Friday, February 25, 2011

Ki Tissa Sermon

This sermon was delivered last Friday, February 18th.

This week’s portion contains the story of the Golden Calf, according to our tradition the greatest sin in the Torah.  The root of this sin is impatience.  The people, Moses, and even God stand guilty of impatience.  In fact, so many of our own problems are caused by this very same flaw.

The Hebrew word for patience is savlanut.  The root of this word is saval, meaning to bear a heavy load or even to suffer.  There is much to learn from the Hebrew’s root.  Patience does involve great work and at times, even suffering.  Waiting is not easy.  This is why the Mussar masters suggested that patience is the most difficult of middot to master.  But mastering patience is what we must do to train our soul.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel wrote in Heshbon HaNefesh (An Accounting of the Soul): “When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.”  Often we aggravate the situation through impatience.  We cry and scream about things we have no control to change.  The Mussar tradition also imagined that training our souls is sometimes violent and painful.  Like Mount Sinai where God revealed the Torah with thunder and lightning, we learn, we gain knowledge when our soul quakes. 

Again Menachem Mendel writes: “Woe to the pampered man [or woman] who has never been trained to be patient.  Either today or in the future, he is destined to sip from the cup of affliction.”  We are indeed raising a generation of children who we protect from strife and despair.  It is inevitable.  We will face difficulties.  We will be confronted by situations beyond our control.  And so we must train ourselves to be patient.

This is not the same as accepting fate.  A dose of impatience leveled against the world’s problems is noble and good.  This is part of the lesson we learn from the youth in Egypt and the Middle East.  Judaism believes that we can shape our destinies.  We are relearning this lesson from the very same place where we once suffered slavery.

We must be patient against those things we can’t control.  Forgive the mundane example, it serves no one to scream at the cashier or yell at other drivers.  It won’t move traffic faster or cause him to bag your groceries any faster.  Accept what can’t be changed.  Rise up against what must be changed.

Beware of confusing the two. Had the people exercised even the smallest dose of patience they would not have committed the greatest of sins. And so let us learn patience from this week’s Torah portion.

Obama And Libya

Why Doesn't Obama Have A Plan To Assist The Country In Its Emergency? | TNR
by Leon Wieseltier

Again I quote from Leon Wieseltier's most recent essay in The New Republic.
...They [Libyans] are fighting authoritarianism, but he [Obama] is fighting imperialism. Who in their right mind believes that this change does represent the work of the United States or any foreign power? To be sure, there are conspiracy theorists in the region who are not in their right mind, and will hold such an anti-American view; but this anti-Americanism is not an empirical matter. They will hate us whatever we do. I do not see a Middle East rising up in anger at the prospect of American intervention. I see an American president with a paralyzing fear that it will. In those Middle Eastern streets and squares that have endured the pangs of democratization, the complaint has been not that the United States has intervened, but that the United States has not intervened. The awful irony is that Obama is more haunted by the history of American foreign policy in the Middle East than are many people in the Middle East, who look to him for support in their genuinely epochal struggle against the social death in which their tyrannies have imprisoned them. He worries about the repetition of an old paradigm. They are in the midst of a new paradigm. He does not want to be Bush. They want him to be Obama; or what Obama was supposed to be.
It is a fine sentiment, Obama’s insistence upon the autonomy of the peoples who are making these democratic uprisings; but a number of things need to be said about it. For a start, there already are foreigners who have intervened in Tripoli. They are Qaddafi’s mercenaries, the savage thugs whom he has imported to save his regime by sowing fear. The deployment of Western air power over Libya would be an intervention against this intervention. Is Qaddafi to be allowed outside help and the people of Libya denied it? And help, after all, is all that the terrorized population of Tripoli is beseeching us for. The point that weirdly eludes Obama is that assistance does not compromise the autonomy of those who receive it. Sometimes autonomous people cannot do it alone. This does not mean that we should do it for them. Helping them is not doing it for them. Indeed, they are already doing it: half of Libya has been liberated, the regime has been robbed of any semblance of legitimacy and authority, there are anti-Qaddafi forces fighting effectively near Tripoli, the dictator is quite plainly doomed. We, the United States, accomplished none of this. But the death throes of Qaddafi’s rule could be terrible, and it is only to thwart a slaughter that we need to act. Even if we intervene, we will not have democratized Libya. Libya will have democratized Libya. And it is both our moral duty and our strategic responsibility to align ourselves with this emerging and emancipated Libya.
The idea that assistance does not compromise the autonomy of the assisted is in fact one of the central beliefs of liberalism. We invoke it in our social policies all the time. We help people to help themselves. And that is all that is being asked of us by these liberalizing revolutions; no less, but no more. We disappointed Tehran. We disappointed Cairo. Now we are disappointing Tripoli. It is so foolish, and so sad, and so indecent.
I never could have imagined the changes and crises that President Obama now faces. I always feared his inexperience in foreign policy--but never could have imagined what we are currently witnessing. I do not by the way think that Senator McCain would have handled these situations much better, but I do believe that Wieseltier has highlighted the essential problem of Obama's foreign policy. The United States stands as an example of a thriving democracy for all the world. The world does look to this country as an example to emulate--that is part of the reason why Obama was right about Guantanamo, but wrong about failing to shut it down immediately. (I sometimes dream that the world looks to Israel in a similar way and that Israel could support these fledgling democracies in its region, but realities cloud that vision.) We can help and assist others without imposing our will on them. I do not relish sending the American military to yet another Middle Eastern country, but that must be an option even though there must be other ways to help. It is indeed our moral duty to prevent at the very least foreign mercenaries from interfering in Libya's internal revolt, and as well to prevent Iran from gaining even more influence by meddling in Egypt's revolution. This is our duty. I want our president to lead not just think, meditate and process. Lives depend on his leadership. We could very well help tip the scales toward democracy and away from dictatorship. History's judgment of inaction will not be kind. Hope and change are not just words. They are more often tied to action.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, reiterates the command regarding Shabbat observance.  “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord…”  Around this commandment Judaism constructs the many details of Shabbat observance in particular its demand that we refrain from working on this day.  The Talmud self consciously remarks that these myriad laws of Shabbat restrictions were like mountains suspended by a thread.  In this portion the thread is revealed.

