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Showing posts from 2021

Don't Walk Away from the Heart

Joan Didion writes: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” The Talmud reports: “Rav and Shmuel disagree about the interpretation of the verse, ‘And there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph.’ One says this means he was actually a new king, and one says this means that his decrees were transformed as if he were a new king.” (Sotah 11a) It is a fascinating disagreement. One rabbi believes, as I had always thought, that it was in fact a new king who did not know about all the good Joseph did for Egypt. Perhaps he was not told. Or perhaps so many generations passed since Joseph’s death that the stories about his ingenuity were lost to Egyptian storytellers. The other rabbi suggests that it was not so much about the forgetting of history, or more precisely the failure to teach history, but instead about the king’s character. The king, as rulers so often do, became enamored with his p

Merry Christmas!

What follows is my brief message from December 24th Shabbat evening services. Merry Christmas. I recognize that this is a surprising statement to hear at Shabbat services, but it is my wish for our Christian neighbors and friends. This evening of course marks Erev Christmas, Christmas Eve. And I very much like wishing my Christian friends a heartfelt Merry Christmas. I don’t very much like the bland and nondescript Happy Holidays. I prefer that we know the greeting that evokes meaning to our friends and is most authentic to their faith. Knowing what is important to our neighbors is a significant quest. This week we read the opening chapters in the Book of Exodus. Our stay in Egypt, which began with Joseph and his brothers, turns ugly and turns into the slavery that we retell at our Passover seders. There is one reason why a new Pharaoh enslaves us. It is because he forgets. His failure to remember all the good Joseph and his descendants did for prior generations of Egyptians

Curse the Alphabet, Bless the Air

The Book of Exodus begins, “These are the names…” And yet my thoughts gravitate not towards the children of Israel listed in that opening chapter but the Greek letters that have become part and parcel of our everyday conversations. Delta and Omicron, Zeta and Iota. I was not in a fraternity, so I never learned the Greek alphabet. I sometimes struggle to pronounce our most recent dreaded name. And here is my latest realization. I don’t very much like these letters. Their names instill fear. Between the named hurricanes that enter our vocabulary when the weather whips past the letter Z to this most recent Covid-19 variant that upends our lives, and our plans, in a matter of days, I am starting to recoil before this Greek heritage. All I can think about is Sisyphus and that cursed boulder. When will this cycle ever end? I understand why the Greeks held on to that myth. It feels like the push-ups will never let up. Then again there is much in Greek philosophy that captures my heart a

Bless Your Kids

When our children were young, and now when they return home for Shabbat and holidays, we place our hands on their heads and offer the tradition’s blessing: May God make you like Ephraim and Manashe. (Genesis 48) May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face shine on you and be gracious to you. May God’s face smile at you and grant you peace. And here is my confession. The first time, and even the second and third times, we offered this blessing, it felt unnatural and awkward. We did not grow up in homes in which our parents recited these words. Of course, our parents hugged us. Of course, they wrapped their arms around us and said, “We love you.” This ritual formulation, however, was foreign. And so, when I began saying it, I felt like an interloper. “Who am I to say these words?” I thought. It all felt so strange. Our children also sometimes protested. They shouted that I was hugging them too tightly. Or that I was messing u

Change Is Who We Are

I often hear people say that the Orthodox way of life guarantees Judaism’s survival. I hear this argument from all manners of Jews, from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. The notion is that only strict observance and inviolability guarantees the Jewish future. This is false. I understand when I hear this argument from Orthodox Jews because it makes sense that they would believe their commitments are the true path. It saddens me when I hear this from fellow Reform Jews because it suggests a lack of faith in our own chosen path. This week we conclude the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph has framed his brothers by hiding a goblet in his brother Benjamin’s bag. Joseph accuses the brothers of thievery and threatens to jail Benjamin. Rather than allowing Benjamin to be carted away and made a slave, as they did to Joseph so many years ago, Judah draws near to Joseph and begs that his younger brother be spared. Judah pleads, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slav

