Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Miles of Indifference and Cruelty

4.1 miles is the distance that separates the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey.  Between 2015 and 2016, 600,000 people traversed this distance in efforts to save themselves, and rescue their families primarily from their war ravaged Syrian homes.

Leon Wieseltier once observed: 
[T]he most conspicuous characteristic of [refugees] is that they love life, and that they are prepared to endure unimaginable hardship, so as to preserve life, their lives and the lives of their loved ones, and the lives of their traditions and their communities. Nobody imperils their children in dangerous sea voyages, and treks across mountains unless they believe they are rescuing their children from an even greater danger that certainly awaits them.  
To believe otherwise is to be indifferent.  To act otherwise is to be cruel.  Under President Obama we were indifferent.  Under President Trump we are now cruel.  I do not wish to be either.

Watch this documentary!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

Who is the first to oppose Pharaoh’s rule?

It is not Moses. And it is not, you will forgive me from saying, God.

It is instead Shifrah and Puah. They are the Hebrew midwives who defy Pharaoh’s ruthless command to kill the Israelite’s first-born sons. Who is the next to oppose? It is Moses’ mother. She stands against Pharaoh. She fears for her son’s life and so places him in a wicker basket along the Nile, in the hopes that he might be spared the Egyptian’s murderous intent. By the way, we do not learn her name until this week. We learn Moses’ mother is called Yocheved. Only Shifrah and Puah are named.

Moses’ sister is also not named when she positions herself along the river to make sure her younger brother Moses is saved. Later we read her name is Miriam. She watches as Pharaoh’s daughter lifts her brother from the river. Pharaoh’s daughter remains nameless. She opposes her father’s command. She may in fact hold the key to our future deliverance. She goes to the river to bathe herself and there sees the baby Moses and takes pity on him. She states, “This must be a Hebrew child.” (Exodus 2) Imagine that. She loudly proclaims her defiance. She knows her father’s command and still publicly defies him. She names the Hebrew child, “Moses.”

We know the rest of Moses’ story. We never learn, however, the name of the woman who reached into the river and showed compassion for this Hebrew child. We never learn the name of Pharaoh’s daughter. She represents the many women who fight for what is right and what is true. She affirms life without seeking recognition.

The Rabbis wonder. Why would Pharaoh’s daughter go to the Nile to bathe herself? She could have sent her slaves. Perhaps as well there was risk to her life, given the growing disaffection in the kingdom. They suggest that she opposed her father’s policies from the start. She therefore went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins. It was there, at that moment, that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses. According to legend, so meritorious was her defiance, and so great was her attachment to the Jewish people, that she accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt.

Our freedom and salvation begin with a nameless woman. She hears the cry of Moses. Her compassion mirrors God’s. This week God’s concern is awakened. God says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord, I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” (Exodus 6)

God responds to our suffering. God’s concern, however, follows the acts of many human actors. God responds to our compassion. It’s almost as if Moses must bring our cries to God’s attention. God follows. We lead. Moses awakens God’s concern.

It is in our hands. It starts with our work.

And this begins not with the Torah’s avowed hero, Moses, but instead with Shifrah and Puah. It continues with Yocheved and then Miriam. It reaches a crescendo with Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter. It is of course true that Moses occupies the majority of the Torah. His name is uttered in every Torah portion that follows. The book is called the Five Books of Moses.

Too often this plain fact misleads. We think that concern begins with leaders. We imagine it begins with God. We think it begins with the names everyone knows. Instead we learn that compassion begins in the most unlikely of places. Concern, the fight for justice and righteousness, does not always begin with the famous, and with the known.

Moses is not the first to be called. Politicians do not begin the struggle.

History, it seems, too often forgets the names of its most significant actors.

Concern begins elsewhere. Compassion calls the unnamed. Unknown people lead the fight.

The struggle for righteousness lends us our name.

The women marched.

And we will march some more.

And then the women danced. (Exodus 15)

Soon we will dance as well.

(If only such dancing might appear in the week following as if we are merely reading a story, and progressing from one portion to another.)

The Torah reverberates with meaning. Still!

Friday, January 20, 2017

How Hatred Begins

What leads to Pharaoh’s murderous hatred of the Jewish people?