The remainder of the portion occupies itself with the details of the tabernacle’s construction.  And so the rabbis reasoned that all the labors detailed in constructing the tabernacle are forbidden on Shabbat.  There are 39 labors in all.  There are sub-categories of work and sub-sub categories.  There are fences around the laws and fences around the fences.  The mountains have become endlessly magnified.  At times the mountains and fences obscure the essence of Shabbat.

What is the essence of this extraordinary day?  In his masterpiece, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that Shabbat is a palace in time.  We construct this palace by refraining from work, by saying no to weekday activities.  Today it has become increasingly difficult to put the weekday aside.  Blackberries and iPhones have blurred the line between work and home.  Facebook and Twitter have blurred the line between home and work.

Recently my extended family and I traveled together on our first cruise.  I could have done without the endless buffets and the thousands of other travelers, but I rejoiced in the fact that my Blackberry was unable to get any signal when at sea.  (Ok I confess, it took me some time to adjust to this.)  Our children could not text their friends or write on someone’s Wall.  Every evening we gathered for a family dinner with only the distractions of the ocean’s waves outside the windows. We were left to talking to each other—and we relished in it. 

That is the essence of Shabbat, a day that returns people to their families and friends, a day that demands that we speak with each other rather than in the broken phrases of email and BBM.  There are great advantages of today’s technologies.  There are also great advantages found in our tradition and its Sabbath day.   Heschel writes: “To observe the Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time, the air of which we inhale when we call it a delight.”

Each of us can construct this day for ourselves.  In fact it is not even dependent on our congregation’s services.  The palace in time can always be built—each and every week.  There is no heavy lifting involved.  It is only a matter of following the thread back to the Torah, placing the weekday aside and delighting in one extraordinary day.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Psalms 25-27

My apologies for the delay.  Distractions abound.  Let us return to our sacred texts.

25. This psalm is an acrostic.  Each verse begins with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet.  Its organization is therefore artificial.  Although it might be easier to memorize such a poem it lacks an inner structure.  Each verse stands on its own.  Alef is for, bet stands for, gimmel and so on.  Nonetheless a few verses intrigue me.
(Alef) O Lord, I lift my soul to You
my God, in You I trust;
may I not be disappointed…
There is a certain power in the notion that we must lift our soul.   To be religious, to look toward God requires effort and work.
(Gimmel) O let none who look to You be disappointed;
let the faithless be disappointed, empty-handed.
If you have faith then it is my prayer that you might not be disappointed.  Nonetheless disappointments are everywhere.
(Cheyt) Be not mindful of my youthful sins and transgressions;
in keeping with Your faithfulness consider what is in my favor,
as befits Your goodness, O Lord.
This is a good one.  Imagine all the things we did in our youth that we now regret, that we now wish we could take back.  One of the problems of the internet age is that all of our mistakes are forever preserved online.  I am thankful that my friends did not have smartphones when I was in high school.  Now I can be not mindful of my youthful sins.  What will happen to those whose indiscretions circulate endlessly through cyberspace?  To be young is to make mistakes.  To become older is to have learned from those mistakes.  Part of that learning is forgiving yourself and by necessity forgetting.  What happens if it can never be forgotten? 

