Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I wonder what family meals were like in Isaac and Rebekah’s house.   Isaac favored one son, Esau.  Rebekah favored the other, Jacob.  There was, I would imagine, palpable tension between their children.  On one occasion Esau returned home after hunting for game.  He was terribly hungry.  Jacob refused to give him some of the lentil stew he was preparing until Esau agreed to sell him his birthright.  Esau was so hungry that he spurned his birthright?  Jacob was so devious that he took advantage of his brother’s weakness?  Where was Rebekah while her children fought?  Where was Isaac?

On Thanksgiving we gather with family and friends.  In every gathering there are similar tensions.  There might be the aunt who always asks too many personal questions.  There could be the distant cousin who appears to sit in judgment of everyone else.  Take comfort from the Torah.  Tensions were part and parcel of every family, even our first Jewish family.

In this week’s Torah portion we see how Isaac handles these tensions.  Isaac is now old and blind.  As he confronts his mortality he wants to give his sons some words of advice and a final blessing. He instructs his son Esau to go hunting and prepare his favorite dish.  Rebekah overhears the request and quickly prepares the dish instead.  She pushes their other son Jacob toward Isaac, dressing him in Esau’s clothes and covering his arms with animal fur so as to trick her husband into thinking it was hairy Esau.  She hands Jacob Isaac’s favorite meal to present to his father.

Isaac appears to sense something is amiss.  “Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come closer that I may feel you, my son—whether you are really my son Esau or not.’  So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’  …He asked, ‘Are you really my son Esau?’  And when he said, ‘I am,’ he said, ‘Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.’” (Genesis 27:21-25) 

Isaac then blesses his son Jacob.  Esau soon returns from the field and is distraught to discover what has transpired while he was busy hunting.  He bursts into tears and is overcome with anger, threatening to kill his brother.  Jacob runs to his uncle’s to escape.  On his journey Jacob discovers far more about himself than he did while remaining in his mother’s over-protective care.  But that would be the subject for the coming week.

I continue to believe that Isaac knew the truth of who stood before him and that his blindness was willful.  He chose not to verbalize the trickery he suspected.  Isaac knew it was his son Jacob who kneeled before him to receive the prized blessing.  I am certain that our forefather could distinguish his wife’s cooking from his son’s.  I could most certainly discern the difference between Susie’s cooking and Ari’s with my eyes closed!  Isn’t it then obvious that the meal Rebekah prepared was the unspoken signal between husband and wife? 

The lesson is that not every truth needs to be spoken.  Sometimes when it comes to family it is better to choose not to see.

Too often our choice is to tell family members what we really think, to tell the annoying aunt what is really on our mind and what has been bothering us for these past ten Thanksgivings.  Too often we choose the righteousness of the prophets and not the willful blindness of Isaac when sitting with our families.  Isaac’s choice seems the better option for our families.  The prophets are more apt for correcting the failings of our society at large.  When sitting with our family peace and harmony are always more prized.  What appears as a weakness, namely his blindness, might in truth be Isaac’s greatest strength.

I wish you an enjoyable Thanksgiving celebration.  Enjoy the company of family, especially if it is with a child returning from their first months of college.  Try not to allow that annoying family member to get under your skin.  Instead relish in family.  It should always be a blessing to be celebrated. 

Take a moment to thank God for the blessings of this country.  Across this great land people of many different faiths will be begin their meals with words of thanks in Hebrew, English, or Arabic, Russian, Chinese, or Hindi.  All will thank God for the freedoms of this country.  Take a moment to remember these blessings.  Recall as well those who are less fortunate.  Enjoy the bounty of your meals but pledge to redouble your efforts to help others.  And of course if you are driving, drive safely.

Ryan Braun Wins MVP

Ryan Braun Wins MVP - by Marc Tracy - Tablet Magazine
Which is better?  Ryan Braun winning MVP or the Cardinals winning the World Series?   The Cards!  Nonetheless this should be noted especially as we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that marks the confluence of our American and Jewish values.

Marc Tracy writes: Jewish slugger Ryan Braun was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player today, becoming the first Milwaukee Brewer to win the honor since Robin Yount in 1989 (when the Brew Crew were in the American League) and the first Jew since Sandy Koufax in 1963 (the Dodger great won three Cy Young Awards but only one MVP—the short list of pitchers who have accomplished both gained a new member this year, as Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander took home both in the AL). The other Jewish MVPs include Al Rosen (1953), Lou Boudreau (1948), Hank Greenberg (1935, 1940), and … that’s it. So, yeah, historic.

