Thursday, June 13, 2019

Making Peace

The Ktav Sofer, a leading nineteenth century Hungarian rabbi, comments: “Peace begins in the home, then extends to the community, and finally to all the world.”

It is a fascinating lesson. Often we speak about bringing peace to the world but forget about making peace with those who stand closest to us. We give lofty speeches and sermons (rabbi!) about making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or between Democrats and Republicans but neglect making peace with those we profess love. But such grandiose endeavors are impossible if we do not begin with a foundation of peace in our personal relationships.

If couples argue at home, then they often bring divisiveness to work. If parents yell at their children, then their children bring anger to school.

We cannot make peace if we don’t feel at peace. If our interactions with others are rife with conflict and discord then how can we bring peace or for that matter, negotiate peace? Judaism has long recognized the centrality of peace. It teaches about its necessity. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, is of paramount importance. Other values take second to preserving it.

And this is why so many of our prayers speak of peace. The central prayer we recite whenever we gather concludes with a prayer for peace. The Amidah may offer a litany of requests: for health, forgiveness and justice to name a few, but we always conclude with the words: “Blessed are You Adonai who blesses Your people Israel with peace.” We conclude as well the Blessing after Meals with the prayer: “Oseh shalom bimromav…May the One who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth.” The Kaddish also concludes with these same words.

We pray for peace so we might have the strength to bring peace.

This week we learn the words for the priestly blessing. These are the words I am often privileged to recite at baby namings, bnai mitzvah and weddings. “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you! May you always find God’s presence in your life and blessed with shalom, peace.”

These are also the words that parents recite when blessing their children at the Shabbat and holiday dinner table. We begin our festive meals by asking God to bring peace to those we most treasure: our children. We conclude our meal by asking God to bring peace to our people and then to the world.

Perhaps the great Hungarian rabbi is correct. Peace must begin in the home. Then it extends to the community and finally we hope, to all the world.

I offer this suggestion. Try blessing your children at home. It might bring an additional measure of peace to your home and your most prized relationships.

And you never know. It could even be the beginning of bringing peace to the world.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Torah of Competing Ideas

People often think the Torah speaks with one voice. They believe it provides answers. They think it is a guide laying out exactly how we might discern which ideas are winners and which losers, which duties are most important and which less. It does not.

Likewise people think that governing is about winning and losing, about voting to determine what is most important and least. It is not.

Democracies are instead sustained by compromise. They thrive when we learn how to live alongside those who hold competing ideas.

In our American system of government, Democrats and Republicans are supposed to spend their years of service hammering out compromises. Congressional leaders from opposing parties are intended to get together and debate, and even argue vociferously. But then they are supposed to offer the country a compromise agreement around which the majority of citizens can rally.

Most Americans agree, for example, that our current immigration system needs fixing. And yet we are unable to come to any agreement. Our leaders shout their beliefs; they hue to their party’s talking points rather than offering compromise proposals. This is because our leaders do not lead. They do not model compromise. They do not say, “Here is a plan to reform our immigration system with which I mostly agree.”

Instead we retreat to the comfort of the like-minded. We remain loyal to ideology and devoted to our own political opinions. We measure leaders by the metric of ideological purity. We believe that compromise signifies poor leadership. We therefore remain trapped in an age of stonewalling, executive orders and emergency powers.

Our system was designed however not so that one ideology would win the day but so that pieces of as many ideologies as possible would have their say. We have forgotten that this was always the intention of American government. It was about compromise. It was about getting to be right some of the time, not all of the time.

Democracies are breaking under the weight of more and more people, most especially our leaders, saying, “I only want to talk to and listen to those with whom I agree.”

In Israel as well its system is faltering. There, compromise is supposed to be worked out when negotiating a coalition agreement. In Israel’s multi-party system no one ever gets a majority of votes and so the leading party must cobble together enough other parties to reach at least sixty-one seats. Knesset members must do much of the hard work of hammering out compromises in order to become part of the ruling coalition.

