Monday, November 23, 2009

We Are Everywhere!

As a student at HUC I was always fascinated by the Chinese texts from the Kaifeng community in the Klau Library Rare Book Room. It exciting to see a Jewish population rediscover itself!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shemini Atzeret?

Shemini Atseret has always been somewhat of an afterthought for me. Having grown up in a Reform congregation, or having been in Israel for the festival, it did not exist separately but rather as a poor step-sister to Simchat Torah and thus was never discussed or taught except as an extension of Sukkot. As I began to read in preparation to write on Shemini Atseret/Simchat Torah, for this Mekor Chayim, I found that even the best of scholars are unsure of what the word Atseret means.

The JPS Commentary on Leviticus 23:36 says: “Hebrew ‘atseret, “solemn gathering,” is a variation of ‘atsarah, a term that designates religious gatherings, such as public fasts. According to Deuteronomy 16:8, as well as the ritual legislation, the ‘atseret consistently comes at the conclusion of a prolonged celebration. This undoubtedly prompted the Septuagint to render it by Greek exodion, “finale, recessional.” Etymologically, this term derives from the verb ‘atsar, “to detain, restrain, confine,” and may refer to the fact that the people are kept together for an additional day.”

This explanation reflected what I was taught in my seminary classes: Shemini Atseret and the change in the Gevurot to “mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem” marked the end of Sukkot so that people could return to their homes after the pilgrimage to Yerushalayim before the start of the rains. Similarly we were taught that the other Atseret, the Biblical name for Shavuot marked the end of Pesach. This may be an interesting line of thought, but it is not particularly spiritually uplifting.

As I continued to read about Shemini Atseret, I found this passage from the Soncino translation of the Zohar, Chelek Gimmel amud 197a:
R. Abba discoursed on the passage beginning: ‘If thou know not, O thou fairest among women’, etc. (S.S. I, 8). ‘The Community of Israel’, he said, ‘is she that gathers in from all the camps above, and holds in all that she gathers, letting it escape only by drops like dew, because there is not sufficient faith below. For if She were to find faith as it is found in her, She would pour the light on every side without restraint, and they would give to her also gifts and presents without stint. But it is those of the lower world who restrain them and restrain her, and therefore she is called Azereth (the restrainer). Nevertheless, as a mother gives to her sons in secret and unbeknown, so she does with her children, Israel.”

Perhaps then Shemini Atseret, is like R. Abba’s “The Community of Israel”, the “Azereth”. It restrains, marking the end of Sukkot. It wants to pour its light of Torah upon us from all sides as we surround ourselves with the beginning and end of Torah on Simchat Torah. And even after the end of Sukkot, it gives us another little bit, an extra day’s worth of holiness, to “her children Israel” through this almost secret, hidden festival day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Erev Yom Kippur

I don’t know the reason why Rome fell. I don’t the reason why the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the British Empire or even the Soviet Union fell. To be more precise, I don’t know the reasons they told themselves their great empires collapsed. What I do know is the reason we told ourselves as Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed first by the Babylonians and then 650 years later by the Romans.

The year: 586 B.C.E. Imagine yourself sitting atop the roof of your home in Jerusalem watching as the Babylonian army breeches the city wall, sacks and loots first your home, and then God’s home, the sacred Temple built by Solomon. Gazing at the destruction about to engulf you a verse from Psalm 22:2 comes to mind: אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

See yourself now sitting in exile on the banks of the Tigris. The head of your community rises and expounds, echoing the message of the great Biblical prophets: “God did not forsake us, rather we caused the destruction of our Temple, we caused our own exile because we sinned. What were our sins: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים - idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.” And so you and your community make a vow: “If we are allowed to return from exile, reestablish our Temple and our lives, we will change our ways and teach our children to avoid these sins through which we brought destruction upon our heads.”

A few generations pass. Picture yourself looking down from above as you see your descendants return from exile, rebuild the Temple and reestablish Jewish life in Jerusalem and Israel. Look with pride at how your children’s children’s children seem to remember the lesson you taught and avoid those 3 great sins that brought destruction so many years before: idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.

A more generations pass and you again look down to check in on your descendants. There you see your, well who knows how many greats, grandchild sitting on top of a roof, just like the one you sat on, watching the Roman army breech the city wall, sack and loot first her home, and then God’s home, the sacred Temple built by the returning exiles from Babylonia. As she sits gazing at the destruction about to engulf her that same verse from Psalm 22:2 comes to her mind: אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Confusion envelops her mind. How could this be? We heeded the warning of our ancestors and have, for the most part, avoided the 3 great sins.

