A View From Israel Guest Blogger: Scott Birnbaum

O830703-israelflaggraafixblogspotcomflagsof-1422703836n Tuesday, October 20th, I received a mass email from Barry Shrage, CEO of CJP, announcing an emergency solidarity mission to Israel that would leave 2 days later. Few words would less accurately describe me than spontaneous, yet one day later, I signed up for the trip, and on Thursday night, little more than 48 hours after receive Barry’s email, I was on an El Al flight to Israel as part of a very small mission, consisting of Barry Shrage, Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and two other lay people.

What possessed me? Frustration.

Like many, I had been avidly following news reports about the latest spate—the Israelis are calling it a “wave”—of violence, marked by random knife attacks on civilians. Among them, a 13-year old boy stabbed and gravely injured by two Palestinian teenagers, one also 13-years old—while he rode his bicycle in Jerusalem.

The last few years have witnessed other episodes of violence in Israel, including two mini-wars in Gaza, and horrific terrorist attacks, including a mass shooting in a synagogue in Har Hanof a year ago. Yet, this seemed different somehow, maybe because of the unlikeness of the perpetrators—“lone wolf” Arab youth and women, stirred to murderous violence by false reports about Jewish encroachments on the Temple Mount.

So, I said yes to the quickly organized mission, fulfilling a need to do something; in my case, to simply be there. I had no fear for my personal safety—I know how incredibly safety-conscious CJP missions are—yet I was making a statement about resilience in the face of terrorism. Just as Israelis were, by necessity, going about their daily lives, I wanted to share in that, to demonstrate by physical presence, solidarity with Israel and her people, as they endured these horrific events, and to show that, just as Israelis would not be cowed by terrorism, neither would I.

The trip lasted just four days—we arrived in Jerusalem just before Shabbat, spent Sunday night in Haifa, and departed Israel at midnight on Monday. It was exhausting and extremely fulfilling. Most of all, it was marked by incredible contrasts, which, to those who have experienced Israel, comes as no surprise at all.

On our arrival shortly before the start of Shabbat, our group, accompanied by a guide and an armed guard, walked to the Western Wall, the Kotel. What would be an important part of any visit to Jerusalem took on an added significance, as the Temple Mount, standing just above the Western Wall, had been the focus of violence, with wild incitement, political posturing, and a remarkable episode of journalistic sloppiness (the New York Times reported, and then quickly modified, a story falsely stating that historians questioned whether the first or second Jewish Temples ever stood on the Mount.) In my three previous trips to Israel, that walk was considerably shorter, passing through the Shuq—the Arab market in the Old City. This time, we carefully skirted the Shuq and arrived at the Western Wall Plaza through a safe route. Families and school kids were out, but whether it was the approaching Shabbat or the “situation,” the Jewish Quarter was quieter than I had seen before. The Kotel itself was more or less the same as I had previously experienced it, except that there were far fewer tourists, noticeable because they of the absence of kippot distributed by attendants in the plaza. Later in the visit, people asked about how many were at the Wall, apparently because, other than on Shabbat, people have been staying away out of fear.

The next morning, we attended services at w a very small Orthodox synagogue, whose members were mostly American olim (immigrants), located just outside the old City. The shul, well over 100 years old, had traditional Ashkenazic Orthodox services, with a curious mixture of kids chanting with Israeli accents and others whose Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation was just like my grandfather’s. Despite my day school upbringing, I found it somewhat hard to keep up and find my place in the Siddur. But, what was most memorable was when we came to a line in the Kiddusha during the Amida prayer in the morning service. It’s a line not included in the Reform Movement’s siddur, but it had very special resonance to me that day: תשכון תתגדל ותתקדש בתוד ירושלים עירד Tishkon titkadosh vtitkadosh b’toch Yerushalim eerchah—“Be endured and sanctified in the midst of Jerusalem, Your city.” As the congregation sang that line I looked out a window and saw the walls of the Old City just a few hundred yards away. And I thought, this is a very, very special place—yet while it is a source of holiness, it is, sadly, not an Ir-Shalom, a city of Peace.

Later that night, we met Israelis personally affected by the recent violence. First, Karen, widow of Richard Lakin. As the media has widely reported, Richard and Karen immigrated from the US in the 70s. Richard was an educator, school principal, author; he had been a freedom rider in the 60s. He tutored Jews and Arabs alike, and was committed to peaceful co-existence. His Facebook home page showed a Jew and an Arab under a banner promoting religious coexistence. Ten days before we met Karen, Richard was shot in the head and his internal organs sliced in half by an Arab terrorist on a bus, returning from a routine doctor’s appointment.

As we met Karen, Richard lay in a coma at Hadassah’s Ein Keren Medical Center a few miles away. Karen showed incredible fortitude, talking about Richard—her best friend—and their two children and grandchildren; the visits from media and celebrities, such as US General Secretary Ban. She told us about Richard’s life work, and the Jewish and Muslim students they tutored in English. She told us about the wonderful care Richard was receiving at Hadassah, about the incredible kindness shown to them by the Chief Nurse, an Israeli Arab whose son Richard tutored. She expressed dismay at how recent events had been portrayed in the media, failing to recognize the mindless, murderous actions on innocent victims, like Richard. She recounted her granddaughter’s words, echoing Richard’s philosophy, that there are many possible responses to what is going on, but one of them is not hate. Her message to us—show you care by staying informed and learning the truth. Richard Lakin personified what was most admirable about Israel, answering the prophetic call of Judaism to pursue justice and to be a light unto the nations. His senseless murder—he succumbed to multiple organ failures a day after we returned to Boston—is unjustifiable evil.

