Thursday, December 27, 2012


This week we conclude the Book of Genesis.  Jacob blesses his children.  He then dies and is brought from Egypt to be buried in the land of Israel.  Before dying he exacts a promise from his favored son, Joseph.   “And when the time approached for Israel [Jacob] to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.’” (Genesis 47:29-30)

In ancient times an agreement was often sealed by placing one’s hand under another’s thigh.  Times have of course changed!  Nonetheless important agreements are often sealed by a handshake or a verbal pledge.  Often the most important agreements are not memorialized in writing but by these informal gestures. 

In particular acts of hesed, of lovingkindness, are those that are done without even a pledge.  Interestingly the Hebrew for “steadfast loyalty” is hesed v’emet and can also be translated as true kindness.  Jewish tradition defines such acts as those for which no ulterior motive can be found and in particular where no reciprocal favor can even be anticipated.  Tending to the needs of the dead is chief among these acts.  It is a commandment, a mitzvot.  In this case especially we cannot reasonably expect something in return.

According to tradition we must tend to the burial of our own loved ones ourselves.  We place the shovel full of dirt into the grave, performing this final act of love for those who were dearest to us.  In doing so, Judaism insists that we not pretend the loss is anything but what it is.  We respond to death by taking a shovel and lifting the earth into the grave ourselves.  Our loved one returns to the earth from which we are each fashioned and is covered by a blanket of earth wrapped by our own hands.

In this way we face death with lovingkindness.  We do not look away.  We grab hold of the shovel.  We hold the hesed v’emet in our hands.  And that remains our steadfast loyalty—forever.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Vayigash Sermon

This Shabbat we discussed forgiveness given the extraordinary example of Joseph found in the portion.  Joseph forgives his brothers even though some wanted to kill him and all ended up selling him into slavery.  Interestingly we do no read if their father Jacob forgives the brothers.  Nonetheless Joseph serves as a model of forgiveness and an entry for our discussion.  We examined Moses Maimonides insights from the Mishneh Torah.  Here is that text:
Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God; for example, a person who ate a forbidden food or engaged in forbidden sexual relations, and the like. However, sins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.

[It must be emphasized that] even if a person restores the money that he owes [the person he wronged], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him. Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying [certain] things, he must appease him and approach him [repeatedly] until he forgives him.

If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [the matter further]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.

[The above does not apply] if [the wronged party] was one's teacher. [In that instance,] a person should continue seeking his forgiveness, even a thousand times, until he forgives him. (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 2:9)
Although forgiveness is difficult to grant it is required to sustain our relationships, especially long term relationships.  Judaism insists that it is demanded and even commanded.  Granting forgiveness is a mitzvah.  Withholding forgiveness is therefore a sin.  Only forgiveness can liberate us from the despair of holding a grudge.  Anger corrodes the soul.  Forgiveness redeems.  It rescues relationships.  Redemption begins with "I'm sorry."

Friday, December 21, 2012

We Need Some More Anger

Mark Lilla is correct in his observations.  We could use some more anger.  Justice might be served by our angry protests.
[In India] theirs is a democratic anger.  There is, I’m told, a background to all this: frustration with rising crime rates, especially in Delhi, rampant police corruption and arbitrariness, and the pettiness of parliamentary politics when India faces significant domestic challenges. But whatever fuel was there to be sparked, it is bracing to see people take to the streets, not to defend narrow interests or ideological obsessions, but to defend the public good. The land of Gandhi has not lost its willingness to mobilize and put pressure on those in authority, even when it sometimes makes the country nearly ungovernable. The same cannot be said of the land of Martin Luther King. I would be surprised to learn on my return that a mass demonstration is being planned on the Washington Mall; that’s no longer how we deal with issues like this. We light candles, we hug (lots of hugging on CNN), we pray. We triple-lock ourselves into our homes or gated communities, accompany our kids to schools they could easily walk to, and load them down with helmets, and knee and elbow pads, before taking a bike ride. Yet when they do manage to get out, they find themselves in places where adults openly display their handguns in holsters. 
Save the children? No, we prefer to mourn them. We are as resigned to the status quo as thesadhus of Benares are to the cycle of birth and death before they reach moksha. Contemporary Indians apparently have a very different idea of what it means to be a citizen.
Citizenry demands our righteous indignation.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


I am not in a very forgiving mood.

Joseph, by contrast, demonstrates extraordinary forgiveness. Some of his brothers want to kill him. Others decide to sell him into slavery and then tell their father that Joseph was killed by wild beasts. All throw him into a pit and then callously sit down to a meal while Joseph suffers in the darkened pit. Now, in this week’s portion, Joseph is given the opportunity to exact revenge. His brothers stand before him begging for food. There is a famine in the land of Canaan but the Egyptians, because of Joseph’s capable leadership, have ample food.

Instead Joseph forgives his brothers.

It is a remarkable moment. Joseph says, “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; 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…” (Genesis 45:5, 14-15)

Too often we do not follow Joseph’s example. We remain angry at family. We harbor a grudge against brothers.

In contrast, we quickly forget atrocities. How many mass killings will our nation suffer before we pledge never to forget? Months ago there was Aurora and now most recently Newtown. But in order to move forward and return to the normalcy of our lives we push such unspeakable evils far away. Soon we forget.

