The Truth Is . . . (Yom Kippur Morning sermon, October 12, 2016)

In the summer of 2005, I made the first of two trips to the fascinating city of Prague in the Czech Republic.  That first visit came as a rabbinic chaperone for 600 NFTYites who were setting out on their summer adventure. The journey would take them from several days in the Czech Republic learning about the life of our people in Europe, to Cyprus where we hebrewclock04boarded a boat (at 4 am I might add) to set sail for Israel. It’s really about a half-day trip. However, so the NFTYites could learn about the boatloads of refugees who tried, some in vain, to make it to Israel seeking refuge from the ravages of Eastern Europe, we spent three days going in circles in the Mediterranean Sea. Our arrival was greeting by faux-British airplanes and boats seeking to block entry to these “refugees.” (Think “Exodus”)  Once in Israel the teens spent the next 4 weeks visiting Israel from top to bottom. I headed for Jerusalem to study. I jumped at the chance to accompany the NFTY groups because it afforded me that first opportunity to see Prague, as well as the Nazi Concentration Camp of Terezin, some 50 miles from the Czech capital.

Prague is a magical place. It is beautiful. Its Jewish Quarter was virtually untouched by the horrors of World War II.  We cannot say the same for the city’s Jewish inhabitants, who were deported en masse to Terezin. Yet, Prague’s synagogues, Jewish cemetery, and more were spared destruction. One lingering image of my visit comes from the city’s association with an important 16th century Rabbi by the name of Judah Loew. Rabbi Loew (whose grave is in that old Jewish cemetery), is best known as the popularizer of the legend of the Golem.

The Golem might be viewed as our tradition’s equivalent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While the concept of a golem can be traced back to early rabbinic times, it was Rabbi Loew’s telling that brought this figure literarily and symbolically to wider attention.  His golem was a sort of superhero, made from a lifeless mass, brought to life, and set on a mission to deliver the Jewish community from difficult and dangerous circumstances.  In golem_by_philippe_semeria_539_332_c1Rabbi Loew’s formulation of the narrative, the creature is brought to life by inscribing the Hebrew letters Aleph-Mem-Tav on his forehead.  These letters form the Hebrew word emet, or truth. Elsewhere, tradition teaches us that “Truth is God’s Signature,” or perhaps God’s ultimate reality. Should the golem become uncontrollable, or a danger to the Jews, it could be deactivated by erasing the letter aleph, simply leaving the word Met or “dead” on its forehead, returning it to being a shapeless mass. On the streets of Prague, and in all of the gift shops, even beyond the Jewish Quarter, one finds little figurines representing the Golem – one of Prague’s claims to fame – in all shapes and sizes.  I was bemused by the ever-present totems.  I didn’t buy one.  But I have to say, the legend has been much on my mind of late.

Well, it’s not really the Golem I have been pondering. Rather it’s the word inscribed on the forehead of this mythic figure that I’ve been thinking, reading and studying about in recent weeks and months. In particular I have been studying Jewish teachings on the value of emet, truth.  Emet is one of the middot, or soul-traits of the Mussar literature and practice. Some of you have explored it with me in our mussar groups over the past two years. In these complicated times, I suspect I am not the only one thinking about the meaning of truth.

 As I noted last night, when asked to comment about the lessons of her battle against Holocaust-denier David Irving for our cacophonous times, Professor Lipstadt stated: “There is a difference between facts, opinions, and opinions based on lies.”  If I were to recast that statement in light of my study of Jewish teachings on emet, I might put it this way: There is a difference between God’s Truth, which we cannot fully know; opinions, which are a part of our God-given capacity to think and articulate how we see the world before our eyes; and lies, which are virtually always destructive for both the liar and those to whom the lies are spoken.

Jewish tradition does countenance what we might call “little white lies” in situations wherein a small lie will do less damage than the clear truth.  In the Talmud we read of a famous debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai over whether it’s permissible to shade the truth when addressing a bride on her wedding day. Shammai, ever the strict, authoritarian figure teaches one must speak the absolute truth, even if it means harming the feelings of the bride, diminishing her special day.  By contrast, Hillel suggests that one must always praise the beauty of a bride on her wedding day. Shading the truth supersedes being completely honest, out of sensitivity to the feelings of the bride. The difference between truth, opinions and opinions based on lies is a powerful theme for our time. I’d like to share three examples of how I believe we can challenge ourselves to see the differences.

holocaust-museumOn Rosh Hashanah I spoke about my trip in August to Berlin. For about a day and half before the Rabbinic mission began I had the opportunity to explore the city and visit a number of its important sites. I had never been to Germany, save for changing planes on our first Temple Shalom Israel trip in 2004. I was hesitant about visiting a place which for so long had been about as far down on my list of places to see as it could be. Yet, the opportunity to participate in that mission in regard to the Syrian refugees pushed me past my qualms about going to Germany.  On my first day, and numerous times in the days that followed I had the opportunity to visit Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is a breathtaking site. Beyond the site itself, it was striking to me that the Germans had chosen to name the memorial so honestly.  As several guides explained, in naming the memorial as being dedicated to “the murdered Jews of Europe” the nation was owning its past and its transgressions. Rather than attempting to soften the historical reality they are saying, “As a nation, are responsible for the destruction of over 6 million European Jews. We will own that truth.” It was inspiring. While not God’s Truth, Germany’s decision to so name the memorial speaks truth, even as that truth is still painful and challenging to fully comprehend.

Last year, our Newton community was visited by a number of incidents involving hateful graffiti, ugly chants at a high school basketball game, and even more recently, the display of a Confederate flag by some students from Newton North High School. There was a rather vigorous response to these incidents late last Winter and throughout the Spring.  There were gatherings for parents at the Day Middle School where the initial graffiti incidents took place, and for the larger community at City Hall in early May. Some saw the incidents as harbingers of a rise in anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech. Let’s be clear. There is a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in our nation and world today. There has also been a rise in racially-motivated hate crimes.

Back in the Spring there was cacophonous debate over the handling of the incidents in our schools. There are a variety of opinions about how the principal of Day Middle School, School Superintendent, Dr. Fleischman, Mayor Warren and others handled these incidents and their aftermath. The incidents are hurtful and should not be simply swept under the rug.  At the same time, there are different views, even among leaders of groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Facing History and Ourselves, the American Jewish Committee and others about how best to address such incidents. Many people were respectful of the varying opinions around our community. At the City Hall gathering, the best responses were those of the students themselves. They conducted themselves with dignity and clear-thinking about how we heal and move past these incidents.

Yet, there were disturbing signs as well. In some responses, at the Day Middle School, at City Hall, and in various media outlets there was evidence of Professor Lipstadt’s third category – facts based on lies. This was not a complete surprise. Our community proved to be a mirror of the larger climate in our nation. Politics always seems to involve some measure of stretching and bending the truth. Yet I wonder, is this worse in our time?  Opinions based on lies, “it’s true because I say it’s true” is a part of the zeitgeist of our times. With the spread in recent decades of the internet, social media, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of digital media, we live in a world wherein truth is all-too-often determined by the ability to broadcast one’s message, irrespective of any basis in fact.

Our current Presidential Election has far-too-often been conducted in this third category. To me, it’s deeply troubling. When I can say one thing today, deny I said it tomorrow, and my denial becomes truth, we are on shaky ground. The movie about Professor Lipstadt is, I believe, aptly titled.  “Denial” – of facts, of scientific evidence, of historical realities, of the words I said – whatever, it’s a deeply troubling turn we’ve taken as a society.  If this is the “new normal” when it comes to public discourse, how will we teach younger generations to research, to examine history, faith traditions, sociological patterns so long as anyone can proclaim “my statement of my view is no longer simply a matter of opinion. It is “the truth,” and the only truth that matters.  How will we ever turn this tide?  I have no large-scale answers. But I do believe that in some way the process begins with each of us, starting with ourselves.

 On this Day of self-examination, I urge us each to face ourselves as honestly as we possibly can. Let us tear away the masks behind which we sometimes hide. Let us own the truths of our lives, not the prettified version we tell ourselves and others, but rather the honest truth – or as we might say in Yiddish­das emes.

Emet has been a driving value in our tradition since Biblical times. The Psalmist wrote: “God is close to all who call upon God, to all who call upon God in truth. (Ps. 145:18) Our liturgy calls out, “Purify our hearts in truth.”  Psalm 15, which is often read as part of the funeral service asks: “Who may ascend Your Holy Mountain? The one who walks uprightly and performs righteousness, and speaks the truth within his heart.” (Ps. 15: 1-2) In a 15th 3207_2century Mussar text, Orchot TzaddikimThe Ways of the Righteous, which I have been studying for almost a year on a weekly basis with my study partner, the author elaborates on this passage from Psalm 15.  In the chapter on the Soul Trait of Emet he writes, “It is not written, ‘speaks the truth with his mouth.’ The idea is that emet/truth must be implanted and fixed within a person’s heart.”  Truth is not just about what we say. It is the honesty with which we face life and all of its messiness, with truth in the depths of our hearts.

Human beings make mistakes. We misspeak. We exercise poor judgment. This day is about facing our shortcomings truthfully. It’s about coming clean – with ourselves, with those around us, and from the vantage point of tradition, with God. If we can pursue truth with honesty, we can reorient ourselves. Having done so, perhaps we strengthen ourselves so as to be capable of heading back out into the world able to face dishonesty with honesty, to fight lies with emet. With it all, we must always recognize, as Moses Maimonides would teach, that we limited human beings are not ultimately capable of seeing, knowing, or even consciously speaking absolute truth.  We are only asked to be the best we can, given our human limitations.

The hateful speech and widespread dishonesty in our society deadens us – as individuals and as a nation.  Rather than allow the aleph of emet to be erased from our foreheads, allowing ourselves to be turned into lifeless, thoughtless lumps of clay, let us embrace our God-given capacity for rational thought and human expression.  Let us pursue truth, with honesty, with openness to divergent opinions and respect for the dignity of the other. Hopefully we can tilt our community, our nation and our world towards wholeness.  Rather than allow ourselves to be turned into golems, let us fully embrace our humanity, and pursue emet/truth as we prepare ourselves for a year of learning, living, celebration, deeds of lovingkindness and justice, and let us pray, our world for that wholeness and healing we call shalom!

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For Everything That Matters, Carry On (Kol Nidre Sermon, October 11, 2016)

Friends, I confess this has been one of my most difficult seasons over the course of nearly 40 seasons of preparing, in one form or another, to stand before a community. There’s no shortage of material ripe for messages from the bimah this year. In Social Media, and in private, rabbis around the country have been wrestling with what to address during these Holy Days. We live in a complicated time. The world around us is noisy and chaotic. Our world and nation are filled with strife, conflict, deep division and ugly, hate-filled rhetoric.

Each year, I begin gathering ideas and materials for the next year, almost as soon as the Holy Days end. I clip articles. I make lists of ideas. I attend seminars with wise teachers intended to kindle sparks among those in attendance. I read a lot over the summer. In many respects, I prepared for this year no differently than any other. The late secular date of these days has been helpful – for those who like to procrastinate, and for others, like me, who have really struggled with what to say. On Kol Nidre night, I always seek a message that speaks to the heart of Yom Kippur. We spend more hours together in synagogue on this day than at any other time of the year. In our gathering there is a profound and important sense of aloneness. On this day we are called to turn inward, beckoned to assess our lives with brutal honesty and searing soul-searching.

Over the past year I have been more deeply troubled than at any other point in my life by the world and times in which we live. Most especially, the overpowering shadow of our national elections has, at times, thrust me into despair. I truly believe that no matter the final outcome of this year’s Presidential election, our nation will be even more deeply divided than at any other point in my lifetime and memory. No matter who captures 270 Electoral College votes on November 8th, I believe we will see the chasm in our nation grow. I fear we may see violence. I hope I am wrong. I believe in our country and strongly believe in our democracy, and the values we hold as a nation. But I fear the restlessness, venom, hatred, and xenophobia that have been stirred in the tempest of this particular election season.

I will not stand here and tell you for whom I believe you should cast your vote. I do implore you to vote on November 8th. This is a time of great consequence in our nation’s journey. I have no crystal ball. I do have a deep-seated belief that each and every one of us who is entitled to vote must do so. For me, participating in our democratic process is always a responsibility. I would even elevate it, in a Jewish sense of responsibility, to the level of mitzvah, of sacred responsibility. I also believe we must each play a role in the healing I pray will come post-November 8th and post-January 20th.

So what can I say on this holiest of nights that will touch our hearts and souls? The answer to that question eluded me for weeks, even months. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night searching for an answer. In part, one answer came as I sat in a darkened auditorium several weeks ago in an audience invited for a sneak preview of the new motion picture Denial. The film tells the story of author and historian Deborah Lipstadt’s courageous and scary battle in a London courtroom 16 years ago as she and her legal team defended truth against the lies of a well-known Holocaust denier by the name of David Irving about whom Lipstadt had written in her acclaimed work, Denying the Holocaust.

A provocateur, Irving, chose to sue Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin Books for libel. A renowned professor of history at Emory University, and an award-winning author, Lipstadt learned that the British courts flip the burden of proof to place it squarely on the shoulders of the accused. She feared that if she were found guilty, the impact would be on more than her reputation. She, along with many Holocaust survivors, worried that an Irving victory would in essence declare that the Holocaust is fiction, or its reality merely “an opinion.” The stakes were high. At the talk-back following the screening of Denial, which I urge you to see, Professor Lipstadt was asked what she had learned from her experience, and how she feels it applies to our time. She replied: “There is a difference between facts, opinions, and opinions based on lies.” Her words were a direct hit for me. She spoke to a part of what I view as our national malady as we sort through our political morass.

Her words also spoke to me about the meaning of these Days of Awe. We need to face decisions in our lives and our world with openness and honesty. To do so, we must first start with ourselves. Before we assess the words, and positions of others – even those closest to us, we must check our own hearts, our own words and deeds, our own souls. This is the essence of this Day of Atonement.

Thinking about Professor Lipstadt’s story, and her words to the audience at the Kendall Square Cinema, I was reminded of a note I had made to myself earlier in the summer while reading a book which languished on my shelf for a number of years. The book was Erica Brown’s In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks. The Three Weeks refer to the period in the Jewish calendar beginning with the 17th Day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, when in 586 BCE, the Babylonians breached the outer walls of the city of Jerusalem. The day is a fast day, and the Three Weeks then stretch on to the 9th Day of the Hebrew month of Av, the date on which the Babylonians finally reached and destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem. By some quirk of history, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE on the very same date, the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’av as it is known. It, too, is a fast Day. Indeed, Tisha B’av is likened to this Day of Yom Kippur in its intensity. In more traditional communities, the Three Weeks become a period of intense focus on Jewish history and some of the darker periods in that history. In these communities, weddings and other joyous occasions are generally not scheduled. Once the month of Av begins, many traditional Jews refrain from eating any meat, also a sign of spiritual preparation and mourning. As a lifelong Reform Jew and a Rabbi, these Three Weeks have mostly been relevant when I find myself in Israel where many around me are observing, to some degree, the strictures of this period. By contrast, Tisha B’av has been in my life since my earliest years attending a Jewish overnight camp.

I decided to read Brown’s book as she intends it to be read, a small piece each day during the Three Weeks. Brown invites the reader to reflect on themes raised by this period and what, if any, place they have in our lives today. Ironically my reading and reflection spanned the days of my trip to Berlin which fell towards the end of the Three Weeks. The reading and reflection in those days and in that setting took on an additional layer of meaning I could not have predicted.

On Day 3 Brown writes on the importance of lists in our lives, “We love to make lists, to categorize and organize our complex universe and our responsibilities within.” She goes on to examine a number of lists found in our Hebrew Bible and later Rabbinic sources wherein we are offered checklists of values around which to order our lives. She begins with a passage from the Talmud (Makkot 24a) in which the Rabbis depict King David reducing all of the mitzvot to 11 core ethical principles, including:

• Walk in perfect innocence
• Work righteously
• Speak the truth from your heart.
• Have no slander on the tongue.
• Do no harm to your fellow.

The Talmud proceeds to offer up examples of Biblical figures who represent these virtues. Brown then brings texts which reflect the time-honored rabbinic parlor game of reducing the list to as few values as possible. Isaiah reduces the list from 11 virtues to 6. In another passage we know, Micah (6:8) teaches, “Do justice; Love mercy, and Walk humbly with your God” – down to 3. We know Rabbi Hillel is reputed to have summarized all Jewish teaching with the maxim, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”

Brown does not stop here. She writes: “God, too, has a list. It’s not a happy list, but rather a catalog of the habits of the religious heart. In the book of Proverbs, we find a list of behaviors that God despises, a catalogue of human weaknesses and failings that keep us distant from justice and righteousness.” In Proverbs chapter 6 we read:

“God hates six things:
A haughty bearing
A lying tongue
Hands that shed innocent blood
A mind that hatches evil plots
Feet quick to run to evil
A false witness testifying lies
And one who incites brethren to quarrel.”

Reading those words anew in July, I was struck by their potency for our time. But it’s too facile to simply look at our political figures and judge their behaviors and misbehaviors. To be sure they are of concern. I found myself reflecting on my own life and the meaning of those words in my life.

I began asking myself where I am in relation to these behaviors. Sitting in that darkened theater listening to Professor Lipstadt, “There is a difference between facts, opinions, and opinions based on lies,” I found myself connecting the dots. I am still engaged in that process as this Yom Kippur lies before me. They are questions which we might all ask ourselves and characteristics against which we might each measure ourselves as we struggle to be brutally honest and allow the process of searing soul-searching to truly take root on this Holy Day.

