Being Together is a Good Place to Be

Rabbi's Message - October 12, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Just a couple weeks ago, we restarted our annual cycle of Torah reading.  After Adam and all the animals are created, Adam feels lonely, and we read God’s observation, “It is not good for adam to be alone.”  We can read the Hebrew word adam as Adam’s name, or we can read it more generally, a person, people – it is not good for people to be alone.  From our very creation, we are meant to be in relationship with God and with one another – whether that is in our familial and romantic connections, or friendships, work relationships, and more – it is not good to be alone.

Navigating relationships is easy at times, stormy at others.  It can be easy to think throwing in the towel and walking away is the best option – it’s not.  Jewish tradition wants us to be with others.  We are called to “love your fellow as yourself,” and that “all Jews are responsible/accountable to one another.”  

As religious school has resumed in-person learning this year, I’m shocked by how much our students have grown.  On the one hand, physically, I have to look up to see some of them now!  But in maturity, self-confidence, how they carry themselves, and more.  They are the same people as before, but they are also not the same.  When we see people frequently, it is harder to see that growth.  In our relationships with one another, we cannot just do things the way we always have, because everyone is growing, changing, developing.  

This week at Temple, we have sessions with RAC-Ohio, we might attend the JCC's Cultural Arts & Book Series presentation on Jewish parenting, we might be starting or continuing in one of our learning programs at Temple (shameless plug for Hebrew classes tonight and Talmud on Tuesdays with me, and Thinking about God with Rabbi Bodney-Halasz on Thursdays).  I hope that these opportunities and more give us the perspective to stop and take stock of our own growth and development and that of those around us, as we continue to love and support one another to always be growing in holiness together.

Testing the Waters

Rabbi's Message - October 5, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, is a familiar one.  Dismayed with humankind, God decided to start over.  God instructed Noah and his family to build an ark before God flooded the earth.  With a sampling of each species of animal upon the earth, Noah closed the doors of the ark behind him.  In our minds’ eyes, we can picture the head of the giraffe peaking out of the window at the top of the ark, together with my personal favorite creature, the “yonah,” or dove.  

After much time had passed, Noah sent the dove away from the ark three times to determine whether or not the waters had subsided.  The first time it returned quickly, having found no place to land.  The second time, it returned to Noah with an olive branch, indicating that the waters had decreased.  The third time, the dove did not return, as it was able to make its home on the earth again.

When reading this section last year, I was struck by how patient Noah’s family was.  After the “Stay at Home” orders of 2020, we all had an inkling of what that must have been like - stuck in a limited space with close family and pets for weeks at a time!  We related to the anxiety of not knowing when the world would be habitable again.  

Like Noah, we sent out a dove to “test the waters.” It quickly returned because it wasn’t time yet.  We would need to wait.  Eventually we tried again.  The dove returned with a hopeful twig in its bill.  Cautiously, we prepared ourselves for how different things would be.  Finally, the dove flew away and never returned.  One unsteady foot at a time, we ventured back onto the dry land ready to navigate our new normal.  

Starting over carried a huge weight of responsibility for Noah.  He was a good, decent man, but righteous only in his generation.  With God’s promise never to destroy the world again, Noah and the generations to follow knew they needed to make the best choices they could.  

This story teaches us many important, and relevant, lessons:

  1. Individual choices and behavior greatly impact the lives of others.  Many innocent people were lost in the flood. 
  2. None of us is perfect.  Despite good intentions, we will make mistakes. (And that's okay.)
  3. When we sin, there are consequences for our actions.  We must take responsibility and complete teshuvah.  The rainbow taught us that destroying life is not an acceptable solution.
  4. We are all in this together.  Patience must also guide us in how we relate to others in the proverbial “same boat.” 
  5. It is wise to emerge slowly from a tenuous situation.  Danger does not disappear overnight and weathering the storm takes patience.  Use caution and take things one day at a time.
  6. Don’t lose hope.  The sun will eventually shine and dry the water on our cheeks.