On to football season!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November-December Newsletter

What follows is my November-December Newsletter message in which I answer our students’ “Ask the Rabbi” questions.

What is my favorite color?
Blue.  I like the blue of the Israeli flag.  I like the blue of the sky.  Blue has always been a favorite Jewish color which is why it is often found in a hamsa, a Sephardic amulet.  There is in fact a synagogue in Safed, Israel, the heart of Jewish mysticism, whose interior is painted blue.  Everywhere you turn in Safed you find this blue.  Oops, sorry you just asked about my favorite color.  It is blue like the sky. 

When is my birthday?
July 1, 1964.  21 Tammuz 5724.  The Torah portion Pinhas was read in synagogue on Shabbat a few days later.  Look at what you can learn from the internet!

What is my favorite food?
I love hummus.  It is healthy and delicious and can be added to anything.  Zohan was wrong, however.  It should not be used in your hair.  You really should try some hummus.

How did God get the idea for Hebrew?
I don’t think God invented the language you are now struggling to understand.  People write languages.  The coolest thing about Hebrew is that it has so many different words for God.  It is just like what you learn about the Eskimos and snow.  We love God so much that we have a lot of different names for God.  Our different names are how we try to get closer to God and how we try to bring more God into the world.

What is my Hebrew name?
My Hebrew name is Shmaryah.  The name means God is my guard or perhaps I am God’s guardian.  You decide.  I am named for my mother’s grandmother Sarah, who was the most devout person in our family.  Interesting.  Mysterious.  If you mean what is your Hebrew name, you should ask your mom or dad.  Make sure to ask for whom you are named as well.  That is the most important part.  It is a wonderful Jewish custom that we are named for someone who has recently died.  That way we keep their memory alive.

Why do we say a prayer before we eat?
Actually you are supposed to say a prayer before and after you eat.  It is not really a prayer in which we are asking for something.  It is instead a blessing that we are giving thanks for something.  Before we eat we pause and say, “Thank you.” First we thank God for blessing us with enough food to eat.  It is just like thanking your mom or dad for cooking dinner for you or buying dinner for you. I hope you do that too.  You should always say “thank you.”  Nothing should ever be expected or taken for granted, even the food that you eat.  That is why it is always good to stop before you stuff your mouth with food and say, “Thank you.”  The more we say thank you the more we are likely to count everything that happens, even the ordinary, everyday stuff, as wonderful.  You should never think that everything you have is deserved.  Instead think that everything you have is a gift.  Every day that you get a gift you should say thanks.  The more you say a prayer before you eat the more you will become thankful.  That is a great state of mind.

Is God Catholic or Jewish?
God is God.  People are Catholic or Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, Baptist or Buddhist.  There are many ways to pray to God.  I like the Jewish way the best.  That is part of what makes me a rabbi.  That does not make other ways bad.  I have my favorite.  I hope yours is the same. But God does not have a favorite.  God wants everyone to do his or her best.  God wants everyone to try to make the world a little better.  God wants everyone to start every day and every meal with a thank you.  God wants everyone to think that every day and every life is a gift.

Keep asking your questions.  That is the best way to learn more.  Asking questions has always been one of the things Jews do best.

Monday, November 21, 2011


A disturbing video shared by my colleague, Rabbi Andy Bachman. His post is a poignant, and unsettling, reminder of the dangers of power. Like him I love Israel but continue to stubbornly believe, even though some will also say, naively believe, that what we most love must sometimes be subjected to critique  Only through honest heshbon hanefesh, examining oneself, can we grow better.   I share this more for what Andy writes than what the video portrays.

Like so many Jewish communities who find themselves gathered inside a synagogue each week to celebrate Shabbat, ours was filled to overflowing this past weekend--young and old of all ages, from sundown Friday til sundown Saturday. We honored ten of our members who served in the American Armed Forces at a special Veterans Day Shabbat Friday evening, commemorating the service of men who were in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Saturday in the morning there was learning, Shir l'Shabbat, Yachad, Altshul, a Lay-Led Minyan, and more learning, along with two different discussions: one, a panel discussion on issues related to conversion to Judaism; and two, a discussion with two young Israelis and two young Palestinians about the Btselem Camera Project.

Some time ago, Btselem, an Israeli human rights organization, began giving away video cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank in order to document the engagement between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Recorded encounters, sometimes mundane and sometimes shocking to witness, provide a window into the human side of a greatly entrenched conflict. The hope is to allow citizens to bear witness to any potential human rights abuses--never enjoyable work by any means but essential work nonetheless for any democracy that prides itself on its morality and inherent decency.

