Category Archives: Torah

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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Wonder of Wonders

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/19/19 –

     For many of us of a certain age reading this morning’s Torah portion brings to mind the following image.  Charlton Heston stands on a precipice overlooking the churning waters of a vast sea.  With long white hair and a dense white beard he wears a flowing orange robe with black stripes.  In his hand he carries?  A wooden staff!  And he is surrounded by Israelites.  The camera then shifts, and you see the Pharaoh – played by?  Yul Brenner.  He sits atop his chariot with a stern expression, regal, decked out in Egyptian garb, surrounded by the Egyptian army.  

     Charlton Heston yells out to the Israelites ‘The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,’ and then turns to face the sea, raising his staff towards the heavens.  And then a miracle happens – the waters of the sea begin to part, forming a path on dry land right through the middle of water, and the Israelites run forward, down the embankment in front of them, striding out onto the seabed, gigantic walls of water on either side of them.  

          The scene in the movie is fairly accurate in terms of what is described in this morning’s Torah reading.  Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.  Pharaoh does lead the Egyptians, and they begin to draw close.  Moses does actually say the phrase that Charlton Heston cries out in the film – ה׳ ילחם לכם – God will do battle for you!  And according to the Torah text the waters do split, and the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, passing through a dry path in the middle of the sea, the sea that later will close over the Egyptian army.   

     But there is one crucial detail that is in the Torah that is not in the movie – maybe the most important detail in the entire story.  It is God’s response to Moses when Moses asks for God’s help.  And I think you can’t fully understand the miracle at the sea – and maybe you can’t fully understand the way Judaism approaches miracles in general – without taking into account that response from God in this morning’s Torah reading.  Here is what God says to Moses, immediately after Moses calls for help:  מה תצעק אלי – דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו – “Why are you crying out to Me?!  Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to go forward.”    

     God does not say ‘don’t worry Moses, I’ll take care of it.’  God does not, by the way, just simply strike the Egyptians directly, which we must imagine God could have done, and which, when you think about it, would have been much easier.  Instead, God tells Moses to tell the people to go forward into the waters – and this is before  – before! – the waters have started to part.  In a classic rabbinic commentary on this Torah text there is a description of the moment – the Israelites are terrified, the Egyptians are coming, Moses has asked for God’s help, God has told Moses to get the people to do something.  No one moves.  And then one Israelite steps forward into the water.  Nothing happens.  Then the water is up to his knees, then up to his waist, then up to his neck.  And then finally, just at the moment when he is not going to be able to breath anymore, the waters begin to part.

     Its a very Jewish story.  You can ask God for whatever you want.  But hedge your bets.  Don’t sit around and wait for God to do it.  Get started yourself.  Walk forward.  Wade into the water, whatever your water might be.  And keep going, even when the water is up to your waist, or your chest.  And maybe something will happen that will change your life.

     The truth is big miracles are rare.  There are only a couple of them described in the entire Bible.  I would even argue that Judaism, by and large, is not that interested in big miracles.  But it is important in Judaism to recognize small miracles.  And the tradition tries to remind us that we are surrounded by those small miracles every single day.  There is a wonderful line in the Modim paragraph that is part of the amidah prayer, where we say מודים אנחנו לך ‘we thank you God – ועל ניסך שבכל יום עימנו – for the miracles that are part of our lives every day.’  

     Many of you remember the wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof just after Motel the tailor asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel.  When permission is granted Motel breaks into song, one of the best known Broadway songs of all time – what is it?  Miracle of Miracles!  The lyrics refer to some of the Bible’s great miracles – Daniel surviving the lion’s den – the parting of the sea, from this morning’s portion – and anyone remember the other?  I think David defeating Goliath.  But then the last lines of the song – “But of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is the one I thought could never be – God has given you to me.”

