It Is Time To Do Something About Sexual Harassment – Noach 5778

Noah is described as a “righteous man, perfect in his generation.”  God singles him out to build the ark and collect animals of every species on earth to preserve life after the coming flood.  We take the Torah’s word for it.  Noah was indeed a righteous man.  But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims, righteousness is not the same thing as leadership.

For one hundred twenty years, Noah builds an ark according to God’s specifications.  In all of that time, we do not have a single record of a conversation with his neighbors.  Noah does not try to change God’s mind.  He does not try to convince anyone to change their ways.  He does nothing to try to avert the flood that he knows is coming or save any lives other than the ones God commands him to save.

Can you imagine Abraham or Moses being so complacent?

Noah’s lack of leadership raises questions about his righteousness.  In what way, exactly, is he so righteous?  In an age in which all life on earth has become thoroughly corrupt, perhaps it is sufficient to maintain one’s own personal moral integrity.

Does this make Noah innocent?  Is it enough to be righteous in one’s own personal domain while everyone else is wicked?  The ambiguity is reflected in a Talmudic argument.  One Sage argues that to behave properly in a society that has lost its way reflects a person of extremely high moral character and strength.  Another Sage argues that Noah’s righteousness is only in comparison to his own generation.  In Abraham’s time, Noah would be merely average.

The question goes deeper than this.  Noah is a bystander.  Does this make him innocent?  Or, is there no such thing as an innocent bystander?

The recent revelations by numerous victims of sexual assault and harassment by Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein have shed light on a pervasive problem.  A couple of weeks ago, Rose McGowan publicly revealed that Weinstein had raped her in 1997 when she was 23 years old.  Her revelation opened the floodgates for dozens of other women who shared that they had also been assaulted and raped by the media mogul.

It did not stopped there.  Millions of women have been using social media to share their own tragic experiences of being assaulted, harassed, and raped – some going into detail, and others by responding with the hashtag #metoo.

We are now facing evidence that millions of victims have kept silent out of shame and embarrassment for abuse that was not their fault.

As far as we have come in establishing equal rights for all people regardless of gender, we have to ask ourselves honestly if there are still cultures of misogyny and patriarchy embedded in our social institutions that allow someone like Harvey Weinstein to commit these horrible crimes over and over again for years, without ever being held accountable.  The answer is clearly yes, and the outpouring of stories indicates that it is not limited to Hollywood, but permeates every aspect of our culture.

It has emerged that plenty of people knew about Weinstein’s crimes, but nobody said anything until the floodgates opened.  How terribly heartbreaking.

Sometimes, I find as I study Jewish texts that I stumble upon a passage that speaks so clearly about the present situation that it feels like it cannot have been a coincidence.  This week, as I learned Talmud with my friend and colleague Rabbi Philip Ohriner, we came across a passage that seemed eerily relevant (BT Shabbat 54b-55a):

Rav, and Rabbi Ḥanina, and Rabbi [Yonatan], and Rav Ḥaviva taught…: Anyone who has the capability to protest [the sinful conduct] of the members of his household and does not protest, he is apprehended [ and punished] for [the sins of] the members of his household; the people of his town, he is apprehended for the people of his town; the whole world, he is apprehended for the whole world.

In other words, we bear responsibility for the actions of the people around us.  Note that they are careful to say that this is the case when we actually have the power to make the protest.  It is not difficult to imagine that someone might not be in a position to raise his or her voice.  The Talmud then shares a story.

Rav Yehuda was sitting before Shmuel [his teacher] when a particular woman came and cried before Shmuel [about an injustice that had been committed against her], and [Shmuel] paid no attention to her.  Rav Yehuda said to Shmuel: Doesn’t the Master [i.e. you] hold: “Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13)?  [Shmuel] said to him: Big-toothed one (i.e. you have a sharp, keen tongue), your superior, [i.e., I, your teacher] will be punished in cold water.  The superior of your superior [i.e. my teacher] will be punished in hot water.  Mar Ukva sits as president of the court.

To summarize, a woman comes before a respected Rabbi to complain about a wrong that has been done to her.  We do not know what this injustice is.  We can only imagine.

In rabbinic literature, the scene of a woman bringing an injustice before a rabbi is not uncommon.  She is representative of someone without power.  Someone who is not able to get justice for herself.  So she turns to a respected religious authority.  In this story, Shmuel, the respected religious authority, ignores her.

Rav Yehudah, his student, observes the entire episode, and is shocked.  Bringing a verse, he basically asks his teacher, “how can you pretend not to hear the cries of this powerless woman before you.”  For a student to rebuke his master in this way is quite courageous.

Shmuel accepts the rebuke, admitting that not only is he fit for punishment, but Mar Ukva, the most senior Rabbi of the time, is fit for even greater punishment.

Here the story ends.  We do not know what happened next.  Did Shmuel go chasing after the woman to hear her complaint?  Probably not.  Did Shmuel or Mar Ukva receive any punishment or consequences for their dereliction of moral duty?  I doubt it.

This is a description of a society with injustices that are so embedded that the rabbis themselves, the ones who are supposed to be the moral consciences of the community, do not even see them.

How sadly fitting for the current conversation.  It is the complaint of an unnamed woman that sparks this episode.  But take note whose experiences are included, and whose are ignored.  The Talmud, a book written by men for a male audience, does not share her perspective.  What is her complaint?  Could it be that she has come to report a case of sexual harassment or rape?  Quite possibly.  How much courage did it take for her to even bring her case to the Rabbi?  How did she feel when he refused to listen to her?  Will she come back the next time she suffers an injustice?

What was she thinking when she got home?  If she was married, did she tell her husband what happened?  Her friends?  Her daughter?  Her son?  Her parents?

