Friday, June 15, 2018

Debating Not Attacking

This week’s portion, Korah, details the great rebellion against Moses and his authority. Korah and his followers gathered against Moses saying, “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)

One can understand their complaints. It is easy to imagine what people might have been saying about Moses. “Can you believe this guy? He keeps telling us he talks to God and that everything is going to be wonderful. He is so full of himself. The land is so beautiful, he keeps saying. But when are we going to arrive there? How much longer are we going to wander around this barren wilderness? Day after day we eat this manna. Day after day we keep walking and walking. And then we walk some more. Every day is the same. And then this guy Moses seems to change his mind and points us in other direction.”

One can be sympathetic to their grumblings. On the surface the criticisms appear legitimate. Examine the Torah’s words. Judaism does indeed believe that everyone can speak to God. Our religion requires no intermediary. Moses is not holier than any other human being. Yet Korah and his followers are severely punished. Why?

The Midrash suggests an answer. It imagines Korah asking Moses these questions: “Does a tallit all of blue still require blue fringes? Does a room full of Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah?” In the rabbinic imagination Korah’s questions are brimming with disdain. His words suggest that he questions the entire system. Because Korah is so disrespectful he is punished.

We often do the same. We highlight inconsistencies in our religious systems, and in our political systems. We seek not to correct but instead to mock. It is of course far easier to make fun of something rather than to affirm. It is far simpler to make ad hominem attacks rather than criticizing in order to improve.

We live in an age when too many have become Korah. We seek to amuse. We mock those with whom we disagree. We even call those with whom we disagree traitors. Our culture measures an argument’s winner not by the merit of the ideas offered but by the reactions of participants. If someone is made to cry or stammer then they have lost the argument, even better if they are made to do so on TV.

We no longer debate ideas. Instead we attack others.

We have become Korah. And for this we should ask forgiveness and mend our ways. If we are ever going to make it to our promised land and improve our society we must not attack each other. We must instead debate and argue about ideas that might change our world.

What Korah failed to understand we as well fail to grasp. We are all in this together. And we are all in the wilderness. We had better master debating the ideas that matter without seeking to undermine the entire system. We had better figure out a way to argue with each other while not shouting at each other words of hate.

Of those who left Egypt only two made it to the Promised Land.

I imagine Joshua and Caleb missed their brethren. I also imagine that they understood why they stood alone.

A nation cannot be built in the wilderness. A nation can only be sustained—first by love and then by debate.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

My Nana Was So Tall

If the books of the Torah were named for the content of their stories then the Book of Numbers would be called Complaints. The Jewish people spend the better part of this book complaining, and even rebelling.

“The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept all night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. The whole community shouted at them: ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt. If only we might die in this wilderness!’” (Numbers 14)

What precipitates their griping? It is not the demanding conditions of the wilderness with its lack of water. It is not that they have to eat the same meal day in and day out (manna!). It is instead that the scouts have just returned from reconnoitering the land.

All but Joshua and Caleb offer a negative report. The scouts cry out: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. 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.” Here the people’s complaining reaches a crescendo.

God loses patience. It is at this moment that a brief journey is transformed into forty years of wandering. God decrees that the generation who went free from Egypt must die in the wilderness. Only those who were born in freedom will be privileged to cross into the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb are the only exceptions because they bring a positive report.

The people, however, are terrified: “’Why is the Lord taking us into the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us head back to Egypt.’”

Can a slave ever truly appreciate freedom? Do memories of persecution and terror overwhelm their psyches? God’s response suggests that such memories are impossible to overcome. The people see overwhelming odds and respond, “We should go back.” Let us turn around. Let us go back to yesterday.

How many times do we fall victim to mythologizing the past?

It was so much better when the Jews lived in the shtetl. There, everyone, was certain about their Jewish identities; everyone attended synagogue on a regular basis. Then the Jewish people were not divided by ideologies.

Once I asked my beloved Nana about her memories of her shtetl outside of Bialystok. “It was awful,” she responded. I continued my query. (Imagine that!) “Yes, I know you had little food, but didn’t everyone get along better because it was such a small town.” And my Nana looked at me as if I was crazy but she would never shout at her grandson and say, “Are you nuts?” Instead she said, “Steven, we were fighting for food. And we were always nervous that the Cossacks might come and kill us. That doesn’t bring out the best in people.”

And no matter how delicious the meal or how expensive the restaurant, she always offered this report: “It was tasty.” That’s what food meant to her. Meals did not earn stars or accolades. She would of course offer praise for my mother’s cooking but that was more about praising her daughter than the taste of the food.

The memories of trouble and deprivation had forever diminished her taste buds. She could never become a foodie.

And yet she never wanted to go back to that shtetl. She never wished to turn back the clock. She never sought to return to the land of her childhood.

This is why. As petite as she was, she never saw herself as a grasshopper. And thus the most remarkable of all the Israelites’ gripes are the words “And so we must have looked to them.”

The reason why the memories of persecution did not overwhelm my Nana is because she never thought much about how others saw her. Success is really about self-image.

Realizing your promise is really about how tall you see yourself.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Judaism Commands Us Not to Cry Alone

Last week I encountered old words that suddenly struck me as new.

I opened my Bible to the prescribed weekly reading. I skimmed through the familiar opening. “The Lord spoke to Moses…”

These same words are read every year. That is the ritual of the Torah reading cycle. That is the demand that we never skip chapter or verse, that we read this central book from beginning to end in one’s year time. After decades devoted to this practice, the words often appear all too familiar and sometimes even tired and worn. I read again and again. “The Lord spoke to Moses…”

This year, however, they appeared different....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Where are the Lamb Chops?

Have you ever walked around at a party’s cocktail hour and said, “What no lamb chops?” Or exclaimed, “Where is the sushi table?”

The Torah portion strikes a similar tone: “Then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” (Numbers 11)

It is remarkable that people can be so ungrateful. It is remarkable that we are oftentimes ungrateful. The Israelites are unaware of the many blessings they have. They just earned their freedom, and yet all they wanted was to go back to Egypt. They complained and complained, and then complained some more. They could not see their blessings but instead what they no longer had. They could not see their freedom. They grew nostalgic for the foods of yesterday. How quickly they forgot the sufferings of their enslavement.

Freedom is of course an enormous blessing. We often forget that freedom comes with enormous responsibility. At times this responsibility overwhelms the blessings. We rebel under the weight of our duties. We complain, “I have so much to do…”

Abraham Joshua Heschel called this the “insecurity of freedom.” He wrote about our responsibility to speak out against injustices. Freedom is not about doing whatever you want. It is about doing what needs to be done. It is about being inconvenienced to vote in even the most mundane of elections. It is about stopping to aid those less fortunate than ourselves. Give some manna to the hungry and poor! It is about speaking out against Syria’s atrocities (or Syria being named chair of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament).

It is about doing what the world needs you to do. It is rarely about doing what you want to do.

Let us look more at what we have rather than what we do not have. Let us affirm our many blessings each and every day, rather than curse the few things we have not yet achieved. Let us live up to the responsibilities of freedom.

Then we will never say, “What! Where are the lamb chops? Where are the cucumbers or the melons?” You can look at the world like the Israelites did. Or you can look at the world and the many things you still have to do and count them as your blessings. Our blessings are many. Our blessings are especially plentiful when you look at all the things the world needs you to do. Then you will say, “Wow look at the many blessings I can achieve by virtue of the responsibilities God gave me.”

