Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tazria

The Book of Leviticus is a struggle. I am often at odds with its words. It speaks of priests and sacrifices, tabernacles and holy precincts, impurities and defilements. The literal meaning of its words often eludes me. This week we read of leprosy.

“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.” (Leviticus 13:2) In ancient times the priest was both the religious and medical authority. In this instance he determined whether or not a person was infected with leprosy. If a positive diagnosis was made then the person was placed in isolation for seven days. If the priest still determined that he had chronic leprosy then he was labeled impure. “He shall be impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:46)

Our approach to sickness and disease is in many ways different, but in other significant ways still the same. Today the mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim, is incumbent upon all. Yet we still rely on today’s priests, whether they be doctors or rabbis. We have allowed our mitzvah, our duty, to become professionalized. The Talmud offers helpful advice, stating that visiting the sick is considered a religious duty without limit. A person is rewarded both in this world and in the world to come for visiting the sick. (Shabbat 127a)

The difficulty of this mitzvah causes us to shy away from it. “It is better left to professionals.” is a refrain that continues from the portion’s words to our very day. The rabbis struggled to upend our reliance on sacrifices and priests. They argued, who better to lift someone’s spirits and offer words of comfort and encouragement than a friend. This is why, despite its difficulty, they ruled that bikkur cholim is an obligation that all must carry.

We also falsely believe that sickness is a private affair. We live in a highly personalized world where the individual and his or her rights and feelings are most prized. Judaism stands in opposition to this contemporary ethic. Judaism instead chooses the community. Caring for the sick is therefore shouldered by the community. You must never go it alone. To allow someone to be alone at this time of need would be a community’s great failure.

One of my favorite Hasidic stories is the following. Once the Gerer Rebbe decided to question one of his disciples. “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” he asked. The disciple didn’t know. “What!” shouted the Rebbe, “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof, you study the same texts, you serve the same God, you sing the same songs—and yet you dare tell me that you don’t know whether Moshe Yaakov is in good health, whether he needs help, advice or comforting?”

There will come a day when each of us will face illness or the sickness of a spouse or the disease of a family member. No ritual, no pill, can offer complete protection. Our souls might be capable of achieving perfection. Our bodies can never be made perfect. And so knowing this we must promise each other these vows. We must never allow people to feel that they should stand outside the community, to feel that at their time of greatest need they are most isolated. We furthermore pledge to never allow a friend to keep their illness a private affair and shoulder it alone.

We are always stronger together. No one should ever be alone. Never alone! Always together!

The Thin Line

Below is a clip from last week's "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. I can't decide if I should laugh or hide my head in shame.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shemini

I cannot stop thinking about Hadas Fogel.  Three month old Hadas was murdered along with two of her siblings, Yoav and Elad, and her parents, Udi and Ruth, in a brutal terrorist attack.  They were stabbed on Shabbat evening, March 11, while sleeping and relaxing in their home.  The other three children were not at home.  I don’t understand how someone can think that the murder of an infant is justified.  I cannot fathom how one can justify the murder of another human being. 

Recently our confirmation class visited the Holocaust Museum in Glen Cove.  One of the pictures there haunts my memories.  It is of a soldier from one of the Einsatzgruppen units shooting his rifle at a mother holding an infant child.  The Einsatzgruppen were roving killing units who traveled through German occupied territory murdering over one million Jews, during the early years of the Holocaust prior to the Nazi’s construction of death camps.  This picture haunts me for two reasons.  These soldiers were told that they would not be penalized if they chose not to participate in the killings.  But few, if any, decided not to carry out these gruesome murders.  The other reason is that the photograph could only have been taken by a fellow soldier.  It was taken by someone who was proud of these murders.  It was taken by someone who celebrated the murder of children.

It was reported that in Rafah, in Hamas controlled Gaza, people handed out candy in celebration of the murders of the Fogels.  Palestinian Authority Prime Minister by contrast was quick to condemn the murders.  Still the Western media said little about this terrorist act.  It was of course understandably preoccupied with the tragedy in Japan.  I grieve as well for the people of Japan, yet why so little mention. When newspapers and television news shows did comment about these murders, they often characterized the yet to be apprehended terrorist as an assailant and the victims as settlers. 

