Not to be (too) afraid

As the pandemic began to shut things down, I shared the teaching of the Bratslaver Rebbe that the world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid. The Hebrew of that teaching לא לפחד כלל lo l’facheid klal, does not mean that we not be afraid at all. Rather, what he suggests is that not be become totally (or fully) afraid.  

Fear is normal. These days it is more than justified. Can I bear witness to the hundreds of thousands of dead, the millions struggling to feed themselves and their families, great societies brought low, violence on the rise, the lack of leadership and derision of truth, those who seek to stifle dissent on the right and on the left … and not tremble?

Yet fear is not all there should be. Many have shared with me in recent months that there have been numerous unexpected blessings that have come during this time of a great plague. More opportunities to reflect and slow down. A chance to reevaluate what matters and how we want to use the precious, limited time we all have. Moments to discover simple joys and to be more grateful for what we do have. What I think the Bratslaver is really saying, then, is that even when we are afraid, not let it not paralyze us from acting.

From the 1st of Elul until Yom Kippur it is traditional to read Psalm 27. The writer speaks of a seesaw of emotions – being confident and unafraid, feeling God close at hand; and then turning suddenly anxious and uncertain, of God hiding. Like the Bratslaver (and me) the Psalmist swings between hope and despair.

Yet there is a way through the depression, for us as individuals and for our society. There is a path across the narrow bridge. The Psalm 27 provides it in 4 easy steps:

  • First, seek the “straight (or honest) path.” Have integrity. Respect the truth. Honor God and values, not country, not land, not party nor person.
  • Second, “believe in seeing good.” Be hopeful that better days are ahead. Do not allow the extremes to define the vast potential – in yourself, in the Jewish people, in this country.
  • Third, “be strong.” We cannot eliminate what we feel, but fear must not keep us from action. Do not stand idly by. Find your inner courage to make a difference – somehow, with someone … and the best you can.
  • Finally, “wait”. To be a Jew is to be prisoner of hope, to believe that better days lie ahead. Though they tarry, believe – with all your heart – that they will come. Be patient even as you work to bring those better days closer.

Elul is ending. The Days of Awe are at hand. Let us walk the narrow bridge – maybe a bit afraid, but more determined, sure of the good, strong and patient than ever.

   לשנה טובה   L’shana tova – may it truly be a good year because you and I make it so.

Justice and Fairness – What is Demanded

Why Black Lives Matter


Video posted June 5, 2020

Throughout the Bible there is a phrase that is often used with two words connected together צדק tzedek and משפט mishpat. Often, those words are translated as “justice and righteousness”, but in קבלה kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) there is a radically novel way of understanding these two of those words that is absolutely essential for a moment of crisis such as we are in right now. That is to understand צדק tzedek as being the strict application of the law, while משפט mishpat is a sense of equity, of balance and the result of deep compassion.  צדק Tzedek and משפט mishpat, according to קבלה kabbalah is not, then, a zero-sum game where only one of those lays claim to our heart to determine the nature of how we ought to live in this society (or any society).  Yes, we absolutely do need justice, but only if there is fairness and truly equal treatment under the law.  

I have been deeply anguished and pained by these last couple of weeks in our country. It has taken me a while to speak, but I’m now ready.

In קבלה kabbalah, God is described as having many aspects.  This is clearly a theological statement, but it also says something about us as human beings – that we define ourselves in multiple ways. To not limit people simply by the color of their skin or political affiliations or whether they are Jewish (or not) or support a particular movement or perspective is to understand that the complexity of God is within each of made in the divine image. If God is diverse, so are we. Thus, we don’t have to always or fully agree with our allies and those with whom we find common cause.

What has this past couple of weeks awakened within me? Four things:

  • First, the need to listen more attentively to Black voices, including so many Jews of color, who have helped me understand that the issue of “law and order” cannot simply be in defense of the status quo when there is something immoral about what currently exists. Every day we say שמע Sh’ma. This is not just to “hear”, but to be really attentive, to pay attention to God, and this capacity to listen more to others (to the God in others) leads me to judge less and listen more.
  • Second, the realization that millions have taken to the streets not just for one man heinously murdered by a police officer, but because of a fundamental discontent with where we are as nation. If I cannot admit that there is something at the very heart of our nation that is eating us like a cancer, then I’m not paying attention.
  • Third, that I have not, worked hard enough to build bridges and for that I have deep regret. And so, I pledge myself to do more. This week (early in June) I took tentative first steps, reaching out to the Minister of the A.M.E. (African Methodist Church) here in town, to come out with a statement and to build bridges between our synagogue and those at the A.M.E. Church. I pray that the weeks ahead will allow me to approach others, you among them, with a more open mind and a more open heart.
  • Finally, a need to demand of myself and to no longer stand idly by when others say things that I think are egregious and wrong and to demand of you and others an even deeper sense of love and empathy. As the prophet Zechariah had taught two and a half millennia ago, it is “not by might and not by power, but by spirit” that God becomes evident in the world. This is what I really know, though I know that all of those listening to me will not agree, that black lives matter and that it is important for me to say, “Black Lives Do Matter” not just “All Lives”.  Black Lives Matter. And at this time, and at this moment, if I can’t say that, then אימתי amatai when?

This will be a moment that will define us. It will define the generation and how we are understood by those who come after us.

I pray that I – and all of us – can find the ability to balance esm tzedek and משפט mishpat, justice and compassion, doing so with empathy, love, and a heart that listens.

A Rare ‘Leap’ Day – A Signpost to a Life of Meaning

How many days are there in a year?  Most people think there are 365. But that is, of course, not quite true.  Every 4 years it is 366 – with the addition of this leap day – but even then the calendar is not quite in sync with the actual circling of the earth around the sun, which actually takes 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds. Even with adding in a leap day every 4 years (well, mostly, but it’s too complicated to go into) our calendar is slowly getting out of sync with the earthBeit Alpha Synagogue Mosaic and sun.

Even rarer than a leap day, however, is a February 29 that falls on Shabbat. In fact, this is only the ninth time since the founding of this country that this leap day, February 29, has coincided with Shabbat. Now that does not mean much in and of itself, but there is a rather interesting connection between this week’s parasha and this relatively rare day.

The Torah portion this Shabbat (Terumah) is focused on how our ancestors were instructed to construct a special tent (called the Mishkan) where they could worship God.  Later Jewish traditions saw the description in Torah of the building of the Mishkan as a striking parallel to the story of how the world was created.  In this our traditions understand that while God is reflected in the natural world, we have the capacity to create structures that help us connect with one another, organize and make sense of our lives.

Is this not really what a calendar is – a human invention to help us make sense of the universe, to give us some sense of ability to order and control what seems beyond us? To create some sense of order to our days is, in many ways, at the very heart of a religious yearning.  You and I can look at the world and say that everything is random, that things in the universe happen without meaning or care for us. Indeed, that is the point of view of the very first line in the Torah itself, that the world was tohu v’vohu, “darkness and void.” But the Torah imposes an order on the universe, seeing a way to direct our lives with a structure that allows us to feel we are part of something greater than ourselves.

Here, then, is the choice about how to live your life. You can say “The earth turns, the days come and go, there is purpose or meaning, life just ‘is’.” Or, you can see each day as an opportunity for enlightenment; you can help build sanctuaries in space, saying that each day is rich with the possibility of connection.  Faith is that choice to impose order on creation, to sanctify the moments we are given and build holy communities. February 29, then, as contrived and “made up” as it is, reminds us that we have control in a seemingly indifferent universe, to build a life of meaning.

Limiting the power of the tyrant

Leviathan     What is better for a country – a strong, centralized leadership (or individual leader) – or the messy uncertainty of rule by the people (or, at least, its representatives?  This is, in many ways the essential question that is at the heart of the challenges facing so many liberal democracies of our time.

Some look to the vast economic leaps of China in the past generation – not only in the rapid expansion of cities and infrastructure, but in lifting hundreds of millions out of subsistence and poverty – with praise. Contrast that with the challenges of doing anything in the West (including this country), where environmental regulations, the need for public input and oversight add excessive delays and cost to any major public project.

