Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lech Lecha

Rabbi ben Zoma taught: Who is rich?  Those who are happy with their portion; as it is written (Psalm 128:2): “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper.” (Pirke Avot 4:1)  For the ancient rabbis wealth and riches are about perspective.  Happiness is not a matter of winning the lottery.  It is instead about being content with one’s lot.  It is about not pining after what others have.

This week we see that Abraham is described as wealthy.  “Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver and gold.” (Genesis 13:2)  The Hebrew uses a curious phrase.  “Avram kaved maod…” A literal rendition might thus read: Abram was very heavy with cattle, silver and gold.  The Hebrew suggests that he was weighed down by his riches.

The plain meaning is clear.  The journey on which God sends Abraham is difficult not only because he must leave his ancestral home but also because of all the riches he must carry with him.  It is not easy to travel across the desert with so many belongings.  It is not easy to shepherd a flock across the wilderness.  Better to travel light.  Abraham is unable to do so.  And thus he travels in stages. “And he proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Bethel…” (13:3)

Perhaps there is an even greater truth in the turning of this phrase.  How do our riches weigh us down?  How do they prevent us from seeing beyond ourselves?  For Abraham the Torah suggests that his accumulated wealth could have prevented him from leaving his home and answering God’s call, from setting out on the journey that forever defines the Jewish people. 

I once learned that Holocaust survivors tend to accumulate portable wealth.  They do not purchase valuable paintings and sculptures, but instead jewelry and watches.  Such items can be easily carried on a person if one is forced to flee.  Jewels can even be sewed into jacket liners if one needs to secret a family across borders.  Such are the scars that survivors continue to carry.  They are always ready to escape. 

For others wealth is often a stumbling block to change.  We do no march forward for fear that we might lose our precious possessions.  But have we not learned?  Wealth is a matter of a perspective.  Who is rich?  Those who are happy with their portion.  We must remain on guard and not allow our riches to prevent us from setting out on new journeys.

There are many reasons why Abraham is called righteous.  One reason is suggested by this new reading and the Etz Hayim Commentary.  Righteousness is when wealth is transformed into obligation.  For the righteous, wealth is weighty because it is a burden.  It is call to use it for others and not just for ourselves. 

Wealth is not a privilege.  It is instead a challenge.  It is a call.  “Lech lecha—Go forth!”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Newsletter Article


My most recent article from our congregation's November-December 2012 newsletter.

Years ago I participated in an Outward Bound survival course in coastal Maine.  Part of the program was a three-day solo.  Each participant was dropped off on an island.  My island was called “Little Thoroughfare.”  Little was an accurate description.  I could walk the circumference of the island in a mere 10 minutes.  I was expected to build my own shelter using only a plastic tarp and whatever other supplies I could find.  I was also expected to forage for food.  Fresh water would be resupplied every day when the instructors checked on me.  A tiny granola bar was provided as a treat.   I spent my days eating dandelions and wild peas.

My grandfather, who survived the depression and eked out a successful living despite the fact that did not graduate from high school, thought my adventure was among the craziest of my ideas.  (My daughter who is named for him agrees with this assessment.)  It was equivalent to prizing jeans that had holes in them and spending several months allowance on new wheels for a skateboard.  “You are going to pay money so that you can be cold and wet, tired and hungry?” he asked.  He vowed to rent a helicopter to drop food to me on the island.  He spent a lifetime working so that his grandson might never know hunger that he might have educational opportunities about which he only dreamed.  Now I was choosing the very fate from which he escaped, if only for a few days.

I still remember those discussions.  I remember then discovering two certainties about my grandfather.  He would always love me no matter how crazy my ideas.  And my Papa would never pay for me to go hungry.  I could always ask him to treat for dinner but not so that I could go without food.  Nothing gave him greater pleasure than treating me to a fine meal and then watching me enjoy it.  If I wanted an adventure that would not feed me enough food, then I was going to have to pay for that out of my own savings.  Anyone who knew hunger as intimately as he once did could never bless such a choice. 

I have been thinking about my grandfather, and that little island, as I near the week that I pledged to live by the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge.   For the week of November 11-18 I will eat only what I can purchase with $4.50 per day ($31.50 for the week).  This is the equivalent to what a person living on food stamps is provided.  I hope to discover what it means to live on such meager rations.  Given my many dietary restrictions (kosher and gluten free) I am unsure that I will be able to live up to the challenge.  Given that my average bike ride burns 2,000 calories I wonder how I will be sated following such a workout.  But that is the point.