     These are the human miracles, the miracles of daily life that we all too often take for granted.  Did you get out of bed this morning?  Since you are here I am imagining the answer to the question is yes.  If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital bed, unable to get up under your own power, you know that getting out of bed can feel like a miracle.  If you’ve seen a baby born, or welcomed a new life into your lives, into your family, you know how miraculous that can be.  If you found the courage and strength you needed to face a dark and difficult moment of your life, if a phone call happened to come from a friend just at the right moment, you know that too can feel like a miracle.  

     It is a miraculous thing to have your health, to share your life with a family, to have children and grandchildren.  It is a miraculous thing to show up for a friend in need, or to get up and face a new day.  These moments don’t require the parting of a sea.  Instead they come about through human courage, and strength, and love, and faith.  May we all find those qualities in ourselves, and those moments in our lives, over and over again, every single day.  

Here is a video clip of the classic scene with Charlton Heston as Moses – 

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Earthrise

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat (12/22/18):

     Some of you will remember that it was fifty years ago this weekend when the Apollo 8 space mission was making its way towards the moon.  The flight launched on December 21st 1968 – fifty years ago yesterday – and lasted for 6 days.  It was manned by three astronauts – Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman – and was the second manned Apollo flight and the first to actually reach the moon’s orbit.  After circling the moon 10 times on December 24th and 25th, the astronauts set a course for Earth, and returned home on December 27, splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean.

     The spirit of the mission, what it meant to Americans, and to people everywhere, was captured in a spectacular photograph taken by Bill Anders that would come to be known as Earthrise.  The photo shows a fragile and delicate – and also indescribably beautiful – blue and white sphere, half shrouded in darkness, and set in the deep blackness of infinite space, hovering in the distance over the stark white surface of the moon.  No one knew it at the time, but that photograph would become one of the most iconic images in the history of human kind.  

     The great irony in that moment is that in one of the greatest accomplishments of human history, manned space flight, with all of its technology, human ingenuity, its illustration of our ability to master the world around us – in the midst of all of that human greatness and achievement, we rediscovered our sense of how ultimately small we really are.  To see the Earth from that distance and perspective is to immediately understand that we live on just one tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in a medium sized galaxy in an incredibly vast universe.  

     Fifty years ago that Earthrise photograph created what I call a ‘Grand Canyon’ moment for millions and millions of people.  That is the moment when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking out over its vastness, and you suddenly realize – or maybe it is better to say you feel – that you are an infinitesimal part of a world, and a universe, that is vast beyond imagining.  It is what people feel when they enter some of the great European medieval churches, with their towering ceilings, or walk through a redwood forest, the enormous and ancient trees rising and rising into the distance of the sky.  This is the feeling captured by the Psalmist in Psalm 8:  “When I see your Heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You set in place, what am I that You, God, are mindful of me; a mere human being, yet you take note of my life.” (my own translation with a bit of paraphrasing)  It is precisely the greatness and beauty of God’s world and the infinite vastness of God’s universe that reminds us of our mortality and our limits and also, I would argue, of our humanity.

     The Book of Genesis that we finished reading this morning, for the most part, does not work on that grand scale that the Psalmist was writing about.  Instead, Genesis tells stories of intimacy and immediacy, of husbands and wives and parents and children, often during critical moments of their lives.  It describes Abraham and Sarah in the bedroom, talking about the fate of Hagar.  Or the private conversation between Jacob and his mother Rebecca about how to deceive Isaac.  We read in Genesis about Abraham and Isaac, alone, just father and son, walking to the top of Mount Moriah, and the few words that they share in that journey.  This morning’s portion, the last in Genesis, is also filled with intimate moments.  Jacob in his old age blesses his grandsons Efraim and Menasheh, drawing them close, kissing them, hugging them, placing his hands on their heads and tousling their hair, whispering over them a blessing.  And later in the portion we are flies on the wall of the bedroom where Jacob is dying, surrounded by his sons, as he gives each of them a last message that he hopes they will carry with them after he is gone.  

