Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vayigash

The known remaining son of Jacob and Rachel, Benjamin, is now threatened with imprisonment by Joseph who is second only to Egypt’s Pharaoh.  Benjamin has of course been framed by Joseph and is accused of stealing from the palace.  Judah approaches Joseph to plead for Benjamin’s life.  He cries, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.  For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

Joseph is again unable to control his emotions.  He instructs his servants to leave him alone with his brothers.  He begins sobbing so loudly that even those standing outside of the room could hear his cries.  He declares, “I am Joseph!  Is my father still well?”  His brothers are dumfounded.  Joseph draws near and says, “’I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.  Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you….’  With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.  He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”  (Genesis 45:1-14)

Joseph then sent for his aged father Jacob.  Pharaoh gives them horses and carts to transport the family to Egypt and the entire family makes a home in Egypt.  Pharaoh assigns to them a portion of territory.  Thus did the children of Israel come to live in Egypt.  For generations Jacob’s descendants live comfortably among the Egyptians.

I wonder what made Joseph change course.  Why did he finally break down and cry?  Why did he now reveal himself to his brothers?  Was he as the rabbis suggest testing his brothers to see if they had changed?  Was he therefore waiting for Judah to stand up and protect his younger brother Benjamin?  The measure of true repentance is of course to be faced with the exact same temptation but to choose another course.  Here Judah chooses, rather than as he did before to throw his brother in a pit, to defend him and offer himself in his stead.  Others suggest that it was Judah’s repetition of the pain that would be caused to Jacob that finally found its way into Joseph’s heart.  In fact Judah repeats this mantra about Jacob 14 times in his plea to Joseph. 

Was Joseph seeking revenge for the years of pain and tribulation his brothers caused him?  Is this why he developed this elaborate plot to frame Benjamin and punish his brothers.  Perhaps his machinations started out that way, but in the opening of this portion they clearly change course.  The opening word of the portion offers a clue as to what might have caused this change of heart.  Vayigash means to draw near.  It is a refrain that is repeated throughout this exchange.  Judah draws near.  Joseph in turn draws close.  It is the same root that the Torah uses when detailing how to make war against a city.  When you draw near to attack a city…  Judah was prepared to fight for his brother Benjamin.  Joseph saw this in his eyes.  Then again standing so close to each other, staring into each other’s eyes, Egyptian and Jew are not seen but instead brothers.  And Joseph cried, “I am your brother Joseph!”  Perhaps this is what we should always see when looking into the eyes of another person.

A midrash suggests the following:  “’Like deep water is counsel in the heart of man, but a man of understanding will draw it out.’  (Proverbs 20:5)  The image is of a deep well, whose waters are cold and clear, but no one is able to reach it to drink from it.  Then a person comes and ties rope to rope, and cord to cord, and string to string, and draws forth the water and drinks from it, and then everyone comes and draws forth and drinks.  Thus did Judah refuse to budge and continued to press Joseph, answering him word for word, until he stood right at Joseph’s heart.”  In this way brothers were reunited, each forgiving the other, each embracing the other.

In this way must we remind each other that we all are brothers.  It is only a matter of drawing near.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Miketz

Two years have passed since the chief cupbearer was freed from jail.  Joseph however still remains in captivity.  Pharaoh is now plagued by disturbing dreams.  No one is able to interpret them, or perhaps dare to disclose their meaning.  It is then that the cupbearer remembers Joseph and his remarkable abilities.

He is brought before Pharaoh and immediately interprets the meaning of these dreams.  Joseph foretells that Egypt will be blessed with seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  The country must prepare for the famine by saving during the first seven years.  Pharaoh charges Joseph with this task and gives him the top administrative job in all of Egypt.

After these seven years of bounty, famine descends on Egypt and the whole world. Many are forced to come to Egypt, and therefore Joseph, to secure food.  Jacob sends his sons, except the youngest Benjamin, to Egypt to procure food.  They appear before Joseph who immediately recognizes them, but they do not recognize him for he dresses and acts like an Egyptian.  He speaks harshly to them and accuses them of beings spies.  He throws them in jail.  On the third day he lets them out and sends them on their way with food for their families.  One brother, Simeon, is taken and held in an Egyptian jail as ransom.  Joseph threatens them, instructing them that they must not return without Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel and Jacob.

The brothers say to each other, “’Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.  That is why this distress has come upon us.’  Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, ‘Did I not tell you, “Do no wrong to the boy?”  But you paid no heed.  Now comes the reckoning for his blood.’” (Genesis 42:21-22)  They of course did not realize that Joseph understood their words.  He turns away and weeps.

On their journey home they discover that their money has been returned to them, hidden in their bags of food.  When they return home they report everything to their father Jacob.  He refuses to send them back to Egypt with his beloved son, Benjamin.  The famine soon grows worse and Jacob is left with no choice.  Judah pledges that he will take personal responsibility for Benjamin.  They set out for Egypt with double the money and Benjamin.

When they arrive and Joseph discovers that they have brought Benjamin with them he frees Simeon.  Joseph then prepares a feast for his brothers.  They apologize for not making proper payment on their first visit.  Somehow the money was returned in their bags, they report.  Joseph reassures them that he received proper payment and suggests that God must have put the money in their bags.

He then sees Benjamin for the first time and is overcome with emotion and runs out of the room.  He arranges the brothers at the table in order from oldest to youngest.  They wonder aloud if Joseph is a magician.  They cannot imagine how he could know their birth order.  Benjamin is presented with a double portion of food.

They are sent on their way with plenty of food.  But a goblet is secretly placed in Benjamin’s bag.  Joseph instructs his servants to go after his brothers and accuse them of stealing.  When they overtake them, it is soon discovered that Benjamin’s bag has the missing goblet.  They are brought back to Egypt to stand before Joseph.

The story pauses until next week.

It is a remarkable tale.  Throughout the story Joseph struggles with his attachments.  On several occasions the pull of his family is too strong.  He is unable to control his emotions and retreats to weep in private.  We cry that he is not yet able to embrace his brothers.

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that throughout this story, our hero Joseph often changes clothes.  In the opening his father places the coat of many colors on him and then his brothers tear it from him.  There is as well the garment torn from him by Potiphar’s wife.  And finally in the opening of this week’s portion the following: “And he shaved himself and changed his garment…and Pharaoh dressed him in linen garments.” (Genesis 41:14, 42)

By the time his brothers come before him, Joseph looks like an Egyptian.  He is unrecognizable to them.  His clothes, and apparently his mannerisms and language, allow him to hide from them despite the fact that he stands before them.  Now it is left to him alone to tear these clothes.  But he is not yet able to tear the trappings of his Egyptian identity and reveal himself to his brothers.

I wonder, “What do our clothes say of us?”  What do they hide?  What do they reveal?  Soon Joseph will remove his mask and embrace his brothers in forgiveness.  He discovers that he will always be more a brother, and a member of the family of Israel, than an Egyptian.  His inner self becomes one with his outer identity.  I wonder as well, “Are we the same on the outside as we are on the inside?”  Like Joseph, what pain is caused by hiding out true selves from others?

I would like to believe that it is always more a matter of the acts we perform than the clothes we wear.  I would like to believe that we can always be same on the outside as we are on the inside.  I pledge never to allow my Jewish values to remain hidden.  Let them be revealed to all.

As we continue to celebrate Hanukkah we recall its message of asserting our Jewish identities in a world that is not.  We ask, “What Jewish values will we wear as our garments?"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah

There is a closely guarded secret about Hanukkah that is rarely discussed or even revealed.  It is this.  Within a generation the heroes of Hanukkah, the Maccabees, became so consumed with their successes and their apparent ability to bring about miracles that they persecuted those who disagreed with them, even other Jews.  The opening battle hints at this dark truth.  The Maccabees first killed another Jew.

"A Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer a sacrifice upon the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command.  When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred.  He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar.  At the same time he ran and killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar." (I Maccabees 2:23-25)

This is similar to our struggle today.  There are those who believe that faith means they are right and all others are wrong.  There are those who always burn with righteous anger and would kill those who disagree with them.  There are those who can only be right if all others are wrong.  And then there are those who believe that faith is meant to inspire, to call us to do better, to bring a measure of healing rather than anger to our world.  The list of those who see faith as a fire that must consume all non-believers is far too long.  Let us resolve on this Hanukkah to be among those who instead use faith to warm those around us.

Michael Fagenblat, a contemporary philosopher, comments, “Living with miracles is risky business.  After all, a candle can start a raging fire.  As much as we are asked to see the miracle of Hanukkah, we must therefore also find the right place for it in our lives.”