The Torah suggests it is not antisemitism as many think. He does not hate the Jewish people because they are Jews. He instead fears their growing numbers. Pharaoh proclaims, “The Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies.” (Exodus 1)

Pharaoh’s worry is the all too common fear of a fifth column. He worries that the Jewish people will grow so large that they will attack his country from within. I wonder. Is this threat real or imagined? Is it possible that Pharaoh is so insecure about his power that he looks out at the Israelites and his concern grows? Does he begin to see everyone in a similar manner? Pharaoh enacts legislation against the Israelites. They are enslaved. Their suffering increases.

Pharaoh’s worries, however, can never be quelled. Imaginary threats can never be sated. His fear turns murderous. He instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill every first-born Israelite. Where does such murderous hatred begin? It forms in the mind.

And that begins with forgetfulness. The Torah affirms: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Pharaoh forgets his history. He does not remember Joseph and by extension the Jewish people’s contributions to his society. Without the blessings of memory he begins to see Joseph’s descendants not as an asset but a threat.

Slavery becomes possible because he did not observe an essential teaching: Remember! Suffering does not begin with hatred. It follows from a lack of historical memory.

Pharaoh does not know Joseph. He does not remember. And then he looks at Joseph’s descendants and sees not blessings but threats.

Forgetfulness leads to hatred. And hatred too often leads to murder.


We were slaves in Egypt.

Love the stranger! (Leviticus 19)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Blessings of Peace

Our hearts are once again joined in sorrow as we watch our brethren in Israel mourn four young people murdered by a terrorist. Anyone who has visited Jerusalem has most certainly stood in this very spot on the Tayelet (Haas Promenade) where the terrorist drove a truck into a group of soldiers. From there we have looked to the north and marveled at the Old City’s walls. While anger, and despair, is an understandable emotion the most important thing is for us instead to steel our resolve. Terrorism can only attack the heart if we allow it in. Add extra songs and prayers to help calm your fears and strengthen your hearts.

This week we conclude the Torah’s first book. We say goodbye to the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and turn to that of the Jewish people. And then slavery. Freedom. Revelation. Wandering. Some more revelation. And wandering. And a whole lot more wandering. Until we turn once again back to the patriarchs.

Prior to Jacob’s death he offers a blessing to his grandchildren: Ephraim and Manasseh. He tells his son, Joseph: I never expected to see you again, and here I get to see your children as well. He concludes his blessing with the words: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)

Following the lighting of the Shabbat candles, parents therefore bless their sons with these same words: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. For daughters we add, May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. For both sons and daughters we then say the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you; may the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

Why does the tradition assign this weeks’ words to the blessing of sons? Ephraim and Manasseh are born in Egypt, not the land of Israel. Moreover they are born to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath. It remains a curiosity.

There are two possibilities. These words are first spoken by a grandparent, Jacob. When parents bless their children they invoke the blessings of prior generations. The parents are the link between grandparents and grandchildren. They are the conduit by which the values they inherited are brought into the future. Parents make sure that children live up to their inherited responsibilities.

More importantly Ephraim and Manasseh are the first brothers in the entire Book of Genesis who get along and live in peace. When we bless our children we hope and pray that they too will live in peace, that they will not know conflict. While we know and understand that that a life devoid of struggle is an impossibility, this remains our prayer. We pray that our children might know peace.

Knowing otherwise this hope remains our most steadfast prayer. “Peace, peace to those far and near, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 57:19) 

Parents thus place their hands on their children’s heads and recite these words. Susie and I continue to observe this ritual, at least when our children are home and we are celebrating Shabbat and holidays together. It punctuated the week during our children’s younger years. I find myself growing nostalgic. They sat still if but for a brief moment and received their blessing, an extra Shabbat kiss and another “I love you.” The rhythm of the week is punctuated by blessings. 

While most argue that the tradition’s intention is to make our lives more Jewish I believe otherwise. Instead they add meaning to our lives. They demand a pause. They insist on reflection. They turn our thoughts to what is most important, in this case: family. And that is a measure of holiness everyone requires.

There are many blessings to add to your lives. The tradition is filled with hundreds. There is the blessing for the ocean, for the wine, and for the bread. The list appears daunting. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, it is better just to begin. Say it in English if you are more comfortable. This week we are reminded of a great starting point: the words for blessing our children. No matter how old your children might be, it is never too late to start.