Atrocities are often pushed aside. We fill our hearts with anger at family. We have it reversed. Instead we should forgive the wrongs committed against us by family. And remain angry at the gun violence that happens too often in our country. We should allow the tragedy in Newtown to forever burn in our hearts.

That is the only way we might affect some measure of change. Anger has a purpose. When it spurs us to action it serves a greater good. When it pushes brothers away from each other it creates a lasting emptiness. We need to hold family close. There are bonds that only family share. Joseph understood this. He forgave. He forgot. He redeemed his brothers’ evil and rescued their atrocities.

For Newtown, however, and for all the other victims of senseless violence my heart continues to burn with anger. For too long I looked aside. I did not get involved. I reasoned that our political system is too broken and the second amendment too ingrained for there to be effective change. Never again!

We must change. We cannot prevent all gun violence. We cannot write laws that will prevent all atrocities, but we can change. We can do a better job of protecting ourselves and our children. There are limits that can be enacted. There are background checks that can be made.

If one more life is saved then perhaps, like Joseph, we can redeem evil and give the deaths of these precious young lives lasting meaning. Perhaps their deaths can save others. Perhaps they can make our country safer.

The Talmud teaches that if you have the ability to prevent a wrong from being committed and refrain from getting involved, then you are complicit in the offense. I will not stand guilty again. I pledge to remain angry!

My hope and prayer is that this is the moment. Newtown’s tragedy will become the event that history later records was the earth shattering occasion when ordinary Americans became so enraged that our country finally changed, that the political order was at last shaken and the right to bear arms gained some sensible limits. And then everyone remained safer.

End Gun Violence Now Petition

Join me in signing the below petition sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.  Sign here.

On Friday December 14, a gunman armed with three high-powered firearms and high-capacity magazines walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Hundreds of shots were fired and twenty first-graders, ages six and seven, and six educators were killed.

This violent and horrific event aimed at children shocks our conscience and country. Our hearts are broken, our souls weep, and our arms are outstretched to the families of the victims, the survivors, the first responders, and the entire community of Newtown, Connecticut. In just the last few months, we have seen shootings at schools, malls, theaters, and houses of worship. We are pained and dismayed by the pandemic of gun violence, far exceeding other western nations, and we will not accept it.

Our tradition teaches us of the sanctity of life and how each and every person is created in the divine image. We must directly confront gun violence so that our nation is not marked nor the years measured by senseless massacres. We will not allow the intense emotion we feel now to return to a place of complacency where we become desensitized to the atrocities that unfold around us daily. We must come together to build a society worthy of those lost and a culture that represents our best virtues.

We stand committed to working with our local, state, and national leaders to squarely address these issues and honor the victims, survivors, and their families. We recognize the right of Americans to own guns, but we do not accept the current state of affairs. We stand united and call on our leaders to support comprehensive action, including meaningful legislation to limit access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, aggressive enforcement of firearm regulations, robust efforts to ensure that every person in need has access to quality mental health care, and a serious national conversation about violence in media and games.

We, the undersigned, ask that President Obama, Congress, and every citizen to take direct and unequivocal action to stop the outrageous and unacceptable violence that is destroying the fabric of our society.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Another Tragedy

Why is the killer included in the death toll?  “Killer Also Dies in Connecticut, Leaving a Toll of 28.”  It seems unfitting that he is placed alongside those he murdered.  Judaism offers this teaching instead, Y’mach sh’mo—may his name be blotted out.  That seems more appropriate.  May we never read of his name again!  Amen Selah!   And may his young, innocent victims rest in peace.  May we forever recount their names.  May their memories inspire us for some measure of good.  And may we one day rid the world of senseless violence.   Or at the very least make it impossibly difficult for deranged people to get their hands on weapons.  No more schools, or movie theatres, or malls, or street corners should again be the site of such bloodshed.  That is my prayer.  And after I read the stories of the brief lives of those murdered, and make room for their memories in my hearts, that is all I wish to read about.  An end to this violence made far too easy by guns.  Amen!  Selah!

Hanukkah Sermon

The story of Hanukkah in Billings, Montana continues to inspire.  Here is that story.

Tammie Schnitzer remarked, "I have to make sure my kids are proud of themselves and never have to hide who they are.  Yes, I'm afraid.  But I know that if something happened again, the community would respond."  A Christian neighbor, Becky Thomas said, "We saved our menorah, and it's going in our window again.  We need to show commitment for a lifetime."  The heroics of this story are that a community came together to banish the darkness of hatred, prejudice and discrimination.

Hanukkah is indeed about standing up to be different!   And we have now learned, it is also about fighting for others to be different!  That must be the light of Hanukkah.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


“There’s nothing to eat!” my son would often exclaim as he would stare into a refrigerator filled with food.  The freezer was as well stocked with frozen goodies.  I soon realized that his statements were not about reality but instead about desire.  What he wanted to eat, what he imagined savoring, was not to be found in the refrigerator.  Now, even weeks after Hurricane Sandy, such exclamations have disappeared.  The freezer is only partially restocked.  The refrigerator is once again filled.

For weeks we stared into an empty refrigerator.  We were forced to throw out the defrosted food.  We cooked what we could heat up on the gas stove.  We were happy to have the meal.  We were confident that the lack of electricity was only a temporary frustration.  Others were worse off.  There was still plenty to eat, just far too often not what we wanted to eat.  Now, we no longer stare into the refrigerator searching only for what we desire.  Sandy cast such feelings aside.  Now we are happy to have its light illumine whatever food might be on the shelves.

