Tuesday, November 30, 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 disrespectful of Judaism and of the generations of Jews who have consistently venerated these sites; one from the time of Genesis and the second from before the Christian era to the present. Accordingly, we call upon UNESCO, the Palestinian Authority and upon all people and all nations of good will to cease referring to Rachel's tomb as a mosque or the Western Wall as anything other than a treasure of the Jewish people."

In order for peace to be achieved we must affirm each others' claim to the land.  Rabbi Irwin Kula rightly noted: "People who want to erase each other inflame each other. This just hardens everyone at a time when we need to soften."  You can read more about this issue in last week's Jewish Week.

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 zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”  And he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the city. (I Maccabees 2)  Thus begins the three year war which culminates in the Jewish fighters reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the ancient Temple. 

Our history is filled with many battles, wars and struggles.  To my mind they are far too numerous.  My rabbinic forebears felt so as well and thus recast Hanukkah into the holiday that we know today.  They made the day not so much about a military victory but instead about a divine miracle.  We light the menorah not to commemorate the Maccabees’ bravery, military cunning and ultimate victory but the miracle of oil lasting for eight days.  In the rabbinic imagination the soldier must be stilled and war silenced.  Only God’s power remains manifest.  Authoring their books in the years following Jerusalem’s destruction and subsequent failed rebellions (in particular Bar Kochba’s in 135 C.E.) they saw only danger in celebrating the feats of soldiers.  They foisted all their hopes on God and scant few on their own might and power.

Our world is of course not like the early rabbis and not as well like the Maccabees.  Here in the United States we are blessed with a vibrant diaspora community.  6,000 miles away there exists the seemingly unprecedented, a sovereign Jewish state.  Never before have we beheld such blessings in the same day and age. 

When Shimon Peres asked the soldiers returning from Entebbe how Yoni Netanyahu was killed, the answer came immediately: “He went first; he fell first.”  Whether we rely on God’s miracles or our own strength we must always have such faith to go first.  Yoni Netanyahu is perhaps the modern embodiment of Hanukkah’s ancient message.  Netanyahu like the rabbis reveals in his letters that he was disheartened by war.   But Yoni Netanyahu was also like Mattathias because he was zealous and unafraid. 

As we light our menorahs and celebrate Hanukkah we thank God for daily miracles.  But we must also remember we dare not wait for them. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hanukkah YouTube Message

Below is this year's YouTube Hanukkah message. Enjoy! Hanukkah samayach! Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, November 26, 2010

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 is what most countries in the Middle East are – theocracies and autocracies. But Israel is the sole, the only, the rogue, democracy. Out of all the countries in the Middle East, only in Israel do anti-government protests and reporting go unquashed and uncensored.
Perhaps it is better to be a pariah and live by cherished principles than to covet the world's accolades.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

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.  How can this be so?  The psalmist takes up this familiar refrain, a refrain that accompanies us throughout the centuries.  Dangerous animals, here lions, threaten to tear me apart.  At times I feel beset by wild animals.  Where then is the God of justice?
Does God know our innermost thoughts?  Theologians have debated this for years.  Perhaps that is where justice is meted out.  Justice and righteousness live within.
May evil put an end to the wicked;/ and make the righteous stay unshaken./ He who searches hearts and conscience,/ God is righteous.

8. Then there are some psalms that really speak my language.
When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,/ the moon and the stars that You set in place,/ what is man that You have been mindful of him,/ mortal man that You have taken note of him,/ that You have made him little less than divine,/ and adorned him with glory and majesty...
Last night Ari and I looked up at the sky as we were getting in the car.  "Look at the moon.  Look at the stars.  How beautiful is the night sky!"  On a cool Fall evening the moon and stars are painted in stark relief against the crisp black sky.  There are times when nature appears only beautiful and awe inspiring.  There are moments when it takes your breath away.  This is what the psalmist declares.
Judaism believes that human beings occupy a middle ground between animals and angels.  We have some animal-like needs and desires, for example eating and sex and have some divine qualities, like love and compassion.  It is of course a constant back and forth between these tendencies.  It is not that Judaism believes that the animal is negative or even sinful. Instead it teaches that these tendencies must be framed and made holy.  We sanctify the ordinary and make it extraordinary. So eating becomes a festive occasion (a good for this Thanksgiving day) and sex becomes holy within marriage.  That is the essential teaching to which the psalmist alludes.  We are a little less than divine.  We are constantly reaching upward.  That, at least, is the goal of a spiritual life. 

