Friday, December 31, 2010

Parashat Vaera - My Jewish Learning

Parashat Vaera - My Jewish Learning

Try this quiz from www.myjewishlearning.com on this Shabbat's parshah, Vaera. It's not a test but food for thought. Shabbat shalom and happy new year.

Rabbi Shaina

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Does an Apology Mean We're Sorry?

How’s this for an apology?

Dear ___,
Since I offend just about everyone with whom I come into contact, in advance of Yom Kippur I am requesting forgiveness from every minor acquaintance including you. Thank you and have a good fast.

That’s sincere … right?

Maybe not.

Let’s try this: I’m sorry if I have hurt any of you in the last year.
… How sincere did that sound? …

Again - Not very? …

Did you spot the key word in that sentence that turned an apology into a pseudo – fake – apology? …

IF … IF I hurt you…

Now, if you think I’m trashing the tradition formula of the Days of Awe … I’m not.
The rest of the sentence has to include – at the very least: if I hurt you and didn’t realize it. It’s still more meaningful if you can acknowledge the ways in which you might have hurt them.

Unfortunately, we do hurt people, often without realizing it.
A careless word here, a thoughtless action there – can easily damage others – and we often have no idea that we did anything. It doesn’t matter whether we intended of not we intended to hurt anyone.

Whether or not we’re aware of the pain we inflicted, walls spring up between people … and we have relationships in need of healing.

Think about the confessional prayers. In al cheit and ashamnu – we see a laundry list of things we didn’t do. Okay, we’re praying on behalf of the community, for the things THEY did as well.

We don’t do those things.

We don’t gossip. We don’t repeat things that hurt others. We’re kind to people. Right?
In the ashamnu, among other sins, we confess to xenophobia. Don’t run to a dictionary. Xenophobia is fear of foreigners.

WE don’t do that, WE’RE not xenophobic.

Of course, it does bug us when Hispanic immigrants come to the States and don’t speak English – even though some of our own ancestors came here and spoke only Yiddish. Was that different?.

Maybe we are a bit xenophobic?

Can this xenophobia is justified?

It all depends on what you mean. Maybe our fears of another group really are justified – especially when it comes to protecting the vulnerable among us from those who would seduce them away from the covenant.

On the other hand, do our attitudes come from false assumptions, a general attitude of thinking we’re better than everyone else – from plain and simple bigotry?
Owning up to our faults is important. Not so we can beat ourselves up and feel guilty. We need to unload our burdens and move past them.

When we realize that yes, we did hurt someone, we then have a God-sent opportunity to apologize.

To really apologize.

When we look into the mirror I described at Rosh Hashanah – REALLY look……………..and we see the faults in ourselves that we REALLY thought were just the faults in others……….
We have to REALLY apologize.

Let’s take a look at the ingredients of a real apology – first as individuals, then as a community.

The nature of apology is a paradox: we have a humiliating experience that actually helps our self-esteem.

Dr. Aaron Lazare – a psychiatrist and former Chancellor and Dean of University of Massachusetts Medical School, has written extensively on the subject of apologies.
Dr. Lazare says that we must first recognize, that yes, we did violate a moral norm – or that in some fashion, we negatively impacted – harmed – a relationship.
Then, we have to say it.

“Honey, I’m sorry I hurt you,” isn’t enough.

Wouldn’t our first reaction be – nice apology, do you have any idea what you did, what you said?...

We have to recognize – and admit – HOW we hurt that person. Or how we realize we MIGHT have hurt that person.

This really does make us feel vulnerable and weak.

A John Wayne movie line sums up a typical view we have these days: “Don’t apologize—it’s a sign of weakness.”

I beg to differ! It’s a sign of strength!

When we can say to ourselves – let alone to others – I did this wrong – and further acknowledge the negative impact of our actions, we begin healing relationships and enriching our own souls.

We might have to make reparations – we should offer to fix what we can. And above all, resolve to try our hardest so the same thing doesn’t happen again.
Apologizing IS taking a chance.


On Rosh Hashanah, I told you about a person who apologized to me about things she said over forty years ago! She didn’t know how I’d react.

It was such a liberating – and powerful bonding experience -- for both of us. We’re now in frequent contact and having a great time.

But it IS POSSIBLE that the other person might not be ready to accept your apology. Did you make yourself vulnerable for no good reason?

Maimonides points out that such a refusal can be cruel. Assuming the apology is sincere, that the person will not repeat the offense – we’re supposed to forgive.
Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. Reasons vary. The wound could be too fresh … or the action too cruel ... it might be impossible to offer forgiveness at that point.
… And sometimes, people really WANT to hang on to grudges and bitterness.

When my friend wrote and asked for forgiveness, even if I had been angry … I could not imagine hanging on to a grudge for FORTY YEARS.

Some people do! They hold on to grudges for longer.

No matter if the parties involved are no longer part of their lives. No matter if the other parties died! A lot of people hang onto grudges that should have faded years before.

According to Maimonides, even if our apologies are rebuffed, we should try two more times. If we’re still rebuffed, we know that you have done everything within our power to make things right.

We can let that burden drift away.

We felt remorse. Now we can let it go.

It’s so liberating to remove walls that stand between us and others!

When we do this, we don’t weaken our self-esteem. We do the opposite; we strengthen ourselves and our self-concepts. The light of our souls shines even brighter.
Doing the right thing, setting things right, can’t help but make us stronger and better.

The impediment all along was the hurt or bitterness – or attitudes that led us to hurt someone else. Those are the things that hurt our self-esteem. But fixing it … liberating!

I mentioned the communal aspect of apology – our prayers that acknowledge our sins – when we beat our chests and beg God to forgive the community.
It can be a very empty ritual.

Doesn’t God forgive us anyway on Yom Kippur?

… Not if we don’t ask. Divine forgiveness – and closeness to Hashem – is not automatic just because it is Yom haKippurim.

We have to ask.

Further, we must ask on behalf of our people. We are one people – a tapestry of past, future … and today. As a synagogue – as Jews anywhere in the world – we form a living, breathing organism.

We must ask God to forgive us all – for HIM to turn toward us, in love and compassion.

A Jew cannot simply ask atonement for himself. Doing so, puts him outside the community.

Yom Kippur has never been intended as atonement just for individuals.

Yom Kippur is for our community – a time that we must recognize our dependence on each other as well as on God.

A midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6) illustrates our mutual inter-dependence:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai talked about men on a ship. One of them took a tool and started boring a hole under his own place. His fellow travelers exclaimed in alarm: What are you doing?

The man calm replied: what does it matter to you, I’m only boring a hole at my own place.

His companions shouted back: It doesn’t matter, don’t you see, the water will come in and flood us all!

Every single person is an integral part of our larger community.

The communal aspect of Yom Kippur also demands introspection. Are their things that our community could do better? Are we following God? Could we do a better?
As a community, we acknowledge our failings. Because we are sorry – and resolve to do better – God will forgive us – His light will enrich and brighten our souls, both as individuals and as a community.

Again, if we do not seek forgiveness as a community, we are in effect putting ourselves outside that community.

It’s important to note, there’s another aspect to introspection. It’s every bit as important as recognizing what we did wrong …

We have to see our good points as well!

Rav Nachman, a great Hasidic rebbe, warned against too much introspection. Continually finding fault with ourselves leads to anxiety or depression and serves to distance us from the Kadosh Baruch Hu.

He said that we must consciously strive to find our good points. Sometimes when we’re down, that can be pretty tough.

But Rav Nachman said we must look for our good points … and when we find one, look for another … and another…

We build on our strengths – we can’t do that if we don’t know what they are.
And we also repair our weaknesses …. The key is repair, not dwelling on them, not ruminating on them to the point of depression … but repair – moving on.
When we remove the walls between ourselves and others – we give another opening to the light of our souls.

We grow in our love of God and of His Creation –

We repair ourselves and our relationships, focus on our strengths, and are better equipped to grow in love of God and people.

Then, we can serve God with joy and gladness … and love.

But first, we must tear down the walls that stand between ourselves and others.
I opened today with a fill-in-the-blank non-apology.

There’s a beautiful paragraph in the new machzor put out by the Rabbinical Assembly:
“I hear-by forgive all who have hurt me, whether deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.

As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed by word or by deed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you my rock and my redeemer.”

On a personal note, I must acknowledge before you – and before the Kadosh Baruch Hu – that I have sometimes hurt people’s feelings. I never mean to do that. I have tried to be there for all of you. For the times I have not been there … for the times that I have unintentionally caused pain -- please forgive me.

May we all enter 5771 with renewed hearts and souls, confident that God eagerly awaits our please for forgiveness and for His presence in His lives.

May it be His will that we seek – and treasure … the closeness to God that this day has the power to bring.

Rambam and What He Still Teaches

I’m a Jewish mother, so I can freely tell Jewish mother jokes:

An Jewish man was elected to be President of the United States. He called his mother and invited her to come to DC for the Days of Awe.

“Oy, I’d like to, but it’s so much trouble. I have to get a cab to the airport, and …”

“Mom, I’m the President. You don’t need to wait for a cab, I’m sending a limo.”

“Oy,” she said, “but it’s still a lot of trouble. I’ll have to get wait in line for a ticket, and maybe get stuck with the middle seat… “

“Mom, I’m President of the United States! I’ll send a private jet. I can send Air Force One!”

“Oy,” replied his mother. “And when we land, I’ll have to get my luggage and carry it through the airport and get a cab…”

“Mom, I’ll send a helicopter. You won’t have to go to any trouble. None.

“Oy, son, that’s nice, but what about a room? The hotels in Washington are expensive…”

“Mom, you’ll stay with us at the White House!”

“All right,” she finally said, “I guess I’ll come.”

The next day she called her friend.

Friend: “What’s new?”

The mom: “I’m visiting my son for the holidays.”

Friend: “The doctor?”

The mother paused before answering: “No, the other one…”

Beyond the traditional Jewish mother jokes about “our sons, the doctors,” physicians really have played a key role in our history. Looking at the medieval Islamic world, it’s astounding to note the role doctors played.

