Thursday, October 31, 2019

Save Yourself?

There is a Yiddish expression, tzaddik im peltz, meaning a righteous person in a fur coat. It is a curious phrase.

The great Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, offers an illustration. When one is cold at home, there are two ways to become warm. One can heat the home or get dressed in a fur coat. The difference between the two is that in the first case the entire house is warmed and everyone sitting in it feels comfortable. Whereas in the second case only the person wearing the coat feels warm, but everyone else continues to freeze.

Righteousness is meant to warm others. It is not meant to warm the soul of the person who performs the righteous deeds. Too often people clothe themselves in good deeds. They hold their heads high and wrap themselves in comforting thoughts. “Look at the good I have done.” They warm themselves in a coat of righteousness.

The task, however, is to build a fire. We are called to bring warmth and healing to others.

A coat of righteousness does no good unless it is wrapped around others.

The Torah relates: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; and Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6)

God informs Noah that the world, and all its inhabitants, will be destroyed because of its wickedness. So God instructs Noah to build an ark to save two animals of every species as well as his own family. I am left wondering. There is no another righteous person in the world? Noah was the only one?

Apparently Noah agrees with this evaluation. The world is about to be destroyed and Noah offers no argument. He offers no protest. Perhaps he does believe he is indeed the only righteous person in the world.

So God says, “Noah, save yourself.”

And now Noah appears to me as a tzaddik im peltz. The rabbis attempt to suggest that he really builds fires. They suggest Noah takes his time building the ark. He makes sure to do the building where everyone can see the project. The ark was meant not so much to save his family and all the animals but instead as a sign. People were meant to see the ark and repent of their evil ways. But they of course ignore the sign and continue with their lives as if nothing is wrong.

And we continue to walk amid all the signs, amid the fires and floods. We look away from the signs of our potential destruction. We wrap ourselves in fur coats, warming ourselves and proclaiming our righteousness, but doing little more than Noah. We build an ark for ourselves and our families.

I wish to be more than a tzaddik im peltz.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

All Over Again!?

We have to read the Torah all over again? We have to read the creation story once more? 

This week we begin reading the Torah all over again. Our celebrations of Simhat Torah are now in the rear view mirror. Once more we open the Bible’s pages to the story of the world’s creation. We read about Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, and Abraham and Sarah. We read all over again about the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, forty years of wandering, the building of the tabernacle, and the Torah’s many laws and commandments. Before we know it we will unroll the scroll and read about Moses’ death.

But why do this year after year? Why read the same book, the same chapters and the same verses over and over again? In almost every other instance once we read a book, we put it aside. If we really like the story we might give it to a friend. If we deem it a masterpiece, we might grant it an exalted place on our bookshelves. But not with the Torah.

As soon as we finish it, we turn back to the beginning. We read the same story all over again, again and again, year after year. Why?

The answer is simple, yet profound. There is a power to beginning all over again. There is a faith that even though we read these same pages last year, this year we might uncover some new truth. Last year I could have missed something. Last time I read it, perhaps my focus was lacking during that week’s reading. This year some new truth might become revealed.

This year I may in fact find those elusive answers to life’s many questions. I may discover added meaning.

To begin again, to begin anew, offers promise. This year is going to be better. This year something new, and different, might be revealed. Even though I don’t feel any closer, despite years and years of study and learning, I open the book once again with renewed hope.

That is why we never let go of this seeming repetitious assignment. This is why we refuse to look at the Torah as any other book. We are determined that it must not, it cannot remain on our bookshelves among even our most cherished volumes. It must be read, again and again.

This year something might be revealed. This year something new might be discovered. This year, a truth might become illuminated. We open the book once again.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”

Our hope is restored.

A new truth awaits us.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Some More Kisses

The Torah is of course what we most prize and deem most holy.

Some people were upset because they did not get a chance to kiss the Torah scrolls this past Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, there was a traffic jam in the sanctuary’s middle aisle. I therefore decided it would be best to avoid the congestion and take the Torah scrolls around the outer aisles. A number of people were unable to kiss the Torah and shared their disappointment with me after services. I am really sorry.

I underestimated the power and importance of this ritual. Now I want to take a few moments to think more deeply about this custom. First a clarification. Actually we don’t kiss the Torah. Instead we allow it to give us a kiss. We touch our hand, or prayerbook, or tallis to the scroll and then touch our lips. This custom is the same as that for a mezuzah. When entering our homes, we reach up, touch our fingertips to the mezuzah and then touch our hand to our lips.

We don’t kiss the mezuzah or the Torah. We allow these holy objects to kiss us. We allow them to offer us a measure of their holiness.

We are not nearly as holy as these sacred objects. The Torah is more holy than we are. Or is it? Torah cannot really be Torah without us. It needs us.

We must read it. We must study it. We must discuss it and debate it. If it were obvious what the Torah always said or meant, then there would be no need for interpretation, there would be no need for the volumes and volumes of holy books, spanning thousands of years. There would be no need for…rabbis. What makes Torah Torah is our relationship to it.

We do not worship it. We do not hold it up as an amulet. We must carry it. We dance among its verses. We discover ourselves in its chapters.

We touch it so that we may take some of its holiness into our lives. That task is actually a daily endeavor. We touch it and allow it to give us a kiss so that we might be reminded that we must take more Torah into our lives—always. To touch the Torah is to remind us of what is our holiest task. To do better. To bring a measure of healing to the world around us.

We need the Torah to carry us as much as it needs us to carry it.

Still, on Simhat Torah, everyone and anyone who wants can again have an opportunity to kiss the Torah and even dance with these scrolls. Come to Simhat Torah services and grab this additional opportunity. Even though Yom Kippur is the more widely observed Jewish holiday, Simhat Torah is the more quintessential day. On it we sing and dance. We rejoice and feast. What could be more Jewish than a party?

On this day we remind ourselves that holding the Torah close to our hearts is our most important task. On Simhat Torah we endeavor to take more Torah into our lives.

And some extra kisses never hurt to remind us of this task.


Friday, October 11, 2019

Keep the Gates Open

I often complain about the holiday schedule, especially during this time of year. Why put two major holidays one week apart from each other? And then as soon as we finish the Yom Kippur fast, ask us to build a sukkah and celebrate this week long festival. And finally, command us to rejoice and celebrate with great revelry the holiday of Simhat Torah, marking the start of the Torah reading cycle all over again. Would it not have been better to spread the holidays out? Perhaps we could even have Rosh Hashanah in the fall and then Yom Kippur in the spring.

Such choices are of course not in our hands. And so one major holiday comes in quick succession, one right after another. We barely have enough time to come up for air. We turn from the beating of our chests and recounting of our sins on Yom Kippur to the banging of hammers as we put up our sukkahs and then the hosting of elaborate get-togethers in these temporary booths which signify the Israelites wandering through the desert wilderness. Why do we so quickly move from one major holiday to another? Why is this Hebrew month of Tishrei so demanding?

We only just gathered for the beautiful and concluding Yom Kippur Neilah service. As the gates of repentance are about to close, we prayed, “Open for us the gates of repentance and return, that we may enter and offer our best. Open for us the gates of forgiveness, that we may enter and offer our humanity.” This image of the closing of these gates is meant to inspire us to commit to repentance, to try to change and do better in the coming year. The gates have now closed. And so we must be resolved to commit to change.

But does the calendar, and most especially this month of Tishrei, even leave us time to do the hard work of repentance?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the somewhat obscure holiday of Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. The rabbis suggest that these gates of repentance do not actually close on Yom Kippur but instead on this penultimate day of Sukkot. Sukkot becomes not just a celebration of God bringing us out of Egypt, but an extension of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s as if the tradition reminds us that God knows the assignment is incomplete. God grants the students an extension. We have some more days to fix things, to start anew.

We are then reminded of an essential truth. The assignment is always incomplete. We always have to fix ourselves. We always have to change. We always have to recommit ourselves to repair.

Despite all the pledge to do better on the days just past, this job is always incomplete. Our commitments to do better are often just as temporary as the sukkah’s flimsy roof that cannot even keep out one drop of rain. Still God is always waiting for us to do better. And God keeps extending the deadline. God keeps hoping we can do better.

The gates of repentance remain forever open.


Thursday, October 10, 2019

FOMO is a Real Thing

What follows is my Yom Kippur morning sermon.

On this Yom Kippur I wish to speak about the inner life. In particular I want to talk about fear. It is real. It is pervasive. We are frightened by a resurgent antisemitism. And to be sure, I spent plenty of time talking about antisemitism and how we might battle it on Rosh Hashanah. We are afraid of terrorism and wonder where the next attack might be. 9-11’s wounds still run deep. Our children are terrified by climate change and speak about the rising of the oceans as if it’s already happening here on Long Island. Our parents are nervous about the economy and watch the stock indexes as if their very next meal depended on it. We are nervous about our children getting into college or getting into too much trouble when they are away at college or later, traveling by themselves throughout this broken world or then finding a job that they will find fulfilling and meaningful. We read about the latest threats to our health, which medicines might cause cancer and which habits might shorten our years. We are afraid of strangers and time after time, decide we would rather go out with trusted friends rather than going someplace new and meeting new people. Need I go on—again? There is an endless list. Each of us could add plenty of items to the compilation. Each of us carries a host of fears in our hearts. And, I could on this Yom Kippur day explore any one of these challenges, and fears. That is not my intention. Instead I wish instead to speak to how are we going to manage this fear. I wish to continue the discussion we began on Rosh Hashanah evening. Where are we going to place these overwhelming fears? How are we going to move forward without being consumed by them? How can we no longer be ruled by our terrors?

