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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
United States

(574) 234-8584

Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.

Sermons

Shabbat Mishpatim - How to Make Sense of Slavery in the Torah

Steve Lotter

I have been reading Eric Foner’s comprehensive history of the Reconstruction period in American history.  What led me to this was a biography of Ulysses S Grant and his frustrations as President to enact the promise of Reconstruction.  Soon after the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction permitted the same hierarchical power structure to remain in place from before the war.

This was partially due to entrenched racism and partially due to economics. 

The end of the Civil War and the Emancipation of black slaves led to an economic challenge:  How to create a new economy with free persons labor?  Many former slaves on principle refused to return to plantation work.  They wanted their own piece of land and to work for themselves.  But they sought to be subsistence farmers, living off their own land.  But the economy of the South, which was devastated after the war, had depended on cash crops like cotton and tobacco.  Northern textile mills depended on the continued development of the cotton crop as much as Southerners did.  What ensued over the next decades were active efforts to reinstate the older power structure in a way to replace the now formally illegal system of slavery.   Fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the life of African Americans was still constrained and dreadful, even in the North where race riots occurred repeatedly. 

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Shabbat Yitro - The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants?

Steve Lotter

Woody Allen is in the news again and not because he is making movies worth watching.  Charges of child molestation by his adopted daughter have arisen again in the wake of the MeToo movement.  In the wake of the original charges over 25 years ago, he was interviewed by Walter Isaacson then of Time magazine.  The charges were made in the midst of a custody battle between Allen and his former lover Mia Farrow after Allen had begun an affair with Soon Yi Previn, one of Farrows adopted children before she began her relationship with Allen.  In the interview, Isaacson asks, Even though Soon Yi was not your adopted daughter, did you not feel that it would be disruptive for your biological son and your adopted children who saw Soon Yi as a sister, for their dad to date their sister?

To which Allen uttered the famous line paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, “The Heart wants what it wants.  It isn’t logical”.

The heart may want what it wants but how does desiring something justify it?  Isn’t desiring something that is not yours in itself a transgression of the last of the 10 commandments? Thou shalt not covet?

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Shabbat Beshallach - The Amalek Within Us

Steve Lotter

The Torah does not dwell too long on the great moment of liberation, the miraculous experience of the Exodus.  As soon as the people have sung their song of deliverance we read how they are ready to go back to Egypt because they have no food, no water and they are attacked by cruel Amalekites.

However victory over the Amalekites galvanizes them.  There is nothing like pulling together to fight a common enemy that helps a group create a sense of cohesion and purpose. 

After the victory however we note that there is something different about this enemy.  The Lord said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua:   I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven”! …The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the generations.”   (Ex;17;14-16)  Hundreds of years of enslavement to the Egyptians and we have no recorded statement that Israel must be at war with the Egyptians forever.  In fact just the opposite we are told not to abhor an Egyptian for we were strangers in their land! (Deut. 23:8) But the Amalekites we must fight forever and eradicate. Why?

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Shabbat Bo - The Dreamers and Us

Steve Lotter

In this morning’s reading there is one verse that I have always found curious.  

And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.

The word that the JPS translation renders as “stripped” - VaYinatzlu – comes from a meaning of ‘delivering from’ or ‘removing from’ according the Biblical Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. So, in its causative form, it can mean delivering from enemies – that is ‘to save’. Or, it can mean to take away, or plunder. Most  commentaries agree that, in this case, the meaning of the verse “Vayinatzlu et Mitzrayim” is that as the Israelites leave, they take spoil of the Egyptians, they plunder, or as Rashi explains, “they emptied them out”. 

In the kind of movies that I enjoy, where the bad guys are evil, so evil that the viewer wishes the most horrific punishment and suffering on them and is rewarded with such defeat over evil - think Lord of the Rings where the Gollum ends up melting in the river of fire -  a scene in which after generations of slavery the Jews get revenge by cleaning out the Egyptians must have been very satisfying, especially if you were a Jew living in a climate of oppression close to slavery in medieval Europe.

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Shabbat VaAyreh - Heschel and King: Their Common Theology

Steve Lotter

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yahrtzeit is the 18th of Tevet and this year fell on January 5th.  This weekend is the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday.  In between we read the first two parashiyot of Exodus.  The confluence of these events encourages us to reflect on the legacy of these two great spiritual giants and their very special relationship.

Each of these men held the other in greatest esteem, both saw in the other the role of the Biblical prophet declaiming God’s love and demands to his human creations.

