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Showing posts from November, 2010

History and the Land

As we look forward to tomorrow's celebration of Hanukkah we are reminded of the importance of history.  This week's papers reported that the Palestinian Authority continues to deny the Jewish connection to historical sites in the land of Israel.  The PA even goes so far as to deny that the Western Wall was part of the Temple Mount.  UNESCO calls Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem a mosque alone.  The Association of Reform Zionists of America ( ARZA ) issued the following statement in response: "If there is ever to be true peace in the Middle East, the shrines of each of the three Abrahamic religions must be respected by the political bodies in the region and by the United Nations. Referring to Rachel's tomb as a 'mosque' is both factually and historically inaccurate. Similarly statements by the Palestinian Authority that the Western Wall in Jerusalem is not the retaining wall of our Temple Mount ignores established historical fact. Both of these references are di

Hanukkah Message

Fourteen years before he was killed during Israel’s daring rescue of Jewish hostages at Entebbe airport, Yoni Netanyahu wrote the following: “Because each and every minute is made up of seconds and of even briefer fragments of time, and every fragment ought not to be allowed to pass in vain…  I must feel certain that not only at the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I have lived; I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say: This is what I’ve done.” (Yonatan Netanyahu, Self-Portrait of a Hero ) Nearly 2,200 earlier Mattathias and his sons led a revolt against the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the ruler of the Seleucid Empire.  The first battle occurred in Modein, in the land of Israel, when Mattathias killed a fellow Jew who was obeying the king’s order to sacrifice to his pagan gods.  Mattathias then single handedly killed the king’s officers standing nearby.  He cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Let everyone who is

Is Israel a Rogue State?

Is Israel ‘a rogue state’? You’d better hope so by Gabriel Latner Here is an excellent speech by a 19 year old college student about Israel's uniqueness. Latner says in part: And here is the fourth argument: Israel has a better human rights record than any of its neighbors. At no point in history has there ever been a liberal democratic state in the Middle East – except for Israel. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Israel is the only one where the LGBT community enjoys even a small measure of equality. In Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and Syria, homosexual conduct is punishable by flogging, imprisonment, or both. But homosexuals there get off pretty lightly compared to their counterparts in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who are put to death. Israeli homosexuals can adopt, openly serve in the army, enter civil unions and are protected by exceptionally strongly worded anti-discrimination legislation. Beats a death sentence. In fact, it beats America. ... Which

Psalms 7-9

Let's continue with this year's ongoing spiritual project of reading the psalms (three psalms per week).   7. Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord... Robert Alter in his monumental translation of the Psalms writes that this term suggests emotional excess or rhapsody.  Is this the emotion that was created by the psalm or the feeling that the public reader of the psalm was supposed to bring to his chanting? There are familiar themes in this particular psalm: O Lord, my God, in You I seek refuge;/ deliver me from all my pursuers and save me,/ lest, like a lion, they tear me apart,/ rending in pieces, and no one save me. And the following according to Alter's translation: Rise up, O Lord, in Your anger,/ Loom high against the wrath of my enemies./ Rouse for me the justice You ordained. If God is the God of justice let me see it.  The world does not appear to live up to the ideal of justice.  Yet we pray to a God whose most striking attribute is that of justice.

Day of Dialogue Video

In the spirit of debate and discussion about which I just recently wrote below is the video from Hofstra University's Day of Dialogue.  You might recall that the panel discussion in which I participated was entitled, "Israel/Palestine and the Blockade."  My remarks begin at the 30 minute mark, but of course only watching my opening salvo would be missing the point of the university's day of dialogue and my recent ruminations about leaving our isolated intellectual bubbles.  The irony of the world wide web and the endless stream of television channels, and of course YouTube channels, is that in terms of intellectual debate it has in some ways made the world smaller and more narrow.  I only seem to have time to watch and read and listen to what already agrees with me.