Then nothing is a burden and everything looks to be a blessing.

The 19th century poet and preacher, Phillip Brooks, wrote: “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men [people]. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you yourself shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”

The world requires some heavy lifting. There is no one but you to do the lifting. There is no one but those granted the responsibilities of freedom.

It is up to you whether you see this lifting as a blessing or a curse.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Just Do It

This week’s Torah portion contains the nazir’s vow. What is a nazir? A Jewish ascetic. As a measure of extra piety a person pledged to abstain from alcohol, not cut his hair and avoid contact with the dead. The most famous nazirites were Samuel and Samson. Samuel anointed David as king. Samson’s long hair was the source of his strength (and an inspiration for a number of songs). If not for Delilah’s seduction…

Today Judaism has by and large excised such ascetic sensibilities. We do not idealize denying ourselves worldly pleasures. The hallmarks of our holidays are kiddush wine and festive meals. What Jewish event does not have great food? Still I wonder about making vows, oaths and promises.

People offer promises all the time. There are the familiar New Year’s pledges of promising to lose weight or work out more. I promise to eat less, or to drink less. I pledge to give more tzedakah. I vow to learn more, or attend services more often. Whatever forms these personal vows take, the central question is about their efficacy and value. Let’s be honest. More often than not such promises quickly become empty and soon go unfulfilled.

We make far more promises to ourselves, our family and friends than we keep. Of course we have good excuses why we could not achieve what we pledged. This is why Judaism actually frowns upon making vows. Our tradition values words. It worries that when words are offered they might soon become false. In fact in traditional circles when someone makes a promise, they will say, bli neder. This phrase means it is not really a vow.

By saying this, our promise is not made to God or using God’s name. If we were to inadvertently make a pledge to God that we do not fulfill we would transgress something greater, namely the third of the Ten Commandments: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord. This is also the origins of the beautiful Kol Nidre prayer. It serves to nullify unwitting vows.

This is our tradition’s concern. Our words matter; they can shape reality. In our contemporary age when words have become abbreviated in the flurry of text messages, or tossed around so cheaply on Facebook and Twitter, we would do well to recall this message. Be careful of what you promise. Be careful of your words.

Rather than making promises, perhaps it would be better to get out and do stuff. People become disheartened by good that is promised and remains unfulfilled. People become discouraged by good words that never materialize into actions. Our lives, and the lives of those around us, are enriched by goodness that is performed. That and that alone will sustain us.

Forget about making promises. Instead, to borrow a phrase from long ago, just do it.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Shavuot's Torah and Gaza's Chaos

On Shavuot we are commanded to study Torah.

We reaffirm our commitment to the centrality of this book. Around the study of its words our lives revolve. That is how the tradition most certainly sees it.

So important is the Torah that the rabbis teach it preceded the world’s creation. They imagine that the Torah was the blueprint God consulted when fashioning the earth and seas, animals and human beings.

The Midrash teaches. (The Midrash is a collection of stories from the early rabbinic period.)
It is a common practice that when a human king builds a palace he does it, not according to his own conception, but according to that of an architect. The architect, in turn, does not work off the top of his head but uses plans and diagrams to figure out where to put the rooms and the doorways. Thus did the Holy One, Blessed be God, consult the Torah when creating the world.
I continue to observe the world so as to uncover this blueprint. I continue to study the Torah so as to understand the world.

The Zohar adds. (The Zohar is the foundational text of Jewish mysticism, namely Kabbalah.)
Once the world was created, it could not have been sustained had it not occurred to the Divine Will to create human beings, who would engage in the study of Torah, for the sake of which the world would be sustained. Now, those who delve in the Torah and engage in its study are as if they sustained the whole world. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, looked into the Torah and created the world, human beings look into it and sustain the world. The entire world is thus both made and sustained by the Torah. Therefore, happy are they who engage in the study of Torah, for they are upholding the world.
The world is certainly in need of more sustenance.

Perhaps the Torah is the sustenance we require.

Regarding the ongoing crisis in Gaza a few thoughts.

While I am deeply pained by the deaths of other human beings, even though many of those Palestinians killed were rioters rather than protestors, I continue to believe that Israel has every right to protect its borders and guarantee the safety of its citizenry. And while Hamas deserves the largest share of blame for the appalling conditions in the Gaza Strip, it is not in Israel’s interests (both its security and moral interests), to live alongside two million people trapped with a mere four hours of electricity per day, inadequate sewage treatment, debilitating food shortages, severe water problems approaching an emergency, and 60% unemployment among those under thirty.

Again while Israel is not largely to blame, it is also not entirely blameless. A humanitarian crisis marked by starvation, thirst, and disease lurks around the corner. Israel cannot fence out these problems. I understand that people have lost faith with Palestinian intentions. Yesterday, when Hamas turned away Israeli medical supplies bound for those injured I similarly lost faith. People are charging the border shouting their murderous intent to kill Jews. With whom is Israel supposed to make peace? Certainly not with Hamas. Then again, if not with its avowed enemies then with whom?

I continue to believe in the necessity of the two-state solution if for no other reason than I see no other way out for the Israel I so love—or perhaps because I remain stubborn about matters of faith. I wish for the State of Israel to live up to the dream of its founders. I wish for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.

Rabbi Hillel teaches: “The more Torah, the more life.”

And that is the faith I most refuse to give up on.

I study the world so as to uncover God’s blueprint. I study the Torah so as to uncover how to approach the world.



Friday, May 11, 2018

Some Talmud in Memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken

“Be of the disciples of Aaron….” And the Aaron I knew would have laughed. “My disciples? That sounds so pretentious.” He saw his work as forever unfinished. So how could others see themselves as his disciples? He would laugh and also say, “Pirke Avot is the best you can do.” But for now, this is what we are left to do. Be his disciples. And so what follows is this Shabbat's offering of remembrance and learning.

At most Shabbat services we often discuss the portion of the week. This week we read the concluding chapters of Leviticus in Parashat Behar-Bechukotai. At other Shabbat services we discuss the pressing issues of the day. This week, in fact, we learned that the Trump administration is not re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal. Seems like a moment for a rabbi to weigh in. I have argued that contemporary politics find voice within the verses of the Torah. On this Shabbat, however, I wish to speak about none of the above. Instead I wish to honor my friend, classmate and colleague, Rabbi Aaron Panken, who died last weekend while piloting a plane. Aaron only recently became the president of the Reform seminary. We knew he was just beginning to steer the Hebrew Union College in new and even greater directions.

Aaron loved Talmud. In fact he taught Talmud. And so on this Shabbat I decided that the best way to honor my friend would be to teach Talmud. I therefore looked to Daf Yomi. This is the project in which people read a page of Talmud every single day in order to complete the study of this vast Jewish text. It takes seven years to complete the project. The Talmud is no ordinary book. It is the compilation of rabbinic discussions and debates spanning the formative years of Jewish life, from the first to fifth centuries CE. Imagine rabbis who lived in different centuries and who at times even lived in different towns arguing on one page. The Talmud is a cacophony of opinions. Although I call it formative it would be a mistake to call it a law book. It is filled with tangents. It is riddled with technical and cumbersome language. Moreover it is written not in Hebrew but Aramaic, the lingua franca of the early rabbinic period. At one point you think you are learning about Shabbat when all of sudden you find yourself at Rabbi Hillel’s feet discovering what he believed to be the essence of Judaism. “What is hateful to you do not do to any person.”

