Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vayigash and Scattered Books

The following commentary was distributed to rabbis and Jewish leaders throughout the country by the Jewish Federations of North America.

Eight years after his brother’s tragic death, the unparalleled medieval Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, wrote a letter to a friend, speaking about his recent struggle with mourning and loss: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness: he has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land. Whenever I come across his handwriting or one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.” This letter was discovered among the hundreds of thousands of documents uncovered in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue in what is now called the Cairo Genizah. There, hidden away for centuries, were prayerbooks and Bibles, Talmuds and commentaries, holy books scattered among seemingly incidental letters and writings.

Several weeks ago I arrived at the synagogue to discover a box of old books. The caretaker informed me that this happens from time to time. Worn siddurim and chumashim, along with crumpled yarmulkes, were left at the door. I wonder if these were the remnants of a parent’s library. Not long ago the mourners perhaps gathered in the home in which they grew up, now they returned to close up the house, pack away keepsakes and donate useful items. What might they do with these books?

One can imagine the discussion: Can we throw them out? They appeared to answer: leave them at the nearest synagogue. And so in the middle of the night they placed the books by our synagogue’s door. I wandered through the books. Some had to be placed in our genizah, destined to be buried. Some were added to our congregation’s book collection. A few were intriguing: an unfamiliar translation of the psalms, an obscure edition of the Passover haggadah. One book caught my eye. Between the prayerbooks and Bibles I found a hundred year old book: Audels Automobile Guide with Questions, Answers and Illustrations, 1915. This manual offered answers to questions such as “How should the throttle be operated on an open or country road?” Here was a discarded book, detailing forgotten questions, hidden among abandoned holy books.

I wondered how many of our Jewish books are becoming increasingly forgotten. Is it because the questions of prior generations no longer appear relevant? Who drives a car with a handle throttle lever anymore? “From what time may one recite the Shema?” the Talmud asks. Or is it perhaps because our parents’ books cause us pain, discomfort, unease? Do our hearts grow faint when we see the books revered by prior generations?

For millennia our most treasured possessions were books. So revered were these works that even their tattered pages were never discarded. They were instead buried.

Two books in particular have guaranteed our survival: the Siddur, prayerbook and the Torah, Bible. We have carried these books from place to place, from country to country. Wherever we have lived we have grasped these in our hands. We have reinterpreted their verses and rewritten their words. They have defined us. These books have ensured that the Jewish future would be connected to past generations. We might be different than our parents and grandparents, but the books we hold in our hands would always be familiar. The written word remains eternal.

And yet we live in an age when words appear cheapened. They are quantified and measured; they are applauded by likes. How can a generation where words are as a fleeting as a Snapchat ensure that a people will remain devoted to words? In an age of the abbreviated text message how might we continue to clutch the heft of words in our hands? Is it even possible to bequeath gigabytes to our children?

I write notes scattered in the margins of my books.

Jacob, who became known as Israel, is nearing the end of his life. He travels to Egypt to join his son Joseph. There they grasp possessions. (Genesis 47:27) Is it at this moment that Israel takes hold of the books that will forever define us?

Jacob begins his life by taking hold of his brother’s heel. (Genesis 25:26) It is then that he earns his first name. We begin our lives holding on to others; we grow in wisdom by holding on to our most treasured possessions. We leave these books for future generations to pore over and reinterpret. We read the notes left by parents and grandparents. They give us strength—if we but grasp them. It is then that we become Israel.

I worry. Will books continue to be left at synagogue’s doors, abandoned and discarded, or will they be clutched in our hands and carried through these doors, to be read and pored over, chanted and sung? Will it continue to be said of Israel that words animate us? My heart grows faint within me.

My heart is stirred by the scattering of notes and letters.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah and Distant Miracles

Hanukkah arrives this evening and with it the thought of miracles. A great miracle happened there, we proclaim. Nes gadol haya sham.

A miracle? “When Mattathias had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modiin, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.” (I Maccabees 2:23-26) The war was not only against Antiochus Epiphanies but the Jews who supported him. The first battle was in fact Jew against Jew.

How is it that a story of the Maccabees fighting against the Syrian-Greeks, and against the Jews who welcomed their culture, became a story of miracles? It is because the rabbis, living centuries after the Maccabees and the corruption to which their rule gave rise, and following the disastrous revolt against Rome in their own day, reimagined the Hanukkah struggle. It was no longer a story about war, and most especially the civil war that it in fact was, but instead a tale about God’s power and majesty. In the rabbinic imagination Hanukkah becomes not the victorious war story, filled with the battle scarred heroism of Mattathias and his sons, but instead a tale about God’s miracles. Nes gadol haya sham. God’s light brightens a darkened story.

It was the birth of Zionism and the State of Israel that upended the rabbis’ retelling and their philosophy....

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's Still about Our Values

What follows is my sermon from this past Shabbat in which I discuss the Senate's report on torture.

This week we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers grow increasingly jealous of Joseph. They conspire to kill their younger brother. Then they decide to sell him into slavery. They throw him in a pit and sit down to a meal. I have been thinking about that verse: Vayeshvu le’echol lechem, they sit down to eat. (Genesis 37:25) They turn aside from their brother’s pain.

This week I sat at my breakfast table reading the newspaper. I read of the resurgence of antisemitism and the continuation of terror. I read of the tragic death of Eric Garner and the simmering tensions near my home town of St. Louis. I lost my taste for food. We must no longer turn aside from these injustices.

I read as well this week’s Haftarah. The prophet Amos declares:
Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)
And I read of the Senate’s report on torture. I recalled the prophet’s message. I remembered his words: we are to live by the law—always. His words continue to ring in my ears as I read the report’s details in yesterday’s paper.

The report’s revelations are disturbing. Among the more unsettling discoveries are the following. The CIA lied to Congress and the White House, and covered up the use of these “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  That is a troubling euphemism.  Let us reflect on this: euphemisms too often mask our moral failures. "Collateral damage" actually means that innocent people have died. The report most significantly unveiled that these interrogation techniques were far more brutal and inhumane than we previously believed.

Senator John McCain, who has always been my hero on this issue, said:
I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm... But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend… we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.
I recognize that some might think that we should do whatever it takes to protect American lives. I believe however that torture does not aid in our protection; it does not benefit our security. There is of course debate whether or not torture produces valuable intelligence so let’s leave that question aside and focus instead on the most important issue. The use of torture undermines our values; it undermines the laws that make this country great. We should always be animated first and foremost by our values rather than our fears. The single greatest danger of terrorism is not the loss of life it inflicts but that it will so terrorize us that we will lose our way and forget our values. So it is time we talk more about our values than our fears. That is the message of the prophets. That is the message that America is supposed to offer the world. In this instance we lost our way. That is what was revealed by this week’s news.

Let me be clear: the use of power to protect our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens is a moral imperative. But we must wield this power justly. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made; police and armies make errors. And we must then have the courage to examine our failures. To take an honest accounting of our wrongs, a heshbon hanefesh in our tradition’s language, is also a moral imperative. I reject the argument that the airing of this report makes us weaker, that it somehow endangers lives. I believe the opposite. It makes us stronger. That is the message we recount on the High Holidays. Each and every one of us can change. A community can change; a country can change. Great countries must certainly have the courage to examine their failures so that they can change and be even greater.

Soon we will be celebrating Hanukkah. Everyone is familiar with the story. But there is a dark side to the story of the light of Hanukkah. The Maccabees and their rule quickly became corrupt; they soon abused their power. They so believed they were right that they came to believe they could do no wrong; their righteous indignation in the face of all who disagreed with them, including fellow Jews, made them guilty of wrongs, and some even say atrocities. This is why the tradition argued that all must be subject to the law. Hanukkah is on one level a cautionary tale about power. That’s not how we usually tell it, but maybe we should recall that message at this moment.

In the war against terror, actually in the war against Muslim fanaticism and fundamentalism (that is the ideology we are battling), we must be on guard against losing our values. Even our enemies, when facing us in battle, even our enemies, when captured, are human beings, who are deserving of protection. Judaism teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image. We must never lose sight of this

I recognize that we are still afraid, even after all these years after 9-11. We are sometimes afraid for our lives. But we must never allow that fear to make us lose sight of the values that make us great. Even the weakest, even the most despised, and yes even our avowed enemies, are deserving of certain protections.

Amos declares:
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Judah,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have spurned the Torah of the Lord
And have not observed God’s laws;
They are beguiled by the delusions
After which their fathers walked. (Amos 2:4)
Let us take our cue from the prophets. We dare not turn aside. We must restore justice to its rightful place. Only justice will protect our most cherished dreams.

Again John McCain: “But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us.”

