Friday, July 3, 2020

The Voice of Others

A few poems.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest and English poet, writes:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And through the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
And Denise Levertov, a twentieth century American poet, offers:
Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools now wave renews.
Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters flood inward.
Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
the ocean.
Hafiz, the fourteenth century Persian poet, affirms:
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The Saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.
And this week, in our Torah, we discover another poem:
How fair are you tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water…
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)
So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites. King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.

“Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…” With these words we begin our morning prayers.

So records our Torah.

And so, we are reminded. Torah is about more than just listening to our own voice.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Prophet or Rebel?

The prophets of old shouted and railed against injustices. Few listened. At best they were surrounded by a small number of loyal, disciples. Most ignored their pleas. They turned a deaf ear to their screams. And yet, centuries later, we turn to their words for inspiration.

The prophet Isaiah declares:

Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin….
This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him
And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58)

And yet, despite the fact that we read these words every Yom Kippur, Isaiah’s shouts and cries remain muted. He was ignored in his own generation. He is still by and large ignored today.

Perhaps it is because communities, and even countries, too easily become unraveled by such screams. Is this why the prophet Jeremiah was jailed? Prophets, with their calls for change and their demands to undo injustices, are threats to the established order. Where they see injustices aplenty, others see an unraveling of what they have come to love and an undoing of the many comforts they now enjoy.

Is it possible that Korah was a prophet? The tradition answers with an emphatic, “No.” Korah, and his followers, question Moses’ leadership. They say, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst.” (Numbers 16) The Torah judges these words to be the fomenting of rebellion. God sides with Moses. The earth then swallows up Korah and his followers.

I am thinking that there is a very thin line between prophecy and rebellion.

The Talmud counsels: “The world endures on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 89a). The prophets quarrel with everything. They see injustices everywhere. The world might not very well endure if we are led by prophets.

Then again, the world might never change, or be made better, if we fail to heed their words.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel opines:

This is our tragedy: the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitment…. Our faith is too often tinged with arrogance, self-righteousness. It is even capable of becoming demonic. Even the creeds we proclaim are in danger of becoming idolatry. Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion, or deception. There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel. Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The Law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized. (“No Religion is an Island”)

We cannot quarrel with everyone and everything. And yet, we must heed the prophetic voice. Some things must change and must not be allowed to endure.

“Prophet or rebel?” is the question that continues to haunt us.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Why Juneteenth Matters

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat Services on June 19th.  Join us every Friday evening at 7 pm on Facebook Live. 

David Ben Gurion once said:
Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on this voyage? Or what quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left—the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate. Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled. They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves. Next year, free men. This year here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.
Ben Gurion offers a remarkable insight. Our Passover celebrations are about remembering our going free from Egypt. Every symbol on our tables is meant to do one of two things: on the one hand, to recall the pain and suffering of slavery, i.e. eating the haroset and maror or on the other hand, to celebrate the joy of being free, namely drinking four cups of wine and reclining. Why do we observe this holiday? Why do we celebrate Passover, over 3000 years after the event it commemorates? So that we might not only remember our own pain but also so that we might be sensitive to the pain of others. We eat matzah so that we might be better attuned to the suffering not just of Jews but of all people. The Torah makes clear what the symbolic gestures of the Seder imply. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23). You know what it feels like. That’s the Passover message in a nutshell.

The killing of George Floyd has shaken me. It has awakened in a great many people feelings of empathy, indignation, and despair. We have come to realize we are still not doing better. To be sure I should have been shaken years ago, and even decades ago. And I have spent the past weeks not only reading, and trying to learn more, but also examining my own attitudes and views. A verse in this week’s Torah portion sounds much different than it has in other years. Here is this week’s story that led to this newfound revelation. After returning from scouting the land, ten spies deliver a negative report, and fomented discord among the newly freed Israelites. They say, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey… [But] the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13). My brethren are being devoured. I watched it on CNN. It unfolded right before my eyes.

Van Jones, a commentator who I find intelligent, insightful and who struggles still to work across party lines, remarked that there has always been a tension between the dreams of our nation’s founders and the reality in which they lived and thrived. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of our Declaration of Independence, is also the man who owned slaves and fathered children with at least one of these slave women. He is the same person who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I look inward, as I search within my soul, as I peer into the nation that has almost exclusively offered my family and me promise and opportunity, these truths no longer appear as self-evident as they once did. I recall the history lessons of my youth. Growing up in St. Louis I remember studying the Civil War. The teacher opined, “The war was really about secession. It was not about slavery.” And I dutifully regurgitated that opinion on my test so that I might be awarded an A. Yesterday it occurred to me—and I mean literally yesterday, because until these past weeks it never even entered my mind to more closely examine that teaching—that this is like saying, “World War II was really about the invasion of Poland. It was not about the Holocaust.” This makes no sense. This makes no sense, most especially to my Jewish ears.

The Nazi’s murderous and antisemitic ideology drove it to savage Europe and slaughter six million of my people. The ideology that Jews were sub-human animated this regime. Likewise, slavery, and the ideology that Black lives are worth less than White lives, that people of color are less than human, that other human beings, who we believe, and our Jewish teachings loudly declare are created in the image of God, can be bought and sold as property, animated the South. For the soldiers of the Confederacy, the ideology of slavery led them to charge into battle. And the fact that we are still arguing about this, and denying this basic fact, and teaching that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is why we find ourselves in our current situation, a situation in which the lives of our fellow Americans who are people of color, can be killed in broad daylight by the very people who are meant to protect us—and I mean protect all of us, that is protect every single American. The safety, rescue and protection that I feel when the police drive by is not what all law-abiding Americans see. Through his tears, Van Jones, exclaimed this moment in which we now find ourselves might be different. He said, “A black man was killed, and people care.” People care. S’lach li. Forgive me for not paying attention when it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or the countless others. Forgive me for turning away and not doing more to fight racism.

150 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still far too many remnants of the racist ideology that almost destroyed our nation and threatens to rip us apart once again. Things must change. And they must change now. No more statues venerating Confederate leaders. No more Confederate flags symbolizing what was supposed to be a defeated ideology. No more military bases named for Confederate generals. Sure, study their tactics in War Colleges and offer praise for their strategies if warranted, but their names do not below in the public squares of a nation that wants to truly live up to its founding dream that all are created equal.

Second, mark today, this day of Juneteenth on your calendars. Mark it as we do Passover. Remember that on this day, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining slaves were delivered the news that they were free. Allow that lesson, a lesson that I was never taught in all my required American history classes, to sink in. People endured more years of slavery because it took that long for the news to reach Galveston, Texas and the far reaches of the Confederacy. Juneteenth represents the very idea we celebrate on Passover and the very best dreams of this country’s founders. This is not a rewriting of history. It is instead a correcting of how we teach history. This day must come to mark an honest accounting of our nation’s struggle to square its sometimes-tortured realities with its loftiest dreams and visions of itself. Only an honest accounting, and forthright reckoning, will do.

And finally, commit to learning more about the pain and suffering of our fellow Americans. When I speak about antisemitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular, and most especially to non-Jewish groups I ask two things of my listeners: 1) that they acknowledge historical truths, namely the countless antisemitic persecutions our people have endured and regarding the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic determination to exterminate our people, and 2) that they understand our pain. #1 must come before #2. I never really expect that they will understand what it really feels like to stand in my shoes, that they might feel this history as I feel it and as a Jew feels it. That would be unrealistic, and even illogical.

And so, I have resolved. I am not going to ask one of my few Black friends (and that small number should in itself stand as an embarrassment and indictment) to explain his or her pain to me. I worry that may only do more to assuage my guilt than to rectify our problems. What then are we going to do in this moment? I can tell you what I am going to do first. And you are welcome to join me. I am going to redo my homework from those high school years. I am going to relearn my history. I am going to read more and learn more. Watch the documentary “13th” with me. It is eye opening. Join me for a discussion of this movie. Bring your middle schoolers and high schoolers to the discussion. Email me if you are interested in joining me on this journey.

