From the Rabbi’s Desk — July 2019
This month’s bulletin article is from a piece I was asked to draft by Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger about the current attempt to remove veterans (and others) from eligibility for SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Aid Program). In March I was appointed the Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Food Justice Committee and have been working with rabbis across the country on issues of food insecurity and hunger.
The Jewish tradition declares emphatically in the Passover Haggadah that, before we sit down to enjoy the Feast of Freedom, we must open our homes, saying, “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and share this Passover meal.” All the more so, we must not turn away those whose sacrifice has allowed us to live in this land of the free. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines instead deserve our country’s open arms to welcome them home and a helping hand to lift them up, so they can live with dignity and honor.
Recently, the Trump administration has proposed a rule change to the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (SNAP) that would effectively stop tens of thousands of veterans from seeking or receiving benefits. This change would strictly enforce a 20 hour-per-week work requirement within three months of applying and receiving SNAP food benefits. Failure to prove enough hours would lead to the denial of SNAP benefits for three years.
As a rabbi, veteran, and a proud American, I believe that our service men and women deserve better. Denying them access to food will not make their lives easier or help them find work faster. It will further add to their burdens and their family struggles. Moreover, it breaks the fundamental American social contract that says that as they faithfully protected us, so will we faithfully honor their service by caring for them when they return.
Chaplains play a special role in the Armed Forces, as we are the only ones who hold confidentiality and therefore can be trusted with the most private and deep conversations of our service men and women. In my role as chaplain, I learned that transitioning from deployments and from the military to civilian life is complicated, and even in the best of times is often difficult. Family dynamics change, priorities shift, and decisions about the future can be rife with anxiety. Sometimes our veterans come home physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred even when a wound is not visible. (A look at suicide and addiction rates speaks volumes.) This takes its toll not only on the veterans, but also on their loved ones.
Planting roots in a community, adapting skills for the workforce, finding and holding a job, wrestling with physical and mental injuries, and negotiating civilian life that all too often nods at their service without really understanding what they and their families have sacrificed can be extremely daunting. The sad truth is that for an estimated 1.4 million veterans and their families, food insecurity is a daily challenge. Post-9/11 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from food insecurity at nearly double that rate. The enormity of this problem is often hidden from public awareness and political discourse. Sometimes this is due to veterans’ pride, self-reliance, independence, and wish to serve rather than be served.
That is why for the last two years I have joined with fellow rabbis and cantors across the country in Mazon’s Rabbinic Cohort to lobby our Senators and Congresspeople on Capitol Hill about this harmful SNAP rule change. Our duty to raise awareness and promote Judaism’s moral voice is not confined to sermons or classes, but actualizes itself in advocacy. It is one thing to read the newspaper and shake our heads; it is another to sit across the table from our elected officials and talk with them about food insecurity and hunger. The Torah’s command “Justice, Justice you shall pursue,” (Deut. 16:20) means taking tangible steps to ensure that our society is acting in the highest ethical and moral ways. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “This implies more than merely respecting or following justice; we must actively pursue it.” Jewish tradition teaches that we have a collective responsibility to care for those who are most vulnerable in our society. I hope you will add your voice and effort to this pursuit.
Rabbi Michael P. Singer
Congregation Brith Sholom Bethlehem, PA
Chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly Food Justice Committee
A Living Torah – Torat Chayim
One of the most exciting and rewarding parts of my rabbinate is sitting down with B’nei Mitzvah families and studying the Torah portion. It is amazing to see how parents, teens, and children turn over the words of the Torah and begin to pull out ideas, values, and Commandments from a text written over 3,000 year ago. No longer is it just a parchment scroll containing almost 80,000 Hebrew words but now becomes a living and dynamic part of who they are and who they are becoming. It becomes the treasured inheritance of Jewish life passed from one generation to the next – l’dor vador.
I believe the secret to why Judaism and our people have not only survived but thrived is that we continually engage with the Torah’s teachings. Through interpretations and commentaries, we are able to adapt Judaism to technological advances and different countries and cultures, while still holding on to the central ideas and core values that define us. Each generation has added its voice to the literature of Torah. Originally in oral form, then in scrolls, books, and now into the digital world (example: sefaria.org) – the library of Torah keeps growing and expanding. At its core is a Jewish tradition that is relevant, deeply spiritual, and presents us with a path to make life meaningful, just, and hopeful.
Sometimes the Torah’s teachings helped us stand up against social customs, religious doctrines, and foreign ideas that were counter to our values (idolatry, tyranny, racism, xenophobia). Other times we were able to seamlessly use the Torah’s support for contemporary issues such as civil rights, reproductive freedom, anti-poverty measures, and environmental protection. And still other times its teachings help us feel personally and profoundly connected to God, our family and community (both past and present) and our most intimate and deeply honest selves.
What is necessary for this Torat Chayim (Living Torah) and therefore Judaism to remain alive however are two key and critical actions. First, every Jew has an obligation to study and learn Torah (Talmud Torah). Whether it is reading the weekly Torah portion, studying Talmud, or reading a contemporary book on Jewish ethics. For Torah to remain a central part of who we are we need to study it, debate it, and ultimately find/add our voices to it. Second, the Torah is not only an act of intellectual discovery but a system of Commandments and values to be lived in the world. For example, we are commanded to keep honest weights and measures. This is not only historical, hypothetical, or in the ivory tower – this is in the real world. When I go to put gas in my car, I trust that what I pay is based on the actual amount I receive. Our shared communal system would fail if we could no longer trust each other. The living Torah requires us to put it into use, to actually live it!, otherwise it becomes out of touch, irrelevant, and then dies.
On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah not as a dusty old tome hidden away, nor with its meaning calcified or stunted in only one time and place but through our engagement with it we make it a part of our time and our very selves. It is a “Tree of Life.” a Torat Chayim (Living Torah) whose words are meant to be studied, sometimes challenged, expounded upon and almost certainly – lived. At the end of Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Ben Bag Bag sums it up nicely when he teaches, “Study it and review it – you will find everything in it. Scrutinize it, grow old and gray in it, do not depart from it. There is no better portion of life than this.”
May we all celebrate our Torat Chayim (Living Torah) by learning and living it all the days of our lives. Chag Sameach! A joyous and sweet Shavuot!
Sharing God’s Gifts as the Key to Happiness
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God” (Parshat Emor Leviticus 23:22)
A few years ago I came across the following short story from an unknown author entitled, “God’s Coffee.”
A group of alumni, highly established in their careers, got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups – porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite – telling them to help themselves to the coffee.
When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice looking expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress. Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups… And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.
Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain Life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of Life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us.”
God brews the coffee, not the cups………. Enjoy your coffee!
“The happiest people don’t have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything.”
This story struck a chord in me as we count the days of the Omer (Sefirat haOmer). As Jews, we are on a spiritual journey to Sinai to receive anew God’s gift of the Torah (holiday of Shavout). In anticipation, each day of the omer we attempt to move spiritually higher as we asses the content and character of our lives. The Torah frames this journey in our sacred calendar by reminding us, that when our ancestors gave thanks for the grain harvest they offered an omer of grain to God but also shared their harvest with those who were in need Jew and non-Jew alike. (See the story of Ruth)
Both the ritual of bringing the omer offering and leaving the corners of the field (pe’ah) for people in need teaches us to recognize and appreciate God’s gifts and blessings in our lives as well as to internalize the commandment and value of the holiness of sharing. The holiness of sharing in turn circles back to help us see beyond the rat race and its collection and acquisition of material items and allows us to find a higher and holier purpose to our lives. This cycle of gratefulness, sharing, and holy purpose has been shown to increase happiness in our lives/world as well as wholeness or in the Hebrew – Shalom.