There is no doubt that these terrorists are horrible and despicable people. But the law must still prevail. It is about us. It is about our values. Let us restore justice to its rightful place. Amen!

Below is Senator John McCain's speech on the Senate floor.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vayeshev and the Haftarah's Call

This week we begin the gripping story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the youngest child of Jacob, born to his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob showers love and affection on Joseph. The brothers become jealous of him. One day they conspire to kill him, but instead throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. This is how Joseph and then his family, and then ultimately the Jewish people, end up in Egypt.

The tension quickly builds in the opening chapter. “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) How could Joseph’s very own brothers be so cruel? “Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:25) After throwing him into a pit, they callously sit down to eat.

And yet how often do we go about our days, eating our meals, as injustices are committed around us?

This was the prophets’ keen observation. Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that it was their pathos which forms the foundation of our Bible. He writes: “[The prophets] are some of the most disturbing people who ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being—the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”

The rabbis married a Haftarah portion, a selection from the prophets, with every Torah portion. Haftarah means to complete and thus the Haftarah completes, and compliments, the Torah portion. Vayeshev is paired with the first of the literary prophets, Amos who lived in the eighth century B.C.E. He castigates the people for their greed. He rails against oppression. “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course…” (Amos 2:6-7) The prophet appears to recall the sins of Joseph’s brothers. His warnings could very well have been directed against the brothers.

It is a mystery why the rabbis instituted the reading of the Haftarah. Some suggest it was during a time when the Torah reading was forbidden and so the Haftarah would offer hints of what people were unable to hear. Others suggest it was because people were growing increasingly unfamiliar with the prophets and the importance of their message. The Haftarah reminds us of our obligations to the world at large. Do we hear its message?

Too often we chant the Haftarah’s words but fail to take them into our hearts. This was one of the critiques the early Reform rabbis offered. We had forgotten to speak against society’s ills. “The Lord roars from Zion, shouts aloud from Jerusalem… Ah you who turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground.” (Amos 5:7) What will make us regain the prophetic spirit that is the heritage of Reform? What injustices will call us to regain our voice?

The world calls for our attention and concern. There is racism and violence, torture and poverty, terror and hunger.

The prophet demands that we not turn aside, that we pay more careful attention to the world’s travails. And yet Heschel rightly notes that the prophet speaks in an octave too high. How can we hear the shrill scream? He writes: “The prophet is sleepless and grave. The frankincense of charity fails to sweeten cruelties. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him who is sleepless and grave. Perhaps the prophet knew more about the secret obscenity of sheer unfairness, about the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference…”

And we continue with our meals.  Do we hear the prophet’s call?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Vayishlach, Wins, Losses and Ties

Years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friend and I skipped an evening lecture to attend a soccer match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Yerushalyim. Our teachers were not happy with our decision. Our protests that this too is Israeli culture were dismissed as naiveté. What could we possibly learn at a soccer stadium? How to curse in the most colorful of ways? Israeli soccer is not the highbrow culture of the poet Yehudah Amichai or the novelist Amos Oz. It is not the thoughtful and passionate debate of the beit midrash, the study hall, where I spent most of my days. We watched fights break out. We looked on in disbelief as fans threw a smoke bomb.

It was a rather unsatisfying game. The final score was 0-0. It ended in a tie. It concluded with the fans muttering “Teiku.” Modern Hebrew has borrowed a word from Talmudic times. It has lifted a word out of the study hall and brought it to the arena.

Teiku is the Talmud’s word for when a debate is concluded without decision. It means let it stand. Others say it is an acronym meaning when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah this disagreement will be resolved. This is the original meaning for Elijah’s cup at the Seder table. Some rabbis said there should be four cups of wine and others said five. Teiku! For now we compromise. No one wins. No one loses.

The beauty, and genius, of the Talmud is that it allows contradictions to stand. Our book is not a law code of answers. It is a record of discussions and debates. The Jewish people are often called the people of the book. Many think this phrase refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but it is the Talmud that better gives life to our spirit. What we find in the pages of the Talmud best exemplifies the Jewish heart. It is there that Israel, the people of the book, is born.

Rabbis who vociferously disagreed with each other are found on the same page. They might not have lived in the same town and they might not have even known each other, they might as well not have even lived in the same century, but in the verses of the Talmud they sit at the same table, and argue with one another. That is the most important lesson of the Talmud’s volumes. Even though we disagree, every one of us, can be discovered on the same page.

Today, by contrast, we value ideology over debate. This trend began in medieval times when our traditional literature moved from the arguments of the Talmud to the distillation of law in codes such as the Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Arukh and the systemization of thought in the philosophies of Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides. We tend to value loyalty to ideas over devotion to community. We write those with whom we disagree out of our books.

The Talmud is our heart. That is the lesson I learned from my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman.

Teiku! Let it stand.

We can scream and yell for our team. We should argue for our view. We should fight to advance our position. When passions get the better of us we might even curse. Passionate debate is not always as highbrow as our teachers would like it to be.

What makes us Israel? It is struggle. It is argument. It is debate.

This week we read the mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being. He emerges from this struggle with a limp but also a new name. He becomes Yisrael, Israel. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) He is injured by the struggle. He gains his identity through the challenge.

Heated debates guarantee the future. Knowing when to let it stand ensures that we have others with which to argue.

Teiku. 0-0!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vayetzei, Thanksgiving and Being Angels

Jacob awakes from his dream of a ladder reaching toward heaven with angels going up and down and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16)

A Hasidic story. A wealthy man who approaches the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asks if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire. (I first heard this story from Rabbi Naomi Levy.)

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack hallah, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband comforted her.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well and drank well. They sang and prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his stomach was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside filled with anger. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's shoe got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up he overheard sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the hut. The children were jumping up and down and shouting with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever experienced.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was. "Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

Why did the angels go up the ladder in the opposite direction from what would be expected? Why did they climb the ladder not down from heaven but up from the earth?

The answer is uncovered in the story.

Not if we become Elijah.

The answer is discovered in Jacob’s dream.

Not if we are angels.

Nearly 300,000 Long Islanders receive emergency food assistance every year.  (Read more at Long Island Cares.)

We are surrounded by extraordinary abundance. And yet 50 million Americans struggle to feed themselves and their families. No one should go hungry in this blessed land.

We can do more. We can be like Elijah. We can become angels.

That is our dream. It is the same as Jacob's.  To climb ladders toward heaven. To become angels.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Toldot and Wells of Tears

Terrorism seeks to instill fear. Its goal is to terrorize. The danger of terrorism is that it makes us question doing the most ordinary of things.

On Tuesday, in Jerusalem, four Jews were brutally murdered while standing and beginning to pray the Amidah. One brave Druze policeman was killed while saving the lives of his fellow countrymen. In that moment preceding the chanting of the words “Blessed are You Adonai our God; God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob…” our thoughts are supposed to be focused on God, all distractions are to be pushed aside. We focus on God and God alone. It was in this moment that terrorists burst into the synagogue with their murderous intent. On this occasion their bloodied shouts of “God is great” silenced our “Blessed are You Adonai shield of Abraham.”

And yet, we will return to our prayers....

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chayei Sarah and Teaching Compassion

This week we read of Sarah’s death. She dies at the age of 127 years and Abraham buries her in the Cave of Machpeleh in Hebron. This begins our attachment to this city located in today’s West Bank. All the patriarchs and matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel, are buried there.

Following the mourning for Sarah, Abraham sends his most trusted servant, Eliezer on an errand to find a wife for his 37 year old son, Isaac. (Talk about helicopter parenting!) Eliezer travels to the country of Abraham’s birth and goes there to the town well. The well was the singles bar of ancient times because young women would go there to fetch water. So Eliezer wisely went to the well in order to find a young wife for his master.

He decided that he would choose this wife not based on her beauty but instead on her character. And how would he make this determination? He decided that whoever offered to give him water and offer as well to water his camels would be the right woman. “When Rebekah had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.” (Genesis 24:19-20) Because of this he discovered that she was a compassionate person.

Kindness to animals is a measure of compassion to humans. In fact there is whole body of Jewish law dealing with our obligations to animals. We are commanded to be sure that animals do not suffer. This is the tradition’s basis for kosher slaughtering. The Talmud even suggests that we must feed our animals (in our case our pets) before we eat. (Brachot 40a) Why? Because to not do so may cause pain to the animals. Imagine how your dog responds every time you sit down for meal. The dog becomes agitated at your feet until you fill the bowl with food.

The tradition reasons that compassion to other human beings begins with showing kindness to animals. Moses Nachmanides, a medieval philosopher, reasons that this is the very reason for the commandment regarding preventing cruelty to animals. It is to inculcate compassion toward human beings. We learn the value of compassion by caring for pets. This is what we hope to teach our children by bringing a dog or cat into our homes.

