Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Noach - What the Wickedness?

Noach - What’d I Do?

Genesis 6:5-22
And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. 7 And the LORD said: ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.’ 8 But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. 9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and wholehearted; Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah begot three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. . 13 And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make thee an ark of gopher wood; with rooms shalt thou make the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. 15 And this is how thou shalt make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. 16 A light shalt thou make to the ark, and to a cubit shalt thou finish it upward; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it. 17 And I, behold, I do bring the flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; every thing that is in the earth shall perish. 18 But I will establish My covenant with thee; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. 20 Of the fowl after their kind, and of the cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. 21 And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.’ 22 Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.

So, What are you Building?

Neighbor: . . . Listen, what is this thing for anyway? 

Noah: I can't tell you. Ha, ha, ha! 

Neighbor: Well, I mean, can't you give me a little hint? 

Noah: You wanna a hint?

Neighbor: Yes, please. 

Noah: How long can you tread water? Ha, ha, ha! 

What is Wickedness?

Avraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Torah commentator gives two characterizations of the חמס-the lawlessness that filled the world.  First, drawing on the midrash, he claims the lawlessness to be robbery – an earth filled with robbery everywhere.  Another explanation, according to Ibn Ezra, is that the world was in total disorder.  He claims that everything grew, behaved, and lived not in the way it was intended, but rather, plants mixed with other kinds, different species of beasts were intermingled. 

Being Fruitful - Midrash Tanhuma 2

R. Tanhuma, the son of Abba began the discussion of this subject with the verse:  The fruit fo the righteous is a tree of life; and he that is wise winneth souls (Prov. 11:30).  R. Judah the Levite said:  Whenever a man dies childless, he grieves and weeps.  Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be God, consoles him with the words:  “Wherefore do you weep over having left no fruit in this world?  You have left fruit that is more desirable than children.”  “Sovereign of the universe,” the man asks, “what fruit did I produce?”  The Holy One, blessed be God, replies:  “The Torah (you observed), concerning which it is written:  the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.”  The verse does not say that children are a tree of life but that the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.  Accordingly, man’s most desirable offspring are his good works.  Hence, it is written:  These are the offspring of Noah.  Noah was in his generation a man righteous and whole hearted. (Gen. 6:9)

Michael Fishbane, from the JPS Haftarah Commentary

Noah was the exact opposite of the generation of the flood.  He had three sons.  He cared for the animals and all of creation.

Not about THE Wickedness and Lawlessness

While these ideas may explain the חמס – the lawlessness, maybe that is not the point of this story.  It wasn’t that God was a little off in creating the world so that everything was out of order.  It was not the lack of the generation of the flood procreating.  Nor was it the crime and the lawlessness of robbery as Ibn Ezra points out based on Rashi’s commentary.  These were the explanations, the definitions of the חמס, but not necessarily the only reasons for the flood itself.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Two Kinds of People - Adopted from Wilshire Boulevard Temples HHD Machzor

Why in our prayers, do we say:  “Our God and the God of our people?”

Martin Buber responded to this question by saying:
    Because there are two kinds of people who believe in God.  One believe because he has taken over the faith of his parents, and his faith is strong.  The other has arrived at faith through thinking and studying.
    The difference between them is this:  The advantage of this first is that, no matter what arguments may be brought against it, the person’s faith cannot be shaken.  It is firm because it was taken over from parents.  But there is one daly in it.  Such faith derives only form the command of a person.  It was acquired without study and personal exploration.  The advantage of the second kinds of faith is that God is discovered through much thinking and is the outcome of one’s own exploration.  But here, too, there is a flaw:  It is easy to shake such faith by refuting it through evidence. 
    But the person who unites both kinds of faith is invincible.  So we say, “our God with reference to our studies and personal struggle with belief, and “God of our people “ with an eye to tradition.
    Isaiah’s words call to mind the reality of our life that may be found lacking.  Isaiah, as is common in the prophets, questions our actions as insincere, inauthentic and disingenuous.  Ultimately, the Haftarah on this Day of Atonement questions our priorities, our beliefs and they way we go about our lives.  It asks us, as Isaiah did in his generation, whether we are focused on what matters.  When we balance our own studies, struggles, beliefs and self with that of our people, our tradition and sense of community - we are focused, we, as Buber said, become people of invincible faith.   
Forgiveness in Different Ways

Exoneration, forbearance and release, these are the ways we forgive, or at least have the potential to forgive.  Dr. Stephen Marmer teaches that in these three ways we have the ability to protect and preserve our relationships and we can allow our health and over-all well-being be enhanced.  Exoneration is our ability to hear a sincere apology, to know that a mistake or accident occurred and understand that someone is truly sorry - they offer apology without excuses, claiming full responsibility and show they will not knowingly allow the offense to occur again.  Forbearance is a bit different.  This occurs when we accept an apology that may not seem quite full.  When someone offers to make amends but wants to share the responsibility with you or someone else, lacks authenticity and may seem insincere.  However, if the relationship matters to you, this is the place and space for forbearance - akin to forgive but don’t forget - be watchful in the continuation of the relationship.  Perhaps, these forbearance will evolve to the place of exoneration when someone demonstrates their own change for the better as well.  The third is important for those who have been cheated, abused or betrayed.  Release is the ability to forgive by letting go of the negativity and allowing ourselves to again grow as a human being. 
Forgiveness comes in many forms.  We have choices about the way we can grant forgiveness and the ways we can ask for it too.  Not one of us is perfect, without flaws or moments lacking in judgment.  We must be ready to grant forgiveness in the appropriate ways and we must know what we are asking for when we seek it too.  Being on both sides of this equation - acting on missteps and engaging in teshuvah - hones our skills and sharpens our forgiveness tool belt.  
A Thought on Unetaneh Tokef

These words, we know, are difficult.  They bring discomfort, fear and anxiety to many, if not all of us.  The Unetaneh Tokef questions what control if any we have over the year that will be.  It even turns our gaze back at the year behind us to consider what, if anything we did, that brought harm, challenge to our lives.  Concluding this peace, those words we are familiar with:  ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה - But Repentance, prayer and charity, temper judgment’s severe decree.  Do they change it?  I’m confident that is the not the system of life we experience.  Rather, living lives with sincere efforts to right wrongs and make amends, to yearn through thoughtful words and actions of prayer for a better life, a better world and seek justice that brings charity to all those in need - these pillars of our lives helps us stand strong under the burden of that severe decree. 
The challenges of life, the bumps in the road, the tragedies are faced with a firm footing and a sense of strength when we live lives firm in our work of teshuvah - repentance, tefilah - prayer and tzedakah - justice and charity.
Looking Ahead & Looking Back

The Baal Shem Tov taught his students that when wood burns, it is the smoke alone that rises upward, leaving the grosser elements below.  And so it is with prayer.  The sincere intention of our hearts ascends to God, and the test of our prayers is in fulfillment of them. 