Physicians were expected to be knowledgeable about fields of philosophy, science, and mathematics. They might be poets, government leaders, even warriors.

Many of the Jewish physicians of that era were also rabbis.

While the rabbinic role was important within the Jewish world, the most erudite physicians often found their way to royal courts.

The most notable of them – great Rabbi Moses ben Maimon -- aks Moses Maimonides – aka Rambam – came from their ranks.

My own fascination with Rambam has been lifelong. I still remember being in Sunday school when our teacher told us about Maimonides – a great rabbi and a physician! It was such a revelation!

It was hard to picture. I mean, rabbis were, you know, rabbis. Physicians were different, they were part of the world…

A rabbi and a doctor. Mindboggling.

I’ve dreamed about Rambam. Once, during a restless, thirsty night after Kol Nidre, in my dream he simply said: This is ben Maimon. You’re not listening to me.
Honestly, I didn’t know enough about him then to know what I was supposed to be hearing…

I’m NOT an expert on Rambam; his works are too numerous and deep for me to come close to studying them all.

However, every now and then, when I’m studying writings, I remember the dream and tell myself: okay, I get it.

Until the next time I study him… and the next…

It’s not just when I study. Sometimes when I am helping someone in need … I wonder if this is what the dream meant…

Rambam has a deserved reputation as an intellectual snob – the Guide to the Perplexed begins with a warning that the book is not for the stupid. What can you say, the man was brilliant.

When you study him, you cannot ignore Rambam the rabbi OR Rambam the physician. And it’s hard to know, which of these crowns – rabbi or doctor – motivated him the most.
In both roles, it is very VERY clear that he cared deeply about people. His writings on tzedakah – helping other people – are still unmatched.

I can picture his reaction to yesterday’s breaking news, that the poverty rate in the United States has climbed to 43.6 million people – one in seven.
Would Rambam tell us not to worry, that others would take care of the poor, we had to focus on fellow Jews … because no one else would?

No!

Rambam was clear.

We first take care of the people in our family and then in our town. Not the Jews in our town. The people in our town.

Then we turn outward, toward the nation and toward Israel.

Rambam, the rabbi-physician most emphatic teachings are to remind us of our responsibility to the needy.

As we talk more about Rambam, and his passionate love of God – we cannot forget that love of God always equals loving and helping others, especially the ones who cannot help themselves
.
Rambam was way ahead of his time in his understanding of mental illness. While the Europeans were exorcising demons and locking up the mentally ill, Rambam found numerous ways to treat them.

Rabbi Moses’ Jewish writings, are brilliant and profound. In my own mind, he was – deservedly --THE RABBI.

Unlike many of our faith, who eschew all study except the study of Torah, Moses Maimonides advocated study of secular subjects, especially science. A radical concept at the time – and in some circles a heretical concept today.

In the bulk of the yeshiva world of both yesterday and today, secular studies weren’t and aren’t considered important. Torah, Talmud, halachah – those are the only subjects that really count.

Science? Feh! Stick to Torah. History as an academic subject? Only as it pertains to Judaism and tradition and even then only in limited uses, and only in the context of “the rabbis”.

This attitude still holds sway in many Jewish quarters. This very issue is probably the biggest difference between Conservative Judaism and much of the Orthodox world today. The more I learn about this great scholar, the more I think of him as a forerunner of today’s Conservative movement!

For Rambam, science – our minds in general – was a God-given tool … one that was necessary to understand God’s universe. How could we know God if we didn’t do our best to know about His Creation?

Further, according to Rambam, such knowledge would inevitably lead to love of God – and love of His creation.

Rambam’s attitude: Science is true, and Scripture is true.

Suppose science conflicts with Scripture?

Rambam was clear: if it appears there is a conflict, we do not understand Torah. And we must study harder. Scripture is true, science is true, conflict is impossible.

Today, we know through science that earth came into existence billions and billions of years ago. Yet, tradition says that the world is now 5,711 years old.
How would we expect the great Rabbi to answer?

He taught that much of Torah is metaphor. It is impossible to describe God, for He is infinite and eternal. Rambam, true to form, would say that the number 5711 is symbolic and imparts great truths from Torah. He would also say that it is not literal, that we also have to understand Creation through the eyes of science.

For a long time, I held the traditional assumption Rambam’s greatest religious writings were to make study easier for Jews who aren’t very learned.
That’s only part of the story. He wanted to free his own students from the demands of traditional Talmud study. If they – ie WE are to succeed in the world around us, they did and we do need to devote significant time and energy for science, mathematics, and philosophy – whatever our passion is – whatever path we choose.
Torah is important… certainly. But Rambam saw – and I see saw ALL learning as a path to knowing God… and most importantly, to loving God.

ALL learning.

Rambam was clear: “Knowing the nature of the universe will lead us to attain love of God.” That was the most important goal he could imagine.
In his own life, he illustrated this by devoting his life to healing others and to guiding people to God. He wrote a letter describing his day, the demands on his time. It’s an awesome letter. He was tired, so very tired, but that didn’t stop him.

He worked tirelessly on behalf of others … Rambam demonstrated his love of God by helping others – through Torah, through healing as a physician. He was a doctor of the soul as well as a doctor of the body.

His patients ranged from members of the royal court to the great unwashed poor. He treated them all with the same care and respect.

Because this is Yom Kippur and a day for atoning for sin, it’s important to note that among Maimonides’ great legacies, we have an incredible treatise on teshuvah, returning to God. By the same token, he considered sin was caused by a diseased soul.

Rambam would be the first to declare that today …Yom HaKippurim -- we must see to the healing of our souls … for that will bring us closer to love of God.
He encouraged us to keep before us the knowledge that should stand, always, before the Divine Presence.

Great Chasidic rabbis taught that we should seek God in nature – contemplate the Holy One and the wonders and miracles of creation.

Centuries earlier, Rambam advised doing the same. Contemplating the beauty and harmony of the universe would lead to love of God.

I won’t pretend that I have come to FULLY understand Rambam. I feel quite sure that if I were to dream about him again, he’d tell me AGAIN that I still don’t get it.
However, now I do understand that he had deep mystical beliefs. He expressed them through philosophy -- that was the language of scholars of his day.

Because I have known Rambam -- Rabbi Moses ben Maimon -- as a Jewish scholar, I assumed that was the most important part of his life. I failed to consider that he was among the most multi-faceted of men who ever lived.

Because I always located Rambam in a Jewish culture, I failed to recognize how the Islamic world impacted his thinking. Rabbi Moses lived in a time of great intellectual ferment. While Europe suffered through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture glittered with academic achievement: philosophy, science, mathematics to name a few.
Like all of us, Rambam was a product of his culture. Had he lived Europe – uncivilized in the twelfth century -- he would never have been exposed to the world of scholarship that nurtured his mind.

The question remaining: what does this great man teach us today?
1. We must never stop learning and growing. Among his first works, he wrote a Commentary on the Mishnah. He completed it, then went back to work on it. Throughout his entire life he mulled it over and revised it. The insights of the young Rabbi Moses changed throughout his life.
Therefore, if we examine someone’s thoughts at 20, we should not expect them to think the same way at 30, or at 40, and all the way down the road.
In politics, they call this flip-flopping. In the real world, it means a person is growing and thinking.
2. Rambam encouraged having a well-rounded education. For Jews, it meant Torah study – of course – but it also meant science and mathematics and a host of other subjects needed to understand the world.
Therefore, it is our duty to learn what we can. We cannot lose sight of Rabbi Moses’ goal of all learning – if we understand the world, we cannot help but love God – and ultimately feel passion for the Holy One.
3. Love of God can and must be nurtured. As I mentioned, we never stop growing. If Rambam never ever reached a point where he thought he knew enough, neither should we!

4. We shouldn’t be afraid that history or science will shake the foundations of religion! We should embrace knowledge and seek a deeper understanding of Torah.
Rambam devoted his life to the message that science and Torah are enmeshed as one. Science – the intellect in general – is a wonderful tool to deepen our religious lives.

But that leaves us with a great responsibility. We must not lose sight of the fact that the goal of knowledge is the loving the Almighty.

5. Finally, we have his life’s example of service to others, the side of Rambam that transcends his studies and writings. We have the man himself.
Beyond science, beyond philosophy – he advocated that contemplation of nature – of the beauties and wonders of nature. As the Chasidic rabbis would proclaim centuries later, this contemplation would bring us to love and awe of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed is He.

Love of God, of course, leads to love of humanity – to knowing that God implanted his essence in all people. In addition to his duties as a religious leader, Rabbi Moses “rolled up his sleeves” and worked tirelessly on behalf of the powerful and the lowly, the ill, the depressed, the poor. We too must roll up our sleeves work tirelessly on behalf of the powerful and the lowly, the ill, the depressed, the poor.

In the end, it all comes down to love of God and reliance on Him. Notably, RamBam closed his ongoing work, the Commentary on the Mishnah, with a quote from Isaiah (40:29-31):
“God gives power to the faint; and to those who have no might he increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall fall; But those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Think about this verse. Hashem will renew our strength. This is our spiritual strength, our resolve to do the right thing.

Not only does God renew our strength, he helps us to soar with the eagles!
That’s today – the spiritual peak of Yom Kippur.

But after we soar, we eventually have to walk.

Life returns to normal – but after Yom Kippur, we should have a NEW normal. The point of the holiday is transformation and closeness to God.

EVEN AFTER YOM KIPPUR -- we must persist in following a path of goodness and righteousness and service to others.

Therefore, we heed both Rambam and Isaiah.

When we grow in love of God, we grow in our passion and our ability to bring goodness into the world.

May God see our merit and seal us for a year of blessing.

A Pregnant World

True or false: after each round of shofar blasts in musaf, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy declares that “today is the birthday of the world” …

The answer may surprise you – but the answer is much deeper – deeper even than the world’s creation.