9. I will praise You, Lord, with all my heart;/ I will tell all Your wonders./ I will rejoice and exult in You,/ singing a hymn to Your name, O Most High.
Again singing of God's wonders creates a thankful soul.  Our prayers have a mantra-like quality.  If I repeat these words over and over again, saying for example the words of Maariv Aravim or Yotzer Or I might then see that the world is a result of God's handiwork.  I might see the moon and the stars rather than the darkness. I might see the wonders of creation as opposed to the world's far too many injustices. 
Sing a hymn to the Lord, who reigns in Zion;/ declare His deeds among the peoples.
We sing best when we are in our own home, the Zion and Jerusalem, in the land of Israel.  This too is the Jewish contention.  There are competing tendencies within the modern Zionist movement.  On the one hand we believe that we can write our own history.  We are no longer dependent on the will or mood of rulers.  History is in our own, Jewish hands.  On the other hand we crave the world's approval.  One of Zionism's goals is to raise the status of the Jew in the eyes of the world.  Israel's Declaration of Independence reads: "...and confer upon the Jewish people the status of fully privileged member of the community of nations..."  World opinion does matter to Israelis.  Part of Israel's goal and desire is to "declare His deeds among the peoples."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

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 Palestinians. I was a bit flabbergasted by his response.  I of course asked, "What do you mean by settlements?  Jerusalem?  Do you mean hundreds of thousands of people?"  I prepared my facts and figures in my head to continue the debate, but he appeared not to want to argue (and instead enjoy our sons' soccer game) and so he said, "I don't know.  But peace between Israel and the Palestinians will really help."  And then I realized that for years I have been living in Moskowitz University.  And in there I am always right.

I worry that we are caught in an endless feedback loop of self righteousness and indignation.  I can spend hours reading articles and watching videos that only reinforce my convictions, beliefs and long held positions.  I wonder.  Is it possible that even if history and truth are on our side we may not be right?  Maybe there is some truth in what my friend said.  Maybe withdrawing from some settlements will ease tensions.  I very much doubt it. I remain deeply skeptical.  I don't trust Palestinian intentions.  Israel uprooted its settlements from Gaza but still lacks peace on that Southern border.  Then again it vacated settlements from the Sinai and along that border has enjoyed decades of peace and quiet.  That peace is certainly not perfect but it has held for these many years.  (To those who might want to take up these arguments, please know that I am very much aware of the issues and their many details, but my intention in this post is quite different.)  We must recognize that as much as I doubt Palestinian intentions they doubt Israeli intentions.  Each of us can scream at the other from our distant mountain tops.  Or we can meet.  Let there be no preconditions for one party to come to the table and no bribes to cajole the other to the meeting.  There are many things that must be debated.  Let the Palestinians and Israelis come together and discuss their differences and debate peace agreements and cease fires.  I can shout my truth from the mountain top, and now thanks to the internet many people can play it over and over again and sit in front of their computers and nod in agreement, but for the entire world to truly listen and hear we must shout it together.  The side to which I belong can produce videos, letters to the editors, briefs, articles and counter stories.  They can do the same.  In the end convincing me of the truths that I already hold will not advance peace.  That can only be furthered by waring parties coming together and negotiating and compromising.   

My friend only wants the wars to end.  He wants to again be able to travel the world freely.  How can I not share that dream?


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.  Ponder this: bad parenting helps to write Jewish history.  It is this very fact which propels our people into slavery and creates the opportunity for God to save us.  So perhaps we should take heart when regretting a parenting mistake.  We could be unintentionally writing future history!

Before selling Joseph into slavery the brothers throw him into a pit.  They then sit down for a meal.  Perhaps they sit and contemplate their next move.  Some want to kill him.  Others favor selling him into slavery.  The text is devastating in its word order and phrasing.  “The pit was empty; it was without water.  And they sat down to eat bread.” (Genesis 37:24-25)  There was not even a drop of water in the pit, yet the brothers sit down to eat.  We do not know what the brothers said to each other.  We have no record of Joseph’s cries.  Imagine this.  Joseph screams from the darkened pit, “Brothers!  What are you doing to me?  Judah!  Reuben!  Help me.”  How did the brothers respond?  Did they laugh?  Did they eat in silence?  Do they sit at a distance from the pit?  Were they deaf to the pleas of their brother?

Driving along Northern Boulevard to our synagogue’s office in Jericho from my home in Huntington I can remain blissfully unaware that hunger and poverty exist on Long Island or in our great country.  Yet it is a sad and startling fact, even in my beautiful neighborhood.  The Interfaith Nutrition Network’s 19 soup kitchens serve 5,500 meals per week and as I learned when visiting there distribute 5,000 turkeys for needy families’ Thanksgiving meals.  Imagine this!  These numbers only represent those who are willing to cry for help.

