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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Another Rosh Hashanah 5776 Sermon: What Fiddler on the Roof Can Teach us About Tradition and Change

Copy of the Original Broadway Program (1964)“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because the Center is our home… And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition.”

Click here for Topol’s version of Tradition

“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered at services and always wear a prayer shawl. when we pray. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!”

A Zero Mostel I’m not . . . but like a generation of others who grew up in the sixties and seventies I was raised on a steady diet of Fiddler on the Roof. From Sunrise, Sunset at practically every Jewish wedding, to the Sabbath Prayer that supplanted the traditional Shabbat candle lighting liturgy at more secular Jewish camps; from singing L’hayim To Life! countless times at the back of school buses on youth group outings, to the popularization of the word Yenta in American slang, Fiddler was inextricably woven into the fabric of American Jewish life, even as it became a cultural icon of our time.

It is now a half-century since Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway. Yet Tevye and his family arrived in New York much earlier. Fifty years before Fiddler became a smash hit, the well known Yiddish author, Shalom Aleichem — on whose stories the musical is based — introduced Tevye der Milchiger, Tevye the Dairyman, and his family to the Yiddish theater of New York. Irony of ironies, his plays about Tevye were dismal failures, each closing after only a few weeks. The recollections of shtetl life held few charms for members of the immigrant generation, engaged as they were in the struggle to build a new identity in a strange land. Those who passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, would have been astonished to learn that Jewish and non-Jewish theater-goers of a later generation would go gaga at the sight of a big bearded Jew with a jiggling belly, singing “Tradition, tradition!”

But the 1960s heralded a tectonic shift in the cultural foundations of American life. Alissa Solomon, author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, has this to say: “In the nineteen sixties Fiddler on the Roof served as an engine of Jewish acculturation in America, [while] for the next generation of assimilated Jews, it became a sacred repository of Jewishness itself.” In other words, as Jews traveled ever farther away from the shtetl, the nostalgic look at Eastern European life through rose-colored glasses became a safe way to validate the break with past. Far from being a play about tradition, it is a play about fiddling with tradition; a study in “how far one can bend without breaking,” to quote our friend, Tevye.

Thus, in many ways the show is a parody of shtetl life. Consider that in Fiddler the rabbi is not a figure of authority, but a bit player; he is beloved and respected, to be sure, yet ultimately irrelevant. The matchmaker is comical and lovable, but oblivious to the concept of romantic love, which the audience knows must win the day. In the world of tradition, Tzeitel would have married Lazar Wolf, not Motel the Tailor. Indeed, in Shalom Aleichem’s actual story, when Chava marries the Russian Fyedka in a Russian Orthodox Church, Tevye sits shiva and declares her dead to him. By contrast, in Fiddler, a door is left open to the possibility of future reconciliation when he whispers, “God be with you” and gestures to Tzeitel to share his words with Chava. In short, Fiddler allows us to feel good about tradition recast as an escapist fantasy regarding the “good old days” that no one would want to relive. When the actors leave the stage and the house lights come up we are quite content to live in a world without the rigidity of small-town Eastern European life.

The tension between tradition and change isn’t a uniquely Jewish concern, of course. Eight thousand miles away, Fiddler on The Roof has met with incredible success in Japan, where it has been produced hundreds of times since 1967, enjoying a major revival in Tokyo just last year. The late Joe Stein, the librettist for Fiddler on the Roof, loved to tell a story about a Japanese producer who asked him how Americans could understand a story that was so Japanese! Click here for To Life! L’chaim in Japanese.

But you need not travel to Asia to understand that everywhere is Anatevka, including our own Jewish community. We, too, sometimes without being fully aware of it, are caught in a riptide between the currents of tradition and change. The centripetal forces of life cause us to embrace change one day and reject it the next; to venerate tradition, but then to set it aside. An oxymoron to be sure, but our religious life is one of “tradition and change”.

This message is integral to Rosh Hashanah. The central section of the Musaf Amidah is entitled Zikhronot, Remembrances. It urges us to sanctify the present by recalling the past. Yet it is followed by Shofarot, which speaks of the Shofar as the instrument sounded to usher in new experiences in the life of our people: the giving of Torah was announced by the Shofar; its notes heralded the start of sacred assemblies; and according to the prophet Isaiah, a great Shofar will one day announce the return to Israel of those lost in the land of Assyria and cast away in the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 27:13). Today we stand on threshold of a New Year, but we examine the past deeds that led us to this moment. Three times in our liturgy we proclaim, “Hayom Harat Olam — a rather odd phrase in Hebrew — which is usually translated as, “Today the world was born.” Yet we can just as easily read it as “Today itself is eternally pregnant” — pregnant with possibility. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration in the present embracing both old and new.

At the Jacksonville Jewish Center men and women sit together, yet our service is largely a traditional Hebrew one. We count women equally in our minyan, but the majority of women chose not to wear tallit or tefillin, despite the encouragement of clergy. We allow for instrumental music, but only up to a certain point in our Friday evening services during the summer months when sunset is later. Our synagogue calls to the Torah as b’not kohen, women whose fathers are kohanim. They do not, however, participate in duchenen, the recitation of the Priestly Benediction at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

These particular differences and countless others are neither whimsical nor happenstance. They are rooted in varying aspects of Jewish law and tempered by the unique character of our synagogue’s history, culture and community. As a Conservative synagogue, halakhah has final say but all the above enter into the consideration of what to change . . . and what not to.

There’s a story told about a woman who always cut away the edge of a brisket to cook the smaller piece separately. When asked by her daughter why she did this, she responded, “It’s what our family has always done. Perhaps my mother can tell you why.” When the young woman asks her grandmother, she receives the same reply. It is only when she inquires of her elderly great-grandmother that the latter explains, “When I was first married we were poor and couldn’t afford a proper roasting pan. The only way I could fit the meat into the pan was by cutting off a piece and cooking it separately.”

The message? For several generations no one thought to ask about the origin or reason behind the truncated brisket.  In other words, traditions have a way of becoming self-validating entities; they persist even when the practical reasons for their continued observance no longer exist. Traditions can make us feel secure and at home; they reassure us that in a sea of change, there is a safe harbor of continuity with our past.

Judaism, however, takes a more nuanced view.  The Babylonian Talmud relates that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai, he found God placing crowns on the Hebrew letters in the Torah with strokes of the divine quill. Moshe inquires about the function of these crowns, and God informs him that, in the generations to come, a great scholar would derive heaps upon heaps of interpretations from each jot and tittle. His curiosity aroused, Moses asks to see this man, whereupon God transports Israel’s greatest teacher to the classroom of Rabbi Akiva. Sitting at the back of the room, Moses is distressed to discover his inability to follow the conversation — could it be that he, who had transmitted the Torah from God to Israel, was stymied by the give-and-take of the very tradition he handed down? Yet at that moment, in response to a disciple’s query about the origin of a particular law, Rabbi Akiva answered, “הלכה למשה מסיני — It is a law given to Moses at Sinai” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b).

