“GIVE READILY AND HAVE NO REGRETS…” (Deuteronomy 15:10): Helping the victims of Hurricane Harvey

The Jewish world is blessed with numerous ways to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.  These organizations will direct their efforts to helping the Jewish communities of the western Gulf region as well as the general population.  There are certainly many worthy secular organizations which are also collecting relief.  

In these circumstances I usually send my contribution to  a Jewish cause collecting for both the Jewish and larger communities.  I do this for two reasons:

1) When synagogues and other Jewish institutions are devastated we have a special responsibility to assist our brothers and sisters — no matter how noble a secular organization may be, it has no vested interest or responsibility to rebuild the Jewish community . . . but we do.

2) When distinctly Jewish organizations also give to help the larger community, their very name sends the message that we embrace the moral imperative to assist all our neighbors.  This collective statement reflects back on the cherished Jewish belief that all God’s children are created in the Divine Image.

Here are several different options for giving:

  1. Make out a check out to “Rabbi Lubliner’s Discretionary Fund” and write “Houston relief” in the memo area.  The collective amount will be donated in the name of the Jacksonville Jewish Center to recovery efforts on the western Gulf coast.
  2. Make a donation through the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism by clicking on here to  USCJ Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief.
  3. Make a donation through the Jewish Federations of North America by clicking on here to JFNA Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
  4. Find out more information about  NECHAMA: A Jewish Response to Disaster, a Minneapolis-based organization raising both funds and organizing crews to help in the recovery efforts along the western Gulf.
  5. If you wish to make a more targeted donation to one specific organization, I would suggest the two Conservative congregations in Houston affected by Harvey. Click below to help Congregation Beth Yeshurun, which was seriously damaged by flooding and is likely to be out of its building for several months at least: Congregation Beth Yeshurun Flood Recovery Fund; or click below to assist Congregation Or Ami, which also sustained damage, though not as extensive as Beth Yeshurun:Or Ami Relief Fund.

FOR THERE WILL NEVER CEASE TO BE NEEDY ONES IN YOUR LAND, WHICH IS WHY I COMMAND YOU: OPEN YOUR HAND TO YOUR BRETHREN, THE NEEDY AND IMPOVERISHED, IN YOUR LAND.

-Deuteronomy 15:11

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“The good land that the Lord your God has given you”: Will it still be good for our children?

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I recently came across a real estate prospectus offering, “Good land with streams, springs and fountains; ideal for planting wheat, barley, grapevines, fig and olive trees, date palms and pomegranates.  If you want a great place to live a farm-to-table lifestyle where you can eat your own bounty without stint and lack nothing, this is the place for you!”

A confession: the foregoing was no prospectus, but a paraphrase of the beginning of chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, a passage that concludes with the famous words, “וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ — And you shall eat, be satisfied, and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (8:10).

The original passage refers to the land of Israel, but that final verse partakes of a universal character.  Serving as the source of the commandment to recite Birkat Ha-mazon, (Grace after Meals), we give thanks to God for food grown anywhere in the world; our gratitude is no less in Jacksonville than Jerusalem, for  הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה — the good land — is all places capable of nourishing and nurturing life.

Now let’s fast forward to the year 2050.  If God blesses with me longevity, I’ll be 87 years old; my children will be in their late forties and early fifties.  My grandchildren may range in age from 10 to 20 years old.  To put it in different terms: I will be close to the age my mother is now, and my kids will have reached my stage in life.  It’s really not that far off.  In 2050, however, a real estate prospectus is far likelier to read something like this:  “Great land offer!  Located in a formerly fertile area, prolonged multi-year drought ensures that flooding will never be a concern.”  Another ad might say, “New impressive inland ocean view due to coastal flooding of previous years.  Houses on reinforced concrete stilts afford peace of mind during all but the most severe storms.  Second floor boat mooring allows for quick evacuations when needed.”

Image result for global warmingOceanic acidity.  Extinction of species.  Coastal sea rise.  Drought.  Flooding.  More disruptive weather patterns.  Migration of invasive flora and dangerous fauna to new regions.  And if the foregoing sounds like the ten plagues we enumerate at the Seder, the association is hardly accidental — both represent examples of environmental disruption and devastation.  That one was caused by God, and the other is being inflicted by humankind upon itself offers little comfort, especially when we consider that, in a very real sense, the Egyptians brought disaster upon themselves through their own stubbornness.  Are we any less willful than they were?

This past week, 13 federal agencies, working under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences, completed a draft report regarding climate assessment as mandated every four years by Congress.  One of the most comprehensive climate science studies ever completed, its preface states that, “Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.”  It concludes the United States is already palpably warmer than it was fifty years ago, with fewer cold extremes and more extreme heat; hurricanes are likely to be more intense; California, the most populous state, is heading in the direction of perpetual drought;  in other places, such as the Northeast, rain is falling more heavily than ever before; flooding related to sea-level rise is already occurring in Miami, and by the end of the 21st century, Charleston, South Carolina will flood at every high tide.  The most important finding? “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20th century . . . there are no convincing alternative explanations supported by the observational evidence.”

Image result for jewish protection of environmentClimate is a Jewish issue. The Torah sees the world as God’s crowning creation; “וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב — And God saw it was good” (Genesis 1:12) is more than an editorial comment; it is nothing less than a theological statement.  Preserving the environment is a Jewish issue as we learn from a midrash in which God warns Adam: “ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן — Consider My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי  — Take care not to corrupt and destroy My world; שאם קלקלת אין מי שתיקן אחריךfor if you destroy it there shall be no one to repair it after you” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13 §I).  We cannot admire an artist, yet trash her body of work; we  cannot respect our Creator while ruining creation.

We also know that climate is important to Judaism from the role it plays in our liturgy:  prayers for rain and dew during the Amidah; the ritual of hoshannot during the festival of Sukkot; indeed, there is an entire tractate of Talmud, Masekhet Ta’anit, devoted to ritual and liturgical responses to disasters, primarily those related to drought and other weather-related phenomena.  There are blessings recited when one sees the grandeur of great mountains or deserts, smells the blossoms of trees in bloom, witnesses shooting stars, or marvels at the majesty of the ocean.

Judaism sees truth as God’s own seal, rejecting falsehood and despising prevarication.  Once upon a time there were scientists whose souls were bought by the tobacco companies; their job was to find as many ways as possible to explain away the addictive character of nicotine and the deadly nature of smoking.  When evidence of tobacco’s dangers became irrefutable, the industry changed gears.  They could no longer blatantly deny the facts.  Instead, they chose to fudge as much as possible, seeking to promote as much ambiguity and uncertainty as possible by claiming that the studies failed to demonstrate the extent of tobacco’s damage, or promoting lower tar cigarettes as “healthier” alternatives.

In some ways, the tactics of climate-deniers and their so-called scientific research are reminiscent of the big lie that once was perpetuated by the tobacco industry.  In a disturbing article published by Scientific American last July, the fossil fuel industry was shown to use many of the same researchers, tactics, and studies of big tobacco.  But why should anyone be surprised?  As an old Yiddish saying has it, “A nai-er melekh mit na-yeh gezayres, a nay yor mit alte aveyres — A new king with new decrees, a new year with old misdeeds.”

With America’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, the current administration has sent a disturbing message about its stance on global warming.  There is reason to be concerned that President Trump may be inclined to dismiss the National Academy of Sciences report on climate change.  But it would be a terrible mistake for us to label this a partisan issue.  The National Academy of Sciences is not a partisan front, any more than the dozens of other reputable and distinguished academicians and scientists whose work have demonstrated the reality of global warming over and over.  The threat to our planet is non-partisan and equal opportunity; its resolution will require bi-partisanship and a willingness to face the threat, not deny its existence.  It was President Nixon, who signed the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency; it was President George H. Bush who signed legislation instituting a cap-and-trade system for industry to curtail acid rain.  And it was Ronald Reagan who once said, “What is a conservative, after all, but one who conserves?”

