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“Context Clues” – These And These are the Words of the Living God

Hillel and Shammai, two of our towering rabbinic figures, didn’t agree on much. Shammai was a stickler for rules and Hillel was far more flexible. Shammai drew a line in the sand and Hillel would find a way around it while still respecting the spirit of the law. The Rabbis asked if despite their great division, were their children allowed to marry each other. The answer was a resounding yes, for they were still Jews, they were still menschen, they were still united by a love for Israel. “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim” – “These AND these are the words of the living God,” our Sages insisted, no matter how divided their two schools of thought may have been.

Eilu v ‘Eilu – These AND These – we don’t hear enough of this these days. Not just since November 8 or January 20, but also for a long time, our politics, schools of thought, cultures have caused greater and greater divisions between us all. And this is terrible for all of us – the “losers” AND the “winners.” Except in rare instances, long term peace – not the absence of war but peace – a wholesome, affirming, testament to the best of our Divine Images is what we pray for and must redouble our efforts to bring to fruition.

I don’t care how certain and affirmed and sure you are about your thoughts on Israel but a real peace will only come from the deep listening to the other side, the stories in which they understand their place, the contexts of the events that happen from sunrise to sunrise.

Please join your fellow members of the Houston Jewish Community for a “Conversation About Israel.” Join J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami and JINSA President and CEO Dr. Michael Makovsky for a conversation about securing Israel’s future.

Wednesday, February 8, 7:30 pm – @ the Becker Theatre at the Emery Weiner School.

Only when we hear both sides, can we find our way to the middle, which is the only solid ground we have.

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“Context Clues” – Caring for the Stranger

The amazing thing about the Torah is that it doesn’t pull any punches. Our patriarchs and matriarchs are great because of the extraordinary experiences of their lives, not because they always got it right! As a matter of fact, the Torah takes us to great pains to experience the ways in which they really miss the mark at times!

Try this little ditty from The Book of Genesis on for size:
Scene1: Sarah gives Hagar (her handmaiden) to Abraham (her husband) to be “built up through Hagar’s loins” as Sarah cannot become pregnant. Ishmael is born.
Scene 2: Then, a few years later, miraculously, Sarah does become pregnant with Abraham’s child and gives birth to Isaac.
Scene 3: Sarah is no longer happy to see Ishmael, as she does not want him to inherit HER son’s inheritance. So, she tells Abraham to send them away, to never be seen by them again.
Scene 4: Abraham does what he is told, saddles his donkey early in the morning and takes Hagar and Ishmael out to the wilderness, seemingly to die. Their one skin of water dries up and Ishmael’s cries rise to the Heavens. “And God hears the cries of the boy where he is.” God hears the cries of the tired, the poor and the hungry yearning to be free…” and saves them from their expulsion.

The name “Hagar” can also be pronounced, “Ha-ger” meaning “The Stranger.”
The name “Yishmael” means “God will hear.”

“Yishmael ha-ger” – “God will hear the stranger” even when their pleas fall on deaf ears. But, remember folks, we are God’s ears, God’s hands, God’s heart.

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Getting to Seattle

I won’t be able to articulate this illustrative metaphor with the poetry and flair of its author, Leonard Pitts, but it certainly bears repeating, especially today, as we honor Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Last night at an MLK Commemoration, columnist Leonard Pitts spoke on the divide that exists between white people and black people in terms of their often vastly divergent views of the state of racial equality in our country. He explained that this divergence of views could be likened to the following:

If a white man and a black man set out together for a road trip from Miami to Seattle and they stop in Kansas City, the white man would step out of the car, stretch and say, “Man, we have covered some serious ground!” However, the black man would respond with, “Maybe, but we’re heading for Seattle.”

It would seem that like all things, its a matter of perspective. However, in a society in which there is a true need to affirm that black lives matter, perspective is only useful when the goal seems too far off to believe in. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that in a free society, not everyone is guilty, but all are responsible. So my question for me tonight is this: “What is my response to a world that still places too much weight on the color of someone’s skin, the darker it gets, the larger the bias looms?”

I hate filling out demographic data that asks me to check a box for my “race.” Inevitably, as a Jewish man with family hailing from Hungary and Russia, whose roots in America are not much more than a century old, checking “Caucasian” never seems to make sense. And checking “White” seems rather anomalous because last I checked, it’s a color that looks nothing like me. It rarely even resembles the Christian folks in this country who are often wrongly presumed to be the descendants of the Pilgrims. Yet, check it we must, for fear of having an incomplete application! Oh dear! And this is why Kansas City seems like a meaningful distance on that road trip. White people (meaning all those who have the “privilege”) checking that box, are so enmeshed in the privilege of being White, its like fish in water. They don’t even realize the entire world around them is their home turf.

