Category Archives: politics

Gun Laws

As the nation goes through yet another round of soul searching following not one, but two mass shootings that took place within a few hours of each other, I would suggest our legislators look to Israel to get a sense of what responsible gun regulation legislation looks like.

Maybe that sounds surprising to you.  There is a common misconception among Americans that guns are commonplace in Israel, that most Israelis own guns and know how to use them.  How often do Americans return from their first trip to Israel struck by the vision of young Israelis, many still in their late teens, walking the streets of Jerusalem in their Army uniforms, machine guns slung over their shoulders?  And it is true that Israelis are more familiar with guns than most Americans, because the vast majority of Israelis serve in the military where they are trained in the use of firearms.  But the truth is guns are very carefully and thoughtfully regulated in Israel.

First off, there are a series of preconditions that Israelis must meet before they can even apply for a gun license.  They must first of all be of a minimum age.  That is defined as 20 if you have completed your military service.  Let me restate that.  In Israel, even if you’ve served in the military and been trained in the use of firearms, you can’t apply for personal gun ownership until you are 20.  And if for some reason you did not serve in the Army, you can’t own a gun until you are 27 years old.  27!  In addition, background checks are strict.  Any person who applies for a gun license must include medical information from his or her doctor, with the doctor’s knowledge that the person is applying for gun ownership.  The doctor takes into account both physical and mental health in the evaluation.  Once the individual satisfies these requirements, they are permitted to apply.

In the application the individual must explain why he or she needs to own a gun.  And the answer ‘because I want to keep my home safe at night’ is not acceptable.  Licenses are typically granted to people who might regularly cross through the West Bank, or who work in security, people who could find themselves in truly dangerous situations.  Figures vary, but estimates are that minimally 40% of applicants are rejected.  Let alone the fact that the entire process of applying takes many months.

Even more importantly, gun ownership is tracked carefully by the State.  Citizens are permitted to own a single gun at a time.  One gun at a time.  If you want to sell your gun, you have to ask the Israeli government for permission first.  Ammunition is also regulated.  An Israeli can legally be in possession of fifty bullets at any given time.  That is it.  Before they buy new bullets they must shoot or return the old ones, and that has to happen at a tightly regulated shooting range where the bullets – the bullets themselves! – are registered.

There is more, but I suspect you have a pretty good sense of it at this point.  After these most recent shootings the President, parroting Fox News, talked about the problems of mental health and video games.  Clearly mental health plays a role in these tragedies.  But video games?  Seriously?  The problem is crystal clear, in each and every shooting, one after another after another:  someone who should not have a gun was able to quickly and easily purchase one, and often times more than one, with as much ammunition as they wanted.

The Israelis, pragmatists that they are, understand this and have taken care of it through strict and responsible gun regulation.  When American Jews talk to their legislators about Israel, they might want to remind them that along with Israel’s many other accomplishments it has some of the most tightly regulated gun laws in the world.

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Same as it Ever Was

In the fall of 1980 the Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Remain in Light.’  Jimmy Carter’s presidency was winding down, and in November, a month after the record was released, the country would elect Ronald Reagan to be its 40th president.  The signature song of Remain in Light would become Once in a Lifetime, a charged blending of funk and world music beats overlaid with David Bryne’s surrealistic ravings delivered in a series of preacher-like cadences.  Here are the lyrics of the memorable first verse:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

In the band’s live version of the song, recorded for its 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne shakes, trembles, and sweats as he sings, conveying the sense of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It is all too much.  Too much going on.  Too much to understand.  Too much information.  What is real, what is important, what is true, what false, and how, indeed, did we get here?

One answer to that question is found in the song’s haunting refrain, that Byrne hypnotically chants over and over, slapping his hand against his forehead – ‘same as it ever was.’  It is in essence a reframing of the famous biblical line from Ecclesiastes 1:9:  ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  Here is that verse in its entirety:  “What was will be again, what has been done will be repeated, for there is not a single new thing under the sun.”  In other words we get to ‘here’ because it is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice because we are doomed to repeat the same story lines over and over.  Make the same mistakes, never grow, never change, never break new ground.  Same as it ever was.

I’ve been thinking about both the song and the verse from Ecclesiastes over the last weeks, while finishing Jill Lepore’s masterful one volume history of the United States, entitled ‘These Truths.’  In vivd and elegant prose Lepore recounts moment after moment in the history of our nation.  Many of those moments are glorious, stirring tales of the human spirit at its very best.  In generation after generation Americans stepped forward to risk everything for values that we hold to be true and eternal – human dignity, freedom, justice, and mercy among them.

