Between the Sacred and the Profane – Shemini 5781

Parshat Shemini describes the inauguration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites built to bring the Divine presence into their midst.

Aaron, as the newly consecrated High Priest, leads the final ceremony, which reaches its climax when a heavenly fire shoots out of the Tent of Meeting to consume the sacrifices that he has prepared on the altar.  The people respond by falling to their faces, shouting.

Meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, have taken their fire pans and offered incense.  The same conflagration that consumes their father’s offerings engulfs them along with it.  

Moses jumps into action, ordering the removal of the bodies and warns Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, against interrupting the inauguration ceremony by going into mourning. The Israelites will mourn on their behalf.

Then, suddenly, the story breaks.

God speaks, addressing Aaron directly.

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃

And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: 

Leviticus 10:8

This is unusual. On only two other occasions in the Torah does God speak directly to Aaron, both in Numbers, chapter 18.  Usually, God speaks to Aaron through Moses. And this is highly significant. Almost all of the rules pertaining to the priesthood are delivered to the Israelites collectively. There is no secret manual of sacrifices to which only the priests are privy. This contrasts with other ancient rites in which that esoteric material is kept secret from the general public.

So if God is speaking directly to Aaron, there must be something special about what comes next.

We might expect God to say something about the tragedy that has just befallen Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Maybe offer comfort. Or provide an explanation for what just happened

But no, instead God delivers instructions against drinking alchohol while performing priestly duties.

יַ֣יִן וְשֵׁכָ֞ר אַל־תֵּ֣שְׁתְּ ׀ אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִתָּ֗ךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶ֛ם אֶל־אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וְלֹ֣א תָמֻ֑תוּ חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם׃ 

Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages,

Leviticus 10:9

Midrashim and commentaries try to find connections between this prohibition and the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu. One solution claims that Nadav and Avihu’s mistake is that they were drunk when they made their incense offerings. But there is no indication that the esh zarah, the strange fire, that they brought had anything to do with drunkenness.

Another commentator suggests that it is a warning to Aaron and his surviving children not to drown their sorrows in drink. But again, nothing in the text suggests that this is a temptation under consideration.

God’s instructions to Aaron continues, although the syntax is strange. The sentence begins with an infinitive. It makes the Hebrew feel like a continuation from a different speech.

וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּהֽוֹר׃ וּלְהוֹרֹ֖ת אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַ֣חֻקִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֧ר יְהוָ֛ה אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

And to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which the LORD has imparted to them through Moses.

Leviticus 10:10-11

Rashi, somewhat awkwardly, connects this passage to the prohibition against serving while intoxicated. In other words, you have to stay sober so that you will be able to properly distinguish between “the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” 

Or perhaps it should be read as an empahtic, and not directly connected to the preceding verse. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל The essential duty of the priesthood is “to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean and to teach the Israelites” all of God’s laws.

We see here an inner and an outer focus.  The priests have jobs themselves to do. They are tasked with maintaining separation within the sanctuary on behalf of the community.  While everyone knows the rules, only the priests have to concern themselves with fulfilling them. Of the Torah’s 613 commandments, somewhere between 201 and 293 of them only apply when the Temple is standing.

But the priests also have an outward-facing role. They are teachers. According to Deuteronomy (17:7-9), the priests serve as judges, deciding legal disputes and interpreting God’s laws when questions arise.

In the midst of their inauguration, just after tragedy strikes, God speaks to Aaron directly to summarize the essential role of the priesthood.

You may remember a passage from Exodus, when the Israelites recieved the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are instructed to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy people.” And so we see that the role of Aaron and his offspring may be seen as a means to that ultimate end. 

You may have recognized the language in what God tells Aaron. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל ul’havdil bein hakodesh uvein hachol — “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”

We use these words in the blessing for Havdallah. As Shabbat ends, we quote God’s directions to Aaron. But instead of the priests having a set of narrow responsibilities for keeping sacred apart from profane, pure from impure, the words undergo a cosmic reformulation. 

It is now God who makes this distinction:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation. Praised are You, Adonai, who distinguishes between sacred and profane. 

All of creation: time, space, people, point toward these distinctions.

If that is the ultimate goal, perhaps that explains why God interrupts the disastrous inauguration ceremony to remind Aaron, and us, what it is all about. Right now, everything is a mess. 

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) Hardcover – December 1, 1998

Pure and impure, sacred and profane — all are mixed up. That is why we need the priesthood: to perform the job in the sacred Temple, and to teach the people how to live in a world in which the proper balance is maintained. 

But eventually we will become worthy of the title, a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” We remind ourselves of that every week, when we mark the transition from sacred to profane. The Sabbath we have just experienced, a taste of the world to come, is our sample for what a world in balance could be like.

Bibliography

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) by Jacob Milgrom

Words Matter: On the Attack Against the US Capitol – January 9, 2021

Before the election last November, I asked our members to refrain from making political comments in certain synagogue contexts in the interest of maintaining our community as one in which Jews of differing political persuasions could all find a home. I commend us for doing a pretty good job of that.

And so I have been struggling with how to respond to this week’s storming of the Capitol by a mob whose stated goal was to violently prevent our elected representatives from performing their sacred constitutional duty.

What I realized is that what happened on Wednesday was not politics. It was rebellion and anarchy: the rejection of politics. It was an assault on democracy and decency, a denial of everything America stands for.

Not since 1814 has something like this happened, and that was during a war against another sovereign nation. Ever since John Adams quietly conceded to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 after a humiliating electoral defeat, the United States has never failed to have a peaceful transfer of power from one President to his successor. For centuries, the American example has been a model for younger democratic nations, and an inspiration to individuals living under authoritarian regimes who dreamed of freedom and democracy.

What that mob did on Wednesday undermined all of that. It was the opposite of politics.

If you are like me, you have spent the last several days poring over analysis and commentary. I do not want to repeat what you can read elsewhere by those who are more knowledgeable and eloquent than I.

I always try to remember that I am a Rabbi. You have heard me say this many times before. My authority to speak from this pulpit (right now it is a metaphorical pulpit) is derived from our Jewish tradition.

So how might our tradition speak to the violence that was perpertrated this week?

First of all, there is a long-standing concept in Jewish law of dina d’malchuta dina – The law of the land is the law. Whenever we have been subjects of a government that is governed by laws, we follow those laws.  When our Israelite ancestors were sent into exile in Babylonia, the Prophet Jeremiah said: “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the LORD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)  Ever since, Jews have included prayers for God to bless the government and its advisors. This was true in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Rome, in Czarist Russia, and most especially in the United States.

America’s republican system of representative democracy is the best protection of minority rights that the Jewish people have ever known. As Jews of all political persuasions, we should be deeply offended by scenes of rioters openly wearing Holocaust-denying clothing, flashing white power signs, erecting a noose outside the Capitol Building and parading the Confederate Flag through the halls of Congress.

I have also been thinking a lot about language and leadership. Ours is a tradition of words. Our method of study involves ultra fine parsing of our sacred texts. The ideal model for learning is the chavruta: two partners, friends, arguing with their own words over the meaning of someone else’s words.

We have categories of mitzvot that specifically focus on the words that we use, specifically on the how the words that come out of our mouths have the potential to harm.

The most well known of these categories is lashon hara – “the evil tongue.” This is the term that refers to gossip and tale-bearing. It is when a person spreads information about another person that, although true, causes harm. A related term is motzi shem ra – “to bring out an evil name.” This applies to defamation or slander: the spreading of harmful lies.

The midrash compares the tongue to an arrow. “Why? Because if a person draws a sword to kill his fellow man, the intended victim can beg mercy in the hopes that the attacker will change his mind and return the sword to its sheath. But an arrow, once it has been shot and begun its journey, even if the shooter wants to stop it, he cannot” (Midrash Tehillim 120, ed. Buber, p. 503).

Another midrash makes a further comparison.  “Lashon hara that is spoken in Rome can kill in Syria.”  (Genesis Rabbah 98:19)

When a person in authority uses their words to incite followers to violence, this figurative statement becomes literal.

Another category of Jewish law that focuses on words is geneivat daat – stealing the mind.  It applies to many different kinds of interpersonal interactions.  Genevat Da’at is using one’s words to deceive or manipulate another person.  Genevat Daat occurs whether or not the information is true, if its purpose is to create a false impression or exploit another person in some way. According to one midrash, stealing a person’s mind in this way, because it is “more personal and direct,” is an even more heinous offense than stealing something physical.

Judaism teaches that leaders have enormous responsibility. Their personal behavior as role models, the way that they comport themselves in public, and the words they use to their followers, have the power to create or destroy. The words that leaders utter matter even more than they do for the common person.

