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Showing posts from 2013

Vaera and the Call of Leadership

Whether you are home discovering a respite from the pressing schedules of work and school or away enjoying some precious days in the warming sun or perhaps skiing down a mountain of snow, take these moments to drink in some words of Torah. God chooses Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.   Moses is charged with extraordinarily weighty tasks.   He must first appeal to the mighty Pharaoh demanding that his slaves be freed.   Moses protests to God, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12)   His tasks appear overwhelming and daunting.   One of the hallmarks of our great Jewish leaders is that they do not want the job.   They do not seek leadership positions.   Instead these seek them out.   They do not pine after accolades or power.   At times it appears that God even pursues our leaders.   God calls to Moses out of an ordinary and plain bush, albeit one that burns but remains unconsumed.   Th

Shemot and Remembering Our Values

Suffering begins with forgetfulness. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) Thus begins our story of slavery. It was not of course that the new king had forgotten Joseph. The two men undoubtedly never met. It was instead that he forgot all that Joseph had done for Egypt. Generation after generation had failed to teach that it was Joseph who had rescued Egypt from famine. The new king never heard the telling Joseph’s story. Our redemption and freedom begin with remembrance. “God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:24) Forgetfulness brings on suffering. Remembrance leads to salvation. This is why remembering is one of the key building blocks of the Jewish faith. Judaism values memory. We are commanded to remember the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” and the evils Amalek did against us: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way out of Egypt.” Zachor is the command our

David Hartman z"l

The Reform movement honored my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, at its biennial.  Here is its beautiful tribute video.  It was a wonder and privilege to be in his presence for such moments. I miss him.  He was the rare combination of courage and love.  He was never afraid of questions.  He was tireless in asking even the most difficult questions of his Judaism.  He also never stopped loving Jews, even those who made him angry, and rabbis, who he felt were always deserving of his support as well as prodding.  I hope to model what I learned from him.  David loved the questioner even more than the believer.  Question and critique strengthens faith.  It never weakens it. Rabbi Rick Jacobs honored David and his teaching by presenting the Schindler Award to David's son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman.  Both spoke beautifully of David's contributions and teachings and of a Judaism that is unafraid of debate and welcomes a multiplicity of answers.  Such is a faith that our times especially r

Vayehi and Family Harmony

This week we conclude the Book of Genesis. Jacob gathers his family together to offer a final benediction. The portion opens with the words: “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt…” (Genesis 47:28) And how old was Joseph when his brothers sold him into slavery? Seventeen. The commentators notice this symmetry. Jacob enjoyed the same number of years living with his son in Egypt as Joseph did living with his father in Canaan. What are we to make of this symmetry? The tumultuous years of Joseph’s youth are perfectly balanced by these final seventeen years. Would that we discover such perfect symmetry in our own lives! The midrash adds: “These seventeen years were the best years of Jacob’s life – years of prosperity, goodness and peace; his other 130 years were filled with toil and pain.” Why were the best years of his life spent in Egypt? How could Jacob enjoy any place but the ideal land of Israel? The commentators suggest that the answer must be that he stud

The Geneva Deal, History and Fear

Years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friends and I hailed a cab and jumped in.  One of my companions is blind and was accompanied by his seeing eye dog, a trusted and caring German Shepherd.  The driver became agitated.  He refused to allow the dog in the car.  We grew defensive of our friend.  Our indignation soared, "How dare you discriminate!"  But our friend understood.  The driver was a Holocaust survivor and in his mind, and heart, such dogs were trained for another purpose. He grew increasingly terrified.  It took a great deal of coaxing but eventually my ever calm and wise friend persevered.  Although blind he sees and understands far more than most.  He immediately saw and understood the fear.  Perhaps that was all the driver needed: understanding and acknowledgment of his fear, a recognition that despite the fact that it was now over sixty years later, his fears are still real. I thought of this experience as I begin to analyze the recent agreement brokered w

