Tag Archives: angels

A VOTE FOR HOMES: AUSTIN IS NOT S’DOM

A Vote for Homes: Austin is not S’dom

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The Sodomites rejected the poor and vulnerable within their midst.
In Austin, we voted to keep and help strengthen our “weaker links” for the sake of justice and righteousness.

Last Tuesday, Election Day, Austin voters passed–by a wide margin (over 60% of the vote)– the city’s “2013 Affordable Housing Bond” proposal,  designating $65 million in general obligation bonds for affordable housing. I am proud to have played a small role in supporting the “Keep Austin Affordable” campaign and want to believe that the Jewish community played its part in responding as concerned citizens to the needs of the poorest in our midst who are in constant danger of being priced out of town. Last month, in the run-up to the election, my congregation, Kol Halev, hosted my friend, local activist and Jewish community-member, Isabelle Headrick, executive director of Accessible Housing Austin!, who spoke to us about the proposition and the importance of vigorously addressing Austin’s housing crisis.

I introduced Isabelle to the congregation by way of that week’s Torah portion, Vayera, in which we witness three relevant events. First, we see Abraham’s immense hospitality to three visitors, the proverbial opening by Abraham and Sarah of their tent, a reminder about the moral goodness inherent in providing shelter–without our knowing their full story–to those who, even temporarily, are homeless. We then jump to the scene in S’dom (usually rendered in English as “Sodom”), where selfishness and intolerance reign and the arrogant hoarding of resources and subjugation of the vulnerable translates, symbolically, into the literal attempted rape of these same travelers. Contrary to the common Christian emphasis on the story, the Jewish view was never about anything sexual but about the violent rejection of the stranger.

This excellent article, “The New Sodomites,” by Aryeh Cohen and David Waskow, from way back in a 1997 issue of Tikkun, spells out the critical moral lessons of the story as they appear throughout the history of Jewish exegesis. While the authors cover several different social issues and are directly responding to President Clinton’s “disastrous” efforts at welfare reform, their overall analysis of the way American society has lost its direction in terms of addressing the widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots” remains terribly relevant, and much of their discontent with the legislation they discuss appears to have been horrifically prescient:

[W]e will continue to suffer from the substantial gap between givers and receivers, who will each remain suspicious of a welfare system that deprives them of human connection. And that gap will be precisely the political opening needed by those who benefit economically from an eviscerated welfare system and the subsequent expanding disparity in income between the rich and poor. They will use the need for reshaped welfare paradigms as an excuse for what has become the central political practice of today – the demand that we keep what is ours and force others to get what is theirs.

Yet, right before this gloomy prophecy, the authors offer some thoughts about how what was clearly already a broken welfare system could be reconstructed in ways that would address the core problems:

[W]e may need to develop new models for welfare that reflect the truly civic nature of tzedakah as it was understood by the rabbis – for whom a sense of connection among a city’s dwellers was more palpable than it is for us. Perhaps in our era – when writing checks is so easy and giving to the homeless on the street often so difficult – we need a model of mutual responsibility that demands direct encounters between giver and recipient.

As Cohen and Waskow make clear throughout their article, the model we need to destroy is the one embodied by the citizens of S’dom. It is clear that those who seek to simply increase the divide between rich and poor through neglect and a proverbial “closing of doors” are actually doing much worse: they are figuratively breaking down the fragile and unsustainable walls of shelter in which the homeless seek refuge–and the result is a metaphoric raping of the destitute. It is these selfish members of our society who are the “new Sodomites.”

In our story, the unsustainable refuge of the homeless visitors to S’dom is inside the house of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. They and their host only make it out alive because of their own supernatural intervention (they are described both as men and angels and are not ordinary human beings). In our case, we know that we cannot rely on miracles and need to take action to overturn the Sodomy that is so rampant in our society. We need to take our own action, like that which Cohen and Waskow recommend above, to create new forms of connection and repair in our cities–so that rich and poor alike can live safely within our municipal borders. The fictitious Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller’s character in Keeping the Faith), offered his own dismissal of the misunderstood sexual emphasis on the S’dom story in favor of one celebrating human kindness and communal care:

JAKE: But seriously, what is the story of Sodom and 
Gomorrah really about? - Anybody. Steve Posner.

STEVE: Sexual perversion.

JAKE: Sexual perversion. Steve Posner's watching a little 
too much Spice Channel, okay. ...
And Lot takes them in and he protects them. What happens 
next? Anybody. Greta Nussbaum, before she pulls her rotator 
cuff.

GRETA: God spares Lot and his family.