If the #metoo comments of this past week are at all indicative, she probably felt shame and embarrassment, and likely told nobody.

Although two thousand years have passed, we still live with a societal plague of our own making in which sexual harassment is passively or actively encouraged.

Rav Yehudah had the courage to speak out against his teacher’s indifference.  Shmuel had the willingness to admit to making a mistake.  But neither of them took it any further.

As the Talmud clearly teaches, if we have the ability to protest and remain silent, we are guilty.  In 2017, this is something that all of us can effectively do something about.

As a male, I have to consider all of the ways in which my life has been made easier due simply to my gender, in subtle ways in which I was not even aware at the time.  I have to listen to the stories of women who have experienced discrimination, harassment, and abuse – often made possible by institutionalized power imbalances.  And I have to suspend my temptation to reject or judge their experiences.  It is not my place to do so.

We parents have to teach our kids very explicitly to be able to say no to things that make them uncomfortable, and to always respect another person’s request to be left alone.  As kids get older, we need to teach them that consent must be explicit.  If I do not bring this up with my children, I am guilty.

In the workplace, and in social situations, it is not enough for me to simply respect other people’s boundaries.  I have to be an upstander.  If I see someone else crossing the line, I have to do something.  If I do not, I am guilty.

I think that there is a real opportunity to change the way that our society treats sexual harassment, discrimination, and rape.  The laws are mostly in place.  But the change that needs to happen now has to come from us.  We have the ability to make it happen.

Cultivating the Ability to Say “I Love You” – Yom Kippur 5778

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once said:

I came into the world to show another way, to cultivate love of God, of Israel, and of the Torah, and there is no need for fasting and mortification.”

Now don’t get too excited.  I do not think he was saying we should not fast on Yom Kippur.  But he is suggesting that the cultivation of our ability to love is the most important thing we can do.  How do we cultivate love?

Today’s Torah reading does not offer much guidance.  It describes the ritual that Aaron, the High Priest, performed on behalf of the Israelites on Yom Kippur.  It goes into all of the technical details of washing, dressing, offering sacrifices, and even sending a goat off into the wilderness.  All of this so that the Tabernacle could be purified of the sins that had accumulated over the course of the year.

The High Priest had a crucial role to play, and only he could play it.  In describing the ritual, the Torah speaks matter-of-factly.  We gain no insight into the internal emotional state of the High Priest as he performs the rituals.  But it must have been a terrifying and exhilarating experience.  I imagine that many High Priests might have been motivated by their love for the Jewish people.

The single hint of what Aaron could have been feeling appears in the opening words of the reading.  “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.”  (Lev. 16:1)  The language is cold and factual, but it draws our memories back to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, six chapters earlier.

Is this a detail that we need?  After all, it does not add anything to the procedures.  Perhaps, as our Mahzor suggests, it is a warning to remind the High Priest of what is at stake if he is not careful to perform the ritual exactly as prescribed.

Or maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that the individual who performs this ritual on our behalf bears his own burdens and struggles.  “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” brings us back in time to the moment and its aftermath when Nadav and Avihu were inexplicably struck down.

Moses steps forward to take charge.  Explaining the tragedy, he comes off as something of a “know it all.”  His grieving brother’s response?  Vayidom Aharon.  “Aaron was silent.”

Moses instructs a couple of cousins to remove the bodies.  He tells Aaron and his sons that, due to their position, they are not permitted to engage in public mourning.  He instructs them to continue the sacred offerings, as if nothing has happened, reviewing in detail all of the procedures.  Then, when Moses sees Eleazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, doing something which he thinks is improper, he scolds them.  That is a step too far.  Aaron ends his silence, pushing back against his brother’s cold, by-the-book attitude.

Moses relents.

Aaron needs something from his brother in that moment, and he does not get it.  Moses shows no compassion, no acknowledgement that Aaron has just experienced the worst loss a parent can suffer.  Surely Moses loves his brother, but he fails to look beyond the garments of the High Priest to the suffering person underneath.  What would have comforted Aaron?  What would have reassured him that his brother, his family, and indeed the Israelite nation, loved him?

We do not know.  The Torah is silent.

As human beings, we are social creatures.  Included in our basic core requirements, in addition to food, clothing, and water, is our need to be loved.  And not only romantic love, but the love between parents and children, siblings, other relatives, friends, and even God.

When a person knows that he or she is loved and accepted unconditionally, that person is better able to return love, feels more settled, and is more willing to take risks with the knowledge that love is not on the line.  And when that person suffers a loss, as Aaron did, he is able to move through the stages of grieving with more resilience.

One of the unconscious mistakes that most of us make is assuming that we know what other people need from us.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not necessarily the best advice, as each of us wants different things.

Centuries after Aaron performed the ritual in the Tabernacle, the High Priest would conduct a similarly intricate series of rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem.  As in earlier times, the purpose was to bring about atonement on behalf of the Jewish people.  Over the course of the year, the people’s sins accumulated, polluting the sanctuary.  God’s Presence could no longer remain in a polluted sanctuary.  The atonement rituals served as a spiritual cleansing, enabling God’s Presence to return.

The Talmudic Tractate, Yoma, goes into great detail about the rituals of Yom Kippur.  In the fifth chapter, it describes the incense offering.  (Yoma 5:1)  The High Priest places the specially formulated incense on hot coals in a metal pan so that the entire chamber of the Holy of Holies fills with smoke.  He then exits the Holy of Holies, walking backwards.  When he reaches the outer chamber, the High Priest pauses to recite a short prayer.  The Mishnah emphasizes that the High Priest would not pray for too long, so as not to alarm the people who are waiting for him outside.

