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.

1/6

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.

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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.

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1/7

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 wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com

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1/7

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.

SEVENTEEN YEARS: BETWEEN PARENT AND CHILD

                                    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

Parashat Vayetze: Why are There Three?

In Jewish tradition, one is taught to pray 3 times a day: evening, morning and afternoon. Of course, one can pray anytime but on a weekday, there are 3 set prayer services, each built around the amida, the silent standing prayer called Hatefilla, the prayer, in Jewish tradition. 

How did our tradition arrive at 3 services: evening, morning and afternoon? Where did the tradition come from?  

I want to share with you three answers to that question from the traditional literature. Each is interesting in its own way and the three, taken together, lead to an elucidating point. 

In the Talmud, we read a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that the three services are meant to correspond to the three sacrifices made during the day at the Temple.

The Rabbis of the Talmud would have had ample reason to connect prayer to sacrifice. They saw the tradition of prayer as the natural replacement for sacrifice with the destruction of the Temple, if not before, and they wanted to see that prayer carried with it the same sense of obligation and commandment as did sacrifice and that God favored prayer as God had previously favored sacrifice. One support for the idea of the correlation of the frequency of standardized prayer and the sacrificial tradition is the fact that on Shabbat and on holidays, we add a fourth service, the Musaf, Additional service, meant to correspond to the additional sacrifice made at the Temple on those days.

But, that is only one idea. Here is another idea from the same section of the Talmud: Rabbi Yose ben Hanina teaches that the services were instituted by the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Three patriarchs, three services.

The text teaches that Abraham instituted the shaharit, morning service, and the proof is that the Torah says that Abraham got up early in the morning and went to the place in which he had stood before God.

Isaac, says the text, was out in the field as evening was approaching lasuach, which is explained as meaning: to meditate. Isaac meditated in the field near evening and that is the source for mincha, the afternoon service. 

And regarding Jacob, the Torah says: vayifga bimakom, he reached a particular place as the sun had set and he had a confrontation with the place, or a confrontation with God. That confrontation resulted in the dream of the ladder and, since it took place at night, it proves Jacob instituted ma’ariv, the evening service. 

In addition to wanting to show that prayer is a matter of tradition from the very beginnings of our people, this text does something else as well. It is not a coincidence perhaps that Abraham institutes the morning service. After all, Abraham is the one who was said to have brought light to a darkened world. It is not a coincidence that Jacob institutes the evening service since the two serious spiritual confrontations in his life; the ladder dream and the wrestling match with the angel both happen at night. Thus, the times for the services reflect the individuals who are, in this legend, said to have created them. 

Finally, let me share one last tradition. Maybe the origin of the 3 prayers is not to be found in the sacrifices or in stories about the patriarchs. Some sources teach that the services were designed to respond to our needs. We say ma’ariv to pray that we get through the night. We say shaharit to thank God for getting us through the night and we say mincha to say to God that while we are happy that the last night has passed, we are anxious about the night to come even during the course of the day.

It seems to me that these three traditions are not mutually exclusive but can stand together and point to three major reasons for formalized, standardized prayer. Some look at prayer as an obligation, a mitzva, similar to the sacrifices. Some look at prayer as a tradition, passed down from generation to generation and reflecting who we are as Jews. Some look at prayer as the natural language and longing of the human being. 

While it is easy to say that one of these reasons supercedes the others, different individuals may choose a different reason as paramount. The fact is, however, that each of us needs to find each element in prayer at one time or another.

If prayer were not seen as an obligation, we would only pray when we felt like it.

If prayer were not seen as tradition, we wouldn’t be able to find common ground with other Jews throughout the world.

If prayer were not seen as the reflection of the yearnings of our soul, we would give up on it entirely. 

Thus, we have to try to balance all three, and perhaps other reasons as well, for engaging in this practice which can lead us to live more sanctified lives and keep ourselves moving in the right direction in life. 

We should be open to finding different reasons to pray throughout our life or even through the same day. Perhaps that is why it is not just a coincidence that there are three reasons and three services, one reason for each service. Life usually doesn’t work out that neatly but I think our tradition is sending us a subtle message; we can always find reasons to pray

In Memory of Alex Trebek

I have been a fan of TV game shows ever since I was a little kid. They obviously made a great early impression on me as some of the shows I distinctly remember watching were only on TV for a few months back in 1960 or 1961 when I was 5 or 6 years old. But, pictures and stories on the Internet have confirmed my vague memories of what the sets looked like and how the games were played.