“Where does God dwell in America today?” asked Heschel before introducing King at the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention in 1968. “... Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”

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Acting with compassion and kindness

Steve Lotter

In November, Lizzie and I and about 30 members of the Jewish community were guests at the home of Barbara and Dave Lerman at a communal dinner for members of the Muslim and Jewish communities. About 30 members of the Islamic Society of Michiana were invited as well. The dinner was the initiative of Bob Feferman our Community Relations Council and Haidar Alkeladar of the Iraqi Refugee community. At the dinner, before I led the motzi, I mentioned how Abraham, who is the father of both the Jewish and Islamic peoples, was noted for his quality of compassion and kindness. When he welcomed the three visitors into his home and placed hospitality as one of the outstanding acts of gemilut Hasadim, he was not aware that the result of his and Sarah’s efforts at hospitality and kindness would be a promise of a child, Yitzhak who would be born a year later. I concluded my remarks saying that when we break bread together, we break down barriers, and when acting with kindness toward others, productive and creative results occur.

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Shabbat VaYagish - Joseph: Savior or Exploiter of the Poor?

Steve Lotter

Sometimes the news events in a given week and the content of the weekly Torah portion are so closely linked that one wonders if it is a coincidence or the hidden hand of the Divine. That is, God offering rabbis a gift in order to write a last minute Davar Torah.

This week the Congress passed the most regressive tax reform package in US history.  It rewards corporations, many of which are already awash in cash, and the financial elite of this nation, who have seen their stock portfolios soar as the market’s bull run has continued unabated, with huge tax cuts.  Those who do not earn a wage but have the wherewithal to allow their money make money for them, benefit far more than those who work for a salary.  The middle class and the poor receive small and temporary relief, if they receive relief at all.  If you live in a high tax state, New York, or like my brother in Chicago,  this plan may raise a person’s taxes.   And to make these limited benefits even possible, Congress, led by the fiscal conservatives, have blown up our deficit by a trillion and a half dollars.  Some leaders behind this tax reform have been quite open that the end game of this is to starve the government so that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid will have to be scrapped or privatized because the government will be broke.

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Shabbat Vayigash - Joseph: Savior or Exploiter of the Poor?

Steve Lotter

Sometimes the news events in a given week and the content of the weekly Torah portion are so closely linked that one wonders if it is a coincidence or the hidden hand of the Divine. That is, God offering rabbis a gift in order to write a last minute Davar Torah.

This week the Congress passed the most regressive tax reform package in US history.  It rewards corporations, many of which are already awash in cash, and the financial elite of this nation, who have seen their stock portfolios soar as the market’s bull run has continued unabated, with huge tax cuts.  Those who do not earn a wage but have the wherewithal to allow their money make money for them, benefit far more than those who work for a salary.  The middle class and the poor receive small and temporary relief, if they receive relief at all.  If you live in a high tax state, New York, or like my brother in Chicago,  this plan may raise a person’s taxes.   And to make these limited benefits even possible, Congress, led by the fiscal conservatives, have blown up our deficit by a trillion and a half dollars.  Some leaders behind this tax reform have been quite open that the end game of this is to starve the government so that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid will have to be scrapped or privatized because the government will be broke.

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Shabbat Miketz - Hanukkah: Illuminating our Hopes

Steve Lotter

This Shabbat, Shabbat Miketz almost always falls during Hanukah and thus every year the Hanukkah story and the Joseph story become linked.  And while the details are very different, in our tradition it is Purim and the story of Esther which is seen as a kind of parallel to the Joseph story, there is a natural connection from the miracle aspects of both stories and the unexpected reversal of fortune in each tale.

In the Joseph story, Joseph is hated by his brothers, conspired against, sent into slavery and despite doing the right thing, keeps getting beaten down until his dream interpretive skills are appreciated by the Pharaoh.  In the Hanukkah story, the Jewish people are oppressed by a greater empire, forced to abandon their deepest religious practices until a small military force arouses the people to fight back and against all odds defeat the greater power.  And yet the legend tells us even then they seemed to be stymied in their efforts to consecrate the Holy Temple until a miracle occurs that affords them the time to prepare consecrated oil for the Temple menorah and resume the sacred rituals.

Both tales tell of the victory of light over darkness, in the metaphorical sense and in the case of Hanukkah, in a very literal sense as well.

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Sharing in the Sweetness of Giving

Steve Lotter

In numerous rabbinic midrashim we are told that the Messiah dwells among the beggars. This image is used as a literary device by the great Hebrew writer Shai Agnon in his short story ‘The Kerchief’. Agnon opens by mentioning the rabbinic tales of the Messiah as a leprous beggar sitting outside Jerusalem and how he wished to be the one who could save the Messiah by bandaging his sores. His father, an itinerant peddlar, returned from one trip with a beautiful kerchief for his mother. His mother wore it every Shabbat and festivals to cover her hair. On his bar mitzvah she gave it to him to keep his neck warm. On his way home from the synagogue, filled with joy at having become obligated to observe the mitzvot he runs into a beggar who is despised by the townspeople because of his filthy and sickly look. But the beggar is sitting on a heap of stones, changing the bandages of his sores.

