Thursday, July 20, 2017

Advice for Our Leaders

We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)

It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders rather than the people as a whole. In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1) Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people?

Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter. Here we read about the concept of making vows. The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks this very same question. He suggests the law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make—most especially if you are a leader.”

I would like to suggest a different reason.

Soon we will mark Tisha B’Av, the day in which we commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. This fast day marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust. The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.

It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own demise. They more often than not suggest that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another. The seeds of our destruction were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other.

The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate. They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another. We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue. What is a debate for the sake of heaven? The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven? The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)

There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument. It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree. The rabbis offer us an important insight. While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions. When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge? Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us?

This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads.

Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate. It rests in how leaders speak to one another.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Give the Keys Away

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches in particular are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And when I visited the church a few days ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently it is feared that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what were allowed to do and not to do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is the attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency.

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray. (And I found one such spot to offer the prayers requested of me.)

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so this summer I found myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently the situation I admired was not always the case. In the 12th century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to suggest that we should give up political sovereignty over Jerusalem. What I do mean to say is that spiritual truths are gained and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control, when don’t say so much, “I am in charge and you’re not. You can do this and you can’t do that.” If we are true to our faith we should say, “This house belongs to God alone.”

Doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sailing on Dreams

Today, I am grateful to have rediscovered a twofold blessing.

First of all I am thankful to my congregation and its leaders for recognizing that its rabbi must renew his learning and refresh his spirit every year. I do so by attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual rabbinic conference. I am here in Jerusalem. It is a blessing to learn with some of the Jewish people’s leading scholars and to sit among colleagues who share my commitment to learning and devotion to questioning.

It is as well a blessing to find myself again in the city of Jerusalem. I live in an unprecedented age. Despite this country’s many difficulties, challenges and frustrations few Jewish generations have been privileged to live in, or alongside, a sovereign Jewish nation. In some ways Israel is just a country, and like every other nation a home to its citizens. In other ways this place is about our reengagement with a dream.

For millennia we only dreamed about returning to the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel. And now with relative ease I travel back and forth. Few generations have had such an opportunity. Through the vast majority of our history most longed for this place but few touched it. Until now! This is a privilege that must never be taken for granted.

Walking Jerusalem’s streets I become reacquainted with my blessings....

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Disagreements and Likes

There is a disturbing trend that is becoming ever more prevalent. It centers on disagreement. We have forgotten how to debate.

We surround ourselves with like-minded people. With the click of a mouse we can unfriend those with whom we disagree. We find it unwelcome to challenge ourselves with divergent opinions or when friends offer us critique. The measure of friendship today is twofold: loyalty and laudation. We only wish to hear the nodding of agreement.

Loving critique is banished from our screens. Honest disagreement is deleted from our inboxes.

Take but two recent examples. At last week’s LGBTQ pride parade in Chicago, several Jewish women who carried a rainbow colored flag with a Jewish star in its center were asked to leave. Why? Organizers told the women that the flag made people feel unsafe. The march is unabashedly anti-Zionist. The Jewish Star of David, they were told, is associated with the State of Israel. The official statement makes the Dyke March’s ideology even more clear: “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology. It is based on the premise that Jewish people have a God-given entitlement to the lands of historic Palestine and the surrounding areas.”

To say this is disturbing and offensive does not adequately characterize my feelings....

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soccer, Torah and Life

The Israeli novelist, Etgar Keret, writes:
I love soccer because it is so painfully similar to life: slow, unjust, fairly random, usually boring, but always holding out the hope that, at some moment, however brief, everything will come together and take on meaning. There’s no getting away from it—life isn’t about limber athletes sinking hoops from the three-point arc; life is an ongoing, uncoordinated, anguished effort to transcend our trivial existence, an effort that, if we’re lucky, might lead to one brilliant move by Messi, Kaká, or some other dribbling magician. And then, for one split second, that whole damp 90-minute mishmash will turn into something coherent, beautiful, and worthwhile. And, when that moment and its endless playbacks fade, we will all return to our same drab reality of wasted time, pointless fouls, unreceived passes, and wild kicks that miss the goal by kilometers, only to wait with infinite patience and boundless hope for that next moment of grace.
I do not share Keret's observation that most of life is boring (or his talent for spinning humor out of the ordinary), but I do share the sentiment that life, like soccer, is punctuated with flashes of brilliance and grace when everything seems to work and everyone seems in sync.

Such is not the story in this week's Torah portion, Korah. Our portion is about the greatest rebellion against Moses and the authority God placed in him. In fact one can read much of the Torah, especially the Book of Numbers, as a record of how bad things can really go and how telling Keret's observation may be. Very little goes according to plan. God frees the people from Egypt, gives them the Torah and prepares them to entire the Promised Land. They in turn whine and complain. They gripe about Moses and his leadership.

Korah screams, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" (Numbers 16: 3) In the end Korah's rebellion is violently crushed. God does not easily forgive those who question Moses' authority.

The Israelites move on to the next episode. Again they complain; this time about a lack of water. In this episode it is Moses who questions God's authority and is punished.

Where are the flashes of brilliance? Where are the models to emulate? My teacher used to quip, "There is no one in the Bible you would want your son or daughter to grow up to be like."

Then why read the Torah? If it is not to provide us with models to emulate and characters to which we aspire, why read it at all?

It is because the Torah mirrors life. It is filled with ordinary people who occasionally do extraordinary things and more often than not do embarrassing things. We can see ourselves in its characters. We can find ourselves in its pages. How often do we discover the soccer-like quality of present reality in the words of Torah?

There is a little bit of Korah in each of us. There is a measure of Moses in all.

Loving the Torah does not always mean imitating it. Loving the Torah and Bible does not mean saying, "It must be right if David did it. It must be true if Moses said it." Torah means instead learning and growing from its words.

There are times when you can appreciate Keret's observation. It was not so long ago that I stood on the sidelines watching my son slide to make a save or leap to knock the unexpected shot out of bounds. Most of the time it was spent kibbitzing with fellow parents, talking about schools, parenting, the news and weather. To be honest I sometimes had to be told about the slide or leap because the kibbitzing so distracted me. You have to remain attentive. You have to be patient. The moments do arrive.

The hours of driving and watching are redeemed by those brief moments of beauty and grace.

We travel from moment to moment, through ordinariness to such grandeur. We are sustained by the moments of illumination and brilliance. We pray that they might be more frequent. We recognize that they are elusive—and infrequent.

Such is life. Such is soccer. Such is Torah.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Selfies and Spies

“Don’t tag me in that photo; I look fat,” a friend once said. In this social media age, we are especially cognizant of how we appear to others.

Perhaps that is Snapchat’s appeal. The image is fleeting. It is shared with only a select group of friends. On Facebook the image can outlive the individual. After death a community of mourners is born on a page. Facebook thinks friendship is eternal. It continues to suggest that I post on a friend’s wall even though he died several years ago.

