TODAY

Last week, I wrote about Harry Chapin but, in truth, I have many favorite songwriters and performers and one of them is Neil Diamond. I love the varied styles of songs he wrote and sang. I should quickly add that I admired Neil Diamond’s work even before Red Sox fans at Fenway Park started singing Sweet Caroline after the 8th inning of every game.

One of Neil Diamond’s best known songs is America, a song about immigrants coming to this country. It is quite a meaningful song and there is one part of the song that I think is truly remarkable and I’m sure most of you have heard it and can hear it in your mind as you read this. Towards the end of the song, he repeats a line which he sang earlier: “We’re coming to America” but adds the word “today” to the end of the phrase. Then, while the word “today” is repeated by the back up singers, he recites the words of the patriotic song: “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing…each phrase is punctuated by the word “today’ sung by the singers until the end when he joins in with “of thee I sing…Today”. repeating the word several times allowing it to echo in our ears as he connects the experience of past generations of emigrants to the love of country we feel today.

The song reflects a remarkable quality about the word “today”. When Neil Diamond sings it, he is clearly making a connection between a “today” of the past and our “today”. When we read any quotation or hear any words spoken from another time which includes the word “today”, it challenges us to connect ourselves with the past and to realize in many cases that we are linked closely to the “today of the past’.

Think about the line from the Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has created, on it we will rejoice and be happy.” The word for “the day” is the Hebrew word hayom which in fact also means “today”. So, while the Psalmist is talking about the day of the Exodus, which is the context, we are reminded as well that the day we are reading or singing the line is also “the day”, and that each day is a day on which we should rejoice and be happy in God’s miracles.

This Shabbat, we read parashat Re’eh which begins with Moses telling the people about to enter the promised land: “Re’eh, see, I am placing before you hayom (today) a blessing and a curse.”

We naturally concentrate on the words blessing and curse but when we do that, we miss the impact of the word hayom. 

Hayom, today. When Moses spoke those words, it must have seemed totally natural. But to us reading them millennia later, that word challenges us to feel the reality of the experience of Torah in a unique way. Those words are still being said “today” and the choices are still before us in our “today”.

The words which Moses said about the blessing and the curse are still every bit as true today as they have ever been. Each day we are given the opportunity to choose between blessing and curse. Each day we are presented with choices about how to live our lives, what priorities to choose, which path to follow; and while the choices we made yesterday do influence our path today, there is always the opportunity to turn around, for good or for bad, and make a different choice. 

Next week, we will begin the month of Elul — the last month of the year, the month of teshuva, of repentance — ushering in the High Holy Day season. We think about the changes we must make and the choices we must continue in the year to come. 

On Rosh Hashana, during the Musaf service, we recite the words “Hayom harat Olam”: today the world was called into being. This recalls the Rabbinic opinion that the world was created on the first day of Tishre and that the anniversary of the creation presents us with the opportunity to change our lives through teshuva.

However, we can’t wait for Rosh Hashana. The Rabbis taught that every day is the proper day for teshuva, for repentance.  And thus each day we can truly say: “Today the world is created again.”  For today, like every day, we are presented with the choices that will affect our lives — and affect our world — for days far beyond today.

Let the word “today” continue to echo in our minds as we consider the power and potential of each “today”.

SERMON FOR SHABBAT NACHAMU 2021

CIRCLES

          CIRCLES

                           CIRCLES

On this Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of “comfort”, I want to share with you some words which I hope will be comforting. My d’var Torah is going to be a bit of a journey with many stops along the way. It begins with a reference to a man who was and remains, a great inspiration to me, proceeds to refer toa Jewish holiday many are not familiar with, references a text from this week’s Torah portion and a prayer from the siddur and, finally, goes back to the beginning, closing the circle with an important point about our lives.

         I’ll begin by talking about the man who inspired me and those who know me or who have read some of my writings or listened to my podcast, may not be surprised to learn whom I am referring to. Last Friday, July 16, was the 40th anniversary of an automobile accident which claimed the life of Harry Chapin, alav hashalom. I’m sure many of you recognize his name but some won’t. Harry Chapin was a singer, songwriter, storyteller and philanthropist whose ballads touched the hearts of so many and who worked tirelessly for many causes, notably fighting world hunger.

         He was and remains a creative and spiritual inspiration to so many. His voice was stilled far too soon. 

         Let me share some simple words from one of Harry Chapin’s most popular songs: Circle. I’d be glad to talk to any Chapin fans later about my favorite songs of his, most of them less well known. But, in that song called Circle, he sang: “All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown, the moon rolls through the nighttime till the daybreak comes around.”