    When we are taught to cross the street, we are told to always look both ways.  When we are taught to drive, we are reminded of this lesson and we add to it.  I recall being taught to look left, right and then left again.  As we learn to drive, the traffic approaches from the left sooner, so we double check that lane, first and last.  At this time of year, too, we are given clear guidance about which way to look.  We begin with Rosh Hashanah - looking ahead as we welcome the new year.  Then, ten days later, today, we look back.  We always need to know where we are going but we must know from where we are coming.  As we prepare the sincere intention of our hearts and consider how it will reflect our character, leaving behind the less desirable of our last year, we look ahead - who do we aim to be, then we look back - how can we use the lessons, the experiences and the moments of the last year.  Looking ahead and looking back is the purpose of this day - make sure to look both ways.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Kol Nidre - God is What We Need

Once, there were these two brothers.  They were the kind of brothers that, when it suited them, they got along pretty well.  They were two peas in a pod, but usually in troublesome ways.  They weren’t evil, by any stretch, they were like Dennis the Menace, but in stereo.  Jesse and Brian were their names, Jesse the older brother would of course pick on Brian, and they fought too.  But most often, they were scheming and creating trouble for school teachers, Shabbat school teachers, their neighbors, coaches and especially their mother.  Jesse and Brian were known throughout their whole circle, their whole community as the mischievous and trouble-making boys.  It had evolved way past the point of embarrassment for their mother, Barbara, often throwing up her hands, and now to the realization that something needed to change.  Barbara, a school administrator, knew something needed to change because her boys were not understanding consequences, they needed to learn that while pranks and their shenanigans were fun, bringing laughter to many, they often embarrassed or even insulted others. 

Barbara had tried the local school counselor, she had worked with the boys’ coaches and even her local rabbi.  One day, when Jesse and Brian were about eleven and nine, her Rabbi suggested his colleague in the next suburb down the highway.  He said, you know Rabbi Ana down the road is really fabulous with youth.  She has a real knack for speaking to their reality, getting through to them both when fun and when serious.  Barbara thanked her Rabbi for the suggestion, made the call to Rabbi Ana and had an appointment for the boys the following week.  The truth was, this next suburb was only about a mile from their home and Rabbi Ana’s synagogue even closer.  Jesse and Brian’s mother told them they were going to meet with a famous rabbi, one who would help their family, the whole community, show the boys what matters most.  Barbara told them she had finally had enough and it was time for a change…that something must be done.  She put them in the car, drove them to the synagogue, to Rabbi Ana’s office.  Rabbi Ana chatted with Barbara for a few minutes and they agreed that Brian, the younger boy would meet with her first.  She invited Brian into her office and asked him to sit in a chair, in the middle of the room.  The Rabbi pulled up a chair and sat right in front of Brian.  It was silent for a moment, but it seemed like an eternity to Brian, who remember is only nine years old.  Finally, Rabbi Ana asked Brian in a quiet voice, “Where’s God?”  Brian stared back in silence.  Rabbi Ana asked again a bit more stern and without the contraction, “Where IS God?”  Still, Brian sat in silence and Rabbi Ana, growing impatient, straightened up in her chair and asked in a stern and authoritative voice, “Where IS GOD?” 

Brian sat for a split second, then jumped up and bolted for the door.  He glanced at his brother in the Rabbi’s waiting area as he ran out of the office area, out of the synagogue and down the street, one right turn onto Middlebelt Road and he kept running until he reached his own neighborhood.  Finally, his running slowed to a quick walk as he was panting and ran up to his room and into the closet, shutting the folding doors on himself.  When Jesse, his brother, arrived home a short time later, he began looking for Brian and knew just where to look.  He went right to his brother’s closet, slid the door open and crawled inside.  “What happened!  What did that Rabbi say?  What did she do?”  “Brian, Brian, what happened!”  He responded in quick bursts of words as he was still panting.  “Jesse…we’re in…B-I-G…trouble.” 

“God’s missing…and they think we took him!”

Pretty clear that Rabbi Ana was just beginning the conversation, attempting to lay the groundwork for a sense of conscience, for a sense of accountability.  Yet, for Brian, it was all about God missing.  For many of us, there are times, times during the year when we feel that God is missing too in our lives and in our world. 

This anecdote and a few others I am about to share explore many different views.  I hope that you find yourself somewhere in these words, in these stories resonating if not with something you hold on to, something you believe, then something that is opposite, or perhaps sheds light on a feeling, an experience or a perspective you know.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein tells a story about a woman, Leah, who came into his office, having made an appointment weeks earlier, and her opening volley is, “Rabbi, you know I don’t believe in God.”  And then she continues the litany of everything wrong and challenging in her world.  She shares, “You know that not only have I been divorced, but my second husband died only a year after we were married.  My son won’t talk to me, he feels I tried to replace his father.  My step-children won’t speak to me thinking I’m a black widow.  That is just my family, the job isn’t much better.  I’m a glorified project manager whose expected to manage other project managers.  No one gives me any respect there either.  And now, although its not terminal, I have chronic migraine problems…its quite debilitating when they come.”  She paused to catch her breath as the Rabbi listened and then with a deep sigh saying, “Rabbi…why is God doing this to me?” 

A few years ago, I was standing on the deck at Edgewood, having just celebrated Havdalah with a Bar Mitzvah family.  A non-Jewish grandmother comes up to me as we are both appreciating the view of the West Shore and she says, “I don’t understand how anyone can NOT believe in God when we look at something like this.”  As the light continued to fade over the Crystal Range I responded, “You know, I am not sure if it is that they don’t believe in God, it is simply they don't believe in the God they think you mean, when you say God.”

We all have different concepts.  The one that Brian and Jesse stole, the one that Leah doesn’t believe in and then again the one that she does.  The Creator of the Universe or the Source of Life.  The Maker of Heaven and Earth or the Divine Judge, Counsel and Arbiter carrying out divine punishment.  For some of us, God is Nature - the vast model of creation around us all the time and for others something that is solely human created, just an idea.  However, at this time of year, whether its divine forgiveness or human that we are seeking, whether it is the sense of community or a sense of quietude we yearn for, whether traditional believer or atheist, God is what we need God to be. 

On Yom Kippur, during the Yamim Noraim - these Days of Awe - we are confronted with a very clear illustration of God.  It has been shared before, that timeless image of the Book of Life and God inscribing names.  Paint for yourself that picture, a God acting in our world by sitting in a cabin far off into the wilderness, snow flakes falling outside, and God opening this giant book of life, handling a human sized quill, dipping it in a sink sized inkwell and recording our deeds.