     These are human moments that we all can recognize from our own lives, moments of touching and talking, of whispered hopes and private expressions of fear and doubt.  Next week when we begin reading the Book of Exodus the Torah will leave those intimate moments behind, but in Genesis they are the primary focus as we learn about the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  

     There is of course one glaring exception to that sense of intimacy that Genesis focuses on, and that is?  The creation story, told in the first two chapters.  There God works on a cosmic scale, bringing the universe into being out of chaos, dividing up the waters and the lands, establishing the Heavens, putting into the sky the sun, the moon, and the stars.  I’ve always believed that the Torah begins that way because it wants us to understand that the God we are in relationship with, the God Who called to Abraham and Sarah, the God we prayed to this morning, the God we thanked for two long and loving marriages, the God we asked to heal our loved ones – that God is the Creator of all things.  And one of the great mysteries that Judaism explores is the idea that that cosmic, universal Creator can somehow be in relationship with us as small as we are, and can take note of and care about our lives.

      Fifty years ago on that Apollo 8 mission NASA arranged for the three astronauts to make a live broadcast to earth on that December 24th evening, a night observed in the Christian community as Christmas Eve.  When the crew asked what they should do for that broadcast they were told ‘just anything you feel is appropriate.’  One of the Astronauts brought a Bible, and in the course of the broadcast, as they crew circled the moon, with that spectacular view of earth captured in the photograph that would be called ‘Earthrise’, the crew took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis. 

     The last verse they read – they 10th – is as follows:  ויקרא אלוקים ליבשה ארץ ולמקוה המים קרא ימים וירא אלוקים כי טוב – And God called the dry land – Earth – and the gathering of waters, God called seas.  And God saw that this was good.

So it was.  So it is.  So may it always be.earthrise

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Imperfections (Superman vs. Spiderman)

     There is a traditional debate about the very first verse of this morning’s Torah portion, and at the heart of the debate is the question of the quality of Noah’s character.  The verse tells us נח איש תמים היה בדורותיו – Noah was righteous man, in his generation.  That can be interpreted in two ways – he was righteous – even in a generation where no one else was!  Or you could understand that to mean ‘in his generation he was righteous!’ – but in another generation, maybe not so much!

     The truth is there is evidence for both sides of the argument.  He was clearly righteous.  God chose Noah from among all the other people on earth to warn him about the flood.  He listens to God’s commands, he builds the ark, he guides his family and the animals into a post-diluvian world, a world after the destruction of the flood.  All righteous behaviors, all proof of the quality of Noah’s character.  

     But Noah also had some problematic moments.  He is the patriarch of a family that seems to have some serious issues.  He drinks to the extent that it has a serious and negative impact on his life.  And perhaps most troubling of all, Noah never warns other people about what is about to happen.  Nor does he challenge God in terms of God’s plans to destroy the earth.  We are waiting for Noah’s Abraham moment – the moment when he says to God “I don’t agree with this, it is wrong!”  Or “Are you telling me no one else on the earth is worth saving?  Save someone else, too!”  But that moment never arrives.  

     Knowing what you know now about Noah, both the good and the bad, the pluses and the minuses, lets take a quick vote.  You will have two choices, please only vote once.  Your choices will be that Noah was purely righteous, regardless of his generation, or that he was a flawed person, and was only considered righteous because everyone else in his generation was worse.  OK – how many of you would say Noah was purely righteous?  And how many of you would say Noah was fairly flawed, and only righteous when compared with others who were worse?

     Now let me ask another question – of those two Noahs, which do you prefer?

     I have to say the I actually prefer the flawed Noah, and in fact I think it is the flawed Noah who is more in line with the general way that biblical characters are presented.  If you think about any other biblical character – from Moses to Abraham to Sarah to King David and on and on, any other major character, you don’t have to look too far to find significant flaws.  Moses struggles with anger issues, let alone the fact that he kills another man in his youth.  Abraham is unaware of the dynamics in his own home that are tearing his family apart.  Sarah is jealous and hostile towards Hagar.  David is manipulative, steals another man’s wife, and ultimately arranges for that man to be killed.  These characters are not only flawed, not only imperfect, but deeply so.  And Noah is right in line with all of them.