If Jewish tradition were frozen in time, this story would be meaningless. Clearly, the Midrash is telling us that tradition is not impervious to change, but that such change is only meaningful when rooted within the authenticity of the tradition itself. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the tractate Hullin teaches that we must accept the novel views of Torah scholars, but only when they quote them in the name of their teachers . . . which begs the question as to how a view can be new if one learns it from one’s teacher! What the Talmud is really saying is that we can embrace change, but such innovation must come from within the system and implemented for the sake of strengthening Jewish life, rather than simply taking the path of least resistance because it would be easier to do so.

While children are supposed to learn about the “three Rs,” rabbis who wish to be effective spiritual leaders must aspire to the “three Gs”: they must GUARD, GOAD, and GUIDE their communities. As guardians they must protect the health of Judaism’s vital organs by preserving the authenticity of tradition and the integrity of its practice. As goads they are change agents, having to prod, promote, inspire, spur and challenge their congregations not to fall victim to complacency or veneration of what was simply because it was. And in their role as guides they must use the entirety of their knowledge and skills to help congregants navigate between the traditions that nourish Jewish life and those that impede its growth; the changes that can add vitality to our dance with God and those that threaten to undermine the integrity of our ideals.

Our synagogue is many things to many people, but there is nothing more fundamental to our existence than serving as a House of Prayer. After all, no matter how excellent our schools, no matter how vibrant our programming, without worship we would no longer be a synagogue. As for the choreography between continuity and innovation, it finds its most vital expression in our sanctuary, for it is right here that congregants — from those who come a handful of times a year to those present every week — encounter the most dramatic dance of tradition and change.

As guardian, goad and guide, on this Rosh Hashanah, I wish to share a vision of with you of what our communal worship might one day look like. Whether these ideas reach fruition will be determined by our conversations at large. In articulating these thoughts, my most important goal is not the particulars of what I propose, but to raise a far larger question. Beyond the issue of halakhic permissibility, which innovations will energize services, and which will undermine their religious integrity? What traditions are so vital that their elimination would be unthinkable, and why? In ten years will a worshipper at the Jacksonville Jewish Center experience the very same service we do today? What would excite us about change? What would scare us? In the months and years to come I will certainly make the case for specific changes . . . but above all the foregoing are the questions we can’t afford NOT to ask.


Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Sanctuary

Take a moment to look around this sanctuary. This room has been the site of a thousand b’nei mitzvah, a couple hundred weddings and scores of funerals. In 40 years we have celebrated more than 2,000 Shabbatot in this space. But the sanctuary’s design reflects the vibe of a different era, a time when synagogue worship spaces were linear and frontal, an era when the focus was less on creating a synergy within the seats and more about keeping all eyes on the clergy. Within this room there are, so to speak, multiple zip codes, families and friends who have laid claim to particular rows or sections. Show me a map of the sanctuary and I will tell you who sits where. This is a tradition!

Yet let me be heretical for just a moment If we were building the Jacksonville Jewish Center today, our thinking about the layout of the sanctuary would likely reflect a very different set of principles than those that guided the sanctuary design of the seventies. Were I to imagine a redesign of our sanctuary, here’s what I would see: a front bimah at a single, lower level to allow for greater access to our beautiful ark and a sense of it being closer to the congregation. Instead of our hazzan davening from the front, there would be a raised platform in the middle of the room so that the words of Torah and the music of our liturgy would emerge from the very center of our togetherness. Instead of forward facing theater-style seats which subtly create a sense of being a spectator rather than a participant, the seats would form a 3/4 circle facing one another with an open space between the bimah and the ark for dancing with the Torah and one another. Perhaps most radical of all, rather than our seats being bolted to the floor, they would be movable to allow us to create different seating configurations depending on the service and the numbers present.

What I’ve just described to you is actually a more traditional approach to sanctuary design, yet it would certainly be a dramatic change for us. There will come a time when we need to renovate this room . . . when it does will we choose to replicate 1975 for the sake of nostalgia, or be willing to push the envelope for a new vision? There are no plans afoot at the moment to make any changes to the sanctuary, but in my role as goad to constructive change let the question stand as one worthy of discussion.

As synagogue guardian of Jewish law, so long as I am the spiritual leader of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, our Shabbat and holiday services will always consist of a primarily Hebrew liturgy, a kosher Torah reading and the chanting of the haftorah, the recitation of the Sh’ma and its blessings, the Shaharit and Musaf Amidot, while the hazzan’s repetition of the foregoing will remain a regular feature of worship. It is inconceivable to me that we, with our proud traditions and history as a Conservative synagogue that has never settled for religious minimalism could ever uproot the liturgical trunk of our davening.

Yet I am equally convinced that the time has arrived for us to create an alternative service on Shabbat mornings. We are actually many congregations within a single community, each with different perspectives. I am the rabbi of the Shabbat regulars who desire and love a traditional service, but I am also the rabbi of those on the periphery who might find a very different worship experience more meaningful, and as a result, attend more frequently. There are times when we need to be one community doing one thing, but there are also times when we must acknowledge that one size does not fit all. To implement a second service successfully will require careful design, one that resists invidious comparisons — it’s not about offering “sanctuary light”, and it’s not about “great taste” vs. “less filling” to quote the old Budweiser commercial.

To that end, during the coming year I intend to visit vibrant non-traditional services in several cities across America, and to begin a larger conversation about how we would integrate a second service into the larger picture of our worship. If we are successful, some enthusiasts will want to know why we can’t make over the sanctuary service in its image . . . and we will explain our belief in tradition and change.   If we are successful, we might find some sanctuary regulars complaining that they are concerned, lest an alternative service draw an entirely new group of Shabbat attendees uninterested in traditional sanctuary worship . . . and we will articulate our commitment to tradition and change. And if we are really, really successful, we will ulitmately realize that we are a community of many colors, and that growing the size of the pie strengthens the fabric of the larger community. Ask yourself this: Even if there were two services going on at the same time, would we really be a weaker synagogue by having more people, new people, in this building celebrating Shabbat?