Starting over is hard.  Admitting we make mistakes is sometimes even more difficult.  Can we fully emerge from the boat?  What will happen if we can't find dry land or make the wrong choices moving forward?  Whether you are still testing the waters or have jumped back on land with two feet, give yourself the chance to reflect and explore this new world. Open your mind to fresh perspectives and new possibilities.  

Why doesn’t the Sukkah need a mezuzah?

Rabbi's Message - September 21, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

We are commanded to dwell in Sukkot at this time of year.  But why is it, that unlike all other Jewish dwellings, the sukkah does not have a mezuzah?  On the 15th day of Tishrei, possibly with break the fast dinner feeling like it is still in our bellies from Yom Kippur, we begin the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths).  Traditionally we erect a sukkah, a shelter that reminds us of the booths in the desert when we left Egypt and in the fields during the harvest.  Sukkot is the time of our rejoicing, of feasting, of giving thanks, particularly for the abundant harvest.  From an agricultural perspective we celebrate that we are “set” after a year of harvest for the winter.

The mezuzah that we put on our homes symbolizes permanence.  This is our home, where we live, where we store our possessions.  Why would a sukkah, which the Bible tells us to dwell in, not also fall in this category?  Precisely because one aspect of Sukkot is to bring us more in tune with the impermanence that exists in life.  The Sukkah is supposed to leave us vulnerable to the elements, unlike the walls of a permanent house.  It can not be left (completely) in tact from year to year.  Its roof cannot provide full coverage, but rather let rays of the sun through, and thus also the rain, or even snow!  It is for this very reason, that although it is our dwelling for the week, it is not a true home.

 Within Jewish law, the definition of permanence for a dwelling is what distinguishes the need for a mezuzah from what qualifies as a sukkah.  We explore our permanence versus transience, rootedness versus wandering.  By drawing our experience closer to nature, we likely will come to appreciate the safety and security of our permanent home.  

One’s level of privilege often translates in our society into one’s perceived sense of security and safety.  Perhaps, this Sukkot, as we spend time in our Sukkahs, whether Temple’s, your own, a friend’s, or even something sukkah-like, take a moment to consider the vulnerability we feel when the sheltering elements of our life are set aside.  When we open up to vulnerability, what do we find?

The Time Is Now

Rabbi's Message - August 31, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

"The time is now. We’ve gathered ’round. So bring all your gifts and bring all your burdens with you.

No need to hide. Arms open wide. We gather as One. To make a Makom Kadosh (a holy place).

We come to tell. We come to hear. We come to teach. We come to learn. We come to grow. And so we say.

The time is now. Sing to the One. God’s presence is here, Shechina. You will dwell among us.

We’ll make this space a Holy Place, so separate, so whole. Rejoice every soul who enters here."

— Debbie Friedman z”l and Tamara R. Cohen 

We will sing these beautiful lyrics for the first time in two years when we gather on Monday night.  They are words of welcome, inviting us to bring our whole selves into our sacred space and embrace the holiness of this time together.  Last year, we excluded this song from our online services.  This year we’ll reinstate the liturgy to what it was before the pandemic.  We pray that coming back together will offer us a renewed sense of normalcy and gratitude.  

I must acknowledge, however, that we welcome 5782 during another period of profound change.  Even as we return to the Great Hall, a sense of normalcy will be hard to find.  Not only will it feel different physically, as we’ll be smaller in number and further apart, but emotionally it will feel different.  So much has changed in the world since we last met, including ourselves.  How will we find grounding when the sea of normalcy is so turbulent?  

Things will change and our goals will change, but our Jewish values will remain steadfast.  We must look to the elements of our holiday that are eternal.  Like the generations who came before us, whether we are at home or together, we must find the space and time to do the work of teshuvah: reflect on the past year, look deep within our souls, engage in repentance, commit to the path forward.  Though we still yearn for the past; we must appreciate what we have now, even if it isn’t the normalcy we crave.  

