Tag Archives: Moses

This Land is Your Land…

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

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

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

But Israel does not feel in any way like an ancient or outdated place.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Miriam and Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of observations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Contemporary 10 Commandments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three (unheralded!) Heroes of the Haggadah

This a text version of my sermon from the first day of Passover, 5777 – enjoy the holiday!!

It is an often remarked upon oddity that Moses’ name does not appear anywhere in the traditional text of the Haggadah.   I don’t know whether you realized it as you read the retelling of the exodus story last night.  Pharaoh is mentioned, great talmudic sages like Rabbi Akiva are mentioned, even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, are referred to in the text.  But Moses, who worked harder than anyone to bring about the redemption of the Israelites, who bravely walked into Pharaoh’s throne room to demand that the Israelites be let go, who raised his staff and split the waters at the sea – Moses gets not one single mention.  It is strange to say the least, and clearly intentional.  The authors, the creators of the Haggadah, did not want Moses’ name to appear. (*see the note at the end of the text for a full explanation)

Over the years many reasons have been proposed as to why this is the case.  The most common explanation is that the sages who wrote the text of the Haggadah wanted to emphasize the Divine role in the redemption from Egypt, not a human’s role – not even Moses’.  It has also been said that Moses’ absence is yet another indication of his extreme sense of humility, and that he himself had a hand in making sure his name did not appear on the night of the seder.

But I would like to suggest another reason today.  I think the Haggadah authors may have left Moses out because his presence in the text would have overshadowed  – not God – but the other people in the Haggadah that we’ve come to know so well over the years.  If Moses appeared on every page – and he would be on virtually every page – we wouldn’t pay much attention to the story of the Sages in B’nei Barak, or Rabban Gamliel’s description’s of the Pesah, Matzah, and Marror.  I would even argue were Moses the focus of the Haggadah, even Elijah the prophet might get lost in the shuffle.  So by eliminating Moses, the Haggadah democratizes the events of the Exodus, showing us that this was something that came about – and in a way continues to come about – through the efforts of many, not just one man.   And as important as Moses was, we also needed all of the other contributors to make our way from slavery to freedom.

Moses’ absence on the seder nights also gives us an opportunity to search for other heroes in the Haggadah that we might not otherwise see.  And this morning I would like to tell you about three heroes of mine who appear in the pages of the Haggadah, on the surface perhaps minor characters in the great drama of the seder, often overlooked of dismissed, but characters who play crucial roles in our understanding the meaning of Passover.

The first is Ben Zoma.  Does that name sound familiar?  Do you remember where he appears?  Just after the story of the 5 Sages staying up all night and telling the Passover story, there is a short and also strange paragraph.  It is about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, where he says – הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה –  ‘I am like a man of 70 years.’  And he is struggling to understand a verse from the Torah – anyone remember what it is?  It has to do with mentioning the Exodus from Egypt ALL the days of your life.  And Rabbi Elazar – one of the great talmudic sages of all time – says that he never understood that verse until it was explained to him by a lesser sage named Ben Zoma.  Anyone remember Ben Zoma’s answer?  He says ALL the days of your life includes not only the days, when it is actually daylight outside, but also the nights.  This is actually one of the reasons we say the third paragraph of the shema not only in the morning, but also at night, during evening services.

But what I love about Ben Zoma, the reason he is one of my three unheralded Haggadah heroes, is that he reminds us that Judaism is something that has to be practiced every day in order to be truly meaningful.  It can’t just be about the seder night, it can’t just be abut Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  Those are the big, dramatic moments.  But the real beauty of Judaism is in the quiet moments, even the mundane moments, the ebb and flow of everyday life.  It is easy to lose track of that, especially on a seder night when we put so much effort into telling the Passover story.  Ben Zoma reminds us that the true power of Judaism is not found in a single night, but instead in כל ימי חייך – in ALL the days of your life.  That is why he is my first Haggadah hero.

The next is a surprise choice, a character you probably would not expect to make my list – the Rasha.  Who is that?  Right, the wicked child (son), in the four sons section the one son who is considered to be excluded from the community.  You remember his question – מה העבודה הזה לכם – what does this ritual mean to YOU.  And we say since he said ‘you’ and not ‘us’ he implied that he wants nothing to do with Jewish life.  The Rasha is the great villain of the Haggadah.  Pharaoh is bad enough, but we’re used to dealing with outsiders who are after us.  But to be rejected by someone in our own community is painful.

But without the Rasha we might experience the seder night as a perfect narrative, almost a fairy tale.  The evil King is defeated in the person of Pharaoh.  The people are released from their slavery.  Those who subjected them – the Egyptians – are punished by the plagues.  Without the Rasha it would all be a nice, neat package.  And that is precisely why we need the Rasha in the Haggadah.  We don’t live in a fairy tale world, we live in the real world, a world that badly needs fixing, a world that sometimes seems it is filled with wicked people.  The Rasha reminds us that although we might step out of reality when we sit down at the seder table, when the seder ends, and Elijah leaves, and the last morsel of afikoman is eaten, we return to a world that badly needs fixing, and we have a role to play in that process.

My last Haggadah hero is the mystery man of the seder.  You remember the passage ‘my father was a wandering Aramean?’  It is never quite clear who exactly that person is.  Some commentators suggest it is Abraham, the first wandering Jew.  Others think it is Jacob, who did in his life wander to Egypt.  Some even say it is Laban, Jacob’s uncle.  The bottom line is the text is ambiguous, and the figure remains unidentified.

I’ve always imagined that figure as my Zaydie, my dad’s father.  He was a quiet, soft spoken, and largely reserved man, very mild mannered.  I think he had to be that way given my Bubbe’s strong personality.  But as mild mannered as he was, he was a wanderer.  He made a choice when he was about 16 or 17 years old to undertake a journey, to leave the small village he lived in in eastern Europe, and to come here to the United States with the hopes of creating a new life.  In that moment he joined in the age old Jewish story of diaspora, of the constant and restless search for freedom and dignity and tolerance.  And I remember many a seder from my childhood when I watched my Zaydie, quietly sitting at a table surrounded by his children and grandchildren, the generations of his family, and I think in those moments he was reflecting – with gratitude –  on how successful his search had been.

So there you have it.  My three unheralded Haggadah heroes.   Perhaps you have some of you own.  If you don’t, you might spend a few moments at your seder tonight considering who they might be.  Because each character in the text has a crucial role to play in the story of our freedom, in the journeys we undertake in our own lives.

 

  • Moses’ name and the Haggadah text – It is true that some contemporary haggadot will use Moses’ name, either in commentary, or in a new version of the main text.  Also, some traditional haggadot include the text of a midrash brought in the name of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili that includes Moses’ name.  Here is a note from my friend Dr. Josh Kulp’s ‘Historical Haggadah’ regarding that midrash:  “The section with the derash of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili is found in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (an early midrasnhic collection on Exodus).  That this text is missing from many medieval Haggadot and from all early Israeli versions of the Haggadah indicates that this was a late edition to the Haggadah, and that the Rabbi Yosi HaGlili text (with its inclusion of Moses’ name) was certainly not originally composed as a liturgical piece to be recited at the seder.”  All of this is to say that the original authors of the Haggadah text intended that Moses’s name not appear.zaydiestone

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Just the Evidence, Ma’am

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 3/20/17

Some of you will remember the TV show Dragnet, which ran on first NBC and then ABC through the entire decade of the 50s.  Week in and week out a dedicated audience would tune in to watch the adventures of the plain spoken detective – what was his name?  Joe Friday (Jack Webb) – as he methodically and systematically investigated crimes, solved cases, and brought in the bad guys.  There was very little actual action in the show.  Occasionally Joe Friday might draw his gun and run after a criminal.  But for the most part he went about his job using his mind, interviewing people who were connected to the case, figuring out what the truth was by assembling the facts.  And if you remember the show you also remember Joe Friday’s famous phrase, which became part of the vernacular – what was it?  Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

It is sad to say, but it is hard to imagine Joe Friday being successful in today’s world.  The criminals he chased down were not psychopaths or serial killers, they didn’t have some kind of infernal plot to destroy an entire city like so many of today’s TV evildoers.  There was no violence in the show, I don’t recall even a fist fight, there were no explosions, no car chases.  There were no fancy cars for that matter – I think Joe Friday drove around an old Buick – and no fancy clothes – just a plain grey suit, a white shirt, and a dark skinny tie.  And of course in those days, in the 50s – admittedly a simpler time – there were actual facts – something that today seems to be regularly called into question.

So in Joe Friday’s world, he could say ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ and everyone knew what he meant.  There was a fundamental assumption shared by all that facts could be determined, and once they were determined they were not debated.  Something either happened or it didn’t.  A person said something, or they didn’t say something.  If you read something in the newspaper or heard Walter Cronkite say it on TV you believed it was true.

