Category Archives: preaching

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17

As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes.  I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals.  In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously.  In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic.  When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable.  I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on.  There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7.  And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.

Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle.  I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.

When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question:  what is it that makes us human?  Is it the trappings of humanity?  The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures?  Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given?  Our intellect?  Our consciences?  Our creative ability?  And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them.  So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’

One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech.  In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does.  And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals.  We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals.  But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another.  Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity.  And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.

Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language.  It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words.  Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said.  And God said ‘let there be light.’  And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’  And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’  This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being.  God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel.  And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew?  The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’

And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech.  It is supposed to  be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth.  Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound.  It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power.  There are many examples of this in the Torah.  When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand.  The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding.  This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture.  And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.

In our world today this might seem like a strange idea.  We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it.  It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another.  We talk by one another, and not to one another.  In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case.  When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like:  ‘they  meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’  Or, ‘their word was their bond.’  Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’

It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true.  That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse.  What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah?  Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise.  Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred.  Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –

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This Land is Your Land…

Some thoughts about Israel after our recent congregational trip, expressed in my Shabbat sermon from 7/1/17 –

Just back from Israel – the Beth El trip – and to travel to Israel today is to both step back into the past, and also to look forward into the future.   The past – both ancient and recent –  is everywhere in Israel.  In the north we stood in an excavated synagogue from the year 350 the CE, knowing that 1700 years ago Jews came together in that space to recite the words of the Shema, to listen to the reading of the Torah, to celebrate the festivals and Shabbat.  On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem we saw the remains of burnt out tanks and transport vehicles.  They have been rusting in the hot sun since the War of Independence in 1948, still pock marked with the bullet holes of Arab guns trying to prevent the Jews from bringing supplies to their brothers and sisters in Israel’s most sacred city.

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem we traveled back 4000 years as we looked at artifacts from the early Canaanite settlements in the land, and saw an Israelite altar that was in use 2000 years ago.  But we also saw the Ayalon bullet factory from the mid 40s, where young Jews from the early days of the Yishuv ingeniously hid an entire bullet factory underneath a laundry mat, less than a half a mile from a major British post.  These Jews – 19, 20, 21 years old – risked their lives every day to manufacture the ammunition that would enable the first Jewish soldiers in the modern era to defend their homeland.  The entrance to the underground factory is located underneath a movable laundry machine, and to climb down into it is to have an immediate sense of the unique blend of genius, courage, and hutzpah that defines Israel to this very day.

But Israel does not feel in any way like an ancient or outdated place.  In fact, just the opposite.  The vibrant energy of Tel Aviv, with its sky scrapers and beach front bars and cafes is palpable and feels entirely fresh and modern.  If you have any doubts they are put to rest as you drive north along the Mediterranean coast, and see the huge buildings with names like Intel and Microsoft on them.  This is Israel’s version of Silicon Valley, and inside those buildings Israeli scientists and engineers are creating and perfecting technology that will make the entire world a better place for all.  As we drove we saw the foundation of the new mag lev train track that is supposed to open in 2019.  It will enable people to travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 15 minutes time.  Imagine that!  You will literally be able to live in Tel Aviv and work in Jerusalem, or vice versa.

Imagine that!  From the shore of the Mediterranean to the hills of Jerusalem in 15 minutes.  For our ancestors in ancient times that would have been a trek of many days, possibly even weeks.  They would have made that journey multiple times a year, particularly for the 3 pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  After a long, hot, and difficult journey they would have arrived in Jerusalem with a deep sense of gratitude, hope, and faith.

Today the way we reach Jerusalem has entirely changed.  Whether on a maglev train, or a bus, or arriving from some foreign land on a great plane filled with people, we  can get from point A to point B in ways our ancestors never could have imagined.  But for all of our technology, for all of the wonders of the modern world, the human heart is still the same.  And I suspect the emotions we feel as modern travelers when we come around a bend and see the city of Jerusalem – the city of gold –  laid out before us – how that touches our soul, how that feels in our heart – is very much the same way it felt to our ancestors thousands of years ago.  The gratitude.  The sense of God’s presence.  The connection to the history of our people.  Those things have not changed for the pilgrim – they are as strong as they have ever been.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with the Israelites camped across the Jordon River, within sight of the ancient city of Jericho.  For the rest of the Torah, through the last chapters of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy, they will remain in that place, looking across the river – westward – toward the land they have been promised by God.  Jericho lies before them as both a challenge and an incentive – a challenge in that they know it must be conquered before the land is theirs, and an incentive because they see that great cities can be built in this new land they are about to enter.

