From Rabbi Lieberman

  • Purim: An All-Too Believable Story For our Time

    Posted ‍‍כט שבט ה תשעז - February 25, 2017 By in Rabbi's Thoughts, Uncategorized With | Comments Off

    achashveroshPreparing to write this column for the month in which we celebrate the holiday of Purim, I engaged in a fascinating and painful Google search. I entered “Purim + Trump” in the search box and was quickly led to dozens of articles scattered across the Internet, virtually all of which were from the spring of 2016, pre-dating Donald Trump’s election.

    Most of the columns drew broad comparisons between Trump and Ahasuerus (the Persian King in the Book of Esther) or between Trump and Haman (the King’s virulently anti-Semitic vizier.) None of the writers could dare to imagine that, in March of 2017, we might be anticipating the White House kitchen staff baking a batch of hamantaschen for the President’s Jewish daughter and her family. Just as the Book of Esther tells a tale that defies belief, there is something quite incredible about what has come to pass in the United States.

    What some of the writers got right back in 2016, however, was their assessment of Donald Trump and traits that he shared with King Ahasuerus. Writing in The Forward, Jay Michaelson noted: “[...] Ahasuerus isn’t quite a fool; he, like Trump, is a violent demagogue concerned with his own aggrandizement and power [...] Ahasuerus is also maniacally focused on his own power. When Vashti, one of his wives, fails to appear [...] at his command, the sycophant Memuchan warns the king that she might inspire women across the empire to rebel. So the king banishes her. And of course, Ahasuerus is easily persuaded by Haman that the Jews pose a threat to his rule.”

    Michaelson continues: “But here’s the central point. In some midrashim, Ahasuerus is depicted as even more dangerous than Haman. With Haman, you know what you’re getting. He is a Hitler-like figure who makes no bones about his thirst to murder Jews. Ahasuerus, though, is what gamers of a certain age call “chaotic evil.” You just don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth next. Unlike Haman’s principled evil, there seems to be no principle guiding Ahasuerus’s choices, other than his own fickle whim. His only policy is himself.”

    The first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have revealed the price we, as a nation, are paying for Trump’s whims, his fragile ego and his seemingly insatiable desire for self-aggrandizement. With a white-supremacist Steve Bannon playing the role of Haman to Trump’s Ahasuerus, we are encountering real threats to human rights and to the well-being of those deemed by this administration to be “The Other”: Muslims, LGBTQ people, refugees and immigrants, the disabled, people of color, Jews, etc.

    In his 2016 book The People and The Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, Adam Kirsch writes: “What makes Haman such a frightening figure, and what justifies the inevitable comparison to Hitler, is the way he reveals the seeming security of the Jewish minority to be a fragile illusion.”
    American Jews may not be at the top of the list of minorities feeling threatened, but we should harbor no illusions about our security. We are not as vulnerable as Muslims or people of color, but manifestations of anti-Semitism have spiked dramatically since last November. If there is a “takeaway” from the Purim story it is this: when push came to shove, the Jews of Purim had to stand up for themselves.

    That moral is especially applicable in this 2017 version of the Purim story but with an important addition…we must stand up for each other. If the attacks on liberty and human rights that surface with each new Executive Order are to be resisted, it will happen only through the concerted and sustained efforts of those who cherish the freedoms under siege. As Jews we would do well to pay close attention to the Purim story this year and to heed its warnings that hide just beneath the surface of all the merriment.

    Reb Elias

  • Two powerful images…..

    Posted ‍‍כו טבת ה תשעז - January 24, 2017 By in Rabbi's Thoughts, Uncategorized With | Comments Off

    inclusion1Since 2009, North American Jewish Communities have been celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness Month in February. Now known as Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), it is an opportunity to celebrate our commitment to removing barriers, celebrating diversity and connecting with our Jewish values, the most fundamental of which speaks of our obligation to recognize, in every human being, the image of the Divine.

    Anticipating JDAIM this year. I reflected on two powerful images that I encountered over the course of the past six months, one conjuring exclusion and derision, the other inclusion and respect.

    There first was memorably described by Meryl Streep when she accepted a Golden Globe Award in January of this year. Streep said, “There was one performance this year that stunned me,” [...] “It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.

    “It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.”

    Streep was referring to Trump’s remarks during the campaign, when he appeared to mock New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, which visibly limits the functioning of his joints.

    “And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” the actress said.

    The other image is a simple but eloquent one, a photo I found on a website on Jewish perspectives on disability and inclusion that depicted a Chanukah dreidel with Braille letters, enabling those without sight to join in the game. It’s message is the polar opposite of the image conjured up by Meryl Streep and which is burned into my memory.

    Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month is an annual event because we need continual reminding of our sacred obligations towards others who are differently-abled. This obligation begins with every of us, extends to our family and friends, our community, our nation and the world of difference in which we live out our lives. If we cannot look to our leaders to serve as role models, then our responsibility is even greater to help create a society that champions inclusion and meaningful support for people with disabilities.

    Reb Elias

  • To the New Year

    Posted ‍‍יב טבת ה תשעז - January 10, 2017 By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off

    golden-circle-new-year-vintage-background_1017-6008To the New Year
    W. S. Merwin

    With what stillness at last
    you appear in the valley
    your first sunlight reaching down
    to touch the tips of a few
    high leaves that do not stir
    as though they had not noticed
    and did not know you at all
    then the voice of a dove calls
    from far away in itself
    to the hush of the morning

    so this is the sound of you
    here and now whether or not
    anyone hears it this is
    where we have come with our age
    our knowledge such as it is
    and our hopes such as they are
    invisible before us
    untouched and still possible

    [From Present Company, Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Copyright © 2005]

    The last stanza of Merwin’s poem offers such a potent image to carry into the new year– ”hopes [....] untouched and still possible”. Leaving behind a year in which so many precious hopes were sullied beyond recognition or simply obliterated beneath the weight of disturbing new realities, it is so important to renew our commitment to birthing new, untouched hopes and to nurture them to maturity.

    In his speech addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2004, President Barack Obama said: “In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? [... ] I’m not talking about blind optimism here — the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. No, I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; [...]the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”

    Twelve years later we are called upon to exercise that very same audacity, to generate hope and, from a foundation of hope, to address the many challenges awaiting us in 2018 and beyond.

    Reb Elias

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