Thursday, December 26, 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.  The prophet Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish when trying to flee.  Like Moses the prophets view their abilities as lacking.  Yet, these are exactly the type of leaders God calls.

On one level the Bible’s import is clear.  These leaders are God’s instruments.  It is not their abilities that move historical events but instead God.  One way to read the Bible is as a record of God’s involvement in human affairs and in particular a concern for the Jewish people.  Moses does not then lead the people out of Egypt but instead God.  Moses does not even speak to Pharaoh.  He is but a mouthpiece.

On another level the Torah offers an important lesson about leadership.  The greatest of leaders are those who find themselves, most often by circumstance and timing, in situations that require their active involvement.  They do not seek positions of power.  They do not relish fame. These pursue them.  It is what is asked of them by these situations that makes them great.  Whether by God or circumstance, they are called to action.   They do not seek greatness.  It follows from the word of God, it moves from a call.

Nelson Mandela offers a modern example.  In his most famous of speeches, delivered before being sentenced to jail for what would amount to 27 years, Mandela said:   
This then is what the ANC is fighting. Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.  During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
I do not imagine that greatness is achieved by seeking to die for a cause.  Many great men and women have been prepared to die for the sake of an ideal.  Their willingness to sacrifice their own lives is not the hallmark of great leaders.  Our times confuse this point.  We are witness to far too many who hold up the desire for death as a goal and measure of leadership.

A willingness to sacrifice is indeed a measure of greatness.  More important is the Bible’s lesson that humility and the eschewing of fame are the best measures of extraordinary leadership.

Leadership pursues a select few.  Greatness follows only those who do not seek it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

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 people recites over and over again. Remembrance is the principle around which we observe our holidays and organize our Jewish lives.

This command is embedded within ritual acts. When we lift up the kiddush cup and thereby sanctify Shabbat we remember the Sabbath as a reminder of both God creating our world and freeing us from Egypt. Think especially about our celebration of Passover. We celebrate our Seders in an effort to make us feel that we were slaves and are now free. It is not supposed to be about the food, however delicious it may be, but that the taste of these symbolic foods reminds us on the one hand of the bitterness of slavery and on the other, the sweetness of freedom. The single most important phrase of that celebration is: k’ilu, as if. “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if he went out from Egypt.”

The notion is that we must re-enact and re-live the past in order to feel it and take it into our hearts. Memories are given life in our tradition. Remembrance is codified as mitzvah. Forgetfulness is deemed a sin.

Let us apply this theory to some modern examples. We tend to forget the good people do for us and focus instead on a slight. Like the new king who saw only the growing number of Israelites and forgot all that Joseph had done for Egypt, we forget the good and dwell on the bad.

In our own country we are only beginning to realize the extent to which the NSA listened in on our private conversations. The fear of terrorism has made us forget American values. We also allowed torture to be used against our enemies. Despite evidence to the contrary, and the sensationalism of Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland, we permit torture to be done in our name. We forget the values that make our country great. Life and liberty are our universal dream.

Fear crowds out remembrance and leads to forgetfulness.  Forgetting the values that animate our faith, our country and our lives may very well lead to  ruin.

Forgetfulness leads to suffering.

Only remembrance can guarantee redemption.

Friday, December 13, 2013

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 require.

I must close with Moses Maimonides, with whom Hartman had a life-long discussion and debate: "Just as a person is commanded to honor and revere his father, so is he obligated to honor and revere his teacher... "

Each and every day.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

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 studied Torah in Egypt and thereby redeemed its pagan influences. I think the answer is far more obvious. We need not reach and imagine that Jacob observed such traditional behaviors to justify his happiness in a foreign land.

So why was Jacob so happy? In Egypt his family was once again whole. His sons have forgiven each other. Now they each have flourishing families of their own. Jacob can enjoy the comforts his son has amassed. He can relish in the joys of grandchildren. In Egypt he, and his entire family, have discovered a tranquility that eluded them in Canaan.

The lesson is clear. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, is more prized than even the most cherished of locations. It is a blessing that eluded our patriarch Jacob for the majority of his life. Now he has found it. And he discovers it no less in Egypt!

Peace between siblings, love between parents and children, is the greatest blessing of all. We need not venture to a sacred destination in order to discover this blessing. It is always nearby.

Monday, December 9, 2013

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 with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.  President Obama does not appear to understand Israeli (and for that matter, Jewish) fears.

Yossi Klein Halevi remarked in an article, "Israel's Freakout, Explained":
During the first Obama administration, the urgent Israeli question was: Is he is a friend of the Jewish state? That question was largely resolved for many Israelis during the President’s visit to Israel last March, when he won over much of the public by affirming the Jewish roots in the land of Israel and the indigenousness of Israel in the Middle East, as well as Israel’s past efforts to make peace.
Now, though, Israelis are asking this: After eight years of President Obama, will the Middle East be a safer or more dangerous region for Israel?
For most Israelis the answer is self-evident. The turning point came this summer, when Obama hesitated to enforce his own red line over Syria. That was the moment that he lost the trust of the Israeli public on Iran.
Israel lives, and thrives, in a terrifying neighborhood.  It must remain forever vigilant.  It must be strong and resolute.  I have never known its fears.  Yet they are part of my people's history.

Still I wonder about Prime Minister Netanyahu's insistence that any deal with Iran is akin to Chamberlain's accord with Nazi Germany.  If we insist on this comparison there can only be one resolution to today's conflict.  History can, and should, be a teacher.  But today is not 1938.  The past is but one lens. The future cannot necessarily be seen more clearly through the past.  History is an imperfect prism.

Also writing in The New Republic, Ben Birnbaum, offers a different perspective, "The Iran Deal is Better Than Nothing--Even for Israel":
Another top Israeli security figure recently noted to me that if the deal taking shape in Geneva were to forestall a nuclear-armed Iran for a couple of years, it would be almost as effective as an Israeli military strike—with none of the consequences, of course. Compared to the current situation, the Geneva deal does not clear that bar. But compared to where the Iranian program would be six months from now without a deal, it could come close.
Make no mistake.  Iran continues to agitate for Israel's destruction.  Fear grows in my heart.  We must remain wary of Iranian promises and even suspect of their intentions.  Does that mean though that every effort to reach an accord is doomed?  Can a compromise with our enemies buy us a measure of security?

I want to remain hopeful.  Yet I remain afraid.  I take counsel from the prophet Isaiah, "Say to the anxious of heart, 'Be strong, fear not...' (Isaiah 35)

I reread his words. "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped...."

History is an imperfect lens.  Yet I draw faith from its waters.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
They shall attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.
Sorrow and sighing flee.  Fear and trembling banished from our hearts.   And the land might rest secure.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

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 years earlier they had betrayed Joseph? The only true test of teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is to find oneself in the exact same situation and make a different choice.

This is how Joseph discovers that his brothers have made repentance. Judah is a changed man.

It is instructive that Judah is the spokesman for the brothers. It was he who had earlier suggested that they sell Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. Judah has indeed changed.

