Developing our own Holiness Code, by Jordan Dashow

APRIL 27, 2015

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to deliver the following words before the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism at the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience:

When I discovered that this week’s parsha would be Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, the irony was not lost on me. Here I was, the one openly gay male staff member at the RAC, asked to give a d’var Torah on a parsha that includes one of the Biblical verses most often quoted by people who justify their homophobia with religion; Leviticus 18:22 “V’et zachar lo tishkav mishk’vey eeshah toeyvah hee—do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman it is an abomination.”

Once I got past the irony of the situation, however, I realized how truly remarkable this situation is: on the same week that we read the Holiness Code and one of the most famous religious texts used to justify homophobia, you are all here listening to an openly gay man giving a d’var Torah and tomorrow you will all be attending a session on LGBT equality featuring the first openly gay CCAR president. This moment is possible thanks to the choices Reform Judaism has made over the decades and the values that we cherish.

This parsha presents us with many choices, as we decide which of the many values and commandments to prioritize. Will we put to death a child who curses their parents, as Leviticus 20:9 commands us, or will we recognize that we are all meant to be holy, as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:2? Will we avoid wearing wool and linen as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:19, or will we purchase items with mixed fabrics when they are the only ethically produced option, as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:13 to deal fairly with laborers? Will we condemn gay and bisexual men because Leviticus 18:22 states that sex between two men is forbidden, or will we extend the basic rights to one another and learn to love our neighbors as ourselves as we are commanded in Leviticus 19:18?

We are here today because we have chosen to prioritize the Jewish ideals of equality, justice, and tikkun olam when interpreting our texts. We are here today thanks to the legacy of the resolutions passed before us that paved the way for the social justice work that the RAC, our rabbis, and our congregations do throughout the year. And we are here today to expand upon that legacy by discussing and voting on new resolutions in order to expand our social justice work to reflect the pressing social justice and political issues of our time.

We are here at a time of successes and setbacks. We have seen huge gains in the past year for some of our priority issues. This past November, Massachusetts voters passed paid sick days and voters in Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota voted to raise the minimum wage. Last month, the Administration submitted its plan to the U.N. to cut U.S. carbon emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025. And in two days, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the freedom to marry, potentially paving the way for the justices to finally close the chapter in one of the fights for LGBT equality.

But as we see progress in some areas, we also see setbacks in others. Around the country, legislatures continue to restrict peoples’ ability to access safe, legal and affordable abortions. Hate crimes against minorities continue to persist, including recent anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses. And time after time, we hear about the killing of black Americans by law enforcement.

Two steps forward, one step back. Just as it seems like our country is heading in the right direction because of progress in some of our issue areas, we see setbacks in others. We know what overarching values guide our Movement. We know how to respond to these successes and setbacks. Yet often times, it seems like our country is still grappling to define its values. And that is why now, more than ever, it is important for us to raise a moral voice on the pressing political issues of our time.

The reason the section of Leviticus that we read this week is called the Holiness Code is because of its repeated use of the word kadosh, holy. In this week’s parsha, God states that k’dushim t’hyu, you – in the plurality — shall be holy. But what would it mean not just for us as a community or a people to be holy but for our country to be holy?

Leviticus 19:14 commands us not to insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind, but what would it mean for our country to do this? Surely, it would not mean our current system of disability benefits, in which many people cannot obtain those benefits if they have more than $2,000 in assets. Surely, it would not mean our current reality in which disability benefit recipients are about to face a 20% cut in the benefits they rely on if Congress doesn’t act in the next year. A holy country, based on the ideals in Leviticus 19:14 would be a country where people with disabilities are empowered to live independently and be economically secure. It would be a country where people with disabilities aren’t othered but rather welcomed to participate fully in all facets of life.

In the Holiness code, we are also commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, yet we do not see these values reflected in our country. Instead, our current immigration system is one where families are torn apart and immigrants are vilified. Our current system is one of nondiscrimination protections—or lack thereof—where the majority of states lack explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. Our current criminal justice system is one that disproportionately incarcerates people of color. Imagine a country where all people are truly treated equally. Where we do not just have legal equality but lived equality. That is a holy country. That is the country we must work to create.

