Category Archives: Sermons

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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Shabbat Bo – Connections: Dr. King’s Teaching for our Discordant Time

In recent months, I have been busy building out my morning rituals. I still begin with coffee & catching up with news (nothing new there.) I continue to work at strengthen my Mindfulness practice (most mornings.) It’s still somewhat new to me, but I have found it meaningful in these past two and half years of baby-steps. Recently I’ve added two more “practices.” Each came “on-board” separately, but around the same time. Each involves a short reading/reflection piece to help my mind, heart and soul focus on more than news and minutiae of my day. One, which came from a somewhat surprising source, Itake-your-soul-to-work-365-meditations-on-every-day-leadership-by-erica-brown-book-cover-284x400’ll share as part of tomorrow morning’s monthly Seeking Shabbat. The other was occasioned by the publication of Erica Brown’s newest book, Take Your Soul to Work: 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership.

I’ve shared teachings from some of Erica Brown’s other books over the years. Erica spoke here several years back with former Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, on the occasion of the publication of her book Happier Endings, which I’ve yet to read. Ironically, it was only the very week of the publication of this most recent book that I had the chance to meet and learn from Erica Brown at a CJP-sponsored workshop held here at TS in early December. She is a marvelous teacher. I look forward to bringing her back to TS so we can all learn from her.

Each morning I sit with Erica’s Take Your Soul to Work, which she encourages that the reader consume in small doses, ideally just one a day.  I admit, sometimes I sample 2 or even three selections. They are short, but powerful.

There are some times when one simply has to scratch their head and wonder about randomness and coincidence in life.  For me, yesterday was one such morning. I sat down with my coffee and the morning’s news (I’d say the Globe – but, well, you know, that’s not a pretty story these days.) Soon enough I’d consumed both the coffee and more than enough news. Now you have to understand that my Thursday morning of any given week (often earlier) my mind is already wrestling with what I might teach at Minyan Torah Study; what I might offer in what I strive to write weekly for our blog Divrei Shalom (I’m a few weeks behind at this point); and if it’s my turn to share some words at Kabbalat Shabbat, what kernel might inform those words. I’m always mindful of the week’s Torah portion, as well as other bits and pieces from what I’ve studied during the week as well as the calendar and the world in which we live. I set down my iPad and picked up Erica’s book which usually lives right next to favorite reading spot at home. I opened to the next offering, in this case Day 37, entitled “On Connection,” in which Brown quotes from Dr. Martin Luther mte5ntu2mze2mjgwndg5ndgzKing, Jr’s 1967 Christmas Eve homily in which he says: “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.”

I sat sit still for several moments.  As is often the case, I was moved by Erica’s teaching. As is her intention, her offering gave me pause to reflect. I was as taken by what I’d read Thursday morning as I was by the happenstance that I’d read her offering even as I was already contemplating words to share as we embrace Shabbat, and this weekend of remembrance and reflection on the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This Shabbat’s Torah reading brings us to the final showdown between Moses and Pharaoh as Pharaoh relents finally allowing our Israelite ancestors to depart from slavery and degradation in Egypt. It’s a story we know well. My intention had been to make what seemed to me a relatively simple, yet important, connection to my belief that in our day, we are still bound. In 2016 we still enslave ourselves and others: to fear, prejudice, racism, hatred, bigotry, and to a stunning narrowness of mind that divides us – within the Jewish community. On this weekend, I am even more troubled as our nation is roiled by hateful rhetoric and disturbing discourse which to me drive us further apart and further from the core values upon which our nation was founded. On this Shabbat and this MLK weekend I am deeply disturbed by the reality that as a nation we are still divided, enslaved, fragmented, less than whole, distant from Shalom as violence and hatred still live vibrantly in our streets, communities and cities and in the political discourse of our would-be leaders.

83422227_hrErica Brown’s sharing of MLK’s words struck me quite powerfully: “”I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself . . . and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.” I hope you will join me in taking some quiet moments beyond tonight’s gathering to reflect on Dr. King’s words and our painful, noisy divisions; the hatred that passes for political and civil discourse. Let his words, and this weekend of remembrance lead us to living our values – Jewish and American, as we take our steps into a new week in a world that is still enslaved to too many of the ancient world’s divisions. In his talk in 1967, Dr. King states: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” We must awaken our hearts and souls, our ears and our minds to his truth. It must become our truth if we are to survive as a society rooted in justice and freedom.

