Thursday, December 29, 2011


The known remaining son of Jacob and Rachel, Benjamin, is now threatened with imprisonment by Joseph who is second only to Egypt’s Pharaoh.  Benjamin has of course been framed by Joseph and is accused of stealing from the palace.  Judah approaches Joseph to plead for Benjamin’s life.  He cries, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.  For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

Joseph is again unable to control his emotions.  He instructs his servants to leave him alone with his brothers.  He begins sobbing so loudly that even those standing outside of the room could hear his cries.  He declares, “I am Joseph!  Is my father still well?”  His brothers are dumfounded.  Joseph draws near and says, “’I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.  Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you….’  With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.  He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”  (Genesis 45:1-14)

Joseph then sent for his aged father Jacob.  Pharaoh gives them horses and carts to transport the family to Egypt and the entire family makes a home in Egypt.  Pharaoh assigns to them a portion of territory.  Thus did the children of Israel come to live in Egypt.  For generations Jacob’s descendants live comfortably among the Egyptians.

I wonder what made Joseph change course.  Why did he finally break down and cry?  Why did he now reveal himself to his brothers?  Was he as the rabbis suggest testing his brothers to see if they had changed?  Was he therefore waiting for Judah to stand up and protect his younger brother Benjamin?  The measure of true repentance is of course to be faced with the exact same temptation but to choose another course.  Here Judah chooses, rather than as he did before to throw his brother in a pit, to defend him and offer himself in his stead.  Others suggest that it was Judah’s repetition of the pain that would be caused to Jacob that finally found its way into Joseph’s heart.  In fact Judah repeats this mantra about Jacob 14 times in his plea to Joseph. 

Was Joseph seeking revenge for the years of pain and tribulation his brothers caused him?  Is this why he developed this elaborate plot to frame Benjamin and punish his brothers.  Perhaps his machinations started out that way, but in the opening of this portion they clearly change course.  The opening word of the portion offers a clue as to what might have caused this change of heart.  Vayigash means to draw near.  It is a refrain that is repeated throughout this exchange.  Judah draws near.  Joseph in turn draws close.  It is the same root that the Torah uses when detailing how to make war against a city.  When you draw near to attack a city…  Judah was prepared to fight for his brother Benjamin.  Joseph saw this in his eyes.  Then again standing so close to each other, staring into each other’s eyes, Egyptian and Jew are not seen but instead brothers.  And Joseph cried, “I am your brother Joseph!”  Perhaps this is what we should always see when looking into the eyes of another person.

A midrash suggests the following:  “’Like deep water is counsel in the heart of man, but a man of understanding will draw it out.’  (Proverbs 20:5)  The image is of a deep well, whose waters are cold and clear, but no one is able to reach it to drink from it.  Then a person comes and ties rope to rope, and cord to cord, and string to string, and draws forth the water and drinks from it, and then everyone comes and draws forth and drinks.  Thus did Judah refuse to budge and continued to press Joseph, answering him word for word, until he stood right at Joseph’s heart.”  In this way brothers were reunited, each forgiving the other, each embracing the other.

In this way must we remind each other that we all are brothers.  It is only a matter of drawing near.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Two years have passed since the chief cupbearer was freed from jail.  Joseph however still remains in captivity.  Pharaoh is now plagued by disturbing dreams.  No one is able to interpret them, or perhaps dare to disclose their meaning.  It is then that the cupbearer remembers Joseph and his remarkable abilities.

He is brought before Pharaoh and immediately interprets the meaning of these dreams.  Joseph foretells that Egypt will be blessed with seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  The country must prepare for the famine by saving during the first seven years.  Pharaoh charges Joseph with this task and gives him the top administrative job in all of Egypt.

After these seven years of bounty, famine descends on Egypt and the whole world. Many are forced to come to Egypt, and therefore Joseph, to secure food.  Jacob sends his sons, except the youngest Benjamin, to Egypt to procure food.  They appear before Joseph who immediately recognizes them, but they do not recognize him for he dresses and acts like an Egyptian.  He speaks harshly to them and accuses them of beings spies.  He throws them in jail.  On the third day he lets them out and sends them on their way with food for their families.  One brother, Simeon, is taken and held in an Egyptian jail as ransom.  Joseph threatens them, instructing them that they must not return without Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel and Jacob.

The brothers say to each other, “’Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.  That is why this distress has come upon us.’  Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, ‘Did I not tell you, “Do no wrong to the boy?”  But you paid no heed.  Now comes the reckoning for his blood.’” (Genesis 42:21-22)  They of course did not realize that Joseph understood their words.  He turns away and weeps.

On their journey home they discover that their money has been returned to them, hidden in their bags of food.  When they return home they report everything to their father Jacob.  He refuses to send them back to Egypt with his beloved son, Benjamin.  The famine soon grows worse and Jacob is left with no choice.  Judah pledges that he will take personal responsibility for Benjamin.  They set out for Egypt with double the money and Benjamin.

