Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Simhat Torah Message

As we near the conclusion of our Fall holidays I have been reflecting on the meaning of these days.  Yom Kippur still lingers in my thoughts.  But after enjoying meals in my sukkah and looking forward to dancing with the Torah scrolls, Yom Kippur appears to stand in stark contrast to these other days and for that matter, all Jewish holidays.

Do you remember the 7 Up commercials?  “It’s 7 Up.  It’s the Uncola.”

I have been thinking about these commercials as I reflect on the meaning of Yom Kippur.  In truth, it is the un-Jewish Jewish holiday.  Think about it.  There is no food.  There is no kiddush blessing over the wine.  You can’t drink.  You can’t eat.  You beat yourself on the chest.  Granted, honest self-reflection is a good thing.  It does indeed make us better, but only if we do the hard work of correcting our failings.  Nonetheless the day seems so un-Jewish.

Perhaps some might think it blasphemous for a rabbi to say such things about the Sabbath of Sabbaths and the holiest day of our Jewish year, but such are my feelings as we approach our rejoicing with the Torah.  Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday.  It is pure unadulterated joy.   It is about a book.  It is about rejoicing.  Dancing and singing, reading and studying these are the highest Jewish virtues, not fasting and lamenting.  In our tradition joy is obligated.  Our tradition chooses kiddush over kaddish.

All feel the obligation to mourn and recite kaddish.  Few understand and appreciate that it is an equal obligation to dance and rejoice.  The great code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh, asks the following question.  Given that a person is obligated to both comfort mourners and dance with the bride and groom, what happens if he is standing on a street corner and a funeral procession and wedding procession pass by at the same time?  Which procession does he follow?

The answer: the wedding procession.  In our tradition joy supersedes mourning.  This philosophical statement is made even more powerful when you take into account the fact that this idea was discussed and codified during dark times when Jews were still grappling with the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple and too often experiencing persecution.  The rabbis decided: we celebrate at every opportunity, even and perhaps especially because we also know that mourning comes too easily and too frequently.

This is why the observance of shiva ends when it draws near a holiday.  Even if one has not reached the allotted seven days, shiva ends, even if one has only observed one day, shiva ends.  The joy of a holiday supersedes mourning.  Communal joy takes precedence over personal grief.  Rejoicing overrides mourning.

That in a nutshell is Judaism.  And that is why Simhat Torah is, in my estimation, the holiday of holidays.  What a remarkable day this holiday is.  What a wonderful privilege to sing and dance with a book in hand.

Simhat Torah.  It’s the real thing!  (Sorry I couldn’t resist.)  Chag Samayach!

Sunday, September 26, 2010


The following is my submission for Mekor Chaim: Bereshit and was published by the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet.

I am not sure if rabbis are supposed to have favorite rituals. We are, I am told, supposed to promote all. Nonetheless mine is havdalah. It is beautiful in its simplicity. It touches all the senses. There is the taste of sweet wine, the smell of fragrant spices and the light of the braided candle.

It is also because of its meaning, encapsulated in its closing blessing, that I adore this ritual. “Blessed are You Adonai our God who separates sacred from ordinary, light from darkness…” Its meaning echoes this week’s creation story. “God separated the light from the darkness…” In Genesis 1 God not only creates by word, “And God said, ‘Let there be…’” but also by separating, by the act of havdalah.

By making distinctions we imitate God and create. It is by this act that we create Shabbat holiness. Some argue that Shabbat exists whether we recognize it or not. I believe however that it is in our hands to create this day and mark it as holy. While other holidays are dependent on the seasons and the moon, the seventh day is dependent on our counting. We number the days: first day, second, third… and then name the seventh, Shabbat.

What differentiates humans from animals is our ability to draw these distinctions and to each and every day make havdalah. This act of havdalah is the defining characteristic of humanity. This is mine. That is yours. This is my home. That is your house. This is my land. That is your state.

Havdalah exists in the moral realm as well. It is in our hands to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, friend and foe. This of course is the monumental task of living our lives and much more challenging than carving out a seventh day of rest. Each and every day we are confronted with difficult moral choices.

Often we cannot run to parents, friends and even rabbis. We must decide ourselves. We must choose. Will we cut legal corners in our businesses so that we might increase profit during these trying economic times? Will we speak hurtful words so soon after renouncing them on Yom Kippur? Will we shut our hands to the poor and hungry when there are so many in this great land who stand in need?