Now let me state clearly: I am not a pacifist. War, horrifying as it can be, is a sometimes necessary burden we bear when conflict can no longer be negotiated. And as a Jew, I take great pride in Israel's existence and its ability to defend itself. Further, I am under no illusion that many leaders among Palestinians and in the Arab world broadly are working for (or at the very least hoping for) the destruction of Israel.

But these videos are not meant to capture those bad guys. And they are bad guys.

These videos are meant to capture moments when our guys misbehave, when their power gets beyond them, and when, for reasons that are complex, psychological, traumatic and sometimes immoral, they lose control. Aimed guns at the heads of unarmed people; firing tear gas canisters at someone's head; wearing masks and attacking elderly people with wooden poles; shooting a young man in the foot.

We shouldn't want to see this and we shouldn't have to see it but it's what happens when our hatred controls us rather than our own triumphant mastery of hate. And the purpose of human rights activists--objectively speaking--is to document what happens, shed light where it needs to be shed, and, when necessary, bring to justice those who need to be brought to justice. And sometimes, in conflict, our guys need to be brought to justice. We may not like it. We may think, "But in the long-run, they just want Israel to go away!" But in the long run, a society without justice for its least fortunate will one day deprive even the most fortunate of justice. God's justice, our tradition teaches, extends to us all.

In the video I chose to share at the top of this site, these details are included in a sidebar description from Btselem: "Following a subsequent investigation, the officer, Lt. Col. Omri Borberg, and solider, Staff Sergeant Leonardo Corea, were charged by the Army with “conduct unbecoming”. Following a high court petition against the lenient charge, the soldier was charged with unlawful use of weapons, and the officer with attempted threats. Both were also charged with conduct unbecoming. The two were convicted and in the beginning of 2011. The officer was sentenced to a suspended jail sentence and a halt to promotion for two years. The soldier was sentenced to demotion to the rank of private." We don't celebrate such things; but we know that in this particular case, there is the attempt to make justice out of an act that demands it.

So Saturday morning ten of us sat in a circle, heard stories, and then watched several videos which were not easy to see. But they were necessary to see. In one video in particular, a soldier who had lost his cool and shot a young boy in the foot was brought to justice, disciplined by his commanding officer, precisely because of the recorded footage. What abuses of power were once tolerated because they were not seen are now seen, heard, and, at times, even adjudicated. For the greater cause of Zionism, for the justness of our right to live in our historic homeland, that's a good thing.

Today you may have read that two bills are currently in the Israeli Knesset seeking to limit foreign funding for Israeli human rights organizations. This is not a good thing. In the words of the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, "These legislative efforts to restrict funding for non-governmental organizations run contrary to core democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength. If there is a concern that foreign, and possibly antagonistic, entities are funding civic or political groups in Israel, then let there be a debate on the advisability of requiring full disclosure of the revenues, and their sources, of such groups across the political spectrum." The New Israel Fund, targeted last year by these same political leaders who are sponsoring this legislation this year, has some helpful suggestions for ways to make your voice heard on this issue.

Core democratic principles are Israel's strength. I agree. Making sure that Jews defend themselves justly makes us stronger as a nation. Turning our eyes and hearts from injustice weakens us. Though we don't want to admit the worst things about ourselves, doing so strengthens us for far greater challenges ahead.

When our program ended, I sat for a moment reflecting upon the images just seen, the voices just heard, the actions we had witnessed. And then I looked at the two Israelis and the two Palestinians, who, but for language and accent, were indistinguishable from one another. What united them was their desire for peace, their faith in democracy, and, especially on Shabbat, inside the synagogue, that each was made בצלם--Btselem: In the Image of God.

Their projected image of tolerance and friendship can be better achieved when we can see what goes wrong--with just enough time to correct it--before it gets worse.

Chayei Sarah Sermon

This evening we learn of three cities and three lessons.  Each of these cities offers us a value and a cautionary note.  We relearn these values and we recall their accompanying cautionary notes.

The first city is from the Torah portion.  It is Hebron.  In this week’s Torah portion Sarah dies at the age of 127 years.  Abraham mourns her and seeks to buy a burial plot.  He purchases the Cave of Machpeleh from Ephron, the Hittite.  We learn that Abraham pays more than the asking price and thus Hebron becomes the first Jewish city.  From this city we are reminded that the land, the land of Israel, is holy.  It is made holy by Sarah’s death and by Abraham’s purchase.

