Thursday, December 6, 2018

Masked and Unmasked

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that throughout the Joseph story, our hero Joseph often changes clothes. In the opening chapters, his father places the coat of many colors on him and then his brothers tear it from him. There is as well the garment torn from him by Potiphar’s wife when she tries to seduce him. And finally, in this week’s portion the following: “Pharaoh had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” (Genesis 41)

By the time his brothers come before him, in search of food to stave their hunger from famine, Joseph looks like an Egyptian. He is unrecognizable. His clothes, and apparently his mannerisms and language, allow him to hide from them despite the fact that he stands right in front of them. Now it is left to him alone to remove these clothes. Still, he is not yet able to tear the trappings of his Egyptian identity and reveal himself to his brothers.

What do we hide? What do we reveal?

Soon Joseph will remove his mask and embrace his brothers in forgiveness. He is only able to do this after he comes to believe that they have changed. When they refuse to consign their younger brother Benjamin to slavery as they once did Joseph he is able to reveal himself. It is then that Joseph unmasks his true identity. Joseph discovers that he is more a brother, and a member of the family of Israel, than an Egyptian. His inner self becomes one with his outer identity.

Are we the same on the outside as we are on the inside? Is it possible to achieve such harmony?

Yesterday our country observed a day of mourning for President George H.W. Bush. Of the many remembrances shared I was most struck by those of his son, President George W. Bush. In this weekend’s 60 Minutes interview he said that he once asked his father the following, “Dad do you ever think about the war?” His father responded, “I think about Delaney and White all the time.” They were the two crew mates who died when his plane crashed. It was a startling revelation.

Despite all the accolades about Bush’s wartime heroism: the grainy film of him being rescued by a submarine, the reports of his nearly 60 missions, the pictures of him in his Navy dress uniform and the many government jobs he achieved: president, vice-president, CIA director, congressman, he remained bound to the two friends killed over 70 years ago. Their memories occupied his thoughts.

Their deaths were the hidden hands that directed his life. It appeared as if their memories impelled his service.

It was not the uniforms—and the many achievements, but the loss. It was not the heroism and the years of service, but instead the friends—or more accurately, their absence that guided his life.

I sensed his pain.

Uniforms hide the cost of war. (Perhaps this is their intention.) Achievements mask our inner struggles.

The soul was laid bare.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Miracles of Hanukkah Are Not What You May Think

During my rabbinical school years, my classmates and I gained experience serving small pulpits throughout the country. We traveled to these far-flung congregations once a month or every other week. I served communities in Houghton-Hancock, Michigan; Clarksdale Mississippi; Fargo, North Dakota and Arvada, Colorado.

I recall my first Hanukkah in Clarksdale. As I drove south from the Memphis airport, through the cotton fields of Northern Mississippi, I began to formulate my teaching about the upcoming holiday. For weeks, we had studied Hanukkah’s origins with our professors and debated its meaning in our classes.

I decided to teach my congregants about the real Hanukkah. I patiently explained how our central story about the miracle of oil appears nowhere in the Book of Maccabees. These books, written soon after the victory over the Syrian-Greeks and the Jewish Hellenists, emphasize the Maccabees’ heroism, the sinfulness of those Jews enamored of Greek culture, and the ruthlessness of the Syrian-Greek oppressors. There, the eight days are tied to the Temple’s rededication ceremony. The Temples were first dedicated during Sukkot, another eight-day holiday and so Hanukkah’s eight days are most likely tied to Sukkot’s eight.

“What about the miracle of oil?” my congregants asked.

“It does not appear until the pages of the Talmud,” I respond...

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Angels and Demons

Everyone has their demons. And everyone has their angels.

There are some that say that when our forefather Jacob wrestled with “beings divine and human” he struggled with his estranged brother Esau. Other suggest he wrestled with Esau’s protecting angel.

Long before this mysterious encounter, Jacob stole the birthright from Esau. At his mother Rebekah’s suggestion, he tricked his father Isaac and took the first-born blessing for himself. Esau then threatened to kill him. Jacob runs.

