Tag Archives: Jacob

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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Jacob Comes Home

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/25/17 –

Thanksgiving weekend is one of the times during the year when children, regardless of their age or whereabouts, come back to their hometown.  Our children are now living in New York – Tali and Merav in Manhattan, Josh in Poughkeepsie – but they all managed to find their way back to Baltimore for some home cooking and R&R.  Sarah King, the Cantor and Shazi’s daughter, is also a New York resident, but here she is on Thanksgiving weekend reading Torah at Beth El and spending some quality time with her family.  And the list could go on an on – one of the very reasons why we had four baby naming (as far as I know, a record at Beth El!) is because young people are back in town this weekend.  To one and all, welcome home!

The idea of a young person moving away is still a bit tricky in Baltimore.  Elsewhere it is common, in fact even expected, that young people after college will make their lives in some new place.  But here in Baltimore the expectation still exists that if you do go further than College Park for college, you’ll come back soon after and settle in Baltimore.  But the truth is that is happening less and less.  New York and Washington DC are towns that are filled with young people who grew up in Pikesville.  Boston is another place where Baltimoreans are making their new homes.  And these young people are not coming back to Baltimore – they are settling in their new cities, marrying, having children, crafting their careers.  And their parents – who want to see their children, and eventually their grandchildren – are schlepping to New York once or twice a month, or to Boston regularly, or two the DC area sometimes on a weekly basis.  What we do for our children!

I know this is painful for the family that remains here in Baltimore.  I will always remember the day when a member of the shul made an appointment with me, came to my office, sat down in front of my desk, and immediately began to weep.  AS I tried to console her I asked her what in the world could be the matter, fearing the worst.  When she managed to get control of herself she said ‘my son is moving away, moving out of Baltimore.’  I asked the only natural question – ‘to where?’  And her answer:  ‘Washington DC!’  So I understand, again, particularly here, how difficult this can be for some people.  But I want to argue this morning that it is actually a good thing for our young people to move away, at least for a time.  And I also want to think about a different understand of what it means to come home.

You may be familiar with the Amish tradition of the ‘rumspringa.’  Anyone know what that is?  It comes from a German word which means to ‘jump about’ and is a life cycle passage that Amish young adults go through – usually 16 – 24 year olds.  And the idea is that Amish children grow up in a very tight knit community, that they are only familiar with a small geographic area – the few miles around where they grew up, and that they know very little about the rest of the world.  So the rumspringa is a time in their lives when they are encouraged to be more independent, to see more of the world, to get a bit outside of their comfort zone, and to spend less time with their immediate family.  The hope is, of course, that when the rumspringa ends, they will come back to their community, to their family, and settle down into traditional Amish life.

On the surface it probably sounds like an odd ritual to us, but the truth is it isn’t all that different from what we do with our own children.  One could certainly say that the college experience is a kind of rumspringa.  Our children go away in their late teens, usually around the time they are 18.  For the first time in their lives they live largely independently, with full responsibility for making their own decisions and choices, about everything – from what to eat for dinner to when to study, and even if they’ll study at all.  They are expanding their horizons, meeting new people, and hopefully seeing the world for the first time without that world being filtered through us, their parents.  That is a necessary process for them to become fully independent, to realize all of the places where we steered them wrong – but also to realize, hopefully, all of the things we actually were right about all these years.

I would argue that perhaps the first rumspringa of all time occurs in this morning’s Torah portion.  Jacob is like an Amish youth or  Pikesville teen – he has very little experience with anything outside of his own small world.  At the beginning of this morning’s reading he is for the first time leaving his parents’ home, and he will spend the next 20 years of his life learning about the outside world.  He lives with his Uncle Laban, he marries – twice actually.  He becomes a father and learns a trade. He grows wealthy.  And then, after all is said and done, Jacob decides to return home.  The very last scene in this morning’s portion depicts that moment – as he crosses the border back into the land of Israel, the text tells us that angels of God met him, and at that very moment he reentered the land of his birth.

There is a traditional explanation for the appearance of those angels, which is that each person, when they enter the land of Israel, is matched with a sort of Israeli guardian angel, who will accompany that person during their time in the Holy Land.  In this sense the angels in the text are connected to a physical place, to the land of Israel itself.  My problem with this has always been that angels are not understood, even in the Torah, as being physical creatures.  They are instead spiritual beings, not bound to a place or a person.  But in my mind they are still symbolically connected to the idea of home, and I believe their appearance in the text is a sign that Jacob truly has returned to the place of his birth.