On one of our trips to New York to visit cousins in the mid ’60s, our family went to watch 3 game shows in the studio. We watched Say When with Art James, The (original) Price is Right with Bill Cullen and a show called Who Do You Trust, starring Johnny Carson. Seeing the shows was much more interesting to me than visiting the Empire State Building.

I’ve had my favorites over the years. I loved (and still love) the ’70s version of The Match Game. I love the reruns of old episodes of To Tell the Truth and What’s My Line.

And, of course, there’s Jeopardy.

I am not one of those who watch Jeopardy every night. 7:30 is not always the best time for me to sit and watch TV but I watch it whenever I can and I often regret not watching it more often or setting the DVR to record it.

But, every morning, I check out the Jeopardy Clue of the Day in the New York Times (most often that evening’s Final Jeopardy) and am always thinking about the time I almost got on Jeopardy.

Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I was in California in 1987 and decided to try out for the show. I was staying with a friend in San Diego so I took the train to LA and found my way to the studio just in time to take the written test with a group of 99 other people.

I thought the test was relatively easy but I had no idea how I stacked up against the others as only 10 people would be chosen to continue to the “next round”. Sure enough, I was one of the 10 and was invited to play sample games in a round robin style with the other 9.

I failed miserably.

Whether it was nerves or not being able to figure out the timing of the buzzer, I was the first one invited to leave and try another time. I must admit that I was relieved. I realized that deep down, I really didn’t want to be on the show, I just wanted to say I tried out and made it that far.

The bottom line is I’d rather watch the show at home and dazzle anyone who’s around with how many questions I can come up with. But I know full well that if the spotlights were on, I would either freeze up or have to confront categories like Opera, British Royalty or 21st century music, any of which would doom me to failure.

All of these thoughts are, of course, in memory of Alex Trebek who was just so perfect as the host of the show. At times he could seem a bit patronizing especially if people didn’t know answers to “easy” questions but the vast majority of the time, he presented a steady and quiet personality that didn’t detract from the real “stars” of the show: the contestants.

I am certainly going to make sure to watch Jeopardy over the next few weeks to see his final taped episodes. His courage in fighting Pancreatic Cancer with such grace and such determination is an inspiration to all and he deserves all the accolades he is receiving.

I can’t end this piece without posting a few Jeopardy Answers in the style of Final Jeopardy. One was actually used, the others are ones I would love to see if I ever do get on the show (highly unlikely) as I’m ready with the answers. You’ll have to scroll down to get the questions.

Here’s my all time favorite Final Jeopardy answer. I thought it was incredibly creative and while I did figure it out, it took me more than 30 seconds. None of the contestants got it right that night.

The category is Number 1 songs.

A U.S. No. 1 in 1977, it was performed the night before Carl XVI Gustaf’s 1976 wedding to Silvia Sommerlath.

Then, here’s one that’s too easy especially if you’re from Michigan.

The category is Famous Names

This ship sank in a gale in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975

Finally, one last one:

The category is US States

This is the only state never to record a temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

ANSWERS DIRECTLY BELOW

Answers;

What is Dancing Queen?

What is the Edmund Fitzgerald?

What is Hawaii?

I could share many more but these will suffice. May the memory of Alex Trebek be for a blessing. May we remember his grace, his courage and his constant presence in our lives, whether we watched each night or not.

Parashat Noach: Noah and the Dove

I have a special relationship with today’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach.

I delivered my senior sermon at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Parashat Noach, 39 years ago this Shabbat. 

So I have read this parasha many, many times. But, this year, as I was reading through the parasha, I saw something that I had never seen before. That’s not surprising as the experience of finding something in a Torah portion that you didn’t see before makes Torah study a constant source of inspiration. 

In the part of the story describing Noah’s sending out of the dover to see if the waters had abated, we read (Genesis 8:9): But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her in unto him into the ark.

One aspect of this verse stunned me.

Compare it to two other verses in the story.