Moskowitz University

A number of people have emailed me the below YouTube video by Dennis Prager as part of his Prager University project. "Give us five minutes, and we will give you a semester."  The video is of course about the Middle East conflict and in five minutes boils down the root of the ongoing dilemma into Arab and Palestinian rejection of Israel as a Jewish state. Anyone who has read my writings and heard my many sermons on the topic knows that I share this view.  But I worry that such well made videos featuring such articulate pundits will not ease tensions but only harden everyone's positions.  For weeks now I have been thinking about a recent conversation with a friend, who even though is not Jewish has visited Israel and professed affection for the State.  We were discussing the recently intercepted package bomb.  I asked, "How are we ever going to stop this from happening?"  He retorted that Israel should stop building settlements and make peace with the Palesti


This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins the four part Joseph saga.   It is a story that, with only a few interruptions, spans four Torah portions.   Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter.   He favors Joseph, the eldest son of his beloved wife, Rachel, who died while giving birth to Benjamin.   The other eleven children are mothered by his additional wife Leah and his maidservants, Bilhah and Ziplah.   (Yes, our patriarch does indeed “know” four different women.)   Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph and his showering of gifts on him, in particular an ornamented tunic, creates tension and jealousy between his sons.   In addition Joseph is a dreamer who keeps dreaming that one day he will rule over his brothers and moreover has the chutzpah to share these dreams with them.   The brothers can’t take it any more and sell him into slavery in Egypt.   They then tell Jacob that his beloved son Joseph was killed by wild animals.   Thus begins the story of how the Jewish people end up in Egypt

Vayishlach Sermon

One of the wonderful things about this country is its mixture of different ideas and cultures.  That is what I choose to think about as we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving: an embrace of disparate values. Years ago when I was a student at college the person who opened for me the world of Jewish philosophy and theology was my religion professor, Robert Mickey.  Professor Mickey was a United Church of Christ minister so it was a bit of a surprise that this Christian minister sent me right back to my Jewish traditions.  He could have pointed the ever searching soul that I was then and still am today toward any book, but he chose instead Martin Buber, in particular his Hasidism and Modern Man and I and Thou . It was Buber who taught that the essence of God and God’s nearness is in relationship, it is in how we treat others.  Buber’s famous book was I-Thou.  In it he argued that the world is divided into two realms, the I-It and the I-Thou.  We spend most of our hours and days in I-


The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps.  (See Genesis 33:18.)  This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, describes that journey, from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace.  Jacob, now married with two wives, two maidservants, eleven children, many slaves and an abundance of livestock, sets out to return to his native land.  At the same place where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, he sends his family across the river and again spends the night alone.  He is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright. That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality.  He wrestles with a being that is described as divine.  Unable to free himself from Jacob’s grasp the being offers Jacob a blessing in exchange for his release.  This being declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you

Psalms 4-6

4. This psalm opens with a technical note about music. For the choirmaster (la-menatzei'ach); with stringed instruments (neginot); a song (mizmor) of David . We are of course no longer sure what these technical terms mean and how they were translated into music.  Yet it seems abundantly clear that the psalms were part of an ancient musical tradition.  Music and song figured prominently in the ancient Temple.  When the Temple was destroyed the Rabbis decreed that Shabbat music should be silenced.  Given our loss we could no longer enjoy singing, dancing and music.  As the psalms attest, however, music is central to our being.  For prayer to be joyous we require music.  Our whole being must embrace the prayer experience.  My ears are swimming with music after downloading the White Album!  Thank you Steven Jobs. You put joy into my heart... Every time I sing the songs of our tradition or listen to music (even "while my guitar gently weeps") I feel joy in my heart.  Do yo

Vayetzei Sermon

Our Torah portion opens with Jacob running from Esau. He rests for the night and dreams of a ladder going up to heaven.  He awakes and declares, “God was in this place and I did not know it.” He then goes to the well to find a nice Jewish woman.  Unlike the other matchmaker well stories, Jacob impresses all the girls by single-handedly removing the stone from the well.  (They of course ooh and ah.)  He falls in love with Rachel.  But Laban tricks him and he marries Leah first.  I still find it baffling that he does not realize he is sleeping with the wrong woman until morning!  The rabbis say in essence, “What goes around comes around.”  Jacob tricked his father Isaac so he is similarly fooled.  Jacob then decides to run away from Laban.  But Rachel steals the family idol.  Laban comes running after them looking for his idol.  But Rachel sits on it, declaring that she is menstruating, to hide it from her father. The rabbis are sympathetic towards Rachel.  They apologize for her act

