Tag Archives: Deuteronomy

Flat Tires and Other Tests

     You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning.  Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan.  Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test.  This way they’ll have extra time to study.  The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.

     Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way.  There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner.  On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side.  The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’  The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?

     This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested.  Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad.  The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.

     The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy.  It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’   That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse.  And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.

     And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test.  But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling.  Why?  Because they are positive things.  How can something that is positive be a test?  Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill.  You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!  

     So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test.  And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this:  the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it!  Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive.  In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?

     But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this:  would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered.  That test is almost exactly the opposite!  It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?

     If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test.  The answer comes from Jewish history.  I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish.  And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith.  That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.

     We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life.  That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period.  It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States.  And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind.  And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point.  We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one.  Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones.  When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism.  When we can belong to  – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul.  When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.  

     The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far.  The good news is I think there is still time to study.  The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare.  The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?!  Shabbat Shalom – 

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#Charlottesville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charlottesville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Your Choice

This a text version of my Kol Nidre sermon from 5777 –

Our cool fall weather is reminding me very much of the HHDs of my youth in upstate New York, and going to services at the small Reform synagogue where my family belonged.  Kol Nidre night was a special night for me.  My mother would stay home with my little sister and brother, and my dad and I would walk to shul, just a few short blocks from where we lived.  When the service was over we would walk home together along the quiet streets, able to see our breath in the crisp air and truly feel the beginning of a new year.

Just this past Shabbat I marked the 39th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, celebrated at that Temple which was the focal point of my family’s Jewish life.  A small synagogue bar mitzvah is very different than it is at Beth El.  I studied one on one with my rabbi to prepare, meeting with him weekly in his office.  My synagogue had an unusual tradition in terms of how the Torah was read.  We did not learn to chant the text, we just read the Hebrew word by word.  But we were required as we read to translate into English.  From the Torah itself!  This meant that I understood every word that I read from the Torah 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah, and still to this day many of those phrases stand out in my mind.

The most memorable of them all comes from the end of the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy.  It is a well known verse, and you may recognize it.  I’ll read it the way I did 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah:  העידותי בכם היום – I call to witness against  you this day –   את השמים ואת הארץ – the Heavens and the Earth – החיים והמות – life and death – …- ובחרת בחיים – and you shall choose life!  I can assure you that 39 years ago when I read those words from the Torah I had no idea I would one day be a rabbi, but those are the words – particularly that last phrase – ובחרת בחיים – choose life!  that I would like to talk about with you this sacred Kol Nidre eve.

Certainly the idea of choosing is something we encounter every single day as we are constantly surrounded and confronted by choices.  Have you been down the aisles at Wegmans? They’re just endless. Paper or plastic for your groceries? But bring your own if you’re an environmentalist. Been to Starbucks lately? There are at least 20 different ways to order a cup of coffee. Walk into a liquor store and it seems you can find a single malt from every town and village in Scotland. If you want to order new sneakers on Nike’s website, there’s an almost infinite  – and I mean that literally – infinite number of combinations from which you can choose.  And if you’ve tried surfing to watch something on TV, you’ve had the experience of navigating hundreds and hundreds of available channels.

But while we may find all those material choices either liberating or frustrating, they are nothing like the Torah’s call to choose life. Why would the Torah need to tell us that in the first place?  It seems obvious – almost everyone is going to choose life!  And what exactly does that mean, to choose life, how do we do that?  I think there’s a vital message or two in the Torah’s words not normally on our minds, but worthy of consideration this KN eve.

Think, for a moment of the ancient Greeks, contemporaries of that Deuteronomy text.  Their idea was that every facet of our lives is predetermined, that the gods or blind fate controlled the destiny of each person, and that regardless of how hard you try, regardless of the choices you make, there’s nothing you can do about it.  Remember the story of Oedipus – he did everything in his power to prevent himself from killing his father, but in the end it happened anyway, because it had been decreed by fate.  This idea of the inevitability of life’s direction can also be seen in  Freud’s belief that our inner drives and urges control us.  In modern times the same argument continues, with geneticists who claim that our destiny is determined exclusively by our genes, that every decision we make and action we take is predetermined by our DNA, by our genetic code.

But Judaism says no.  In fact, precisely the opposite is true.  We have freewill.  We can choose our course of action, and when we do, we can control our own destiny.  That’s precisely the point of the Book of Jonah that we’ll read tomorrow afternoon. And I think that’s why the Sages chose it as the very last scriptural text we encounter, as the sun sets on yet another HHD season we’ve been granted.  The people of Nineveh are examples of the power of human freewill to change an apparently predetermined destiny.  When the book begins the Ninevites are doomed.  God has decreed that the entire city will be destroyed, in fact, Jonah’s mission is to tell them that they are about to die – עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת – in forty days time Nineveh will be destroyed! That they as individuals and the society and culture they’ve created are doomed.