And yet.  Reading through the book’s 800 plus pages also reminded me that so many of the sorrows and troubles we live with today have been a part of our country from the very beginning.  Lepore makes it clear that racism is chief among those.  But we must also add to that list populism, political partisanship, poverty, the conservative / liberal divide, wealth inequality, and the list goes on and on.  Just like in the Talking Heads song, or the verse from Kohelet, we got here because we’ve been here before, and we just can’t seem to figure out a way to move forward.  Same as it ever was.

But I did not put the book down in a state of despair.  Instead I felt inspired, touched, moved, and reenergized.  In a way what is truly astonishing is that we have not given up.  We keep trying.  There are lights along the way, great figures and thinkers that show us who we are and encourage us to be better.  They help us to move down the road just a bit, a step or two.  Sometimes we slide back, sucked in by selfishness or fear to past mistakes and hatreds, repeating and revisiting them as if for the very first time.  But other times we are better.  We do better.  We live up to the ideals that we believe should define our country, our lives, and ourselves.

Of course the true question is how can we more consistently follow, using Lincoln’s term, ‘the better angels of our nature?’  There is no clear answer to that question.  One thing we should all know – it is not easy work.  Another is that Lepore’s splendid book can remind us all of where we’ve been, which will help us chart a safer and straighter course through the storms of the future.  Perhaps that is why she concludes the prayerful last paragraph of her history with the metaphor of a boat sailing on choppy seas:

“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.  If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.  With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true.  They would need to drive home the nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.  Knowing that heat and sparks and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals.  And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art:  how to navigate by the stars.”

In that clarion call Lepore reminds us all that the stars are there if we have the vision to see them, and the strength and will we need to chart the course.

For those interested here is a link to the classic Talking Heads performance of ‘Once in a Lifetime.’

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A Thin Blue Line

A paraphrase of the title of the 1988 documentary film ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ about the mistaken murder conviction of Randall Adams for the killing of police officer Robert Wood.  The events the film investigates took place in Dallas, Texas, in the fall of 1976.  The title of the movie is taken from a phrase the prosecutor uses in his closing argument at Adams’ trial – the police in essence form a ‘thin blue line’ that separates an ordered society from anarchy.

I would argue there are other ‘thin lines’ of varying colors that serve the same purpose.  The rule of law, the democratic system, honesty in voting, decorum in public discourse, honesty and integrity, and personal responsibility, just to name a few.  All of these ideals form, each in their own way, a thin line between ordered society and anarchy.  We might throw in the separation of church and state as well.  At different times one or the other of these lines might strain, even crack, but if the others maintain their integrity the line – the big one that separates us from a total breakdown – holds.

Some might say those lines are being stretched and stressed as they never have before.  So it was heartening this week to see that there are still some lines that cannot be crossed, still some standards that are held as inviolable, even in Washington DC.  If you’ve followed the news you know that Representative Steve King of Iowa went on the record earlier in the week in an interview with the NY Times, stating “”White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”  King has a long history of making questionable, if not outright racist remarks about immigrants and minorities, and the fact that he occupies a seat in the House is troubling enough in and of itself.  But this last statement was beyond the pale, and politicians from both sides of the isle condemned King.  He also was stripped of his committee responsibilities.  Just a few minutes ago as I type this the House overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution condemning King’s comments.

The line still holds.  At least it does today.

There is a concept in Judaism, ‘one should be killed, and not violate.’  The idea is there are certain commandments that are so central one must not violate them even upon pain of death.  The tradition specifies three commandments that fall into this category:  sexual sins, the spilling of blood, and worshipping idols.  The idea seems to be that the violation of said commandments so thoroughly corrupts the sinner that he or she becomes irredeemable.  In other words, the sinner crosses an inviolable line, and once they’ve crossed it, there is no way back.  Better to die knowing what you are and what you stand for than to be lost, both to yourself and to your culture and society.

What are we, and what do we stand for?  In part we answer those questions by the ‘thin lines’ we draw and how we protect them.  This week Steve King found out that at least one of those lines still holds.  What about the others?  Do they still hold?  And if so, do we have the will and the strength to make sure they do not break?

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Winter Reading

As the nights get longer and the days colder one might be tempted to spend time on the couch or in a favorite chair, sipping tea (or perhaps brandy, or whisky!*), and reading.  Here are a few suggestions for winter reading as we usher out 2018 and welcome in a new year:

The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey – This short novel (294 pages) describes in colorful detail life in the medieval village of Oakham during four days in February of 1491.  The village priest, John Reve, is the story’s main protagonist.  Part theologian, part pastor, part Sherlock Holmes, he struggles to understand how the body of a villager ended up in the river, drowned.  Fate or misfortune?  A Divine Decree fulfilled or a human plot gone awry?  The author’s beautiful prose will lead you backwards in time towards the answer to this delightful mystery.

