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Showing posts from October, 2022

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&#