Thursday, May 28, 2009


This evening begins one of the most important, although ironically least observed, Jewish holidays: Shavuot. I have often wondered why the day that celebrates the giving of the Torah is not number #1 of our holidays. I suspect it is because the holiday lacks a central home ritual--and perhaps because it falls in late spring or early summer. Passover is better timed (especially because of school vacations) and has of course the seder. Sukkot the sukkah. Hanukkah the menorah. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draws people to their synagogues. Purim carnivals entice parents to lead their costumed children to celebration. Shavuot has a book--the Torah. This to be sure is a hard sell. But this book is the center of our lives. It is the love of Torah, the love of books that has nurtured the Jewish soul for countless generatation. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch (who died in 1719) takes this view to an extreme when he argues that if one even finds a book shelved upside down, one is to turn the book right side up and kiss it. (Sefer Kav haYashar) In addition, for most reading a book is a solitary activity. Reading a book while being warmed by the sun and soothed by the ocean's waves is for many a #1 activity. Yet Judaism insists that we not read alone. So it is not so much the book but rather how we engage it that does not fit with contemporary society. Many are comfortable leafing through a book's pages or scrolling through a Kindle, but sitting across the table and arguing over every word and every phrase is what makes Shavuot feel remote. For Judaism literature is not an escape, to be relished on vacation, but a daily activity, a central enterprise. Studying Torah is how we engage the world. It is why we care for the world. On this Shavuot take time to re-engage Torah and thereby re-engage the world. Begin here with these websites: Shalom Hartman Institute and Nextbook. Chag Shavuot Samayach--a Happy Shavuot!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

One year I was driving back from officiating at a funeral at one of the Jewish cemeteries on Pinelawn Road. As I approached the military cemetery I realized that it was Memorial Day weekend so I pulled into the cemetery. I parked my car and with my Rabbi's Manual in hand I walked the grounds searching for a Jewish grave marker. It did not take me long to find such a grave. I opened my manual and recited El Malei Rachamim (the traditional prayer said at a grave). It was a beautiful Spring day and the cemetery grounds had been manicured and prepared for the next day's services. The distance between sacrifice and every day life is far too great. I suspect it was less in prior generations, but in mine it is so great as to be almost invisible. I had to take a detour in order to see the multitude of sacrifice--thousands of crosses and hundreds of stars. I had to look through the beauty of Spring to see the simple grave with a Jewish star, standing among rows of thousands. I do not know how a country sustains a war--even one as righteous as fighting our avowed enemies of the Taliban and Al Qaeda--when ordinary people are detached from the sacrifices it demands. A soldier's grave derives meaning from the prayers of his fellow citizens. If we do not even know that these prayers are required of us then how we will sustain any war?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Yom Yerushalayim

A few weeks before Israel's 1967 Six Day War Naomi Shemer submitted her now famous song entry, Yerushalayim shel Zahav, to the Independence Day song competition. The theme for that year, at the insistence of Teddy Kollek, was Jerusalem. Jerusalem of Gold was performed on May 15 and became an instant sensation. Interestingly the first version of the song did not contain any mention of the Old City. By the time of the competition, and at the suggestion of friends, Shemer added the second verse about the empty market places and the Jewish longing for the Temple Mount's Western Wall. A few weeks later the IDF's soldiers stood at the Wall and cried. The army's chief rabbi blew the shofar and those gathered there broke out into song, singing Jerusalem of Gold. In a few short weeks the song had become the war's anthem, its hopes and longings a new reality. Shemer composed a new and final verse: "We have returned to the cisterns, to the market and the square. A shofar calls out on the Temple Mount in the Old City. And in the caves in the rock, thousands of suns shine. We will once again descend to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho." These verses were not without controversy. Amos Oz, for example, criticized Shemer for suggesting that the city was empty until Jews returned. Arabs of course lived there and continue to live in Jerusalem. The Old City's Arab shuk continues to bustle with activity. Yet something had indeed changed. During the years 1948-1967 Jews could not pray at the Western Wall. Jews could not walk among the ruins of King David's palace. There was an emptiness in our hearts. There is no more longing for these stones. Every summer I return to Jerusalem to rekindle the fires in my Jewish heart. Indeed the air there is as "clear as wine and filled with the fragrance of pine." Yet I share Amos Oz's worries. What happens to a people when they get what they most wanted for thousands of years? Every day I thank God that I am privileged to live in an age when the dreams of my great grandparents is my reality. The question remains: is there room in my dreams for another's reality?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Obama and Israel

I have been thinking a lot about this question. Does our new president understand and appreciate the worries and existential angst of Israel and Israelis--and of course Jews? Jeffrey Goldberg's article in Saturday's New York Times provides an excellent analysis of this dilemma. While I fully believe that President Obama appreciates the significance and importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish people, his priorities will not always coincide with those of Israel's leaders. His interests are not the same as Israel's. That Israel's government and the United States's leaders might sometimes disagree is normal and natural. If Obama disagrees with the priorities of Israel's Netanyahu this does not necessarily mean that he is abandoning Israel. Friends can also tell friends that they are wrong. In actuality this does not mean that they are not friends. It is in reality a greater testament to friendship when friends can disagree. Loving criticism means that the friendship is far more than superficial. Disagreement means that the friendship is not just about "I need this from you and you need that from me." Still, here are my worries. The increasing mantra that "If only Israel would do x or y, then there would be peace," suggests a lack of appreciation of recent history. Yes, Israel has allowed settlement expansion and the construction of the security fence to at times inflame Palestinian hatred. But the root cause of the conflict is not Israel's capture of the West Bank from Jordan and its subsequent construction of settlements. Most Israelis would blindly give away the store if the Arab world would do but one thing--accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East. If the Arab world, and especially the Palestinians, would come to terms with Jewish sovereignty over at least a portion of the land of Israel, then the ground would give way under the settlements. Then the security fence could be taken down. Finally most if not all Israelis and Jews have learned that we must take antisemites at their word. When the leader of nearby Iran says, repeatedly, that he wants to destroy Israel and he hosts a conference denying the Holocaust, we cannot ignore his words. When he seeks to acquire and build the weapons to make his words a reality we must act. Waiting and inaction embolden Iran and its leaders. Mr. President I believe you are our friend. Understand our worries. Pay heed to our fears. They are legitimate and real.