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Showing posts from 2017

Weddings and Destiny

Every wedding at which I officiate there is always a hint of beshert. Even in this age of JSwipe I hear fate’s echoes. “I did not think anything would come of it, but he would not stop texting me, so I figured I would meet him for drinks and that would be it. And then on that first date we could not stop talking.” He adds, “She is so intelligent and beautiful. We soon realized that we share the same values.” How can one not believe in divine providence when looking at a young couple standing beneath the huppah? The Baal Shem Tov teaches, “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.” Their smiles illuminate. That single light shines. This love must be more than mere happenstance. It is evidence of God’s hand. And yet I often teach that we do not believe in destiny. The High Hol

Why Religion Stays Relevant

Google Maps and Waze have transformed the way we drive. No longer do we have to listen to 1010 on the ones. No longer do we have to check News12 before leaving the house. Now our iPhones make instantaneous calculations and then reroute us around traffic. Of course, you have to trust the phone. You have to have faith in its algorithms. You have to let go of all that accumulated wisdom gained from years of driving around the New York area. Our children find this letting go easy and natural. They are digital natives. We find this far more difficult. We still remember the days of folded maps and AAA Triptiks. A student recently remarked about his parents and my contemporaries. He constantly admonishes his father with the words, “Dad, if you are going to use Waze you have to listen to it.” And so we listen begrudgingly, although there are times that we still think we know better. Our parents’ generation finds this letting go even more troublesome. They refuse to give a mea

War, Peace and Prayer

Years have passed since Joseph’s brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. And now, following an uneven path to power, Joseph has become Egypt’s vice president. Because of his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he has effectively prepared the country for the famine. Meanwhile back in the land of Israel Joseph’s family is ill-prepared. They are forced to make several journeys to Egypt in order to procure food. Joseph seizes upon this opportunity. Because his brothers do not recognize him, but he of course recognizes them, he develops an elaborate plan to see if they have changed. He entraps the youngest of the brothers, Benjamin, hiding a goblet in his bag of food, and threatens to throw him into jail. Judah, an elder brother, pleads in behalf of Benjamin. He suggests that Joseph arrest him instead. At this moment, Joseph is overcome with emotion and reveals himself to his brothers. They are dumbstruck. He forgives them. They have indeed changed

Hanukkah and Alternative Facts

There is the Hanukkah we prefer to tell and then there is the Hanukkah of history. We prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil. Here is that telling. When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Syrian-Greeks they found only enough oil to last for one day of the planned eight-day rededication ceremony. Nonetheless they lit the oil. Miraculously the oil lasted for all eight days. We prefer as well to speak about the victory of a small group of rebels against the mighty army of their day. One brave man, Mattathias, led the charge against the Syrian-Greek army. Outnumbered, and outgunned, Mattathias and his five sons led the rebel army. They fought valiantly, using cunning tactics, and eventually achieved victory. After seven long years they recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem. Their cause was just and their enemies evil. A great miracle happened there. In fact the real Hanukkah is one of pain and discord. It was a civil war. The Maccabees fought against other Jew

Joseph, Family and Jerusalem

Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel regardless of what the world thinks or does. I worry, however, that President Trump’s announcement, which appears motivated more by his desire to fulfill a campaign promise rather than a grand vision for Middle East peace, will not lead to peace. I worry that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s exclusive focus on Israel’s external threats, namely Iran and Islamist terrorism, and not on the continuing erosion of Israel’s democracy, will undermine Israel’s survival. Zionism is about securing a Jewish future that is built on both Jewish and democratic values. It is about writing our own history. It is about taking swift and bold action to defend Jewish lives, like attacking an Iranian base in Syria, as Israel recently did, and what I wish Israeli leaders also did, not expanding settlements in areas, such as Arab East Jerusalem, that the majority of Israelis imagine will one day be home to a Palestinian state. I continue to hold on to the Psalm

Prayers Work If You Believe

Recently I was listening to Pastor Rudy’s Love Revolution on SiriusXM’s gospel station. (I recognize this is not how one might expect a rabbi to begin an article, but to be honest that’s the station I more often listen to.) Hezekiah Walker sang, “Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord…” In between listening to some of my favorite gospel singers, Pastor Rudy opined, “Prayer does work. God does listen.” The music left me. The songs faded. My thoughts wandered. “Really? How can he be so sure? How does he know prayer works? How can he be so confident God is listening?” There are so many things demanding God’s attention and care. There is an entire world in need of healing and filled with brokenness. God is going to listen to my small prayers, which must appear so self-absorbed in comparison to the world’s grand problems? A crisis emerged. How can I lead prayer if I doubt prayer, if even for a moment? I recalled an experience from some years ag

