Rebuking Syria

Yom Kippur Morning 5774

 

We’ve seen the images on TV, in the newspapers and online. On August 21, opposition-controlled areas of Syria were barraged with rockets containing lethal sarin gas, leaving more than 1400 people dead, and thousands more suffering the ill effects of this poison.

 

We know this was not the first time Bashar al-Assad attacked his own people. In fact, in the past two years, fighting between the ruling Alawite Muslims and the Sunni rebel groups had led to 110,000 deaths, 1.6 million people forced to leave the county, over 4 million fleeing their homes, and a civilization in ruins.[1] The conflict stems from a centuries old hatred between the Sunnis and Alawites, who have a long history of being degraded and abused by the ruling Sunnis. Once the Alawites gained power, they—Assad included—wanted revenge on the Sunnis. The Sunni rebel groups—up to 50% of which are made up of Al Qaeda—want revenge of their own. In the crossfire, innocent civilians fear for their lives—from hunger, disease, shelling, and now chemical weapons.

 

***

 

This afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. In it, God asks Jonah to travel to Nineveh, to convince the sinning Ninevinians to change their evil ways or face the repercussions of their actions. If he failed to convince the Ninevinians to change their ways, he was a terrible prophet, but the Ninevinians would receive their rightful punishment for their misdeeds.

 

If he was successful, he would lose all credibility when the people never had to face the consequences of their actions. Sure, they would have repented—but essentially, they would get away with it. Shouldn’t they pay for their mistakes? Shouldn’t they suffer the way they made the others suffer?

 

Jonah despises both options. So he decides to pick option three: he tried to flee.

 

***

 

President Obama tried to act as the prophet when he declared a “red line,” hoping that his words would convince Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons. Now that has failed, leaving us with a choice. We can chose to act, no matter how unpopular this position might be—or we can choose option 3: we can walk away from the situation, minding our own business.

 

Perhaps it is so surprise, that like Jonah, the American people in staggering numbers are asking for option three: to flee, to stay out of it while we still can. This is a civil war that we don’t have the resources or position to solve.

 

To some extent these arguments are well founded. We have been fighting wars in the Middle East for the past decade and what exactly have they solved? Is it really wise to get involved in yet another out-of-control Middle Eastern county?

 

Furthermore, our country is in the midst of a painfully slow process of rebuilding from the recession. Perhaps now is the time to focus on issues within our own country before we solve all the ills of the world. After all, Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who will be?”[2]

 

I get it. We’ve been burned, and we’re hurting. But if we wait until our needs are met before we ever act on another’s behalf, will we ever act for anyone? What kind of a world would that be?

***

 

As the Jonah story continues, God finds Jonah on his boat. A storm tosses the boat from side to side, until Jonah realizes what is going on and jumps in the water in hopes that God will leave the sailors alone. A huge whale swallows Jonah and takes him towards Nineveh.

 

Jonah tried to run away, but as it turns out, fleeing wasn’t an option, after all.

***

 

In a world so tightly connected, where the suffering of people ripples like torrents throughout the globe, where growing evil is not just a threat to the “other” but to us, as well, we, like Jonah, may not have the luxury of running away—at least not without serious consequences.

 

 

Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons was perhaps not his smartest move, but it was one made from a place of sincerity. Obama, like any decent human being was repulsed by the idea that a government could so callously gas its own people.[3] In a speech at the white house, he remarked “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”[4]

 

Our Torah portion this afternoon tells us “הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו—You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, so that you don’t bear sin because of him.” [5] We have a responsibility to speak up, or we too are culpable. Obama couldn’t live with that on his hands. And he was not alone.

 

Israeli President Shimon Peres went so far as to say, “The world cannot accept genocide and slaughter of children and women… Assad is not his people’s leader—he is a murderer of children,” while former writer for Haaretz, Ari Shavit, wrote: “If civilians can be gassed to death in 2013, we face the end of the world. It’s the end of the world that purports to be moral and enlightened. It’s the end of the world that sought to establish a reasonable international order of which the Middle East would be part.”

 

Neither Peres nor Shavit were willing to stand idly by as their neighbor bleeds. [6] Are we?

 

It wasn’t that long ago that the world stood by as our fellow Jews died in the concentration camps. Then, our nation and its citizens stood by, knowing some of the atrocities going on, and we did nothing. We did not so much as let a ship of Jews into the US when it had nowhere else to turn. Surely we have learned from our mistakes. Surely now we know not to be a bystander to the gruesome, repugnant use of chemical weapons!

 

We cannot undo past wrongs, but we can repent for them, and do all that we can to ensure they do not happen again.

 

 

 

 

 

This was holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel’s intention when he said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented… There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

 

Hokeach Tokiach—You shall surely rebuke your neighbor.

 

We want to rebuke Assad. We know what he did is revolting, unfathomable. We talk about it, we write about it, we create facebook posts and tweet about it. We may even pick up the phone and call our representatives about it.

 

Perhaps like, Jonah, we want such a sinner to suffer, to deal with the consequences—however great. He deserves it.

 

Perhaps we feel if we denounce his actions we have done our part—if we speak up, we are no longer bystanders.

 

But Rava has a different idea about Hokeach tokiach. He teaches that the verb “to rebuke” is repeated in Leviticus to teach us “Rebuke—even 100 times”[7] In other words, you must speak out and work in every way you can to bring about change. Airing one criticism is not enough. Doing one action is not enough. We are required to use whatever means to bring about change.

 

Rava is not interested, like Jonah, in retribution. He is interested in teshuva—change.

 

The verse about rebuking our neighbor is sandwiched between two powerful teachings:

 

The first:

בְּצֶדֶק, תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ. With justice you shall judge your neighbor.[8]

 

Do not judge your neighbor with an angry heart. Rather judge him with justice, with righteousness. Don’t seek vengeance and revenge—that has rarely done any good. Instead, seek righteousness.

