Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hanukkah and the iMenorah

If you go to the iTunes App Store you will find an application for your iPhone or iTouch for Hanukkah. It will guide you through a digital lighting of the Hanukkah menorah. Light the candles and watch them burn as the blessings play. So here is the question: is this same as lighting the menorah? There is nothing quite like watching the candles burn. Nothing can replace the flickering of real candles. Will there soon be an app for yahrtzeit candles? There is of course something lost in the digital revolution. I have found an endless amount of information and reading on the internet. I can search through every Jewish book ever written with one stroke of my laptop's keypad. It is not the same as holding a sefer--a book--in my hand. Yet there is also something gained. One of the mitzvot of Hanukkah is to proclaim the miracle. I can light my menorah in my home and be enthralled by the burning of the candles or I can walk around with my iTouch blaring Maoz Tzur. More people can learn and read about Judaism than the rabbis of old ever imagined possible. Now you can light the menorah in the most public place of all--the iTunes store. That is really proclaiming the miracle of Hanukkah!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Electric Cars

I read Tom Friedman's column in this morning's New York Times with great interest. You can read the column here. He discusses an Israeli inventor, Shai Agassi, who may very well change the way we drive around our suburbs. You can read Agassi's blog here. I am unsure what I think about Agassi's idea—although it stirs my Jewish kishkes that he is Israeli. I have been driving a car and filling a car with gas for nearly thirty years. It is hard to imagine breaking such habits. I am unsure if the idea can even work. Yet his idea gives me hope. It says: there are people who are trying to change the way we get to and from places so that we can alter our dependence on oil. There are people who understand that we must change course. It saddens me that the American auto industry fails to grasp how much it must turn, that the world needs it to change. This industry should be leading us. I should be reading about their inventions instead of their need for billions of dollars. Detroit helped to build this country. Henry Ford revolutionized the industrial world. Yes I am aware and it is impossible to forget that he used his profits for evil ends when he distributed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But in the ark of a Detroit synagogue—hmm could that be my brother's synagogue?—there rests a Torah donated by Henry Ford's great grandson. In that Torah are to be found the teachings of hope and our capacity to change. We can change. We must change. Whether or not it will be Agassi's idea or another's, Hummers should no longer dot our suburban landscape. I hope GM, Chrysler and Ford can recover the leadership they once offered this country and lead us through the next revolution in driving. I hope my grandchildren have to ask me, "Grandpa, what is a gas station?" I hope they don't have to ask me "What is a Ford?"

Shared Blogroll

There is so much information to be found on the internet. Some of it is excellent. Some of it should never be published. So I have added a new feature to my blog. On the right sidebar you will find the Shared Blogroll. It lists worthy articles from the many blogs I now read. You can view the complete list of shared articles by clicking on "Read more…" Lately, I have found the most interesting articles on The Jerusalem Post and Jewcy. There is a wide variety of opinions out there and I try to read those that I agree with and especially those that I disagree with. The danger of the internet is that you can surround yourself with agreement. You can find thousands and thousands of people who share your opinions. You can find a web page devoted to whatever esoteric interest (or obsession) you might have. And if not, you can write a blog and then your opinion and your interest seem to magically gain legitimacy, authority and approval. (Hmm...) But countless internet pages do not make an idea true. The task is to find ideas that challenge your notions, to build your opinions on new and different ideas. I want to be shaped by ideas, not shape my ideas around like minded opinions. My soul is nourished by machloket l'shem shamayim—arguments for the sake of heaven.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Son's Bar Mitzvah

This past weekend we celebrated my son becoming a bar mitzvah. What follows is part of what I said to him... While it is true that Shira made me a father, you Ari made me a man. I know this might sound strange and that most people think that you become a man on your bar mitzvah or better when you get married or perhaps when you get your first job, but for me becoming a man is realized when there is another young man watching you and following you. It is one thing to have a father looking over your shoulder and saying, “Did you remember to do your homework?” Or, a grandfather who might say, “Give your grandmother a kiss.” It is quite another matter when it is a son looking over your shoulder. My son watches me like the king in the Torah portion Toldot. You watch me and I feel your perceptive stare and I feel your mind thinking, how do I speak to my Susie, how do I talk to my parents, how do I comfort my congregants, how do I treat strangers? Ari, having you as my son makes me a better man. Every day I thank God for my family. On this day I especially thank God that you are my son. I have a son who is a lot like me and a little not like me. I have a son who is loving and caring, honest and forthright, a son unafraid to challenge me and perceptive beyond his years. Ari you are a blessing. And I thank God for bringing you into our lives. Ari, I love you.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Riches by the Pocketful