Here is where it all started.  Our faith began in Hebron, located in the modern day West Bank.  Thus it is not just any land that the Palestinians claim. It is our people’s as well.  When it comes time to make peace (may that day be very soon) it will not be as simple as withdrawing from Gush Katif in Gaza.  And if you recall this recent history, remember that was not so simple or easy.  In Hebron we still feel Jewish history and its reverberations.  There one can sense Abraham’s and Sarah’s presence. 

Still our cautionary note is that the land is not more holy than people.  No place is worth more than human life and preserving Jewish democracy.  Even a place as holy as Hebron, with its many Jewish resonances, is worth sacrificing for the sake of furthering democracy and saving lives.

The second city is Berlin.  We think of it because of our recent commemoration of Kristallnacht.  On November 9, 1938 in Germany and Austria, and in particular in Berlin, the Nazis perpetrated this night of broken glass.  There are many dates to which we can point and date the beginning of the Holocaust.  This date would be one.  On this day the Nazis destroyed and burned synagogues and Jewish books.  And on this day the world stood by.  Kristallnacht was reported but little if anything was done.  The Nazis were allowed to destroy Jewish lives and homes with impunity.

We are reminded that even the most cultured of places can become evil.  The place that gave the world Beethoven and Schopenhauer also gave rise to the past century’s most unparalleled evil. 

Lest we be naïve, we must proclaim that antisemitism still exists.  We hear its venom coming from Iran.  It exists even in the United States.  There are tinges of it emanating from Occupy Wall Street.  This is a movement that is all about anger and not about reform and change.  Protest for something rather than against something.  Use feelings of disenfranchisement as a tool to better our world.  From the memory of Jewish Berlin we are cautioned: stay vigilant.  Never be so quick to dismiss racisim and antisemitism.  It can arise anywhere and everywhere. It can be found in any city.

The third city we think of is our very own New York.   We think of it because of Thanksgiving.  Here in New York we enjoy unprecedented freedoms.  This country is built on immigration and meritocracy.  Here anyone can build a life for him or herself..  That is what we celebrate and give thanks for on the upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving.

On this day we celebrate these freedoms especially, most notably the freedom of religion.  Here we can be proud Jews and loyal Americans.  We must remember that the freedoms we so relish must remain open to all.  We celebrate that anyone can be successful here.  We not only celebrate our own successes but the openness by which anyone can find success.  We must caution ourselves not to close these doors of opportunity to others.  What was opened to us should remain open to all.

In 1790 George Washington sent a letter to the Jews of Newport and in particular to the leaders of the Touro Synagogue.  He was responding to their words of congratulations when he became our country’s first president.  It is his words with which I conclude.  His words serve as the best reminder of what is great about this country.  Forgive his highfalutin English. It is how people wrote and spoke back then.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.  May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Amen, President Washington.  May we always remember what each of these cities teach us. May we continue to cherish the values they have granted us.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Israel IQ by Stand with Us

A congregant shared this video with me.  It is a powerful, if unfortunate, reminder about how little people really know about Israel and the issues and conflicts in the Middle East.  I could do without some of Mark Schiff's sarcasm, but it is understandable.  There is so much more teaching to be done!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chayei Sarah

Most of the stories in Genesis focus on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We learn little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

This week however we read of the death of the first matriarch, Sarah.  “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.”  (Genesis 23:1-2)

Sarah’s life appears to be defined only by the few episodes in which she accompanies her husband Abraham.   She joins Abraham on his God ordained journey to the land of Israel.  She laughs at the thought of giving birth to a child at the age of 90 (Genesis 18).  Miraculously she does give birth to this child and he is named, “Laughter—Isaac.”  Abraham and Sarah celebrate the birth of this hoped for, prayed for, and longed for child.  Sarah proclaims: “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.  Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!  Yet I have a born a son in his old age.”  (Genesis 21:6-7)

In the following chapter, God appears to Abraham and commands him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah.  The Akedah, the binding of Isaac, is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Curiously Sarah is nowhere mentioned in this extraordinary tale.  How can Isaac’s mother be absent from one of the most significant events in her son’s life?  I cannot imagine that she was silent, that she did not participate in some way in this formative event. 

The rabbis of old notice her absence.  They suggest that the reason the Torah states that Abraham got up early in the morning to fulfill God’s command is that he woke up while Sarah was still sleeping.  They suggest that Sarah never would have allowed Abraham to try to sacrifice her only son, the son of her old age.  Abraham was therefore left to sneaking out of the house before dawn in order to fulfill God’s request.

