Sermon for Parashat Ahare Mot-Kedoshim


There are two well-known verses in the Torah which contain the word V’ahavta, translated as You shall Love…

One of these is the verse which follows the Shema. V’ahavta Et… You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.

The other verse appears in this week’s parasha: V’ahavta L’rayacha Kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Many commentators have discussed the differences and similarities between loving God and loving our neighbor. But, I want to focus on something different; one way in which the words of the verse are remarkable grammatically in the Hebrew.

In the verse from Deuteronomy commanding us to love God, we see the expected use of the verb to love, as a transitive verb followed by a direct object. The word “et” in Hebrew does not have any meaning in and of itself- it is a marker introducing a direct object and this is what we would expect to see and see in most all cases.

But, in the verse from our parasha about loving your neighbor, we see v’ahavta, and you shall love, followed by the prefix “l…” the Hebrew letter lamed which is a prefix meaning “to”. So, instead of reading the verse as you should “love your neighbor”, it literally means “love to your neighbor”.

Many of the commentators treat this grammatical oddity as indicating that instead of focusing on “loving” our neighbor as an emotional issue, we should read it as one focusing on action. So, we should understand the verse as meaning: “Show love to your neighbor” or “Act in loving ways to your neighbor”.

Let’s think about this further.

In the verses from the chapter in Leviticus before the commandment to love your neighbor, we read a long list of interpersonal mitzvot including: “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind”, “Do not curse the deaf”, “Don’t hold a grudge” etc. These could be seen as specifics (pratim) and our verse about loving your neighbor which follows as the “klal”, the general statement. In the system of Jewish legal interpretation, if specifics are followed by a general statement, the specifics should be seen only as examples, not an exhaustive list. So, here the general statement can only be understood as reflecting interpersonal actions like the ones mentioned in the chapter and others similar to them.

This is reflected in a statement of Rabbi Akiva who is quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud as saying: that love your neighbor as yourself is “klal gadol baTorah”, a great general principle in the Torah. If it is a klal, it is a general principle of action not of emotion.

And, in the famous Talmudic story of Hillel’s response to the individual who came to him asking him to teach him the Torah while he was standing on one foot, Hillel says: “what is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.

So, it is reasonable to think of this verse as referring to action. “Act with love to your neighbor.”

But, this presents us with a problem.

If we translate it this way, what do we do with the word “kamocha“, as yourself. How do we understand “as yourself” in this context?

One way to understand this is: “Act in loving ways to your neighbor and act in loving ways to yourself”.

This is important. We should be careful to treat ourselves lovingly and respectfully.

But, I want to take it in a different direction and in order to do so, I want to refer to a teaching from Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers.

Pirke Avot teaches that there are four types of people. The first listed is the one who says: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” and the other three are the different permutations of those two ideas. Pirke Avot identifies the person who says; “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” as the average person. But, then Pirke Avot adds that “some say this was the attitude of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah”, the evil cities destroyed by God in a story from Genesis.

This reflects an extensive rabbinic tradition that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah ignored those in need and did not practice hospitality.

But, there is a jarring commentary by the classic fifteenth century Mishna commentator Rav Ovadiah Mibartanura. He connects his commentary to the first part of the statement in Pirke Avot, before he comments on the statement about Sodom and Gomorrah.

He says the person who says What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours” is saying the following: “I will not do anything for your benefit” and “would that you won’t do anything for my benefit.” (using the word alivay, which we sometimes translate as “God willing”).

This is a chilling commentary.

Who would possibly say: “I hope you don’t do anything to benefit me”?

Unfortunately, we do hear people say this or act this way and maybe we have said it.

Often we are reluctant to accept help, compassion or support from others. Perhaps we are afraid of being “beholden” to another person. Perhaps we are insulted by the insinuation that we might need help. Perhaps we feel it is a sign of weakness to accept help or support.

These are all very dangerous attitudes. We should be willing to accept the love, support and compassion of others when it is offered to us.

So, to return to the verse from our Parasha, I would interpret it in this way. “Show love to your neighbor and accept the loving acts offered to you”.

Many of us have found ways to reach out to others during this terrible ordeal brought on by the Covid19 pandemic. We have made calls, written notes, donated to charities, and given an extra tip to those whom we depend upon. These acts should make us feel as we are fulfilling the Torah’s commandment to show love to our neighbor.

But, in addition to acting with love to others, we should be gladly and graciously accepting love shown to us by others.

A few days ago, I received a phone call from a woman who runs a program that I volunteer with. She said she was calling just because she hadn’t heard from me after a recent email and wanted to make sure I was OK.

My first reaction was to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable about the call. After all, I’m fine. Then, I realized how wonderful that call was, how it made me feel cared for and appreciated and it, literally, made my day. I thanked the person who called and still think of that call and others like it over these long days.

So, the bottom line is that while we continue to do good and loving things for others, let us make sure that when we are the recipient of an act of kindness, we realize what a wonderful occasion that is. We should be gracious and appreciative for that love we receive and realize we are helping others fulfill the mitzva in their own way.

When the time comes that we can get back to some form of “normal” activity (and that time should only come when it is safe to do so), let us carry from this ordeal the reminder of how important is to act lovingly to others and how important it is to receive loving acts openly and gladly.

If I were writing an interpretative translation of the Torah, I know what I would write as my translation for Leviticus 19:18. I would lovingly use the words of Bob Dylan: “Always do for others and let others do for you”.

May understanding this simple statement be one of the legacies of 2020.

Patriots Day 2020: A New Marathon

Today is Patriots Day in Massachusetts. It is a day that has for decades been marked by two events: the running of the Boston Marathon and the Red Sox home game played at the odd hour of 11 a.m.

It is a day that always holds great memories for me. I grew up a 3 minute walk from the marathon course (right after Heartbreak Hill) and it was an annual ritual to walk up to Commonwealth Avenue with the list of runners from the newspaper so we could identify who it was that was running by. We encouraged the runners: “It’s all downhill from here” (which was not exactly true) and enjoyed the carnival atmosphere of the day.

Since that time, the Marathon has grown exponentially. But it is still, of course, an event with great meaning in Boston and across the area.

But now the Marathon carries with it an additional memory. That is the memory of the horrible day in 2013 when a terrorist bombing at the finish line killed 3 people, including a young child, and wounded hundreds more. I remember being shocked at hearing the news of that bombing and watching incredulously from my home 500 miles away as the city was thrown into panic until the terrorists were captured.

The slogan that grew out of that horrendous event: “Boston Strong” was the trademark of a city which refused to give in to fear. That slogan carried the Red Sox to an improbable World Series championship that year and lifted the hearts of New Englanders everywhere.

And, the next year, the Marathon ran as a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

This year, however, the Boston Marathon, and the 11 a.m. Red Sox game, will not take place, at least not on Patriots Day and for several months after it.