There are no panaceas.  To make a difference as individuals we will need to buy less stuff, drive fewer miles, purchase fuel-efficient cars, eat less meat, plant more trees and cut fewer down.  Even something as simple as unplugging our devices can help — US. citizens spend more money on electricity to power devices when they’re off than when on! Because televisions, stereo equipment, computers, battery chargers and a host of other gadgets and appliances consume energy when seemingly switched off, unplug them instead.  On the larger front, we have to actively campaign for legislation to support renewable sources of energy and ways to make them cost-effective.  And rather than prop up a dirty and dying industry like coal mining, whose long and inevitable decline over the past decades wasn’t caused by environmentalists, but by automation and cheaper forms of energy, we need to invest in places like West Virginia and Kentucky as they transition to a post-coal world.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma, part of Judaism’s most fundamental credo, warn us of the steep price we will pay for our self-serving hubris should we dismiss the reality of climate change.  Should we serve the false god of expedience, “The Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is giving to you” (Deuteronomy 11:17).

There is still time to make a difference; we can still bequeath a sustainable world to our children.  And if we believe that we have the capacity to hurt our world, we must also believe that we possess the capacity to heal her.  This is what Judaism teaches; this is what God asks us to do — not for our sake, but for our children’s.

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August 14, 2017 · 5:40 pm

EVEN WHEN BURIED, TRUTH WILL SPRING UP FROM THE GROUND

Faithfulness and truth meet; justice and well-being kiss.  Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven.

Psalm 85:11-12

122 years ago this month, a former soldier, reviled by his countrymen and abandoned by all except for his family and a few loyal friends, embarked on a ship for South America. His destination: Îsle du Diable, or Devil’s Island, a harsh and barren rock off the coast of French Guyana. Sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement, he had no reason to believe he would ever see his loved ones or his country again.

Image result for alfred dreyfusThe man’s name? Alfred Dreyfus, at that time the highest ranking Jewish officer in the French army at the end of the 19th century. Accused of espionage for the Kaiser’s Germany and convicted of treason, Dreyfus’ case quickly became a cause célèbre, galvanizing the forces of anti-Semitism in France in unprecedented ways, even as Dreyfus also became a rallying cry for a group of French intellectuals, such as writers Anatole France, Marcel Proust, and Emile Zola, who believed in his innocence.

There is no question that in 1895 the French Army was rife with anti-Semitism; without knowing this it would be impossible to fully understand the events which unfolded around Alfred Dreyfus. According to historians such as Oxford University’s Ruth Harris, author of Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century, Dreyfus’ accusers, conditioned by their anti-Semitism, were inclined to suspect him as the culprit from the get-go. Rather than intentionally framing a man they knew to be blameless, the military prosecutors were predisposed to view ambiguous evidence as proof of guilt, while dismissing facts pointing toward his innocence or reinterpreting them to support their preconceptions.

What followed, then, shouldn’t surprise anyone . . . . Two experts testified that the writing on the espionage documents somewhat resembled Dreyfus’ handwriting; three others concluded the penmanship belonged to someone else, but latter’s testimonies were ignored. After Dreyfus’s arrest, investigators thoroughly searched his files and home, but found nothing. In the mind of his accusers, however, this only proved how resourceful a spy he was; it demonstrated his skill at destroying evidence. In interviewing his teachers at the École Polytechnique, the elite military academy Dreyfus attended, the prosecutors learned he had excelled in foreign languages and was remembered for having a prodigious memory, which only furthered their belief in his guilt — after all, language proficiency and good memory are clearly traits beneficial to spies.

Nearly a century and a quarter later, it’s easy for to shake our heads at such flimsy evidence and its power to convince otherwise intelligent individuals of an innocent man’s guilt. Yet before we become too smug, are we really so different? When convinced of our own rectitude, we tend to magnify any evidence that supports our view, while discounting anything that contradicts our conclusions. The term for this is “motivated reasoning”: it explains why when a foul is called by a referee against our team, we protest and jeer the call, but should something identical happen to the opposing squad, we’re likely to believe it a good call, while deriding the other side’s fans for having sour grapes.

A week ago, President Trump issued an executive order banning travel for 90 days from seven Muslim-majority countries. The same order closed the door for 120 days to all refugees, regardless of country, including those who had been vetted and had valid visas; and barred entry to Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Supports claim that thanks to the President’s executive order, America is safer today. But is that factually true? The second, third, and fourth highest exporters of terror to the world — Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan — aren’t covered at all by Trump’s ban. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the country of origin for the 9/11 attacks is also missing from the 7 nation list. And, in case you were wondering how many have died on American soil at the hand of terrorists from these seven banned countries . . . between 1975 and today the answer is zero.

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Ilhan Omar, elected to the Minnesota Legislature, came to America when she was a child as a Somali refugee granted legal asylum

Fact: there is no group more vetted and scrutinized by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security than refugees — not once they arrive, but up to 24 months before they are given permission to depart for the U.S. Fact: since the 1970s, only three Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by individuals granted legal asylum — killed by by refugees from Castro’s Cuba. According to a study of the Cato Institute, a think tank founded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the chance of any one of us being killed by a refugee is 1 in 364 billion in a given year — about 20,000 times higher than the odds of being struck dead by lightning.

These are not opinions, they aren’t “alternative” facts. Yet to those who are convinced that refugees are a great threat, all of the above will be dismissed as “biased’ or with an impatient “Yes, but . . .” as if facts are of secondary importance to opinions.

Of course, motivated reasoning can be found everywhere. It explains the lynching of thousands of innocent African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the flimsiest evidence imaginable; it underscores the skepticism expressed by those who reject the reality of climate change, not because the science is shaky, but because it doesn’t sit well with the outcome they desire; it highlights the spurious claim that millions of illegal aliens voted in the 2016 elections, despite the dearth of any evidence. Time and again we see instances of motivated reasoning in which truth is the handmaiden of opinion, rather than the other way around. Nor is it limited to one end of the political spectrum: when a respected civil rights leader in Congress calls the Chief Executive an “illegitimate President” — despite the fact that the latter won the Electoral College fair and square — he does what those who sought to delegitimate President Obama with the claim he wasn’t born in the U.S. did . . . the total absence of proof to the contrary.

Image result for mixed multitude in the bibleIn Parshat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, the text underscores the broad character of the Exodus from Egypt. Moses did not limit those leaving Egypt to the groups most likely to agree with his decisions or least likely to challenge his leadership. The Torah states, “וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה אִתָּ֑ם — A mixed multitude came out of Egypt with the Israelites” (Exodus 12:38). According to the rabbis the “mixed multitude” consisted of non-Israelites who were themselves oppressed and had made common cause with the Israelites. Apparently they were not insignificant in number — In Mekhilta, a midrashic work on the book of Exodus, Rabbi Yishmael claims they numbered 180,000. Rabbi Akiva goes so far as to maintain they added up to 240,000 persons — equal in number to more than 1/3 of the male Israelite population of 600,000. That the rabbis could envision Moses enabling the mixed multitude to join the Israelites, despite the likelihood of becoming oppositional (a likelihood which came to pass), says a great deal about a willingness to accept diversity, not just in the abstract, but in reality.

This is a valuable lesson to remember. More and more, those on either end of the political spectrum seek out like-minded folk only, using their shared views to reinforce one another’s convictions. Listen to talk radio, and you’ll find that invariably only those who agree with the host’s basic premise are given unfettered access to echo the sentiments of the loyal. True, every so often an individual representing the opposing view is given a minute or two to speak, but s/he is invariably cut off by the host or shut down with rhetoric and ridicule. Letting the other guy open his mouth functions only as a kind of prop, a foil to show the faithful what jerks the other guys are.

To quote George Orwell in his novel of distopia, 1984: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable, what then?”

But this is surely not the Jewish way. The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Hiyya Bar Rav: ‘”And the people stood with Moses from morning until evening” (Exodus 18:13). Does it make sense that Moses judged the people all day long? When did he learn his Torah? Rather, the Torah comes to teach us that any judge who judges with truth for even an hour is seen as though he had partnered with God in the creation of the world. Here [in Exodus] it is written: “And the people stood with Moses from morning until evening.” while there [in Genesis] it is written: “And there was morning and there was evening, one day”’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 10a). To equate truth-based decision-making with the creation of the world itself underscores its indispensability to the existence of a moral society.

