Friday, November 20, 2020

Seeing Is Believing

The cliché “seeing is believing” is an apt description for a prominent refrain the Genesis stories.

In Genesis 21, for example, we read of Ishmael who when dying from hunger and thirst is miraculously saved by the appearance of a well. “Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.” Then again perhaps the well was there all along.

In Genesis 22 we read, “When Abraham lifted up his eyes, he saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Did God make the ram appear out of thin air or was it there all along and Abraham failed to see it because he was blinded by desire to fulfill God’s command?

Most people read the Bible and think that miracles are akin to magic. God magically provides a well and a ram. In my estimation however miracles are about the lifting up of the eyes. The ram was always there. Abraham only needed turn away from his son, bound on the sacrificial altar, and loosen his grip on the knife.

The well was there all along. Hagar only needed to wipe the tears from her face to see what was already there. Sometimes zealousness and grief prevent us from seeing what (miraculously) stand before us.

This refrain is what makes this week’s portion and its story all the more remarkable. Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac and steals the blessing intended for his brother Esau. The story begins: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27) Jacob prepares a meal for his father and dresses like his brother Esau as his mother directs him and says to Isaac, “I am Esau, your first born: I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” The Torah continues, “So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’ Isaac did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so, he blessed him.”

Whereas the stories about Abraham are about opening eyes, those about Isaac are about closing the eyes. Earlier Isaac asks his father Abraham, “’Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’ And the two of them walked as one.” (Genesis 22)

The haunting question about our patriarch Isaac’s life is does he choose not to see? Was he a willing participant to his own near sacrifice? And in this week’s reading, we must ask: did he choose willful blindness?

To have faith in God is to stand in awe, or literally to fear heaven. In Hebrew the words for seeing and having faith are very close and share the same root. What therefore is the relationship between seeing and believing? When is not seeing, as with our patriarch Isaac, a matter of faith and a necessity for life?

When do miracles depend on opening our eyes? 

And when do relationships hinge on turning a blind eye?

Friday, November 13, 2020

We Are All Resident Aliens; We Are All Brothers and Sisters

Heba Nabil Iskandarani recently became a Spanish citizen. The story of how this 26-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, with no state calling her a citizen, acquired a Spanish passport is a fascinating tale.

After Iskandarani discovered that her Palestinian father had Jewish roots dating back to the Spanish expulsion, she applied for Spanish citizenship. In 2015 Spain adopted a law whose intention was to atone for its persecution and forced exile of the Spanish Jewish community in 1492. The law allowed descendants of Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship if they could demonstrate Jewish ancestry and a special connection to Spain. In the past five years, over 150,000 succeeded and became Spanish citizens. Of these 43,000 are like Iskandarani not Jewish.

Iskandarani was able to prove her Jewish roots after uncovering her great-grandmother’s old identity card whose name Latife Djerbi references an island off the coast of Tunisia where many Sephardic Jews once lived. In addition, the family observed the curious Springtime custom of dipping hard-boiled eggs in saltwater. Iskandarani now thinks that what the family called a Tunisian tradition was actually a Passover seder ritual. Her mother also always thought it strange that no one in her husband’s family had Muslim names. Her uncles were named Jacob, Ruben, Moses and Zachary.

And so now, with her Spanish passport in hand, Heba Nabil Iskandarani can visit Jaffa, the city where her grandfather was born but which he fled at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. She remarked that her family’s Jewishness exiled them first from Spain and then their Muslim identity forced them out of the nascent state of Israel. She said, “Quite ironic don’t you think being exiled twice for the exact same reason?” Iskandarani continues to be interested in Judaism and fascinated by her Jewish roots.

The journey continues.

After Sarah’s death in the land of Canaan, Abraham approached the Hittites to purchase a burial plot. He said, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site…” (Genesis 23) And Ephron sold him the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron. It is there that all the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. Only Rachel is buried elsewhere, in Bethlehem.

The term resident alien is a curious term. The Hebrew reads, “ger v’toshav” and can be more literally translated as “stranger and resident.” In some ways this encapsulates Abraham’s feelings and perhaps our own as well. We are all at home and apart. We sometimes feel like strangers and other times feel like citizens. In one generation we feel at home and in another, exiled and without a nation to call our own. We are all indeed resident aliens.

We wander from exile to welcome, from resident to alien.

Heba Nabil Iskandarani’s discovery could have been our own journey. We are more alike than we care to admit.

We are all indeed brothers and sisters.

The Torah reports: “This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at good ripe age, old and contended.” (Genesis 25) His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, apart for many years, at war for generations, come together. While they do not speak to each other, they do participate in one activity as one.

Together they bury their father.

And I continue to draw hope from these stories.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Thoughts on the Elections

Four years ago, I wrote: “Donald Trump will be our president. He is our nation’s choice. That does not mean we must remain silent—when we disagree. That also does not mean that we can say he is not my president if I did not vote for him. To respect our nation’s institutions means that we must accept the decision of our fellow Americans, even, or perhaps most especially when it is different than our own. I will not scream that the election results are unjust.”

Likewise, Americans should join me in saying, congratulations to President Elect Biden and Vice President Elect Harris. And in addition, we should offer thanks to President Trump and Vice President Pence. That is how we move forward. That is how we leave this increasingly dangerous hyper-partisanship behind us.

I acknowledge that some are happy and feeling vindicated by these election results and others are saddened and feeling robbed. My goal remains how best to move past the contentiousness and become more unified. (Read Friday evening’s sermon about my worries that we might tear ourselves apart if we continue to attack each other and forget how the system works, “Beware of Bringing the House Down.”)

I have come to understand that our democracy is far more fragile than I ever realized. I never knew how much it hinges on convention and character. There are no laws demanding that a sitting president concedes and pledges to work on a smooth transition.

What a missed leadership opportunity to echo Senator John McCain’s sentiment from twelve years ago when he spoke about the significance Barack Obama’s election had for African-Americans and when he silenced those who booed the president elect’s name. Imagine how faith and hope could be restored not just for 75 million voters but for Democrats and Republicans alike if President Trump would say, “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for women and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.” A woman has become Vice-President Elect! Then the tears of joy, and sense of pride, could be all of ours to share.

There are as well no rules insisting that an election’s victor offers thanks and praise to his predecessor. As much as Democrats might find the latter distasteful and Republicans the former egregious, our combined trust in America’s democratic institutions turns on these very customs and traits. No laws can serve as substitutes for character. Without this our faith is eroded.

Let me also say loudly and clearly that there is no such thing as an illegal vote in a democracy. There may be invalid votes but not illegal ones. The difference is crucial. The term illegal implies that the person does not have the right to vote. Invalid, however, suggests that there was something technically deficient in a voter’s ballot. Moreover, the outcome will not change no matter how many times we count the tallies. This is not a mere 500 vote difference as it was in 2000. The difference in Georgia, for example, is approximately 10,000 votes.

I did not argue against the election’s results four years ago despite the fact that I may have been angered by the discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college results. Four years ago, I argued that Democrats should refer to Donald Trump as our president. Now Republicans should and must do the same—for the sake of a unified country. Soon Joseph Biden will likewise be our president. To nurse a loss or gloat about a victory does not serve our nation. Have faith in those who worked, and in some cases volunteered, at polling stations, spending countless hours ushering us into voting booths and then tabulating these results. Every vote is precious, and every person counts the same. Embrace our system, however flawed and imperfect it is.

So, I remain grateful to President Trump for helping to make peace in the Middle East and for firing up the electorate, most especially our youth. Look at how many millions more voted in this election—and during a pandemic no less. Because of Donald Trump’s 2016 success few will argue that elections don’t matter or that people can rest easy, not get involved and not cast their vote. In addition, Trump won more votes in 2020 than Clinton in 2016. Nearly 10% more eligible voters voted in this election than in 2016. That is cause for celebration in a democracy. That is something in which every American can, and should, take pride.

I wish the system of voting and counting was the same throughout the country, but it is not. How each state’s residents vote and how their officials count is a patchwork of cumbersome laws, but this remains our system. Four years ago, I urged Democrats not to talk about the popular vote or even Russian interference. This year I exhort Republicans not to talk about illegal votes or a stolen election. Work to better the system not to disenfranchise voters. Focus on the 2024 elections. Start organizing now. That’s what the system is about. This is what makes America a thriving democracy.

