Tisha B’Av: Transforming Suffering into Love

As Jewish days begin at night (“and it was evening, and it was morning, the first day”), tonight begins Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av. This day commemorates many calamities in Jewish history, including and especially the destruction of both the First (in 586 bce) and Second (in 70 ce) Temples in Jerusalem.

It’s a day of mourning and fasting about the disaster of the destruction, the loss of sovereignty in Israel and the exile of the Jewish people.

With the establishment of the state of Israel, the possibility of Jews to return to our historical homeland, how is Tisha B’Av relevant? Why should we make ourselves uncomfortable for events of the distant past?

The destructions of Jerusalem were cataclysmic events, on the scale of the Holocaust. You can read the heartbreaking descriptions of suffering that people experienced the first time in the Book of Lamentations, which is read in synagogue tonight and tomorrow morning. What does this have to do with today?

I observe the fast because Tisha B’Av invites me to reconnect with the anguish of my people so as to stay aware of the tremendous sufferings of so many people that I might otherwise try to avoid really thinking about. The reason the Torah says over and over again: “remember you were strangers in Egypt” is because “you shall love the stranger as yourself.” The stranger is the most vulnerable member of a community. The memory of our own suffering is to lead us to love and compassion for others.

In my Thursday meditation class, we began to practice tonglen meditation – connecting with our suffering and that of others so that we might transform it to compassion.

Some say that the 2nd Temple was destroyed due to people hating each other for no reason – our time seems to have resonances with the 1st Century. May all our sufferings be eased, may we see each other as friends and not strangers, and may the world grow in kindness.


An Expansive Heart


It is bashert that I was assigned to respond to this portion for my meditation teacher training program, as it has been compelling to me for more than 25 years. The portion  is called Terumah (Offerings) and begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept terumah (gifts/offerings) for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the terumah that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;  blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;  tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;  oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;  lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.  And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it. (Exodus 25:1 – 9)

This portion calls to me: What is my offering? What do I need to bring now? What is the sanctuary that I need to build?

The Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michael Wisser (1809 -1879) interprets

“Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among (or within) them” as in them, the people, not in it, the sanctuary. Each person is to build God a Tabernacle in her own heart for God to dwell in.

For God to dwell, there must be space. The chasidim speak of mochin d’katnut and mochin d’gadlut – the small, or constricted, mind and the large, or expansive, mind. Or, as Jeff Roth says, the “heart-mind.” So often, my heart is constricted, small and tight like a fist, due to fear and distraction. How do I make space in my heart?

In our portion, there is a specific plan for the building of the tabernacle: definite items are needed and there is a precise blueprint. It doesn’t happen only due to people’s intention and willingness, but also through their effort.

I have found that mindfulness practices soften and expand my heart. And the practice needs to be regular, at hand, ready to counter the moment of contraction.

  • When I sit and pay attention to my breath, and check in with the body, the bonds of rigidity loosen.
  • When I bring non-judgmental attention to the sensations, thoughts or emotions that arise, my heart softens.
  • When I do lovingkindness meditation towards those at home or work, my heart opens in love. Sometimes I call upon the practice even during a conversation, if I notice that feelings of frustration, defensiveness, fear or anger or arising.
  • When I remind myself about what is important to me, my perspective broadens. A gospel song from the ‘50s has found its way into the Jewish community (which makes sense, as it’s based on our portion), and reflects my deepest aspiration:

O Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.

And in thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.

וְעָשֹוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם (Exodus 25:8)

V’ah-soo lee mik-dash v’sha-hantee b’to-ham…

  • When I act to build a sanctuary not only in my heart but in my world, to create a safe space for others, I expand my heart beyond myself. I connect to others’ hearts, and together we create space for God.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asked his students “Where is the dwelling of God?” They said: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of God’s glory?!?” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

May our hearts, our lives, and our world be open.



Strangers Among Us, Strangers Are Us

Sara Beltran-Hernandez, 26, from El Salvador, a mother of two young children, was bound by her hands and feet and removed by wheelchair from Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth late Wednesday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who brought her to a detention facility in Alvarado, Texas. She  was awaiting emergency surgery for a brain tumor.

Beltran-Hernandez  was picked up by immigration agents in November 2015 while trying to get from El Salvador to New York to visit her mother and other relatives who live in Queens. She has been detained ever since at the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, while her family petitioned for asylum, citing threats of violence against her, from a domestic partner, among others.

Guadalupe Olivas Valencia threw himself off a bridge on Wednesday.

Valles de Espinoza said she believed her uncle threw himself off the bridge “in desperation over the deportation” because he had had trouble finding work in Mexico.

“He was doing this to take care of his children,” she said. “They were his entire life.”

We read in today’s portion:


20 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 21 You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. 22 If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, 23 and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.


