Remarks at Interfaith Standing Together Press Conference

15337549_10154909945162275_7395177813311807654_nIt is an honor to stand in this sanctuary surrounded by colleagues and friends representing so many brother and sister faith traditions.

To my mind, this synagogue is the perfect place for us to stand together against hate and deliver a message of inclusion and love. We Jews know full well the consequences of hateful rhetoric and actions, especially when they come from or are enabled by the powerful and privileged. Our history is filled with instances of victimization and oppression, times when bigotry was given license and persecution was encouraged.

To my right is a Torah scroll rescued from Czechoslovakia after World War II. It is the sole surviving remnant of a Jewish community that was otherwise destroyed simply because of its faith.

In many ways, we Jews see that Torah as a symbol of who we are called to be in the world, a people plucked from the ashes of destruction in order to share God’s message to humanity.

That message begins with the claim that every human being is a child of God. We are all of us brothers and sisters. The Torah then asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And over and over again the words of that scroll cry out the answer, yes. We are responsible for the welfare of all our brothers and sisters.

The Torah tells us to love both our neighbor and the stranger; it insists that all human beings – male or female, Christian or Muslim, native-born or immigrant, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, everyone – deserve equal protection, equal rights, and equal respect.

It tells us that when our fellow human being is poor, we are duty-bound to care for him; that when our fellow human being is hungry, we are obligated to feed him; that when our fellow human being is suffering or hurt, we must lift him up.

Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, it says. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Lo tukhal l’hit’alem it insists. You must not look away.

So we are here today because we refuse to stand idly by when any of our brothers and sisters are victims of the prejudice, intimidation, and aggression that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has proliferated in our country since last month’s election.

We refuse to look away when hateful rhetoric emanates not only from the most ignorant and fearful pockets of our society but also from corridors of power.

We refuse to look away when bigotry inspires discriminatory policies or hate-fueled violence.

We are here to affirm that every human being was created in the divine image, that each of us has equal and infinite value, that we are all brothers and sisters.

We are here to stand with and for any person, and any community, whose dignity, welfare, or lives are at risk, especially when they are threatened with the implied consent of the powerful.

And we are here to demand that all our leaders – whether they be local, state, or national officials – recognize the divine image in every single human being; that they uphold George Washington’s vision that our government will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”; that they will be steadfast in working for and lifting up every one of us.

We are here to pledge ourselves to fulfilling this country’s historic promise that the circle of liberty will ever expand to include us all; and we are here to fulfill our faith’s command that we are, all of us, called to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

May God give us strength. May God bless us with peace.

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From Great to Good: Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

In the 19th Century, British philosopher Thomas Carlyle argued that history is mainly about the accomplishments of great people. Since then, many thinkers have pointed out the flaws in Carlyle’s “Great Men” theory, but, whether intentionally or not, history is often still taught this way. We teach our kids about the past largely through the stories of great people doing big, important things.

The stories we tell convey values, whether we mean them to or not. And the message of this approach to history is that our significance depends on the preeminence of our accomplishments. I know I grew up internalizing this message. It was reinforced by parents and teachers who, in ways subtle and overt, taught me that my worth was commensurate with my achievements, that if I wanted to live a life of meaning and value, I had to be great by doing great things.

What is striking to me is how significantly this view differs from that of the Jewish tradition. If one were to make a list of the major figures of the Bible, what would be striking is that they were called by God to take on significant roles not because they had remarkable accomplishments or were uniquely gifted but, rather, because they were good. And even as they ascend to roles of significance in the unfolding story of the Jewish people, the Torah focuses not on their accomplishments, but on their character.

Take Noah, for example. Why did God choose Noah to survive the Flood?

Here’s what the Torah tells us:

נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃ /

Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

The terminology here is unclear, so let’s break it down a bit. First, Noah is called “איש צדיק,” a righteous man. What does it mean to be righteous? According to tradition, Noah is called righteous because he cared for the needs of others (Tanhuma 4; Rashi).

Next, Noah is called “תמים בדרתיו,” blameless in his age. The term תמים, blameless, means a person of integrity, someone who is never accused of wronging others. But Noah is called “blameless in his age,” as if to indicate that, far from perfect, Noah was a person of integrity only compared with others who lived at the time. Given the fact that Noah lived among people so wicked that God wanted to destroy them, this is not exactly soaring praise.

So it turns out that Noah wasn’t extraordinary. He wasn’t chosen because he did great things. He was chosen because he strove to live a life of goodness in an indecent time, hence the coda, “את האלהים התהלך נח,” literally, Noah caused himself to walk with God. Noah’s only noteworthy accomplishment was that he worked hard to stay on a path of goodness.

Even as Noah is called upon to do something extraordinary, the Bible presents him in his full, imperfect humanity. After the flood waters subside, Noah plants a vineyard, makes a batch of wine, gets wasted, and has a private naked party in his tent. Not exactly the behavior of a “great man.”  

See, the Torah isn’t especially interested in Noah’s accomplishments. Rather, it wants us to reflect on how a good but imperfect person fares when the stakes are high. And, for Noah, the answer is…good. But not great.

The same can be said of the man who is perhaps the greatest hero of the Torah, Moses. The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly why God chose Moses, but it certainly is not because Moses is “great.”

Having grown up a child of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace, he probably never worked a day in his life. When God first appears to Moses, he is a shepherd, working for his father-in-law, and a fugitive from Egyptian justice. He struggles with self-confidence. He was not a good public speaker.

So why did God choose Moses? Well, all we’re told about him before his calling is that he repeatedly stands up against injustice, championing the cause of the victim against the oppressor. First he kills an Egyptian who is ruthlessly beating a Hebrew slave. Then he intervenes when he sees a Hebrew picking a fight with a fellow slave. And finally he rises to the defense of Midianite girls who were being harassed by shepherds. Moses, too, was chosen by God not because he was great, but because he was good.

And Moses, like Noah, remains imperfect even after he is elevated to an extraordinary position. Of course, Moses had many fine qualities, but he is also an inattentive husband and an absentee father. He is prone to fears, doubts, and fits of rage. The Torah presents Moses as a good, but flawed, man who finds himself at the center of an extraordinary moment and must strive to do the best he can.

These examples – just two of many I could have selected – point to a crucial difference between our tradition and other systems of thought, including the culture in which we live. In other systems, one becomes a person of significance only through having remarkable accomplishments. Judaism, on the other hand, focuses not on greatness, but rather on goodness.

What’s the difference? Goodness is fundamentally a moral quality. It is about how we care for ourselves, how we treat others, how we relate to our community and the wider world. Greatness is fundamentally goal-oriented. It is about what one achieves. Put a different way, goodness is about flourishing and serving others, while greatness is about surpassing others and attaining power over them.

Consider some of the models our tradition holds up of those whose primary goal in life is the pursuit of greatness: The builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to be great. But, according to tradition, their pursuit of greatness resulted in “jealousy and hatred,” strife and bloodshed.

King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, also wanted to be great. He wanted to prove to everyone – and this is a direct quote from the Bible – that “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.” So instead of relieving the people of the burdensome taxes and building projects initiated by his father, Rehoboam said, “My father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions!” How did that turn out for Rehoboam? As we learned yesterday, Rehoboam’s thirst for greatness caused the people of Israel to secede from the kingdom, ultimately to be lost forever.

No wonder the great sage Hillel once taught, “When you seek fame, you destroy your name” (Mishnah Avot 1:13). Since the pursuit of greatness typically entails stepping on others, our tradition warns that, sooner or later, the result of that path is ruin.

Greatness has no bell-curve. It is inherently unequal and competitive. Either your accomplishments are more special or important than the accomplishments of others, or they’re not. Goodness, however, takes into account our personal strengths, talents, skills, and abilities. It recognizes that each of us is limited by the resources we have and frequently handicapped by our weaknesses and by circumstances beyond our control. Therefore, focusing on goodness means we are not in competition with Abraham or Moses or with each other, because each of us can only be as good as we can be.

When the Hasidic master, the great Reb Zusya, was on his deathbed, he sat and cried bitterly. His students gathered around him, speculating about what could be making their rabbi so despondent. One said, “I bet he’s crying because he fears that God will be disappointed that he was not as righteous as Abraham.” “No,” said another, “it’s because he fears that God will tell him he was not as holy as Moses.” Overhearing the conversation, Reb Zusya turned to his students. Through his tears, he whispered: “In the coming world, the Holy One will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ Rather, God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ That is what I fear. And that is why I weep.”

What matters is not being as great as the greats, or better than our peers. What matters is whether you did as good as you possibly could.  

Greatness has no room for failure. Either you’ve achieved greatness, or you’re a loser. Goodness, however, has a margin for error. One doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. In fact, quite often the quest for perfection gets in the way of goodness.