As we read and reflect on Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, some of the values it expresses will ring true to us today, such as love thy neighbor as thyself. Others, such as the prohibition on gay sex, will appear outdated and contrary to our Jewish values. From the beginning of this Reform Jewish Movement, we have been interpreting the values set forth in this parshah and creating our own social justice code through our resolutions and work to repair the world. Through these resolutions and our social justice work, we have set forth our own interpretations of what it means today to be holy and to create a holy country. I look forward to joining you all in continuing to enhance our code in the coming days, as we seek to further strengthen our guidelines on how to create a more just and holy world.

‘How Moses Dealt with Life’s Disappointments’ – Sermon 8/8/2014

This week’s Torah portion is all about Moses –

  • Moses pleads with God to let him enter the Land of Israel with the people, but God once more refuses his request.
  • Moses orders the Children of Israel to pay attention and follow the laws given by God in order to be worthy of the land they are about to receive.
  • Moses recalls the covenant at Sinai and the Ten Commandments. Once again, Moses urges the people to heed God’s commandments.
  • Moses recites the Sh’ma, and commands Israel to show their love for Adonai and keep God’s laws and ordinances.
  • Moses warns the people not to commit idolatry by worshiping the gods of the nations they will conquer in Israel.

Moses is one of greatest figures in Judaism. He is a great leader, thoughtful, persuasive, pious and humble.  He is successful in leading the Israelites out of Egypt. He parts the Red Sea. He receives the Ten Commandments. He converses with God.

He is also imperfect. He is flawed as a leader and as a man. He knows disappointments and failures and loss of respect.  He feels discomfort and uncertainty in leading his people in the desert for 40 years. And every step of the way, they were critical and ungrateful. And after the Golden Calf incident, he was frustrated, angry and unappreciated. There was family tension. He was not allowed into the Promised Land. How did he deal with these setbacks? These are discussed by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book, ‘Overcoming Life’s Disappointments.’ He uses Moses as a case study in coping with the failures and unfulfilled dreams which are part of all of our lives. Resiliency is gained by possessing traits such as the following:

  1. Wisdom and insight – to recognize that continuous happiness is not realistic. We should expect ups and downs.
  2. Perseverance/persistence – Moses approached Pharaoh ten times, repeating “Let my people go” each time.
  3. Resilience – the concept that it’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up.
  4. Forgiveness
  5. Trust, faith in the future – ‘This too shall pass.’
  6. Humility – Recognition of greater power and greater mission. None of us are God, and it is not our job or responsibility to run the world. Moses realized that he was just one of God’s many servants, as are all of us.
  7. Strong value system – keeping priorities and desires in check. For example, here’s my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.

Calvin: “If you could have anything in the world right now, what would it be?

Hobbes: “Hmmm…A sandwich.”

Calvin: “A sandwich?!! What kind of stupid wish is that? Talk about a failure of imagination! I’d ask for a trillion billion dollars, my own space shuttle, and a private continent!”

Hobbes (eating a sandwich): “I got my wish.”

  1. Manage expectations – If you can’t get over it, at least get through it. You can’t be everything to everybody. Moses was the right person for the exodus and desert, but not necessarily for leadership in the Promised Land. We all have limitations.

In confronting Life’s challenges, realize that sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God lets the storm rage and calms the frightened child. Sometimes God makes the problem go away, but more often God leaves the problem there but He gives us the strength and the resourcefulness to deal with a problem that won’t go away. And He keeps us company so we don’t have to face our problems alone.


The King’s Jewel:

A king once had a prized jewel, an exquisite diamond. As he held it to the light, perfection glinted from every of its luminous facets. This gem, he felt, would be the crown jewel in his magnificent crown. One morning the king awoke, and upon taking out his precious treasure he found, much to his dismay, that there was a single thin crack descending down its face.

The greatest jewelers were called to look at the stone in the hopes of fixing it, but nothing could be done—the crack ran so deeply down the face of the diamond that any effort to remove it would further ruin it. Finally, one jeweler, a simple man from one of the neighboring villages, stepped forward. He would save the diamond, he claimed.

The king laughed. The greatest craftsmen in the world had seen the gem, and deemed it hopeless; how could this simple jeweler hope to do anything? Seeing, though, that there was nothing to lose, the king informed the jeweler that he could spend a single night with the diamond. If he managed to fix it, then he would see great reward. If, however, he did not succeed, a bitter lot awaited him.