And for that to work, we have to think about home in a different way.  We have to understand the idea of home not as a physical place – home is not the land of Israel, it is not an Amish enclave, home is not even Pikesville in any physical sense.   Instead, home is a place of character, home is a place of values.  Our children return home to us in a spiritual sense when they decide to live their lives in a way that makes us proud.  When Judaism is an important part of who they are, they have come home.  When they make good choices, when they do something in their lives to make the world a better place, they have come home.  When they value family, when they are kind and caring, when their morals are strong, in all of these ways, they return to the place they were raised, they come home.  Not in any kind of physical sense, but in the spiritual sense of knowing where they’ve come from, of knowing who they are, and of knowing where they want to go and who they want to be.  And we have to remember that that can happen here, or in New York, or Washington, or Boston, or anyplace.

That would be my hope and prayer for the babies we’ve named this morning – for Harper and Brynn and Phoebe and Reese .  It may be hard for their parents to believe, but it won’t be so long before their little children are on their on rumspringas, whatever that will be.  But wherever they go, however far away, wherever they live, whatever they do, may they come home again and again, even as they learn and grow, and spread their wings, and fly.

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You Can Run…

You know the second half of the phrase.  You truly can’t hide, especially from yourself.  Here is the unedited version of the Torah portion column that was published in today’s Baltimore Jewish Times.  Their editors decided to cut out the section about Dave Mason and Traffic. The song ‘Feelin’ Alright’ appeared on Traffic’s eponymously titled 1968 album.  Joe Cocker made the song famous with his hard driving version, recorded for his 1969 record ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’  The original version by Traffic is more laid back, but it still has that distinctive shuffle.  Give it a listen at this link:  Traffic/Feelin Alright.

Deception is everywhere surrounding Jacob, a virtual dance of deception from which he cannot escape.  He has been raised in a dysfunctional family, where his parents Isaac and Rebecca favor different children.  He cannot trust his brother Esau, who is his rival for affection, power, and the ever illusive birthright and blessing.  In the end, Jacob is trapped by the deception that surrounds him.  Not in the sense that he is fooled.  He is not, and in fact understands exactly what is going on around him.  But rather in the sense the he begins to engage in it, and in the process he learns something about himself:  he, too, is a master at deception.

Perhaps that is why Jacob flees from his parents’ home.  It is true – Esau is angry with him, and he has lied to his father.  But he could have worked through it with Rebecca’s help and his own cunning mind.  There is, however, one thing Jacob cannot escape in the home of his birth – himself.  He has taken a long, hard look in the mirror, and he does not like what he sees.  There is an ugliness in his soul, a growing ease with the telling of lies and a growing power to manipulate others.  He has been trapped by the continual deception of Isaac and Rebecca’s home because it has become his way of life, his method of interacting with the world.

So Jacob runs, hoping to escape the ugliness he sees in himself, wondering if he can recreate himself in a new place.  Perhaps with a new start he can become a new person, more honest, truer to himself and to God.  Some of you may remember the lyrics to the great Dave Mason song “Feelin’ Alright”: “Seems I got to have a change of scene; ‘Cause every night I have the strangest dreams; Imprisoned by the way it could have been; Left here on my own or so it seems;  I got to leave before I start to scream…”

That is Jacob at the beginning of Parshat Ya’yeitzei.  Alone, wrestling with his conscious, fleeing from what he experienced as the prison of Isaac and Rebecca’s home, dreaming of things untold, looking for a better place, and a better self.  What he will learn in the course of his journey is that deception is everywhere.  Laban’s home, where he will live for the next two decades, is also a place of deceit and cunning and lies.  To survive there Jacob once again becomes the master deceiver.

So it always is.  You cannot escape from yourself.  A change of scene does not produce a change in values, personality, morals, or ethics.  That only happens with serious self-reflection, with deep and committed work of the mind and soul, with an internal battle to conquer your worst predilections.  So Jacob will ultimately wrestle the mysterious angel, at that moment finally coming to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.  Only then can he return home a new man, leaving deception behind,  finally prepared for an honest confrontation with the legacy he left behind.