It was just a little more than a week ago that we drove by Jericho, winding our way down through the hills that lead from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.  We were on our way to Masada, the legendary ancient fortress of Jewish heroism, in the south.  As we passed Jericho and turned to the right, the Jordon River was in front of us, and across it the very place where the Torah tells us Moses bade the Israelites make camp.

It is a strange thing to think about, but Moses never left that camp.  He stayed there, with the Israelites, until the very end of his life when God told him to ascend Mt Nebo, where he had one last view of a Promised Land he knew he would never enter.  He had spent his entire life working towards a goal that only others would realize.  The people would cross over, a Jewish homeland would be established, a Jewish monarchy would come into being, Jewish sovereignty would be lived and breathed for generations, but Moses saw none of it.

Or did he?  There is a well known midrashic legend that God gave Moses a parting gift, just before his death.  When God took him to the top of the mountain where he breathed his last God showed him not only the Promised Land, not only the physical space, the hills and mountains and vineyards and orchards and valleys, but also the future of that land.  The great triumphs, the building of the Temple, the establishment of an Israelite nation, as well as the tragedies, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the people.

Thinking about that legend, I wonder if Moses knew that one day I would be blessed to enter that land, that I would one hot day be riding in a bus, with a group of tired and yet excited and fulfilled Baltimoreans, many of them experiencing Israel for the very first time.  Did he know then that some 3500 years after he stood at the far side of the Jordon, looking towards this land, that the land of Israel would still be the heart and soul of the Jewish people?  Whether he knew or not, whether the legend is true or not, I don’t know.  But I do know this – if Moses, in his vision, saw today’s Israel, he would have been deeply grateful and proud.

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Miriam and Wonder Woman

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/10/17

Many of you know that I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and my fondness for the heroes and villains of those fantastical stories has stayed with me ever since.  I rarely read a comic book these days, but I still generally will go out to the theater to see the newest super hero movie that comes to town.  And there are plenty of movies to choose from – Batman vs. Superman, Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, Spiderman, X -Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie industry has long ago learned that these movies, particularly when made well, are profitable, and that they also generate RETURN business – that is to say, there is often a second, third, and sometimes even fourth installment in the series.

But despite the abundance – or some might say over abundance – of super hero films, it is rare to see one of these movies garner the kind of attention that the new Wonder Woman movie has received.  The movie has not only been a rousing success – it has already sold over 300 million dollars in tickets – it has also been a critical success, receiving an impressive score of 92% on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.  And in addition to all of that, the movie has been notable for two other reasons, one from a feminist perspective, one from a Jewish perspective.  Let me talk about the Jewish perspective first.

It was announced early on that the role of Wonder Woman would be played by an Israeli woman named Gal Gadot.  As an 18 year old Ms. Godot won the Miss Israel contest in 2004, and then spent time as a professional model.  Her acting career has really only taken off recently, and with the Wonder Woman film she has truly arrived.  Without question the biggest role ever played by an Israeli actor, and Jews around the world have been scheping nahas, proud of the success of a native Sabra who served in the Israeli army.

Becky and Josh and Merav and I went to see the movie Tuesday night.  We knew going in that Gal Gadot was Israeli, but we were all surprised at HOW Israeli she was.  Throughout the film she speaks with an obvious Israeli accent, and her mannerisms are completely Israeli as well.  If you close your eyes and listen to her voice you can easily imagine you are on Ben Yehuda St in Jerusalem sitting at one of the outdoor cafes, sipping a coffee.  The second thing that struck me about the movie Jewishly is that it is set during the first World War, and the villains are mostly German soldiers.  And there are a series of scenes where Wonder Woman almost single handedly defeats entire regiments of the German army.  And when you are Jewish, and you know that the woman playing this character is Israeli, and she is defeating the Germans, it just has a certain resonance to it.  The movie itself is fine – it is well done, it has terrific special effects – but at the end of the day it is a super hero movie – but if you are Jewish, it is worthwhile going to see it, just for these two reasons.

