Monthly Archives: March 2019

What You Can’t Buy

     Each year, year in and year out, just as we finish celebrating Purim and start getting ready for Passover, we are confronted in our annual Torah reading cycle with the Book of Leviticus.  Most people will tell you that Leviticus is the least accessible of the five books of Torah.  It is filled with ancient and arcane laws, most of them connected to the sacrificial cult operated by the Priests – the Kohanim – some 2500 years ago.  So much of Leviticus deals with priestly material that the talmudic sages actually referred to the book as Torat-Kohanim – which you could translate literally as the Torah for the Priests.  In other words, these are exclusive rules, made for an exclusive club, and the regular Jew doesn’t even need to read it.  So what is a poor rabbi to do with these Torah portions?

     And I thought I might think with you for a few minutes this morning about that very fact – that the Priestly group is exclusive, a closed club which one only becomes a member of through inheritance.  There is an old joke which probably doesn’t pack quite the punch that it used to, about a young man who makes an appointment with his rabbi.  On such and such a day at such and such a time the he shows up at the rabbi’s office.  When he has settled into a chair, the rabbi asks ‘how can I help you?’  

     ‘Well Rabbi,’ the young man replied.  ‘I’ve done well in my business, and I’ve come today to make you an offer.  I will donate 25K to the shul if you will make me a Kohen.’  The rabbi, a bit nonplussed, says ‘That is very generous, but I am sorry, I can’t make you into a Kohen.’  ‘OK, Rabbi,’ the young man says, ‘it is so important to me to be a Kohen that I am prepared to pay you 50K!’  Again the rabbi responds ‘I am truly sorry, but it is something that is out of my hands.  I cannot make you into a Kohen.’  The young man gets up in anger, and as he is walking out the door, the rabbi asks him:  ‘By the way, why is it so important to you to be a kohen?’  ‘Because,’ the young man replied, ‘my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, and I also want to be a Kohen.’  ‘Ah, I understand,’ said the rabbi.  ‘Lets talk about that 50K.’

     The punch line of course is that the young man was already a Kohen, because if his father was a Kohen, he is a Kohen.  It is automatic.  But the undercurrent of the joke is the idea that there are some things in life that you simply can’t buy.  You could have all the money in the world, and it won’t make you into a Kohen.  

     I’ve been thinking about that joke over the last couple of weeks since the news broke about the college admissions scandal.  I am sure you have followed the story, it has been hard to miss.  A man named William Rick Singer was running a college ‘consulting’ business, a business that has become fairly common these days, where a family hires a consultant to manage their child’s college admissions process.  What Singer did that – I hope – most college admissions consultants don’t do – is bribe college admissions officials and college coaches, basically just paying them to admit students that would otherwise not have qualified.  He also ran more elaborate schemes, to include changing SAT test scores, sometimes sending someone else to take the SAT test, and even photoshopping the faces of some of his clients onto the bodies of athletes.  

     Mr. Singer didn’t have trouble finding clients, and he was by all reports doing quite a business.  At this point more than 50 people have been arrested in connection with his schemes, a number of them prominent and wealthy actors who, like the young man who walked into the rabbi’s office, were willing to pay pretty much whatever it took to get what they wanted, in this case, their child into a particular college.  

     It is perhaps a sign of the times that we think we can acquire status by paying for it.  After all there is some truth to that in our culture today.  A fancier and more expensive car has a certain amount of status attached to it.  So does a big fancy house in the neighborhood.  So does a country club membership.  And these are all things that are for sale, it is just a matter of having enough money to pay for them.  But what Mr. Singer and his clients clearly lost track of – what they forgot – is something that it might be good for all of us to reflect on and to remember – which is that somethings just are not for sale.

     We’ve known this for a while now.  There have been a number of research studies completed in the last few years that demonstrate that happiness is not directly correlated to the amount of money that you have.  The four wealthiest nations in the world are the US, China, Japan, and Germany.  None of them rank in the top 10 in happiness ratings.  When you look at the annual rankings of happiest countries, you find the Nordic states at the top of the list – the most recent ranking is Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland.  None of them are wealthy countries.  Individuals in those countries live in small homes, drive small cars, and compared to Americans own very little in terms of material goods.  What those countries have in common is – One – they are progressive, particularly socially progressive.  Second thing – the social service infrastructure in those countries is strong.  Also, and probably most importantly, they all foster a much stronger sense of community for their citizens.  People in those countries feel cared for and supported.

     It works the same way for individuals.  Research shows that happiness – or maybe a better way to say it is satisfaction with your life – comes from a variety of sources.  One is the quality of your relationships.  Another is your sense of having a place, of belonging to something that is greater than you – as an example, people who are connected to their synagogue, church, or mosque report a higher level of satisfaction with their lives.  Another ingredient is giving back – people who feel they are giving something back to their community, giving to others who need help, feel happier, more fulfilled, and more grateful.  Isn’t that interesting – when you give something back, you feel grateful.