We coif our image. We hold our selfie stick in the air. We smile. Then we review the photos to be sure we look good. We post. We await the likes and comments. How much of our time is now spent reviewing photos to be sure we look good to others? How many hours do we spend fashioning our digital self-image?

How many selfies are to be found in your iPhone’s camera roll?

The spies scout the land of Israel. Ten return with a negative report. They say: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

How did they know how they appeared to the inhabitants of the land? Such knowledge is impossible to gain. In fact the Haftarah contradicts their impression. The Book of Joshua records that the citizens of Jericho are afraid of the Israelites and terrified to confront them.

It is clear that the Israelites’ self-image is negative. It is obvious that they see themselves as a weak people. This negative impression colors how they view the world. They run away from the Promised Land.

Success begins with what one sees in the mirror. Is it beauty one sees? Is it confidence that shines through? If you look in the mirror and see beauty and confidence then the world appears conquerable. If you see yourself as a little grasshopper then that is how you imagine everyone sees you. Then the world makes you cower in fear.

Can a Facebook photo change your world?

The Hasidic rebbe, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, imagines God saying to the Israelites: “Why are you so concerned with how you look in the eyes of the Canaanites? Such concern distracts you from your sacred task.”

Spending too much time worrying about how you appear to others can very well divert you from the sacred work God intended for you to shoulder.

Years ago I read a story about a musician who played the violin in a subway station. In the 45 minutes he played, only six people stopped and stayed for a while. About twenty gave him money but continued to walk at their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing no one noticed it. No one applauded. There was no recognition. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He had played one of the most intricate pieces ever written and with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the station, Joshua Bell sold out a Boston theater. The average price of a ticket was $100.

People just thought he was a street musician and not a famous violinist. That did not deter him. He played as masterfully as ever. He did not allow how others viewed him to effect his self-perception. He did not allow the lack of recognition or the absence of the usual applause and standing ovations to divert him from his God-given talent of bringing music to people’s hearts.

The world must be conquered each and every day. It must be bettered each and every day. That is what God calls us to do. The strength to do so begins with how we view ourselves.

It does not matter how others see us. What matters is how we see ourselves.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Shira, She-Ra and Wonder Woman

Some twenty-four years ago when my daughter Shira was born my mother announced her new granddaughter’s name to her high school English class. One of the students said, “You mean like She-Ra, princess of power.” My mother responded, “No. As in the Hebrew word shira, meaning song.” Her students returned baffled looks. The class clown raised his fist and shouted, “She-Ra, princess of power, twin sister of He-Man!” The students laughed. A young girl said, “Congratulations, Mrs. Moskowitz.” “Enough class. Open your books. We are reading The Canterbury Tales today.”

She-Ra was developed by the toy company Mattel to appeal to young girls. If boys could have the powerful He-Man then girls could buy the protective She-Ra. He-Man carried the sword of power and She-Ra the sword of protection.



She-Ra was portrayed as extraordinarily powerful. She was able to lift not only buildings and mountains but men. Her powers were supernatural. Girls could discover in her a positive role model because she, like her male counterpart, made the best use of her God-given talents. She saved the day, and of course the world, in each and every episode.

I just saw the new “Wonder Woman” movie. I felt compelled to go. I grew up watching Lynda Carter transforming into Wonder Woman. Cue the music. “Wonder Woman!”


Time marches forward. Shira joined me.

In this year’s movie, the lead actress is Israeli and the villain German. Like She-Ra, Wonder Woman has supernatural powers. She fights alongside the United States against its enemies. In the 1970’s TV series she fought against the Nazis. In the movie the enemies are WWI Germans. I wish the scriptwriters kept the villains of the original TV series. WWI Germany was not the evil Nazis.

Why choose enemies that history deems more benign? It is because the 2017 battle is against war. It is not against a specific enemy. Have we forgotten the message of the TV series? We continue to face specific enemies. To name but one example, Lebanon banned the showing of “Wonder Woman” because Gal Gadot is Israeli. There are far too many who declare our way of life their enemy. While we might pray for peace and an end to war we recognize that war is a sad feature of humanity.

How else do we explain the Torah’s discussions of war? When the Ark was carried into battle, and to this day in traditional synagogues when the Torah is taken from the Ark, we say: “Vayihi b’nsoa ha’aron… Advance, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered. And may Your foes flee before You!” (Numbers 10:35) We can remove these words from our prayer books, as our Reform Siddur does, but the reality is sadly here to stay. War continues. We have self-described enemies.

Today’s Wonder Woman fights to end war.



Towards the end of the movie she kills the man who she believes to be Ares, the ancient Greek god of war. (Sorry if you have not seen the movie yet.) But the war continues. The killing does not end. Wonder Woman is baffled. That would have been a fitting conclusion to the film. End on a question mark.

Surgical strikes will not end today’s war. Larger bombs will not decide the battles. They might make us feel safer and they might event prevent another attack. But the war against terror is won by banishing fear, by going about our everyday lives, by embracing the pluralistic society that is the greatness of our country (and Britain’s, France’s and Israel’s) and the most powerful sword we can wield against our enemies.

But Hollywood has to tidy up the conclusion. Its films cannot end on a question mark. Ares appears. War can indeed be defeated. And then Wonder Woman, after gaining renewed strength because of her love for Steve, kills the god of war. Killing Ares vanquishes war. The Americans and Germans embrace. War is banished from their hearts.

I prefer questions. Does Wonder Woman represent progress? Yes and no.

Yes because Wonder Woman and the Amazon women successfully defend their island against German invaders. As many reviewers have noted, they do so without any assistance from men. They are extraordinary fighters. Never is Wonder Woman portrayed as a damsel in distress. Moreover she leads the charge through no man’s land and against impossible odds. She does so not to regain a few feet of territory but to rescue a town and save its inhabitants. Her cause is noble.

No. War cannot be erased from men’s hearts. Our Torah in contrast offers realism. It affirms questions. It rejects fantasy. Only in comic books is history so tidy and neat. While war cannot be eradicated, people are indeed capable of unimaginable good. Still it is nice to have a two-hour respite from the news of war. And it is not all bad to have superheroes.

When Shira was born familial priorities were reordered. We were now parents. And my parents were now grandparents. Shira’s grandparents (and of course later Ari’s) became the most esteemed of titles.

It is wonderful, and really not all that mysterious, how one woman can reorder a world.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sparks of Holiness

The Levites were divided into three clans: Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites. They were charged with the priestly duties. Some of these tasks apparently required some heavy lifting. So Moses gave the Gershonites two carts and four oxen and to the Merarites he gave four carts and eight oxen. But to the Kohathites he gave nothing. They had to do everything with their own arms and legs.

“But to the Kohathites Moses did not give any carts or oxen; since their duties were to the most sacred objects. They had to carry these on their shoulders.” (Numbers 7) Was it because the Kohathites were particularly strong? Or instead because these objects were not very heavy? It appears not. They were charged with carrying the ark, lampstand, altars and sacred utensils.