It is known that a priest who alters the recipe for the incense, or who is not himself fit, can be struck dead on the spot while in the Holy of Holies.  If such were to occur, the regular priests waiting outside would have a problem, as none of them are permitted to enter the sacred precincts while the High Priest is in the Holy of Holies.  Maimonides reports that many Second Temple priests perished while conducting the Yom Kippur ritual .

After completing his duties and emerging safely from the Holy of Holies, the High Priest throws a big feast for his loved ones to express his gratitude that no tragedy has befallen him.  (Yoma 7:4)

The Talmud (Yoma 53b) relates a particular incident that occurs one year.  A certain High Priest is inside the Holy of Holies, reciting his prayer after the incense offering, but he is not coming out.  His fellow priests are worried.  Maybe he needs help?  Maybe he fainted?  Maybe he has been struck dead by a bolt of lightning!?

After speculating on the increasingly gruesome possibilities, they finally agree to enter.

Just at that moment, the High Priest emerges, triumphant.

“Why did you take so long to pray?” they ask him.

“What are you so worried about?” he responds.  “After all, I was praying for you and for the Temple to not be destroyed!”

Angry, they respond, “Well, don’t make a habit out if it.  You know what the law says; ‘He would not extend his prayer, so as not to alarm the Jewish people.'”

Clearly, there is a failure of communication.  The High Priest is convinced that he is doing the right thing for the people.  He loves them.  He is praying for their survival, and for the survival of the Holy Temple.  “Everything I did, I did for you,” he seems to be saying.  What could be wrong with that?

He has miscalculated.  In fact, his prayer is somewhat self-serving.  He prays for the people, and for the temple to not be destroyed.  He, of course, has a personal interest in the continued functioning of the Temple.  He assumes that everyone else wants the same.

It turns out, the people want something different.  “But what you did for us is not what we wanted you to do for us.”

What do they want?  He is their beloved High Priest, their religious leader.  They are worried about him.  They want his presence, not his prayers.  They are looking for a more intimate relationship than what he has offered them.  He does not seem to understand their needs – much as Moses fails to understand Aaron’s needs in his moment of loss.

This is one of the major stumbling blocks in relationships.  We do not pay the right kind of attention to what the people we love need.  Different people need to be loved in different ways.

Let’s each think for a moment about someone who loves us, either now or in the past.  It could be or have been a partner, a parent or child, a relative, or a friend.  Let’s ask, “How do I know that this person loves or loved me?”

The marriage and family counselor Gary Chapman wrote a well-known book called The 5 Love Languages which he has subsequently expanded into a small empire.  (I am indebted to Rabbi Laurie Matzkin for making this connection.)  His basic premise is that there are five essential ways of communicating love of all kinds.  Every person has a primary emotional language that determines how they best receive love.

Chapman argues that by knowing which is our own primary love language, and which is the primary love language of our partner, child, parent, or friend, we will be able to both give and receive love in a fuller way, and will have deeper, more fulfilling and compatible relationships.

If we are having difficulties in a relationship, it may very well be the case that the two individuals are not speaking one another’s love language.

The five love languages are, in no particular order:  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” and “Physical Touch.”  I will briefly summarize each of them.

Someone who responds best to “Words of Affirmation” likes to receive unsolicited compliments and kind words.  Saying “I love you,” sincerely of course, leave this person feeling great.  Conversely, this person takes insults very hard.

A person whose primary language is “Quality Time” appreciates nothing more than full, undivided attention.  Put the cell phone on mute, turn off the TV and be present with this person for focused conversations or shared activities.

Some people blossom by “Receiving Gifts” that reflect care and thoughtfulness.  Don’t mistake this for greed.  A meaningful gift could be a flower plucked from the garden.  Marking birthdays and anniversaries with a gift are important for those who speak this language.

Those whose primary love language is “Acts of Service” appreciates it most when things are done for them.  Washing the dishes, performing other household chores, or relieving a burden are received as expressions of love.  On the other hand, laziness and not following through communicate to this person that he or she does not matter.

Finally, some people communicate love through “Physical Touch.”  Hugs, a pat on the back, holding hands, or simply sitting close to another person are received as acts of love.  When a child who is feeling bad comes over to sit in a parent’s lap and nuzzles their neck, it is probably a good indication that “Physical Touch” is that child’s primary love language.  When a person who speaks this language does not experience physical contact, it can be lonely and insecure.

We all speak each of these languages, but for most of us, there is one that is dominant.

So… which do you think is your primary love language?  Think back to how you answered the question about how you knew you were loved.  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” or “Physical Touch.”

Chapman identifies three questions to help us figure it out.

1.  How do I typically express my affection for other people?  Our natural inclination is to express love in the way that we hope to receive it.  That is why the High Priest expresses his love for Israel by praying that they and the Temple will not be destroyed.  In Chapman’s language, we might say that the High Priest’s language is “Acts of Service.”

2.  What do I most complain about to my loved ones?  This could indicate that I am feeling abused in my primary love language.  The people complain to the High Priest that he was not there with them.  Their primary love language is “Quality Time.”

3.  What am I most likely to ask for from my loved ones?  The thing that we most often request from our friend, partner, or family member is likely connected to the thing that would most likely make us feel loved.  A spouse who insists that her partner mark her birthday with some sort of present or special activity speaks the language of “Giving Gifts.”

Knowing this about ourselves, and about each other, can make a tremendous difference in our relationships.  I may hate to do the dishes… with a passion.  But if I know that my spouse’s love language is “Acts of Service,” then by doing the dishes, I am actually saying “I love you” to her.  It even makes me feel differently about doing the dishes.  And my partner feels loved.

When we love another person, we want to make that person happy.  We want that person to feel secure, and to know that our love for them is unconditional.  Knowing which language to speak is key.