Hadassah Magazine November 2008

Like my grandfather, I am a proud Jew and a proud American, but there is something else in my pocket that defines who I am. Though I am a rabbi of a congregation, I don't carry the keys to a synagogue in my pocket. Instead, I carry the keys to a church--the Brookville Reformed Church on the North of Long Island, founded over 270 years ago. For over 10 years Reverend Allan Ramirez and his congregation have allowed my community to meet there for Shabbat and holidays. I doubt the original founders of this church could have imagined that one day a rabbi would lead a Jewish congregation in song and prayer, that the Hebrew words of the Jewish tradition and the melodies of my grandfather's past would fill the church sanctuary. This, too, is what is good and noble about this country. Here in the United States, a church can help sustain a synagogue. Christians can say to Jews, "Come, fill our home with your melodies." Some days I look out of the window of my study and I see my son, Ari, and his best friend, Hugh O'Connor, sitting on the curb talking. Ari tells me that they are talking about religion. I suspect they are talking about girls and sports. As I watch them, I reach into my pocket and finger the church keys. They are a reminder that in the United States it is natural and normal that a Jew and a Christian are best friends. One day soon, my synagogue will have its own building. Still, I hope Reverend Ramirez will let me to keep the church keys so that they might forever remain in my pocket and forever remind me of what I love about this country to which my grandparents brought my family.

The complete article can be found by following the link on the Blog's sidebar.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Trying to be Honest

Recently I backed out of my driveway to discover only Newsday and the Wall Street Journal. "No New York Times," I screamed to myself. So I put the car in park and called the Times to report a missed delivery. Later I continued backing the car out of the driveway. There was the Times. It was under my car! I stopped the car again to call the Times and cancel the credit for the missed delivery. No option existed for cancelling a credit so I pressed "0" to speak to a service representative. After waiting some five minutes I finally reached a live person. I explained to him the situation and my mistake. I offered an apology. He explained that the computer would not allow him to reverse the credit. There was nothing he could do. I would have to accept the credit for the missed delivery. "But I made a mistake!" He thanked me for my call. I resolved that for my next vacation I would donate the vacation suspension to schools. I often wonder why it is so difficult to be honest. Why does it require so much effort? Why can't we make it easier for people to be honest? Why can't computers be programmed for honesty as well as dishonesty? Is this experience evidence that so few people take the time to place such a call? The Rabbis teach: "Let truth rise from the earth." I will continue to make such calls. But I will also wait to make such calls until after checking under my car!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bar Mitzvah Montage

My son's bar mitzvah is fast approaching. One of the"rites" is preparing the montage. For those readers not accustomed to how things are done in these parts, the montage is a brief slide show of the child's first 13 years. I often marvel at our privilege and blessing when viewing these photographic essays. The slide shows are often filled with pictures of vacations, celebrations and birthday parties. "Look at all of the places they visited!" I often think to myself. Now I am preparing the montage. "Look at all of the places I have been able to visit! Look at all of the family surrounding us!" I am not sure how the final slide show will look but preparing it has been a true gift. I sifted through some 5,000 pictures on my laptop and a few in old photo albums. "I remember taking that picture. I remember that beach." I remember how I could throw Ari in the air. I remember how I could carry both of my children in my arms. Now my son stands as tall as me and looks directly into my eyes. What a blessing are these memories! What a blessing are these pictures!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting and the Vote

It was by all measures a historic occasion when Barack Obama won the election. In January he will become the 44th president of the United States. To borrow Tom Friedman's analysis this marks the end of the Civil War. I am not so sure about that analysis but I do share Leon Wieseltier's views, who said: "How can a Jew, I mean a Jewish Jew, not rejoice at the election of Barack Obama? Not politically, where the road ahead may be rough; but historically, spiritually. We, too, remember the pharaohs; and we, too, choose never to hate the world; and we, too, have a hope of being saved by America." (The New Republic) I do sense that there is now a renewed sense of hope in this country. I pray that there is a renewed faith in American ideals and apirations. Whether you voted for Obama or McCain the promise of something different and the feeling of participating in history adds meaning to our days. I can't remember the last time I had to wait in line to flip those levers. Usually I am in and out; parking my car takes longer than voting. This time I waited some thirty minutes to cast my vote. I talked with my neighbors. I talked with those in front of me and behind. I am sure there were many different votes in that elementary school gym. There were some who stand to the right of me and some to the left. Regardless of the particulars of our votes, regardless of whether our opinions might have divided us, we stood as one waiting to participate in the dream of America. That alone was enough to restore my hope. May this great country realize all its dreams and all its promise!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The American Elections