Vayigash and Change

We pick up the story of Joseph and his brothers as it nears its dramatic conclusion. Joseph has framed his brothers by hiding a goblet in his brother Benjamin’s bag. Joseph accuses the brothers of thievery and threatens to jail Benjamin. Rather than allowing Benjamin to be carted away and made a slave, as they did to Joseph so many years ago, Judah draws near to Joseph and begs that his younger brother be spared. Judah pleads, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44:33-34) In that moment Joseph realizes that his brothers have indeed changed. The rabbis see in Joseph’s machinations a test of his brothers. Given the opportunity, would they once again get rid of their father’s favorite son or make a different choice? Would they defend Benjamin even though

Hanukkah, Thanksgiving and Dual Devotions

This evening begins the holiday of Hanukkah. Tomorrow is of course when we will gather for Thanksgiving. Although these holidays appear worlds (and lands) apart, they are in fact connected by history and theme. First a reminder about Hanukkah. Forgive the abbreviated summary. During the second century B.C.E. Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian-Greek ruler over the land of Israel, made it increasingly difficult for Jews to observe Judaism. The Maccabees battled against his mighty army and eventually defeated the Syrian-Greeks. They found the Temple in Jerusalem desecrated and so declared an eight-day dedication ceremony. Hanukkah means dedication. According to later rabbinic writings they found there in the Temple only enough oil to last for one day but it miraculously lasted for all eight days. Their initial reason for eight days had nothing to do with the miracle of oil. So why did they declare an eight-day festival? It was because the first and second Temples were dedicate

Vayeshev and Settling Down

The recently released “Portrait of Jewish Americans” by the Pew Research Center offered many insights into the American Jewish community and in particular Jewish identity and affiliation. Most Jewish leaders and organizations have spent the past weeks decrying its results. Intermarriage rates have increased. Affiliation with synagogues has decreased. Religious sentiments have diminished. Most see in these statistics cause for alarm. We would be better served focusing on the bright notes found in the study. “More than nine in ten Jews (94%) agree they are proud to be Jewish. Three quarters (75%) say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Jewish leaders however appear only able to speak about the negatives rather than these positives. I wonder if the problem lies not in American Jews but in the institutions we have constructed. Yesterday’s synagogues were built around the premise that this is where Jews can best assert their Jewish identity. The fact

Vayishlach and Conquering Fears

The Hasidic rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, used to say: “The whole world is a narrow bridge. The essence is to be unafraid.” And yet we read of our patriarch: “And Jacob was greatly frightened.” (Genesis 32:8) Fear is reasonable. It is to be expected. There is plenty about which to be frightened. There are our fears of terrorism and war, of sickness and disease, of the weather and its calamities. (Our hearts are joined in sorrow for those in the Philippines suffering from Typhoon Haiyan.) For most these fears give us pause. They offer us hesitation. Before setting out, we ask, “Is it worth the risk?” Most of the time we are able to forge ahead, mustering the necessary courage to overcome our fears. For others these fears become incapacitating. These people never venture far outside of their comfort zone. They stay close to home for fear of dangers, both real and imagined. We learn that even Jacob was afraid. When facing challenges, when staring at crisis, when lo

Veterans Day

In honor of our veterans, a poem by Alden Solovy. To the Soldier, To the Veteran These things I do not know: The sound of a bullet. The power of a blast. The blood of a comrade. The depth of your wound. The terror at midnight. The dread at dawn. Your fear or your pain. These things I know: The sound of your honor. The power of your courage. The blood of your wound. The depth of your strength. The terror that binds you. The dread that remains. Your dignity and your valor. For these things we pray: The sound of your laughter. The power of your voice. The blood of your yearning. The depth of your healing. The joy that frees you. The hope that remains. Your wholeness and your love. © 2013 Alden Solovy and . All rights reserved. This poem is a beautiful testament to our soldiers' sacrifice and an important reflection of what should be our enduring debt.  Take today's additional moments to pause and remember those who have fought

Vayetzei and Climbing to Heaven

“Jacob had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring…’” (Genesis 28:12-13) Our forefather Jacob is on the run. He comes to a certain place and rests there for the night. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven. He awakens and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) He then names the place Beth El, the house of God, the gateway to heaven. Beth El is the most often repeated place in the Bible, second only to Jerusalem. How many synagogues today are also called by this name? Here we learn of how it came to be called this. Beth El gains its name because of Jacob’s experience. First comes Jacob’s experience of God and then follows the name. Yet more often