The enemy this time is an unseen enemy but one which has threatened us all.

As we continue to “shelter in place” and observe social distancing, I think it is important to remind ourselves that this is not a sign of weakness or irrational fear. It is not similar to cowering in fear of a terrorist attack. It is not the antithesis to “Boston Strong”.

It is the strong, wise and courageous thing to do at this time. We are not hunkering down in fear. We are using our wisdom and our hope for the future to give our nation and our world every chance we can to survive this pandemic.

As we stood watching the marathon runners emerge from the Newton hills and cross over into the city of Boston at last, it was clear in their eyes that they knew they were nearing the end and could muster up the physical strength to run the last 3 and a half miles to the finish line. As a young child, it was inspiring to watch them. I remember that look on their faces especially today.

We don’t know at what part of the course we find ourselves in this race against Coronavirus. But the important thing for all of us, including elected officials, to remember is that we are, to use an overused phrase: “in a marathon and not a sprint”. And, we must show the determination to reach the finish line even though we don’t know exactly how far we are for that line.

With great appreciation, respect and awe for all of those on the front lines whether in health care or in keeping our towns and cities running properly, we must show the courage and strength to continue to stand up to this virus in the wisest possible way. We must protect ourselves, our families and those around us by making the wise and courageous decision to continue to shelter in place, wear our masks, wash our hands and believe that we will be strong enough to defeat this enemy.

May we all reach the finish line in health.

Pesach Siyyum: Thoughts for Passover 2020

On the morning before the first Seder, it is customary to hold a siyyum, the conclusion of a section of study of a traditional text. This is done in order that the participants can then join in what is known as a Seudat Mitzvah, the meal celebrating the completion of a commandment. This occasion overrides the “fast of the first born” and enables those who would otherwise fast to eat through the day.

This year, I am going to be presenting the Siyyum at Beth Israel and I wanted to share the teaching in this way. If you do plan to attend and participate in the Siyyum, please don’t continue reading but join together with us through Zoom (link is on the Beth Israel website homepage).

For the siyyum this year, I studied Masechet Ta’anit, a section of the Talmud which focuses on traditions relating to fast days, particularly those which were called by the leaders of the community at times of drought. It was felt that drought was a punishment from God and therefore, if rain did not fall during the rainy season, public fasts and rituals of atonement were instituted which became more and more strict as the drought continued.

When I began to study this tractate at the beginning of January, I had perhaps heard of Covid19 but it certainly was not something I was concerned about and could never have envisioned that it would impact our lives as it has. As the pandemic worsened, the sections of the Talmud took on a great deal of additional meaning and raised many questions in my mind.

For many years, influenced by my teachers, books such as Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and just by observing life itself, I have come to embrace a theology which does not include God’s intervening in day to day life. I do not see God as micromanaging the world or in any way judging people or nations and sending punishments where appropriate.

So, I am not inclined in any way to see this pandemic as a punishment sent by God. I do see some aspects of the disease and certainly some of the failures to respond to it properly as evidence of arrogance of human beings but that is a matter of free will and while I believe it disappoints God greatly, I would not put the blame on God for this.

But, the question then becomes: What is the role of prayer during this crisis? If I can’t pray to God to stop the disease, what can I pray for?

We can certainly pray for strength and wisdom to make intelligent decisions. We can certainly pray for patience when suddenly spending intensive time at home becomes difficult. We can certainly say prayers of thanks- I have started each morning to say Modeh Ani, the prayer of thanks for awakening in the morning, a prayer I hadn’t really said that often since my days at Camp Ramah where it was the first of our morning tefillot and prayers which recognize the miracle of our bodies.

And, we can ask God to send healing, in whatever way possible, to those who are battling this horrible disease. This last prayer can certainly be seen as challenging my theology of God’s non-intervention. But, I believe that on some level, a prayer of this kind can bring comfort and a healing of spirit that those who are ill so desperately need.

So, there is a place for prayer as we face this crisis, no matter what our theology is.

Another thought that studying this section of Talmud raised came from a story in Ta’anit about the Talmudic Rabbi, Rav Huna. It is said that before he sat down to eat each meal, he would say: “Let all who are hungry come and eat”. This, many believe, is the source for the statement that we make at the Seder: kol dichfin yaytay v’yachul, let all who are hungry come and eat.

These words remind us each year of the importance of giving tzedakah before the holiday so that all can celebrate a full Seder. But, it also emphasizes the hospitality which is part of the experience of a Seder, opening ones home to family, friends and strangers who need a place to celebrate the holiday. We will not be doing that this year although many of us will be connecting online with others. This line in the Haggadah will certainly cause us to recognize once again where we are at this time in our lives.

There is an interpretation of this line in the Seder which says that the reason that Rav Huna could make this invitation was because he was in fact wealthy. And, while we may not be able to open our homes to everyone for every meal, on Pesach night, if we have a home of freedom to celebrate the holiday in, we are wealthy in every sense of the word and must then share that home and our wealth with others.

I thought of that interpretation quite a bit over the past few days as I have read many articles, including one in Monday’s New York Times by Charles M. Blow, which call our attention to the disparity that exists in the suffering brought by Covid19. Blow points out, as so many have, that a disproportionate number of those who have died from the disease are people of color and that the poor have suffered in such significantly higher numbers.

This is in great part due to the fact that while many of us can afford to “shelter in place” and, in fact, have a warm, safe place to shelter, so many do not. So, if all we have to complain about is boredom and cancelled vacations, we are wealthy indeed.

We can’t wait until after the pandemic eases to address issues of inequality in this nation but this experience has called us once more to seriously confront the issues of race and of poverty in this nation. We see the impact clearly in the course of this disease and we must address this issue seriously and passionately.

Finally, I want to share the teaching from the end of the tractate which I will teach to end the siyyum.

The tractate of Ta’anit goes into great detail in teaching about Tisha B’av, the fast day of the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. It then turns its attention briefly to the ancient holiday of Tu B’av, the 15th of Av which was considered a day of great celebration.

One of the traditions of Tu B’av was that the women of Jerusalem would join in a dance together to celebrate the day and the Talmudic tractate ends with a vision of the time of the Messiah.

Ulla teaches that in the future, “God would arrange a dance of the righteous and will sit among them in the Garden of Eden. Each and every one would see God so clearly that they would point to God and say in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold this is our God, for whom we waited that He might save us“.

How can we understand this text and what does it say for us today?

I thought quite a bit about this section and tried to envision how it might be relevant to us. And, then I thought that if according to this vision, God were visible to all, God must have been standing, as it were, in the middle of a circle of dancers.

If we envision ourselves today as standing in that circle, we can ask ourselves: where is God during all of this?

I believe that if we look across the circle into the eyes of others, we can see the presence of God. We see the presence of God in the doctors, nurses, EMTs, police and fire fighters, and all those who are serving in hospitals and doctors offices, putting their own safety second as they attend to the needs of those in danger.

