From the Rabbi’s Desk – November 2017
Heavy Lifting: Confronting Human Suffering with a Helping Hand
In one of the more moving sections of the Talmud the Rabbis wrestle with the idea of human suffering. Is suffering to be looked at as a “test of love” from God?, as something that will bring with it future reward? If suffering is the will of God then is ameliorating it acting against the Divine decree? In three short stories the Rabbis answer these questions with a resounding, NO!
1) Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward! Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan lifted him up and restored him to health.
2) Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina lifted him up and restored him to health.The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student (in the story above), let Rabbi Yoḥanan lift himself up?! The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.
3) The Gemara relates that Rabbi Elazar, another of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s students, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and saw that he was lying in a dark room. Rabbi Yoḥanan exposed his arm, and light radiated from his flesh, filling the house. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Elazar said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Elazar gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan lifted him up and restored him to health. (Berachot 5b)
There are a lot of important lessons we can learn from these stories including the importance of visiting the sick, bedside manner, and the truth that each of us will at some time in our life depend on the kindness of others. Yet, also at their core is the powerful lesson about how we as Jews confront the suffering of others. On the one hand, we do recognize that prayer and petition before God (for mercy, grace, and healing) are important. While prayer is not to be confused with a magical act, forcing God to do our bidding, we nonetheless believe in the transformative power of pouring out our hearts before God. What is interesting here however is that in all three stories prayer and petition before God seem to be absent (at least on the surface). Instead what comes across as critical is the human response to another person’s suffering. We don’t in effect just offer a prayer and wait for God to help, rather we become the very agents of God’s love and healing power. The visiting healers take concrete action to make the situation better, even metaphorically lighting up the darkness.
Our tradition recognizes that there are many complex and sometimes inexplainable causes for human suffering but that what is within our power to effect is how we reach out to help, how we react to their suffering. In the three stories, the visiting healer first connects empathically with the person suffering. It is an acknowledgement of their pain and plight. They restore dignity to the person by not only recognizing them but also asking permission from them and inquiring what it is they need. They then engage the suffering person not with theological discourse, superficial platitudes, or (shameful) blame but rather by physically taking their hand and “lifting” them up. While it is true that these stories are oversimplified, the central point again is that while we often cannot cure and fully heal those who are suffering from physical, mental, or financial distress, we do have the capacity to move the needle, to heal just a little bit, the suffering of our fellow human beings.
We have over the last few months been witness to too many natural (Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, etc.) and man-made disasters (Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, etc.). Now is the time for redoubling our efforts, to extend our hands and lift people up. In doing so we can partner with God in the monumental task of healing some of the brokenness in our families, communities, and world.
Following are archives from 2017.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – October 2017
A Thanksgiving Celebration of Diversity and Unity
Sukkot is one of the most joyous of all Jewish holidays (Yes, Purim is too!) and is in fact called by our tradition – z’man simchateinu – the time of our rejoicing. Sukkot is a time to give thanks and celebrate the bounty of the harvest and the copious blessings God has showered down (including literally – rain) on us. We both acknowledge our fragility by dwelling in sukkot, while also declaring our faith that God’s presence shelters us in peace. We step out of our comfortable homes and instead open our temporary ones (sukkot) to family, friends, and strangers alike – demonstrating the true spirit of thanksgiving by sharing what we have with others. One of the most powerful symbols of the holiday is the lulav and etrog. The lulav is composed of three different types of branches – a date palm branch, 2 willow branches and 3 myrtle branches. Combined with the pri etz hadar – the etrog, we are commanded to put them all together and shake/wave them in all directions, as well as march with them in hakafot as we pray for fertility, life, and deliverance.
But, the physicality of the lulav and etrog and the differences among its components I believe come to teach us a whole lot more. According to the Rabbis, each one of the these branches possesses different characteristics and attributes which come to symbolize deeper levels of meaning. For example, our Rabbis compare the shapes of the components of the lulav and etrog to different parts of the human body each in their own unique way coming to praise the Creator of all Life. The palm branch straight like our spine, the willow like our lips, the myrtle like our eyes, and the etrog like our heart. Other Rabbis point out that each of the lulav and etrog components have different environmental needs with the willow branches completely dependent on water to flourish while date palms able to withstand dry desert conditions. Still other Rabbis look at the lulav and etrog as symbolic of the balance between human pursuits of talmud Torah – the study of Torah and the performance of ma’asim tovim – good deeds. With smell equated with talmud Torah and fruit equated with ma’asim tovim. In this paradigm different kinds of people represented by the different parts of the lulav/etrog. The date palm has no smell (a person of little Torah learning) but produces fruit (a person with many good deeds), the myrtle has a beautiful smell (a person with lots of Torah learning) but produces no fruit (a person with few good deeds), the willow both has no smell and no fruit (a person with little Torah learning and few good deeds), and finally the etrog which is both fragrant and a fruit (a saintly person with lots of Torah learning and lots of good deeds). These are just a few of the many interpretations that have been creatively ascribed to the lulav and the etrog. Yet, what is common to every interpretation is that a lulav would not be a lulav without all of its components and would be useless without the addition of the etrog as well.
I believe this provides two key and important lessons. First, that God reminds us to celebrate diversity. God created different types of plants, trees, and animals each with their own inherent beauty, purpose, and place in the world. Likewise, we can celebrate the diversity within the human family. We are all people, but on the macro scale what we bring with different cultures, languages, ideas, and traditions enriches the world and makes for so much of the beauty, creativity, and frankly deliciousness of being part of a diverse human cacophony. On a micro scale, each and every person brings their own perspective, history, and talents to the table. The beauty of this is that we each are the same, and yet different at the same time. This incredible gift of diversity for example allows for some of us to excel in sports while others in music, some of us in art and others in science. While it is rare for someone to be a master of all things, we nonetheless can all appreciate and benefit from this diversity.
But diversity alone is not the complete picture. After all the components of the lulav and the etrog need to come together. Again they would be unusable without each other. Here is where I believe we can learn the second lesson. Diversity is the spice of life but working together, coming together to lift, build, and love one another is where the holiness of God’s creation truly reaches its potential. The lulav is both a symbol of diversity but also of the beauty of what can happen when we work together. It takes many people from various backgrounds, opinions, world views with their differing strengths and interests working together to reach the highest heights. This is not always easy but the greatest blessings of love, life, and peace cannot be attained without compromise, understanding, and respect for each other. So as you wave the lulav and etrog this Sukkot, I hope you will join me in celebrating the beauty of diversity and the power of unity as we give thanks to God for the bounty of blessings we enjoy and the dream of a more perfect world.
Wishing you a Moadim L’Simcha! A joyous and meaningful Sukkot!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – September 2017
Sharing This Beautiful World Together
Often when I tell people that Rosh Hashanah is in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar their reaction is, “Huh?” Yep, the month of Tishrei is the seventh month and yet we celebrate the beginning of the new year in it. How is this possible? Interestingly, the date of Rosh Hashanah, in the Jewish mind, is directly tied to the anniversary of the creation of the Universe – Yom Harat Olam, or if you will, a “birthday” of the world celebration. The celebration of Rosh Hashanah would evolve to become a powerful reminder of God’s sovereignty over all the Universe, of the uniquely creative/redemptive power of God, as well as the day that God judges the whole world – Yom HaDin (Think anniversary of the world’s creation appraisal time). For the Rabbis, the marking of Rosh Hashanah was not merely a Jewish holiday, but instead was independent of how we as Jews later defined our sacred calendar. The Rabbis believed that the act of Creation was a universal event that all of humanity shares and not owned by any particular religion or people. I believe there is a powerful and pertinent message in this universalist idea.
The Rabbis understood that while it is common for many peoples and religions to base dates off of their own particular religious beliefs and/or leaders lives(king, queen, etc.), Creation is something that should not be particularized. All of humanity should be united in the belief that we are sharing this beautiful world together. In essence, the God that created all life unites us rather than divides us. The Rabbis add a rhetorical flourish in asking the question, “why does the Torah starts with Creation and not with the story of the Jewish people (Abraham) or the book of Exodus where we received the Torah?” They answer that the story of Creation comes to teach us that God created all things (“All the Earth is the Lord’s”) and therefore God owns all things. Even in the creation of human beings, no one can claim they are better, since we all descended from one common ancestor (Adam-Eve).
All of us get to share in the blessings of this world and consequently we all are effected by the hurt we do to it and each other. Whatever a person’s belief(or not ) in God is, when we consider the fact, that human beings did not create the Universe it should leave us standing in awe and wonder. It should inspire us to look at how we treat each other and our planet. It should humble us and cause us to reflect on our actions. Rosh Hashanah can remind us to take a step back and remember our commonality, as petty hatred and bigotry, only serve to diminish God’s creation and name. We are indeed all charged with caring for this world and also for each other (an early lesson from Cain & Abel). Rosh Hashanah is both a celebration and a time for deep introspection about how we live our lives. Is this the person I want to be? Is this the world I want to pass down to the next generation? What have I done with the blessings God has given to me? These questions are not just for Jews to answer but I believe for all humanity to wrestle with. To that end, I reiterate my call to join with me this year in engaging in more dialogue between all people of good will and heart. May 5778 be a year when we lift ourselves and our world closer to God and each other as we share this beautiful world together.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – August 2017
LoveFest: Jewish Edition
It is ironic that in the same month as we commemorate the 9th of Av or Tisha B’Av (and the destruction, exile, and all the centuries of hate and death that would follow), the Jewish calendar also includes Tu B’Av (15th of Av) a celebration of romance and love. It is understandable that most Jews focus on Tisha B’Av which is surrounded by the rituals of reading Eicha (Lamentations), fasting, singing kinnot (dirges) which reflect the melancholy nature of the day. Yet, in my mind we have also lost something when we forget about the message Tu B’Av can bring to our lives as individuals and as a community.
The origins of Tu B’Av are shrouded in mystery. Today in Israel, Tu B’Av is celebrated as a type of Valentine’s Day with people buying flowers, chocolate, etc. Yet, scholars are unsure if the holiday is based on an ancient mid-Summer cultic festival (as Tu B’Av falls on a night of a full moon) that Judaism absorbed and transformed or, whether Tu B’Av is a response to Tisha B’Av celebrating the lifting of harsh restrictions by the Romans. (including the resumption of weddings and life-cycle events such as Jewish burial in particular). Rabbinic commentators associate a number of reasons for Tu B’Av, including God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the ability for Israelite women to marry outside of their specific tribe.(Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays)
But the text that speaks to me most is one from the Talmud. The Talmud recalls a Mishnah taught by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, “Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments—borrowed ones, in order not to cause shame to those who had them not of their own;—these clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus they went out and danced in the vineyards, saying, Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose [as a spouse]; regard not beauty [alone], but rather look to a virtuous family, for ‘Gracefulness is deceitful, and beauty is a vain thing, but the woman that fears the Lord, she is worthy of praise’ (Prov. 31:3); and it is also said (Prov. 31:31), ‘Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.’ And thus is it said [in allusion to this custom], ‘Go out, maidens of Jerusalem, and look on King Solomon, and on the crown wherewith his mother has encircled [his head] on the day of his espousals, and on the day of the gladness of his heart’ (Song of Songs 3:11); ‘the day of his espousals,’ alludes to the day of the gift of the law, and ‘the day of the gladness of his heart,’ was that when the building of the Temple was completed.” May it soon be rebuilt in our days. Amen!” (Ta’anit 4:8)
There is so much to unpack from this text of which I will only touch on a few ideas. First, what is it that makes Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av so joyous? In short, I believe it is the liberating power of healing and forgiveness. The ability to both feel hope about the trajectory of our lives, and to feel that we are loved by God and others. Second, note that being rich or poor should not determine who you are and who you love. Leveling the playing field out of humility and respect is a powerful lesson and value.(Note: that is why even in burial we all wear the same white garments called tachrichin) Third, the invitation of the maidens is not only to pursue beauty on the outside but to find the beauty on the inside as well. When pursuing a spouse, the text reminds us that relationships take work, kindness, respect, and ethical behavior to succeed.
Finally, I believe if you take this text in relation to Tisha B’Av it speaks volumes about the Jewish psyche. On the one hand there is hate, sin, destruction, and deep brokenness. On the other hand, there is forgiveness, virtue, beauty, hopefulness, and love. On Tisha B’Av we recall how hatred of one another destroyed us. We remember the brokenness of our relationship with God and with others. And we cry out from the pain of apartness and the consequences of being exiled. But, should we descend into the blackhole of despondency, hopelessness, and constant mourning? In many ways when you extrapolate all of the millennia of communal and personal suffering, genocide, and persecution, Judaism and our people could fall into nothing but darkness. And yet despite all of this, we instead pull ourselves up and work for healing, love, return (teshuvah) & redemption, and the joy of life itself. Again, Tu B’Av like Yom Kippur is a joyous moment precisely because it affirms that relationships can be repaired, we can strive to be better people, and we can build communities and lives which reflect love and not hate. As the text above reminds us, this is not a superficial pursuit. The relationships we have broken, the inner beauty and virtue we strive to see and make our own, and the work of redemption both of ourselves as individuals and our world will not happen by merely wishing it. Instead, it will take the path of hard work, discernment, humility, hope, and love to accomplish this life-long task. Indeed, for me this is how we can best demonstrate to God and ourselves that we have learned the tragic lessons of Tisha B’Av. With that, I want to invite you to join with me on Monday August 7th in celebrating Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love, by showing extra kindness to family, friends, and strangers alike. Happy Tu B’Av!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – June 2017
The Promise and Dream of Jerusalem
I am not exactly sure when my family arrived in Husiatyn, Austria. What I do know is that my ancestor Alchuna was the Alter Cantor. Generations of my large family lived in Husiatyn with some like my great grandparents Leon & Perl moving later to Vienna and then leaving Europe for America (The Bronx). But, even though I would be interested in visiting Husiatyn (currently part of the Ukraine) it would never feel like home. But, Jerusalem… no matter how many times I see it, walk its streets, and watch the sun’s rays over the old city turn its stones golden, it always feels like coming home. Tel Aviv is great, Haifa – beautiful, Beersheva filled with potential but Jerusalem is like no other place. It is true that in Jerusalem you are always walking up hills but the views from those hilltops is priceless. Walking the neighborhoods and streets one can feel the mix of modern and ancient where streets are named for prophets, kings and sages as well as modern dreamers, artists, and heroes. Jerusalem has always been the heart of Jewish hopes and aspirations.
The city reflects the dual nature of the Jewish people, where the past, present, and future all mingle, wrestle and challenge each other. One aspect of identity and heart cannot ignore the other without losing a part of who and what we were, are, and dream to be. I find it hard to imagine a time when Jerusalem was not this place of promise and dreams. And yet, before the Six Day War (50 years ago) Jerusalem was divided, a far away symbol of thousands of years of Jewish hopes to one day re-establish our capital city and our national, cultural, and religious heart. Jerusalem literally means City of Peace in Hebrew. Yet, for thousands of years Jerusalem would only know strife, exile, and persecution. Scars, ruins, and bullet holes remain but Jerusalem once again teems with song, art, culture, and life. Today, as Israel’s capital, Jerusalem is filled with parks, schools, shops, and the hustle and bustle of any city but it also has an intangible unlike anywhere else – Holiness. It is the original place of pilgrimage, the epicenter of religious creativity and discovery. It is sacred to great religious traditions, including the three monotheistic faiths, and its air is daily filled with prayers and praise for God in many languages and ways.
Jerusalem is obviously not a perfect place. It has its share of problems including poverty, religious tension, cost of living, and of course the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But, I would challenge anyone who looks at Jerusalem’s reunification and only sees “the Conflict”. No, for me Jerusalem is home. It is the one place we have named at the end of the Seder’s meal of redemption for thousands of years. “This year we are here. Next year in Jerusalem!” This year on Yom Yerushalayim (May 23rd – 24th) we celebrated 50 years of restored Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. The place at the heart of the Jewish people. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, All you who love her! Join in her jubilation, All you who mourned over her—That you may suck from her breast Consolation to the full, that you may draw from her bosom Glory to your delight. For thus said the LORD: I will extend to her Prosperity like a stream, The wealth of nations like a wadi in flood; And you shall drink of it. You shall be carried on shoulders and dandled upon knees. As a mother comforts her son so I will comfort you; you shall find comfort in Jerusalem.” (66:10-14)
We are indeed living in a blessed time to be able to celebrate with Jerusalem. May she continue to grow, prosper, and ever become as her name – the City of Peace!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – May 2017
Finding the Balance Between Memory and Creating our Future
I think I have always struggled to live in multiple worlds at the same time. Like most Jews, I have one foot in Tradition and one foot in the modern world. I am a proud American and a proud observant Jew and Zionist. And also like most Jews, my identity is built with a complex intermingling of our people’s history, personal memory and the need to continually renew and own my faith in the world in which I liveThe wrestling match within me is usually brought into sharp focus from Pesach, when we retell our liberation from the bondage of Egypt, leading up to Shavuot the renewal of the Covenant at Sinai. In this period, we are commanded to count the Omer, which originally was a joyous time of thanksgiving for the bounty of the new grain harvest(wheat and later barley) and a reminder of our connection to the land. However, as Jewish history is sadly too often filled with persecution, anti-Semitism, and death, the Omer counting also became associated with the Roman decree to outlaw the teaching of Torah and Jewish practice. Our Sages and their students as well as countless Jews would rather submit to torture and death than to give up our Torah, Jewish tradition, and faith in God. In this later historical context, the Omer combined the earlier Commandment with Jewish history and took on a new meaning and tradition. (Hence, not cutting one’s hair, no weddings until Lag B’Omer-33rd day of the Omer, etc.)
When you then add to this time Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah(Holocaust Remembrance Day), then the heavy weight of our history and the responsibility that come with it drive me into conflict with the need, indeed the necessity for a compelling Judaism that can free itself of the death shackles of too much history of hardship, persecution, and hate. Can there be a moment to capture the creative imagination of a tradition that in its deepest essence is both a positive force for good, a dynamic and ever growing Torah, a reflection of the Divine Presence which, possesses a deep wellspring of meaning for those who embrace it? Yet, our history even with regard to the other Yom’s (Yom HaZikaron (Israel Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is often cast in the shadow of those who sought to destroy us or those who yet seek to destroy us! The black hole of woe, heartbreak, and mourning overwhelm the birth of so many beautiful stars.
For far too many Jews, their Jewish identity is forged from the darkness of these historical tragedies and not from the creative and dynamic power of our texts, traditions, ideas, and ethical life. As recently as 2013, a Pew Research study was done where a broad swath of American Jews were asked, “What is essential about being Jewish?” The following answer crushed me.
“When we asked Jews about what is and is not essential to their own sense of Jewishness, 73% say remembering the Holocaust is essential (including 76% of Jews by religion and 60% of Jews of no religion). Almost as many Jews, 69%, say leading an ethical and moral life is essential, and 56% cite working for social justice and equality; only 19% say observing Jewish law is essential.”
The Holocaust was the most important/essential aspect of what it means to be Jewish. Again, this is crushing. Remembering the Holocaust is important but, it is not by any stretch of the imagination what a living Judaism needs to sustain itself in the hearts and minds of future generations to come. How can this be #1 essential aspect of being Jewish?! What I long suspected before this study was completed was that while we have made ourselves informed students of Jewish history(particularly the negative, tragic history) we have too often failed to create and shift the culture to a positive Judaism/identity based on compelling thoughts, ideas, values, and observances. History has overcome/overburdened our future. I have therefore often seen my rabbinic mission as a small corrective in this light (through education, uplifting spiritual observance & Jewish ethical life) but like so many I continue to wrestle with the responsibility and weight of our history, the power of memory, and the balance of shaping/returning our Jewish future to the hands and hearts of a creative and dynamic people who are heir to Prophets and who continue to echo God’s word and hope with all our hearts, minds, and soul’s. For our sake and for the future of Judaism’s sake may we remember this first and foremost.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – April 2017
A Fifth Question
Over the years I have been privileged to be the recipient of many congregants sacred stories. Many have touched me deeply and given me a glimpse into the many ways God’s presence has worked in the world. With her permission, I would like to share with you one such story. I met Mrs. Weissfellner when I was the rabbi at the Malverne Jewish Center in Malverne, Long Island. One day I happened to notice that she had on some pretty pink shoes and I paid her a little compliment. (Note: It is not often I notice people’s shoes but these stood out) She said thank you and then proceeded to tell me the following story. “You see,” she said – “shoes are very important to me. I have hundreds of shoes, a whole closet just for shoes. But, rabbi I am not Imelda Marcos. You see, when I was a child the Nazis came and my whole life was turned upside down. They came for my father and we never saw him again. I was eight years old.
We knew we had to try to escape so my mother, my little sister and I left everything including my precious babydoll. My mother said she would buy me another when we were safe. Tragically she was caught by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp. We never saw her again. My sister and I had no where to go but to stay meant certain death. We knew we couldn’t wait. We began to make our way to by foot, trying to find a place to hide. We had almost nothing and when we reached the mountains my sister and I had no shoes left. We literally climbed mountains with no shoes! That is what I remember most. Not having my babydoll or any shoes. My feet hurt so badly, and my little sister kept crying out in pain. It was horrible. We did not think we would make it. Rabbi, that is why I have so many dolls and shoes.”
I remember being totally stunned and unprepared to hear this story. And while some of the details have faded from my memory (like which mountain range – Alps or Pyrenees) . I can still picture in my minds-eye two little girls climbing tall mountains alone without shoes. Refugees from the horrors of the Shoah. Seeking life at all costs, leaving everything behind, fleeing for their lives along a perilous route hoping someone would take them in. After the war, she met Henry who had survived one of the camps. They later married and came to the United States where he became a pharmacist. They raised a family. Lived in West Hempstead, Long Island and I just knew them as Henry and Irene.
Passover is all about retelling our defining story. We tell the story of our slavery in Egypt and are reminded that each of us should see ourselves as if we had been freed by God from the horrors of slavery and oppression. As Jews, we remember that our story does not end there.(Exiled from Israel, Spain, France, England, Germany, Poland, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, etc.) For much of our history we have been wandering in the hopes of living in our Promised Land. (L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yerushalyim!) We have been persecuted, exiled, tortured and murdered because we were Jews. We sought refuge from the hate but time and again we were turned away or the refuge was fleeting. Fleeing genocide, war, oppression, abject poverty is never a legal or illegal matter or a simple choice but, rather about the fundamental Commandment of preserving life itself. For those lucky enough to meet the likes of a Raoul Wallenberg z”l or Oscar Schindler z”l, who provided documents both real and fake – it meant life. Thousands have been and are at this very moment willing to risk life and limb to make dangerous journeys to find refuge. We must not allow rising isolationism, ethnic nationalism, fear, and nihilism to drown out the Divine voice of compassion, mercy, and loving-kindness. God after all “heard our cries and saw our oppression.” (Deuternonomy 26:7) We are the living witnesses who bear the testimony of all of those before us. But we are also more than witnesses – we are commanded to stand up and help those who are oppressed.
The Torah reminds us over and over, that we must not oppress the stranger. God demands of us kindness for those who are the most vulnerable. I remember in the 1980’s marching for Soviet Jewry. Those years we added an additional matzah to the traditional three – the “Matzah of Hope.” This year as we sit around the seder table asking the four questions we should add another: How should we be treating the stranger/the refugee? The original Exodus of our people might have been thousands of years ago but for many their Exodus is now. Hundreds of thousands of people are seeking freedom from war, oppression, and the misery of financial bondage. Will we respond to their cries, their need for refuge? How can we eat the matzah (bread of affliction) and the maror (bitter herbs) and not be moved by their plight? Indeed, if we are true to who we are as Jews and to what we believe, then we must work hard to fulfill the spirit of the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesach!” (ie. freedom!) We here in America call this the, “home of the brave and the land of the free.” This country has been a beacon of hope and symbol of freedom for my family’s journey from Europe, and for so many around the world. As Emma Lazarus wrote:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I still believe in these words and this promise. Let our Feast of Freedom be a meaningful one. And may our questions and story be an inspiration for action.
You can help by supporting:
HIAS: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society at www.hias.org
and locally: Bethany Christian Services email@example.com (see following sheet)
Reminder: Never Forget wristbands and candles for Yom HaShoah (4/23 – 4/24) are available in the office
From the Rabbi’s Desk – March 2017
Standing Up with Mordechai and Esther
Every since I was a little kid, I loved to dress up for Purim. It was fun to pretend to be someone funny, dastardly or heroic. To escape for a little while into a story of kings and queens, and cheer on Mordechai and Esther, and boo Haman. Purim was always filled with light-hearted laughter, good songs, and tasty treats. Yet, at the core of the story is the existential threat Haman posed to our people and just how close he came to seeing his plot succeed. Indeed, too often in Jewish history the Hamans got their way.
One of Megillat Esther’s interesting facts is that God’s name is not mentioned at all in the scroll. Our Sages teach, that while God is behind the scenes, it is up to us to stand up and fight for our future. All of this gives me a greater appreciation for just how heroic Mordechai and Esther truly were. Mordechai took a stand against Haman’s evil and Esther was willing to use her position and risked her life for her people. It was their extraordinary courage, faith, and conviction despite the long odds (purim = lots/lottery) and danger, that still inspires me today.
For many people staying silent, keeping a low profile, and not putting yourself at risk is not only common sense but the most practical and prudent course of action. Sometimes as the saying goes, “You need to look out for numero uno.” Queen Esther almost certainly could have done that. Yet, Mordechai however recognized early on that Haman’s demand for loyalty and worship of himself, was only setting the stage for the oppression of the Jewish people and a rallying cry for anti-Semites throughout the kingdom. Haman’s thirst and need for attention and power fed his need for an “enemy” of the King which, would enable him to consolidate power in the name of protecting and securing the kingdom. We as a Jewish minority could easily be labeled “lawless” and “dangerous”, a fifth column if you will because we were different. King Achashverus moved by Haman’s fear mongering, only too willingly gave Haman the power and authority to carry out whatever actions he saw fit. Against this backdrop, Mordechai and Esther stood up against Haman’s hate. In fact, Mordechai does no less than save King Achashverus’s life by uncovering the assassination plot of Bigtan and Teresh! While Esther for her part literally becomes King Achashverus’s chosen (no pun intended) queen and protector of the kingdom herself. She risks everything to go before the king. She did not know if her entreaties would be her head or if after all was said and done, Haman’s evil plan would succeed because she was too late to stop it. Mordechai and Esther’s resistance to Haman and his band of evil hate-mongers demonstrated that, while it is easier to stand on the sidelines, standing up for what is right can and did make all the difference.
Sadly, hate (at least in the open) in all of its forms is on the uptick. Today’s polarized society has swung open the door of demonizing “the other” and blaming them for the world’s problems. In the past month alone there have been over 48 bomb threats called in to JCC’s and synagogues around our country. In St. Louis, the Chesed Shel Emet cemetery was vandalized with over a hundred headstones pushed over and damaged. Synagogues are being sprayed with swastikas and hate messages scrawled on college campuses. Children in schools giving the Nazi salute and ridiculing their classmates with ethnic and anti-Semitic slurs about ovens and showers. Online social media trolls, threatening Jewish journalists and spreading hate on websites. As a prime target of this hatred we are certainly not alone. For Muslims in our community and around the country they are immediately judged as “terrorists” or “radical extremists”. Not to mention continued racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia which are all too common.
Therefore, we the descendants of Mordechai and Esther cannot be silent. We are the witnesses of the 20th century’s most horrific and evil plot to wipe out our entire people, the Shoah. We are charged with never looking the other way. Now is the time to cast aside any lingering doubts or questions about whether we should “keep a low profile”, “let this pass by”, or “not call attention to ourselves.” No, now is the time for moral courage, faith in each other and what is right, and with a resolute conviction that if we stand up to those peddling in hate we can save ourselves, others, and our children’s future. So let’s not only cheer for Mordechai and Esther this Purim but stand up and make some noise against hate.
Chag Purim Sameach!