We therefore can frame our life’s journey and purpose not by how much material we have acquired but instead by how we live in appreciation of God’s blessings each day and our responsibility to act with a generosity of spirit in how we share these gifts with others. Living in this manner makes us worthy of receiving God’s gift of Torah which by its very nature is not a possession of a singular person but is shared among all of us. As it says, “She is a tree of life to those that grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:18, 3:17)
May we celebrate in joy the holiday of Shavuot – living in gratefulness, sharing generously, and pursuing our holy purpose – Shalom.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — April 2019
Freedom is a Work in Progress
The quintessential Jewish story in the Torah is the story of our exodus from Egypt, and the trials and tribulations of moving from a people who knew only slavery to a people poised to forge a new society guided by God’s Torah. Each year we gather our families and friends together to remember and commemorate our amazing story of freedom in the holiday of Passover(Pesach).We remember that our freedom came at the cost of plagues on the Egyptians, including a terrible loss of life. It also took Jewish leaders like Moses, Aaron and Miriam, taking responsibility and owning both the struggle and the outcome of liberation. God acted only when we cried out, sent Moses to speak to Pharaoh, and marked our doors with lamb’s blood. We had to take the first steps ourselves into the Sea, in order for it to part. Around the seder table we not only remember these historic actions but also challenge ourselves with questions about the meaning of freedom today in America. With the continuing rise of economic inequality, mass shootings, hatred in all its forms, and technology which tracks our every move and our most private information. Our work for freedom is not yet complete.
As American Jews we take heart in the family stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents, who sought to bind their lives with that of America’s. They came to these shores for the promise of freedom, equality, and abundant opportunity. Yet, sometimes we faced an America that turned us away, was unfair, corrupt, or harsh. As Jews we have experienced the hurtful barriers of prejudice and hate that set quotas on college admissions, kept Jewish doctors out of hospitals or denied us hotel rooms and most often jobs. We were called un-American, invaders, the insidious “Other”. So, we fought back and we raised our voices not only for ourselves but for the civil rights of all Americans.
The hard fight for freedom, continues today as we strive to live up to the very best of the values of human dignity and respect that America represents. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, push-back against progress, and sad and ugly times. America’s history is filled with moments when we have failed to live up to the best of our values. We must not become discouraged, apathetic, or ambivalent. Instead, Pesach teaches us that we must continue to work towards redemption. Overwhelmingly, America is a model society that at its best allows her people no matter who they are or where they come from, to achieve their highest potential and ensure the safety, human rights and dignity of our citizens. The fact that it is imperfect does not absolve us from working to do our part. This is how we love America, love freedom, and love God. We work to make the world better through our actions which bring more justice, love, and peace to all humanity.
Today we are witness to a world that is still struggling with civil rights, hatred, and basic issues of human dignity. The powerful story of Pesach can inspire us to take up the struggle for freedom and remind us of our people’s long history to break the chains of pharaohs and oppressors. While I do not know how some of these struggles will come out in the near term, I firmly believe with all my heart that we are not only on the right side of history but also following God’s commandments to love the stranger, care for those in need, and pursue justice and peace. I also know that freedom takes courage, sacrifice and conviction. I pray that as we sit at our seder tables this Pesach we remember that our freedom is a magnificent blessing. A blessing that we are continually responsible for and that we have to work hard to ensure and renew in every generation. As our Torah teaches (and is inscribed on the Liberty Bell), “Proclaim freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants!”(Leviticus 25:10)
Purim, Passover and the danger of anti-Semitism
How many times have you heard the joke about making the Megillah reading shorter by just saying simply, “Hey, they tried to kill us, they failed, now let’s eat!” Sadly, the story of Purim wasn’t the first story in the Hebrew Bible where Jews were demonized, persecuted and murdered because we were Jews. That dark distinction is found first in the book of Exodus, where Pharaoh’s advisors convince him that the Jews should be enslaved because they could rise up and side with Egypt’s enemies.
Then emboldened Pharaoh takes the next step with the world’s first recorded genocide, having Jewish baby boys drowned and killed in the Nile. In the story of Purim, once again an eerily parallel plot begins to unfold with another kingly advisor – Haman (Boo!) spreading fear and prejudice to single out the Jewish people. Haman riles up King Ahashverus and the Persian people, claiming that the Jews were not only strangers in the land with foreign customs but, they refused to follow the king’s laws. In both stories – lies, mistrust and xenophobia are used to further denigrate the Jewish people in the eyes of the masses. The result is the systematic hatred of another people (the Jews) who had been living peacefully in their country. Frightfully, the troubles and ills facing the Egyptians and later Persians, coupled with the easy targeting of foreigners (Jews lived in Goshen, Jews dressed differently, etc.) turns what were once neighbors and countrymen into oppressors and accomplices to these evil plots. Furthermore, just as in the Exodus story, the service, leadership, and dedication of the Jews to the king, country and community, was forgotten and replaced instead by virulent anti-Semitism.
So, what can we learn from the similarities between Passover and Purim? – namely that as Jews, we must stand up against intolerance, prejudice and hatred wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Whether in the halls of our schools, the offices we work, the places we socialize, or the digital domains we frequent, we must strive to be vigilant against racism, sexism, religious hatred, and prejudice. Anti-Semitic incidents — from neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., chanting “Jews will not replace us” to physical assaults, vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions — are on the rise. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 audit recorded the largest single-year overall increase, 57%, since ADL began this annual audit in 1979. That doesn’t even include the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history with the Tree of Life synagogue massacre this past October. Whether from the right or the left, anti-Semitism has been emboldened here at home and certainly in Europe (74% rise in anti-Semitic incidents/attacks in France alone), the Middle East, and around the world.
Yet, despite this, all hope is not lost. Our ancestors and role models – Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Mordechai and Esther teach us that good can come when we stand up to face the hatred of our times. Through the powerful tools of education, community building, and political activism we can make a difference. Indeed, I believe we will realize that there are many good people waiting to stand together with us against anti-Semitism and hate of all types. We sadly know all too well what can happen when these are left unchecked. So, as we look forward to eating our hamantaschen and drowning out Haman’s name with our groggers, let each of us do our part to make sure that the lessons of Passover and Purim never fade from our collective memories and from the memory of the world.
Chag Purim Sameach! – A Happy and Joyous Purim!
The Jewish Life-cycle: A Tapestry of the Past, Present, and Future
As a first year rabbinical school student 21 years ago, I remember learning the mechanics of how to halachically officiate, conduct, and sanctify the different types of Jewish life-cycle events. But only after being in the pulpit for a number of years did I fully realize the brilliant beauty of how our tradition weaves the past, present, and future together on both a cosmic and deeply personal level.The rituals of the Jewish life-cycle are a blessing that helps us mark these moments as individuals but also as a sacred community.
When a baby is born we welcome them into the covenant with a brit milah for a boy or a simchat bat for a girl. We connect our newborns with our spiritual ancestors Abraham and Sarah, as they become the next link in the line of the Jewish people. In the case of the brit milah, which may be the oldest of our ancient traditions dating back over 4,000 years, it has historically defined membership in the Jewish people and a requirement for entering upon male conversion as well. Yet, the present family, sometimes great grandparents, grandparents, and parents surround the baby, take part in the ceremony, and watch as their family grows. The baby is brought to sit on the chair of Elijah, not only to hopefully look towards the Messianic era but also to represent the immense potential of good this new life can bring into a broken world. Finally, a Hebrew name is bestowed on the baby. In the Ashkenazic tradition, the name is usually linked to a loved one who has passed on. While in the Sephardic tradition, the baby is named for a living family member. In both cases, tying together the past, present and future.
Skipping to Bar/Bat Mitzvah we see a coming of age ritual that marks the delicate dance between childhood and adulthood. Slowly, this often awkward teenage pubescent time is a push-pull between more freedom and responsibility and parental oversight and limits. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah marks the beginning of young adulthood and the taking on of communal responsibility which corresponds hopefully to the young adults look beyond themselves and towards the larger world. This life-cycle ritual was traditionally about accepting the responsibility of the Commandments in a public way by being called to the Torah for men. Today even in many Orthodox communities the Bar and Bat Mitzvah demonstrate a young adults commitment to a level of Jewish learning as well as leading a service or sharing a d’var Torah with family, friends and the community. In the misheberach blessing given to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah the same refrain: May the parents be privileged see them lead a life filled with the blessings of Torah, chuppah, and ma’asim tovim – connects the past, present, and potentiality of the future.
Today there are many new and creative modern life-cycle ceremonies that have entered the tradition such as: First day of school, getting their 1st siddur, heading to college, confirmation, and even going to away to camp ceremonies to name just a few. Each of these celebrates a new milestone and marks a transition in the lives of families and Jewish community. New Jewish ceremonies are not only for children but are also being created for adults with: special birthday celebrations, anniversary and marriage renewal ceremonies, retirement ceremonies, menopause rituals, and even heart attack/cancer/stroke survival rituals featuring the traditional addition of a new Hebrew name to the person’s original name. The best of these new life-cycle rituals have creatively connected pieces of the ancient tradition, the TaNaKh, rabbinic and kabbalistic writings, as well as more contemporary Jewish ideas.
These new Jewish life-cycle rituals have also added opportunities not only for individuals but also their families, and the community to connect spiritually to our tradition and to God in new ways.
We can’t however forget about one of the most joyous and sometimes most stressful life-cycle events: weddings! Your baby is marrying. Two families coming together. The hatan and kallah. The past, the present, and the future are in the minds of everyone involved. The ritual itself makes reference to this in the blessings which are recited under the chuppah. Adam and Chava (Eve) are invoked. Jerusalem remembered. The giant I.O.U. of the ketubah is witnessed and signed. Rings that are completely round (circle of life) placed on fingers. If it is a younger couple, often the parents will bless them with the hope of fertility (it’s all about the grandchildren!) It is as if God created all of Creation just for these two loving humans to find each other and become united as one (it was b’shert).
And yet finally, “like flowers of the field…”(Kohelet) we are limited in our lifespan. Here too, the Jewish tradition understands that the past, present, and future are woven together even in our passing. Our body washed and lovingly prepared by the chevra kaddisha for our final journey. Our life recalled in the hesped (eulogy), our family cuts kriah (rending their clothes), covers mirrors, and fulfills the Jewish rituals of mourning – shiva, sheloshim, and kaddish. Yet, as we are laid to rest, the liturgy captures the eternal nature of our souls, our transition to Olam HaBah (the World to Come), Eden, or another state of being. Our love, deeds, and memories become blessings for the those that remain. Maybe even our name will be passed on to a new generation to come (see brit milah/simchat bat). We have navigated the journey of this life and now are joined together with those who have journeyed before us. We are bound up in the bond of God’s eternal embrace.
From birth to death and life in between, the wisdom of each and every Jewish life-cycle tradition and ritual is that it weaves the past, present, and future together in deeply meaningful and personal ways while also connecting us to the larger story of our people and to the vastness of the Divine. For me personally, I could never have imagined how privileged I would be to be part of, share together, and witness so many of these life-cycle events with so many wonderful and incredible people – souls that touch my soul. To lead a deeply caring community that stands with each other and echoes the commitment and dedication of those of our past, working hard to sanctify life in the present, and planting the seeds for those yet to be in the future. These are some of the blessings of our Jewish tradition, may we always carry them L’dor vaDor.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — January 2019
New Year’s Resolutions with a Jewish Twist
I find it interesting that every year there inevitably comes the question on Jewish blogs about whether Jews should celebrate the secular new year? In my mind, I see no problem with celebrating the secular new year since around the world it has been adopted predominantly as a non-religious holiday and a standard measurement of time.As Jews, our tradition already has four new years of our own1 so adding another secular one doesn’t seem so crazy to me. Maybe what the real question should be from the Jewish perspective is the halachic validity of making new year resolutions? For our tradition takes making vows very seriously and many pages of Talmud (Nedarim) and Rabbinic law codes worry about the effect of making/keeping/breaking vows. So much so that, one of the most memory filled and meaningful moments of the High Holiday season is the service of Kol Nidre which literally means “All vows” and whose purpose is to proactively annul vows we will make and not fulfill. To our Sages, vow making was a terrible idea. For one, we could believe that by making a vow, we can somehow force God to do our bidding, as in some type of magic or mystical negotiation. For example, “If God, you do x for me then I swear I will do y for You.” or “If you do not clean your room, you will be punished forever, so help me God!” This presumes that God will agree to act or that the vow somehow forces God’s will, neither of which can be known. On top of this what about if a person forgets to fulfill his/her end of the vow? Then not only have they broken a vow made to God but also taken God’s name in vain by swearing on God’s name to fulfill it. What then would the repercussions be?
The Rabbis are not only concerned with vows made between people and God but also vows people make to each other. For example, “Don’t worry Sally, I promise to be at your concert.” or “Thank you, Rabbi for letting me borrow this book. I promise Rabbi to return it!” Both vows or promises are made with the best of intentions and sincerity and yet the one who vows cannot in the end be sure of fulfilling their promise. In the first vow, the person promising to be at Sally’s concert might have something come up that is unforeseen, preventing them from being there. In the second vow, both the person (and the rabbi) might forget or the person might even misplace or lose the book. The idea of making promises or vows so troubled the Rabbis that Jewish popular language included such phrases as, “b’li neder – without vowing” and “baruch haShem – praise God/please God” used after expressing everyday promises, hopes, or vows. For example, “I will see you at the baseball game tomorrow, b’li neder.” or “ Baruch haShem, Jimmy will get his acceptance to Rutgers today.” While sometimes I find these sayings silly, they do at least acknowledge the unknown and temporal fragility of our vows/promises. They remind us that we are not always the master of our fate, as in “there before the grace of God go I.”
So, this brings me back full circle to new year’s resolutions. Statisticians smirk at the percentages of new year’s resolutions that fail after the first month (or week?). Of course, people want to improve their lives, maybe lose a few pounds, and give up some of our vices! Yet, often making a new year’s resolution is not well thought out and often without an effective mechanism to keep people on track after the initial promise/vow. Jewish tradition understands changing our well-worn habits is not an easy task. Teshuvah or return takes great effort and perseverance. It also encompasses how we cope with the obstacles to change both external and internal, the times when we fail, or our disappointment at the pace of our progress. While admitting that we want to change is indeed the first step, this would ring empty without daily accountability, reminders, and reinforced collective2 and personal will. Changing ourselves is a continual process, that it is not limited to only New Year’s day. It is possible any time we are ready to earnestly devote the energy and time to the change process.
So, can Jews participate in making new year’s resolutions? I would say… no and yes. No, to making flippant vows or promises without a real plan or mechanism to hold ourselves accountable. Also, a definite No!, to swearing on God’s name. Yes however, to the idea that we can and should work to change ourselves for the better. Yes, to the idea that we can do this at any time. Yes, to the notion that we can seek help from family, friends, our community, and our religious tradition to support us. And finally Yes!, to recognizing that we are all strivers, sometimes delayed, sometimes failing but created out of love and worthy to be loved. For this and so much more, Baruch HaShem.
1 Rosh HaShanah (new year of years), Tu B’Shevat (new year of trees) are still widely observed, while the 1st of Nisan (new year of months/kings) and 1st of Elul (new year of tithes/taxes) are not.
2 The weekday Amidah prayer which is said 3x a day contains several reminders and opportunities for teshuvah and our individual and collective responsibilities.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — December 2018
Hanukkah, Adam Sandler, and Jewish Identity
“Put on your yarmulke, here comes Hannukah. So much funukkah, to celebrate Hanukkah…When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree here’s a list of people who are Jewish just like you and me.” (Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song)
I remember the joy of hearing Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” on Saturday Night Live. It was both funny (“O.J. Simpson – not a Jew!”) but also made me feel proud about being Jewish with a long list of cultural icons, musicians, and celebrities who were also Jewish too. It cannot be overstated that at no other time of the year do most Jews feel apart from the majority of our neighbors that at Christmas time. That is not to say we do not appreciate the secular/commercial aspects of American Christmas from candy canes to Frosty the Snowman but at the end of the day we still are not part of Christianity and the holiday of Christmas. Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song, resonates because for almost the whole year we can blend into American society without even identifying as Jews but from Thanksgiving to December 26th we feel different and often outside of the dominant American religious/cultural story. This is not a new phenomena especially around the holiday of Hanukkah but rather a continuation from the original holiday story. Furthermore, the questions of sustaining Jewish identity are as relevant today as back then.
In 169 BCE the Jewish community in Israel was living in a time when Hellenism was not only ascendant but dominant. Many Jews adopted Greek names, Greek culture, Greek language, and yes, Greek beliefs. Generally, there were three reactions to this trend. One group of Jews fully wanted to assimilate into Hellenism and wanted to be seen not as Jews but as loyal Greeks. They wanted the “archaic” Jewish religious practices and traditions to either be Hellenized or abandoned. They in fact encouraged Antiochus Epiphanes IV to aid them in their quest of which he was all too happy to do. The second group wanted to take some of the best ideas from Hellenism but preserve or conserve Jewish religious life and tradition. They sought a middle ground believing that Jews could live in both the world of Jewish religious practice and the Hellenistic world. Finally, there were those who rejected everything Hellenistic as evil and corrupting. They wished to wall themselves off from or fight against any of Hellenism’s influences and ideas. This of course set in motion a collision course between the Hellenizing Jews and the religiously zealous Jews. A twenty-year civil war ensued. When all was said and done, neither extreme won. Yes, the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated (Hanukkah means rededicate) and we achieved semi-political independence but cultural accommodation and assimilation also continued. Sectarianism would divide us between Sadducees (Assimilationist), Pharisees (Accommodationist), and Essenes (Zealots) contributing to the future calamitous war with Rome.
In a recent New York Times Review of Books entitled “American Jews Face A Choice: Create Meaning or Fade Away” by Gal Beckerman, the author looked at five books written about the current state of Jewish assimilation and identity in America. In essence, the age old question – “Will Judaism Survive?” Jewish identity can be understood as a complex combination of ethnic, cultural, and religious elements. But, in America which will be sustainable and provide for a continuing vibrant Jewish community?
The first theory is that Jewish ethnic identity keeps us engaged and yet separate enough from other Americans as to provide Jewish continuity for generations to come. Often this is most apparent when the Jewish community feels attacked by anti-Semitism or even when blending in as “white” we are made to feel somehow separate from this racial category. Often the questions of, “Are Jews white?”, “Can we fully blend in?,”etc. come into play especially in racially charged or xenophobic times. Overall however, since most American Jews today do not feel separated from the mainstream of American society and culture but in fact are blessedly able to move up and down the social, economic, cultural ladder with ease, ethnic identity has become irrelevant. So much so that in many cases we are being absorbed and assimilated into society with a loss of Jewish connection, attachment, and a feeling that Jewish ethnic identity is really not important at all. The effects of anti-Semitism or feeling apart are only temporary bolsters for Jewish ethnic identity and therefore not a panacea to ensuring Jewish continuity in the next generation.
A second theory is that Jewish cultural values and ethics will sustain Jewish identity in America. Here connection to the value of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) and often the social justice issues of our time such as civil rights, poverty, access to education, etc. will be the way American Jews identify themselves as Jewish. Jewish identity becomes wrapped in the social and often political causes Jews support. In essence, I can be Jewish by my participation or identification with the larger social and political groups which reflect my values. The problem often pointed out is that many national groups both on the left and right take positions on Israel which make it hard for many American Jews to feel comfortable or force them to choose between belonging to these groups and supporting/not-supporting Israel. Increasingly, younger Jews are pulling away from Israel as they feel Israel does not represent their Judaism or their values. Add to this the reality that a singular Jewish cultural identity association, with ethical or moral generalities, does little to hold specific group identity together when other groups share these values in common. After all Jews are not the only ones who believe in repairing the world and fighting for social justice. Therefore, since these values are really human values or universal values, what is the importance or necessity of the Jewish label?
Finally, there is the theory that the Jewish religion is what will sustain us. It is Jewish religious practice both personal and communal that holds the key to Jewish identity and continuity. What is important to note is not the type of observance (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.) but the consistent practice of Jewish living. Joining together with fellow Jews to pray, celebrate, socialize, and share traditions together creates a powerful impact on identity. Yet, this type of belonging is declining especially among Millennials. Here, people disagree whether the solution for the Jewish religion is to open itself up to more change and adaptation in order to create the largest tent possible for those interested in entering Judaism at any level? Or, whether Judaism needs to foster both personal and communal commitment with boundaries which reinforce Jewish obligation and practice as well as shared group identity, values, and cohesion. Every major American Jewish movement is grappling with these two paths to one degree or another.
Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” reassures us that Jews have made it in America, and that we can be both proud Americans and proud Jews. While this might make us feel good in the moment, it contributes nothing to what makes Judaism and Jewish identity in America meaningful, spiritual, and sustainable. Jewish identity in America is complex but I believe for it to survive we must have at its core a Judaism rooted in both our Jewish and American traditions. A religious tradition that has compelling rituals, a community minded focus, robust educational and spiritual disciplines, as well as a lot to say about how we live in our free and modern society. I believe rededicating ourselves to our religious tradition is the best way to keep American Judaism strong and sustainable for future generations. This of course will not be easy, but as our history has shown it never was.
Chag Orim Sameach! – May you and your family have a joyous Festival of Lights!
Abraham, God, and the Test of Justice
In one of the most iconic Abraham stories in Genesis, God decides to inform Abraham about his decision to destroy the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Now the Lord had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…””(Genesis 18:17-19) Almost immediately a plethora of questions arise. For example, why does God even need to seek Abraham’s opinion at all? After all, God is God! Could it be God is worried about God’s reputation, and in particular how Her actions will look to Abraham? What is meant by “doing what is just and right…”? Yet, the question that intrigues me most is for whom is this encounter a fundamental moral test? Is it a test of Abraham by God, to determine his worthiness and righteous character? Or the inverse – of God by Abraham, to determine if God is worthy of devotion?
In order to analyze this we need to define two Hebrew terms that are used in the text. The first word is mishpat – which in our text is most often defined as judgement or more specifically strict adherence to justice. In legal case theory, if a person or group commits a crime then according to the concept of mishpat they should be punished in accordance to their crime. This type of justice is both retributive and automatic meaning there is a negative reaction to the crimes/violations/misdeeds and that “if you do the crime, you do the time!” – period, no questions. (Think mandatory sentence requirements)
The second Hebrew term is tzedakah which I know most people think is about giving charity. But, it really is not. Tzedakah means compassionate justice which often is translated as righteousness. When there is an injustice in the world we act out of compassionate justice (tzedakah) to try to correct it. However, here our text is not referring to giving money, clothes, housing, etc. but instead to judging the crimes/violations/misdeeds of others from a position of compassion. For example, if someone stole a loaf of bread( Jean Valjean?) instead of automatically incarcerating them or even fining them, a judge might determine that hunger/poverty/mental illness, etc. played a role and seek instead to order that help/training/treatment or rehabilitation be required instead of retributive punishment. Yes, it was still wrong to steal the bread. But, under the concept of tzedakah, justice is weighed with compassion and not automatically doled out (mishpat).
Indeed the encounter between God and Abraham is precisely which of these two ideas should in this case hold sway. It is a test of what kind of God, God is.
If you take the position that the societies of Sodom and Gomorrah are so wicked that if God does not seek mishpat then it is God who willfully permits evil to exist and go unpunished. The world therefore would be bereft of justice and the wicked would act with impunity and even with God’s tacit permission or uncaring apathy. On the other hand, if God collectively punishes and judges Sodom and Gomorrah without tzedakah then God’s justice would be cold, immovable, and unbearably harsh. There would be no room for teshuvah (repentance), mercy, and forgiveness. We can see that wrestling between mishpat and tzedakah is not easy, even for God!
God also is testing Abraham to see how he would weigh these two types of justice. Will Abraham argue at all for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, people he frankly doesn’t even know? Will Abraham seek God’s strict justice (mishpat) or will Abraham be informed by tzedakah – compassion/righteousness? Will Abraham be willing to tolerate evil in the world, to believe in God even when God’s justice is imperfect? After all, if God acquiesces to Abraham’s request and 10 righteous people are found, then the majority evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be spared without punishment. Is that fair? Is that justice? God’s test of Abraham ultimately might not be whether Sodom and Gomorrah are punished, but rather testing the kind of person She wants to spread and carry Her name in the world. Is Abraham a person who instead of seeking punishment looks to find a way to bring tzedakah into the world?
I would of course like to tell you that at the end of Abraham and God’s encounter, the questions about God’s justice and human justice were resolved. But, as you might realize today we are still wrestling between mishpat and tzedakah in our justice system and with the knowledge that sometimes there is no perfection when it comes to justice.
From the Rabbi’s Desk –October 2018
Why Does the Torah Start with Creation?
It seems obvious to us that the Torah begins with the story of God creating the world. So obvious, that it is almost comically insane to suggest that maybe the Torah could have begun a different way. But as Jews, no question is too far-fetched or beyond the pale. In fact, it is the question not asked that would seem ridiculous to our tradition. So, why does the Torah begin with Creation and what are the lessons learned from such a beginning?
The rabbis of the Mishnah (Tannaim), Talmud (Amoraim) and a number of medieval rabbinic commentators, including one of the greatest, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak), asked these very questions. After all, the story of the Jewish people really begins in Exodus, and even if you consider a family pre-history, the Torah should have begun with Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews.