Cycling and Jerusalem Dreams

The Giro d’Italia is the 21-day professional cycling Italian grand tour held every year in May. This year the first three days are being held in Israel. Day one is an individual time trial in Jerusalem. Day two travels from Haifa to Tel Aviv. And day three from Beersheva to Eilat. I wish to speak about this event is not only so I get to talk about cycling but because the controversies I feared might happen are beginning to come to fruition. One was expected. And the other, unexpected. The first comes from expected corners. Palestinian activists accuse race organizers of being complicit in Israel’s occupation. They are critical of the decision to start the race in Jerusalem, a city that they feel is still contested and that they wish to have serve as the capital of a hoped for Palestinian state. The second controversy comes from an unexpected place, Israeli officials.... This post continues on The Times of Israel.

A Sufi Torah

I have spent the past week reading about the Sufi mystics. I have always held a special place in my heart for fellow seekers. I have always searched throughout the world’s religious traditions for those, and their teachings, who wish to grow closer to God. That pursuit continues to occupy my thoughts and studies. I reject those who claim that such teachings are only found in their own tradition, and who shut their ears to truths emanating from voices outside their own, or who persecute and murder those whose claims are different than their own. My heart is broken that, once again, people have been murdered while bent in prayer. This time it was some three hundred worshippers murdered, and over 100 hundred injured, in a Sufi mosque in the Sinai. ISIS claimed responsibility. My heart breaks that these worshippers were murdered in the name of faith, albeit a distorted faith. The Sinai too holds a special place in my heart. There, I wandered throughout its wilderness, acc

The Detrimental Impact that Technology Has

A recurring enemy in the Star Trek series, of which I am a fan, is the Borg. They are cybernetic organisms that are linked together. They travel through space, and time, assimilating other species into their collective. They intone the words, “You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.” There is no individual autonomy, only the collective mind.  I think of them as I see how interconnected our lives have become. Often my young students resist sharing their opinions with me. I push and prod. I explain to them that the meaning of being Jewish is to wrestle with the stories, and laws, found in the weekly readings. They do not get to pick their favorite chapter or verse. Instead it is assigned to them based on what weekend they will become a bar or bat mitzvah. Their task is to figure out what message it has for them. What is the meaning it might offer for their lives? I realize that this is a weighty task. I recognize that their schooling trains them to memorize facts and

We Only Have Each Other

Isaac and Rebekah are the parents of twin boys: Jacob and Esau. The Jewish people trace their lineage through Jacob. His name is later changed to Israel and so we become, quite literally, the children of Israel. The rabbis see glimmers of their lifestyle in Jacob’s character. “Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.” (Genesis 25) Esau becomes synonymous with their enemies. He becomes the Roman conqueror. “Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors.” Two boys: one our hero, the other our enemy. Destiny is sealed from the moment Rebekah conceived. “The children struggled in her womb.” The rabbis expound. When Rebekah walked by a house of study, Jacob would stir within her. And when she walked by a place where people practiced idolatry, Esau would grow excited. A fanciful story to be sure, and yet this interpretation has colored our worldview. We look back at Jacob as a harbinger of all that is good in Jewish life, of all that we hold dear. He represents the Jewi

Gallons of Compassion

In ancient times there was no such thing as JSwipe. Instead eligible bachelors would go to the local well where young women gathered to collect water. Following Sarah’s death, Abraham charges his trusted servant Eliezer with the task of finding a wife for his apparently docile son Isaac. He loads ten camels for the lengthy journey. Eliezer arrives in Aram and approaches the well. He decides upon a test. Whoever offers water not only to him but his camels will be the woman Isaac should marry. Rebekah approaches. ( Cue the music! Who else is going to see Squeeze at the Paramount?) Eliezer says, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar?” Rebekah immediately hands him the jar and says, “Drink, my lord.” And when he finished drinking, she said, “I will also draw for your camels until they finish drinking.” This was no small undertaking. Let me put Rebekah’s offer in perspective. Camels need to drink approximately 25 gallons after such a long journey. There were ten camels. That mea

Cell Phones are Ruining Serendipity

A few weeks ago a mystery object rocketed past earth. Astronomers scrambled to understand it. They had never before seen anything like it. They quickly labeled the small space rock “A/2017 U1.” They determined it was not a comet or asteroid, but instead from a different solar system than our own. It was from another world. You can detect the glee in the scientists’ exclamations. “I was not expecting to see anything like this during my career, even though we knew it was possible and that these objects exist,” said one NASA researcher. The theoretical became possible. For a brief moment, the stars aligned. And luck provided a potentially ground breaking discovery. Years ago, in fact when I was 15 years old, my brother and I were situated on either side of an older man on our family’s first trip to Israel. We kept him up for the better part of the flight, talking and being the mischievous brothers that we were–but are, I promise, no longer. A bond was formed. Our parents becam