Will the time come when we add the matriarchs in some fashion to the Amidah? Some will shout “yes”, others will yell “no”. Tradition and change. Shall we take a firmer hand in expecting middle schoolers to attend Shabbat services as a non-negotiable requirement for b’nei mitzvah? Will our USYers lead our Friday night service once a month? Tradition and change. Should kohanim duchen not just on the High Holidays, but on the pilgrimage festivals as well? Might we at some future point allow for hand drums or other forms of percussion at Shabbat services (as it is, we already have a Cantor who plays his lectern like a drum), even as we continue to refrain from other instruments for halakhic reasons? Tradition and change. Will we we cringe because this wasn’t done at the Center in 1980, or can we have faith in the possibility that change can animate and strengthen tradition? It is false to believe that we have to choose between the ghosts of our grandparents and the souls of grandchildren.  Rather, the task is how to introduce our grandchildren to their grandparents in new ways that speak of ancient truths. As the great Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook once described it, “It is to renew the old and sanctify the new.”

In the coming year I invite you to partake in the conversation about how to grow our spiritual life as a synagogue. These conversations will deepen our awareness of the vortex of tradition and change, whose eddies swirl around us, whose currents carry us down the river of time, past the banks whose landscape changes with each passing day.

Marc Chagall, Music (1920)

We are fiddlers on a roof with feet planted firmly at the very spot where the shingles of custom and innovation reach their apex. We hold in our hands the magnificent Stradivarius of the Jewish past, but we play it with a bow of change whose movement across the strings of our heritage creates the notes we hear in the present. Because there can be no change without tradition, and no tradition without change, we will sanctify the new and renew the old as all the fiddlers of past Jewish generations have done on the parapets of Prague and Provence, the gables of Cracow and Castile, and the roofs of Jerusalem and Jacksonville. Tradition . . . and change.

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A Rosh Hashanah 5776 Sermon: Becoming Real is No Fairytale

Almost all of us have a cherished fairy tale or children’s story from the time when we were young. What is your favorite? Is it The Giving Tree, James and the Giant Peach, or Harriet the Spy? Or might it be Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, or maybe Where the Wild Things Are? There are so many wonderful children’s classics that it would be difficult to choose just one.

While I love lots of children’s books, there is one that has a very special place in my heart. Ironically, I did not read it until I was in my early thirties; my wife, Susan, introduced it to me. Perhaps because I lacked childhood associations with the story, the profundity of its inner wisdom struck me more forcefully. However one explains my love for this work, to this day I periodically reread it and ponder anew each and every time its poignant message.

The book I’m referring to is Margery Williams’ classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. Acclaimed by the public almost instantly when first published in 1922, it is the tale of a small boy whose Christmas present is a toy rabbit. After playing with it for a few hours in the holiday hustle-and-bustle, the boy quickly discards the toy. In the nursery the rabbit is looked down on by the fancier wind up toys, but a skin hobby horse tells him that, while the those other toys will eventually break, the rabbit has the potential to become real.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Sometime later, when the boy can’t find the china dog with which he always slept, his Nana gives him the toy rabbit, and he comes to adore the toy, making it his inseparable companion. This happy relationship continues until the boy contracts scarlet fever. Of course, in 1922 there were no antibiotics, and given the contagious character of the illness, there was no choice but for the doctor to insist that all the toys with which the boy has had contact be burnt. While waiting in a sack with the other toys consigned to the flames, the rabbit sheds a tear . . . a real tear from which a fairy emerges. The fairy explains that while the rabbit was real to the boy because the boy loved him, she will now make the rabbit real to the world, and he becomes real at last, at home with the wild rabbits in the garden. At the story’s end, months later the boy catches glimpse of the now real velveteen rabbit, and thinks to himself, “Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!” Little did he know that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.

Margery Williams was not Jewish, but her book can be read as a marvelous midrash on the Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe. Though most of the time we pass through the season and return to our lives unchanged, the High Holy Days can be a journey of transformation, one whose central question is, “Am I REAL?” Yes, we all exist . . . but are we real? And do we want to be?

We live in an era where reality is no farther away than our smart phones. Consider just a few weeks ago the shooting of TV reporter, Alison Parker, and cameraman, Adam Ward. Wearing a device that weighed no more than a few ounces, Vester Flanagan shared the gruesome reality of his murderous act with a million viewers as it happened. Yet despite the proliferation of HD imagery on our screens large and small, despite the popularity of that which we oddly call “Reality TV,” ours is an age of smoke and mirrors, a time in which illusion and superficiality supplant the real.

“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” — so says Polonius to Laertes in Act I of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Yet our generational maxim is: “This above all: to external objects and beliefs be true, to the notion that success is measured by material wealth, by social standing, by your concerns of what others will think, by how young you look, or how impressive your resume looks. Children lament at the expensive toys their friends and their friends’ parents have, and feel they are lacking in comparison; successful parents with graduate level degrees and high power careers tell their children they can be anything they want, yet if their child became a sanitation worker or a housekeeper would they be happy so long as their children were? Would they boast to their friends, “My kids are earning an honest living and I can see they are content with the lives they’re leading”? Or would they secretly hope for it to be a passing phase?

About ten years ago, Toni Raiten-D’Antonio, a psychotherapist, wrote a book entitled The Velveteen Principles; A Guide to Becoming Real. She observes, “In our world, the standards used to determine a person’s value generally include wealth, beauty, public acclaim, power and popularity. As a result, the most valued people fall into a very narrowly defined group. They are the same — generically pleasant but boring in the way they look, act and talk. They are the leading citizens of an imaginary society I call the ‘United States of Generica.’.”

It is not for me to say that one can’t possibly be happy living in the “U.S. of G.” But in a society where so many are in therapy, a culture in which escapism is a mega-industry, and one out of two marriages ends in divorce, I suspect a lot of us wish our lives were different in some way. Deep down the words of the Psalmist resonate in us for we know them to be true: “הַבֹּטְחִ֥ים עַל־חֵילָ֑ם וּבְרֹ֥ב עָ֝שְׁרָ֗ם יִתְהַלָּֽלוּ, אָ֗ח לֹא־פָדֹ֣ה יִפְדֶּ֣ה אִ֑ישׁ לֹא־יִתֵּ֖ן לֵאלֹהִ֣ים כָּפְרֽוֹ — Those who trust in their success, who glory in their great wealth — it cannot redeem a person, or serve as a ransom to God . . . כִּי־נַ֭פְשׁוֹ בְּחַיָּ֣יו יְבָרֵ֑ךְ וְ֝יוֹדֻ֗ךָ כִּי־תֵ֘יטִ֥יב לָֽךְ תָּ֭בוֹא עַד־דּ֣וֹר אֲבוֹתָ֑יו עַד־נֵ֝֗צַח לֹ֣א יִרְאוּ־אֽוֹר — for when a person dies his goods will not follow him. Though others congratulate him for his good fortune, he must still join the company of his ancestors who will never see daylight again” (Psalm 49:7, 8, 19, 20). What could be more horrible than feeling we had not really lived for something that truly mattered?