26. Judge me, O Lord,
for I have walked without blame;
I have trusted in the Lord;
I have not faltered.
Really?  I try to walk without blame.  I often falter.  None of us is so righteous as to have never sinned.  Perhaps this is a prayer.  Let me not falter…
Probe me, O Lord, and test me,
examine my heart and mind;
for my eyes are on Your steadfast love;
I have walked by Your truth.
Do I really want to be tested?  According to the tradition the righteous are tested more often than the wicked.  There is a sense that the righteous can take it and are therefore made better by their trials and struggles.  The rabbinic image is that fine metal is made finer by firing it more.  That may very well be true, but what kind of motivation is this to be righteous?  Wouldn’t one rather be ordinary and have less trials?  I have often surmised that we should never look at someone else’s troubles and say “You will be made stronger for this.”  Let them say that about themselves and their own difficulties.  Who are we to offer such explanations and justifications for their suffering?

27. This psalm is read on the High Holidays.
The Lord is my light and my help;
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life,
whom should I dread?
If I hold God before my eyes I will fear nothing.  But it is not so easy to always keep God at the forefront of our thoughts.  More often than not we reach out to God out of fear, when we are afraid.  If God becomes our mantra we might fear less.  Such is part of the basis for Rabbi Meir’s call to recite 100 blessings every day.  Fill your heart with enough blessings and there will be less room for fear.
One thing I ask of the Lord,
only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
to frequent His temple.
That would be great!  To have our synagogue building.  Is my dream the same as the psalmists?
O Lord, I seek Your face.
do not hide Your face from me;
do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;
You have ever been my help.
Do not hide from me.  I seek You all the days of my life.  Yet You appear hidden and removed.  How do I search after something that remains so hidden?
Look to the Lord;
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Lord!
If I look towards God I will gain strength and courage.  Such is my faith.  I will never discover the answers to all questions, but I will gain a measure of koach.  That is the most I can hope for.  That is all I pray for.

Ki Tissa

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32)

So begins the story of the Golden Calf. Only a few weeks earlier the people were slaves in Egypt where they had witnessed God’s mighty acts and Moses’ extraordinary leadership. The people had just stood at Mount Sinai where they received the Torah and in particular the Ten Commandments forbidding idolatry. Their leader disappears to the mountain top for but a few short weeks and they quickly lose faith and bow down to idols. If only they had waited. If only they could have waited for their leader’s return. Then this sin could have been avoided.

If only they could have waited. So many of our own wrongdoings can be avoided by exercising a little patience. How many times have we fired off an email response to only regret it minutes later? How many times have we screamed at a cashier to only find our children’s embarrassed stares looking back at us? If only we could have waited.

Even Moses stands guilty of this sin. When he comes down the mountain and sees the wild, idolatrous house party (remember my kids are in high school), he smashes the tablets. He could have paused, perhaps even cried or at least stopped to gather his thoughts, rather than allowing his anger to smash the tablets. Moreover, even God stands guilty of this wrong. At first God wants to destroy all the people. Initially God also seethes with anger. But it is only because of Moses’ intercession that God’s anger is quelled. Anger is sometimes understandable but it is rarely, if ever, commendable.

We learn a number of things from this portion and its story. First of all, impatience fuels anger. Many regrets are piled upon the words if only I had waited. If only I had not been so quick to say that or so hasty to do that. If only I had not screamed in anger. In a world where information travels at the speed of light we should be more cautious when relaying feelings at a similar speed. Anger, and love for that matter (texting is really only about speed not feelings), are always best delivered in person. Difficult words especially are best said face to face.

Second, we learn that friends are invaluable. They comfort us when we are sad, but most importantly they, like Moses did for God, help to soften our anger. Too often friends nod in agreement when we bitterly complain about the injustices served against us. Feeling another’s pain is well and good but it does not help to lift another out of despair. It often has the opposite effect. It often deepens our anger. “You are so right!” are not always the best words to offer to a friend. Such words do not pull us from our anger. Moses implores God, “Now if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record You have written!” And God’s anger was cooled.

The rabbis teach that both the new set of tablets and the broken set of tablets were placed in the tabernacle. Both the broken and whole were placed in this holy vessel. We like to think that we should forget our wrongs and do away with our regrets. But regret also fuels repair. Regret motivates us to do better and improve ourselves.

The brokenness is never discarded. It too can be made holy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Voice of Freedom

I can't believe my eyes and ears! Watch this clip. You will think you are watching a NFTY promotional video and listening to a Dan Nichols song, but instead it is musical tribute to the Egyptian protesters.

Thank you to today's Tom Friedman column for again pointing me towards MEMRI. And kol hakavod MEMRI for tirelessly translating the Arabic media!

Am I actually witnessing Egypt change for the better? Will it really be forever as the song says, "Our dreams were our weapon?"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


It is not a Grammy but my blog was named one of the top 50 Jewish blogs.  Always nice to be recognized, even from afar....

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tetzaveh Sermon

This week’s Torah portion begins with the details of lighting the ner tamid, the eternal light.  Interestingly this required the priest’s constant care and attention which is why ner tamid is better translated as “always light.”

The remainder of the portion details how the priestly garments are to be made.  There was a blue thread (techelet) that ran through the headdress.  The garments contained finely spun gold thread.  And according to the rabbis, shatnez, the mixture of wool and linen, was even required for the making of the priest’s clothes.

With all of these chapters and verses about the priest’s clothes I have been thinking about the clothes we wear.  What do these clothes say about us?  Like you I receive many different invitations with directions of what I am supposed to wear to different occasions: black tie required, black tie optional, business casual, and my favorite, smart casual (with this one, I always worry that I might be labeled not so smart if I wear the wrong outfit).  Our society is distinguished by the clothing we wear.  Athletes wear uniforms.  Their uniforms are supposed to make a statement about their team and its history.  The military wears uniforms.  Remember how powerful it was to have a marine in his full dress uniform read the prayer for our country on Rosh Hashanah?  Would it have been the same if he did not wear his uniform?  I think not.

We would like to say that our clothes don’t matter and that the details for an ancient priesthood are irrelevant, but this is simply not the case.  It does matter.  Moreover our choices are not entirely our own.  They are sometimes prescribed, whether it be by the Torah or a friend’s invitation. 

This is why I find wearing a tallis so powerful.  It is how I dress up for prayer.  It does not matter if I am wearing my nicest suit or even my shorts, when I come to pray I always wear my tallis.  It is the nicest clothing I could imagine wearing for this occasion.  It is as well the great equalizer.  Rich and poor, all wear a tallis. This is also why according to tradition all are buried in a white shroud.  All are equal when standing before God.  We no longer have priests!

The tradition attempts to remind us that clothing does not make the person.  Death is the ultimate reminder of this truth.  The inner is more important than the outer.   As we saw with Bernie Madoff, dressing a crook in beautiful suits does not make him less of a crook.  And this is why white collar criminals (think about the term!) offend our sensibilities even more.  It is because they hide their criminality beneath a veneer of goodness, a facade of fine clothes and white shirts.

The Talmud suggests that the worst thing you can do is to say you are religious while also cheating in business.  To suggest to others that you are religious, by wearing a kippah or a tallis, and then cheat is to add defaming our great religion to the sin of stealing.  To be ritually scrupulous but ethically lacking is to not understand the true meaning of our religion, or any religion for that matter.

This is why I am thankful that we let go of the priesthood and its dress.  The dress of office too often corrupts.  Perhaps that is part of the lesson in today’s Egypt.  The suit can never make the man.  Mubarak’s Western suits did not make him Western in outlook or world view (he was certainly no advocate for democracy).  I am of course thankful for the alliances he forged with the United State and Israel.  But we must be on guard.  Just because Egypt’s youth dresses like us and Facebooks like us does not mean their values will hue to our own.  You can judge only so much by the clothes people wear. 

This is exactly why Judaism dresses the Torah as we once dressed the priest, in a robe adorned with pomegranates and bells.  We place our faith in a book not a person.  It alone holds a place of royalty in our lives.  And that is as it should be.   No person—only a book—is elevated above everything else.

Finally, many of the stories in our tradition depicting the messiah imagine him dressed as a beggar.  Here is why.  You can’t then be fooled by his dress.  Then there can be no pretense about his intentions.  His goodness is then clearly inner and not outer.  You can’t be fooled by his suit or even his priestly garb.  It is only about the good he does. 

And that is how we must be judged.  Dress in finery, but even more important dress your acts with compassion and goodness.   Dress your words in finely spun words of healing and friendship.  Those will always be the most beautiful and lasting garments you can wear.

My Tears for Mubarak

My Tears for Mubarak - Israel Opinion, Ynetnews
by Eitan Haber
Another perspective on the events unfolding in Egypt.
President Mubarak was indeed a tyrant. He was apparently corrupt as well. Yet this is the same Mubarak who wore suits and ties, spoke English, upheld the peace treaty, hosted Israeli leaders at his palace, arrived at the Rabin funeral, and even – imagine that – provided us with gas at a special price. This will likely be the only article today praising Mubarak. In politically correct terms, it would be proper to laud the masses and join in the celebration of democracy. After all, all the hypocrites in the Western world are coming together for this “civil rights party.” Yet I, such an uncivilized creature, am already starting to long for the president who was forced to quit. How I wish to be proven wrong.
Such is the view just to the north of Cairo.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Lessons of Cairo

Obama, America, And Egypt's Liberal Revolt | The New Republic
TNR's most recent editorial about the upheaval in Egypt says it all.  It begins with the words:
The spread of democracy around the world is a natural American aspiration, but sometimes the sincerity of that aspiration is tested by the disruptions of democratization. The astonishing events in Egypt are such a test. They are so thrilling in their purpose and so unclear in their outcome. They provoke exhilaration and anxiety. But they demonstrate to a new generation that the democratic longing is itself one of history’s most powerful causes. And, for the United States, they make clear that the spread of democracy is not only a matter of morality, but also a matter of strategy.
And its conclusion is very much on target:
Now, the hard question. What if, in promoting democracy in the Arab world, we find ourselves acquiescing in the inclusion of Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the new arrangements? Would this not be both a moral and a strategic disaster? A number of commentators have waved away the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, arguing that the group is not actually as radical as everyone thinks. Whatever the evolution of the movement since the hideousness of Hassan Al Banna, it strikes us as glib to dismiss the worry about its participation in an Egyptian government. It is true that a majority of Egyptians and a majority of the protesters do not want the Islamists in power; but the 30 percent of the electorate that the Muslim Brotherhood commands is not trivial. We are supposed to be reassured because the Brotherhood opposes Al Qaeda. Good for them-but what about women’s rights? Religious freedom? The treaty with Israel?
And yet we are where we are. Mubarak is over. He was not overthrown by the Islamists. And the Islamists owe what social power they possess to him and his asphyxiation of his society. So we find ourselves at one of those historical moments that bring to mind Frost’s adage that “the best way out is always through.”
We recognize that liberal democracies do not spring up overnight. Where decades of cruel autocracy have devastated civil society, diplomatic skill will be required for the pangs of transition. But this diplomacy must be based on the recognition that the breakthrough of the liberal democratic temper in Egypt is not only a crisis for the United States, but also an opportunity. Cairo has taken its place alongside Budapest and Prague as one of the modern capitals of liberal revolt. Now we must do everything we can to keep this liberal revolt liberal.
Even if it were possible to do so support for the region's stability over and against the Egyptian people will not in the end serve our interests. We may worry about Islamists gaining power, and I most certainly do, but the old regime is now gone, so we have only one choice and that is to support and nurture democracy. We must hope and pray and work that this democracy hues to the values we hold dear, namely standing against terrorism, allied with America and for peace with Israel.

And of course read Leon Wieseltier's article about what the Egyptian revolution means for Israel:  With Our Eyes Wide Open.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Google Exec Interview

Below is the interview with Google Executive Wael Ghonim after his release from prison. The clip is supplied by MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute).

Wael says in part:
We are not serving anyone's agenda... Some of us are very rich, living in the best homes, driving the best cars. I don't need anything from anyone. I didn't ask for anything. The things we did put our lives in danger, and we didn't know anything about it. We said we would do it, and that's it. We said that we would fight for our rights, because this is our country. We put our lives in harm's way, and none of us did it for personal gain.... The real heroes are the people on the street, each and every one of us. There was no knight on a horse urging people to take action. Be careful that no one tries to con you this way. This is a revolution of the Internet youth, which later became the revolution of the youth of Egypt.
He also states that the Muslim Brotherhood was not responsible for organizing the demonstrations.  Nonetheless they might still hijack the revolution.

Regardless his interview serves as powerful testimony.  It is moving to watch him tearfully claim that he is not a hero.  It is wrenching to see the concluding pictures of those youth who lost their lives.  Most of all the interview reminds us of the power of ordinary people to change their own lives and hopefully, transform their own countries.

For more information about the protests in Egypt, read these articles from the Times:
Wired and Shrewd: Young Egyptians Guide Revolt by David Kirkpatrick
Roger Cohen's Wael Ghonim's Egypt
and Nicholas Kristof's Obama and Egypt's Future
Perhaps it is not about food and jobs, but instead about democracy.


Let’s talk about clothes.

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, relates details about the priest’s clothing.  Their outfits were quite elaborate, containing a breastpiece, long coat (ephod), robe, fringed tunic, headdress and sash.  (Sorry, no shoes are mentioned.)  They were made of gold, jewels and finely woven fabrics.

Two curious details.  The forbidden mixture of wool and linen was required for the priest’s clothes.  Why was something forbidden to the masses required of the elite?  It is because clothing signifies station.  To wear something that is inaccessible to the majority sets the wearer apart.  God forbids this mixture to everyone but the priest in order that his very clothing might set him apart.

Bells and pomegranates adorned the hem of the priest’s robe in order that his clothing would announce his arrival before he actually entered the room.  According to the rabbis this teaches us that we must also announce our presence when entering a room.  The priest could not sneak up on anyone, most especially God when entering the Holy of Holies.

Clothing of course signifies many things. We wear clothes to fit in.  And we wear clothes to stand out.  Unlike the priest our clothing does not choose us.  We instead choose our clothes.   We decide what impression we wish to make.  During biblical times the priest’s clothes were assigned.  They signified his standing in Israelite society. 

We believe that today we are free to dress as we please.  But are such decisions really free?  Would you feel less comfortable if your doctor did not wear a white coat?  Would you feel uneasy if a plain clothes police officer pulled you over for speeding instead of a uniformed officer?  Is a rabbi less of a rabbi when not wearing a tallis and kippah?  Every year at least one of my students asks me if I wear my kippah all the time.  “Do you wear your kippah in the shower?” the wise guy asks.  (And I of course answer, “No because then I would not be able to wash my hair.”)  I imagine they are thinking: if the rabbi is always a rabbi then he must always dress like a rabbi.

In an age when seventh grade girls dress in mini-skirts to appear more attractive and Middle Eastern women dress in chadors to become less attractive, we might do well to recover the meaning our clothing conveys to others.  What is it that we wish to signify by the clothes we wear?  As much as we might wish, it is not only about what we want to wear.  It is as well what others see in our clothes.  This is what the details in Parashat Tetzaveh teach us. 

To be honest I prefer shorts, a t-shirt and no shoes (blasphemy!).  But then again clothes are not just about being comfortable.  Clothes are not only about what we choose to wear.  They are as well what others see of us.  And like the priest of old they are about announcing our presence.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt's Turmoil Sermon

Our Torah portion begins with the words, “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The Torah’s intention seems clear. The Tabernacle could only be built if the people were moved to participate. Later we will read that the people’s hearts were joined together in this effort—and it was only because of this that they succeeded.

This brings me to my question for the evening, the question of the turmoil in Egypt. Are the people indeed joined together? Ok, perhaps the connection to the Torah portion is thin but I promised that I would about what is happening in Egypt so here it goes. Let me make a few observations and then open it up for discussion.

Years ago when on a rabbinic mission to Israel I met with Dr. Yuval Steinmetz. He is currently the finance minister and a Knesset member from Likud. He made dire warnings about Egypt. He observed that there was a great deal of saber rattling emanating from Egypt and that Egypt was increasing its ground forces. I dismissed his warnings, thinking that it does not matter because Israel has a peace treaty with Egypt.

Israel’s papers reported recently (2008) that a Gallup poll of Egyptians showed that 60% favored instituting Sharia (Islamic law). 80% of women there undergo female circumcision. Moreover the Muslim Brotherhood represents the beginnings of jihadist Islam. It began in the 1920’s. It had strong ties to the Nazis, and continues to dispense antisemitic tracts. The Muslim Brotherhood rejects the peace treaty with Israel. To be sure the group seems to be moving away from violence but I have great worries about its intentions.

It is of course still unclear what is going to happen. We only know that at present there is great instability in the region. In addition to Egypt we just witnessed Tunisia’s jasmine revolution. Yemen is now also convulsing and Yemen is crucial to the US efforts to fight radical Islam. Jordan is now also teetering. A Jordanian descent into chaos could prove even more worrisome for Israel.

So let me make a few observations. If these events are indeed a march to democracy it will be remarkable that it was brought about by the information age and technology rather than by making wars, as we attempted in Iraq in Afghanistan. This is why I so admired Google when it pulled out of China. The company stood by its principles that information should lead to freedoms and can do good (or at least do no harm, as Google would say). But technology can also be used to hunt down these same protesters as Iran has systematically done over the past year.

Still I remain skeptical that we are seeing democracy unfold in Egypt. Perhaps we will see greater freedoms emerge there, but not sweeping democratic reforms. I share the goal of bringing democracy to the world, but I am constantly reminded that the Middle East has remained inhospitable to such reforms.

The protests in Iran led nowhere—except now to the arrests of the protesters. I believe the Obama administration failed these protesters in not speaking more forcefully in their behalf. I continue to wonder why this administration speaks for protesters against an ally, but did not speak for protesters against an enemy. (I do sometimes see things in simplistic and stark ways.) I also still wonder how Obama could offer such little criticism of Egyptian government when in Cairo. Yes, he did speak for democracy and against the suppression of freedoms, but he did not single out the Mubarak government for criticism, except in reference to the Copts. It makes you doubt how much faith the protesters have in the US.

Lebanon’s cedar revolution that brought democratic reforms to that country has ultimately led to Hezbollah gaining power. Similarly the Bush administration’s support for elections in Gaza brought Hamas to power.

It is quite the moral quandary. I believe in democracy. But time and again it has brought our enemies to power in the Middle East.

Now to Israel. Today I participated in a conference call with Dr. Kenneth Stein of Emory University. The call was sponsored by AIPAC. He made two important observations. It is in Egypt’s interest to maintain peace agreement with Israel. It is a strategic benefit. It might never be a warm peace but the peace treaty will hold. I certainly hope he is right! None of the protesters have said that their protests are about Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Stein continued, the protests are first and foremost about jobs and food. They are really not even about democracy. Here are a few statistics. The majority of Egyptians live in poverty, living on $2 per day. 700,000 students graduate from Egyptian colleges every year. Only 200,000 new jobs are created every year. 35% of Egyptians are illiterate (out of a population of 80 million).

Israel is understandably nervous. This is what they are talking about there, in the Israeli press. Since the Egyptian peace accords Israel has not fought a conventional war. All of the recent conflicts have been asymmetrical. To adjust its military planning to face a large Egyptian army (now supplied with US military hardware) could alter modern Israel.
Because of the peace treaty Israel has reduced its military spending and lowered the age for reservists. Even adding discussions about the possibility of a conventional war with Egypt would be a terrible psychological blow to Israel and Israelis.

