Two Critical Issues

This piece is based on the most recent episode of my podcast, Wresting and Dreaming, which can be heard at

This is the 49th episode of my podcast and I want to thank so many of you who have told me how much you have enjoyed and learned from Wrestling and Dreaming. If you’d like to contact me about anything you have heard, you can do so by sending me a private facebook message or you can go to my website and send me an email. I would love to hear from you.

In this episode, I want to share my thoughts on two critical issues: anti-Semitism in America and our relationship with Israel. These two issues are, sadly, related.

I have spoken in my podcast about bigotry against people of color  and members of the LGBTQ community. The bigotry and acts of violence against these individuals and communities reflect wide-ranging and long- standing systemic exclusion and discrimination. We need as Americans to acknowledge that systemic discrimination and work to eradicate it. 

I believe there is a critical difference between anti-Semitism in this country and the other forms of bigotry I just referred to. I do not believe that there is systemic or structural anti-Semitism in this nation in 2021. By that I mean that while the incidents of anti-Semitic bigotry and violence are of great concern, American Jews are not confronted with institutional anti-Semitism every day and most Jews live lives of relative privilege and security which can not be said for others whose lives are affected at every moment by deeply rooted discrimination. That was certainly the reality for Jews in America in previous generations, but it is not today and, in my sermons and writings I have often warned people about basing our Jewish identity in America on victimization or potential victimization. We have too much to be grateful for in this nation to focus only on anti-Semitism. 

But the fact that anti-Semitism is not woven into the fabric of American society does not mean that it can be taken lightly. It can not. When Jews are the victims of persecution or violence, people of good will must respond and must loudly condemn the violence and the rhetoric that inspires it. It is comforting to hear many in this nation respond with support to the Jewish community but there still is too much silence from those who have stood for other endangered communities and who, for whatever reason, do not stand in same way towards Jews.

I want to consider two sources for anti-Semitism in America today. The first source is the anti-Semitic claims and accusations which have been used for centuries against Jews. We hear these from neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who tragically have become louder and more visible in the past few years. The horrendous and libelous accusations against Jews are a stain on this nation and a threat to Jews and again they must be rejected loudly and clearly. 

But in recent years and in particular recently, we have seen an increase of incidents of anti-Semitic violence rom people holding anti-Israel and anti-Zionist political positions and this is of great concern. It is not a completely new phenomenon, but it is rising in frequency, and we need to confront it. That is the context in which I would like to share my views concerning our relationship with Israel and my hopes for both Israel and the Palestinian people. 

Before I do, let me be absolutely clear that no political opinion justifies terrorizing or intimidating of other individuals. I have no sympathy for those who attack others and I do not want my words to be seen in any way as rationalizing these attacks. They are wrong and can not be justified. There is a way to make a political opinion heard and this is not the way. 

But that is not to imply that pro-Palestinian positions or anti-Israel positions, when expressed peacefully and rationally do not merit our attention. They do.

I absolutely believe in the legitimacy of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state although the words “Jewish State” can be understood in many different ways. If you’d like to hear my thoughts on what they mean to me, please contact me and I’ll send you a copy of a sermon I gave on the subject some 10 years ago.  

In addition, I feel it is absolutely critical to remember in our context here that one of the principle reasons for the rise of the Zionist movements in th early 20th century was the reality of the history of anti-Semitism in Europe decades before the Holocaust. A Jewish homeland was sought to ensure safety for Jews who had very few places if any of true security.

Still, there are very serious questions which we as Jews have not adequately confronted concerning the formation of the State. I have had the opportunity on many occasions to speak with Palestinians who lived through what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, the catastrophe in 1948 or whose parents and grandparents told them their stories. Those stories must be heard, and we must all recognize that the story of the creation of the State of Israel, while thrilling and uplifting to most Jews, had great negative ramifications for the Palestinian people in the land which are still being felt.

That fact must be acknowledged but so must the reality of history and, 73 years later, Israel is a reality as a Jewish state and unless the citizens of Israel decide that it should not continue as such, I will steadfastly support Israel’s right to exist and self-define in this way.  

One of my greatest joys as a rabbi has been to  bring people, Jews and non-Jews, to Israel to see the land, to connect with our ancient and modern history as Jews, to experience the wonder of this relatively young nation as it inspired pride among Jews and a tremendous revival of Jewish culture, Hebrew language and connection with the land. 

But two  aspects of my relationship with Israel need to be stated clearly and while I know I don’t speak for every American Jew, I know many would agree. 

