If God Cares for the Stranger, Shouldn’t We?

Image result for ss nieuw amsterdam 1905

The SS Nieuw Amsterdam circa 1906


September 7, 1920 was one of those late summer days in New York when the sun plays hide-and-seek with the clouds; with a high temperature of 81 degrees, it was Goldilocks weather, neither too hot nor too cold.  The front page of the New York Times reported on the presidential campaign of Senator Warren Harding, as well as  boxer Jack Dempsey’s third round knock-out of opponent Billy Miske.

But the headlines didn’t much matter to a dark-haired, 28 year-old man standing on the deck of the Holland-America’s Nieuw Amesterdam as it sailed the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. For him it was the view that counted. To starboard he saw buildings far taller than any he had ever seen in Karlsbad, his point of departure in the newly created Republic of Czechoslovakia. On the ship’s port side stood the famous statue of Lady Liberty, her oxidized copper skin already an iridescent green by 1920. And there, just a few hundred yards beyond the woman whose “beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome” was Ellis Island, the portal through which “the homeless, tempest-tost” would have to pass to begin new lives in America.

That man was Chaim (Herman) Katz, my maternal grandfather.

My father was a refugee from Nazi Germany; my mother’s parents were both immigrants. Yet my family’s story, differs only in the particulars.  We are a nation of immigrants; America was built upon the dreams of those who sought freedom under her banner. Or as George Washington put it, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respected, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”

America’s embrace of the newcomer, however, has not always been wholehearted; on the contrary, xenophobia and distrust of the stranger are as much a part of the historical record as genuine acceptance. In the 1850s nativist sentiment against Catholics led to the creation of the “Know Nothings,” a political party whose sole plank was the exclusion of foreigners. Thirty years later — right around the time Emma Lazarus penned The New Colossus, her famous poem celebrating immigration — Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to severely limit Asians from entry into the United States.

As for Jews, four years after my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, The Johnson-Reed Act clamped down on virtually all immigration by instituting a highly biased quota system against all emigrants, save those from Scandinavia and western Europe.   15 years later, desperate to escape the clutches of the Nazis, Jews found the door to America shut firmly. Even as reliable reports of the death camps began to find their way to Washington, the State Department stonewalled efforts to save Jews, claiming that Nazi spies and saboteurs could potentially infiltrate the country by pretending to be Jews — hence, better to keep the doors barred. We will never know how many hundreds of thousands of our people might have been saved.  A few lines from W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, Refugees Blues, captures the desperation of our Jewish brethren on the eve of the Second World War trapped in Europe:

Say this city has ten million souls,

Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:

Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.


Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:

We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.


Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;

It was Hitler over Europe, saying ‘They must die’:

O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.


Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,

Saw a door opened and a cat let in:

But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.


According to the Talmudic tractate of Baba Metzia, there are 36 places in the Torah — 46, according to some — in which we are cautioned to do right by the stranger (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b).  The actual number is considerably fewer; why, then, the hyperbole?  Rabbi Avraham ben David (RaVaD), a great medieval Talmudic commentator, suggests the inflated number is based on inclusion of the stranger every place the Torah alludes to the poor, the orphan, or the widow, even when the former is not explicitly mentioned; all are entitled to compassion as the most vulnerable members of society

The classic injunction regarding how we must treat stranger is found in Parshat Ekev, this week’s Torah portion. “ וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם– You shall love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).  More than just refrain from wronging, we are commanded to stand up and actively protect the stranger. Why? Because we know what it’s like to be refugees.

It isn’t enough, however, to love the stranger because our ancestors once stood in her shoes. Historical memory grows faint, its ability to motivate action weakens with the passage of time. The rabbis tell us that at the Passover seder it is incumbent to look upon ourselves as having come forth personally from Egyptian slavery. But can we really? Surrounded by fine china, an endless parade of food from the kitchen, escape from bondage means nothing more than the hope that Uncle Max won’t insist on reading aloud every single passage of the haggadah.  The force of memory has a relatively short half-life when measured over many generations.

Nachmanides (RaMBaN) teaches that, beyond historical sympathy, the reminder of our own redemption from slavery draws attention to a God who cares for the stranger. Our rescue once upon a time is not why we should care, but a reminder that it is God who cares about the weak and the powerless. To quote the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of modern Orthodoxy, “Consideration and love of the stranger is the true test of your reverence for and love of God.” If we do nothing to protect the stranger, our espousal of love for God is hollow, an empty platitude devoid of substance.

What I have shared with you is neither a liberal take nor a conservative spin. It is simply what our Torah and two thousand years of Judaism teach. If we turn to the Torah to discern the Divine, then we cannot ignore the plight of refugees for the simple reason that we cannot escape the ethical imperative of a God who, “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

The oldest American NGO (non-governmental organization) addressing the plight of refugees is HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose advocacy today is not for those fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe, but rather the war-torn lands of central Africa and the Middle East. From the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, to the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish organizations take stands and issue policy statements in support of protecting refugees and offering them safe haven. They do so for the same reason: “ וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם– You shall love the stranger because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“But rabbi, what if terrorists disguise themselves as refugees and enter our country with intent to maim and murder? Doesn’t the Torah teach us to defend ourselves from enemies?” Yes, the Torah commands self-defense; and no, there are no ironclad guarantees against terrorists posing as refugees . . . any more than 75 years ago critics of the State Department’s policy barring Jewish refugees could offer 100% assurances that no Nazi saboteur posing as Jew might slip through the vetting process.

As some of you may know, our synagogue’s 12th-grade Confirmation class, works with refugees here in Jacksonville. Over the past five years we have partnered with the local affiliate of World Relief International in helping families from Burma, Darfur, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic adjust to their new homes. From personal knowledge of the process, I can tell you that the screening of refugees and the granting of political asylum in the United States involves an incredible degree of scrutiny. Indeed, less than 1% of the world’s refugees qualify to even begin the process of receiving asylum. For the lucky few who do, they will undergo multiple extensive background checks at different times by the the State Department, the FBI, the National Counter-Terrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security. Fingerprinted several times (Syrian refugees undergo retina scanning as well), they are personally interviewed separately by the State Department, again by special agents of the Department of Homeland Security, and finally by the NGO refugee organization assigned to resettle them.  They are screened yet again by US Customs and Border Protection agents before entering the country, and as a condition for being given political asylum, must apply for Green cards within a year, which involves a new round of scrutiny, or face deportation.   There are clearly threats to the U.S. from abroad, but they are far likelier to come from someone with a tourist, student or commercial visa than from a refugee granted political asylum.

Over the course of the past several years, the perpetrators of domestic terrorism have been largely American. Rizwan Farook, who killed 14 in San Bernadino was born in Chicago; Omar Mateen, whose attack on the LGBTQ community of Orlando was responsible for the murder of 49 innocent people, was born in a Long Island suburb. Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, was born in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. As for other acts of domestic terrorism in recent years, Sandy Hook, the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, the JCC in Overland Park, Kansas, or the attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs — they, too were the acts of homegrown fanatics with the blandest of American surnames.