When they arrive and Joseph discovers that they have brought Benjamin with them he frees Simeon.  Joseph then prepares a feast for his brothers.  They apologize for not making proper payment on their first visit.  Somehow the money was returned in their bags, they report.  Joseph reassures them that he received proper payment and suggests that God must have put the money in their bags.

He then sees Benjamin for the first time and is overcome with emotion and runs out of the room.  He arranges the brothers at the table in order from oldest to youngest.  They wonder aloud if Joseph is a magician.  They cannot imagine how he could know their birth order.  Benjamin is presented with a double portion of food.

They are sent on their way with plenty of food.  But a goblet is secretly placed in Benjamin’s bag.  Joseph instructs his servants to go after his brothers and accuse them of stealing.  When they overtake them, it is soon discovered that Benjamin’s bag has the missing goblet.  They are brought back to Egypt to stand before Joseph.

The story pauses until next week.

It is a remarkable tale.  Throughout the story Joseph struggles with his attachments.  On several occasions the pull of his family is too strong.  He is unable to control his emotions and retreats to weep in private.  We cry that he is not yet able to embrace his brothers.

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that throughout this story, our hero Joseph often changes clothes.  In the opening his father places the coat of many colors on him and then his brothers tear it from him.  There is as well the garment torn from him by Potiphar’s wife.  And finally in the opening of this week’s portion the following: “And he shaved himself and changed his garment…and Pharaoh dressed him in linen garments.” (Genesis 41:14, 42)

By the time his brothers come before him, Joseph looks like an Egyptian.  He is unrecognizable to them.  His clothes, and apparently his mannerisms and language, allow him to hide from them despite the fact that he stands before them.  Now it is left to him alone to tear these clothes.  But he is not yet able to tear the trappings of his Egyptian identity and reveal himself to his brothers.

I wonder, “What do our clothes say of us?”  What do they hide?  What do they reveal?  Soon Joseph will remove his mask and embrace his brothers in forgiveness.  He discovers that he will always be more a brother, and a member of the family of Israel, than an Egyptian.  His inner self becomes one with his outer identity.  I wonder as well, “Are we the same on the outside as we are on the inside?”  Like Joseph, what pain is caused by hiding out true selves from others?

I would like to believe that it is always more a matter of the acts we perform than the clothes we wear.  I would like to believe that we can always be same on the outside as we are on the inside.  I pledge never to allow my Jewish values to remain hidden.  Let them be revealed to all.

As we continue to celebrate Hanukkah we recall its message of asserting our Jewish identities in a world that is not.  We ask, “What Jewish values will we wear as our garments?"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


There is a closely guarded secret about Hanukkah that is rarely discussed or even revealed.  It is this.  Within a generation the heroes of Hanukkah, the Maccabees, became so consumed with their successes and their apparent ability to bring about miracles that they persecuted those who disagreed with them, even other Jews.  The opening battle hints at this dark truth.  The Maccabees first killed another Jew.

"A Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer a sacrifice upon the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command.  When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred.  He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar.  At the same time he ran and killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar." (I Maccabees 2:23-25)

This is similar to our struggle today.  There are those who believe that faith means they are right and all others are wrong.  There are those who always burn with righteous anger and would kill those who disagree with them.  There are those who can only be right if all others are wrong.  And then there are those who believe that faith is meant to inspire, to call us to do better, to bring a measure of healing rather than anger to our world.  The list of those who see faith as a fire that must consume all non-believers is far too long.  Let us resolve on this Hanukkah to be among those who instead use faith to warm those around us.

Michael Fagenblat, a contemporary philosopher, comments, “Living with miracles is risky business.  After all, a candle can start a raging fire.  As much as we are asked to see the miracle of Hanukkah, we must therefore also find the right place for it in our lives.”

It is not that I don’t believe in miracles.  I certainly hope and pray for them, most especially for those who are facing life threatening illnesses.  Unlike Hanukkah’s heroes I believe miracles come to heal individuals rather than to thwart history.  The Maccabees believed that God’s hand only favored them and protected their like-minded followers.  The Rabbis of old therefore refashioned their miracle from one about a military victory into one about the oil lasting for eight days.  They recognized the danger of seeing things as the Maccabees did, of believing that only they were right and all others wrong.  The rabbis by contrast embraced a plurality of ideas and responses to historical crisis.

What does Hanukkah mean to me?  It is about being proud to be Jewish in a world that is not.  It is about having the courage to bring Jewish values to those around us.  By doing so we might very well rewrite history.

The miracles of old continue to inspire me and warm my faith.  I must however be on guard that they never become a consuming fire.  I rely on the glow of the Hanukkah miracle.