 

 

The second:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.[9]

 

Realize that people of Syria are people. This civil war is happening for a reason. A country run by a series of trigger happy military tribes has a different mindset than we can fully comprehend as 21st century Americans.

 

We must consider the words of Marc Gopin: “What was the engine that drove the Arab Spring in the first place? The yearning for freedom, empowerment and new civil societies.” The people of Syria are not evil—but they are willing to pay an awfully high price for what they see is their only path to freedom. Gopin continues, “At the end of the day, all social change that is lasting, and that dwarfs militarized chaos, is the change that happens inside hearts and minds, the change that happens in between human beings of great diversity and difference.”[10]

 

I, like you, have no idea what the future will bring. Although I am pleased that Syria is in the midst of diplomatic talks to hand over its stash of chemical weapons, I remain highly skeptical that the deal will move to fruition. I don’t know what we should do, militarily, if Russia is less than sincere or Syria does not fully comply with the negotiations.

 

But here is what I do know:

 

We have a responsibility to look out for the humanitarian needs of the millions of Syrian victims. We have a responsibility to rebuke 100 times—to at least try in the best ways we know how to end this cycle of hatred and violence.

 

Many countries and organizations are trying to do just that.

 

Recently, the UN World Food Programme broadcasted that it needs $2 billion per year just to keep Syrian people barely alive. The United Nations made an unprecedented appeal for $5 billion—a request Kuwait, the US and other states have begun to answer.

 

As Marc Gopin reminds us, “To be truly competitive with the unwinnable military options we must now inject not just food into the mouths of the innocent, but inject empowerment and preparation for a future into a dying and desperate people”[11]

 

It is not enough to give people food and hope for the best. Our obligations are far deeper.

 

This is why Israeli hospitals in the Golan Heights are treating trauma victims, even though the nations have no diplomatic relationship or open borders.[12] The North American Jewish community rallied to support the cause of Syrian refugees by opening a fund[13] through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief (JCDR).[14]

 

This is why countless projects are springing up to combat the hatred in the region. There are efforts to create summer camps bringing kids from desperate backgrounds in Syria together- people who would otherwise never have the opportunity to get to know the “other.”

 

“Every project, every engagement with every person in the region that models and empowers that basic reality is one small step toward a different future,” explains Gopin. “Civil society building is the one true way to save the face of the human community as they look on this monstrous Assad regime, a final product of Cold War rivalry, Gulf rivalry and a massive failure to bring Iran into the international community. Humanitarian missiles are the only ones that will ultimately smash the foundations of both brutal, corrupted regimes and corrupted jihadist enterprises jumping up and down for Gulf cash. All of them are illegitimate, but if you want to wipe them clean from history, try humanitarian missiles. They work.”[15]


[1] According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, between March 2011 and August 31, 2013,  110,371 people died—40,146 civilians including 4,000 women and 5,800 children; 21,850 rebels; 27,654 members of the regime’s army, 17,824 pro-regime militia; 171 people from Hezbolla; and 2,726 unidentified people.

[2] Pirkei Avot 1:14

[3] Jeffrey Goldberg “Obama is About to Undermine his Mideast Doctrine” in Bloomberg 8/29/13

[5] Leviticus 19:17

[6] Leviticus 19:16

[7] Bava Metzia 31a

[8] Leviticus 19:15

[9] Leviticus 19:18

[10] Marc Gopin “Humanitarian Missiles are Superior to Cruise Missiles” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-gopin/humanitarian-missiles-are_b_3831768.html 8/31/13

[11] Marc Gopin “Humanitarian Missiles are Superior to Cruise Missiles” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-gopin/humanitarian-missiles-are_b_3831768.html 8/31/13

[12] Isabel Kershner “Across Forbidden Border Doctors in Israel Quietly Tent to Syria’s Wounded” New York Times 8/5/13 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/world/middleeast/across-forbidden-border-doctors-in-israel-quietly-tend-to-syrias-wounded.html?pagewanted=1&_r=4&

[14] Isaac Nuell “Syrian Refugees” 8/16/13, RAC http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2013/08/16/syrian-refugees/

[15] Marc Gopin “Humanitarian Missiles are Superior to Cruise Missiles” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-gopin/humanitarian-missiles-are_b_3831768.html 8/31/13

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One deed leads to another

Kol Nidre sermon, 5774

 

Toby prided himself on having a good moral character. Respectful, honest and compassionate, he jumped up in fear when he saw his father slumped over in his garden, afraid he was having a heart attack. When he got to his father, he saw he had been reading the newspaper. There on the front page was the news that broke his heart—his brother had been convicted for fraud.

 Toby’s father asked him to promise that he would never, ever do anything this immoral. No problem, said Toby. And he meant it.

 Little did he know that 22 years later, the same judge would convict him of a 7 million dollar bank fraud driving several companies out of business, resulting in a hundred people being laid off!

 In prison, Toby wondered—“Was he a bad person? Was this genetic?”

How did this happen? How did such a good caring boy do something so awful?

 It all began when he created his own mortgage company. Toby had a reputation for being ethical and fair: to his employees and customers alike. But in 2004, Toby sorted his books to find several errors putting the company 240k in debt. He decided his best option was to get a loan—taking out a second mortgage on his house. Except the only way he could do that was to lie about his income.

 That was the first lie. “There wasn’t much of a thought process,” he says. “I felt like, at that point, that was a small price to pay and almost like a cost of doing business. You know, things are going to happen, and I just needed to do whatever I needed to do to fix that. It wasn’t like … I didn’t think that I was going to be losing money forever or anything like that.”

 But weeks later, Toby discovered more substantial losses at the company. He didn’t have more money, and he had already mortgaged his house. He desperately wanted to save his company, and save the jobs of people he employed.