But becoming real to ourselves is no picnic; in fact, it can be downright painful. It is to realize our flaws, our imperfections, to see that we’re bald, lumpy or pimply; to see that we can be impatient, selfish, domineering, intolerant or paranoid . . . to REAL–ize all this and still to love ourselves, not despite our flaws, but with them. To develop self-acceptance and self-empathy in a way that does not deny our mistakes, but refuses to be defined by them.

Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, would hold an audition for potential shofar blowers. The saintly rabbi was not simply seeking an individual capable of blowing the ram’s horn like a virtuoso, but also whether or not this person could master the elaborate kavannot, prayers of mystical intention, necessary to ensure the sounds of the shofar had their intended effect on the heavenly realms. Those who wished to be considered for this highly selective position would practice for months. In the case of one man, he longed so deeply to blow shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov that he had practiced for years. Yet when his turn came and the moment he had waited so long for had arrived, he choked and froze. His mind became a blank and he could remember nothing at all. Instead he stood before the great rabbi in utter silence, and then, when he realized the enormity of his failure, he began to weep uncontrollably, his body wracked by heart-breaking sobs.

“You are hired,” the Ba’al Shem Tov said quietly. The man was bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I failed miserably. I couldn’t even remember a single word!” And so the Ba’al Shem Tov told him a parable about a king in whose palace there were many secret chambers, each with its own unique key. Yet there is one master key capable of opening all the locks: an ax. Specific commandments and particular prayers have the ability to unlock certain doors within the soul, but the ax that can open every door and bring us directly into God’s presence is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “קָר֣וֹב ה’ לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי־לֵ֑ב –God is close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:19).

The Ba’al Shem Tov picked the man because in that transformative moment of realizing his inadequacies and flaws . . . he became real.There is no sequel to the tale of the shofar blower, but I imagine that when that deeply meaningful moment passed, he still had to struggle with preconceptions and false thinking. The memory of his experience with the great rabbi became a touchstone, powerfully capable of getting him back on track when he strayed from the path of being real. You see, real is the work of a lifetime. There’s no book, no CD, no program with five easy sessions to get us to where we need to be.

Indeed, the only way to become real is to live life in real time, falling down and getting up. Learning from our mistakes and catching ourselves as we  stray into negative thought patterns. I am reminded of what a recovering alcoholic once said to me: “I used to think that my problem was the inability to handle drinking and that once I got it under control, all would be fine. I finally realized that my real problem was an inability to handle sobriety as a way of life.” To become real is to understand, as the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, is alleged to have said, that “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Yet there is a silver lining. If we are willing to accept the hard work and the failure that comes with the quest to be real, we discover the gift of flexibility. In The Velveteen Rabbit when the toy bunny first encounters real rabbits, he is puzzled at the absence of seams along the contours of their bodies. He finds their ability to jump, hop and run nothing short of amazing.  Were we truly to inhabit our own skins, we, too, would discover the flexibility that comes when we no longer feel it necessary to jam ourselves into the contours of some predefined perspective that we do not truly own. To be real is to be adaptive to change, to be willing to take chances and try new things without fear of failure, because if we are not afraid to fail, then failure need not be cause for shame, but can instead become a teacher. To be real is to be resilient.

The ultimate significance of being real, however, is experienced in relationship. It is through only through our love of someone else that we truly become real. When a couple first dates, there is a tendency to idealize, even idolize one’s romantic interest. Romance is a time when the world shines, when the skies are at their bluest and the flowers appear more colorful. It is a time of illusion as we exult in having found the perfect person: “She lets me make the decisions”; “He is so easy going”; She is amazingly organized.”

But such love isn’t yet real. Disillusionment is bound to set in once we’ve become more comfortable with one another for the simple reason that each of us is flawed in some way. And so, “She lets me make all the decisions” morphs into “Doesn’t she have a mind of her own? I never expected that I’d have to make all the decisions in our day-to-day life.” “He is so easy-going” turns into “Does he even have a backbone?” At that moment we reach a cross-roads in our relationship, for if we can’t hack disillusionment, then it’s all over.

Our ability to accept that disillusionment is exactly what our relationships require to become real: she has bad breath in the morning . . . he is a slob — and yet you consciously make a decision to love. In self-empathy you find the power to be empathetic to others. In truly loving someone with flaws, you further your own self-acceptance. Beyond our partners in life, we give our friends, our relatives, our colleagues the permission to be real, because we give ourselves the permission to be real. According to Maimonides’ Hilkhot Teshuvah, the Laws of Repentance, we are not only required to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, but must also be willing to forgive them. We do not deserve REAL for ourselves if we cannot help others attain it for themselves.

Being real allows us to separate good intent from negative outcome, or if I can deliberately misquote the old proverb, “The road to real is paved with good intentions.” So often outcomes are about externals; in our preoccupation with undesirable results, we sometimes forget the positive emotions that inspired someone in our lives to attempt the effort to do good. A husband cleans up the kitchen, but he mistakenly puts the objects his wife will only wash by hand in the dishwasher. Should her first reaction be anger at doing something the wrong way, or appreciation of the good intention? Our children make us breakfast in bed, but accidentally smash an expensive teapot that we treasure? How would we frame our response? I’m not suggesting that caring about damage to treasured items is petty or that there is no way to guide others gently into better care of the belongings we value, but where do we go viscerally when these things happen? Are such reactions from the core of REAL being, or do they distract us from the REAL people we want to be?

The Talmud tells a story about the sage Ben Zoma, who reflected upon the variety of individuals in the world and exclaimed, “ברוך שברא כל אלו לשמשני — Praised is One who created all that serve me.” He then continued, “Behold how much labor did Adam, the first man, have until he could could eat bread: he had to plow, sow, reap, thresh, winnow, grind, knead and bake; yet I arise each morning to find all this prepared on my behalf. Behold how much work did Adam have before he could wear clothing: he had to shear the sheep, whiten the wool, spin, weave, dye and sew the fabric, yet I find my garments each day ready to wear.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58a).

Gratitude is both an effect of REAL as well as what helps us become real. But gratitude isn’t just about teaching manners. We teach our children manners, but often incorporate pressure and guilt into the lesson. A little girl gets a gift and the first thing we ask, “What do you say?” Suddenly a positive moment becomes a pop quiz. Worse, at one time or another in a moment of frustration with our children we may sometimes say, “This is the thanks I get? I’ve given you so many things? Why can’t you show an ounce of appreciation?” In doing so we run the risk of turning gratitude into a thing that can be demanded, when in fact, it can only be nurtured.