     And none of those things are for sale.  It is true that you can pay to belong to a synagogue, but you can’t buy a feeling of connection to it – that only comes from being involved.  You certainly can’t buy relationships – I’ve known – and I am sure you have too – many families who have plenty of money, but can’t figure out how to get along with each other.  There are some things in life – and I would argue they are the most important things – that you cannot buy.  Instead, they require hard work, honest effort, integrity, generosity, self awareness, and self sacrifice, among other things.

     Judaism has known this for a long time.  To get back to the priestly class for a moment, you can’t pay to be a member – you’ve either inherited it from your father, or you haven’t.  There is that famous mishnaic statement, symbolized by the four crowns you see on the outside of the wall behind me.  There is the crown of Torah, earned through many years of study.  The crown of the Priesthood, that can only be inherited.  There is a crown of royalty that only comes to a few.  But the larger crown at the top is the כתר שם טוב – the crown of a good name.  That crown you cannot inherit, you certainly cannot buy it – it can only be earned.  Imagine what the world would be like if more people in it were working to earn that crown?

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Purim vs. Passover

A text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat –

     If you don’t mind I’d like to begin by doing a little bit of calendaring with you, reminding you of a couple of important upcoming dates on the Jewish calendar.  First of all, one week from Wednesday night is the beginning of Purim, and we have a wonderful evening planned: a Purim carnival for the young, we’ll have the Bible players, a kind of biblically oriented minstrel group, giving us their take on the story of Esther; also a class that evening about the holiday, and then the culmination of the evening, a robust reading of the megilah combined with our very own version of the Masked Singers of Shushan, where you’ll be asked to guess at the identities of Beth El staff and members as they sing popular songs while wearing ridiculous costumes.  Again, that is all happening one week from Wednesday evening, activities beginning at 5:15, right here at Beth El.

     But if Purim is a little over a week away, that means that Passover can’t be far behind, and indeed the first seder is exactly six weeks from last night.  Believe it or not I actually know two people who have already started cooking for Passover!  Just in the last few days my wife Becky has started encouraging me to try to finish any hametz that we have around the house, from cookies to candy to beer, and I am sure that Seven Mile Market is laying in a large store of brisket for the coming weeks.  The truth is on the Hebrew calendar Purim and Passover are just about a month apart, both holidays falling on the 14th day of their respective months.  

     And what I would like to do with you for a few minutes this morning is to think about the two holidays together, sort of holding one up against the other.  To start that process I’ll ask a simple question that we’ll vote on – the question is which holiday is more important.  If you think that Purim is more important than Passover, raise your hand.  Now, if you think Passover is more important than Purim, raise your hand.

     No question what we’ve just seen reflects the general perception of the two holidays, and for good reason.  After all, Purim is, at least these days, largely understood as a holiday for children.  Even the adults who celebrate dress up in costume, there are comical activities going on in shul, there is a carnival, the reading of the Megillah is often filled with shtick, even the story of the Megillah can be read as a kind of dark comedy where everything gets flipped upside down, sort of like something from the imaginings of the Coen brothers, the creators of Fargo.  Purim is a lot of fun, but not much more than that.

     Passover, on the other hand, is on a totally different level.  It is, first of all, the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.  By far!  Statistics show that upwards of 90% of Jews make sure to get to a Passover seder.  Just to give you something to compare it to, only about 60% of Jews fast on Yom Kippur.  Passover is also complicated, with all of the rituals and the special foods for the seder plate and the haggadah text that leads us through the evening.  Passover is about serious themes – it is about freedom and human dignity, it is about the coming of spring and the rebirth of the world, and what is more, Passover tells the origin story of the Jewish people – we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us, bringing us to the Promised Land and freedom.  Passover is serious business!

     And Passover has other advantages over Purim.  It is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals commanded by the Torah.  Purim isn’t even mentioned in the Torah!  Purim lasts one day – you are in, you are out!  Passover is a festival that is celebrated for?  8 full days!  Passover has its own special version of kashrut.  The list could go on and on.  So it is no wonder that in the poll we just conducted, the vast majority of us voted for Passover as the more important of the two holidays.   

     Which is why I have always been puzzled by a very strange teaching in our tradition about what the messianic era will be like.  And our Sages said that when the Messiah finally arrives, the Pilgrimage Festivals – Sukkot, Shavuot – and Pesah – Passover! – will no longer be celebrated.  But Purim will still be observed.  Let me say that once more – our Sages believed that in the messianic era we won’t have to build sukkoth any more, or shake the lulav and etrog, or study Torah on the night of Shavuot – or sit down at a seder table, and celebrate Passover.  But we will still have to gather together to read the Megillah and to celebrate Purim.  

     So despite our vote, in some way and for some reason our Sages believed that there is a message in Purim that is more important that the messages of Passover.  That there is an idea that Purim represents, that is more significant in some way than all of those values we associate with Pesah.  What could it possibly be?