It is not that I don’t believe in miracles.  I certainly hope and pray for them, most especially for those who are facing life threatening illnesses.  Unlike Hanukkah’s heroes I believe miracles come to heal individuals rather than to thwart history.  The Maccabees believed that God’s hand only favored them and protected their like-minded followers.  The Rabbis of old therefore refashioned their miracle from one about a military victory into one about the oil lasting for eight days.  They recognized the danger of seeing things as the Maccabees did, of believing that only they were right and all others wrong.  The rabbis by contrast embraced a plurality of ideas and responses to historical crisis.

What does Hanukkah mean to me?  It is about being proud to be Jewish in a world that is not.  It is about having the courage to bring Jewish values to those around us.  By doing so we might very well rewrite history.

The miracles of old continue to inspire me and warm my faith.  I must however be on guard that they never become a consuming fire.  I rely on the glow of the Hanukkah miracle.

My friends and colleagues at CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) suggest the following ritual.
This Hanukkah especially, with many questions about the future of America, Israel and the Jewish people looming large for so many people, we need the vision that comes from looking at things in the light of our Hanukkah candles.  We need to see possibility where most see none, envision options while most bemoan their absence.

Here’s how: Candlelight softens hard edges, it warms and invites imagination.  People come together and often, in a moment of quiet, see the very best in themselves and each other when gathered around an open flame.

This year turn off the lights in the room and allow yourself to see by Hanukkah light, if only for a few minutes.

By the glow of the candles, think about a seemingly insurmountable challenge in your life, in the life of the Jewish people, or in the life of our nation.  Then allow yourself to imagine a response and how you might contribute to it.  That’s what the Maccabees did when they dared to make light when others deemed it impossible, and we can do the same.  That what it means to see things in Hanukkah light.
Allow the Hanukkah candles to warm your faith and those around you.  Allow these candles to inspire your beliefs and give you the courage to bring Jewish values to the world.

Chag Urim Samayach!—Happy Hanukkah!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tebowing for Hanukkah

What follows is my recent sermon about the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, delivered on Shabbat Vayeshev, December 16th.

Nes Gadol Haya Po.  A great miracle happened here.  This is what is written on dreidles in the land of Israel.  Millennia ago the small, outnumbered Jewish army led by the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks and recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem and of course rededicated it to Jewish worship.  According to the rabbis the holy oil necessary for this ceremony lasted eight days rather than the expected one.  The miracle of oil!  But the victory of the small army over the larger, better equipped and supplied, army was no less a miracle.

I have been thinking about this story as we approach Hanukkah, the holiday which begins on Tuesday evening.  I have been thinking especially about miracles.  What is that we really believe?  A lot has recently been written about this question.  In fact more questions about faith and belief have appeared in the sports sections than the paper’s other sections.  These articles are by and large about Tim Tebow, about his beliefs and his public prayers and of course the Bronco’s miraculous wins. 

I don’t know how many people watched Sunday night’s game of the Broncos vs. the Bears.  It was quite the miracle. The Broncos were down by ten, in fact 10-0, until about four minutes left in the game.  Then Tebow led his team to a touchdown.  With no time outs remaining and no way to stop the clock the Bears seemed sure to be able to run out the clock.  But then a veteran running back, Marion Barber, ran out of bounds and stopped the clock giving the Broncos time for a few plays.  The Broncos now had a little less than a minute to score.  With three seconds remaining their kicker kicked a 59 yard field goal to tie the game.  Chicago won the toss to gain first possession in overtime and again was nearly in field goal range to win the game when Marion Barber made another mistake and fumbled the ball.  Tebow led his team to field goal range and the Broncos won 13-10 in overtime.  A great miracle happened here!  By the time overtime began I gave up on my many Chicago friends and started praying along with Tebow for his Broncos to win.  After all who prays for a loss? 

Prior to Tebow’s starting as quarterback, the Broncos were 1-4.  Now with him at the held they are 7-1 and leading their division for a playoff spot.  Such appears the power of faith and the power of prayer.  But what is Tebow is really praying for?  Does he pray, “God let my team defeat our opponents and win this game.”  Such would seem an improper prayer.  Judaism would counsel us that we should only ask God for that which benefits all.  One cannot pray for one’s own success if it comes at the expense of another.   In football Tebow and his Broncos’ success comes at the expense of the other team.  Marion Barber might especially need our prayers for strength and courage far more than Tebow does.  May Marion Barber rise above his mistakes and become an even greater human being.  To be honest our prayers should never be about being a great football player, or basketball player or baseball player or any player for that matter.  Instead they should be about being a better person.  Yet it is human nature to pray for the winning side. It is certainly human nature to pray for what might be called, my side.

I remember some of the prayers I have uttered when watching the Jets.  There have been many times over the years as I watch the Jets game and especially in those final minutes find myself praying as the other team lines up for a field goal or last attempt at the end zone, “Miss it.  Miss it.  Miss it.  Please.  Please.  Please.”  Of course sometimes my prayers appear to be answered and other times not.  It occurs to me that perhaps we are the most religious when rooting for our side.   Then again, how can it be a good prayer if my success, or my team’s success, depends on someone else’s failure?

To be fair Tebow states that he is not praying for a win.   He also has repeatedly stated that football is only a game and that God does not care who wins.  His example continues to remind us that faith and prayer are meant to be inspiring and can also apparently inspire others to greatness.  For this teaching we owe him a debt of gratitude.  In a world where there are far too many examples of the abuses of religion we are grateful for his reminder that faith can inspire and help us become better. 

We should also be thankful to him for another reminder.  As we approach the holiday of Hanukkah that was all about being able to be Jewish in the public square, Tebow reminds us that it is good to pray in public.  Some might be uncomfortable with his public displays of overt devotion, of Tebowing as it is called, but Hanukkah was about the struggle to proudly declare I am Jewish.  The Hanukkah menorah is after all supposed to be displayed so that others can see it, so that the miracle is publicized.  Hanukkah is not supposed to be celebrated behind closed curtains.

Faith is meant as inspiration.  It is meant for the world to see.  For Tim Tebow’s reminder about this I commend him.  The fact that he appears to pray after his successes and others’ failures I fault him.  I am waiting for what might be his greatest example, to see his public devotion, embracing the other team in prayer, after his team suffers a stinging defeat.  Nonetheless he has taught us that faith is meant as a goad for us to do better, to improve our world, to better ourselves. 

Faith does not mean waiting around for miracles.  We must bring them about.  We must not wait for God to perform miracles.  Miracles are first and foremost in our hands.  This is what Tebow teaches us.  He is not just praying.  He takes to the field.  He appears at his best when he faces the most challenges.  In the fourth quarter when most others might give up, he becomes better and appears to bring about miracles.  Others seem to resort only to their prayers.

Like any good Jewish book our prayerbooks recounts many miracles.  These books are not meant to sit on your shelves or to be read quietly in your room.  You can’t just wait for a Mi Chamocha moment to happen to you. Don’t wait to sing this song of redemption. You are supposed to carry your prayerbooks with you.  Then whenever you need a little extra inspiration you can find it there in its pages.  If you just sit in a room and pray for God to rescue you then you will find far fewer miracles in your lives. This is also what Hanukkah reminds us.  The Maccabees led the charge.  They did not hide in caves waiting for God to fix their world.  They did not sit quietly pouring over the words of their prayers.  They made the miracle.

On Hanukkah we recite the blessing, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days.”  The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asked why we say this blessing for the Hanukkah miracles and not for the greatest miracle of all, that of Passover.  Being a rabbi he answers his own question.  He says that it is because the Hanukkah miracle was dependent on our actions.  It was not dependent on God alone.  On Passover God alone split the sea and battled the Egyptians in that defining Mi Chamocha moment.  On Hanukkah we brought the miracle; it was dependent upon our own success.  We did not wait for miracles to be done for us.  We brought them to the world.  God inspired us.  We did the work.

This is the most important lesson of Hanukkah.  We look to past events for inspiration.  But when we start to believe that miracles are happening here and now it gets dangerous.  It is dangerous because then we stop doing the hard work of getting into the game ourselves.  Then we try to let God do all of the heavy lifting for us and pretend there is no weight on our own shoulders.  God does provide much inspiration.  But the lifting has to be done by ourselves. 

In the end that is why the better dreidle is our dreidle rather than Israel’s. On our dreidles it says, “A great miracle happened there.”   It keeps the miracle at arm’s length.  It keeps miracles as sources of inspiration rather than a crutch.  It reminds us that we have to do the hard stuff ourselves.  God will inspire us.  But our hands make the miracles.

