Category Archives: RJL Biography

Answering Hate with Hesed; In the Aftermath of Pittsburgh

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An interfaith vigil in Milwaukee, Wisconsin following the shooting at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation

Last Friday morning I sat quietly in the sanctuary by myself for some time. As I looked at the bimah I wondered what I would have done had a gunman confronted our community. I then turned toward the seats and thought about where each of our Shabbat morning regulars sit — God forbid, had the attack occurred at the Center, who would have been hit?  When the shooter began his deadly spree of violence at Tree of Life on October 27th in Pittsburgh it was 9:54 AM: here we were finishing shaharit (morning service) and preparing to take the Torah from the ark. And then it occurred to me that if the assailant had known anything about synagogue attendance patterns, he would have postponed his attack for 45 minutes, since that’s when the bulk of the congregation arrives.  Thank God, he didn’t . . .

Anti-Semitism is as old as Western civilization. We’d feel better if we could offer a tidy and credible explanation for the hatred of Jews and the myriad self-contradictions it entails. How can otherwise rational people believe we are capitalist and communists? How can Jews be despised for being weak . . . and then feared for secretly controlling the world?  We are accused for being rootless globalists, yet are excoriated for our tribalism. Israel acts like Nazi Germany in its treatment of Palestinians, but then again, the Holocaust is a Jewish fabrication, which never happened. There is no simple explanation of a phenomenon that is as enduring as it is pernicious.

We are all God’s children. Yet to be equal is not to shun variety and diversity. We are unique and celebrate our differences; we have long refused to assimilate and disappear into the majority culture. Jews are proud that they’ve thrived for thousands of years, long after other ancient peoples became extinct.

But there are some who fear difference; individuals who cannot feel good about themselves unless they’re tearing down others. To such persons the Jew is a red flag, a reminder of their own insecure smallness. Anti-Semitism thrives in places and times of cultural upheaval, in societies where suspicion runs rampant about those who look differently, love differently, speak differently, or pray differently. The us-versus-them mentality, which suffuses so much of our social and political discourse today, nourishes prejudice of all kinds. When a white supremacist goes on a shooting spree of a Sikh temple, it is only a matter of time before an African-American church is attacked. When a mosque becomes the target of a hate crime, you can be a synagogue is next.

Image result for Synagogue bombing Jacksonville Jewish Center April 1958This is hardly a new lesson. In the wee hours of an April morning in 1958, a bomb exploded at the entrance of the Jacksonville Jewish Center in its old location in Springfield at 3rd and Silver. Not five minutes later, another explosion rocked James Weldon Johnson Junior High, an a segregated, African-American school four miles away. A call just minutes before the bombs went off claimed responsibility for both. Should anyone be surprised?

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Hayye Sarah, which means “The life of Sarah.” Yet ironically, the reading begins with the announcement of her death! In honoring the stories of the dead, we not only keep them alive, but we add layers of additional meaning to our own lives. Inveterate optimists, Judaism forbids us to engage in despair and perpetual sorrow. No matter how bleak the situation, the Psalmist finds his way from darkness to light: “You turned my lament into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy, that my whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly; O Lord my God, I will praise You forever” (Psalm 30:12-13).

This Shabbat and for countless more after that, an anti-Semite in an orange jump suit will languish in a prison cell, and perhaps after that, on death row. But even now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning services are being held at synagogues throughout Pittsburgh and, indeed, around the world.  Tree of Life will be restored.  We are resilient. Push us back and we spring forward.

When the shooter was brought to the ER, he shouted, “I want to kill all the Jews.” Unbeknownst to him, three of the doctors and a nurse who cared for him at Allegheny General were Jewish, one of them the son of a rabbi. Despite his horrific crime, he was treated fairly and impartially by the very people he wished to destroy. It reminds me how physicians at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, time and again, have saved the lives of terrorists apprehended while committing acts of mayhem and murder.

In an era marked by naked partisanship and tribalism, we overcome hatred with radical demonstrations of humanity. Rabbi Noah Shalom Barzovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, who lost nearly all of his family members to the Holocaust, observed, “Loving kindness builds the world; it is the very foundation of the universe because the Holy One created all things from hesed — is it not the way of the source of the good to produce good? Conversely, that which removes loving kindness from the world destroys the world. The path to draw divine hesed toward humanity is through performance of acts of loving-kindness, as the Talmud states (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b): “All who have compassion on God’s creatures merits God’s compassion” (Netivot Shalom, Parshat Hayye Sarah).

We are neither pacifists nor polyannas. We defend ourselves when necessary, we take security and safety seriously. But our task in this world is to overwhelm evil with goodness, to quench the fire of hatred with kindness. We respond to loss with life. In this week’s Torah portion, when Abraham dies his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, come together to bury their father. Though separated by destiny, they seek comfort and unity in each other’s presence. On Monday evening, hundreds of non-Jewish residents of Jacksonville, joined our community to show unity and seek comfort with us. The phone calls I have received from other faith leaders; the letter I received from the Bishop of St. Augustine; the donations and cards from non-Jewish neighbors in our community;  the $150,000 raised by the Muslim community for Tree of Life and its members; and, of course, those who are in attendance at services this morning to show solidarity. Countless acts of kindness flow together to form a mighty river of humanity to extinguish the flames of intolerance.

The American Jewish poet, Charles Reznikoff, once wrote: “Out of the Jewish dead, out of the greatly wronged, a people teaching and doing justice; out of the plundered a generous people; out of the wounded a people of physicians; and out of those who met only hate, a people of love, a compassionate people.” In the face of those who seek to divide Americans, we unite; in the presence of death we look for life; confronted by hate, we practice kindness. Where there is darkness we kindle light, where suffering exists we practice empathy. Truth crushed to the earth will rise again. And so will we. Am Yisrael Hai — the people Israel lives!


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Image result for jacksonville skylineWhen I drive to the airport I generally prefer to go through downtown because I’ve always loved city skylines.  Even when I travel to the airport via the Beltway, about mid-span over the Buckman Bridge I look downriver to see the tiny silhouettes of our big buildings in the distance. I’m the kind of guy who knows that, at 42 floors and 617 feet, the Bank of America Tower is not only the tallest building in Jacksonville, but the 11th tallest in Florida, and the highest in the state outside of Miami.

Of course, there is nothing in the world quite like the New York skyline with its countless spires, which poet Walt Whitman once described as, “high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.” From whichever direction I approach Manhattan, my eyes go first to One World Trade Center, the tallest of the Big Apple’s many fingers pointing heavenward. And each time I do, I reflexively note the absence of the Twin Towers that stood there for 28 years until one Tuesday morning in September, 17 years ago today.

Every time we now fly, we experience one of the legacies of 9/11: shoes off; laptop out; finish or throw out that drink before the security checkpoint. It seems unbelievable today, but 18 years ago you could bring a baseball bat or a knife up to 4 inches long on a plane. Still, when we go through the TSA line we’re probably not thinking about the events of September 11, 2001, but are focusing inside on the struggle to take off our shoes while simultaneously getting our laptop and clear bag of toiletries into the bin for screening.

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“Have you seen . . .?” Flyers seeking information on the missing are plastered all over the city.  Late September 2001

Every so often history makes an indelible mark on our memories. The morning of that terrorist attack is seared into our brains as the day when our collective sense of invulnerability as a nation was shattered. As the tragedy of that early September morning unfolded, we heard the anguished cries of families fearfully awaiting news of loved ones. We saw the pictures that plastered the walls of construction sites and subway stations, the photos and descriptions of the missing. We mourned those who left for work one morning, never to return.