Change is central to his character. It should also be defining of our own. In fact it is from the name Judah that the term Jew derives. The origin of the term Jew is one who descends from the tribe of Judah. Is it possible that change should then be the defining characteristic of a Jew?

I often hear people argue that it is because of Orthodoxy that Judaism survives. I hear this argument from all manners of Jews, from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. The notion is that only strict observance and inviolability guarantees the future. This is patently false. It angers me when I hear this argument from Orthodox Jews because it highlights their belief that only they hold the true path. It saddens me when I hear this from fellow Reform Jews because it suggests a lack of faith in our own path.

Change is part of our DNA. It is what guarantees our future. An example from history. Everyone who visits Israel goes to Masada and marvels there at the bravery of the zealots who chose their own deaths at their own hands rather than becoming slaves to the Romans. We fail to recognize that not one of us is a descendant of those brave fighters! The Jewish future might have ended with them. Instead it was seized by Yohanan ben Zakkai, a rabbi who secretly met with the Romans and negotiated the building of a small school in Yavneh.

With that masterful change the Jewish future was secured. The zealots would have called him a traitor. If their followers had discovered him they would have killed him. And yet his willingness to change rather than remain steadfast to old ways guaranteed a future that continues to this day.

And yet most remain afraid of change. We want it to remain like yesterday. We mythologize the past and as well tend to demonize the future. We pretend to live in a never changing present.

This weekend I watched the 60 Minutes interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. He spoke about change and how disruptive Amazon is to the old ways of doing things, such as bookstores, that I confess I continue to miss. He remarked, “Complaining is not a strategy.” It is of course easy to say such things when you are a billionaire or in the case of Joseph, number two in all of Egypt. Perhaps then it is easier to say as Joseph did, “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.” (Genesis 45:5)

True it is as well easier to laugh at change when you are a recognized master of it. Yet how much brighter might our future be if rather than complaining (or as in the example of Masada choosing suicide) we see only challenges to overcome and discover changes to master? Should this lesson not be instructive for all?

Change is who we are.  It is our very name.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

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 dedicated during the eight-day fall festival of Sukkot. In order to rededicate the Temple they looked back to their history and the holiday when they first dedicated these Temples. Now the Maccabees were not only given an opportunity to celebrate this all-important holiday that they missed observing during the war but to rededicate the Temple to Jewish worship.

While the Puritans did not observe Sukkot (they did not believe in fixed holidays except for the Sabbath; I wonder as well if this temperament continues to influence American Jews), they certainly drew on its themes when celebrating their first Thanksgiving. On that day in 1621 when this first Thanksgiving was observed, they wished to thank God for a bountiful harvest. Their keen understanding of the Hebrew Bible offered them the example of Sukkot. This holiday is our quintessential harvest festival. The booths hearken back to our people’s agricultural roots when we lived near our fields in order to make the harvest easier. It was on this day when we thanked God for the blessings of the land.

The essence of both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is gratitude. And there is much for which to be thankful. Could not the words of our tradition’s Al Hanism prayer recited to mark Hanukkah also apply to Thanksgiving?
We thank You, O God… In Your abundant mercy, You stood by Your people in their time of distress. You championed their cause, vindicated their rights, and avenged their suffering. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the just…
Or perhaps we might look to the words of Emma Lazarus, the American Jewish poet, who saw in her adopted land a confluence of devotions. In her voice the love of Judaism and America are one.
O deem not dead that martial fire,
     Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,
     Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the banner of the Jew!
And so our hearts are joined in devotions. We give thanks as Americans and as Jews.

A suggestion: If your custom is to give presents for Hanukkah and especially for all eight days add GivingTuesday to your observance. Rather than exchanging presents on Tuesday, December 3, decide as a family where you wish to give tzedakah. Make one night about what others really need rather than what we want. Helping others should never diminish our gratitude.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

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 is that American Jews no longer require the synagogue to reinforce their Jewish identity. I am not an expert at reading sociological studies, but the last time I checked a 94% translates into an A. Thus Jews proudly proclaim their Jewish identities.

And yet we only appear to know how to speak as if there is a crisis. Our institutions and their leaders have imbibed this crisis narrative. “Join a synagogue to stem the tide of assimilation. Only the synagogue can guarantee a solid Jewish identity.” These are the refrains we still hear. But yesterday’s refrains no longer hold sway over today’s Jews. Today’s Jews have aced Jewish identity. And they no longer require synagogues to keep earning high grades.

My teacher Tal Becker suggests that Judaism has a problem of arrival. We only know how to speak in aspirational notes about the future. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we say at our seders. But now we are there. We have a sovereign Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem. And yet we still speak as if we are living in a shtetl. “The world is out to get us!” we declare over and over again. And thus in medieval times we added to our seders. “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know you.” Now we have an army. Do we still only speak the words born out of ancient sufferings and oppressions?

In America as well Jews have arrived. Most American Jews (94%) do not feel their Jewish identities are in crisis. And yet Jewish leaders only know how to speak of crisis. We require a new language; we need words not of impending doom. The future can no longer be written as if we are always standing at the precipice, nearing disaster.

Jews no longer feel they need the synagogue to be Jewish. And so synagogues must change and learn to provide something different. Instead we must speak about the meaning to be found in the Torah and tradition and the beauty and joy to be discovered in community. People will always be searching. Perhaps the synagogue can become the new destination where young and old can add meaning to their lives.

The reality of this week’s Torah portion still resonates with import. “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned…” (Genesis 37:1) Our parents, and grandparents, wandered to these shores in order to discover a place where they could proudly declare their Jewish identities. They built synagogues, and institutions and organizations, to provide venues where we could more easily declare our identities and there gain the courage to venture out to the world with our identities safely, and sometimes secretly, held in our hearts.

Now we are settled. We are no longer sojourners. Our Jewish identities stand firm. When will our language change? When will we lift our voices in joy and song and celebration and proclaim together, “We have arrived?”

For more of my thoughts on American Jewish life and synagogues read a prior post: Lobsters and Synagogues.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

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 looking at struggle fear is a natural feeling. When we know there might be disappointment, when we expect there might be heartache, when we foresee there might even be pain, fear is reasonable. Still we should not allow these fears to lead us to inaction.

In order to succeed we must often overcome fear. In order to fashion something new for ourselves, for our family, for our community we must take risks.

Why was Jacob afraid? For years he had lived on the run. After stealing the birthright from his brother Esau, he fled to his uncle’s home. There he was married (twice) and built a family. We understand why he ran. His brother Esau threatened to kill him! Now, after many years, he is about to see his brother again. Will his brother forgive him? Will they make amends? Jacob is greatly frightened.

The evening before their meeting he wrestles with a mysterious being. He emerges from the encounter limping, but with a new name. He is now called, “Yisrael—Israel.” He becomes the “God wrestler.” He crosses the Jabbok, a river cut through a meandering wadi in the Judean desert. Crossing the river in the middle of the night is perilous. Perhaps this is preparation for the upcoming challenge. “If I can cross the river, then I can face my brother. If I can wrestle with God, then I can face anything.” He is ready to face his past. He is prepared to meet his brother.

