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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
When Theodor Herzl began his quixotic campaign for a Jewish state, he wrote these famous words, Im tirzu ayn zo aggadah. This has been translated and turned into song as “If you will it, it is no dream”.
100 years ago, almost exactly 100 years ago from this day, 11 years after Herzl died with his dream unfulfilled, that dream inched closer.Read More
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!Read More
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 27, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
It’s a pleasure when you get to hear an inspiring story on the radio. Robert Siegel who is retiring from “All Things Considered” on NPR has been reviewing some of the stories he has done in the past. Recently he visited with a person he met some 20 years ago who had been a drug dealer in his youth and decided to get out after going to the 17th friend’s funeral in a year. He participated in a program that helped rehabilitate young men by giving them basic jobs skills. He started in waste management. What impressed Siegel with this young man was unlike the others in the program, he had very specific dreams and goals. Twenty years later he reconnected and found that he had worked his way up to become a supervisor and had even created a number of entrepeneurial businesses. In assessing his life, the man said that the key was being able to imagine very clearly what his dreams would look like when they were actualized. Siegel concludes that having an imagination of what can be is essential to overcoming obstacles and challenges.
Imagination is essential to fulfilling our ideals, goals, and hopes. Animals are what they are. Mammals don’t aspire to fly, fish don’t imagine protecting all their spawn from predators. Our ideals and aspirations separate us from animals.
Of course some ideals are more noble than others. I had a friend who aspired to be a millionaire by the time he was 30. And he succeeded in that goal. However he was still the insufferable egotist who never listened to what you had to say. He was the same at 30 as he was at 16, just with more money. A suite mate of mine in college was the guy we teased as the bleeding heart liberal. He was involved with every human rights cause. He too succeeded in his dreams, becoming a lawyer who worked for the US Institute for Peace and spent months at a time helping war torn countries learn to become societies that prized the rule of law. It was frustrating work but many of the countries he worked in have functioning governments today. Achieving one’s ideals is important. But some ideals are more noble than others.
Judaism has always sought the highest ideals: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’, ‘Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’, treat the land and your animals with utmost respect. We Jews prize ourselves for our noble ideals which continued to develop under the rabbinic leadership in ancient and medieval times and we are proud that our values and ideals influenced other religions and cultures.
And I think that is what is causing so much contemporary malaise and vitriol in our nation today.
It is not just the lack of professionalism of the current administration. Late night comics have had a field day comparing the accusations that Candidate Trump made against President Obama and Hillary Clinton and President Trump who has been guilty of the very same claims. It isn’t that - it’s the smallness of vision and the narrow idealism of what the current leaders in Washington have expressed through their actions over 4 months – taking healthcare away from people in order to fund tax breaks to the very wealthy; aligning our foreign policy with autocrats and dictators who have no respect for human rights in order to defeat ISIS which has no respect for human rights or human life. Is the enemy of my enemy my friend our highest aspiration for engaging the world?
Noble ideals make us human. It extends out ability to empathize when we can acknowledge that those who are different from us are actually a lot like us. It broadens our ability to love. Noble ideals and moral grandeur makes life worth living by giving us assurance, encouragement and hope that the world can be a better place – not only for ourselves and our descendants but for all others.
We will celebrate Shavuot this week. Shavuot celebrates the Jewish commitment to noble ideals. Shavuot celebrates the Revelation of God at Sinai which informs us that God and humans can relate and interact. The opening of the revelation is God’s expectation that we are memlechet kohanim – a kingdom of Priests - and a Goy Kadosh, a holy nation. What does that mean? The kohanim’s role was ultimately to serve both God and humans. We fulfill that role as Jews when we see our role as individuals and as a people who would serve others and serve to fashion the world in God’s image. A Holy people acts with compassion and concern for the world around them, striving to remove the harmful intentions of evil elements of the world.
It is fascinating that the Torah and the revelation occur in the midbar, desert and that the book we began reading this Shabbat is Bemidbar – literally “In the Desert” which transfers its focus from the Tabernacle, the emphasis in Leviticus, to life in the desert. This book, the book of ‘In the Desert’ or ‘In the Wilderness’ always comes before the Shavuot holiday. They are connected.
On the one hand the desert experience is a failure. They could have concluded their desert journey in a couple of months but instead due to grumblings, deceit, betrayal of ideals, the trek became a 40 year death march – “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop…until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness… n this very wilderness they shall dieto the last person. (Numbers 14:29, 32, 35). The wilderness became a place of emptiness and void.
And yet the word midbar carries within it the word davar – to speak . To speak , to use language and to communicate is to imagine, to create ideals in the mind which can be actualized.
Even in the midst of the midbar a time when Israel persistently failed to live up to its highest and noblest ideals – such as faith and trust in God, trust in the goodness of God’s vision for the world, respect for their fellow Jews let alone respect for other humans – the ideals were there all along. The ideals remained even in the face of betrayal to God, burrowing deep in our DNA, to flower forth in future generations.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
So wrote T S Eliot in ‘The Wasteland’. The midbar is a wasteland – a heap of broken images where the sun beats – broken hopes and ideals for the generation of the desert. But because they carried with them the experience of revelation and the knowledge of Torah and the Ten Commandments, the broken heap of imagination and noble ideals would never truly be lost. The generation of the Exodus might die out but not their holy aspirations.
As long as the noble aspirations remain noble aspirations, as long as we can be ashamed at not fulfilling our highest ideals, there is hope. May we remind ourselves of the s spiritual majesty as we welcome Shavuot this week.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 20, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
New York Times had a story this week about the sale of Jean Michel Basquiat’s Untitled which in this layman’s eyes is a horrible, yet colorful, graffiti picture of a screaming skull, for 110 Million dollars. Now to be fair I know that art aficionados might very well be able to explain why this is an important and valuable piece of contemporary art. But for it to sell for $110 million dollars means someone has way too much money for their own good.
But in this world we venerate ‘things’. And especially when we can put a monetary value on something, that level of veneration grows exponentially. Basquiat is now being compared to Picasso. Said one collector of Basquiat art – “It’s a historical moment. It does cement this artist once again.” What he means is that because someone was willing to pay lots of money for this picture, the artist’s greatness follows. Artistic talent is defined by the value of the artist as commodity.
Judaism has always had an uneasy alliance with art. The Torah’s command “Thou shalt not make any graven images” was considered by some to be a general prohibition not a specific rule against concretizing images of God. And yet the Temple and Tabernacle had artistic components to them. David Wolpe points out that “art is the means by which we are visibly reminded of the intangible; great art points beyond itself. But great art is, in its iconic power, uncomfortably close to idolatry. The difference between an idol and a sculpture resides in the mind of the observer and boundaries of the mind are notoriously porous.”
We Jews uplift that which is intangible. Art that leads us beyond the physical and material can enhance devotion. But even more so, it is holiness in time and space that we are encouraged to honor.
You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s.
These verses conclude the first of our two Torah portions this morning, Parashat Behar. But they also act as a coda to the final verses of the Book of Leviticus. A coda is a concluding section of a text that serves as a summation of certain preceding themes.
Jacob Milgrom shows how these two verses, which include two positive mitzvot and three negative mitzvot line up closely with the three of the first 5 of the Ten Commandments and with the opening verses and closing verses of Leviticus 19, the Holiness code.