Our gratitude is what keeps us going.  Can we commit to feeling grateful this year?  Grateful for our loved ones.  Grateful for our health.  Grateful for our congregation.  Traditionally, we are expected to recite 100 blessings a day.  Each blessing is a recognition of God’s goodness and appreciation for our bounty.  It is important to say “thank you,” especially when it would be easy to lose sight of those blessings, especially mixed blessings.  

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein recently composed a new year’s benediction after inquiring of her congregants: “what will you never take for granted again?”  It resonated with me and I share it with you as an invitation to reflect on your blessings and to add your own words of gratitude.   May we enter this new year filled with appreciation, hope, and a commitment to that which we hold sacred.

May we never again take for granted - 
Breathing deeply without a mask
Making plans for the future,
Crossing a boarder,
Ease of travel,
A busy airport
A birthday party with hugs
Having loved ones hold your children,
Sharing a sandwich
Human contact
Coffee with a friend
Physical touch
Our belief in science
Fact-based public discourse
The sacredness of connection
Life itself.

This year, may we become the people we
wanted to be last year.
May this coming year be better
than the one which has past.
May we stay strong for each other
because we have experienced weakness.
May we stay bound to each other
because we have experienced isolation.
May we stay close to each other
because we have experienced distance.
May our new normal be better than the one
we think we will return to.

-Rabbi Elyse Goldstein


Turning Inward to Find Ourselves

Rabbi's Message - August 24, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

We turn our attention inward during the Hebrew month of Elul.  We begin our journey back to our truest, most pure selves.  The process takes time.  We can’t just show up for Rosh Hashanah (in-person or online) without beginning our soul work and expect to instantly be transformed into who we would like to be.  How far in advance we begin this work differs from one community to the next.  In the Sephardic community, Selichot (“forgiveness,” Jewish penitential poems and prayers) begin on the second day of Elul.  In the Ashkenazic community, we begin selichot on the Saturday night right before Rosh Hashanah, with minor exceptions depending on what day the holiday falls.  Here at Temple, we have recited Selichot at our Elul Shabbat services.  On this Saturday night, we will also participate in an evening Selichot service during which we will change out our Torah mantles to reflect the elevated importance of the High Holidays.

As we approach the holidays, the most common question being asked is about where each of us will be – at Temple or at home.  Ultimately, we will each make the best decision for ourselves and hopefully have a meaningful worship experience wherever we are physically.  Yet, this is the same question we should be asking every year, but not in the physical sense.  It is the question that God called out to Abraham before the akedah (the binding of Isaac). “Where are you?” To which he responded “Hineni,” here I am.  Hineni carries a deeper connotation of emotional presence.  I like to translate it as “Here I am, at the ready.” 

Spiritually, we must be prepared to respond to the same question: “where are you?”  God knows where you physically will be.  God wants to know where you are existentially, spiritually.   To be ready to answer, I suggest we ask ourselves the following questions:  How have I shown up for my loved ones this past year?  How have I shown up for my community?  Am I showing up and being seen in the way that I want to be seen?  Where am I now in relation to where I was last year?  What are the gifts I bring?   Am I living up to my potential? Am I fulfilling my gift as a human being?

None of these are easy questions.  Nevertheless, we need to be ready to answer them.  We want to show up on Rosh Hashanah knowing exactly where we are and, having spent this month of Elul reorienting ourselves, be ready to respond “hineni.”

Beyond “How was your day?”

Rabbi's Message - August 17, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Questions.  Rabbis love questions, we don’t always have the answers, but we are good at asking questions.  I have learned that not all questions are created equal.  

For example – it’s “Back to School” season, which also means it is prime time for terrible questions, well intentioned, of course, but terrible questions. 

Coming back together for the start of a school year, a new season of a fall sport, or another activity that perhaps has been virtual or cancelled due to the pandemic, begs the question of what you did with your summer.  While it is an innocent question, our unstated social contract is that the questioner wants to hear a positive response – how great your vacation trip was, some hobby you picked up, etc.  For the kid in the class whose summer was less than stellar, it asks them to hide that part of it, to meet needs of the questioner.  An innocent question that inadvertently puts the needs of others above the one being asked.  