The musaf liturgy has a phrase: Hayom Harat Olam

We usually translate it as: this is the day the world was born.

That’s not really what it says.

The phrase should be translated as: this is the day the world was conceived.

The word here that is often mistranslated as giving birth is harat – which means conceived. The word for giving birth, being born? It isn’t there!

These days, we commonly assume that Rosh Hashanah is the first day of creation, even though the Talmud itself doesn’t reach that conclusion!

In the Talmud, we have an intriguing conversation about the date of creation. Rabbi Eliezer holds out for Creation at the beginning of Tishri – Rosh Hashanah. However, Rabbi Joshua’s arguments for Creation in Nissan – in the spring – are equally formidable.

At some point, our tradition decided to associate Creation with the month of Tishri in the fall and not with Nissan in the spring.

But this tradition is ambiguous at best.

Tishri is the seventh month of the year, not the first! And yet, our calendars will reflect that the year begins on Rosh Hashanah.

Confusing? Yes, it is confusing. The logic isn’t apparent. At least, the logic isn’t apparent until we look at today in terms of conception.

We unlock the meaning – not regarding the calendar or the specifics of Creation – but we unlock the potential of Rosh Hashanah.

A word about the Creation story: that, too, cannot be taken literally. The rabbis of the Talmud held the secrets of Creation to be a deep mystery, one that is not allowed to even be taught in its entirety! The Talmud allows teaching Creation via hints – period.

Note that in the discussion of the date of Creation, the Talmudic rabbis did not reach a conclusion.

For the rabbis, the concept of Creation was so vast, so mysterious, that how could anyone put a date on it? Who knew if it was Nissan or Tishri? Torah certainly gives no hints.

So, without any real basis in text, why does our tradition link Rosh Hashanah to Creation?

The concept of pregnancy implies potential. The potential for this day extends into eternity.

Let’s look again at the phrase, only this time we’ll break it down word by word. As we do so, keep in mind that each time we chant it during services, it immediately follows the shofar – which surely gets our attention and jars our souls!

היום הרת עולם
Hayom Harat olam

היום Hayom. Today,

הרת Harat. Is conceived, is pregant

עולם Olam, the world, or eternity

Today and forever the world is pregnant with potential.

On this holy day, we can unlock that potential.

On this holy day, we look at world as vast, eternal, our own lives laden with possibilities of creativity and goodness.

The shofar calls us – the prayer calls us – to recognize our own potential!
A major part of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is doing teshuvah, reflecting on what we’ve done wrong.

We talked about that last night. We can’t fix ourselves if we don’t know what parts are broken!

First, we have to face the darkness in ourselves and overcome our fear of change.
How do we know this from a simple phrase in the liturgy?

Think about pregnancy. It’s a time of blessing and a time of fear. We’re excited but worried all at the same time.

For the fetus, the world is nurturing but dark.

All we know about this fetus is that it’s full of potential. Maybe we know the gender. Beyond that, we’re facing the unknown. A glorious unknown – but still, we don’t know what our lives, the child’s life, will become.

The odd thing about our phrase -- hayhom harat olam -- is that it does not appear in the Bible, Talmud, or midrash. It was written just for the liturgy.
But it wasn’t invented out of whole cloth. It’s an adaptation of a statement by the prophet Jeremiah. It’s a very odd statement. Jeremiah is full of despair because he sees the impending doom of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple, and cannot prevent it. Worse, he has been oppressed by the people he is trying to save.

“Because he did not kill me in the womb, so that my mother would have been my grave, and her womb eternal.”

Yet, when we sing it, we do so with gusto and joy!

As my colleague, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, pointed out, Jeremiah was afraid, the challenge before him was so immense. However, he overcame his fear and continued to serve God as a prophet.

The key Hebrew words are related to the last three, that her womb would be eternal.
This day is pregnant with potential! Now the hard work – labor – is up to us.
This is our time to go through a spiritual rebirth. These days are meant to transform us as a fetus is transformed into a person.

But now, the looming question is: where do we start? How do we start?
If we understand that today – and every day – is pregnant with unseen potential -- we gain deeper understanding of time, how precious every moment is.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about Shabbat as our cathedral in time. We don’t have holy places. We have holy time.

Heschel insisted that the topography of time – it’s mountains, it’s valleys, every single moment – come together to form the most precious thing we could have: moments that are alive with memory, with looking ahead, of joy and sorrow – a collection of moments.

Heschel felt strongly about the primacy of time over space – literally. In the sixties, when the space race was a symbol of national pride, he pointed out that it was even easier to conquer space than time. Holiness is found in moments. Finding those moments, making them special, is the great task that lies before us.
Heschel wanted us to look at the world with “radical amazement,” with eyes of wonder.

Most of us don’t do this. We look just look at things and see things just like we always do: normal and routine.

Centuries before Heschel, Rambam – Maimonides – said that we should contemplate nature. If we ponder God’s works in nature, we come to greater awe of Him, and that brings us to love of God.

… by pondering nature … and by knowing that ultimately, all is created by the Almighty.

Rambam could have also used the term “radical amazement.”

We have the ability – the obligation – to frame the way we look at the world.
This isn’t just a way of thinking. The important part is doing.
Rabbi Heschel said that to encounter God, we had to push beyond filling our own needs, we had to push beyond selfish desires. This would lead to a change of orientation – to the re-framing we have to do.

We don’t re-frame the world through our thoughts but by our actions. Those actions lead us to find parts of ourselves that we didn’t even realize were embedded in our souls.

As my teacher Rabbi Ed Feinstein put it, Heschel’s key to finding God is living with knowledge that something asked demanded of us.

Today, we stand before the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One Blessed is He, and proclaim his kingship. In our proclamations, we acknowledge that he wants – and needs us to participate in the world He created.

Why?

The world is still being created. The potential is there anew at every moment for the creation of a better world. It’s a long-standing tenet of Judaism that we are God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation.

This is our obligation to Hashem. This is why He created us.

We cannot participate with Him until we understand the creation is continuous, happening every moment, and that He needs us.

The world IS pregnant with potential. The shofar blasts drive that knowledge home.
Heschel firmly believed, you do and then you learn. Keeping Shabbat is an example. We cannot possibly understand Shabbat until we do it. No amount of study can replace the sublime experience of Shabbat.

Rabbi Heschel said it was important to express gratitude and to say berachot, blessings. It gives us a moment to acknowledge that something special is before us – even if it’s a simple peanut butter sandwich.

We want to acknowledge every moment that we can.

We want to make every moment as special as we can.

In doing so, we can transform ordinary moments into sparks of holiness.

We do this one step at a time. A little here, a little there, pulls us into direction of wanting to more, of wanting to add more goodness to the world.

Our challenge right now: look at the rest of the service with radical amazement, as an opportunity to reach for holiness, to come closer to God.

Treat the entirety of these holy days as a drama – in which every scene leads to the next – and the next – and ultimately we can stand before God with a new heart and a freshly renewed soul.

Allow the words, the music, the ritual to touch you.

When you hear the shofar, and then sing hayom harat olam, know that we are acknowledging the potential for all of us, together, to enlarge our souls, to enrich the world.
Allow yourself to feel your own connections to everyone else in the community. Know that we are part of the mysterious, glorious tapestry of time.

Take this same consciousness into Yom Kippur, allow it to reach a crescendo with n’ilah.

Know that like the topography of our lives as a whole, this ten day journey through the days of awe, the services themselves, will have mountains and valleys, but God’s grandeur awaits.

A Forty Year Old "Ghost"

We hear a lot today about school “bullies.” Do you ever wonder if they feel bad about this when they grow up?

I haven’t, which is especially ironic right now. Recently my high school class from Mississippi has virtually all reconnected on Facebook. Some of these are the same folk who -- decades ago -- did pick my best friend and me.

As I reconnected with my old classmates, the old stuff didn’t matter. Who was nice to me, who wasn’t nice to me – hasn’t mattered for decades. We are all different people now – tied together by a common past.

I have good memories of Clarksdale; they’re related to my friends, my family, our Temple … and definitely include driving with friends to the Mississippi River to enjoy the peace and quiet, to read, to talk. Teasing? Those memories have long faded.

And so … imagine my surprise when I recently received a note of apology from a “girl” in my class! Okay, she’s not a girl anymore.

Here’s what “Becky” – not her real name, wrote: “I often think how mean some of us girls were to you and Nancy back in high school... it gives me great shame. I am glad to see you well and with such a nice family!”

She wrote this to me nearly 40 years after the teasing, and mere days before Rosh Hashanah. Becky is a Christian, she didn’t realize her incredible timing, that part of our holiday preparation is to make things right with people we have hurt.

… I was moved … incredibly moved … to hear from her.

While for me, her memory of cruelty was only small part of a chapter of a time that was mostly good. To Becky, it was a dark memory that brought with it a lot of regret and shame.

When I connected with the class, it never occurred to me that anyone in that group ever gave a second thought to those days and attitudes. After all, the Clarksdale High Facebook class of ’68 now consists of – well, you do the math, we’re not teenagers anymore! It was so long ago. Who cares at this point?

Becky cares. She did something she felt was wrong and has felt badly for years.
I wrote back: “Becky, that was so long ago, none of us are the same. We learn from all our experiences. But that was such a nice thing to say. Thank you so much. It's a wonderful thought to take into our holidays. May God bless us all.”
Then I dashed off a second note: “Life is all about change and returning, always, coming closer to God. Our beliefs are different, but our God is the same. Your timing was amazing.”

Becky graphically demonstrated that when we do wrong things, our choices are limited.

Among them:
1. deny or rationalize our actions. If we do that, correction is impossible.
2. admit our mistakes and try to make amends.

If we do the latter, we don’t have to carry around guilt and shame. We can wipe it away, cleanse our souls, and embrace the Holy One with joy.
Until death shuts the final door, it’s never too late to do this in any relationship.