Everyone can use an added dose of meaning. Everyone deserves a moment of reflection. Everyone requires more “I love yous.”

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Settlements Explained, Partially

What follows is Friday evening’s sermon, although slightly corrected and updated. In the delivered version I had for example exaggerated the number of settlers and underestimated the West Bank Palestinian population. My apologies. I have also added a few additional facts.

This week’s Torah portion begins with the word vayigash. And Judah drew near to Joseph. He drew near to plead for his brother Benjamin. And so I wish to draw near to a topic that is fraught with controversy and one that has been in the news these past weeks: settlements. I would like to think that I too speak in behalf of my brethren, but that will be for you to decide. Nonetheless I will likewise draw near.

Let me begin by stating my bias. President Obama is both right and he is wrong. He is wrong that the United Nations is an honest broker. He is wrong that this institution offers an address to rectify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the exception of the UN Partition vote of 1947, that I might add Israel accepted and the Arab world rejected, I can think of few if any UN votes that have been even handed in their approach to this conflict. The recent UNESCO statement that in effect denied the historical Jewish connection to the city of Jerusalem in general and the Western Wall in particular is yet another recent case in point. While the Security Council resolution was more balanced than most, the United States’ abstention might in fact serve to strengthen Israel’s enemies and weaken its negotiating position. Let me be blunt. The UN long ago abandoned the moral high ground.

Nonetheless the attacks on Obama and the accusations that he has abandoned Israel or that he is the worst president ever in regards to Israel are simply false. There is plenty to disagree with regarding his policies—the fall of Aleppo and the abandonment of millions of human beings in the face of their slaughter by Assad on one side and ISIS and the other represents his greatest policy and moral failure—still the shrill language directed against the president is unhelpful. Moreover, it is inaccurate. He recently signed a $38 billion military aid package for Israel. His administration vetoed every other UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. He rushed emergency aid for more Iron Dome batteries during the Gaza War. Some Israeli military leaders in fact, and contrary to my own opinion, praise the Iran nuclear deal. They argue that the deal has delayed, if not forestalled, an Iran bomb. The vitriol is demeaning of the accusers who throw it. Like his predecessors President Obama’s record is somewhat uneven. President George H.W. Bush also fought with Israel over the settlement enterprise. He held up $10 billion in loan guarantees as long as Israel continued expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The fact is that US policy has always been opposed to the settlement enterprise. Sometimes presidents have pushed this to the forefront. Other times, they have not.

People see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear. If you long ago decided that Obama is an enemy of the Jewish state then that is what you will hear and see in every one of his actions. I continue to believe, however, that every US administration going back to Harry Truman is a friend of Israel. Some are better friends than others of course, but let’s be crystal clear about one important fact. Friendship does not mean agreement. In fact the rabbis teach: “Any love not accompanied by criticism is not love at all.” (Bereshit Rabbah) It is instead infatuation. When are American Jews, and most especially their leaders and organizations, going to move away from infatuation to real love? You can love Israel and criticize Israel. Criticism does not mean you love Israel any less. It may mean that you love something more because you believe it can be better; it can be improved. Sure too often criticism of Israel comes from our enemies and even takes the form of antisemitism, but that’s not what’s coming from the US government or our current president or Secretary Kerry.

I take them at their word. I think they believe that the settlement enterprise endangers Israel’s democratic character. To be honest, that is my opinion as well. But of course it is not as simple as that. What the world, and the UN, calls settlements is not what I call settlements. Let me explain.

In the Six Day War Israel captured a great deal of territory from enemy states. It captured the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt. The Sinai was traded for a peace deal with Egypt. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and evacuated 9,000 settlers. The hope was that the Palestinian Authority would begin to fashion the semblance of a state there, but as you know Hamas soon took over (in democratic elections by the way insisted upon by George W. Bush). Now some 1.5 million Palestinians live in horrible conditions and Hamas continues to build tunnels and fire rockets at Israeli towns. The Golan was captured from Syria. Given the present civil war in Syria that territory will remain in Israel’s hands, it must remain in Israel’s hands, if for no other reason than as a necessary buffer against the chaos in the north. And finally Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. It should be noted that it was not captured from the Palestinians. In the peace agreement with Jordan, Jordan relinquished any claim to these territories.

