Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Nitzavim-Vayelekh Sermon

We are nearing the completion of the Torah.  We read the words also read on Yom Kippur morning in Reform shuls.  “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29)

This passage is a remarkable statement that Torah is given in every generation.  Torah must be forever renewed.  It was not given only back then.  It is given in each and every day, in each and every generation.  That is what we also celebrate when we mark Simhat Torah.  We renew our commitment to Torah as we begin the reading schedule again.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was asked: Why does every tractate of Talmud begin on the second page?  (The first page is not alef, but instead bet.”  He answered: “However much we learn, we should always remember that we have not even reached the first page.”  The greatest lesson of Torah is that it is never complete.  We are always starting again.

Very soon we will also of course celebrate Rosh Hashanah. This period marks the time of introspection and repentance.  This idea is connected to a verse in this week’s Torah portion. “Hidden acts concern the Lord our God; but revealed acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29)

We spend a good deal of time arguing about people’s intentions.  She didn’t mean it…                    He is only being nice because…  Torah reminds us that when it comes to intentions only God can know them.  We instead must focus on actions and deeds.  We can only judge people by what they do or don’t do.  Judaism does not  for example believe that the act of tzedakah is tainted if someone gives for the wrong reason.  Even if a gift is given to gain honor, or to get an end of year tax deduction, the gift is not negated.  It still helps someone, or an institution, in need.  We can only judge the act of tzedakah not the intention with which it is given.

We can only judge ourselves even by what we do or don’t do.  The High Holidays are thus about working to do better.  We can’t just resolve to do better or promise to correct our mistakes.  We have to make the effort to change.

Repentance in Hebrew is teshuvah.  It is about turning.  It is not a matter of the heart, it is a matter of the hands.  Let us use these weeks wisely to turn and better our lives.  To better ourselves.  To correct our failings.  And to repair our relationships.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ki Tavo Sermon

I have some questions about memorials as vehicles of remembrance.  The root of the word for memorial of course derives from memory.  How effective are these memorials in facilitating our remembering?

We live in a culture cluttered with memorials.  There are roadside memorials.  There are cemeteries.  There are the Gettysburg and Vietnam War memorials.  There is now the 9-11 memorial.

A student shared these feelings about her recent visit to this new memorial.  “The waterfalls are awe-inspiring.  This is kind of odd, especially juxtaposed against the tragedy that occurred there and also when you remember that you're in the middle of such a bustling part of the city.  I found there a sense of peace that is soul-quenching.”  

In Jewish life there are countless memorials to the Holocaust.  In Israel there are memorials to the many battles.  These are scattered throughout the city of Jerusalem.  And there are now a number of memorials to terrorist victims.  I hurry by a number of these as I walk through Jerusalem’s streets.  I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but we are all these memorials helpful?

Our collective response to tragedy and death is to build something.  We build with such frenetic impulse that we appear to fear forgetting.  In ancient times a gravestone was a pile of stones.  And this is the origin of the custom to leave stones on a grave when visiting.

Given this human impulse you would think that the Torah would command that we build a memorial to what Amalek did to the Israelites.  The Amalekites of course attacked the Israelites from the rear, and killed the weakest.  Therefore the Torah is unflinching in its command to wipe out the Amalekites and their memory.  But what of the memory of those who were murdered?

That is not what the Torah tells us to build.  Instead the command is to inscribe all the words of the Torah on a stone.  “As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones.  Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3) 

You could argue that all the words include the tragic stories, and certainly the command to remember Amalek and the details of what they did.

I don’t think this is the meaning.  The monument that we are to first build is to the Torah.  We are to inscribe all the teachings—the entire Torah.  God insists that once we cross the Jordan we are not to look back at tragedy.  We are only to look ahead.  We are only to look forward to the laws and obligations of Torah.

It would be as if instead of the 9-11 memorial we there inscribed the words of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That of course is what our enemies sought to destroy.  I wish for us to always remember these words of Torah, these sacred words.  I wish instead of beautiful and soothing, and even necessary, memorials we inscribed the words that we will forever be most important to us and our country.  It is those words that we must never forget.  Giving life to these words and our Torah will forever be the greatest and most lasting memorials to those who were murdered.  It will the building that will continue to stand throughout the generations.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ki Tavo

I have been thinking about memorials. On Sunday we watched as the new 9-11 memorial was dedicated. I of course have not yet visited but I imagine it is a powerful testament to that terrible day. The structure appears appropriate and meaningful. New buildings were not constructed in place of the towers but instead these memorial fountains, etched with the names of those murdered. To build anything else in place of these ruins would be to suggest that we wish to erase memory.

