Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2022

Foreshadowing Our Concern

Joseph’s story mirrors what will soon happen to the Israelites. Joseph is imprisoned in Egypt. The Israelites are later enslaved by Pharaoh. The Torah offers hints of what it is to come. The Book of Genesis foretells the travails of Exodus. When Joseph realizes that his brothers have changed and this time stand up to protect their younger brother Benjamin rather than selling him into slavery as they did to Joseph earlier, Joseph breaks down and cries. He reveals himself to his brothers, saying, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45) The Torah relates: “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.” Hints appear. They point toward later events. In Exodus we read, “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God

Hanukkah’s Unwanted Miracles

In Israel the dreidel’s phrase shifts. One word changes from there to here. It reads “a great miracle happened here.” There creates distance. Here denotes an intimacy with the events of the past. I am wondering if this is a good thing. When it comes to miracles does being “here” become intoxicating? I am back where it all happened. And I have returned to where it is again happening. No matter how many times I visit Israel, it is a privilege to be here. It is an unparalleled blessing to live in this age alongside the sovereign Jewish state of Israel. And yet, I find myself worrying. Can the past overwhelm the present and begin to suffocate the future? There is a strain of Jewish thought that was once minor that I fear is becoming major. You can hear it in the medieval thinker Yehuda Halevi who argued that there is something special in the Jewish soul and that when combined with the land of Israel results in prophecy. It flows through Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook the first chie

Hanukkah's Freedoms

A great miracle happened there. These words are part of Hanukkah’s essence and the phrase the dreidel’s letters point us toward.  Thousands of years ago the Maccabees fought against oppressors who persecuted our ancestors, prohibited Jewish practice and desecrated Jerusalem’s holy Temple. When the Maccabees succeeded in their fight, they rededicated the Temple to Jewish prayer and instituted our holiday of Hanukkah. In their eight-day long dedication ceremony, they rejoiced that Jews could once again freely acknowledge their faith. We continue to celebrate the Maccabees’ achievements and mark this holiday of Hanukkah every year with the lighting of the menorah, the playing of dreidel and the eating of latkes or sufganiyot (jelly donuts). On each successive night we light one more candle as the miracle increases. We recall that during Hanukkah’s first celebration we did not know if the oil would last for the requisite eight days. The increasing miracle, and the growing light, dispels

Silenced No More

Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, never speaks. The Torah is also silent about the meaning of her name. When a son is born, we read for example the words of Leah, “God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt me for I have borne him six sons. So she named him Zebulun.” Regarding Dinah, the Torah is succinct. “Last, Leah bore Jacob a daughter, and named her Dinah.” (Genesis 30) Our Bible silences Dinah. This week we read a harrowing tale. We confront the story of how Dinah is raped. “And Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw Dinah; he took her and lay with her: he forced her.” (Genesis 34) Her father, and brothers, turn away from Dinah. They are filled with rage. They suggest that Shechem can marry Dinah if he and his fellow townsmen become circumcised. Shechem agrees. The townsmen follow their prince’s lead. Then when they are recovering from their circumcisions, the brothers kill Shechem and slaughter the townsmen. And how does Jacob respo

Journey Here, Journey Now

The poet David Whyte writes: Pilgrim is a word that accurately describes the average human being; someone on their way somewhere else, but someone never quite knowing whether the destination or the path stands first in importance; someone who underneath it all doesn't quite understand from whence or from where their next bite of bread will come, someone dependent on help from absolute strangers and from those who travel with them. Most of all, a pilgrim is someone abroad in a world of impending revelation where something is about to happen. Likewise, one of the Torah’s great themes is that of journeying. We are traveling to a place (the land of Israel) to which we never fully arrive. And when our patriarchs do arrive at this long sought-after destination their arrival proves only temporary. Our arrival always remains unfulfilled. The destination remains but a dream. This week, we discover Jacob who becomes Israel is forever journeying. The young Jacob is now on the run after de

The Question Is the Sermon

The Hebrew word for sermon is drasha. It is derived from “l’drosh” meaning “to inquire” or “to expound.” The Torah relates: “The children struggled in Rebekah’s womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist? She went to inquire (l’drosh) of the Lord.” (Genesis 25) Like Sarah before her and Rachel after her, Rebekah faces difficulty conceiving a child. God likewise intervenes and she miraculously becomes pregnant. Rebekah carries twin boys: Jacob and Esau. Their struggles, and battles, with each other begin before they are even born. And this causes their mother pain. Is her distress physical or emotional? I wonder. Why is pain the motivation for Rebekah’s question? Why does her struggle turn her towards God? Why does pain send us searching for answers from an unknowable being? Why do our struggles make us question our existence? God responds to her inquiry: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and