We can see the presence of God in the social workers and other helping professionals who are reaching out to those in emotional distress.

We can see the presence of God in the dedication of people who work in grocery stores and restaurants who are serving the needs of those of us who have the privilege of sheltering in place.

And, we see the presence of God in each other, as we inspire each other and continue to support each other through this crisis.

May that circle grow stronger and may we stand (appropriately physically apart) during this holiday season and continue to hope for an end to suffering for all.

Best wishes to everyone for a healthy Passover and Easter season.

Between Two Gates

As I’m sure is true for many of you who are not working at this moment, whether by choice or as a result of the pandemic, I have been searching for things to do while staying in place at home.

So far this week, in addition to teaching two online classes, I’ve finally gotten rid of a box of miscellaneous papers and files that had been sitting under my desk at home since I moved out of my synagogue office almost two years ago. I found good places for much of what was there and recycled quite a bit.

In addition, I have cleaned out a few drawers at home which needed to be organized, worked on my 2nd jigsaw puzzle this month, tried to keep up with my exercising, listened to some online lectures, walked our dog about 300 times and finished reading a book which I began a month or so ago. (The book is called The Body, a Guide for Occupants by one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson. I heartily recommend it.)

But, there also have been a lot of moments of boredom.

Believe me, I’m not complaining. I am so grateful that, as of this moment, we are all feeling good. I am so deeply concerned for those I know and the thousands I don’t know who are suffering from coronavirus and I pray for healing for them and for our own continued health. I pray for the health and strength of those who don’t have the luxury of staying in their homes: those on the front lines in the hospitals and as first responders and those who are risking their health so that we can sneak in and out of the grocery stores to buy what we absolutely need. They are today’s heroes and we owe so much to them. I also am so fearful for those who have no safe homes to hide in and are in such danger.

I know I have lived a fortunate life and I have never felt such anxiety for myself, my family and for our nation and our world.

One thought that has been very much on my mind is the upcoming holiday of Pesach. We will do all that we can to prepare for and celebrate the holiday knowing that it won’t be the same as we won’t have guests at our Seder and, I assume, there will be some other aspects of the holiday which will be significantly different this year.

But, we will celebrate the holiday and, as I stressed in a d’var Torah I gave last Shabbat during our congregation’s online service, even though we are all doing things differently than we usually do, we are doing them with one hope in mind: that we can continue to hold on to the things which are important to us through this crisis. We do this so that when the time comes, God willing, and we move on from this horrible place, our actions during these weeks will help guide us to continuing those commitments in a healthier future.

Pesach has always been one of my two favorite holidays of the year. (The other, by the way, is Yom Kippur). I have to confess that I get a bit tired of hearing the Megillah and a bit cold sitting in the Sukkah. But, I never get tired of the Pesach Seder and had already had several ideas for good discussion topics for this year’s Seder. I intend to use them when, God willing, our immediate family gathers around the table two weeks from last night. It won’t feel the same. But, it will still be Pesach.

But, as much as I look forward to Pesach and have been thinking about the holiday over the past couple of weeks, I woke up this morning and did my usual davening without remembering that today is Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month of Nisan. I didn’t remember it until I saw a post on Facebook and realized I had missed chanting Hallel, the psalms of praise said on Rosh Hodesh.

It wasn’t the first time that I have forgotten Rosh Hodesh in my daily prayers but it was the first time I have forgotten Rosh Hodesh Nisan which, coming as it does exactly two weeks before the first Seder is always circled on my calendar.

When I realized I had forgotten the significance of this day, I realized once again that even though we do all that we can to make these days as “normal” as we can, they will never be normal. This isn’t how we are meant to live: separating ourselves from friends and extended family, shutting ourselves up in our homes and going through extraordinary steps to try to avoid becoming ill. These thoughts have dominated everything else in our minds and will continue to do until we feel we are safe.

When I thought of today being Rosh Hodesh, my mind went back to last Shabbat morning. During our service, the special reading from the Torah which I look forward to each year was read from a hummash. The reading is from Exodus Chapter 12 and details the instruction for the night of the Exodus. I always look forward to the excitement of hearing of the urgency of the moment of freedom.

But, then I realized for the first time that I had missed my one of my favorite Haftarah readings of the year, the reading from the Prophets which is part of each Shabbat morning service. The special reading for the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan, Shabbat Hahodesh, comes from the book of Ezekiel and concerns the prophet’s vision of what the Passover ritual would be like in the rebuilt Temple of the future.

The reading is not the most dramatic but it contains a line which literally brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. In Ezekiel 46:9, we read: “When the people come before the Lord, whoever enters by the north gate to bow low shall leave by the south gate: and whoever enters by the south gate shall leave by the north gate. They shall not go back through the gate by which they came in but shall go out by the opposite one”.

I love that line. As we approach Pesach each year, it reminds me that we all must constantly move forward in our lives, look to the future instead of trying to relive the past. Each year, on Pesach and on every day of our lives, we should be remembering and learning from the past but we need to have our eyes set on the future and remind ourselves that there is no turning back from the future, no matter how uncertain it might seem at any one time.

So, as I sit here on Rosh Hodesh Nisan and think of something that I can write to make sense out of where we are, it comes down to this. None of us expected to be walking through this gate that we have walked through. There is a gate at the other end: the one that will open when (and please, please, not before) it is safe to come out of social distancing and back to a somewhat normal life. That gate seems so far away at times. Yet, we will carefully and wisely walk towards it, hopeful that the day will come soon when we will walk through it in health and ready to celebrate more holiday and more “everydays” in the future.

We can’t turn the clock back. We are experiencing things now we never thought we would. But, with God’s help and, I will say, more importantly with the wisdom and courage of those who are helping us all, we will walk through that other gate and back to a full life.

I wish you all health and peace.

The 10 Plagues. This Year.

As we approach Pesach this year, we are facing a world we never expected to see. There is so much uncertainty, so much fear around us and it is sure to affect every aspect of our lives, including our observance of the holiday and our Seders.

While we deal with the more immediate issues around us, many of us still have Passover in the backs of our minds asking so many questions about how we can possibly be ready for the holiday, how we can celebrate without family and friends in our homes and what the holiday will feel like as we address its themes of freedom and redemption.

Clearly, our health as individuals and our concerns for our families and every other human being should come first. But, the holiday is so important in our tradition, that it can not be simply an afterthought.

Several years ago, I began to think about the issue of the 10 plagues and how we present them at our Seders. I wrote a sermon which I am sharing here. I hadn’t thought about it until a friend asked the question of how we could approach the recitation of the plagues at this year which is so different than all other years.

So, without further introduction, here is the sermon I wrote several years ago.