The first two of the Ten Commandments are “You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall make no graven images” which parallel You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. The term here for idol – elilim – sounds very much like elokim aherim found in the 10 Commandments. The second verse: You shall keep My Sabbaths is of course the fourth commandment. In Leviticus 19 it opens with a command to venerate Shabbat and a prohibition against idolatry and it closes with an almost exact parallel to the verses in Behar – “You shall keep My sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary: I am the LORD”.
This continuous refrain to warn against idolatry in the context of promoting Shabbat and the holiness of the sanctuary is of profound significance because it is a message the Torah very much wants to instill. Rabbi Wolpe writes, “Ultimacy takes precedence and ultimacy is intangible. Value that which you cannot see, and hold aloof from a world that is too much with you, a world of getting an spending, “I am the Lord your God”. Idolatry is forbidden because ultimacy cannot be made into a commodity . An idol is forbidden because you can see it, and that which you can see you will want to own or to control.”
This is why idolatry is contrasted to Shabbat and the Divine Sanctuary in several locations in the Torah. Placing these mitzvot in opposition to one another expresses this central teaching of the Torah.
Shimshon Raphael Hirsh, the great 19th century German leader of Orthodoxy, explained that the reason a dead body is the source of impurity in Judaism is because looking at it one might believe that the body is all, and forget the truth that a person is in the image of God. Regarding this verse he wrote, “Not by means of statue and pillar, not by means of likeness and memorial stones have we to keep ourselves conscious of God and His rule; the Sabbaths of God, the Sabbath of Creation and the Sabbath of the Land, the Sabbatical year and Jubilee, which regulate the whole of our private and public lives with the thought “God,” … these are our sign and covenant… from these do we draw the inspiration which makes us find ourselves at one with God.” It is from the intangible, the ineffable that we link ourselves to God and raise ourselves up to a higher order of being.
Abraham Joshua Heschel who used puns effectively referred to the world as an allusion – not illusion. What did he mean by that? “The sense of the ineffable is not an esoteric faculty but an ability with which all (people) are endowed…just as (a person) is endowed with the ability to know certain aspects of reality, he is endowed with the ability to know that there is more than what he knows…What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”(Man is Not Alone, p. 20,22)
Experiences that we share in this world can allude to something beyond that we may not be able to express in concrete language or symbols.
As Rabbi Wolpe said, art or sculpture may allude to something beyond or they may be worshipped as an object to own and control. But Shabbat is sacred time, there is nothing of Shabbat which we can control or own. On Shabbat we simply exist. One must prepare for Shabbat, must learn to refrain and to breathe, to limit oneself and one’s reach in order to find that sanctity. Otherwise the hours of that day will slip away like sand in an hourglass. But if we make Shabbat properly, it alludes to something greater, and holier, beyond; this is the meaning of the rabbinic teaching that Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, a day when we receive, not take; a day spent in harmony with the world not attempting to be in control of it.
Likewise is the space within the sanctuary – mikdashi. The desert sanctuary had places within for cultic rituals but what made it sacred was that God had determined this space be set aside from all others. Most of Parashat Behar concerns land issues. The reference to a portion of that land as a Mikdash, a holy space, reminds us that while the whole earth is the Lord’s, parts of this world are infused with greater concentrations of the Transcendent. What creates that concentration of transcendence is the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of engaging the Divine.
As we close the book of Leviticus a book which has focused so much on the sensual – sacrifices, incense, skin disorders, physical abnormalities, dietary rules – the author brings us back to the essential lesson of Judaism which is that the most real is that which is ineffable and that which we can see and feel and sense is significant when it alludes to the transcendent source of all being.
Or in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “The first and last lesson of religion: the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are unseen are eternal.”
May we all be blessed with the gift of recognizing that which is truly eternal.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 29, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
This week’s Torah portion is Tazria Metzora and deals mostly with a skin disease whose description is very gross. So let’s not talk about that. But it begins with rules regarding sacrificial offerings given by a childbearing woman after the birth of the child. And since this coming week we celebrate the birth of Israel in 1948, let’s talk about that. How’s that for a segue.
69 years ago this week, enthusiastic yet anxious crowds lined up along Rothschild Boulevard in the relatively young city of Tel Aviv to watch the leadership of the Peoples’ Council in Palestine hastily make their way up the steps of the city’s art museum just before 4 PM. Rumor had it that David Ben Gurion and the leadership would declare the establishment of a Jewish state. Dr. Isadore Shalit who was Theodor Herzl’s personal secretary and had been at the very first meeting of the Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 hobbled into the building. Children climbed the trees that lined the street, planted in honor of Baron DeRothschild “twittered and tweeted just like birds” not the kind of tweeting we do today, but a human throated tweeting in anticipation of the historic announcement. David Ben Gurion read the declaration which read in part:
“In the year 1897 the first Zionist Congressinspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of the Jewish State, proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country…This right was acknowledged in the Balfour declaration of November 2 1917 and reaffirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations…On November 29 , 1947 the general Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution requiring the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael…It is the natural right of the Jewish people to lead as do all other nations an independent existence in its sovereign state. Accordingly we the members of the National council, representing the Jewish people in Eretz Yisraeland the World Zionist Movement…by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people…we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael to be called Medinat Yisrael, The State of Israel.”
Moshe Shertok who would become the second prime minister of Israel after Ben Gurion and Hebraized his name to Sharett, left the museum and walked to his mother’s apartment down the street. When people recognized him a great shout went out and followed him all the way to his mother’s home, screaming and demanding that he come out and make a statement. He eventually did come out on the porch and proclaimed, “We have begun to perform a mitzvah and we will continue”.
At about midnight amidst dancing and celebrating a loudspeaker announced that the British mandate of Palestine was now over. The crowd broke into a spontaneous singing of HaTikvah. Immediately after another announcement reminded the crowds that there was a curfew due to the threat of attack by Egyptian and other Arab forces. Ben Gurion the great leader of Independence later wrote in his diary watching the crowds celebrate this new beginning, “I was again a mourner among celebrants.”
The Zionist movement and the birth of the state of Israel is the greatest extended moment in the history of the Jewish people since Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai asked the Romans bent on destroying the last Jewish sovereign state, Give me Yavneh. In the year 67, in the midst of destruction, Rabbi Yohanan’s vision of exile and reestablishing the Jewish people as a landless Diasporan nation bound by Torah and halakha saved the remnant of Israel and gave us a language which held our people together for 2000 years. In 1897, visionaries such as Moses Hess, Herzl, and A D Gordon could see that future danger awaited a Jewish people who had no control over their national fate, a stateless landless cosmopolitan people who were at the mercy of the anti Semitic and often violent nativist majorities. And then the great tragedy did occur destroying one third of our people. But the seeds and roots and shoots sprouting from the early Zionist enterprise merging with Jewish communities that had long lived in Eretz Yisrael offered a future for our decimated people.
We all know that the history of Israel is complex and filled with highs and lows, some of the tragic events caused by the continuing hatred against our people by neighboring states and peoples and some caused by decisions made by we Jews ourselves. But it has been one of the great periods of redemption in our people’s history.
One of my favorite podcasts, one which should be a new mitzvah, is to listen to the Promised Podcast from TLV1. Three American born Israeli academic/educator/journalists, Noah Efron, Alison Kaplan Sommer and Don Futterman, coming from the left side of the political spectrum debate issues of the day in the State of Israel. Even though they are all liberal Zionists because they are Jews there are at least 4 opinions to every issue amongst the three of them. But unlike so many American shows that deal with our politics, they are thoughtful, passionate well reasoned and make you think.