Our Sanctuary Dedication

What follows is my sermon and message on the occasion of dedicating our congregation's newly renovated sanctuary.  This is indeed a blessed evening. We are thankful to those who volunteer to serve our congregation and help it make it even better. We are thankful for this holiday of Hanukkah that sheds light on our lives during the darkest time of the year. And we are thankful that not only can we gather together, but that we do so in this beautiful, newly renovated sanctuary... Ten years ago, this is not what anyone at the Jewish Congregation of Brookville ever imagined. Ten years ago, this is not what anyone at Oyster Bay Jewish Center ever imagined. And yet here we are and now we are Congregation L’Dor V’Dor and we must no longer look back to what we imagined long ago, but instead only forward to what I believe will be a strong future filled with much song, many celebrations, lots of lots of Jewish teaching, and plenty of spiritual uplift. In this sanctuary, we will celebra

Seeing the Good in Wrong

Joseph is a stunning character. Despite adversity he achieves great renown. His brothers first try to kill him and then sell him into slavery in Egypt. He quickly becomes Potiphar’s most trusted servant. Then when he refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife, she becomes enraged and accuses him of trying to molest her. Joseph is thrown into jail. There he interprets dreams, in particular those of the chief cup bearer (can someone please provide me with the job description for this position?) and chief baker. His interpretations are proven true. The chief cup bearer is restored to his position and the chief baker is executed. Lo and behold, Pharaoh is plagued (get it?) by repeated, disturbing dreams. No one can interpret them. The chief cup bearer reports that he met this guy in jail who has a unique ability to interpret dreams. Joseph is summoned to Pharaoh’s palace. He is cleaned up and given fancy clothes. He interprets the dreams to mean that there will be seven years of plenty fol

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and the Myths We Tell

It feels somewhat strange when we celebrate Hanukkah a few days after gathering for Thanksgiving. Our Jewish holidays are tied to the Hebrew calendar which operates independently from the Gregorian calendar. Occasionally however, Hanukkah finds its way into November and nears Thanksgiving. This offers us a unique opportunity to reflect upon our dual commitments as American Jews. Interestingly both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are built upon myths that are thinly tied to history. Let me explain. Nowhere in the Book of Maccabees, the first written record of the events surrounding Hanukkah, is the miracle of oil mentioned. I realize this may come as a surprise given that this story forms the core of how we talk about Hanukkah. We first find the miracle story in the Talmud, a book completed nearly 700 years after the Maccabean revolt. Did the miracle of oil really occur? This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Forgiveness Should Be Easier

I know I am supposed to admire Jacob and love him more than Esau. Jacob is, after all, the father of the children of Israel. He is the man through whom we trace our people’s sacred lineage. And yet, this week, I find myself looking admirably towards his brother Esau. Jacob deceived his father and stole the birthright from Esau. Jacob then runs away—Esau threatens to kill him after discovering the deception. On the run, Jacob experiences God, marries and builds a large family, experiences God some more and becomes incredibly successful. We do not know what Esau is doing during these years. Is he nursing a grudge towards Jacob? Is he perseverating about the wrongs done to him? He has every right to be angry. It is true that Jacob lied and stole from him. We learn little about what Esau is thinking. We learn a great deal about Jacob. We read about his dreams and how he wrestles with God. We learn a great deal about his fears. They continue to plague him. When he realizes that he will

Lift Up Your Legs, There Are Miracles To Be Seen

Miracles are all around us. It is not that they do not exist. It is instead that we fail to see them. That is the Torah’s perspective. And so, we read many times, the refrain, “And he lifted up his eyes (vayisah einav).” Abraham heads out on a journey with the faith that God will direct him to a special and holy place. “On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place from afar.” (Genesis 22) Later, an angel stays Abraham’s hand as he is about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Miraculously a ram appears, and he sacrifices it instead of his son. “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and he saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.” Did the ram appear out of nowhere? Was the place magically created out of thin air? Of course not. They were there all along. The power of miracles is held in our eyes. Miracles are all around us. It is a matter of lifting up our eyes. And yet, this week, Jacob does not set out on a journey because God commands him like his grandfather Abraham. I

