a bat mitzvah and her family – her Jewish mom and her non-Jewish dad. I have been attached to this family since the bat mizvah girl’s naming, seeing them through her older brother’s bar mitzvah, the funeral of her grandfather and her own bat mitzvah studies. Her non-Jewish father calls me his rabbi and I consider him my congregant.

In between the snapping of photos on the bimah, I shared with them the conversation that was going on in social media and with my family. My bat mitzvah’s mother said to me: “I know that as a rabbi you could not have married my husband and me, but as a person, you would have wanted to.”
She said that because she knows how much I respect and cherish her family. But as I thought about it last night, she was not actually correct. As a person and as a rabbi,  I cannot officiate at a Jewish wedding ceremony if both people are not Jewish.

I do not think that I will change my mind even if some rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly move toward officiating at some kind of interfaith wedding ceremony.

My job as a rabbi is to build relationship. It is also to protect a sacred obligation to the holiness of my particular religion. I know that it is possible to be a rabbi to interfaith families, to welcome interfaith couples and to raise their children as Jewish in my synagogue community. I am willing to continue asking questions and hearing the stories of real people. That is my calling.

A wedding is a sacred moment in time, but a marriage is for a lifetime. As a rabbi, in relationships where one partner is not Jewish, I won’t be under the chuppah, but I will be there for the marriage.

Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Spiritual fathers

Rabbi Henry Sosland came to the New City Jewish Center in 1958 straight out of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 2005, after 47 years serving the community, Rabbi Sosland retired to emeritus status. Visiting him this past week with my father, I was reminded of his gentle manner, his amazing recall for names, and the subtle ways in which he empowered, encouraged, inspired and taught me. People tend to mention his name softly, with deep veneration, respect and fondness. I am blessed to call him my rabbi and teacher, and I hope my chosen path has brought him a measure of pride and nachas.


When I entered rabbinical school in 1992, one of my main personal and professional goals was to find the kind of community upon ordination in which I would want to settle down, raise a family, build a career, and retire after 40 years of service. What I could not anticipate then was the great contentment, satisfaction and perspective that would come with sharing with families the cycles of life, from births to death, with so many celebrations in between; the great anticipation of standing under a chuppah for a bride I named when she was a baby; the sadness that would accompany the many losses I have felt so personally yet often carried so privately; the deep familiarity and connection I would enjoy with individuals and families; the pride I would derive from a community that strives to learn, grow, raise the bar for itself and others, and constantly take on new initiatives and challenges while preserving the tradition at our core; the joy upon hearing that one of my students had chosen for himself a career in the rabbinate (thanks, Ben!).


Last night, our OJC community approved the terms of a new contract that will extend my tenure here to 2030. I am so grateful to this community for its professional and personal trust and support, for the mutual respect and love we share. God willing, we’ll reach that year as a community in good health; I’ll be 65, I’ll have served the synagogue 35 years, with my goal of 40 years in the same pulpit in sight.


Our Talmud teaches that one who has taught Torah to another is credited with having given them life. That renders the teacher a spiritual parent. So as Father’s Day approaches, I thank all my teachers–my “spiritual parents”–but especially Rabbi Sosland, for sharing his Torah, for inspiring me to follow in his path. And I pray that I will have the privilege to be considered spiritual parent to many students of Torah in my lifetime.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

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