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 pouring 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....

The Super Bowl's Victory and Verses

I am sure many people have seen the meme floating around the Internet about the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. Outside of Philadelphia’s First United Methodist Church, the sign reads: “Bible Quiz. How many verses in the Bible are about ‘Eagles’ and ‘Patriots’? Eagles 33. Patriots 0.”

Nothing would make me happier than to see the Super Bowl’s score mirror these numbers. It is not that I am a devoted Eagles fan. It is instead that I always passionately root against the Patriots. I realize that many Giants fans dislike the Eagles even more than the Patriots. My disdain for the Patriots, however, is most profound. It does not even matter that Brady went to Michigan. How many more championships do they need to win before Brady and Belichick can retire? They have already proven their football acumen and machismo many times over.

And they will undoubtedly be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. Even definitive proof that they have bent or broken rules will not block their admittance. So let me look away on that future day when they are inducted. This Sunday, during the Super Bowl, I will be cheering loudly for the underdogs. Even though football and the Super Bowl are not that important, they come as a welcome distraction from the world’s troubles and where I can comfortably hold on to insignificant grudges and outsized passions. Come Super Bowl Sunday, I will be hoping and praying that the Bible offers hints of victory for the Philadelphia Eagles.

That would of course be an absurd notion. Or would it? Some most certainly believe that the Bible predicts the future. Everything that happens is pointed to by our sacred text, people contend. This is the fascination with the so-called Bible Codes or with the evangelical love for the modern State of Israel.

The problem with this view is that the Bible does not speak with one voice. My teacher, Israel Knohl, calls the Bible a divine symphony. It is a potpourri of voices. Sometimes they appear in sync and other times not. Sometimes one voice rises above the others. Other times it is a discordant mess. And this is the central dilemma. To which voice do we pay attention? Which verse makes music in our ears betrays our theology.

An example. The Bible states that the land of Israel is given to the Jewish people alone. It also commands us to love the stranger. Whose voice do we bend our ears towards? The prophets admonish us to feed the hungry. They also prophesy that God’s wrath will be meted out upon Israel’s enemies. Is the stranger’s hunger a punishment or a command for me to open my hand?

The Bible is at times a cacophony of voices. I am certain of the music.

And yet I can rarely hear the violin over the cello or the clarinet over the tuba. I am convinced it is an extraordinary melody. I am sure the Bible is a beautiful symphony that I struggle still to understand. Through its voices I can make sense of my life, I can better understand the contours of my path, but I cannot know the future. All I can cherish is the symphony of voices struggling like me to grow closer to God.

Still come Sunday I am going to hold on to this week’s verse: “The Lord called to Moses from the mountain, saying, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.’” (Exodus 19)

And come next year I will enter September with renewed hope. In the early fall there is always a glimmer of promise for New York Jets fans. It does not matter that Jets are nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Every season is a new beginning. Every year offers new hope.

Let’s cheer for the underdogs. Go Eagles!


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Memories of the Wild

Many years ago my family and I camped out in the Negev desert. We drove into Makhtesh Katan, a geological formation dwarfed by Makhtesh Gadol and Makhtesh Ramon. These unique formations are typically translated as a Little Crater, Big Crater and Ramon Crater. The term crater, however, is inaccurate because these were not formed by the explosive force of a meteorite but instead by the slow, painstaking power of water.

Rivulets of water, some as small as a creek and others as large as a river, eroded the rock. Over millennia these maktheshim were formed. When one enters and draws close to the canyon’s walls one is struck by the beautiful and colorful layers of rock. These formations can only be found in the Negev and Sinai deserts.

We slept on the desert floor, each in our own sleeping bags. We attempted to create makeshift pillows from the desert rocks. I heard verses in the night. “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head, and lay down in that place.” (Genesis 28)

The clear, night sky was awash with stars. “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down it.”

I awoke early and waited for the sun to peak out above the horizon and for its rays to gently find its way within the rock walls. I remained in my sleeping bag until the desert air began to warm. The desert is surprisingly cold in the evening. Until the sun begins to bake the earth one would think that it is cool, fall morning.

I smiled to myself when I looked at my family, huddled near each other, and arrayed as if they were colorful logs thrown on the desert floor. I lit the fire and began preparing our Turkish coffee. (Ok, to be honest, our guide actually did. But it sounds so much better to say I did it.) The sun was only beginning to peak over the canyon’s walls. Best to get dressed in the sleeping bag, I advised our children. The air is still chilly.

We ate our breakfast and packed up the jeep and set off toward our next destination. The guide spoke about Ein Avdat, an oasis, off in the distance.

After the Israelites hurriedly left Egypt they camped in 42 different places. This week we read, “They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness.” (Exodus 13)

Scholars suggest that Succoth was probably the site of the ancient city of Tjeku, the capital of the eighth province of Lower Egypt in the eastern part of the Nile delta. This region served as farm land for the Israelites and was the Egyptian gateway to and from Asia. It is apparently one day’s journey from the royal palace in Raamses.

And where is Etham? No one knows.

Isn’t it curious that the first place where the Israelites camped outside of Egypt, the very first place where they camped as free people, we no longer know its exact location?

It was at the edge of the wilderness.

Sleeping within the makhtesh it appeared as if we were making camp at the edge of the universe. The stars served as our companions.

Could I ever find that camping spot in Makhtesh Katan, that figures so prominently in my memories, again? No. I am certain I could not.

But I can always find that story.

Sometimes the memory of a place is even better than the place.

Our story begins at the edge of the wilderness.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Writing on Sand and Stone

Make up your mind Pharaoh. First you don’t want to let the people go. Then you decide to let them go. And then you change your mind again, and won’t let them go. Finally, you let them go. This back and forth is punctuated by the verse, “For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 10) The Hebrew would be better translated as “I made his heart heavy” or perhaps “I weighed his heart down.”

What is the meaning of this unusual phrase? What does it mean to harden our hearts?

The Hasidic master, Rebbe Eliezer Hagar of Vizhnitz offers the following commentary. This phrase, he writes, hints at a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both.” The rebbe continues. It is hard to write on a rock, but after something is engraved on it, the writing will last forever. In the case of sand, on the other hand, one finds it easy to write whatever he wishes, but the writing can be erased in an instant.

The difference between the two is clear. Writing on a stone is like someone who finds it difficult to understand something, but once he understands it does not forget it. Writing on sand, on the other hand, can be compared to person who finds it easy to understand something, but soon forgets it. Pharaoh had both disadvantages. He found it hard to understand, and he forgets easily. Immediately after he said, “Let the people go,” he changed his mind and did not allow Israel to leave.

Typical of the Hasidic masters this negative notion of hardening the heart is transformed into one that has positive potential not only for Pharaoh, but for each and every one of us. Had Pharaoh heeded Moses’ words he would have learned a hard and difficult lesson. Pharaoh would have learned something that could be written on stone and would have left an imprint for a lifetime.

He would have taken to heart the lesson that you must never harden your heart to others. You must never harden your heart to their suffering.

At times our hearts are open. Other times they are closed.

Sometimes our hearts are weighed down by sorrow. And other times by pain. Sometimes our hearts are hardened by stubbornness. Other times by ideology.

To what do we harden our hearts? What weighs our hearts down? What stands in the way of learning lessons that will last a lifetime?

What do we write on sand?

What do we engrave on stone?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What Takes God So Long?

What takes God so long? After 400 years of slavery God responds to the Israelites’ suffering and says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Exodus 6) 400 years!

Why now? Why wait for the Israelites to suffer for so many years? Did the slavery become that much worse? Was God indifferent to their pain? Impossible! Still the question remains. Why did God wait so long?

Interestingly God’s response to the Israelites’ suffering mirrors Pharaoh’s daughter’s response to the infant Moses. In last week’s portion she hears the cries of Moses. “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2) My newfound hero, the unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter, is the first to show compassion to the Israelites.

Perhaps this is what God was waiting for. God waits for us.

There are other traditions that suggest as well that God waits for human beings to act before responding. The most famous of these is the story of Nachshon who according to legend jumps into the Sea of Reeds thereby prompting God’s involvement and concern. When the waters reach his neck and he is about to drown God splits the sea.

Others suggest that the messiah sits at the gates of Rome bandaging the sores and wounds of lepers. The messiah waits by performing compassionate acts. There he waits for God to send him to redeem the world. These traditions suggest that God is not the first to act but instead waits for our compassion. God’s concern is not in response to suffering but instead in response to our compassion.

In our Torah portion God appears to respond to Pharaoh’s daughter. Not only does she not have a name but she is also not Jewish. Moreover she is the daughter of the story’s arch enemy. The Rabbis ask why she would go to the Nile to bathe herself. She could have sent her slaves. The Talmud suggests that she opposed her father’s policies from the start and went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins.

It was there that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses thus leading to the redemption of an entire people. According to legend she also accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt. In that moment Pharaoh’s daughter left the trappings of the palace and forever pledged herself to the fate of the Jewish people.

Is it possible that her heart awakened God’s concern?

I still recall the few days of volunteering following Hurricane Sandy. We ventured to the South Shore to help a family tear out their water soaked dry wall and wood flooring. There we met other volunteers. One volunteer left a deep impression. He was a young man from Wisconsin who gave up his weeklong vacation. He drove here following Hurricane Sandy to help out. He slept most nights in his car. Here was a Christian man from the Midwest helping out Jewish New Yorkers.

Compassion comes from unexpected places. It often does not even bear a name.

Nonetheless my hope and prayer remains the same. May our compassionate acts stir God’s concern. May they awaken God’s compassionate heart.

And even if God fails to respond, the wounds will be bandaged and the homes repaired. And healing will reach into at least one heart.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Holocaust Hero's Newly Found Poem

Hannah Senesh is best known for her uncommon bravery. After moving to Israel in 1939, she volunteered to parachute into Nazi occupied territory in order to help rescue her fellow Hungarian Jews. She was quickly captured, mercilessly tortured and eventually killed.

Her poem, “A Walk to Caesarea” is familiar in Jewish circles. It is more commonly called, “My God, My God.” She writes:
My God, my God,
May these things never come to an end:
The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens, the prayer of people.
We often sing its melody as we stand on the beach and revel in the ocean’s waters. I recently heard its words as I looked out on the Mediterranean from Tel Aviv’s gentrified port. The poem’s meaning crystalized in my thoughts.  Senesh clearly intended the poem to point toward the Zionist attachment to the land of Israel.  It was this sand and this sea she was speaking about.  And yet more and more people see its meaning to be about the beauty of nature in general.

Perhaps that is the power of a poem....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Friday, January 5, 2018

What to be Named

Parents deliberate for months, and even years, the names they select for their children. For whom should they name their child? What if the baby is a girl? A boy? What should be the child’s Hebrew name? Do the origins of the name matter? What are the associations with the name?

Will the name influence their child’s future character?

The most significant book of the Torah begins in a similar fashion. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher…” (Exodus 1)

And yet the story of the most significant person in the Torah begins without naming a single person. Take note of how the Torah frames our hero Moses’ beginnings.
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son.

She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2)
No one is named in this entire story until its conclusion, and until Moses is grown. The Torah records no names for our actors until this brave young woman gives it to our hero, and the Torah’s central character. Moses is named not by his mother or even his father. Instead he is named by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Imagine that! The daughter of the very man who sets in motion the need to hide Moses in a basket so that he will not be killed by Pharaoh’s henchman not only saves Moses but names him. (By the way Pharaoh is a title not a name. It is most akin to when we hear “The White House said…”)

The Book that begins with names and is in fact called in Hebrew “Shemot—Names” introduces its greatest hero with the words “A certain somebody from an important tribe married another certain somebody from the same community and then gave birth to a beautiful boy…” This is remarkable!

And so the question remains: why would the Torah that will later be called “The Five Books of Moses” introduce its hero in this way? Why would it want to make clear that his beginnings are not based on lineage?

It is because his story must instead be based on merit, on actions, and on his accomplishments. Moses’ name in fact suggests the first of many such actions. It comes from the Egyptian meaning “to draw out.” We have a hint of his most important accomplishment. He will become the man who draws the Israelites out of Egypt.

Our most important names are not those that are given to us by our parents. They are instead the names we earn.

Are we called compassionate? Are we named honored? Are we called generous? Are we named kind?

What is the name we strive to be called?