The sorrow of that time seemed to transform the world and galvanize our nation. In the weeks following the attack, extravagance was in poor taste, frivolous behaviors frowned upon. Contributions to charity skyrocketed. New Yorkers, Washingtonians, indeed, all Americans came together in a way not seen since World War II. Bipartisanship was the theme of the hour.

Those first months following 9/11 Americans lived with a new sense of purpose and urgency. As the realization of life’s ephemeral quality and its uncertainty set in, many who delayed marriage took the plunge. Those who had put off having children decided to wait no longer. Who knew what might be around the corner? The summer following 9/11 a mini baby-boom took place around the nation. In the aftermath of the tragedy, myriad talk shows and newspapers featured human interest stories about the emotional and spiritual changes happening within the fabric of American culture.

Not unlike Hagar, Hannah and Rachel, the heroines of Rosh Hashanah’s Scriptural readings, who found ultimate redemption through tears of grief, it appeared that America was prepared to distill meaning from its mourning. In sorrow we resolved to change. And we did change. . .for a while.

Human beings are resilient; we possess elasticity of mind and spirit. Great force can compel us to stretch ourselves, to reach farther and higher. With the passage of time, however, a relaxation of tension causes us to slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly, contract. Eventually most of us return to our old grooves. Except for those who lost loved ones that day, the weeks, months and years since September 11th have seen us largely go back to old ways of thinking and doing.

The horrific images of that morning showed us the importance of living to the fullest because the business of life is uncertain, yet how many parents curtailed their working hours to find more time to spend with their children because of 9/11? How many spouses have invoked 9/11 to revitalize marriages gone stale because they now realize how fragile life is? How many of us have fundamentally changed the way we treat those who work on our behalf, viewing their efforts with greater empathy? Have we sought additional opportunities to volunteer or give more tzedakah as a response to September 11th? Do we wake up each morning with a greater appreciation of what it means to be alive because one beautiful autumn day nearly 3,000 people were killed for no good reason and with little warning?

Once upon a time, when I was younger and more naive, I believed that suffering by itself could make one a better person. The very act of loss, despair and hurt should be enough to create a resonant empathy, an ongoing feeling of compassion. Indeed, the word “compassion” means “with suffering.” After Susan and I lost our daughter, Ranit, 19 years ago, I remember vowing to myself that I would be a better person forever. Having experienced hell itself, I would always offer a shoulder a lean on, a hand to hold, and a listening ear to all those in pain. When I shared this resolve with a friend, who had fought a difficult battle against cancer and was a survivor, he smiled and said, “You think life has forever changed for you. Yes, it has. But there’s a difference between life changing for you, and you changing for life. Just wait and see; plenty of your old self will come back to keep you company.”

Suffering alone cannot make a person better, or for that matter, a society. With the passage of time, the open gash heals to a scar; the burning imperative to find meaning becomes muted. Life goes on. And if the desire to be better in the wake of trauma is proof of our Divine spark, then a return to the old rhythms of everyday life is evidence of our human nature. As the aches and anxieties of painful wounds heal, the keen sense of urgency ebbs and gradually dissipates.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unlike other Jewish holidays, aren’t tied to a particular agricultural or historical event. And though we think of Rosh Hashanah as the Jewish New Year, the Torah considers Tishri to be the seventh month, not the first! It would almost seem that these Days of Awe were placed on the calendar at random, with little rhyme or reason.

Rosh Hashanah would be no less meaningful in January than September; its theme of self-improvement and better living as timely in the winter or spring as in the autumn. And that is precisely the message of these days. Real change is not measured by what we do in the moment of intense emotion, the immediate aftermath of tragedy. It doesn’t come as they wheel us into the O.R. for major surgery, or as we lie in a foxhole in the middle of a battle. Such events batter down the door of complacency, they force us to confront the fragility and transience of life; and they may serve as catalysts for change. . . if we use them. But the danger passes, the moment recedes. The heart equivocates. The mind hesitates.

For true teshuvah to happen, for real change to occur, it requires the willingness to work on oneself in the most ordinary and humdrum of circumstances. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” a modern guru tells us, but, it is precisely how we deal with the small stuff that reveals who we are. The moments of great triumph or agony are, for most of us, relatively few. Our lives are defined by the mundane moments in between.

But that is why God created in us the capacity to tell stories and to learn from them. Even without the intensity of trauma and its immediate aftermath, we can recall a story and remind ourselves of its meaning. On that fateful September day there were thousands of stories created. Most of them are not the stories of Jews, but they are Jewish stories because they highlight authentic Jewish values. They are shofar sounds by way of narrative: just as the ram’s horn awakens us to what really matters, the accounts of the survivors call us to rise from the slumber of our complacency.

Jarek Klimczak survived because two co-workers made the mistake of arriving two hours early for a meeting. He left the Marriott at 3 World Trade Center, which later collapsed under the debris of the second tower, to have coffee with his colleagues. He went out in casual clothing with nothing but his key card to room 1043, planning to return in an hour to get ready. The decision saved his life, but cost him all his belongings: “Only hours before,” he later observed, “the items in my luggage seemed so dear to me — some of them too precious to ever consider losing. But in the face of this scene of carnage, and in the instant of their disintegration, they all became trivial objects not worth a thought.” A simple reminder of what really matters.

Denise Campbell witnessed a man falling, seeming to flying really, from the South Tower in a dark suit and a light-colored tie. For months he was in her dreams. Eventually she composed a letter to his memory, writing, “In my dreams you came to me and I could always feel your presence. I wonder if that is you in my dream, coming to greet me, introducing yourself. I wonder if you know that the pain of seeing you fly introduced a new thread of reality for me — a thread of anger, pain, guilt for living, worry, acceptance, devout respect, hope, love, and of peace, finally peace. Today I live each day with gratitude and wonder . . . I am not perfect. I am flawed. I make mistakes and mess up. There are days I fail to reach my objective of carrying gratitude and seeing the wonder of this thing called life. But somehow I pick myself up and readjust, putting those who have died in the forefront of my mind.”

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The “Survivor Tree” November 14, 2001

If you visit the 9/11 Memorial Plaza you will see a very special Callery pear tree, known as the “Survivor Tree.” Almost a month after the attack on the Twin Towers, the tree was discovered at Ground Zero severely damaged with snapped roots and burnt and broken branches. Workers removed the tree from the rubble and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation nurtured it back to health. After nine years of recovery and rehabilitation, the city returned the tree to the Memorial plaza in 2010. Look carefully at the trunk, and you’ll see the new, smooth limbs that extend from the gnarled stumps, creating a visible demarcation between the tree’s past and present. The tree is a poignant, living reminder of resilience. It carries the scars of tragedy, but when it blooms in the spring, its flowers look like those of any other pear tree.

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The “Survivor Tree” at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza today

Unlike the pear tree, however, we are not merely the victims of life’s cruel vagaries. We can make a difference — like Gregory Fredrick, a hotel engineer who just happened to remember he had fixed a shower bar in a handicapped woman’s room on the 5th floor of the Marriott at the World Trade Center. His recollection saved the life of Leigh, a wheel-chair bound woman with multiple sclerosis, and her mother Faye. They were trapped on their floor when the passenger elevators cut out. Using a freight elevator that still had power, Gregory’s thoughtfulness saved the lives of two women of whom he knew nothing but their first names. They would disappear into the chaos of that day, and he wouldn’t see them again for eight years. Gregory Fredrick would reflect to an interviewer years later, “Sometimes our calling is way beyond us, and that’s what happened to me. I happened to be at the right place. I don’t know what made me think about Leigh and Faye. But I thought about them. Meanwhile, I try to stay strong. It is important to live our lives to the fullest because we don’t know how long we have in this world.”

