Friday, December 28, 2018

Stirring Compassion

A little over 400 years have passed since the conclusion of Genesis. The memory of Joseph, his family, and in particular all of the great things Joseph did for Egypt, are no longer read in Egypt’s history books. The new rulers only see how numerous the Israelites have become.

So they enslave and oppress the Jewish people. Pharaoh decrees that all first born sons of the Israelites must be killed. In one of the first acts of civil disobedience, the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, ignore Pharaoh’s law and thwart his plan. Pharaoh then declares that every Jewish boy shall be drowned in the Nile.

In an effort to save the newborn Moses, his mother and sister place him in a basket in the Nile. Thus begins one of the more interesting chapters in the Torah. It is punctuated by several acts of compassion. The first instance is surprisingly that of Pharaoh’s daughter, an unnamed woman who notices the baby boy. “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 him and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2)

Remarkably she knows that the baby is a Hebrew yet she still reaches out to the endangered child, thus disobeying her father (perhaps she is a teenager, Rabbi Bar Yohai suggests). She appoints a Hebrew woman to nurse and care for the child. Unbeknownst to her, this woman is Moses’ mother, who is also unnamed. Pharaoh’s daughter names the child Moses, a common Egyptian name.

Moses is raised as an Egyptian, but his awareness of the suffering of others grows. (Does he learn compassion from his foster mother?) In three instances Moses rushes to the defense of others. In the first and most familiar instance, Moses witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. In a fit of rage (righteous indignation?), he kills the Egyptian and saves the Hebrew.

Later Moses sees two Hebrew slaves fighting with each other and intervenes, saying, “Why do you strike your fellow?” Rather than offer thanks, one of the Hebrews turns on Moses and says, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Upon hearing this Moses becomes frightened and flees from Egypt. He finds himself in Midian and of course by the well where he rescues the priest’s seven daughters from some ill-tempered shepherds. Moses then single handedly waters their flock.

It is only after this final rescue and the accumulation of these compassionate acts that God takes notice of the Israelites’ suffering. Have these deeds awakened God’s compassion? “The Israelites were groaning under their bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

I wonder. What took God so long? Why did God wait over 400 years to rescue the Jewish people? I continue to wonder. What takes God so long? What takes God so long to notice our pain and to respond to our suffering?

Throughout history we have waited for God to send the messiah to heal all wounds and address the world’s troubles. Maimonides writes: “Even though the messiah delays, I will continue to wait. Ani maamin, I believe.”

There are many rabbinic legends about the messiah. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asks: “When will the messiah come?” Elijah responds: “Go ask him yourself. He can be found sitting at the gates of Rome, caring for the lepers, changing their bandages one at a time.” The messiah is that person who reaches out to others in compassion.

Perhaps God is waiting for us to reach out to others in compassion.

Ponder this. History does not record Pharaoh’s daughter’s name. She was certainly famous in Egypt. Everyone in Egypt knew her name and admired her fame and riches, yet history instead remembers her for reaching out to Moses. History remembers her compassion.

And so the Jewish people’s history begins with the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh looking away from all of her riches and indulgences and instead with compassionate eyes, looking toward a baby crying in anguish. It is those eyes that sparked God’s remembrances. It is Moses’ deeds that stirred God’s heart. It is their compassion that awakened God’s sympathy.

We never know which act of compassion will stir God.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Can Love Be Reduced to a Mathematical Equation?

Much of our lives are dominated by algorithms. We turn to apps for every manner of things: to shop for clothes (shout out to LeTote), to track our workouts (kudos to Strava) and to weave around traffic (thank you GoogleMaps). We are increasingly dependent on apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family.

I continue to wonder about the effect of these dependencies. And so, my curiosity was piqued when I saw the recent article, “The Yoda of Silicon Valley.”

Donald Knuth is considered the father of computer programming. He has written a multi-volume book, considered the subject’s Bible, The Art of Computer Programming. Although I am certain this book will never be added to my Amazon wish list, I found his life work fascinating. His philosophical musings were particularly insightful and illuminating.

Knuth comments: “I am worried that algorithms are getting too prominent in the world....