This last week they did a thought experiment. They posited two woman refugees coming to Israel in 1948, one from Czechoslovakia, a survivor from Theresienstadt, the other coming from Morocco. If you could transport them 69 years into the future, as the Midrash does with Moses, bringing him into a classroom with Rabbi Akiva, in order to see how the Israel they arrived at as refugees in 1948 had transformed to today, what would make them proud, what would amaze them, what would sadden and disturb them.
Alison Sommer chose the bounty of food and lifestyle opportunities that their offspring would enjoy. For refugees being able to look into the future and see the wealth and relative safety that the Jewish state had achieved would be remarkable. I think for those of us in America to hear an Israeli acknowledge the safety of living in Israel is so important. We get snippets of news about Israel that only focus on wars and attacks and it is so easy to assume that Israelis live on the edge and have an “eat drink for tomorrow we die” philosophy when in fact, in daily life terms, Israel is far more comforting place to live than many American cities.
Don Futterman expressed that he believed that they would be amazed that Israel still existed. In 1948 it was not a guarantee that Israel would survive the coordinated attacks of established armies and the still great anti-Semitism of much of the world. They would be shocked and pleased at the technological advancements. A country that barely 70 years old had brought so many important positive changes to the world through its technological innovations. Futterman who is the most critical of the Israeli political establishment of the three also felt that our two visitors from the past would find it remarkable that 20% of the population of the Jewish state was Arab and at least under the law, if not in most cases reality, had equal rights in Israeli society. Noah Efron seconded this, saying he did not know if they would be impressed or fearful that the head of surgery at a major hospital is a Palestinian Israeli; amazed that there is a peace treaty that has held between Israel and Egypt and with Jordan; that Germany is Israel’s best friend in Europe; that Israelis are so open and aware of the world around them that young Israelis take months long journeys to India and the like after army service; that the kibbutz movement and agriculture which was the core economic activity in 1948 was now marginal to the country’s welfare. Seeing over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews and the rise of ultra Orthodoxy after the Shoah would be a shock. And the reality that in 69 years, it is Arab countries that are dissolving into chaos while Israel is the cohesive stable nation in the Middle East could not have been predicted. There would be disappointments as well – the advancement in the role of women and how they are treated in society is not that much improved, the huge disparity of wealth in the country, a country in which everyone in 1948 from the Prime Minister to the newest refugee were not so far apart in economic expectations but today has as severe an income inequality gap as the United States. There would be a sadness that Israel is so riven by tribal divisions – ethnic, religious, that is intra religious and inter religious, economic.
Don Futterman concluded the discussion by stating that these two woman brought to modern Israel would be impressed and grateful that a new nation birthed into a fight for its very survival had persevered and achieved beyond what would might expect. The frustration for those of our generation is that we see how much better Israel could be, how much discrimination, exploitation, craven power politics and moral blindness the nation suffers from. But why shouldn’t it? Our country is no better and arguably much farther from the goals we set for this nation. But both America and Israel are great nations because both have the power to redeem – not only those who have suffered and come to their shores as oppressed refugees and have the opportunity to grow into free proud self-differentiated individuals, but also the nations themselves, recognizing their deficiencies and self-correcting.
Let me conclude by quoting one of my favorite modern Zionists, President Barak Obama: “the story of Israel, is ... the story of a people who, over so many centuries in the wilderness, never gave up on that basic human longing to return home. It’s the story of a people who suffered the boot of oppression and the shutting of the gas chamber’s door, and yet never gave up on a belief in goodness.”
“[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea. Israel’s exceptionalism is rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision of the Jewish faith.”
Ken Yhi Ratzon.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 1, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
The front page of our USAToday insert in the South Bend Tribune for Friday had as the lead story the 50th anniversary of what the paper called “three extraordinary acts of courage” – the calls and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr, Muhammad Ali and Eugene McCarthy in opposing the Vietnam war. These were acts of courage because all three stepped out of the arenas in which they had acquired prestige or success and put that prestige in jeopardy in criticizing a war effort that the government waging and many Americans supported. All three were attacked and lost support for their stand and all three have been vindicated by history.
In the USA Today article, Martin Luther King called for an permanent end to bombing and immediate ceasefire, not only to stop the destruction to the Vietnamese people but “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, ‘Vietnam.’
What struck me in this quote was the focus on the American collective soul being at risk due to an unjust war. I think there is no doubt that his concern was proven correct. The War was the next greatest war effort after World War II, much more extensive and longer and more damaging than the Korean War. Unlike World War II American was not seen, nor did many Americans see America, as fighting the great fight against tyranny but rather fighting to support a tyranny. Doubt and a lack of trust in government reached deep into the collective psyche and I think the vestiges of that mistrust continue to this day on both the left and the right.
King’s lesson compares to a teaching of Abraham Joshua Heschel that “Some are guilty, but all are responsible”. In a collective, not everyone may be guilty of wrongdoing, but ultimately it effects everyone unless means are made to stop it. Thus all are responsible to make amends in some way for the sins of the few.
In this week’s Torah portion, there is a valuable lesson about the dangers to the community by the sins of a few. As we begin the book of Leviticus we are introduced to the ritual and cultic practices in the Tabernacle, mishkan. The opening chapters describe different sacrificial offerings made by the priests and by individuals. One of the offerings is called a Hattat. In older translations, the hattat sacrifice is translated as ‘sin offering’, because a het is a sin and the offering was made in response to an inadvertent sin. But our Humash follows the studies of Jacob Milgrom who insisted that the hattat should be translated ‘purification offering’ because the offering by the sinner brought purification. Milgrom clarified that hattat was a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society; these sins “attacked” the sanctuary, where they accumulated. The hattat purified the sanctuary. Milgrom refers to the blood of the offering which was sprinkled on the curtains of the Ark, the altar of incense in inner court, and the sacrificial altar in the outer court in different situations as a ritual detergent. The inadvertent offender did not need for himself to be purged by the hattat blood because his sin was washed away by his acknowledgement that he made a mistake and his remorse. What he needed to do was receive forgiveness for the consequence of his actions. His offense caused the sanctuary itself to become polluted.
The theology behind such a system argued Milgrom was that the God of Israel will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. The merciful God will tolerate a modicum of pollution but there is a point of no return. “More grievous than all the other transgressions in the Torah is the imparting pollution to the sanctuary and its sancta taught Rabbi Shimon in the Tosefta Shevuot 1:3. When that point is reached the community is in great danger. “The Lord has abandoned his altar, rejected his Sanctuary. He has handed over to the foe the wall of its citadels” (2:7), writes the author of Lamentations.
Milgrom shares a number of examples from comparable ancient texts that Israel was in full accord with its neighbors’ obsessive compulsion to purify its shrines. The key difference between Israel and pagan nations was that the pagan world was suffused with fear that impurity was caused by and would lead to demonic possession of its sancta; Israel had removed demonic power from its concern with impurity. “Malefic impurity does not inhere in nature; it is the creation of man. Only man, even by inadvertence, can generate the impurity that will evict God from his earthly abode”. (p.261)
Milgrom’s description of ancient Israel’s cultic theology resonates with a Jewish theology that would develop 1500 years after the destruction of the Temple.
