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Showing posts from 2015

Shemot, Kiddush and Kaddish

This week we begin the most significant of books, Exodus. While Genesis is filled with stories about our patriarchs and matriarchs, Leviticus with the laws of holiness, Numbers with the tribulations of wandering in the desert and Deuteronomy with a litany of everyday commandments, Exodus contains the most formative of our stories. It is here that we become a people when God takes us out from Egypt. It is this episode that we recount every year at our Passover Seders and every Shabbat when we join together in the kiddush. And yet the book’s Hebrew name suggests nothing of this significance. In Hebrew it is called: Shemot—Names. On one level this is because a book’s (or portion’s) Hebrew names is given by its first most significant word. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah…” it begins. Not the dramatic beginning one might expect from the most important of our stories. Then again

Vayehi, Barnacles and Blessings

Judaism categorically believes that people can change, that they can examine their ways and correct their failings. We do not believe in fate. We contend that our destiny remains in our hands. Otherwise the High Holidays, and the centrality of their message of repentance and turning, would be meaningless. We believe in the possibility of self-renewal. And yet people behave as if we think otherwise. John W. Gardner once observed in quoting another author: “’The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it's going to live. Once it decides it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.’ End of quote. For a good many of us, it comes to that.” This week we read about the blessings Jacob offers to each of his children. “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.’ The more we read in the portion the more their destinies appear pre-ordained. Their fates seem bound to prior

Vayigash and Suffering's Promise

While Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham jail he penned a letter to his fellow clergy explaining why he thought it necessary to engage in civil disobedience. He criticized their vocal opposition to his efforts saying that religion must serve the cause of justice rather than maintaining the status quo. In King’s lengthy “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”  he wrote: But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness h

Hanukkah and Hope

This evening begins the fifth night of Hanukkah. Many are celebrating with the giving of presents and the eating of latkes (or perhaps sufganiyot). Some are also enjoying the playing of dreidel. The tradition requires only the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah preceded by the appropriate blessings. The lights are placed in the window to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah for all to see. For centuries this holiday was downplayed.  It was simple in its observance. Yet it was profound in its message. Hanukkah reminds us that hope is always possible. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles is about adding light during the darkest times of the year, and throughout the darkest moments of our history. In the Talmud two great rabbis argue about how best to light the Hanukkah lights... The post continues on The Times of Israel.

Vayeshev and Making History

Jewish history hinges on the Joseph story that begins this week. Because of the jealousy and hatred between Joseph and his brothers they sell him into slavery in Egypt where he rises to prominence. Eventually his family follows him there. The Jewish people then build comfortable lives in Egypt until a new Pharaoh comes to power. As the Torah recounts, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The people are enslaved. Their cries reach to heaven and so God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. The rest of the story is all too familiar. It turns on Joseph. It depends on the moment Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It also revolves around an unnamed man. Let me explain. Jacob sent Joseph out to the fields to look for his brothers. He apparently had difficulty finding them. “When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could yo

Vayishlach and Forever Esau

The Jewish people trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac and in particular Jacob. He is the father of the twelve tribes. In this week’s portion he gains the name Israel by wrestling with a divine being. His brother, Esau, is forever our enemy. According to Jewish tradition our many enemies can be traced to Isaac’s first-born son. Esau is seen as the ancestor of the Edomites who aligned themselves with the Babylonians and destroyed the First Temple. The tradition as well sees the Romans as descendants of Esau who destroyed the Second Temple and views Jacob’s only brother as the ancestor of our later enemies, even modern European antisemites. The midrash comments: “We went looking for a brother, but instead found Esau, armed and hostile in a very non-brotherly manner.” All our enemies begin with Esau. There are days, most especially during these past weeks, when my dreams are haunted by this tradition. Must Esau forever be my enemy? Will this enmity continue to be my fut

Vayetzei, Paris and Fears

Fear is insidious. It wears at our hearts. It gnaws at our loves. This is the goal of terrorists. Those who murder in their metastasized faith’s name seek to destroy our values and our enjoyments by these random acts of horrific violence. They attack the ordinary and everyday. We mourn the brutal murders of over 129 souls in Paris, and 43 in Beirut, as well as the daily slaughter of innocents throughout the Middle East and Africa. We must not forget that what was perpetrated in Paris occurs on a daily basis in Syria. Over 100 people are killed every day in that country’s civil war, often in a similarly gruesome fashion. In Israel Palestinian terrorists continue to attack with knives. Today in Tel Aviv two Jews were murdered while praying and another three elsewhere in Israel. We live in frightening times. Terror can be debilitating... This post continues on The Times of Israel. In addition I continue to remain steadfast in believing the words and prayers I offered

Toldot, Blindness and Faith

One of the central questions about our forefather Isaac’s life is what he sees. Is he truly blind or does he prefer to close his eyes to reality? His life is framed by the Torah’s words: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27) It is an important question for our own lives as well. Author Margaret Heffernan writes: Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. (Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril) The Torah concurs. This week we read that Isaa