My friends and colleagues at CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) suggest the following ritual.
This Hanukkah especially, with many questions about the future of America, Israel and the Jewish people looming large for so many people, we need the vision that comes from looking at things in the light of our Hanukkah candles.  We need to see possibility where most see none, envision options while most bemoan their absence.

Here’s how: Candlelight softens hard edges, it warms and invites imagination.  People come together and often, in a moment of quiet, see the very best in themselves and each other when gathered around an open flame.

This year turn off the lights in the room and allow yourself to see by Hanukkah light, if only for a few minutes.

By the glow of the candles, think about a seemingly insurmountable challenge in your life, in the life of the Jewish people, or in the life of our nation.  Then allow yourself to imagine a response and how you might contribute to it.  That’s what the Maccabees did when they dared to make light when others deemed it impossible, and we can do the same.  That what it means to see things in Hanukkah light.
Allow the Hanukkah candles to warm your faith and those around you.  Allow these candles to inspire your beliefs and give you the courage to bring Jewish values to the world.

Chag Urim Samayach!—Happy Hanukkah!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tebowing for Hanukkah

What follows is my recent sermon about the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah, delivered on Shabbat Vayeshev, December 16th.

Nes Gadol Haya Po.  A great miracle happened here.  This is what is written on dreidles in the land of Israel.  Millennia ago the small, outnumbered Jewish army led by the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks and recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem and of course rededicated it to Jewish worship.  According to the rabbis the holy oil necessary for this ceremony lasted eight days rather than the expected one.  The miracle of oil!  But the victory of the small army over the larger, better equipped and supplied, army was no less a miracle.

I have been thinking about this story as we approach Hanukkah, the holiday which begins on Tuesday evening.  I have been thinking especially about miracles.  What is that we really believe?  A lot has recently been written about this question.  In fact more questions about faith and belief have appeared in the sports sections than the paper’s other sections.  These articles are by and large about Tim Tebow, about his beliefs and his public prayers and of course the Bronco’s miraculous wins. 

I don’t know how many people watched Sunday night’s game of the Broncos vs. the Bears.  It was quite the miracle. The Broncos were down by ten, in fact 10-0, until about four minutes left in the game.  Then Tebow led his team to a touchdown.  With no time outs remaining and no way to stop the clock the Bears seemed sure to be able to run out the clock.  But then a veteran running back, Marion Barber, ran out of bounds and stopped the clock giving the Broncos time for a few plays.  The Broncos now had a little less than a minute to score.  With three seconds remaining their kicker kicked a 59 yard field goal to tie the game.  Chicago won the toss to gain first possession in overtime and again was nearly in field goal range to win the game when Marion Barber made another mistake and fumbled the ball.  Tebow led his team to field goal range and the Broncos won 13-10 in overtime.  A great miracle happened here!  By the time overtime began I gave up on my many Chicago friends and started praying along with Tebow for his Broncos to win.  After all who prays for a loss? 

Prior to Tebow’s starting as quarterback, the Broncos were 1-4.  Now with him at the held they are 7-1 and leading their division for a playoff spot.  Such appears the power of faith and the power of prayer.  But what is Tebow is really praying for?  Does he pray, “God let my team defeat our opponents and win this game.”  Such would seem an improper prayer.  Judaism would counsel us that we should only ask God for that which benefits all.  One cannot pray for one’s own success if it comes at the expense of another.   In football Tebow and his Broncos’ success comes at the expense of the other team.  Marion Barber might especially need our prayers for strength and courage far more than Tebow does.  May Marion Barber rise above his mistakes and become an even greater human being.  To be honest our prayers should never be about being a great football player, or basketball player or baseball player or any player for that matter.  Instead they should be about being a better person.  Yet it is human nature to pray for the winning side. It is certainly human nature to pray for what might be called, my side.

I remember some of the prayers I have uttered when watching the Jets.  There have been many times over the years as I watch the Jets game and especially in those final minutes find myself praying as the other team lines up for a field goal or last attempt at the end zone, “Miss it.  Miss it.  Miss it.  Please.  Please.  Please.”  Of course sometimes my prayers appear to be answered and other times not.  It occurs to me that perhaps we are the most religious when rooting for our side.   Then again, how can it be a good prayer if my success, or my team’s success, depends on someone else’s failure?

To be fair Tebow states that he is not praying for a win.   He also has repeatedly stated that football is only a game and that God does not care who wins.  His example continues to remind us that faith and prayer are meant to be inspiring and can also apparently inspire others to greatness.  For this teaching we owe him a debt of gratitude.  In a world where there are far too many examples of the abuses of religion we are grateful for his reminder that faith can inspire and help us become better. 

We should also be thankful to him for another reminder.  As we approach the holiday of Hanukkah that was all about being able to be Jewish in the public square, Tebow reminds us that it is good to pray in public.  Some might be uncomfortable with his public displays of overt devotion, of Tebowing as it is called, but Hanukkah was about the struggle to proudly declare I am Jewish.  The Hanukkah menorah is after all supposed to be displayed so that others can see it, so that the miracle is publicized.  Hanukkah is not supposed to be celebrated behind closed curtains.

Faith is meant as inspiration.  It is meant for the world to see.  For Tim Tebow’s reminder about this I commend him.  The fact that he appears to pray after his successes and others’ failures I fault him.  I am waiting for what might be his greatest example, to see his public devotion, embracing the other team in prayer, after his team suffers a stinging defeat.  Nonetheless he has taught us that faith is meant as a goad for us to do better, to improve our world, to better ourselves. 

Faith does not mean waiting around for miracles.  We must bring them about.  We must not wait for God to perform miracles.  Miracles are first and foremost in our hands.  This is what Tebow teaches us.  He is not just praying.  He takes to the field.  He appears at his best when he faces the most challenges.  In the fourth quarter when most others might give up, he becomes better and appears to bring about miracles.  Others seem to resort only to their prayers.

Like any good Jewish book our prayerbooks recounts many miracles.  These books are not meant to sit on your shelves or to be read quietly in your room.  You can’t just wait for a Mi Chamocha moment to happen to you. Don’t wait to sing this song of redemption. You are supposed to carry your prayerbooks with you.  Then whenever you need a little extra inspiration you can find it there in its pages.  If you just sit in a room and pray for God to rescue you then you will find far fewer miracles in your lives. This is also what Hanukkah reminds us.  The Maccabees led the charge.  They did not hide in caves waiting for God to fix their world.  They did not sit quietly pouring over the words of their prayers.  They made the miracle.

On Hanukkah we recite the blessing, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days.”  The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asked why we say this blessing for the Hanukkah miracles and not for the greatest miracle of all, that of Passover.  Being a rabbi he answers his own question.  He says that it is because the Hanukkah miracle was dependent on our actions.  It was not dependent on God alone.  On Passover God alone split the sea and battled the Egyptians in that defining Mi Chamocha moment.  On Hanukkah we brought the miracle; it was dependent upon our own success.  We did not wait for miracles to be done for us.  We brought them to the world.  God inspired us.  We did the work.

This is the most important lesson of Hanukkah.  We look to past events for inspiration.  But when we start to believe that miracles are happening here and now it gets dangerous.  It is dangerous because then we stop doing the hard work of getting into the game ourselves.  Then we try to let God do all of the heavy lifting for us and pretend there is no weight on our own shoulders.  God does provide much inspiration.  But the lifting has to be done by ourselves. 

In the end that is why the better dreidle is our dreidle rather than Israel’s. On our dreidles it says, “A great miracle happened there.”   It keeps the miracle at arm’s length.  It keeps miracles as sources of inspiration rather than a crutch.  It reminds us that we have to do the hard stuff ourselves.  God will inspire us.  But our hands make the miracles.

Thus, if you want miracles to happen here you only have one choice.  Take to the field yourself!

Thursday, December 15, 2011


A theme throughout the Hebrew Bible is the seductiveness of the outside, foreign world. There are many laws forbidding what are deemed "their" idolatrous practices. The sexual depravity of foreigners is a pervasive thread throughout Jewish literature. Last week’s tragic story of the rape of Dinah is an illustration of this theme. This week we read another variant. It is found within the Joseph saga, a story that occupies the majority of the next four Torah portions.

Here is the first part of that story and especially the salacious details touching on this theme. Joseph is the favored son of Jacob. He is born to Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel and is treated like royalty by his father. He is given an ornamented tunic. Meanwhile his brothers are burdened with keeping up the family business and tending to their vast holdings of livestock. In addition Joseph is a dreamer. Despite his youth, he often dreams of how one day he will become the leader of the family. Moreover he tells his brothers of these visions. His brothers grow increasingly agitated and angered by his bravado.

One day while the brothers are pasturing the flock Joseph wanders into the fields to visit with them. They say to each other, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall then see what comes of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:18-20) In the end they decide to sell him into slavery rather than kill him. They report to their father Jacob that wild beasts killed him.

Joseph now finds himself in Egypt where he impresses Potiphar who eventually places him in charge of running his large household. Potiphar’s wife (who the Torah does not name) is attracted to Joseph and tries to seduce him. Joseph refuses her entreaties. Joseph proclaims, “How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Genesis 39:9). On one such occasion she grabs him by his clothes but he manages to run away, leaving her holding his garment. The Torah also does not specify how much of his garment remains in her hands. At the very least it is an identifying piece, for she now runs to her husband, holding Joseph’s clothes in her hands, and accuses him of trying to sleep with her. Potiphar becomes enraged and throws Joseph into jail.