Halloween's Demons

We are saddened and outraged about Tuesday’s terrorist attack in New York City. Our hearts are joined in the all too familiar prayers of healing for those injured and comfort for the families of those murdered. Our hearts are also joined in resolve that we must never allow terror and fear to rule our lives, shade our city, or give color to our nation. I stubbornly believe that the most important battle against terrorism is waged within and that our hearts have always been strong enough to banish fear. Perhaps this struggle against fear lies at the center of our recent celebrations of Halloween. I was surprised to see the number of photographs on Facebook and Instagram of my friends dressed up in costumes. One dressed up as a cheerleader, another a pirate. Many donned super hero costumes. (And many would like to forget the year I dressed up as Superman. Rabbi in tights!) What is the attraction to wearing costumes? Why does everyone love to dress up? It is because, for a brief m

The Sacred and the Lurid

The Talmud records the following story: Rav Kahana was a student of Rav. One evening Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav talking and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs, i.e., having sexual relations with her. Rav Kahana said to Rav: “The mouth of Rav is like one who has never eaten a cooked dish before.” Rav said to him: “Kahana, what are you doing here? Leave at once. This is not an appropriate thing to do.” Rav Kahana said to him: “It is Torah, and I must learn it.” (Brachot 62a) I used to teach this story in order to illustrate how enlightened the Jewish tradition is. The ancient rabbis speak about sex. They discuss how sexual relations are commanded between a husband and wife. It is not a sin, but an enjoyment. It is likewise Torah. Nothing is outside of the religious purview, I would comment. These days, however, I am beginning to look at such stories in a different light. The Talmud no longer appears enlightened. My tradition no lo

We Can't Silence the World's Noise

The world is noisy. Even when alone, our phones chime with notifications and reminders. There is little place for peace and quiet. Recently I was driving through town making my way through a detailed shopping list. The music was loudly accompanying my travels. BB King was singing, “You better not look down, if you want to keep on flying. Put the hammer down; keep it full speed ahead.” I looked up to see the sun beginning to set. I put my list aside and drove a few extra miles to a dead end street where I could watch the sun set over the Long Island Sound.... This post continues on The Wisdom Daily. 

Pink Shabbat

What follows are my remarks from Friday evening when we marked Pink Shabbat, in partnership with Sharsheret. To be honest I struggled with what I might say on this Shabbat when we are marking Pink Shabbat and the Jewish connection to breast and ovarian cancers. I am not a physician. I am not a scientist. Many know that 1 in 40 Jewish women, as well as men, of Ashkenazi descent carry the genetic mutation that makes it far more likely they might develop these cancers. This mutation increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 80% and ovarian cancer by 40%. To put this in perspective only 1 out of 400 carry this mutation in the general population. These sobering statistics affirm what we know. I am sure every single member of our congregation could list off a number of names of friends, or family, who have been affected by these cancers. You don’t need me to remind you of how many people this effects or that it affects Jews in disproportionate numbers. So what more can

God is in the Details

I have been watching The Weather Channel a great deal lately, perhaps too much. The news is at times frightening. There are days that feel apocalyptic. There are fires. There are hurricanes. Let us not forget about our fellow countrymen in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands! There are tornadoes. And there are floods. This week we read about Noah and the flood that destroyed the earth. It is a classic tale. It is a well-known story. This apocalyptic flood represents an age-old fear. After the waters recede God promises never again to destroy the earth because of humanity’s evil deeds. The earth is entrusted to our care. We are commanded to be nature’s protectors. Have we heeded the command? Have we taken to heart our sacred task? Recently I watched an enthralling video about Yellowstone National Park. Years ago a pack of wolves were reintroduced into the park after years of absence. We had once thought wolves to be a dangerous nuisance. The wolves’ reintro

When the Student is the Teacher

On Simchat Torah, we read the concluding words in Deuteronomy and without skipping a beat, start all over again with the first chapter in Genesis. With one breath, we read about Moses’ death and with the next, about the creation of the world. It is how we order our year; it is how we order our lives. Several years ago, a close family friend died. Throughout his long life, Jerry had served as a mentor to me. Recently, his grandson, to whom both my son Ari and I have grown close, shared a surprising discovery: a stack of correspondence between Jerry and me they found when they searched through his library. His grandson scanned the letters and emailed them to me. They remained there, on my computer, unopened. Until yesterday.... This post continues on ReformJudaism.org.