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Drawing Near

Sometimes the Torah packs meaning into one word.

Vayigash alav Yehuda—and Judah drew near to Joseph…” (Genesis 44)

Judah still does not know that the Egyptian ruler who has been supplying him with rations during the famine and who now threatens the youngest of his father Jacob’s children, Benjamin, with enslavement is his brother Joseph whom he sold into slavery. Fearful for Benjamin’s life and his father’s welfare, Judah now draws close to Joseph to plead for Benjamin.

He offers himself in Benjamin’s place. He concludes his plea with the words, “Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” Judah is a changed man. He will no longer sell another brother into slavery. Joseph cannot control his emotions and says, “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He then embraces Benjamin, and kisses Judah and the rest of his brothers.

This remarkable tale of reconciliation begins when Judah draws near to Joseph and demonstrates his repentance. It culminates with Joseph’s statement of forgiveness. Joseph says in effect, “You intended to do wrong, but now we can see that throwing me in a pit while you sat down to a meal, selling me to the Ishmaelites who then traded me to the Egyptians, and then telling our father that wild beasts killed me, turned to good. Our family would have starved if you had not done that wrong, if you were then not so motivated by jealousy.

I would have understood if Joseph kept his brothers in jail for a long time and said, “Look at me. You tried to get rid of me and instead I have become second only to Pharaoh.” I would have even understood if Joseph said, “I don’t want anything to do with you. You may be my brothers but you are bunch of good for nothings.” But that is not Joseph.

He is heroic in his forgiveness. And Judah is heroic in his repentance.

Elsewhere in the Bible the word “vayigash” is used to describe making war.

Vayigash Yoav v’ha’am—and Joab and the troops with him drew near to make war against the Arameans… (II Samuel 10)

I have come to believe that this instance more aptly describes our everyday interactions. We follow not the examples of Joseph and Judah, but instead Joab.

Every discussion quickly turns angry. Every argument appears like war.

Our political leaders scream at each other rather than reaching for compromise. Our Facebook feeds are filled with outrage. “How dare they! Look at those idiots!” we read over and over again. Exclamation points abound. Emails and text messages quickly become heated. Anger and vitriol color our computer screens. We retreat to our iPhones.

We withdraw to the certainties of our shared indignation. Our feeds confirm our outrage. They vindicate our anger.

It all could change if we but turned to this week’s opening word. Vayigash. So much can be lost in drawing near to make war. So much continues to unravel as we draw near in battle and self-righteous indignation.

So much more can be cured by drawing near in reconciliation.

We again require such heroics.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Masked and Unmasked

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that throughout the Joseph story, our hero Joseph often changes clothes. In the opening chapters, his father places the coat of many colors on him and then his brothers tear it from him. There is as well the garment torn from him by Potiphar’s wife when she tries to seduce him. And finally, in this week’s portion the following: “Pharaoh had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” (Genesis 41)

By the time his brothers come before him, in search of food to stave their hunger from famine, Joseph looks like an Egyptian. He is unrecognizable. His clothes, and apparently his mannerisms and language, allow him to hide from them despite the fact that he stands right in front of them. Now it is left to him alone to remove these clothes. Still, he is not yet able to tear the trappings of his Egyptian identity and reveal himself to his brothers.

What do we hide? What do we reveal?

Soon Joseph will remove his mask and embrace his brothers in forgiveness. He is only able to do this after he comes to believe that they have changed. When they refuse to consign their younger brother Benjamin to slavery as they once did Joseph he is able to reveal himself. It is then that Joseph unmasks his true identity. Joseph discovers that he is more a brother, and a member of the family of Israel, than an Egyptian. His inner self becomes one with his outer identity.

Are we the same on the outside as we are on the inside? Is it possible to achieve such harmony?

Yesterday our country observed a day of mourning for President George H.W. Bush. Of the many remembrances shared I was most struck by those of his son, President George W. Bush. In this weekend’s 60 Minutes interview he said that he once asked his father the following, “Dad do you ever think about the war?” His father responded, “I think about Delaney and White all the time.” They were the two crew mates who died when his plane crashed. It was a startling revelation.

