Thursday, December 27, 2012


This week we conclude the Book of Genesis.  Jacob blesses his children.  He then dies and is brought from Egypt to be buried in the land of Israel.  Before dying he exacts a promise from his favored son, Joseph.   “And when the time approached for Israel [Jacob] to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.’” (Genesis 47:29-30)

In ancient times an agreement was often sealed by placing one’s hand under another’s thigh.  Times have of course changed!  Nonetheless important agreements are often sealed by a handshake or a verbal pledge.  Often the most important agreements are not memorialized in writing but by these informal gestures. 

In particular acts of hesed, of lovingkindness, are those that are done without even a pledge.  Interestingly the Hebrew for “steadfast loyalty” is hesed v’emet and can also be translated as true kindness.  Jewish tradition defines such acts as those for which no ulterior motive can be found and in particular where no reciprocal favor can even be anticipated.  Tending to the needs of the dead is chief among these acts.  It is a commandment, a mitzvot.  In this case especially we cannot reasonably expect something in return.

According to tradition we must tend to the burial of our own loved ones ourselves.  We place the shovel full of dirt into the grave, performing this final act of love for those who were dearest to us.  In doing so, Judaism insists that we not pretend the loss is anything but what it is.  We respond to death by taking a shovel and lifting the earth into the grave ourselves.  Our loved one returns to the earth from which we are each fashioned and is covered by a blanket of earth wrapped by our own hands.

In this way we face death with lovingkindness.  We do not look away.  We grab hold of the shovel.  We hold the hesed v’emet in our hands.  And that remains our steadfast loyalty—forever.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Vayigash Sermon

This Shabbat we discussed forgiveness given the extraordinary example of Joseph found in the portion.  Joseph forgives his brothers even though some wanted to kill him and all ended up selling him into slavery.  Interestingly we do no read if their father Jacob forgives the brothers.  Nonetheless Joseph serves as a model of forgiveness and an entry for our discussion.  We examined Moses Maimonides insights from the Mishneh Torah.  Here is that text:
Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God; for example, a person who ate a forbidden food or engaged in forbidden sexual relations, and the like. However, sins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.

[It must be emphasized that] even if a person restores the money that he owes [the person he wronged], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him. Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying [certain] things, he must appease him and approach him [repeatedly] until he forgives him.

If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [the matter further]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.

[The above does not apply] if [the wronged party] was one's teacher. [In that instance,] a person should continue seeking his forgiveness, even a thousand times, until he forgives him. (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 2:9)
Although forgiveness is difficult to grant it is required to sustain our relationships, especially long term relationships.  Judaism insists that it is demanded and even commanded.  Granting forgiveness is a mitzvah.  Withholding forgiveness is therefore a sin.  Only forgiveness can liberate us from the despair of holding a grudge.  Anger corrodes the soul.  Forgiveness redeems.  It rescues relationships.  Redemption begins with "I'm sorry."

Friday, December 21, 2012

We Need Some More Anger

Mark Lilla is correct in his observations.  We could use some more anger.  Justice might be served by our angry protests.
[In India] theirs is a democratic anger.  There is, I’m told, a background to all this: frustration with rising crime rates, especially in Delhi, rampant police corruption and arbitrariness, and the pettiness of parliamentary politics when India faces significant domestic challenges. But whatever fuel was there to be sparked, it is bracing to see people take to the streets, not to defend narrow interests or ideological obsessions, but to defend the public good. The land of Gandhi has not lost its willingness to mobilize and put pressure on those in authority, even when it sometimes makes the country nearly ungovernable. The same cannot be said of the land of Martin Luther King. I would be surprised to learn on my return that a mass demonstration is being planned on the Washington Mall; that’s no longer how we deal with issues like this. We light candles, we hug (lots of hugging on CNN), we pray. We triple-lock ourselves into our homes or gated communities, accompany our kids to schools they could easily walk to, and load them down with helmets, and knee and elbow pads, before taking a bike ride. Yet when they do manage to get out, they find themselves in places where adults openly display their handguns in holsters. 
Save the children? No, we prefer to mourn them. We are as resigned to the status quo as thesadhus of Benares are to the cycle of birth and death before they reach moksha. Contemporary Indians apparently have a very different idea of what it means to be a citizen.
Citizenry demands our righteous indignation.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


I am not in a very forgiving mood.