But the people of Nineveh choose a different path. They fast. They turn aside from their sins. They cry out to God, weep in the streets, d0 everything in their power to repent.  And the choices they make, change the decree.  Some of you remember the Santana hit song from 1969 – “You’ve got to change your evil ways!”  That’s what the Ninevites did  – and they chose well, because it worked, and they and the animals in their care were spared.

It’s exactly that challenge – and that opportunity – that the tradition puts before us each year on the HHDs.  It reminds us that we can choose, that we do have power, and that the choices we make can have a real impact on our lives, on the lives of those we love, and on the world beyond.  Just as we can undo inappropriate vows on YK eve, we can correct unworthy actions each day of our lives.  And that’s one of the ways I understand the phrase from my bar mitzvah portion – choose life means that we can determine the kind of life we want to live, that we have a measure of control over who we are and what we do, and if we are not yet who we want to be, we can choose to be better.

But when the Torah says “choose life,” there’s an inherent question bound up in those words – what kind of life shall we choose?  If we have that power, if our choices do make a difference, what kind of life should we prefer, what choices should we make?  And what I would like to suggest this evening is that our options are not just about choosing a good life, doing the right thing, being a good person, kind and caring.  It’s more than that.  It’s choosing a particular kind of life.  It’s choosing a Jewish life.

I know that it’s not so simple to choose a Jewish life today.  We live in a  secular world, with all its demands, opportunities, temptations, challenges and yes, its attractive choices.  And often – more and more often, in fact – our secular lives come into conflict with our Jewish lives, presenting us with difficult challenges.  When Hebrew school conflicts with soccer practice, where should a parent choose to bring a child?  It is a choice.  When a yom tov day and a work day conflict, will it be work, or celebrating the holiday with family?  Should we engage in Jewish life, by choosing Jewish books to read, studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays, contributing to Jewish charities, living by Jewish values?  Shall we make the  synagogue our spiritual home?

ובחרת בחיים – “and you shall choose life” means that also is our choice, and it is up to us to acknowledge the struggle in which we are engaged and to know when the choice for faith and tradition, for culture and values is the one we should be making. And we should not allow the onslaught of secularism to unravel the spiritual and cultural texture of our Jewish lives.  And maybe the beginning of a new year, maybe on a Yom Kippur, maybe on a cold Kol Nidre night, we can decide that in the year to come we’ll choose Jewishly more often.

Kol Nidre is a night of annulling vows and promises, but I want to make one promise tonight I think I can keep.  In all the choices that are ahead of us in the year to come, each time we choose Jewishly our lives will be enriched, our connection to our history and tradition will be strengthened, and we will grow in spirit and in soul.

May we do that together – as family, as friends, as a sacred community, in a sweet new year –

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Life and Death

The phrase always stays with me. It occurred twice in my bar mitzvah Torah portion in different forms, most dramatically in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life! – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord Your God…” In the synagogue where I grew up the bar mitzvah boys actually had to translate the Torah into English as they were reading it, line by line, phrase by phrase. And that phrase – life and death – caught my attention, even as a thirteen year old.

You grow older, you begin to understand how problematic the verse actually is. Really? As if we actually have a choice, as if we can change the decree of fate, as if we are in control. Of course you can work with the verse, massage it, step outside of the literal and look for the metaphoric. And that can help. Here is one way to do it: the verse isn’t about quantity, but quality. Belief doesn’t guarantee a certain number of years, but it can help you find greater meaning in whatever number of years you do have. And that works pretty well, actually, at least for me. It rings true, it just feels right.

But yesterday I had an experience that let me see the verse through a different lens. A funeral, and I was at the cemetery with the family. Two siblings burying a brother who had died suddenly. As we were walking the casket to the grave, a family member approached me with an iPhone. A baby had been born into the family, just as we were arriving at the cemetery. Here was a picture of the newborn, swaddled, tiny hat on, bright black eyes peering out at a new world.

Life and death, death and life. One member of the family leaving this world, and literally at the very same moment a new member of the family arriving. We call it the cycle of life, and at times it can be vey powerful. What we are linked into. How we are connected. For each of us it begins with life and ends with death. But for families, for the generations that come and go, death and life are not really endings or beginnings, they are instead part of a tapestry, a history, a narrative that goes on and on. Even after we are physically gone we are still a part of it all, our image woven into the tapestry for others to see, our part of the narrative written in words that are read long after we are gone. In this weaving, this writing and reading, this telling and remembering, we also choose life.

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