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 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 quite 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 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 actually 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.

But, with the help of the staff, they came back and we went on from there building a very good relationship and learning from each other.


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.


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.

Podcast: Wrestling and Dreaming

As many of you know, I have recently begun a weekly podcast called Wrestling and Dreaming: Engaging Discussions on Judaism. The podcast can be found at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com or through Apple and other podcast sources. I hope you will find the podcast thought provoking and meaningful.

The podcast will feature discussions on various Jewish issues and concepts, focusing quite often on some of my favorite Jewish texts. The title of the podcast which I explain at length in the first episode is a reference to our patriarch Jacob, Israel, and my hopes to address some serious issues always keeping an optimistic, hopeful perspective on how we can continue to seek to build the world of our dreams.

While the podcast will include the type of issues which I have addressed in this website blog, I do plan to continue to write here often. I will use this space to make some comments on issues in the news and to post occasional on issues which do not focus on Judaism, whether on sports, movies and TV shows or 60’s and 70’s nostalgia.

Please continue to check back to this website or to subscribe so that you receive a notice when there is a new posting. And, please listen to my podcast!

Thank you everyone for your kind words and support.

The Past and The Future

            In 2015, before the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, I delivered a sermon which has always been one of my favorites. The sermon was inspired by an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg called Sometimes the Smallest Things. It is a great piece in which the author describes how his mother taught him to tie his shoes the wrong way and how long it took for him to figure that out. You can find it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/02/opinion/02tue4.html   

            In the sermon, I spoke about the importance of honoring our parents and grandparents for everything they taught us, even for the things we later discovered were wrong. My point was that presuming parents were loving and wanted the best for their families, adult children should respect them and honor them for teaching them the wrong things now and then because, in the long run, that gave us the opportunity to grow. Growth comes from recognizing there is a more efficient, more meaningful or more ethical path we can take than the one that was handed down to us.

            In that sermon, I also quoted from one of the most moving scenes in television history. In an episode of All in the Family entitled Two’s a Crowd. Archie Bunker and his son in law Mike have an deeply personal conversation in which Mike tries to convince Archie that his father was wrong for using a racial epithet and Archie refuses to accept it. Mike says: “Your father was wrong, Archie” and Archie responds with a beautifully emotional tribute to his father in which he said a father could never be wrong. You can find the episode online and it is worth watching if you have never seen it. 

            It was such an emotional scene and, of course, Mike was absolutely right. Parents can be wrong and our children and grandchildren will say that about us someday if they haven’t already.

            While the sermon was about our family relationships and simple lessons such as tying your shoes or, in my case, shooting a basketball (which my father taught me to do incorrectly), I stressed that growth takes place when generations realize that what they had been taught was wrong. I cited two public examples that were in the news at that time: the first was the legalization of same-sex marriage and the second was the removal of the confederate flag from the capitol building in Columbia, SC in wake of the horrendous murder of 9 African Americans at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston by a gunman who identified with that flag. Each was an example of a rejection of the past and of growth to a better future.

            Were I to give that sermon today, I would naturally pay much more attention to that last point as we see many in our nation calling for the removal of not only confederate symbols but also memorials to our founding fathers and others from our history because they owned slaves  or expressed racist views.  This is a very emotionally charged issue and one which many of us are wrestling with. 

            Can we find some wisdom from Jewish tradition concerning this issue? I believe we can.

            First, our tradition is one which recognizes, respects and cherishes history. We are commanded never to forget the past and how it can guide our future. We are obligated to remember the past completely, failings and all. We don’t remove from the Tanach the sections which paint our “heroes” in a bad light. We remember stories about weaknesses and sins.

            In that light, I believe that our first obligation regarding our nation’s past is to commit ourselves to telling the entire story of our history and our leaders. We have not been completely honest in our telling the story of the of the past and we must accept that fact. We need to look at the lives of those whom we have honored and be frank and honest about their failings, especially in this area.  

Whether one can continue to respect these men and women who did so much good for our nation after hearing their complete stories and continue to honor them despite this grievous moral failing is a difficult question and each will have his or her own answer. But, whatever we feel, we can not bury the negative aspects of the past and we certainly can’t immediately brand anyone who raises this issue as unpatriotic whether they are expressing this view quietly or passionately marching in the streets. The idea that it would be “un-American” to question, for example, Washington or Jefferson’s legacy is misguided to say the least. Honesty demands of us that we confront the past with eyes open wide and with a full story, no matter how painful. 