Pursuing greatness over goodness can be paralyzing. For example, I was having a hard time starting to write this sermon. I really wanted you to like it. I wanted it to be great. The best sermon you’ve ever heard. The sermon you’ll be speaking about at lunch today, and at dinner tonight, and all throughout the rest of the year. I wanted it to be the sermon that you forward to all your friends, with the subject line reading, “FWD: You HAVE to read this sermon!” I want it to be so incredible, so universally captivating, that it gets a thousand “likes” when I post it on Facebook, and then goes viral on the Internet. I wanted it to be taught in seminaries, where future clergy will aspire to give sermons just like this one.

With goals like these, it’s no wonder I struggled to even begin typing. What could I possibly write that would guarantee my attaining those objectives? What if some of you hated it? What if it bored some of you to sleep? Or worse yet, what if you laughed at me?

That’s one of the ways the pursuit of greatness gets in the way of our being good. It sets the bar so high that we become too paralyzed to even start trying.

Another way the pursuit of greatness impedes goodness is that it distorts our approach to the task at hand, ironically making us worse at the very thing we are striving to do excellently.

Remember the movie Major League? It was one of my favorite films growing up. Major League chronicles the misadventures of a hapless bunch of misfits who strive to turn the Cleveland Indians into a championship baseball team. One of the best characters in that movie was Willie Mays Hayes, played by Wesley Snipes. Hayes was a good ballplayer, one of the fastest baserunners in the league. The trouble was, Hayes wasn’t content being good. Hayes wanted to be a legend. So, instead of playing to his strengths by hitting the ball on the ground and utilizing his speed, he would try to hit a home-run every at-bat, and always came up hilariously short. It is only when Hayes focuses on being good – aiming for base hits, running bases thoughtfully, considering his role as part of a team rather than as an individual superstar – that he could actually become great.

And, most importantly, the pursuit of greatness can harm us and those around us.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown points out that pursuing greatness is inherently about earning others’ “approval and acceptance.” Our sense of self-worth becomes dependent on whether others like how we look, envy our possessions, think our spouse is attractive, consider our children talented or brilliant or well-behaved, or admire our professional accomplishments. When we pursue greatness, we put our worth in other people’s hands.

The problem, of course, is that the viewing public can never fully know us. They cannot see our hearts, our souls, what we are capable of and what our limitations are. They usually cannot see our intentions or our level of effort. They don’t love us and can’t forgive our shortcomings. And it’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

And when we don’t internalize the truth that universal acceptance is illusory, our life becomes an unending cycle: we seek the validation of others; we fail because that’s literally impossible; we feel unworthy because we didn’t get the approval we sought; we seek more validation to overcome the feelings of worthlessness.

In her book, Brown demonstrates that this cycle leads us down paths of “depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.” We miss out on opportunities because we become “too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.” We don’t follow our dreams because we become deeply afraid “of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others.” We hurt those close to us – our spouses, our children, our friends, our co-workers – when we neglect them to focus on our great accomplishments or when we feel the way they look or act will reflect poorly on how others perceive us. We numb our feelings of inadequacy with anything that takes the edge off and quiets the voice that tells us “you are not enough.”

Because it begins with the assumption that our value depends on the adulation of others, the pursuit of greatness is always self-defeating. It’s like building a house of cards on unstable ground in unpredictable weather.

The pursuit of goodness, however, is always self-building, because it is based upon the recognition that each of us is already enough, that each of us is already worthy, that we don’t need extraordinary accomplishments or others’ approval to know that we matter.

For proof of this, look no further than the Jewish people. As Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, “Knowing that we have been chosen by God is precisely what gives the Jewish people our resilience, generosity, and fortitude.” It is telling that the mission of the Jewish people has never been understood as “be great” but, rather, “be holy” (Leviticus 19:1). “Do justice. Love goodness, Walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Only through recognizing that, no matter what, we are valued, accepted, and affirmed has our people throughout history felt emboldened to take risks, to follow our dreams, to honor ourselves and care for others.

Now, you might say that we Jews are great. Maybe so. But that status has been secured not through seeking greatness but, rather, through our historic pursuit of goodness, a path that was made possible only through God’s unconditional, unyielding love for us (Deut. 7:7).

What’s true on a national scale is also true for each of us as individuals. Each of us is a child of God, princes and princesses born to the highest of sovereigns. How much greater do we need to be?

When we begin with the knowledge that we matter to the most exalted being in the universe, we can be free: free from the need to impress, free to live life our own way, free to focus on doing right by ourselves and those around us.

Through the knowledge of God’s love, we also become free to take risks, to make mistakes, and to forgive ourselves our shortcomings.

Our tradition affirms that God loves us unconditionally: ahavah rabah ahavtanu, God loves us with a great love. While we can deviate from the path God holds out for us, there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us, nothing we need to do to earn God’s love for us.

God also intimately knows every part of us: atah yode’a razei olam – You know our innermost secrets – ba-beten y’datikha – God knew you before you were even born (Jeremiah 1:5). While we have a responsibility to live up to our own potential, we are only competing against ourselves, and God knows both our strengths and our limitations.

And, as we remind ourselves again and again over these High Holy Days, God is El rahum v’hanun, erekh apayim v’rav hesed, a God of compassion, grace, patience, abounding love; a God who forgives us when we falter. Of course, we must learn and grow from our failures. But our tradition’s claim that God is forgiving means that it is O.K. to stumble and fall; we are not expected to be perfect.

When we understand that failure is part and parcel of being human, we need not to be paralyzed by the fear of failure, the pressure to be perfect, or the guilt of missing the mark. We only need to be as good as we can be. When we fall, we can look at ourselves with godly compassion and forgive ourselves. Then, we can shake off the dust, rise, and get back to work.

The pursuit of greatness has always been a major part of American culture. When business writer Jim Collins published a book a few years back called Good to Great, millions of copies flew off the shelves. Still today, greatness is very much part of the zeitgeist. The importance of making ourselves great is all some people talk about. Many of us have been made to feel that, in order to live a worthwhile life, that’s what we must strive for. In fact, when I told some folks I was writing a sermon called, “From Great to Good,” deliberately playing off the title of Collins’s bestseller, they immediately responded, “But isn’t that going backwards?!”  

The answer, I think, is no. Not from Judaism’s perspective, anyway. Here’s how the prophet Jeremiah puts it:

כה אמר יהוה

אל־יתהלל חכם בחכמתו

ואל־יתהלל הגבור בגבורתו

אל־יתהלל עשיר בעשרו

כי אם־בזאת יתהלל המתהלל:

השכל וידע אותי כי אני יהוה עשה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ כי־באלה חפצתי נאם־יהוה

 

Thus said the Holy One:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;

Let not the strong man glory in his strength;

Let not the rich man glory in his riches.

But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Holy One act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; And – declares the Holy One – it is in these I delight. (Jer. 9:22-23).

In the year to come, ask not “how can I become a success,” but, rather, “how can I be more kind, just, and fair?” Ask not, “how can I stand above others” but, rather, “how can I walk with God?” Ask not, “how can I be great,” but, rather, “how can I be good?”

Shanah tovah.

 

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One Community, One Campus: Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777

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Of all the enemies our ancestors faced in antiquity, perhaps none were more fearsome than the Assyrians. Around 900 BCE, Assyria began to conquer much of what was at the time the known world. The empire Assyria built stretched from Syria in the west to Iran in the east, and from Turkey in the north to the Arabian peninsula in the south.

The Assyrians built their empire with unprecedented military might and brutality. Its fleet of chariots was without parallel; its soldiers fierce and bloodthirsty; its strategy of siege, conquest, and plunder terrified everyone in its warpath. After Assyria invaded, destroyed, and despoiled your country, it would take captive a conquered people’s best and brightest and resettle them elsewhere in the empire. This brutal innovation broke the power of vanquished nations, ensuring that their lands would forever remain under Assyrian control.

Such was the brutal fate that befell some of our ancestors. After the death of King Solomon, the united kingdom of Israel split into two: a kingdom in the north called Israel, and a kingdom in the south called Judah. Those two separate and independent nations, populated by people with shared ethnicity and culture but differing tribal and geographic loyalties, existed side-by-side for nearly two centuries until 722 BCE. In 722, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.

Against this backdrop, a movement began that would alter the course of Jewish history. King Hezekiah of Judah ascended the throne around the time Assyria conquered Israel. He assumed that, now that they had laid waste to Israel, Judah would be next in Assyrian crosshairs. So Hezekiah made preparations to withstand the impending Assyrian assault.

What did he do? He took steps to make the Temple in Jerusalem the center of Jewish religious life.

To us, this may seem like a surprising strategy. Why not raise an army? Or levy more taxes? Or build a bigger wall?

But in actuality, it was a brilliant move, one that has lessons to teach for our time as well.