Toldot and Helicopter Parents

The new Microsoft stores, although certainly not as crowded as their rival Apple stores, feature the emerging technology of 3D printing. Like the first PC’s of a generation ago, these devices have the potential to revolutionize our lives. Imagine that one day you will be able to make anything you need while sitting at your desk at home. Rather than running from hardware store to Home Depot and back again for the correctly sized replacement part you can sit down at your computer and printer and make it. Some might dismiss such ideas as the stuff of science fiction, but remember that it was not so long ago that many of us dismissed the notion that we would one day hold in our hands the computing power of what then occupied entire rooms at university labs. Even more impressive is the recent development of 4D printing. Researchers at MIT are working on this technology. What is 4D printing? It is the manufacture of objects that self assemble. Not only are they three dimensional ra

Chayei Sarah and Broken Hearts

According to rabbinic legend Sarah died of a broken heart. Moments before she dies, at the beginning of this week’s portion, the rabbis imagine she discovered that her husband Abraham had nearly sacrificed their only son on Mount Moriah .  Her heart was shattered.   The rabbis reason that she died then and there.  The Torah relates: “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty seven years.” (Genesis 23:1)   Abraham then mourns, buys a burial plot in the city of Hebron and buries his wife in the Cave of Machpelah .  It was then and there that our attachment to the land of Israel was solidified. And yet while we understand Sarah’s torment and are sympathetic to the rabbis’ interpretation, our tradition argues that the heart is to be mistrusted.   If we were to rely on the heart alone we might never do what is required of us.  The Torah admonishes us: “Take heed, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn away, and serve other gods.”  (Deuteronomy 11:16)   We are therefo

Vayera and Unreasonable Demands

Ask children what their least favorite statement to hear from their parents and they will probably say, “Because I said so.” And yet this is exactly what our patriarch Abraham hears.  This is all that he is offered. In this week’s portion we read of the well-known command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. God says, “Take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” What does Abraham do? “So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.” (Genesis 22:2-3) There is no discussion and no debate. We see only a willing and obedient response. Can you imagine a more unreasonable, and perhaps even irrational, command? Sacrifice your son. Sacrifice the son you and your wife have prayed and longed for th

Lech Lecha and the God Particle

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha and tells the story of Abraham’s call. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) And Abraham went as God commanded. Often when examining this story we look at the later success of the journey. We judge the trip by its destination. Abraham journeys to the land of Israel and there secures our attachment to this sacred land. But at the outset this is not assured. Still Abraham sets out on the journey, trusting in the promise even though he is unaware of the destination. God instructs him that the journey will conclude at a land that “I will show you.” How often have we set out on a journey with the destination so unclear? I would guess, “Almost never.” In our goal oriented society we rarely if ever journey with no destination in mind. Yet the majority of the Torah is a record of our wandering through the wilderness. We are a people defined, espe

The Government Shutdown and an Oven

Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, in response to the question of why he and other like-minded conservatives have forced a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act said, “Because we’re right. Simply because we’re right.” (The New York Times, October 1, 2013) A story from the Talmud. Millennia ago, in the land of Israel, the rabbis faced a similar political stand off. At that time they were arguing not about health care but about the oven of Aknai. The question was asked: Is the oven clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer of Hyrcanus, considered the greatest mind of his day, declared it clean. All the other Sages ruled it unclean. Rabbi Eliezer would not accept the majority’s decree. He brought forward every imaginable argument. Still they would not accept his logic. “Even though the oven is constructed of individual tiles, the cement which binds it together makes it a single utensil and therefore liable to uncleanness,” the Sages ruled. Rabbi Eliezer became

Simhat Torah

We belong to a tradition that values learning and education. A book is central to our existence. And so we read this book cover to cover in one year’s time. We pour over the words of our Torah week after week. On Saturday afternoon we begin reading and studying the week’s portion and the following Saturday morning we finish the portion. And it is this that we celebrate on Simhat Torah. On this day we unroll the Torah scroll and conclude the reading cycle and then immediately begin again. There is no pause in our study, no break in our schedule. We dance and celebrate that we are privileged to once again reach this milestone, that we can once again clutch the scroll and read its words for another year. That which defines us, that which is our essence is celebrated on this day. Pouring over the letters of a scroll is what makes us Jews and what binds us as a Jewish people. We are made Jews each and every day we open this book. We study and learn. What does it mean to be dedicat

