Friday, August 26, 2016

Parent's Prayer Before College

For those who may be driving a son or daughter to college for the first time, perhaps you will find this creative prayer meaningful and helpful for that moment of letting go:

Adonai Eloheinu, Lord our God, keep my son/daughter safe as they learn more about the world, themselves, and I hope their Jewish inheritance, at college. Open their hearts to different people and their minds to new ideas. Let them acquire wisdom and skills to navigate life’s challenges and struggles without my prodding and help. Indeed, let them grow more independent. Restrain me from texting too often but let them remain certain I am always available to listen, advise and most of all offer words of love and comfort. Even though my sheltered embrace is now distant from their daily lives let them find protection in Your eternal care. Blessed are You, Adonai, who listens to prayer.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ekev and God's Wealth

As we march through the portions of Deuteronomy, amidst the promises of reward and the threats of punishment in Moses’ lengthy warnings to the Israelites, we discover these words: “Remember it is the Lord your God who gives you the strength to make wealth…” (Deuteronomy 9:18)

The religious perspective insists that the foods we eat and the successes we earn are not our own but are instead owed to God. Even though I believe each of us deserves a measure of praise for our own successes I wonder how our world might be improved if we were to adopt this philosophy.

If my success is not my own, if my wealth is not because of my own strengths, intelligence and skills, then perhaps I am more willing to share with others and give to my community. I am less inclined to hold this wealth in my own hands because it is not owed to the work of my hands. Everything is a gift. Everything is blessing from God.

And that is the goal of the society the Torah wishes to create. It is about fashioning a sense of “our.” Its theory is that in order to do so, in order to train the soul to share, we must replace “It is mine.” with “It is because of God.”

If everything belongs to God, if the food I eat, if the successes I attain, are because of God then it becomes easier for me to share. Community can only be sustained by sharing.

That is the Torah’s goal. A holy community can only succeed because of God’s strength.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What Old School Perspective Can Teach

What Old School Perspective Can Teach the Age of the Smartphone

Here is the theory: the people closest to us are actually growing more distant and the events farthest from our homes feel much too near. Two illustrations:

A recent phone conversation with my daughter.

“I heard from your uncle that you and your cousin had a lengthy conversation.”

“Yes. We texted for a while about her summer at camp.”

“I thought your uncle said you spoke.”

“Abba, for my generation texting is talking.”

You could almost hear as well, “You’re so old!”

I manage to text, inbox and even tweet. Still I wonder how these technological advances might hurt our relationships with each other and our world....

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Vaetchanan and Swimming Medals

Olympic swimmers break records every year.  Their skills are extraordinary.  Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky amaze.  Swimmers improve their times at every Olympics. 

The first medalist in Olympic swimming, in modern history, was Alfred Hajos-Guttmann.  And who was Hajos-Guttman?  A Jew.  In fact he was a Hungarian Jew.  He earned two gold medals at the 1896 games in Athens.  He won the 100-Meter and 1200-Meter Freestyle.  His time for the 100-Meter was 1:22.2.  By the way, this year’s winner touched the wall at 47.58.

Granted Hajos-Guttman did not swim in a 50-Meter state of the art pool but instead in the cool waters of the Mediterranean in which there were the occasional 12-foot swells.  There is a big difference between swimming in a pool and an ocean!  Even more noteworthy Hajos-Guttman also earned titles in Hungary’s national competitions in running, hurdles, discus and soccer.  Later he coached Hungary’s national soccer team. 

And when he returned to the 1924 Olympics he competed not in sports but the arts.  Apparently back then it was not just about sports, and sportsmanship (although there have been both stirring and disturbing examples of this during these summer games), but other disciplines.  Hajos-Guttman earned top honors in architecture. 

And so I’m just saying.  Maybe it really did begin with a Jewish achievement.

And why did Hajos-Guttman take up swimming?  At the age of thirteen his father drowned in the Danube.  It was not so much about the medals but instead about saving life.  In fact he changed his name to Hajos, which means sailor in Hungarian.