As a rabbi I think first and foremost about issues of Jewish concern. The lenses of my glasses are colored by the Torah and the Jewish people. I of course always have the State of Israel in my heart. As we get closer to the elections I continue to weigh my vote. How will the candidates conduct their foreign policies? Will they strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel? What will they place first and foremost in their domestic policy agendas? Will they help to steer our struggling economy towards growth? Do they share my passion and concern for the environment? The following articles are worthwhile reading on these subjects. They are culled from JTA: The Global News Service of the Jewish People. I have always found the JTA to be balanced and fair in its reporting. Here are the four articles:
1. How do the candidates differ on questions of Jewish concern? Where do they stand on such issues as abortion rights and the separation of church and state?
2. Who are the candidates' chief foreign policy advisors? Do they share my love and commitment to the State of Israel--even though Israel will not be my primary concern on this election day? Do they understand the threat Iran represents to the world?
3. An editorial arguing why you should vote for John McCain.
4. An editorial arguing why you should vote for Barack Obama.
I hope these articles help you make your decision on November 4th.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Politics and the Pulpit

There is a debate within the rabbinic community whether or not a rabbi should endorse a candidate. My friend, Rabbi Sam Gordon of Chicago, has publicly endorsed Barack Obama and helped found the organization Rabbis for Obama. Others have endorsed John McCain. Take a look at the recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about rabbis making political endorsements and that on the Hartman Institute Blog about Rabbi Gordon. I disagree with my friend! The role of the rabbi is to teach and to interpret our tradition. At times—especially in current times—his role is to interpret Judaism as it applies to the issues of the day, presenting to his congregation a coherent Jewish vision. For a rabbi to ignore our nation's problems and speak only of Shabbat and holidays is to suggest that our beloved tradition has nothing to say to the pressings problems of our generation. Judaism must speak to modernity! What does Judaism say about the environment? What can our tradition offer us in trying economic times? Each rabbi must interpret the tradition for his congregants and help them synthesize Judaism with modernity. To endorse is to move beyond interpretation and attempt to make decisions for our congregants. In a country that believes in individual rights this is inappropriate. I share my interpretations with my congregation. My vote remains private.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Favorite Moon

On Tuesday evening a full moon illuminated the evening sky. It my favorite moon of the year. It is the full moon of Tishrei. It is the moon that I see through my sukkah's skhakh (roof)--every year. It is there--year in and year out, without fail. The full moon of Elul, on the other hand, gets me nervous. It signifies that I have only two weeks until Rosh Hashanah, two weeks to prepare, two weeks to finish sermons. The full moon, one month later, means that the High Holidays are behind us. I have given my sermons. I have recounted my sins. I have repented. This moon is my favorite because it means that we can rejoice. We can celebrate. We can sit in our sukkot and and be thankful for all that we have. We can eat and sleep in our sukkot and peer into our homes and be reminded how fortunate is our lot. In the Jewish year even the moons can lift our emotions.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

High Holiday Musings

One of my favorite parts of our High Holiday services is looking out and seeing how many families are sitting together. In our congregation parents and children, as well as grandparents, sit together. Although we provide babysitting for our really young children it is refreshing to see entire families sitting together. It is a wonderful site to behold, seeing generations of Jews together for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seeing young children sitting on their parent's laps. In most synagogues there are adult services and children services. Here at JCB there is only one service--for everyone. That is the way it should be. I am proud of the young people in our congregation who not only participate in the reading of the Haftarah but also sit and participate from their seats. I believe their singing and praying is more important than my own. I was especially pleased to discover how many of our young people listened to my sermons and were comfortable discussing and debating their points. In Confirmation Class we continued the discussion started on Yom Kippur about abortion rights. These young people are our future. May we always sing and pray together!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon Highlights