            When the newly freed slaves crossed the Sea, they sang a song of praise to God for having annihilated the Egyptians. An aggada, a legend, states that when the angels sought to join in the song, God silenced them, chastising them with the famous words: Maaseh Yadai tovim bayam v’atem sharim tishbachot, my creations are drowing in the sea and you sing praises to me? 

            But, it is critical to note that God did not silence Moses and the chorus of praise coming from the people. God understood that human beings are just that and that while more might be expected of the angels, we are clearly entitled to celebrate when, in the words of the Psalms, we see the doom of our foes.

            And yet, thousands of years removed from the Exodus, with thousands of years of experience behind us and with millions of hopes and dreams for a better world, we take a moment at the Seder table, when reciting the 10 plagues which caused such pain and agony among the Egyptians, young and old alike, to take a drop of wine with our finger from our full cups at the mention of each plague, diminishing the joy a full cup signifies in deference to the pain of the Egyptians. Is this just diminishing the wine in our cups or are these drops to resemble tears?

            This is a critical moment in the Seder. As we sit suspended somewhere between past and future, between freedom and slavery, between reality and redemption, we have to decide how seriously we take this symbolic action, how we understand the story of the past in light of our world today, how deeply we dare to feel the pain of those who tormented us.


            For as long as I can remember, the 10 plagues have been one of the parts of the Seder we use to awaken our young children’s interest in the Seder. Just imagine,” frogs here, frogs there, frogs jumping everywhere”. Just imagine, the wicked Egyptians scratching from lice and boils. Just imagine, locusts, and who of us knew what those were when we were kids, all over everything. We made up songs, made up toys and, now the ultimate, and the reality that inspired this sermon, we can now buy chocolate representations of the 10 plagues, right down to a baby cradle for the 10th and ultimate plague.

            Something is terribly wrong here.

            In an era in which we rightfully express horror when some choose to celebrate the murder of innocent individuals by showering the streets with candy, how dare we make light of the death of innocent children?. These plagues are not for celebrating. Remember: even if we are not angels, we strive to be as Godlike as possible and enjoying the sweetness of the death and destruction even of our legendary enemy does not find favor in God’s eyes.

            So, my proposal this year for the Seder is simple. Instead of the plague bags or the chocolate plagues, God forbid, or even instead of the creative ways we all have had to make the 10 plagues part of our Seder, including my personal favorite which I now regret, finding 10 hats in my baseball cap collection whose logos can refer to each of the plagues and spreading them out on the Seder table. (Well, my kids were young and I thought it would help.) Instead of any of that, let us use the plagues as a way to commit ourselves to a better world, to a world of tikkun, of repair and an end to as much suffering as we can manage. Let us think of a path of righteousness that we can connect to each of the plagues and redeem them as we were redeemed. I offer these suggestions but use your creativity to find your own:

            Dam, blood. Give a pint of blood before Pesach.. It is a  great act of tzedakah.

            Tzfardea, frog. Singular not plural. Say the Rabbis, one frog came up and called the others to join him. Let us, each of us, be an influence for constructive rather than destructive acts and get others to join us.

            Kinim, lice. This is a tough one. But, I note that the word kinim is spelled like the word, ken, yes. Let us say “yes” when asked for help from someone rather than a knee jerk” no”.

            Arov, wild animals. Let us spend a little extra time with the animals living under our roofs and show concern for endangered species throughout the world.

            Dever, cattle disease. A little less meat maybe at the Seder, a little more healthful eating in the year to come.

            Shchin, boils. Here’s a stretch. Seriously recognize the dangers of global warming and reduce our energy use.

            Barad, hail. The Rabbis claimed that the hail stones which hit Egypt contained fire within them, nes bitoch neysthey claimed, a miracle inside a miracle. Let us treat life like the miracle it is and see to elevate the holiness of our lives through an appreciation for the world we live in.

            Arbeh, locusts. Let us reach out our hands beyond our own walls and join in a community which can be a swarm of people acting for the good of all.

            Hoshech, darkness. The Torah is called Or, light. Let us commit ourselves to Torah study to bring light to the darkened corners of our lives and our world.

            And, finally, makat bichorot, the 10th plague, let us take steps to see that all of our children in our nation and throughout the world are cared for, protected and loved. Let no child go without health care, no child go to bed hungry, no child, anywhere be denied the opportunity to grow in health and in freedom.

            Our world is full of plagues and God has no one but us to stop them. And today’s plagues are not selective. They affect all of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we live. The only way to stop them is to fight them. When the plagues are mentioned this year, even if we want to celebrate our ancient redemption, let us remember the pain they caused and the pain caused by plagues today and instead of making fun, let us make commitments to complete the job God began at the Sea. 

This year, as we face this horrendous plague of the Coronavirus, let us find other parts of the Seder ritual to greet in song and a sense of freedom. Let us realize that we still live in a world of plagues, plagues which are not as selective and not necessarily a means to the redemption of any one people. This year, we are all victims.

Next year may we feel safe once again outside in the world among our brothers and sisters everywhere.

Esther’s Responsibility…and Ours

This piece appeared in the current edition (March 2020) of the Washtenaw Jewish News.

And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Mordecai’s impassioned plea to Esther in which he urges her to tell the king about the plot against the Jews is one of the most dramatic moments in the book of Esther. He begs her to see her role as queen as enabling her to do what others could not as the Jews faced the threat of annihilation.

We sometimes overlook how dramatic the story of Megillat Esther really is. After all, we are often pre-occupied with costumes and celebration to listen seriously to the story and, of course, we know how the story comes out in the end. 

But, we would do well to pay close attention to the story as it can teach us important lessons about who we are and what we can and must do in life. 

So, in that spirit, let me share one of those important messages.

I am not a huge movie fan but when I see a movie that inspires me, I find myself drawn to seeing it over and over again and the words of the critical scenes always stay with me. 

This is the case with one of my favorite movies: The Verdict, a film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Paul Newman. If you have not seen the movie, I would urge you to do so. It is a fascinating character study of a human being struggling with his shortcomings and his failures. The movie, as the name implies, is a movie focused on a trial and attorney Frank Galvin’s attempt to win a medical malpractice case against a powerful hospital. 

I will not reveal any more about the film but will share with you Frank Galvin’s speech just before the end of the movie as he summarizes the case for the jury. Reading it will not do it justice. You need to see it and to understand it in context to get the full effect. But, even by reading his words, we are reminded of its critical message. 

It had been a lengthy trial with many dramatic moments and when asked by the judge to give his final statement, Frank Galvin hesitates, crumbles a piece of paper in front of him, stands up, heaves a sigh and says this: 

Well, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say:” Please God tell us what is right, tell us what is true”. There is no justice. The rich win. The poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie and after a time we become dead, a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims and we become victims. We become weak; we doubt ourselves; we doubt our beliefs; we doubt our institutions. We doubt the law. But, today, you are the law. You are the law. Not some book, not the lawyers, not the marble statue or the trappings of the court.., those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are in fact a prayer, a fervent and frightened prayer. In my religion, we say: “act as if ye had faith and faith will be given to you”. If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves and act with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.