The ancient rabbis also notice the proximity of the binding of Isaac to this week’s Torah portion. They ask why did Sarah die in the chapter following the Akedah?  They suggest that she died of a heart attack after she discovered what her overzealous husband almost did to her only son.  Thus she died of a broken heart. 

Both of these ancient midrashic attempts recognize that we must discover what all of our heroes did in the Torah, even if their actions are not explicitly mentioned.  This is the meaning of midrash.  Our tradition refuses to accept the Torah as literal.  Our stories are sometimes mere outlines.  Who could imagine an absent Jewish mother?  How could Sarah not have a voice in this episode?  She has waited 90 years for a child.  Wouldn’t she therefore be especially overprotective of her son?

More recently feminists, of whom I consider myself, have added different interpretations about Sarah’s role.  One suggests that God appeared to both Abraham and Sarah and separately commanded them to sacrifice their son Isaac.  Thus God tested both Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham said, “Yes, of course.”  Sarah said, “No way.”  Is it possible that Sarah’s answer was the correct answer to God’s test?  When Sarah woke up she realized that God had also appeared to Abraham and that he had now left to do God’s bidding.

Sarah prayed with all her might and an angel responded to her plea, calling to Abraham, “Do not raise your hand against the boy…“  (Genesis 22:12)  A ram appeared, caught in the thicket by its horns.  So Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it in place of his son.  Sarah died, having expended all of her life, and sacrificing herself in place of her son.  To be honest, this makes more sense to me.

Whether ancient or modern the Jewish genius has always been to write ourselves and our experiences into the stories found in the Torah.  Our Torah is a living book because we continue to interpret and reinterpret its words and verses depending on our circumstances and experiences.

I can only imagine a God who calls to both men and women.  A God who only speaks to men is not part of my faith.  All, men and women, young and old, must continue to hear God’s voice wherever they may stand. I believe that Sarah did as well as Abraham.

That is our Judaism.  That is what we believe.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Vayera Sermon

As I always teach, we do not choose our bar/bat mitzvah portion, it chooses us. The challenge is to wrest meaning from the Torah’s words. Week in week out, year after year, we have to read all of the Torah’s words. We have to find meaning in its laws, in its intricacies, in its stories. That is what it means to be a Jew. We must apply the words of the Torah to our daily lives.

And so here is this week’s story and lesson. First a reminder about the story and the somewhat sordid details of how Abraham and his wife Sarah deal with their first son Ishmael and his mother Hagar. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac she sees Hagar’s son Ishmael as competition and so instructs Abraham to kick them out. Abraham is at first distraught and consults with God who tells Abraham to listen to his wife Sarah. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with meager rations. They nearly die in the heat, but are rescued by God and the appearance of a miraculous well.

It is a wrenching story. It is disturbing for two reasons. There is profound disappointment in Abraham and Sarah. And there is the pain of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar says, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting at a distance, she burst into tears. Vatisa et kola vatevk: And she lifted up her voice and cried. The Hebrew is even more poignant. And God heard the cry of the boy: Vayishma Elohim et hakol hanaar.

I have two observations. Sometimes those closest to us, sometimes those we most love, disappoint us, do wrong. The pain of Hagar and Ishmael is caused by Sarah and Abraham. My heroes have indeed disappointed me.

This brings me to Penn State and the revelations of pedophilia and cover ups coming from there. Those who we held in high esteem have done wrong. So many people, of all these great people, did not do enough to save these children. Too few did the right thing. It is an unequivocal moral lapse when people fail to protect children, when they fail to protect those most vulnerable. The Penn State students, the college community cannot see this. They still only see their heroes—and their terrible flaws. They can only see Abraham and Sarah’s achievements and not the pain they have caused others.

It is like our Jewish tradition that cannot see Abraham’s imperfections. How can Abraham do what he did? Even though God says it is ok, he should have given his son Ishmael and his mother enough water. This is the first lesson. We must see even our greatest heroes as flawed. I imagine that Abraham’s household quietly whispered about what Abraham was doing. I suspect that many people knew the truth about the Penn State coach. I imagine that they quietly spoke about what was happening to Hagar and Ishmael but did nothing. They whispered, but failed to act. Everyone failed to stop our heroes—and they are therefore diminished in our eyes. And then others become culpable.

