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.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

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)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

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?”  Their answer was simple and direct, “Because this is our home!”

I have been reflecting on this sentiment during the past week as I first watched people refusing to leave their homes despite evacuation orders and then vowing to rebuild their homes despite the fact that their towns will be subject once again to devastating hurricanes and tidal surges.  (I believe this storm is only the beginning of the changes we might see because of the “weather weirding” brought on by climate change.) 

What makes so many refuse to let go of their homes?  What makes even rational people stay in their freezing homes despite the fact that they have plenty of invitations of warm beds elsewhere?  (I stand guilty!)  What makes us so attached to these mere physical structures?  What makes us cling to these places even when it might not serve our best interests or may even jeopardize our safety?

I have long believed that communities are defined not by the buildings they construct but instead by the people who inhabit them.  A family is more than the house in which they live.  A neighborhood and community, a family and nation, can then survive despite even the worst of devastations.  As much as we might invest in these buildings they are not what is most important or even what should be most lasting. 

Yet it took the temperatures to dip into the 30’s before my family and I finally decamped to another home.  Once it becomes a home it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that our house might not be the protecting shelter it has always been.  But this is exactly what we must imagine.  In order to march forward we must time and again let loose of the grip of these buildings, and places, and even our very homes.  Holding on these we might never be able to change or carve a better path toward a brighter future. 

What will guarantee our future will never be our beautiful homes, or even our holiest of cities, but the people, and communities, with which we surround ourselves.

And finally we pray for President Obama and all of our newly elected leaders.  May they put aside partisan ideologies and instead look toward the work that can only be done together in order to better our great nation.  May compromise and the common good of all become the defining features of a shared and better future.

Monday, November 5, 2012

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, whether it be of race, creed or class, I am letting loose a tiger. When I spend my time vilifying and abusing a duly-elected government of the people because I did not vote for it, by so much do I weaken confidence in government by the people itself. Rich or poor, young or old, Republican or Democrat, I cannot afford these things.  
I cannot afford them because there are forces loose in the world that would wipe all democracy out. They will take my idle words and make their own case with them.
They will take my halfhearted distrust, and with it sow, not merely distrust, but disunion. They will take my hate and make of it a consuming fire.

Let each one of us say: I am an American. I intend to stay an American. I will do my best to wipe from my heart hate, rancor and political prejudice. I will sustain my government. And, through good days or bad, I will try to serve my country.
Reaching back I hope to move forward with renewed confidence.

P.S. I want to thank my friend and colleague, Rabbi Lee Friedlander, for pointing me in the direction of Stephen Vincent Benet.

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 Web is now reduced to our small neighborhood.  Today it is only those who we can see and converse with face to face.  It would seem that there is no global community when we are confronted by a hurricane.  Now our lives are once again local. Amazon and Google, Apple and Verizon, LIPA and Cablevision are no match for nature’s fury.  The wind and the waves, the ocean and the sea have won—again. 

And Job cried out to God.  And God answered out of the tempest saying, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?...Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38)  Our human ingenuity is in truth no match for nature.  We cannot tame the sea.  We can only stand in awe. Let us relearn that human beings have great limitations and that nature commands our utmost respect.  More often, I still recall, nature’s majesty asks me for admiration.  Today I stand in fear.

Hurricane Sandy was a devastating storm.  It will take us months and perhaps even years to recover.  So much was destroyed.  Far too many lives were lost. Yet in the midst of the whirlwind I discovered something anew.  I found again the meaning of the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, hospitality.

In this week’s portion Abraham welcomes three visitors and prepares a meal for them.  They deliver news of the impending birth of Isaac.  (Genesis 18)  Once when hiking with Bedouin guides in Israel’s desert I learned of the importance of hospitality.  The Bedouin live far apart and are dependent on passers by for information.  Travelers shared know-how about the wilderness they traversed, whether the usual route was blocked or the path washed out by flash floods.  The Bedouin would loudly grind bitter coffee to announce that travelers were lodging in their tent.  When people heard the rhythmic pounding of the coffee beans they would come to gather in order to hear what news the travelers had to share.

Today the sound of chainsaws and generators call neighbors together.  We gather to see what news others have gleaned.  At first we asked each other if they were ok.  Then it turned to the questions of: How are the roads?  Where can you get cell phone reception?  Where is there Wi-Fi? (I am presently at the Huntington train station where there is Wi-Fi.)  Where can you buy gas?  Where did you see LIPA trucks?  What can we do to help? 

Of the many mitzvot, hospitality is among the most important.  We reach beyond the boundaries of our private homes and welcome others in.  We even welcome strangers into our lives.  “How can we help?” must become our new mantra.  The Talmud reports that Rav Judah once said that welcoming other people is even greater than greeting the Divine Presence.  (Shabbat 127)

There is a pressing need that even when the power is restored and the routers once again flicker green that we still walk through our neighborhoods and reach out to others offering more than a friendly wave.  We will offer them the comfort of our human presence.  Why must we wait for a hurricane to be neighborly?   The question must become what can we do for others.

Soon our power will be restored and we will be tempted to once again retreat to our virtual world.  Will we choose instead to look out at the pain that continues on our very own Long Island?  Some even in our own congregation may be hurting.  And so we must pledge to bring healing to others, to our neighbors, to our community.  Once we have tended to our own repairs this must become our focus.  

As always if you need any help or support please feel free to reach out to me.  I apologize that I have been difficult to reach during this hour of need.  I too am limited by technology.

