Thursday, February 21, 2013


In ancient times olive oil was the primary fuel.  We read in this week’s portion: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for kindling the eternal light.” (Exodus 27:20)

Why olive oil?  The first answer is because it was ubiquitous in the ancient Middle East.  The midrash suggests additional answers.  The olive branch was a sign of peace.  One reason it is such a sign is because it takes five years before the olive tree produces olives.  There must be a time of peace in order for farmers to tend to their olive grove.  Thus one cannot cultivate such a crop during times of war.

In addition the oil must be pure.  The Etz Hayim commentary points out that the fuel for the ner tamid must be uncontaminated by jealousy, selfishness, pride or greed.  Given the care and nurturing, peace and tranquility, required to produce olive oil this is why it was the most prized fuel for lighting fire the eternal light.  In fact an olive tree can live for 500 years! 

The meaning of olive oil and the olive tree is that it requires our hands to nurture and sustain it.  It requires relative peace and quiet in order to grow.  This is why it was so valued.  It is interesting to reflect on these qualities in an age when we are overly dependent on crude oil.  It is inarguable that our need for oil leads to conflict.  Do I need to recite examples?   Moreover, our use of oil causes the despoliation of the environment.  Is this still a debatable point?

Imagine a world dependent instead on the produce of our own hands.  I understand that my life might be denied its many conveniences.  Nonetheless if the fuel I required depended on my caring for a tree I might become more cognizant of my overuse and over-dependence on fuel.  And then the olive tree would become not only the symbol of peace it has been since antiquity but the cause of peace. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rabbi David Hartman z"l

On Sunday my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, died. It was he who founded Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute where I study every summer. In the room where I have spent countless hours studying our sacred texts and debating with my colleagues, his body lay shrouded in a tallit at Monday’s funeral service.

On Sunday we also welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, the month in which the holiday of Purim is celebrated. We are told that when Adar begins, joy begins. On this day my joy is of course diminished. Nonetheless my heart continues to rejoice for the years I was blessed to spend with my teacher. I am grateful for his teachings.

Rabbi Hartman was eulogized by many, including Israel Knohl, a renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible. He reminded us that David lived by three alefs. Emet. Ometz. Ahavah. Truth. Courage. Love.

It was these qualities more than any others that made him my rabbi. He loved his students like few teachers do. He welcomed our questions. He invited disagreement. He encouraged debate. It was as if he believed he could only learn more if we asked more. The love for us was unconditional. It was not dependent on agreement. It was not tied to like-mindedness. It was divorced from our praise and accolades. He simply loved students.

He was also courageous. Years ago he dreamed of a place where rabbis of all denominations, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal, would come to study. He imagined it would be a place not of ideology but about love of Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people. It would be a place that could deepen our commitments and challenge us to think in new ways. Come to Jerusalem to learn more Torah, he envisioned. And I discovered, be prepared to be shaken by new revelations.

He was most of all unafraid of truth. He studied everything. He did not just pour over the Talmud and the texts of our tradition, but any wisdom. He, for example, insisted we read Erich Fromm. He discussed with us Aristotle. Although deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, he modeled a learning that could be garnered from all sources. It was a remarkable example. Here was an Orthodox rabbi, a graduate of Yeshiva University, who taught us that the spiritual pursuit is to run after truth. At times it was filled with anger and even curses. Often it was tinged with the Yiddish of his youth. Nonetheless, no matter how it emerged we were admonished to never turn away from it or deny it.

On Shabbat we will read of the mishkan, the tabernacle that the Israelites constructed in the wilderness. As they wandered through the midbar this mishkan offered them strength and courage. It was this tabernacle that assured the Israelites that God was present in their midst. During the summer it was as if God peered through the windows of Rabbi Hartman’s Institute. There it was possible to glimpse the divine, to behold God shimmering from our debates. Every summer our Torah was renewed.

