Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ki Tetzei

In a recent column in The New York Times ("Motherlode," August 9, 2012), KJ Dell’Antonia writes: “To the best of my recollection, when I did something wrong as a child, my parents blamed me.  When my children do something wrong, I blame myself.  A good parent would have taught them better.  In our determination to be the very best we can be, we’ve created a catch: when our children fail, we fail.”

The Torah concurs: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” (Deuteronomy 24:16)  Leaving aside the question of capital punishment, which the Torah most certainly finds legitimate and the rabbis make impossible to exact, the Bible and the Jewish tradition we have inherited teaches that an individual is responsible for his or her own crimes, sins and mistakes. 

In the ancient Near East family members were sometimes punished for the crimes of others. In other words if a man harmed another, he was then punished by the same harm being done to a member of his family, often the corresponding member.   Occasionally his family might also be punished along with him.  The Torah declares that such practices are unjust.  Only the individual, found guilty of a crime, is punished.  A child is not punished for a parent’s sin.  A parent does not suffer because of a child’s mistake.

And yet parents feel great pain when their children err.  We struggle and toil so as not to experience this ache.  We don’t want to see them fail. 

Dell’Antonia concludes: “And yet we still have to let them fail.  How egotistical is it to insist that our children’s every action reflects our parenting skills?  They’re not trained Labradoodles.  They’re children, by nature impulsive and prone to selfishness and other flaws.  Smooth their paths and repair their gaffes, and we protect our egos at their expense.  It takes a little lousy parenting (or at least the appearance of it) to let a child grow up.”

Each and every individual must take responsibility for his or her own actions.  We cannot say, “Everyone is doing it.” Or “It is not me but my addiction.” Or “My parents made me do it.”   We cannot offer excuses.  Instead we must take direct responsibility for the sin, mistake or failure.  Our failures are just as much our own as our successes.  I don’t very much like failing.  Still it has always been my contention that we learn far more from these mistakes than our many successes. 

Parents must let go of children.  And children must let go of parents.  There might then be more failures (or at least the appearance of them), nonetheless the successes will feel greater because they too will be our own.

Jennifer Finney Boylan writes (“A Freshman All Over Again,” The New York Times, August 22, 2012): “There are times when I want to tell my students that if they want to learn anything at college, their first step should be defriending their parents. Write them a nice letter, on actual paper, once every week or so, but on the whole: let go. Stop living in their shadows, and start casting your own.”

Love is not the same as reliance.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Israeli Racism: Changing the Discourse

Israeli racism: Changing the discourse | Naomi Schacter | The Times of Israel

It is not that I don't recognize the dangers of Iran or of Hezbullah or of Hamas.  It is just that I have great confidence in the IDF and Israel's security apparatus.  I therefore see the internal threats as more insidious and even dangerous.  While focusing on the external we tend to forget about the internal.  Or because we talk so much about the external we begin to view the internal through a similar lens.

Naomi Schacter writes:
Just as Israel has not just a legal but a moral obligation to act against all racist attacks by its own citizens, so it must maintain a strong moral public face and utter honesty with its own history. The validation of the Israeli Arabs’ historical suffering in the creation of the Jewish state would not invalidate the State of Israel or negate its identity as essentially Jewish. Rather, it would acknowledge that natives of this land suffered loss and deprivation as they were buffeted by world events beyond their control. Admitting the historical facts would only strengthen the state and the Jewish people.
Perhaps Thursday's beating of an Arab youth will be the occasion to refocus our discussion and look within.  Such an accounting (heshbon hanefesh) is long overdue.