Ultimate knowledge belongs to God alone, but neither have we been deprived of the ability to apprehend truth — truth that is neither convenient nor inconvenient, but simply is. Those of small mind and smaller heart will dig in and hunker down in defensiveness and rationalization in the face of truth. There remains, however, something noble and powerfully righteous in the person who is either curious enough or brave enough to want to see the landscape as it is, not as he wills it to be; to consider the cold facts and dare to say, “Perhaps I need to rethink my position.”

The true hero of the Dreyfus story was a Lieutenant Colonel named Georges Picquart. He didn’t have a higher opinion of Jews than his brother officers; like most of them, he initially assumed Dreyfus was guilty. But Picquart was different in one regard. After Dreyfus’ conviction, as a counter-intelligence specialist he had reason to believe the espionage on Germany’s behalf was still happening. He even came across new spy letters whose handwriting appeared to match perfectly the documents that had sent Dreyfus to Devil’s Island. When he brought this information to his superiors, they could neither fathom their own culpability in sending an innocent man to prison nor accept that the Jew Dreyfus might actually be innocent. Instead, they fantastically insisted that Dreyfus must have trained another spy to write in a similar hand so that if the one were caught the other might escape.

Picquart didn’t like Jews, but he did believe in fairness, justice and truth. Because of his desire to see the truth prevail, Picquart was punished by being relieved and sent to duty in the remote desserts of Tunisia, and was even imprisoned for a time. Yet in the end his dogged pursuit of the truth set Alfred Dreyfus free.

Oddly enough, that Georges Picquart was suffused with the same anti-Semitic prejudices of his time and class is part of the story’s moral. Unlike his fellow officers, he did not allow his beliefs to cloud his judgment: his beliefs did not determine the facts, but the facts did determine his view of Dreyfus’ likely innocence.

We don’t need more leaders capable of insisting they’re right no matter what the facts are; those who, in the fact of contradictory evidence, simply shout more loudly or insult more vehemently. What we desperately need are leaders capable of being wrong and admitting it, leaders sufficiently secure and self-assured to believe they can change their mind when confronted by evidence, without losing face or being unworthy of public respect. We would be a better country and a society were our leaders willing on occasion to stand up and say, “I felt very strongly about a particular policy, but after much reflection, consultation with experts of varying perspectives, and a careful review of the facts, I have come to believe that my initial assessment was wrong.”

Yet to merit such leadership, we cannot expect less from ourselves. Aldous Huxley, author of yet another distopian novel, Brave New World, reminds us of a foundational truth in all societies worthy of respect “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Except in Orwellian nightmares, 2 + 2 will still be equal to 4 . . . no matter what anyone else says.

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HEALING THE DIVIDE BEYOND 270: POST-ELECTION REFLECTIONS

For many weeks now my Shabbat morning walk to synagogue has taken me down a certain street bedecked with an equal number of Clinton and Trump signs. This past Saturday morning, the first since the election, all the signs were gone — a welcome reminder that the most rancorous presidential campaign in recent history was now over. There is one sign, however, that remains prominently displayed on the front lawn of a particular house, a sign that has served for months as a sobering counterpoint to the vitriolic rhetoric of this year’s election cycle. This is its message:

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For those who do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical verses (confession: I had to look up the reference myself), this what II Chronicles 7:14 states: “ וְיִכָּֽנְע֨וּ עַמִּ֜י אֲשֶׁ֧ר נִֽקְרָא־שְׁמִ֣י עֲלֵיהֶ֗ם וְיִֽתְפַּֽלְלוּ֙ וִֽיבַקְשׁ֣וּ פָנַ֔י וְיָשֻׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכֵיהֶ֣ם הָֽרָעִ֑ים וַֽאֲנִי֙ אֶשְׁמַ֣ע מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְאֶסְלַח֙ לְחַטָּאתָ֔ם וְאֶרְפָּ֖א אֶת־אַרְצָֽם — When My people, who bear My name, humble themselves, pray, and seek My favor and turn from their evil ways, I will hear in My heavenly abode and forgive their sins and heal their land.”

America has a lot of work to do in the days ahead.

As the final results of the nail-biting presidential election rolled in, CNN correspondent Van Jones shared his thoughts with viewers about Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College: “People have talked about a miracle. I’m hearing about a nightmare,” he said early Wednesday morning. “You tell your kids: Don’t be a bully… don’t be a bigot.. do your homework and be prepared. And then you have this outcome.”

“You have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of ‘How do I explain this to my children?’ I have Muslim friends who are texting me tonight, ‘Should I leave the country?’ I have families of immigrants that are terrified tonight. This was a rebellion against the elites, true, it was a complete reinvention of politics . . . but it was also something else.” Jones continued, “We haven’t talked about race. This was a ‘white-lash’ against a changing country … against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.” To underscore the fear that some Americans are feeling, a member of our own community told me of an incident that took place the morning after the election in this neighborhood. Having stopped to buy gas on his way to minyan, two young, white men saw his kippah and, rolling down the window of their pick-up truck, shouted triumphantly at him, “No more ‘Jew-S-A’, No more ‘Jew-S-A’!”

Of course, this is hardly the first time idiots in Jacksonville or other places have shouted anti-Semitic slurs from moving vehicles at Jews wearing kippot. I can tell you from personal experience that long before Donald Trump ever dreamed of running for the presidency, at least several times a year I’ve been the recipient of shouted words from drivers . . . who are decidely NOT wishing me Shabbat Shalom. The age of the jerk did not begin this campaign season.

In all fairness, for many the election was about the hopelessness of living in the dying factory towns that dot the landscape of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and other rust belt states, whose residents have lived lives of quiet desperation for 20 or 30 years. These folks will tell you their vote for Trump was framed by poverty and hopelessness, rather than issues of race (indeed, some were Democrats and had previously voted for Obama in the hope that as an outsider he would serve as an agent for change). As for the Latino vote, while exit polls clearly demonstrated a 2-1 edge for Clinton, some 29% of Hispanic Americans voted for Donald Trump. Meanwhile, many ultra-Orthodox Jews voted red, not blue: indeed, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Trump received 69% of the vote. The most shocking election statistic? Nearly 50% of all Americans eligible to vote chose not to go to the polls at all.

I mention all of the above to underscore the fact that the truth is nearly always more complicated than we like. Yes, there were plenty of racists who rejoiced over Trump’s win, but there were members of some minority communities who voted in significant numbers for the President-elect. There are plenty of Americans rightly concerned about the growing acceptability of a prejudice that self righteously hides behind a facade of being tired of political correctness; but there are those who voted for Donald Trump for the simple reason that he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. As for women, plenty voted on either side of the partisan divide. We crave a simple take-away about the state of the American body-politic, but there isn’t one truth to have emerged from this election. Indeed, for us to come together as Americans requires we resist the temptation to engage in platitudes or simplistic judgments.

On the contrary, to heal the divide in this country will require us to acknowledge the extent to which truth has been a casualty of this grueling election cycle. It’s nothing new that American have stopped believing that politicians tells the truth. What should deeply disturb us is that so many voters act as though truth has become totally irrelevant to the election process, that candidates need no longer be held accountable for making up facts, contradicting themselves, or saying one thing and then doing another with impunity.

Image result for truthIn the moral universe that Judaism inhabits, we cannot forget that Emet, “truth” is one of God’s names, while the Ten Commandments prohibit us from lying in God’s name (#9). As the Talmud puts its, “The Holy One despises him who says one thing with his mouth, and another in his heart” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 113b). As Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, recently noted in a post-election piece found on his blog, “Jews have learned the hard way, as have other minority communities, that when those in power play fast and loose with the truth, individuals and groups who are powerless, as Jews have been in the past, are the first to pay a heavy price.”  We must banish the notion that, “If I like a fact, it must be true; if it doesn’t square with my wishes, it’s got to be a conspiracy.”