Thus, if you want miracles to happen here you only have one choice.  Take to the field yourself!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vayeshev

A theme throughout the Hebrew Bible is the seductiveness of the outside, foreign world. There are many laws forbidding what are deemed "their" idolatrous practices. The sexual depravity of foreigners is a pervasive thread throughout Jewish literature. Last week’s tragic story of the rape of Dinah is an illustration of this theme. This week we read another variant. It is found within the Joseph saga, a story that occupies the majority of the next four Torah portions.

Here is the first part of that story and especially the salacious details touching on this theme. Joseph is the favored son of Jacob. He is born to Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel and is treated like royalty by his father. He is given an ornamented tunic. Meanwhile his brothers are burdened with keeping up the family business and tending to their vast holdings of livestock. In addition Joseph is a dreamer. Despite his youth, he often dreams of how one day he will become the leader of the family. Moreover he tells his brothers of these visions. His brothers grow increasingly agitated and angered by his bravado.

One day while the brothers are pasturing the flock Joseph wanders into the fields to visit with them. They say to each other, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall then see what comes of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:18-20) In the end they decide to sell him into slavery rather than kill him. They report to their father Jacob that wild beasts killed him.

Joseph now finds himself in Egypt where he impresses Potiphar who eventually places him in charge of running his large household. Potiphar’s wife (who the Torah does not name) is attracted to Joseph and tries to seduce him. Joseph refuses her entreaties. Joseph proclaims, “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Genesis 39:9). On one such occasion she grabs him by his clothes but he manages to run away, leaving her holding his garment. The Torah also does not specify how much of his garment remains in her hands. At the very least it is an identifying piece, for she now runs to her husband, holding Joseph’s clothes in her hands, and accuses him of trying to sleep with her. Potiphar becomes enraged and throws Joseph into jail.

In jail he eventually has the opportunity to prove himself, this time by interpreting dreams. He accurately interprets the chief cupbearer and baker’s dreams. When the cupbearer is released from jail he will have the opportunity to remember Joseph’s skills. This week’s portion however concludes on a note of forgetfulness. The cupbearer, now a free man, forgets Joseph and he remains in jail. The reader is left in suspense. What will happen to Joseph? Will he be vindicated for favoring God’s laws over those of his Egyptian masters? Will he be rewarded for living by his Jewish ideals and refusing the seductions of a foreigner?

Joseph is the first diaspora Jew. He must live a Jewish life outside of his ancestral home. He must live among the temptations of Egyptian culture. Potiphar’s unnamed wife is symbolic of the foreign culture in which Joseph now lives. Will Joseph be seduced by Egypt, by the other? Can he indeed live a Jewish life in a foreign land? Joseph’s struggle is our own. The tension between living a Jewish life while being open to American culture is the same for us as it was for Joseph.

This time of year we are reminded even more keenly that we live in a predominately Christian culture. Only this morning I was again awakened by the radio station playing Christmas songs. Throughout the town of Huntington stores are decorated with red and green holiday ornaments. There are a few Hanukkah decorations, but they are trivial by comparison. It is not that I mind these cheerful Christmas songs and festive decorations. I especially like the many homes on our block decorated with Christmas lights. These help to banish the darkness of December’s early sunsets. Yet these lights and decorations come at a cost. They remind me that this country is not entirely my own. No presidential Hanukkah dinner or the kashering of the White House kitchen can change this fact. And so like Joseph I have learned to speak the language of Egypt.

Recently the State of Israel ran ads encouraging Israeli expats to return home. The ads were heavy handed in their critique of diaspora life. In one ad a young Jewish girl is video chatting with her Israeli grandparents. “Shalom, Sabba v’Savta,” she sings. A Hanukkah menorah is displayed behind them. They exchange pleasantries in simple Hebrew and then ask her, “What holiday is it?” She exclaims excitedly, “Christmas.” The implication of the ads is clear. There is only one place to lead a full Jewish life and that is in Israel. By the way, the ads have since been removed from YouTube given the outcry from American Jewish leaders.

I admit there are times when I miss the Jewish rhythms of Israeli life. I miss the Friday evening greetings of “Shabbat Shalom” and Saturday evening’s “Shavuah Tov.” One hears these on the radio and TV. One hears them from strangers on the streets. I miss the Hanukkah treats of sufganiyot, jelly donuts, found in nearly every store. I miss the millions of Hanukkah menorahs displayed in windows. And I miss the State’s official Hanukkah celebrations. In Israel I am one with the predominant culture.

But no choice is perfect. No Jewish life is ever complete. Every place is a compromise. In Israel too there are seductions. In Israel it is instead the seductions of power. There is the argument that Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood and must therefore react with brute force against every one of its enemies. This too is a foreign seduction. Despite the fact that it pains me to admit it, Tom Friedman is correct. There are strong anti-democratic forces presently at work in the State of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has only belatedly recognized this after yesterday’s riot of radical settlers at an army base and the recent attacks by Jewish extremists of mosques.

Let us be honest. Democracy is not part of the Jewish tradition. King David was no believer in this Greek ideal. Democracy is a foreign idea. Still it is one that I love nonetheless. It is an ideal that is good for the Jewish nation. It is one of Israel’s founding pillars. The vision of the modern State of Israel is that it would be both Jewish and democratic. That is its struggle.

In the end one can live in a ghetto of one’s own making, cut off from all foreign ideas and cultural influences, or one can live surrounded by beliefs not entirely one’s own and ideals new to Jewish history. The latter is my choice. It is also Israel’s choice. And it is finally the choice our hero Joseph models after his many years of struggle.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Vayishlach Sermon

This week’s Torah portion tells many stories about our hero Jacob and his large family. In one particular story we discover the origin of our name, Yisrael.

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. Jacob is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright. It is interesting to note that the biblical story builds on the common theme of confronting spirits at a river crossing. Here in the Bible the literary theme is transformed and given new meaning. The river marks the frontier of the future land of Israel.

That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality. He wrestles with a being that is described as divine and human. 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 question God. We can wrestle with God. In fact we should question God. We should wrestle with 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 struggle. 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?

Throughout the years I have been drawn to many different theologians. Martin Buber speaks of finding God in the I-Thou relationship. When we really treat others in a mutual relationship, as a Thou, rather than an It in which we only see what we might gain from the relationship, then we can find a glimmer of God. There is Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, who teaches that the community is central. It is not God who commands from on high but rather the Jewish people and their continuation that commands us. Lately I find myself increasingly pulled toward Abraham Joshua Heschel, who reminds us that we find God in moments of wonder and awe. His remarkable book God in Search of Man is a reminder that it is God who is searching for us. God is searching for us to do good. Instead we sit around doing nothing to better our world, waiting for God to fix things for us. It is God in Heschel’s theology who is praying for human beings to repair the world.

Heschel writes: “Faith comes out of awe, out of an awareness that we are exposed to God’s presence, out of anxiety to answer the challenge of God, out of an awareness of our being called upon. Religion consists of God’s question and man’s answer. The way to faith is the way of faith. The way to God is a way of God. Unless God asks the question, all our inquiries are in vain.” Biblical scholars teach us that the name Yisrael can also mean “He who is upright with God.” For Heschel this understanding captures his theology.

Regardless of which theology you found more attractive they are all part and parcel of the modern Jewish landscape. The most important task is to never give up the quest, to always question, to always struggle and wrestle.

This week’s Torah portion describes our hero’s journey, from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace. The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps. He limps only after wrestling with God.

We learn that the greatest name we can call ourselves is that which emerges from struggle—and even pain. It is also in this struggle that our relationship with God is born and the name Yisrael is realized.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Question of Refugees

Given my recent complaints about Israeli videos I thought to share the below video produced by Israel's foreign ministry.  It explores the history of Palestinian refugees.  I could do without the cartoon commentaries, but these facts nonetheless deserve repeating.  The story about the United Nations is especially important for the world to hear.  I fear however that we are only listening to ourselves.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Vayishlach

Last week’s paper reported a wrenching story from Afghanistan.  A 21 year old woman named Gulnaz, jailed for two years because she was raped, was freed by President Karzai’s government.  She was freed on the condition that she marry the man who raped her.

My first response to this outrageous story was: send in US Special Forces to rescue her.  Let’s use US forces to bring a clear and decisive good to the Middle East.  Let’s use our military might to rescue those in need.  If ever there was a righteous moral cause this was it.  Save Gulnaz and the far too many women like her from the oppressiveness of their own societies.  I of course understand the realpolitik arguments.  We sometimes forget that these are about what we can accomplish not what we should strive to achieve.

