Category Archives: Rabbi Robert H Loewy

Rabbi Robert H. Loewy is the Rabbi of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, LA. He assumed that position in August of 1984. Prior to that, he was the Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas for seven years.

Rabbi Loewy is a native of Hempstead, N.Y. He received his B.A. degree from Cornell University in 1972, M.H.L. degree from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and was ordained as a Rabbi from that institution in 1977.

In addition to developing an active synagogue program, Rabbi Loewy is currently President of the Greater New Orleans Rabbinic Council, Program Chair for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Board Member for the New Orleans Jewish Day School, Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Henry S. Jacobs Camp and the East Jefferson General Hospital Pastoral Counseling Program.

In addition he has been President of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis, President of the New Orleans Jewish Days School, Chairman of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Secretary of the Greater Houston Rabbinical Association, Executive Board Member of the CCAR, ARZA and Dillard University Center for Black/Jewish Relations, and Jewish Chautauqua Society Lecturer at University of New Orleans and Loyola University, .

Rabbi Loewy is married to the former Lynn Rosenfeld and has five children, Karen, and her husband David Widzer, David, Sara and Mica and one magnificent grandson- Judah Benjamin Loewy Widzer.

Bible And Baseball

MAY 30, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

It is a well-known fact in Biblical scholarship that contrary to the belief that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in the 1800s, baseball has its true roots in the Bible. One need merely cite a number of passages to prove the point:

Genesis Chapter 1- When did creation occur? In the Big Inning

Genesis Chapter 6- Noah was actually a curve ball pitcher. We read how he “pitched the ark, inside and out.”

Later we learn that Adam and Eve were actually playing baseball in the Garden of Eden. After all as regards the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Eve stole first and Adam stole second.

Finally we have the story of David and Goliath. Conventionally it is thought that David used a slingshot to slay Goliath. Once again, the contest was really baseball, as we read how goliath was put out by David.

Okay, so maybe I’m stretching things a bit. I do have this tendency to see the world with Jewish eyes, gleaning religious teachings from domains which normally are not considered Jewish and extrapolating Jewish value lessons from them. The world of sports is particularly ripe for this.

Basketball season is over as far as New Orleans is concerned. I know the playoffs in the NBA are still going on, but our level of interest is not as great. The Saints are certainly in our minds, but it is not even exhibition season. But with the Memorial Day Weekend now past, the “great American pastime” of baseball takes center stage, even if they have actually already been playing for over a month and half. So this evening I would like to find my message in three baseball stories that have occurred this year.

The first took place on opening day at Fenway Park in Boston. The Red Sox were going to celebrate their second World Series victory in recent years and to throw out the ceremonial opening pitch of the season, they selected Bill Buckner. Though baseball is a team game, individual performances make a big difference. What moment could be more  triumphant, than hitting a homerun to win a game and watching the big “H” light up on the scoreboard? In spite of a long and accomplished career in the major leagues, Bill Buckner is best known for the opposite. For when you make a mistake in baseball, everyone sees it and a big “E” for error flashes on the scoreboard. How many of us could handle our mistakes being publicly shared?

Bill Buckner’s ignominious moment came in the 6th game of the 1986 World Series against the Mets. At the time the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918. It was the sixth game of the series against my New York Mets and Boston was ahead 3 games-2 in the series. The game was in extra innings and the Red Sox had a two run lead with two outs in the bottom of the 10th. Victory was within reach. New York tied the game with three straight hits. Then with a runner on third base, the ball was hit on the ground towards Buckner at first base, rolled under his glove and into right field for an error, allowing the Mets to score a run, win the game and opened the door for them to win game seven and the series.

Once again the Red Sox were losers and Buckner was pilloried by fans and media as the cause of it all. Ignore the fact that their ace relief pitcher had allowed two earlier runs to score. Buckner was to blame. “Some murderers didn’t face as much criticism as I did,” Buckner would say. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s like I did nothing in my career except commit that error.” In truth without Buckner’s 102 RBIs (runs batted in), the Red Sox might never have been in the series in the first place, but one error caused that all to be forgotten. Some consider this error to be one of the biggest sports stories of the past 25 years.

Fast forward to April 8 of this year. Forgiveness is the theme of the moment. Bill Buckner is called forward for the opening day first pitch and received a 4 minute standing ovation. It was deeply moving. Of course it perhaps only could have occurred after the Red Sox finally had two World Series championships to soften the old pain.

However, it raises the question of how we treat those who make errors and their impact upon us. If what they have done is malicious or intentional, it is one thing. But what about the person who accidentally spills something on us, who miscalculates a sum effecting our bill or perhaps a grade at school, our co-worker who forgets to do something, which means we have to work harder on the project and I could go on. Do we harbor that anger and withhold our understanding? We need to be forgiving of those who commit errors that impact upon us. Their hearts are in the right place. They just made a mistake.

Buckner had to do some forgiving as well. First, he had to forgive himself for making that error. I’m sure he will never forget that moment, but it was only one in a 22 season career. Over time, he accepted that reality. But on October 8, he came to terms with a related issue, as he explained: “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media, for what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.” I think all of us can relate to his pain and recognize him as a sports hero and a model for the value of forgiveness.

