Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Detrimental Impact that Technology Has

A recurring enemy in the Star Trek series, of which I am a fan, is the Borg. They are cybernetic organisms that are linked together. They travel through space, and time, assimilating other species into their collective. They intone the words, “You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.” There is no individual autonomy, only the collective mind. 

I think of them as I see how interconnected our lives have become.

Often my young students resist sharing their opinions with me. I push and prod. I explain to them that the meaning of being Jewish is to wrestle with the stories, and laws, found in the weekly readings. They do not get to pick their favorite chapter or verse. Instead it is assigned to them based on what weekend they will become a bar or bat mitzvah. Their task is to figure out what message it has for them. What is the meaning it might offer for their lives?

I realize that this is a weighty task. I recognize that their schooling trains them to memorize facts and figures....

Thursday, November 16, 2017

We Only Have Each Other

Isaac and Rebekah are the parents of twin boys: Jacob and Esau. The Jewish people trace their lineage through Jacob. His name is later changed to Israel and so we become, quite literally, the children of Israel.

The rabbis see glimmers of their lifestyle in Jacob’s character. “Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.” (Genesis 25) Esau becomes synonymous with their enemies. He becomes the Roman conqueror. “Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors.” Two boys: one our hero, the other our enemy. Destiny is sealed from the moment Rebekah conceived. “The children struggled in her womb.”

The rabbis expound. When Rebekah walked by a house of study, Jacob would stir within her. And when she walked by a place where people practiced idolatry, Esau would grow excited. A fanciful story to be sure, and yet this interpretation has colored our worldview. We look back at Jacob as a harbinger of all that is good in Jewish life, of all that we hold dear. He represents the Jewish ideal. We see Esau as a representation of all that is evil. He becomes the paradigmatic outsider.

Perhaps instead the import of this story is that they are brothers. And yet they struggle so mightily even before the day they were born. Let’s be honest. We are still struggling with each other. It is not as if Jews get along with other Jews. Only this morning ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli security accosted Reform Jews at the Western Wall. My friends and colleagues sought to bring a Torah scroll into the Kotel plaza in order to celebrate the ordination of the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi.

Standing there, at this holiest of Jewish sites, I have been called a Nazi. I have heard young girls called whores.

As I read about this morning’s event, I found myself growing defiant and saying, “We are the true Jews. We are Jacob; they are Esau.” And then I realized they are saying the exact same words in their synagogues. Their rabbis are writing words parallel to my own. They are calling Reform Jews Esau.

We are left screaming at each other. We say, “You are Esau. I am Jacob.” We label the Jewish organizations whose ideology we do not share as treason. We shout, “I am kosher. You are treif.” I have heard, “JStreet is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” We call one another a danger to the Jewish people. I have read, “The ZOA gives succor to antisemites.”

I find comfort in the Torah. The truth of our story is that the children struggled. And Rebekah cries, “If so why do I exist?” She then inquires of the Lord.

Who is Jacob?

Who is Esau?

We too must inquire.

When will we realize we are Jacob and we are also Esau?

When will we realize we are brothers?

Later, after years of struggle, Jacob and Esau come to the realization that their brotherhood supersedes their bitterness. They recognize that their kinship must overwhelm even their sense of right and wrong.

“Esau embraced Jacob and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33)

When will their realization become our own?

We only have each other.

Together we must embrace our common heritage. Together we must hold our Torah.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Gallons of Compassion

In ancient times there was no such thing as JSwipe. Instead eligible bachelors would go to the local well where young women gathered to collect water.

Following Sarah’s death, Abraham charges his trusted servant Eliezer with the task of finding a wife for his apparently docile son Isaac. He loads ten camels for the lengthy journey. Eliezer arrives in Aram and approaches the well. He decides upon a test. Whoever offers water not only to him but his camels will be the woman Isaac should marry.