Chayei Sarah, Swimming and Mourning

In memory of Susan Sirkman In honor of Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman “And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her…” (Genesis 23:2) Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman, a colleague and friend, who recently lost his beloved wife Susan to cancer made a telling comment about mourning. He said, “Emotionally there are times when it just hits you like a wave. That’s what mourning is. It’s a wave. But you get back up. You catch your breath. And you recognize that you can still navigate the waters.” I find myself pondering this image. I remain enamored of the ocean and its waves. It occurs to me that the waves only knock you down if you stand at the water’s edge. If instead you plunge into the ocean and run into the waves you cannot get knocked down. You have to swim beyond the shoreline. There you will find a spot where the waves do not wash you off your feet but instead gently rock you. To someone who is tentative about the ocean or about swimming this may seem counterintuitive.

Yitzhak Rabin z"l

20 years ago today Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  That Saturday evening remains a dark stain in Jewish history.   The reluctant peace that seemed nearly at hand in those days now seems even more distant.  In fact Rabin's greatest strength was that he did not wrap the Oslo Accords in messianic hopes but in the realistic aspirations of a soldier-statesman and the practical needs of the State of Israel. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he read a poem by Yehuda Amichai, written years earlier in 1955: God has pity on kindergarten children. He has less pity on school children. And on grownups he has no pity at all, he leaves them alone, and sometimes they must crawl on all fours in the burning sand to reach the first-aid station covered with blood.  But perhaps he will watch over true lovers and have mercy on them and shelter them like a tree over the old man sleeping on a public bench.  Perhaps we too will give them the last rare coins of compas

Vayera and God's Lies

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains four stories: the announcement of Isaac’s birth, Sodom and Gomorrah (it did not go well for those cities), Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s subsequent banishment, and the binding of Isaac. Let’s examine the first story. God’s messengers arrive to tell Abraham that he is going to have a son. “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah, who is nearly 90 years old and happens to be listening on the other side of the tent, laughs (that is why Isaac means laughter) and says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” God of course hears Sarah’s laughter and what she said and angrily declares to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'" (Genesis 18) The ancient Rabbis notice that God does not accurately report what Sarah says and what is the source of her laughter. Sarah suggests that their infertility was due to Abr

Standing with Israel

We join in solidarity and prayer with the State of Israel given these past weeks of terror. As much as I believe that the settlement enterprise erodes Israel’s democratic character and that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continued refusal to acknowledge this danger is perilous to Israel’s future, the current wave of terrorism is not about settlements but instead directed against Israel’s very legitimacy. The statements by Palestinian leaders are evidence of this. Their continued denial of the Jewish people’s 3,000 year ties to the land in general, Jerusalem in particular, and the Temple Mount most explicitly, make a mockery of the claim that this intifada is about the occupation. The goal of a separation from the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank is not only to shore up Israel’s founding democratic principles but to first and foremost create increased safety and security, and then we pray, the space for a measure of hope to emerge on both sides of an agreed upon border and

Lech Lecha's Promise of Questions

The political theorist Hannah Arendt writes: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions would be to lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.” (The Life of the Mind) Our Jewish story begins this week. It begins with a call. Jewish civilization begins again today, and every day. God speaks to Abraham. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12) It begins with a journey. It is founded on exploration. Our faith starts with a question. Why me? (I imagine this was Abraham’s first question.) What am I to make of this life? How might I bring meaning to this journey? Why us? What are we to make of our world? How might we bring meaning to others? People think that religion is about answers. People think it is about prom

Noach and Babbling Blessings

The concluding chapter of this week’s portion describes the first real estate development project, the construction of the Tower of Babel. Here is that episode. Humanity bands together to build a tower that reaches to heaven. They say, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4) God is not pleased with their efforts and says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:6-7) Thus this first building project does not fare well. The people want to build the tallest building possible. God apparently sees this as an offense or perhaps even a threat. Only God dwells in the heavens. And so the tower remains unfinished. We remain human. We are left

Too Much Light!?

Another interpretation of the creation of light in the Torah's first chapter by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.  Enjoy this G-dcast video!

Bereshit and Creating Good

We begin the Torah anew. We start with the first chapter of Genesis. We read about the creation of the world. God fashioned the world in six days. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” We read about God creating the land and the oceans, the birds and the fish, animals and plants. We see God fashioning human beings. We ask: six days? Really? In school we learned about evolution and the big bang. We discovered how human beings evolved from animals. We found out that the world is in fact billions of years old not as Jewish tradition suggests 5776 years. I find the science very compelling. I trust you do as well. So why do we keep reading the Torah and its account of the creation of the world in six days? It is because the Torah provides meaning. It grants purpose to creation. It adds direction to our lives. Take the fourth day as an example. “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for t