But Hadas, Yoav and Eldad, Udi and Ruth are human beings.  The woman and her infant held tight to her breast are human beings.  They are not caricatures.  The notion that they were threats is barbaric.  Stripping them of their humanity gives license to murder.  To have misgivings about Israel’s settlement policy, or even to oppose this policy, must never be used to dehumanize those who live in Itamar or Kedumim, Efrat or even Kiryat Arbah.  Nothing can ever forgive such brutal murders.  Only yesterday a suitcase bomb exploded outside of Jerusalem’s bus station, killing one and injuring 50.  Since Saturday rockets have again been fired from Gaza at Israeli towns. 

Two weeks ago the Palestinian Authority’s TV network broadcast a show celebrating the life of Ahlam Tamimi, the woman who drove the suicide terrorist to the Sbarro pizza restaurant in August 2001. 15 people were murdered in that attack, seven of them children.  Murder is murder.  And last week in Al-Bireh, a West Bank town near Ramallah, a square was named for Dalal Mughrabi who directed the March 11, 1978 hijacking of two Israeli buses in which 38 people were killed, including 13 children.

The intentional taking of another human being’s life must never be condoned.  Most importantly the climate that gives rise to such acts must never be fostered.  Israel’s army, as well as America’s, too often makes tragic mistakes.  Yet they never intentionally target innocent civilians, and when a soldier does so he is condemned and brought to justice.  This distinction is most important.  Every life is equally precious.  I ask again, how can the murder of another human being be legitimized or celebrated?  How can one believe that such acts further a political agenda?   In the end, untempered zealousness and demonic hate consume the believer as well as their many victims.

Today my heart grieves.  Today I hold many pictures in my heart.  They haunt my dreams for a more perfect world.  I still see the terror stricken eyes of a mother holding her baby for the last time.  I cling to the pictures of Japan’s coastline swept away by the ocean’s fury.  And I hold the picture of the smiling and laughing Fogel children now silenced.  I also grieve with Aaron who this week mourns his children, Nadav and Avihu.  According to the portion they were killed because they offered a strange fire.  The Torah reports: “And Aaron fell silent.” (Leviticus 10:3) 

But I refuse to remain silent in the face of such unwarranted death!  The confluence of this week’s portion, the Japanese earthquake and these recent murders teach us a lesson that we appear reticent to learn.   The greatest danger may be when people come to believe that they can bring about acts of God. 

Such fires are intended for God’s hands alone. In our hands they consume all.


The Einsatzgruppen photograph.


The Fogel children: Hadas, Elad and Yoav.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Worry Begins

Egypt Vote Results Shows Islamists' Rising Sway - WSJ.com
The protest leaders opposed these recently approved amendments to Egypt's constitution, arguing instead that the entire constitution needed to be rewritten and that in particular presidential powers must be curtailed.  Instead religious leaders, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed for these small changes that established presidential term limits but also expanded the power of independent parties.  In the Journal's own words:
Electoral officials said 77% of Egyptians voted to accept a set of proposed amendments to Egypt's constitution that will, among other changes, limit the presidency to two four-year terms and ease restrictions on independent political participation, according to results announced Sunday.  The proposed changes were opposed by protest leaders and by presidential front-runners Mohammed El Baradei and Amr Moussa. Both men urged Egyptians to reject the amendments, written by lawyers and judges nominated by Egypt's military. Protest leaders and opposition politicians instead pushed for an entirely new constitution that would limit expansive presidential powers.  The results from Saturday's referendum signal a shift in Egypt's continuing revolution. The protest leaders, once celebrated as heroes and martyrs, are no longer the leading voice in Egypt's transition to democracy.  In their place are popular religious leaders, whose strong backing of the amendments held sway.
Were even the protest leaders taken in by democracy's allure only to have it soon trampled by Islamists?  I pray this is not the case.

An Egyptian political analyst, Nabil Abdel Fattah, said (as quoted in the Journal):
This is a nightmare for intellectual Egyptians.  All the youth accepted the results of the referendum as a form of democracy. But at the same time, they felt very deceived by the dangerous role the religious groups played against them. They felt that their revolution is being aborted and there is a huge, huge threat to the unity of the country from using religious campaigns.
Were we also taken in by the youth and their enthusiastic embrace of democracy?  Will democracy again lead to our enemies, and the protestors' enemies, seizing power?  Is it be possible to nurture democracy in lands where far too many see it only as a means to an end, a means to turn their countries into Islamist theocracies?  Please let this not be so.  Where is America's leadership?  Can we help to fashion an Arab democracy?