See your descendant sitting in exile on the banks of the Tiber. The head of her community rises and expounds, echoing the message of the great Biblical prophets: “God did not forsake us, rather we caused the destruction of our Temple, we caused our own exile because we sinned. What was our sin? Yes we avoided the sins of our ancestors but we have our own single sin equivalent to all 3 of theirs: שנאת חנם - Baseless hatred, hatred for the sake of hatred, hate with no thought of the cost or consequences of that hate.”

How do I know these were the reasons we told ourselves about the two destructions of Jerusalem and our exiles? Because our Talmudic and Medieval rabbis continued to teach them to us! In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma - the tractate discussing this great and awesome day of Yom Kippur - we are taught: “But why was the Second Temple destroyed as they studied Torah, followed the Mitzvot and did Gemilut Chasadim - Acts of Loving Kindness? Because within it was שנאת חנם. This teaches us that שנאת חנם is the equivalent of all three sins (that caused the destruction of the First Temple) - idolatry, sexual impropriety and the spilling of innocent blood.”

The ancient Rabbis not only proclaimed שנאת חנם to be the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, they told us how שנאת חנם spread. Tractate Taanit teaches: “And the second interpretation of the language of retort, hints at the sin of the Second Temple שנאת חנם, which comes from lashon hara - malicious speech.” The great Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague in his compilation of ethical laws from the Talmud, Netzach Yisrael wrote: “And thus they said that שנאת חנם is equivalent to the 3 sins (for which the First Temple was destroyed) for שנאת חנם defiles and causes chaos within the entire human soul. But the 3 sins only defile one part of the soul each while שנאת חנם defiles the whole soul in its entirety, because the essence of the human soul is wholeness, it is singular and all of the strength of life that exists. Hatred tears the soul apart and this is against the essence of the soul.” He continues: “All of Israel was like a single person when there was one altar... By means of שנאת חנם and hateful language, the city and the Second Temple were destroyed.Using hateful language, splits and destroys unity.”

Each year, multiple organizations beseech rabbis to speak to their particular issue on Yom Kippur. They know that this night, more of you will hear our words than any other single occasion during the year. This year, advocates for health care reform, ending the wars, ending hunger, GLBT rights, and a plethora of other causes have sent me mail: postal service mail, email and voice mail literally begging me to speak on their behalf. But as I considered each, one theme kept coming back to me - שנאת חנם.

Many have called for a return to civility in our public discourse but I believe that the issue is deeper. We have devolved into a culture of hate. Politicians, preachers and commentators not only vehemently express their disdain for positions other than their own, they call upon their listeners and followers to hate those with whom they disagree.

It is easy to find their words. A quick Google search produced Rush Limbaugh calling for a reinstitution of segregated buses, a Baptist pastor expressing his hatred for President Obama, encouraging his congregation to take loaded weapons to the President’s appearances and saying that killing the President would not be murder or even a sin, two sitting governors, a gubernatorial candidate and several state legislatures calling for secession from the United States (an issue I thought was settled with the blood of over 700,000 Americans spilled in the Civil War) plus thousands of other hits about our supposedly respected leaders promoting the hatred and demonization of others. We are a country that allows free speech and I am glad we do. But, as we all know, our words can heal or hurt, cause our souls to soar to the heavens or draw us into the depths of evil.

In ancient times, we committed the sin of שנאת חנם by using language to debase and divide, not build up and unify, and thus were the Romans able to take advantage of our divisiveness to conquer and condemn us to exile.

The Rabbis, who valued debate and disagreement so much they respectfully include even losing positons in their literature, understood that sowing hatred was inherently different. They knew that after true debate and disagreement, once a decision was made, all came together to support it. Once they even punished the head of the great Sanhedrin for publicly humiliating another Rabbi who had disagreed with him. We are taught in Tractate Berachot: “ Rabban Gamaliel remained sitting and expounding and R. Joshua remained standing, until all the people there began to shout and say, Stop! and he stopped. They then said: How long is he [Rabban Gamaliel] to go on insulting him [R. Joshua]? Come, let us depose him! ” And depose him they did.

So what are we to do? It is incumbent upon each of us to stand up and call out the haters and promoters of hate for what they are, in fact we are commanded in tomorrow afternoon’s Torah portion to do so! Lev. 19:17-18; “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart... You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai.” It is also incumbent upon us to follow the law just a few verses earlier: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people; nor shall you stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds; I am Adonai.” Our Rabbis equated שנאת חנם with the spilling of innocent blood, with murder, and where blood is being spilled, we cannot stand idly by.

This past Friday, members of Westboro Baptist Church came to Park Slope in Brooklyn to stage one of their hate filled protests in front of tour sister Congregation Beth Elohim. Westboro is located in Topeka, Kansas and its pastor, Fred Phelps, and members travel the country protesting at the funerals of patriots, prominent people, the victims of disaster like our neighbors on Flight 3407, soldiers killed in Iraq and Afganistan claiming that these heroes, our honored dead, are burning in hell because God killed them and was punishing them for the sin of America tolerating Gays, Lesbians and Jews.