Never before has Israel had to call elections a few months after an election. And yet this is exactly what happened last week. Why?

It is for the exact same reason that American leaders are unable to achieve meaningful compromise on the many challenges facing our own nation and the world. Israeli leaders were unable to compromise. They forgot that every coalition is imperfect. A leader might be able to be right on one issue but wrong on another. Israel, and Israeli politics especially, was always about holding as many different philosophies together while still clinging to a shared devotion to the same nation.

Today, political leaders instead held fast to their ideologies. Disagreement is now couched as disloyalty. Our systems are breaking.

And so I turn to my Torah. I look toward the celebration of Shavuot when we will once again give thanks for the revelation at Sinai.

The Rabbis comment: Had only one of the six hundred thousand been absent when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, the Torah would not have been given.

I recall. The Torah was not given to Moses alone. It was instead revealed to hundreds of thousands.

Rabbi Aaron Halevi, a medieval commentator adds: It is for this reason that the Torah was given to six hundred thousand people. It was the will of the Holy One, blessed be God, that the Torah be accepted by all factions, and the six hundred thousand included all factions and opinions.

We are only one people when all factions and opinions and ideas are welcomed. We are only one nation when all ideas and philosophies stand alongside each other. We must work to recapture this foundation. We must strive to renew this revelation.

Then and only then can we recover Sinai.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Torah's Strength

This week we conclude reading the Book of Leviticus.

We read: “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” And then we say what we always say after concluding one of the Torah’s five books: “Hazak hazak v’nithazek—Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened.”

It is a curious formulation. We say these words so frequently that we rarely pause to contemplate their meaning. Why do we wish for strength when completing the reading of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy? Why do we not hope for compassion? Is not this one of the great purposes of the Torah: to bring more compassion to our broken world?

Perhaps it is because that little can be accomplished without strength. We cannot bring compassion; we cannot bring healing without strength. We require strength, and much of it, to even bring a small measure of repair to our aching world.

And why do we repeat the word “hazak—be strong”? It is because we also require strength to open up the next book of the Torah. It demands an extraordinary amount of strength, and faith, to say year in and year out that everything we need to discover about ourselves and our world can be found in these five books. What a remarkable statement of faith we affirm.

In the face of all the 21st century’s newness, and the information that can now be gained from our iPhones or by just staring at our computer screens, we say something countercultural and perhaps even counterintuitive. We shout: more can be learned from these ancient words that we still stubbornly chant in a language we continue to struggle to understand. More truths can be gleaned from words written in a seemingly arcane way on a parchment that is so obviously removed from our fast paced digital world.

Tomorrow’s truth can be uncovered in yesterday’s words.

Reading the Torah requires the strength to say that sometimes doing something the old-fashioned way is the right way—or at the very least, can lead us to the right answers or perhaps even better to say, the right questions. Asking the right questions are the beginning to finding the correct path.

I very much doubt these words meant the same thing to the rabbis who long ago added this formula to the conclusion of reading a Torah’s book, but it is what they can mean to us today.

And why do we conclude this formula with the first person plural word “nithazek—may we be strengthened”? That answer may very well be the same as it always was. We are unified by the Torah. Our community is strengthened by the Torah reading. The Jewish world is brought together by this ritual. Every synagogue throughout the world is reading the same Torah portion.

For at least this very brief moment we are all on the same page. While we may be interpreting it in radically different ways we are unified by the words we chant. Jews everywhere begin with these same verses. The unity that too often eludes us is found on the parchment that is unrolled before us.

We are strengthened by the Torah. We are unified by this sacred scroll. We may very well feel divided on Thursday but on Shabbat morning we are brought together by this act of reading from the scroll. When the Torah scroll is lifted we become one people. Perhaps this is only momentary, but we are unified nonetheless.

We hope and pray. May this unity continue to blossom.

Hazak hazak v’nithazek!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day Remembrance

On this Memorial Day I wish to remember four chaplains. Here is their story.