He has been running for some time. Afraid about the next day’s meeting with his brother he sends his family across the river and instructs his servants to bring gifts to Esau.

“And Jacob was left alone.”

He is alone with his thoughts.

Should I have lied to my father? Why did I trick Esau out of his rightful inheritance?

Regret fills the solitude. It feeds the loneliness.

“A being wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

Jacob is unable to wrest free from his demons.

The being wrenches his hip. Jacob now limps. Undeterred and even more determined, our forefather insists the being offer him a blessing. He receives a new name.

Jacob becomes Israel. Israel means to wrestle with God. The angel explains, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Our identities hinge on wrestling. Our names emerge from our struggles.

Everyone has their demons. Everyone has their angels.

Perhaps they are one and the same.

And now Jacob runs no more.

“Esau runs to greet him. He embraces Jacob, and falling on his neck, he kisses him; and they wept.” (Genesis 32)

Friday, November 16, 2018

Still Dreaming!

Place is central to our most important Jewish dream. That singular dream is recounted at our Passover Seders: L’shanah habaah b’yerushalyim—next year in Jerusalem. And now, as the Psalmist sings, we are in fact like dreamers who have returned to Zion. We can in a matter of hours touch the land that our ancestors only saw in their mind’s eye and sang about in their prayers.

Vayetzei begins that dreaming. Jacob arrived at the place. And he dreamed of a ladder reaching toward heaven. And God reiterated to him the promise that the land on which he was lying will be assigned to him and his offspring. Today his dream has become real. Yama—West—becomes Tel Aviv. Tzafona—North—is now Haifa. Our dreams are now real places.

For millennia this was not the case.

The rabbis of old were forced to fashion Judaism out of the embers of a destroyed Jerusalem....

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Why I Wore a Kippah to Vote

This Tuesday morning, I wore my kippah, the customary head covering many Jews wear in synagogue. We cover our heads as reminder that God is always present.

As I entered the local elementary school to vote, I donned my kippah. I don’t wear a kippah all the time. Typically I wear one when leading prayer services or when teaching a class or when officiating at a wedding or funeral. I don’t wear one when doing any manner of everyday activities, such as grocery shopping or going for a walk or for that matter, venturing to town hall.

This occasion, however, needed to be sanctified–most especially this year, and during these times.

Voting seems like such a mundane affair....

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Responding to the Pittsburgh Massacre

At Shabbat evening services we gathered together to celebrate Shabbat and stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I began the service with these words:
I never imagined that I would stand before our congregation and have occasion to speak about such violent and deadly antisemitism in our own country. The fact that someone acted on his desire that all Jews must die seems unimaginable to me. I recognize that violent antisemitism is part of our American history. Leo Frank, for example, was lynched in the early 1900’s. But that seemed a unique circumstance and I could dismiss it as “back then.” Sure, in my own day, there were antisemitic comments said here or there, and there was Nazi graffiti scrawled on synagogues, but nothing ever of this scale.

Such acts only happened over there, in Europe. Perhaps, we even quietly said to ourselves, it could happen in the South or in the far reaches of the West. Such horrific acts of terror aimed at Jews happened in Israel. But not, we believed, here. This week has taught us otherwise.

We are pained. And our hearts are filled with sorrow. We are even angry. This evening we gather to sing our songs, and offer our prayers, and bring comfort to our troubled souls. But even our most cherished songs seem inadequate when pressed against this massacre. And yet we will sing and rejoice at the gift of Shabbat. On this day more than any others, we will do so in defiance of the world and the hate it brings to our doorstep. We celebrate the Sabbath so as to assuage our anger and heal our pain. We sing so as to fill our hearts with gratitude.