When a person in a position of power uses his words to incite a mob to violence, that person has betrayed the trust that has been placed in him.

Former President George Bush pointed it out clearly in his written statement on Wednesday. He wrote: 

I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement. The violent assault on the Capitol — and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.

Statement by President George W. Bush on Insurrection at the Capitol

While members of Congress huddled in secure safe rooms, President-Elect Joe Biden addressed the nation. One line stood out to me in which he articulated the particular responsibility bestowed upon the President of the United States. He said: 

The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.

Remarks to the Nation by President-Elect Joe Biden

All of the institutions of the Conservative movement came together to issue a joint statement this week. I would like to conclude by reading its ending. 

The basis for democracy stems from the Torah’s belief that every person is created equally in God’s image and is therefore entitled to equal representation in government and equal protection under the law. Each week we pray during our Shabbat worship to “uproot from our hearts hatred and malice, jealousy and strife. Plant love and companionship, peace and friendship, among the many people and faiths who dwell in our nation.” This prayer is more than an expression of faith. It is a call to action, and we have much work to do to heal the deep wounds and divisions which afflict the United States and society.

May the new US leaders, who are coming to power this month at every level of government, rise to the responsibility the voters have entrusted to them to bring healing and exercise responsible governance.

Statement on the Attack on the United States Capitol by Organizations of the Conservative Movement of Judaism

Amen

Joseph’s Identity – Miketz 5781

As this morning’s Torah portion, Miketz, begins, Joseph has languished in jail for a while. If you recall from last week, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery when he was seventeen years old. Eventually winding up in the home of an Egyptian courtier named Potiphar, Joseph becomes head of the household, second only to his master.

That all comes crashing down when Potiphar’s wife, frustrated that Joseph will not respond to her attempts to seduce him, instead accuses him of trying to rape her. Furious, Potiphar sends Joseph to the king’s prison, where he resides for more than two years.

As before, Joseph rises up in the prison hierarchy until he is placed in charge of all the other prisoners. This puts Joseph in the position of being sought out for advice by the other prisoners. After some time, the royal baker and wine steward approach Joseph with their disturbing dreams.

Joseph correctly interprets them to predict that the baker is scheduled to be exectuted while the stewared will be restored to his former position.

Miketz opens with Pharaoh’s fateful dreams.  The steward, having completely forgotten about Joseph, suddenly remembers the time when he was in prison and a Hebrew youth, a na’ar ivri, correctly unravelled the meaning of his dream. 

Joseph, still seen as a Hebrew, is brought to Pharaoh’s court, where he again solves the somnolescent condundraum. Once again, Joseph’s natural skills lead to his promotion to Pharaoh’s Hand, the second most powerful person in Egypt. Notice the pattern?

Pharaoh gives Joseph his signet ring, dresses him in fine clothes and a gold chain, and parades him through the streets on the royal chariot, proclaiming Avrekh to the onlookers as he passes by.

Does this ring any bells?  (Sounds like Mordechai in the Book of Esther)

Pharaoh then renames Joseph Tzafenat Paneach and gives him an Egyptian wife. Her name is Asenat, and she is the daughter of a man named Poti-Phera, Priest of On. If that name sounds familiar, it is. It is remarkably close to Joseph’s former master, Potiphar.

Is this the same person? Impossible to say, but one commentator suggests that Pharaoh is making a calculated, strategic move here. (Iturei Torah, Vol. 2, pp. 370-371.)  Who is the person most able to bring Joseph down in scandal? Potiphar, who knows all about Joseph’s past sins, alleged or real. That could mean trouble. But if Joseph becomes family by marrying Potiphar’s daughter, the skeletons are more likely to remain in the closet. 

Joseph immediately sets out to educate himself for his new position by embarking on a tour throughout Egypt.

This all occurs when Joseph is thirty years old. He has spent forty three percent of his life so far away from his family and homeland.

In his new position, he quickly enacts his policy proposals, collecting vast stores of grain for Pharaoh. Towards the end of the seven years of plenty, Joseph and Asenat start a family. They have two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.

By this point, Joseph has spent his adult life, and more than half of his entire life, outside of the land of Canaan, away from his family. How does he feel about his identity?

Joseph’s brothers totally rejected him, sending him into slavery and exile. He now has an Egyptian name, wife, and children. His father in law is Egyptian clergy. He has money, honor, and power in Egyptian society. He dresses and speaks like an Egyptian. He even walks like an Egyptian.

If you were Joseph, how would you see yourself?

He tells us. Listen closely to the explanations that Joseph offers for his sons’ names. Both explanations are positive. Joseph acknowledges God for granting him some sort of respite from his earlier miserable situation.

The firstborn is Menashe — כִּי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִי —”for God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” 

Next is Ephraim — כִּי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִי — “for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” 

 Notice that for his firstborn, Joseph refers to his parental home as a place of hardship — amali. For his second born, Joseph refers to his new home as a place of affliction – oni. Both places have been difficult for him—Canaan because of his family troubles and Egypt because of his enslavement and imprisonment.

Joseph sees in Menashe an opportunity to finally move on from the hardship of his childhood. His son’s birth symbolically enables him to “forget.” In Ephraim, Joseph sees fertility, the ultimate sign of blessing.

What is the message? Joseph has shed his Hebrew past and embraced his new Egyptian identity. Interesting, however, that he continues to acknowledge God as the source of his good fortune.

The famine strikes, and it is global. Jacob sends the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to purchase food. The text is very clear that Joseph recognizes them immediately but they do not recognize him – neither his appearance nor his voice. Joseph, by all accounts, is completely Egyptian.

Seeing his brothers show up in his chambers for food must have come as a shock to Joseph. Despite his embrace of Egyptian life, he realizes that he cannot forget his father’s house.

There are a few hints in Parashat Miketz that Joseph still harbors elements of his earlier identity: faith and food. Throughout events, Joseph credits God for his success. It is God who enables him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and it is God who blesses him with forgetfulness and fertility.

When he accuses his brothers of being spies and nevertheless grants them permission to return home as long as they leave one of their number behind as his prisoner, Joseph states et ha-Elohim ani yarei – “I am a God-fearing man.” A strange statement in the land of Horus and Ra, Isis and Osiris.

A bit later in the story, when the brothers have returned to Egypt for more food, Joseph hosts them for a meal. The Egyptian servants refuse to eat with the Hebrews, as to do so would be an abomination. Joseph, on the other hand, stays in the room to dine with them. He even offers portions of food from his own table, extra portions going to his full brother Benjamin.

Through these interactions, Joseph, overcome with emotion, occasionally leaves the room to weep.

Over the next two Torah portions, as Joseph pushes his brothers harder and harder to ascertain the extant of their repentance, he opens up more and more to his past. By the end of the Book, Joseph fully reconciles with his family.

Jacob, now in Egypt, blesses the sons whose births once symbolized abandoning the land of his father and building a home in a new land.

Although he never returns to the land of Canaan, Joseph makes his surviving relatives swear that they will bring his bones back when they eventually return to the Promised Land. Many generations later, Moses fulfills that promise.

The theme of fate is strong throughout this story. Joseph’s teen-age dreams that his brothers will one day bow down before him are always in the back of our minds. We know that there will be a reunion, but the characters themselves do not.

We just finished celebrating Chanukah. The Maccabees launched their rebellion to protect their right to continue to follow the Torah in the land of their ancestors. Not only were there Jews who were actively assimilating, and trying to assimilate the rest of Judean society. The Greek authorities had actually outlawed some of the core practices of Judaism like Torah study and circumcision. The Maccabees fought to prevent the active, intentional cultural eradication of Jewish life in the Promised Land.

Ever since, Chanukah has symbolized the Jewish people’s struggle to maintain our identity, especially as we find ourselves living among larger non-Jewish cultures. America has been good to the Jews. Never in our history have we been more free to practice our religion outwardly and proudly, without fear of persecution. Ironically, it has never been easier to leave our ancient heritage behind and assimilate into the surrounding culture.

Joseph’s struggles predate the Maccabees. Only for Joseph, the struggles were personal and emotional. They were wrapped up in the difficult dynamics of his family. And the rising and falling of his fortunes in non-Hebrew society.

An Egyptian name, language, marriage and culture—despite embracing all of these things, Joseph still comes back to family.

Whose story most closely resembles our experience – Joseph or the Maccabees?

The Courage to Act – Chayei Sarah 5781

Last Shabbat, the Jewish world lost one of its great teachers, thinkers, and advocates, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks was an Orthodox Rabbi, a philosopher, theologian, and politician. He was one of the most recognized and respected Jewish thinkers in the world.