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Sukkot: Beauty in G-d's World

Steve Lotter

This summer after we dropped off Hillel at school in Greensboro NC, Lizzie and I took a short vacation in Asheville NC.  Asheville is a funky little city, with at least three wonderful vegan restaurants, great music and absolutely beautiful forest.  It is also the home of the largest private home in the United States.  That would be the Biltmore estate, built over the course of six years from 1889-1895 by the grandson of the Vanderbilt empire, at the time one of the richest families in the country. In order to construct this monstrous mansion, the estate had its own brick factory, woodworking shop and a three-mile railway spur for transporting materials to the site.

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Yom Kippur: Who Are We Really?

Steve Lotter

Five years ago, Alice Collins Plebuch made a decision that would alter her future — or really, her past.

She sent away for a “just-for-fun DNA test.” When the tube arrived, she spit and spit until she filled it up to the line, and then sent it off in the mail. She wanted to know what she was made of.

Plebuch, now 69, already had a rough idea of what she would find. Her parents, both deceased, were Irish American Catholics who raised her and her six siblings with church Sundays and ethnic pride. But Plebuch wanted to know more about her dad’s side of the family. The son of Irish immigrants, Jim Collins had been raised in an orphanage from a young age, and his extended family tree was murky.

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Kol Nidre: Creating Our Own World to Come

Steve Lotter

On August 8 this year 5 weddings took place in a small village in Uganda which were attended by over 1500 people.  The event gathered politicians from the local council, government officials, and family and friends of all five couples who arrived from all over the country.  What was so special about this wedding that so many distinguished visitors came?  It was the first Jewish weddings in Uganda in anyone’s memory.

The Jewish community of Uganda is called the Abuyudaya.  They grew as a break away movement from Christianity that missionaries brought to Uganda.  In the early 20th century, their leaders’ reading of the Bible led them to believe that the Hebrew Testament was correct.  Within a hundred years, rabbis from the Conservative movement oversaw a formal conversion of the community and one of their members Gershom Sizomu was ordained from the Ziegler Rabbinical School in LA.  Another member of the Abuyudaya Shadrach Mugoya Levi is studying for the rabbinate at the Aleph Institute.  It was his wedding that instigated the grand celebration.

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Shabbat Shuvah Haazinu - What We Need to Forget

Steve Lotter

Every time I teach a class or organize a program or a discussion I keep all the copies of the materials and notes that I used.  I file them away somewhere because I am afraid that I will forget the lessons and insights that I had and I might just need them another day.  I then forget where I filed the materials.  And five, ten years go by, I have files and files all over the office, in cabinets behind the bima.  And I locate the files and say to myself, “What was this for?  Why did I keep this?”  So my fears of forgetting beget more forgetting.

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Rosh HaShanah Day 1: The Value of Prayer

Steve Lotter

The old wooden yeshiva building in the Polish shtetl had caught on fire. Students and rabbanim were running around like crazy trying to find water to put it out. There was total chaos as the afternoon wore on. Finally the Rosh Yeshiva, spying people running here and there, and the fire continuing to burn, shouted, Stop! Everyone froze. Don’t just do something! Davven Minha!

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Pouring New Meaning into Old Prayers

Steve Lotter

Rabbi Michael Friedland

As we begin our preparation for the Yamim Noraim it is worth taking a moment to consider our prayerbook, a book we will be spending quite a bit of time with during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The siddur as a whole is truly an intricate, well-constructed edifice in which each component leads to the next.

One example is the Shema where Sages tell us the order of the three paragraphs is essential. The first paragraph proclaims the Oneness of God and that God is the exclusive focus of our devotion. Paragraph two develops the idea of the importance of mitzvot. And the last paragraph speaks of one mitzvah, the tzitzit which remind us to do all the other mitzvot as well as the paradigmatic moment of redemption, God’s role in the Exodus from Egypt.

But what do we do with a prayer when we no longer believe in its theological underpinnings? Do we jettison it, do we change it, do we change ourselves- the prayer is correct my theology is skewed? The second paragraph of the Shema, ‘V'haya Im Shamoa’, besides emphasizing the role of mitzvot in Judaism, teaches a conventional theology accepted by the Bible and our Rabbinic ancestors but troubling for many moderns. The claim of the paragraph is that if we obey God's commandments, God will "grant the rain for your land in season...You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil...and thus you shall eat your fill.” If we don't obey, God "will shut up the sky so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you".

This view assumes that God controls all of history and nature, which together form an integrated panorama. Therefore, God could and would use the natural processes to reward or punish human beings for their behavior.

But many of us find these views difficult to swallow at best, repugnant at worst. Based on our scientific knowledge of the atmosphere we have difficulty believing that the presence or absence of rain indicates Divine favor. The rabbis were also sensitive to this and spoke of the world pursuing its natural coarse. Nature seems totally oblivious to good and evil. Biology is not morality. That is, if a natural disaster hits or someone gets sick we do not look for the cause in the city’s or person's behavior.

One can hold or reject such a theology. But for the worshipper when one has to pray a prayer that promotes a religious theology that one does not accept, what does one do?