Yet we are not entirely alone in making our choices. We are aided by our tradition. We are guided by our Torah. Its wisdom helps us to differentiate right from wrong, good and evil. We must not be afraid from drawing such distinctions. We must adhere to the law even when we find it flawed, reducing our income. We must do our utmost to avoid even listening to gossip. We must not favor our vacations and retirements over the needs of the hungry who stand before our eyes.

It is by separating right from wrong that we imitate God. It is by doing so that we carve out the path of the righteous. This is our daily task.

As we smell the spices, reach out towards the flame and taste the wine let us recall that making havdalah each and every day is what makes us human and what allows us to live in the image of God.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sukkot Message

After the loftiness of the High Holidays we return to the earthliness of Sukkot.  The origins of Sukkot are rooted in both land and history.  In ancient times the Jewish people were farmers.  In order to facilitate the gathering of the fall harvest they built huts in their fields where they lived for the week long harvest.  According to the Torah the historical significance of this holiday is that the Israelites lived in these booths during their wandering in the wilderness of Sinai.

Given that we are not farmers, we of course emphasize the historical meaning of this holiday.  Just as Passover celebrates going free from Egypt and Shavuot the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Sukkot represents the wandering from slavery to sovereignty.  Wandering is the core meaning of this holiday.  Searching for our home is symbolized in this temporary structure.

In order to capture this quality the tradition dictated exacting requirements for the roof.  You must for example be able to see the stars through its lattice work.  If the roof keeps out all wind and rain then it is no longer a temporary structure but permanent.  In essence, if it is too good of a roof then it is no longer a sukkah but a house.

Years ago I built my sukkah with a student who was homeless.  He was studying with me in the 92nd Street Y’s introduction to Judaism class.  I invited the group to come to my apartment to help build the sukkah.  He was the only person who accepted the invitation.  At the time we lived in an apartment in Great Neck.  Rather than calling me so that I could pick him up at Flushing where the 7 train reached its limit, he walked to my apartment from the subway station.  When I told him that I would give him money to take the LIRR for his return to the city, he refused and insisted on walking back to the shelter where he stayed.

Together on my apartment’s balcony we constructed my sukkah.  As we lifted the boards and hammered together the sukkah, I remember thinking to myself: “I am constructing this sukkah to remind me how fortunate I am.  For me this sukkah is temporary.  Its roof is flimsy.  Its walls are permeable.  It is less than my house.  It is a reminder that life should not revolve around material possessions.  For my student however it is far more than his house.  It is not less than he owns, but more.”  

It was in that moment that I realized the true spiritual meaning of this Sukkot holiday.  We might live in beautiful and comfortable homes filled with many wonderful things, but meaning can be found in a few boards and a flimsy roof.  We can always fill our lives with more spirit.  All are homeless.  All are wandering.

I will think of this moment and its lessons as I look up at the large harvest moon through the lattice of my sukkah’s roof.  All are forever searching for home.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sukkah vs. Sukkah

Sukkah vs. Sukkah
The holiday of Sukkot begins tomorrow evening.  I will build, or better put together, my prefabricated sukkah.  No hammers or nails are required.  I need only thumb tighten the screws, wrap a canvas tarp around the sides and then throw the bound bamboo skhach over the roof.  My sukkah fits the requirements and fulfills the tradition's demands.  This is why I found this New York Magazine article and exhibit so intriguing.  The exhibit's sukkot are designed by contemporary architects and designers and not only conform to halakhic demands but also interpret the holiday in creative ways.  My vote is for the below Sukkah of the Signs. This sukkah emphasizes the message of homelessness embedded in the holiday. 

The power of Sukkot is to remind us of the temporary quality of life.  The requirements of the roofing, skhach, guarantee that the sukkah is of a temporary and impermanent quality.  Our homes may feel permanent but in fact everything is temporary and can be blown away by nature's wind and rain.  Constructing a sukkah with signs from the homeless and hungry transforms the entire sukkah into the message of the skhach.  You must be able to see the sky through the skhach.  In sum, if it is too good of a roof then it is not a sukkah.   Living in a sukkah for a week produces feelings of gratitude.  How fortunate is my lot to live in a home whose roof protects me from wind and rain.  I am so blessed to be warmed in the winter and cooled in the summer.  There are far too many who do not share this good fortune.  That is one reason at least to eat and sleep in a sukkah.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Op-Ed Contributor - Yom Kippur at Sea -