Can we apply this paradigm to God?  What is God’s primary love language?

Ahavah, the Hebrew word for love, means something different in the Torah than the word love means to us today.  The concept of ahavah is wrapped up in covenant.  In the Shema, we recite V’ahavta et Adonai Elohekha b’khol levavekha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.”

The Torah is not talking about an emotional feeling.  It is talking about actions.  How do we express our love for God?  Through actions.  By teaching our children, reciting words of Torah at home and on the road, at night and by day.  By putting up mezuzot on our doorposts and wrapping tefillin on our arms and our heads.  These are concrete deeds which express our relationship as individuals and as a people to God.

So we might say that God speaks the language of “Acts of Service.”  Through our actions, through performance of mitzvot, we express our love for God.

God has a different way of expressing love for us.  The language is all over our prayers.  How do we know that God loves us?  “Gift Giving.”  In the morning service, we recite Ahavah rabah ahavtanu.  “You loved us with a tremendous love.”  How?  Through the gift of Torah.

In the Torah’s covenantal language, God gives us the Promised Land, along with peace, security, and prosperity.  But is this all we want?  After all, the rabbis insist that we should strive to serve God not for a reward, but for God’s own sake.

In a more spiritual sense, what we long for is “Quality Time.”  In today’s Amidah, we say vatiten lanu Adonai Eloheinu b’ahavah… “You have given us in love, Adonai our God, this Shabbat day for holiness and rest, and this Yom Kippur for pardon, forgiveness and atonement…”  The ability to experience a sense of holiness in time comes through the weekly gift of Shabbat, as well as the annual cycle of holidays, each of which offers a unique opportunity to relate to God.

In Biblical and Temple times, the Yom Kippur ritual is what enabled God’s Presence to remain or return into the people’s midst.  With the knowledge that God was with them, the nation felt safe and protected.

The rituals of the Temple have been replaced by synagogue worship and personal teshuvah.  It is now we, individually, who long to feel the Presence of God in our lives.

As the 20th century theologian Martin Buber describes using the language of I-Thou, it is when we can fully encounter another person with our entire being that we experience God.  I would suggest that this can only happen when we are feeling loved, and are able to express love to someone else in the language that they understand.

In this new year, to experience God more fully, let’s strive to experience each other more fully.

Let’s figure out our own love language.  And them, let’s pay attention to our partners, parents, children, and friends to learn how to better express our feelings to them in the language that they will understand.

May we be sealed in the book of life for a year filled with the cultivation of love, both expressed and received, for God, for Torah, and for each other.

In Response To Questions About My Sermon On The First Day Of Rosh Hashanah 5778

I am not a regular Facebook user (my sermons post automatically from my blog), but I have received messages from a number of concerned people alerting me to the conversations taking place on the Sinai page over the past 24 hours.

First of all, I am proud of the conversations that have been taking place in response to my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We need to be able to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully. I cannot respond to every single issue that has been raised. Instead, I’ll share some broad thoughts.

First of all, this sermon was not delivered as a response to any earlier sermons.  As I wrote on my blog entry, I got many of the ideas from a Board of Rabbis of Northern California pre-High Holiday sermon seminar for Rabbis in late August.  I try to attend every year, and I often come away with thoughts that I incorporate into my remarks.

As someone who gets up in public most weeks to share my ideas with others, I have developed a number of principles for myself. Here are a few:

There are three sermons that I give each week: 1. The sermon I write. 2. The sermon I deliver. 3. The sermon that each individual person hears. Of course, this last one is different for everyone, as evidenced by the wide spectrum of reactions to this year’s Rosh Hashanah I sermon.

I am always speaking to myself. My sermons are the products (often incomplete) of my wrestling through difficult questions. The challenge of trying to communicate those thoughts to others forces me to try to organize and clarify my ideas in ways that others can understand. I focus on a wide variety of subjects, including Jewish textual interpretation, practice, thought, and belief, contemporary social or political issues, and more. Every time, I am striving to work through issues that interest me personally. I tell all of my B’nei Mitzvah students, “If you are boring yourself, you are probably boring your audience.”

Speak as a Rabbi. I am not a journalist, politician, or psychologist. I draw my authority to speak from the rabbinic tradition. Like everyone, I have lots of opinions. But when I speak from the pulpit, I need to do so rabbinically, relying on the teachings of Jewish tradition.

Be honest about Judaism. Jewish tradition is three thousand years old. In that time, Jewish thought and teaching has undergone tremendous changes. To claim that ancient sources provide direct support for contemporary issues is often disingenuous. For example, there is nothing in Jewish sources that explicitly posits communal obligations to provide universal health care. If I wanted to respond authentically to this issue (and I have), I would bring up that there are laws directed specifically to doctors, obligating them to care for anyone who needs it while prohibiting them from charging above-market prices for medications. I would point to those laws, along with other sources dealing with equal treatment of rich and poor, compassion, and human dignity to argue that in a society with sufficient means, Judaism should support the idea of “universal health care.”

Expect to receive a variety of responses to each sermon. A sermon is a tricky mode of communication. Listeners bring a lot of expectations – especially on the High Holidays.  I try to adhere (sometimes unsuccessfully) to the advice of my rabbinic mentor: “Give people space to disagree with you.” If I take a particular stance on an issue, I know that two things are certain to happen: 1. About 80% of the people in the room will agree with me. Some might even tell me it was a great sermon. 2. About 20% of the people in the room will disagree with me.  They might even get angry. I am reasonably certain that no minds will be changed. As a Rabbi, it is not my job to stand up and say things that confirm what 80% of the people in the room already believe. That does not accomplish anything. My job is to try to get 100% of the people in the room to think about an issue in a more in-depth way, and specifically from a Jewish perspective. For examples, check out a sermon I gave six years ago on abortion, or last year on immigration. Personally, I have plenty of opinions about individual issues. My weekly sermon is not the proper forum for me to share them.