Our tradition offers some guidance. That, as you might expect, would of course by my perspective. It stands to reason that a rabbi would think Judaism has the answers. Let’s first examine these days, called Yamim Noraim, days of awe. But the Hebrew word for awe, yirah is the same as it is for fear. These days could also be translated as days of terror. There are any number of our prayers that invoke fear. “On Rosh Hashanah this is written, on the fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed, how many will pass away from this world, how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die…” Thank God the cantor sings this prayer to an upbeat tune. “B’rosh hashanah yikateivun…” (And thank God the cantor sings it rather than me.) The music is an antidote to the prayer’s literal meaning. Do we even believe such words, “…who by fire and who by water, who by war and who by beast, who by earthquake and who by plague…”? Are they meant to frighten?

According to legend this Unetanah Tokef prayer was authored Rabbi Amnon, an eleventh century Jewish leader living in Mainz, Germany, who was brutally tortured and martyred. Prior to his death, during these very days, he offered these words, “Unenatanah tokef kedushat hayom.” And that, quite frankly, just makes this prayer all the more frightening. “B’rosh hashanah yikateivun…” And that of course brings me to one answer of how we should confront fear. Sing! Sing loudly. Clap your hands and dance. I’m not saying ignore the terrors. But music has a way of healing. It has a way of even banishing fear or at the very least helping us to forget them for a little while.

No rabbi exemplifies this more than the Hasidic giant, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. He was the great grandson of the movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov. If you have been to Israel, his followers are those hippie like youth who park their colorful van with large speakers on top, and sing and dance wildly on Ben Yehuda’s streets. Their goal is to allow God’s magnificence to overwhelm all other worries. You can’t get too afraid if you are dancing. Yirah, fear, must be understood as awe. They might even argue that fear of God is a good thing, and a good fear. If that terrifying Unetanah Tokef prayer motivates you to do good, to correct your wrongs and do better, then what’s wrong with that kind of fear? It can be motivating. It can even be edifying. But that’s not how I like to do things—not the dancing part—but the fear as a motivation part. Then again if that’s how the right thing gets done the tradition will take it. Personally, I prefer to understand yirah as awe and to try to infuse as much of life with the feeling of “that’s awesome.” Sometimes it does require a good deal of singing and most especially dancing. That’s the medicine. You have to get out there and move.

Among Rabbi Nachman’s most famous sayings is: “Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar maod, v’haikar lo l’fached klal—the whole world is a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” It seems that Nachman did not just sing and dance. He was not oblivious to fear. The world does not always appear so wonderful. Sometimes it is constraining. At times it is narrowing. Summon the strength and walk forward. Do not be afraid. Easier said than done, Nachman. Sometimes we want to just curl up and not even look at that bridge. Sometimes we just want to turn around and walk in a different direction.

We walk the other way most especially when asked to meet new people. We would rather just hang out with friends. We would rather just go out with people we have known for years. It feels—well, safer. Judaism urges us to love our neighbor. V’ahavta l’reecha kamocha. But how many of us actually even know everyone who lives on our block? What about the people living down the street? How about those who live on the other side of town? How often have we actually struck up a conversation with someone standing in line next to us? Love the neighbor. But they could be different. They could even be dangerous. I get it. The Hebrew word for neighbor has embedded within the word for evil, rah. It’s a fine line. They could be strange. They could have ideas different from our own. And so, we retreat to known acquaintances. We withdraw to like-minded conversations.

Nothing has injured the bonds that can be made between neighbors, between those standing right by our side than that thing we clutch most tightly in our hands as if it is a lifeline. I am talking about the cellphone. We stand in line, with our earbuds in our ears, talking to friends miles away. We text people who may in fact be on the other side of the world but miss out on making a new friend who could be standing by our side. The world, and its myriad of people, and its possibilities for new friends and new discoveries, await us, but we scroll through Instagram photos posted by well tested friends or to make sure we have not missed out on some big event or some gathering. “Really Jenna was invited to that party. How come I wasn’t?” Snap a sad face to some of your friends to make sure they also were left out. It’s crushing. Look up. The sun is still shining. The sky is blue. Put on a song. Start tapping your feet and dance. Talk to the person standing next to you.

There is a fear that is driving all this. And it is called FOMO. Yes, my young students, you thought I was not paying attention. Fear of Missing Out seems to drive much of what we do. And it is real. I am not all suggesting, nor do I believe, that we should get rid of our iPhones. But we have to figure out how to use them and how not to be so dependent on them. They are extraordinary innovations. Who can imagine navigating traffic without Google Maps or doing homework without Google Translate? Who can imagine not being able to text or WhatsApp someone regardless of the time zone they are in? Then again try talking some more to the person who sits by your side, in the same time zone. For all the connectedness the cellphone provides we now recognize it causes a great deal of loneliness. And that is because people need connections in real time. People need words spoken to them and spoken with them. They need to look at each other when they are trying to say something really important, or something really difficult, like “I’m sorry.”

I have a crazy idea, albeit an old fashioned one, but one that I most especially hope my young students heed. As opposed to taking so many selfies of yourself in this place or that, text your friend the following words “I can’t wait to see you and tell you about this beautiful place I am visiting right now or this amazing experience I am having right now.” And then are you ready for this, when you see them, use your words to paint a picture of that place or that experience. Try doing that without scrolling through your photo roll. Because then you can fill in the nuance, the good moments as well as the bad. Have you ever seen my Facebook feed? It’s only pictures of me smiling, as well as of course a lot of blog posts and articles that I find thought provoking. Those pictures are all curated happiness. They’re just snippets of laughter and smiles. That’s not all there is to life. But this is what we do now. We accumulate “smile for the picture” snapshots and then what do we do next. We delete every picture from the photo roll that is not perfectly flattering.

That’s not real life. Reality is when you sit down with a friend and you talk about the good and the bad; it’s when you tell stories; it’s when you hug and when you hold people close. It’s when you open your heart to meeting new people and learning from other people. There have been recent studies that indicate the iPhone suppresses compassion. One study even found that when people are sitting around a table together, but leave their phones on that same table, their empathy and concern for others are diminished. I am just as guilty as the next person. “Why hasn’t Ari texted back? Oh my God. I hope he’s ok.” It’s been…five minutes already. I better check Find my Friends.

There is a world of people, friends and neighbors and even strangers, who are waiting to be listened to and learned from. And here is another idea and this one might be even more radical. Try leaving your phone at home for at least one hour on Shabbat, on Saturday. I’m not suggesting that we should start not using electricity and begin walking to shul on the Sabbath day. Just try this idea. And then, without your phone in tow, but instead, a friend by your side, go for a walk and just talk. Or go outside, even by yourself, in God’s big, beautiful world and take it in. Breath deep. Now you might miss out on taking a picture of a beautiful sunset, or even of a rainbow, or you might miss taking a picture of someone doing something really funny that you wish you could Snap to a friend, but that’s ok. Let those remain in your mind. File it away in your memories rather than among all those Gigs of storage.

Shabbat is supposed to be vayinafash. It’s supposed to restore our souls. It’s supposed to renew us. The tradition even suggests that we gain an extra soul on this day. Make use of it. If we are always looking for the next best selfie or the funniest Snap, if we are always pining after what we are missing out on, then there is no way we are going to enjoy where we are right here and now. So, look up from your phones and pay attention. The cure for FOMO is the person nearest you, the congregation sitting around you right now at this very moment. It’s not on your screens.

We now know. This wonderful device may in fact cause more fear than connectedness. It is deceptive. It seems like it connects us. I can talk to my kids no matter how far away they might be. Then again, I am inundated with alerts on a constant basis. My phone lights up: “The Supreme Court returns to a raft of polarizing cases…” and “Final: Eagles 31 Jets 6.” And I become agitated every time an alert flashes. I could have read that in the next day’s paper. I could have watched that on the evening news. I could have guessed the Jets would lose. Why do I need to know that right now? Fear seeps in. We are harried by this constant barrage of information. Will your fantasy league survive if you read the injury reports an hour later? Will your friendship likewise survive if you don’t Snap a picture of your new outfit? You might be surprised to hear this, but the answer is, yes. Everything will be ok. And you might be even better for it. Instead listen to some music. Or practice for your bar or bat mitzvah or talk about something important, or even something unimportant, with your family members. Or commiserate with the person standing next to you, as opposed the friend far away and say, “Oh God, those Jets.”