The Talmud states: “Whoever can prevent his/her household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible for the sins of his/her household; if he can prevent his fellow citizens, he is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens; if she can prevent the whole world, she is responsible for the sins of the whole world.” Don’t be afraid to see even the greatest people as making mistakes. And if you are a true friend, then try to stop them. Don’t apologize for them, don’t excuse their wrongs. Instead help them do the right thing.

My second observation. God hears the cries of those in pain. God hears all and listens to all. No one has a cornerstone on God’s ear. No faith has a more direct line to God than any other. This is the power of including Hagar and Ishmael’s pain in our Torah. This is the power of including their cry to God in our Torah. They may not be part of the Jewish story, but they are part of God’s concern.

It is somewhat comforting that God hears the cries of those in pain. But we must as well. We must hear the cries of those who are hungry, of those in chains. Of course we cannot fix all of the world’s problems. If God responds to the cry of the son of servant girl, how much the more so must we respond to the pain of others. This is the most important lesson. We must work to alleviate the pain of those suffering. If God hears their cry we must as well.

Although we might be disappointed with our heroes we must always reach out to everyone, and anyone, who is in pain.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


This week we hear Hagar and her son, Ishmael, cry out in pain.  They have journeyed into the desert and have exhausted their meager supply of food and water.  After the birth of Isaac to Sarah, Abraham sends his older son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, out to the desert.  “When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat at a distance…thinking, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’  And sitting afar, she burst into tears.”

It is a wrenching story.  Abraham and Sarah, now the parents of Isaac, banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert.  How remarkable that this is the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah.  On this most sacred of days we read a story that concludes with a promise to the other.  How extraordinary that our sacred book preserves the cry of those outside our Jewish circle.  Moreover, how remarkable that our Torah affirms God hears this cry, most especially when those emerge from pain.

The message is clear.  We do not have a cornerstone on faith.  We do not possess the only path to God. Far too many speak with overconfidence in their own faith, as if they alone have God’s ear.  This week’s Torah portion reminds us that God listens to the cries of all people. 

We ignore these powerful verses and identify only with our Jewish heroes, Abraham and Sarah.  We justify their actions.  It is ok, we reason, because God ultimately rescues Hagar and Ishmael and offers them their own promise.  Our tradition excuses our heroes’ actions and apologizes for their choices.  We say, It is complicated.  Ishmael would undermine God’s promise to Isaac.  Ishmael would become the father of Muslims, many of whom now call us their enemy.  Do such complications really excuse their actions? 

I can only hear the boy’s cry.

I think of this week’s news from Penn State.  In this situation as well people say it is complicated.  We turn aside, we apologize for the wrongs of others, especially when they could undermine what we cherish and hold dear.  But when a child is in danger, we must never turn a blind eye.  It is one thing to hold our tongue when we see our friends’ children perhaps dress inappropriately.  It is another thing when we see them in danger and for example, drive drunk.  Then it should never be deemed complicated. 

The saddest part of the story emerging from Penn State is that far too many adults failed to rescue children in need.  Teachers, parents, coaches, and educators have a responsibility to protect children.  They might say that the situation is complicated.  They might worry that such sins will undermine their football achievements and their school’s promise.  But it is not complicated when children are in danger.  When children cry in pain, all must listen. When children cry out, no one should ever turn a deaf ear.   

“God hears the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is…’  Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  (Genesis 21:15-19)

Learn this as well from the Torah!  When children cry out, we dare not wait for a miraculous well to appear.

Global Hunger Shabbat

Here is how I started my day.  I dropped off leftover food at a local soup kitchen.  In fact my car’s trunk was overflowing with bagels and cookies.  Only a few hours later I went to Whole Foods to get lunch.  I spent $15 for my quick lunch.  A person living on food stamps gets $5.50 per day.  Later tonight I will go home and will make dinner.  I have not yet decided what I will prepare but I will open the refrigerator and search for inspiration.  My day’s total will far exceed the allotment given to a person living on food stamps.

I am fortunate that I can buy anything I want.  I am blessed.  I may not choose to eat everything, but I am richly blessed that I have so many choices.  This afternoon I could choose between the salmon with lemon butter, Mediterranean steak, brussel sprouts or quinoa salad.  What variety will Whole Foods offer me today?  This is how we eat.

Contrast this with the pictures from East Africa.  There is a famine raging there that has claimed 10,000’s of lives.  This is only part of the larger picture.  Every day 925 million people go hungry. 98% of these live in developing countries.  One out of four children in developing countries goes hungry.  That is 146 million children.  6.5 million children die each year from hunger related causes.