Thanksgiving Blessing

Today it was my honor to offer the blessing at the INN's annual dinner for its supporters.  This dinner helps to raise money for the Interfaith Nutrition Network's Mary Brennan Soup Kitchen.  The soup kitchen feeds hundreds of people every day.  On Thanksgiving it will distribute over 5,000 turkeys to those who cannot afford the most basic ingredient of a Thanksgiving dinner.  The Inn's policy of no questions asked helps it to serve the hungry and needy on our very own Long Island.  What follows are my remarks. It is my privilege and honor to speak on this occasion in behalf of the INN, an extraordinary institution that serves Long Island's hungry and homeless. The blessing with which we begin every meal called the motzi is translated as follows: Blessed are You Lord our God Ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth. I have often wondered about this blessing. It appears false. God does not literally bring forth bread from the earth. Bread, the

Psalms 1-3

Although I often write a lot about politics and contemporary events, and have much to say about our recent American elections and plenty more to say about settlements and the peace process, today I wish only to retreat into my books.  Don't worry it won't be long before I write about Israeli politics.  For now I want to lose myself in the words of our tradition.  Sometimes I need to find rescue in verses.  Leon Wiesltier writes in the most recent edition of The New Republic : "[Books] are the edifices of the Jews.  I hold my palaces in my hands.  My cathedrals are on my shelves.  One loves books  because one loves life."  So today I am beginning a new spiritual exercise: three psalms per week.  I am borrowing the idea from my colleague, Rabbi Andy Bachman .  He is reading and writing about three psalms per day and is nearing completion of this spiritual project.  I prefer a year long project.  150 psalms in one year.  A few words from the greatest poetry collection ev


I own three watches, all given for special occasions, and all no longer working.  This week they stopped keeping time.  The first watch was given to me by my parents when I graduated from college.  The second a gift from Susie to mark our tenth anniversary and the third from my in-laws when Susie and I announced our engagement. “And Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’  Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and the gateway to heaven.’” (Genesis 28:16-17)  This week’s Torah portion opens with Jacob running from his brother Esau.  Esau is plotting to kill his only brother after Jacob steals the birthright and blessing.  On this journey Jacob finds a place to sleep.  He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down.  He awakes and proclaims that God is where he now sits and stands.  He names the place Beth El—the House of God.  From this story we l

Toldot Sermon

This week's Torah portion is Toldot.  This is what happens.  Isaac and Rebekah have twins, and name them Jacob and Esau who constantly fight with each other, even in the womb.  First Esau sells his birthright to Jacob.  Finally Jacob steals Esau’s blessing and lives up to his name, "heel." Here is that story, with my embellishments of course.  Isaac was old (100 years old) and nearly blind.  He tells Esau to prepare for him a meal.  He says, “Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game.  Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.” (Genesis 27) Rebekah was listening to the conversation and so she told Jacob about it.  She instructed Jacob to take from the flock and she would then prepare his father’s favorite dish.  Jacob expresses some reservation, saying, "Dad is going to know.  I am smooth skinned and he is hairy."  Rebekah responds,

Global Day of Jewish Learning

Today is Rosh Hodesh Kislev, the first of the Hebrew month.  Kislev of course is the month in which Hanukkah occurs.  Hanukkah comes from the words to dedicate and educate.  Today also marks the monumental achievement of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who completed his 45 year project of translating the Talmud's Aramaic idioms, stories and legal debates into modern Hebrew and English.  For many his edition was our first introduction to the wonders of Talmud and rabbinic literature.  25 years ago it was the Steinsaltz Talmud that sat between my hevruta partner and me as we debated the laws of Sukkot and Brachot.  In honor of his achievement, I share here a favorite story from the Talmud, from Baba Metzia 59b.  My commentary and explanations are interspersed in italics. R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of Aknai. The rabbis disagreed.  What is wonderful about the Talmud is that it is less concerned with the final decisions than with the