I take occasional tours through its pages. I find it at times maddening, and often baffling. My friend did not. This was his home.

And so on this day the assigned reading for the Daf Yomi project is Zevachim 28. Of all the tractates of the Talmud it had to be this one. Zevachim is all about the sacrifices. This would almost certainly be the last of the tractates I would pull off my shelf. I am more comfortable with the discussions in Brachot, blessings. Avodah Zarah, the book on idolatry, is filled with some fascinating debates about how we draw lines between who is a Jew and who is not, about what is Jewish and what is not.  But Zevachim 28 is today’s charge. I quote from the opening lines: “The tail of a sheep sacrificed as a peace offering is burned on the altar rather than eaten. But if so, one who slaughters the sheep with intent to consume the skin of its tail the next day has intent to shift its consumption from consumption by the altar, i.e., burning the offering, to consumption by a person.” Sound confusing and daunting? It is.

Let us unpack its meaning. It is a curious thing that the rabbis would spend pages and pages discussing rituals that they could no longer do or even hope to do. The Temple, where we once offered these sacrifices, was long ago destroyed. Why would they even bother to debate its intricacies? Perhaps one might argue that they still held on to the belief that when the messiah comes the Temple cult will be rebuilt and we will again be able to sacrifice animals to God. Although they, like Jews throughout history, hoped that the future will be better than the past, (that is an essential Jewish belief) I am skeptical that they pored over these details so that they could be ready for the messiah’s arrival. I think there were other interests at play.

The more likely reason is that they wholeheartedly believed in machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. They honed their argumentation over the seemingly mundane and inconsequential. I think this is the root of the Talmud. If you can argue about things that really don’t matter then you can learn how to better argue about stuff that really does matter. Here is an entire tractate devoted to what appears unimportant. Let us argue about it. Here, in the safety of the Talmud, we can debate. Perhaps all our divisive times require is a page of Talmud.

But my friend Aaron saw even more. The rabbis may have ostensibly been talking about sacrifices and the skin of a tail, but don’t let that tail distract you. (Aaron would have made any number of jokes about that tail.) What the rabbis are really asking is, “Does intention matter?” Does the intention of the person offering the sacrifice transform the sacrifice? If you intend to eat part of the animal then is the sacrifice no longer acceptable? Is your devotion tainted because you are looking at the sacrifice more like a barbeque than an offering? The discussion goes on for pages and pages. It is exhausting. I do not have my friend’s patience.

In some ways we have never really solved that question. Does intention matter? Do I have to pray with all my heart? Does my tzedakah donation have to come from a place of really wanting to give or just because I want to get off the phone as quickly as possible? When push comes to shove the rabbis always deferred to the following answer: it is better to do the right thing with poor intention than waiting around for good intentions that they worried would never materialize into actions. Better to just do what is required even with an empty heart than do the wrong thing even if that wrong thing is with a heart full of good intentions.

And yet in the Talmud you discover the rabbis’ uncertainty. You find their debate. You uncover their inner doubts. You think they are talking about the sacrifices that we will never again offer but really they are talking about the whole system and the very foundations of our belief. What if I am here in this synagogue but my heart is in another place thinking about tonight’s dinner and the steak I plan to order?

That is what I discovered today when I opened a page of Talmud in honor of my friend. But my reading remains incomplete. Because you can really only study with someone else. You have to sit across from a chaver, a friend. It’s never just about reading a page. It is always about discussing and debating what’s on the page—with a friend. That is how we have always moved forward.

One page at a time.

And my friend was right. In this book is the secret to how we could live in any place and in any time. In the Talmud is the secret to why we are still here.   

         

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Path of Friendship: In Memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken

I spent the better part of an evening rummaging through closets, shelves and trunks, searching for the photo album from my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. I longed to find a photograph of my classmate and friend, Aaron, who died in a small plane crash this weekend. Although I discovered a number of pictures from my children’s younger years, I never found the album or a picture from the year in Israel. When Aaron and I first met, some thirty years ago, we did not photograph every minute of every occasion.

Still, I wanted to uncover a picture to add flesh to my memories. One day in the not too distant future, I am sure I will find that album and its collection of photos. For now, I am left with the images imprinted in my thoughts.

I recall the New Year’s Eve party I hosted at my Jerusalem apartment. We had no TV on which to watch the festivities in Times Square and the ball drop. Aaron improvised. He lifted the large paper lantern that adorned many of our apartments and slowly dropped it from the ceiling as we counted down to a new year. And then he offered that mischievous grin and that signature laugh which approached a giggle.

It is a strange thing that this is the memory that continues to play over and over again in my mind....


Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Holidays' Fruits

This week we read about the holiday cycle. "These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions..." (Leviticus 23:2)

The following holidays are described: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Notice that our favorites of Hanukkah and Purim are not mentioned. These, it should be noted, are nowhere to be found in the Torah. This is why they are accorded minor status, despite our fondness for them and especially our children's love for them.

During biblical times our holidays were constructed around our people's agricultural sentiments. For farmers the year began with the spring and was marked by the holiday of Passover. With the exception of Shabbat there were no holidays during the winter. Sukkot marked the end of seasons, and the conclusion of the harvests, in the fall which is why it was the most important holiday called, "he-chag," the holiday. Shavuot marked the summer's first fruits. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rather than being the most important days of the year were instead a prelude to the concluding holiday of Sukkot.

As the Jewish people moved farther away from the land, and in particular from farming the land, the calendar shifted. Rosh Hashanah became the season of personal introspection and repentance. The holidays of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot came to emphasize their roots in the Jewish history of slavery, wandering the desert and receiving of Torah rather than their agricultural themes. Passover was once connected in particular to the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot the first fruits and wheat harvest and Sukkot the conclusion of the farming season.

We of course live in a time when we are disconnected from the agricultural calendar. Our children have little sense of connection between the foods they eat and the seasons that give rise to particular fruits and vegetables. They have no idea that strawberries, and blueberries, are summer fruits. In our supermarkets you can find strawberries all year round. They are imported from other countries or grown in hothouses during the fall, winter and early spring. We can now enjoy summer fruits all year round.

Something is lost as consequence of our detachment from growing our own food. It is obvious what we have gained. (I love blueberries and strawberries!) We are losing a connection to the natural world. We have become keenly unaware of nature's ebb and flow; we no longer see ourselves as dependent on the vicissitudes of the natural world. How many have stopped eating lettuce, for example? If the lettuce crop in Arizona becomes tainted we import it instead from California.

We have to reclaim our connection to nature. I know very few are going to become farmers, (I certainly am not) but perhaps a vegetable garden might restore something to our lives. Or it could be as simple as walking to a friend's house rather than driving. Take in the blooming trees on this walk. Slowly breathe in the natural world. Then again it could be as easy as reclaiming our holidays' roots in nature's seasons. The holidays were attached to the seasons because our lives were once dependent on the fall, spring and summer crops.

Just as we depended on the season's crops so too we depend on the holidays. We desperately need to recover a consciousness about nature. It's not only about the summer fruits I so often crave, but instead about our dependence on the world and its seasons.