See, centralizing worship in Jerusalem was major innovation. Some might say it was a revolution. True, King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem about 250 years before Hezekiah, but the people still worshipped freely at shrines all over ancient Israel. So when, according to the biblical Book of Kings, Hezekiah “abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post” (2 Kings 18:4), he was in fact taking drastic measures to deal with drastic times.

Why’d he do it? Hezekiah centralized worship in Jerusalem because he believed in the message best encapsulated by the modern protest adage, “the people united can never be defeated!” Or, as the midrash teaches:

אם נוטל אדם אגודה של קנים, שמא יכול לשברם בבת אחת.

ואלו נוטלן אחת אחת, אפלו תינוק משברן.

וכן את מוצא שאין ישראל נגאלין עד שיהיו כלן אגדה אחת.

“When many reeds are bound together, it’s not possible to break them; but if they are separated one from another, then even an infant can break them. From this we learn that Israel will not be redeemed until they are united.”

Hezekiah believed that only a united kingdom could resist the Assyrian threat. And only creating one spiritual center could make his people into one community.

Moving all worship to Jerusalem united the people financially. Remember that our ancestors prayed largely through animal sacrifice. An entire economic system naturally developed around such an institution. When worship can take place anywhere, that economy is smaller, more diffuse, and weaker. By requiring that worship occur only in one location, Hezekiah ensured a larger, interconnected, interdependent, and more robust worship economy. And by housing that economy in the capital, Hezekiah could more easily amass the resources he needed to invest in the institutions and projects that would make all of Judah strong, prosperous, and able to resist Assyria.

And centralizing worship united the people politically, socially, and culturally. When worship can take place anywhere, traditions and practices will vary from place to place. This was an important insight for Hezekiah, since Judah had just absorbed an influx of northern Israelites who worshipped God a little differently than their southern cousins. Diversity is a beautiful thing until it convinces people that their differences are greater than that which unites them, and that their parochial loyalties are more precious than the common welfare. When that happens, differences can become divisions, divisions can breed enmity or strife, and a kingdom can disintegrate and weaken.

Creating one shared religious space emphasized the traditions and values the people shared. It facilitated meaningful relationships, enabling everyone, regardless of background, to engage with each other in times of pain and in times of joy, bringing meaning and holiness to each stage of each other’s life’s journeys. Coalescing around one physical symbol – a symbol, no less, that evoked the people’s glorious shared past and was situated in the heart of a city originally built to unite the northern and southern tribes – provided a shared identity to a diverse people, helping them become one community.

Yes, a Temple is just a building. And God is everywhere, so of course God can theoretically be worshipped anywhere. But when people are invited to see a building as their shared home and their common access point for the transcendent, something powerful happens. The people become united. And a people united can never be defeated.

Hezekiah’s gamble paid off. In 701, Assyria invaded Judah. Miraculously, Jerusalem managed to withstand the siege. The Assyrian military machine that had once seemed invincible was halted through the power of a newly united Judean people, a people that was brought together by virtue of a common house of worship.

A lot has changed since Hezekiah’s time, and yet much has remained the same. The Assyrians are long gone, but the Jewish community today still faces existential threats. Thankfully, in our time, there aren’t many external enemies bent on wiping us from the map. But there are still Assyrians on our doorstep, if you know how to spot them. And Jewish survival is never guaranteed.

Our open, free, multicultural society, where religion is practiced only as a matter of conscience and not compulsion, is both the most extraordinary, unprecedented blessing in all of Jewish history and, paradoxically, one of the greatest threats to Jewish survival we have ever encountered. In our time, each of us is free to worship however, wherever, whenever, and to whomever we want, or not to worship at all.

This freedom, when combined with the equal competition of differing religious traditions in the open marketplace of ideas, the widespread perception of hypocrisy and abuse in organized religious life, the ability to find meaning and community outside of the religious tradition into which one is born, the downturn in social pressure to affiliate with an established religious community, and the decline of institutional affiliation in general has led to a dizzying decline of organized religion.

The American Jewish community is not immune to this reality. We’ve seen this phenomenon up-close and personal here in Richmond: Consider our temple’s last two decades. In 1994, we had 830 member households; by 2014, when I became your rabbi, we had 420. Our experience is not unique. Our neighboring congregations have fared similarly over the last two decades, as have synagogues nationwide. Nearly everyone out there is having a hard time.

Now, I’m very proud to say that today, Temple Beth-El is growing. But we must be honest about the trials we’ve endured and the strong headwinds we still face.

Confronted with this reality, we would do well to learn from King Hezekiah, and we at Temple Beth-El have the capacity to put this wisdom into practice right now.

Our congregation strives to be an intentional and interconnected spiritual community where we all help each other grow Jewishly, flourish personally, and build a better world. But, if we are honest, sometimes we miss the mark. There are exquisite moments when I experience our cohesiveness and unity, moments when God’s presence is palpable, when I am convinced not only that our community will endure but that it will thrive long into the future because of the sanctity, love, and strength we bring to each others’ lives. Such moments are the essence of Jewish life, the way we nurture the souls of those who are here with us this day, and the way we inspire those who are not here with us today to embrace us tomorrow.

But there are also times, and I suspect you have felt them too, when we feel atomized, a collection of smaller sub-communities, groups, and even cliques. When I see us cluster within our own social, demographic, and geographical groups, I become sad. I know how it hurts people, and how it diminishes each of our lives. And I become afraid, for I know that congregations where people separate from one another physically, emotionally, and spiritually drive people away and endanger their own future.

This year, we are attempting to tackle this challenge head-on in multiple ways. One major new effort is The Havurah Project, a program that connects small groups of community members across social and demographic divides at the common space of the Shabbat table. Through this simple idea – congregants sharing Shabbat with other congregants in each other’s homes – we will weave a stronger and more cohesive communal fabric. I’m pleased to announce that nearly a quarter of our congregation, folks ranging in age from 6 months to 90+, is participating in this pilot year of The Havurah Project!

Registration for the Havurah Project is closed, but if you want to participate and for some reason missed the boat, drop me a line. I’ll see if there’s something we can do. At the very least, we hope to have even more of you participate in the project in the future. Through the Havurah Project, we are bridging communal divides and helping deepen each of our relationships with each other, with the community as a whole, and with the Jewish tradition. By coming together in this way, our community will grow stronger and more vibrant.

But the Havurah Project is just the beginning. There is something even more significant that we must do. If we are to be one congregational community, we need one spiritual home. As King Hezekiah demonstrated two thousand years ago, the only way for us to secure our community’s future is to create one campus.

One community. One shared future. One campus. A vision for our congregation that is both beautiful in its simplicity and profound in its necessity.

For the past two decades, we have owned, operated, maintained, and divided time between two disparate campuses.

When we began building our school campus on Parham, the rationale was simple: We needed more space. As a fundraising pamphlet printed at the time explains:

Our school building is no longer adequate for Temple Beth-El’s needs. The classrooms are too small and too few. We do not have a usable library with computer work stations, reading areas, and a broad selection of books. Nor do we have a chapel for holding services at the school. Simply stated, we have outgrown our current building.  

Expanding may have made sense at the time, and may have adequately addressed our facilities needs, at least while we were a congregation of over 800 families. But today, our congregation is half the size it was back then. And while we’re growing, it is very unlikely that we will swell back to that size any time soon, given the headwinds we face. Our original reason for having two campuses no longer applies.

But it’s not just about having too much space. It’s that our two-campus model has harmed us and threatens our future.

Over the past twenty years, having two campuses has divided us socially, culturally, and spiritually. When part of our community primarily engages with one campus, and the other part of our community primarily engages with another, how can anyone feel that they are part of one cohesive community?

We have seen how our two campuses have split us into distinct “School” and “shul” communities and distinct West-End and city communities, both with the look and feel of being autonomous communities in their own rights.

We have seen how having two campuses has led to the development of a community of congregants who gravitate to Parham, and a community of congregants who gravitate to Grove, how it has led to a reality in which many of our children never set foot in our sanctuary until their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and in which many of our elders never encounter the vibrant sound of our children learning Torah.

Having two homes communicates that our differences are greater than that which unites us, and that our demographic loyalties or needs as individual religious consumers are more precious than the larger community we share.

Our current two-campus model also disables us from adequately investing – emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, financially – in either venue. We can all see the results: This once magnificent campus, which was built by the parents and grandparents of the people in this room – has been permitted to fall into disrepair before our very eyes. Resources are always scarce, and funds that could be used to restore, renovate, and redesign this campus are perpetually diverted to the Parham building.

Meanwhile, our Parham campus is also showing signs of age. Funds we need to make necessary repairs there are being diverted to projects like fixing the social hall ceiling here. We simply can’t afford the facilities we want and need at both locations.