Don't Ask Google, Ask Grandma

Rabbi Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wise?” He answers his own question and responds. “The person who learns from every human being.” (Avot 4) I am thinking about Ben Zoma and his teaching these days. Every day we read about the arrogance of tech wizards. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, to name but two, seem to believe that the unparalleled successes of Tesla and Facebook make them experts in every manner of things. Will they learn? There is something to be said for leaning into the expertise of others. No one is expert in everything. Even starting a phenomenal company does not mean you can take over and improve another. Even creating a platform for over a billion users does not mean it will be used for good or that people will prefer the metaverse over the real world. Experience matters. Years and years of living, and working, offer wisdom. There is something to be said for leaning into the experience of those older than us. That is our tradition’s posture. Consult first what was said, a

Bringing Justice and Healing

There are no parallels in ancient near eastern literature to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible’s tale stands apart. Moreover, this episode in which these sinful cities are completely destroyed is referenced not only in this week’s portion but in several other instances in the Torah. Rabbi Gunther Plaut (1912-2012), a Reform rabbi and author of an exhaustive commentary, argues that “only a historic cataclysm of startling proportions could have impressed itself so deeply on popular memory.” These cities were situated at the southern end of the Dead Sea. There, even the air is thick with the smell of salt and sulfur from its mineral deposits and formations. Listen to the tale. “The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire.” In addition, a fault line runs through this area, extending from Armenia to Central Africa. Scholars suggest, the rift valley is the result of a catastrophic earthquake. If its magnitude was significant, the earthquake could have raised the Dead Se

Who Is (Really) Rich

My brother called me and excitedly screamed. “Steve, I bought a lottery ticket. It’s up to 1.2 billion dollars!” “That’s great,” I said. “I am sure if you win, you will share it with your brother.” He retorted, “No can do. I already promised to buy the cashier a new car with my winnings.” Rabbi ben Zoma taught: “Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.” (Pirke Avot) For the ancient rabbis wealth is about perspective. Happiness is not a matter of winning the lottery. It is instead about being content with one’s lot. It is about not pining after what others have. To be fair. My brother has not lost perspective. His heart is truly filled with gratitude. I have great admiration for how hope rules his thoughts (and guides many of his sermons). Even 300 million to one odds will not deter him! The Torah calls to Abraham, “Lech lecha. Go forth from your native land.” (Genesis 12). It goes on to describes our forefather as wealthy. “Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver and g

Don't Let Antisemitism Define Us

My sermon about the rise of antisemitic hate and how best to respond.   Four years ago, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was attacked and eleven of its members were murdered. In January members of a Colleyville synagogue were held hostage. Thankfully none of the hostages were killed or even seriously injured. And over the past several weeks, Kanye West has been spewing hatred towards Jews and Judaism to his 30 million followers. And while the motivations for each of these attacks—let’s be clear words can be just as dangerous as bullets and guns—might be slightly different, they are connected by the thick thread of antisemitism. Let us reflect on this rising tide of antisemitism and our response—or better yet, our responses—to it. First of all, let me state this sad but obvious truth. Antisemitism is never going away. My grandparents who experienced first-hand the murderous antisemitic hatred of the Cossacks and the antisemitic barriers suburban America presented them the

Listen to the World's Languages, Hearken to the World

The Basque language is unique. It is what scholars call a language isolate and is unrelated to any other existing language. It stands apart from every other European language. Some scholars date its origins to the days when cave dwellers first formulated spoken languages nearly 7000 years ago. Today it is spoken by some 750,000 people who live primarily in the Basque region, an area that straddles the border of Spain and France on the Atlantic coastline. I became somewhat fascinated by this region when we visited our son Ari who was working at a farm in the Northern Basque region and where I discovered a newfound passion for hard cider, although much to our host’s bewilderment, not his homemade jamon. We travelled throughout the area, moving effortlessly across the French-Spanish border. Throughout our travels we heard Spanish and French but became particularly attuned to the sounds of Basque. I continue to wonder. How is it that this language remains isolated and unrelated to all o