And so, the quest to try to answer these questions began to fill pages and pages of Talmud and entire mystical books each trying to explain and give meaning to why the Torah starts with Creation and the ramifications of such a Creation. The commentators found mystical hints of the reason in the very first word in the Torah. B’reishit which is a modified temporal word – “…When in the beginning…” The inclusion of the prefix B’ (When in) in front of the word reishit (Beginning) comes to back up the second sentence of the story which already has water and darkness in existence. They therefore understood that God had made and remade the world a number of times before, and that this story was in fact one specific story of Creation, namely the creation of the world as we know it today. Maybe the Torah we have is only part of a larger primordial Torah that we are lacking.
This then led to the question about what was actually created on the First Day? If the sun, moon, and stars were fashioned on Day 4, then what kind of light did God separate from the darkness? This led to the idea that the light that God created on the First Day was not physical light but really the light of ultimate awareness and knowledge. A light so powerful that in order for Creation to exist, God needed to hide the light in the substance of matter itself or store it away only for the righteous people worthy of glimpsing it in the World-to-Come. Darkness then became a state of unconsciousness and ignorance and the light awareness, thought, and enlightenment. That is why the metaphoric symbol for an idea or knowledge is a lamp, torch, or lightbulb (the Aha! moment).
To complicate the picture even more, some rabbis wondered if on the other days of Creation, the trees, plants, and animals were created fully formed or in sapling/egg form? This is of course the ancient version of which came first the chicken or the egg? Something I believe we are still pondering.
Yet, for all the creative ideas and learning produced to answer these questions and more, the only unifying principle they could all agree upon was that (drum roll please): Human beings did not create the universe!
Now, this answer might appear anti-climactic or utterly obvious but this idea if we stop to think about it, is central to Jewish tradition and our religious practice. In fact, not only is it scientifically sound but also theologically, spiritually, and ethically profound. If human beings did not create the universe then everything we encounter in it from trees, insects, fish, animals, to the very Earth itself is not owned by us (or Google, Apple, etc.). Even our own physical body was not created by us!(Thank you mom and dad!) Therefore, we are temporary users, renters if you wish, to the ultimate Landlord or Creator. Under our User-Agreement, we must care for and protect it, we must not wantonly destroy it or harm it. This includes our body and those of others. Everything we think we have, including all of the technology and items we fashion is made of material (atoms) that we in fact did not create. This, our rabbis teach us is why we recite blessings before eating, wearing new clothes, etc. so that credit can be given to the One who made it all. To consume it, use it, or behold it without acknowledging the Creator/Author/Inventor of it, is not merely being ungrateful but akin to plagiarism and property theft.
The other benefit to this profound idea is that it should inspire within us awe. We are not the greatest thing in the universe or its true master but, instead small, very, very, very small. A blip in the vastness of the universe in both time and space. (See Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar) Sometimes as human beings we need a reminder that collectively we all exist on a teensy-weensy blue water planet that sustains an amazing breath of life in many forms. We stand in awe at the heights of beauty that are the Rocky Mountains and at the healing waters of the Dead Sea. Our lives are very short compared to the Giant Sequoias or the layered rocks of the Grand Canyon. Humbling and awe-inspiring, Creation is a reminder of our place in the universe and our responsibility to it as well. As Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa instructed, “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one is written, ‘I am a speck of dust, and on the other The world was created for me’.” If we become too proud, too full of our illusion of mastery, or our destructive power – we read, “I am a speck of dust”, and when we forget our self-worth, our responsibility, and our power to care for each other and our world – we read, “The world was created for me.”
We live in a very complex and interesting time. Confronted with many questions, paths, and choices in our personal lives, our country’s, and our world’s, I find it reassuring that every year we start the Torah anew with the story of Creation. For me it is a glimpse of the splendor of the Creator, of the universe’s most basic truths, and an inspiring yet humbling reminder of humanity’s deepest purpose and obligations. And yes, I have fun pondering humanity’s eternal questions of what it all means?
From the Rabbi’s Desk
Of Love, Loss, Kafka & Sukkot
I recently came across an article by May Benatar about the famed author Franz Kafka. She writes that:
The story goes, that he encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was desolate. Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.
‘Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures.’
This was the beginning of many letters. When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted. When the meetings came to an end Kafka presented her with a doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained ‘My travels have changed me.’
Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll.
In summary it said:
*Every thing that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.’* – (Kafka and the Doll, The Pervasiveness of Loss by May Benatar)
I found this story deeply touching especially the kindness and sensitivity Kafka showed the little girl. I also think that the final letter he left was both true and profound. Indeed, when we open ourselves up to people we truly love, we make ourselves vulnerable to loss. By caring and investing our souls in the relationship, by creating the deep bonds that draw us into love, when loss occurs it badly hurts us. Yet, love has an eternal way of showing up when we least expect it and our fragile hearts can often find the capacity to let new love in. Like in the way Kafka comforted the little girl with the imaginary letters he wrote and by his caring presence in her life. The love we share with others changes us, it makes us think differently, feel differently, and ultimately we can be surprised and continually blessed by it.
On Sukkot, we have the custom of opening our sukkah to family, friends, guests, and strangers. We invite both those who are living but also those who we have loved and whose loving spirit we remember and recall. We imagine these Ushpizin there with us, as we fill our sukkot with song, joy, good food, and yes, love. Dwelling in the fragile and temporary sukkah reminds us that the physical and immediate world we live in are not permanent and are subject to loss. And yet the sukkah at its best can also be a reflection of the eternal truths like love which can transcend our own human mortality and remind us of what is truly important and majestic about life. Yes, the sukkah, like love is fragile and susceptible to loss and yet both are remarkably enduring and stronger than we think.
May we remember those who have loved us and made us who we are, may we cherish the loved ones we have in this moment and hold them tight, and may we open our hearts to sharing our love with those we have yet to meet and are waiting for us.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — August 2018
A Blessing on Your Head, Mazel Tov!, Mazel Tov!
In one of the most well known quotes from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the community comes and asks the rabbi, “Is there a blessing for the Czar?!” The rabbi pauses in thought for a moment, strokes his beard and replies, “Why yes, may God keep the Czar – far away from us!” This is of course a true yet fun poke at the fact that as Jews we have a bracha (blessing) for everything. In our spiritual tradition, we stop to acknowledge each and every day the brachot (blessings) that surround us and mark the moments of our lives. We recite brachot not out of a rote religious obligation but because the words of blessing allow us to acknowledge the good (Hakarat haTov) that we might otherwise take for granted or just ignore. Brachot can be recited on the physical (food, ritual objects, etc.), sensory (smell, sight, etc.), or time experiences (holy days, life-cycle, etc.) we encounter on our life’s journey. No matter the subject of the bracha, all brachot must be done with intention or kavanah. Brachot allow us to stop, take a moment and elevate our hearts and minds to the miracles of life which are all around us. To give credit to God for the beauty, wonder, and love which sustain our world and our lives.
There is another benefit to acknowledging the good through brachot, namely it allows us to see all of the goodness which can often be drown out by the daily news cycle which focuses mostly on the discord, problems, negativity, and calamities of our world. While we have a moral obligation to confront evil and work to heal/repair our communities and world, we never the less also have a need and a responsibility to recharge, sanctify, and give thanks for the abundant blessings God has given to us. Brachot are the fuel for Jewish optimism that has allowed us historically and personally to weather life’s challenges and tragedies and continues to inspire us both with HaTikva (The Hope) and an imperative L’Chaim (to Life)!
In Robert Muller’s (no not that Robert Mueller) book Most of All They Taught Me Happiness, he writes:
The key to (a positive) outlook is love, affirmation of life, thankfulness for life.
Some have called it sanctity of life, reverence for life, celebration of life. I prefer
to call it passion for life, the key to all, the result of a personal, determined
decision…anyone who receives the gift of life ought to feel fathomlessly
indebted to it, for he has been given a unique treasure in the universe. He is a
true miracle on a planet that is itself a miracle. He should love life from deep
within, whatever others may think or proclaim, despite wars, the prisons, the
injustices, the struggles, the inequalities, the false values, the dogmas, the
noises, the ideologies, the jealousies, the fashions… Life is beautiful, divine,
miraculous, fathomless. Life is to love, to do, to learn, to think, to imagine, to
talk, to receive, to feel, to understand…and to embrace in one’s heart and brain
the entire creation…Not to revere, not to love, not to wonder, not to be
impassioned with the miraculous, brief droplet of life is a crime, a waste, an
outrage, and a stupidity.
