Skip to main content


Showing posts from April, 2014

Yom HaShoah Sermon

Before we turn to our concluding prayers I would like to offer a few words about Yom HaShoah and our commemoration of the Holocaust. My thoughts turn to the upheaval in the Ukraine, where my grandfather was born. In the past week alone, there have been reports of a synagogue being fire-bombed in the south-eastern city of Nikolayev, the desecration of the tomb of Dov Ber Schneerson, brother of the late Lubavicher Rebbe, in Dnepropetrovsk and the vandalizing of the Holocaust memorial in Sevastopol. Those incidents followed the distribution in Donetsk of a leaflet calling on all Jews to register with the self-declared, pro-Russian authorities. Separatist leader Denis Pushilin, whose name appeared on the leaflet, denied that his organization was responsible and the document’s authenticity has yet to be proved. I continue to wonder, can I see today’s events in any way but through yesterday’s lenses? I still recall the fields of Babi Yar, my eyes see those fields and ravines where Jews

Yom HaShoah and Searing Remembrances

Recently I watched from afar as my good friend journeyed to Rwanda.  She was drawn there, to this African country to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and the noble work of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village .  She is the daughter of a man, hidden during the Holocaust, but who as an adult reclaimed the forgotten Jewish memories torn from her father and slaughtered with her paternal grandparents.  And now she traveled to the sites where one million Tutsi were murdered by their neighbors, the Hutu, in the span of one hundred days.  They were not killed in gas chambers but by hand with machetes and clubs. Philip Gourevitch observed in The New Yorker (April 21, 2014) , “A lot of Rwandans will tell you that all through mourning week they are prone to bad and bitter feelings. For those who were there in 1994, during the genocide, memory can feel like an affliction, and the greater imperative has often been to learn how to forget enough for long enough to live i

Passover, Dayyenu and I'm Happy

This past Sunday I was watching CBS News Sunday Morning and learned about Pharrell Williams and his hit song “Happy.”  I had heard the song (I am of course forever attending seventh grade parties) and had already noted that I liked it, but knew little about its writer. I was taken with Pharrell Williams’ humility and his gratitude to others. Williams gives credits to his teachers, remarking that his success is due largely to them and then concludes, "You see people spin out of control like that all the time. I mean, those are the most tragic stories, the most gifted people who start to believe it's really all them. It's not all you. It can't be all you. Just like you need air to fly a kite, it's not the kite. It's the air.” Years ago, perhaps on another Sunday morning, I was reading the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed (III:12).  In it he remarked that people often complain to God about all they don’t have.  They chas

Passover Questioning

On Monday evening we will gather around our Seder tables to celebrate Passover. One of the hallmarks of this occasion is the Four Questions. Usually the youngest child sings the words “Mah nishtanah—why is this night different from all other nights?” This ritual is based on the Talmudic dictum, in Pesachim 116a, that a son must ask his father questions about the Passover Seder. The Talmud then asks, what happens if the child is not intelligent enough to ask questions. It counsels that parents must then teach their children the questions to ask. Still concerned, and uncomfortable leaving anything to chance, the Talmud provides the questions with which we are familiar, or at least three of them. The third question about reclining was substituted by the medieval thinker Moses Maimonides in place of a Talmudic question about sacrifices. And now in our own day and age we are left with this ritualized asking of questions rather than our tradition’s original intent. We sing the questi

Metzorah, Mikvehs and Healing Waters

After five years of tackling Leviticus, I wonder if I have exhausted the appealing topics contained in this week’s portion. I have talked about leprosy and how we approach the sick. I have written about the rabbinic interpretation derived from these verses and the rabbis’ counsel to refrain from gossip. What is left to discuss? Should I venture where few Reform rabbis dare go and discuss the topic I always skip over with my b’nai mitzvah students and my fellow JCB staff urged me to avoid? In Leviticus 15:15 and following we discover the biblical basis for taharat ha-mishpachah, the family purity laws. These laws prohibit sexual relations between husband and wife during a woman’s menstrual period until after she immerses in the mikveh, ritual bath. The most important detail about the mikveh is that it must contain living waters and so mikvaot collect rain water, but a river or ocean could also do. To the ancient mind these living waters restored life after the apparent loss of li