These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore – Critics have called this one volume (932 pages) history of the United States a ‘masterpiece.’  Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard, analyzes key moments in the history of our nation, and ultimately creates a lens we can use to contextualize our current troubled and divisive times.    George Harrison, in his song Any Road (paraphrasing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) includes the lyric ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.’  Lepore’s point is exactly the opposite – it is by knowing where we’ve come from that we understand where we are, and gain insight into where we should be going.

And last, but buy no means least:

The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani – This series of short essays explores the way truth has historically been both understood and manipulated.  Read together, the chapters provide a devastating critique of the Trump administration’s attempt to reshape   how Americans understand what is real and what is not, and where actual truth resides.

*May I suggest a dram of Lagavulin 16 as the perfect match for a cold night, a warm blanket, and a good book.

And enjoy the reading!!

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Setting Aside Shabbat

There has been a bit of a brouhaha in Conservative Movement circles about the United Synagogue’s decision to allow their teens, in the context of a United Synagogue Youth program, to ride public transportation on Shabbat in order to participate in the march for sensible gun control on March 24th, in Washington DC.  This is a departure for USY, an organization that has done wonderful work with young people in the Movement, but has been for the most part rigidly and strictly devoted to a narrow interpretation of how Shabbat should be observed.

A couple of thoughts –

First, (and maybe foremost) doesn’t a loosening of Shabbat restrictions make sense given the observance level of the vast majority of people affiliated with the Conservative Movement?  Do we imagine that most of the young people who participate in our USY programs are Shabbat observant?  Do we think they don’t drive on Shabbat, use their computers and mobile phones, even go to the mall for that matter?  This is not to say we should throw the baby out with the bath water, but rather to suggest that we realistically look at who our teens are, and for that matter, who our adult congregants are as well.  It may be time to acknowledge that a narrow and strict definition of and adherence to Shabbat observance has become a thing of the past for the vast majority of Conservative Jews.

And secondly, if we want to stay in the realm of halacha (Jewish law) for a moment, lets think about the question of when it is appropriate, and even required, to set aside Shabbat observance for some other value.  In ancient times this was done so that on the Sabbath day the Temple’s sacrifices could still be offered.  In modern times this idea exists in a number of different areas, most prominently vis a vis the principle of preserving life, where virtually all halachic authorities agree that a physician may set aside Shabbat observance in order to attend to patients.  Brit milah (ritual circumcision) is another example.  If the 8th day fall on Shabbat, the bris is supposed to take place regardless.

Along these lines, doesn’t it then make sense to teach our teenagers a lesson.  Shabbat is important, one of the defining institutions of Judaism.  But there are times when other ideals, other values, other commitments, should take precedence.  Our teens this weekend will experience a meaningful sense of Shabbat, with Friday night dinners and services, Saturday morning study sessions, and sleeping in local synagogues.  But then on Saturday they’ll take their prepaid Metro cards, climb onto the DC subway, and join thousands of other teens in an effort to make a better, safer, holier world.

Some might in fact argue that there is no better way to spend our most sacred day.

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The King’s Speech

You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute.  Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke.  I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!

One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities.  The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community.  With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD.  Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp.  And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is?  Yes, his speech.  Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment –  it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.

There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion.  When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!”  Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible.  God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this?  God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.”  We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.

I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking.  But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life.  If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak.  There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.

You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI.  I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem.  The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.

The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear.  Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak.  But there is one distinct difference.  The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does.  Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly.  Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people.  But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on.  He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak.  He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse.  Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.

Now I have a sense  – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment.  As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference.  People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.

Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words.  It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words.  That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world.  But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt.  I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’  This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.

But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’  It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God.  And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.

That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States.  Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world.  But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise.  God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.

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Idols Old and New

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/4/17

Three months from now, on Saturday February 3rd, I hope you’ll all be back for services.  That morning we’ll read from the Torah Parshat Yitro, which contains probably the best known text in the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments.  You may know that the 10 commandments are symbolically represented here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary – where?  Right!  On top of the ark just behind me, with the carving of the two tablets, and you’ll notice, even if you can’t read Hebrew, that there are 5 lines on each tablet, and each line has two words – those are the first two words of each of the 10 commandments.  Lets go through them quickly – they are –

There is a wonderful George Carlin bit about the 10 commandments, one of my favorite comedy bits, and in 3 or 4 minutes he deconstructs the 10 commandments to show that at the end of the day they are really only one commandment, or maybe one and a half at best.  I would like to play that game just a bit this morning, and to argue that of the 10, the two most important are the first two commandments. Number one, which is understood as ‘believe in God!’  And the second – which is understood fundamentally as ‘don’t worship idols.’  Those two commandments are at the core of Jewish life, they are overarching principles, while the rest of the 10 attend to details.  And I would also argue that the first two commandments – believing in God and not worshipping idols – define Abraham’s life as the first Jew.

