Thursday, August 29, 2013


Children often leave their homes accompanied by warnings from their parents. “Don’t drink and drive. Text me if your plans change. Beware of strangers. Don’t do drugs. Watch out for those other kids.”

This is God’s tone as well. The people are nearing the moment when they will cross into the land of Israel. God accompanies them to this door with warnings.

“Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations; and you have seen the detestable things and the fetishes of wood and stone, silver and gold that they keep. Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations—perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood. When such a person hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart…’” (Deuteronomy 29:15-19)

Beware of false gods. Beware of temptation. Watch out for those other guys.

The great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, offers this observation: “It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs of one’s fellow citizens. Hence, a person ought constantly to associate with the righteous and frequent the company of the wise…” (Mishneh Torah, Book One, Laws Relating to Ethical Conduct, 6:1)

For parents the greatest worries are matters of life and death. For God’s Torah the greatest danger is idolatry. The idolatry of other nations was apparently very compelling. It stood in stark contrast to the religion of ancient Israel. Idolatry is about the concrete. You can hold the object of worship in your hands. You can touch it. You can see it. Believing in one God is abstract. You cannot see God. You cannot touch God. In the Torah’s and the tradition’s eyes idols were everywhere and an everyday temptation.

This is why we are counseled to make friends with the righteous and wise. This is why we warn our children, “Watch out for those other kids.”

Is this warning effective for our children? Perhaps instead we should honestly discuss with our children (and ourselves) what are the temptations that must be avoided. Let us give them specific names. Let us name that which holds too much power over our hearts. What are today’s idols?

It has long been my belief that the most prevalent idol is not an object. It is instead anger. It is this emotion that we allow to have too much power over our hearts. Moses Maimonides suggested that anger is an idol because we let it rule our lives. An idol is anything to which we ascribe too much importance. This is anger. It is common to all. Everyone is taken in by anger. We bow down to it. We worship at the altar of indignation. We allow it to take over our souls. At times we are unable to even see those we love and those who love us because we become so blinded by anger.

This idol of anger has become even more prevalent in our own day and age because instead of surrounding ourselves with the righteous and wise we surround ourselves with like-minded people. We only talk to those who agree with us. But the measure of true friendship is telling someone when they are wrong. It is telling them when we disagree with them. Anger is actually fueled by agreeing friends. “Yes, you are so right. You were terribly wronged.” are the refrains of the like-minded. Anger is instead overcome by loving disagreements.

Let us banish anger from our hearts. Let us smash this modern idol!

Still I warn my children…

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lobsters and Synagogues

James Surowiecki: The Surprising Complexity of Lobster Prices : The New Yorker

James Surowiecki writes in The New Yorker about the complex pricing of lobsters. Apparently because of climate change there are too many lobsters and so lobstermen are forced to sell their catch for lower and lower prices. Some are barely able to stay in business. They have of course fixed costs like their boats, cages, crew and gas. Sound familiar yet? We have heating, air conditioning, roofs and staff. Despite their lower costs, restaurants have not lowered the price of lobster dishes. People value a good lobster dish, apparently. The price of delicacies are directly related to people's appreciation for them. Most people believe that a cheap lobster, like an inexpensive wine, tastes inferior even though you can obviously have an excellent $20 bottle of wine and a terrible $100 bottle.

Much of taste is related to perception. And so it is with synagogues. Let us be forthright. There are more synagogues than the Jewish community, and Jews, are willing to support. This is not because of climate change, yet we sense similar seismic shifts. It is primarily a result of shifting demographics and people's dwindling sense of obligation. Many synagogues have therefore resorted to gimmicks and lowering dues. These devalue our institutions. Synagogues become like lobsters, a commodity item.

I believe instead that synagogues are the foundation of community.  I teach that synagogues help to elevate our lives, and I don't only mean our Jewish lives.  We are better, and stronger, when we stand together.  We can't sell that, and we should not sell that, for cheap.  We demean ourselves when we do so.  We then turn synagogues into a commodity and not a value.  I refuse to cheapen what I believe.   I refuse to lessen what we must value. Community requires investment.  It demands work.

Back to lobsters.  Surowiecki writes:
Setting lobster prices is not, in other words, a matter of just adding a markup to costs. It’s a surprisingly complex attempt to both respond to and shape what customers want. The key, though, is that restaurants are able to adopt such strategies only because the restaurant business is not, at heart, a commodity market.... Commodity producers, by contrast, can make lots of money if the conditions are right, but their fate ultimately depends on the broader economy. Restaurants are trying to insulate themselves from the market; lobstermen are at the mercy of it.
The problem then is that too many synagogues, and their leaders, see themselves as lobstermen rather than fine restaurants.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ki Tavo

The Jewish people are standing at the edge of the Promised Land.  Moses will not accompany them across the Jordan River.  He offers a farewell speech filled with warnings and admonitions.

Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image…
Cursed be he who insults his father or mother…
Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark…
Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way…
Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow…
…Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (Deuteronomy 27)

Too often we read these curses as divine punishments.  Instead Deuteronomy’s curses are not threats but the recognition that our failures and mistakes, and even terrible wrongs, lead to their own negative consequences and therefore their own curses.  Blessings and curses are in fact in our own hands.

Oftentimes when reading this list I find myself wondering, “Of course a person who leads a blind person in the wrong direction should be cursed.”  Indeed, what kind of person would do that?  The terrible action is in fact the curse. 

This weekend, my children are packing for college.  I offer them advice.  I suggest a road map.  I lecture them about drinking.  I remind them of what might befall them if they make wrong choices.  In the end their choices must be their own.  I cannot accompany them on their journeys.  Indeed I should not accompany them. 

Moses could not cross the Jordan with the people.  That is why this day is the day they become a people.  “Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.”  They become a people when their leader lets go and they march forward on their own.

And so listen my children, relish the journey. Learn and grow.  Mistakes and failures might befall you.  Remember, blessings are within your grasp.  The promise always remains the same: “And all these blessings shall come to you, and overtake you...” (Deuteronomy 28:2)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ki Tetze

The Torah remarks: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.”  (Deuteronomy 22:1)  While I doubt that any of your neighbors has a pet ox or sheep, the intention is clear.  If we see a dog or cat wandering across our streets we have a responsibility to find its owner and return it to them.  Our tradition stands against the motto of “to each his own” or “it is not my problem.”  We are responsible for our neighbors.  We have an obligation to our community.

This summer we were forced to replace our roof.  In many ways this was the most unsatisfying of home repairs.  It is of course far from inexpensive.  It does not change the appearance of the house in any appreciable manner, the way, for instance, a new and less expensive coat of paint would.  Still, we recognized that this would be our responsibility when we purchased the home ten years ago.  Our home is now 25 years old and it would be unreasonable to expect that the roof would last many more years.

The Torah portion commands: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”  (Deuteronomy 22:8)  In the Middle East roofs are flat and are still used for drying clothes, socializing and enjoying the cool evening air.  The Bible therefore demands that even though the roof might belong to an individual family the responsibility it entails must extend to the community at large.

That in a nutshell is the Torah’s perspective and its most important teaching.  Our responsibilities extend beyond the individual and single family to the community and even strangers.  While a parapet is not the same as shingles, the intention is the same.  Too often we think that our homes are only about what we see and what we need.  We believe that they are about making our families more comfortable.  While that is of course true, the Torah teaches that it does not end there.  Their beauty is not for us and us alone.  Their upkeep is not simply for our families but also for our neighbors. 

Imagine how different the world might be if we viewed the upkeep of our homes as a responsibility not only to ourselves but to our neighbors as well.  Then even the mundane repair of a roof can become a holy task.  Then even our homes can become not only for our own sake but for our neighbors as well.

The other day my neighbor remarked, “Hey Steve, by the way the new roof looks great.”  Perhaps its ordinary shingles have meaning beyond my home’s four walls. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013


The biblical basis for baal tashchit (do not destroy) is found within the laws regarding making war, found in this week’s portion: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them.  You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.  Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”  (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Too often we focus on the legislation about war.  Yet discover here profound teachings about the environment.  “Are the trees of the field human?”  Nature of course commands respect and admiration.  Here, we are reminded that it demands care and concern as well or perhaps even more so. 

The Talmud comments and expands the verse’s meaning: “Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit, do not destroy or waste.” (Kiddushin 32a)

The purpose of this commandment is not only our sacred responsibility to the world, but also to train our souls and ennoble our character.  Sefer HaChinuch writes: “The purpose of this mitzvah is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive.  This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah:  That nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can.” (Sefer HaChinuch #529)

The world remains in our hands.  Like trees of the field, our one and only world cannot protect itself.  That must be our holy task.