I urge you to visit the website of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to learn more about the plight of refugees and what you can do to make a difference.  Specifically, I encourage you to advocate on behalf Senate bill S.3241, the Refugee Protection Act of 2016, which proposes a way of streamlining the vetting of refugees facing death or torture without undermining the rigorous process and necessity of ensuring we don’t give entry to radicalized Muslim terrorists. Navigate the HIAS website and send a message in support of this legislation to your Senators.  Equally important, when you hear the same xenophobic mistrust expressed about today’s refugees that once was used to deny Jews asylum in the 1930s, take the time to set the record straight.  Those granted political asylum are NOT illegal immigrants; while a compassionate embrace of those running for those lives need NOT compromise rigorous screening and vetting.

These are but small steps, but ones which reflect the better angels of America’s legacy as a haven for “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Small steps, but ones that remind us that because God cares for the stranger, we are commanded to as well.  Once we helped refugees because they were Jewish; now we help them because we are Jewish.



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August 28, 2016 · 10:15 pm

The fight against radical versions of Islam needs us to cultivate partnerships within the Muslim community


In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, what passes for journalism is often a cross between entertainment and reality television. The stories we encounter, the words we read, the images we view are taken from the real world, but the way in which they are integrated with one another is like flower arranging: blooms of a certain color are juxtaposed with one another for an enhancing effect, while the wilted petals are hidden in the back.  As Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek, once said, “”We cannot change reality, but we can change the eyes which see reality.”

Even as media spin has grown immeasurably more powerful through technology, it is an art as old as human society.  The biblical story of the twelve scouts, who return to the Israelites with their reports on the condition of the land prior to its conquest, is a case in point. All leaders within their respective tribes, ten of the twelve offer an overwhelmingly negative report. Yet observe how masterfully they make their case: to ensure they are perceived as objective, they begin with a favorable observation: “We arrived in the land to which you sent us, and saw that it truly flows with milk and honey, and here are some of its fruits” (Numbers 13:27). Yet without missing a beat, they continue, “אֶ֚פֶס כִּי־עַ֣ז הָעָ֔ם הַיֹּשֵׁ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהֶֽעָרִ֗ים בְּצֻר֤וֹת גְּדֹלֹת֙ מְאֹ֔ד וְגַם־יְלִדֵ֥י הָֽעֲנָ֖ק רָאִ֥ינוּ שָֽׁם — But that counts for nothing, because the people who reside in the land are powerful and their cities are exceedingly well-fortified; we even saw the descendants of giants there” (ibid. 13:28). Most tellingly, the ten emphatically insist, “וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֨ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵֽינֵיהֶֽם — They [the giants of the land] made us feel like grasshoppers, and so we must have appeared to them” (ibid 13:33). Notice how their subjective perception of how others viewed them is offered as indisputable fact, for such is the way of spin.

The two scouts who return with a positive take on the feasibility of conquest, Caleb and Joshua, don’t stand a chance. It’s more than simply being outnumbered; they also lack a grasp of how to mix fact and fiction in just the right proportions to gain maximal traction.

After hearing the unfavorable reaction of the ten scouts, the Torah tells us, “ וַיַּ֧הַס כָּלֵ֛ב אֶת־הָעָ֖ם אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה — Caleb hushed the people before Moses” (ibid. 13:30). The rabbis suggest that the only reason the people were willing to be silenced is because they fully expected Caleb to expand upon the denunciations of his colleagues. Having been taken in by the ten scouts, their minds were closed, incapable of grasping a different perspective. The facts now had to conform to their reality, while objectivity was a luxury with which they could dispense. No sooner had Caleb opened his mouth then he was drowned out by the crowd.

Negative reporting has a way of grabbing people’s attention that the broadcasting of good news lacks.  What rivets people to the screen more: empathy or antipathy? Tranquility or outrage? A joint peace rally of Israeli Jews and Arabs in Tel Aviv is worth a shrug, but a Jewish settler on the West Bank who fire bombs a Palestinian family, now there’s a story. According to a study cited in Psychology Today, for every one “good Samaritan” story in the media, there are a 17 negative reports! Not surprisingly, a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press reported that war and terrorism have consistently topped the list of American viewing preferences for the past two decades.

This would go a long way toward explaining why so much of the journalistic coverage of Israel is confined to reports of terror attacks, Israeli reprisals, and utterances likely to add fuel to the fire of hatred. It would also explain why the media gives short shrift to the myriad condemnations of terror and repudiations of hatred and violence that come from the Muslim community.

A few months ago US News and World Report featured a fascinating article about Muslim condemnations of terror and violence, which observed, “You’d never know it from the media, but Muslim leaders have denounced terrorism committed in the name of Islam over and over again. Apparently covering terrorist attacks drives more ratings than reporting on press conferences afterward, so the media doesn’t bother. It’s not surprising that many Americans have come to believe that perhaps there just are no moderate Muslims.”

Which is why most of us in this room have never heard of the Muslim Leadership Initiative, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel. Hartman, an unabashedly Zionist institution best known for its rabbinic seminars, has pioneered a program in tandem with North American Islamic leaders to bring prominent members of the Muslim community to Jerusalem to learn about Jewish history and Judaism’s connection to the land of Israel. Over the course of 13 months, participants visit Israel twice, attend two workshops at the Hartman Institute’s New York office and participate in monthly distance learning. While visiting Israel, these Muslim leaders interact with Israeli Jews, as well as Arab citizens of the State and Palestinians in the West Bank. Since 2013 there have been close to three hundred participants, including several from Jacksonville. How did I find out about the Muslim Leadership Initiative? Not from the media, nor even the Jewish press . . . but rather from my friend, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, an MLI participant preparing in just two weeks to travel to Israel for his second visit.

Chances are also pretty good that none of us are familiar with the Muslim Reform Movement, whose statement of principles include the following: “We reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam. We invite our fellow Muslims and neighbors to join us. We reject bigotry, oppression and violence against all people based on any prejudice, including ethnicity, gender, language, belief, religion, sexual orientation and gender expression. We are for secular governance, democracy and liberty. Every individual has the right to publicly express criticism of Islam. Ideas do not have rights. Human beings have rights. We stand for peace, human rights and secular governance.”

These are men and women putting their lives at risk as moderate Muslims who are willing to speak out. “We are opposing a very real interpretation of Islam that espouses violence, social injustice and political Islam,” said journalist Asra Nomani when he appeared on Meet the Press a few months ago. “We have to take back the faith. And we have to take it back with the principles of peace, social justice, and human rights, women’s rights, and secular governance.”

The modern equivalent to the ten scouts are those who would would demonize all Muslims and often Islam itself. Yes, there are practitioners of radical Islam; yes, they are dangerous. But the message of moderate Muslims is overpowered by the sneers of those who insist that all Muslims are potentially violent terrorists, or the words of a certain candidate for high office, whose popularity has been boosted by his call to ban all Muslims from entry into the United States. The idea that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, or anything more than a tiny sliver of them, are a radical monolith does not partake of reality. There is great danger in the acceptance of this falsehood — not only because it threatens the very underpinnings of our democratic and free society, but because it undermines the moral imperative and practical necessity of joining forces with all our fellow Americans, including Muslims, in opposing bigotry, hatred and violence. Islamophobia is no less a danger to our way of life than terrorism. Of course, we can choose like the Israelites to listen to the spin of the ten scouts; yet, like our ancestors, we, too, will be forced to waste a generation wandering in a desert with no way out.