The rise of populism – a political movement that seems to be expressing the will of the people, but is expressed in the rise of strong, autocratic leaders is – as a result – sweeping across the globe. You may think of political leaders on the right who express this authoritarian tendency, but those on the left – who speak of the “majority” without considering the need to honor the wellbeing and rights of the minority – also speak in the language of the group, but assume that they alone will provide the answers to a society’s ills.

2400 years ago the philosopher Plato predicted – in his book The Republic  – that democracy inevitably gives rise to a tyrannical leader. Speaking through the voice of his teacher Socrates, he says that the fullest flourishing of democracy is an openness to freedoms of all kind, a tolerance that kowtows to no authority, where family hierarchies are disrupted and the moral authority of teachers are questioned. Thus, Socrates says, at such a time when democracy challenges any sense of hierarchy or elitism, “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher … is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.

It is exactly at a time of such seeming cultural openness, Socrates warns, when a would-be tyrant will make his move, appealing to the mob by appealing to their desire to overturn the elite. That person is filled with “false and braggart words”, dismisses moderation, calls “insolence ‘good breeding,’ license ‘liberty,’ prodigality ‘magnificence,’” and “temperance they call ‘want of manhood’ and treat (tolerance) with contempt.”[1] Centuries before Plato, however, the Torah also warned about the desire of the people for a leader who may seem to provide all the answers but will – inevitably and invariably – strip away liberty.

This week’s parasha warns the people of their desire to give up their freedom for someone who will provide for them, seemingly offering simple answers:

If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God … he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.[2]

The irony of this passage is that one of Israel’s greatest kings, Solomon, engaged in the very practices that the Torah warns about.  In the Biblical book called Kings we read that he did all of this – taking many wives, accumulating 12000 horses and spending public funds for extravagant expenditures.[3] Many modern scholars believe that the final book of the Torah, the one we read from this week, was written centuries after King Solomon lived. If so, this is a critique of the corruption of monarchy and the problems that happen when too much power is given over to one who thinks she (or he) has the sole authority. And if this book was written before Solomon it is a prophetic warning – similar to Plato’s – that people who give up their authority to an autocratic leader will live to regret it.

What, in particular, are the concerns of the Torah? Why the focus on too many horses and too many wives?  In this is a metaphor for the problem with all leaders who imperiously believe only they have the power to solve the nation’s ills. The accumulation of horses (always expensive animals to maintain) is a reminder that those with authoritarian tendencies spend on what they believe is important to the impoverishment (either presently or in the future) of the land.  The plethora of wives was a reminder that those who are rich, famous or powerful (certainly the autocrat) is tempted to think that the ability to negotiate with others (since wives were the ancient way of cementing treaties) only belongs to them. It is the arrogance of one who says, “I alone can fix it.”

In the Tanakh (Bible), therefore, there is an internal critique of political power in the hands of an individual. It is as if Torah says, “You may want an authoritarian ruler, but you will rue the day you give in to one.”

How, then, can we prevent what Torah and Plato warn about? In our parasha a suggestion is given to how to control the king:

And it will be when he ascends to the throne, and he will write for himself a ‘copy of this Torah’ (the Hebrew is vru, vban, implying a second) scroll from before the priests from Levi. And it will be with him and he will read from it all of the days of his life, so that he should learn to fear the Eternal his God, to observe all of the matters in this Torah, and all of these laws to do them. So that he not consider himself better than his brothers (literally “raise up his heart above others”), and so that he not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left, he nor his children in the midst of Israel.[4]

The ancients may not have been as technologically as advanced as are we, but they understood human nature and the danger to society of those who speak as if they rule on behalf of the country but eschew morality and use power for personal advantage. In short, Torah suggests, the only way to stay in power is to continually seek ways to restrict one’s power. What are those restrictions:

  • First, a leader must remember that he or she shares the ability to lead with others. This section pointedly notes that the Torah comes from the Levites – a reminder that political power must be tempered by the moral vision of religious experience and tradition.
  • Second, the ancient rabbinical sages interpret the second Torah that the king was to carry to being a kind of “mini-Torah”, with key phrases from the scroll written out to remind him to keep humble and vigilant.[5]
  • Third, leaders who think they alone can provide the answers forget that they come to power – and lose that power – by the will of the people over whom they rule. “Fear of God” is a Biblical phrase that implies humility – an ability to admit mistakes, to treat others with respect and to not give up what is ethical in the pursuit of power.
  • Finally, the king is supposed to write himself the Torah scroll. Why should someone of such power spend time doing the seemingly mundane task of the sofer, the Torah scribe? Perhaps the lesson here is related to the fact that every single letter is necessary to make the Torah kosher and, in kabbala – each letter is reminder of the number of people who were present at the giving of Torah. Thus, a political leader is obligated to show respect for all the people – not just their supporters or their party or their “base” – but to

To conclude, neither Plato nor Torah are prophetic or clairvoyant in saying what necessarily will happen, but they do remind us what could happen. In this time when the underpinnings of liberal democracy are being questioned, we would do well to heed the wisdom from of old. Democratic freedom is not inevitable and can be lost seeking those who would constrain our liberty. Power, too often, corrupts. And there is a steep price that comes with not holding leaders to a standard of justice, rectitude and virtue that has stood the test of time.

[1]   “America Has Never Been So Ripe For Tyranny”, Andrew Sullivan (May 1, 2016),

[2]   Deuteronomy 17:14-17

[3]   I Kings 10-11

[4]  Deuteronomy 17:18-20

[5]  Torah Temimah to Deuteronomy 17:18.

Kristallnacht and Pittsburgh – Is it 1938 Again?

stronger-hate.jpgRemarks delivered at The Community Synagogue on Erev Shabbat (Friday, November 2)

This week’s Torah portion is framed by death. It opens with the passing of Sarah, mother of our people and ends with the death of her husband Abraham. After Sarah dies, the first thing Abraham does is “mourn and cry” – לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ. As we reflect on the slaughter of the “righteous eleven” last Shabbat at that is the first thing due them. In the Torah the letter כ׳ in the word וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ “to cry” is smaller than the others. That is what it means to grieve, to be diminished by the loss of a loved one. And that is us this Shabbat as we remember those killed at Congregation Etz Chaim, for “all Israel is connected one to the other”.

We mourn, however, not only the death of Joyce Fienburg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. We also cry for the passing of our innocence about our place as Jews in this country. We mourn for an America where mass shootings have become the norm, a land that has become numb to the slaughter of innocents in prayer and the young in their schools. We bewail a politics that excuses those who besmirch what is true and denigrate the dignity of others.

Actually, we should not be surprised that a synagogue was attacked. Gun violence is an epidemic in our land. We teach 2 and 3-year old’s to hide in closets, disguising active shooter training as a game. Our students go into their schools to learn what to do should some fellow student turn cafeteria into a slaughterhouse. Hundreds are injured and killed at a concert. At Sandy Hook, Connecticut Kindergarten students and their teachers are butchered. In a Charleston, South Carolina, Black church parishioners studying the Bible are gunned down. There is mass shooting after mass shooting. And we do nothing. Our leaders talk and talk – and the dead pile up in heaps. How can we speak of our greatness as a nation when we allow this to continue? We are morally bankrupt.

After the Shoah (the Holocaust) we rose up as Jews and committed ourselves to a new commandment – a 614th mitzvah – “never again.”  Living in America as Jews – safe, secure, confident – we promised not to stand idly by as hate grew. “Never again” we pledged – determined to not allow hate or racism or anti-Semitism to go unanswered. And yet … and yet. In the past two years the number of anti-Semitic incidents has surged in this country. Anti-Jewish extremism is on the rise. Alongside that is the growing accessibility of the most lethal of weapons. Add to that the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we hear from so many (including our President). It is a dangerous, fatal mix. So – we should be surprised that Jews were targeted, Jews killed specifically because they affirm our Torah’s values of welcoming refugees?! We should be shocked that it a synagogue that was attacked?! The real shock should be that it took so long.

Kristallnacht was the beginning of the end for the Jews of Germany and of Europe, the move from anti-Jewish legislation to the systematized murder of millions. So, we tremble, recalling the words yelled out as the Jews of Congregation Etz Chaim were gunned down: “All Jews must die.”