As I go through life, my opinions and beliefs will change. One of the great (and often stressful) aspects of being a Rabbi is that I am exposed to a lot of (mostly) constructive critiques of my ideas by people with different viewpoints. It helps me grow tremendously. When confronted with a different opinion, I try to always ask myself “What is this person saying?  What from his or her experience leads him/her to say it this way? And what can I learn from this?” That said, in looking back on some old sermons, I realize that I have been pretty consistent over the years. I urge you to compare this year’s sermon to my Rosh Hashanah sermon from last year on how to argue, as well as a sermon from several months ago on being willing to change one’s mind,  and from five years ago, right after Obama’s second election victory, about talking with those with whom we disagree . I think you will find a similar theme running through all of them.

One issue that has been raised is whether the synagogue should be taking public stands and making statements on political issues. Historically, Sinai has never been politically active as an institution. It is not part of the culture of the synagogue. We do not have a social justice committee, and the systems to be able to have conversations with the community and make decisions about policy statements do not currently exist. As a Rabbi, I have freedom of the pulpit, meaning I can personally back any position I choose. And I have, sometimes publicly. See my sermon after the violence in Charlottesville, my speech advocating the abolishment of the death penalty, and my invocation this past January at the San Jose City Council meeting.

The Sinai mission statement begins “Congregation Sinai connects Jews to Judaism, each other, Israel, and the world.” I think we have done a pretty good job of keeping that mission at the center of our activities as a congregation. People come to Sinai for community, learning, and praying. Without a doubt, Tikkun Olam has become an important Jewish value over the last century.  Our synagogue, for its size, runs a healthy number of social action activities each year that I strongly support.  I wish we did more.  As I quoted Rabbi Tarfon towards the end of my sermon, “It is not for you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”

There are other synagogues that embrace, as part of their core missions, a commitment to social justice (which is not the same thing as social action). Those synagogues tend to be larger and better resourced. If Sinai members would like to form a social justice committee, I would support their efforts, provided that it is consistent with the mission of the synagogue and that it properly engages with all members of our community. We do not need to have unanimity, but we do need to make sure that all our members feel like they have the opportunity to express their views and be listened to respectfully. We should also be aware that synagogues that take political stances risk alienating segments of their community. Speaking directly, do we want synagogues to be known as either “Republican Synagogues” or “Democratic Synagogues?” It is already happening to some extent, dividing up between Orthodox on the right and Reform and Conservative on the left.  Personally, I see this as an unfortunate trend.

We are fortunate that there are plenty of opportunities for people to express their political viewpoints, including within the South Bay Jewish world. Locally, our Jewish Community Relations Council has done a wonderful job of getting our Jewish voice out into the public conversation. I encourage all of us to think deeply about the central issues of our day, being sure to explore all sides with open minds, so that we can formulate our own informed opinions, and then fight like mad for them, while always recognizing that those who disagree with us feel just as adamantly that they are right.

I am reassured to see that the conversation on Facebook has been conducted with passion, respect, and a willingness to learn from each other’s perspectives. This bodes well for us as we begin the new year.

Please respect that I prefer to have one on one, or emotional conversations face to face rather than in public forums. My door is open to anyone who would like to discuss this further.

Shanah Tovah.

The Day Of Forgotten Things – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (second day)

A Hasid once complained to the Gerer Rebbe that he was always forgetting his lessons.

“When you are eating soup, do you ever forget to place the spoon into your mouth?” the Rebbe asked.

“No, of course not,” was the student’s puzzled reply.

“Why not?” asked the Rebbe.

“Because I cannot live without food,” said the student.

“Neither can you live without learning,” responded the Rebbe.  “Remember this and you will not forget.”

The Jewish people is a people of memory.  Over the millennia, we have gotten pretty good at it.  Maybe the best.  This talent of ours is rooted in the Torah.  The Torah opens with the Creation of the world in six days.  On the seventh day, God ceases laboring.  It is this ceasing which completes the act of creation.  Later, God instructs the Jewish people to replicate God’s act of Creation by laboring for six days and then resting on every seventh.  Shabbat, the anchor of Jewish life, is an act of memory.

This weekly cycle of work and rest creates, as Heschel describes it, a Palace in Time.  Every Shabbat becomes a memorial for what we are marking today – the Creation of the universe.

And it is does not end there.  The entire Jewish calendar is built around memory.  All of our holidays memorialize formative events of Jewish history.  Exodus from Egypt.  Dwelling in booths in the wilderness.  Overcoming destruction in ancient Persia.  Even in recent times, we memorialize our people’s suffering in the Holocaust, and celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel.  Wherever we are in the physical world, our Jewish calendar emphasizes that sacredness is experienced not in space, but in time.

We do not encounter God by walking into particular locations.  We encounter God by being present in discrete moments of time.

As America struggle with how to remember difficult parts of its past, it would seem that our Jewish expertise may be able to offer some guidance.

And yet, we are no different than anyone else when it comes to forgetfulness.  Especially when it comes to our own lives.  What have we forgotten?

At forty one years old, I have forgotten many things.

Sometimes I forget where I put my keys.

I have forgotten the wonder of childhood, the belief that anything was possible, that there was no barrier between what is real and what is magical.  At a certain point, cynicism and skepticism intruded and shackled wonder.  (For a reminder of what it used to be like, just talk to a four year old.)

I have forgotten the dreams and imagination of youth, when I longed to be an astronaut, a Jedi knight, and a baseball player.