It is an impassioned and brilliant speech. 

It brings tears to my eyes each time I watch it. 

And it reminds me of a message from the Megilla. 

The line that resonates with me in thinking about Purim (and certainly about some current events as well) is Galvin’s admonition to the jury that: “You are the law.” He told them that, at that moment, they were the final arbiters of right and wrong. They may have felt reluctant to be in that position and might have had a desire to avoid the critical decision. But, in the same way Mordecai did for Esther, Frank Galvin reminded them that that is where they found themselves and they had to seize the opportunity. 

There are many lessons in the book of Esther. But surely one of the most critical is the importance of acting definitively and courageously when we find ourselves in the position to do so. We must recognize that there come times in life when “we are the law”. There are times when we can determine, if not the fate of another individual or an entire people, then in a smaller but significant way, the direction of the world, whether towards justice or injustice, towards right or wrong. 

Maimonides taught that we should view the entire world as precariously balanced between destruction and redemption so that even one act we perform may tip the balance in the right direction. Do we have the courage to be the agent of positive change in the world?

As Frank Galvin taught us: “we need only believe in ourselves and act with justice.” May we all have the courage to do so when, as we surely will, are presented with the opportunity to make a difference. 

Making This World A Good Place

Traditional Jewish texts offer many teachings concerning the afterlife, olam haba. In a text found in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ya’akov teaches that this world is a prozdor, a foyer for the world to come. Hatken atzmicha biprozdor, “prepare yourself in the foyer so that you can enter the great hall.” 

         Clearly, he is elevating olam haba, over this world. But, Pirke Avot follows this statement of Rabbi Ya’akov with another of his teachings: Yafeh Sha’ah achat bitshuva u’maasim tovim b’olam hazeh mikol hayey olam haba. One hour spent in repentance and good deeds in this world is yafeh, nice and more beautiful than the entirety of existence in the world to come. 

         Although the sentence that follows this teaching seems to re-establish the superiority of the afterlife, Rabbi Ya’akov’s teaching about the beauty of teshuva in this world deserves our consideration.

         There is an obvious tension here.  But, it can be resolved. According to Rabbi Ya’akov, the reward offered in the “world to come” is the goal we should aim for but the beautiful reality of a life well lived on this earth is of great value and holds potentially greater meaning. 

         There are many ways to find meaning in the section of the Torah we are beginning to read today: five parshiyot dedicated to the details of the building of the Tabernacle. The details of the building project are interrupted only in Parashat Ki Tissa by the story of the Golden Calf and Moses’ breaking of the tablets and the subsequent renewing of the covenant. 

         Many of the commentators throughout the tradition said that we these two stories took place in a different chronological order. The idea is that the building of the Tabernacle was not interrupted by the incident of the golden calf but, in fact, followed it. Viewed this way, the Mishkan was, in essence, a response to the building of the calf.          God recognized the creation of the calf as demonstrating the people’s need to have a visible focus of their worship. Thus, the tabernacle provides that focus and is evidence that God is still present in the community even when Moses can’t be seen and God remains invisible. This would obviate the need the people might feel for future idols.

         In addition to this idea, for many of our teachers, the Tabernacle was also intended to serve as a miniature replica of the divinely created universe. With its symmetry, its beauty and its sanctity, the Mishkan was designed to be a perfect building: an appropriate human made place for the Shechinah, the presence of God to dwell while on earth. It also would serve as a proof that human beings could strive for that perfection, that symmetry and beauty in our world and by extension in our personal lives. 

But, building such a perfect building could only be accomplished using chochma, practical human wisdom, gained from experience and most importantly with the work done as a communal effort, built with the contributions of all of those who had, in the words of parashat Terumah, a willing, giving heart. It was supervised, not by God, not by Moses, but by Betzalel, a “regular” member of the community. This was a communal effort that elevated the people. Thus, the building of the Tabernacle was, in fact, an effort of teshuva, repentance for the Golden Calf linking the individual’s self-improvement to joint efforts in attempting to build a better world.

         I have been thinking quite a bit about teshuva lately and not only because of the dramatically unsatisfactory teshuva example set by the Houston Astros. We’ll see, if necessary, how the Red Sox decide to do teshuva- that’s for another sermon but I hope they set a better example.

My thoughts about teshuva are inspired by, of all things, a television show. That may not come as a tremendous surprise to those of you who have listened to me over the years. But this time, the TV series in question not from the I Love Lucy era but rather one that just ended its four-year run on NBC a few weeks ago.

         The show is entitled The Good Place and if you haven’t seen it, you really should. If you have seen it, I strongly urge you to watch it again. I’m watching it now for the second time and I’m seeing things I missed the first time. And, if you started to watch it and gave up, as I did at one point, consider this an incentive to keep watching it to the end as a good friend advised me to do.

         The series’ story revolves around four individuals who die and suddenly find themselves in what they are told is “The Good Place”: a place of pastel colors, fulfilled wishes and all the frozen yogurt one could eat. But, very early in the series, we learn that two of the four have mistakenly arrived in The Good Place due to a clerical error. They should have been sent, in fact, to “the bad place” and these two try desperately to prove that they are worthy to stay in the good place. 

But, we learn very quickly that this is not the entire story. In fact, the four are not in the good place after all. Rather, they are in a specially constructed neighborhood of “the bad place” where in place of physical torture, they are being tortured emotionally by having to spend their time in close proximity with other people who get on their nerves constantly because of their differences. This is clearly a reference to Sartre’s: “Hell is Other People.” But that is not the only philosophical reference in the series. As one of the four deceased individuals is a professor of moral philosophy who constantly teaches from Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard and many others, the series gives us all of us a survey of philosophy along the way.

         The show is utterly charming, extraordinarily creative, very funny in parts and very insightful. 

         I won’t give you a “spoiler” but suffice it to say that, in the end, the message of the series is the same lesson as the second of Rabbi Yehuda’s statements with which I opened this morning. The lesson is that whatever lies beyond this world is not as good as what human beings can experience when we continue to work on perfecting our lives to the extent possible and that can only happen in community with others. The principle lesson learned by these four and most significantly by the bad place “architect” who placed them in this experimental neighborhood in the first place is that we can be a support to each other; we can help each other grow; and we can make this world a “good place”. This teaching is at the heart of so many approaches to Jewish philosophy: repairing our lives by repairing the world and vice versa. 

         While the show reflects religious teachings from many spiritual traditions, I was able to spot many allusions to Jewish tradition: from the line in U’nateneh Tokef which talks about God “counting our acts” to several references to the teaching Mitoch She Lo Lishma Ba Lishma; Actions done at first without the proper sincerity can lead to actions done for the right reasons. People can in fact teach themselves to be better people. 