I pray for a peaceful transition. I pray that President Elect Biden and Vice President Elect Harris will realize their promise of serving our entire nation.

I continue to pray for the day when Democrats and Republicans will unite in common purpose and service to our nation despite never resolving their ideological differences. Remain loyal to these philosophies. Compromise on policies.

I choose unity over divisiveness. I choose our nation over political affiliation.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Beware of Bringing the House Down

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat evening services, delivered the evening before Vice President Biden crossed the 270 electoral votes threshold.  

On this evening, as we look out on the precipice of discovering who will serve as the president for the next four years, I wish to offer a reflection about our current divisions and urge us, once again, to work towards greater unity. I turn, as I always do, to the rabbis for guidance. Sometimes 2000-year-old stories are the best stories for today’s struggles. I wish to explore one of their most famous stories about community. It is the story of the oven of Aknai, contained in the Babylonian Talmud and told over and over again, most especially if you study at the Hartman Institute. Here is the story.

It all starts with a seemingly innocuous question of whether or not an oven is kosher. The Talmud begins. A question was asked: is the oven clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer of Hyrcanus, considered the greatest mind of his day, declared it clean. The other Sages ruled it unclean. Rabbi Eliezer would not accept the majority’s decree. He brought forward every imaginable argument. Still they would not accept his logic. “Even though the oven is constructed of individual tiles, the cement which binds it together makes it a single utensil and therefore liable to uncleanness,” the Sages ruled. They refused to accept Eliezer’s view.

Rabbi Eliezer became enraged and said: “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” A miracle occurred and at that very instant a carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved 150 feet. Some say it moved 600 feet. (The Talmud often preserves debates within debates.) The Sages scoffed at Eliezer’s magic and declared: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.” Eliezer became even more adamant and summoned all of his miraculous powers, saying: “If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it.” Thereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” the Sages rejoined. He screamed: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the academy prove it.” The Sages looked up in alarm as the walls began to fall in. Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina, however, rebuked the walls saying: “When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute you have no right to interfere and take sides!” Thereupon the walls stopped falling.

This only further incensed Eliezer and he turned toward heaven and cried: “If the law agrees with me, let it be proven from heaven.” A voice from heaven (a bat kol) responded: “Why do the Sages dispute with Rabbi Eliezer seeing that the law should agree with him?” Rabbi Joshua then jumped out of his seat and with passion and even some fury, quoted the Torah and screamed: “Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens!” (Deuteronomy 30:12) What did Rabbi Joshua mean by this? Rabbi Jeremiah answered: “Since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a voice from heaven.”

The law follows the majority even when God sides with the minority. God gave us minds with which to reason and faculties with which to discern the truth. Miracles only distract us from this holy task. We do not hear God’s voice through our ears or see God’s miracles with our eyes but instead discern God’s truth through eyes open to studying the law and ears attuned to our friend’s wisdom.

Given the stubbornness of Eliezer’s position, the rabbis felt they had no choice and voted to ostracize him. The great Rabbi Akiva was given the sorry task of informing his beloved teacher of the council’s vote. Rabbi Akiva donned a black garment and sat at a distance from his teacher and said, “My rabbi, I think your colleagues have abandoned you.” Upon hearing this Eliezer tore his garments, sat on the ground and wept bitterly. And it is said that his sorrow was so great that his gaze wilted everything his eyes fell upon and even caused the seas to storm. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b)

I share this story, on this occasion, because it illustrates something we desperately need to remind ourselves of over and over again. There are right ways to argue and there are wrong ways. Of course, I don’t expect that this story is trying to tell us that some people can summon miracles to support their positions. I read the Talmud’s story and its portrayal of Eliezer more about a rejection of how he argued. He was an extraordinarily talented and learned rabbi. But his opinion about this oven remained his own solitary opinion. He was unable to convince others of what he believed. The majority voted about the issue of the day. All the ranting and raving and screaming, “How can you not see it the way I do? How can you think what you think?” will not change the mechanism of how a community, or in our case, a country, must function. The majority votes and the majority of voters, albeit in our case in each of our fifty states, determines who will serve as our president.

The moral of our tale is not that we can best even God with our reasoning and erudition or in this week’s Torah portion, argue with God like Abraham does. It is instead that Eliezer’s screaming, Eliezer’s willingness to bring the walls of the study house down forced the community to cast him aside. It is not to say that the community, and country, cannot, and should not, sustain arguments and disagreements. We need these. We desperately need them so that we can best figure out how to overcome the challenges of our day. But we must never argue like we want to tear the community apart. Eliezer was willing to destroy everything, including all of his colleagues, in order to prove he was right. That is not loving a community. That is not arguing so that you can better understand how your friend thinks. That is seeing being right as the end rather than the betterment of the community or the country.

In our sacred, but fragile, democracy everyone’s opinion is valued and counted. Soon, half of us will be happy, and half of us will be saddened. Unless all of us can see this not as “I won and you lost,” but as “We won because every voice was counted and every vote was tabulated,” we will suffer the same fate as Rabbi Eliezer. The system only works if we believe in it. Democracy can only be upheld by our faith not just in my vote but in your vote and everyone’s vote. Otherwise we will end up shunned like Eliezer and mourning like Akiva. And then, I fear, the world will see similar disasters: everything will likewise wilt, and the seas will once again become tempests. Yes, it does very much begin with how we argue. It does start with a seemingly mundane disagreement over something as small as an oven.

The way forward is through unity. I offer this prayer once again. May the person who recites the oath of president of these United States come January, come to recognize that the way forward is indeed through unity, and the way out of despair is to argue as if your life, and the wellbeing of the nation, depends on both the justness of your convictions and the love of your (disagreeing) friend.

And may Rabbi Eliezer’s fate not become our own. May we remain forever on guard never to allow a Rabbi Eliezer to tear our house down.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Every Vote Counts

Never before have I spent so much time coloring in circles and making sure that my pen never once went outside the lines of the bubbles and that each was perfectly painted in black. Never before have I felt that an election matters more or that my vote was so consequential. Such were the feelings that accompanied me as I entered the voting booth.

Our democracy is surprisingly fragile and yet remarkably durable. It has survived many tumultuous episodes, the Civil War and Vietnam War come to mind.

It is also far more fragile than anyone cares to admit. It depends on the belief that each of our votes matter and that each and every vote counts. And while states have the right to determine the rules by which they tabulate the results, every ballot must be counted. It is this tenet that binds us together, whether we call ourselves Democrats, Republicans or Independents.

Let no one declare that votes should not be counted. Let no one proclaim victory before every vote is recorded.

Each of us entered the voting booth, or sealed the envelope weeks ago, believing that the future of our country rides on the results of this election. Regardless if one voted for President Trump or Vice President Biden all appear to agree that their vote was a matter of saving the republic from the dangers of the other side. It is a remarkable, and somewhat frightening, thing that despite our political affiliations everyone seems to agree that victory for the other side will doom the country.

Come the day (may it be very soon!) that Biden or Trump wins the presidential election, half of the country will rejoice, and the other half will mourn. And that fact remains one of my greatest worries. We are divided and polarized. I recognize this is not an insightful or revelatory observation, but I wonder how are we going to rally together to fight this current pandemic, or any of the many other looming challenges, if half the country will be devastated by the election’s results and believes the country is doomed because their guy did not win?

I believe. The most important, and consequential, way to fight a life-threatening, and world shattering, crisis and is through unity.

We can of course argue about how we arrived at this point. Watch “The Social Dilemma” if you want to place blame with social media. Listen to the shouting and screaming on cable news if you want to discover more evidence of how we talk past each other rather than to each other. There is indignation, and vitriol, sitting before you on your computer or TV screen. Walk around any corner and you will find it. And while I too have offered indignation aplenty, on this occasion I wonder more about how such attitudes are tearing at the fragile threads binding us together.

So, let the unity begin here with us. Let us resolve to argue with friends, and even family, not to convince them how wrong they are but to understand what they think and why they believe different than we do. I wish to imagine a world where we argue not to convince or level judgement but to understand.

Sure, vote as if the other side is misguided and the life of our country depends on your guy wining. Talk to friends, however, as if your life depended on their love. Sure, protest as if the other side is dangerous and destructive. But sit down with friends, most especially those with whom you disagree as if your community, and country, cannot withstand the end of your friendship.