Dancing Rabbis

How could they ignore my dancing talents and not ask me to compete?

Would you be proud if your rabbi was dancing with the stars? Again, a happy Purim to all!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tzav Sermon

Finally, back on schedule.  Here is this week's sermon.

In this week’s portion we learn that the altar fire had to be constantly maintained.  I imagine that this was an enormously difficult task for the priests.  The olah sacrifice in particular had to be burned up entirely on the altar.  That is why its root meaning comes from the word to go up.  That is a very powerful fire indeed.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw in this altar fire an analogy to the Jewish heart.  Just like this ancient fire had to be kept burning, so too must we keep the Jewish flame burning in our hearts.  But today there are no priests to tend to this fire.  With the destruction of the Temple and the resulting democratization of Judaism this task fell to each of us.  It is each of our responsibilities.  Each of us must nurture our own spiritual fire.  I can’t do this for you.  But just because I can’t do this for you, does not mean that you have to do this by yourself.

An analogy to sports.  My two favorite sports are swimming and biking.  I seem to be drawn to the pursuit of going faster and farther.  My new goal, by the way, is open water swims.  Many people mistakenly think that swimming and biking are solitary sports.  They are in the sense that you have to swim yourself and pedal for yourself.  But there is also a community of people who support each other.

When you are doing laps, you cheer each other on during breaks.  When you are biking the sense of community is even stronger.  I have met people on the trail when mountain biking.  You talk for a while and then ride together, and pull each other along.  When road biking you pull each other along even more.

On pro teams there are strategies that are all about the team succeeding and helping the lead rider win the race.  If there is a crosswind, someone rides to block the wind.  If a headwind another rides in front so the lead rider can follow him.  Another is charged with attacking the mountains to tire the opposing teams.  Even competitors help each other out.  A competitor might hold your bike so that you can take off your jacket (or even so that you can go to the bathroom while riding.)

This year’s Tour deFrance controversy was actually not so much about doping or Lance Armstrong’s poor showing, but that Cantador passed Schleck when his bike suffered mechanical problems.  This was breaking with biking etiquette and its strong notion of community.  You are not supposed to take advantage of another rider’s bike failure.

I have to say the most fun thing to do when road biking is drafting.  When you draft and ride within inches of another’s rear wheel, you use 30-40% less energy!  You still have to pedal yourself.  And this is exactly my point, and why I think I love biking and swimming.  You have to do the hard work yourself.  You can only succeed if you work hard yourself.  Others can help you and even support you, but they can’t do the job for you.

Most people seem to like team sports where each person has a specialty.  This one is a keeper, the other a striker.  This one is a shooting guard, another the power forward.  You can be on a winning team but not do any of the hard work.  This is how people start to think about life in general.  I believe that this is the wrong model, especially when thinking about our Jewish lives.  It suggests that Judaism or being Jewishly literate is a specialty.  It suggests that it is the same as it was in the Bible, in the days of the priest.

That is not how it is anymore.  There are no Jewish specialists.  All of us are supposed to be our own Jewish specialists.  We each have to tend to our own fires.  We each have to nurture our own Jewish souls.  Of course you should not start off by riding 100 miles (unless you are on my JCB biking email list).

So here is where you can start nurturing your Jewish souls.  Read a Jewish book.  Say a blessing.  Soon you will be able to thank God for the blooming of flowers.  Use the words of our tradition to thank God for spring.  Do a Jewish act.  Light candles.  Eat hamentashen (food is good for the soul too).  Encourage more people to join us for services—and attend more frequently.  Here we pray together, but separately.  We should note that no one can sing like our cantor, but she is still only the prayer leader.  She does not pray for you.  Our prayers join hers.

Give tzedakah.  Do gemilut hasadim.  Here are a few of those acts of lovingkindness.  Visit the sick.  Comfort the mourners.  Dance with bride and groom.  And promise me this.  Please don’t ever think that doing Jewish things is just about what we are doing here.  It is so much more than prayer.  It is much more than our synagogue.  Our Judaism has to be carried with us from here to every place we visit and touch.

Back to riding.  I can of course ride in front of you and you can even draft off me.  I won’t mind.  It does not make my pedaling any harder, only yours easier.  Besides I will enjoy the company.  Hopefully you will as well.  But you have to, you must, do the pedaling yourself.  You have to do the hard work yourself, each and every minute, of each and every hour, of each and every day.