It was instead because their responsibilities were most sacred. They therefore had to do everything with their own hands. No matter how heavy these were, the Torah’s intention appears to be that when it comes to these particular objects, an ox or cart will not do. Only one’s own hands could carry these.

I once read that the Hasidic rabbis would sweep the floor of their sanctuaries themselves. They left this to no else. I suspect that it was because their synagogues could not afford a custodian. In impoverished Eastern Europe they could not afford much. And yet this is not how these rabbis chose to understand their task.

They saw instead the mundane and every day care of the synagogue, from cleaning up after services to turning on the lights, as holy work.

They decided that no task was beneath them. No job was beneath any person. When it comes to the religious life of the synagogue no one should see any duty as beneath them. Lifting a heavy load must be done with one’s own hands. Carrying the sacred objects must be done on one’s own back.

The Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk comments: "All work for any holy cause requires extra effort. One must harness all one’s powers to do this work. One does not acquire a spark of holiness without effort."

Holiness is not a divine gift. Sparks of the divine must be gathered up and carried. They are the result of hard work. They are the result of even the most seemingly mundane and menial tasks.

Gather them up. Carry them. They are everywhere and anywhere.

Monday, May 29, 2017

My Relationship with a Tree

It was many, many years ago that I read the line, “I consider a tree.” In Martin Buber’s I and Thou. And it was as well not until many, many years later that I understand its import, if only partially.

Buber, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, argues that relations are the foundation of life, that we are most human in relation to others. There are encounters with others when all that exists is the relationship. “All real living is meeting,” he states. It is in our meetings with others that we most experience life and even sense a glimmer of the divine.

In an “I-Thou” encounter the “I” does not exist and the “Thou” does not exist. All that exists is the “I-Thou,” the relationship. Anyone who has experienced the love between one spouse and another or the bond of parents with children can appreciate Buber’s insight. Yet the perfect relationship, where all that exists is care and concern for each other, is fleeting. We cannot sustain this perfect moment.

We strive for perfection. We hope and pray that the knowledge of these perfect, fleeting, moments, when all that appears to exist is the relationship, forces us to reach out to others. I continue to marvel at the insight. It marks a breakthrough. I came to believe that the “I-Thou” commands us to treat others with respect and concern.

Then I read Buber’s insights about a tree....

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jerusalem, Manchester and Concertgoers

Our hearts are again saddened and sickened, and terror stricken, by yet another murderous attack. This time against children, and youth, enjoying a concert in Manchester England. We stand in solidarity with the people of Manchester. We pray for healing for those injured. We pray for solace for those whose lives have been taken. We pray for justice!

Lost among this week’s news was the word that 34 people, again mostly children, drowned in the Mediterranean. These refugees were attempting to reach Italy when their overcrowded boat capsized. They were fleeing Libya. The same murderous hatred that propels these refugees to flee their homes targets concertgoers. And yet the victims of the Arianna Grande attack find our sympathy. They could be us. We have taken our children to concerts. We have attended shows at the Garden, Jones Beach and Met Life Stadium.

We are separated from these refugees by two or three generations. They could have been my grandparents. Is our compassion only a matter of generations? I am called to have sympathy for all human beings. All of life is sacred. A murderous hatred, wrapped in the guise of Islam, seeks to engulf the world. It drowns and murders children. It targets the freedom to gather, to revel in music and speak our mind. We must be vigilant. We must be compassionate. I pray for peace.

Yesterday's Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, marks the 50th anniversary of Israel's victory in the 1967 war. It is a complicated day. While it commemorates Israel’s victory, it also marks the stalemate that has existed for the past fifty years. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains a distant dream. I hope and pray that President Trump’s efforts prove successful. Will moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, for example, advance the peace process?

Today, I do not wish to focus on such questions. Instead I wish to dwell on the following. I have never known a Jewish world without the State of Israel. I have been privileged to witness, and celebrate, many of its milestones. I have been privileged as well to debate many of its controversies and even swim in its contradictions. I have also been fortunate enough to travel there frequently.

I have only known a Jerusalem since 1967. I have read about Jerusalem’s no man’s land that separated Jordanian forces from Israel’s, and that now is home to Mamilla Mall. Many have walked through this corridor of shops and restaurants as they make their way to the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. No area of Jerusalem has ever been no man’s land to me.

Years ago I attended a concert in this very area. I then attended the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival in this very spot. Here is that story from the summer of 2007. It illustrates what modern day Jerusalem represents. It tells a story that we will not read about in our newspapers.

We sat in Jerusalem’s outdoor amphitheater, Sultan’s Pool. Now Sultan’s Pool is no ordinary theatre. It was constructed by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman, nearly 500 years ago, who also rebuilt the Old City’s walls. It is a magnificent amphitheater that sits outside the Old City. Prior to 1967 it marked what was once the heart of no man’s land. The theatre sits in the valley of Hinnom, a valley referred to by the prophets of old, a valley whose ancient practice of child sacrifice gave rise to the Jewish image of hell, Gei-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom. The prophet Jeremiah’s harsh words and Amichai’s lyrical poems swam through my heart.

Yehuda Amichai writes: 
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine. 
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying. 
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.
It was a cool evening and blankets were given away to help keep out the chill of Jerusalem’s desert evening. The Old City’s walls were awash with lights. I remembered sitting in this very spot some twenty years prior with my then girlfriend Susie (Susie and I met in Jerusalem) and watching Santana perform. There were no seats then, only the ancient stones of the pool—and Santana jamming and talking about peace. “I say to these walls, man, let there be peace.”

The film festival began with a few speeches. First a petite 90-year-old woman, Lia Van Leer, chair of the festival spoke about her passion for Jerusalem and film and how especially proud she was that next year the festival will mark its 25th anniversary. An achievement award was presented to Avi Lerner and Danny Dimborf, Israeli born producers who have made it big in Hollywood. Their company has produced such classics as “Delta Force—1, 2, 3 and 4.”

The final speech was delivered in broken English by the chair of the Berlin Film Festival, Dieter Kosslick. He spoke about his long time friendship with Mrs. Van Leer, making some embarrassing slips because of his command of English, telling the crowd of nearly 10,000 how he looks forward to sleeping with Lia when they both attend Cannes. (I presume it sounds more appropriate in German.) He laughed when he realized his gaffe and then told this story.

When he was a young boy he witnessed the rise of Nazism and the devastation this ideology brought to the world and his country. He spoke about how the Nazis once burned Jewish books in his native Berlin. Because his birthplace saw the destruction of Jewish books he vowed to rectify this wrong. Every year Mrs. Van Leer brings him a gift. It is a book written before 1933 and written by a German Jewish author, a book that is tattered and worn, a book that seems beyond repair and that can no longer be read. Every year he lovingly takes this book and has it restored by a bookbinder in his native home. Every year books that would have been burned by the Nazis return to their native home and are there restored and I imagine thereby restore a piece of this man’s tattered soul. There was silence and then a standing ovation.