Parenting Advice

In my Yom Kippur evening sermon I meditated on technology and its implications to the world of prayer.  What follows are some more insights about smart phones and their potential damaging affects on our children.  I admit it is from the most unlikely of sources, but the wisdom is still sound and worth noting. Louis C.K. offers this parenting advice: "I'm not here to make them happy....  I'm not raising the children.  I'm raising the grown-ups that they're going to be." Judaism might reframe this.  Our tradition reminds us that our goal is not happiness but goodness.  Our task as parents is to raise menschen.  Joy is a byproduct sometimes, but not always, of doing right.  Joy and happiness are not as well always synonymous.  Happiness can be realized by what we often call self-fulfillment.  Therein lies the danger.  The self can too often be fulfilled at the expense of others. That is why looking into the eyes of others and not into the screens we hold


As a follow up to my Yom Kippur morning sermon let me provide concrete ways we can take action. For those who are interested in supporting the Jewish community’s efforts to reach out to the nearly two million Syrian refugees I urge you to read more at Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief .  Take note as well that Israel is quietly lending aid to Syria’s refugees and even bringing some injured Syrians to its hospitals for medical treatment. Our hearts are again broken by the senseless tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington DC.  We join in prayer asking for healing for the families now transformed into mourners and the injured now struggling for restored health.  I know that you join me as well in sorry and worry about the devastation in Colorado.   Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster is an excellent address to direct our concern and help.


As I watch the devastating pictures from Colorado, I am reminded again of the power and fury of nature.   Too often, in these past years, we find ourselves at nature’s mercy.   The holiday of Sukkot is a reminder that nothing we build, nothing we create with our own hands, is as permanent as it seems. For one week we are commanded to live not in our sturdy homes but in frail, temporary huts.   If these structures can withstand a strong wind, or rain, then they can no longer be called sukkot.   They must be temporary.   The roof must be thin enough that stars can be visible in the nighttime sky.   If every drop of rain is kept out then it is deemed a house and not a sukkah. The holiday’s origins trace back to our wandering in the desert wilderness.   There we lived in temporary structures as we struggled to wed our freedom from Egypt to the commitments found in the Torah.   All journeys are filled with trial and difficulties.   All travels are moments of vulnerability.   This i

Sure It's Complicated

What follows is the sermon I just delivered on Yom Kippur morning.  Again I scheduled this to post prior to the start of the holiday.  The delivered version might differ slightly from the written word. A colleague writes her sermons in June and then prays that nothing new or extraordinary, or tragic for that matter, happens in the world forcing her to revise her erudite words or even discard a well-written sermon entirely. It is good therefore that I write my sermons much later. So now at this last possible moment I wish to offer a few words about contemporary events and what Judaism can offer us as guidance. I have one contention and several illustrations. I believe that as Jews we are called to improve the world, that we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering and pain of others. While our first concern is to the pain of fellow Jews our Jewish heart must be stirred by concern for all human beings. All are created in God’s image and all are deserving of life. It is theref

Why We Pray

What follows is the sermon I just delivered on Yom Kippur evening.  I scheduled it to post prior to the start of the Yom Kippur holiday.   I begin with a familiar story. Once there was a man who lived in a town that was often flooded by the local river. On one occasion, as the waters began to rise the authorities urged residents to evacuate. The man refused. He wanted to stay in his home. He believed that he could ride out the storm. In addition he had an unshakable faith in God. As the waters reached the steps of his home, the police came by in a rescue vehicle and urged him to join them. He refused, saying, “God will provide.” The waters of course began to rise and fill the first floor of the house. Neighbors came by in a boat and again urged him to leave and travel to higher ground. He again refused saying from the second floor window, “God will rescue me.” Finally the waters rose so high that the man had to retreat to the roof. A Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhe