Almost Cut My Hair

Actually my beard, and I did cut it.  After shaving my face clean I am beardless for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting experience to see my simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable face staring back from whatever mirror I happen to look in.  I confess the lack of that all grey beard does indeed make me look quite a bit younger.  That being said I am already growing it back, because as I always say, it beats shaving.

It is an odd thing, how we see ourselves, how we understand our own identities.  It isn’t something we pause to think about all that often, but every once in a while it catches you and hits home.  A lot of it at the end of the day is surface level.  The clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material items that become part of our image, even in our own minds.  But peel those things away and there is some kind of core, independent of all of the societally imposed images and ideas of who we are and who we should be.  Here is the thing, almost counterintuitive – that core is invisible, in some ways undefinable, untouchable, but it is stronger, more powerful and profound and true that all of the accoutrements.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel, chapter 16:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”

It is that heart that we should strive to see, both in ourselves and in others.  What was it that Polonius so famously said to Laertes in Act 1 of Hamlet?  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

And so to ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ the title of this post.  It comes from one of my all time favorite rock and roll songs, and is the title of the third track on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  In one of the great recorded rock vocal performances, David Crosby rants against the ever intensifying pressure to conform to expected norms.  ‘Get a job!  Clean up your act!  Dress like a normal human being!  And last, but certainly not least, get a haircut!’  In the end the song’s protagonist stays true to his own values, and makes the decision to walk his own path, difficult as that may be.  Here are the lyrics from the song’s first stanza:

Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day/  It was gettin’ kind of long/  I could have said it was in my way/ but I didn’t, and I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly/  and I owe it to someone…

Every once in a while you have to let your freak flag fly.  You owe it to someone, and that someone just might be you.

 

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On Saturday the Rabbi…

Went to shul, of course!  Yes, even when I am away, even when vacationing, if I can I go to shul.  The truth is I’ve always liked it, going all the way back to my Hebrew school days.  The other students in my class would complain when we were brought in to sit in services, but I didn’t mind.  There was something about it, hard to identify, difficult to pinpoint, maybe impossible for me to explain.

The truth is, I would rather sit in the pews.  My guess is if you polled a group of rabbis about this question, a fair number would tell you they want to be on the bima conducting the service.  I’ve even known a few rabbis who have said to me ‘why would I go to shul if I am not running the service?’  But I enjoy just sitting quietly, doing a bit of davening, following the Torah reading and checking some of the commentaries, just the sort of quiet head space of it all.  Isn’t that part of what shul is supposed to be about anyway?

I also enjoy seeing how things work in other congregations.  It is a big Jewish world out there!  In our own spaces we can get so tied down to OUR way of doing it, the tunes we use, the readings we do, when we sit and stand, even where people sit – it can all become sacrosanct.  There is an old joke in the ‘business’ – you could cut the entire Shema out of the service and no one would say a thing, but if you change the tune of Aleinu, beware!  Of course it isn’t exactly true, but it is true enough.

But a little bit of traveling will remind you that there are a million and one customs, a million and one different ways to do it, each community with its own version.  And yet in some profound way it is all connected, and you can feel at home in any shul, big or small, local or far away.  In one way or another the Torah will be read, the Shema recited, the Aleinu sung.  And you realize, when all is said and down, it is your place, these are your traditions, the people here are your community.  And the shul is your shul, too.

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Of Gates and Other Interstitial Spaces

Just as the beautiful back shore curves around to the west there is an ancient looking gate.  It has a small wooden tile roof, covered with moss.  The wooden door is often open,  unlatched, in some way beckoning the passers by to a mythic inner sanctum.  A low stucco house can be glimpsed, a stone path, flowers English garden style running alongside.  The gate posts are large, even imposing, made of great stones cemented together long ago by an old world stonemason, his practiced eye picking and choosing for shape and size as he worked.

