Skip to main content


Showing posts from April, 2011

Yom Haatzmaut Article

What follows is an article about the upcoming holiday of Yom Haatzmaut that was recently published in The Orchard , a publication of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet.  Follow this link to download the Spring 2011 edition.  My article appears on page 19. Why is tragedy compelling? Why is fear motivating? Why is mourning viewed as a greater obligation than celebrating? Why are more people familiar with the details of the Holocaust than the history of Zionism and Israel? These are the questions that occupy my thoughts as we approach Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, and the celebration of 63 years of Jewish sovereignty. To garner our support for the State of Israel we are inundated with images of Hezbollah missiles, Iran’s potential nuclear weapons, suicide bombings, divestment campaigns and in the estimation of many, dwindling support from the Obama administration. These are great worries to be sure. Israel does indeed face numerous threats. Some

Yad VaShem Testimonies

In observance of Yom HaShoah read the testimonies of this year's Torchlighters .  Every year Yad VaShem chooses six survivors to light the commemorative torches.  I would also suggest that you watch the below video. I keep coming back to this testimony, but I cannot escape its closing words: "Shalom yeladim."   "....We never saw them again." You can watch other video testimonies here . As Elie Wiesel said: "For whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness."

Yom HaShoah

This evening we will add special prayers and songs to our Shabbat Services in order to commemorate the Holocaust.  Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) is officially observed on Sunday.  It is a day filled with special services, concerts and public ceremonies.  But no commemoration can adequately mark this tragedy.  Still it was not always the case that such services marked our calendar. Fifty years ago Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and secreted him to the state for trial.  David Ben Gurion made the startling announcement to the Knesset and the world at large.  To mark this anniversary and prepare for our Yom HaShoah observances I began reading Deborah Lipstadt’s new book, The Eichmann Trial as well as rereading Hannah Arendt’s controversial, Eichmann in Jerusalem .  Arendt provocatively claimed that evil appeared so ordinary and banal in Eichmann’s visage.  Lipstadt expertly recreates the details of the trial in her gripping ac


This week’s Torah portion is brimming with ethical commandments, the most familiar of which is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   (Leviticus 19:18)   When the Torah scroll is unrolled to the middle this verse stands at its center.   Many have therefore interpreted this phrase to stand at the core of Jewish ethics.   I have always found this verse perplexing.   Who is my neighbor?   What does it mean to love?   A prior verse offers needed wisdom and clarification.   Rendered literally it reads: “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.”   (Leviticus 19:16)   Most translators interpret the verse as follows: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Jewish tradition has understood this phrase to mean that each of us has an obligation to help others.   When someone is in distress we must try to help.   If a person is drowning we must try to rescue him or her, whether the person is young or old, man or woman, Jew or gentile, stranger or friend.   Failing to even try to save

Ahrei Mot-Passover Sermon

This sermon was written for Friday, April 15 th . Why is it that the holiday that celebrates the creation of the Jewish people appears today to give rise to far more divisions?  There is the Ashkenazi and Sephardi divide.  Do you eat rice on Passover?  Do you only cook with potatoes?  There are the Reform and Orthodox divisions.  Do you observe seven days or eight?  There are the endless discussions about kitniyot (legumes) and of course this year’s quinoa controversy.  Apparently rabbis have been dispatched to South America’s Andes to discern if there are wheat particles mixed in with the quinoa.  Personally I have been enjoying this gluten free grain for years.  I recommend the red variety in particular.  I recently read that there are even some who won’t eat meat, drink milk or eat eggs from animals that have been fed hametz.  (If you don’t believe me listen to Tablet Magazine’s Vox Tablet podcast “Against the Grain” here .) You can really start losing sight of the import of this

Another Newsletter Article

And here is my article from the March-April 2011 Newsletter. Continuing with the tradition begun in the last newsletter, here are some of our students’ “questions for the rabbi” along with my answers. Were Adam and Eve the first people on earth? According to the Torah Adam and Eve were the first people who were made by God. I think part of your question, however, is how come they teach me one thing in school and another thing in Religious School. How can science and evolution be true and religion and the Bible also be true? Evolution and science teach us how human beings came to be. Religion and Judaism teach us what the purpose of our life is. We don’t read the Bible as a science manual. Instead we read it to tell us what we are supposed to do with our lives. Only the Torah can tell us that God wanted to create human beings for the purpose of perfecting our world and bringing healing to the world. Did any sport come from Hebrew? The latest Jewish sport is Ga-Ga which is a friendlie

Newsletter Article

I neglected to include my recent newsletter articles.  What follows is my article from our January-February 2011 Newsletter. Recently Mrs. Bertash, our Religious School principal, began collecting questions for the rabbi. Our students could write down any question that was on their mind and that they wanted me to answer. What follows are a few of their questions and of course my answers. How was God named? In the Torah God is called by many names. God’s name is “Y-H-V-H.” But we no longer know how this name was pronounced so we say, Adonai, meaning my lord. There are many names for God in our tradition. I like to think that these many names offer us just as many different ways of approaching God. How do you become Jewish? If your parents tell you that you are Jewish then you are Jewish. But sometimes people choose to convert to Judaism because they think being Jewish is so awesome. Why did you decide to become a Rabbi? Because I like to talk. And listen. Mostly it is because I lik

Passover Thoughts

Eighteen minutes.   That is the difference between matzah and bread.   From the moment the flour is mixed with water to the time this mixture is placed in the oven must be eighteen minutes or less.   If it is longer the mixture is deemed bread.   If less it is matzah.   Our tradition recognizes that leavening is a naturally occurring process.   It happens any time flour is mixed with water.    And so it is a minute that demarcates the difference between leavened and unleavened bread.   One minute can make all the difference between kosher and not, between matzah and bread, between what is proper and what is not.   According to the rabbis the leavening agent of yeast symbolizes the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.   The yetzer represents passion and drive, ambition and competition.   Too much of any of these and our lives become ruled by lust and greed.   Too little and we lack motivation.   We require the yetzer hara, never in abundance, but always in the right measure and within

Passover Card

Your JCB family wishes you a happy and joyous Passover! Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav said: Seek the sacred within the ordinary.  Seek the remarkable within the commonplace.

