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Showing posts from May, 2011

MEMRI TV Clip #2952

Below is a clip from a May 20th rally in Gaza. In the rally marchers chant slogans praising Osama bin Laden and denouncing the US.  It is difficult to discern how many are present at this rally.  Nonetheless it provides more troubling evidence of the hatred filling the streets of Gaza. I continue to hope and pray that the Palestinians of Gaza, and in particular their Hamas leadership, will focus more on building something rather than destroying others. But with each of these clips I become more and more pessimistic about the hopes for peace.

Bamidbar Sermon

The greatest king of Israel was David, yet he sinned a number of times.  Interestingly one of his sins was exactly what Moses does in this week’s Torah portion.  According to the Bible David was punished for ordering a census.  The Book of Samuel reports: “David reproached himself for having numbered the people.  And David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned grievously in what I have done.  Please, O Lord, remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.’” (2 Samuel 24) Apparently the counting of the tribes, the numbering of the people, reported in Parshat Bamidbar, was an exception, not the norm.  Moses takes a census of the people in order to muster the troops and determine how many battalions he has before his successor, Joshua, makes war on the inhabitants of the Promised Land.  This contrast between Moses and David brings to light Judaism’s discomfort with counting.  Throughout our history the numbering of people was greeted with great hesitation. We do not live in suc

By the Numbers

By the Numbers - by Liel Leibovitz > Tablet Magazine A worthy read regarding Netanyahu's recent speech to Congress. Ours, alas, is the era of unreal numbers, from the falsified spreadsheets of Bernie Madoff to the felonious schemes of the equally criminal yet tragically unpunished swindlers behind the subprime mortgage bubble. Bluffing discreetly on balance sheets is bad enough; do it in the open, on the largest imaginable stage, and we’re headed down a dangerous road. Unfortunately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the Congress earlier this week was a master class of numeric (and other) inaccuracies. Because these things matter—they matter very much—let us, in the spirit of this week’s parasha , do the Jewish thing and set the record straight. Netanyahu said: The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv. Actually, there are 304,5

MEMRI TV Clip #2949

Below is a depressing clip. In it Hamas Foreign Liaisons Chief Osama Hamdan states that armed confrontation will continue and that Israelis must return to their countries of origin. How can peace be made with those who seek Israel's destruction? This is yet more evidence that the Hamas-Fatah accord is the single worst development in recent months.  It is hard to watch this Western dressed spokesman offer his medieval views.  What could possibly be wrong with two nations living side by side in peace?

Behar Sermon

What follows is the sermon delivered on Friday, May 13. The Torah portion makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear.  It is of course the holy land.  This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year. One might therefore think, especially with the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy.  But in fact all lands are holy.  The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, is holy.  Our blessings do not say, for example, “Thank You God for the fruit of Israel,” but instead “for the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.”  The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tone, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants.  For God founded it upon the ocean, set on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24) The Hebrew word for earth here in this text is ha-aretz, the land.  Yet the intention is clear.  It is the earth, the world, all lands that is intended.    Psalm 104 declares: “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; Y

PM Netanyahu's Speech Take 2

On Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the US Congress.  The entire speech can be found here .  It was an excellent speech in which he made a number of important points.  Here are a few of his words.  My commentary again follows.  In bold are what I believe to be his most significant statements. Israel has no better friend than America. And America has no better friend than Israel. We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism. Congratulations America, Congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance! In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability. In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America’s unwavering ally. Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American. …Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of one-percent are truly free, and they're all citizens of Israel! This startling fact reveals a basic truth: Israel is not what is wrong abou


This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, called in English, Numbers.  It is a book filled with a variety of stories.  The people will spend this book journeying through the wilderness (midbar), preparing to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  This 40 year journey, its challenges and triumphs, are preparation for what lies ahead, in particular the battles with the Canannites and those who occupy the land of Israel.  There is the story of the spies scouting the land.  There are moments when the people lose faith and question the purpose of their mission.  There are as well other moments when the people rebel against Moses.  And there is this week’s opening chapter, a census of the Israelites. The plain meaning of the census is clear.  It is a mustering of the troops.  Each tribe is counted, with the exception of the Levites.  Their sole purpose was to tend to the tabernacle and its ritual objects and therefore need not be counted as part of the army

Yom Haatzmaut Meditation

On Friday, May 6 we observed Yom Yaatzmaut.  I wrote a meditation exploring our 3,000 year connection to the city of Jerusalem.  In this meditation I explored this history through the Bible, Siddur, medieval poetry and modern songs.  Natalie Tenenbaum composed a beautiful musical piece for piano and clarinet, expertly played by Vasko Dukovski, to give expression to my words and the varied texts I selected.  The voice of the clarinet especially gave expression to those joyful times, like the present, when we can touch the land.  The chords of the piano helped to give voice to the words of the prayerbook and poets.  What follows is a brief excerpt from the meditation’s conclusion.  Then in our own day the dream is realized.  There are no more dangers of sea travel.  We can board a plane and in less than one day touch the soil of eretz yisrael, the land and cities our ancestors only dreamed of.  The place is different than the dreams of our prayerbooks and poets.   The earthly is not al