Soon after the 1967 War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and built neighborhoods there such as Gilo, Har Homa, French Hill and Pisgat Zeev. These neighborhoods are part of the Jerusalem municipality. I don’t know of any Israeli who considers these occupied. Of the perhaps 580,000-settler figure you might read about in the newspapers this includes 200,000 in what was once the Jordanian territory in Jerusalem. So take these areas out of the equation, because Israel is not going to withdraw from these Jerusalem neighborhoods. That would be like New York abandoning the Bronx. (It should be noted that there is a new developing phenomenon. Israeli Jews are now moving into Arab East Jerusalem and taking over apartments there. Many imagine that this area will serve as the capital for a Palestinian state, which is why this is troublesome.)

Then there are the large settlement blocs that are outside of Jerusalem’s municipal limits, such as Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Modiin Illit and Givat Zeev. In the North there is also Ariel. These large settlement blocs have another 290,000 Israelis.  Most recognize that in any peace agreement these areas would have to be incorporated within Israel’s borders. They are just too big and have too many people to be dealt with in any other way. In addition it’s important to understand that many people living there are not ideological settlers who believe that this territory is their God given inheritance. They moved there because they get some tax breaks and they could get a bigger house and a bigger lawn. From Ariel, for example, it’s an easy commute to Tel Aviv.

What is so unfortunate in these public discussions of the settlements is that no such distinctions are made. My liberal relatives who live in Pisgat Zeev are lumped together with 500 radical settlers living in Hebron, a city of some 120,000 Arabs. I met with one such settler, who argued that democracy is a means to an end. And what is the end that he hopes for? He wants the establishment of a Jewish state, not a Jewish-democratic state, in which the third Temple will be built. He wants a theocracy! There are throughout the West Bank small settlements. In Kiryat Arba, outside of Hebron, for example, some 7,000 settlers live. There are approximately 90,000 settlers living in these settlements. There are by the way some 230 settlements. They are not all as ideologically driven as the Hebron settlers, but many are. Such settlements represent a worry for Israel’s democracy. They also undermine any hope that Palestinians might achieve a contiguous state in a large portion of the West Bank. Roads are built that connect Jewish settlements and divide Palestinian areas. Checkpoints are maintained. Yes terrorism remains a grave threat. And Palestinian intransigence is a significant stumbling block toward making peace. The continued Palestinian refusal to accept the Jewish state within the Arab Middle East remains the greatest hurdle to overcome.  In addition, Palestinian leaders’ praise of murderous terrorists is not only immoral but confounds any attempt to make meaningful progress.

Still you need to know this. The settlement enterprise is undermining Palestinian hope and endangering Israeli democracy. Secretary Kerry is right. Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks about two states for two peoples but his government continues to expand these isolated settlements. Shekels spent on settlement expansion are buried in various other budgets, such as defense and transportation. These settlements are what I would call isolated. They are often isolated geographically. They are sometimes built on confiscated land. They are often built without the government’s permission by the so-called hilltop youth and then retroactively recognized. Today there are some 100 settlements that are not recognized as legal—and that is by the State of Israel. These must be isolated ideologically. They are antithetical to Israel’s democratic principles. It is these democratic values that unites America and Israel and binds most American Jews, especially young American Jews, to Israel. Netanyahu has failed to isolate these settlements. In fact they have expanded. And that is a problem. It is a profound worry.

Protecting these settlements forces Israeli soldiers to act against the loftiest visions for the Jewish state. Here it is in a nutshell. You cannot protect 90,000 settlers living among approximately 2.5 million Palestinians and most importantly grant citizenship to the 90,000 and not the 2.5 million and forever call yourself a democracy.

President elect Trump’s pick for ambassador David Friedman is the president of American Friends of Beit El, a settlement in the West Bank. That aligns him to the right of Bibi Netanyahu in the Israeli political spectrum; the rabbi of Beit El is rightly labeled as militant. He is not devoted to democracy as a value. He once argued that Jews should never rent homes to Arabs and that soldiers should resist orders to evacuate settlements. I have little doubt what Friedman’s judgment might be about this sermon. He apparently labels such dissenting opinions as treason. As much as I love God I also believe that too much God intoxication is especially dangerous in government. I want God to be kept at a distance when it comes to country. I think that is much safer.

