It’s a Great Mitzvah to be Happy Always – Re’eh 5778

Since 2012, the United Nations has conducted an annual World Happiness Report.  It ranks 156 countries by the collective happiness of their populations using weighted metrics derived from per capita GDP, degree of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption.  According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, America ranked 18th in the world, but we have been on a downward trajectory over the past decade.  Israel was 11th, if one can measure such a thing.

Of course, this has nothing to do with happiness as each of us experiences it individually.

Am I happy?

How do I get it?  And what is it?  Perhaps it is a chemical release that we can measure through neurobiology.  Maybe it is a feeling of purpose in life, or the awareness of being wanted.  Perhaps happiness is something we experience when we indulge our appetites.

One of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, is simchah – happiness, or joy.  The Hebrew root sin, mem, chet occurs exactly one time each in the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  It appears twelve times in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Seven are in Parashat Re’eh.

All seven occurrences contain similar elements.  The Israelites are told to rejoice when they bring various kinds of voluntary and mandatory offerings to the Temple.

Here is one example, describing the observance of the holiday of Shavuot:

V’samachta lifnei Adonai Elohekha… You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.  (Deuteronomy 16:11)

You, or rather, the Israelite, must gather together with all of the members of his household: his wife, children, and servants.  Plus, he invites the poor and dispossessed to join with him.  They are all to assemble “at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name,” that is to say, the Temple in Jerusalem.  There, they are to bring a freewill offering from the recent harvest, as an observance of Shavuot.

Note that it is not God who is doing the rejoicing.  It’s people – us.  This is not the case in other books of the Torah, which emphasize the burning up of meat to send up a pleasing odor to the Lord.  In Deuteronomy, we worship God by celebrating together and creating a mood of festivity among ourselves.  When Israelites brought one of these offerings, they did so as an acknowledgement and expression of thanks for the blessings that had been provided by God. 

The parashah implies that the recipe for true simchah requires several things: for us to be together, for us to share our bounty with the poor, for us to eat and drink, and for us to acknowledge that any blessings we get to enjoy in this world are ultimately gifts from God, and not merely the products of our own efforts.

Finally, by emphasizing that all of this must take place in the Sanctuary, and on specific occasions, the Torah channels our expressions of joy into sacred contexts.  After all, there can be danger in unbounded releases of happiness.  Parties can get out of hand.

Does the destruction of the Temple and the ending of sacrifices mean that we no longer worship God with simchah? 

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, placed a great emphasis on the idea of simchah as the central component of Judaism.  He offered an alternative approach to Jewish life, which in his day was so focused on intellectual achievement that it had lost the essence of what it meant to be Jewish.

All joy, even its lowest forms, originates in holiness and is a gift from God.  The Baal Shem Tov especially liked the following story from the Talmud.

Rabbi Beroka Hoza’ah used to frequent the market at Lapat where Elijah [the Prophet] often appeared to him. Once he asked [the prophet], “Is there anyone in this market who has a share in the world to come?”

[Elijah] replied, “No…” While [they were thus conversing] two [men] passed by and [Elijah] remarked, “These two have a share in the world to come.”

Rabbi Beroka then approached [the two men] and asked them, “What is your occupation?”

They replied, “We are jesters, when we see people depressed we cheer them up; furthermore when we see two people quarrelling we strive hard to make peace between them.”  (BT Ta’anit 22a)

One would imagine that the marketplace of a major Persian city would be filled with worthy people.  Scholars, merchants, philanthropists, civic leaders – many passersby who should merit a place the world to come.  Yet the only people worthy enough are the jesters.

The Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson, Rebbe Nahman of Breslov constantly strove to find ways to serve God with simchah.  Of his many beloved stories and teachings, the most well-known is: mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simcha tamid.  “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.”  (Likutei Moharan, II 24)

It sounds nice, and makes for nice lyrics to a niggun, but it is kind of a strange thing to say.  We usually think of happiness as something which we strive to achieve.  But a mitzvah?!  A commandments?!  Perhaps we might suggest that a life lived according to the Torah can lead a person to happiness.  But to suggest that there is a requirement to be happy seems unrealistic.

And even more far-fetched is the notion of tamid, always.  Can anyone achieve a constant state of happiness.  And if so, could the rest of us stand to be around such a person?

Rebbe Nachman knew this well.  He personally suffered from severe mood swings and depression.  He lost two children, and his wife died when he was thirty five.  He remarried almost immediately, contracted tuberculosis, and died at the age of thirty eight.  So what does Rebbe Nahman mean when he talks about simchah?

He teaches that it is in a person’s nature to be drawn to marah shechorah, black bitterness, and atzvut, sadness, from the travails of life.  We all suffers afflictions.  It would seem to demand all of our efforts to achieve a constant state of joy.  

Every one of us has a lev nishbar, Rebbe Nachman continues, a broken heart.  This broken heart is not something to suppress, nor is it something to wallow in, as that can lead us further down the path of black bitterness.  He advises instead that we should dedicate a fixed time each day during which to break our hearts and engage in honest conversation with God.  Then, we can be freed up to experience joy.