I’m not saying we should throw our phones in the garbage, or that you are going to see less pictures of my big toothed smile on Instagram and Facebook, but I am saying we should lean on our phones a lot less. Why? Because otherwise fear gnaws at you, persistent agitations creep into your soul. There is a simple, albeit difficult, answer for banishing these fears. Rely less on that device you clutch so tightly in your hand. Rely more on the people by your side. Rely more on the beautiful world that is outside your door. Rely less on all the information, and most especially all those pictures, that come through on your phone. This fear thing is within your grasp. You can get the best of it. Fear can be countered by trust. That is the root of the word for faith—emunah. And trust cannot be fashioned by short, staccato text messages or by smiling, Instagram photos. It is formed when you look into people’s eyes, when you hold them when they are down, or dance with them when they are happy. That is trust. That is true friendship. And that is what will banish all those fears.

The Jewish people have always placed hope before fear. We believe that tomorrow can be better than yesterday. We hope for a better future. At times we placed that belief in a messianic redeemer. At other times we placed that task in our own hands. But we have been steadfast and have always held hope before our eyes. In fact, the great Talmudic sage, Rava, ponders the questions God will ask us when we are welcomed into heaven. After asking, “Were you ethical in your business practices,” God asks, “Tzapita l’yehushuah—did you hope for salvation?” Did you have hope? We will be judged on whether or not we held fast to hope. We will not be judged on whether we called out this enemy or that. We will not even be asked were you a faithful friend. It’s all about hope. It’s all about pushing fear aside and placing hope before our eyes. Judaism is about hope more than fear.

Back to Rebbe Nachman. I only just discovered that his famous aphorism about walking a narrow bridge and not being afraid, the one that I grew up singing at summer camp, was really written by a contemporary rabbi. The eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi actually said the following: “Ha-adam tzaarich laavor et gesher tzaar maod maod. A person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. V’haklal v’haikar shelo yitpachaid klal. But the most important rule is: Don’t allow yourself to become afraid.” He did not say as I thought for so many years. “Do not fear.” But instead, “Do not allow yourself to become afraid.” The world, Nachman was even more keenly aware than I thought, is a frightening place, a very, very narrow bridge, but fear is in our hands. Push it aside. Don’t let it take hold. Sing and dance more. Text and Instagram less. Hold on to people more—even strangers. Be inspired and even overwhelmed with awe by the world around you. Fill your heart with hope.

A concluding story. I wish to return to where we began these High Holidays. I look back again to memories of the Holocaust. It is a story told by Rabbi Hugo Gryn who like our Annie survived Auschwitz. One winter evening, Gryn’s father called for him to come into a quiet corner of the barrack. His father said, “My son, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Hugo then watched in awe as his father plucked a few threads from his tattered prison uniform in order to create makeshift wicks for the Hanukkah lights. He then gently placed these in the day’s miniscule butter ration. Hugo became incensed with his father. “You did not eat your butter. You need those calories to survive. We could have even shared the butter on that measly crust of bread they gave us. Instead you saved it to kindle Hanukkah lights?” Hugo’s father turned to him and said, “My dear son. You and I have seen that it possible to live a very, very long time without food. But Hugo, a person cannot live, for even a day, without hope.”

Fear can take hold of our hearts. Our souls can become overwhelmed with all sorts of worries. But we can regain mastery of our hearts. We can fill them with hope. All those Instagram photos of meals, or of smiling faces, do not represent true sustenance. Our true sustenance is hope. It’s actually the only thing that can sustain us and the only thing that can carry us forward. But it cannot be seen. No brand-new iPhone 11 can capture it. It’s hidden, but it’s just as real as all those fears. Fill your soul with hope. Carry it in your heart. Hold it fast. Banish all your fears.

It can begin with a song or even a dance. It can start with a new friend. Hope is our only true sustenance. And that sustenance is within reach. Grab hold. And banish all your fears.


Reckoning with Ourselves

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening.

Let me begin with a statement of faith. It is the most profound of Jewish teachings. It is this. We can change. We can do better. I recognize this is not always how things appear. This is not what current discourse suggests. Once a cheat, always a cheat. Once a sinner, always a sinner. Once a thief, always a thief. Commit one wrong, however large or small, and it will follow you the rest of your life. That is not Judaism’s perspective. There is always the potential for repair.

These High Holidays are a reaffirmation of this belief. We affirm that human beings have a remarkable potential for good. We acknowledge our mistakes together. We do not single one person out over another. We recount our wrongs in community. Why? So that we can do better. That in a nutshell is what all these hours of praying and fasting, of standing up and sitting down, of singing and beating our chests are all about. We can change. We can turn. We can devote ourselves to repentance. We can do better.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l tells the following story: When God begins to create the world with all of its wonders, God shares a secret with the angels. God tells them, human beings will be fashioned in God’s image. The angels become very jealous. In fact, they become outraged. Better God should give this precious gift to them, the angels. They say, “Why should humans be entrusted with such a precious gift. They are flawed. They make tons of mistakes. If humans find out their true power, they will abuse it. If they discover they are created in God’s image, then they will become better than the angels.” The angels conspire against God and God’s plan. They decide to steal God’s image. But now that God’s image is in their hands, they must pick a place to hide it so that humans can never find it. They gather for a brainstorming session—or as some might call it, a committee meeting.