Jacob sees his brother approaching in the distance. “And Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 32:4) Had Jacob not crossed the river he never would have made amends with his brother. The embrace would have remained a dream and not a reality.

These days the weather is indeed frightening. It is not in our hands. It is beyond our control. And so we should pause before setting out to face a challenge. But we should not turn away. We must plunge head first into the struggle.

It would be irresponsible to head out to sea in a hurricane. Then again we cannot wait for calm seas.

The essence is to be unafraid. Struggle is how we are named.

Monday, November 11, 2013

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 in the US armed forced and served our country with great distinction. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

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 than not we come to synagogue expecting an experience. We enter “Beth El” waiting to be inspired. For us the name precedes rather than follows the experience. Perhaps we should heed the Torah and reverse the order.

We must ask, where can we find the gateway to heaven? When do we sense God’s presence by our side? Perhaps the clue can be discovered in the ladder.

The Rabbis point out that sulam, ladder, and Sinai both share the numerical value of 130. Like Roman numerals every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent. The theory of what is called Gematria is that we can gain insights when two words share the same value. Here then is my insight. At Sinai God not only spoke with Moses but the entire people experienced God and there received the Torah.

Most fail to note that Moses had to ascend the mountain in order to meet God. There is hard work in climbing. So too with a ladder. We have to climb a ladder in order to reach the heavens. I imagine as well that this ladder is uneven, the rungs are not equally spread apart. Sometimes the steps are easy to take and feel within reach. Other times they require much effort to grasp. There are times as well when we have to jump and extend our hands in order to find the next rung. And still other times when we require others to lift us to the next step.

The path to reaching heaven and experiencing God is an uneven journey. There is no perfectly apportioned ladder set before us. But we must climb. We must reach.

Years ago archaeologists excavated the steps that ascended to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. I was struck in particular by the fact that the steps were of uneven lengths. There were short steps that required me to take a half step and others that were wide that forced me to extend my legs. It was impossible to run up the steps or even to walk up in an even cadence.

Perhaps the lesson of these steps is the same. Reaching up towards heaven, and our sanctuaries, is an uneven path. The ladder stands before us. There are times when we find ourselves afraid of climbing. The steps appear uneven. The ladder appears ancient. But we can only experience God by beginning the climb.

For each of us there is a gateway to heaven. The ladder we must construct ourselves.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

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 rather than flat and two dimensional, but they also assemble themselves. That is of course how living organisms work. If you recall your biology classes from ages ago that is how DNA organizes human life. Each of us began from one single cell. (I am of course aware of the steps preceding this but that would be for another post.)

I have been thinking about 4D printing. It seems the perfect image for parenting. I watch from 1000 miles away as my children learn more and more at their respective universities and there get involved in more activities and take on more responsibilities. I look on as they begin to assemble and become responsible and learned adults. There is the temptation to say at times, “You’re doing it wrong. That’s not how it is put together.” But that is not what we are supposed to say.

Too bad our matriarch Rebekah did not share this view. She is the first helicopter parent in history. Here is that story from this week’s portion.

Isaac and Rebekah have twins. Their names are Jacob and Esau. Esau is the oldest and therefore according to biblical law deserving of the first-born inheritance. The literary tension in Genesis is created because although this is the law every one of the story lines upends it. Isaac usurps Ishmael’s rights. Later Joseph bests the oldest Reuben and here Jacob steals the birthright from Esau.

Rebekah continues to hover. She hears her nearly blind husband Isaac tell Esau to go hunting and prepare a meal so that he can then bless him and offer him his rightful inheritance. Rebekah tells Jacob he should pretend to be Esau so he can get the blessing instead. She dresses him up like Esau and cooks her husband’s favorite meal. Isaac asks his usual type of question. He sees but does not really see. Earlier he asks, “Father… where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7) Now he wonders, “Are you really my son Esau?” (Genesis 27:23) Does he always take family members at their word? Is his only response one of absolute trust? Or does he choose to believe, but in his heart secretly knows? I continue to wonder how he did not at least recognize the taste of his wife’s cooking. Nonetheless, Isaac gives Jacob the blessing.

Esau finds out. He is overwhelmed by grief. Imagine his pain. He knows that at the very least his brother conspired against him. Perhaps he understands as well that his mother helped too. He threatens to kill Jacob. Rebekah instructs her favorite son, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. Stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury subsides.” (Genesis 27:42-44)

Rebekah moves the story. She manipulates. She believes that Jacob must get the blessing and so moves others in order to make this come true. Our hero Jacob does not figure out his own path until he is forced to run away and create his own life outside of his mother’s (over) protective care. True, without her guiding hand and overbearing presence, he first marries the wrong woman, but understand this: he only becomes Israel after wrestling with the angel, alone.

Perhaps you might say that this is too heavy handed a psychological interpretation of our patriarch and especially our matriarch. Still, I continue to believe that the art of parenting, and teaching for that matter, is to provide the skills, knowledge, and tools for self-assembly. The temptation is to follow Rebekah’s example. The pull is to put it together for our kids. We understand Rebekah. We are sympathetic to her choices because like her we too think we know best.

And so I am left to sit back and look from afar, and at times smile with pride and glee, and other times shout (to myself) in exasperation (Ari, why again are you taking Swahili?) and watch as my children begin to self assemble.

It is not until Jacob runs away from Esau and leaves his parent’s home that he begins to dream. “Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran…. He had a dream…” (Genesis 28:10-11) That is the beginning of next week’s story. And now we see the beginnings of the man who will soon become Israel and the inklings of a people assembling.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

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 therefore given a very long and detailed list of actions.  The commandments are to serve as our guide.

While the heart is the seat of love and passion, creativity and even commitment, the law guides our actions.  Our tradition is more confident in legislating behavior over feeling, deeds over inner intention.  We are commanded to observe Shabbat and give tzedakah, for example.  What we hold in our hearts is left to each of us.  What we do is guided by thousands of years of wisdom and inherited tradition. 

Yet we discover inspiration not in the minutia of observance but in the motivation of prior generations and in the promise of future generations.  Grandparents inspire us.  Children motivate us. 

Yehudah Halevi, the unparalleled medieval poet, writes of his desire to leave Spain and travel to the land of Israel.  “My heart is in the East and yet I am in the depths of the West.”  His attachment to the land of Israel is unrivaled.  His words continue to inspire.  He imagines his voyage to the land’s shores.  “The sea is the color of the sky—they are two seas bound together.  And between these two, my heart is a third sea, as the new waves of my praise surge on high!” 

Halevi died before reaching the holy land.  His commitment drove him to ignore the advice of friends and undertake the perilous journey to the land of Israel.  A legend recounts that he was killed by Crusaders as he reached out to touch Jerusalem’s stones.  Historians disprove this story.  In fact he died of typhoid on a quarantined ship in Alexandria, Egypt.  One wonders as well if he stayed there because of his new found love for a slave girl. 