Our tradition elevates argument to the level of the holy. Abraham even argued with God for the sake of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 18) The rabbis called such disagreements as machloket l’shem shamayim. This is translated as argument for the sake of heaven and understood to mean that we must always argue with heaven in mind. We argue to understand the other. We argue to better ourselves and sharpen our opinions, as well as the commitments of our ideological foes. Disagreement does not make someone an enemy.

It instead means this is someone from whom I can learn.

I recognize how difficult this attitude can be, especially as we anxiously await the election results. And I do not proclaim myself to be a saint, empty of partisan commitments, devoid of exasperation with my ideological foes, and renouncing of indignation with my political opponents. I do however proclaim this commitment. The way forward is through unity.

The way forward is to reclaim our heritage, to argue with each other while loving each other.

I pray. May the person who recites the oath as president of these United States come January, come to recognize that the way forward is through unity, and the way out of despair is to argue as if your life, and the wellbeing of the nation, is dependent both on the justness of your convictions and the love of your disagreeing friend.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Following in Our Father's Footsteps

Although the reading of the Torah in public dates back to Ezra and the fifth century BCE (and traditional authorities say, Moses), the weekly division of the Torah into fifty-four portions hearkens to Babylonian times, approximately 1500 years ago. And so, we conclude last week’s portion with the words, “The days of Terah (Abraham’s father) came to 205 years; and Terah died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:32)

We begin this week with the verse: “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1) For thousands of years, we have read these sentences a week apart, and have therefore seen them as disconnected.

The rabbis plant the question in our hearts by this division. Why was Abraham called? And they have an answer ready-made. They offer countless stories about Abraham’s character explaining why God called him. I would imagine in synagogues throughout the world rabbis will begin their weekly discourses describing the story about young Abraham working in his father’s idol shop.

This all too familiar rabbinic midrash in which Abraham destroys all but one idol and then blames the destruction on the remaining idol seeks to offer a reason why God called Abraham seemingly out of nowhere. The rabbis see in Abraham the first monotheist who on his own recognized that there must be one God who created the world and moves history rather than a multitude of idols for each and every occasion.

But this out of nowhere understanding of the call is dependent on the division of the Torah into our portions and the dividing line between Parashat Noach and Lech Lecha being drawn between the end of chapter of eleven and the beginning of twelve. By drawing the line in this way, the rabbis add an exclamation point to their understanding of Abraham. They draw an arrow to the theology they wish to teach. They imply that the story moves because of Abraham’s vision. God is one, they exclaim.

Such is the power of the editor’s hand. If we read these verses as connected, however, we gain an additional understanding of Abraham’s actions. The Torah relates: “Terah took his son Abraham and his daughter-in-law Sarah and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.” (Genesis 11:31)

Why did Terah take his family on this journey? Why did he set out to what would soon be called the Promised Land?

Perhaps the answer is discovered in the prior verse: “Now Sarah was barren; she had no child.” Could it be as simple as a father saying to his son, “You and your wife are despondent. We need a change of scenery.” Does the story move from one chapter to another because of a father’s love rather than God’s command?

Then again perhaps the answer is even more plain. Abraham’s family were wanderers. They travel from place to place. Their home was wherever they camped for the night. The land of Canaan was not a promise (yet) but another destination in a long list of waypoints.

This week we open our Torah and think that Abraham was not heading toward the Promised Land until God called to him. This is in fact not the case. He was already heading towards the land of Canaan. He was stopped in his tracks by father’s death in Haran. And then, like most dutiful sons, he picks up the journey where his father left it and sets out to where his father intended.

And now I am left with even more questions. By setting out for the land of Canaan is Abraham honoring his father or God? Was Abraham honoring his father and continuing the journey already mapped out or fulfilling God’s command and living up to an even greater ideal? Does the distinction matter?

The competing voices of God and parents is a tension throughout Abraham’s life. Later God commands Abraham to sacrifice his promised son. Which is the more important: honoring parents or living up to an ideal? Isaac, the promised son, goes willingly, honoring his father. Abraham goes willingly as well, honoring the ideal. Can we synthesize the two? Can this tension ever be resolved?

I am left to wonder.

God’s call to Abraham is not so much about spurring our forefather Abraham to leave his father’s house and his native land but instead about sanctifying a journey already mapped out. It is also about elevating one place over another. It is there, in the land of Canaan, where we best discover God’s call.

And how does Abraham respond?

He stays there—in the Promised Land—for a while and will of course later return (as will we) but for now keeps on walking. “And Abraham journeyed by stages to the Negev.” (Genesis 12:9)

Perhaps he is first and foremost his father’s son. He will always be a wanderer.

The imprint of parents remains as an everlasting inheritance.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Walking and Sauntering

Henry David Thoreau in his seminal essay, "Walking" idealizes going for a walk in the woods. The purpose of such an endeavor is not to reach a destination but instead to be at one with nature. He recommends these walks should be at least four hours long. We should saunter through nature.

Sauntering, he explains, is derived from the Middle Ages when people wandered about the Europe, asking for charity, in their quest to journey to "a la SainteTerre," the Holy Land. He writes:

This is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.... For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land.

And while I am troubled by the term crusade for it conjures negative connotations in my Jewish heart, I find his idealism deeply uplifting. Every walk is a religious quest, a pilgrimage, to a far-off destination, where insights, discoveries, and even revelations are found during the journey rather than at the moment of arrival.

God calls each of our heroes as they walk. Moses discovers God in a lowly bush as he is shepherding. God appears to stop him in his tracks. There is movement in these calls. The first words Abraham hears are: "Lech lecha-go forth." This week, we read "Noah walked with God." (Genesis 6) What does the Torah mean by this walking?

The biblical commentator, Sforno, who lived in fifteenth century Italy, responds: "Noah walked in God's way trying to be helpful to others, and to instruct them and if necessary, to rebuke them, as our sages pointed out." This is the typical Jewish answer.

Walking means to follow the Jewish path, to walk in the path of our ancestors. In fact, the Hebrew word for law, halachah, comes from the very same root as walking. It would be better to translate halachah as "walkway" for that is what the word implies.

The path is laid out before you. Follow it. Stay on the walkway. And this is how Jewish interpreters have long understood the phrase "walked with God."

The Hebrew verb is written in the reflexive. It therefore implies, walk with God and find yourself. This is exactly what our ancestors set out to do but our commentators failed to understand. Our biblical heroes forged a path for themselves while walking.

Back to Thoreau. The truth emerges on the walk. The revelation is discovered when you go for a walk. It does not have to be four hours, but you need to set out with no destination in mind and no route laid out. The meandering path through the woods, or the wilderness, can be an act of self-discovery, and perhaps it can even be an elucidation of inherited traditions. Then again nature offers revelation in what the eyes see, the ears hear and the nose smells-all while on the walk.

Henry David Thoreau concludes: "So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."

Saunter towards truth.

Meander forward.

Friday, October 16, 2020

This Is Very Good; We Could Be Very Good

I have a life-long fascination with the Northern Lights. Their luminous beauty inspires me.  I have long wanted to travel to Iceland or Scandinavia, or even Alaska to see this winter spectacle. A bat mitzvah student recently reminded me that they are also called aurora borealis. She too is fascinated by them and wants to see them with her own eyes. She helped to rekindle my fascination with their beauty.

To my eyes, these lights appear as evidence of God’s handiwork.

“God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1)

Then again scientists teach us that solar flares send microscopic particles hurtling toward the earth. These protons and electrons then bounce off the atmosphere and gather around the poles. These excited particles create energy that then produce the dazzling display of light with flashes of green and the occasional pink. This is the same principle that produces the colors in neon signs except in that case plugging the sign in an electric socket causes the electrons to bounce around the gas inside the tubes.

That is at least my rudimentary understanding of the science that causes this incredible natural phenomenon. I relish in the beauty of nature.

The awe-inspiring heavens stop us in our tracks. We marvel at the multitude of stars in the nighttime sky. We are unable to count the millions we can see. God agrees and shares my sense of awe. “And God saw that this was good.”

On the sixth day, after the creation of human beings, the Torah reports, “And God saw all that God had made, and found it very good.”

And yet we often fail to live up to “very good.” In fact, the remainder of the Torah is evidence of our failures to live up to God’s expectations. Not to give away next week’s story, but there is a flood. Why? Because people are flouting rules and the earth becomes filled with lawlessness. Soon after that is Sodom and Gomorrah. Then, Abraham nearly sacrifices his son. Very good? You decide. Moses gets angry—a lot. The Israelites complain—again a lot. They create a Golden Calf. That’s very bad and nowhere near very good.