The angel Gabriel suggests, “Let’s hide God’s image at the top of the highest mountain peak.” The others object, “One day humans will learn to climb—even Mount Everest—and then they will find it there.” The angel Michael says, “Let’s hide it at the bottom of the sea.” “No way,” the others loudly respond. “One day they will figure out how to explore even the farthest reaches of the oceans.” And so, one by one the angels suggest hiding places. All were rejected. But then Uriel, the wisest of all the angels, steps forward and says, “I know a place where people will never look.” “Where?” they cried. “In the human soul.” And so, the angels hide the precious image of God deep within the human soul.

And to this day God’s image lies hidden in the very place we are least likely to search for it. In our own souls. In the souls of those sitting next to us. In our neighbors’ and friends’ souls—and even in those of our enemies. Within every human being lies God’s image. Too often we forget it’s right there. Too often we forget that it’s hiding in plain sight. God’s image is hiding right before our eyes—in people.

Our faith does not believe we are inherently good, that doing the right thing comes easily and naturally, but instead there lies within each of us the possibility for good, the potential to do better. Hiding within every human soul is God’s image. Our job is to figure out how to unlock it and how to see it in others.

There is a tendency these days to look at others and allow their one wrong to label them. We see a wrong and we clamor for justice. We wish to right the wrongs committed.

The Talmud, the great repository of Jewish wisdom, wrestles with this very question. A long time ago, in the first century CE to be exact, two great rabbis argued about how to address this conflict between justice and repentance. These two rabbis were Hillel and Shammai. Being rabbis, they did not agree about much. They argued about almost everything. They debated how many candles to light on the first night of Hanukkah. Shammai said eight. Hillel said one.

They saw the world through different lenses. Shammai believed in absolute justice. He thought that the most important thing was getting it right, no matter the cost. Hillel, on the other hand, was a peacemaker. He seemed to think that justice could at times be compromised. Community, and family, come before absolute justice.

Among their many disagreements is the following: Hillel said, “Always tell the bride she is beautiful on her wedding day.” Shammai countered, “Just, tell her the truth.” Shammai must have always been screaming and shouting about truth and justice. It makes you wonder if he had any followers—or if he was able to get a long-term contract. I imagine he had a congregation of one. Hillel won the day with his counsel. He saw the divine image first. “She is beautiful to her partner. They are beautiful in each other’s eyes. That is all the truth that really matters.” Shammai stubbornly pursued truth at all costs.

A person approached the two about converting to Judaism and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai said, “Get the hell out of here. How dare you demean Jewish learning and ask me to reduce it to a few sentences.” Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to another. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.” Hillel opened the door. Shammai remained unwavering in his commitment to truth and justice. Each represent legitimate perspectives. Only Hillel thought to unlock the divine image in everyone.

The Talmud reports about their argument concerning stolen property and in particular what we should do if that stolen item is now used for another purpose (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55a). “What happens,” the Talmud asks, “if a palace is built with a stolen beam?” Shammai responds, “Knock the house down.” It is, in a sense, rotten to the core. Its foundations are propped up by thievery and dishonesty. Hillel responds, “The thief must be pay for the value of the beam.” The house can remain standing. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we examined this text and discussed it at length. Many liked Shammai’s approach. To be honest I do as well. It gives one a sense of justice. Imagine what the person whose beam was stolen might think when looking at the palace. The Talmud of course anticipates these feelings. Why does Hillel rule in this manner? Why does Jewish law side with him rather than Shammai? Because his approach leaves open the possibility for repentance. And the Talmud, and Jewish tradition, want to leave that door open. It wants to leave open the possibility that someone can change and that the community can be made whole. Destroy the palace might seem like justice but all it really accomplishes is burning the house down. Then no one can use the beam again. And then, there is no possibility that the wrongdoer might change.

Shammai makes this day of Yom Kippur meaningless. He leaves all of us homeless. Sometimes all strict justice achieves is to take back what is rightfully ours or to take away what does not rightfully belong to another. It does not, however, accomplish the thing we most hope for, and what we most believe in. And that is repair. A person can change. That’s what this day is all about. And while none of us have stolen beams propping up our homes, all of us have done wrong, and have made mistakes. All we need to do is acknowledge these wrongs and seek repair. We have to figure out where those stolen beams of our lives might be. We have to acknowledge them. We have to figure out how to pay for them.