45 million Americans are forced to live on this allowance.   How can they exercise if they can’t eat properly before, during and after a work out?  If they have dietary restrictions because of their health or religion how can they buy alternative foods?  Is it even possible to eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables on such a diet?  I wonder, will I always feel pangs of hunger during the week?  I hope to learn more by living according to this challenge, to discover more about those whose food choices are beyond their control.  Theirs are dictated by unfortunate circumstances.

Years ago my grandfather came to this country as a young boy.  He survived days and weeks and even years of hunger and discomfort so that his grandson would have to choose to go hungry so that he might better understand the troubles that surround him.  This is a choice that a life of privilege allows.  His sacrifices helped pave the way for my fortunes.  And I in turn must forgo such fortunes in order to better appreciate the troubles that ail our nation.

My hope is that my small sacrifices might make a difference.  Perhaps, I pray, it will serve to raise awareness.  In this great land, in which my family found success, far too many go hungry.  Their pain must become my pain. 

Until all are sated my bounty will remain unfulfilled, my hunger must know no end.  And I must still wander an island searching for food.    

If you wish to learn more about the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge, visit its website.

Mekor Chaim Lech Lecha

The following commentary was distributed by the Jewish Federations of North America.  I continue to participate in its Rabbinic Cabinet.

Seemingly out of nowhere God calls Abraham, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you…’” We are left to wonder why Abraham?  What was it about his character that made God choose him?

The rabbis of course spin many midrashim to explain this.  The most famous of which is the story about the time young Abraham was working in his father idol shop.  Abraham smashes all the idols except one and then when his father confronts him, he blames the single idol.  His father screams, “That is ridiculous!  An idol can’t destroy other idols.”  And Abraham says, “Exactly!”  A statue of wood and stone cannot be responsible for our lives.  In that moment Abraham begins to realize that there is only one God who moves heaven and earth.

Moses Maimonides as well offers a similar insight.   He suggests that Abraham looks to the stars and realizes that they should not be objects of our worship.  He understands that there is an invisible force who instead moves the stars and orders the heavens.  Aristotle, whose thinking greatly influenced Maimonides, called this force the Prime Mover.  Maimonides saw this as synonymous with God.  Abraham understood that only this force is worthy of our devotion.

The particulars of these different stories are somewhat immaterial.  All the commentators agree that there was something remarkable in Abraham’s character.  There was something unique in his insights.  He must have been called by God because he was in essence the first to understand the power of monotheism.  Perhaps the commentators are wrong.  Perhaps the Oral Torah is mistaken.  Is it blasphemous to suggest such an idea? 

Is it instead possible that there was nothing special in Abraham’s character?  Is it imaginable that God decided to pick an ordinary, everyday man?  Perhaps the power of the story is what Abraham accomplished after the call.  That in truth is the more important Torah.  Abraham’s character is inconsequential until he is called.

We spend so much of our lives devoted to establishing our credentials.  Here are my accomplishments we say over and over again. Here is what I can bring to your university is what my son is presently toiling over.  We then imagine that we are only chosen if we are fit for the position or task, if our experiences merit our selection.  This suggests that we are truly masters of our own fate and that we are picked for our demonstrated abilities.  Yet there are often times when we are called for no other reason than we are present to be chosen.  We are standing there and so we are picked.

The notion that we are only chosen because of our own merits is a myth.  There are times when the choice is indeed random.  Our character does not always dictate the selection.  Our past experiences cannot always shape the future.

Instead our character is determined by how we respond to the choice. Our destiny is shaped by how we respond to the call. Then the only question is, do we respond like Abraham. Do we say, “Hineni—here I am?”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lance, Minus Seven

We just finished reading Noah and its story of the flood.  The portion begins: "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age..."  The central, and unanswerable, question about Noah is: was he righteous just in comparison to his terrible generation or would he have been called righteous in any generation?

Yesterday we learned that Lance Armstrong will be stripped of his seven Tour de France victories.  No one will be awarded the victories in his place.  Too many others were implicated in the doping scandals.  All potential victors are tainted.

My children know that it is never justification that everyone is doing it.  If it is wrong, it is wrong. If it is right, it is right.  Right and wrong must stand on their own, not on the shoulders of others.  Our actions must stand for all generations.  The fact that so many other cyclists were doping is no justification for Lance's actions.  Doping provides an unfair advantage.  Worse might be Lance's self righteous denials.  "What am I on?  I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day.  What are you on?" he said in Nike commercials.  Now we find out that such statements were false.  The evidence against Lance appears overwhelming.  He cheated!  He bullied!  All for the sake of winning.  He was indeed on more than his bike.

