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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Adina Allen, The Womb From Which the World Came

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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