Op-Ed Contributor - Yom Kippur at Sea -
This Op-Ed about a Jewish lobsterman brings back a wonderful memory.  It was decades ago, before I kept kosher and before I refrained from eating lobster.  Although many years have passed since I made this change, I still love the taste of lobster and so I continue to follow the midrash's advice: "Do not say I hate the taste of pork (read here: lobster).  Say instead, 'I love the taste of it, but God's Torah forbids me from eating it.'"  I had just completed an Outward Bound survival course off the coast of Maine.  I promised my family and especially my grandfather that I would return home with fresh Maine lobster.  We would then share the lobsters and have a grand feast upon my return.  Many had worries about this trip and the wisdom of spending good money to be hungry and cold for weeks and be alone on a island for days.  I packed one blank check for this important purpose.  "Papa will be so happy when I return home with gigantic lobsters." I thought.  Before catching my flight home I went to the local lobster store in  Rockland to purchase the lobster. The store owner and lobsterman weighed the lobsters and packed the nearly twenty pounds tight in a cardboard travel case. After reassuring me several times that it was ok to travel on an airplane with live lobsters, he said, "$60." "Who do I make the check out to?"  I asked.  "I don't take checks," he responded.  "Only cash."  "But I don't have that much cash.  I am sorry.  I guess I can't buy them then. I was going to bring them back for my family and especially my grandpa."  I turned to leave.  "Let me see your check." he shouted after me.  I gave him the check and he looked at it and then back at me and said, "Moskowitz that is a good Jewish name.  Ok.  I will take your check."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Jonah Song

Enjoy this song and video about the Jonah story read on Yom Kippur afternoon!

This would be great for our congregation's future children's choir.

Yom Kippur Message

As we prepare for this day of fasting and introspection I would like to explore one of Yom Kippur’s central exercises: reciting the Viddui, the confession of sin.

There are two points to highlight about this ritual and its words.

1. The sins delineated are normal, everyday sins.  The vast majority of those that make the list have to do with the misuse of words and in particular lashon hara, gossip.  The suggestion is that everyone misuses, and at times abuses, words.  We sometimes speak with angry tones to those we most love.  Other times we recall an embarrassing story about others to elicit laughter.  Everyone stands guilty of these sins.  The larger point is that everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone misses the mark.

We pray:
Our God, God of our mothers and fathers, grant that our prayers reach You.  Do not be deaf to our pleas, for we are not so arrogant and still-necked as to say before You, our God and God of all ages, we are perfect and have not sinned; rather do we confess: we have gone astray, we have sinned, we have transgressed.

No one leads a perfect life.  Everyone has failings to correct, relationships to mend.  But it is in our hands to repair our lives.  This is the power of Yom Kippur.

2. The Viddui’s greatest power is that we do not confess alone.  We do not stand by ourselves and beat our chest.  Instead we do so with our community.  All of the sins are recited in the plural.  Unlike David’s confession of his sin with the word, chatati—I have sinned, we say, "Al chet she-chatanu—For the sin we have sinned…”

There is extraordinary power in reciting these wrongs together.  It gives us added courage.  We believe that our congregation makes us better individuals, that the group calls us to do more, that community helps us to transform our personal lives.

We are pushed forward by our congregation. We are pulled forward by our God.  This year as we recite these wrongs and confess our mistakes let us pray that God will grant us the wisdom and strength to repair our lives.   Correcting our failings is ultimately in our hands!  We believe nothing is fated.  We can change.

G’mar chatimah tovah—may you indeed be inscribed for life.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Into the Jewish People - by James Ponet

Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life
Rabbi James Ponet, the Yale Hillel rabbi who officiated at the wedding ceremony of Chelsea Clinton, describes his personal religious journey and explores why he now officiates at interfaith weddings.  He concludes:

My problem with intermarriage, I now realize, is based on legitimate fears about the survival of our people, period. But what if our people is in fact evolving into new forms of identity and observance? What if we are indeed generating new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world? What if Rabbi Donniel Hartman is right when he observes in his book The Boundaries of Judaism that “when the intermarriage act is in fact only … an expression of one’s choice as to partner and not of one’s personal religious and collective identity, the classification of intolerability is not warranted” and that “modernity and the choices it has engendered have created complex realities which we must take into account in our boundary policies”?