Among the medieval kabbalists there developed a theology that human sin not only was detrimental to the sinner and not only caused punishment due to the breaking of covenantal bonds, but affected God and the cosmic realms. Sins impact negatively on the Godhead and gum up the sefirotic structure, the process by which the Divine enters into this world. There is a notion of “tzorech gavohah” – a Divine need that must be addressed in human behavior.
What effect does sin have on the sefirotic system?
Elijah deVidas in his Kabbalistic Mussar work Reshit Hochmah uses a metaphor about a spring of water that flows down and irrigates beautiful fields and orchards. If someone comes along and diverts the pipes such that the water flows instead into a garbage heap, the landowner will become angry that the valuable water is being used for this purpose, and that the fields are being neglected while the resources are flowing into the trash-heap.
Teshuvah is the reparation of those broken irrigation pipes and restoring them to their original position so that the Divine flow can return.
Among the Kabbalists in an even more profound way than the Priestly authors in the Torah, each of us by our actions impacts on the community as a whole, each action we take has cosmic ramifications.
We know this to be true in our world today. When we act in ways that treat our environment poorly –from small acts like littering, or idling our cars when we are waiting somewhere instead of turning the car off, to more serious acts of environmental harm by unsafe corporate practices, the entire community is affected, and even the entire universal ecosystem. Science shows us that global climate changes over the last century have been caused by human actions. Our unwillingness to, as it were, purge our sins of wanton destruction of the environment and exploitation of natural resources are polluting our sacred space – the earth.
Danny Gordis, many years ago attempted to defend the second paragraph of the Shema which connects moral defects to environmental catastrophe – “Take care lest you be tempted to stray and to worship false gods. For then God’s wrath will be directed against you. God will close the heavens and hold back the rain; the earth will not yield its produce and you will soon disappear from the good land that the Lord is giving you.” The Reform movement removed that paragraph because they disagreed with a theology that taught that God uses nature to punish ethical wrongs. But Danny Gordis argued what is acid rain – that was the environmental challenge at the time – but a reaction to ecological exploitation?
We still live in a closed universe. Our actions have consequences, not only on ourselves but on our community and on the Divine. Sinful behavior, exploitive behavior, hateful acts give off ripples that impact our collective psyche for generations. But just as such actions cause harm, so we have the ability to rectify such negative acts. Observing the mitzvot, demanding an end to harmful policies, defending the vulnerable, insisting that all are equal before the law, these are some of the ways that we too like our ancestors can purge the pollution from our society.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, March 18,2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
After parashat Yitro in which the Ten commandments are presented until the end of the Book of Shmot, the Torah is almost exclusively concerned with the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and the creation of the priestly institution. But opening up every few chapters, like a window of fresh air, are verses mentioning the observance of something we are familiar with - the Sabbath. It is in the 10 Commandments, of course, but we also find it here in Ki Tisa and next week before we read of the actual construction of the Tabernacle, verses about the significance of Shabbat observance are offered again. These verses about holiness in time stand as a counterpoint to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which is holiness in space. For the Bible it is not one or the other but both in their proper balance.
As if to underscore that point, according to the Sages, activities that were needed to create the Mishkan, are the very activities we refrain from doing on the Sabbath. In this way the Shabbat is a remedy to the possible malaise that can come from over extensive engagement in any kind of spatial context, holy or not.
The verses about Shabbat in this week's Torah portion make this very point.
“Let all of Israel guard the Shabbat, keeping the Shabbat in all generations as an everlasting Covenant. It is between me and the Children of Israel, a sign forever, that in six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day, paused and took a deep breath."
'Shavat viyanafash' is what we called our Kallah this year. Shavat means to cease, refrain and VaYiNafash comes from the word 'nefesh,' which means both soul and breath. Shabbat is about pausing and taking a deep breath.
Shabbat is a day for catching our breath, for taking a break from the crazy overextended life we are caught in the rest of the week. It is a day when we imitate God by standing back from what we have done, a day when we are not money-making machines or money-spending machines. It is a day when we are not machines at all, but human beings, made in the image of God.
When people hear about Shabbat in these terms they are enthralled. Who wouldn't like a pause from the busy lives we live? But the challenge is to translate the words of the Torah from parchment into life. How do we make these words that we have just heard, words that are several thousand years old, words that come from a world before there were computers or cars or credit or cash ... how do we make these words resonate for people in our own time?
I shared this article by Lilith writer Nancy Maxwell a number of years ago but it still resonates. Nancy Maxwell is a woman who has a career and a family and a host of other interests. She like many of us here attempts to juggle all the responsibilities and vocational activities in her life without losing our minds. But one day it all snapped – she writes:
“When I burst into tears over the laundry basket, I knew that something would have to change. As I sat there convulsively sobbing, my tears inundating the still-warm, lemon-scented sheets, I had to admit that things just could not continue.
“It was easy to diagnose the cause of my emotional outburst. I, like an entire generation of sister working Moms, was exhausted. With a husband, daughter, job, graduate school class and house all demanding my time and energy, my tears betrayed the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not 'do it all.' Though I had always prided myself on maintaining an organized, though hectic, schedule of household duties and errands, my tears revealed that even with all my lists, systems and constant motion, I still could not manage to get everything done.
“I could not enlist my husband to do more, nor could I give up something. My husband is already as stressed and exhausted as I am. He works longer and harder at his job than I do. Though he has offered to take on more chores, I failed to see how having him crying over the laundry basket instead of me would help matters.
“Nor could I find any activities I was willing to eliminate. I love my full-time job and I refuse to give up the intellectually-challenging graduate class I take each semester. I have already lowered housework standards, paid for what services we can afford, and stopped doing lots of little things....
“(A)s my weeping laundry session revealed, even these changes were not enough. I needed to try something radically different.
“I found my "radical solution" in a most unlikely source; at least it was an unlikely place for a non-Orthodox Jew like me. My solution was to resurrect the ancient biblical observance of Shabbat.
“But, as a liberal modern Jew, I could not and would not observe a completely Orthodox Shabbat, with all of the prohibitions against driving, turning on lights, answering the phone, et cetera. I decided that I would 'reconstruct' Shabbat in a way that would let me observe a traditional day of rest, but in a way that made sense for a contemporary Jewish career woman.
“I was still sitting on the floor amidst my tear-dampened bed sheets when I began to construct 'Nancy Maxwell's Save-Your-Own-Life Shabbat rules.' If my ancestors could cease their brick-making and their olive-tending for one day, surely I and my family could manage if no laundry or housework was done one day a week.”
What Nancy Maxwell was struggling with was not just how to bring some peace and tranquility into her home but how to incorporate the wisdom of our ancestors into a modern context. Too often we make the mistake of taking a bifurcated approach to religious obligations. It is either all –which of course is crazy and fanatical – or nothing. But adaptation is what has kept our faith vital over 2000 years.
What I find weak in Nancy Maxwell’s approach is that there is no broader context. Her Shabbat rules do not place her in a communal covenant with fellow Jews or within her religious heritage, they are simply another self-help doctrine ala Jewish sensibilities. Kind of like Madonna studying kabbalah.
In any case here is Nancy Maxwell’s list:
No shopping-No housework-No grocery stores-No laundry-No bill-paying(No even thinking about money)-No stops at the ATM, the gas station or any other errands.-No major cooking or baking.-No obligatory or guilt-induced phone calls-No doing anything else that I find unpleasant(Provided it can be put off a day without inconveniencing other members of the family. After all, I am still the Mom.)