For the well-being of our souls, it is vitally important to ‘fess up to things we did wrong. Sometimes it takes us a while to recognize these actions were wrong.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski discusses this in his latest book A Formula for Proper Living. He points out that we should never defend our mistakes. Doing so results in our lying – to others, to ourselves.

Rabbi Twerski cites the example of the great Hasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, who taught: “The world is a mirror. Inasmuch as a person is blind to one’s own faults, God arranged it to see them in other people. The defects you see in others are your own.”

Take a moment now to look around. … do you see people who annoy you? … When we go home, we should take another look in the mirror. There’s a really good chance that we do the same annoying ourselves…

No one likes to see character defects in himself. We find ways to rationalize or lay the blame elsewhere. Like small children, we say: it wasn’t my fault!

Or even worse – it was someone else’s fault.

Rabbi Twerski illustrates this with a Peanuts cartoon.

Peppermint Patty, a child infamous or not doing her homework, called Charlie Brown. She said: “I failed again, Chuck, and it’s all your fault.”

Charlie Brown is dumbfounded. “My fault?”

Patty’s answer: “I need someone to blame.”

Blaming others is irresistible. In the short run, it’s easier than saying: I did this.

In the long run, when we blame others – when we do not take personal responsibility – we lay extra burdens on our souls.

Blaming others is a way to avoid looking in the mirror.

This concept showed up two thousand years ago in the Talmud (Kiddushin 70a): “And Samuel said: With his own blemish he stigmatizes [others] as unfit.”
When we see faults in others, we must consider that we could have the very same faults!

Hasidic literature is replete with tales on this subject.

Here’s another one from the Baal Shem Tov. He once saw a person violate Shabbat. We don’t know how the person violated Shabbat. That isn’t important to our story. The important part? The Baal Shem Tov noticed. He was distressed. He felt sure that he, the Baal Shem must have done the same thing. If he hadn’t personally – unwittingly even -- violated Shabbat, it wouldn’t be on his radar screen. He was sure that otherwise, he wouldn’t have noticed. Even though he couldn’t remember what he did, he prayed and begged God’s forgiveness.

He took seriously the notion of our souls as mirrors.

So must we.

Rabbi Twerski explained that people can see the same objects but give different descriptions. They are drawn to see the object in a particular light. Why? Their psychological needs drive them.

However, this is not hopeless. This mirror is important!

Becky looked in a mirror and saw her actions as mean. She said that without qualification, without rationalizing, without blaming anyone.

Recognizing that what we did wrong – without qualification, without making excuses - is the only way we can correct our lives and turn them around. But please understand, while we must be honest – while we must admit error, we don’t have to feel shame! Why not? Because in most cases, we can correct – or mitigate – those mistakes.

Just as importantly, while we must see the bad, when we look at our soul in the mirror and we can and absolutely SHOULD see goodness as well. If we look closely, we will see things to fix. Just as if we look closely at others and find things to criticize, we must ask ourselves – are we guilty of the same thing?
The answer is: probably.

But if we do recognize a problem, we can – we must – take steps to fix it.
Whether or not we see flaws in ourselves … if we have wronged others … if we have wronged Hashem – these things will lay on our souls like heavy rocks.

Recognizing our own errors – our sins – is embarrassing to ourselves, even more so when we admit them to others. It makes us vulnerable. For all Becky knew, I could have responded by saying: that’s right, you were mean back then, you should be sorry.
That’s a chance we have to take if we are to keep our own souls on the right path.

Whether or not our confession leads to a positive response from others, the important issue is what it does for US – it cleanses us and allows us to stop carrying around the weight of our own wrongdoing.

This release allows us to take a better look at our strengths. Rabbi Twerski points out that it’s equally important for us to be aware of our own potential and to capitalize on it. These assets are divine gifts!
Even at that, our strengths must be actively used for goodness. Listen to this gem from the Talmud:

1. The world is judged according to the status of the majority of its population. If the majority is sinful, God judges us poorly. If the world is meritorious, God judges us well.
In today’s world, this is definitely scary! However, we cannot forget, it only takes one act of goodness to tip the world’s balance toward blessing.
The second part is equally important, to each one of us and to the world:
2. Each person is judged according to the majority of his or her good or bad acts. For our own souls, one act of goodness tips the scales in our favor.
Therefore, imagine the world as equally balanced between good and evil, and your soul the same way. One good deed can make a difference – not just for you, but for the whole world.

With this in mind, we return to my conversation with Becky.

Becky’s letter removed a weight from her soul that she has carried for years. More importantly, that one act increased the likelihood that she will treat people with greater kindness. Even better, her example will serve as a beacon to others to act and speak kindly. If they realize they are being unkind, they will learn from Becky how to make things right.

After all is said and done, Becky has to be an innately good person: an uncaring person in her fifties would hardly be troubled by actions from their teen years.
For me, it was an amazing spiritual boost and a revelation about people’s goodness.
My prayer for myself – for all of us – is that when we look at others, that we make an effort to seek out goodness. May the Almighty help us to know that the flaws we see in others are actually embedded in ourselves.

We call about His might and grace to help us seek the good in others – and in ourselves – that we might bring about a world rooted in His love.






.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Conversion Bill issues near Tisha B'Av

We observe Tisha B’Av because Israel and its capital Jerusalem is – has always been – the beating heart of Judaism.

Yes, we mourn the destruction of the first Temple in 586 bc – and the destruction of the second Temple in 70 ce. Both happened on the same day in the Jewish year, the ninth day of the month of Av.

The first Temple stood for nearly four centuries. The second Temple for nearly six… We are talking about a full thousand years of Jewish life. That’s a long time.
The loss of those holy sites, dayeinu, it would have been enough to cause widespread mourning.

But it was more than the destruction of the Temples – it was the destruction of a way of life – the land was pillaged, the people killed, exiled, or sold as slaves.
Tisha b’Av marks our first two holocausts.

The events of Tisha B’Av sent us into exiles that left us vulnerable to other holocausts. We were weak, had no government supporting us.

This is the main difference between Tisha B’Av and later tragedies: the Temples were destroyed because we – our people – brought it on ourselves.

We sinned. The prophets said that the First Temple was destroyed because we committed adultery and incest – prayed to idols – and were guilty of bloodshed. We polluted the land with our misdeeds.

The traditional reason for the second destruction is different: it is sinat hinam, baseless hatred.

We were not a united people, we were at each other’s throats, we spoke ill of each other. We were unkind.

The Talmud gives other reasons for the tragic events of 70 ce, the destruction of the second people and the terrible exile that followed:

1. Rabbi Hamnuna blamed the destruction on Jerusalem’s neglect of children’s education. That makes sense. Of course the effects would be far-reaching. If children don’t learn, how will future generations know about our covenant with God?

2. Rabba said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because people of integrity there ceased.

That also makes sense. How can any society survive when people lack integrity? … Scary, huh …

3. Now I have an explanation that you may find surprising, but I am quoting directly from the Talmud: Rabbi Yochanan said that Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments in accordance with the law of Torah.
Sound odd?

The problem was obviously not Torah, but it was a refusal to go beyond the strict letter of the law.

The Talmud is not saying that rabbis should disregard Torah. However, while we must respect the law, we cannot let it blind us to a greater good.

Torah should be a vehicle connecting Jews to each other in love and unity

On the other hand, rabbinic insistence on following every single letter – down to every dot – can lead to self-righteousness and divisiveness.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, our people-hood is being threatened … in and by Israel.

I love Israel dearly. Talking about these issues … is sad.

Judaism does not have a pope. We do not have a central religious authority. Religious authority is invested in the rabbis. It has never ever been invested in one rabbi. To allow the chief rabbi to assume the powers of a pope is Jewish heresy…
Two thousand years ago, we had a high priest and a Temple. Since then, we have had rabbis … plural … not one rabbi … interpreting Torah.

The chief rabbinate of Israel is trying to make itself THE central authority of Judaism.

Many of you know that a cornerstone of Israel has always been the Law of Return. Israel is the Jewish homeland. Any Jew immigrating there automatically becomes a citizen.

The reason is simple: Jews have always been bound to the land of Israel. When Jews move there, theoretically … they are going back home.

However, right now, there are members of the Israeli government seeking to change that with the “Rotem” bill.

This bill would give the chief rabbinate the power to decide who can move to Israel and be accepted as a Jewish citizen.

Here are some of the consequences of the Rotem Bill’s passage:
1. Any non-Jew who visits Israel, returns home, and converts to Judaism, would automatically be denied citizenship under the Law of Return.

2. It automatically follows that every conversion would have to be under the auspices of the chief rabbinate. Citizenship would be denied to anyone that did not meet their extremely rigid conditions.

It’s important to recognize that many of the great rabbis of the Talmud would disagree with those rigid standards!

3. The bill would affirm that there is only one legitimate stream of Judaism … ultra-Orthodox … not even modern Orthodox would count.

4. The bill includes many provisions that definitely send a strong message to the States that American Jews aren’t welcome in the Jewish homeland.

Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews constitute a whopping 85% of American Judaism. We’re the ones who encourage and lobby our representatives to support Israel. We’re the ones who support AIPAC!

God forbid, Israel would push American Jews away.

But that is at risk IF THIS BILL PASSES – and this is a very dangerous time for Israel – especially given the aggressive posture of Iran – and their threat of nuclear destruction. Many groups – including churches – are taking their investments away from Israel. That’s a serious problem I’ll address in the coming weeks.

There is never a good time for shenanigans like the Rotem Bill – but with all these dangers – and the approach of Tisha B’Av – this might be the worst.

We need unity! We don’t want to be driven away from Israel. We SHOULDN’T be unwelcome in Israel.

Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, firmly opposes the Rotem bill. He has been clear on that subject. Sharansky has publicly stated that the Israeli government should not do anything to divide the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, has been silent.

While many think he will oppose the bill, his silence … and the silence of his Likud party … tells us this is not a sure thing.

Earlier to today, I sent you all an informational email. If you haven’t looked at it, please do. There are links to email the Prime Minister, to let him know how seriously we take this.