It leapt from the walls, amidst shouts and screams, smiles and laughs, from within the pages of our sacred texts and between colleagues of every Jewish denomination, but most of all from the loving hand of my teacher extended to my cheek for a question worth pondering. With David the challenge was welcomed. Jewish life is imperfect. It must be reinvigorated. We must not be afraid. I must summon courage. I always left Jerusalem with more questions than when I arrived. There were now more uncertainties. Still it was comforting that the greatest of my teachers appeared even more uncertain. His lesson was instead to embrace the uncertainty.

Some thirty years ago Rabbi David Hartman dreamed of the place that many of us now call our spiritual home. Yet he died unsatisfied. Despite the countless rabbis who call him their rabbi, there was always a restlessness in his soul that at times could be disquieting. He was never content. Jewish life, the world, is imperfect and only we can repair it. There was a rage over the imperfections in the Jewish present, but also an unrivaled faith that we, and we alone, can mend them.

He continued to believe that the perfecting and completing was within our grasp. That was the vision that he re-ignited within my soul and that he re-instilled in my heart each and every summer. For that inspiration, for the innumerable teachings, I will always be grateful.

Yitgadal, vayitkadash…

My joy is restored.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Remember when the pooper-scooper law was introduced? I still recall when Mayor Koch z”l advocated for it. He said, “If you’ve ever stepped in dog doo, you know how important it is to enforce the canine waste law.” No one thought then that people would willingly clean up their dog’s poop or that it would be commonplace to see dog walkers carry plastic bags with them. New York led the way for the rest of the country.

Sometimes laws can change the way people behave. Governments can in fact legislate change. That of course is the philosophy that gives rise to the current mayor’s attempt to forbid big gulps.

Although these examples seem trivial, there is a direct line from these laws to those in this week’s Parashat Mishpatim. Long ago the Torah revolutionized the thinking about laws. It taught that it is possible not only to forbid wrongs but also to legislate good. In this week’s portion we read for example, “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Exodus 23:4-5)

Can there be a better example of the attempt to use legislation to raise our humanity and make us do good? In certain circumstances, namely when an animal is suffering, you must put aside the differences even with your enemy and lend a hand. The Torah does not say that we must love our enemies, but we are sometimes obligated to transcend these differences and together relieve suffering.

Mayor Koch had his failures, most notably what hindsight suggests was too slow a response to then emerging AIDS crisis, but he certainly believed that government can change us, can lead us, can create laws that will make us better, that can make our society more just. Mayor Bloomberg agrees with this as well. Democrat and Republican philosophies believe this. Libertarian thinking does not. And Judaism holds that premise to be false. Our tradition believes that we require laws to lead us to change—not always, but often. And we are therefore better for it. And even more important, our community is better for it.

It is of course true that laws can be coercive and at times, as in the case of Bloomberg’s recent attempts, patronizing. But we should not reject the entire enterprise simply because of these negative feelings. As a counterbalance to these downsides we must foster open critique and perhaps even skepticism in the face of governments’ laws. Nonetheless we should also remind ourselves that more people doing more good is our shared goal and a just society our dream. And legislation can help us realize that vision.

Can laws answer all our problems and compel people only to do good and not bad? Of course not. But I reject the conclusion that we should therefore do nothing. However imperfect I affirm the attempt, if for no other reason than this is also the attempt of my tradition.

This is what I learn from our Torah portion. This is what I glean from Ed Koch’s legacy.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Ed Koch z"l

I admired Ed Koch.  In particular I liked his brashness.  I did not always agree with his views, but I could always count on knowing where he stood.  I could reckon with his ideas.

Following his recent death I was somewhat surprised to learn that he searched throughout Manhattan for its best burial spot, finally choosing a site in Trinity Church's cemetery.  The stone was erected prior to his death, and I recently saw a photograph of him walking beside it.  A haunting image!   But that is Koch chutzpah!  Here is what is written on the stone: "Edward I. Koch; Mayor of the City of New York 1978-1989; 'My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.' (Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.); Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."

His funeral is tomorrow.  As I reflect on his legacy it occurs to me that history's greatest heroes should not require so many words.  Below is Ben Gurion's grave.  The grave sits beside his wife's, alone on a hilltop in the Negev desert, at the kibbutz he later called his home, Sde Boker.