And I am grateful that so many have come here, on this Shabbat evening, to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. I welcome the guests who have joined us and most especially our local clergy: Reverend Jeff Prey, of First Presbyterian Church, Father Kevin Smith, the Pastor of St. Dominic's Church and Dr. John Yenchko, the Pastor of North Shore Community Church as well as their parishioners. Your presence gives us strength. Your willingness to join with our community gives us hope. On every Friday evening we begin with the same song, Hineh Mah Tov. On this evening it takes on added meaning.

Hineh mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim gam yachad. How good and pleasing it is that brothers and sisters join together.

Later I offered this sermon:
The Jewish tradition teaches that Amalek is the paradigm of evil. He, and his followers, attacked the ancient Israelites as they wandered through the desert. He attacked them from the rear. He attacked the stragglers and the weakest. This is what we saw happen this past Shabbat. People who went to synagogue to celebrate and pray, who faced the Ark to beseech their God, who relished in holding the Torah scroll in their arms were gunned down in a sanctuary that is supposed to only serve as a place of respite and peace.

Let us be forthright. Antisemitism is on the rise. Gun violence is a daily occurrence. Hate speech increases with each news cycle. These are our new realities.

What happened at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue is partly attributed to the gun violence that plagues American society. Automatic weapons, and guns made for military use, make such acts exponentially more lethal. And that should be said again and again, until we find some measure of regulating our society’s love affair with guns.

But what makes this instance different and unique is that Jews were purposely targeted. A man filled with rage and obsessed about Jewish conspiracies, fueled by the common cause he found on the internet set out to kill as many Jews as possible. The internet is like kindling for the blood libels, stereotypes and hateful rhetoric that have always been part and parcel to antisemitism. Any manner of idea can find compatriots not only in the web’s darkest corners but in the very tools we use day in and day out. They are a mere like away on Facebook.

Moreover, when our political leaders, demonize other human beings, whether they be immigrants, Muslims or Mexicans, antisemites breathe easier. When the events of Charlottesville are dismissed, when the differences between protesters and Nazis are equivocated, antisemites think to themselves, “Look at how many people agree with us.” Silence is interpreted as assent. Words really do matter. That is one of our tradition’s most important teachings. Words can hurt. They can heal. They can incite violence. They can lead us to peace. They can divide us. And they can lead to unity.

In the face of antisemitism, in the face of hatred and the demeaning of others who are different than ourselves, there is only one response, and that is to say loudly, “This is not us. This is not America.”

Perhaps this violent antisemitism was always here in the United States, perhaps it always bubbled under the surface. In recent years it appears to have found new air. I have studied enough history to know that antisemitism has a stubborn fortitude. We have found it in every country in which we have settled. Even in Israel, the place we believed would be this solution to this perennial challenge, Islamist leaders have resurrected the worst, and most lethal, of history’s antisemitic tropes. Still I never imagined it could become so devastatingly violent here, in my home, in our United States. Some might have thought this a naïve belief. I fear they may have been proven right. Still I stubbornly hold on to the notion that this place to which my grandparents immigrated, this country in which my family has made our home, is different. It is unique.

In how many lands would there be such outpouring of love and support from those who are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and others? Here there is a sense that if one faith is attacked all are attacked. That is the notion to which I cling. In how many countries would a local paper be emblazoned with the Jewish prayer for mourning? On the front page of this morning’s Pittsburgh paper are the opening words of the kaddish, written in Hebrew: yitgadal v’yitkadash… And my heart is buoyed by the presence of my friends who are here this evening. We may be of different faiths, but we are bound together. When one is attacked all are attacked. The fact that you have joined us on this occasion, to sit with us and join in our prayers, is a testament to the greatness of our nation and the notion that we are stronger than the hate that travels across our computer screens and the violence that fills our schools, movie theatres, malls, and sanctuaries.

In fact, I learned the meaning of sanctuary not from studies of Jewish texts but from Reverend Ramirez. Years ago, my congregation met at the Brookville Reformed Church. We did so for some ten years. Central to this congregation’s tradition was the notion that their sanctuary doors were never locked. A sanctuary must always be open. Anyone could come to the sanctuary and find solace and comfort within its walls. On occasion, when our students met in the social hall for Hebrew School, someone would wander into the sanctuary to sit and pray. I would sometimes find people there. Sometimes they sat in the dark and I would offer to turn on the lights. I could sometimes hear their cries as they prayed. Despite my offers to talk, they often preferred to sit in silence and pray. And that is the image I am holding on to.