            Secondly, it is important to remember that, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, no one is perfect. That is why we have the concept of teshuva, repentance, which impels us to evaluate our lives and make changes to return to the proper path. Ideally, people have the privilege of living long enough and being thoughtful enough to repent from that which they have done or said and change their behavior. But, many of the people whom we routinely honor endorsed slavery and racism to their death and their failure to repent and change needs to be taken into account when we remember them.

            But, even if they didn’t do teshuva, our nation as a whole should have repented. Had  we properly done so, the discussion about the past would, I believe, be very different than it is today.

            While we can sincerely point to positive progress in confronting inequality in our nation over the years, we have clearly not done nearly enough. The inequalities in this nation: income, opportunity, health care and notably law enforcement and the judicial system are glaring to the point where it can be said, as many have, that we have never cleansed ourselves of this sin which was at the foundation of so many of our national institutions. Had we done so more sincerely and more actively, it would be easier to just point to the founders of our nation as being products of the time and we could celebrate the fact that we have grown, having learned from their mistakes. But we have not changed enough to make that claim.

            So, in the end, the debate about what should be done with the statues and other memorials is legitimate and it must lead us towards coming to terms with our history honestly and sincerely. As a lover of American history, I would hate to see monuments of our early patriots torn down. But, as one who loves this country, I do want to see and be part of a change for the future. We need to question the past but, more importantly, we need a process of teshuva, of repentance, that recognizes those moral failings, commits ourselves to growth and leads our nation closer to true equality, to being the land where the dreams of all can come true.   


This Shabbat we read from Parashat Shlach Lecha which includes the story of the scouts sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. It is a fascinating story especially when we read it with the eye of the rabbis who interpreted it. The rabbis of our tradition took this story and turned it into a commentary on human nature and how we address the critical issues in our lives.

Here is one example of this tradition.

When the scouts return from Canaan, they praise the beauty of the land itself but they insist that the Hebrews were not strong enough to conquer the land. In fact, the scouts claim that they saw giants in the land and “we were in our eyes like grasshoppers and so we looked to them”.

There is a beautiful commentary on these words. The commentary reads that God said: “I understand you felt like grasshoppers but how do you know that that was how you looked in their eyes? Perhaps I made you look like angels to them.”

This Midrash is teaching a critical lesson. It is one thing to feel small. It is another thing to assume that other people see you that way or to refuse to face a challenge because you fear it can not be conquered.

At this moment in our history, we are facing great challenges as a nation. We face a staggering combination of the Coronavirus pandemic which presents such a serious threat to our physical health and the stark reality of racism which, while tragically always present in our land, has been brought to our full attention once again by the horrendous murders of people of color by law enforcement officials.

As individuals and as a nation, it would be understandable if we were to claim to be “grasshoppers” and hesitate to deal with the giant issues which loom over us.

In one sense that humility will help us. In facing the pandemic, we have to recognize that we can not wish this virus away or deny its impact. It is a threat and we must accept it as such.

With regard to racism, white Americans need to honestly confront the reality of structural racism and accept our own and our nation’s failures to properly confront this issue and work hard enough for the change which must come. Certainly, humility is called for.

But we can’t be so humble that we refuse to confront the issues claiming that they are too huge for us to defeat.

We must act.

We must use our wisdom, our values, our very humanity to confront these giant threats that loom over us and, working together, make progress in our battles.

We must trust the scientists and medical professionals to guide us forward in our battle against coronavirus, not foolishly hiding our eyes from reality or succumbing to despair. We must continue to confront this invisible threat and wisely and cautiously do what is necessary to make our lives safer.

And, we must listen, truly listen, to the voices of pain, anger and frustration that we are hearing from the black community and not hide from them. As we listen, we must recognize our failures, stand up to confront the reality of racism and join hands to make the changes in our nation that must be made if we are to move forward and help this nation fulfill its promise of liberty and justice for all.

The problems at times seem too great. We may be tempted to turn back rather than move forward. We can’t do so. The threat of the pandemic and the stark reality of racism in this country are issues which must be faced with wisdom, with courage, and with just the right balance of self-confidence and humility.


In the weekly cycle of Torah readings, we are reading from the beginning sections of the book of Numbers. Numbers, as the name implies, begins with a census of the Hebrews as they are in the wilderness on their way to the promised land.

Why was a census necessary? According to Rashi, it shows the importance of each individual. He compares it to God and says that mitoch hibatan lifanav moneen otam kol sha’ah, because people are so dear to God, God counts them every hour.

This is a beautiful thought. We are so dear to God as human beings that God takes note of us, counts us, every hour.

As beautiful as this thought might be, there was a Hassidic Rabbi, Rabbi Yehezkel of Kotzmir who raised an issue. He said that we are not worthy of being counted in God’s eyes every hour. There are some times when we just aren’t living up to God’s expectations for us, so why would God want to count us every hour?