And it is not us alone. In our understandable focus on our fellow Jews, let us not forget just two days earlier, two others were murdered. The shooter, a white supremacist, tried to enter a Black church just 15 minutes before he went to a nearby supermarket targeting and killing two shoppers – Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones. Stallard was killed while shopping with his 12-year old grandson for supplies for a school project. Both victims were black. The gunman spared another man, who was white, telling him, “Whites don’t kill whites.”

Over a year ago we placed a banner outside our synagogue. On one side is a picture of torch-bearing Nazis at rally around the time of Kristallnacht.  On the other a photo from the alt-right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer. Emblazoned on that banner are the two words Never Again – but now a question: Never Again? Our banner is an indictment and a warning, for the “never” is back – and so the need for a major conference on anti-Semitism next month sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League entitled “Never … is  … Now.”

The effort to intimidate the Jews of Germany on Kristallnacht in November 1938 did not appear out of nowhere. It was the result of years of a nation turning aside its morality, excusing the rantings of a leader who brought Germany prosperity and a renewed sense of self-worth.  Germans felt good about themselves again. And if the price was roughing up some Jews – or, better yet, getting rid of them, so what? Kristallnacht stands as a warning – small acts of hate, unanswered lies and blame of the “other” left unanswered lead inexorably to new and dark reality, the legalization of exclusion and inevitably to an acceptance of violence.

So, is the Pittsburgh of 2018 the Berlin of 1938? Absolutely and unequivocally …  not! America is better than the rantings of neo-Nazis and the murderous acts of those who hate Jews or Blacks or Central Americans or women or … well, you take your pick. We saw the goodness in the hearts of so many Americans again and again this week. Here are vignettes that are also America:

  • Unlike on Kristallnacht, when police and firefighters let the rampaging stormtroopers do their dirty work, Pittsburgh’s finest came to the defense of our fellow Jews – four of those police officers wounded in the onslaught.
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has, on its website and under the logo on the front page, the Hebrew and Aramaic opening of the Mourners’ Kaddish: יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא, a communal acknowledgment that our Jewish pain is our national pain.
  • Tarek El-Messidi, a Chicago-based activist, started up a GoFundMe page for Muslims to give funds to help the victims and their families. In a few days over $225,000 was raised for the families of those murdered.
  • In Washington, DC last Sunday all federal buildings had their flags at half-staff, an official recognition of shared grief; and the President came to Pittsburgh to offer his personal respects. Whether you agreed with him doing so or not (I did, if you are wondering), these both stand in stark contrast to anything we Jews received from governments of the past.
  • At a hockey game between the NY Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins, each players’ helmet and jersey had their team logo emblazoned atop a Magen David (the Jewish star) with the words “Stronger than hate.” Consider that as you recall Jews who, in living memory, were forced to wear that star as a symbol of humiliation and degradation.

So, no, America in 2018 is not Germany of 1938.  But … we may be the Germany of 1932. We stand at the precipice. Wealthy and employed, we have grown fat and complacent to where hate can lead. Tighter security – more guards, higher walls, more impenetrable barriers – these are false hopes if our land is not cured of its sickness of hate and acceptance of violence.

Our prophets of old warned us. Woe to a people inured to violence. Woe to a land whose ruler turns truth to lies and affirms lies as true. Woe to a people whose accept elders and leaders who pervert justice for the sake of power.  Woe to those who attack as invaders those who simply seek the liberty our own ancestors sought, and we expect. Woe to a land that sacrifices its own children, who put self-interest or the “rights” of some above the security of all.

For the Jews of Berlin in November 1938 it was too late. But in 1932 Germany might have taken a different path.  On this night of remembrance, then, this must be our pledge to those who suffered on Kristallnacht and after. Truly, never again.

If ever there was a time to speak up, to defend our selves as Jews, to speak on behalf of others and be politically involved – it is now. Our State representatives, those who serve on our behalf in Congress, the President of our land – they work for me. They answer to you. I will not be quiet.  I will not stand down. Nor should you. Let us vote as we must, lobby as we can, protest if need be. But let us act, so we not look back with regret for having not done more sooner.