There are days in which I fear that I have become Joseph’s brothers, sitting on the side enjoying my meal while others cry out in hunger.  And so on this Thanksgiving I pray. May God give me the strength to open my eyes and ears to the cries of the hungry and poor.  May I gain the resolve to forgive any differences and reach down and lift a brother from the pit.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

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-It.  It is in this relationship that we approach others with the question of what is in it for me?  This is normal and natural.  Everyday life is about I-It.  In the I-Thou however the two sides are mutual and fully present for the other.  We do not lose ourselves in the other as in a mystical union.  We exist for a brief moment in perfect symmetry.  It is such moments that are transcendent.

For me that moment of reading this book was the moment that I reclaimed my Jewish tradition.  Here was an idea of God that I could embrace.  It was not about miracles and otherworldly occurrences but instead about the here and now.  It was a God that existed between people and one that I could claim as my own.

That was the moment as well that my questioning and wrestling returned to the Jewish fold and I stopped reading as much Zen and Eastern philosophy.  It was then that I realized I could be forever changing my ideas about God.  It was not right belief that defined me as a Jew.  It was instead striving for right action that defined my Jewish life. 

This questioning is the essence of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.  In it we see Jacob wrestle with beings described as both human and divine.  It is unclear who and what these beings are.  It is clear that Jacob struggles and wrestles with this being.  It is clear that he forever limps because of this encounter.  And most importantly it is clear that he earns a new name, Yisrael.  He is called Israel, meaning to wrestle with God.  From this we learn our identity: to struggle with God.

Since college I have explored Kaplan, Soloveitchik, Maimonides, Fackenheim, Hartman and others.  It was Mordecai Kaplan who argued that the essential Jewish notion was the idea of peoplehood.  It wasn’t that God commanded us but that the commandments emerged from the voice of the people.  We pray to solidify our bonds to the Jewish people more than we reach toward heaven beseeching the Almighty.  God does not tell us what to do. We in community command ourselves.

Most recently I find myself pulled to Abraham Joshua Heschel. He gives the greatest voice to the meaning and power of Jewish ritual.  Start with his masterpiece, The Sabbath.  It would also be his voice to whom I would turn when asking this week’s question of why do bad things happen to good people.  He would boom in the face of questions about the Holocaust that such events are not an indictment of God but of human beings.  He writes of the mountain of history being held above our heads and demands, “God is waiting for us to redeem the world.  We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion.” (“The Meaning of This Hour”)  It might not be answer to our question but it is most certainly a response.

In speaking of other faiths and our own, Heschel writes most profoundly.  He writes: “Human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather and endless pilgrimage, a being on the way.  We have no answers to all problems.  Even some of our sacred answers are both emphatic and qualified, final and tentative; final within our own position in history, tentative because we can speak only in the tentative language of man.  Heresy is often a roundabout expression of faith, and sojourning in the wilderness is a preparation for entering the Promised Land.” (“No Religion is an Island”)

In the end the point of all this philosophy is not to tell you what you are supposed to believe.  I am not one who subscribes to the idea that the people ask questions and the rabbi answers.  All have questions.  All struggle.  All wrestle. 

Today’s world would be better off if less shouted answers and more screamed questions.  We live in a world where everyone is an expert, everyone is a pundit and no one is a student, no one is a reader.  The first book does not answer all questions.  It is the beginning of a lifetime of answers and many more questions.

It is this questioning and wrestling that makes us Jewish.  Let’s have more questions.  And less answers.  Questions are the foundations of a Jewish life.  These are the notions that lend legitimacy to the name Yisrael, Israel, the God wrestler.

And it is these never ending questions and the diversity of responses we accumulate through a lifetime of reading and learning and asking that I choose to think about as we approach our holiday of Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


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 have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)  He wrenches Jacob’s hip causing him to limp.  (By the way this is why filet mignon is not kosher.  According to tradition this cut is not eaten in remembrance of Jacob’s pain.)

Jacob’s new name becomes the name of the Jewish people.  Yisrael means to wrestle with God.  What a remarkable statement about our people and our tradition!  We can wrestle with God. We can question God.  In fact we should question God.  While most people understand that questioning is part and parcel to being Jewish, few appreciate that such questioning extends towards heaven.  The rabbis called this notion, chutzpah klappei shamayim, chutzpah towards heaven.  It is a beautiful and telling concept.

Long ago the rabbis codified action over belief, the duties of the hands over the feelings of the heart.  We have books and books detailing exactly which cuts of beef are fit and unfit, when and when not to recite the Shema, even how much we should give to tzedakah.  We do not have such books telling us exactly what we must believe.  We have many discussions and debates about these questions, but no creeds.  We have codes of action not creeds of belief.