When Noah’s family enters the ark, we read: “Vayavo-oo el hatayva”, “they came to the ark”. When the animals arrive, we read “ba-oo el Noach”, they came to Noah.


But here, Noah reaches out and brings the dove in to the ark.

I am amazed by this verse. I am amazed because this act could be read as a gesture of compassion. Noah reaches out his hand and tenderly brings the dove back into the ark to him.

 Why would this be so remarkable? It is remarkable because Noah shows absolutely no compassion or kindness anywhere else in the story. For many of the rabbis, this was the basis for significant criticism of Noah. How could Noah merely accept God’s decision to destroy the world? Where was his compassion for his fellow human beings? Why didn’t he take up their case? Why didn’t he pray to God to show compassion?

The 16th century commentator, Rav Moshe Alshich gives a commentary which I have loved since I read it in preparation for that senior sermon. The Alshich says that when the Torah describes Noah by saying: et haElohim hithalech Noach, “Noah walked with God”, it should be read as a criticism meaning that Noah only walked with God. He didn’t walk with people. All of his attention and all of his focus was on God. The Alshich imagines that after the flood, Noah complained to God about God’s lack of compassion and God says simply: “Where were you when I threatened to destroy the world? You only thought of yourself”. 

And truly, throughout the story, Noah seems devoid of feeling, showing no emotional connection with his family or the animals. 

Except, as I read it, this one time. 

But maybe it isn’t really there this time either. 

Perhaps I read compassion into the verse because I find it so hard to believe that a human being, especially one in a position of vital importance, could possibly show no compassion, no empathy and no emotional connection. It’s so hard for me to believe that that would be the case. Perhaps I wanted desperately to find a glimmer of human sensitivity. 

But the truth is that even if this is an act of compassion, it’s not enough. We shouldn’t have to look so hard to find compassion in another human being. 

If compassion is important, then it should be evident clearly and continuously. One should regularly see acts and hear words of compassion. There are other qualities that are important in human beings but none more important than compassion. 

So, you might ask as some have: why would God choose Noah to do this job? Maybe some would say that God chose Noah because compassion would have gotten in the way of the important work he had to do. I considered that answer but, in the end, I don’t buy it. I’m going to side with the Alshich. I acknowledge that there are certain specific situations where misplaced or excessive compassion can be harmful. But compassion must be considered as a significant factor in every decision we make.   

Or, maybe God chose Noah hoping beyond hope he would show compassion when put to the test. If so, Noah failed because bringing in the dove, even if it was an act of compassion was far too little and far too late. 

So, in the end I can’t answer that question as to why God chose Noah for this role. I can’t speak for God. 

But I can speak as a human being and say that while there are many qualities in a human being that are important, in the end, the ability to act with compassion and live a life of empathy is absolutely essential in order to do our part in protecting our world from chaos and destruction. 

Yom Kippur 5781

It’s just after noon on Erev Yom Kippur and nothing seems right. I keep thinking: how will we make this Yom Kippur meaningful without all of the rituals, both communal and personal, that we have developed over our observances of Yom Kippur?

Nothing will be the same.

Yet somehow, we will have to find the way to make this unique Yom Kippur one of unique meaning. Maybe the “differences” of the day will help us focus even more deeply on Teshuva. Maybe the jarring experience of Yom Kippur “at home” will help us to consider our priorities in life more deeply.

I hope that happens.

But, one way or the other, as with so many other aspects of 2020, we should not be ashamed to admit that “it isn’t the same”.

I hope that Yom Kippur will make us appreciate even more deeply the meaning of ritual in our lives and not take for granted the structures we have all built to help us navigate not only Yom Kippur but the world at large. God wiling, we will, in time, return to those structures we have built, wiser and more appreciative. With wishes for a meaningful, “different” day, and a good, sweet and healthy year for all.

A Loving Home

Forty years ago, when I was a rabbinical student in Israel, our program called for us to do a “service project” in the spirit of volunteerism and in order to learn about an area of Israeli society. Many of my classmates became part-time Rabbis in Masorti (Conservative) congregations throughout Israel. I chose to do something very different. One of the options was to work at a children’s home called Neve Hanna in Kiryat Gat and, missing my work at Camp Ramah as I did, I decided that I would take on this challenge. 