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Joseph and the Virtues of Assimilation

Common wisdom has long held that assimilation grows stronger with each passing generation.  As an example, in my own family on my dad’s side, my Bubbe and Zaide were born in eastern Europe.  They grew up speaking Yiddish, lived in neighborhoods here in Baltimore where only Jews lived, had friendships only with Jews, kept kosher, as much as possible kept Shabbat, and were much more eastern-European-Jewish in terms of their culture and identity than they were American.  My dad – next generation – went to City College High.  He ran track there, became a passionate Orioles and Colts fan, went to college – the first in his family to do so.  He knew Hebrew – still does – because he went to a Zionist camp growing up and went to Hebrew high school 3 days a week.  But his identity was more American, his cultural comfort level was Sinatra and Broadway, not Yiddish theater.  He and my mother had no hesitation in terms of moving to a community in upstate New York where there were very few Jews, let alone Jewish neighborhoods to live in – something my Bubbe and Zaide found inconceivable.

Then you have my sister and my brother and me.  Certainly we knew we were Jewish growing up, we went to Hebrew school, my brother and I had b’nai mitzvah, all three of us continued our Jewish education into high school with confirmation.  On RH and YK we went to shul, occasionally had Shabbat dinner at home.  But we were secular Jews, and culturally we were entirely American.  Most of our friends were not Jewish.  My brother and I played varsity soccer, the only Jews on the team, my sister danced in the local dance company, again, as far as I remember the only Jew.   Judaism was a part of our identity, but growing up by no means was it the biggest or most important part.  And that is by and large the way we see it work in today’s Jewish community as well.  Each generation a little bit less intensely Jewish, a little bit more American.

Now you might expect that a rabbi finds a trend like that to be disturbing, and there is no question that increasing assimilation generation by generation creates very difficult challenges for those of us who work in the synagogue world and who care about Jewish life and community.  That being said, this morning I want to argue that assimilation is not only acceptable, but that it is actually necessary for the survival of Jewish community and possibly for the survival of Judaism itself.

Consider with me for a moment the three main characters in the book of Genesis – they are?  Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.  I am skipping over Isaac because the truth is he is a relatively minor character in the Genesis narratives.  And as important as the matriarchs are, the primary focus is on those three.  Lets start with Abraham.  He is the idealist, fiercely devoted to serving God, so much so that he is willing to sacrifice his son in God’s service.  His relationship with God is the most important thing in his life, the one thing that defines him more than anything else.  He is generation number one.

Jacob, his grandson, is in a very different place with his religious life and identity.  He is the ‘God wrestler’, a person who struggles with faith and its importance in his life, not always sure of God’s attention or protection.  Jacob doesn’t entirely assimilate – his ethnic and religious identity is too strongly ingrained.  But he has serious doubts, and he does not wait around for God to take care of him.  Instead he uses his own intellect and cunning, his own strength and determination to navigate the challenges of his life.  Jacob believes if he doesn’t do it no one will do it for him – not even God.

Then we arrive at the next generation – Jacob’s son Joseph, Abraham’s great grandson.  And what do we find with Joseph?  He is by far the most assimilated character in the entire Torah.  Joseph has fully and completely integrated into Egyptian life and culture.  He has taken an Egyptian name, he has married an Egyptian woman, he works in the Egyptian government.  He has become so completely and thoroughly Egyptian that in this morning’s Torah portion, after multiple interactions with his own brothers, he finally has to actually say to them – “Hey!  Wake up!  This person you’ve been talking to now off and on for months – face to face, close up – its me!  Its Joseph!”  As it says in this morning’s portion – אני יוסף אחיכם – I am Joseph your brother!!

But as assimilated as Joseph is – as Egyptian as he has become – it is he who assures the future of the Jewish people.  Joseph is the one who brings his brothers and father to Egypt, enabling them to survive the famine.  It is Joseph who honors his father by making sure he is buried in the land of Israel.  And interestingly enough, it is Joseph who makes sure to bring his children, who must be even more Egyptian than he is, to Jacob for a blessing and a last encounter with the great patriarch of early Jewish life.

Now I don’t know if anyone reads the Forward any more.  I still take a glance through it when it comes out if I have the time.  This week there was an article that described current demographic trends in the Jewish community, and showed that the overall percentage of Jews who are Orthodox is rapidly growing.  If you take the Jewish community and divide it into three age ranges – 56 and older, 28-45, and 17 and younger, this is what you see:  Jews 56 and older %5 are Orthodox – that is it!  In the 28-45 age range that percentage grows significantly – %15 of Jews between the ages of 28-45 are Orthodox.  But then you get to 17 and younger and the number grows even more dramatically – %27 in that age range are Orthodox!

You might look at those numbers and think ‘this is good for the Jews,’ because the community will more and more be made up of Orthodox Jews, who are observant, knowledgable and devoted to their faith.  Those Jews should be able to transmit a sense of the importance of Judaism and the tradition to their children and grandchildren, and ensure a process of continuity for the Jewish people for generations to come.  Good for the Jews, right?