Don’t get me wrong. Our kids need to write thank-yous, whether or not they feel like it. And we have a responsibility to teach them to be civil and courteous. But that’s not how we show them what gratitude means in the deepest sense. To do so requires that we be alive to the miracle of existence; and to be deeply aware to even those things we don’t see unfold, You walked into a synagogue this morning ready to receive you.  How did all these chairs get into the social hall and gym? Where did the apples in the lobby come from as a way of wishing you a sweet New Year? Who put out all these prayer books? Watch the rain with your child on a stormy day and express your appreciation of how the drops nourish the earth; savor an ordinary weekday evening dinner and the fact that your loved ones surround you. This is the gratitude that comes from being REAL and it is what makes us REAL.  And this is why Judaism is suffused with countless to opportunities to recite blessings over the fragrances we smell, the foods we eat, and yes, even the act of successfully going to the bathroom!  In cultivating gratitude for what is REALLY amazing and amazingly REAL, we discover genuine happiness.

To be REAL is what it takes to experience a God that is REAL. A God that is a verb rather than a noun. A God that accepts our imperfections and challenges us to be more. The Psalmist writes, “מָֽה־אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ:  וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָב֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ –What is humanity that You are mindful of, mortal beings that You take note of them? Yet you have created us little less than divine, and adorned us with glory and majesty” (Psalm 8:5-6). God knows our frailties, but also our capacities to transcend them. As for us, we are not asked to relate to an Infinite and Eternal God who lives in a realm of the perfect, but rather to feel the Divine Presence in the imperfect and very real world God has given us, a world all the more precious because of its fragility and transience.

A few years ago I was at a rabbinic retreat in the Maryland countryside with my colleague, my teacher, my friend, Rabbi Alan Lew. On the third day he went for a walk after breakfast in the cold and crisp air of a January morning, and died suddenly of a heart attack. Alan was one of the most real people I have ever met. I don’t know if he ever read The Velveteen Rabbit, but he did write these words: “God made a profoundly mixed world, a world in which every second confronts us with a choice between blessings and curses, life and death; a world in which our choices have indelible consequences; a world in which life and death, blessing and curses, choose us, seek us, find us every moment. And perhaps we have chosen arbitrary spiritual language to express these things, or maybe God made human culture so that we would express these things precisely as we have in every detail. It makes no difference.”

What makes a difference is that it’s real and it is happening right now and it is happening to us, and it is utterly inescapable, and we are completely unprepared. This moment is before us with its choices, and the consequences of our past choices are before us, as is the possibility of our transformation. This year some of us will dies, and some of us will live, and all of us will change . . . And we have nothing to offer but each other and our broken hearts.”

And for those who choose to be real that will be enough.

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Al Quds Day, Teheran, July 10, 2015 . . . Four days before President Obama heralds the P5 + 1 accord with Iran which,”demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change”.

We are now at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, of which the Mishnah states, “מִשֶּׁנִּכְנַס אָב, מְמַעֲטִין בְשִׂמְחָה: — When Av begins, joy diminishes” (Ta’anit 4:6).  Accordingly, the nine days that culminate with the fast of Tisha b’Av are marked by an absence of mirth. Jewish weddings are not held, and observant Jews do not attend any form of live entertainment. It is also customary to refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, or swimming recreationally during this period.

The ritualized sadness stems from the longevity of Jewish memory, our recollection that the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed not once, but twice, on the 9th of Av.  Indeed, Tisha b’Av is a symbolic lightning rod for Jewish tragedy, for it was on this date that the Jews were also expelled from Spain in 1492 and the trains to the death camp at Treblinka first rolled out of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Coincidental or not, it is hard to ignore that the P5 + 1 nuclear agreement with Iran was unveiled just as Jews around the world entered the most depressing period on the Jewish calendar. To a time of sadness for mournful recollections of the past we add anxiety for a future filled with uncertainty.

Political pundits and spin doctors fill the airwaves of simplistic sound bytes. Presidential candidates take fighting stances — far be for me to claim they do not have concerns, but their primary focus is on polling numbers.  Meanwhile, our Commander-in-Chief seeks to defend what he believes may be his legacy, a triumph (potentially illusory) of diplomacy over war mongering.   As Jews our priority must be Israel — because a nuclear Iran represents an existential threat to Israel in a unique way.  Make no mistake, Iran’s regime is a foe of America and a nightmare for Saudi Arabia.  Yet there is only one country whose right to exist is denied by Iran; only one state she has threatened to obliterate utterly.

But for thoughtful and committed Jews it is not a time for bombast or hyperbole, finger-pointing or invective. It is a time for sober and serious reflection; a time to recall the past with clarity and to look for the sanity that lies far beyond the noise.

Could we have obtained a better deal from Iran? The answer is as unclear as the question is now irrelevant. Would Iran have already built a nuclear weapon if there had been no negotiation? The answer is as unclear as the question is now irrelevant. Musing over hypothetical scenarios may serve as a way of passing the time, but to focus on the paths not taken will get us nowhere.

Of course, if we are truly honest in our self-scrutiny this is a moment that has been in the making for two decades. It began in Bill Clinton’s first administration, when the U.S. government brushed off the expression of Israel’s concerns that Iran had begun to develop the means to acquire nuclear weaponry. It continued during President’s Bush tenure, when we were so serious about preventing Saddam Hussein from obtaining non-existent weapons of mass destruction, we launched a war against Iraq, and were willing to sacrifice thousands of live, while the real threat, the centrifuges of Natanz, continued to spin their deadly harvest just a few hundred miles away. It is also a moment framed by President Obama’s words during his final debate with Mitt Romney in October, 2012:

“Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place. We are going to continue to keep the pressure on to make sure that they do not get a nuclear weapon. That’s in America’s national interest and that will be the case so long as I’m President. We are going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”

Not quite three years later, “give up its nuclear program” has morphed into “postpone having a nuclear weapon.” More than a victory for Iran, this week represents the culmination of two decades of failed American policies.

The biggest advantage of the proposed P5+1 agreement is that Iran won’t have a bomb . . . today. It is hard, however, to declare postponement a great triumph — especially when the cost of buying more time rewards Iran with as much as $100 billion in frozen assets. Even if Iran were to spend the lion’s share of that amount in jump starting is damaged economy, terrorism is a relatively cheap investment. After all, despite crippling sanctions Iran has still found a way to fund terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi’ite radicals in Yemen. Last year, on the strength of the $2 billion it gave to Bashar al-Assad, Teheran was able to prop up the Syrian dictator and serve as an accomplice in the murder of tens of thousands of Syrians. Perhaps next year, Assad will get an extra billion or two. In Syria . . . and Yemen . . . and Iran itself life is cheap, so it won’t take much of Iran’s windfall in unfrozen assets and oil revenues to create more mayhem and misery.