Simhat Torah's Joy

Many people think that Yom Kippur with its fasting and solemn prayers is emblematic of our Jewish tradition. It is actually exceptional among our holidays. People as well think that the mourner’s kaddish is Judaism’s most important prayer. It is again unique. Far more typical is the joy of Simhat Torah. Far more commonplace are the blessings associated with food. So important is eating that a mourner is commanded to eat when returning from burying a loved one. So significant is joy that it is a mitzvah to dance with the bride and groom at their wedding. Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, writes (and this is among my favorite poems): The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office. Even those who haven’t learned to read or write are precise: “This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain, this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain and that—a dull one. Right here. Prec

Who We Honor is More About Shaping the Future

People memorialize their dead in many different ways. More often than not they etch the names on stones along with a few, selected descriptive traits. I have read, “Loving father, husband, brother and grandfather.” Rarely do I see the individual’s profession listed. “Adoring mother, wife, sister, grandmother and great grandmother.” These memorials are not testimonies to how people saw themselves or even how they defined their lives. Instead they are about how the mourners wish to remember them. It matters little in fact if the world at large saw them as adoring or loving. It matters little as well if they were on occasion not even so loving and adoring to their own family. These stones are about memory. They are not about history. They are about how we honor our dead. They are about how we fashion the remembrances that help us to tell the stories about what was best in those we love. They are not about telling a child who is named for a beloved grandfather about the occasi

No Time for Gun Violence

During Sukkot we read the words of Kohelet: A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; A time for killing and a time for healing… (Ecclesiastes 3) No! This week, I reject these words. I am old enough to have witnessed monumental cultural shifts that I never imagined would come to pass. In fact I attended high school in the days when people thought drunk driving would forever be a part of our culture. Schools were accustomed to the grim task of comforting students after a teenager was killed when driving under the influence. But then Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded and the world began to shift. By the time my brother graduated from high school, four years later, parents and their teenage children had begun to adopt different attitudes. Drunk driving was no longer viewed as acceptable. The term designated driver, unknown and even de

A Meditation on Mourning and Loss

What follows is the meditation I shared at the start of our congregation's Yizkor Memorial Service. It is often the smallest of things that remind us of those we love. It is often the seemingly insignificant that grab you and create those pangs of loss. More often than not they also provide the spark for the largest of memories. A little over a year ago my Uncle Bob died. He was my father’s older brother. His death followed a lengthy decline. In the scheme of tragedies that I witness his death could not, and should not, be called an injustice. He lived a long life filled with accomplishment and surrounded by family. Like many, and most especially those in my family, he had some idiosyncratic habits. Among them was a love of large, leafy hostas. And so I think of my uncle every spring when I see those bluish, green leaves begin to unfurl. He also only drank tea, never coffee—and never those fruity flavors but what he deemed the more authentic Earl Grey or English

Searching for Myself—on a Bicycle

What follows is my Yom Kippur Morning sermon about what should truly define our lives.  Hint: it's not my triathlon medals. Some good news for this Yom Kippur. Perhaps you have already heard this. This coming May the Giro d’Italia, the famous, although unheard of outside the cycling world, three-week Italian cycling race will begin not in Italy but in Israel. Yes, that’s right, in Israel! In fact the first day of the race will finish outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Day two will travel from Haifa to Tel Aviv and then on the third day the riders will race from Beer Sheva to Eilat. And then the teams will board planes to finish out the remaining eighteen days of racing in Italy. There, the finish will be held in Vatican City. I realize that my enthusiasm and excitement about this may not be shared by everyone except a few people or even anyone, so let me offer some background and perspective—and perhaps some justification for my passion. First of all a number

Fashioning the Sacred

What follows is my Yom Kippur Evening sermon about the challenges found at our holy sites. This past summer I was fortunate to travel to Israel and in particular Jerusalem where I studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute. I remain grateful for my congregation’s recognition of how important it is for its rabbi to renew his learning. During the course of my two weeks I had occasion to visit the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al-Aqsa Mosque. In fact I visited them all in one morning, one right after the other. I continue to reflect on that morning’s visits. First a bit of history and context. Al-Aqsa Mosque is the silver domed mosque that sits next to the golden domed Dome of the Rock. It figures prominently in virtually every photograph of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to Muslim tradition it is the place where Ishmael was nearly sacrificed by Abraham and to where Mohammed was transported from Mecca on the night journey. In the early days of Mohammed’s life his fo

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