Sunday, September 15, 2019

Eighteen Years Later

What follows is Friday evening's sermon on the occasion of the eighteenth anniversary of 9-11.

On Wednesday Susie and I dropped Ari off at JFK for the beginning of his year long journey. Aside from the emotions of seeing our son off as he begins his travels around the world, it occurred to me how ordinary this occasion was. I am not speaking of course about Ari backpacking to as yet unknown destinations and our expectations that we will soon receive random texts at some odd time of day and night saying something like, “Leaving Singapore, heading to Hanoi.” Or, “Decided to stay longer in Palermo.” I am instead speaking about how ordinary Wednesday, September 11, 2019 seemed. The airport provided its usual frustrations with all its boisterous honking and jockeying for a spot to drop him off. We hit traffic on the way home. I looked up when we were stopped on the Belt Parkway to see a large plane making a slow leftward turn on its approach to the airport.

Eighteen years ago I could not have imagined such a moment. I can still see the empty, blue skies over our backyard, after we had collected our then five and seven year olds from school. “Can we let them play outside?” Susie and I debated. I looked up from our backyard, and marveled at the sky’s blueness and its emptiness, save the occasional military helicopters loudly hurtling towards Manhattan. “We can’t keep them locked inside,” we finally decided. And then we hurried them in and out as we struggled to make up our minds over and over again. Everything stopped on that day. We felt as if it might forever stop.

Ten years ago we would have protested the day Ari decided to begin his journey. “Wait until Thursday to leave,” we might have said. This year I could not get over how ordinary and routine the day seemed. Of course I cried all over again as I tuned into the countless services, and most especially the service at the 9-11 memorial. I watched with renewed pain the remembrances held throughout the country, and even the one held in Israel. Still I did what I always do on any given Wednesday. It seemed like any other September day. I am not saying of course that the day 9-11 is not among our most wrenching and sacrosanct days. Americans attended services, watched any number of memorials on TV, or not so great made for TV movies. On Wednesday we reacquainted ourselves with the pained stories of those lost and those who died trying to save others. I think of the firefighters running up those stairs, sensing they might never walk down. Their photographs arrayed in The New York Times are still etched in my thoughts; they are forever before my eyes. I think of all those rescue workers, police officers, construction workers and volunteers who rushed to Ground Zero to help but now, years later, are plagued with unimaginable health consequences.

And yet, on this past Wednesday most of us went about our day like any other Wednesday in September.

Some things return to normal. We go to work. We go out to dinners. We go into the city for the theatre. There were days back then when I never could have imagined that someone could create, or would create, the most beautiful and moving show about that dark day. And, until this past Sunday I refused to go see Come from Away. We go to the beach. We go to the airport. And then again, there were days back then when we thought that going to the airport might never again be possible. We laugh. We sing. We cry—but no longer only about that Tuesday from eighteen years ago. Everything has not stopped.

And some things are never again the same. We are still afraid. We are afraid of travel. Before that day there was no place on earth beyond the travel destinations of our American can do attitude. Now we take those State Department Travel warnings seriously. Fear is lodged in our American hearts. We hesitate. Everything has not stopped, but there is a pause in our step, a hesitation in our decision making. “Is it safe?” we ask over and over again. “There are so many people there. It might not be safe to go watch the parade,” we think. We hesitate to meet new people. It is easier to stick with the friends we know. We pause before opening our hearts to strangers. “They could be…you know…” we think, sometimes quietly and sometimes not so quietly.

The hope that was the defining characteristic of America, the hope that inspired my grandparents to traverse the ocean and build a life here for themselves, their children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren, is now overwhelmed by fear. Now our children openly say what would have been blasphemy to my grandparent’s generation, “Is this country really the best country in the world?”

Eighteen years later, I am not sure how to help banish this fear. But I have learned this. Fear is a matter of the heart. It has nothing to do with metal detectors, armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs. There can never be 100% safety and security. Not when riding a bicycle, driving in a car, flying in an airplane or walking on the sidewalk. There is no place on earth that is not touched by suffering and pain, violence and terrorism. We cannot run. We cannot hide. Eighteen years ago, we were naïve. We did not know then what we know now. That recognition, that knowing, that painful experience has made us fearful and afraid. But the heart is not our master. It does not rule our lives. We can control the heart. We can master our feelings and most especially our fears. As the Psalmist said, “Though they might surround me, my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27)

And so we can banish the terror; we can rid our hearts of fear. How? By not stopping. By not pausing. By at the very least, not hesitating so much and so often. By approaching the world, and other people, with more hope. By seeing in others the possibility for new insights and new loves. By looking to the world, and its many destinations, not just as potential enemies who may very well be arrayed against us, but as beacons for discovering some new truths. We must once again open our hearts to the world's nuances. We must no longer divide the world into us and them.