Rabbi Sacks served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. In 2005, he became a Knight Bachelor for “services to the community and inter-faith relations.” In 2009, he was granted the title Baron and given a life peerage with a seat in the House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks emphasized the study of knowledge in all of its forms, both from within and outside of Judaism. He utilized the terms Chockmah and Torah to describe the pursuit. He wrote,

Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal language of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chokhmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chokhmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chokhmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.

Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), p.221

In his drashot, Rabbi Sacks was as likely to cite Shakespeare as Rashi. He had a gifted ability to communicate the universal truths of human existence, drawing deeply on the wellsprings of Torah and Jewish teaching, 

He was committed to interfaith work, often appearing on British television as a commentator to wide audiences. “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” he wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference. Rabbi Sacks was noted for his deeply held embrace of both particularism and universalism, although he backtracked after receiving criticism from Haredi Jews. He believed that Judaism had something to say, and had an important role to play, in fixing the problems of the world.

In my work as a Rabbi, people sometimes share articles or drashot with me that they read and find to be meaningful. I cannot think of another person whose teachings have been shared more than Rabbis Jonathan Sacks’. 

At his funeral this week, Gila Sacks delivered an emotional eulogy for her father. She said about him, “He taught us that the world is to be challenged, and that there is no such thing as an unsolveable problem.”

The best way to honor a great teacher is to share his teachings. So I turned to one of Rabbi Sacks’ drashot on this morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah

Over the course of three parashiyot, God blesses Abraham numerous times. The blessings essentially come down to two promises. One, Abraham will inherit the entire land of Canaan. And two, Abraham will be the father of a great nation, a nation that will be a blessing to the world.

In fact, each of these blessings occurs five separate times over the course of the previous two Torah portions.

As this morning’s reading begins, however, Abraham’s prospects are not looking good. Over the course of Chayei Sarah, Abraham takes important actions that are the first steps towards the fulfilment of God’s blessings.

The first to be addressed is land. Sarah dies, and Abraham must prepared for her funeral. The problem is that he is a foreigner in Canaan, with no land to his name. He turns to the Hittites, living in Hebron, with a proposal. Ger v’toshav ani imachem. “I am a resident alien among you, please let me purchase land to bury my wife.”

Abraham is in a difficult situation and he knows it. As a foreigner in a highly tribal society, it is nearly impossible for him to own land. The Hittites, who seem to respect Abraham, offer him the opportunity to bury his wife wherever he chooses.

Abraham knows what he wants, and he asks for Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah. Ephron offers to give Abraham the field with the cave so that he can bury Sarah. But gifts can be rescinded. So Abraham asks again to purchase the land at whatever price Ephron names. Ephron slyly tells him the cost, “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver-what is that between you and me?”

Abraham pays the money, and the land becomes his. To emphasize the legally binding nature of the transaction, the Torah ends the story with a summary of the contract.

So Ephron’s land in Machpelah, near Mamre—the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field—passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.

Genesis 23:17-18

Notice the details – the land is described by location, along with the trees growing on it. Abraham is identified as the new owner. And the witnesses are specified. The deal is accomplished in public, before the entire town.

Then the story concludes with Abraham burying Sarah. By performing an action on the land, he takes formal possession of it.

The importance of this story cannot be overstated. This is the first fulfillment of God’s blessing of Abraham

The Torah turns to the next part of the blessing. Abraham knows that it can only be fulfilled through Isaac, but things do not seem to be moving forward on that front. At this point, Isaac is at least 37 years old. He is unmarried and still living at home. “Failure to launch,” would be an apt description.

So Abraham sends his servant to Aram-Naharaim, outside of the land of Canaan, to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kinsmen.

As with the land negotiations, it is not easy. The servant, acting as Abraham’s proxy, embarks on the long journey, bringing ten camels laden with treasures.

Upon arrival, he meets Rebecca, and bestows lavish gifts of gold and silver jewelry upon her, her brother Laban, and her mother. As with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, this is an expensive transaction. And he must deal with deception as well. When the servant indicates that he would like to return with Rebecca, her mother and brother try to delay. When the servant insists, they put the question to Rebecca herself, who agrees to leave immediately.

As before, external politeness hides distrust and greed. In the end, Abraham gets what he wants, but the price is dear.

Noteworthy in both of these stories is God’s absence. There are no conversations with angels, prophetic encounters, or appearances of mysterious wells. Neither Ephron nor Laban have scary dreams in the middle of the night warning them of what will happen if they do not give Abraham what he wants.

These are stories of struggle and persistence, of taking charge of one’s fate in a way that has permanent implications for the future.

At the beginning of Chayei Sarah, the prospects of God’s blessings to Abraham being fulfilled are bleak. By the end, events are set in motion. Rabbi Sacks writes that

“yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower and determination will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation from God to Abraham and his children that they should act.”

“…Now, as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to God…. Faith does not mean passivity.  It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise – who must bring it about.”  

Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, pp. 126-127

I can think of no more important message for us.

Because We Are Family – Lekh Lekha 5781

I did not originally intend to post this D’var Torah, as I wrote it specifically with the intention of it being heard in real time. After a number of requests, I have decided to post it. This has been an incredibly emotional time for most of us. For this sermon in particular, I felt it was important that we see each other’s faces – at least over Zoom. After services, I invited those who wished to continue to discuss the issues raised. I found the ensuing discussion to be honest and respectful. Please keep these factors in mind as you read this.

One of the main themes of the Book of Genesis is family. When the very first human is created, God quickly declares that it is not good to be alone. The human is split, revealing Adam and Eve, the first family. The rest of the Book is a struggle to figure out how to get along.

As Lekh Lekha begins, God tells Abram to leave his family behind and go somewhere new. He arrives in Canaan, encounters a famine, and flees with his household to Egypt. When the famine ends, Abram and Sarai return to Canaan, camping out in the Negev, near Beit El. By this point, Abram has acquired lots of wealth, consisting of animals, silver, and gold. But no land.

Lot, his nephew, also travels with him. He too has become wealthy, although the Torah only specifies that his wealth consistsa of flocks and tents. Lot is beginning to separate from his uncle and establish his own household.

Because flocks require pastureland, shepherds are by nature nomadic. When the animals have eaten all the food that the land can provide, it is time to move to greener pastures. One can imagine that there is a certain degree of competition among shepherds for the best pastureland. That is exactly what happens between Abram and Lot’s shepherds.

Parenthetically, the Torah informs us that the Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.

Abram, seeking to prevent the conflict from escalating, approaches his nephew with a plan. “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.”

Abram, the older, wiser one, gives Lot the first choice, which is actually the opposite of what we might expect. Abram, the head of the family, older and wealthier, should be the one to get first choice. But instead he offers it to Lot.

Lot looks around in all directions, sees how green the land is in the Jordan river valley, and heads East. Abram goes the opposite direction and settles in Hebron.

What were the shepherd fighting about? Rashi, drawing upon a midrash, labels Lot’s shepherds as wicked. They would lead their flocks into fields that belonged to other people.

Abram’s shepherds would rebuke them.  “You guys shouldn’t be doing this. It’s theft!” 

Lot’s shephereds would respond: “The entire land has been given to Abram, and he has no heir. Our master Lot, as his nephew, will inherit from him. So it is not actually theft.” 

Ramban disagrees. In typical fashion, he cites Rashi’s comment in its entirety, and then explains why it is wrong. The clue to what is actually going on is the parenthetical comment that “the Canaanites and the Perizites were then dwelling in the land.”

Ramban explains that the words az, “then” as in “The Canaanites and Perizites were then dwelling in the land,” indicates that they are also nomadic shepherds who would set up their encampments in a certain place for a year or two and then move on to another location.

At this point, Ramban points out, Abram does not yet possess any land of his own, but he, (along with his nephew), have large flocks. This is an obvious recipe for conflict.

When Lot’s shepherds bring their animals into the pastures occupied by Abram’s animals, the resulting combined flocks are too large to go unnoticed. When the local population hears about it, predicts Ramban, one of two things will follow. Either, the Canaanites and Perizites will drive Abram and Lot out of the land, or they will attack them and take the herds for themselves.

Seeking to prevent such an outcome, Abram comes forward to Lot with a solution.  “To avoid conflict, we need to separate.” But he adds, ki anashim achim anachnu – for we are brother men. In other words, we are family.

This commitment is real. For even though they go different directions, Abram always recognizes his obligations to his nephew.  The following chapter describes a war in which Lot is taken captive. When word reaches Abram, he does not hesitate. He immediately assembles a fighting force from among his household and sets out to rescue his nephew. He travels as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.  This is quite a distance. They engage in battle, rescue Lot and the other captives, and take back all of the possessions that had been captured. 

