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Showing posts from September, 2017

We Must See Social Activism as a Goal of Religion

I have great admiration for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was a leading American rabbi whose works continue to inspire. He wrote about the spiritual power we can discover in the Sabbath, in setting aside a day for God infused reflection. He spoke about awe and wonder as the starting points for grasping wisdom. I continue to read his books. I continue to discover enlightenment in his words. And yet I admire Heschel even more because of his social activism. He marched in behalf of civil rights. In fact there is an iconic picture of him marching through the streets of Selma, arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. He castigated his fellow rabbis who he believed were more concerned with the minutia of the Jewish dietary laws than with the blood of innocent Vietnamese. His colleagues wondered how he found time for the required prayers when he was so busy marching. He famously responded: “I was praying with my feet.” Jews now find them

Yom Kippur's We

What is the most important word of the many, many words we offer on Yom Kippur? Is it Kol Nidre, whose haunting melody transcends the arcane, legal meaning of its words? Is it the Al Cheyt, in which we tirelessly enumerate the sins we may, or may not, have committed? We beat our chests and say, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…” Is it the Unatenah Tokef prayer whose words evoke fear and trepidation: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…” but whose mellifluous tune uplifts our spirits? Is it the Avinu Malkeinu that reminds us of God’s awesome power but forgiving nature and whose concluding recitation marks the welcome relief that break fast is only minutes away? It is far simpler than these lofty prayers suggest. It is not so complicated. It is the word “our.” In Hebrew it is not even a word. It is the “nu” attached to avinu and malkeinu located at the end of many words and found in countless prayers. Lost in the dense lit

Lines of Hate

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about the rise of antisemitism in America. The president of the synagogue stood before the small congregation gathered for Shabbat services and issued this warning: “Leave from the back door. And be sure to leave in groups.” Outside neo-Nazis and KKK members gathered for the hate filled rally. Shouts of “There’s the synagogue.” could be heard. And salutes of “Seig Heil.” could be seen. For thirty minutes three men dressed in fatigues and carrying semi-automatic weapons stood across the street from the synagogue. Nazi flags were paraded past its doors. The Charlottesville police refused the synagogue’s request to station at least one officer outside. The congregation hired a private security guard instead. Alan Zimmerman, the president of Charlottesville’s Reform synagogue, worried about the congregants’ safety. Imagine if that had been our president’s worry or her task. There are many challenges facing our world. I cou

New Year's Tune Up

Last week I took my car in for its first scheduled 15,000-mile tune up. The tires were rotated. The oil was changed. The brakes were checked, as well as a host of other things that I don’t pretend to understand. Now it was all set for another year. To be honest part of my motivation was that my father would soon be visiting. I was afraid he might notice my inspection sticker was almost out of date. I did not want to hear his reminder, “Steven, you better get your inspection taken care of. You might get a ticket.” I even threw in a car wash for good measure. The car would now pass father’s inspection, something far more important than New York State’s. After two hours, and couple of hundred dollars, I was all set. The car was tuned up and could pass any inspection. The new sticker was affixed to my windshield. If only it were that easy for our souls. A few hundred dollars and a few hours in synagogue would be all that was required. Most people think the High Holidays are

We Help More When We Feel Connected

We Help More When We Feel Connected to Tragedy.  Why That's Not Enough.   Leon Wieseltier once wrote: “Ethical life is the transformation of there into here.” Recently my congregation helped to ship much needed supplies to those in Houston devastated by Hurricane Harvey. We gathered water bottles, cleaning supplies, diapers and canned food. I was struck by the outpouring of support. We rented one truck, but soon realized that we required two. Strangers showed up at the synagogue with gifts in hand. They had heard that we were gathering supplies and wanted to contribute. Although it was but a small token of what is required to rebuild and help Houston, and now Florida and the Caribbean islands, I was struck by how many wanted to help and how many jumped to participate. How did a once distant city become so near? For some it was obvious. They are from Houston and had family who was affected by the storm. For others, I imagine, it was their memories of Hurricane Sandy tha

Standing Before the Page

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a Hasidic master, was asked: “Why does every tractate of the Talmud begin on the second page? (The first page is not alef, but instead bet.)” He answered: “However much we learn, we should always remember that we have not even reached the first page.” The greatest lesson our tradition offers is that our learning is never complete. That is why we read the same books year after year. We are always starting again, and again, and again. There are those who read a page of Talmud every day, completing the cycle in seven years. And in synagogue we read the Torah in one year’s time, dividing our study into weekly portions. There is always more to learn. This week’s portion states: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant… I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but

Hurricanes and Doing Right

On days such as these when we watch The Weather Channel incessantly we begin to wonder, “What did we do to deserve such calamities and disasters?” Two hurricanes in a matter of weeks, and another one trailing behind! What’s going on with the world? We begin to think like the ancients, “Are the gods angry with us? Have we unleashed nature’s fury by failing to better care for our precious world?” Our ancestors did not understand the laws of nature. They sought to draw connections between natural disasters and their own behavior. The Torah makes this line crystal clear. Our moral behavior influences whether or not the rain falls and whether or not, for example, the earth will yield food. Take a few verses from this week’s portion as evidence. If you do not obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect:  Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in th

Standing Against Hate

Prior to the High Holidays American rabbis have participated in a conference call with the President of the United States. This year there will be no such call. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis decided to forgo this tradition in an effort to protest President Trump’s handling of the hate rally and violence in Charlottesville and in particular his failure to unequivocally condemn those whose ideology our nation fought bloody wars to defeat. This is a decision I support. On this occasion I am particularly proud of my membership in the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Here is the full statement: The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come.  In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the pract

What My Bike Accident Taught Me

I am an avid cyclist. Perhaps too much, some would say. Over the years I have ridden some 20,000 miles, much of it on Long Island’s roads. I am very familiar with the roads in and around my home. I know where there are rough roads. I know where there are potholes and most especially speed bumps. And yet today, I crashed on a familiar road and a well-known speed bump. I am fortunately ok, despite a great many scratches and a few too many bruises. Friends offered reassurance, comradery and even some humor, “It happens to everyone. As long as nothing is broken, you will heal quickly. Is your bike ok?” Family offered love and “Thank God’s.” After a crash, or an accident, or any mishap one reviews the events and plays the scene over and over and over again. Why did this happen?... This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.