The Torah is one example after another of people, heroes and villains alike, falling short. We could be very good, but time and again we are not. The concluding note of creation, that God found it very good, seems to be a set up. God saw that we can be very good. And the Torah then describes all the ways in which we are not—and perhaps points in the direction of how we can live up to the promise of very good.

But sometimes I don’t want to wade through all of the struggles and failures. And so, I look up to the heavens and behold the stars. Nature can serve as an antidote to human ills. Can the Northern Lights inspire us to do better?

Do they prompt us?  Even though we are often not very good, there is still plenty of time to do good. 

And God waits to say once again, “very good.”

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Torah Cannot Be Torah Without Us

It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17-18)

Recited at the conclusion of the Torah reading service, these verses from Proverbs reinforce the centrality of Torah in Jewish life throughout the ages. They remind us that the Torah, the story of our people, is to be prized and revered.

The beginning of the Torah service, too, when the scroll is paraded through the congregation in a ritual known as hakafah offers us an opportunity to demonstrate our love of Torah – with kisses. As the Torah passes through the aisles, it is customary to reach out to touch it – with a hand, a prayer book, the corner of your tallit – and then to touch that object to your lips....

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Dancing in the Torah's Words

Given the growing controversy surrounding the celebration of the Jewish holidays in New York City’s Hasidic enclaves and our brethren’s apparent disregard of health directives, I joined with hundreds of other rabbis and signed a letter supporting the government’s efforts to do what is necessary to protect us from the Coronavirus. As I said on Yom Kippur, I believe Judaism is adamant that health takes precedence over the observance of holidays. And I remain disappointed, and disturbed, by my co-religionist’s response. 

That being said I am really going to miss our typical Simhat Torah celebration. I love it when we unroll the scroll around our sanctuary, and then get to journey from the last verses describing Moses’ death to the Torah’s first verses detailing the creation of the world. To be honest Simhat Torah is my favorite holiday. Not only does it represent that the exhausting set of Tishrei holidays are behind us, but it affirms that all my dancing is not only required but laudatory and even holy. 

Moreover, Simhat Torah represents what is central to my spiritual life, the study of Torah. It means that once again I will have the opportunity to discover something new in the words and verses of the Torah. I get to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs with new eyes. I can look at our going out from Egypt and our crossing the Sea of Reeds through lenses now colored by this year’s experiences. I wonder how for example six months, and counting, of social distancing and mask wearing will influence my thinking. I look forward to what new discoveries I might uncover in the Torah’s words. 

What new revelations will become illuminated as I unroll the scroll to these portions once again? 

This is Judaism’s central question. It reflects our principal faith statement. Read the Torah year in and year out. Examine its verses. Pore over its words. Meditate even on its letters. The Torah may appear not to change, but you have. And the fact that you have changed makes all the difference. 

That’s what makes the Torah new all over again. We are renewed, and even restored, by reading the same book with new eyes. The Torah becomes new each and every year because of our new eyes. 

I look forward to what new revelations might appear in the coming year.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Holiday Set List

The Hebrew month of Tishrei offers quite the set list! Immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Sukkot. This holiday begins tomorrow evening and marks the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and living in these temporary shelters.

This month provides us with a record setting concert. Year after year it is the same. Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. Sukkot. Simhat Torah. There is an interesting tradition that even before breaking Yom Kippur’s fast, one is supposed to place the first board on the sukkah. Like the best of concerts there is no pause between songs. We move from the introspection of Yom Kippur to the rejoicing of Sukkot. The two holidays are bound to each other. The joy of Sukkot takes over.

The inwardness of Yom Kippur is transformed by the earthiness of Sukkot. We let go of our sins and wrongdoings. We turn to the world. Whereas Yom Kippur is all about prayer and repentance, Sukkot is about our everyday world. Its mandate is to celebrate our everyday blessings.

What is its most important mitzvah? Leishev basukkah—to live in the sukkah. We are commanded to eat our meals in the sukkah and even sleep in the sukkah. For one week our lives move from our beautiful homes to these temporary shelters. The sukkah must be temporary in its character. If it is too comfortable then it is not a sukkah. If it provides too much shelter, then it defeats the meaning of Sukkot.

Central to this definition of the sukkah is the schach, the roof. One must be able to see the stars through its lattice. So what does one do if it rains? What happens to living in the sukkah if the weather is uncomfortable? The rabbis are clear in their answer. Go inside! A temporary shelter cannot protect us from the rains. A temporary shelter should not protect us. Its fragility is part of its message.

Even more important than the sukkah’s temporary quality is the joy of the holiday. It is no fun to sleep outside in the rain. It is no fun to be eating outside during a late fall sukkot. One’s joy would be diminished. First and foremost, this day is about rejoicing. We rejoice in the gifts of this world. We celebrate the bounty of creation.

Living in these temporary shelters helps to remind us of these blessings. After a long day of fasting and praying, Sukkot comes to remind us of the blessings that surround us each and every day. Sitting outside in our sukkot, we look at the blessings of our homes. We relish the blessings of nature. We rejoice in fall breezes, the changing of the leaves and the full moon that will peer through the lattice tomorrow evening.

We breathe a sigh of relief after the exhaustion of beating our chest and examining our ways. The moon brightens the evening. We sing and laugh as we gather around the table in our sukkah. We rejoice!

The set list continues next week with Simhat Torah…

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Look in the Mirror: We Can Do Better!

My sermon "The Need for Soul Searching" from Yom Kippur evening also appears in The Times of Israel. 

The glass mirror before which we spend a good deal of our time as we prepare to venture out into the world or these days, present ourselves on Zoom, was invented in the early 1300’s. Prior to this people polished precious metals that only gave them an inkling of how they appeared to others. Imagine looking at your reflection in the waters of a lake. This gives you a rough approximation of how you might appear in ancient mirrors. Glass mirrors by contrast offer an accurate measure of how others see us. We stand before the mirror and ask ourselves if our grey hairs are showing or the outfit we are wearing is flattering to our figures or prior to that Zoom call, do we have any food stuck in between our teeth.

I have been thinking about mirrors and the technological leap they represent. Seeing ourselves more accurately, being able to hold a mirror so close to our faces that we can glimpse even our pores, helped to give rise first to an explosion of portrait painting and now to a heightened sense of individual rights. For our ancient rabbis, from whom we draw inspiration and wisdom, the mirror was not like our mirror. It was only an approximation of our appearance. And so, they saw our reflection more in how we behaved toward others rather than how we looked. For them the mirror was not about appearance but instead about how we acted. Our hands, when doing good, became a reflection of the divine image with which each of us is created.

And so, during this season of repentance, I wish to look into their mirror and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Yom Kippur is devoted to heshbon hanefesh, self-examination and soul searching. This fundamental Jewish value is central to strengthening our souls. As difficult as it is, this soul searching, and self-examination offers needed medicine for this difficult and trying year. We stand before God and admit our errors. We make amends for our wrongs. We say, “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…. We are guilty.” We beat our chests and proclaim, “We have gone astray.” Although I have done plenty of wrongs and you have also committed errors, we never say it like that. It is always, we. “Al cheyt shechatanu… for the sin we have sinned.” And so, on this day soul searching is not an individual undertaking as much as it is a communal confession. How can we do better? What must we change?

The Need for Perserving Life

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.

Part 3 in our return to Jewish values series. Preserving life—pikuach nefesh.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement which emphasizes personal ethics and the importance of refining one’s character, was a leading thinker in nineteenth century Lithuania. Beginning in 1846, the world faced a cholera pandemic that spanned nearly fifteen years. He was still a young scholar at the time, when the epidemic first reached Vilna. He decided to focus all of his energies on saving lives. He argued, and as Judaism teaches, pikuach nefesh—the preserving of life—takes precedence over all other commandments, most especially ritual observances. He enlisted his students to help care for the sick. He rented a building that served as a makeshift hospital for 1500 people. He became enraged when his fellow rabbis argued that Shabbat and holiday observances should take precedence over health measures.

He publicly declared that everyone should listen to doctors first and foremost.  When physicians advised people that they should not fast on Yom Kippur because that might weaken them and make them more susceptible to disease, Rabbi Salanter did the most dramatic thing of all. He issued a ruling that said every Jew should eat on Yom Kippur. He did not stop there. Afraid that people would not heed his advice, he traveled from synagogue to synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, with wine and cake in hand, recited the kiddush and then ate in front of everyone. Some reports suggest that Salanter did not leave each synagogue until he was sure everyone had also eaten.

