Thursday, August 16, 2018

Secrets and Sins

There is a lot of talk about secrets these days. Former CIA director John Brennan no longer has access to our nation’s secrets. Omarosa claims she has access to lots of them. People whisper in hushed tones about this neighbor or that. The supermarket tabloids claim to reveal titillating secrets about one movie star after another. Today they are filled with tidbits about Aretha Franklin. (May her memory be for a blessing and her songs continue to fill our hearts.)

I take comfort in the Torah’s words. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God...” (Deuteronomy) No one can truly know another’s secret. No one can reveal another’s truth. Secrets are for the individual to share or for the individual to reveal.

The great Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, commented: “Other Hasidim perform the commandments in the open and their sins in private. My Hasidim commit their sins in public and observe the commandments in private.” It is a strange, and counterintuitive, teaching. Who publicizes their mistakes? Who reveals their errors? Don’t most people brag about their accomplishments and hide their gaffs?

Apparently Menahem Mendl taught his disciples to talk about their sins and not talk about what they did right. He taught them that you can only improve if others see your mistakes and hear about your errors. Most people don’t want to sign up for such a regimen. I wonder how many followers he actually had. And yet Menahem Mendl does reveal an essential truth.

The only way to grow and improve, the only way to be a better person is to reveal your mistakes and display them for others to see. That is the purpose of the High Holidays. We temper this telling of our secrets by reciting our sins together. The litany of sins are intoned in the plural. “For the sin we have committed…” we repeat over and over again.

Only by coming to terms with our own failings can we bring on redemption.

Menahem Mendl again: “The world thinks that tzaddik nistar—hidden righteous people—are people who conceal their righteousness and their good deeds from others. The truth, though, is that tzaddik nistar are people whose righteousness is hidden and concealed from themselves, and who have no idea whatsoever that they are righteous.”

Righteousness is not newsworthy. It is never something to brag about or hold before others.

But the world depends on each of us doing good deeds—perhaps in secret.

Is Faith as Easy as Relinquishing Control?

My wife and I recently traveled to Albuquerque. In addition to visiting Jesse’s house of Breaking Bad fame, and tasting too many new tequilas, we signed up for a hot air balloon ride. It was the most remarkable of low-tech adventures.

We arrived before sunrise. After driving to an empty parking lot, the gigantic balloon was unfurled. Large fans were positioned by the opening. Volunteers were requested to hold the balloon open as the fans filled the balloon with air. The large basket was positioned on its side and attached to the balloon by four carabineers. Propane burners were lit, and the balloon was filled with hot air. It gently rose off the ground and lifted the basket off its side.

Two men held the basket in place while the pilot climbed aboard. One by one, he instructed the twelve passengers to take their place, positioning us so that our weight helped to keep the basket level. He gave us our safety instructions. With the humor of a Southwest flight attendant, he taught us how to brace ourselves for landing. “Hold on to the rope handles by your side and bend your knees. Don’t drop your phones out of the basket.”

And with that, the burners roared and shot huge flames above our heads, the ground crew let go of the basket, and the balloon lifted gently off the ground. The ground quickly grew smaller....

Friday, August 10, 2018

Baseball and the High Holidays

Every sport has a peculiar set of rules. Soccer has yellow cards. Football a false start. Basketball has a flagrant one and even two. Hockey icing. Australian Rules Football has…I have no idea.

Unique among these sports stands baseball. No other sport keeps track of errors and makes a distinction between an earned hit and advancing to a base on an error. At each game the scorer sits in a box and makes the determination: earned or error. At the end of the game there is a tally: runs, hits and errors. And yet, in determining the standings all that matters are the number of runs. This, and this alone, determines the winner and loser of the game.

And yet there it stands: the team’s hits and the team’s errors. I know of no other sport that tracks errors and mistakes. A team can lose despite earning many hits. And a team can win despite committing a number of errors.

Saturday is the first day of the month of Elul. It marks the beginning of the High Holiday period, a time of introspection that culminates in Yom Kippur on September 19th. It is a forty-day period that mirrors the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God. We are meant to turn inward, examine our deeds and look back on the past year.

We are meant to tally our errors. We are not meant to look at the standings. Our successes are immaterial. On these days it is only the error column that truly matters.

This may seem like a depressing exercise. But the faith of the High Holidays is that you can only get better, you can only improve yourself, if you look at your faults. True introspection is about being honest about our flaws and owning our mistakes.