And then I remembered my own book of Deuteronomy.  “If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife.  Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.”  (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

My own Torah stands alongside the Afghan government?  Jewish law has of course long since abandoned this ruling. Over the centuries rabbinic authorities became unanimous in condemning violence against women.  Yet there remain those who wish return to the ways and norms of the ancient Middle East—even in our own midst.

We teach our children to accept different cultures.  We declare that we should refrain from imposing our values on other societies. But there must be limits to my pluralism and multi-culturalism. I am losing patience, especially as I watch societies that our country supports commit such wrongs.  Dare we remain silent in the face of such brutalities?  How can we not declare what is wrong, wrong.

In Saudi Arabia, where a woman can be arrested for driving, a leading cleric recently declared that allowing women to drive would increase prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce.  Even in Israel several leading burial societies are enforcing gender separation and preventing women from speaking at an increasing number of funerals.  Neither example is of course as outrageous as that from Afghanistan.  Make no mistake.  There is a direct line between the dismissal of a woman’s voice and treating a rape victim as chattel.

And then I read this week’s portion.  In Parashat Vayishlach we read the story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter (Genesis 34).  Dinah goes out to the field to see her neighbors.  The local prince, Shechem, rapes Dinah and then decides he loves her and wants to marry her.  Despite Anita Diamant’s romantic interpretation in her book, The Red Tent, the Torah’s language is clear.  The sexual act is violent.  Shechem’s father, Hamor, then approaches Jacob and his sons to discuss a marriage proposal.  The sons suggest that Shechem and all his male subjects circumcise themselves.  Then Shechem will be an acceptable groom for their sister.  When the men are still recovering from this painful procedure, Simeon and Levi attack the town and slaughter all the men, most especially Shechem and his father Hamor, and rescue their sister Dinah from the king’s palace.

But Dinah is silent.  Her voice is never heard.  There is no cry of pain reported.  There are no tears.  We do not read of her father holding her, or of her mother Leah comforting her.  We do not see her brothers reaching out to her.  The events happen to her.  The Torah I so love silences her.  And so I declare, let her voice be heard!

The Jewish people march into the future.  Only yesterday the former president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, began serving seven years for raping a subordinate at the Tourism Ministry and for the sexual harassment of two other women when he was president.  The prophet’s voice is heard today.  In modern day Israel no one stands above the law.  A woman’s voice is heard.

Still there are those who blame Katsav’s victims and who use the Jewish tradition I hold so dear to demean women.  And therein lies the tension.  How do we mediate ancient laws with modern sensibilities?  All religious traditions seek to gain wisdom from ancient days.  We revere the old and the teachings of long ago.  The person of faith favors the past over the future.  The theory is simple.  The nearer we are to Sinai (or Jesus or Mohammed for that matter) the closer we are to the revealed truth.  And so some are unable to declare that Deuteronomy’s words are wrong, that the norms of the ancient Middle East belong to then and not now.

The great danger of faith is that in our reverence for the past we ignore the present.  There are those who therefore see that the only way to gain more wisdom from long ago is to turn back the clock to those days.  To look back to ancient days should not have to mean to be bound by those very same days.  The Torah reflects an age that is not mine.  Some of its laws belong only to the past.  I can gain wisdom from the Torah while not living in its age.

Thus, while I disagree with Simeon and Levi’s actions, I share their sentiment.  I am in tune with their righteous indignation.  We can declare with them, “Should our sister be treated as a whore?”  (Genesis 34:31)  Let us rise up and declare that every woman is our sister and none shall ever again live in fear!

Vayetzei Sermon

In this week’s portion Jacob journeys into the desert wilderness on his own and has a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels going up and down on it.  It is an extraordinary passage.  He awakens from the dream and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it!  How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and the gateway to heaven.”  (Genesis 28)

As I reflect on his experience two things come to light.  #1.  He ventured on this journey without his parents.  Even his overprotective mother Rebekah sent him on this journey on his own.  And #2.  He wandered by himself.

The first point is obvious.  We have to let our children go to experience on their own, to succeed and fail on their own.  Too often parents do things for children that they should do for themselves.  Parents write their children’s bar/bat mitzvah speeches and even their college papers.  How can you make it in the world if your parents do all of the hard work?  Our children must learn to make it through the world on their own!

On the second point I wish to dwell in more detail.  This point runs counter to Judaism’s greatest teaching.  Judaism teaches that we are at our best when we are with others.  We reach greater heights when we are in community.  The group lifts us to do better, to be better versions of our individual selves.

Yet here we see Jacob reaching unimaginable heights when on his own.  He is alone in the desert wilderness by himself.  He is alone with his thoughts.

It occurs to me that we do not allow ourselves to truly be alone.  We are so plugged in that we do not sit quietly and think.  We do not walk the streets or through nature unplugged.

Recently there was a Shabbat unplugged campaign.  It suggested that we should shun electronic devices on Shabbat.  Obviously they are forbidden according to Jewish tradition.  But the reason we might do away with these devices is not so much because of the traditional prohibition but so that we can learn again to be alone.

Our children especially need constant electronic stimulation.  They move from DVD players to computers to iPhones.  They constantly text or Facebook.  Can they still be alone with themselves and their thoughts?  How can you really come up with an original idea with all of that noise?

My favorite places to walk are of course parks and Jerusalem.  There you can be at one with nature.  You can listen to the sounds of nature—and the sounds of your own thoughts.  Sometimes I admit I walk the streets of Jerusalem talking on my cellphone or listening to my iPod.  Other times I walk the streets and think to myself and I am at one with this city.  In Jerusalem especially as Shabbat descends there is only you and the city.

Jacob teaches us important lessons for our own day.  Jacob must set out by himself in order to dream.  While the community does indeed make us better, we need to be alone with our thoughts, unplugged from the world, in order to be creative.  The clatter of modern life can sometimes get in the way of dreams.  And dreams are the things that carry us into the future.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Newsday Faith Column

Recently I was interviewed for Newsday's "Asking the Clergy" column.  The question was "Is it a holiday concert or a Christmas concert?  Does the name matter?"  The column appeared on Saturday, December 3rd.  What follows is my response.

I understand the conflict and appreciate both perspectives.  On the one hand, one of the things that make this country great is the inclusiveness.  Call it a holiday concert is the most inclusive.  That is really wonderful, and I really enjoy that.  On the other hand, when we're too generic, we miss out on the strength of each individual religion.

I think that when we say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Happy Hanukkah" or "Merry Christmas," we are missing out on the strength of that greeting.  It is kind of funny, but I can be walking down the street wearing a yarmulke and someone will still say, "Merry Christmas" or the generic "Happy Holiday."  I don't get offended.  It is just odd.  If I see someone wearing a cross, I say, "Merry Christmas," not "Happy Holiday."

When it comes to the name of a concert, if it is for a large group and you have many different faiths, and maybe you're at a school and you don't want to offend, then holiday concert is appropriate.  But it would be silly for a church or a synagogue to have a holiday concert.

I think it is nice at a public school to be exposed to people of different faiths.  I would hear Handel's "Messiah" every year during the concert at my daughter's school.  I would still go to hear it, even though she has graduated.  I enjoy hearing it.   Handel's "Messiah" is a beautiful piece.  And, I expect it to be called a holiday concert because it is at a school.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vayetzei

Sometimes dreams must be nurtured by venturing off alone, unsheltered by friends, family and community.

“Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran.  He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night…  He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”  (Genesis 28:10-12)

Jacob, our hero, is actually running from his brother Esau who has threatened to kill him after he stole the birthright.  Throughout Jacob’s early life he enjoys the protecting love of his mother Rebekah who engineered the plot to deceive her husband Isaac and steal the birthright from Esau.  Our Torah portion begins with Jacob on the run.  He is alone in the desert wilderness.

And he is alone with his dreams.

And so I have been thinking that we must learn to be alone in order to rediscover our dreams.  Too often people confuse being alone with loneliness.  They fight against loneliness and therefore avoid being alone.  Or they think that listening to music on noise cancelling headphones is to be alone.  As much as I love and value listening to music, it is not the same as being alone with our thoughts.  Modern day portable electronics allow me to swim among others even though I might be standing by myself.

To be alone is instead to be by myself, to be alone with my thoughts.

Thus we must venture out alone.  Have you ever gone for a walk by yourself?  There by yourself you can be in tune with the sounds of nature.  Have you ever sat and rather than turn on the TV to keep you company been at ease with your own thoughts?  Rarely do we allow ourselves to be alone, do we allow ourselves solitary moments when we could be offered flashes of introspection and inspiration.  Even when driving in our cars we surround ourselves with the radio’s music (or SiriusXM or the DVD player) and the chatter of cell phones.  On walks we even take hold of the leash of our pets or arrange for friends to join us.