Israeli armaments travel through the Suez canal. In addition 3% of the world’s oil travels through Egypt. The majority of Israel’s natural gas is imported from Egypt. Also many commentators have noted how quickly US apparently turned on its ally. This has also caused a great deal of nervousness.

It is unclear what these current protests will lead to. If they lead to more representative government and less human rights abuses wonderful. If they also lead to greater empowerment of Israel’s and America’s enemies then this month will mark the day that we returned to the problems of the 1970’s.

There is of course little we can do. And Israeli especially and even America should at the moment sit on the sidelines. All we can do is wait, wonder and of course pray. I will always pray that all can enjoy the freedoms of democracy. And I will also do what little I can to make sure that our allies are guaranteed their security, most especially my beloved Israel.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Our Cantor in Concert!

Here is a great YouTube video featuring one of my favorite singers as well as pianists. It contains a medley of Israeli favorites.

Way to go cantor--and Natalie!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

PM Netanyahu Addresses the Knesset

Prime Minister Netanyahu: The situation in Egypt 2-Feb-2011
This is yesterday's remarks by Netanyahu to the Knesset regarding the situation in Egypt. Israel and Israelis are understandably nervous and worried about the turmoil there. Netanyahu said in part:
It is clear that an Egypt that rests on these institutions, an Egypt that is anchored in democratic values, would never be a threat to peace. On the contrary, if we have learned anything from modern history, it is that the stronger the foundations of democracy, the stronger the foundations of peace. Peace among democracies is strong, and democracy strengthens the peace.
The Iranian regime is not interested in seeing an Egypt that protects the rights of individuals, women, and minorities. They are not interested in an enlightened Egypt that embraces the 21st century. They want an Egypt that returns to the Middle Ages. They want Egypt to become another Gaza, run by radical forces that oppose everything that the democratic world stands for. 
We have two separate worlds here, two opposites, two world views: that of the free, democratic world and that of the radical world. Which one of them will prevail in Egypt?
We wish to support democracy but worry that it might bring our enemies to power, namely the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yossi Klein HaLevi remarked in yesterday's Times:
For Israel, then, peace with Egypt has been not only strategically but also psychologically essential. Israelis understand that the end of their conflict with the Arab world depends in large part on the durability of the peace with Egypt — for all its limitations, it is the only successful model of a land-for-peace agreement. 
For now we watch and wait--and pray.


Following the revelation at Mount Sinai we first encounter laws of how to order a just society. These are the details of last week’s portion, Mishpatim. In this week’s reading, Terumah, we learn of how to construct a sanctuary and thereby bring God to earth.  We read chapters and verses containing inordinate details of how to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings.

The portion begins: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts (terumah); you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him…  And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’” (Exodus 25:1-8)

But how can God dwell on earth?  How can people believe that any building they construct would house God or even befit God?  King Solomon responds in the words offered at the dedication ceremony of the First Temple.  “But will God really dwell on earth?  Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!”  (I Kings 8:27)

The Rabbis disagree, arguing that God wants to dwell on earth.  It is like, they say, a king who says to his daughter on the day she marries a prince from a distant country.  “Sweetheart (ok, I added that) I cannot prevent you from moving away with your new husband, but it saddens me to think of you living so far away from me.  Do me this favor.  Wherever you live, build an apartment for me so that I can come and visit you.”  Similarly God says to Israel, “Wherever you travel, build a sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell among you.”  (Exodus Rabbah 33:1)

I think that we often place too much importance in such buildings.  We place more faith in buildings than in the people who dwell there.  This was the cause of our economy’s recent downfall.  Buildings are but means to an end.  Their purpose is not found in their structures.  Their purpose must always be in the people who gather there.

Sometimes when the flowers are blooming on my front yard (may that day be very soon!) and my house is awash in their colors, I think to myself how fortunate I am to have such a beautiful home.  Then I remind myself that the purpose of my home extends beyond its landscaping, decorations and rooms.  Its purpose extends even beyond keeping my family warm and safe.  The purpose of a home is only realized when it brings a family closer together.  The purpose of a home is found in the people who gather there.

Even the sanctuary that we dream of one day building is but a means to an end.  All buildings are to help us sanctify our lives and cherish our relationships.  I stand with King Solomon.  No place can contain God.  Every building is for us.

When God commanded the Israelites to build a sanctuary God understood that all its details were for the people.  Perhaps the Israelites had to believe that it could contain God in order for their hearts to be moved to give.  I imagine that God’s most fervent prayer was that the people’s hearts might be joined together and thereby inspired to build a better community.  Every sanctuary is so that we might turn towards each other.  

That is why the instructions for building a just society precede the instructions for building a sanctuary.  It is always about the people.  It is first about the community.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mishpatim Sermon

Following the revelation at Mount Sinai we move to a detailed listing of laws.  Here are a few of the many laws and mitzvot listed in this week’s parsha.  Some make sense and others appear outdates.  There are the logical and the mysterious.  Most of the laws fall into the category of mishpatim, laws whose reasons are obvious as opposed to hukkim, laws whose reasons are mysterious.