Later on, after Abram has become Abraham, he argues for the sake of the innocent people living in Sodom when God declares an intent to wipe out the city because of its wickedness.

While not mentioned explicitly, it is not far-fetched to imagine that Abraham’s eagerness to save the city on account of the few righteous people is motivated by his desire to save his nephew.

Indeed, Lot and his family are the only ones whom the angels try to rescue before the cataclysm. Lot’s descendants become the Moabites and the Ammonites. Moab, of course, being the national origin of Ruth, the great great grandmother of King David.

This is a narrative about the struggles within a family over how best to utilize public resources. Our story focuses more on Abram’s perspective. In his wisdom, he recognizes that the only way for them to survive is to create some distance. To agree to disagree, if you will.

But that does not mean that the family ties are broken. As we saw, Abram sticks by Lot to the end.

You probably had a chance to read the email that I sent to the congregation last Sunday in which I asked that we refrain from making political comments in certain contexts. The email generated a lot of responses. In this real-time setting, I would like to elaborate on a few points.

First and foremost, I am not advocating that any of us should be complacent. It is our duty as Americans to be involved in our democracy, to make our voices heard through voting, and to do our part to build a more just society. There is so much at stake, and our voices need to be heard.

As Jews especially, we have to be involved. America is the first country in the history of the world in which Jews were considered to be full citizens. With all its problems, we have so much to be thankful for. We have a duty to be involved. 

And we should be smart about it. If you are not on social media, Yasher Koach. For those who are, I am sure you are aware of how difficult it is to have an open-minded disagreement there. For any given post, if I agree with it, my conviction is reinforced. If I disagree with it, my conviction is reinforced. 

I have been trying to think whether I have personally ever changed a strongly held political belief based on something that someone sent me or a comment I read online and I have not been able to come up with a single example. Usually, when I read something, I feel either angry or vindicated.

For a powerful illustration of the problem with Facebook and all of the other social media platforms, I urge you to watch the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix. If you have kids middle school aged and above, watch it with them. It shows how these technologies have contributed to much of the extreme divisiveness in society. These are incredibly powerful tools for connecting us to one another, but there is a dark side that was never the intention of these technologies’ founders.

What could be wrong with the “like” button? As it turns out, quite a lot.

In my email, I asked us to not make political comments on the Sinai Facebook page. That’s it. Why? Because what tends to happen is that a few people have a sometimes heated discussion back and forth. But they forget that there could be a hundred people or more watching silently from the sidelines. Without a three dimensional interaction, we have no way of reading how our words are being heard by those who are reading them. The result can be very divisive within our community.

Feel free to post on your own wall, but as a general piece of advice, I would urge us to be clear about what we are hoping to acheive with any given post or comment that we make. 

I also asked for us to refrain from political comments during and after Zoom services. People have different levels of comfort with their participation on Zoom – and that is fine. What I have noticed is that when those of us who are more comfortable interacting with one another do so, we tend to forget about the other people who are also logged in—often with microphone and video turned off.

Does this mean that we should not be sharing ideas with one another, or that we should never argue about politics within our community? Of course not. We just need to find a way to do so that is open-minded and respectful. Why should I expect you to listen to what I have to say if I am not willing to listen to what you have to say? Humble curiosity is a good thing.

There is something else to consider. Cole Buxbaum, who passed away earlier this year, may his memory be a blessing, once got up in front of the congregation and shared something that has stuck with me. He described how happy he was that with all of the chaos and conflict out in the world, shul on Shabbat was a place where we could gather together despite our differences, and be reminded that we are all part of the Jewish people. He said it with such emotion and sincerity – it really made an impression.

I think that is what draws a lot of people who come to services at Sinai.

A final note, and I have shared this many times with our community. There are pulpit Rabbis out there who are more politically outspoken than I am. I teach what I believe to be core values of Judaism, and I generally hold back from explicitly pushing particular policies. This is driven by my understanding that most people do not like to be told what to do or believe.

But if we can learn what Judaism might have to say on any given issue, we might be able to look at our own preconceived notions from a different perspective. I want us all to be challenged. To all be open to learning something new and considering ideas from a different angle.

And then, to do everything we can to go out into the world and right the wrongs around us.

Although election day is this Tuesday, and there is a good chance that we will not have an announcement for some time. 

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued a statement this week on Elections and Democratic principles that was signed on to by more than 90 Jewish organizations, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

The bedrock of American liberty is a strong, thriving democracy and an engaged citizenry. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered almost every aspect of the way we live, including how we vote in elections. It’s a longstanding tradition that nonpartisan groups across the spectrum do their part by encouraging their members and the larger community to vote. This year, these non-partisan efforts are even more essential to ensuring that every vote is counted and everyone can participate in our democracy.

We call upon all government leaders, candidates, and elected officials, Democrats and Republicans, at every level and branch of government to recommit to our nation’s core democratic principles and oppose violence emerging from the far right or the far left. In the case of contested or close elections we ask for patience and trust in the system, as we allow for every valid vote to be counted. We ask civic and faith leaders to set a standard of discourse, oppose violence and encourage peaceful engagement in the political process. We must sustain and carry out these ideals and principles in both our words and our actions at this critical moment in our history.

https://www.jewishpublicaffairs.org/a-jewish-statement-on-elections-and-democratic-principles/

When Abram knew he and Lot needed more space between them, he gave Lot the first choice of where to settle, and he kept on loving him. Why? Because they were family.

Birthdays and Yahrzeits – Yom Kippur 5781

In 1888, Ludvig Nobel died in France from a heart attack. The story is told that a French newspaper mistakenly reported that it was, in fact, Ludvig’s brother, Alfred, who had passed away. The obituary called Alfred a “merchant of death” who had made his fortune developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.”

Alfred Nobel was indeed an arms developer and manufacturer. He invented dynamite, and over the course of his career filed 355 patents for various explosives components. Alfred owned nearly 100 munitions factories.

When he read the mistaken obituary, Alfred Nobel came face to face with his legacy. He could not bear to be remembered for causing death and destruction.

In 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament. In it, he devoted his fortune, worth around $265 million today, to a series of annual prizes that would be awarded to individuals from around the world “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The categories included physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Economics was added in 1968.

Alfred Nobel died the following year. The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, and have since been granted to more than 500 people, including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr. When we think of Alfred Nobel today, we think of the prize that bears his name.

Did Nobel’s late-in-life awakening serve as atonement for his earlier actions?  That is for God to say, but the good that he did at the end of his life is surely meaningful in its own right. It leaves Alfred Nobel with a complicated legacy.

The Nobel prizes are announced every year on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred’s death. Interesting that his birthday was not the date selected.

In America, we tend to celebrate great people on their birthdays. Presidents Day is sandwiched between George Washington’s birthday on February 22 and Abraham Lincoln’s on February 12. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurs on the third Monday of January to mark his birthday on January 15. Cesar Chavez Day occurs on March 31, also his birthday.

What is the difference between the date of birth and the date of death? What is a birthday? What does it represent?

It is fundamentally arbitrary. A birthday has significance because we say so.

It marks some multiple of 365 days since the day on which a person was born. Put another way, it is when the earth is in the exact same position in its orbit relative to the sun as it was when that person entered the world. 

One week from today, on October 5, the earth and sun will be aligned exactly as when my wife was born, for the 46th time. So happy birthday Dana.

The birth of a baby is just about the happiest thing in life. But why? The kid has not done anything yet.

All of the joy that we feel is for the potential that this child embodies. At a bris, and sometimes at a Simchat Bat, the baby is placed in Elijah’s Chair as if to say, this child could potentially be the mashiach, could be the one to make the world worthy of redemption.

Birthdays are about hope. By celebrating them, we suggest that having been born was a good thing. According to “celebration industry analysts” in 2018, the Children’s Birthday Party industry in the United states was worth $38 billion. That’s a lot of hope.

On the other hand, each successive birthday celebration reminds us that the time since our birth is increasing and the corresponding time to our inevitable end is shrinking.

Perhaps that is why some people become sensitive about their birthday and their age as they get older, as in when someone, only partially in jest, announces that they are celebrating their 29th birthday for the fortieth time.

Judaism does not traditionally celebrate birthdays. Instead, we observe the yahrzeits of those who have passed.

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word that literally means “time of year.” It is the anniversary of a person’s date of death, according to the Hebrew calendar. While there are terms that reflect similar practices for Sephardic Jews, the word yahrzeit has migrated into Ladino as well.