Among David Ben Gurion’s most controversial decisions was the reparations deal he brokered with Germany in the early 1950’s. By then Israel had resettled 500,000 Holocaust survivors. Leaders calculated that six billion dollars worth of Jewish property had been plundered by the Nazis. It was only a small majority of the Israeli Knesset that approved this reparations deal. It was an intensely controversial decision, and one that was accompanied by vociferous debate. Those on the right and left opposed it. Menachem Begin, a Holocaust survivor, led sometimes violent protests. People argued that accepting any money would be tantamount to forgiving Germany for its sins. Ben Gurion was a practical man and pressed forward. His fledgling country needed financial support. And so today, many of the buses and taxi cabs on Israel’s streets are Mercedes. In fact, Mercedes Benz is one of the few companies that reached a separate deal with Israel. In that 1988 deal the company admitted guilt and complicity for their WWII crimes.

I understand when people say that they will not buy any German products. I remember once hearing someone say she will never forgive the Germans, their children, grandchildren and even their great grandchildren. I understand and appreciate the emotion. I get the desire for justice. But Judaism also teaches about repentance and repair. I do not imagine that Ben Gurion was thinking about such Jewish principles when he advocated for this reparations deal. I reckon that all he was thinking about was his small country’s great needs. And yet his decision seems in keeping with Jewish tradition and belief. Of course justice for Eichmann y”s and all his henchmen, but leave open the door for change. These days there are a number of exchange programs involving Israeli and German youth. And now in the heart of Berlin, there is a striking monument to the murder of six million Jews, to the slaughter of six million of our people. It is a remarkable transformation. Germany erected a memorial to commemorate not its triumphs—there are no statues marking the bravery of Germany’s soldiers—but instead one to mark its sins.

This summer I ventured to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. I recognize this might sound like a strange destination for a rabbi, so let me explain. For two days a group of approximately fifty rabbis journeyed to Bryan Stevenson’s remarkable Legacy Museum and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice. We toured the prominent sights of the civil rights struggle, visiting Martin Luther King’s home and walking across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge where the 1965 voting rights march began. We met with Dr. Shirely Cherry who took us through Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Parsonage. She has now retired from a life of teaching. She told us how she managed to go to college. Her mother worked day and night in a cleaner’s. And there, on many occasions she was forced to press and iron Klan robes. Imagine that. An African American woman having to iron KKK robes during the early days of the civil rights struggle. Dr. Cherry then said, “You need some humor when you’re fighting against wrongs,” and she then quipped, “I am proud to say I went to college on a Klan scholarship.”

But the humor felt uncomfortable. I felt as if I walked across a bridge into a country with which I was unfamiliar. It was a shattering experience. Walking through the streets of Montgomery on our way to find a good cup of coffee, Susie and I stumbled past what was once the slave market. Meandering along the river walk I was struck that this very place was once the bustling heart of our nation’s slave trade. Twelve million people were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and brought here to be enslaved in America’s South. After the international slave trade was outlawed, the slave owners came to Montgomery to buy and sell people. I read of this history in books but felt as if I was unaware until seeing it with my own eyes.

The memorial in particular is striking. It marks this history of lynchings committed throughout the South. The names of counties where these barbaric crimes were committed are etched on large iron, rectangular fixtures suspended from on high. There were seemingly innumerable towns hanging above us, as if swaying from trees. Mirror images of these are arrayed in horizontal rows nearby. And there one is confronted by a sign that reads, “These are intended for the counties to take and erect in their town squares.” There is not one empty space. No county or town throughout the South has taken the Legacy Museum up on its offer. There remains little acknowledgment of past misdeeds. I longed to see but one empty space.

I returned home determined to acknowledge more and learn more. I remain determined to change. Prior to leaving I sought out our local clergy. Reverend Linda Vanager and her husband Harry from the nearby Hood AME Zion Church agreed to meet with me despite the rather peculiar nature of my request. “I am about to go to Alabama to learn more about our nation’s history. Will you meet with me and help me prepare for this mission?” They could not have been more gracious. They came to the synagogue. We peppered each other with questions. I learned more about their faith, their ministry, their personal stories. We came into our sanctuary. I unrolled a Torah scroll for them. We embraced after hours of conversation. I returned from my trip and now visited their church on Summit Street. I must admit. I had driven by this church on countless occasions but rarely if ever took note. And yet here it has stood since 1848. How, and why, was it established along with its nearby Pine Hollow cemetery? Because the church founders’ white employers did not want sit next to them or church, and pray alongside them, or even be buried next to them.