     But let me tell why I actually prefer that.  And to do that I would like to shift genres for a moment, and talk about comic books.  (Just another from of literature!)  I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and I always preferred Marvel comics to DC comics.  DC was the line with? –  Superman and Batman and the Flash and Wonder Woman.  And Marvel had? –  the X-Men and Spiderman and the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers.  The symbol of DC comics was Superman.  Superman was perfect – תמים היה בדורותיו – perfect in his generation and every generation.  He was impervious to harm, he had strength beyond measure, he could fly through the air, he had x-ray vision.  

     But the symbol of Marvel comics was Spiderman.  Spiderman was stronger than the average person, and faster, but he was by no means impervious.  He didn’t have X-ray vision, he couldn’t fly – he had to use those web cartridges taped to his wrists, which would occasionally run out.  Superman was noble, moral, ethical, never had a doubt as to why he was doing what he was doing, never had a doubt about anything. 
Spiderman was filled with doubts.  Doubts about whether he should even use his powers.  He worried, he failed, he dropped out of school, and then struggled to hold on to a job, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend.

     And as a kid I looked at Superman, and I couldn’t relate one bit.  Perfect, I think, is boring.  But also perfect is not me.  But Spiderman, with his doubts and his struggles, with his failures and foibles, that was the kind of hero to whom I could relate.  I knew I would never climb walls, or swing from webs on skyscrapers.  But I also knew I would fail, there would be moments when it wouldn’t work out, I knew my character needed work.  Spiderman was my guy!  

     And that is why I liked the flawed Noah.  That is why it has always made sense to me that the Bible’s heroes are mistake prone and emotional, that they struggle with jealousy and anger, that they sometimes  – maybe even often – don’t treat one another well, that they repeatedly fail to understand what God wants of them and to follow God’s commands.  If I opened up the Torah and every character was perfect, completely moral and ethical, righteous and just, kind and wise – go through you list – I would say who are these people?  They are not my people, and they are not like me.  But when I see them struggle and fail, when I read about Moses’ self-doubt, or Abraham’s insensitivty, or Noah’s selfishness – I say boy, that looks awfully familiar.  And when I see myself in the text and in those characters I  can not only relate to them, I can also learn from them.

     So in Moses’ spiritual growth I can see hope for myself and a path to follow.  In Abraham’s deep faith I can find inspiration.  And through Noah’s story I can understand in a deeper way what it means to face the difficult challenges of life with determination and courage.  

     That is why we’ve been reading these stories for some three thousand years.  May we come to them again and again, in this new year and every year, seeing in their heroes our own lives and struggles and flaws, and also the potential we all have to grow in soul, and to live with courage and faith.

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Lady Liberty

Here is a text version of my Yom Kippur sermon, 5770 –

  One hundred and thirty two years ago next month – on October 28th, 1886 –  the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on a day of great ceremony and celebration.  There was a parade through Manhattan that hundreds of thousands of people attended, followed by a nautical parade of dignitaries.  The ceremony itself, taking place at the foot of the great statue, was presided over by none other than President Grover Cleveland.  It was a day that symbolized the hope and promise and freedom for which America would come to be known around the world.  Lady Liberty!   

     It wasn’t until 17 years later – in the year 1903 – that the poem ‘the New Colossus’ was installed at the base of what had become by that time America’s most famous and symbolic statue.  Written in sonnet form, the 14 lines of the poem captured Lady Liberty’s symbolism, and also perfectly described the sense of America as a place of refuge, safety, and freedom.  I expect some of you probably memorized these lines at some point in school, but it is worth repeating them this morning:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 

With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

     The sea washed sunset gates of the poem are the Hudson and East Rivers, framing Manhattan on her east and west sides.  The imprisoned lightning?  The torch in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand, lit by electric light.  The twin cities?  New York is obviously one – what about the other?  Brooklyn of course, the true center of the world!  And the huddled masses are the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to these shores through the gates of Ellis Island.  A nearly perfect description in words of what the statue had come to mean to our country, and to the world.  America, a land of freedom, opportunity, and welcome to all.  