He declared the festival open and we watched the opening film, “Ratatouille.” Yes that’s right. Only in Israel would the Jerusalem Film Festival open in an ancient Turkish pool with speeches by an elderly Jewish woman and a repentant German and culminate with a Disney movie. In Israel one of the greatest compliments you can offer is: “This is American.” Israelis’ love of everything American is proof that an important part of Zionism is: “Let’s just fit in.”

On the other hand, unlike any other nation, Israelis feel that their everyday actions redeem the atrocities of a former century. On that cool desert evening I participated in redemption. I witnessed a German man publicly offer atonement. I watched a Disney film in an ancient pool and declared, along with 10,000 other Jews: “We can laugh and play just like you.”

Yes indeed, we can still laugh and play.

Perhaps that is the justice we seek. Perhaps that is the peace that so eludes us.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Holy Earth

The Torah portion makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear. It is of course the holy land. This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year. One might therefore think, especially given the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy. But in fact all lands are holy. The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, is sacred.

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Thank You God for the fruit of Israel,” but instead “for the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.” The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tones, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants. For God founded it upon the ocean, set it on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24) Another psalm provides a litany of God’s earthly creations. “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.” (Psalm 104)

I have been thinking about the power of nature. Often it is nature’s fury that reminds me of its majesty. Recently, we have witnessed, tornadoes and flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes. The psalmist’s words again come to mind: “You make springs gush forth in torrents; they make their way between the hills.”

The psalms remind us again and again. “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.” And so I have no choice but to: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God. May my prayer be pleasing to God; I will rejoice in the Lord.” (Psalm 104)

As we stand before the awesome power of nature, we have no choice but to sing God’s praises. At times that is all we can do to rescue us from the earth’s fury. We require such reverence not only before God but before nature.

For too long we have believed that we are masters of nature, that we can control its fury, that we can tame mighty rivers and hold back oceans. We might be able to build better locks and even higher levees, but nature cannot be controlled. In fact some have suggested that our lock and dam system has made catastrophic floods more likely. Furthermore we know now that Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam system prevent vital nutrients from reaching the Mississippi river’s delta and enriching its delicate ecosystem.

I am not of course suggesting that we give up the effort of building levees and dams. However, reverence combined with knowledge, and scientific learning, might be in fact a much better approach. We would do well to remind ourselves of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” We require such humility!

And so we must relearn this truth. All lands are indeed holy. It is not just one land. It is not just our own backyard but all the earth.

Why was the Torah revealed in the wilderness of Sinai? It was revealed there to make clear that it was given to all. The desert wilderness belongs to no one. The Torah therefore is for everyone. It was given there moreover so that no land can claim the Torah as its alone.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land. So much of Jewish history occurred there. I love nothing more than to hike its wadis and swim in its waterfalls. But it is not the only land.

The reverence for the land that the sabbatical year suggests is something we must apply to all lands. We must restore a sense of reverence for the earth and the land.

We can no longer afford to do whatever we want with our precious earth.

It is not just about my own backyard. It is not just about my own holy land.

Let us restore reverence in our hearts. Let us infuse humility in our souls.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Holy Terror

The Book of Leviticus is singularly obsessed with ritual. It is filled with laws about sacrifices and ritual purity. There are the occasional details about the familiar: keeping kosher and the more frequent unfamiliar: the mixing of wool and linen.

It contains only two stories. Both are tragedies. Both involve incidents where ritual goes terribly wrong.

The first is the story of the priests, Nadav and Avihu. They offer an alien fire. They die at the instance of the Lord. (Leviticus 10) Little explanation is offered. We are left wondering what they did that merited the punishment of death. I remain baffled.

I remain troubled.

The other story appears in this week’s Torah portion. It offers more details but is equally troubling. “The son of the Israelite woman cursed the Name of God, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomit—and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.” (Leviticus 24)

And what is God’s determination? “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” Sadly, the Israelites did as God commanded and stoned him to death. Again what did he say that merited death? How can a curse deserve such punishment? What was so offensive about his words?

Perhaps his blasphemy was only inadvertent. Perhaps he sought to praise God but in his zealousness said something that others deemed inappropriate. What could have been so terrible that there was no other fitting punishment? I am baffled.

I am troubled.

What is blasphemous or alien are subjective determinations. What is labeled as foreign can only be discovered in the eyes of the insider. Such determinations draw a line between insiders and outsiders, between us and them. The Torah offers a counter impulse. It seeks to bring more inside. It repeats over and over again the command “There shall be one law for stranger and citizen alike.” While Leviticus is obsessed with ritual, the Torah as a whole is determined to establish one law for all. No distinction must be drawn between citizen and stranger.

The judgments of blasphemy and alien require an insider perspective. What I deem holy you might view as profane. What you view as a curse I might view as sacred. What you call alien I might call ordinary. What you deem foreign I might see as uplifting.

We are left perplexed. Do these stories contradict the law?

On the surface these episodes can be read as cautionary tales. Take God’s instructions wrong and death ensues. Curse God and you will be punished. Do a ritual in a foreign way and you will be killed. These stores are warnings. But what is a curse and what is foreign are matters of interpretation.

The plain meaning of these tales appears too severe. Too often the law writes people out. And then the narrative writes the unexpected in.

There is only one woman who is named in the entire Book of Leviticus. It is Shelomit, the mother of the man put to death for blasphemy. Why do we know her name? Why do we know the name of the person who suffers the unimaginable horror of witnessing her son stoned to death? Her name leads us to a discovery. There are times when the law turns tragic, when its observance can cause pain. Its terror is humanized. He had a mother!

And we are also intimately acquainted with the father of Nadav and Avihu. It is Aaron. He too sees his sons killed for what was perhaps only a youthful mistake. Perhaps they became carried away with their singing and dancing.

Aaron and Shelomit share a sad, and tragic, connection. Their children die. And their deaths are (apparently) sanctioned by God. We are left wondering. Can law lead to tragedy?

I remain baffled. I remain troubled.

“And Aaron fell silent.” And I imagine, Shelomit watched in horror.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Love Your Neighbor!

The Torah commands: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

And the Talmud weaves stories to illustrate the importance, and perhaps difficulty, in observing this command.

It is told that Rabbi Hillel was open to any question, and welcomed people with open arms. Rabbi Shammai, on the other hand, focused more on his books and a strict interpretation of the law.

Here is their story (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

One time two people made a bet about whether it was possible to anger Hillel. They shook hands and agreed on the amount: 400 zuzim. One Friday evening, as the rabbi was bathing and preparing for the start of Shabbat, the man stood at the entrance of Hillel’s house and in a demeaning manner said, “Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel?” Hillel wrapped himself in a garment and went out to greet the man. He said, “My son, what do you seek?” He said, “I have a question to ask.” Hillel said, “Ask, my son, ask.” The man asked, “Why are the heads of Babylonians oval?” Given that Hillel was from Babylonia, he could have viewed this as an insult, but instead said, “My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they do not have clever midwives. They do not know how to shape the child’s head at birth.”