First, Israel is not “my country”. I am an American. I have a deep connection with Israel as the homeland of my people, but I am an American, I am loyal first and foremost to the country in which I live. When I travel to Israel, I do not go ‘home”. Rather, I return home to the United States. My flag has 13 stripes and 50 stars and my connection with the Israeli flag, while emotional, is simply not the same. You can read more of my thoughts on this question in a blog posting from April 2019 called an Open Letter to President Trump on this website. 

Secondly, my close relationship with Israel does not in any way imply support for or agreement with governmental decisions and policies and this is certainly true regarding the direction that Israel has taken in the past decades. 

I realize that some view it as arrogant or inappropriate  to speak about Israel’s policies when I am not living there to deal with the implications of my opinions. But there are many who live in Israel who share these thoughts and I speak from the heart. 

Some of the government of Israel’s actions trouble me deeply. I do not see them as reflecting the values which we hold as the foundation of our faith and tradition. Among these are the ongoing and deepening occupation of the West Bank and the disenfranchisement of Palestinians living there, the staggering growth of settlement activity, intimidation of Palestinians beyond legitimate security needs and military actions which do not always live up to Israel’s own stated standards of morality and ethics. These trouble me deeply and I have spoken out and will continue to speak out against those. 

I don’t express these opinions to ingratiate myself with anyone or to equivocate regarding my love for Israel. I express them because I believe that the future of Israel as a democratic nation is at stake.

I want to take pride in an Israel not only because of its meaning for Jews throughout the world and the economic and cultural development  that has been so impressive, but also because the nation lives up to the values of our tradition, values expressed in Israel’s declaration of Independence to the best of its ability.

I absolutely recognize and respect Israel’s responsibility for self-defense, a responsibility of any nation and one which Israel, in particular, needs to be constantly prepared to exercise given those who loudly call for its destruction. But, even given security needs, these issues must be confronted. 

Because I believe that concern for the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation or marginalized within Israel itself is absolutely legitimate and compelling, I acknowledge that a person can hold an anti-Israel position and still not be considered anti-Semitic. But, when people who hold these positions take out their anger or frustration on individual Jews, they have crossed a line into clear anti-Semitism. 

Jews and lovers of the State of Israel need to hear the perspectives of those who have deep concern and anger because of the plight of Palestinians. We haven’t listened well enough and need to listen to those perspectives and take them to heart. When they are expressed rationally and appropriately, we can not merely dismiss them as anti-Semitic. That amounts to shutting our eyes to a critical issue of human rights.

I would hope that anyone who speaks about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people would recognize that the responsibility for the conflict lies with both parties. The current conflict is not Israel’s fault alone by any means. The leadership of the Palestinian people is by no means blameless. As I would hope for all supporters of Israel, I would hope that those advocating for the Palestinian people, even if they do so in starkly anti-Israel terms, would reject all forms of terror and violence and rhetoric of destruction no matter its source. There is no double standard here. Speaking words of violence and committing acts of terror is reprehensible no matter who is doing it. But constructive debate and discussion and, most importantly, listening to each other, is positive.

I still believe in the possibility of a “two state solution”. While the prospect seems dim and is not embraced by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, I continue to believe it is the best way to address the conflict. It would take great compromise from both sides and would mean tremendous sacrifice, but it still is, I believe, the  best way of planning for the future: of a democratic Jewish state of Israel and a truly independent state of Palestine. Other ideas exist and they deserve to be seriously considered but I have yet to hear of a more reasonable solution that both sides could potentially endorse. 

I hope and pray for safety and security and justice for both Israel and the Palestinian people. I pray for an end to discrimination against Palestinians and an end to the threats of destruction of Israel from Hamas and other sources in the Middle East. I hope that the parties in the Middle East will try, God willing, to begin to talk again. For those here in the US,  I pray that we can dedicate ourselves to talking and listening with each other and stand together against the rise of anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and bigotry here at home and around the world. 

Pray for the Well-Being of Jerusalem

The title of this piece is taken from Psalm 122 and was the inspiration for my latest podcast episode which can be heard at and other sources for podcasts.

I encourage you to listen to that podcast but will share a brief summary of my thoughts.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, I do not believe that events in Jerusalem are the only factor behind the sudden eruption of fighting between Israel and Hamas. But, they were definitely a factor in the timing of this latest round of violence. The dangers posed by the rockets coming from Gaza and the response by Israel has its roots in a much larger conflict but I look to Jerusalem as a symbol of what is and what could be.