The healing begins with a renewed call to learning and listening. The repair could very well start by adding one more holiday to our calendar. Think of all that began not only with our going out from Egypt but with our sustained, and stubborn, remembrance of that historical moment at our Passover Seders. Our fellow Americans may be uplifted by such a day just as we continue to be uplifted, every year on the 15th of Nisan. It is long past time that the pain of our fellow Americans becomes our pain. We know all too well the feelings of the stranger. And no one should be made to feel like a stranger ever again.

Friday, June 19, 2020

We Are Only as Small as We Think We Are

There are days when everything appears as giants. And every problem appears insurmountable.

How will we ever overcome this pandemic? Or its consequent economic downturn? Will life ever return to what it was once like? How will we eradicate racism from our country, from American culture and its institutions? What more can we do to uplift the lives, and livelihoods, of our fellow Americans who are Black?

The questions appear enormous. The problems feel like foreboding giants.

When the spies returned from scouting the land of Israel, they offered this report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13)

Why did they see themselves as small grasshoppers? Perhaps it was because they were beaten down by this new experience of wandering in the wilderness? Then again perhaps it was because they still saw themselves as slaves. After hundreds of years of slavery, they could not imagine they would be able to overcome their enemies and achieve any measure of success.

These words are why the Israelites must now wander for forty years. God determines that only a generation born in freedom can build a nation of its own.

Still I wonder. How did they know how they appeared to others? And this is perhaps the ten spies’ most worrisome, and even insidious, claim. They had such poor self-esteem and self-worth that they imagined everyone saw themselves as small as they saw themselves.

In the end, it’s one thing to see mounting problems as gigantic. It’s an added thing to see ourselves as too small, or too unprepared, or even too unwilling, to tackle these immense challenges. It’s an unforgivable thing entirely to imagine that others, in particular our enemies, whether they be viruses or other nations, see us as tiny grasshoppers who can be smashed underfoot.

We can overcome whatever we believe ourselves able to overcome! Much of our challenges can be overcome by faith, by faith in God and belief in our abilities to surmount any and all difficulties.

When King David was just a boy the Israelites’ enemy were the mighty Philistines. They were led by the giant Goliath. Every soldier was afraid to go into battle against Goliath. Even King Saul was frightened. But David was unafraid. Even though he was just a small boy he ventured out into the open field without any armor. He brought only a slingshot. And the legend was born. David killed Goliath, striking him with a small stone between the eyes.

David had faith. He had confidence. He did not seem himself as a small boy despite the fact that every other soldier was taller, and stronger, than him.

There really is only one question. Are we going to be the like the ten spies? Or are we instead going to be like Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who believed that despite immense odds the Israelites would succeed? Joshua and Caleb recognized the realities and threats, but they still had faith their people could succeed. They did not view themselves as small. Are we likewise going to be as confident as David or as cowering as the rest of the Israelite soldiers? Even the best armor, and greatest military might, cannot overcome challenges if people don’t believe they can be overcome.

Of course, it is not a matter of turning on and off a switch. It is not as stark as the stories suggest.

There will be moments in the coming weeks, months and years when we will feel like the ten spies, when we will see ourselves as small as grasshoppers unable to overcome any challenges. And there will be other moments when we will discover the confidence of Joshua and Caleb and the faith of King David, and n we will see ourselves as mighty and able to overcome even the most gigantic challenges.

My prayer is simple. I pray that these latter moments will be more numerous than the former.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

No More Complaining

This week we read a litany of complaints. There is the complaint about Moses’ leadership: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12) and the complaint about the food in the wilderness. Listen to the Israelites: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11)

But the manna is not meant to be looked at. It is instead meant for eating. It provides ample sustenance. Instead the Israelites just stare at it. The Hebrew implies, “There is nothing but this manna before our eyes.” I wonder. Is it the lack of variety that leads to the Israelites’ complaints? “Really, pasta again tonight!?”

Or is it instead that in Egypt the food was provided for them? Even though they were slaves, the food was free. What a bitter irony these words offer. The Israelites may not have paid for their food, or even worked to prepare it, but they toiled day and night, and lived (and died) according to their taskmasters’ yes or no. It was not really free. They paid for it with their lives. And yet, the newly free Israelites, remain dissatisfied and complaining.

Then again free people do a lot of complaining about food. “I want some of those delicious shitake mushrooms! I want my blackberries. I want, I want, I want…”. How often I have complained during these past few months about the food that was now unavailable at the store? I should not have said, “There is nothing but this…to look at,” and instead offered, “Thank God there is food enough to eat.” Isn’t that the not so hidden message of manna?

Sustenance is not about the food, but instead about the state in which we enjoy it. Think of our Jewish mourning rituals. The first thing a mourner is supposed to do after returning from the cemetery, and after washing their hands, is to eat. The foods prescribed for this meal of consolation (seudat havraah) are hard boiled eggs in Ashkenazi circles and lentils in Sephardic homes. Both foods symbolize life. This is not of course what mourners feel like doing. In fact, the impulse is to do the opposite.

Denial, or fasting, seem more emotionally appropriate. They are more in keeping with the state of a mourner’s feelings. And yet Judaism commands the mourner, “Eat.” It is not a feast of course; it is instead meant as manna. It is intended as sustenance. Even though devastated by grief, the mourner has to go on living. They are sustained not by memories.

Now, they feast on stories. They eat to live.

Their sustenance is found instead in these words of remembrance.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Maybe We Are All Racists

I recall some years ago, when I happened to be in the traffic court of a beautiful Long Island hamlet (we will leave unsaid why I was there) and I remember looking around and noticing something very distinct. The vast majority of those joining me on that day were not White, but Black and Latino. And on that day, and in that moment, I said nothing about this glaring disparity and galling incongruity. In fact, I said to myself, “I guess they are really bad drivers.” This memory has been running through my mind as I begin to take in the protests precipitated by the killing of George Floyd z”l.

Black men and boys are two and a half times more likely to die during a police encounter than their white counterparts. Individuals from minority communities are also far more likely to be stopped by police. In addition, those stops are more apt to result in frisks, searches, and arrests. Ninety percent of those in New York City’s local jails are people of color.

This is not so much an indictment of the police. It is instead an indictment of every one of us. Police, and policing, are a reflection of the communities they serve. Ask yourself these questions....

Friday, May 29, 2020

Renewing and Reinterpreting Torah

People often think that the Torah provides an exact guide for leading a Jewish life. This is simply not the case. They say as well, “Herein one finds the 613 mitzvot—commandments.” Again, although these mitzvot are derived from the five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they are not arranged there in numerical fashion. Long ago the rabbis said there were 613 commandments, but it was not clear how they derived this number. It was not until the medieval period that commentators started enumerating this list.

And here is another surprise. Each of these commentators’ lists are organized in different manners. The details are not exactly the same. It’s not that there is debate over whether or not Shabbat observance is a mitzvah, it is instead how many commandments are contained therein or what number it occupies the list. Does one begin the list with the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply” or instead with the first positive commandment: “Believe in God?” We are dependent on a body of interpretation, and generations of interpreters, in order to give us the detailed instructions, and laws, that we call Judaism.

The Torah does not describe Jewish observance and belief. It is instead the groundwork upon which we build, and continue to construct, our tradition. We are not fundamentalists. We do not point to the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter, and say, “This is exactly how we should do things.” Otherwise, to cite one obvious example, we would be sacrificing animals rather than reciting the Shema and Amidah.

What makes us Jews more than anything else is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. We pore over the Torah’s words in order to glimpse what God wants of us. We gain mere glimmers. These truths are refracted through millennia of interpretations. The glasses through which we look are those of preceding generations of interpreters. We continue to interpret in our own day. We look through these glasses not at them.

On this holiday of Shavuot, we renew our commitment to Torah. It’s not so much the book but the study of Torah that makes us Jews and continues to give us Judaism. And that more than anything else is what we celebrate on this holiday. If we are not sitting around the table—even if this year, it is a virtual table—and debating the Torah’s verses and words we are not renewing our Jewish faith.

Rabbi Yehoshua, a great sage, once said: “There cannot be a beit midrash (study hall) without a hiddush (novel idea).” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 3a).