Indeed, Rebbe Nachman did this.  We have preserved many of Rebbe Nachman’s own spontaneous prayers that he recited in his daily conversations – or battles, as he described them – with God.  Embrace the brokenness and sadness, and then be freed up for joy.

Rebbe Nachman advised his chasidim to sing, and to dance.  He encouraged silliness, and lightheartedness.  “Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks,” he taught.  “If the only way to make yourself happy is by doing something silly, do it.”  (Advice, Breslov Research Institute. p. 254)  Rebbe Nachman fervently believed that our spiritual joy could make an impact in the real world.

Shortly before Purim in 1803, Rebbe Nachman arrived in the town of Terhovitza, in Ukraine, for his annual visit.  (Likutey Moharan, Volume II, #10, p. 115) Czar Alexander I had recently issued an ukase, a decree instructing the issuance of “Enactments Concerning the Jews.”  This would eventually lead to laws for mandatory conscription and compulsory secular education.

Rebbe Nachman introduced one of his teachings by stating: “When, God forbid, there are decrees affecting the Jewish people, through dancing and hand-clapping these decrees can be mitigated.”

After he completed the lengthy and intricate lesson, Rebbe Nachman remarked: “This is what I said!  We are hearing news of decrees against the Jews.  But the days of Purim are near and Jews will dance and clap, and thereby mitigate the decree!”

At the Purim festivities that year, Rebbe Nachman danced even more fervently than usual.  “I have delayed the decrees for twenty-odd years,” he reflected afterward.

The decrees did not come until almost twenty five years later, in 1827, sixteen years after Rebbe Nachman’s death.

I don’t know if we have come any closer to defining simchah, but Parashat Re’eh and Rebbe Nachman offer paths to achieving it.  In the Torah, Simchah is experienced when we join with other people, including those without the means, to express gratitude for the gifts we have been given.  Spiritual simchah, expressed at holy moments and locations, is worship of God.

For Rebbe Nachman, it is the highest form of worship.  And even though life is difficult, unfair, and filled with sadness; and even though some people’s physical and psychological burdens seem to far exceed those of others, our ultimate task in life is to cultivate a state of constant joy.  This can only be done by acknowledging the sadness.  Maybe it is the black bitterness itself that makes true simchah possible.

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simchah tamid.  “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.”

Mordechai the Spymaster – Shabbat Zakhor 5778

Every year as I prepare for Purim, I discover a new way of reading the text that gives such wonderful insight into its characters, and seems to describe situations and relationships that we face today.

The Book of Esther is full of twisting reversals, points high and low.  It is filled with extreme emotions – joy, sadness, terror, rage, fear, hatred, and relief.  The lowest – and most triumphant – moment in the story occurs in chapter 4.

In chapter three, Haman uses lies and bribery to extract permission from King Achashverosh to kill all of the Jews of Persia in revenge for Mordechai refusing to bow down to him.  At the end of the scene, Haman and the King sit down to drink while the city is dumbfounded by the quickly spreading news.

Thus begins chapter 4.  Mordechai springs into action.  He has made it his habit to spend his days hanging outside the harem, where his niece Esther is safely ensconced as queen.  Upon hearing the terrible news, Mordechai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and covers his head with ashes – all signs of mourning.

Esther’s servants inform her about the bitter weeping of the Jews of Shushan and her uncle Mordechai.  But Esther has been removed from everything taking place in the lower city, so she has no idea what is causing their great sorrow.  She is not allowed to leave the palace to see things for herself.

She sends her servant, a eunuch named Hatach, to talk to Mordechai, check things out for her, and bring back a report.  Mordechai tells him the whole story, and even shows him Haman’s decree with the King’s seal upon it.  He sends Hatach to Esther with the message that she must go before the King to appeal for mercy on behalf of her people.  In fact, Mordechai commands her to do so.

Esther’s response is disappointing to him.  “Everyone knows,” she says “that if any person, man or woman, enters the king’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.  Only if the king extends the golden scepter to him may he live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the king for the last thirty days.”

Now there are a couple of ways to understand Esther’s comment.  Thirty days is a long time.  Perhaps she is out of favor with the king, and if she shows up unannounced she faces execution.  Or perhaps she is suggesting that enough time has passed – thirty days – that she is expecting to be summoned to the King any day now.  So why risk her life needlessly?

We have been trained to think of this episode in the Megillah in the following way: Mordechai is the paternalistic uncle trying to convince the young, naive Esther to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people.  This is not what is going on.

Esther’s response is not an outright refusal.  In fact, her statement shows deeper thoughtfulness and strategy than her uncle’s.  Consider these the opening salvos in a political negotiation.