The Israeli writer, Etgar Keret recently wrote, “Yom Kippur was always my favorite holiday… Maybe it’s because Yom Kippur is the only holiday I know that, because of its very nature, recognizes human weakness.  …on Yom Kippur we’re not a heroic dynasty or a people, but a collection of individuals who look in the mirror, are ashamed of what demands shame, and ask forgiveness for what can be forgiven.” 
When we confront this, on this day, the day that brought us here, we are staring in the mirror, yes at our ourselves, but also at our concept of this judging and punishing divinity.  The images conjured up by the liturgy alone present this image of that God in the cabin, with the giant book and quill.  Look just at that central, and problematic for many, piece of our liturgy:  Unetaneh Tokef.  B’Rosh Hashanah Yikateivun, Uv’Yom Tzom Kippur Yichateimun - On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass on and how many shall come to be, who shall live and who shall die.  You know the language, enough to create nightmares for young ears, to bring tears to those with recent losses and to stir those to whom life has been, well, kind.  It is this depiction of God that serves as the umbrella image, the image of the God that Jesse and Brian took and the one that, while Leah doesn’t believe in God, the God that is causing so much distress in her life.  The title of this piece of liturgy, Unetaneh Tokef, gives us an important perspective on not only this piece, but the theology it is espouses.  Those opening lines, Let us cede power.  And to what are we ceding that power?  Well, as difficult as this God view is, and as troubling as the God as, author of the Book of Life may be, the middle part of this prayer expresses truth.   “Imagine the text…without the first and last lines.  The entire passage is a list of questions.  And the questions are not rhetorical.  No believer and no atheist, no scientist and no magician knows the answers.  Any of those things might happen.  In fact, they will happen,” wrote Helen Plotkin.  But we do have the first and last lines.  So is this the God we need?  Is this the God that is missing?  Is this to whom, or to what we direct our repentance, prayer and charity in order to temper the severity of the decree? 

If this is really the Divine, the one that Jesse and Brian took, or the one that Leah doesn’t believe in yet is causing so much distress in her life, what does that mean for us?  It means we must question our role in the plot of our own lives.  And no, this is not about free will versus determinism, but rather how we handle the arbitrary nature of some things in our lives, and what its mean for how we understand God.  To what must we cede power and what remains for us to control are the questions we must answer at this season.  While many are yearning for the clear-cut answer about a divinity that judges, punishes and rewards, it turns out that the lofty liturgy of the Unetaneh Tokef, and all of the Yamim Noraim, aren’t so clear-cut.  To understand God and our relationship with divinity, at this season, and throughout the year, we must dig into the treasure trove of Judaism.

In the Talmud lives a troubling, yet enlightening, story.  It reminds us of the great mitzvah, commandment, that children ought to always remember - Honor your father and mother, thus you will live long and endure.  You see, it is one of the rare cases when a command comes, written with, its reward - long life.  A father and his son, the story goes, are walking along.  As they stroll, the father notices a nest, with a bird and eggs, in a nearby tree.  The father, recognizing a great teachable moment, says to his boy,  you see that nest, go up that ladder and retrieve those eggs.  Remember, he reminds his son, it says in Torah that you must shoo away the mother bird first, thus you will live long and endure.  Another mitzvah with the reward written in Torah.  So the boy, seizing the opportunity to fulfill both of these commandments, grabs the ladder, climbs up, shoos away the mother bird, collects the eggs and starts making his way down the ladder.  As he is halfway down, the ladder breaks and the boy falls and dies.  The rabbis, after telling the story, debate how this could have happened.  They wonder how could he not receive the reward of both commandments.  One rabbi says he was thinking idolatrous thoughts, and another responds, that wouldn’t have supplanted the reward of the commandments.  Another pipes in and says, well he was thinking about sinful deeds, and to that the same response.  As the debate continues, finally, Rabbi Eliezer says, סולם רעוע הוא - the ladder was rickety.  Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that God does not work in these ways, at least not directly.  We must take responsibility for our lives and not rely on miracles, or anything to change, unless we do it ourselves.  In other words, so what if you are about to do a great deed, a life-changing mitzvah, if you don’t look out for yourself, you could be in danger.  This God, or this belief about God that our rabbis describe urges us to take responsibility.  It charges us to be the master of our lives and our world.  It might be that God cares for our souls and nurtures the spirituality within, but ultimately we must care for our bodies and our world.

In one of the great moments in Torah, the Burning Bush, God and Moses are chatting.  Well, it probably wasn’t so informal.  And, as we know, Moses was quite taken a back when he saw that sight and heard the voice.  Moses, needing some understanding of why this bush is speaking and what this voice is, asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God responds, “אהיה אשר אהיה - I will be what I will be.” 

So, think this through with me for a moment.  I come to your town and say:  Pack your things and we’ll get out of here, to have a better life.  You, rightfully, respond:  Well, who are you?  Who sent you?  I respond:  I will be what I will be, sent me????

Yet, when we think about that depiction of God from our liturgy of this season, and throughout the year this works; when we think about the God not acting in our world, leaving our well-being, at least physically, mostly in our control, and when we consider the ebb and flow of our evolving views - this is the perfect name for God.  God is what we need God to be.  If we are non-believers, in a space of atheism, God is non-existent, something others relate to.  When we need a sense of comfort, a blanket over our shoulders for warmth and a sense of protection, God is the source of compassion in others.  At times of injustice, when we feel the need to respond to suffering, God is our conscience, the inspiration to rise up and make a change.  When we look out at our beautiful surroundings, especially here in Tahoe, and recognize the vastness, the majesty of nature - all those things not created by us humans - and discover awe, God is nature.  God will be what God will be. 

CONCLUSION:  Understanding that God, whichever description, is what we need makes us human.  In other words, our humanity is that we grab hold of the part of the Divine that we need…now.  Our great story of Creation, as my mother taught me, isn’t so much about how the world was created, rather why, for what set of purposes.  In that story we learn, as God is setting out to create us, “And in God’s image, God created them, in the image of God did God create them.”  We grab hold of the judging, arbitrating, punishing and rewarding part of ourselves, of God, when we need to understand the world in such a way.  We ensure the ladders we use are stable, safe and free from defect when we yearn for a bit more control, when we realize that God may not actually intervene in our world, rather it is up to us to make a difference, to act out all that is possible, after all, in that divine image, we are created…each and every one of us.  So, ultimately, it is the enigmatic phrase, the self-descriptor God uses when he introduces himself to Moses, אהיה אשר אהיה - I will be what I will be.  God is that ever evolving presence of a shepherd caring for us, God’s flock, when we need that comfort, God is the distant, transcendent source of nature, or nature itself, when we are steeped in moments of needing proof, the hard science, and God is that ability within each of us to question, to wrestle, to not believe and to change, evolving ourselves, always.  Just as our lives, who we are as people are dynamic, ever changing, so is God.  Aaron Zeitlin wrote a poem called, “If you look at the stars.” 

Praise me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Curse me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Praise me or curse me
And I will know that you love me.

Sing out my graces, says God,
Raise your fist against me and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile
Reviling is also a kind of praise,
says God.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy,
says God,
If you sit entrenched in:  “I don’t give a hang,” says God,
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don't’ cry out,
If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God. 