We mark a yahrzeit in a few significant ways. Mourners light a memorial candle to burn for the entire day. The flame is seen as a symbol for the soul, and is inspired by the verse in Proverbs (20:27): Ner Adonai nishmat adam.  “The light of Adonai is the soul of a human.”

Mourners go our of their way to find or even assemble a minyan so that they can recite the Kaddish.

In synagogue, on the preceding Shabbat, we read all the names of those whose yahrzeit will occur in the upcoming week. While this technically serves simply as a reminder to mourners to light the candle and recite the Kaddish, the recitation and hearing of the name has become a ritual in and of itself. Relatives attend services on the preceding Shabbat to hear the name of their loved one being read.

Other customs to mark a yahrzeit include giving tzedakah, studying Jewish texts, and visiting a grave. Of course, telling stories about our loved one is central.

Where the birthday marks the potential, still unrealized future actions of a person, the yahrzeit marks the impact and legacy that a person has already made. It honors a life in its entirety. Birthdays look to the future. Yahrzeits look to the past.

Judaism evaluates a life based on the sum total of a person’s accomplishments – the good and the bad. As long as I have breath, my legacy is still incomplete. It is not yet time to celebrate.

Later this afternoon, we will observe Yizkor, a service in which we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. Yizkor is about remembering what they meant to us and how they impacted us. We recognize that, even in death, the souls of the dead are bound with the souls of the living. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away a week ago Friday, on September 18. It was the 29th of Elul, 5780, Erev Rosh Hashanah. Over the past week, the tributes have poured in as people around the nation have honored her life and legacy.

Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. She was a pioneer and a fighter throughout her career. She was one of only a few woman in law school at Harvard. She transferred to Columbia and graduated first in her class. RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and its sixth—and longest serving—Jewis Justice. In death, she was the first woman and the first Jew to ever lie in state at the US Capitol.

From the beginning of her career, Ginsburg fought for gender equality and women’s rights. She argued, and won, many cases before the Supreme Court. She joined the Court in 1993 as a moderate consensus builder and later became the leader of its liberal wing. Notably in the last decade, she became a defender of voting rights.

Her chambers were decorated with the passage form Deuteronomy, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” 

RBG was always outspoken. She made a point of writing and reading her dissenting opinions from the bench when she had a point to make. She gave great interviews and could sometimes be a bit hasty in her comments – a testament to her freshness.

Her best friend on the court was her ideological opposite, the late Antonin Scalia, with whom she would dine and go to the opera. They were an example to the rest of us that it should be possible to have close relationships with those with whom we disagree.

Over the past decade and a half, the Notorious RBG became a pop icon and an inspiration to younger generations – which came as a total surprise to the petite Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn.

I do not know if we will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s birthday, but I am pretty sure that we will remember her yahrzeit. The date of her passing on Erev Rosh Hashanah has special significance to Jews. She got to live every day of 5780, which feels so appropriate for a woman who pursued justice every day of her life, even when she was lying in her hospital bed.

RBG was a pioneer in life. Now that she is no longer with us, she continues to inspire us as someone who made every day of her life count. Usually we say, “May her memory be a blessing.”  For her, we can say “Her memory is a blessing.”

Of course, there are few people who achieve her level of greatness. Most of us will not have such far-reaching impact. But we do not have to compare her accomplishments to our own.

That is the force of the story about Alfred Nobel. It was when confronted with his own life’s legacy that he decided to change course. 

Yom Kippur is the day on which we face our mortality. It is the day when we consider our life as if it is at the end. If The Mercury News screwed up and printed our obituary, what would it say? Would we be pleased with the report?

There are two unique parts of the Yom Kippur service that occur in every Amidah over the course of the fast: Selichot and Vidui.

Selichot are the penitential prayers. We chant the thirteeen attributes of God, emphasizing God’s forgiving, patient nature. We know we have made mistakes. We want to be better, and so we are asking for another chance.

The Vidui is the confession. This is when we collectively list all of the ways in which humans miss the mark. We pound on our chests for each of them. While none of us has violated every sin on the alphabetical lists, we know in our hearts which ones apply to us.

Selichot always precede the Vidui. We want to make sure that God hears our confessions from the side of compassion. S’lakh lanu, m’khal lanu, kaper lanu, we sing. “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Atonement is essentially the opportunity for a new start.

Yom Kippur includes elements of both the Yahrzeit and the birthday. When we get through the day, we experience a kind of rebirth. While nothing from our past is erased, we now have another chance to add to our story.

What a wonderful blessing and charged opportunity.

Earlier in the Covid crisis, I heard a piece of advice for high school students that stuck with me. Imagine, when all this is over, when a college admissions officer asks you the following question: “What did you do during Covid?” how will you answer?

I don’t think that is a question for just high schoolers. It is for all of us.

How have I spent this time? 

RBG, who fought cancer for the past four years, continued her life’s work of pursuing justice, issuing Supreme Court decisions from her hospital bed.

Our lives have been inhibited in so many ways. I do not need to list them. But that should not be an excuse to give up. It should be an opportunity to do something in a different way.

When we come out of Yom Kippur, the world around us will be the same. The question that we must ask ourselves is, will I?

The Memory of the Shofar – Rosh Hashanah 5781, second day

Rosh Hashanah has a number of names in the Torah.  Strangely, “Rosh Hashanah” is not one of them.

The association of this holiday with the new year does not occur anywhere in the Tanakh.  The Torah places this holiday at the beginning of the seventh month of the year.

What are this day’s names?

In the maftir Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, from the Book of Numbers, today is described as Yom TeruahTeruah means “blasting,” as in the sound made by a shofar. So today is a “Day of Blasting.”

In the Book of Leviticus, a slightly different name is used, Zikhron Teruah, a “Remembrance of Blasting.”

No other significant practices or symbolism are attached to this holiday in the Torah, which means that Remembrances and Shofar blasts are the two central concepts of the day.

By the time of the Mishnah, almost two thousand years ago, Rosh Hashanah had become a two day holiday celebrating God’s creation of the world

The Rabbis articulated one other central mitzvah for Rosh Hashanah. In the Musaf service, which we will begin in a few minutes, we recite a series of ten verses on each of three themes.

The Talmudic Sage Rabah summarizes them succinctly:

The Holy Blessed One said: Recite before Me on Rosh HaShana Malkhuyot, Kingship, Zikhronot – Remembrances, and Shofarot – Ram’s Horns. Kingship, so that you will crown Me as King over you; Remembrances, so that your remembrance will rise before Me for good. And with what? With the shofar.

Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34b

As Rabbah describes it, these three themes are closely intertwined. They tell a kind of story.  The sound of the Shofar carries the remembrance of us, Israel, to God, our King.

On this New Year’s Day, when we individually and collectively stand in judgment, the heavenward journey of the Shofar sound evokes God’s mercy.

We usually think of ourselves as the intended audience for the Shofar, but Rabah suggests that we sound the Shofar in order to get God’s attention.  “Hey! Remember us?!”

The Shofar blasts are wordless outpourings of prayer. It is the worship of pure feeling. The three notes that we sound are said to express different, even contradictory emotions. The Tekiah is an unbroken note that represents wholeness and healing. The Shevarim, three disconnected sounds, symbolizes our sighing over our brokenness. Teruah, the nine staccato bursts, is the uncontrolled sound of wailing.

Yesterday, Shabbat, we did not sound the Shofar.

The Rabbis determined that whenever Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, the mitzvah of blowing the Shofar would be suspended everywhere outside the Jerusalem Temple. Surprising, given that blowing the shofar is the only thing that the Torah tells us to do!

How can we have a Day of Blasting without any actual Blasting? In the absence of a physical Shofar on Shabbat, we still convey the essence of both the Shofar and Zikaron by every reference to it that occurs in the Mahzor, even though we are not blowing it.

The Talmud creatively suggests that the Torah even provides a hint. The phrase Zikhron Teruah in Leviticus, “a remembrance of blasting,” refers to Shabbat Rosh Hashanah. In this circumstance, without a shofar blast, the Zikhron Teruah, the memory of the blast, is enough

The Kiddush for Rosh Hashanah evening includes the words: Yom Teruah – “a Day of Blasting.” On Shabbat, we add an extra word. Instead of just Yom Teruah, we say Yom Zikhron Teruah, “A Day of Remembrance of Blasting.”

The memory of the Shofar is enough to carry our prayers to God.

Today is Sunday.  Since hearing the Shofar is the core mitzvah of the holiday, it was a priority to find a way to fulfill it.  After many back and forth conversations with the County—Thank you to our very own County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg—we figured out a way to hold four consecutive Shofar services in the parking lot this afternoon. We will not be forced to rely on the memory of the Shofar.