There is a time for political rhetoric and hype, and a time to own up to complexity; let’s begin by rejecting the lie that a person or group is either with us or against us. Let’s own up to the complexity of things for a change, and admit that the policies and individuals we favor or oppose are not all good or all bad. As has been true of all elections since the founding of the Republic, the promises made during a campaign are always more numerous than the promises kept afterward — those who believe the 45th President will serve as a political savior should take note that the 44th President was elected on the same premise, albeit by a different group of voters. Our economy, the role of the private sector, Congress, our international relationships, and public opinion all serve to put a brake on the power of the President. In our desperate quest for simplistic solutions, we believe that the President will either make or break America. Without denying the enormous power of the presidency, it remains a fact that there are many, many factors that work with and against the wishes of any President.

Image result for we the peopleBearing that in mind, it is our task as caring and responsible citizens to be more, not less, engaged in playing our part as members of a Democratic society. If we see something amiss, we must say something, using the power of our voice, our pen, and our protests. America is a strong and vibrant democracy; when we cultivate relationships with our congressional representatives; when we lobby and organize; when we petition and support organizations that espouse our values; we shape and influence the direction our country takes. One should never say never, but I honestly do not see the United States of 2016 morphing into the Germany of 1933. Of course, it would be sufficiently awful if we were to turn the clock back and become the America of 1933 . . . but that can’t and won’t happen if we stay engaged in the work of democracy.

While acknowledging the complexity of politics and government may serve as the first step toward reconciliation, the second is to overcome the hateful speech that has been a part of our landscape for the past 18 months. Words played a pivotal role in dividing us, through name-calling, disparagement, and smears of all kinds.

The rhetoric of “Lock her up” and “The basket of deplorables” fostered doomsday imagery and ramped up fears. In retrospect would the campaign have inflicted as much damage on our sense of unity if the candidates had espoused the same views, albeit in more respectful ways? Had youngsters running for student body president in any high school acted along the lines of the recent election campaign, candidates would have been disqualified, maybe even suspended or expelled . . . which should make us feel good about high school student government in this country, though not the way our country pursues so-called “higher” office. Shame on us as Americans that we mistake a refusal to engage in civil discourse as an admirable way to demonstrate that one is a maverick! We are now paying the price for the excesses of speech on one side and predictions of Armageddon on the other.

Jews, of course, know all about the power of speech: God spoke the world into being as we learn in the very first verses of Genesis; words are the very building blocks of creation. Proverbs teaches, “Death and life are in the ‘hand’ of the tongue” (8:21). Commenting on this verse, Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina asked: “Is it conceivable for the tongue to have a ‘hand’? What the verse means is that tongue can be as murderous as a person’s hand” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b).

Going forward, we have to watch our mouths in the post-election period. No harmful speech, let alone violent action. To quote Chancellor Eisen again, “Let’s listen so well to the words uttered by people who disagree with us, that we hear what is intended and felt — even when it is not actually said.” Folks, the disagreement likely will not go away; nor should they — different ideas about how to govern is what a democracy is all about. Nevertheless, the anger and pain of those Americans who are fearful of the future need to be registered, NOT dismissed.

Image result for cain am i my brothers keeperThe very first question that a human being poses to God is: “הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי — Am I my brother’s keeper?” It may be that Cain asked that question without a preconceived answer. The weight of Jewish tradition and teaching over the course of the centuries, however, has rendered the question completely rhetorical. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We have an obligation to reach across every aisle and every fence. Let’s listen hard to the anger and the pain from all sides, without forgetting that some Americans have always been more vulnerable and disenfranchised than others. This is not an opinion. It is a fact borne out by the indelible facts of history.

When Barack Obama was elected eight years ago, a group of individuals sought to cast aspersions on his right to the presidency through the not-so-subtle racist charge that he wasn’t really American. For the past several nights demonstrators have marched through the streets of American cities declaring that Donald Trump is not their President. What happened following the 2008 election and the demonstrations of the last few nights are vastly different in many ways, but they share one thing: a reluctance to accept the result of a free and fair vote that, according to the rules of our Constitution, elected a specific individual to lead our country. Like him or not, President Obama is presently our Commander-in-Chief and the President of the United States of America. Like him or not, President-elect Trump will become his successor in a little more than two months. Whether you wanted this result or not has been made irrelevant by the result of the election. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the last time a group of Americans were unwilling to accept the result of a legitimate presidential election and rejected the duly chosen President, we engaged in a bloody, civil war. That won’t happen, of course, but it is an important piece of history to remember.

It is fitting that in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lekh-Lekha God enters into a covenant with Abraham known as Brit Ben Ha-betarim. The Almighty commands our ancestor to divide three heifers, three goats, three rams as part of a covenantal ceremony between the patriarch and the Eternal. At the end of the Torah portion, God enter into another covenant with Abraham and Sarah through Brit Milah, ritual circumcision. In both cases the oneness of covenant comes from a cutting, a separation. This is appropriate because covenants are always about bringing two separate parties into relationship. In symbolic language it is a statement that, “just as we symbolically divide or cut away something extraneous to us, we simultaneously bring to our beings a vital connection joining us together.”

Last Tuesday’s election is a recognition of a separation that may yet bring us together as Americans. The covenantal promise of America enshrined in our Constitution would have been superfluous were the 13 colonies possessed of unanimity and like-minded purpose. The truth is they were anything but united, and but for the wisdom of our founding fathers, would have become 13 separate countries. The durability and sturdiness of our nation relies on our continued respect for differences of opinion,  civil and measured discourse, and a belief in the better angels of our national character.

Image result for abraham lincolnThere will be many important disagreements in the coming months and years about the best course for America to follow. Let us be honest and vigorous in our dissent, but let us move ahead with undiminished faith in the power of democracy to overcome even its own weaknesses. In the words of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, who knew far more about national division than we ever will, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”  Ken yehi ratzon — may it be God’s will.  And ours.

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Does God Care if I Eat Lobster? Yom Kippur 5777

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Watching the swirling mass of a hurricane on a TV screen set to the Weather Channel makes a person feel small and vulnerable. Witnessing the fury of a storm first-hand does the same thing, only exponentially many more times so. In the 21st century, cutting-edge meteorology still can’t predict the tiny wobbles of a storm track that are the difference between life or death for thousands. The frailty of life as described by the Unetaneh Tokef prayer in the Yom Kippur liturgy takes on extra resonance in the wake of Hurricane Matthew: “משול כחרס הנשבר, כחציר יבש וכציץ נובל . . . וכחלום יעוף — We are like a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower . . . a vanishing dream.”

According to the Talmud, it is during this season that God writes everyone’s name in the Book of Life or its opposite (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 32b). Our actions are weighed and judged; our fate is decided accordingly. The good are rewarded, the wicked are punished — so tradition teaches. We struggle mightily with this notion because it flies in the face of the reality we see all around us. Fate appears random; the good suffer, evil goes unchecked. But the sages of antiquity were not Pollyannas; they were keenly aware of the vast chasm between a tidy theology and a chaotic universe. Indeed, the biblical book of Job chides us to avoid the platitudes that come with a smug view of the world. If the scales of justice are balanced, they are balanced by an invisible hand in an invisible way in a sphere far beyond our comprehension.

Yet underlying the complexities of a life in which we expect — or at least hope — that God will reward the good and punish the bad is a single, simple question: Does God care?

Some of us undoubtedly believe that God doesn’t care, either because God doesn’t exist or because God is an impersonal force within the universe disconnected from individual human beings.

But many of us believe that God does care. We pray, whether in moments of danger or gratitude, because we believe that God cares. Many of us are here today because we sense there is a Presence larger than ourselves to which we are connected . . . a Presence who cares in some ineffable, yet palpable, way.

But if God cares . . . what is that God cares about? Does God care if I cheat on my taxes? If I cheat on my spouse? Would God care if I robbed a liquor store? What if I see a homeless man standing in the rain at a traffic light and give him nothing? Does God care if I as a Jew keep Shabbat, eat lobster, put on Tefillin, or help make a minyan? Does God care if I fast on Yom Kippur?

I believe that God cares about all these things . . . but not necessarily in the way you might think.  There was a time when I thought of God as a scorekeeper, keeping track of the points we earned or the penalties incurred in the game of life . . . pretty much the same way that the Talmud describes God writing our names for good or for ill in the Book of Life. My image of God was similar to that found in the lyrics of a popular  Yom Kippur song, first sung by Edward Israel Iskowitz  (better known as Eddie Cantor) on his radio show in 1934:

God’s making a list,
God’s checking it twice,
God’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Yom Kippur is coming to town.