Locked in his room, the jeweler took a long look at the stone. It was truly magnificent, sparkling like the fire of the sun on the surface of the water. And the crack, however thin, could not be removed without destroying the precious crown jewel in the process. What could be done?

The next morning, the jeweler came out with the stone in hand, a look of triumph on his face. When he produced the gemstone, the entire royal court—the queen, the ministers, even the jester—erupted in an uproar. The scratch had not been removed; it remained in its place. The jeweler had instead etched a rose, the symbol of the kingdom, on the face of the diamond, turning the crack into its stem.

The king stood up from his throne and embraced the simple jeweler. “Now, I truly have my crown jewel!” he said. “The diamond was magnificent until now, the best I had ever seen. It was, however, no different than any other stone. Now, though, I have a truly unique treasure!”


From work to health to marriage and family, no one gets everything he or she expects out of life. We are overlooked for a promotion, we get sick, we have marital and family ‘issues.’ It’s Life. Rather than letting unexpected setbacks defeat us, let’s try to follow the example of Moses, who demonstrated resilience in spite of misfortune.  In the end, we can use the pieces of our broken dreams and expectations to produce a beautiful mosaic which we call our lives. “Life is tough,” says Rabbi Kushner, “let’s be strong enough not to be broken by it.”

‘Words’ – sermon by Marlene Plotnick

D’Varim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

click here for cartoon: family circus

This Family Circus cartoon hit home since this Shabbat’s parashah and the entire 5th book of the Torah are called “Words,” Devarim.  Moses uses the power of words to bridge the spans of time, to promote self-esteem, to encourage and to affirm commitments made. This section includes a review of the lifetime of Moses and events taking place within that time. These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of Jordan in Deuteronomy.  Words can shape our lives. Moses uses words to bridge generations. He uses words to encourage rather than point out any shortcomings. He reminds us that children are a product of their parent’s legacies. Moses becomes a storyteller retelling the story of the past 40 years of Exodus before Joshua leads the Israelites.

“People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell,” said Elie Wiesel. Stories are important in our lives, especially to children. Stories are told through words, deeds, values and actions. As we pass these stories from one generation to another, or L’dor v’dor, we are teaching our children valuable lessons. When I am teaching the children in Sunday School the first thing we do to start class is to have Jewish Show and Tell.  The children share anything about being Jewish.. We also have a Jewish Journal to write in each week, which they also share by reading aloud.  The topic is usually about a particular Jewish holiday, Jewish event in their lives or whatever else Jewish topic is decided upon.

Stories are also told through pictures as well as the written word. My parents always had their den filled with family photos. As it turns out Jay and I do the same thing. If you look in our den you will see many family photos of the past and the present. This is our pictorial history that keeps memories alive. Connections can be made from generation to generation or l’dor v’dor at work.

Words are powerful. They can give us positive or negative messages. I have a daily calendar that most of the time has positive/good words or ideas to think about for that day. Some examples are – ‘Good things come to those who bake.’ Another is by Paul Cezanne-‘We live in a rainbow of colors.’  ‘Never, never give up’ by Winston Churchill, and ‘Believe in Yourself’ to name a few.

When a child draws a picture and tells about it we should write down what they have said. As a reading teacher I know the power of words is strong even at an early age. Seeing their own words in print under their drawing is a first step to becoming literate.  The gift of telling stories whether it be our own stories or those we read is providing our children with a piece of history. I read to the Sunday School students from a different book each year. Ike and Mama and the 7 Surprises by Carol Snyder was a wonderful book about a Bar Mitzvah boy with limited pictures. Last year I read Number The Stars by Lois Lowry  again with limited pictures  . This book was about a 10 year old girl and her family in Denmark who helped Jewish people during the time of the Nazis. This year I will be reading Anne Frank- a graphic biography by Sid  Jacobson and   Ernie Colon.  Telling, reading or drawing pictures then adding the words gives our children and families ownership.   The Torah gives us this valuable gift of telling stories through words.