Our holy task is to study and forever come up with new and innovative ideas. These only emerge when we go over the Torah’s words—together.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Counting Each and Every Person

We begin studying the fourth book of the Torah this week. We open to the first chapter of Numbers and read: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral homes…”. Later the Torah reports the census’ tally. 603,550 Israelites.

That is an extraordinary number. The tradition recognizes the magnitude of seeing so many Jews in one place and so prescribes a blessing for those who might be privileged to witness the sight of 600,000 or more Jews. We say, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, knower of secrets (chacham harazeem).”

It is a curious blessing. Why not say words that acknowledge the magnitude of the sight or the vastness of the number? Instead the tradition appears to point us away from the crowd, the mass of people, and instead towards the individual. The Talmud concurs. “Why do we say this particular blessing? It is because God sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other and God knows what is in each of their hearts.”

It is as if to say, “Look away from the crowd. Think instead about what resides in each and every individual heart.”

According to another tradition there are the same number of 603,500 letters in a Torah scroll. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, an eighteenth-century Hasidic master, comments: “Just as the absence of one letter renders a Torah unfit for use, so too the loss of even one Jew prevents the Jewish people from fulfilling its mission.”

Each and every one of us matters. Every individual counts.

Just as the Torah’s individual letters are beautifully calligraphed and the pieces of parchment stitched together, so too we are bound to one another.

We may be unique individuals, with different thoughts and aspirations, but we need each other. Whatever secrets we might hold in our hearts, we are bound to one another.

There should be no secret in that truth.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Study Is Its Own Reward

The rabbis argued that Torah study is its own reward. They famously said that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is equal to such lofty commandments as honoring one’s parents, engaging in deeds of lovingkindness, arriving early for study, extending hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, dancing with wedding couples, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer and making peace between neighbors. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)

Why would study be of equal merit to the difficult task of visiting the sick or the uplifting duty of dancing with wedding couples? Some have suggested that it is because study leads to action. I remain skeptical that this is always the case. Study can offer its own promise. Study can provide a measure of comfort. To be honest, during these past few months, I have discovered new meaning in this practice.

Part of the meaning is uncovered in the fact that we have now succeeded in making Torah study a regular habit. Every Tuesday at 1 pm we gather to study and discuss the weekly Torah portion. Some join us every week. Others join us on occasion. Never before have we been able to sustain this regular practice. And while I am certainly not grateful that it took our present worrisome circumstances to provide this opportunity, I am thankful that this has once again become part of my weekly routine.

There is comfort in this rhythm. There is solace in reading aloud the verses of our holy writ. It’s not that we uncover answers to our many questions. In fact, more often than not we discover even more questions. Oftentimes they remain unresolved. And yet there is comfort to be gained in the practice. There is elucidation to be found in our discussions.

It is only when sitting across from others, even on Zoom, that we find new meanings in these ancient words. And so, this week I discovered something that had remained hidden. The portion begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce…” (Leviticus 26:3). The Hebrew, however, does not state “follow” but instead “walk.”

One has to get up and walk. To follow suggests that God is leading us forward. To walk implies the choice is more in our hands. It is up to us to get up and go. It is our decision what we do or do not do. The Torah continues. If we walk after God’s laws, then we will receive many blessings. The rains will fall in their proper seasons and our crops will be plentiful. We will be protected from enemies and will only know peace. The list continues. If we observe the commandments, then only good will befall us.

Questions remain. There are plenty of people who do plenty of good who do not receive these promised rewards. Many, if not all of us, can cite a multitude of examples that would illustrate the injustices we see and the incompatibility of the Torah’s promise with everyday realities. The exactness of this chapter’s formula is not what we observe in the real world.

The concluding promise offers that God will be by our side as long as we observe these commandments. “I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Leviticus 26:11) Once again the translation is more of an interpretation than exacting rendition. The Hebrew again uses the word “walk.” It should not read “I will be ever present in your midst” but instead “I will walk among you.”

Thus, the notion of walking serves as bookends. It is as if to say, “If we walk then God walks.” And I believe this translation might soften the apparent harshness of the Torah’s if-then formula.

Questions of course remain. Injustices abound. I take comfort in my study and the occasional discoveries it offers. If we walk, then God walks. Perhaps all I need to do, all I have to do, is just get up and walk.

And then perhaps God might walk. Or at the very least it might appear that God walks—among us.

Study is indeed its own reward.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

New Meanings in Old Stories

Lag B’Omer is a mysterious holiday. It occurs this coming Tuesday. Its meaning, and origins, are curious. Its name is clear enough. It is the thirty-third day of the Omer. The Omer is the period in which we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. The Torah relates: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23)

The rabbis make clear what the Torah leaves obscure. We count the days from Passover to Shavuot. We connect these two ancient agricultural festivals when our ancestors moved from Passover’s harvest of barley to Shavuot’s of wheat. We bind the freedom celebrated on Passover with the Torah given on Shavuot. Freedom must be bound to commitment.

Long ago, our people worried about the impending harvest and asked, “Would the wheat crop be bountiful?” This led to the Omer gaining semi-mourning status in which wedding celebrations, for example, are forbidden. These restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer.

The rabbis again elaborate. (Those rabbis can really tell some stories.) In the days of Rabbi Akiva a plague decimated his followers, killing thousands of the famed rabbi’s students. But then, on Lag B’Omer, the plague mysteriously ebbed. The sick recovered and regained their strength. People left their homes. They congregated once again in large groups. (That would be my rabbinic tale. I pray. May it be so! May it come to pass in our own day!) And thus, Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration in which these prohibitions are lifted.

The rabbis continue spinning their tales. Lag B’Omer, they teach, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a contemporary of Akiva, who was spared the plague and even the destruction that the Romans meted out after the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion. It is possible that the plague was a rabbinic euphemism for this rebellion and the destruction that followed.

According to tradition, Shimon bar Yohai, is the author of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. On Lag B’Omer people flock to his grave. They exclaim that he is a light that continues to illuminate our paths. They dance around giant bonfires. They cut children’s hair for the first time because this too is forbidden during the Omer.

But Rabbi Shimon was a strange, and mercurial, figure. Because he defied the Romans, teaching Torah, even after they mercilessly defeated the Jews, he was sentenced to death. He, and his son, managed to escape and hide in a cave. And there they hid, sustained by a miraculous carob tree and well, for twelve years. They continued their study of Torah while in hiding. Sustained only by water and carobs, he and his son studied day and night.

When Shimon and his son Elazar finally emerged from the cave, he became enraged that people were going about their business and not devoting themselves to studying Torah. How could they be doing mundane things like plowing and sowing? The Talmud reports: “Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned.” God then chastised them, “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.” And so, they returned to the cave for another year. This time Rabbi Shimon emerged a changed man. “Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.” (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

“What a bizarre story!” I exclaim every year when I reread it around this holiday of Lag B’Omer. And yet this year it is taking on new meaning. Our tradition’s stories and texts appear different in the shadow of Covid-19. That is of course one of the wonders of tradition. If we hold on to its tales long enough, they speak to us in new, and different, ways. Perhaps they lead us out of our current despair. And so, while I do not very much like carobs, my home has become my cave. And your home has become your cave. There we are banished to its comforts. I am trapped within its walls, and although more often than not feasting on home cooked meals, Shimon’s fears, and even at times his scorn, of the outside world have become my own.

Perhaps that person, standing next to me in the vegetable aisle, is a danger to me.

Perhaps I could inadvertently, and unknowingly, infect someone.

The Talmud warns. The retreat to the inner world offers a tempting allure. It can make us hate what lies outside our doors. I remind myself. I did not choose to retreat. I do so for the sake of others. This cave is likewise imposed.

And I must too stay long enough to bring healing.

For now, I hold on to the stories. I hold on to the legends. I pour over their words. The ancient tradition offers new meaning and unexpected sustenance.

The light will one day emerge.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Celebrating Israel

I begin with a confession. In addition to watching all of the seasons of Money Heist, I binged on season three of Fauda, the Israeli drama that depicts the battles of a counter-terrorism unit. It is a gripping series. The season concludes on a depressing note. The cycle of violence does not end. One terrorist is killed, and his plans are thwarted only to have another take his place. Spoiler alert. An informant, and unknowing collaborator, becomes so enraged at the trickery and betrayal, that he becomes a terrorist leader and murderer.