One last thought. At some point between reading Erica Brown in July and August, and seeing Denial in mid-September, I was driving in my car. As I often do, I was listening to the radio. My radio blared with the endless bleating of political narishkicht. I could no longer listen. I switched over to music on my phone. The song which initially came on, seemingly at random, reminded me why, even in these dark times, I cannot allow despair to hold me firmly in its grip. I listened as Peter Yarrow’s voice emerged from my speakers with words I know so well. They’re words I have sung so often. I truly needed to hear it anew in the depths of this summer’s all-too-present darkness:

You say that you are fearful for the future
And you have grown suspicious of the past.
You wonder if the dreams we shared together
Have abandoned us or we abandoned them.
And you cast about and try to find new meaning
So that you can feel that closeness once again.

Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend
Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end . . .

You remember when you felt each person mattered
When we all had to care or all was lost.
But now you see believers turn to cynics
And you wonder was the struggle worth the cost.
Then you see someone too young to know the difference
And a veil of isolation in their eyes.
Inside you know you’ve got to leave them something
For the hope for something better slowly dies.

Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend
Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end . . .
So it may come again, carry on.

Friends, on this holiest of days, let us open our hearts and souls in brutal honesty. Let us examine our words, our deeds, our lives. Let us each form our list – what am I committing to changing in the New Year before me? What values, or soul traits will I work on in this New Year? Then let us stream into the year ahead committed to living the virtues we rehearse in our liturgy and hearts this day. Let us remember our sacred obligations to love justice, and seek mercy. Let us continue to pursue truth, recognizing that our neighbor may see and interpret that differently than we do. Let us vote – however we each choose, on November 8th. Then we must commit ourselves to working together to heal the rifts that divide our nation. Let us carry on, for we have got to leave our children and grandchildren something better.

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Yes, It Troubles Me Greatly! (Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon – October 3, 2016)

Gut Yontif! Shanah tovah!

It is wonderful to be together on this first day of our Jewish New Year. We’ve waited longer than usual for its arrival. May it be a fulfillment of the adage, “good things come to those who wait.” May 5777 be a year filled with good tidings, good health, sweet blessings, times of joy and celebration with family and friends, as well as here in our Shalom family. I pray it will be a year in which we move towards greater civility, broader justice and real peace.

On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we were privileged to play host to Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem here at Temple Shalom. That night Rabbi Hartman shared a story from his time in the Israeli Defense Forces I’d not previously heard. Donniel served in the Tank Corps during the First Lebanon War in 1982. Over the years I have heard him recount numerous memories of his difficult experiences in the IDF. On September 11th we heard about a particularly brutal battle after which Donniel was one of very few survivors from his unit. After the episode, the surviving members of the unit were redeployed some distance from the site of the battle to the 7484245shore of Lake Qaroun in Lebanon. In relative safety, and away from the frontline, on Shabbat Donniel and his fellow soldiers began exploring their surroundings which he describes as one of the most beautiful sites he has ever seen. Disturbingly, they came upon a number of Syrian corpses floating in the lake. This was jarring against the beauty of the place.

Troubled by the disconnect between Jewish tradition’s mandate to bury the dead, and the sight of countless corpses before his eyes, Donniel sought out his unit’s chaplain. He asked whether they might bury the Syrian corpses. The Rabbi was unmoved. “Does this really trouble you?” he asked. Donniel immediately understood that “the heat of battle was not the ideal setting for [a debate over] moral sensitivity.” He walked away deeply disturbed by his chaplain’s harsh response. Perhaps, he thought, the chaplain’s religious faith does not provide enough God to go around.” As Donniel told us on the night of September 11th, that sight and his encounter with his unit’s chaplain haunts him to this day. As I heard him tell that story it struck a chord within me. That is not just a story about an event almost 35 years ago. It resonates powerfully today.

As many of you know, in early August I set out for Berlin, Germany to participate in a Rabbinic mission to engage with those on the frontlines of the Syrian refugee crisis in Germany. Much of the work is taking place under the leadership of IsraAid, orglogoan incredibly courageous and inspiring organization with whom I have become more familiar in recent months. Virtually any time we hear of a crisis, almost anywhere in the world – an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in Asia, the August earthquake in Italy, IsraAid is almost always the first group on the scene, bringing strategic humanitarian aid to those who are suffering. IsraAid is a truly inspiring group of Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze, and Muslims hearing the call to help the stranger and comfort those in desperate straits. In the time I spent with the leaders of IsraAid, the staff of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, and especially with the refugees I met, a truly horrific crisis was transformed from a mere news story into a real, living and painful human drama.

One group of refugees me met were Druze from the same Syrian village. The Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam and there are many Druze living in Israel. Some of you have visited Druze homes and communities with me on past Israel trips. The leader of IsraAid’s efforts in Germany is Samuel Schidem. As I came to learn, Samuel is a Druze Israeli who hails from the Druze village of Usifiya, which is on the outskirts of Haifa. I know Usifiya, and the neighboring village of Daliyat el-Karmel quite well. Samuel has now lived in Berlin for 13 years. He served, as most Israeli Druze do, in the IDF. He now directs the efforts at aiding and comforting the countless numbers of Syrian refugees who have taken refuge in Germany. These refugees have been taken in as result of the leadership of German Chancellor Andrea Merkel. To be sure, her policies are hotly contested in Germany. This was very much in evidence during my time in Berlin, which was shortly before their elections.

We know all-too-well that the issue of immigration, and opening our borders to refugees is no simple matter in our own country. Polls show immigration policy near the top of the list of concerns across our nation. This morning I want to set the politics aside. While I surely believe there is much to discuss on a political level about our nation’s approach to immigration; to the many immigrants already within our borders; and the question of how many and who might we allow in going forward, this morning I want to reflect on our world, and the enormity of the humanitarian crisis our world faces. I want to address what I see as our responsibilities as a Jewish community.

Our people have all-too-often sought refuge, fleeing harm’s way, and those who would destroy children, women and men because of they were Jews. To me, this moment in history demands serious reflection. For me, this complex issue is a piece of same gut-wrestling that Rabbi Donniel Hartman felt as he looked at the bodies floating in Lake Qaroun in 1982. His impulse was to honor those dead, reflections of the image of God, in keeping with the values with which he had been raised by his parents. His conscience ached at his chaplain’s callousness to the possibility that as Jews and Israelis, there might still lie responsibility with reap_7323887594601spect to the bodies of dead from the other side. What do our consciences say?