Memorials offer us places to mourn and remember. As the people who experienced the tragedy grow older memorials become instead places to educate future generations. I have visited many memorials. It occurs to me that not one of them commemorates a natural disaster. All are built to memorialize the evils that human beings do to one another. I think in particular of the vast expanse of Gettysburg, the site of the largest battle in the Civil War, where nearly 8,000 were killed in that battle’s three days. The Vietnam War memorial, by contrast, is an endless wall of names rather than Gettysburg’s endless fields of grass and gravestones.

Often when walking through the streets of Jerusalem I stumble upon a simple stone etched with the names of those killed at the spot at which I find myself. At one I find the names of soldiers killed in the Six Day War’s battle for Jerusalem. At another I discover the names of victims murdered by terrorists at a bus stop. And at yet another spot I read the names of those murdered at CafĂ© Hillel on Jerusalem’s trendy Emek Refaim street. These stones are part of modern Jerusalem’s landscape. Most of the time I hurry by. I rarely notice the piles of stones, notes and even flowers that friends and loved ones leave. I have noticed that the more recent the event the greater these piles. As the years go by the stones, notes and flowers appear to diminish.

In some ways the Western Wall is also a memorial. It represents the surviving remnant of the destruction of Jerusalem and the murder of thousands upon thousands of its inhabitants. The scale of that destruction 2,000 years ago was a holocaust for its generation, and according to historical records even surpassing the tragedy of 9-11. We of course no longer view it as such. We recognize the stones as the remnant of our ancient Temple. And so there we come to remember the Temple and its glory. We come to connect to our people and our history. Do we also resolve never to forget the evils human beings commit against one another?

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses commands the people to build a memorial, but not to the evils that Amalek committed against the Israelites. Instead Moses charges the people with this command: “As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3) The first thing that the people must do upon entering the land is to write the words of the Torah for all to see. It is the words of Torah that serve as testimony. We are also commanded never to forget Amalek and the atrocities his people did as we journeyed through the wilderness. But it is not those evils in particular that are inscribed in stone. It is instead the words of Torah in their entirety.

Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg. “…In a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground… It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This too is the Torah that we must inscribe on each and every stone that we erect as memorials.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11 Sermon

I have many feelings and thoughts as we mark this tenth anniversary of 9-11.  They are mostly feelings of pain and loss.  I continue to believe that things will never be the same.  I also carry with me the searing memory of driving my children home from school after having to pick them up early.  As I drove on the LIE I kept looking in the rear view mirror at their faces.  I continue to hear their questions, “Abba, what happened?  I don’t understand.  Someone drove a plane into a building?”  I hear as well my inadequate answers.  Ten years later here are my still, partial answers.

I wish to address three points.  1. About our enemies.  2. The proper response to our enemies.  And 3. Our lingering, incomplete feelings.

1. Let’s say this clearly.  We indeed have enemies.  This truth seems to evade us.  We still appear unwilling to speak these words.  There are people who are bent on our destruction.  And they are Islamic fundamentalists.

We are so afraid of offending or being labeled politically incorrect that we shy away from this awful truth.  I have no quarrel with Islam.  We should have no quarrel with Islam.  We should however have quarrel with the far too many Muslims who stand silent before what their co-religionists do in their name, and the countless Muslims who celebrate these murders committed in their tradition’s name.

We are as well unable to say loudly how many of our so-called allies support these enemies of ours.  Our continued dependence on Mideast oil defames the memory of 9-11.  Say what you will about the science of global warming, although I find the evidence inescapable, but it should be a matter of national security that we wean ourselves of oil.

2. In the course of these past ten years we have also lost our way in fighting our enemies.  We have resorted to torture.  We have shipped suspects to Libya and Syria so that they might be tortured outside of the protections of our democracy.  We have contorted our most cherished laws in the name of security.  We cannot, we must not ever lose our way again.  Terror and fear are insidious.  But they need not make us into cowards who forget what makes us really great.  It is not shopping!  It is democracy.

Terror and fear worm their way into our hearts and souls.  They distort our vision.  We must always see clearly what this country means.  We must always proudly declare the values our country stands for.  Moreover we should celebrate exactly what our enemies most hate because it is these very values that have made this nation great.

We live in a country that revels in difference, that is moreover strengthened by difference.  We are an overwhelmingly religious people, but never a people where one religion must be chosen over another.  The fact that our congregation meets and prays in a church, as frustrating as it might continue to be at times, is cause for celebration on this day.