I want to learn more. These days in Alabama were embarrassingly revelatory. There are certain images I cannot get out of mind. I want our young people to travel there. Our nation has not come to terms with its history or its racism. I am not sure of the path forward. I have determined it begins with acknowledgment. Looking back, even the smallest of things must be examined.

I confessed to my newfound friends. I said, “I have been a swimmer for most of my life. There was never a person of color on any of the swim teams in which I participated. The reason why, we would repeat to each other, year after year, on every swim team of which I was a member, is because blacks have a different body chemistry than whites. They have too much muscle mass to be good swimmers.” Our high school locker room discussions became heated on the one occasion when we swam against a team with a black swimmer. We contorted facts to fit our long-held theory. That belief was repeated over and over again. We were convinced of its truth because our lives stood apart from another reality. Linda and Harry stared at me. Their eyes seem to say, “We thought you were smart.” The obvious answer never occurred to me. Swimming requires pools. It means having grown up boating and sailing. For God’s sake I won’t even swim laps in a hotel pool if it is not regulation length. Can you get any more privileged than that? You fool. You need access to pools in order to learn how to swim. It never occurred to me before this summer that one of my greatest joys is not accessible to far too many people. I feel fortunate, and lucky, that Linda and Harry still want to be my friends.

And I am left searching for those hidden, stolen beams that prop up my own life. And I do not know how to effectuate repair. I do not even know where to begin. I am trying to listen to the voices of others. This day of Yom Kippur is about acknowledging our errors. And so, I begin by making this small confession. This day is also about believing that people can change.

There is a path to repentance. Acknowledge the error. Look for the divine image within others. Search for the divine image within yourself.

Rabbi Shammai added, “And always greet everyone with a smile.” That seems odd coming from him. Everything I know about Shammai would suggest that he grimaced more than he smiled, he shouted far more than he spoke measured words of softness. I imagine that Shammai had a mighty struggle within himself. He was preaching to himself. He seemed to be saying, keep on searching for that divine countenance. He so believed in truth and justice that sometimes that hidden, divine image became obscured from view. Sometimes it even obscured the divine image within his own soul. Perhaps the best sermon, and the best advice, is the one that you have the most trouble observing and doing yourself.

I am left searching for the image in myself. I am searching for the image in others.

Judaism believes in people. It does not believe that people are wholly good. It also conversely does not believe that people are wholly bad. The stain, and error, does not forever mark us. There is however a potential for good in each of us. We have to search for that good in ourselves and in others. We have to look for that divine image. It may be hiding. But it also can be found.

That search begins tonight. That search begins on this Yom Kippur.


Friday, October 4, 2019

Lane Assist Prayers

Recently I signed a new car lease. Why, you might ask, would a rabbi make his lease renewal date only days before Rosh Hashanah? Because his thoughts were elsewhere, focused on just about any other topic. For me a car is only about getting from point A to point B in the safest, and comfortable, and most affordable, manner possible. I don’t really pay attention to all of the new developments, and advances, in the automotive industry. I do, however, pay far more attention to such things when it comes to bicycles.

And so I was surprised to discover that my new car comes with a host of new features. In three years a lot seems to have changed. Let’s hear it for CarPlay! I am finding it somewhat difficult to adjust to the gas saving feature of the car’s engine turning off at a stoplight. Most remarkable of all is the lane assist technology. A confession. It beeps several times on my short drive from my home to the synagogue. And at times, this new technology, flashes green and gently pulls the car back into the lane.

This seems like the perfect way to understand the upcoming Yom Kippur prayers.

Yom Kippur is all about pulling us back into the lane...

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Antisemitism All Over Again

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning.

Let’s talk about anti-Semitism – again. To be honest, I don’t very much want to talk about it. I would prefer to talk about just about anything else. I always prefer to speak about the positive, about what makes us sing rather than cry, what makes us dance rather than what makes us afraid, but this year is different.

How could I not talk about anti-Semitism in a year when not just one American synagogue was attacked but two, when Jews were murdered as they did the most Jewish of things, give thanks for the blessing of the seventh day?

How could I be silent when eleven Jews were murdered as they gathered for Shabbat prayers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue? The sacred phrase, tree of life, now has a tainted resonance.

How could I as well speak about something else when the State of Israel continues to be vilified and even compared to Nazis in progressive, liberal circles?

How can I remain silent when those who murder Jews are praised among those who profess to champion the rights of women and minorities?

How can I talk about singing and dancing when synagogues are vandalized, when Jews are attacked in our city’s streets and the walls of our own nearby park spray painted with swastikas? I could go on. But I need not. The examples come at an almost daily pace.

I very much wish I could pick up the phone and speak with Annie...