When Jacob saw that there were food rations to be had in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you keep looking at one another?...  Go down and procure rations for us there, that we may live and not die.”  (Genesis 41:1-2)  This week we read that our forefather, Jacob, is confronted with a famine in the land of Israel.  He is unable to provide for his family. He instructs his sons to go to Egypt where unbeknownst to him, his son Joseph has stored plenty of food.  In an extraordinary measure of foresight and leadership Joseph stockpiled food throughout the seven years of plenty.  Now, during the seven years of famine, everyone is coming to him to procure food. 

The Midrash relates: You may learn from the story of Jacob that it is a man’s worst trial to have his children ask him for food when he has nothing to give. 

Imagine how difficult this trial was for Jacob.  He had nurtured his children throughout their years and sustained them on God’s dream.  They would settle in the Promised Land, the land of Israel, and their descendants would number as the stars in the night’s sky.  Instead they had only known struggle and hardship, favoritism and envy.

And now they know hunger. 

The scars remain.  

Vayeshev Sermon

This week’s Torah portion offers a disturbing story.  Joseph’s brothers first try to kill him and then settle on selling him into slavery after throwing him in a pit.  The Torah emphasizes that there was no water in the pit.  Imagine how he cried out to his brothers from the darkened pit as they sat down to a meal.

Often we read stories in our Torah about the worst of human tendencies.  The saga of brothers of course begins with Cain killing Abel.  Jacob and Esau are little better.  Joseph and his brothers begin a torturous relationship but are ultimately reconciled.  Three weeks from now Joseph will demonstrate an extraordinary gesture of forgiveness, but this week we are left wondering about our forefathers’ example.  Is this how we are supposed to behave?

In a word, the answer is no.  Torah is not always about how we are supposed to act.  Instead it is Torah because this is what happens all the time.  We see ourselves in the brothers’ envy or perhaps in Joseph’s pomposity.   Too often human beings behave in this way.  This is what makes these stories Torah. We can see ourselves in its painful ordinariness.

So how do we learn what we are supposed to do?  For that we turn not to such examples, but instead to the mitzvot, the commandments contained in the Torah.  They offer us guidance.  We learn for example “To love your neighbor as yourself.”  Imagine if this mitzvah was our first thought rather than those feelings of jealousy and envy that too often creep into our hearts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel counseled that the deed is wiser than the heart.  When we follow the heart we too often end up like Joseph or worse, his brothers.  When we follow our hands, the world around us becomes transformed.  That is Judaism’s wisdom.

Monday, December 10, 2012


This evening begins the third night of Hanukkah.

Many are celebrating with the giving of presents and the eating of latkes (or perhaps sufganiyot).  Some are also enjoying the playing of dreidle.  The tradition requires only the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah preceded by the appropriate blessings.  The lights are placed in the window to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah for all to see.

For centuries this holiday was downplayed.  It was simple in its observance.  Yet it was profound in its message.  Hanukkah reminds us that hope is always possible.  The lighting of the Hanukkah candles are about adding light during the darkest times of the year, and throughout the darkest moments of our history. 

In the Talmud two great rabbis argue about how best to light the Hanukkah lights.  Rabbi Shammai believes that our ritual should mirror the actual miracle.  Millenia, ago after the Maccabees’ struggled with the Syrian Greeks and recaptured the Temple, their dedication ceremony was nearly stymied because of the lack of holy oil.  Miraculously the oil lasted not the expected one night but eight. The light was therefore brighter on the first day when there was more oil.  Shammai taught that we should light eight candles on the first night and one on the last night.  Hillel, with whom Jewish law later sided, argued that the lighting should reflect not what actually happened but our hope in the future.  With each passing night, the light should increase to illustrate that the future can always be brighter than the past.

Theodor Herzl, the architect of the modern Zionist movement, once wrote a story about Hanukkah, entitled “The Menorah”.  He concluded:
There came the eighth day, on which the entire row of lights is kindled, including the faithful ninth candle, the shammash, which otherwise serves only to light the others.  A great radiance shone forth from the menorah.  The eyes of the children sparkled.  …The occasion became a parable for the enkindling of a whole nation.  First one candle; it is still dark and the solitary light looks gloomy.  Then it finds a companion, then another, and yet another.  The darkness must retreat.  The young and the poor are the first to see the light, then the others join in, all those who love justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity and beauty.  When all the candles are ablaze everyone must stop in amazement and rejoice at what has been wrought.  And no office is more blessed than that of a servant of light.
 Theodor Herzl died in 1904.  The modern State of Israel was established in 1948.

That is what Hanukkah is all about.  When the rest of the world says your dreams are delusions, when even friends decry your faith as fantasy, Hanukkah reminds us that the lights must always be kindled, that hope can still be kindled.  Even during the darkest days of winter and even when nations seem again arrayed against us, there is light. 

The future can indeed be brighter that the past.  