         These may not be among his most poetic words, but they are so beautiful and profound in their simplicity and they are, in fact, reflective of Jewish tradition. 

Each evening in the Ma’ariv service, we express the same thought; that God “rolls away the light before the darkness and the darkness before the light”. We feel God’s presence in the cycle of day and night and celebrate the cycles of time. 

         And we recognize the circle in other areas of Jewish life. We talk about the “life cycle” referring to the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth and in the real, genuine presence in our lives of those who have died whose souls are still part of our circle. 

         We talk about the calendar being a cycle, from Rosh Hashana through the ebbs and flows of the year, the joy of Purim to the sadness of Tisha B’av and back again. But we don’t have to wait until Purim to have a joyous holiday. There are actually joyous holidays all around the Jewish calendar. In fact, you might be surprised to know that one of those happy days is in fact observed today. 

         Today is the 15th of Av, Tu B’av, The Hebrew letters Tet and Vav pronounced Tu have the numerical value of 15 as in Tu B’shvat, the 15th of Shvat. So, this is Tu B’av, the 15th of the month of Av.

Tu’ B’av is known in many Jewish circles as the “Jewish Valentine’s Day” a holiday celebrating love. That idea stems from a statement in the Mishna about Tu B’av. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught that there were no days in Israel more festive than Tu B’av and Yom Kippur because on those days the daughters of Jerusalem dressed in borrowed garments of white, borrowed so that no one would know who among them actually could afford such garments and who couldn’t so that the dancers would be appreciated for their grace, not their wealth. And they would dance in the vineyards seeking the attention of the sons of Jerusalem, presumably to take the first small steps in insuring that the life cycle would continue. 

         It is reasonable to ask why there would be dancing on Yom Kippur. That is the subject for another sermon.  

         I’m going to ask and answer a different question: 

         What was the dance like? How did they dance? Maybe they danced a distant ancestor of the hora.

It is of course impossible to know but, according to one Hassidic commentary offered by the 18th century Hassidic teacher Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, they in fact did dance a hora: they danced in a circle. He emphasized that this is fitting because true dancing involves looking at one’s dancing companions face to face and that shows the equality of each dancer and emphasizes the significance of the circle in Jewish life. 

         That’s a nice idea. But how did this Hassidic teacher conclude that they danced in a circle? 

         He concluded this by using some great creativity. 

He read Tu B’av in a different way. Av is the name of the month, spelled alef bet, so, he said Tu B’av is a reference to the 15th letter of the Alef Bet, the Hebrew alphabet. What is the 15th letter?  It’s samech. What shape is samech? A circle. So, the Tu B’av dances were in the shape of a circle, just like our hora today. 

         I like that. 

But I want to go a step further and talk about the Samech, an under appreciated and infrequently used letter in the Alef Bet.

         The Samech is actually the subject of a great miracle story in Jewish tradition relating to a text in this week’s parasha, none other than the 10 commandments. 

         The commandments, according to the tradition, were inscribed on the tablets with the words actually engraved all the way through the tablets so that one could read them from either side. 

         This works for all of the letters except the samech. All of the other letters could be punched out of the tablets and the remaining stone would still be connected. But, it you punch out a circle for the samech, the piece of stone in the middle of the letter presented a problem. It would have to remain suspended, defying the law of gravity. And, according to tradition, it did just that. This was considered to be nes bitoch nes, a miracle in the midst of a miracle. The overriding miracle was the giving of the Torah itself while the smaller miracle, the floating middle of the Samech, was further proof of God’s power and the wonder of the world. 

         Why would we need the miracle of the samech when there is the greater miracle of the giving of the Torah?

         I think that it is because the greatest miracles around us are often just too much to consider and so we tend to be blind to them, We can’t go around “oohing and aahing” at our very existence and the existence of the world, the greatest miracles of all. But, when something happens in our world, one little piece of wonder, our eyes should be filled with awe and our hearts overflow with joy and gratitude. 

         Perhaps in the spirit of Tu B’av, it is looking into the eyes of a beloved. Perhaps it’s the smile of a child, a rainbow or a beautiful sunset, a text of Torah or a piece of music or poetry which elevates us and inspires us. All of these are reminders of the miraculous world in which we live. 

         Our Siddur tells us that we should thank God for the daily miracles around us always. That’s not easy to do. There are just so many miracles around us. But the siddur reminds us that each and every day, we can experience something which elevates, inspires, and, while we probably don’t do it, would be a good reason to go out into the vineyards and dance with joy. 

