Monthly Archives: August 2017

Leadership and Scholarship

On a quiet street in Tel Aviv Yaffo, the area where the ancient city of Jaffa blends into the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv, you can find a quiet and unassuming house built in the early 30s.  It is easy to walk right by it without having any idea that it is today a museum, with no entry fee by the way, the first and second floors the place where David Ben Gurion and his family lived during the events of the founding of the State of Israel.  You may know that Ben Gurion later settled in the Negev, in Sde Boker, but the family kept the Tel Aviv home, and used it off and on for decades, even into the 70s.

There are two things that are striking about the home.  The first is how austere it is.  We are used to our presidents being surrounded by opulence, the White House is expensively decorated, our leaders wear expensive suits and ties, they look like men of wealth and largely live in the style of the rich and famous.  Ben Gurion’s uniform of choice was a short sleeve khaki shirt, and the home he lived in was sparsely furnished, just the basics, with worn furniture, a small kitchen, old pots and pans, almost as if to say material things are not important.

The only indulgence in the home can be found on the second floor, which is where Ben Gurion spent most of his time.  There are 5 rooms on the second floor.  One of them is a small bedroom, with an old bedside table with a lamp.  But the other four rooms are filled with shelves, and the shelves are filled with books.  There are volumes in various languages – Latin and Greek, English, French and German, even Turkish, and of course Hebrew.  All told there are some 20,000 volumes in those four rooms.  Ben Gurion spent any spare time that he had reading and writing, studying the contents of his library, thinking about the great minds and the great works of literature, from antiquity to the modern day.  He was a statesman, a leader, a politician – but he was also a scholar, and his world view was formed through study and the world of the mind.

Ben Gurion knew that Jewish tradition had long demanded scholarship from its leaders.  The two greatest biblical kings, David and his son Solomon, are both understood in the tradition as being authors.  King David wrote?  The Book of Psalms.  And how about King Solomon?  According to tradition, Solomon wrote three biblical books – as a young man, he wrote the Song of Songs, the Bible’s great love poem.  In his middle age Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs, filling it with witty sayings and wise observations about the world.  And then in his old age he wrote the book of Kohelet, called in English Ecclesiastes, with its world weary observations about the temporal quality of life.

This idea that the king should also be a scholar is found in the Torah itself, and comes from this week’s portion, called Shoftim.  There is an extended passage at the end of the 17th chapter of Deuteronomy that describes what was expected of the ancient Israelite kings.  The passage concludes with the following verses:  “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written for him by the Levitical Priests.  Let it remain with him and let him read it every day of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah and its laws.  In this way he will not act arrogantly against his fellows, nor deviate from this Teaching…”  (Deuteronomy 17: 18-20)

I see in the passage two ideas that are instructive in terms of how we hope our leaders will conduct themselves.  The first is the Torah clearly believes that a necessary quality for successful leadership is humility.  The text says it quite plainly – the king needs to study so that he will not act arrogantly against his fellows.  A leader who thinks he or she always knows best is not a leader.  True leaders understand that they might be wrong – they doubt, they question, they agonize over decisions.  But even more importantly, true leaders know on a fundamental level that they are no better than anyone else.  When they begin to think that they always know best, when they begin to believe that they have some kind of exalted status, that they are intrinsically deserving of their leadership role, they will lose the ability to properly fulfill that role.  So the Torah reminds us that leaders must maintain a sense of perspective, and that humility is a necessary ingredient for true leadership.

The second thing is that the Torah expects that the king will be a scholar.  A leader must also be a learner – a studier, a digester of information, a thinker, a cogitator, a reader.  The biblical kings had their prophets – Saul had his Samuel, David had his Nathan, Hezekiah had his Isaiah.  And modern heads of state must have their advisors, experts on the wide and varied subjects that cross the leaders desk.  But according to the Torah the leader is not permitted to abdicate the tasks of studying, reading, thinking, and even writing.  That is precisely why in this country we create presidential libraries to honor a president’s service.  You may remember that Winston Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1953.  And that is why David Ben Gurion’s home in Tel Aviv contains those 20,000 volumes.  He knew that true leaders have to learn, and read, and study, they have to familiarize themselves with the world of ideas, with the great thinkers of the ages.  They have to have a sense of the past, of where we’ve come from, they need to be students of history, and they also have to have a sense of where we are today, of the problems and challenges of our time.  And there is no shortcut  – the only way you do it is by taking the books off the shelf, and delving into the ideas with your own mind.