An open sanctuary. A sanctuary in which people are shielded from the troubles of the world, a sanctuary in which any manner of person is welcome. People might tell you that a Jew can’t really be friends with a Christian or with a Muslim or with people of different faiths. They don’t really understand what America represents. We have a choice between walls that divide us or open doors that invite others in. Open doors are what should define us.

The only way out of this dark week is through these open doors. Shutting others out leads nowhere. America is about finding a place for differences. It is about finding a home for ourselves and right by our sides, a home for others.

This week we read, in our weekly Torah reading, about the death of Abraham and Sarah. They are both buried in the contested city of Hebron. In a fascinating turn, Isaac and Ishmael, the two estranged brothers, one who is the father of the Jewish people and the other, Muslims look to as their patriarch, come together to bury their father Abraham. They live in different lands. Ishmael lives in Egypt, apart from his father and brother, who live in the land of Canaan. Isaac’s mother Sarah forbids any contact between Isaac and Ishmael. And yet Ishmael shows up at Abraham’s burial. He is there by his brother’s side, so they can together grieve for their father. How can this be?

There is only one answer. Isaac kept the door open. He stayed in touch with his brother. That must be the choice we make.

There are voices that seek to divide us, and separate us from one another, and keep us far apart and at a distance, that seek to portray the other as alien and foreign. And if we listen, if we heed these voices, we will find ourselves unable to fight the demons that grow in our midst. We will find ourselves at odds with the very values that have made this country great. That is not a choice I am willing to make. Antisemitism may be stubborn in its perseverance. But I promise to be just as stubborn in my response. I promise to hold on to others despite our differences.

We may be different. We may pray in different manners. We may surround ourselves with different images, but we are one. And together we must say, what happened in Pittsburgh last week is not us and it will never again be us. It can never be a part of the America we all call home. Amen v’Amen.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bring Peace!

On Saturday evening I stood with 200 other cyclists watching the sunset over Makhtesh Ramon, a large box canyon in the Negev desert. It was then that we began to learn about the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We made Havdalah and sang to Elijah the prophet, who we pray will one day bring peace to the world. We sang in defiance of the world and the troubles it too often brings us. Even when that hope seems distant, we continue to sing.

This is what Jews do. We stand up against adversity. Sometimes with song. Other times with political action. Always with the hope that the future can be better than the past. We are defiant in the face of adversity. We pray for peace when it appears impossible. If Jews had allowed history to defeat them, there would be no State of Israel. I could not have spent the past week riding through stretches of desert that took my breath away. That is always the first and most important lesson we should take into our hearts.

And this coming Shabbat, we will sing even more loudly, and perhaps even more defiantly. We will meet as we always do on Friday evening at 7 pm. Feel free to invite your friends and neighbors. I have received messages from Christian and Muslim friends who want me to know that their hearts are joined with ours. Invite such friends to join you at services.

The next day, on Sunday morning we gathered at the same spot, again overlooking the Makhtesh, to offer prayers and begin the day of riding. The Israel Ride has a tradition that someone different carries a small Torah scroll every day of the ride. A couple from the Pittsburgh synagogue, who still did not know who among their friends and fellow congregants were alive or dead, was given this honor. They carried the Torah. And they rode. They moved forward. And then for the last day the scroll was given to a young woman who will help to carry our people forward.

We move toward the future. We hope for a day of peace. We ride forward.

This ride is about more than cycling. It is about making peace. It is about bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians together around their shared concern for the environment. At the Arava Institute, they do not avoid confronting disagreements. They do not avoid the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Students are in fact forced to discuss these issues and conflicts with their colleagues. But then after they scream at each other and cry about their own pain, they sit and eat their meals, together as one.