During the protest, church members held up signs saying “The Jews killed Jesus” “God Hates Israel” and “Anti-Christ Obama”. Members of Beth Elohim gathered in front of the synagogue as their Rabbi, Andy Bachman, blew the shofar. The sound of the Shofar drowned out the hate filled shouts of Phelps and his congregants. The sound of the Shofar calls up so much in our being - it is a call for freedom for all, a hope for the coming of Messianic times and this past Friday in Park Slope, a call for us to stand up against those who promote שנאת חנם with their words and deeds.

The choice is ours: Will we allow the haters to go unchallenged and risk the breech of our walls and the destruction of all that we hold as sacred? Or will we hearken to the sound of the Shofar and work to keep those who preach and practice שנאת חנם from destroying us all?

The choice is ours.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon - How to Pray

I have spent the past several months looking for the perfect, inviting, captivating, exciting, interesting, and engaging opening for the sermon, all to no avail. And so I’ll begin with a seemingly obvious and easy question; “why are we here”. Or to put it another way “what do we want to hear?”

There is that beautiful passage in our prayer books: “each of us enters this synagogue with a different need...” But the answer to most of the needs listed; gratitude and joy, sorrow, healing, support, frustration, understanding, and warmth can be found in many places. Why then do we come to the synagogue, this place of worship, each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur like swallows returning to Capestrano?

Could it be as it says in the prayer “ some spirits hunger?” Our souls hunger, and if so his this the place we feed them with our prayer? We listen to music, hear and read words passed down through the centuries. But as we sit and listen to the music and the words of the prayers, as we sing and read aloud melodies and words both familiar and strange, are we praying? What does it even mean to pray? How does one pray when the words are are not ours? How does one pray ideas and theologies blatantly at odds with what we believe or want to believe?

Our liturgy on these Days of Awe includes what may be the most theologically challenging of all our prayers, the U’netaneh Tokef. “Let us declare the sacred power of this day... On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die... who by fire and who by water, wo by sword and who by beast; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted...” For the Yom Kippur afternoon I will lead an in depth examination of this prayer. But for now, suffice it to say that even if what I have always taught is true, that prayer should be seen as poetry to be interpreted, not prose merely to be accepted, the U’netaneh Tokef’s image of God sitting in heaven and writing our fate in the Book of Life challenges our sense of the world. Our experience teaches us that the world does not work this way. The righteous do not live longer and better than those who stray from the path God laid out for us. The good die as young or old as the wicked. Some of the kindest amongst us possess the least and the meanest possess the most.

So again I ask: “Why do we use words we do not understand and concepts we do not accept as truth?” If the prayers do not touch our soul, where does the responsibility lie? In ourselves? In the leaders of the service? In the prayers themselves?

In a recent article in the Journal of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Joel Mosberger wrote: “the challenge in our lives is to find ways to put our whole selves into the prayer experience whether that is as a part of ritualized communal prayer or daily as we go about our lives.” Rabbi Mosberger sets for us a challenging goal, but how do we accomplish it?

Perhaps the words of our great medeaval philosopher Bachya Ibn Pakuda can help us find the path: “The words of prayers,” he says, “are like the husk covering the grain, and reflection on their meaning is like the kernel. Prayer itself is like the body, and reflecting on its meaning is like the spirit. If we merely utter the words of prayers while thinking about matters other than prayer, it is like a body without a spirit, a husk without a kernel, the body is present but the mind is absent.”

From this we can see that the way to meaningful prayer lies not emotion alone, but rather in thought. As we know, the only person who can truly focus your mind is you yourself. The Talmudic rabbis taught that we are to pray with Kavanah - intention. And while we usually define intention as an emotional process, for the Talmudic rabbis, like for the mystics of Jewish, Christian and eastern traditions, intention encompasses clearing one’s mind of all else other than the prayer we are praying and through contemplation, active thinking, finding meaning in the words we read and hear.

As I have said from this bema before, much of my personal spirituality is embodied in the sounds and rhythms of the prayers and the music. As Mary Travers, aleha l’shalom, sang: “music speaks louder than words.” But in reality, our liturgical music serves merely as a conduit allowing the words to infuse our minds like an IV facilitates medicine entering our bodies.

If we do not connect with the words, perhaps it is our focus that is askew. Dr. Max Arzt of blessed memory used to tell this story: “A group of tourists were going through the Louvre making superficial comments like: ‘what do you think of this one’ or ‘this one is nice’. The guards at the Louvre are not everyday run of the mill guards. Guarding the Louvre is not their job or their career it is their passion. One of them finally said to the tourists: ‘I think that you should know that these paintings have been here for a long time. They are no longer on trial. Instead, they judge the people who come to look at them.’”