Now, I do not want to give the impression that being Jewish and fair skinned hasn’t bestowed upon me undeserved privilege as well. Just the invitation to walk into a store in Bellaire or River Oaks and catch no notice but for my role there as a customer, is an unwittingly bestowed privilege my fair skin provides. I listened to Mr Pitts last evening as he spoke on the reality that 1/3 of all black men in this country are under the supervision of the justice system in one way or another. 1/3! And anybody who still has the chutzpah to declare or even just harbor the notion that this is because of something unique to black men, has got to wake up. If there is one thing that I have learned during my years as a Rabbi, it is this: the only fundamental differences between people of different races, between people period, is a matter of short term and long-term circumstance. We human beings aren’t that complicated – our skin color has nothing to do with our inherent response to life. And anyone who truly believes it does, hasn’t spent any meaningful time with people who are different than they. “Others,” “different folks,” “foreigners,” – guess what? Every single one of them and we are created b’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That is the whole Torah – all the rest is commentary, go and learn it!

Mr Pitts shared a social media comment he received that went something like this: “Slavery’s been over for 150 years. Shouldn’t black people have gotten over it by now?” And all I could think about was that we Jews have a mostly fictional story of our having been enslaved over 3000 years ago, and we tell and retell that story, the story of our affliction, in every prayer service, at every Shabbat, in most every holiday.   And for 7 straight days every Spring, we remind ourselves:

“In every generation, each person must see him/herself as if he/she came forth out of the land of Egypt.”

Why? Well, one could say, “come on Jews, its been 3000 years and there isn’t any extant evidence that it took place the way the Torah describes anyway. Aren’t y’all over it by now?” But the answer for us is, “No.” Because the story of the Exodus from Egypt is not the story of freedom. Rather, it is THE story that teaches the ease with which our own pre-conceived notions, biases, self-centeredness, and fear can enslave us and then adjure us so readily to take it out on people whom we have determined are different. As Haman told King Ahashverosh in the Book of Esther, “there is a certain people who live in your kingdom. They look and act and dress different and it’s not in your Highness’ interest to tolerate them.” We Jews act to our detriment when we tell and retell our stories as if they are only about us.   Our stories matter if they are the stories of all who struggle for equal treatment under the law and equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and when we double down on our efforts to ensure that these rights do indeed remain unalienable from all people regardless of the boxes they so happen to need to check!

Thank you Mr Leonard Pitts for your wisdom and for your challenge. This Rabbi heard you loud and clear.





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Midday Message: On Happiness and Gratitude

We tend to believe that it’s the happy people who are grateful.  

However, its really the other way around: It’s the grateful people who are happy.

All of us know people who have all the things one might imagine would make them happy but they’re miserable.   And if we’re lucky, we’ve come across folks who, despite challenging and even dire circumstances, express happiness.  The trick, according to Teacher and Philosopher, David Steindl-Rast, is gratitude.  Its as simple as that.  But, as they say, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it.

Happiness just isn’t about stuff.  And the more we think it is, the more “elation” we may feel once we get “the more stuff,” the more we are just feeding an addiction to scarcity.  I know that our economy works on the presumption that rarity is value; that the more dollars there are in the market, the less they’re worth; the more students who score a 35 on the ACT, the less its worth; the more friends we have, the more we are worth.  But worth and happiness do not go hand in hand.  

Which is why we need philosophy/religion/spiritual traditions.  The core of every one of them, the starting point for all fruitful thought exercises, is the infinite worth that each of us carries within.  The great irony of our lives, ever more present with every new technology, is that the very things that are meant to improve our lives, imprison us in a never-ending search for, “but when will it be enough?”  

There is no “enough-ness” that will ever be found outside of ourselves.  There is no completion that happens anywhere but within our hearts and minds.  There is no fulfillment out there that we can’t already feel in our hands.  And the gateway to this enoughness begins and ends with active gratitude.  Not just being “open” to it when it strikes us, but engaging in a life committed to finding it, expressing it and feeling it.  If you make it a goal of identifying 5 things a day and feel gratitude for them, you will be a happier person.  It is that simple.  And yes its tough, but you can do it.  There’s no doubt in my mind.

This has been a “Mid-Day-Message” from Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss.

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We’re All Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf

OK, I get it. The person who works in the cubicle next to you, in the office down the hall, in the classroom or in the board room, or uses the locker next to you, or whom you’ve considered “unfriending” is just too much for you.   You know who I’m talking about. Because, well, he/she just bugs you. Maybe it’s their voice, maybe it’s bad past experiences, maybe it’s something else. But it’s not realistic that he or she will disappear from your life and the suffering you experience in your mind because of the stories you tell yourself about him or her, is rising to a level that is difficult to manage.