JAKE: Bingo! Two-week cruise for Greta! You're goin' to the 
Bahamas! You know, when you think about it...God is a lot
like Blanche Du Bois. He's always relied on the kindness of
strangers. And that's really what the story is about--it's 
about us taking care of each other. God relies on us to 
take care of each other.

When Isabelle finished speaking to our congregation, I took us back to the critical interlude that occurs between the hospitality offerings of Abraham and Lot. After the angelic visitors move on from Abraham and make their way towards S’dom, God invites Abraham into a conversation about the plans to destroy the two cities as punishment for their wickedness. What we then learn–even though, ultimately, the cities are not found deserving of being spared because of a lack of a minimal amount of righteous people besides Lot and his family–is that the Torah celebrates the human challenge to Divine policy. We human beings, represented by Abraham, enter into the “legal” system (God, of course, is law-maker, judge, and executive ruler) to challenge its processes and premises. God recognizes that Abraham and his descendants, in keeping the Way of the Divine (derech hashem), are to manifest “righteousness and justice” (tzedakah u’mishpat). Abraham responds to this expectation by calling God out for falling short of those very ideals: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Should the Judge of all the earth not manifest justice? (Gen. 18: 23, 25)” God allows Abraham to influence the approach to the impending situation. The message is clear: We are supposed to challenge injustice wherever we see it, even if it is coming from the Divine. All the more so, when we interact with our fellow human beings, should we be advocating for righteousness and justice in our social policies. And the Torah’s strategic placement of this message makes even clearer that we ought to be especially vigilant about justice when it comes to welcoming the stranger and housing the vulnerable.

My message to my congregation, then, was that this non-partisan bond measure that lay before us–a robust commitment by our city to help build homes, sustainable shelters of safety that secure the wellbeing of the poorer members of our city and allow them to remain our fellow Austinites–was a perfect opportunity for an appropriate political stand by a faith community. I made no endorsement of a candidate or party and acted completely within my prerogative as a rabbi to implore my congregants to vote for the bond. It was a matter of religious commitment to not be like the Sodomites but rather to be like Abraham, a caring and hospitable doer of righteousness and an unflinching advocate for justice.

I am delighted that people of faith from throughout Austin responded similarly to this sacred opportunity to be guardians of the wellbeing of our city, to enable us all to walk the Divine path and uphold universal values of openness, compassion, and opportunity. If you voted for this bond, thank you.

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The Planetary Journey of our Spirits: Turning and Reflecting

Yom Kippur Evening 5772

The planetary journey of our spirits: turning and reflecting

Rabbi Rick Brody
Congregation Kol Halev
Austin, TX

Last week I offered two important approaches to the process of personal renewal and transformation.  One was to embrace a sense of empowerment — that the pen is in our hand and we can write our own book.  I encouraged us to think about the idea of writing our own eulogies, going back over the errors that we’ve already written in our book and finding ways to change moving forward — as we fill in the blank pages of our legacy before it’s too late. I suggested we think of this process as like being on a jury — deliberating — with God on the jury with us — about our own merits and failures.

And the second approach was about having a good attitude — seeing our responsibilities as blessings; seeing ourselves as all-stars, selected by God — because of our infinite worth — to participate in the sacred gathering of these Days of Awe. I quoted John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” — “Who on earth do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are. Well, we all shine on. Like the moons and the stars and the sun.” I reminded us how radiant we can be, and how we can feel that radiance — the sun on the street for the poor cripple in Tsotsi; the light reflecting off the title character in that film who just can’t see it and only sees broken glass; the call in the song “Unwritten” to “open up the dirty window” and “let the sun illuminate the words you could not find.” As I reminded us, all of our encounters with radiance can propel us to new heights, past any obstacle — whether it’s the miraculous, the mundane, or the morbid.

But there’s a little bit of a discrepancy among some of these images and lyrics. Let’s look at the idea of our being stars, of our shining on brightly. We know, scientifically, that there’s something not true about saying we shine on like the moons. Stars and suns shine, yes; but moons and planets don’t radiate their own light. What they do is very instructive for us: They reflect light. The light is not their own. They are vessels of reflection, like pieces of glass. The light comes from beyond, beyond the dirty window. We let it in. And sometimes we allow it to be obscured, to be eclipsed by another vessel that goes from being a reflector of light to a blocker of light. And sometimes we turn away from the light. So much depends on our position — or our point of view.