Think for a moment if you will, back a year to the myriad images of refugees washing up on the shores of Lesbos. There were so many horrifying images of those who’d taken flight from Syria, making their way through Turkey, and onto flimsy rafts and boats, owned by men simply looking to make money by selling passage to these refugees, who bore only what they could carry. Think back to the image of the dead three-year old boy whose lifeless body washed up on the shore of Lesbos. There was a cry of shock around the world at that sight. Yet little came of it. Think back to earlier this summer when the image of a five-year old boy sitting amidst the bombed out ruins of his home in Aleppo, Syria, flashed around the world. Again, there was outrage. Yet again, little has been done. In Berlin we visited a rather extensive remaining section of Berlin Wall. One side has been turned into an open air exhibition of photos and stories of individuals and families whose lives have been devastated by these past years in Syria. It was haunting. I cannot shake the image Donniel Hartman shared with those of us gathered on September 11th, of bodies floating in what he described as the most beautiful of settings. The juxtaposition is haunting. I cannot shake the countless images we have seen in our various news media of dead bodies – a three-year-old child; of older children, and of adults, young and old, who have lost their lives to the madness consuming much of the Middle East which goes by the names of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations.

There is so much brokenness in our world. I often find myself despondent at the state of humanity – around the world, and even here in our own country. According to our Jewish calendar, today is meant to be a day of great joy, celebration and awakening. On this day of new beginnings, I cannot hear the sound of the shofar and not hear it calling me, calling us, to awaken to what is going on around us.

Much has been made in the political arena about the dangers of opening our borders to refugees from Syria. This, even though statistics show that very few refugees have committed acts of terror. Xenophobia courses through our land, fed by half-truths and lies. How many times were our people turned away because of who they were? The St. Louis, a boat-load of some 900 Jewish refugees, including one of our own members, Ruth Forrest, was turned away by every nation in the Western Hemisphere, including our own. That horrific journey would later be immortalized in book and film as “The Voyage of the Damned.”

The refugees with whom I sat in Berlin, whose pictures we were not permitted to take because they still fear the enemy who has driven them from their homes and land will come for them, told bone-chilling stories. Some fled with their children. All fled with the little they could carry in order to attempt to start life over. Some spoke of having left families behind, with the hope that they would soon earn enough to be able to pay the bounty so their loved ones could join them in freedom and security. We asked one refugee, Shoki, “Why did you chose to leave your village?” He replied, “There are but 7 kilometers between our village and ISIS. ISIS considers us godless, and is merciless towards anyone who does not embrace their beliefs.” Shoki still cannot sell his house for fear of ISIS. The sale may lead to him. He works as hard as he can to find a job so that he will be able to bring his family to Berlin. Tears streaming down his face, he spoke of his constant fears that his children could be killed at any time. Khardun had been a lifeguard in Syria and spent 12 years on the National Swim Team of Syria. Since the rise of ISIS he was barred from competition because he is Druze, even though the Druze religion is based on a variant of Muslim faith. Khardun lost his job in his family’s business, and left his village for Damascus in search of work. Soon he was also forced to leave Damascus. He found himself kidnapped by the Nustra Front, another terror group, which sought to sell him to ISIS, because of their hatred of Druze. Friends collected 3 million Syrian lira to ransom his life (the equivalent of about $8,000). What is the value of a human life? Shoki spoke of the struggle in Berlin to find work and acceptance. “We think about our children more than we think about ourselves.” Every day brings new dangers at home. Khardun added, “It is illogical that in a conflict in which Muslims are killing Muslims, in which I take no side, that I cannot have my family with me! No country will take us. We are minorities, and no one wants us!”)  I could go on. The stories and reality are heart-breaking.

Gathered in this sanctuary we can do little to bring an end to the fighting in the Middle East. At the same time, it is my fervent belief that we cannot do nothing in the face of such horrors, especially in plain sight. I hear Donniel’s chaplain’s query, “Does this really trouble you?” I hear as if it is being asked of me. My answer is “Yes. It troubles me greatly.” I pray I am not alone in this sanctuary.

hiasAlong with IsraAid, one of the leading lights in the work to aid the refugees has been HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was born out of the need to assist the many Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and elsewhere who sought refuge on these shores. In recent years HIAS’ vision has broadened. Just as Donniel Hartman could not simply look away from the bodies floating on Lake Qaroun, HIAS has said we will not look away from the countless numbers of refugees fleeing death and devastation because of the terror that has consumed their homelands because they are not Jews. In the Spring, HIAS put out a call for synagogues to join a new initiative as a way of responding with education and action to the evil and horrors of today’s refugee crisis. We were part of a small group of congregations to whom HIAS reached out at the very earliest stages of launching the campaign. Rabbi Abrasley and I brought this to our Temple Shalom leadership. First our Executive Committee, and subsequently our Board of Trustees, and all voted unanimously to join this effort. My heart was filled with pride as I listened to our leadership’s deliberation about this request. On Friday night, October 21st, during Sukkot, our festival during which frail, temporary huts remind us of our people’s flight from slavery in Egypt and their journey towards freedom and dignity in the Land of Israel, we will hold a Shabbat dinner and a program of learning about this crisis. We will hear from refugees and we will learn how, as a community, we can be responsive in some small way. This was all set in motion before my trip to Berlin. Now, having witnessed and learned firsthand, from relief workers and refugees themselves, I am even more prepared to say, “Yes, it troubles me greatly.” Over the summer we were contacted by JFCS Metrowest, CJP and HIAS. There are a small number of refugee families coming to Eastern Massachusetts in the months ahead. We have been asked if we are willing to be part of the network that helps these families settle in communities where they will not be alone as Syrians, and assist with their integration into their new homes and lives. I am proud we are one of 4 synagogues who immediately stepped up. In the spirit of Abraham in our Torah reading, we have responded, Hineinu – we are here. There is yet much to be learned about this task. It is no small undertaking. This is no simple social action project. This is about people’s lives. These refugees have undergone extensive vetting by our nation’s agencies for nearly two years. In the coming months they will begin to call Eastern MA their new home. It is my hope that ours will not be a meek voice that responds Hineinu when it is time to dig in and reach out. Stay tuned for more in the weeks and months ahead. Join us on October 21st for what will surely be a powerful evening. Join our Refugee Assistance Working Group, chaired by Carol Berlin.