Still he inspired so many, especially cancer survivors.  Robert Lipsyte, for instance, writes in The New Republic: "Don’t cry for Lance Armstrong. That bully can take care of himself. Watch out for the righteous, wrong-headed anti-dopers, distracting us from the more immediate and perilous concerns of orchestrated violence. And follow instructions: Pedal hard. Take responsibility for yourself and be brave."  I still like that advice.  I wish however that Lance really led, even if it would have been from the rear of the peloton, and that he actually lived by his own words that he was only pedaling really hard.  

Will the greatest lessons of the Tour be these races that now have no victors, that ended up actually being about the thrill of cycling and what the Tour's founders believed all along, the superiority of two wheels over four.  Winning really isn't everything.  Going faster is not always the best medicine.

Note to self: try remembering that when you want to take the lead on the next group ride.  Instead just enjoy the ride and the company and perhaps even the scenery.

Monday, October 22, 2012

My Food Stamp Challenge

For the week of November 11-17 I will be participating in the Jewish Community Food Stamp Challenge.  I  am going to spend only $31.50 on food for the week.  That is $4.50 per day.  This is amount those who live on food stamps are provided with.  I am unsure that I will be able to succeed given all of my dietary restrictions (kosher and gluten free) as well as some of my more expensive tastes (blackberries and yellow peppers) , but I do plan on learning a great deal about the challenges far too many Americans face.  45 million Americans receive food stamp benefits!  I will post my thoughts and experiences during the week.  If you would like to support the organization sponsoring the challenge follow this link.

It was not so long ago that we read the words of Isaiah:
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And until the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
to break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretch poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore  your own kin. (58:6-7)
Perhaps my one week can make a difference.

Noah Sermon


This week’s Torah portion describes Noah and the flood.  Everyone is familiar with the story.  Noah is described as a righteous man in his generation.  One of the questions is: was he righteous just in comparison to his own lawless generation or would history judge him as righteous for all time?  I wonder why he did not argue with God.  The rabbis suggest that he took his time building the ark so that others might ask questions about his project.  His grand building project was meant to prod others.  It was meant as prompt for their repentance.  It of course failed in this endeavor.   And we are left wondering about his righteousness.  All the inhabitants of the world were destroyed save Noah and those he rescued on the ark.  After the floodwaters recede a rainbow appears and a covenant is sealed.  God looks at the rainbow and promises never again to destroy the world.

A rainbow is the gift following a storm.  But almost immediately the people stray.  They try to build a tower reaching to heaven, the tower of Babel.  God does not like this and scatters the people throughout the world confounding their speech, producing all of our many human languages.  Biblical scholars suggest that the tower comes to explain why there are so many languages if all descend from the same Adam and Eve.  The rabbis suggest that the sin was not the construction of the tower but instead that the builders were more concerned whether or not the building project stayed on schedule rather than the rights of their workers.  They cried when a brick fell but not when a worker fell to his death. 

Others have suggested that the story is a polemic against what is called tower culture.  There is the theory that there are tower cultures and mountain cultures.  The biblical tradition favors mountain.  Think about it.  The entire Torah occurs in the wilderness.  The Torah is given on Mount Sinai.  The Torah concludes before we ever even reach the land of Israel and the building of settlements there.  There are no towns and villages in the Torah.  The ideal holiday of the Torah is Sukkot.  This holiday celebrates our wandering in the wilderness.  It rejoices in our wandering.  It elevates a place that belongs to no one into our ideal state.

Along come the rabbis who then adapt this wandering mountain culture to their towers in which they live.  In a sense you can take the wilderness with you.  Our prayers keep our attention on the mountain and the wilderness wherever we might find ourselves.  Our siddur speaks of nature even though we are separate from nature.  We recite Maariv Aravim, God You bring on the evenings, You arrange the stars in the sky.  In our cities we strain to see the stars.  In the wilderness, the sky is awash with heavenly lights.  After Sukkot we add the prayer Mashiv HaRuach, God You make the winds blow and the rains to fall.  We add the prayer for rain when it is supposed to rain not here but in the land of Israel.  Our prayers force our connection to our ideal land.  It is not a city.  It is not a tower.