What is astonishing about any gate is that it can suddenly bring you from one world to another.  Remember the back of the closet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy fumbling through old coats and scarves and suddenly walking along a snowy lane.  Or in Tolkien’s work the various gates that lead into the Mines of Moria or the Old Forest or the halls of the Elven King in Mirkwood.  The gate is an interstitial space, a kind of tunnel between two distinct areas, or even better a mystic link between one world and another.  On one side is what we know, where we dwell and walk and go about our day to day life.  But just beyond the gate is another world.  Of Magic and adventure, of mystery and the unknown, of gorgeous gardens and storm tossed seas, where otherworldly creatures might dwell, or time works differently, or the rain falls in a certain kind of way that we’ve never seen before.

There are gates in nature and gates in time as well.  When dawn comes or night falls, when the year turns, when the clouds of a great storm move swiftly through the sky as the weather clears, when we peer into the darkness as we stand on the edge of a wood, these are all gates of time and place and mind.  Death and birth are gates, perhaps of an altogether different kind, but gates nonetheless.gates

And there are gates in Judaism.  Three volumes of Talmud are called the First, Middle, and Last Gates.  The huppah in the wedding ceremony is a kind of gate, the bride and groom entering that space as single and emerging from it as a married couple.  We speak on Yom Kippur of the Gates of Prayer and how they close at the end of that sacred day, a moment marked by the Ne’ilah service.  There is a traditional Shabbat song, Hasidic in feel, with the following lyrics:  ‘the entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.’

Every gate is a narrow bridge, linking one world to another.  Every gate is an opportunity to walk into a never before seen space.  Every gate leads from what is known to what is unknown.  Every gate opens before us a series of new possibilities.  Gates can be entered and bridges crossed.  The main thing is not to fear.

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Flat Tires and Other Tests

     You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning.  Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan.  Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test.  This way they’ll have extra time to study.  The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.

     Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way.  There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner.  On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side.  The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’  The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?

     This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested.  Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad.  The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.

     The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy.  It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’   That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse.  And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.

     And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test.  But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling.  Why?  Because they are positive things.  How can something that is positive be a test?  Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill.  You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!  

     So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test.  And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this:  the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it!  Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive.  In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?

     But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this:  would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered.  That test is almost exactly the opposite!  It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?

     If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test.  The answer comes from Jewish history.  I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish.  And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith.  That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.

     We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life.  That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period.  It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States.  And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind.  And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point.  We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one.  Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones.  When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism.  When we can belong to  – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul.  When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.  

     The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far.  The good news is I think there is still time to study.  The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare.  The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?!  Shabbat Shalom – 

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What Did You Say?

Some thoughts about talking and listening from my Shabbat sermon on 7/28.

 Among my favorite phrases in the prayer book is a tiny, two word phrase that can be found – at least in a traditional siddur – at the beginning of every amidah.  The words are not part of an actual prayer –  instead, they are an instruction, like in some prayer books where it will say ‘take three steps back,’ or ‘bend and bow.’  The phrase, in Hebrew, is תפילה בלחש – literally translated, a ‘whisper prayer.’  

     Over the years the way we understand that instruction has changed, in some ways dramatically.  In our community we commonly say ‘we’ll continue silently’, or ‘we will continue with silent prayer,’ but a whisper is clearly not silent – it is quiet, but it is heard, it is audible.  And the original intention of the instruction was not that we should be silent, but instead that even when we are praying privately we should be talking – whispering, yes – but still, talking out loud.

     And the reason I love that phrase in the prayer book is because it so accurately reflects who we are as Jews.  We are inveterate talkers.  There is a young woman who recently began studying with me for conversion, and she comes from a Catholic background.  As part of the conversion process I have asked her to attend synagogue with some regularity, and a few weeks ago she went for the very first time, never having been in a shul before.  We met a few days later, and I asked her what she thought of the experience.  She hesitated for a few moments before she said ‘it was amazing to me that everyone talked through the service!’  She was used to a Catholic mass, where the parishioners sit quietly, reflecting in silence until they are called upon to participate in the liturgy.  But she walked into a shul!  There were a couple of guys kibitzing in the back about the Orioles.  There were people right in the middle of the congregation having a conversation about the weather.  And the talking continued throughout, waxing and waning, some areas got a bit quieter while others got louder, but it never stopped.  Even up on the bimah people were talking while the service was going on! 