Simhat Torah Joy

We have come to the conclusion of the Tishrei marathon. We observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and now finally, Simhat Torah. We travel from personal introspection and repentance to fasting and the recounting of our many failings to the wandering and fragility of temporary booths (nothing like a week of wind and rain to remind us of that!) to now the joy of Simhat Torah. We celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle and its simultaneous beginning. On the day of Simhat Torah we begin the cycle all over again. We believe that everything we ever wanted to know is in this scroll. It is only perhaps a matter of reading it at a different angle if the wisdom is not immediately apparent. We confirm our faith on this day: all wisdom and teachings are contained in this book. Thus we are privileged and blessed to begin this journey of exploration once again. This day is therefore cause for great celebration. Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday. It is about

Sukkot Tastes and Smells

The holiday of Sukkot is marked by joy. In fact during ancient times it was the most important holiday—more significant than even Yom Kippur. During Sukkot the first and second Temples were dedicated. There are two primary observances. We build a sukkah and eat our meals there. Some even sleep in their sukkah. We do so for several reasons. These booths remind us of the fragility of life. They must be temporary structures. They also teach us about our connectedness to nature and to God’s creation. After the loftiness and almost otherworldliness of Yom Kippur (such is the delirious state created by a day of fasting and praying), we are returned to this world and our dependence on God’s creation. We also wave the lulav and etrog. To be honest, this is a rather bizarre ritual. We hold together a palm branch, two willow and three myrtle twigs along with one strange looking lemon like fruit, the etrog and wave them in six directions, signifying that God is all around us. To be h

My Refugee Blues

What follows is my Yom Kippur morning sermon exploring the refugee crisis. A few weeks ago I saw my Jewish dreams wash ashore. It was the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach that shattered those visions. It should have been the hundreds of thousands of other deaths. It should have been the press of some 60 million refugees struggling to escape persecution and war, hunger and famine. Instead it was one child. I watched as this little boy was carried ever so gently from a beach that serves in most years as a destination for tourists and vacationers. Unetanah tokef kedushat hayom. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. The family had set out on a thirteen-mile journey across the Aegean Sea to make their way to the Greek island of Kos. Their boat capsized. The boy’s five-year-old brother and mother also drowned. His father, Abdullah, survived. Here is

Becoming Reform

What follows is my Yom Kippur evening sermon about what it means to be a Reform Jew. Let’s talk about Reform Judaism. In July 1883 the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati ordained its first class of American Reform rabbis. Four men were ordained—women would not be ordained until almost 100 years later. The founder of the college, Isaac Mayer Wise, was very proud. He had successfully created a seminary to serve all of American Jewry—both the traditionalists and radical reformers were present. He had succeeded in implementing his vision of only one modern American Jewish movement. Look at the names he coined, Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. None of these names declared Reform. (It is by the way “Reform Judaism” not “Reformed Judaism.” We have done nothing wrong to require a reformed path.) All the names proclaimed a unified American Judaism. After the ordination ceremony the group of newly minted rabbis, their teachers and families adjo

Church Pews

What follows is the letter I sent to my congregation about our decision to celebrate two of our High Holiday services at St. Dominic Catholic Church. Our synagogue building cannot accommodate the larger numbers who attend these services. I am proud of my congregation for embracing this decision. My words proved true. We found our services deeply meaningful. I look forward to our observance of Yom Kippur. Sometimes practical challenges illustrate important philosophical principles. Our decision to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Morning services at St. Dominic is such a case. Judaism teaches that the place is secondary to the moment. We sanctify time rather than space. It is far more important when we gather rather than where. What transforms ordinary days in the calendar into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that we join together as a community. What matters is that we sing our prayers together. What matters is that we learn Torah. These are the acts that sanctify the d

Yom Kippur Sands

Annie Dillard writes: The more nearly spherical is a grain of sand, the older it is. “The average river requires a million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles,” [the American physicist] James Trefil tells us. As a sand grain tumbles along the riverbed—as it saltates, then lies still, then saltates for those millions of years—it smooths some of its rough edges. Then, sooner or later, it blows into a desert. In the desert, no water buoys its weight. When it leaps, it lands hard. In the desert, it knaps itself round. Most of the round sand grains in the world, wherever you find them, have spent some part of their histories blowing around a desert. Wind bangs sand grains into one another on dunes and beaches, and into rocks. Rocks and other sands blast the surfaces, so windblown sands don’t sparkle like young river sands. “We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more ancient than we imagine; and yet at the same time everything is in motion,” [the French paleontol

History's Deals

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon, exploring the Iran deal.    In December of 1938 Nicholas Winton, then a 29-year-old London stockbroker, was planning a skiing vacation to Switzerland.   Before leaving he received a phone call from his good friend Martin who urged him to cancel the vacation and come to Prague instead.   “I need your help,” Martin said. “Don’t bother bringing your skis.”   In Prague Winton confronted thousands of Jewish refugees living in appalling conditions. I am sure many are familiar with this story.   Still I want to retell it because this past July Nicholas (Nicky) Winton died after living to 106 years.   I recall his story as well because much of our discussion this past summer hinged around the very question Winton faced.   How do we confront evil?   The stories we tell influence how we evaluate contemporary events and in particular the now concluded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that lifts the sanctions against Iran in exchange for