Joseph, by contrast, demonstrates extraordinary forgiveness. Some of his brothers want to kill him. Others decide to sell him into slavery and then tell their father that Joseph was killed by wild beasts. All throw him into a pit and then callously sit down to a meal while Joseph suffers in the darkened pit. Now, in this week’s portion, Joseph is given the opportunity to exact revenge. His brothers stand before him begging for food. There is a famine in the land of Canaan but the Egyptians, because of Joseph’s capable leadership, have ample food.

Instead Joseph forgives his brothers.

It is a remarkable moment. Joseph says, “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you…. With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them…” (Genesis 45:5, 14-15)

Too often we do not follow Joseph’s example. We remain angry at family. We harbor a grudge against brothers.

In contrast, we quickly forget atrocities. How many mass killings will our nation suffer before we pledge never to forget? Months ago there was Aurora and now most recently Newtown. But in order to move forward and return to the normalcy of our lives we push such unspeakable evils far away. Soon we forget.

Atrocities are often pushed aside. We fill our hearts with anger at family. We have it reversed. Instead we should forgive the wrongs committed against us by family. And remain angry at the gun violence that happens too often in our country. We should allow the tragedy in Newtown to forever burn in our hearts.

That is the only way we might affect some measure of change. Anger has a purpose. When it spurs us to action it serves a greater good. When it pushes brothers away from each other it creates a lasting emptiness. We need to hold family close. There are bonds that only family share. Joseph understood this. He forgave. He forgot. He redeemed his brothers’ evil and rescued their atrocities.

For Newtown, however, and for all the other victims of senseless violence my heart continues to burn with anger. For too long I looked aside. I did not get involved. I reasoned that our political system is too broken and the second amendment too ingrained for there to be effective change. Never again!

We must change. We cannot prevent all gun violence. We cannot write laws that will prevent all atrocities, but we can change. We can do a better job of protecting ourselves and our children. There are limits that can be enacted. There are background checks that can be made.

If one more life is saved then perhaps, like Joseph, we can redeem evil and give the deaths of these precious young lives lasting meaning. Perhaps their deaths can save others. Perhaps they can make our country safer.

The Talmud teaches that if you have the ability to prevent a wrong from being committed and refrain from getting involved, then you are complicit in the offense. I will not stand guilty again. I pledge to remain angry!

My hope and prayer is that this is the moment. Newtown’s tragedy will become the event that history later records was the earth shattering occasion when ordinary Americans became so enraged that our country finally changed, that the political order was at last shaken and the right to bear arms gained some sensible limits. And then everyone remained safer.

End Gun Violence Now Petition

Join me in signing the below petition sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.  Sign here.

On Friday December 14, a gunman armed with three high-powered firearms and high-capacity magazines walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Hundreds of shots were fired and twenty first-graders, ages six and seven, and six educators were killed.

This violent and horrific event aimed at children shocks our conscience and country. Our hearts are broken, our souls weep, and our arms are outstretched to the families of the victims, the survivors, the first responders, and the entire community of Newtown, Connecticut. In just the last few months, we have seen shootings at schools, malls, theaters, and houses of worship. We are pained and dismayed by the pandemic of gun violence, far exceeding other western nations, and we will not accept it.

Our tradition teaches us of the sanctity of life and how each and every person is created in the divine image. We must directly confront gun violence so that our nation is not marked nor the years measured by senseless massacres. We will not allow the intense emotion we feel now to return to a place of complacency where we become desensitized to the atrocities that unfold around us daily. We must come together to build a society worthy of those lost and a culture that represents our best virtues.

We stand committed to working with our local, state, and national leaders to squarely address these issues and honor the victims, survivors, and their families. We recognize the right of Americans to own guns, but we do not accept the current state of affairs. We stand united and call on our leaders to support comprehensive action, including meaningful legislation to limit access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, aggressive enforcement of firearm regulations, robust efforts to ensure that every person in need has access to quality mental health care, and a serious national conversation about violence in media and games.

We, the undersigned, ask that President Obama, Congress, and every citizen to take direct and unequivocal action to stop the outrageous and unacceptable violence that is destroying the fabric of our society.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Another Tragedy

Why is the killer included in the death toll?  “Killer Also Dies in Connecticut, Leaving a Toll of 28.”  It seems unfitting that he is placed alongside those he murdered.  Judaism offers this teaching instead, Y’mach sh’mo—may his name be blotted out.  That seems more appropriate.  May we never read of his name again!  Amen Selah!   And may his young, innocent victims rest in peace.  May we forever recount their names.  May their memories inspire us for some measure of good.  And may we one day rid the world of senseless violence.   Or at the very least make it impossibly difficult for deranged people to get their hands on weapons.  No more schools, or movie theatres, or malls, or street corners should again be the site of such bloodshed.  That is my prayer.  And after I read the stories of the brief lives of those murdered, and make room for their memories in my hearts, that is all I wish to read about.  An end to this violence made far too easy by guns.  Amen!  Selah!