AJWS Message

Here is an unusual pitch for one of my favorite charities, American Jewish World Service.  AJWS is about reaching out to the world at large in order to heal the world and repair its brokenness.  It does so from a Jewish place and with a Jewish heart.  It for example reached out to Haiti after its devastating earthquake and responded to the Indian Ocean tsunami.  The AJWS continues to spearhead the campaign to end the genocide in Darfur.  When reaching out to the world I choose the American Jewish World Service.


The cliche “seeing is believing” is an apt description for a prominent refrain in the Abraham narratives.  In Genesis 21, for example, we read of Ishmael who when dying from hunger and thirst is miraculously saved by the appearance of a well.  “Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.”  Then again perhaps the well was there all along.  In Genesis 22 we read, “When Abraham lifted up his eyes he saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns.  So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.”  Did God make the ram appear out of thin air or was it there all along and Abraham failed to see it?  Most people read the Bible and think that miracles are akin to magic.  God magically provides a well and a ram.  (Take an Exodus example as well: God makes a bush burn without being consumed.)  In my estimation however miracles are about the lifting up of the eyes.  The ram was always there.  Abraham only needed turn away from his son, bou

An Israeli on the Road

An Israeli on the Road - Hadassah Magazine Here is one more article from the most recent Hadassah Magazine.  It is a story about a not so typical post Israeli army trip.  Roei Jinji Sadan is nearing completion of his 80,000 mile around the world bicycle trip!  In his travels he has become an unofficial ambassador of Israeli good will.  Sadan says, “I just bring myself, Emunah [meaning faith and the name of his bicycle as well] and my story, it’s very simple. Whether I’m talking to a tribal chief or a small farmer, I change their reaction, what they think about Israel. They’re not used to seeing Israelis.... They think we’re all walking around with M-16s.  When I come on a bicycle, a white guy with a crazy red beard, they change.”  To see more about his travels, as well as some beautiful pictures and videos visit his blog: dreamwithopeneyes .  Here is his most recent YouTube video: You don't have to know me very well to know why I love what this guy is doing!

Remembering Jewish Chaplains

Cut & Post - Hadassah Magazine For those who recall the remarkable story of the four chaplains who sacrificed their lives during World War II and that was part of our synagogue's contemporary martyrology service, read this report in the most recent edition of Hadassah Magazine.  Rachel Schwartzberg writes: Three out of the four chaplains who heroically gave up their life vests and went down with the United States Army transport ship Dorchester in 1943 are memorialized in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. One is missing: Rabbi Alexander Goode. This October, that oversight will be corrected with the dedication of the Jewish Chaplains Memorial on the cemetery’s Chaplains Hill. The monument will honor 13 Jewish chaplains who died during their service in the Armed Forces, from World War II through the Vietnam War.  “I discovered there were memorials on Chaplains Hill to Protestant chaplains and Catholic chaplains, and I said ‘What about the Jewish ones?’ There wa

Chayei Sarah Sermon

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of both Sarah’s and Abraham’s deaths. In particular it tells the tale of the purchase of the burial cave in Hebron, Maarat Ha-Machpelah, where all of the matriarchs and patriarchs are buried with the exception of Rachel who is buried in Bethlehem.  It is where Abraham buries Sarah and where Isaac and Ishmael stand together to bury their father, Abraham. In between the deaths and burials of Abraham and Sarah is the story of finding a wife for Isaac.  It is an interesting and detailed story.  Here is that story in more detail and of course, with my spin and interpretations. Abraham tells Eliezer to go back to his homeland to find wife a wife for his son, Isaac.  The journey from Canaan to Aram-Naharaim was not a short one.  It was the distance between the modern State of Israel and the present border region between Turkey and Iraq. Eliezer arrives there in the evening and goes to the town’s well.  It is there that the women go to gather water