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Showing posts from April, 2012


Public figures appear to speak with increasing regularity and extraordinary confidence about God’s ways.  How can one be so sure about such mysteries?  How can a human being be certain about God’s judgments? This week’s Torah portion speaks at great length about leprosy, a disease seen in ancient times as divine punishment.  The Torah advises the following if one’s house becomes infected:  “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict a leprous plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”  (Leviticus 14:34-35) The Hasidic master, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, suggests this interpretation: “Even if he is a scholar and knows the exact definition of a leprous plague, he must still use the phrase, ‘like a plague,’—for a person is never able to tell whether what is happening to him is a curse or an event.  All he can say is tha

Yom Haatzmaut

64 years of independence deserves celebration!  64 years of Jewish sovereignty is cause for us to fill our sanctuary with music and song! The Prayer for the State of Israel opens with the words: “Our Father in heaven, Rock of Israel and its Redeemer, bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption…”  This prayer was composed soon after the State of Israel was established in 1948.  Although its original version is attributed to the chief rabbis of the time, Rabbis Yitzhak Herzog and Ben Zion Uziel, it is widely believed that the Nobel Laureate, Shai Agnon, actually authored the prayer, especially this opening line. Agnon remains the only Israeli author to be recognized by the Nobel committee for his achievements in literature and thus the only author recognized by them for his mastery of Hebrew.  In his 1966 acceptance speech he proclaimed in this reborn language: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel wa

Leon Wieseltier: The Lost Art

Leon Wieseltier: The Lost Art | The New Republic My teacher Rabbi David Hartman often jokes that we should criticize Israel like a mother not like a mother in law.  A mother criticizes in order to refine.  A mother in law criticizes for the sake of criticizing and even belittling.  Even though this is not my personal experience it contains an important lesson about how we approach Israel.  Criticizing with love is the goal.  The notion that our love is negated by our criticism comes from a deep insecurity about our relationship with the State of Israel.  We must criticize.  But we must not only criticize.  We must also defend.  We must do both. Leon Wieseltier offers these insights in his recent, brilliant article: So Israel must be defended and Israel must be criticized. Almost nobody any longer practices the lost art of doing both at the same time, with similar emphasis, out of equally intense convictions, in a single breath. Instead there is the party of security and the party


The rabbis often spin mountains of interpretation from one phrase, a sermon from a single nuance or a new teaching from a seemingly insignificant word choice. The story of Nadav and Avihu contains an interesting example in this long list of interpretations. This week’s Torah portion describes in brief detail the brothers’ sacrifice and death at the “instance of the Lord.” Aaron’s sons bring sacrifices and are then killed. The Torah offers no reason. Rabbis are left to ponder. Some suggest it was because they brought an “alien fire.” Others surmise it was because God had not explicitly commanded this sacrifice. A number even write that they must have been intoxicated even though the story does not mention such an infraction. The prohibition against priests drinking alcohol while offering a sacrifice follows soon after this episode. And so a thin connection is made between the two. The list of possible interpretations is endless. The young priests were overly ambitious. The

Wiesel Rejects Holocaust Analogy

Elie Wiesel Rejects Netanyahu's Comparisons of Iranian Threat to the Holocaust | The Times of Israel For years Wiesel has steadfastly rejected any comparisons to the Holocaust.  He has argued that the Holocaust is unique in its evils.  There have of course been too many examples of genocides throughout history and even since Auschwitz.  Yet none are the same as the Holocaust.  The Holocaust should only be used to describe one historical event, namely the systematic and intentional destruction of much of European Jewry by the Nazi regime and its supporters.  Loosely calling other evils and threats holocausts or potential holocausts diminishes the meaning and import of the Holocaust.  Such is Wiesel's point.  He said, “Only Auschwitz was Auschwitz. I went to Yugoslavia when reporters said that there was a Holocaust starting there. There was genocide, but not an Auschwitz. When you make a comparison to the Holocaust it works both ways, and soon people will say what happened in Au

Yom HaShoah Siren

In Israel there is a moment of silence that marks the nationwide observance of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day).  At 10 am the air raid siren is sounded for two minutes.  Many stand at attention, even stopping their cars in the middle of the highway.

Yom HaShoah

In our never-ending pursuit of health and fitness we enter cycling races, triathlons and masters swim meets. Even our weekend golf games become fierce competitions as we bet on the winners of each hole. For many, and in particular middle-aged men, even the healthiest of exercise regimens can turn into such competitions. Marathons have become so popular that gaining a spot in New York City’s has become increasingly difficult. Participation in triathlons has increased ten fold, surpassing two million competitors this past year. Training for such endurance sports, or perfecting one’s golf game, or playing just about any sport these days, requires time, commitment and investment. Despite my well-known passion for cycling and its events, I sometimes forget the primary purpose of my life. Simply put that purpose is to bring a measure of goodness to an increasingly fractured world. On the days that I forget this command I remember the story of Gino Bartali, an Italian cycling legen


Counting is considered bad luck. The tradition counsels that the more we count the more we come to think we lack. How many people check their portfolios and think to themselves, “Look how blessed is my lot!” I suspect that most instead look at their accumulated wealth and think, “Will there be enough for my family?” How often do we look at the people sitting with us at Shabbat services and think, “Look at my friends sitting beside me!” More often we say, “There should be more people here.” Too often counting leads to feelings of longing, of desires unfulfilled. Yet, on the second evening of Passover we begin a tradition of counting. Moreover this counting is commanded in the Torah. We count the days from Passover until Shavuot. We count seven times seven weeks. We count 49 days—each and every day. This tradition dates back to our people’s agricultural roots. Passover was associated with the barley harvest and Shavuot the wheat. The intervening weeks were viewed with great


It is axiomatic to say that food is central to Jewish life. We love our holiday meals: the matzo balls, brisket, gefilte fish and jelly rings. Such is the customary fare at the seders we will observe tomorrow evening. Yet food is also integral to the Jewish tradition. There are blessings for all kinds of food. We say a blessing before eat fruits or vegetables. The blessing is tailored to whether the food grows on a tree, a vine or the ground. We say a blessing before eating cookies or cake. “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who creates different kinds of nourishment.” For bread alone, the staple of any meal, we recite the motzi. Regardless of the formula the purpose of the blessings is clear. We are to give thanks for the food we are about to eat. We pause and reflect. Before enjoying our meal we say thank you. Food is an enjoyment. Eating is a pleasure. For these gifts we thank God. Interestingly none of these blessings contain the formula asher k

Tzav Sermon

Years ago I was attracted to Buddhism and in particular the Zen masters.  Then I discovered some of the vows that were required of them so that was a short lived fascination.  Nonetheless my attraction was about the sanctification of the everyday that I saw in Zen.  Even the most mundane activities can be infused with holiness.  That is the point of the Buddhists’ beautiful rock gardens.  Even the everyday is holy.  It might be better to say that their perspective is that holiness is more often found in the ordinary, everyday than in sanctuaries and cathedrals.  You can find it here in what you must do today.  You need not search elsewhere; you need not travel far. That was when I also realized that I did not have to look elsewhere for such teachings.  They are found as well in our Jewish tradition.  Such ideas are especially prevalent in the Hasidic masters.  Martin Buber writes in Hasidism and Modern Man .   (This book continues to be one of the most influential books in my spiri