"Judaism and the Elections"
For years I have avoided discussing politics from the bima, but this year is different. I can no longer remain silent. We must listen to the words of our tradition. We must allow Judaism to speak to the issues of our day. If Judaism is only about Torah portions and candle lighting times then it will become irrelevant. It must speak to our country's greatest problems. In addition to the economy there are four issues that most concern me.
1) The State of Israel. I worry about Israel's security. I worry about the dangers of Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbullah and the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless I will not be thinking about Israel on Novemer 4th. Here is why. It is not good for Israel and it is not good for American Jews to portray Israel as a needy, younger sister. Israel is not the perennial victim. It is a strong, vibrant country. It is a country I deeply love. The idea of Zionism is that the Jewish people will write its own history in a country of its own. That is what it means to have a Jewish State. When I vote I must think first of the problems here not there.
2) Medical Issues. It is deeply troubling that one in six Americans does not have adequate health care. It is also deeply troubling that others wish to push on their others their religious definition of the beginning of life. My religion tells me something different. Judaism teaches that the fetus is holy but not of the same moral value as the mother's. When there is a conflict between the two Judaism chooses the mother's life. Regarding stem cells I do not understand how some cannot make the moral distinction between a few cells and that of a living person. While again these cells are holy they are not of the same value. Judaism values pikuah nefesh--the saving of a life and we should do everything in our power to save life.
3) The Wars. We had every moral right to attack and invade Afghanistan. It was from there that the 9-11 attacks were planned. But how is it that we allowed bin Laden to escape to Pakistan? Regarding the war in Iraq that I once supported I offer this confession. I was wrong because it distracted us from our primary moral objective: the destruction of Al Qaeda. I was wrong because there we allowed torture and the subversion of the rule of law to take root. Adding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to the Arab lexicon has undermined our moral authority.
4) The Environment. The issue about which I most concerned is the environment. Judaism teaches that we are custodians of this God given world. I believe the science is irrefutable. We are destroying our world. We need to wean ourselves off of Arab oil because it is destroying the environment and it is feeding our enemies hatred. I fail to understand how we can fight wars against enemies supported by these Arab oil dollars. We should build alternative energy plants and design better, more fuel efficient cars. (For more information about Judaisn and the environment, visit: COEJL.) We must do this for the sake of our children and grandchildren. This is our only world!
The full text of this sermon can be found by following the link on the Blog's sidebar.

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon Highlights

"Judaism and the Economy"
The economy's downward spiral has us worried. We are worried about our savings. We are worried about our retirement accounts. I am worried about my bank accounts too. But I am not an economist. I am a rabbi. As a rabbi the question is not where should I invest but how can I best respond to this crisis? There are two Jewish responses to this economic crisis.
1) We must continue to give tzedakah. Judaism insists that we never ignore the poor and hungry. It is far easier to be a tzaddik during years of plenty. These years of trial will be our test. History will judge us by how we respond to these years. Will we only think of our dwindling savings or will we think of those less fortunate than ourselves? We will have less, but others will have even less. I have always been a supporter of Mazon. Mazon distributes grants to organizations that help to alleviate hunger. We must think of others. We must not turn aside. We must give tzedakah.
2) We must also not ignore the needs of our own souls. We must nourish our spiritual selves. Shabbat is Judaism's gift to the world. We are given the seventh day to recharge our batteries and to refresh our souls. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught: "During the week we speak of wealth and work, of worries and wants. Our weekday talk proclaims imperfection: we often focus on what we lack or have yet to accomplish, on how we would like things to be other than as they are. But when we speak of life’s blessings and joys—the talk of Shabbat—we speak of contentment, of fulfillment." We are given six days to worry about our world and one day to count our blessings. Shabbat helps to remind us of what is most important in our lives: our families, our friends. We must take this day to help restore the proper balance in our lives. We must celebrate Shabbat to reclaim the contentment of our souls.
By giving tzedakah and celebrating Shabbat we will not only survive these years of difficulty and trial, but will persevere.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon Highlights

"A Synagogue's Open Doors"
The vision of our synagogue is built on three foundations:
1) A place to enjoy our Jewish learning--both children and adults. A synagogue must be a place where people can connect to their Jewish tradition and its values. It is a place where one can grapple with God and wrestle with questions of faith. For me it is a place where I both connect to the tradition my grandfather loved and continue to struggle with theological questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is it that the grandfather who most cared about my chanting from the Torah on my bar mitzvah could not live to see that day?
2) A community makes us better individuals. Judaism does not believe that we are at our best when by ourselves. It might bring us contentment to hike in nature and be at one with God's creation, but it does not make us better. Only others can make us better. Belonging to community helps us to look outside of ourselves and our own concerns and look to what matters to others. We need others to rejoice at simchas. We need others to comfort us when we mourn.
3) A congregation serves as a bridge between the milestones of our lives. For me this lesson was learned at a young age. The same rabbi who buried my grandfather officiated at my bar mitzvah. The rabbi and the congregation to which my family belonged connected these seemingly detached events. People seem to think that you can hire a rabbi for this event or that. When you belong to a congregation the events of your lives are connected to each other. The congregation is that bridge.

Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon Highlights

"The Gift of Free Will"
A central Jewish teaching is the idea that God gave each of us free will. We are free to do bad. We are free to do good. We are free to be a rasha (evil person). We are free to be a tzaddik (righteous person). The tradition serves as guide, helping us to choose good. But ultimately the choice rests on each of our shoulders. You can't blame God. You can't blame the devil. You can't blame your mother. People tend to take credit for their achievements but blame others for their failures. Judaism is adamant in its realism. The gift of the High Holidays is that we have these days to turn. Each of us can change. Often we cannot change by a simple act of will. We need the support of community. We need the encouragement of family and friends. Nonetheless our choices are our responsbility. The world rests on the choices each of us make.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Gossip Girl

This week I watched Gossip Girl with my 10th grade daughter. I had a lot of difficulty following the story line. It is very confusing. There is Nate. There is Serena. There is Nate's mom. They are all so complicated. All of my queries were hushed. In Gossip Girl everyone seems so mean. I reflected on this point. I recalled the shows of my youth. "Dallas" was a popular show during those years. The characters were also extraordinarily mean to each other. What is the difference? Then it occured to me. In Gossip Girl the mean characters are young. In Dallas it was older characters and in particular JR. I don't intend to sound like a prude but it upsets me to see people, especially teenagers, behave so terribly toward each other. I know it is just a show and that back-stabbing, intrigue and of course sex have been the stuff of great literature for centuries. I know it is just entertainment. But when it is played out on TV it has a different affect than when reading it in Shakespeare. Seeing it is different than reading it. My daughter reassured me that she and her friends do not behave this way to each other. They watch the show because it is fun. They watch the show because the actors are "hot." They watch the show because it is engaging. "Promise me you don't treat others this way!" "Yes, Abba. I promise." When did I start sounding like my parents? Until the next episode...

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Olympics

The Olympics are a remarkable sight to behold. Athletes from so many countries compete in familiar and unfamiliar sports. The hammer throw would be my favorite pick for the unfamiliar. What is most remarkable is to watch the precision of the athletes' efforts. Their strokes are picture perfect. Their strides exquisite. Usain Bolt seemed to glide to the finish line in the 100 meter. Michael Phelps' 200 meter butterfly was flawless. As a former college swimmer it was an extraordinary site to watch. I remember the end of my 200 butterfly race. Rarely did I have the strength to pull ahead by a body length in the last lap. I don't know of anyone who has that kind of strength. For most of us, by the end of that difficult race we are just trying to keep it together and not break our form. We are just trying to get to the finish line. That is what is so extra-ordinary about the Olympics and the athletes who compete in its events. They swim perfectly, they run flawlessly, they bike effortlessly. And then many of them break world records with such seemingly little effort. I get on my bike and pedal for an hour and cover less than half the distance of an Olympic bicyclist. I run. I swim. I admire the achievements of these athletes. Their mastery of their sport is an extraordinary thing to appreciate.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Campers

My wife and I just welcomed our son and daughter back from sleep away camp. My children just spent eight weeks at the Reform movement's camp in the Berkshires, Eisner. It is a remarkable place. It is my children's second home. Their return is an adjustment for all of us. In addition to spending days washing clothes and cleaning out trunks we must find our way back to living as a family. It takes a few days to get the locker room out of my son's vocabulary. It takes a few days for him to stop screaming that he is so bored. Every free minute at camp was filled with pick up games with bunkmates. There is only so many hours I can play basketball--both because my son is in better shape than me and I am terrible at basketball. It takes a few days for my daughter to stop crying about how I don't understand her. Only her friends really understand her. "What do you know about clothes! I need my friends!" It takes a few days to remind them that they can't just go walking out of the house without telling us. Our neighborhood is not camp. Despite these readjustments, despite my daughter's cries and my son's screams, I am a happy man. I love how independent my children have become. I love the self confidence camp gives them. I hope and pray they grow to be independent and self assured adults!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


This past Shabbat JCB met at Remson Beach in Bayville. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and we concluded our prayers while running to escape the torrential rains. Nonetheless the clouds provided us with a majestic tapestry. The most splendid of all sites appeared in the cloud filled heavens--rainbows. We recited the tradition's blessing for a rainbow: "Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to His covenant, and fullfills His word." Unlike the other blessings for nature that praise God's creative powers--for making the great sea, for creating beautiful trees, for giving pleasant fragrance to fruits.... this blessing sees instead of the beauty and majesty of nature a sign of the promise made to Noah after the Flood. The rainbow is not about the colors painted across the sky but the promise God made to all of humanity: the world will continue forever, the world will never be destroyed. The rainbow stands against the darkest moments of history. My teacher, Annie, a Holocaust survivor, arrived after the group had recited the blessing. When I pointed to the sky's rainbow I asked if she would like to recite the tradition's blessing. She took my prayerbook and read the blessing. I responded with a heartfel Amen. Thank You indeed! Thank You God for keeping Your word and for sustaining our world. On Annie's lips the meaning of this blessing became even clearer.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Biking to Blessings

