Thursday, February 15, 2018

School Shootings are Not Normal

A conversation repeated throughout American homes last night.

“Did you hear about the shooting in Parkland?”


“17 people killed. Most of them were teenagers.”

“I know. It’s terrible.”

“Some crazy kid did it. They caught him already.”

“It’s awful. What’s for dinner?”

“Chicken. How was your day?”

“Good. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

If you think such a conversation is normal, that nonchalance in the face of the extraordinary gun violence our society faces is acceptable then expect to have many more such conversations. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, 438 people have been shot and 138 killed in 239 shootings at schools. Since the start of this year 1,834 people have been killed by guns.

Concerts. Nightclubs. Movie theatres. Schools. These places should not be synonymous with gun violence. Lockdown drills should not be part of our children’s vocabulary.

When an individual liberty endangers the welfare of others, most especially our children, then it needs to be curtailed. You cannot drive 100 mph on the highway. It is illegal to drive while intoxicated. No right is absolute. Why then does our country not have sensible gun control laws? Of course the murderer is disturbed, of course too little was done about the telltale signals of his murderous designs, but the underlying fact is that access to military style weapons is too easy to gain.

Semi-automatic weapons too easily transform a shooting into a massacre. Why do we allow this to continue? Can we at least agree that such weapons only be allowed in the hands of the military for whom they were designed? Apparently not.

After Sandy Hook I mistakenly believed that such a consensus might emerge. It has not. We can debate the reasons for the continuation of this tragedy. We can disagree about why we still have not seen any meaningful change about why lethal weapons are so easily obtained. We can argue about why mass murder has become so commonplace in our society.

The notion, however, that mass shootings are normal and acceptable is a stain on the United States of America. The regularity with which this occurs, the ordinariness with which we greet such tragic news is an embarrassment. Our infatuation with violence and our embrace of guns is endangering our children. And our failure to agree on significant legislation that might keep such murderous weapons far from people with murderous designs is a blemish on each and everyone us.

So now, six years after Sandy Hook, has the time finally arrived?

I am hoping. And I am pledging to add my voice and contribute my hands to bring about such change.

The 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre in which seven gang members were killed with machine guns outraged Chicago. The victims were gunned down in broad daylight. People pressured officials to prosecute those responsible, in particular Al Capone.

When will mass shootings once again become the stuff of history books and not just the ordinary events of an everyday week in 21st century America?

I am praying that one day soon I will only read about such massacres in history books and not the morning paper.

“Grandpa, people used to kill kids in schools?”

“Yes. It happened a lot.”

“That’s not normal.”

Joaquin Oliver looks like every kid I know and love.
May his memory be for a blessing.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Giving Judge

Most people think that tzedakah should be translated as charity. It should not. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek. Charity comes from the Latin meaning precious. In Christian theology the term charity became synonymous with the Greek word agape, unconditional love. Thus a gift of charity is more about the giver’s heart than the recipient’s needs. This is not the Jewish notion of tzedakah.

Tzedakah is about the attempt to rebalance the scales of justice. How is this accomplished? By our giving. Tzedakah is also a commandment. Whether or not a person is inspired to give is secondary to the idea of mitzvah and needs of the recipient. I therefore prefer to translate tzedakah as righteous giving.

We are commanded to give because there are people in need. There are people who need food and clothes. There are people who need heat and shelter. How such people arrived at their desperate situation is immaterial to their present need. It is not for us to feel the spirit of giving, or for that matter whether or not the person’s need is worthy of our tzedakah gift. We are commanded to give.

There are therefore extensive laws about giving tzedakah to the poor. Even the person dependent on tzedakah is commanded to give. We are to give ten percent of our income to tzedakah. That is certainly a worthy goal to which we might aspire.

One would think that we are supposed to show deference to the poor. Their needs should supersede all else. They are hungry. They are cold. The Torah retorts: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to the poor in his dispute.” (Exodus 23) Justice is the paramount concern.