Then we met Dr. Talia Lebanon, head of the Israeli Trauma Coalition, and a member of her staff. They were accompanied by two religious Jewish women, residents of the Old City, whose neighbors had been victims of stabbings. One of the most underreported stories about Israel is the psychic trauma recent events have caused. Whole regions of the country suffer from post-traumatic stress condition. Talia described one incident in the Old City: A family, the neighbors of one of the women we met that night, heard a scream from the street. The eldest daughter said, “Abba (Daddy), maybe you should see what’s wrong.” As the family looked on from their rooftop terrace, the father went down into the street and was stabbed to death. The trauma this family experienced is unimaginable; as is the guilt this poor daughter bears for her father’s murder. Whether it is the intention of these despicable acts of terrorism or not, a result of this violence has been to shatter coexistence. One of these religious women has lived next to Arab neighbors for over 3 decades. The Arab women were her friends. Now, fear permeates the neighborhood.

The work that Talia and her team of professional therapists do to help these families and dozens like them (and hundreds in the past) is extraordinary. But, from their faces, their tones, it is taking a toll on them (and many other Israelis no doubt, as well). Yet, they persist, and the braveness of these Israelis, their incredible composure, their resilience, is inspiring.

The next morning, Sunday, we visited the Hadassah Mount Scopus Medical Center. Set among an Arab Section of Jerusalem, the hospital was the site of a massacre of Jewish doctors and nurses during the 1948 War, reopened after the Six Day War, and now treats a broad section of the community, Israeli Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians from the territories.

One of the victims who was being treated at Mount Scopus was a 13-year old Israeli boy who was stabbed and nearly killed by two Arab youth, one of whom was killed by Israeli security forces on the scene the other was successfully treated in the same Emergency Room as the Israeli boy. His parents told us that their son had left to go to the store and was attacked while riding a bicycle in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev. He was taken to the hospital in life-threatening condition, placed in an induced coma and connected to a respirator.

We met the boys’ surgeon, Dr. Ahmed Eid, head of Surgery at Mount Scopus. Dr. Eid is an Israeli Arab. He trained to be a transplant surgeon, but has been devoting more time recently to treating victims of stabbings and gunshots. Dr. Edi told us that the boy only survived because of his youth and strength. (Thankfully, a week after we came home, he was released from the hospital, but still faces a long recovery).

We also met Dr. Osnat Levzion-Korach, the dynamic Director of Hadassah’s Mount Scopus Hospital, who gave us a tour of the hospital’s Emergency Department and showed us the improvised trauma room the ER staff had assembled in recent weeks. The ER doctors we met are practicing state-of-the-art trauma medicine in a 1950’s era facility. Among many lessons I derived from my short trip to Israel, was the tremendous admiration for the generations of Jewish women throughout the world who have supported Hadassah.


Towards the end of our short stay, we visited our sister city Haifa, for a very different perspective. We met the legendary mayor, Yona Yahav, who told us about how signs spontaneously began to appear throughout the city in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian, saying “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies.” We met the leaders of University of Haifa, including President and former El Al CEO, Amos Shapira, and Executive Committee Chair and former Director of Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, who told us about a tent that was erected in the middle of the campus so Jews, Druze and Muslims could speak openly about the current situation. The tensions we saw in Israel were largely absent from Haifa’s campus. Religious Muslim women and IDF officers were sitting and learning in the same classroom.

We also visited Horim Bamercaz, The Parents at the Center, an incredible project of the Boston-Haifa connection, where at-risk parents from poorer neighborhoods of Haifa come together and receive support and mentoring from volunteers and professionals.

If anything gave me hope during our visit, it was seeing the children of Haifa at play and meeting some of their mothers, including recent immigrants from Ukraine, an Orthodox single woman who had to receive permission from her rebbe to participate in the program, and an Israeli Arab, who told the story, through an interpreter, of how during last summer’s Gaza war, she and other Arab mothers kept their kids home from the center until the Jewish Israeli mothers called her up and urged her to come back. She related that the Jewish woman implored her to return because they missed her and her children and the center was not the same without them. So, this fall, when Israel was riven by knifings and assaults, she didn’t really think about keeping her child at home.

By the end of our short trip, there were signs that, maybe the violence had peaked. Unfortunately, this was far from true, as the violence has continued and the death toll continues to mount. As a tragic coda there was the tragic news of yet another Massachusetts native, 18-year old Ezra Schwartz, A”H, who was murdered by gunfire as he was returning from a volunteer outing. His burial was on November 22nd in Sharon. This is heartbreaking.

I close by quoting a recent blog post published in the Times of Israel, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/please-tell-us-we-arent-alone/. The blogger, a young American woman who has made Aliyah to Israel, implores us that “we need to know we aren’t alone – that you’re listening. That our lives matter too. Please – reach out to us even if you disagree with our government — push past that to where we are huddled and trembling and tell us you see us and that you care and that we are not alone.”

In the face of so much despair, of so much violence, this may be all we can do—to let Israel and her people know we care.

Scott Birnbaum – Vice-President, Temple Shalom


Becoming Jacob’s Ladder

Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Parashat Vayetzei, opens with Jacob beating a hasty exit from his family’s house.  We know exactly why Jacob left home so hastily. He was fleeing the wrath of his slightly older, twin brother Esau. In last week’s portion, Jaabat_adom_ladder_normalcob stole Esau’s birthright as first-born by tricking their father Isaac into bestowing the blessing upon him. Hence our portion opens with Jacob fleeing home. In one of the most dramatic passages in all of Torah, the scene of Jacob’s first night away from home, he lies down for the night in a strange place. He dreams a dream that still captivates our imagination to this day. He envisions a ladder stretching from heaven to earth, upon which angels of God are descending and ascending. The dream seemingly spooks Jacob, who awakens with a start, as he comes to recognize the presence of God in his life.

There is so much to say about this powerful story and its many lessons. In the shadow of the horrific events of this past week, I am drawn to focus on Jacob’s reality, namely that Jacob is fleeing for his life, fearing what Esau might do to him. We can understand Jacob’s fear of Esau, and we can understand Esau’s bitterness. In one respect, Jacob’s journey is to go and find himself, before he can return home to become the person and the patriarch he is meant to be.  We all take this journey. For some it’s literal leaving. For others it’s about more of an intellectual or spiritual trek.