When it was Jews from the now Former Soviet Union, Temple Shalom stepped up in great strength. These Syrian refugees may not be our people. But like you and I, they too, are reflections of the holy image of God. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, “Hayom katazar v’ham’lacah merubah – The day is short, and the work is great.” It is holy work. As we engage, perhaps we will tilt our chaotic, noisy, conflicted world just one or two families closer to wholeness. I pray this will be so.

Shanah tovah – May this be a year of sweet blessings, growing justice, and peace!

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Memory Is Not Enough!

As Published on Fresh Day #145 at https://readymag.com/mwm/603212/5/

It boggles the mind to think that fifteen years have passed since that bright, sunny Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, when our world, and our lives, changed. How can so many years have flown by so swiftly when the memory seems so fresh?

zachor20-20remember201929In Jewish tradition, as in other traditions, we have numerous rituals and customs associated with remembering the past. The core Hebrew root for the word remember, appears almost 170 times in the corpus of the Hebrew Bible. As the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “Judaism is a religion of memory. . . “Remember that you were strangers in Egypt”; “Remember the days of old”; “Remember the seventh day to keep it holy”; Memory, for Jews, is a religious obligation. Memory is a core feature not only of faith traditions. It is a primal human characteristic.”

Fifteen years after the tragic and horrifying events of September 11, 2011, we are pausing to remember. Even the cacophonous swirl that is our political reality has paused on this day so thatwe might draw together as one nation to remember. We stand quietly to honor those who lost their lives, as well as those who acted to save the lives of so many. In the dark days following the terror of 9/11, we were inspired by the sacrifices made by so many. We witnessed a coming together that many thought impossible in our then-nascent 21st century. Harvard professor, Robert Putnam, who had written a widely acclaimed work about the disintegration of groups, community and social contexts in American society, entitled Bowling Alone reassessed his anaylsis in the months following 9/11 and wrote an updated essay entitled Bowling Together, in which he wondered aloud whether the coming together in the aftermath of 9/11 might prove to have some measure of staying power. Sadly, as I reflect on the sorry state of our nation as one more dis-united than united, I think the post-9/11 effect was limited.

In an essay published against the backdrop of a different time of remembrance, Rabbi Sacks offers, I believe, a helpful caution to us on this Day of Remembrance. He writes: “… Memory is different from history. History is someone else’s story. It’s about events that occurred long ago to someone else. Memory is my story. It’s about where I come from and of what narrative I am a part. History answers the question, “What happened?” Memory answers the question, “Who, then, am I?” It is about identity and the connection between the generations. In the case of collective memory, all depends on how we tell the story.”

His explanation may be helpful as we examine these past fifteen years, and the ways in
which we not only rememberthe events of 9-11-tribute-light-memorial9/11/01, but how we tell the story and how we live our lives with that story as a part of our reality. Ultimately, Rabbi Sacks offers, “In today’s fast-moving culture, we undervalue acts of remembering. Computer memories have grown, while ours have become foreshortened. Our children no longer memorize chunks of poetry. Their knowledge of history is often all too vague . . . That cannot be right. One of the greatest gifts we can give to our children is the knowledge of where we have come from, the things for which we fought, and why. None of the things we value — freedom, human dignity, justice — was achieved without a struggle. None can be sustained without conscious vigilance. A society without memory is like a journey without a map. It’s all too easy to get lost.”

His words haunt on this fifteenthanniversary. They also inspire me and challenge. I pray I am not alone as we continue to journey on from that dark time, hopefully increasing light, understanding, tolerance, and I pray, peace in our midst, and across our world.

It’s Shabbat – Let’s Take Time to Think About “Truth”

Those who know me, know that I have been a student of Judaism’s Mussar tradition for a number of years now. Last Yom Kippur I spoke on the subject ofmussar, which at the time I described as “the Jewish road to character” (riffing on the title of David Brooks’ thebookbookcoverinspirational book The Road to Character. What started as a weekly dive into mussar texts with my hevruta (“study partner”), Rabbi Jonathan Kraus a bit over 3 years ago, led to engagement with and training under the auspices of The Mussar Institute. I have led several mussar groups at our congregation, invited Alan Morinis to our congregation for our annual Altshuler Family Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and I have begun to offer teachings in a variety of settings through the lens of mussar. I credit Alan Morninis as onealan-morinis of the key figures in bringing this little-known part of our rich Jewish heritage back to life and prominence through his writings and the work of the Institute. Over the past ten months I have been engaged in a more advanced training program under the auspices of the Institute which will enable me to offer more advanced courses at the congregation in the coming year.

This past week, I studied the final text for this soon-to-be-concluded training program. It’s a teaching on the middah/value of Emet/Truth from an early 19th century Mussar text entitled Cheshbon HaNefesh (literally “Accounting of the Soul”) by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin of Satanow. In my various mussar studies, with my friend Rabbi Kraus, and under the auspices of the Mussar Institute, I am constantly struck by the immediate sense of applicability of these teachings from centuries earlier than our own to our own time and its challenges.

As we pause between the Republican and Democratic Conventions; and more importantly, as we pause for Shabbat, I share just a small piece of Rabbi Leffin’s teaching on truth. While it might seem that I am bringing it out in response to these past days, I lift it up, also as we approach the coming days. May we all consider it’s applicability to our lives, and to our complicated times:

cheshbon_hanefesh_revised“TRUTH – Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.