As a Jew I refuse to accept that I can’t do anything to change this.  Yes, the world is broken.  And also yes, we can repair it.

The terrible irony is that the world’s farmers produce enough food to adequately feed every person on the planet.  Part of the problem is that these children are too dependent on imported food and not local farming.  Part of the problem is that the donations we send overseas undermine local food production and makes people even more food insecure.

Too often local farm lands are confiscated by governments for economic development.  Water sources become contaminated by factories.  Trade agreements sometimes have the unintended consequence of flooding local markets with cheap food imports.  Likewise food-aid programs sometimes have similar effects.  These undercut local farmers and their ability to sell their product and thereby make communities less self-sufficient.

The American Jewish World Service, with whom we are partnering this evening, is working to change these facts.  Here is one example of an AJWS grantee.  This can be found on the AJWS website.  I encourage you to visit this website and learn more about this global problem.
Jean Saint Georges is a struggling farmer who lives in a rural village in Haiti. Over the past 20 years, food aid and trade policies have allowed imports of cheap agricultural goods from the United States and other countries to flood local markets. Jean and others like him couldn’t compete with the artificially low prices of these goods and were put out of business. Many of them migrated to the capital city Port-au-Prince in search of work, but once there, they encountered few employment opportunities. It is no surprise that 1.9 million Haitians, like Jean, faced hunger even before the earthquake on January 12, 2010.

The magnitude of the loss of life during the earthquake was due, in part, to this mass migration of rural farmers to the capital. Poverty forced these people to live in poorly constructed homes on steep mountainsides.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, international donors, including the U.S. government, sent food aid to Haiti. In the short term, this food helped feed thousands of earthquake survivors who had lost everything. But it has had an unintended—and devastating—consequence on local farmers. The influx of free rice from abroad brought the price of Haitian rice down so low that Haitian farmers couldn’t compete. Because they couldn’t earn an income from their crops, they couldn’t purchase seeds for this year’s crop. As one Haitian farmer put it:  “We were already in a black misery after the earthquake of January 12th. But the rice they’re dumping on us, it’s competing with ours and soon we’re going to fall in a deep hole. When they don’t give [rice] to us anymore, are we all going to die?”

As Haiti rebuilds, it is important that international donors support local agricultural development, not undermine it. For example, the Partnership for Local Development (PLD), an AJWS grantee, helps Haitian farmers like Jean. The organization provides support to rural farmers, including seed and grain storage and training in methods to help the farmers maximize their agricultural production. In the aftermath of the earthquake, PLD also established cash-for-work programs to enable affected Haitians to earn an income. This allows them to rebuild their communities and decide.  Through PLD’s cash-for-work program, Jean and his family were able to earn desperately needed money by working on a soil conservation project and fixing a local road. With the money they earned, the family bought food and clothes. Jean also received seeds to plant corn, beans and sweet potatoes. The soil conservation project has helped to ensure that the land where he farms will be viable for years to come. As a result, he no longer fears hunger.

Jean’s experience is not unique. Across Haiti, farmers are working to strengthen local agricultural production. It is the hope of AJWS to help promote Haitian self-sufficiency.
Even in this country we have similar problems.  There are far too many people who go hungry in our very own country.  Or, who because they are dependent on food stamps, buy unhealthy food.  Organic vegetables are more expensive than a candy bar.  I am not saying you have to eat at Whole Foods.  (I certainly cannot afford to buy every lunch there.)  But our country’s food aid programs undermine the eating of healthy food.  Why buy fresh fruit and vegetable when you can buy an entire meal at McDonalds for the same price?

As a nation we should subsidize not the production of corn syrup but healthy eating.  It should not be a luxury to eat organic.  It should be a necessity.  The consequences of our diet for our nation’s future are exceedingly worrisome.

We learn from our tradition that we cannot turn away from the world’s troubles.  We especially cannot turn aside from the pains of hunger that are so near.  We will continue to support the Interfaith Nutrition Network (the INN).  We will do more and work in a soup kitchen not only on December 4th but on other days.  Our hard work begins today.

So here is what we are going to continue to do.
1. Throughout this month we will be collecting canned food.  Bring these to the office or the Hebrew School.
2. If you wish to make a monetary donation write “Social Action Fund” in the memo.  We will use these monies to help the INN purchase turkeys for Thanksgiving.
3. The office will serve as a way station.  If you have gently used clothes or books bring them to the office and I will find someone or an organization that can use them.  There is unfortunately no shortage of need.
4. If you want to volunteer on December 4th send me an email.
5. We will continue to collect leftovers from shiva.  Although we are sad that there were so many tears in our congregation this week, by tomorrow afternoon a hungry person will no longer be hungry.
6. If you are planning a simcha add the extra planning of collecting the leftovers to your to do list.