Another example: how many (as the grown up or child in this situation) have followed the script of, “how was your day?” followed by a one-word response?  And its extension: a frustrated adult because the child ‘doesn’t communicate’.  When my child tells me they learned ‘nothing’ at school, I don’t believe them; but how to get them to talk?

Break the script by changing the question.  You have to ask yourself what it is you are seeking from the other person and as a more specific question, perhaps one that invites openness rather than a scripted response.  Here’s a few examples, but Rabbi Google can give you more if you need inspiration.

  1. What was the best part of your day [summer, weekend, vacation]?  - A child (partner, co-worker, etc.) has to answer something.  If they provide something specific, you can ask follow-up questions.  And if your angsty teen tells you it was terrible and nothing good happened, well even that gives you something to go on.
  2. What is something kind you did, or saw someone do, today? – This question focuses on a value or feeling that is important (pro tip – you can swap out kind/kindness for others) and has the added bonus that if the other party does not really want to share from their own story, they can choose to share something they saw, but in setting up the scene for what they saw, you might find out a bit more of their day.
  3. What’s a problem or challenge you solved today? – Encouraging a growth mindset is about celebrating not just accomplishments, but the effort it took to get there.  This question asks for vulnerability – something that frustrated the person and looks for the victory in working through that problem.
  4. More for adults, but… How many cups of coffee did you have today?  - Just don’t ask judgmentally.  For some of my family and friends, I know them well enough to know that one cup implies a good day while two implies they were dragging a bit, or maybe really busy.  Four would be an SOS.  Those numbers might differ person to person, but is perhaps an easier way to for a more private person to indicate that they need a little more from you… or perhaps just more caffeine?

The questions we ask of another can say something about whether we want a perfunctory answer or a “real” answer.  At times we may simply be looking for logistics – maybe I want to know if your day was more exhausting than mine because someone has to do the dishes and I don’t want it to be me (totally hypothetical, I promise!).  But, hopefully, more often, we are actually seeking connection and truly checking in on the other person’s well-being.  If that’s the case, make sure what you are asking communicates that intent by breaking the script of a question and one-word answer.  And I’ll leave you with one last tip – any of these questions can turn into scripts, so try a variety of them!

At this time of transition in the year, with Rosh Hashanah approaching, what is it you hope to learn this year?

Return Again

Rabbi's Message - August 10, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

Yesterday we entered into the Hebrew month of Elul, the period of time leading up to the High Holy Days.  It is a time of self-reflection, forgiveness, and exploration.  We are tasked with turning (or returning) our attention to the most important work at hand - ourselves.  Our "homework" is to perform heshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.  We must contemplate who we are, who we have been, and who we wish to become in the coming year.

This year, Elul feels like a homecoming in so many ways.  We are gathering for our first in-person Friday night services since March of 2020.  How wonderful it will be to share the words of Hinei Mah Tov while truly appreciating how good and how pleasant it is for us to be in each other’s presence.  This Friday will also be the first of four Shabbatot during which we will pray from our Rosh Hashanah prayerbook, Mishkan HaNefesh.  For the first time in nearly two years, we will hear some of our most beloved holiday melodies and liturgical readings together, in person.  As we read year after year in our High Holiday liturgy: “Now is the time for turning.”    Indeed, it is time.
Since Sunday, the sounds of one of my favorite High Holiday melodies has filled my head - Shlomo Carlebach’s “Return Again.”  Its brooding melody feels daunting, yet hopeful.  This prayer speaks to me so strongly this year because everything about this moment feels like a return.  Physically, emotionally, interpersonally, and spiritually.  “Return again, return again, return to the Land of your Soul.  Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn again.”  This can feel like an overwhelming task at the beginning of Elul.  It requires a lot of introspection and critical examination of our true selves.  We just need to remember that the work isn’t too hard for us.  It is within our reach and we must do it.
I pray we all find our way back this year - to our souls, ourselves, and our Creator.  Let this new year be filled with meaningful Shehechiyanu moments in which we joyfully embrace long-lost and new experiences.  I look forward to being with you this Friday night, either in person or streaming on YouTube.  Together, we will return again.