How do we banish fear? By not stopping. By not pausing. By not hesitating. Perhaps that answer was only just discovered this past Wednesday. Perhaps that answer can only begin to be discovered eighteen years later. This truth might still be found. It is found in going about our day like it was just another Wednesday in September. That is the most important thing we can do, and perhaps even the bravest thing we can do. We can push fear aside.

Fear need not rule our hearts.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let Them Eat Grapes

Years ago when hiking through Israel, my guide would sometimes take a detour through a field. There she would reach up and take an orange from a tree, immediately peel off its skin and then eat it. I protested. “This is not your field. These oranges are not yours to take.” She would then correct my understanding. “Our Bible permits it.”

And the Torah proclaims: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.” (Deuteronomy 25)

Our Bible has a different understanding of ownership. We do not own the land. The earth belongs to God and we are but tenants. So when I look to my backyard, the trees, and vines, might very well be mine but the food they produce is not just for my benefit.

The Torah makes clear. If you are hungry you can take the fruit from a tree. Even though the farmer has expended all the effort, and expense, to grow and nurture the tree, its fruit must be shared. Still you can only take a little bit, only enough to satiate your hunger. You may not take so much that you can fill a basket so that you are then able to sell the fruit in the market. That would be stealing.

And stealing is forbidden. Sharing is demanded.

While very few of us have vineyards or even know how to grow grapes, or even for that matter have fruit trees, imagine how different the world might be if we shared some fruit with our neighbors.

I dream.

And then I recall the fruit that spoils in my refrigerator, and the bag of half eaten grapes that makes its way into our garbage pail. I discard my dreams.

I must dream. I imagine. A world where all it takes for no one to know hunger is for each of us to offer one or two grapes here or there is within reach.

Sharing is commanded.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Word is Our Ruler

I spend my days trying to uncover contemporary meaning in the weekly Torah reading. I pour over the Bible’s words to discover modern resonance.

This week I unfurled our sacred scroll and revealed these words:
When the king is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him…. Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah... Thus, he will not act arrogantly toward his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or left… (Deuteronomy 17)
When Saul is anointed the first king of Israel, God acquiesces to the people’s desire to be like all other nations. Appointing earthly rulers is a compromise. The Torah reminds us. Rulers must always remember that they serve a higher authority, that they serve the rules and laws given to prior generations.

Even the greatest king of Israel, David, is no greater than God’s Torah. Let’s take but one example. First, he commits adultery with Bathsheba. Then David has her husband, and loyal soldier, Uriah murdered. The prophet Nathan rebukes the king, reminding him that he is not above the law. Murder and adultery are forbidden for everyone—even the king.

In many other cultures, both then and now, such rebuke would be dismissed. And the prophet, or protester, would be jailed or killed. And herein lies David’s uniqueness, and perhaps his greatness. He repents. He admits his error. He atones for his sin. David bows to the law.

The Torah is our ruler. The law is our king.

Often when I take our students into the sanctuary, I open the Ark to show them our beautiful Torah scrolls. We discuss the colored robes that cover the scrolls. I point out the shiny silver crowns and breastplates that adorn them. I ask the students, “Who else wears a crown?” And they respond, “A king or a queen.” “Exactly,” I say.

Then I remind them that this is exactly Judaism’s most important teaching. We look up to the Torah as one might look up to a queen or king. The chapters and verses in these scrolls, the words inscribed by centuries of meaning, are what we worship.

One might think that such veneration, especially that of an ancient calligraphed scroll, means we live in the past. We do not. We live in the present but are nurtured by ancient words.

Yesterday’s words inform tomorrow’s promise.

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said: “Turn it over, and again turn it over, for all is contained therein. And look into it; and become gray and old therein. And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.”

To discover meaning all we have to do is to look at these ancient words anew. To recall our sacred task all we need do is unfurl this sacred scroll.

A book is our king. The word is our ruler.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Small Changes, Big Questions

This week we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, the season devoted to introspection as we prepare for the upcoming the High Holidays. We ask many questions of ourselves. What can I do differently? To whom should I offer apologies? How can I do better?

All these questions are connected to the very first question.

After God created Adam and Eve and placed them in their lavish new home, the Garden of Eden, God told them they could eat whichever fruits and vegetables they wanted, except the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of course, they did not listen. They ate the fruit. Then, when they heard God approaching, they became afraid and hid.