Losing Hope

Losing Hope On Israeli-Palestinian Peace | The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier writes:
I have been thinking about lost causes because I have concluded that one of my causes is lost. I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes. I am still quite certain that the establishment of the state of Palestine is a condition for the survival of the state of Israel, as a Jewish state and a democratic state, and that for Israel not to be a Jewish state would be a Jewish catastrophe, and for it not to be a democratic state would be a human catastrophe; and that the only solution there has ever been to this conflict is the solution that was proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937, that is, the partition of one land into two states; and that the Jewish settlement of the West Bank was a colossal mistake, and the occupation (and the indifference to it) corrodes the decency of the occupiers; and that the Jewish state is a secular entity; and that anti-Semitism, which will never disappear, does not explain the entirety of the history of the Jews or their state, or exempt Israel from accountability for its actions. An impenitent Zionist and an impenitent dove, in sum; but to the consternation of some of my comrades, a hawkish dove, too, since I see that Israel has enemies and I believe in the ethical primacy of self-defense. I have irritated some of my comrades also with my unglowing view of the Palestinians and their inability to recognize the historical grandeur of compromise. Since 1977, and really since 1947, they have refused one proposed solution after another, as if the “unviability” of an imperfect state is not preferable to the unviability of statelessness. In recent decades they have added a new religious maximalism to an old secular maximalism. But still I concur in the necessity and the justice of their demand for a state, and still I yearn for a serious Palestinian diplomacy.
And Daniel Gordis writes in Haaretz, critiquing the naivete of too many American Jewish leaders, in particular a number of my colleagues:
Jews have always seen ourselves as citizens of the world. But key to Judaism’s survival has been an ability to couple that universal concern to a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges and dangers facing the Jewish world. The mark of great religious leadership is not simply its ability to imagine a better world, but to imagine how we might get to that world from the one that actually exists. We will know great Progressive religious leadership is emerging when we see the world that they describe bears at least some resemblance to the one in which Israel has to try to survive.
And yet I stubbornly insist on hope.  I cannot live without it.  Yes, it must be coupled with reality, but I refuse to allow even present reality to lead to fatalism or worse, a stultification of the spirit.  Zionism's revolution was, and continues to be, the belief that we must first and foremost rely on our own strength and creativity to change the course of Jewish history.  We once relied only on our prayers.  We were once subject only to foreign rulers.  Now there is more that we can do. There is far more that is within our own hands.  I.will never let go of this dream.

I do not pretend to have solutions to our current struggles.  It is true that Palestinian intransigence and terror remain the greatest obstacles to any resolution.  This does not excuse our current reluctance to change.  We can shape our future.  We can mend our ways, if for no other reason than to do what is best for the Jewish state.  Unless Israel "withdraws" from both the territory and ideology of those who want nothing to do with Israel as a Jewish democracy, the Zionist dream of being a "free people in our own land" will falter.  Yes, the creation of a Palestinian state remains within Palestinian hands (not the UN's!).  If they were to affirm the legitimate right of the Jewish people to live within the historical boundaries of the land of Israel and to do as they have done, create a vibrant Jewish state, then a Palestinian state would soon be fashioned alongside it. The future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, however, remains within our hands.

Friday, December 7, 2012


We begin the story of Joseph and his brothers.  They do not get along very well.  Joseph is the favored son of their father Jacob.  The brothers resent this and scheme against him.  Some want to kill him.  Reuben tries to save him by convincing them to throw him into a pit.  He plans to later rescue him, but the brothers instead, on the advice of Judah, sell him into slavery.  They then tell their father that wild beasts killed Joseph.  Jacob is forever distraught.

The Torah’s language is wrenching in its starkness and simplicity.  “…And they took Joseph and cast him into the pit.  The pit was empty; there was no water in it.  Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:24-25)

The Vilna Gaon comments: Why does it have to say “there was no water”?  After all, doesn’t “empty” imply there was no water?   The Midrash Bereshit Rabbah teaches: “Rather there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.“  The human mind abhors a vacuum.  If it is is not filled with the water of Torah, it must be filled with snakes and scorpions of other beliefs.

The tradition often likens Torah to water.  Like water it sustains us.  Better to fill our minds with Torah than with other beliefs.  Crowd out other ideas is the tradition’s counsel.  I have always believed that there is plenty of room in my heart for all manner of ideas.  I can love Torah while also loving modern philosophy and contemporary poetry, and even Eddie Money (Gimme Some Water!).

Then again, imagine Joseph, alone in the darkness of the pit.  Imagine how his thoughts might have tormented him.  Would the Torah that he so loved sustain him?  Would the love that his father showered on him secure his faith?  Are those snakes and scorpions at my feet? 

Perhaps the tradition is right.  When our hearts are overcome with hopelessness and despair, fill them instead with the music of our prayers.  The Psalmist can indeed sustain us.  The tradition can indeed mend broken hearts.

Such words cannot rescue Joseph.  That is dependent on our own hands.  We must reach down ourselves and rescue our brother from the pit.

Torah can give us strength and courage.  That is why we pray.  That is why we fill our hearts with its teachings.  So that when our hearts our broken we can gain sustenance.  We can then not only mend our own hearts but others as well.   