The same is true with our prayers. The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, actually means judgement. And the verb to pray, l’hitpaleil, means to judge oneself. Thus we find the entire task of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Hebrew word for prayer. As we pray, we examine where we have been and how we have behaved. This gives us the foundation to determine for ourselves, how we, not God sitting on a throne writing in an actual book, will write ourselves into the book of life and deeds through our actions and our thoughts.

Prayer, our minds evaluating ourselves and finding meaning in the word can be, and in this age often is, one of the hardest things we can do. Oh, if we are in crisis prayer becomes easy. But because we, who so value intellect and thought, focus instead on the emotionality of prayer, we build ourselves a barrier that is too high and too wide and block ourselves from truly praying. We set ourselves up to believe that prayer must provide us with an emotional high to be considered meaningful. Rather, meaningful prayer must lead us to a finding of the self.

Twelve years ago, in 1997, I took my first online Judaic studies course. The topic, prayer. The instructors, Rabbi Reuven and Barbara Sutnick taught in that class: “‘We live in an age when it is not fashionable to pray’ observes Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin in his book To Pray As A Jew. Perhaps we are too spiritually ‘arrogant’ to pray; for prayer requires a measure of awe and modesty and a sense of gratitude for what we have in life. Could it be that modern men and women have been so successful in building a wall of sophisticated civilization around themselves that they attribute all that they see to their own efficacy and power? Perhaps there are those who DO appreciate the power of the natural world yet choose not to pray because they have difficulty believing in the existence of a God to listen to prayers.” They go on to write: “everybody has SOME NOTION of what prayer is AND EVERYBODY HAS DIFFICULTY WITH PRAYER.”

The Sutnicks are correct. Each of us has difficulty with prayer at some time or other, at some level or other. A difficult prayer like the U’netaneh Tokef or a seemingly straight forward statement like the Shema can stymie our best efforts to pray with “all of our mind, all of our strength and all of our soul.”

Further, most of us have never been taught how to pray! We’ve sat through services. We’ve learned the words in religious school. We’ve even prayed our own spontaneous prayers. But, how to pray with intention, challenging our minds and the recesses of our souls is at least as difficult as the hardest subjects we studied in school. Yet, we haven’t taught or been taught how to pray. That is our failure and our responsibility as the religious and educational leaders of this congregation. And while our individuality demands personalized lessons in praying, that is no excuse for why before this evening, we really haven’t spoken of how to pray.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Norman Hirsch of Seattle, taught me how to pray. In each service, whether leader or congregant, whether alone or as part of a minyan, Rabbi Hirsch finds a sentence, a phrase, a word and like the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, he focuses his mind on understanding it fully. His mood, his recent and life long experiences, that is his soul, inspires which sentence, phrase or word speaks to him that day. But his mind finds the meaning. Perhaps then, while we find ease and comfort in our method of praying with everyone on the same page at the same time, the orthodox custom of each person praying at his or her own pace as Rabbi Hirsch does, is more conducive to praying with kavanah, with focused minds.

To this day, I never know going into a service what prayer my soul will send to my mind. If I try to predict what it will be, I am inevitably wrong. The unknown, this unpredictability constitutes the wonder and awe of a praying experience.

The early Chasidic masters understood what the Sutnicks describe as the difficulty of prayer. From the Baal Shem Tov through the first three generations of Chasidic Rebbes we learn story after story about just how hard it is for people to pray. They tell of uneducated Jews whose prayers consisted of reciting the aleph bet with the confidence that God would take the letters and put them in the proper order. I love the story of the boy whose prayer of playing the flute on Yom Kippur being recognized as the most meaningful prayer in the shul, because it was the only way he knew to pray and the music came from his soul.

Further, the Chasidic Masters tell of the times their minds were not able to handle the intellectual part of prayer. Even the greatest of Rebbes knew that at times, like the rest of us, all he could do was sing a niggun, dance a few steps, listen in silence to the rhythm of the Hebrew, or pray from his feelings. Professor David Ariel in his book Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart & Soul to Jewish Life expresses it thus: “If the words of the prayer book, someone else’s words, are not adequate, we can find our own words. Even if we sit or stand silent in the synagogue while everyone around us is reading, reciting, or chanting, the thing that truly matters is what we experience in our privacy.”

So please do not hear that I do not value the emotional component of prayer. As I look out at the congregation at each service, I see the emotion, the experience of privacy most especially during Kaddish. Few people ever take the time to read the English translation of the Kaddish let alone think about its meaning. It is the sound and rhythm of the words, it is the strength of being part of a congregation that moves each person We on the Bema also have the privilege of seeing in front of us at each service, the heart of the prayers expressed through beautiful movement; from bodies swaying with the music to out and out soulful dance.