The nurturing of our own Jewish souls is in our hands. And we have to tend to these fires with our own hands. So finally, Spring is here. Let’s ride!

Vayikra Sermon

This sermon was delivered on Friday, March 11th.

This week a man named Dennis visited our Religious School and spoke with our 7th graders and their parents.  He was from the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing.  Dennis’ story was very powerful.  He was homeless for 14 years.  I wanted our students to hear his story and thereby put a face on homelessness.  I did not want our congregants to speak of “the homeless” but of instead of people also created in God’s image, of human beings who live on the streets.  Now they can think of this remarkable man named Dennis who overcame his demons, in particular drug addiction and numerous arrests to rebuild his life.

One of his refrains was the following. He said over and over again “God is good.”   He spoke of his prayers to God.  Often he tried to make a deal with God.  “If you will get me out of jail then I will fix things.”  None of these prayers worked.  He would soon return to the streets and drugs.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of many sacrifices.  The chattat, sin offering, is the most intriguing.  When you make an inadvertent mistake you bring a female goat to the priest who sacrifices it on the altar. Your sin is then forgiven.  Apparently that was it.  I wonder about the relationship between prayer and correcting our failings.  How can a sacrifice to God bring about change?

But the focus of the sacrificial cult was on God’s forgiveness.  Recently one of my bar mitzvah students suggested that the sacrifice was like buying flowers for his mom when he made a mistake.  It made her more receptive to forgiving him.  I think his insight might be right on.  The sacrifice was more worried about God and God’s forgiveness, than about the person bringing the offering.  The inevitable problem then is that the sacrifice, and today the prayer, can become an end, and not means.  I say my prayer and then I am finished.  I don’t have to change.  I don’t have to fix my mistakes.

Dennis shared with us another insight about prayer.  He said that he did not fix his life and pull himself out of drug addiction and homelessness until he stopped with the deals and only prayed for strength.  He asked God only for the strength to correct his wrongs.  And that is when his life started to turn around, when he stopped asking God to do everything, when he only asked for support and started doing the tough and trying work himself.

Soon we will be reading the Purim story.  Although Esther fasts and prays before beseeching the king in behalf of the Jewish people, God is nowhere mentioned in this biblical book.  Esther only prays in order to summon the courage and resolve to approach the king.  That is part of our lesson for today.

Too often people think that prayer is all that is required.  Granted prayer can bond you to our community and to God.  But prayer can never be the substitute for doing the hard work.  It can never replace correcting our own failings.  A prayer, a sacrifice, serves as a beginning, a start.  It helps us look inward and examine ourselves. 

The true meaning of sacrifice is not so much about the animal—or even God’s forgiveness.  Instead it is about the internal change that is required to make things right.  The hard work can only be in our own hands.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pekudei Sermon

I always try to post my sermons soon after delivering them.  Here is the sermon from Parshat Pekudei, given on March 4th.  Better late than never.  I hope you agree.

The Torah portion concludes the Tabernacle construction project with the following words:  “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle….  When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.  For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.”  (Exodus 40:33-38)

The Tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys.  In fact the Hebrew word for Tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to the name for God, Shechinah.  This name is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is felt.  And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, Tabernacle.

The Torah also suggests additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, vay’khal, means to complete or even to perfect.  By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first work project: “..the heaven and the earth were finished.”  There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison.  When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation.

The rabbis took this connection even further, arguing an even more radical idea.  They taught that creation is in fact incomplete.  That of course is obvious, but they taught that God made it purposely so.  Part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation, to bring a measure of holiness into our lives and a measure of goodness to the world.

We perfect by creating.  Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements.  Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”  He also said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created these problems.”

And so the synagogue is the place through which God becomes manifest in the world.  The purpose of the synagogue is that it is a means to an end.  Its purpose is to bring holiness to our lives and goodness to the world.  Long ago the rabbis created the idea of the synagogue out of the destruction of the Temple.  They gave us this place in order to help us complete and perfect creation.

It is a place to gather, learn and pray.  It is a place to heal, comfort and uplift our lives.  Today we must recreate this very same place.  For years we operated on the assumption that everyone feels obligated to the synagogue, that people still feel commanded to affirm their Jewish identity, that people still feel a kinship with all Jews and the State of Israel. 