So, I’d like us to think about ourselves as planets. And not just because of our reflective capacity; but also because of our movement. We are travelers. We are distinct and unique entities engaged in a never-ending journey of turning.  We go round and round, attracted by the pull of something greater, something with so much more energy than we have that we find ourselves building our lives around it.  We are always moving in relation to it, yet are forced to remain at a nonnegotiable distance, at least in the visible short-term. … Although our worlds seem pretty stormy when we examine them up close, from afar it appears that we function with relative regularity and constancy.  We build lives filled with orderly, comforting routines.  On one hand, change seems difficult.  We like maintaining a rather predictable existence.  On the other hand, we realize that, like it or not, we are constantly evolving.  We don’t remain the way we were long ago, but rather continue on our journey of growth and discovery.  We are in motion.  We might wonder sometimes—or perhaps often—if we are ever really getting anywhere, but the fact remains that we are always moving—sometimes only in ways that we can perceive from a distance.  Our journey involves a daily transformation that’s so easy to overlook.  Daily, like the earth on which we live, we turn and return.  We make t’shuvah, the act of returning.

We see this cycle, this turning, with the daily rising and setting of the sun.  But that language suggests what our ancestors actually believed, that the Earth was fixed, in relation to a moving sun, rather than the opposite.  Perspective can be deceiving.  It’s so easy to focus on the movement—or supposed movement—of others, and forget or lose sight of the changes going on within ourselves.  The time then comes to look inward—to become conscious of, and to take responsibility for, personal change.  We need to become the self-conscious planet, embracing the reality of our place and our movement in the universe.  Now is that time.  This is the moment for us to see ourselves as we really are.

To gain this proper perspective of what’s happening within us, we need to step back—we need to see the big picture.  Who are we really in relation to everything and everyone else?  And from this new perspective comes another “revolution,” a different kind of turning—the turning upside down of our outlook on ourselves in the cosmic order.

We reenact on the personal level what the scientific revolution brought about in regard to our understanding of Earth—that we are a planet.  The great truth is unveiled: The universe does not revolve around us.  We are not the center of all Creation.  To go from being the point of universal convergence to being a mere traveler, making the same basic trek as countless others beings, is a revolutionary transformation.  Tomorrow, in our Ne’ilah prayers, in a moment of great humility, we will declare, “What are we?  What is the value of our lives?  Before you, God, the mighty are as nothing, the famous as if they had never been; the wise are without wisdom, the clever without reason.  For most of their deeds are worthless, and their days are like a breath.”

The fasting we engage in this Yom Kippur reinforces for us this humility.  We remember the truth that our lives are not a mere selfish pursuit for physical satisfaction and satiation.  Rather, we’re on a spiritual journey that requires that we constantly evaluate our path, assess where we’re going, and no matter what, continue to move.  Yes, we might have our own sphere of influence.  We might have our own satellites.  We might be exerting an attraction on others who consider us their center; but in the big picture we are a part of a dance of trillions, each of us in motion—each one engaged in its own orbit but around a common center much greater than ourselves.  And we do this as a community of planets. We have our own orbit, but we are not alone. …

Let’s look at one another and see the beauty of all our fellow-travelers, seeing each of us as a planet, clearly established as the only body like it—each of us drawing our circle of exploration—each of us reflecting in a unique way the light that we all share.

So, if the celestial planets are revolving around the sun, then what are we, as spiritual travelers, revolving around?  What is the gravitational power at the center of the circle we draw with our life’s travels, the point that pulls us into motion but that we can’t reach or touch?

For many throughout time, a spiritual center has been the source of nourishing light and warmth.  Even though they didn’t necessarily have their astronomy correct, the ancients were on track spiritually by emphasizing the divine-like qualities that existed within the sun: the constant, radiant source of light and warmth—and thus of life, wisdom, enlightenment—the most powerful gravitational force in our midst.  No wonder that the closest the pagans got to something resembling monotheism was worship of the sun as the premier deity.

We even see some faint remnants of this sun-worship in our own prayers, transformed to focus on an all-powerful God that exists beyond any one aspect of Creation.  In the morning yotzer prayer, we praise God for the creation of light as we behold the sun’s light with a new day—and we also express the hope that God shine a new light on Zion.  We unify the source of physical light with the source of spiritual light—the sun (and other lights in the sky) are but one example in God’s infinite display of might.

The prayer goes even further.  In the middle of it, there is a seemingly bizarre shift from a celebration of light in nature to a spiritual vision of angels encircling the Divine throne and singing praises on high.  Here’s the link:  We first identify the physical lights, the luminaries—m’orot (sun, moon, planets, and stars)—as testaments to God’s glory: Natan s’vivot uzo (God has placed them in a circle around God’s strength).  We say that they declare God’s praises.  M’orei or she’asita (the luminaries you have made) y’fa’arucha sela (they glorify you).  Essentially, we recognize that light-bearing objects are engaged in an orbit—but around God!  Regardless of the physical reality—that the planets, the physical satellites, are satellites around the Earth, the sun, or some other physical object—they are also revolving around a spiritual center that transcends the entire physical realm.  This celestial dance we observe in the physical sky—and which we know that we, on planet Earth, are a part of—is all a tribute to a non-physical power which all these objects are devotedly serving.  Enter the angels.  The prayer shifts almost imperceptibly from discussing the sun and moon that rise and set in their proper times to mentioning the “heavenly host”—s’rafim, v’ofanim, v’chayot hakodesh.  This shift from physical to spiritual allegiance turns us to Isaiah’s prophetic vision of dedicated, constant, angelic beings that repeatedly declare, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts).”  These angels are, essentially, a religious stand-in for the planets.