Let me return to the idea of circles and share with you another brief excerpt from Harry Chapin’s song. I will, however, not sing the words Harry wrote but with two words a friend of his, folksinger, Oscar Brand inserted into the song when he sang it at the Carnegie Hall Tribute to Chapin in 1987: “There’s no straight lines make up my life and all my roads have bends, there’s no clear cut beginnings and thank God, no dead ends”. 

         It’s a beautiful thought. But saying our lives are circles is not enough. We need to find the points on those circles which stand out, which attract our attention and our wonder, experiences which teach that each moment is not like the one before and that at some moments, we experience miracles within miracles, floating like the samech in the air around us, moments which inspire us to find meaning in the entire circle of life.  

         May we all celebrate such moments of vision and joy and on this Shabbat Nachamu, be a source for comfort always.  

Who Are We Talking To?

In this week’s episode of my podcast, Wrestling and Dreaming, I discuss the Sh’ma which is found in this week’s Torah portion of Va-etchanan.

I bring up several issues relating to the Sh’ma, noting that it is not technically a prayer in Jewish tradition but a statement of witnessing, a declaration of faith.

I also raise an intriguing issue. While the Sh’ma is an affirmation of belonging to the Jewish people, what do you do if you don’t believe in God and can’t bring yourself to say something you don’t believe in but still want to affirm your connection to the people? I made some comments on that question but left it up to the individual to consider what one could say or do if one truly can’t tolerate the God-language of the Sh’ma.

I also discussed another question: Who are talking to when we say the Sh’ma? There are several answers to that question and they are all legitimate but I shared one that you might not have thought about.

There is a beautiful legend that the first people to say the Sh’ma were the sons of Jacob. As Jacob lay dying, he was worried that one or more of his sons would not remain loyal to the covenant. When he expressed this concern, his sons said together: Sh’ma Yisrael, Listen Israel (Jacob’s other name), Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. Jacob was relieved and responded: Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto, Blessed be God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.

I love that legend and believe that one way we can look at the saying of the Sh’ma is to consider that we are in fact talking to Jacob as a symbol of all of his descendants- our ancestors- assuring them that we are still upholding the covenant of Israel. In addition to being a statement to those around us and a commitment to the future, the Sh’ma can be seen as addressed to those who came before us, assuring their souls that we are still perpetuating the tradition.

I invite you to listen to the entire podcast at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com

Harry Chapin: An Appreciation

Today, July 16, 2021 is the 40th anniversary of the automobile accident which claimed the life of singer, songwriter, storyteller and humanitarian, Harry Chapin.

Harry Chapin was my “musical hero”. He was an inspiration to so many and his death stunned those who loved his music and his words and admired and emulated his passion for working to improve the world, especially through his work fighting world hunger.

Several years ago, I wrote a tribute to Harry on my website and I reprint it here with some more recent edits. I also wrote of the impact of his words and music in my book The Long Way Around.

The inspiration of those words and music continue.

May his memory be for a blessing.

This morning, I turned on my car radio and set the phone on “shuffle” and the first song that came up was: “Mail Order Annie” by Harry Chapin.

I took that as a sign that I had to fulfill the promise I made on Facebook last week to write a blog post on my favorite musician. The occasion of the Facebook posting was the news of the death of the woman who inspired the song: “Taxi”Taxi was the first Chapin song that I (and I assume many others) heard and while I can still sing it all the way though and still love the story, Taxi has moved down the list of my favorite Chapin songs, replaced by songs that didn’t make the “top 40” charts but resonate so deeply.

A step back for those who need it: Harry Chapin was a singer, songwriter, storyteller and humanitarian who raised so much money to fight world hunger as well as for other worthy causes. His stories of real people, their triumphs and sadness, so often tinged with loneliness and disappointment are unforgettable. He was by all accounts a wonderful, real person and would often end his concerts (as he did when I heard him in 1977 at Brandeis University) by staying until everyone who wanted to had had a chance for a handshake, a hug and an autograph. I still have the autograph.

Harry died in a tragic automobile accident in 1981. I can still remember the day he died. I was working at Camp Ramah and upon hearing the news, I had to take some time away from everyone and wandered to the far end of the camp to sit and think deeply about what it means when a voice is stilled and when a good life comes to an end.

I want this post to be about Harry’s music and, more importantly, his stories. I urge you to look up the songs online

So, which are my favorite songs?