Hanukkah Sermon

The story of Hanukkah in Billings, Montana continues to inspire.  Here is that story.

Tammie Schnitzer remarked, "I have to make sure my kids are proud of themselves and never have to hide who they are.  Yes, I'm afraid.  But I know that if something happened again, the community would respond."  A Christian neighbor, Becky Thomas said, "We saved our menorah, and it's going in our window again.  We need to show commitment for a lifetime."  The heroics of this story are that a community came together to banish the darkness of hatred, prejudice and discrimination.

Hanukkah is indeed about standing up to be different!   And we have now learned, it is also about fighting for others to be different!  That must be the light of Hanukkah.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


“There’s nothing to eat!” my son would often exclaim as he would stare into a refrigerator filled with food.  The freezer was as well stocked with frozen goodies.  I soon realized that his statements were not about reality but instead about desire.  What he wanted to eat, what he imagined savoring, was not to be found in the refrigerator.  Now, even weeks after Hurricane Sandy, such exclamations have disappeared.  The freezer is only partially restocked.  The refrigerator is once again filled.

For weeks we stared into an empty refrigerator.  We were forced to throw out the defrosted food.  We cooked what we could heat up on the gas stove.  We were happy to have the meal.  We were confident that the lack of electricity was only a temporary frustration.  Others were worse off.  There was still plenty to eat, just far too often not what we wanted to eat.  Now, we no longer stare into the refrigerator searching only for what we desire.  Sandy cast such feelings aside.  Now we are happy to have its light illumine whatever food might be on the shelves.

When Jacob saw that there were food rations to be had in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you keep looking at one another?...  Go down and procure rations for us there, that we may live and not die.”  (Genesis 41:1-2)  This week we read that our forefather, Jacob, is confronted with a famine in the land of Israel.  He is unable to provide for his family. He instructs his sons to go to Egypt where unbeknownst to him, his son Joseph has stored plenty of food.  In an extraordinary measure of foresight and leadership Joseph stockpiled food throughout the seven years of plenty.  Now, during the seven years of famine, everyone is coming to him to procure food. 

The Midrash relates: You may learn from the story of Jacob that it is a man’s worst trial to have his children ask him for food when he has nothing to give. 

Imagine how difficult this trial was for Jacob.  He had nurtured his children throughout their years and sustained them on God’s dream.  They would settle in the Promised Land, the land of Israel, and their descendants would number as the stars in the night’s sky.  Instead they had only known struggle and hardship, favoritism and envy.

And now they know hunger. 

The scars remain.  

Vayeshev Sermon

This week’s Torah portion offers a disturbing story.  Joseph’s brothers first try to kill him and then settle on selling him into slavery after throwing him in a pit.  The Torah emphasizes that there was no water in the pit.  Imagine how he cried out to his brothers from the darkened pit as they sat down to a meal.

Often we read stories in our Torah about the worst of human tendencies.  The saga of brothers of course begins with Cain killing Abel.  Jacob and Esau are little better.  Joseph and his brothers begin a torturous relationship but are ultimately reconciled.  Three weeks from now Joseph will demonstrate an extraordinary gesture of forgiveness, but this week we are left wondering about our forefathers’ example.  Is this how we are supposed to behave?

In a word, the answer is no.  Torah is not always about how we are supposed to act.  Instead it is Torah because this is what happens all the time.  We see ourselves in the brothers’ envy or perhaps in Joseph’s pomposity.   Too often human beings behave in this way.  This is what makes these stories Torah. We can see ourselves in its painful ordinariness.

So how do we learn what we are supposed to do?  For that we turn not to such examples, but instead to the mitzvot, the commandments contained in the Torah.  They offer us guidance.  We learn for example “To love your neighbor as yourself.”  Imagine if this mitzvah was our first thought rather than those feelings of jealousy and envy that too often creep into our hearts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel counseled that the deed is wiser than the heart.  When we follow the heart we too often end up like Joseph or worse, his brothers.  When we follow our hands, the world around us becomes transformed.  That is Judaism’s wisdom.