But I think there is also a potential problem in that growing percentage of Orthodox Jews, namely this:  in the Orthodox community you don’t have any Josephs.  You don’t have people who are fully assimilated and integrated into American life and culture.  And I would argue that for the Jewish community to be safe and sound and successful, we  need to have some Josephs out there.  We need people who know they are Jewish, but who are comfortable and fully integrated in the secular world.  We need people who have non-Jewish friends and business contacts.  We need people who feel just as comfortable in the non-Jewish world as they do in the Jewish world.  We need Jews involved in government, the sciences, the arts, the media, the entertainment world.  And by and large those Jews are not going to come from the Orthodox community, which if anything is becoming more insular, and more distant and cut off from the secular world.

So do we need to worry about assimilation?  We do – it IS growing, and it does present us with greater and greater challenges in terms of maintaining our identity and traditions and the continuity of our faith.  And the increase in the Orthodox population will help to address those challenges.  But we should also remember that assimilation should be celebrated, that it is symbol of the Jewish community’s success, and that without it we would simply not be where we are today.  May we continue from strength to strength for generations to come –

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Let’s Get Small…

I’ve always wondered why, when we tell the story of Hanukkah, we emphasize the narrative about the small cruise of oil.   You all know the story – the Maccabees were able to defeat the Assyrians in around 165 BCE.  They captured Jerusalem, and then retook control of the Temple mount and rededicated the Temple.  As part of this process of rededication they wanted to relight the Ner Tamid, the ancient Temple’s version of our eternal light.  But they had a problem – it required a special oil, a very particular formula that was certified only by the High Priest.  And when they went through the Temple stores, they found only a small container of it, just enough to enable the Ner Tamid to burn for a single day.  But of course, as the story goes, the small cruse of oil, that should have lasted only a single day, burned for 8 days – it was, as we say, a miracle – and we commemorate that miracle by lighting our menorot for 8 days.

And what I’ve always wondered is why that is the miracle we focus so much of our Hanukkah time and energy on.  After all, there is a much larger miracle, I would argue a much more significant miracle, of Hanukkah.  Which is?  That a small and almost powerless people, the Jews, were able to defeat the greatest power in the world at that time, the Assyrians.  That a ragtag band of rebels was able to muster the strength, determination, courage, and skill to  defeat the world’s deadliest and strongest army.  That a rebellion that should have had no chance of success not only succeeded, but arguably changed the entire course of human history.

Now the story of the oil burning for 8 days is nice, and I suppose, if it is actually true, it is a sort of minor miracle.  But it didn’t really make a difference – not in any real way – in the lives of the Maccabees, or in what happened in the year 165 BCE.  The burning oil had no impact on the military struggle of the time and who won and who lost.  And it just doesn’t seem to me that when you compare that story and its small miracle with the known events of that time, with one of the great true miracles of human history, the military victory of the Maccabees – when you look at one next to the other – it doesn’t seem to me they are even in the same ball park.  So why spend so much time on one tiny, small, minor miracle?  Why is that the story most associated with Hanukkah?  Why, when someone asks us what Hanukkah is all about, is that the story we tell them?

To help us possibly answer that question, or at least to think about it in a different way, I’d like to spend a few moments with you thinking about one of the great comedy stars of the 70s, Steve Martin.  I am sure you all remember Steve Martin – the bunny ears or the fake arrow through the head.  The banjo playing.  One of the so called ‘wild and crazy guys’ from the hey day of Saturday Night Live.  If you grew up in the 70s, like I did, Steve Martin was the King of Comedy, one of the biggest stars in the country at the time.  His solo stand up shows would sell out in minutes.  Phrases from his routines became part of the vernacular.  His image was almost iconic – the white hair, the goofy smile.

And if you followed Steve Martin, you’ll remember he had a routine that he did in his stand up act, called ‘Lets get small.’  It was a little bit – just maybe two or three minutes long.  It was subversive, like all great comedy, playing off the idea of getting high.  The idea was you’d expect a comedian in the 70s to talk about getting high, about using drugs, but Martin switched the phrase, and talked about – getting small.  And the whole routine ran off of that  – if kids did it they got ‘really small.’  One time when he was ‘really, really small’ he crawled into a vacuum cleaner.  And he would riff on it for a few minutes, and then move on to the next bit.