But today we seem to be in a different place.  Facts are debated, not accepted.  People seem to make assertions about what did or did not happen based more on what they wished had transpired, as opposed to what actually did.  This isn’t entirely new, and no question it is something that has been going on in politics in one way or another for awhile, but it does feel like it has reached a new level.  Certainly a number of assertions that have been made by the current administration don’t seem to have any factual support at all, from inaugural numbers to wire tapping accusations to voter fraud.  But the left does it too.  You may remember the uproar a couple of weeks ago from the about Uber, the car service.  There were claims that when JFK airport taxi drivers joined in a strike against the administration’s immigrant policy Uber had rushed in and taken advantage.  Almost immediately the left started a #deleteUber campaign to try to get people to stop using the service.  The problem was, there was no actual evidence that Uber had done anything wrong.  To put it simply, there were no facts to support the claim that the left was making.

And it is precisely about this issue that Judaism might have something to teach us.  Going all the way back to Torah times Judaism has insisted on the use of evidence to determine what has happened or not happened.  The Torah teaches that witnesses – first hand, eye witnesses – must be consulted when criminal cases are tried.  And one eye witness is never sufficient – at least two are required, because when two people say the same thing it is more likely to be true.  Rabbinic law develops this idea further in the Talmud, creating strict criteria for determining whether witnesses should be considered trustworthy, and also describing an extensive procedure for examining witnesses to make sure that the actual facts of any given case are being uncovered.  Joe Friday might not be very comfortable with the way we deal with facts today, but had he studied the Jewish laws about evidence requirements and witnesses he would have been in very familiar surroundings.

The Torah also insists that the system of law should not be influenced by the power, or lack thereof, of those involved in any given case.  That is to say that a poor person should not be believed just because they are poor – nor should a wealthy person, a person in a position of power, be believed just because of who they are.  The very same requirements of evidence apply either way.  Neither the low person or the high person on the totem pole should get any preferential treatment.  Torah law is insistent on this point, teaching in Leviticus 19 the following:  לא תישא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול – do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – rather judge them fairly. (19:15)

In fact I would argue that the Torah seems to believe that even God is not to be believed without verification.  In this morning’s portion we read about the sin of the golden calf.  It is a story we know well – Moses at the top of the mountain, communing with God, receiving the law, while the people at the mountain’s base are worshipping an idol.  At a certain point God says to Moses ‘hey, you had better get down there, the people are out of control, and they are worshipping an idol.’  And Moses’ first reaction is to defend the people and try to calm God down.  Once he does this Moses goes down himself, and he is carrying the tablets that God gave him.  What does he doe with those tablets?  He breaks them!  When?  Not until he sees with his own eyes what has actually transpired.

God have given Moses testimony.  God had told Moses exactly what was going on.  If he fully believed God, why didn’t he just break the tablets right then and there?  But he doesn’t – he waits until he has seen it with his own eyes, until the actual evidence is right in front of him – and at that point, the facts become clear to him, and he acts, shattering the tablets and punishing the people.  It seems that even with God the tradition insists on actual evidence to establish the facts, to determine what has or has not happened.

I think we should insist on the same.  When statements are made today, regardless of who makes them, when stories are reported, regardless of whether we hear about them on Fox News or read about them in the NY Times, we should follow our tradition and wait for the evidence to appear.  A claim without evidence is not a fact – it is simply a claim.  That was not good enough for Moses, even though the claim came from God.  It was certainly never good enough for Joe Friday.  And it shouldn’t be good enough for us either.  Just the evidence, ma’am, just the evidence.

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

The title is a quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Below is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/4/17.

Not really a sermon this morning, but three brief vignettes that might help us, as Jews, think about about some of what is going on in Washington these days, particularly the immigration ban.  Sometimes it can be helpful to look back, because it is easy when you get comfortable – as we are today – to very quickly forget where you’ve actually come from.

And we’ll begin by looking way, way back, all the way back to this morning’s Torah portion, the events of which most scholars would date about 3500 years ago.  I want to introduce you to a young Israelite slave who was living in Egypt at that time.  His name was Nahshon, the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah.  He was about 18 or 19 years old, and had lived his entire life in slavery, working in the hot Egyptian son, doing the backbreaking work of building the pyramids.  But there was something special about Nahshon.  Unlike his parents’ generation, whose spirits had been crushed by the cruel bondage of Egypt, Nahshon had a fire burning inside of him.  He had always believed that one day there might be a way to escape the slavery, to leave Egypt behind, and to live life as a free man.  But he never really knew how that night happen.