Years ago I participated in an Outward Bound survival course.  Central to the program was the solo when each of the participants was placed alone on an island for three days.  We were supplied with plenty of water but no food.  We were required to build a makeshift shelter for ourselves.  We were not allowed any reading materials or portable electronics.  Most significant we were not allowed to bring a watch.

I still remember the name of my island “Little Thoroughfare.”  It was a tiny, uncharted island off the coast of Maine.  It rained for all but two hours of the three days.  I was hungry and cold the entire time.

Our instructors sent us to our solo with some advice I still remember.  “If you are lonely on your solo, remember the company you are keeping.”  I continue to reflect on those words and my solo experience.  It was not the hunger or the cold that was the most difficult.  It was instead the lack of human contact.  And it was especially that I could not be sure what time it was.  Was it two hours until dark?  Would it be an hour before the boat would come to pick me up and I would again see my friends?  Even when we are alone, we count the hours and minutes until others will join us.

Despite the fact that Judaism most values community and togetherness sometimes the greatest teachings are found and dreams are born when we are by ourselves.   It is not just that we must allow our children to make their way on their own.  Like Rebekah we must indeed send them off by themselves.  We must also allow ourselves to be alone.  Instead we rely on the company of iPods and cellphones, radio and TV.  We fear being by ourselves.  And so we run from our dreams.  Jacob instead runs towards them.

Never be afraid to be alone with your dreams.

Next week Jacob will become Israel after wrestling with an angel.  That story begins with the words:  “And Jacob was left alone.”  (Genesis 32:25)

Our hero was again alone.  And in this moment the dream of Israel was also born.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Toldot

I wonder what family meals were like in Isaac and Rebekah’s house.   Isaac favored one son, Esau.  Rebekah favored the other, Jacob.  There was, I would imagine, palpable tension between their children.  On one occasion Esau returned home after hunting for game.  He was terribly hungry.  Jacob refused to give him some of the lentil stew he was preparing until Esau agreed to sell him his birthright.  Esau was so hungry that he spurned his birthright?  Jacob was so devious that he took advantage of his brother’s weakness?  Where was Rebekah while her children fought?  Where was Isaac?

On Thanksgiving we gather with family and friends.  In every gathering there are similar tensions.  There might be the aunt who always asks too many personal questions.  There could be the distant cousin who appears to sit in judgment of everyone else.  Take comfort from the Torah.  Tensions were part and parcel of every family, even our first Jewish family.

In this week’s Torah portion we see how Isaac handles these tensions.  Isaac is now old and blind.  As he confronts his mortality he wants to give his sons some words of advice and a final blessing. He instructs his son Esau to go hunting and prepare his favorite dish.  Rebekah overhears the request and quickly prepares the dish instead.  She pushes their other son Jacob toward Isaac, dressing him in Esau’s clothes and covering his arms with animal fur so as to trick her husband into thinking it was hairy Esau.  She hands Jacob Isaac’s favorite meal to present to his father.

Isaac appears to sense something is amiss.  “Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come closer that I may feel you, my son—whether you are really my son Esau or not.’  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.’  …He asked, ‘Are you really my son Esau?’  And when he said, ‘I am,’ he said, ‘Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.’” (Genesis 27:21-25) 

Isaac then blesses his son Jacob.  Esau soon returns from the field and is distraught to discover what has transpired while he was busy hunting.  He bursts into tears and is overcome with anger, threatening to kill his brother.  Jacob runs to his uncle’s to escape.  On his journey Jacob discovers far more about himself than he did while remaining in his mother’s over-protective care.  But that would be the subject for the coming week.

I continue to believe that Isaac knew the truth of who stood before him and that his blindness was willful.  He chose not to verbalize the trickery he suspected.  Isaac knew it was his son Jacob who kneeled before him to receive the prized blessing.  I am certain that our forefather could distinguish his wife’s cooking from his son’s.  I could most certainly discern the difference between Susie’s cooking and Ari’s with my eyes closed!  Isn’t it then obvious that the meal Rebekah prepared was the unspoken signal between husband and wife? 

The lesson is that not every truth needs to be spoken.  Sometimes when it comes to family it is better to choose not to see.

Too often our choice is to tell family members what we really think, to tell the annoying aunt what is really on our mind and what has been bothering us for these past ten Thanksgivings.  Too often we choose the righteousness of the prophets and not the willful blindness of Isaac when sitting with our families.  Isaac’s choice seems the better option for our families.  The prophets are more apt for correcting the failings of our society at large.  When sitting with our family peace and harmony are always more prized.  What appears as a weakness, namely his blindness, might in truth be Isaac’s greatest strength.

I wish you an enjoyable Thanksgiving celebration.  Enjoy the company of family, especially if it is with a child returning from their first months of college.  Try not to allow that annoying family member to get under your skin.  Instead relish in family.  It should always be a blessing to be celebrated. 

Take a moment to thank God for the blessings of this country.  Across this great land people of many different faiths will be begin their meals with words of thanks in Hebrew, English, or Arabic, Russian, Chinese, or Hindi.  All will thank God for the freedoms of this country.  Take a moment to remember these blessings.  Recall as well those who are less fortunate.  Enjoy the bounty of your meals but pledge to redouble your efforts to help others.  And of course if you are driving, drive safely.

Ryan Braun Wins MVP

Ryan Braun Wins MVP - by Marc Tracy - Tablet Magazine
Which is better?  Ryan Braun winning MVP or the Cardinals winning the World Series?   The Cards!  Nonetheless this should be noted especially as we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that marks the confluence of our American and Jewish values.

Marc Tracy writes: Jewish slugger Ryan Braun was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player today, becoming the first Milwaukee Brewer to win the honor since Robin Yount in 1989 (when the Brew Crew were in the American League) and the first Jew since Sandy Koufax in 1963 (the Dodger great won three Cy Young Awards but only one MVP—the short list of pitchers who have accomplished both gained a new member this year, as Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander took home both in the AL). The other Jewish MVPs include Al Rosen (1953), Lou Boudreau (1948), Hank Greenberg (1935, 1940), and … that’s it. So, yeah, historic.

On to football season!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November-December Newsletter

What follows is my November-December Newsletter message in which I answer our students’ “Ask the Rabbi” questions.

What is my favorite color?
Blue.  I like the blue of the Israeli flag.  I like the blue of the sky.  Blue has always been a favorite Jewish color which is why it is often found in a hamsa, a Sephardic amulet.  There is in fact a synagogue in Safed, Israel, the heart of Jewish mysticism, whose interior is painted blue.  Everywhere you turn in Safed you find this blue.  Oops, sorry you just asked about my favorite color.  It is blue like the sky. 

When is my birthday?
July 1, 1964.  21 Tammuz 5724.  The Torah portion Pinhas was read in synagogue on Shabbat a few days later.  Look at what you can learn from the internet!

What is my favorite food?
I love hummus.  It is healthy and delicious and can be added to anything.  Zohan was wrong, however.  It should not be used in your hair.  You really should try some hummus.

How did God get the idea for Hebrew?
I don’t think God invented the language you are now struggling to understand.  People write languages.  The coolest thing about Hebrew is that it has so many different words for God.  It is just like what you learn about the Eskimos and snow.  We love God so much that we have a lot of different names for God.  Our different names are how we try to get closer to God and how we try to bring more God into the world.

What is my Hebrew name?
My Hebrew name is Shmaryah.  The name means God is my guard or perhaps I am God’s guardian.  You decide.  I am named for my mother’s grandmother Sarah, who was the most devout person in our family.  Interesting.  Mysterious.  If you mean what is your Hebrew name, you should ask your mom or dad.  Make sure to ask for whom you are named as well.  That is the most important part.  It is a wonderful Jewish custom that we are named for someone who has recently died.  That way we keep their memory alive.

Why do we say a prayer before we eat?
Actually you are supposed to say a prayer before and after you eat.  It is not really a prayer in which we are asking for something.  It is instead a blessing that we are giving thanks for something.  Before we eat we pause and say, “Thank you.” First we thank God for blessing us with enough food to eat.  It is just like thanking your mom or dad for cooking dinner for you or buying dinner for you. I hope you do that too.  You should always say “thank you.”  Nothing should ever be expected or taken for granted, even the food that you eat.  That is why it is always good to stop before you stuff your mouth with food and say, “Thank you.”  The more we say thank you the more we are likely to count everything that happens, even the ordinary, everyday stuff, as wonderful.  You should never think that everything you have is deserved.  Instead think that everything you have is a gift.  Every day that you get a gift you should say thanks.  The more you say a prayer before you eat the more you will become thankful.  That is a great state of mind.