 I spent Shabbat at Neve Hanna once every few weeks leading services and getting to know the kids and staff. I also traveled to Kiryat Gat one afternoon every other week to teach a group of 8 bar and bat mitzvah age children. On the last Shabbat that I was there, there was a bar/bat mitzvah service which was one of the most memorable experiences of my year in Israel. 

Although I did not know very much about Israeli society when I began this work, I sensed immediately that Neve Hanna was a very special and unique place. The children who came from dysfunctional or abusive situations lived in quiet, peaceful family units and clearly were benefitting so greatly from the close, warm relationships that they built with the adults. They were also benefitting from a connection with the Masorti (Conserative) movement as these were children from secular homes who were experiencing meaningful Jewish ritual and spiritual life for the first time in a way which they could feel comfortable with and understand. 

At the time that I was at Neve Hanna, it was a very pleasant place but in the intervening years, the institution has grown exponentially in terms of the opportunities it offers to the children. There is a bakery which many of the older children work in, giving them work experience while providing bread and baked goods for Neve Hanna as well as for sale throughout Israel. There is a petting zoo where the children learn to take responsibility in caring for the animals. The connection with the Masorti movement continues with a more frequent rabbinic presence and programs for Shabbat and for all of the holidays and there are so many more programs and efforts that the staff has undertaken. 

The COVID crisis has clearly presented tremendous challenges for so many throughout the world and the staff at Neve Hanna has done tremendous work in helping the environment remain stable and safe and, unlike many children’s programs in Israel, the children were able to remain at Neve Hanna through the difficult months. It is a tribute to all that the staff does that this effort has been successful.

I am honored to serve on the board of American Friends of Neve Hanna which supports the loving home of Neve Hanna through fundraising and publicity efforts. I urge you to go to https://afnevehanna.org to learn more about a truly wonderful place which is so important in the lives of these children. 

I posted this piece on my facebook page but I want to include two more personal stories from my time at Neve Hanna here.

On my first visit to Neve Hanna, I walked onto the grounds wearing my baseball cap and tennis shoes and one of the kids playing on the basketball court asked me who I was. I told him I was studying to be a rabbi and he looked at me and laughed. “You’re not a rabbi, look at you” were his exact words.

I assured him I was and then asked if I could take a shot. I walked practically to mid-court and took a shot. Of course, it was perfect- nothing but net as they say. The kids looked at me with their mouths open and I walked away and never took another shot the whole time I was at Neve Hanna. I figured I’d quit while I was ahead.

The other incident that I remember is one I have talked about many times. The kids in the bar/bat mitzvah class came into our class one afternoon and sat there with their arms folded refusing to speak.

I asked what was going on and one of the kids finally said: “Shvita” which means “We’re on strike”.

I asked why and they said that they learned in science class that “human beings come from apes” and that they’re not going to listen to a rabbi because I have nothing to say to them since I believe in Adam and Eve.

I said: “Well, actually, I believe that the story of Adam and Eve is a very important story but I don’t believe that it is literally true because I also believe in evolution”.

The kids looked at me stunned. The leader said; “You don’t believe in Adam and Eve? What kind of rabbi are you? We’re not going to listen to you at all.” They got up and walked out.

That could have been the end of the story but, with the help of the staff, they came back and we went on from there. I patiently tried to explain to the kids the idea of an approach to Judaism which respected science and learning but using the stories of our tradition to make us better human beings. There was at least a glimmer of understanding in their eyes and we went on from there building a very good relationship and learning from each other.

These are experiences I treasure and think of quite often as one of the highlights of my rabbinical school years. More importantly, I think of the sacred work that is being done at Neve Hana and how privileged I am to have been a small part of it.

THOUGHTS FROM 20 YEARS AGO

The stunning news that Vice President Biden had chosen Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate for the upcoming election brought back memories for me. I am posting here a piece that I wrote for the Ann Arbor News celebrating a similar groundbreaking moment twenty years ago. While much has happened in the past twenty years, the feelings and the hope that I expressed then still resonate today.