Our hero gets an A for patience but unfortunately an F in science. This goes on and on. The man asking more and more ridiculous, and politically incorrect, questions. He finally stammers and says, “I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid because you will certainly get angry.” Hillel responds: “All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them.” The man became angry and went to pay off the 400 zuzim bet.

Another time a gentile came before the two rabbis. The gentile first approached Shammai and said: “How many Torahs do you have?” He said to him: “Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.” The gentile said to him: “With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah.” Shammai scolded him and cast him out with shouts and reprimands.

The same gentile came before Hillel, who immediately converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: “Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet.” The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: “But yesterday you did not tell me that.” Hillel said to him: “You see, it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on my teaching with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.” Nothing can truly be understood without interpretation, nothing can fully be explained without a teacher. This is why we need the Oral Torah and the body of rabbinic works, most especially the Talmud and Midrash.

There was another incident involving another gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai pushed him away, swinging at him with a yardstick. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: “What is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Years later these converts gathered together. They reflected on their experience and said, “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.” Who knows where even the most seemingly ridiculous question might lead. If it serves as an entry to more learning, to a life of meaning then it is not demeaning of even the greatest of scholars.

True learning begins with a question.

The sages advise: A person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai.”

I have learned. There is a little of Hillel in each of us. There is a little of Shammai in all.

And the Torah continues to demand: Love your neighbor as yourself!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Spiritual Truth of the Desert

Recently my wife and I visited Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park. As we entered the park we briefly noted the sea of yellow wildflowers covering the desert floor. I wondered why so many were stopping to take pictures. Flowers are not so rare on the east coast. What are called wildflowers in the desert may very well be weeds in the green expanse I call home.

Later we were told that we were privileged to witness a once in ten-year bloom. The winter rains had produced abundant flowers. We initially took little notice. We were busy speaking with our son on the cell phone as we drove into the park. It was not until we lost reception that we began take in the desert’s beauty. I wonder how much is missed because we insist on remaining connected to those thousands of miles away rather than the world that stands before our eyes.

It was also not until were told by residents, “We have never seen anything like this before,” that we began to breathe in the beauty. Why is it as well that we must be told, “This is extraordinary!” in order to appreciate beauty? The Jewish tradition recognizes this impulse. It offers a myriad of blessings to recite before the wonders of nature. There is a blessing when seeing a mountain. There is a blessing for a rainbow. There is a blessing for the ocean. It is almost as if the ancient rabbis, who composed these blessings, are instructing us, “Get off your cellphone. You are standing in front of the ocean. Pause. Breathe. Look at God’s extraordinarily beautiful world. Say, ‘Thank you.’’

That’s not of course the words to the blessing, but it is perhaps the intent.... 

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Memorials are Everywhere

When traveling through Israel memorials are everywhere.  When walking through the streets of Jerusalem remembrances are inescapable.  I happened upon this memorial to those who fell in 1967's battle for Jerusalem.


I approached to examine the names more closely and count the fallen.

Were they killed here, in this exact spot in which I now stand?  I do not imagine.  Did they die in one moment?  I do not know.

For their families they are more than names etched on a memorial.  They are sons, and brothers.  They are husbands, and grandsons.


I discovered kittens playing at the soldiers' feet.


Their nursing mother scurried off as I approached.  The kittens were unafraid?  Or unknowing?

Wars intrude on everyday life.  Hanoch Levin writes:

When we go walking, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.
When we sleep, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.

You, me, and the war to come,
The war that is coming for good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Bringing eternal rest.

When we smile in a loving moment,
The war to come smiles with us.
While we wait in the delivery room,
The war to come waits with us.

You, me, and the war to come,
The next war, which will bring us good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Creating eternal rest.

When they knock on the door, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.
And when all this is finally over there will again be three of us –
The war to come, you and the photograph.

You, me, and the war to come,
The war that is coming for good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Creating eternal rest.

Today might very well be Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, but in Israel every day presents memorials and remembrances.  Every day presents the worry of the war to come.  

Israel has become far too expert in building remembrances to the fallen.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Miracles and Prophecies

We celebrate Israel’s independence on fifth of Iyyar, this Tuesday. Although the modern state of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyyar 5708) Jewish resettlement of the land began much earlier. Throughout the centuries, there were small pockets of Jews living in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias, but large numbers did not begin to immigrate until the late 19th century. In fact Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Zionism’s intention was to resettle the land of Israel. Its vision was that the Jewish people must return to its ancestral home. And so by the time the state was established some 700,000 Jews lived there. Today, by the way, there are over six million Jews who live in the modern State of Israel.

In the 1920’s there were approximately 150,000 living there.Zionism was beginning to inspire Jews throughout the world. During the winter of 1926, Gershom Scholem decided to visit the land of Israel and see first hand this Zionist experiment. Scholem was a German Jewish scholar and the foremost expert on Jewish mysticism. His works are still considered groundbreaking and required reading for those studying mysticism. He penned a letter to his friend and colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers.

This letter was recently discovered....

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Yom HaShoah Remembrance

This evening marks the beginning of Yom HaShoah, officially called Yom HaShoah v'HaGevurah--Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.  Ceremonies are held at synagogues, Jewish schools, Holocaust museums and many throughout the State of Israel.  The day begins with a ceremony at Yad Vashem.

There are many moving, and even haunting, exhibits there, at Yad Vashem.

When you make your way through the museum you are forced to follow a meandering path.  Although you can see to the end of the exhibits, and the windows that look out on Jerusalem's hills, you cannot walk in a direct, straight line.  Instead you must walk back and forth through the many chapters, and episodes, that mark the Holocaust.  The path is obscured.

Years ago I found myself in the exhibit about the Netherlands.  I was transfixed by this story and video testimony.


 

This is but one episode among millions.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Among Six Million

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day) begins Sunday evening. It is the day set aside to remember the Holocaust.

How does one mark the destruction of much of European Jewry and six million Jewish souls? It is an impossible task. Every effort is but an attempt to comprehend the enormity, to understand the depravity and to give voice to the unfathomable.

And so we build museums. We write books. We grasp at remembrances. All our responses remain inadequate. And so I offer but one story.

Etty Hillesum was born in 1914 to a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family living in Middleburg, Netherlands. She was the oldest of three children. Depression and mental illness plagued her family. Her brothers and mother suffered from these diseases. At the University of Amsterdam Etty studied law, Slavic languages and psychology. She earned a law degree in 1939. She was strongly influenced by Julius Spier, a psychoanalyst from Berlin who became her mentor and then lover. In 1940, after Germany’s invasion of Holland, her studies ended.

Soon the Nazis began rounding up Dutch Jews. The Hillesum family was taken to the transit camp of Westerbork. Here Etty began working for the Jewish Council, the organization charged with deciding their fellow Jews’ fate. Her position gave her some measure of freedom. She was able to travel back and forth to Amsterdam. And yet she steadfastly refused offers of safe haven outside of the camp.