In this week’s portion, Jacob becomes a refugee, leaving behind all he has known, from all that is familiar. We have been hearing a great deal about refugees in recent months and years.  It is hard for me not to see some connection between our portion, and the amped-up discussion about the refugees of our day. There can be no doubt that last Friday’s horrific attacks in Paris have heightened anxiety levels and concerns about resettlement of the growing number of refugees, from Syria, the Sudan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is crucial for the leaders of nations in which these refugees seek asylum to carefully screen those who come seeking refuge.  Yet we are seeing these refugees turned into a political football.

yom_hashoah_candleIn a world in which the horrors of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks around the globe are rarely far from our consciousness, it is understandable that concerns are being raised about would-be terrorists using the cover of legitimate refugees to gain access to countries and cities in which their intent is to murder innocent people and wreak havoc and destruction to advance their perverted world-view.  Providing strong safeguards and caution in protecting their citizens is the responsibility of the leaders of every nation. Yet, there is also a broader responsibility. There is a common, humanitarian responsibility we all share towards those fleeing for their lives. We must not ignore that these same terrorists have turned their wrath and destructive impulses upon their “brothers and sisters.”

In our portion, as Jacob is jarred by his dream on that fateful first night of his journey, he takes some comfort in God’s assurance, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)  The overwhelming majority of the refugees of our day want the same assurance. For me, this is where the ladder of which Jacob dreamt comes in.  That ladder represented a bridge between heaven and rainbow20bridgeearth, between the Divine and our human realm.  It is vital that, even as we take extra precautions to see to the safety of our own citizens, we also build that ladder.  We must then become the beings who descend and ascend that ladder. We must become the representatives of that higher moral, humanitarian responsibility to care for our fellow human beings when their lives are endangered, or they have nowhere to turn. Like our father Jacob, the refugees of today want to know they are not alone as they undertake a journey to uncertainty.

We must fight the evil of ISIS and the terrorists they inspire. At the same time, let us not lose sight of the reality that the refugees fleeing for safety want to feel God’s presence. We can be that presence.  Fighting the evil cannot deter us from being the ladder which can bridge heaven and earth, and bringing those seeking safety to a sense of the security Jacob felt as he continues his journey from the spot of his dream.

Shabbat Shalom!

Siblings and Sibling Rivalry: Parashat Toldot

In many ways, Genesis is the most accessible book in Torah.  The book surely contains stories which challenge credulity. It is, nonetheless, a very real book.  As my teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen teaches, Genesis is fundamentally a book about families and relationships within those families.  In one of the several books he has written about Genesis, Self Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (Jewish Lights, 1996), Dr. Cohen unfolds how the families in Genesis mirror so many of the dimensions and conflicts we encounter within our own family relationships and experiences.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9) brings us to the story of the birth Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau.  Even in-utero, a hint is offered that these two children will be a challenging duo as we read:

“Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with Adonai on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and Adonai responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. However, the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of Adonai, and Adonai answered her,

“Two nations are in your womb,

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;

One people shall be mightier than the other,

And the older shall serve the younger.”  (Genesis 25:20-23)

The theme of sibling rivalry prevails throughout the book of Genesis. Think about it. We’ve already read the stories of Cain and Abel, Ishamel and Isaac, and now Jacob and Esau. In a few short weeks we will read of Joseph and his brothers. Each set of siblings presents something of challenges which siblings have in the relationships within the constellation we know as the family.

sacksEarlier this week I was fortunate to be included in a group of Jewish and Christian clergy who were brought together by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and the Harvard Divinity School for a presentation by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  We were invited to come hear Rabbi Sacks discuss his most recent book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015).  While I have read a number of Rabbi Sacks’ earlier works, I had not yet read this one. (I am now!) Neither have I ever had the privilege of hearing him in person. His presentation offered a powerful, inspiring and insightful analysis of the world in which we live and religion’s use and misuse in our world. I came away believing that his is an important voice in our time when we see all too many challenging misuses of religion, and the teachings of religious traditions.

Both in his talk, and the book, Rabbi Sacks focuses on this week’s Torah portion as a place to focus in understanding our world and its troubles. Rabbi Sacks suggests that over the course of the book of Genesis, we are exposed to a dynamic which has long been the focus of examination through the work of students of human psychology such as Sigmund Freud and Rene Girard: the tension within families, most especially the tension between siblings.  Citing Girard, Sacks writes: “Violence is born in what [Girard] calls mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is wanting what someone else has because they have it.” (Not in the Name, pg 87) Sacks goes on to suggest that this desire is not solely manifesting in wanting what someone else has, but is also an expression of “wanting to be what someone else is. Desiring ‘this man’s art, and that man’s scope,’ we wish we were them . . . [This] often leads to violence.” (page 88)

Sacks leads the reader through an examination of the Biblical sibling relationships mentioned above as a way of understanding how it is that we live in a world in which the three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths, which are in essence, sibling faiths, are so at odds. Using the Biblical tales as a backdrop against which to examine human history, and in particular the role of religion in that history, Sacks offers his reader a window into understanding why these relationships are so challenging in today’s world. He also offers suggestions for how we might change the dynamic by reclaiming religion from those who misuse it in the name of furthering their perverted goals of power and domination.

In our Torah portion this week we enter a new phase of these dynamics as they unfold in the story of our people, soon to be known as Yisrael, as in weeks to come Jacob will face his conflicted relationship with Esau, and might we say, God. I’ll be spending some of my Shabbat reading Sacks as I seek to uncover new insights from our ancient story as well as sustenance for facing the challenges of the world in which we live, towards which I turn my attention anew as a new week dawns.

Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Chayei Sarah: The Children of Abraham

SHI LogoI’m just wrapping up six days in Orlando, Florida. It’s a land of so much make believe, none of which I saw. My time in Orlando began with three days of study and reflection with Rabbinic colleagues who have participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. The theme of our learning was “Jewish Values and the Encounter With the Other: Muslims, Christians and Jews in the 21st Century.” Through hevruta text study and enlightening teaching from our Hartman scholars, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, Susannah Heschel and Yossi Klein Halevi, our eyes, minds and souls were opened to new ways to view our engagement with our Christian and Muslim neighbors. One highlight of our retreat was learning about the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). As one of key drivers of this Initiative, Yossi shared the vision, challenges and rewards of the work. He also brought one of the MLI participants to meet with us and share his own journey to participation in this courageous and important venture. Through the MLI, Hartman invites North American Muslim scholars and leaders to come to its campus in Jerusalem for two extended retreats and to engage in several months of online learning.  One goal of MLI is to help participants learn about Judaism and the place of Israel in our Jewish history and narrative.  (You can learn more here: http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-partnership-how-a-bold-american-imam-and-his-skeptical-israeli-host-bridged-the-muslim-jewish-chasm/)

Participants in MLI are not asked to check their own history, nor their narrative at the gates of the Hartman campus. The learning and exchanges are challenging. For some, participation has led to death threats. For others suspicions of their place in their own community is questioned. For Muslims, attending a program in a Zionist-oriented, pro-Israel institute is a risk.  However, there is also risk for the Jewish teachers and leaders who boldly shaped and now lead this program. A cornerstone of the program is the hope that Jews and Muslims might be better prepared to learn with one another and work together in building a just and better world as we live our lives in the North American communities we call home.

Especially against the backdrop of last year’s war with Hamas in Gaza, and this Fall’s wave of terror attacks in Israel, the conversation and relationships are constantly being tested. Yet the trust and appreciation the participants have built in the MLI experience allows for open and frank expression in the context of relationship.

Just before my departure from Biennial I sat with a small group of rabbis who participated in the Hartman retreat earlier this stacked_logoweek, as we gathered with one of the MLI participants who’d come to Orlando to speak at the URJ Biennial.  Maggie, a Muslim leader from Washington, DC, wanted to meet some Hartman rabbis and we were eager to meet her. She shared her story with us, along with some of what she feels she has learned through participating in the MLI. We had many questions. It was quite a lively conversation, one which I was reluctant to leave early. Alas, I had a plane to catch. My dear friend, Rabbi Arnie Gluck, explained to Maggie that in our Torah portion this Shabbat, we read of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac reuniting to bury their father together: This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.” (Genesis 25:7-10) Arnie expressed the hope that perhaps by working together, along with our teachers at the Hartman Institute, we might bring the children Abraham together. As I got up to go, I added, “Before we bury too many more of the children of Ishmael and Isaac.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Finding My Hineini – Parashat Vayera

It’s just over two years since I first ventured into the realm of Mindfulness meditation. At the outset, I didn’t really know that’s where I was headed. I’d signed up for a 5-day Retreat at Kripalu in Stockbridge entitled Whole Self Well-Being. One important component turned out to be meditation. It opened a door through which I have continued to walk ever since. Though I’d never have anticipated it, I found myself drawn to return to Kripalu for two more 5-day retreats, each specifically focusing on meditation. My first year found me doing lots of “reading about” with sporadic, occasionally consistent practice. Since my third retreat in August, I find that hardly a day goes by in which I do not “sit.” Sometimes it’s just for a few minutes. At other times I sit for 20-30 minutes. In so many ways, it’s a surprise to me that this practice speaks to me. But it’s a most welcome surprise.

One of the lessons that my various teachers have shared has to do with allowing your focus to return again and again to the breath. Both Jack Kornfield (January 2014), and Jonathan Foust (August 2015) reminded us again and again, thinking will happen. Notice it, and let it go. I get that. Sometimes I am even able to do it.

One morning, earlier this week, I was sitting on my cushion, listening to the recorded voice guide me through my morning sit. As often happens, my mind does drift into thinking. Most often the focus is on the day ahead and what I have to accomplish. I try to let it go in the moment and return to my breath. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. On this occasion my thinking drifted to our Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18-22). Without a doubt, it’s one of the most pregnant of Torah portions, with story after story clamoring for our attention. I was even wondering what I might share in this post. “Eric,” I reminded myself – “breath. Thinking and writing is for later.” Then it happened. My mind locked on a single word from our portion, Hineini.

Hineini is among the most potent words in our library of stories we call Torah. Hineini – “here I am” (if you prefer, “I am here.) It’s the word Abraham speaks to God in response to God’s call at the opening of Genesis 22, surely one of the most challenging chapters in all of Torah, what tradition knows as Akeidat Yitzchak– ”the Binding of Isaac.” Abraham’s Hineini is understood by generation after generation of readers and commentators as a sign of our Patriarch’s commitment and preparedness to respond to God’s call, “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Hineini – Here I am.” God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah . . .” (Gen. 22:1-2)

As I sat on my cushion, my mind was not focused on Abraham. My mind locked onto the power of Hineini, how that single word, which time and again, draws our attention to one or another Biblical character’s “aha” moment of presence and response. My teacher, Rabbi Norman J. Cohen has written an incredibly powerful book, Hineini In Our Lives (Jewish Lights, 2003) in which he unpacks the fourteen instances in which there is a Hineini moment/response in Torah. He also invites a host of contemporary leaders to share something about the meaning of Hineini from their experience. It’s a great read!

I have had my share of Hineini moments. Sitting on my cushion one morning this week, such a moment came. It was not because of some powerful experience or event. It wasn’t from study of a text and a breakthrough. It wasn’t a powerful life moment such as the birth of a child or the like. It was simply my awakening, my awareness, my breathing. I realized that Hineini is the ultimate in mindfulness focus. I am here! Here I am! I am present . . . in this moment. The sitting, the breathing, and the pause between the notes of my life help me be better prepared to present in whatever my day will bring. Shabbat is upon us – Hineini!

Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Lech L’cha – “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.” (Genesis 13:9)

It must have been around 10 or 12 years ago. I was studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for the first time. It had been years since I had spent any significant free time in and around Jerusalem and I asked friends for ideas of off-the-beaten-path sites I might check out. One friend told me about a relatively new museum which had been created in a building which had once marked the boundary between Jerusalem’s New City, what had been for a long time the “no-man’s land territory” between Israel and Jordan, and East Jerusalem which prior to 1967 was ruled by the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. The building, known as Beyt Turgeman,

Beyt Turgeman as it looks today

which still sits on the line between East Jerusalem and the newer parts of the city, had been turned into “Museum on the Seam.” With rough directions in hand, I set out on foot to find the place. As I wandered more deeply into parts of East Jerusalem than I had visited in decades, I began to wonder if I was lost. I even asked directions. Soon enough I found myself standing in front of the “Museum on the Seam Line” as the banner outside proclaimed.

The next few hours that I spent at the museum (it is not, I should note, a terribly big place) were eye-opening and thought provoking. What I learned over the course of my time during that first (but not last) visit was that the creators of this new museum meant to use the building’s location and history to challenge visitors to confront the reality of different groups sharing space and/or living in close proximity to one another.

MuseumFrontJust inside the entrance, alongside the ticket kiosk, was a large display featuring the text from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech L’cha describing the tension between Abram and his nephew, Lot over whose flocks had the right to graze on which fields. We read: “From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot . . . . Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle . . . Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” (Genesis 13:1, 5-9)

The Museum’s main exhibit, which flowed from this dramatic passage from Genesis proceeded to challenge a visitor’s perception and understanding of co-existence, which remains a major theme in the Museum on the Seam to this day. You can make a virtual visit here: http://www.coexistence.art.museum/Coex/Index.asp

Living as we do, in times of incredible tension, and violence, which challenge the very notion of co-existence, it strikes me that this episode from our portion, and the events about which we are hearing on a daily basis, bespeak the ongoing relevance of the story of Abram and Lot. Clearly there are no simple answers to the current conflict. It’s not as simple as Abram telling Lot he can take his choice and Abram will go in the direction Lot does not choose.

Over the years, Museum on the Seam has become a place to which I return again and again. The lessons it teaches are more far-reaching than the (not-so) simple question of territory. In a world in which lines and boundaries are constantly in flux and changing, the questions, challenges and issues of co-existence laid out in our portion grower sharper and even more challenging as time passes. If nothing else, we need to summon the wisdom of our Patriarch Abram, and at least consider the implications of his words to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Noach

This is my prepared text for my d’var Torah from this past Shabbat.  While I ventured from my text, this conveys the gist of my remarks:

Shabbat Noach – October 16, 2015Noahs_Ark

There is an aspect of our Torah portion this Shabbat, which has long puzzled me. I have trouble understanding why the rabbis who designated the divisions between weekly parshiyot made the decision they did in respect to this week’s portion. The story would make more sense were the first verses of Genesis chapter 6 actually included in the opening of this week’s reading, rather than having been relegated to the tail end of last week’s reading – where, after reading the different creation narratives; the Torah’s tale of Adam and Eve in the garden; the trees; and the story of Cain and Abel – experience suggests to me that those verses tacked on to the end of the reading which really belong with this week’s portion get lost. I see an important bridge from verse 5 at the end of last week’s reading, to a verse just 3 verses into this week’s reading. At the end of last week we read: The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth.” (Genesis 6:5) To me this seems a pretty important part of the setup to the story of Noach we read this Shabbat.  It is so important that it is repeated just after we are introduced to Noach at the opening of this week’s reading: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.” (Genesis 6:11) These verses; and their rationale for why God wrought destruction upon the world about whose creation we read just a week ago echo quite loudly for me on this Shabbat.

Shabbat brings us a pause – a way to demarcate the week now ended as we look forward to a new week; and the myriad opportunities it may hold for us. I must confess that on this Shabbat, while I am here in body, my heart and spirit are very much in Israel. Recent weeks have brought a distinct uptick in violence in Israel – we all know it — I imagine we are paying attention in different ways.  We can’t escape it. This week’s events have ratcheted up the tension, anxiety and frustration.  Just 24 hours IMG_0414ago this Sanctuary was filled to overflowing with a crowd who had come to hear the music of Ehud Banai. Hundreds of Israelis, together with hundreds of American Jews and members of our families and community gathered for what should have been an evening of unbridled joy and artistry.  There was joy; and there was abundant artistry.  But as I made my way around the gathering, both before and after the concert, it was hard not to feel the collective sense of anguish and sense the pall which hangs over our community.

It was a challenging summer. Our Jewish community was deeply divided and anxious about the proposed deal with Iran. As the final days of debate wound down, and we entered our High Holy Days. At the same time knives, screwdrivers, meat cleavers, vehicles, and other implements were unsheathed as individual Palestinians began attacking Israelis, young and old.  Our Holy Day season was marred by reported incidents of attacks. In the days since we marked the end of holy days, the attacks have increased. Israelis, who are, by and large, accustomed to living within the tension that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and which is so present in the larger Middle Eastern context, found themselves afraid to walk the streets of their neighborhoods. They are fearful of shopping in their usual spots in Jerusalem’s Jewish market, Machine Yehuda, or to ride the public buses. The attacks seem random. They are spreading out across the country even as missiles are flying once again from Gaza.  Last night, a band of 100 youths firebombed a sacred site regarded as the Tomb of Joseph, in the Galilean city of Nablus, several damaging the site which is revered by many Jews. This, while accusing Israel of attempting to destroy and/or change the status quo as it relates to the Al-Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount.