I have forgotten what it feels like to fall in love, to feel unquenchable passion and longing.

I have forgotten what it feels like to be present when a new life comes into the world, or when my child takes her first steps.

The idealism of youth has been replaced by a realism forced upon me by responsibilities and disappointment.  The excitement of unlimited possibility has been stifled by the realities of bills and deadlines.

Even more numerous are those things that I cannot even remember forgetting.

We could fill books with everything we have forgotten.

Indeed, we do.

We call Rosh Hashanah Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

But perhaps that is not the best name.  Maybe it should be Yom Hanishkachot.  The Day of Forgotten Things.

In the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, our Mahzor paints a vivid picture of the Heavenly Courtroom.  God is the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Vatizkor kol-hanishkachot.  God remembers all of the forgotten things.  The Book of Remembrance is opened, but God does not read it.  Ume’elav yikarei.  It reads itself, for the hand-imprinted seal of every human being is upon it.

The image of a courtroom, with the evidence comprised of all of the things we have forgotten, is powerful and scary.  But why is the emphasis on the forgotten things?

The nineteenth century Hassidic Rebbe, Yisrael Rizhiner, teaches that God remembers everything we forget, and forgets everything we remember.

We read in the Rosh Hashanah Prayer: “For You remember all forgotten things,” and “there is no forgetfulness before Your Holy Throne.”  This means that when a person performs a mitzvah, but then forgets it and demands no reward, then the Lord remembers it; but if the person keeps it in his memory and expects a reward for it, then the Lord forgets.

Also, when someone transgresses and remembers it, and repents of it, the Lord forgets about the sin; but when the a person pays no heed and forgets his sin, the Lord remembers.  (Louis I Newman, Hasidic Anthology, p. 400)

According to the Rizhiner, the sins we remembered and corrected.  And the mitzvot that we performed for their own sake, the good deeds that we did not allow to go our heads and inflate our hearts, these count as merits on our behalf.

But I suspect that many of us tend to do the opposite.  We act as if we are entitled to be rewarded for our actions.  We behave greedily, without taking responsibility for our mistakes, and yet we expect everyone else to pay for theirs.

And today, on the day of Judgment, it is the forgotten things recorded in the Book of Remembrance that determines our fate.

One of the three special sections of musaf is Zikhronot, remembrances.  Let’s recall some of its opening words:

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze…

We cite ten verses from the Bible extolling Divine memory.  God remembered Noah and all of the animals on the ark, and caused the waters of the flood to subside.  God heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and remembered the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As destruction threatened Jerusalem, God remembered the idyllic time during the Exodus when God and Israel were like newlyweds.

We bring up these memories to remind God of moments when compassion overcame the demands of strict justice.

Remembrance is more than just awareness.  It is attentiveness.  God does not just remember Noah, God saves him.  God redeems our enslaved ancestors and restores an exiled people to its home.

Why have we placed these verses in our Machzor?  Could it be that we are pleading with God to remember because we feel that we have been forgotten?

We are surrounded by so much suffering.  Recent hurricanes and earthquakes remind us that, for all of our civilization and technology, we are helpless before the power of nature.  As we have just seen, God does not seem inclined to hold nature back.

Despite our immense privilege, living in the wealthiest country at the wealthiest time in history, so many of us feel that we do not have control over our own lives.  Housing is insecure, employment is shaky, relations are frayed.  Has God forgotten us?

Maybe we pray so fervently to God, the Rememberer of Lost Things, because we feel lost and abandoned.  Or maybe, on this New Year, we are reflexively pleading with ourselves to remember.  Perhaps it is we who have forgotten.

We have forgotten to be attentive to the needs of our neighbors.  We have forgotten to look at the world with awe and wonder.  We have forgotten to open our hearts in prayer and gratitude for all of the blessings that we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to add an “al cheit,” to the list of confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur.  Al cheit she-chatanu lefanekha be-hese’ach ha-da’at – “For the sin that we have committed before You of neglect and lack of conscious attention.”

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was a gifted storyteller and a vivid dreamer.  His tales are imaginative, mystical, and deeply symbolic.  He tells a story of an angel named Yode’a, which means, “he knows.”

There is an angel who watches over people, even in the dark.  This is Yode’a, the Angel of Losses.  He watches lives unfold, recording every detail before it fades.

This angel has servants, and his servants have servants.  Each servant carries a shovel, and they spend all their time digging, searching for losses.  For a great deal is lost in our lives.

Even we, who are ourselves lost, search in the dark, aiding Yode’a.

And with what do we search?  With the light of the soul.  For the soul is a light planted in us to seek after what has been lost.

What kind of light is it?  Not a torch, but a small candle.  With it we can search inside deep wells, where darkness is unbroken, peering into every corner and crevice.  (Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden, p. 21.)

How much have we forgotten!  How lost we are!  But we are searching.  The way to search, the way of the tzaddik, is to use the light emanating from our souls to illumine the darkness.  How can we use our souls to remember forgotten things?

Let’s begin remembering right now.  Turn to the person sitting to your right.  Tell that person one thing that you appreciate about them.  It has to be something you have never told them before.

I bet it feels pretty good to be acknowledged, to be remembered.  I bet it also feels pretty good to acknowledge someone else.  That is the feeling of our souls illuminating something that has been forgotten.

Let’s each commit to doing this at least once more today.

We can make the angel Yode’a‘s job a little easier and help ourselves and each other regain a little bit of what we have lost on this Day of Forgotten Things.

God Is On Everyone’s Side, And No One’s – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (first day)

Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.

Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history.  It was four years into the Civil War.  The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later.  Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.

He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims.  How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it.  The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.

As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac.  At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.”  (Genesis 21:6)

Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael.  Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…”  And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die.  It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”  The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.