But there are many aspects of the holiday that we have had to rely upon as a Zikaron.

Back in June, when we began thinking about how to approach the High Holidays, we started with a foundational question. What are the essential experiences that we look forward to during the High Holidays? If we are not able to have those exact experiences, what can we do to capture the feelings that they evoke?

What do you look forward to during the High Holidays? What, if you did not get to experience it, would make the holidays feel incomplete?

Then, we began to consider creative ways, workarounds, that would enable us to have a Zikaron of those experiences and emotions.

First and foremost, people look forward to hearing the Shofar.  Such a simple sound.  The Shofar is truly one of the most primitive instruments – just a step up from banging two rocks together. And yet its clarion call penetrates our hearts and wakes us up.

For me, seeing everyone in the synagogue is one of the best parts of the holiday. I think about the crowds that fill our sanctuary during two particular moments: the Shofar service on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur.  At those two times, we reach standing-room-only numbers (which is ok, because those are moments in the service when we are supposed to be standing). I love seeing the children crowd up on the bimah to surround the Shofar blower. And I love observing individuals and families come up for a final personal moment in front of the open ark.

Instead, this year, I am standing here on the bimah in an empty sanctuary.  You are sitting in your homes in front of a monitor. But, we see each other’s faces. Lots of faces. Thank God for Gallery mode. We will hear the Shofar in the Sinai parking lot later today and see each other in person, while remaining in our cars. And everyone will have a chance to spend some time in front of this ark between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We have the Zikaron, the memory, of what it is like under normal circumstances.

Seeing the ark and the Torah scrolls draped in their special white garments is another powerful image for us. That is why I am set up here in the sanctuary.

Of course, hearing once-a-year prayers sung to beautiful melodies is special to many of us. And after twelve years, Cantor Motti’s voice has become part of the core experience. His pre-Rosh Hashanah concert this past week was especially moving because we knew he was not going to be able to be with us for services. 

I really look forward to the annual walk to the Los Gatos Creek for Tashlikh on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We will have to do Tashlikh on our own this year, but the High Holiday Home Kit includes a special Do-It-Yourself Tashlikh service.

Some of our memories center on family meals and gastronomic gatherings with friends. Yesterday, we had a special Seder Rosh Hashanah at which we had a chance to eat together and (sort of) share the special foods of the day.

Almost every element of our Rosh Hashanah celebrations are different this year, but they are meaningful. Perhaps even more meaningful, given the circumstances.

Our tradition has always been practical. We have always found creative ways to preserve the essence of our traditions and our faith. That is what we have done this year for the High Holidays.

It is what we have had to do in so many aspects of our lives: find ways to continue living with meaning despite the limitations imposed on us.

It has demanded a lot of creativity and a whole lot of patience and we have risen to the challenge in so many ways.

Like the silent Shofar on Shabbat, we find a way to create a Zikaron, a memory, and the memory can be enough.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techateimu.  May we be written and sealed for a good year.

Until the day when we can once again be together in person, may we be blessed with creativity and patience to live with meaning.

The Locus of Control – Rosh Hashanah 5781, First Day

The Sinai Men’s Club has an annual poker tournament.  I play a few times a year on top of that.  There is an important rule upon which my participation is conditioned.  No praying allowed.

So I go by “Josh” around the table… until there is a particularly big hand.  At that moment, I embrace my clerical role and become… Rabbi Berkenwald.

In 2009, the economist Ingo Fiedler crunched the data of 55,000 poker players, comprising several million hands, from an online gambling site.  He was trying to determine whether, and to what extent, skill plays a role in poker.

One question he asked was: What percentage of the winning hands do you think were the best hands? In poker, the winning hand and the best hand are not necessarily the same thing.  To win, you have to stay in the game.  That is to say, not fold.

90 percent?

75 percent?

50 percent?

12 percent.  In only twelve percent of pots was the hand that wins the best hand at the table.

In a recently published book called The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, Psychologist Maria Konikova set out to teach herself to play poker, No Limit Texas Hold-‘Em, and enter the the world of professional gambling.  She chose poker because, more than any other game, it is most similar to the world as we experience it.

In Texas Hold ‘Em, I get two cards. There is absolutely nothing I can do to change any of the cards on the table.  Furthermore, I have limited information. I know what I am holding, and I can see what is face up on the table. The rest is a mystery.

All I can do is fold, call, or raise.

Whether I am Josh or Rabbi Berkenwald, whether I pray or curse, I have zero ability to change the cards. What do I think, God is going to reaarange the deck for me?

All of those elements that I cannot control and do not know are external to me. One reason that poker is such a difficult game to be good at is because we get these things confused.

In helping to describe her experience, Konikova uses a psychological concept called the “Locus of Control,” first developed in the 1950’s by Julian Rotter. In each of our individual experiences as human beings, where does control over events seem to reside? There are two possibilities: internal or external.

Internal means that I determine what happens.  External means that something other than me controls my fate. Each of us tends to have either an internal or an external locus of control in a majority of cirumstances.

Internals tend to be optimistic about their abilities to determine their future. If I get a good grade, or a promotion at work, it is because of the effort I put in. As a result, those with an internal locus of control are more confident in their abilities to change their situation, and are therefore more willing to act and take risks.

Externals tend to attribute failure or success to outside factors like luck, fate, circumstances, or the prejudice of others. They tend to take a more passive approach to difficult circumstances because they are less confident of their abilities to affect change, and are therefore less likely to act. They also experience more stress and higher rates of depression.

5780 has been a year in which we have been made painfully aware of how out of control we are.

That I am delivering this D’var Torah in front of a camera while you experience it on a screen epitomizes what we have experienced in every dimension of our lives.

We entered this pandemic with so little knowledge of how to protect ourselves and each other.  Two hundred thousand people in this country alone have died, including the loved ones of members of our community.  Many of us have been unable to be present with sick or dying loved ones.

We have been physically isolated from one another, which takes such a high mental toll. Anxiety levels are high, raising risks of psychological illness and suicide.

With a shrinking economy, dedicated workers have lost jobs. Record numbers of people are relying on food banks.

Our country has erupted in civil unrest over the still-unresolved racism in our society. And we have felt helpless in the face of police violence, rioting, and a general feeling of social unrest.

Whatever our personal politics, we have felt exasperated at the seeming lack of understanding compassion, and common sense demonstrated by our opponents.

And for the last month, we have faced fires and dangerously unhealthy smoke that prevented us from even going outside.

So much is out of our control!

…or at least it feels that way. Arguably, we are no more or less in control than ever. We have always been subject to the laws of nature. Biology, physics, chemistry, human nature – none of these has changed. The universe continues to behave exactly as it always has since the beginning of time. Our perspective has caused the locus of control to shift towards the external.

The awesome, terrifying prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, captures this sense of powerlessness. After reading a list of our actions over the past year from the Book of Remembrance, God assembles us like sheep before a shepherd. As we pass by, God counts us and determines our fate for the year to come.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many will pass on, and how many will be born;

who will live and who will die…

who by fire and who by water…

who by hunger and who by thirst;

who by earthquake and who by plague…

who will be impoverished and who will be enriched…

But the book, with its sentence, is closed to us.  We did not know, one year ago, that plague and fire had been written down. Nor could we have. We do not know what is written for next year.

If we read closely, we see that there is no explicit connection between our deeds, the judgment, and the sentence. While there may be a spiritual ledger of our actions, our destiny in the upcoming year is independent. The locus of control in the prayer is entirely external. Our actions do not determine our destiny.

But wait. There is an asterisk. When we finish listing the possible fates that await us, we shout out our response:

Uteshuvah utefilah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah.

“Repentance, Prayer, and Charity turn aside the severity of the decree.” 

I cannot change fate, but I can make a difference in how it impacts myself and others. The deck has been shuffled and the cards dealt, but I can still control how I play them.

While we are living through a time in which we feel that we have very little control, our history should offer some comfort. This is surely not the first time we have faced such challenges.

In countless ways, human beings are better suited to coping than ever before. Researchers around the world are racing to develop vaccines in what will be, if expectations are met, record time.

Just 10 to 15 years ago, we did not have the technological capacity to shift school, work, and even religion online.

Medicine, science, and history have taught us so much about how to keep each other safe. Health care workers on the front lines, along with public health experts, have quickly learned and adapted to better care for those who have become sick.

Human beings are resilient, and the the Jewish people especially so. We have experienced so much external adversity, faced persecution beyond our control. We are still here because we have never given up on our ability to have an impact on our destiny.