There are far too many people trapped in the pit for us not to pray, for us not to gain fortitude from the waters of Torah. Drink so that others might be rescued.  Taste so that our hearts might be healed.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Vayishlach Sermon

At Shabbat Services we discussed the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and becoming Israel.  I concluded by sharing a teaching by the Hasidic master, Sefat Emat.  He writes:
This may be an account of Jacob’s wrestling with his conscience, torn between his human tendency to avoid an unpleasant encounter and the divine impulse in him that urges him to do the difficult but right thing.  This position may find support in the text, “you have striven with beings divine and human” which can also be translated, “you have striven with God and with men.” We can imagine Jacob saying to himself, “Until now, I have responded to difficult situations by lying and running.  I deceived my father.  I ran away from Esau.  I left Laban’s house stealthily instead of confronting him.  I hate myself for being a person who lies and runs.  But I’m afraid of facing up to the situation.”  By not defeating his conscience, Jacob wins.  He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them.  At the end of the struggle, he is physically wounded and emotionally depleted.  Nevertheless, the Torah describes him as shalem, translated as “safe” with connotations of “whole,” at peace with himself, possessing an integrity he never had before.
Struggle is what defines us.  It is what names us.  Struggle has the potential to make us great.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


The Jewish people trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac and in particular Jacob. He is the father of the twelve tribes. In this week’s portion he gains the name Israel by wrestling with a divine being. His brother, Esau, is forever our enemy. According to Jewish tradition our many enemies can be traced to Isaac’s first-born son.

Esau is seen as the ancestor of the Edomites who aligned themselves with the Babylonians and destroyed the First Temple. The tradition as well sees the Romans as descendants of Esau who destroyed the Second Temple and views Jacob’s only brother as the ancestor of our later enemies, even modern European antisemites. Bereshit Rabbah comments: “We went looking for a brother, but instead found Easu, armed and hostile in a very non-brotherly manner.” All our enemies begin with Esau.

There are days when my dreams are haunted by this tradition. Must Esau forever be my enemy? The two brothers, Jacob and Esau, are indeed reconciled, but then part company and become the fathers of different nations. Will this enmity continue to be my future? Is this the history that we are condemned to live? I am a descendant of Jacob. My enemies forever bear the imprint of Esau. Our brother exclaims, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)

A few weeks following those terrible nights of Kristallnacht, in November 1938, Mahatma Gandhi wrote a disheartening article about Zionism. In it he argued that only the Arabs were the rightful inhabitants of Palestine. He viewed the Zionist settlers as colonialists. He advocated that Jewish settlers practice non-violence in order to win over the hearts of the Arabs. Ghandi also thought that the Jews of Germany should follow a similar practice in response to the then emerging Nazi onslaught.

His views were of course terribly naive. Ghandi refused to divide the world into friend and foe. Our lot, we have learned, is far different. I am Jacob. My brother, Esau.

The Jewish philosopher and founder of Hebrew University, Martin Buber, responded to Ghandi by saying that that no land belongs to any people. “The conquered land is, in my opinion, only lent even to the conqueror who has settled on it—and God waits to see what he will make of it.”

Buber, unlike the majority of Zionists, argued for a bi-national state, a state with a shared place for Jews and Palestinians. It is a vision of Zionism long since rightfully discredited by the overwhelming majority of Israelis. How could such a state then have a decidedly Jewish character? Still there must always be a place for Arabs within a Jewish and democratic state.

On this day, in 1949, the United Nations argued that there should indeed be a place for Palestinian national aspirations, not within the Jewish state, but instead alongside it. Decades of war, terrorism and bloodshed suggest this is impossible. These past weeks might have again caused our hearts to become hardened. Martin Buber refused to lose hope.

And so we continue to ask, “Even after the rockets and the public calls for our destruction, there still is hope?”

“Yes, even now.”

And Rabbi Akiva’s students asked him, “Even now?” He answered, “Yes, even now.”

We must always hope. Even now.

Always. No matter the history. Regardless of the circumstance.

Especially now.

“And Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Toldot, Sandy and Israel Sermon

What follows is my sermon on the recent war in Israel and Gaza, delivered on Friday, November 16.

Like so many I am still reeling from Hurricane Sandy.  I still find it hard to believe that living in such an affluent society and the center of the universe (New York, New York!), we could be without power for so long.  How can so many New Yorkers continue to be without, and not just without power but unable to even return to their homes?  I thought it was only in Louisiana and Mississippi that we saw such things.  We have learned: it not just the fury of nature, but also the folly of human beings that leads us to this end.  It is not just elsewhere but here In New York too there is ample evidence of our folly.  “Let us rebuild!” is all we seem to be able to proclaim.  “Get rid of LIPA!” we add.  “We were in the dark for far too long.”

Contrast this with events in Israel.  As all are aware, Israel is again facing relentless rocket attacks from Gaza.  Despite Israel’s recent withdrawal from Gaza, the Palestinian leadership and Hamas in particular seek to destroy rather than build.  Yet many of the lights remain on in Gaza.  Why?  Because Israel provides much of the electrical power to Gaza.  Now that is amazing. Or perhaps foolish, some might say.  But I find it extraordinary.  Where there is a will, anything is possible.  We can protect ourselves and continue to live according to our moral code.  Despite Hamas’ stated intention, namely the destruction of Israel, the Jewish state refuses to let go of its values.  Its struggle is not with the citizens of the Palestinian territories but with its leaders who, time and again, choose violence and hate over peace and reconciliation.

550 rockets have been fired on Israel.  Kippat Barzel (Iron Dome) has intercepted nearly 200.  Fortunately only 25 fell on populated areas.  Israel has assassinated key leaders and targeted over 600 weapon sites, all while desperately trying to avoid hitting civilians.  When will this cease?  Why can’t Israel be allowed to live in peace?