“Lying is a most despicable spiritual illness. At first it stems from the pursuit of permitted pleasure, money, prestige or the esteem of men. It then progresses towards the pursuit of prohibited pleasures. At the end, it becomes an acquired inclination of its own lying for the sake of lying! When it is combined with the yetzer hara (“evil inclination”) of mocking and of idle talk, it brings man to the point where he will even swear falsely, God forbid. For example: A haughty person expends all of his efforts to flaunt virtues which he does not possess. He strives to deceive others through mountains of lies and exaggerations hoping that they will believe him.

“A person who mocks also slanders and discredits decent people. A person who flatters, uses falsehood as his chief weapon . . . Then there’s the cheat who lies for money; building his livelihood and his prestige and his business on this virtue. His expertise in deception, cheating, wrongdoing, mocking, slandering and flattering makes him a person to be feared . . .  But in the end, falsehood has no base on which to stand. And if the liar should later speak truthfully, no one believes him any longer. This is the punishment of those who are haughty, hypocritical, deceitful or who cheat others they are discovered and exposed, first by one friend and then by another, until their lies are publicized and they become full of shame, debased and hated by all.

“Therefore, one must, from the very beginning of its appearance, search for the root of this illness and root it out by applying the disciplines of humility, righteousness and silence. Afterwards, one must include the discipline of truth by committing himself to the positive precept of loving truth even when doing so will cause him to forgo some monetary pleasure or presumed honor . . .”   (from Cheshbon HaNefesh, chapter 12)

There’s much more Another time! For now, Shabbat Shalom

A New Day . . . A New Blog

Shalom!

Divrei Shalom  has been, and will continue to be a cherished opportunity for me to share pieces of my torah with members of our Temple Shalom community, and beyond.

At the same time, I am launching a new blog, which you can access here

I hope you will join me on both paths of this journey.

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

A Powerful Witness

Divrei Shalom

elie-wiesel1The tributes for the late Elie Wiesel have been coming fast and furiously.  I am not surprised in the least.  His imprint on so many is immeasurable, and I am no different.

I am pretty certain that my first “encounter” was, as it was for so many, through reading his haunting memoir Night as a teenager.  The book was an awakening, and it led to a period in which my thirst for learning about the Shoah/Holocaust was hard to quench.

In my last semester of senior year in college, as I was already preparing to begin my rabbinic studies, I took a course in post-Holocaust literature and theology. Our professor had us read nearly everything Elie Wiesel had written at the time (1973), along with the writings of a number of Jewish and Christian theologians. It was a heavy-duty course, both in terms of the work-load and the subject…

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A Powerful Witness

elie-wiesel1The tributes for the late Elie Wiesel have been coming fast and furiously.  I am not surprised in the least.  His imprint on so many is immeasurable, and I am no different.

I am pretty certain that my first “encounter” was, as it was for so many, through reading his haunting memoir Night as a teenager.  The book was an awakening, and it led to a period in which my thirst for learning about the Shoah/Holocaust was hard to quench.

In my last semester of senior year in college, as I was already preparing to begin my rabbinic studies, I took a course in post-Holocaust literature and theology. Our professor had us read nearly everything Elie Wiesel had written at the time (1973), along with the writings of a number of Jewish and Christian theologians. It was a heavy-duty course, both in terms of the work-load and the subject matter. I still recall our final class session, in which we sat together sharing how the course had impacted us. Several classmates queried me, “Are you going to continue with your plans to study for the rabbinate in the wake of what we have studied?” While I had certainly found my faith shaken in the intensity of our learning, I responded that I was wrestling, and believed I would continue to do so, even as I set out on my journey.

Some years later, as I served my first congregation I had the opportunity to meet Elie Wiesel as he came to our building to utilize one of our libraries as a setting for the recording of a series of videos on Biblical figures. I was daunted by being in the presence of this man who had seen so much, and wrestled with some of the darkest of what we humans are capable of doing to one another.  It’s not that he was the first survivor I’d met. Perhaps it was a feeling of intimacy from having read nearly everything he’d written and felt his pain and suffering. He was quiet and gentle. His simple presence was an inspiration.

At the time, I had not really put it together, but Elie Wiesel’s presence in our building for the recordings marked his transition away from an almost exclusive Holocaust-focus towards writing and teaching about great figures from our Biblical, rabbinic, and Hasidic traditions. His journey continued to whet my appetite. Realizing that my time in New York City would likely soon end, I hastened to take one of his acclaimed 92nd-Street YMHA courses.  The man was a masterful teacher.  Still quiet and gentle on the stage of the Y, he held me, and everyone around me spellbound.

There were a few other chance encounters over the years.  The last was, perhaps, one of the most important to me.  A number of years ago, the Youth Educator at my current congregation was taking our high school students to Boston University Hillel for an informal evening with Elie Wiesel. Seth had worked at the Hillel before joining our staff and had been invited to bring our students.  Almost four decades had passed since I’d first encountered Elie Wiesel through Night.  I recalled something another survivor had told my youth group at that first congregation in the early 1980’s.  He said, “I want younight_cover-old to remember this evening.  I want you to remember that you met me. Even if you don’t remember all of my story, you will recall that we have met.  A day will come when there will be no more survivors to tell our stories. You will have to be our witnesses to the next generation.”  As our students prepared to go to BU, and me with them, I urged one if my sons to join us.  He was younger than the other students, but I wanted him to hear what Elie Wiesel would say.  I wanted him not only to hear a survivor, but to hear this survivor.  He was resistant, but compliant.  As we left the Hillel gathering that night, he thanked me for urging him to come.

Elie Wiesel has taught generations about the importance of speaking up and speaking out. May his message continue to be heard and felt – through us.  It must be heard, for we still live in a world wherein for too many people, it is still night!

Elie Wiesel – Your memory will be for a blessing, especially if we hear your call and heed your message. Rest in peace, our conscience and teacher.

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No More Than We Allow

Recently I’ve been thinking back to my earliest days as a congregational rabbi. In truth I was a Student Assistant rabbi at the time, work in a New York City congregation as I completed my final two years of seminary. One of my responsibilities was as the lead teacher for our Confirmation Class (a responsibility I still love over 35 years later.) I recall that at the end-of-the year celebration my students gently kidding me about my use (overuse?) of trigger films in provoking our discussions.