The question is: what do we lose of our Judaism now that we are a tower culture?  Do we lose something?  True, there are gains.  Our faith does become less dependent on where we are, where we sit.  We can offer our prayers anywhere.  It does not matter which tower we might find ourselves in.   Then again do we lose our connection to nature and in particular to God’s creation?  This is the great worry of the tower of Babel episode.  Outside of the pristine state of wandering in the wilderness we lose hold on God’s creation.

There is nothing wrong of course with nice buildings or homes.  I don’t think the ideal is living in a tent, although for one week a year the ideal is a sukkah.  There is the danger however that our buildings make us focus too much on what we build.  We lose sight of God’s nature. We lose touch with God’s creation.  Towers are the products of human hands.  And these are limited.  When we make the works of our hands the sole focus of our lives we lose perspective.  We then lose hold of what is most important.  It is never the works of our hands.  It is instead the divine tapestry.  The message of the tower of Babel is the same as the story of Noah and the flood.

Only God can make a rainbow.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Noah

The concluding chapter of this week’s portion describes the first real estate development project, the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Here is that episode.  Humanity bands together to build a tower that reaches to heaven.  They say, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4)  God is not pleased with their efforts and says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.  Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:6-7)

Thus the first building project does not go so well.  The people want to build the tallest building possible. God apparently sees this as an offense or perhaps even a threat.  Only God dwells in the heavens.  And so the tower remains unfinished.  We remain human.  We are left babbling.  We are cursed to speak different languages.

According to the rabbis the people’s great sin was not so much their goal of building the tallest tower but instead their lack of concern for the workers.  In Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer it is related that if a worker fell from the tower to his death, the people were indifferent, but when just even one brick fell, they lamented the construction delays.  It is for this reason, the legend suggests that God punished them, scattering them throughout the world and confounding their speech, producing the myriad of human languages that we still confront.

Biblical scholars suggest that this story was authored to explain the existence of languages.  How could the descendants of one family, namely Adam and Eve, give rise to these different languages?  The answer is of course that this was something that we brought upon ourselves.  Our desire to reach the heavens was our undoing.  There was once an idyllic state when all spoke the same language, when language did not create additional borders, when communication was easy and not confused by misunderstandings. 

We used this single language to our own ends.  Rather than uniting for good, we combined to become too much like God.  Thus we were dispersed.  Interestingly while the flood has parallels in ancient Near Eastern literature this episode has no parallel.  Only the biblical authors viewed the existence of different languages as a dilemma that required further explanation.

I refuse to believe that the richness of languages is a calamity.  So much is discovered by languages and their differences.  Every language has its own nuances and offers its own secrets to the human condition. 

One of my favorite poets, Edmond Jabes, an Egyptian Jew who immigrated to France, writes of the power of language and the book.   He writes in French. I read him in English.  He writes in “And You Shall be in the Book”:   
When, as a child, I wrote my name for the first time, I knew I was beginning a book.—Reb Stein
(“What is light?” one of his disciples asked Reb Abbani.
“In the book,” replied Reb Abbani, “There are unsuspected large blank spaces.  Words go there in couples, with one single exception: the name of the Lord.  Light is in these lovers’ strength of desire.
“Consider the marvelous feat of the storyteller, to bring them from so far away to give our eyes a chance.”
And Reb Hati: “The pages of the book are doors.  Words go through them, driven by their impatience to regroup, to reach the end of the work, to be again transparent.
“Ink fixes the memory of words to the paper.
“Light is their absence, which you read.”)
The pages of the book are indeed doors!  Open them and discover new worlds!

Monday, October 15, 2012

High Holiday Sermons

You can listen to my High Holiday sermons below.  You can read and download the written texts here.

Rosh Hashanah Morning


Yom Kippur Evening


Yom Kippur Morning



As well as this year's discussions.

Rosh Hashanah Evening


Rosh Hashanah Second Day

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bereshit Sermon

This week’s portion begins the Torah. It is filled with many different stories. There is the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, and then of course their eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and finally the first murder, that of Cain killing Abel.

There are many interesting questions about this portion. Here is just one.  Why does the Torah begin with the Hebrew letter bet? This may not be your question or even mine, but it is one of the rabbis. One would think that our most important book would begin with an alef. Why would the Torah begin with the second letter of alphabet?

The rabbis ask and answer: “Why was the world created with the letter bet? Just as the bet is closed on three sides and open only in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above the heavens, and what is below the deep, what is before the six days of creation and what is to happen after the world’s existence. You are permitted to explore only from the time the world was created and thereafter, namely the world we live in.” (Bereshit Rabbah 1:10)

The bet is open. The alef is silent. The bet is open to possibilities, to the future, to the world we live in. We must be forever open to the possibilities that surround us, to the potential that stands before us. We must be open to discovery and even open to change.