"David Ben Gurion; 1886-1973; immigrated to Israel 1906."

Judaism in its wisdom assigned no words to the lighting of a yahrtzeit candle.  I have often stammered over this lack of blessing, over the absence of prescribed words.  Now I see.  The silence speaks.

Words sometimes belie the legacy.

Addendum:  I missed that there is a concluding epitaph at the bottom of Ed Koch's head stone.  It reads: "He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York and he fiercely defended its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II."

Friday, February 1, 2013

Beshalach Sermon

My sermon from last week's Shabbat.

We are free at last! In this week’s Torah portion we see that we are now marching to the Promised Land. But wait, it is not going to be a direct path. We are going to take the long, arduous route, the path filled with struggle, conflict, rebellion, hunger and wanting.

Why would God lead us in this indirect way? The Torah’s answer is that so we might avoid war with the Philistines. I don’t like that answer very much. We are going to face 40 years of adversity so what why worry about one war. I am not a fan of war but it could be better than the 40 years in the wilderness. Such are not our choices.

Others suggest that we need 40 years to nurture freedom. You have to be born into freedom in order to fashion freedom. I think of Russian immigrants who struggled with the choices they confronted here in the United States. I once read that even the cereal aisle was overwhelming because of its wealth of choices. Growing up in a communist country that denied freedoms and choices they were ill equipped to deal with even the most mundane of choices. Apparently there was only one kind of cereal in the Soviet Union. Thus you have to grow up in freedom in order to build a free nation. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, only the Israelites who were born in the wilderness could cross over into the land of Israel. If born into slavery then they must die in the wilderness. If born in the wilderness, in freedom, then they can travel into the land.

The most interesting suggestion is that God purposely led us through this longer route so that we might taste adversity. Struggle and adversity, long hard work, is what teaches us the greatest lessons. Too often we want the short cut. Too many students for example read Spark Notes rather than reading Hamlet. The long, hard work, the struggle, is the greatest lesson and provides the most last meaning. You can only appreciate Shakespeare and what he teaches us about life if you read Shakespeare. It is not that I want struggle or seek it out. Ok, perhaps I do, and perhaps that explains my love of endurance sports. I even know someone who chooses to write two Broadway shows when they are only asked to write one. The secret seems clear. Challenge is what can lead to greatness.

Today is Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor day. On this day we recount the story of Honi, the Jewish Rip Van Winkle. Honi questioned why someone would even bother planting a carob tree. This tree takes 70 years in order to bear fruit. The person planting it would never be able to enjoy its benefits. You can only therefore plant and nurture the tree for the sake of future generations. You plant for grandchildren not for yourself. You struggle to nurture this plant so that others might enjoy its rewards. The challenge is apparent. Its rewards might never be tasted.

Let’s look as well at a modern example. Why do we name storms? And by the way when did we start naming winter storms? I think this might be a Weather Channel innovation, but still why? Why do we name storms? Obviously it is so that it is so they are easier to discuss and remember. But there might be a symbolic meaning. Naming suggests intimacy. Storms are of course about struggle. So if you name it, you can control it. You can wrest meaning from it. That is what we are supposed to do with struggle and conflict. Brave the storm and take hold of its meaning.

I am sure that everyone has read about Yesh Atid’s success in the recent Israeli elections. Now we will see if Yair Lapid will struggle for change. Will he choose the more difficult job of Finance Minister? Or follow the advice of his advisors and choose a ministerial job that better guarantees success. Will he think about his political fortunes or struggle with the challenges Israel faces? Will he turn aside from these financial challenges or make good on his campaign pledge of struggling for change?

Our tradition agrees. The rabbis write that the seas which part in this week’s portion did not part on their own. God waited for a sign. God waited for Nachshon to jump into the waters. God waited until Nachshon almost drowned. Then God parted the seas. Nachshon did not know there would be a miracle when he jumped. He chose struggle. He chose challenge. He could not know if he would drown or be saved. Still he chose the more difficult path.

Don’t be afraid of the longer journey. Don’t be frightened by the struggle. Don’t try to avoid it. Jump in like Nachshon.