In jail he eventually has the opportunity to prove himself, this time by interpreting dreams. He accurately interprets the chief cupbearer and baker’s dreams. When the cupbearer is released from jail he will have the opportunity to remember Joseph’s skills. This week’s portion however concludes on a note of forgetfulness. The cupbearer, now a free man, forgets Joseph and he remains in jail. The reader is left in suspense. What will happen to Joseph? Will he be vindicated for favoring God’s laws over those of his Egyptian masters? Will he be rewarded for living by his Jewish ideals and refusing the seductions of a foreigner?

Joseph is the first diaspora Jew. He must live a Jewish life outside of his ancestral home. He must live among the temptations of Egyptian culture. Potiphar’s unnamed wife is symbolic of the foreign culture in which Joseph now lives. Will Joseph be seduced by Egypt, by the other? Can he indeed live a Jewish life in a foreign land? Joseph’s struggle is our own. The tension between living a Jewish life while being open to American culture is the same for us as it was for Joseph.

This time of year we are reminded even more keenly that we live in a predominately Christian culture. Only this morning I was again awakened by the radio station playing Christmas songs. Throughout the town of Huntington stores are decorated with red and green holiday ornaments. There are a few Hanukkah decorations, but they are trivial by comparison. It is not that I mind these cheerful Christmas songs and festive decorations. I especially like the many homes on our block decorated with Christmas lights. These help to banish the darkness of December’s early sunsets. Yet these lights and decorations come at a cost. They remind me that this country is not entirely my own. No presidential Hanukkah dinner or the kashering of the White House kitchen can change this fact. And so like Joseph I have learned to speak the language of Egypt.

Recently the State of Israel ran ads encouraging Israeli expats to return home. The ads were heavy handed in their critique of diaspora life. In one ad a young Jewish girl is video chatting with her Israeli grandparents. “Shalom, Sabba v’Savta,” she sings. A Hanukkah menorah is displayed behind them. They exchange pleasantries in simple Hebrew and then ask her, “What holiday is it?” She exclaims excitedly, “Christmas.” The implication of the ads is clear. There is only one place to lead a full Jewish life and that is in Israel. By the way, the ads have since been removed from YouTube given the outcry from American Jewish leaders.

I admit there are times when I miss the Jewish rhythms of Israeli life. I miss the Friday evening greetings of “Shabbat Shalom” and Saturday evening’s “Shavuah Tov.” One hears these on the radio and TV. One hears them from strangers on the streets. I miss the Hanukkah treats of sufganiyot, jelly donuts, found in nearly every store. I miss the millions of Hanukkah menorahs displayed in windows. And I miss the State’s official Hanukkah celebrations. In Israel I am one with the predominant culture.

But no choice is perfect. No Jewish life is ever complete. Every place is a compromise. In Israel too there are seductions. In Israel it is instead the seductions of power. There is the argument that Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood and must therefore react with brute force against every one of its enemies. This too is a foreign seduction. Despite the fact that it pains me to admit it, Tom Friedman is correct. There are strong anti-democratic forces presently at work in the State of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has only belatedly recognized this after yesterday’s riot of radical settlers at an army base and the recent attacks by Jewish extremists of mosques.

Let us be honest. Democracy is not part of the Jewish tradition. King David was no believer in this Greek ideal. Democracy is a foreign idea. Still it is one that I love nonetheless. It is an ideal that is good for the Jewish nation. It is one of Israel’s founding pillars. The vision of the modern State of Israel is that it would be both Jewish and democratic. That is its struggle.

In the end one can live in a ghetto of one’s own making, cut off from all foreign ideas and cultural influences, or one can live surrounded by beliefs not entirely one’s own and ideals new to Jewish history. The latter is my choice. It is also Israel’s choice. And it is finally the choice our hero Joseph models after his many years of struggle.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Vayishlach Sermon

This week’s Torah portion tells many stories about our hero Jacob and his large family. In one particular story we discover the origin of our name, Yisrael.

Jacob now married with two wives, two maidservants, eleven children, many slaves and an abundance of livestock, sets out to return to his native land. At the same place where he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, he sends his family across the river and again spends the night alone. Jacob is understandably nervous about the impending reunion with his brother Esau who twenty years earlier vowed to kill him for stealing the birthright. It is interesting to note that the biblical story builds on the common theme of confronting spirits at a river crossing. Here in the Bible the literary theme is transformed and given new meaning. The river marks the frontier of the future land of Israel.

