Friday, September 28, 2018

What Made King David a Great Leader

I am thinking about King David. Yes, the Jewish hero king, who unified the southern and northern kingdoms 3,000 years ago, declared Jerusalem our spiritual center and killed the giant Goliath.

I have often thought about him when our nation is riveted by scandal and riven by discontent. I have thought about David before—first when Professor Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee (yes, I am that old), and then when President Clinton evaded telling the truth about his affairs, and now again as I watch Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s denials.

King David was an extraordinarily powerful man. He also had unrivaled character.

One day David spied Batsheva bathing on a rooftop near the palace....

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Language, Words and Letters

Edmond Jabes, a 20th century French Jewish poet, writes:   
“Thinking pulls back the thick veil covering the universe, only to replace it with another so thin we barely guess it is there.”
We perceive the word only through this transparent veil,” he said.
And added: “What if this veil were language?”
Soon we will roll the Torah scroll back to its opening words. We will begin the Torah reading cycle again and begin our discussions (and debates) about its language and import.

According to Jewish tradition the Torah is perfect. If a sentence appears repetitive, a word seems curious, a letter seems out of place, the fault cannot be with the Torah, but instead with the interpreter. Each and every week we unroll the scroll and discover a new question. It may be last year’s question, but even if it is, it is different because we are different.

And so we begin again. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? If the Torah is without error and authored by the hand of God then why open with the second letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, rather than the first? The rabbis offer suggestions.

Rabbi Jonah responds (from the third century CE): Why was the world created with a bet? Just as the bet is closed at the sides but open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind. In other words speculation about what preceded creation is to be avoided, questions about what constitutes the heavens are unhelpful. Focus on the here and now. The mysteries of the heavens and what may or may not have existed before creation are matters that lead one astray.

Another rabbi answers: To teach you that there are two worlds. Bet has the numerical value of two and thus points to the rabbinic teaching that in addition to this world there exists the world to come: namely, heaven. Yes, Judaism believes in heaven. I recognize that many Jews do not believe in heaven, but rabbinic Judaism most certainly does.

The discussion and debate continues. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? Because it connotes blessing. The Hebrew word for blessing is baruch and begins with a bet. The word for curse, on the other hand, is arur and begins with an alef. If the world was created with an alef, others might ask, “How can the world endure seeing that it was created with the language of cursing?” Hence the Holy One responded, “I will create the world with the language of blessing in order that it will stand.” Although the world might sometimes appear cursed, Judaism insists, it is filled with blessing.

Given that they are rabbis, another comments. Why with a bet? Just as the bet has two projecting points, one pointing upward and the other backward, it prompts us to ask, “Who created you?” It intimates with its upward point, “God who is above me.” And we ask further, “What is God’s name?” And it points with its back point to the Lord. God’s name, Adon, begins with the alef. Every sermon concludes with God.

Rabbi Eleazar relates a story: For twenty-six generations the alef complained before the Holy One, pleading with God. The alef said, “Sovereign of the Universe! I am the first of the letters, yet You did not create Your world with me!” God answered: “The world and its fullness were created for the sake of the Torah alone. Tomorrow, when I come to reveal My Torah at Sinai I will begin My revelation with none other than you, “I (Anokhi) am the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20) With this letter the Ten Commandments are given and the world is righted.

Creation begins with the bet of blessings, but it is sustained by the alef of our actions.

The questions continue to be unrolled before us.

A teaching can stand on one letter.

And each and every year we peer behind this holy veil.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Jewish Rain Dance

On Sukkot we shake the lulav. We take branches of a date palm, willow and myrtle, hold them together with an etrog (basically, an oversized, bumpy lemon) and wave them in six directions: east, south, west, north, up and down. This is in fulfillment of the Torah’s command: “You shall take the product of hadar trees (etrog), branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees (myrtle) and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23)

Waving the lulav reminds us that God is everywhere and anywhere. To be honest it looks like a rain dance. This makes sense because Sukkot begins the rainy season in the land of Israel. We continue this tradition even though we live outside of the land. We even add the prayer for rain as we welcome the changing colors of fall. Many of our customs are tied to Israel. Even the holidays follow that land’s patterns rather than our own.

Still the Rabbis did not abandon these traditions. Instead they found meaning for their own lands and their own times. Rather than bringing rain, they taught that the lulav and etrog are metaphors. The four species represent four different types of people.

The etrog has good taste (good is a debatable point) and fragrance (it does smell wonderful). The etrog represents a person who is wise and does good deeds. The myrtle has good fragrance, but no taste. It symbolizes a person who does good deeds but lacks wisdom. The date palm has good taste but no smell. This represents a person who has wisdom but does no good deeds. And the willow has no taste and no smell. This symbolizes a person who lacks wisdom and does no good deeds.

I wonder why the rabbis associated taste with wisdom and smell with good deeds. To acquire wisdom you must sink your teeth into the learning. You must acquire the taste. Learning is akin to sitting down to a good meal. A good deed, on the other hand, can be carried on the winds like a beautiful fragrance. It can even reach beyond the person who stands before us and is begging for our assistance. The smell, and reach, of a good deed can travel from one end of the world to another.

And yet most important of all, a community is comprised of all kinds of people. Some are wise. Some do good deeds. Some do everything. And some do nothing. But what makes a community a community, or for that matter, a country a country, is that everyone must be held together.

You can only come to a recognition that God is everywhere and anywhere when everyone stands together and you hold everyone tight.

Can this bring the rains that nourish the earth? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it certainly can provide us with much needed nourishment.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Question is the Answer

What follows is my Yom Kippur morning sermon.

A Hasidic story. In the wealthier sections of Rophshitz, the town where Reb Naftali was the rebbe, it was common for homeowners to hire night watchmen to guard their property. One evening, the rebbe went for a walk in the woods. On his return to town he walked through this wealthy neighborhood. A watchman saw him coming through the forest and called out to him to halt.