September 11, 2001 was a moment in time, one that will be remembered as a day of infamy. Time will continue to run its course, and as the years go by, the power of September 11th to inform our behavior will continue to diminish — much in the same way that December 7th, 1941 — another “day in infamy” — no longer has bearing on the actions of those born after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Such is human nature. It is perhaps a curse, but more likely a blessing, since the passage of time can heal us as well. We could scarcely continue to exist if we always lived in the presence of intense emotion or unbearable pain.

Rosh Hashanah, however, is timeless. It comes out of nowhere — unconnected to any particular date or event in history — to remind us that teshuvah is not the business of grand gestures and sweeping changes made in the heat of the moment, but is at the heart of making the mundane better as we bear in mind the stories that warn and teach us of life’s fragility. Said Rabbi Eliezer in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Sages: “שׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתָךְ — Repent one day before your death” (Avot 2:10). The Talmud objects, “But how does one know when will that be?” “Exactly the reason to start today,” is the answer (BT, Shabbat 153a).

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The World Trade Center towers as they were

The night before the World Trade Center attack, I drove into New York City for a meeting and had dinner at a kosher restaurants two blocks from what would become ground zero twelve hours later. It was a clear and pleasant evening. Because I love skyscrapers I automatically looked up at the Twin Towers as I drove by; their commanding height and twinkling lights always invited a glance . . . a glance, but no more; these buildings were a permanent part of the skyline; landmarks to be taken for granted. If I only had known. . .

The suddenness and swiftness of tragedy, which impels us to live with urgency. . . that was the lesson we learned on September 11th, 2001, the day of. Rosh Hashanah, however, is the lesson of September 10th, 2001, the day before. The time when all was quiet and seemingly well. The time to change is now. For who know what waits in the wings of tomorrow? Who truly knows?

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Students evacuating Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida

In last week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read about the construction of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary our ancestors used from the era of their desert wanderings until the building of the First Temple. At the very heart of the structure was the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant which contained the first and second set of tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.    Over the ark there were the cherubim, two winged figures made of pure gold. They served as shields for the ark, as well as a kind of throne, if you will, from which God would communicate with Moses and impart the Divine word.

The rabbis speculated extensively about what the cherubim actually looked like.  In a play on the word Kruv, (the Hebrew for “cherub”) the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Abbahu, suggested that the word means, “K’raviya” – like a child (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 5b).  It’s a powerful idea: our children, symbolically speaking, stand in proximity to the Ark of the Covenant, in the spiritual geography of Judaism, we place them in the Holy of Holies.

A week ago a terrible tragedy took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  17 human beings were shot down in cold blood by a disturbed 19-year old, who could not legally purchase a beer, but was able to buy an AR-15 assault rifle in perfect conformity with state law.  Our schools should be Holy of Holies – places of safety, civility and education, places of hope for the future, where children can expand their horizons and forge life-long friendships.

          Yet Nikolas Cruz entered that Holy of Holies and destroyed 17 cherubic figures within.  There were many cues that were ignored or missed.  He had demonstrated signs of being violent and disturbed.  Cruz was known to express anti-social views.  He had been expelled from school for his violent behavior and had shown an obsession for guns . . . And yet he was able to buy all the accouterments of death with which to murder others with maximum efficiency.  There is something terribly wrong here.


But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, take the rag away from your face; now ain’t the time for your tears.

-Bob Dylan, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Some of our leaders – particularly those who consistently oppose gun control in any form – will tell you in the wake of every mass shooting that now is the time for prayer, not politics.  This response has become a meme of sorts, the trope of apologists who defend the Second Amendment, yet transgress the Second Commandment by elevating the right to bear arms into a kind of idolatry.  The sincerity of their pious words would be more believable if they told us when, exactly, would be the right time to have an honest and unflinching debate about the balance between public safety and gun rights.

Yet none other than God reminds us that there are moments when prayer just isn’t enough.  When Moses and the children of Israel had their backs to the sea, and Moses began to pray, God said, “Why do you cry out to me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15).   There is a time for a prayer, but also a time for action.   The very families devastated by the tragedy in Parkland are crying out to our elected officials for decisive action; they demand more than heart-felt prayer alone.


Ours is not a pacifistic religion; there is nothing in Judaism that would preclude individuals from owning firearms, whether for sport or self-defense.  Indeed, killing an individual in self-defense is sanctioned by the Torah itself: “אִם־בַּמַּחְתֶּ֛רֶת יִמָּצֵ֥א הַגַּנָּ֖ב וְהֻכָּ֣ה וָמֵ֑ת אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ דָּמִֽים — If a thief is discovered while breaking in and is beaten to death, there is no blood-guilt in this case” (Exodus 22:1).  The Talmud comments, “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. Here it may be presumed that the thief has come to kill you, because he knows that a person will not hold himself back and remain silent when an intruder invades his property. Therefore the thief comes with the implicit assumption that if the owner of the property attempts to intervene or stop him, he [the thief] would kill him first” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a).

Yet elsewhere Judaism invokes and affirms that self-protection has its limits. There were no guns in Talmudic times, of course, but it wasn’t unusual for folks to keep a wild dog on hand to protect themselves from robbers. The owner of an attack dog, however, was not given carte blanche to do as he felt like. In the Shulhan Arukh, the preeminent 16th-century code of Jewish law, we learn that it was forbidden to raise a dangerous dog in an urban areas unless secured with a metal chain at all times (Hoshen Mishpat 409:3). The thinking here is that while a barking dog can deter robbers, the liability of letting a vicious dog go free is too much, since it might attack an innocent bystander.  In more rural settings, on the other hand, Jewish law permitted the owner to take the dog off its leash at night . . . so long as he was tied up again by day.  In remote areas the assumption is that help might be farther away and the danger greater — hence the permissibility to allow the dog to roam one’s property at night.  Still, the animal had to be restrained by day because of the liability associated with letting it roam free.  Judaism insists that our responsibility for the well-being others is no less important than one’s own personal protection.

For the same reason, halakhah would also limit the sale of weaponry to those deemed unstable, of flawed character or suspected of criminal intent.  We read in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah: “Our sages taught: One should not sell idolators or Kutim (two classes of individuals considered of dubious character) either weapons or accessories of weapons; one should not grind any weapon for them; one may not sell them either stocks, neck-chains, ropes, or iron chains.”  The rabbis extend this prohibition even to fellow Jews of whom there is concern about their intentions (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 15b).  Since it was not always apparent from appearances whether or not an individual might fit into any of the above categories, the law presumes the need for some kind of inquiry; in modern terms, a background check.

The Torah offers a sensible and balanced view.  Jewish law has no problem with the Second Amendment, but does take serious exception when the right to bear arms is transformed into an absolute, trumping all other considerations. To live in social compact with others is to agree that we accept some limitations on our behavior for the greater good — just as there are certain limits posed on the First Amendment for the commonweal, so, too, with the Second.

A honest reading of Jewish law would support closing the gun show loophole that allows for the purchase of weapons without a background check; prohibiting bump stocks or any means by which semi-automatic weapons might be converted into automatic weapons; getting rid of high capacity magazines; and requiring gun safety measures in homes where young children can and have ended up dead while playing with firearms.  Jewish values would support making it impossible for individuals who had demonstrated violent, anti-social behavior to procure guns simply by walking into a store.

The foregoing are positions taken by United Synagogue, the Rabbinical Assembly, the National Council of Jewish Women, the ADL, the Union of Reform Judaism, and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, and many others.  I urge you as I have done to yet again write our legislators in Washington, lest they find themselves relegated to the wrong side of history on this issue.  I believe sane gun laws will one day prevail, the only question is how many more massacres like the one of this past week it will take.

Our young people are watching us.  They are waiting to see what we do in the wake of yet another mass shooting in yet another school.  Here’s a post I read on Facebook from Jamie Bielski, a 15-year-old member of our congregation:  “I can’t stress enough how important the issue of gun control is. Regardless of your own political belief, hopefully you can see that legislation regarding guns should not be handled in the way it is today. Had Congress learned from history and had new legislation been passed, we would not be devastated by the tragedy that occurred yesterday in Parkland. Please take action. Call or email your representatives.” To Jamie’s plea, I would point you to the resources within the Jewish community that can help you learn more, and be an effective advocate for gun legislation reflective of our tradition’s values: Rabbis Against Gun Violence; the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the community resource guide on gun violence prevention of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

          We have entered the month of Adar.   In ancient times, it was during this month that a half shekel tax was collected from Jewish communities throughout the world for bedek ha-bayit, the repair and support of the Temple in Judaism.  In the Holy of Holies, we need to repair the damage that has been done by the smoking barrel of an AR-15, to restore the cherubim mangled by yet another shooter with a weapon of great destruction.

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We cannot resurrect those killed in Parkland: Peter Weng, age 15; Carmen Schentrup, 16; Alex Schachter, 14; Helena Ramsay, 17; Meadow Pollack, 18; Alaina Petty, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Gina Montalto, 14; Cara Loughran, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; athletic director Christopher Hixon, 49; Jamie Guttenberg, 14; assistant football coach, Aaron Feis, 37; Nicholas Dworet, 17; geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Alyssa Alhadeff, 14.  No, these precious lives are gone, but we can work to ensure that this does not happen again. And again.  And again.  Our children are watching; so is God.





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MEET THE MAN WHO SAVED YOUR LIFE: A Yizkor sermon for Shemini Atzeret 5778

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The Hebrew word Yizkor means “remember”.  It begins each of the individual prayers we recite asking God to remember our loved ones in exchange for our pledges of tzedakah or the promise of righteous acts.  In truth we are not asking an omniscient God to remember; after all, can we truly imagine a “forgetful” God?  Rather, we are asking God to help us remember, because human frailty sometimes occasions forgetfulness on our part.  Through acts of tzedakah and the performance of ma’asim tovim, good deeds, we add substance to our memories of family and friends, linking our recollections of them to tangible and positive acts of righteousness.

Yet this morning I would like us to take the time to remember an individual that none of us ever met.  It is unlikely you’ll recognize his name or be able to identify his single greatest achievement.  And while I believe he was an intelligent individual who succeeded in his chosen field, his presence in today’s sermon is due to a single 5-minute period in his life.

So where were you on September 26th in 1983?  A check of my 200-year calendar revealed that it was a Monday during the intermediate days of Sukkot.  I was a junior at Vassar College; and I don’t have any recollection of what I was doing that day . . . other than the fact that I was likely in a classroom somewhere on campus in Poughkeepsie, New York.  Only a few weeks earlier, Korean Airlines Flight 007 had been shot down by a Soviet jet with all 269 passengers killed.  A civil war raged in Angola, while Lebanon had already disintegrated into multiple warring factions.  The attack on the U.S. Marines compound in Beirut was still almost a month away.  Ronald Reagan was our President, while the Phillies and the Dodgers, as well as the Orioles and the White Sox, were in the final week of the regular season, getting to ready to battle one another for their respective league championships.

September 26, 1983 was probably an ordinary day for most of us — sufficiently mundane to pass into history unnoticed, relegated to the place beyond memory where all distant yesterdays melt into undifferentiated oneness.

But that day could easily have been the last of your life and mine.  Indeed, it almost was the last day of the human race.  Every child born after that date, and every person who lived to wake up the morning of September 27th, 1983 owes a debt to gratitude to a person they probably never heard of because of a momentous decision they never knew he made.

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Petrov as a young officer

Stanislav Petrov was his name, and he died quietly last month at the age of 77.  On that morning back in 1983, however, he was a 44-year old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. Stationed at Serpukhov-15, the secret command center outside Moscow where the Soviet military monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States, he was just a few hours into his shift when sirens went off.  What was then state-of-the-art computer equipment warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base and where heading straight toward the Soviet Union.

Keep in mind that the autumn of 1983 was a very tense moment in the Cold War.  The Soviets were wary that their downing of KAL flight 007 would be avenged in some way; President Reagan had rejected calls for freezing the arms race, and had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Kremlin’s leader, Yuri V. Andropov, was obsessed by fears of an imminent attack American attack.

Colonel Petrov occupied a critical spot in the decision-making chain. His was the responsibility to authenticate  the report of incoming missiles to the Soviet military’s senior staff, who would then consult with Mr. Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack.  As the computer systems in front of him changed their alert status from “launch” to “missile strike,” and affirmed the accuracy of the satellite transmissions, Colonel Petrov had to figure out what to do.  The tracking devices indicated that detonation would occur in 25 minutes . . . each minute spent without taking action decreased the possibility of launching a successful retaliatory strike against the United States.

After five nerve-racking minutes — electronic maps and screens were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb streams of incoming information — Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm.  As he later explained, it was a gut decision, at best a “50-50” guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and a hunch that if the U.S. had opted to launch a first-strike it would have fired scores upon scores of missiles rather than just five.

He was right . . . and here we are today.  The false alarm was the result of a Soviet satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. The computer program that was supposed to filter out such information had to be rewritten.
Petrov was never given a medal or a commendation for his willingness to trust his own instincts rather than a computer.  Instead, he received a reprimand for not having recorded in his logbook all of the data that streamed past him in those unforgettable few moments.  It didn’t matter that he had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, so he didn’t have a third hand to log data.


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Petrov in his final years

Stanislav Petrov never boasted about his decision to trust his gut rather than the computer screen in front of him.  He left the military a year later, and faded into obscurity — at one point he was reduced to growing potatoes to feed himself.  But for the publication of a 1998 memoir by General Yuriy Votintsev, the retired commander of Soviet missile defense, his role in averting nuclear Armageddon would never have been known.  “I was just at the right place at the right time,” he said in a later interview.

Was it God who put Stanislav Petrov in that control room on September 26th, 1983?  If he had called in sick and someone less distrustful of computers had taken his place, would we be here today?  He was just doing his job — so he claimed — but what acknowledgment do we owe an individual who, on a hunch, ignored his computer and thereby avoided what surely would have been the start of World War III?  What does it mean in the larger sense to be at the right place at the right time?  And how does one know that he or she is, unless granted the gift of 20/20 hindsight?

We learn in the Mishnah of Avot in the name of Ben Azzai, “אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם — Do not dismiss any person; do not underrate the importance of any thing — for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place under the sun” (Avot 4:3).

Is there an American Stanislav Petrov on watch deep in the nuclear bunker of Cheyenne Mountain in Wyoming?  More disturbing, is there a Petrov-like figure waiting in the wings somewhere in North Korea’s top secret nuclear headquarter?   Are we dancing on the edge of a volcano?