These obligations can no longer be assumed.  Let’s be honest.  Far more of our congregants are probably at Lifetime Fitness than here.  We must reignite these fires of commitment.  We must bring people back to the one place where they have been able to affirm their identity throughout the generations.  It will not be done by preaching or berating.  It can only be done by walking arm in arm to the synagogue.

In ancient times the alter fires had to be kept burning 24 hours a day.  That requires a lot of work and effort.   A fire that is not fed and stoked soon becomes smoldering embers.  We must realize that we have failed to nurture this fire.

Commitment and obligation must be continually nurtured.  Only that is what will recreate the synagogue.  In truth there are no new creations.  It is all recreating.  That is why whenever we finish a book of the Torah as we do on this Shabbat we say, chazak, chazakh v’nitchazeik—strength, and more strength, let us be strengthened.

We have a lot of recreating to do. Let’s get started.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tzav

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-State Palestine, wrote: “One is forbidden to extinguish the thirst for God which burns in every heart.  We are told that a person who extinguishes an ember on the altar has violated the prohibition of ‘it will never be put out.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 91)  This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar—the Jewish heart.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we read that the fire that must be kept burning on the sacrificial altar. “The fire will burn forever upon the altar; it will never be put out.” (Leviticus 6:6)

Have you ever tended to a campfire or even a fire in your fireplace?  They require continuous care.  Wood must often be added to fuel the fire.  Logs must frequently be rearranged in order to keep the coals glowing.  Fall asleep beside the fire for an hour and you might wake up next to smoldering embers.  Fall asleep for several hours and you will awaken to see only white ash.

Imagine therefore the care the sacrificial fire required.  There must have been several priests whose job it was to tend to this fire.  They must have worked in shifts around the clock.  There must have been others as well who had to collect the wood.  To keep a fire going every minute of every hour of every day that was hot enough to turn the sacrificial animals completely into smoke was no easy task and required enormous effort.  Yet in ancient times this was the priests’ chosen task.  This was their holy duty.  And so I also imagine that they did even this menial and demanding labor with love and devotion.  They believed that the world depended on the sacrifices and altar fires they tended.

Today there are no priests to care for our spiritual fires.  This job falls on each of us.  Still the command is the same.  “It will never be put out.”  Tending these fires cannot be left to rabbis or cantors, Hebrew School teachers, or b’nai mitzvah tutors.  Our spiritual fires are in our own hands.  We must tend to them.  We must care for them.  We must nurture them each and every minute, each and every hour, each and every day.

What Rabbi Kook said generations ago holds true today.  Each of our Jewish hearts is in our own hands.  The fire must forever burn upon the altar, on the spiritual altar that is the Jewish heart.

We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems at Shabbat Services when we sing Lecha Dodi, but gathered together we might re-ignite our spiritual fires.  And with those fires burning we may gain strength to go forth and heal our world.  And the world does depend on keeping these fires burning for the world does need our healing strength!

Purim

Purim is celebrated this week.  Here is its story.

Once upon a time in a land called Shushan there lived a king called Ahasuerus and his queen Vashti.  On one of the nights of one of his seven day long parties, the king and his friends were drinking and partying way too much (the Book of Esther actually states: “Royal wine was served in abundance…and the rule for drinking was, ‘No restrictions.’”). 

The king, encouraged by his buddies, thought it would be great if Vashti was paraded before his friends wearing only her crown.   Even though Vashti was also drinking, she wisely said, “No way.  That is not only beneath a queen, it is beneath any woman.”  So our drunken king asked his advisors what to do.  They said, “Get rid of her.”  And so the king kicked his queen out of the palace.

Some time later, after waking up from his drunken stupor the king cried, “Now I have no queen.”  So again he asked his advisors what to do.  They urged him to hold a beauty pageant (upon hearing this, J.Lo immediately started crying).  Meanwhile a beautiful young Jewish woman named Esther, adopted and raised by her uncle, Mordecai, decided to enter the contest. 

Esther spent hours preparing herself for the pageant, having her hair and makeup done.  She put on her most beautiful dress and most expensive sandals.  She walked slowly before the king, making sure their eyes met as she was paraded before him.   (The irony is the Bible’s not mine.)  Lo and behold, Esther won the contest and became queen.  Her uncle advised her to conceal her Jewish identity and so she did. 