     You would never see that in most Christian services, but that is what we Jews do.  It sometimes seems like we never stop talking.  There are many times when I’ve been at Levinsons and the doors open to the chapel for the family to walk out, and there is a loud hubbub of conversation, which takes a moment or two to die down – after all, people have to finish their sentences.  Mind you this is after the funeral director has been out and asked people to be quiet.  We talk during meetings – how many times have you been at a meeting for a Jewish organization and you realize there are multiple conversations going on all at the same time about a variety of topics?  We talk while we eat.  When we read the newspaper we spend half the time reading articles out loud to our spouses.  We are story tellers and kibitzers, in fact we even are known for talking with our hands, in reality an organ that cannot speak.  

     There is something hamaisch about all of that talking.  It is connective, there is a vibrancy to it, and a sense of community and closeness.  But I do worry sometimes that with all of the talking that goes on, what can sometimes suffer is listening.  After all, it is hard to listen when you are talking.  And if Jews are very good at talking, I am not sure we are all that good at listening.  So it is interesting to me that the Shema Yiisrael has become the best known prayer in our tradition.  After all, think for a moment what it means – ‘Hear O Israel’ is our normal translation.  But you could just as easily and accurately translate those words as ‘Listen Israel!’

     Now who is the speaker of those words?  It is Moses.  The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially one long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites.  The Hebrew word ‘shema’ is not actually all that common in the Torah.  In the Book of Leviticus, for example, it appears only 6 times.  But here in Deuteronomy, in the course of Moses’ long speech, he uses the word שמע 92 times.  And in our Torah portion, in the verses that lead up to the Shema Israel verse itself, Moses uses the word שמע 9 times.  We might say the more things change, the more they stay the same.  You almost get the feeling that Moses is speaking, and while he is trying to get his message across the Israelites are kibitzing, and this one is talking to that one over there, and that one is talking to this one over here  – just like shul!  And finally, Moses has to pause in his remarks, and say ‘Hey, listen up!  I am speaking over here!  This is important!  Shema Yisrael!’

     The truth is the root for the Hebrew word shema – the ש מ ע – has multiple meanings in the Bible.  Sometimes it is used in the plainest sense of the word – it just means to listen, to literally hear something that is being said.  Other times it is clearly intended to imply not just listening but also comprehension and understanding.  ‘I have heard’ means ‘I understand.’  And sometimes the Bible uses the word shema to mean obey, in the sense of I have heard you means I will do what you say.  It is a nuanced word, and when we say Shema Israel in the course of our services the intention of the liturgy is for us to have a sense of all of those meanings.  Again, our regular translation of the phrase ‘Shema Yisrael’ is Hear O Israel!  But a better translation might be something like this:  “Listen and concentrate.  Give the word of God your focused attention and strive to understand what this is all about.  Discern God’s will, and be prepared to abide by it.”

     But of course for any of that to be successful the talking has to stop, at least for a few moments here and there.  So we can hear each other, not just what we are saying, but what we mean.  And so we can give ourselves the opportunity to hear, to sense, to understand, to comprehend, what God’s will might be, and from that to decide how we will respond.  I don’t know of any other faith tradition that has a prayer like the Shema.  Normally when we think of prayer we think of saying something to God, of reaching out and trying to communicate with the Divine.  But the Shema is not directed at God in any way.  It is instead directed at us, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.  It reminds us to study God’s word, to abide by God’s commandments, and to teach God’s traditions to our children.  And it reminds us that in order to do all of that, and to do it well, we must sometimes stop the talking, and simply listen.

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A Retired Tallit

It was purchased just before my bar mitzvah, now 41 years ago.  I wore it proudly that day, one of the few bar mitzvah boys in the temple I grew up in to wear a prayer shawl the morning of my service.  In those days traditional practices like that were frowned upon in the Reform Movement.  But those very same practices fascinated me.  It seemed to me it smacked of something – tradition?  Authenticity?  Some ancient mysticism?  Whatever it was, I remember to this day the feeling as my rabbi helped to drape the tallit over my shoulders.