We ask again: is the heart to be trusted?

It is indeed the source of passion.  The law, however, is the anchor of an ethical life.

Still the heart is torn.  Can the heart remain whole, filled with passion and creativity while still bound by the demands of tradition and history? 

Following the Akedah, Abraham and Isaac, no longer walk together and as one.  We sense that Isaac is broken.  His heart is perhaps also shattered.  Soon he marries Rebekah.   And we read: “Isaac then brought Rebekah into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife.  Isaac loved her, and found comfort after his mother’s death.”  (Genesis 24:67) 

Is the heart no longer broken?  Is it now healed?

And Halevi writes of his new found love:
“Oh, let my eyes pluck the roses and lilies
that were sown together in your face!
I rake the fire of your cheeks,
to put fire with fire:
and when I am thirsty, it is there that I look for water.”

Perhaps poetry is all that remains.  It emerges from the tension—and even the brokenness of the heart. 

As we walk forward we carry the poem in our heart.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

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 throughout your many years. (Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when their son Isaac is born.) Abraham’s only response is: “Hineni—Here I am.” Sarah is silent. She is surprisingly absent from the story. Still, Abraham does not question?  He offers no debate?

The ancient rabbis imagine there was more discussion between God and Abraham. God says, “Take your son.” Abraham responds, “I have two sons.” God then says, “Your favored one.” Abraham retorts, “This one is favored by his mother Sarah and the other favored by his mother Hagar.” God says, “Whom you love” Abraham wonders aloud, “I love both Isaac and Ishmael.” And God then commands, “Isaac!” Now the meaning is clear. The intention is understood. The son through whom the promise of future generations of Jews is to be realized is to be taken and offered as a sacrifice. The debate is over. Abraham has no choice but to observe and follow God’s demand.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Protestant theologian and religious existentialist, sees in Abraham’s response a virtuous ideal. Abraham becomes in his eyes a “knight of faith,” a man who knowingly subsumes his own reason to the will of God. Because God says so becomes the basis of Kierkegaard’s theology.

I remain troubled by this interpretation. I cannot imagine standing silent in the face of such a command. I cannot imagine as well heeding such a demand even after a lengthy debate. Ask my parents. “Because I said so,” never motivated me. And it most certainly rarely, if ever, offered me a measure comfort.

One year, my very young, but attentive son Ari, asked me the following question as we were returning from services where we listened to the reading of the Akedah, “Abba is there anything that you love more than me?” I said, “There is nothing that I love more than you and Shira.” And the relentless questioner continued, “What about God?  Abba, you talk about God so much.  Don't you love God alot?” And I understood and said,“That does not change my love for you.” “But what if God asked you to... How do I know that you love me more than anything?” And then I said, “Because I said so.”

We continued silently, each alone with our own thoughts. And the Torah filled the silence, offering its soothing words about a father and son: “And the two of them walked on together.” (Genesis 22:8)

The root of the Hebrew, emunah—faith, means trust and security. In fact emunah is related to the word uman, craftsman. Why? It is because a craftsman is confident and secure in his or her skills and abilities. Thus faith suggests confidence and trust.

Kierkegaard remarked, “If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” (Fear and Trembling) 

At a certain point, discussion, debate and dialogue, must conclude. Trust and confidence must take hold of our hearts. We must take that “leap of faith” and bound forward.

There are moments when “Because I said so” becomes reason enough.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

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, especially in our beginnings, but also throughout our long history, by wandering. Still today we insist on setting goals. We must know the destination at the outset of our journey.

Abraham, however, sets out without knowing. He does not know where his wandering will conclude. Would we be comfortable setting out on road trip without a destination in mind? Would we remain at ease sending our children off to college with undeclared majors or without clear career goals? We forget that learning is about wandering. It is about a journey through unknown, and yet undiscovered, lands.

This week’s papers reported that Dr. Peter Higgs and Dr. Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the theory first elucidated in 1964 about the Higgs boson. The theory proposes that there exist undiscovered particles that lend mass to other particles. This past year the Higgs boson was finally detected at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. It took 10,000 scientists to build this collider and wade through some 2,000 trillion particles to find one Higgs boson. What was only a theory and invisible fifty years ago was now made clear.

Even more interesting was the fact that Dr. Higgs still does not know he won the Nobel; he still has not been told the news. Why? On Tuesday he told a friend that he was going away for a few days by himself and would not return until Friday. He told no one where he was going. He also does not own a cellphone or computer and so cannot be reached. One of the greatest minds in theoretical physics does not even use a computer and according to reports values being alone with his thoughts. He will not find out about his prize until tomorrow when he returns.

It occurs to me that great minds need to wander. Perhaps goals and destinations sometimes cloud our thinking. Even prizes divert our attention from the journey.

According to rabbinic legend, and in particular the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, Abraham discovered God during his wanderings. On his journey through the desert, he looked up to the stars and thought to himself, “There must be an invisible force that moves the stars. There must be a God moving the heavens.” It was then and there that he theorized that there must be only one God.

Wandering is indeed where great ideas are born.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

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 enraged and said: “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” A miracle occurred and at that very instant a carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved 150 feet. The Sages scoffed at Eliezer’s magic and declared: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.” Eliezer became even more adamant and summoned all of his miraculous powers, saying: “If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it.” Thereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” the Sages rejoined. He screamed: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the academy prove it.” The Sages looked up in alarm as the walls began to fall in. Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina, however, rebuked the walls saying: “When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute you have no right to interfere and take sides!” Thereupon the walls stopped falling.

This only further incensed Eliezer and he turned toward heaven and cried: “If the law agrees with me, let it be proven from heaven.” A voice from heaven responded: “Why do the Sages dispute with Rabbi Eliezer seeing that the law should agree with him?” Rabbi Joshua then jumped out of his seat and with passion and fury screamed: “Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens!” (Deuteronomy 30:12) What did Rabbi Joshua mean by this? Rabbi Jeremiah answered: “Since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a voice from heaven…”

The law follows the majority even when God sides with the minority. God gave us minds with which to reason and faculties with which to discern the truth nestled between the lines of Torah. The law must therefore follow the will of the majority.

Given the stubbornness of Eliezer’s position, the rabbis felt they had no choice and voted to ostracize him. The great Rabbi Akiva was given the painful task of informing his beloved teacher of the council’s vote. Rabbi Akiva donned a black garment and sat at a distance from his teacher and said, “My rabbi, I think your comrades have abandoned you.” Upon hearing this Eliezer tore his garments, sat on the ground and wept bitterly. It is said that his sorrow was so great that his gaze wilted everything his eyes fell upon. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b) 

The Talmud’s wisdom is clear. Community is built on consensus. Even God cannot rule against the sages. The law is founded on majority rule. The Talmud counsels: beware of the individual, who, no matter how wise and well reasoned, is willing to subvert the will of the majority and in his zealousness bring the walls down upon his own community. He thereby writes himself out of the community.