It is clear from the Torah’s text that ancient Israelite culture felt intensely ambiguous about the institution of the monarchy.  On the one hand the text acknowledges the need for centralized power, and understands that a strong king can unite the people and give them a sense of national identity.  On the other hand the Torah knows all too well that a king without the proper checks and balances can become dangerous and even deadly.  After all, our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, a king who had ultimate power.

Of course we know the end of the story.  The monarchy comes into existence, and kings sit on the throne of ancient Israel for generations.  The most successful of those kings – the ones who are remembered as beloved, both by God and the people, are those who follow the advice in this morning’s portion – והיתה עמו – the book will be always with him – וקרא בו כל ימיי חייו – and he will read from it all the days of his life – in order to learn to fear the Lord his God, observing all of the laws of this Torah.

We should hope and pray for the same sense of humility and depth of understanding in our own leaders.  May they realize the need for it so we see it soon –

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#Charlottesville

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/19 –

It was a Shabbat morning, and a small group of Jews – about 40 or so – had gathered together in their shul to recited the morning prayers.  They were there for various reasons – some to celebrate, some for the sense of community, some because they felt obligated – the same reasons why many of us are here today.  The little synagogue was their spiritual home, connecting them to our ancient tradition.

While they prayed storm clouds were gathering outside.  There was unrest in the streets, marchers waving flags, chanting slogans, and spewing hate.  The president of the shul stood outside at the entranceway, with an armed guard the congregation had hired for protection.  For a time three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, staring coldly at the front of the building.  Multiple times in the course of the morning loosely organized groups of Nazis marched by the synagogue, pointing at it, screaming out ‘there is the synagogue!’, and anti-semitic slurs, and carrying flags with swastikas on them.  When the services ended, the shul president advised the worshippers that they should leave the synagogue by the back door, and they should walk in groups until they get to their cars.  And so the worshippers had to sneak out of their own shul, by the back door, because they were afraid.

What I just described happened over and over again in Germany in the 1930s.  Who would have imagined that it could happen here in the United States, in Charlottesville Virginia, in the year 2017, just last weekend?  Nazis marched in the streets, openly.  Jews were afraid to go outside, a synagogue was threatened, and as we know later in the day a young woman was killed and others injured by a Nazi sympathizer.  Perhaps things we never expected to see in the United States.  I think we all felt like the nation had taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

The first verse of this morning’s Torah portion is ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה – Behold!  I put before you this day both blessing and curse.  And we have indeed seen both this week.  The curse has shown itself in the violence and hatred, in the stark reminder from the events in Charlottesville that the twisted tropes of anti-semitism can still be found in the dark corners of our country and in the ignorant minds of the Neo Nazis and White Supremacists who marched last week.  That is the ‘kellalah’ – the curse, that we have seen, that we have been forced to confront.

What is the ברכה, what is the blessing?  It has not come from the White House, and many in the Jewish community have been deeply disappointed by the response or lack of response from Washington.  Perhaps we thought that at least the President’s daughter and son in law, both Jews, would step forward and speak out, but to this point they have not.  So what is the ברכה, and where can we find it?

And the truth is, there have been many rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum – from both sides of the aisle – were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope to our hearts, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Freedom is at the core of that greatness.  That is why Jews came to these shores, that is why Jews have done so well here, that is why we love this country.  But the key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  We know as Jews that when some are free and others are not, the freedom is not real. That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We haven’t yet fully realized that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Those are the values and ideals that we must embrace as a nation and as individuals as we try to move forward from Charlottesville.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our own hearts and poisoning our own minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

You see the berachah – the blessing – is in each and every one of us.  The courage and strength and faith and hope that God gives to each one of us, that enables us to stand up for what we know to be right, to embrace in our daily lives the values of freedom and tolerance and dignity for all that the founding fathers of our nation learned from the words of our Torah.  When we ignore those values we fall short, and we are all diminished.  But when we embrace those values we become the blessing, and we fulfill our destiny as human beings and as Jews.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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Charlottesville

I sit typing these words just a few days after the tragic events in Charlottesville Virginia.  It is hard to imagine that in the year 2017 (5777) White Supremacist and Nazi groups walked the streets of an American city, chanting anti-semitic slogans and carrying flags adorned with swastikas.  Americans were chilled by the images that came from Charlottesville, but for Jews the images were even more disturbing, bringing to our minds memories of the events of the Holocaust and the twisted and irrational hatred of our people that has all too often plagued us over the long years.  It felt like the nation had collectively taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

We must always be on our guard.  Even here, even in America, so far away, in both time and place, from the horrors of World War II.  How easy it is to grow complacent, to allow ourselves to imagine that our hard won freedoms are guaranteed, that the forces of evil have been utterly defeated.  Remember the line in the Haggadah – “In every generation there are those who seek our destruction.”  And the Torah warns us of the dangers of complacency in the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Beware, for at the very moment when you feel settled, when your wealth has grown, when your home is strong, when your life is good – beware lest at that moment you begin to take it all for granted.”  (Deuteronomy 8)  The blessings of life should never be taken for granted.  And the greatest blessing of life, after life itself, is freedom.