No one can hide from God. And God called out, “Ayekah—where are you?” God knew exactly where they were hiding, but God wanted Adam and Eve to own their mistake, to admit their error and amend their failings. Instead, Adam said, “It’s not my fault. It’s that woman’s doing.” (Hmm. The Torah sounds so contemporary!). And Eve said, “It wasn’t me. It was that talking snake.” (Hmm. There we go again blaming fictions instead of taking responsibility.)

No one should hide from questions.

Because Adam and Eve failed to admit their mistake and attempt to correct their wrongs, they were punished. God asked, “Where are you?” so that they might figure out where they stand. Instead they blamed others.

Repentance was only a question away.

Recently, my colleague Rabbi Judy Schindler taught that this one-word question, “ayekah” is similar to the Hebrew word, “aykha—woe.” This is the word that opens Jeremiah’s lament about Jerusalem’s destruction. “Woe! Lonely sits the city once great with people.” are the words that open our Tisha B’Av mourning. Woe is me is how we recall the destruction of the ancient Temples.

All that separates these Hebrew words are a few vowels. Add a dot, change a few of those mysterious symbols, and “where am I” is transformed into “woe is me.”

Most of the time we vocalize the wrongs that happen all around us by saying, “Woe is me.” We lament our misfortune. We cry to God about the injustices that befall us.

If the coming High Holidays, however, are going to have their intended meaning then we best ask, “Where am I?” Change is never accomplished by casting blame. It can only be achieved by asking questions. They must be as searing and probing as that very first question.

All that separates us from the repentance that is our most urgent task are a few vowels. All that stands in the way of change is something as small as a vowel.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Let No One Tear Us Apart

This dizzying week has confirmed a number of beliefs. Let me reiterate them. 1) Some members of congress are Israel’s enemies. 2) Barring such enemies from visiting Israel is a terrible mistake. 3) The suggestion that some Jews’ loyalty to Israel should be doubted is divisive and terribly dismaying. Let’s unpack these affirmations.

Representatives Tlaib and Omar support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement who some suggest only wants to end Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. And while many Jews, and a fair number of Israelis, believe that Israel’s building of settlements and its control over West Bank Palestinians’ freedoms, threatens Israel’s security and undermines Israel’s democracy, the BDS movement really teaches that Zionism and the State of Israel are illegitimate.


Tlaib, for example, supports a one state solution rather than the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state we love and admire....

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Bucket Lists

We know a great deal about Moses’ life and his many accomplishments. We do not know much about his personal aspirations. I do know that there was one all important thing on his bucket list. He wanted to visit the land of Israel. Sadly, he never achieved this goal. He died on the other side of the Jordan River.

He pleaded with God. “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” God responded harshly, “Enough! Never speak to Me about this matter again.” (Deuteronomy 3)

Our hero’s bucket list remained unfulfilled. It was a simple list. It contained only one item. The reason why Moses is Moses is because he did not ask much for himself. He was all about the mission and little about his own wants. True, he occasionally lost his temper. And this is the stated reason why he is not allowed to enter the land.

I think, however, that his impatience, and anger, are understandable. It’s not like he had an easy job. At the age of 80 he is tasked with leading the difficult, and ever complaining, and occasionally outright rebellious, Israelites through the wilderness. He really did not want the job. God coaxed him. And then it ends up lasting forty years. His frustration is understandable.

One can imagine Moses saying, “I just want to touch the Promised Land with my own hands and feet before I die.” And I am left wondering why God would not grant him this one request.

Then again, I wonder about bucket lists. They are all about personal aspirations. I want to go to Alaska. I want to visit Vietnam. I want to climb Mount Everest. (No, not really.) I want to go sky diving. (Ok, maybe.) I want to complete an Ironman. One day, I want to sail wherever the winds and waves might take me.

Bucket lists are all about what I want, where I want to go and what I want to do. They are about the about the places I want to see, the cultures I find fascinating and the heretofore unimaginable things I might learn doing these things. They are about the people I could possibly meet on my travels and the self-discovery I might achieve. They are about the experiences I hope to achieve.

Bucket lists are about imagining the personal fulfillment we might gain in the allotted years we are granted. If only every one of us were to be blessed with a lifetime of Moses’ 120 years! This is the nature of bucket lists. Each of us writes, and rewrites, these lists. They seem to grow longer with each passing year.

Friends return from their travels and regale us about what they saw and what they experienced and most importantly about where they ate. We take notes. More items are added. The world gets even bigger. Such lists are not bad. Rabbi Hillel reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?”

It is just that bucket lists are really more about ourselves than the world.

What if our lists looked more like Moses’? What if the personal ask was only one item long and the rest of the list was about how we are going to help others get to their promised land?

Imagine that. Our personal fulfillment might better be achieved by lifting others up and helping others master their goals.