         There were many other allusions to Jewish tradition as well but none as critical as the statement of the demon from the bad place who has done teshuva after being inspired by the changing of the human beings he had intended to torture. He says: “What matters is not whether people are good or bad but what matters is that they are trying to be better today than yesterday.” A simple statement, but what could be a better definition of teshuva?

At the end of the series, we are shown that a place of active teshuva, growth and improvement is really the “best place.” And, the entire effort of the transformation in the series emphasizes the message that giving of ourselves with a willing heart can help to build not only a beautiful building but also a beautiful life and a more perfect world. 

         If you haven’t done so, I hope you’ll watch this series. I’d suggest if you have teenagers at home, watch with them. But, whether you take my advice or not, as we read through the story of the building of the Mishkan over the next few weeks, consider how you can join others to best construct a world of true beauty, working together to turn this world into the “Good Place” that God intended it to be. 

I am Jewish

                           I AM JEWISH


                           Rabbi Robert Dobrusin         

         One of the most well known of all modern Jewish songs is Yerushalim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold, written by poet and songwriter Naomi Shemer.

         One of the most beautiful lines in this exquisite song is the final phrase of the chorus: Halo lichal sheyirayich anee keenor, “I am a violin for all of your songs.” While I will not be speaking about Jerusalem or Israel this evening, this line and the line which precedes it have inspired the beginning and the end of my message.  

         In one of the piyyutim of the Rosh Hashana Musaf service, there is a phase chanted by the Shaliach Tzibbur which says lihalotcha shilachoonee makhalot hamonecha: “O God your great congregation has sent me to pray to you”. The word makhalot comes from the word kahal, congregation. But, as I looked at it, I noticed its similarity to the word makhela, choir, and I realized that it was another proof to me that you constitute not only a Congregation but a choir: a choir of distinctly different yet somehow connected voices. 

         The Rabbinate is a complex endeavor. For me, besides the obvious difficulties of time commitment and the difficulty of balancing different aspects of the role, there is one aspect which makes it uniquely difficult that most members of the choir usually do not consider. 

         One of the most difficult aspects of a Rabbi’s job is that he or she is expected to be a kinor, a violin, to accompany and set the melody for each and every Jew’s understanding of Judaism. Sometimes, Jews turn to a Rabbi and expect him or her to endorse every different approach to every different question which exists in the Jewish world and to prioritize Judaism in the same way that they do. 

         When I first became a Rabbi, I tried to do that. After a few months, I learned that it is impossible. I have my own opinions and my own priorities and they become clearer and more sharply defined as the years go on and as our relationship as Rabbi and Congregation deepen.

          Does that mean I can’t relate to someone with different opinions and priorities? Of course not. One of the reasons that this Congregation is such a wonderful sacred place is that there is such a high level of participation from congregants in so many different areas and the Synagogue is not bound only to this Rabbi’s melodies. But, I can’t deny nor should I deny that some responses to Jewish life move me more than others. Some approaches to Jewish law resonate in my mind more clearly than others. Some understandings of Jewish theology or history or philosophy touch me more closely than others. No matter how I, or any Rabbi, might try, I can not be a kinor, a violin for all Jewish songs. Some just sound better to me than others.

         None of this is meant as an apology. It is meant as a celebration of the broad experience of Jewish life and while I promise to continue to search out different understandings, different models and different ideas, so that I can serve more of you more effectively and with greater empathy and understanding, I, like you, am my own Jew. And I, like you I hope, am proud of who I am as a Jew.

         But, while this sermon begins and ends with me, it is really about you.

         None of you, no matter how committed you may be to Judaism; no matter how much all of this may mean to you; no matter how proudly you identify yourself; no matter how deeply you yearn to become a better Jew; none of you can play every part in the choir and none of you can be a kinor for all of Judaism’s songs. There are just too many of them.

         While there might be an occasional music lover who finds tremendous enjoyment in the Beatles, punk rock, Italian opera, blues, the Grand Old Opry, Klezmer, Tibetan chants and Polish polkas, I assume most of you have a playlist that is a little less broad. Eclectic can only go so far.

         And so it is with Judaism. I look at you tonight and I know that you connect with a shul for profoundly different reasons. Some of you find tremendous delight in Torah study, finding the pages of Talmud filled with evidence of divine inspiration and the words and ideas to be an intellectual and creative challenge. Others just don’t get it. 

         Some of you take or dream to take spiritual retreats, looking for a sense of the mystical and deep cleansing and internally strengthening experience in meditation and prayer while others find their Judaism in the here and now of the New York Times or Commentary. 

         Some of you are burning with the passion of Tikkun Olam, working to better the world and see in it the reflection of everything Judaism is and all our world could be. Others write their checks to charity, volunteer a bit but see Judaism in a much different light, celebrating peoplehood and nationhood. 

         Some of you come back from trips to Europe delighting in the fact that you discovered some small but significant Jewish connection that you learned of in a small town. You rush to tell others and they nod and smile a bit and then move on to what they clearly feel are more important things.

         Some of you are passionate about your commitment to the Jewish people, looking for every opportunity to connect with those far beyond these walls. Others recognize kinship but focus back on your own immediate family and community.

         History, theology, mysticism, peoplehood, social action, spirituality, Hebrew language, literature…Moses, Rabbi Akiva, Heschel, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Perlman, Philip Roth, Avivah Zornberg, Natan Scharansky. What a list to pick from.

         And no one Rabbi and no layperson can be a violin to all of their songs.

         I hope at least a few of you have found this statement liberating. It was intended to be. Too often, Jews feel that they don’t measure up because they don’t jump at the mere mention of anything thathas a Jewish connection. We must be more discerning than that to make Judaism meaningful for us. Taking every part in the choir doesn’t make you a better singer.

         But, I also hope you will find my words challenging and in that spirit of challenge, I ask you this year to do two things. First, try to expand your playlist a bit more. Find some aspect of Judaism that isn’t as important to you, doesn’t touch you as deeply or, if you’re in the mood for a real challenge and shouldn’t we all be, an aspect that you just don’t understand and have no place for. Find it and work with it. Try to add it to your repertoire. Learn how the melody or harmony or underlying rhythm of that piece could, with your arrangement of course, please you in ways you couldn’t imagine.

         Seek out the more spiritual. Engage more deeply in tikkun olam. Delve into Jewish history. Explore Jewish music of the past and present. Go to Israel. Take the trip to some Jewish landmark. Learn to blow the Shofar. Build a Sukkah. Engage in serious Torah study or pick up a new book of commentary. Say blessings more often. Whatever it is, find one or two new areas to look into and consider seriously. Widen your perspectives enough to bring more meaning into what you are as a Jew. 

         The second challenge is get out the pen and paper and try to define, at some point over the year, why this all matters to you. Try to define why you are Jewish.

         Now, I want to explain something about that last sentence. I don’t ask you to explain why you are a Jew. You are a Jew because your mother was Jewish or you converted to Judaism. That is why you are a Jew.

         I am asking you to explain why you are Jewish. 

         Are the questions the same? To some, they are and if you are one of those people who aren’t interested in semantics, you can ignore the next few paragraphs.

         I make a distinction between saying: “I am a Jew” and saying: “I am Jewish” with the latter striking me as being more engaging, more deliberate, more pro-active, more thoughtful, more critical

         “Being Jewish”, and more precisely, “acting Jewish” because that is even more important, means we take what is in our heart, our soul, our family history and make it our own actively and purposefully and meaningfully. For  if “being a Jew” is just a statement, a title or an affiliation, it is, in the long run, meaningless. Each of us must know not only who we are but also what it means to us to be who we are.

         It is in that spirit that I want to introduce you to a book which some of you might already have seen and read. The book is entitled: “I am Jewish”. The “I” in the title is a tribute to Daniel Pearl, alav hashalom, the reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was brutally murdered by terrorists in Pakistan. These were his last words: a statement of pride by one who refused to hide, even under the most horrendous of situations, who experienced in the most dreadful way imaginable, the reality of hatred and evil and in this world. Daniel Pearl stood for who he was in a way that, God forbid, any Jew or any human being should have to experience.

         And, in tribute to him, his family compiled a collection of statements by Jews throughout the world: midrashim on the phrase “I am Jewish”.

         It is, as would be any book of this kind, uneven. Some of the statements are trite and some are eloquent. But, since one person’s “trite” is another person’s “eloquent”, the book is a masterpiece, even if read selectively.

         The contributors are of all ages, all walks of life, all degrees of commitment to Judaism. All are bound by only one criterion. All are proud to be and act Jewish.

         From Olympic gymnast Keri Strug (yeah, I didn’t know either!) who writes that she can’t believe she didn’t look Jewish on the medals podium when it was so clear she had shown “perseverance when faced with pain and hope in an uncertain future” to Milton Friedman who writes that he shares in “a deep and brilliant stream of culture and intellectual activity that has flowed for thousands of years”. From Julius Lester who writes that to be a Jew is to be “a love song-to the God of our people- and to the world” to Elie Weisel who cautions us that “to remain indifferent to persecution and suffering anywhere, in Afghanistan or in Kiev is to become an accomplice of the tormentor” to Professor Samuel Freedman of Columbia University who comments on the life story of Daniel Pearl and by doing so, calls so many of us to look at ourselves when he tries to balance what he calls tribalism and universalism and concludes that “Universalism without tribalism is a kind of self-loathing”. From brilliant essays by Rabbis Jonathan Sacks and Harold Kushner and Harold Schulweis to authors and poets and scientists and entertainers to Hebrew School children, each of us can find something that we agree with deeply or, in the true spirit of Judaism, disagree with enough to help us realize what it is we truly do believe.

         I hope that this book will help you to find that song you haven’t yet sung, that piece of music you haven’t yet explored as you think about what it means to be a member of the choir. And, I hope it will encourage you to sit down and write out your own essay and more importantly live it.

         And that is how I want to close this evening. I want to share with you my midrash on these three simple words. Each of us has our own.  

         These are mine.

         I am Jewish.

         I am inspired by the words of Naomi Shemer who wrote about Jerusalem, symbol of our history, our yearnings, our current struggles, our hopes and dreams to write of Zahav, gold. Nehoshet, metal, Or, light.

         Judaism is pure gold and being and acting Jewish and committing one’s life to this ancient yet dynamic and changing tradition is a way of mining some of the most precious metal which exists in our world.

         The words of the Torah are pure gold, sparkling and priceless. The words of our holy texts are food for the mind and for the heart. They can keep us up at night with challenge or lull us to sleep with their beauty and comfort. 

         The traditions of tzedakah and of interpersonal standards of behavior beckon to us as goals for our lives. They help me to aim to be a mentsch in a world which often denies the importance of treating one another respectfully. They inspire me always to believe in and live for and work for the betterment of all people, those I see around me and those half a world away.

         Our ritual traditions form the basis by which I reach for something greater. When I hold a yad to read Torah or hold a lulav at Sukkot or pick up the matza at the Seder, the connection is so deep and is so lasting that it is pure gold. Truthfully, sometimes the gold is a bit tarnished with familiarity. Sometimes it is less attractive than other things which shine in our world of freedom but even if my eyes stray to something else, the gold is there waiting for me to return and see it with new appreciative eyes. 

         Judaism is metal. It provides strength beyond anything else in my world. It links me together with a past and a present and a future which provides meaning for everything that I do and everything that I am. 

         It provides a connection for me and for my family with people far away, with times long ago and it helps me to believe that we are not alone. It gives a structure to our lives in ways that nothing else could, no matter how much we might love the fun, good and pleasant things in the world we share with everyone. 

         It inspires a connection, a deep connection, with those who need me and whom I need, and the line between those is sometimes blurred. When I stood on a street corner in Kishinev, Moldavia on Erev Pesach 1982 and was taken in by a family for Seder and later in a small way helped that family to freedom; or when I said el malei rachamim at a Jewish cemetery in an inner city which had fallen into disrepair; or  when I stood with the members of the community of Alon HaGalil this past year on Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day and heard the names of those who had died in wars to defend Israel and in terrorist attacks and the next night danced with those same people at a Yom Ha’atzmaut party, when all of these experiences and so many more come into my mind, I wonder, how could anyone who has such a family available to them not grasp it and embrace it, be strengthened by it  and add to its strength?

         And Judaism is light. It is God. It is the sense of the spirit, the meaning, the hope, that believing in something beyond us brings. It is light at times of darkness and light to add to the light so resplendent around us. It is light to make us love our partners that much more deeply, hug our children that much more tightly, sing our songs that much more clearly, dedicate our lives to pursuits which are that much more lofty and, in the spirit of this kol nidre evening, take our vows that much more seriously.

         I am Jewish because my life needs gold and it needs strength and it needs light and I know where to find it. It is there for all of us, for all of you, in whichever doorway you enter, in whatever part you play, in whatever you decide to do with it. It is within your reach and it is a wealth, a strength, a light that we are privileged to call our own. 

         I can’t be a violin for all of its songs, no one could be. But, I can not imagine a world without the melodies that we, as a people, have composed over the millennia. They have given a wealth of meaning, strength beyond compare and a glowing light to our people and those who know us and see us. It is a song which, God willing, will always be sung.

         It is what it means to me to be a Jew. It is why I am Jewish. 

Israel 1980: How’s the Weather?

