Rediscover All That Is Beautiful

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The news these days is so heavy. It fills our lives with negativity and prevents us from noticing the blessings that do surround us. In this way, while we are not living under the crushing power of Pharaoh, we are much like the ancient Israelites we read about in the Torah this Shabbat.

The Israelites, so overwhelmed by years of oppression in Egypt, have lost the ability to see beyond their own pain. They fail to see that God, manifested in the power of nature, remains a part of their lives. And so, God does not free the Israelites from slavery by sending just one plague to undermine Pharaoh and his armies. God sends ten plagues, hardening Pharoah’s heart whenever a plague weakens the Egyptian leader’s resolve to keep the Israelites enslaved. God could have insured the Israelites freedom a lot more quickly, but realized that our ancestors needed a miraculous, divine show – ten plagues – to reignite the Israelites’ ability to be amazed by this world.

Today, as a result of all of the chaos in the world, many of us have lost the ability to see the good stuff in life. Like the Israelites, we need a miraculous, divine show to reignite our ability to be amazed by this world – to refocus our attention away from all that is broken and toward things that remind us that the world is still filled with beauty. Fortunately for us and the people around us, we don’t need ten plagues to open up our eyes to the miracles that surround us. However, we do need a wake-up call – because many of the miracles that surround us are in danger of disappearing if we fail to appreciate them.

An article in yesterday’s USA Today (http://goo.gl/Anc3tz) highlighted seven of the world’s natural wonders – one of them being right in our own back yard – the Everglades and another being in Israel – the Dead Sea. Stressing the fact that we are, like the Israelites, incapable of appreciating these wonders, the article describes how modern plagues that have been brought about by our own hands are threatening the existence of these wonders. Urban development, limited water flow, illegal/industrial logging, deforestation, illegal wildlife trade, war, changes in the global climate, agricultural and industrial pollution are just some of the plagues that could obliterate spectacular beauty from our midst.

Tu B’Shevat – our celebration of nature – falls on February 4th. It serves as the annual Jewish wake-up call – imploring us to focus on the world’s beauty, reminding us that we are responsible for maintaining this beauty. If we don’t stop to appreciate and pay attention to the natural wonders around us, if we allow ourselves to focus only on the negative stuff that pervades our life, we will lose these treasures and, in turn, lose important reminders that, despite the chaos in this world, God still dwells among us.

This Shabbat, I hope each of us finds the time to go outside, look up at the sky, appreciate the trees, the birds, the sunshine and appreciate how amazing it all is. May we be inspired by the world around us and may we prepare for Tu B’Shevat by doing what we can to protect what inspires us.

What Would Dr. King Say…

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This weekend, as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, the outrage surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Officer Rafael Ramos and Officer Wenjian Liu continues to elicit powerful emotions across our country.  Reports indicate that the late civil rights leader’s birthday will be marked by numerous protests where crowds will chant “Black Lives Matter”, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “We Can’t Breathe!”  What would the great civil rights leader say if he attended these protests on his 86th birthday?  What passionate words of wisdom would he have to share that could help us all come together to heal and grow as a nation?  If only he could speak to us now.

If he were here with us, I know Dr. King would focus our attention on how we can and must stand up to injustice not by inflicting violence on others, but, as Dr. King said, by securing “moral ends through moral means”.   He would tell us that we must stand up for ourselves but in a non-violent way.   “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon,” said Dr. King. “Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”

If Dr. King were here with us, I can’t help but think that he would speak about the horrific events in France, paying specific attention to the four Jews who were killed.  I imagine Dr. King looking into the crowd before him, into the television cameras focused on him and speaking directly to the Jewish community, saying words similar to those he spoke in 1958 as he stood before the American Jewish Congress:

My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.

If Dr. King were speaking to us on Monday, he would, with great passion,  tell all who listened that “Jewish Lives Matter Too”.  He would look into our eyes and explain that those who stood on the other side of the terrorist’s gun in Paris, they too exclaimed: “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!”  And Dr. King, using his tremendous oratorical skills, would preach the painful truth that as the four Jews were killed in the kosher market in Paris, they too might very well have uttered “I Can’t Breathe!”

If Dr. King were with us on his birthday, I know he would shock many listening to him as he would proudly stand up for Israel and against anyone who had the audacity to attack the Jewish State.  In the run-up to the Six Day War in 1967, while many in the civil rights movement strongly supported the Arab world, Dr. King told President Johnson, in a letter published in The New York Times, that the United States must support Israel.  He practiced what he preached, telling those who disparaged the Jewish State exactly what he thought of them.  In 1968, responding to a student who attacked Zionism, Dr. King exclaimed: “Don’t talk like that! When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!”