 He felt that the only way to get through this temporary slump was to get more loans. So he decided to take out a series of false loans on houses that didn’t exist. And he solicited the help of others until he found himself guilty of a seven million dollar fraud.[1]

 When I think of fraud—especially fraud on this scale, I equate it with greed. I assume that the people involved absolutely knew what they were doing, and chose to act immorally. But what if I am wrong?

 Researcher of unethical behavior, Ann Tenbrunsel, explains that our mindset when we make a decision can blind us to the big picture—to the ethical ramifications of our actions. Psychologists call this “bounded ethicality.”

 For example, in a recent experiment Tenbrunsel formed 2 groups of people. One group was asked to think about business decisions, while the other of ethical decisions. She had them do an unrelated task, to distract them, and then gave them an opportunity to cheat. Those who had been previously thinking about business decisions were far more likely to cheat than those who had been considering ethics. Tenbrunsel believes that viewing the world through the lens of business, we activate goals of success and competency, while viewing the world through the lens of ethics activates goals of fairness and justice.

 Toby was not committing fraud to be immoral. He was doing so because he was so focused on being successful that he lost track of the big picture. Only later did he realize how wrong his actions were.

 It is not right to cheat or steal and Toby has no excuse. His actions do shed some light on morality: that right and wrong are not as black and white as I would like to believe.

 Toby was asleep—was blind to his actions. And he is not alone..

 In his book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely gave people tests with 20 puzzles, offering monetary reward for each correct answer. When they handed in their answer sheet, they averaged 4 correct answers. When they self-corrected and self-reported their success, they averaged 6 correct answers.

 Ariely explains that just about everyone cheats—but usually just a little.

 “That’s because most of us think we are pretty wonderful,” explains David Brooks. “We can cheat a little and still keep that “good person” identity. Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.”[2]

 David Brooks describes moral living as dieting. “I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person….Obviously, though, there’s a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently: I was honest with that blind passenger because I’m a wonderful person. I cheated the person who COULD see because she probably has too much money anyway.”[3]

Like Toby, it is easy to justify our ethical actions. It is all too easy to make mistakes, and convince ourselves we acted in the right.

As physicist Richard Feynman said at a 1974 Cal Tech commencement speech, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

So, what’s the big deal if we do something slightly immoral once in a while?

There is a Jewish story about two sinners who went to their rabbi, asking for forgiveness. One committed a grave sin, and the other several little sins.

The rabbi instructed the two men to gather stones proportionately big for each of their sins. One man struggled to push a huge boulder to the rabbi; the carried little stones with ease, thinking “At least I didn’t commit a sin as bad as that guy!”

They returned to the rabbi, who smiled at them and said “Good. Now return your stones exactly to the spot you took them from.” The man with the boulder struggled to move his stone, but was soon done. The man with the several small stones ran around town, desperately trying to complete this task. Finally he gave up. He went to the rabbi, saying “It is impossible to return all of the stones to the right spot.” The rabbi said. “And so too with our sins. We do them with ease, but it is impossible to take them back.”

Our tradition teaches “One sin leads to another”[4] and “At first sin is like a spider’s web; in the end it becomes as thick as a ship’s cable. At first it is a visitor; in the end it becomes the master of the house.”[5]

Quickly our sins can add up, get out of control. Quickly we can find that we are “pulling the wool over our eyes”[6]

In his 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), Jerome J. Jerome wrote “I knew a young man once, he was a most conscientious fellow and, when he took to fly-fishing, he determined never to exaggerate his hauls by more than twenty-five percent. ‘When I have caught forty fish,’ said he, ‘then I will tell people that I have caught fifty, and so on. But I will not lie any more than that because it is sinful to lie.”

This young man believed, like Oscar Wilde, that “Morality, like art, means drawing the line somewhere.”

Where do we draw the line?

***

One sin leads to another.

It can be difficult to deter them from getting out on control, until we find to our disbelief that we acted in ways of which we never thought we were capable.

But it is possible.

Ariely suggests that the best way to make moral, ethical actions is to “reset our moral gauge” now and again. We can get so stuck in patterns of self-destruction that we can fail to see them. We need time to take a step back and try to objectively look at our actions, breaking destructive patterns.

This is why we confess on Yom Kippur[7], why we study Torah, why the mitzvot dictate that we connect with one another, offering help in times of need and joy. It is why we take a day off from work on Shabbat to pray and study Torah, to reflect and spend time with the ones we love most.

One sin may lead to another, but one mitzvah leads to another as well.[8]

The kabbalists taught that every single action we take has cosmic ramifications. We may not see the repercussions before our eyes, but they are there, forever changing the world. When we look at the world with such seriousness, we are reminded that letting even one small action slip is a far bigger deal than we at times lead ourselves to believe.

There is a story of a religious man who hires a prostitute. Just as he was about to make a decision he would later regret, he brushes his hand against his tzitzit. Tzitzit, the fringes of the tallit, are reminders of the mitzvot—the commandments God asks of us. As he feels the bush of these strings, he realized what he was doing was wrong. He explains to the prostitute that he was wrong to hire her. He will pay her, and she can be on her way.

Sometimes we need reminders to keep us on the right track—to stir us from our slumber.

If we are honest with ourselves, we learn that we are all a single step away from sinning or doing real good in the world. We can hurt people, and the world without even knowing or acknowledging it. BUT, we can also do more good, and truly partake in tikkun olam—fixing the world one act at a time.

Perhaps Claude G Montifore said it best: “We do not ask that our past sins may be forgiven in the sense that their effects may be cancelled, for that is impossible. All we can ask and do ask for is better insight, purer faith, fuller strength. We want to grow in holiness of life and in the love of God. For this we ask God’s help, for this we try by earnest prayer to realize better the true vileness of sin, how it separates us from God, and weans and defiles us; for this only we make repentance and seek atonement.”

As a Chassidic saying goes: “You have done wrong? Then balance it by doing right.”

As we hear the final blast of the Shofar tomorrow, may it pierce into our very soul, unsettle us from our complacency and inspire us to a year of more ethical actions—a year in one which mitzvah leads to another and another and another.