Judaism concretizes this idea by making it a personal and spiritual habit to recognize the good through the recitation of brachot, the giving of tzedakah and through gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness). Through these intentional acts, we recharge ourselves with optimism, show gratitude and reverence to God for the daily miracles of life, and look forward to each day with renewed hope and zest for life. As we approach Rosh HaShanah 5779, may you and your family enjoy a year of continued blessing and be written and sealed in the Book of Life.
L’shana Tova Tikateivu v’Tikateimu!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — July 2018
Law vs. Morality: What Does Judaism Say?
One of the things I am most proud of being a Jew, is the moral compass our Torah and tradition have established as its core. Our faith has given the world monotheism, mitzvot (including the 10 Commandments), and strong ethical principles which make up the backbone of Judaism and many other religions moral codes. Our Torah, as a blessing and gift of God’s love, is here to guide our behavior both through its stories and laws. It represents an evolving, dynamic, and creative tradition that aspires to the highest moral values and ideals.
As Jews, we use the lens of Halacha (Jewish law – literally meaning to walk along the path) to help us make our daily choices and give us sacred opportunities and connect us to our rich past and to our future. For centuries, our Rabbis have been charged with interpreting the Halacha for their communities and often, case by case, ensured that God’s word was reflected with humility, compassion, and kindness.
In one of the most quoted stories, the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) recounts a potential convert who goes to the famous sage Hillel asking for him to teach him the entire Torah while he stands on one foot. Hillel instead of rejecting this brazen request outright, as did his colleague Shammai, agrees. Hillel inverts God’s command in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and says to the convert, “”What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!” This became known as Ikar Torah or as I like to think of it – God’s Prime Directive (or commonly known as the Golden Rule).
In essence, Halacha by its very nature cannot be immoral, unjust, and damaging to God’s name and holiness. As God’s guiding path of life, it must live up to the highest moral and ethical ideals, of which – loving our neighbor, caring for the stranger (36x in the Torah – more than any other commandment), orphan, poor, and widow is recounted over and over again in our sacred texts. When it fails to do so, our Rabbis recognized that the Halacha is either being misunderstood or needing to be limited, changed, or even occasionally uprooted. No commandment from God could be immoral or denigrating to God’s name or to human beings, who were created in God’s image. Law without ethics, is not merely corrupt and unjust but violates the Commandment of “taking God’s name in vain” as it denigrates God’s reputation in the world, let alone many times violating Ikar Torah – God’s Prime Directive. Immoral laws also have the detrimental effect of pushing people away, profaning the holiness of the Torah which God has entrusted to us, and damaging the moral authority at the core of our tradition.
Like all ancient religious traditions, Judaism has its share of problematic texts and moral dilemmas. As caretakers of the tradition, Rabbis have found overt and sometimes creative ways of addressing many of them. The Torah itself teaches that we are to, “do the right, and the good.”, meaning that it is not always possible to legislate every ethical situation or moral dilemma but instead relies upon the middot (moral character & measure of humanity- middah means literally to measure) of compassion, dignity, respect, and love to help guide us on the path. Throughout history there have been both Jewish and more often secular laws, enforced by governments, that have been (and are) immoral, unjust, and indeed evil. They sought to claim authority/authenticity from God’s word or revelation. To that assertion, Judaism answers with a resounding, NO!, reminding each of us that as we walk with God down the path of life, loving each other trumps any law
From the Rabbi’s Desk — June 2018
Some Journeys Have No Seatbelts: A Summer Poem and Thought
We put in from the launch right as the sun was peaking over the horizon. Mist still hovered over the river and the water was cold at our feet as we got into the boat. A grey heron stretched out its wings and ever so gracefully skimmed the water toward the opposite bank. The mountains still drenched in greenish gray bracketed us as the river cut through. We began to paddle quietly, too afraid to disrupt nature’s stillness and the gentle flow of water – of life – which embraced us. Suddenly, we were aware of how small we were, a playful speck, voyeurs of a secret Eden, witnesses of the Divine Creator, whose splendor and artistry were too vast for us to comprehend. We were entranced, dizzy as the sunlight slowly illuminated the valley, river, and mountains.
SMASH! From nowhere we hit a rock and I tumbled forward, surely I would be flung out of the boat, injured or worse… And in that split second, I remembered what my mother drilled into me, “never go anywhere without putting on your seatbelt!” But, there I was – in a canoe with no seatbelt!
And yet a hand reached out and grabbed me, pulling me back in.
“It would be bad to lose our new rabbi,” he said.
May we never be afraid to take the journey but be smart enough to keep close those who would pull us back. Especially when there are no seatbelts!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — May 2018
Al haDavash v’al haOketz – The Honey and The Sting: Deepening the love between American & Israeli Jews
There is an old adage that says, “Love is blind.” It is based on the common experience of when a couple first falls in love, and each sees their partner as perfect. Foibles and idiosyncrasies are often overlooked in order to move the relationship forward because it is so young, fresh, and romantic. However, as the relationship deepens and becomes more serious, it reaches the end of the honeymoon phase, and a more mature and honest love hopefully takes hold.Each partner in the relationship can be honest about who they and their partner truly are. They learn to acknowledge, cope with, and even embrace each other’s human imperfections. I believe this type of mature love is desperately needed in the relationship between American diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel.
For my grandparent’s generation, the State of Israel was an unquestionable miracle. They worked to build the State of Israel with unwavering support in both money and political capital after it sprang forth from the horrific tragedy of the Shoah (Holocaust), which saw the destruction of European Jewry. From the JNF to Hadassah and AIPAC, we as American Jews were active participants in the fate and destiny of our ancestral homeland. We could vicariously be Zionist pioneers, turning the desert into forests, and also be protectors of this safe haven for Jews seeking new lives who were gathering from around the world. Israel was the underdog, who, against the odds, turned back the Arab armies time after time.
This perspective on Israel’s founding miracle climaxed in the 1967 Six Day War, when not only did Israel win a war in six days, but also reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Even the Peace and Love generation couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the euphoria of Israel’s triumph. Israel became a badge of honor for American Jews who began to make the pilgrimage to see firsthand the dream of Israel become a reality. The heroism and derring-do of Israel’s defenders (including capturing Eichmann and the rescue at Entebbe) mingled with the sadness of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the entanglement of the civil war in Lebanon. Israel was an important source of Jewish pride and identity even as many American Jews began to pull away from observance and synagogue life. No longer would we be victims at the hands of others. Our history, identity, and future was now guaranteed in the strength of Israel.
But something fundamentally flawed was allowed to seep into the psyches of some in the American and Israeli communities. From the Diaspora side, love of Israel meant believing that Israel had to be perfect. Israel was routinely placed on the highest of pedestals in American Jewish thinking, either to counteract the deep vitriol and anti-Semitism of the world or as a panacea for the decline of American Jewish religious affiliation and identity. As a natural reaction to the “Zionism = Racism” scourge that permeated (and still permeates) much of the world’s opinion, American Jewry closed ranks around Israel. In Israel, there grew a sense that American Jews were good for money (checkbook Zionists), but were “too delicate” or uncommitted to move to Israel in large numbers and fulfill the true Zionist imperative, to literally serve and build the State of Israel. What right then should the Diaspora have in commenting about Israeli policy and life? Diaspora Jews were not there and therefore had no skin in the game.
Over time, both of these perspectives have damaged the love relationship between the State of Israel and American diaspora Jewry, serving to drive a wedge between them. I believe American Jews need to learn that Israel is not and does not have to be perfect for us to love her! Family is family — period! There are times when Israel fails to do what is right. When it fails to live up to the highest ideals of Jewish ethics and, just like every country on the face of the Earth, it has both good and not so good leaders and moments in its history. Life is complicated, and choices are often weighed between differing ethical values. Also, in the realpolitik of a nation state, compromise and imperfection are inherent. Mistakes are part of being human. In a mature, loving relationship, loving the other is not contingent on perfection or agreeing with each other all the time, but instead on the deep ties and connections of journeying through life together. However, when the myth of Israeli perfection burst, the American Jewish community and our educational system could not find the way to teach, let alone talk about, a more mature love of Israel. Instead, it developed a bunker mentality, pitting any critique of Israel as being a betrayal of Israel and our love for her. Silence was enforced for fear of hurting Israel, leading American Jews away from Israel, or giving succor to the anti-Semites hiding behind an anti-Israel/anti-Zionist facade.