Although the show is wildly popular, in Israel and throughout the world, and even in Arab countries, I worry about its depressing conclusion. I refuse to accept this idea that we cannot escape the cycle of kill or be killed. I do not wish to believe that we are forever trapped in what the poet Yehuda Amichai once called the Had Gadya machine.
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Had Gadya" machine.
The show’s creators, Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, former counter-terrorist operatives, suggest that Fauda offers a sympathetic portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians. They have heard from Arab viewers that the show helped them to understand the pain of Israelis. And they have reported that Jewish viewers offer that the series has helped them to sympathize Palestinian suffering. There is a measure of truth to this claim. And yet I cannot escape the feeling with which the show’s conclusion left me.

We are trapped.

And so, I turned to what I often do on such occasions when such feelings overwhelm me. To the books of poetry, most especially Hebrew poetry, that line my shelves. I opened a book by a newly discovered poet. Rivka Miriam, writes:
I remained alone
and sat on a bench
speaking to God about the people I met
who suddenly left me alone.
I told him about the flowers I loved to smell,
about the wide fields.
I remained alone under the sky
and didn’t know if there was sky anymore.
I sat in the middle on a bench
And spoke to God about the sky
that I’m no longer sure is still there, or where,
whether it envelopes me
or perhaps I’m wrapped around it.
We tend to view Israel through its conflicts. We remember where we were when first heard of Israel’s victories on June 10th of 1967 or the stinging attacks of Yom Kippur 1973 or the cheers in the summer of 1976 after the rescue at Entebbe. We relish in the Jewish state’s chutzpah in the face of history. We take comfort in how Israel has overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

We measure one another’s commitment through the prism of these conflicts. We judge one another’s devotion to Israel by where one stands on the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. We look at each other with judgment. We hurl accusations at friends. Love of Israel is defined in ideological and political terms.

On this Yom Haatzmaut I turn instead to the poetry of Israel’s successes. I wish to look beyond its military achievements. The Hebrew language is reborn. Hebrew poems are composed. Hebrew books are published. Isn’t that achievement enough—at least on this one day?

The Jewish spirit is rekindled. Is this a measure of our security?

At the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC I listened intently to Naama Moshinsky who helped create the International School of Peace, a joint venture of Israeli youth movements, both Jewish and Arab, built to make a difference helping refugees in Greece. I can still hear her words, “My home in Israel is only four hours’ drive from Damascus. But the first time I met a Syrian was in the island of Lesbos. The island holds more than 8,000 children without a country to call home.”

Here was an Israeli who felt secure enough in her home that she ventured far from the safety of its borders to help others feel at home. And I realized that for all the talk about security, and all the dramas fashioned for TV, Israel is first and foremost about fashioning that sense of home in our hearts. The Declaration of Independence states that the spiritual, and existential, problem facing the Jewish people was its “homelessness.” Zionism means the creation of such a home.

Having a home means that we can care not only for ourselves but for others.

Too often we think that the meaning of home is found in shoring up its boundaries. It is about delineating fences and borders. Perhaps the true meaning of having a home is the security it fashions in our hearts.

To write poems. And to reach out to those in need.

On this Yom Haatzmaut this is what I choose to celebrate.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

No Eulogies for the Holocaust

When preparing for funerals I often share with families that it is impossible to adequately capture a person’s spirit and character in a few, well-chosen words, sentences and paragraphs. Eulogies are imperfect. Although important, they are inadequate representations of people’s lives. No life can be perfectly summarized. No life can be encapsulated in poetry or prose.

I recall this sentiment at this moment as I reflect on the memories of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. For very few, if any, was a eulogy recited. No prayers were chanted. In fact, we recall them en masse and as a single memory. “The six million!” we intone. Their individuality, their unique character traits, the large things around which their lives turned and the small things that only their families and friends knew, and perhaps loved, are forgotten. Such sentiments have never been recorded in even the briefest of eulogies.

“I remember when Sarah…. I recall when Jacob…” are words that were never said or heard. When we offer the words of eulogies, we convey that the lives we remember are valued. They signify that the lives of our family members and friends continue to have meaning. We recall what was unique about each of their individual lives.

And this is what the Nazis robbed us of as well. The six million were stripped of their humanity in life and in death. We cannot even remember them as we should. We cannot even eulogize them as they deserve. Their individuality was destroyed.

Primo Levi, one of the most eloquent of survivors, penned many words in order to give expression to these sentiments. His seminal work first written in Italian in 1959, If This Is a Man and translated into English with the inaccurate title of Survival in Auschwitz, struggles to convey the dehumanization of the camps. He writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom…. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”

I do not know if this is possible…six million times over. And even if it is possible, there is not enough days, and months, and years, to remember each of these individual lives.

Soon after his liberation from Auschwitz, in 1946, Levi writes a poem. He entitles it “Shema.”
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces: 
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter. 
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
We continue to avert our faces. And we remain unable to write the words that might offer remembrances of our murdered six million. We question. Has this become our new prayer? Must this become our new Shema?

We have come to realize. We cannot intone enough prayers to sanctify each of their lives. We cannot recount their individual names.

Perhaps we must begin with one. And then two. Some might have the strength to read more. We must count, and recall, as many names as each of us can carry.

“I commend these words to you.”

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Swimming in Hope

In her recent article, “What I Miss Most is Swimming,” Bonnie Tsui writes:
There’s a poignancy to being a swimmer now, in that we’re not able to do it just when we need it most. But even though public pools are closed and we are limited in the wild places where we can swim, thinking about immersion in our favorite watering holes is still a balm. As the writer Heather Hansman pointed out to me recently, there is value in those places even (and especially) when we’re not in them — it’s what Wallace Stegner called “the geography of hope.”
I have been thinking about how we create such a geography of hope when we are trapped inside. (And when I cannot even swim in the chlorinated pools of our local gyms or locate the soothing balm of the ocean’s waves.). And so, I do what I often do, and lean on the ancient rabbis who even though they lived thousands of years ago, remain my teachers and guides.

Living at a time when their beloved Temple was destroyed and they were exiled from the holy city of Jerusalem, they fashioned prayers that touched on these geographies and instilled hope in the hearts of countless generations of Jews. To this day we conclude our Passover Seders, as we did only last week, with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” It is difficult to imagine that for centuries, nay millennia, we said these words even though returning to Jerusalem was a distant, and impossible, dream.

And I would add, that we have now returned to Jerusalem, and rebuilt and revitalized the land of Israel, we too often take for granted.

At every wedding ceremony, we sing the words of the Sheva Brachot and say, “O God, may there always be heard in the cities of Israel and in the streets of Jerusalem: the sounds of joy and happiness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play.” And then a glass is broken in remembrance of that now distant and remote sadness of Jerusalem’s destruction and we shout “Mazel tov.” We then adjourn for the dancing and celebration.

Even though these rabbinic imaginings seemed the most remote of possibilities, a geography of hope was created through their words and prayers. They transported us there even though we remained here. We may not have been dancing in the streets of Jerusalem, but we were still dancing. And in that swirling hora hope was instilled again and again.

I remind myself. If the rabbis could sustain this hope for millennia, then I can for a few weeks, or months, or even years. The memories of past horas sustain me. The promise of future dances rekindles my faith. “Next year!”

My teachers and guides did so not only by composing prayers that we lean on to this very day, but also by declaring that our homes are our temples. The home is called a “mikdash maat—small sanctuary.” It is here where we can find holiness. Our dining room tables, or kitchen tables, or even our living room couches where we watch Netflix together, can become the altar upon which we elevate our lives. Just as the ancients once did with the sacrifices, they offered in Jerusalem’s Temple we turn to our homes and its tables.

It is here that we can recite blessings. It is here where we can bless our children. It is here that we can laugh, and sing, with family members—even if they join us by FaceTime and Zoom. We need not travel to an ocean or river or lake. We need not pilgrimage to a mountain top or wilderness park or even a holy city.

It can be found here and not there. It always can be found here.