Never again will we allow those who hate stifle our demands for truth, peace and compassion. Never again can we let go unanswered some snide remark or joke or put down of Blacks or women or Muslims or Latinos. Never again will we fail to defend our fellow Jews, for we are Am Echad, one people. Never again will we excuse calls of violence as mere political pandering.

Last Shabbat the Jews of Congregation Etz Chaim would have read in Torah Jews the section in Torah all Jews around the world read – how Avraham Avinu, stood in the heat of the day offered hospitality to strangers. They would have read – as did we – how Abraham spoke up for the innocent and righteous.  “Should not the Judge of the Universe be just?” he challenged God – asking that Sodom and Gomorrah not be destroyed if there were but ten good people there. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the people of Israel as the “seed of Abraham, My (i.e. God’s) lover.” (Isaiah 41:8) That is who we are, the “seed of Abraham” – open to the stranger, defender of the needy, guardians of the truth.

In the face of hate, let us love. In a world of lies, let us affirm the truth. In a land broken and in despair, let us heal.  That is what those who died at Congregation Etz Chaim believed. It is what we affirm, too – now, even more than ever.  And so we close with words to a song written this week by Nefesh Mountain, the bluegrass Jewish group we have had with us in the past:

O sweet spirit hear my prayer

Help these words heal someone out there

I am but a voice, just a cry in the air

But I sing nonetheless in this pain we share

O sweet friends come dry your eyes

and hold each other by this tree of life

I’m angry and tired of this great divide

But I sing nonetheless with love on our side.

O sweet spirit hear my prayer

Help these words heal someone out there





The Immigrant Experience as Jewish Paradigm

Jewish kids statue liberty
Jewish refugee children from Austria wave at the Statue of Liberty as the President Harding steams into New York harbor (June 3, 1939).

One of defining features of the American Jewish experience is a shared, collective realization that all of us come from somewhere else. Many came here fleeing a revolution or pogrom or oppressive regime. Even if not, with rare exception, all Jews came to this country knowing the challenges of coming here as a stranger, if not refugee.

It is not in the last 150 years alone that we Jews have known the heart of the stranger. Our foundational identity as being wanderers (refuges, if you will) is at the heart of the opening verses of our parasha.  The Torah speaks to a people still in the wilderness, but anticipates a time when they will be settled in the land, prosperous, comfortable and secure.  At such a time, the Torah commands, the people of Israel were to take the first of their harvest and bring a basket of the fruit of the land to Jerusalem.  Then, they were told to speak ritual words of remembrance that their ancestor was  “a fugitive (or, perhaps, wandering) Aramean.” (Deuteronomy 26:6)

To be the outsider, then, is not just part of our recent historical reality as Jews. We are paradigmatic immigrants.  This identity with the stranger, of being a refugee is a defining characteristic of Jewish thought and values.  We speak of the Exodus from Egypt every Shabbat during Kiddush – a reminder of when we were strangers and had to flee.  The radical result of this is the Biblical insistence that even we are settled in our land – or maybe especially when we are settled and comfortable – that we remember what it is like to be a refugee.  No less than 36 times in the Torah we read that we are to help those who are strangers (the immigrant) because we know what it means to be one.  This is not just an act of compassion, but of shared experience.  As the Torah says, “you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“My father was a fugitive, my mother a refugee” is a call not for just empathy, but a statement of solidarity. Those who leave their home – for economic betterment or  fleeing oppression – are not merely “strangers”.  They are, the Torah makes a claim, those who live our own story.

Today there are more refugees in the world than at any time since the end of the Second World War.  Yet the United States is increasingly making it difficult for those seeking freedom and refuge to come here.  Two years ago the US said it would take in 100,000 refugees (though only 80,000 came).  This year the number allowed in is only 45,000 (though to date in 2018 fewer than 20,000 have entered the US). At a time when refugee admittance is at its lowest in 40 years, it is fair to assume that only those at greatest personal risk (because of political or religious persecution) and deemed having the greatest chance of success are being considered eligible, and so the need to help those who are coming is even greater.

