Thursday, July 28, 2011


The news is filled with murder and violence.  Our city recently witnessed the grotesque murder of an eight year old Hasidic boy.  Last week Norway was savaged by mass murder.  Yesterday in Iraq twelve were murdered in a double bombing outside a bank.  Against these painful images we recently watched as Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her baby daughter.

Such killing is not new to society.  The Torah offers great detail about how to approach murder and killing.  In fact this week’s Torah portion, Masei, suggests several important details.  Premeditated murder for example is a capital crime punishable by death. 

Intent is determined by the weapon used.  “Anyone who strikes another with an iron object so that death results is a murderer.”  Anger and hatred as well suggests premeditation.  “So, too, if he pushed him in hate or hurled something at him on purpose and death resulted…” (Numbers 35:16-21)  However two witnesses must publicly testify against the accused in order to exact the punishment of death.  The Torah’s concern is twofold.  Its foremost concern is not first of all punishment but justice.

It is also concerned that the land not become defiled by murder.  The ancients (perhaps we would do well to find meaning in their idea) believed that God’s presence cannot dwell in a land contaminated by murder.  Illustrating this point is the law of cities of refuge.  If a person accidentally killed another he may run to a city of refuge.  There he could find sanctuary preventing the family member of the killed from seeking vengeance.  “You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee.  The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.” (Numbers 35-9-12)

It is a fascinating law.  Apparently the establishment of these cities helped to maintain the holiness of the land.  The land would therefore not be defiled twice over, by the spilling of blood in vengeance in addition to the blood of the killed.  Most important the cities of refuge allow justice to be served.  Anger and vengeance must never rule our decisions—even and perhaps especially in the case of murder.  Today, we are understandably angry and desire punishment. 

Yet justice must be given time.  Although murderers act in anger we must not do the same.  There is the danger that in the pursuit of justice we may become as well murderers if we are not careful and deliberate.  Only time can guarantee that we do not also become guilty.  The cities of refuge seek to establish this balance.  They allow for the gathering of information.  They allow for deliberate thought.  They allow for justice to emerge.  

Yet today I feel as if justified anger overwhelms my concern for justice.  The Hasidic Gerrer Rebbe (1799-1866) responds.  “In theory, a person who killed another, even if only through negligence, does not deserve a place anywhere, because a person who killed has no place in God’s world.  That is why special places had to be set aside where killers could remain.”

In theory there should be no place on earth for someone who takes another life.  All human beings are created in the divine image.  The Talmud reminds us: “To destroy a life is to destroy a world.”  Even a city a refuge therefore seems an unjust refuge.

And so I am left with only one simple prayer.  May there come a day, even one day, and then perhaps many days, when we no longer read of violence and murder.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


This week’s Torah portion is Mattot and begins with a discussion about vows and promises. “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:3) It should be noted that the Torah offers different laws about the vows made by women. I, however, read the opening verse as applying to both men and women.

Often we pledge to go on diets, exercise more, perhaps study more Torah, not yell at our children (or parents), or reconnect with friends. We have the best of intentions when we make these vows, yet we often find it difficult to fulfill these promises beyond their initial days or weeks. The summer is filled with the best of intended promises. We hear such words, “I have more time now so I will finally read that book I have sitting on my shelf.”

At the wedding ceremonies that fill the summer months, couples recite ancient vows affirming their newly claimed love. But how do they sustain the passion of that first moment throughout the years? How do we remain true to our words throughout the many trials and challenges that follow?

An eighteenth century Hasidic rabbi, Tzvi Hirsch, the Maggid of Voydislav, responds: “If a man makes a vow he will certainly not break his word, but merely keeping his word is not enough. He is commanded: ‘He must carry out all that has crossed his lips’—that he must fulfill the vow with same fervor as at the time that he took the vow. In most cases, when a person makes a vow he do so in a flush of enthusiasm, whereas the fulfillment of that vow is done without passion, as if he is forced to do so. The Torah therefore stresses: ‘You shall do—as you vowed.’"

This is the critical observation. We passionately affirm, “I promise to…” Yet when we go to fulfill such promises it feels as if our enthusiasm has been drained. It is all about obligation and no longer about celebration. It is easy to make promises—perhaps far too easy. But how do we hold ourselves to the words we speak? How do we guarantee the passion with which we first spoke the words will accompany the fulfillment of the promise? How do we fulfill our vows with enthusiasm and vigor?

Sometimes married couples ask me to perform a renewal of vows. To be honest it is my favorite ceremony at which to officiate. When a husband and wife, after being married for some fifty years, kiss again it confirms the insight of the great Hasidic master. Wedding celebrations are of course beautiful and grand. They are about the future and all its potential. They are about promises for the future.

A renewal of vows by contrast is about the fulfillment of those promises. Such ceremonies are the realization that we can indeed spend years filling our youthful promises with devotion and enthusiasm. May we find the passion to carry our vows through many years. May we discover the commitment to see many of our promises to fruition.