It begins in the Torah.  It starts with the very first brothers, Cain and Abel, when Cain killed Abel.  It continues through this week’s Jacob and Esau.  Who started the fighting between the brothers?  Was it Jacob who stole the birthright and took advantage of Esau’s hunger? (What a heel!)  “I will only give you food if you first give me what is rightfully yours.”  Who is to blame?  Was it Esau who was so hungry that he spurned his heritage?  He had such disregard for his family that he could only see the lentil stew.  Was it their parents?  Isaac favored Esau; he liked the meat Esau hunted.  Rebekah favored Jacob.  Who is to blame?  Was it God?  Blasphemy, you might say.  We read: “But the children struggled in her womb…And Rebekah went to inquire of the Lord and the Lord answered: ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body…’”

Who is to blame?  Is it LIPA or nature’s fury?  Sure it was a super storm.  Was it, as I believe, caused by climate change or just a once in a hundred year storm?  Can we assign blame?  There is indeed plenty of human folly to go around.  It pains me that our infrastructure is so vulnerable, that our power lines are but mere extension cords strung from one pole to another.  Can we fault others?  Should we instead fault ourselves?

Who is to blame?  Is it Israel or the Palestinians?  My sympathies are of course with Israel and its citizens.  I stand with Jacob, who will soon become Israel.  I believe that the Palestinian and Arab leadership are largely to blame for the lack of peace and the failure to establish a Palestinian State.  Now, no less, precious resources are being directed to exhume Arafat’s body in order to determine if he was poisoned.  Really!?  The cynic in me thinks, here is but one more example of resources being diverted so that the Jewish state can be blamed for all of the Palestinians’ troubles. We might soon hear, “The Jews killed Arafat.”

No sooner had Mahmoud Abbas said that he would like to visit the city of his birth, Safed, that he had to retract the statement because of riots. To go there would have been to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty.  Imagine what might have occurred were he a courageous leader.  He could say, “It is good to return to this city, to the place of my birth.  It pains me that it has taken so many years.  Here Jew and Palestinian lived side by side.  But those years are no more.”  He actually said that the Palestinians make no claim on pre-1967 Israel.  In other words he claims only the West Bank (and parts of Jerusalem) and Gaza for a Palestinian State.  And those words led to the controversy which he later retracted.

Imagine how different it could be if he went there, to Safed.  Imagine if we cast aside blame and stopped arguing over birthrights and instead shared a pot of stew.  I know; call me naive, call me a dreamer.  But hoping and dreaming is what makes you a rabbi.  Actually those are the key ingredients of being a Jew.

Imagine how different it would be if Netanyahu said likewise.  He could say, “We have no territorial claims on the West Bank.  True it is where our faith was born.  It is where our ancestors are buried.  But we will give it all up so that we can have peace and share this land.  You can live there, in my people’s birthplace, and I will continue to live here in yours.”  And he should go on to say, “If need be, we will rip out the anti-democratic forces from within our midst so that we can make peace.”

Imagine!  Is it possible to cast aside history and pain for the sake of peace?  Yitzhak Rabin (z”l) said, “There has been too much blood.”  And this has become our only truth.  There is quiet for a few months and sometimes years.  And then there is blood.

Just imagine if the values that somehow called Israel to keep the lights on in Gaza called its leadership, amidst all the rockets and the necessary defensive measures of the IDF, to stand up and say, “I am still ready to make peace.  Come to Jerusalem.   Come even to Safed.  We will never give up on peace!”  And imagine if the Palestinians, and their leadership, tossed their home made rockets into the sea, rather than vowing to push the Jews there, and answered the call of peace, and went to Safed and Jerusalem

Imagine what we could accomplish, if we cast blame aside!

Chayei Sarah and Hurricane Sandy Sermon

Below is my sermon from Friday, November 9 when we were finally able to gather together as a community following Hurricane Sandy.

This week’s Torah portion is called Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, but opens with her death.  She dies at the age of 127 years.  Abraham then buys a burial plot and buries her in Hebron in the Cave of Machpelah.  She is the first to be buried in this holy site.  Then Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. 

As much as I like talking Torah my thoughts are focused on Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath.  So here is what I have learned from this still unfolding cataclysm.  This is what Sandy should teach us. 

First the mundane.  Losing electricity reminds us why we light Shabbat candles before sunset.   Although there are of course deeper explanations for this ritual, the most basic is that the candles provided light for the celebration that followed.  This is also why we read Torah only during daylight hours.  It is impossible to read from the scroll without light.  We tried it this past week in a darkened sanctuary.  It is impossible.

Second, we are far too dependent on technology.   I have now added a qualification to my discussions about the wonders of the iPhone and my wireless house.  They all require electricity.  I am in fact dependent not on my computer skills but instead on LIPA.  It is no longer so impressive to be able to stream music from my iPhone to the stereo!  None of it works without electricity.

As I quickly discovered our cell phones worked only sporadically and from certain precise locations in our neighborhood.  Perhaps communication is better when it is more human, when it is face to face.  I discovered that the human connection is indeed better.  There is something more authentic about going to a neighbor’s house to check on them and share wine rather than texting.

