Skip to main content


Showing posts from 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 th

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. Ev

We Need Some More Anger

India Gang Rape Sparks Mass Protests But Newtown Shooting Only Sparks Mourning | The New Republic : 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


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 follo

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 di

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.


“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 happ

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.  


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

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


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

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 , t


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

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 rece

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.


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.    Pre

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.


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 cook

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