There is no person without his hour.  One need not be a hero to save the world; or to put it differently, being heroic doesn’t necessarily require anything but a willingness to do one’s job . . . and accept responsibility for the call one makes.  The drama of Stanislav Petrov’s story is not why he deserves to be remembered, but because he was as ordinary as the effect of his decision was extraordinary.  In going to work one day, he just happened to save the world.

Which is precisely the point.  The Apter Rebbe, the great-grandfather of the theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once observed:  “A person does not choose the form in which he wishes to perform service for God, but rather perform it in any way opportunity affords.  He should be like a vessel into which anything may be poured — wine, milk, or water” (Menorah Ha-Tehorah, p. 80).  Whether future generations will remember our deeds or not, God calls each of us to change our world in some way by being at the right place at the right time . . . even though we may be clueless about the what, where or when.  In the end your small acts of wisdom or compassion may be of equal or greater value to the grand gestures you consider to be your most enduring legacy.

Edward Markham, the American poet, once wrote, “Choices are the hinges of destiny.”  During Yizkor, let us consider how the choices of our loved ones changed our destinies, whether for good, for ill, or perhaps both.  Everything we do in life potentially matters . . . even the decision to remember some people and forget others.  I will remember Stanislav Petrov — not just because I’m happy that I wasn’t obliterated in a nuclear holocaust that September morning 34 years ago, but because he has quietly reminded me that I may make a lasting change in just a few minutes of living, and in so doing, alter the course of another human being’s destiny.  For if every person is a planet in the galaxy of humanity, then, maybe each of us may save a world and assure our place in eternity.


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In Search of Meaningful Adjacencies – Yom Kippur 5778

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Reflecting Absence — The 9/11 Memorial

When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to  Marshall Nirenberg.  He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . . When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to  Marshall Nirenberg.  He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . .

Let me be clear.  My family doesn’t live across the street from Professor Nirenberg, any more than he lives across the street from them.  Rather, they are buried across a path from one another in Sharon Gardens, a large Jewish cemetery in Westchester County, 25 miles north of Manhattan.  It is quite an accomplishment to receive a Nobel Prize; yet until I read his tombstone, I had never heard of Nirenberg; it’s only because he’s my family’s neighbor that I became acquainted with him.  Funny whom you meet in a cemetery . . .

Ismar Lubliner's graveWhile in New York a month ago I had a few free hours before my flight home.  On an impulse I decided to visit the grave of my Uncle Ismar.  Ismar was serving in the army of occupation when killed in Japan a few months after V-J day.  He had just turned 25.  Though our son, Itamar, is named after my uncle, I had never met Ismar, because he had died nearly twenty years before my birth.  Grandma Johanna, of blessed memory, couldn’t afford the cost of a burial in a Jewish cemetery, so she let Uncle Sam pick up the tab.  Ismar’s final resting place is at Pinelawn National Cemetery on Long Island.

When I first saw Ismar’s grave, I was struck by the fact that it was but a tiny island in a sea of identical white tombstones stretching across the horizon. Despite the fact that Pinelawn houses the remains of 350,000 veterans and their spouses, it seemed that Ismar was alone, surrounded by strangers.  To his left was a fellow named Charlie Clarke from Georgia who, judging by the date of his death and division, most likely died in the battle for the Rhineland in December, 1944.  Buried on Ismar’s right was Cleveland Weeks, a Private in the Quartermaster’s Corp, who died in December, 1943.  And immediately behind my uncle’s grave is that of a fellow Jew, Staff Sergeant Lawrence Lustgarten, who served in the 491st Army Airforce Bomber Squadron. Again, judging the date of his death and the assignment of his squadron which I looked up on-line, Sgt. Lustgarten probably died while bombing Japanese forces in China in 1944.

These young men from dramatically different backgrounds lived and died hundreds or thousands of miles apart.  King David’s beautiful words about the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan do not apply: “הַנֶּאֱהָבִ֤ים וְהַנְּעִימִם֙ בְּחַיֵּיהֶ֔ם וּבְמוֹתָ֖ם לֹ֣א נִפְרָ֑דוּ — Beloved and cherished, they were never parted in life or in death” (II Samuel 1:23). My uncle and his neighbors never met in life.  Only in death will they rest side-by-side for all eternity.  If there’s meaning to be found the proximity of their remains it is that they were all part of the “Great Generation” which fought the tyranny of the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire.  Perhaps that’s meaning enough.

The first time I heard the term “meaningful adjacency” was during a visit to the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan.  At the site where each of the Twin Towers stood, there’s a pool surrounded by a railing on which panels are mounted listing the names of those who died on that tragic date of September 11, 2001.  The original proposal called for the names of the dead to be placed randomly around the two reflecting pools marking the sites of the North and South Towers. The designers, Michael Arad and Peter Walker explained that “any arrangement that tries to impose meaning through physical adjacency will cause grief and anguish to people who might be excluded from that process, furthering the sense of loss that they are already suffering.”

But Arad and Walker were wrong.  In response to more than 1,200 requests from family members, they decided to arrange the names of the the nearly 3,000 victims using an algorithm to create “meaningful adjacencies” based on relationships — proximity at the time of the attacks, as well as company or organization affiliations for those working at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.  The goal was to surround each victim with the names of those they sat with, worked with, those they lived with and, very possibly, those they died with.

The term “meaningful adjacency” has stuck in my head ever since.  The phrase captures what so many of us seek when we consider where we want to be buried. It is natural to derive meaning and comfort from knowing you’ll be laid to rest near loved ones.  Ask my assistant Danielle, who handles purchases for plots at our cemeteries.  The quest for meaningful adjacency is what underlies the conversation of congregants thinking about where to purchase plots: Will it be near parents, spouses, or God forbid, children?  Should one be interred by the side of one’s first spouse or one’s second? Sometimes it’s even about the folks next to whom a person doesn’t want to be buried.  Occasionally we have to deal with the difficult religious question of disinterment.  Though generally frowned upon by Jewish law, under some circumstances it’s permissible to relocate a body, but only when doing so creates a meaningful adjacency that more than offsets the disrespect of disinterment.  Where we “live,” so to speak, after we’ve died is given significance by spending eternity near the folks about whom we most cared in life.

In death we find meaning in the adjacencies of those buried near us.  In life, however, it can go both ways.  In other words, adjacency can foster meaning just as much as meaning creates adjacency.  Our values and priorities can shape our choices of where we live and why, or what we choose to own; but by the same token, our surroundings and possessions can also subtly shape our values and priorities in ways we scarcely notice, but are no less real for the lack of attention they receive.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Lot and His Daughters (circa 1614)

In the Torah, Abraham’s nephew Lot chooses to move his family to the city of Sodom.  He isn’t seduced by their immorality or enticed by their depravity.  Rather, “וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת ה’ אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה — And Lot looked around and saw how well-watered the entire plain of the Jordan was, before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10).  For a shepherd it was an ideal locale for pasturage.  Of course, that the bad character of his new neighbors didn’t seem to bother Lot is itself a comment on his character.  But perhaps the most fateful consequence of Lot’s decision to live in Sodom was the environmental impact on his daughters.  After Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for turning to watch Sodom’s destruction, he and his daughters take refuge in a cave . . . where they get their father drunk and sleep with him.  While justifying their incest as a need to repopulate the world in the wake of a destruction they believed to be universal, commentator Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz notes, “This explanation is untenable, seeing they had just left Zoar [a town which had suffered no devastation].  Their conduct does not admit of any extenuation; they were true children of Sodom.”  Children live what they learn; they learn by what they see around them.