The key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  When some are free and others are not freedom is illusory, a house of cards that can all too easily come tumbling down.  That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We have yet to realize that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Over the last days there have been rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Moving forward we must make sure that those are the values and ideals that we embrace as a nation and as individuals.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our hearts and poisoning our minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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Teach Your Children

Penned by Graham Nash, the song first appeared on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  Arguably one of the best known and most beloved rock songs of all time, the opening lyrics are unforgettable, sung in the high, soaring harmonies that marked the group at its height:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.*

The song came into my mind this past Sunday evening, when Becky and I had the chance to see Dark Star Orchestra at the Maine State Pier in Portland.  The band was in rare form, probably the best I’ve seen them, playing with energy and verve through a concert, as they say, ‘originally performed by the Grateful Dead’ in the spring of 1989.  It was a GA venue over looking the water, a gorgeous and sunny Maine afternoon, everything just about exactly perfect.

It just so happened that we found our spot in the sea of Deadheads a few yards in front of the soundboard.  To our right was a multi-generational Deadhead family.  The original Heads, now in their mid-60s, brought their daughters and grandchildren to the show.  The grandmother took great joy in sharing the time and the music with her grandchildren, spending a good part of the evening dancing with them, holding them, laughing and playing with them.

There is something about old Deadheads that tugs at my heartstrings.  They’ve often seen a lot, been through a lot, done a lot (maybe in some cases too much!).  Their bodies don’t quite move like they used to (whose do?!).  But there is a powerful resiliency there.  And also a love of something deep and true.  When the lights go down and the music comes up, the first notes ringing loud and clear through the blue sky of a late summer afternoon, they get to their feet and begin to move.  The heads start to nod, the hips shake, the feet shuffle, the fingers snap.  And yes, the lips smile.  They feel it in their hearts and souls, the sweet melodies that have accompanied them through so many years, so many moments of their lives.  The music brings them to their feet, rejuvenates their spirits, gives them a few precious hours to leave the world behind and to join in the great tribal celebration with family, friends, the extended Deadhead community, and yes, even with grandchildren.  Perhaps, especially with grandchildren.

The second set of the show opened with Shakedown Street, the Dead’s nod to the late 70s disco revolution, somehow turned into one of their great jamming vehicles.  “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!”  We might say the very same thing about the old Deadheads.  Teaching the next generations, they are still on the road, still driving the bus.

* Deadheads will remember that the opening pedal steel guitar licks of the tune are played by Jerry Garcia

here is a link to the Grateful Dead’s original performance of the Pittsburgh ’89 show

And below a picture of the proud grandmother and her grandchildren at the show – IMG_4940

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Detours

Each year I release a reading list to my congregation of books I plan to read over the summer. I generally read the books that make the list, but I also add one or two unexpected titles. These are my reading ‘detours.’ I discover them in local book shops or in the NY Times book review. They catch my interest for one reason or another and before I know it the official list books are on the back burner and I am deeply immersed in some new narrative.

This year two detour books have appeared. One is the 2013 Mann Booker prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Cattan, and the other the new David Grossman novel To the End of the Land. I finally finished the Catton book a few days ago. A monster of a read at 850 pages.  It is beautifully written, but I had the feeling I was watching a magician’s trick – it was enthralling but at the end it didn’t ring true.  I have high hopes for the Grossman novel but want to finish Hillbiilly Elegy before I get to it.

Some summers it is the detour read that ends up the best of the batch. This summer the jury is still out, but I have a feeling nothing will beat Lincoln in the Bardo which I loved, a book that truly moved me.

In the meantime I will keep my eyes open for further detour opportunities. After all, isn’t that part of what summer is about? Finding the hidden roads, the never before tasted treat, the unexpected delights and pleasures of being away?

What is it that Bobby Weir sings in Lost Sailor?

Drifting, you’re drifting; drifting and dreaming; ’cause there is a place you’ve never been; maybe a place you’ve never seen; you can hear them calling on the wind…

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