Everything I have said tonight is born of a deep love of Israel. I know that you here share that love!

We can combat the sorrow of Tisha B’Av by working to make Israel a place that welcomes all Jews … that keeps the Zionist dream alive.

May the Kadosh Baruch Hu strengthen us all – may we work together to make us … and the land of Israel … worthy of redemption,

V’nomar, amein.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Where Is God -- Is He Hiding?

There is an old and moldy joke about a bad little boy who is sent to the rabbi to get scared straight. The boy walks into the rabbi’s office and sits in stony silence until the rabbi finally glares at him and ask “young man, where is God?” After a few moments of silence, the rabbi repeats – but louder “young man, where is God?” After several more moments of painful silence, the rabbi shouts “young man, where is God?”

The frightened boy bolts from the rabbi’s office and runs home – through the door, up the stairs into his room and starts packing his bag. His mother runs in and asks “Vendie, my angel – what is wrong?” The boy answers, “God is missing, and I ain’t taking the rap for that.”

I’m a rabbi. I shouldn’t have to ask MYSELF that question, right?

After all, that’s what people are supposed to ask me, not the other way around, questions like:
· Where is God?
· How can I sense His presence in my own life?
· How can I make my own life more spiritual?

I have to confess, I often ask myself these same questions.

In my own life, these points are predictable – way too predictable.

Being busy is part of it. I – we – get busy and often crowd “little” things like Hashem out of our lives.

When we’re filling every minute with some-thing, we don’t leave space for our own souls to breathe. There certainly isn’t room for God. We crowd Him right out of our lives.

A passage from this week’s Torah portion addresses this. In Deuteronomy (8:12-14), the Kadosh Baruch Hu says: “Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and lived there; And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

This isn’t really talking about getting rich and forgetting God.

This passage talks about being so preoccupied with the mundane that we don’t give ourselves space to think … to let ourselves just be … It’s easy enough to get busy and crowd out the people we love. It’s even easier to get busy and crowd God out of our lives.

I forget how easy this to do. I’m a rabbi, my life is supposed to be dedicated to God’s work – right?

But all of us, even when we’re doing “God’s work,” can find ourselves so preoccupied with minutiae that we lose sight of our true mission … and the Big Boss.

I didn’t realize this in my own life until Bob and I went on vacation.
Most of you know that our summer ritual is finding a cabin – that is air-conditioned and allows dogs -- with the following qualifications:
· In Wisconsin
· On a lake so Bob can fish
· In a forest so we can hike

It’s also my yearly respite just before life gets especially intense before THE holidays.

I began my week still mentally juggling a million things. Relax? I had to relearn the art!

I read, I prayed, I studied Torah, and in the beginning, wondered: Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, where are You? I came here to find You, to bask in Your Presence, and I don’t feel You at all. Are You hiding?

The longer we stayed, the more I relaxed. I told myself to stop expecting some out of the blue spiritual experience. Of course God was there. What did it matter if I felt Him? It was important to relax, period. I started to let my own worries and concerns drift away and just give myself over to contentment -- to enjoying the blessings around me.

And I realized, Adam and Eve in Gan Eden couldn’t have been more content.
And that’s when God snuck up on me, and I knew He was really there.
Of course He was there – the whole time. He wasn’t hiding. I was just too preoccupied to notice.

When the religious experience came, I was no longer looking for it.
This is not to say that we will experience God’s embrace every time we relax or every time we stop looking for Him!

We also have to learn that experiencing Hashem comes in so many, many ways, in both joy and in sorrow. It can be as simple as gazing at – inhaling the aroma – of a field of wildflowers – and reminding yourself that the Kadosh Baruch Hu created the scene.

When our hearts break, God is there … enabling us to feel … the Holy One shares our sorrows.

God is present when we let go of the phrases: I want this, or she did that so wrong … God is present when we take care of minutiae but then don’t allow it to rule our lives.

The Master of the Universe is present when we realize that He is the One who created us and the One who made us free. As we saw in Deuteronomy, we are the ones who lose sight of God if we forget … lose sight of … His role in our lives.
God is there, always there … but we’ll never really know that if we don’t step back and give Him space to enter our lives.

We can do that – even without taking a vacation! That IS the reason He gave us Shabbat … and the upcoming holidays … times to give Him our attention … just as every day, every minute, the Kadosh Baruch Hu gives us life and breath.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Click here for information links on conversion bill

You'll find a wealth of information: key players, talking points, news articles, and a conference call with Rabbi Steve Wernick, director of USCJ.

Please send letter to Netanyahu regarding conversion bill

Clicking on title of post should take you to a site containing the letter that the combined Conservative organizations are asking all to send. Please do so and show your concern.

Urgent in Israel: sad twist on Tisha B'Av

We observe Tisha B’Av because Israel and its capital Jerusalem is – has always been – the beating heart of Judaism.

We mourn the destruction of the first Temple in 586 bc – and the destruction of the second Temple in 70 ce. Both happened on the same day in the Jewish year, the ninth day of the month of Av.

The first Temple stood for nearly four centuries. The second Temple for nearly six… We are talking about a full thousand years of Jewish life. That’s a long time.

The loss of those holy sites, dayeinu, it would have been enough to cause widespread mourning.

But it was more than the destruction of the Temples – it was the destruction of a way of life – the land was pillaged, the people killed, exiled, or sold as slaves.
Tisha b’Av marks our first two holocausts.

The events of Tisha B’Av sent us into exiles that left us vulnerable to other holocausts. We were weak, had no government supporting us.

However as we compare the tragedies of Tisha B’Av to the Inquisition, or the Shoah we see that the main difference between Tisha B’Av these later tragedies is that back then, we – the Jewish people – brought it on ourselves.

We sinned. The prophets said that the First Temple was destroyed because we committed adultery and incest – prayed to idols – and were guilty of bloodshed. We polluted the land with our misdeeds.

But we focus tonight on the traditional reason for the second destruction: sinat hinam, baseless hatred.

We were not a united people, we were at each other’s throats, we spoke ill of each other. We were unkind.

The Talmud gives other reasons for the tragic events of 70 ce, the destruction of the second people and the terrible exile that followed:

1.Rabbi Hamnuna blamed the destruction on Jerusalem’s neglect of children’s education. That makes sense. Of course the effects would be far-reaching. If children don’t learn, how will future generations know about our covenant with God?

2.Rabba said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because people of integrity there ceased.

That also makes sense. How can any society survive when people lack integrity? … Scary, huh …

3.Now I have an explanation that you may find surprising, but I am quoting directly from the Talmud: Rabbi Yochanan said that Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments in accordance with the law of Torah.

Sound odd?

The problem was obviously not Torah, but it was a refusal to look beyond the strict – the strictest letter of the law.

The Talmud is not saying that rabbis should disregard Torah. However, while we must respect the law, we cannot let it blind us – cannot let it bind us, and it cannot keep us from our primary purpose on this earth - to a greater good.

Torah should be a vehicle connecting Jews to each other in love and unity

In the time of the 2nd Temple, rabbinic insistence on following every single letter – down to every dot – led to self-righteousness and divisiveness.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, our people-hood is being threatened … in and by Israel.

I love Israel dearly. Talking about these issues … is sad.

Judaism does not have a pope. We do not have a central religious authority. Religious authority is invested in our rabbis. And when I say rabbis, it it important to note that we have never ever been invested in words and opinions of one single rabbi. To allow a “chief” rabbi to assume the powers of a pope is Jewish heresy.

Two thousand years ago, we had a high priest and a Temple. Since then, we have had rabbis … plural … again, not one rabbi … interpreting Torah.

Today – in s[ite of the warnings of Torah, and the horrific examples of our own history, the chief rabbinate of Israel is trying to become the Pope – trying to make itself THE central authority of Judaism.

Many of you know that a cornerstone of Israel has always been the Law of Return. Israel is the Jewish homeland. Any Jew immigrating there automatically becomes a citizen.

The reason is simple: Jews have always been bound to the land of Israel. When Jews move there, theoretically … they are going back home.

However, right now, there are members of the Israeli government seeking to change that with the “Rotem” bill.

This bill would give the chief rabbinate the power to decide who can move to Israel and be accepted as a Jewish citizen.

Here are some of the consequences of the Rotem Bill’s passage:

1. Any non-Jew who visits Israel, returns home, and converts to Judaism, would automatically be denied citizenship under the Law of Return.

2. It automatically follows that every conversion would have to be under the auspices of the chief rabbinate. Citizenship would be denied to anyone that did not meet their extremely rigid conditions.

Standards that many of the great rabbis of the Talmud would disagree with because they SAID so in pour texts!

3. The bill would affirm that there is only one legitimate stream of Judaism … ultra-Orthodox … not Reform, not Conservative, not Reconstructionist - not even modern Orthodox would count.

4. The bill includes many provisions that definitely send a strong message to the Jews of the United States. That message is that American Jews aren’t welcome in the Jewish homeland.

Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews constitute nearly 90% of American Judaism. We’re the ones who encourage and lobby our representatives to support Israel. We’re the ones who support AIPAC!

God forbid, Israel would push American Jews away.

But that is at risk IF THIS BILL PASSES – and this is a very dangerous time for Israel – especially given the aggressive posture of Iran – and their threat of nuclear destruction. Many groups – including churches – are taking their investments away from Israel. That’s a serious problem I’ll address in the coming weeks.

There is never a good time for shenanigans like the Rotem Bill – but with all these dangers – and the approach of Tisha B’Av – this might be the worst.

We need unity! We don’t want to be driven away from Israel. We SHOULDN’T be unwelcome in Israel.

Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, firmly opposes the Rotem bill. He has been clear on that subject. Sharansky has publicly stated that the Israeli government should not do anything to divide the Jewish people.

However, the Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, has been silent.

While many think he will oppose the bill, his silence … and the silence of his Likud party … tells us this is not a sure thing.

Earlier to today, I sent you all an informational email. If you haven’t looked at it, please do. There are links to email the Prime Minister, to let him know how seriously we take this.