I had the privilege of living in Jerusalem for the academic year 1979-1980 and have been back many times since, usually leading synagogue or community groups on trips to Israel. During the year I lived in the city, I fell in love with Jerusalem as so many have for millennia. I became enthralled with the city’s natural beauty and the ever-present sense of history around every corner. I particularly was moved by the presence of the three great Abrahamic faiths co-existing with a sense of peace and mutual respect.

I readily admit that what I saw on the surface at the time hid the conflicts barely beneath that surface but there was a willingness to at least attempt to find common ground and mutual respect among the different faiths and between Israelis and Palestinians. I was able to take advantage of the relative calm and peace to explore and feel comfortable in all parts of the city and, more importantly, the beautiful texts of our tradition about love for Jerusalem and our hope for it to serve as a place of redemption resonated deeply with me. I consider bringing people to Jerusalem one of my greatest joys as a rabbi.

But, the Jerusalem I dream of and remember is, sadly, not the Jerusalem we hear about today.

While there are many who continue to work for co-existence and mutual respect both on the political scene and in daily life, the loudest voices in Jerusalem are those which do not reflect love of the city. The voices heard most loudly in the city on both sides are those which call for exclusion rather than inclusion and we see videos of mobs of people, some tragically draped in the flag of the state of Israel, calling for expulsion and death to “the other”.

Jerusalem has been the site of tension and violence and rivalry for millennia. But, our texts still call for us to find peace in Jerusalem, to have it be the symbol and the incentive to work for redemption in the world.

Jerusalem holds a special place in the hearts of so many. It is a place so many love deeply whether they live there or love her from afar. As we see the horrible conflict continue, seeing Israelis suffer horrendous rocket attacks from Hamas and as seeing so many children and other innocent people in Gaza killed and injured, we all must pray and work for an end to this conflict. I pray that people throughout the region one day will be able to look to Jerusalem as a symbol of peace and redemption.

Please listen to my podcast and hear all of my thoughts.

The Importance of Saying Black Lives Matter

This is a summary of the most recent episode of my podcast, Wrestling and Dreaming, which can be heard at : After the posting of this podcast, we heard the news of the terrible tragedy in Israel yesterday on Lag B’omer. May those who mourn be comforted and may those who were injured find healing and peace. May their families find comfort in in the prayers and expressions of sympathy from our people and people throughout the world. I will post further thoughts on this tragedy at a later time.

One of the most important principles of Jewish tradition is the inherent value of each human being. We are each created “in the image of God” and there are many Jewish texts which address the idea of the equality of each person.

The most classic expression of this idea is found in the section of Mishna Sanhedrin which discusses the warnings given to individuals who are about to testify in a capital case. Before the witnesses were allowed to give their testimony, the rabbis/judges challenged them with reminders that they could only speak about what they themselves had seen. Circumstantial evidence or assumptions were not to be considered.

Then, the judges would give several midrashic interpretations of a section in the Genesis creation story. Why is it, they would ask, that God created one human being in the beginning? Several answers were given.

First, they stressed that no one should ever be able to say: “My ancestor is greater than your ancestor”. Then, they would say this demonstrated God’s greatness and power in that we are all stamped with the same die, yet all look different. They would teach that each person should be able to say: “The world was created for my sake” which means each is an irreplaceable part of the universe. Finally, they would teach the famous expression: “One who saves a single life is considered as if one saved an entire world.”

It is a fundamental statement of Judaism that all human beings are equal.

If that is the case, can those who say: “I won’t say “Black Lives Matter” but rather will say: “All Lives Matter” ground that opinion in Jewish tradition?

Yes they can. But the answer is not sufficient.

I believe it is essential that we say these words: “Black Lives Matter” even given the principle of equality in Judaism.

Let me illustrate with a story.

Many years ago, a Christian minister made the national news when he said: “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.”

Needless to say, this was a shocking, divisive, insulting statement.

Very soon after I read that story, I approached a Evangelical Christian minister at an interfaith meeting and asked him: “Do you think God hears the prayers of a Jew?”

His response was: “God hears all prayers.”

I was satisfied with that response, but only for a few minutes. When I thought about it, I realized that his answer was, in its own way, insulting. Even if, as I believe to be true, he intended to be inclusive and to say that God does hear the prayers of a Jew, he did not honor my question or the reason I asked it. I wanted to hear him say the words that would touch my heart. How much different it would have been if he had used my words and acknowledged them and honored them: “Yes, God hears the prayers of a Jew.”