PM Netanyahu's Speech

What follows is Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks at the AIPAC Policy Conference.  You can watch the video here .  This speech was delivered last night. Again I have highlighted what I believe to be his most important statements.  My commentary follows.  I await his address to the US Congress scheduled for today. My friends, To all our supporters in this great hall and to the millions of supporters across this great land, the people of Israel thank you. Thank you for your staunch commitment to Israel's security. Thank you for defending Israel's right to defend itself. Thank you for standing by Israel as it seeks a secure peace. Now, I heard tonight from all the speakers something that you know - that Israel is America's indispensable ally. You understand that Israel and America stand shoulder to shoulder fighting common enemies, protecting common interests. You know that Israeli innovators help power computers, fight disease, conserve water, clean the planet. Yo

Bechukotai Sermon

Before we conclude this evening’s service let me share a few words of Torah.   In Leviticus 26, our Torah portion proclaims: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.  You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword…” This promise is predicated on our observance of the commandments.  It precedes a detailed list of punishments.  I am not going to enumerate the details of these punishments but suffice it to say that if you do not obey the commandments a lot of bad things will happen.  The punishments are quite lengthy and detailed. I wish instead to speak for a moment about the promise of peace.  “Vnatati shalom ba-aretz…  I will grant peace in the land.”  The Torah suggests that peace, and in particular peace for the land of Israel, is in our hands. This of course is the question of the day, and especially of this week.  Preside

President Obama's Speech Take 2

Yesterday President Obama spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC.  He offered several clarifications of his Thursday speech.  The transcript and video of the speech can be found here .  The president said in part: "[T]he United sees the historic changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as a moment of great challenge, but also a moment of opportunity for greater peace and security for the entire region, including the State of Israel." I remain unconvinced that the time is ripe to move the peace process forward.  I find the changes sweeping the region unsettling, but the president, like every president before him, can try to move peace forward.  Despite the fact that I am more often than not an optimist  I find myself deeply pessimistic that today a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians can be reached. People have asked "Why did the president give this speech now?"  Here is my read on that question.  People who become presiden

President Obama's Speech

Yesterday President Obama delivered a speech about the Middle East. There has been a great deal of discussion in the press about his comments regarding Israel and there most certainly will be more debate at the upcoming AIPAC conference where both Netanyahu and Obama are speaking.   I would urge people to read yesterday's speech in its entirety.  You can find the text here as transcribed on The New York Times website.  If you prefer, watch Obama's speech below on YouTube: Promise me this.  Please don't make judgments based on other people's comments.  Read the speech yourself.  Don't follow the lead of pundits, commentators, talk show hosts, and especially TV personalities.  Make your own informed judgments! Here are mine.  We can by and large be pleased with Obama's statements.  He re-affirmed the important relationship between the US and Israel and criticized the ongoing terror campaign against the Jewish state.  Below is the relevant text.  I have hig


I am not optimistic about peace in the Middle East. The Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, will soon unilaterally declare a Palestinian State defined by Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Despite his distortions of history, many nations will undoubtedly recognize this declaration. Some will not. The Palestinians continue to appeal to the United Nations for support. Meanwhile Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeals to the US Congress for support. They do not speak to each other, instead only to their supporters. Israel of course can always count on my support, but peace will not be achieved if Israel and the Palestinians refuse to speak with each other. (Tom Friedman is correct on this point.) This week’s protests commemorating Al Nakhba offer further discouraging signs. Make no mistake. Marking the creation of the State of Israel as “the catastrophe” does not signal Palestinians coming to terms with the modern Jewish state. It suggests that the “stalemate”

Take Back Zionism

This is a powerful video about the humanitarian impulse of  modern Zionism.  It is produced by a new organization, Take Back Zionism , an advocacy group formed by alumni of Birthright Israel. I remember  years ago when Menahem Begin was Israel's prime minister.  In 1977 an Israeli cargo ship came across a boat of Vietnamese drifting in the ocean.  The Israeli captain offered the sixty some people food and water and then transported them to Israel.  Begin granted these Vietnamese "boat people" Israeli citizenship, comparing them to Jewish refugees, many of whom had struggled in vain to escape Nazi occupied Europe. Begin was himself a Holocaust survivor.  In the end approximately 300 Vietnamese were granted Israeli citizenship and found a home in the Jewish state. Where human beings suffer a Jew must take action.  I am proud of how frequently Israel has taken up this cause and sought to relieve the suffering of fellow human beings.