It is this embrace of many different theologies that makes Judaism so extraordinary.  I don’t have to have it all figured out.  I can still question.  I can still wonder.  I can still ask: Why does God not heal every person who is sick and infirm?  Why is there pain and suffering in God’s world?  And so as you look towards heaven, what are your questions of God?

Questions are part of what makes us whole.  We too cannot be called whole until we wrestle with God.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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 you think my heart is always filled with rejoicing?  No, it requires great effort and much work. 
But curiously the psalmist answers not with my above answer but instead with the words,
...At the time when their grain and wine show increase.
My joy is not dependent on my singing but on my success.  When I have plenty of food and wine I can rejoice.  Only when our portfolios are secure do we feel joy in our hearts.  Even then the economy was apparently tied to our mood!  Is this how it should be?  Indeed, is it possible to sing and rejoice when hungry?  Did you know that the INN distributed 5,000 turkeys to Long Island's hungry and homeless last year?  Here is one more reason why I love the Blues.  It is singing, and most importantly happiness and joy, that emerges from sadness.
In abundant peace I lay down and sleep.  In You alone O Lord I trust and rest secure.
Regardless of the back and forth of life and its challenges, every night I rest secure.  Every night I am blessed with peaceful sleep.  I rest assured in God's protective care.  Is this a statement of faith or a prayer?

5.  Hear my voice, O Lord, in the morning; at daybreak I set my prayers before You, and wait.
How should we read this verse?  As soon as the day begins I cry out to God.  As soon as the day begins the struggle continues.  Or perhaps as soon as the day begins I must thank and praise God.  The tradition reads it according to this latter interpretation.  As soon as I awake I begin saying my prayers and reciting words of thanks.  In fact one of the central morning prayers, Mah Tovu, includes a verse from this psalm:
Through Your abundant love, I enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy Temple.
The psalmist returns to a familiar theme.  The evil doers will not have rest and security.  God only loves righteousness.  God's path is the road of doing good.
...let them fall by their own devices... let all who take refuge in You rejoice.

6. The psalmist continues the questioning and the praying.  I want to rest secure.  Please God, I pray, may my doing good and shunning evil grant me rest and security.  Yet there are days when I wonder.  There are days when I doubt.  You promised security, yet I am beset by wrong doers.  They appear to succeed while I struggle and fail.  I try to do good, yet I am mired in depression.  I look around me and see others succeed while I stumble and fall.  I try to follow the path, but I see loved ones broken and in pain.  Is this the promise and its reward?  Such is the sentiment of this psalm.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I languish; heal me, O Lord, for my bones shake with terror.  My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, Lord--O, how long!  O Lord, turn!  Rescue me!

I am weary with groaning, every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears.
Or perhaps this verse should be rendered:
I am weary in my sighing.  I make my bed swim every night.  With my tears I water my couch.
We move back and forth between singing and crying.

Monday, November 15, 2010

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 actions.  They argue that she is protecting her dad from idolatry.  I am however sympathetic towards her for different reasons.  She is married to a dreamer.  Life with Jacob must be unsettling.

Jacob lives in the present.  Rachel wants to hold on to the past.  My question for this Shabbat is: how do we live in the present while holding on to the past?

As many of you know I am the father of teenagers.  Part of the definition of a teenager is one who lives in the present.  Try telling them that they are mistaken or that you have experienced some of the same things that they are facing.  They see themselves as the first to experience whatever it is they are experiencing or doing.  They are informed only by the present, and often ignore the past.  This is part of the reason why it is so hard to talk to them about customs and traditions.

By contrast this week we are marking Kristallnacht and Veterans Day, important days that mark the tragedies and sacrifices of the past.  But I worry that we are sometimes n danger of constantly looking back.  Only remembering the past might make us see past evils and problems everywhere.  We will see all of yesterday’s problems as today’s.  But if we don’t remember we will of course, as the saying goes, repeat the same mistakes.  We will repeat the mistakes of history.  Antisemitism is sadly with us again, and we must retell these stories of 1938 and beyond.

This week I visited the Holocaust Museum in Glen Cove, a wonderful museum.  All should go there for a visit.  Again I worry, why is it easier to raise money for museums than schools?  Why do we build more museums than schools?

How do we move forward while remembering the past?  The past can of course overwhelm the present and hold the future captive.  The present with no connections to the past and history becomes directionless.  You will then wander forever.

The only answer is to take some of Rachel and some of Jacob.  Rachel stole the idols because it was comforting and reassuring.  But if Jacob had held on to these idols, if he had stayed in his father’s house, he never would have moved forward.  He never would have run, and he never would have dreamed.