The Talmud offers an illustration. A judge might be tempted to say, “The poor claimant standing in my court has no case, but he needs the money more than the rich defendant does. I should therefore rule in the poor person’s favor.” Judges are forbidden to rule in his favor. Instead they are instructed to rule on the merits of the case and if the law requires it, to rule against the poor and in favor of the rich. The rabbis feared that if judges allowed emotional reasons to sway their decisions people would lose faith in the entire judicial system. The integrity of the system is a judge’s most important responsibility.

But what about the poor person? He might go hungry. The rabbis offer this advice. If the law forces a judge to rule against him then the judge should give the poor person money out of his own pocket. The courts are about the laws that bind the community together. They are not about the needs of the solitary individual.

Still, judges must still not look away from the needs of the poor. If they become aware of this need then they must give. Judges are commanded to give tzedakah. They must be scrupulous with regard to the law but also menschen.

Compassion and justice must always be balanced. Judges must rule according to the strictures of the law. They must also give tzedakah because people in need must be cared for.

The scales are made even.

Everyone is commanded to give.

Justice is achieved.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Diversity of American Food Shows What Makes Us Great

At its best Long Island is a stew of different people where former borders are irrelevant. It is the place built on a shared love of the American dream but flavored by former locales and imported traditions. At its worst these New York suburbs are a hodgepodge of ethnic cantons that rarely mix and where people view such intermingling as forbidden. Each town and village has a unique ethnic makeup that is then closely guarded and protected. One town is Italian. Another Jewish. Over there it is Latino. And that neighborhood, Asian.

I wonder. What is authentically American? What makes America great? What makes America America?

Most will watch this weekend’s Super Bowl. We are told it is the quintessential American event. Is the pizza that millions will eat during the game what defines us? At one time pizza was likewise deemed foreign. It of course originated in Italy (Naples to be exact) and could not be found in the United States until the early 1900’s. And yet now, over 100 years later, it is considered an American staple.

Who is authentic? Who is an American?

Recently I traveled thousands of miles within a few miles of my home....

The Super Bowl's Victory and Verses

I am sure many people have seen the meme floating around the Internet about the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. Outside of Philadelphia’s First United Methodist Church, the sign reads: “Bible Quiz. How many verses in the Bible are about ‘Eagles’ and ‘Patriots’? Eagles 33. Patriots 0.”

Nothing would make me happier than to see the Super Bowl’s score mirror these numbers. It is not that I am a devoted Eagles fan. It is instead that I always passionately root against the Patriots. I realize that many Giants fans dislike the Eagles even more than the Patriots. My disdain for the Patriots, however, is most profound. It does not even matter that Brady went to Michigan. How many more championships do they need to win before Brady and Belichick can retire? They have already proven their football acumen and machismo many times over.

And they will undoubtedly be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. Even definitive proof that they have bent or broken rules will not block their admittance. So let me look away on that future day when they are inducted. This Sunday, during the Super Bowl, I will be cheering loudly for the underdogs. Even though football and the Super Bowl are not that important, they come as a welcome distraction from the world’s troubles and where I can comfortably hold on to insignificant grudges and outsized passions. Come Super Bowl Sunday, I will be hoping and praying that the Bible offers hints of victory for the Philadelphia Eagles.

That would of course be an absurd notion. Or would it? Some most certainly believe that the Bible predicts the future. Everything that happens is pointed to by our sacred text, people contend. This is the fascination with the so-called Bible Codes or with the evangelical love for the modern State of Israel.

The problem with this view is that the Bible does not speak with one voice. My teacher, Israel Knohl, calls the Bible a divine symphony. It is a potpourri of voices. Sometimes they appear in sync and other times not. Sometimes one voice rises above the others. Other times it is a discordant mess. And this is the central dilemma. To which voice do we pay attention? Which verse makes music in our ears betrays our theology.

An example. The Bible states that the land of Israel is given to the Jewish people alone. It also commands us to love the stranger. Whose voice do we bend our ears towards? The prophets admonish us to feed the hungry. They also prophesy that God’s wrath will be meted out upon Israel’s enemies. Is the stranger’s hunger a punishment or a command for me to open my hand?