On the evening of February 2, 1943 the US transport ship, Dorchester, along with two other ships, was sailing through the icy waters off the coast of Newfoundland, only 150 miles from its base in Greenland. A German U-boat spotted the ships and fired torpedoes at the Dorchester. The ship was struck. Almost immediately the captain ordered the surviving sailors to abandon ship. Within twenty minutes the ship would sink.

It was in those minutes that these chaplains became heroes. Panic and chaos set in on the Dorchester. The blast had killed hundreds. Countless were seriously wounded. Survivors groped in the darkness. Men jumped into the icy waters of the Atlantic. Others scrambled onto the lifeboats, overcrowding them and nearly capsizing the small boats.

According to survivors, four men instilled calm. They were four Army chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; and Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a rabbi. Quickly and quietly the four chaplains spread out among the sailors. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend to the wounded and guide the disoriented to safety. They offered prayers for the dying and encouragement to the living.

One survivor found himself swimming in oil-drenched ocean water surrounded by floating dead bodies and debris. Private Bednar recalled, “I could hear men crying, pleading and praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

Another, Petty Officer John Mahoney, recalled trying to reenter his cabin. Rabbi Goode stopped him. The sailor was concerned about forgetting his winter gloves. Goode responded, “Never mind. I have two pairs.” The rabbi gave Mahoney his own gloves.

By this time, most of the sailors had scrambled topside. The chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.

As the ship began to sink, survivors in nearby rafts reported that they saw the four chaplains with their arms linked together, supporting each other against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers. It is said that some Jewish sailors reported hearing the singing of the Shema. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad--Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is one!

During WWII many soldiers sacrificed their lives in order to conquer evil. Some stories have become well known. Others less. A rabbi, priest and two ministers did not fight the Nazis with weapons. Instead they stood together and helped to conquer fear.

I do not wish for more to die defending our nation. I did not wish to add more names to our Memorial Day litany.

Today I recall the memory of these four chaplains. Their brotherhood represents what is so great, and even unique, about our country. Standing arm in arm we can indeed conquer fear.


Friday, May 24, 2019

Everything is Borrowed

Ownership is foreign to the religious mindset. Religions in general, and Judaism in particular, teach that everything is instead on loan from God. We are borrowers rather than owners.

This is true with regard to our bodies. Every human being is created in the image of God. All people contain within themselves a spark of God’s holiness. Their bodies are therefore repositories of God’s majesty. The human body is a holy vessel commanding reverence and care.

We are therefore not allowed to do whatever we want to our bodies. We are commanded to take care of them. We are obligated, for example, to eat well and exercise. To do otherwise would be a desecration of this holy vessel. To do otherwise would be to diminish God’s image. To do otherwise would be to shirk our duties and responsibilities.

While abortion is required when the mother’s life is in danger, and while I certainly believe that the mother should have far more say of what she does or does not do with her body than for instance a group of strange men, Judaism does not believe she can, or should, do whatever she wants. The body is to be cared for as if it is a Torah scroll. It is holy and but lent to us.

How we view the issues of the day hinges on the notion of whether or not we see ourselves as owners or borrowers. Better to view ourselves as custodians of a holy vessel. This is why I would suggest that the vast majority of people who nurture the frail and elderly or do the extraordinary work of hospice care are people of profound faith. Nearly all such caregivers are deeply religious.

I have come to learn that such a perspective makes this unimaginably difficult work a fraction lighter.

Such faith should also imbue how we view our possessions. If things are not viewed as earned by our hard work and our talents but instead borrowed from God, then it is likewise far easier to donate an even greater portion of our earnings to those in need. This is what Judaism seeks: a world more giving and therefore more compassionate. How does it inculcate behaviors that bring such a world closer to fruition? By teaching that everything is borrowed.

Even the land of Israel is not viewed as ours, but instead belongs to God. This is why this week we read about the sabbatical year in which the land must lie fallow on the seventh year. Land ownership is foreign to the religious mindset. A mortgage is not taken out from a bank but instead from God.