Last night, I attended Iftar, the meal after sundown which ends each day of fasting during Ramadan. Sponsored by the Atlantic Institute, a Turkish-American organization dedicated to interfaith and dialogue and one of the founders of Jacksonville’s “Table-of-Abraham” program,” the several hundreds guests included members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. I saw fellow board members of OneJax, men and women from the city’s Human Rights Commission, faculty and administrators from the University of North Florida. Promptly at sunset, the Muslim call to prayer was intoned, after which 60 or 70 of the Muslims present adjourned for the evening prayer service before eating dinner. Since I had yet to daven ma’ariv, I asked if I could pray alongside them. As I prayed from my smartphone’s prayer app, I stood side-by-side with Muslims. We all faced eastward — they toward Mecca, I toward Jerusalem. In one room, there were two faith traditions praying side-by-side to one and the same God. Afterward, half a dozen worshipers came up to me and thanked me as a brother in faith, for my willingness to recite my liturgy in my own sacred language, yet all the while standing in solidarity with those who worship the One God.

There was no news media to record the moment. Yet that experience represents the voice of Caleb and Joshua who once said: הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָבַ֤רְנוּ בָהּ֙ לָת֣וּר אֹתָ֔הּ טוֹבָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ מְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד — the land through which we traveled is very, very good” (14:7). Though drowned out by the demonizers and deniers, we need to hear those  in all of America’s faith communities who believe in a promised land of peace, a place which can be reached only through dialogue and encounters that build bridges rather than walls. The media will magnify and amplify the world’s evil, but there are many in the Muslim community who share our commitment to decency, and our opposition to religious coercion and violence. They are out there in our community and among our very own neighbors. I have met them, and you can, too — but to do so you’ll have to mute the TV, stop reading the conspiracy theories on the Internet, and walk out in the world to get the full picture.

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HOW MUCH ARE YOU WORTH? Thoughts on Parshat B’hukotai

Our society is fascinated with the question of how much individuals are worth. If we weren’t, magazines like Forbes wouldn’t have elaborate rankings by net worth, age, gender, and country. With a total of $75 billion, Bill Gates still ranks first among the world’s richest individuals. The wealthiest Israeli?   That would be Eyal Ofer, a shipping and real estate magnate, who has assets of $8.4 billion (hmm . . . I wonder if he’s a distant cousin?).  The title for youngest self-made billionaire goes to Evan Spiegel, the co-founder of Snapchat, who at the age of 25 has accrued $1.5 billion. Incidentally, Shahid Kahn, owner of our beloved Jacksonville Jaguars, is the 205th wealthiest man in the world, easily beating Donald Trump who stands at #324 on the list — Go Jags!

Of course, none of this really matters.. The sage Ben Zoma in the Mishnah of Avot had it right: “אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר הַשָמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ — Who is rich? One who is content with his portion in life” (Avot 4:1).

Still, it’s an intriguing question:  How much do you think you’re worth? More important, how would you calculate your worth? One study found that the physical value of a human being, measured by her constituent chemical components, is $160, with more than half of that coming from the value of the potassium we contain (keep eating bananas, folks).  Another recent study calculated that if we were able to sell our DNA as well as every organ in our body for transplantation, you or I could theoretically be worth as much as $45 million.

These numbers may be accurate factually — though I can’t say for sure — but they miss the mark entirely. Each human being is priceless and unique.  Still, when we go to buy life insurance to protect our loved ones, we are essentially asked to place a value on our lives, though we know deep down that measuring human worth by the lost income our loved ones would incur as a result of our death is also not a true index of our assets.

The Talmud contains an entire tractate which deals the question of human valuation.  Entitled Arakhin (“values”), it is based on a set of law found in Leviticus, chapter 27, which begins as follows:  וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר. דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אִ֕ישׁ כִּ֥י יַפְלִ֖א נֶ֑דֶר בְּעֶרְכְּךָ֥ נְפָשֹׁ֖ת לַֽה’ — The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When anyone explicitly vows to give to the Lord the equivalent value for a human being” (Leviticus 27:1). One of the ways in which our ancestors supported the Temple was by donating to the Sanctuary their equivalent value as human beings. But how, exactly, did our ancestors calculate the equivalent of their lives in money? In the largely agrarian society of antiquity, productivity was measured by physical strength. So, a man between the ages of 20 to 60, was worth 50 shekels; a woman of the same age was equal to 30. For those over 60, it was a lesser amount, as it was for children. These equivalents, of course, were no more than measures of abstract physical productivity; they constituted a rather ingenious way to raise funds for the Sanctuary by allowing a person to feel as though she were giving herself to God — literally!  By no means, however, were they ever intended as a way to determine essential human worth.

We may no longer find the Torah’s method for determining an individual’s productivity compelling, yet the deeper question remains: What is the value of your life? How would you increase its worth? And while we are all precious in God’s eyes, have some of us invested ourselves in ways that have increased our net worth in God’s eyes?  The Psalmist teaches, “יָ֭קָר בְּעֵינֵ֣י ה’ הַ֝מָּ֗וְתָה לַֽחֲסִידָֽיו – Precious in God’s eyes is the death of the righteous” (Psalm 116:15). A strange statement, to be sure, until we consider the explanation of the sage, Ben Azzai, who taught it is not the death of the righteous which God finds precious, but the reward they have earned through the compounding of their goodness until the moment of their death (Breshith Rabbah 62:2). We are all born equal in God’s eyes; but the ethical and spiritual legacies we create are of dramatically different values.

As you ponder these questions, imagine for a moment you have decided to consult a spiritual investment counselor. He will sit down and help you calculate your SVI — short for “Soul Value Index” — by asking you a series of simple questions: Are you honest? If you were to die today, what would be your legacy? Do you work at addressing your weaknesses? Do you take time to grow your inner life in some way? How much respect do you give to people with whom you disagree — do you learn from them or just belittle their beliefs? To what extent do you give back to your community and to what extent do you expect your community simply to be there when you need it? Do you hold any grudges? Do you apologize when you’re wrong?  Are you one of those rare people who are never wrong?

After tabulating your current moral assets, your spiritual investment counselor will offer you some advice. She’ll tell you that, as we know from the world of 401k plans, it is vital to diversify your soul’s portfolio.  The willingness to grow and diversify our spiritual life protects against the volatility of a world market in which the inseparability of joy and sorrow, life and death add up to a roller coaster ride that makes the Dow Jones worst day look like child’s play.  Most of us would never invest exclusively in Treasury Bonds, or only put money in highly speculative derivatives; why, then, would we do precisely that with our souls?  Here are but a few paths to diversification:  Meditate. Volunteer to work in a soup kitchen. Learn how to put on Tefillin. Study Torah. Help make a minyan. Visit Israel. Talk to God anytime. Say thank you by offering a blessing before you eat. Don’t gossip about others. Give more to tzedakah. Know that every single ritual you perform, every person you meet, every mitzvah you do, and every page of Torah you study are pathways to God. They are the spiritual equivalent of Berkshire-Hathaway stock; but you won’t earn interest unless you take interest.

Your spiritual investment counselor will also remind you that the size of your portfolio requires a commitment to investing your time and self over a period of years. Nest eggs only grow when people make the conscious decision of directing a percentage of their assets to them year after year. Can you name three ways in the last year in which you’ve consciously grown your soul — whether in your relationship with others, with God, or even with yourself?  If you value complacency and comfort above all else, your investment yield isn’t likely to be as profitable as it might otherwise be .