The notion of reward and punishment was so dubious to early American Reform Jews that they removed this paragraph from their prayer books. The Reconstructionist movement also dropped it from its prayer books. Mordecai Kaplan their founder and editor of their prayerbook, stated that he could not believe that “the process of meteorology is dependent on man's moral behavior". Clearly for these movements theological integrity was more important than tradition. They could not pray what they did not believe.

But lo and behold in the 1989 edition of the Reconstructionist prayer book the second paragraph of the Shema is back in! What happened to affect its return? Did the Reconstructionist get frum? No rather times change and today there is a new ecological consciousness. We are aware of the relationship between our deeds and the fate of the earth and its resources. It was no longer theologically unthinkable to believe that if we continued to abuse our earth, in effect to disobey God's commandments which demand that we as guests on this planet take care of our Host's earth, rain will not fall in its proper season, or the rain that comes will be polluted. Ecology is now a moral issue and this passage acquired new relevance.

Just as modern interpreters of Shakespeare do not erase his words because they come out of a social and cultural milieu different from ours but rather place them into different contexts and draw out new insights by changing the historical period of the drama or the ethnic makeup of the characters, so too we can find inexhaustible meaning in the rabbis’ arrangement of how we should speak to God.

For our ancestors living in the land of Israel rain was a great need and a prominent symbol of human dependency on God. A theology that suggests that God responds to human action seeks a God that is just and concerned. This God is not the God of the deists who believed God created the world and let it run according to its own laws. He is not the capricious god of Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.’

This does not mean that we can readily defend such a Biblical theology in light of experience. But it is an idea we cannot live without. For human life to have meaning our actions must count and that is what this paragraph teaches us.

Another expression of our God and our tradition of what a powerful God means is located in the second blessing of the Amidah. In the Gevurot blessing we acknowledge that God is the most powerful force in the Universe, which is why we come to God to make petition. But the imagery offered as examples of Divine power are not blowing enemies to smithereens or crushing those who disobey. The examples are upholding the fallen and healing the sick, freeing the captive and bringing life to that which is lifeless. This concept is found in Deuteronomy: For the Lord, your God, is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This is a lesson we need not only learn but also promote and teach to our leaders. True power is not bombast, it’s not cruelty and intimidation. Real power is the power that heals and integrates the outcast and weak.

Every day our liturgy provides us with lessons about what the basic beliefs our tradition wishes to instill within us. Even when it seems that the message is no longer in keeping with the times, the wisdom of our sages perseveres and informs us that even if today these words may not make sense to us tomorrow they might. The test of religious truths is that they withstand the vicissitudes of history. Our tradition wants us to become more sensitive, empathic and kind individuals. Our daily prayers assist us in that direction.

Shabbat Ekev - Our Siddur: a well-constructed edifice

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, August 12, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland

We Jews are liturgical packrats. We like to hold on to lots of prayers and over time they become included in our siddur and it is hard to remove them.  Like the prayers that begin with Yekum Purkan after the Torah is read.  They are prayers on behalf of the scholars in the Jewish community, originally blessing the leaders of the Babylonian Jewish academies, and on behalf of the synagogue community. Well the time comes when the world’s religions decide that for the sake of world harmony they need to join together to create one world religion.  In order to do so everyone has to give up something distinctive to reach this universalist vision.  The Catholics say, OK, for the sake of the world we are willing to give up the idea of the trinity – Just one God, no son or Holy Ghost.  The audience nods their heads.  All acknowledge how difficult that change would be.  The Muslims step us and say, Ok, well we will give up the belief that Mohammed was the last and greatest prophet.  Again all are impressed with the commitment to world harmony.  Then they turn to the Jewish representative.  He thinks and says: OK we’ll give up the second Yekum Purkan after the Torah reading.

As many of our congregation have pleaded, does the service really have to be this long?  Can’t we cut some things out?  Usually my answer is like the Jewish representative to the World Faith initiative – Ok the second Yekum Purkan in the Torah service. (which our prayer book does!) People are frustrated with a prayerbook that sometimes seems like it was put together as layers on a geological formation, but the truth is that the siddur as a whole is truly an intricate, well constructed edifice in which each component leads to the next.

One example is the Shema where the Sages tell us the order of the three paragraphs is essential.  The first paragraph proclaims the Oneness of God and that God is the exclusive focus of our devotion.  Paragraph two develops the idea of the importance of mitzvot. And the last paragraph speaks of one mitzvah, the tzitzit which remind us to do all the other mitzvot as well as the paradigmatic moment of redemption, God’s role in the Exodus from Egypt.

But what do we do with a prayer when we no longer believe in its theological underpinnings?  Do we jettison it, do we change it, do we change ourselves- the prayer is correct my theology is skewed?  The second paragraph of the Shema, V'haya Im Shamoa ( If then you obey the commandments) found in this morning’s Torah reading besides emphasizing the role of mitzvot in Judaism,  teaches a conventional theology accepted by the Bible and our Rabbinic ancestors but troubling for many moderns.  The claim of the paragraph is that if we obey God's commandments, God will "grant the rain for your land in season...You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil...and thus you shall eat your fill.”  And if we don't obey, God "will shut up the sky so that there will be no rain an d the ground will not yield its produce ; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you".