Mordechai responds, again through Hatach, playing his Kissingerian role as shuttle diplomat.  “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

How should we understand this densely packed statement?  Mordechai’s opening words sound like a threat.  He seems confident that the Jewish people will be saved, whether by Esther’s intercession or not.  This is the closest reference to God in the Megillah, although it is still just an intimation.  Perhaps Mordechai is even appealing to her ego, dangling the prospect of becoming the hero of the story.  In any event, it seems, on the face of things, that Mordechai has taken Esther’s response as a refusal to act, and now he is trying to change her mind.

Perhaps there is another way to read the story.  Esther has not refused Mordechai.  Rather, she has communicated to him what conditions in the palace are like; how dangerous it is there for her.  Now Mordechai is approving of her plan to take things slow.  This is the answer he wants.  So he offers encouragement.  The risk is worth it.  Your fate in the palace is the same as ours out here on the streets.  Indeed, if you don’t act, you could die while the rest of us are saved by some other hero.  You are the Queen.  Now act like one.

Esther responds with a plan.  She sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for three days.  Meanwhile, she will do the same with her court in the palace.  Then she throws in a bit of melodrama, “and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

She throws Mordechai’s threats back at him.  She will indeed try to intercede, but she makes sure that Mordechai understands the risks she is taking.

We are now back where we started from.  The chapter opened with Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan in mourning.  Now, Esther has declared her solidarity with the Jews of Shushan by calling for a three day public fast, also an act of mourning.

In the postscript to the chapter, Mordechai returns to the city, and does what Esther has commanded him.

Notice that the exchanges began with Mordechai commanding Esther.  Now it is Esther who is doing the commanding.  And Mordechai seems perfectly willing to go along with it.  Their roles have reversed.

Why does Mordechai back down?  Is Esther’s plan such a good one?  ‘Fast for three days and I’ll take care of it.’  Can he not come up with something better?  Is he comfortable being commanded by his niece?

Again, we have more than one way to read this story.  On its surface, it would seem that Esther has won the argument.  The intercession will take place on her terms.  In doing so, she has established herself as the one with the power.  She is the Queen, after all.  No more will she allow herself to be controlled by Mordechai.  Mordechai obediently goes back to do as he is told.

Or, perhaps Mordechai has won the argument.  This is exactly the outcome he has wanted from the beginning.  He has always known his niece has tremendous potential.  Her selection as queen does not surprise him.  She has been perfectly placed to play a critical role on behalf of the Jewish people.  Think of her as one of those sleeper agents that are waiting to be activated.  Mordechai needs to find a way to awaken Esther’s latent talents so that she can become the hero he has trained her to be.

Mordechai is a spymaster, working from behind the scenes to nurture Esther’s talent and arrange the situation so that she will be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

To further support the notion that Mordechai is a spymaster, consider the following:  Mordechai is the one who somehow uncovers the plot by two guards to stage a palace coup, but he does not bring the news himself to the King, although he certainly could have.  He sends the warning through Esther.  Why?  So that she can establish her credibility and raise her stature in the court.  Mordechai stays in the background, where he wants to be.  Perhaps that is why he is not initially rewarded for his meritorious service.

Also, somehow, Mordechai has found out the exact amount of money that Haman has secretly promised to give the king.  It is safe to assume that this detail is not public knowledge.  After all, leaders generally do not want word to get out that they have accepted a bribe.  Mordechai knows just where to be and when to be there to get the critical information that he needs.

So why does Mordechai obediently follow Esther’s command?

He is happy to.

He has finally seen her leadership qualities burst forth.  He has groomed her for greatness from the very beginning.  Even though she has not elucidated her plan, Mordechai is confident that Esther will know exactly what must be done to save the Jewish people.

And she does, with Mordechai proudly watching from the sidelines.

The book is named after Esther, the hero of the story.  But we also recognize Mordechai’s contribution as the uncle who adopts her, protects her, trains her, gives her wings, and eventually lets her fly to a greatness that she achieves through her own courage and intelligence.

Isn’t that we try to do as parents?  While they are in our care, we provide our children with protection, education, and self-confidence.  We know that they will face adversity in their lives.  We encourage them to face it squarely, perhaps warning them what could befall them if they do not confront challenges directly.  And we are so proud when they recognize the risks, and step forward nevertheless.

Eventually, our children reach an age when we can no longer exert total control over their lives, as much as we might want to.  Like Mordechai, hopefully, we will have enough faith in them that we can watch from the sidelines while they make their own decisions, command their own fates, and deal with the consequences.

The difficult question that does not have a straightforward answer is: When exactly does that moment come?  Is it twelve, thirteen, thirty four?

The Fundamental Freedom – Vaera 5778

In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel shares how he and others managed survive in the concentration camps: by finding ways to live with purpose.  He had just completed a manuscript for publication when he was arrested.  He tells how disappointed he was when the coat he was wearing was confiscated from him in Auschwitz.   The manuscript was hidden in the lining.  In return, he was given the worn rags of another prisoner who had recently died.  He reached into the pocket, and what did he find?