Our country may indeed be founded on ideology. It is certainly furthered by passionate debate. Once the vote is tallied, however, the law follows the majority. At that moment, the meaning of democracy is found not in ideological debate and righteous indignation but in following the law. Then we stand together and as one.

Rabbi Eliezer lived out his remaining years secure in the knowledge that God agreed with his reasoning, but nonetheless alone, bereft of colleagues and students and most important without his community. The community was forced to move forward without one of its most cherished teachers.

Being right is not the foundation of community. A community, and a country, can only be sustained by compromise.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

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 dedicated to learning and education? Are we to memorize the words of our sacred text? Are we to be able to recite its stories and its laws by heart? That is not our task. It is instead that we read and discuss, chant and debate. The Torah’s words are the starting point, the beginning of the Jewish discussion. The answer does not end with its words, but rather begin in between its lines.

That is why the Jewish ideal of study is l’shma, for its own sake. We study with no other goal in mind but to learn and expand our horizons of understanding. We listen to the interpretations of our friends sitting across the table. We remain open to different understandings.

There is of course the faith that our study will lead to right action. The Talmud reports: “Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action.” (Kiddushin 40b)

Still our tradition has long argued that this need not be the goal we bring to the conversation and debate. If we enter the study hall with an open heart, if we open the scroll for learning’s sake, then good will emerge. That is our faith.

And so we dance and sing in celebration of this day. It is a joy to study. It is a joy to learn.

It is an immeasurable joy to mark the beginning of another year holding a book in our arms.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

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 in our hands is the better way to nurture the joy that sometimes comes from pursuing the good.  And our tradition would add: even if I do not find this joy, or my child does not, at least someone's hurt has been lifted and goodness has been gained.

Joy should not be our goal.  It results from other actions.  It is only sometimes achieved.  Adding good to our world is instead our sacred task.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


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.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


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 is what Sukkot represents.

It reminds us that not everything is in our hands.  Nature is beyond our control.  Just as a mere wind can knock down a sukkah so to a storm can lift a home off its foundations.  No roof can protect us from all evil and harm.  Sitting in our sukkot we remember this.

On Sukkot we read from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, called in Hebrew Kohelet.  The book opens with the stark words: “Utter futility!—said Kohelet—Utter futility! All is futile!  What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?”  The book reinforces the message that all is like a mere breath.  Even the homes to which we devote so much time and energy and expense are fleeting.

What then is the Jewish response to this fragility and angst?  Embrace it. Build a temporary structure.  Eat your meals there.  Sleep in the sukkah.  Rejoice in your festivals.

Celebrate, despite all of life’s vulnerabilities.  No wind or rain, storm or flood, can ever banish a song from our hearts. 

Recall, the heart is far more sturdy that even the most well built homes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

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 therefore un-Jewish to use as an excuse for inaction, “It is complicated.” The world is indeed complicated, but too often complication and ambiguity are held up as reasons why we cannot get involved. Involvement and concern are our Jewish responses to the world at large. The world’s troubles can be exhausting but the throwing up of our hands and exclaiming, “They will never change. It can never be fixed.” are the most un-Jewish of responses. We do not believe that the future is already written, that everything is fated. It is this sin, the sin of “We can do nothing” that we must banish from our souls on this Yom Kippur. The world can indeed be changed. History can be written by our own hands. So that is my contention at the outset. And now the illustrations. First an example that does not involve life and death.

On Rosh Hodesh Av, the day that begins the intense mourning period for the destruction of the Temple, I accompanied my wife and 300 other women, as well as some 50 men, and joined Women of the Wall for their monthly prayer group. Women of the Wall is a 25 year old organization with one simple purpose. It advocates that women should be allowed to pray at the Western Wall. They argue that they should be allowed to read from the Torah scroll and wear tallisim. They have been met with opposition and until recently prevented from doing so by Israeli authorities. Over the years women were even arrested for praying there at the Wall. Now Israel’s courts have ruled that the State cannot prevent women from praying. So the ultra-Orthodox have stepped in to prevent them from observing Rosh Hodesh. We were called Nazis. A few eggs were thrown. My friend’s daughters were spit on. We continued to pray. We sang, “Ozi v’zimrat yah—my strength and songs to God will be my salvation.” (Psalm 118:14)

The morning began, ironically enough, at Liberty Bell Park where the police insisted we gather before traveling to the Wall. There we boarded buses for the short drive to the Dung Gate. We were accompanied by police cars and then escorted by officers through the entrance to the Western Wall plaza. Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, leaders had bused girls to the Wall ahead of our arrival and filled the women’s section with 5,000 young Haredi girls. The police determined that it would be impossible for Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel and so they only allowed the group into an area just inside the entrance. We stood in a group, enclosed by police and their barricades, and surrounded by thousands of screaming Haredi men on one side and women on the other. They shouted at our prayers. They blew whistles to drown out our singing of Hatikvah.

I never imagined that in the sovereign Jewish state my wife and I would require police protection to pray as we have done all our lives. I felt as if we were the young African American students struggling to integrate a high school in the American South of 1957. The tragic circumstance of the Wall is that it has become a Haredi synagogue. Too often the State has colluded with Haredi leaders to enforce their mode of Jewish prayer on others and more significantly to legislate their form of observance in all public places.

Natan Sharansky recently argued that the Kotel, the Western Wall, belongs to the entire Jewish people. All Jews should therefore be allowed to pray at this national treasure as they deem fit. His proposal of building a third area at the Wall for pluralistic prayer would be a welcome change. For years the Wall that our prayers imagine unifies the Jewish nation instead divides my family. When I first went there I could not stand with my mom. When I next touched its stones I could not stand with my wife Susie, and then some years later not with my daughter Shira. My son Ari and I stood on one side. Susie and Shira stood on the other.

On that day this summer I decided that I could take the tentative steps to change what must be changed. I dream of praying at this ancient site, standing alongside Susie, Shira and my mom. Why should this be such a fanciful vision? I could have said, “Israeli politics is too complicated. The ultra-Orthodox parties have too much control. They will never cede even partial control of the Kotel.” Instead I chose to try. I chose to pray as I would want my children and grandchildren to be able to pray at the Western Wall. As the beautiful, and intelligent, Rabbi Moskowitz (for our new members I am not talking about myself but my wife) said, “Our prayerbooks were our banners, our psalms our protest songs.” Sure it’s complicated. Inaction, ambivalence, indifference, are not possible choices for the Jewish conscience.