9 You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

According to the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Bava Mezia 59b), the Torah admonishes us about the treatment of strangers no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment is repeated so often.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks taught that to be a Jew is to be a stranger. “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why Abraham is commanded to leave land, home and father’s house; why he is told that his descendants would be “strangers in a land not their own”; why Moses had to suffer personal exile before assuming leadership of the people; why the Israelites underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience – the retelling of the story on Pesach, along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of their collective memory.” Indeed, our memories of bondage and exile are meant to protect us against the impulses of exploitation, oppression, and xenophobia. A history of alienation and slavery, the memories of humiliation and strangeness are meant to prevail against intolerance.

The current president of the United States campaigned on a promise to effect a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  Now he is trying to deter some refugees (many fleeing persecution in Central America), and to ban other refugees (many fleeing persecution in the Middle East), from entering the United States.

On December 2, 1783 – George Washington said: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

How many of the St. Louis — the ship full of refugees turned away from the United States in 1939 and returned to Europe, where most were murdered by the Nazis — would have lived and their stories and lives flourished here if we had welcomed them?

We all know that the Frank children were murdered by the Nazis, but what is less known is the way Anne’s fate was sealed by a callous fear of refugees, among the world’s most desperate people. A volunteer found that plea for help in 2005 when she was sorting old World War II refugee files in New York City. It looked like countless other files, until she saw the children’s names. Along with the letter were many others by Otto Frank, frantically seeking help to flee Nazi persecution and obtain a visa to America, Britain or Cuba — but getting nowhere because of global indifference to Jewish refugees…

Some object: But Jews weren’t a threat the way Syrian refugees are! In the 1930s and ’40s, though, a world war was underway and Jews were widely seen as potential Communists or even Nazis. There were widespread fears that Germany would infiltrate the U.S. with spies and saboteurs under the cover that they were Jewish refugees.

“When the safety of the country is imperiled, it seems fully justifiable to resolve any possible doubts in favor of the country, rather than in favor of the aliens,” the State Department instructed in 1941. The New York Times in 1938 quoted the granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant warning about “so-called Jewish refugees” and hinting that they were Communists “coming to this country to join the ranks of those who hate our institutions and want to overthrow them.”

After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews, a poll found that 94 percent of Americans disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews, but 72 percent still objected to admitting large numbers of Jews. The reasons for the opposition then were the same as they are for rejecting Syrians or Hondurans today: We can’t afford it, we should look after Americans first, we can’t accept everybody, they’ll take American jobs, they’re dangerous and different.

“Refugees” are people found to have a “well-founded fear of persecution” on particular grounds, who undergo months or years of background checks before they are allowed to come to the U.S.  “Asylees” are people recognized as refugees after having come to the U.S.; they undergo extensive background checks too.

The Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C. § 1101, begins:

The Congress declares that it is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including, where appropriate, . . . aid for necessary transportation and processing, admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concerns to the United States, and transitional assistance to refugees in the United States. . . .  The objectives of this Act are to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.

Our law says foreigners have the right to ask for refuge, outside our country, at the border, or from within.  It says we respond.  We hear them.  We adjudicate.  We admit.  We resettle.  We absorb.  And we set aside money to pay for it.

Let’s keep things in perspective.  Eight hundred thousand refugees have been admitted to the United States since the 9/11 attack.  Americans killed by refugee terrorists:  zero.  Depending on how you slice the numbers, American deaths from terror attacks worldwide since 9/11: under 400.  American deaths from U.S. gun violence since 9/11: almost 400,000.

In the words of Nicholas Kristof, Today, to our shame, Anne Frank is a Syrian girl. Or a Sudanese, or a Somali, or a Honduran.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil.”

To adapt the words of Pastor Niemoller:

First they came for the Muslims

Then they came for the Trans kids

Then they came for the immigrants

Mark Oppenheimer wrote in an article in the Washington Post last week: it doesn’t always start with us, but it always ends with us

Next week, we read: build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within you.

God will dwell within us because we make space.  Because we recognize God’s presence.

Rabbi Art Green teaches that the 2nd commandment (no graven images) exists because the image of God is already present in this world – in people – all people. If we make images, we forget that God is present. If we make a sanctuary for others, we make a sanctuary for God.

The Sanctuary Movement was a religious and political campaign in the United States that began in the early 1980s to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. It responded to federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.  At its peak, Sanctuary involved over 500 congregations in the United States that, by declaring themselves official “sanctuaries,” committed to providing shelter, material goods and often legal advice to Central American refugees. In 1984, the Rabbinical Assembly wrote:

The Rabbinical Assembly endorses the concept of Sanctuary as provided by synagogues, churches and other communities of faith in the United States.