We require electrical power for even the most mundane.  We require our cars, and the gas that runs them, for far more than we even realize.  Had it been the usual routine for the Moskowitz’s I would not have begged other parents for a ride to Ari’s recent soccer game.  Susie and I would have driven two cars all the way to Patchogue because we were coming from different locations.  This past week it was impossible because my car was running impossibly low on gas.

Finally, the question of climate change.  I happen to believe the evidence is unequivocal.  I understand that some might hold different views.  Nonetheless we can’t keep building so close to the water and expect no harm.  We can’t just replenish our destroyed beaches.  I appreciate the call to rebuild.  I admire the sentiment.  Perhaps instead we should be thinking more strategically.  We need to make some fundamental changes in how we live, or at least where we live.  Or at the very least we need to better protect our vital infrastructure.  This seems obvious so soon after Sandy but the tendency is to fall back on what we know rather than change.  I know that change is difficult but it is required.  Sandy should be our wake up call.  If we go back to business as usual, if we simply rebuild and attempt to recreate what was destroyed and lost, then we will be back where we started.  Maybe it won’t be next summer, but it will happen again.  Pretending it can’t happen again will lead to our demise.  The island we cherish is threatened by climate change and the encroaching sea.  As much as I love the ocean and its beaches we had better figure out a better way to keep our distance.

Yes, we, in our immediate area, are very fortunate.  It is not simply that we lost less than others, but because of all that we have.  Sometimes as they say you have to give it up in order to better appreciate what you have.  Far too much of our modern lives are taken for granted.  One lasting lesson is that the simple conveniences of heat and electricity should never be taken for granted.  They are blessings that far too many still do not have.

Back to the Torah.  How does Eliezer find a wife for Isaac?  He devises a test.  He comes to the town’s well and waits to see who would offer him water.  Rebekah of course offers him water, as well as for his camels, and then invites him back to her family’s home for a meal.  The rabbis discern that hospitality is the true measure of the righteous. 

Like Eliezer I learned first hand of the blessing of hospitality.  Let us look at this hurricane as a test, not of course as one sent by heaven.  Let us see Sandy instead as a test granted to us so that we might improve our lives and that of our communities.  Will we go back to our same old ways?  Will we place band aids on all of our short term flaws?  Will we change nothing, hoping and praying that this will never happen again?  Or will we rise to the challenge and the test and say how must we change?

Eliezer devised a simple test for Isaac’s future wife.  Would she show hospitality?  Would she offer to water the camels as well?  We have a far greater test and challenge standing before us.  Once we care for the wounded and hurting, we must begin to ask how we can change, what we must change.  We have now been taught to appreciate our many blessings.  Let this lesson not be so fleeting.  Let it not be short lived. 

May God grant us much healing and even more wisdom to change the very ways we live.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Last week we studied the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel and in particular his beautiful essay written in the shadow of the Holocaust in 1949, “Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul.”  In it he claims that Judaism is not simply about adding meaning to our own lives.  It must have relevance for the entire world.  “To be a Jew is either superfluous or essential…  In keeping faith with our Judaism, we guard the hidden divine light and the noblest of visions, which have been saved for humanity’s future.”

It is a notion worthy of reflection.  The Jewish people are called to better the world.  Our tradition adds meaning to all of humanity.  Some might object to such an idea, thinking that it is given to conceit.  Yet, as we approach the holiday of Thanksgiving, I recall the promise of America also held before the other nations of the world.  Throughout our history we have continued to believe that our vision of freedom and democracy is something that all should cherish.   

President Obama, for instance, said at his first inauguration:  “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man -- a charter expanded by the blood of generations.  Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”

Or perhaps you prefer the words of President Bush, offered at his second inauguration, only a few years after the terror of 9-11: “Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty - though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul.”

To be a believer, whether it is faith in America or Judaism, requires a chutzpah that these visions are not about self-fulfillment, but something much grander.  We cling to democracy despite the fact that the world appears to waver and teeter toward fundamentalism.  And we must likewise cling to our Jewish faith.  It is not about what I find meaningful or even spiritually fulfilling. It is instead about what the world needs!  Our tradition, for example, holds justice as paramount.  And the world certainly requires more justice!  Heschel reminds us: “Judaism teaches us to view any injustice…or human oppression as a major tragedy and feel divine joy at bringing happiness to any mortal.”

Jacob, now running from his brother Esau from whom he (unjustly) stole the birthright, finds a place in the wilderness to rest for the night.  He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven.  Angels are climbing up and down upon its rungs.  God stands at its head declaring a promise for future generations: “Your descendant shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.” (Genesis 28:14)

The dream that begins in this week’s Torah portion and travels through the nation that we cherish and celebrate tomorrow on Thanksgiving is also contained in our faith and rooted in the scroll that we hold in our arms each and every Shabbat.  We declare our allegiance to these dreams not so that we might find fulfillment but instead so that the world might be redeemed.

May we never tire in bringing these dreams to the world!

We continue to pray for the peace of Israel.  “Our God, God of our fathers and mothers, Rock and Redeemer of the people Israel: Bless the State of Israel, with its promise of redemption.  Shield it with Your love; spread over it the shelter of Your peace…”

Too Many Rockets, Again

Children should not learn such vocabulary...

Pray for the peace of Israel!

P.S. I thank my colleague, Sherry Gutes, for sharing this video with me.

