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Showing posts from June, 2011


Often ritual acts are performed in remembrance of long since abandoned, or even forgotten, practices. We place a shank bone on the Passover seder plate.  We do so in remembrance of the Passover sacrifices offered in the ancient Temple.  The Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago yet the tradition insists that we continually remember its power and grandeur.  Likewise we salt the Shabbat hallah in order to remember that the sacrifices were salted.   Despite the fact that we continue to observe these customs few people explain these customs with words about the Temple and its sacrifices. The rituals surrounding death and mourning offer even more examples.  We wash our hands after returning to the shiva house from the cemetery.  Its origins are found in this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat.  “When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be impure for seven days…  A person who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in water, and sprinkle it on the tent and


This week’s portion, Korah, details the great rebellion against Moses and his authority.  Korah and his followers gathered against Moses saying, “You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) One can understand their complaints.  It is easy to imagine what people might have been saying about Moses.  “Can you believe this guy? He keeps telling us he is talking to God and that everything is going to be wonderful.  The land is so beautiful he keeps promising.  But when are we going to arrive there?  Will we ever get there?  Day after day we eat this manna.  Day after day we schlep.  We keep walking and walking.  Every day is the same.  And then this guy Moses keeps changing the original plan.” One can be sympathetic to their grumblings.  On the surface the criticisms appear legitimate.  Examine the Torah’s words.  Judaism does indeed believe that everyo

Shelach Lecha Sermon

Given this week’s news, and last week’s, and perhaps even the week before, I have been thinking about how incredibly disappointing people can be.  People really have the remarkable ability to disappoint.  This of course was the theme of my weekly email message.  I am not going to retell that Talmudic story and its sordid details at services, but here is the question for this evening: what is the meaning of being human?  As human beings we are capable of untold depths, but also of course great heights.  People can indeed disappoint, but also surprise. We find this theme in the week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha.  It tells the story of the spies who are sent to scout the land of Israel.  Twelve spies are sent; two different reports return with them.  Ten report the following: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.”  (N

Shelach Lecha

I have been thinking about a famous Talmudic story.  I have added a few embellishments and modern idioms, but the salacious details are the Talmud’s.  Such stories are not new to the Twittersphere.   They are part and parcel of our Talmud, and even our Bible as well. Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the mitzvah of tzitzit, heard of a certain prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred dollars for her services.  He wired her the four hundred dollars and scheduled an appointment.  When the day arrived he came and waited at her door, and her attendant came and told her, “That man who sent you the four hundred dollars is here and waiting at the door;” to which she replied, “Let him come in.” When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold.  She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked, seductively motioning to the ma

Behaalotecha Sermon

Some brief words of Torah before we conclude this special Shabbat service and celebrate this year's confirmation students. Have you ever walked around the cocktail hour at a bar/bat mitzvah party and said, “What no lamb chops?” Our Torah portion states: “Then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  Now our gullets are shriveled.  There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to!’”  (Numbers 11:4-6) It is remarkable that people are so often ungrateful for the many blessings they have.  The Israelites had just earned freedom, and yet all they wanted to do was go back to Egypt.  They complained and complained and said at least there they could cucumbers and melons.   Freedom is of course an enormous blessing.  It is part of what we celebrate as we mark confirmation this evening.  But freedom comes with enormous responsibility. 

Partition - for Zionism's Sake

Partition - for Zionism's Sake - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News Ruth Gavison writes: In the history of the Zionist movement, there were those who saw its goal as re-uniting the Jewish people with its historic homeland, and those who emphasized the idea that the objective of Zionism is the political rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Yet on every occasion when the leadership of the country's Jewish community, the Yishuv, faced a choice between having a Jewish state in part of the land or clinging to the dream of a Greater Eretz Israel, it selected, by a large majority, the option of having political independence in part of the land, where there would be a stable Jewish majority, and allowing the Arab minority to enjoy rights and equality.  The same holds true today. A strong majority of the Jewish population in Israel wants to end the occupation and create a reality in which a stable Jewish majority is preserved in a State of Israel that does not rul