This is what the servant Eliezer must have intuited when we first saw Rebekah. This is why he brought her back to marry Isaac. I imagine that when Rebekah and Isaac first met she saw the pain in his eyes. She saw that he was still grieving after his mother’s death. I imagine that she wrapped her arms around him and said, “I am sorry for your loss. Eliezer tells me what a remarkable woman your mother was.”

And the Torah states: “Isaac loved Rebekah, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)

Such traits of kindness can begin with the feeding of animals. A character founded on compassion can begin with the offering of water to a stranger.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Vayera and Ishmael's Cries

There are certain verses of my holiest of books that haunt my Jewish dreams.

Here is one such verse: “Hagar thought, ‘Let me not see when the child dies.’ And she sat a distance and raised her voice and wept.” (Genesis 21:16)

And here is the story. Sarah is unable to bear children and so she instructs her husband Abraham to have sexual relations with her maidservant, Hagar. She gives birth to a son and Abraham names him, Ishmael—God will hear. Some years later Sarah, as God promised, miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac. According to the Torah she is 90 years old and Abraham 100 at this point.

Sarah soon becomes jealous of Ishmael and overprotective of Isaac. She worries that Hagar’s son will supplant her son’s rightful place as heir to Abraham’s promise. Sarah instructs Abraham to banish them. He is troubled by this demand and consults with God. God advises Abraham to heed his wife’s request and reminds him that Ishmael will also become a great nation. Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham through Ishmael and Jews through Isaac. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with meager rations.

They quickly run out of water. Hagar places Ishmael by a bush and begins to weep.

The story continues. News reports suggest that a Third Intifada is beginning in the city that Jews and Muslims both deem holy. Jerusalem convulses.  The Torah reverberates with contemporary meaning.

The tears remain. My dreams become restless nights.

“God heard the voice of the child…. And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the skin with water and gave it to the boy to drink.” (Genesis 21: 19)

God hears all cries.

Do we?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lech Lecha and Prayers of Questions

We recall this week’s portion in the opening benediction of the Amidah with the words: “Blessed are You Adonai shield of Abraham and helper of Sarah.”

God is a protecting shield. The Torah recounts: “Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. God said, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.’” (Genesis 15:1) A shield is a military image. It blocks the path of enemies. It leads the charge. It affords added protection. And yet Abram responds: “O Lord God what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?”

Our hero Abraham addresses only the promise yet unfulfilled and not the reassurance of divine protection. If it were possible to say it appears as if Abraham loses faith. He lacks confidence in the journey he has only recently set out upon. God commands, “Lech lech—Go!” and Abraham goes. And then he begins to doubt the promise, saying in effect, “You told me I am going to be a great nation but how can this be true if I don’t even have a child?” Isaac, and Ishmael, will soon be born, but at this moment there appear questions and doubt. How curious it is that we then begin our central prayer recalling this dialogue of questioning and doubt.

Perhaps this is how we enter prayer as well. Do we as well doubt the reward? Do we wonder if our promises will be fulfilled, our prayers answered? The journey of prayer begins with praise: God, You are the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. It then moves to petition. We beg for health. We conclude with thanks. “Modim anachnu lach—we give thanks to You.” Do our prayers assuage all questions? Of course not. We offer the words of our tradition as reassurance, as a shield against our doubts.

The image of a shield suggests strength and confidence. We can persevere. With this added protection we can set out on any journey. It buttresses our faith. We open our prayers recalling Abraham’s journey. We shield our hearts.

Our words and prayers rebuild our confidence. We sing. We pray.

“We set our hope on the Lord,
He is our help and shield;
in Him our hearts rejoice,
for in His holy name we trust.” (Psalm 33:20)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Noah, Klinghoffer and Intoxicating Tragedies

In 1862 a reviewer wrote the following about Victor Hugo’s publication of Les Miserables: “One cannot read without unconquerable disgust all the details Monsieur Hugo gives regarding the successful planning of riots.” And yet most people describe the Broadway production of “Les Miserables” to be among their favorites. It is a remarkable show. 150 years after the Paris Uprising of 1832, or depending on your perspective the June Rebellion, with no allegiances to either side in that struggle standing among us, we are afforded the luxury of historical perspective. We can more easily judge the artist’s work.

This is among the challenges confronting us when evaluating the production of John Adam’s opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Not only is thirty years insufficient time to grant us an objective, historical view, but the struggle continues. Palestinian terrorists remain our enemies. The memory of a painful summer of war still haunts us. We do not see a death, but murder.

And yet I decided to evaluate the opera....

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Simhat Torah, Letters and Lessons

This evening begins the holiday of Simhat Torah, the day that marks the joy we feel when we begin the Torah reading anew.

According to Jewish tradition the Torah is perfect. If a sentence appears repetitive, a word seems curious, a letter seems out of place, the fault cannot be with the Torah, but instead with the interpreter. Each and every week we unroll the scroll and discover a question.

And so we begin again. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? If the Torah is without error and authored by the hand of God then why open with the second letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, rather than the first? The rabbis offer suggestions.

Their answers are discovered in a collection of sermons called Bereshit Rabbah, a book compiled in the land of Israel during the third century.

Rabbi Jonah said: Why was the world created with a bet? Just as the bet is closed at the sides but open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind. In other words speculation about what preceded creation is to be avoided, questions about what constitutes the heavens are unhelpful. Focus on the here and now. The mysteries of the heavens and what may or may not have existed before creation are matters that lead one astray.

Another rabbi answers: To teach you that there are two worlds. Bet has the numerical value of two and thus points to the rabbinic teaching that in addition to this world there exists the world to come: namely, heaven. Yes, Judaism believes in heaven. End of sermon.

But the discussion and debate continues. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? Because it connotes blessing. The Hebrew word for blessing is baruch and begins with a bet. The word for curse, on the other hand, is arur and begins with an alef. If the world was created with an alef, others might ask, “How can the world endure seeing that it was created with the language of cursing?” Hence the Holy One responded, “I will create the world with the language of blessing in order that it will stand.” Although it might not always appear to be so, the world is filled with blessing.

Given that they are rabbis, another comments. Why with a bet? Just as the bet has two projecting points, one pointing upward and the other backward, it prompts us to ask, “Who created you?” It intimates with its upward point, “God who is above me.” And we ask further, “What is God’s name?” And it points with its back point to the Lord. God’s name, Adon, begins with the alef. Every sermon concludes with God.

Rabbi Eleazar relates a story: For twenty-six generations the alef complained before the Holy One, pleading with God. The alef said, “Sovereign of the Universe! I am the first of the letters, yet You did not create Your world with me!” God answered: “The world and its fullness were created for the sake of the Torah alone. Tomorrow, when I come to reveal My Torah at Sinai I will begin My revelation with none other than you, “I (Anokhi) am the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20:2) With this letter the Ten Commandments are given and the world is righted.

Creation begins with the bet of blessings, but it is sustained by the alef of our actions.

The questions continue to be unrolled before us.

A teaching can stand on one letter.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sukkot, Journeys and Dreams

Below is my article distributed by

Our tradition gives life to journeying. The Torah affirms wandering.

Usually we think of the Torah in its discrete portions. We divide it up week by week. The reading of these five books can then be more easily completed in one year’s time. On this occasion think of the Torah in its entirety.

Early on God promises that we will find fulfillment in a new land. God tells Abraham, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) Abraham and his children and his children’s children build a new life in a new land. For generations our ancestors built a home in this Promised Land, but as everyone knows they become slaves in Egypt until hundreds of years later God rescues them and promises to return them to this land. The remainder of the Torah, actually the majority of the Torah, is about this journey home.

We wander for forty years. Near the end of our holiest of books we reach the edge of the Jordan River. We can see the dream from the top of Mount Nebo. Moses dies. The Torah concludes. We return to the beginning of the story. We never get to the promise. We are forever wandering. That is the Torah’s message. Our dreams remain incomplete. Our journey continues. We never arrive home.

No holiday better exemplifies this sentiment than Sukkot. In order for a sukkah to be a sukkah the roof in particular has to be of a temporary quality. If your sukkah is so sturdy that it keeps the rain out, then it is not a sukkah but a house. That in a nutshell is the tradition’s guidelines for these temporary booths. They are to remind us of our ancestors’ journey.

They are to teach us that our lives are incomplete; we are forever journeying and never home. Perhaps we are told to live in these sukkot so that we might look at our houses from afar. Sometimes we can better appreciate our blessings when we look at them from a distance.