Using the Past for the Future

Rabbi's Message - August 3, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

In our weekly Torah reading, we are now well into the book of Deuteronomy, listening to Moses’ series of speeches before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.  In these speeches Moses recaps all of the Israelite experiences of the Exodus and their journeys since.  It can feel repetitive - because it is.  Didn’t we just finish reading these stories?  Why the review?  Better yet, why did the Israelites need the review?  Many of these Israelites had lived through these experiences.  While it is likely they were too young to have understood the events in context, or not born yet, this was recent lived history with which they were very familiar.  I believe that Moses could see that living history was not enough.  We needed to learn from it. 

Deuteronomy 32:7 teaches: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father - he will tell you, your elders - they will inform you.”   From our place in the 21st century, we see why history holds such importance in our faith.  History helps us better understand ourselves as a people and enables us to contextualize the differences we find in other cultures.  Examining the past also helps us to identify historical patterns that often repeat themselves.  We are taught by Ramban that: “All things that happen to the parents are a sign for the children.”

This is true in our individual lives, but it is also true for us as a people.  Collective experiences help shape our shared purpose.  Our identities are built upon our understanding of the past.  These events and patterns shape who we are and what we value.  In order for the Israelites and for us to take the next step forward in Jewish life, we must be able to recognize the meaning of the past and find a way to carry those values with us into the future.  Daily changes are often unrecognized.  This is why gradual changes must be examined from time to time. It is important that we stop and take notice of where we have been and where we must go and either celebrate or mourn the changes that we see.  When we don’t stop to evaluate, we often lose sight of our purpose.   None of us can afford to do that, especially now.  As we creep closer to the month of Elul, let us take the time, as Moses did, to stop and recognize where we are, where we have been, and where we are going.  Even if we don’t recognize the importance of our lives and our choices, as Ramban taught, they will inform the generations to come.

Going for the “Green”

Rabbi's Message - July 27, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

The start of the Olympics brings out the inner sports commentator in all of us.  As a former competitive swimmer, it is probably no surprise that I enjoy televised swimming during the Olympics.  It occurred to me to share my thoughts this week about some of the Jewish values that go into becoming an Olympic-caliber athlete – the “Core Values” we taught at the URJ’s 6 Points Sports Academy: intention, leadership, growth, sportsmanship, teamwork, and pride.  These values are inherent in our Judaism and by practicing them, we are better on and off the field as athletes and as human beings.

However, amid the grandiose nature of the Games there’s a fact about the Olympics that always bothered me – to put on such an enormous athletic competition, there is a lot of waste created.  Some news stories following the Rio Games highlighted the issue of trash before, and after, the Games.   The 2016 Rio Games generated an estimated 2,000 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases on top of the cost to bring the athletes and spectators there; much like previous Games, many of the facilities created for the Games are left unused as well.  Beyond the facilities themselves, I know what a pool deck and spectator area look like after a state championship meet.  I’ve heard stories of what is left behind following past Olympics to be cleaned up.

However, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, one headline caught my attention: “This Olympics, all the medals are made entirely of recycled materials.”  Judaism highly values sustainability, and the International Olympic Committee has been increasingly focused on environmentally-conscious choices in bids for the Games.  Japan has implemented many methods to make the Games this year as Carbon-neutral as possible.  Medal podiums are made from recycled plastic, bed frames are made from cardboard, and perhaps more front and center – that the medals themselves will be made from recycled electronics, after a targeted drive to collect donations of electronics for that specific purpose.  The medal podiums were made from about 25 tons of collected plastic material and 3-D printers.  After the Games, they’ll be made into plastic bottles for toiletries and detergents.  The 5,000 medals produced came from metal salvaged from 80,000 electronic gadgets, including 6 million phones.