We say, “I am a wanderer” to remind ourselves that as Jews, informed by Jewish values and our history, is to know the heart of the refugee, the one who must flee for his or her life.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents were those who came to this country not knowing English, often unemployed or taking low paying jobs, hoping for freedom.  Those who come today are living our story. They deserve not only our support, but our understanding and respect.  “You know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


Life and Death are in the Tongue

One day after the reports of what Mr. Trump said speaking about other countries I am still aghast. As I struggle to teach young people how to speak with kindness, respect and dignity, what am I to make of our nations’ leader whose words reflect the most crass and base of human hates and bigotry?  And, in addition, whose use of language crosses lines of propriety long acceptable in society? 
Tongue on fireThis incident is a reminder of the importance, for all of us, of how we speak.
The primary way we have to convey our thoughts and feelings with others is with our words.  It is for this reason that Jewish traditions place tremendous emphasis on the ability of language to create or destroy, bring a blessing or a curse. As the book of Proverbs teaches: “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21).
The word for “tongue” in Hebrew – lashon לשוןbegins with the letter lamed ,ל׳ which points up and closes with a final nun ן׳ that points down.  This reminds us that the power of the tongue can direct us towards Heaven, building dignity and conveying kindness, or to lead us down into the gutter, cheapening life, denigrating others and hardening our heart.  
It is for this reason that we ought to be careful about what we say.  Does God hear our words? I think so. But even if you have doubts, our children certainly do. They hear what we (and those who are the role models) in our society say. And they take note.  Truly, our reputation and character (whether we are remembered for good or ill) are in the power of the tongue.

Like those who dream

” … like those who dream.” (Psalms 126:1)

We have all moments of shattered dreams.  My mom was a veteran of WWII and Korea … and “tough as nails”. The first time I saw her cry, however, was when her dream of America was shattered, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Those who are old enough cannot help but feel the loss of safety and security that swept over this land when we saw the towers fall 16 years ago next week. After witnessing what happened in Charlottesville a few weeks ago, where hundreds gathered with torches shouting, “Jews will not replace us”, the response from so many Jews was a collective shiver. What, many are beginning to wonder, is happening to the dream that America represents?

Last week’s Torah portion was about a lofty dream – pursuing justice. It ends with the words “and you shall do that which is right in the eyes of the Eternal.” (Deuteronomy 21:9).  This week’s portion, in contrast, opens by talking about war.  It then discusses personal “wars” – how a lovers can have such a split that they must divorce. And immediately after, we read about the stubborn and rebellious child. It warns us to have fair weights, assuming people will seek to cheat one another, and reminds us that what we own is not fully “ours”, but ought to be shared with those in need. How explain the move from the ideals of justice to the hard realities of life?

Perhaps the Torah is reminding us to recognize that there is a difference between dream and reality.  A dream is the hope of a glorious, almost perfect future.  Reality, by definition, includes disappointments. The willingness to accept that things don’t always go well, that humans can be selfish, cruel and unfair, however, should not lead us to abandon the dream of what could be … what ought to be. Because once you forget the dream, it’s all over.

That is why we need both last week’s Torah portion and this week’s. We can bear life’s uncertainties and its pain when we recall that things can be better. We need to remember this when we become disappointed in our nation or with the State of Israel. America as a country represents noble ideals, the blessing of liberty and equality. Israel is our land of promise. Yet both places disappoint. There is bickering and strife, corruption and inequality. Is it any different in our personal lives? We know that no family is without tension and even the best of friends sometimes go through rough patches. If we use this coming month before Rosh Hashanah, as our traditions say we should, to make a truly honest appraisal of our own lives, it is hard not to be disappointed in our own failures.

We go forward, however, with hope for ourselves, our relationships with our family and friends, through times of prosperity and recession, as lovers of Israel and believers in America at its best, because we know that the tough moments are not all there are.  Our failures don’t define us.  ThHouston helper.jpgis week’s devastation in Texas and the Gulf Coast serves as a reminder that life is messy. It’s unfair, tough and too often hard. But it can be good.  The kindness we’ve seen of so many people for one another, strangers helping strangers carrying others to safety, donating money, items and time to help those who are suffering, are reminders of the nobility of the human soul.

Our days can be just, tomorrow can be better, we can forgive ourselves and our country for not being perfect … so long as we dream.