I submit that it is time for Judaism to formulate a thoughtful, traditionally connected ceremony through which a Jew may enter into marriage with a non-Jew, a prescribed way or ways by which a rabbi may officiate or co-officiate at such a wedding. I believe we are the ever-evolving people and that there will always be among us those who are rigorously attached to ancient forms. I believe it is critical that there will also always be among us those who vigorously dream and search for new vessels into which to decant the sam chayyim, the living elixir of Torah. If we only look backward as we move into the future, we will surely stumble. We need scouts, envoys, chalutzim, pioneers to blaze new ways into the ancient-newness of Judaism.

Perhaps for example we might note that there may be stages of entrance into and levels of engagement with the Jewish people, which might find liturgical expression both in the wedding ceremony and at other lifecycle events going forward. After all, becoming a Jew, like becoming a person, takes a lifetime. And just as we want to be able to invite our ancestors to the weddings and brisses and bat mitvahs of the present generation, we want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to feel drawn to the love and joy of being connected to the Jewish people. We want them to know that we have not forgotten that the Jewish people is “a covenant people, a light of nations.”

Lots to think about and ponder.  I still marvel at the world I find myself in.  It is a world that is nonplussed that the former president of the United States is hoisted in the air for the hora, albeit by the Secret Service.  For now sermons to write.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shabbat from Texting

I like this ad.
At Rosh Hashanah services I noticed that the faces of a few congregants were glowing.  At first I thought it was because they were transformed by the prayer experience.  Praying together is indeed an inspiring experience!  Then I realized that their faces were reflecting the glow of their Blackberries, or was it their iPhones.  Our attachment to our mobile devices is all consuming.  We would do well to heed the Offlining campaign and leave our mobile devices at home on these holiest of days.  Check out for more information.  Let us use these days to look into the faces of our family and friends instead!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Message

A Hasidic story.

Reb Meir of Premishlan and Reb Yisreal of Ruzhin were the best of friends, yet no two people could be more different.  Reb Meir lived in great poverty.  He never allowed even a penny to spend the night in his house but would rush outside to give it to the poor.  Reb Yisrael, on the other hand, lived like a king.

These two friends once met as each was preparing to take a journey.  Reb Meir was sitting on a simple cart drawn by one scrawny horse.  Reb Yisrael was housed on a rich lacquered coach pulled by four powerful stallions.

Reb Yisrael walked over to the horse hitched to Reb Meir’s wagon.  With mock concern, he inspected the horse with great care.  Then he turned to his friend and with barely concealed humor said to him, “I always travel with four strong horses.  In this way, if my coach should become stuck in the mud they will be able to free it quickly.  I can see, however, that your horse seems barely able to carry you and your wagon on a dry and hard-packed road.  There is bound to be mud on your travels.  Why do you take such risks?”

Reb Meir stepped down from his wagon and walked over to his friend, who was still standing next to Reb Meir’s horse.  Placing his arms around his beloved old horse’s neck, Reb Meir said softly, “The risk, I think is yours.  Because I travel with this one horse that in no way can free this wagon if it becomes stuck in the mud, I am very careful to avoid the mud in the first place.  You, my friend, are certain you can get free if stuck and thus do not look where you are going.”  (Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales)

On Rosh Hashanah it does not really matter what car we drive or even what clothes we wear. It is instead about looking at the path we are traveling and determining where we are going.  It is about finding again the right path.  The High Holidays are all about rediscovering this road.  And if we find that we are stuck in the mud, then may these days also be about finding our way out.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Beasts of Burden"

I still remember the first day of school.  The excitement.  The pangs of nervousness.  My children return to high school tomorrow morning.

Thanks to Peter De Seve of The New Yorker for reminding us what has changed in the interim.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Nitzavim-Vayelekh Sermon

…For parents the greatest worries are matters of life and death. For God’s Torah the greatest danger is idolatry. The idolatry of other nations was apparently very compelling. It stood in stark contrast to the religion of ancient Israel. Idolatry is about the concrete. You can hold the object of your worship in your hands. You can touch it. You can see it. Believing in one God is abstract. You cannot see God. You cannot touch God. In the Torah’s and the tradition’s eyes idols were everywhere and an everyday temptation.

This is why they counseled us to make friends with the righteous and wise. This is why we warn our children, “Watch out for those other kids.” Is this warning effective for our children? Do they listen to such words? Perhaps instead we should honestly discuss with our children (and ourselves) what are the temptations that must be avoided. Let us give them specific names. Let us name those things which have too much power over our hearts. What are today’s idols?