It’s true. I found then, and still do find on occasion, that a short trigger film can draw a group into a lively discussion in a relatively short period of time. Over those early years I developed a “playlist” of standards. As I think back, it’s sort of a pre-music video era teaching tool. One such film I used almost annually was an animated treatment of Maurice Ogden’s haunting poem, “The Hangman.” It quickly sets an eerie scene:

Into our town thHangman 05e Hangman came.
Smelling of gold and blood and flame-
And he paced our bricks with a diffident air
And build his frame on the courthouse square.
The scaffold stood by the courthouse side.

Only as wide as the door was wide;
A frame as tall, or little more,
Than the capping sill of the courthouse door.

And we wondered, whenever we had the time,
Who the criminal, what the crime,
That Hangman judged with the yellow twist
Of knotted hemp in his busy fist.
And innocent though we were, with dread
We passed these eyes of buckshot lead;
Till one cried: “Hangman, who is he
For whom you raise the gallows-tree?”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,
And he gave us a riddle instead of reply”
“He who serves me best,” said he,
“Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”

The poem wends its way through a narrative, which by its end, has seen the total destruction of a community as its members are hung one by one; group by group. By poem’s the scene is nearly desolate save for one lone survivor, to whom The Hangman turns.

Then through the town the Hangman came
And called in the empty streets my name-
And I looked at the gallows soaring tall
And thought: “There is no one left at all
For hanging, and so he calls to me
To help pull down the gallows-tree.”
And I went out with right good hope
To the Hangman’s tree and the Hangman’s rope.
He smiled at me as I came down
To the courthouse square through the silent town
And supple and stretched in his busy hand
Was the yellow twist of the hempen strand.
And he whistled his tune as he tried the trap
And it sprang down with a ready snap-
And then with a smile of awful command
He laid his hand upon my hand.Hangman 12

“You tricked me, Hangman!” I shouted then,
“That your scaffold was built for other men …
And I no henchman of yours,” I cried,
“You lied to me, Hangman, foully lied!”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye:

“Lied to you? Tricked you?” he said,
“Not I, For I answered straight and I told you true:
The scaffold was raised for none but you.
“For who has served me more faithfully
Than you with your coward’s hope? Said he,
“And where are the others that might have stood
Side by your side in the common good?”
“Dead,” I whispered; and amiably
“Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me;
“First the alien, then the Jew . . .
I did no more than you let me do.”

I’ve been thinking back to Ogden’s haunting piece a lot in recent days. We are nearing the end of the Primary phase of our nation’s 2016 Presidential campaign. Soon the focus will turn towards July’s Nominating Conventions, and then around Labor Day the campaign will intensify in earnest.

This has been a deeply disturbing campaign for way too many months now. Rather than a passionate and complicated debate over the critical issues our nation faces, and those we face as the world’s leading superpower, this 2016 campaign has been nasty in disturbing ways unsurpassed in my memory. It’s as if we, as a nation, are being dragged through sewers and gutters; bombarded with ugly name-calling and ferocious character-assassination. Fingers are pointed every which way across our nation, within the two major parties; across the bow from one party towards the other; and from many quarters at the media.

Body parts, bodily functions, crude and nasty nicknames, assaults on judges and more. So much of what is playing out before our eyes, and assaulting our ears is diversion. Rather than discuss real issues, policy proposals, and how we will forge a path forward as one nation, when this is all over, our attention is drawn to ugly diversions. Personally, I fault all of the above – the candidates, the party leaders, and so many in the media, in all its myriad manifestations.

How did we come to this? A version of the Hangman’s words to his final victim, for whom there was no one left to turn, echo loudly in my ears: “They have done no more than we’ve let them do!”

The name-calling, the side show acts, the broadside swipes at whole ethnic, racial and religious groups . . . it all acts as a lightning rod. And the media, in large part, makes certain that the lightning strikes so we are paying attention.

There is blame enough to go around for the circus that is passing for a campaign for the highest office in our nation. We, too, own some of it. For, “they are doing no more than we allow them to do.”

I pray that as the calm of summer sets in, we will pull back from the fray and regain some sense of individual and collective perspective. We are better than this as a nation. We must demand better than this from our candidates, our already-elected officials, our media . . . and ourselves. If we do not, we may be left to wonder how we came to a devastation metaphorically portrayed by Ogden in his poem. I urge you to read it in its entirety!

Click here to read “The Hangman”

Clink here to watch the 1964 video of “The Hangman”

 

What Type of Day Will You Choose? It’s a Matter of Perspective

il_340x270.635652512_b5wxEach week we begin our weekly staff meetings by taking turns leading the staff in a brief text study, reflection or d’var Torah.  This morning, one of my colleagues shared a reflective piece which I’d not seen before (though clearly others have seen it on the web.)

It’s reflection written by an 11th grade Jewish Day School student from Brooklyn, NY.  In response to a school assignment, Chanie Gorkin submitted the following poem entitled, “Worst Day Ever?”

Today was the absolute worst day ever
And don’t try to convince me that
There’s something good in every day
Because, when you take a closer look,
This world is a pretty evil place.
Even if
Some goodness does shine through once in a while
Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.
And it’s not true that
It’s all in the mind and heart
Because
True happiness can be attained
Only if one’s surroundings are good
It’s not true that good exists
I’m sure you can agree that
The reality
Creates
My attitude
It’s all beyond my control
And you’ll never in a million years hear me say
Today was a very good day.

Gorkin poemAs we read the piece silently to ourselves, one could hear the hums of agreement and note the nodding of heads. But this was all the more pronounced when, a poem’s end, we were guided to read it once again. However, this time, we were to read it, line by line, in reverse.  I encourage you – do it now.

This time the verbal and non-verbal reactions were more pronounced. For my part, Chanie Gorkin’s poem is a potent reminder of a lesson I learn again and again from my reading and practice in mindfulness. We may not be capable of changing all is happening around us, but we have infinite power when it comes to how we stand in the moment.

I pray we each have a day like the one described by reading Gorkin’s poem backwards.  And may tomorrow unfold well too!

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