Today, a growing movement of immigrant and over 800 faith communities doing what Congress and the Administration refuse to do: protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation. On Friday, T’ruah, A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the organization representing over 1800 rabbis and cantors, will hold a conference call to help congregations explore the possibilities and implications of becoming a sanctuary congregation.

Over the next few weeks, we will read about all the details of building the sanctuary. As we read, let us consider the command we read today – to care for the stranger. Let us think about creating of our sanctuary, a sanctuary for others.

As our portion concluded, we read:


3 Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” 4 Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Lord. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord. 6 Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!” 

May we continue to affirm the commitment our ancestors made.


Kristof – Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl

Oppenheimer – http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-antisemitism-jews-trump-alt-right-20170218-story.html

Jeffrey Heller – https://rideforhumanrights.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/afraid-of-nothing/


Life’s Surprises, an Adoption Story

I was born Nancy Lee Upton. On Thursday, I buried my grandmother, Ann Upton.

That I ever met her was the first surprise. For seventeen years I searched for my birth mom and never once thought about a grandmother.

Then when Janis and I found each other in 2004 and she learned I was a rabbi, she wrote “oooh, Lina, this is so weird. My mom was also adopted and her biological mother was Jewish.”

This was the second surprise. I’d learned that my birth father was Jewish from the non-identifying information I was able to get from the New York Foundling when I was 20 (which was another surprise), but since the Foundling is a Catholic agency, I certainly didn’t expect to discover a maternal Jewish connection.

So the last 12 years gave Ann and me a bit of time to get to know each other and to share our somewhat parallel stories.  What wasn’t similar were our adoption situations: Ann’s family was not a loving one, and she had many difficult memories. She did not speak  of her origins for many years; it was painful for her.

Her eldest daughter, Nancy Lee (are you paying attention?  If not, go back and read the first sentence), married a Jewish man and formally converted, as Ann’s birth certificate stating her mother’s religion as Jewish wasn’t enough proof for her rabbi. Something opened inside Ann. She wore a big Jewish star. And she loved having a rabbi for a granddaughter.

As she came to the end of her life, she decided she wanted to be buried as a Jew and asked for me to conduct her funeral. Tuesday evening I joined her children at the nursing home in Staten Island where Ann had lived for the past few years and I led them in prayers for release, forgiveness, and a peaceful transition. They were so beautifully concerned about honoring her wishes to follow the traditions of her heritage in death. On Thursday, it was my privilege to fulfill my grandmother’s wishes as I buried her. And today we gathered in her daughter’s home, where she lived for 10 years, in observance of shiva.

This has been one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life.  Never would I have imagined myself officiating at my  biological grandmother’s funeral, surrounded by people I am related to. To honor her and to help her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (there are even great-great-grandchildren) move through this journey of loss and mourning has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Our connection has been healing for both of us. It’s meant so much to me to be able to trace a Jewish family tree through her. I think it has been significant to her to share an experience of adoption and of Jewish heritage with me, a granddaughter, who treasures both.

It is now nearly half a century since I was born, and closer to a whole one since Ann’s journey began, and I am deeply grateful that our stories continue to unfold.

ann janis and nancy

Ann, Janis, and Nancy Lee

Blessed is the One who brings newness each day of creation.






Atoning through Kindness

I offered this teaching at Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre on Rosh HaShanah – but it’s timely for Yom Kippur, as well.  

Chanah is one of two wives to her husband, Elkanah. The other wife, Peninah, has sons, but Chanah has no children.  They’re a good Jewish family – showing up at shul on the holidays (in their case, the sacred alter at Shilo), making generous donations and saying their prayers.  They’re not just good Jews, they act a lot like real Jews, real people. There is the real stuff of family relationship here: love and disappointment and loss and hardship and hope and fears.

  • Peninah needles Chanah about her lack of children – even cruelly mocking her at times, saying: why don’t you get this for your older son, or this for the little one?
  • Elkanah, seeing Chanah in tears, asks: why are you weeping? But it turns out this is a rhetorical question and he doesn’t really want an answer. And furthermore, when he says “aren’t I more to you than 10 sons” (Rashi – that Peninah bore me) he seems to me to rub it in – a husband belittling his wife’s feelings, even as he’s maybe attempting to be kind
  • Even Eli, the priest, when Chanah pours out her heart in prayer, assumes the worst of her, saying “put away your liquor!”

These are people committed to being good people, to fulfilling God’s mission for them, as we see by their schlepping up to offer sacrifices every holiday – and we see them hurting each other.

So why do we read this story on RH? Tradition says of this and the Torah reading: it is because God Remembered Chanah, God remembered Sarah.  But I think it is because their lives are messy, and our lives are messy.

Why might Chanah’s family have behaved the way they did?