Friday, July 15, 2011


As people ascend to the main exhibition halls in the newly renovated Israel Museum they walk alongside water cascading down a constructed rivulet.  James Snyder, the museum’s director, explained its symbolism to the group of rabbis.  The water cleanses.  We enter the exhibitions with unencumbered souls.  Water washes away whatever we bring in and we enter the museum with open minds.

In ancient times sacrifices were offered on the heights of the Temple.  On Sukkot especially the sacrifices reached their zenith.  This week’s Torah portion offers details of the Sukkot sacrifices.  70 bulls were slaughtered on the altar, in addition to 14 rams, 98 lambs and seven goats.  It was a bloody week long celebration.  At the conclusion of Sukkot was the long since forgotten holiday of Simhat Beit HaShoeva, the water drawing celebration.  Copious amounts of water were poured over the Temple and its altar.

In a land where water is so scarce it is remarkable to reflect on the central ritual of this holiday.  At the conclusion of the dry season and prior to the beginning of the winter rains water is dumped as if it were a plentiful commodity.  My teacher and the chair of Hebrew University’s Bible Department, Yisrael Knohl, offers two possible explanations.  There was the practical and the philosophical.  On the one hand this much water was required to clean the Temple.  After so many sacrifices the Temple required a thorough washing.  On the other hand what could be a better statement of faith than to dump out water before the winter rains (hopefully) began.  It was if our people said, “God, we firmly believe that You will soon provide water for our crops and our rituals.”

It is interesting to ponder the fact that whereas water figured so prominently in ancient times, and in this land of Israel, it is no longer prominent in our rituals, especially in Reform circles.  In traditional homes the mikvah, the ritual bath is still observed as well as netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of hands before eating.  We by contrast only add the prayer for rain to our liturgy, beginning at the conclusion of Sukkot.  This additional line connects us to the seasons of the land of Israel.  Is this single line enough?

This past week I hiked the streets of Jerusalem and the Old City.  In short order I was reminded of the necessity of always bringing plenty of water to withstand Jerusalem’s summer heat.  I longed for abundant water.  It occurred to me that it is no wonder that here water became central to our rituals.  It is unfortunate that we take water for granted and no longer give such prominence to its preciousness.  We drink it, bathe in it, play in it, but no longer pray with it.  Perhaps if we restored the centrality of the land of Israel to our philosophy we would regain the importance of water to our ritual life.  Then again perhaps if we restored the importance of water to our rituals we would rekindle the importance of the land of Israel to our faith.
Yet it is hard to appreciate water living in an area where it is sometimes too abundant.  It is true that our tradition assigns no blessing over the drinking of water. It is used in blessings, but we recite no blessing over it as we do with other foods and drinks.  There is no blessing because it is a blessing.  And here in Israel one appreciates better the blessing of mayyim hayyim, living waters.

According to the Talmud one has not experienced true joy until one celebrates Simhat Beit HaShoeva.  What faith it is indeed to pour water over every inch of the Temple precinct at the hoped for onset of the rainy season.  So with our ancestors let us dance and celebrate that God will again provide for us these living waters.  And let us as well regain a better appreciation of mayyim hayyim.  Let us reclaim the centrality of the land of Israel and its city of Jerusalem.

Let us open our minds to the power of water and the beauty of Israel.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The West Bank

Yesterday we boarded buses and set out for a most interesting tour about the landscape and topography of a future peace agreement.

We first met with Danny Siedemann, a lawyer and leading proponent of the Israeli peace camp, who argued that any peace agreement begins and ends where we stood in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah.  Despite the neighborhood's overwhelmingly Arab character in recent years Jews have moved into a number of homes and established a Jewish enclave there.  They have made the grave of Shimon HaTzaddik into a Jewish pilgrimage site.  In Danny's view if such "settlements" are allowed to continue it will destroy any hope of a two-state solution, by eliminating the possibility of Palestinian contiguity.

A divided land represents the only hope for peace.  It is ugly but it is the reality of this place and promises the best future.  Two nations for two peoples.

From this overlook we traveled to the West Bank community (settlement) of Beit Aryeh.  It is a modest community of Israelis who primarily work in the aircraft industry.  They are not religious ideologues.  They live there because of the settlement's proximity to Ben Gurion airport.  It is like any small town.  It is not a few trailers on a hilltop.  There are street signs and street cleaners.  There are parks and community centers.  There we meet with retired Colonel Danny Terza, the chief architect of the seam zone barrier that was erected during the second intifada to prevent terror attacks.  Something it helped to successfully curtail.  He explained to us the importance of retaining control of the hilltops in order to guarantee Israel's security.  The afternoon offered a hazy sky, but still with little effort, we could make out the runway of Israel's international airport.  How could Israel relinquish security control over all of the West Bank?  When looking at a map it is impossible to appreciate how the land's mountains and valleys come into play.  Standing here, peering at Ben Gurion's runway in the visible distance, we better appreciated the importance of the West Bank in terms of Israel's security.  We continued to travel the roads of the territories.