Advice to college students on responding to anti-Semitism

As many college students begin their year, images of what took place at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago have created nervousness and anxiety. For students (and their parents) here are ten thoughts about what is happening on campuses and suggestions for how to respond:calm

  1. Several people have expressed a particular anxiety about what this means for college students attending universities in the South. There are, however, incidents of anti-Jewish agitation on college campuses throughout our country. Don’t fool yourself. Hatred and bigotry can happen anywhere.
  2. Anti-Semitism is not merely an expression of the far political Right – neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Anti-Jewish sentiment is also seen in the extreme political Left – expressed by those who are anti-Israel and often in the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement. Those who engage in violence – or calls for violence – are the most dangerous, but expressions of hatred are not limited to one political “side”.
  3. Keep in close contact with your college’s Hillel. It is best to work closely with those “on the ground” in each community, and who are likely best informed how to respond. If you are at a university near to a synagogue, contact that congregation and their clergy to see how you can work collaboratively to deal with anti-Jewish sentiment where you live.
  4. If the campus is in a larger city there may be a local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which also does a lot of work supporting tolerance and challenging hate. If you want resources to help you support Israel and battle those who denigrate the Jewish State, look at what is offered by StandWithUS.
  5. Find like-minded individuals on campus standing up against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, bigotry and racism. There are many more people who believe in a tolerant, open and diverse America than who do not.  Also reach out to others who are the targets of hate – African-Americans, members of the LGBT community, Muslims, Hispanics and others. We are stronger together. More than that, when one group is attacked, all are vulnerable.
  6. Advocate for the values we affirm as Jews – justice, truth and peace. These are certainly in line with the best of American virtues, as well.
  7. Do not be silent. If it is not you who is attacked today … in time it will be. If you see or hear something you think is wrong, speak out – if not to those engaged in the behavior, to those in authority who can support you.
  8. Feel free to be in touch with any of your clergy directly. We (or any other clergy) can support and help you find others who can find allies in your efforts to speak out, yet also feel safe.
  9. Be proudly and openly Jewish. Do not be afraid, for fear feeds hate. As Lenny Solomon and Shlock Rock once quipped, but I take seriously, “Be Good. Be Cool. Be Jewish.” It is those who hate who should cower, overwhelmed by those who are courageous in expressing who they are.
  10. Remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can.” Be a model of tolerance, moderation and love. As Shammai taught two millennia ago, “Greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” This may be the hardest suggestion of all, but I think it is the most important. When others spew hate, you will bring honor to yourself, to your community and to the Jewish people by being an emissary of love, respect and moderation. In the face of evil in every generation, our people and faith have affirmed hope and optimism of a better world. You are part of that sacred task.

A blessing for the passing of the eclipse

end of eclipseThe soul in the darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who caused the darkness.  Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables”

It seems, at times, that Jewish traditions suggest blessing for anything. If one witnesses some natural beauty (for example, seeing a comet, lightning, an aurora borealis, or when seeing a mountain or ocean for the first time or after a long period) there is a blessing.   There are blessings for beautiful trees and animals, for seeing a rainbow and hearing thunder.

There is no blessing, however, for an eclipse (for more on that see here). Given how the rabbis in the Talmud understood an eclipse as a “bad omen” that should be no surprise.  Some rabbis are reluctant, even with modern understandings of an eclipse as a natural phenomenon, to suggest a new blessing since those before us felt differently. The current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel suggests, instead, reciting Psalm 19 and 104 when seeing an eclipse.

I would like to offer an alternative  – to say blessing for the moment when the total solar eclipse ends. At that moment, when light first appears, we can balance the traditional understanding of the eclipse as a metaphor of moral darkness, but our power to bring a light of understanding, acceptance and love to create greater goodness in the world.

As soon as the eclipse passes, you may wish to say the traditional morning prayer for creation: “Praised are You, Eternal our God, Creator of light and darkness … Cause a new light to shine upon Zion.”  Or, you can also add this:

Witness to the darkness, allow me to be a maker of light. As the light of the sun reappears, may we be inspired to be among those who bring the light of wisdom, an openness of heart and soul.