This secret remained hidden until her Jewish people were threatened by the genocidal designs of Haman.  At that point our heroine fasted and prayed beseeching her king to spare her life and the lives of her people.  The king was very taken with Esther and so he said, “What is your request?  Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”  She said, “I only wish to live.  I only want that my people shall live.”  “Who means to do you and your family such harm?” the king asked.  “It is Haman!” Esther exclaimed.

Upon hearing this, the king ran out of the room in a fit of rage.  Esther remained, reclining on her royal couch.  Haman was so stricken with terror that he fell on Esther, crying and begging for his life.  At that moment, the king returned to the room and said, “Does he mean to ravish the queen in my own palace?”  The palace guards seized Haman and impaled him on the stake.  Finally the king acted without asking his advisors for counsel.

Ahasuerus wrapped his arms around Esther, professing his undying love for her and saying, “My Queen, my Queen, I love you just the way you are.  It does not matter to me if you have blond hair or grey, if you are Jewish or Persian—or even both.  Let us dance together!”  (Ok, I added that last part.  But rest assured, the remainder is by the Book.  I did add a few tidbits of commentary here and there, but the storyline with all its drunken escapades, sexual allusions and even impaling are in our Bible.)

Still the question for this Purim is about hiding our Jewish identity.  Esther conceals what I believe to be most important, her Jewish identity.  Is that ever wise?   Granted it is nearly always impossible for me.  I can’t say, “Hi, I am Rabbi Moskowitz.  I am not Jewish.” And so I am left wondering about the hinge upon which our story turns. 

Without the benefit of hindsight and history would we be so approving of Esther’s decision to conceal her Jewish identity?  When it is a matter of life and death, hiding one’s identity is clearly justified, but in what other circumstances might it be advisable or even commendable?  Have you ever felt uncomfortable sharing your Jewish identity?  I wonder in what situations hiding one’s Jewish identity is wise.

Chag Purim Samayach!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan

Despite the fact that our Purim holiday, a day marked by wild celebration and joy, is nearly upon us I am dwelling on Japan and its current desperate plight. Every evening I watch the news to see a desperate situation become worse.  And so first I pray. May God heal all those who are injured. May God grant consolation to those who are mourning. May God grant strength to the rescuers. I pledge to donate to the rescue and rebuilding efforts.  I am prefer to give through Jewish charities. I prefer the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Here is the Joint's statement on Japan's earthquake and tsunami:
In partnership with the Japanese Jewish Community, JDC is distributing emergency supplies, including food and hygiene products, to victims of the disaster through JEN, a local Japanese NGO currently operating in the hardest-hit Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. JDC, which acquired substantial relevant expertise following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, contacted the Japanese Jewish Community immediately following the disaster. "I was aware of JDC before the earthquake,” said Philip Rosenfeld, the Community treasurer. “But that initial phone call from JDC and the organization's 24-hour turnaround at this time was fantastic."  JDC also worked in Japan before the American entrance into World War II, helping support Jewish refugees in Kobe who fled Hitler’s Europe. Today, several thousand Jews live and work in Japan.
JDC exemplifies the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam, healing the world.  In its own words it is the "9-1-1 of the Jewish world."  It is often my charitable address when such crises strike.  May they indeed help to bring healing to the people of Japan!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vayikra

Every week, for the past year, I have emailed my congregation some thoughts (and questions) about the Torah portion.  Today we begin that journey again.   

This week’s portion, Vayikra, is the first portion in the Book of Leviticus.  To be honest this book and its focus on the Temple’s ritual cult is not my favorite.  I prefer the multi-faceted stories of Genesis or the laws of Deuteronomy.  In ancient times the way we drew close to God was not through prayer but through Leviticus’ sacrifices.  Year after year I struggle to discover meaning in these words.  Every year I wrestle with these words along with my Spring b’nai mitzvah students.  “Why did they kill animals to pray to God?” they often ask.  It is very difficult to get past all of the blood.

Yet this week’s chattat (sin) offering is intriguing.  This was performed when a person made an unintended mistake.  “If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things by which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt—or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge—he shall bring a female goat without blemish as his offering for the sin…”  (Leviticus 4:27-28)

How many times I wish I could walk to the Temple with goat in hand to cleanse me of my mistakes!  There I would be able to right my wrongs and repair my mistakes.  Then again perhaps I could not find enough goats!  I wonder about this ancient system.  How could I be improved by bringing a sacrificial offering?  I think my students are right.  How could my wrongs be made right by slaughtering an animal?