The purpose of our tradition's blessings is to remind us of this connection to nature. Every blessing for food speaks of how the food is grown. For wine, we say, "...who creates the fruit of the vine." And for cantaloupe (I anticipate the local harvest this summer), "...who creates the fruit of the earth." For bread, we recite, "...who brings forth bread from the earth." Imagine that. Bread does not emerge from the earth. And yet we insist on emphasizing God's ingredients rather than the baker's craft.

Most people do not know that the shehechiyanu blessing is said to mark a new season and in particular when eating its fruit for the first time. In an age when you can eat every fruit in every season we no longer need to say this blessing for food. It is now only reserved for joyous occasions. But it is the perfect expression of what should be our wonderment in the natural world. "Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who gives us life, sustained us and brought us to this very time."

Have you ever gone strawberry picking? Have you ever eaten berries off the vine? Sure, you can buy more strawberries at Costco; sure you can buy the super-size pack of blueberries. They will not taste the same. The experience will not feel the same. If you were to go berry picking, there in the field, with the sun beating on your back, you can savor those beautiful, and delicious fruits planted by our hands but nurtured by God's earth.

That is the sense our holidays must recover. An appreciation of the natural world is what the holidays were also intended to inculcate.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Natalie, Speak Out

Below is a letter I penned to Natalie Portman.

Dear Natalie,

Let me first say what a big fan I am of yours. I have followed your career from one of your very first movie roles in “Heat,” the best cops and robbers film of all time. I thought your portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie” was haunting. Your role as Rebecca in Israeli director Amos Gitai’s film “Free Zone,” was amazing even though the movie was strange. “Star Wars” was Star Wars. And congratulations on your director’s debut in the film version of Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

I am not writing, however, about your film accomplishments. I am instead writing about your decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony at which Prime Minister Netanyahu would be speaking. The committee selected to give you this award in recognition of your dedication to the Jewish community. Other recipients were Michael Bloomberg, Itzhak Perlman, Michael Douglas, Anish Kapoor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

You shared your reasoning on Instagram (not the best forum for intellectual discourse I might suggest):
I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony....
This post continues on The Times of Israel.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Can You Have a Peaceful Shabbat Without Fences

The ancient rabbis taught: “Build a fence around the Torah.”

It is a strange and curious notion. Erect a fence around a book?

Does the Torah require such safekeeping? Are we meant to lock it within the Holy Ark? While the Torah scroll should be safeguarded, its essence does not require such protection. It is meant to be lived. The Torah is intended to be brought into the world.

It is brought into the world wrapped in a hedge.

We are to build fences around the Torah’s biblical laws so that we do not transgress its commandments.  On the Sabbath, for example, one is prohibited from spending money. Better not to carry it, the rabbis reasoned. Don’t even pick up your wallet. One fence was constructed–and then even more and yet more.

The day of rest was walled off from any inadvertent work....

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A State Like All Others!?

I am sure that many were as excited as I was when the May issue of VeloNews, the premiere cycling magazine, arrived in this week’s mail. Most of this month’s edition is devoted to analyzing the upcoming Giro d’Italia, the 21 day grand tour cycling race. Who is most likely to win? Chris Froome, last year’s Tour de France winner? Tom Dumoulin, last year’s Giro winner? Or, Fabio Aru, the victor in the 2015 Vuelta a Espana?

I am certain that you are likewise poring over the magazine’s details. Does this year’s course favor sprinters or climbers? Who leads the strongest team? Is Team Sky cycling’s New York Yankees? Will Chris Froome even be allowed to compete given his negative doping results? Should I continue?

The most exciting of all the features are of course the details about the course and the tour’s opening three days. There, portrayed on two pages, are the descriptions of the 9.7km time trial in Jerusalem, the second 167km stage traversing the coastal roads from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and the third 229km stage through the Negev desert and traveling from Beersheva to Eilat. This is followed by a travel day. The Giro then continues to Italy with stage four in Sicily where the cyclists will climb Mount Etna.

And then it occurs to me. I discover, amidst what I fear appears to many cycling mumbo jumbo, an essential truth about Zionism and the modern State of Israel. The dream of Israel’s founders was that it would be a state like all other states. It would be a nation like all other nations.

VeloNews reports:
Stage 3 crosses the Negev Desert, running by several landmarks dedicated to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister. The route then runs through Ramon Crater, a sizable pit in the desert formed by erosion. Its 40-kilometer diameter makes it the largest such geographical feature in the world. A very steep, 1,200-meter climb leads the peloton out and toward the expected sprint finish in Eilat, a seaside resort on the Red Sea.
What an ordinary description. Change the details and this this could be a description of a route through any country. VeloNews affirms our earliest dreams for Israel. We want to be like everyone else. We want a country we can call our own.

And that was of course Ben-Gurion’s vision. The early Zionists believed that what ailed the Jewish people was its lack of a nation-state. And now, 70 years later, we have it. Israel is a country like all others. It has geographical features and resorts. It has monuments to its heroes and prime ministers.

And yet I am not nearly as enthralled by stage four as I am by three. Sicily exerts little pull on my Jewish soul. Israel serves as a home for the homeless Jewish people.

It serves as refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. If the bonds to the countries we call home become tenuous we can rest assured that one place would open its doors. Israel was founded to be like all other nation states. And yet we believe it to be unlike others.

Israel is a nation like all others but then again it is not. It figures prominently in our dreams.

Zionism was meant to secure our Jewish future by ensuring that all will be able to call at least one place home. Israel aspires to be more than a refuge. It tugs on the Jewish spirit.

I could love Rome, and love visiting there, and I could dream about watching professional cyclists sprint to this year’s finish outside its fabled coliseum, but I will remain forever in love with Jerusalem.

Israel may very well be a country like all others, with problems and imperfections like every other nation state throughout the world but yet I sense it is more. Jews throughout the world attach themselves to its achievements. They lament its failures.

It is like every other country. Then again it is not.

It is our other home.

We rejoice in 70 years of statehood.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Holocaust Memorial That Reminded Me of Each Life

This article also served as my sermon this past Shabbat evening, when my congregation marked Yom HaShoah.

This past week the Jewish community marked Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day.

I have often pondered how we can possibly give voice to the enormity of our people’s loss. Six million Jews were murdered. Of that, 1.5 million were children. Centers of Jewish learning were destroyed. Entire villages, and towns were decimated. Prior to the war, the Jewish population of Poland was the largest in Europe, with approximately three million. 9.5 million Jews lived throughout Europe.

I realize once again that two thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered. It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the loss. These numbers are staggering. How can we take to heart the Holocaust’s devastation? These are numbers that intoned each and every year. They do not convey the human costs.

On two occasions in recent years I traveled to Europe. The first trip was to visit Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg and Prague with my wife Susie and children Shira and Ari. And the second was this past summer’s trip to Amsterdam. Throughout these cities, one can find small bronze plaques, no more than a few inches on each side, neatly tucked into the pavement of streets. We encountered them as we walked the streets of these European cities....



Thursday, April 12, 2018

History's Trauma

Central to the Passover seders we recently celebrated is the telling of our people’s slavery in Egypt. We proclaim, “We were slaves.” We are to imagine that our ancestors’ experience is our own.