Despite all the accolades about Bush’s wartime heroism: the grainy film of him being rescued by a submarine, the reports of his nearly 60 missions, the pictures of him in his Navy dress uniform and the many government jobs he achieved: president, vice-president, CIA director, congressman, he remained bound to the two friends killed over 70 years ago. Their memories occupied his thoughts.

Their deaths were the hidden hands that directed his life. It appeared as if their memories impelled his service.

It was not the uniforms—and the many achievements, but the loss. It was not the heroism and the years of service, but instead the friends—or more accurately, their absence that guided his life.

I sensed his pain.

Uniforms hide the cost of war. (Perhaps this is their intention.) Achievements mask our inner struggles.

The soul was laid bare.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Miracles of Hanukkah Are Not What You May Think

During my rabbinical school years, my classmates and I gained experience serving small pulpits throughout the country. We traveled to these far-flung congregations once a month or every other week. I served communities in Houghton-Hancock, Michigan; Clarksdale Mississippi; Fargo, North Dakota and Arvada, Colorado.

I recall my first Hanukkah in Clarksdale. As I drove south from the Memphis airport, through the cotton fields of Northern Mississippi, I began to formulate my teaching about the upcoming holiday. For weeks, we had studied Hanukkah’s origins with our professors and debated its meaning in our classes.

I decided to teach my congregants about the real Hanukkah. I patiently explained how our central story about the miracle of oil appears nowhere in the Book of Maccabees. These books, written soon after the victory over the Syrian-Greeks and the Jewish Hellenists, emphasize the Maccabees’ heroism, the sinfulness of those Jews enamored of Greek culture, and the ruthlessness of the Syrian-Greek oppressors. There, the eight days are tied to the Temple’s rededication ceremony. The Temples were first dedicated during Sukkot, another eight-day holiday and so Hanukkah’s eight days are most likely tied to Sukkot’s eight.

“What about the miracle of oil?” my congregants asked.

“It does not appear until the pages of the Talmud,” I respond...

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Angels and Demons

Everyone has their demons. And everyone has their angels.

There are some that say that when our forefather Jacob wrestled with “beings divine and human” he struggled with his estranged brother Esau. Other suggest he wrestled with Esau’s protecting angel.

Long before this mysterious encounter, Jacob stole the birthright from Esau. At his mother Rebekah’s suggestion, he tricked his father Isaac and took the first-born blessing for himself. Esau then threatened to kill him. Jacob runs.

He has been running for some time. Afraid about the next day’s meeting with his brother he sends his family across the river and instructs his servants to bring gifts to Esau.

“And Jacob was left alone.”

He is alone with his thoughts.

Should I have lied to my father? Why did I trick Esau out of his rightful inheritance?

Regret fills the solitude. It feeds the loneliness.

“A being wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

Jacob is unable to wrest free from his demons.

The being wrenches his hip. Jacob now limps. Undeterred and even more determined, our forefather insists the being offer him a blessing. He receives a new name.

Jacob becomes Israel. Israel means to wrestle with God. The angel explains, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Our identities hinge on wrestling. Our names emerge from our struggles.

Everyone has their demons. Everyone has their angels.

Perhaps they are one and the same.

And now Jacob runs no more.

“Esau runs to greet him. He embraces Jacob, and falling on his neck, he kisses him; and they wept.” (Genesis 32)

Friday, November 16, 2018

Still Dreaming!

Place is central to our most important Jewish dream. That singular dream is recounted at our Passover Seders: L’shanah habaah b’yerushalyim—next year in Jerusalem. And now, as the Psalmist sings, we are in fact like dreamers who have returned to Zion. We can in a matter of hours touch the land that our ancestors only saw in their mind’s eye and sang about in their prayers.

Vayetzei begins that dreaming. Jacob arrived at the place. And he dreamed of a ladder reaching toward heaven. And God reiterated to him the promise that the land on which he was lying will be assigned to him and his offspring. Today his dream has become real. Yama—West—becomes Tel Aviv. Tzafona—North—is now Haifa. Our dreams are now real places.

For millennia this was not the case.

The rabbis of old were forced to fashion Judaism out of the embers of a destroyed Jerusalem....