So this year, let us accept this challengeduring these Days of Awe. do not rush. Stop and think about a prayer without worrying that the rest of the service passes you by. If your mind won’t or can’t engage, only then let the words or music infuse your heart and impact your soul. As Rabbi Larry Kushner says: “Prayer is like the hokey pokey. We have to put our whole selves in.”

May the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Health Care Reform - Debate or Fanaticism

It is almost like group hysteria. A barrage of misinformation and hate spewed instead of rational debate. Regardless of how one feels about a particular health care proposal, we have to deal in facts not fanaticism.

Here is one article to help with the discussion.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Forward - August 28, 2009

There are three interesting articles in this weeks Forward. Two of them deal with Siddurim (prayerbooks) and how they reflect our Judaism.

The other is a fascinating article entitled: Your Father is Dead and My Pot Roast is Ruined: Reflections on the Torah of "Six Feet Under". What drew me to the article was the title (I was a major fan of "Six Feet Under". However, as I read it, the author Noach Dzmura helped me understand that the requests I receive from more and more families concerning the funerals of their loved ones, may seem odd on the surface. In reality come from a deep place of trying to respect and honor their beloved dead thus fulfilling our Jewish value of Kavod Hamet - honoring the dead.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chautauqua Reflections - 2010

Written August 14, 2009

This, my 9th summer in residence at the Chautauqua Institution has felt very different, even awkward to me and I have struggled to figure out the reasons. My first thought was that Michele joined me here for the first week instead of our norm which would be my second week here. As most people who know me will attest, I do not do well with change in patterns. I believe another part of the difference is due to my having to make 3 round trips back home to Buffalo. And of course, the death of a good friend contributed as well. Other possibilities are out there but I believe they are minor.

This morning Anna Deavere Smith spoke on creativity. For those of you who are not familiar with her performances, she is perhaps best known for her work as the National Security Advisor on "West Wing" and now stars in the series "Nurse Jackie". She postulated that we we are taught that we need peaceful, supportive settings to foster our creativity as well as good mentors. Yet, in reality, we are most creative when we are not comfortable, when we feel in a place of vulnerability, are alone and feel a lack of safety.

This year, Chautauqua has been for me a place of non-comfort, or even ill-ease. Perhaps that is why for the first time in many years, I am well ahead on my preparation for my High Holy Day sermons.

Discomfort, though, is a relative term. It seems obscene to even consider not being at peace and serene here. I have always had some of these feelings here, but this year they seem to be deeper.

When I look around at the homogeny of the faces, I feel as I did when I attended my first pro ball game in a major West Coast city. Having grown up in Cleveland, the faces in the stadium seemingly represented every race and nation. At that game on the West Coast, everyone looked like me. It was odd. That same sense infuses me here.

It also exists here on a deeper level. A colleague whom I first met outside of Chautauqua is here. A former military chaplain, he is now the pastor of a church here on the grounds. The Chautauquan Daily (the Institution's daily paper) listed him as teaching a course on Christian views on violence. Given his experience as a Chaplain, I felt that it would be a different perspective than what I normally hear here at Chautauqua. His presentation was masterful. He was able to present an honest overview of Christian tradition, which like all religious traditions has inspired violence internally and externally. It was masterful because it was honest, complete and yet did not alienate the majority of the listeners for whom, based on the comments and questions, pacifism is not only the ideal but seems heroic. When even a hint of dissent from another listener began to peek through, the other listeners were quick to decry the dissent and at times even actively condemn those who might hold a different view. And while I agreed with much of what the listeners were saying, the room became so stifling to me that I could not bring myself to return for more sessions.

As I wrote above, I don't deal well with changes in patterns, however, too much sameness wears on me as well.

On the other hand, as I write this I sit on the UCC porch listening to the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra play beautifully. The air is not too warm and what could be more serene. Shabbat services were filled with spirit and peace. The M family, as always, has provided a home for me here. Seeing their grandchildren growing and maturing, their mother celebrating a 98th birthday and the fulfillment of one of their dreams for Chautauqua come true, warms my heart. The time Michele was here was warm and connected. So I do feel blessed, not only here but in my life as a whole. Even the ill-ease I have felt in my time here is a blessing through the inspiration it has brought to the surface.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Commentary on Parashat Pinchas for United Jewish Communities

Our Parsha this week begins (Numbers 25:10 - 13):

God spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion (Keena) for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion (Keenati). Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of Peace (Brit Shalom). It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned (Keena) action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’”

We remember from the end of last week’s Parsha that Pinchas' passion led him to kill the Israelite Zimri who was flaunting his relationship with the Midianite Cozbi in front of the Tent of Meeting. This occurs just after God ordered the killing of the Israelite men who had been led astray to worship Baal Peor by some Moabite women.