Naso Sermon

My sermon from Friday, June 3, follows. This week’s Torah portion is Naso.  It is the longest of all the weekly portions.  It details a number of items.  There is the census of the Levites, the tribe assigned to priestly duties.  There is the Nazarite vow, pledging those adherents to God and setting them apart from the people by insisting that they abstain from drinking alcohol (rather un-Jewish if you asked me) and by refraining from cutting their hair (oops).  Hence the most well known Nazarite is Samson who when he is seduced into cutting his hair loses all his strength. At the conclusion of this chapter about the Nazarite’s vow occurs one of the most familiar blessings in the entire Torah, the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may you always find God’s presence in your life and be blessed with shalom, with peace.”  The final chapter then offers the last bit of preparations for the tabe


Since the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union there has been a proliferation of pork stores in Israel.  Now in the holy city of Jerusalem one can easily buy ham.  Russian Jews, who now comprise twenty percent of the Israeli population, apparently love pork.  And so they have brought the food they grew to love in Russia to the State of Israel. “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  Now our gullets are shriveled.  There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to!’”  (Numbers 11:4-6) Too often people are unable to recognize the blessings that they have.  The Israelites were recently freed from slavery in Egypt.  Within months they began complaining.  True they were stuck wandering the Sinai wilderness.  But they were free.  They were their own people.  No longer


Shavuot is among the most important of Jewish holidays, yet the least observed.  It marks the revelation at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the liberation from Egypt.  Thus the holidays of Passover and Shavuot are connected by the counting of the Omer.  Judaism believes that our freedom must be wedded to Torah in order for our lives to have meaning.  Many people think that a life devoted to Torah is a life scrupulously bound to Jewish rituals.  An observant Jew is one who lights candles 18 minutes before sunset, keeps a kosher kitchen, fasts on Yom Kippur, sleeps in a sukkah, prays three times a day and much more.  These rituals are important to be sure.  Rituals can bring great meaning to our lives, adding a measure of holiness and helping to focus our thoughts on what is important and lasting. But it is demeaning of Judaism and the gift of Torah to define a religious life in terms of rituals alone.  Torah is even more importantly about ethics and how we behave towards each other.  O


This week’s Torah portion, Naso, contains the curious, and bizarre, sotah ritual (Numbers 5).  Although its practice was long ago abolished by the rabbis, its meaning and purpose are worth pondering.  Here is the ritual.  If a husband suspects his wife of committing adultery he brings her to the priest.  (This ritual and its accompanying laws were decidedly one-sided.)  The husband brings a meal offering.  Then the priest has the woman come forward and stand before the altar.  He makes her drink bitter waters.  The priest then offers an incantation saying, “If you have committed adultery then may these waters make your belly distend and your thigh sag.”  She responds, “Amen, amen!”  If these words come true then she has broken faith with her husband. What a strange ritual indeed!  We belong to a tradition that rejects such magic.  The purposes of rituals are to add holiness to our lives and focus our thoughts on proper behavior.  They are not to work magic.  Ask me to pray for the si

Newsletter Article

What follows is my newsletter article from the May-June 2011 Newsletter. A few more questions from our Religious School students. How was the first person made? According to the Torah there are two stories about the creation of human beings.  In the first God creates a human being (adam) just by saying, “Let there be a person.”  Then God divides this person in half and makes the first man and woman.  In the second God creates adam out of adamah (earth).  In this story God is more like an artist who is fashioning a clay pot.  Then God realizes that something is wrong.  Adam is really lonely.  So God creates the first woman, Eve, out of his rib so that they can keep each other company.  So in the first version God creates the first people and in the second God creates the first couple. Why do we only believe in one God? Is this a trick question!  The answer is because there is only one God.  I know it is really hard to think about something or understand something that you can’t tou

New Yorker Editorial

O’Bama and Netanyahoo’s Duelling Speeches : The New Yorker My worry begins with this week's editorial by Henrik Hertzberg. He concludes with these words: Nearly as appalling as Netanyahu’s intransigence was the mindlessness of the senators and representatives, Republican and Democratic, who rewarded him with ovation after standing ovation. This had less to do with studied convictions about the issues than with the political salience, actual and perceived, of certain Jewish and evangelical constituencies. (For many in the House chamber, the two-state solution is their own plus Florida.) But Middle East diplomacy is always distorted by short-term domestic politics. At the moment, Israel-accepting Fatah has its untested d├ętente with Israel-denying Hamas; Netanyahu has a cabinet stocked with ministers openly determined to keep every inch of the West Bank; Obama has 2012. The President has put down some markers but has no discernible plan to make them stick. Time is short. In much of