     The New Colossus was written by a Sephardic Jew named Emma Lazarus.  Lazarus lived a largely secular life until she was in her early 30s when she read the great George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda, about a young Jew who suddenly discovers his Jewish identity and decides to devote himself to the Jewish people.  She saw in that narrative a reflection of her own life, and from that point forward Emma Lazarus began to devote herself to Jewish causes.  She was particularly interested in the eastern European Jews who came to this country in the 1880s and 90s.  She was moved by their stories of hardship and suffering, combined with their deep faith and the sense of hope they maintained that they could build a better life here in America.  Lazarus saw her poem as an expression of gratitude for the past, for her own ancestors who had made their way to this country and the goodness that they found here, and she also saw it as expression of hope, that future generations of immigrants would be welcomed to these shores, where they could one day build lives of dignity and opportunity.

     My Bubbe was one of those immigrants.  She arrived on these shores in 1903, the very same year the New Colossus poem was affixed to the Statue of Liberty.  She was a strong willed woman, feisty, tough as nails when she needed to be, determined, hard working, and fiercely protective of the people she loved.  She married my Zayde – also an immigrant – as a young woman.  Together they ran a series of small neighborhood grocery stores here in Baltimore, often with the help of their four sons.  As immigrants they were vulnerable and unsure of how to make their way in this new country.  They moved forward and made a life in the only way they knew how – they worked hard, they saved every penny they made, and they did everything, as they would have said, for the kinder, for their family. 

     My Bubbe was proud of three things in her life – she was proud to be an American, understanding this country as a place of opportunity where she ultimately was able to make a good life.  She was proud of her family, and in the course of her 98 years was blessed to welcome not only 11 grandchildren into the world, but great grandchildren as well.  And she was intensely proud to be a Jew.  Her commitment to our tradition left a deep impression through the generations of my family, it still resonates today, and there is no question in my mind without my Bubbe’s influence I would not be a rabbi.

     I expect her story sounds familiar to you, and that there is someone in your family – a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent – whose life experiences were very similar to my Bubbe’s.  And it is this shared Jewish experience that Emma Lazarus connected to.  That we Jews are wanderers, often in the course of our long history looking for a place to call home.  That it is enormously difficult to find that place, and it is incredibly precious once it has been found.  That is what my Bubbe and Zayde found here in Baltimore – a true home, a place where they could work hard, raise their boys, and stay committed to their roots without being afraid.  I’ve often thought about them as the debate about immigration and immigrants has taken place in our country over the last two years.  From DACA, which is still unresolved, to the question of which countries we are willing to accept immigrants from, to the question of numbers, and who ultimately gets in and who does not, to the policy, now revoked, of separating illegal immigrants from their children. 

     Last night at Kol Nidre we prayed the line אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים  – on this most sacred of nights, let us remember those who are rarely remembered, and let us welcome them in to our community.  Those who are on the outside, those who are marginalized, those who do not have a voice.  It is one of the most striking lines in the entire Mahzor, and a distillation of a classic Jewish value.  In the Torah there are no fewer than 46 references to the גר, the ‘stranger’, each of them a reminder of the responsibility the community has to care for those who find themselves on the margins of society.   And there are two reasons why the tradition is so concerned with this ideal.  The first is it understands the Jewish experience to be that of the stranger.  Jews know what it feels like to be ostracized, Jews know what it feels like to be marginalized, Jews know what it feels like to be subject to quotas, and Jews know what it feels like to be expelled from a country.  And so if any people should have an extra sensitivity to the stranger, it should be the Jewish people.

     But the other reason is that Judaism understands that the way a society treats its strangers, its weakest members, is a measure of that culture’s quality and morality.  I am not suggesting that our immigration system should let in every person who wants to make their home in the United States.  But what I am suggesting is that regardless of whether or not someone is admitted to the country, how we treat them matters.  And that is what this debate is about.  It is not about numbers and quotas.  It is about values and morals.  It is about what we want this country to symbolize and stand for.  It is about what ideals we hope the citizens of this country believe in.  It really is, at the end of the day, about whether we still subscribe to the ideals and values that are so elegantly and beautifully laid out in the 14 lines of that sonnet that Emma Lazarus composed 135 years ago. 