And this comes to teach that there is room not just for me, or even us, but everyone—on any land. We are stewards of the earth and tenants on God’s land.

The Torah proclaims: “The land is Mine; and you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25) Even the Jewish people are deemed strangers on their ancestral land.

That is the worldview that promotes more room for others. That is the mindset that inculcates the drive to share far more with neighbors. That is the perspective that teaches that we cannot do whatever we want when we want—even with our own bodies.

Imagine a world where we view everything as but lent to us. Imagine a world where there is more for everyone.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Be More Religious, Do More Good

Nearly 200 years ago, Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of the Musar movement, a philosophy that sought to move ethics back to the center of Jewish life, told his students that he had an important job for them. They were to go out and inspect the local matzah factory to certify that its products were indeed kosher for Passover. They talked amongst themselves before their rabbi arrived. They had spent weeks studying Passover’s restrictions and pouring over the words of the Talmudic tractate detailing the holiday’s laws.

They had argued whether or not legumes should be permitted on the holiday and how to sell the hametz. One of them asked the group, “How many minutes must transpire from when the flour and water are mixed until the matzah is taken out of the oven?” “Eighteen minutes,” another shouted. (In a nutshell the technical difference between bread and matzah is about the timing. Eighteen minutes or under its matzah. Nineteen its bread—not good bread, but bread nonetheless.)

The great sage then entered the class. “We are ready for this holy task,” they said in unison. “Rabbi,” one of his students asked. “Is there something we should specifically look for there?” “Yes. Most definitely,” said Rabbi Salanter. “When you get to the factory, you will see an old woman baking matzah. The woman is poor and has a large family to support. Make sure that the factory’s owners are paying her a living wage.”

The students stared at each other in astonishment. One asked, “What about making sure the preparation and cooking take no more than eighteen minutes?” “That is really not the most important thing, my students,” Salanter said. “The most important thing is to make sure that the person who is baking this matzah is properly taken care of. If she is not then the matzah factory is not worthy of being called kosher.”

People often define religiosity in terms of ritual scrupulousness. That makes sense given this week’s portion that details all of the major Jewish holidays: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and even the Omer period in which we now find ourselves. That makes sense given the importance people often ascribe to participation in Shabbat services.

On Friday evening I often hear, “Rabbi, where is everyone? Why are people not here at services? No one is practicing Judaism anymore. If we don’t make sure more people are more observant then our people are not going to be around much longer.” I usually respond: “What does being Jewish mean to you?” And they answer, “Observing Shabbat. Coming to services. Celebrating the holidays.”

I admit. I love our praying and singing. It offers me uplift. Shabbat prayer provides me the opportunity to connect with God and with people—in real time and in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world of Facebook and Instagram. It offers me a respite from the weekday worries. And when it works really well prayer helps to point me towards my ethical obligations.

Judaism does not view rituals as ends unto themselves. It does not view the Shabbat candles or the mezuzah as protective amulets that will ward away bad tidings. If people kiss the mezuzah, for example, when entering their home but then scream and yell at their family then they are missing the mezuzah’s greatest lesson. The theory is simple. If you kiss the mezuzah you are more apt to treat others with love and kindness. If you light the candles you are more likely to work to bring a measure of shalom to the world.

Rituals point to ethics.

Still it appears that an increasing number of American Jewish have become less enamored with our tradition’s rituals. They find yoga, or perhaps cycling, as more centering than Shabbat prayers.

So the question for today is can we do Jewish with lives less infused with Jewish ritual? At the very least we should expand our understanding of what it means to be religious. We should stop writing ourselves out of being religious because we do not light candles eighteen minutes before sunset or only eat matzah during Passover. We should instead ask ourselves the more challenging questions.

Do we pay our employees a living wage? Do we love the stranger? Do we give enough to tzedakah? Do we avoid speaking lashon hara—gossip? Do we treat our parents with respect?

That list is perhaps lengthier than the list of ritual commandments. It is certainly more challenging to observe than coming to services each and every Friday evening. But answer, “Yes, I do.” to even a few of these commands on even a somewhat regular basis and we can begin to call ourselves religious.