She wrote intensely throughout these excruciating years. She sought to be the “thinking heart” of the camp. She struggled to find a way to understand the horrors she saw with her very own eyes, to accept, and understand, the choices that people made, both the evil and the good. She hoped to maintain a sense of meaningfulness even in the face of death. She filled eight notebooks with her most intimate thoughts. She entrusted them to a friend. In 1981 a selection of her writings was first published. It was entitled An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943. The book received popular and critical acclaim.

She writes on July 12, 1942:
Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passes before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence.
Some believe she purposely chose to board the train to Auschwitz, knowing full well what fate awaited her. Given her position she could have prevented her own name from appearing on the list of those to be deported. She appeared to believe that she could make no others choice. How could she not accompany her family—even to her own death? How could she not accompany her fellow Jews?

Etty Hillesum and her family were deported in September 1943. No one from her family survived the war.

Her last entry is dated August 24, 1943.
When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green uniformed guards—my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me. I have told you often enough that now words and images are adequate to describe nights like these. But still I must try to convey something of it to you. One always has the feeling here of being the ears and eyes of a piece of Jewish history, there is also the need sometimes to be a still, small voice. We must keep one another in touch with everything that happens in various outposts of this world, each one contributing his own little piece of stone to the great mosaic that will take shape once the war is over.
Etty Hillesum was murdered in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. She was 29 years old.

May the memory of Etty Hillesum serve as a blessing.

Her story is but one story among six million.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Counting from Freedom

We count many things in our lives. We count our years, often marking them with birthday candles on a cake. We count our money, even though we are not supposed to. We count our friends, even though again we are not supposed to. And now we even count our likes and followers.

We count the days to a vacation. We count the years to retirement. We count the days to the end of school, or even graduation. We mark 17th birthdays with special fanfare. Now a teenager can be more independent. They no longer need parents to drive them all over Long Island. We celebrate 21st birthdays as well because on that day a young adult is free to drink alcohol (legally).

All of these examples share a common theme. We mark our days toward freedom. “Now I am free to order a drink. Now I am free to drive a car.”

In the Jewish tradition we count in the opposite direction. On the second night of Passover we begin counting the Omer. We count for seven weeks. We count until we arrive at the holiday of Shavuot. Although Shavuot is far less widely observed than Passover it marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is the celebration of a detailed list of responsibilities.

To the Jewish mind, freedom is meaningless if not wedded to responsibility. Passover only makes sense when it is connected to Shavuot. The Omer and the counting of the days and weeks serve to remind us that meaning is not discovered in freedom. It is instead found when freedom is pledged to something greater. It is instead when it is married to the mitzvot (commandments) found in the Torah.

The Omer reminds us not to say, “Now I am free,” but rather “Now I am blessed with responsibilities.” The tradition sees meaning in duty, in commandments, in work. We move away from freedom. We move towards responsibility.

That is what we look forward to. That is what we count towards.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Doors and Questions

Many people know the joke about Jewish holidays. “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” And while jokes often hint at some truth this joke belies the true meaning of Passover.

The intention of the seder is made crystal clear at its outset. Following the breaking of the middle matzah, we declare: “This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt… Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.”

The early rabbis, who constructed the seder ritual, authored this prayer. Unlike most of our other prayers it is written in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew and spoken by the rabbis. They wrote this Ha Lachma Anya prayer in Aramaic so that everyone would understand the seder’s intention. How ironic that we are even more unfamiliar with Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, than with Hebrew. 

The seder is meant to inculcate memory. It is meant to remind us that we were slaves. It is meant to teach us the meaning of our suffering. We recall the feelings of our slavery not to dwell on our pain but so that we can be sure others do not endure such cruelties. How else can we understand the biblical command: “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23)

How else can we understand the opening of our hallmark ritual meal?

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

We remember hunger. We eat matzah to recall this feeling.

Let all who are in need, come and share.

We recall the feelings of desperation. We remember when the world turned its back.

This elaborate ritual meal is about imbibing the feelings of suffering and slavery so that we might open our hearts to others’ pain. We recall the closed doors so that we might open our doors.

And what do we do next? We literally open the door!

Then again, when we open the door for Elijah, the haggadah offers these vengeful words: “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.” After centuries of antisemtism and persecution Jews living in medieval times added this reading to the haggadah.

They were understandably afraid to open the door. And so they recalled the fiery vengeance of the prophet Elijah who destroyed the prophets of Baal. Blood libels and Good Friday massacres were commonplace. Their fears were understandable. Their anger becomes palpable in the words of this prayer. It was as if to say, “They are at our doors. They are here to kill us once again.”

But we do not live in medieval times. We also do not of course live in the days of the early rabbis. Today antisemitism grows. Our fears increase. Do we have the courage to open the door? Do we take to heart the intention of the seder? Can we only remember our own pain? “They are at our doors again.” Or do we use this meal to imagine the suffering of others? “Let us open the gates of our nation to the stranger.”

The haggadah leaves this question unanswered. It contains both prayers. It affirms both feelings. In fact it is more about asking questions than offering answers. It wishes to open the conversation. It wants us to ask, and discuss and debate what does the memory of suffering and slavery mean to us today. It wishes us to imagine how we might create a better future.

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman advises: “Don’t let the printed word paralyze the imagination. Talk. Discuss the Exodus. You are free.”

Freedom means the luxury to debate questions. It is about the necessity of discussion.

The questions never go away. 

Is the door still opened?

Each age must continue the search for its own answers.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Giving Up and Gaining Meaning

Today marks the beginning of my eighth year writing Torah Thoughts. During these seven years we have never missed a week. Whether it was a vacation, or even a hurricane, Torah has persevered. Our lives are punctuated by this weekly reading. Our lives gain meaning through the discipline of Torah study.

This project is an affirmation that content is paramount. In an age dominated by 140 character outbursts, Torah comes as a relief. It also comes as a reminder. Content sustains us. Reading nurtures us. Torah must never be relegated to the mere chanting of its verses. This learning discipline comes to teach us.

Words matter. Torah is intended to be discussed and studied. Its words, and verses, and portions are meant to be pored over.

Seven years ago, with the opening portion of Leviticus, Vayikra, we began this project. Perhaps it would have been better if we started with the stories of Genesis or the drama of Exodus. In those books the import of Torah is clear. We often find ourselves in the achievements of Abraham. We often discover meaning in the struggles of a newly freed people.

Instead we began with sacrifices. We began with the blood of animal sacrifices and the smoke of burnt offerings. How curious that we started our journey reading about stuff we no longer do. We opened our holy book to discover the killing of animals and the sprinkling of blood on the altar. Pretty gross if you asked me. Pretty foreign if you asked just about anyone. And yet the importance of studying Torah, and wresting meaning from its pages, becomes more apparent.

Its meaning is not found in its literal words.