Here is the hope that tempers this exercise. As the gates of repentance begin to close, in the final minutes of Yom Kippur, all is forgiven.

We may all enter the High Holidays like the Baltimore Orioles (sorry Dad!), but everyone emerges as World Series champions. 

It begins by taking an accurate accounting of our errors.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Remember and Don't Forget

According to rabbinic legend a fetus knows the entire Torah when in the womb. When the baby is born, however, an angel kisses the baby on the lip, producing the recognized indentation, and the child forgets everything. Now this child must spend a lifetime learning Torah. It is a curious legend.

The rabbis imagined that we begin life knowing everything but then immediately forget everything.

Years ago, as my grandmother withered away in a nursing home, we watched her mind become increasingly vacant. Her body remained strong years beyond her mind’s forgetfulness. She felt it happening and understood that she was forgetting more and more. In fact, when she learned that she would soon become a great grandmother she remarked, “What good will that be if I don’t have my mind.” She knew that her dementia was growing increasingly worse. There grew a terror in her eyes. And then she forgot everything.

For our Jewish tradition forgetting is a cardinal sin. We are commanded again and again to remember: zakhor. In this week’s portion, Moses admonishes the people: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that you might be tested by hardships to learn what is in your hearts: whether you will keep the commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8). We must remember our history, the successes and failures, but especially the trials.

More than any other teacher, Annie Bleiberg, may her memory be for a blessing, taught me about the Holocaust. She colored in the details that the history books could not. She shared her story of survival, which was at times harrowing and other times miraculous, so that others might learn how hatred can metastasize into murder. She always reminded me that we must be on guard against antisemitism. She would say that we must treat every human being as in individual not as a category. This is why she told her story. She remembered the pain and the trials so that others might learn.

For Judaism remembrance is the key to learning.

Remembering is not instinctive. Memories must be inculcated. One can learn from others. But remembrance is best achieved by experience. Perhaps this is the reason for the rabbinic legend. You have to feel and experience to really learn. You have to look back and remember in order to teach.

The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues that Judaism believes forgetfulness is terrifying. Zakhor, remember, we are commanded. We must always remember the long way we have travelled.

To forget is to be that newborn infant, although touched by an angel, just beginning a lifetime of rediscovering and relearning.

We are the Jewish people because we remember. Our future is dependent on hearing this command and regaining this terror of forgetting. Perhaps this feeling will help us to learn more, to experience more. I forever see it in my grandmother’s eyes. I can still hear it in Annie’s voice.

May my lips never again be touched by an angel.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Over and Over Again

This week we find the Shema and V’ahvata, located in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy.

We read the line: “V’shinantam l’vanecha—and you shall teach them to your children.” On the surface the meaning of this verse seems obvious. Parents are obligated to teach their children everything, in particular Torah. They are commanded to teach their children about their Jewish heritage. They are instructed to teach their children values.

In Hebrew there is a common word for teach, m’lamed. Here the Torah uses the word, shinantam. This word derives its meaning from the Hebrew, to repeat. Why would the Torah use the word, repeat? Why would the Torah command that we repeat these words to our children? Are we to say the words of the V’ahavta over and over again to our children, and even grandchildren?

As a parent I am certain that lessons will most certainly go unheard the moment I have to repeat them over and over again to my children. I say over and over again, “Do your homework. Clean your room. Call your grandparents.” These admonitions are greeted with nonchalance and more often than not go unheeded. Over the years I have learned that my worst parenting moments are when I resort to repeating myself. In that moment I am the only one who is listening to my words.

Then what could the Torah intend? If repetition is the worst teaching method, then what could this unusual word choice mean? The Torah cannot be wrong. An insight must be hidden in its words. This is what I have determined. The best lessons are those that our children see us do repeatedly. Those actions that they see us do are the best Torah we can offer our children. This is what will prove most lasting.

This is what the Torah means by its words, “Repeat them to your children.” The best teaching is what our children see us do, over and over again. If you want your children to be generous, give tzedakah. If you want your children to be learned, then let them see you read and even take classes. If you want your children to be committed to their health, then let them see you exercise. If you want them to find Judaism meaningful then bring Judaism into your own lives.

Over and over, again and again, this is what our children must see us do. They discern what is most important by observing what we do.

“V’shinantam l’vanecha!”