But it is also worthwhile going to see because of the national conversation it is generating about women, women’s roles, and equality in the workplace and elsewhere.   Women have been flocking to this movie – in fact, a phenomenon has developed where groups of women will go together to see the film.  Or women are going with their daughters, and in many cases reporting that the experience of watching a film with the central character of a woman who is stronger than any man, self assured, brilliant, and courageous – who is truly the hero and does not need to be rescued by a man –  is a powerful experience, one they can’t ever remember having in their lives.

A couple of observations.

The first is that men should also go see Wonder Woman for this very same reason.  In metaphoric terms it addresses, in a profound way, the power imbalance that still exists in our society between men and women.  I don’t have to go through all of the statistics because I imagine you are familiar with them – that woman get paid lower salaries when working the same job a male counterpart is working, that the vast majority of CEO roles in Fortune 500 companies are filled by men – about %95.  That women are treated differently in the work place, have different expectations to fulfill, the list goes on and on.  And the simple truth is we men are not as sensitive to these issues as we should be.  This movie will not resolve any of these problems, but it will  – in fact it is – helping to raise awareness about them.

The second thing is  – lucky for me – the movie ties in very well to this week’s Torah portion.  Gal Gadot is not the first strong Jewish woman, even if she is the first to play the lead in a super hero movie.  It has always been fascinating to me that the Torah, a text that is close to 2500 years old at this point, is filled with examples of women who are strong, courageous, and filled with a love of their tradition.  You might very well expect the opposite, given that the Torah comes from a world that was almost entirely dominated by men.  But you would never know that reading the stories of our ancestors.    Sarah and Rebecca are powerful figures in the Torah, who in many ways orchestrate the dynamics of their families, making key decisions about how the tradition will be transmitted to the next generation despite the wishes of their husbands.  Rachel is no slouch herself, neither is Leah.

And neither is Miriam, Moses’ sister who plays a central role in this week’s reading.  We know Miriam well from her adventures in the book of Exodus, the woman who manages to save her brother Moses, get him into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, and then to work out a way for him to be taken care of by his own mother, no mean feat.  She is called a prophet, the only woman so called in the entire Torah, and she leads the Israelite women in their own musical celebration after the crossing of the sea.

In this week’s portion her role is more complicated.  She and Aaron speak out against their brother Moses, and God becomes angry at them because of it.  God calls them out and scolds them, ‘how did you not shrink from speaking out against my servant Moses?!’  And then God punishes – Miriam.  Only Miriam.  For some reason, Aaron escapes scot free, but Miriam is afflicted with white scales that cover her body.  And I’ve always wondered – why isn’t Aaron punished?  Why only Miriam?

The traditional answer to that question is that Miriam was the instigator, that she led the charge, and Aaron was just tagging along.  So she was punished, while he was simply scolded.  But maybe there is another reason – perhaps, in a world dominated by men, there was a general discomfort with the idea that a woman would publicly challenge a man.  For Aaron it was considered to be OK to confront his brother Moses, but for Miriam – a woman – unacceptable.  So she was punished, while Aaron escaped unscathed.

We might say the more things change the more they stay the same.  Far too often, and for too long, women’s voices have been silenced or ignored.  The new Wonder Woman film with its Israeli star reminds us that we’ve come a long way in this regard.  But at the very same time it reminds us we still have a long ways to go.

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A Contemporary 10 Commandments

This a text version of my sermon from day 1 of Shavuot –

There is a long standing debate about the precise date of the events that we read about in this morning’s Torah portion.  Most biblical scholars believe the Exodus happened somewhere around the year 1300 BCE, give or take a couple of hundred years.  If they are correct it would mean that our ancestors were standing at Sinai some 3,300 years ago when Moses walked up to the top of the mountain, and God proclaimed the words of the 10 commandments.