So as we watch our favorite athletes and sports during the Games, behind the backdrop of empty stadiums, and add our own amateur commentary from the couch – we can look for the ways we can keep our favorite pastimes more than just Gold, Silver, and Bronze – but also Green.

Learn more about some of the Jewish athletes participating in the Tokyo Olympic Games.  


Choosing Kindness

Special Message - July 20, 2021

Tisha B’Av in the Age of Covid

This sermon was delivered at a Zoom Shabbat service on Friday, July 16 by Judy Heller.  

If we were in person, I would ask “how many of you have heard of Tisha B’Av?  I would assume that there would be several of you who would raise their hands, particularly anyone who was at services a couple of weeks ago when Rabbi Sobo mentioned it.   I would also ask “how many of you observe the day in any manner?”   I would assume that very few of you would answer that you do.  That is understandable.  

At its root Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples, along with Jerusalem.  Reform Judaism, a movement born in 19th century rationalism, has been hesitant to observe a holiday grieving the Temples, whose religious role feels opposite to our modern sensibilities.  We don’t long for the day when the Temple in Jerusalem can be rebuilt and the idea of animal or even grain sacrifices is something between appalling and laughable.  And even reading Lamentations which starts “Alas! Lonely sits the city/ Once great with people” feels incongruous with our current experience of Jerusalem as a vibrant city in a rebuilt Israel.  Why bother? 

For over a thousand years, Jews have mourned, chanted the book of Lamentations, and fasted on Tisha B’Av not only for the destruction of the Temple, but in memory of all Jewish suffering.  Indeed, some of those disastrous events, like the beginning of the First Crusade in the 11th century and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, occurred on Tisha B’Av.   Unlike Yom HaShoah, which was established to commemorate only the Holocaust, Tisha B’Av has been THE day to mourn all Jewish loss.  

I was raised in Reform synagogues and never heard about Tisha B’Av until I was in college and read Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book Godwrestling.  The first time I attended a Tisha B’Av service was the year after I graduated from college when I was living in Washington D.C.  Rabbi Waskow, who had recently moved to Philadelphia, came back to lead that service at the congregation he had once attended.  I found the chanting of Lamentations in a darkened room hauntingly beautiful.  It was the early 1980’s and the middle of the Cold War.  Rabbi Waskow gave a sermon connecting the fires that destroyed the Temple with the ongoing potential for nuclear destruction.  Today, Rabbi Waskow often writes about the connection between the fires of Jerusalem’s destruction and the fires created by global climate change.  My experience then, and my point now is not the specific examples that Rabbi Waskow has given, important as they are; but that Tisha B’Av, like all Jewish holidays, is constantly being given new meaning by every generation.  

At major Jewish holy days, we are encouraged to think about what the holiday means for us as individuals, for the Jewish people, or for the world given the current circumstances of that particular year.   At Passover we ask what types of liberation we need. At Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we reflect on the past year, think about what we could have done better, and resolve to try to improve our behavior.  Every year at Tisha B’Av I find myself asking “are there losses that need to be mourned?”  Personal ones?  Communal ones?  

In this second summer of the pandemic, which is both so dramatically different than last year, and in some ways too similar, the question of what needs to be mourned is like the blast of a shofar demanding my attention.  A year ago, four months into the pandemic, I remember thinking about the number of Americans who had died—about 151,000 at that point—and our need to grieve not only that, but also that our sense of normalcy that had utterly collapsed.  Not talking to people in the grocery store, minimal in-person contact, and adjusting to life on line gave Tisha B’Av a special poignancy.  We were mourning the world as it had been.  

Here we are a year later, sixteen months into the pandemic and over 605,000 Americans have died.   Are there any of us who don’t know at least one person who has died from COVID, or has long-haulers effects, or was in the hospital with it?  There were weeks last winter when the point of my getting on line was to check if my friends and family were safe and if I needed to offer support and condolences to those who had lost loved ones.  