Years ago I built my sukkah with a student who was homeless. I invited him, as well as my other students, to come to my apartment to help build the sukkah. He was the only person who accepted the invitation. At the time we lived in an apartment in Great Neck. Rather than calling me so that I could pick him up in Queens where the subway train reached its limit, he walked to my apartment from the subway station. When I told him that I would give him money to take the railroad for his return to the city, he refused and insisted on walking back to the subway for his journey to the shelter where he lived.

Together on my apartment’s balcony we constructed my sukkah. As we lifted the boards and hammered together the sukkah, I remember thinking to myself: “I am constructing this sukkah to remind me how fortunate I am. For me this sukkah is temporary. Its roof is flimsy. Its walls are permeable. It is less than my house. It is a reminder that life should not revolve around material possessions. For my student however it is far more than his house. It is not less than he owns, but more.”

It was in that moment that I realized the true spiritual meaning of this Sukkot holiday. We might live in beautiful and comfortable homes filled with many wonderful things, but meaning can be found in a few boards and a flimsy roof. We can always fill our lives with more spirit.

All are homeless. All are wandering.

We continue to journey. We conclude the Torah at the edge of a dream. We begin the reading anew. We begin the telling of our story again, in each and every generation.

Lying next to my children in our sukkah we huddle together for warmth in the cool fall evenings. We peer through the roof and gaze at the stars. I tell them about Abraham’s dream. I imagine that this was the same night sky that Abraham also saw and caused him to dream of the one God. I speak to them of our people’s journey.

The dreaming continues.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mud and Dreams: Israel and Antisemitism

What follows is the written text of my Yom Kippur morning sermon exploring the recent war in Gaza, antisemitism and our best response to the world's evils.

I returned from my annual trip to Israel searching for a return to normalcy. The signs of the war I left behind appeared everywhere. I ventured to West Neck Beach to join my friends for a morning swim in the Long Island Sound. It is my latest fitness passion: open water swimming. The parking lot was filled with trucks and tents. Apparently West Neck Beach parking lot is the staging area for the filming of “Royal Pains,” a show often filmed in the Huntington area. Over the years there have been times when our showers and bathrooms have been transformed into a Tiki Bar. The signs of the weeks prior reappeared. My mind wandered to my friends and acquaintances waiting at their army units’ staging area on Gaza’s border for the start of the ground offensive. Our parking lot appeared as such a trifling by comparison. A staging area for a bad TV show. A staging area for troops readying for battle. 64 Israeli soldiers were killed in action. 2,200 Gazans died in ruins.

On another day, I was at the office and the custodial staff was moving furniture in the floor above me (this was at 430 North Broadway). Such rearranging of the tables and chairs in the catering hall there often made loud noises in our offices below. There was a loud bang. I sat up and thought, “I have to go to the bomb shelter.” The war continues to find me. And then I remembered where I was. To be honest I never felt threatened or even afraid when I was in Jerusalem. It was not like life stopped. On the two occasions when I did what I was supposed to do and followed protocol, here is what happened. The sirens went off. I walked down the stairs of my apartment to the basement and greeted whoever else was there. We introduced ourselves if it was our first meeting. Then came the routine. Count the explosions (1-2-3-4) and later confirm the news reports to see if your count was accurate. (“Four rockets intercepted in the Jerusalem area.”) Wait 10 minutes, say goodbye and then return to the apartment and most important of all continue with your day as if nothing happened. Our office staff with whom I Skyped thought my attitude was rather cavalier. In Jerusalem however where there were 90 seconds of warning there was little cause for alarm. In fact I went for my scheduled run about an hour after the second warning siren. And yet I was surprised how those booms found their way into my heart.

While the attitude of everyday Israelis might be nonchalant (what choice do they really have?) the decision of the Israeli government to defend its citizens against such rocket attacks is absolutely just. It is the right, and obligation, of every nation to give priority to the lives of its own citizens over the lives of others. In the course of one week alone during July Hamas fired over 1,000 rockets. If not for Iron Dome (Kippat Barzel), and the activism of AIPAC and the support of the US Congress and in this case the support of President Obama, the summer would have been far different. I would have been afraid to continue with my day as if nothing happened. All Israelis, like the citizens of Southern Israel who have only 15 seconds to run for cover, would have then spent the better part of their days and nights in shelters.

Still the heart beats with fear from this summer of war. Many of us have spoken about my experiences and our feelings. We are angry about the world’s reaction and its indifference to Jewish pain. We are maddened at how quickly it takes up the case of Israel’s enemies. Let me focus on these issues this morning. First an ancient story. You know it well.

When the Jewish people were leaving Egyptian slavery they reached the shores of the Sea of Reeds. God performed a miracle and parted the sea so that they could cross the waters to dry land. Their Egyptian enemies pursued them and were drowned in the sea. We celebrate this miracle every time we gather for services with the words of Mi Chamocha. Most people don’t think about this and most certainly don’t dwell on this but if the waters just receded then the people were walking through mud. I have been thinking about that image. It occurs to me that every miracle has its mud, every miracle has its yuck.

I believe the creation of the state of Israel is a modern miracle. It stirs my Jewish heart in ways that I still struggle to understand. And this I also realize, this miracle too has its mud. And so this morning we are going to wade through some mud. We are going to get a little dirty and it is going to be somewhat uncomfortable and even messy. This sermon is the starting point of what I hope will be our continuing debate. I really hope that some will return this afternoon for our open discussion about world events. I hope that more will get involved in our Israel Committee.

Here is the first bit of mud. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, argued that the creation of the Jewish state would forever solve the problem of antisemitism. Oops. That was his argument for why we needed a state for the Jewish people. He did not care one iota if it was in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. He did not think we should even speak Hebrew there. His writings grew out of his reporting on the Dreyfus trial in France. Captain Dreyfus, a French Jew, was tried and convicted of treason for one reason. Because he was a Jew. Herzl came to believe that only if we band together in a state of our own can we cure antisemitism. What bitter irony! In our own age attacks against Jews have become synonymous with hatred of Israel. Do I need to recount the many examples from this past summer? “Gas the Jews” was shouted at a pro-Palestinian rally in Germany just months ago. The movement on college campuses of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of which the majority of my favorite rockers are also supporters (shout out to the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys for playing in Tel Aviv) is growing stronger. At the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) where my daughter is a student some Jewish students were targeted with eviction notices on their dorm room doors.

The New York Times, which I still read no matter how angry it makes me on some days, on Wednesday in an article about the most popular names in Israel (by the way the answer is Mohammed) offered this seemingly parenthetical phrase: what the Israeli government likes to call the Jewish state. What? Are you kidding? Likes to call the Jewish state? I have never seen such clarifications about the many Muslim states throughout the world. I have never read such off hand comments about our own nation where the President lights a Christmas tree and holds an Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. To be fair a Seder is also held in this White House. The point is not of course about how inclusive our government may or may not be. Israel was founded on the dual principles of being Jewish and democratic. Such insidious asides strike at Israel’s very legitimacy, which should always be a given. Israel was created out of vote by the United Nations, which the United States supported, and the Arab world rejected. Its legitimacy is a given. Its acceptance among the family of nations should be a foregone conclusion. There is legitimate criticisms of its policies. Citizens of the world are free to protest its policies at Israel’s embassies throughout the world. When those criticisms become attacks against its legitimacy and its very being, or metastasize into criticism against Jews, then those words become antisemitic. The world appears at ease when Jews are victims but agitated when we gain power. There is no sin in wielding power, especially when defending our lives.

Only Israel has to defend its right to defend itself. And so never before have we felt so alone. For those around my age and younger we can scarcely remember a time when antisemtism was so public and so vengeful. What appears so clear friends and neighbors are unable to understand. Who would sit idly by, or wait weeks, or drop warning leaflets before a military strike, while rockets are fired at its citizens or tunnels are dug under its borders? How can we be right and the rest of the world wrong? I will tell you how. Because we are!

Hamas bears greater responsibility for the destruction that was visited upon Gaza this summer. Here is an organization whose raison d’etre is the destruction of the Jewish state, whose very charter makes use of the vilest of antisemitic tropes. Did you know that 800,000 tons of cement was used to construct tunnels whose sole purpose was to murder Jews across the border? Apparently that is enough cement to build the foundations for eight skyscrapers. What better lot could Hamas have built for its citizens if it was not singularly focused on hatred, death and destruction? Did you know that 150 Palestinian children died in accidents constructing these tunnels? Investigate that UN Human Rights Council!