Perhaps we should become just as devout in calling our parents before Shabbat as lighting the candles. Perhaps we should be just as scrupulous with the words we speak about our neighbors as we do with the adornments of the Passover seder plate.

One day I dream of saying, “I serve the most religious congregation anyone can ever imagine. They all might not be here this Shabbat evening but they are busy making the world a better place with a word of kindness here and an extra dollar there.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Israel's Ordinariness is Extraordinary

Today the State of Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. Just saying that statement is a remarkable thing to utter. Israel’s 71st. Savor those words.

For all of the challenges and missteps, the achievements and triumphs, the disappointments and missed opportunities, the unrivaled successes and countless celebrations none come close to the feeling, the remarkable gift and the sense of gratitude that Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. The dream of generations of Jews is now a reality. For 2,000 years we dreamed that we would one day return to the land of Israel. This still figures prominently in our prayers. The Seders we only recently celebrated conclude with the words L’shanah habah b’yerushalayim—next year in Jerusalem.

Today, I could say, “I am leaving tomorrow morning to fly to Israel.” I am not doing that of course, but if I were, the response would not be, “Wow. What a miracle.” But instead, “Which airline? Are you flying El Al? Are you flying out of JFK?” Another would chime in, “Don’t fly El Al. It’s the worst. People are constantly climbing over you as you are trying to sleep. You should fly Turkish Air instead.”

Others would ask, “Where are you staying?” More would then offer advice. “You should stay at the King David. It’s historic. You should spend more days in Tel Aviv. Go to Mitzpe Ramon and check out the Negev desert. Make a reservation at Zahav.” Actually Zahav is located in Philadelphia and was recently named the best restaurant in America. How remarkable is that. The best restaurant in America features Israeli cuisine.

We should take in the sheer ordinariness of these conversations.

Thousands of years ago we were almost destroyed. We then mourned the destruction of Jerusalem. And now, in our own age, we talk about visiting Israel as if it’s just another trip to another great country. We argue about flights and hotels, restaurants and sites. For all the discussions and debates we could have about Israel’s policies and the never ending conflict with the Palestinians, most recently after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza, on this day we should breathe in not the miracle of the State of Israel but instead its ordinariness.

We wish for it to always be extraordinary, to fulfill our every dream, to live up to the prayers we sing about it, but on this day we should hold on to the ordinary. And that very ordinariness should be what takes our breath away. It is not the miracle but the ordinariness which is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. It affirms the Declaration of Independence’s words: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

Israel’s matter of fact-ness may be its greatest achievement. Our children do not know of a time when there was not a sovereign State of Israel. I in fact do not know of such a time. Some might be saying to themselves, “Beware of taking Israel for granted. Israel is surrounded by enemies.” Yes. Indeed it is. But I do not wish to dwell on the threats arrayed against Israel or even what many commentators call the growing divide between American Jews and Israel—something about which I remain acutely worried. These are not my focus on this day, and on this occasion.

All I wish is for us to breath in what a unique time we live in. We live in a time when we can hop on a plane and go to Israel. Or not. We live in an age when the State of Israel can be taken for granted. And this may very well be its greatest success.

We can argue about many, many things. We are Jews of course. We can debate about what Israel does and does not do. And we should certainly continue these debates—with passion and with love. And we can also argue about the mundane and inconsequential. We can talk about flight times and restaurant reviews.

And we can regale each other about visits to Tel Aviv’s beach and taking in Jerusalem’s desert evenings. On this day that’s all I need. On this day that is all I wish to hold on to.

Israel is 71!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Books of Loss

Yesterday marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day. It is the day set aside to remember our people’s loss at the hands of the Nazis’ murderous hatred. As we remember this devastating loss, we cannot help but affirm that antisemitism is still real and most tragically, still murderous.