The Talmud teaches that parents are obligated to teach their children Torah and a craft.  To not teach them a craft is likened to teaching them to steal.  And some say to teach them to swim too.  Why?  Because their lives might depend on it. (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 56b)  And Rabbi Moskowitz adds: To teach them to ride a bike.  Why?  Their enjoyment might depend on it.

The Torah reminds us: “And you shall teach them to your children. (Deuteronomy 6)

No one can swim as fast as Phelps or Ledecky but everyone needs to know how to swim.  And it all started with Alfred Hajos-Guttman, the Jew who took up swimming for no other reason than his life might depend on it. 

It’s really not about the medals.

Addendum: I would like to acknowledge Abby Sher and her recent article in Jewniverse: The First Swimmer to Win Olympic Gold Was This HungarianJew.  Sher pointed me in the direction of Hajos-Guttman’s achievements.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Devarim and the Weight of Words

Sometimes language offers hints of meaning. Other times it creates challenges to progress.

The Hebrew language provides many examples. Let us examine two. The Hebrew word for woman: isha is the same exact word for wife. There are different words for a young woman but not an adult woman. The language suggests that once a woman reaches adulthood her fulfillment can only be found in marriage to a man. The word for husband, by the way, is the same as that for owner: baal.

Such are the limitations of an ancient language as it confronts modernity. Hebrew is unable to recognize that a woman can find fulfillment not only in marriage but also as a rabbi (Go Susie!), prime minister (three cheers for Golda!), or even president. A woman can find meaning and fulfillment in a myriad of different ways. Her choices should be as endless as those for a man. She, like a man, should only be limited by intelligence, talents and devotion. (Go Shira and Ari!)

She does not serve a husband. Instead, like men and all human beings, she has the potential to serve the world. She can better the world by not only bringing forth life and forming a loving and holy partnership with another, but by working to improve our broken world. That is the obligation of every human being—both men and women.

On the other hand, there are times when language reminds us of ancient teachings that still resonate with modern meaning.

In Hebrew the word for word: devar is the same as that for thing. A word has weight. It is not ephemeral. It can heal. A word can also harm. A word is a thing. It is as if a word is an object that can be held in our hands. A word is not cheap. This is one of Judaism’s most profound lessons and something that our holy language reminds us of again and again.

In addition the word is born in the desert wilderness: midbar. This word shares the same root as devar. It is there that God revealed the word: devarim. It is there that we were taught about the weight of our words. It is also there that we gained a hint of the power of speech because it is there that God’s word thundered from Mount Sinai.

We must therefore measure the weight of our words. Otherwise we might find ourselves alone, and without the community that nurtures us. We might find ourselves adrift in a desert wilderness.

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan….” (Deuteronomy 1)

It is the word that can still bring healing to our broken world.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mattot or Masei and Fraying Threads

Diaspora Jewry and Israel are out of sync. In fact we have been reading different Torah portions.

Since the concluding Shabbat of Pesach Israeli Jews have been reading the portion ahead of that in the diaspora. Let me explain. In Israel, Pesach is celebrated for seven days. In the diaspora for eight days. The reason for this is ancient. Millennia ago when the rabbis delineated the calendar they determined that the months and their holidays would be determined in the physical, and later spiritual, center of the Jewish world: Jerusalem. Worried that the message might take too long to communicate from Jerusalem to distant communities they instituted a second holiday day for those living outside of the land of Israel. And thus in the diaspora a one day holiday becomes two days and a seven day holiday becomes eight.

This year, in Israel, the first day of Pesach fell on Saturday and the seventh on Friday. There on the Shabbat following the conclusion of the holiday they moved on to the weekly portion and read Achrei Mot. We on the other hand read the portion assigned to the second Shabbat of Passover. We did not return to the portion of the week until the following Shabbat. We have been behind Israel ever since. Finally this week we arrive at the double portion Mattot-Masei with which we conclude the Book of Numbers. In Israel they read our double portion over two weeks.

Now the entire Jewish world is back on the same page.

Still this rare circumstance has caused me to ponder the growing distance between Israel and the diaspora, most especially among our youth....