God sees you when you’re sleeping
And knows when you’re awake
God knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake . . .

Okay, maybe it wasn’t a Yom Kippur song . . .  It’s a light-hearted tune, one whose consequences are no more dire than not getting toys on a certain night of the year. Unetaneh Tokef is infinitely darker and far more serious, but at face value, the underlying premise of both aren’t drastically different.

And that is a God I can no longer believe in. When I was a kid this theology worked — largely because I never challenged it — but as I got older, I outgrew this conception of God much as one outgrows a pair of shoes. I just couldn’t squeeze my soul into what was an increasingly impossible fit. I became disillusioned and critical of all belief. Since God didn’t care, then I wouldn’t care, either. Yet it is very, very hard to not care . . . even the most narcissistic person cares, if only about himself.

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Paul Ricoeur, 1913-2005

The 20th century French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, speaks of “First and Second Naivete.” First Naivete is when we interpret Scripture literally or take religious principles at face value. If our tradition teaches that God judges us and determines our fates on Yom Kippur, this is exactly what happens, no more and no less. Some folks never outgrow First Naivete; they accept a literal and absolutist view of God and Jewish teaching.

Many of us, of course, journey beyond First Naivete and find ourselves standing at a critical distance from tradition. The rational forces brought to society through modernity and all its cultural shifts make it hard to accept religious beliefs or literal imagery. And just as there are folks who never outgrow their one-dimensional view of God, there are people who never make it past the critical distance of faith. They insist that the only choice we have is between religious literalism and a rejection of falsehood. Ironically, this black-and-white dichotomy is almost as simplistic as the decision to take everything at face value.

But for those who dare to venture farther, there is what Ricoeur calls “Second Naivete,” because as he puts it, “Beyond the desert of criticism we wished to be called again.” We come to accept the truth of Scripture and of religious teaching as symbols, as metaphorical constructs, or to use a word that is so often misunderstood and abused, as myths.

A myth is NOT a falsehood. Indeed, the word comes from the ancient Greek meaning simply “utterance” or “traditional tale.” Myths are sacred narratives that flow from the timeless wellsprings of our tradition. They articulate eternal truths about God, the nature of our world, and the purpose of existence. They are real and they are true . . . they’re just not literally so.

That God cares doesn’t mean that the Eternal One keeps score. To understand this requires that we reflect upon God’s character as understood by the Torah, a record of the Jewish encounter with the Divine. As the book of Deuteronomy teaches, “אַֽחֲרֵ֨י ה’ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֛ם תֵּלֵ֖כוּ וְאֹת֣וֹ תִירָ֑אוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתָ֤יו תִּשְׁמֹ֨רוּ֙ וּבְקֹל֣וֹ תִשְׁמָ֔עוּ וְאֹת֥וֹ תַֽעֲבֹ֖דוּ וּב֥וֹ תִדְבָּקֽוּן — You shall follow the Lord your God, observing God’s commandments, heeding the Divine voice, serving and cleaving to the Eternal One” (Deuteronomy 13:5). Reading this verse the rabbis asked: What does this mean? Is it possible for a human being to follow God’s Presence? And this was their answer: The verse teaches that we follow God when we embrace the qualities of the Holy One. Just as God clothes the naked, we should clothe the naked; just as the Almighty visits the sick, we should visit the sick; just as our Heavenly Parent comforts those who mourn, we should comfort those who mourn; and just as God buries the dead, we should bury the dead (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).

The good Lord doesn’t do any of these things literally, but the essence of God’s Presence exists in all these actions and countless others. When we clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort those who mourn, and bury the dead . . . we become the personification of the Divine Spirit; it is our behavior that makes God’s Presence palpable in the world. God cares when we choose to care.

To speak the language of the Kabbalists, there are fragments of God’s light scattered throughout the universe of being; they are the supernal sparks of God’s own holiness. Yet exposed to the callousness of the world these sparks have become encrusted with the barnacles of moral indifference. These glowing embers exist within our souls as well, but there too, ego covers them with grime and complacency with a film of apathy.

We constantly hear about “spirituality.” I have heard the word used in so many ways by so many different folks, that I no longer have the faintest idea of what it means to the majority of people. Yet this much I do know: far too often spirituality is focused on the self; it is anything that inwardly gives one a certain ineffable feeling. Spirituality revolves around what sociologists call the Sovereign Self; it insists on utter personal autonomy and is self-referential. To be spiritual is simply to feel spiritual, whatever that means. It asks nothing and demands nothing of us.

But the God in which Judaism believes cares less about whether or not we feel good and far more about whether or not we are good. God cares enough to demand of us — brazenly and unapologetically — to forego self-absorption. Each time we consciously decide to move away from self-centered thinking, we make a little more room for God in the world. And this can be true of both ethical and ritual behaviors.

If I as a Jew opt to forego a lobster roll it doesn’t matter if I do it because I am honoring my ancestors, connecting with the teachings of my people, observing a spiritual discipline, or because I feel that I’m obeying God’s wishes.  The result is that I’m focusing on something bigger than myself. When you make the effort to stop holding a grudge against your neighbor, whether you do it because of God, compassion, or a desire to cleanse your soul, you’re connecting with something larger in the universe than yourself. Should I see a homeless woman with her shopping cart, and go out of my way to get her some food and treat her like a human being, I am sanding away the crust from one of God’s sparks to reveal the luster beneath. Putting on Tefillin, making a minyan at a shiva house, finding time to study Torah, or observing any mitzvah, be it ritual or ethical, individual or communal, pushes us out of the cocoon of self-preoccupation.

If you want to find yourself, then you must first lose yourself. The more spiritual fulfillment is about feeling good as our ultimate goal, the less God cares about it; the more our spiritual fulfillment is defined by shrinking our egos to connect with the world outside of ourselves, the more God cares about it. This is the paradox of leading a spiritual life, a meaningful life that matters.

In English the word “sin” comes from the Latin meaning “guilt.” In Hebrew, however, the word for sin is חטא, and possesses a different nuance than its English counterpart. In various places in the Bible (e.g., Judges 20:16, Isaiah 65:20) it means “to miss the mark” or “failure to reach a goal.” There are transgressions that are terribly and deeply wrong, of course. Most of us, however, are neither desperados nor heartless sociopaths; we aren’t murderers, terrorists, or bank robbers. Our hataim, to use the Hebrew plural, are cases of missing the mark, forgetting that a caring God gives us each day as a gift, forgetting that caring human beings take that precious gift of time and give it back to God by how they choose to spend their days.

The Kotzker Rebbe, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, once asked his followers where God dwells. They were incredulous that their teacher’s question was so obvious. “God exists throughout the universe,” they responded. The Kotzker responded gravely, “No, that is simply not so. God will only dwell in those places where God is made welcome.”

Let’s consider for a moment how much of each day we spend on ourselves — 18 holes of golf, going to a Gators’ game, getting a pedicure, having lunch with friends, shopping, playing Bridge or Canasta, posting on Facebook, taking selfies, planning a vacation, getting in a few rounds of Call of Duty on XBox 360. Now think about how much of each day we spend on getting beyond ourselves to give to the larger world — time spent in prayer, giving tzedakah, volunteering, visiting the sick, even something as mundane of helping the elderly or disabled enter a door or cross a street A caring God is manifested in or eclipsed by the ratio between the two sets of activities.

If we spend the vast majority of our waking hours in the shell of self, then we live in a place impervious to the Divine Presence.  The Holy One lives in the tiny space between the end of one’s self and the beginning of the rest of the world, that tiny space in which we might recite a berakhah to express our gratitude at the food on our table; the pause right before we decide to give tzedakah rather than buy ourselves a bauble we don’t really need; the minute gap in between a righteous thought and the action it leads to.