We often refer to Pinchas' passion as zealousness and our text has God rewarding Pinchas for taking up God's passion/anger at the idolatry of the Israelites. In this sense Pinchas acted from his understanding that at our essence we are created in the image of God and thus we must act "godly". If God ordered the killing of the Israelite men for idolatry, Pinchas could kill Zimri and Cozbi.

We are not comfortable with zealousness, especially religious zealousness. Everyday we read of killing and oppression "in God's name." While our rabbis expected halachic observance and loyalty to God, they too understood the danger of religious zealousness to the human soul.

God's promise to Pinchas that the priesthood would flow from his line comes to fruition at the end of the book of Joshua as he takes over the office of the High Priest from his father Eleazar. He serves in that role throughout the book of Judges and held office following the victory of Jepthah. Jepthah promised to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his home upon his return from victorious battle. We know it was his daughter that came out to greet him and ends up as the sacrifice. In Bereishit Rabbah 60:3 the rabbis condemn Jepthah for his lack of foresight and his arrogance. He could have approached the High Priest, our very same Pinchas, and asked him to annul his vow but instead said: "Am I, the chief of Israel's leaders, to go to Pinchas!". Of course, as High Priest, Pinchas could have gone to Jepthah and offered to annul the vow. They write: "Pinchas, however, said: He needs me, and I am to go to him! Moreover, I am a High Priest and the son of a High Priest; shall I then go to an ignoramus?" The rabbis go on to say that it was at that moment of refusal to act in mercy that God withdraws from Pinchas and Jepthah is condemned to die a horrible death. Of course, Jepthah's daughter, who both Pinchas and Jepthah see as being so insignificant she remains nameless in the text, is the one sacrificed.

Pinchas in his zealousness to act "Godly" began to think of himself as "god-like". He only remembered the part of God's blessing that "elevated" him to the office of High Priest. Pinchas allowed his zealousness and hubris to forget the other part of the gift from God - the Brit Shalom. As leaders in the Jewish community we need to remember that we carry an awesome (in its original sense) responsibility. We need to strive to reclaim the Brit Shalom by setting aside our self perception as being "god-like" and risk sacrificing those who count on us most. By rejecting being “god-like” for being godly, we ensure that all those in our community, from the lowest to the highest, also find their Brit Shalom with God.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mah Nishtanah Hashanah Hazot - Why is this year different from all other years?

Twenty-eight years ago, my fellow rabbinic students stood on the lawn of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and did the ritual of Birkat Hachamah - the Blessing of the Sun - a ritual Jews do every 28 years to mark the moment that, it is said, the sun is in the same position God placed it at creation. Twenty-eight years ago I did the ritual because it seemed unique, cool and the thing to do. This year I stood upon my deck as the sun rose reciting the blessing and surrounding readings with a different sense. This year I felt a sense of awe, appreciation and gratitude.

The difference? I knew that as soon as I completed the ceremony I was heading to the airport to fly to D.C. to have seder with friends and fly back the next morning. There I stood, living in freedom, able to stand outside and do a "strange" Jewish ceremony, then "jet set" to D.C. to celebrate Pesach our festival of freedom. Not only is it special to have the freedom to worship openly as a Jew or live in a time where technology enables me to travel hundreds of miles in an hour, but to be able to afford to travel to be with friends this year of all years is truly special a special gift.

I think that is why I not only did Birkat Hachamah with a deeper spirit but why I am counting the Omer for the first time ever. Counting the Omer always seemed to me to be an anachronism. First, we have calendars and do not need to pile up sheaves of wheat to remind us how many days are left before we celebrate Shavuot. Second, I've never grown wheat or lived anywhere I could grow winter wheat. Yet this year it I am finding a new sense of meaning in marking the passing of each day as we move toward celebrating the Revelation at Sinai.

Again, I believe counting the Omer for me is an expression of appreciation. While I have never subscribed to the thinking that in order to appreciate the good one needs to experience lack. However, it seems to me this year that focusing on our ancestors creating a way to mark time that uses one of their precious resources feels right. I also seem more conscious, more aware of the approach of Shavuot. I do not know what happened at Mount Sinai. I do not know if it even occurred. But the underlying sense of being in partnership with God and thanking God for allowing us to share in the bounty of the earth and find a path that leads us through our actions to a deeper sense of self and spirituality feels powerful this year.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Continental 3407, Susan Wehle and Jonah Dreskin z'l

I was sitting at my desk at Broder when I got the call. Susan Wehle was on Continental flight 3407 which crashed the night before in Clarence Center. Rick Ellis, the executive director of Temple Beth Am called and asked if I would lead services at Temple Beth Am that evening because their rabbi, Irwin Tannenbaum, was out of state and unable to return until Saturday evening. I sat at my desk stunned and unable to comprehend the reality and depth of what Rick had told me. I began calling friends and colleagues in Buffalo asking their help and getting their ideas for the service.