The Bible is at times a cacophony of voices. I am certain of the music.

And yet I can rarely hear the violin over the cello or the clarinet over the tuba. I am convinced it is an extraordinary melody. I am sure the Bible is a beautiful symphony that I struggle still to understand. Through its voices I can make sense of my life, I can better understand the contours of my path, but I cannot know the future. All I can cherish is the symphony of voices struggling like me to grow closer to God.

Still come Sunday I am going to hold on to this week’s verse: “The Lord called to Moses from the mountain, saying, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.’” (Exodus 19)

And come next year I will enter September with renewed hope. In the early fall there is always a glimmer of promise for New York Jets fans. It does not matter that Jets are nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Every season is a new beginning. Every year offers new hope.

Let’s cheer for the underdogs. Go Eagles!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Memories of the Wild

Many years ago my family and I camped out in the Negev desert. We drove into Makhtesh Katan, a geological formation dwarfed by Makhtesh Gadol and Makhtesh Ramon. These unique formations are typically translated as a Little Crater, Big Crater and Ramon Crater. The term crater, however, is inaccurate because these were not formed by the explosive force of a meteorite but instead by the slow, painstaking power of water.

Rivulets of water, some as small as a creek and others as large as a river, eroded the rock. Over millennia these maktheshim were formed. When one enters and draws close to the canyon’s walls one is struck by the beautiful and colorful layers of rock. These formations can only be found in the Negev and Sinai deserts.

We slept on the desert floor, each in our own sleeping bags. We attempted to create makeshift pillows from the desert rocks. I heard verses in the night. “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head, and lay down in that place.” (Genesis 28)

The clear, night sky was awash with stars. “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down it.”

I awoke early and waited for the sun to peak out above the horizon and for its rays to gently find its way within the rock walls. I remained in my sleeping bag until the desert air began to warm. The desert is surprisingly cold in the evening. Until the sun begins to bake the earth one would think that it is cool, fall morning.

I smiled to myself when I looked at my family, huddled near each other, and arrayed as if they were colorful logs thrown on the desert floor. I lit the fire and began preparing our Turkish coffee. (Ok, to be honest, our guide actually did. But it sounds so much better to say I did it.) The sun was only beginning to peak over the canyon’s walls. Best to get dressed in the sleeping bag, I advised our children. The air is still chilly.

We ate our breakfast and packed up the jeep and set off toward our next destination. The guide spoke about Ein Avdat, an oasis, off in the distance.

After the Israelites hurriedly left Egypt they camped in 42 different places. This week we read, “They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness.” (Exodus 13)

Scholars suggest that Succoth was probably the site of the ancient city of Tjeku, the capital of the eighth province of Lower Egypt in the eastern part of the Nile delta. This region served as farm land for the Israelites and was the Egyptian gateway to and from Asia. It is apparently one day’s journey from the royal palace in Raamses.

And where is Etham? No one knows.

Isn’t it curious that the first place where the Israelites camped outside of Egypt, the very first place where they camped as free people, we no longer know its exact location?

It was at the edge of the wilderness.

Sleeping within the makhtesh it appeared as if we were making camp at the edge of the universe. The stars served as our companions.

Could I ever find that camping spot in Makhtesh Katan, that figures so prominently in my memories, again? No. I am certain I could not.

But I can always find that story.

Sometimes the memory of a place is even better than the place.

Our story begins at the edge of the wilderness.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Writing on Sand and Stone

Make up your mind Pharaoh. First you don’t want to let the people go. Then you decide to let them go. And then you change your mind again, and won’t let them go. Finally, you let them go. This back and forth is punctuated by the verse, “For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 10) The Hebrew would be better translated as “I made his heart heavy” or perhaps “I weighed his heart down.”

What is the meaning of this unusual phrase? What does it mean to harden our hearts?

The Hasidic master, Rebbe Eliezer Hagar of Vizhnitz offers the following commentary. This phrase, he writes, hints at a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both.” The rebbe continues. It is hard to write on a rock, but after something is engraved on it, the writing will last forever. In the case of sand, on the other hand, one finds it easy to write whatever he wishes, but the writing can be erased in an instant.