There is no question that there is systemic racism in this nation- in housing, education, finance and in so many areas. We know there are serious questions about racial bias and discrimination in law enforcement, policing and the legal system. These problems will not be solved by words. Action is needed.

But words do inspire us to action and the words we say matter.

As I see it, Americans are being challenged, and appropriately so, by the black community to state clearly that Black Lives Matter. And even if we intend to be completely inclusive by saying; “All lives matter”, we are not answering the question that is being asked. We are not responding to the challenge with the respect and the dignified answer that is deserved.

So, even though our tradition would say that “all lives matter”, in this place and at this time, with the 400 year history of bigotry and persecution, with the horrendous history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation and all of the pain that people of color have suffered in this nation and do suffer to this day, it is not enough to fall back on the universal. We must be specific and respond to the black community with the words they are appropriately asking us to say, to believe and to act on: “Yes, Black Lives Matter”.

May we work towards the day when in fact everyone in this nation will take equality so much for granted that no one of any community will need to hear their own community singled out but will be able to take comfort in the universal foundational principle of our faith: each of us is equal and of infinite worth.

Missing a Kiss

This piece is based on my podcast posting for the week of March 1. You can hear the podcast at

The story of the Golden Calf, which we read in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tissa is a fascinating story. The easiest way to understand the story is that the Hebrew people ignored all the warnings against idolatry, expressed a lack of faith in and a lack of gratitude for God who had brought them out of Egypt and deserved to be punished severely for their actions.

There may be some truth to that. But, it is also possible to read the story differently by looking carefully at the words of the Torah.

The people approach Aaron with the concern that “this man Moses” has disappeared. The Torah says Moses was “delayed” in coming down the mountain and the people panic. They have lost the physical focus that proved to them that God is still with them. There was no thunder from Sinai and no Moses that could help them sense the presence of an unseen God. So, we perhaps can understand their panic.

So Aaron fashioned this calf from their gold jewelry.

Being satisfied with seeing the calf and believing that it represented the fact that God was still with them would have been wrong but could have been justified. But, they turned this symbol into an idol by dancing in front of it and celebrating it. That is what made Moses so angry that he slammed the Tablets of the law to the ground, shattering them. And that is what turned the calf into an idol.

There is a fine line between a symbol and an idol and it is a line that the Torah and even later Jewish tradition didn’t always appreciate when it lashed out against idol worship. But, when a symbol crosses that fine line and becomes an object of worship, it becomes a rejection of a belief in one unseen God.

Several years ago, I delivered a Rosh Hashana sermon about idolatry and raised several examples in Jewish life today of objects or ideals which were perilously close to become objects of our worship. The first object that I considered was the Torah scroll.

The Torah scroll is the most important symbol in the synagogue. Its words define our mission as a people and our responsibilities as human beings. And, that is precisely the point. The words of the Torah, not the scroll, are the essential.

So, while we should respect the Torah scroll and follow the guidelines of our tradition as to its proper use, we shouldn’t raise the Torah to the status of an object to be revered for its physical form.

And that brings up the issue of kissing the Torah when it is paraded around the Congregation. How close is this to “idolatry”?

I would argue that a simple show of respect for the Torah, standing as it is brought around the sanctuary is sufficient. But, for so many generations, our people have engaged in the tradition of kissing the Torah with the fringe of a Tallit or a siddur or, in some cases, physically kissing the scroll directly.

One could argue that kissing the Torah is not idol worship and in principle, I agree. But, watching people push other aside to rush to the aisle to kiss the Torah or seeing the disappointment and anger if the Torah hasn’t been brought close enough to them to kiss it has always been disturbing to me and I find myself thinking of the Golden Calf as people celebrated it not as a symbol but as an object of worship.

So, in that sermon on idolatry, while I didn’t urge people not to kiss the Torah, I asked to them to make it less critical: to kiss the Torah simply when it was easy to do so but to do so with care and to understand the ultimate importance of the words it contains. I chastised people for kissing the Torah and then ignoring the reading and for dancing with the Torah at Simchat Torah and then not showing up at the synagogue for Shavuot, the holiday dedicated to Torah study.

I minimized the importance of kissing the Torah.

I stand by those words.

But, speaking from the perspective of 2021, I think I overstated my case.

I have to admit it. I deeply miss kissing the Torah.

I love our services on “zoom” and am so grateful for the opportunity to pray with a community on Shabbat morning when it is not safe to gather together.

But, there are things that I miss.