So try this on for size. Mid day might be the perfect time for a little bit of Hasidic wisdom to get you out of this rut of thinking. Sit down in a quiet spot and begin to focus on that person. But not the whole person. Find one positive or good or meaningful thing you can say about that person. It doesn’t even have to be based on your own experience with that person.  A fictional story will do.  Now imagine this positive aspect of this person like it’s a place on his body, on her soul. It’s not the whole person, it’s just a fragment, a part. And then focus on that one spot; try to see if you can breathe into that spot. Make your focus on this person about that spot and if you do, you may find that the spot gets bigger. That all of what you can think about that person can become that goodness.  And this isn’t to pretend that someone who you find difficult is all of a sudden not.  This isn’t actually about that “them” at all.  Its about you.

How easy is it for you to tell yourself negative stories about you?  How quick to judge and denigrate yourself are you?  How quick are you to “should” all of yourself?  In that moment, you can choose to beat yourself up or you can choose to get curious, find the good and expand it.  Not to pretend that meaningful critique isn’t valuable.  But to notice that our default of critique ironically keeps us small and seemingly safe.  

But none of us is safe.  When we hide and keep ourselves small, we endanger the breadth and depth of what we can become.  When we open ourselves up to the world, when we find the good within, when we step into the tough but meaningful arenas of life, we are indeed in danger of failing.  But what’s so terrible about that?

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Midday Message: On Upsets

In the car on the way to school:

Sammy: This is the year of the upset, Dad.

Me: What do you mean?

Sammy: Take last year’s Super Bowl.  Cam Newton was the NFL’s MVP Quarterback expected to lead the Panthers to victory over the Broncos.  That didn’t happen.  At all.  March Madness kept seeing upset after upset; nothing was what we expected.  In the NBA Playoffs, the Warriors came back from a 3-1 series record to defeat OKC 4 games to 3 and then the Cavs beat back the Warriors from a 3 to 1 series record, and they won the NBA Finals 4 games to 3.  That’s to say nothing about our Presidential Election!  And just yesterday, in the College national football championship, Alabama lost to Clemsen!

Just cuz things have always been doesn’t mean they’ll always be.  

This moment, right now, may feel awful.  It may feel terrible and frightening.  But one thing is certain; it doesn’t have to stay that way.  You don’t have to stay there.  Right now, in this moment, you can choose to call on hope not fear, love not strife, peace not conflict. 

However, this moment, right now, may feel wonderful.  It may fill you up and make you feel at home.  You may be connected and in the flow.  Tensions and anxiety rolling off of you like meatballs off spaghetti.

No matter what, neither of these states is permanent.  Each soon becomes a part of our past.  So, here’s what you can do – draw from these moments what you need to learn and then, let them go.  Not the people who may be involved but the feelings enmeshed within.  Those you can discard and then be better able to embrace what IS right now.  Because those moments about which we have been talking…are long over.  The present becomes the past so quickly.  But the melody can beautifully and meaningfully remain.

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Midday Message

“What makes a good slogan great?”

CSK says, “Join us…You already belong.”  I remember throwing this out to my good friend, David, who, as an Ad Exec, was very much used to a process of growth and development when it came to helping a client come up with the right “sales pitch.”  He told me that usually this process should take months, and sometimes even longer.  But, he also said that sometimes the perfect pitch presents itself because it’s a simple rendition of what you’re about.  Now, not everything can be boiled down to a few words or a phrase.  But, as my English teacher told 11th grade, verbose me back in the day: maybe the problem isn’t the pitch, but the idea it represents. 

When we find ourselves hitting dead ends over and over, it might mean that we just haven’t yet gotten there.  However, it also might mean that we are missing something, that we have forgotten why we pursued this in the first place – this business, this effort, this relationship, this experience, this dream. 

So, when you find yourself in this position, it’s time to regroup.  Chances are, the answer is back there on the editing floor, scrapped because it didn’t fit our preconceived notions of what “this” is supposed to be.   If we can go back and find what we thought we didn’t need amidst the scraps of ideas of what we thought we didn’t want, then our effort is not just about “getting it done.”  Its about getting in tune with Creation – a never-ending effort to reclaim the old and to discover something brand new.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Borei Maasei V’reishit.

Blessed is the Source of Creation, that inspires us to keep creating as long as we remember to pay attention.

This has been a “Mid-Day-Message” from Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss

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