While we have made advances, our sense of fragility remains.   There is a vaccine, although getting it to seven billion people is a huge challenge.  As it turns out even getting it to some in the United States, who have been willingly vaccinated against polio, mumps, and whooping cough, has become a monumental task.  The societal fractures which were exposed under the pressure of the start of the pandemic have turned into fissures and fault lines threatening to tear the country apart.   My sense for the need for mourning this year is even greater than last year.  

Rabbinic tradition teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred.  I find that idea both attractive and profoundly disturbing.  It disturbs me because it is a way of blaming the victim, even if it is the victims who are blaming themselves.  Self-blame for what one has no control over is a way of trying to convince oneself that you really have control.  

On the other hand, there is a truth in connecting the ideas of mourning and baseless hatred.  We are not at our best when we are in the midst of grief.  The known world with a loved one in it, or a job that we loved, or a society that we understood is gone and we feel raw and vulnerable.  Our grief may turn to fear or rage.  

There is a Talmudic story about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza that Rabbi Sobo told during services two weeks ago.  The shortened version is that Bar Kamtza was mistakenly invited to the party of his enemy, who then kicked him out.  Bar Kamtza begged for his honor to be retained, but the host refused and the others at the banquet, many of whom were leaders in the community, didn’t come to his defense when he was being publicly humiliated.  When the Talmudic rabbis discuss baseless hatred, they seem to mean this.  One shouldn’t shame, even an enemy, if one can avoid it.  I completely agree.    

The question remains, however, is there more to understand about the term baseless hatred.  If there is anything that I have thought about in this last year and especially in the last three or four months, it is the amount of baseless hatred in the United States that has increased over the past several years, but particularly since the start of the pandemic.  

What does it mean to hate someone for no reason?  Aside from the Talmudic rabbis who, as I stated above, seemed to mean publicly shaming someone and refusing to stand up for someone being shamed, the rabbis aren’t particularly clear about what they mean.  Most of the time if we are angry or go so far as saying we hate someone, we can give a reason.  Perhaps it is a legitimate reason or perhaps it is an excuse, but I suspect very few people perceive their hatred as baseless.  Even someone expressing hatred of another person because of race, gender, creed, etc. will argue that their hatred is justified.   

In the last sixteen months we as a nation have been dealing with both a pandemic and dramatic political events.  There have been good reasons to be frightened, to feel angry, to feel powerless.  So many Americans are acting out their feelings.  People are driving recklessly and too fast. Road rage has increased.  Mass shootings over the past sixteen months have skyrocketed past our already dramatically high numbers.  Domestic violence and mental health issues have become a top priority of police and medical personnel.  The political tensions in the country are erupting in the personal lives of many Americans.  We have reached a point where we assume the worst of those with whom we disagree.  Berating and shaming people on line or in person has become far too normalized.  As the Talmudic rabbis asserted-- baseless hatred of those with whom we are in conflict can lead to disaster. 

So how do we change?  Can we remember that the person with whom we disagree is also B’tzelm Elohim, made in the image of God?  Can we remember that as we might be feeling overwhelmed by fear and anger at changes that seem out of our control, that those with whom we may have the most profound disagreements are also most likely driven by fear and a sense of loss?  Recently I have been thinking about the response of the Park Hill neighborhood in Denver to white flight in the 1960’s.  They began a series of afternoon teas, followed by some evening programs to get neighbors talking to one another.  White flight never happened there and it is still the most integrated neighborhood in Denver.  Somehow, in some way, we need to learn to talk with our neighbors again, and our co-workers, and even our enemies.  

It is unrealistic to expect that we will never get angry, never give into our fear, especially when it is elicited by grief.  For me, the gift of Tisha B’Av is to be able to take an evening or a day to remind myself to grieve those communal losses that might otherwise lead me to yelling or self-righteous condemnation of others, and to try to respond instead with random acts of kindness.  If the driver next to me is in that much of a hurry, I can let him in.  If my neighbor insists on explaining why Covid isn’t real, I can still ask how her aging parent is doing.  Basic human decency can heal a lot of wounds.  

Tisha B’Av begins Saturday night.  May this be a weekend of healing from our individual and communal losses, as well as a time for renewed trust and faith in one another.