Rebekah approaches. (Cue the music! Who else is going to see Squeeze at the Paramount?) Eliezer says, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar?” Rebekah immediately hands him the jar and says, “Drink, my lord.” And when he finished drinking, she said, “I will also draw for your camels until they finish drinking.”

This was no small undertaking. Let me put Rebekah’s offer in perspective. Camels need to drink approximately 25 gallons after such a long journey. There were ten camels. That means she had to fetch 250 gallons of water. Let’s say that a typical bucket holds two and half gallons. So that means she makes a hundred trips back and forth to the well. (Yes, I passed that part of my SAT.)

So now my question is what is wrong with Eliezer. Did he just sit there and watch her do all this heavy lifting? Apparently, yes. He sat and watched for the one hour and forty minutes it took for the camels to drink. By the way it takes a camel ten minutes to drink 25 gallons. (And I thought I would never again use SAT math.)

Commentators often speak about Rebekah’s compassion. “How do we know this?” they ask. Because she shows compassion for the animals. Because she thought not only of Eliezer’s thirst but also the animals’.

Now, after learning more about camels and doing some simple calculations, perhaps he was impressed with her extraordinary strength and stamina. She is not afraid of hard work. She is a doer. Given his servant Isaac’s timidness, he maybe thought, this is exactly the kind of woman Isaac needs to marry. Perhaps.

Then again the true measure of compassion appears to be when you do the extra and the unexpected.

It is all about the “and.”

That is the secret of the test Eliezer designs. It is also the secret to adding a measure of compassion to our own lives.

Cell Phones are Ruining Serendipity

A few weeks ago a mystery object rocketed past earth. Astronomers scrambled to understand it. They had never before seen anything like it. They quickly labeled the small space rock “A/2017 U1.” They determined it was not a comet or asteroid, but instead from a different solar system than our own. It was from another world. You can detect the glee in the scientists’ exclamations. “I was not expecting to see anything like this during my career, even though we knew it was possible and that these objects exist,” said one NASA researcher. The theoretical became possible.

For a brief moment, the stars aligned. And luck provided a potentially ground breaking discovery.

Years ago, in fact when I was 15 years old, my brother and I were situated on either side of an older man on our family’s first trip to Israel. We kept him up for the better part of the flight, talking and being the mischievous brothers that we were–but are, I promise, no longer. A bond was formed. Our parents became especially close to Jerry and his wife Marion. A lifelong friendship was formed. One that spanned nearly 35 years until Jerry’s death several years ago and Marion’s a few weeks ago.

We used to think it was Jerry’s misfortune to be seated in between us....

Friday, November 3, 2017

Halloween's Demons

We are saddened and outraged about Tuesday’s terrorist attack in New York City. Our hearts are joined in the all too familiar prayers of healing for those injured and comfort for the families of those murdered. Our hearts are also joined in resolve that we must never allow terror and fear to rule our lives, shade our city, or give color to our nation. I stubbornly believe that the most important battle against terrorism is waged within and that our hearts have always been strong enough to banish fear.

Perhaps this struggle against fear lies at the center of our recent celebrations of Halloween. I was surprised to see the number of photographs on Facebook and Instagram of my friends dressed up in costumes. One dressed up as a cheerleader, another a pirate. Many donned super hero costumes. (And many would like to forget the year I dressed up as Superman. Rabbi in tights!)

What is the attraction to wearing costumes? Why does everyone love to dress up?

It is because, for a brief moment, we can pretend we are someone else. We can hide from the realities of the world. We can cover up the fears that dominate our day to day lives. We can feel almost invincible. That is the attraction to dressing up and wearing costumes.

This is at the center of Purim. That story is about our endless struggle against antisemitic hatred and murderous regimes. And what is our response? You would think it would be mourning and fasting. Instead we wear costumes. We drink. It is a day of unabashed revelry. What Purim always was is what Halloween celebrations have become.