Say It Ain't So, Lance

Lance Armstrong's Decision Not To Fight Doping Charges : The New Yorker

Martin Schoeller writes:
That is why I am so deeply appalled by his announcement yesterday that he would no longer fight the charges against him. He said he was tired of the fight. Tired? Really? Armstrong made it clear on several occasions he would fight to the death. (My favorite Lance quote about pain, clearly applicable to the accusations, is, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”) 
Yes, quitting lasts forever. And he did not even have the decency to admit his guilt. Oddly, two of my colleagues—both of whom had ridiculed me mercilessly for supporting Lance—wrote to me today to say that they actually felt sorry for the guy. 
I do not. Lance Armstrong stood for something. He was a man who, despite the hatred, the envy, and the odds, would never quit, would never concede. He was the great American—a man of principle who also won. Now, I am afraid, he is nothing.
I am not surprised about the news.  I remain so disappointed.


What is so terrible about a tree?

In keeping with Deuteronomy’s near obsession with idolatry and its desire to eradicate all objects of foreign worship from the land of Israel, we read: “You shall not set up a sacred post (asherah)—any tree-like object beside the altar of the Lord your God that you make—or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests.” (Deuteronomy 16:21-22)  Last week’s theme continues through this week.

An asherah, sacred post, was apparently a standing wooden object erected at a place of worship.  In other words it was a totem pole.  It could have also been a particular type of tree that was deemed sacred by the ancient Canaanites.  Or, perhaps it was a tree that was planted near their temples.  Interestingly the name for a Canaanite goddess was Asherah.  Trees, or wooden objects, were thus associated with this goddess and explicitly forbidden. 

The sentiment is clear.  Anything that even approaches Canaanite religion or worship is forbidden.  The message is emphatic.  We are going to do things differently, most especially in the land of Israel.  And that begins with how we pray. 

But a tree? 

There are times when hiking in the deserts of Israel one is grateful for the shade of a tree.  It is a welcome relief from the afternoon sun.  In a hot, dry climate, shade can offer much relief.  “And the Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths (oaks) of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.”  (Genesis 18:1)  Given that this tree, or cluster of trees, had a particular name indicates that they were familiar to Abraham and his contemporaries.  Perhaps they were used as a landmark.  Then again perhaps these trees were also deemed sacred by his new neighbors.

During Abraham’s time there appears more comfort with the indigenous Canaanite religion.  It was not that the patriarchs believed as the Canaanites did.  But they do appear more at ease living side by side with competing religious practices and ideas.  They allowed such religions to coexist alongside their own.  Rather than uprooting these sacred trees Abraham redefines them.  There he experiences his God.  The Canaanites’ totem pole becomes the site of his covenant with God and the beginnings of our faith. 

Deuteronomy sees such an approach as impossible.  By this time the Israelites wish to become the dominant religion of the land.  They are to be the majority of its inhabitants.  Thus the Canaanites are no longer neighbors but enemies.  In this week’s portion we sense the moment when the Israelites will reclaim the land for our entire nation.  There can be no living side by side with their enemy’s ideas or even with their sacred objects.

Imagine a tall, stately tree that serves as a contemporary destination.  Imagine as well that years ago this same beautiful tree was used to lynch an innocent man or even to hang a guilty criminal.  Would you want such a tree to continue to serve as a landmark for the place you now call home?  This is exactly how the Canaanites were seen.  This is exactly how their sacred trees were viewed.  In the imagination of the ancient Israelites the Canaanite religion was equated with such evils. 

One always imagines an enemy doing horrific and unspeakable acts.  (And sometimes they do.  But many times they do not.  More often the evil-doers are fewer in number than we imagine.)   The Israelites therefore believed that there was no choice but to eradicate even their trees.

Beware of seeing evil lurking under every tree. 

The prophet proclaims: “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree and no one shall make him afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

Monday, August 20, 2012


A story.

A young rabbi arrived in an East European town eager to serve his new congregation. During his first day he was given a tour of the town by one of the city’s leaders. Eventually they came to the Jewish cemetery where, as was the custom, all of his rabbinic predecessors were buried in a common section. As they passed by the gravestones something began to become frighteningly clear – the ages on the stones. The life of one rabbi was 34 years, another 28, and yet another was a mere 23 years. In fact there was not one person who survived past 40.