This is why this week’s Torah portion offers a religious discipline for the most mundane, and of course necessary, human acts. It offers a list of permitted and forbidden foods to eat, namely the laws of keeping kosher. We must eat. Either we can eat like animals because we must, and we are hungry, or we can pause and give thanks before savoring the meal. And one way that Judaism suggests a meal is consecrated is by saying “yes” to some foods and “no” to others. Why? “For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11)

Our tables provide all the holiness we require.

Our home is the only place to which we need travel. It is exactly the geography of hope for which we long. It is the destination which will sustain us through the coming weeks.

One day soon we will dance in the waters of hope.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Embracing the Seder's Order

According to Jewish tradition, the Book of Kohelet was written by King Solomon when he was an older man. It offers a melancholy appraisal of life, suggesting that we are fated to bounce back and forth between highs and lows. Solomon laments:
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: a time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; a time for slaying and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up; a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing; a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for discarding; a time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking; a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace. (Kohelet 3)
Kohelet offers a painfully true insight. It is a wisdom that Solomon’s age affords him. His years have taught him difficult lessons. Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared for it or not, we will at some point be confronted with all emotions, with laughing and weeping, dancing and wailing. We will have opportunities to mourn and rejoice. I have never, until now, and until these days, believed one of the phrases Solomon offers. “There is a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces.” I refused to heed his wisdom.

I have long believed, and forever taught, that Judaism is about wrapping our arms around each other. We are commanded to do so at the best of times, when we for example grab our friends and swirl about in a hora or at the worst of times, when we offer hugs of consolation. These days however demand something far different of us. For the sake of life, we must now shun embraces. And I hate the fact that Solomon was right.

This evening begins Passover and its customary seder. I would usually be running up and down the stairs, carrying additional chairs for the many guests who would soon walk through our doors and who I would welcome with embraces, with hugs and kisses. I would be adding leaves to the dining room table to make extra room at our dining room table. We would soon squeeze into our dining room, shoulder to shoulder, so that all could fit around the table.

This Passover, this familiar ritual, this usual order appears upended.

The word seder means order. This is because there is of course a time-tested order to how we perform the rituals of Passover evening. We have four cups of wine. We always conclude with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The word for prayerbook as well, siddur, is likewise about ordering prayers. It is about structuring events. That’s how we do things. There is a prescribed prayer to recite when beginning our morning prayers. We say the Shema in the morning and the evening. There are words we lean on when concluding a wedding ceremony.

A religious life seeks to place order, to layer meaning, on our lives, to lift even higher our most joyous moments, and to hold us steady when we feel as if we are falling. It offers order to a disordered world. When life most especially seems upended, and most fragile, we lean on the wisdom of our forebears. We cling to the words of our rituals.

This year we will gather for Passover in small groups. We will convene our extended family members through FaceTime and Zoom and we will ask as we always do, the required four questions, but we also ask a new question. How can we find a semblance of order when the world appears so disordered? How do we order our lives today?

The tradition offers a ready-made answer. Cling ever more tightly to the words of our tradition. Embrace time-honored rituals. They will provide us with, if nothing else, a sense of order. They will steady us when the world appears teetering. It may require extra measures of strength to perform these rituals when surrounded by smaller numbers, but we must summon those resources in order to rebalance our lives and grant us needed doses of order.

One day (may it be very soon!) we will look back at this spring, and we may then very well call it the lost spring of 2020, but perhaps as well we will recall that Judaism counsels that pikuach nefesh, the saving of life, takes precedence over all other commandments. Perhaps this year’s Passover will help us rediscover this important lesson.

Perhaps this spring will help to highlight not some new, and profound, insight but Judaism’s greatest teaching of all. Every human being is created in God’s image. Every human being is deserving of life. And then, this revolutionary idea that every human life is sacred will become the universal truth Judaism always thought it should be. 

Kohelet is typically read on the fall holiday of Sukkot when the summer is a distant memory and not in the spring when summer is as it appears to be this year, looking toward an approaching season of uncertainty. And yet certainties are already emerging.

Life is sacred. Health is precious. And we have to fight to preserve these.

Perhaps this all the order we require this Passover.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A New Torah Will Be Written

The Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Hasidic movement in eighteenth century Ukraine, approached the world in a unique way. Once, there was a terrible disease outbreak in Mezibush. Men, women and children were falling ill to this rampant disease. It spread like wildfire throughout the community. At its worst, there was not a single home in which there was not at least one ill family member. Out of desperation, and great faith in the Baal Shem Tov’s healing powers, the community leaders turned to their rabbi and asked him to pray on their behalf. They begged him to pray that the plague might vanish from their midst.

The Baal Shem Tov responded that their fate was instead in their hands. It was up to them to vanquish this disease. His prayers could not replace their prayers. His actions could not substitute for their actions. And so, the Baal Shem Tov instructed them that the solution to their travails was that the entire community, that each and every member, participate in the mitzvah of writing a new Torah scroll.

The people immediately took it upon themselves to begin writing this Torah. And, miraculously, as soon as the Torah scroll was written, and as soon as every single person, from the youngest to the oldest, from the richest to the poorest, from the most educated to the least, from the most devout to the least, the community began to heal, and the outbreak began to ebb. Thereafter, this holy Torah gained a special place in the Ark and was forever referred to as the “miracle worker.”

Although the Baal Shem Tov and his followers apparently (and I would add, mistakenly) believed that prayer and the writing of a Torah scroll, were the only cures needed to eradicate the disease outbreak, this story made me contemplate our present circumstances. I wonder. What will be the new Torah that emerges from our present extraordinarily painful times? We may not realize it, because we are in the thick of it, but we are now writing a new Torah.

We are learning how to remain a community while being apart. We are mastering how to remain close to family members while not standing in their physical presence. I may not very much like Zoom; I may not feel it is a worthy substitute for standing by each and every one of those I love and care for, but it will have to do. This will have to be my Torah—for now.

And what will remain of this new Torah?

What will we have learned when we emerge from this crisis? Let no one say, that we will not one day emerge, scarred to be sure, but stronger, nonetheless. Will we cherish community even more? Will we rejoice at the opportunity to go out for dinner with friends? I am counting on it. Will we relish in the natural world and once again discover awe in its beauty and splendor? Will we no longer take for granted the simple pleasure of opening the front door and breathing in the fresh air? I am betting on it.

Will we cherish life even more? We better. Will we come to realize how fragile life truly is and how precious it is not just for ourselves but for everyone—in the entire world? Again, we better.

Will these days, and the difficult and painful weeks that lie ahead, leave an impression that will make us stronger and better. I truly hope so. This indeed is my prayer.

This is the new Torah I look forward to reading. This is the Torah I am confident we will soon read—one day, very soon.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Two Pockets of Strength

The Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Pshiskha, teaches:
People must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that they can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling low and depressed, discouraged or melancholy, one should reach into the right pocket, and there, find the words: "For my sake the world was created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and there find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."
These days I found myself reaching into the right pocket alone. I have little need for the left. These days, as my worries increase, I must rely on the words contained in that right pocket. I lean on the mantra, “For my sake the world was created.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunim was one of the key leaders of eighteenth-century Polish Hasidism. Although he never assumed a formal rabbinic role, and actually worked as a pharmacist, he was an extremely influential teacher, and produced a number of significant disciples, including Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Unlike other Hasidic thinkers, he did not emphasize Jewish mysticism and believed that devotion to God was gained through both passion and analytical study. Most significantly he taught that people cannot understand God if they do not first understand themselves.

And so, he offers us needed insights into our own character and the challenges that now face us. He points us toward our own failings as well as our all too often hidden strengths.

He looks to the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading, “Vayikra—And the Lord called to Moses…” (Leviticus 1) and like many commentators, and as we are commanded to look this week no matter the circumstances we face, notices that the final letter of the first word, alef, is written smaller than the other letters. Even in the Torah scroll this alef is calligraphed in a smaller fashion. Simcha Bunim offers an explanation.
Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by a person, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When people stand at the top of a mountain, they do not boast about how tall they are, because it is the mountain that makes them high. By the same token, Moses felt that whatever he had accomplished was due to God, and he had no reason to feel proud of his achievements.
These days, there is nothing as humbling as being confined to one’s home by the tiniest of creatures, by a virus. And perhaps there is nothing as humbling as the realization that my health is dependent on the health of those standing all around me.