In each and every one of the 613 commandments, the mitzvot, those that are rational and the ones that are not, there is an opportunity for us to elevate our souls beyond self-concern to a place of Ultimate Significance. And should we choose to pass on these opportunities, we sin in the Hebrew, rather than the English, sense of the word. Rather than a stern judge waiting to tabulate our crimes and punish our misdeeds, we penalize ourselves in missing out on being part of something far larger, squandering the chance for a deeper and more meaningful existence.

Image result for conversations with godJust before the holidays, I read Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God. After an automobile accident, unemployment, and eventually running out of money, Walsch ended up homeless. After emerging from this life-altering experience, he encounters God without warning — not in some psychedelic vision, but as a presence who speaks to him conversationally, dictating three full length books to a man who had never preoccupied himself much with God before.

Was Walsch’s experience real? Why would we assume otherwise? That we are too busy to listen to God’s still, small voice within doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

But here’s the thing. The God that cares isn’t your rich uncle or doting grandmother just ready to grant you with any request you make. “You will not have that which for which you ask, nor can you have anything you want,” Walsch writes.  “This is because [when you want something] your very request is a statement of lack, and your saying you want a thing only works to produce the experience of wanting in your reality. The correct prayer is therefore never a prayer of supplication, but one of gratitude. When you thank God in advance for that which you choose to experience in your reality, you, in effect, acknowledge that it is there . . . Thankfulness is thus the most powerful statement to God; and affirmation that even before you ask, I have answered.” To ask only of God is to live within yourself; to give thanks is to live in something much larger.

In a poem entitled I and You, Abraham Joshua Heschel imagines God speaking to us:

“Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine, trading, twining My pain with yours. Am I not — you? Are you not — I? Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form, hear My own speech — a distant quiet voice — in people’s weeping, as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. I live in Me and in you. Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me, from your eyes drip a tear — its source in Me. When a need pains You, alarm Me! When You miss a human being tear open my door! You live in Yourself, You live in me.”

Once there was a storm thousands of years ago. The prophet Elijah stood alone and as Scripture tells it, “There was a mighty wind, shattering rock by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, and after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. And after the fire — a still small voice. And God was there, in that murmuring sound.  God will speak to you, but are you ready to listen? God will come to you, but will you invite God? If yours is a genuine yes, “I will show you then that I have always been there.” All ways, always.

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TODAY I AM A FOUNTAIN PEN: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

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I’d like to take a trip down memory lane with you as we travel 40 years back in time. It was the summer of America’s bicentennial celebration. Gerald Ford was President, and the album Frampton Comes Alive hit the #1 spot on the pop charts. The dramatic Israeli rescue of hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda made the headlines, while final preparations were underway for the 1976 summer Olympics, in which the gold medal for the decathlon went to a talented 22 year-old athlete named Bruce Jenner. The detective show Baretta was in its second season, the comedy All in the Family was in its fifth, and that fall would mark the debut of Charlie’s Angels.

That summer of 1976 I also celebrated my bar mitzvah. Across the traverse of four decades, there are many things about the event I no longer remember. I’m a little embarrassed to confess this, but I recall nothing of the charge that my father, of blessed memory, gave me from the bimah (if only he had written it down!). I also don’t recollect the words of the synagogue’s president, who presented me with my gifts.

Still, I do recall the subject of my d’var Torah on Parshat Shelah, and remember the Herb Rose Orchestra, the band that played at my Sunday afternoon party. At some point during the celebration they played the “Hustle”, which was all the rage that summer, and I got to dance with the girl on whom I had a crush at the time — in her platform shoes she seemed at least eight inches taller than I was; her name was Susan Lester (guess I’ve always had a thing for girls named Susan!).

Yet soon enough the party ended and the guests were gone. In the gathering dusk of a late June day, I found myself out of sorts and feeling blue. There had been months of anticipation and preparation leading up to the event, a countdown in which my excitement grew in proportion to the ever shorter interval of time before the big day. I felt like someone who had waited months to dine at a celebrated restaurant, who had dreamed of eating his favorite dish, only to discover that the build-up far exceeded the reality — not because the experience wasn’t pleasurable, but that its brevity paled in comparison to the excitement leading up to the moment.

But there was another reason I felt blue that early summer evening 40 years ago, one which I did not consciously grasp until many years later. The Shabbat of my bar mitzvah was my father’s last weekend as a pulpit rabbi. Six years earlier, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at an usually young age. He soldiered on, enrolling in various medical trials, benefiting from a new drug at the time called Levadopa, and serving our congregation, the Greenburgh Hebrew Center, as best he could. Yet there was — and still is — no cure for Parkinson’s; treatment can temporarily alleviate the symptoms, but does nothing to halt the progression of the disease. It became clear to my dad in the months before my bar mitzvah that his days on the pulpit were numbered. He could choose to retire with dignity, or wait to be asked to do so when he could no longer work. At the age of 53 — the same age that I am now — he decided the time had come to step down. In his mind, what could possibly be a more meaningful way to mark the occasion than to spend his last Shabbat on the bimah officiating at his only child’s bar mitzvah?

My father was much beloved by his congregation, and he cherished his vocation. Had he been granted good health and vigor, he would have served the synagogue for many more years. Even in the most desirable scenario, when a rabbi retires at an advanced age after many years of fruitful service to the same congregation, there is still an element of bitter-sweetness:  there is the undeniable realization that a page has been turned, that a chapter in life’s book has ended. How much more so for my father! Turning the Shabbat of his premature retirement into a celebration of his only child’s coming-of-age made joy, rather than unbearable sadness, the leitmotiv of the occasion.

When I was 13 I didn’t really think about this; nor did my parents discuss the decision with me.  It was only as an adult that I realized how upset my father’s decision made me.  What should have been a moment of unadulterated joy was ringed by impending clouds of darkness. I always knew the shul would be packed the day of my bar mitzvah not because of me, but because I was the rabbi’s son — and I accepted that as a simple fact of life. But coming to celebrate a happy event in the rabbi’s family is very different than coming to the bar mitzvah of the rabbi’s kid to say goodbye to the rabbi.  15 years after the fact I found myself wishing that he had postponed his last Shabbat in the pulpit by at least a week.

Over the years I came to forgive my dad for making my bar mitvah his last weekend in the pulpit. Eventually I even  forgave myself for feeling guilty about my subconscious anger, which seemed so selfish and unfeeling given all that he struggled with at the time.

Life teaches us by way of our biographies; they are blank textbooks which God furnishes us with when we enter this world. The lesson I learned from my bar mitzvah was that, in the words of John Lennon’s song, Beautiful Boy, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The illusion we create for ourselves is to treat milestone events in isolation from our lives; like islands in a sea of time, we act as though our red letter days have no connection to the mainland of our existence. With the perspective that time and maturity bring, I now understand that my father’s illness and my celebration were all part of a single landscape, inextricably intertwined in the reality of life lived. The truth is nothing of substance would have changed had we celebrated my big day a week or two earlier or later.

Image result for sun beamYedaya Penini, a Provençal Jewish poet and philosopher who lived at the turn of the 14th century, once wrote: “ כי חֶבְרַת הזמן מֵצִלְלֵי ערב מהירת הנטוּיָה — The companionship of time is of but short duration; it flies more quickly than the shades of evening. כעלם יֶאֱסֹף אל ידו נציץ השמש מְלֹא קֻמצוֹ, וּבפִתחוֹ עומד מֻרְעָד, כי איננו רואה אל כל מהומה בידו — We are like a child that grasps a sunbeam in his hand. He opens his fist soon again, but, to his amazement, finds his hand empty and the brightness gone” (Behinot Olam §4). We invest countless hours, time and energy into focusing on life’s liminal moments. Yet in a few hours the bat mitzvah is over and it’s back to 7th grade; the honeymoon ends and the couple returns to the work-a-day world.

The illusion with which we live is that these threshold moments are themselves game-changers, as if the very act of preparing for and celebrating them is transformational. How often do parents or clergy talk to kids at their b’nai mitzvah about their increased responsibilities . . . only to see them disappear from the radar screen of Jewish life immediately afterward? Weddings are magical moments, but a 30-minute ceremony followed by four hours of dinner and dancing neither eliminate the potential strains nor enhance the strengths within a spousal relationship. With hard work and the blessing of time, a couple will grow together; but as is sometimes the case, they may also end up in divorce court. Either way, the canapes, the toasts, the band, or even the beauty of the rabbi’s charge under the huppah won’t determine in the slightest the fate of a marriage.

