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Showing posts from November, 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

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

Hurricane Sandy + 2 Weeks

I am thankful that our home now has heat and power and that life is slowly returning to normal in our neighborhood, on Long Island's North Shore. Today our streets were finally cleared of trees and debris. But for far too many, such days are a long way away. We must not rest until all are healed!  "It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it." (Avot 2:21)

Chayei Sarah

This week we read about the death of Sarah.  The portion begins: “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty seven years.  Sarah died in Kiryat Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” (Genesis 23:1-2)  Abraham then proceeds to purchase a burial plot from the Hittites to bury Sarah.  It is this purchase that makes the Cave of Machpelah a holy site and Hebron the first Jewish city.  All the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried there except Rachel who is buried in Bethlehem. Both of these cities are of course in the modern day West Bank and despite my Jewish history and commitments thus found in disputed territory.  I have visited Hebron a number of times and spoken with the Jews who live there, a small, zealous outpost of settlers among a multitude of Arabs.  I remember once asking, “Why would you want to raise your children in such a dangerous and life-threatening environment?”  The

The Election

Tomorrow we vote.  I believe that elections are sacred occasions.  This day sanctifies our obligation to this nation.  It is a day that should renew our faith in America .  Sometimes however I find my faith waning.  At such times I reach for words from ages past. Thus I recall those of the great American poet and playwright, Stephen Vincent Benet.  They were part of a radio broadcast following the election of 1940. Let us say this much to ourselves, not only with our lips but in our hearts. Let us say this: I myself am a part of democracy—I myself must accept responsibility. Democracy is not merely a privilege to be enjoyed—it is a trust to keep and maintain. When by idle word and vain prejudice, I create distrust of democracy itself, by so much do I diminish all democracy. When I tell my children that all politics is a rotten machine and all politicians thieves and liars, by so much do I shake their faith in the world that they too must build. When I let loose intolerance, whe

Vayera and Sandy

The following is the message I was able to get out to the congregation prior to Shabbat Vayera.   I trust that you and your families are safe and that if you suffered any damage it was not catastrophic.  As long as the damage was only to property and each and every one of us is uninjured I will proclaim my thanks and sing our blessings.  My family and I were fortunate.  Our house was unscathed.  Our neighborhood suffered many downed trees and power lines.  As frustrating as our present circumstances might be, they are, compared to far too many, only an inconvenience, albeit a maddening one, given that we still have no power or heat or phones or the mighty Internet.  We are forced to walk a half-mile where we can receive cell phone reception.  Thus like our forebears we have to venture to this well in order to connect with others. At such times it becomes apparent that as our lives become increasingly dependent on technology we become quickly crippled without it.  The World Wide

Lech Lecha Sermon

Although much delayed because of Hurricane Sandy here is my sermon from Friday, October 26. This Shabbat we read Lech Lecha.  It begins with the story of Abraham’s call.  It is unclear why Abraham is called and so the rabbis spin midrashim to explain God’s decision.  In essence they say he is called because he is the first monotheist.  Lost in these commentaries is the meaning of lech lecha.  It means go for your own sake.  Go so that you might discover your true self.  The portion also describes the birth of Ishmael, born to Abraham and Sarah’s servant Hagar.  Because she is barren Sarah instructs her husband to sleep with Hagar so that he might father a child.  Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham through Ishmael.  His name means God will hear.  In the final chapter is the covenant of circumcision.  Both Abraham and Sarah then take on new names.  They are no longer called Abram and Sarai but Abraham and Sarah.  The Hebrew letter hay is added to their names symbolizing God.