As we embark on this day long journey of wrestling with what it all means to and for us, as we embrace the reality of our existence - one that does not have total control, may we all discover the God we need.  The God we need waiting for us with open arms when we yearn for a hug and comfort, with more questions when we yearn to learn and a discerning heart when life stirs us to compassion.

May we discover the God we need as we search ourselves at this season, and throughout the year. 

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May our Future Bring Goodness
The Holiness of this Day - Yom Kippur

Song of Songs Rabbah teaches:  Just as if a nut falls into some dirt you can take it up and wipe it and rinse it and wash it and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating, so however much Israel may be defiled with iniquities all the rest of the year, when the Day of Atonement comes it makes atonement for them, as it is written, For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you. (Lev. 16:30)

The holiness of this day is not just that it falls on the calendar, not just that it brings us here and not just because Jews around the world are engaged in this ritual, but rather all of them.  The holiness of this day is that for millenia, we, Am Yisrael, has gathered on this day to engage in this ritual and it continues…so long as we do, the kedusha, the sacredness and holiness of this day will be.
Finding our Space, adopted from Rabbi David Wolpe's, "Floating Takes Faith."

The Rabbis teach that the Torah is from God.  Yet the most studied rabbinic text, Pirkei Avot, begins, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai.”  What is the difference? 
    The usual interpretation is that Sinai is a kind of spiritual synecdoche:  It means “from God,” and the mountain is a metaphor.  Bu the great medieval commentator Abravanel proposes another answer:  Had Moses not spent forty days and nights alone on Sinai, he would not have been able to receive the Torah.  The time spent along, in prayer and meditation, prepared him for the experience of encountering God. 
      The story is told of one Hasidic master whose child used to spend time along in the forest.  Concerned and curious, one day the rabbi pulled his boy aside and asked him what he was doing.  “I go do the forest to find God,” replied his son.  “Oh, that’s wonderful,” said the father, “but don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” “Yes,” answered the boy, “I know that God is, but I’m not.”
    There are certain places and times in our lives when we can find God.  Moses had to have Sinai; the boy needed the forest.  The challenge is to find our own place-and cherish it. 

The Hashkiveinu prayer invites us to ask for such a place, a space.  As we invite God, the divine mystery of creation to spread over us a shelter of peace, we ask for the opportunity to find that place, to discover the sacredness of that space and to cherish it. 
A Thought for Kol Nidre by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Take away my shame,
Lift my anxiety,
Absolve me of my sin
And enable me to pray before Thee
With gladness of heart,
To pursue Thy commandments and Thy Torah
In the joy of holiness.
Grant me
To bring happiness to all Thy children,
To exalt and ennoble Thy faithful,
To spread goodness and mercy
And blessing in the world.
Humble the arrogant
Who have tried to pervert me with falsehood
While I sought my happiness in serving Thee.
Save me from weakness
And fro faltering
And from every evil trail,
Illumine my eyes
With the light of Thy deliverance.
Help Thy people,
Imbue the heart of Thy people with reverence
And with awe before Thy majesty.
Strengthen them with Thy love,
Guide them to walk in the path of Thy rightesouness,
Kindle in their hearts
The light of the holiness of this Day of Holiness
And bring them to possess the inheritance Thou has set for them,
Speedily, speedily, in our time, soon.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Working to Make a Difference:  Beyond Opportunity to Mitzvah

A story is told of a King whose daughter was to be married in 3 months.  He sent out invitations to his entire kingdom for everyone to come and celebrate at the wedding feast.  He also asked that guests not to bring gifts.  All that he requested, was that each household, in the weeks before the wedding, should bring a pitcher of their finest red wine to the town square.  There, he had erected a huge barrel - 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide.  During the weeks that led up to the wedding, each household was to bring their pitcher of wine to the barrel, climb up a ladder and open the lid and pour it in.  In this way, when it came time to toast his daughter and her new husband, they would do so using the shared bounty of the entire community.

As the weeks and months passed and the wedding date grew closer, a representative from each household came to the town square, climbed up the ladder, opened the lid and poured their pitcher into the huge barrel.  It slowly filled with each offering until it was almost completely full.

Finally, the day of the wedding arrived.  The bride and groom stood under the Chuppah, rings were exchanged, the glass was broken. Everyone shouted MAZAL TOV!!!  Then, at the beginning of the feast, the King prepared to bless the wine and called for the 1st toast.  He held a clear, crystal glass up to the tap on the bottom of the barrel.  He broke the seal, opened the spigot and out came a stream of pure…..water.

You see, each townsperson, as they heard about the King’s request, thought to themselves: “So many people are contributing to the King’s toast, and it’s such a huge barrel, if I just pour water in, no one will know the difference!  So, one by one, thinking that their contribution didn’t count, each person poured water, not wine, into the barrel.

The moral of this story is obvious – but worth stating:  Every member of a community has value.  Every one of us has an essential and vital perspective to share.  If everyone does not feel as though their contribution is going to make a difference, then, in the long run, we are all diminished.

Two weeks ago, our Tahoe-Douglas Rotary club welcomed a fellow rotarian from Scotland.  Given the floor for a few minutes, our visitor shared his views on the upcoming vote in Scotland.  For those not familiar, Scotland voted for independence last week.  And while there was much to learn from our visitor at Rotary, the upsides and the downsides of independence, the rigorous campaigning on both sides, what is still with me, what I remember most about that election was not this great, personal and individual perspective but it is a statistic.  Last week, the voter turn out in Scotland was 84%.  I had to read the headline a second time, so let me say it a second time.  The voter turn out for the Scottish independence vote was 84%. 

Just to paint a comparison, our most recent election, the primary in June was under a 40% turnout on the California side and just a hair above in Douglas county.  The previous South Lake City Council election in 2012 was just over 60% and in 2010 it was less than 50% when it wasn’t a presidential year.  

Last week in Scotland, they all brought wine to the barrel. 

In America’s recent history, and especially in our own community, we bring water.

I don’t know about you, but wine certainly goes better at a wedding!  In all seriousness, though, there is something askew here.

Last week, Scotts decided that they wanted to make a difference.  They wanted to be heard in what has been heralded as the single biggest decision in those voters’ lifetime.  I believe they also understood something that has been lost for many here, in our town, our community, our country.  We have lost the sense that we can make a difference. 

In our Talmud we are reminded in a very simple way, that every effort, every little action makes a difference.  In Baba Bathra we are taught, “Just as in a garment every thread unites with the rest to form a whole garment, so every penny given to charity unites with the rest to form a large sum.”  Or for those who prefer Ghandi’s words over the Talmud, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  Whatever the source, we can find countless invaluable arguments for our individual roles in making a difference, in affecting change in our world. 