So it is amazing to me that 3,300 years after the words were spoken, they still remain relevant in our lives.   We understand that if we can follow at least these 10 laws, we will be on the track to living a moral and ethical life.  And what is more, the 10 commandments are understood as a sort of foundational guide for the basis of a civilized society, at least in western culture.

All that being said, and with all due respect, the list of laws we read this morning is 3,300 years old.  Since the commandments came into being the world has changed dramatically, and the Israelites who first followed the commandments as their moral code would not even recognize the world we live in today.  So this morning I would like to offer a contemporary version of the 10 commandments.  This is not meant to replace the originals, but rather to help us think about how the words that Moses recorded so long ago can continue to bring meaning and guidance into our lives.

The first of the commandments – אנוכי ה׳ אלוקך – I am the Lord your God – is understood by Maimonides as a commandment about belief – we must believe in God is therefore the first of the 10.  I would like to understand that in today’s terms to mean that we need to have a spiritual dimension in our lives.  We are beings that exist on three levels.  There is a physical level of our existence.  We must eat, we must sleep, we must keep our bodies healthy in order to live.  We are physical creatures living in a physical world.  But we also are intellectual beings.  We think, we create, we ponder, we are curious about the world around us, we problem solve – this is our intellect at work.  But Judaism teaches that mind and body alone are not sufficient to live a fully human life – you also must have a soul.  And without those three parts working together – body, mind, and soul – we are not complete.  Commandment #1 – the spiritual dimension of life.

The second commandment is לא יהיה לך אלוקים אחרים – do not have other gods before Me.  This is commonly understood as the prohibition of idol worship, long considered one of the gravest sins a Jew could commit.  In our culture today we might rarely if ever be tempted to worship an actual idol.  That being said there are many metaphoric idols that can creep into our lives.  Money and power come to mind right away.  Ego might be another.  Work can become an idol.  So can material goods.  The list could go on an on.  So commandment #2 – be aware of the idols in contemporary life, and remember it is just as much of a sin to worship them as to worship an actual idol.

The third commandment?  לא תשא את שם ה׳ אלוקיך לשב – do not take God’s name in vain.  I’ll understand that to mean that certain things in our lives should be sacred, and they should not be wasted.  Trust would be one of those.  Our relationships another.  Our reputations as well.  Our God given talents.  When we squander these things , when we use them for vain purposes, we are less holy, we diminish ourselves, and we diminish God, in Whose image we are created.

Number four – זכור את יום השבת – remember the Sabbath day!  We need time to think and be, without the constant distractions and interruptions that have become so prevalent in modern life.  If we can carve out 24 hours a week to be screen free – no phones, no computers – we will be healthier, happier, and holier, and will have a deeper sense of peace about ourselves and our lives.

Five?  כבד את אביך – honor your father and mother.  In a world where we are living longer and longer lives, this commandment can be the basis for the moral conversation we need to have about aging with dignity.  It is a complicated conversation that touches on topics as wide ranging as medical care, assisted suicide, and how ‘quality of life’ is defined.  But the idea of honoring our elders can be a touchstone as we tackle these difficult issues.

Commandment #6 – לא תרצח – do not murder.  For contemporary times I would like to expand this commandment beyond the scope of the individual, and understand it as applying to entire communities.  There are cities all around the country with unbelievably high murder rates – Baltimore is one of them.  The sixth commandment reminds us that if we live in one of these communities, even if we don’t kill someone ourselves, we should feel a sense of responsibility for what is happening, and should work to make our communities safer and less violent.

לא תנאף – is commandment #7.  Do not commit adultery.  In a time when marriage is being challenged on multiple fronts, and when marriage rates in America are the lowest they’ve ever been, the Torah reminds us that a committed, long term relationship with a single person is a meaningful and even more importantly sacred way to live a life.