I miss the handshakes and Shabbat hugs.

I miss kibitzing at the kiddush over special Shabbat treats.

I miss walking home from Shul (walking closely without masks).

And, I miss kissing the Torah.

I don’t feel abandoned like our ancestors did. I have plenty of proof of God’s presence in the world around me.

But, I do feel like I have lost one of the focus points of my faith. Seeing the Torah scroll and, more importantly for me, reading from the Torah scroll is a physical connection with Sinai that I miss terribly. I can not wait until it is safe to hold the yad, the Torah pointer, on the scroll during the symbolic recreation of the giving of the Torah that we engage in each Shabbat morning when we take the Torah from the Ark and read it publicly before the congregation.

I never thought I could miss such a simple (and borderline idolatrous) ritual as much as I do.

But, I miss that kiss.

Two Favorite Texts


         In last week’s episode of my podcast Wrestling and Dreaming (, I shared what I consider to be my favorite traditional Torah commentary. I find it to be astounding. 

         The text is found in the commentary entitled the “Kli Yakar”, a work by Rabbi Shlomo Luntschitz from the end of the sixteenth century. He comments on a series of verses in Parashat Yitro in which God tells Moses to tell the people of Israel that God “brought them from Egypt on eagles wings and brought them to Me”. God then says that if the people observe the commandments and listen to God’s voice, the people of Israel would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. 

         Rabbi Luntschitz writes that these verses show a progression of the relationship between the people of God. Interpreting the phrase: “a kingdom of priests”, he concludes by saying that God is telling the people that they would eventually be, as it were, “kings over Me”.  

         I find that commentary so powerful and shared my thoughts on what it could possibly mean in the podcast. In brief, I think that it means that human beings determine the extent of God’s involvement in the day-to-day world. It is our responsibility to bring the values that we identify with God into the life of our world. In that way, we have the ultimate power to determine God’s presence in the world. I hope you will listen to the more complete version of my thoughts podcast and I would love to hear your reaction.

         This week’s podcast will be posted on Thursday and in it, I discuss another of my favorite texts.

         This text, a legal discussion from the Talmud, is not as challenging as the comment from the Kli Yakar but it is one of my favorites because I think it subtly raises and issue which all of struggle with in our daily lives. 

         One of my goals in the podcast is to show meaningful traditional Jewish texts can be and these two completely different types of texts are examples of the challenge these texts can provide for us as we seek to live more meaningful lives. 

         I hope you will listen to the podcast and I would love to hear your thoughts. 

Parashat Beshalach 2021

I hope that most of you who read this page are aware of my podcast entitled: Wrestling and Dreaming. You can hear it at or other sources for podcasts. 

Occasionally, I will post to this page a brief summary of the content of the podcast. I hope you will listen to the podcasts to hear my thoughts in their entirety.

This week, my topic was unity: a word very much in the news in our nation.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach, we read that God did not lead the people along the way of the Philistines because God was afraid that the people would encounter a war and desire to return to Egypt. 

I gave a midrashic interpretation to one of the phrases in that passage which I felt could be read to emphasize God’s concern that the people might abandon any unity which they felt upon leaving Egypt if they faced a crisis. 

I then discussed the fact that this is, in a sense, counterintuitive to what would be ideal behavior. It should be at times of crisis that we pull together, that unity is strengthened to face the crisis and shared some thoughts on our nation’s situation with COVID.

I hope you will listen to the podcast and wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom. 

The Assault on our Democracy

I have posted several Facebook postings concerning the events of January 6, 2021 and I wanted to share them here for those not on Facebook. They are presented here in chronological order as I posted them.


And now President Trump says: “No violence” The utter chutzpah of this man to spend four years trashing our most sacred institutions, and then refusing to concede the election and encouraging people to fight against the legitimate election results by spreading phony conspiracy theories and then trying to take the moral high road. This is all on him. It is an inevitable result of the obscenities of the past four years. It is the saddest day I have seen in this country in my entire life and who knows where it goes from here.


Thank you President elect Biden. This is what we needed to hear and how it needed to be said. Thank you for giving us another glimpse of the sanity, clear thinking and courage that you will bring to the office of the Presidency. May you have the strength to hold onto this vision for years to come.



In this week’s episode of my podcast, I discuss a phrase in this week’s Torah portion which has always fascinated me. Before Moses kills the Egyptian who is striking a Hebrew, the Torah says that “Moses looked here and there and saw that there was no eesh, no person.” This phrase can be understood in different ways leading to different lessons.