As he began to realize this, the new rabbi started sweating. He began to believe that the community was so difficult; it was killing off its rabbis. His guide, sensing the young rabbi’s growing panic, and fearing that he might leave the new congregation, said, “Let me explain something. Then you can make your choice about leaving or staying. These dates are not the number of years that these people lived. They are instead the number of years that they truly lived their lives.”

You see we have a custom in our community that each person keeps a personal diary and at the end of the day they write down how much of their time was spent serving God – not just through prayer or study, but the number of hours spent living a life of gratitude and not regret, the number of hours living closest to their highest selves, the amount of time reaching out to those in need and living according to what is truly important and not trivial. And then at the end of a person’s life we add up all of the hours in the notebook. That is the number we then put on the headstone. He lived to be 94 not the 38 years engraved there.” And pointing to another stone, he said, “And this rabbi was on this earth for 83 years not 34.”

If we were to count our years in such a manner, measuring the moments giving thanks and living closest to our highest selves, how many years would we apportion? Would we deem ourselves a 100 or a mere 20? Would our tally be counted in years or mere days? When we our remembered how many moments would be counted as if they were penned in such a diary?

Saturday was the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. According to tradition this day begins a forty-day period of repentance that concludes on Yom Kippur afternoon (September 26). This time is devoted to measuring our years and working to better ourselves. On the High Holidays we read of the Book of Life that measures each and every person’s deeds. We speak of how our actions might engrave our future.

We also speak of how our fate is never written in stone. The High Holidays and the period of repentance that began this weekend is a yearly opportunity to change. Let us seize this opportunity and rewrite our years.

Addendum: I first heard this story at the recent funeral of my mentor and friend, Dr. Jerry Perkoff (z”l). His grandson Jeff Stombaugh shared this tale on that occasion. Jeff is now a first year rabbinical student studying in Jerusalem.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


In the traditional haggadah we read the following prayer when opening the door for Elijah: “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.  Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them.  Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai!”

Added to the haggadah during the bloody Crusades, these words seem out of step with our modern, universal values.  Even though we are sympathetic to the origins of this prayer, our liberal haggadahs have deleted it from our Seders.  We speak instead about the messianic peace that Elijah will announce rather than the vengeance he might exact.

This week’s portion begins with a similar sentiment.  Here it is not a prayer but a command.  “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains or on hills under any luxuriant tree.  Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)

Again this appears contrary to everything we believe.  Destroying non-believers and their places of worship contradicts everything we hold dear.  How is this any different than what we witnessed at Milwaukee’s Sikh Temple?  How is this different from those who read these words as a mandate to murder and destroy? 

And yet we live in a time when suggesting we have no enemies is equally fallacious.  Thus we are forever sandwiched between those who are unable to name our real enemies and those who see enemies everywhere and anywhere.  Such is our challenge.  There is great confusion about these issues.  People too frequently treat those with whom they disagree as their enemies but extend a hand in peace to those who seek their destruction.  We must fight against those who wish to destroy us.  And we must refrain from denouncing those who disagree with us.

Our times need not be so confusing.  Those who wish to destroy us, who revile the pluralism for which this country stands, are most certainly our enemies.  We must not be afraid to say such words.  Our world has real enemies.  Does that make such prayers legitimate?  Does that make such commands meaningful?  Better perhaps we should pray for peace rather than vengeance while remaining forever on guard and vigilant. 

We must also work to be sure that those with whom we have honest disagreements remain friends.  We dare not confuse friend with enemy.  Articulating a vision of pluralism and an acceptance of different worldviews is paramount.  Let us be clear. When others advocate for our destruction they name themselves as our enemies.  We must remain unafraid of saying so in clear and unmistakable terms.

Attributed to the medieval commentator Rashi’s disciples is a parallel prayer to that found in the haggadah.  “Pour out your love on the nations who have known you and on the kingdoms who call upon your name.  For they show lovingkindness to the seed of Jacob and they defend your people Israel from who would devour them alive.  May they live to see the sukkah of peace spread over your chosen ones and to participate in the joy of your nations.”  Pray for peace.  Remain vigilant.