Our enemies want a world that is only like them, that is absent of Jews and Christians and homosexuals, a world where women are veiled and science is labeled as blasphemy.  I want none of that.  I want a world where science and religion can learn from each other, where differences are celebrated and cause for new learning.  Ten years later my resolve is only stronger.  I pray, let my resolve never grow weaker.  Let terror and fear never find their way into my soul.

And finally 3. For this point let us return to the Torah portion.  I am thinking again about the bird’s nest.  We are commanded to shoo the mother bird away before taking the young.  We cannot have everything.  Even that which is permitted must be regulated.  Our freedoms are always framed by compassion.  That is the plain meaning of the Torah’s command.

But I am thinking as well about the bird’s nest as a metaphor.  Hatchlings are of course blind.  They are hidden and shielded from the dangers of the world by their parents.  It seems obvious but let’s be clear.  Staying in their nest these young birds will never learn to fly.  When they fly they may very well succumb to other, greater dangers.

We have learned from 9-11 that staying in the nest does not shield us from all harm.  Many died, many were murdered, for the simple act of going to work or walking down the street, or going on vacation, or getting a cup of coffee.

Leon Wieseltier writes: “… Shopping is not the highest expression of the will to live. We are fighting wars abroad that show almost no traces at home, except among the limited segment of the population whose children are fighting them, and we have been differently encouraged in this disconnection by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. When the financial cataclysm occurred, and the hardship in America became unconscionably widespread, we redirected our gaze almost entirely upon ourselves. First materialism, and then a crisis of materialism, turned us inward. After we were attacked, we were wearied. I worry that the insularity of America, which is its natural condition, and also its lasting temptation, is gathering a renewed prestige among Americans. Our insularity is a kind of safety and a kind of blindness. The attacks of September 11 punctured that safety and that blindness: we gained—at what cost!—a broader sense of historical possibility and a broader sense of historical agency. But we are listing. We want the safety back, of course, but I fear that we want the blindness back, too.” (The New Republic, September 15, 2011)

So we can choose to be blind like the hatchlings in this bird’s nest.  Or we can choose to fly.  9-11 should have taught us that blindness is no safer than flying.  Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the insecurity of freedom in his book of the same name.  He taught that there is an inherent insecurity in the blessing of freedom.  The more freedom, the more insecurity.  The more freedoms, the greater responsibilities.

I continue to believe that the greatest danger of terrorism is not external but internal.  We can let it seep into our hearts or we can shut it out and continue flying.   Insularity will not protect us.  It serves no noble purpose.  And those purposes are all I am really interested in.

The message of this week’s Torah portion is even more true on this tenth anniversary of 9-11.  The concern of our tradition is improving our world.  We begin with the small and seemingly insignificant.  We begin with a bird’s nest.  And from there reach out to the world at large.

No nest is forever safe.  And so my only choice is to reach out to the world, and to struggle to better and improve the world.  My life is made better, and yes more assured and even more secure, by my reaching to the world.  And that is the only response we should focus on.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

More on September 11

On Thursday, Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of The New Republic, said the following at a 9-11 commemoration at Washington DC's Kennedy Center.

Though we encounter it as suffering, grief is in fact an affirmation. The indifferent do not grieve, the uncommitted do not grieve, the loveless do not grieve. We mourn only the loss of what we have loved and what we have valued, and in this way mourning darkly refreshes our knowledge of the causes of our loves and the reasons for our values. Our sorrow restores us to the splendors of our connectedness to people and to principles. It is the yes of a broken heart. In our bereavement we discover how much was ruptured by death, and also how much was not ruptured. These tears lead directly to introspection.

Here is what we affirmed by our mourning on September 11, 2001, and by the introspection of its aftermath:

that we wish to be known, to ourselves and to the world, by the liberty that we offer, axiomatically, as a matter of right, to the individuals and the groups with whom we live;

that the ordinary lives of ordinary people on an ordinary day of work and play can truthfully exemplify that liberty, and fully represent what we stand for;

that we will defend ourselves, resolutely and even ferociously, because self-defense is also an ethical responsibility, and that our debates about the proper use of our power in our own defense should not be construed as an infirmity in our will;

that the multiplicity of cultures and traditions that we contain peaceably in our society is one of our highest accomplishments, because we are not afraid of difference, and because we do not confuse openness with emptiness, or unity with conformity;

that a country as vast and as various as ours may still be experienced as a community;

that none of our worldviews, with God or without God, should ever become the worldview of the state, and that no sanctity ever attaches to violence;

that the materialism and the self-absorption of the way we live has not extinguished our awareness of a larger purpose, even if sometimes they have obscured it;

that we believe in progress, at home and abroad, in social progress, in moral progress, even when it is fitful and contested and difficult;

that just as we have enemies in the world we have friends, and that our friends are the individuals and the movements and the societies that aspire, often in circumstances of great adversity, to democracy and to decency.