I recorded and uploaded this podcast last weekend. But, some of the points I raised should be considered in light of yesterday’s events. Among them is the idea reflected in Pirke Avot: “In a place where there are no mentsches, no human beings, strive to be a human being.” While the images and echoes of yesterday’s horrific attack on our country and the chaos of the past four years are still very much in our minds, we should also take time to recognize those who have stood up for justice, for compassion and for the true ideals upon which this nation has been built. There have been heroes who have spoken the truth and acted honorably during these chaotic times.

And, while being a president requires more than just compassion and vision, they are irreplaceable parts of what it means to be a true leader. In that spirit, President elect Biden showed once again yesterday how deeply he understands the need for turning down the volume, speaking quietly but firmly and always keeping the values of this nation paramount in what he says and does. None of us knows what the Biden/Harris administration will accomplish but we are about to enter a new day in this nation and I believe the president-elect will set the tone for a renewal of what our country should stand for. I pray for calm today and everyday and words and actions which can help the United States regain its place as a nation committed to the goal of justice and respect for all and a better and more secure world. You can hear my podcast at



It is definitely my inclination (and I think it is a good idea in general) to react to an event like yesterday’s with relief that it is over and to find a glimpse of hope for the future. But, then after that deep breath, it is essential to look more critically at some of the issues that we must confront in looking ahead.

First, I agree with all of those who say that while President Trump and some of his closest advisors and supporters are to blame for inciting the protestors yesterday, the ideas and the attitudes that were reflected in the protests began before this administration and will remain long after Jan 20. President Trump gave them legitimacy in a more blatant way than previous presidents did but he is not the first to use language and take actions which inspire hate filled individuals to feel empowered. Still, from the very beginning of his candidacy, his continued statements which fueled actions of this kind were clear and unmistakeable. But, those attitudes are still going to remain.

One of the best statements I heard yesterday was from a commentator quoting Winston Churchill: “Dictators ride to and fro on tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry”. This administration will come to an end on Jan 20, if not sooner, but the ideologies of hatred and bigotry and radical nationalism will still be there and will have to be confronted. This movement is fueled by President Trump but it has enough fuel without him at the head.

Secondly, the reality which so many have raised and occurred to so many of us yesterday must be addressed clearly. Why were these individuals able to get access to the capitol building? Why did we see pictures of police and guards stepping aside or smiling with the protestors (even taking pictures with them). Why were there so few arrests? The contrast between the peaceful black lives matter protest in June outside the White House which was broken up with tear gas and this atrocity yesterday could not be more clear and speaks again to the issues of racial inequality and injustice in this country. How could a black lives matter flag be deemed offensive and “anti-American” while those carrying confederate flags were told by the president; “We love you”?

These issues will not go away now that the horror of yesterday has passed. I’m glad we can breathe a sigh of relief but once we do that, we have to confront these issues which are not going to disappear with the end of this administration.


                                    D’var Torah for Parashat Vayechi 5781

            The story of Joseph is well known as a story of sibling rivalry carried to an extreme. The relationship between Joseph and his brothers is fraught with jealousy and vengeance. It does come to what is, at least on the surface, a peaceful conclusion as Joseph welcomes his brothers to Egypt and they participate together in the burial of their father Jacob. However, the memory of the conflict seems to linger throughout the conclusion of the story.

            But, in addition to being a tale about siblings, the Joseph story is also a story about a parent and a child. The relationship between Jacob and Joseph is truly at the heart of the narrative in so many ways. 

            Joseph is identified as Jacob’s favorite son from the outset of the story. The Torah explains that this is because Joseph was “ben zikkunim”, the son of his father’s old age. But, Rashi teaches a text from Bereshit Rabbah that explains these words to refer to the fact that Joseph’s “ziv ikunim”, the appearance of his face, was similar to Jacob’s.

            Jacob’s similarity to Joseph is reflected in several traditions. One refers to the verse near the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev in which read: Eleh Toldot Ya’akov Yosef ben sh’va esrei shana: “This is the story of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years old and was an apprentice to his brothers”. The Midrash points out that the juxtaposition of the names of Jacob and Joseph next to each other shows that the two lived lives which were similar.  The midrash teaches that they both were one of two children born of their mother, each had siblings who hated him, each had dreams, each went down to Egypt and the list goes on. 

            As we begin to read this week’s parasha of Vayechi bringing to an end the story of the life of Jacob, there is an unusual curiosity in the text. The Torah portion begins with the statement that Jacob lived in Egypt for seventeen years. The Torah then continues to tell the story of the last days of Jacob as he blesses his children and his grandsons. 