This week we meet Abraham for the first time.  Among the many traits that our tradition ascribes to him is that of hospitality.  He would always welcome travelers into his tent and offer them food.  Those who live in Israel’s desert, the Bedouins, still observe these ancient customs.  If you are traveling by another’s tent you are welcomed in and offered food and water.

We instead speed from destination to destination.  We run from house to house, play date to play date, or appointment to appointment.  We are blind to the hunger and poverty that surrounds us.  I am not suggesting that we welcome strangers into our homes.  But like Abraham we can lift the flap of the tent open.  We can open our eyes to the pain around us.  We can resolve to do more.

The great faith of Abraham was that he understood what we too often forget; one person can change the world.  And even if we don’t change the world, if we only save one life then all our efforts will be worth it.

May God grant us the resolve of Abraham to make our world better.  And even if it is only a little better then grant us the faith to say, the effort will have been worth it.

The Israeli songwriter, Arik Einstein, wrote: “Ani v’atah…  You and I can change the world, you and I.  Then all will join us.  Though it’s been said before it doesn’t matter.  You and I will change the world.  You and I will start from the beginning.  It may be difficult, but it doesn’t matter.”

Yes indeed.  You and I can change the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lech Lecha

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha.  It is the story about the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah.  In the opening of the portion Abraham is called and commanded to venture forth to a new land, the land of Israel.  In the conclusion of the portion the covenant is sealed with Abraham and Sarah.  For Abraham the sign of the covenant is circumcision.  According to the rabbis Sarah goes to the mikvah to seal the covenant.  Both Abraham and Sarah take on new names as symbols of their new identities.  In the interim our heroes struggle—unsuccessfully—to have a child together.  Ishmael is however born to Abraham through Hagar.  It is not until next week’s portion that Sarah gives birth to Isaac.   The promise of that birth is issued this week.

“When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai.  Walk in My ways and be blameless.  I will establish My covenant between Me and you….  And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations….  Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you….   As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.  I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her.’”  (Genesis 17)

Abraham then circumcises himself (at 99 years old), his son Ishmael (at thirteen) and all the men in his household.  Isaac is the first to be circumcised at the age of eight days.  For men there are two signs of our Jewish identities.  One is private and the other public.  Although brit milah (a bris) is performed publicly the sign remains private.  It is only between a man and God.  It is interesting (although perhaps uncomfortable) to reflect on circumcision.  Judaism insists that the sign of the covenant must be inscribed in the most private of areas.  It is here that a Jewish man is reminded of his obligations to the Jewish people.

For women no physical sign, or reminder, is demanded.  The rabbis suggest this is because men need far more reminders than women.  (Sorry guys.)  Women require few, if any, reminders.  There is no physical sign of the covenant.  Nowhere in the Jewish tradition is female circumcision even suggested.

For both men and women the outward sign of their Jewish commitments is their name.  When the covenant is sealed, both Abraham and Sarah take on their new names.  To each of their given names of Abram and Sarai the Hebrew letter hey is added.  This letter symbolizes God’s name and is still used to abbreviate God’s name.  Thus they take God into their names and into their identities. 

Throughout the ages the private sign of the covenant was observed with steadfast commitment.  Even in ages when circumcision was a distinguishing mark and could result in persecution, as during the Holocaust, Jews observed this ritual.  It should be noted that when Jews lived under Greek rule some underwent a painful procedure to reverse the sign of circumcision. This enabled them to compete in sports.  Of course this was because men competed naked and thus this private sign was then public.  Yet, especially in modern times, the outward sign of the covenant, a Jewish name, is relegated only to synagogue life.  In the public square we call each other by American names.  Wherever we lived we soon adopted the names of the surrounding culture.

We are comfortable being Jews in private.  Yet in public we too often hide our identities.  It is not that I no longer wish to be called by my name, Steven.  It is instead that I wish to be known by my acts of compassion.  Let the world come to know that a descendant of Abraham and Sarah reaches out to the world around him because his Judaism demands this of him.    Let us be known by our kindnesses.  Let this be the name that others attach to our people.  Then the vision of the Torah and the promise later given to Abraham will also be fulfilled: “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants…”  (Genesis 22)