One might think that the experience of some 400 years of slavery would have traumatized our people. One might imagine that dwelling on our suffering, and recalling it with such vivid symbols, such as bitter herbs and charoset, would traumatize everyone gathered around the table. One might think as well that recalling this story year in and year out would scar our children.

This is most certainly not the case. Instead our remembrances ennoble us. The Torah makes the intention of these rituals clear. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23) We remember so that we might uplift lives.

At the seder, even the deaths of our enemies are muted.... 

Friday, April 6, 2018

Creating Disorder in the Seder Invites Questions

This past week Jews throughout the world gathered around their Passover Seder tables. The intention of this elaborate dinner is the telling of the Jewish people’s going out from slavery in Egypt to freedom. We read: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.”

We recall our slavery so that we might identify with the suffering of others. At the Seder we try to identify with the liberation from Egypt so that we can discover its meaning for our own generation. The asking of questions is central to this ritual exercise. The Seder leaders are supposed to do things that prompt questions. It is how we teach the holiday’s important message. It is how we convey the meaning of our remembrance.

Moses Maimonides, a medieval scholar and among the greatest of rabbis, offers this advice: “One must make a change in the Seder on this night so that the children will take note and ask, and say, ‘How is this night different from all other nights?’ How does one make a change? By distributing candy or by grabbing the food from them before they are able to eat, or by snatching things from people’s hands.” This appears to be outrageous counsel. We are accustomed to rituals that follow a prescribed order. In fact, the Hebrew word Seder means order. And its most prevalent custom is for the youngest child to sing the four questions.

Long ago these questions were not prescribed....



Thursday, March 29, 2018

Them Could Be Us

In a remarkable, and startling, and as well unsettling, comment on the ninth plague of darkness, the rabbis teach:
Why did the Holy One bring darkness upon the Egyptians? Because there were wicked ones among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons. They enjoyed great wealth and honor and did not want to leave Egypt. The Holy One said: if I bring a plague upon them publicly and they die, the Egyptians will say, “What happened to us happened to them as well.” Therefore, God brought three days of darkness upon the Egyptians so that the Israelites would bury their dead without their enemies seeing them and for this they should praise God. (Exodus Rabbah)
When we typically write history, we tell the stories of us versus them. We are good. They are evil. The Israelites are all innocent. They are the victims. The Egyptians are evil. They are all oppressors. This is not oftentimes how the real world operates. History becomes confused with myth.

The rabbis write that there were Jews who loved Egypt and wanted to stay. They were not slaves like the majority of their brethren. Instead they enriched themselves through their people’s slavery.

The rabbis know history. They understand human beings. Evildoers can only achieve their evil ends if they have accomplices. Among the persecuted one often finds collaborators. This was Hannah Arendt’s controversial insight about the Holocaust.

Sometimes we are responsible for our own slavery.

At the Passover Seder we read: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.”

In order to go free we must contemplate what enslaves us. How do we enslave ourselves?

How are we accomplices to our own oppression?

In answering this question, we may discover the secret to our own redemption.

Addendum:
In normal circumstances I would be rooting for the team that has a 98-year-old, and saintly, religious figure on its side, especially one whose motto is, “Worship, Work and Win.” but not this year. Go Blue!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Remembering God

This week I attended the annual gathering of Reform rabbis. I learned from Sister Simone Campbell, an advocate for the poor. I was inspired by the work of Mark Hetfield, the leader of HIAS and a champion of immigrant rights. I heard from John McDonough an expert on health care reform and Dahlia Lithwick, an astute commentator on the Supreme Court. I caught up with colleagues, some of whom have been my friends from our first days of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. I studied with teachers who offered insights on the seder, building community and making prayer more meaningful.

I was taken in particular with Alden Solovy’s insights about prayer. Solovy is liturgical poet and I often share his work at prayer services.  He remarked that most people think that spirituality is about forgetting. A person has to forget everything they used to do and everything they used to believe. They have to forget mistaken notions about God in order to learn a new way of connecting with the spirit. Jewish spirituality, he offered, is different. It is instead about remembering. It is about recalling that God is here right now.

I have been meditating on this teaching.

Think about the prayerbook. In the evening we exclaim, “God, You made the evening.” And in the morning we say, “God, You made the morning.” Our prayer script is about reminding us that God is ever present. God is everywhere.

Long ago we offered sacrifices rather than prayers. The olah sacrifice in particular had to be entirely burned up on the altar. That is why its root meaning comes from the word to go up. Today we struggle to lift our prayers up. We struggle to remember that God is here right now.

The Torah states: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Leviticus 6)

The priests were charged with tending to this fire. But today there is no one to do this for us. Rabbis and cantors are not like the priests of old. They cannot pray for us. Today each of us must tend to our own spiritual fires.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw in this altar fire an analogy to the Jewish heart. Just like this ancient fire had to be kept burning, so too must we keep the Jewish flame burning in our hearts. Maintaining our fire is each of our responsibilities. We must each nurture our own spiritual fire.

How do we do so?

Perhaps it is simple as remembering that God is here. Perhaps it is as simple as opening the prayer book and exclaiming, “God, You made the evening.”

It begins by remembering.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How the I Becomes We

We read about a lot of stuff we no longer do. When we enter Leviticus we dwell on sacrifices. The Torah inundates us with their details. We read about slaughtering animals and sprinkling their blood on the altar. And yet year in and year out we continue to read about these foreign rituals.

Even though, nearly 2,000 years ago we stopped performing these sacrifices. When the Temple was destroyed the sacrificial cult could no longer continue. Some still hope for its restoration. They pray, “Restore the service to Your most holy House, and accept in love and favor the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer.” I do not offer such prayers.

I want nothing to do with the sacrificial rituals of ancient days. And yet I continue to read about them. Their details are elucidated in the weekly portions we begin this week. The cycle of readings insists that we must find meaning even in what we longer do and in what we do not even like.

I read and reread.

“When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.” (Leviticus 1) I take note. The opening words of the Hebrew are in the singular. But a few words later the Torah shifts to the plural.

Does the ritual act help a person feel connected to the community? Does it transform the individual? Do the prayers we offer shift our concerns away from our individual pursuits and personal worries?

The Hasidic masters taught that we enter the sanctuary as individuals. But the experience of prayer helps us to become part of the community. We enter as an individual, with singular thoughts and concerns. And then we see others. We offer each other, “Shabbat Shalom.” We catch up on the week.

We hear others. We sing “Oseh Shalom.” We are lifted by their voices. “Make peace for us!” We are transformed by their prayers.

The prayer experience insists that we pronounce “we.” Our prayers avoid the “I.”

We pray, “Find favor, Lord our God, in Your people Israel and their prayer.”

Over and over again we say, “our.” And this is the essence of the Jewish religious experience. It demands that we speak in the plural. It insists our concerns shift from the individual to the group.

We let go of our personal concerns. And we begin to think about others.

An individual may in fact bring an individual offering. The experience, however, transforms the person’s concern. The singular shifts to the plural. The offering ascends to heaven. The individual’s thoughts ascend toward others.


To Make a Torah Scroll or a Community

For Jews, there is nothing more sacred than the Torah scroll. It contains yards of parchment stitched together and bound to two wooden dowels. Upon the parchment, a scribe calligraphies the words of the Bible’s first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Using a feather pen, most scribes take approximately one year to complete a Torah scroll. Some scribes are better artists than others and their highly stylized letters are beautiful works of art.