Making a difference in our world is something we, as modern Jews, are familiar with.  Even from the ancient world, the call of the prophets rings through to today; it charges us to right wrongs and correct injustices.  The famous words of the prophet Amos, echoed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., drive home this connection, “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  From the original sojourn of Abraham to create a better reality to the ancient call of the prophets, we have felt the urge to make the world a better place.  In the words of my colleague and friend, Rabbi Asher Knight, “Judaism provides us with the tradition and the community whose rituals, stories and whose texts, and reinforcements of those texts, keep reminding us to act on our values:  Compassion, decency, humility, justice, generosity of self and spirit.”       

When we consider the water and the wine, the election experience in Scotland last week and the Jewish role in the civil rights movement, we recognize there is something that intricately ties them together.  The Jewish call of Tikkun Olam - repairing the world - is certainly a strong component of our existence today, in the modern world.  It was the modern sage, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who led the way for so many amongst the Jewish people to engage in the Civil Rights Movement.  Yet, it was his words upon reflecting on his experience in marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 that paint the picture of our tradition’s true call, that of deed being as strong, if not stronger, than creed.  When Heschel returned home from Selma, he wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer.  Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling.  And yet our legs uttered songs.  Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”

This, the social dimension, is one arena, certainly in our own country, in which our people have excelled.  We have been a part of seeing to the needs, of the needy.  We have found Jews amongst leaders for justice, for fighting poverty, and in the civil rights movement.  We have not been absent from continuing Abraham’s sojourn in ensuring a better reality for so many.  By no means is this task complete, it is something we must always continue, yet there is another dimension to ensuring all we can for a better tomorrow, there is a broader scope possible for our work.   

On Rosh Hashanah, this Yom Teruah - Day of Sounding, the sound of the shofar plays an integral role.  Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zichrono livracha, taught about the Shofar that, “Maimonides speaks of the shofar as an awakener.  We want to awaken to a higher awareness that gives us a perspective from which we can see the flaws in the routines of life and how they can be improved.  The word shofar can be derived from leshaper, fixing or improving.  Shapr ma’asehem:  Shofarot encourages us to repair our deeds.  The awareness provided by the shofar blast enhances our experience of this reflective day.” 

We improve our deeds by taking them to the next level, to engage fully in what it means to be a player, a confident, intentional and integral traveler in this journey of life.  Working to combine knowledge, skills and values to make a difference in our world, that is engagement, but it is not just in the social dimension.  While it is chief among the causes to alleviate poverty and to shelter the homeless, we must also engage civically, tying together our moral and civic sense of responsibility. 

Thomas Ehrlich, former Indiana University president, wrote, “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference.  It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”

Yes, we have advocated in the political process as a people.  Lobbying on behalf of Israel, engaging, as Rabbi Heshcel, in the Civil Rights Movement even the labor movement at the turn of the twentieth century considered many prominent Jews amongst its ranks.  Today, we, as a people, do much to respond to the needs of the hungry, the homeless and all of those in need.  But, when it comes to understanding how these moral and civic causes are tied together and intricately intertwined, I believe this is where we need to heed the call of the shofar, to awaken to the possibilities.  In that same publication, Professor Ehrlich goes on to write, “A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own…”  It is about how we understand the work we do and the roles we fill as individuals as compared to how we see ourselves as part of the fabric of the whole.

Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, is not just a time to see ourselves in the fabric of the Jewish people - although it is certainly a huge component of the day - it is also the time to recognize the communal calling of our tradition.  Moving through the liturgy of this day, as we have done, hearing the troubling words of the binding of Isaac in our Torah and engaging together next week in the Vidui, the confessionals of Yom Kippur, we cannot avoid that this season is about the community.  We are all too familiar with the chant we engage in together:  Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, all verbs in the plural.  Even the hallowed words of Avinu Malkeinu ring in this same plural form.  We are here together; praying and repenting, reflecting on and envisioning all that was, and all that can be.  Our engagement in our world is hemmed in by the individuality we express.  America has given us so many amazing opportunities to express that individual reality of our own homes, our own cars, the way we dress, living in the insular world of our own technology; it is up to us to understand from the perspective of minyan.  We cannot pray effectively, our tradition teaches, without a gathering of minyan - 10 adult Jews.  The merits of that requirement not withstanding, the thrust of Judaism elevating the community as paramount is unequivocal. 

Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “Two constant questions in Jewish history:  What is our obligation to other Jews?  What is our obligation to the world at large?”  He goes on to teach that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, taught that these two questions are inseparable saying that:  Love for Israel implies the love for humanity.  We must balance where these concerns lie.  When the Jewish people finds peril, our concerns focus inward, but when issues plague humanity, we muster a universal response.

I fear that this universal response, the role we have the potential play in our wider communities has waned.  We have found our success in this country socially, financially, educationally, professionally and even in the public realm.  Where has our yearning to engage civically disappeared?  This is not something that is unique to our people, but to our country as a whole.  It is an opportunity for us as Jews to demonstrate why this matters, to act.  It becomes an opportunity for us to vote, to sit on civic committees and commissions, to speak out about matters big and small. 

In the Talmud, a great question is asked, “Who is wise?” and in responding to its own question, we find the answer, “The one who envisions the future.”  I am confident this is not about crystal balls and Tarot cards, rather about those who lay the groundwork.  It is about being wise to engage in the process to make our communities, our societies, our cities, towns and country all that it can be.  Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanuel in Dallas, Texas, wrote, “Our faith calls us, every day, to bring the far-off into the near reach of our Jewish [moral] concern. And it means that our faith commitments can’t stay on this side of the stained glass, that our Torah gets restless if we leave it in the ark too long. When we take the Torah scroll off of the bima and walk with it amidst the community, we make a physical statement that the Torah does not live in the ark - it lives in the world. We take it in procession around the sanctuary not so that we can walk with it, but as a reminder that it needs to walk with us, wherever we go.”

We take Torah out into the world when we not only register to vote, not only when we vote in the presidential election but when we voice our opinion, express our values for our future at every possible chance - the primaries and the mid-term elections, the referendums and the city elections.  We unroll Torah and share it with the world when we respond to a survey about what we want from our officials, what we believe will make our neighborhoods, our schools and our streets safer and better.  We live the words inked on the parchment when we take on leadership roles in and around our own communities and speak not only from a Jewish perspective, but from the communal words, from the perspective of minyan. 

Moments ago, we heard the blasts of the shofar.  We heard the full and wholesome blast of Tekiah - awakening our souls, our minds and our bodies to all that is possible.  We heard the Shevarim - the three connected short sounds yearning to be whole, allowing our ears to lead us to the broken connections in our world.  And we heard the Teruah - the nine short notes completely divided - a brokenness in our world.  But ultimately the shofar service concludes with the great sound of the Tekiah Gedolah, the long, full, enduring blast of our envisioning the future.  It is up to us to engage.  To heed the demands of modernity, which are opportunities.  To recognize that working to make a difference in our world was once an opportunity we, as Jews, yearned for; now it has moved beyond opportunity to Mitzvah - it is commanded of us to engage - to intertwine the morality of our social concern, what we have been so good at for generations, with everything that makes our communities tick - to see the moral and the civic as forever interrelated and connected.

