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Showing posts from 2016

The Genesis of Brotherhood

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis. This week we find ourselves in the midst of the Joseph story. Our hero Joseph, recently sold into slavery by his brothers, has now achieved power and renown in Egypt. The brothers who think he is a slave in a far away land must now approach him and beg for food. They do not recognize him. He walks like an Egyptian. He talks like an Egyptian. He, however, recognizes them. And so Joseph tests them. Much of Genesis can be viewed through the lens of the siblings it portrays. It is a story about brotherly love, although more often than not jealousy and rivalry. Ultimately the book concludes with a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. There are four sets of brothers. We open with Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. Cain is so consumed with anger that he kills his brother Abel. The hatred, apparently fostered by God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s, is never overcome. The next set of brothers is Isaac and

Peacemaking, Eventually!

The story of Hanukkah is a story of zealotry. The Maccabees took up arms against the mighty Syrian-Greek army. They eventually defeat them and rededicate the Temple. Hanukkah means dedication. The Maccabees also battled against their coreligionists who were enamored of Greek culture. In fact the Maccabees first killed a fellow Jew who was attempting to offer a sacrifice to the king. For the Maccabees there was no room for those who did not think like them. Either you were with them or against them. Either you were fighting with them or against them and if against them, then subject to their wrath. While such extreme devotion provided them with the passion to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds, it also divided the world into two distinct categories, us and them. Eventually everyone called they becomes the enemy. And eventually, such passion becomes all consuming.... This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Who Is Your Esau? Or Finding Better Angels

This week Jacob becomes Israel. First he prepares to meet his brother Esau after years of separation, anger and distrust. Jacob is nervous about the impending reunion. When the brothers parted years ago Esau was filled with rage over Jacob’s stealing of the birthright. Esau even threatened to kill his brother. Then Jacob was young man, unmarried with no children. Now he is the father to many (and husband to Rachel and Leah). He is a wealthy man. Before the meeting between brothers, Jacob sends his family across a river. He remains alone for the night. Jacob was alone as well when he dreamed last week of a stairway leading to heaven with angels ascending and descending the steps. This time, however, he chooses solitude. Was it to contemplate the meeting? Would Esau forgive him? Would the brothers be reconciled? He wrestles with an angel. Now it is not a dream. This struggle continues through the evening’s darkness. Dawn arrives. The divine being wrenches his hip

Stairway to Heaven (with Apologies to Led Zeppelin)

When we last met our forefather Jacob he was busy stealing the first born birthright from his brother Esau. He conspires with his mother Rebekah to outwit his blind father, Isaac. Confused, or willfully blind and therefore party to the deception, Isaac blesses his younger son Jacob. Upon discovering this Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah shouts, “Run! Get out of here. Go to your uncle’s home.” And this is where we pick up the story. Jacob is on the run. He is on his way to Haran (in modern day Iraq) from Beersheva. He is alone. He is afraid. He stops for the night and prays the evening prayers (according to the rabbis). Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. He dreams of the Lord standing beside him. This offers Jacob reassurance. God promises to protect him. God instructs him that his descendants will become as numerous as the dust of the earth and that the land on which he rests will become his people’s inheritance. Jacob awa

Prayer of Tears

The poet Mary Oliver writes:      Poems arrive ready to begin.           Poets are only the transportation. I am transported. It was some years ago that my friend and I were enjoying a casual summer weekend at his pool. As we watched our young children play, we stood and talked in the pool’s shallow end. I casually mentioned a story about his father and a memory I recalled. His dad had wired the house with some sort of intercoms of his own creation–long before cellphones and Walkie-Talkies. I still remember that moment. I still recall looking into my friend’s face.... This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Pantsuit Prayers!?

How does one pray to God? The Rabbis respond. They offer interpretations. They search the Bible for examples. They dwell in particular on Hannah and her prayer for a child. Her words teach us how to petition God. In the Book of Samuel, which we read on Rosh Hashanah, Hannah pours out the bitterness of her soul (I Samuel 1). The Rabbis thought this to be the most heartfelt of prayers: a woman longing to give birth to a child. Rabbi Eleazer even imagines Hannah saying: Sovereign of the Universe, among all the things that You have created in a woman, You have not created one without a purpose, eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to work, legs with which to walk, breasts with which to nurse. (And I would add: a mind with which to think!) These breasts that You have put on my heart, are they not to nurse a child? Please, give me a child, so that I may nurture life. (Berachot 31b) We read this week about Rebekah. She too has difficulty conc