Number eight?  לא תגנב – do not steal.  We have grown accustomed to having virtually everything we want.  But there is a difference between what you want, and what you need.  If we can remember that distinction, if we can remember what it is we truly need – health, people to share our lives with, safety, a place to live and food to eat – than we would not be tempted to take what does not belong to us.

The ninth commandment is לא תענה ברעך עד שקר – do not testify falsely.  Which I will understand in this contemporary 10 commandments to be a message about truth.  Sometimes it seems like truth itself is under siege today – the phrase ‘alternate facts’ comes immediately to mind.  There are times when we may not know exactly what happened, or when facts are not entirely clear.  But often the truth can be determined and known.  The ninth commandment reminds us that truth is still a sacred value, and that when we honestly examine our lives, ourselves, and our world, the truth can often be discovered.

And finally, commandment #10 – לא תחמד – do not covet, do not be envious.  Commentators have long noted that envy is one of the most destructive emotions, and can lead to the breaking of a series of other commandments, for a person who is envious might lie, steal, commit adultery, and even murder.  In today’s world the best antidote to envy is gratitude, and in Judaism gratitude comes from understanding that everything we have is a gift from God.

So there you have it, my contemporary 10 commandments.  Again, not to replace the originals, but with the hope of reminding us again on this Shavuot of how relevant these ancient words can still be in our lives, and of what a great gift the Torah we celebrate today truly is.

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Biblical Math

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 5/27/17

Those of you who know me even moderately well probably know that I am what would today be called ‘math challenged.’  I remember always being this way, from the time math became a bit more complicated, say when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and we started in with long division.  That was pretty much the end of my successful math career.  From that point forward it was a serious struggle.  Fractions made me crazy.  Algebra intimidated me and made very little sense.  Trigonometry left me wondering if I was going to graduate from high school.  In the end – and I am convinced to this day with some help from God Almighty – or at least my trig teacher who had rachmanas on me – I did graduate, and have happily not studied math since I was in 10th grade.  Thank God for calculators!

But what is a ‘mathless’ rabbi to do with this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar?  It is first of all the beginning of the book of the Torah that we call in English – Numbers!  The text begins with a census, which is at the end of the day doing math, counting and adding.  And the portion itself is filled with numbers in every chapter.  Here are just a few examples, chosen randomly:  59,300 (the number of males aged 20 or over from the tribe of Shimon);  603,550 (the total number of males eligible for military service among the Israelites);  22,273 (the number of first born males).  There is even a math problem in the portion.  At one point the text says you have to multiply 273 by the number 5 and you will arrive at an answer of 1365.

Of course the numbers here serve a purpose.  The Israelites needed to know what their number was, how many of them were eligible for military service, how many of them would be responsible for conducting worship at the Tabernacle, or for carrying the objects of the Tabernacle when they moved to a new camp.  But over time Judaism became wary of counting people, eventually preferring not use numbers to count people at all.  That is why in Exodus one of the counting techniques is for each person to submit a half shekel, and then you count the shekels.  Of if you’ve ever been in a traditional shul, and they are wondering if there are enough people for a minyan, they’ll use the motzi instead of using numbers to find out of there are 10.  Try it!  10 words!

There are a variety of explanations as to why Jews don’t count Jews.  One idea is that counting makes people distinct, it in a sense separates one person from another, and we don’t want Jews to be separate, we want Jews to be communal, to be together and united.  But I’ve always suspected that the tradition was simply uncomfortable assigning a number to a person.  Once a person becomes a number they aren’t an individual any more.  They are not a name or a face, they are not part of a family, they don’t have a story.  Instead, they are a statistic, to be analyzed, to be mathematically manipulated, to be thought about in abstract terms.  And there is something about that that is dehumanizing, that takes away our individuality and our sense of self worth.       Some of you may remember the 1981 Police album Ghost in the Machine.  There is a song on that record Invisible Sun, and one of the lines is ‘I don’t ever want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart.’

To me that is a problem of our internet – computer driven age.  We have more ways to turn people into numbers today than we ever have before.  I imagine you know that as you use your iPhone, or your computer, every click is tracked, and there are algorithms at work that make you into a statistic based on those clicks.  This is done to communities as well, or even to entire areas of the country, with what they call ‘big data,’ which is mostly a collection of information about Google searches in your area.