And I imagine that then the world might seem smaller. And our lives might no longer seem so overwhelming.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

No More Mourning

In 1966, the Israeli author, Shai Agnon, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When accepting the award, he said:
As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile…. I was five years old when I wrote my first song. It was out of longing for my father that I wrote it.
The genius and creativity spanning the 2,000 years since that historic catastrophe found its impetus in longing.

It was about dreaming.

Tisha B’Av, which occurs on Sunday, commemorates a number of Jewish tragedies....

Friday, August 2, 2019

Tell the Truth

A brief comment on some ancient, and seemingly out of date, words.

The Torah states: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: when people make vows or take an oath, they shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips.’” (Numbers 30)

The rabbis ask, “Why did Moses speak to the heads of the tribes? Why did he direct his words to the leaders and not all the people?”

The Hatam Sofer, a leading 19th century rabbi, responds: “The reason is that it is often leaders who make all types of promises which they don’t keep. Because they often go back on their promises, this warning was aimed specifically at them.”

Such is the teaching that occurred to me when watching this week’s presidential debates.

Such is the response to those who suggest the Torah has nothing to say about our contemporary struggles.

Leaders, especially those who wish to become president, should be the most careful with their words. They should be even more careful than everyone else.

The Torah remains up to date.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Passion and Zealotry

The Talmud counsels: “Rabbi Hisda taught: 'If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.'" (Sanhedrin 81b)

And yet the Torah reports that Pinchas was rewarded for his actions. Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel. They have become enthralled with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, and participating in its festivals. Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen. God becomes enraged.

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions... When Pinchas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Pinchas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me." (Numbers 25) Pinchas' passion tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinchas renews the covenant between God and the people.

It is for this reason that Pinchas’ memory is recalled at the brit milah ceremony. As we renew the covenant through the ritual of circumcision we recall Pinchas. We then welcome the presence of the prophet Elijah who, in the future, will announce the coming of the messiah. We pray, “This is the chair of Elijah the prophet who is remembered for good.” Perhaps this young child will prove to be our people’s redeemer.

Elijah is as well a zealot. He, like Pinchas, has a violent temper and deals with non-believers with an equally heavy hand. He kills hundreds of idolaters and worshipers of Baal. So why are these the heroes we recall when we circumcise our sons? Is it possible that the rabbis saw this ritual and its demand that we take a knife to our sons as a zealous act? Was this their nod to the intense passion that is required to perform the mitzvah of circumcision?

The Torah suggests that an act is made holy by one’s intention, that the ends justify even extreme means. Pinchas succeeds in ridding the Israelites of idolatry. Elijah as well bests the prophets of Baal, bringing the people closer to monotheism. They are thus revered by our tradition.

I remain troubled. I stand appalled.

I wonder. Why must passions lead to zealous acts?

Zealousness and passion are too often intertwined. Passion is desired. Zealousness must be quelled. The knife can be an instrument of holiness or a tool for murder.

My teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Israel Knohl, once remarked that monotheism is given to violence. Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps it is better to say, too often, their worshippers. Monotheism is exacting. It can be as well ruthless.

I hold firm to its belief. I remain distant from the actions it too frequently deems holy.

And so I draw a measure of comfort from the very same prophet whose actions I abhor. Elijah’s story concludes with a beautiful estimation of where we might find God. It is not in a thunderous voice or mighty actions. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind... After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice." (I Kings 19)

This is the Haftarah that is often paired with this week’s portion. The rabbis offer this reading as a counterweight. We require passion, but not zealousness. Not every disagreement is a threat that necessitates radical action. Believing in one God does not require that we destroy others, or their followers. A plurality of beliefs does not negate our own firmly held convictions.

Hold fast to your own beliefs. Leave room for others’ convictions.

The Rabbis teach! If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.

Rely instead on the still, small voice.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

King David's Footsteps

Several days ago, I hiked in the footsteps of King David. The words of the Bible became real. They became filled with life.

In Israel one can literally walk where our biblical heroes traveled. One can stand where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac or where the prophet Amos admonished the Jewish people or where David composed his sweet psalms.

In the land of Israel our Bible takes shape. It is here that the soil adds flesh to our legends.

Before beginning the hike, we stood on the heights of Tel Azekah where the Israelites spied the Philistine army. It was there that our people cowered in fear before the mighty Goliath. A young David volunteered to battle the giant. He refused the offer of King Saul’s armor and spear. He thought them too cumbersome and heavy. David killed Goliath with a small pebble thrown from his slingshot. The Israelite army then routed the Philistines and the Israelites soon crowned David as king.

The legend of David and Goliath was born here, in this place....