[1] All Things Considered on NPR with Chana Joffe-Walt and Alix Spiegel “Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things,” May 1, 2012 at 3:20PM http://www.npr.org/2012/05/01/151764534/psychology-of-fraud-why-good-people-do-bad-things

[2] “The Moral Diet” by David Brooks, in the New York Times on June 8, 2012 on page A27. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/08/opinion/brooks-the-moral-diet.html?_r=3&smid=fb-share&#commentsContainer

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pirkei Avot 4:2

[5] Genesis Rabbah 22:6

[6] Dan Ariely The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

[7] “The Moral Diet”

[8] Pirkei Avot 4:2

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Turning, Turning, Turning

A Sermon for Shabbat Shuva

A woman proudly hung her needle work art, Displaying the words “Prayer Changes Things.” A few days later, the plaque went missing. The woman asked her husband if he had seen it. “I took it down; I didn’t like it,” her husband replied. 

“But why?” the woman asked. “Don’t you believe that prayer changes things?”

“Yes, I honestly do,” her husband answered. “But it just so happens that I don’t like change, so I threw it away.”[1]

 Who among us likes change? Even when we crave innovation, change is uncomfortable, unknown.

 And yet we spend these High Holy Days uttering words of thanks for the opportunities of renewal, words of contrition, and promises for a life better lived.

 On Shabbat Shuva, this first Shabbat of the year, we are called to do real Shuva—turning. Even if we are yearning, searching, even if we are lonely, even if we have made mistakes. we—in theory, at least—want to learn from, do we have the courage to turn? Do we have the courage to change?

 

Imperfect beings, we are taught that each of us must always be in a process of change, of working to create a better life, a better world.

 Our favorite rabbinic Sage, Oprah says, “The whole point of being alive is to evolve into the complete person you were intended to be.”

 When we stop, we are no longer living life to its fullest.

 You have, perhaps, heard many times before the story of Moses, who despite his many years of leadership, despite his desire to reach the Promised Land, only made it to Israel’s border. God tells him that he may watch the Israelites reach their destination, but he will die just outside her gates.[2]

 Many of our sages view this as a cruel punishment for not following God’s orders in the desert. God explicitly asked him to wave a stick over a rock; he struck it, giving in to his anger for the ever-complaining Israelites.

 But Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, points out what we often forget in reading this story: That this was not the first time God asked Moses to bring water from a rock. Shortly after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, God told Moses:

“I will stand before you… and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel”[3]

 This time, Moses merely did what he had done before. Rabbi Sacks writes, “We can imagine his thoughts: ‘God said, “Take a stick.” Last time that meant “Hit the rock,” so this time too I will hit the rock.’”[4]

 This was not Moses’ nature. Moses was a man who had undergone huge transformations—

From Egyptian royalty To a warrior for the Israelite people, from refugee to leader of the Israelite people, a man who helped the Israelite people on the biggest transformation of them all: from slavery to freedom, from being nomads to being a people on the verge of having their own land.

Moses knew how to live. So why didn’t he recognize at this moment that he needed to treat the people differently than he had 40 years ago, that change must be constant, consistent?

Because after nearly 120 years of sacred work he was reaching the end of his days. He was no longer able to change along with his people. Moses wasn’t acting out of anger, but complacency. Not of intentionality, but habit. Intentional or not, he was giving God and the people a message: He was ready to hand over the torch, that he was no longer able to lead the people in the kind of metamorphosis they would soon experience.

Although he wouldn’t step foot in Israel, Rabbi Charles Kroloff argues that in a way, “Moses really did reach the Promised Land. Perhaps he did not actually enter Canaan, but he brought his people right to the edge, and despite his shortcomings, he led a remarkable life.

Moses became the person he was intended to be. And when he left this world, he did so with a satisfied smile on his face.

During the High Holy Days we are asked repeatedly to confront our own mortality. When we die, will we be content? Will we leave this world knowing our labors are soon to fruit? That we allowed ourselves to change to rise to the occasion time and time again? That we helped fill this world with meaning?

One day, perhaps in the distant future, we will begin our ascent up mount Nebo.

As we look down on the next generations, can we raise our voices as Martin Luther King Jr. did, on the last day of his life, saying “I’ve been to the mountain-top…And I’ve looked over.

And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.’

Will we be lucky enough to rejoice in knowing that we helped lead the people there? Will we leave this world knowing that we did all we could, that although there is much still to be done, our part has been fulfilled?

Even if we are compelled to throw away reminders that “Prayer changes things,” the High Holy Days are here to remind us to live is to be constantly evolving. They remind us that our time is short and precious. And if we let them, they can inspire us to live with such vigor that when we finally breath our last breath, we, like Moses, will be filled with peace.


[1] Rabbi Eric M Lankin

[2] Our Torah portion says: “You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people.” (Deuteronomy 32:50).

[3] Exodus 17:6; In this week’s Torah portion God said “You broke faith with Me… by failing to uphold my sanctity among the Israelite people.” How did he break faith? Coming from the root mem-ayin-lamed, this word can mean to misuse, steal or defraud. Moses was no longer able to adapt or change. He was weary and tired. But by remaining the leader of the people he would be stealing from them the opportunity to be constantly changing and adapting—the opportunity for repentance, and for growth.

[4] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty-First Century 

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Hineinu- Here We Are, But Where are We Going?

Rosh Hashannah Morning 5774

The mysterious voice of God echoed: “Abraham?” Abraham could have ignored it, could have dismissed it. But ever faithful Abraham answered “Hineini—Here I am.” I am here God, I am attentive; I am ready.

On this first day of the Jewish year, we have gathered together, offering prayers, continuing on our journey of self-reflection and atonement, and celebrating in the brilliant new possibilities that lie ahead. God says to us “Temple Emanu-El?” And we say “Hineinu—Here we are.”

But why are we here—really?