This view assumes that God controls all of history and nature, which together form an integrated panorama.  Therefore God could and would use the natural processes to reward or punish human beings for their behavior. 

But many of us find these views difficult to swallow at best, repugnant at worst.  Based on our scientific knowledge of the atmosphere we have difficulty believing that the presence or absence of rain indicates Divine favor. The rabbis were also sensitive to this and spoke of the world pursuing its natural coarse.  They illustrated : A man steals a bag of wheatand then sowed it, by right it should refuse to grow - but the world pursues its own curse.  Nature seems totally oblivious to good and evil. Biology is not morality.  That is, if a natural disaster hits or someone gets sick we do not look for the cause in the city’s or person's behavior.

Holding such a view as one’s theology is fine.  But the question for the worshipper is when you have to pray a prayer that promotes a religious theology that you do not accept what do you do?

Thenotion of reward and punishment was so dubious to early American Reform Jews that they removed this paragraph from their prayer books. The Reconstructionist movement also dropped it from their prayer books.  Mordecai Kaplan their founder and editor of the prayerbook, stated that he could not believe that “the process of meteorology is dependent on man's moral behavior".  Clearly for these movements theological integrity was more important then tradition.  They could not pray what they did not believe.

But lo and behold in the 1989 edition of the Reconstructionist prayer book the second paragraph of the Shema is back in!. What happened to effect its return?  Did the Reconstructionist get frum?  No but times change and today there is a new ecological consciousness.  We are aware of the relationship between our deeds and the fate of the earth and its resources.  It was no longer theologically unthinkable to believe that if we continued to abuse our earth, in effect to disobey God's commandments which demand that we as guests on this planet take care of our Host's earth, rain will not fall in its proper season, or the rain that comes will be polluted. Ecology is now a moral issue and this passage acquired new relevance.

Just as modern interpreters of Shakespeare do not erase his words because they come out of a social and cultural milieu different from ours but rather place them into different contexts and draw out new insights by changing the historical period of the drama or the ethnic make up of the characters, so too we can find inexhaustible meaning in the rabbis’ arrangement of how we should speak to God.

For our ancestors living in the land of Israel rain was a great need and a prominent symbol of human dependency on God.  A theology that suggests that God responds to human action seeks a God that is just and concerned.  This God is not the God of the deists who believed God created the world and lets it run according to its own laws.   He is not the capricious god of Shakespeare’s King Lear:  As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport. 

This does not mean that we can readily defend God’s justice in the light of experience.  But it is an idea we cannot live without.  For human life to have meaning our actions must count and that is what this paragraph teaches us.

Another expression of our God and our tradition of what a powerful God means is located in the second blessing of the Amidah.  In the Gevurot blessing, which means power, we acknowledge that God is the most powerful force in the Universe that is why we come to God to make petition. But the examples offered as God’s power are not blowing enemies to smithereens or crushing those who disobey.  The examples are upholding the fallen and healing the sick, freeing the captive and bringing life to that which is lifeless.  This concept is also found in this week’s Torah portion: For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This is a lesson we need not only learn but also promote and teach to our leaders.  True power is not bombast, its not cruelty and intimidation.  Real power is the power that heals and integrates the outcast and weak. 

Every day our liturgy provides us with lessons about what the basic beliefs our tradition wishes to instill within us.  Even when it seems that the message is no longer in keeping with the times, the wisdom of our sages perseveres and informs us that even if today these words may not make sense to ustomorrow they might.  The test of religious truths is that they withstand the vicissitudes of history.  Our tradition wants us to become more sensitive, empathic and kind individuals.  Our daily prayers assist us in that direction.

Shabbat Hukkat - The Preciousness of Reconciliation

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 1, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

It’s been another wild week in the world, seems to be that way since the elections last year.  Let’s see, the Israeli government told American Jews, in the words of HaAretz commentator Chemi Shalev, ‘Drop Dead!’  And the alleged health care bill finally produced after weeks of secrecy by the Senate, told all Americans who are not billionaires and 20-somethings earning less than $75,000, ‘Drop dead!’.  Literally, that’s the health care plan.  If you are sick, just drop dead, it will save you a lot of trouble.  Because once you see your health cost after paying super high premiums and deductibles for minimal care, you’ll want to kill yourself. 

So with everyone telling everyone else to drop dead, let’s talk about two people, Miriam and Aaron,  who actually did drop dead in this week’s Torah portion.

But first some explanation.

