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Showing posts from January, 2015

Beshalach and Tibetan Shul

This week we begin the wandering that defines the remainder of our Torah. I am in the midst of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I am taken with the author’s meditations on journeying. She quotes a Tibetan sage who lived six hundred years ago. He teaches about the meaning of a path, a track. In Tibetan, this is called, shul. [A shul is] a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by— a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. Too often we pine after such impressions. We long for what we believe we had years ago. We conjure images of the past and mythologize distant events. After seeing Fiddler on the Roof for the first time I asked my grandmother who spent her f

Bo, Freedom and Meaning

“Let My people go!” Moses declares to Pharaoh. (Exodus 10:3) This familiar verse is often cited as a defense of freedom and individual liberty. What is the meaning of freedom? Does it mean that we are free to do whatever we want? Is it permissible, for instance, to draw cartoons that others find offensive? Are we free to shout words that others find provocative? Speech and the freedom of expression have limits. Most of us remember learning how the US Supreme Court drew its few lines around speech. The court affirmed the First Amendment but added that we are forbidden from screaming “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. In other words speech can be curtailed when there is clear evidence that our words will cause others physical harm. Now that people crowd together in lesser numbers in theaters will the court one day redefine “fire” for the internet age? Judaism teaches that words can be among the most hurtful weapons people wield. Our tradition argues that lashon hara, gossip,

Martin Luther King and Dreaming Big

What follows is the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat. This weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. On this day we reflect on his achievements. We also ponder what remains to be realized in the civil rights struggle. As you know Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech in August of 1963 standing before Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial and in front of the thousands who marched there to further civil rights. In that “I Have a Dream” speech, he said: Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be

Vaera, Terrorism and the Hardened Heart

This past week was a painful and harrowing week. The attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket remind us once again of terrorism’s reach. In this age of terror the daily routine of going to a supermarket and what should be the uneventful drawing of cartoons become courageous. Ordinary, everyday acts, become acts of bravery. What do we do? We muster our courage and steel our hearts by saying that it could never happen here. We say, “Paris was heading in this direction.” Or, “I don’t frequent places that are likely to be attacked?” Make no mistake. Shopping at the local kosher butcher is no more dangerous than the frequenting of the nearby Whole Foods. Terrorism instills fear in its randomness. While terrorism may appear to be directed at harming lives its greatest danger is how it attacks the heart. And it is within the heart that we can achieve victory. Here is how the heart must respond. First we must come to recognize that there is unmitigated evil in t

Shemot and Saving Names

Why does the most important book of the Torah, the book of Exodus that details our people’s liberation from Egypt and tells the story that we recount at our Passover Seders begin with the most ordinary list of names? “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; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.” (Exodus 1) Certainly a more dramatic introduction could have been written. Then again remarkable stories sometimes begin with the most mundane and seemingly ordinary opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” is among the most famous of such opening lines. It begins the epic story of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick . The Torah however is more than a literary masterpiece. Each word, every sentence, suggests a lesson. Every nuance points to a teaching. And so we learn that every

Vayehi, Euphemisms and Truth Telling

Happy New Year! May 2015 be filled with good health and much happiness. May the world see at least a measure of peace! I find myself wondering about euphemisms, the common phrases we use to shroud uncomfortable truths. Chief among these are those that we use to report death. “He passed,” we say. “She passed away,” others recount. I wonder: do such phrases make the loss any less real? Do they shield us from the pain? And yet we continue to speak these words. Even the Bible mirrors these phrases. It appears to echo our discomfort. The Torah reports: “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 49:33) The Haftarah affirms: “So David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David.” (I Kings 2:10) This is how the Bible reports the deaths of our forefather Jacob and King David. But Judaism insists that we not shy away from confronting death. We must face i