In all fairness I have to share with you the disclaimer that nothing in this sermon constitutes an offer of religious certainty regarding whether you will be rewarded after death for having lived a virtuous life here on earth. As a potential investor in the Infinite, you must also understand that all forms of spiritual investment carry the risk of discomfort as one transitions from self-centeredness to a more spiritually mindful path. Do note the past performance of others who have reaped the rewards of meaningful existence is no guarantee of future performance. Your results will vary.

The aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street crash

 Taking stock isn’t about what you have to do to get into heaven. With inadequate spiritual capitalization, you may have no choice but to declare moral bankruptcy in this world. What might it feel like to know one could have been God’s partner in making the world a better place, but squandered the opportunity? What might your loved ones be thinking when, in preparation for your eulogy, the rabbi asks them one day about the ways in which you gave of yourself to a righteous cause beyond the circle of kinship, if they cannot think of a single occasion on which you were morally heroic and spiritually outstanding?

“Do I believe in life after death?” is not the first question to ask yourself. Rather it is, “Do you believe in life before death?” To paraphrase the great stock investor, Phillip Fisher, “The world is filled with people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” To lead a life with value is to realize you must give more than you take; to know you’ve made a difference in the life of someone, somewhere, to whom you owed absolutely nothing. Measured in the currency of kindness, a life of value is cultivated by the gratitude and amazement we express for all the blessings that are ours, none of which we deserve. It is to understand that when you make the sacred matter in your world, you make yourselves matter in God’s world. The credit we deserve is not contained on a piece of plastic in our wallets, but within the plasticity of a yearning, striving heart which pays for our flaws by compounding the interest of our righteous deeds.  This is a visa to ultimate value . . . Don’t leave life without it.

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The Empire of Light, Rene Magritte (1950)

In the summer of 2001, my family rented a cottage in southern Nova Scotia.  The nearest town was Yarmouth, 30 minutes away by car; with a population of 7,000 though, it wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis.  This was a quiet spot, one in which you could really hear the silence.  It is almost impossible to imagine such quiet in Jacksonville. We hear crickets, the noise of distant sirens or cars, or the far-away whistle of freight trains. Living less than a mile from the Buckman Bridge, no matter the time of day or night I can hear the far away hum of traffic crossing the Saint Johns River. In that Nova Scotia cottage, however, the silence was so absolute you could hear a car several miles away. It was both wonderful and unsettling.

But what was truly unnerving was the quality of the nighttime. Pitch black, the darkness was so thick that it felt like a blindfold. Without moon or stars on a cloudy, I couldn’t see more than two or three feet into the impenetrable night. I vividly remember grilling salmon on our hibachi on the back porch, uneasily peering into the darkness, half expecting Freddy Krueger, Chucky, Jason, and Dracula to all leap out and suddenly pounce. What a relief it was when I finished cooking and hurried inside to the welcome sight of the lights!

Night has always been a fearful time for human beings because it is hardwired into our amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our most basic emotions. It is this part of the brain that triggers our fight-or-flight response.  We can well imagine the terrors of the night, for our distant ancestors in the dark forests of prehistory were forced to contend with unfamiliar and sometimes terrifying noises without seeing them. The midrash gives expression to this primitive fear in a story told about Adam’s terror at experiencing night for the very first time. At the conclusion of the following night when Shabbat ended, God showed Adam how to create fire by striking two stones together and using the sparks to kindle a flame. According to the legend, it is this which gave rise to havdalah, the ceremony concluding Shabbat with the lighting of a candle and the recitation of a special berakhah (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 54a).

In Exodus the ninth plague inflicted upon the Egyptians is darkness.  According to the Torah, this particular form of darkness was infinitely more terrifying than that of a normal night: “ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה נְטֵ֤ה יָֽדְךָ֙ עַל־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וִ֥יהִי חֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ . . . לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים. . . — And God said to Moses, stretch forth your hand toward heaven, and darkness shall come upon the land of Egypt, thick enough to be felt” (Exodus 10:21, 23). The Hebrew word וְיָמֵ֖שׁ conveys a sense that the darkness had a material reality to it; more than the absence of light, it possessed bulk and carried a weight of its own. Not only was it so dark that the Egyptians could not see each other, but the dark imprisoned them, making it impossible for them even to leave their homes. The medieval commentator Rashi takes the Torah’s wording literally. It wasn’t just that the Egyptians couldn’t leave their homes, they also were paralyzed by the darkness, frozen into place. Those who were sitting could not rise; those who were standing could not sit.

But it gets weirder . . . while the Egyptians were surrounded by darkness as thick as bricks, the Torah tells us, “וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם — But among the Israelites there was light in their dwelling places.” This is hardly the first time a plague affected only the Egyptians while sparing the Israelites, yet it is much easier to envision a scenario in which hail or locusts affect one locale, but not another. After all, here in Florida you can watch the rain pour down on your front yard while your backyard stays dry. But the thought that light could exist for one person, yet another individual nearby might not be able to see it strains the limits of credulity and violates the laws of physics.

Unless something else is going on here. There is an interesting debate in Shemot Rabbah, a rabbinic commentary on the book of Exodus, between Rabbi Nehemiah and Rabbi Yehudah regarding the origin of this darkness. According to the former, God raised the darkness from Gehinom, the netherworld, a place of punishment for the wicked. Accordingly, because it came from a place of punishment it possessed no power over the innocent. Like an individual with the antibodies to a particular bacteria, the darkness could exercise dominion only over those vulnerable to its effects.  Rabbi Yehudah, on the other hand, insisted that the darkness was imposed from on high, for light and darkness in the world emanate from the heavens (Shemot Rabbah 14:2).

So who was right, Rabbi Nehemiah or Rabbi Yehudah? Well, in these kinds of rabbinic arguments, there is no winner; you’re welcome to choose whichever view you like better. But there is a powerful postscript to this disagreement. Seventeen centuries after these two sages lived, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, went on the record siding with Rabbi Yehudah, who claimed that the darkness came from heaven. Yet he took the matter one step farther, insisting that the light enjoyed by the Israelites and the darkness that terrified the Egyptians were actually one and the same. In other words, as Bruce Springsteen once sang, “They were blinded by the light” (NB: Springsteen composed and sang the song in 1973, three years before Manfred Mann made it into a worldwide hit).

The Berditchever meets the Boss


The Berditchever Rebbe does not understand light and darkness in physical, but rather spiritual and emotional terms. To the Israelites, in God’s supernal light they saw a future of redemption from bondage, the approaching moment of their freedom. They glimpsed the possibility of revelation at Sinai and entry into a covenantal relationship with the Eternal. The Egyptians saw this as well, but for them it portended disaster, the loss of their human chattel, defeat at the hands of the God of their lowly slaves. They saw their own impotence and could not perceive anything beyond their own victimhood. God’s light blinded them, even as it gave insight and hope to the people Israel.

This is a lesson of profound importance.  All of us, at one time or another, find ourselves in bondage, emotional, spiritual, or physical. The facts of our circumstances are always the facts, but what we do with them creates our own self-perception of reality. In the face of challenge, we can choose to seek the light or wallow in the darkness. I say this not as a pollyanna, but as a person who has had to wrestle at times with disappointing realities and difficult situations.