He answers his problem by saying that the words “every hour” refer to a statement in Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, in which we read that we should not denigrate any human being because ayn licha adam sheayn lo shah, there is no person who doesn’t have his or her “hour”. In other words, every human being has the potential to live up to God’s expectations of us, to be the mentsch we should be. Each us has an hour in which we truly deserve to be counted and God counts us according to the hour in which we reach that goal. God sees in us potential for being a human being in the greatest sense of that term.

This is reflective of our tradition of teshuva: of repentance. We can always improve. We can always rise up to being the people we should be. We can always respond to the situation in front of us and make that particular hour great.

Needless to say, we find ourselves in a very difficult, heartbreaking hour in this nation.. We have seen the murder of George Floyd, another person in the long list of people of color killed, injured or abused by law enforcement officials. We have witnessed the breaking up of a peaceful protest in front of the White House with tear gas and other means so that the President could have a photo op holding a Bible. We have seen injury and property damage as a result of rage, anger and frustration.

We have seen once again the undeniable evidence that we, as a nation, have not lived up to our stated values of equality and justice for all. Racism and inequality continue to plague this nation. Yes, there has been progress in some areas but, overall, we have never been able to remove the stain of bigotry and inequality that has been part of our nation since our inception.

But, as we look at this hour of sadness and pain, there is an opportunity. So many voices are being raised. So many people are joining hands to recognize the pain and commit to working together. There is an opportunity to have the voices we hear and the pain that we are feeling inspire us to teshuva, to repentance. We have the power as a nation to turn this into a “good hour”.

God only knows we have had enough time to address issues of inequality. So many times, we have started the discussion, began to confront the issue and then found ourselves either distracted by other issues or satisfied with small steps of progress.

This can’t happen this time.

Our nation is at a crossroads and it will fall to all of us to work together to make real change in this nation. We must start by listening to each other and understanding that the pain and the frustration voiced by people of color has been building for centuries and that if we are to truly be the nation we want to be, we must embrace each other and work together for change.

I know that in one sense, these are easy words to say and to write and, I will admit, they can sound hollow because they have been written many times before by many people over the years. But, for so many reasons, it seems that this is a vital moment in our nation’s history. We have to choose a different path than we have been following. We need to change to become a nation in which all people enjoy the benefits of freedom, security and opportunity.

There is a beautiful legend about Moses. He brings the people to the edge of the sea. He hears the Egyptian army advancing and he does not know what to do. He turns to God in prayer.

And God stops him in the middle of the prayer and says: Moses, there is a time for prayer and a time for action. Ayn Hasha’ah mitzapah elah lach, the hour waits only for you. Move the people forward.

So it must be said. At this time: Ayn Hasha’ah mitzapah elah lanu.

The hour waits only for us.

All of us together.

Symbolism and Reality

In some ways, it could be viewed as inappropriate to focus on one symbolic act when our nation is in such great pain. We should be concentrating on addressing the issue of inequality and racism in law enforcement and the court system. We should be focusing on the dangers that people of color face in this nation every day. We should be trying to better understand why acts of peaceful protest turn into violent rage.

Still, when we experience trauma, as individuals or as a nation, we are often drawn to one symbolic act which could be seen as either promising hope for a better future or evidence that the trauma will continue.

In that spirit, I want to address one symbolic act that we saw yesterday.

As so many of you did, I watched with horror last evening as what was a peaceful protest in front of the White House was broken up by soldiers on horseback firing tear gas and rubber bullets. As President Trump spoke a very short distance away, those who had gathered peacefully to demand change in this nation, a change so desperately needed, were cleared from the streets.

It was unclear why the street was being cleared in this way.

Then, a few minutes later we understood.

President Trump wanted to make a visit to a church which had been burned the night before to make a statement, to have a photo-op.

And so he stood in front of the church holding up a Bible so that all could see.

That one symbolic moment summarized for me why I find so much of his behavior as president and as a human being so appalling.

Anyone can hold a Bible. Anyone can claim to love the Holy Book.

But, to hold a Bible as a symbol is one thing. To live by its guidance is another.

“There should be one law for all” says the Bible.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” says the Bible.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” says the edition of the Bible that he was holding.

For a man to talk and act as he has done over the past three years, including last evening’s call for the military to shut down protests while giving lip service to the concerns of the millions of people who have been protesting or raising deep concern about the state of our nation is horrendous in and of itself.

But, to break up a protest so that he could stand wrapping himself in the Bible was obscene.

We could use the inspiration of all the great religious traditions to change this nation for the better. We could use the values expressed in holy books to inspire us to lead our nation to a better place.