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pinhas and the Ocean's Waters

In ancient times sacrifices were offered on the heights of the Temple. On Sukkot especially the sacrifices reached their zenith. This week’s Torah portion offers details of the Sukkot sacrifices. (Numbers 29) 70 bulls were slaughtered on the altar, in addition to 14 rams, 98 lambs and seven goats. It was a bloody weeklong celebration. At the conclusion of Sukkot was the long since forgotten holiday of Simhat Beit HaShoeva, the water drawing celebration. Copious amounts of water were poured over the Temple and its altar.

In a land where water is so scarce it is remarkable to reflect on the central ritual of this holiday. At the conclusion of the dry season and prior to the beginning of the winter rains water is dumped as if it were a plentiful commodity. My teacher and the chair of Hebrew University’s Bible Department, Israel Knohl, offers two possible explanations. There was the practical and the philosophical. On the one hand this much water was required to clean the Temple. After so many sacrifices the Temple required a thorough washing. On the other hand what could be a better statement of faith than to dump out water before the winter rains (hopefully) began. It was if our people said, “God, we firmly believe that You will soon provide water for our crops.”

It is interesting to ponder the fact that whereas water figured so prominently in ancient times, it is no longer prominent in our rituals, especially in Reform circles. In traditional homes the mikvah, the ritual bath is still observed as well as netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of hands before eating. (It is important to note that we are still battling over these rituals. The Knesset recently passed a law banning Reform and Conservative Jews from using mikvahs for their conversions.) Still, we only add the prayer for rain to our liturgy, beginning at the conclusion of Sukkot. This additional line connects us to the seasons of the land of Israel. Is this single line enough?

When in Jerusalem I often set out on hikes to explore the streets of the city. It does not take long to be reminded of the necessity of always bringing plenty of water to withstand Jerusalem’s summer heat. It is no wonder that there water became central to our rituals. It is unfortunate that we take water for granted and no longer give such prominence to its preciousness. We drink it, bathe in it, play in it, but no longer pray with it.

It is hard to appreciate water living in an area where it is sometimes too abundant. It is true that our tradition assigns no blessing over the drinking of water. It is used in blessings, but we recite no blessing over it as we do with other foods and drinks. Why is there is no blessing? It is because water is a blessing. In Israel one appreciates better the blessing of mayyim hayyim, living waters.

According to the Talmud one has not experienced true joy until one celebrates Simhat Beit HaShoeva. What faith it is indeed to pour water over every inch of the Temple precinct at the onset of the rainy season. So with our ancestors let us dance and celebrate that God provides for us these living waters. And let us as well regain a better appreciation of mayyim hayyim, living waters.

Let us open our minds to the power and beauty of water and the majesty of the ocean's waves.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Balak, Favorite Poems and Enemy's Prayers

A few poems.


To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell:
to him I come, and without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn’s castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through the windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying “How can I reach the sea?”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and of quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of sea-birds on the coast.

So, though me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shuttered heart.


However deep your
Knowledge of the scriptures,
It is no more than a strand of hair
In the vastness of space;
However important appears
Your worldly experience,
It is but a drop of water in a deep ravine.


At times ... I wish I could meet in a duel the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me into a narrow country. And if he killed me, I’d rest at last, and if I were ready— I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him, or a father who’d put his right hand over the heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set— then I would not kill him, even if I could.

Likewise ... I would not murder him if it were soon made clear that he had a brother or sisters who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Or if he had a wife to greet him and children who couldn’t bear his absence and whom his gifts would thrill. Or if he had friends or companions, neighbors he knew or allies from prison or a hospital room, or classmates from his school … asking about him and sending him regards.

But if he turned out to be on his own — cut off like a branch from a tree — without a mother or father, with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless, without a child, and without kin or neighbors or friends, colleagues or companions, then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness —  not the torment of death, and not the sorrow of passing away. Instead I’d be content to ignore him when I passed him by on the street—as I convinced myself that paying him no attention in itself was a kind of revenge.