The Power of Naming

One of the most challenging, and profound, decisions new parents make is what to name their children. They often worry how others might perceive the names they choose. Will others like the names? Will children embrace their parent’s choice? How will these names frame their identities? The Torah states: “And God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the Human to see what he would call them; and whatever the Human called each living creature, that would be its names.” (Genesis 2) The medieval commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi, suggests that the first human being could recognize the essence of every animal and name it accordingly. I wonder. Does the name given to each of us become our essence? Does one’s character emerge immediately? And how is this connected to our names? The power to name is unrivaled. The Torah opens with the creation of the world. In its first lines we read, “God called the light Day and called the darkness Nigh

I Am Going to Keep Dancing (and Like This)

I have a confession to make. I cannot sit still. (Are you surprised?) I marvel at those who can sit in a chair for hours while reading a book. I, on the other hand, shift and fidget. After fifteen minutes I am propelled to get up and walk around. Movement is part of what defines me. It’s why I love cycling, running and swimming. It is why I love dancing. It does not matter that I am not the best dancer in the room or that I never even took a dance class. I love dancing. And I love being on the move. Dancing is what makes a simcha feel like a simcha. When we dance at a party (or on the bima!) it is as if our entire being is rejoicing. Movement helps to exile darkness. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov agrees. He writes: “Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.” When you feel depressed—and Rebbe Nachman was given to fits of sadness and despair—get up and go for a walk or even start tapping your feet. Get moving. And leave those dark thoughts behi

Invitations Are the Holiday's Secret

The Jewish calendar does not let up in the month of Tishrei. After the whirlwind of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we immediately launch into Sukkot and then conclude with Simhat Torah when we celebrate the renewal of the Torah reading cycle. Sukkot begins in a few short days. On Sunday evening, the tradition urges us to leave our homes and spend as much as time as possible in temporary shelters (sukkot). The most important requirement of these sukkot is that their roofs be porous enough to allow us to see the stars in the nighttime sky. The sukkah must also not be so sturdy, keeping the wind and rain out. Its defining character is its flimsiness. It is not a house. A sukkah is a flawed structure. The sukkah reminds us of the frailty of nature. It represents the booths in which the Israelites lived during their wanderings from Egypt to Sinai. Some suggest it symbolizes God’s presence in our lives. Given that we just spent hours in synagogue we think that the Yom Kippur holiday bett

Why We Need Israel (and Zionism)

My Yom Kippur morning sermon about why American Jews need to reexamine the meaning of Zionism and Israel. He argues that we need Israel as much as Israel needs us.   Several years ago, Yotam was working on a Greek island when Syrian refugees were struggling to escape from Assad’s murderous regime. When a boat capsized near the shore and a young child was unable to swim, Yotam rushed into the ocean to carry her to shore. Her father was able to swim and was greeted on the beach by other Israelis who welcomed him with blankets and fluent Arabic. The little girl was reunited with her father and when he realized that his daughter’s rescuer as well as everyone else who lined that beach were Israeli, he said, “My own people and the people who are supposed to protect me are chasing me away while my worst enemy has become my greatest friend.” This summer I met Yotam. I was in Israel attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s rabbinic convention. It had been three years since my last visit. I di

Piles of Memories, Piles of Stones

My Yizkor memorial service meditation about the meaning of bringing stones when visiting graves and the new ritual we created from an ancient custom. When visiting the graves of loved ones, we leave a stone. This tradition dates back to biblical times when grave markers were piles of stones. Most Jews do not observe the custom of bringing flowers. These wither and can rarely withstand nature’s surprising, and oftentimes unpredictable, temperament. Stones offer permanence. Although they are smoothed by the weather’s steady drumbeat, they remain unmoved. In addition, rocks remind us of one of the tradition’s many names for God: Tzur Yisrael—Rock of Israel. God stands against life’s precariousness. God stands above life’s vicissitudes. Leaving a stone is a beautiful custom. It can be as small as a pebble or as large as the palm of a hand. We walk to the footstone and bend over, placing the stone on its corner, or we approach the headstone, often reaching over the bushes and t