So now, as promised, my thoughts on Syria and the crisis there. You may be thinking, that’s complicated. So was every other historical crisis, and atrocity. In 1944, when the atrocities of the Holocaust were becoming clear, Jewish leaders requested that US forces at least bomb the railroad tracks leading into Auschwitz. Here is the Assistant Secretary of the War Department’s response. It is signed by John J. McCloy.
After study it became apparent that such an operation could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources. There has been considerable opinion to the effect that such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans. (More vindictive than gas chambers and crematoria!?) The War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian motives which promoted the suggested operation, but for the reasons stated above it has not been felt that it can or should be undertaken…
I don’t know how we look back on our own history and not cry in pain over the massacres in Syria. I cannot say as Alon Pinkas, an Israeli diplomat said, “Let them bleed and hemorrhage to death.” (NYT, September 5, 2013) And Abraham chastised God when God revealed the intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city…” (Genesis 18) True it is a civil war and not a methodical genocide. Nonetheless over 100,000 have been killed. Over 2 million are now refugees. Sure there are bad guys on both sides. Make no mistake some of the rebels are worse than Assad. They only lack the means and resources to realize their murderous ideology. Still we cannot turn a blind eye. I refuse to remain a mere witness. The use of chemical weapons calls us to action. The danger that these weapons can fall into the hands of Hezbollah or that their use can embolden Iran are real, but the moral justification remains our obligation to relieve suffering. We cannot speak of atrocities only when it is our people who are the victims. We have a moral obligation to fight the use of weapons of mass destruction because their singular purpose is to massacre. I am not of course a military strategist. I cannot know if cruise missiles or a clandestine SEAL operation would be more effective. I can only say what is our moral right and even more importantly our moral duty. At this point our main goal should be to prevent further atrocities and massacres. Punishment and justice comes last. First is the relief of suffering. Sometimes, when evil exists, our only recourse is military means.

I am not naïve to the challenges. Will we empower Islamist forces? Will we strengthen Hezbollah? Will we endanger Israel? Will Jewish leaders be blamed when such a military venture leads to unintended consequences now that AIPAC is lobbying Congress for action? Let me be forthright. Military action always leads to some unforeseen, and unfortunate, results. I have often wondered about the term surgical strike. If surgery were so precise why must one sign a lengthy release form before going under anesthesia? (That is said with all due respect to my many friends who are surgeons.) There is no such thing. There is nothing so neat and tidy when war is involved. Still this cannot be held up as an excuse for inaction. We must never allow the knowledge of the difficulties and challenges to color the moral calculus of good and evil.

President Obama is ambivalent about American military power. Some of his ambivalence is well founded. We have failed in our dream of bringing democratic governments to the Arab Middle East. The Arab Spring is no spring. It offers few buds of rebirth. It appears more like a long, cold winter is approaching. There are limits to our diplomacy. Recent history reminds us that there are limits to our intelligence about WMD. There are limits to what we can achieve by military means. Our army must first and foremost protect our country and its citizens. Secondly we have a moral responsibility to help those suffering and being slaughtered. Regarding the most recent developments about the Russian proposal to turn over Syria’s chemical and biological weapons to international inspectors we must support this. I don’t trust Putin or Assad but we must give this proposal a window of time to test whether or not it can succeed. The Torah reminds us that before waging war we must first offer the city terms of peace. “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it shalom.” (Deuteronomy 21) That’s Torah! We must not remain ambivalent. We cannot just throw our hands up in the air and exclaim, “It’s complicated.”

Again, I turn to Leon Wieseltier, who offers a lucid and incisive commentary on this crisis and who has been writing of our obligation to get involved well before we saw evidence of the use of chemical weapons. He writes: “The idealization of ambivalence is a version of the search for perfection, for a wholly clean conscience, when no such human immaculateness exists and not even just causes are perfect causes. Evil is certainly unambivalent. So it is good to be warned of all the impurities of power; but we are forgetting that power, our power, may be used for good and high purposes.” (TNR, August 27, 2013) Rabbi Tarfon said millennia ago: “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor. V’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena. It is not your duty to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.”

Let us learn from history. A few short weeks ago we marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. On that day in the struggle for civil rights Martin Luther King offered the famous words, “I have a dream.” No less significant, although certainly not as well remembered is the man who spoke immediately before Dr. King. That was Rabbi Joachim Prinz. His words are worth recalling at this juncture in history. He said:
I speak to you as an American Jew…. As Jews we bring to this great demonstration… a two-fold experience – one of the spirit and one of our history. In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity. From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom.…. When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent….
He was of course speaking about a different problem and crisis, but his words haunt me. How many times do I sit at my kitchen table, eating my breakfast and reading the newspapers about the massacres in Syria, or the starving children in West Africa, or the growing poverty among immigrants to our own country? And then I get up from my table as if the day is no different than any other. The letter from the War Department rings in my ears. “The operation would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources.” We are again in danger of becoming onlookers, mere witnesses to history, when our calling and sacred duty is so much more. There were voices then, as there are voices now, who call every problem complicated, every crisis unsolvable. That is not our legacy. We are a people of action.

During that same struggle 16 rabbis were arrested on June 14, 1964 in St. Augustine, FL. They had gathered there at the request of Dr. King to come and pray with the black ministers and parishioners. I am proud to say that one of the many rabbis who officiated at Susie’s and my wedding (there was nearly a minyan of rabbis) was Rabbi Murray Saltzman z”l. They were arrested for eating with Blacks. Blacks and whites were forbidden from even sitting together. That night they sat in jail and wrote together these words:
We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away…. We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.
The greatest danger is the loss of faith in our capacity to act. You bet it was complicated. They obviously risked being jailed. Who knows what their synagogues’ presidents said? We can never say there is nothing that can be done. When there is injustice we speak out. Where there is suffering we take action. That is our legacy! That is our Jewish obligation.

That is as well the lesson of Zionism and the State of Israel. Despite its imperfections, it is the realization of the dream that changing history is possible, that the fate of the world is in our hands. Sure it was complicated building a democratic nation in the inhospitable Arab Middle East. Sure many voices counseled against taking matters into our own hands and settling the land. And yes, it is going to be terribly complicated to forge a peace with the Palestinians but again that cannot be an excuse. To say “We have no partner. We can do nothing.” is a betrayal of our heritage.

I conclude with a story that begins a short drive from the Western Wall. It is the story of Tel Aviv, a city that was only a 100 years ago a beach and is now a cosmopolitan, crowded city of 400,000. In the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area there are some 3 million people.

Susie and I were there for our last Shabbat in Israel to celebrate our 25th anniversary. (Aww!) We attended Shabbat Services at the port, where a new liberal synagogue meets: Beit Tefila Yisraeli. It is the JCB of Israel. Ok, perhaps I am exaggerating, but there is wonderful music and singing there. As the sun is setting over the Mediterranean the congregation sings Eli Eli, Hannah Senesh’s beautiful poem and song, “My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of man.” Imagine this scene. There were hundreds of Israelis, and a lot of American rabbis, sitting in plastic chairs facing not towards Jerusalem but to the West, to the sea. There were nearly ten musicians sitting in front of us to accompany our praying and three more to lead the singing. The entire service was as well signed for the hearing impaired. I was captivated by the signing. He moved his hands to the beat of the drums. He signed the rhythm of the music. His hands appeared to caress the waves behind him.

I do not know if he volunteered or was paid. I imagine some might have even said it would be too complicated to sign rhythm and beat. “There’s too much music.” they perhaps said. Some might have argued that it was not worth the effort to convey music to those who can only feel its presence but not hear its songs. That was not their response. It is complicated has never been our answer.