And yet Halloween offers us something additional. On this day American Jews can feel a part of American culture. Everyone celebrates Halloween! Never mind that the holiday hearkens back to ancient Celtic culture. November 1st marked their new year and so on this day the boundary between this world and the next could more easily be crossed. Hence the spookiness and all the skeletons.

Never mind that in the year 1000 the Catholic Church layered religious import upon this ancient holiday. The day became All Hallows Eve and was preceded by All Souls Day in which the souls of the dead were honored. The origins of trick-or-treating is apparently found in this day, when the poor would beg for food and then promise to pray in behalf of the dead in return.

That of course is not why we celebrate Halloween. I had to research these origins and spent a good deal of time reading the encyclopedia. I had to quiz my Christian colleagues. We do not celebrate it because we adhere to Celtic theology. We do not believe what the Catholic Church interprets. We love Halloween because it is a fun day. We are fortunate enough to go to parties. We are offered the opportunity to wear costumes. We get to celebrate. We get to dress up.

All this sounds so much like Purim that I find myself wondering why we love Halloween more than our very own holiday. On Purim we also give out food. On Purim we are also commanded to give food to the poor. Here is a thought. Save those costumes for March 1st! This year I expect to see plenty of cheerleaders, pirates and super heroes at our Purim celebrations.

It is always good to laugh at hatred and pretend we are not afraid. Perhaps we require two days to do just that.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Sacred and the Lurid

The Talmud records the following story:
Rav Kahana was a student of Rav. One evening Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav talking and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs, i.e., having sexual relations with her. Rav Kahana said to Rav: “The mouth of Rav is like one who has never eaten a cooked dish before.” Rav said to him: “Kahana, what are you doing here? Leave at once. This is not an appropriate thing to do.” Rav Kahana said to him: “It is Torah, and I must learn it.” (Brachot 62a)
I used to teach this story in order to illustrate how enlightened the Jewish tradition is. The ancient rabbis speak about sex. They discuss how sexual relations are commanded between a husband and wife. It is not a sin, but an enjoyment. It is likewise Torah. Nothing is outside of the religious purview, I would comment.

These days, however, I am beginning to look at such stories in a different light. The Talmud no longer appears enlightened. My tradition no longer seems so open. Rav’s wife is not named. She is instead a dish. And his student must learn how to taste it. My beloved tradition is sexist. And today it appears lurid.

I am exhausted after reading about the decades of sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein. The accusations of rape and abuse are all too familiar. The lengthy list of powerful men accused, and too often forgiven, of committing similar crimes grows with each passing day: Bill O’Reilly, President Clinton, Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cosby, President Trump.

And Abraham. This week we read an incredulous story about our patriarch. Afraid that Pharaoh will kill him when he sees how beautiful his wife Sarah is, he instructs her to say that she is his sister. She is then taken as a wife by Pharaoh. And who then acts heroically? Pharaoh! He says to Abraham, “What is this that you have done? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” (Genesis 12) Still both men treat Sarah as property to be traded between them.

And then there is King David. Yes, the greatest king who ever ruled the Jewish people was, I am afraid to say, a man of similar ilk. One day he spied Batsheva bathing. (Try reading this verse through today’s eyes.) She was exceedingly beautiful. He ordered his servants to have her brought to him. How could she say “no” to the king? I used to ask, “Did she want the king to see her bathing?” I now recant. That sounds like blaming the victim. I repent.

Batsheva becomes pregnant. And so David had her husband, Uriah, who was an extraordinarily loyal soldier in the king’s army, killed by instructing the other soldiers to leave Uriah alone when next attacking the enemy.

The Bible then takes an interesting turn. The prophet Nathan confronts David about his sin. He marches into the palace and shouts, “You are that man.” And what does David do? He could have had the prophet killed. Instead King David says, “I stand guilty.” (II Samuel 12)

How I long for such a response today.