Is it for the prayers and melodies? Out of respect for tradition? Is it to learn or to be inspired? Is it to see friends and loved ones? While there is no shortage of reasons for why we come through the door, Ron Wolfson explains there is only one reason that we stay: relationships.

In his book, Relational Judaism, Wolfson offers the case study of Central Synagogue member named Jill. Jill was not active in temple life as a child. When given the choice of becoming a Bat Mitzvah or skiing every weekend, she chose skiing. She did not have complete Jewish education as a child. But when she married her husband and had children, she became interested in temple life. To her surprise, she found services to be engaging. Immediately she felt as if both the clergy and the entire community cared about her—and really wanted to know her family. Her family began to meet others at cocktail parties in congregant homes. “my husband and I believe that you can’t really know who you are and where you’re going unless you know where you come from,” she explains. “I think that our experience at Central Synagogue has helped us to know where we are and has made us better parents, better friends and better people… really. And my kids feel connected there, too. They really enjoy it. We have Shabbat dinners with other families. We light candles together. We talk about things as a family that I don’t think we would ever have talked about if not for [Temple]. This is the value-added of a great synagogue.”

 Jill came to temple for the programs and the services. She stayed for the relationships.

Ron Wolfson reflects on his Jewish upbringing. “I learned to love being Jewish through relationships. My Jewish self was shaped by my relationships with family, with friends, with Jewish texts and ritual, with synagogue and community, with Jewish peoplehood, with Israel, with social justice work and with God. These relationships form the beating heart of my Jewish soul.”

Okay, you may be thinking. But what do I really get out of temple? What can I? I have friends outside of temple. I can learn about Judaism from books delivered to my door. I can do social justice work in the community. I can pray or meditate or connect to my spiritual size on my own. I can celebrate holidays outside of temple. And you’d be right. So why do we need Jewish community?

In the summer of 2009, my friend Mara and I met at a bar. There we expressed what we had been feeling for some time. We loved Astoria, Queens, where we lived. There was no shortage of culture—from a wide array of cuisine to parades to fairs to museum exhibits and beyond. We had some friends in the area, but no matter how much we loved it, it still was not home.

Both rabbinical students, we didn’t need another place to study or even pray—we had both in the communities we served as well as our seminary. We didn’t need a place to celebrate holidays—we both had family nearby. But we profoundly felt a loss. Without a Jewish community, we could never fully feel at home.

We craved what we could not find outside of Jewish community—what Jill had been searching for—“the opportunity to be in face-to-face meaningful relationships with Jews and Judaism in a relational community that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.”[1]

God called to Abraham, and Abraham said “Hineini. Here I am”

Our commentators ask why Abraham was so eager and willing to say “Hineini,” again and again, not knowing the path God had for him. Why was he willing to pick up everything he ever knew to follow God to the land to a strange land? Why would he allow God to test him time and time again? Perhaps he too was in search of Jewish community—of relationship with God, with himself, with family and friends, and with the world. God called to him, and he knew he needed to heed God’s call.

Mara and I decided we would form our own minyan—a group that any Jews in their 20s and 30s could join. We would start by having a monthly Shabbat potluck in our homes. At first the idea was frightening. In this day and age was I really going to advertise locally and invite complete strangers into my house to eat and pray? Was I out of my mind?

Was Abraham out of his mind to leave his home? Wasn’t he scared or hesitant to go on God’s missions? Was Jill out of her mind to step foot into temple for the first time?  Wasn’t she scared to step foot into a new community?

Yes, absolutely. It is not easy to say “Hineini.” It is not easy to step foot in the door.

The first month we held Shabbat services and potluck, exactly four people showed up: Mara and I and our husbands. The second month we tried again. A few more people bravely came into Mara’s home. Mara bravely hosted. Our guests were people we had never before met—and likely never would have met if we didn’t start this group. But we talked and laughed and celebrated Shabbat well into the evening.

Each month our prayers became louder as more people joined the group, and past participants came back. Before we knew it, we had more people than we could comfortably fit into our homes. Each time we opened our house we were nervous, but as people came we could feel Shabbat ascending. We were finding everything we had been searching for. Slowly the group was expanding to 20 people, 30, 50, 100, 200… We began not only eating and praying together, but volunteering together, celebrating life’s joys and being there for one another at times of challenge. We became good friends, inspiring one another to live more meaningful lives, and helping one another to connect with God and the Jewish community in ways we had not imagined.

One day a friend told me, “You know, I was about to leave Astoria before I found this group. Now I couldn’t imagine leaving. I finally found my home.”

This is what it can mean to be part of a Jewish community.

***

I asked congregants why they are members of Temple Emanu-El. This is what they told me:

“I am a member… to be able to connect and exchange ideas with other Jews, to be part of something I cherish, [and] to feel spiritually connected…”

“I am a member… because I want to be part of a Jewish community and instill Jewish values and traditions in my children.”

I am a member… because my belief and faith in God needed direction—so I could learn how to be Jewish as an adult.

I am a member because “Being involved in the temple has taught be many things…how to work together towards causes of common interest, how to give and listen, how to become a good person, and [how to develop] a relationship to God.”

Each person in their own way is seeking relationship—with themselves, loved ones, the Jewish community and with God. Each one is searching, in some way to find their home.[2]

Here in Temple Emanu-El, many of us do feel at home. We are engaged in a variety of programs, services, and events. The conversations we attend in Torah study inspire us throughout our week. We feel as though the community truly cares about us—that people are there for us at times of joy and celebration and times of struggle. We feel that temple is our extended family.

But many of us are still searching, still missing something. We don’t yet feel at home—or we don’t feel at home anymore. We don’t feel inspired, or connected—yet.

Our Torah teaches that when the Jewish community received the 10 Commandments, everyone in the community was present—young and old, Jews and people of other faiths and background. We all heard the words of God, together.

Temple Emanu-El does not belong to a select few. It belongs to all of us. And until each and every one of us feels at home, cared for, that we have a second family—we have work to do.