Ahrei Mot

The Talmud reports: “Except for the prohibitions against murder, incest and idolatry, any commandment must be set aside for pikuah nefesh, saving a human life.” (Sanhedrin 74a) This week’s Torah portion concurs: “v’chai b’hem, you shall live by them” (Leviticus 18: 5)  The commandments are intended to be life affirming.  We are not to die because of them.  Only in extreme examples when faced, for example, with committing murder do we choose martyrdom, preferring death over life. On Monday evening the holiday of Passover begins.  Passover is given to scrupulous observance.  We are commanded to rid our homes of hametz, leavened products, and eat only matzah and kosher for Passover foods for the holiday's eight days.  One encounters many different levels of observance within the rituals of Passover.  Unfortunately at this time of year one also hears statements that are disparaging of other Jews’ observance.  “That’s not kosher for Passover.  How could you eat corn syrup?  I keep Pas

Beware of Democracy?

This week's Wall Street Journal offers an excellent, if troubling, interview with Bernard Lewis, arguably one of the Western World's foremost experts on the Middle East.  Lewis argues against moving too quickly to elections in the Arab world.  While the protest movement is encouraging, he cautions: Elections, he argues, should be the culmination—not the beginning—of a gradual political process. Thus "to lay the stress all the time on elections, parliamentary Western-style elections, is a dangerous delusion." He advocates not the bringing about of a Western style democracy but a more open, tolerant society that incorporates Arab and Muslim traditions. Bernard Lewis has been studying the Middle East for over sixty years.  We would do well to heed his words.  He offers a number of sobering observations: First, Tunisia has real potential for democracy, largely because of the role of women there. "Tunisia, as far as I know, is the only Muslim country that h


Two weeks of leprosy!  This week’s Torah portion also discusses the details of leprosy, including a leprous plague occurring on the walls of a house.  Thankfully the rabbinic sages transformed metzora into a moral lesson.  They spun a midrash from the letters of this Hebrew word for leprosy, expanding metzora into motzi shem ra, the spreading of malicious gossip.  They reasoned that gossip is morally disfiguring just as leprosy is physically deforming.  Their teachings on gossip continue to resonate today.  When we gossip, repeating something that is unflattering of others, we disfigure ourselves as well as others.  We must recognize that just as words can build worlds, so too can they destroy.  A person’s reputation can be destroyed with the press of a keyboard’s send.  We follow a tradition that is built on the power of words.  We can bless, as well as curse.  We can praise, as well destroy.  Once such negative words have been passed on to others, gathering them up can be an imp

Johnny Clegg

Ari and I enjoyed a great concert this week at City Winery with Johnny Clegg.  Here is his song "Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World." Check out his website for more of his music and songs.  By the way, 46664 was Nelson Mandela's prisoner number and now the name of the humanitarian organization that promotes HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.

Goldstone Recants

Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and War Crimes - The Washington Post In Friday's Washington Post Judge Richard Goldstone withdrew the most damning charge of his report on the Gaza War. In that report he accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians. In the Post he writes: "While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee's report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy." I believed this to be the case then. I never doubted the IDF's integrity or the State of Israel's ethics. The Goldstone report was deeply flawed in large part because its investigation was deeply flawed. "In the end, asking Hamas to investigate may have been a mistaken enterprise." But alas the feathers have been scattered to the winds and Goldstone's b

Tazria Sermon

In this week’s Torah portion we read of leprosy.  In ancient times the priest served as the doctor.  It was he who examined the skin infections to determine if they were leprous or not.  If the person had leprosy he was placed in isolation for seven days.  If he still had leprosy he was moved outside of the camp. Leviticus is obsessed with ritual purity.  So much so that it pushed those who had leprosy or who were deformed outside of the community.  In a word this is wrong.  It is wrong on two counts.  No one should ever be without his or her community in such a time of need.  To my mind the value of community supersedes that of ritual.  And #2 the obligation to care for the sick extends beyond the professionals, in this case the priest. Let’s begin with #2.  The mitzvah of bikkur holim is a mitzvah that is required of all.  It is not just for the rabbi, or for the family, or for the doctor.  It is incumbent upon everyone.  I know that it is a very difficult mitzvah to fulfill, but

Shemini Sermon

This sermon was delivered on Friday, March 25. We toss the term “acts of God” around far too easily, attaching the label most recently to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.   I understand that an act of God is a legal term used to describe events, such as natural disasters, that are outside of human control and for which no one can be held responsible.   Yet as a lover of God I am uncomfortable with the term and bristle at its use.   I wish we were more comfortable ascribing positive events to God rather than the negative and catastrophic.   I choose only to assign good to God.   That is my posture. In this week’s portion, Shemini, we read of Nadav and Avihu who offer an alien, strange, fire on the altar and were therefore killed.   What was so strange about their sacrifice so as to merit their deaths?   Some suggest that it was the manner in which it was offered.   Others say they were intoxicated.   I believe that were consumed by overzealousness.   They were intoxicated with