The other great thing about that routine – another feature of great comedy – is that it made you switch perspectives, both literally and figuratively.  You expected him to talk about one thing, but instead he talked about something else.  You know what it is like to be big, but he asked you to imagine yourself inside a vacuum cleaner – he asked you to, in his own words, ‘get small.’

And when you get small, you think about things differently.  You see the world from literally a different perspective.  Maybe you’re a bit humbler.  Maybe you’re a bit more grateful.  Maybe a bit more gracious.  Its always been interesting to me, the words of Jacob from a couple of weeks ago, Parshat Vayishlach, when he is speaking with God before meeting his brother Esau – what does he say?  The translation in our Humash is “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have shown me.”  But the Hebrew is – קטונתי מכל החסדים – literally, I am too small for what you have done for me.  Jacob’s perspective has changed – he once thought he was great, and now he sees himself as small.

And I would argue that there is something about the small moments – about ‘smallness’ – that enables you to experience God in a way that largeness and the large moments don’t.  I’ve learned that in the rabbinate over the years.  At a large shul like this I’ve been privileged to teach classes with a hundred students, or preach sermons in front of a thousand people.  But what I have discovered – and it has surprised me – is that the most sacred moments often are the small ones.  A one on one conversation where you say something that might help someone.  A funeral with just a few people, where you bring a Jew to his or her final resting place with dignity.  A class with just a handful of people where you can spend time and talk things out.  In those small moments, I’ve found, God’s presence is clearer and stronger than in many of the big moments.

And isn’t that the lighting of the menorah?  If you think of the rituals of our year, the complex music and liturgy of the HHDs, the intricate waving of the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, even the multifaceted rituals of the Passover seder, the lighting of the menorah is one of the simplest and easiest rituals we perform.  Put the candles in, say two short blessings, and go eat!  It is a small moment – usually just family, at home, a few minutes and back to the routine.

But it also is a sacred moment.  To stand with children and grandchildren.  To watch as the glow of the candles slowly but surely warms heart and home, bringing light and hope into our lives, pushing the darkness away.  And I would venture to guess that many of us, in that small moment of candle lighting, surrounded by the generations of our family, feel a sense of God’s presence.

So maybe that is why, over the years, the story of the oil on Haunkkah has become so beloved.  In the grand scheme of things it was a small moment, of no great import.  But in some strange and mysterious way it was also a miracle, a moment where God’s presence came into the world, and where God’s eternal connection with the Jewish people was rediscovered.  May it be so again and again, in this new year of 2017 and beyond.

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An Ambassador to Israel

This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –

It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration.  And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel.  That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post.  Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.

That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize.  And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are.  And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.

What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration.  He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible.  He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank.  He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite.  In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.

All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.

Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves.  The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador?  Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?

As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion.  I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker.  I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible.  Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence.  While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father.  But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago.  He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive.  And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.

It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’  The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’  Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?

Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears.  Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother.  This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him.  It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story.  Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife?  Or shoot him with an arrow?  All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?

Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom.  Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over.  The loser does not die or leave;  though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”

Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other.  They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary.  The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away.  They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.

When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over.  There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness.  And there is no moral path to making them go away.   And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them.  That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with.  Wishing otherwise will not make it go away.  So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –

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Born to Run, Born to Rabbi

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/3/16 –

I find myself thinking very much about children and parents this week, in part because of Gideon’s bar mitzvah, in part because Becky and I picked our son Josh up after his three months abroad, and in part because I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, very appropriately entitled – take a guess – Born to Run!  The book has everything you’d expect from an autobiography of one the greatest rock stars of all time, from the purchasing of Springsteen’s first guitar, to paying his dues  playing in the bars, to hitting it big and forming the E Street Band. These are all the standard tropes of rock and roll narratives, but Springsteen, as he does with his music, plays them better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.

What surprised me about the book – what I did not expect – was how focused the 500 or so pages are on one central relationship in Bruce Springsteen’s life – his relationship with his father.  Springsteen’s mother is a supportive presence in his childhood, warm and loving and in her own way proud of her son.  But his father was an entirely different kind of person.  Born in 1920, he served in the European theater during the Second World War.  He came back to the States to his home town and went to work in the factories.  He was an old school guy – a blue collar laborer, never went to college, emotionally closed and unable to express himself, a guy who hated his job but would never miss a day of work, a guy who stopped at the bar on the way home to have a few beers – every night.  And would have a few more when he got home, sitting in the kitchen of the family’s small house, often in the dark, waiting for Springsteen to come home.