Who could have known at the time how often that prayer shawl would be worn?  At first it was just the occasional holiday service, when I would take it off the shelf where I kept it, carefully folded in its blue velvet bag.  But in my twenties it became a daily companion.  I had another tallit, a large, multicolored, gorgeous wool shawl that covered my entire six foot frame.  But that I used mostly on Shabbat and holidays.  In terms of my daily davening I used my bar mitzvah tallit.  It was relatively small, easy to store and fold, took up very little room in a suitcase when I traveled.  Each morning I would reach for it, unzip its bag and remove it, unfolding it.  After reciting the requisite blessing I kissed the edges of its atarah, and then briefly held the shawl over my head before letting it fall into place.

This ritual – for so it must be called! – was repeated over and over again, day after day, week after week, year after year.  I guess it would now be close to thirty years that the old tallit has served me so faithfully.  I often wondered if it somehow knew the inner workings of my heart?  I put it on on bad days and good ones.  Sometimes when it rested on me I was filled with sadness, other times with profound gratitude.  There were weary mornings after nights with little sleep, and bleary eyed I would still take the tallit from its bag, still say the blessing, still wear it for the brief moments of my morning prayers.  I wore it when doubts nagged at me, even when it seemed there was no reason to wear it, or perhaps even a reason not to.

As time went by the blue bag faded, the zipper no longer worked, the bag’s yellow lining was torn and threadbare.  The tallit itself suffered from the constant folding and unfolding, its creases wearing until finally holes began to appear.   Still I used it, perhaps folding it more gingerly, but not reducing its daily workload.  The tallit had been with me for thirty years, in LA and Boston, in New York and Jerusalem, in dozens of other cities we’ve visited and places we’ve stayed.  And remember, that formative and transformational moment, that bar mitzvah morning.

It was just a few weeks ago when I finally realized the holes were getting too large, and before long the tallit would just begin to fall apart.  I used it one last time, one last time taking it from its bag, one last time saying the ancient words with its barely noticeable weight on my shoulders, one last time carefully folding it and putting it away. Maybe it understood, somehow sensing that it could finally rest.  It had done its job well, always there for me, guiding me from the wide eyed bar mitzvah boy of over forty years ago to the rabbi and middle aged man of today.  One day I may bury it with honor in the cemetery, in the geniza grave with the other talleisim and prayer books and old humashim.  But for now it will sit on my shelf, in its old place, as it ever was.  There is now a new tallit there as well, and I’d like the two to get to know one another for a time.

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Hevruta

Here is a text version of my sermon from 7/14/18 –

     I would like to tell you a tale this morning of two rabbinical students, who entered the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the same year.  They had never met before, and came from very different backgrounds, but they quickly became friends, sharing a number of common interests, among them the Grateful Dead and good beer.  Before long they were not only friends, but also they were a hevruta, they were study partners.

     In the traditional world of Jewish text study your hevruta becomes your closest companion.  You spend an inordinate amount of time with your study partner tackling difficult texts, and the dynamic of the relationship is supposed to be one of prodding and pushing the other, of challenging the other’s interpretation of a given text, of using your partner to test ideas and to explore concepts.  To do this you must trust the other person, because you must also make yourself vulnerable.  That is to say you must at times be willing to acknowledge the limits of your own intellectual ability, you must also be willing to admit sometimes before someone else that you don’t know the answer, something that generally rabbis don’t like to admit.

     Over time, the relationship – the hevruta – either works or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t work, it breaks apart.  But if it does work, the study partners become very close, through the shared time, the intellectual exploration, and coming to know one another in a deep way.  And so it was for me – I imagine you’ve already guessed I am one of the students in this story – and my hevruta, my rabbinical school study partner.  In fact depending on whether you ask me, Becky, or my study partner, our son Josh is named for my rabbinical school hevruta.  

     But as it has to happen in all the great tales, there was a parting of the ways.  This did not happen because we fell out of favor.  It did not happen because we grew distant from one another – in fact we are close to this very day.  It happened because at some point during our third year of rabbinical school my study partner Josh decided to make aliyah, to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen, and Becky and I decided to return home, to the States.  Josh ultimately left rabbinical school and pursued an academic career, while I continued on the rabbinic track, and am now twenty one years into my pulpit career.