Our Jewish tradition has always emphasized free will, that we are not supposed to be the objects of history, but rather its subjects. And, that we have a role to play in the world’s redemption.

Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedakah – Repentance, Prayer, and Charity. None of these will make the virus go away. They will not bring about a cure, nor hasten its development.

But they do offer answers to how we can control our fate.

Teshuvah – Repentance. I can always be better. I can work on my flaws and correct my mistakes. How I behaved yesterday does not have to determine how I will behave tomorrow. This is a lifetime project, but it is one that puts me in control of how I experience that life – whatever unexpected things may befall me.

Tefilah – Worship. This is deeply personal. Reaching out, spiritually, to that which is beyond us. God, the Divine, the universe, however you conceive It. Jewish worship combines elements of gratitude, self-reflection, petition, and penitence. It is how we develop a rich inner life and offers a way to be more centered. 

Tzedakah – It means charity. It means righteousness. And it means justice. Fundamentally, tzedakah is about taking care of each other. I have responsibilities to my fellow human beings – those who are part of my community and beyond. Especially at times of great crisis such as we are experiencing, I have the ability to effect not only my own experience, but that of others.

Right now, there are so many who are far worse off than I am. I would suggest that taking care of others’ needs leaves us feeling more empowered, more in control even, than taking care of ourselves.

While it may feel that we have no control, there is so much that we can do avert the severity of the decree.

God willing, we have all been written for life, health, success, prosperity, and love for the coming year.

But whatever the decree—whether the dealer has dealt us Pocket Aces or a 2 and 7 of mismatched suits—let us dedicate ourselves to affecting change in our own lives, the lives of others, and even the fate of the entire world. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah. May we all be sealed for a good and sweet new year.

The Vowels of God – Va’Etchanan 5780

One of the special qualities of Hebrew, especially Biblical Hebrew, is its ambiguity.  Exacerbating this ambiguity is the absence of vowels, which were not developed in written form until about 1,100 years ago.  As a result, words have more than one possible interpretation. The Biblical narrative relies upon this multiplicity of meaning to express itself.  

The Talmud teaches that there are seventy faces to every letter of the Torah.  In other words, perspective matters.  The same word simultaneously expresses multiple meanings and truths, depending on the lens through which a leader perceives it.  It is a powerful metaphor for us about the nature of Truth, one to keep in mind before we become too confident in ourselves and our opinions.

A particular challenge presents itself with regard to the pronunciation and meaning of the name of God.

In the Book of Deteronomy, Moses recounts the previous forty years of travelling through the wilderness to the Israelites, who are camped on the Eastern Bank of the Jordan.  Parashat Va’Etchanan opens with a particularly personal and emotional memory.  Moses recalls how he begged God to allow him to finish what he started.  

O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!  Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.

Deuteronomy 3:24-25

In his recollection, Moses blames the Israelites for God’s negative response to his appeal.  “The Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me.”  (Deut. 3:26)

Moses initiates his request with a somewhat uncommon invocation of God.  It appears just three times in the Torah, and always to introduce a personal appeal to God.

It is a formulation that might even be impossible to pronounce, as I will attempt to explain.  I invite us to look in our texts at Deuteronomy chapter 3, verse 24, page 1005 in the Etz Chayim chumash.  We are focused on just the first two words.  How should we read these words?

אדני יהוה

According to tradition, a Torah reader would pronounce the words Adonai Elohim.  But the letters and vowels do not read that way.  Our translation, from the Jewish Publication Society, reads “O Lord God.”

Let’s see if we can break it down.   The first word is relatively easy.  Alef Dalet Nun Yud Adonai – אֲדֹנָי.  It means “My Lord.”

Adonai is a generic title that one might use when addressing someone one wishes to honor.  It could be used to address a King, religious figure, or someone with a lofty title.  A student might address a teacher with Adoni.  It might also be used by a shopkeeper speaking with a customer, or a busdriver to a rider.  Or, it could be used to address God.

The second word is more difficult.  The letters are straightforward Yud Hei Vav Hei – יהוה.  Otherwise known as the tetragramaton – the four letter name of God.  

Bible scholars think that it was pronounced Yahweh in Ancient times.  If that is true, Moses then would have begun his prayer Adonai, Yahweh – “My Lord, Yahweh.”

What does Yud Hei Vav Hei mean?  Without vowels, it is impossible to say for certain.  The three letter root is Hei Vav Hei which means “to be.”  Grammatically, it could be in either the kal or hif’il conjugation, and could be either present or future tense.  Possible meanings, therefore, could be something like “He who is,” or “He who will be,” “He who causes to exist,” or “He who will bring into existence.”  I suspect that the ambiguity is intentional, and that all four meanings are implied.

God is in a constant state of existence and coming into existence, as well as causing all that exists to come into being.  It is a theologically rich, philosophical, transcendent understanding of the nature of God and the universe.

Jewish tradition, however, holds that we, first of all, are not allowed to pronounce God’s name; and second, we do not even know how to pronounce it..

This extreme concern with saying or inscribing God’s name did not exist in Biblical times through the first part of the Second Temple Era.  The Bible makes no mention of a substitute ever being used for Yud Hei Vav Hei.  It was pronounced and written regularly in sacred and secular contexts, such as in letters, legal documents and contracts.  Parts of the Tetragramaton are incorporated into many Biblical names that we still use today.  Think of Eliyahu – Elijah.  It was normal and acceptable to refer to God by name.  

But what about the third commandment?  Later in this morning’s parashah, Moses repeats the Ten Commandments.  The third commandment states that one may not “swear falsely in the name of Yud Hei Vav Hei your God.”  This does not mean that one may not say the name.  The third commandment refers specifically to a courtroom, in which it is forbidden to lie when swearing a formal oath, invoking the Divine name.

Nowhere does the Torah forbid a person from expressing the name Yud Hei Vav Hei out loud, as written.  So when did it happen?

The practice of substituting a different word for God’s name in speech and writing seems to have developed during the latter part of the Second Temple Era.  Substitutions for God’s name are already found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Some of the scrolls even use a different alphabet, writing out the four letter Divine name in proto-Hebrew, the ancient script.  

The Talmud (BT Yoma 39b) records that Second Temple priests, when offering the Priestly Blessing to people, stopped using the correct pronunciation of God’s name when Shimon HaTzaddik died.  If the Talmudic account is accurate, that would have been in the late fourth century BCE, the beginning of the Hellenistic era.  From that point on, the priests switched to Adonai.  Eventually, even the memory of how to pronounce God’s name correctly was lost.

The Rabbis are quite concerned with the casual writing and pronunciation of God’s name, as were early Christians.  Christian copies of the Septuagent, the Greek translation of the Bible, translate Yud Hei Vav Hei as Kyrios, which means “Lord,” the same as the Hebrew, Adon.

Why is it so important to not pronounce God’s name?  Not referring to someone by his or her name is a sign of respect.  Although it is not as common as it used to be, it was not long ago when children would never refer to an adult by his or her first name.  It was always, Mister or Mrs. followed by the last name. 

It is still not generally acceptable for a child to refer to his or her parent by a first name.  The Talmud (BT Kiddushin 31b) relates how the Sage Rava, whenever he would teach a lesson that he had learned from his father, would refrain from stating his father’s name out of respect.  Instead of citing “Rav Ashi,” his father’s actual name, Rava would say, in Aramaic, Aba Mari – “Father, My Lord.”

To this day, we usually pronounce Yud Hei Vav Hei as Adonai during prayer or ritual Torah chanting.  Most English translations are based on this word but substitute “My” with “The.”  Instead of saying “My Lord,” evoking a personal, intimate relationship, we say “The Lord,” a declaration of God’s universality and uniqueness.

In casual conversation, though, “The Lord” is too sacred.  Jews substitute the word Hashem for these four letters.  Hashem means, simply, “the name.” 

In our particular passage, we have the word Adonai spelled out, followed by Yud Hei Vav Hei.  But, we do not say Adonai Adonai.  “My Lord, My Lord.”  Instead, we say Adonai Elohim, “My Lord, God.”

Are you confused?  

Now we come to the vowels.  The vowel symbols were not developed until a little over a thousand years ago, by the Masoretes.  When it came time to putting vowels on a word whose pronunciation was both unknown and forbidden, they had a problem.

The solution they came up with was to use the vowels from the word that they actually wanted the reader to say.   Since Yud Hei Vav Hei is typically pronounced Adonai, it gets those vowels.

יהוה

+

אֲדֹנָי

=

יְהֹֹוָה

If I were to read it as written, it would say Yehovah.  That is where the word Jehovah comes from.  The letter “J” in German is pronounced “Y.”