The believing in God part is easy to see, both in last week’s Torah portion and this week’s.  When God suddenly appears to Abraham last week, asking him to leave his native land, to give up everything that is familiar to him, Abraham does not say a single word.  Instead, with a straight forward sense of faith, with an iron cast belief that the God speaking to him is authentic, he simply packs his bags and he leaves.  And in the portion we read this morning Abraham shows a similar strength of faith and belief when God comes to him and tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Again, Abraham says not a single word.  God’s message comes to Abraham, and the text simply says וישכם אברהם בבוקר – Abraham rose up early in the morning and went about the business of fulfilling God’s command.  Now I don’t know about you, but my faith is not strong enough to listen to a command like that, even if it did come from God.  But Abraham’s faith is so strong that he never for a moment doubts that God will do what is right in the end.

But if Abraham’s belief in God is one of the defining qualities of his life, his rejection of idols seems to be almost, if not as, important.  Perhaps the most famous midrashic text of all time is about Abraham and the rejection of idols.  It is so well known many people believe it to be in the Torah itself.  It tells the story of a young Abraham, working in his father’s idol shop back in Ur.  And one day while his father is away, Abraham smashes all the idols with a hammer.  When his father returns, he yells at his son – what did you do?  Abraham’s answer to his father is tongue in cheek – “I didn’t do anything, the idols were fighting and they smashed each other!”  “That is not possible,” his father replied, “they are made of clay, they can’t move, they don’t think!”  And Abraham had his opening – “Well then, father,” he said, “why do you worship them?”

And that rejection of idols, that rejection of anything or any culture that is not monotheistic, becomes a second defining quality of Abraham’s life.  Abraham is called in the Torah העברי, which we commonly translate as ‘the Hebrew.’  But the root means ‘over there,’ or ‘the other side,’ so Abraham is the one who stands apart.  That is one of the ways I read the Binding of Isaac story.  When everyone else was sacrificing their children to their gods, Abraham stood apart, ultimately refusing to sacrifice his son to God.  When everyone else buried their family members in a common burial area, Abraham stood apart, purchasing a distinct plot of land for his family.  And as a boy, when he was growing up in a culture where everyone else worshiped idols, he stood apart, rejecting the idea of idol worship, and embracing the idea of a universal creator of all.

Over time the prohibition of idol worship became one of Judaism’s most important commandments and values.  There is an entire Talmudic tractate, Avodah Zarah, devoted to the dangers of idol worship.  Over and over again the great biblical prophets of our tradition warn against the worship of idols.  And of the 613 commandments, there are only three that a Jew must never violate, even to pain of death – and idol worship is one of them.  That intense, almost visceral, rejection of idolatry all began with Abraham, and it has continued to this very day in the lives of individual Jews and in Jewish communities through the ages.

Of course many things can be idols.  I would guess just about everyone in this room knows that Apple released a new state of the art iPhone yesterday.  And isn’t there something just a little bit idol worshippy about how people line up from 6 in the morning to get their hands on that object, about how they walk out of the stores with reverent expressions on their faces?  Here is David Brooks writing about modern idols in a column that appeared in this week’s NY Times:  “idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.”

Being honest, we all probably have our personal idols, objects or ideas that we worship to one degree or another in unhealthy ways.  It could be almost anything.  Food or alcohol or drugs.  Wealth and status and money.  Dare I suggest, the Ravens?  But there are times when communities also begin to worship idols.  In the Jewish tradition we have our very own example of that, in Exodus 32 and the story of the Golden Calf.

What are today’s communal idols?  One would be a culture that tells us success is defined by material possessions.  Another today would be political orthodoxy – worshipping at the feet of the political ideology of your chosen party, whether the right or the left.  Self interest might be a third – the growing trend to prioritize the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.  All of these things on the surface seem to offer you more control, but in the end, as Brooks pointed out, they end up controlling you.

So you see Abraham was a hero not only for his own time, he also is a hero for our time.  As we read about him in the Torah we are reminded of how important it is to identify the idols in our lives, whether communal or individual.  But we are also reminded that identifying these idols is not sufficient – they must also be confronted, and eventually destroyed.  It is when Abraham destroys the idols that surrounded him that he is finally free to begin his journey and live the rest of his life.  So it is for all of us as well – may we do that work in community, fellowship, and faith, with God’s help –

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