The portion begins with laws concerning the treatment of slaves.  We begin with the outdated.  Then there are laws about manslaughter and murder.  The Torah establishes asylum for a person who accidentally kills another so as to prevent the seeking of vengeance.  The death penalty is prescribed if you hit or insult your parents.  Perhaps the parent of a teenager wrote this one.  We also find here some of the basis for our own contemporary laws.  For example if you cause injury to a person Jewish law states that you are responsible for five types of restitution: for injury, for pain, for medical expenses, for absence from work, and for humiliation and mental anguish.  How progressive!  If you cause a miscarriage then you are required to make restitution as well.  This is the context for an eye and for an eye which mandates fair and equitable restitution not as commonly understood vengeance.

My favorite is the law of the goring ox.  The owner must make restitution only if the ox is in the habit of goring and he did not guard against this happening.  Similarly you are liable if you leave a pit uncovered and an animal or person falls in.  There is a fundamental tenet here of our responsibility to others.  You must make restitution if you start a fire or steal a neighbor’s livestock.  If you lose something that someone asked you to keep, even if it was stolen, you are responsible for it.  You shall not wrong the stranger, orphan or widow.  You must not take bribes.  Many of these laws were constructed to help build a just society.  The Torah is not just worried about how we approach God but also about building a community that cares for one another.

There are laws regarding the lending of money and charging interest.  Another one of my favorites, you have to stop and help your enemy’s ox—if it is lost or if it is struggling under its burden.  Observe Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.  Leave the gleanings of the field for the poor.   Let the field lie fallow on the seventh year.  And now to some that are more difficult to understand.  Get rid of all the Hivites, Hittites, Canaanites, Amorites, Perizzites and Jebusites.  Don’t offer the blood of the sacrifice with anything leavened.

And finally, you shall not a boil a kid in its mother’s milk.  This is one of the classic examples of those laws called hukkim, laws whose reasons are mysterious.  There are many attempts to explain this law.  Most likely it was an ancient Canaanite practice that the Israelites found abhorrent.  If you have to get rid of all these peoples then you also have to get rid of all their abhorrent practices.

This verse is obviously the basis for the prohibition regarding the mixing of milk and meat.  The most common explanation for this observance is that we must not mix what gives life with the life that was taken.  Not mixing milk and meat is a discipline that brings Jewish consciousness to the everyday.  It makes you think about your Jewishness even when you are preparing food.

The early Reform rabbis rejected kashrut because they found such practices that regulated dress and diet to be for a different age.  But what was really going on was that the early Reform rabbis had great faith in reason.  If the reason was mysterious and did not fit with their modern sensibilities then they rejected the practice.  But post Holocaust and now because of post-modernism we have come to doubt reason.  And if we don’t doubt it we should.  We should not have complete faith in reason.  The Holocaust not only destroyed six million Jews and millions more it also destroyed our faith in reason.  Here was a country, namely Germany, at the height of culture, science and philosophy that used all of these and reason to evil ends.  

So it can’t all be about what our minds are capable of. It can’t all be what our heads can explain or reason can fathom.  Dr. Micah Goodman in his new book talks about redemptive perplexity.  I like this notion that there is a redemptive quality to not having it all figured out.  That is what he argues is the point of Maimonides’ "Guide of the Perplexed.”

And so I have come to think that we must recover mystery.  That is what not mixing milk and meat is about.  It is a daily affirmation of the fact that sometimes we must do things that cannot be adequately explained. Mystery must be a part of our lives—just as much as reason.  Wondering why must always be a part of our Jewish lives.

I am not suggesting that everyone must practice as I do.  Or that everyone should even keep kosher.  But I do believe that we must recover mystery.  Not every Jewish thing that we do can be explained by reason.

One more example.  I have been thinking about snow lately.  I am sure it is clear why this has been on my mind.  It is hard to see beauty in 18 inches of snow and the piles that tower over my head.  But you have to admit if you don’t have to get anywhere the snow is beautiful.  Moreover snow has a teaching in its accumulation.

All plans come to a crashing halt.  You can plan and schedule all you want.  But we don’t control everything.  We don’t understand everything.  Some things are just beyond our control.

Jewish tradition suggests that the highest reason for doing a mitzvah is not for a promise of reward or even because you find its reasons compelling, but instead because it is God given.  Because the reason is beyond our understanding we do the mitzvah for its own sake.

We do things for the sake of mystery.   On this Shabbat I would like us to work to restore mystery to our lives. The search for answers and reasons must always continue.  But unresolved questions do not mean giving up the quest.   It means instead affirming the mystery of our lives.  It means praising the mystery in our lives.

Amidst all of these laws in this week’s portion we find of course the quest for a just society but also this affirmation of mystery.  And with such mystery comes peace and contentment.