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Who Is My Neighbor?

Who is my neighbor? Is it the person who lives on my block? Or is it the Jew who lives in Tel Aviv? Is neighbor defined by physical distance or instead by emotional connection? We tend to rely more on feelings rather than distance when defining who is in and who is out. We rely on emotional nearness rather than short distance separating us from others. The Torah proclaims: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” (Leviticus 19) If this statement were about loving those to whom we already feel close, then what would be the point of this command? The Torah cannot mean that we are to love those to whom we feel a kinship. Instead, it commands the difficult. It obligates us contrary to our feelings. We are told to love those who are nearby but those to whom we do not feel close. Think of those who live mere blocks from our homes, who toil mowing our lawns or who clear the tables at the restaurants we used to frequent. These are our neighbors! On Tuesday, a Minneapolis jury found former poli

Celebrating the Land, Celebrating Israel

In the nineteenth, and early twentieth, century the roots of the modern State of Israel were sown. Zionist thinkers argued about the character, and purpose, of the state for which we now celebrate seventy tree years of independence. People are most familiar with Theodor Herzl who more than any other thinker, laid the foundation stones for the modern state of Israel. He was a masterful organizer, convening the First Zionist Congress in 1897. He was a tireless politician. Herzl’s political Zionism envisioned a state for the Jews, wherever it might be located, that would finally cure the world of antisemitism. Although his dream did not succeed in eradicating antisemitism, it did lay the groundwork for the modern state. The State of Israel would be, as it now most certainly is, the master of its own fate. No longer would Jews be subjugated to the whims of tyrants. Instead, they would rule their own lives. Unlike Herzl, Ahad Haam, believed that such a state must be located in our a

Justice for the Six Million?

Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day) is today. It is a day filled with special services, concerts and public ceremonies. But no commemoration can adequately mark this tragedy. Still, it was not always the case that such services marked our calendar. Sixty years ago, Israeli agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and secreted him to the state for trial. Eichmann was one of the principal architects of the Nazi final solution. David Ben Gurion made the startling announcement to the Knesset and the world at large. So many years later we still fail to recognize the significance of Eichmann’s trial and the historic shift it represented. It was pivotal in our understanding of the Holocaust and our formulation of modern Jewish identity. It was the day that survivors’ stories began to be told—and heard. In 1961 Holocaust museums did not dot the landscape of American cities. Yad VaShem was only established in 1953 and Yom HaShoah declared that same

Count Down to Revelation and Meaning

I feel like I have been living in the Omer for the better part of a year. The Omer is the seven-week period in between Passover and Shavuot. According to tradition every evening, beginning on the second night of Passover, we recite a blessing and count: “Today is five days of the Omer.” I have now been counting the days, and weeks, since last year’s seders and perhaps even from last year’s Purim celebrations. I feel like what was only supposed to last for weeks, and then months, now promises to last for at best six seasons. The trepidation associated with the Omer is now our daily existence. The Omer represents a mysterious custom. In ancient times, when our lives were more intimately tied to the land, we counted the sheaves of grain (omer). Passover was tied to the barley harvest and Shavuot to that of wheat. There was great worry, and even fear, about the impending harvest. Will the harvest be plentiful enough? Will our grain stores last us through the summer and into the fall

It's a Tie!

Many years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friend and I skipped an evening lecture to attend a soccer match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Yerushalyim. Our teachers were displeased with our decision. What could we possibly learn at a soccer stadium? How to curse in the most colorful of ways? Soccer matches do not represent the highbrow culture of the poet Yehudah Amichai or the thoughtful debate of the beit midrash, the study hall. We watched fights break out. We looked on in disbelief as fans threw smoke bombs. It was a rather unsatisfying game. The final score was 0-0. It ended in a tie. It concluded with the fans muttering “Teiku.” Modern Hebrew has borrowed a word from Talmudic times. It has lifted a word out of the study hall and brought it into the everyday. Teiku is the Talmud’s word for when a debate is concluded without rendering a decision. It means let it stand. Others say it is an acronym meaning when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah

Offer Empathy

The sacrifices detailed with obsessive length in the Book of Leviticus, are about bridging the distance between human beings and God. The people offer up animals and grains, and the Torah reports God accepts these offerings. “It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1) The smell of the smoke rising up from the sacrifice appears to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. The Hebrew term for sacrifice is korban, coming from the root to draw near. And so, it is quite striking that the opening word of this book is vayikra, to call. The book begins with the words, “And God called to Moses.” To call out suggests there is a chasm separating speaker from listener. In most other instances, God speaks (vayidaber) with Moses. Elsewhere their conversations are marked by intimacy. Their discussions appear like those between two friends. Here, God calls out. It is as if they are no longer close enough to talk. What separates them in this moment

Gathering Goodness

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a popular teacher in pre-war Poland, leading a community in a Warsaw suburb. After the German invasion, and following the death of his family, he was shipped to the Warsaw ghetto. There he managed to run a secret synagogue. His teachings and sermons were popular among those trapped in the ghetto. As the Warsaw ghetto uprising neared its bitter end, Rabbi Shapira prepared for the worst. He hid his sermons and teachings in a milk canister. After the war they were found by a construction worker. His writings continue to be studied to this day. I have spent some mornings in the warmth of Jerusalem’s summer pouring over his words. I return again and again to his work Bnai Machshavah Tovah, a treatise on creating and sustaining a conscious community. He writes there of the power of community and how the group can elevate individuals and lead them to holiness. For Judaism gathering is of prime importance. Our tradition maintains an unmitigated faith

Smash Anger

Soon after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai which of course contains many commandments forbidding idolatry, the Israelites build a Golden Calf and bow down to it. They were understandably nervous and worried. In their estimation, Moses had abandoned them. He was spending more time communing with God than with them. The people complain to Aaron, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32) Aaron quickly, and surprisingly, acquiesces to their demand and builds for them an idol in the familiar image of a calf. After forty days of wild partying (ok the Torah does not put it in those words), Moses finally descends from the mountain. Despite the fact that God warns Moses about what he is going to see, when he does actually see the people dancing before the idol, he becomes enraged. Moses smashes the tablets and then burns the Golden Calf. He then grinds the idol into powde

You Gotta Laugh

It’s a topsy turvy world and Purim’s tale is a topsy turvy story. Here is that story once again. A long, long time ago, in the land of Persia, and the city of Shushan, there lived a king and queen. One day Queen Vashti refuses to dance naked in front of the drunken King Achashverosh and his friends. Flummoxed by her refusal the king consults with his male advisors who say, “Now all women will ignore men’s commands. They will refuse all of their husbands’ demands. Kick Vashti out of the palace.” The king is easily persuaded and goes along with their advice. And so, Vashti loses her crown. And how does the king pick a new queen? He consults with his advisors who tell him to organize a beauty pageant. Esther of course wins the pageant. The Bible relates that she spent twelve months preparing herself: “Six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics.” We learn nothing about Esther’s character. We are taught nothing about her wisdom. We know only

Give Diamonds

This week we read about the building of the tabernacle. God commands Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25) Gifts, most especially those intended for the building of the sanctuary, should come from the heart. They should not be coerced (or even commanded?) but freely given. The Torah continues: “And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.” That’s quite an exhaustive list. I wonder. How can gifts that are supposed to be freely given come from such a detailed list? If they are indeed gifts of the heart, shouldn’t the giver decide what to give, rather than the recipient? “Dear Susie,

How We Treat Others Comes First

The Torah proclaims: “These are the statutes that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21). This is then followed by a detailed list of commandments required to build a just and thriving society. For instance, the consequences for murder, manslaughter, kidnapping are stealing are addressed. Here are a few more examples of the detailed laws enumerated in this week’s reading: When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, the person who started the fire must make restitution. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to your enemy. The Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, comments: the portion’s opening verse that concludes with the words “before them” means the Torah teaches that civil law, namely the commandments between human beings and his or her fellow, come before anything else, before the mit

Blessed be the USA

Although the names given to the Torah portions convey little if anything about their content, it is fascinating to discover that this week’s reading, containing the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments, is named for Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, Yitro. Very few portions are even named for a person. They are Noah, Hayyei Sarah, Korah, Balak and Pinhas. Like Yitro, Noah and Balak are not Israelites. Noah, however, precedes the Torah’s division of the world into Israelite and non-Israelite. Moreover, Balak and Yitro descend from Israel’s enemies. And yet both offer words of blessing. Balak provides us with the well-known morning prayer, Mah Tovu: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” (Numbers 24) This week we read, “Yitro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when God delivered them from the Egyptians. Yitro then said, ‘Blessed be the Lord.’” (Exodus 18) Even though the ancient rabbis did not ascribe meaning to the na