In a very different take on the influence of our surroundings, a wealthy man once entreated the ancient sage, Rabbi Yose ben Kisma, to accept a lucrative position as the spiritual leader of a community with no rabbi.  Despite the promise of a 100,000 golden dinarii as well as precious stones and jewels, the rabbi declined the offer, saying, “אִם אַתָּה נוֹתֵן לִי כָּל כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וַאֲבָנִים טוֹבוֹת וּמַרְגָּלִיּוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם, אֵינִי דָר אֶלָּא בִּמְקוֹם תּוֹרָה — Were you to give me all the money, jewels, and pearls in the entire world, I would only dwell in a place of Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:9). Rabbi Yose ben Kisma understood the concept of meaningful adjacency, even if unacquainted with the term itself.

In Judaism there is a concept of tumah, which is often translated as “ritual impurity.”  It’s an unfortunate translation, because in English the word “impurity” has a negative connotation, which the Hebrew doesn’t have; tumah is a morally neural term.  One can only become tameh through contact with a source of tumah, such as childbirth, dead bodies, certain species of animals, or various body fluids.  None of the foregoing are “bad”, they’re simply a part of life.  For Jews, cemeteries are sacred places, but they also happen to communicate tumah.  The concept of tumah emphasizes the impact of environment on our spiritual selves.  We are whom we touch, where we live, what we see.

The upper middle class family whose kids are raised in an exclusively white neighborhood attending a largely white private school are likely to grow up so immersed in white privilege as to be unable to see the ways in which it has shaped their existence.  The African American youngster raised in a ghetto neighborhood with failing schools will possess a radically different view of the police, city government, or the public school system.  The youngster who grows up in a trailer park in rural Suwanee County, Florida surrounded by adults who’ve never met a Jew may well have a preconception of Jews influenced by her surroundings.

In this way we are no different than Lot or Rabbi Yose ben Kisma whose lives were shaped by their neighborhoods.  To be sure, there are Jews compelled for one reason or another to live in a place lacking in Jewish life.  If that truly bothers them, however, they will go the extra mile to create a meaningful Jewish existence, and that extra effort may actually add unexpected depth to their Jewish identity (indeed, I know this personally from having lived in Japan for a year).  But if Judaism is important enough to them, they’re also likelier to depart for greener Jewish pastures when time and circumstances permit.

Yet if the absence of Jewish institutions plays little or no role in deciding where to live, it is not only a potential sign of Judaism’s marginal relevance to that person, it is also likely to further erode his or her link with Jewish life.  When a high school senior decides on a college with few Jews and no organized Jewish life, it’s not only evidence of Judaism’s current irrelevance to her but portends greater estrangement from Jewish life because of its absence at a critical moment in her life.  Like a photographic negative, meaningful adjacency also consists of what we choose not to live with, the experiences and opportunities of which we deprive ourselves, whether intentionally or not.


Image result for old pushkesThe concept of meaningful adjacency also finds expression in the objects with which we surround ourselves. More than 25 years ago, Susan and I were visiting the parents of a fellow rabbinical student in Rochester, New York.  Theirs was a well-to-do family and we walked around the house oohing and ahhing their art collection.  On one wall was a Chagall, on another a Rembrandt, on a third was a Picasso . . . these were not reproductions, but the real deal.  When we expressed to my friend’s father how impressed we were by his art collection, he replied, “Yeah, they’re nice, but here, let me show you something really special.”  It was hard to imagine what could possible top the incredible display of art we had just seen.  We followed him into another room and there, in a glass-fronted cabinet was a collection of pushkes, tzedakah boxes from various countries and centuries.  There is no question that the value of the artwork far exceeded the monetary worth of the pushkes, but it was equally clear that this man derived far more meaning from the tzedakah boxes than from the masterworks on his walls.  For him the latter was decoration, but the former a reflection of his own commitment to charitable giving and Jewish life.

Next time you visit Israel it’s worth taking a trip to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev.  It is here that David Ben-Gurion lived after his retirement from politics until his death in 1973.  You can visit Ben Gurion’s house, which is more of a large hut than anything else.  Everything has been left exactly as it was when he died.  If you take a tour of the site, you will quickly see that Ben-Gurion was a man of few pretensions and possessed little appetite for material goods.  You will also see that the one thing he had in incredible abundance was books.  He was a voracious reader in several languages and owned a vast library.  In the objects found in his modest home, you’ll learn a lot about the character of David Ben-Gurion.

And this is true of all of us.  If you died today and a curator were to create an exhibit of your life frozen in time, what would be found in your pockets?  On your nightstand? In your desk or wardrobe?  What payments would your last bank statement reflect, to whom would you have written checks in the last few weeks of your life?  What would your computer’s files contain, and what would they say about your character?

True meaningful adjacency doesn’t come from the person we declare ourselves to be, but from the testimony submitted by our actual surroundings and possessions.  “I am proud of my Jewish heritage,” a person proclaims.  Yet a walk through his home reveals no mezuzah on the door, no Jewish ritual objects or books on the shelves in the family room.  His check stubs and bank statements reveal no charitable giving to Jewish causes; his correspondence indicates he belongs to various civic associations, but not a synagogue.  There is no reason for us to doubt this person’s declaration of Jewish pride, but it is equally undeniable that it possesses no record and leaves no legacy.  To proclaim values for which there is no evidence of having existed is a little like being buried in an unmarked grave.

Image result for fox in the vineyardIn Midrash Kohelet Rabbah there’s a story about a hungry fox who spies a vineyard of luscious grapes.  He squeezes through the fence and greedily eats to his heart’s content, but when he tries to get through the fence, he has become too fat to escape.  To leave the vineyard he has no choice but to fast until he has returned to his original size.  Upon his departure, he stares sadly at the delicious grapes and says, “O vineyard, O vineyard, how good are you and your fruit!  All that is inside you is beautiful, but what benefit can one get from you?  As one enters you, so he comes out, hence Scripture teaches, ‘כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר יָצָא֙ מִבֶּ֣טֶן אִמּ֔וֹ עָר֛וֹם יָשׁ֥וּב לָלֶ֖כֶת כְּשֶׁבָּ֑א  — As one comes out of his mother’s womb so must he depart, naked as he came —  וּמְא֨וּמָה֙ לֹֽא־יִשָּׂ֣א בַֽעֲמָל֔וֹ שֶׁיֹּלֵ֖ךְ בְּיָדֽוֹ — He shall take nothing of his wealth with him’” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

No, we can’t take it with us.  But that’s just the point.  What we leave behind are all the meaningful adjacencies we’ve created, all the objects and clues which tell the future the truth about our values, beliefs, and relationships.  They may be objects or memories, but they are the actual record in real time of our true identities.

Who are you sitting next to at services today?  Who would you never want to sit with?  Which friends or family have you cut yourself off from, and who are friends your children hang out with?  Where do you spend your time and where do you not?  How do you spend your money?  What books are gathering dust on your shelves and which volumes are threadbare from constant use? If you own a pair of Tefillin do you know where it is, and if so, is it a curio in your closet, worn but a single day in your life?  What apps are on your phone, and what pictures in your wallet?  When was the last time you volunteered to help the needy or came to make a minyan?

Yom Kippur is a day when we realize how our possessions, surroundings, and the way in which we spend our time reveal our relationship to the world.  Do we like what we see?  If we are completely honest, do the furnishings of our lives match what we say is most important to us?