That night his experience is neither a dream nor an earthly reality. He wrestles with a being that is described as divine and human. Unable to free himself from Jacob’s grasp the being offers Jacob a blessing in exchange for his release. This being declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) He wrenches Jacob’s hip causing him to limp. (By the way this is why filet mignon is not kosher. According to tradition this cut is not eaten in remembrance of Jacob’s pain.)

Jacob’s new name becomes the name of the Jewish people. Yisrael means to wrestle with God. What a remarkable statement about our people and our tradition! We can question God. We can wrestle with God. In fact we should question God. We should wrestle with God. While most people understand that questioning is part and parcel to being Jewish, few appreciate that such questioning extends towards heaven. The rabbis called this notion, chutzpah klappei shamayim, chutzpah towards heaven. It is a beautiful and telling concept.

Long ago the rabbis codified action over belief, the duties of the hands over the feelings of the heart. We have books and books detailing exactly which cuts of beef are fit and unfit, when and when not to recite the Shema, even how much we should give to tzedakah. We do not have such books telling us exactly what we must believe. We have many discussions and debates about these questions, but no creeds. We have codes of action not creeds of belief.

It is this embrace of many different theologies that makes Judaism so extraordinary. I don’t have to have it all figured out. I can still question. I can still struggle. I can still wonder. I can still ask: Why does God not heal every person who is sick and infirm? Why is there pain and suffering in God’s world?

Throughout the years I have been drawn to many different theologians. Martin Buber speaks of finding God in the I-Thou relationship. When we really treat others in a mutual relationship, as a Thou, rather than an It in which we only see what we might gain from the relationship, then we can find a glimmer of God. There is Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, who teaches that the community is central. It is not God who commands from on high but rather the Jewish people and their continuation that commands us. Lately I find myself increasingly pulled toward Abraham Joshua Heschel, who reminds us that we find God in moments of wonder and awe. His remarkable book God in Search of Man is a reminder that it is God who is searching for us. God is searching for us to do good. Instead we sit around doing nothing to better our world, waiting for God to fix things for us. It is God in Heschel’s theology who is praying for human beings to repair the world.

Heschel writes: “Faith comes out of awe, out of an awareness that we are exposed to God’s presence, out of anxiety to answer the challenge of God, out of an awareness of our being called upon. Religion consists of God’s question and man’s answer. The way to faith is the way of faith. The way to God is a way of God. Unless God asks the question, all our inquiries are in vain.” Biblical scholars teach us that the name Yisrael can also mean “He who is upright with God.” For Heschel this understanding captures his theology.

Regardless of which theology you found more attractive they are all part and parcel of the modern Jewish landscape. The most important task is to never give up the quest, to always question, to always struggle and wrestle.

This week’s Torah portion describes our hero’s journey, from cheating and brokenness to wholeness and peace. The Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, points out that Jacob is not called whole (shalem) until after he limps. He limps only after wrestling with God.

We learn that the greatest name we can call ourselves is that which emerges from struggle—and even pain. It is also in this struggle that our relationship with God is born and the name Yisrael is realized.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Question of Refugees

Given my recent complaints about Israeli videos I thought to share the below video produced by Israel's foreign ministry.  It explores the history of Palestinian refugees.  I could do without the cartoon commentaries, but these facts nonetheless deserve repeating.  The story about the United Nations is especially important for the world to hear.  I fear however that we are only listening to ourselves.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Last week’s paper reported a wrenching story from Afghanistan.  A 21 year old woman named Gulnaz, jailed for two years because she was raped, was freed by President Karzai’s government.  She was freed on the condition that she marry the man who raped her.

My first response to this outrageous story was: send in US Special Forces to rescue her.  Let’s use US forces to bring a clear and decisive good to the Middle East.  Let’s use our military might to rescue those in need.  If ever there was a righteous moral cause this was it.  Save Gulnaz and the far too many women like her from the oppressiveness of their own societies.  I of course understand the realpolitik arguments.  We sometimes forget that these are about what we can accomplish not what we should strive to achieve.

And then I remembered my own book of Deuteronomy.  “If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife.  Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.”  (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

My own Torah stands alongside the Afghan government?  Jewish law has of course long since abandoned this ruling. Over the centuries rabbinic authorities became unanimous in condemning violence against women.  Yet there remain those who wish return to the ways and norms of the ancient Middle East—even in our own midst.

We teach our children to accept different cultures.  We declare that we should refrain from imposing our values on other societies. But there must be limits to my pluralism and multi-culturalism. I am losing patience, especially as I watch societies that our country supports commit such wrongs.  Dare we remain silent in the face of such brutalities?  How can we not declare what is wrong, wrong.

In Saudi Arabia, where a woman can be arrested for driving, a leading cleric recently declared that allowing women to drive would increase prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce.  Even in Israel several leading burial societies are enforcing gender separation and preventing women from speaking at an increasing number of funerals.  Neither example is of course as outrageous as that from Afghanistan.  Make no mistake.  There is a direct line between the dismissal of a woman’s voice and treating a rape victim as chattel.