Few see their work up close. Their artistry is only evident when the holy scroll is unfurled. In reality it is an art intended to be read, or, to be more exact, chanted. It is meant to be studied. And yet, for a brief moment following the Torah reading at services, the scroll is lifted so that all might see its columns of verses. People can glimpse the few letters upon which the scribe adorns decorative crowns. And then the scroll is covered and dressed. It is returned to the Ark.

The artwork remains hidden. The artist’s name remains a mystery.

Everything used in the scroll’s production must come from the natural world....



Monday, March 12, 2018

Guns and Governments

What follows is my sermon from this past Friday evening.

I would like to speak this evening about gun violence.  To be honest I have thought about little else or read about little else since the murders at the high school in Parkland, Florida nearly a month ago.  I imagine that many are equally preoccupied with this topic.  How can we not be?  17 people were killed.  14 teenagers and three teachers.  My friend was called to officiate at three of these funerals.  One of the teachers, Scott Beagle, was from Long Island and was known to many of us through Camp Starlight.  May his memory be for a blessing. 

We have wavered between feelings of despair over the senseless loss of life and inspiration over the young teenagers taking up the fight for more sensible gun laws.  And so on this Shabbat evening I wish to weigh in with my feelings and thoughts about gun violence and the debates surrounding it, and to as well offer some observations about the arguments we hear.

Let me state my bias.  I do not like guns.  I do not want a gun.  I do not believe it would make me safer.  I do not like hunting—even though I grew up in Missouri.  I am perfectly content to leave guns in the hands of the police and the army.  And yet I know that our Constitution guarantees the right bear arms.  I recognize that some feel a gun guarantees them a measure of self-defense.  I realize that there are plenty of people who like to hunt.  And yet I strongly believe there are some reasonable controls we can put in place that would preserve the second amendment and guarantee our citizenry far greater safety.    

First of all I see absolutely no reason why weapons designed for the military should have any place in civilian life.  The AR-15 is a rebranded M-16.  It is designed for soldiers.  It is therefore meant to kill and maim as many people as quickly as possible.  Read the article in The Atlantic by the radiologist who treated the victims of this most recent shooting.  The devastation this weapon causes far surpasses a pistol.  We used to have an assault weapons ban.  We need it back.

Second, the amount of ammunition one should be allowed to stockpile in one’s home needs to be limited.  At a certain point a gun collector becomes what would better be called, an armory.  We should be able to agree what is a reasonable amount of bullets for a person to have in order to guarantee for the needs of self-defense and hunting.  Can we agree that there is something terribly wrong when at a recent gun show in Florida one of the more popular items was a bullet proof backpack meant for children to use as a shield in the event of an attack?  And as well, in a booth nearby another purveyor was selling armor piercing bullets.  That is insane.  The notion as well that arming teachers will somehow make us safer is false.  More importantly it is an ugly transformation of the role of teacher, from one who is supposed to educate and help students realize their potential into a soldier or police officer.       

Third we need better licensing and background checks.  If you want to buy something that is so lethal then you should be required to take regular tests, pay for a license and submit to background checks.  You should have to demonstrate mental fitness.  If you sympathize with the enemies of the United States then you can’t get a gun.  That seems kind of obvious to me.  But that is not our laws. 

By the way Israel, who has been held up as a model by gun advocates, has very stringent laws about gun ownership.  You can only have one gun.  You can only buy 50 bullets.  You have to demonstrate that you really need the gun for self-defense.  All those pictures of Israelis with M-16’s are photographs of active duty soldiers.  In sum, it should not be easier to buy a gun than a car.      

My feelings about all of this should come as no surprise.  For years I have consistently supported the need for better legislation about guns.  I thought that the massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school would help to change things.  It did not.  And so I wish to also offer some observations about what might be different this time.

The first thing we should say loudly and clearly is this.  Thank God for our youth.  Change is often led by the young.  And perhaps we are witnessing a societal change.  We are seeing a group of teenagers transform their grief into action.  I am hoping that they will succeed as Mothers Against Drunk Driving succeeded before them.  I am praying that they can transform their pain into healing.  However, I am not going to only pray.  I am going to join them at New York’s March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24.  If you would like to join me I would welcome your company and support.  These teens are an inspiring and articulate group of young people. 

Some have criticized them for being too vocal.  But I bet every one of them would trade their new found fame for their friends.  I am certain they would rather have their friends by their sides and have nightmare free evenings of sleep.  I bet they would prefer to be worrying about colleges rather than rallies.  Emma Gonzalez was quoted as saying, “Adults like us when we have strong test scores, but they hate us when we have strong opinions.”  I for one say, “Keep screaming.  Keep shouting your strong opinions.”  We need lots of righteous indignation at this time.  We need you to fight for what we could not change.

I still believe that governments are supposed to make laws that attempt make us safer.  I am old enough to remember the changes surrounding drunk driving and seat belts.  I remember the days when my brother and I would roll around in the back of the station wagon on family vacations.  I also of course remember my father’s not so occasional threats to pull over if we did not stop wrestling and throwing each other around in the back. 

Then we came to realize that seat belts save lives.  It sounds stupid saying it like that today, but not so long ago we complained about how uncomfortable they were.  For a while we wore the shoulder strap behind our backs.  I recall as well how we began to wear them in the front seats and not the back.  And then laws were enacted that mandated seat belts.  Car manufacturers improved and improved on their cars’ safety devices.  By the way kudos to Dicks Sporting Goods and other retailers for making changes about their gun sales.  I never really understood why a sporting goods store sold any guns but those meant for hunting.   So perhaps we are making progress.  I recall the movement of change.  A generation ago we did not wear seat belts.  And now one generation later the culture has shifted about car safety.  My children put on their seat belts as a matter of habit.  They scold their grandparents if they fail to do likewise. 

This is how we make a better country.  First we write some laws.  Then we revise and refine them.  Eventually the culture shifts.  That is how Judaism thinks the world is supposed to work.  Tzedakah, as I often teach, is a law.  It is a commandment, mitzvah, required of everyone.  The NRA should be working to write gun safety laws.  They should have a vested interest in protecting the rights of responsible gun owners and the safety of the general population.  Good laws balance those two.  There are the rights of the individual weighed against the safety of the group. 

But part of this debate is that many vocal gun advocates harbor a deep suspicion of government and the laws it creates.  They seem to abhor laws.  They find government suspect.  They view their right to bear arms in absolutist terms.  There is no compromise.  Any law limiting their second amendment rights is seen as unjust.  A family friend, who is an avid hunter and of course a gun owner, long ago dropped his membership in the NRA.   He argues, that if you are responsible gun owner you should advocate for good laws. 

Not so long ago I spoke out for better airport security and more thorough searches following 9-11.  I figured I had nothing to hide.  I could sacrifice some individual rights for the sake of the safety of the group.  That is how community and country work, or are supposed to work.  When did controls or limits become synonymous with the elimination of rights?  Speed limits are not viewed as an infringement on individual rights.  When did gun control become synonymous with the abolition of the right to bear arms?   

This loss of faith in government might very well be the largest problem. 