Mollie, Ishmael and Making Peace

I am thinking about food, family meals and the American bounty we are about to celebrate. My Aunt Mollie comes to mind. I have a particular vivid memory of Aunt Mollie, who was my grandmother’s younger sister. I was approximately eight years old when Aunt Mollie visited our family in St. Louis. Soon after her arrival, the house filled with the smells of stuffed peppers, stuffed artichokes, meatballs, and marinara sauce. She and my mom spent the better part of her visit in the kitchen so that she could teach her favorite niece some of her favorite, and best, recipes. It never occurred to me to wonder how my Aunt Mollie came to master Italian cuisine. (Actually I never thought much about such culinary distinctions. It was all part of my family’s cuisine.) Some years later the secret was revealed. When Mollie was sixteen years old she ran away from home and married Joe Ladisio, an Italian man some 25 years her senior. Imagine that! The Greenberg family came to this coun

Paved with Gold

I retreat to the Torah. It is a welcome distraction from the news and our country’s painful divisions. This week we read about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are marked by sinfulness. As in the story of Noah, God decides to start all over and destroy these cities. Again God shares the plan with a chosen, and trusted, person. This time it is Abraham. God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Genesis 18:17) God reveals the plan to Abraham. But Abraham pleads in behalf of the people. Abraham argues (and negotiates) with God exacting a promise that if ten righteous people can be found then the cities should be saved. In the end Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. By the way, some suggest this number ten is the origin of ten for a minyan. And yet the Torah is unclear about what they did that was so terrible. What were their sins? We are given only hints. “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” (

Like It or Not, It's Still Mr. President

Let me offer three observations about the election now concluded and our soon to be 45th president, Donald Trump. 1. Despite the overwhelming victory for Republican candidates, we are a divided nation. Look to the popular vote. In 2008 President Obama defeated Senator McCain by some ten million votes. In 2012 he won by approximately five million. Secretary Clinton won by less than 200,000 votes, as of this writing. I have read many commentators, and protestors, who now wish to do away with the Electoral College because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They comfort themselves by saying that if you factor in the approximate five million votes for third party candidates you realize the majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump. They leave out the fact that the majority of Americans did not then vote for Clinton as well. For me I read these numbers as evidence of how divided we are. 200,000 out of 60 million is no victory. We are a divided nation. There are some 60 mil

American Dreaming

The Internet is an angry place. I find myself retreating to my dreams. And I am dreaming about my grandfather. In my grandfather’s final week, after he was hospitalized by a stroke, I would read the day’s newspapers to him. I would first read the headlines. He would then indicate which article I was to read out loud, with the specific instruction that I always read the designated article to the very last sentence. We would then discuss the article. We would analyze it. We would sometimes disagree. More often than not I would listen to his thoughts, to the wisdom of his 86 years, to his many years living in this country and taking in the American political scene. Today I would not know where to begin.... This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

God's Mirror

When does a child become self-aware? When a child first sees himself in a mirror he touches the mirror. He does not know it is his reflection. Later, around the age of two, when the child looks in the mirror she instead touches her face. In that moment her self-identity begins to take shape. The child says, “I.” Self-awareness begins to form. In Hebrew “Ani” means “I.” This word does not appear in the Torah until this week. There appears little self-awareness exhibited by Adam and Eve, who are unaware of their nakedness and blame each other, as well as God, for their own failings. There is plenty of “you” but no “I.” Cain and Abel are so lacking in introspection that they do not understand the pain they cause each other, leading to the first murder. And then the “I” appears.... This post continues on Patheos.

When the Student is the Teacher

In the Jewish tradition we read the concluding words of the Book of Deuteronomy, and then without skipping a beat open to the first chapter of Genesis. We read about Moses’ death and then in our next breath, the creation of the world. This is how we order our year. This is how we read our lives. Several years ago a close family friend died. Throughout his many years, Jerry served as a mentor. Recently his grandson, with whom I, as well as my son Ari, have now grown close, shared a surprising discovery. When he, and his family, searched through his grandfather’s library they came across a stack of letters, a pile of correspondence between Jerry and me. He scanned the letters to his computer and emailed them to me. There, these pages remained. Yesterday I began to read, and reread, the letters. Their meaning was unfurled... This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Five Lessons in Democracy

At last night's debate, and throughout the prior week, Donald Trump suggested that he would not accept the results of the upcoming election--that is I presume assuming that Hillary Clinton wins and he loses.  I have often believed, and taught, that the greatest lessons in our American democracy can be discovered in the concession speeches of those who lose.  They speak about the values we hold dear.  The victor speaks about grand promises, many of which go unfulfilled.  The losing candidate leans on the values that hold us together. And so in order to restore my faith in American democracy I reread those concession speeches--at least as far back as the 1996 election.  Here are the highlights, with some of my own commentary and of course rankings. 5. Bob Dole said in 1996: Let me say that I talked to President Clinton. We had a good visit. I congratulated him.  I have said repeatedly in this campaign that the president was my opponent not my enemy. And I wish him well and I p