That afternoon I went to Temple Beth a.m. to meet with Cantor Barbara Ostfeld Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein and members of Temple Beth Am to plan the service. We knew from the beginning that while we needed to remember Susan we needed to also remember that it was not her funeral nor was it a memorial service. We needed to remember it was Shabbat.

Thanks to the help of my colleagues and the support of my friends and family service that evening was profound. Following the service people did not want to be alone. They stayed in small groups or gathered together and went out as friends. Some of our friends gathered back at our home to talk about our feelings and to remember Susan. One of our friends brought a reporter from the New York Times who wanted to talk to us about what a close community Buffalo is and how we felt losing a colleague and friend, as well as the multiple connections we had with others on the flight. That evening proved to be cathartic for me.

The next morning I was on my way to TBZ when I got a call from another friend who said that the FBI was looking for a Jewish chaplain to come out to the crash site itself. I rearranged my schedule and shortly after noon arrived at the crash site. What I witnessed the Saturday and Sunday that I spent the crash site was inspiring, awesome, and humbling. Members of federal, state and local agencies and organizations, police and fire departments, aviation safety agencies and volunteers worked together in a manner that was cooperative and respectful. Everyone involved understood the magnitude of what they were doing and the need to preserve the dignity of the 50 who had died. Those who were working to recover the remains of the deceased did so in a manner which made me proud and which challenged me to remember to act in ways that would also bring honor to my community as well as the deceased.

Not once during the time I was at the site did I see people's egos or agendas get in the way. Everyone understood the task that was being asked of them. We were standing at the site, not only of destruction but, what was in reality the equivalent of a graveyard. Judaism teaches that the body of the dead once contained a holy soul, a spark of the divine. As such, even after death, when the soul has departed, we treat the body with the utmost respect and dignity. I can attest that everyone at the crash site not only met that obligation but exceeded it.

Over the next two weeks, the crash and the death of Cantor Wehle remained the topic of conversation in the community. Each of us in our own way spent time supporting and debriefing each other. Near the end of the second week the conversations began to lessen in frequency. That is when I began to feel the personal impact of what I had seen and participated in at the crash site. Thanks to the support of friends and my family especially Michele, Joel, Barbara and Steve, I was beginning to put in perspective the impact that crash and Susan’s death was having on me.

A week later however, it all came rushing back as we received word that Jonah Dreskin had died at the University at Buffalo. Jonah z'l was the son of Rabbi Billy and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. While I know and understand that the pain Jonah’s family was and is experiencing can only be overwhelming, the horror of his death at so young an age brought to the surface all the feelings I thought I had dealt with but still remained after the crash.

I do believe in the immortality of the soul and the peace of the afterlife. I believe that Jonah’s soul, Susan’s spirit, as well as the souls and spirits of all those who died on Continental flight 3407 are at peace. It is we who are left in this world who are not at peace. Perhaps all we can do is take a measure of comfort in knowing that they are at peace and focus on the warm glow of the memories they left behind and which we treasure.

May all their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life may they and we always be at peace.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Support our Jewish Troops at Passover!

I received the following email. I hope you all join me in this important effort.

Each year at Purim the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council asks your assistance as we reach out to help Jews serving in the military celebrate Passover. Supporting Jews in the military has been our mission since WW I, and this year it is as important as ever. Right now there are approximately 10,000 Jewish men and women on active duty. Some are not products of congregational life and some are the products of the Orthodox community but the vast majority are from liberal Jewish congregations. They are our congregational children and grand children. Many of them, especially those serving overseas, don't have access to Passover food products unless JWB sends it to them. Even those who receive Passover food from the military receive only 3 very basic "pouch" meals per day without the holiday foods we take for granted, things like gefilte fish, horseradish, macaroons, Passover candy and even egg matzo are just not part of the Defense Department inventory.

Please go to to contribute to this effort to support our Jewish troops at Passover.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Shanda on us all!

I hate the word "tolerance" when it is used to speak about dealing with other groups unlike ourselves. We tolerate things we don't like. I barely tolerate going to the gym but I go because the alternative is worse. We tolerate a job we do not like because we need to support ourselves and our loved ones.

The Los Angeles based Simon Wiesenthal Center is going to build a Museum of Tolerance on a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. This demeans even the best possible meaning of tolerance. Are they asking the Muslim community of Jerusalem to "tolerate" the desecration of their cemetery so the Wiesenthal Center and its director can bulid a monument to themselves in the name of building good relations with others?