There’s actually a long history in Jewish folklore and mysticism — and in other religions as well — that celebrates a strong relationship between the planets and angels. In astrology, it was through the planets, whose paths and movements were governed by angels, that angels had influence in our world.  The planets were divine intermediaries.  They determined or foretold of human beings’ fate, while at the same time making their movements through the sky in the honorable service of God.  Their very actions were a tribute to God’s greatness.  In polytheism, of course, the planets actually represented various distinct pagan gods.

Now, if we are planets—or can see in their constancy a model for our own behavior—then so, too, do we seek to emulate the angels.  Especially on Yom Kippur.  Today, we are angels.  We shift ourselves from the physical concerns of food, comfortable clothing, physical cleanliness—and focus on spiritual purity.  We wear all white.  And we declare aloud “Baruch shem k’vod…” the words we usually say silently after the Sh’ma because they are reserved for the angels, who in their spiritual purity, declare God’s holiness in heaven.  Tonight and tomorrow, we say these words.  For this one day, we are angels. This is the day in which, by pretending we are not human but rather angelic, we ultimately get most in touch with our humanity.

And our humanity is dependent upon our recognizing our center. In religious terminology — though we each might choose to understand that center very differently — that center has been called God. Each of us needs to identify that center for ourselves—the organizing principles that enable us to keep moving, the core ideals that keep us striving and growing and in pursuit of something good and meaningful.  When we lose sight of the center, we lose our footing, we stumble; we stray in our orbits.

Most of the time we’re not angelic planets, moving along so orderly in perfect, consistent orbits. That’s a nice wish, and that’s what we’re striving for as we play that angelic role on Yom Kippur. But no, most of the time, we’re much more like the demoted, former-planet Pluto, which fell from grace in the eyes of astronomers. Why did Pluto get demoted? Because it simply didn’t exhibit the same consistent features of the much larger objects that are closer to the sun. We, too, are much smaller, much more removed from the radiance, warmth, and gravitational pull from our center. We are wayward objects with irregular motion.  We sometimes interlope into the orbits of others, like Pluto does with Neptune.

This is all, partly, I think, why so many of us identify with that little underdog chunk of ice at the far reaches of the solar system.  We find ourselves, like this dwarf-planet, terribly distanced from that illuminating center, terribly cold, and seemingly lost.  How many of us are just spinning, with no awareness of the light we can be reflecting, no understanding of what is motivating us, what is pulling us, what is the energy that has its hold on us?  Are we allowing for a relationship with that power, or are we kicking and screaming as we move along?  If the latter, then we might be upsetting—in our spiritual system—that balance that is so orderly in the planetary march of the solar system.  The Hebrew word cheit, sin, actually comes from a term in archery that means, quite plainly, missing the mark. We strayed. We erred. We were out of alignment, out of orbit. We need to realign ourselves with our center, come back from being Pluto to being Earth, positioned in just the right manner so as to promote the flourishing of life.

So, today, to be earthly is to be angelic. For this one day, we are are not mere humans or dwarf-planet ice-chunks. We transcend the physical obstacles that keep us out of orbit. We focus on turning, revolving, and evolving in an orderly fashion so that we can be hosts to life. And we do this as a community, a system, a network of fellow, well-aligned travelers, orbiting consistently yet always in motion, in relation to a spiritual center.

The miracle of Yom Kippur is that we know that God will pull us back into our rightful planetary orbit, if we are open to that realignment, if we do the work to repel the forces that detract us from our proper gravitational pull and that cut us off from the radiant light.  The spiritual reality is that we will never be banished from the community of sacred voyagers, never demoted.  Only our own lack of awareness of the center, our own turning away from the light, will throw us off.  Today is the time to reestablish that connection to the center, to look inside ourselves, find the angel within, find the light from beyond that pierces our depths and that we have the choice to reflect back out into the universe. And with that reflection of light, with that humble response to the gravitational pull that lures us towards the source of that light, we return—make t’shuvah back to our proper orbit.  May we all journey in safety and in joy, in light and in peace.