How small the alef that opens the word “Ani—I” appears today. We depend on others. We require others to choose to do things (or more likely, not do things) that might very well not be to their benefit, but instead to the benefit of others they do not know, and even cannot see.  I stand on the shoulders of others—who I pray remember they carry my hopes and dreams, my health and welfare, in their very hands. Their decisions may very well determine my fate.

I am humbled to realize that the world’s fate may very well rest on my decisions.

I continue to reach into my right pocket again and again. And there find some measure of strength and reassurance.

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19 is the New Amalek. Here's How We Defeat It.

In an age when every day feels like a week, and every week seems like a month, I am looking back to what seems like a far-off distant memory when we dressed in costumes and celebrated the joyous holiday of Purim. I recall the Shabbat prior to our carnivals and megillah readings when we read the story of Amalek, the Jewish people’s arch enemy, who attacked the ancient Israelites from behind, killing the stragglers.

Amalek and his followers killed the weak and infirm who struggled to keep up during our people’s wandering in the wilderness. He is forever marked as evil. Throughout the generations we saw in our many enemies the image of Amalek, reimagining him first as Haman, and then we envisaged his descendants as the Romans, the Crusaders and in modern times the Nazis. We saw in him the evil antisemites who attacked and killed us again and again.

We have perpetually sought to blot out his name and his memory. And yet he reappears in every generation.

I never imagined, until now and at this very moment, that our age-old enemy could be microscopic...

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Impatience, Anger and Friends

I offer some Torah during these tumultuous days. Perhaps it is a mere, albeit necessary, distraction. Perhaps it can help to better our days.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32)

So begins the story of the Golden Calf. Only a few weeks earlier the people were slaves in Egypt where they had witnessed God’s mighty acts and Moses’ extraordinary leadership. The people had just stood at Mount Sinai where they received the Torah and in particular the Ten Commandments forbidding idolatry. Their leader disappears to the mountain top for but a few short weeks and they quickly lose faith and bow down to idols. If only they had waited. If only they could have waited for their leader’s return. Then this sin could have been avoided.

If only they could have waited. So many of our own wrongdoings can be avoided by exercising a little patience. How many times have we fired off an email response, or text message to only regret it minutes later? How many times have we screamed at a cashier to only find our children’s embarrassed stares looking back at us? If only we could have waited.

Even Moses stands guilty of this sin. When he comes down the mountain and sees the wild, house party he smashes the tablets. He could have paused, perhaps even cried or at least stopped to gather his thoughts, rather than allowing his anger to smash the tablets. Moreover, even God stands guilty of this wrong. At first God wants to destroy all the people. Initially God also seethes with anger. But it is only because of Moses’ intercession that God’s anger is quelled. Anger is sometimes understandable, but it is rarely, if ever, commendable.

We draw several lessons. First of all, impatience fuels anger. Many regrets are piled upon the words if only I had waited. If only I had not been so quick to say that or so hasty to do that. If only I had not screamed in anger. In a world where information travels at the speed of light we should be more cautious when relaying feelings at a similar speed. Anger, and love for that matter (texting is really only about speed not feelings), are always best delivered in person. Difficult words especially are best said face to face, or at the very least, and during these days, when you can hear the voice on the other end of the phone.

Second, we learn that friends are invaluable. They comfort us when we are sad, but most importantly they, like Moses did for God, help to soften our anger. Too often friends nod in agreement when we bitterly complain about the injustices served against us. Feeling another’s pain is well and good but it does not help to lift another out of despair. It often has the opposite effect. It often deepens our anger. “You are so right!” are not always the best words to offer to a friend. Such words do not pull us from our anger. Moses implores God, “Now if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record You have written!” And God’s anger was cooled.

The rabbis teach that both the new set of tablets and the broken set of tablets were placed in the tabernacle. Both the broken and whole were placed in this holy vessel. We like to think that we should forget our wrongs and do away with our regrets. But regret also fuels repair. Regret motivates us to do better and improve ourselves.

The brokenness is never discarded. It too can be made holy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Our Synagogue's Response to COVID-19

We are writing to update you about our synagogue’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. First of all, as of this writing, our programs, classes and services are going ahead as planned. We are staying in touch with the local health authorities and staying up to date with information from the Centers for Disease Control. If need be, or if it is required of us, we will make changes to our schedule.

We urge you stay informed as well. It is important that we rely on facts, and advice, from medical experts. This is what will continue to guide our synagogue’s response and should also guide our personal responses.

Regarding hygiene we are cleaning our facility, most especially our classrooms, and surfaces with which people regularly come into contact on a more regular basis. We are insisting that our students wash their hands with soap and water more often and most obviously before they eat. It is important that everyone practice good hygiene. Still, the single most important thing that we must do is the following: if you feel sick, in particular if you have a fever or cough, you not only should stay home, but must.

We must not only care for ourselves, and our families, but each other. While hugs, and kisses, might become increasingly limited, compassion for others must always remain our singular concern and our community’s defining characteristic. It is what makes us a caring community. Continue to show concern for others. There are many different ways to offer support even if it might mean, in the future, more text messages and phone calls rather than personal interactions.

Finally, let us address our fears. Each of us deals with these in different ways. Some are more afraid than others. We cannot allay all fears. We can, as a synagogue, be guided by medicine. Of course, we are bound by faith, but in this circumstance, we lean first and foremost on science and the expertise of health professionals.

The following story is told of the famous Rabbi Israel Salanter, a leading Orthodox rabbi in nineteenth century Vilna. During the cholera epidemic of 1848, medical authorities advised people against fasting on Yom Kippur. And so, what did Rabbi Israel Salanter do? He ascended the bima during Yom Kippur services, stood before his congregation, and then recited the motzi and ate. Stay in touch with me so that I can continue to offer emotional and spiritual support.

The Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, caring for our health, takes precedence over all other commandments. We will continue to live by this value. We will continue to lead by this value. We will remain informed by medicine and sustained by faith.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

AIPAC, Borders and Coronavirus

I spent the opening days of this week at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, hearing from all manners of politicians and experts.   I was there because of the special bond I feel with the modern State of Israel.  I was there as well because I wish to ensure that the relationship America shares with Israel remains unshakable.  

And yet like many people throughout the world, I spent a good deal of my time at the conference reading about, and discussing, the coronavirus.  I realized then and there that despite my attachments to specific peoples, namely Americans, Jews and Israelis, and specific borders, those of the United States and Israel, the lines that demarcate those attachments quickly became irrelevant.  It was as if all our discussions, and debates, the cheering and at times even weeping (there were some incredibly moving moments at the conference), were rendered moot by a line no larger than one-900th the width of a human hair.

That is the size of the virus that dominates our attention, and hypnotizes our concern.

As much as we might wish to draw lines, and seal off borders, against threats, we have come to realize that the world is far more interconnected than we ever thought possible.  Then again perhaps the world was always so connected.  It is not like epidemics did not spread throughout the world prior to plane travel and prior to our dependence on China’s manufacturers.

There I was at the AIPAC Policy Conference cheering about the special bond between Israel and America, and reflecting on my decades-long affection for the city of Jerusalem, and I awoke to the realization that we are indeed one human family.  We might not always think this is the case, but this nearly invisible virus has made this crystal clear.  Just as there is a definitive, bright line between Israel and Syria, there is, we now belatedly realize, a hairbreadth line connecting Wuhan to New York City.    

I may not wish this to be so, but it is.  We are one.  The world can only fight this virus together.  It seems so cliché to say such things, but that is the lesson swirling amidst the news about this virus.  Borders are not impervious to dangers and threats.  And we should no longer require an electron microscope to be made aware of this.  And so what are we to do?

Should we take counsel with the Torah’s somewhat strange ritual of consulting the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28).  These were, by the way, ancient means of determining God’s will when matters appeared beyond people’s ability to control.  Think of a Ouija Board.  Or if you have traveled to Asia, think of how a person throws stones to get a prescription and how in those lands religion and medicine are intertwined.