And so, this year’s decision to hold services online and not in person was easy. Of course, it was emotionally difficult. We miss each other. We miss being together. But from the perspective of Jewish law and the guidance it affords, the decision was easy. Health takes precedence. I am even tempted to take out a pastrami sandwich and eat it on this Yom Kippur to add an exclamation point to this teaching. Health is first and foremost.

Moses Maimonides, the great medieval thinker—he wrote books of philosophy and law— illustrated this point in a different manner. He was also by the way a physician. If, on Yom Kippur, someone says, “I am too sick to fast,” and doctors examine the person and determine, “It’s all in his head. She is healthy enough to fast,” and the person still proclaims, “I am too sick to fast. I must eat,” ignore the doctors and listen to the person. He rules, it is better to err on the side of caution. It is better to be extra careful when determining matters of health. The observance of the holiday takes second place to health. Pikuach nefesh wins.

I could offer plenty more examples from our tradition, of instances where Judaism says in effect, “Break Shabbat for the sake of saving life.” Judaism is crystal clear about this despite how some Jews presently behave.

The tradition goes even further. We are commanded not simply to choose our health over the demands of Jewish ritual, but to care for others. The Torah states: “Lo taamod al dam reacha.” This is usually translated as “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” Judaism understands this verse, as well as others, to mean that we have an obligation to save someone’s life. Do not stand idly by. We are not allowed to walk by when we see someone in danger. Do not look away when someone’s health is in jeopardy. We have to try to help. We have to at least call EMS. We are not allowed to say, “It’s not my problem. Or, it’s not my business.” The health and safety of others is very much our business and our mitzvah. To be even more dramatic, if you see someone struggling to swim and in danger of drowning, you cannot say, “I don’t know how to swim. Or, I don’t know her. Or, he should not have been swimming in the first place. Or, they are not Jewish.” Instead we are commanded to ask, “What can I do to help?” It is as simple as that. You have to help save a life. You have to help preserve life.

One of the things that is most striking about our response to our current pandemic is the newfound realization that our health is dependent on the health of others. If the person standing next to me in the supermarket cannot afford to get proper health care, then my health is impacted. If people standing next to me at the gym decide that the rules of social distancing are too cumbersome and limiting for them, then my health might be put at risk. If people sitting to my right and my left at the restaurant now seating 25% of its occupancy feel that the rules about wearing masks are some infringement on their individual liberties, then my health is potentially endangered. Never have we had such a glaring example that even though I may have access to the best doctors, and I may follow all of the state’s guidelines, my health and well-being is tied to everyone else’s health. Rich and poor, law abiding and law evading, are bound to one another in one single family of people.

Lo taamod al dam reacha—you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. We are commanded to care for others. The health of every human beings must become each and everyone’s concern. Our individual soul’s heath is dependent on the health of other souls. The pandemic should offer us a great unifying cry rather than divide us into class and sects, New Yorkers and Texans. We are in this together, whether we recognize it or not. And we are in this for some time. And so, we must exercise resolve. Don’t let your guard down. Why? Because other people’s lives are in your hands. Wearing masks when you are in situations in which you are going to bump into others—whether they be family, friends, or strangers, staying home if you have a fever, not congregating in large groups is about the health and safety of everyone. My health, your health is the community’s responsibility. This is our God-given duty.

Part of the reason why we are so divided is that we are not all doctors like Maimonides or trusting of experts like Salanter. Scientists and physicians should be taking the lead. Listen to the scientific consensus. The bubbe meises to which some of our brethren cling (look no farther than Brooklyn) will not help to lift us up out of this plague. Lo taamod al dam reacha! Care for one another as if your own life depended on it. Why? Because it is what Judaism demands of you. And because your life actually does depend on it. The Talmud teaches: “If you save a life, you have saved an entire world. If you destroy a life, you have destroyed an entire world.” Every person, every human being, is an entire world. And we are each responsible for these many, many worlds.

The Torah’s holiness code from which that verse about standing by the blood of your neighbor is taken, opens with the following words: “You shall be holy.” And then it goes on to offer a lengthy list of ethical commands. There are the obvious: “Do not steal.” And the not so obvious: “Leave the gleanings of your field for the poor and the stranger.” It is fascinating that the holiness code is by and large defined by ethical precepts and not ritual commandments. Holiness is first and foremost derived from how we treat each other. For years, I thought the concluding verse: “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance and honest weights” offered a simple message. If you go to fill up your car with gas you have to trust that a gallon is a gallon. That sticker on the gas pump emblazoned with the official seal of New York State’s Weight and Measures department means more than we think. It signifies an objective truth.

Why is this the last word of the holiness code? Why does the most well-known chapter of the Torah detailing this litany of ethical precepts, one found in the exact center of our holy scriptures end with something so seemingly mundane? For years the explanation alluded me. And then, recently, it occurred to me like a revelation. It’s almost as if the holiness code likewise has that sticker appended to its conclusion. If we cannot agree on what a gallon is then everything begins to unravel. In our own age, the meaning of this verse has become glaringly apparent. Society is built on trust. There have to be objective measures upon which we all agree. I can’t tell you how to accurately determine if a gallon of gasoline is exactly a gallon, but I trust that someone who knows how to is doing exactly that.

And this points us toward a way out of our current crisis and how we might find ourselves sooner rather than later on the other side of this pandemic or at the very least more unified in our collective response to the virus. Listen to experts. Sure, doctors don’t always agree with each other. And the world’s experts have been stumped by the Coronavirus. Sure, even the most brilliant and experienced scientists are discovering something new about this virus every day and revising their understanding on a regular basis. But you have to trust the scientists, or we are never going to get through this. Like everyone else I have read far more about viruses than I ever wanted to, but my new-found knowledge does not make me equal to the expert who has spent a lifetime devoted to studying these microscopic organisms. Read Facebook posts less and follow the CDC guidelines more. Some might claim that the CDC has become politicized and that it has changed its mind about wearing masks or the transmissibility of the virus, but we disavow science to our own peril. Of course, scientists revise their understanding as they learn more. Yes, they even change their minds. But the Torah proclaims: “You shall have an honest balance and honest weights.” And that means follow objective wisdom. Listen to the scientific consensus.

The glue holding that sticker to the pump is losing its grip. I am watching—and this sometimes frightens me more than the virus itself—as this sticker gets peeled off bit by bit. The only way to get out of this is by trusting experts. Scientists are going to make mistakes just like every other human being. But listen to the counsel of our tradition. Follow doctors’ advice. Run after Rabbi Israel Salanter’s example.

But that’s not the whole story. Over the course of the past six months, people have said, more often than I can count, “As long as you have your health.” And at the beginning of the pandemic I heard in this cliché an affirmation of the Jewish dictum of pikuach nefesh. You must do everything, and anything, to preserve life. Health takes precedence over Shabbat. Health is more important even than Yom Kippur. But as the pandemic grew longer, and as the weeks became months, I began to hear a question mark at the end of this phrase. “As long as you have your health?” people began to ask and then later some even started to add, “As long as you have your health. Isn’t that right, rabbi?” And those questions left me wondering. Maybe that’s not all there is to it. Of course, if one is faced with debilitating pain, little else matters, but there is more to life than easily and effortlessly drawing a breath in and out of our lungs.

And this is why I admire Rabbi Salanter so much. He understood that there are two sides of the nefesh. Last night we explored what an honest accounting means, what true soul-searching entails, that this is how we refine our character and build a more ethical life. This morning we explored the physical health of the soul. The two are intertwined. Working out at the gym, guarding your health, must go hand in hand with caring for the spirit, for sustaining the inner life. And all of this must be done in the context of loving friends, and a caring community. Kehillah is the framework for exploring the soul and caring for the soul. As long as you have your health is only half the story.

You need to take care of the spirit as well and that does not just mean the difficult soul-searching I spoke about. We need to restore and strengthen our spirits. We need to bolster our faith. On Shabbat, the tradition teaches us, we are given an additional soul, a neshamah yetirah. Yes, the Hebrew language provides us with an additional word for soul. Neshamah comes from the Hebrew meaning breath. On Shabbat some extra spirit is breathed into each of us just as it was when God breathed the breath of life into the first human beings. Our breath serves as a constant reminder of the physical and the spiritual. Our spiritual health is of equal importance to our physical health. This too is not an individual pursuit, but a communal responsibility. This is why Shabbat is celebrated with our community—even when it is virtual. We depend on others to uplift us with our shared prayers and songs. This is why the Shabbat table is the quintessential Jewish space. It is not the synagogue that is central but the table around which you now gather that sustains us and feeds the soul.