Unemployment and Torah

Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering the D'var Torah at the local Connect to Care town hall meeting and networking opportunity.  This event was for those who have found themselves unemployed or underemployed because of the recent economic crisis.  I am proud that my synagogue was one of the event's co-sponsors.  Thank you Jim Krantz.  Thank you to all of the organizers of this Connect to Care event: UJA-Federation, Sid Jacobson JCC, Jericho Jewish Center and my congregation and its leadership. This week’s Torah portion is Behar, from the book of Leviticus.  It is a portion decidedly focused on eretz yisrael, the land of Israel.  In particular it outlines two laws.  It first details the sabbatical year, shmita, the seventh year in which the land must remain untilled.  We are commanded not to work the land during this year.  We can only eat what grows on its own.  The spiritual intention of this law is clear.  Everything is deserving of menuchah, rest.  In add


“It’s the ground that can never be replaced…  They don’t make any more ground, and this ground in the spillway is the best in the world.” Last week the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited a hole in the Mississippi river levee, flooding the spillway, in order to save a small town.  In the process they sacrificed precious Missouri farm land.  The New York Times (May 3, 2011) quoted one farmer’s words of praise and reverence for the land he and his family farmed for their entire lives. Years ago when my family and I used to boat on the mighty Mississippi we would marvel at the homes on the river’s banks.  Why would people build on a flood plain?  Every year the Mississippi river floods.  Every year the river nourishes the surrounding farm lands.  Some years the floods are greater than others.  Precious land comes at great cost.  Apparently this is nature’s equation.  And so every year families have to flee their homes.  There is pull of the land that defies reason.  There is the pull of

Testing Limits

Testing the Limits - by Marjorie Ingall; Tablet Magazine This is an interesting article about standardized testing. Given that our children are now in the thick of taking standardized test the author's thoughts should give us pause. Is there a correlation between improved teaching and standardized tests as politicians argue? I think not. I have always found these troubles. How can one objectify learning. Does a 5 mean you have learned more? Does an 800 mean you are a better writer? Such scores are pyrrhic victories. The notion that all students, especially young fourth graders, can be placed on the same level and evaluated by objective measures is impossible. Ingall writes as well about what should be our communal concern: As Jews, we dig community. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, we’re told: Do not separate yourself from the community. Our prayers are written overwhelmingly in the first person plural. But standardized testing is the furthest thing from communitarian. Wealthy families

Happy Yom Haatzmaut!

Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day.  63 years ago, according to the Jewish calendar, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the creation of the modern Jewish state with the words: [W]e, the members of the National Council, representing the Jewish people in Palestine and the Zionist movement of the world, met together in solemn assembly today, the day of the termination of the British Mandate for Palestine, and by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people and of the resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Israel. We live in remarkable times.  Few generations of Jews have shared in the privilege of living alongside a sovereign Jewish state.  When we look back through the lens of history we realize that this blessing is unprecedented.  It is unrivaled.  Most people think that our community is affluent because of its material success.  The Jewish community has indeed

Yom HaZikaron

Today is Yom HaZikaron, the day we remember those soldiers who gave their lives defending the State of Israel.  They are far too many for such a small nation.  To mark this day I share Natan Alterman's "The Silver Platter." The earth grows still the lurid sky slowly pales over smoking borders. Heartsick, but still living, a people stand by to greet the uniqueness of a miracle. Readied, they wait beneath the moon wrapped in awesome joy, before the light. A girl and boy step forward, and slowly walk before the waiting nation; In work garb and heavy-shod they climb in stillness. Wearing yet the dress of battle, the grime of aching day arid fire-filled night. Unwashd, weary unto death, not knowing rest, but waring youth like dewdrops in their hair silently the two approach and stand, are they of the quick or of the dead? Through wandering tears, the people stare. "Who are you, the silent two?" And the reply, "We are the silver platter

Yom HaShoah Sermon

What follows is the sermon I delivered when we observed Yom HaShoah on April 29th. Our sacred task in the face of the Holocaust is the pursuit of memory. I have been thinking about the question of justice.  This year is the 50 th anniversary of the Eichmann trial and I have been reading Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial .  I urge you to read this book and to watch some of the video clips posted on this blog .  Perhaps you might even want reread the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.     Here is my question for this evening.  Is justice possible?  I believe justice is about rebalancing the scales.  It is about two things: 1. punishment and 2. restitution.  With regard to both of these categories it is impossible to rebalance the scales—in the face of the Holocaust.  Perhaps it is possible with regard to punishment for our tormentors. This is why Israel’s punishment of Eichmann was so appropriate.  There is only one capital crime in the modern Stat

Bin Laden is Dead

This week's news was extraordinary, although surprising.  Nearly ten years after 9-11 the principal architect of these terrorist attacks was killed.  There should be no moral qualms about our efforts to hunt him down and finally kill him.  Punishment is served.  Deterrence, we hope and pray, is also achieved.  That his punishment is just does not mean as politicians and pundits now pronounce that justice is also served.  There can really be no justice in the face of the deaths of thousands.  I doubt very much if the families of those murdered feel any more sense of closure now that this architect of death and destruction is no more.  To my mind justice is also about re-balancing the scales.  How can this be achieved when so many have been murdered, so many still suffering and countless more terrorized?  For that matter, how can there ever be such an accounting when even one life is taken? This as well does not mean that we rejoice over his death.  We belong to a tradition that te