And these are her 'yeses.'
Yes to reading and studying.
Yes to just being with my husband
Yes to playing with and reading to my daughter
Yes to having friends and family over for dinner
Yes to any outing that I find pleasant
Yes to anything else that gives me peace and joy
The list is pretty good in terms of creating an island of tranquility in the midst of a hectic week. Yet I would guess that after 6 months or so, maybe a year, Nancy Maxwell may well have had difficulty maintaining her new program. Because without the appreciation that one is following a course of action because one is compelled – as Jews because our brit with God demands of us to observe Shabbat – and with a community to support her vision – if everyone in her neighborhood held to those rules – follow through is very difficult. That is the strength of weight watchers – a community meets weekly to encourage each other (maybe fear of shaming) to keep to the program.
Art Green, a scholar of Mysticism and head of the rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College, years ago had his own “Ten Commandments” of Shabbat for the modern Jew that sound similar to Nancy Maxwell.
Stay at home, Celebrate with others, study or read something that will edify challenge or make you grow. Be Alone , take time for your self and review your week. Mark the beginning and end of sacred time through Friday night and Havdalah rituals
Don’t do anything you have to do for your work life, Don’t spend money, Don’t do business, Don’t travel long distances, stay free of encounters in which people are likely to tell you “Have a nice day”. Don’t use commercial or canned video entertainment, be in situations in which you are face to face with people.
The list are similar except that Art Green includes religious rituals to mark the time. Neither though suggest joining with others in communal religious experiences which are essential to the success of making Shabbat unique. Our passage tells us today “It is between me and the Children of Israel, a sign forever”. If not for God one could attempt to make Shabbat Wednesday or Sunday as the great Reform Jewish theologian Kaufman Kohler suggested to early 20th century Jews. But our Shabbat is from Friday night to Saturday night because in holding to that time we engage in a Covenantal commitment with the Divine.
Nancy Maxwell did a great service by acknowledging that there is a great practical element to keeping Shabbat in a way that makes us to cease and desist in order to draw a clean breath. Her approach is most worthwhile in helping us to see that God’s covenantal demands are in essence an act of great love and compassion for God’s people.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, February 24, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Sometimes what seems to be the simplest of Torah verses to understand present significant questions.
In this morning’s Torah portion there is a verse that poses a textual and a theological problem.
“Every widow or orphan, you shall not afflict. Oh if you afflict afflict him!... For then he will cry, cry out to me and I will hearken, hearken to his cry. My anger shall blaze forth and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
Let’s begin with the textual problem. The translation of that verse is my own. If you look in the Humash that we use you will see that the translation is “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me”. The Hebrew text use the biblical form of the doubling of infinitive construct for emphasis. This is common. What is difficult is, in the Hebrew, the initial verse is in the plural – Kol almanah v’yatom lo t’anun but the second verse which our translation glides over is in the singular Im aney t’aneh oto. And masculine. What happened to the widow? Not only that but are we to extract from the verse that we are only not allowed to afflict widows and orphans? The previous verse suggested a wider application: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And why does the text emphasize “every widow and orphan”, are there some widows and orphans we might think it is okay to afflict? And finally the verse suggests that “if you afflict the widow and the orphan, and they cry out from the suffering, than God will respond”. So only if the persecuted express suffering, God responds?
Many commentators have weighed in on how to read these verses. Let’s start with Rashi and his response.
Rashi answers the question about why does the text specify “Each widow and orphan” because the Torah offers us the most likely case of oppression. Widows and orphans in many societies are the weakest and most easily mistreated. Don’t assume that it is okay to mistreat others, but the Torah uses the example of the most vulnerable. Rashi also suggests that the text in the next verse is elided. “Oh if you afflict afflict him!...(I am threatening you and will punish you because) when he will cry, cry out to me then I will hearken, hearken to his cry.” But Rashi does not respond to the grammatical issue.
Ramban (13th C) disagrees with Rashi that the text has a gap that needs to be filled in. He says what God is saying is “If you afflict him, all he needs to do is simply cry out to Me and immediately I will seek out the perpetrator and punish him.” No need to draw up a detailed case against one’s oppressor, a groan is enough. Ramban also understands the significance of “every widow and orphan” as even wealthy widows one may not afflict.
The commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, (15C) helps explain the switch from plural to singular – do not afflict the widow and orphan followed by “oh, if you afflict afflict him” by noting the text suggests that if you afflict either of them, the widow or the orphan, God will respond harshly. You need not be a serial abuser.
But the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, (16th C Poland) has a more intriguing explanation, two in fact: On the one hand we can say that sometimes a person only afflicts the orphan and the orphan’s mother, the widow, sees with her own eyes, helplessly longing to do something, but is powerless to save her child. As a result of one affliction both are afflicted and both cry out, and God hears both and punishes the afflicter doubly in that his own wife and children will suffer. This is why the text refers in the second verse to “Oh if you afflict afflict him”
However the Kli Yakar has another reading: We can also suggest that since God is referred to as the “Father of orphans” in Psalm 68:6 then certainly all the orphan’s pain cause God pain, so to speak. Therefore the doubling of the word afflict in the verse should be read “if you afflict (him the orphan) you also afflict Him (God). Both cry out – the Justice from above and the orphan from below. And God will respond to both.
I like the Kli Yakar’s response very much because by closely reading the text he is able to offer us a psychological and a theological understanding of the consequences of abuse. The identified victim is not the only victim in a case of abuse. Bystanders, especially those who care deeply for the victim, suffer as well from the oppression and mistreatment of those who are vulnerable. When we see pictures of victims whether it be our own people, as those who had a chance to see the Anne Frank exhibit in Elkhart, or when we watch the news and see suffering of oppressed individuals inSyria, or parts of Africa, or the refugees desperately trying to escape to freedom, it is debilitating to us too. We see the suffering and we want to help. It can become too much but we have an escape valve? We turn off the TV. The mothers of the orphans don’t have that luxury.
The Kli Yakar also recognizes that there is another victim of the oppression – God. Human acts of cruelty wound the healer of shattered hearts, the Creator who intended his creation to be for Good.
The Tzror Hamor, Rabbi Avraham Saba (Spain/Portugal/Morocco 15thC) read our verse in context. The verse before states, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Just as we are not to oppress or mistreat the stranger, the foreigner, so too we are not supposed to mistreat the widow and orphan. We are dealing with those who are most vulnerable in society. The juxtaposition of the verses insists on the power of empathy. We should be sensitive to the needs of the foreigner, the stranger, because we were once in that position. We should be kind to the most vulnerable because one never knows when we will need to depend on the kindness and compassion of others.
There is a story of a group of beggars who were lined up on a busy street begging for alms. A newcomer to town watched as the busy people ignored almost every beggar. They were obviously familiar with people begging to the point of being inured to assisting them. But there was one beggar for whom people seemed to stop, read his sign and give. The man ran over to the sign to see what powerful slogan he had that was successful. The sign said, “Today I am asking, but tomorrow it might be you.”
We Jews have long been in the position of the stranger, the refugee, the widow, the orphan. We have often in our long history been among the most vulnerable in society. Today thank God, many many Jews are on the other side of the equation – we are the haves with the opportunity to help. And not only financially.