Real leadership is about admitting error. We want perfect leaders. They are not. And they never have been. But these days powerful, and famous, people become products. We construct images. We explain away sins and flaws, using terms such as sexual addiction. We cover up instances of harassment, and even rape. Our leaders begin to believe the images others have fashioned about them. They begin to think that their power allows them to do anything, and everything, they want and desire.

I would have preferred if King David were forced to relinquish his crown.

People will say, “That was then. Times were different. The rules were not the same. You cannot apply today’s values to ancient events.”

The problem is, however, that times have remained the same. We have not marched forward. We have not learned from past mistakes. Too many powerful, wealthy and famous men act in similar ways.

Whether a man is the king, president, CEO, or even an eloquent philosopher (Leon Wieseltier) the women he works with are not there for his enjoyment and pleasure. He cannot grab them. He cannot grope them. With power comes greater responsibility not as far too many demonstrate, greater privilege. The harassment, and the objectification, of women must end now.

Perhaps it is time we read our sacred stories with different eyes. We now better understand the pain of those unnamed and silenced millennia ago and today.

That may be the only way to begin writing a new story—for women, and men.

We Can't Silence the World's Noise

The world is noisy. Even when alone, our phones chime with notifications and reminders. There is little place for peace and quiet.

Recently I was driving through town making my way through a detailed shopping list. The music was loudly accompanying my travels. BB King was singing, “You better not look down, if you want to keep on flying. Put the hammer down; keep it full speed ahead.”

I looked up to see the sun beginning to set.

I put my list aside and drove a few extra miles to a dead end street where I could watch the sun set over the Long Island Sound....

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pink Shabbat

What follows are my remarks from Friday evening when we marked Pink Shabbat, in partnership with Sharsheret.

To be honest I struggled with what I might say on this Shabbat when we are marking Pink Shabbat and the Jewish connection to breast and ovarian cancers. I am not a physician. I am not a scientist.

Many know that 1 in 40 Jewish women, as well as men, of Ashkenazi descent carry the genetic mutation that makes it far more likely they might develop these cancers. This mutation increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 80% and ovarian cancer by 40%. To put this in perspective only 1 out of 400 carry this mutation in the general population. These sobering statistics affirm what we know. I am sure every single member of our congregation could list off a number of names of friends, or family, who have been affected by these cancers. You don’t need me to remind you of how many people this effects or that it affects Jews in disproportionate numbers. So what more can I say? There must be more to say.

I thought better to speak about what I know best, Jewish values.

The first value is that of shmirat haguf. Judaism believes that we must care for our bodies just as much as we might care for our souls. We think that religion is all about taking care of the soul, but the body is equally important. Our bodies are a reflection of the divine and are therefore holy and must be cared for. They are not temples to be worshipped, or admired in the mirror, but must instead be tended to. Our health is in our hands—well, at least in part.

With all this talk about genetic mutations one can develop a fatalistic attitude. It is destiny. It is fate. It is a genetic. But such an attitude would be a betrayal of much of what our tradition teaches. We care for our bodies because they are holy vessels. We take care of our health not because any one of us can stave off death, but because this is what you do with such a divine gift. We cannot succumb to the notion that it really does not matter what we do because it is already imprinted in our DNA. Besides if there is one thing that categorically reduces the risk of cancer it is exercise. Of course it's not fool proof, but if we are to take care of God’s gift of the human body then this is what we are commanded to do. This is what we must do.

That being said no matter what we do everyone will be affected by illness. The human body is imperfect and its lifespan unpredictable. Unlike the soul, which can perhaps be perfected, the body cannot. This is why medicine is much more of an art than an exact science. So what are we to do when struck by illness? First of all get a good doctor. That is what our tradition states. In fact some of the greatest rabbis were doctors. Moses Maimonides is but one example. He may best be remembered as a rabbi, but he was a doctor first. This was his day job.