One single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael.  How should I have interpreted such a coincidence[, he asks,] other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper.  (p. 119)

Over the course of the next several years, Frankel’s “deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped [him] to survive the rigors of the camps…”

Drawing upon his experience as a survivor, Frankel asks the fundamental question of how we live lives with meaning?  In seemingly hopeless situations, how does a person embrace hope?

As the Book of Exodus opens, the Israelites have been enslaved for generations.  They are groaning and sighing, and apparently have given up on the possibility of freedom.  But God hears their cries, and remembers the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When Moses goes to them the first time, they are skeptical.  After he appears before Pharaoh with his initial demand to “let my people go,” Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload.

In Parashat Vaera, God again sends Moses to carry the message to the Israelites that they are about to be freed.  “Get ready to be redeemed!”

Moses says and does exactly what God tells him, but he does not get the response that he is hoping for.  “They did not heed Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage.”

Moses then turns to God, exasperated.  “If the Israelites would not listen to me, how can I expect Pharaoh to take me seriously, and I am of uncircumcised lips!”

It seems that the Israelites and Moses also have some learning to do.  The commentators struggle to understand why both the Israelites and Moses are not responding enthusiastically to God’s message of freedom.

Rashi understands the Israelites’ “shortness of breath and hard bondage” literally.  They are working so hard that they are incapable of mentally processing Moses’ fairly simple message of hope.

Other commentators see the Israelites’ situation as being more spiritual and psychological.  Kotzer Ruach, “shortness of breath,” could also be translated as “shortness of spirit.”  In other words, the Israelites are depressed, and their depression renders them incapable of considering the possibility that there could be an end to their suffering.  Using Victor Frankel’s terminology, they have not yet made the choice to embrace a cause to live for.

Moses’ strange expression, “I am of uncircumcised lips,” has perplexed commentators for millennia.  Robert Alter points out that it is a mistake to see it merely as a colorful way of saying, “I have a speech impediment” or “I am not good at public speaking.”

Rather, Moses is declaring that he is not fit “for the sacred task.”  He feels that he is spiritually unable to do what God has asked him to do.  That is, to be God’s mouthpiece, both in performing miracles before Pharaoh, and in leading the Israelites to freedom.  Moses does not think that he is up for the job.

The Torah tends to be critical of people who do not have faith in God’s ability to redeem them.  But I can see where Moses and the Israelites are coming from.  They are being asked to do something that has never been done before.  So it is understandable that they might be a little hesitant about getting their hopes up.

Hope is closely related to fear.  Indeed, hope is a response to fear.  Holding us back from hope is the fear that deliverance may not come, and something terrible awaits us on the other side.

The Israelites are understandably afraid.  What if Moses fails?  What if Pharaoh increases their tasks even more?  It is better to continue in the despair that they know, rather than embrace the possibility of a redemption that they are unlikely to see.

During Passover, we remember these events.  Our core goal is to fulfill the admonition to “See ourselves as if we personally went out from each Egypt.”  We tell stories of personal deliverance, of family members being rescued.

But we must remember that before we dared hope for deliverance, we experienced moments of fear and despair.  It takes a great act of courage to hope.  It takes a willingness to embrace the freedom to choose a cause to live for.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankel writes

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.  (p. 109)

When Moses first appears to the Israelites, neither they nor he have embraced the freedom to choose their own attitudes.  The story of Exodus is the story of their eventual embrace of this fundamental freedom, which can be exercised no matter what outside influences they confront.

That is the question that we strive to ask ourselves each day, no matter what external forces may be waiting for us.  How will I embrace the fundamental freedom to choose my attitude?

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 Compassionate Doubled Verb – Mishpatim 5777

There are a lot of Hebrew speakers in the room today, so I am going to focus on a particular feature of biblical Hebrew which is not found in English.  For that matter, it is not found in modern Hebrew either: doubled verbs.

Here is an example from this morning’s Torah portion:  u-makeh aviv v’imo mot yumat.  One who strikes his father or his mother…” and now here comes the doubled verb:  mot yumat.  (Exodus 21:15)

This presents a conundrum for the translator.  What is meant by the duplication of the verb, which means “die,” and how do I convey it in English?”

Our own Etz Hayim Chumash translates mot yumat as “shall be put to death,” while the Stone Chumash kicks it up a notch with “shall surely be put to death.”  Robert Alter embraces melodrama with, “is doomed to die.”  A hyper-literal translation would be something like that by Everett Fox, “is to be put-to-death, yes, death.”

Generally speaking, doubling a verb like this is one technique that Biblical Hebrew uses to create emphasis.  Each of the translations we just heard are trying, in their respective ways, to convey the seriousness of the command, even though just one of them actually translates the word “die” twice.

The bottom line is, for those kids who are listening right now, you better not hit your parents.

Over the course of the many laws listed in Parashat Mishpatim, there are numerous doubled verbs.  Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, points out a particular verse which contains no less than three of them.  It follows the instruction “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan”  (Exodus 22:21)  And then it continues

אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתוֹ:

Im aneh t’aneh oto ki im tza-ok yitz’ak elai shamo-a eshma tza’akato.