Give Some More Peace

My Yom Kippur evening sermon about about the importance of making peace with those closest to us. Pursuing peace is not so much about nations but instead about us.   John Lennon sings, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I prefer Elvis Costello’s “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding.” And every Shabbat we pray, “Shalom rav—grant abundant peace” and “Oseh Shalom—may the One who creates peace on high, bring peace to us.” The examples are endless. Peace is the stuff of countless songs. Shalom is one of our prayerbook’s favorite words. Peace is elusive. It often appears distant. Our longing for it persists. And so, peace constitutes are most fervent, and frequent, prayers. And it obviously makes for some of our best songs. Back to Costello. “As I walk through this wicked world/ Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity/ I ask myself, is all hope lost?/ Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?/ And each time I feel like this inside/ There&#

Letting Go of Certainty

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes: From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow. And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood. As we approach Yom Kippur I am leaning into the poet’s words. The only way we can grow, and learn, is to let go of certainty. We must open ourselves to others and their opinions. We must invite the possibility that we could be mistaken. Certitudes, and the stubbornness they foster, lead us away from change. Our tradition believes we can turn. It believes we can always do better. We can admit mistakes. We can make amends. This is the path laid before us on the High Holidays. It is plowed by opening ourselves to doubt. It is heralded by making room for love. Every year we are summoned to build our lives anew. We are called to rebuild what is ruined. We are roused to repai

It's All About the Kippah and Concession Speech

My Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about how custom, rather than law, are integral to our families, community and country.   An Upper West Side synagogue recently announced that it will no longer serve lox. Can you imagine? A shanda! Its leaders argue that they wish to help reduce pollution and the environmental impact of overfishing. And while salmon farming is indeed environmentally damaging and provides eighty percent of the salmon we eat on a far too regular basis, can you envision break-fast without bagels, cream cheese and lox? The rabbis added this note to their announcement about the elimination of lox from the synagogue menu: “We know that for some this is a heretical move! We are here to support you as you process this change.” Such changes make us feel as if we are mourning the loss of something precious. Messing with we have come to know as traditional foods can be tantamount to heresy. Our holidays seem to turn on food. And lox is right up there with the other High H

Apples, Honey and the Bees

I am thinking about apples and honey.   On Rosh Hashanah we dip apples in honey. This custom originated when Jews first made their way to Europe where apples could be found in the fall. During biblical times we were more familiar with those fruits found in the Middle East such as figs and dates, and most especially pomegranates. In fact, the pomegranate is the quintessential Jewish fruit. There is nothing quite like the sight of a pomegranate tree with its picturesque fruits hanging from its branches or its floral blooms which attract bees for pollination. According to tradition there are exactly the same number of seeds in the pomegranate as there are commandments: 613. And while I have never counted its sees, the pomegranate figures more prominently in our tradition than the apple. Some therefore add the pomegranate to their holiday meal. In addition, even though the Bible calls the land of Israel a land flowing with milk and honey it was not bee honey to which it referred but i

Dreaming of Better Borders

In the West Bank, near Nablus, one finds Mount Ebal, one of the tallest peaks in the area. From its 3000-foot peak one can almost see the entire land of Israel: Mount Hermon in the North, the hills surrounding Jerusalem in the South, the Jordan to the East and the Mediterranean Sea to the West. The city of Shechem sits below and serves as a reminder of Abraham and Sarah’s first journey to the promised land. After Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, the people constructed an altar on Mount Ebal. In the 1980’s archaeologists uncovered what some believe to be the altar’s remains and evidence of the Torah’s command and the Book of Joshua’s report: “At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal...  an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded.” (Joshua 8) Sadly, the Palestinian Authority apparently used some of these ancient stones for the construction of new roads. This past Spring, archaeologists announced they had dated a

Sharing Is Commanded

Years ago when hiking through Israel’s Galil region, my guide would sometimes take a detour through a farmer’s field. There she would reach up and take an orange from a tree, immediately peel off its skin and then eat it. I protested. “This is not your field. These oranges are not yours to take.” She would then correct my understanding. “Our Bible permits it.” The Torah proclaims: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.” (Deuteronomy 25) Our Bible has a different understanding of ownership. We do not own the land. The earth belongs to God. We are but tenants. So when I look to my yard, the flowers, vines and trees (the Kousa Dogwood’s branches are now weighed down by fruit) I might think they are mine, but the food they produce is certainly not mine alone. The Torah makes clear. If you are hungry, you can take the fruit from any tree, whether it be yours or your neighbor’s. Even thoug