Why wouldn’t Peninah be kind? She had all those sons.  But she didn’t have the one thing Chanah did have: the love of her husband.  She probably felt: jealousy, loss, envy, disappointment, loneliness. And so she lashed out.

And Elkanah – for sure he must have wanted to have children with his beloved – he can’t bear his pain or hers, so he shuts her down – tries to make up for it in gifts, but becomes angry that Chanah is still upset – and can’t just be with her, recognizing her pain and loss and fear and disappointment and hopes.

How often do we lash out or shut down those close to us when we are having these uncomfortable feelings – instead of turning toward each other?

Chanah prays to God to see her sorrow – (the Hebrew emphasizes the seeing): she wants to be seen, fully, for who she is and what she is experiencing.

Our own heightened feelings at this time:

About issues large:

The losses and failures we may have suffered

The frustrations that we might be making the same vows and commitments we make every year

The fears we have for ourselves, our parents, our children, as we look to the future

And maybe not so large:

The anxieties over our holiday meal and the interesting family dynamics that brings out! Holidays are supposed to be celebratory, but, perhaps like Chanah, we’ve been upset about who didn’t come or what expectations weren’t met or what people may have said or not said.

But this story doesn’t come simply to tell us what not to do, it offers us a model. Despite Chanah’s desperate longing for a child, she lets go of her son, knowing, perhaps, that loving him means accepting who he is, what he will be, where his path must take him.

Perhaps we, too, can love with a little more openness, a little more gratitude for the blessings we have, letting our love overflow our fears, and seeing each other for who we truly are.

Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were walking by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!” But Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, “Do not be grieved, my son. Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim – acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire hesed – loving-kindness – and not sacrifice!'” (Hosea 6:6). Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:21.

At his time of year, when we come to shul and pray and recite and reenact the rituals that Chanah and her family performed, attempting, once again, to make a fresh start, a rabbi from 2000 years ago tells us: the important stuff is how we treat each other. The real offerings are our caring for one another.

As we taste honey to wish for a sweet year, may the sweetness in our mouths help draw sweetness from our mouths. May our words be loving and kind and may our actions bring peace to the world.

The Declaration: An Inspiration and an Aspiration

In the Declaration of Independence, we read:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These basic values upon which the United States was established are grounded in the foundation of Jewish teaching, in the Torah:

God created the human beings in the divine image, creating them in the image of God, creating them male and female.

(Genesis 1:27)

To be a Jew, to be a human being, means to adopt the sacred mission of continuing the process of creation, building a world that will realize these values of human equality, potential and possibility.

Although the Declaration said “all men are created equal,” in practice, the United States that emerged from this document did not see all men, or most women, as included in this statement.  It has taken many years of evolution and struggle for our country to expand the notion of “all men” to “all people,” and we have not yet achieved it.

As individuals and as a society, the recognition of divinity, of holiness, of worth, in other people is an ongoing process.  As a Jew, my personal spiritual work is to grow in love and compassion and caring for others: “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). My responsibility as citizen is simply an extension of this: to create a society that lives up to the vision of our founding fathers.

The Inspiration of Revelation: Black and Jewish Clergy for Justice

Last week, 8 rabbis and 10 African-American ministers gathered for the first time.  After a painful year of terrible events across the country (Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, etc.), the Long Island Board of Rabbis and the Rabbinical Assembly of Nassau, Suffolk and Queens reached out to the Long Island Clergy Coalition and invited them to come together to share hopes and a meal.

We want to be able to respond, in the event, God forbid, that a similar tragedy happens here on Long Island.  More than that, we want to prevent such an occurrence.  We want to make Long Island a better place for all of its residents. We recalled the early days of the Civil Rights movement, when Jews and Blacks worked together.  When rabbis protested segregation and marched with Dr. King.  When the vision of the Beloved Community[1] felt achievable.SelmaHeschelMarch

As clergy, we are people of faith, but our faith isn’t about “believing six impossible things before breakfast[2]” – it’s the hope and the courage to act for the betterment of our world.  To believe that we can make a difference.

So we began immediately. The Black ministers invited the rabbis to an LICC meeting with the Nassau County Police Department.  We met yesterday, sharing the vision of this new organization, demonstrating that we all believe that #blacklivesmatter.  That we want to work in coalition, faith groups with the police, to make our communities not only safe, but strong.

This weekend, both of our communities celebrate holidays of revelation and inspiration.  For the Jews, it’s Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.  The Torah that commands us to work for the welfare of the city[3] and to love our neighbors as ourselves[4]. For Christians, it’s Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit visited Jesus’ followers, renewing their faith and hope in the future.  We are Black and Jewish Clergy for Justice, and we have faith.


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.” from “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957

[2] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland: “Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’ I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

[3] Jeremiah 29:7

[4] Leviticus 19:18