It has been a wounding decade. Our country is frayed, uncertain, inflamed. There is hardship and dread in the land. In significant ways we are a people in need of renovation. But what rouses the mourner from his sorrow is his sense of possibility, his confidence in the intactness of the spirit, his recognition that there is work to be done. What we loved and what we valued has survived the disaster, but it needs to be secured and bettered, and in that secure and better condition transmitted to our children. Our dream of greatness must be accompanied by an understanding of what is required for the maintenance of greatness. The obscenities of September 11, 2001 exposed the difference between builders and destroyers. We are builders. Let us agree, on this anniversary, that it is an honor to be an American and it is an honor to be free.

Little else needs to be said.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Shoftim Sermon

This week’s Torah portion is about appointing judges and establishing courts.  It contains the famous verse: “Justice, justice you shall pursue…”  I have been thinking about how we approach the pursuit of justice.

We are commanded by our tradition to pursue justice and to pursue peace.  We often confuse these two values.  We apply justice when we should apply peace.

Societies of course are to be built on justice.  Families by contrast are built on peace.  Yet we speak about injustice when it comes to family members.  You wouldn’t believe what uncle so and so did.  How many families sever ties over such perceived injustices?

When it comes to families however we should be talking about peace and not justice.  Both notions have to be pursued.  It is an interesting word choice.  To pursue is to run after.  You can’t wait for justice or peace to come to you. 

There is a related value to justice.  In order to pursue justice you must run after truth.  Societies must be built on truth.  Forgive my venture into politics, but our politicians seem unable to speak truths anymore.  Both Democrats and Republicans refuse to speak honestly and forthrightly about the problems we face.  They do not speak truths.  Our problems are not going to fix themselves.  There are the problems of global warming, joblessness, and poverty to name a few.  Yet we appear unable to speak honestly about the problems facing our country.

But when it comes to family and friends there are no shortages of truth.  You can hear all of the sordid details of what this family member did to that or this friend did to another.  Whereas societies must be built on truth and justice families must be built on forgiveness and peace.  You can’t have peace without a lot of forgiveness

I wish we could get it right.  Families could certainly use more forgiveness and even forgetfulness.   Our society requires more truth and even righteous indignation.  We need justice for our country not for our families.  We need to speak loudly about the problems facing our country and turn a blind eye to the mistakes we see in our families.

It is not easy to bring justice or peace. That is why our tradition says we must pursue these values. So let’s get out there and try to fix things in our broken country. And let’s get out there and heal things in our far too judgmental families.

Is it mere coincidence that Friday's sermon touched on the same theme as Tom Friedman's New York Times column?  Yes.  Then again perhaps it is indeed because we need more truth-telling!

September 11

It was a beautiful August morning.  The temperature was a comfortable 70 degrees.  I was riding along Asharoken Avenue towards Eatons Neck.  My legs felt strong and I was setting a fast pace, despite the gusting head wind.  The dune grass blew in the breeze.  The waves on the Sound lapped at the expanse of sand.  I was riding on my favorite flat, a road that extends for miles along the shoreline.  I looked up and saw a blue sky, absent of clouds.  It was a perfect morning.  I could focus on my riding.  I could contemplate the beauty of this moment.

It was almost as if it was an early fall morning.  The blue sky was nearly as deep and blue as that of a September day.  And then it happened.  The perfect blue sky reminded me not of the grandeur of God’s creation but instead of a morning nearly ten years earlier, the morning of September 11.  The perfect moment was stolen.  Memories of that terror stricken day filled my thoughts.  I was taken back to another day, one that began with blue skies and the grandeur of God’s tapestry, but ended in darkness and clouds of smoke and ash.

Ten years ago, on what began as a perfect fall morning, I was driving to my office.  I looked to the sky and thought to myself, what an extraordinary day.  There were no clouds, only the deep blue sky of an early fall day.  I silently offered praise to God for this beautiful creation.  And then I turned on the radio to hear reports of the first plane striking the North Tower.  Soon I would be driving East on the LIE after collecting my children from school, looking at the empty West bound lanes, save the occasional emergency vehicle careening towards the city, as signs flashed “New York City Closed.”

I lost no family member or friend on that day, not even a member of the synagogue I still proudly serve; yet I remain wounded.  Ten years later time moves forward.  Eight year olds become eighteen year olds heading to their first semester in college.  And time moves backward.  Even the sky stands as a silent reminder of that day.  Ten years later moments are too often stolen.  Terror still finds its way into my soul.  A perfect blue sky and a favorite morning bike ride turns into the drive back to our house ten years earlier and my feeble attempts to explain to my then eight year old and five year old what happened to our city.  As I drove my children home I knew that the world they were born into had been forever changed.  Ten years later I still did not know how.