Waiting for Miracles

A common theme in religious literature is the miraculous birth of its heroes. The Torah is no different. Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah after years of infertility. Sarah is in fact ninety years old when she gives birth, and Abraham, one hundred. Isaac’s birth is not only unexpected and surprising but miraculous. The Torah’s message is clear. The only way that Abraham and Sarah could have a child is by divine intervention. Jacob and Esau are also born to Isaac and Rebekah after the Torah reports that Rebekah is barren. There is, by the way, no suggestion that their infertility is because of Isaac. The Torah’s perspective is that it must be because of Rebekah. And so, we read, “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.” (Genesis 25) Still, we cannot know what causes their infertility. We only know that they struggle to have a child. The Torah states that Isaac is sixty years old whe

Antisemitism Three Years Later

Three years ago in Pittsburgh, eleven Jews were murdered and seven injured while doing the most Jewish of things, offering Shabbat prayers at their synagogue, the Tree of Life. Furthermore, this far-right extremist claimed he was angered by the community’s support of immigration rights, by this community’s expression of their Jewish values. This past summer, protests against Israel’s war in Gaza, turned violent. Jews were attacked because they wore a kippah or they dined at a Jewish restaurant. It was thought that somehow these outward manifestations of their Jewishness made them legitimate targets for their attackers’ anger at Israel’s actions. Make no mistake, antisemitism, and murderous hatred, and violent attacks, have no such rational explanations. There is no such legitimacy. It is folly to suggest that if Israel was not so heavy handed in its response to Hamas rockets, or if Jews were not so supportive of liberal causes, antisemtism would cease. One in four American Jews

Seeing What's Ahead

“On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.” (Genesis 22) People always want to look into the future. They want to know if their decisions will prove successful. And yet, when Abraham looks at Mount Moriah from a distance, he does not know that how this journey will unfold or even that it is a test. Often, we do not see what we are meant to see when we look into the distance. We cannot know what the future holds. When Abraham next lifts up his eyes, he sees a ram. And he turns away from slaughtering his son Isaac and understands that the intended sacrifice is different than he first believed. Was the journey for naught now that its intention has changed? What he believed the future held is far different than what transpires. When looking from afar we often do not understand what is intended. When making decisions, we often get the distant future wrong. Our intentions are transformed when we see what is actually unfolding before our eyes—at least if we a

Jefferson's Statue, Jefferson's Words

I imagine a debate about our founding father, Abraham and what would happen if we were looking at a statue of him. On the one hand, he set out on a journey that reshaped the world. In this new land to which he traveled, he grew closer to God. His family, and wealth, increased. Through his heirs three religions were born, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I would like to think the world has benefited from his extraordinary vision. On the other hand, he fathered a child with his slave, Hagar. He then cast this child, Ishmael, and his mother aside, leaving them to die in the desert. I remain troubled by his heartlessness. I recognize his flaws but hold on to his faith in God. Others might be unable to look past his wrongs. If holders of these divergent views were staring at the same image, would they be able to compromise? Would the nuances, the mistakes and failures, be smoothed over? In the Torah’s words, there is room for opposing views. I wonder as well. Do I hold on to the aspirat

Answering the Unexpected

Seemingly out of nowhere God calls Abraham, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12) We are left to wonder why Abraham? What is it about his character that made God choose him? The rabbis of course spin many stories to explain this. The most famous of which is the tale about the time young Abraham was working in his father idol shop. Abraham smashes all the idols except one and then when his father confronts him, he blames the single idol. His father screams, “That is ridiculous! An idol can’t destroy other idols.” And Abraham says, “Exactly!” He reasons that a statue of wood and stone cannot be responsible for our lives. In that moment Abraham begins to realize that there is only one God who moves heaven and earth. Moses Maimonides offers a similar insight. He suggests that Abraham looks to the stars and realizes that they should not be objects of our worship. He understands that there is an

Walking with Others, Walking with God

What does it mean to walk with others? Moshe Cordervero, one of the greatest Jewish mystics, who lived in sixteenth century Safed, offered this advice. Go for long walks with friends. He and his friend, and fellow mystic, and brother-in-law, Shlomo Alkabetz, who authored one of our favorite Friday night prayers, Lecha Dodi, would go on walks in the fields surrounding Safed. Their goal was to see where their friendship led them. What truths could they uncover as they walked? Cordevero offered this counsel: “One should desire the best for friends, view their good fortune favorably and cherish friends’ honor as your own.” What they discussed on those walks were recorded in a book called the “Book of Wanderings.” Go on an undetermined path with a friend. Go get lost with a friend. Wander together and there you can be found. There you might discover some truth. He offered practical suggestions about his spiritual practice. 1.Always walk with a friend. And 2. Only discuss matters of gre