When a non-Jewish group in Europe tries to build on the site of a long abandoned Jewish cemetery, the Wiesenthal Center is among the first to protest the desecration and the building project. Now they plan to do the same. To me this act of desecration of sacred ground is the utmost act of hypocrisy. It is a shanda of the highest order for the whole Jewish community. Instead of restoring the Beth Jacob cemetery on Doat Street last summer, imagine our community's response if a NY court declared it abandoned and a group tried to build a Mosque on it! Our friend Norman Weinberg has dedicated innumerable hours to the restoration of Jewish cemeteries in Poland with great success and has brought much honor to our community and to Poland. The Wiesenthal Center, by its decision and action brings more shame and harm to our people than Bernie Madoff. They are desecrating not only this cemetery but everything their namesake and one of my personal heroes Simon Wiesenthal stood for.

Please take a moment to write to the Wiesenthal Center by going to their website: and clicking on the contact us link at the very bottom of the page.

Click here to read an article on the Museum from the Los Angeles Times.

Here is Rabbi Eric Yoffie's op-ed piece on the Museum.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution asking the Wiesenthal Center to move the location of the Museum.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Remarks at the Shabbat Service Remembering Susan Wehle, Temple Beth Am, Friday February 13, 2009

כל העולם כולו, גשר צר מאד והעיקר לא לפחד בו
The world is but a narrow bridge - the essence is not to fear it.

These words, paraphrasing the great Chasidic Master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav have been running through my head ever since Rick Ellis called me this morning with the news that Susan Wehle was on the plane that crashed last night.

When we heard the news of the crash last night before bed or this morning upon awakening, our minds - as is only natural - began to wonder if we knew anyone on the plane AND THEN if any Jews were on the plane. To hear that there was someone we knew so well, someone who touched each of us, and gave so much of herself to our community, shocked us, numbed us, rattled us to our very core.

For many here tonight, in the face of pain or death, it was Susan to whom we turned for comfort, for music, for a hug, for a kind word. And so we gather here tonight as a community, on Shabbat, to find a measure of Shabbat Shalom, of Shabbat healing, of Shabbat wholeness, of Shabbat peace.

We want to cry out “Why!?” But we know that is not the question. The question is how to live our lives to honor Susan’s memory.

כל העולם כולו, גשר צר מאד והעיקר לא לפחד בו
The world is but a narrow bridge - the essence is not to fear it.

Susan knew and we know the fragility and preciousness of life. Susan knew and taught us that a life lived in fear is a life unlived. We all walk that narrow bridge. Let us join hands and hold each other up. Let us begin to heal each other. Let us walk the narrow bridge together unafraid in the knowledge that our community helps carry us across in peace.

Monday, January 5, 2009

I received the following press release today:

“Operation Tefillah, Torah & Troops” Gets Underway

As the members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) battle Hamas terrorists and Palestinian militants in Gaza, leading international Torah scholars have launched a worldwide effort aimed at providing them with spiritual support.

“Operation Tefillah, Torah & Troops,” which was launched by Rabbi Simcha HaCohen Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Rehovot, Israel, and the Bostoner Rebbe (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz) of Har Nof, Israel, partners people from around the world with soldiers in the IDF. Each person who takes part in “Operation Tefillah, Torah & Troops” is paired with an Israeli soldier, and is responsible to say tefillot (prayers), learn Torah, and do special acts of chesed (kindness) on behalf of that solider.

Rabbi Kook and the Bostoner Rebbe noted that this concept is one that has been a part of the Jewish people for thousands of years. When Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) led the Jewish people to war with the nation of Midyon, for every person who went to battle, there was a designated person who was responsible for praying and learning for him. Throughout his reign, David HaMelech (King David) utilized this practice as well. During the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, more than 50,000 people worldwide participated in this initiative spearheaded by Rabbi Kook and the Bostoner Rebbe, and facilitated in North America by the National Council of Young Israel.

To participate in “Operation Tefillah, Torah & Troops” and receive the name of an Israeli soldier who needs your prayers, email the office of Rabbi Kook . To request the name of a soldier by phone or fax, call the National Council of Young Israel at 212-929-1525 x100, or send a fax to 212-727-9526. Members of the IDF who wish to have a “partner” praying for them are urged to e-mail the office of Rabbi Kook as well.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the Executive Vice President of the National Council of Young Israel, noted that every tefillah that is said on behalf of a soldier will make a difference, regardless of where a person may be in religious observance.

“Each soldier that is putting his or her life on the line to defend the land of Israel and safeguard the Jewish nation deserves to have someone praying for their well being and safe return,” said Rabbi Lerner, “During my conversations with Rabbi Kook, he emphasized that every Jew is encouraged to participate in this critical endeavor and to pray for a soldier in a manner in which they feel comfortable, irrespective of their religious background.”