     Now that I’ve taught you the term hevruta – which means?  study partner! – I want to teach you another term – bar plugta.  Your bar plugta is the person with whom you often disagree, and it is not uncommon that your hevruta is at times your bar plugta – that your study partner is often the intellectual thorn in your argument, or in the way you understand something about the world.  And so it was with me and with Josh about Israel.  He made aliyah from a deep belief that there is only one place on the earth that a Jew can fully live as a Jew, and that there is only one place on the earth where the Jewish people can fully realize their destiny – and that place is?  the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael.

     But I returned from Israel to the States with a deep belief that my Jewish life would be most meaningfully lived here in the Diaspora, and what is more, that a healthy and vibrant diasporic Jewish community is important for the Jewish people, and for the land of Israel itself.  And what is curious is that now 23 years after Josh decided to stay in Israel and Becky and I came back to the States, I think we are both right.  In other words, there is something to be said for Josh’s position – more and more the destiny of the Jewish people as a nation is being played out in the land of Israel, and those of us who live in the Diaspora are in many ways observers of that great saga.  Not that we don’t love Israel, not that we don’t follow events there closely, not that we don’ travel there and send our children and grandchildren there – we do all of that.  But what we do not do is live there.

     On the other hand, as the years have gone by, I have been more and more convinced of the need for a healthy Jewish community outside the land of Israel.  You may have noticed an odd narrative that appears in this morning’s double Torah portion Matot -Ma’aseh.  It is curious because for forty years now the Israelites have wandered in the wilderness with one goal in mind – which is?  To make it to the promised land.  And now here they are, just on the other edge of the Jordan River, just about to cross over into that land.  And suddenly – as if out of nowhere – the leaders of two tribes – Gad and Reuben – come forward to ask Moses a question.  “Would it be OK,” they ask Moses, “if we don’t go into the land.  Would it be OK if we just stay here, on the east side of the river, outside the land that God has promised, and make our lives?  It is a good land,” they say, “So would you mind terribly if we don’t go into the land?”  Moses at first is not pleased with the request, but in the end, after some negotiation, he permits it.   And in that moment Moses establishes what for all intents and purposes is the very first diaspora Jewish community.  

     Why did Moses agree to do that?  He had worked his entire life to get the Israelites into the land, and just when that goal was about to be realized he backed off, at least for two of the tribes.  Why?

     To answer that question I would like to point your attention to a fanciful midrashic text that imagines that before Moses died God showed him the entire future of the Jewish people.  And if we set aside reason for a moment and take that textual idea to its logical conclusion, then Moses knew what a crucial role the Diaspora would play in Jewish life and Jewish history.  

     Moses knew, for example, that for 2000 years Jews would not have a homeland, and would need to figure out how to maintain their faith and their identity when those things were not tied to a specific place.  He knew that Jews would need the intellectual give and take of the larger world around them.  He knew, for example, that what would make Maimonides great one day would not be his knowledge of Jewish texts, that what would set Maimonides apart would be his knowledge of Greek philosophy and secular sciences.  Moses knew that one day there would be an Einstein, and that what would make Einstein Einstein would be his Jewish propensity to ask questions set against a secular scientific method that came from the non-Jewish world.  He knew what Judaism would give to the world, and he also knew what Judaism would need from the world.

     Perhaps Moses also knew that Israel would need both a hevruta and a bar plugta.  A study partner to support her, to be close to her, but also to push and prod her, to sometimes challenge her, even to respectfully disagree with her.  To live a Jewish life outside of the land, and so to see things through a Jewish lens but from a totally different perspective.  He knew that at times the Diaspora community would carry the Jewish torch, while at other times it would burn most brightly and beautifully in the land of Israel itself.   That one community would strengthen and support the other, and that the ethical and moral vision of Judaism could be lived in the land, but taken to many other lands.  So may it continue to be for many generations to come.

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