We have begun this work already.

Each week people of all ages, and backgrounds come together for Torah study. Struggling to apply the words of tradition to our lives, we share parts of ourselves, and form a undeniable bond. Everyone is encouraged and welcome to attend.

Families with bnei mitzvah aged children meet once a month throughout the year to learn about the service, study, and reflect on their new milestone. Throughout the year, they form a supportive community.

Families gather for Tot Shabbat experiences, in which they play, pray, do art projects and eat with other young families. A tiny torah playgroup for families with children under age 3 meets regularly in congregant’s homes so that children can forge important friendships, and parents can connect in meaningful ways.

This year, there will be an adult Bnei Mitzvah class, where people of a variety of backgrounds can come together to explore Hebrew, better understand the Shabbat service, study Torah, and explore theology. The community of leaders who partake will end the year with a joint Bnei Mitzvah service in which we can all rejoice.

The Waldman lecture in October will jumpstart a congregational band, in which many people can take part.

Students in grades 8-12 will meet once a month to talk about Jewish issues that matter to them, hang out, and eat together—helping to foster more meaningful relationships.

This is a good start. But there is far more to do.

That is why the board met 2 months ago to discuss the future of Temple Emanu-El. In what areas are we excelling and in which are we falling short? We began to imagine what we would need to do to meet everyone where they are, allow everyone to feel connected. And those conversations are only beginning. This fall the temple will be inviting each and every one of you to house meetings in congregant homes. There I encourage you to voice what Temple has meant to you, and what it could mean, to dream together about turning our great congregation into a phenomenal one.

I know many people in this room fairly well. Some of you I consider friends. I know something about your past and your present, what matters to you—what keeps you up at night and what gets you out of bed in the morning. The conversations I have had with you—at times of good and times of sorrow, times of joy and times of challenge—I have found meaningful.

But there are too many people here I am sad to say I hardly know at all. I do not know what drives you to come here today. I do not know your passions, what matters to you.

So I make a pledge today: It is my goal to meet with every single member of this community—to strive to understand who you are, what you need from this community, and what I can do to transform Temple Emanu-El into your home, your family, your enrichment.

But it cannot only fall on me. We are a community. Look around the room. Who do you know? Who have you not yet been blessed to know? Why not say Hineini—I am here? Why not approach them, why not take that leap as Jill did? Or as Mara and I did, and connect with your neighbor?

Some of us do not have family and friends locally. Why not sign up to adopt a grandparent/a family/a friend—bringing congregants together that may not have otherwise had the opportunity. Even if we are surrounded by family, why not sign up?

Some of us are empty nesters, caring for sick family members, or retired. Some of us are artists, musicians, or poets. Why not form chavurah groups to get together with others, exploring your commonalities? Why not join Torah study? Or the adult bnei mitzvah class? The Tiny Torah playgroup, or Hebrew High?

It requires a leap. It required us to stand up and say “Hineini”—but isn’t it worth the risk?

As we march forth into 5774, we enter a tomorrow full of possibilities— where we each realize our potential to form not just a disparate Jewish community where some are members but few are involved—- but a community in which we all feel as though we have a family.

 A tomorrow in which we all say “Hineinu—Here we are”—“Hineini—Here I am.”


[1] Ron Wolfson Relational Judaism

[2] Eisen: “It’s no coincidence that this tradition of ours mandates relationships and has a God who invites us into relationship. Relationships build communities. There is no doubt that it is the heart of the matter”

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Our Covenant with Israel

Israel is not an easy topic of discussion.

Perhaps we are weary of showing allegiance to Israel when she acts in ways that are not consistent with our sensibilities. Perhaps, as 21st century American Jews, we feel alienated from Israel; she does not play into our lives in a meaningful way. Or perhaps we feel such a profound allegiance to Israel that we feel it is our mission to defend Israel, to quiet critiques made against her in favor of her positive qualities.

As we embark upon the year 5774, I fervently believe that the time has come to engage in a meaningful dialogue of what Israel means for us today, and what it has the capacity to mean.

***

This is not a sermon about whether Israel has a right to exist. This is a sermon about what it means that Israel does exist.

In the Post-Holocaust world, Israel became a refuge for the Jewish people. Confronted all too often with hatred and anti-Semitism, this was a homeland that would gladly accept the homeless Jews of the world. It was a place that Jews could go when the world was stacked against us. It was a place filled with hope—a realized dream. No matter where we lived—no matter what happened—there were Jews working to transform Israel into a place we could call home. There was a place that would always be thrilled to welcome us. What could be more reassuring?

At the same time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, “a false Jewish story” was looming: “Jews have been persecuted throughout the ages. They were in Christian Europe from the eleventh to the twentieth century. They are now in the predominantly Muslim Middle East. To be a Jew is to be hated and to defy that hate….”[1]

As Emil Fackenheim wrote, “Jews are commanded to stay Jewish in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory.”[2] We must defend Israel in order to ensure we can continue to exist when the world rises against us.

“[This] isn’t the Jewish story,” Sacks argues. “The facts may be true, but the narrative is wrong.” It leads us to believe that we are victims, that we must distrust the world. No, he explains. The Jewish story “is not about Jews destined to live alone, at best misunderstood, at worse the perennial target of hate. This way of looking at the world is “understandable given the terrible history of the twentieth century, but [it is] misplaced given the circumstances of the twenty-first.” [3]

It’s true. In the twenty-first century, there is anti-Semitism in the world. There are Jews in need of a homeland in which they can find refuge. But for me, an American Jew who has been fortunate to encounter almost no Anti-Semitism in my life, for many of us living a life of relative acceptance, Israel has to be more than a land born out of fear, more than “crisis management.”