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26)  These indeed are today’s choices.

What's Standing in the Way of Palestine's Success?

What's Standing in the Way of Palestine's Success? – Tablet Magazine

This is an interesting article about Mitt Romney's recent speech in Jerusalem.  Smith examines the question about the cultural differences between Israeli and Palestinian societies.  Romney suggested that Israel is successful, and Palestinian society is not, because of their cultural heritage.  Palestinians of course cried foul and said, "No it is all because of Israeli occupation." Romney was accused of a major diplomatic gaffe.  Smith writes: "Erekat and Masri are correct—so long as the word occupation is understood in a fuller context. Instead of building a bustling economy, the Palestinians have devoted their energies to waging war against Israel for more than 60 years. The absence of a Palestinian state is proof that this war has been unsuccessful, wasting almost three generations of Palestinian talent."  This is indeed correct.  The culture of victimization in Palestinian society is the root of the disparity.  Most interesting is the fact that outside of Palestine, the Palestinians are successful and their diaspora thrives.  Our cultures might very well be more similar than we wish to admit.  Romney is wrong.  It is not a difference of culture but instead of leadership.  The difference is that Israel's leadership is singularly devoted to nurturing Israeli creativity and success whereas the Palestinian leadership is singularly devoted to destroying Israel.

On a related theme read this recent Tablet article as well: Romney and Einstein: Racists?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Our hearts are joined in sorrow with the Sikh community.  What a terrible and unspeakable tragedy.  Even though this murderous attack occurred outside of Milwaukee it should be viewed as an attack here.  And even though it occurred at a Sikh Temple it must be seen against us as well.  This was not the murder of Sikhs alone but an attack against Americans.  This was an attack on American values.  There are those who wish America to be a homogeneous whole.  I prefer difference.  I value heterogeneity.  This country must always stand for pluralism.  We must stand with those of different faiths and proclaim that was not simply against one faith community but an attack on all.  This week we must stand as Americans.  My response to this tragedy is twofold: to mourn the victims and to embrace the multiplicity of cultures that make up the American landscape.  I refuse to say, “Look at what happened to them.”  Instead I say, “Look at what is happening to us!”

This week’s Torah portion contains a familiar if misunderstand verse.  We read “man does not live on bread alone.”  Often this is understood to mean that food is not the only staple of life.  A full life should include literature, music and art (and I would add, sport).  Of course there are those who interpret this verse literally, suggesting that we should eat more than just bread.  Wine is always a nice addition, and perhaps even some cheese.  These are worthy lessons but not the intention of the Torah.  Instead the portion wishes to tell us that the only sustenance we require is faith in God.

Look at the verse in its context: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees….” (Deuteronomy 8) 

There appears an ascetic strain within the Torah portion.  It is as if it says, “Rely on God alone.”  The Jewish tradition rejects this and believes that we must take care of our earthly needs in order to reach for the heavens.  We cannot simply have faith in God and say, “Whatever God decrees.”  We cannot, and should not, wait for manna to be provided for us.  Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah taught: “No sustenance (literally flour), no Torah; no Torah, no sustenance.”  We require food and religion.  The two must go hand in hand, the earthly human needs and the lofty heavenly ideals.  If we focus only on heaven we lose sight of the everyday and human.  Judaism teaches that the purpose of our religion is to elevate the earthly.  We lift the everyday toward heaven.

Still the portion seems to suggest otherwise.   It suggests that we only require faith.  I prefer otherwise.  Our tradition comes not to remove us from this world but instead to renew our commitment to it.  I always prefer a good meal and Torah.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Ugly Ways Jews Talk to One Another

Daniel Gordis on the Ugly Ways Jews Talk to One Another – Tablet Magazine

Daniel Gordis offers important insights about the state of dialogue, or lack thereof, in the Jewish community.  He observes:
We have no Temple now, of course. We do have a Third Jewish Commonwealth, a state that faces unremitting hatred from its neighbors and much of the international community. Without question, we need to defend it. But as Tisha B’Av looms, we would do well, I think, to ask ourselves what kind of a Jewish world we’re defending and whether, even if we’re successful at preserving the Jewish State, those whose loyalty we desperately need will want to have anything to do with us.