     You see, how we treat the stranger – the immigrant, the foreigner, the poor and disenfranchised – those of other races and religions and beliefs – how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity and decency – like the human beings that they are.  And when we we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and decency and values that are diminished.

     115 years ago my Bubbe was a stranger coming to these shores.  How would she have fared in today’s world, with these debates raging through our society?  Would she have been accepted or turned away?  Would she have been separated from her parents?  Would she have been treated with dignity and decency, would her humanity have been recognized and honored, would she have been respected?  Her story is the Jewish story shared by so many of our families.  And those questions – about decency and dignity and humanity and morality and values – those are Jewish questions, questions that as Jews we should constantly be asking.  

     On that October day 132 years ago when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, President Cleveland was the keynote speaker at the ceremonies.  In his remarks that day he explained Lady Liberty’s symbolism with this hope:  “her stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”  It is that same aspiration that we Jews remember three times each day in the last paragraph of the amidah.  We recited the words just a few minutes ago, and will do so three more times today –   כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה אלוקינו תורת חיים ואהבת חסד – in the Light of Your countenance, You gave us, God, a Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace. 

     May that light and those values guide us and our nation in the months and years ahead.

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Hiding Yourself

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/25/18 –

     This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more laws than any other portion in the Torah.  The laws cover a vast variety of topics, from proper ethics in business to adulterous relationships, to the importance of treating the poor and marginalized with respect and dignity.  All told there are 27 positive commandments in the portion, and 47 negative commandments, for a grand total of 74.  

     And in that long list of commandments there are a couple of my favorites, maybe not exactly what you would expect, but I would like to share them with you this morning, and then try to explain why I find them so compelling.  These come from the beginning of Deuteronomy chapter 22, where the text reads as follows:  “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow. You shall do the same with his donkey, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too with anything that your fellow loses and you find – you must not remain indifferent.” 

     There is a difficulty in the passage that comes from one of the key Hebrew words.  Its repeated twice, and is clearly understood as being important by the text, but not fully clear in terms of what it means.  The word is והתעלמת.  In modern Hebrew it means to disregard or ignore something, and that is the way the translator in our Humash is working with the word – and so our translation says, when you see this ox, or sheep, or object, and you know it isn’t yours – והתעלמת – don’t ignore it, don’t remain indifferent, you have to do something about it.  And our translator is really working with the commentary of the great sage Rashi, who says the word והתעלמת means ‘don’t close your eyes, pretending the thing isn’t there.’  

     And what I love about this is the psychology of these verses.  The Torah knows me better than I know myself!  The Torah knows when a difficult or challenging or unpleasant circumstance confronts me, I might have a tendency to look the other way, or pretend the thing just isn’t there and walk right on by.  And so the Torah reinforces its commands about returning these lost objects by telling me והתעלמת!!  Don’t ignore it!  Instead, walk towards it, take care of it, confront it if you need to.

     Many of you know that the rabbinate is a second career for me.  Before I began rabbinical school I worked for four years as a sort of psychiatric social worker at a place called the Genesis Club, a psychiatric rehab program in the Boston area.  Our mission was to help people who were struggling with major psychiatric illness – like manic-depression or schizophrenia – to transition from the state hospital back out into the community.  

     I carried a case load that was fo all intents and purposes randomly assigned.  There was a young man named Jim, who was as sweet as they come, and before he became sick could throw a 90 mile an hour fastball, a true major league prospect.  There was an older gentleman named Robert who had a brilliant mind, was a trained physicist, but because of his illness had become homeless and was struggling to put his life back together.  And the list could go on and on, each person I worked with had their own compelling story, their own challenges and struggles, and their own hopes and expectations and goals.  I was very fond of those people and I loved that job, and felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be a source of support for them as they worked so hard to have the kind of lives any of us hope to have.