Israel has so much more to offer.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik distinguished between Brit Goral– a covenant of fate—from Brit Ye’ud – a covenant of destiny. The covenant of fate came from of the experience of Egyptian bondage, when the people felt alone in the world. The covenant of destiny—was far more important to Judaism. It came from revelation at Sinai, when the people felt united in a sacred purpose filled with pride, hope and faith. Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that Israel provided the Jewish people an opportunity to shape our collective future, instead of our past.[4] He reminded us that faith is one of the most important Jewish values—one that was alive in Israel’s past, and is certainly her present and future.

According to Rabbi Sacks, faith is the true Jewish story—

a faith so strong that it gave survivors the hope and strength to rebuild

a faith so strong that it has enabled the Jewish people to maintain a the only democratic country in the middle east

a faith so strong that through it we could be partners with God in creating an Israel “that would become a home for the divine presence.”—one based on some of Judaism’s most important values: “justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger, sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person without regard to color, culture or creed”[5]

 

I do not believe Israel is perfect, but there are many aspects of Israeli life that I love.

Israel became the only democracy in middle east, a country with more noble prizes than medals at the Olympics, with the highest ratio of university degrees to the population, a country that turned desolate desert into a developed—the only country in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees—pretty astounding considering Israel is mostly desert!

Israel is consistently one of the first responders to crises from Haiti to Sudan to Turkey to Kenya to Japan. It has, in its short 65 year history absorbed immigrants from over 100 countries, who speaking over 80 languages.

Israel elected the world’s second female leader in modern times—when Golda Meir became Prime Minister in 1969. It has more museums and scientific papers per capita than ANY other country.

Israel is cutting edge in technology—creating everything from voicemail to instant messaging to cell phones to the windows operating system to the first ingestible camera for medical exams, with more profound medical advances than I can count.

A country producing an astounding quantity of books, from religious to novels to scholarly works to poetry.

In his article “Why I am a Zionist,” Canadian born Gil Troy argued that it is time to reaffirm our faith and pride in Israel, marveling at her accomplishments. No country is perfect, but these are only some of the ways that Israel brings honor to the Jewish people. Troy says that he is a Zionist because he is an idealist—believing that if Israel could overcome nearly impossible odds to become a strong vibrant nation, it can also one day create true peace with its neighbors, because Israel is a land that consistently realizes the words of Theodore Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.””[6]

Okay, you may be thinking. So Israel has done some pretty remarkable things, but it has also acted in ways that may upset us. It’s been unfair to Palestinians, and to Bedouins. Its built settlements, even while releasing terrorist prisoners in a gesture towards peace.

And on top of that, as liberal Jews, we do not always have an equal voice in Israel. Some of us may struggle to be accepted there as the Jews we are. Liberal rabbis in Israel have not received government funding that is handed over to orthodox rabbis with ease. Each month, there is a gathering of women from every movement who meet at the Kotel—the western wall—to pray. The government has responded by arresting women time and time again for “disturbing the peace,” by reading a Torah, wearing a Tallit, or singing loudly enough that men could hear them. Why? Because these actions offended the orthodox Jews also praying at the wall. This degrading of liberal Judaism is a problem.[7]

These are all problems.

But does criticizing Israel—or disagreeing with some of its policies make me anti-Zionist, anti-Israel?

When Rabbi Soloveitchik spoke of the Covenant of Destiny—he chose his words carefully. He did not call it a contract, but a brit—a covenant. A contract is an agreement by two parties based on common interest. The parties enter into the agreement in order to get what they would like out of it. If the contract ceases to be beneficial to one of the parties, it may come to an end. A covenant is different. It is not based on mutual benefit, but relationship. It binds the parties in good times as well as bad because it is based on loyalty, fidelity, of love and respect.

When a loved one does something that upsets us, it is often healthy to clear the air, to voice our feelings and concerns. Why? Out of commitment for our relationship. If we voice the concerns, we may be able to correct the problem. It fosters the process at the very core of the High Holy Day season: teshuvah – repentance. When done from a place of covenant, respect and commitment, voicing concerns can be an act of love.

Our concerns and actions as the liberal Jewish community have fostered real change. Women of the Wall have been offered a place to pray as they would like. The location is not ideal, but it is a start. There have been strides in the Knesset towards securing funds for liberal rabbis to do much needed holy work throughout Israel. Even some conversion laws have been resolved favorably. We have a long way to go, but it is clear that when we raise our voices from a place of love—when we donate to, and volunteer for organizations such as the Israeli Religious Action Center and Women of the Wall we can make a profound difference for liberal Jews within the land of Israel and in the world entire.

After all, Israel is the Jewish state for all Jewish people and their loved ones. We are all part of the same people, and only together can we strengthen and enrich the land even further. Only together can we work to transform a remarkable country into a remarkable country we can wholeheartedly call home.

Israel is not perfect. No country ever has been, nor will it ever be. That is not an excuse for mistakes, but it is reality.

We as Jewish community have a covenant with the land of Israel—because we are unquestionably connected to Jews throughout the world.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai teaches that the Jewish people are like one body with one soul. “When one sins, all are punished.”[8] He tells the story of a man in a boat who began to bore a hole under his seat. When his fellow passengers protested, he responded, “What concern is it of yours? I am making a hole under my sear, not yours,’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will down.’[9]

The actions of our fellow Jews reflect on us—and our actions reflect on fellow Jews.

We share a covenant with Israel and Jews throughout the world— one that, like any worthwhile relationship, may at times give us great pride, and at others some frustration.

But Israel remains our country, a country to which we are inextricably linked, a country overflowing with blessings.

Israel is a country that has overcome more obstacles than most ever thought possible—from winning battles despite unbelievable odds, including the Yom Kippur war in 1973—to creating a country with achievements so remarkable that we can kvell like proud grandparents for hours and hours.

As first Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion said, “In Israel, to be a realist you have to believe in miracles.”

There is reason to believe, that with dedication and hard work, we can help Israel to overcome its challenges and persuade us to believe in miracles once again.