Several months ago, I posted two pieces on the school year that I spent in Israel in 1979-1980. I promised there would be more to come on that subject in the months ahead.

As it turns out, there were several issues that I wanted to post about and other writing that took precedence. But, I thought I would take a moment on what is a very cold Michigan morning to think about one issue that I think about a lot when I remember that year and that is what is was like to live through the change of seasons in Jerusalem.

I have been fascinated by weather since I was a little kid. The beloved Boston TV and radio meteorologist, Don Kent, was one of my heroes as a child. I used to love to watch him describe the various aspects of weather in Boston (which was never easy to predict) and to explain the science behind them.

I don’t think I thought very much about what the weather would be like before I left for Israel but almost immediately upon landing, it became an issue.

I flew to Israel with two good friends and classmates and while they went to arrange transportation to Jerusalem, I sat on a bench at the airport with our luggage. Still trying to figure out exactly where I was, I was joined on the bench by a woman and her two grandchildren. The children were jumping up and down, having met their grandmother who had just arrived on the same plane as we did. The kids were so excited and kept telling her: k’var yarad geshem!, “It rained already”.

I couldn’t figure out why they were so excited about it. Then I realized that being that it was a few days before Sukkot, that was very unusual indeed. The rainy season usually doesn’t start in Israel in early October and the early rain led to two conflicting attitudes. It’s great in that it might portend a much needed season with sufficient rain. But, it might also intrude on Sukkot celebrations. So, the kids were excited and more than a bit wary.

As it turned out, it didn’t rain again for a couple of months but that first conversation made me realize how critical the issue of weather is in Israel, specifically regarding rain.

The Torah is full of references to rain as a blessing and lack of rain as a curse and it is easy to see why when you spend the winter in Israel. The beautiful green areas of the land depend upon sufficient rain during the winter. Of course, now there is irrigation that can help in terms of the fruits and vegetables but nothing substitutes for the blessing of rain nourishing the parched earth after the summer.

So, I sat back and waited for a good rain storm. I was tired of endless days of sun and gently warm weather leading into December. Then, it all changed. I distinctly remember sitting in class one day and looking out the window and seeing what looked to me like a dust storm: wind whipping up great clouds of haze and dust. Someone muttered: “a storm is coming”. And, it certainly came very quickly.

The temperature immediately dropped some 20 degrees and sheets of rain and hail came pouring down on all of us especially those who hadn’t listened to the radio and brought an umbrella (not that it would have done much good.)

There were several storms that followed that winter and I can honestly say that I have never been as cold as I was in my dormitory room with poor central heating and cold, stone floors. I immediately sent a letter home to my parents asking them for a few more warm shirts which, thankfully, came rather quickly.

But, then came the unforgettable moment: my first Jerusalem snowstorm.

Many think it doesn’t snow in Jerusalem. It does. Believe me, it does. On the night before Purim, it began to snow and that morning, we woke up to several inches of snow and spent the day on long walks through the city enjoying the views and watching Jerusalemites having snowball fights in the middle of the city. It was truly a great experience and seeing the “city of gold”covered in white was unforgettable.

(Here I should mention that on one of congregation trips to Israel in December 1991, we encountered one of the worst snowstorms in the history of the city, some 14 inches. That was the last time I ever led a trip during the winter.)

But the snow disappeared quickly and winter turned to a glorious spring. The rain and snow of the winter led to the most marvelous smells and sights as the land woke up after the rains.

I left Israel at the beginning of June but summer had already come and with it the dreaded “hamsin”, the hot, dry desert wind which brings in the highest temperatures over the course of the year. Not being a real fan of hot weather, those days were difficult to deal with, especially one day when the temperature rose to about 44 degrees Celsius (about 112 Fahrenheit) and I experiences heat exhaustion for the first time in my life. But, it all was part of a cycle.

The climate in Israel was strange to me: the idea of a dry season and a rainy season and the occasional bouts of cold weather interrupting warm winter days. But, in its own way, it was predictable and I accepted the pattern even though I missed some of the weather I used to experience in Boston.

Now to the present day.

As everywhere else in the world, the reality of climate change is a serious issue in Israel. Adequate supplies of water, the ability for the land to continue to produce the fruits and vegetables which are so delicious and unique to the land, and the excitement of children who watch carefully to see when the first rains come are all affected by the dangerous changes that are coming to our world. Looking back with some nostalgia on my experience that year makes it even more imperative that, for the sake of the entire earth, we address climate issues seriously and passionately. It is important to remember God’s promise to Noah after the flood that the cycles of the world, from cold to hot and winter to summer would never change.

But, God also promised that God would never destroy the world again. That does not cover destruction brought about by human beings. We must do all we can to save the wondrous cycles of the world wherever we live.

More to come on my recollections of that year.

Thoughts on The Good Place

My writing concerning TV shows usually focus on nostalgic old programs from the 60s and 70s. I don’t find contemporary series as interesting to write about. But, that certainly isn’t the case with the series The Good Place which ended this past week.

If you have not seen the final episode or want to start watching the series based on the publicity the show has received, consider this a “spoiler alert” and stop reading. But, for those who did see the ending, I offer a couple of thoughts.

First, I thought it was a great show. The acting was superb and the storyline, while admittedly a bit hard to follow at times, was fascinating. The unexpected moments and the sly humor were great. Most importantly, the characters were truly memorable and, as with any good “ensemble cast”, they worked so well together.

The series often presented philosophical concepts and debates in a rather unique way. Sometimes, I paid less attention than I should have to those philosophical issues in deference to just watching the series and enjoying the characters so I think I will take the time to watch the series again from the beginning to fully appreciate that aspect of the show.

I was drawn to the show originally because, as has been evidenced in my postings, I am fascinated by the question of the “afterlife” and am a firm believer in the continued existence of our souls after physical death. But, to me, the most important point that the series made, has really less to do about the afterlife as it does to our lives here on earth.

In my opinion, the most important message that the series presented was that we can make positive changes in our lives and the best way to do is to get help from – and be helped by- other people. The evolution and transformation of the characters from the beginning of the series to the end- especially that of Jason who was my favorite character of the four “friends” was stunning to watch and so uplifting in so many ways.

This lesson was reflected in the ending of the series. The decision to make the first destination after death a learning place that would enable one to get to “the good place” was brilliant. Our Jewish tradition teaches that we can transform this world into paradise and it is interesting to consider that that paradise would not be a place of perfection but a place where everyone was dedicated to helping each other grow to be better people.

And Eleanor’s final act before she was ready to go through the “door”: that of convincing Mindy who was alone in “the medium place” that she needed to surround herself with others brought me, literally, to tears.

By making the afterlife a place of learning, the Good Place reminded us all how much we need to depend upon others to help us be the best we can be and how much others are counting on us to do the same.

Thank you to the creator of The Good Place for teaching us that we can’t wait for eternity to make the most of our lives.