Mahmoud Abbas’ recent speech at the UN was disgusting in its suggestions that Israel engages in intentional genocide. Mistakes were certainly made, but genocide? That suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of history. Let us be honest. Hamas is at fault. Do not think that Hamas fights Israel because of settlements in the West Bank. It denies the legitimacy of Tel Aviv. It attacks the Arab-Jewish coexistence so often found in Haifa. Still Israel cannot wipe its hands of care and concern for the people of Gaza. 2,200 Gazans died. True many were Hamas combatants. But many were not. Children died in Israeli strikes. Of course I know that Hamas fired its rockets from schools, that Hamas intentionally endangered its citizens. However we must not allow its followers’ hatred of us, or even their desire for our destruction, to harden our hearts. We must fight the tendency to become callous and indifferent to the pain and suffering surrounding us. True Israel’s responsibility is first and foremost to its own citizens, but its interest, its care and concern must extend beyond its borders.

The rabbis teach. When the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the angels in heaven began singing with joy. God rebuked them and said, “My children are drowning. My children are drowning.” Elie Wiesel said: “There are the Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore. Violence and terrorism are not the answer. Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.” (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986) He spoke those words in 1986. Still true. Still sadly true.

Some more mud. And this is where this morning’s enterprise grows uncomfortable. Israeli settlers sometimes evict Palestinians from their homes. Israeli soldiers did not always behave perfectly. War by its very nature is imperfect and imprecise. And saying that should not make me an Israel hater, an Israel basher. Your cause can still be just, even if your methods are not always perfect. Let me also say, since now I am getting up to my knees in the mud, President Obama is right when he calls for a Palestinian state, when he points out that maintaining control over the West Bank erodes Israel’s democratic values. But this truth is difficult to hear because it comes from a president who only belatedly calls evil by its proper name. President Obama’s hesitancy to get involved in Syria, his apparent trust of Iran’s intentions, his only recent and reluctant attacks on ISIS, makes one wonder if he still believes that he can reason with evil. ISIS cannot be reasoned with. Evil cannot be excused. It can only be confronted.

Prime Minister Netanyahu understands better the realities, he sees the evils that surround Israel. Sometimes I wonder if he only sees the external threats. He appears unable to see the dangers the occupation of the West Bank represents to Israel’s character and soul. As my teacher Yossi Klein Halevi wrote: “I believe that Israel's long-term survival depends on ending the occupation, on empowering our neighbors. The Jews didn't come home to deny another people its sense of home.” He captures the ambivalence of many Israelis when he continues, “But how to create a Palestinian state outside my window that could well be taken over by Hamas? How to share the governing of Jerusalem with a Palestinian state — negotiated, say, with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas — when we could wake up one morning and discover that we are ‘sharing’ our capital city with a genocidal enemy?” (“How Do Israelis Cope?, LA Times, September 12, 2014)

In Israel such sentiments led to a sense of despair about this summer’s war. Here we go again. Push them back until next time, people said. They appeared to say, There is no end game. But we are obligated to ask, Where is the end game?. There is only one way out and that is to figure out how to empower moderate Palestinians (and I don’t mean Palestinians who I always love) to take over more and more rule of the West Bank (and perhaps Gaza), and to help such leaders gain more responsibility for the everyday lives of Palestinians. Years ago I visited the soon to be completed Palestinian city of Rawabi in the heart of the Palestinian controlled West Bank. This is a planned city, it is hoped on the scale of Columbia, Maryland. Israeli authorities have oftentimes thrown up bureaucratic roadblocks against its completion. To my mind they should instead be shipping tons and tons of cement to Rawabi. Help its leaders realize their dream of a modern, pluralistic Arab city. This would only further the cause of peace. This is only but one example. A Palestinian state, living in peace alongside a Jewish state, is in Israel’s interest. Many are saying, “There he goes again. What a dreamer.” Guilty.

This is what I believe. Come at 3 pm and I invite you, throw some mud. But come prepared to offer a suggestion for another way out. Obama is right. Netanyahu is right. Obama is wrong. Netanyahu is wrong. Is it possible that two leaders who appear so diametrically opposed to each other could both be so right and both be so wrong? Is it possible then that the truth could emerge if there were to be honest debate and discussion? The status quo is unsustainable. It will erode our dreams for Israel. It will bring more destruction to Gaza. God will again rebuke us. But Zionism is about rewriting history and cursing destiny. Israelis can write a new story. It is about not giving in to fate. History is for us to craft. We can redeem it.

Part of that redemption begins with an honest heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our own deeds. However right was Israel’s founding, and again I believe it to be a miracle, we must come to admit that Palestinians were displaced in those years. Not all left their homes on their own accord. (Read Ari Shavit’s new book if you want to learn more about this.) As much as I might wish otherwise I cannot insist that Palestinians refer to Israel’s founding with the rhythms of my narrative. They might forever refer to what I call Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, as Al Nakbha, Catastrophe. Peace cannot hinge on the squaring of our narratives. Leon Wieseltier observed: “Ethical life is the transformation of there into here. Mentally, we must live large if we are to live significantly. But I fear that mentally we are living small. In our foreign policy, we are abandoning the world to its chaos and its cruelty, and disqualifying ourselves from acting on behalf of the largest and the most liberating ideals.” (“Xu Zhiyong's Brave Human Rights Activism in China,” TNR, February 1, 2014) I ask, Can Palestinians’ there ever become our here?

Let us hope that President Obama now understands, however belatedly, that we must sometimes fight for these ideals, that we must sometimes defend these dreams by placing soldiers in harms way. Let us also pray that we come to recognize that the ideals of remaining a vibrant Jewish democracy hinge not only on the stories that we tell our children, but creating the space for peace to emerge. Perhaps all we need in this day and age is some distance and some borders. If Israel truly matters then it must become more than mere talking points. If we really love Israel then we must not be afraid to wade through the muck and argue about what is best for its security and its character. We must care about preserving its soul as well as its body.

Some might be saying, “While the world throws mud us, and worse rockets, we should not criticize ourselves.” But such comments deny the significance of Yom Kippur. It is a day given to self-examination, it is a day that teaches that we can only achieve reconciliation with others if we honestly examine our ways. Al cheyt shechatanu…For the sin we have committed. There are those as well in good measure. We are strong enough to get knee deep into the thick of such debates.

I have two dreams for Israel. That it will see peace and forever live in security and safety. And that it will realize its Jewish and democratic values. That it will not be Jewish to the exclusion of its democratic principles and not democratic to the exclusion of its Jewish heritage.

The best part of those swims with which I began today’s sermon is always the return swim home. We always try to route our swims so that we swim against the tide on the way out and with the tide on the way back. The tide is of course this powerful, unseen current that can make for the most challenging or the easiest of swims. There have been days when the difference between the fight to the turn around point about a mile out and the swim back to the beach was ten minutes. Then there is nothing quite like that return swim with the tide pushing you home.

I have read enough Jewish history to know that we have always fought the currents and tides of history, that we have defied all expectations and persevered despite many attempts to destroy us, that once we only dreamed but today we have before us the miracle of a vibrant Jewish democracy in the land promised to our forefathers, but what I would give to even just once feel like we were swimming with the tide, that the world had our back and that we were not swimming alone each and every year, that there was no us and them but only one current and one tide and it carried us together toward peace.

That’s the dream that keeps me going. That’s the dream that sustains my soul. Take comfort in it now. Take heart in dreams on this day.

The Heart Knows: Why We Do the Things We Do

What follows is the written text of my Yom Kippur evening sermon exploring human motivation and in particular the motivation for good.

The summer that only recently ended has been an excruciating few months. While the weather was nearly perfect we watched the world slip into chaos. To name but a few of the tragic events there was the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, the unchecked terror of the Ebola virus, the racial riots in my hometown of St. Louis and the antisemitic mob hysteria in Europe, the war between Israel and Hamas and the rampaging destruction of ISIS. As ISIS rapes and murders its way across Syria and Iraq, a few Westerners were caught up in its path. Steven Sotloff was such a man. He was gruesomely murdered on September 2nd. He was kidnapped a year earlier.

Most people did not know until some time after his death that not only was he Jewish, but Israeli. He made aliya to Israel in 2005. In a letter written in May and smuggled out to his parents, he wrote, “Please know that I’m ok. Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy. Everyone of us has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” The second one begins when you realize you only have one. That is what I would like to explore on this Yom Kippur. Not the evils that surround us but instead the motivation for good that can emerge from each of us. We can learn much when it blossoms forth especially from a young man held in captivity. If we are to confront this evil, part of the answer must certainly be that we can pledge to do good. How can we make doing good more of our everyday lives? The other piece is of course that our leaders, most especially President Obama, must fight to keep the evils such as ISIS in check. It seems clear that our president now understands that reason alone cannot bend the arc of history. More about that tomorrow morning. This evening I want to talk about us and the motivation to do good. I wish to ask, where can hope be found?