The difference between the two is clear. Writing on a stone is like someone who finds it difficult to understand something, but once he understands it does not forget it. Writing on sand, on the other hand, can be compared to person who finds it easy to understand something, but soon forgets it. Pharaoh had both disadvantages. He found it hard to understand, and he forgets easily. Immediately after he said, “Let the people go,” he changed his mind and did not allow Israel to leave.

Typical of the Hasidic masters this negative notion of hardening the heart is transformed into one that has positive potential not only for Pharaoh, but for each and every one of us. Had Pharaoh heeded Moses’ words he would have learned a hard and difficult lesson. Pharaoh would have learned something that could be written on stone and would have left an imprint for a lifetime.

He would have taken to heart the lesson that you must never harden your heart to others. You must never harden your heart to their suffering.

At times our hearts are open. Other times they are closed.

Sometimes our hearts are weighed down by sorrow. And other times by pain. Sometimes our hearts are hardened by stubbornness. Other times by ideology.

To what do we harden our hearts? What weighs our hearts down? What stands in the way of learning lessons that will last a lifetime?

What do we write on sand?

What do we engrave on stone?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What Takes God So Long?

What takes God so long? After 400 years of slavery God responds to the Israelites’ suffering and says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Exodus 6) 400 years!

Why now? Why wait for the Israelites to suffer for so many years? Did the slavery become that much worse? Was God indifferent to their pain? Impossible! Still the question remains. Why did God wait so long?

Interestingly God’s response to the Israelites’ suffering mirrors Pharaoh’s daughter’s response to the infant Moses. In last week’s portion she hears the cries of Moses. “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2) My newfound hero, the unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter, is the first to show compassion to the Israelites.

Perhaps this is what God was waiting for. God waits for us.

There are other traditions that suggest as well that God waits for human beings to act before responding. The most famous of these is the story of Nachshon who according to legend jumps into the Sea of Reeds thereby prompting God’s involvement and concern. When the waters reach his neck and he is about to drown God splits the sea.

Others suggest that the messiah sits at the gates of Rome bandaging the sores and wounds of lepers. The messiah waits by performing compassionate acts. There he waits for God to send him to redeem the world. These traditions suggest that God is not the first to act but instead waits for our compassion. God’s concern is not in response to suffering but instead in response to our compassion.

In our Torah portion God appears to respond to Pharaoh’s daughter. Not only does she not have a name but she is also not Jewish. Moreover she is the daughter of the story’s arch enemy. The Rabbis ask why she would go to the Nile to bathe herself. She could have sent her slaves. The Talmud suggests that she opposed her father’s policies from the start and went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins.

It was there that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses thus leading to the redemption of an entire people. According to legend she also accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt. In that moment Pharaoh’s daughter left the trappings of the palace and forever pledged herself to the fate of the Jewish people.

Is it possible that her heart awakened God’s concern?

I still recall the few days of volunteering following Hurricane Sandy. We ventured to the South Shore to help a family tear out their water soaked dry wall and wood flooring. There we met other volunteers. One volunteer left a deep impression. He was a young man from Wisconsin who gave up his weeklong vacation. He drove here following Hurricane Sandy to help out. He slept most nights in his car. Here was a Christian man from the Midwest helping out Jewish New Yorkers.

Compassion comes from unexpected places. It often does not even bear a name.

Nonetheless my hope and prayer remains the same. May our compassionate acts stir God’s concern. May they awaken God’s compassionate heart.

And even if God fails to respond, the wounds will be bandaged and the homes repaired. And healing will reach into at least one heart.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Holocaust Hero's Newly Found Poem

Hannah Senesh is best known for her uncommon bravery. After moving to Israel in 1939, she volunteered to parachute into Nazi occupied territory in order to help rescue her fellow Hungarian Jews. She was quickly captured, mercilessly tortured and eventually killed.