Jacob would never have awakened and said, “God was in this place and I did not know it!”  I sympathize with Rachel.  But I understand that Jacob’s impulse is the one that will better guarantee the future.  It is this impulse that will carry us forward.  It is our teenagers and our youth, despite all their attitude and discomfort with history, who will guarantee the future.  They are the ones who have better internalized the spirit of Jacob.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

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 staple of life and sustenance, the symbol of a meal, does not grow on trees. So why does my Jewish tradition mandate this wording for my blessing? Why is the blessing for meals so different from all the other food blessings? The blessings for fruits and vegetables read differently. We thank You God for the fruit of the tree or the fruit of the earth or the fruit of the vine. These blessings by contrast remind us of where our food grows.

Why then does the most important food blessing tell us something that it is untrue? It can only be because the baking of bread requires so much work and effort. Standing here on this day we especially know that bread does not magically appear on plates. There are far too many in this great land who go without bread and for whom this blessing does not so effortlessly roll off their tongues. We have come here together on this day just a little more than a week from the holiday of Thanksgiving to make sure that many more can say this blessing and that many more can see bread emerge from the earth.

I belong to a tradition that demands this blessing before my meals. I also belong to a tradition that reminds me that the world is purposely incomplete and that I must devote myself to repairing its brokenness.

And I do so by bringing food to those who are hungry. I do so by reciting blessings and prayers. On this day I say my blessings not only to give thanks to God but also as a reminder that there is much more work to do in repairing this world. There is a great deal more bread to bake and meals to prepare. It is not enough to give thanks. I must also use my hands to bring forth bread from the earth. And so I say, Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz. Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universie who brings forth bread from the earth. And together we say, Amen.

Friday, November 12, 2010

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 ever compiled and of course a few accompanying words of my own.

1. Happy is the man who does not walk in the path of wicked.
"As long as you are happy" is not the mantra of the psalmist.  Happiness and joy are tied to righteousness.  Sometimes you get to do what you want.  Sometimes you don't.  But you will only be happy if you do what is right.  Righteousness is later compared to a tree that is planted by a stream of water.  Nourishment is received from doing what is right and by avoiding doing what is wrong.  One of the most striking sights to behold in the desert wilderness is a lone tree flourishing in a dry wadi.  The water is unseen but sustains this solitary tree.  So too those who follow the path of righteousness. 

2. Why are the nations aroused, and the peoples murmur vain things?
Even in biblical times we cried out to God against the nations of the world, against those who oppress us.  They might rule over us.  They might determine our borders and boundaries.  Still their words are murmurings.  (And I thought I would escape from politics with these poems.)  Even then the cry was similar to today's.  They keep murmuring.  I will keep rejoicing.
Worship the Lord in fear, and rejoice in trembling.
Yirah is often translated by modern interpreters as awe.  What is the difference between fear and awe?  How do I tremble when I sing?  In our own day and age we see fear as negative.  Yet the psalmist saw it as positive.  In the psalmist's view, to fully rejoice one must tremble.  Whether we tremble with fear or in awe does not matter.  Trembling, using one's entire body, is the only proper way to pray to God.

3. I cry aloud to the Lord, and He answers me from His holy mountain.  Selah.  I lie down and sleep and wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
Like many other biblical figures, King David is again on the run.  This time from Avshalom.  He cries out to God.  Does God respond?  One might think that God sits on a mountain top, aloof and unaware of our daily concerns.  Yet my cries reach even there and God sustains me day in and day out.  For God's sustenance is as natural and regular as sleeping and waking. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010


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 learn that Jacob lives in the present.  It this affirmation and sanctification of the present that allows him to move our biblical story forward.  His wife Rachel however holds on to the past.  Also in this week’s portion we read of Rachel clinging to the past when we see Jacob and his family parting company with his father in law.  Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel moves forward with great difficulty.  “Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols.  Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark (literally, Jacob stole the heart of Laban), not telling him that he was fleeing.”  (Genesis 31:19-20) 

Our sages understand Rachel’s act of stealing her father’s idols as an act of piety.  They understand her theft as an attempt to keep their father far from the sin of idolatry.  I however understand her theft as a way of holding on to the past and to her father’s house.  She is married to a man who is constantly on the run.  He flees from his brother.  He runs from her father.  He dreams of God.  He holds lofty visions in his heart.  Her life with Jacob is unsettling.  Such is the life of one of our Torah’s greatest heroes, and of course the life of the woman he loves.  Jacob's wife Rachel wishes to hold on to her childhood and her past.