Is God Catholic or Jewish?
God is God.  People are Catholic or Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, Baptist or Buddhist.  There are many ways to pray to God.  I like the Jewish way the best.  That is part of what makes me a rabbi.  That does not make other ways bad.  I have my favorite.  I hope yours is the same. But God does not have a favorite.  God wants everyone to do his or her best.  God wants everyone to try to make the world a little better.  God wants everyone to start every day and every meal with a thank you.  God wants everyone to think that every day and every life is a gift.

Keep asking your questions.  That is the best way to learn more.  Asking questions has always been one of the things Jews do best.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Images

A disturbing video shared by my colleague, Rabbi Andy Bachman. His post is a poignant, and unsettling, reminder of the dangers of power. Like him I love Israel but continue to stubbornly believe, even though some will also say, naively believe, that what we most love must sometimes be subjected to critique  Only through honest heshbon hanefesh, examining oneself, can we grow better.   I share this more for what Andy writes than what the video portrays.


Like so many Jewish communities who find themselves gathered inside a synagogue each week to celebrate Shabbat, ours was filled to overflowing this past weekend--young and old of all ages, from sundown Friday til sundown Saturday. We honored ten of our members who served in the American Armed Forces at a special Veterans Day Shabbat Friday evening, commemorating the service of men who were in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Saturday in the morning there was learning, Shir l'Shabbat, Yachad, Altshul, a Lay-Led Minyan, and more learning, along with two different discussions: one, a panel discussion on issues related to conversion to Judaism; and two, a discussion with two young Israelis and two young Palestinians about the Btselem Camera Project.

Some time ago, Btselem, an Israeli human rights organization, began giving away video cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank in order to document the engagement between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Recorded encounters, sometimes mundane and sometimes shocking to witness, provide a window into the human side of a greatly entrenched conflict. The hope is to allow citizens to bear witness to any potential human rights abuses--never enjoyable work by any means but essential work nonetheless for any democracy that prides itself on its morality and inherent decency.

Now let me state clearly: I am not a pacifist. War, horrifying as it can be, is a sometimes necessary burden we bear when conflict can no longer be negotiated. And as a Jew, I take great pride in Israel's existence and its ability to defend itself. Further, I am under no illusion that many leaders among Palestinians and in the Arab world broadly are working for (or at the very least hoping for) the destruction of Israel.

But these videos are not meant to capture those bad guys. And they are bad guys.

These videos are meant to capture moments when our guys misbehave, when their power gets beyond them, and when, for reasons that are complex, psychological, traumatic and sometimes immoral, they lose control. Aimed guns at the heads of unarmed people; firing tear gas canisters at someone's head; wearing masks and attacking elderly people with wooden poles; shooting a young man in the foot.

We shouldn't want to see this and we shouldn't have to see it but it's what happens when our hatred controls us rather than our own triumphant mastery of hate. And the purpose of human rights activists--objectively speaking--is to document what happens, shed light where it needs to be shed, and, when necessary, bring to justice those who need to be brought to justice. And sometimes, in conflict, our guys need to be brought to justice. We may not like it. We may think, "But in the long-run, they just want Israel to go away!" But in the long run, a society without justice for its least fortunate will one day deprive even the most fortunate of justice. God's justice, our tradition teaches, extends to us all.

In the video I chose to share at the top of this site, these details are included in a sidebar description from Btselem: "Following a subsequent investigation, the officer, Lt. Col. Omri Borberg, and solider, Staff Sergeant Leonardo Corea, were charged by the Army with “conduct unbecoming”. Following a high court petition against the lenient charge, the soldier was charged with unlawful use of weapons, and the officer with attempted threats. Both were also charged with conduct unbecoming. The two were convicted and in the beginning of 2011. The officer was sentenced to a suspended jail sentence and a halt to promotion for two years. The soldier was sentenced to demotion to the rank of private." We don't celebrate such things; but we know that in this particular case, there is the attempt to make justice out of an act that demands it.

So Saturday morning ten of us sat in a circle, heard stories, and then watched several videos which were not easy to see. But they were necessary to see. In one video in particular, a soldier who had lost his cool and shot a young boy in the foot was brought to justice, disciplined by his commanding officer, precisely because of the recorded footage. What abuses of power were once tolerated because they were not seen are now seen, heard, and, at times, even adjudicated. For the greater cause of Zionism, for the justness of our right to live in our historic homeland, that's a good thing.

Today you may have read that two bills are currently in the Israeli Knesset seeking to limit foreign funding for Israeli human rights organizations. This is not a good thing. In the words of the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, "These legislative efforts to restrict funding for non-governmental organizations run contrary to core democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength. If there is a concern that foreign, and possibly antagonistic, entities are funding civic or political groups in Israel, then let there be a debate on the advisability of requiring full disclosure of the revenues, and their sources, of such groups across the political spectrum." The New Israel Fund, targeted last year by these same political leaders who are sponsoring this legislation this year, has some helpful suggestions for ways to make your voice heard on this issue.

Core democratic principles are Israel's strength. I agree. Making sure that Jews defend themselves justly makes us stronger as a nation. Turning our eyes and hearts from injustice weakens us. Though we don't want to admit the worst things about ourselves, doing so strengthens us for far greater challenges ahead.

When our program ended, I sat for a moment reflecting upon the images just seen, the voices just heard, the actions we had witnessed. And then I looked at the two Israelis and the two Palestinians, who, but for language and accent, were indistinguishable from one another. What united them was their desire for peace, their faith in democracy, and, especially on Shabbat, inside the synagogue, that each was made בצלם--Btselem: In the Image of God.

Their projected image of tolerance and friendship can be better achieved when we can see what goes wrong--with just enough time to correct it--before it gets worse.

Chayei Sarah Sermon

This evening we learn of three cities and three lessons.  Each of these cities offers us a value and a cautionary note.  We relearn these values and we recall their accompanying cautionary notes.

The first city is from the Torah portion.  It is Hebron.  In this week’s Torah portion Sarah dies at the age of 127 years.  Abraham mourns her and seeks to buy a burial plot.  He purchases the Cave of Machpeleh from Ephron, the Hittite.  We learn that Abraham pays more than the asking price and thus Hebron becomes the first Jewish city.  From this city we are reminded that the land, the land of Israel, is holy.  It is made holy by Sarah’s death and by Abraham’s purchase.

Here is where it all started.  Our faith began in Hebron, located in the modern day West Bank.  Thus it is not just any land that the Palestinians claim. It is our people’s as well.  When it comes time to make peace (may that day be very soon) it will not be as simple as withdrawing from Gush Katif in Gaza.  And if you recall this recent history, remember that was not so simple or easy.  In Hebron we still feel Jewish history and its reverberations.  There one can sense Abraham’s and Sarah’s presence. 

Still our cautionary note is that the land is not more holy than people.  No place is worth more than human life and preserving Jewish democracy.  Even a place as holy as Hebron, with its many Jewish resonances, is worth sacrificing for the sake of furthering democracy and saving lives.

The second city is Berlin.  We think of it because of our recent commemoration of Kristallnacht.  On November 9, 1938 in Germany and Austria, and in particular in Berlin, the Nazis perpetrated this night of broken glass.  There are many dates to which we can point and date the beginning of the Holocaust.  This date would be one.  On this day the Nazis destroyed and burned synagogues and Jewish books.  And on this day the world stood by.  Kristallnacht was reported but little if anything was done.  The Nazis were allowed to destroy Jewish lives and homes with impunity.

We are reminded that even the most cultured of places can become evil.  The place that gave the world Beethoven and Schopenhauer also gave rise to the past century’s most unparalleled evil. 

Lest we be naïve, we must proclaim that antisemitism still exists.  We hear its venom coming from Iran.  It exists even in the United States.  There are tinges of it emanating from Occupy Wall Street.  This is a movement that is all about anger and not about reform and change.  Protest for something rather than against something.  Use feelings of disenfranchisement as a tool to better our world.  From the memory of Jewish Berlin we are cautioned: stay vigilant.  Never be so quick to dismiss racisim and antisemitism.  It can arise anywhere and everywhere. It can be found in any city.

The third city we think of is our very own New York.   We think of it because of Thanksgiving.  Here in New York we enjoy unprecedented freedoms.  This country is built on immigration and meritocracy.  Here anyone can build a life for him or herself..  That is what we celebrate and give thanks for on the upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving.