Oh how I wish Dr. King was with us now.  Not only because I believe that his wisdom is so needed by those leading the protests in memory of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and those who are outraged by the murder of Officers Ramos and Liu, but also because the American Jewish community desperately needs one of his rousing sermons to yank our heads out from the sand and come face to face with the harsh reality that we need to act.

Dr. King so eloquently preached:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.  This is our hope, and this is the faith.

Over the past week we have sadly been handed horrific proof that shows us what the experts have been saying for some time now: European anti-semitism is surging.  We have been taught to believe “Never Again”.  This is our hope, our dream.  But, with European Jewish leaders telling us that these are the worst times for Jews since the Nazis, “Again” seems like a frightening possibility.  The attack against the French Jewish community was not a shock to anyone who has been following the hatred and violence directed against the Jews of France and other European nations.  How sad is that?  We the people who say “Never Again!” were not shocked.  We saw it coming.  So why haven’t we done anything?   In 2012, when four Jews, including three children were killed at a French school, where was the global Jewish outrage?  In 2013, when a French rabbi and his son were stabbed near their synagogue, where was our “Jewish Lives Matter” campaign?  Last summer as synagogues were firebombed and Jews were attacked in France in response to Israel’s war against Hamas, where were the Jews who put it all on the line and got arrested in New York City while holding up “I Can’t Breathe” signs?

Where are we?  Where is our passion for our people?  What has happened to our dream of “Never Again”?

If Dr. King were here with us, he would not allow the overwhelming silence of the Jewish community to go unnoticed.  I imagine him asking us:

What happened to the hope of  Anne Frank who wrote “If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example.”

Did you lose the courage embraced by Elie Wiesel who said: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Silence encourages the tormentor.”

Are you afraid to act like Simon Wiesenthal who taught: “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”  

What has happened to the Jewish People?

Dr. King, the Jewish people desperately need you to inspire us, to remind us that “Never Again” is possible; to remind us that we must be an example because we were doomed yet we survived; to remind us that we must take sides and support our own; to remind us that doing nothing does nothing good.

We need you, Dr. King, to remind us as you so powerfully put it:

[We]were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for [us] in Europe…We must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.  We cannot turn back….we are not satisfied and we will never be satisfied until “justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like a might stream.”  

We need you Dr. King to remind us that we are not satisfied until “Never Again” means “NEVER AGAIN”.  We need you to remind us that:

We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords…into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

Yes, Dr. King, we need you to remind us that we must act together in bold, yet peaceful ways, to teach the world that indeed, Jewish Lives Matter.  While some in the larger community need you to remind them of the power of non-violence, we in the Jewish community need you to remind us that we must act.  As we enter Shabbat and prepare to remember you and your legacy, may your memory remind us of the incredible power we have to stand up to hatred and may we all have the courage to embrace this power and use it to make our dream a reality.

First They Came For The Jews…

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Last summer, the synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods in France came under attack.  Beginning as demonstrations against Israel, the animosity quickly spread into what some called the Paris Intifada.  Hundreds of mostly Arab and North African youths stormed through the streets screaming “Death to Israel”, “Death to Jews” and “Hitler Was Right”!  Jewish stores were burned down, synagogues were attacked (one was firebombed) and Jews were physically harmed.  

This vehement anti-semitism was not new to the Jews of France.  For many years now, French Jews have been threatened, hurt and even murdered by the same extremist elements that lead this week’s on-going terrorist attacks in France.  Feeling that their lives are in danger, over the past three years 20,000 French Jews have moved to Israel and one survey suggest that almost 3/4 of the remaining French Jews are considering leaving France.

As I read and listen to the media coverage of this week’s horrific on-going terrorist attacks, the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller (posted above), a German anti-Nazi religious leader, immediately came to mind.

Anyone who claims to be shocked by the on-going terrorist attacks in Paris has had their head in the sand.  The Jews, well, our heads were ripped out of the sand long ago.  We know all too well the hatred that exists out there.  While we begin 2015 praying for peace and an end to hatred and violence, let’s also pray that this week’s brutal attacks wake up those who have been slumbering, those who were feeling removed from the terror that is infecting our world.  May those who have just woken up join with those of us who have been wide awake for some time now and together may we find the strength to stand up to extremism and bring about tikun olam (healing of the world).

Please keep France and her people in your prayers this Shabbat.