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Why I Wore a Kippah to Vote

This Tuesday morning, I wore my kippah, the customary head covering many Jews wear in synagogue. We cover our heads as reminder that God is always present.

As I entered the local elementary school to vote, I donned my kippah. I don’t wear a kippah all the time. Typically I wear one when leading prayer services or when teaching a class or when officiating at a wedding or funeral. I don’t wear one when doing any manner of everyday activities, such as grocery shopping or going for a walk or for that matter, venturing to town hall.

This occasion, however, needed to be sanctified–most especially this year, and during these times.

Voting seems like such a mundane affair....

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Responding to the Pittsburgh Massacre

At Shabbat evening services we gathered together to celebrate Shabbat and stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I began the service with these words:
I never imagined that I would stand before our congregation and have occasion to speak about such violent and deadly antisemitism in our own country. The fact that someone acted on his desire that all Jews must die seems unimaginable to me. I recognize that violent antisemitism is part of our American history. Leo Frank, for example, was lynched in the early 1900’s. But that seemed a unique circumstance and I could dismiss it as “back then.” Sure, in my own day, there were antisemitic comments said here or there, and there was Nazi graffiti scrawled on synagogues, but nothing ever of this scale.

Such acts only happened over there, in Europe. Perhaps, we even quietly said to ourselves, it could happen in the South or in the far reaches of the West. Such horrific acts of terror aimed at Jews happened in Israel. But not, we believed, here. This week has taught us otherwise.

We are pained. And our hearts are filled with sorrow. We are even angry. This evening we gather to sing our songs, and offer our prayers, and bring comfort to our troubled souls. But even our most cherished songs seem inadequate when pressed against this massacre. And yet we will sing and rejoice at the gift of Shabbat. On this day more than any others, we will do so in defiance of the world and the hate it brings to our doorstep. We celebrate the Sabbath so as to assuage our anger and heal our pain. We sing so as to fill our hearts with gratitude.

And I am grateful that so many have come here, on this Shabbat evening, to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. I welcome the guests who have joined us and most especially our local clergy: Reverend Jeff Prey, of First Presbyterian Church, Father Kevin Smith, the Pastor of St. Dominic's Church and Dr. John Yenchko, the Pastor of North Shore Community Church as well as their parishioners. Your presence gives us strength. Your willingness to join with our community gives us hope. On every Friday evening we begin with the same song, Hineh Mah Tov. On this evening it takes on added meaning.

Hineh mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim gam yachad. How good and pleasing it is that brothers and sisters join together.

Later I offered this sermon:
The Jewish tradition teaches that Amalek is the paradigm of evil. He, and his followers, attacked the ancient Israelites as they wandered through the desert. He attacked them from the rear. He attacked the stragglers and the weakest. This is what we saw happen this past Shabbat. People who went to synagogue to celebrate and pray, who faced the Ark to beseech their God, who relished in holding the Torah scroll in their arms were gunned down in a sanctuary that is supposed to only serve as a place of respite and peace.

Let us be forthright. Antisemitism is on the rise. Gun violence is a daily occurrence. Hate speech increases with each news cycle. These are our new realities.

What happened at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue is partly attributed to the gun violence that plagues American society. Automatic weapons, and guns made for military use, make such acts exponentially more lethal. And that should be said again and again, until we find some measure of regulating our society’s love affair with guns.

But what makes this instance different and unique is that Jews were purposely targeted. A man filled with rage and obsessed about Jewish conspiracies, fueled by the common cause he found on the internet set out to kill as many Jews as possible. The internet is like kindling for the blood libels, stereotypes and hateful rhetoric that have always been part and parcel to antisemitism. Any manner of idea can find compatriots not only in the web’s darkest corners but in the very tools we use day in and day out. They are a mere like away on Facebook.

Moreover, when our political leaders, demonize other human beings, whether they be immigrants, Muslims or Mexicans, antisemites breathe easier. When the events of Charlottesville are dismissed, when the differences between protesters and Nazis are equivocated, antisemites think to themselves, “Look at how many people agree with us.” Silence is interpreted as assent. Words really do matter. That is one of our tradition’s most important teachings. Words can hurt. They can heal. They can incite violence. They can lead us to peace. They can divide us. And they can lead to unity.