The ancient prophets also recognized this dilemma.  They often saw the sacrifices as interfering with the enterprise of bringing justice.  They rightly feared that people saw these rituals as a substitute for behaving ethically.  Justice was central to their message.  The prophet Amos envisions God screaming these words: “If you offer Me burnt offerings—or your meal offerings—I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings….  But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:22-24) 

So what are we to make of our rituals?  What purposes do they serve?  How do they help us do the right thing and bring justice and healing to our broken world?  Can they help us correct our failings?   How can a sacrifice—or even a prayer—help us make our world a better place?

How should I repair my wrongs if I can longer bring an offering—or for that matter I don’t have enough goats? 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is there anyone home?

Roger Waters, the leader of the great rock and roll band, Pink Floyd, has joined the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign against Israel.  He now joins the ranks of others, including Pete Seeger and Elvis Costello. Here is yet another example of someone who only appears to see the issue from one side.  His one sided view is most apparent.  To read his statement is to read a treatise that only gives voice to Palestinian grievances and not Israeli fears.  He appears woefully uninformed about the facts.

Here is part of what Waters said: "In my view, the abhorrent and draconian control that Israel wields over the besieged Palestinians in Gaza, and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), coupled with its denial of the rights of refugees to return to their homes in Israel, demands that fair minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance."  Read his entire statement on the Alternative Information Center website, an Israeli-Palestinian NGO that ostensibly advocates for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

But not every wall is a prison.  Listening (again) to the words of  "Another Brink in the Wall, Part II" you come to realize that this might be the only way that Waters can see things.  Schools also have walls, and many teachers do some great teaching there, but Waters takes his pop song as gospel: "We don't need no education.  We don't need no thought control.  No dark sarcasm in the classroom.  Teachers leave them kids alone.  Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!  All in all it's just another brick in the wall.  All in all you're just another brick in the wall."  Despite his views, I still really like the song, but I also remember the terrorism that built the walls that are the object of Waters' scorn.

I was in Israel during some of the worst days of March 2002.  I was there when the Moment Cafe was bombed and eleven young Israelis lost their lives and over fifty were injured.  It was actually one of the restaurants my friends and I thought of going to that Saturday night, but settled on another choice instead.  All of those bus bombings still make my heart race whenever a bus stops at a traffic light, idling close to me as I wait to cross the street.  I do believe that fear should not rule our decisions, that the object of terrorism is to instill fear and therefore I promise myself again and again that I will not succumb.  And so I refuse to allow fear to rule my heart.

Nonetheless the security fence and its walls have indeed made life safer for Israelis.  It is reasonable for a country's citizens to expect to live in relative safety and security.  Only time will tell if the leadership of the West Bank will be able to continue to police its own citizens and prevent terror attacks from within its territory.  The last few years have shown positive developments in this area, in large part due to the leadership of Salam Fayad, but who may now be forced out of office by his political opponents.  Perhaps, I hope and pray, we will soon be able to take down parts of the security fence.  But we will only be able to dismantle it together.  Israelis and Palestinians must sit down and negotiate. On the other hand, from the Gaza Strip under its Hamas leaders rockets continued to be fired at Israeli citizens.  You cannot sit and talk under such circumstances.  If the "wall" that surrounds Gaza is a prison, then it is of Hamas' making.  For Israel it provides safety and security much like the walls of any school or home do. 

Hey Waters, listen to another song:  "Come on now.  I can hear you're feeling down.  I can ease your pain.  Get on your feet again.  Relax.  I'll need some information first.  Just the basic facts.  Can you show me where it hurts?"

Recently we watched "Lemon Tree" at my congregation.  Its conclusion is devastating.  The security fence does indeed cause pain on both sides.  I recognize that.  It saddens me.