We breath in that spirit of Shabbat. We gain strength from our community. We search within and explore how we can do better. We search without and discover how we must protect others and safeguard their health as well as our own. We are reminded again and again, most especially during these difficult and most trying of years, that we are sustained by the very same values that have nurtured our people for centuries. Pikuach nefesh—preserving life. Heshbon hanefesh—soul searching. And kehillah—community. Hold on to these values. Double down on committing to them. Gain strength from them. They will help us to surmount any and all challenges.

And so, I conclude with a prayer. May the coming year indeed be a year of health, a year of spiritual renewal, a year of honest self-examination, and most of all, a year when we can return to wrapping our loving arms around one another. And, may that day be very soon. 

Yahrtzeit Candle Meditation

What follows is my Yom Kippur Yizkor service meditation.

I began these High Holidays with a meditation about blessings. Judaism has a blessing for everything. Whenever we eat—an apple or hallah, when we see the beauty of nature—the ocean or a rainbow, when we celebrate a holiday—Passover or Yom Kippur, when we light the candles on Shabbat, we say a blessing. When we say the words of our tradition, we awaken our consciousness and fill our hearts with gratitude. That is the purpose of the blessing. But there is one item for which we don’t say a blessing.

When lighting the yahrtzeit candle. One might think this is because we are not feeling very thankful in the moment. The pain of our loss still stings our hearts. Still, this cannot be the tradition’s thinking. At the moment when we are confronted by the death of a loved one, we say “Baruch dayan ha-emet—Blessed are You Adonai our God judge of truth.” So why would the tradition not prescribe a blessing for this candle? Why has a tradition that has words for everything and anything chosen none for that moment when we light the yahrtzeit memorial candle.

Perhaps it is because there are no perfect words to say at this moment. Silence is the only response. The tradition proclaims by its silence. Let memories fill the heart. Let tears stream down the cheek. I offer a poem

There are two tears.

There are the tears of pain.
These tears burn our cheeks when death stands before us, when the weight of the heartache and loss feel crushing. These are the tears of despair when we feel like we will never be able to live without our loved one. We look back at these tears and wonder how we ever summoned the strength to place a shovel of earth into our loved one’s grave.

Later the tears of memory begin
to roll down our cheeks.
These tears do not sting.
Instead they are sweet.
We find that we laugh and smile
when recalling stories of our father or mother,
husband or wife, brother or sister, son or daughter,
grandfather or grandmother.
These tears bring with them the memories of loved ones.
They hurt, but do not sting.
Their taste is not the salt of bitterness
but the sweetness of memory.

There will always be tears. 
Some will sting.
Others will be sweet.
These later tears will bring with them
images, pictures, words and
We cry when we remember.

But we also gain strength from these tears.
We discover
our tears are no longer incapacitating, but

Let silence speak.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Blessings for the New Year

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah evening.

People think that blessings happen to you. This is what I also always thought and believed. In fact, this is how I ordered my spiritual life. Blessings find you. They capture you at the unplanned, and unexpected, moments. For years I held on to this idea.

Leon Wieseltier, the writer and thinker, once wrote: “Serendipity is how the spirit is renewed.” He wrote those words years ago when bemoaning the closing of his beloved record store. He taught that we are losing the art of browsing. We no longer wander into a record store or a bookstore and discover something new and wonderful. I admit. It’s been years since I went to a bookstore—or even seen a record store—and found myself lost in the poetry section, sitting on the floor, trying to decide which of the many newly discovered poetry books I might purchase—or asking the record store employee which Blues CD he might recommend to add to my collection. Those serendipitous moments sustained my spirit. They renewed my soul.

It’s the casual meeting, the unplanned encounter that restores us. At least that is what I thought. That is how I believed it is best to approach a spiritual life. I gravitated toward the meeting that was unexpected. I gained more sustenance from the chance encounter. That casual discussion in the lobby of our synagogue or the random debate at the oneg renewed me; the new friend made when we were both on a delayed flight to Los Angeles. I marveled about that experience. An upended journey transformed into a blessing by this chance encounter.

But then in March all this came crashing to a halt. The unexpected, the unplanned, the unchoreographed, came to frightens us. The serendipitous bumping into a stranger no longer electrifies our spirit; it terrifies the soul. We rush past the chance meeting so as to minimize contact and avoid the potential for contagion. We no longer linger. We no longer meander through occasions. Life moved online....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

The Need for Community

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon.

Years ago, when my children were very young, and I was not so old, Susie and I both had to officiate at separate occasions. And so, Ari tagged along with me and Shira with Susie. It was a baby naming. After officiating at what would now be a twenty-year-old’s ceremony, I told my then five-year-old he could go outside and play with the other young children. Later I was told by the grandparents the following story. The other children apparently asked Ari who he was and why he was there. He was the only kid who was not family at the event. Ari explained, “My dad is the rabbi.” The children looked at him quizzically. “What’s a rabbi?” one asked. “What does a rabbi do?” another one of the kids said. And Ari responded, “He goes to parties.” I have held on to that story for some time. As funny as it sounds, and apparently as easy as my job appears to five-year old’s, Ari was serious. And he points us toward an important, Jewish message.

Since Purim, and the middle of March, I have felt like I have been officiating at your sacred occasions with an arm tied behind my back. I could not offer a hug of consolation at funerals. I could not embrace you when we shared joyous occasions. (I am of course the guy who even hugs his electrician after he finishes his work.) And I miss the essence of my calling and the defining element of our congregation and our people. I do not mean to suggest that we should not be social distancing or that we should not be wearing masks. Health comes first. But at this moment, I am missing a great deal. Like you I just want to wish 2020 away. And even though we could not, or should not, have made any other choice for these High Holidays, standing in this sanctuary without you, is like trying to lift a thousand-pound weight alone. Our prayers are really only our prayers if you join in, if we sing together. So, I hope you have been singing loudly because that is what we need more than ever. I miss seeing your smiling faces. I miss marching the Torah around the congregation during the hakafah and catching up with every one of you. At this moment most especially, I miss seeing you gathered with family members and friends. And I am left to imagine you sitting in front of your computer screens or TV’s and smiling back at me. This year is a year like no other.

And so, my sermons will be different than other years. On these days, I often speak about contemporary issues like antisemitism, but this year I really only have one question for this moment and for this hour. How are we going to get through this? And by this I don’t mean the upcoming election. I mean instead how are we going to get through a year in which everything is turned upside down, in which we have had to master online learning, how to estimate six feet, how to safely get together with friends, when and where to wear masks, and how to evaluate risk on daily, and evenly hourly, basis. I will wander into contemporary events, and offer present examples to illustrate my points, but there really is only one big question that is vexing our souls.

We are scared. We are frightened. We are worried. We wonder when, if ever, we will be able to wrap ourselves around our friends, and even strangers, and swirl around in a sweaty, celebratory hora. So, here is my answer to that question. Here is the response required of us. We should return to our Jewish roots. Let us take comfort and gain strength from the Jewish wisdom of ages past. I admit. It’s not a particularly original idea and it may not seem like a creative notion, but I am a rabbi after all, and I have found our tradition’s wisdom to be the best medicine for any crisis.

This morning I wish to make the case for Jewish values. Why do Jewish? Because this is what we need right now. And so, this sermon is in truth one big long, sermon but in three parts.

I am going to offer three Jewish values that we need more than ever and that I am certain if we hold on to even more tightly, we will not only get through these months—and may it not be years—of struggle, but will find ourselves with renewed strength on the other side. And here are those three values: kehillah—community, heshbon hanefesh—soul searching, and pikuach nefesh—preserving life. We need to return to some basic Jewish values. This morning I will explore one, kehillah—community. You will have to come back on Yom Kippur for the other two.