In the face of antisemitism, in the face of hatred and the demeaning of others who are different than ourselves, there is only one response, and that is to say loudly, “This is not us. This is not America.”

Perhaps this violent antisemitism was always here in the United States, perhaps it always bubbled under the surface. In recent years it appears to have found new air. I have studied enough history to know that antisemitism has a stubborn fortitude. We have found it in every country in which we have settled. Even in Israel, the place we believed would be this solution to this perennial challenge, Islamist leaders have resurrected the worst, and most lethal, of history’s antisemitic tropes. Still I never imagined it could become so devastatingly violent here, in my home, in our United States. Some might have thought this a naïve belief. I fear they may have been proven right. Still I stubbornly hold on to the notion that this place to which my grandparents immigrated, this country in which my family has made our home, is different. It is unique.

In how many lands would there be such outpouring of love and support from those who are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and others? Here there is a sense that if one faith is attacked all are attacked. That is the notion to which I cling. In how many countries would a local paper be emblazoned with the Jewish prayer for mourning? On the front page of this morning’s Pittsburgh paper are the opening words of the kaddish, written in Hebrew: yitgadal v’yitkadash… And my heart is buoyed by the presence of my friends who are here this evening. We may be of different faiths, but we are bound together. When one is attacked all are attacked. The fact that you have joined us on this occasion, to sit with us and join in our prayers, is a testament to the greatness of our nation and the notion that we are stronger than the hate that travels across our computer screens and the violence that fills our schools, movie theatres, malls, and sanctuaries.

In fact, I learned the meaning of sanctuary not from studies of Jewish texts but from Reverend Ramirez. Years ago, my congregation met at the Brookville Reformed Church. We did so for some ten years. Central to this congregation’s tradition was the notion that their sanctuary doors were never locked. A sanctuary must always be open. Anyone could come to the sanctuary and find solace and comfort within its walls. On occasion, when our students met in the social hall for Hebrew School, someone would wander into the sanctuary to sit and pray. I would sometimes find people there. Sometimes they sat in the dark and I would offer to turn on the lights. I could sometimes hear their cries as they prayed. Despite my offers to talk, they often preferred to sit in silence and pray. And that is the image I am holding on to.

An open sanctuary. A sanctuary in which people are shielded from the troubles of the world, a sanctuary in which any manner of person is welcome. People might tell you that a Jew can’t really be friends with a Christian or with a Muslim or with people of different faiths. They don’t really understand what America represents. We have a choice between walls that divide us or open doors that invite others in. Open doors are what should define us.

The only way out of this dark week is through these open doors. Shutting others out leads nowhere. America is about finding a place for differences. It is about finding a home for ourselves and right by our sides, a home for others.

This week we read, in our weekly Torah reading, about the death of Abraham and Sarah. They are both buried in the contested city of Hebron. In a fascinating turn, Isaac and Ishmael, the two estranged brothers, one who is the father of the Jewish people and the other, Muslims look to as their patriarch, come together to bury their father Abraham. They live in different lands. Ishmael lives in Egypt, apart from his father and brother, who live in the land of Canaan. Isaac’s mother Sarah forbids any contact between Isaac and Ishmael. And yet Ishmael shows up at Abraham’s burial. He is there by his brother’s side, so they can together grieve for their father. How can this be?

There is only one answer. Isaac kept the door open. He stayed in touch with his brother. That must be the choice we make.

There are voices that seek to divide us, and separate us from one another, and keep us far apart and at a distance, that seek to portray the other as alien and foreign. And if we listen, if we heed these voices, we will find ourselves unable to fight the demons that grow in our midst. We will find ourselves at odds with the very values that have made this country great. That is not a choice I am willing to make. Antisemitism may be stubborn in its perseverance. But I promise to be just as stubborn in my response. I promise to hold on to others despite our differences.

We may be different. We may pray in different manners. We may surround ourselves with different images, but we are one. And together we must say, what happened in Pittsburgh last week is not us and it will never again be us. It can never be a part of the America we all call home. Amen v’Amen.

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.

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.