Recently I have been thinking about the beauty of Long Island. I have heard the skeptics. I recognize that many people do not think our home is a particularly beautiful place. That is most likely because they spend most of their time negotiating traffic on the LIE. No matter how you might justify it, traffic is not beautiful. But if you venture to Northern Boulevard or even farther north to the rockly coastline of the shore you will find the beauty of this island. As far as I am concerned the best way to appreciate the beauty and majesty of this place is on a bike. This past weekend I took my new bike out for a long ride and made my way back and forth from Target Rock to Eatons Neck. I made my way up the hill to the entrance of Caumsett State Park and rode around one of the most exquisite parks on Long Island. When you venture away from the noise and tumult of the LIE you can see the lines that God drew in the rocks along the Sound. When you go slow enough you can breath in the moist, salty air of the Long Island Sound and hear the sound of God's voice echoing in the gentle lapping of the sea's waves. The choice is yours. You can curse the traffic or recite the blessings for nature. You have to allow yourself time to slow down. Cars are meant to go too fast to recite blessings. A bike travels at the right speed. On a bike the blessings roll more easily off your lips.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Shabbat at Cold Spring Harbor

Last week JCB held Shabbat Services at Cold Spring Harbor park. It is a beautiful park and an extraordinary setting to welcome in Shabbat and its bride. As evening approached boats returned to their moorings after a day of sailing and fishing. A family of ducklings swam along the shore seemingly gravitating towards the songs of our tradition. The sun began to set. The horizon was ablaze with orange and red. The waters of Long Island Sound glowed with the sun's reflective gaze. The words of Maariv Aravim fluttered off of the Siddur's pages: "Adonai, Master of Legions, You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Eternal God, Your sovereignity shall forever embrace us."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Studying in Jerusalem

Today marks the last day of my studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute. It has been an extraordinary month of learning. We begin our day with hevruta study. We gather in small groups and study texts from the Bible, Talmud and often Maimonides. We then hear the master teacher's analysis and insights into the texts. After breaking for lunch we study Jewish mysticism. Often we have a few hours off during the heat of the afternoon before making our way back to the Institute for a lecture about Israeli society and culture. The theme for the month was God and spirituality so we spent most of our days debating questions of Jewish theology. We learned with David and Donniel Hartman, Yisrael Knohl (whose controversial theory about Jesus was recently reported in The New York Times), Moshe Halbertal, Melila Hellner-Eshed and Rani Jaegar to name a few. As impressive as our teachers are I am most impressed with my fellow participants in the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. It is an extraordinary group of rabbis. We have learned a great deal from each other. In this group there are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist rabbis. I have learned the most from those rabbis who don't share my Reform orientation. In fact a few days ago Adam Scheier, a young Orthodox rabbi from Montreal, led Jonah Layman and me through the winding streets of the Old City's Muslim Quarter. He had studied at yeshiva there some years ago. He brought us to Kotel HaKatan (the Little Wall). There is picture of this site on the Blog's sidebar and in the slideshow. It is a small section of the Wall that runs above the Western Wall Tunnels. There is no plaza there, no throngs of people, no beggars and no one telling you how you should pray. In this small corner of the Old City a Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbi stood together and touched 2,000 year old stones. This moment embodied the summer's most important teaching.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Zohar and Our Questions

For the past week we have studied Jewish mysticism with Melila Hellner-Eshed. The esoteric world of Jewish mysticism begins to unfold before my eyes. In the opening chapters of the Zohar, the seminal Jewish mystical text, Rabbi Shimon, expounded on the meaning of God's name "Elohim." This name is a combination of "elleh--these" and "Mi--who" (when the last two Hebrew letters are reversed). Elleh represents the structures of religious life, the letters of the alphabet, the texts of our tradition. Elleh represents the fixed, the halachah, the edifice. Mi represents the questions. All of us bring questions and doubts to our religious lives. We have many questions, many unsolved riddles. God is the combination of the structures and the questions. Without institutions, without laws Judaism would be lost. Without questions, without doubts Jews would be bereft. God embraces both. God is both. Elohim is the combination of structures of Jewish life and our questions.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Funerals, Rallies, Markets and Bars

