Welcome to Mo-Drash ... the weird confluence of the Jewish tradition of Midrash and me!

What is Midrash? Literally, the word derives from the Hebrew root that expresses interpretation. Figuratively, it is the process by which Jews read between the lines of our sacred stories and seek insight from what we discover from each story, verse, word, letter and stroke of the pen.

Who am I? My name is Adam Morris, but known by many as Rabbi Mo. I spend a lot of my time serving in the role of rabbi, but I am also a husband, a dad, a runner and a 'weekend' craftsman (among other things). I try to move like Abraham to find my Place ... to wrestle like Jacob to know my Place ... and to snicker like Sarah to keep me in my Place.

B'makom she-ani omayd (from The Place where I stand),
Rabbi Mo

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fear and Pharaoh in the Promised Land

My written reflections of my Sabbatical trip to Israel have not come with the frequency I intended or promised.  However, with Purim just behind us and Passover just ahead those experiences still hover prominently at the forefront of my consciousness.  One day during my trip I spent chasing around Jerusalem with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the General Secretary for Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR).  RHR by way of its own description: "... seeks to prevent human rights violations in Israel and in areas for which Israel has taken responsibility, and to bring specific human rights grievances to the attention of the Israeli public while pressuring the appropriate authorities for their redress."  The very existence of an organization like RHR in Israel is a reminder that we Jews are as human as anyone else.  One only needs to look at their projects to see the ways that we Jews - just like everybody else - still need to work hard to create a just and compassionate society.

My day with the energetic and passionate Rabbi Ascherman focused on the work in Jerusalem that RHR does to promote fairness and justice in the matter of Palestinian home and land ownership.  We spent part of our day in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.  Silwan sits just adjacent to the Old City.  In the early 1990's the Jewish National Fund (Yes, JNF - the tree people!) began to carefully acquire properties in this neighborhood using a 1950 law - called the Absentee Property Law.  This law was used to transfer the property of Palestinian refugees to the state of Israel followed the war in 1948.  With the support of the government's ethnically prejudicial take on this law (that hindered Palestinians claim to Palestinian owned lands land and favored of the Israeli Settlers claim to it) - the JNF hoped to evict Palestinian families and hand over land to Eldad - a pro-settlement organization whose goal is to 'Judaize Palestinian neighborhoods over the Green Line'.  Rabbi Ascherman took me to the home of the Sumarin family - whose property butts up against the City of David archeological site and museum.  I met this family who - with the help of organizations like RHR - must regularly stand up to a powerful governmental authority and defend their freedom to own and live in their home.

As Purim came and went, I thought about the part of the Book of Esther that we never tell - the part where the Tanach tells how the people of Shushan felt Pachad Hayehudim - the Fear of the Jews. (Yes, that phrase is really in the Hebrew Bible!)  At the end of the book, after Mordechai and Esther succesfully stood up to the King and Haman's initial (but irreversible) decree to destroy the Jews they were given the power and authority to bear arms and defend themselves.  In their new role of holding power and authority and under the leadership of Mordechai in his new ministerial post - the Book of Esther tells us that the Jews killed 75,000 people.  In turn, the people of Shushan felt the Fear of the Jews.

This year's Seders beckon and we look to the experience of retelling/reliving of our liberation from slavery in Egypt.  In doing so, we demonize Egypt (the constricting 'Narrow Place') and Pharaoh (the personification of Egypt's life-suffocating authority and power).  We also acknowledge the blessings of our own freedom and the responsibilities towards others inherent in such a gift.

Through the spiritual lens of each festival - I could not help seeing this family of Silwan whom I saw with my own eyes and touched (in greeting) with my own hands.  I wonder uncomfortably about how and where they fit into these stories.  Their physical lives are not in immediate danger, but they are not safe and secure in their own homes.  Do they live each day knowing Pachad Hayehudim - the Fear of the Jews?  The Sumarin family are not slaves, but they live a narrow and constricting life in a setting that restricts some of the same basic freedoms that we celebrate around a Seder table.  Do they feel like they live in an 'Egypt' and yearn for redemption from it and its Pharonic government?