Were you ever fired from a job, or maybe put all your hopes in getting a promotion that did not materialize? Did a significant other ever break up with you or have you been through a divorce? Have you ever experienced estrangement from a family member, a friend, or a colleague?

Some years ago, I disagreed with an individual over a matter of principle with a member of a past congregation. Not only was it uncomfortable for us to speak with one another, but other members of the community began to be drawn into the disagreement. My initial reactions were the same as many people in similar circumstances.  Frequently our default position in such situations is to feel isolated, helpless, or victimized. Upon further reflection, I felt angry and combative. I was right and he was wrong, and therefore I had to win the argument, which automatically meant he had to lose. Yet to practice the kind of avoidance that I often see at social functions when two people are uncomfortable with another offered no solution, only permanent alienation. As for going to the mattresses, to borrow the language of the Godfather, it would have resulted in only deepening the damage.

It was then that I realized that here was an opportunity — not happy and carefree by any means, but nevertheless a real opportunity. I could choose to grow from the experience, and forego my negativism — after all, my isolation and anger were self-generated, no one forced me to feel this way. So I chose to pave a road around the mountain rather than through it; I maintained my principles, but saw a chance to become a better listener and leader. At the end of the day I was able to engender better communication and foster greater respect by choosing to see the darkness as light.

In the Exodus story the last plagues to precede Israel’s redemption all involve darkness. The locusts are so numerous as to blot out the sun in the sky in plague #8; the darkness of #9 possesses an intensity we can hardly fathom. The final plague involving the death of the Egyptian first-born deliberately occurs at midnight, while the actual Exodus begins under cover of darkness. We can be Egyptians or Israelites; the choice is ours. We can view the night as the path leading to dawn or sink into the thick gloom that keeps us from being able to see anything, even ourselves. Life is often fractured, reality is marked by fissures and cracks. Yet as the singer Leonard Cohen once wrote, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in” (Listen to Leonard Cohen).  There is always light in the darkness, but only for those willing to open their eyes.

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“Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes, Turn and Face the Change”: Religion and the Brain

I would like to thank Dr. Mona Fishbane for inspiring this D’var Torah.  Its content draws largely on a talk she gave at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinic Training Institute in 2013.

I’ve been told that rabbis are in the business of tradition; we are about the preservation of authentic Jewish experience, the conservation of Jewish knowledge. That’s half true. Rabbis of necessity are also in the business of change. We insist that Judaism offers us the tool to change our lives for the good, to make our world better. Within every rabbi, and it doesn’t matter whether or not the rabbi is Orthodox, Reform or Conservative, there is dialectical tension between tradition and change. Each day my colleagues and I are confronted by the challenges of when to advocate for change or when to hold the line; when to agree to a departure from the past because it may strengthen tradition, and when to refuse to budge because it will undermine the heritage we revere.

All of us are frequently ambivalent about change. In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, writes of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. When our old friend Popeye says, “I yam what I yam,” he reflects a fixed mindset. When Moses asks God in last week’s Torah portion about the Divine Name, and the Almighty responds, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I shall become what I shall become, we encounter the epitome of a growth mindset. I will evolve, I will change into the future.

Many of us become fixed to keeping things as we know them. We become attached to the way things are, or a vision of the way we want them to be. Buddhism suggests that the attachment to a particular outcome is a source of suffering. Life changes, and we must adapt.  Buddhist monks construct beautiful and intricate sand mandalas so painstakingly, only to destroy them as ritual acceptance of the ephemeral.

In the opening parshiyot of Sefer Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus, Moses, the Israelites, and Pharaoh are all frightened by change. The narrative shows us that closing our hearts can become a habit. Moses accepts his mission to return to Egypt and the upheaval and uncertainty it will cause with the utmost reluctance. The Israelites have been so brutalized by their suffering that they resist the hope of change. Even when liberated from oppression, they remain encumbered by their old habits of fear and subservience. An entire generation of adults raised within the confines of slavery would have to die out before the people could enter the Promised Land. Those conditioned by servitude maintained a victim mentality throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, grumbling along the way about the insecurities of freedom.

Pharaoh is stuck in neutral with his inability to say anything but “no” to the Israelites; he handles his fear of change by his cruel and abusive use of power as a monarch. God deals with Pharaoh through a contest of power in which God wins — but only after Pharaoh is brought low by his own grief with the death of his firstborn son.

Loss has a way of teaching us the limits of our own power, of teaching us humility. Indeed, loss itself represents change, the advent of a new reality, no matter how unwelcome that may be.

Yet even loss cannot teach if we refuse to learn. In the end, Pharaoh isn’t inclined to learn, even with the terrible price he pays. For a brief moment, he appears to change, yet the door to possibility closes just as swiftly as it opens. It is this refusal which causes Egypt’s ruler to pursue the Israelite into the Sea of Reeds only to succumb.

I am often asked why the Torah teaches that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Doesn’t Judaism believe in free will? If God took away Pharaoh’s decision-making ability, does that not call into question Divine fair play? Yet read the text carefully and you will see that at first Pharaoh hardens his own heart time and again. It is only with the advent of the sixth plague that we first encounter the words, “וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק ה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה — And the Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh.” (Exodus 9:12).

More than 800 years ago, Maimonides noted this change in verbiage and in his Mishneh Torah had this to say: “A person may commit such numerous sins that the penalty to be exacted from this particular sinner for the sins he committed voluntarily is that repentance shall be withheld from him, and the liberty to turn from his wickedness shall not be granted him” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 6:3). Without knowing the term, what Maimonides was talking about neuro-science.

Human beings are wired for habit. Our habits are reflected in circuits of neurons in our brain. More than 60 years ago, Dr. Donald Hebb laid the foundation of neuro-psychology by theorizing that, “The neurons which fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more we do something the more we are likely to do it in the future. Everything we do, learn, and experience changes our brains. It is said we are what we eat, but we are also what we do. This is quite sobering. There is no free lunch from a neural standpoint. If you regularly become impatient, angry or anxious, the more likely you will repeat such behaviors in the future. Like the personalities in our Torah portion, we cling to the familiar.

Religions are particular susceptible to an embrace of the past for its own sake, separate and apart from a compelling raison d’etre to maintain any particular practice. In the book of Joshua, for instance, the Israelite men circumcise themselves prior to their entry into the Promised Land with flint knives (ouch!) — despite the fact that the Iron Age offered a more effective alternative (Joshua 5:2-3). The early 20th century English Bible scholar, T.H. Robinson, saw the survival of stone instruments into the Iron Age as an act of religious conservatism.

Fast forward to our time: We really aren’t so very different.  Is it any wonder that a departure from familiar melodies at services or the introduction of new rituals occasions agita among those who venerate custom precisely because it’s comfortable?

But that’s only half the picture. We’re not only wired for habit; we’re also wired for change. In contrast to the rigidity of Neanderthals, who knew only one way to hunt, Homo Sapiens survived and thrived in many different environments precisely because of their ability to adapt and change.

Dr. Mona Fishbane, a friend and teacher who has helped me to understand the linkage between Torah and neuro-science, has taught me about neuro-plasticity, the incredible ability our brains have to change. This brain plasticity can continue throughout our lives — if we nurture it. Neurons can form new connections with other neurons, and neuronal stem cells can give birth to new neurons. Our brains also benefit from an ongoing process of myelination, which allows for speedier and more efficient communication between neurons.