People do not know this but the reason we remained unaware of Steve Sotloff’s Jewish identity is that soon after his capture, some 150 of his friends scrubbed his online identity removing all mention of his being Jewish or Israeli. I have been thinking about these unnamed friends this past month. I admit, sometimes it is hard to do so amidst the chaos and destruction, but that is what I wish to dwell on. Why did they do this? Why did they devote themselves to this task, spending countless hours scouring the web? It was because Steve was their friend and they wanted to do whatever they could to save his life. Even though their efforts proved unsuccessful I draw hope from their motivation. I am stirred by their actions. The Talmud counsels: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a) It was worth the hours. It was as if the entire world rested in their hands, and depended on their efforts. Friendship calls us to action. We will run in charity events for friends. We will volunteer for boards because friends ask us. We will sit in front of our computer screens hoping and praying that our efforts might save a life.

Then again I am appalled that the mere mention of a person’s Jewish identity would further endanger him. We have seemingly moved backward in time. Is it possible that publicly declaring one’s Jewish identity might once again mark someone for death? The world appears as if it is propelling back toward medieval times? Then again, can an identity be erased? It was reported that during Steve Satloff’s captivity he went to great lengths to observe his Jewish traditions, secretly fasting on Yom Kippur and surreptitiously praying towards Jerusalem. The second life begins only one you realize you have one. What courage! What inspiration! What motivation.

Many of us participated in the recent ALS ice bucket challenge. Why did we pour ice cold water over our heads? Because our friends asked us to. Or more exactly because our friends cajoled us to do so by publicly challenging us. The ALS foundation raised over $60 million. I hate to be a cynic on this our most holy of days but how many people poured ice water over their heads for the entertainment of their friends, and the appearance of doing good, but never sent in a donation and how many quietly made a donation to the ALS Foundation but never did anything with ice water except to drink it on the warmest of days? Which act is more worthy? The unheralded donation or the public pronouncements? There is nothing of course wrong with the ice bucket challenge as long as it leads to the good of giving tzedakah. The ice bucket challenge is not a good unto itself, except perhaps in how it increased awareness about ALS. Of course one could argue that in an age of limited resources this popularized challenge sidetracked resources from other worthy charities. So I challenge you that if you participated in the ice bucket challenge and gave to the ALS foundation for the first time then be sure that this does not divert you away from your other tzedakah commitments. I continue to wonder about why we do what we do. Sometimes we give because we want to, and other times we give because friends cajole us. Sometimes we give because we are told to, and other times we give because our heart inspires us. Judaism teaches that the act is more important than the inspiration, that a good deed redeems even the basest of motivations.

This is why the tradition gives us a list of commandments and not a code of feelings. Virtue is not found in motivation, but action. True the inner intention, the kavvanah, can help to inspire action, but it must never come to replace the deed. How do we know what is right? We consult our tradition. As Reform Jews we believe that our inherited tradition must always have a voice, but never a veto. We also explore this path in the context of community. The group is the corrective to individual wants and desires. This is why our ideal prayers are said with others. We are more apt to ask for the right thing when standing with others. We look to our right and to our left, and see, for example, the pain of others, and then discover that our mundane goals of a new, larger house might not be as important as their restored health. We even recount our sins with others. On this day, we say “For the sin we have committed…” It is not that we believe that every one of us did every one of these wrongs but instead that we are strengthened by our joint words. We gain courage to repair our lives and mend our ways by attaching our words to our neighbors’. The tradition offers us a path. It gives us a road in which to locate ourselves. We walk together.

Why? So that we might add a measure of good to the world. I admit, sometimes we do things for the sake of a reward. People like posting pictures and videos of themselves. People like the accolades and approvals of others. Do you know that there are only two commandments in the entire Torah in which a reward is attached to them, specifically the reward of a long life? They are: #1. Honor your father and mother. The Torah states: “Honor your father and mother that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.” (Exodus 20:12) #2. “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with your young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you fare well and a have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

I have often wondered about these mitzvot. Why are they so important that they only offer the promise of reward? I wonder not so much about the honoring parents so much as the bird’s nest. The commentators ask what is the connection between these two commands. They draw a connection between the fact that both commandments deal with the relationship between parents and children. We are commanded to show compassion to parents. Love is not commanded, but care. There is another connection. More often than not no one knows if you observe these commandments or not. I know that this is not so likely, but it you were to happen upon a bird’s nest, perhaps a wounded animal, do you look to your right or left to see if anyone is watching or do you look above and recall God’s commands? Behind closed doors, when, for example, your mother or father are sick and in need of care, or perhaps if you are younger when they discipline you, do you speak to them with words of compassion or of frustration? It is not an easy mitzvah, but that is exactly why it is a command.

No one knows if you were kind to an animal. They cannot speak. They cannot report on you. And this is why there is a reward attached. In the quiet of your homes, amidst the humdrum of daily life, I challenge you to honor your father and mother. Take up that challenge. Show concern for even the animals that surround us. That would be but two more measures of good added to our world. Long life perhaps. Good most certainly.

Then again we care deeply about what others think. How else can one explain the near frenzy with which the ice bucket challenge raced throughout the country? Are such communal expectations and pressures really so bad? Some of us had the pleasure of examining a beautiful story on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi and is the story of Shimon ben Shetah. (Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia 8a) Here is my rendition of that story. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah traded in cotton. (It is a modern innovation for rabbis to be paid as full time rabbis. In ancient times they supported their families with their trades.) His students loved him so much that they said, “Master, let us buy you a donkey so you won’t have to work so hard. Then you can spend more time teaching us.” They went and bought him a donkey from a neighbor, from someone who was not Jewish. Lo and behold, they found on the donkey a precious stone. They ran to their teacher and exclaimed, “Now you won’t have to work at all.” Shimon asked them, “Does the owner know of your discovery?” They said, “No.” Their teacher admonished him, “Go and return it.” They argued, “But we did not steal the stone. We bought the donkey for a fair price. The law allows us to keep the donkey and anything we find on it.” Some even argued, “Besides we bought it from a non-Jew.” When hearing this, Shimon became enraged and shouted, “Do you think I am a barbarian? I would rather hear, ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews’ to all the riches of the world!”

Too often in our own age we discount the opinions of others. “Do what you think is right? As long as you are happy it is ok.” are our mantras. Shimon ben Shetah rejects this. It does matter what the world thinks. It does matter what others think. We cannot just say, “What’s fair is fair. As long as it is legal is good enough for me.” This rabbi’s desire was to bring more people to Judaism. That demanded of him an even higher standard, a more scrupulous code. He believed that his actions must bring praise to the tradition he so loves. He imagined that people would look at what he does each and every day and exclaim, “Blessed be the God of the Jews.” Imagine for a moment what the world might look like if we paused and asked ourselves, “Will this bring blessings to my faith, praise to my people and honor to my family?” Imagine for a moment how filled with peace our world might be, and especially the Middle East, if every person who professes a deep faith, if people who proclaimed themselves to be religious, were to ask, “Will this bring honor to my religion?” There is more to life than “Do what you think is right.” Ask instead, “Will this bring honor to Judaism? Will this add merit to the Jewish people?” I am given to such dreams.

Many people have asked me about this summer’s trip to Israel. They ask me if it was hard to be there for the start of the war. To be honest it is not the first time that I was in Israel during a war, although please God may it be the last time. I did leave before the start of the ground war when the Israeli psyche shifts so perceptibly. They ask me what it was like to have to run to a bomb shelter. They search for pain in my answers. They ask me, “What was the most difficult moment?” They are often surprised to find out that the most difficult moment was not even the discovery three boys’ bodies, z”l. Their kidnapping and murder by Hamas was the beginning of this summer’s hostilities. That day was indeed a tragic day. And yet the most painful moment was instead the discovery of the young Arab boy’s body and the realization, which I shared with the majority of Israelis and Jews, that his murderer was also a Jew. The police soon captured the perpetrator and I recall the image on my TV screen as he was led away in handcuffs. He covered his face. And I shouted at the TV, “Cover your tzitzit. Take off your kippah. You barbarian!” I continue to dream. Will my actions bring honor to my faith?

All of these young boys were buried with tears and accompanied to their final resting places with shouts of pain. Some of my friends visited the mourning tent of Mohammed’s family. I recall the funeral for the three Jewish boys: Gilad, Naftali and Eyal. Naftali’s mother, Rachel, spoke at the funeral. She said. “Rest in peace, my child. We will learn to sing without you. We will always hear your voice in our hearts.” I could not begin to fathom her courage. And so I read more about Rachel Frankel. Apparently she is a widely admired teacher among Orthodox women. She is a reasoned voice for women’s participation and inclusion in Jewish life. According to traditional Jewish law a woman is not obligated to say kaddish. She is not required to observe positive, time bound mitzvot, except of course the lighting of Shabbat candles. She would not lead public prayers in a mixed group of men and women because she is not required to pray and so cannot help carry a man’s obligatory prayers. Such is the ideology of my more traditional brethren. And then I witnessed the most remarkable of things. Her son’s body was placed in its grave. The moment for kaddish arrived. And Ruth lifted herself out of her seat and stood and said, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…” with a full voice. And then an even more remarkable thing happened. Israel’s chief rabbi, David Lau, said, “Amen.”