When he drew closer, and the rebbe’s face was illuminated by the street lamps, the watchman said, “I am sorry, Rebbe, I did not recognize you in the dark.” The rebbe smiled and then asked, “For whom do you work?” The watchman told him. Then he asked the rebbe the same question, “And for whom are you working this evening, Rebbe?”

The question hit Reb Naftali like a lightning bolt. He stepped back and grew startled; he stammered, “I am not working for anyone at the moment.” The rebbe continued pacing back and forth under the street lamps. Suddenly he stopped, turned to the watchman, and said, “I would like to hire you.”

“Me?” the man said. “But I am just a watchman. I know nothing about rabbis and what’s important to them. All I know how to do is protect what matters most to my master. What could I possibly do for you?” “The very same thing,” Reb Naftali said. “What matters to me is my soul, and to protect it I must be certain I continue to work for God.”

“I do not understand. What would my job then be?” The wise rabbi responded, “To remind me. To ask me questions such as, ‘For whom are you working this evening?’ To make me halt. I need someone to keep asking me questions.”

People think that religion is about answers. It is not. It is instead about the question. Who do we really work for? How can our lives have meaning? How do we make sense of all this? Why is this happening? Why?

I understand how people come to think religion is about answers. We write books—lots and lots of them—about what we are supposed to do and what we are supposed to believe. Judaism certainly spends a lot of time talking about what we are supposed to do. There can even be found some measure of agreement about the answers to such questions. How long is the Yom Kippur fast? What should you do if your health does not allow you to fast? Our tradition offers answers to every imaginable question about what we are supposed to do on this day. What are we supposed to do on the upcoming holiday of Sukkot? How many walls must your sukkah have to be called a sukkah? How many branches of the willow do you need so that your lulav can be called a proper lulav? We ask more and more questions. After mixing the flour and water together how many minutes do you bake it in order to create matzah rather than bread? The to do lists become longer and longer.

The fact that Judaism agreed upon the answers to questions such as these gives people the impression that our faith is about providing exactitudes. Say the Shema in the morning and the evening. But is that prayer really an answer to our questions? “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one.” Is it even a prayer? We say it sometimes, even when there is doubt in our hearts. We think as well that because every synagogue is reading from the same exact Torah portion every week means that we have it all figured out. The Torah is the answer is the implication. But all we have figured out is that everyone should be reading the same page and arguing about the same verses. The Torah portion is not an answer. It is the beginning of our discussion. I am fond of telling my bar/bat mitzvah students that their sermons begin with their questions about their portion. Go home and read it, I instruct them. Come back with some questions. Come back with some reactions. Come back with a list of what you liked and what you didn’t like. And then we can talk Torah. Then maybe after weeks of discussions we can figure out our responses to your questions.

That has always been my view of the sermon. It is an attempt to grapple with a question. People think the sermon is also about answers. They think it is all about the rabbi telling people what to do and what to believe. It is an understandable impression because the rabbi often raises his or her voice and occasionally even shouts. Oh, what passion. Let’s be honest. The sermon as we know it is really the least Jewish part of our entire service—even though I must confess on this day devoted to honest introspection, I really, really like standing up here in front of all of you and talking for twenty minutes. You don’t become a rabbi if you don’t like talking and you don’t like talking in front of crowds. So where did this sermon come from?

Protestant Christianity. In that tradition the Bible and the prophets are more central. The prophets thundered about injustice. The earliest of prophets, Amos, preached almost 2,800 years ago. He said: “Because you impose a tax on the poor and exact from him a levy of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted delightful vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I have noted how many are your crimes, and how countless your sins—you enemies of the righteous, you takers of bribes, you who subvert in the gate the case of the needy.” (Amos 5) You can hear Martin Luther King’s inspiration in these words. You can find what so moved my hero, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and propelled him to march with King and declare on another occasion, “When we find a drop of blood in an egg, we abhor the idea of eating the egg. But often there is more than one drop of blood in a dollar or a lira and we fail to remind the people constantly of the teachings of our tradition.” You can feel the inspiration for Heschel’s activism within Amos’ chords. It is almost impossible to read yesterday’s words and not think they still apply. Take to heart the prophet’s words. They have relevance for today.

Still Heschel also rightly noted that the prophets were always screaming. He remarked that they always spoke an “octave too high.” The prophets were ignored in their own generations. The prophet Jeremiah was even jailed. Even their families felt cursed by their husbands’ and fathers’ singular obsession with God and God’s justice. People were often turned off by the prophets’ certainty, their self-righteousness and their sense that God speaks to me and not to you. And yet the brilliance of the Jewish tradition was to preserve the prophets’ words for future generations and to read them as the Haftarah selections on Shabbat morning. It is best to keep such indignation at a distance, I imagine our ancient rabbis reasoned. And yet take note of this fact. They allowed Amos to continue his thundering. His own generation might have ignored him, but we still have a chance to listen and heed his exhortations.

The prophet Amos continues, “Why should you want the day of the Lord? Surely the day of the Lord shall be not light, but darkness, blackest night with a glimmer. I loathe, I spurn your festivals. I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings—or your meal offerings—I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5). We still chant these words. People still elevate the Haftarah as the defining moment of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Do we take to heart their words?

This is why our Reform movement highlights the prophets’ sense of justice. They provide us an answer for what we are supposed to do in this world, for how we are supposed to address the concerns of what we see before us. How can we make sense of all this? I sometimes feel called to speak with their voice. The prophet appears to address contemporary challenges. So, it would seem. But look at this morning Haftarah. Isaiah who prophesied during the sixth century BCE says, “Is this the fast I am looking for? A day of self-affliction? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58)

The final word on this morning’s fast is given to a prophet. And thus, even our fast is punctuated by a question mark. Do you think this is what really matters? Do you think all this praying and all this fasting is what matters most? After hours of reciting the prayers our ancient rabbis labored to create, they send us off with a question. That’s my heroes for you. Always a question. Never a final answer. They left the sermon for others to say. They left chastisements for their predecessors to offer. The term sermon is problematic. It implies answers rather than questions. It suggests moralizing and pronouncements. But the Hebrew for sermon is drasha. It comes from the word to search. A sermon giver is a darshan, a seeker. That is where I think we all should reside. We search together.

Rebecca Solnit in her fantastic book with an equally fantastic title, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, offers this observation. “There is a strange crossroads these days, between the actual and the known. Biologists estimate that about 1.7 million species are known, but that there are between 10 and 100 million on earth. Our discovery and categorization of species increases at a manic rate, but so does the disappearance of both known and unknown species. More is known; there is less to know; we lose both what we know and what we don’t. It is certain that species are vanishing without ever having been known to science.” It is an observation that takes your breath away. Nothing can be entirely known. The world is too vast to quantify. Creation is too mysterious to categorize. We are racing to answer questions as they disappear before us.

That is why I wish every sermon could conclude with a question mark. That would seem so much more Jewish than the expected exclamation point. And so we must learn to embrace the question, to wrap our arms around the unknown, the ambiguity and the uncertainty. More often than not when meeting with those who are considering conversion to Judaism this is exactly what they say they best like about Judaism. When I ask them, why are you attracted to Judaism, more often than not they answer, “I love that it does not tell me what to think or what to believe. I love that it encourages me to keep asking questions.” For those born into a Jewish life we often forget this novelty. We would do well to take to heart such a reminder. The question mark thunders louder than the answer. Perhaps, we might even say the question is the answer. It is why of course they choose to become Jewish. It is what I continue to believe is most wonderful about our tradition. I admit, questioning might not seem so comforting, but it is our inheritance. The certainty of the prophets remains for days of old.

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman z”l always taught us about the importance of the search. He modeled two values: be courageous and ask questions. He even saw questions where others saw answers. Every summer he would remind us of his favorite Talmudic teaching. The rabbis asked, what is the minimum amount of food one must eat before one is required to say a blessing and give thanks to God for being satisfied? The rabbis answered their question. K’zayit—an olive’s worth. Reb David reasoned, and I can still hear him shouting—he sometimes thundered with prophetic inspiration—who in the world is satisfied after eating an olive? That’s not enough to constitute a meal in any one’s book. And so, he taught us, this must mean that the rabbis wished us to embrace imperfection and uncertainty. Even when you are still hungry you say thank you to God. Even when you are fasting you ask is this really all God wants from me. Every sermon should end with a question. Because only the question can lead to a more thoughtful and courageous Jewish life.

A final story.  Years ago, when I was a much younger rabbi than I am now, a congregant called and asked for some help. She explained that her next-door neighbor was dying of brain cancer. Her husband approached her asking for advice. She was overwhelmed by the request. She said, “I don’t know what to do. But my rabbi will know what to do. He will have the answer. I will call him for you.” And so, she called me and told me about this tragic situation. “You told them what?” I screamed. “No one knows such answers.” But she had more confidence in me than I had in myself. “You will know,” she said. I called the man and listened. He told me about his wife who was in her fifties and was dying. He spoke about his son and daughter in their twenties. I felt his sadness. I offered to visit them in the hospital.

The next day I drove to Memorial Sloan Kettering. I soon found the room. There was the man and his son standing by the door, their faces shadowed by pain. Lying in bed was the woman, and alongside her in the hospital bed, was her adult daughter, with her arms wrapped tightly around her mother who was in a coma and near death. I introduced myself. I spoke about how I was sent by their neighbor. I had scarcely finished these introductions when the young woman looked up from the bed and asked, “Why is this happening?”

I blurted out, “I do not know.” I could offer nothing else. We spoke some more. They told me about their mother. He spoke lovingly of his wife. I offered that they could call me any time and that if they wished I would make myself available when she dies. I left them with my phone number. I still remember this moment as if it was yesterday. As I walked along the street to my car, I reviewed the conversation in my head. They asked me a serious question and I could not even offer a partial answer. What kind of rabbi am I? What kind of answer is “I do not know.” I did such a terrible job.

They called within a few days explaining that she had died. They asked that if I was willing they would like me to officiate at the funeral. I agreed. We arranged for a time when I could come to their home and speak about their mother and wife. I arrived the next day. They greeted me with thanks for visiting them in the hospital. And then the daughter said, “I really want to thank you for what you said and your answer to my question.” I looked at her with puzzlement. “But I did not give you an answer.”

She then said, “Everyone else who visited—every chaplain, every rabbi the hospital sent to us— gave us some theological mumbo-jumbo like ‘This is happening for a reason.’ You were the only one who said, ‘I do not know.’ And we figured that if you don’t know then we don’t have to know too. And that felt better than all those silly answers and feeble explanations.”

That moment has stayed with me for nearly fifteen years. I had unknowingly stumbled upon an important truth. The question is the answer. In attempting to lessen someone’s pain we often find refuge in clichés and aphorisms. When we don’t know what to say, when faced with unanswerable complexities, we grab hold of simplicity. “Because of this you will grow stronger,” or, “God only gives you what you can handle,” we say. We think we offer comfort but too often add pain. The clichés only assuage our own feelings. “I have to say something,” we think. Better to say nothing. Better to throw your arms up and say, “I don’t really know what to say.” Perhaps just say, “I love you.” There is no theology that can fill that void, no thundering pronouncements that can heal. It is only the quiet affirmation that can soften.

We must learn to affirm the question and embrace the uncertainties—together. The question lingers. Most can never be answered. We have no choice but to affirm them and embrace them together.

And so, I conclude where I began. I conclude with our questions left unanswered and the night watchman prodding us with his questions. How can our lives have meaning? How do we make sense of all this? Why? Why? Why? I do not know. I do not know. I do not know.

The uncertainties linger. The question is the answer. Let us pledge to embrace these questions and uncertainties—together.

Accidental Friends

What follows is my Yom Kippur evening sermon.

A friend recently shared the following story with me. A few years ago, the nursery school that he oversees assigned their three-year old’s to classes. Emails were sent to parents informing them of their children’s class assignments. Within an hour, the phone began ringing non-stop. Parents were irate. The school had neglected to accommodate the majority of class placement requests. Little Samuel was not with his best friend David. Abby was not with her best friend Shoshi. They have been best friends for their entire lives—or at least since the day they could say each other’s name, which to be honest was only since they were in the two’s. Parents threatened to remove their children from the school. They demanded refunds—or at the very least, discounts. The requests, however, could not be accommodated. Guess what, the kids all made some new friends. Samuel and David did continue playing on the playground during free time, but Abby and Shoshi were soon just as excited about their new friends. I promise, this is a true story, although I have Hebraicized the names to protect the innocent.

Everyone has heard about helicopter parenting. This is when parents swoop in and pick up their children. They protect them before they can even fall. But if you never fall you can never learn. If we take one certain someone’s favorite example, you certainly cannot learn how to ride a bicycle, if you are never allowed to fall. If you never fall or for that matter, you never take off the training wheels, you cannot learn. Bruises, scrapes and pain are part of learning. I have long believed that if you never know failure, you cannot grow. And yet today’s new term is not called helicopter parents but lawnmower parents. Rather than swooping in and protecting children, lawnmower parenting is about racing ahead and mowing down all the obstacles that stand before our children. For such children the world is perfect. It is manicured grass. I am certain all agree that the world is not even close to being manicured perfection. And yet this is what is happening around us. Let’s be forthright, if you are given the impression at three years of age that life is a beautiful, putting green then you are going to face untold difficulties when you discover that it is not. That day may not come until the age of 15 or even 30, but it will come. The world’s challenges can never be fully smoothed out or mowed down by others. We have to do this for ourselves. We also cannot do this alone.

Friends lift our spirits. They will also of course break our hearts. No one can fix that but ourselves. No one can repair that but our own hard work. Three-year old’s will cry. And by the way, so will thirty-year old’s. People will disappoint. Situations will madden. No one can smooth it but ourselves. The only thing that makes it easier is that you have someone who is willing to stand by your side; you have a friend who will call you a friend no matter how it turns out or even how poorly you respond.

So, let’s talk about making friends. I have a couple of theories about all this. This should come as no surprise. If you are a rabbi, you get to make theories about everything. Here it is. First of all, you have to make friends for yourself. You have to work on friendship yourself. And the second is that our closest friends are often what I would call accidental friends. They are the friends you make because of chance encounters or because you are both thrust into the same situation. It is the person you become friends with because you both happened to sign up for the same yoga or spin class—or even because you are both devotees of the same Peloton instructor. It is the friend you make because you serve together on the same volunteer board or because you happen to sit next to each other in synagogue or because the school puts you in the same class together. Mom and Dad can’t arrange this for you and should not arrange this for you. They certainly should not try to smooth this out for you. And finally, you have to keep making new friends. If all of your friends are made in the two’s then how can you ever grow and change.

It is the accidental friends who move our lives. As I reflect on the many friends who continue to bless my life, with the exception of my brother, who my parents assure me was not an accident, the vast majority grew out of unintended meetings. Speaking about my brother I would say it this way, one day, when I was in the three’s actually, my parents dropped this kid named Mike in my room and they said, “Play nice.” They, more or less, left us alone to figure out this thing called brotherhood. And we have been best friends ever since. I know it does not always work out that way, and I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate. Or let’s take another example, perhaps you become friends with the guy who happened to marry your wife’s best friend. At some point you decide, “Well it looks we are going to be spending a lot of time together, so we might as well be friends too.” And then somewhere along the way you forget about that initial, happy accident. And you imagine you have been friends for a lifetime.

The Bible holds up the friendship between King David and Jonathan as one to emulate. They were like brothers. As the young David was gaining power and renown the first king of Israel, Saul, grew increasingly jealous. He plots to kill David. (This is part of what makes the Bible exciting reading.) Saul’s son, Jonathan, and David’s best friend devise a scheme to protect David. Jonathan saves the young king from certain death. The Bible declares: “Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself.” (I Samuel 18). But soon Jonathan is killed in a battle against the Philistines. David’s heart is broken. He said, “I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me.” (II Samuel 1)

Rarely when extolling David’s renown do we recall his friendship with Jonathan. But if not for Jonathan, David would certainly have been killed. If not for Jonathan’s friendship David would not have become the king who unified our people and declared Jerusalem our capital. It was the friendship between David and Jonathan that moved our history 3,000 years ago. Never underestimate the power of friendship. Walking together, with a friend, one can overcome anything. Walking with a friend one can write history. Even King David did not walk alone.

The Bible is silent about how they became friends. One day they found themselves together. Can you ever really pinpoint the moment you declared someone to be your best friend? Can you ever really say it was this day, at this occasion, when we became friends? More likely you were pushed together by some mysterious, and unknown forces that made you into the friends you are today. Maybe, I admit, it was your moms or dads who pushed you together. Still, that opening moment, remains mysterious and unplanned. It is an unscripted piece of the fabric of our lives. We cannot write the script for our children and manicure the lawn for them. We cannot fight to make sure they are only with the friends they already have. Let the accidents happen. Let the coincidences surprise. Let serendipity guide you. It is the accidental friendships that move history and move our own stories.

The worst thing that has happened to friendship is the like button. It has made being friends more a matter of affirmation than commitment. David and Jonathan shared a covenant, a bond. Their lives were bound to each other. In fact, the Hebrew word for friend, chaver, comes from the Hebrew meaning to unite. The measure of David and Jonathan’s friendship was that their souls were bound together. Sure, friends sometimes make you angry. There are times when friends are there for you and times when friends seem to abandon you. But if friendship is about commitment rather than likes it will last. Judaism calls friendship devekut chaverim—clinging to friends. It suggests an enormous amount of work. Holding on tight is exhausting. It demands holding on even when you may not want to. Don’t get too clingy, of course. Hold on to friends and work on that friendship. Being friends requires patience. It requires understanding. It demands forgiveness. Affirmation and likes are nice, but they do not build meaningful relationships. Look into a friend’s eyes rather than through their posts. Sometimes the old-fashioned way is the right way.

The rabbis offer this counsel. “K’nei lecha chaver—acquire for yourself a friend.” (Rabbi Yeshoshua; Pirke Avot 1). It is such an interesting word choice, k’nei. It can be translated as acquire or even purchase. That means friendship entails not only work but sacrifice. Go out and make some friends. Judaism’s great counsel is that we require others. We require others to pray. We require others to learn. We require a friend to uncover truth. Think about this. When studying in traditional circles one always learns in chevruta—a word that is usually translated as fellowship but shares the same root with chaver, friend. You pair up to study this page of Talmud or that page of Jewish philosophy. You sit across the table from another and you read, and you discuss and most important, you argue. You cannot gain true understanding by yourself. You have to sit across the table and look into the eyes of your study partner and debate the meaning of the teaching before you.

I remember years ago when I hiked Wadi Qelt in the desert outside of Jerusalem. There in the canyon’s walls were holes where Christian monks secluded themselves for years on end. Once a day they lowered a bucket to be given their day’s meager rations. I remember staring up at the cliffs and saying to myself, “How un-Jewish.” At the time I was thinking about their paltry food rations. (Did I mention that I don’t very much like fasting?). How can one be religious and not feast? And most especially, how can one be observant and not be surrounded by others? I think about this when I am tempted to retreat and be alone with my books of poetry, or when I take up Wallace Steven’s advice. He said, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.” Stevens might have been right about the walk. But about solitude Judaism says no. True, there is nothing wrong with being alone with one’s own thoughts. The question at hand is, can it lead to discovering more truth. Judaism insists, if you are searching for truth, then go find others. Make a friend. That is the only certain answer to all our questions.

You might think Jewish mystics suggest otherwise. This is not true. Moshe Cordervero, one of the greatest Jewish mystics, who lived in sixteenth century Safed, developed the following spiritual practice. He and his friend, and fellow mystic, and brother in law, Shlomo Alkabetz, who authored one of our favorite Friday night prayers, Lecha Dodi, would go on long walks in the fields surrounding Safed. Their goal was to see where their friendship led them. Cordevero offered this advice: “One should desire the best for his friend, view his good fortune favorably and cherish his friend’s honor as his own.” Imagine if we heeded that advice. Friendship means acceptance. It means relishing in friend’s successes. What they discussed on those walks were recorded in a book called the “Book of Wanderings.” I love that title. Go get lost with a friend. And there you can be found. There you might discover some truth. The mystic offered this advice for taking such walks. #1 always walk with a friend. And #2 only discuss matters of great importance. No discussions about the weather. Or what this person or that is doing or wearing or buying. Discuss Torah. Talk about the world. Argue about weighty matters. Imagine again if we listened to this advice.

Take note. This is Jewish mysticism. It is not about secluding ourselves or divorcing ourselves from the world. It is about binding ourselves to others. We need others to face the world’s challenges. True friendship means that we accept our friend’s strengths and their weaknesses. It is not about affirmation. It is not about always saying, “You look great. You’re so smart.” All those Facebook likes are about looking at friendship from the perspective of what do I gain from this friendship. Social media has transformed friendship into a commodity. Too often we confuse acceptance with such affirmation. We are supposed to be trying to figure out how to better ourselves, how to improve our world, how to face the challenges of tomorrow. We can only do that with friends. It may sound corny, but it is our tradition’s most important counsel. Go on a walk, perhaps even around a lake, but find a friend to go with and talk about really, really important stuff. You may not agree with each other at the end of the walk, but you might get closer to some truth. At the very least you might find the inspiration for some song, perhaps even one as great as Lecha Dodi. That’s what I imagine led to Alkabetz’s writing the words that hundreds of years later continue to move our hearts. And think about this as well. They only became friends because of a marriage. That’s what made them brothers in law. That’s what pushed them together. It was not their choice, but their accidental meeting that wrote their story. Serendipity is what moves history.

Over 70 years ago the State of Israel was founded. Let us breathe that in. On November 29, 1947 the United Nations voted for the partition plan in which there would be Jewish and Arab states in British controlled Palestine. 33 nations voted in favor. 13 against. 10 abstained. Among the countries voting yes was of course our United States, who was then led by President Harry Truman. The reason why the Truman administration voted in favor of the partition plan was in fact the story again of how friendship moves history. That yes vote, as well as the immediate recognition of the State of Israel when Ben Gurion proclaimed it on May 14, 1948, was a result not so much of Truman’s unparalleled leadership but instead the result of his friendship with a Jewish man named Eddie Jacobson.

Truman’s own State Department argued against partition. Zionist leaders clamored to meet with him to convince him otherwise. Truman grew so frustrated with all the pressure that he said he did not want to hear anything more about the partition vote. Jacobson and Truman were lifelong friends. Thrown together during their army years serving in World War I, they later opened a men’s clothing store together in Kansas City. Jacobson was at first hesitant to get involved, but Zionist leaders implored him. And so Jacobson wrote the following letter to Truman: “The lives of one and one-half million souls depend on what happens at the United Nations meeting within the next few weeks. I trust God will give you the strength and guidance to act immediately. I think I am one of the few who actually knows and realizes what terrible heavy burdens you are carrying on your shoulders during these hectic days. I should, therefore, be the last man to add to them; but I feel you will forgive me for doing so, because tens of thousands of lives depend on words from your mouth and heart.” Jacobson continues: “Harry, my people need help and I am appealing to you to help them.” He then adds the most remarkable of conclusions: “Everyone at home is well and my business is keeping up fine. Just enlarged the store and am very proud of it. Wishing you and your family the best of everything, I am; Sincerely, Your friend, Eddie Jacobson.” The rest is history. It is one we know and love. But it’s that last line that made it. “Your friend, Eddie.” Those were the decisive words.

Soon after writing that letter Jacobson hopped on a train to DC and marched into the White House unannounced. He demanded a meeting with his lifelong friend. Truman remained stubborn. He had had it with all the talk about Zionism and the UN partition plan. Remembering that Truman greatly admired Andrew Jackson, Jacobson then pointed to the seventh president’s bust and said, “Weizmann is a national leader cast in the same mold and temperament as the great Tennessee President.” Truman laughed, and told Jacobson to make an appointment for the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to see him. That was the moment. Jacobson convinced his longtime friend that he must meet with Weizmann and take up the case of the nascent Jewish state.

It is remarkable what some laughter and friendship can accomplish. “Your friend, Eddie.” Sometimes that’s all we need to add and all history requires.

And while we may not be writing history, you never know what a chance meeting, and a new friendship can accomplish. Let go of the script and the plans. Go get yourself a new friend this year, if not to write history, at least to write some new stories, and to discover some new truth.

K’nei lecha chaver—acquire for yourself a friend.

Buddhist Monks Open Yom Kippur

What follows is my introduction to our Yom Kippur services and in particular Kol Nidre.

I once learned from an intelligent, young man a legend about two Buddhist monks.

Given these monks’ vow of celibacy, they were forbidden from even touching a woman. The two often went on long walks together, speaking about their devotion to Buddha, communing with the peacefulness of nature and seeking to become at one with the universe.

On one such walk they approached a river. A beautiful woman, dressed in fine silk, approached them and asked if the monks would carry her across the river. One angrily refused and explained his singular religious commitments. The other, without even speaking a word, lifted her on his shoulders and carried her across the waters.

After she went on her way, the two monks returned to their walk. After several miles, the angry monk, still seething at his colleague's transgression, confronted his friend and chastised him. He exclaimed, “You carried a woman!” The other responded, “I am not the one who is still carrying her.”

Although you might be surprised that I begin this holiest of days with a Buddhist teaching given that I am not a Buddhist monk—despite my robe and hairdo—I thought it was the perfect teaching to offer before we listen to the haunting melody and powerful words of Kol Nidre.

If Kol Nidre is about one thing it is about letting go of all that we are carrying. We let go of the grudges, of the angry words we spoke and those spoken to us, of the mistakes and missed opportunities, of everything we wished we did differently and everything we wished others did differently. It is the opportunity to let go. It is the opportunity to start over.

The weight of a person is easy to carry for a few minutes. It is impossible to carry for a lifetime.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Fasting and Feasting

Yom Kippur begins Tuesday evening and with it the day long fast that is the hallmark of this holy day. To be honest, I don’t like fasting. It seems so un-Jewish. I prefer eating.

On Yom Kippur, we beat our chests and proclaim our mistakes. We deny ourselves the pleasures of this world. The goal is that we become closer to God and on this day, a little more like angels.

I prefer dancing.

The ancient rabbis appear to agree. The Talmud declares: “One who eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei (Erev Yom Kippur), the Torah considers it as if one fasted on the ninth and tenth of Tishrei.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 81b)

The evening’s festive meal is just as important as the fast. This is because the hallmark of a Jewish life is celebration. It is one punctuated by dancing and singing. A seudat mitzvah—feast—is the quintessential Jewish act. This is not to suggest that we should ignore the fast. It helps to elevate our souls. It forces us to focus on our prayers—although I must confess, I sometimes find myself daydreaming about noodle kugle, most especially during the afternoon’s closing hours.

Do I require a day of denial and asceticism, of self-flagellation and enumerating my mistakes to help me appreciate the other 364 days? Perhaps. Still I would prefer 365 of singing and dancing. As much as I love seeing our sanctuary packed for this most holy of days, I would prefer to see us pack our lives with more joy and celebration. This is why Shabbat dinners are the best expression of what it means to be a Jew, and to lead a meaningful Jewish life.

We need to rejoice more. We need to say thank you more. We need to look up to the heavens and proclaim—more often than we most certainly do now, “Thank You for creating me. Thank You for fashioning this beautiful, and mysterious, world.” If the fast helps us to achieve this goal then it is worth it.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the mussar school of Jewish ethics, said: “What a wise person can accomplish by eating and drinking on Erev Yom Kippur, a fool cannot achieve fasting on Yom Kippur.”

The fast is not the goal. Never mistake means with ends.

The fast, and all those hours of praying, are means to lift our spirits. They are tools to add more joy to our lives.

It is much more about the hora than the fast.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Disagreements and Country

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah Morning.

Hey rabbi, everyone is excited to hear what you have to say this year. But… Don’t talk about politics. Don’t get too controversial. Keep it inspirational. Give us something meaningful. I wouldn’t want your job—especially this year. Good luck.

What am I to do? What should a rabbi talk about during one of the most contentious and divisive years in memory? Well, I wouldn’t be the rabbi that you know, and perhaps love, if I avoided controversy. I understand that some want me to leave such divisiveness at the synagogue’s door, that here there can be shalom, peace. That this place can be an escape and refuge from all that mishegas. This place can be a sanctuary. I appreciate that perspective. It is not mine. I believe that Jewish teachings have to give us some guidance for how to make our way through this mess, that they must give us wisdom and strength to face the everyday. Quite frankly, if we can’t take Torah out there, into the everyday, if it’s only about the internal and not the external, then it’s useless.

I also wouldn’t be the rabbi that you have come to know if I didn’t offer some wisdom from our great Jewish teachings, in particular from the sages of the Talmud. That’s what Jews do when they are searching for what to do today. We look back at what was said, and done, yesterday. And that, by the way, is what I am sure my friend Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l would advise me to do if I were able to ask him.  My first duty is to teach. And we must always learn. So here are three lessons from the Talmud that I think help us deal with today’s controversies.

The first. Soon after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. the rabbis gathered to debate why this terrible catastrophe occurred. The obvious answer was, the Romans were the most powerful army in the world and they liked to conquer other nations. They saw the Jews as rebels and wanted to quash any hope of Jewish independence. And so, they leveled Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple and carted the survivors off to Rome. The rabbis asked: how did this happen? Why did this happen? They avoided the obvious answer. They did not say, the Romans did it. Instead they said it was because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. That’s why, they said, this terrible tragedy occurred. Here is their fantastic story.

A certain man had a friend named Kamza and an enemy named Bar Kamza. The man once threw a party and said to his servant, “Go and invite Kamza.” The servant went and instead invited Bar Kamza. (Not good. I imagine the servant stammered, “I really thought you said Bar Kamza. Kamza. Bar Kamza. It’s so confusing.”) Back to the story. When the man saw Bar Kamza at his party he said, “You have been saying terrible things about me. You have been gossiping about me. What are you doing here?” He screamed, “Get out!” Bar Kamza replied, “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” The man said, “No way!” Bar Kamza said, “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” The man again said, “No.” Bar Kamza said, “Then let me pay for the whole party.” The man still said no. And he grabbed Bar Kamza and threw him out.

Bar Kamza thought to himself, “Since the Rabbis were at the party and did not stop the man this shows that they agreed with what he did. I will go and report this to the Romans.” He went and said to the Roman Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.” The Emperor said, “How can I be sure?” Bar Kamza said, “Send them an offering and see whether they will sacrifice it.” So, the Emperor sent him with a fine calf. On the way Bar Kamza made a blemish on the calf in a spot where the Jews count it as a blemish, but the Romans do not. The Rabbis were inclined to sacrifice the offering in order not to offend the government. (I guess they were suspicious of Bar Kamza.). Rabbi Zechariah then said, “People will then say that blemished animals can be sacrificed.” Some even proposed to kill Bar Kamza so that he would not go and inform against them again. But Rabbi Zechariah again chimed in, “Is one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals to be put to death?” (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b)

So, they didn’t sacrifice the Emperor’s gift. The Romans were offended. And then they destroyed Jerusalem’s Temple. All because of a mistaken invitation. All because of the heated disagreement between two ordinary folks. Look at the incivility of our ancestors. Throwing people out of parties. Saying terrible things about them behind their backs. Look at the rabbis standing idly by while their fellow party goers, and congregants, rip into each other. Perhaps the rabbis blamed themselves for Jerusalem’s destruction. They turned away from what was happening all around them. Look at the tragedy that unfolded from one terrible, and ugly, exchange.

It begins with ordinary people. The Talmud does not even record the name of the man throwing the party. It starts with us. When we point fingers, we should really only point them at ourselves.

So rather than leveling blame at our leaders I am going to take a cue from the rabbis of old and look within. The rabbis could have blamed Rome but instead they said let’s examine our deeds. This is of course Rosh Hashanah when we are supposed to examine our hearts. Perhaps there is nothing as controversial as the inner workings of our own hearts. So here is my question for this morning. How are we to blame for the divisiveness that infects our nation and our Jewish people? We can no longer even agree about the facts. We can do better. We must do better.

Here is what we must do. We have to recover how best to argue. One of Judaism’s greatest gifts is the idea of machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. It is my favorite and most cherished of our tradition’s teachings. For Judaism the debate is how we discern God’s presence in our lives. People often think that the Talmud is a law code. It is not. It is instead a record of the rabbis’ debates and disagreements. It is a masterful, and voluminous, book. Sometimes rabbis who did not live in the same city or even the same century are found arguing with each other on the same page. And the most remarkable thing of all is that even when the dispute is resolved the opposing opinion remains on the page. It is not written out. Winners and losers are not declared. Think about that point. Our most important book is one big, ongoing argument.

Sure, the rabbis had to decide what we were supposed to do. Hillel and Shammai, two great first century rabbis, argued about everything. Let’s take their arguments about the Hanukkah menorah as an example. Shammai said that you should light eight candles on the first night and then one less each successive night. He was more of a literalist and felt this was more in keeping with how the miracle must have happened. The flame must have burned brighter on the first night because there was more oil day one. Hillel, on the other hand, thought that we should light one candle on the first night until we get to eight on the last night. His logic was that our faith had to increase each night and that God’s miracle grew day by day. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b) You know of course what we do. We follow Hillel’s interpretation. But the Talmud preserves both arguments. They are both well-reasoned opinions. In the end, we had to decide one over the other because we have to be doing the same thing—even if we were not always thinking the same thing. We could not have some people standing and others sitting when we pray. We could not have half having four cups of wine at the Seder and others five. We could not have some people lighting eight candles on the first night and others one.

So, the vast majority of the time Jewish law sides with Hillel. I wonder if it was simply because he was known as a nicer guy. The Talmud appears to agree. “Why does Jewish law follow Hillel?” it asks. “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious.” It then goes on to say, “Hillel taught their own ideas as well as the ideas of Shammai’s students. They also went so far as to teach Shammai's opinions first.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b). That is the key. And this is the second lesson from the Talmud. You must afford the arguments of the opposition respect. You must be able to teach their ideas as well as your own. Imagine how that philosophy might transform our current times.

We have surrounded ourselves with amen choruses of likeminded friends. That does not sharpen arguments. All it does is further entrench us and concretize our own prior held convictions. Instead, make your case. Use your reason. Lay out your logic. Open your ears to other voices—and most important, opposing opinions. It is not an argument to say how stupid or misguided others are. Stop with the invective. Stop with all of the Facebook posts that point out the opposition’s hypocrisy. It is not an argument when we denigrate others. It is not an argument when we malign people who hold opposing views.

For Judaism everyone sits at the same table, Democrat and Republican and Independent. We are one country. We have to fight the tendency to throw people out of the party. We have to battle the tendency to size up new acquaintances to discern whether or not they agree with our political sensibilities. I recognize that it can be emotionally satisfying to point out the other side’s wrongs and to commiserate with people who agree with us, but this is not what helps us to decipher the truth and most certainly not what leads to unity. The central question for the rabbis of the Talmud was how we can remain one people while affirming many, different, and even antagonistic, opinions. For Judaism there are no winners and losers in an argument. There are only two sides of the same community trying their best to discern what God wants us to do in this moment. We are losing that sensibility here in America. We are losing that in Israel. We are losing that among our Jewish people.

Again, it would be easy for me to point fingers at our leaders and blame them for this disharmony. I wish for us instead to look within and point fingers at ourselves. What can we be doing differently? How might we argue in a more civilized manner? It is about reason and discussion. It is not about calling the other side names. There are right and wrong ways to argue. How we argue with each other, each and every day has cosmic significance and historical import. That’s what our tradition tells us.

A final lesson from the Talmud. It is the story about our rabbis’ arguments about whether or not an oven is kosher. Rabbi Eliezer said it was clean. The rest of the rabbis said it was unclean. Majority rules. It is unclean. But Eliezer was certain of his interpretation and quite a stubborn, firebrand. He was also a miracle worker.

Most of the time Eliezer’s arguments won the day, so he became quite impatient with his colleagues when they would not accept his reasoning in this particular case. He then resorted to miracles. He made a tree magically move 150 feet and then a stream run backwards. He then made the walls of the academy start to fall to prove his point. (Imagine that. He was willing to destroy their study hall and bring the walls crashing down on everyone in order to prove he was right.). Eliezer finally called upon God. And a heavenly voice said, “What is it with you guys regarding Rabbi Eliezer. The law always follows him?”

Rabbi Yehoshua jumped up and citing Torah, said, “Lo b’shamayim hee. It is not in heaven!” (Deuteronomy 29) The Talmud explains: we do not listen to a heavenly voice, since You, God, already gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai, as it is written there, “Incline after the majority.” (Exodus 23). Wow. You gave us the Torah, so we get to interpret it as we see fit. Majority rules. No miracles are allowed. Not even better arguments. We follow the majority. So, says the Talmud. The story continues. Rabbi Natan then came upon Elijah, the prophet, who according to lore continues to wander the earth searching out miracles. He said to him, “What was God doing when the sages defeated the great Eliezer?” He said, “God laughed and smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b)

This legend is often told and retold. More often than not we stop here when recounting it. Here is evidence, we say, that we are supposed to interpret, and reinterpret, God’s Torah. Even God wants us to do that and is pleased when we do that well. God gave us this Torah not as a static document that is frozen in time but instead one that we can continue to interpret. We must argue about its meaning; we must debate our interpretations, but in the end when we have to figure out what to do, and what we think God wants of us, majority rules. But that is not where this story really ends. It has a tragic conclusion that is often censured out.

The rabbis then voted to excommunicate Eliezer. He broke the rules about how to argue. “You should tell him Rabbi Akiva,” they said. And so Akiva went to do the sages’ bidding. He cried as he shared the news with his beloved colleague. But it’s not good to get a miracle worker angry. The Talmud reports that the wheat, barley and even olive harvest were decimated. I quote, “Every place where Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes was immediately burned up.” And then Rabban Gamliel, the head of the court that ruled against Eliezer, nearly drowned on an ocean voyage. I know, it sounds wacky. And I don’t much believe that rabbis can zap stuff with their eyes. The Talmud is not history. It offers lessons.

Yet, it is frightening lesson. The rabbis recognized that within every disagreement, even the inconsequential ones like who gets invited to a party or whether or not an oven is kosher, there can be found the seeds of our own destruction. Lurking within every argument and every disagreement lies the potential for us to lose everything we love and everything we hold most dear. The rabbis were keenly aware of the dangers of how we argue with each other. Their warnings serve as lessons for today. Their project was about how to argue while preserving community because they believed, as I do, that discussion and debate is how we discern God’s truth and how we improve our world and how we can figure out how to secure a better future, and that we cannot do any of those things alone and that we cannot achieve any of those things surrounded only by likeminded people. The rabbis taught that community, and country, transcend disagreement. Whether we agree or disagree with each other we need each other—Republican, Democrat and Independent.

And so, I thank all of those who continue to send me Wall Street Journal articles because they think I read The New York Times too much. I remain unsure which of these papers we should label Hillel and which Shammai but I am certain that both opinions must be arrayed before us. And I am thankful to all those who continue to read my writings, and listen to my sermons, despite the fact that they feel there is sometimes a gaping disagreement between us. We must forever affirm and recognize that each of our ideas are sharpened in dialogue with each other, and that no matter how vociferously we might disagree we are one.

We can do better. No more name calling. No more blaming. No more pointing fingers at anyone but ourselves. Let’s stop trying to throw each other out of the party. Otherwise we are all going to end up weeping with Akiva and excommunicated along with Eliezer.

And finally, even though Senator John McCain is not to be found among the pages of the Talmud he deserves to stand alongside our great sages. These past few weeks he has served as my rabbi. And so, I conclude with his wisdom. He said, “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.” And that 2008 concession speech continues to stir my heart and I have found myself reading it and rereading it these past weeks.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. That’s as good a lesson, and as good a prayer, as any I can find on this Rosh Hashanah. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Riding into Rosh Hashanah: What Bike Riding Has Taught Me

I enjoy spending hours cycling on Long Island’s roads. One of the first things you learn when riding for such long stretches is not to grip the handlebars too tightly. This may seem counterintuitive. What about when careening down a hill? What about when following closely behind other cyclists? The key, however, is a relaxed grip. Beginners often grip the bars so tightly that they complain about sore necks and shoulders, and even numb hands.

The secret about riding a bike is instead balance rather than grip. So it is with life. You have to let go of holding on too tightly.

In a few days Jews throughout the world will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year. I am thinking that this holiday is about restoring that balance. It is about realizing that we cannot hold on to life with too tight of a grip. Examine the day’s prayers. They speak about the fragility of life. They frighten us with the exclamation: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die…”

The message is clear. It is not all in our hands. It is not all in our control. Hold on—but loosely—and enjoy the ride. Don’t forget, fill your hearts with gratitude. Stop trying to wrest control...