And then in this week’s portion we discover these verses:
How fair are you tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water…
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)


So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites.  King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people.  Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.

Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…  With these words we begin our morning prayers.

So records our Torah. 

And so we are reminded: Torah is about more than just listening to our own voice.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How to Stop Terror from Closing Our Hearts

Nice, Brussels, Paris and Paris again. Orlando, Charleston, Boston and Dallas. A litany of terrorized cities grows longer each and every week.

We are understandably afraid.

In this age of terror the ordinary and everyday can become terrifying. Going to work. Traveling on a plane. Walking through Times Square (or celebrating Bastille Day) can instill fear rather than offer the revelry for which these should only be known. This of course is the very goal of the terrorists who are bent on murder and destruction. They seek to upend the ordinary. They plot to terrify the mundane. Their very goal is to amplify fear....

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hukkat, Complaints and Tears

Moses, the greatest hero in the Torah and perhaps the Bible, is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Why? The answer is discovered in this week’s portion.

The people were once again complaining. This time they were screaming for water. “There is not even water to drink!” God instructs Moses to order a rock to provide water. Instead Moses twice hits the rock in anger. He shouts at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20)

What was Moses’ great sin? How could his actions deserve the punishment of never crossing the Jordan and walking into the land of Israel? For centuries commentators have argued about Moses’ actions. The story affords opportunities for many different interpretations.

Some commentators, most notably the medieval scholar Rashi, suggest that Moses’ sin was that he did not listen to God’s instructions exactly. God told Moses to order the rock to provide water. Instead Moses hits the rock, not only once but twice. This episode proves, according to this line of thinking, that when God gives a command we must follow it to the letter.

Others suggest it was instead that Moses takes credit for God’s miracle when he said, “Shall we get water?” Moses, who is often praised for his humility, was anything but humble. Hubris was his sin. Still others, among them Nachmanides, suggest that he called the people “rebels,” thus widening the gap between the leader and his followers. Moses loses his patience and becomes angry at the Israelites who he is meant to shepherd and inspire. This story thus illustrates a failure of leadership.

I would, however, like to suggest an alternative interpretation. The opening verse of the chapter reads: “The Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin… Miriam died there and was buried there.” Miriam is of course Moses’ sister. The Torah here suggests a clue to understanding Moses’ behavior.

Moses is a mourner. And what do the people do in response? They complain. If we see Moses as a mourner and in the midst of mourning the death of his only sister, his anger becomes understandable, his hitting of the rock should become forgivable.

Shiva can often be extraordinarily demanding of mourners. For days mourners become guests in their own home. Strangers congregate in places where they remember eating and laughing with family members now gone. Their absence becomes palpable. It can appear as if strangers vie to take their place. People gather in the kitchen and dining room. They make small talk. They discuss the weather or a recent Mets or Jets loss (or the occasional win). One can see the look emerging on mourners’ faces. “My sister just died and all you want to do is talk about is how come there is not enough to drink.” The Torah affirms: “There is not even water to drink!”

No one from among the community offers even a word of compassion. No one asks Moses about his sister Miriam. No one tells stories about her, reminding him of the beautiful songs she sang when the people crossed the sea. No one even jokes with him about the time she criticized his wife Zipporah. In the moment of his grief he might have even welcomed that remembrance. He would have been receptive to hearing any story about his sister. Such stories add flesh to memories.

Instead they speak only of the mundane. They shy away from confronting the grief standing before them. Where is their rachmanis?

And so Moses gets angry. He is human. He hits an inanimate rock. Anger is the first stage of mourning. In order to move towards acceptance one must travel through anger. The stories friends offer help accompany the mourner as they journey through their tears, as they march away from anger. They take hold of any and all remembrances.

Perhaps these verses illustrates not Moses’ failure but instead the people’s, and even I dare say, God’s. Where is their sympathy? Where is the God of compassion? Where is the understanding? Our leader is in mourning. And all they can do is talk about food and drinks. And all God can do is offer strict judgments.

Where is the necessary rachmanis?

Perhaps the story is a reminder that only compassion can transform grief.

And out of rock flowed copious tears.