Here is Everett Fox’s hyper-literal translation:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them . . . !

For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,

and I will hearken, hearken to their cry  (Exodus 22:22)

This seems a little excessive, does it not?

Rabbi Goldfarb points out that the purpose of the doubled verbs is not necessarily to enhance.  In fact, there is a rabbinic disagreement about the meaning of אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה, “Oh, if you afflict, afflict them.”  The Rabbis generally assume that the Torah does not waste any words.  So if a verb appears twice, each must have its own distinct meaning.

One opinion states that the first mention of afflict refers to serious afflictions and the second refers to minor afflictions.  Thus, God is going to hold us accountable for even minor mistreatments of the widow and the orphan.  The doubled verb intensifies the message.

The second opinion states that a person is not liable until the second time that he or she mistreats an orphan or widow.  In other words, the doubled verb diminishes the message.  (Mekhilta, Mishpatim 18)

This is a pretty significant difference.  Should we have a zero-tolerance policy for repression of the unfortunate or should we give ourselves second chances after messing up the first time?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was a Chassidic Rebbe in the first half of the nineteenth century.  He was known as the Kotzker Rebbe.  He also notices this unusual sentence, with its threefold doubled verbs, and offers a creative explanation.

The Torah is trying to emphasize something specific.  The suffering of the orphan and the widow is not like typical human suffering.  When a widow or orphan experiences mistreatment, physical harm, or financial loss, it weighs especially heavily on that person’s heart.  That is why the Torah doubles the verbs.

“If you afflict, afflict him” – he experiences double suffering.  This leads him to “cry, cry out” to God.  And God, in turn will “hearken, hearken to their cry.”  In other words, God will bring twice as much compassion, as well as inflict twice the punishment on the perpetrators of injustice.

In the Torah’s day, the widow and the orphan, along with the stranger, occupied the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.  They had the least power and were the most vulnerable.

The Kotzker Rebbe is pointing out a timeless truth.  Those with the fewest resources tend to be the ones who are most vulnerable to misfortune.  We see this in the world today, as the poorest people are the one’s who suffer the greatest consequences from natural disasters.  Those with fewer resources do worse when the economy takes a downturn.

One of the Torah’s central messages to us is that we have a moral obligation to care for those with the least resources.  The Torah’s law codes introduce principles of social and economic equity which were unprecedented in the world at the time.

This theme underscores so many of the commandments that appear in this morning’s portion, such as: giving tzedakah, enforcing justice equally, not showing deference to the rich, making sure that punishments are proportional to the crime.

Yet the Torah also recognizes that, as much as we may try to legislate proper behavior, we are human after all.  We will mistreat each other.  And some of us will be more vulnerable than others.

The very language of the Hebrew that the Torah uses emphasizes the importance of compassion, and reminds us that even when we fail to live by the Torah’s standard, God still keeps an ear open for the cries of the least fortunate – and listens twice as closely for it.

Invocation of the San Jose City Council Meeting – January 24, 2017

Thank you Councilmember Jones for your warm introduction, and for inviting me to deliver the invocation for this meeting of the San Jose City Council.  Mayor Liccardo, Councilmembers, Friends.  It is an honor to be here.

In our annual cycle of reading the Torah, Jews around the world began the Book of Exodus this past Sabbath.  Exodus opens with ominous parallels to our current situation.  “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”  (Exodus 1:8-10)

Pharaoh plays on fear.  He identifies a foreign element, an ‘other,’ and stokes an atmosphere of distrust among the Egyptians.  When he assigns taskmasters to enslave the Israelites, the Egyptian people do not rise up in protest.

The Egyptian authorities gradually increase the labor and the suffering of the Israelites, and nobody objects.

When Pharaoh orders the midwives who deliver the Israelite babies to murder any male child who is born, finally someone does something.  Shifra and Puah, in the first recorded act of civil disobedience, refuse to commit infanticide.  They stand up to Pharaoh and reject his immoral order.

But this does not deter him.  Pharaoh doubles down, commanding the Egyptian people to throw all Israelite male children into the Nile River to drown.

Again, nobody stands against him.

It is a pattern that has been repeated all too many times over the past three and a half thousand years.  And we Jews, a people who remember, know this all too well.

The United Nations resolution which created International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005 “condemn[ed] without reserve all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur.”

While International Holocaust Remembrance Day is devoted to a particular act of genocide, the moral declaration is one that could apply just as well to the situation of the Israelites in Egypt, and to so many other tragedies throughout history.

Like so many, I am deeply troubled and fearful by the tone that our new President has set.  It is shocking to witness, in 2017, the normalization of hatred based on religion, skin color, country of origin, and sexual orientation.

We ought to know better.  Because we ought to know our history.

If we do not actively oppose hate in our day, then today’s speeches and proclamation are all just a waste of our time.