If forced by today's circumstances I choose this devastating pain over terror attacks. Any reasonable person would make the same choice.  Life comes first.  Then again, some remain comfortably numb.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Democratic State

Democratic State - by Lee Smith; Tablet Magazine
Someone else thinks like I do. Here is an article arguing that Israel could serve as a democratic example for the now emerging (we hope and pray!) democracies in the Arab world. Even Tom Friedman noted in his most recent New York Times column:
The Arab TV network Al Jazeera has a big team covering Israel today. Here are some of the stories they have been beaming into the Arab world: Israel’s previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, had to resign because he was accused of illicitly taking envelopes stuffed with money from a Jewish-American backer. An Israeli court recently convicted Israel’s former president Moshe Katsav on two counts of rape, based on accusations by former employees. And just a few weeks ago, Israel, at the last second, rescinded the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as the army’s new chief of staff after Israeli environmentalists spurred a government investigation that concluded General Galant had seized public land near his home. (You can see his house on Google Maps!) This surely got a few laughs in Egypt where land sales to fat cats and cronies of the regime that have resulted in huge overnight profits have been the talk of Cairo this past year. When you live right next to a country that is bringing to justice its top leaders for corruption and you live in a country where many of the top leaders are corrupt, well, you notice.
If you love Israel you of course wish there were different stories, but nonetheless it is the warts that sometimes make you most appreciate your blessings. The essence of democracy is often realized in critique. When we succeed in holding even the most powerful to the same standard of justice and law as every other person we offer the best evidence of a vibrant democracy. This is why I was proud to be an American when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church. I of course find the content of their speech abhorrent. How could anyone celebrate the death of another, especially someone who was killed when defending this country? How could anyone willfully inflict such pain on a grieving parent? Nonetheless they are entitled to peacefully express their opinions (even their most stupid opinions). I wish they kept silent especially in the face of such unimaginable grief, but this is what democracy is about. And if you want to really see free speech in action then go take a taxi in Israel. Join the debate at an Israeli grocery store. To be unafraid of criticism and critique, argument and debate, are what we must share with the world. Never fear those who disagree with you! Never try to silence those who express views different from your own! You can see these ideas in action in Israel--and here in this great land. Take heart protesters!  Take note dictators!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pekudei

It is said of the great second century sage, Rabbi Akiva, that he could derive lessons from the untranslatable Hebrew et that precedes a sentence’s direct object or that he could even spin stories upon the calligraphy crowns affixed atop other letters.  It is said as well that he could derive sermons from an unexpected Hebrew letter. 

This week’s portion concludes: “Vay’khal Moshe—When Moses finished the work [of the tabernacle]…” (Exodus 40:33)  The creation story concludes similarly: “Vay’khulu hashamayim—The heaven and the earth were finished…” (Genesis 2:1)  In both instances the same Hebrew verb is used.  Yet in the creation account the plural form is used, while in this week’s portion the singular is written.  In Genesis again it is the passive voice and in Exodus the active.  The differences are but found in the Hebrew letter vav.  This letter is present in Genesis but not in this week’s chapter.

Is there meaning to be discerned from even this smallest of differences?  In this week’s portion human beings are the authors of creation.  It is Moses and the Israelites who construct the tabernacle and all its furnishings.  The Torah lavishes many chapters on this construction project.  By contrast God created the world in six days, the details of which are but contained in one single chapter.  The similar verb draws these two acts together.  Yet the creations made by humans differ from God’s.  Only God’s contain the fullness that the vav represents.

For human beings creating requires great effort and sacrifice.   We expend enormous energy to create.  Sometimes I think that many of our creations are mere repackaging of old ideas.  How many new ideas and new creations have we truly fashioned?  Is the iPad2 really new?  Its advertisers would like us to believe so.  The iPad does of course offer many wonderful conveniences but is it new creation? 

Is the iPod a new?  Is the car?  Such technological marvels certainly make our lives more convenient and even fun, but I believe that a creation must serve a higher cause.   Is the synagogue a new creation?  JCC’s (or Lifetime Fitness)?  The modern university?  The thriving democracies of the United States and the State of Israel?   I believe that a new creation must change the way we think.  Or it must alter the way we act.  It must make us better.  It must make the world more holy.  Such are my criteria.  Such are my goals. 

God creates by uttering a single word.  And a single additional letter suggests the majesty of God’s creations.  Nature will soon reveal the grandeur of God’s creation when Spring flowers again bloom.  We may plant the flowers, but God makes them bloom. 

For human beings to create is to imitate the divine.  This is why the building of the tabernacle is connected to the creation of the world.  And so as much as we create and as many things as we create, they are only glimmers of God’s first creation.  What we make are only glimpses of the Eternal.  Albert Einstein once said: “I only trace the lines that flow from God.”  (By the way he also said, “I thought of that while riding a bicycle.”)  And thus every creative act is indeed repackaging.  Every such act merely traces the arc of the world’s creation.

And all of this can be found in one letter.