We will be unable to gather for Shabbat Services this evening given that the synagogue building still does not have power.  I would have liked to be together at this moment, but it is impossible and perhaps even unwise given how many streets are still impassible.  We will join for Shabbat prayers next Friday when we will gather to sing prayers of thanks as a community.

Stay warm and stay safe.

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.

This evening I would like to dwell on a rather bizarre episode.  It is what is called the wife-sister motif.  This episode is repeated when we read about Isaac and Rebekah.  Here is that story (Genesis 12:10-20).
There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.  If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”  When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful the woman was.  Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace. And because of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.  But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram. Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone!” And Pharaoh put men in charge of him, and they sent him off with his wife and all that he possessed.
Here is our hero Abraham, immediately following the call, saying, “I’m really afraid.  Sarah, go lie to Pharaoh so that I am protected.”  Is it possible that there is a strange parallelism with Sarah’s later command to Abraham that he sleep with Hagar?  Note that Abraham gains wealth and riches because of what he forces Sarah to do.  The text implies that she sleeps with Pharaoh.  All of this makes me think about the treatment of women today.  Recently we have heard many discussions and debates about this.  There are still too many failures found in contemporary world.  It calls to mind as well the biblical episode when Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is raped and the men, her father and brothers, are more concerned about their honor and station than her welfare.

Today there are some very heated debates about abortion rights, most especially following rape.  A number of politicians have said outrageous things.  A number have made pronouncements based on pseudo-science.  I cannot even begin to fathom what medical literature they are reading.  Still I respect the view of those who hold that the life of the fetus is the same as the mother’s.  I allow that the faith of some, and even of many, will hold differently than mine.  My faith, my tradition, teaches that the life of the mother takes precedence when the mother’s life is endangered.  There is debate of course about what constitutes a danger.  Nonetheless I hold firmly to this hierarchy.  The fetus is a sacred potential life.  The mother is a sacred living life.  Her life is more important.  When such an excruciating choice must be made between mother and child, she takes precedence.  I also hold that ideally mother, father, doctor and perhaps even clergy are best equipped to make that decision together.  In the absence of such an ideal however the mother has the last say because it is her very life and her health that might be compromised.  I do not understand how to view this issue otherwise.  Don’t tell the women I love what choices they must make.  Such views seem to me a diminishment of women.  They belong to the biblical era.  I wish that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob spoke to Sarah, Rebekah and Dinah and asked their opinions and listened to their feelings.  (I agree with Tom Friedman’s recent column.  And for more on the issue of rape read Nick Kristof.)

To add more fuel to this discussion, there was the outrageous attack in Pakistan on a young girl.  All she wanted was a better education.  Actually all she wanted was an education.  In that world teaching a girl, or a woman, is blasphemy.  The Taliban were quoted as saying as much.  This is simply outrageous and disgusting.  I subscribe to the view that progress, and a country’s progress, is tied to women’s empowerment.

We have problems in our own Jewish world as well.  Recently, in Israel, Rabbi Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Kotel for saying the Shema.  Again, outrageous!  Now I certainly understand the arguments of my tradition.  There are issues of kol isha, the voice of a woman and maybe even beged ish, that a woman should not wear man’s clothing.  To be honest I have little patience with these arguments.  I find a woman’s voice beautiful and deeply spiritual.  Our cantor’s voice can help lift our prayers to heaven and our celebration of Shabbat.  It does not interfere with my devotion.  It enhances it.  Any beautiful voice, whether a man’s or woman’s, can help us pray!  There are as well issues of being counted in a minyan, serving as the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) or serving as a witness.  I appreciate these concerns only slightly better.  Here the tradition’s view is in essence that only someone who is obligated can help others with their obligation.  A man is commanded to pray.  A woman is permitted and perhaps even encouraged.  For a man it is a mitzvah.  It is not a woman’s.  Therefore how can she help a man fulfill his mitzvah?  I believe otherwise.  I certainly agree with the tradition that men and women are different.  I reject however the view that excludes women from Judaism’s holiest of obligations.  There must be equal obligations and equal responsibilities.  Judaism will only progress and move forward with the empowerment of women.

I am willing to allow that some will want to pray in synagogues with mechitzahs, that some will insist that their Judaism separates the sexes and will see meaning in only different obligations.  Men pray.  Women care for children.  My pluralism allows for these differences.  The central dilemma then is about the public square.  We can hold different views about abortion and women praying.  But the Kotel belongs to all.  The public square belongs to everyone.  That place must remain forever open.  That is the only solution.  Our ancient Jewish tradition might not allow for this.  It might insist that the public square must be controlled and guided by Jewish tradition.  This is unacceptable.  Our times desperately require such openness.  In our own homes and synagogues we can do and observe differently but in the public square all must be permitted to pray as they find meaningful.

The great irony of our Torah portion is that Abraham also did not understand this.  He acted as though his wife was his property to be bartered.  Instead it was Pharaoh who heeded God’s word.  It was he who sent Sarah back to Abraham.  Perhaps we should keep this in mind when we look to our tradition for answers.

The only solution is a greater openness and pluralism.  We must remain forever open to a diversity of views.  We must protect the public square as a place of discussion and debate, a place where all are comfortable with their own views, and where no one person’s or religion’s or tradition’s view holds sway over another’s.  All this we learn not from our tradition but from outside of it. 

For a different view read the Shalem Center's Yoram Hazony recent Jerusalem Letter.