Yet, the need for Israel to be perfect, and the fear of talking about the real problems in Israeli society and the hard choices it faces for security and survival have become a taboo that I believe has come back to hurt us. As in any relationship, communication and dialogue are critical aspects of a healthy relationship. Israel has become a third rail not to be touched. Insults, condemnations, and accusations of disloyalty have shut down important debate among those who love Israel and want Israel to thrive and succeed. The result is that far too many younger American Jews have a totally unrealistic view of Israel to both extremes. Either Israel has to be perfect, or Israel is always wrong. The narrative has become black or white. This lack of mature love of Israel has not only driven away nuance but has driven American Jews away from Israel. It has made us weaker in our defense against the truly heinous Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gripping college campuses and supported by Israel’s true enemies. American liberal values, which many Jews believe in (and are taught in religious school), are being used as a bludgeon to challenge young Jews to choose falsely between Israel and what they believe to be morally right.
Further, on the Israeli side, there are many Israelis who do not understand American Jews or American Judaism. They fight and die for Israel, joining the IDF before going to college. They grow up very fast, face real danger, and cannot relate to American students coming on a ten-day Birthright trip to sightsee, party, and sometimes dabble in an often superficial Jewish (religious?) experience. Even the most secular of Israelis too often have come to believe that the clock is ticking on American Jewry. They cannot understand how and why the Diaspora should matter and are often taught little about American Jewish life and its pluralistic approach to our Jewish faith. Most of their textbooks and education leave this out completely. They do not understand why the vast majority of American Jews get bent out of shape about issues of religious pluralism and are hurt when their deep Jewish beliefs are not recognized by the only Jewish state in the world.
I believe that for the love of Israel and the Diaspora, we must begin to heal this rift and devote ourselves to a more mature, robust, and honest love. Again, Israel does not need to be perfect to warrant our love and highest support. We should celebrate the miracle of Israel and her remarkable achievements. In just 70 years, Israel’s art, poetry, music, technology, culture, science, medicine, and democracy are the envy of the world — a light unto the nations! Yet, income inequality, racial tension, religious intolerance, the African refugee crisis, and especially the Palestinian dilemma (which has created an internal threat to Israel’s survival as a Jewish democratic state) cannot be whitewashed or ignored. Israel’s enemies like Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and others are a real and immediate danger, but in the long run, so too is losing a future generation of American Jewish support of Israel.
Likewise, there are real problems in American Jewish life (assimilation, the cost of Jewish life/education, shrinking demographics, etc.), but the solution is neither to write us off as lost or deny our stake in the fate of the Jewish state. American Jewish life is dynamic, creative, and vibrant with much to teach and share. Here, a Jew, in a free society, can choose to express his or her Judaism in many different ways and among many different streams and still work together with others to build a strong Jewish community.
Both Israel and America are worthy of our deepest love, blood, sweat, and tears, not because they are perfect, but because despite the ups and downs, we are family. We both are striving to make ourselves and the dreams we were founded on become reality. This type of love requires a new mature, reality-based understanding and education about our two Jewish communities. Relational bridges must be built, strengthened, and renewed in order to keep our Jewish American/Israeli family strong. Not only are our fates intertwined and dependent upon one another, but the very wholeness of our hearts as Am Yisrael is as well. As the Naomi Shemer song Al Kol Eyleh reminds us, Jewish life is about acknowledging both the “honey and the thorns,” and in doing so love is not diminished but instead becomes more appreciated and deeper. It is time for American/Israeli love to grow up. After all, our tradition teaches that the number 70 is a special number representing the diverse facets and interpretations (shevim panim) of God’s Torah, which serves to grow and enrich our people and tradition. Love, too, has many facets and dimensions worthy of our best efforts and devotion. May God bless the State of Israel on her 70th birthday! Together we raise our voices to toast — Am Yisrael Chai!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — April 2018
Elevating the Conversation: Words Matter!
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gevas to Antiparas (Judea); and they all died during one period because they did not treat each other with respect and the world was left desolate:- until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua; and it was they who founded the Torah at that time.
A Tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.
Rabbi Hama bar Abba or, it might be said, Rabbi Chiyyah bar Avin said: All of them died a cruel death.
As I have written and spoken about numerous times (and will continue to do so – with God’s help), Judaism places a very high value on the power of words. Words in Jewish thought hold God’s creative power within them. As the story of Creation itself utilizes words to create the universe. From the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai to the words of theProphets calling us to justice, our most sacred Scriptures are a treasure trove of timeless words that continue to inspire, command, and challenge us to strive for the highest ideals of moral and ethical behavior. Yet, our sacred texts also show us how words can demean, hurt, and destroy one another, our world, and God’s very name. From the unknown words that Cain speaks to his brother Abel before killing him, to the hurtful words of Aaron and Miriam against Moses; words have the power to destroy relationships, divide a people (ie Korach), and even exile God’s presence from among us (the Rabbis attribute the destruction of the 2nd Temple to evil speech). Words are never taken lightly in the Jewish tradition.
Enter the period of the Jewish calendar called the Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) which had its origins in the agricultural tradition of the wheat harvest. Each year as Passover approached the old grain was used up, while the new grain awaited harvesting in the fields. Jews would then offer a “sheaf(omer) of elevation(t’nufah)” of the new crop of grain as an sacrifice to God for a prosperous harvest and as a thanksgiving offering to God. It was by all accounts a time of great happiness and celebration.
This all changed during the time of Rabbi Akiva (some date this particularly to the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome in 166 C.E.) where the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) in a tragic yet strange reference remarks that 12,000 pairs of his disciples died because “they did not treat each other with respect…” Further, “the world was left desolate”… and “All of them died a cruel death.” Whether it was a disease/plague (as some suggest) or the Romans (during the Bar Kochba war) but the texts attributes their deaths to the rampant immorality of disrespect they showed each other – and alludes that their deaths were a punishment from God. What is crystal clear is that disagreements and hurtful words lead to demeaning each other, disrespecting each other, and in the end destroying each other. A pattern that history has shown time and time again to be true. (From blood libels to the Shoah)
The change in the nature of the Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) from joy to sadness is often attributed to this story. It is traditional not to perform weddings or shave until Lag B’Omer (when the “plague” against the students subsided). While these traditions might seem a little bit drastic, I believe our times once again demonstrate that we should not, cannot, must not forget this lesson. How we talk, tweet, and treat each other is extremely important. We can argue and disagree but we must not lose sight of the respect we need to have for one another and the impact of our words to hurt or destroy. We need to fight the current rise in hateful speech, in all of its forms whether it is cyber-bullying, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, etc. while also watching how we debate and talk about the topics the divide us. As we count the Omer, let us resolve to elevate the level of our discourse and in so doing creating more Torah and more life.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — March 2018
Together for Pesach
Have you ever had a nightmare where you found yourself left behind and alone? It is quite a frightening and awful feeling. Even in the comic movie Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin’s character at first struggles to adjust to this new reality. Now imagine that it is the night of the Exodus from Egypt, the 10th plague is over and everyone is hurriedly gathering their belongings ready to set out to who knows where.You’ve packed your sack and are ready to go but when you step outside, there is nobody around. Absolutely nobody! I imagine at first, shouting out, as the feeling of panic sets in. Eventually, however fear may be replaced with a feeling of hopeless loneliness and abandonment. They have forgotten me! They have left me!
Interestingly in the account of the Exodus, the Torah takes a moment to remind us that we cannot leave anyone behind. Our ancestor Joseph’s bones, who generations earlier we had sworn to bury, must come with us out of Egypt. Indeed, it is precisely when we might be so harried and uncertain about our own journey that we are told that Moses stopped to retrieve Joseph’s bones. The text of the Torah also states, that a “mixed multitude” left Egypt. The Sages interpreted this to mean, that the young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, Jew and non-Jew seeking to be free of the shackles of Egyptian slavery went forth. No one who wished to be a part of the exodus to freedom was left behind. In fact, when the Egyptians realize just how many people had left, they complain to Pharaoh about it. They persuaded him to change his mind yet again and pursue us with his army and chariots towards the sea.