A life cycle event is but a day in a person’s life; it is a symbol of something far larger, but not, as the philosopher Kant put it, the ding an sich, the-thing-in-itself. Yet in a world of instant gratification, however, we forget this fundamental truth by incorrectly identifying our milestone events as the agents of change, rather than as symbols of the hard work we must undertake to create real change in our lives.

This is why at critical moments of life we can end up asking the wrong questions or emphasizing the wrong things. When those engaged to be married first meet with me, they are generally more focused on the ceremony than on the premarital counseling I require of a couple who asks me to officiate.  Their first question is, “How will long will it take, rabbi?” And I answer them with a smile, “A lifetime, at the very least.” They look puzzled, until I say, “You were asking about the wedding; I was talking about the marriage.” To this day I remain amazed, though no longer surprised, that a significantly larger percentage of couples spend far more time with their party planner than they do in premarital counseling.

By the same token, parents spend less time focused on their children being b’nai mitzvah than becoming b’nai mitzvah. Going to shul in the months or weeks before the event is not for the sake of getting more involved, but to see how the service works in advance of the big day. Tutoring isn’t to cement Jewish liturgical skills to use regularly after the celebration, but to perform competently the day of. Many years ago a parent expressed chagrin to me that her daughter wouldn’t be leading the shaharit service at her bat mitzvah. In my naivete I replied, “I’m so glad you want your child to learn more! After her bat mitzvah let’s start working on the morning service; I’m sure she’ll be ready to lead it within a month or two.” The mother looked at me as if I were slightly deranged: “Why would she be learning it after her bat mitzvah? By then it’ll be too late.”

This is my own “bar mitzvah year” at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. Time really does fly; it’s hard to believe I’m starting my 13th year as your rabbi. Forty years after my first bar mitzvah, I will celebrate my second with very little hair on my head, a greying beard, and a very different sensibility than the first time around.

Over the past 12+ years, thanks in large measure to you, I have grown tremendously as a rabbi and as a person. I’ve discovered strengths and talents that I never knew I had, confronted weaknesses and flaws that I knew were mine but sought to avoid, and learned a great deal, in part by learning how much I have yet to learn. Above all, however, I’ve come to believe with all my heart that there is no finish line in one’s vocation or personal life other than death . . . and maybe not even then. Ours is an ongoing journey in which we take two strides forward, and one step back; one step back and two strides forward.  We make progress in one area, encounter a problem in another, halting onl until we find a way forward again. Within the congregation, staff comes and goes, there is continuity here, at least for awhile, but then discontinuity creeps in; new families join, others leave; beloved life-long members go to their to final rest. A wedding, a bat mitzvah, a get, a funeral, a bris . . . and then the cycle begins all over again in a different order. Transformation  is a  process that happens when we live life consciously and with mindfulness over an endless array of hills and valleys.

This isn’t just how synagogue life works, it’s how ALL life works. Between the moment of our birth and the instant of our death, we would lead far fuller and richer lives if we could embrace the journey and ditch that finish-line culture, which eats away at our time and distorts the real value of our milestones.

Ask any dieter: shedding pounds and achieving a weight-loss goal is the easy part, relatively speaking. Keeping off the pounds however, is the real challenge because it requires continuous effort. Graduating from high school or college with good grades takes work, to be sure, but it’s a piece of cake when compared to remaining a life-long learner without the metric of grades or deadlines. Far be it from me to knock the hard work kids put into preparing for their b’nai mitzvah, but learning to chant a Torah portion or haftorah and write a speech for an occasion that will take place on one day of a child’s life is a snap compared to making a never-ending, on-going commitment to be active and involved in  Jewish life. Can you imagine a couple having a wedding just for the sake of the reception rather than because they actually want to spend life together? Yet countless Jewish families do something not so dissimilar when they view the value of their children’s Jewish education not in terms of  life-long Jewish involvement, but through the lens of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony awaiting them at the finish line.

Looking back forty years, my first bar mitzvah didn’t make me committed a Jew; in fact, most of it was as ephemeral as dancing the Hustle with Susan Lester. Its lasting gifts, such as the ability to read Torah and chant haftorah, only found meaningful expression years later when I used that knowledge to further my Jewish journey. I didn’t think about any of that back in 1976. But this time around as I mark my rabbinic bar mitzvah at the Jacksonville Jewish Center as a 53-year-old, I am keenly aware of how celebrations in the present are only as meaningful as their links to the yesterdays that preceded them and the tomorrows that are yet to be.

Rabbi Adina Allen, The Womb From Which the World Came

We are told by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy,”היום הרת עולם” which is often translated as “Today the world is born” or “Today is the world’s birthday.” But that’s not what the Hebrew phrase really means. More accurately translated, “היום הרת עולם” means “Today the world is pregnant” — pregnant with possibility. It is not a day when we celebrate the act of birth, but one in which we are given one more day of self-gestation to develop our talents, our strengths, our aspirations. “היום “הרת עולם applies to every single life cycle event — a bar or bat mitzvah is an act of spiritual conception measured by whether one’s Jewish identity is then carried to term; one’s wedding ceremony  is also an act of spiritual conception measured by whether a couple’s commitment develops a soul life of its own.

Too much of the time we live our lives as passengers on a train; we are so busy getting to a destination that the travel itself appears secondary to reaching our stop. Yet if we were truly self-aware, we’d have to admit that the vast majority of our lifetime is spent in motion;  when we stop at a given station, it’s no more than a moment or two before the doors close and the train moves on.  And so we make a huge mistake, wasting our lives by ignoring the primacy of the journey; or even worse, by getting off at a stop and being stranded at a particular stage of development without the means to continue the journey toward our ultimate destination.

One of the most beloved of High Holy Day liturgical poems is sung toward the end of Musaf. It is known simply as Hayom, meaning “Today.” “היום תאמצנו, היום תברכנו . . . היום תדרשנו לטובה — Strengthen us — today; bless us — today; seek our well-being and inscribe us for a good life — today.” In Hayom we’re not asking God for time-released spiritual Sudafed, a prescription for 24-hour relief from the stress of living: “We want blessing, strength, and well-being, God, but only until 11:59 PM this evening.” Rather, we emphasize today because we long for a meaningful existence starting now, but not ending today, tomorrow, or even the day after that. Today is but a moment on that train ride between terminals, emblematic of its link to every other “today” that started out as a tomorrow and then became a yesterday.

Today I stand before you as a bar mitzvah rabbi who forty years ago was a bar mitzvah boy . . . and the line of an old Sam Levenson comedy routine from long before I was born runs through my head, “Today I am a fountain pen.” And you can, be too. Indeed, we can be fountain pens each and every day, writing our biographies and decreeing our destinies in the book of life which the Eternal opens in judgment “ותפתח את-ספר הזכרונות, ומאליו יקרא, וחותם יד כל-אדם בו — for You, God, open the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, for our own hand has signed the page,” as the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says.

Hayom.  We have a decision to make about whether life’s milestones will be markers along the journey or become the journey itself. Today we hold in our hand the fountain pen that will create the next act of a meaningful life-script . . . or we can replace the cap, and stow the fountain pen of our potential in a desk drawer to gather dust as a souvenir, a neglected gift from long ago. Hayom we can look out the window of the train and marvel at the sights we are privileged to see. Choose to live well and today you, too, may be a fountain pen.