Those who would defend the proposed agreement tell us that it was only supposed to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is unfair, therefore, to ask the agreement to do what it never was designed to do. That is undoubtedly true.

But it is also the point. Iran’s murderous ideology has not changed one iota; it’s determination to play the role of a regional superpower has not changed; its denial of the Holocaust and its implacable hatred of Israel remain the same. Yet the root of the problem isn’t Iran’s failure to recognize Israel, but its failure to recognize America!  How much can one expect from a government in which the burning of American flags is encouraged at public demonstrations, and the phrase “Death to America” is taught as a kind of national mantra, an Iranian pledge of allegiance, if you will. Even if Iran abides by the guidelines of the treaty — and I have no doubt that Teheran will do everything it can in the coming years to see how far it can push and how much it can get away with —  it is magical thinking to assume that the regime will morph into a kinder and gentler government between now and the sunset of the provisions which have temporarily stayed Iran’s hand from nuclear weaponry.  Could it happen?  Of course.  It is very dangerous, however, to put faith in a regime whose calling card is deception and deceit.

I cannot help but notice that Israelis across the entire political spectrum are opposed to the agreement with Iran. Ari Shavit, a columnist for Ha-Aretz and an inveterate opponent of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies toward Palestinians, had this to say two days ago in an op-ed peace,

“Experience reveals a yawning gap between the way the United States and Europe understand the Middle East and the way the Middle East understands itself . . . Here on the ground, between Casablanca and Kabul, the Vienna agreement could be perceived as evidence that America is in retreat, Europe is declining, and Shi’ite power is on the rise. Hence the concern that in the long run a nuclear arms race will develop around us, in the short term a conventional arms race will emerge, and in the intermediate term neighboring powers like Hezbollah will strengthen and feel that their time has arrived. The move that is intended to bring peace for our time may lead to the opposite.”

Shavit closes with the hope that the Vienna accord not become the Munich of the 21st century — not exactly a ringing endorsement.


These guarantees were not worth the paper they were written on, or the breath that uttered them. What is the position now? The Czech Republic is being broken up before our eyes. Their gold is being stolen by the Nazis. The Nazi system is to blot out every form of internal freedom.

-14 March 1939

In the week ahead I urge you to go to the website for AIPAC.  On the homepage follow the link for congressional action on Iran. Click on the link, and enter your name and address; with one click of the button you will send a message simultaneously to Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio as well as Congressman Ander Crenshaw to vote “No” on the Iranian agreement.

None of us knows what will happen. Congress may approve the agreement with Iran, despite our best efforts. It may also happen that even if the Senate or House reject the treaty, it could prove impossible to marshal the votes necessary to override President Obama’s veto. Of course, should Congress derail the plan, the Iranians might look at a congressional veto as a great way to drive a wedge between the U.S, Europe and Russia.  Even without congressional approval, the U.N. is likely to dial back sanctions with support from Europe, Russia, and China.

And so we live in an hour of anxiety, but as Jews we cannot and will not despair. Israel’s survival doesn’t depend on a flawed agreement to which she is not a signatory.  Israel will move on and do whatever it needs to do.  The Jewish State will never resign itself to victim-hood. It has neither the luxury nor the time to pout or wring her hands helplessly.

This is the season of Tisha b’Av, whose message is not only about the appetite of our enemies, but also about our resilience and ability to transcend and survive adversity. Iran is powerful, resourceful, fanatical and intelligent: a daunting combination. Yet we have faced such foes before, and will again. At the end of the Tisha b’Av fast it is customary to go outside to look at the sky, and upon witnessing the waxing moon recite Kiddush Levanah, a ceremony which likens Israel’s destiny to the phases of the moon. Shining brightly, growing faint, at times we even seem to disappear into the blackness of night — only to reappear and grow larger. Perhaps it is more than an interesting coincidence that the phrase Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) in gematria, Hebrew numerology, is the same as, “David melekh Yisrael hai v’kayam — David, King of Israel, lives on.” We will prevail because it is our destiny. And because we have no choice. The burden of Jewish history compels us to realize that salvation is often at its closest when it appears farthest away.


July 22, 2015 · 9:16 pm


The last serpent we encountered in the Torah was the rather clever snake who befriended Eve back in Genesis . . . until this past week.  The Israelites speak out (yet again!) against Moses and complain of God: “לָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֨חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל — Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5). The Holy One punishes Israel’s stunning ingratitude with a plague of nehasim s’rafim, perhaps best rendered as “fiery serpents” whose bite, according to the commentator Rashi, inflamed the skin.

When the people acknowledge their transgression, God relents, but then prescribes a strange antidote to the infestation, telling Moses to fashion a a copper serpent and place it on a pole. Those bitten by a snake would look at the copper image and be healed.

Strange . . . Why would God, especially after the incident of the Golden Calf, instruct Moses to build a graven image? And why of all creatures would God choose to heal the Israelites with a replica of that which afflicted them?

The rabbis themselves grappled with these questions. As we read in the Mishnah of the tractate Rosh Hashanah: “Could the serpent really slay or the serpent keep alive? Rather it’s existence comes to teach that when the Israelites directed their thoughts toward God they were healed, and when they did not they perished” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8). In other words, when they looked upward toward the serpent, they were actually looking toward God — it was this that occasioned their healing.  The Mishnah’s response, however, sidesteps the question. Indeed, we know from the Hebrew Bible that centuries later the people would come to venerate and adore the very serpent-entwined rod that God had ordered Moshe to make, so much so King Hezekiah of the late 8th century B.C.E. felt complelled to destroy it (II Kings 18:4).

This narrative reminds us how deeply we need symbols.  Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, once observed: “Symbols point beyond themselves to something else, for it is only through them that we give expression to our ultimate hopes . . .” and sometives, even our deepest fears. Yet therein lies the danger — like Moses’ snake rod, symbols can be transformed into idols; from stairways to heaven they become paths to idolatry.

Which makes me think of the extensive media coverage regarding the Confederate flag that flies on state property across from the Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, especially in the wake of the racially motivated crime that left nine innocent African Americans dead.

There are some who will tell you that the Confederate flag symbolizes for them the bravery of their ancestors who fought for their country as they then conceived it. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity . . . only their sensitivity. The Civil War was a clash between states rights and federalism, between regional disparities of culture and demographics, but it was also unavoidably and inescapably a conflict about the acceptability of human bondage. The Confederate flag cannot escape its own history as a symbol of human bondage and degradation.  Marred by the blood of the enslaved, this banner cannot be cleansed or redeemed without disfiguring and distorting history.