On this day we celebrate these freedoms especially, most notably the freedom of religion.  Here we can be proud Jews and loyal Americans.  We must remember that the freedoms we so relish must remain open to all.  We celebrate that anyone can be successful here.  We not only celebrate our own successes but the openness by which anyone can find success.  We must caution ourselves not to close these doors of opportunity to others.  What was opened to us should remain open to all.

In 1790 George Washington sent a letter to the Jews of Newport and in particular to the leaders of the Touro Synagogue.  He was responding to their words of congratulations when he became our country’s first president.  It is his words with which I conclude.  His words serve as the best reminder of what is great about this country.  Forgive his highfalutin English. It is how people wrote and spoke back then.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.  May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Amen, President Washington.  May we always remember what each of these cities teach us. May we continue to cherish the values they have granted us.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Israel IQ by Stand with Us

A congregant shared this video with me.  It is a powerful, if unfortunate, reminder about how little people really know about Israel and the issues and conflicts in the Middle East.  I could do without some of Mark Schiff's sarcasm, but it is understandable.  There is so much more teaching to be done!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chayei Sarah

Most of the stories in Genesis focus on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We learn little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

This week however we read of the death of the first matriarch, Sarah.  “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”  (Genesis 23:1-2)

Sarah’s life appears to be defined only by the few episodes in which she accompanies her husband Abraham.   She joins Abraham on his God ordained journey to the land of Israel.  She laughs at the thought of giving birth to a child at the age of 90 (Genesis 18).  Miraculously she does give birth to this child and he is named, “Laughter—Isaac.”  Abraham and Sarah celebrate the birth of this hoped for, prayed for, and longed for child.  Sarah proclaims: “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.  Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!  Yet I have a born a son in his old age.”  (Genesis 21:6-7)

In the following chapter, God appears to Abraham and commands him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah.  The Akedah, the binding of Isaac, is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Curiously Sarah is nowhere mentioned in this extraordinary tale.  How can Isaac’s mother be absent from one of the most significant events in her son’s life?  I cannot imagine that she was silent, that she did not participate in some way in this formative event. 

The rabbis of old notice her absence.  They suggest that the reason the Torah states that Abraham got up early in the morning to fulfill God’s command is that he woke up while Sarah was still sleeping.  They suggest that Sarah never would have allowed Abraham to try to sacrifice her only son, the son of her old age.  Abraham was therefore left to sneaking out of the house before dawn in order to fulfill God’s request.

The ancient rabbis also notice the proximity of the binding of Isaac to this week’s Torah portion. They ask why did Sarah die in the chapter following the Akedah?  They suggest that she died of a heart attack after she discovered what her overzealous husband almost did to her only son.  Thus she died of a broken heart. 

Both of these ancient midrashic attempts recognize that we must discover what all of our heroes did in the Torah, even if their actions are not explicitly mentioned.  This is the meaning of midrash.  Our tradition refuses to accept the Torah as literal.  Our stories are sometimes mere outlines.  Who could imagine an absent Jewish mother?  How could Sarah not have a voice in this episode?  She has waited 90 years for a child.  Wouldn’t she therefore be especially overprotective of her son?

More recently feminists, of whom I consider myself, have added different interpretations about Sarah’s role.  One suggests that God appeared to both Abraham and Sarah and separately commanded them to sacrifice their son Isaac.  Thus God tested both Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham said, “Yes, of course.”  Sarah said, “No way.”  Is it possible that Sarah’s answer was the correct answer to God’s test?  When Sarah woke up she realized that God had also appeared to Abraham and that he had now left to do God’s bidding.

Sarah prayed with all her might and an angel responded to her plea, calling to Abraham, “Do not raise your hand against the boy…“  (Genesis 22:12)  A ram appeared, caught in the thicket by its horns.  So Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it in place of his son.  Sarah died, having expended all of her life, and sacrificing herself in place of her son.  To be honest, this makes more sense to me.

Whether ancient or modern the Jewish genius has always been to write ourselves and our experiences into the stories found in the Torah.  Our Torah is a living book because we continue to interpret and reinterpret its words and verses depending on our circumstances and experiences.

I can only imagine a God who calls to both men and women.  A God who only speaks to men is not part of my faith.  All, men and women, young and old, must continue to hear God’s voice wherever they may stand. I believe that Sarah did as well as Abraham.

That is our Judaism.  That is what we believe.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Vayera Sermon

As I always teach, we do not choose our bar/bat mitzvah portion, it chooses us.  The challenge is to wrest meaning from the Torah’s words.  Week in week out, year after year, we have to read all of the Torah’s words.  We have to find meaning in its laws, in its intricacies, in its stories.  That is what it means to be a Jew.  We must apply the words of the Torah to our daily lives.

And so here is this week’s story and lesson. First a reminder about the story and the somewhat sordid details of how Abraham and his wife Sarah deal with their first son Ishmael and his mother Hagar.  After Sarah gives birth to Isaac she sees Hagar’s son Ishmael as competition and so instructs Abraham to kick them out.  Abraham is at first distraught and consults with God who tells Abraham to listen to his wife Sarah.  Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with meager rations.  They nearly die in the heat, but are rescued by God and the appearance of a miraculous well.

It is a wrenching story.  It is disturbing for two reasons.  There is profound disappointment in Abraham and Sarah.  And there is the pain of Hagar and Ishmael.  Hagar says, “Let me not look on as the child dies.”  And sitting at a distance, she burst into tears.  Vatisa et kola vatevk: And she lifted up her voice and cried.  The Hebrew is even more poignant.  And God heard the cry of the boy: Vayishma Elohim et hakol hanaar.

I have two observations.  Sometimes those closest to us, sometimes those we most love, disappoint us, do wrong.  The pain of Hagar and Ishmael is caused by Sarah and Abraham.  My heroes have indeed disappointed me.

This brings me to Penn State and the revelations of pedophilia and cover ups coming from there.  Those who we held in high esteem have done wrong.  So many people, of all these great people, did not do enough to save these children.  Too few did the right thing.   It is an unequivocal moral lapse when people fail to protect children, when they fail to protect those most vulnerable.  The Penn State students, the college community cannot see this.  They still only see their heroes—and their terrible flaws.  They can only see Abraham and Sarah’s achievements and not the pain they have caused others.

It is like our Jewish tradition that cannot see Abraham’s imperfections.  How can Abraham do what he did?  Even though God says it is ok, he should have given his son Ishmael and his mother enough water.  This is the first lesson.  We must see even our greatest heroes as flawed.  I imagine that Abraham’s household quietly whispered about what Abraham was doing.  I suspect that many people knew the truth about the Penn State coach. I imagine that they quietly spoke about what was happening to Hagar and Ishmael but did nothing.  They whispered, but failed to act.  Everyone failed to stop our heroes—and they are therefore diminished in our eyes.  And then others become culpable.

The Talmud states: “Whoever can prevent his/her household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his/her household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if she can prevent the whole world, she is responsible for the sins of the whole world.”  Don’t be afraid to see even the greatest people as making mistakes.  And if you are a true friend, then try to stop them.  Don’t apologize for them, don’t excuse their wrongs.  Instead help them do the right thing.

My second observation.  God hears the cries of those in pain.  God hears all and listens to all.  No one has a cornerstone on God’s ear.  No faith has a more direct line to God than any other.  This is the power of including Hagar and Ishmael’s pain in our Torah.  This is the power of including their cry to God in our Torah.  They may not be part of the Jewish story, but they are part of God’s concern.

It is somewhat comforting that God hears the cries of those in pain.  But we must as well.  We must hear the cries of those who are hungry, of those in chains.  Of course we cannot fix all of the world’s problems.  If God responds to the cry of the son of servant girl, how much the more so must we respond to the pain of others.  This is the most important lesson.  We must work to alleviate the pain of those suffering.  If God hears their cry we must as well.

Although we might be disappointed with our heroes we must always reach out to everyone, and anyone, who is in pain.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vayera

This week we hear Hagar and her son, Ishmael, cry out in pain.  They have journeyed into the desert and have exhausted their meager supply of food and water.  After the birth of Isaac to Sarah, Abraham sends his older son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, out to the desert.  “When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat at a distance…thinking, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’  And sitting afar, she burst into tears.”

It is a wrenching story.  Abraham and Sarah, now the parents of Isaac, banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert.  How remarkable that this is the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah.  On this most sacred of days we read a story that concludes with a promise to the other.  How extraordinary that our sacred book preserves the cry of those outside our Jewish circle.  Moreover, how remarkable that our Torah affirms God hears this cry, most especially when those emerge from pain.