Friday, November 16, 2012


I am unable to leave Sandy behind.  Perhaps better to say that Hurricane Sandy will not let go.  Her winds and waves continue to torment my dreams.  True, life is returning to normal on the North Shore.  Power has been restored.  Our homes are again warm.   Nonetheless for our friends and family living only miles away the struggle continues.  Far too many, in the place we call home, are without even the most basic of necessities.

I find this painful to witness.  I pledge not to sit idly by.  I must vow to do more.

I find it as well painful to read the opening verses of this week’s portion, about our forefathers Jacob and Esau.  Here is that story.  Jacob and Esau are twins.  Esau was born only moments before Jacob.  Jacob emerges holding on to his brother’s heel.  He is thus called “Jacob, meaning heel.”  Esau becomes a skilled hunter.  Jacob is more mild mannered and toils in the house (nay, tent).  One day Esau returns from hunting and spies the lentil stew that Jacob is cooking.  Esau screams, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished…” (Genesis 25:30)  Seeing an opportunity, Jacob tells Esau to sell him his birthright.  Esau relents saying, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”  Jacob insists that Esau make a solemn vow renouncing the birthright.  He does.  And thus Jacob claims the birthright of his older brother.

How many people take advantage of the pain and suffering of others, especially during the past weeks?  How many gas stations unnecessarily raised their prices?  How many people stole from others when their homes were unprotected?  There were far too many who took advantage of their brethren and profited from their hunger, thereby spurning their very heritage and casting aside the ties that should bind us together.  Then again there were far more (at least I continue to believe, I must believe, that there are always more good than bad) who ran to help, who contributed much needed supplies, who offered assistance, who continue to write checks for repair.

And now my thoughts turn to Israel.  Why must Jacob and Esau continue to fight?  Let it be said that I stand with the State of Israel.  I stand with my people, with Jacob who later becomes Israel in its struggle with Esau.  Still I wonder why can’t brothers live in peace, why must they fight over birthrights, inheritances and blessings?  Why can’t we live by the prophet’s words, please God may it be soon? “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation. And never again will they learn war." (Isaiah 2:4)

I understand the intricacies of the modern Middle East.  I recognize the failures of the Palestinians to build something (anything!) positive in Gaza after Israel unilaterally withdrew from this territory.  I can argue with the best of them whether Jacob stands guilty of stealing the birthright or as the Torah records, “Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.”  Sometimes I wish that such discussions should be of no consequence.  I just want peace.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, writes:
Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.) 
Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
Let that be our prayer.  For our tortured souls following Hurricane Sandy.  And for our embattled (once again) Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.

Peter Beinart Belongs in the Zionist Tent

Daniel Gordis: Peter Beinart Belongs in the Zionist Tent – Tablet Magazine

Peter Beinart who argues that the settlements are the major stumbling block to peace with Israel's neighbors and perhaps even more importantly the core reason why many American Jews are growing disconnected from the Jewish state was recently uninvited from speaking at the Atlanta Book Fair.  While I disagree with Beinart about many of his judgments, this action represents an insidious turn in the American Jewish landscape.  When facing such difficult and weighty problems we require a diversity of views.  Narrowing the discussion serves no one, except perhaps our enemies.  As the debate grows smaller and our collective views more narrow we can then be more effectively caricatured. I therefore open my hearts and ears to those who disagree with me.  As long as someone believes that the State of of Israel must remain Jewish, democratic and in the Middle East they are a Zionist.  I have always found it strange that there is far more open debate about Israel's most vexing challenges within the Israeli Knesset than among American Jews.  I certainly don't agree with everything Israel does or everything every American Jew says but let's keep the debate open and wide.  It does not serve our collective future to apply such litmus tests and attempt to excommunicate those who disagree with us.

Rabbi Danny Gordis writes of those who uninvited Beinart:
They represent, I believe, a scary anti-intellectual trend in the Jewish community. These people believe that an increasingly narrow tent will best protect the state of Israel, and so they continue to move the tent’s pegs. But they are doing just the opposite of bolstering the Jewish state: They weaken Israel and make it more vulnerable because they exclude enormous swaths of the community that we need—particularly on a week like this.
And Gordis concludes:
Speaking with people who agree with me is no challenge. Engaging with those whose views seem to me dangerous is infinitely harder, but far more important. That sort of conversation is perhaps the most critical lesson that we inherit from centuries of Talmudic Judaism. The Talmud is essentially a 20-volume argument, in which even positions that “lost” the battle and were not codified into law are subjected to reverential examination. When Hillel and Shammai debate, Jewish law, or halakhah, almost always follows Hillel. But we still study Shammai with reverence. Even those views not codified, we believe, have insights to share and moral positions worth considering. 
The American Jewish community is the most secure diaspora community the Jews have ever known. Economically, socially, politically, culturally—we have made it, and what we say and model is watched by countless others. Yet New York Times readers this week can only conclude that in the midst of that security and comfort, we’ve utterly abandoned the intellectual curiosity that has long been Judaism’s hallmark. 
Are we not ashamed to have created a community so shrill that any semblance of that Talmudic curiosity has been banished? Has the People of the Book really become so uninterested in thinking?
Let us rally in support of the State of Israel.  This week let us renew our commitment to its security.  But let us as well not rally around one ideology and one vision of Zionism.  We are indeed one, but not one idea.