Her desire is understandable.  Jacob however refuses to be bound to the past.  He bows to the God of Abraham and Isaac but his relationship with God is his own.  He lives in the present, sometimes perhaps brazenly and other times even rashly, but once he journeys forward he only looks ahead and never behind. 

In a week when we mark both Veterans Day and Kristallnacht my question is: how do we live in the present while holding on to the past?  How do we give homage to the past without it weighing down the present?  How do we mark the past as sacred without allowing it to become an idol?  Can we live fully in the present while still remembering the past? 
It is our answers to these questions that help us construct our religious faith.  Each of us must ask day in and day out, am I more like Rachel or Jacob? 

And the watches, they are all working again.  It was only a matter of the batteries.

Monday, November 8, 2010

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, "Don’t worry. I will take care of Dad; your curse will be on me."

She prepares the meal and then dresses Jacob up like Esau.  I have this image of Rebekah pushing Jacob into the room to stand before Isaac.  Jacob says, "Avi—Father."  Isaac responds, "Which of my sons are you?"  Jacob replies, "I am Esau your firstborn…"  Isaac then says, "Come closer that I may feel you…  The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau…  So he blessed him."   Isaac again asks, "Are you really my son Esau?"  Jacob responds, "Ani—I am."  Isaac then says, "Ok, let me eat some of the food you prepared."  Then he blesses him.

Jacob leaves stage right.  Esau immediately enters stage left.  He prepares the game he killed and brings it to his father.  Isaac asks, "Who are you?"   Esau responds, "I am Esau your first born."  Isaac was then seized with violent trembling and asks, "Who was it then who came before and stole the blessing?  I blessed him so he must remain blessed!"

Esau bursts into wild and bitter sobbing, screaming, "Bless me too father!"  Isaac then reveals that it must have been Jacob and that in his blessing he made Jacob master over Esau.  Esau continues to beg for a blessing.  The hunter is reduced to tears.  Isaac finally  relents and offers him a blessing.  Esau then plots to kill his brother Jacob.  I imagine Esau picking himself up from the ground.  We now see vengeance appear in his eyes.  So Rebekah sends Jacob away to escape the fury of Esau.

That is the story with a bit of my spin.  Now here is my interpretation.  There is evidence that Isaac knows what is going on and chooses not to see.  How would he not know the difference between his sons?  How would he not know the cooking of his wife of 60 years?  How would he not know the difference between wild, hunted game and animals from the flock?  Why does he not call his wife in to tell him which son it is?

It is because Isaac knows the truth.  He knows the truth but can’t say it out loud.  This is the real story of Isaac's life.  He knew the truth as well when his father nearly sacrificed him.  He saw these things but chose not to see them.  In the rabbis estimation, Isaac is emotionally blind.

This story and Isaac's life teach us an important truth.  History is sometimes made by averting our eyes.  The contrast between his father Abraham is most stark.  Abraham moves the story by seeing.  Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the ram.  It was there all along but he could not see it because of his zeal.  This is similar to Hagar and her story.  The well was there all along.  But she could not see it because of her tears.  Sometimes passion and grief obscure our seeing.  Many people think that miracles are about God working magic.  But according to Genesis they are about lifting up the eyes.  They are about opening the eyes and seeing what is already there.

The rabbis of Talmud see miracles as woven into the fabric of creation.  In other words miracles are not about a disruption of the natural course of events.  The bush burned and the sea split because those moments were set when the world was created.  They are therefore part of the world’s natural order and creation.  They are built into creation from the beginning.

So miracles are more about our seeing things than God’s magic.  Miracles are about noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Miracles are not about God’s magic but about our seeing.  Our seeing is most often obscured by passion and grief.  Hagar was so overwrought that she could not see the saving well.  The pain of watching her son die of thirst blinded her.  Abraham likewise was so blinded by zeal that he could not see that he was supposed to sacrifice the ram instead of his son.

So how do we understand Isaac’s not seeing?  If he is blinded by choice—because it is too painful to verbalize what one son is doing to another or how his wife is conspiring against him or how he is favoring one son over another—then what might be the miracle that he is unable to see?  That miracle I am sorry to say is in the sequel.  It is in next week’s portion.  That miracle is the dream of a ladder going to heaven.  This miracles occurs because Jacob is now running from Esau.  Such is the history that is created by Isaac choosing not to see.

I am left with the impression that we can’t see everything.  That some things are too painful to see clearly.  The truth must sometimes be concealed.  And that we must, as a matter of faith, veil our eyes.