Her poem, “A Walk to Caesarea” is familiar in Jewish circles. It is more commonly called, “My God, My God.” She writes:
My God, my God,
May these things never come to an end:
The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens, the prayer of people.
We often sing its melody as we stand on the beach and revel in the ocean’s waters. I recently heard its words as I looked out on the Mediterranean from Tel Aviv’s gentrified port. The poem’s meaning crystalized in my thoughts.  Senesh clearly intended the poem to point toward the Zionist attachment to the land of Israel.  It was this sand and this sea she was speaking about.  And yet more and more people see its meaning to be about the beauty of nature in general.

Perhaps that is the power of a poem....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Friday, January 5, 2018

What to be Named

Parents deliberate for months, and even years, the names they select for their children. For whom should they name their child? What if the baby is a girl? A boy? What should be the child’s Hebrew name? Do the origins of the name matter? What are the associations with the name?

Will the name influence their child’s future character?

The most significant book of the Torah begins in a similar fashion. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher…” (Exodus 1)

And yet the story of the most significant person in the Torah begins without naming a single person. Take note of how the Torah frames our hero Moses’ beginnings.
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son.

She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2)
No one is named in this entire story until its conclusion, and until Moses is grown. The Torah records no names for our actors until this brave young woman gives it to our hero, and the Torah’s central character. Moses is named not by his mother or even his father. Instead he is named by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Imagine that! The daughter of the very man who sets in motion the need to hide Moses in a basket so that he will not be killed by Pharaoh’s henchman not only saves Moses but names him. (By the way Pharaoh is a title not a name. It is most akin to when we hear “The White House said…”)

The Book that begins with names and is in fact called in Hebrew “Shemot—Names” introduces its greatest hero with the words “A certain somebody from an important tribe married another certain somebody from the same community and then gave birth to a beautiful boy…” This is remarkable!

And so the question remains: why would the Torah that will later be called “The Five Books of Moses” introduce its hero in this way? Why would it want to make clear that his beginnings are not based on lineage?

It is because his story must instead be based on merit, on actions, and on his accomplishments. Moses’ name in fact suggests the first of many such actions. It comes from the Egyptian meaning “to draw out.” We have a hint of his most important accomplishment. He will become the man who draws the Israelites out of Egypt.

Our most important names are not those that are given to us by our parents. They are instead the names we earn.

Are we called compassionate? Are we named honored? Are we called generous? Are we named kind?

What is the name we strive to be called?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Weddings and Destiny

Every wedding at which I officiate there is always a hint of beshert. Even in this age of JSwipe I hear fate’s echoes. “I did not think anything would come of it, but he would not stop texting me, so I figured I would meet him for drinks and that would be it. And then on that first date we could not stop talking.” He adds, “She is so intelligent and beautiful. We soon realized that we share the same values.”

How can one not believe in divine providence when looking at a young couple standing beneath the huppah? The Baal Shem Tov teaches, “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.” Their smiles illuminate. That single light shines.

This love must be more than mere happenstance. It is evidence of God’s hand.

And yet I often teach that we do not believe in destiny. The High Holidays would be meaningless if we did not believe that people could rewrite their future. Over and over again we profess our belief in the promise of repentance. Everyone can make amends and change. No one’s fate is sealed. The huppah suggests otherwise.

The Torah concurs. Before Jacob dies he gathers his children around him to offer blessings. “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come…’” (Genesis 49) Simeon and Levi, who kill the inhabitants of Shechem, are forever tainted. Jacob states, “Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.” Their past actions seal their destiny. Their future is written.

Fate is again illuminated. And our theology shadowed.

I recall the huppah.

Yehudah Amichai comments:
Joy blurs everything. I've heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, "It was great,
I was in seventh heaven." Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, "Great,
wonderful, I have no words."
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain —
I want to describe, with a sharp pain's precision, happiness
and blurry joy.
I look to the couple, standing beneath the huppah. God’s hand materializes.

Perhaps things can never be as precise as theology and philosophy suggest. We carry that moment when the stars appear to align, forever.