How I have been tempted (almost) these past few weeks! 

That is not of course what I am going to do.  And that is not what I think we should do.  Believing in science and medicine is not the opposite of faith.  It can inform what I believe and how I pray. 

We should (we must!) follow the advice of experts, of doctors and health officials, of the New York Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.  I hope it goes without saying that this is what we are doing at the synagogue.  We are insisting on healthy practices for every member of our congregation.  By all means, if you are sick, stay home and get healthy, and also be in touch with me so your synagogue community can be supportive.  By all means, stay vigilant about your health.  Practice good hygiene.  Be safe.  Be prudent.

Still I worry.  Not just about the virus. 

I worry about what makes us human.  The potential threat is also a needed prescription.  It is always and will forever be excellent medicine.  We need other people.  We require affection.  We are sustained by compassion.  Can this, if this is what one day will be required of us, be conveyed at a prescribed distance of six feet?  I for one have resolved that for now, those who wish to be hugged, will be hugged.  And those who wish instead for an elbow bump will receive a (loving?) elbow.

Remember what makes us what we are, and makes every person, throughout this big, and every shrinking, world human.  It is first and foremost other people.

The lines can longer be drawn, and perhaps no longer should be drawn.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Making Room for God

Dov Ber of Mezritch, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov who founded the Hasidic movement in the late eighteenth century, implores us to open our hearts to God. He writes: 
We, the Children of Israel are forever building up our entire selves to become dwelling places for divinity. That is why the Israelites erected the Mishkan (Tabernacle) from offerings there in the wilderness. This process never ceased and goes on in every generation. We Israelites are called upon to build up the full form of God, the Shechinah, by using our entire selves. Thus our sages taught on the verse “Let them make Me a Tabernacle and I will dwell within them” (Exodus 25). This verse does not say “within it” but “within them”! This teaches that God dwells within every single person. This is what we have taught: that each of us must build up our entire self to be a fit dwelling for divinity. Then God indeed dwells within us.
But how do we make ourselves a dwelling place for God? How do we bring God into our lives?

Is it by observing more rituals? By lighting Shabbat candles every Friday evening? By ridding our homes of bread prior to our Passover Seders? By singing every verse of Lecha Dodi at Shabbat services? By fasting on Yom Kippur? By never eating a cheese burger or only eating at a kosher restaurant? Dov Ber would, I imagine, offer an emphatic yes. He would then most certainly expand the list even further.

Then again he would also add that such ritual scrupulousness must be combined with proper intention, that performing the rituals out of habit or compulsion is not enough. Outer observance must be tied to inner piety.

And yet, I continue to wonder. How do we make ourselves a tabernacle for God? It seems almost, I dare say, too easy to suggest it is only a matter of ritual acts such as lighting candles and keeping kosher. It would be too simple to suggest that all we have to do is follow a list, albeit a very lengthy one.

Instead to become a dwelling place for God we must act like God, to model God’s compassion and understanding at every turn. We must open our hearts to others. This list is much more concise but far more difficult to attain. But imagine how the world might then appear if we were to be scrupulous about our observance of this simple, but difficult, list.

It might seem like there is a tabernacle standing before us at every turn. We might behold God in every person.

Dov Ber continues: “This is what the holy Zohar (the foundational text of Jewish mysticism) meant when it taught that the form in which the world was created is the form of the mishkan (Tabernacle), and the mishkan and the human form are all the same.”

The list is brief. The task is great.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Listen to the Experts

It used to be the case that when a doctor made a recommendation, we would accept the advice. Now we return home, scour the internet, read patient reviews, search every side effect the medication might cause, or seek out setbacks from others who have had the procedure. And while we should do some research, and garner second and sometimes even third opinions, this trend represents an extraordinary loss of faith in wisdom and experience. We no longer trust experts.

We have forgotten that knowledge and information are not the same as wisdom and experience. Expertise is gained by testing what one learns against what experiences. This is why apprenticeship is an important part of mastering any profession.

And yet we read online, and discover everything that is wrong with the system.

We no longer have faith in government officials. We question the legitimacy of scientific findings. We have lost faith in the experts who must help us navigate the world’s challenges. Sure, part of the problem is the abundance of information, and misinformation, on the internet. But the other part of the problem is how we view others and the world. We open with skepticism. Too often we lead with mistrust.

Relationships are fed by trust. They are nurtured by faith.

The root of faith, emunah, is trust. It begins with an openness to the world, to others and most importantly, to God and God’s revelation.

Still, the Jewish people’s response to the giving of the Torah is remarkable, and unexpected. When the Torah was revealed at Sinai, they responded: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and will obey (naaseh v’nishmah).” (Exodus 24)

They require no persuasion, or second opinions. They need no convincing and no arguments. God did not offer for example that keeping kosher is healthier or that Shabbat will restore to them a sense of balance to the week. Instead, God commands. And the people respond, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

Faith is about taking action before reason perhaps dictates or persuasion compels.

Although a great deal of material can be found online, one cannot always find guidance by asking Google. Too often we turn to our computer screens and seek there knowledge and answers, when we should instead just get started and join in. Faith begins with a measure of trust.

Let’s turn to the expert.

“All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Father in Law Knows Best

One could argue that this week’s Torah reading containing the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments, is the most important of portions. And yet is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. This seems curious. Why would the portion be called Yitro?

One answer is that the names of the portions have nothing to do with their content or meaning. The names are instead the portion’s first most important, or unique, word. The reading is never named for Moses for example because his name appears too frequently. The portion’s names are designed so that the Torah reader can more easily find the beginning of the reading. This is no easy task in a scroll that of course has no pages, but even more significantly no punctuation.

Then again, the rabbis, when dividing the yearly Torah reading into portions, could have begun this week’s reading with the following chapter, Exodus 19, in which the details of the revelation are described. Instead they begin a chapter earlier with the words: “Vayishma Yitro…Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel.” (Exodus 18)

The question therefore remains. Why begin the portion with Yitro? Why name the most significant of readings with Moses’ father-in-law’s name? There must be a reason. Nothing is by chance. Moreover, Yitro is not even Jewish. He is a priest to the Midianites, a future enemy of Israel.

Perhaps Yitro’s words come to remind us that wisdom comes from many sources. It does not always arrive as revelation. It does not just come as Torah from Sinai! In addition, Yitro comes to balance the concluding lesson of last week when we read about Amalek, Israel’s eternal enemy. Everyone who is not Jewish is not our enemy. In fact, some are family. How quickly we forget. Yitro is Moses’ father-in-law. All are not Amalek.

We look to Yitro’s words for meaning. He shouts God’s praises. After Moses recounts all that God did for Israel by freeing them from Egyptian slavery and rescuing them at the Sea of Reeds, Yitro proclaims: “Blessed be the Lord!” He is therefore among the first to use our prayer book’s formulation, “Baruch Adonai.” The rabbis find this quite remarkable. How could Yitro offer words that neither Moses nor the people Israel say? “How shameful that Moses, and the 600,000, did not use phrase!” they remarked. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 94)

In their harsh judgment of Moses and the people they may have missed the most important of teachings. The nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe, Shlomo of Radomsk, reminds us that the Israelites praised God for what God did for them at the Sea of Reeds. Yitro, on the other hand, shouted God’s blessings and praises, for what God did for others.

It is easy, and to be expected, to give thanks for the blessings we receive. The greater faith is to rejoice in the blessings of others.

Such is the teaching revealed by someone other than Moses and someone who we first expect to be wholly other. Yitro, the priest of Midian, teaches.

The more profound faith is to see the gifts others receive not as the occasion for our own diminishment but instead as moments for our own rejoicing and celebrating.

Blessed be Yitro’s teaching.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Enough of the Outrage

What follows is my brief sermon from this past Friday night addressing our feelings about the conclusion of the impeachment proceedings as well as those about the prior week's unveiling of a new Mideast peace plan.