In truth it is not Abraham who teaches us how to build faith.  God can ask me as many times as He wants but I am not going to sacrifice my son—or my daughter for that matter—on some mountain top.  It is Isaac who tells me how to lead a life of faith.  You can look at the world and all its pain.  You can look at our own lives and all their difficulties, and say, there is no God; there are no miracles.  Or you can see the lone ram caught in the thicket, or the well buried under the desert scrub.  You can look at nature in all its wonderful fall colors, and say, "I believe!"

Faith is a matter of averting our eyes from our daily pains.  And seeing instead the sometimes less frequent joys and blessings.  It is about seeing—and not seeing.

We say in the words of our tradition,  Baruch Ata…she-asah li nes ba-makom hazeh.  Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who performed a miracle for me in this place.

Say it often enough and you will always see wells of water, and not nearly as much pain and grief.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

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 discussion and debate.  Each page is an embodiment of machloket l'shem shamayim--arguments for the sake of heaven.

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept any of his arguments. Said he to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!" Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others say, four hundred cubits. "No proof can be brought from a carob-tree," they retorted. Again he said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!" Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. "No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it." Whereupon the walls inclined to fall.
After losing the debate by means of rational arguments, Rabbi Eliezer resorts to performing miracles in order to convince his colleagues of the veracity of his opinion.

But R. Joshua rebuked the walls saying: "When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what right have you to interfere?" Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume their upright position, in honor of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.
Rabbi Joshua uses a rational argument against the miracle.  And the walls apparently respond to reason!

Again R. Eliezer said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: "Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him?" But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven."  What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: "That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, 'After the majority must one incline.'"
Apparently Rabbi Eliezer wins halachic disputes more often than not.  Despite this, proof cannot be offered from heaven or by miracles.  Halachic rulings follow the majority.  If most rabbis rule that it is unclean it does not matter that Rabbi Eliezer is wiser or even that miracles and a heavenly voice side with him.  Once the Torah was given it rests in the hands of human beings.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, "My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me."
God is pleased that His creatures used their intellect and the Torah given to them to make their own decisions and rulings.  God rejoices even when it means that human beings rule against Him.  On most occasions the remainder of this text is not shared.  Here is a text that supports making our own decisions.  Here is a text that supports disagreeing with God's apparent voice.  Yet the conclusion is even more powerful.

It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burned in fire. Then the Sages took a vote and excommunicated him. Said they, "Who shall go and inform him?" "I will go," answered R. Akiba, "Lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world."
Now perhaps the Rabbis go too far, but they do not wish to have someone sit in their midst who resorts to using miraculous powers rather than reason and intellect.  Why does one mistaken decision render all his other decisions unfit?  Are the Sages so angry that they dismiss all his other achievements because of this one incident?

What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from Eliezer. "Akiba," said R. Eliezer to him, "What has happened today?" Master," he replied, "It appears to me that your companions believe themselves greater than you." Thereupon Eliezer rent his garments too, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes.
Only a friend and a beloved student like Akiva can deliver the news to Eliezer.  The miracle worker has lost his community.  He is alone.  Miracles cannot provide companionship and friendship.  A Jew is lost without the community.

The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop were destroyed. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up.
Arguments and debates can upset the natural order of the world.  Disputes must be resolved by majority rulings.  Yet when communities are torn apart the world falls out of balance.  Beware of casting others aside, even when their arguments and their means of debate are unsettling.

When we complete the studying of a tractate of Talmud we hold a siyyum, a festive celebration.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz remarked on its meaning and significance.

This is why whoever finishes studying a tractate promises to repeat it again and again, regardless of whether he knows it forward and backward or whether he does not really remember it all that well.

However, in the siyyum text we do not only say hadran alakh (“we shall return to you”), but also hadrakh alan, “you [the tractate or book] shall return to us.” This means that if one does not do the real work, if one does not learn it again and yet again, then all the material he has learned will come back to him; namely, he will inevitably find himself engaged in a multitude of problems and questions relating to the very book that he had closed and put away.

Thus, every finishing point of whatever part of the Torah is only a “recess.” After a certain point, one must once again start studying everything from the very beginning.

I return again and again to the same texts...

Friday, November 5, 2010

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.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


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, bound on the sacrificial altar, and loosen his grip on the knife.  The well was there as well.  Hagar only needed to wipe the tears from her face to see what was already there. Sometimes zealousness and grief prevent us from seeing what stands before us.

This refrain is what makes this week’s Torah portion and its story all the more remarkable.  In this Parashat Toldot, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac and steals the blessing intended for his brother Esau.  The story begins: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27)   Jacob prepares a meal for his father and dresses like his brother Esau as his mother directs him and says to Isaac, “I am Esau, your first born: I have done as you told me.  Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.”  The Torah continues, “So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’  Isaac did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him.”