A few moments from now our services will conclude; our prayers will be offered, our thoughtful introspection at this season well on its way and our High Holiday melodies heard and shared and we will celebrate the New Year with challah, honey and a bit of kiddish wine - hopefully not watered down.  But our work will be just beginning.  As you exit, there will be an opportunity to register to vote - if you are not registered, please do.  Participate in our High Holiday food drive by taking home a grocery bag, filling it and a few others with food for St. Theresa’s food bank and Austin’s House, a transitional housing facility for youth, in the Carson Valley, look for opportunities to engage in our community - get involved by being an educated and concerned citizen, not just for our own individual interests, but seeing the community as a living, breathing and growing being that needs advocates too. 

Shanah Tovah U’mitukah - A Happy and Sweet New Year filled with all of us engaging in making our world and our communities what they can be!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Eilu V’Eilu:  But There is a More Right in Israel’s Right to Exist

One of my early family trips growing up took us to Florida.  Of course, where else do Midwest Jews go on vacation?  My grandparents rented an escape to stay each winter for a couple of months; and the entire family, aunts, uncles and cousins would schedule out the overlap and our own time with our grandparents.  Beach days, rainy days at the outlet malls and of course the big day, the day we visited Disney World.  The epic family journey treating the younger generation to thrills, exploration and over stimulation, while the older generation struggled to meet everyone’s needs and expectations, battling the sun, the tummy aches from too many corn dogs and entertaining us, the kids, during those long lines.  Recently, my mother recounted a memorable, well sort of memorable, moment from one of those trips.  It was the occasion for all of the cousins to visit the fabulous World of Disney together.  My younger brother, Zack, and I were debating, actually arguing about what Disney World was really about.  For me, it was the adventurous rides, the roller coasters and things that make adults dizzy.  For my brother, a little more tame than I, it was the attractions, the Small World boat ride and Epcot Center that was Disney World.  Apparently, we argued for days leading up to THE DAY.  Back and forth, we debated what Disney World was truly about and how we would spend our much anticipated visit.  That was, until a voice, perhaps of reason, entered the fray.  Like an other worldly voice, my Aunt Deborah spoke up and said, “You are both right!”  “Disney World is so fabulous, it offers so much and we can do all the things you are arguing about,” she said.  “We will make sure you each get to enjoy the day!” 

Arguing and Debating are certainly part of our Jewish tradition.  From our ancestors in Genesis, to the Israelites debating Moses, from the people's disregard of the prophets to the Rabbis of the Talmud, argument and discourse are rooted in what it means to be Jewish.  The old adage reminds us:  Two Jews, at least three opinions.  When it comes to debates, discussions and conflict, this season, the Yamim Noraim - the Days of Awe, are an important time to consider how we argue, and how we fight.  As we enter this time, welcome this New Year, we have work to do.  I’m not talking about the chicken soup, the brisket and kugel, rather it is the work of Teshuvah - our repentance.  We will always argue and debate throughout life, it is part of being human.  But, the way we engage in that debate goes a long way.  That is where our true character is witnessed.   

Among the most famous debates in our tradition rank those of the great sages Hillel and Shammai.  In fact, many of us may be less familiar, if at all, with Shammai and that’s because of the result of one debate in particular.  In the Babylonian Talmud, we study this great disagreement.  It is recounted by Rabbi Abba in the name of Samuel that Hillel and Shammai argued for 3 years; both asserting that the Halacha, the law, was in accordance with their own view.  In an almost magical moment, as can happen in the amazing world of Talmud, we find a phrase used by rabbinic literature as the lowest form of prophecy, but, nonetheless, divine in origin.  “יצאה בת קול ואמרה אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים,” “These AND those [literally both] are the words of the living God.” This phrase, the bat kol, is used to continue the point, stating that the Halacha, the law, follows Hillel.  A grand and phenomenal moment for sure.  In the words of the great Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the bat kol, is the lowest level of prophecy but a mighty powerful voice. 

The sages of our tradition go on to further understand and explain how this Eilu V’Eilu - These AND Those - statement is supposed to work.  If both are the words of the living God, Rabbi Abba continues, what merited Hillel to the Halacha, the law?  Talmud puts the matter to rest by teaching us that it was because they, Beit Hillel, Hillel and his disciples were pleasant and demonstrated humility in the arguments.  But most importantly, they studied their own decisions and those of Shammai and even included Shammai’s rulings in stating their own.  It is this last piece that becomes the ultimate lesson.  Being pleasant and demonstrating humility are asked of us throughout our lives.  But in the arena of discourse, debate, disagreement and perhaps battle, understanding the other side’s argument, their stance and their situation must be at the fore.  This is about how we argue, debate and even fight.  While both Shammai and Hillel’s rulings represented the, “Words of the Living God,” it was ruled that Hillel’s pleasant, humble demeanor AND recognizing the value of another’s opinion becomes our ideal to aim for.

Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, the Maggid of Dubno shared the following parable in the 18th century.  He spoke about a prince who assigned a group of workmen the gigantic project of constructing imposing buildings and a spacious palace, among other edifices.  Before turning the completed structures over to their owner, they carefully inspected every nook and cranny to make certain that nothing was overlooked and that the prince would find nothing lacking.  At this solemn season it is fitting for us, too, to research our ways and to take stock of our behavior, values and opinions.  On Rosh Hashanah it is incumbent upon us to inquire into, and evaluate in retrospect our dealings during the past year so that we may repent; lest God find that our performance was incomplete.

As we, too, embark on a new year, we are obligated to look at the world around us with a different measure of examination; a newly constructed ruler.  For the Jewish reality is not only about black and white of right versus wrong, but also about the how, the way we take responsibility, the way we own our rights and how we engage the other.      

Tonight I want to share words unlike any other I have from this or any bema.  I have prepared these thoughts because I truly believe that now something is different.  These words share what I believe is among the most pressing issues for the Jewish People.  That, this summer, the geo-political stage was once again occupied by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Many of you heard me speak again and again about the situation on the ground and our own role as Jews of the Diaspora through the summer months.  As we celebrate, yes, and welcome this New Year on this Rosh Hashanah 5775, we must ensure that Israel, our Jewish State, is more understood than in the past.  We must argue and debate for Israel’s right as a sovereign state to protect and defend itself.  It is our responsibility, in part, to engage in examining what is right, what is wrong and how to ensure a better and safer future for Israel. 