If you are going to live with others, and be part of a community, and be a citizen of a country then you need good laws that guarantee the safety of the group.  Sure we are going to disagree about particulars.  I am going to give more weight to the first amendment over the second and others will reverse the order, but the laws allow us to live together—not so much in harmony but at the very least in safety.  We have to work to restore the premise that governments are to make laws that keep people safe.  The fact that there is so much disagreement over this foundational premise erodes the threads that bind us together as a nation.  You cannot enact good laws if a significant percentage of the population finds government suspect.

Everyone can’t do whatever they want.  The individual is secondary to the community.  That is what Judaism teaches.   

We all have a responsibility to protect each other.  And that is our tradition’s most important lesson.  Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, takes precedence over all other commandments.  We have a duty to protect everyone.  That is what Judaism calls us to do. 

We have a lot of work to do.  Let’s get started.  Let’s do more.  Let’s heed our tradition’s call.  Let’s make everyone safer. I pray.  May there come a day—and may it be very soon—when lock down drills are a footnote in our history books and we look back on this day as we look back on the days of not wearing seat belts.        



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sabbath Island

From the biblical verses detailing the construction of the tabernacle, the rabbis derive 39 labors forbidden on Shabbat. All that the Torah requires the ancient Israelites to do in order to construct the tabernacle we are forbidden to perform on the seventh day.

By not doing we build a sacred day.

The ancient tabernacle is transformed. We fashion Shabbat out of the seventh day. We cannot see it. We are unable to hold it in our hands. And yet this day has the potential to uphold our spirit.

We sanctify time rather than space. Judaism apportions holy days rather than sacred precincts. The Sabbath becomes our sanctuary in time.

We construct it by not doing.

We rest from the toil of our everyday existence. Creative activities are forbidden. We are told not to write, to sew, tear or bake. By saying no, we are offered, the rabbis teach, a neshamah yetirah, an additional soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel elaborates:
The seventh day is the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man; a day on which handling money is considered a desecration, on which man avows his independence of that which is the world’s chief idol. The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time.
Even though we do not forgo using money on Shabbat, Heschel’s teaching is still quite profound. The Sabbath is the opportunity to let go of our everyday concerns. It is a day on which we ignore the struggles of our weekday lives. We are instructed (nay, commanded!) to remove the troubles of the world from our thoughts and concerns.

This day is about rebuilding the spirit. It is about refreshing our souls.

How is this done?

By letting go.

Ignore the news for a day. Don’t watch the TV. Turn off your phone’s notifications for a brief twenty four hours. Trade tariffs, North Korea’s nukes, Iran’s menacing violence, the desperate flood of refugees, millions of AR-15’s and Mueller’s mounting investigation will still be there come Saturday evening.

But one thing will be different. Our spirits will be stronger.

Heschel continues:
In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.
And then, perhaps, the following week will look different. The world might again seem brighter. Everything might once again appear infused with God’s radiance.

Our faith is restored. Our spirts refreshed.

Perhaps all we need is a day.

With the setting of the sun on Friday evening, we can begin to look anew, to gaze at the world with new eyes.

And then Sunday will no longer appear as troubling as Thursday.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Laughter Is Needed!

Antisemitism. Misogyny. Violence. All occur in the Purim story.

The tale begins when Queen Vashti refuses to dance naked in front of the drunken King Achashverosh and his friends. Flummoxed by her refusal the king consults with his male advisors who say, “Now all women will ignore men’s commands. They will refuse all of their husbands’ demands, however ludicrous. (God forbid.) The king is easily persuaded and goes along with their advice. Vashti is kicked out of the palace and loses her crown. #MeToo Vashti!

And how does the king pick a new queen? A beauty pageant. Esther of course wins the pageant. Apparently she looks good in a swim suit. The Bible relates that she spent twelve months preparing herself: “Six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics.” (John Lennon sings: “We make her paint her face and dance. If she won't be a slave, we say that she don't love us. If she's real, we say she's trying to be a man.”)

We learn nothing about Esther’s character. We are taught nothing about her wisdom. We know only that she hides her Jewish identity and that is she is exceedingly beautiful. She is selected as queen. #MeToo Esther?

Her uncle Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, so the king’s most trusted advisor suggests that the king kill all the Jews. The logic and rationale of antisemites was, and perhaps always will be, elusive. Esther’s character emerges. Her wisdom shines. She fasts and prays. Esther reveals her identity to the king and explains how her life is threatened. The king cannot apparently draw any conclusions on his own. He cannot see the evil that stands before him, that his very own advisor threatens his queen and her people.

“Who is he and where is he who dares do this?” stammers the king.

Esther points toward Haman. “The enemy is this evil Haman!” she declares.

Haman and his sons are hanged. The Jews make bloody war against their enemies. They emerge victorious, and their enemies are routed and killed.

This farcical tale rings true in our own age. Antisemitism, misogyny and violence are present in our own day—in abundant measure. We have spent too many weeks crying. We have spent too many months screaming for justice.

On Purim we are commanded to make fun of these all too serious historical themes.

Today we laugh or at least we try to laugh. Tomorrow we can continue arguing.

The Talmud says that we can only fully accept the Torah on Purim. Why? Because laughter is the key to acceptance. Because not taking ourselves, or even our history, so seriously is the recipe for redemption. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld opines: “Only when we can mock the tradition can we fully accept it. Otherwise we make the tradition into an idolatry rather than a smasher of idols, into frozen-in-stone dogma of what once was rather than a living faith.”

In messianic times all festivals will be abolished except for the holiday of Purim. When the messiah vanquishes evil and eradicates all the injustices about which we continue to despair we will still need to laugh.

We always require laughter.

What is Jared Kushner dressing up as for Purim? My answer: a diplomat.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Not in Our Thoughts But in Our Hands

Why is light the most common religious symbol?

This week we read about the ner tamid. This is usually translated as “eternal light” but the Hebrew suggests instead “always light.” The light must always be tended to. God’s light must always be cared for.

We light flames in remembrance. I think of the shiva candles flickering in the homes of five families in Parkland. I look to the candles adorning make-shift memorials in remembrance of those murdered at the most recent school massacre.

Why do we lean on light?

Light itself cannot be seen. We become aware of its presence when we see the other things that it illuminates. So too with God. We become aware of God’s presence when we behold the beauty of the world, or the love of others, or the goodness of our fellow human beings. So too God’s radiance is obscured when people do evil. No amount of thoughts and prayers can illuminate these dark shadows!

And yet in light’s reflection we may discern God’s reality.

It is found in the faces of young students, glimmering with righteous indignation, now taking the lead to advocate for meaningful gun legislation. I share their passion. I too believe that more must be done to change our laws. Thoughts and prayers can perhaps offer healing to the broken families mourning and grieving. But they cannot save the next child. They cannot protect us from future gunmen. That is the role of our laws. Good laws are meant to offer protection from known dangers and evils.

That is why I will be joining with protesters at New York City’s March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24 beginning at 10 am. Yes, that day is also Shabbat. But on that March day I will be praying with my feet, to borrow Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase. Faith is not just about prayer. It must also be about action. And we can certainly do more. We can most certainly do a better job of protecting our children. Contact me if you would like to join me in New York City on March 24.

Fire requires our efforts to tend to it. That is why the ner tamid is better translated as the “always light.” We become aware of its presence when we feel it. Fire is the process of liberating energy from something combustible. Thus, God becomes real in our lives when we liberate the potential energy within ourselves for good.