But, to use the Bible as a symbol in this way was an affront to every American and to the Bible itself.

We must address the issue of racism in this nation. We must listen to the voices of those who are calling out. We must learn to speak to each other and listen to each other. We must work for true equality and justice.

Our spiritual traditions could be great support for us to face this challenge. But only if we open the books and read them, not stand in front of a camera using them as props.

The Influences on Our Lives: In Memory of Ken Osmond

            One of the principles of rabbinic Judaism is the idea of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, the good inclination and the evil inclination. According to this idea, we are, in essence, blank slates and are subject to different influences in our lives. It is our obligation to, as Pirke Avot teaches: “kovesh et yitzro”, conquer the evil inclination and follow the good. 

            I find one character in the Bible to be the expression of the struggle between the good and evil inclinations: King Ahasueraus from the story of Esther. The king does not have an independent idea through the entire story but listens and agrees to the advice of anyone who offers it. We have Esther and Mordecai on the one hand and Haman on the other and the king is caught between these polar opposite characters always seeming to follow the instruction of the last person he talks to. His failure to take control of his own life but to leave it to others to decide matters for him is a sign of his moral weakness. 

            Clearly, there are many examples of similar characters in more contemporary literature. But I want to comment on one such character from a source that is very close to my heart. I actually hadn’t thought of this character in this way (or, frankly, in any serious way) until I heard a bit of news yesterday. 

            All of us grew up with fictional characters whom we most clearly identified with. For me, it was was none other than Theodore Cleaver, aka the Beaver, from the TV show Leave It to Beaver. 

            As the younger brother in a family of two boys, I identified immediately with the Cleaver household even though my mother didn’t wear pearls to breakfast and my father occasionally came upon a household object he couldn’t fix or a problem he couldn’t solve. Despite these obvious differences, I felt a kinship with the Beaver and the world in which he lived.

            Beaver grew up in a very stable home. His parents loved him. His father always found the ethical dimensions in issues that arose in family life. This were not a demonstrably “religious” family. Still, Ward Cleaver, played by Hugh Beaumont who was in real life an ordained minister, made sure that his children knew that their actions were being judged and that they needed to behave properly and to be punished for wrongdoing. Just as we say about the book of Esther, God’s name wasn’t mentioned in the scripts but God was always behind the scenes in the Cleaver home. 

            Beaver tried very hard to be good and clearly knew right from wrong and wanted to do right. Left on his own, he probably would have done right all the time. But he was surrounded by friends who often led him astray. His best friends: Larry, Gilbert, Whitey and Richard always got “The Beav” into trouble by appealing to his selfish or greedy inclination or by just taking advantage of how much he trusted them as friends. There were a few occasions where Beaver did some “bad things” on his own. But, the vast majority of the time, he was under the influence of others that urged him to “turn from the good and do the bad”.

            And, entering into this picture was the great character of Eddie Haskell played by Ken Osmond. Eddie was older brother Wally’s friend, but he was always hanging around the Cleaver household and annoying everyone with his phony compliments and his polite behavior. Once behind closed doors, he showed his true colors by being the TV equivalent of the “yetzer ha-ra”, the evil influence that preyed on those who trusted him and who took his advice. 

            Ken Osmond died yesterday at the age of 76 and for those of us of a certain age, it provided a moment to reflect on lessons we learned from his alter ego.

            Unlike Beaver’s other friends, Eddie was sly and deceptive. As Beaver grew, he was able to avoid falling victim to the friends of his age. He knew them and figured out they were going to get him in trouble (at least most of the time). 

            But Eddie was different. Beaver looked up to Eddie in a way, probably because he wished his brother Wally would be less perfect than he was. Eddie appealed to Beaver’s sense of adventure and daring and he was usually easy prey for Eddie’s advice. 

            Looking back on the show, it wouldn’t have been the same without Eddie’s character. Even though, in the end, he was always proven to be wrong and good always triumphed, the devilish look in his eye that he passed along to Beaver made the younger Cleaver boy more real and more believable than Wally. 

            God forbid, I’m not suggest we listen to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination that is always a threat to our ethical and moral behavior. But all kids growing up- and maybe adults too- need to push the boundaries just a little bit and looking back on Leave it to Beaver, Eddie’s character was the piece that made the stories real. 

            Ward and June Cleaver often wondered why Wally hung around with Eddie when he was so distasteful. I’m not sure Wally ever gave them a good answer. I’ll say it for him: Eddie made life more interesting for the Cleavers. 

            We should all be so privileged to know a character like Eddie Haskell. But, may we all be strong enough to not to follow his lead… at least most of the time.