#1. Kehillah. Community. As far as Judaism is concerned, we only realize our full potential in the company of others. The solitary ascetic is an ideal of other traditions but not of ours. It’s not just because the ascetic does not enjoy a pastrami sandwich. It’s mostly because the ascetic sets him or herself apart from others. You can’t really do Jewish by yourself. You are supposed to study with others. And you are supposed to pray with others. There is nothing more emblematic of our people than the hora. It’s what makes a Jewish wedding a Jewish wedding, or at least what used to make a Jewish wedding.

I often teach couples that as much as they might be worrying about what they should have for the appetizer course or what the band should play for the first song or if table ten got their lambchops on time, it’s not their job to make sure their guests have a great time, but the guests’ job to makes sure the couple dance at their wedding celebration. It is a mitzvah of the highest order to make sure a wedding couple dance, called in the tradition gemilut hasadim, a deed of lovingkindness. When we do this, we imitate God. God ensured Adam and Eve’s happiness when making sure they danced at their wedding ceremony. This is what our tradition imagines God does. God pushes a loving couple together and helps to swirl them around in a circle of happiness.

And I offer all this not to make the many couples I spoke with about rescheduling their 2020 wedding ceremonies feel remorseful, but to remind all of us that it is others who lift our lives, that is the company of family and friends, the community that make our events holy. We have had to reimagine how to include others in new and different ways these past few months. Not having a grandparent in our sanctuary at a bar/bat mitzvah and not having the throng of friends at a wedding is not what any of us expected or even what Judaism urges, but health takes precedence. And so, we gathered on Zoom. This is not to make us feel even more forlorn, but to remind us of what is most important to our faith and what is most enduring about our Judaism and what will also get us through this. Things most certainly look different this year, but they will always be animated by the values that nurture us. Kehillah—community—sustains us.

In Hebrew the word for community or congregation is kehillah. It is derived from the word kol—voice. Scholars suggest this is because the community was called together. The voice gathered us. I think it is instead because our voice is only a voice when it is heard by others. You may be more comfortable singing in the shower, but you’re not heard from there. Only when you are heard does your voice have resonance and power. Only when someone responds to your pain, or joins with you in song, is your soul transported by healing or lifted even higher with joy. The best prayer is when you are with others. Sure, you can pray by yourself (although I would not recommend singing the Shema in the shower) but if you really want to pray you need a minyan. The mourner’s kaddish is only supposed to be said in the company of others. Judaism says, “Don’t mourn by yourself.” And again, although I would have preferred to wrap my arms around friends in their hour of grief, the pages and pages and pages of friends assembled on the Zoom gallery for shiva was a powerful image to behold.

There was the kehillah. There stood the congregation—standing together as one although separated and apart. That is the “we” we need to reclaim. That is the “we” we need to wrap our arms tightly around.

I still miss you. And I find myself imagining who I am going to hug when this is all over. Which of my many friends will I run to wrap my arms around? I imagine that the handshake might never return—all those articles about the many germs on the ends of our fingers will leave some lasting scars—and the kiss on the cheek may become a thing of the past as well, but the hug can return. So, who will you hug first? It does not have to be me, but it can be if you want. I just hope each of us has a similar, lengthy list of friends who we will run to wrap our arms tightly around.

When the world seems spinning out of control the best medicine is to return to our roots, to go back to the wisdom of old. One of those roots is the power of community, the Jewish value of kehllah. Let the memories of our standing together, of our singing together in one voice, of our dancing together in a whirling circle sustain us.

Michael Twitty, a proud Jew and the author of The Cooking Gene, a book that is part culinary history and part memoir, and that suggests cooking and food can help to heal our country’s racial tensions, offers insights about our community. He says, “For me the negative situations that I have incurred cannot and will never outweigh my positive experiences. When we are at our best, we look out for each other. You don’t want any Jew to be alone. To not have a place at the seder table, a place to break the fast. In Judaism, being together is more than just community building, it is human sustaining. You are part of a family.” One might expect that Twitty would feel otherwise. He converted to Judaism some fifteen years ago. And for those who don’t know as well, Twitty is Black and gay. His words take on even deeper meaning. Let his idealism and vision restore our hope. He proclaims, “Judaism is more than just community building, it is human sustaining.” Michael Twitty is right. Kehillah sustains our spirits.

Recently I read a fascinating story. Some chutzpadik Israeli scientists at the Arava Institute decided that they should plant the 2,000-year-old date seeds discovered in the ruins of Masada. I would have thrown out those shriveled, ancient seeds. Instead they planted them. And a few weeks ago, they harvested the dates from those trees. Granted it took a little modern ingenuity to help this process along. Yet this image is one that I am holding on to, and that is sustaining me through these months of struggle. I looked in amazement at these photographs. There were people enjoying the sweet dates harvested from 2,000-year-old seeds. This is the same healing balm afforded to us. We have the seeds. They need not be excavated or unearthed. Here they are.

And I promise the sweetness will likewise return. True friendships will survive without parties and hugs. Caring, warm and loving, communities will outlast setbacks.

Remember these days when we could not hug. And promise me this. Let it not scar you but instead remind of how precious friendship is, how divine human touch can be, and how stirring the power of community will always be.

Kehillah—community will carry us beyond these difficult and painful days.

Finding the Lights

What follows is the story I shared on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

This morning, I offer a Jewish story.

In a mountain village in Europe many centuries ago, there was a nobleman who wondered what legacy he might be able to leave for his townspeople. He was a very wealthy man and wanted to use his fortune to enrich the community for years to come. After much consideration, he decided to build a synagogue.

He told the townspeople what he had set out to do and everyone became really excited. “But there’s one condition,” he said, “You cannot see the plans for the building until it is completely finished.”

Soon the work began with architects and craftsmen working for days on end. Materials were carted in and there was a constant racket as they worked. But as the nobleman warned, no one was allowed to see what was being designed inside. After this went on for weeks, everyone began to wonder what their new synagogue would look like. Would it be like that first sanctuary in Jerusalem with gold and silver, crimson, and blue? Would it have a huge menorah, an eternal flame, stained glass windows? Would the seats be in rows or in the round, the bimah high or low? The Ark rounded or square?

The people could hardly wait to see what was being built for them!

Finally, after several months—now you know for sure it’s a fictional story, an announcement went out that the synagogue was completed, and a great cheer erupted across the town. The nobleman called everyone to come as he would finally reveal what the synagogue looked like.

When the people came and started to look around, they marveled at its beauty and how perfectly it was designed. They sanctuary was exquisite, the ark awe-inspiring. There were even corners, nooks and crannies everywhere in which the townspeople could gather. It was a good kibbitzing kind of congregation. The ark was indeed inlaid with gold, the huge menorah glistening, and the stained-glass windows bursting with color.

But as the sun was setting, the synagogue began to grow quite dark and someone asked, “Where are the lamps? How will this place be lit? How will we see the words in our prayerbooks at night?”

“Aha! I’m glad you asked,” said the nobleman. He pointed to brackets, which had been placed on the walls throughout the synagogue building. Then he began to give every family in the town a lamp, which they were to bring with them and light each time they came to the synagogue.

“Each time you are not here,” he said, “a part of the synagogue will be unlit. This is to remind you that whenever you do not show up, especially when the community needs you, when your fellow members require your presence, some part of God’s house will be dark.”

A beautiful story, that offers a powerful message. Yet, this may seem like a strange story to share on this Rosh Hashanah given that you cannot be here in our synagogue. But it may be the most important story we could share this year. Here is why.

If you think a synagogue is a building, then you are wrong. We are a synagogue—even though this year we are gathered in many different homes. We are a congregation—most especially this year. We are a community. We are a kehillah kedoshah—a holy community because of the light we offer each other and the light we can bring to the world. Of course, the light burns brighter when we are together, when we are dancing and singing together, but the light of our congregation must never remain confined to these walls. It must reach out to one another. We must always care for one another. We must bring the light to others.

It is a curious thing that for most of my twenty some odd years of serving as your rabbi we did not have a building and a sanctuary of our own. We wandered throughout the North Shore of Long Island observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays and rejoicing at simchas. But those years taught me the most important lesson I would ever learn and the teaching we might most need for this moment.

It is you that makes a synagogue.

I know you are missing this place on this day most especially, but don’t let anyone ever tell you that it is only here where Jewish life is most felt. The lights that illumine our synagogue community are exactly where you sit. Hold on to that. Allow that light to lift you up and carry you to a year of peace, renewal and most of all, health. Shanah tovah.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Kol Nidre's Mystery and Power

Kol Nidre is a mysterious prayer. Scholars suggest its origin may very well hearken back to the belief in magic found in ancient Babylonia some 1500 years ago. Its language is striking. “Let all vows, resolves and commitments…be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone.” It has even provided the basis for antisemites to say, “See you cannot trust the word of Jews. Look at what they say on their holiest day.” Controversy surrounds its words. 