And the fact that human and financial resources need to be channelled to the upkeep and operation of both buildings means we have less to allocate to the real business of congregational life. It makes our staff less able to collaborate, focus, and execute our holy work with quality and efficiency. And we as a congregation can’t adequately invest in the kind of vibrant programming we envision, or the outreach work we need to do in order to grow. The result is perpetually diminishing returns.

But, to paraphrase the great Eastern philosopher Lao Tzu, when we let go of what we are, we can become what we might be. If we were to share one campus, we could emphasize our collective past, present, and future. If we were to coalesce around one symbol – a physical, tangible, symbol – congregants of diverse backgrounds and needs could discover and take pride in their shared identity. It would also strengthen and solidify our place in the public’s perception.

Having one common space would enable everyone in our community, regardless of where they are from, to engage with each other in times of pain and in times of joy. It would help us forge stronger bonds and bring meaning and holiness to each other at each stage of our life’s journeys.

Having one campus would enable us to invest our finite resources where they most matter: into the programs and engagement tools we need to nurture a dynamic, passionate, and heymish spiritual community where we support and inspire each other.

I know that the path to creating one shared campus will be a long and challenging one. I’m also aware that we’ve tried this before and have failed. To be successful, our entire community must walk this path side by side, hand in hand. It cannot only be about one person’s vision. All of our voices have to be heard. Plans will have to be developed and debated. Resources will have to be raised. Difficult decisions will have to be made.

We must overcome our fears through our faith in each other and in the importance of our community’s purpose. We must overcome our cynicism borne of past failures and present frustrations with hope for the bright future God is holding out for us.

Yes, it may be a hard road ahead. But, to paraphrase Anais Nin, the day has come when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more dangerous than the risk it will take to blossom. Either we address this issue now, together, our own way, or the modern-day Assyrians will do it for us.

So this year, under the leadership of our Visioning Steering Committee, we are going to start the process. Our first step will be to convene focus groups comprised of a diverse and representative cross-section of our congregation to hear from you about what you would like a synagogue campus to do for you. These groups will not focus on questions of geography – as in which of our current campuses do you prefer – but rather on what features a facility would need to have in order for it to maximally contribute to nurturing communal connection and spiritual engagement.

Our ushers are now coming down the aisles and handing out postcards. These postcards explain how we will conduct these focus groups, and what will be expected from the participants of those gatherings.

On the card you’ll find a link to an online registration form. If you would like to take part in one of our focus groups, please either go to that website and register or return your filled-out card to the Temple office. The deadline for registering is Erev Yom Kippur, Tuesday, October 11.

Once we receive all the registrations, we will organize the groups and inform participants of the time, date, and location of their gathering. We plan on convening 3 or 4 groups, with 8 to 10 congregants in each, over the next three months. If we receive more registrations than we have space for, we will select participants at random, accounting for the need for as much diversity as possible. But fear not: if you don’t register for a focus group, or if you get spaced out of a focus group, we will offer other ways for you to share your thoughts.

Our next step, which will occur this winter, will be to survey the entire congregation, to hear all of your views and to refine and sharpen what we learned from the focus groups. Again, we won’t be focusing on questions of “where,” but rather on “what.”

Meanwhile, we will be conducting in-depth analyses of both of our campuses to ascertain the opportunities and limitations of both properties.

Once we amass and study all of that data, most likely this spring, we will engage qualified professionals to work with us in designing multiple models for a campus that will meet our needs and desires, as well as providing us with a full understanding of the values of our current assets and creating multiple models for how we might be able to finance our dreams. Ultimately, perhaps by this time next year, we will ask all of you to weigh in on a final vision for our future home. Then, the real work of bringing our dreams to life will begin. I hope you will partner with us for each step of this exciting journey.

Throughout our people’s history, every vision of redemption has involved one people coming together as one community in one space. The vision that got us out of Egypt was joining together and marching through the wilderness to the Promised Land, a country we were to inherit, conquer, and inhabit together. The vision that saved us from the Assyrians was coalescing around the Temple, one spiritual space where we could gather and celebrate and cry and pray together as one community. And the prophetic vision for the Messianic era is “והביאנו לשלום מארבע כנפות הארץ ותוליכנו קוממיות לארצנו / You will bring us from the four corners of the earth into wholeness and lead us fearlessly into our land.”

Deep in my heart I know that the time for our congregation’s redemption is at hand. And it can only be realized by us coming together, as one community, with one home.

So, I invite you to pray with me: Adonai, El po’el yeshu’ot, Holy One, the Power that makes for redemption, in the year to come, let us join together, let us be together, let us build together. Let us stand – secure in the faith that we stand strongest only when we stand – together.

Shanah Tovah.

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Remarks at 2016 Community Eid Dinner

As-Salam-u-Alaikum and Eid Mubarak.

Adira joins me in expressing what an honor it is to be with you this evening. I am deeply grateful to the organizers for their generous invitation, for all their holy work on behalf of the local Muslim community and for a more inclusive Virginia, and, above all, for their friendship. Shukran.

I join you tonight holding a bit of cognitive dissonance. As I share with you in the joy of your sacred occasion, I am still in the final hours of the observance of the saddest day in my tradition’s calendar, known as Tisha B’Av, or the Fast of the Ninth Day of the Hebrew month of Av. On this day, for 24 hours, from sunset to sunset, Jews are forbidden from eating and drinking…As I stare at the baklava…Here’s something that was not on the list of ironies in that famous song, “It’s like being a Jew who gets invited to a Muslim community’s delicious food-filled celebration of the end of a month-long fast on the one day your religion requires you to fast. Isn’t it ironic?”

But the contrast of our two observances is not all dissonance. Tisha B’Av commemorates the most tragic day in Jewish history, the day nearly two millennia ago when the Roman legions sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple – the epicenter of ancient Jewish religious life and, metaphorically, at least, God’s dwelling place on earth. Rabbinic tradition insists that this historical devastation was not random. Rather, ruin was the result of Jewish society being mired in what they called sinat hinam, unfettered hatred. When the rabbis autopsied their people’s trauma, they concluded that hate leads to ruin.

Last night, Rev. Ben Campbell, whom many of you know well, graciously agreed to join us at our community’s Tisha B’Av observance. We were also blessed to have Dr. Damaj with us. Rev. Campbell reflected on the prescience of that rabbinic teaching, reminding us that, above all else, the ancient Jewish Temple symbolized unity. In antiquity, the Children of Israel were a disparate collection of ethnically similar tribes. The Temple would become the place where they would all meet as one, where they would be reminded of their fundamental brotherhood and sisterhood. Having one central house of worship reminded those ancient Jews of God’s oneness, a belief that implies the shared parentage not only of all Jews, but also of all humanity. Rev. Campbell pointed out that it makes perfect sense for the rabbis to claim unfettered hatred brought about the destruction of the Temple. Disintegration (“dis-integration,” in his words) is the natural result of our refusal to integrate. The symbol of oneness can only be torn apart by rampant separateness.

And it goes even deeper: The Jewish tradition has us mourn the destruction of the Temple each year and, in some senses, every day. We do this in order to direct our attention to the fact that the Temple still lies in ruins. Or, to put it in the words of my friend Rabbi David Ingber, every day that the Temple is not, as it were, rebuilt, it is being destroyed. The Talmud teaches that, each and every night, God awakens multiple times and roars like an injured lion, crying, “Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!” (Berakhot 3a). The world is broken through dis-integration, and daily remains broken through our failure to come together.

We live in a time when this tragic reality has never been more apparent. In an era where there is more possibility for togetherness than at any other time in history, powerful forces who profit from disunity and hatred constantly seek to pull us apart, exploiting our fears to turn us into enemies. We must not let them. Violent extremists taunt us into becoming as brutal as they are. Homegrown demagogues lure us to respond by normalizing prejudice and by giving thinly-veiled license for violent vigilantism. The massacre in Orlando and yesterday’s murders outside a New York mosque are two manifestations of the same basic spiritual sickness. The Temple is destroyed whenever we permit ourselves to hate each other.

But the Jewish tradition insists that there is a remedy for this seemingly ceaseless cycle of brokenness. V’yerushalayim irkha b’rahamim tashuv. Three times daily, the observant Jew prays: You, God, will restore Jerusalem, Your city, through love. If destruction occurs because of dis-integration, then redemption can be brought about through integration, through unity, through togetherness, through love. If the Temple is destroyed because of unfettered hatred, then it can be restored through unconstrained love. We can repair our broken world by coming together, by refusing to be enemies, by resiliently striving to be each other’s allies. Friends. Brothers and sisters.

And make no mistake: that’s what we’re doing here. We are repairing the world, all of us, together. We may not be able to change the whole world here, tonight. But we can change our own hearts. We can pray together for an end to hate, but our prayers cannot be answered until we begin to love. We can pray for redemption, but our prayers cannot be answered until we become agents of that redemption. Tonight, we model the kind of togetherness and unconstrained love we want to see in our country and world, and commit to becoming agents of redemption. It may not repair all that is broken, but it is a beautiful start.