All week I have been mulling over the scenes from the news. Wednesday morning we watched in silence as two black coffins were handed over by Hezbollah. The sound of the coffins touching the ground was the first confirmation the Regev and Goldwasser families received of the deaths of their sons. Two black coffins drove silently from the northern border to the grieving families. Israel turned over the bodies of 199 Hezbollah dead and five captured terrorists, the most astonishing of all was Sumar Kuntar who was granted an official pardon in order to facilitate his release. Kuntar received a hero's welcome in Lebanon. He walked off the airplane on a red carpet to cheers and praise. This brutal murderer received accolades in Lebanon while here in Israel there were only tears and bewilderment. The image of two black coffins and red carpets remain seared in my heart. The light of the full moon illuminated the distinction between good and evil. The chasm between those on either side of our northern border added to my despair.
For me this despair was finally lifted when I listened to a friend and accompanied him to Mahane Yehuda. The market stalls were closed. In their place was a bar set up in the middle of the street filled with hundreds of Israelis smoking and drinking, dancing and singing. We listened together to a band playing a unique blend of jazz, Sephardic and Klezmer music. Here tears and despair do not last for months and years. This morning there were tears. Now there is only laughter and music. The streets and bars are filled with the noise of a city that loves life and celebration. Although today was the 17th of Tammuz yesterday's sadness no longer colored the air. This evening, joy was painted across the night sky with a glistening, although waning, full moon.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Shabbat in Jerusalem

Shabbat is descending on Jerusalem. Hallah and flowers are sold on the street corners. Stores close early. Young students are picked up on street corners by family and friends to make their way to their Shabbat destinations before the setting of the sun. The sound of traffic dissipates with the approach of evening. Shabbat menucha (rest) and oneg (joy) descend on the city. Soon families will walk to friends' homes for dinner. Tomorrow morning the streets will be filled with men hurrying to synagogue with the sails of tallisim flowing behind them. There is a fervor of Shabbat joy among the people of Jerusalem and the feeling of Shabbat rest on its streets. Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!
Saturday evening the city and its streets return to life. Shabbat goes out around 830 pm. By 9 pm people, cars and buses return to the streets. By 11 pm crowds fill the restaurants and cafes. Here the rhythm of Shabbat is mirrored in its architecture. The pulse of Jewish life moves through the streets and alleys of Jerusalem. This city, the soul of the Jewish people returns to activity. The smell of wild rosemary fills our nostrils as the memory of havdalah spices dissipate.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Prisoner Release

I arrived in Israel to news of the upcoming prisoner release. Israel has signed an agreement to exchange captured terrorists (including Samir Kuntar who brutally murdered a father and his four year old daughter in 1979) for the bodies of its soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Israel has agreed to release many Lebanese prisoners even though it means not the return of its soldiers but the bodies of these soldiers killed in the attack that precipitated the 2006 War with Lebanon. That the exchange lacks balance is clear. Despite this fact as of today's writing 60% of Israelis support the deal. There are a great many problems with the deal. We are negotiating with terrorists. We are repatriating terrorists with blood on their hands who will surely receive a hero's welcome orchestrated by Hezbollah in Beruit. Hezbollah and in particular Hamas who still holds Gilad Shalit (and who it seems clear is still alive) will no longer have the incentive to keep their hostages alive. Yet most here appear to favor closure for the Regev and Goldwasser families over these legitimate concerns. Most favor securing the present and healing the wounds of these families over worries of the future. Most believe because our enemies do not fight by the "rules" must not be an excuse to let loose of our moral fiber and Jewish values. Pidyon shevuyim (the redemption of captives) is a Jewish value of the highest order. If I have read the attitude here correctly it is we will fight to protect our families while doing our utmost to preserve our values. In the State of Israel the Jewish choices bubble much closer to the surface. They are at times painful and wrenching, but there is no mistaking that Jewish values animinate the soul of this country.

Friday, June 20, 2008

You Don't Mess with the Zohan

Ok I admit it. I have seen Adam Sandler's new movie "You Don't Mess with the Zohan." It was a great laugh. There was no great message, no insightful sermon material, except it is good to laugh out loud. Part of what was so funny is that the premise is absurd--all Israelis and Palestinians have to do to make peace is move to Amerika, cut and style hair, fight corporate greed, fall in love and make love--a lot. It reminded me of the outrageous short film, West Bank Story. Nonetheless it is healthy to laugh out loud and not take yourself too seriously all the time--at least in a darkened movie theatre.
I also enjoyed how much Israeli music was featured in the film. I am a big fan of Israeli hip hop, especially the popular group HaDag Nahash (Snake Fish). I thought you would enjoy the YouTube video of the song "Hene Ani Ba " (Here I Come) featured in the movie. Also be sure to check out the group's classic song, "Shirat HaStiker " (The Sticker Song). My love for Israel extends well beyond "Jerusalem of Gold."
And by the way I really love hummus!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Counting Our Blessings