     But there was one young man that I worked with with whom I struggled terribly.  I was at the time 24, and he was younger than I, big and strong, very aggressive, and prone to intense outbursts where he would scream and yell, throw things, and although I never saw him strike another person, it always seemed like he was just on the edge of doing that.  I was scared of him, A, and B, virtually every interaction with him was unpleasant.  So I came up with a coping strategy – I would avoid this young man at all costs.

     And so it went.  If I came up to the top of the steps, and saw him down the hallway, I would quickly retreat and head back downstairs.  If I entered the lunch room, and he was there, I would eat in some other area or go out to lunch.  I was supposed to meet with him on a weekly basis, but I managed to work it out so that we only met every other week, or maybe even every third week.  On the one hand I felt guilty about it, but on the other hand it was much easier, as it so often is, to take the easy way out. 

     At a certain point my boss called me into his office.  He asked me specifically about the young man, how was my work going with him, how was he doing, was he making any progress?  After hemming and hawing for a moment or two I fessed up, and told my boss that I was so uncomfortable, and frankly so scared of the guy, that I really didn’t want to deal with him, and so I had in essence been shirking my duties.  And my boss said something that has stayed with me all these years – that was almost 30 years ago – and that I work very hard to keep in mind in my day to day interactions with others.  He said ‘oftentimes the people who are the hardest to deal with are the people who actually need you the most.’  I walked out of his office, found the young man, and walked right up to him – ‘lets talk,’ I said, and we did.  It wasn’t easy, but at least I knew it was right.

     I said moment ago that that word from the Torah text – what is it?  והתעלמת – is tricky to translate, and in our Humash the translator understands it as ‘to not ignore’ something.  Applying the verse to my story of the young man, it would be to not ignore him, to not close my eyes to him – we might say, to truly see him.  And that was what I tried to do, after the conversation with my boss.

     But there is another way to understand the word from the verse, and I’d like to share it with you before I wrap up.  There is another Humash in my office where that word – והתעלמת – is translated as ‘do not hide yourself.’  So the end of the verse would read ‘you will return any lost object of your brother that you find – do not hide from yourself!’  What exactly does that mean?!

     And the way I’ve come to understand it is this:   when you hide from others, when you ignore the responsibilities that you have to help others, to be there for them, to give them support and care – when you pretend they aren’t there, when you allow them to disappear – there is a part of you that disappears as well.  We might say it like this:  when you hide from others you are hiding from yourself as well – from who you are supposed to be, from who you have the potential to be, from who God wants you to be.  

     It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be quite hard.  My interactions with the young man were always challenging, and that never changed.  But in walking towards him instead of walking away I was at least there for him, and I think on some level he knew that, because so many other people had walked away from him in his life.  And in walking towards him, in truly seeing him, in those challenging conversations and difficult moments, I also was growing and learning, and instead of hiding from myself, I came to a deeper understanding both who I truly was and of who I should strive to be.  

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Tweets and Coffee

     Well, if you follow the news at all you probably know it has been a tough week for Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedienne.  She had been riding high.  The reboot of her mega-hit sitcom was at the top of the ratings, and had just been renewed for a second season.  Roseanne seemed to be as popular as she was during the mid-90s, when her original show was pulling down huge ratings.  But as is true in many areas of life, everything can change in a single instant, or in her case with a single tweet.  And after sending that tweet – that many read as racist – a crude comment about an African American woman named Valerie Jarrett – Roseanne suddenly found the rug pulled out from under her.  Within a few hours ABC had cancelled her show, and she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it coming at her on that same Twitter platform that got her in trouble in the first place.