So what facilitates neuro-plasticity? Physical exercise to maximize the flow of blood to our brains; focus; and learning new things. As we age we lose neurons. The creation of new ones can balance the loss. But if we go autopilot, if we do the same old, same old, or become couch potatoes, the ratio of gain to loss becomes negative, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “brain drain.”

To be adaptable requires resilience. Resilience is dealing with life’s adversity by meeting our challenges with openness and a readiness to learn, or as the philosopher Martin Buber once put it, “A readiness to be surprised.” Resilience is not about “bouncing back,” but “bouncing forward” after trauma. It is through vulnerability that we grow from our problems. It is the difference between Moses and Pharaoh.

We are Pharaoh — not in cruelty or wickedness, not in insensitivity to the suffering of others — but in our fear of change, our obstinacy, our anxiety that we might not possess the resilience to bounce forward. Yet as Judaism so often insists, we are given the free will to decide whether or not to swim or tread water, to embrace the plasticity of our brains or cause them to harden into smaller and smaller comfort zones. The story of our ancestors reminds us that we can choose to stay open to the new, to learn from our losses. Like Moses, we, too, can find within ourselves the courage to turn our necks to see the miracles that come our way, ready to be surprised by the new lessons of ancient truths.


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Beyond their physical aspect as charming harvest huts, Sukkot partake of a symbolic character. Thus, in our liturgy each evening of the year we ask God, “וּפְרֹשׂ עָלֵֽינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶֽךָ — Spread over us your sukkah of peace.” And when the prophet Amos describes the restoration of Davidic rule over the entire Land of Israel he prophesies, “ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא אָקִ֛ים אֶת־סֻכַּ֥ת דָּוִ֖יד הַנֹּפֶ֑לֶת וְגָֽדַרְתִּ֣י אֶת־פִּרְצֵיהֶ֗ן וַֽהֲרִֽסֹתָיו֙ אָקִ֔ים וּבְנִיתִ֖יהָ כִּימֵ֥י עוֹלָֽם — In that day, I will set up again the fallen sukkah of David; I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11).

(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

For Americans, the Constitution of the United States is, in symbolic language, a kind of sukkah. It affords us the security of government by rule of law, even as it shelters us from tyranny through its guarantees of freedom of conscience, speech, and the right of assembly. One wall of the constitutional sukkah consists of the separation of powers between the branches of government, while another is built from the protection afforded us by the Bill of Rights.

While the ideals represented by the sukkah are powerful and enduring, the actual structure is frail. Within the framework of Jewish law, it is incumbent upon us to build the strongest sukkah that we can. If nothing else, we must refrain from tampering with the walls in such a way that we increase the chances of its collapse.

This is no less true of the Constitution of the United States. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The strength of of this document does not lie within its articles, but resides within “We the People of the United States.” When we choose to selectively ignore its provisions or interpret them in ways contradictory to their plain meaning, we tamper with the constitutional sukkah that protects our way of life.

This is by no means a new problem. In 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which prohibited public opposition to the government. Fines and imprisonment could be used against those who, “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. Indeed, more than 20 newspaper editors were arrested of whom a number were imprisoned — including Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont, who openly criticized President John Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice.”  By way of rejoinder to this encroachment on their representative’s freedom of speech, Lyon’s constituents re-elected him to Congress while he remained in a jail cell!

During the Civil War the Lincoln Administration with the backing of Congress suspended the right of habeas corupus, one of the cornerstones of our judicial system. And during World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 effectively made it a crime to speak out against the government’s decision to go to war. Socialist Eugene Debs and hundreds of others were sentenced to prison terms of anywhere between 5 and 20 years.

Throughout American history, there have been those who have sought to protect our “way of life” by undermining our constitutional freedoms. They do so always in the name of democracy or under the guise of patriotism: President Andrew Jackson who essentially rendered the Supreme Court impotent by refusing to do its bidding when he did not approve of its decisions; Attorney General Mitchell A. Palmer, who fought hard at the end of World War One to establish a permanent peacetime equivalent of the Sedition Act; and of course, FDR, who deprived thousands of Japanese Americans of their freedom without due process during the Second World War. There are always those who stand ready to cure the disease by killing the patient.

Recently, presidential candidate Ben Carson demonstrated his contempt for the legislative sukkah that shelters us from tyranny. Could he have forgotten Article VI of our Constitution which states, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”? Or does he simply not care?

Image result for article vi constitution of the united statesThe American people, in its collective wisdom (or foolishness), will decide what qualities are most important in the next person who moves into the White House. Yet it does seem reasonable that the 45th President of the United States must remain loyal to the Constitution; come Inauguration Day he or she will swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” — which includes Article VI prohibiting religious tests as a qualification to office.

In response to Carson’s troubling remarks about Muslims and the presidency, the Anti Defamation League described his views as “deeply troubling,” “deeply offensive,” “un-American and contrary to the Constitution.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s National Director, went on to say, “As the campaign season advances, we urge all presidential candidates to avoid innuendo and stereotyping of all sorts, including against people based on their faith, particularly American Muslims and, instead, to confront all forms of prejudice and bigotry. Remarks suggesting that all Muslims follow extremist interpretations of Islam have no basis in fact and fuel bigotry. Whether directed against Jews, Muslims or others, such baseless comments breed hate and have no place in a presidential campaign or in public discourse.”

The Islamic concept of Sharia is exactly analagous to the Jewish view of Halakhah. As systems of religious law both are all encompassing, and include civil and criminal law, governance, personal conduct, as well as religious observance. We certainly have seen Muslim countries in which Sharia is the law of the land run roughshod over the rights of women and minorities. Iran and Saudi Arabia are but two examples where Islamic law is used to sanction repression.

Yet there are numerous Muslim majority countries in which Sharia plays no role in the administration of law or the composition of their constitutions: Turkey, Mali, Suriname, Guyana, Togo, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, Chad, and Tajikistan, to name a few. Of course, there are those in the Muslim world who would like to impose Sharia law on every country with a Muslim majority; there are others who perhaps would like to see the entire world be Islamic. Yet we know of those within the Jewish community who deny Israel’s right to exist because it is a secular democracy rather than a state based exclusively on Halakhah. Given the chance they would make the violation of Shabbat in Israel a punishable crime, which if we were to reintroduce the statutes of the Torah, would require death by stoning. Adultery is also a capital crime under Torah law, while the married daughter of a kohen caught in the commission of adultery is to be burnt — according to a rabbinic understanding molten lead is poured down her throat so that she is burnt from the inside out.

That there are some Jews who in their ultra-Orthodox rigidity would like to see Israel shed its democracy and become a theocracy as rigid and conservative as those within the Muslim world which we abhor, this does not for a moment mean that the majority of Jews favor the imposition of Halakhah as a legal norm for Israeli society, let alone the United States.

There are many Muslims whom I know who view Sharia as I view Halakhah, as a system of religious laws to be practiced within one’s home and place of worship. They are binding only in the sense of personally assumed obligation. In other words, though I know Jewish law commands us to observe Shabbat and I take that obligation seriously for myself, I make no pronouncements about the decisions of my neighbors and congregants who observe Shabbat (or not) as they see fit.