Yet its haunting melody and its majestic accompanying rituals are what transports us. The drama of the open Ark, the Torah scrolls adorned in white, and our congregation’s leaders holding these scrolls close to their hearts, lift our spirits. The cantor’s chanting of its words—irrespective of their meaning—stirs our souls. We hold fast to the melody. (And we acknowledge that no one sings it better than our cantor!) We cling to the mystery of Kol Nidre. 

I turn to the words of the mystics whose teachings I often find mysterious but whose insights carry me through the power of this, our most sacred evening of Yom Kippur. 

Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century mystic, offers a parable. It is a foundational teaching of Jewish mysticism and kabbalah. He teaches: 

At the beginning of creation God spoke; and primordial light infused all existence, contained in radiant vessels. 
And intention arose in the mind of God: to create a being capable of choice, able to distinguish good from bad, holy from profane. 
God breathed in and withdrew—tzimtzum—and for the smallest moment was absent, to make space for human beings to develop their godly essence, as expressed in the divine intention: “Let us make the human being according to our image.” 
Utter darkness reigned; the forces of chaos tore at the cosmos; the vessels were broken. All creation threatened to fall asunder. 
At that instant, when darkness was complete and creation was in peril, the human being came into existence. 
And God breathed out again, filling the universe once more with splendor. 
But what of the rays of light that escaped from the broken vessels—were they lost forever? 
Now the fusion of the divine intention and human potential became clear. For human beings are able and thus commanded to retrieve the wandering rays of light—those entangled in darkness, lost in unlikely corners of the universe. 
Each act of kindness, each effort to be human in inhuman circumstances, returns a spark of light to its Source. 
The rays of light are everywhere. And when all have been retrieved and uplifted, the messianic time of peace will be upon us. (As quoted in Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe)

 I take heart in the message. We must uplift creation. 

And I find myself again and again drawn to the modern mystic Leonard Cohen z”l. Listen to his Anthem: “There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything). That's how the light gets in.” Is this perhaps a modern rendition of our ancient words? 

I pray. When the words and music of Kol Nidre reach your ears, may you find your strength renewed. We are going to need it more than ever during this upcoming year. 

We must lift up these rays of light. 

That’s how the light gets in! 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Rosh Hashanah from Home

This Rosh Hashanah will be like no other. The Cantor and I will be standing in our sanctuary. And you will be watching our services on your TV's, computers or even iPhones. You will be participating from your homes.

If you have not yet registered to access the livestream link, please do so on my congregation's website.  Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening with services at 8 pm and then morning services on Saturday and Sunday at 10 am. Children's services are on Saturday at 1 pm. We will gather for in person Tashlich services at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park beach on Saturday at 4 pm. Please wear a mask and bring breadcrumbs so that you can symbolically cast your sins into the Long Island sound.

Judaism teaches that our homes are a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary. The meals that we share, the blessings that we recite, the love that we discover there, help to sanctify our homes. Our tradition has never believed that you can only observe Jewish rituals in a synagogue, or that Jewish bests can only happen in our beautiful sanctuary. In fact, it is the day of Rosh Hashanah that is holy, not the place where we observe it. Judaism sanctifies time not space, we teach over and over again. This year we are really going to have to take this principle to heart.

Given that we will not be together and that you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah from the comfort of your homes, I wanted to offer some suggestions for how you might make your home feel more like a sanctuary. Think about which room in your house would be best to help you feel like this is a prayer experience. Discuss this with your children. Entertain a debate about this question. And then watch from there. If you are able to stream the services to a TV, do so. If this is a technological leap for you then don't do it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.

Still this is not a Netflix movie, so I would not recommend a bowl of popcorn by your side to watch services. Then again do what you are comfortable doing and what will help you make this into a meaningful and uplifting experience. If you usually wear a kippah and tallis in synagogue then put them on. If you like to dress up for services, then do so. I know no one will see how stunning you look, but it might help to get you into the right frame of mind. But certainly, don't make outfits a fight with your kids. Let them enjoy the service and take in the music of our prayers however they are comfortable.

If you like to follow along in the prayerbook then have your prayerbook open or download the Kindle or free Flip versions.  Some of the prayers will be shown on the screen. Sing along, and sing really loudly, when you see those words. Listening to our cantor will help to lift your spirits. But singing along with her will add to your experience.

God hears all prayers wherever they might be offered—and however they might sound. When it comes to prayers it's first and foremost about the words and the intentions.

When we light the Rosh Hashanah candles on the bima, you can light your candles. When we drink the kiddush wine, you can drink some wine. Of course, you can start earlier with the wine if you like. And by all means have a plate of apples and honey, and maybe even a round hallah, waiting to enjoy for what will be your own private oneg.

If you are watching these services by yourself, and you're missing the opportunity of seeing your fellow congregants, then call them or FaceTime them before or after services. And if you know congregants who are watching services by themselves then call them before or after services. Or even call them during services. If kibbitzing with friends during services is part of what makes Rosh Hashanah enjoyable then do it.

The only rule for this year is that we need to grab as many opportunities as possible to lift our spirits.

May these services help to strengthen our spirits. May this Rosh Hashanah help to carry us toward a year of health.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Finding Kindness

This week was a good week.

I discovered a poem.

It was revealed to me as I turned through the pages of our new prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev. It called to me as I prepared for the upcoming High Holidays.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I endeavored to learn more about the poet who until this blessed hour was unknown to me. Naomi Shihab Nye was born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American who traced her lineage back to Germany. Nye spent her teenage years moving between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.

I learned more about the inspiration for the poem. While traveling on her honeymoon in Columbia, the bus on which she and her husband journeyed was robbed. A man was killed, and all of their belongings were stolen. Left alone when her husband went searching for how to get themselves out of this mess, she met a stranger who listened to her tale, despite her broken Spanish, and offered sympathy and compassion in return.

The poem emerged. It was if it scribbled its own words in her journal.

I started wondering.

Is every revelation born of serendipity? Is compassion best felt from those we least expect? Can kindness only be learned through pain?

The Torah declares: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31)

Is the Torah’s journey of pain intended to teach kindness and compassion?

I recognize. This is not the poem the Torah intended. And yet I remain thankful for the teaching.

I remain grateful for small discoveries—and poems that uplift a week and offer reminders that kindness can transform us, and even something so seemingly small as listening to another’s pain can redeem our burdens.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Say Your Blessings Slowly

This week we read a lengthy list of curses, beginning with what the Torah imagines to be the worst kind of people: “Cursed be the person who misdirects a blind person on his way.— And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be the person who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.— And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27)

It continues with a list of what will befall those who disobey God’s command: “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” And an abbreviated list of blessings that those who heed God’s mitzvot will enjoy: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28)

The theology is crystal clear. Obey God’s commandments and blessings will follow. Disobey God’s mitzvot and you will see a long, detailed list of curses. It is not a very comforting thought. The graphic curses are in fact frightening. They make one recoil. Perhaps they even make people uncomfortable with the Torah and its stark theology. I for one don’t find the threat of cures a particularly effective way of motivating me to do good.

The tradition appears to recognize this dilemma. When chanting this portion, the Torah reader chants these lengthy curses in a very soft voice and in a rushed manner. To recite these curses in a loud and commanding voice would be to suggest a confidence in this theology. It would be to affirm something we experience to be false. Everyone can cite examples of people who follow all the commandments and yet experience far too many calamities and likewise those who appear to subvert the rights of the stranger and appear to enjoy untold blessings. And so, what do we do? We recite these words in hushed tones.

It is almost as if the tradition is instructing us to dwell on the blessings and rush past the curses.

The Hasidic master Simhah Bunim of Pshischa notices something more. He teaches that these detailed punishments are only attached to one specific command. He hears the Torah shouting: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”

Perhaps the rebbe is correct. And all we require is the ability of the Hasidic masters to rejoice with even the most meager of blessings. They teach. All it takes is the posture of joy and gladness.

And I am beginning to detect how to begin and how to reorient this cursed year. Quickly, and softly, detail the curses. Slowly, and loudly, enumerate our blessings.

And then let joy and gladness fill your hearts.