There are so many but I’ll start with the one that played on my car radio:Mail Order Annie, the story of a farmer from North Dakota who meets his “mail order bride” as she gets off the train. The bridge in the song features the sentiment that while it’s a lonely life out on the plains, “there’s you babe, there’s me… and there’s God“. As he sings those words, they reach a beautiful crescendo falling softly to the last verse which ends with: “Mail order Annie, let’s you and me go home“. Such a tender, beautiful song.

Then there is Mr. Tanner, the dry cleaner from Dayton, Ohio. His singing is praised by all his friends who finally convince him to try his hand at a professional concert. He uses all his savings and the critics suggest he find another profession. The part of that song that is so brilliant is how he sings the chorus while in the background, we hear a beautiful rendition of “O Holy Night” which fits perfectly with the melody of the Chapin song.

 A Better Place to Be tells the story of the lonely waitress who listens to the sad story of the night watchman who comes in for a drink. He tells her the story of the beautiful woman that he found and then lost. She “takes her bar rag and wipes it across her eyes” before leaving together with him so that neither are alone.

One of my favorites is Corey’s Coming, an odd story of a man who describes a lover to his young friend. I won’t give away the rest of this story. You can hear it for yourself.

Finally, there is my absolute favorite. The song is called Stranger With the Melodies and is about a man who has lost his writing partner and can only sing the names of the notes and chords that he is singing because he has lost the words that make the music meaningful. This song has deep personal meaning for me as I quoted it in the eulogy I wrote for my mother thinking back to the loss of her writing partner, my father, four years before. The song is so beautiful and so haunting and it is my favorite.

I’ll just mention two more. The first is one of the last songs that he recorded: Oh Man which includes words which once moved me in ways that are far too private and personal to describe here:

Now it must feel so very strange to have to throw away all the lines that you have learned and force yourself to change.

So many are so beautiful. Take a moment to listen to Remember When the Music, VacancyTangled Up PuppetDance Band on the Titanic and the sequel to Taxi, called appropriately enough: Sequel. The words
and music that accompany them are gems, as are so many others.

I’ll end with the lyrics which are always, always in my mind and which I will quote in a sermon next Shabbat morning and which I will post here next week.

All my Life’s a Circle
Sunrise and Sundown
The moon rolls through the nighttime
Till the daybreak comes around.
All my Life’s a Circle
But I can’t tell you why
The seasons spinning round again
The years keep rolling by.

The years that roll by are richer as we still have these beautiful songs and stories
to accompany us.

Rest in peace, Harry.

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The Monsters Have Returned

NOTE: I occasionally post pieces which reflect my interests outside of Jewish texts, tradition and issues. This is one of those pieces. (Please note the comment and reply at the end of the posting.) Please also listen to my podcast at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com This week’s episode discusses the use and misuse of the terms Bar and Bat Mitzvah. For now, the piece below reflects my commitment to finding joy in the world- even in unexpected places. Enjoy!

\I have to admit, I am really happy this morning.

I just read an article in the New York Times about a TV series which recently premiered on Disney+ network. (We don’t have a subscription to the network but thankfully our daughter does!) The series is called Monsters At Work and it is a sequel to the 2001 movie: Monsters, Inc. And, Monsters, Inc. just happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies.

If you’ve never seen Monsters, Inc., you are missing a great treat. The movie features one of the most elaborately creative stories and some of the most endearing characters you will see in a movie, animated or otherwise. The monsters are voiced by many well known actors including John Goodman and Billy Crystal.

The story concerns the city of Monstropolis, populated by monsters of all different sizes, shapes and colors. The energy source which powers Monstropolis is the screams of scared children which are obtained by the monsters who appear in the kids’ room at night and bottle up the energy of the screams.

I can’t even begin to unravel the entire wonderfully complicated story. But, the new TV series picks up where the movie left off. Through a set of circumstances, it is discovered that the laughter of children is a more efficient energy source so the monsters all reinvent themselves to being slapstick comedians and rather than scaring the children, they elicit great peals of laughter.

Does the movie have any lasting significance? Beyond the beautiful idea that a laugh has more energy than a scream, probably not. But, it is such a lot of fun.

If you’ve never seen it, you absolutely must. And, when you do, hang around for the “outtakes” at the end which are an absolute riot.

We took our kids to see many movies when they were young and I must admit that I slept through some of them. But, I loved the Toy Story movies (I previously posted a blog on these movies), adored Shrek and absolutely loved Monsters, Inc.

I can’t wait to watch Monsters at Work and I promise a review very soon!

Two Critical Issues

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

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 robdobrusin.com 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 wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com 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 wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com. : 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 wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com

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.