The message is clear.  We do not have a cornerstone on faith.  We do not possess the only path to God. Far too many speak with overconfidence in their own faith, as if they alone have God’s ear.  This week’s Torah portion reminds us that God listens to the cries of all people. 

We ignore these powerful verses and identify only with our Jewish heroes, Abraham and Sarah.  We justify their actions.  It is ok, we reason, because God ultimately rescues Hagar and Ishmael and offers them their own promise.  Our tradition excuses our heroes’ actions and apologizes for their choices.  We say, It is complicated.  Ishmael would undermine God’s promise to Isaac.  Ishmael would become the father of Muslims, many of whom now call us their enemy.  Do such complications really excuse their actions? 

I can only hear the boy’s cry.

I think of this week’s news from Penn State.  In this situation as well people say it is complicated.  We turn aside, we apologize for the wrongs of others, especially when they could undermine what we cherish and hold dear.  But when a child is in danger, we must never turn a blind eye.  It is one thing to hold our tongue when we see our friends’ children perhaps dress inappropriately.  It is another thing when we see them in danger and for example, drive drunk.  Then it should never be deemed complicated. 

The saddest part of the story emerging from Penn State is that far too many adults failed to rescue children in need.  Teachers, parents, coaches, and educators have a responsibility to protect children.  They might say that the situation is complicated.  They might worry that such sins will undermine their football achievements and their school’s promise.  But it is not complicated when children are in danger.  When children cry in pain, all must listen. When children cry out, no one should ever turn a deaf ear.   

“God hears the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is…’  Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  (Genesis 21:15-19)

Learn this as well from the Torah!  When children cry out, we dare not wait for a miraculous well to appear.

Global Hunger Shabbat

Here is how I started my day.  I dropped off leftover food at a local soup kitchen.  In fact my car’s trunk was overflowing with bagels and cookies.  Only a few hours later I went to Whole Foods to get lunch.  I spent $15 for my quick lunch.  A person living on food stamps gets $5.50 per day.  Later tonight I will go home and will make dinner.  I have not yet decided what I will prepare but I will open the refrigerator and search for inspiration.  My day’s total will far exceed the allotment given to a person living on food stamps.

I am fortunate that I can buy anything I want.  I am blessed.  I may not choose to eat everything, but I am richly blessed that I have so many choices.  This afternoon I could choose between the salmon with lemon butter, Mediterranean steak, brussel sprouts or quinoa salad.  What variety will Whole Foods offer me today?  This is how we eat.

Contrast this with the pictures from East Africa.  There is a famine raging there that has claimed 10,000’s of lives.  This is only part of the larger picture.  Every day 925 million people go hungry. 98% of these live in developing countries.  One out of four children in developing countries goes hungry.  That is 146 million children.  6.5 million children die each year from hunger related causes.

As a Jew I refuse to accept that I can’t do anything to change this.  Yes, the world is broken.  And also yes, we can repair it.

The terrible irony is that the world’s farmers produce enough food to adequately feed every person on the planet.  Part of the problem is that these children are too dependent on imported food and not local farming.  Part of the problem is that the donations we send overseas undermine local food production and makes people even more food insecure.

Too often local farm lands are confiscated by governments for economic development.  Water sources become contaminated by factories.  Trade agreements sometimes have the unintended consequence of flooding local markets with cheap food imports.  Likewise food-aid programs sometimes have similar effects.  These undercut local farmers and their ability to sell their product and thereby make communities less self-sufficient.

The American Jewish World Service, with whom we are partnering this evening, is working to change these facts.  Here is one example of an AJWS grantee.  This can be found on the AJWS website.  I encourage you to visit this website and learn more about this global problem.
Jean Saint Georges is a struggling farmer who lives in a rural village in Haiti. Over the past 20 years, food aid and trade policies have allowed imports of cheap agricultural goods from the United States and other countries to flood local markets. Jean and others like him couldn’t compete with the artificially low prices of these goods and were put out of business. Many of them migrated to the capital city Port-au-Prince in search of work, but once there, they encountered few employment opportunities. It is no surprise that 1.9 million Haitians, like Jean, faced hunger even before the earthquake on January 12, 2010.

The magnitude of the loss of life during the earthquake was due, in part, to this mass migration of rural farmers to the capital. Poverty forced these people to live in poorly constructed homes on steep mountainsides.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, international donors, including the U.S. government, sent food aid to Haiti. In the short term, this food helped feed thousands of earthquake survivors who had lost everything. But it has had an unintended—and devastating—consequence on local farmers. The influx of free rice from abroad brought the price of Haitian rice down so low that Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. Because they couldn’t earn an income from their crops, they couldn’t purchase seeds for this year’s crop. As one Haitian farmer put it:  “We were already in a black misery after the earthquake of January 12th. But the rice they’re dumping on us, it’s competing with ours and soon we’re going to fall in a deep hole. When they don’t give [rice] to us anymore, are we all going to die?”

As Haiti rebuilds, it is important that international donors support local agricultural development, not undermine it. For example, the Partnership for Local Development (PLD), an AJWS grantee, helps Haitian farmers like Jean. The organization provides support to rural farmers, including seed and grain storage and training in methods to help the farmers maximize their agricultural production. In the aftermath of the earthquake, PLD also established cash-for-work programs to enable affected Haitians to earn an income. This allows them to rebuild their communities and decide.  Through PLD’s cash-for-work program, Jean and his family were able to earn desperately needed money by working on a soil conservation project and fixing a local road. With the money they earned, the family bought food and clothes. Jean also received seeds to plant corn, beans and sweet potatoes. The soil conservation project has helped to ensure that the land where he farms will be viable for years to come. As a result, he no longer fears hunger.

Jean’s experience is not unique. Across Haiti, farmers are working to strengthen local agricultural production. It is the hope of AJWS to help promote Haitian self-sufficiency.
Even in this country we have similar problems.  There are far too many people who go hungry in our very own country.  Or, who because they are dependent on food stamps, buy unhealthy food.  Organic vegetables are more expensive than a candy bar.  I am not saying you have to eat at Whole Foods.  (I certainly cannot afford to buy every lunch there.)  But our country’s food aid programs undermine the eating of healthy food.  Why buy fresh fruit and vegetable when you can buy an entire meal at McDonalds for the same price?

As a nation we should subsidize not the production of corn syrup but healthy eating.  It should not be a luxury to eat organic.  It should be a necessity.  The consequences of our diet for our nation’s future are exceedingly worrisome.

We learn from our tradition that we cannot turn away from the world’s troubles.  We especially cannot turn aside from the pains of hunger that are so near.  We will continue to support the Interfaith Nutrition Network (the INN).  We will do more and work in a soup kitchen not only on December 4th but on other days.  Our hard work begins today.

So here is what we are going to continue to do.
1. Throughout this month we will be collecting canned food.  Bring these to the office or the Hebrew School.
2. If you wish to make a monetary donation write “Social Action Fund” in the memo.  We will use these monies to help the INN purchase turkeys for Thanksgiving.
3. The office will serve as a way station.  If you have gently used clothes or books bring them to the office and I will find someone or an organization that can use them.  There is unfortunately no shortage of need.
4. If you want to volunteer on December 4th send me an email.
5. We will continue to collect leftovers from shiva.  Although we are sad that there were so many tears in our congregation this week, by tomorrow afternoon a hungry person will no longer be hungry.
6. If you are planning a simcha add the extra planning of collecting the leftovers to your to do list.

This week we meet Abraham for the first time.  Among the many traits that our tradition ascribes to him is that of hospitality.  He would always welcome travelers into his tent and offer them food.  Those who live in Israel’s desert, the Bedouins, still observe these ancient customs.  If you are traveling by another’s tent you are welcomed in and offered food and water.

We instead speed from destination to destination.  We run from house to house, play date to play date, or appointment to appointment.  We are blind to the hunger and poverty that surrounds us.  I am not suggesting that we welcome strangers into our homes.  But like Abraham we can lift the flap of the tent open.  We can open our eyes to the pain around us.  We can resolve to do more.

The great faith of Abraham was that he understood what we too often forget; one person can change the world.  And even if we don’t change the world, if we only save one life then all our efforts will be worth it.

May God grant us the resolve of Abraham to make our world better.  And even if it is only a little better then grant us the faith to say, the effort will have been worth it.

The Israeli songwriter, Arik Einstein, wrote: “Ani v’atah…  You and I can change the world, you and I.  Then all will join us.  Though it’s been said before it doesn’t matter.  You and I will change the world.  You and I will start from the beginning.  It may be difficult, but it doesn’t matter.”

Yes indeed.  You and I can change the world.