Israel’s actions as a country against Gaza have, and continue to, draw much criticism.  From the use of force at all to the collateral damage, Israel has been the brunt of much hostility on the stage of public opinion.  I must state clearly that I cannot defend the loss of life, personal property and ability to earn a living on either side of the conflict.  Yet, in order to see, and then hopefully begin to achieve, a better tomorrow, we must examine the conflict, understand the arguments as they are shared and take steps, albeit baby steps perhaps, towards a different reality. 

Hillel and Shammai were said to engage in this debate for three years.  Well, for more than a century the Arab-Israeli conflict has ebbed and flowed.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been front and center at least since the declaration of independence of the State of Israel in 1947.  We must understand also that part of the complexity of this reality is determining its starting point.  I must pick this, the Modern State of Israel’s existence, as a point of departure.  As such, this debate is now more than three-quarters of a century old.  When it comes to Israel, I am an ardent Zionist.  And yet, this debate, this conflict is reminiscent of that belonging to Hillel and Shammai in the Talmud.

I used to feel differently.  I used to believe the sense of “right” could be shared, but as I have taught, and discussed this summer, the most recent conflict is different.  It has a different character to it and rather than a situation of figuring out who is more right or who is less wrong, there is a right.  In our case, Zionism, a Jewish state is Eilu, one side that is right.   And, the right of what we consider the Palestinian people to exist, to have a national home, that is Eilu, too.  Both sides, in this ultimate sense are what our tradition calls, “דברי אלוהים חיים,” “Words of the Living God.”  However, it is now clear that the avenues chosen by Gaza’s leadership, which I will, but need not remind you, is Hamas - a recognized terrorist organization, are not, or at least no longer, Eilu, and they are certainly not of the Living God. 

Using this litmus test provided by our tradition, about the conflict between Hillel and Shammai, we know that neither side in a war can be pleasant and neither may be unequivocally right or wrong.  Humility is different, however.  We must understand that Israel’s tactics in this situation represent the highest regard for human life in the realm of war and armed conflict.  Consider the words of Donniel Hartman, who wrote, “I know that the fact that every country and army facing similar circumstances would either act in the same way or take far more extreme measures…” but he goes on to write that this reality, “doesn’t convince any of our critics of the legitimacy of our actions.”  So, turning to the final qualifier in our tradition’s test, the one that determined the merits of Hillel's argument, we must look at how each side views, and considers the other.  This, like the dating of such a conflict, is complex and muddy.  But I believe there is merit to the following simplification.  Israel recognizes that the Palestinian People need a national home.  Yes, some actions by the State send conflicting messages, however the current government not only sees this as inevitable, but as a must for enduring peace to be possible.  Gaza’s government, Hamas, states something quite different in nature in its own charter, stating, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”  It goes on to state later in the charter, “Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people.”  This clearly belies any legitimate right for Israel to exist.  This articulates how Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist, does not recognize the right of Jews to exist nor does it consider Israel’s views or needs. 

Both causes are just and right.  However, the way, the how of the Palestinian cause in Gaza has evolved to employ Hamas as its leadership and this has forever changed the character of its reality.  It takes what once was a more right versus a less wrong situation to what has now become about the right to exist, as a nation, as a people and as human beings.  Israel’s right to exist, right as a sovereign state to defend itself and its people is just and must be square one; the beginning of the conversation.  It creates a situation in which the Palestinians of Gaza must examine their own deeds, their own decisions and choices of leadership to reestablish their case, and only being a just and right cause if it recognizes the right of others, the right of Israel and Jews to exist, peaceably. 

We know this now.  It leaves us wondering what will be?  What can we do?  Yes, Israel has this right and the Palestinians of Gaza have abandoned that right by their decisions and their actions.  But this leaves us wanting for a path, a different road to hoe in order to at least believe in a better tomorrow.  We, Israel - Am Yisrael, the people of Israel and the Modern State of Israel have been asked again and again to justify the nation’s actions.  Israel, too, has gone astray in the past.  After all, this is the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.  It is a time when we are charged to examine our own inconsistencies, our own failings, as individuals and as a nation, a people.  This is not the time for us to point fingers at others.  So we ask ourselves that question too.  How?  What in this reality of conflict do we justify.  In the great saga of our ancestor Joseph, there comes a great moment before Joseph, then the vizier of Egypt, reveals his identity to his brothers.  Recall that Joseph had been cast aside by his own brothers to die.  Later, when the brothers sojourn for food in Egypt, Joseph recognizes them and has stolen property placed in their possessions.  Upon revealing the seeming theft, Judah cries out to the vizier of Egypt, “מה נאמר לאדני מה נדבר ומה נצטדק - What can we say to my lord?  What can we say, how could we ever prove our innocence?”  

This, too, is our response.  How can we prove innocence?  There is blood on Israel’s hands, that cannot be disputed.  Golda Meir once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children.  We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.  We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”  It is not about demonstrating Israel’s innocence to the world, it IS about arguing again and again, until it is not just understood, not just accepted, but the norm, that Israel has the right to exist, that Israel has the right as a sovereign nation to defend itself and that Jews throughout the world are accepted as partners in creating tomorrow, participating among the nations of the world. 

The complexity of looking within, understanding our own Jewish reality in moving forward, increases because we have four sides to our own internal debate.  We have the hawks and the doves in Israel and we have the liberal and the conservative here at home amongst American Jews.  These must work together, but better:  WE MUST FIND OUR OWN UNITY IN A MODERN ZIONISM.  We must understand that while there is Eilu and Eilu in the hawkish and the dovish arguments for Israel and Zionism, while there is Eilu and Eilu on the liberal and the conservative here at home, to fully be:  Words of the Living God, they must come closer, exist together.  Then the right has a chance to be evident.  We are part of that, but as one prominent rabbi recently lamented, the American scene is struggling in supporting even this basic notion of Israel.  Rabbi Andy Bachman recently shared:

I worry about American Jewry on this trip more than I ever have.  I worry about their increasing alienation from the notion of a Jewish people, I worry about our understandable abhorrence of the killing of innocents that too quickly shifts to blame, guilt and distance from Israel; and I worry about a kind of liberal American Jewish hopelessness toward the Jewish national project, the dystopian other-expression of the very spirit that created this improbable, historically miraculous, wildly creative yet weighted, complex, imperfect nation. 

And finally, I worry (with no small amount of paranoia) of a Hamas operative, reading these words, laughing and rubbing his hands in a diabolically cartoonish gesture:  The Jews, he says, can be worn down.  Eventually, they'll give up and leave.        

It is not about giving up.  It is not about giving in.  It IS about recognizing the needs of humanity.  That life is about Eilu V’Eilu - these AND those; respect for the other and for self.  The debate between Hillel and Shammai raged until the answer was so apparent it seemed divine.  The answer wasn’t even about the law itself, but about our conduct. 

