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Showing posts from 2011


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 re


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


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 bur

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 th


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

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.

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.


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 gi

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 ha

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.  I


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 be


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

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!

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?


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,

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 yo

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!

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 t

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


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. 

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 live