We cannot afford the winds of bigotry to blow down the walls of our Constitutional Sukkah. The ADL with its uncompromising stand against prejudice, whether directed against Jews, Israel, or other groups is a good bellweather of what constitutes bigotry. There are many Muslims for whom I would not vote. There are many Christians for whom I would not vote. There are also plenty of Jews who, if they ran for President, would not receive my vote. Yet at days end, it should never be a candidate’s religion that determines his or her worthiness.

More than a half century ago, around the time of the festival of Sukkot, the integrity of another presidential candidate was questioned because of his religious faith. This is how John F. Kennedy responded to his critics, who feared that as a Catholic, his allegiance would automatically be to Rome first and the Constitution only second:

I believe in an America . . . where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

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President Kennedy with religious leaders, June, 1963

This is the answer to the demagogues who sin against the angels of America’s better nature. Let us welcome “We, the People” as Ushpizin to the shelter of our constitutional sukkah. As for those who would pervert the Constitution for the sake of polling, by their own rhetoric they bar themselves from entry.

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As a rabbi’s kid I knew the synagogue’s phone number before I even knew my own.  It isn’t surprising, then, that I also have vivid memories of the shul’s custodian, Mr. Howard McCall. Indeed, because he and his family lived on the third floor of the building, I thought he owned the property. When asked at the age of four what my dad did for living, I would respond, “He announces the pages in Mr. McCall’s building”!

I have especially vivid memories of Howard’s proudest possession, a red 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500 Fastback, which he bought new. How I loved to ride in that car! To this day, hearing Glen Campbell’s version of Gentle on My Mind transports me to the interior of that ‘68 Shelby Mustang — Howard was a big fan of Glen Campbell, and often played his music on the car’s 8-track . . . which is why Gentle on My Mind hits my brain’s rewind button and takes me back in time to the passenger seat of that Mustang. It’s amazing at the powerful way in which music and memory can intersect to make the past come alive. Howard McCall, may he rest in peace, has been gone for quite a few years, but I can recall his car’s appearance as if I saw it just yesterday.

This childhood remembrance came to my attention by way of another intersection of Glen Campbell’s music and memory. A little less than a year ago, the country singer great released a powerful documentary entitled, I’ll Be Me. Set against the background of Campbell’s last road show, the film depicts the musician’s struggle with the relentless encroachment of Alzheimer’s Disease, with which he was diagnosed in January 2011. According to a very recent news release from his wife, Kim, he has now lost most cognitive abilities — though he still smiles, laughs, and occasionally lashes out physically as Alzheimer patients are wont to do when frustrated.

Hands down the most haunting element of the film is its closing track, entitled I’m Not Gonna Miss You. The viewer watches Campbell on stage singing and playing, knowing that the lyrics are a prophecy on the road to fulfillment. Most heartbreaking of all, Glen Campbell is more aware than anyone else that soon enough he won’t be aware:

I’m still here, but yet I’m gone. I don’t play guitar or sing my songs. They never defined who I am; the man that loves you ’til the end. You’re the last person I will love; you’re the last face I will recall,
And best of all, I’m not gonna miss you.

I’m never gonna hold you like I did; or say I love you to the kids,
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes; it’s not gonna hurt me when you cry. I’m never gonna know what you go through; all the things I say or do.
All the hurt and all the pain; one thing selfishly remains . . .
I’m not gonna miss you.

Approximately 5.3 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, which means you are likely to know a person with the disease, or at least know someone who does. Because Alzheimer’s accounts for the vast majority of cases of dementia — in fact “dementia” is not itself a specific disease but simply an over-arching descriptive term for all such conditions –, it is quite possible, even likely, that my father-in-law, Bill Krinsky of blessed memory, suffered from Alzheimer’s — though he was never formally diagnosed as such.

Until he died 2 1/2 years ago, Susan and I, her sister Joy and her husband David, Bill’s brother Barney and his family, as well as all his grandchildren watched Bill’s world steadily shrink into ever smaller circles: personality changes; the accumulation of vast stocks of household products because he would forget that he had been to the store and go back to buy more; an inability to find his way home; and ultimately a 90 mile drive from Boynton Beach to Belle Glade, where a state trooper finally stopped him, and to whom he told he was just looking for a gas station. Even the ability to play his beloved trumpet — so deeply rooted in his being as a lifelong professional musician — even that eventually was taken from him.

If you haven’t seen the gripping film, Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore deservedly received an Oscar for Best Actress, you should. It is the fictional story of Alice Howland, a linguistic professor at Columbia University, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50. At the film’s most poignant moment, Alice speaks to a crowded room at an Alzheimer’s conference and shares her feelings:

“All my life I’ve accumulated memories – they’ve become, in a way, my most precious possessions. Everything I accumulated in life, everything I’ve worked so hard for – now all that is being ripped away. But it gets worse. Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were? We become ridiculous, incapable, comic. But this is not who we are, this is our disease. I’m still alive. I know I’m alive. I have people I love dearly. I have things I want to do with my life. I rail against myself for not being able to remember things – but I still have moments in the day of pure happiness and joy. And please do not think that I am suffering. I am not suffering. I am struggling. Struggling to be part of things, to stay connected to whom I was once. So, ‘live in the moment’ I tell myself. It’s really all I can do, live in the moment. And not beat myself up too much… and not beat myself up too much for mastering the art of losing.”

Notwithstanding the heartbreak that comes with Alzheimer’s Disease, a healthy brain is actually wired to forget a vast quantity of information. Indeed, the ability to dump recollections of ordinary daily events is a key aspect of healthy cognition and necessary for a supple, functional mind. That you can’t remember what you had for breakfast on August 17, 1986 isn’t evidence of mental impairment, but quite the opposite.

In fact there is a very rare condition called hyperthymesia in which a person can’t erase such useless recollections. The constant, irrepressible stream of memories can cause significant disruptions to life as they flood the individual with the burden of non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting recollections. Those who suffer from hyperthymesia get lost in remembering, making it difficult to attend to the present or plan for the future because one is consigned to live entirely in the past.

Beyond its necessity for healthy brain function, Judaism even premises certain commandments upon forgetfulness. As we read in the Torah: “כִּ֣י תִקְצֹר֩ קְצִֽירְךָ֙ בְשָׂדֶ֜ךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ֧ עֹ֣מֶר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה לֹ֤א תָשׁוּב֙ לְקַחְתּ֔וֹ לַגֵּ֛ר לַיָּת֥וֹם וְלָֽאַלְמָנָ֖ה יִֽהְיֶ֑ה לְמַ֤עַן יְבָֽרֶכְךָ֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל מַֽעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדֶֽיךָ — When you reap the harvest in your field and forget a sheaf, do not turn back to retrieve it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 24:19).

Forgiveness of others for the wrongs they have committed is also a religious duty, one which relies on a kind of forgetfulness, or at least the release of the negative emotions that come with remembering the wrong. Self-servingly, we often explain our inability to forgive as a result of being unable to forget. Yet according to a study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, our brain works in precisely the opposite way. It is only because we are willing to forgive that we are able to forget, which means we’re able to diffuse the anger or distress it elicits. Neurologically speaking, then, forgetfulness is a reward for forgiveness. This is certainly a worthwhile thought to ponder on Yom Kippur, a day devoted to seeking atonement and reconciliation..