I refuse to give this statement voice and countenance no matter what problem I am tackling, no matter what struggle I am facing. If that had been our view, we would not have rebuilt a nation, and carved out a new and different future in the State of Israel. If that had been our view we would not have advanced the rights of African Americans in this nation. If that had been our view so many of our relatives would have not begged and borrowed their way to this country and built a comfortable life for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. If that remains our view we will not create the possibilities for peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. If that remains our view the slaughter will continue, the world will become more dangerous, and we will remain but onlookers. If that remains our view our most holiest of places will remain the province of a few and not the rightful heritage of an entire people.

The world is indeed in our hands. And we are forbidden from making excuses. We have heard these excuses throughout our long history of suffering and oppression. It is complicated must never again be uttered from our lips. Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor. V’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena. It is not your duty to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

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 overhead and lowered a safety harness to pull him onboard but again he refused, waving it off and muttering to himself, “God will answer my prayers and I will survive.” Soon the waters covered the roof of the house and the man eventually drowned. He arrived in heaven with a soul filled with doubt. He was welcomed by God. The man blurted out, “God, why didn’t you answer my prayers?” And God said, (everyone) “First I sent a car, then I sent a boat and finally I sent a helicopter.”

This story—or joke—illustrates an important observation about prayer. The answers to our prayers are not always what we expect. Miracles are not as we read in the Bible and as recounted by our tradition. Sometimes we are God’s instruments. Sometimes we help to fulfill other people’s prayers.

I have been thinking about our prayers and the meaning of prayer. As you know we are piloting the Reform movement’s forthcoming High Holiday prayerbook that we are using this evening. Part of being a Reform congregation is that our prayers and our prayerbook are renewed on a regular basis. Contemporary musings and new understandings must be added to our ancient prayers. That is part of the essence of Reform. I hope that some who are here this evening will volunteer to provide concrete feedback to the prayerbook’s editors. On Rosh Hashanah we discussed our prayers for peace: Shalom Rav and Sim Shalom as well as a powerful biblical story: Hannah’s prayer for a son.

In just about every way Jewish prayer runs counter to our contemporary culture. Let me lay out the conflict of prayer in the modern era. There are three ideals of Jewish prayer: 1. There are set times for our prayers. 2. There are fixed texts to recite. And 3. We say our prayers together, with others. I would like to meditate on these ideals and the conflicts they represent. To be honest I don’t have all the answers sorted out, but I think it is important to raise the questions our contemporary times raise. If we are going to be committed Jews in the modern age we have to address the questions of prayer. For centuries prayer has defined us. It has bound us together. So we had better start asking the questions and formulating at least partial responses and answers to why pray and why pray as Jews.

1. Conflict #1. There is a set time to offer our prayers. There is shacharit, minhah and maariv on a regular day. There is the morning, afternoon and evening prayers. The opening debate in the Talmud in Masechet Brachot is if you have to say the Shema in the morning, when is it too late to say the morning Shema? In other words when have you missed your opportunity, and in Jewish terms, obligation, to say the morning Shema? We have our Shabbat prayers that begin Friday evening at sunset and our holiday prayers that begin on appointed days. It would make no sense to gather for Seder in December or to light the menorah in April. Our prayers are structured around hours. That is the Jewish ideal. There are set times to say our prayers. You can’t say the prayers whenever you want. You can’t change the date of Rosh Hashanah, as much as we might have wanted to this year. You can’t say the Shema in the afternoon. You can’t light Shabbat candles on Thursday evening even if it is more convenient. That is the conflict.

We belong to a generation that gets to do whatever they want when they want to. Let me illustrate with one of my favorite pastimes—no, not cycling, but Netflix. The release of “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” series is the beginning of the end of a shared, appointed hour. Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to demonize Netflix. I love it. I can watch old classics as well as recent releases whenever I want. With the advent of streaming I can watch whatever I want, whenever I want. Last year, following the High Holidays and as a release from their pressures, I watched the entire season 1 of “Prisoners of War,” the Israeli series on which Showtime’s “Homeland” is based. Seasons 1 and 2 are actually on Hulu if you are interested. In three evenings I “binged” on TV. Netflix has of course capitalized on this change in our viewing habits and released their series all at once. Gone are even the days when you have to program your DVR. As I shared on Rosh Hashanah evening, sometimes I make the mistake of calling my parents between 6:30 and 7 in the evening. They always pick up the phone and say, “Steven (it is not Steve when I have made a mistake) we can’t talk now, the news is on.” I want to shout, “But it’s on the Internet. Check your inbox.” Who is still bound by that external clock? Rarely do I even watch “The Daily Show” at its appointed hour. I almost always watch clips the next day. But just because I can watch when I want does not mean I should watch when I want. The question for our age is what is lost when each of us just follows our own individual schedules divorced from the pulls of the world around us and then immune to the concerns of others?

Shabbat is ushered in by the setting of the sun. It is not dependent on my schedule, but instead on the rhythm of nature. When we follow God’s timetable we become attuned to nature and the world rather than ourselves. The holidays remind us that there are requirements beyond my own, there are obligations that transcend my family’s, there are needs beyond what I want, when I want.

2. Conflict #2. The Jewish tradition has given us a siddur filled with prayers written by generations of poets. Let’s take Sim Shalom for example. Although authored during the rabbinic period nearly 2,000 years ago, the core of this prayer, the priestly blessing, hearkens back to Temple days. Then the priest would conclude the sacrificial service with the words: “Yvarechecha Adonai v’yishmarecha…May the Lord bless you and keep you…” We might prefer the words of John Lennon or be more comfortable or even inspired by the words of “Imagine all the people...” but they do not span thousands of years. When we join in song, singing together the words of Sim Shalom, or Shalom Rav in the evening, we join with prior generations of Jews. It is the words that connect us. Our melodies have certainly changed, but the words remain the same. I am certain that few if any other congregations are blessed with such a rousing Adon Olam with which to conclude services. Part of the prayer’s power is not just our cantor’s voice or Natalie’s fingers but that every synagogue throughout the world is singing these words. If we changed everything, and especially every word, we would lose that connection. With Jews throughout the world we sing the concluding verse, “Adonai li v’lo ira—The Lord is with me; I shall not fear.”

The words are our link to others. The theory of any tradition is that the past is wiser, that the generations that preceded us were more spiritually aware. We rely on their words, on their wisdom. We look back to others in order to learn how to express ourselves. We read others in order to discover the words that too often escape us. Shalom, peace continues to elude us, but the words of our prayers need not do so.