The most prevalent idol is not an object. It is instead anger. It is this emotion that we allow to have too much power over our hearts.  Moses Maimonides suggested that anger is an idol because we let it rule our lives. An idol is anything to which we ascribe too much importance. This is anger. It is common to all. Everyone is taken in by anger. We bow down to it.  We worship at the altar of indignation.  We allow it to take over our souls. At times we are unable to even see those we love and those who love us because we are blinded by anger.

This idol of anger has become even more prevalent in our own day and age because instead of surrounding ourselves with the righteous and wise we surround ourselves with like-minded people. We only talk to those who agree with us. But the true measure of true friendship is telling someone when they are wrong.  It is telling them when we disagree with them. Anger is fueled by agreeing friends. “Yes, you are so right. You were wronged.” are the refrains of the like-minded.  Anger is instead overcome by loving disagreements.

Let us banish anger from our hearts.  Let us smash the idols!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

If You Build It... | The New Republic

If You Build It... | The New Republic
Yossi Klein Halevi's article about the proposed Islamic Center near ground zero is well reasoned and insightful. He writes:

I am urging you [Imam Rauf] to rise to your moment of spiritual greatness. You have dedicated your life to helping Islam enter the American mainstream. In its current form, though, your project will have the opposite effect. The way to ease Islam into the American mainstream is in the company of its fellow Abrahamic faiths. The great obstacle to Islam’s reconciliation with the West is the adherence of even mainstream Muslims to a kind of medieval notion of interfaith relations. Muslim spokesmen often note how, during the Middle Ages, Islam provided protection for Christianity and Judaism. But that model—tolerance under Islamic rule—is inadequate for our time. The new interfaith theology affirms the spiritual legitimacy of all three Abrahamic faiths. Whether or not we accept one another’s faiths as theologically true, we can affirm them as devotionally true, that is, as worthy vessels for a God-centered life.

What will define a genuinely American Islam will be its ability to embrace this modern notion of interfaith relations. A 15-story Islamic center near Ground Zero will undermine that process. In the Muslim world, as you well know, architecture often buttresses triumphalist theology. Throughout the Holy Land, minarets deliberately tower over churches. However inadvertently, your current plan would be understood by large parts of the Muslim world as a victory over the West. Merely adding an interfaith component to the proposed Islamic center would not counter that distorted impression. Instead, it would likely reinforce the medieval theology of extending “protection” to Christianity and Judaism under the auspices of Islam. But an interfaith center in which the three Abrahamic faiths are given equal status would send the message that I believe you intend to convey.

American Muslims in particular and America in general will be best served by an interfaith center that reaches out to people of all faiths. An Islam that lives in harmony with other faiths is sorely needed. What an extraordinary example such an interfaith center would serve to the world's Muslims. I continue as well to object to the name "Cordoba House" that affirms an interfaith dialogue where one faith is held superior to other faiths. We do not live in an Islamic state which treats Jews and Christians with benevolence. We live instead in a country that is a amalgam of many different faiths. Let any new center built near ground zero represent this particular American vision.


Children often leave their homes accompanied by warnings from their parents.  “Don’t drink and drive.  Text me if your plans change.  Beware of strangers.  Don’t do drugs.  Watch out for those other kids.”

This is God’s tone as well.  The people are nearing the moment when they will cross into the land of Israel.  God accompanies them to this door with warnings.

“Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations; and you have seen the detestable things and the fetishes of wood and stone, silver and gold that they keep.  Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations—perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood.  When such a person hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart…’”  (Deuteronomy 29:15-19)

Beware of false gods.  Beware of temptation.  Watch out for those other guys. 

The great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, offers this observation: “It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs of one’s fellow citizens.  Hence, a person ought constantly to associate with the righteous and frequent the company of the wise…”  (Mishneh Torah, Book One, Laws Relating to Ethical Conduct, 6:1)

For parents the greatest worries are matters of life and death. For God’s Torah the greatest danger is idolatry.  The idolatry of other nations was apparently very compelling.  It stood in stark contrast to the religion of ancient Israel.  Idolatry is about the concrete.  You can hold the object of your worship in your hands.  You can touch it. You can see it.  Believing in one God is abstract.  You cannot see God.  You cannot touch God.  In the Torah’s and the tradition’s eyes idols were everywhere and an everyday temptation.

This is why they counseled us to make friends with the righteous and wise. This is why we warn our children, “Watch out for those other kids.”  Is this warning effective for our children?  Perhaps instead we should honestly discuss with our children (and ourselves) what are the temptations that must be avoided.  Let us give them specific names.  Let us name those things which have too much power over our hearts.  What are today’s idols?