People often ask where is God? They most often ask such questions in the midst of pain or following a tragedy, when God’s reflection is obscured. Light and fire are often perceived by the glow or warmth they create rather than in their own realities.

What is the Bible’s most familiar image for God? It is the burning bush.

When Moses stands before the bush he is amazed that it is not consumed by the fire. He had to stare a great while before discovering that the bush was not consumed. Miracles are discerned over time and not immediately. Making God a reality requires effort and time. It is a matter of looking carefully. It is a matter of straining through this past week’s darkness for a glimmer of light to emerge.

It is a matter of always tending the fire. It is not a matter of magic. It is instead a matter of searching for the reflection of light.

It is a matter of knowing when to pray with our heart, and when to pray with our feet.

God’s light is not in our thoughts but in our hands.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Joy & Celebration are Sacred Duties

Years ago, my then four-year-old son accompanied me on official business. I was called to officiate at a baby naming. Following the ceremony he found some other children with which to play. Later, a parent reported the following conversation between the two young boys.

Nathan, “Who is your dad?”
Ari, “He’s that guy over there.”
Nathan, “Who?”
Ari, “He is the rabbi.”
Nathan, “What’s a rabbi?”
Ari, “He goes to parties.”

That seems a rather apt description of the rabbinic calling. It also is the essence of Judaism’s central teaching....


We are still dancing!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

School Shootings are Not Normal

A conversation repeated throughout American homes last night.

“Did you hear about the shooting in Parkland?”

“Yes.”

“17 people killed. Most of them were teenagers.”

“I know. It’s terrible.”

“Some crazy kid did it. They caught him already.”

“It’s awful. What’s for dinner?”

“Chicken. How was your day?”

“Good. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

If you think such a conversation is normal, that nonchalance in the face of the extraordinary gun violence our society faces is acceptable then expect to have many more such conversations. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, 438 people have been shot and 138 killed in 239 shootings at schools. Since the start of this year 1,834 people have been killed by guns.

Concerts. Nightclubs. Movie theatres. Schools. These places should not be synonymous with gun violence. Lockdown drills should not be part of our children’s vocabulary.

When an individual liberty endangers the welfare of others, most especially our children, then it needs to be curtailed. You cannot drive 100 mph on the highway. It is illegal to drive while intoxicated. No right is absolute. Why then does our country not have sensible gun control laws? Of course the murderer is disturbed, of course too little was done about the telltale signals of his murderous designs, but the underlying fact is that access to military style weapons is too easy to gain.

Semi-automatic weapons too easily transform a shooting into a massacre. Why do we allow this to continue? Can we at least agree that such weapons only be allowed in the hands of the military for whom they were designed? Apparently not.

After Sandy Hook I mistakenly believed that such a consensus might emerge. It has not. We can debate the reasons for the continuation of this tragedy. We can disagree about why we still have not seen any meaningful change about why lethal weapons are so easily obtained. We can argue about why mass murder has become so commonplace in our society.

The notion, however, that mass shootings are normal and acceptable is a stain on the United States of America. The regularity with which this occurs, the ordinariness with which we greet such tragic news is an embarrassment. Our infatuation with violence and our embrace of guns is endangering our children. And our failure to agree on significant legislation that might keep such murderous weapons far from people with murderous designs is a blemish on each and everyone us.

So now, six years after Sandy Hook, has the time finally arrived?

I am hoping. And I am pledging to add my voice and contribute my hands to bring about such change.

The 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre in which seven gang members were killed with machine guns outraged Chicago. The victims were gunned down in broad daylight. People pressured officials to prosecute those responsible, in particular Al Capone.

When will mass shootings once again become the stuff of history books and not just the ordinary events of an everyday week in 21st century America?

I am praying that one day soon I will only read about such massacres in history books and not the morning paper.

“Grandpa, people used to kill kids in schools?”

“Yes. It happened a lot.”

“That’s not normal.”

Joaquin Oliver looks like every kid I know and love.
May his memory be for a blessing.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Giving Judge

Most people think that tzedakah should be translated as charity. It should not. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek. Charity comes from the Latin meaning precious. In Christian theology the term charity became synonymous with the Greek word agape, unconditional love. Thus a gift of charity is more about the giver’s heart than the recipient’s needs. This is not the Jewish notion of tzedakah.

Tzedakah is about the attempt to rebalance the scales of justice. How is this accomplished? By our giving. Tzedakah is also a commandment. Whether or not a person is inspired to give is secondary to the idea of mitzvah and needs of the recipient. I therefore prefer to translate tzedakah as righteous giving.

We are commanded to give because there are people in need. There are people who need food and clothes. There are people who need heat and shelter. How such people arrived at their desperate situation is immaterial to their present need. It is not for us to feel the spirit of giving, or for that matter whether or not the person’s need is worthy of our tzedakah gift. We are commanded to give.

There are therefore extensive laws about giving tzedakah to the poor. Even the person dependent on tzedakah is commanded to give. We are to give ten percent of our income to tzedakah. That is certainly a worthy goal to which we might aspire.

One would think that we are supposed to show deference to the poor. Their needs should supersede all else. They are hungry. They are cold. The Torah retorts: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to the poor in his dispute.” (Exodus 23) Justice is the paramount concern.

The Talmud offers an illustration. A judge might be tempted to say, “The poor claimant standing in my court has no case, but he needs the money more than the rich defendant does. I should therefore rule in the poor person’s favor.” Judges are forbidden to rule in his favor. Instead they are instructed to rule on the merits of the case and if the law requires it, to rule against the poor and in favor of the rich. The rabbis feared that if judges allowed emotional reasons to sway their decisions people would lose faith in the entire judicial system. The integrity of the system is a judge’s most important responsibility.

But what about the poor person? He might go hungry. The rabbis offer this advice. If the law forces a judge to rule against him then the judge should give the poor person money out of his own pocket. The courts are about the laws that bind the community together. They are not about the needs of the solitary individual.

Still, judges must still not look away from the needs of the poor. If they become aware of this need then they must give. Judges are commanded to give tzedakah. They must be scrupulous with regard to the law but also menschen.

Compassion and justice must always be balanced. Judges must rule according to the strictures of the law. They must also give tzedakah because people in need must be cared for.

The scales are made even.

Everyone is commanded to give.

Justice is achieved.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Diversity of American Food Shows What Makes Us Great

At its best Long Island is a stew of different people where former borders are irrelevant. It is the place built on a shared love of the American dream but flavored by former locales and imported traditions. At its worst these New York suburbs are a hodgepodge of ethnic cantons that rarely mix and where people view such intermingling as forbidden. Each town and village has a unique ethnic makeup that is then closely guarded and protected. One town is Italian. Another Jewish. Over there it is Latino. And that neighborhood, Asian.

I wonder. What is authentically American? What makes America great? What makes America America?

Most will watch this weekend’s Super Bowl. We are told it is the quintessential American event. Is the pizza that millions will eat during the game what defines us? At one time pizza was likewise deemed foreign. It of course originated in Italy (Naples to be exact) and could not be found in the United States until the early 1900’s. And yet now, over 100 years later, it is considered an American staple.

Who is authentic? Who is an American?

Recently I traveled thousands of miles within a few miles of my home....