Now there is some accuracy in these numbers , and I am sure there is something important that can be learned from them.  But we certainly know that numbers never tell the full story.  Probably the best recent example of this is the presidential election.  All of the numbers, all of the statistics, predicted that Hillary would win that election and Donald Trump would lose.  But Donald Trump is president of the United States.  And you may remember that right after the election all of the reporters, and all of the sociologists, and all of the pundits, were wringing their hands and saying ‘how could we have gotten it so wrong?’  And I think part of the answer is that they were paying attention to the poll numbers as they came in, but they weren’t paying attention to the people, to the communities, to the personal stories and emotions of the people who ultimately voted.

Unfortunately in our culture today we do the same thing.  We commonly evaluate others – and sometimes even ourselves – by numbers.  What is a person’s salary?  What zip code do they live in?  Even how many years did they live, or how many children and grandchildren did they have?  And we tend to believe that when the numbers are high the story is good.  But I’ve known plenty of people – and I am sure you have too – who have lived long lives, had many children, been paid high salaries, and at the end of the day were pretty miserable.

And the reason for that is all of the things that define the quality of human life that cannot be quantified.  You can’t put a number on the quality of a person’s relationships.  You can’t put a number on a person’s emotional intelligence, on their ability to cope with trauma and tragedy, on the joy or humor or love that they bring into the world.  And I would argue that all of the things – much more so than the numbers – give us a true sense of the quality of our lives.

So truth be told I am not a big fan of this week’s Torah portion and its penchant for counting people and adding them up as if they were something to be packaged or sold.  Instead I much prefer the approach of the prophet Hosea, captured in the very first verse of this morning’s haftara.  והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד ולא יספר – Behold the number of the people Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted – instead, they shall simple be called ‘Children of the Living God.’

And that, at least it seems to me – tells more about the Jewish people than any number ever could.  Now that is my kind of math.

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The Best Colleges for Jewish Students

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 4/29/17 –

This coming Monday, May 1, is the final deadline for high school seniors around the country to commit to the college or university of their choice.  Thousands upon thousands of students are wrestling with that decision this weekend, knowing that the process that began for many of them almost two years ago is down to these last couple of days, maybe even the last few hours.  Today students and their families take into account a whole series of factors that I never even considered when I was applying to college.  Does the school have a food court, for example, or state of the art work out facilities, or Starbucks coffee available on campus 24/7?

In the Jewish community there is also an additional factor that families wrestle with that was not on the table even 10 years ago, and that is what is the school’s attitude towards Israel in particular and towards Judaism in general?  We are probably all aware of the complexities of navigating Jewish life and identity on the college campus today.  The Boycott Divest and Sanction Movement – often called BDS – a movement that very publicly, and often provocatively, challenges Israeli policy vis a vis the Palestinians, and sometimes also challenges Israel’s right to exist – that movement is strong and active on many college campuses.  And there is a growing perception that those campuses are not friendly places for Jews – that they are becoming anti-semitic – and that Jews should perhaps shy away from attending those schools.

Just this past week, the Algemeiner, a right of center web site that covers Jewish news, released a list it entitled ‘the 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students.’  The list was compiled based on an attempt to assess some of the following:  the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, the number of anti-Israel groups, public positions taken by faculty – in other words are there faculty on the campus that are vocally anti-Israel, and also the success or lack of success of boycott-Israel efforts undertaken by campus groups.

The list is not just a list – it is also a ranking – #1 on the list is the absolute worst in terms of anti-semitism, all the way down. Among the 40 schools you will find many of the top colleges and universities in the country, to include:  Harvard, Stanford, Brown, and Swarthmore;  the University of Chicago, UCal Berkeley, UCLA, and McGill University in Montreal;  Oberlin, Tufts, Michigan, Northwestern,  UNC Chapel Hill, Wesleyan, Syracuse, and Georgetown, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  As you now have a sense, the list is a virtual who is who of the top schools in the country.