In that sense, it feels fitting to close with two prayers. The first is a prayer by St. Francis, because, to me, nothing says “togetherness” like a Jew sharing a Catholic prayer at an Eid dinner. Feel free to join with me if you know the words:

God, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

The second prayer is actually a contemporary song called “Salaam” by the Israeli band Sheva, a group made up of Muslims and Jews who fuse traditional Jewish and Arab music with contemporary rock, forging something unique and beautiful. The words mean, “Peace will yet come upon us, and upon everyone. Peace. Upon us and upon all the world. Peace, peace.” The song uses both the Hebrew, “shalom,” and the Arabic, “salaam,” when referring to peace. If you know the words, you are welcome to sing along with me.

Od yavo shalom aleinu, v‘al kulam

Salaam, aleinu v’al kol ha-olam, salaam, salaam.

Taqabbala Allahu minna wa minkum. Shalom.

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Baccalaureate Address for Maggie Walker Governor’s School, Class of 2016

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I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited here this evening. It is such an honor to be with you, to celebrate this extraordinary milestone with you and your families.

I want to share a story with you. It’s one of my favorite Jewish stories, written by my rabbinic forebears nearly two thousand years ago:

It once happened that a group of travellers set out on a boat. As they drifted out into the middle of the sea, one of the passengers took out a drill, and started to drill beneath his seat.

The other passengers begin to notice and ask, “What are you doing?”

“I’m drilling a hole!” the man replies.

“Why are you digging a hole?” the other passengers ask, incredulously.

“Why? Because it’s a nice day for drilling holes!”

As the passengers see the hole grow bigger and bigger, they began to cry and beg, “Please! Please, stop! You must stop! Don’t you see that you’re going to sink the boat?!”

The man was perplexed by their concerns. “Why are you so upset? After all, I’m only drilling under my own seat!”

Of course, we know that the driller’s attitude is absurd. If a hole is drilled in a boat, water will rush in, the boat will sink, and all the passengers will drown. Everyone is impacted, not just those near the hole. When we’re all in the same boat, it doesn’t matter if a hole is made only under one person’s seat, only in one part of the boat. One person’s problem is in reality everyone’s problem.

Why does this story matter? Why am I sharing it with you this evening, as you stand at the cusp of your high school graduation? Because the truth at the core of this story applies not only to boats, but also to our world. Though it sometimes might seem that we occupy a relatively small and insignificant place in a large world, that our lives do not touch people on the other side of Richmond, much less on the other side of the planet, the truth is that, in actuality, we are all in the same boat.

It has always been true that everyone and everything on our planet is, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” But in our time, the fact of our interconnectedness has become even more inescapable. A few years ago, President Obama reminded a crowd in Germany that “the 21st [century] has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.” To support that claim, Obama offered some powerful and compelling evidence:

The terrorists of September 11th plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil.

As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.

Poorly secured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, or secrets from a scientist in Pakistan could help build a bomb that detonates in Paris. The poppies in Afghanistan become the heroin in Berlin. The poverty and violence in Somalia breeds the terror of tomorrow. The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.

Obama’s words have stayed with me over the past few years as I have seen their truth continue to play out in the unfolding drama of our time. Each passing day seems to reveal more and more how our world is totally intertwined, how we are all connected in infinite and immeasurable ways. We see how poverty doesn’t only impact the poor, how racism doesn’t only impact people of color, how Islamophobia doesn’t only impact Muslims, how homophobia and transphobia doesn’t only impact LGBT individuals. We see how war and suffering halfway across the world cannot be contained by borders or walls or oceans, how conflict in Syria and Iraq can erupt in Paris and Brussels, in San Bernardino and Orlando. This is what King meant when he wrote from a Birmingham Jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…”

Graduates, this is the world you are inheriting. This is the world you enter into as young adults. An interconnected and interdependent world. A world in which our words and our deeds can have broad and unpredictable impact, for good or ill. A world in which our failing to step up, speak out, or take action can have dire consequences in places you’ve never been to or even heard of. In fact, what we don’t do can matter as much as what we do. Apathy can do as much harm as caring about the wrong things, and having concern for others beside and different from ourselves can do extraordinary good. As the modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we do — everyone — our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment.”

Living in this connected world calls for lives of responsibility: responsibility for each other, responsibility for the other, responsibility for our entire planet. It’s not enough to look out for ourselves and to take care only of those closest to us. We must expand our spheres of concern and compassion.

And – we must pay attention. We must care about what’s going on and get involved, even if the issues don’t directly impact us. As the Book of Deuteronomy teaches, “You must not look away.” We cannot avert our eyes from injustice and act as though it isn’t our problem. In an interconnected world, someone else’s problem is your problem, too.

We are all in the same boat. I cannot promise you that it will always be smooth sailing. But I do know that you, class of 2016, you have the power to keep it afloat, you have the power to keep our course true. And if you do, you will play your part in helping us all make it to the Promised Land, a world of compassion, justice, and peace. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.

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Moses for President

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As the U.S. presidential primary process slouches toward what will doubtlessly be a contested convention season this summer, I find myself not infrequently wondering what guidance the Jewish tradition would have for selecting our next leader. I have already written that Judaism would advocate against a particular candidate in the race. But who would the Jewish tradition urge us to support?

The answer I’ve settled upon is that Judaism endorses not a specific contemporary candidate but rather a prototype, and that, if possible, we ought to support the candidate who each of us feels most closely embodies this prototype. So, I humbly offer the prototypical Jewish presidential nominee, and just in time for Passover: Moses for president.

Let’s get the attack ads out of the way first. Raised in Pharaoh’s palace (Exodus 2:9), it would be easy to characterize Moses as an out-of-touch one-percenter who cannot identify with the struggles of the common person. Indeed, Moses’ would-be followers seem to have leveled this line of criticism against him in a few instances (2:14, 5:21). He is not a talented orator (4:10, et. al.) and seems to have a hot temper (2:12, et. al.). And he is not reputed to have been a devoted family-man, focusing on his career at the expense of caring for his wife and son (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Tzav 13).

But while Moses is by no means a perfect person, he possesses qualities that uniquely qualify him for leadership.

First, Moses is a man of questions. While he has only a handful of lines of dialogue in the biblical narrative before he receives God’s call, most of those lines are questions (cf. 2:13, 3:3, 3:11, etc.). And even Moses’ statements and actions prior to his commission that are not technically questions are investigatory in nature (cf. 2:11, 3:3). Despite the fact that many of us associate leadership with decisiveness, leadership is more accurately about discovery. A leader must determine the best way forward for his or her followers, which requires the curiosity and courage to discover the uncharted. In other words, while we ultimately look to our leaders to make firm decisions, the best leaders are the ones who ask a lot of questions in order to get the information necessary to make deeply informed decisions. God needed a leader to liberate the Israelites, and since leadership requires asking good questions, God needed Moses, a man of questions.

A second, and related, quality that uniquely qualifies Moses for leadership is his humility. The Book of Numbers refers to Moses as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (12:3). Moses repeatedly insists to God that he is not suited to lead (Exodus 3:11, et. al.). Perhaps ironically, however, Moses’ failure to recognize his own greatness is precisely what makes him great; his inability to see his own leadership potential is exactly what qualifies him to lead. Great leaders ask a lot of questions, and inquisitive people are by definition humble. Arrogant people generally fail to recognize what they do not yet know and are thus incapable of intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. Modest people, on the other hand, are aware of their intellectual deficiencies, skeptical of their own certainties, open to changing their minds based on learning new information, and eager to grow.
Additionally, great leaders respect and admire their followers. They humbly recognize their followers’ strengths, learn from their expertise, nurture their partnership, and unleash their latent potential. Arrogant people make poor leaders because they look down on others and have little patience for those they view as inferior. For these reasons, haughtiness is consistently called out in the Bible and rabbinic literature as the most contemptible of qualities, while humility makes one fit to lead.

The third and final quality that moves me to endorse Moses for president is his sensitivity to others’ pain and his passion for justice. Good leaders take their followers down paths that will improve their lives. Great leaders recognize that this responsibility is most relevant to those who suffer the most – the poor, the weak, and the systemically disadvantaged.

Moreover, great leaders recognize that improving the lives of the worst-off often requires tremendous courage, for doing so can involve the unpopular or dangerous tasks of upending some people’s privilege when that privilege causes oppression. In the biblical narrative, Moses repeatedly and bravely defends the weak when they are oppressed by the powerful, and uplifts the disadvantaged.