Everything I have said tonight is born of a deep love of Israel. I know that you here share that love!

We can combat the sorrow of Tisha B’Av by working to make Israel a place that welcomes all Jews … that keeps the Zionist dream alive.

May the Kadosh Baruch Hu strengthen us all – may we work together to make us … and the land of Israel … worthy of redemption,

V’nomar, amein.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BP, our culture, our responsibility

We’ve heard it so many times, we tune it out.

When natural disaster strikes, clergymen of all faiths blame it on sin: Katrina, the tsunami, all these bad things because people sinned. Never mind that the clergy didn’t agree on the sins that led to these catastrophes. They blamed it on sin.
We’ve heard that so often that when bad things do happen – because of sin – we don’t want to say that out loud.

In Judaism, we don’t like to speak about sin because of the cultural implications. In many religions, sin means you’re damned to everlasting hell. Jews do not believe in everlasting hell. So we stay mum on sin.

However, we’re approaching Tisha B’Av and the anniversary of the destruction of both our First and Second Temples. Both of these tragedies were brought about by sin. Not all the Israelites sinned – but enough of them did so that the consequences destroyed the only way of life they knew.

Friends, actions do have consequences. Sin does bring negative consequences in its wake.

The sins of our entire society have threatened our way of life in a scope even more devastating to us than the destruction of the Temples.

Our culture – and its insatiable greed for oil, for plastic – for things – led directly to the BP oil spill and the potential destruction of the Gulf of Mexico and its coast.

Our Torah portion, Matot, discusses the nature of collective guilt. The Torah specifically talks about “bloodguilt” which is caused by idolatry, adultery, incest, and murder. Before we entered the Promised Land, God warned us that if we insulted the land through our transgressions, it would vomit us out.

“Vomit us out” – how’s that for an image.

Our lust for oil – and oil companies’ lust for profits – has again shown us that we do have the power to destroy the world.

We worry about terrorism and war. I worry about those things. But I worry even more about our values that drove us into the BP disaster.

We all have to take ownership. We have to pressure our government to do a better job safeguarding the oil wells and coal mines that are the source of so much of our energy.

It’s a tough balancing act. It’s hard to know when we’ve crossed the materialistic line that left God and true spiritual values far behind.

Later, in the book of Deuteronomy (8:11-14), we’ll hear God explicitly warn us:
"Take care...lest you eat and be satisfied and you build good houses and settle, and your cattle and flocks increase, and you increase silver and gold for yourselves, and everything that you have will increase--and your heart will become haughty and you will forget the Lord your God…"

A great rabbi of the 16th century, Rabbi Ephraim Luntchitz, known as the Kli Yakar, warned that "the nature of wealth is to make its owner arrogant."
This is certainly not to paint with a broad brush and say that all wealthy people are arrogant!

However, it does come to warn us that we must actively embrace a value system that values our souls more than it values materialism – even comfort.
We have to learn to prioritize our values. As a nation, we’ve drifted along comfortably, until we were rocked by a recession, catastrophic weather patterns, and now the Gulf Coast Disaster.

Environmental awareness is a large part of the correction.

Beyond that, we have a deep responsibility to care for the beautiful world that the Almighty created. Hashem does command us to care for His world.
To do less, is a sin.

I spoke earlier about collective sin. No one in this room is INDIVIDUALLY responsible for the BP disaster!

On the other hand, we must all COLLECTIVELY and as individuals carefully assess and evaluate our priorities, our lifestyles. This is a constant balancing act. After all, we have competing activities and values in our own lives.

If we are not working toward a safer environment – even if it does lessen our physical comfort, we are part of the problem. If we don’t do our part to guard the great treasure of God’s Holy Creation, we are participating in communal sin.
“Sin” is not a word I use often. But our national/communal lusts allowed deep-sea drilling that had no safeguards. If we don’t start solving these problems, we have a bleak future.

Right now, we have:
Oil gushing at rate of 4 Exxon Valdez per week

An estimated 250 million gallons of oil spilled so far

One fifth of children in Louisiana now live in poverty

One third of state is now closed to fishing – the main livelihood of many

Louisiana has 8000 miles of tidal shoreline that are in danger

The oil will destroy the nursery for 30-40% of seafood for the United States

Even after this crisis is over, it will take decades for the fishing nurseries to recover, consequently, the way of life for these fishermen is gone

If oil gets to roots of flora in wetlands, the flora will not recover; marshlands are permanently lost, diminishing protection against hurricanes

30%-40% of Coastal Wetlands in the Lower 48 States are in Louisiana

Two million people live in Coastal Louisiana

Mississippi River Basin touches 31 states

Every 30 minutes, we lose a piece of wetlands the size of a football field
This isn’t even a complete list.

The oil spill has continued for so long, it’s all too easy to forget it’s there.

On a recent tour of the devastated area, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, said: "We all need to turn from short-term gratification ... rather than indulge ourselves with this unlimited consumption," she said.

This is our task – our obligation!

We cannot ignore the oil spill or its causes. To do so, we risk the world and with that, our own souls.

Our ancestors, in the events leading up to the horrors of Tisha B’Av, ignored many warnings and therefore, watched their world – their entire way of life – disappear.
Communal responsibility can be used for good. We all have an opportunity to examine our own consumption-oriented value systems and turn that around – and start fixing the world.

We can only do it a little at a time. But we have to start. And we have to encourage others to start.

You and I don’t have the power to clean up the oil, but we do have the power to work on changing our culture.

May the Holy One above grant us the strength, courage, and wisdom to do so, v’nomar amein.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gilad Shalit resources

Information on Gilad Shalit:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilad_Shalit

Petition on behalf of Gilad Shalit: http://www.standwithus.com/gilad/

From Jewish Community Relations in New York.  Includes a video of Shalit speaking from prison in June, 2009:
http://www.jcrcny.org/what-we-do/israel-international-affairs/gilad.html

From Koach, affiliated organization of USCJ, a “yellow balloon campaign.” http://www.koach.org/gilad.php

Mitzvah of “pidyon shevuyim,” or redeeming captives: http://www.jewishagency.org/NR/rdonlyres/DFB23698-E7A9-43B7-98D6-DC572AFF8868/61499/APPENDIX.pdf

Information from the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC: http://www.israelemb.org/education/events/gilad%20%204%20years.htm

Gilad Shalit -- the overlooked news story

Gilad Shalit

Big news today – this is the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.
When it comes to news: news from Israel generally focuses on the attempts by a mixture of well-meaning people and terrorists to break the blockade on Gaza. The news refers to it as the Israeli blockade. It’s really the Israel-Egypt blockade.
Take note – Israel is not the only middle East nation concerned about Hamas’ spawned violence.

Here’s the really big news for today … bigger than Michael Jackson, bigger than the flotillas, bigger even than the World Cup -- – this is the fourth anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s captivity.

Unfortunately, the world has paid little attention to this tragic anniversary. Most, in fact – are actively ignoring it.

Four years ago, Hamas terrorists in Gaza conducted a raid on the Israeli side of the border. Two Israeli soldiers were killed - three others were wounded.

Shalit was wounded, and he was kidnapped.

He was a whopping 19 years old.

Israel has negotiated – fruitlessly – for his release. Other nations have even joined the effort.

Hamas refuses to release him. Well, maybe … if Israel releases thousands of Palestinian prisoners – many with hands stained with Jewish blood … maybe…
Meanwhile … and this is no shock … Hamas has ignored international law regarding prisoners. According to international law:
· 1. Hamas authorities are required to allow Shalit regular correspondence with his family: in four years, they’ve received had three letters and a voice recording. Not exactly regular correspondence. Obviously, Hamas has not allowed Shalit’s parents to visit him.
· 2. Prisoners of war should be allowed regular – unfettered -- visits by the International Red Cross. The International Red Cross has repeatedly asked to visit Shalit. Their requests fell on deaf Hamas ears. This young man in spent four years isolated from the all but Hamas.
· 3. The Geneva Convention gives Israel the right to know Shalit’s location. Hamas has refused to say where they are holding Gilad Shalit.

So many questions. Is he well? What is his mental condition by now? Will this young man ever be released?

Imagine the heartbreak of his family. His parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, have spent four years campaigning for the release of their son. Hamas responds by denying them even the most basic communication.

A group known as the Human Rights Watch condemned Hamas by describing Shalit’s prolonged, isolated captivity as cruel and inhumane and amounting to torture.
Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, recently said: “The only man in the Gaza strip who needs humanitarian assistance is Gilad Shalit… a million and a half people are living in Gaza, and only one of them truly needs humanitarian assistance, only one of them imprisoned, does not merit to see daylight, his health situation is unknown, and his name is Gilad Shalit.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council remains silent on this issue.
Internationally, though, the movement to free Gilad Shalit is gaining momentum. How much good will that momentum do?

The answer lies in the hands of terrorists.

In New York, the “True Freedom Flotilla” symbolically carried humanitarian aid to Shalit. However, this flotilla had no intention of trying to break any blockades. They sailed from Pier 40 on New York’s west side to the UN on the east side. This was a major – and costly – demonstration of support.

Will the UN understand? We can only hope so.

Meanwhile, Shalit has been made an honorary citizen of France, of Rome, and several American cities.

At midnight Italian time, the lights of the ancient Roman coliseum were darkened … to show support for Shalit. The Italian foreign minister told Shalit’s father, Noam, that Rome fully supported efforts to free his son and that the captivity breached all international rules. Further, the Italian said that it “shows the terrorist nature of Hamas,” and that the EU cannot consider Hamas a political entity because of this.

President Sarkozy of France echoed similar thoughts in a letter to Noam Shalit. He said: “Like every French citizen, I am disgusted how it is possible to deprive a human being of his liberty and even – with the exception of a few all too rare opportunities – to deny him contact with his family and friends … and the right to visits from the Red Cross.

In Jerusalem, the lights of the Old City walls were turned off. The only light was a sign saying: “This is the number of days I have spent in captivity: 1,460.
On Sunday there will be a march in Jerusalem to the home of the prime minister. There will be similar demonstrations all over Israel.