Time is a curator taking inventory of all our adjacencies, both spatial and temporal. In life’s gallery of art, it is the totality of our physical existence which forms the collection we bequeath to others.  Deciding next to whom you’ll be buried, that’s the easy part. The most important meaningful adjacency, however, is the one between life and death. The inevitable proximity of the hereafter and the herenow demands we think about what surrounds us in the present.  Beyond the grave, memories are the only ligaments connecting us to the earthly existence of those who go the way of all flesh.  These ligaments are the sum of all our adjacencies in this world — will the story they tell be meaningful? The decision is  yours.

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WHERE’S WALDO? WHERE’S GOD? First Day Rosh Hashanah 5778

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A couple recently came to a colleague of mine with a serious dilemma.  They had two very poorly behaved boys, ages eight and ten.  Having tried every parenting help program in the book with no improvement, they were at their wits’ end.  They called my rabbi friend, because he had a reputation for being successful with difficult kids. 

He arranged to meet with each boy individually. The eight-year-old was sent to meet with the rabbi first. My colleague sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?”  The boy made no response, so the rabbi repeated the question in an even harsher tone of voice, “Where is God?” Again the boy didn’t answer, whereupon the clergyman raised his voice to a shout, shaking his finger in the boy’s face, “WHERE IS GOD?”

At that, the youngster bolted from the room, ran directly home, and hid in his closet. His older brother followed him into the closet and asked what happened.  The younger brother replied, “We’re in BIG trouble this time. God is missing, and they think we did it!”

How could the Highest-Power-of-All possibly be missing?  We say that God is everywhere . . . but what, exactly, does that mean?  Is God inside the sanctuary more than outside of it?  If God were missing, would we even know it?

Synagogues throughout North America, including our own, are less concerned with God’s attendance at services than the presence of members.  The number of people who attend on Shabbat is viewed as a litmus test of success. Regrettably, it may be the wrong way to gauge the health of shul life.  To increase attendance, synagogues have made services shorter, added instrumental music, instituted special birthday and anniversary celebrations, brought in distinguished guest speakers, and advertised provocative-sounding sermon topics ahead of time.  Each of these has had varying degrees of success. Yet there is a huge difference between making worship more enjoyable and making it more theologically intentional and meaningful.  If you can’t feel a longing for God in a three-hour service, you’re not going to find union with the Divine in a two-hour service.

 More than sixty years ago, the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed the myriad ways in which synagogues struggled to increase synagogue numbers.  In his book, Man’s Quest for God, he writes, “Well-intentioned as these suggestions may be they do not deal with the core issue.  Spiritual problems cannot be solved by administrative [or programmatic] techniques.  The problem is not how to fill buildings but how to inspire the hearts.  The problem is not one of synagogue attendance, but one of spiritual attendance” (emphasis added).

 We have a problem with spiritual attendance — being physically present without being spiritually attuned to the ultimate significance of the moment.  Let me pose a simple question to which I have no pat answers.  Where is God?  Is God here in this room with us?  How much time do we spend in this building expressing ourselves to God, or even more challenging, trying to fathom God’s will.  During services we may listen to the hazzan and the rabbi; we may dutifully join in responsive readings, we may even sing — but often they are substitutes for communication with God rather than manifestations of the conversation.

Image result for WaldoI’ve included a visual aid to this morning’s sermon.  In the seat pockets in front of you you’ll find a picture from the popular series, Where’s Waldo? by artist Martin Handford. More than thirty years ago Handford came up with the idea of drawing a character with peculiar features as a focal point within incredibly elaborate pictures of crowds. And so “Where’s Waldo?” was born: an aficionado of time travel around the globe who always has a camera hanging over his shoulder, wears glasses, and is always clothed in a red-and-white striped shirt and ski cap.    Sometimes it takes Handford up to two months to draw a single sketch of the elusive Waldo and the characters surrounding him.  Extremely successful, Handford’s books have been published throughout Europe, North America, and Asia.  The franchise has even inspired a television series, a comic strip, and a video game.  What makes Where’s Waldo? so popular is not the ease of locating him amid the myriad faces, scenery and animals in the picture, but the challenge of poring over the details of the page to find him.  Check out the picture of the train station and the crowds departing or returning from their journeys . . . Can you find Waldo?

Synagogues have their own theological version of Where’s Waldo? — but with one crucial difference.  We spend our time closely examining the picture of Jewish life, but become so focused on the nuts and bolts we forget to search for God.  Rather than the driving force behind its existence, God is often a peripheral aspect of synagogue life.

In bold letters a local church proclaims on its website, “Our mission is to glorify God and make Him known to everyone…everywhere.”  Another church of a different denomination sees its goal as, “Sharing God’s love by building community; cherishing, sustaining, and enhancing the resources God has entrusted to us; and glorifying God through reverent worship.” After several hours surfing the web for Jacksonville churches, no matter where I looked and no matter the denomination, Protestant or Catholic, progressive or conservative, virtually every church’s website I visited put God at the center of its communal existence.

Yet when I looked at the websites of synagogues around the country, I found a very different story.  Here’s the wording of the mission of one congregation in New England: “Temple Hanukkah is a Conservative, egalitarian, spiritual community.  We honor our Jewish traditions and infuse them with renewed meaning by practicing them in both traditional and innovative ways.”  The synagogue then went on to list its goals: “1) for Judaism to guide our daily lives; 2) for our children to engage in being Jewish; 3) to generate spirituality by applying traditional rituals to contemporary needs. 4) to inspire us to take action, improve ourselves, and to seek interconnectedness.”

Another prominent synagogue, this time from the Midwest, framed its mission as follows: “Congregation Sons of Falafel seeks to encourage involvement and create a special sense of belonging for all those who walk through our doors.  The synagogue is committed to meeting the religious, educational, social and cultural needs of our members within the framework of the Conservative movement.  Sons of Falafel recognizes its responsibility to serve the Jewish community, the wider community, and the State of Israel.”

I visited the websites of two dozen synagogues, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.  Many did not have mission or vision statements on their websites at all.  For those that did, the buzzwords were “spirituality,” “connection,” “heritage,” “tradition,” and included phrases like “fulfilling members’ needs,” “making the world a better place,” and “educating the next generation of Jewish children.” Two mentioned God in passing; none of the others made any mention of God at all.

God, of course, could be a part of any of the above words and terms . . . but it is far from self-evident.  God may have something to do with spirituality, but as used by many people, the term connotes a quality of feeling within ourselves, one which may have little, if anything to do, with striving to hear God’s voice; a Divine being who challenges us to live in a certain way; or who command us to struggle with the less flattering angels of our nature.  The Jewish conception of spirituality is as much — if not more — about what God gets out of us rather than the other way around.

Image result for fraternities“Connection,” “heritage,” and “tradition” are lovely words, yet they can just as easily apply to any secular association or volunteer organization in which we invest effort. Indeed, after spending a little more time on the web checking out the mission statements of fraternities, I created my own composite based on the wording of a half-dozen Greek societies: “Zeta Zeta Zeta embraces its heritage as a fellowship devoted to loyalty, achievement, connection to others, and personal responsibility.  Ours is a proud tradition of lifelong brotherhood that puts service before self and commitment to making the world a better place.” Are synagogues the equivalent of fraternities and sororities for Jews . . . or must they be something above and beyond a voluntary association of members?