I wonder. Did he forget his ideology? Did he ignore his beliefs? Perhaps. I doubt he paused to think. His heart said Amen to her prayer of pain. How could he say anything but Amen, I believe, I stand with you? In an age filled with ideologies of terror and death, perhaps the heart needs to teach. I imagine that many have forgotten about funerals. There have been far too many since. And yet they remain imprinted on my soul. I imagine that each of these families continue to relive those days each and every moment of their lives. During a summer filled with violence and bloodshed, murder and death, there was hope to be found in one word: Amen. Perhaps the heart can rescue us. Yitgadal v’yitkadash. Magnified and sanctified is God’s name. Amen. There is hope in one word. There is hope in friends. The second life begins when you realize you only have one.

The prophet Ezekiel lived through extraordinarily tumultuous times. He witnessed the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. He lived in exile and looked to the land of Israel from afar. His initial prophecies fill his contemporaries with vivid images and stern warnings. Later he preaches of a restored and renewed Israel. He proclaims: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) Perhaps he is still right. This is what is required. Lev hadash, a new heart, a heart not hardened by ideology and not closed to the pain of others, a heart that is no different than our neighbors. A new heart. Yitgadal v’yitkadash. Magnified and sanctified may God’s name be. Amen v’amen.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Yom Kippur and Walking Together

A Hasidic tale. Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: A man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: “Brother, show me the way out of the forest.” The man replied: “Brother, I am also lost. I can only tell you this: The ways I have tried lead nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together.” Rabbi Hayim would add: “So it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.”

On Yom Kippur we recount our sins. We examine our ways so that we might mend our wrongs and repair our mistakes. In fact the Hebrew word for sin, cheyt, is better translated as missing the mark. Sin implies that one is tainted by an action, that repair is nearly impossible. Missing the mark, however, suggests that repair is more a matter of getting back on the proper path. And how do we get back on that path? With the help of others.

This is why the Viddui, the confession of sins, is recited in the plural. We recite a litany of wrongs not because we believe that every one of us has done every one of these wrongs, but instead because we are strengthened by we. “For the sin we have committed…” We are lifted by the exclamation of “we.” We are weakened by I.

That is the power of Yom Kippur. We join with others in order that each of us might better repair our own individual lives.

Let us join hands and look for the way together.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Spotify and Synagogues: A Meditation on the Synagogue

What follows is the written text of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon exploring why we need the synagogue.

I would like to speak this morning about ancient history. On this Rosh Hashanah I wish to meditate on history and wonder aloud about our future. For this occasion I have unearthed a number of artifacts. Here is the first show and tell item. It is of course a record album, an exhibit of classic vinyl. I uncovered this in my basement buried in the boxes from our move eleven years ago to our current home. There remain my albums stacked neatly in the moving boxes, never again to be unpacked until this very moment. Some of my younger students might be marveling at this object. Yes, this is what I once used to play music. To put this in contemporary terms, this double album contains 26 songs, a mere fraction of the 1,000 songs presently on my iPhone.

This of course is no ordinary album. It is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I recall the discussions when this album came out. It was the most ancient of days. The year was 1979. There was the excitement and enthusiasm of that moment when in December of that year I finally got my hands on the album. I held the prize in my fingers. My friends and I marveled at the cover graphics. We even argued about the hidden meanings found in the track order. As those Saturday evenings would drag on into Sunday mornings, we would run back and forth to the turntable to replay track 6 of side 3. (“Hello, hello, hello…Is anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home.”)

That’s what it was like in ancient days. That was the experience of listening to music. Some might be looking at this relic, especially those on our Israel Committee, and saying, “Did he have to pick Pink Floyd? Did the rabbi have to choose Roger Waters given his hatred of Israel and his activism in the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)? I pledge we will examine these issues in more detail on Yom Kippur. This album remains a world to its own. I recall those days with fondness when I hold it in my hands.

But what of music today? It has been a mere thirteen years since the invention of the iPod. My current b’nai mitzvah students know of no other world. We shared music in ancient times not on Facebook but by making mix tapes. That is how we shared our love of Pink Floyd or the Eagles or if we want to march into the 80’s, Squeeze and the Talking Heads. (“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack… And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”) And now even downloading music is a thing of the past. What was revolutionary a decade ago, our children by and large no longer do. There is Spotify and Grooveshark. For a mere $10 per month I can have access to 20 million songs. Gone is the sense of holding the music in my hands. Gone is the sense of owning music. For my young students music is only shared. It is about playlists and individual songs rather than albums and tracks. It is about Facebook discussions like “I can’t believe Steven Moskowitz is listening to Hotel California again.”

I hold now a second piece of history in my hands. This is a book. I would like to think that this is not yet ancient history, but I wonder what the future holds for the book in the fast paced digital age? The movement from scrolls, with which we of course still read, to those few, precious books made for wealthy individuals to the mass production of books by Gutenberg in 1440 helped to democratize learning. And yet the piles of books, the rows upon rows of filled to overflowing bookshelves are no longer the most common feature of a Jewish home. My Kindle, this small little device, can hold over 1,000 books. I can have access to a library of books on my iPhone.

Lest this sound like another advertisement, for another $10 per month I can have unlimited access to 700,000 books. Then again there is something about the feel of a book in the hand. The People of the eReader does not have the same ring to it. And this book that I clutch is again no ordinary book. It is my prized collection of Emily Dickinson poems. There is of course an Emily Dickinson app given that she is among this country’s greatest poets, but a book represents a journey, a book tells a story separate even from its words.

And I can tell you the story of my discovery of this book. I had boarded the subway to make my journey uptown from Penn Station when I looked up from my folded paper (remember how we used to fold the paper so as not poke the person next to us) to discover this sign called Poetry in Motion. Launched by the MTA and the Poetry Society of America in 1992 the subway cars were now decorated not only with advertisements but poems. And there I read “Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –.”’ I did not know then that poem #254 could so capture my heart. I exited the subway to find a bookstore and purchase this book: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I recall that each and every time I hold this book in my hands and discover another of her lines. Among the dog-eared pages I find again “A smile so small as mine might be/Precisely their necessity –“ (#1391).

Leafing through the pages of these poems I continue the journey. For my children their journeys will be very different. Children’s journeys are of course supposed to be different than their parent’s. Books might no longer line their shelves but the written word, I hope and pray, will continue to stimulate their minds and penetrate the soul. Still I wonder what might be lost without a book under their arms, without books lining their shelves. How will they still leaf through pages and discover anew a poem to stir the soul?

The third show and tell item in this meditation on history I cannot even wrap my hands around. It is the synagogue. It is likewise undergoing radical transformations. Like music and poetry, it too is ancient yet changing. What will the synagogue be like in an age when so much is shared for such little expense? People might not be asking this question so directly but I see it forming on their lips. They ask, if I can have all access to music and books for $10 per month why can’t I have all access to Judaism for just as little? And so here is my response to why the synagogue must survive. Before we can even answer this question we must ask a more basic question: why be Jewish. So let me tell you straight out. Why be Jewish.?  Because Judaism offers a path of meaning. Because Judaism tackles questions with which we are still wrestling. Because Judaism offers a road to bring healing to the world.

These answers are uncovered in the book. The answer is unfurled in the edges of a scroll. And that takes some work to uncover. Let’s be honest if you want something akin to the convenience of eReaders and iPhones you can go elsewhere. You can find a tutor to come to your house. You can hire a “rabbi” who will officiate at a bar or bat mitzvah three months from now. If you just want the ceremony you can do that. But synagogue is first and foremost about community. Hebrew School is a misnomer. It is not about learning Hebrew as much as it is about teaching our children to attach themselves to their community and to fall in love with their faith. That is why it matters that they sit across the table from others. Learning is not a solitary activity for the Jew. It is done with others. Sure you can read by yourself. Sure you can even practice your alef-bet by yourself. But you can only truly learn with others.

