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.”

Who Do You Think You Are?

NBC recently had a series called: “Who Do You Think You Are.” It wasn’t on at the most convenient time – Friday night. But DVR made it easy for us to watch after Shabbat.

The premise is that learning more about our ancestors will change how we view ourselves.

On one hand, we could easily say: I am who I am, it doesn’t matter what my ancestors were like. So what if I know the names of my great grandfather’s siblings?

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski – a practicing psychiatrist -- points out that he is not a fan of psychoanalysis and lots of talking about a person’s roots. People wind up blaming their parents. He says – and I agree – that part ultimately doesn’t matter. You are who you are. We have to work on our own characters, no matter how our parents raised us!

And we have to remember; our parents are also human … and shaped by their own backgrounds.

Therefore, we must know who we are … if we are to improve our characters.
Rabbi Dr. Twerski makes it clear: we really can’t change others. We can only change ourselves … and paradoxically … hope others will respond to our own own changes.
That sure seems to conflict with the premise of the NBC show that knowing our past helps us know ourselves!

However, as the Talmud would say, lo kashyah – it is not a difficulty.
Rabbi Twerski is referring to the all too prevalent tendency to blame our parents for our character flaws.

If it’s our parents’ fault, we don’t have to take personal responsibility. It’s not our fault we drink, overeat, lie, or fill in the blank with any negative behavior.
Twerski is emphatic, that we must take personal responsibility for our own behavior.

NBC’s pitch for genealogy … coincidentally sponsored by a major online genealogical resource … is not talking about psychology and what your ancestors did wrong to mess you up.

Genealogy helps us see ourselves in a larger context. We think of our families in limited terms. We know a little about them, but don’t know their struggles, their triumphs.

Our family histories can shape – and re-shape -- the narrative of our lives.
Some examples from Jewish life:

• People who lost families in the Shoah, the Holocaust, will inevitably carry that knowledge in their hearts and souls.
• If we go beyond the Shoah and think back to Eastern Europe, many of our ancestors lived through – or were killed by – rampant pogroms. That history wasn’t so long ago, and almost gets swept aside by the Holocaust!
• Then we come to America. We picture the early Jews in America as pious, Yiddish speaking people who lived in New York – and we are so nostalgic for the romanticized life on the Lower East Side.

Maybe our memories – the stories we hear – are real. But maybe they’re entirely different from what really happened!

Let’s start with the Lower East Side. As a child, I read lots of great stories about Jews on the Lower East Side. I asked my grandmother about it. I assumed, they were Russian Jews, of course they moved there!

She insisted they never lived in that part of town!

For those of you who’ve heard tales of my grandmother’s version of her own history, it might not surprise you to hear: yes, the family did first live on the Lower East Side.

So why did she deny it?...

Shame. Grinding poverty. A grim family life while they struggled to get a foothold in a land that didn’t welcome immigrants.

Mama Flo certainly didn’t have fond memories of the Lower East Side! It was a memory she wanted to block.

However, realizing that she – all my family – overcame incredible obstacles – is awe-inspiring. Would I have such strength?

Another story from the Bacharach side: I grew up knowing that my great grandfather went from Bavaria to St. Louis at the tender age of 14.

I have just tapped into an incredible network of Bacharachs, who are all related. When my great grandfather came to this country, he moved in with close relatives. Just as they had done in Bavaria, the Bacharachs formed an amazing network, reaching from Cincinatti to St. Louis and places in between.

No longer do I picture Maximillian Bacharach as a scared kid trying to make it on his own. He probably was scared. But he had incredible support.

The more I learn, the more it does impact my sense of self.

More importantly, I’m part of a chain that reaches across Europe and America. I’m not a solitary unit. Nor is my nuclear family. We’re part of a vast network that forms and re-forms as new generations add to the complexity of family groupings.
And that’s just my personal family tree!

We all have stories just waiting to be uncovered – stories we add to our own personal narratives.

… Stories that help us understand how we got here … Stories that give us a fuller sense of self – and of a belonging that transcends the self.

Now, imagine going back thousands of years in our family histories.

We do that when we read the Bible.

Just as our family networks are extensive and complex, the Jewish world itself is extensive and complex. And we are part of it! That is who we are!

That is as much our personal history as our more immediate family trees.

We belong to a group. That group has adapted to new cultures, spread itself across the world, been through many changes and taken many forms … but it is still Judaism … it is still rooted in the Torah.

As the NBC series asks: who do you think you are?

We answer that question in many ways. I am a big fan of genealogical research.
I’m an even bigger fan of seeing ourselves through the lens of our Jewish family that first came on the scene in Torah.

It’s a heritage, it’s our story … and it IS … who we are…