All of this is signified in a single letter. The alef in contrast stands silent. The bet is open to the world. That as well must be our posture. We must remain awed by creation. We must remain forever open to the world’s inspiration.

According to the Torah the world was created in six days. Often we question the accuracy of such words. How can the world be created in a mere six days? Sure some say a day was a million years. But science teaches wisdom contrary to the Torah’s literal words.

Then again there are days when the world appears as if it was created in a single moment. There are moments when its awesomeness moves us to song and prayer. That is what we must remain open to. Rather than becoming bogged down by the scientific details or questions such as “Did it really happen this way?” we must remain open to its relevancy. We must remain as open as that first bet. The world is open to discovery. It is waiting to be revealed. All that remains is for us to be as open as the single, beginning letter of the Torah.

It is a simple message, but a mighty task.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bereshit

The Torah is excessive in its prohibition of idolatry.  In fact there is no prohibition repeated more frequently in the Torah.  In the Ten Commandments, for example, we read, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4)  Why is idolatry so terrible?  If God is infinite why would fashioning a sculptured image be so harmful?  God cannot be contained by a statue or figurine.  How could the creation of such an image be damaging to God?

Abraham Joshua Heschel answers this question.  It is forbidden because the only acceptable image of God is a human being.  Idolatry is not damaging to God.  It is that there is only one possible image of the divine.  And that is the one we fashion by living our lives.  Our lives are a reflection of the divine.  We cannot construct a figurine.  Instead we must live our lives, each and every day, each and every moment, as if we are fashioning an image of God.

We learn in this week’s Torah portion that human beings are created in God’s image.  “And God created human beings in His image, in the image of God, God created them.” (Genesis 1:27)  The only acceptable image of God is therefore each and every one of us.  Arthur Green, with whom I studied this past summer, elaborates on Heschel’s insight.  “You may not make an image of God because you are the image of God.  The only medium in which you can make God’s image is the medium of your entire life.”

No sooner do we learn this insight do we read that the first human beings stray from God’s command.  The lives of Adam and Eve therefore appear a betrayal of God’s image.  As soon as God created them and placed them in the Garden of Eden they are given one instruction, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it…”  (Genesis 2:16-17)  They immediately stray and eat of the fruit.  They are given one prohibition and they ignore it.

Adam and Eve saw that the fruit was “good for eating and a delight to the eyes” and so they ate.  How could they resist?  It was so tempting.  Temptation bedevils our best of intentions.  They are given one command.  They make one mistake.  How often do our wants, too often disguised as needs, interfere with what we are truly destined to do?  Our task is not to satisfy our desires but instead to live according to the divine image found within every one of us.    

Each and every day we are fashioning an image of God with our lives.  Our actions, our decisions, craft this image in the world around us.  This is what Adam and Eve missed almost immediately.  Our task is not to follow their example but instead lead our lives as if we are the embodiment of God’s image.   

Friday, October 5, 2012

Simhat Torah

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, writes:
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read or write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that—a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
It occurs to me that the Jewish tradition attempts exactly this, it strives to be exacting about joy. It provides us with precise days for our rejoicing.

This week we are in the midst of Sukkot, z’man simchateinu, a time of our rejoicing. Nothing is greater than the rejoicing of these precise days. Sukkot comes to a rising conclusion with the holiday of Simhat Torah, the day we are privileged to begin the Torah reading cycle again. (According to tradition Simhat Torah falls on Monday evening.) There is no greater blessing than to be able to begin the Torah again with the words, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” It is therefore a day of great singing and dancing.

There are so many days in our calendar when we are commanded to rejoice. Our happiness is mandated. In the tradition’s eyes, our joy is made precise. Even when mourning brushes up against a festival, shiva is abbreviated. Communal joy supersedes personal tragedy. This is the tradition’s view. It is not to say of course that this is how people might feel. Yet Judaism insists, again and again, joy is required, celebration mandated, dancing commanded.

Nowhere is this more evident than at a wedding. There it is a mitzvah to dance! The sheva brachot echo Amichai’s words: “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who created joy and gladness, bride and groom, pleasure, song, delight, laughter, love and harmony, peace and companionship…” And then we wrap our arms around each other, circling in a hora until we finally leave the party saying, “It was a great evening. I have no words.”

Is it such a blur? Or can our joy indeed be made precise?