Every sky would be tinged with that day, every moment would be tempered.  Judaism counsels that even at the happiest of occasions, a wedding, we break a glass before adjourning for hours of dancing and celebration.  It is taught that we do this in remembrance of the ancient tragedy of the Temple’s destruction.  In the midst of great happiness we pause, if only briefly, to remember the tragedy that changed our people forever.  With that cataclysmic act we were transformed from a people whose lives revolved around one Temple to a people spread out and oriented towards many temples.  Thousands of years later we know what that destruction fashioned.  It helped to create a people devoted to prayer rather than sacrifices, Torah study rather than pilgrimages, ordinary acts of lovingkindness rather than priestly rites.  Thousands of years later the memory of that searing day is distant, but its import is clear.

Ten years later the memory of September 11 is clear, but its meaning is still unimaginable.  Ten years later we do not know yet if we should, or even can, break a glass.  We have not yet figured out what this day might mean.  But we have come to understand the following.  The best of moments are still unexpectedly stolen and transformed into moments of sadness and pain.  Ten years later even blue skies can become darkened by memories.

Nonetheless on my return, still riding on Asharoken Avenue, the wind was now at my back and the joy of riding into the future found its way back into my heart. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011


We live in a world where people often scream about injustice, but rarely take action to correct such failings.  The injustices we most often speak about are those that involve people closest to us.  We complain about this friend or that.  We criticize this family member or another.  Rarely do we seek to make amends and make peace.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on justice.  In addition to legislating how judges should be appointed, it contains the famous verse: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

We hear this call for justice, but we misapply its message to friends and family.  Instead we need to spend more time pursuing justice for our society.  Our country faces many problems.  There is a growing inequity between rich and poor.  On our very own Long Island there are far too many homeless and hungry.  The Interfaith Nutrition Network, for example, serves over 300,000 meals per year.  There are as well far too many without adequate jobs.  We must create more employment opportunities.  We need to work to repair the many problems in our broken society. 

This is the Torah’s demand.  We must pursue justice for the sake of our country.  But rather than working to fix these problems we level the charge of injustice against family members and friends.  With regard to those closest to us we are instead commanded to pursue peace.  According to our tradition Aaron best exemplifies peace making.  Why? The Israelites clamored to build a Golden Calf when their leader Moses was busy on the mountaintop communing with God.  Aaron was left in charge.  He did not as one might expect talk them out of their unholy task.  Instead he appears to have helped them.  Aaron facilitated the building of the calf.  The Torah’s judgment of his actions is harsh. 

The rabbis, however, see in Aaron a model of peace making.  Their suggestion is extraordinary.  Even when family members are straying, or in this case building idols, we are to be like the disciples of Aaron, and make peace.  Thus when it comes to family shalom, peace, is the greatest virtue. When it comes to the larger society the greatest value is tzedek, justice.  We often confuse which value is to lead the way.

Pursue justice for the society.  Pursue peace for family and friends.  As the High Holidays approach I pledge to seek justice for our society, and make peace among my friends and family.


Today (August 30th) begins the Hebrew month of Elul.  According to Jewish tradition this day begins a forty day period of introspection and repentance that concludes with the beautiful Yom Kippur Neilah service.

We belong to a remarkable tradition. We believe that human beings are capable of change.  We believe that we have the capacity to mend our ways.  No one is perfect.  All have erred.  Let us take these precious days to mend our failures.  This is the grand purpose of the upcoming High Holidays.  Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of September 28th.

A Hasidic story.  Reb Chaim Halberstam of Zanz once helped his disciples prepare for Elul and its goals of teshuvah (repentance) and tikkun (repair) by sharing the following story.

Once a woman became lost in a dense forest.  She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got more lost as the hours went by.  Then she chanced upon another person walking in the woods.  Hoping that he might know the way out, she said, “Can you tell me which path leads out of this forest?”

“I am sorry, but I cannot,” the man said.  “I am quite lost myself.”

“You have wandered in one part of the woods,” the woman said, “while I have been lost in another.  Together we may not know the way out, but we know quite a few paths that lead nowhere.  Let us share what we know of the paths that fail, and then together we may find the one that succeeds.”

“What is true for these lost wanderers,” Reb Chaim said, “is true of us as well.  We may not know the way out, but let us share with each other the way that have only led us back in.”  (Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales)

Together we are always stronger.  Together we can find ourselves out of any difficulty and surmount any stumbling blocks.