The institute is also about so much more than studying the environment. It lives by the principle that it is far more difficult to hate when the stranger becomes a friend rather than a caricature.

Until Charlottesville, we believed our country would always be a safeguard against antisemitism and that we would never again know the feelings of the stranger. This past Shabbat was a deadly reminder that in our own country, the very place that we have felt at home for generations, there are still those who “want all Jews to die.” This past Shabbat was a violent wake-up call that as much as we wish our sanctuary to be a refuge from the troubles of the outside world, contemporary events too often pierce that solace. They tear away at the joy which is the essence of Shabbat.

And yet perhaps this Shabbat can offer us something else. The Sabbath is also “vayinafash”. It is a day when our souls are meant to be restored. Perhaps our faith can be restored in our neighbors. And our hope can be restored in our country. I have invited my friends and local Christian clergy to our services. Their presence will help to bolster my faith. We can pray and sing so as to banish the terror that seeps into our hearts. And at the very least, our songs will buttress our hope.

The synagogue’s board and I will of course review our security protocols. We take the safety of everyone who enters through our doors very seriously. We will of course update you after our discussions. Nonetheless the secret to fighting hatred, antisemitism, and terror is found more in our hearts. It is discovered by teaching about peace. It is found in speaking out against those who sow hatred.

And so, I can promise you this. Shabbat will help to strengthen our hearts. It will help to restore our souls.

We will mourn. We will also sing.

And we will once again wish each other a “Shabbat Shalom.”

A day of peace.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Sacrifice Your Certainty

The tradition lionizes Abraham. He is among our greatest of heroes. We recall his name every time we stand to recite the Amidah. We remember his fortitude, and remind God of our forefather’s devotion, in our prayers. Abraham was tested ten times and each time not only persevered but emerged stronger. Last week he left his native land when God commanded him to do so. And then at God’s insistence, he circumcised himself at the age of 99.

And this week we read of his final test: the command to sacrifice his son Isaac. We also read this story on Rosh Hashanah. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Without hesitation he marches off early in the morning, with Isaac, to do God’s bidding. He carries with him all the tools for this sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac journey for three days to Mount Moriah. You might have thought that he would have changed his mind. You might have thought Isaac would inspire uncertainty, and doubt, about his faith.

Abraham was, however, single minded in his devotion. Only at the last moment does God stay Abraham’s hand. “Do not raise your hand against the boy…” God calls. In Isaac’s place Abraham sacrifices a ram. On Rosh Hashanah we sound the shofar in remembrance of Abraham’s devotion. We remind God of what our ancestor was willing to do. On the place where we believe Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac the Temple was built, and the Western Wall now stands.

I continue to ask, “Who would take a knife to their child? Who would sacrifice their son?” It is a harrowing story. And if I introduced you to someone who did what Abraham did you would rightly say he is crazy.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, responds. He bravely suggested that that Abraham misunderstood God.

Many people think they know what God wants. And plenty of people continue to do crazy things in religion’s name. Rosenzweig also remarked that all we can be certain of when it comes to God’s revelation is its first word, “Anochi—I.” Everything after that word in the opening phrase of Sinai’s revelation, “I am the Lord your God…” is interpretation.

All we can know for sure is that God exists. Discerning what God wants of us, however, is a lifelong pursuit. We continue to interpret. We continue to struggle.

Too often people allow their certainty to blind them and impel them to make terrible decisions and even do horrible deeds. How else can we understand the demand to sacrifice a child? We tend to become overzealous of our interpretations. We shout, “I know what this means. I understand this. I am certain of God’s truth.” We tend to hold on to these certainties as if they are the greatest sources of meaning.

Perhaps this is what we should sacrifice.

Our certainty.

And perhaps this is why God stays Abraham’s hand.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Abraham, Albert and Armando

I am thinking about immigrants and refugees.