Second, lean on friends. It is a mitzvah to visit the sick. It is called bikkur holim. According to Maimonides a friend’s visit lifts 1/60th of their pain. It is a mitzvah that supersedes all others. A visit can truly help people and lift their spirits. Too often people think that they have to go it alone, that they must be stoic. We are hesitant to discuss other people’s illnesses for fear of engaging in gossip or betraying a confidence. We live in an upside down time. The most intimate of details are shared on social media but yet we are hesitant to share when people need other people the most. That is the power of community. That is the central message of our tradition. No one should ever have to go it alone.

Years ago, a good friend’s mom was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. We did not know what to do. So I called Sharsheret, this wonderful organization founded years ago to support Jewish women and their families. Sharsheret means chain or connection. I called to get names and numbers to give to my friends. I did not even realize it then but I also called so that I could talk to someone about Ruth. I realized something important in reflecting on that moment. No one can carry others alone. No rabbi, no friend, no husband or partner can help shoulder the burden of another’s illness by themselves. An organization such as Sharshert can help to carry us. It can give us strength. That is why we have such organizations. That is why we have synagogues.

Battling an illness is not supposed to be about stoic heroism, but instead about leaning on family, friends, community, doctors and organizations. If there is message we should remind ourselves of this evening it is this. There is strength, and healing, in community. We may not yet be able to undo genetic mutations but we certainly can support more friends. We can certainly reach out to others. We can certainly recognize when all we might require is a friendly, and understanding, voice on the other end of the phone.

Perhaps each of us will find the strength to be that person for someone else. Then all of this pink will have taught us something.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

God is in the Details

I have been watching The Weather Channel a great deal lately, perhaps too much. The news is at times frightening. There are days that feel apocalyptic. There are fires. There are hurricanes. Let us not forget about our fellow countrymen in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands! There are tornadoes. And there are floods.

This week we read about Noah and the flood that destroyed the earth. It is a classic tale. It is a well-known story. This apocalyptic flood represents an age-old fear. After the waters recede God promises never again to destroy the earth because of humanity’s evil deeds.

The earth is entrusted to our care. We are commanded to be nature’s protectors.

Have we heeded the command? Have we taken to heart our sacred task?

Recently I watched an enthralling video about Yellowstone National Park.

Years ago a pack of wolves were reintroduced into the park after years of absence. We had once thought wolves to be a dangerous nuisance.

The wolves’ reintroduction caused what scientists call a trophic cascade. Given that the wolves sit at the top of the park’s food chain their presence caused a ripple effect throughout the park’s ecosystem.

To cite but one example, the wolves killed the deer that ate the grass. And then the fields regenerated. (A positive Chad Gadyah moment?) The banks of the river stabilized. And the course of the river even began to change. The course of the rivers and lakes are ours to care for. The flood is within the reach of our responsibility.

A few days ago I watched the sun set over Huntington Harbor. I found a quiet spot overlooking the harbor’s lighthouse. I listened. It was low tide and I could hear the birds dropping clams on the rocks in order to crack open their shells. The crickets chirped loudly in anticipation of the approaching darkness. The waves gently lapped at the tall grass on the shore.

I closed my eyes. I could hear the sunset.

And I could hear God’s promise, renewed.
So long as the earth endures,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night
Shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22)
The rhythm of the natural world follows its accustomed path. It can hinge on one small detail.

It rests in our hands.

Friday, October 13, 2017

When the Student is the Teacher

On Simchat Torah, we read the concluding words in Deuteronomy and without skipping a beat, start all over again with the first chapter in Genesis. With one breath, we read about Moses’ death and with the next, about the creation of the world. It is how we order our year; it is how we order our lives.

Several years ago, a close family friend died. Throughout his long life, Jerry had served as a mentor to me. Recently, his grandson, to whom both my son Ari and I have grown close, shared a surprising discovery: a stack of correspondence between Jerry and me they found when they searched through his library. His grandson scanned the letters and emailed them to me. They remained there, on my computer, unopened.

Until yesterday....