You might notice that the vowel under the alef of Adonai looks different than the vowel under Yud.  They are actually the same vowel.  For reasons we will not go into right now, it has to be modified when it appears underneath an Alef.  Trust me.

In most places in the Torah, this is how the Divine name is written with vowels.

But in our case, we do not pronounce it Adonai.  We pronounce it Elohim.  We are going to need different vowels.

יהוה

+

אֱלֹהִים

=

יְהֹֹוִה

If we read it as written, it would be Yehovih.

Our tradition embraces the idea that words can express multiple ideas at the same time.  When we read this passage, we are supposed to think of both the written Yud Hei Vav Hei and the spoken Elohim.

The commentator Rashi explains the phrase with two simple words of commentary: Rachum badin.  Merciful in judgment.

Our tradition understands each name of God as representing different aspects of the Divine.  Yud Hei Vav Hei is mercy and Elohim is judgment.

In turning to God, Moses opens Adonai Yahweh.  “My Lord, The One who is constantly becoming and bringing everything into existence.”  God has judged him, and decreed that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  But the God of judgment is also the God for mercy.  Moses appeals for mercy in judgment.  Change the verdict.  Let me finish what I started.

The answer, sadly for Moses, is “No.”  But he does not give up.  His message to the children of Israel is that they, if they remain faithful to God, can complete what he started.  He finds hope in disappointment.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy.  Excursus 4, pp. 431-432.

“Racist / Not Racist” – It’s Not a Check Box

Since police officers murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, our nation has been torn asunder.  Largely peaceful protests in cities all across America, and even abroad, are unlike anything I have witnessed in my life.  It feels like we have been building to this moment.  What happens next will be determined by how well we can listen to each other and whether we are willing to look honestly at ourselves and our institutions.

Speaking about race is so difficult.  It is deeply personal.  It is tragically polarizing.  

While our congregation is diverse, the majority of Congregation Sinai’s members have white skin. As someone who is not black, I am cautious to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement.  I do not want to condescend or claim to understand someone else’s experience.  I come to this as a man with white skin, as a Jew, and as a Rabbi.  

I am not a racist.

I wish it were as simple as that, but racism is not a binary question.  There is no check box that says “I am a racist” or “I am not a racist.”  If there was, I would hope that all of us would check the “I am not a racist” box.  But that would be too easy.

This is a really touchy subject for white people.  Many of us reject the idea that we are complicit in racism.  Why should I be blamed for somebody else’s hate?  At that point, the conversation about race is over.  We have to be able to get past the racist/not racist – check the box approach.

Every system contains inherent biases.  Every person is permeated by them.  I see a human, and my mind immediately makes assumptions based on what I perceive: the color of someone’s skin, the shape of their eyes, their name, their accent, their gender.  These biases come from our family, our society, our community. We cannot eliminate these biases, but we can strive to become aware of them.  

In 1619, the first ship filled with African slaves arrived in Virginia.  400 years later, our society is still infected with the virus of racism.  It permeates all of our social institutions: law enforcement, the justice system, healthcare, education, and housing.  Talking about “a few bad apples” misses the point.

Terms like systemic racism and inherent bias have become part of the national conversation.  Major corporations, organizations, schools, and religious institutions are rushing to look at how their own policies and practices, whether intentional or not, have discriminated unfairly against black people and perpetuated racism in our society.

My email inbox is flooded with official position statements issued by nonprofit organizations, institutions, and companies – including a local sporting goods store.  I am sure yours is as well.

Both schools my children will attend next year sent out emails yesterday announcing multi-step plans to better support students of color.  These emails were sent after alumni publicly shared their experiences of racism when they attended those institutions.

Congregation Sinai has a great relationship with the San Jose Police Department.  When we have a concern, we get a quick response.  Joelle and I have direct cell phone numbers of the officers who are tasked with counterterrorism.  Officers join us every year for our Emergency Preparedness Shabbat evacuation drill.  They proactively call us to warn us of potential areas of concern.

Personally, I have never been afraid of the police.  I have never been pulled over for any reason that was not legitimate.  When I have felt the need to call the police, I have never hesitated.  I have never felt that I was being followed around in a store.  I have never had a random stranger cross the street to get further away from me.  I have never been considered for a job on anything other than my merit.  I have always lived within a short distance of vast quantities of healthy, affordable groceries.  I have always known that if I got sick, I would be able to see a doctor who would take my concerns seriously.

None of this should be remarkable.  This is exactly how it should be.  For everyone.

But we know that it is not.  Forget the studies and the statistics.  Just listen to black people.  When a black person in this country says they are scared of being shot by the police; that they do not think the justice system will give them a fair trial, that they were followed around in a store while shopping; that they were pulled over while driving the speed limit; that they were not given pain medication while they were giving birth in the hospital – I don’t have the right to tell them they are wrong.

After all, we hate it when people do that to us.  As Jews, when someone who is not Jewish denies or belittles our history of suffering persecution and genocide, we get furious.  You don’t get to tell me that, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, that part of my identity is invalid.  It is patronizing and anti-semitic.

If we are going to accuse those who were silent while Jews were being slaughtered, what does it say about how we should act when our neighbors are being mistreated?

When African Americans say “I can’t breathe,” both literally and figuratively, we have to listen and act.

As living creatures, we are hard-wired, biologically, to discriminate.  We are essentially tribal in our social behavior.  I favor those who are part of my group over those who are not.  That is the animal part of us – our survival instinct.

As human beings made in the image of God, our essential task is to rise above that instinct.  The Torah’s challenge to us, to humanity, is to answer Cain’s fundamental question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an emphatic “Yes!”

This does not come naturally or easily.  We Jews, of all people, should know that.

It should not come as a surprise to learn that all three major Jewish movements issued statements this week.  I am going to read a section from each, without identifying its author. 

“The national rage expressed about the murder of Mr. Floyd reflects the depth of pain over the injustice that People of Color – and particularly Black men – have been subjected to throughout the generations. In recent months we have seen, yet again, too many devastating examples of persistent systemic racism, leading to the deaths not only of Mr. Floyd but of other precious souls, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.”

“We call upon those in government and law enforcement not only to preserve the law, but also to restore justice, fairness and a sense of compassion to all. Inciteful language must cease, and efforts must be expended which will educate our society away from racism and towards a better understanding each for the other.”

“We join in the collective call for peace and reflection during civil unrest, but understand that to achieve this end we must act. For these reasons, [we] call on legislators at the national, state, and local levels to fundamentally change their approach to law enforcement and the justice system so that they serve and protect all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. We encourage our own members to reach out to other communities, to Jews of Color, as well as to local law enforcement to help lead and shape these endeavors within the community.”

That was from all three movements, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, although not necessarily in that order. You probably could not tell which statement came from which.  The point should be obvious.  Institutional racism exists at all levels of society.  Continuing to go about our lives, with the “I am not a racist” box checked is insufficient.  Every major Jewish institution in America agrees with that.

Elected leaders, law enforcement, civil servants, and the rest of us have an active role to play. My wife pointed out an inspiring passage from one of the Psalms that we sang together during this morning’s services.

Who is the person who desires life, who loves long years discovering goodness?

Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies

Turn away from evil and do good, demand peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:13-15

If we want to see goodness and peace in the world; if we truly love life—we cannot be passive. We have to actively demand and pursue it. This moment surely calls for such action.

So what can we do?

First of all, we need to go out of our way to listen, without judgment, to Black people.  Before jumping in with solutions, we have got to listen to those who are suffering.  Reach out, with sensitivity, to black friends and acquaintances.  Hear their stories

Donate money.  Whether you care about education, health care, justice, poverty, job training, or political action.  There are plenty of ways to put money to work.

Get involved with justice efforts led by Black organizers.  It is not for non African Americans to set the agenda.

We have to take an honest look at ourselves.  How do issues of race play a role in our lives, with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates?

We also need to look at our own institutions.  I have been thinking a lot this week about how inclusive we are at Congregation Sinai.

One of our core values, which we developed with our Vision Statement a few years ago, is:  We welcome all types of families and individuals into our community.

Are we living up to that value?  To answer that, we need to hear from all of our members, listening especially to the voices of Jews of color.

It will take time, but I pray that we are reaching a turning point.  Our nation is desperately in need of healing.  

I would like to recite a prayer that we know well.  The Prayer for Our Country.  We have said it many times during Shabbat services, so many times that we tend not to pay attention to what it means.  Like many of our prayers, it strikes a discordant tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. 

Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them the insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may once again abide in our midst.

Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.

May this land under Your providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.”  And let us say: Amen.