Imagine if Germany were to pass legislation allowing municipalities to fly the flag of the Third Reich, but only at war memorials. Imagine if we heard a government spokesperson tell us that the display of such flags was by no means intended to honor the values of Nazi Germany, or even the soldiers of the SS, but only to pay tribute to the “ordinary Joes” of the Wehrmacht, the simple foot soldiers who fought patriotically and honorably for their homeland. Can you imagine the outcry that would be heard! Parenthetically, according to section 86a of the Strafgesetzbuch, Germany’s Criminal Code, the public display of a Nazi flag is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years!

In 2015, however, there is simply no excuse for a Confederate flag to fly on any piece of public property in any state for any reason. This is not about being politically correct, but about human decency.  The First Amendment of the Constitution certainly protects the right of individuals from government intrusion so that they may engage in free speech, from the unthinkingly insensitive to the maliciously hateful, but affords no such protection to government itself.

Still, let’s not be naive.  When the Stars-and-Bars is removed from the grounds of the Palmetto State’s Capitol, it would be foolish to believe we have solved the problem of racism in America.  Dylann Roof’s demented act of racial hate would have taken place whether or not a Confederate flag flew over a southern statehouse. The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, the Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons weren’t killed because of a banner. Racism is a Hydra-headed monster, which won’t be stilled by a single blow. There may well be other haters who lie in wait; would to God that it were the last act of violence born of bigotry, but we know the likelihood of this is small.

Jewish organizations from across the religious and political spectrum have called for rabbis around the nation to declare this Shabbat one of solidarity with the African-American community.  Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis across the country, along with the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as the Republican Jewish Coalition and The National Jewish Democratic Council mourn the senseless murder of those who died at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.

To alter the mind of the haters is beyond our control, but the power to reshape the reality in which we live is well within our grasp. Let me share two brief stories.  Just yesterday on NPR I heard a story about an African-American demonstrator, who also happens to be a college professor, talking to several other young Black men. A white police officer approached them and said, “You had better move along because I smell marijuana. And if you don’t make tracks immediately, you will be going to jail.” The police officer then repeated his threat, to which one of the men answered, “How can you smell it if we don’t have any?” At that moment, all of them smelled the pot . . . which wafted down the street from a group of white teenagers standing at the other end of the block.” The policeman looked relieved and said, “Well, I told you I smelled something.”

Indeed, he had. But when he looked across the street and saw a group of white teenagers and a group of African American men he automatically made a prejudiced assumption without looking. It is one thing to hold a Shabbat of Solidarity in the wake of a terrible tragedy like the Emanuel Church shooting, but the story I have shared with you is the reality that truly needs changing; the “ordinary” racism that marks the everyday rhythm of life in our country.

The second story is a personal one . . . On my way back from Camp Ramah this week I stopped in Atlanta, and had a wonderful kosher shwarma sandwich at Pita Palace in the Toco Hills neighborhood of the city. While sitting at a table eating my spicy fries and enjoying my shwarma, a customer and the server behind the counter — an amiable fellow with a kippah — discussed the craziness of drivers in Atlanta.  During their exchange the fellow behind the counter observed, “What makes it worse is that those shvartzes don’t know how to drive.” The words were not said with malice or in anger; they were expressed in a matter-of-fact tone,” much in the same way that I once overheard a woman talking about a plumber who tried to jew her over the price of his services.

So what did I do? Not a blessed thing. I finished eating as quickly as I could and got out of there. But when I did, I realized that, in some small way, my silence was a missed opportunity to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. I should have spoken up courteously, but firmly, and challenged not the server’s silly assertions — if pressed, even he would have had to admit that his blanket statement was ridiculous — but rather the unthinking ease with which he infused bigotry into polite conversation.  The word shvatze is coarse.  Defenders of the term insist it means nothing more than “black” in Yiddish, but then again, the root of the “N word” means nothing more than “black” in Latin.  Let’s not play word games here: it is always used in a derogatory context, which makes it a form of bigoted speech. Period.

If we hear something but say nothing, we perpetuate the notion that the expression of prejudice doesn’t matter: which is why I have decided that when I return to Atlanta to pick up my children from Camp Ramah, I will go back to the Pita Palace and give the man a copy of these reflections. Can I change the world? Yes, because I am part of this world, and as I work on myself, I am changing the world in which I live. All of us can change the world by beginning with ourselves.

We possess something more powerful than copper serpents to ward off the fiery bites of that snake-in-the-grass called prejudice: a God-given conscience; a tradition that teaches God created a single human being to remind us we are of one Parent; a Torah which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. As witnesses to God’s Presence in history and as victims of prejudice ourselves, it is incumbent upon us as Jews to call for the removal of slavery’s symbols from the public arena; above all, it is our task to remove the shackles of insensitivity from our own souls.

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June 29, 2015 · 4:51 pm


The Lord said to Moses, “Early in the morning persent yourself to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews:  Let My people go to worship Me.  For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is none like Me in the world’.”

-Exodus 9:13-14

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Have you ever seen a “plague bag”? The term doesn’t refer to a piece of equipment found at the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, in Atlanta. Rather, some years ago an enterprising individual came up with a wonderful idea to enhance the Seder experience for children. For just a few bucks, you can purchase a small bag containing everything needed for a playful re-enactment of the ten plagues — there’s a tube of red liquid to symbolize the bloody water of the Nile, small rubber frogs, a packet of plastic insects etc. Plague bag-making has become something of a cottage industry; many synagogue Judaica shops, including our own, stock and sell them around Passover.

Of course, in real life one cannot miniaturize and control nature as if it were the contents of a Passover plague bag — playthings to be removed and returned to a sack at will instead of being the overwhelming elements they truly are. In Psalm 104 the Psalmist ecstatically proclaims: “מָֽה־רַבּ֬וּ מַֽעֲשֶׂ֨יךָ ה’ כֻּ֭לָּם בְּחָכְמָ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ מָלְאָ֥ה הָ֝אָ֗רֶץ קִנְיָנֶֽךָ — How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom, the earth is full of Your creations” (Psalm 104:24).  In this paean to the beauty of creation you can almost hear Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice singing What a Wonderful World.

Yet many would disagree that this is a wonderful world. Ask Fatimata Gaima, a woman from Sierra Leone who struggled to survive Ebola, only to watch her husband and all her children die from the disease. Ask Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, a physician with Doctors Without Borders, who captured on film some of the 4,000 children orphaned by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — including two babies who found a surrogate “father” in another orphan, a six-year-old named Abdul. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of just yesterday Ebola has claimed the lives of approximately 8,500 victims, a figure which does not include the survivors who are shunned and driven out of their homes and villages or the disintegration of families in which breadwinners and care-givers have perished, leaving young children and elderly dependents at the mercy of the elements. While not quite the same as the plagues which decimated the Egyptians, the collapse of the already frayed social fabric in many West African communities is as total as that suffered by Egyptian society.