How could it be when there is so much about priests and sacrificial offerings? We believe there has to be something for us learn even in a portion about laws we no longer do. Otherwise why keep reading Torah. Why keep reading every page of this book year in and year out. Why not skip the portions that we find unedifying? Why not focus on Joseph? Why not dwell on the Ten Commandments? We do not. We cannot.

Torah is also about challenge. It is about struggle.

During good times and bad we must draw from the wellspring of Torah. Often this requires stubbornness. The meaning is not always apparent. The import is not always clear. We must turn it. We must decipher it. We must open the Torah anew each and every year. We don’t get to pick the reading. We don’t get to skip those we don’t like. We must open our book to what is given to us—on this day, in this week.

We turn to Leviticus and its sacrifices.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from karov, meaning to draw near. The ancients believed animal sacrifices were about how you get close to God. The term for one of the sacrifices, the burnt offering is olah, meaning to go up. This is because the smoke ascended to heaven.

While I do not believe that the sprinkling of blood or the barbecuing of animals on the altar might help us draw nearer to God, I share my ancestors’ desire. My question is their intent. How do we draw closer to God?

When you offered an animal for sacrifice it could not be any animal. It had to be the best animal, an animal without blemish. You had to give up something that was valued and prized. Perhaps that is how we can draw closer to God. We must give up something we love. We must give up something of value.

Granted this idea can be taken to an extreme. And that is exactly what ascetics do. They give up everything to get closer to God. Giving up everything is decidedly un-Jewish (which is why we don’t have an ascetic tradition), but giving up something, sacrificing something, can bring us closer to God and those we love.

We must make sacrifices in order to gain holiness. This is the import of Leviticus.

We live, however, an age when this notion of sacrifice has fallen out of favor. Perhaps we require it once again. Perhaps we cannot draw near to anything, or anyone, or most especially God, without giving up something. It is more about giving than getting. And in the giving (up) we often achieve the getting.

To sacrifice does not mean to lose but instead to gain. #ThrowbackThursday.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Remembering a Life Guided by Loyalty

As a congregational rabbi, I officiate at many funerals. All are sad. Some are tragic. A few leave deep impressions. Arthur’s funeral was such an occasion.

At his funeral there were military honors. Arthur served in a US Army reconnaissance unit during WWII, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. It was an experience that taught him about war’s horrors. He would often argue against wars and advocate for peace agreements, even when others offered reasoned skepticism, with the simple words, “I don’t want any kid to experience what I experienced.” These war experiences also taught Arthur that food is precious. His unit was often forced to forage for rations. He therefore savored every meal, always sitting down to three meals a day, and even enjoying chocolate ice cream on his last day.

Standing at the cemetery, I looked to see both soldiers wearing their dress uniforms.  One stood in the distance and played taps.  The other stood saluting the flag-draped coffin....  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fire, Fear and Awe

For many Shabbat is defined by the family meal. Its highlights are the foods long associated with Jewish cooking: chicken soup and brisket. In the Torah, however, Shabbat is defined by what is not there.

“You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day,” (Exodus 35) this week’s Torah portion intones.

The rabbis interpreted this prohibition literally. One cannot kindle fire on Shabbat. One may however make use of fire if it was lit prior to the start of Shabbat. In traditional homes lights are therefore left on during Shabbat, but never turned on. Stoves are kept at a low temperature but again never ignited. This is why many Shabbat recipes are of the slow cook variety such as cholent.

There were others who interpreted this verse in a different manner. The sectarian Karaites, who rejected the rabbis’ oral law, spent their Shabbat in darkness. In their worldview no manner of fire could be used on Shabbat. Scholars suggest that our lighting of candles and in particular its accompanying blessing is a response to these Karaites. In this blessing and the lighting of the Shabbat candles we discover the meaning of this prohibition for our times.

Fire can warm but also burn. It can be comforting and dangerous. It is similar to the Hebrew term, yirah, fear. Like fire’s dual meaning, yirah can also be translated as awe. Too often during these days of terror yirah becomes palpable. We are once again joined in sorrow. We mourn and pray for the residents of London as terror once again strikes our hearts with fear.

And yet it is this very term of yirah that the tradition uses to describe a person of faith. It is in a sense one who bows before heaven. They are endowed with yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven.

The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes: 
Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.
Awe is the more apt description of the faith we strive towards.

We return to the lights of Shabbat.

Fire can be both dangerous and inspiring. The brilliance of the rabbis was to demand a blessing before the lighting of fire. In this way the fire is transformed into an object of holiness. Fire is not be feared. It is to be held in awe. At the beginning of Shabbat when fire is prohibited, and then again at the conclusion of Shabbat when fire is again permitted we thus offer blessings. We elevate fire to the holy. We no longer fear it. We transform the potentially dangerous and bask in its warmth.

Perhaps this is the very task these times demand.

We again turn to Heschel’s God in Search of Man:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness the eternal.
May our Shabbat lights help us to stand in awe before God and God’s world. May these fires only be awe-inspiring.

May all of our fears be transformed into awe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Broken and Whole Heart

Everything is going well for the Israelites. God freed them from slavery in Egypt. God reveals the Torah. God provides them with food to eat (manna) and water to drink. Dayyenu! Moses climbs Sinai in order to commune with God for forty days. He leaves his brother Aaron in charge. You know the story. All hell breaks loose. Those teenagers throw a wild party, building a golden calf, dancing and drinking. They blaspheme God. Let’s go to the videotape.  The narrator intones: “They were as children who lost their faith.”

They lost their way, as youngsters and people often do. All they had to do was say, “Dayyenu.” That would have been enough. Thank you. Instead their first impulse is to do what they saw and learned in Egypt, namely bowing down to idols.

This God idea is a difficult notion to understand and comprehend.

Moses is unforgiving. He becomes enraged. (He has some anger issues.) He smashes the tablets. The leaders, and many of the participants, are killed. God is also quite unforgiving.

Moses returns to the mountain. He quells God’s anger. God instructs Moses, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34) These tablets are then placed in the Ark. And what happens to the broken tablets? They too are placed in the Ark. Rabbi Meir teaches that both the broken and the whole tablets are placed in the Ark of the Covenant. (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 14b) This is then carried by the people throughout their wanderings.

Why save the broken tablets? Move on from your mistakes. Forget your transgressions is the counsel we often give and receive. And yet the tradition thinks otherwise.

There is no greater sin than that of the Golden Calf. But why dwell on it? In fact, it is one of the six Torah episodes we are commanded to remember each and every day. The teaching is clear. You are only complete with your flaws. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. A complete person holds the broken and whole together. That is the message contained in the Ark.

Jewish mystics take this notion even further. A 16th century Kabbalist, Eliyahu de Vidas, teaches:
The Zohar states that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the tablets and the broken tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah. And similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for God’s presence. For the divine presence only dwells in broken vessels, which is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a heart filled with pride propels God from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.
I like this idea. Then again I don’t like it.

I like it because it suggests that brokenness leads to a closeness with the divine. I don’t like it because it implies brokenness leads to greater religiosity.