Now on the one hand a list is just a list.  Like a list of the top 10 greatest guitar players of all time, or the best quarterbacks of all time, or the worst draft picks of all time, one person puts this list together, one person puts another, one person says its Unitas, one person says it is Marino, one person says Brady, you can argue and debate about it, but it is largely subjective.  The problem with this list is that people are starting to believe it.  So much so that a congregant recently said to me they didn’t want their child – who is a great student and a great kid – they didn’t want their child applying to Tufts – one of the top schools in the country! – because they had heard it was an anti-semitic campus.

The Jewish community has long prided itself on its academic orientation.  Education is a powerful value in our culture.  When our grandparents and great grandparents came from Europe and settled here it was education that enabled us to make better lives for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren.  That value is as old as Judaism itself.  The Torah portions we read this morning, Tazria and Metzora, describe the role of the Kohen, the Priest, in ancient Israelite culture.  And the Kohen was a combination of religious leader and medical man, a kind of rabbi-doctor hybrid.  Call it what you will – a docbi or a rabtor?  But he was respected for his knowledge, for the fact that he was learned in the tradition, that he knew the laws of the Torah, that he had studied and mastered his material.  And that respect for study, for education and learning, for the intellect, has stayed strong in Jewish life to this very day.  Which is precisely why, by the way, you find a high percentage of Jewish students at these top universities.

And that is also why I am proud to say that Becky and I will have children at the top two school on that Algemeiner list.  You heard that right – two of the rabbi’s children will be enrolled as students at the top two schools on that anti-Semitic university list.  And why am I proud of that?  Reason #1 – could you imagine what would happen if the Jewish community en masse decided not to send its children to those schools?  We would first of all be depriving our children of the opportunity to study at some of the world’s top universities.  Is this the way we fight anti-semitism?  Or is that the way we let anti-Semites win?  I know a number of you in this room remember a time – not so long ago – when Hopkins had a quota in terms of the number of Jewish students it would admit per year.  After what we fought for – to have equal access to any university in the country – are we going to impose a quota on ourselves?

Secondly, if we don’t get our children onto the campuses of those schools, who on the campus is going to stand up for the stand of Israel?  Who on the campus is going to represent Judaism and the Jewish people?  Who will be on the campus when someone says something outrageous about Israel or the Jewish people, who will be there to stand up and say ‘that is a lie, and here are the real facts?’  Who will be there if our children aren’t there?

We should not be telling our kids to stay away from those schools.  We should instead be telling our kids to flood those schools with applications, we should be strengthening the Hillels on those school’s campuses, we should be talking with our kids when they are in high school about what they might encounter when they arrive on the campus of their choice, so that if they see BDS in action, or if they are in a situation where they need to defend Israel or need to respond to anti-semitism they will know how to do so.  And I would argue that the higher the school is on the list, the more young Jews should try to go there.

So far, that has actually been the case.  Almost every school on the list has a large, active, and vibrant Jewish student body on its campus.  Those students are traveling to Israel on Birthright trips.  They are filling Hillel and Chabad houses.  They are defending Israel on campus, and calling out any anti-Semitism they experience.  They are also having positive and powerful experiences at colleges and universities they love, during their four years in school growing as people and as Jews.

So at the end of the day, Algemeiner compiled a terrific list.  They just gave it the wrong title.  It should have been called ‘the 40 Best Colleges for Jewish Students.”

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Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

This a text version of my sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

Tradition has long understood the 7th day of Passover as the day the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea, finally escaping the Egyptians, and that is why the Sages chose the narrative of the Song at the Sea for this morning’s Torah reading.  It is a dramatic moment, long anticipated, and our custom is to reflect the drama of the text by standing together as a congregation when it is read aloud.  We even participate in the song itself, joining in with the Torah reader when he chants some of the phrases, like מי כמוכה or ה׳ ימלוך לעולם ועד.