But, the question I struggle with is … what CAN we DO?

It is all too easy to sweep this travesty into the shadows, but we cannot.
After Shabbat, I’ll send out emails with suggestions of how to show support.
We can write letters to his family, pray for him, write our elected leaders. We can remember that his Hamas captors in Gaza are terrorists who have found a myriad of ways to attack Israel.

Gilad Shalit, now 23, is “just one person.” In Judaism, there is no such thing as “just one person.” A person is the whole world!

Every time we pray the Amidah, there is a line in the second paragraph that refers to God who frees the captive, those who are bound – the Hebrew is “u’matir asurim.”
When we say that prayer, think of Gilad Shalit. The least – and the most -- we can do is: remember.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Video url

Helen Thomas remarks can be seen and heard at

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS250&=&q=helen%20thomas&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbo=u&tbs=nws:1&source=og&sa=N&tab=wn.

Helen Thomas

If you haven't followed veteran journalist Helen Thomas's recent -- vicious -- comments on Israel, watch the video. Whether or not you've seen or heard her comments, we can at least be grateful that she had the good sense to retire. How sad for a lifetime of achievement to turn so low level.

Being Holy -- But How?

The Torah portion, Kedushim, teaches us how to be holy/ We hear the refrain, again and again – you shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy.

What’s God telling us? How can we be holy? God is holy, people are not!

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev pointed out that holiness is Hashem’s sphere, none of us can attain His level of sanctity.

The Berditchever then taught: this refers to serving Hashem with all one’s heart.
Holiness is not a state of being – we may live a life of holiness and not feel holy at all!

After all, our tradition teaches that the most righteous among us, the tzadikim, don’t even know they’re tzadikim, so great is their humility.

Holiness is what we do – and what we abstain from doing – holiness is how we live. More than anything, holiness is reflected by how we treat others.

The first step is to realize that we’re all created in the Divine image. When we acknowledge that we all have one Divine Parent – one King, the King of Kings – we can recognize the unity of all people.

At least, we can do this intellectually.

Internalizing this concept takes practice – just like learning and perfecting any “skill” takes practice!

The parshah has a number of ways to help us develop this “skill.” One of my favorites is: “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people; do not stand by your neighbor’s blood; I am Adonai.”

In Hebrew it’s:
לֹ֥א תַֽעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֹֽה:

The Hebrew word rach’il is critical. The sages taught that it’s plain meaning referred to a merchant who went from house to house, city to city, found out what was happening in one place, brought the tale to the next.
Or they interpreted it as anyone going to someone’s home to “spy” on someone else and then spread the information.

This word, rach’il, became the halachic term for gossip: rechilut.
It’s one of the easiest commandments to break – but spreading rechilut – gossip – is toxic – in many senses, deadly, as it poisons souls.

We learn from an ancient text, the Tosefta: “Rabbi Yitzchak said: One who bears tales is a murderer, as it is written: "’You shall not go about as a talebearer amongst your people; you shall not stand by your fellow's blood.’" Rabbi Yitzchak equates gossip with putting your fellow human being in a perilous situation.
The Talmud takes this a step further: Evil talk kills three people: the speaker, the listener, and the one who is spoken of.

… Is the Talmud being overly dramatic? Is gossip really a killer?

And further, does gossip just refer to words?

According to Rashi, rechilut/gossip can be spread with a wink!

Yes, the sages understood that communication is both verbal and non-verbal.
And communication can be dangerous. Even if it’s well-intentioned!
Think about this hypothetical situation: We see a good friend hanging out with – questionable – type people. Low-lifes.

What should we do? Anything? Actually, this parshah has an answer: literally, we must reprove that person. In reality, we should speak to that person – gently -- about the matter if we think it’s dangerous.

That also comes under the rubric of: do not stand by your neighbor’s blood.
Another possibility: we know the person, and assume the best. The Hebrew term is “dan lizchut” – judge for merit – especially, don’t assume the worst!

However, realistically, many of us will express our concerns to a friend – who will probably express the same thing – embellished – to another friend – and on down the line.

Whether or not this is out of concern, we have now told the world that our friend hangs out with low-lifes.

Our friend is now suspect and, at the very least, will emerge with a tarnished reputation. People will now look at him differently. It is liable to hurt his livelihood, his friendships, his family… It can lead to depression, even suicide.
The best we can say: his standing in his community is damaged and complete repair is impossible.

Words cannot be taken back. As we see in Midrash: “Evil talk is like an arrow. A person who unsheathes a sword can regret his intention and return it to its sheath. But the arrow cannot be retrieved.”

The words, the arrows, cannot be retrieved.
We can now account for the Talmud saying that evil talk kills the person being spoken of.

But what about the listener? You can’t help it if your friend tells you something … can you?

We owe it to ourselves – and our friend – to stop the conversation. Change the subject. Say this isn’t a good topic. Say that we don’t know all the facts and shouldn’t even discuss it.

Just do something. We can’t “stand by our neighbor’s blood.”
If we listen – even if we don’t spread the gossip – we’re just as complicit.
Now we come to the person who first told the story.

The more negative our own speech – the more negative our attitudes to others – well, we just become more negative! When we foster negative attitudes about other people, we strengthen our own negative characteristics! We start to see the world from an unhappy prism – a prism that we created for ourselves.

And finally, we end up closing our own hearts to others. We’re too full of negativity and toxic thoughts to let others into our hearts – our worlds.
Does this mean that we can’t ventilate problems with others?

That, too, would be unhealthy. Here’s the difference:
• when you are ventilating, be clear, that’s what you’re doing.
• When you’re listening, be clear in your own mind that you are simply listening to someone ventilate; this is not something you should spread.

We all need good listeners to help us work through issues. But we have to learn the difference between discussion that helps bring us to a deeper understanding and rechilut that damages – and at best, creates a toxic atmosphere.

Words have power. Even our gestures have powers. As Rashi noted, we can discredit someone with merely a wink.

Yeah, gossip is human nature. We often don’t realize we’re doing it. But before we say something negative about someone
– we must stop and think
– we must ask ourselves if this bears repeating.
– we must examine whether our comments can lead to negative perceptions and pain.

Avoiding this – avoiding rechilut – is an important step to bringing goodness and holiness into the world – and creating a positive atmosphere that will serve as a beacon of light.

Is Lack of Civility a Sin?

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed in appalling lack of civility in our society?...

To that end, I’d like to share a story told by my colleague, Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky. It’s about one of the true greats of the Jewish Theological Seminary -- the late Rabbi Louis Finkelstein.

In the late 70’s, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein visited the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Rabbi Lavinsky was given the honor of chauffeuring and escorting the great teacher around town.

During this outing, Rabbis Lavinsky and Finkelstein visited a kosher deli in one of LA’s heavily Jewish neighborhoods. Suddenly, Rabbi Finkelstein slowed his pace.

Now, Rabbi Finkelstein was elderly, but he was not a slow walker. This was out of character.

The pace was so slow, Rabbi Lavinsky had a difficult time maintaining it! … Finally, Dr Finkelstein suggested they cross the street.

So what do you think caused the change of pace and direction?

An elderly man was shuffling just ahead of them. Rabbi Finkelstein did not want to embarrass the man by passing him.

Isn’t that amazing?

Most of us would have hurried past the elderly man – it isn’t our fault that he walked slowly! Always so much to do, we’re too busy to slow down.

Surely Rabbi Finkelstein had plenty to do! And yet, he was willing to slow down his pace to not embarrass – and therefore, add to the dignity of a … total stranger!

The Hebrew term is derech eretz … literally, the way of the land. It means good manners. Okay, good manners aren’t the way of the land but they should be!

And guess what – in this sense, derech eretz has nothing to do with using the correct fork or putting your elbows on the table!

For Rabbi Finkelstein, derech eretz meant going out of his way to avoid embarrassing someone.

Derech eretz – good manners – how we treat others – is the foundation-stone of Torah. It is a manifestation of kavod – respect.

Torah itself teaches that we’re created in the Divine image. Therefore, everyone else is created in the Divine image.

Over and over, we have the injunction to honor God coupled with the injunction to treat others with kindness.

Surely, most of us think we do this … and try to do this… But it is difficult.

Once upon a time people respected their teachers, rabbis, doctors. But today, when kids get in trouble at school, and when the teacher or principal consults the parents – the parents often back the unruly kid, not the teachers!

At the same time, has anyone noticed a lack of respect for authority?
With no boundaries … with no respect for authorities … what’s left to prevent mob rule?

Has anyone noticed that our country is moving in that direction?

Another dimension of derech eretz -- many of us think that of course we should respect people … as long as they earn our respect.

That’s so wrong … human beings deserve respect because … they’re people! They were made in the image of God, just like we were!

Judaism tells us to “judge” others with an eye to merit … we give people the benefit of the doubt.

Yeah, sometimes we learn we were wrong. But still, better to err in that direction and learn from that experience … but often, we learn we were right to do so and expect others to live up to their higher natures!

Perhaps the most important dimension of derech eretz is to remember before Whom we stand. Respect God!

Many synagogues have this written clearly to all who enter the sanctuary. You walk in and see the sign. Know before Whom you stand.

Maybe we shouldn’t need this, but we tend to forget that there is One who always watches – and desperately wants us to be good and to do good.

For me, any form of knowledge is important. But I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I see Torah as the most important knowledge of all --- it’s not only a guide to life … even daily life … but a bridge to Eternity.

Yet, not even the greatest Torah scholar dares stand before his Creator if he mistreats other people – in fact, his Torah knowledge will mean nothing at all if he has no good deeds behind him.

We must take derech eretz to heart … especially now … and not just because good manners and respect are diminished everywhere these days.

Next Shabbat, will be the second day of the month of Elul. The significance? It’s the month leading to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It’s a special time to recognize … and live … the special bond between God and the people Israel.