I worry that when we ingest our Hamentaschen (literally 'Haman's Ears') we internalize more than one of Haman's less endearing physical qualities, but also some of his more nefarious spiritual ones.  I worry that when we endeavor to eliminate Chametz (literally 'that which inflates or swells') from our physical diet, we are forgetting to eliminate those anxieties and fears that inflate our egos to dangerous and destructive proportions.  I worry that we have forgotten why we retell our stories each year - not simply to feel connected via the tradition of what has always been done or enjoy the culture of tastes we associate with these stories.  We tell our stories to remind us of our sacred charge - to confront the Hamans and the Pharaohs of the world - no matter where we might find them.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Looking Back on Looking Ahead

During my Sabbatical in January 2012, I traveled to Israel for ten days.  In the coming weeks, as we approach Israel 64th birthday, I will share some reflections and insights about my experiences from my trip.  I look forward to your reactions, thoughts and comments.  Here is my first installment:

I think that I have been to Israel enough times that I was not expecting the wave of emotions that may have accompanied my arrival on other trips.  I knew that I would not experience the emotions that I might attribute to arriving/returning-to-the-Jewish-ancestral-homeland or touching the reality of the modern-day-miracle-of-the-State-of-Israel.  Even if I was sure about what I would not feel upon my arrival in Israel, the question of what I would feel remained unanswered.

I arrived at Ben Gurion airport near dusk on a Wednesday afternoon in early January ... and I found that I was correct in my assumption.  It was a greyish, unremarkable Wednesday afternoon in a busy airport where I retrieved my bag, walked seamlessly through customs and hailed a shuttle to take me to Jerusalem.  This arrival in Ben Gurion was now the fifth in my lifetime.  It is a number that pales in comparison to some of my friends, family and colleagues; but one that is still significant to me and I know to others who have yet to notch arrival number one at this auspicious airport.  It had been three and a half years since my most recent trip.  On that trip I co-chaperoned a group of interfaith teens in the summer of 2008.  In an epic and dramatic fashion that trip impacted my relationship to and understanding of this magical, complex, intense and crazy place.   And so, between my relative familiarity with Israel and the profundity of my most recent experience, I arrived and made my way to Jerusalem with the confident nonchalance that one feels returning home from college with a bag of laundry tossed over one's shoulder.

And yet, as cool as I felt - or at least tried to look - I still did not know what to expect. My experiences on this trip to Israel would be unlike any previous experience.  One of the effects of my previous trip is that I cannot visit this place, enjoy and even cultivate my sense of connection to it without also paying attention to it with a critical eye, ear and heart and trying to begin to grasp the ponderous complexity of its reality.  In addition to and ironically juxtaposed with that perspective is the fact this is my first trip to Israel during which I am visiting family.  Israel has always been a destination to discover and encounter the layers of Jewish history and my Jewish identity; it has never mixed that element with the opportunity to do the same with family history and my personal identity ... and to do it all in the West Bank!  I have also never traveled here without a previously arranged program with its hidden and not-so-hidden agendas as participant or facilitator.  I am here with an idea of what I want to do, to explore, to feel - but I am here, on my own ... open to trusting the cosmic, hidden machinations of the place to take me (physically, existentially, emotionally, etc.) where I need to go.

It strikes me as I reflect back on my trip and look ahead to sharing about it that so many of the best things we know in life are layered and nuanced.  I think of Israel in this way - as that initial layer of encounter now becomes an entry way to things I could have never possibly imagined, yet less expressed.  Any great relationship in which we are blessed to be a part, possesses this component, too.  And, of course, we know the experience of any great and true story works in this fashion, as well. It was Ben Bag who said that everything was in the Jewish people’s greatest and truest story, Torah.  All we gotta do is keep turning it over, shake it up a bit ... to first glimpse and then immerse ourselves in the rich and fertile layers beyond.