But this morning I would like to turn our attention away from that moment of high drama to focus on what is the traditional beginning of this morning’s reading.  As with any great moment of life, there was an extensive amount of mundane preparation that preceded the parting of the sea.  And the Torah gives us a fair amount of detail about those preparations.  The Israelites had to pack their things, and prepare for the long journey that lay ahead of them.  They also had to enact the entire Passover ritual, sacrificing lambs and painting some of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  And they went to the Egyptians, who gave them provisions and even gold to take on the journey.  This was all of the behind the scenes hustle and bustle that went on before they left Egypt, before the drama enacted at the Sea that marks the high point of this morning’s reading.

One can imagine that Moses was quite busy during these last hours in Egypt.  He was the project manager, if you will.  The Torah tells us Moses met with Pharaoh four separate times just before the Israelis left.  He also had to give the people instructions, telling them what they needed to do and how they were to prepare.  He must have been running from place to place, from person to person, making sure everyone knew what their role was, making sure that all the preparations had been properly attended to.

And then there is one additional responsibility that Moses carries out, just at the very moment when the Israelites are leaving Egypt, what must have been the busiest time of all for Moses.  The Torah tells us ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף – Moses took the bones of Joseph.  You may remember that at the very end of Genesis, in fact the second to the last verse of the book, Joseph tells his brothers, just as he is about to die – “you must bring my bones up out of here.  Make sure that one day my bones will be taken to the land of Israel.”  And here is Moses – some four hundred years later – fulfilling Joseph’s wish.

What commentators notice about this is that Moses does it himself.  In everything that was going on, meetings with Pharaoh, preparing more than a million people to leave their homes, the religious rites of the first Passover sacrifices, in all of that, one might have expected Moses to delegate the job of retrieving some 400 year old bones.  Even if they were the bones of Joseph.  If he wanted, he could have sent someone important – he could have sent Aaron, or Miriam.  But he doesn’t – he goes himself, and he schleps.

I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about being in the working world.  As is so often the case, this lesson came to me not in a classroom or a meeting, but in a casual conversation I had with a secretary, these days an administrative assistant, a conversation that took place now about 30 years ago.  I was working on my Master’s degree at Maryland, and found a part time job working in Rockville for a place called the Care Center.  We had a small office space in the large government complex in Rockville at the center of town, and the secretary of the head of the department sat just across the hall from my desk, and over the months as I worked there I got to know her a bit.

One day we were talking about something – I don’t even remember what – and she said to me that her boss – that department head – was the best boss she had ever worked for.  So I asked the natural question – which is?  Why?  What makes him the best boss you’ve ever worked for?  And she said this:  he would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Now on the surface that is a pretty simple and straight forward statement.   But under the surface there is a lot going on there.  What she was really saying was this:  “My boss and I might have very different jobs, but – he respects me, he values my time as much as his own, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and we are in this together, we are working together as a team to do what we need to do.”  And she was saying one other thing – “He is humble.  He doesn’t care what his title is, he is not impressed by his own resume, he doesn’t think he is any more important than anyone else here, including me.  And that is the kind of person for whom I like to work.”

Let me return now to Moses, and the Torah’s understanding of his character.  As large as Moses looms in the Torah, we have very little information from the text about his character.  We are never told, anywhere in the Torah, that Moses is brave, or courageous, or wise, or understanding, or moral or ethical.  In fact, we are only told one thing – directly – about Moses’ character.  We are told that he is humble.  (Numbers 12:3)  And it seems to me that only a person of true humility, on one of the busiest days of his life, would take the time to dig up some old dusty bones because of a promise made 400 years ago.  I guess like the boss of the secretary, Moses also would not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a very important lesson for a rabbi to remember.  Sometimes in the rabbinate it can feel like every day is the busiest day of your life.  And you are often told all kinds of wonderful things about yourself.  All of it very much appreciated, don’t get me wrong!  But if you are not careful, you can begin to believe your own press clippings, if you know what I mean.  And at the end of the day you have to strive to keep everything in perspective, to remember that you are no better or no more important that anyone else, no more deserving of respect or attention, no less deserving of doing a little schlepping every once in a while.

Because keeping that lesson in mind not only helps you to be a better rabbi, or whatever else it is you might do – it also helps you to be a better Jew, and a better person.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we are really all after anyway?

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