Yet for most of us, most of the time, not remembering scares us a lot more than not forgetting From a religious standpoint there is nothing more frightening than forgetfulness. As the late theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once wrote, “To us, recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past. To us Jews, the essence of faith is memory. To believe is to remember.”

From a rabbinic standpoint, moreover, forgetfulness is the greatest curse a Torah scholar could ever experience. In mantra-like fashion, upon the conclusion of a Talmudic tractate, those present recite and repeat three times the words of the Hadran prayer, “We shall return to this tractate, and may it return to us; we shall keep this tractate in mind, and may it keep us in mind; we shall not depart from this tractate, and may it not depart from us, neither in this world nor in the world to come.”

When I was a teen, I rebelled against Jewish observance. Yet my rejection of Jewish life was framed in such a way that, ironically, I continued to observe the mitzvot through my deliberate transgression of them. You might say my religious life was like a photographic negative — a visual counterpoint to an actual picture, albeit one in which the various shades of light are reversed. The Yom Kippur of my freshman year in college, I observed the fast day by going for lunch at a restaurant with another Jewish friend, ordering a double bacon cheeseburger and a beer, toasting one another with the wish of “Happy Yom Kippur!” (It was probably then and there that God decreed that I’d become a rabbi . . .).

Little did I know that I was actually echoing a late 19th century practice in which Jewish socialists, atheists, and anarchists, chose to acknowledge Yom Kippur as the holiest and most solemn day in the calendar by rebelling against it. On the night of Kol Nidre — and never on a different night — they would gather to recite parodies of the liturgy, dance to the music of orchestras and feast on pork.  Who knew there was traditional precedent for my action?

Please understand . . . I am not proud of that moment; but I am not ashamed of it, either. It was part of my unique path to the place where I stand. I recommend it to no one, but I have long since forgiven the self-righteous anger and confusion of my 18-year-old self.

Here’s why I share this story with you: In that moment of repudiation of Yom Kippur, I still remembered where I came from. To rebel, one must have something to rebel against, and I was ever so keenly aware that my act was predicated on knowing it was the Day of Atonement.

Fast forward to the fall of my sophomore year in college . . . Away at school and sharing an apartment with friends, I found myself so caught up with campus life that I was no longer tuned into the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. Sometime during the day of Sunday, October 2, 1982, I was startled to learn that it was the second day of Sukkot. I had completely forgotten about the holiday.

The realization scared me. As a child, Sukkot was one of my favorite Jewish holidays. I looked forward to watching my father put up our sukkah, and eagerly anticipated its decoration, which was my job. In not remembering that it was Sukkot, I felt as though a piece of memory had been sheared away from my being, as though I had lost a piece of myself. The remembrance of my forgetfulness pointed how far I had drifted from my roots. At that very moment my heart began to turn back toward Jewish life, toward the forging of a new identity in which I could synthesize my past with a future that I would create for myself. The process took years to accomplish; actually, it is a life work that is still unfolding.

God’s gift to all of us is our ability to remember that we have forgotten. We are always experiencing those proverbial “senior moments” — where did I leave my glasses, my wallet or my phone? Did I park the car on the green level or the red one? Remembering that we forget . . .this is normal. It is a blessing to remember that we’ve forgotten, because when that happens it allow us to engage and reclaim a lost memory. Perhaps this is what the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, meant when he said: “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Redemption requires that we first acknowledge our exile; to remember is to save something from the oblivion of the forgotten. This is why Alzheimer’s is so devastatingly tragic. It is not that the person forgets, but that the power to respond to such forgetfulness through remembrance is taken away.

In Barry Levenson’s beautiful film, Avalon, we see an immigrant family with strong familial ties living on the same Baltimore street, working, playing and celebrating in the early years of the 20th century. With the passage of time the second generation moves to different parts of the city, while their children disperse to the far corners of the country. The grandparents remember all the family members and how they are related; the grandchildren have never met most of their cousins and do not know how they are related to one another. But it is the middle generation which is the pivotal link. Though they may have forgotten the intricacies of the family tree, they remember that one exists. What they do with their recollection of having forgotten will decide the future of that family.

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Our parents or grandparents possessed a rich vocabulary and a trove of Jewish memory. They may or may not have been observant, but they raised their offspring with an awareness of Shabbat and Kashrut, of the Jewish holidays and Hebrew. Their progeny, even those who opted not to embrace the rhythms of Jewish life, remembered what they were not doing. You might say they remembered that they had forgotten. But so many of those who followed them no longer have that ability.  You can only forget what you once knew; you can’t remember what you’ve never known.

In a few minutes we will recite Yizkor, a service in which we remember our deceased loved ones. The very word Yizkor means “He will remember,” in this case the “He” is God. God remembers what we have forgotten, even as so many of us have forgotten what we once remembered. Each time we recite Yizkor I look around and wonder who could be present to remember, but has absented himself. Each day as we read the yahrzeit list at minyan, I am keenly aware of those who live locally and could come to recite Kaddish in memory of a loved one, but aren’t there. It’s not my role to judge — perhaps they are unwell or travelling on a yahrzeit date. But because I’m only human, I do wonder about those who are healthy and not away. Do they remember that they have forgotten, or have they forgotten to remember? When does a piece of our our memory become irrelevant? Do we forget something only after we deem it of little consequence, or does it only become insignificant once we’ve forgotten?

When the Torah speaks of the cruel war in which Amalek waged war against the Israelites, we are told “זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם — Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you left Egypt.” But then, at the very end of the passage the text states, “לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח — Do not forget.” Is this not redundant? If we do not forget, have we not remembered?

Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that there are different levels of memory. Ideally, it is best if one does not forget, to bear in mind important truths at all times. Yet given our frailties as human beings we sometimes do forget; it simply can’t be helped. To us the Torah says, “Wake up and remember that you have forgotten, for it is the only way that you will remember what you have forgotten.” For when we can’t even remember that we no longer remember, we forever lose a priceless key to a priceless storehouse of meaning.

Beyond our individual memories lies a larger sea of living memory, far bigger than any one of us. Even when we cannot remember, others can and do. Glen Campbell’s music is remembered by millions though he can no longer sing what he once knew. The righteous deeds and values of those who suffer from dementia are deposited in the safe deposit box of their loved ones’ memories, who will tell and retell the stories that outlast the individual. Even death, with its ultimate erasure of all neurological function, cannot destroy the imperishable quality of memory, because others can tell our tale. Because every human being is a story, and because God loves stories, the good Lord created memory to preserve narratives worthy of retelling, even after their authors are no more.

When the Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jewish people, he would go to a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a mystical fire, say a special prayer, and, on the strength of these actions, the misfortune would miraculously be averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion to intercede with heaven for the same reason, he would go to the special place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not remember how to light the mystical fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib, the Sasover Rebbe, would go into the forest to save the people and say, “I neither remember how to light the fire nor do I remember the prayer, but I remember the place.” And it, too, was sufficient to accomplish the miracle. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his study, his head in his hands, he cried out to God, “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even remember how to find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story.” And it was enough.

Do you remember what you have forgotten? Do you at least remember that you have forgotten? God knows how we are fashioned, and is aware that we are but dust. Because the Eternal is compassionate, God will forgive that we can’t recall how to light the fire, recite the prayer, or even find the special place in the forest. God only asks that we remember the story . . . or at the very least, that there is a story. For without a story, what are we, really?

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