In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.

What does God stand for in this story?  Life.  The flourishing of human potential.  Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern.  They cannot see the world as God sees it.  Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action.  Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.

And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing.  God enters the story at three critical points.  The first is to bless Sarah with fertility.  The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own.  God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope.  Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.

These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known.  We are not so blessed.

We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris.  It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.

As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society.  There is so much partisan hatred.  People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before.  It is tearing the social fabric apart.

Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me.  It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are.  They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”

Consider the following:

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”  In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races.  Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states.  But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood.  Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion.  A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.

Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality.  And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love.  This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.

The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party.  Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.

It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics.  The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:

Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day.  You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent.  When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.

[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.

We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!

This trend affects the Jewish world as well.  Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation.  Synagogues have split in half over politics.  It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together.  Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.

But God does not have a party.  God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”

As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm.  As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role?  What should Sinai’s role be?

Should it offer an apolitical respite?  Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?

Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding.  Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”

Some congregants urge me to get more political.  Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.”  Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned.  Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.

I would kind of like it to be both.  A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity.  Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot.  And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.

The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.

Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong.  They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us.  They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live.  Of course, religion plays a huge role.

Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints.  Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry.  There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs.  The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent.  I must do something about it.

That should lead me to take a political position.  What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry?  Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not?  Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?

While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation.  They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.

This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal.  This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty.  The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.

This is how it should work:  our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.

Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards.  Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.

The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals.  When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it.  And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.

It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views.  After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.

Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience.  In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness.  This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps.  The left has been particularly drawn in.

The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative.  Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible.  Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur.  It is beautiful and inspiring:

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty.  The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years.  Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message.  At no time did a prophet ever say:  “You guys are doing a great job.”  At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.

Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated.  There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded.  They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.

Think of Jeremiah.  He runs around speaking truth to power.  He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption.  He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness.  There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right.  He was living in a society that had lost its way.  He could see the righteous path forward.  But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings.  He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.

The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral.  If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.

When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai!  “Whoever is for God, to me!”  There is no in-between.  The Levites heed the call.  At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.”  Three thousand die that day.

The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition.  Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)

Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty.  The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments.  There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.

Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal.  Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.”  The term has been applied differently over the millenia.  At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law.  Later, it took on mystical aspects.  The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation.  In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.

And this is a problem.

To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like.  What does that say about someone who does not share my vision?  And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?

Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?

A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders.  “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?”  “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it.  But what do people worship?  The sun, moons, stars, and planets.  Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?  Rather, olam k’minhago noheg.  The world pursues its natural course…”  (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)

We live in an imperfect world.  It is never going to become perfect.  There is no “fixing” the world.  The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot.  Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  (Avot 2:16)  The world remains a work in progress.

The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility.  It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us.  It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah.  But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.

It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.

Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion.  We would do well to embrace his words.

… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Castrametation – Ki Teitzei 5777

I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading.  It was used as the title of one of the chapters.  “Castrametation.”  Does anyone know what it means?

Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp

Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside.  And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement.  For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you.  (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized.  Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself

The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity.  When Israel goes to war, God is with them.  Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf.  For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp.  It is not about germs.  It is about holiness.

As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives.  Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.

The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness.  The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)”  The Gemara asks what abirim are.  Eventually, it suggests that  the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.”  The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies.  There was no waste whatsoever.  How convenient!

If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement?  After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:

After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].

So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness.  At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem.  But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient.  Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.

Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness.  But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes.  At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home.  After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.

The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality.  That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.

The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves.  Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.

Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.”  “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha.  Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.”  This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.

We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis.  I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah.  Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.

Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about.  The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder.  And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.

According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.

These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves.  God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.

A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani.  In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.

כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ

For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.

The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives.  What sins are we carrying from the past year?  Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other?  What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?

Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people.  He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.

Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community.  God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities.  But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.

Shabbat Shalom.

Response to Charlottesville – Re’eh 5777

Like many of you, I am astonished over what has been taking place over the past week.  I went to the University of Virginia for my undergraduate degree and lived in Charlottesville for three years.  I never expected it to be all over the news for a reason like this.

As I am sure you know, last week’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has brought anger and fear to the surface.  People are anxious and not sure what to do.

The rally was organized by numerous self-identified Alt-Right groups, including, neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists, and the Ku Klux Klan.  They were protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park.

Over the course of the two day rally, the protesters marched through the University of Virginia campus with torches, as well as through the streets of Charlottesville.  They shouted slogans and waived signs attacking Jews, Muslims, immigrants, the media, and others.

Usually, I avoid comparing contemporary situations to Nazis, Hitler, or the Holocaust.  As soon as anyone makes that kind of comparison, emotions flare and constructive conversation usually ends.

But these people were explicitly embracing Nazi slogans and actions.  They shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” they gave the Nazi salute.  Nazi flags waved.  Signs read “Goyim know,” and “Jews are satan’s children.”  Every time the Charlottesville mayor got up to speak, they shouted “Jew, Jew!”

There were large numbers of counter-protesters as well, and numerous fights broke out.  In a horrible tragedy, two State Troopers died when their helicopter crashed.  And a twenty year old man who had previously expressed Nazi sympathies drove a car into crowds on the pedestrian mall, murdering Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people.

It is hard to believe that something like this is happening in twenty first century America.  Until now, I have avoided making any public statements about President Trump.  But I cannot remain silent on this.

Many of the Unite the Right protestors were waving “Trump/Pence” signs and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.  In their own words, they draw strength from his election.