To the left, the settlement of Halamish, to the right the Palestinian town of Nablus.  Our bus turned off the main road into the West Bank's Area A.  In the Oslo Accords Area A came to enjoy full Palestinian control, as opposed to Area C where Israel maintains complete control.  In Area B Israel maintains control over security and the Palestinians over civilian affairs.  We were escorted by a Palestinian jeep through Arab towns to the site of the future town of Rawabi.  Israelis no longer travel to such places and do not travel in Area A.  Although we were traveling in a bullet proof bus I never once felt unsafe.  There we met with developer Bashar El Masri, a wealthy Palestinian who hopes to transform the current situation from conflict into peace while still making a profit.  He is developing the first Palestinian planned city.  Imagine Columbia, Maryland only in the middle of the West Bank.  He believes that building such a city and addressing the socio-economic issues will help to create the opportunities for peace.

Like the settlers he is also creating facts on the ground.  If he succeeds there will soon be impressive Palestinian facts alongside Jewish facts on this land.  I wonder if the facts are less about reality and more about what you believe.  Here you can deny the others' facts just as easily as you create your own.  Whose language do you speak?  Whose facts do you support?  I was also left pondering this observation.  Many Israelis speak of security and history.  This Palestinian, and his employees, spoke of peace and the future.  In a world that embraces youth and technology speaking of the past will not endear us to the world.  With such eloquent spokesmen who will win over the hearts of the world?  And even more important to this rabbi, who will win over the hearts of our young people?  Their language is as well one of peace and the future.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!  ” (Numbers 24:5)

I arrived in Jerusalem Sunday evening as the sun was setting on the first day of the week.  I found again a city filled with life and vitality.

The rabbis suggest that the world was granted ten measures of beauty, but nine were given to Jerusalem.  I have read this Talmudic text many times.  Often I have found it to be exaggerated.  I have been privileged to see many beautiful cities.  I love San Francisco with its hills and jagged Pacific coastline.  I hear that Paris is an extraordinarily beautiful city and Venice a lover’s paradise.  There are even days when the beauty of our very own Long Island is stunning.

Yet when I am here I feel the rabbis’ sentiment.  I believe that this city of Jerusalem does indeed hold nine measures of beauty.  It is difficult to fathom when we sit in New York reading of Israel’s struggles and Jerusalem’s conflicts.  We see only problems and difficulties.  From afar the city’s beauty is obscured.  From near it is stunning and beautiful.  And so on that day when I returned to my beloved Jerusalem I beheld only nine measures of beauty.

Those who know me well must ask: how could I love a city where I am so far from the ocean and the sea?  Yehuda Amichai responds: “And there are days here when everything is sails and more sails, even though there’s no sea in Jerusalem, not even a river.”  In another poem he even calls Jerusalem the Venice of God, describing it as a “port city on the shore of eternity.”  Even though there is no sea here one nonetheless senses the ocean’s waves.

I have long sought the words to describe my swelling emotions when I visit this city.  I reach to the poet.  I set out upon the city’s streets to find the words.

Soon after arriving, on the second afternoon when I had my first break from classes, I walked the streets of Jerusalem.  I traveled from my rented apartment on trendy Emek Refaim to the Tayelet overlooking the city, through the Old City’s Zion Gate to the Western Wall and through the Arab shuk back to the apartment, by way of Jaffa Gate and King David Street.  Despite the fact that I touched the very stones that generations of Jews had only hoped to feel and that beneath my feet I imagined Abraham walking with his son Isaac and David planning the building of the Temple, the view that took my breath away was that from the Tayelet, the promenade overlooking the Southern walls of the Old City.

There I saw the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock, the top of the Church of Holy Sepulchre peering above the city’s buildings and the Hurva synagogue, destroyed decades ago by the Jordanians but now rebuilt.  I looked to the left of the Old City’s walls and saw the windmill of Yemin Moshe, the first neighborhood built outside the Old City’s walls.  And to the left of this was the expanse of the ever growing new city of West Jerusalem. 

And it is actually this view of the cranes building the new city that always makes my heart swell.  It is not the ancient but in fact the new.  It is that we have returned to this place that for generations we only dreamed of, and spoke about, and sang to, and prayed for.  It is not only the political success of modern Israel or its many achievements here in Jerusalem.  It is instead that here, even on an ordinary bustling street, I see the Torah’s words of this week’s portion: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”

Here our dreams have become real.  Here we are not only rebuilding our ancient city.  We are also constructing our very dreams.  No city is perfect of course.  The reality is not yet the ideal.

Still there is always a moment here when I see only nine measures of beauty and believe that I am once again privileged to return to the port city on the shore of eternity.