Whereas the stories about Abraham are about opening eyes, those about Isaac are about closing the eyes.  Earlier Isaac asks his father Abraham, “’Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?  And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the sheep for His offering, my son.’  And the two of them walked as one.” (Genesis 22)

The haunting question that frames our patriarch Isaac’s life is does he choose not to see?  Was he a willing participant to his own near sacrifice?  And in this week’s chapter we must ask: did he choose willful blindness? 

To have faith in our tradition is to stand in awe, literally to fear heaven.  In Hebrew the words for seeing and having such faith are very close and share the same root.  What therefore is the relationship between seeing and believing?  When is not seeing, as with our patriarch Isaac, a matter of faith and a necessity for life? 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

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!

Monday, November 1, 2010

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 was nothing for them,” said Sol Moglen, a New Jersey businessman, who, together with the Association of Jewish Chaplains of New York, raised $40,000 in private donations to build the monument.

The memorial features the emblem of the Jewish chaplains flanked by Lions of Judah and lists the chaplains’ names; its unveiling will be accompanied by the distribution of a booklet about Jewish chaplains to Jewish youth across the country.
I fail to understand why these four chaplains do not share a memorial.

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.  He offers this prayer and develops a test.  He says, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham:  Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.”

Rebekah immediately appears.  We are told she is very beautiful.  The Hebrew literally states: “She was really good to look at.”  Rebekah of course fulfills his prayer and passes his test.  By the way, think about how many jars of water it would take to satisfy a camel after such a long journey.  10 camels would apparently each drink 15 gallons!  Now that is a lot of jugs of water for Rebekah to carry back and forth from the well.

The Torah states that Eliezer stood gazing at her.  Now this could be because she was really hot, or it could also be because she was running back and forth for hours watering the camels.  This task was no easy job.  When she finally finished Eliezer offered her gifts of gold.  After showering her with gold bracelets and jewelry, he asks about her family.

Rebekah of course offered for Eliezer and his entourage to stay with her family in their home.  The servant gets even more excited when he realizes that he has stumbled upon Abraham’s kinsmen.  The family in turn gets really excited when they hear Rebekah’s story and see all the gold she is now wearing.  They offer him food.  But he refuses to eat until he tells them about his errand.  Of course the family states almost immediately that Rebekah can go with him.  (Oops, maybe we should ask Rebekah!)

Finally they ask her if she wants to go and she says, “Elech—I will go.”  After the long journey back to Canann she sees Isaac for the first time.  It is love at first sight.  The Torah says that she falls off the camel when she sees him.  Isaac was apparently quite a hunk.  They are quickly married.  And then the Torah says, Isaac loved Rebekah.  It goes on to say that because of this love he found comfort after his mother Sarah’s death.

I really like this story.  It is so rich in details.  It makes one think about the question I posed in my weekly email.  How do you measure a person?  How do you size someone up when you first meet him/her?

Given the text’s emphasis on both Isaac’s and Rebekah’s physical beauty, as well as its mention of all the gold and Abraham’s wealth, it is fascinating to see that the reason why Eliezer chose Rebekah was because of her compassion to animals and her extension of hospitality.  Eliezer, although I should add that in the text he is unnamed and called only the servant, sees the truth.  Where everyone else seems focused on looks and wealth, Eliezer sees inside the soul.  He is the unexpected and surprising hero of our Torah portion.

Eliezer sees into Rebekah’s compassionate heart.  Still today, it is too often about the outer rather than the inner.  Too often we look at the outside rather than the inside.  We talk about a person’s clothes rather than his/her soul.

The good person is the person who pays attention to the seemingly mundane and small.  It is about something as seemingly secondary as feeding animals.  It is about friendliness and extending hospitality to strangers.

It is easy to be friendly and welcoming to friends.  It is much harder to do so to those who are outside our circle.  Being helpful to those in need, especially to those we don’t know, is the true measure of a great person.

Think about these questions: Do we always tip those who work for us?  Do we always pay those who do our chores on time?  When we see someone searching for directions do we stop?  Do we step over the homeless and poor as we rush to the theatre?  Do we pretend these hungry and cold people do not exist?  Do we stop to help strangers when it is apparent they are in need?

The law does not demand all these things of us.  We could say, “I can’t fix all these problems,” and we would be excused.  But like Rebekah greatness is not measured in doing only what is required.  Greatness is measured by going above and beyond the law.

It is these extra tasks that are the evidence of a good soul.  It is to these that we must look when we are measuring others.  It is to these that we should look when measuring ourselves, and when reaching for greatness. 

May God give us the strength to remember the little details that make for greatness and compassion.  May God help us to live by Rebekah’s example.