Last night I listened to Eva Kor tell her story of resistance and survival in Auschwitz. She and her twin sister were the only family members to survive. They were victims of Mengele, the Nazi doctor of Auschwitz. After the war they returned to their little village in Romania and eked out an existence until in 1950 they were able to get visas to Israel. She served in the Army for 8 years and eventually met her husband, a survivor of Buchenwald, who was living in Terre Haute, IN. She moved back with him and as she described it, the only comparison between Tel Aviv and Terre Haute was that they both begin with the letter T. Having lived life as a survivor, a refugee and an immigrant in a strange land, I asked her before the program what her feelings about the President’s order to restrict immigration. Her answer was surprising but full of understanding for the life of a stranger. She said, “It is a terrible thing to be a refugee. The suffering of homelessness, the loss of one’s culture and familiarity with one’s surroundings. We should have done more to allow these people to stay in Syria, to have given them a safe space to remain whole in the homeland.”
And this leads to the theological conundrum of this verse. The verse states “For then he will cry, cry out to me and I will hearken, hearken to his cry. My anger shall blaze forth and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
What do we say to the Eva Kors and the Syrian refugees of the world, to those who suffer oppression and mistreatment, who cry out to God, asking for relief, for salvation which never comes? The verse teaches that God will strike down the oppressor in like measure. Some interpret the doubling of verbs to insist God will immediately respond. But the suffering continues.
So if you are Richard Dawkins, the answer is there is no God, you are a sucker to hope that a transcendent God will save you, you lose, too bad you were born in Syria, or a Jew living in Nazi Europe.
The religious response is perfect justice is impossible in this world. There is another world, after this one, in which evil is punished appropriately, and unjust suffering is relieved.
I like that answer better but it is still troubling that such suffering continues in this world. So the more I live in this world, the more I have come to believe that when the Torah tells us that God is going to respond with Divine Justice, what God is really saying is that I challenge you human beings to be my shlichim, my representatives, in raising up justice. If I hear the cry of the oppressed I will be listening. Listening to what you my people, my followers, those who dare speak in my name do. If you do nothing, if you permit this injustice to go on, then V’kharah api v’haragti etkhem bekherev. I will be furious and I will punish you – you and your world will continue to suffer from violence and cruelty because you refuse to respond.
It is sad that even our nation, long valued for its commitment to human rights and its internal progress on civil rights, is returning to fears based on prejudice and false facts that in the 1930s caused millions of our people to die because this country refused to let them enter. The Torah in its own way indicates to us that our world operates on some level in a measure for measure system. If we don’t act to stop oppression and mistreatment of the most vulnerable, we too will suffer mistreatment. Let us hope our tradition’s commitment to compassion as expressed by our ancient sages triumphs.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 28, 2017
When Rabbi put out the offer to us members of the congregation to share d'var Torah, I was intrigued. But as a relative newcomer--and as someone not even sure what a d'var Torah is--I was hesitant. I had no idea what I could possibly say to you, my friends and mentors.
What I can say to you is: thank you. I've come to appreciate so much over the last two years the incredible richness of Jewish tradition. In the simultaneous simplicity and complexity that is Jewish life and thought. It's all there--just waiting to be uncovered. With a little digging or a lot of digging there are beautiful pieces to tickle mind, heart and soul.
In the Pirke Avot 5:21:
“Yehudah ben Teima used to say: Five years [is the age] for [the study of] Scripture, Ten [is the age] for [the study of] Mishnah, Thirteen [is the age] for [observing] commandments, Fifteen [is the age] for [the study of] Talmud. ..”
Okay, well here I am well past the age of five, ten, thirteen and fifteen and I am still a beginner at Scripture.
During our first year of study I remember being at Fiddler’s Hearth along with some of my classmates one evening and. With Rabbi’s guidance,we were puzzling over the story of Abraham and Isaac. After a beer I told Rabbi that I'd never understand how Abraham could actually intend to kill his son. I have since learned that there are many layers to that story, many lessons that can be drawn from it.
Also during our first year of study came the intoxicating and sublime discovery of the life and writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Thank you Rabbi for that.
After conversion I had the opportunity to study chant. It was an amazing moment when I was privileged to chant Torah for the first time. Even now, just thinking about it makes me smile It took a lot of practice. As an adult learner I had to become much more open to experiencing frustration and failure. But when the Hebrew words and the tropes finally came together
there was nothing like it! It was another connection between our community and the generations that came before and that will follow us.
So far this Jewish journey has been one very fun, wild ride. The minute one challenge is finished I want another. And another…and another. It’s never too late to learn new skills: if I could do it, anyone can.
In today's parsha we hear about Moses acquiring some new skills. He speaks with his new mentor, Adonoi. You just can't do better than that for a mentor. But, even so, Moses is daunted. Finally Adonoi gets tired of Moses' overthinking and tells him to just go out and do it.
I can in some small sense have an idea what it might have been like for Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam to roll with the tide of events. At this point in time, we are reminded that Moses is 80, Aaron is 83 and Miriam is at least 87 years old. I try to imagine them getting up in the mornings (without benefit of coffee--and then up each day for the next 40 years!)
We hear that our guys, Moses and Aaron, try to rally their dispirited and disheartened community. Then they are off to speak to Pharaoh; then, they're back to persuade the community to trek off from home base, and lose three days of work for a spiritual retreat in the wilderness.
The story continues with twists and turns and plagues--and the parsha ends (to be continued next week) with the Israelites still enslaved, Pharaoh still uncooperative, and the boys (who are 80 and 83) still with so much more to do.
Medieval commentator Ovadia Seforno (Spain 1500s) commented on Exodus 7:7 verse: In spite of their advanced age they rose up with enthusiasm to fulfill the will of their Creator Indeed he who had reached the age of 80, even in those days, had already passed the age of elder status and reached those of strength, as Moses attests to in the psalm ascribed to him, Psalm 90: The days of our years are 70, or even by reason of strength, eighty years. (P 90:10)
The cool thing about these three, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, is that they rose up and did all those remarkable things. These octogenarians, the ultimate poster children for AARP.
As Jews we are called upon to do amazing feats--at any age. I watched a documentary last week about a 91 year old Holocaust survivor who speaks to prisoners and to schoolchildren AND runs a her own small business 6 days a week. Why does she do it? Because she feels called to speak on behalf of all those who cannot speak. And what she has to say resonates 70 years later, to convicts, to trauma survivors, to schoolchildren. They all know she understands what it is like to be imprisoned and powerless--and yet to emerge with and to effect a different life script--one of service and compassion.
We all can say we are too young, too old, too busy, too sad, too frustrated. But regardless what we say, and what we sometimes feel, we as Jews are nevertheless called to act. That inner drive to better the world is neverending. The drive to learn new things and to keep learning at any age is strong. That is what I love about this community and about the Jewish people.
Thank you all again for the honor to be part of this community, and a part our Jewish journey.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 21, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
It is quite amazing that this Shabbat of the Inauguration of a new President coincides with the opening of the book of Exodus. For as we know Exodus opens with the ominous line: VaYakom Melekh hadash al Mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef : “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph”. Let’s hope the subsequent history of the new President turns out better than that of the new King.