Monday, December 10, 2012


This evening begins the third night of Hanukkah.

Many are celebrating with the giving of presents and the eating of latkes (or perhaps sufganiyot).  Some are also enjoying the playing of dreidle.  The tradition requires only the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah preceded by the appropriate blessings.  The lights are placed in the window to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah for all to see.

For centuries this holiday was downplayed.  It was simple in its observance.  Yet it was profound in its message.  Hanukkah reminds us that hope is always possible.  The lighting of the Hanukkah candles are about adding light during the darkest times of the year, and throughout the darkest moments of our history. 

In the Talmud two great rabbis argue about how best to light the Hanukkah lights.  Rabbi Shammai believes that our ritual should mirror the actual miracle.  Millenia, ago after the Maccabees’ struggled with the Syrian Greeks and recaptured the Temple, their dedication ceremony was nearly stymied because of the lack of holy oil.  Miraculously the oil lasted not the expected one night but eight. The light was therefore brighter on the first day when there was more oil.  Shammai taught that we should light eight candles on the first night and one on the last night.  Hillel, with whom Jewish law later sided, argued that the lighting should reflect not what actually happened but our hope in the future.  With each passing night, the light should increase to illustrate that the future can always be brighter than the past.

Theodor Herzl, the architect of the modern Zionist movement, once wrote a story about Hanukkah, entitled “The Menorah”.  He concluded:
There came the eighth day, on which the entire row of lights is kindled, including the faithful ninth candle, the shammash, which otherwise serves only to light the others.  A great radiance shone forth from the menorah.  The eyes of the children sparkled.  …The occasion became a parable for the enkindling of a whole nation.  First one candle; it is still dark and the solitary light looks gloomy.  Then it finds a companion, then another, and yet another.  The darkness must retreat.  The young and the poor are the first to see the light, then the others join in, all those who love justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity and beauty.  When all the candles are ablaze everyone must stop in amazement and rejoice at what has been wrought.  And no office is more blessed than that of a servant of light.
 Theodor Herzl died in 1904.  The modern State of Israel was established in 1948.

That is what Hanukkah is all about.  When the rest of the world says your dreams are delusions, when even friends decry your faith as fantasy, Hanukkah reminds us that the lights must always be kindled, that hope can still be kindled.  Even during the darkest days of winter and even when nations seem again arrayed against us, there is light. 

The future can indeed be brighter that the past.  

Losing Hope

Losing Hope On Israeli-Palestinian Peace | The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier writes:
I have been thinking about lost causes because I have concluded that one of my causes is lost. I no longer believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will occur in my lifetime. I have not changed my views; I have merely lost my hopes. I am still quite certain that the establishment of the state of Palestine is a condition for the survival of the state of Israel, as a Jewish state and a democratic state, and that for Israel not to be a Jewish state would be a Jewish catastrophe, and for it not to be a democratic state would be a human catastrophe; and that the only solution there has ever been to this conflict is the solution that was proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937, that is, the partition of one land into two states; and that the Jewish settlement of the West Bank was a colossal mistake, and the occupation (and the indifference to it) corrodes the decency of the occupiers; and that the Jewish state is a secular entity; and that anti-Semitism, which will never disappear, does not explain the entirety of the history of the Jews or their state, or exempt Israel from accountability for its actions. An impenitent Zionist and an impenitent dove, in sum; but to the consternation of some of my comrades, a hawkish dove, too, since I see that Israel has enemies and I believe in the ethical primacy of self-defense. I have irritated some of my comrades also with my unglowing view of the Palestinians and their inability to recognize the historical grandeur of compromise. Since 1977, and really since 1947, they have refused one proposed solution after another, as if the “unviability” of an imperfect state is not preferable to the unviability of statelessness. In recent decades they have added a new religious maximalism to an old secular maximalism. But still I concur in the necessity and the justice of their demand for a state, and still I yearn for a serious Palestinian diplomacy.
And Daniel Gordis writes in Haaretz, critiquing the naivete of too many American Jewish leaders, in particular a number of my colleagues:
Jews have always seen ourselves as citizens of the world. But key to Judaism’s survival has been an ability to couple that universal concern to a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges and dangers facing the Jewish world. The mark of great religious leadership is not simply its ability to imagine a better world, but to imagine how we might get to that world from the one that actually exists. We will know great Progressive religious leadership is emerging when we see the world that they describe bears at least some resemblance to the one in which Israel has to try to survive.
And yet I stubbornly insist on hope.  I cannot live without it.  Yes, it must be coupled with reality, but I refuse to allow even present reality to lead to fatalism or worse, a stultification of the spirit.  Zionism's revolution was, and continues to be, the belief that we must first and foremost rely on our own strength and creativity to change the course of Jewish history.  We once relied only on our prayers.  We were once subject only to foreign rulers.  Now there is more that we can do. There is far more that is within our own hands.  I.will never let go of this dream.