Last year antisemitic attacks doubled in the United States. Six months ago, we witnessed the deadly attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue and this past Shabbat another at a San Diego area synagogue. It is sadly evident that we must remain on guard against antisemitism. The Board is diligently working on security upgrades for our own synagogue. And there will be security at upcoming services.

While we must remain forever vigilant and while we must improve security at Jewish institutions the most important response to terror remains the same. We must never bow to fear. And we must continue to proclaim, we are proud to lead Jewish lives.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the leader of the Poway Chabad community, said:
I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.
Amen!

Again and again, we remember. I recall a few of the individual lives affected by the Holocaust. I urge you to read the stories of this year’s torchlighters. At this year’s Yom HaShoah ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem, these six survivors were chosen to light the six memorial lights.

Their tales represent extraordinary stories of survival and loss. To these stories I wish to add another. It is the story about how my favorite children’s book, Curious George, came to be.

When the Nazi party was gaining popularity in Germany, Hans Augusto Rey, a Jewish salesman, knew he had to leave so he fled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. There, he met and married his old flame, Margret, who had also come there to escape the Nazis. Together, the couple soon moved to Paris in 1935.

When World War II broke out, the Reys realized they could not stay in Paris. They needed to make other plans. They again fled, narrowly escaping Paris a few hours before the Nazis invaded. They rode from Paris on a pair of bicycles that Hans had made. On their backs they strapped some food, a few of their possessions, and the manuscript of a children’s book the couple had been working on—a book about a mischievous monkey named George.

The Reys made it across the Swiss border and eventually found their way to New York, where they first published Curious George. That book, and its sequels, have been translated into dozens of languages—including the Reys’ native Yiddish. Children are still reading about George, his adventures, and the understanding, but always helpful Man with the Yellow Hat.

On this occasion, as I reflect on Yom HaShoah, I wonder how my childhood might have been different if this book did not accompany me, if the Reys had suffered the same fate as the six million. I would never have heard my mother reading over and over again, “George promised to be good. But it is easy for little monkeys to forget.” I wonder how my life would have been different if my mother did not affirm my curiosity through the Man with the Yellow Hat.

A book affirmed my nature and applauded the lesson that discoveries, and learning, begin with curiosity and that most importantly making mistakes, and even making a mess, accompanies curiosity, discovery and learning.

Today, I wonder how many other books could have accompanied me. I imagine there could have been six million more books.

The Holocaust haunts our people. It remains a library of loss.

The hatred continues.

But my curiosity, and embrace of life, remain undeterred.



Friday, April 26, 2019

Let's Start Fixing the World

Another Hasidic story. Perhaps this one is my favorite. I first heard it told by Rabbi Naomi Levy.

A wealthy man approached the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asked if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire.

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack bread, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a certain hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband shouted with excitement.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well, drank well, sang, prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his belly was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet anywhere.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside in a huff. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's boot got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up, he overhead sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the window. The children were jumping up and down and squealing with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever seen.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was.

"Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

And Elijah can also be you.

If we only sing to Elijah at the conclusion of our Seders, if we only sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” when we make Havdalah, then we have not come to understand the true meaning our rituals and songs.

Whose home will you visit this coming Shabbat? Whose hungry bellies will you help to fill in the coming days? Whose soul will you begin to repair?

Elijah can be you.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Tell Your Story

A Hasidic story. It is among my favorites. When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedy he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and a miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and once again, a miracle was accomplished.

Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. There he pleaded with God, saying, “I do not know how to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, a miracle was accomplished.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his chair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.”

And this too was sufficient.

Central to our Passover celebrations is the telling of the story of our going out from Egypt. Judaism believes in the power of the story. It is not mere entertainment. It is fundamental to instilling values. We tell and retell. We remember. And we are inspired to act.

We cast ourselves in the story. The Haggadah proclaims, “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One of Blessing but even we were redeemed with them.”

This year, tell another story as well. Tell your story. Tell the story of how you, your parents, your grandparents or even your great grandparents went out from wherever your family emigrated from and how they made it to this country. And then how you made this great country your home.

And perhaps this too will be sufficient.