     It seemed more than coincidental that all of this happened the very same week that Starbucks closed its stores – almost 8,000 of them across the US, so that its 175,000 employees could engage in a conversation about race, and could participate in a training program that was designed to help the workers be more sensitive to people of different racial backgrounds.  This was Starbucks’ response to an incident that occurred in one of its Philadelphia coffee shops, where staff called the Police on two African American men because they were sitting in the store and had not yet ordered.  In a moving and beautifully worded letter about the closure Howard Schultz, the founder of the company – who is Jewish by the way – wrote about the angst that he felt that something of this nature had happened in one of his stores, and about the plan the company had put together to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

     Many of you know that I grew up in the Reform movement, and I remember to this day one of the lines in the Reform Mahzor we used in my shul on the HHDs.  It was in that list of sins that we recite on YK, and the reason I remember it so well is that it had a word in it that I didn’t understand as a boy – it said this:  on the sin we have sinned, because of xenophobia.  Xenophobia, I thought as a boy?  How could any word that sounds so strange and seems so complicated be describing a sin?  It was only later that I found out – probably when I was studying vocabulary words for my SATs – that xenophobia meant fear of the other.  The word comes from two ancient Greek words – xenos, meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘foreigner.’  And the second word we all know – phobos, which means fear.  Fear of the stranger, of the other, of what you are not.

     Certainly as Jews we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of fear.  I am reading the second volume in Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people.  It begins time wise in the mid 1400s, and location wise in Spain where Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity by the thousands.  As we know many of these Jews – called Marannos – continued to live Jewish lives in secret.  But one of the things that struck me about Schama’s description of the period was that even when the Jews converted, and even the Jews who converted who lived faithful Christian lives – they were always under suspicion, they were always viewed as being other, different, suspicious, strange, even dangerous, and they were never fully accepted.  

     It may be that the natural human tendency to view ‘the stranger’ – those who are not like you – with suspicion is as old as human history.  It certainly is as old as the Bible, and that sense of xenophobia that seems so present in our society today is at the heart of a troubling story that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a difficult time for the Israelites as they begin their journey through the wilderness, a journey that will last for forty years.  And it is an even more difficult time for Moses, who has to deal with the people’s complaining, and a variety of rebellions along the way.  But I suspect the most difficult moment of the entire journey for Moses occurs in this morning’s reading because it is personal, it is his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who are publicly speaking out against him.  And what is their complaint?  כי אישה כושית לקח – they complain that their brother has married a Cushite woman.  That is to say, he has married a foreigner, someone who is a stranger.  So Aaron and Miriam, two of the greatest figures in the Torah, fall prey to the sin of xenophobia.

     And if it can happen to Aaron and Moses, it can happen to any of us.  Particularly in these difficult times, when political discourse has become so strained and even conversation between friends can be so difficult.   I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like that natural human tendency to fear the other is as strong as it has been in a long, long time.  Which is one of the reasons why police are called when young black men are innocently sitting in a Starbucks.  And it is also one of the reasons, by the way, why anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The old saying is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’  But the opposite is also true.  Xenophobia, racism, hatred, fear, mistrust of the other will not only affect a single group.  It will not only be directed at African Americans, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Jews – it will ultimately be directed at every minority group, and as that happens, it brings us all down, coarsening our society and our culture and diminishing our values.

     So in Roseanne’s tweet, you saw one reaction to what is going on, and that was to buy into it and to contribute to it.  To give in, either to the fear that she felt, or the distrust, or the racism, or maybe a combination of all of those things.  But in Howard Schultz’s letter, you saw a different reaction.  Not only the apology, the sincere regret, but also the determination to actually do something about it, to create something through his stores that would help, even if in a small way, to make our society more tolerant, more open, and more accepting.  So that, as he wrote in his letter, a Starbucks store will be a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of where they’ve come from, what language they speak, what color their skin is, or what faith they believe in.  Don’t we need more places in America like that?

     The Torah would suggest the answer to that question is yes.  One thing Judaism is quite clear about is that God created all people, and that all people are equal in God’s eyes.  One faith tradition is not better than another, one skin color is not better than another, one ethnic identity is not better than another.  Our job is to always remember that.  If we are able to do that, if we are able to remember it, we will be living more authentically Jewish lives.  We will also, one conversation at a time, one interaction at a time, one friendship at a time, rise up together on a tide that draws us closer to one another, and to God.

may that be God’s will, may that be our work, and may we do it together – 

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