This is why as well learning is supposed to be a life long pursuit. That in a nutshell is one of the reasons why I run away to Jerusalem every summer. So I can study surrounded by others, so that my head can be filled with the arguments and debates that have sustained our people. And why must we learn? Because we believe that Torah is meant to better the world. I don’t mean to suggest that we should convert the world to being Jewish, but I do mean to say that if Judaism is to matter it has to matter not just for ourselves and our own individual needs, but it has to matter for the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the unparalleled 20th century rabbi, remarked, “To be a Jew is either superfluous or essential…. Hence we learn the purpose of Jewish existence: we are obligated to live lives that will become Torah, lives that are Torah.” (Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul)

If Torah is only about lighting candles 18 minutes before sunset or about answering questions such as is this oven kosher or not and not about is it ethical to lay off employees so as to increase the stock price, is it moral to wage war against ISIS, then it is meaningless. Torah must be relevant for our lives today. It must have meaning for the here and now. If Torah is only about personal meaning and not even more importantly about the betterment of the world, then it loses its significance. If it remains here and does not venture to the streets, to our offices, to our homes then it lacks profound truth. We must live lives that become Torah.

Do you want to know why we should survive? Here is why. The world desperately needs these answers or at the very least a place where we can debate these questions. Do you want to know why the synagogue must survive? It is the address where these values are learned and re-engaged; it is where community is fostered and Torah is brought to the world.

That is why the synagogue was created. 2,000 years ago there was only one address to be Jewish. The only address was the Temple in Jerusalem. There we would bring our sacrifices to the priest to be offered on the Temple’s altar. There was no local address for Judaism in each and every town. It was centralized in the Temple. And then in 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Temple and nearly wiped us out completely when they leveled Jerusalem. All that remains of that grand structure is the Kotel, the Western Wall. Out of that tragedy the synagogue was born. The rabbis developed a portable faith that was independent of place that was separated from even the holiest of places. We could go anywhere. All we needed was a book, the Torah, and the songs of our prayers. Even more importantly all we needed was each other. Synagogue comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Beit Knesset, a house of assembly. What makes a synagogue a synagogue is not a building but the people. If you have the required ten, you have a synagogue, whether you are in Jerusalem, or Brookville or Jericho or Oyster Bay.

The Rabbis fashioned Judaism out of the Bible; they made wandering and journeying part of the enterprise. They recognized that even though we might, until realizing this dream in the present day, longed for Jerusalem, our lot would be to wander throughout the lands. In each city, in every town, in all the countries of our dispersion, the synagogue became the primary address for teaching Torah, for bringing Torah to successive generations and the world at large. We would forever be wanderers. We would forever journey. We would learn new things in every land, we would discover new truths in every city and we would relearn our ancient teachings in the synagogue, now on Temple Lane. In a way we carried the synagogue, as we carry a book, from place to place. We held it in our hands. We carried its meaning in our hearts. We marveled at its architecture. We looked at the album cover. We continue to wander.

The Torah is of course on its most literal level about a journey. First it tells the story about the discovery of God. Abraham looks up and realizes that there can only be one God who made the heavens and the earth. It is then about God responding to our suffering and freeing us from Egypt. But it is mostly about 40 years of wandering through the wilderness. That is the majority of the story. It is about the trials and misfortunes of the longest camping trip ever described. “Moses, I can’t believe you forgot to pack more food!” the people scream over and over again. But it is worth the journey, and the grumblings and the complaining, because there is a promise of a new home in the land of Israel. And then on the shores of the Jordan River, Moses gives one final speech followed by another final speech filled with advice, but mostly filled with warnings about what to do and of course mostly what not to do. And then he dies. God buries him on Mount Nebo.

And the Torah then does the most surprising of things. It ends. The Torah concludes on the wrong side of the river. It ends with the promise unfulfilled, with the dream unrealized. Our most important book ends with the journey incomplete. And what do we do? We roll the scroll back to the beginning and start reading the story all over again. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” In the synagogue and the Torah reading cycle that is central to this institution we ritualize the journey over the destination. The journey always continues we remind ourselves year after year. On Simhat Torah we sing for joy not because we have arrived at some destination but because we can begin again. The wandering always continues.

People think that the synagogue is fixed, that is immovable and never changing. People think that a synagogue is a building. It is not. The building is a tool. It serves the congregation. It must never become the other way around. This is the most important lesson I learned, and I hope all of us learned, from our fifteen years of wandering and schleping the Torah scroll all over Long Island. I never felt it inauthentic to serve a congregation without its own building, I never felt that we were anything less than even the grandest and oldest of synagogues. Having our own building makes the teaching easier. You don’t have to wonder anymore where your rabbi is. The address is clear. It is simpler.

But with this simplicity comes some dangers. Will we become overly focused on the building? Will we lose sight of what has made us a holy congregation? Will we lose sight of the people who have made this a special and unique community? The great Hasidic rabbi, the Kotzker rebbe taught: To what is the one who looks out only for himself and his (or her) own perfection compared to? To a tzaddik in a fur coat. If the house is cold and a person wishes to warm himself, he has two choices: to light a fire or put on the fur coat. What is the difference between lighting a fire and putting on the fur? When the fire is lit, I am warm as well as others. We are warmed when I light a fire. When I put on the fur coat only I am warm. We must remain on guard never to become that tzaddik who wraps himself in a fur coat and fails to help light the fire that warms all.

The St Louis congregation in which I grew up recently celebrated its 140th anniversary. That may appear really old, but 140 years is a mere speck on the Jewish timeline. Each synagogue only gains its ancient voice because it does not stand alone. It is tied to all other synagogues, some of which are no more, others of which continue to thrive, some of which are brand new. The synagogue moves through history. Movement is part of its very nature. Think about prayer, another central feature of synagogue life. We stand up and sit down. We bow and bend our knees. We beat our chests on Yom Kippur. The Hasidic masters sway to and fro, moving their bodies to the rhythm of prayer. And I have heard that on the North Shore of Long Island some even dance to their prayers. We continue to move.

I worry that some might think that the journey is now complete. We have arrived at a building. We have survived the wandering. But the journey continues. The holy work of fashioning community forever marches on.

We need the synagogue. Why? Because we need each other. The point of community is to enlarge our circle of friends and solidify our friendships. You can only teach the value of community with others, with peers. That is the essence of minyan, the quorum required for prayer. While the synagogue was a response to a catastrophic change, an answer to the question of how are we going to keep being Jewish without a center, it was also a response to a need. The spirit will always require a poem to stir its being. The soul will always need music and song, no matter the cover.

The Jewish spirit is nurtured by the synagogue. It is this institution that gives it life, that nurtures our souls and brings the values of Torah to the world.

There is a legend about the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. It is about its windows. Ancient buildings like the castles and churches we visit throughout Europe constructed their windows so as to funnel the natural light from the outside in. In other words the windows cut into the building’s thick stonewalls were wider on the outside and thinner on the inside. The Temple’s windows were the opposite. They were larger on the inside. Their purpose was to funnel the light from the inside to the outside, to bring the meaning and content gained within to the world at large. That is the purpose of the synagogue: to bring light to the outside, to build a fire together to warm the community. The purpose is to bring Torah to the world.

As much as we are overjoyed about our new building, it is really not about the building. The building is not the dream. The building serves the dream.

Back to Pink Floyd. “All in all it was all just bricks in the wall. All in all you were all just bricks in the wall.”

It is not the building. It is something far grander and more eternal. It is the light that comes from within.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rosh Hashanah and Rekindling Our Story

A story. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was legendary in his ability to beseech God and thereby gain protection for his people. On one occasion, when the people of his town faced a grave danger the Baal Shem Tov left his modest home and walked deep into the forest. He found there a particular spot and kindled a fire. As he sat by the warmth of the fire, he recited a prayer asking for God’s protection and care. The great rebbe arrived back to town and discovered the threat had passed. Everyone believed that it was the Baal Shem Tov’s actions that had saved the community.

Some time later the Jews of the town again found themselves facing danger. Their rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, remembered what his teacher had done a generation earlier. He resolved to do the same. He walked deep into the forest, found the exact same spot, and likewise kindled a fire. Then he realized that he did not remember the words of the Baal Shem Tov’s prayer. And so he sat by the fire and meditated on God’s protective nature. Once again the danger passed and the town was spared.

A generation later the same situation arose. Again the Jewish community felt threatened by its neighbors. The leader of the community, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple’s disciple, went into the forest. He soon discovered that he did not know where in the forest to go and he also did not know the words of the master’s prayer. Still he found a spot and lit a fire. And again the danger passed and the community survived.

The Rhizener rebbe, four generations after the Baal Shem Tov, found himself facing a similar struggle. He did not know the prayer. He did not know the place in the forest. He did not even know in which forest the Baal Shem Tov prayed so many generations earlier. He did not know how to light the special fire. What did he do? He told the story of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. The community was once again spared.

Sometimes all we require is a story.

Rosh Hashanah is about retelling our stories. It is about reconnecting with our past. It is about rekindling the fire.

Whether we know the exact place or even the words of every prayer, we are united by our common story.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed…