Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bring Peace!

On Saturday evening I stood with 200 other cyclists watching the sunset over Makhtesh Ramon, a large box canyon in the Negev desert. It was then that we began to learn about the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We made Havdalah and sang to Elijah the prophet, who we pray will one day bring peace to the world. We sang in defiance of the world and the troubles it too often brings us. Even when that hope seems distant, we continue to sing.

This is what Jews do. We stand up against adversity. Sometimes with song. Other times with political action. Always with the hope that the future can be better than the past. We are defiant in the face of adversity. We pray for peace when it appears impossible. If Jews had allowed history to defeat them, there would be no State of Israel. I could not have spent the past week riding through stretches of desert that took my breath away. That is always the first and most important lesson we should take into our hearts.

And this coming Shabbat, we will sing even more loudly, and perhaps even more defiantly. We will meet as we always do on Friday evening at 7 pm. Feel free to invite your friends and neighbors. I have received messages from Christian and Muslim friends who want me to know that their hearts are joined with ours. Invite such friends to join you at services.

The next day, on Sunday morning we gathered at the same spot, again overlooking the Makhtesh, to offer prayers and begin the day of riding. The Israel Ride has a tradition that someone different carries a small Torah scroll every day of the ride. A couple from the Pittsburgh synagogue, who still did not know who among their friends and fellow congregants were alive or dead, was given this honor. They carried the Torah. And they rode. They moved forward. And then for the last day the scroll was given to a young woman who will help to carry our people forward.

We move toward the future. We hope for a day of peace. We ride forward.

This ride is about more than cycling. It is about making peace. It is about bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians together around their shared concern for the environment. At the Arava Institute, they do not avoid confronting disagreements. They do not avoid the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Students are in fact forced to discuss these issues and conflicts with their colleagues. But then after they scream at each other and cry about their own pain, they sit and eat their meals, together as one.

The institute is also about so much more than studying the environment. It lives by the principle that it is far more difficult to hate when the stranger becomes a friend rather than a caricature.

Until Charlottesville, we believed our country would always be a safeguard against antisemitism and that we would never again know the feelings of the stranger. This past Shabbat was a deadly reminder that in our own country, the very place that we have felt at home for generations, there are still those who “want all Jews to die.” This past Shabbat was a violent wake-up call that as much as we wish our sanctuary to be a refuge from the troubles of the outside world, contemporary events too often pierce that solace. They tear away at the joy which is the essence of Shabbat.

And yet perhaps this Shabbat can offer us something else. The Sabbath is also “vayinafash”. It is a day when our souls are meant to be restored. Perhaps our faith can be restored in our neighbors. And our hope can be restored in our country. I have invited my friends and local Christian clergy to our services. Their presence will help to bolster my faith. We can pray and sing so as to banish the terror that seeps into our hearts. And at the very least, our songs will buttress our hope.

The synagogue’s board and I will of course review our security protocols. We take the safety of everyone who enters through our doors very seriously. We will of course update you after our discussions. Nonetheless the secret to fighting hatred, antisemitism, and terror is found more in our hearts. It is discovered by teaching about peace. It is found in speaking out against those who sow hatred.

And so, I can promise you this. Shabbat will help to strengthen our hearts. It will help to restore our souls.

We will mourn. We will also sing.

And we will once again wish each other a “Shabbat Shalom.”

A day of peace.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Sacrifice Your Certainty

The tradition lionizes Abraham. He is among our greatest of heroes. We recall his name every time we stand to recite the Amidah. We remember his fortitude, and remind God of our forefather’s devotion, in our prayers. Abraham was tested ten times and each time not only persevered but emerged stronger. Last week he left his native land when God commanded him to do so. And then at God’s insistence, he circumcised himself at the age of 99.

And this week we read of his final test: the command to sacrifice his son Isaac. We also read this story on Rosh Hashanah. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Without hesitation he marches off early in the morning, with Isaac, to do God’s bidding. He carries with him all the tools for this sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac journey for three days to Mount Moriah. You might have thought that he would have changed his mind. You might have thought Isaac would inspire uncertainty, and doubt, about his faith.

Abraham was, however, single minded in his devotion. Only at the last moment does God stay Abraham’s hand. “Do not raise your hand against the boy…” God calls. In Isaac’s place Abraham sacrifices a ram. On Rosh Hashanah we sound the shofar in remembrance of Abraham’s devotion. We remind God of what our ancestor was willing to do. On the place where we believe Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac the Temple was built, and the Western Wall now stands.

I continue to ask, “Who would take a knife to their child? Who would sacrifice their son?” It is a harrowing story. And if I introduced you to someone who did what Abraham did you would rightly say he is crazy.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, responds. He bravely suggested that that Abraham misunderstood God.

Many people think they know what God wants. And plenty of people continue to do crazy things in religion’s name. Rosenzweig also remarked that all we can be certain of when it comes to God’s revelation is its first word, “Anochi—I.” Everything after that word in the opening phrase of Sinai’s revelation, “I am the Lord your God…” is interpretation.

All we can know for sure is that God exists. Discerning what God wants of us, however, is a lifelong pursuit. We continue to interpret. We continue to struggle.

Too often people allow their certainty to blind them and impel them to make terrible decisions and even do horrible deeds. How else can we understand the demand to sacrifice a child? We tend to become overzealous of our interpretations. We shout, “I know what this means. I understand this. I am certain of God’s truth.” We tend to hold on to these certainties as if they are the greatest sources of meaning.

Perhaps this is what we should sacrifice.

Our certainty.

And perhaps this is why God stays Abraham’s hand.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Abraham, Albert and Armando

I am thinking about immigrants and refugees.

Perhaps it is because I recently watched this moving video about a New York synagogue’s custodian, Armando:



Perhaps it is because the Trump administration has reduced the number of refugees allowed into this country to a four decade low. Or perhaps it is because the administration continues its policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. Then again perhaps it is because the president today threatened to take military action to stem the flow of people trying to cross the US-Mexico border.

Immigration continues to captivate my thoughts and animate my concerns.

I turn to this week’s Torah portion.

In it God commands Abraham to leave his native home and journey to the land of Canaan. There God will make him a great nation. And so what does Abraham and his wife, Sarah, do? They go. They travel from what is today modern day Iraq and make their way to what will become the place that Jews continue to hold in their hearts, the land of Israel.

Our Jewish story begins by leaving home. Our journey begins because Abraham got up and left. We are forever defined by journeying. Even the term Hebrew, Ivri, means to cross over. What makes us Jews is leaving and going, and crossing over one border to another.

This is why we say at the Passover seders, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We think that holiday celebration is about the blessing of gaining freedom and escaping slavery. It is of course. That is its larger message. But Passover is also about affirming wandering. Passover is about going out. It is about leaving. And the most interesting, and curious, thing is that we never arrive. The seder concludes with a promise.

We only leave. We never get to where we are going. We conclude, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Next year it will be better. Next year our lot will be improved. We say goodbye to our seder guests with a lingering hope on our lips.

This is the immigrant’s dream. The Jewish hope is the refugee’s dream. Abraham embodies every immigrant’s aspiration and every refugee’s longing. They say, “We are leaving. We are running. Because there it can be better. Because tomorrow can be better than today.” That’s why people try to sneak across borders or why they risk their children’s lives by placing them in rickety boats. That’s why Abraham left Haran. He had faith in the promise of tomorrow. Next year it will be better.

This is our people’s most important legacy. “Next year” encapsulates our ethos. The hope that tomorrow can be better than today. That’s why Abraham runs. That’s why people continue to try to cross over dangerous borders.

Today we recall the many Jewish immigrants who found their way to this country’s shores. Today we recall that 85 years ago today Albert Einstein arrived in the United States as a refugee.

Today we reaffirm this Jewish hope when we read (again) about Abraham’s journey

Who among these “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” will be the next Albert? Who among these “homeless, tempest-tost” will be the next Abraham?

Friday, October 12, 2018

Doing Good

This week we read the story about Noah and the flood. The portion opens with the words: “This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6). Noah’s character is highlighted. He was a pretty remarkable guy. He was righteous. He was blameless. He walked with God. This must be why God called him and commanded him to build the ark.

“The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. The Lord told Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody. Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, children of the Lord…”.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak, more commonly known as Rashi, who lived in 11th century France, and wrote a line by line commentary on the entire Bible, as well as a commentary on the Talmud, asked, “Why does the Torah add the words ‘in his generation?’” It is an interesting question. Are not righteous and blameless objective terms? Rashi offers the following clarification:
Some of our Rabbis explain “in his generation” to Noah’s credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of his good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance.
It is a fascinating insight. Was Noah deemed righteous and blameless only in comparison to the evil and lawless generation in which he lived? Or would he be called righteous and blameless in any generation? Could he stand next to Abraham? Or had he lived among the greatest of our ancestors would he have been a nobody? I wonder.

Is doing good a matter of comparison? Or can we determine some objective measure of what it means to do good?

I think of those who helped Jews survive the Holocaust. Some did little more than offer a potato to a fleeing Jew. Even such a small act was heroic. The Nazis shot and killed people for doing far less. We would easily call such a person righteous.

Once, when walking along the streets of New York, a homeless man approached me and begged for food. I went with him to a nearby bagel store and bought him a coffee and bagel. We spoke briefly.

Two similar acts. One heroic. The other quite ordinary, although perhaps unusual. The difference is of course the context. The evil surrounding the first transforms the gift of a potato into an act of courage, heroism and righteousness.

Righteousness depends entirely on the generation in which we find ourselves.

And that leads me to a prayer. May we never know such times. May our days be so ordinary that they only demand of us simple and ordinary acts of kindness.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Growing Up

I see traces of the Bible in contemporary events. Perhaps I can’t help it. I am a rabbi. And yet the contours of its revelatory truths appear clearer today than in many previous years.

Soon after God creates the world in all its beauty, splendor and majesty, God fashions man out of the earth. The world is still imperfect. Loneliness must be corrected. So God creates woman out of man’s rib. Adam and Even are happy and content in that idyllic garden of Eden. God gives them one warning: “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it.” (Genesis 2)

Once, when my children were in high school, Susie and I left them home alone. (Our children would say that it was on more than one occasion.) We gave them one warning: “We are going to the city for a wedding this evening. We won’t be home until late. Don’t throw any parties at the house.” We trusted them. We knew they were responsible. We might not find out what really happened until their confirmation hearings.

About Adam and Eve, however, we know what happens. They eat the forbidden fruit. The rabbis, by the way, suggest it was an etrog. That beautiful Sukkot lemon offers a sweet smell, but a bitter taste. God gets angry. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. Really, it is the talking snake’s fault? Really, you did not enjoy the taste of the fruit?

They are banished from paradise. The rest is history. And the remainder our story.

Perhaps this particular tale is meant to teach us about taking responsibility for our actions and owning our mistakes. God means to test Adam and Eve. God tests us each and every day. God asks: “Ayekah—where are you?” God knows where Adam and Eve are. They, however, do not know where they stand. They do not recognize their mistakes and failures. Until that is done a person does not know where they are.

As we begin the Torah reading anew I am given to recall that it means to teach us about taking responsibility. To be sure, many of the Torah’s stories are about our heroes’ failures to live up to their responsibilities. We gain lessons from their mistakes. We gain lessons from our mistakes.

Among the more frustrating, and upsetting, refrains heard during this past week is: “It was high school.” Almost everyone I know did stupid things in high school. I most certainly did things I now regret. But youth, and the garden, are supposed to be about learning from those mistakes and growing from them.

God banishes Adam and Eve not because they ate the fruit. It is instead because when given the opportunity to admit their mistakes they blame others. “My friend made me play the drinking game” is not, for example, a statement about growing and learning.

Denial and blame are not roads to adulthood. We can only truly know where we are when we admit our mistakes.

It is a difficult test, to be sure, but one that most certainly leads to nobility.

The Torah continues to reveal.