A few organizations leading the way:
Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
American Jewish World Service (AJWS)
Bend the Arc
Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College (IJCU)
Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley (JFLV)
Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
United States Holocaust Museum (USHM)
From the Rabbi’s Desk – February 2017
Hope & Inspiration Despite the Times : The Sequel
Boy, is it dark! I mean this not only in the literal sense but also in the figurative sense. There are days when I wonder how the world has gone so terribly wrong. Forgetting the painful lessons of history and eclipsing the fundamental ethical imperatives of truth, justice, and that we all are created in God’s image. Yet, just when I feel that the world I will leave my children will be worse than the one I inherited, I go to my special “stop whining & get off your tuchus ritual.”
This ritual involves recharging myself by reading the writings and stories of inspiring people whose unrelenting hope, extraordinary heroism, truth to power, andvisions/dreams of what we and our world should/can be. (See the article I wrote on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 2015) Their words, stories, and deeds become a buttress of hope, civility, and inspiration for me. Proof that one person, one voice, one deed can and does bend the arch of history toward justice.
This month I would like to share with you some of the teachings and thoughts of Victor Frankl, a Jewish Austrian born psychologist and survivor of multiple concentration camps including Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Frankl developed a new school of psychology called logotherapy, which at its core focuses on the importance of the drive for meaning in our lives. What first inspired me was how Frankl combined both psychology and faith together in their shared pursuit of helping people find purpose and meaning in life.
Although a few quotes will never do justice to Frankl (I of course recommend reading: Man’s Search for Meaning & Unconscious God) here are a few quotes that I find inspiring and life affirming.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”
“The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
“No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.”
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love.”
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
As always, I welcome your feedback and thoughts, especially any recommendations of people whose writings, stories, and deeds inspire you.
As Victor Frankl might say, may we challenge ourselves each day to strive for love and a higher purpose bringing hope and meaning to our lives and world.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – January 2017
I am often asked what led me to want to become a rabbi? And while I could point to many things that shaped my choice such as my love of learning, serving God and the Jewish people, and hoping that after every day I could bring a little bit of goodness, justice, and love into our world – I would be remiss if I didn’t include standing in wonder before life’s big questions. Ever since I can remember I was filled with questions both big and small. Sometimes these questions were out of simple curiosity for how objects worked or what their function was but more often I was that crazy idealistic (or I admit annoying) child who wanted to know – but WHY?!
Encouraged by my parents, teachers, and Rabbi Steven Tucker z”l to keep asking these questions no matter the lack of definitive answers, I was led to seek out others who grappled with the same questions. I found that the TaNaKh and its commentaries, the Talmud, the theologians and philosophers of our tradition from the past to the present all had these big questions too. I was not alone but instead a participant in a tradition that believes it a sacred and core act (responsibility) of faith to ask questions – Mah Nishtana…?
I soon learned that the key to understanding people and their responses, behaviors, or “answers” to life and the world around them was to find out what their questions were. Even, admittedly when they didn’t know they were responding to one (or many) of them. Judaism, and its spiritual path to living, seek not one answer to all of the big questions but a sensitization to the questions themselves. Judaism offers a way for us to find meaning(s) and live in a world continually changing and mysterious and yet fundamentally eternal and the same. As Jews, we are unafraid to ask questions and live without a definitive answer but, what we also understand is that our actions matter – living matters. Standing at Sinai, the Jewish people respond to God’s Commandments with the famous words, “na’aseh v’nishma – we will do and we will understand!” Our Rabbis teach, that from the order of the words, we can learn that “doing (na’aseh)” takes priority even when we do not fully “understand (nishma)” why we do what we do. While this has been the modus operandi of Jewish life, our Sages also teach that we still need to try our best to find the meaning and understanding in what it is we do. Essentially both the keva (form – practice) and kavanna (intentionality and understanding).
To that end, starting in February I will be offering a class called, “The Hitchhikers Guide to Everything Jewish” which will explore some of the questions of the how, what, and why we do certain things as Jews. And while this class does have some basic framework of life-cycle, holidays, and rituals – the real x factor will be the questions each of participant. So here’s to starting the secular year journeying together – unafraid to ask and explore the difficult questions of God, our tradition, and our lives.