And then I read this week’s portion.  In Parashat Vayishlach we read the story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter (Genesis 34).  Dinah goes out to the field to see her neighbors.  The local prince, Shechem, rapes Dinah and then decides he loves her and wants to marry her.  Despite Anita Diamant’s romantic interpretation in her book, The Red Tent, the Torah’s language is clear.  The sexual act is violent.  Shechem’s father, Hamor, then approaches Jacob and his sons to discuss a marriage proposal.  The sons suggest that Shechem and all his male subjects circumcise themselves.  Then Shechem will be an acceptable groom for their sister.  When the men are still recovering from this painful procedure, Simeon and Levi attack the town and slaughter all the men, most especially Shechem and his father Hamor, and rescue their sister Dinah from the king’s palace.

But Dinah is silent.  Her voice is never heard.  There is no cry of pain reported.  There are no tears.  We do not read of her father holding her, or of her mother Leah comforting her.  We do not see her brothers reaching out to her.  The events happen to her.  The Torah I so love silences her.  And so I declare, let her voice be heard!

The Jewish people march into the future.  Only yesterday the former president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, began serving seven years for raping a subordinate at the Tourism Ministry and for the sexual harassment of two other women when he was president.  The prophet’s voice is heard today.  In modern day Israel no one stands above the law.  A woman’s voice is heard.

Still there are those who blame Katsav’s victims and who use the Jewish tradition I hold so dear to demean women.  And therein lies the tension.  How do we mediate ancient laws with modern sensibilities?  All religious traditions seek to gain wisdom from ancient days.  We revere the old and the teachings of long ago.  The person of faith favors the past over the future.  The theory is simple.  The nearer we are to Sinai (or Jesus or Mohammed for that matter) the closer we are to the revealed truth.  And so some are unable to declare that Deuteronomy’s words are wrong, that the norms of the ancient Middle East belong to then and not now.

The great danger of faith is that in our reverence for the past we ignore the present.  There are those who therefore see that the only way to gain more wisdom from long ago is to turn back the clock to those days.  To look back to ancient days should not have to mean to be bound by those very same days.  The Torah reflects an age that is not mine.  Some of its laws belong only to the past.  I can gain wisdom from the Torah while not living in its age.

Thus, while I disagree with Simeon and Levi’s actions, I share their sentiment.  I am in tune with their righteous indignation.  We can declare with them, “Should our sister be treated as a whore?”  (Genesis 34:31)  Let us rise up and declare that every woman is our sister and none shall ever again live in fear!

Vayetzei Sermon

In this week’s portion Jacob journeys into the desert wilderness on his own and has a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels going up and down on it.  It is an extraordinary passage.  He awakens from the dream and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it!  How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and the gateway to heaven.”  (Genesis 28)

As I reflect on his experience two things come to light.  #1.  He ventured on this journey without his parents.  Even his overprotective mother Rebekah sent him on this journey on his own.  And #2.  He wandered by himself.

The first point is obvious.  We have to let our children go to experience on their own, to succeed and fail on their own.  Too often parents do things for children that they should do for themselves.  Parents write their children’s bar/bat mitzvah speeches and even their college papers.  How can you make it in the world if your parents do all of the hard work?  Our children must learn to make it through the world on their own!

On the second point I wish to dwell in more detail.  This point runs counter to Judaism’s greatest teaching.  Judaism teaches that we are at our best when we are with others.  We reach greater heights when we are in community.  The group lifts us to do better, to be better versions of our individual selves.

Yet here we see Jacob reaching unimaginable heights when on his own.  He is alone in the desert wilderness by himself.  He is alone with his thoughts.

It occurs to me that we do not allow ourselves to truly be alone.  We are so plugged in that we do not sit quietly and think.  We do not walk the streets or through nature unplugged.

Recently there was a Shabbat unplugged campaign.  It suggested that we should shun electronic devices on Shabbat.  Obviously they are forbidden according to Jewish tradition.  But the reason we might do away with these devices is not so much because of the traditional prohibition but so that we can learn again to be alone.

Our children especially need constant electronic stimulation.  They move from DVD players to computers to iPhones.  They constantly text or Facebook.  Can they still be alone with themselves and their thoughts?  How can you really come up with an original idea with all of that noise?

My favorite places to walk are of course parks and Jerusalem.  There you can be at one with nature.  You can listen to the sounds of nature—and the sounds of your own thoughts.  Sometimes I admit I walk the streets of Jerusalem talking on my cellphone or listening to my iPod.  Other times I walk the streets and think to myself and I am at one with this city.  In Jerusalem especially as Shabbat descends there is only you and the city.