Friends, let me clear, I continue to believe that there is room for discussion and debate about the conflict and how Israelis and Palestinians find their way to some sort of co-existence.  Indeed, beginning in January  will offer the third part of the Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Learning series which deals specifically with the conflict. But this moment is not the time for debate.  Now is time to reach out to our Israeli family – our brothers and sisters and make sure they know – “you are not alone.”  This is the time to reach out – by phone, via email; Skype; however we can to those we know and love.  The events of recent weeks have opened a new phase in an asymmetrical conflict. Israel’s leaders do not know how to combat this wave of terror attacks. And the leadership on the other side cannot or will not  stem the tide. But they do have ample pronouncements in which they accuse Israel of acts or intended acts based on lies. The irony is that Israel is not destroying the place the Palestinians hold as sacred, even as Palestinians deliberately destroy a place sacred to Jews.

In the aftermath of a summer of deep division and splintering of our Jewish community, on this Shabbat we stand as one community – praying for our people — and for all innocent people whose lives are being taken, or challenged by a wave of evil — a wave of what our portion might call  Hamas — extreme perversion and hideous violence. I truly wish it would not be a crisis that would draw us together as a community. But a crisis is what we have — as well as a heinous display of evil such as our portion outlines as the rationale for the flood with which God destroys the world.

A 13 year old Palestinian boy lies in an Israeli hospital where he is receiving treatments for wounds he sustained while attacking innocent Israelis.  Who sends a child to commit such an act?  Who teaches children to hate so deeply that they are willing to wantonly destroy and harm anyone in their path?

In the Torah we read, “God saw the evil that was ingrained in humanity.”  Can’t we see it? Can’t we end it? Before that which now flows in trickles becomes a torrent, not of flood waters, but of overflowing rivers of blood as more and more sacred vessels of the image of God are destroyed.

Shabbat Bereishit – The Sound of Your Brothers’ Bloods Cry Out to Me From the Earth

Here is my D’var Torah from this past Shabbat:

It was sometime in the Fall of 1986. I was on my second visit to Jackson, MS; and particularly to Beth Israel Congregation, where I would become the Rabbi in July of 1987. Laura and I were staying with an incredibly gracious elderly couple from the congregation. (They would go on to become dear friends, virtually surrogate parents and grandparents during the five years we would spend in Jackson.) It was just about bedtime and the husband, I’ll call him Joe, called me over so he could show me something. For the next ten minutes he walked me around their large and beautiful home, showing me all the spots in which he had guns, of different shapes calibers and sizes. I was polite, but I was aghast. Later in the same visit I was casually informed that several of the men had been talking and they could not wait to take me hunting. Naive New Yorker that I was I said, “Jews don’t hunt.” “Rabbi, we do hunt. And we can’t wait take you.” To myself (I hope) I muttered, “This Jewboy doesn’t hunt.”

It’s now over 28 years later. I have not been hunting. In fact, I’m not sure I can even remember holding a gun. It’s not on my bucket list. However, as I said in my remarks during the Holy Days, I understand that people can hold differing views about gun ownership and how the accessibility to and ownership of guns should be regulated. I believe that. I also believe that the bell is ringing louder and louder, as gunshot after gunshot rings out, taking one after another innocent life.

Following my remarks on Yom Kippur a member of our community noted that he appreciated the sermon. He also offered that surely I must know that the problem is not gun control and regulation. It’s that we are not adequately addressing mental health issues. It’s now only a handful of weeks since that exchange. In these weeks there have been several more incidents, shootings and threats of violence – on different campuses in different states.

I agree, the matter of how we should approach the discussion and resolution of gun ownership and regulation is a matter of mental health. But I do not mean it in same manner as those who push back against any attempt to hold a debate, let alone pass laws which might reduce gun violence in our nation. There are valid points to be made about restricting access to guns to those with mental health issues and histories. I see the mental health angle from a different perspective. In my eyes the most pressing mental health angle of the gun debate is the sheer insanity of believing that more guns are the answer. It’s the lunacy of believing that we must maintain status quo on the gun control debate, allowing our elected officials and nation, to be held hostage to the powerful gun lobby led by the NRA and backed by the manufacturers of the weapons. To believe that doing nothing to responsibly control access to guns and, expecting the number of deaths to decrease of its own accord is insane. Friends, mental health is an issue in this debate – but not in the ways the NRA and the gun manufacturers suggest. This morning we awoke to news of another shooting at Northern Arizona State University.

DylnaquoteOn Yom Kippur I cited Bob Dylan’s iconic words, “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? Since I spoke those words, one candidate for President has declared that the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon a part of “stuff that happens.” Another posted on his Facebook page, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” These are not responsible responses from leaders seeking credibility and votes for the highest office in our land. I do not intend my comments as partisan commentary on the Presidential race. I would like to see our candidates, on both sides step up and hold a mature, responsible and hopeful productive debate which would move our nation out of the cycle of shootings, recriminations, and intensification of positions.

We all know that this Shabbat we begin the book of Bereishit/Genesis from the beginning. As we often do, we focus on the Torah’s creation narratives, and the role of humanity in God’s world. This Shabbat, this season, I believe we must pay attention to another well-known story from this week’s portion. In Genesis 4 we read the story of the world’s first siblings, Cain and Abel. We read: “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.” (Gen. 4:1-5)
A few verses later we read, “Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” The words that follow cry out to me – Notice me! Learn from me! Pay attention to me! In verses 9 and 10 God asks Cain: “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God responds: “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” The blood, the bloods of those whose lives have been taken by gunfire are crying out to us!

On a visit back in Jackson we made early in our years here in Newton, we visited Joe and his wife. During our visit, Joe sheepishly told me, “One day, my grand-daughter found one of my guns. I’ve gotten rid of all but two and they are locked up.”

Friends, the bloods of those gunned down across our nation cry out to us! When will we respond with sanity and responsibility?

Shabbat shalom!