Repeat them to your children.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

History's Warning Lights

Although not widely observed in Reform synagogues, Sunday marks Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to Jewish tradition a number of other catastrophes occurred on this day as well, in particular the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492.

It is a day marked by fasting and mourning. The Book of Lamentations is chanted. In its verses the prophet Jeremiah laments the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. “Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends. All her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.”

The destruction of the second Temple by the Romans was even more devastating. Until the return of millions to the land of Israel, and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty there, in the last century, we forever wandered. For nearly two thousand years, we lost our center. We could no longer worship in Jerusalem’s Temple; we could not pilgrimage there on our festivals. In its place, synagogues were created throughout the lands of our dispersion.

Somehow, we survived, and even thrived. The early rabbis doubted our fortitude. They saw only devastation and destruction. They could not imagine a Jewish life without the central Temple. And so they decreed that a glass be smashed at every Jewish wedding because they believed that our happiness—even that of a Jewish wedding—would never be full again. We defied their worries.

We remade the rituals of the Temple into the familiar rituals of today. We refashioned a new Judaism without one center but instead with many. Our homes came to replace the sacrificial altar of old. There we, like the ancient priests, would wash and sanctify our meals. We turned our creativity into study and prayer. We wrote countless books. We discussed and debated. We looked back at our history and examined our lives. We asked ourselves how this catastrophe could have happened. How could God’s holy Temple be destroyed?

The rabbis answered. It was not the Romans. Sure, that is what history indicates. Look instead within. This is a moment for self-examination. This is an opportunity for self-reflection. We did this to ourselves. They taught: it was because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. It was because Jews fought amongst themselves, because they called one another traitors. This is why the Romans were able to destroy our Temple and our city. We gave our enemies an opening to destroy us because we were so busy fighting with ourselves.

It is a lesson worth remembering on this day, and in this year.

“The warning lights are blinking red again.”

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Ocean's Pull

I am meditating on the ocean.  I am thinking about its pull.

Why do we venture to the sea and its shores?

I turn to the ancient rabbis. (That is what Jews do when seeking answers to their questions.)

Rabbi Eliezer responds: “The entire world drinks from the waters of the ocean.” (Taanit 9b). I read on to discover that he and his colleagues were debating where rain water comes from. I am impressed by my ancestor’s understanding of the cosmos. Another rabbi argues with Eliezer. “But the waters of the ocean are salty, whereas rainwater is sweet.” The debate continues. Rabbis!

Perhaps Eliezer means his teaching metaphorically. Our spirit drinks in nourishment from the oceans. Every summer we wait in hours of traffic just to make our way to its beaches. It is calming. The waves are restorative.

The poet, Mary Oliver, offers a teaching. (That is what I also look to when searching for answers.)

I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all the blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.

The ocean is the antidote to grief. It is the answer to what ails us. No amount of tears can ever fill its depths.

Rabbi Judah states: “A person who sees the ocean recites the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made the great sea.’" (Berachot 54a) We are commanded to say a myriad of blessings. When seeing a rainbow, when eating an apple, when seeing a mountain, when sitting down to a meal, but regarding the ocean the sages offer a clarification.

A month must have passed since lasting seeing the ocean. Most people read this emendation as a warning. You should not say this blessing everyday as you should, for example, the motzi. I of course read it differently.

Don’t let a month go by without seeing the ocean!

Find its waves. Seek out its shores. Touch its waters. Cast your grief to its depths. Our souls require nourishment. Our spirits need renewal.

And it can be discovered a few short blocks from our homes.




Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Zealous Father

I don’t very much like Pinhas. And yet year after year I find him in my Torah.

Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel. They have become intoxicated with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, Baal, and participating in its festivals. Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen. God becomes enraged.

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions... When Pinhas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinhas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I do not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.’ Say, therefore, ‘I grant him a covenant of peace.’" (Numbers 25) Pinhas' zeal tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinhas renews the covenant between God and the people.

It is a horrifying story. Zealotry is condoned. Murder in God’s name is rewarded.

I recoil at this story. I am taken aback, once again, to discover these words in my holy Torah.

I recall my bris. (Ok, not really. But still I know what was said.) When I was carried into the room the mohel extolled Pinhas’ example. He recited the Torah’s words and repeated its conclusion. “I grant him a covenant of peace.” I would like to think that the Torah’s words were recited because of its concluding promise of peace. And yet I wonder. Is the mention of Pinhas a tacit recognition of the passion and zeal required to perform the circumcision ritual?

Let’s be honest. We hand over our newborn, week old infant, to a stranger and ask him (or her) to remove something from the most sensitive part of his body. The rabbis justify this ritual by adding the notion that in performing the circumcision we are perfecting God’s creation. They argued that God made the world, and human beings, intentionally imperfect to leave room for us to perfect the world, and ourselves. And yet I better recall Ari’s bris.

I remember thinking.

There is only one reason why I am doing this (violence?) to my son. God commanded me to do so. I remembered the Torah’s command. “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.” (Genesis 17) I got up early in the morning to do God’s bidding. I did not question. God’s promise was my only reassurance.

Did I become a zealot in that moment?

Perhaps Pinchas is a part of me as well.

And he forever remains in my Torah.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Value to Share Meals with Those We Disagree With

This week my thoughts turn to Hillel and Shammai. I am not thinking about these famous first century rabbis because of their wisdom but instead because of their relationship. They stood on opposite sides of virtually every issue they faced. They led competing schools of Jewish thought.

The Talmud reports that their disciples argued for years. In fact, they never resolved the debate about whether it was good or bad that God made human beings. Given that their arguments were for the sake of heaven, a divine voice weighed in and determined that both of their opinions were valid and were apt reflections of God’s living words. Still, Jewish law almost always follows the opinions of Hillel.

Why? It is because, the Talmud reports, he would not only share his own interpretations but first the opposing opinions of Shammai. The lesson is clear. One’s opponents must always be given honor and respect. Perhaps, it was also because Hillel was known to be a nicer, and more open, rabbi. Shammai, in contrast, is described as sterner and given to rebuke.

That is the Talmud’s record of their debates. 2,000 years later we are left with the impression that their disagreements were friendly, and civil....

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sharing a Meal, Sharing a Country

This week my thoughts turn to Hillel and Shammai. I am not thinking about these famous first century rabbis because of their wisdom but instead because of their relationship. They stood on opposite sides of virtually every issue they faced. They led competing schools of Jewish thought.

The Talmud reports that their disciples argued for years. In fact, they never resolved the debate about whether it was good or bad that God made human beings. Given that their arguments were for the sake of heaven, a divine voice weighed in and determined that both of their opinions were valid and were apt reflections of God’s living words. Still, Jewish law almost always follows the opinions of Hillel.

Why? It is because, the Talmud reports, he would not only share his own interpretations but first the opposing opinions of Shammai. The lesson is clear. One’s opponents must always be given honor and respect. Perhaps, it was also because Hillel was known to be a nicer, and more open, rabbi. Shammai, in contrast, is described as sterner and given to rebuke.

That is the Talmud’s record of their debates. 2,000 years later we are left with the impression that their disagreements were friendly, and civil. These days, I wonder if this was in fact true. Did they speak ill of each other in the quiet of their own homes? Was Shammai sometimes given to fits of rage over Hillel’s liberal interpretations? Was his strict mindset unnerved by his opponent’s openness? Was Hillel equally perplexed by Shammai’s propensity to turn people away who wanted to learn? Did he worry that his fellow rabbi might end up leading a congregation of one?

Did they ever sit down at the same table together? Did they ever share a meal?

I do not know. And so, I wonder if the Talmud has softened the tensions between these leading, intellectual giants. I wish I could ask them how they got along. I wish I could seek their guidance for how to maintain a sense of collegiality and friendship with those whom I vehemently disagree.

I worry that if we cannot sit down at the same table, if we cannot discuss the issues and ideas that divide us then the threads that bind together our community, and country, will be forever broken. The most basic of human needs is eating. The most basic of human activities is eating meals together. This is what binds families together. This is what draws friends together.

This is what creates community. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is my fellow American. No matter how distasteful her politics might be she must be allowed to eat in the same restaurant as I do. It may be emotionally satisfying to throw her out, but I do not want to be party to such incivility. Protests, yes. Lots of them. And more to come, I am sure. But breaking bread together—even if at a table’s length—must always continue.

If not, we run the risk of living in a country riven with sectarian divisions. A recent study of millennials indicated that an increasing number would refuse to marry someone from the opposing political party. If a Democrat will not marry a Republican and a Republican will not marry a Democrat, then we have become sects.

It is a tragic thing that our political leaders have forgotten that compromise is what serves us best. Democrats are not meant to be winners. Republicans are not supposed to be victors. Americans are to be the only champions. Compromise heals a country. Politicians’ commitment to their own ideologies, and bases, is what drives their decisions rather than what might be best for the entire country of Republicans, Democrats, Independents and even those who do not vote, or cannot vote.

It requires greater courage to include those with whom we disagree than to throw them out. The Torah records. The prophet Balaam was sent to curse the Israelites. They were a threat to his king and his followers. When Balaam saw them, and met them face to face, he was unable to pronounce curses. Instead he offered blessings. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24)

It a sad thing that President Trump does not seek to unite the country. It is satisfying to shun political opponents. It is gratifying to point out the apparent hypocrisies of opponents. The cheers of like-minded followers feed the insults, the nods of approval confirm our pre-conceived beliefs. But Twitter is not a forum for debate. It does not provide an opportunity to engage with the ideas of opponents.

For that we require the table. For that we require some good wine and some good food. For that we require some laughter and even shared tears. And then can we can begin the arguments for the sake of heaven.

I would like to imagine that Hillel and Shammai shared many such meals.

That, at least, is what I promise always to continue.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bizarre Rituals and Ethical Commands

I am thinking that the Torah does not matter.

I spent the better part of the morning reading the day’s paper. I read in detail about the struggle of immigrants on our country’s southern border. Despite the fact that President Trump issued an executive order ending the practice of separating families caught sneaking across the border, over 2,000 children remain separated from their parents. How can we remain indifferent to those running away from persecution and poverty? Whether people entered the country legally, or illegally, there must be a better way.

We are a nation of immigrants. We have offered the promise of better lives to countless generations. Securing our borders, and protecting our citizens, must go hand in hand with the vision of hope and idealism our nation provides the world. My grandparents journeyed here and built better lives for themselves and their families. I wish for others to have similar opportunities.

I turned to the Torah and to this week’s opening lines. “Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.” (Numbers 19) What follows are the inordinate details surrounding the ritual of the red heifer.

I sought comfort. I longed for answers to our contemporary struggles.

I found instead a stupefying ritual. Where is the Torah for today?

The red heifer is a ritual that is no longer performed. Since the destruction of the Temple we no longer offer sacrifices. The red heifer was nonetheless a peculiar ritual. It, and it alone, offered purification for the ritually contaminated. Because it is today inoperative no Jew can find such purification. This is why some authorities prevent Jews from walking on the Temple Mount, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands, for fear that they might walk on where the Holy of Holies once stood.

It is a bizarre ritual. “The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included—and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow.” Commentators suggest that this ritual defies rational explanations. Searching for explanations lead to only one possible conclusion. This is a commandment because God says it is commandment. Its meaning is discovered in affirming that God knows better.

Are these the spiritual insights I crave? Where are answers addressing our contemporary concerns? Offer me wisdom. Offer me guidance. Let the Torah grant me teaching. Let it lead me to learning.

I read on. The details of the ritual are concluded. A reminder is offered. “This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you.”

I recall. Amidst the Torah’s ritual obsessions I discover the reminder of another. Again and again it commands that there shall be one law for citizen and stranger. Why? Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Because we know the feelings of the stranger.

The Torah is clear. Our memories of enslavement are to make us more compassionate. Our memories of suffering are intended to make us draw the stranger in.

I take comfort in the Torah’s words. It speaks to today.

I continue to draw inspiration from the Torah’s laws.

“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.”

Until tomorrow’s challenges.

Remembering the Immigrants Who Believed in America

I am thinking about my grandfather, Papa Bill.

He came to this country in 1906 at the age of two. He was accompanied on this journey by his mother Leah and older sister Hannah, age six, and brother Grisha, age four. They traveled by train from Katrinaslav, a city in Ukraine, to the port of Hamburg. There they boarded a ship for the ten day trip to New York.

I am imagining my grandfather as a toddler. He clutched his mother’s hand for the two week journey. She held him in her arms when he became sea sick. She chased after him when he started crawling away from her on the train. She comforted him when he cried from hunger. I imagine his mother’s fear. Would they be allowed to enter? At the time, the United States was allowing able bodied men, and their families, into the country, but turning away those showing any signs of illness. People were, in particular, terrified of tuberculosis.

Leah wondered. Would she be turned away before being reunited with her husband, Moses?  It remained a possibility...

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.