We are living in an age of outrage, in which we move from one outrage to another. We shake our heads in disgust at this injustice or that. On Tuesday evening we were outraged by some of our President’s claims or alternatively outraged by the Speaker’s tearing up of his speech. On Wednesday, we were outraged by the Senate’s vote to acquit the president or outraged by the House managers’ arguments to impeach him. Last week we were either outraged that Jared Kushner thought himself sufficiently well-read and experienced enough to offer a Mideast peace plan or on the other hand that every attempt this administration makes at solving an intractable problem is met with disdain and immediate rejection. We no longer live in a time of reasoned debate. But if we cast the outrage aside, there are reasonable takeaways from these events.

First and foremost, we are a nation of laws. And whether you thought the Democrats, or the Republicans were on the right side of history, the law and in particular the constitution is what governs our society. We can disagree about policies, about ideology, about what’s best or what’s worst for this country, but we must never forget it is the law that allows us to be one United States of America. It is a devotion to certain ideas that makes us a nation and those are enshrined in our constitution.

Second, regarding the peace plan again there are some reasonable takeaways. What this plan manages to do is to elevate Israel’s legitimate security needs and say that they must be held alongside the Palestinian’s desire, and right, for a state of their own. For too long, perhaps, peace plans sought to primarily undo injustices felt by the Palestinians rather than giving equal voice to Israelis desire to live in safety and security. For too long Palestinians’ refusal to come to the table has been excused and Israel’s march towards annexing the territories has been highlighted. To be sure, annexing the territories would be devastating for Israel’s democratic ideals. But Palestinian leaders need to come to the table and argue their case. Enough with the being outraged. Perhaps this plan can help move us forward.

As my teacher Yossi Klein Halevi argues that this plan has effectively exposed myths long held by both sides. He writes,
The Israeli myth is that the status quo can be indefinitely sustained and that the international community, distracted by more immediate tragedies in the Middle East, is losing interest in the Palestinian issue. But the Trump administration’s considerable investment of energy and prestige in devising its plan has reminded Israelis that the conflict cannot be wished away.
Regarding the other side, Halevi writes, 
The Trump plan also challenges a key premise on the Palestinian side – that Palestinian leaders can continue to reject peace plans without paying a political price… It is long past time for Palestinian leaders to do what they have never done in the history of this conflict – offer their own detailed peace plan. We know what Palestinian leaders oppose – but what exactly do they support?
That is my hope on all accounts on this Shabbat. Enough of the outrage. Get down to talking and arguing about how we are going to move forward. Let’s stop pointing fingers at how bad the other side is or how outraged they make us feel. Peace is in everyone’s interest. The rule of law is what allows societies to thrive.

Save the shouts not for our political opponents but instead for perhaps some good old-fashioned miracles. Take a cue from this week’s Torah portion. Moses, Miriam, and all the Israelites took their timbrels in their hands, started dancing with great joy, and most of all began to sing. They prayed, “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously.”

Perhaps this is the advice we most need. Calm down and sing a song. This is what this Shabbat evening might be best about. Sing. If we saved our shouts for something like that, we might be better served than shouting at each other and accusing one another of this outrage or that. I pray. Please God give us the strength to shout songs of joy in Your direction rather than shouts of outrage at one another.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Jump Into History

Yesterday Senator Mitt Romney said, “We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history.”

When the Jewish people approached the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army pressing behind them, they feared that their liberation from slavery was a terrible mistake and that they would soon meet their deaths in the churning waves. According to tradition it was not their leader Moses’ outstretched arms that parted the seas. It was instead another man, named Nachshon.

Among rabbis, and historians, he is a well-known figure, but among many he is a forgotten footnote to our most famous tale. Looking around him at the fear among his fellow Israelites, seeing the doubt written across their faces about the journey upon which they had just embarked, Nachshon jumped into the waters.

“Nachshon has lost his mind,” the people shouted. “He is most certainly going to drown. Let us look away.” Meanwhile most of the Israelites could only see Moses standing above the crowd, arms outstretched to the heavens. Nachshon struggled in the sea’s waves, fighting to keep his head above the water. And then, just as the waters reached up to his neck, a miracle occurred. The seas parted. The people crossed on dry land.

We know this part of the story. The people broke out in song. They sang, “Mi chamochah ba-eilim, Adonai—Who is like you O God, among the gods that are worshipped!” (Exodus 15)

The few who witnessed Nachshon’s daring act, muttered to themselves about his gumption. Some lamented his contrarian spirit. (And I admit I am partial to such a spirit that swims against the currents—both literally and figuratively.) Others praised his faith. A few offered private words of thanks for his chutzpah. The majority, however, never discovered his name or found out that it was his solitary act which provided the required salvation and allowed the people to move forward toward freedom.

Sometimes the most important act of the day is a footnote.

I realized. Everyone knows Moses’ name. More should know Nachshon’s.

Perhaps we should reread our books beginning with such footnotes. Perhaps we should tell our histories beginning with these forgotten tales.

They may very well provide a way toward freedom.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Darkness of Auschwitz

We begin with the eighth plague of locusts. This is followed by the penultimate plague of darkness.

I wonder. What is so terrible about locusts? I discovered. It was not just a few locusts that found their way into a basement or through a crack in the window. Instead it was a swarm. A locust swarm, can measure over one square kilometer and can contain 50 million insects. These locusts can eat as much as 100,000 tons of vegetation in one day. Oy gevalt!

Following this devastation Egypt is covered with darkness.

It was no ordinary darkness. It was not a nighttime sky illuminated by the moon and stars. Instead it was pitch black. People could not even see their own hands when held in front of their eyes.

Some commentators suggest that the darkness should be likened to a psychological melancholy. How else do we explain that the Egyptians did not even light candles? It was instead darkness that even artificial illumination could not dispel. Imagine the fear. Shrouded in darkness the Egyptians remembered the plagues. They were alone with the incessant hum of millions upon millions of devouring locusts. Before their eyes, they could only see images of devastated fields, and ruined cities. They could see nothing but their losses.

We too are living in the shadow of such devastation. Similar images shroud our memories.

This week we marked the seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This place was created for one purpose alone. To devastate—the Jewish people. To murder—Jews in particular.

The Holocaust devoured millions. And so we likewise inhabit the ninth plague’s darkness. We close our eyes and see only destruction. We hear millions of names, children and elderly, men and women, devout and atheists, artists and laborers. All of those taken from their homes, uprooted from the countries of their birth and murdered for one reason alone. They were Jews.

The Holocaust darkens our view.

Auschwitz continues to command our attention. In fact, the contemporary Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, argues that Auschwitz offers a commanding voice, akin to Mount Sinai. He posits a 614th commandment, a singular mitzvah added to the tradition’s 613. We must survive. We must persevere. We must be steadfast in our faith. We must not lose hope in God. We have a sacred obligation to survive as Jews.

This commanding presence sometimes darkens our view of the world. We are forever suspect of world powers, of others, most especially their intentions and designs. We see a potential Holocaust around every turn. We must be forever on guard. We think, we must look out for ourselves first and foremost. This view is understandable given this history—only seventy five years in the past. This view seems more apropos given the rise in antisemitic attacks.

Then again, I am haunted by the words of other philosophers, most notably Richard Rubenstein, who argued that after Auschwitz anything is possible. We turn the pages of our newspapers, flipping from one atrocity to another. We have become inured to suffering and devastation. Within our very own country, there is devastation. Along our borders there is suffering, and pain. We turn away.

The United States Holocaust Museum continues its tracking of genocides. It catalogs a litany of countries, and situations, where genocides might emerge. How can this still be possible? Auschwitz was of course unique, but the likes of it should never again happen to us or to any people. And yet it has. In Cambodia. In Rwanda. In Bosnia-Herzegovina. And now, once again, in Myanmar.

We continue fumbling through the darkness.

We are hardened to the suffering of others. We are ever attuned to the threats facing us. Is it possible to find a way forward? Can we find our way through this ninth plague without inviting an even more devastating final plague?

Not every act of hatred is a potential Holocaust. And yet the world forgets the lessons of Auschwitz. Not every recognition of other people’s suffering is a betrayal of the Holocaust’s memory. And yet antisemitism has once again become murderous.

Perhaps where the Egyptians failed, we can succeed. We must recognize that we still live in the shadows of this plague. We must acknowledge that this darkness still colors our view.

Then we might find one candle to illuminate a path forward.