Jacob teaches us important lessons for our own day.  Jacob must set out by himself in order to dream.  While the community does indeed make us better, we need to be alone with our thoughts, unplugged from the world, in order to be creative.  The clatter of modern life can sometimes get in the way of dreams.  And dreams are the things that carry us into the future.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Newsday Faith Column

Recently I was interviewed for Newsday's "Asking the Clergy" column.  The question was "Is it a holiday concert or a Christmas concert?  Does the name matter?"  The column appeared on Saturday, December 3rd.  What follows is my response.

I understand the conflict and appreciate both perspectives.  On the one hand, one of the things that make this country great is the inclusiveness.  Call it a holiday concert is the most inclusive.  That is really wonderful, and I really enjoy that.  On the other hand, when we're too generic, we miss out on the strength of each individual religion.

I think that when we say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Happy Hanukkah" or "Merry Christmas," we are missing out on the strength of that greeting.  It is kind of funny, but I can be walking down the street wearing a yarmulke and someone will still say, "Merry Christmas" or the generic "Happy Holiday."  I don't get offended.  It is just odd.  If I see someone wearing a cross, I say, "Merry Christmas," not "Happy Holiday."

When it comes to the name of a concert, if it is for a large group and you have many different faiths, and maybe you're at a school and you don't want to offend, then holiday concert is appropriate.  But it would be silly for a church or a synagogue to have a holiday concert.

I think it is nice at a public school to be exposed to people of different faiths.  I would hear Handel's "Messiah" every year during the concert at my daughter's school.  I would still go to hear it, even though she has graduated.  I enjoy hearing it.   Handel's "Messiah" is a beautiful piece.  And, I expect it to be called a holiday concert because it is at a school.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Sometimes dreams must be nurtured by venturing off alone, unsheltered by friends, family and community.

“Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran.  He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night…  He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”  (Genesis 28:10-12)

Jacob, our hero, is actually running from his brother Esau who has threatened to kill him after he stole the birthright.  Throughout Jacob’s early life he enjoys the protecting love of his mother Rebekah who engineered the plot to deceive her husband Isaac and steal the birthright from Esau.  Our Torah portion begins with Jacob on the run.  He is alone in the desert wilderness.

And he is alone with his dreams.

And so I have been thinking that we must learn to be alone in order to rediscover our dreams.  Too often people confuse being alone with loneliness.  They fight against loneliness and therefore avoid being alone.  Or they think that listening to music on noise cancelling headphones is to be alone.  As much as I love and value listening to music, it is not the same as being alone with our thoughts.  Modern day portable electronics allow me to swim among others even though I might be standing by myself.

To be alone is instead to be by myself, to be alone with my thoughts.

Thus we must venture out alone.  Have you ever gone for a walk by yourself?  There by yourself you can be in tune with the sounds of nature.  Have you ever sat and rather than turn on the TV to keep you company been at ease with your own thoughts?  Rarely do we allow ourselves to be alone, do we allow ourselves solitary moments when we could be offered flashes of introspection and inspiration.  Even when driving in our cars we surround ourselves with the radio’s music (or SiriusXM or the DVD player) and the chatter of cell phones.  On walks we even take hold of the leash of our pets or arrange for friends to join us.

Years ago I participated in an Outward Bound survival course.  Central to the program was the solo when each of the participants was placed alone on an island for three days.  We were supplied with plenty of water but no food.  We were required to build a makeshift shelter for ourselves.  We were not allowed any reading materials or portable electronics.  Most significant we were not allowed to bring a watch.

I still remember the name of my island “Little Thoroughfare.”  It was a tiny, uncharted island off the coast of Maine.  It rained for all but two hours of the three days.  I was hungry and cold the entire time.

Our instructors sent us to our solo with some advice I still remember.  “If you are lonely on your solo, remember the company you are keeping.”  I continue to reflect on those words and my solo experience.  It was not the hunger or the cold that was the most difficult.  It was instead the lack of human contact.  And it was especially that I could not be sure what time it was.  Was it two hours until dark?  Would it be an hour before the boat would come to pick me up and I would again see my friends?  Even when we are alone, we count the hours and minutes until others will join us.

Despite the fact that Judaism most values community and togetherness sometimes the greatest teachings are found and dreams are born when we are by ourselves.   It is not just that we must allow our children to make their way on their own.  Like Rebekah we must indeed send them off by themselves.  We must also allow ourselves to be alone.  Instead we rely on the company of iPods and cellphones, radio and TV.  We fear being by ourselves.  And so we run from our dreams.  Jacob instead runs towards them.

Never be afraid to be alone with your dreams.

Next week Jacob will become Israel after wrestling with an angel.  That story begins with the words:  “And Jacob was left alone.”  (Genesis 32:25)

Our hero was again alone.  And in this moment the dream of Israel was also born.