No More Miracles

You cannot sustain the miraculous. It is a flash that quickly dissipates. And yet people still chase after them. That’s why they pilgrimage to religious sites, hoping to recapture the spirit of what once happened there. They spend inordinate resources to travel back to where the inspiration for their faith first occurred. This is a mistaken effort and one which Judaism by and large rejects, although more by accident rather than design. We do not know the exact location of Mount Sinai. The Torah does not record the burial place of its hero Moses. We cannot even find the Sea of Reeds. And yet the impulse to rediscover such miraculous inspirations still drive religious followers. The medieval philosopher and poet, Yehudah HaLevi, who authored countless poems, most notably the words, “My heart is in the East, but I am trapped in the depths of the West,” died during his journey to reach the Holy Land. Legend records that he was killed as he reached out to touch the stones of Jerusal

The Dawn Is Up to Us

Our central prayer, the Shema is recited two times a day, once in the evening and again in the morning. The question arises how a person determines when it is evening and when morning. When is the first moment someone can recite the Shema, for example? Is it when we see the first glimmer of light, peering out of night’s darkness? The rabbis of the Talmud argue at length about this question. One responds, when one can determine between the sky’s blue and white. Another retorts, when one can distinguish between two similar animals, such as a wolf and a dog. The sages respond, when one can recognize an acquaintance from a distance of four cubits (six feet!). Jewish law follows the sages’ majority opinion. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 9b). Dawn is not about the glow of red and orange emerging at sunrise. Instead, it is about seeing, and in particular our seeing each other. The distinction between day and night is determined by our ability to see others. Darkness is not so much th

We're on the Same Boat!

I have been thinking about the divisiveness we now face, and the unity that so clearly eludes us. Looking back on our history, we tend to diminish disagreements, and naysayers, and amplify agreement, and even exaggerate cohesiveness. When we peer at the events of yesterday, we tend to forget the pain that separated us from our neighbors. Think about how we retell our experience of going out from slavery in Egypt to freedom and wandering in the wilderness. And yet we read over and over again, that the people doubt Moses and even God. The Torah reports: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: ‘I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage….’ But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6) Once free, we spend the remainder of the Torah arguing and fighting with each other. Moses dies in the Torah’s last chapter, his dream of touching the land of Isra

It's Really About Character

Like so many proud Americans I was shocked and dismayed by Wednesday’s events. To see the Confederate flag marched through the Capital, rioters wearing Proud Boy slogans and QAnon paraphernalia, groups who traffic in conspiracy theories and antisemitism, to see people smashing the Capital’s windows, the mob desecrating the American flag and climbing Congress’ walls as if it were a jungle gym, to stare in disbelief as rioters vandalized our government’s sacred halls while senators and representatives scurried to safety, to read that people were killed and officers were injured and that one then died all on the day in which Congress was supposed to formally recognize the Electoral College votes and affirm Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as our next president and vice-president, and finally, to hear President Trump’s earlier words exhorting the crowd to do such violence, was more than I could take. It was more than I could bear. Never was I more ashamed, and frightened to be an American

Conspiracy Theories No More!

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an infamous antisemitic tract written in the early 20th century advancing the conspiracy theory that Jews seek to control the world through a secret cabal. Scholars have long suggested it was written in Russia around the time of deadly antisemitic pogroms in the early 1900’s. In the 1920’s Henry Ford published 500,000 copies of this tract and distributed them throughout the United States to English reading audiences. Despite the fact that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was long ago debunked, it continues to find audiences and sympathetic ears. Today QAnon and its followers allege an equally outrageous conspiracy theory. A group of Satan worshiping pedophiles is running a sex-trafficking ring whose goal is the downfall of President Donald Trump. According to QAnon, among the ring’s followers are some Democratic leaders and liberal Hollywood actors who secretly meet in the basements of Washington DC pizza restaurants. There are of course o