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Who Is My Neighbor?

Who is my neighbor? Is it the person who lives on my block? Or is it the Jew who lives in Tel Aviv? Is neighbor defined by physical distance or instead by emotional connection? We tend to rely more on feelings rather than distance when defining who is in and who is out. We rely on emotional nearness rather than short distance separating us from others. The Torah proclaims: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” (Leviticus 19) If this statement were about loving those to whom we already feel close, then what would be the point of this command? The Torah cannot mean that we are to love those to whom we feel a kinship. Instead, it commands the difficult. It obligates us contrary to our feelings. We are told to love those who are nearby but those to whom we do not feel close. Think of those who live mere blocks from our homes, who toil mowing our lawns or who clear the tables at the restaurants we used to frequent. These are our neighbors! On Tuesday, a Minneapolis jury found former poli
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Celebrating the Land, Celebrating Israel

In the nineteenth, and early twentieth, century the roots of the modern State of Israel were sown. Zionist thinkers argued about the character, and purpose, of the state for which we now celebrate seventy tree years of independence. People are most familiar with Theodor Herzl who more than any other thinker, laid the foundation stones for the modern state of Israel. He was a masterful organizer, convening the First Zionist Congress in 1897. He was a tireless politician. Herzl’s political Zionism envisioned a state for the Jews, wherever it might be located, that would finally cure the world of antisemitism. Although his dream did not succeed in eradicating antisemitism, it did lay the groundwork for the modern state. The State of Israel would be, as it now most certainly is, the master of its own fate. No longer would Jews be subjugated to the whims of tyrants. Instead, they would rule their own lives. Unlike Herzl, Ahad Haam, believed that such a state must be located in our a

Justice for the Six Million?

Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) is today. It is a day filled with special services, concerts and public ceremonies. But no commemoration can adequately mark this tragedy. Still, it was not always the case that such services marked our calendar. Sixty years ago, Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and secreted him to the state for trial. Eichmann was one of the principal architects of the Nazi final solution. David Ben Gurion made the startling announcement to the Knesset and the world at large. So many years later we still fail to recognize the significance of Eichmann’s trial and the historic shift it represented. It was pivotal in our understanding of the Holocaust and our formulation of modern Jewish identity. It was the day that survivors’ stories began to be told—and heard. In 1961 Holocaust museums did not dot the landscape of American cities. Yad VaShem was only established in 1953 and Yom HaShoah declared that same

Count Down to Revelation and Meaning

I feel like I have been living in the Omer for the better part of a year. The Omer is the seven-week period in between Passover and Shavuot. According to tradition every evening, beginning on the second night of Passover, we recite a blessing and count: “Today is five days of the Omer.” I have now been counting the days, and weeks, since last year’s seders and perhaps even from last year’s Purim celebrations. I feel like what was only supposed to last for weeks, and then months, now promises to last for at best six seasons. The trepidation associated with the Omer is now our daily existence. The Omer represents a mysterious custom. In ancient times, when our lives were more intimately tied to the land, we counted the sheaves of grain (omer). Passover was tied to the barley harvest and Shavuot to that of wheat. There was great worry, and even fear, about the impending harvest. Will the harvest be plentiful enough? Will our grain stores last us through the summer and into the fall

It's a Tie!

Many years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friend and I skipped an evening lecture to attend a soccer match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Yerushalyim. Our teachers were displeased with our decision. What could we possibly learn at a soccer stadium? How to curse in the most colorful of ways? Soccer matches do not represent the highbrow culture of the poet Yehudah Amichai or the thoughtful debate of the beit midrash, the study hall. We watched fights break out. We looked on in disbelief as fans threw smoke bombs. It was a rather unsatisfying game. The final score was 0-0. It ended in a tie. It concluded with the fans muttering “Teiku.” Modern Hebrew has borrowed a word from Talmudic times. It has lifted a word out of the study hall and brought it into the everyday. Teiku is the Talmud’s word for when a debate is concluded without rendering a decision. It means let it stand. Others say it is an acronym meaning when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah

Offer Empathy

The sacrifices detailed with obsessive length in the Book of Leviticus, are about bridging the distance between human beings and God. The people offer up animals and grains, and the Torah reports God accepts these offerings. “It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1) The smell of the smoke rising up from the sacrifice appears to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. The Hebrew term for sacrifice is korban, coming from the root to draw near. And so, it is quite striking that the opening word of this book is vayikra, to call. The book begins with the words, “And God called to Moses.” To call out suggests there is a chasm separating speaker from listener. In most other instances, God speaks (vayidaber) with Moses. Elsewhere their conversations are marked by intimacy. Their discussions appear like those between two friends. Here, God calls out. It is as if they are no longer close enough to talk. What separates them in this moment

Gathering Goodness

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a popular teacher in pre-war Poland, leading a community in a Warsaw suburb. After the German invasion, and following the death of his family, he was shipped to the Warsaw ghetto. There he managed to run a secret synagogue. His teachings and sermons were popular among those trapped in the ghetto. As the Warsaw ghetto uprising neared its bitter end, Rabbi Shapira prepared for the worst. He hid his sermons and teachings in a milk canister. After the war they were found by a construction worker. His writings continue to be studied to this day. I have spent some mornings in the warmth of Jerusalem’s summer pouring over his words. I return again and again to his work Bnai Machshavah Tovah, a treatise on creating and sustaining a conscious community. He writes there of the power of community and how the group can elevate individuals and lead them to holiness. For Judaism gathering is of prime importance. Our tradition maintains an unmitigated faith