            Is it just a coincidence that the same number is used to designate Joseph’s age at the time of his dreams and Jacob’s length of time living in Egypt? Perhaps it is. But it could also be a deliberate point to once again unite the story of father and son. 

            Joseph was seventeen when his father sent him to bring him back reports on how the brothers were faring. Jacob did not see Joseph again until he was brought down to Egypt by the brothers seventeen years before his death. So, Joseph spent the first seventeen years of his life with his father and Jacob spent the last seventeen years of his life with his son.

            The parallelism here is impossible to ignore.

            But these two sets of seventeen years are completely different. 

            The first seventeen years are spent in the land of Canaan, Jacob’s home. Jacob is making vital, life changing decisions on behalf of Joseph, first giving him the coat of many colors and then sending him off to “spy” on his brothers even though he was aware of their hatred for him. 

The second set of seventeen years happen in Egypt, a foreign country to Jacob, but one which Joseph knows well. He, the son, is in charge. He tells his family where they will live and arranges the meeting between his father and Pharaoh. While it is not said in so many words, reading between the lines of the story in the Torah, you can see that Jacob is not comfortable in Egypt and is trying to hold on to any sense of parental authority he can. His conversation with Pharaoh centers on his own life rather than on Joseph and he insists on blessing his grandchildren, calling them his own and making the determination that the younger will be the greater of the two against Joseph’s wishes. 

            There is an interesting commentary on the first words of this parasha. Vayechi Ya’akov. Jacob lived in the land of Egypt. The earlier parasha which begins with the mention of Joseph being seventeen years old opens with the words: “Vayeshev Ya’akov”, Jacob dwelled in the land of Canaan. This commentary explains that as long as Jacob was in the land of Canaan, he was “dwelling” which has a sense of permanence and meaning. But “vayechi”, he lived, indicates that he merely existed in Egypt. Living outside of Canaan was meaningless to Jacob. He could only truly thrive in Canaan.

            Certainly there is something more to this difference than just the location in which the years took place. In coming down to Egypt, Jacob finds himself in a role he did not expect to be in and is not comfortable with. He is clearly not the leader of the family now. He is, in fact on Joseph’s turf, living in the atmosphere that Joseph had created for himself, struggling to find ways to make an impact and to make personal decisions according to his perspective. Rather than thriving in his homeland, he is in strange territory with an unfamiliar identity.

            This story should sound familiar to many. 

            The experience of an aging parent coming to live near a child can be tremendously moving and beautiful. It can be pragmatic as well. For the parent, it means that there is someone to care for them as he or she ages and that brings a sense of security and comfort. In addition, it could mean a deeper relationship with grandchildren or great grandchildren and that can be so lovely for all. For the child, it can mean fulfilling the mitzva of “honoring your father and mother” and returning the dedication and care received many years before. It can also result in less fear of a middle of the night phone call from a distant parent.

            But it is not always easy and those of us who have experienced this reality from either perspective know that while the positives clearly outweigh the negatives, it is not a completely rosy picture. 

            My mother moved from Boston to Ann Arbor, one year after my father died. It was a wise decision on her part and one which we enthusiastically supported. She did make a life for herself here, but her health deteriorated precipitously during the first year and limited her ability to live her life fully here in Michigan. 

            But, during the three and a half years she lived here, while there were great moments of joy as she got to know her grandchildren (and our animals) so much more than she would have from such a distance, it was obvious that there were parts of her life that were uncomfortable for her.

            While she certainly appreciated my taking her to doctor’s appointments, she didn’t want me to sit in with the doctor as he explained her health situation and prognosis. That was her opportunity to express her independence and we respected that to the degree that we could. 

            While she certainly appreciated it when I took her to do errands, she would often say: “You drive through these streets like you know where you’re going so well.” I would laugh and remind her that I had lived in Ann Arbor for 14 years before she moved here. But, in retrospect, I know what she was really saying: “This isn’t Boston. This isn’t home and never will be.”

            While she loved coming to services and had great nachas listening to me speak from the bima, she was never comfortable calling for the senior taxi and having to accept an offer of a ride home when she had driven a car since she was a teenager.

            We loved having my mother near us, but I don’t know that I was always as sensitive to her situation as I should have been. I certainly knew it was difficult for her, but I didn’t always consider those difficulties on a day-to-day basis. 