I’ve placed the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s mission statement on your seat — just turn over the Where’s Waldo? picture and you’ll find it on the other side:

The mission of the Jacksonville Jewish Center is to inspire our members to live a fulfilling Jewish life.  Through meaningful worship services, excellent educational and youth programs, and dynamic cultural activities, we encourage individuals of all backgrounds to grow and participate in the vibrant life of our synagogue community.  Guided by the principles and values of Conservative Judaism, we are committed to meeting, everyday, the diverse spiritual and life cycle needs of our members.

These are noble sentiments and laudable goals.  In all fairness, I should disclose the fact that I collaborated in the creation of our mission statement nearly ten years ago.  But this morning I feel that I owe you an apology. As a rabbi, as your spiritual leader, I should have insisted that we put God explicitly and unapologetically into the espousal of our mission — not that anyone would have objected to God’s inclusion, Heaven forbid!  The truth is I wasn’t thinking about God.  I was so busy looking at the picture, that I forget to search for Waldo, so to speak.  And what this demonstrates is that I, too, am vulnerable to being so caught up with the details that I forget the bigger picture.  Yes, even a rabbi can take God so much for granted that he doesn’t notice when God is missing.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “אָכֵ֕ן אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל מִסְתַּתֵּ֑ר אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מוֹשִֽׁיעַ — You are indeed a God who conceals Himself, O God of Israel who redeems” (Isaiah 45:9).  Redemption through God begins with the awareness that God is hidden.  A story is told of Rabbi Barukh of Medzibozh, the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement:  One day, the Rebbe’s grandson, Yehiel Mikhel, was engaged in playing hide-and-seek with a group of other children.  He hid himself for a long time until it dawned on him that the others were no longer looking for him.  It was then that he came running to his grandfather and, with tears in his eyes, cried out, “I was hiding, but no one was searching for me!”  Rabbi Barukh’s own eyes become moist as he replied, “Yes, that is exactly how God must feel.  God hides, but no one seeks Him.”

God’s concealment is not about a desire to avoid an encounter with us — quite the opposite.  God’s hiding dares, challenges, and above all, implores us to look for the Eternal.  In last week’s Torah portion — which is always read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur — God says to Moses, ” וְאָֽנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי” — when any verb is doubled in biblical Hebrew, the intention is to add emphasis.  Thus, the phrase simply means, “I shall surely hide my face” (Deuteronomy 31:18).  Yet rather than accept the plain meaning, however, our mystical tradition understands the words to mean, “I shall hide the fact of my hiding.”   The challenge of faith is know that God is in hiding precisely so that we have no choice but to look for God.

Yet in our complacency, in our assumption that we need not put any effort into finding God, we fall into a trap of spiritual numbness.  As we know from economics scarcity is what creates value.  The more rare an item, the more we esteem its being.  In not thinking about God’s hiddenness, we do not feel a longing to hear God’s call, we do not seek to pursue a spiritual mission far greater than self-satisfaction.

The Kotzker Rebbe once famously asked his followers, “Where does God dwell?”  They reacted with more than a little incredulity that their teacher could ask such a fatuous question.  “God is everywhere,” they answered.  “No,” responded the Rebbe, “God can only dwell where we allow God to dwell.”

In the Musaf Kedushah, which we will chant shortly, we sing, “Kvodo maleh olam — God’s glory fills the universe.”  But almost immediately after these words, the angels on high ask one another, “Ayeh mekom k’vodo — Where is the place of God’s glory?”  If even the angels must search for God’s presence, how much more so must we!

God is not absent, just hidden.  God may well be in this room, but we will have to search for Him.  And that is why as a community we need to start thinking and talking about the role of God in our lives and our congregation.  Just under our synagogue’s current mission statement I have included a revision I would propose:

The mission of the Jacksonville Jewish Center is to inspire our members to live a fulfilling Jewish life.  Through meaningful worship services, excellent educational and youth programs, and dynamic cultural activities, we encourage individuals of all backgrounds to seek God’s Presence and experience transformative meaning in the vibrant life of our synagogue community.  Guided by our covenant with God through Torah, as understood by the principles and values of Conservative Judaism, we are committed to meeting, everyday, the diverse spiritual and life cycle needs of our members.

This is not by adding a few words to a mission statement and then returning to the status quo.  Rather, by considering the way in which we express our mission, I am extending an invitation in the year ahead to share in a conversation about ultimate significance and the ways in which we come together as a synagogue to search for God’s presence in our lives, individually and collectively. This is a board conversation, a bimah conversation, an adult ed conversation, and very much a kiddush conversation.  As for those who do not believe in God, you, too, have a seat at the table.  Tell me about the God you don’t believe in . . . share with us the ways in which you strive to find lasting significance in your place on earth.  This is an essential conversation to have, because synagogues are the only institution in the Jewish world both designed to and capable of creating a meaningful framework in which to talk about God’s role in our lives.

I cannot find God for you.  It’s not because I forgot to show up to class the day they taught rabbis how to inspire their congregants to experience God, but because no such class exists.  Still, for years I felt guilty that I could not bring God with me when I walked into the sanctuary . . . until one day I realized my guilt was just inverted hubris.  I work for God, not the other way around. Indeed, I am suspicious of clergy who promise to deliver you God.  They may deliver a shorter service, a better sermon, or catchier music, but God isn’t a pizza to be delivered.  

Image result for search for chametzBut here’s what I can do: I can walk with you, I can share the journey with you, and I can help us ask the right questions.  Like the hametz for which we search on Passover eve, together we can light a candle, recite a blessing, and search for God. We can be open, vulnerable, excited, joyous, and sad together, because a real search for God will at one time or another engender all those feelings.

One more confession . . . If you’re frustrated at not finding Waldo in the picture I gave you . . . well, he’s not on the sheet — Handford’s picture of Waldo at the train station takes up two pages, and I opted to give you the one without Waldo.  But he’s in the picture, trust me. We just need to broaden the search, which requires that we first recognize where he isn’t.  And that my friends is exactly my point.

At its best, prayer awakens us to the need to search for God, a search that is scarcely begun after the final page is announced and the last hymn sung.  The hunt can begin in this room, but if it ends when we walk out the door then the wide world in which we live is devoid of God’s presence.  It is through prayer that we sense God’s hiddeness, and through prayer that we affirm our faith that God want us to find Him in our homes, our workplaces, our smiles, our tears, our loneliness, our joy, in the face of the person sitting beside you, and the stranger you pass on the street.  The search for God is in the shaking of a lulav and etrog, in serving a dinner at the Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless; it’s in the stewardship of being a lay leader; it’s in teaching a child how to read Torah; it’s in a congregational trip to Israel (winter 2018, please God), it’s in standing up for the rights of refugees for we, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt.  It’s in lighting Shabbat candles and learning how to read Hebrew, the language of God’s Torah; it’s in beautifying the synagogue; it’s in struggling with a difficult religious text; it’s anywhere and everywhere we intentionally strive to hear God’s voice as Jewish individuals and as a community.

The prophet Isaiah tells us, “דִּרְשׁ֥וּ ה’ בְּהִמָּצְא֑וֹ קְרָאֻ֖הוּ בִּֽהְיוֹת֥וֹ קָרֽוֹב — Look for God while He can be found; call to God while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).  God is hiding in this room, hiding in our hearts, hiding just around the corner.  Together let us look for our Heavenly Parent in that most obvious of places which is sometimes also the most neglected: the bodies we inhabit, the lives we live, the breathe we breath.  Yes, God is hiding . . . in plain sight.

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“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.


-Deuteronomy 15:11

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