The reason we hold a book in our hands when we pray is that we believe our words have weight. We belong to a tradition that values words. Herein likes the conflict. So many of us no longer read with a book in our hands or the paper spread out on the table. We have kindles and iPads. I love my kindle. I can carry hundreds of books with me. I can have my newspapers and magazines delivered to me wherever I might be. Still I tend to read more broadly when the paper is opened up on my kitchen table. Then I also read the articles next to the articles that I have turned the page to read. With these e-Readers our reading follows our pre-conceived interests. Leon Wieseltier offers this distinction between browsing and search. He suggests that our wisdom is diminished because we no longer browse. Gone are the days when we wander through a bookstore or record store. He writes: “Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations.” (TNR, January 11, 2012) For my children their universities’ beautiful libraries are primarily study halls. They are not what they were for me: places of discovery. I discovered there Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Insecurity of Freedom. It was near the book I was searching for by Martin Buber. On that day of discovery I sat on the floor of the stacks reading Heschel. We discover ourselves in the words of books we did not know we were looking for. If everything becomes virtual how will we learn what we do not know we need to learn?

We belong to a generation in which words are cheapened. Anyone can post anything, right or wrong, factual or not, valued or not. It is not true just because it is on the Internet. To make it to the shelves of a university’s library meant that the words held meaning and conveyed certain truths. My children search on their laptops. Anyone can create a blog. ( The siddur is about words that have been measured against history. They have stood for centuries. They have been recited by generations. I have long argued that the Bible and siddur are our people’s Jewish survival guides. You want to know how to remain a Jew. Carry these two books with you. Read their words. Study their passages. They are the secret to our survival. But they also hold the keys to human survival. It is in books, in words measured on a page, that the spirit is restored.

What happens when words are no longer measured, when the words of prior generations are no longer valued, when our words become virtual and then ephemeral? Will our world be richer or poorer because we no longer look to the aged, to parents and grandparents for wisdom but instead to Google? The Internet might in fact be an extraordinary repository of knowledge, but wisdom is gained by years not by the accumulation of facts. That is what is held in your hands. Even though we may not be able to translate the kaddish prayer word for word, could there be any other words that could mark our grief? Could we celebrate a wedding without the words “Siman tov v’mazel tov.”? Words gain poignancy and weight through the generations.

3. Conflict #3. Ours is a highly individualized and personalized culture. Judaism values the needs of the community over the individual, the prayers of the group over the single person. Prayer with one’s congregation becomes the corrective to the over indulgence of inwardness. While cute, and at times adorable, is it good for us to post selfies all the time? And can someone please tell me why I need to see pictures of my friends’ dinner entrees on Facebook? I am all for self-discovery and individual rights but the group is where we attain meaning, the community is where we achieve greatness. That is the Jewish view. We pray with a minyan, a quorum of ten. We recount our sins on this day of Yom Kippur using “we.” It is not that everyone of us has committed the same wrong, but instead that we are strengthened by “us.” And we are weakened by saying “me.”

Back to Netflix and TV. It was not so long ago that we gathered to watch TV together. Now I can watch TV by myself on my laptop, again whenever I want. Community was once, and not so long ago, bonded together with weekday discussions of “Did you watch the Sopranos this weekend? That whole cell phone thing was amazing.” Such a discussion seems like ancient times. Now, when asked “Did you watch ‘Orange is the New Black?’” I respond with “It is in my queue.” And by the time I get around to watching it, the discussion is lost and the ties that bind one to others begin to fray. With the exception of football and sports, everyone is on a different schedule. It used to be that my friends and I gathered in my basement to watch MTV (I assure you, we did nothing else) and waited with excitement for a debut music video and then later might watch Saturday Night Live. We laughed together. We critiqued the videos together. We were bound together around that TV. Now videos are posted on Timelines and in boxed to each other rather than viewed at the same time, in the same place—together, with others. Friendships and community did appear more palpable than today’s virtual, online friends. Ask any kid who goes to sleep away camp where their best friends are made and they will most likely tell you those at camp. Part of the reason why has to be because there are no iPhones and laptops at camp. You still have to talk to each other face to face. You have to work out problems by talking rather than texting. I know I have said that before, but it is worth repeating. Maybe we should limit the computer and iPhone use a little more. How can you learn the all important “we” if existence is defined by me, and my iPhone?

I am sure by now some might think that I am against change and innovation, that I don’t recognize the virtues and gifts of the modern, technological age. This is not the case. I love gadgets. But the pace of change is so quick that the questions have barely kept up with the innovations. We are unprepared for Google Glass! Our children will be the most self-photographed generation in history. Our task on this day is to ask these questions, to explore the implications of where we are heading. I do not believe that rabbis should stand before you and say, “Change is bad. The future is doomed.” But let’s at least talk about what is changing. Our infatuation with gadgets comes at a cost. Let’s ask ourselves what is worth preserving. Our humanity is not necessarily enhanced by all technologies. Existence and meaning cannot be, and must not be, defined by computers and iPhones. They are but tools. That is part of why we need prayer.

Prayer helps to lift us out of our own individual concerns and look to the needs of others, to the requirements of the community, and the welfare of the world. Still we come to synagogue with our individual requests. We want instant gratification, an immediate response, and a quick fix to what ails us. That is not Judaism’s view. A certain familiarity with the rhythm of the prayers is required. There is not the expectation that a spiritual awakening will occur the first time one attends or even the second. There is not the suggestion as well that each and every time one will feel something.

The role of the shliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, is to lift our prayers. No one can of course sing like our cantor. Our prayers are carried on hers. She lifts us. Sure you can pray by yourself. Sure you can work out by yourself. But you might never finish the last mile on your own. Your prayers might never reach heaven if standing alone. In community we tend to ask for that which will benefit all. We rejoice together. We sing together. Prayer helps to restore balance and perspective. In a world that sees the individual as first and foremost we require a corrective. We need reminders to look out for others. Prayer calls us to what is truly important and lasting. It is not me. It is instead us.

On Rosh Hashanah morning we studied the story of Hannah’s prayer. Hannah prayed for a child. She went to temple and poured out her soul. The Bible says: “V’hi marat nefesh v’titpaleil al-Adonai u’vacho tivkeh—In the bitterness of her soul, she prayed before the Lord, weeping and crying.” Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk because of how she was carrying on. He scolded her. She then explained her torment. He said, “Lchi l’shalom. Go in peace. And may the God of Israel grant your request.” The Bible reports that God remembered Hannah and opened her womb and she gave birth to Samuel, the prophet, who later anoints the great kings of Israel. I had often read this story as an illustration of the biblical, and later rabbinic, paradigm: pray really hard and God will give you a miracle. But this seems remote and almost, I dare say, fantasy. Over the years I have wondered if the story is not a cruel torment for those struggling to have children. But this year I discovered that the meaning of the story is not in the apparent answer to Hannah’s prayer of a son. It is instead found in the verse that immediately follows her prayer. As soon as Eli offers his words of comfort, as soon as she has poured out her pain, it is reported: “So the woman left, and she ate, and she was downcast no longer.” That is what prayer can offer. She was downcast no longer. (I Samuel 1)

Do you want to know why pray? It is because no matter the century, no matter the technological advances, prayer reminds us that the moment matters, the word has import, and the community continues to lift us. No new device will ever be able to provide what has sustained us for millennia. When we are downcast sometimes all that is required is a song and a prayer.

L’chi l’shalom. Go in peace. And may the God of Israel grant your request.