Perhaps it is because I recently watched this moving video about a New York synagogue’s custodian, Armando:

Perhaps it is because the Trump administration has reduced the number of refugees allowed into this country to a four decade low. Or perhaps it is because the administration continues its policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. Then again perhaps it is because the president today threatened to take military action to stem the flow of people trying to cross the US-Mexico border.

Immigration continues to captivate my thoughts and animate my concerns.

I turn to this week’s Torah portion.

In it God commands Abraham to leave his native home and journey to the land of Canaan. There God will make him a great nation. And so what does Abraham and his wife, Sarah, do? They go. They travel from what is today modern day Iraq and make their way to what will become the place that Jews continue to hold in their hearts, the land of Israel.

Our Jewish story begins by leaving home. Our journey begins because Abraham got up and left. We are forever defined by journeying. Even the term Hebrew, Ivri, means to cross over. What makes us Jews is leaving and going, and crossing over one border to another.

This is why we say at the Passover seders, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We think that holiday celebration is about the blessing of gaining freedom and escaping slavery. It is of course. That is its larger message. But Passover is also about affirming wandering. Passover is about going out. It is about leaving. And the most interesting, and curious, thing is that we never arrive. The seder concludes with a promise.

We only leave. We never get to where we are going. We conclude, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Next year it will be better. Next year our lot will be improved. We say goodbye to our seder guests with a lingering hope on our lips.

This is the immigrant’s dream. The Jewish hope is the refugee’s dream. Abraham embodies every immigrant’s aspiration and every refugee’s longing. They say, “We are leaving. We are running. Because there it can be better. Because tomorrow can be better than today.” That’s why people try to sneak across borders or why they risk their children’s lives by placing them in rickety boats. That’s why Abraham left Haran. He had faith in the promise of tomorrow. Next year it will be better.

This is our people’s most important legacy. “Next year” encapsulates our ethos. The hope that tomorrow can be better than today. That’s why Abraham runs. That’s why people continue to try to cross over dangerous borders.

Today we recall the many Jewish immigrants who found their way to this country’s shores. Today we recall that 85 years ago today Albert Einstein arrived in the United States as a refugee.

Today we reaffirm this Jewish hope when we read (again) about Abraham’s journey

Who among these “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” will be the next Albert? Who among these “homeless, tempest-tost” will be the next Abraham?

Friday, October 12, 2018

Doing Good

This week we read the story about Noah and the flood. The portion opens with the words: “This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6). Noah’s character is highlighted. He was a pretty remarkable guy. He was righteous. He was blameless. He walked with God. This must be why God called him and commanded him to build the ark.

“The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, children of the Lord…”.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak, more commonly known as Rashi, who lived in 11th century France, and wrote a line by line commentary on the entire Bible, as well as a commentary on the Talmud, asked, “Why does the Torah add the words ‘in his generation?’” It is an interesting question. Are not righteous and blameless objective terms? Rashi offers the following clarification:
Some of our Rabbis explain “in his generation” to Noah’s credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of his good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
It is a fascinating insight. Was Noah deemed righteous and blameless only in comparison to the evil and lawless generation in which he lived? Or would he be called righteous and blameless in any generation? Could he stand next to Abraham? Or had he lived among the greatest of our ancestors would he have been a nobody? I wonder.

Is doing good a matter of comparison? Or can we determine some objective measure of what it means to do good?

I think of those who helped Jews survive the Holocaust. Some did little more than offer a potato to a fleeing Jew. Even such a small act was heroic. The Nazis shot and killed people for doing far less. We would easily call such a person righteous.

Once, when walking along the streets of New York, a homeless man approached me and begged for food. I went with him to a nearby bagel store and bought him a coffee and bagel. We spoke briefly.

Two similar acts. One heroic. The other quite ordinary, although perhaps unusual. The difference is of course the context. The evil surrounding the first transforms the gift of a potato into an act of courage, heroism and righteousness.

Righteousness depends entirely on the generation in which we find ourselves.

And that leads me to a prayer. May we never know such times. May our days be so ordinary that they only demand of us simple and ordinary acts of kindness.