     And I think the answer to that question has to do with the often noted fact that God’s name does not appear in the Megillah.  So on March 20th, when you all come back for Purim, and I hope you will, follow along closely with the reading of the Megillah, and you’ll see that there is no mention of God, anywhere, in the Book of Esther.  But 6 weeks from now, when you are sitting at the seder table, take a moment and start counting how many times God’s name appears in the Haggadah.  Just in the kiddish alone, including the shehechiyanu, you have 9.  And as you flip through the pages you will find God referred to over and over again, often by name.  Think of it like this – God is not on a single page of the Megillah.  But God is on virtually every page of the Haggadah.  

     And that is because the core question of the Haggadah is ‘what did God do for us?’  The Haggadah, at least the first half, is in many ways an answer to that question.  God took note of us, God performed miracles for us, God took us from slavery to freedom.  And we thank God for God’s kindnesses.  That is Hallel!  What did God do for us?  That is the question of the Haggadah.

     But the question of the Megillah is an entirely different question.  The story of Purim asks ‘what did we do for ourselves?’  And it answers that question by showing how, with incredible courage, in the face of enormous odds, Mordecai and Esther saved the Jews of their time.

     And I think the message the Sages saw in Purim that they didn’t see in Passover is that salvation ultimately must come about through human action, not through God’s miracles.  If you want to make the world a better place, if you want to heal the world, if you want to make the world into the kind of place where one day the Messiah might actually come – then you can’t ask the question ‘what will God do.’  But you have to ask the question ‘what will we do?’ And when you ask it over and over and over again,  then that world can become a reality.

     Now I love Passover.  It is my favorite holiday, and it is only 6 weeks away.  But Purim is first, and it has a powerful – and often over looked – lesson about the responsibility we all have, through the way we lead our lives, to create together a better world.  Let’s celebrate that message on Purim in 10 days, and carry that message with us through Passover and beyond.  Kein Yehi Ratzon

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A Bad Week for the Jews

There were three Jews prominently featured on the front pages of American newspapers this week:  Michael Cohen, Bibi Netanyahu, and Robert Kraft.

Think about that for a moment.  As my Bubbie used to say, ‘Oy vey iz mir!’

It started with the Michael Cohen testimony.  A congregant came to see me the day he was on the hill and said she had been watching but had turned the TV off, feeling physically sick from what she was seeing.  I asked her if it was because of what Cohen’s testimony symbolized in terms of the state of the union, or because he was a Jew?  ‘Because he is a Jew,’ she said, ‘because I was watching a Jew stand up in front of the country, in front of the world, talking about cheating others, paying off prostitutes, lying, bullying, seeking power and money at any cost, having no morals or ethics, and serving those with no morals or ethics.  I was ashamed.’

Then there was Bibi.  Yes, the indictment (s) – it won’t make his life any easier, particularly with an election a little over a month away.  But much more disturbing was his willingness to play in the same political sandbox as Otzma Yehudit, a far-right politically organized Israeli group that unabashedly expresses racist views and advocates the ‘removal’ of most if not all Arabs from ‘greater Israel.’  Three men tangentially connected with the group were convicted of setting fire to a school where Jewish and Arab children studied together in 2015.  Opposition to Bibi’s willingness to engage this group was so strong that even AIPAC supported a statement from the American Jewish Committee condemning Netanyahu’s actions.  When AIPAC is condemning Netanyahu, you know something serious is going on.

Finally, last, and probably least, Robert Kraft.  One of the wealthiest men in America, and one of its most prominent Jews, a generous donor to Jewish causes, and best known as the owner of the New England Patriots, Kraft was arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlor.  He entered a not guilty plea, but word is there is video tape evidence that will be submitted should things progress to a trial.

When I was going to Hebrew school while growing up we were taught to have pride in the Jewish community, in Jewish identity, and in Judaism’s deep belief in the importance of living a moral and ethical life.  We learned that Jews give charity (tzedekah), that Jews make the world a better place (Tikkun olam), that Jews stand for justice (tzedek).  And we understood, not just from our Hebrew school teachers, but from our parents and grandparents, that we were supposed to live our lives by those values.  That to be a moral and ethical person, to be a person of integrity and honor and honesty, in short to be a mensch – was what it meant to be a Jew.

Perhaps it is just coincidence.  Everyone has a bad week here and there.  After all, the Golden State Warriors, the best team in basketball, have lost their last two games in a row.  But we expect more, and we should.  The Torah teaches that Israel is supposed to be a light unto the nations.  It is hard enough to do that in the very best of circumstances.  With the headlines of the last week about three highly visible and prominent Jews, it makes it feel almost impossible.

In his closing statement at the public phase of the Michael Cohen testimony, Representative Elijah Cummings said ‘we are better than this.’  Jews around the world may be saying the same thing about this week’s news.  Let us hope we are right, and let us live our lives accordingly.

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