“Illness, Health, and the Mi Shebeirach” sermon by Dr. Jonathan Hertz

Shabbat Shahlom. I think of us love the word “simcha.” We like to detail and celebrate our happiest occasions together. This comes up from time to time with announcements at Shabbat services. Most of us have been services where congregants stand and recite their simcha’s from the prior week. I discussed this practice with Cantor Sussman who told me the tradition is rooted in our abiding sense of community as a Jewish people. Yes, we do celebrate together on Shabbat.

Yet, I think a more compelling and sensitive part of the Shabbat service is the Mi shi barrach. We say a prayer and a blessing for those family and friends who are struggling and seriously ill, those in need of support and encouragement for physical, emotional, spiritual healing. I would suggest that our role and responsibility to help those in our community in need is more significant and far more difficult and nuanced, than announcing our simcha’s. As someone who’s had a career in healthcare for 35 years, I thought that I, along with my medical colleagues, knew a lot about reaching out to others who might be ill. Last year I had a real comeuppance. I became sick with a tough health problem–I couldn’t hold my head up because of a localized muscle weakness in the back of my neck. It impacted my family, my job, my life.

One of the things that most surprised me was the haphazard way friends, medical colleagues and even mere acquaintances responded to my health problem–some were exceedingly attentive and supportive; others, almost inexplicably, were inappropriate or just avoided me and my issues like the plague. The word on the street and in my office was, “Let’s leave Jonathan alone, let’s respect his privacy; give him some space.” I was at once astounded and baffled. On the other hand, another individual whom I had know from a distance for 30 years, but had not talked to in the last ten, suddenly called me one weekday night in the dead of winter. “Jonathan, I was so sorry to hear you were struggling. I am so sorry it took so long for me to call. Let’s get together.” We met at Starbucks a few weeks later–mostly small talk, but I was blown away.

Last January, I came across a column in the New York Times by David Brooks which resonated for me. This particular column was titled “The Art of Presence.” It reflects on the thoughts and feelings of a family that had undergone an awful double trauma involving two daughters in their 20’s. Eventually, the family posted a blog about where, when, and how they got help and sustenance from others. Their tragedies were of a different magnitude compared to my issues, but I thought there were some common themes that made sense to me. The family made pointed suggestions about how to help those of us in need, those of us who have undergone a trauma or suffered a serious illness.

1) “Do be there. Some people think that those who experienced trauma or illness need space to sort through things. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence.” I recently attended a lecture as part of the TSS continuing ed series by Dr. Ira Byock who is a physician specializing in palliative care at the Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center. Dr. Byock commented that we human beings are “hard-wired” to relate and communicate with each other. Therefore, be present; be supportive. Absence comes across as indifference.

2). “Don’t compare, ever.” Don’t say, “I understand what you’re going through.” “Even if the comparison seems germane, don’t make it. Each trauma and illness should be respected in its uniqueness. Comparisons can sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.”

3) Do bring chicken soup. The nonverbal expressions and gestures of caring and support can be very meaningful and lasting. Those of us who have been helped by our TSS Mitzvah Corp can attest to this.

4) Do not say “you’ll get over it” or provide false hopes or “unfounded optimism.” I personally was told “you have great doctors”; “you’ve certainly done everything you can to help yourself”; “sounds like you’re getting better.” These comments come across as trite and dismissive of the illness, the trauma. They can be hurtful.

5) “Do be a builder, as opposed to a firefighter.” Firefighters arrive at a time of crisis, lend assistance and then depart. Builders are in it to lend support for the duration. I have one colleague who, for the past year, has reliably and predictably stuck his head in my office every few weeks. He looks me in the eye and asks questions: “What’s happening?” “How are you feeling?” “How are you getting by?” He has also reached out to me and given sound, meaningful advice. I will never forget it.

6) “Don’t say ‘it’s all for the best’ or try to make sense out of what has happened.” This can come across as pretentious or callous. You can’t assume or reliably understand what the ill or traumatized person is really going through.

I’d like to quote David Brooks’ summation in his column:

“I’d say that these experiences call for sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness – to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. What seems to be needed here is the art of presence– to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take it’s course. Grant sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.”
Mi Shebeirach
May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal those who are ill. May God be filled with compassion for their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May He swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit.

And lastly, may we too be given the wisdom and sensitivity, to help family, friends and colleagues in real need. And let us say “amen.”