The first time we encounter Moses in the text as an adult, he is leaving Pharaoh’s palace, his childhood home, in order to witness the subjugation of the Israelites, an act the rabbinic tradition interprets as Moses taking the initiative to become aware of others’ suffering and become pained about it (Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 1:27). When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, he is so outraged by the injustice that he physically intervenes – a self-sacrificing act that forces him to flee Egypt, leaving behind the wealth and power of the palace (Exodus 2:11-15).

When he sees some shepherds harassing a group of women and preventing them from drawing well-water, he rises to the women’s defense, chasing away the shepherds and even helping the women water their flock (2:17). It is telling that God only calls upon Moses to liberate the Israelites after these events take place, as if God chooses Moses because of these acts of moral courage. Indeed, Moses is so passionate about fair treatment, so sensitive to others’ suffering, that he is even willing to directly challenge God’s commitment to justice (5:22-23).

In the view of the Jewish tradition, a great leader need not be perfect, but he or she must, like Moses, be inquisitive, modest, and compassionate. Do any of the current presidential candidates meet the Moses standard? The answer, of course, depends on each person’s judgment. Personally, I see ways in which each of the leading candidates embody Mosaic values and ways in which they do not. But we don’t typically get to elect the perfect candidate, just the best of the options we have. If we were to wait to vote for Moses, we might never cast a ballot.

What we can do – those of us who agree that Moses is a worthy political prototype – is to evaluate the candidates and decide who best, even if imperfectly, aligns with his virtues. We may not get to elect Moses for president. But perhaps we can come close.

Reposted from http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/rabbis-round-table/.premium-1.715420

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30 Days of Liberation – 2016

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The Talmud teaches that, during the 30 days before Passover, we should learn about matters related to the holiday. In that spirit, I composed a brief message for each of the previous 30 days, drawing from the wisdom Passover imparts. I hope you find these messages meaningful and inspiring, and if you do, feel free to share any or all of them far and wide.
Day 1 – Pharaonic Politics
“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground'” (Exodus 1:8-10). So the Passover drama begins. Pharaoh rises to power through rallying his people around a common, if implausible, enemy – a growing immigrant population – and launches a campaign of intimidation, subjugation, and brutalization against this imagined foe. Too often in history, would-be leaders pursue power by identifying enemies rather than through proposing practical solutions for people’s most pressing challenges. This impulse is understandable. Identifying enemies is easier than developing solutions, and often more effective, especially if one’s objective is power rather than service. After all, believing that a particular person or group are the cause of one’s problems is more satisfying than understanding the complex phenomena at the root of our problems that defy easy solutions. But words have consequences, even if the person uttering them doesn’t really mean what he says. Enemies, once identified, must be battled and, ultimately, destroyed. And, once destroyed, the leader must continually conjure new dragons to slay. Beware, then, the demagogue who appeals to prejudice and fear. Pharaonic politics are eternal.
 
Day 2 – Post-Traumatic Growth
Compelled by Pharaoh’s fear-mongering, the Egyptians impose forced labor upon the Israelites, hoping to neutralize the imagined threat. But “the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out” (Exodus 1:12). The suffering should have crushed the Israelites. Instead, it made them prosper. The same can be true for each of us, if we allow it. Of course, none of us enjoy hardship, and pain need not be welcomed as a gift. However, the wisest among us harness trauma as a catalyst for growth. The next time you experience a difficulty, ask yourself: How can I be more like the Israelites here, growing because of – and in direct proportion to – the challenge I face?
Day 3 – Haters Gonna Hate
The Israelites draw Pharaoh’s ire because of their success: “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). When they prosper despite Pharaoh’s attempt to suppress them, they earn the enmity of the Egyptian people, too (1:12). While it is not wise to set out to make enemies, and while it is always worthy to enlist as many friends, partners, and supporters as we possibly can, we should also remember: success breeds opposition. Ironically, we can know we are on a path to victory when we encounter people trying to stand in our way. When you confront a hater, reflect. Do they have a point, or are they merely pointing out that you’re on the right track?
 
Day 4 – Who Owns Who?
Do you own your stuff, or does your stuff own you? We would typically say that the former describes our relationship with our possessions, but when we consider the lengths we go through to get, hold on to, and maintain certain items, it becomes clear that, for many of us, the latter is at least partially true. One might wonder how the Egyptians managed to enslave an entire population of Israelites already living peacefully and prosperously in its midst. The biblical text records no act of force; there was no police roundup of Israelite communities, no military raid. Instead, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites “b’parekh” (Exodus 1:13). Literally, this translates as “oppressiveness,” but some commentators read it as a contraction of the Hebrew words for “soft speech.” The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites not through coersion but through soft speech. What kind of soft speech? “They told them, ‘Come, build cities that you may dwell in'” (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher). The Israelites were thus enslaved by their own desire for upward social mobility, their yearning for nice, new things. In every age, the same trap is set for us. We are entitled to own nice things, but we must be careful that they do not come to own us.
 
Day 5 – Don’t Live for the Applause
Most of us love being praised. Compliments and “likes” feel good. But adulation has a dark side. It can lead us to ignore important voices of constructive criticism, compel us to do only that which is popular, or cause anxiety when the applause feels more faint. The Passover story seeks to liberate us from praise’s narcotic qualities. Scripture teaches that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites “b’farekh” (Exodus 1:13). Literally, this translates as “oppressiveness,” but some commentators understand it as a contraction ofthe Hebrew words for “soft speech.” The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites not through oppressive force but through kind words. The adoration of others can quickly become a trap from which escape becomes elusive. Enjoy well-earned compliments, but do not let it supplant a healthy self-confidence or a strong internal critic.
 
Day 6 – Spiritual Midwifery
The Exodus story is not only a historical-political narrative; it is also a psycho-spiritual drama, a metaphor that speaks to our inner struggles. We all have an inner Pharaoh, propelled by our fears and our appetites, that seeks to subjugate and subvert our deepest yearnings. So when the biblical Pharaoh plots to kill every newborn Israelite baby boy, it mirrors the fact that within each of us is a force that strives to sabotage our drive to truly flourish. But, as my teacher Reb Sholom Brodt explains, each of us also has an inner midwife, a force within us who is always trying to open doors for our innate goodness to shine forth. The Exodus happens because two brave Israelite midwives heroically refuse to carry out Pharaoh’s horrific law, leading to the birth of Moses. Personal redemption requires empowering our inner midwives to stand up to the designs of our inner Pharaohs.
 
Day 7 – Hear and Believe
Two cries. Two responses. One message. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers a crying baby in a basket among the reeds on the banks of the Nile. She “took pity on him,” drew him from the water, and adopted him as her son. Later, God hears the cries of the Israelites “groaning under the bondage.” God begins the workof drawing them out of Egypt, and taking them in as a beloved. Too often, we insulate ourselves from, rationalize away, or even ignore the suffering of others. The Exodus story reminds us that redemption only happens when we enable ourselves to hear and believe those entreaties. Not only must we commit ourselves to acknowledging the cries, but we also must choose not to see them as manipulations, delusions, or expressions of weakness, but rather as authentic outbursts of pain and need.
 
Day 8 – Adulthood
When exactly does one become an adult? Do we cross the threshold to adulthood at a particular age? A particular stage of biological development? Or does it have to do with our level of maturity and responsibility? If the latter, what ought to be the standard? The Book of Exodus says twice of Moses, “and he grew up” (2:10, 2:11). A midrash teaches that the first statement refers to Moses’ physical maturity, while the latter refers to Moses’ character. In other words, Moses only truly becomes an adult when he demonstrates moral greatness. And what is that? He “permitted his eyes and his heart to be pained” by witnessing the Israelites’ labor (Exodus Rabbah 1:27). We reach adulthood only when we open our eyes to suffering in the world, and when we permit ourselves to be pained by it.
 
Day 9 – From Great to Good
What makes us great? Usually, we think of greatness as a condition resulting from success, conventionally understood. However, Passover teaches us something different. Twice, the Book ofExodus says of Moses, “and he grew up” (2:10, 2:11). A midrash teaches that the first statement is about Moses’ size, and the second is about his “greatness.” What makes Moses great? He went out to witness the Israelites’ labor, permitting himself to be pained by their pain, and then struck down an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, an act that forced him to flee Egypt, leaving behind the wealth and power of Pharaoh’s palace. Moses’ greatness comes not from success. Rather, it is his character – his compassion, his moral courage – that makes him great. Our worth is not dictated by our successes or our failures. Only when we strive to be good can we become great.