[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Future Tense

[2] Emil Fackenheim The Jewish Return to History, New York, Schocken, 1978, p 19-24.

[3] Future Tense

[4] See Soloveitchik’s “Kol Dodi Dofek—Listen, My Beloved Knocks”

[5] Future Tense

[6] Gil Troy “Why I am a Zionist” The Montreal Gazette, 26 April 2001-B3, as seen at http://www.giltroy.com/GilTroy/WhyIamaZionist.htm Why I am a Zionist

[7] According to Rabbi Rachel Sabbath Beit-Halachmi “Jewish destiny and the Women of the Wall,” April 11, 2013, 11:51am, ehttp://blogs.timesofisrael.com/jewish-destiny-and-the-women-of-the-wall/ ,the liberation of the Kotel in 1967 symbolized finally coming home to Jerusalem as a free people. Jewish women want to be fully free and at home too. The Kotel symbolizes for World Jewry the collective identification with Jerusalem of Jews throughout the world. It does not and cannot belong to the Orthodox alone, because it belongs to the Jewish people. The paratroopers of 1967 liberated it for the whole Jewish people – as they continue to declare publicly – not just for the Orthodox.

[8] Mekhilta de Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai to Exodus 19:6

[9] Leviticus Rabbah 4:6

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Immigration Reform

This afternoon I was honored to speak at an event on immigration reform put together by Nuns on the Bus. There immigrants, clergy, and advocates of reform spoke to an interfaith audience. These are the words I delivered:

I am an immigrant.

Sure, I was born in the US. My parents were born in the US. Even my grandparents were born in the US, and my grandfathers were both Army vets.

Yet, I am an immigrant.

Why? Because we are all immigrants. Almost all of us have ancestors who came to the land of America in search of something—be it opportunity, equality, or to run from persecution.

I am an immigrant, just like my ancestors were immigrants—from Abraham who left his home in search of his Promised Land, to my great-grandparents who came to America in search of opportunity and a land without persecution.

And I wonder if I would be here today if America hadn’t taken them in. I wonder if my family, like so many others, would have been murdered in the Holocaust. Although many Jews were not so lucky, I was fortunate in that my ancestors were allowed into the US.

Today the US turns away millions of people a year—people like us, in search of opportunity, in search of equality, refuge, a better life. People who are already working here as teachers and clergy and housekeepers and nannies.

And when some of them are denied access to legal immigration, they become undocumented workers—living in fear of deportation, without the same rights to basic labor laws such as minimum wage or safe working conditions. If they are injured on the job, or denied their rightful wages they have little if any recourse.

These are our brothers, our sisters. These are people who live next door, who work to make America a better place to live, who pay taxes and contribute to society. Or who are desperately trying to pull themselves up by their boot straps when everything around them is pulling them down.

Dare we be like Cain who said “I am not my brothers keeper?” Dare we turn a blind eye while our brother is suffering?

Or will we follow the words of Leviticus: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers….”

The words of Emma Lazarus are a moment of pride for the United States, words forever written on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

But I leave you with a question, posed by my colleague, Rabbi Esther Lederman, “What would the statue of liberty say today?”

We are our brothers’ keepers. That is why we need comprehensive immigration reform today.

Please speak up for your brothers by writing to Congressman Hanna here.

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Tu B’Av: A Jewish Expression of love

Grab a bouquet of flowers, and a bottle of wine. Throughout Israel couples are dancing, giving each other small gifts and dedicating love songs on the radio. This Sunday night, July 21, we usher in a Jewish holiday of love, Tu B’av.

Well before the time of Valentine’s Day, Tu B’av was a holiday in which women dressed in borrowed white dresses danced through the vineyards. Young men followed in hopes of finding a bride. Love was certainly in the air. Although the idea of men venturing out to capture a young bride is rather outdated, Tu B’av carried a message that is anything but.

“There never were in Israel greater days of joy,” explained Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, “than the Tu B’Av and the Day of Atonement.”

On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, we partake in self-reflection and honest soul searching, in hopes that we can learn from past mistakes and become the people we wish to be. On Tu B’av, we reflect on our relationships with our significant others, and consider ways to strengthen them. We search within ourselves, and reflect on past relationships, to consider what qualities our ideal mates should have.

ImageIn temple times, the Israelite women borrowed garments they wore on this day, in order to place all of the women on a level playing field. Even those who could not afford to own a white dress would be able to wear one and participate. According to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, these women danced in the vineyards exclaiming, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set them on good family. Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain. But a woman that fears God, she will be praised.”

Even in Temple times people needed to be reminded that they should pick a spouse based on far more than looks and social status. And yet, like today, there had been barriers to finding true love.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites entered the Land of Israel on Tu B’Av. When they did “tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle with each other” (Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit 30b). In other words, whereas before they entered the Promised Land, the Israelites may have been expected to marry within their tribe, now they were permitted to marry Jews of other tribes. Social status should no longer get in the way of marriage.

In modern times, social status may not deter marriages in the way it once did, but we have other barriers to recognizing true love. Same sex couples in many parts of the world are forced to keep their love as a secret; marriage is out of the question. In 38 states, same sex couples are not permitted to get married. Homosexuality is regarded by many as “immoral” or “a disease.”

Despite these setbacks, campaigns for marriage equality have become increasingly successful. This year alone, gay marriage was legalized in France, Uraguay, New Zealand, and now the UK. Homosexual couples can get married in 12 states in the US, and the recent overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) means that couples married and living within those 12 states can enjoy the same federal benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. Each of these decisions is a celebration of love– a realization the the definition of marriage as a heterosexual institution is an outdated boundary that is slowly crumbling. Just as the Israelites were afforded the right to marry a mate on the basis of character rather than status or looks, it is my prayer that one day couples will be able to marry based on love, rather than sexual orientation.

This Tu B’av let us celebrate the love all around us, recognizing that when couples marry for the right reasons, the institution of marriage becomes that much stronger.

 

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