The lesson is that this experience which so many go through, as beautiful and necessary as it is, can be a great challenge for the parents who must uproot themselves from the place they know and the role they have played for so many years and live in another person’s place and often by another person’s rules. 

            The seventeen years that Jacob spent with Joseph in Egypt must have come as a tremendous joy for a father who had assumed the worst about his son for so many years (and why Joseph didn’t try to contact him to ease his suffering during those years is a great mystery). But perhaps the challenges of that time that made them less than ideal contributes to the idea that he was merely “living” in Egypt, not thriving. 

            I am keenly aware of the fact that many suffer the loss of parents before these decisions have to be made. I am also aware that for whatever reason, not all parents are in the position to move to share their lives directly with their adult children and their families.  But, for those who do have this experience, helping aging parents live with respect and truly thrive rather                                          

than just “live” in this new arrangement is a responsibility for children. 

The first years can never be the same as the last years but with sensitivity and care, they can be beautiful as well. 

I Missed It- Again.

            As I am writing this, the sun is just coming up. There is a faint light in the Eastern Sky with a bank of clouds silhouetted right near the horizon. It is going to be a beautiful sunrise.

            I love watching the sky during the day and especially at night. I consider myself a serious “armchair astronomer”. I can recognize a few of the notable stars and constellations but despite the fact that I have an app on my tablet that tells me what I am looking at, I am usually at a loss to use it properly and prefer just looking at the vastness of the nighttime sky and marveling at the stars as a whole.

            I find looking at the nighttime sky to be the best way I can imagine to combine my fascination with science with my spiritual yearnings. I’ve written extensively on this over the years and I continue to be inspired by the beauty of the heavens.

            As do many, I follow with great interest and anticipation the news of upcoming astronomical events and prepare myself to witness them in person if at all possible.

            But the fact is, as I lamented to a friend last evening, I have a less than positive track record when it comes to actually seeing the “big events”.

            Some of this has to do with where I live. Michigan is notorious for cloudy nights and I can’t tell you how many great moments we’ve missed because of clouds. And even when the weather seems like it is going to cooperate, something else might come up: fog, for example. 

            Back in the 1997, I woke up our four-year-old son in the middle of the night to go to see Comet Haley-Bopp at a special program set up by the University of Michigan astronomy department. It was a beautifully clear night. But shortly after we got into the car, a fog bank rolled in and I couldn’t even see well enough to drive to the site of the program, let alone see the comet. I remember that my comment at the time was: “They saw it from the rooftops of Manhattan, for God’s sake, and we couldn’t see it out here”.

            But I can’t blame the weather every time. Sometimes, I go out at the wrong time, look in the wrong place, decide it isn’t worth driving into the countryside where it is really dark or just don’t have the patience to search for what it is that I am supposed to be seeing. I often walk away disappointed.

            That brings us to this week. 

            I know many of you saw the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter and many of you saw it here in Michigan. 

I didn’t. 

            On Sunday evening, I noticed a slight break in the clouds, but it didn’t seem sufficient to see the conjunction. So, I stayed home only to find out later that many did see it.

            Monday evening, the “big night” for the conjunction, was miserably cloudy. The pictures online were extraordinary and better than I would have seen without a telescope of course, but they were still just pictures.

            And then last night, after an overcast day, the sky started to clear and I tried again but couldn’t find a good spot to see the Southwestern horizon and then noticed the clouds coming back and I gave up. An hour later, I got a text from a friend: “Did you see it? Wasn’t it beautiful?” 

            I went back outside but it was too late.

            So, I missed the once in a lifetime (actually once in many lifetimes) conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Just like I’ve missed many in the past. 

            Each time this happens, waver between being angry at myself and finding comfort in the fact that there will be another chance to see something remarkable sometime in the future and I will just try harder.

            But I am also comforted by remembering that I have seen many remarkable celestial events: my first view of Saturn through a telescope, the closest passage of Mars to the Earth, Venus’ transit of the sun in 2012, the Perseid meteor shower from one of the “Dark Sky Parks” in Northern Michigan and the solar eclipse of 2017. 

            With that final one, I managed to get a great picture by holding my phone up to the sky while looking down at the ground. I’ve included it here to show I have had some successes.

            But the “ones that got away” continue to frustrate me. Maybe there is a lesson in that for me: that some of the miracles of our universe should be just beyond our reach.

            Meanwhile, the sunrise continues and the sky is a beautiful pink. I made sure to notice it. 

Partial Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017

Ann Arbor, MI