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Showing posts from 2023

Ask the Painful Questions

These days I am plagued by a question. How does a group come to recognize its wrongs? Last week I traveled to Washington DC. There we visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. As one wanders through its exhibits one question stands out, “Where was America?” After hours walking through this painful history, one confronts newspaper headlines reporting the murder of Europe’s Jews. Juxtaposed with these reports, one sees a copy of a letter from Assistant US Secretary of War, John McCloy. He writes: “At the present critical stage of the war in Europe, our strategic air forces are engaged in the destruction of industrial target systems vital to the dwindling war potential of the enemy, from which they should not be diverted.” And yet, US forces bombed factories within five miles of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The question lingers. Where was America? And then one comes to an additional exhibit about the Rohingya genocide. Myanmar officials continue their oppression, persecution, and murder of thei

Creating in God's Shadow

This week we read about the requirements for building the tabernacle. These details were already offered in prior chapters. Are these now repeated because the Israelites need a reminder about what they should be setting their hearts to build? So soon after gathering against Aaron and pressuring him to help them build the Golden Calf Moses reasserts his leadership and gathers them for a renewed holy purpose. We can gather for bad. We can congregate for good. The leader helps redirect the people’s energies. “Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose hearts so move them shall bring them—gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns…” (Exodus 35) And then Moses singles out an artisan from among the tribe of Judah who will lead this project. His name is Bezalel. The Torah records: “God has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill (hokhmah), ability (t’vunah) and knowledge (da-at) of every kind of craft.” The famous medieval commentator, Rashi,

Defend Israel's Democracy

Israel is on fire from within and from without. From the outside it continues to face lethal terrorist attacks and the specter of an increasingly emboldened and nuclear Iran. From within it faces something which has long been simmering but has now found voices of legitimacy within the current ruling coalition. I mourn the deaths. Their numbers increase. Two young brothers, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, were recently murdered when traveling to their home. Elan Ganeles, an American who had made aliyah, was also murdered. He was on his way to a friend’s wedding. Rockets are fired from Gaza at Israeli towns. Terrorism continues. Israel responds with force. Its soldiers kill terrorists. Its police continue to thwart planned attacks. Fierce fighting was reported in Jenin. Settlers rioted in the town of Huwara. They burned hundreds of homes. A Palestinian was killed. Sameh Aqtesh. I grieve over the deaths of innocent Palestinians. During these riots, Israeli soldiers rescued Palestin

Secure the Soul

Purim is celebrated on Monday evening. With its penchant for costumes and carnivals, it is a day typically relegated to children. And yet the rabbis imagined otherwise. The Talmud commands: “A person is obligated to get drunk until they do not know the difference between 'cursed is Haman' and 'Blessed is Mordechai.'” (Megillah 7b) This is derived from the concluding lines of the Book of Esther: “The same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their enemies and the same month which had been transformed from one of grief and mourning into one of festive joy, they were now to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking.” (Esther 9). Nothing suggests feasting and merrymaking more than abundant food and most especially, plenty of wine and spirits. Still, it is a curious commandment and gives one pause. This is how we are supposed to commemorate a victory over antisemitism? We are supposed to get wasted? This is counterintuitive. The only way to achieve victory ove

Building the Sanctuary of the Heart

The Hasidic movement was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer in eighteenth century Ukraine. It was a radical departure from traditional norms in which rabbinic leadership was predicated on scholarship and in particular mastery of the Talmud. Rabbi Israel, who later became known as the Baal Shem Tov, was a schoolteacher and laborer. He was more enamored of mystical texts such as the Zohar than classical rabbinic texts. He loved meditating rather than studying. Unlike other rabbis he did not spend his days poring over traditional passages. Instead, he would spend considerable time wandering in the woods. He taught that the spiritual path was a mystical road open to anyone. The secret is not, the Hasidic masters taught, mastery of chapter and verse, but instead in finding a teacher, a rebbe. Follow in his footsteps. Sing wordless melodies (niggunim) by his side. These were always the best medicine and the recipe Hasidism offered to the Jewish masses hungry for spirituality but unable to d

Why Study Chemistry? Why Study Torah?

Recently my seventh graders engaged in a heated discussion about the virtues of the subjects they are studying in school. I asked them which class they liked the best. “Math,” said one. “FCS,” said another one. “What is FCS?” I asked. “Family and Consumer Science,” they answered. “What is “Family and Consumer Science?” I responded. “We learn how to cook and sew,” a student chimed in. All their answers hinged on the subjects’ apparent usefulness. They reasoned they should know how to balance a checkbook and cook dinner. Learning about American history was another matter. Studying the periodic table did not make much sense. I offered, “Isn’t there value in learning for learning’s sake? Isn’t their merit in learning how to think? Isn’t there interest in finding meaning and inspiration in something as small as an atom?” This week, I open the Torah to a flurry of laws. I read: When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner

Give Me Some Rest

People often say they are spiritual and not religious. “Rabbi, I am not really into organized religion. I am spiritual.” Sometimes I respond, “You do recognize that you are talking to one of the organizers.” Most of the time, I offer an understanding nod and ask them to tell me more. They suggest that they find spirituality and meaning in nature. They believe in the Ten Commandments. By this they mean the ethical precepts such as, “You shall not murder. You shall not steal.” I do not have the heart to remind them about the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of Lord your God: you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20) In the early 1970’s Princeton University conducted a study of its seminary students. All the students were of course familiar with the story from Christian scriptures about the Good Samaritan from which the law protecting someone who stops to help another derives. Th

Why the Journey Is So Long and Hard

The Torah relates: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer.” (Exodus 13) Why? Why not take the more direct route? Why lead the Israelites on a roundabout path? The commentators debate this question. Many suggest that God’s concern was practical. If the people traveled through what is today the Gaza Strip, an area then controlled by the Philistines, they would most assuredly confront war. This of course might give them pause. They might have a change of heart and want to return to slavery. The Torah agrees: “God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.’” The medieval commentators Rashi and Nachmanides concur. On the literal level this makes sense. Then again God parts the Sea of Reeds. The sea is divided so that the Israelites might escape the advancing Egyptians. In the beautiful poem “Song of the Sea,” that includes our Mi Chamocha prayer, the Israelites exclaim: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his ar

Taste the Wonder

When I was young and we would go out for a nice dinner with my grandparents, towards the end of the meal when everyone was sharing their delight about the restaurant and raving about this dish or that, my Nana would quietly sit there. I would then invariably ask her, “Nana what did you think about dinner?” And she would respond, “It was tasty.” Her response never wavered. It could be the best meal or the worst, the most expensive restaurant, or the least. Food was tasty, never delicious. Meals were not deserving of accolades unless of course she was related to the cook and then superlatives could be showered on my mom or dad or even me when I cooked the one thing I could make as a child, an omelet. On Monday we entered the Hebrew month of Shevat. In two weeks, we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat (the fifteenth of the month), the day on which we mark the new year of the trees. This month is associated with the faint beginnings of spring. In the land of Israel trees begin to blossom, most pa

Take a Breath

Before God brings down the plagues on Egypt, Moses tells the people they will soon be freed from slavery and delivered to the promised land. The Torah relates: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6) A story. One winter evening, during the darkest days of the Holocaust when Hugo Gryn and his father were imprisoned by the Nazis, Gryn’s father instructed him to come to a quiet corner of the barrack. His father said, “My son, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Hugo then watched in astonishment as his father plucked a few threads from his tattered prison uniform in order to create makeshift wicks for the Hanukkah lights. He then gently placed these in several days’ miniscule margarine ration. Hugo became incensed with his father. “You did not eat your margarine. You need those calories to survive. We could have even spread it on that measly crust of bread they gave us. Instead, you saved it to k

Rise Up and Take Note

My sermon in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day. Discrimination is real. Racism in America is a pervasive force. What are we to do? We must rise up and take note!   This weekend we mark Martin Luther King Jr Day and so I wish to reflect on the lessons we can, and should, draw from Reverend King’s example. He fought, and died, so that African Americans might achieve equal rights in this nation that promises equal rights for all. That struggle continues. The promise remains unfulfilled. A few years ago, I travelled with a number of rabbis to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice . This remarkable, and stirring, museum was inspired by Bryan Stevenson who founded the Equal Justice Initiative that fights for those who are wrongly incarcerated. Among its more startling exhibits are soil remains from sites where Blacks were lynched and terrorized. There were photographs on the museum walls showing how snacks were distributed to

Eternal Struggles

Leon Wieseltier writes: There are problems and there are struggles. Problems have solutions; struggles have outcomes. Problems are technical; struggles are historical. Problems recur; struggles persist. Problems teach impatience; struggles teach patience. Problems are fixed; struggles are fought. Problems require skill; struggles require character. Problems demand knowledge; struggles demand wisdom. Problems may end; struggles may not end. A problem that does not end is a defeat or a failure; a struggle that does not end is a responsibility and a legacy. We turn to the Book of Exodus. It details our enslavement in Egypt and then our miraculous rescue from slavery. And yet our freedom does not end the institution of slavery. In fact, the Bible’s record is mixed. Even though the injustice and cruelty of the Israelites’ slavery are remedied, slavery continues. The Bible details laws about how one must treat slaves. Hebrew slaves are accorded more rights than others. We read, “When you ac

Our True Jewish Identity

The English term Jew originates in the Hebrew Yehudi, meaning from the tribe of Judah. This week we read, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him, and the homage of peoples be his.” (Genesis 49) Judah was one of Jacob’s eldest sons. Each of these sons gave birth to one of the twelve tribes. Some 3,000 year ago, after the death of King Solomon, the northern kingdom of Israel, comprising the territory of ten of these tribes, was conquered by the Assyrians, which led to their absorption into the Assyrian empire or their integration into the southern kingdom. This southern kingdom of Judah was formed by the combination of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Eventually the tribe of Benjamin was likewise absorbed and thus Judah’s descendants came to dominant the ancient landscape and the future Jewish story. To be a Jew is to trace one’s lineage or connection to this tribe of Judah. To be Jewish is perhaps a dif