What did the Israeli government do this week to anger liberal Jews around the world?  For several years, leaders of let’s call it, egalitarian Jewish movements and organizations worked with the government and the ultra Orthodox representatives who oversee the Kotel to find a compromise that would permit egalitarian prayer and women’s rights to read Torah, wear tefillin and tallit at the Kotel.  The Kotel is an important symbol for the Jewish world, it’s the closest one can get to the holiest site in the world, the Temple Mount.  A compromise was agreed to in which a space in a newly excavated area near the Kotel would allow for egalitarian prayer.  The compromise was controversial because in doing so, the liberal movements basically conceded to Orthodox oversight at the Wall.  Also some women who were not interested in egalitarian prayer but wished only for the opportunity to wear tallit and tefillin and read Torah in the women’s section were sidelined in the compromise. 

The conversion issue is even more complicated because in effect it does not change anything for the liberal movements.  Jews converted by recognized Jewish religious streams are still welcome in Israel under the law of return, and personal status issues are still separate, they are overseen by the ultra Orthodox rabbanut.  The only effective change is that Orthodox rabbis in Israel, who might belong to the modern or national religious camp can no longer oversee conversions in Israel through their private non-rabbanut batei din. 

Egalitarian prayer is permitted in other places in Israel, and no real change to conversion policies were made with this bill.  So why the anger and threats, such as Steve Nasatir, head of Chicago’s Jewish Federation saying any Israeli MK who votes for the conversion bill will not be welcome in Chicago?  Because as Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, “The reason is simple: (The Kotel) is a real-world symbol of attachment to the land of Israel, and the agreement’s surprise cancellation is a hard, clear stab in the back... agreements are sacred. If compromises can be canceled willy-nilly, why make the sacrifices required to reach them in the first place?” and also “The answer lies in … the sheer scale of the compromise and sacrifice American Jewish leaders believe they made 20 years ago in the Neeman compromise.

It’s one thing to believe you have agreed to an unfair but nevertheless negotiated compromise for the sake of Jewish unity. It’s quite another for the parliament of Israel, in a majority vote for a government-backed bill, to declare for the first time, even if only in a limited way, that the Haredi rabbinate now polices the most fundamental promise made by the State of Israel to the world’s Jews: the right of return, the assurance that Israel belongs to them too.”

So American Jews are being told by the Israeli government that your concerns are not as important as maintaining political support from the Ultra Orthodox, and Americans of all religions are being told by Congress that your health issues are not as important as the tax relief we want to offer to the richest people in the country.  In simplest terms the Senate’s health care plan is taking 700 hundred billion dollars from Medicaid, which assists impoverished and disabled Americans so that the government can afford to cut 700 billion dollars in taxes, which will benefit by far the wealthiest Americans who pay more taxes.  We are being told that premiums are going down under this plan.  But deductibles will go through the roof.  Even more insidiously the plans that insurance companies will be able to sell will not have essential benefits, will have the potential to limit life time benefits, may not cover pre-existing conditions.  People are going to be shocked when they get their hospital bills – I thought I was covered going to the hospital.  “You are covered going to the hospital.  Once you go in, then you’re on your own.  Not our problem!”

And those of you who are blessed to have employer based coverage, don’t think these changes won’t affect you.  Because once insurance companies can create policies for these exchanges that don’t cover essential benefits, they’ll change the employer covered plans as well or charge lots more money to cover those essential benefits.  Why did our plan go up so much?  The exchange plans are cheaper! Yes but they don’t cover as much.  It’s like the guy who complains to the fruit vendor, “the guy across the street is selling bananas for 20 cents a pound, how can you charge 50 cents?”  “So mister, go buy from the guy across the street.”  “But he’s out of bananas”.  “Well, mister, if I was out of bananas I’d charge 20 cents for bananas too.”

Okay so we were talking about people dropping dead. I’m not talking about the effect of Congress’ changes to healthcare any more.  In this week’s Torah portion, almost as a throw in, we are told that Miriam dies.  Miriam who sheltered and protected her baby brother Moses, Miriam who led the people in song after liberation, her death notice is underwhelming. “The Israelites arrived … at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.”  That’s it.  But what happens immediately after is understood by midrash as a result of her loss. “The community was without water.” Rashi states "From this we learn that all forty years, they had a well because of the merit of Miriam."  The bitter complaining by the people against Moses and Aaron that follows leads to the unusually harsh reaction by Moses and the bitter judgment on him and Aaron.  Moses loses his temper, smashes the rock, directs harsh invective against the people and is punished along with Aaron, that they will not be able to enter the Promised Land.

Aaron also dies in this week’s Torah portion.  His passing is described in terms of a transition of High Priestly power to his son Eliezer.  But also with a great poignancy that was missing in the notification of Miriam’s death: All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days." (Num.20:28-29)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes a tradition that Aaron was mourned even more than Moses: the text (Deuteronomy 34:8) describing Moses’ death says simply that "the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days," but here, the Torah is very clear that ALL the "house of Israel" mourned for Aaron.