Hadassah Magazine June/July 2008
Commentary: Counting Our Blessings
The Talmud teaches that a person who enjoys the pleasures of this world without reciting a blessing is like a thief who steals from God (Berakhot 35a). So the rabbis composed blessings for every imaginable event. Some are familiar, such as Ha-motzi on bread or the Sheheheyanu we recite on momentous occasions. Others are less familiar: on seeing a rainbow or the ocean or hearing thunder. We can even express gratitude for the fragrance of a rose....
I followed the rabbis’ counsel at Sam’s bar mitzva. An autistic boy with significant special needs, Sam fidgeted about the bima, picking at his talis, which agitated him at times. In lieu of a sermon, he read brief explanations of drawings of the Torah portion. Still, he touched the tzitzit to the exact place in the Torah and then recited the aliya blessing from memory. The congregation sang “Siman Tov,” but it did not seem appropriate to wish him the threefold hope of Jewish success: Torah, huppa and ma’asim tovim (good deeds). Instead, I recited the blessing: “Barukh Ata…meshaneh ha-beriyot, Blessed are You… Who makes the creations different” (Berakhot 58b). I did not know what else to say. Perhaps I should just have cried along with his parents.
But these ancient words seemed most appropriate to the occasion. They insist that we be grateful, that we thank God for what we have. Curiously, I stumbled over the words of the blessing. In Hebrew, a direct object is often separated from the verb by the untranslatable word et. This blessing lacks that. My sense of Hebrew grammar wanted to add the word, but the tradition codified the blessing without it. So I stammered. Then the blessing’s true import occurred to me: Perhaps the blessing is intentionally broken. Let those who are so at ease with the words of Hebrew blessings stumble.
Perhaps the purpose of this blessing is not to make me whole and force me to think of the perfect God and the extraordinary variety of His creation, but instead to make me broken and realize my imperfection. In that moment, Sam was not broken. In that moment of brokenness, I was the student and the young boy the teacher.
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Masters of Our Own Fate

Hadassah Magazine May 2008
Commentary:Masters of Our Own Fate

This month, the State of Israel is celebrating its 60th birthday, and most Jews have grown accustomed to the nation’s existence. One day when I was teaching the kin­dergartners in my synagogue school, I asked them, “How old do you think Israel is?” “A thousand years.” “Oh, no,” I said. “Five thousand years?” They kept shouting out higher numbers. When I finally told them the correct answer, they stared at me in disbelief. I explained how the history of Israel is ancient, but the state is very young. I told them that some of their great-grandparents fought to make Israel an independent nation. Do we take Israel for granted? I hope not, since only in Israel can our freedom be wed to our ancient land. Only in Israel do Jewish rights and history come first and foremost....
Last summer, on one erev Shabbat, I strolled down the trendy Emek Refaim Street in Je­ru­salem. The day was winding down. There was very little traffic. People were carrying bou­quets of flowers for their Shabbat ta­bles and last-minute purchases of food and wine. I wandered into the rebuilt Cafe Hillel for an espresso and thought about the homicide bombing that had de­stroyed this restaurant on September 9, 2003. I thought of the lives that were shattered. But when I looked around, all I saw were smiles and all I could hear was laughing. Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins.
My weeks of study in Israel were framed by the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, marking the day the Ro­mans besieged this city, and three weeks later by the full fast day of Tisha B’Av, when Israel’s enemies de­stroyed the First and Second Tem­ples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.
Tisha B’Av is a day of mourn­ing, when Jere­miah’s Book of Lamen­ta­tions is chant­­­ed. In past years, I had gone to the Kotel on Tisha B’Av, the closest place to the ancient Temple’s site. This year, instead, I went to the Haas Promenade, which overlooks the village of Abu Tor and, in the distance, the southern side of the Old City, where members of a lo­cal Con­servative synagogue gathered. Unlike the scene at the Wall, where the mood is mournful, this crowd of 400 recited ancient prayers and also modern songs, including Han­nah Senesh’s impassioned “Eli, Eli.”
One would think that this holiday, too, would color the city’s mood, but the walls of the Old City were aglow. There may well be untold ruins be­neath our feet, but despite ancient grief and ancient exiles, there is no ruin in the air. I revel in the songs of thousands of Jews. I rejoice that we have returned to this city. Israel writes Jewish history each and every day. Indeed, 60 years after its modern rebirth, Israel waves a finger at fate.
The complete article can also be found by following the link on the Blog's sidebar.