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Parashat Bereishit – Beginning Again

As we begin our Torah cycle anew, I am picking up a practice which I had for over ten years – of sharing a bit of Food for Thought, relevant to our weekly Torah portion, each week. I hope you enjoy – and I would love to hear comments and see “conversation” evolve as the weeks, months and books go by!

Bereishit2As we return to Genesis, we return once again to a plethora of word-plays, twice-told tales and puzzling stories and texts. One of the puzzling phrases I am often asked about comes from Genesis 1:26-27 wherein we read of the creation of human beings: “And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

The meaning of the words na’aseh adam b’tzalmeynu kid’muteynu – “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” have long been a source of puzzlement. If there is one God, to whom is God speaking. Here are two voices from among the many commentators on this “puzzle”:

The first comes from the teachings of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827). Rabbi Simcha Bunim sees a play on words and teaches: “The word ‘human’ (adam) is related to the word ‘humus’ (adamah). After all was created in magnificence and splendor, God wanted to show off His creations; that all things should perceive everything. But, except for human beings, created existence is not able to perceive anything but itself. Therefore God created the human containing in potential the force of both supernal and mundane elements, so that the human might imagine (l’damot) everything in his/her soul. That is what it means to be human (adam): to see and understand and thereby imagine (v’yidmeh) that which is not like itself. That is the sense of our phrase: na-aseh adam betzalmeinu kidemuteinu, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” – where the last word is formed with the comparative koph. Only that which is somewhat similar (domeh) can perceive and discern the other like it (b’domeh).Sky

A different take is offered by the author of the early modern commentary Or Hachayyim, authored by Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (1696-1742), on Gen. 1:26: “That God said ‘Let us’ in the plural is because the qualities of the Holy Blessed One are multiple. The thirteen qualities of compassion (of which we read in last week’s special Sukkot Torah portion from Exodus chapter 33) and the divine name elohim (God) which is the quality of judgment were in accord in the creation of humankind. That Scripture continues ‘in our image, after our likeness’ may signify that human beings will have both the quality of compassion and of justice to enact both the ways of justice and the ways of mercy as appropriate. – This is confirmed by the verb ‘they shall rule (va-yirdu)’, signifying that the creation (of humans) was in the likeness of the Creator regarding compassion and justice. It is only appropriate (b’din hu) that humans should rule over other creatures, for the human has the quality of compassion for those who deserve and merit it, and to execute justice for those deserving of it.

Two different takes on the verses from our portion – one based on a play on words but ultimately focused on human imagination as a link with the spark of God’s likeness in which we have been created – and the other calling us to recognize that, like God, we must balance justice and mercy. To me, both are interesting questions for us to ponder as we enter Shabbat Bereishit – and begin our study anew.

Shabbat Shalom!

Kol Nidre – The Road to Character

Kol Nidre
September 22, 2015
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

The Road to Character

Gut Yontif – Shanah tovah!
Just over 3 weeks ago we learned of the death of acclaimed author and neurologist, Oliver Sacks. As the NY Times stated in their obituary for him, Sacks “explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories . . . using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.” Like his life, Sacks’ death has touched many. Robin Williams’ powerful portrayal of him in the film “Awakenings” exposed Sacks and his work to a broader audience.

In February, I read a NY Times op-ed Sacks’ published entitled, “My Own Life.” In the piece, Sacks recounted his response to learning that he had terminal cancer. I made a note to myself that his column might be fertile material for a sermon on this very evening when Jewish tradition beckons us to face our mortality. Sacks wrote, “I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face-to-face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted . . . It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” That last bit has stayed with me.

To me, the ending of Sacks’ piece summarizes the core message of this day of Yom Kippur. None of us ever knows when we will draw our last breath. None of us knows how many pages are left for us to write on in tradition’s metaphorical “Book of Life.” To paraphrase Oliver Sacks, it is up to us, each of us, how to live out the life that is to be ours. On this most sacred day of our Jewish year, each of us is called to assess our lives. We are called to answer the question, How do I want to live my life “in the richest, deepest, most productive way [I] can?”

A book I was very excited to read this summer was NY Times columnist David Brooks’ latest work, The Road to Character. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, “Brooks’ writing often makes me stop and think, even when I don’t agree with him.” I read Brooks because he always challenges my sense of perspective. I believe The Road to Character is an important book. On this Kol Nidre night I want to lift up a powerful, and central part of his thesis. Brooks posits that we live our lives by two different sets of virtues: what he calls “Resume virtues” and “Eulogy virtues.” He writes, “Resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to [your] external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues.” He proceeds to “confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former.” Brooks contends that we live in a world which celebrates the resume values, and demands that we enhance those values. Think about it for a moment. Which set guides you in your daily life?

Over the last 35 years, I have written hundreds of eulogies. There have been times while preparing a eulogy that my mind would drift to wondering what might be said at my funeral. With his book Brooks handed me – and hands all of us – a useful framework for reflecting on our lives along with Oliver Sacks words, “It is [now] up to us now to choose how to live out the [time granted us.] [We each must] live in the richest, deepest, most productive way [we] can.” This is the focus to which we are called on this day of Yom Kippur. As we engage in heshbon ha-nefesh – taking stock of our soul, of our life, we should each ask ourselves David Brooks’ question, “By which set of virtues am I living?” This is what we must ask ourselves today. Am I on the path I want to be on? Am I living the legacy I intend to leave my loved ones when it comes time for someone to reflect on my life?

Part of what drew me in as I read Brooks’ book earlier this summer was the fact that in unpacking his notion of resume and eulogy values, he drew on one of the most powerful Jewish theological works of the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. I studied it in college, again in Rabbinic school, and I’ve returned to it over the years. Often referred to simply as “the Rav,” Soloveitchik was one of the most important figures in Modern Orthodoxy, and Jewry in a larger sense during the 20th century. He was an important figure here in the Boston Jewish community as he was the head of the Maimonides School.