You should know this as well. My worries are shared by many Israelis. I have often found it curious that there is more rigorous debate about Israel’s policies in Israel than is allowed here among American Jews. My views are represented in the Israeli Knesset—by Jewish MK’s. Everyone rightly worries about who Israel’s partner for peace might be. Who might be able to guarantee Israelis safety and security? But I can tell you this. I was in Israel the summer that 9,000 Israelis were evacuated from Gaza and you thought at times there might be a civil war, that the country was being ripped apart from within. Now there are some 90,000 settlers scattered throughout the West Bank, living outside of the security fence constructed in response to the second intifada’s murderous violence. Unless Israel’s pushes out the ideology that feeds these settlements, namely that this is Jewish land and no one else’s we are going to endanger Israel’s democratic character. Israel was founded to be both Jewish and democratic. The creative tension between these two values is what makes it so extraordinary.

Here is what Israel should do. It should invest in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs while halting expansion of these isolated settlements. That would suggest that Israel’s government’s recognizes what the contours of the Palestinian state it publicly affirms will look like. Unfortunately it does not do this. It avoids the debate. It delays these necessary discussions. Netanyahu states that he believes in a two state solution, but his actions suggest otherwise. Let’s have the debate. More importantly let’s be open to criticism from our friends. They may be wrong. They may be right. But this is certain. A friend who demonstrates his support time and again deserves to be listened to and not dismissed as an enemy simply because we don’t like his words.

One final note of Torah. The word vayigash is used in another context. It is used when soldiers draw near to a town to make war. That is my greatest fear. I am tired of war. I wish for Israel to live in peace. But peace will not one day miraculously appear. It requires hard work. It requires difficult conversations and painful compromises. It is to our detriment to ignore criticism. We only become better by opening our hearts to critique, especially when it comes from avowed friends.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

New Year. New Calendar

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his beautiful exposition of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day.”

At the close of this past week’s Sabbath, I spent the evening like millions, or perhaps billions, of others. I spent Saturday evening celebrating the dawn of a new year.

It seems an odd and arbitrary celebration. After far too many drinks we count down to the turning of the clock from December 31st to January 1st. We hug and kiss and then often drink some more. We look to 2017 with promise and hope, if but momentarily.

And so the new year begins—year after year.

This event, or at least the day, is an inheritance of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar who ruled in the first century B.C.E....

Everyone Lies!?

I am six feet tall. My head is covered with a thick mop of hair. And I have an opera quality singing voice. Ok, perhaps I exaggerate. Or do I lie?

Do our biblical heroes lie?

After Joseph forgives his brothers for conspiring to kill him and sell him into slavery, the entire family of Israel, who is also known as Jacob, moves from the Promised Land to Egypt. (You know how this story is going to end, but I still hope you stay tuned.) Joseph has achieved great power and renown in Egypt. He is now number two to Pharaoh.

He describes his position, however, as follows: “[God] has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45) Does Joseph exaggerate? Does he lie?

Later when instructing his brothers about their impending introduction to Pharaoh he tells them not to describe themselves as shepherds.

“When Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers.’ For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” (Genesis 46) Joseph has lived among the Egyptians for many years. He knows their ways. He understands what they find repugnant.

But why would his family’s occupation be so problematic? Shepherding is his inheritance. All of our biblical heroes are shepherds. Abraham is a shepherd. Moses is a shepherd. King David is a shepherd. Only Joseph appears embarrassed by the menial task of tending to a flock. Does he see it as beneath his station?

Is he so worried about his status in Egypt that he is willing to lie in order to protect his hard earned position? Perhaps he is afraid. He has spent years in jail. He understands that the whim of a ruler can send him back to the dungeon. Recall that it was the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife that sent him to an Egyptian jail. And it was the bad reports that he told his father about his brothers shepherding that perhaps caused them to sell him into slavery.

Despite his power and station he is a scarred man. His dishonesty stems from inner weakness. No wealth can assuage his insecurities. His self-esteem needs constant affirmation.

I wonder. Do heroes still lie?

For some interesting and provocative insights about lying, and truth telling, check out The (Dis)Honesty Project.  Here are a few of their videos.