I do not pretend to have solutions to our current struggles.  It is true that Palestinian intransigence and terror remain the greatest obstacles to any resolution.  This does not excuse our current reluctance to change.  We can shape our future.  We can mend our ways, if for no other reason than to do what is best for the Jewish state.  Unless Israel "withdraws" from both the territory and ideology of those who want nothing to do with Israel as a Jewish democracy, the Zionist dream of being a "free people in our own land" will falter.  Yes, the creation of a Palestinian state remains within Palestinian hands (not the UN's!).  If they were to affirm the legitimate right of the Jewish people to live within the historical boundaries of the land of Israel and to do as they have done, create a vibrant Jewish state, then a Palestinian state would soon be fashioned alongside it. The future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, however, remains within our hands.

Friday, December 7, 2012


We begin the story of Joseph and his brothers.  They do not get along very well.  Joseph is the favored son of their father Jacob.  The brothers resent this and scheme against him.  Some want to kill him.  Reuben tries to save him by convincing them to throw him into a pit.  He plans to later rescue him, but the brothers instead, on the advice of Judah, sell him into slavery.  They then tell their father that wild beasts killed Joseph.  Jacob is forever distraught.

The Torah’s language is wrenching in its starkness and simplicity.  “…And they took Joseph and cast him into the pit.  The pit was empty; there was no water in it.  Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:24-25)

The Vilna Gaon comments: Why does it have to say “there was no water”?  After all, doesn’t “empty” imply there was no water?   The Midrash Bereshit Rabbah teaches: “Rather there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.“  The human mind abhors a vacuum.  If it is is not filled with the water of Torah, it must be filled with snakes and scorpions of other beliefs.

The tradition often likens Torah to water.  Like water it sustains us.  Better to fill our minds with Torah than with other beliefs.  Crowd out other ideas is the tradition’s counsel.  I have always believed that there is plenty of room in my heart for all manner of ideas.  I can love Torah while also loving modern philosophy and contemporary poetry, and even Eddie Money (Gimme Some Water!).

Then again, imagine Joseph, alone in the darkness of the pit.  Imagine how his thoughts might have tormented him.  Would the Torah that he so loved sustain him?  Would the love that his father showered on him secure his faith?  Are those snakes and scorpions at my feet? 

Perhaps the tradition is right.  When our hearts are overcome with hopelessness and despair, fill them instead with the music of our prayers.  The Psalmist can indeed sustain us.  The tradition can indeed mend broken hearts.

Such words cannot rescue Joseph.  That is dependent on our own hands.  We must reach down ourselves and rescue our brother from the pit.

Torah can give us strength and courage.  That is why we pray.  That is why we fill our hearts with its teachings.  So that when our hearts our broken we can gain sustenance.  We can then not only mend our own hearts but others as well.   

There are far too many people trapped in the pit for us not to pray, for us not to gain fortitude from the waters of Torah. Drink so that others might be rescued.  Taste so that our hearts might be healed.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Vayishlach Sermon

At Shabbat Services we discussed the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and becoming Israel.  I concluded by sharing a teaching by the Hasidic master, Sefat Emat.  He writes:
This may be an account of Jacob’s wrestling with his conscience, torn between his human tendency to avoid an unpleasant encounter and the divine impulse in him that urges him to do the difficult but right thing.  This position may find support in the text, “you have striven with beings divine and human” which can also be translated, “you have striven with God and with men.” We can imagine Jacob saying to himself, “Until now, I have responded to difficult situations by lying and running.  I deceived my father.  I ran away from Esau.  I left Laban’s house stealthily instead of confronting him.  I hate myself for being a person who lies and runs.  But I’m afraid of facing up to the situation.”  By not defeating his conscience, Jacob wins.  He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them.  At the end of the struggle, he is physically wounded and emotionally depleted.  Nevertheless, the Torah describes him as shalem, translated as “safe” with connotations of “whole,” at peace with himself, possessing an integrity he never had before.
Struggle is what defines us.  It is what names us.  Struggle has the potential to make us great.