Simhat Torah's Party

We are nearing the conclusion of the Tishrei marathon. We observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and very soon, 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 to the joy and dancing of Simhat Torah. We celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle and its simultaneous beginning. On this day 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. This is because all wisdom is contained in this book. That is our Jewish faith. This day is therefore cause for great celebration. Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday. It is about dancing and singing. And these more than anything else are more the Jewish postures than the fasting and litany of sins on Yom Kippur. We are supposed to celebr

UNESCO's Every Grain of Sand

Elie Wiesel said: “[T]hen, too, 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. “ Once again Palestinian methods diminish the justice of their cause. Terrorism continues. And then yesterday, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) whose motto is “Building peace in the minds of men and women,” affirmed a biased anti-Israel, and antisemitic, statement about Jerusalem. In particular this statement, which was fashioned by Palestinian and Arab leaders, recognizes the Muslim connection to Jerusalem but is silent about the Jewish attachment to the holy city. It denies our historical connection to the Temple Mount.... This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Sacrifice, Courage and Healing

What follows is my Yom Kippur Morning sermon. On this Yom Kippur morning I wish to tell but one story. I hope that it offers insights into the meaning of being both an American and a Jew. I hope as well that it offers a measure of healing during these tumultuous and fractured times. It is the story of William Shemin. Here is his story. William Shemin was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on, October 14, 1896 to a Jewish family who had recently emigrated from Russia. During his teenage years, Shemin played semi-pro baseball for the Bayonne Sea Lions. He graduated from the New York State Ranger School in 1914, and went on to work as a forester in in the Adirondacks. After the United States entered World War I, Shemin enlisted in the Army and served in the 47th Infantry Division. On August 7, 1918, his unit battled the Germans in France. For those who may have forgotten their World War I history, that war was marked by soldiers charging out of their trenches at the enemy’s trenches.

Some Angry Prayers

What follows is my Yom Kippur Evening Sermon With the Cards knocked out of the post season I was not sure what to pray for this fall. Should I pray for the Mets to defeat the Giants? A Mets win would have certainly made a lot of people I care about really, really happy. Then I realized that if the Mets were to have defeated San Francisco (why not dear God!), the fourth game of the series against the Cubs—that is of course assuming that all of the prayers for the Mets to sweep in three games went unanswered—would have occurred this evening on Kol Nidre, and at Citi Field no less. So many of those whom I love would have been really, really happy but would have also been faced with an excruciating Sandy Koufax like dilemma. Kol Nidre Services or the Mets game? The religion of baseball or the tradition of our ancestors? What should a rabbi prayer for? As you know, I don’t have to answer that question until, we hope and pray, next year. Go Cards! Still the question rem

Yom Kippur's Particular Readings and Universal Prayers

The opening Torah reading and concluding Haftarah reading of these High Holidays offer a universal message to these particular Jewish days. Let me explain. In our congregation we read Genesis 21 on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This story speaks of the birth of Isaac. It is read for several reasons. The opening line tells of how God remembers Sarah. Rosh Hashanah is known as the day of remembrance. We pray that God will remember us for life and for good. For many years Sarah longed for a child. God hears her prayers, and she conceives, at the age of 90, and gives birth to Isaac. It is through Isaac that the Jewish people trace their lineage. Thus we affirm that God will remember us and hear our prayers. The chapter concludes, however, with the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Now that Sarah has her own child she no longer wishes for her maidservant Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael to remain with them. She instructs Abraham to send them out to the desert. Abraham is distressed

Lessons from Unlikely Places

My inspiration for this High Holiday sermon derives from the fact that my congregation is celebrating Rosh Hashanah services in a church. Rather than bemoan this occasion I choose instead to ask, “What does this teach us?” Let’s talk about the Catholic Church. I don’t know what would have made me think about that. All kidding aside, what can we learn from where we are sitting on this day? Let’s ask, what are we supposed to learn from others and from those unlike ourselves? For answers to those questions I wish to journey back some 50 years. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Nostra Aetate, is the Catholic Church’s document, issued during the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII that opened the Catholic Church to other religions. It was officially called the Declaration on the Relation of the Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was promulgated on October 26, 1965. In many ways that document changed our world. In fact it led us to this