In Lonely Man of Faith, Soloveitchik writes of a distinction between two paradigmatic figures in the Creation narratives as we read them in the opening chapters of Genesis. He names these figures Adam I and Adam II. Soloveitchik compares and contrasts these two models as emblematic of the struggle central in each human life. Brooks borrows these two figures to flesh out his two models of virtue. He names Adam I as the career-oriented, ambitious, largely externally focused person. Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover things. There are measures of Adam I in each of us. It is driven, at least in part, by the yetzer ha-rah which is often described as “the inclination to evil. However, over the centuries teachers have noted that describing yetzer ha-rah simply as “evil” is too facile. In the Talmud we are taught that the yetzer ha-rah plays an important role in human creativity. I’ll say more about it tomorrow morning.

Adam II, as Soloveitchik presents it, and Brooks elaborates, is the more internally focused person. Adam II wants to attain a serene inner character and may outwardly appear quiet. Adam II has developed a solid sense of right and wrong. For Brooks, this is the person who is not driven, or is at least not primarily driven by the desire to attain worldly success. Adam II sees success as having a transcendent, sacred purpose. Adam I wants to know “how do things work?” Adam II seeks to understand “why things exist.” Adam I’s motto is “success.” For Adam II “life is a moral drama.” Adam II is driven by charity (or might we say tzedek and tzedakah), love and redemption. Consciously or not, each of us struggles with both of these natural human inclinations. Rav Soloveitchik writes that “we live in the contradiction between Adam I and Adam II.” To this Brooks adds, our task in life is to master the art of living between these two sides of human nature.

Brooks recounts the stories of a number of figures, some well-known, others lesser-known so that we can witness how certain people have lived the struggle along “the road to character.” In each chapter Brooks focuses on a particular dimension of character: for example, Self-Conquest, Struggle, Self-Mastery, Dignity, Love, and Self-Examination, and more. Through telling the stories of different people, some well-known, others less so, to unpack these characteristics. I thought it might have been subtitled “Profiles in Character.” By book’s end, David Brooks has laid out a curriculum, as it were, for pursuing character development. Indeed, in his final chapter he offers a summary of his key points. Each point could have been a stepping off point for a worthwhile message on this holy day.

In our busy lives, many of us do not take, or make the time for reflection. We do not pause often enough for introspection, for heshbon ha-nefesh – the soul work our tradition prescribes as a healthy part of living. This soul work is not relegated solely to this day of Yom Kippur, or in a larger sense, these Days of Awe. Jewish tradition erects a framework to enable us in this self-reflection. We must each embrace the paths that suit us. It may be through worship; by engaging in regular study; or by the work of tzedek, the pursuit of justice. Last year ago I spoke of mussar as one of our tradition’s pathways to examining and perfecting ourselves. While reading Brooks I realized mussar can be viewed as a Jewish Road to Character. The opportunity for self-reflection can come by entering what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “the palace in time,” Shabbat, which can aid us in slowing down, stepping back, and reflecting. In today’s world we are educated and pushed to enhance our Adam I side. We are encouraged to pursue our resume virtues. A successful life is so often defined as a life of material success and recognition of that success by those around us. Yom Kippur calls us to embrace our Adam II side. This Holy Day, its liturgy, and most especially the Viddui/Confession calls us to focus on that more internal landscape. Viddui is our tradition’s acknowledgement of human frailty. In the eyes of our tradition it is inevitable that we will, in the course of living our lives, fail in one, and often more ways. Our communal confession pushes us to consider our sense of purpose, our place in the human moral drama of life. In our quieter moments, we allow ourselves to turn inward and face our hearts and souls, our lives as individuals. We are called to check our internal moral compass. With each High Holy Day season we promise to make adjustments that will play an important role as we steer ourselves into and through the New Year for which we pray we will be inscribed in the Book of Life. Then we charge back out into the fray of daily life.

On this day, we should ask ourselves: What is my intention for the year ahead? Will I focus only on my resume values? Will I also think and act in regard to my eulogy values? Am I only working on Adam I or can I also set as a goal, work on my Adam II side? Brooks admits that he wrote the book as an act of challenging himself as he is not sure he can follow the path of character. By sharing his act of self-reflection, I believe he has offered us a model and given us all a framework with which to engage ourselves in this significant act of self-examination. Come sundown tomorrow, as we stream out of the synagogue and into the New Year we can choose the ways in which we will each continue the process of reflection and course correction.

One final notion David Brooks presents is what he calls a “Crooked timber” approach to life. He brings this notion from a teaching of philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Brooks uses this notion of “crooked timber” to reflect what he terms a “moral realist’s” approach to the reality that we are all flawed. “Character,” writes Brooks, “is built in the struggle against [our] own weaknesses.” A “crooked timber” approach to life does not excuse failings. It acknowledges that we are, all of us, to varying degrees weak, foolish, and sometimes “just plain inexplicable.” Living as “crooked timber” is acknowledging and accepting that we are, each of us, in some way broken. Our Adam II side asks us to approach this brokenness and the struggle to perfect ourselves and to repair what is broken which can lead us to a strengthening our character. It can help us strike the appropriate balance between resume and eulogy virtues; between our Adam I and our Adam II side. There is no single path for each and every person. Each of us has our own struggles to meet; our own challenges to face. Yet, the power of relationship and community allows us each to walk our particular path without facing the struggle of life alone.

This day we take a long hard look at ourselves. The Road to Character, both for David Brooks, and for our Jewish tradition passes again and again, through life in the world; through our daily interactions with family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers. May we carry our words of contrition during this Yom Kippur away as this day fades and turn to living in what we pray will be a year of manifold blessings. May we live the commitments we make this day – to one another, to God, and perhaps most importantly, to ourselves. May we carry Oliver Sacks’ words as a charge for life in the year before us: It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me! I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

G’mar Hatimah tovah
May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life
for a year of sweet blessings and shalom!

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