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POLITICS, NOT PARTISANSHIP; WHY SERMONS MUST ADDRESS CONTEMPORARY ISSUES

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While interviewing for a pulpit many years ago, I decided to consult with the chair of the search committee before settling on a  topic for my Shabbat morning sermon: I thought if I got a better handle on the community, I could choose something particularly relevant to their congregational culture. My first suggestion was a sermon on Kashrut and its transformative impact on Jewish identity. The chairperson (whom we’ll call Mr. Schmaltzkopf) was less than lukewarm. “Rabbi, only a couple of our people keep kosher, and most of the congregation isn’t likely to find the topic compelling.” “Okay,” I said, “How about Shabbat and its centrality to Jewish life?” Mr. Schmaltzkopf hesitated and then answered, “Well, most of our members don’t observe Shabbat eithr, and the last thing you’d want to do is make them feel bad about it.” So I tried a third idea: “Maybe I could talk about in-marriage, inter-marriage and why raising kids with a strong Jewish identity is important.” This time there was no hesitation. “Way too controversial; Rabbi, you’ll be touching the third rail.” At this point, I started getting a little exasperated. “Mr. Schmaltzkopf, why don’t just you tell me what you think I should talk about?” “Rabbi, it’s simple,” he replied. “Just talk about something to do with Judaism!”

I am going to talk about Judaism, but first let me share with you an actual political dilemma faced by a community in which respect for the rule of law had disappeared. In the face of flagrant and public breaches of law, government became paralyzed, powerless to re-establish its authority. One citizen, however, disillusioned by the timidity of local leaders, took it upon himself to restore law and order by force of arms. Circumventing a legal system which could be cumbersome at times, he killed two offenders and restored the peace. Liberal pundits were horrified by what they saw as Rambo-like anarchy; was taking the law into one’s own hands any better than replacing the police with citizen militias? Conservatives, on the other hand, felt vindicated. Big government with all its taxes and its deep reach into people’s lives had failed, while an ordinary citizen, exercising his God-given right to bear arms, had saved the day.

So where did this take place? Ferguson, Missouri during the riots of 2014? A small town in Europe where Muslim refugees were running amuck?  Not even close.

The story is in the biblical book of Numbers. As many of the Israelites descended into a pagan orgy with Midianite women and as a divine plague to punish the people ensued, Moses and Aaron, representatives of the establishment, were powerless to contain the mayhem. It was Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson who, without sanction of any kind, grabbed a spear and killed two of the ringleaders.  The sages of later generations lined up on the opposing sidelines, much as liberal and conservative commentators might today. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rav Hisda held that had Pinhas lived in the time of the rabbis, the court would denied him permission to take the law into his own hands (Sanhedrin 82a). On the other side, Rabbi Moshe Sofer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, better known as the Hatam Sofer after his major work on Jewish law, praised Pinhas for his zeal to do the right thing, even if it meant going outside the limits of the law.

Webster’s dictionary defines politics as, “Activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of governance or government; the work or job of people who are part of governing; or the opinions that someone has about what should be done by government.” Should abortion be legal? What should government be allowed to tax? To what extent is a person ultimately responsible for her own well-being, and to what extent should society guarantee a level playing field through legislation? Can the right to bear arms ever be circumscribed by restrictions for the greater good? To what extent? Who decides?

These are all political questions, but they also possess a religious dimension. Judaism has something to say not only about ritual mitzvot, but the way in which we interact with others in the street, in commerce, and through our communal institutions. The stories of Moses and Aaron in the Torah and how they handle crises of public confidence or rebellions against authority are political stories. The Talmud and the major codes of halakhah deal with torte law, the limits of government authority, welfare, law-and-order, and a hundred other issues that are political. Judaism offers a way to influence how we think and behave as individuals and as a society — and if that ain’t political, I’m not sure what is. This is the reason why God gave us the Torah, and it is why we study Torah not just for its own sake, but to know how to make the world a better place through our recognition that we are God’s subjects and partners in all facets of life, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are at home and when we are in public, to quote the first paragraph of the Sh’ma.

Of course, certain things are off-limits to sermonizers. Any and all organizations exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code — and that includes houses of worship — are prohibited from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for elective public office. What does this mean? A 501(c)(3) organization cannot support or oppose any candidate, political party or political action committee in any form, shape or manner; they are also forbidden to solicit financial support, offer loans, loan guarantees or in-kind support for any candidate, political party or PAC (which is why I cannot write a check from my synagogue discretionary fund to AIPAC, for example).

As a rabbi, I have preached on the issue of abortion and referred to texts from Exodus and from the Mishnah to demonstrate that Judaism permits abortion for the physical and emotional health of the mother, and that we should therefore oppose efforts to outlaw it. As a rabbi, I have quoted Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic responsa about the authority of government to infringe upon an individual’s autonomy, including the right to bear arms, if doing so is for the sake of safeguarding human life. As a Conservative rabbi, I have spoken about our own movement’s struggle with the competing values of human dignity and fealty to tradition as it shaped a new approach to marriage equality for same-sex couples.

When I speak about issues I quote Jewish sources and make my case on the basis of what the texts of our tradition have to say. Mine is not the only voice on such matters. Indeed the fabric of Jewish teaching is woven on a loom of debate — as Pirkei Avot puts it: ”כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם — Every disagreement for the sake of heaven is of lasting value” (Avot 5:17). Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, Rava and Abbaye, and countless pairs of sages sharpened each other’s intellect by respectful debate, sharing point and counterpoint.

Yet when someone disapproves of a sermon, rather than simply say “I disagree with the rabbi,” he will judge the message as “too political.” By contrast, when congregants concur with a homily, they will never say (at least to my knowledge), “Oh my gosh, that sermon was sooo political, I just loved it!” “Too political” is code for “I don’t agree with you.” A synagogue whose members always agree with the rabbi is a terrible thing, for it means either the rabbi is a milquetoast whose timid soul is incapable of uttering anything besides platitudes; or the congregation is made up of mindless sheep unable to think for itself. While it’s not for me to say what kind of rabbi, I am; I am thankful that the members of this congregation can and do think for themselves, and I am eager to hear when and why you agree or disagree with me.

You will never hear me endorse a candidate for office or a political party from the bimah. In fact, even though it is perfectly acceptable to express my personal support for a party or a candidate in a private capacity (after all, the JJC is a 501(c)(3), but I’m not!), I have made it a habit not to put candidates’ bumper stickers on my car, signs in my yard or campaign on my own time for particular candidates. I refrain from doing so because I want the freedom to focus on the issues rather than be pigeonholed as a mouthpiece for one political party or the other.

To be sure, in its all-encompassing character there are aspects of Torah that have little to do with with the ethical dimensions of social, economic, or legislative agendas. I have preached about grief and death, gratitude, the struggle to find faith, fear, love and family, the gift of memory, and the responsibility we have to make Jewish choices in our personal lives to preserve the heritage of a 100 generations and honor the martyrs who died that we might live as Jews. The stirrings of the heart and the troubles of the world are the canvas on which I strive to paint words of Torah. From the observance of Shabbat to the flaws of our criminal justice system; from the significance of Sukkot as a lesson in environmental stewardship to our tradition’s insistence that we respect all God’s children, regardless of their physical challenges or their sexual orientation; from a love of Israel that worries about the erosion of her Jewish soul by maintaining the current status quo in the West Bank to the opposition I have expressed to the nuclear treaty with Iran, my messages from the pulpit will sometimes align with one party, sometimes with the other, sometimes with neither . . . but these are mere labels, not matters of substance.

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1964 Arrest of 16 Rabbis in St. Augustine during Civil Rights Protests: Jewish and Political

A living Judaism cannot be attenuated from the pressing needs and challenges of the hour. Fifty years ago there were individuals who believed that Martin Luther King Jr. was too political because of his engagement in the struggle of civil rights; that Abraham Joshua Heschel was too political for his opposition to the Vietnam War. In our time outstanding religious leaders such as Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama address political issues, but always in moral terms, quoting sacred writ not political factions.

God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and the sacred texts of our tradition hew to no party platform. And when I stand on the bimah, I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but a Rabbi and a Jew who believes the Torah is our North Star, helping us navigate a ship of faith on an uncharted current of events toward the promise of safe haven. I can’t tell anyone that I will never deliver a controversial sermon; I can’t promise that my messages will always be crowd-pleasers. I hope and pray that my listeners and readers want more than crowd-pleasers, sermons to which one can nod yes or nod off. But I promise that I will  strive to root my messages in the  soil of Torah.  May God help me to marry the eternity of Jewish tradition to the ever changing societal challenges we face as Jews and human beings, as God’s partners and messengers in the sacred task of healing a shattered world, a mission that can never, ever be too political.

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