For the first time in my life I moved into a home where the mezuzahs were already affixed to the doorposts. Last week we moved our offices into 430 North Broadway where we will be sharing space with Jericho Jewish Center. In the previous office space we placed the mezuzahs on the doorways. We did the same at the Brookville Reformed Church after Reverend Ramirez graciously allowed us to do so. But now there was no need to ask permission. There was no need to purchase mezuzahs to place on our office doors. They were already there. They adorn every doorpost.

Every house, every apartment, every office I ever moved into, this task fell on me. Even at the 92nd Street Y I had to purchase a mezuzah to place on my own office door. Here they were provided. Here others performed this mitzvah for us. Even though it was an extraordinary measure of friendship that we were allowed to affix a mezuzah in the church’s social hall, here at 430 North Broadway the plethora of mezuzahs means something very different.

It means that we share something in common. These mezuzahs serve as an immediate sign that we are among friends.

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, contains the words of the Shema and its first paragraph’s concluding words: “Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:8) Our tradition interprets these words literally. Thus these words are written on a small piece of parchment and placed inside the mezuzah. For millennia this commandment has been observed in this manner. We write the commandment on a parchment and place them on our doorposts and even our gates.
I imagine, especially in ancient times, when Jews traveled far from their homes the mezuzah was a welcome sign. It meant that a traveler could find friends through such a doorway. It means the same today. The Jewish population is at best 14 million. It may feel like more living in our small corner of Long Island but we are not so numerous. We are but a tiny fraction of the world’s population. Thus we require more solidarity. We require more kinship. We don’t have to agree with every Jew (I certainly don’t) but we must stand together as friends.
Sometimes people confuse friendship with agreement. But friendship is at its best not about agreement or flattery but instead about care and concern. We certainly have our differences with our Conservative brethren. There is much in the way that we pray and especially the way that we view innovation and change that separates us, but I would like to believe that we share more in common. Such should be the nature of our emerging friendship with the Jericho Jewish Center.

The mezuzah is a sign of this friendship. It is a sign of a friendship that spans millennia. I know that they were affixed to Jericho Jewish Center’s doors decades ago in fulfillment of the mitzvah contained in the Torah portion. I know then that no one imagined that they would one day serve as welcome for a Reform congregation. Nonetheless that is the purpose they fulfilled this week. I found these mezuzahs most welcoming. May these mezuzahs continue to remind us of the importance of our emerging friendship.
This week I am the traveler who wandered upon a welcome doorway.

And, on another note about friendship, my teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, wrote an interesting article about Governor Mitt Romney’s recent visit to Israel. Rabbi Hartman is an Israeli and so I believe offers helpful insights. I offer his concluding remarks for your consideration. He writes:
As a friend, I am not in need of an echo, nor do I find solace in an unconditional cheering squad. I value my freedom and my right to pursue a policy that others may think is wrong. From my friends, however, I yearn for and desperately need honesty. Don’t tell me only what you think I want to hear, tell me what you think I need to hear. As a true friend, I welcome the times that you push and cajole, for I know that you have my best interests at heart. 
Most importantly, I yearn for your involvement. When honesty is not possible, friendship becomes a formality, carted out at ceremonial moments, a mere testimony to a true feeling that has long passed. We face many critical decisions in the years ahead, decisions that will impact the nature and future direction of our country and at times even its existence. The path forward is often ambiguous, uncertain, and fraught with dangers regardless of which option we choose. We need a friend who will talk to us honestly. We need a friend who will give us the strength to take risks. We need a friend to help us bring out the best of who we want to be in the midst of a reality which often pulls us in the opposite direction.
You can find Rabbi Hartman’s complete article at this link.