 

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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)
Cain&Abel
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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The Dilemma of Moses as Killer

By Charles Rudnick, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Shabbat Shalom.

Today’s Torah portion, known as Sh’mot from the Book of Exodus, examines the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt under Pharaoh, God’s acknowledgement of their suffering, and his decision to send Moses to free the Jews from Egypt.

Within this broader context, Sh’mot tells the story of Moses’ own birth and growth into an adult and a leader of the Jews.  The portion I chanted today focuses on one aspect of this story that I believe is both an integral part of the overall Torah portion and highly illuminating in its own right.  It is also particularly meaningful to me.

We learn that Moses was born following Pharaoh’s order that all Jewish boys in Egypt be killed by throwing them into the Nile River.   Following his birth, Moses’ mother hid him for as long as she could.  When he was three months old, she placed Moses in a wicker basket, which she water-proofed and left along the edge of the Nile.

The basket was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took Moses in and raised him as her own son in Pharaoh’s household.  When he had grown into an adult, one day Moses went out and witnessed an Egyptian beating a Jew.  He reacted by striking down the Egyptian and killing him (he also hid the body).

The next day, Moses went out again and saw two Jewish men fighting.  When he asked one of them why he was hitting the other, the man replied with scorn, telling Moses essentially:  “Who died and made you king?  Are you going to kill me the same way you killed the Egyptian?”  Moses realized his secret was out and, fearing for his life, fled to the land of Midian.

Moses’ actions are both inspiring and troubling, for they raise questions about law and society that are core to my beliefs and much of the work I have done over the years.

On the one hand, Moses demonstrated great bravery by standing up to an Egyptian oppressor to save a fellow Jew from being beaten.  His decision to act in the face of a terrible injustice is admirable, and I’m sure many of us hope that we, too, would have the courage to try and stop an act of physical violence if given the opportunity.

Yet there are also unsettling aspects of Moses’ actions.  Was it really necessary to kill the Egyptian?  Why did he hide the body and try to pretend nothing happened?  One he was discovered, why did he flee the country, rather than stand up and take responsibility for his actions?

It’s important to consider these questions in context.  There are very few details provided about the circumstances surrounding Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, but the evidence suggests Moses was aware of his Jewish heritage at the time – the Torah portion says he “went out to his kinsfolk” and “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.”   We also know that Pharaoh had inflicted great suffering on the Jewish people.

It is therefore possible that Moses was reacting on behalf of all Jewish people against their oppression, inspired by the injustice he witnessed.  He may also have been conflicted about his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s household while his “kinsmen” lived in servitude, possibly contributing to his violent reaction.

Yet even if we assume these things are true, do they justify or merely help explain Moses’ actions?  Does one person have the right to take justice into his or her own hands?  Moses may have been motivated by moral outrage, but he still killed a man, and did so solely of his own accord.  The Torah does point out that Moses “turned this way and that” to see if anyone was around, which could mean he was trying to find someone else to help stop the beating – or it could mean he wanted to make sure nobody was watching.  Even if there were someone of authority around, Moses had every reason to doubt that justice would be served upon an Egyptian beating a Jew.

These issues resonate uncomfortably with some of the challenges our nation is currently grappling with regarding the treatment of African Americans and other minorities by the police and courts.  Like Moses, many people in communities of color have ample reason to distrust our system of justice, and some choose to take matters into their own hands.  When protestors burn cars or buildings, some may just want to destroy property or steal, but others are motivated by moral outrage at a system that has historically treated them or their “kinsmen” unfairly.  As with Moses, this may not justify their actions, but it provides context and helps us understand them.  And in both cases, it speaks loudly to the dangers of a system in which all people are not treated equally, and where the rule of law is being undermined by a lack of trust.

The dangers are not esoteric; they are real.  One of the main reasons this Torah portion struck a chord with me is my lifelong belief in, and commitment to, the rule of law.  Just ask my kids – to their bewilderment, the phrase “rule of law” comes up frequently in our house!  I have always believed that a society governed by fair laws, administered impartially, is fundamental to protecting rights, to resolving disputes, and to creating the trust that is essential to the fabric of any civil society.

It was for these reasons that I spent several years working to strengthen the rule of law in emerging democracies such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania.  I have seen what happens in societies that lack the rule of the law — and the needless suffering and chaos that can result.

In 1995, I arrived in Sarajevo at the tail end of a brutal, three-year war, charged with helping to rebuild a legal system that had suffered through war as well as 50 years of Communism.  I was surprised to hear the same refrain over and over again:  our number one priority must be to re-establish faith in the courts.  Granted, I was running a legal reform project, but I was struck by the fact that academics, government officials, members of the legal community, and ordinary citizens all felt that creating a trust-worthy system of justice was essential to helping that country rebuild.  The lack of such faith had undermined citizens’ confidence in their entire government, and contributed to the fraying of that society.

Here at home, we need to do whatever is necessary to rebuild some of the lost trust in our system and strengthen our rule of law against further erosion.  I think today’s Torah portion provides an example of how we as individuals can play a part in this process, at a very human level.

As I consider the implications of Moses’ actions, my disquiet at his decision to take the law into his own hands is somewhat tempered by God’s apparent forgiveness of him for murdering the Egyptian.  Perhaps God understood that Moses acted to save the life of another, and therefore felt his actions were justified.  As a “rule of law” guy, this type of rationale by a legitimate authority certainly gives me comfort.  In addition, we see later in Sh’mot that God chooses Moses as the person to return to Egypt and free the Jews from servitude.  It’s hard to think of a more ringing endorsement of Moses’ character, and I find myself inspired to give Moses the benefit of the doubt, even if I don’t fully understand all the facts.

Similarly, I hope that as our country continues to struggle with the fallout of the recent crises in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland – no matter which side of the issue we find ourselves – we can try to step back and give those on the other side the benefit of the doubt; try to appreciate the context for their actions; and perhaps use this openness as a foundation for strengthening our trust and improving how we treat each other, both individually and within our system of justice.

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The Power of the Parent in Decisions

By Bob Rosenthal, 

Early on in Parashat Shemot, the Pharaoh of Egypt, fearing that the growing Israelite population presented a potential threat to the Egyptians, declared that all boys born to Hebrew women shall be killed.  Some time later, when Moses was born, his mother initially tried to protect him by hiding him, but after three months, she determined that she could not hide him any longer.  She then put the infant Moses in a wicker basket and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile, presumably hoping that he would be rescued and raised by an Egyptian.  As it turned out, not only was Moses found by an Egyptian, but the one who found him was Pharaoh’s daughter.  Despite suspecting that Moses was a Hebrew child, Pharaoh’s daughter allowed him to live and eventually made him her son.  (At the clever suggestion of Moses’s sister, Pharaoh’s daughter had Moses’s mother nurse him until he was grown up enough to be brought to Pharaoh’s daughter).

What is striking to me about this part of Parashat Shemot, aside from the horror of this early instance of persecution of the Jewish people, is the choice that Moses’s mother made when confronted with the threat to the survival of her son.  There is no surprise that a mother’s love for her child would be so strong that she would take any measures, however desperate, to protect her child from harm.  However, is it so obvious that a parent’s love will always lead to a decision that puts the interests of the child ahead of the interests of the parent?  Would Moses’s mother clearly have made the “wrong” decision if she had chosen to risk her son’s life in order to have the opportunity to raise him herself and preserve for herself the joys and rewards of being his parent?

Fortunately, in the world that we (the congregation of Temple Shalom) live in today, it would be extremely rare for a parent to face a decision as critical and harrowing as the one that Moses’s mother confronted.  But there are still many instances, ranging from the mundane to the very important, when we as parents must decide how to act or at least to advise when the interests of our child may be in conflict with our own interests.  Should a parent who places a priority on academic achievement prohibit his daughter from devoting countless hours to playing the flute (at the expense of study time), even though music is the daughter’s passion?  Should a parent who cares deeply about the continuity of her Jewish heritage across generations discourage her son from marrying his “one true love” because she is Christian?  Should a parent who has saved up for years to afford the car of his dreams sacrifice that purchase because his daughter wants to attend the expensive private school that reportedly provides more personal attention to its students?

Perhaps there is only one “right” answer to these questions.  Intellectually, I can understand that it would generally be the responsibility of the parents to place the interests of their child ahead of their own, but in the practical reality of personal emotions and perceptions of knowing what is best for their child, the “right” answer may not be so obvious.  (And, of course, there are many circumstances in which it can be argued that the long‑term best interests of the child are different from, and should override, decisions that will bring him or her happiness in the near term.)  Does the Torah teach us, through the example of the actions of Moses’s mother, that it is a tenet of our faith that the interests of the child should always take precedence?  I am confident that there are Torah scholars who can address that question at great length.  For most of us who face these parental decisions, we often wrestle with them endlessly and remain uncertain even after the decisions are made.  We do not necessarily look at Moses’s mother as setting a standard to follow, but rather as making an incredibly difficult and courageous decision in a situation that we can hardly fathom.

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Hineini, Here I am!

By Anne Rosenthal, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Hineini.  It is Hebrew for “Here I am.”  Hineini: here I am, at this point in time, the celebration of our b’nai mitzvah; in this place in space, at Temple Shalom with family, friends, and my community. Hineini: here I am, in this holy sanctuary, to elaborate on the teachings of the Torah and the portion this week, Sh’mot, from the book of Exodus.  For those of you who know me, you may remember that it was only a little more than one year ago that I formally converted to Judaism. Today I am celebrating my status as a bat mitzvah! Allow me to explain why this particular parashah, Sh’mot, and in particular, Chapter 3, verses 1-6, has special meaning for me.

Moses, now an adult, has driven the flock of sheep of his father-in-law Jethro, into the wilderness.  He comes to Horeb, the mountain of God, and there he sees an amazing sight.  An angel of the Lord appears in a blazing fire coming out of a bush.  Moses sees that the bush is on fire, and yet the bush is not consumed by the flames.  He says to himself, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” God sees that Moses has turned aside to look, and then he calls to Moses out of the bush.   “Moses! Moses!”  Moses replies, “Here I am,” in Hebrew, “Hineini.” God tells Moses to remove his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground, and God continues, “I am the God of your father’s house, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Then Moses hides his face, because he is afraid to look at God.

It’s probably clear to all of us that this is an important event in the Torah. God calls Moses, Moses responds at the ready.  Scholar and teacher Rabbi Norman Cohen offers that this is the moment, when God calls to Moses and he responds, “Here I am” that will eventually lead to the solidification of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.

Like me, you may find parts of this story curious: why is it that God waited for Moses to turn his head to the side to gaze at the burning bush, before calling out to him; why did he call Moses’s name twice; why did Moses choose to reply, “Here I am”?

It has been suggested by scholars that God waited for Moses to turn his head, before calling out to him, because he wanted Moses’s full attention. God waited until Moses was fully prepared to hear him, in a spiritual sense.  Moses may have been deep in thought as he led his flock through the wilderness, maybe about his day’s work or family problems, as he approached that bush.  Only when he turned his head to clearly observe the flames, was he concentrating and fully engaged in the moment. God called Moses’s name, and then again a second time. Perhaps Moses failed to respond to the first call of his name out of fear, disbelief, or distraction.  Perhaps God repeated Moses’s name to signify the importance of His appearance.  Moses replied, “Hineini”.  Here I am: I am listening with my heart, mind, and soul and am ready to accept you.

“Hineini,” as Moses used the word in response to God’s call from the burning bush, is, I believe, just as relevant today in our everyday lives.  When we come to Shabbat services, we are invited by the clergy to turn off our cell phones, close our eyes, allow ourselves to be fully present. We are called to turn away from the daily pressures and demands of our busy lives.  In this way we can be with the congregation, and together pray to God. We can say “Hineini”.  This allows us to connect with the people around us, to pray, to think, or whatever we choose.  It allows us to be fully present in that moment.

There are distractions all around us in our hectic lives. We often refer to our ability to “multi-task” and we take on more and more responsibilities. But as we do, I think we begin to ignore or not really listen to the people or things that matter most to us.  How many times have I heard my family members ask me a question or tell me about their day, while I’m too distracted by so many other thoughts or chores that I don’t really hear them.  How many times have I seen people talking on their cell phone as they sit at the table with friends in a restaurant.   Perhaps in these situations, and so many others, we need to stop and remind ourselves, “Hineini,” here I am.  I am listening to you, I hear you, and I care about you.  I am here for you.  “Hineini” is our state of mind when we are not allowing ourselves to be distracted, but instead are devoting our heart and our mind to the people or situation before us, whether we are in Temple, before a burning bush, or talking with others.

I would like to share with you a part of the story of my ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim, marking my formal conversion to Judaism.  Arriving with my family, I was greeted by my close friends who were already there, waiting in the beautiful lobby. I first met with the Beit Din; how reassuring it was to me, that my three Rabbis from Temple Shalom were there to serve as my panel.  We talked for half an hour, about my journey that led me to my decision to convert.  Then I was escorted to the suite where I was to prepare for my immersion in the mikvah.  I took my time and followed the precise instructions. When at last I was ready, my good friend Lisa Berman, who was also serving as my mikvah guide, led me to the mikvah.  She reminded me to turn the handle of the spout, to allow a few drops of “pure” water into the mikvah waters.  Then, as I descended the stairs, Lisa discreetly turned away and held up a large sheet for my privacy.   I felt alone as I slowly, carefully, and purposely entered the warm, soft waters of the mikvah.  It was very quiet, and very peaceful.  I became overwhelmed by the significance of the commitment I was about to make.  It was a spiritual experience for me unlike any other.  Although my clergy, family, and close friends were nearby in the lobby, I could not see them, nor they me.  But I could hear them over the top of door, their soft whispers and gentle laughter, as they waited for me to announce that I was ready to proceed.  It was so still, so peaceful in the mikvah. But I was so quiet, they must have wondered whether I was there at all.  After several more quiet, still moments, Rabbi Gurvis called to me. “Anne, are you ready?”  he solemnly asked.  “Hineini,” I replied.  In the sense that Moses used the same word in his reply to God before the burning bush.  Hineini, Here I am, ready to complete my conversion to Judaism, and ready in every sense to accept this special covenant with God.

Of course I have been an adult for many years, though I have been a Jewish adult for but one.  I suppose I might have waited for 13 years before becoming a bat mitzvah.  But instead, here I am.  Hineini.  I hope that each of you will have an opportunity to say the same to yourself, today as you celebrate with us, and also to keep it in mind and practice it often.  Hineini.  It’s an amazing, and powerful, little word!

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Generational Continuity

By Linda Mills, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

When we were asked to think about how the assigned Torah portion had meaning to us, I began to ruminate about my relationship, to the Temple, to my parents, and to my children. In my reading, when the mother of Moses who cared so deeply about him, put him in a basket in the reeds by a stream, she felt he would be safer there, rather than left to the mercy of the Egyptians. She was trusting that someone would find him and protect him. By doing this, she was unknowingly furthering the future of the Jews, but she had to trust.

I found many connections to my own life in this short passage. Sixty five years ago, I was a child in a new temple just being founded in Newton, Temple Shalom. I experienced a sense of family there, going through many life passages—religious school, confirmation, sitting with my parents for all the high holidays, marriage and the Bar Mitzvah’s of my sons. Rituals were established. My father, a founding member of the Temple and chair of the Religious Practices Committee for twenty years, loved this Temple with his heart and soul. He felt that we must get there on time for the high holidays, which meant that we had to arrive an hour before the service began to sit in the same seats, year after year. Although the row that was filled by eight family members now only has one, I have continued the family tradition.

Family tradition continued into the sixties. A Temple was situated on the same street where we bought a house. It never occurred to me to join that synagogue. I intended to stay with Temple Shalom, and this meant, as a single mother who worked outside of the home, that I would bring my children three times a week to Temple from Framingham, a thirty minute drive each way. The time when I relaxed in the Temple, waiting for the return trip, I felt peaceful and at home. As my parents did for me, I gave Temple Shalom the huge responsibility for educating my children in their religion. Moses’s mother knew that she must give up all aspects of her child’s future, but she trusted that he would be taken care of. I too trusted, even though I had a choice.

Tradition is carried on in many ways. My son Jonathan who lived in Poland for ten years, like my father, was a founder of a temple, but this one was in Warsaw Poland. I smiled when I read the Rabbi’s itinerary for Poland because Temple Shalom people are about to visit that very temple, Beit Warszawa Synagogue. I burst with pride as I listen to my son Eric who continues the tradition of giving to his temple by blowing the shofar at the close of Yom Kippur.

Years have passed since my father first sat in the sanctuary seats I continue to inhabit, and years have gone by since I brought my children to be educated. When I recognized that my parents and my kids were no longer my connection to the Temple, I knew that I had to make a more significant relationship for myself. I searched for a way that would be meaningful and at the same time would give back to the Temple for all they had given me and my family. It was natural then for me to work with Rabbi Berry in reshaping the educational program. In thinking about Jewish education for children, I understood what was missing for me. My religious education did not include learning Hebrew, girls were not Bat Mitzvahed in the fifties at Temple Shalom. I took the daunting step of enrolling in a Hebrew class. I was the oldest student, and the letters terrified me. I felt like a third grader with dyslexia. However, it eventually came together, and I considered having a Bat Mitzvah. I will never be a fluent reader, but when I sit in the sanctuary on Friday night or on the high holidays, I can read the words.  Temple Shalom has once again brought meaning to my life.

The connectedness, the tradition, the protection, the generational continuity, the sense of family came together for me as I thought about how Moses’s mother protected her son, which allowed for generational continuity and traditions, which Moses would pass on to his people.

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Foundation for Leadership: the Childhood of Moses

Leslie Levine, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

As a newborn, Moses is given by Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, back to his mother Yocheved to be nursed.  He is returned later on to Bitya, who then names him.  After a period of time in the royal household, Moses emerges as an adult who identifies strongly with the Hebrew slaves, calling them his brethren.  While there are few details in Exodus about Moses’ childhood, the passages we do have reveal that Moses was exposed to two very different environments, each of which contributed greatly to his development as a leader, preparing him for his pivotal role in the years to come.

Moses likely spent most of his pre-adolescence being raised by his parents.   While many interpretations of Exodus 2:9-10 conclude that Moses was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter immediately after having been weaned, which would have been at about 2-3 years of age for a male child at that time, the passage does not actually support this conclusion.  Rather, the sequence suggests that the child was nursed, then grew up, and only then was given up to and named by Bitya.  This contrasts to, for example, Genesis 21:8, where the same word for “grew up” is followed by “and was weaned”, immediately followed by the description of an event triggered by the weaning.

Why does the Torah repeat the word וַיִּגְדַּל, meaning ”grew up”, first referring to the child prior to being returned to Bitya, and then referring to Moses by name?  The medieval French commentator Rashi quotes Judah, son of Rabbi Ilai, who said that the first use (Ex. 2:10) of the term “grew up” was Moses’ growth in stature, and the second (Ex. 2:11) was his growth in greatness, as shown by Pharaoh’s eventually appointing him overseer of the royal household.  Moses’ parents, Yocheved and Amram, raised him for the most formative years of his childhood, which Midrashim find to have been for about his first 7-12 years.

Moses emerged as an adult recognizing the Hebrew slaves as his kin, evidence of the weighty influence of his years with his parents.  His first act upon leaving the royal household was to slay an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.   It is his years as a prince that form the basis for his feeling empowered and entitled to intervene against the Hebrews’ oppression and struggles.     The influences to which Moses would have been exposed in Pharaoh’s household would have included  being part of the highest caste of Egyptian society, as well as an excellent education including public speaking and military training.

Moses matured from infant to adult in two extended periods of time.  The first was spent with his parents, who imparted to him their faith and identity as Hebrews.   The second was an adolescence during which he was an heir to the throne. He was highly educated, privileged and indoctrinated into a sense of power and authority.   The combination of the boy’s upbringing in these two very different environments instilled in him a wide range of beliefs, sometimes contradictory, and skills.  The result was a young man accustomed to informed decision making, strong in his belief system and prepared to assume the role of leader of his people.

To me, the story emphasizes the pivotal role that a child’s early years with his parents plays in the formation of his identity and value system.

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