And then one day a man named Moses appeared.  He would come to the Israelite villages, and he talked about ideas that seemed strange, even crazy.  He said that the old God of the ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah had returned.  That that God had heard the cry of the Israelites in their slavery, and had set in motion a series of events that would somehow enable them to be free.  Many of the people didn’t believe Moses, but Nahshon did.  He began to quietly talk about a moment that would soon come, a door that would suddenly open, a window in time, when the Israelites would leave Egypt and set out on a journey to freedom.  Nahshon watched, and waited, and bided his time.

Then one night it actually happened.  It was the middle of the night, and a terrible cry could be heard throughout the land of Egypt.  A deathly power was making its way through the Egyptian homes, slaying all of the first born.  Moses and his messengers went through the Israelite settlements, urging people to pack a few belongings in haste, to take with them only what they absolutely needed the most.  And so the people quickly assembled – men, women, children.  Nahshon fell in with his tribe, with a small sack over his shoulder.  In his heart he felt a sense of hope he had never before felt in his life.  He turned his face to the east where the sun was rising, and he began to walk forward.  As the first rays of the sun fell on his face, his eyes burned brightly.

Lets now take our minds out of the Egyptian desert, and move forward in time about 1000 years.  In the year 586 BCE a Jew named Azariah lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was a simple man, living a simple life.  He made his living by harvesting grapes and olives in the groves and vineyards around his small home, and making wine and olive oil that he sold to travelers who were on their way to see the great city.  But Azariah lived in troubled times.  Jerusalem has been besieged by the Babylonian army, the greatest power in the ancient world, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.  The Babylonians have built great war towers around the city’s walls, and they waited patiently as hunger and thirst began to set in.

In the course of a few weeks during that terrible summer Azariah watched the Babylonians bring Jerusalem to its knees.  The siege lasted for three months, but the end was quick.  The Babylonians finally breached the outer walls, and then steadily made their way towards the Temple mount, burning and destroying everything in their path.  When they reached the Temple they set it on fire, and later tore it down, stone by stone, to its foundation.  A few days later Babylonian soldiers appeared and informed the local population they would be exiled and sent to a far away land.  They had one day to prepare.  Azariah didn’t know it, or think about it this way, but very much like his distant ancestor Nahshon he packed a small sack with his few belongings.  The next morning he joined a long line of his fellow Jews, 4,600 of them, and guarded by Babylonian soldiers, they began a journey that would take many months, and would end with them living in exile on the banks of the K’var River in Babylonia.  For the first time in Jewish history there was a diaspora community, but they never forgot Jerusalem their sacred city, or Israel their holy land.

Of course there have been countless other Jewish journeys in the course of time, some forced, others taken freely. As the Muslim civilization grew to power in the 7th century Jews followed trade routes and established small communities on the Iberian peninsula.   In the the late 800s Jews gradually made their way into Europe, settling in small villages along the Rhine River, and in Italy and France.  There were forced expulsions – from England in 1290, and of course from Spain in 1492.  Each time, like Nahshon and Azariah before them, the Jews packed their few belongings and began another journey, searching for a home, searching for freedom.

I would like to share one last story with you this morning.

This story begins fairly recently in the long scope of Jewish history, on the 13th day of May, in the year 1939.  On that day a young woman named Regina Adler boarded a boat called the SS St Louis in Hamburg Germany.  There were 937 passengers on that boat, almost all of them Jewish.  They were afraid, fleeing a country they had believed to be a safe haven, a place where until recently they thought they could live freely as both Jews and Germans.  Regina was born in Austria Hungary, in 1897, but had come to Germany with her parents as a teenager.

When the ship set sail the destination was Havanah, and despite difficult conditions on board the trip went smoothly.  Every passenger on the ship left Germany with proper documentation and permits that should have allowed them to enter Cuba, but when the boat arrived at the Havanah port they were told all permits had been revoked and they were forced to remain on board.  In desperation the boat headed for US shores, but it was met by US Coastguard ships and told in no uncertain terms that it would not be permitted to land.  On June 6 the decision was made to turn the St Louis around and head back to Europe.

About half the passengers on the boat would survive the war.  England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all agreed to take in some of the Jewish refugees.  Most of those who ended up in Nazi controlled areas died in the camps.  But Regina Adler was permitted to enter England, and she lived there for many years after the war ended.

These are our stories, Jewish stories.  Of exile and forced travel, of wandering and searching for home and freedom.  They are ingrained into our souls and psyches – informing who we are and how we see the world.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “we are all travelers in the wilderness of this world.”  When we think about today’s events, about a world filled with refugees, about immigrants searching for a new home, about borders and who should be permitted to cross them, we should remember our own history.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were packing our own small bags, leaving our homes behind, and setting out with hope for the Promised Land.

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