Day 10 – Leaders Ask Questions
Why did God choose Moses? Over the centuries, biblical commentators have suggested many answers to this question, but it was because leaders ask questions, and Moses was a man of questions. Indeed, while Moses has only a handful of dialogue lines before God calls him, most of those lines are questions (cf. 2:13, 3:3, 3:11, etc.). And even Moses’ statements and actions prior to his commission that are not technically questions are investigatory in nature (cf. 2:11, 3:3). Leadership is about discovering the best way forward, which requires the curiosity to discover the uncharted, the humility to recognize what one does not yet know, and the courage to figure it out. God needed a leader, and since a leader asks questions, God needed Moses, a man of questions. Wherever you are called to lead, the path toliberation will only be discovered by asking.
Day 11 – Timing is Everything
At the end of chapter 2 of the Book of Exodus, there’s a strange passage: “A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” Did the Israelites not cry out before this? Did God somehow not hear or see what was going on? Did God forget the covenant? What did God not know? And what does the death of Pharaoh have to do with anything? The answer, in a word, is timing. In order for the Israelites to be redeemed, God needs Moses to return to Egypt. In order for Moses to return, the Pharaoh that sentenced him to death had to be out of the picture (Abraham ibn Ezra, 2:23). At the same time, since people have free will, a new Pharaoh could have ended Israelite enslavement, so God had to wait and see what the new Pharaoh would do. When God saw that the new Pharaoh chose to perpetuate the oppression, “God knew” it was time. If any of these circumstances had been otherwise, even God’s best plans to redeem the Israelites would have been thwarted. Even God had to wait until the time was right. The same is true for us: we may have a great idea, but unless it’s the right time, unless the conditions are just right to enable the idea to flourish, even our best plans will ultimately be a waste. Don’t underestimate the importance of timing in your life.
Day 12 – How the Force Really Awakens
Many of us associate moments of spiritual awakening with serendipity: the unassuming person, going about his or her daily business, is suddenly and inescapably struck by the divine spirit, or by a flash of brilliant insight. Think Paul on the road to Damascus, or Rey discovering she’s strong with the Force. That’s why so manyof us are “spiritual but not religious.” But while those kind of experiences are certainly possible, you are far more likely to have such a moment if you set out looking for it. Rather than by being randomly struck with a bright idea, the inventor innovates by working hard to solve a problem, and the musician composes by sitting to write music. So too is the seeker most likely to receive spiritual connection and insight through practices like meditation, prayer, or the study of sacred text. The truth is it’s hard to be spiritual without the help of religious practice. According to the medieval Italian commentator Seforno, Moses doesn’t stumble upon the Burning Bush by accident. Rather, he went to the “Mountain of God” to pray and meditate (2:1). Only by seeking God can he – and we – encounter God.
Day 13 – No Secrets
One of the principles of traditional Jewish study is that the Torah contains nothing superfluous. A seemingly unnecessary word is not just a clever turn-of-phrase, but rather harbors deeper meaning. So when God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush and says, “I saw, I have surely seen the suffering of my people in Egypt,” the classical commentators assume there’s a good reason for the excess verbiage. Abraham Ibn Ezra says it means God saw not only the violence done to the Israelites in public, but also what was done to them in private, reminding us that, from the Jewish perspective, there is no morally neutral deed, no act without significance. We may think certain behaviors are innocuous because they take place in private. Ibn Ezra reminds us that we are never alone. Everything we do matters.
Day 14 – Sacrificing the Present
Since the Torah contains nothing superfluous, many classical commentators take an interest in Exodus 3:7, when God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush and says, “I saw, I have surely seen the suffering of my people in Egypt.” Musaf Rashi, a medieval commentary on Rashi, says it means God saw the sins Israel would commit in the future (e.g. with the Golden Calf), but nevertheless acted to save them because of what God saw in the present. Often, we refrain from doing what is necessary right now because of a fear of how things will turn out down the road. While it is certainly important to consider the future consequences of our actions, God reminds us that we must not sacrifice the present moment for the unknown future. As the Eastern mystic Lao Tzu once wrote, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Day 15 – The Inner I
When God tasks Moses with liberating the Israelites, Moses replies “Who am I (mi anokhi) that I should go to Pharaoh?” Interestingly, in the Hebrew, the word Moses uses for I, “anokhi,” is more famously used when God speaks about God’s self. Human speakers usually use the word “ani.” Perhaps Moses unwittingly hints here that there is godliness within him, he just hasn’t recognized it yet. That’s why God’s response is so powerful: “I will be with you.” In other words, God is telling Moses, there is already an “anokhi” within you, and when you set out on this sacred task, your inner I will be the one empowering you. The same is true with us. There is already godliness within us, and we too can accomplish wonders, if only we could see and embrace it.

Day 16 – Who am I?
When God tasks Moses with liberatingthe Israelites, Moses humbly replies “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” God offers the somewhat inscrutable response, “This will be your sign that I have sent you.” What, exactly, is the sign? According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, Moses’ acknowledgement of his own inadequacy is itself the sign that God has sent him. Moses is qualified to go to Pharaoh precisely because of his humility, his recognition that he has not yet reached his spiritual, moral, and intellectual potential. The fact that Moses would say “Who am I” is the sign that he is God’s chosen. A leader is qualified only when he or she can freely admit his or her own inadequacies, and we can do God’s work in the world only when we can affirm our need to grow.

Day 17 – The Real Revolution of the Exodus
At the Burning Bush, Moses asks for God’s name, and God responds opaquely, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” usually translated as “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be.” Such a mysterious answer begs for interpretation, however, and indeed there are hundreds ofways to understand it. Allow me to propose one more: I am that which is. I am all ofexistence. I am the ultimate reality. The Israelites were not just slaves in Egypt, they were slaves of Egypt, accepting the premises upon which Egyptian society was based: that some people are inherently more valuable than others, that worth could only be measured in wealth, that the material was of such importance the dead needed to carry it with them to the next world. Liberation from Egypt, then, required not only freedom from slavery, but also from the Egyptian mentality. And thus God’s first message to the Israelites, through Moses, the real revolution of the Exodus that still echoes today, is that there is more to reality than what can be touched and things more important than what can be bought; that, in a world where all is One in God, everyone is of equal and infinite value.

Day 18 – Stages of Redemption
The number four repeatedly appears in the rituals ofPassover observance: there are four questions, four cups ofwine, four sons, etc. Tradition holds that this number corresponds to four terms for liberation uttered by God in Exodus 6:6-7, “I will take you out,” “I will save you,” “I will redeem you,” and “I will take you.” Some commentators teach that these are actually four distinct stages ofliberation, rather than mere synonyms (cf. Beit Ya’akov). First, the people had to be physically removed from their enslavement. Then, they had to be saved from their own learned tolerance for injustice. Next, they had to be redeemed from the ways in which their suffering had twisted their own souls. Only then could they be taken by God, only then could they be fully committed to their new, true Master, God. The same is true of our own personal liberation, whatever it may be. We ultimately want to be free of all that holds us back from flourishing, but this requires a few steps. First, we must distance ourselves from whatever is trapping us in our current situation, whether that be our own actions or the influences of others. Then, we must address our complacency with the status quo. Next, we must eradicate within ourselves our desire, born of comfort or fear, to return to the very contexts that trapped us. Only then can we live truly liberated lives.
Day 19 – Becoming Prophets
One of the most misunderstood biblical concepts is that of a prophet. A prophet was not an ascetic mystic or a clairvoyant fortune-teller. Rather, a prophet was a person who spoke out about God’s will. A prophet was God’s public defender. So, when God tells Moses, “I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet” (Exodus 7:1), God teaches that one can fill a prophetic role not only for God, but also for other people. After all, every person is made in God’s image, and every man and woman is, in a sense, our brother or sister. The redemptive promise of Passover invites us to recognize those people in our lives who function as our prophets, to nurture relationships with those who could become our prophets, and, most importantly, to become prophets for the voiceless Images of God in our lives.
Day 20 – How to Get to Carnegie Hall
Much ink has been spilt on the issue of the hardening ofPharaoh’s heart. A hard heart is a biblical euphemism for recalcitrance, a stubborn refusal to yield to the dictates ofconscience and compassion. Pharaoh’s hard heart is what prevents him from setting the Israelites free, and in turn what causes God to unleash the 10 plagues. But in several instances, the text implies that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, which calls into question the justice of his being punished through the plagues. However, I think the term “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (cf. Exodus 10:27) is an idiom. When Homer writes that Athena guides Diomedes’ spear, all he means is that Diomedes threw his spear with exceptional accuracy. Similarly, God hardening Pharaoh’s heart simply means that Pharaoh’s recalcitrance – in the face of all the evidence – was extraordinary. How does one get to be so stubborn, so callous? Well, how does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, of course. Pharaoh had made a habit of his own coldness. He had trained himself to respond to injustice with cruelty, to opportunities to change with digging in his heels. Eventually, the response became instinctive. A sin leads to another sin, the rabbis teach, while a good deed leads to another good deed. The way to condition ourselves to act justly when it matters is to make a point of regularly doing good.
Day 21 – Hearts and Livers
What exactly is a hardened heart, anyway? A particularly colorful midrash likens it to a twice-cooked liver. Cooked once, properly, liver is soft and supple and melts-in-your-mouth. Cooked twice, improperly, it is tough and virtually inedible. More importantly, the exterior of such a liver becomes impermeable, like rubber. That’s what happens to Pharaoh. His heart becomes incapable of letting things enter: not only the Israelites’ cries and Moses’ pleas, but also the devastation of the plagues and the suffering of his own people. Once the heart is closed off, apathy becomes undiscerning and, as with Pharaoh, that’s when life begins to end.
Day 22 – Because of Righteous Women
One of the most noticeable features of the Seder is the prevalence of the number 4 :4 cupsof wine, 4 questions, the 4 children. There are,of course, a number of explanations for this. Symbolism always works that way. But I think the Seder itself answers this question. In the song “Ehad Mi Yode’a (Who Knows One)?” that we seeing toward the end of the service, four is understood to represent the Matriarchs, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Perhaps the rabbis who designed the Seder were trying to tell us something about the strong connection between righteous women and redemption, that the second cannot exist without the first. Indeed, the Exodus story is replete with examples of brave women risking everything in order to ensure that liberation happens, and the rabbinic tradition insists that redemption occurred only on account of the righteous women of that generation. The women kept faith while the men lost it, were resilient while the men faltered, stood up while men capitulated. The Seder reminds us that if we want to learn the lessons of our history, and to know the right direction for our future, we must look to the leadership and moral courage of women.
Day 23 – The Death of Firstbornism
Of the ten plagues, the one that stands out as the most brutal, and perhaps the most confounding, is the last one, the Death of the Firstborn. Why did every firstborn Egyptian, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well” have to die in order for the Israelites to be set free (Exodus 12:29)? Because it was not about killing individuals; it was about dismantling an ideology. Time and again, the Torah establishes Egypt as a foil for the biblical worldview; Egypt embodies the exact opposite of Israel’s values. At the core of Egyptian values is ingrained hierarchy. Where Israel sees human dignity as equal, absolute, and infinite, Egypt sees it as contingent on birth order, family status, and wealth. Where Egypt sees one’s origin as determinative of one’s destiny, Israel sees the right and ability we each have to transcend the circumstances into which we are born. Throughout the Bible, first-born children are supplanted by more meritorious younger siblings: Isaac, Jacob, and David, to name a few. Killing the firstborn is a repudiation of Egypt’s outlook on the primacy of one’s past and an embrace of true human freedom, the potential each of us has to transcend our inherited limitations.