The reality in Israel, of Zionism and for world Jewry has been shaken in the last months.  Anti-Israel, Anti-Zionism, has become Anti-Semitism.  This has put us, the People and Nation of Israel, on the defensive.  We must be on the offensive; not military offensive, but we must search our opinions, our values, our beliefs and behaviors to know what our argument is, how it takes into account the other side.  Then, and only then, are we living in the image of Hillel’s disciples, being and living דברי אלוהים חיים, the words of the living God.  We must:  Travel to Israel to understand our love and attachment, and our need as the Jewish people for a Jewish land.  We must:  Listen, truly listen, to all the arguments within and among our own people and those of others, even if we determine them unfounded - WE MUST HEAR THEM.  We must:  Stand up for Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state with its right to protect and defend itself and therefore, doing all we can in this New Year to ensure Israel, our Jewish State, is more understood than in the past.

May all those whose lives are forever impacted by conflict discover peace, in our day and speedily.

עשה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל עמו ישראל ועל כל יושבי תיבל
May the Source of Peace on High bring peace to us, all Israel and all who dwell on earth.

Shanah Tovah U’mitukah

Shanah Tovah U'Mitukah - A Happy, Good and Sweet Year in 5775


Faye Moskowitz wrote, "So there is nothing new under the sun.  I accept that.  That is my challenge.  There is beauty enough and ugliness enough and love enough and hate enough for any one of us to select from and shape our own absolutely personal combinations.  But this shaping must be a conscious thing:  a reaching back and forward for those details that create patterns and form and motif in a life.  To see living as connection is to bevel the rough edges, miter the corners, blur the divisions so that time becomes a chain of always accessible segments, no fragments, of knowledge and experience." 

As we feel this moment, being on the precipice of a New Year, we live Moskowitz's words.  We reach back through the year we are concluding and we reach forward to create a new year with our best intentions, our highest hopes and most sincere promises.  Then, after we stand on that peak, looking off into the distance of 5775, reality begins to set in as Yom Kippur approaches, we adjust those intentions, we temper our hopes and compromise on our promises - that is life, our human reality. 

But, this season invites us, no charges us, to hold as tight as possible, though, to those intentions, hopes and promises.  It teaches us to recognize that all of this is about being our own potential.  Rosh Hashanah comes on the New Moon.  It comes not when the moon is full, but halfway between waxing and waning, between growth and contraction.  The moon reminds us of our own waxing and waning, our own growth and contraction.  Let this Rosh Hashanah be an invitation to growth, a charge to not just hope and yearn for that potential, but take active steps to reach it.

Shanah Tovah U'Mitukah,


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

HOLY CLOTHES:  Inside and Out

Holy Clothes!  We may first think of those favorite pair of ripped jeans, or the worn out T-shirt that is "too comfortable" to toss out and too holy to give away.  In the Book of Exodus this week, we read a detailed description of Aaron's and his son's sacral vestments - the holy clothes.  Every year, when we come to this parsha, I am reminded of one of my hockey coaches from when I was about eleven years old.  It was a year I learned a lot of lessons.  The first, probably the hardest, was how to lose.  That's right, that painful lesson of being on a losing team.  However, this was no ordinary losing streak, it was, well, all but one game that season - tough!

The other big lesson was about impressions.  We are  familiar with the common idiom - First impressions are the most lasing.  It was with this in mind, that our coach that year, and for the subsequent year in which we did very well, expected us to wear a tie to every game.  At first hearing this responsibility, most of us wanted to ignore it.  However, we quickly understood the value of the first impression.  While we lost all but one game, we were always taken seriously.  Our coach taught us, "if you dress good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you play good."  

Aaron, and his sons - the priestly line, are instructed in intricate detail how they shall dress to perform there duties.  Now, I could, and I have for Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, made a similar argument as my once coach, saying, "if you dress good you pray good!"  But, I think the immense detail concerning the clothing of the priesets in this week's parsha brings an even more important lesson.  There is something about the impression we make when things are of value.  There is meaning in the way we present our Judaism, our Jewish tradition and our commitment to the community.  Aaron and his sons are presenting, from a Biblical point of view, the role of God in their community.  They are serving as the intermediary.  While this is not our belief structure in Reform Judaism today, there is an important lesson.  Its not about "dressing up" for Temple, it is about the way we present ourselves on behalf of our community.  

Our thirty year history at Temple Bat Yam is a great story.  A group of families providing Jewish education for their children, growing into a large family of TBY, securing a place to call our own and moving from student rabbis to now me, our second rabbi.  We work hard to be open to the wider community, to don our "sacral vestments" and our holy clothes (the way we present ourselves) when we share an interfaith Thanksgiving service in the Valley, open our doors to anyone and when we go out into the community for outreach - teaching about Judaism.  Parashat Tetzaveh is about how we portray ourselves - how we get involved and reach into the wider community in ways that strengthen us and the whole.  
As this Shabbat comes our way, let us all consider the "holy clothes" we put on.  In other words, the way we make first impressions about representing Temple Bat Yam, our community and Judaism. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

January 22, 2014 - Mishpatim... A Doing and A Understanding

The Exodus is in full swing.  We have escaped slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and been to Mount Sinai.  As the revelation, the giving of the law, continues, we find numerous teachings.  In this week's portion, Moses takes on the huge task of relaying the commandments to the people.  Among the notable and quotable in this week's Torah episode, we find the great response of the Israelites to Moses' question of whether they would take on this charge, "na'aseh v'nishmah - we will do and we will understand." (Ex. 24:7)  There are many comments, interpretations and teachings that explain the seemingly strange order of this reply.  "Why?" the commentators ask would Torah state "doing" and then "understanding?"  

At first glance, we could assume there is a great lesson about doing something, truly experiencing it, before we can understand the depth of its meaning.  I love this meaning.  I appreciate the idea that all learning is a process, from one stage to the next and this leads to a deeper understanding.  There is another lesson in this phrase that I have discovered this year.  As we study this parsha, we become more and more aware of the human element in all its laws.  This portion, Mishpatim, means judgments.  It pertains, largely, to the laws that require human interpretation and adjudication.  This is where I discover a new meaning of this great phrase.  That working with the laws, the judgments that require seeing another's perspective, require, "a doing" and "an understanding."  
For example, we learn that you shall not show deference to the rich or the poor (Ex. 23:2-3) and that even when finding an enemy's lost ox, you must return it (Ex. 23:4).  In these examples, there needs to be an acknowledgement, an understanding of what needs to be one, and an action.  Much or our Jewish tradition requires this of us.  It is a rich treasure trove of ethics, laws and stories.  If we fulfill the mitzvot, the commandments, blindly - without the understanding - we are not living up to our end of the agreement in Exodus 24:7.  Nor are we doing our part if we simply strive to understand them.  It is the balance between the doing and the understanding that we must attain.  It is knowing that returning lost property, to even our "enemy", is the right thing to do...and we must do it.  It is knowing that despite our pity for the less fortunate, they too are obligated to the law, and it must be carried out...lived by.  

As this Shabbat draws near, may we all find time to study, to understand our rich and beautiful tradition and find the time to live it!