While the essential part of this piece comes in the italicized section at the end, I wanted to post the entire piece. We are so far from true equality in this nation but breaking barriers, as we saw this week, can be so important as we consider the future of our nation. Looking back on the past twenty years, while so many serious issues of inequality plague this nation, we can truly say that in this one area, we have made tremendous progress and that we are greater as a nation because of it..

Congratulations to Senator Harris on this moment. Her selection is a result of her accomplishments and ability and is a tribute to all of those who have worked to make this a more just nation. I wish her strength and courage. And, I fervently hope that we continue to see barriers broken in this nation and truly can work towards the equality of all.

BREAKING BARRIERS

For the better part of the previous week, I had been waiting for the news of Al Gore’s selection of his running mate. Part of my interest comes naturally from my interest in politics. But, a big part of the reason for my fascination with this process was that Senator Joseph Lieberman’s name had been prominently mentioned.

When I heard of his selection, I was stunned momentarily. Then, I began to feel elation which still hasn’t subsided.

How important this decision will be in the long run is unclear. What is clear for me, as an observant Jew, a Jewish parent and a rabbi, is that this day will forever remain in my mind as an historic day of joy and deep appreciation for the blessings of this country.

This isn’t about political opinions. As I said to my congregation a few days after the choice was made, it is truly terrific that the citizens of this country have the opportunity to vote for, or vote against, a Jewish man for vice president. Win or lose, this is a tremendous moment for American Jews and a moment of promise for Americans everywhere.

I want you to know why I am so happy. But first, let me tell you the aspects of the discussion following this milestone which trouble me.

First, as important as I believe it is for a person to be religiously observant and as much as faith and religious ritual can add to a person’s life, we must be careful not to assume that because a person is religiously observant, he or she automatically becomes a role model, let alone a proper candidate for elected office.

Religious observance and faith can lead us to a proper balance recognizing both the great potential and the limitations of human beings. Religious observance can lead us to a life of ethics and morality. But, religious faith can also be insincere, and even sincere faith can produce an arrogance which blinds a person to the fact that there are different paths to God and different sources for ethical life. The true test of human beings must be how they live, the decisions they make in their life, the priorities they set and how ethical is their behavior.

I certainly have no reason to think that Senator Lieberman is anything but an honorable, ethical, competent individual. But, no one should vote for or against a candidate simply because he or she claims to be religiously observant. With Senator Lieberman or any candidate of faith, we must ask the difficult questions concerning their stands on the issues, their honesty and sincerity and their ability to lead and given.

Second, I rejoice in the fact that people will learn more about Jewish observance from watching Senator Lieberman. Already there is a fascination about what he will do and won’t do on the Sabbath, what he will eat and won’t eat and what home rituals he would observe should he be elected.

This is a great opportunity for Americans to learn more about Jewish traditions but no one should expect Senator Lieberman to represent Judaism to the nation. If elected, he will be the vice president not the nation’s “first Jew”. His observance, while a matter of interest to the nation, is no one’s business but his.

Therefore, I hope he would be cautious to remember that his Jewishness, while affecting his daily life and influencing the ethical and moral decisions he makes, still must remain in the background in this role as candidate, and if elected, as vice president.

With those two disclaimers in mind, I believe, Senator Lieberman’s selection to be one of the most important moments the American Jewish community and our nation as a whole have experienced in recent years.

I am thrilled that Vice President Gore did not allow Senator Lieberman’s heritage or his religious commitment to stand in the way of picking the person he felt could best serve as his running mate. His choice shows a trust in the fairness and openness of the American people.

Our children, ages seven and five, won’t understand the words of the meaning of the moment, but I want them to know that, once again, our nation has proven that anything is possible for them. Nothing will stand in their way. Their self-definition and public identification as Jews will be respected, and they will be judged for their ability and their talents, not their religious heritage.

That brings us to the most important aspect of this entire story. In as much as there has been significant anti-Semitism in this country in the past and while pockets of anti-Semitism remain, Jews enjoyed involvement at all levels of our society before Senator Lieberman’s selection. Now that a Jew has a place on the national ticket of a major party, it would seem no barriers remain for Jews.

Can the same be said for others?

Senator Lieberman’s selection must be followed by many barrier-breaking actions. Barriers must be broken where individuals are excluded from any segment of society because of race, religion, gender or any other criteria. We must work for the day when all of the barriers fall and, as a reflection of that, when the major parties’ national ticket will routinely include those who have been excluded, because of gender, race, sexual orientation, financial resources or any reason.