This lesson is not merely one from the past but one that we need to remember today. It is all too easy for people to be left behind and to feel they are alone. The Haggadah reminds us from the beginning saying, “Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesach feast.” When the Rabbis ask why do we need both parts of this statement since the first part already deals with the hungry? They answer that those “in need” means those who have food and wealth but no one to share the Pesach feast with. In essence, no one should be alone and abandoned.
This is one of the main reasons we have a Brith Sholom community seder. It allows people to come together and celebrate the Passover holiday without anyone feeling they need to ask or be asked to attend a seder. For some, they would have no other seder experience without it. But it is much more than that. The community seder is open to everyone, member and non-member, Jew and non-Jew, rich, poor and everyone in between. We never turn anyone away. It is a joyous celebration of freedom with the story of the Haggadah coming to life in both its traditional as well as new and innovative ways (this year to the tunes of Rogers and Hammerstein). It is a feast to nourish the body, the soul, and our bonds of connection. We left Egypt not merely as a singular family but as a “mixed multitude” carrying both the most vulnerable among us, as well as those who too often would have been forgotten. How fitting therefore that we continue this tradition today, by ensuring that everyone has a seat at the seder table. As our member Joan Parker captured in her new children’s book entitled No Seder Without You, indeed it would be, “no seder without you!”
Chag Kasher v’ Sameach! A Zissen and Joyous Pesach to all!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — February 2018
Hide and Seek: Purim and Revealing Ourselves
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on
(from Billy Joel – The Stranger)
Ever since I was a child, one of the most enjoyable parts of the Purim holiday for me has always been dressing up. For just a few hours, I could pretend to be someone that I was not. The scoundrel Haman with his pointy hat and pirate like beard or a doctor borrowing my mom’s nursing scrubs and stethoscope. It was always a fun challenge to come up with an exotic and unique costume and imagine winning the costume contest at my synagogue. Granted there was no “trick or treat”, but there were plenty of hamentaschen to eat and bets on what crazy and wild costume the Rabbi would come as. The joy of Purim was just contagious. But, why do we dress up with masks (maseichot) and costumes? In the story of Esther we find a lot of intrigue and misdirection. From the beginning with King Ahashverus’s demand that Vashti reveal everything (ancient #MeToo) we can see a theme throughout the megillah of reveal vs. hide. Central to the story is that Mordechai asks Hadassah to hide her identity in Esther and not reveal that she is indeed Jewish. In fact the name Esther is a double entendre. Esther is based on the Persian goddess, Ishtar (star) but in Hebrew the word also comes from the root hester which means to hide or be hidden. We read about how the harem of women competing for the love of Ahashverus were anointed with fragrance and slathered with makeup. Esther we learn, doesn’t need to hide her beauty, it is radiant without any embellishment. Another thing scholars recognize is the detailed descriptions of clothing throughout the story. From the king’s finery, the reward parade clothes of Mordechai, to the sack and ash clothe worn in fear of destruction. – clothes and their descriptions and use play an important role in setting the mood and drama of what is to come.
Yet, as with all things Jewish, there is a deeper meaning that is waiting to be revealed. The interplay of identity and self is an important theme of Purim. Mordechai reminds Esther that even though she is the queen, the fate of her people will also impact her. She is at the end of the day – a member of the Jewish people even when she hides that aspect of herself. Many of us can relate to this idea of figuratively wearing masks and concealing pieces of ourselves from others. This hiding or concealment of who we are sometimes comes about because we are frightened to show ourselves to others. We do not want to feel rejected, subject ourselves to ridicule, or have the other person/people not understand who we truly are. We therefore often use psychological energy to formulate a “mask” which defends us against these feelings. From smiling even though we are sad to even suppressing deep depression/anxieties, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation to name a few. Many people spend their lives living behind the masks they create in order to cope with friends, family, co-workers and others. This often makes people feel that they are not understood, that they are strangers unable to find someone to truly connect with who will love them for who they are and not for who they picture others want them to be.
Discovering who we are is a hard process of being honest with ourselves. Having to wear masks that hide these hard-fought insights from those around us is many times even more painful and difficult. Esther’s bravery was her ability to not only come to grips with who she really was but also that she could stop hiding her true self and reveal it to the king and the kingdom. It not only saved and transformed her life but the lives of our people. At Congregation Brith Sholom, I hope each one of you can be who you are without the need of a mask. You should know that the love and community we share welcomes everyone. We do not need to pretend before God, but rather be true to ourselves and each other. So yes, on Purim we wear masks and costumes but on all other days please come as you are! Our doors and hearts are open.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – January 2018
The Exodus, Civil Rights, and our New/Old Marching Orders
Often when I mention the Civil Rights Movement, people (particularly Baby Boomers) begin to wax nostalgically for the heady days of the 1960’s. Ah, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Dr. King. They will proudly recall the myriads of Jews who organized, protested, and even gave their lives to bring America’s promise to all people. They will point to iconic photographs of Rabbi Prinz at the 1963 March on Washington and Rabbi Heschel arm in arm with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. But, then it seems the Civil Rights Movement ended, period! Love had vanquished hate, peace triumphed over war, racial and gender inequality was outlawed, and all around the “better angels of our nature” defeated our sectarian segregated prejudices, politics, and divisions. Game Over! … But, complacency, indifference, apathy, and cynicism have slowly chipped away at our “better angels.” Today we are gripped by polarities – “Us vs. Them”, the “true” America vs. those who are trying to steal or undermine it. In this tempest of absolutism, compassion for the “other” has been replaced by demonization and contempt. Hate has once again become fashionable, scapegoating and blame acceptable, and close-mindedness and willful ignorance a banner to be lofted.
Which brings me to some lessons we can glean from Shemot (Exodus) which we will begin to read this month. Beginning with a quick review of how the Jewish people ended up in Egypt, we learn quickly that things have gone terribly wrong. Somehow, a new Pharaoh arose who did not remember (or care to remember) Joseph and all he did to save Egypt from famine and death. Instead in a moment of revisionist history, poof! Joseph and rights of the Jewish people were gone. To be fair, the degradation, demonization, and eventual slavery was done in a methodical process, which took time. First, Pharaoh and his advisors demonized the Jews as being disloyal to Egypt, a 5th column if you will, that would side with Egypt’s enemies. The oppression built, slavery the new norm. Then laws were passed to try to restrict the number of Jews. When dissenters among the midwives (Shifra & Puah) refused Pharaoh’s orders, Pharaoh eventually had to take things into his own hands and order his soldiers to throw the Jewish baby boys into the Nile. It was a dark time for humanity and especially for us. Sadly, we have seen this play out over and over again. Closing our eyes to hate and injustice does not make it go away instead it emboldens it. It won’t stop of its own accord but rather has to be continually confronted and mobilized against.
The story of the Exodus gives us a guiding hand on what we can do when faced with these challenges. First, we can never lose our dream of a better future. We know that God has made all human beings “little less than angels.” We hold within us the Divine spark. Deep down we know what kind of world we wish to live in. “We know hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” If we have the dream, if we have the vision, then we know which way the moral compass points. Our people, slavery worn and battered, persisted in hope, in the belief that one day God would redeem us.
The next lesson Exodus teaches us is that God wants us to take the first step. God needed to find people willing to put it all on the line to stand up for what was right. Shira, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, Batya, Aaron, and Moses to name a few. Each act of kindness and courage was critical and without them the story would have been very different. Today the same is true. Each of us has something to contribute to the story of now. We can fight ignorance with learning, listening, and respect. We can double down on kindness, especially to people and communities we don’t normally come across in our daily lives. We can reach out a hand to the most vulnerable, to the most picked on, those who feel the least loved. We can cry out against the hate mongers, the scapegoaters, the narrow-minded purveyors of division and chaos who seek to make our world petty and cold. We each play an important part in this story everyday by the way we communicate and treat each other.
Finally, Exodus reminds us that passing this story down throughout the generations is a spiritual act vital to the future. As Jews, we constantly look to God for help in every age, and in an act of God’s brilliance, God recognized that what we needed was to hold on to this story. God commands us to literally ingrain this story upon our souls and psyche. We tell it to steel ourselves, to remind ourselves of its ending and to recognize in it the continuing struggle for civil rights and freedom. Like so many of the words of Dr. King, we need to remind ourselves over and over again where we came from and where we are going. (Always forward) We are the next generation in this story adding our hearts, minds, and hands in the pursuit of a more just, caring, and loving world. May we merit God’s grace in this pursuit.