In a series of vignettes that take place at that kitchen table, Springsteen describes some of the clashes and conversations, many of theme heated, that he had with his father over the years.  Slowly but surely the two men grew in starkly different directions, the factory worker father who valued traditional definitions of manhood and work  watched his son grow long hair and spend hours in his room playing the guitar.  The son who valued freedom and music and expression watched his father grow angrier and angrier, and more and more hostile and withdraw into a shell he used to keep others out his life.

At the end of this long trail of encounters between father and son there is one final, poignant scene that Springsteen brings to life in the book.  The 18 year old comes home, brings his parents into that kitchen, and tells them that he is leaving school, that he will not look for a regular job, and that he is going to dedicate his life to rock and roll.  To put it mildly, the conversation did not go well.  Within a year Springsteen’s parents had moved to California, and Springsteen remained behind, dirt poor, all of 19 years old, playing the clubs and bars of the Jersey shore.  He had no idea at the time that he was, as Jon Landau would later famously write, the future of rock and roll.

I imagine many of us have had conversations like that with our parents at one time or another.  Hopefully not as hostile, not as angry and bitter, but difficult, hard, conversations where we have to tell our parents that our intention is to set out on our own path, to leave behind in one way or another the life that they’ve lived, and maybe expected us to live as well.   My conversation like that with my father happened 25 years ago this month, on a cold December night in Binghamton NY, 1991.  Becky and I had gone to visit my parents to spend a few days catching up.  I had made a decision – a significant decision – about the direction of my life which my mom and dad did not know about, and I was determined to tell them during the time we were there.  One night after dinner my dad and I went into the den, and as I sat on the couch he settled into his beloved leather chair and was about to turn on the TV.  And it was at that moment – again, 25 years ago this month – that for the very first time my father found out I intended to go to rabbinical school.

Now you may remember the old joke about the first Jew elected president, and on inauguration day her mother stands proudly watching the swearing in ceremony.  And one of the dignitaries leans over to the mother and says ‘you must be so proud, the first woman AND the first Jew to be president!’  And the mother leans back and says ‘her brother’s a doctor.’  Well my dad IS a doctor – and I think in the back of his mind he always wanted his oldest son to go to medical school.  And I can tell you in the back of his mind he never had the idea that his oldest son might go to rabbinical school.  He was more than surprised.  He challenged me – ‘what about this?’, he asked.  ‘How are you going to pay for it?  You don’t know Hebrew!’  he pointed out to me.  And he mustered every argument to convince me that maybe this was a crazy idea I had gotten into my head, and that I shouldn’t go.  In the end, to his credit, he said ‘if you are sure go and give it your best shot’ – and I did.

You know the Torah also has a moment like that, a pivotal moment in the relationship between a father and a son.  We read about it in this morning’s portion, one of the Bible’s best known stories, when Jacob, dressed like his brother Esau, enters his father Isaac’s room, intending to trick Isaac into bestowing upon him the first born’s blessing.  I’ve always wondered what it was that was going through Jacob’s mind at that moment.  He knows already that his father doesn’t like who he is, doesn’t approve of his character and his interests, because Isaac has made it clear that Esau is the favorite son.  And maybe part of what Jacob was doing was simply trying to win the approval of his father. So he leaves his true identity at the door, and for a few moments, as he pretends he is Esau, he feels what it is like to be the favorite son.  Maybe the blessing wasn’t Jacob’s goal after all.  Maybe he just – for a little while – wanted to feel his father’s approval and love.

And maybe it would have been different if Jacob had walked into that room as himself.  Would it have been more difficult?  Absolutely – a much harder conversation.  But at least then he would have been true to himself.  And who knows, maybe Isaac would have responded to that, for the first time having a sense of who his younger son truly was.  It is a two way street that moment.  If the child can be honest, and true to him or herself, he’ll set out on his own path, and whether right or wrong, whether it succeeds or fails, she’ll know it is her path, her choice, and her life.

And isn’t the true trick of parenting knowing that a moment comes when we have to let go.  We may not understand, we may not agree, we may not even think its right.  Hopefully we’ve done our best, we’ve given them the tools they need to be the best they can be.  But we have to always remember that being the best they can be doesn’t have to mean being the best we can be.

Maybe that is why Jacob leaves, right after that conversation with his father.  He realizes he’ll never be able to be himself if he stays home, under his father’s roof.  So he walks away, into an unknown future, I am sure entirely terrified of what lies ahead.  But his head is held high, there is a purpose to his step, and he walks on a path that he knows is his own.  May all our children walk on that path when their own time comes – whether they are born to run, or born to rabbi –

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