Grasping the Divine Image

This week we begin the Torah reading anew. We begin with the opening chapters of Genesis. We join with others so that we might uncover new, and yet undiscovered, understandings in these ancient words. And we notice there are two creation stories. In the first chapter God creates human beings from the earth. The name Adam comes from the Hebrew adamah, meaning earth. Furthermore, humanity is created in God’s image from the outset. This image is a matter of divine will. It is given to humanity by God’s hand. The Torah reports: “And God created adam in God’s image, in the image of God, God created adam, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1) Man and woman are created simultaneously. The rabbis suggest that adam was an androgynous human with both male and female traits. God then divided this figure into two and fashioned male and female. In the second creation account, man is created first and the woman from his rib. This is perhaps the more familiar account and has for centuries l

Welcoming Guests, Welcoming Strangers

The holiday of Sukkot is an agricultural festival. In ancient times we built temporary shelters so that we could spend our days out in the field harvesting the Fall crops. The Torah also suggests that we lived in these booths during our wanderings in the wilderness and they therefore remind us of our journey from freedom (Passover) to revelation (Shavuot). Rabbi Akiva believed that these temporary booths symbolized God’s protective shelter over us. For one week we are commanded to eat, and even sleep, in the sukkah. The sukkah should never be built so well that it keeps out rain. In fact, one is supposed to be able to see the stars through its roof. The sukkah’s temporary quality reminds us of the fragility of our lives. Spending time in the sukkah helps to reconnect us to nature. Sleeping in the sukkah teaching us gratitude for the beautiful homes in which we live. We are to invite guests into our sukkah and share our meals with them. The tradition suggests that everyone who is fort

Get Angry, Be Joyful

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur morning.  We require the emotions of anger and joy to face life's uncertainties.       A Hasidic story. When the seer of Lublin was a child, he lived near a forest. Almost every day the young boy ventured off into the woods by himself. His father, who was basically a tolerant and understanding man, didn’t want to interfere with his son’s daily excursions, but to be honest, he was concerned. He knew all too well that the forests near their home could be dangerous. One day the father pulled his son aside and said, “I notice that every day you go off by yourself into the forest.” He continued, “I don’t want to forbid you from going there, but I want you to know that I am worried about your safety.” The father added, “Why is it that you go there, and what is it that you are doing there?” The boy responded, “I go into the forest to find God.” His father was deeply moved by his son’s spirituality. “That’s beautiful my son,” he said. “A

Embracing Change

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening in which I argue that only change will ensure the Jewish people's survival. Let me tell you about our people’s survival. It is captured by a story from nearly 2,000 years ago. It involves the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E, the most catastrophic event the Jewish people ever experienced, until the twentieth century’s Holocaust. It is the story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, Yohanan was secreted out of town by his students. They carried him to the Roman general’s camp in a coffin. There he negotiated with Vespasian that Yavneh be spared so that a rabbinic academy could be established there. Why did he need to sneak out of Jerusalem? Because his Jewish compatriots might very well have killed him. So divided were the Jewish people during those years that he feared for his life. He was a known critic of the Sadducees who stubbornly held fast to the ritu

Zoom Stories

What follows is the meditation I offered at this year's Yom Kippur Yizkor service reflecting what I learned at Zoom shiva.   This year was a difficult year. Our congregation suffered many losses and far more than past years. This year was also a strange year. We observed shiva more often than not on Zoom. Because of this there was a regular shiva minyan in my home for months on end. And yet, even though I sat by myself in my study I strangely, and perhaps even miraculously, felt surrounded by hundreds of people. There, we huddled together on my laptop screen, all trying to bring a measure of comfort to grieving friends. This was not the shiva I had come to know in my thirty years of being called rabbi. In the past this is what I instead observed. More often than not people would arrive and find their way to the kitchen. They would exchange sometimes uncomfortable “Hello’s” and “It’s so sad.” They would talk about the weather’s latest storm or the maddening traffic, or a