In the case of the after effects of Miriam’s passing, a crisis, not all that different from other leadership crises under Moses’ leadership, leads to Moses losing his temper and causing a disastrous punishment to him and Aaron. In the case of Aaron’s passing, which occurs soon after Moses and his contentious reaction to the people regarding the water crisis, unmitigated grief and loss.

Rabbi Neal Loevinger suggests that it is precisely because of the last interactions with Aaron, that were so contentious and angry, that caused the extreme outpouring of grief.  “In this reading, the pain of the people comes not only from losing Aaron, but from losing their chance to reconcile with him and make their peace.”

I think that is a factor in Moses’ reaction to the people after the death of his sister as well.  The last recorded statement by Miriam was not a loving supportive comment to her brother but her attack on his wife and his prominence as God’s special prophet a few chapters back.  Did they reconcile?  Certainly Moses prayed for her welfare at that time but the prayer was terse and the text is silent about their interactions afterwards.  Ron Adelsman believed that it was a grieving Moses that lost his temper.  But perhaps Moses was grieving not only the loss of his older sister but the relationship that was not healed.  The pain of not having made good with the sister whom he loved but by whom he may still have felt betrayed, may have erased the filters that Moses assiduously prepared to shield his emotions from constant complaints and attacks on his leadership. 

In both cases, the pain of the people who loved Aaron the rodef shalom, the pursuer of peace and harmony in the community, but whose final relations with him were contentious, and the pain of Moses, losing his beloved sister who had hurt him badly before she died, it was unresolved feelings that accentuated the grief. 

The lesson for us in reading these poignant narratives of loss and grief comes from knowing that none of us know when our time is up.  Thus reconciliation with those we may have quarreled with is a constant spiritual imperative.  It is not only for the 10 days of repentance.  As Rabbi Loevinger succinctly puts it: It's quite simple, really: if you want to be at peace with your loved ones, you have to make peace with your loved ones! Rabbi Eliezar taught his students that one is only required to do teshuvah the day before one dies.  His students asked, But how does one know when that time will be?  That’s the point said Rabbi Eleazar.  Since one does not know, every day one should be doing teshuvah and working towards reconciliation.  It’s true for our members in Congress, it’s true for the Israeli government in their relations with the Diaspora communities.  It is true for us in our own lives. Such opportunities are precious beyond measure.

Shabbat Korah - Can words kill? 

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 24, 2017

Rabbi Michael Friedland

Can words kill?  According to the Talmud (BM 58b) “Whoever publicly shames his neighbor, it is as if he shed blood”.    On gossip, the Jerusalem Talmud taught that the gossiper stands in Syria and kills in Rome. (Peah 1:1)

This week a decision was handed down in a controversial case that was almost a real life example of the Talmudic teaching. 

The case was not gossip but two mentally troubled teenagers, who dated mostly via text messages, with the girlfriend in her home encouraging her suicidal boyfriend sitting in a Wal-Mart parking lot to finish his planned suicide. 

Michelle Carter, 17 at the time of her crime, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for urging her depressed 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself. Mr. Roy had flirted with the idea for weeks, and Ms. Carter — after initially telling him to seek counseling — seemed to warm to the idea, consistently egging him on via text: “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe.”  What the judge in the case said determined her criminal act was ultimately one phone call.  Just as Conrad Roy stepped out of the truck, he had filled with lethal fumes, due to last minute doubts about suicide, Ms. Carter told him to get back in the cab and then listened to him die without trying to help him.

The texter stands in a small town in Southeast Massachusetts and a person dies in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The case is controversial from a legal standpoint.  While all agree that what Ms. Carter did was reprehensible, it is not clear that she committed a criminal act.  Robby Soave, an editor at Reason magazine, writing in the New York Times, stated, “speech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection. While the Supreme Court has carved out narrowly tailored exceptions for literal threats of violence and incitement to lawless action, telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.” 

Other legal scholars expressed concern about the ramifications of such a decision. David Rossman, a professor of law at Boston University, wrote that the implications of this decision are very unclear, “Do doctors advising patients about end-of-life decisions have to worry about criminal prosecution if a patient stops taking medicine and dies as a result? Will family members have to urge their terminal relatives to do everything in their power to stay alive, lest they be prosecuted on the same theory as Carter’s?

The legal ramifications of this decision will be debated for a long while but the moral issue is more clear.  Words are powerful and if used nefariously and duplicitously they can cause tremendous damage.

This week’s Torah portion open with a elision – that is the opening sentence is missing an object.  “Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben.  And they rose up before Moses.  The Tanchuma states that the words “and he took” only refer to using seductive words to draw others to him.  He took words and seduced other leaders in the community to rebel openly against Moses.

“For all the community are holy, all of them,” pronounced Korah”,  and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?”  This was unsettling because the community, true, had been told that “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”.  But they were not intrinsically holy, God was not always to be in their midst, Moses and Aaron did not raise themselves above the congregation, they were ordered to lead by God.  Yet this insidious insinuation developed legs and soon the community was standing against Moses and Aaron.  Only by dint of Divine intervention were they saved.  And even after their accusers were punished, the people blamed Moses!