God willing, the day is coming when Americans can vote for, or against, a candidate of any background. Our children would then inherit a nation of fairness and equality and they, and and our nation, will be that much more blessed.

I truly rejoiced when I heard the news. Win or lose, the future won’t be the same. But, I hope that long before Election Day, the “novelty” will have worn off and, after the election, Joseph Lieberman will be referred to as the winning or losing vice presidential candidate, not the winning or losing Jewish candidate.

And then, I pray that we will see more and more people from varied backgrounds and communities nominated for regional, state and national office and referred to in the only way that matters: as Americans.

Then the promise of this day will truly have been fulfilled.

The Things We Miss

In the latest episode of my podcast Wrestling and Dreaming, I discussed a rather unusual interpretation of the traditional concept of Yetzer Hatov and Yetzer Hara, the Good Inclination and the Bad Inclination. In that discussion, I quoted a text from Midrash Rabbah in which Rabbi Nachman implies that the so called “Bad Inclination” should really reflect the self-centered or self-preservation inclination which enables us to do important things in our own interest. My point was that these only become “bad” when they are not controlled and prevent us from doing good in the world. You can hear the entire discussion on the podcast.

I want to take this idea in a different direction here and in doing so, I want to refer to one of the most beautiful Talmudic statements which is not actually found in Jewish tradition. By that I mean that many people, including this writer, have cited this line as appearing in the Talmud but it doesn’t. There is, as you will see, a statement similar to it but the exact statement does not appear.

The text that is often mistakenly cited is that one of the questions a person is asked at the time of final judgment after death is: “Did you take advantage of the permitted pleasures in the world?” While there is a text which lists questions we will be asked such as: Did you set a time to study Torah, were honest in our business dealings, this question does not appear in that list.

But, even if it doesn’t appear in so many words, the sentiment is found in a text from the Jerusalem Talmud: “A person will have to answer for everything that the eye beheld but a person did not consume”.

And, the idea also surfaces in comments by many of the rabbis about the necessity for one who has taken a vow to be a Nazarite abstaining from wine and other pleasures to bring a “sin offering” when the period of Nazariteship is completed. Those rabbis say that it is a sin to not partake of something pleasurable which is permitted.

Others take opposite positions of course but, in general, I think it is fair to say that Jewish tradition urges us to enjoy this world within the boundaries of the tradition and proper behavior.

I started thinking about this a few months ago as we found our enjoyment of this world restricted by the need to protect ourselves and others from the coronavirus. We have missed so much.

Let me make two points clear before I continue. First, there is no comparison between the physical pain, emotional suffering and financial burden that so many have gone through as they themselves or those close to them have suffered with the virus with what those who are healthy and safe have missed in their lives. Those who have not contacted the virus are so fortunate and lamenting over things that they have missed in their lives pales in comparison to the tragedy of those who have suffered directly or indirectly from Covid19.

Secondly, many have discovered pleasures that they had neglected before, whether it is the comfort of home, new experiences of closeness with family or a new hobby or interest they have developed in their “spare time”.

But, even taking these two facts into account, I think Jewish tradition would give us permission to be sad about the things we have missed. It is not trivial to have missed graduations, either as the graduate or the proud family. It is not insignificant to think about summer plans for vacation or travel being cancelled. It is not petty to complain about not being able to see friends face to face.

We need to keep these things in perspective in a world with such serious issues and in the face of real suffering. But, we are not being honest with ourselves if we say those personal pleasures that we missed don’t matter. They do matter. And, denying they do will just add another level of stress and discomfort to the situation we face.

When the moments in life we planned for and eagerly anticipated or the experiences we depend upon to brighten our days are taken from us, we should be disappointed and it is appropriate to express that disappointment. It is not selfish or petty. It is what it means to be human.

So, as we continue to protect ourselves and others by wearing masks, being careful to practice social distancing, washing our hands and caring for those around us as best we can, we also shouldn’t be ashamed to show frustration or disappointment at those things that we have missed and to eagerly anticipate the day when we can return to them in safety and in good health. Those pleasures mean so much to us in our lives.