We begin our journey to seeking God’s forgiveness … and more importantly … the forgiveness of those we hurt.

When we stand before our Creator on the coming Days of Awe … and seek His love and forgiveness … we must ask ourselves:

• Did we live with derech eretz … did we respect others?
• Even when we come to the synagogue … do we approach with respect and love for God – or do we think He’ll care if we just show up with empty hearts?
• Did we treat His Creation with love and respect … for surely we do not really love Him if we cannot act kindly and respectfully to others.

We must all examine these matters … our hearts and our behavior … in the coming weeks we prepare our souls and cast anger and bitterness aside…

We ask the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed is He … to help us do this during the coming month, so that on the Day of Judgment – Rosh Hashanah – and the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur – our souls will be fresh, clean, renewed … and truly standing in awe of Him.

Purim Joy and Mourning

Purim IS a fun holiday. The happiness of Purim is so great that we should even increase our joy in the days leading up to it. In the Talmud, the rabbis decreed: (Ta’aanit 29a) : When the month of Adar – the month we celebrate Purim -- enters, rejoicing is increased!

There’s good reason for rejoicing. God saved us … again. But this time, it was different from every other Biblical rescue.

The Bible didn’t give God credit for saving us! Rather, the Purim story features God acting through people … heroic people who trusted Him and relied on Him. And even though the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention Divine intervention – God’s hand is clearly guiding our people and helping us find the courage and strength to stand up for ourselves … no matter what the odds.

Therefore, we celebrate! We
• dress in costume,
• knosh some hamentaschen
• tell jokes, get silly
• boo Haman – yeah, we’re supposed to be noisy in the synagogue…

We’re commanded to
• give gifts of food to each other,
• provide gifts for the needy,
• and be festive!

However, sometimes Jewish obligations conflict with each other.

We are commanded to celebrate Purim – and we’re commanded to … remember.

This is Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of Remembering. This comes from a section of Torah we’ll read tomorrow that commands us to remember how Amalek attacked us in the wilderness. The tie to Purim? Haman is descended from Amalek.

However, I want to talk about memory … and not Haman or Amalek or even Purim.

Remembering our loved ones … is a commandment.

… Not that we really need anyone to tell us to do that … how can we forget them?...

When Adar enters our joy increases … but that doesn’t always work. My father was buried on Rosh Chodesh Adar.

As Purim drew closer, I found myself troubled by the nature of the holiday and the difficulty of observing … celebrating … it.

After all, I’m barely out of shivah – in a period known as shloshim, the 30 days … the restrictions aren’t as severe as during shivah … during the shloshim we gradually return to “normal” activity … but still, the mourning is intense.

As many of you know, I’ve performed lots of funerals, done my best to help people through the mourning process. Intellectually, I’ve always understood the reasons for the restrictions we have during shivah and afterwards.

I now understand that the so-called restrictions of aveilut … of mourning … aren’t restrictions at all. They’re things the mourner does not have to do. After all, when your feelings are brutally raw, who wants to go anywhere or pretend that everything is normal!

The amazing part of this process is the comfort that I got … still get … from you. We had minyans … you were there. We didn’t have the energy or will to cook … you brought us tons of wonderful food.

Jews are commanded to comfort the mourners … the comfort you brought is beyond description.

There’s so much I thought I understood … but am seeing life through a very different lens right now.

Back to Purim. I tried to plan my costume … after all, I’ve worn a costume for lots of years … most of you know, I can get real silly! But now, even the thought of Purim and fun was unbearable.

What to do? After all, as a rabbi, my “job” is to make Purim festive for everyone. As a plain, simple Jew, I’m supposed to celebrate.

I sought advice from my colleagues. They were great, not just for discussing my Purim dilemma … but I don’t have a rabbi … and I needed one, desperately.

My friends … my fellow rabbis … reminded me that of course I wouldn’t be celebrating with a whole heart … if I tried, it wouldn’t be real… that I had to find a balance … and Purim comes again next year…

Tomorrow night, you’ll see me without a costume. While I will certainly celebrate … and thank the Holy One for helping us … it will probably not be as whole-hearted a Purim as I’m used to.

We’re still planning a fun Purim! I hope that many of you DO wear costumes and come ready for fun! We have a great skit … with great music … Beach Boy tunes, couldn’t get better!

And after the megillah reading, there will be more festivities. It WILL be fun.

But this time, I’ll take a bit of a back seat. While I celebrate our holiday, I’ll can’t help but remember, think about my father … … and the joy he always took in his family, the love he always showered on us.

Daddy was such a mensch. My greatest prayer … my greatest hope … is for us, his children … to live up to his legacy of honesty, kindness, and love.

A God-Given Lifeline

A few minutes ago, during the service, we read a prayer about wearing tzitzit – the fringes on the corners of a tallit. Without these fringes, the tallit is just a piece of cloth. With the tzitzit, it becomes a holy garment.

It sounds like a dry commandment: wear these fringes and remember to observe the commandments … all 613 of them!

Yes, the strings are wrapped and knotted in a way that symbolizes the number 613 – the number of commandments in the Torah.

On surface, when we wear tallitot in the morning, it appears that we’ll look at our tzitzit and think: we must keep kosher, observe Shabbat, keep rituals down to their minutiae …

… And love our neighbors, love God, treat others with respect… but don’t worry! I’m not going to list all 613!

But my question really is: what WILL you think about in the morning when we wear tallitot and look at the fringes?

The sages had a lot to say about this paragraph and the meaning of tzitzit.
Rashi, a great rabbi of 11th century France, questioned even the definition of the Hebrew word, tzitzit. After all, this word appears very really in the entire Tanakh – Hebrew Bible.

Rashi found two Talmudic references defining our mystery word. Perhaps we can discern the true nature of the tzitzit.

We read in Ezekiel 8:3
3. And He put forth the form of a hand, and took me by a lock of my head; and a wind lifted me up between the earth and the heaven, and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the inner gate.

In Ezekiel, the tzitzit are a lock of hair. In the prophetic vision, God took Ezekiel to Jerusalem by holding a lock of his hair! Further, in that manner, in this vision, the Kadosh Baruch Hu took Ezekiel from exile in Babylon to the inner gate of the Temple … to a place of great holiness…

Rashi explains that Ezekiel’s tzitzit – his lock of hair … are actually fringes – the fringes of his head. Thus, tzitzit can mean both hair and fringes.
Let’s think about this image. Hashem took Ezekiel by the hair. No hint of God’s pulling Ezekiel’s hair or hurting him in any way.

On the other hand, Hashem showed Ezekiel the First Temple as it lay in ruins and told the prophet about the abominations committed there – the abominations that led to its destruction.

Pulled by a lock … or fringe … of hair, Ezekiel saw the devastation that came from ignoring God’s word.

Hashem’s purpose was not to depress or frighten Ezekiel, but to help him understand how to restore Israel’s holiness … Israel’s glory.

This vision of the Holy One … through a lock of Ezekiel’s own hair … helped the prophet understand the nature of his own holy work.

Therefore, when we look at the tzitzit, we should not think about destruction but about the possibility of holiness in our own lives … and therefore, adding holiness to the world.

Rashi’s next definition comes from the Song of Songs. Rabbi Akiva considered this the holiest book of the Bible – at least, outside the Torah itself.

Why? It reads like a love poem. It IS a love poem! But … it is the love of God and Israel. It pictures the Kadosh Baruch Hu and Israel in a constant state of yearning for … of loving … each other.

Here, we go even further than the concept of holiness and enter the realm of pure love.

In the Song of Songs, 2:9, we read: “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart; Behold, he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

The word for gazing is from the root of tzitzit.Here in Scripture, the woman knows that her lover is looking for her, gazing at her through a lattice. Because of the lattice, he cannot see her clearly. But their love and mutual yearning is clear.
And so it is with God. We yearn for Him … we love Him … but we are finite mortal beings and He is infinite, therefore we can never see Him clearly.

That does not … should not … keep us from seeking Him.

Nor does Hashem ever stop looking for … wanting … us.

So far, the tzitzit are a sign pointing to holiness and a reminder of our mutual love affair with Hashem.

We have one more aspect to examine: the tzitzit are a lifeline!

In Midrash Rabbah, we learn: “The strings of the tzitzit are comparable to the case of one who has been thrown into the water, and the captain stretches out a rope and says to him: ‘Take hold of this rope with your hand and do not let go; for if you let go, you have not life!’"

Tomorrow morning, when we wear our tallitot … and see our tzitzit, we can make this much more than a routine ritual.

When we read the “tzitzit” paragraph during the morning prayers … and when we hear it read in the Torah… we can hold them lovingly in our hands and see…

• A path to holiness … which is as close to us as a lock of our own hair … or more accurately, this path is as close to us as our own heads. However, to do this, we use our heads to recognize and refuse to do evil, but to see and act on the very real possibility of goodness and holiness.
• We look at the tzitzit and see a reminder of the overwhelming love … the constant yearning … that we have for the Kadosh Baruch Hu … and that He has for us.
If we see the tzitzit in this light, we will naturally try to please our Creator and do as He asks. Isn’t this how we’re always supposed to treat our loved ones?
• And finally, we should look at the tzitzit and literally see a life-line. We must realize that real life is not just biological! Real life is tied to our souls and our values.

We can use the tzitzit as a lifeline. As we gaze upon the holy fringes, we can and should understand that the Kadosh Baruch Hu wants to bring us to a live of goodness, mitzvoth … and love.

But there is a disclaimer – not looking at your tzitzit doesn’t condemn you to a life of misery, nor is gazing upon them a guarantee that you’ll do the right things in life.

The ultimate purpose of tzitzit is to inoculate us with a strong desire for God’s love … His holiness … and the understanding that real life is eternal, not simply biological.

Hopefully, this inoculation will inspire us to act on these precepts.
I hope we’ll gaze at the tzitzit tomorrow with a new understanding and a fresh resolve that our relationship with God should be one of mutual love and yearning as described in the Song of Songs: “Behold, He stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”