ויאמרו החרטמים אל פרעה אצבע אלקים הוא — “And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This the finger of God!’”(Exodus 8:15). We, too, view the plagues of Egypt as coming from a יד חזקה וזרוע נטויה, God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” saving Israel from oppression. And if we are able to live comfortably with the misery of the Egyptians, if we are even able to package neatly that suffering in plague bags selling for $7.95 in a Judaica shop, it is because the Exodus story does not disturb our basic sense of fair play — quite to the contrary. Nature turned malevolent, but only to punish those who oppressed us. Like the “controlled burns” utilized by the Forest Service, the afflictions of Egypt were contained; limited to certain parts of the land, our ancestors remained untouched in the province of Goshen. How can you argue with plagues that only affect the bad guys?

Almost three hundred years ago, the German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, coined the term “theodicy,” from the Greek theos meaning “God” and dike meaning “justice.” Theodicy refers to the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with a God that is both omnipotent and all-good. The word may be a relative newcomer to the lexicon of theology, but the problem is as old as the world itself. Where was God in the outbreak of Ebola, or for that matter, in a hundred other tragedies? Could it be, as Shakespeare once said, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport”?

My colleague, Harold Kushner, writes in his best seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that he cannot accept a God who would cruelly destroy human life for no reason. Like a parent unable to save a child, when human life is injured, brutalized or destroyed, God is present to comfort us, to hold us, to heal us, to love us. . . yet unable to save us. In mystical terms, Kabbalah teaches that the world’s creation came through tzimtzum, an act of Divine contraction. In a universe filled with God’s essence, there could be no room for other beings. It was only through an act of willful contraction of the Divine self — the kabbalistic analogue to the Big Bang, albeit in reverse — that humanity came into being. Once established the rules do not change. Human beings sometimes die unfairly, and there’s nothing God can do about it. . .

Rabbi Kushner’s perspective has merit when applied to the existence of human evil. As Rabbi Akiva teaches, הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה — “All is foreseen, yet free will is granted” (Mishnah Avot 3:15).  To be created in the Divine Image is to possess consciousness, the ability to understand the moral implications of our decisions. That at times human beings can be “little lower than the angels”, yet at other moments commit acts of unspeakable butchery is built into the spiritual proteins of our moral DNA. And if we, either individually or collectively, misuse our God-given potential for righteousness, the moral liability and onus lies squarely on our shoulders, not God’s. When asked “Where was God during the Shoah?” Elie Wiesel once answered that the real question should be “Where was man?”

Yet natural calamities are of an entirely different genus; they are random and unthinking. Strictly speaking, they are not evil at all, simply amoral forces of gravity, geophysics or biology. But if Judaism believes order and purpose to be the very hallmarks of God’s creation, it is hard to fathom what role is played in the providential design by the chaos of earthquakes and hurricanes, tsunamis and plagues? Where is God when a child perishes from leukemia, or a care-giver who puts herself in harm’s way contracts the very disease she is fighting? Is the God of order also the God of chaos? Or do we — like Rabbi Kushner — simply relieve God of the responsibility of those natural forces that take human life with no rhyme or reason?

It is tempting to embrace Harold Kushner’s view, yet I cannot ultimately subscribe to belief in a “gerrymandered God” (to use the phrase of my teacher, Dr. Neil Gillman). גדול אדונינו ורב כח, לתבונתו אין מספר — “Great is our Ruler, vast is God’s power; beyond measure is God’s wisdom” — so we pray each morning in the words of Psalm 147. Indeed, our liturgy and our sacred literature are suffused with references to a Divine Being whose authority and power transcend all limits and boundaries. To circumscribe God’s liability because reality disturbs our sense of theological fair play seems disingenuous and artificial, no matter how well-intentioned. When the biblical figure of Job confronts the good Lord with the fact of his senseless suffering, God does not deny responsibility; instead, God firmly insists on the scope of Divine power: “Would you impugn My justice? Would you condemn Me that you may be right? Have you an arm like God’s? Can you thunder with a voice like His?”

We have no answers to these questions. Yet there is a time-honored Jewish tradition of arguing God. The Berditchever Rebbe, a great Hasidic leader of the late 18th century, fearlessly took God to task for allowing innocent life to suffer with neither rhyme nor reason. To confront God is itself a consummate affirmation of faith — for when we are upset that God violates God’s own rules, it’s because we believe Divine goodness is supposed to manifest itself in the workings of the world. As in the case of Abraham our ancestor, who argued that the innocent should not be destroyed along with the wicked of Sodom, Judaism offers an ancient precedent for challenging God to abide by God’s own standards.

But to chide God while standing aloof from suffering is no less than act of blasphemy. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, once wrote, “The question to be asked of those who seek God is not whether they believe in a noun that cannot be known, but whether they believe in the gerunds of Godliness: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, supporting the fallen, pursuing peace, loving the neighbor.” We can find the design of a moral universe, but only if we look to the fabric of our own lives and the spaces between ourselves and others. Do we fill those spaces with “the gerunds of Godliness” or do we allow them to remain barren and forsaken, devoid of God’s presence?

I don’t know where God has been during the Ebola epidemic, the news of which has faded from newspaper headlines in the United States because there have been no more new cases in this country. But I do know that God may be found wherever we allow Godliness to be. God stands by the physicians of Doctors Without Borders who are working indefatigably to save life in Liberia.  God is present in the deeds of people like Alhassan Kemokai, an Ebola survivor from Sierra Leone, who is using his experience to teach and sensitize others about the true nature of the disease.  And surely God’s presence abides amidst those who have given tzedakah to organizations like the CDC Foundation, created by the U.S. Congress to alleviate the suffering of thousands for no other reason than their belief that we are, indeed, our brothers’ keepers.  After reading this piece, I hope you will utilize the contact information at the top of this post to contribute to the fight against Ebola.  In so doing you will join yourself to the gerunds of Godliness.

There will continue to be deadly diseases. But God’s spirit can fill all the empty spaces between the peoples of this earth. Even as we read in this week’s Torah portion of how God afflicted our Egyptian oppressors with plagues, let us pray that the words of Deuteronomy soon prove true: וְהֵסִ֧יר ה’ מִמְּךָ֖ כָּל־חֹ֑לִי וְכָל־מַדְוֵי֩ מִצְרַ֨יִם הָֽרָעִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָדַ֗עְתָּ לֹ֤א יְשִׂימָם֙ בָּ֔ךְ — The Lord will remove from you all sickness, and God will not bring upon you the dreadful plagues of Egypt with which you are familiar” (Deuteronomy 7:15). So may it be God’s will; so may it be ours.

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