I was inspired to see millions of women and supportive men come out this weekend to declare our rejection of hate and discrimination, including 25,000 people who gathered in the plaza outside on Saturday.

But it will take more than rallies in the streets to move our society in the direction of justice and righteousness.  Let us find strength in the bold actions of Shifra and Puah.

You, our elected city officials, must be courageous.

We are blessed to live in a state, and a city, which holds great influence.  San Jose is the capital of Silicon Valley.  We are leaders in innovation and creativity.

Why is San Jose the most innovative place in the world?

It is in no small part because we are the most ethnically diverse large city in the county.  Immigrants, who bring different experiences and ways of thinking, contribute to making us great.

Rather than building walls, creating registries, and deporting those who are “other,” we ought to be doing the opposite.

I urge you to resist, with all the powers at your disposal, any efforts to stoke fear and hatred; all forms of discrimination; all efforts to build walls, both literally and figuratively, between us.  May God give you strength to further the causes of justice and righteousness in our city, in our nation, and in our world.  Amen

Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness – Yom Kippur 5777

There is a town in Belgium called Geel (Hyale), with a remarkable 700 year old custom of compassion.

Its origin lies in a legend about a seventh century Irish princess named Dymphna.  When Dymphna’s mother died, her father went mad, insisting on marrying her.  Dymphna fled to the continent.  When he caught up to her in Geel, he beheaded her.  Dymphna was sainted, and pilgrims began visiting the site of her martyrdom in search of miraculous cures, especially for mental illness.

A church was built in 1349, and later, an annex to house the visitors.  Eventually, the townspeople began to welcome the mentally ill relatives of pilgrims into their homes as “boarders.”  For the townspeople, it was an act of charity to open up their homes.  “Boarders” stay with their hosts for long periods of time, as many as fifty, or even 80 years, becoming part of the family.

At its peak in the 1930’s, there were 4,000 boarders living amongst a local population of 16,000.

The residents do not use terms like “mentally ill,” “psychiatric,” or “patient.”  Behavior that in any other part of the world would be considered odd or crazy, like people talking to themselves on the streets, is normalized in Geel.

This system does not take the place of medical treatment.  There is a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of town.  What it does is treat people with dignity who would in any other community likely be hidden away or abandoned on the street.

Since the 19th century, Geel has been held up in psychiatric circles as the best way to address mental illness.  It is an ideal model for integration and normalization within a supportive community.

Sadly, as the world has changed, Geel is changing along with it.  As the result of the pressures of modern life, and the increasing medicalization of mental illness, there are today only 250-300 boarders left.  But for the residents of Geel, this custom of compassion is an important part of their heritage.

Let’s try to imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if our community was so accepting and welcoming to those who do not conform to what we typically think of as normal behavior.

Psychiatric care in the United States used to center on institutionalization in asylums.  People who were “crazy” were sent away to facilities that often had terrible conditions, where they received treatments that were often tantamount to torture.  In 1972, the psychiatric hospitals began to close.  This was supposed to be accompanied by investment of resources into community-based treatment centers.  But the investment did not happen.  As a result, many of those living with mental illness became homeless.  This is a tragedy that persists to this day.

Unlike the example of Geel, there has been no normalization of mental illness.  The mass shootings that we have seen over the past few years has prompted discussions of the need to invest more money and resources in mental health screening and treatment, but little has been done.

There is still so much fear and stigmatization.  The truth is, members of our community live every day with mental illness, whether it affects them personally, or someone close to them.

But we don’t talk about it openly.  We are scared of “strange” behavior.  When someone exhibits signs of mental illness, we tend to back away.

Think about language that we toss around casually: crazy, cuckoo, nuts.

Mental illness is so much more widespread than we typically acknowledge.  One out of every five adults in America experiences mental illness.  One in twenty five live with a serious chronic condition.

1.1% of the adult population has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  2.6% has bipolar disorder.  6.9% suffer from major depression.  And 18.1% have an anxiety disorder.

Most signs of mental illness present themselves when we are young, with half of all chronic mental illness beginning by age fourteen.

We do not adequately treat mental illness.  60% of adults and 50% of youth aged 8-15 with mental illness did not receive mental health services in the last year.

There is a terrible price that we pay.

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.  It is estimated that serious mental illness costs America over 190 billion dollars per year in lost wages.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America overall, and the second leading cause among those aged 15-34.  It is estimated that 90% of those who die by suicide suffer from depression.  As much attention as there has been to the mass killings, twice as many people die in America by suicide than by murder.

Rabbis give lots of sermons this time of year about teshuvah, repentance.  It is a wonderful concept – truly one of Judaism’s most insightful principles.  Every year, we engage in cheshbon hanefesh―self-reflection―examining our lives, and identifying ways we can be better.  We reach out to those we have wronged and seek to make amends.  We turn to God, confess our sins, and ask for forgiveness.

But what if there is no getting better?

Many of us live with mental health conditions for which there is no “cure.”  No amount of cheshbon hanefesh is going to enable us to “fix” ourselves.

But that does not make us failures.  “Depression is a flaw of chemistry, not character,” reads a Manhattan billboard.6fe75f9ff1353866f3da9ebdcc988d8c

The field of human psychology is just over a century old.  Our understanding of mental illness, and our ability to treat it, ha experienced a sea change in that time.  But that does not mean that our ancestors did not have any appreciation or compassion for those whose behaviors did not conform to social norms.

In the Bible, the best depiction of a major character suffering from mental illness is King Saul.  Listen to how the Bible describes the onset of his condition:  “Now the spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and a ruach ra’ah – an evil spirit – from the Lord began to terrify him.”  (I Sam 17:14)  Saul’s courtiers do not know how to address their king’s new state of mind, so they suggest searching for a musician to soothe him whenever the ruach ra’ah manifests itself.  A search leads to David, who, among other talents, is a skilled lyre player.

Saul’s ruach ra’ah comes and goes.  He has episodes of paranoia and mania interspersed with periods of normal function.  Some modern readers have suggested that he might have suffered from a bipolar disorder, although we should be cautious about making a diagnosis based on a three thousand year old text.

Some time later, David kills the Philistine Goliath and then has to flee from Saul’s wrath.  He winds up in the court of King Achish of Gat, Goliath’s home town.  To avoid arrest, David pretends to be insane, scratching marks on the doors and letting his saliva run down his beard.  Achish, afraid of this behavior, scolds his attendants.  “You see the man is raving; why bring him to me?  Do I lack madmen that you have brought this fellow to rave for me?  Should this fellow enter my house?”  (I Sam. 21:15-16)

Many of the Psalms, traditionally attributed to King David and his court, express the anguish of a troubled mind.

My soul is in anguish, and You, O Lord―how long?

Turn, Lord, set my soul free; save me for the sake of Your love…

I am weary with my sighing.

Every night I drench my bed, I soak my couch with my tears.

My eye grows dim from grief, worn out because of all my foes…  (Psalm 6)

These sound like the words of a person living with severe depression.

In Rabbinic texts, there is much discussion about mental illness.  The term that is used to describe such a person is shoteh.  The shoteh, along with the deaf-mute, is generally not granted much legal status, as they are assumed to not understand what is happening around them.

But what constitutes a shoteh?

A single talmudic passage offers an inconclusive definition.  “Who is a shoteh?  A person who goes out alone at night; sleeps in a cemetery; and tears one’s clothing.”  (BT Chagigah 3b)  One Rabbi explains that all three behaviors need to be exhibited, while another Rabbi argues that just one is needed.  Then, the Talmud suggests that there could be rational reasons for a person would go out alone at night, sleep in a cemetery, or tear clothing.  The question is left unresolved.

Nearly one thousand years later, Maimonides is discussing laws pertaining to who may serve as a witness in court.  A shoteh, someone who is mentally or emotionally unstable, is not considered to be obligated in the mitzvot, and thus cannot serve as a witness, he says.  But who is a shoteh?  As a legal scholar, a physician, and a community judge and leader, Maimonides offers a more nuanced, and I would suggest compassionate, way of looking at the shoteh.

First he describes someone who is unable to understand basic matters or recognize simple contradictions.  He is describing what we might call someone with an intellectual disability, or low IQ.

Maimonides then writes about emotional instability.  He says that is is not merely someone who “goes around naked, destroys utensils, and throws stones.  Instead, it applies to anyone whose mind is disturbed and continually confused when it comes to certain matters, although he can speak and ask questions to the point regarding other matters.”

But his final comment is the most poignant.  “This matter is dependent on the judgment of the judge. It is impossible to describe the mental and emotional states of people in a text.”  (Edut 9:9-10)

Every person is unique.  Someone might be capable and functional in some aspects of his or her life, but troubled in other aspects.  Emotional instability might come and go.  We cannot make categorical assumptions without even getting to know a person.  We have to take the time to listen.

Pretty progressive for the twelfth century.

Today, we know that mental illness is not a punishment from God, and it is not something that can be cured with sacrifice or prayer.  Whereas it was once attributed to possession by a ruach ra’ah, we now understand mental illness as being caused by chemical and/or physical processes in the brain.

And, there is often treatment that can reduce symptoms of mental instability and make it possible for someone living with a mental illness to flourish in ways that would have been unimaginable in previous eras.  Someone who once would have been considered a shoteh, and not held accountable for his or her actions, can now have a family and a successful career.

While not perfect, we do a pretty good job of accommodating the needs of people who live with physical disabilities.  The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, “prevents discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.”

It has changed such basic things as how we design buildings.  When our synagogue was built ten years ago, for example, we included a ramp to enable someone who uses a wheelchair or walker to come up to the bimah.  Earlier this year, we installed railings to make it easier to walk up the steps to the bimah.

We do a reasonably good job of ensuring that our synagogue is a welcoming home for anyone with a physical disability.

But what about for someone suffering from a psychiatric illness?

One of the most meaningful parts of our weekly Shabbat services is the Mi Sheberach L’cholim, the prayer for the sick.  Our practice is to invite anyone who would like to include the name of someone who seeks healing to form a line.  Each person has an opportunity to recite the names of those who are ill.  It is one of the most personal parts of the service for many of us, including me.

I recognize many of the names that are recited, and I am familiar with the illnesses that many of them face: cancer, chronic conditions, acute sickness, dementia.  But have we created a culture in which we would think to include someone struggling with mental illness in our prayers for healing?

Would someone who is him or herself experiencing depression feel welcome to include his or her own name?

It would certainly be appropriate to do so.  The language of the prayer acknowledges that there are physical and spiritual dimensions to healing.  We pray for r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf―healing of spirit and healing of body―in that order.

Prayer is not a treatment for mental illness.  It is not a substitute for medications that address chemical imbalances in a person’s brain.  But religion, and a religious community, ought to be an important component in healing.  Where better for someone living with depression to turn for support and acceptance than a house of worship?

We need to do better.  Congregation Sinai needs to be a community in which those suffering with a mental illness can be open about their struggles.  We need to break the stigma that leads so many of us to keep our struggles inside.

If you feel comfortable sharing your struggles with someone else, please take the courageous step and do so.  For someone who feels embarrassed or self-conscious about opening up, knowing that there are others who have shared similar experiences can make a huge difference.  It sends the message that “you are not alone.”

I have an anxiety disorder and Adult ADHD, for which I take psychiatric medications.

Over the past ten years or so, I have experienced occasional panic attacks.  I get dizzy.  The world starts to spin.  The edges of my eyesight get blurry, and I worry that I am going to pass out.  On some particularly bad occasions, I feel like I am having a heart attack, or at least, what I imagine a heart attack would feel like.

Scariest of all is when I have a panic attack while behind the wheel of a car.  One of my triggers is driving over tall bridges.  A few years ago, I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge with my brother-in-law in the passenger seat and our kids in the back.  Halfway across the bridge, I could feel an attack coming on.  “Keep an eye on me,” I told my brother-in-law.  As soon as we got to the other side, I pulled over to the shoulder and gave him the wheel.

A couple of years ago, I had a panic attack in the middle of the night.  I thought I was having a heart attack.  I woke Dana up, and asked her to keep an eye on me.  I was upset with myself.  “What is wrong with me?  I should be able to just get myself under control.  After all, this is all just in my head.”

Dana, in her wisdom, responded, “Your brain is the most complex organ in your body.  What makes you think that you can just get it under control?”

Looking back, I realize that I had succumbed to the stigma of mental illness.  I felt guilty for not being able to control something “that was just in my head.”

It is not “just in my head.”  It is “in my head,” and that is not something to take lightly.

While real to me, my struggles are minor inconveniences compared to the serious mental afflictions that impact some peoples’ lives.  I do not know what it is like to live with schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder.

But I can hold someone’s hand and listen.

This year, I ask that we make it a priority that our synagogue become a place in which those living with mental illness can find compassion, acceptance, and healing.  I will speak of it more explicitly from the bimah.  From now on, when I lead the prayer for healing, I will change the way that I introduce it to something like the following:

I am now going to recite the Mi Sheberach L’cholim, the prayer for healing for those with physical and mental illness.  If you would like to include someone, or if you yourself are in need of healing, please come up and form a line to my right.

I ask that we commit to being there for each other with open minds and open hearts.

We all bring our tzarot, our troubles, to shul.  Especially on a day like Yom Kippur, with its focus on sin, repentance, atonement, and mortality.

Yom Kippur is really a day for spiritual healing.  In the Temple, it was the day when the High Priest conducted the rituals that restored the spiritual relationship between God and the Jewish people.  Today, our prayers and our fasting accomplish the same.

Let this day, this synagogue, and this community, offer healing and comfort to all those who have brought their tzarot with them.

I would like to close with this prayer composed by Rabbi Elliott Kukla, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

May the One who blessed our ancestors bless all who live with mental illness, our care-givers, families, and friends.  May we walk in the footsteps of Jacob, King Saul, Miriam, Hannah, and Naomi, who struggled with dark moods, hopelessness, isolation, and terrors, but survived and led our people.  Just as our father, Jacob, spent the night wrestling with an angel and prevailed, may all who live with mental illness be granted the endurance to wrestle with pain and prevail night upon night.  Grace us with the faith to know that though, like Jacob, we may be wounded, shaped and renamed by this struggle, still we will live on to continue an ever unfolding, unpredictable path toward healing.  May we not be alone on this path but accompanied by our families, friends, care-givers, ancestors, and the Divine presence. Surround us with loving-kindness, grace and companionship and spread over us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace and wholeness. And let us say: Amen.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.  May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of blessing and healing.