Words are powerful.  They can create and they can destroy. 

The world was created in words.  The Torah teaches us that the entire world was created in 10 statements over the seven days.  When the people were liberated from Egypt, they were led to Sinai where the sacred Torah with its wisdom and guidelines, its ethics and legal teachings were given to the people that they might find meaning and purpose in life – through words, Aseret Hadibrot – literally the Ten Words most famously.

Words could also be destructive.  Michal was King David’s wife before he was king.  She cemented his ties to the court of King Saul for she was Saul’s daughter.  But they grew apart.  After David was made king and chose to bring the ark of the Covenant to his new capital of Jerusalem, he led the way in dancing.  She bitterly attacked him, “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today- exposing himself …as if one of the riffraff might expose himself!”  David’s response was even more cutting, “That’s right.  I danced before the Lord Who chose me instead of your father and all his family.”  The remark was extremely cruel since David and Saul had become bitter enemies before Saul was killed in war with three of his sons.  The Bible then records “To her dying day Michal, daughter of Saul, had no children.”  Why record her childlessness at this point?  Joseph Telushkin suggests that perhaps because of this brutal exchange never again could they be intimate with each other. 

Words spoken directly to each other can hurt or can heal.  Yet in our contemporary age of social media a new danger to the seductive power of words is to be found in Facebook and twitter and texting.  While many find opportunities for positive social interaction by using them, they are also vehicles that allow people to express hate, vituperation, and anger without facing the recipients.  By adding that additional layer of distance between conversants, the immediate reaction to hurtful words and comments is missed.  This enables people to write and express very hurtful and damaging statements such as what Michelle Carter did.  Could Michelle have so easily encouraged Connor Roy to get back into the car if she had been standing next to him?

And sadly this misuse of words, this destructive use of distance language starts at the top.  We have a President who seems unable to control his impulses.  He has been caught passing along misinformation, inveighing against imaginary enemies, promoting untruths, and deviating from his own administrations policy statements sewing confusion.  The reason this is so significant is that the president of the United States is a role model for American citizens and for America in the world.  His use or misuse of language permeates the citizenry as to what is acceptable or not. 

Joseph Telushkin quotes psychiatrist Antonio Wood that when a person employs unfair speech against another, it is damaging to the speaker as well, it is alienating from humanity. The more negative the comments the more distant one feels, thus one who speaks unfairly of many people, comes to distance and alienate himself or herself from many individuals.  Alienation leads to depression and other unhealthy behaviors. 

And non-facial, indirect, instantaneous distance communications alienates us even more, for we never have to see or know how the impact of the verbal blow affects the other.  Twitter and Facebook posts conceal the recipient, like the army soldier who pushes a button so a drone thousands of miles away destroys a settlement without knowing who or what has been killed, a vicious tweet or post can destroy without ever affecting the writer.

Dr. Stephen Marmera psychiatrist recommended in Telushkin’s book Words that Hurt Words that Heal that in dealing with anger we should think in terms of layers of control:

Control of our initial reaction; Control of our initial response; control of our initial reaction to the other’s response; Control of our succeeding reactions.

How much the more so is this true in the age of twitter and Facebook!  Harold Kushner wrote, “Only God can give us credit for the angry words we did not speak.”  How many acts of destructiveness could be averted if we looked for divine approval before we send any tweet or post or text? 

Rabbi Haim of Volozhin was a great scholar and educator, the leading student of the great Jewish sage, the Eliyahu ben Shlomo, the Gaon of Vilna.  In his seminal work, Nefesh HaChaim, he wrote about the mystical power of speech:  “A person may ask, ‘in what way can trivial speech and talk have any impact whatsoever on the world?’  He should know that nothing is lost.  Each and every word which comes out of a person’s mouth ascends to the Supernal Realms and breaks through the heavens and enters a high place… if it is positive speech it adds power to the powers of holiness…it ascends upwards and arouses the Holiness of the Supernal Kingand it is crowned on His Headresulting in rejoicing in the Supernal and lower realms… a supernal light emanates and crowns the person who utter it all day.  In contrast with speech which is not good, God forbid, he creates false heavens and… destruction of the worlds.”  Rabbi Haim uses an imagery of winged birds which take hold of our words to bring them upwards to the heavens.  As Rabbi Meira suggested, perhaps this is why it is called twitter and tweeting!

The common aphorismsticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me has been proven to be a feeble truth.   Our sages in the Talmud had a different approach – The impact of speech is greater than physical action – “Gadol haOmer b’feev min haOseh ma’aseh” -  Greater is the one who speaks than the one who acts.

If before the invention of twitter and Facebook and texting we were taught to use our words wisely, how much the more so today in an age of twitter and Facebook.  For today a person can truly speak in Syria and kill in Rome.