The President spoke about Charlottesville publicly for the first time on Saturday.  He stated “we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”  He did not label the attack terrorism.  He did not reject the Alt-Right’s embrace of him or condemn any of the groups by name.  And by saying “many sides,” he implied that the protestors and counter-protestors were equally to blame.

Under enormous pressure from all directions, President Trump made a second statement two days later, in which he said:

To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

He said the words, but it was not an especially forceful condemnation.  Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer responded by declaring that the statement was “hollow” and that Trump had not denounced the Alt-Right movement or white nationalism.  Spencer said, “his statement today was more kumbaya nonsense… Only a dumb person would take those lines seriously.”

And then the next day, in an unscripted press conference, the President returned to his original sentiments, declaring that there was “blame on both sides.”  He claimed that “not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me.  Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”  And he went on to say that there were “very fine people on both sides,” and he criticized what he called the “very, very violent… alt-left.”

To declare moral equivalency between Nazi flag-waving white supremacists and the people who gather to oppose them simply boggles the mind.

There is no moral equivalency.  There is a moral obligation to oppose hate and intolerance.  We have a duty to fight racism, bigotry, antisemitism, and sexism.  Doesn’t everybody know this?

How many times have we heard, or ourselves said, something to the effect of “there are no innocent bystanders?”  When evil appears in our midst, we have a moral obligation to act.

I am reassured by the outpouring of anger by vast numbers of Americans – conservative and liberal – who are simply appalled by President Trump’s failure to provide any moral leadership.  His words and actions have fanned the flames of hate and emboldened people who until recently have only acted on the fringes of society.

I do not believe that what we are witnessing today remotely resembles Germany in the 1930’s.  We are seeing disparate fringe elements coming together and making a lot of noise.  And that noise is strengthening individuals and groups that are working towards greater  peace, acceptance, and understanding.

But we need more from the leader of our country.  Can you imagine a US President of the past fifty years, of either Party, who would not have found the right words to forcefully repudiate neo-Nazis marching in the streets of America?

The Torah is not ambivalent about right and wrong.  At the beginning of Parashat Re’eh.  Moses places a challenge before the Israelites:

See this day I place before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.”  (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

There is a right way and a wrong way.  Choosing the path of blessing, the path of God, has been our challenge as a people since we stood at Sinai.  What is that path?  What does it mean to choose life, to choose blessing?  The Torah often speaks in lofty language about our obligation to care for the least powerful members of society, to welcome the stranger into our midst, and to apply laws equally to citizen and foreigner.  It is the most widespread theme in the Torah, and can be found in this morning’s reading.

Parashat Re’eh also expands on what, to modern readers, is one of the most disturbing themes in the Torah.  Moses instructs the Israelites to utterly wipe out idolatry from the land of Israel.  Those who practice it must be killed relentlessly, and the cities in which it thrives must be razed to the ground.

This extreme xenophobia has always troubled Jews.  In ancient times, the Rabbis wrestled with how to live peacefully and constructively in a multicultural society.  Jews in ancient times often had good relations – both business and social – with their non-Jewish, often pagan, neighbors.  The Rabbis knew that to reconcile the Torah’s black and white message with the multi-hued society around them, it would take creativity.  They developed the understanding that the seven Canaanite nations had ceased to exist many centuries earlier.  The Torah, thus, speaks only of an ancient time that has no bearing on the present.

But the Rabbis’ solution sidesteps the issue.  With thousands of years of history behind us, we know, or at least we ought to know, the evil of racism and xenophobia.  We as a people have too often been victimized by those who have argued, “my religion is truer,” “my culture is better,” “my blood is purer.”  Yet the Torah seems to advocate that same attitude viz a viz idolatry.

I squirm in my seat when I read verses telling us to annihilate an entire people.  Justifying these words by claiming that the Torah is referring to something that happened a long time ago does not solve the moral horror.  How can the same book promote boundless generosity and acceptance on the one hand, and violence and intolerance on the other?

What does the Torah mean when it talks about idolatry?  From the Torah’s perspective, there is something pervasively and irredeemably immoral about it. The great twentieth century Rabbi and Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel was an important religious leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1963, he attended a conference of religious leaders entitled “Religion and Race.”  He wrote an essay of the same name which offers us a way to understand idolatry.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called ‘Religion or Race.’  You cannot worship God and at the same time look at a man as if he were a horse…

What is an idol?  Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

Faith in God is not simply an afterlife-insurance policy.  Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.

In the 1960’s, Heschel was speaking about a society which was racist to its core.  To raise the living conditions of African Americans, he writes, normal everyday people had to shed their complacency and get involved.

Heschel’s definition of idolatry suggests that whenever we forget that all human beings are created in God’s image, we commit idolatry.

Heschel notes that when the Bible describes God’s creation of the universe, it specifies that “God created different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals (Genesis 1:11-12, 21-25)  In striking contrast, it does not say, God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims, God created one single man.  From one single man all men are descended.”

The idolatry that Parashat Re’eh would have us eradicate is the belief that not all humans are reflections of God.

If I take seriously the prohibition of “sitting idly by,” what should I be doing?  I have been struggling with how to respond.

Well, I do happen to be a Rabbi, and I have a pulpit.  That is why I am speaking about this now.  One can certainly get involved in protests and counter-protests, writing letters to politicians and newspapers.  These are admirable actions to take.  But they are not for everyone.

We combat hate with love.  Let’s make an extra effort to learn about someone who is different.  Have an open conversation with a person who does not share your opinion or way of life.  Invite them over for dinner.  Share your own stories.  When we can increase the human connections between ourselves and others, peace is sure to follow.

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia (“Mr. Jefferson’s University,” as we call it), wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

We do not have to tremble for our country.  I have faith in the American people to recognize right from wrong, and to move, albeit in fits and starts, towards the direction of justice and peace.