Who wants to be broken?

Then again there are undoubtedly moments in all of our lives when we feel hurt or broken, when we feel we are guilty of far too many mistakes. It is in those moments when should recall the lessons of the broken tablets.

The shattered tablets were never discarded. It is only taken together with the whole tablets that we are able to approach the divine. 

It is with a simultaneously broken and whole heart that we better approach God.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Vashti and Today's Woman

Purim begins on Saturday evening. It is a holiday marked by frivolity. Among its highlights are drunkenness, and even cross dressing. It is punctuated by laughter. And yet the story on which it is based is characterized by extraordinarily serious themes. The megillah of Esther spins around the question of antisemitism. You know the story.

The evil Haman gains a seat of power next to the King of Persia, Ahasuerus. He clamors for the death of the Jews. His reason is simple, although one might ask, “Are the reasons for antisemitism really understandable and ever simple?” Haman becomes enraged when Mordecai, the Jew, refuses to bow down to him. Meanwhile Mordecai’s cousin Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity in order to win the king’s favor in a beauty contest, has gained the king’s ear. She is able to persuade Ahasuerus that Haman represents a threat. He allows the Jews to defend themselves and defeat the antisemite—until next time.

Most people read this story and believe Esther is its hero. Perhaps, some see the hero as Mordecai. Clearly both save the Jewish people from an existential threat. They defeat antisemitism. And yet nothing is clear when you examine the story in detail. Much is hidden. Even more is forgotten.

Vashti is also its hero.

Who is Vashti? She is the queen who precedes Esther. Why is she dethroned? She refuses to dance before the king and his drunken friends. Yes, that is the story. The king throws a wild seven day long party. He brags to the assembled men about his wife’s beauty. In order to show off how good looking she is, he commands her to dance in front of her friends wearing (only) her crown. (Go read Esther 1 if you would like to double-check my retelling.) And what does Vashti say, “No!”

What happens next? The guys say, “Hey king, you better get your wife in line! If she is allowed to refuse your command, who knows what will happen next. All the women of Persia will stop listening to their husbands. They might want to start driving. They might want to become doctors, lawyers, CEO's, rabbis or even the president.” (Ok. I added a few lines.) So the king listens to his drunken friends and advisors and throws Vashti out of the palace.

But then our drunken, and irredeemably sexist, king becomes lonely. “Throw a beauty pageant and find a new wife,” advise his friends. And who shows up at the beauty pageant? Esther. She parades herself in front of the king. She does exactly what Vashti refuses to do. She demeans herself in order to become queen. And herein lies the disturbing, and often hidden, irony of the Purim story. Her debasement leads to our salvation. The woman who uses her beauty, and hides her Jewish identity, is the one who achieves power and saves the day. It is Esther who rewrites history. But at what personal cost?

I have often wondered what happens to Vashti.

We don’t hear from her again. I would like to. These days I long for Vashti. She is the model to which we aspire. She chooses justice over power. She is true to herself. She is loyal to the women of the kingdom. No woman should be asked to do what she is asked to do, or for that matter what Esther in fact does, at her cousin’s bidding.

And yet we don’t speak about this. Vashti remains the forgotten hero of our Purim story. Her truth is glossed over. It is banished from the headlines.

I would like to rediscover her truth. I would like to find Vashti—once again.

Turn back to the opening chapter. Reread the book. Look with new eyes.

These days I could really use Vashti’s truth.

Despite all its frivolity, there remain troubling and serious questions hidden within Purim’s story.

Regardless I am going to join in the laughter. History is so cruel. Politics are so serious. Sometimes the only medicine is the prescription Purim offers.

Laughter!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

God is Everywhere and Anywhere

Written in Hebrew above our congregation’s ark are the words from this week’s portion: “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) While I was obviously not present when the sanctuary was built I imagine this verse was selected because it is located within the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle, the mishkan.

Soon after leaving Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai, God instructs the Israelites to build this mishkan. This tabernacle was intended to accompany the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. It was not found in a fixed location but instead was carried with the people. While the mishkan was extravagantly detailed (it had a lot of gold!) its single most important quality was that it was portable.

Throughout the Torah no place was more holy than another. We no longer even know, for example, where Mount Sinai is located. Revelation was about the gift of Torah not the mountain on which it was given. Holiness was connected with wherever the tabernacle rested. And the greatest of all sanctity was attached to our dream. We dreamed of touching the land of Israel. It is interesting and important to recognize that for the ancient Israelites the holiness of place was attached to a dream not in fact to a location they experienced.

Our identity is fashioned in no particular place but is instead founded on a dream.

It was only after the entering into the land and then some 300 years later in the age of the kings that the centrality of Jerusalem gains prominence. It was during the reign of King Solomon, David’s son, that the first Temple was built. Its dedication is described in this week’s Haftarah. There we discover echoes of the verse inscribed above our Ark: “Then the word of the Lord came to Solomon: ‘With regard to this House you are building—if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments… I will dwell among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.’” (I Kings 6)

Whereas in the Torah God’s presence was dependent on movement (we had to schlep the mishkan from place to place), in Solomon’s day it becomes dependent on our actions and behaviors. Once the place becomes fixed it is our movement between right and wrong that controls God’s presence. And then the Temple is destroyed, and soon rebuilt, and again destroyed. We are exiled from the land of our dreams. We are banished from the city of Jerusalem.

We return to the wandering. Building on Solomon’s understanding, the rabbis teach that God’s presence can be anywhere and everywhere. We take up—again—the Torah’s wandering narrative. No place is more holy than another. What matters is not where we meet, but when. What matters is that we hold the book in our hand. What matters is that we continue to learn from this Torah. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that we sanctify time, not place. We elevate the Sabbath day over all other days of the week.

In our own day people too often associate synagogues, and the values they are intended to teach and the people who see it as their spiritual centers, with the buildings that house their activities. But Jewish devotion is not about the sanctuaries in which we gather. Jewish commitment moves with us. Jewish devotion must accompany us. It is dependent on the choices we make between right and wrong. It is attached to following God’s demands.

Too often we also confuse our presence with God’s presence. Our synagogues are about discovering God’s presence in our midst. It is not about us. It is about God.

When looking at the verse inscribed above our Ark we might come to believe that God is only here in this sanctuary, and not as well in our homes, our businesses, and in nature. Why can’t you sense God’s presence on the ocean’s shore? Why can’t God become more visible when you reach out to someone who is sick, or another who is hungry and homeless, or another who is in desperate need of comfort and consolation? Those are just as much Jewish commitments, as the prayers we recite in our sanctuaries.

If God’s presence only stays in the sanctuary, if the Torah remains some scroll we only study in our synagogues, then the notion that God can be anywhere and everywhere is lost, then the command that God should be everywhere and anywhere is lost.

God’s presence must be taken with us wherever we travel. It is not located, and fixed, in one place. It is instead something carried. It is something we must carry.

And it is something that carries us—on our journeys and wanderings.