But if the new King knew not Joseph, that is, a new Egyptian King who did not recognize the positive attributes and contributions of Joseph and the Jewish people, well, there must have been an old King who did know and recognize the contributions of the Israelite immigrants to Egypt. And for the last eight years we in the United States, and especially the Jewish community, have been blessed to have had a President who did know the Jewish community. Obama considered Jews among his mentors and closest friends and advisors; the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg referred to him as the first Jewish President. Whether or not it makes sense to claim him as the first Jewish President, I suggest that he is probably the first President to be a true Zionist.
This is a very important claim because of the many atrocious attacks thrown at this President, the most malignant canard was that President Obama was an enemy of the Jewish people and hated Israel. It seems that this canard pained him very much. Not only because it was not true – all Presidents weather harsh attacks on their character and personalities – but because more than any previous President his support for Israel stemmed from his deep belief in the power and meaning of Zionism.
Every president of the United States has supported Israel. Some like Bill Clinton had a deep affinity for Jews. But for most, the support for Israel was strategic - serving American interests in the Middle East. Even known anti-Semites like Richard Nixon saved Israel when Israel was in danger of losing the Yom Kippur War. President Obama’s administration was no different in this regard. Before President Obama left office he agreed to a $38 billion military aid package over the next 10 years, making it the largest bilateral military aid package ever, which includes $5 billion for missile defense, additional F-35 joint strike fighters and increased mobility for its ground forces. President Obama, unlike President Bush, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the development and production of the Iron Dome project, so crucial to Israel’s defense.
But that is what all Presidents do even if they don’t get along with their Israeli counterparts. Obama is different because Obama is a Zionist.
Before I make my case, it is important to define our terms.
What is Zionism? Unfortunately most people assume that Zionism is what the government of Benjamin Netanyahu says is right for Israel. But considering that the current Israeli government is not allowing Conservative Jewish converts from South America or Africa to enter the country – that is, not allowing them to enter the country, not questioning their right to make aliyah, just not allowing them to receive visas to enter– it is hard to argue that this current government embodies the highest values of Zionism. (*note – this sermon was written before the Israeli government under internal and world pressure allowed these converts to enter Israel, thank God)
Zionism has many schools of thought. Developing from our age old Jewish dream of returning to the Land of Israel, modern Zionism grew out of nationalist and neo-messianic movements in the mid-19th century. Look, Zionism is a Jewish ideology, so, of course, there are multiple opinions. But at its core Zionism was a movement that insisted the Jewish people had a right to self-determination and sovereignty in its ancient homeland. The ideals of justice and morality were seen as essential to many Zionist thinkers. According to the picture drawn by Zionists such as the historian Ben Zion Dinur, it was Messianism, a secular Messianism, that was the primary element of modern Zionism. The movement evoked the dream of an end of days, a release from Exile, and the consummation of Jewish history. (Hertzberg, “Introduction”, The Zionist Idea, p. 18) The creation of Israel was a modern Hanukah story with Zionists playing the role of the Maccabees.
Cultural Zionists such as Ahad HaAm saw in Zionism a path to the transformation of Judaism. “Of all the great aims to which Zionism aspires for the time being, it is within our powers to draw near…to only one…the moral aim. We must liberate ourselves from inner slavery, from the degradation of the spirit caused by assimilation, and we must strengthen our national unity until we become capable and worthy of a future life of honor and freedom. (from “The First Zionist Congress”, in The Jew in the Modern World) Ahad HaAm’s Judaism was a vision of the prophetic ideal updated for modern consciousness.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, saw the growing Zionist movement, led by secularists as a sign of the advent of traditional Mashiachtzeit: “All the civilizations of the world will be renewed by the renaissance of our spirit… The active power of Abraham's blessing to all the peoples of the world will become manifest, and it will serve as the basis of our renewed creativity and Eretz Israel.( from Abraham Isaac Kook:”The War”, The Zionist Idea, p.22)
Louis Brandeis writing at about the same time in the United States, praised his coreligionists overcoming horrific hardships to rebuilding the Holy Land, comparing it to the creation of the United States, and referred to the Zionists as the “Jewish Pilgrim Fathers”.
It is clear that Barack Obama sees that affinity as well. In his comments at Adas Israel synagogue in 2015 he shared, “To a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world -- that idea was liberating.”
Ari Shavit, the Israeli journalist, noted that the greatest expositor of Liberal Zionist ideals in recent memory was Barack Obama.
In 2013 addressing an audience in Israel, Obama linked the achievements of modern Israel to its past. It was the history of Biblical slavery and wandering in the desert to ultimately being redeemed in the return to the land; in the common era it was years of oppression and wandering in Exile that led to the ultimate expression of redemption – the Creation of a State with its goal of making the desert bloom. He cautioned his audience that for the Zionist goal to sustain itself peace would be necessary because without peace Israel cannot endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state. And eventually that would require the creation of a Palestinian state not because the world deserves another Arab state but because justice requires that Palestinians also be allowed self determination. And he connected the Zionist project to tikun olam, the reparation of the world. Linking Jewish history to the Jewish present to the messianic future is in line with the best of Zionist thought.
At Shimon Peres’ funeral he reiterated that “[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.” And “Israel’s exceptionalism”, that is our status as the chosen people, is “rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision” of the Jewish faith. He also offered, “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” Now one may say that this is a naïve liberal view and hutzpadik for Obama, who is not Jewish, to suggest that. Except that he was quoting Shimon Peres, the last of the founding fathers of the Zionist state.
And to those who think that the recent abstention by the US of the United Nations resolution on settlements was proof of Obama’s hatred of Israel? Well, you must think that Ronald Reagan was a raving anti Semite. For Obama’s abstention was the only time the US abstained on a resolution critical of Israel in 8 years, in every other instance they voted against criticizing Israel. But Ronald Reagan’s government abstained or voted to censure Israel 21 times during his presidency (Lara Friedman, NY Times op-ed, April 10, 2016 research by Americans for Peace Now).
In one of his many interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg Obama expressed his concern, like many of us who are liberal Zionists, that Israel must act to maintain a majority Jewish democracy. Holding on to the West Bank risks that possibility – either Israel remains a true democracy in which case the growing number of Palestinians in Greater Israel will outnumber and outvote the Jewish state or more likely, Israel will be forced to rule over a majority population only a portion of which will be allowed to vote, destroying Israel as a democracy.
And if you think that concern is overblown, I would recommend to you the words of Zev Jabotinsky, father of Revisionist movement to which Benjamin Netanyahu is heir: “The precondition for the attainment of these noble aims (the solution to the question of Jewish suffering and the creation of a new Jewish culture) is a country in which the Jews constitute a majority. It is only after this majority is attained that Palestine can undergo a normal political development on the basis of democratic, parliamentary principles without thereby endangering the Jewish national character of the country.” (“What Zionist Revisionists Want” in The Zionist Idea)
Jabotinsky understood as does Barack Obama that for Israel to succeed as a democratic Jewish state it must have a majority of Jews in it. And today, that is only possible if Palestinians are allowed sovereignty over themselves.
But even before he became President, Barack Obama had a deep understanding and appreciation for the true meaning of Zionism. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in 2008 he offered this explanation of his affinity to Zionism: “You know, when I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man -- as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, … he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. That was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted. That was part of my upbringing, to be traveling and always having a sense of values and culture but wanting a place. So that is my first memory of thinking about Israel.
And then that mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past.” (interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic Monthly May 12, 2008)
I think America is going to profoundly miss the sagacity and nobility of President Barack Hussein Obama. But we Jews will also miss a President whose affinity with our people runs so deep that he represents the best ideals of Zionism.
Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 24, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Today is Erev Hanukah and amazingly Erev Christmas as well. Every December we Jews deal with the phenomenon known as the December Dilemma – Christmas programs are held in schools, everyone (despite the alleged war on Christmas) wishes you a Merry Christmas, you can’t walk five feet without hearing a Christmas song, Christmas trees and wreaths are everywhere. This may be nice for Christians but for us Jews it feels sometimes like it is being rammed down our throats. But it needn’t be. Some people including many Christians bemoan the commercialism of Christmas but that is our culture - it affects Hanukah and every other sacred event in our nation – don’t look now but 9/11 sales events and 9/11 cards will be coming soon to a town near you. Christmas has a powerful religious message for its adherents that we can appreciate just as Hanukah has a powerful message for us Jews.
Some people link the two holidays. They are both in the winter, they both fall on the 25th of their respective months, they both include lights and candle lighting as part of the experience. But beyond these elements there is little to connect the two. Not everyone is aware of that. As when the radio show producer called me for an on air interview about Hanukah when I was just starting as a rabbi in Appleton WI. “So rabbi,” he asked, “what can you tell our listeners about how Hanukah is the Jewish celebration of the birth of Jesus?” Huh?! Radio silence as I tried to figure out how not to start a pogrom against the Appleton Jewish community.
But there is another very interesting connection between the two holidays and that has to do with Sukkot. We are all familiar with the classic rabbinic explanation of why we celebrate Hanukah: When the Maccabees under Judah took back control of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Hellenist Syrians they found only one kosher cruse of olive oil to light the menorah in the Temple. They lit it and instead of lasting only one day it lasted 8 until new oil could be procured.
The problem with this explanation is that we happen to have a number of historical sources which refute the story of the miracle of oil. The story of the oil is found in the Babylonian Talmud, redacted in the late 5th century of the common era. But there are two historical chronicles from a few generations after the events related to the Hanukah story which occurred in 164 BCE which know of no miracle oil story. According to these sources the victory and restoration – rededication of the Templewas celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev because: (The purification) happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners…They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths (Sukkot), remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 2 Maccabees 10:1-9.
At the Kallah I taught the important connection between sacred space dedications and 8 day periods throughout the Bible. But the connection with Sukkot is significant. Sukkot is the most joyous of holiday festivals. It is the season of ingathering, when the cupboards are most full. As a Biblical festival it is also a Temple-centric observance. Every Jew was supposed to show up and present himself on the festival.
It so happens that Sukkot is also connected to Christmas. According to the Gospel of Luke (2:8) when Jesus was born, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. Sheep do not go roaming around the fields in December, even in Israel. Luke also records that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel to inform her that she was pregnant in the 6th month of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother. Elizabeth became pregnant when Zechariah, her husband, who was a priest returned home from serving in the Temple. This was in Sivan, the summer. John the Baptist was born 9 months later in Nisan, the spring, and the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was 6months younger. Thus Jesus was born in Tishrei – the month of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. From other gospels and Luke we can guesstimate that the reason Joseph and Mary were stuck in a manger in Bethlehem was because the Roman empire had declared a census be taken and each family was to return to the city of his ancestors, to be registered and taxed. Joseph went to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. Given that it was Sukkot, and Bethlehem is near Jerusalem. You couldn’t find a vacancy and they were stuck in the barn. Most likely Jesus was born on Sukkot.
So everyone is asking why do Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th? The historical answer is because Christianity under the leadership of Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, set out to convert the Pagans. December 23th , as the winter solstice ended , was a Roman holiday of Saturnalia. By making December 25th a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christians could take an already popular holiday and instead of eliminating it coopt itmaking the Christianizing of the population easier.
Jon Sorenson, a writer for Catholic Answers website, states that “Although the date of Jesus’ birth is not given to us in Scripture, there is documented evidence that December 25 was already of some significance to Christians prior to A.D. 354. One example can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who writes that
“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years.”
What is the connection to Adam? In order to relate the birth of Jesus to the Creation story. For Jesus would have been conceived in Spring which as we know according to Rabbi Yehoshua the world was created in Nisan, Spring time.
OK got it? Jesus was born during Sukkot according to the gospels but his birth was celebrated on December 25 to link his conception to the conception of the world. Hanukah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev to make up for the absence of the celebration of Sukkot that year when the Maccabees were fighting a guerilla war. The Sages of the Talmud, ignored the Sukkot/military victory explanation in order to emphasize a more pacifistic miracle story.
Both religious communities chose to offer different spiritualized mythic versions of history. According to Jon Sorenson quoting Pope Benedict 16, it was to connect Jesus to Adam. Jesus would be the new Adam, creating a new world order. But it also coopted holidays that celebrated the births of gods in other cultures. The idea in Christianity is that without Jesus, you have nothing. You cannot be saved or liberated without going through Jesus. God is made human, and that human’s sacrifice offers atonement for the world. Adam sins, and the world begins, for his expulsion from Eden is the beginning of world history. Jesus dies and the spiritual world for his followers begins. Jesus is heroic in that his death gives life. But only his death. Without it, there is no life. And his story, not so unlike the god birth stories of pagans exhibits a common human desire for a miracle man. Someone to do it for you when you become tired and sick, when you become fatigue and frightened.
Judaism also has a hero story. The Maccabees were victorious and God is involved, but the message is if you want salvation, it is up to us Jews to work together to achieve it. We are responsible for our own salvation. The rabbis de-emphasize the role of the Maccabees in their miracle story but not the role of the victory. In the daily addition to the Amidah during Hanukah, there is no mention of the miracle of the oil that lasts 8 days, only the victory of the minority against the majority, the weak over the strong, the righteous over the wicked. The Maccabees are deemphasized because eventually their descendants become corrupt, just like the Hellenist rulers. They recognize that while we human beings can achieve salvation, we are ultimately fallible and so each generation has to work for its own salvation, fight the same battles against evil and not rely on past victories or on a few heroic individuals.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis in commenting on the differences between Christianity and Judaism, remarked, “You have no excuse in Judaism… you are not born a sinner. You have not inherited any sin in Judaism and you have not transmitted sin. You are the sons and daughters of God, each of you, each of us. No one stands higher than another. Nobody is closer to God than you. And if someone says to you, “that man has closer contact to God”, know that that violates the very essence of Judaism.”
The actual Christmas should be during sukkot. Hanukkah was an actualized Sukkot. Both religious cultures transformed the historical into myth. But how and what motivated the transformations tell us much about the different religious cultures. For us Hanukkah was transformed from a holiday that could have venerated military heroism into an appreciation for the human effort in achieving salvation and the role God plays in that effort.
Hanukah teaches us to oppose the apotheosis, or divinization of any human being. IN 164 BCE we refused to accept Antiochus IV as Epiphanies - Epiphanies means God manifest. And we have continued to refuse to accept the idea that any human should be considered God, just as much as we resist the concept that God needs to become human to truly understand God’s creations.
Yohanan ben Zakai says, if you hold in your hand a seedling, a sapling and people cry out, “Behold! The messiah has come! Look, the messiah is coming!” Get down on your knees and plant the sapling in the earth first before you investigate whether or not the Messiah has come, because that's the way the world is going to be saved. One tree, one planting, one candlelight in the darkness, one act of salvation at a time