Although I have never traveled to the national parks of the Western United States I have always found the yellow leaves and white bark of the aspen to be the most beautiful of trees.  Recently I discovered that each stand of trees is not a collection of individual trees but instead limbs of the same organism.  In fact the world’s largest living organism is a stand of quaking aspens in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest.  The stand covers over 100 acres and consists of some 47,000 trees.  Scientists have determined that these trees are in fact one organism, identical to each other genetically and connected by a single root system.  The lesson is clear.  They appear to be individuals but are in fact a unified community.

In one month we will gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and then ten days later Yom Kippur.  This period is called the Ten Days of Repentance.  Its intent is to focus our efforts on changing, on correcting our failings and mending our relationships.  According to the tradition, this period actually begins with Rosh Hodesh Elul, the first of the Hebrew month of Elul. That day was yesterday.  By this reckoning there are not ten days for repentance and repair but instead forty.

This number mirrors the days and nights Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God.  Like Moses we are supposed to use these days to draw near to God.  Unlike Moses we are to draw closer to God by drawing near to family and friends.  We are meant to use these days to seek out those we have wronged, to offer apologies, to grant forgiveness and at least try to better ourselves. 

Too often we think that such efforts are solitary.  We look within, examine our deeds and quietly vow what we will change.  The tradition views repentance as instead communal.  We recite the Viddui, the litany of wrongs, in the plural.  We say:  “Do not be deaf to our pleas, for we are not so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say before You, our God and God of all ages, we are perfect and have not sinned; rather do we confess; we have gone astray; we have sinned, we have transgressed.”  Our prayers on these days are in the plural.  The communal “we” gives us strength to examine our character and correct our wrongs.

We are lifted by the community. We are made better by standing together.  There is strength to be found when praying with others.  There is fortitude to be discovered when saying, “For the sin we have committed...”
In the Fall the aspen’s leaves turn a bright, incandescent yellow.  In that large stand, the leaves of all 47,000 trees turn as one.

Beauty is in fact communal.   We are at our best when we stand with others.  Repentance is a joint effort.  There is no greater beauty, and strength, than a wrong that has been mended and a relationship repaired.

Photograph by Paul C. Rogers, Western Aspen Alliance

Friday, August 2, 2013


The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that worship in general, and the sacrifices in particular, can no longer be performed in sanctuaries throughout the land, but must instead be centralized and moved to one location.  That location will later become Jerusalem and its Temple.  “When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, and He grants you safety from all your enemies around you and you live in security, then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name: your burnt offerings and other sacrifices…” (Deuteronomy 12: 10-11)

Why would the one God need to be confined to this one place?  Moreover, how can God be confined to one location?  Historians and scholars have puzzled over this law, frequently repeated throughout Deuteronomy.  Biblical scholars suggest that the reasons for this law are political.  In their view it was written during a time when Israel’s leaders wanted to centralize worship, and power, in the capital.  Moses Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that sacrifice is an inferior form of worship.  Prayer is therefore the ideal.  Over time Jewish law works to limit sacrifice.  Deuteronomy is therefore a step in this educational process.  Before eliminating sacrifice entirely, it is limited and confined to Jerusalem's Temple.  Sacrifices can only be performed in this one location.

Sefer HaHinnukh, a medieval commentary, offers an interesting explanation.  It suggests that a sanctuary can only inspire people if it is unique and unparalleled.  When we can do something anywhere and everywhere it loses its power and grip over our lives.  This is of course why the Western Wall is such a powerful place and why it holds greater meaning to far more Diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews.  For us it is a place of pilgrimage.  Because we can only visit it infrequently it gains power.      

Yet, with the destruction of the Temple in the second century, Judaism became purposefully decentralized.  Many rituals were moved to the home.  Each and every home became a sanctuary and is called by our tradition, mikdash maat, a small sanctuary.  The sanctuary became not so much about location but instead about experience.  Place became secondary to time.  This is how Judaism remains.  We mark as holy, days. 
The Israeli songwriters Eli Mohar and Yoni Rechter capture this sentiment when singing about Tel Aviv, a city that a mere 100 years ago was only a patch of sand. 

My God—here we have no Wall, only the sea.
But since you seem to be everywhere
you must be here too.
So when I walk here along the beach
I know that you are with me
and it feels good.
And when I see a tourist
beautiful and tanned
I look at her not only for myself, but also for you
because I know that you are in me
just as I am in you
and maybe I was created
so that from within me you can see
the world you created
with new eyes.

In Tel Aviv there are no ancient walls.  And yet this city is also holy becomes it teems with renewed Jewish life.  Thus, wherever we might find ourselves we mark Shabbat as holy.  This is why the Sabbath day is called by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a sanctuary in time.