Day 24 – How to See God
When Pharaoh’s magicians could not replicate the third plague, lice, they exclaimed, “This is the finger ofGod!” (Exodus 8:19). Yet Pharaoh refused to accept their conclusions. Indeed, Pharaoh fails to recognize God’s role in the plagues despite repeated acts that cannot be otherwise explained. How could Pharaoh have been so obtuse back then? The answer, of course, is the same many of us are today. God is not a premise that can be proven or disproven based on the quality of the argumentation or the preponderance of the evidence. Instead, we can experience God only after we first determine to see God’s presence in the world. If we don’t first commit to seeing God at work in the world, then even the most spectacular of miracles will appear bereft of the divine. However, when we approach the world expecting to see God’s presence, then even the most mundane occurrences will radiate godly light. Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” The Exodus story and the Jewish tradition establishes Einstein’s insight as a spiritual and a moral choice each of us perpetually faces.

Day 25 – Inner Fire
“When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation” (Exodus 9:23-24).  A midrashic tradition holds that this hail was unique, special, miraculous: the “lightning” referenced in the passage was actually inside the hail. The hail of the 7th plague was a ball of ice with fire in the middle. Perhaps this was to remind the Egyptians that no matter how cold they were toward Israelite suffering, there remained within them a soft, caring heart waiting to be revealed in compassion for the plight of others. We too can sometimes be apathetic to others’ pain. The hail reminds us that this is not who we are at our core. And we too can lose our sense of purpose in the routines and responsibilities of our lives. The hail reminds us that, even so, our passion perpetually blazes within, waiting to be rediscovered and unleashed.
Day 26 – Story Shapes Us
One of the unique features of humanity is that we are a storytelling species. No other animal so uses narrative to construct and understand its reality. Our stories literally shape us. From the earliest days in our lives, the narratives our parents, teachers, and other caregivers tell us nurture our perception of others, ourselves, and our relationship with everything. Thus the central imperative of the Exodus narrative is not to cultivate personal liberation or even to redeem the oppressed, important though those lessons derived from the story may be. Rather, it is “And on that day you shall tell your son” (Ex. 13:8), a command that shapes the primary ritual of Passover, the Seder. The instruction to tell our children the story of Passover is not to remember the history, per se. Nor is it to teach our children about their heritage. Rather, it is to shape them – and us – into people whose relationship to reality is rooted in the narrative. Only through the act of telling the story can we come to see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt; and only then can we see how we are still slaves or Pharaohs, how others are oppressed or oppressors, and to know on which side of our reality, understood in the shadow of the story, we are called to stand.
Day 27 – Recognizing Your Siblings
The ninth plague, darkness, is often overshadowed by the plague that comes before it, locusts, and the profoundly more extreme plague that succeeds it, the death of the firstborn. But embedded in the account of the darkness plague is a key to theliberation to which Passover invites us. Look closely at what happens when Moses causes darkness to fall on Egypt. The text doesn’t say people could not see each other. Rather, it says “a person could not see his brother” (Exodus 10:23). Was the darkness literal darkness? Or is it a metaphor, a darkness borne of Egyptians’ inability to recognize in the face of the other their brother or sister. A society that abides oppression is by definition one where people do not see their fellow men and women as the siblings they truly are. And such a society is enveloped in darkness. During the darkness, “All the Children of Israel enjoyed light in their dwellings.” To qualify as a child of Israel, to live in the light, one must recognize the brotherhood and sisterhood of all. Otherwise, one remains plunged in darkness as a child of Egypt.
Day 28 – A Moral Safety Net
Among the most perplexing aspects of the Passover narrative is that, just before the final plague, God tells each Israelite family to sit down together for a meal of lamb “roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs” (Exodus 12:9). This meal, God instructs, is to be eaten on the same night every year following the Exodus, not only on the eve ofliberation itself (12:14), a command that becomes the basis of the Seder ritual practiced by most Jews even today. Why a meal? Why at this moment? Why forever? The Passover story communicates the central moral messages of the Jewish tradition, the eternal missions of the Jewish people: that unity is the fundamental reality, that we are all related to each other, that living in such a world requires treating others with dignity and sowing justice, that we must therefore oppose Pharaohs. We transmit that message through story because narrative is how we construct our reality. We transmit that story through ritual so it can be uniformly passed through generations. And we transmit the ritual through food, because a meal provides an effective context for bringing people together, without which the ritual and the story would be useless. As a friend and teacher put it to me recently, “a meal is a moral safety net.” Without our food, we would risk losing our eternal moral message. Treat your Seder accordingly.

30 Days of Liberation: Day 29 – Carrying the Past With Us

Imagine the moment: God strikes down all the firstborn in Egypt. Pharaoh demands the Children of Israel leave at once. Egyptians rush to the Israelites’ settlements to give them reparations of gold and silver, a mixed multitude flocks to the Israelites to leave Egypt with them, and the Israelites themselves are scrambling to leave, not even having enough time to prepare bread for the journey. And where is Moses in this frenzied and eventful moment? On a lengthy quest to find Joseph’s bones, so he can take them with him out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19, Midrash Aggadah ad. loc.)! Moses’ actions seem perplexing to us moderns. When a future of infinite possibilities calls, why waste time and energy digging up old bones? Moreover, why weigh yourself down on the journey forward by carrying the burdens of the past? Because there is no future detached from the past, no self without a backstory. As a tree detached from the soil, we wither if we ignore where we came from, caring solely on where we are going. We cannot enter the Promised Land – or even leave Egypt – unless we carry Joseph’s bones with us.

Day 30 – Who Do You Serve?
With all this talk of liberation, it’s easy to forget that the objective of the Exodus was not liberation. Rather, the objectiveof the Exodus was covenant. God delivers the Children of Israel from Egypt so they will enter into a relationship with God. That relationship calls on Israel to be devoted to godliness and to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), meaning a people committed to loving and serving others, helping them live more godly lives and sowing peace in the world (Mishnah Avot 1:12). Covenant, of course, first requires liberation. The Children of Israel could not serve God while they still served Pharaoh. A person can only have one primary relational loyalty. Ultimately, one either serves Pharaoh or God and cannot do both simultaneously. The question Passover offers is not, “Are you free?” Rather, it is “Who or what do you serve?” How you will answer that question this year makes all the difference.
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