Our second story involves the Jewish value of rachamim-compassion. Rachamim is the basis for our caring and reaching out to other people in their times of need. We don’t have to do it, but as we share a human condition, we feel for others as they face trial and difficulty. It is rachamim that prompts us to donate for the relief efforts in China and Myanmar. It is rachamim that causes individuals to respond to the human interest stories periodically broadcast in the local media. But one does not usually think of rachamim on the baseball diamond, but clearly that was the case just about a month ago.

Sara Tucholsky was a part-time starter in the outfield for Western Oregon University’s women’s Division II softball team. Western Oregon was playing against Central Washington in a game that would determine a possible berth in the NCAA tournament, something neither team had ever accomplished. In the second inning with two runners on base, Sara hit a home run. Unaccustomed to hitting home runs and very excited, she missed first base as she circled the basepath, and turned back to touch the bag. In the process she twisted her knee and crumbled to the ground. According to baseball rules, no one from her team could come and assist her. For a home run, she had to touch all the bases. Her Coach was ready to put in a pinch runner for her, but that would have only meant she’d be credited with a single.

Then Mallory Holtman, the first baseman for the other team and the career homerun leader in her school’s history, asked if she could assist Sara. Along with shortstop Liz Wallace, the two Central Washington players assisted Sara to make it around the bases and register her only home run in four years of college softball. As it turned out, Sara’s was the winning run in the game, costing Central Washington the chance to win. Though they did not win the game, clearly Mallory and Liz and her Central Washington teammates are winners in the ultimate game of life. Not only was this exemplary sportsmanship, it is a model of how people can be compassionate towards others, even when it might cost you something in the process.


The final story is one of hope- tikvah. Hope is certainly one of our most basic Jewish values. Now I’m not suggesting that we start praying for the Saints to win the Superbowl. Yes we can be hopeful, but this story is a bit different. It involves Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox. Ten days ago at the age of 24 he pitched a no-hitter, which is an amazing feat for any baseball player. But for those of you who are sports fans and even many who are not, you know that this is a story bigger than sports. In 2006 when Jon Lester entered baseball, there were high hopes for his career. Then, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. Fortunately, this is a treatable form of the disease, when caught early enough. In his case it was. Still he went through all sorts of therapy to beat back the illness, most of which would sap the strength of any man. He would not allow that to be the case. Lester was back in a Red Sox uniform last Fall and actually pitched the winning game in the World Series.

I don’t think that any of us here tonight are going to pitch major league world series victories or a no-hitter, but each of us faces challenges. Some are medical, others emotional. Some are financial and others personal. We can allow ourselves to be worn down by our trials, setbacks, moments of misfortune or we can face them with a sense of hope and move on to triumph. Jon Lester could have given into despair, but he had a dream, a vision, a purpose and harnessed to hope, he succeeded. We can do the same.


May we be committed to live by the values of our tradition and inspired by the examples of those in the world around us.



One Nation Under God

JUNE 20, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

At the recent funeral of a veteran, I was reminded of the great respect and ritual that is connected with the flag. Hearing the playing of taps as the Marine Honor Guard respectfully and precisely folded the flag reminded me of my summer camp days, when each morning and evening we would gather around the flag pole to raise and lower the flag. In Jewish terms, there is a lot of halacha, law (though it may be more custom) as to how the flag is to be treated, including: where it is to be placed in a room, when and how it is to be displayed daytime and night, how it is to be stored and ultimately disposed of. You might argue, it is just a piece of cloth, but its meaning transcends its essence.

There is something powerful and majestic to see a flag flapping in the wind, such as the huge version at Veterans and Causeway. Flags are an ancient symbol. Our Torah mentions how each tribe marched behind its own flag.

In addition to flag ceremonies at camp, one of my earliest memories of the flag, and perhaps yours as well, is reciting the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The origins of the pledge can be traced to Rev. Frances Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist, who wrote it in 1892. It originally did not mention either the United States of America, simply the Republic for which it stands, nor did it include the phrase “under God.” It was intended as a salute to the flag, the Republic, the concept of One nation, which had been fought over just 30 years earlier, and that it should be indivisible. Its foundation was to be liberty and justice. Interestingly, it did not include “equality” as was part of the French Revolution mantra, since neither women nor blacks were to be equal for quite some time.

The addition of the phrase “under God” was not inserted until 1954. At the urging of the Knights of Columbus and in the shadow of those godless Communists, Dwight Eisenhower lobbied for the inclusion of the phrase for what was the official national version of the Pledge of Allegiance.

America has danced around the subject of mixing religion and government from the beginning of this nation. One of the foundation myths of this country is that it was established to create religious freedom for those who had been oppressed in Europe. This was partially true. People came to America with their religious group, which had been persecuted in the Old Country with the desire that they no longer should be oppressed, not necessarily that those who differed with them should be free, just that their group should not be oppressed. Each group wanted their faith to be the religion of the land.

But with Quakers in Pennsylvania, Congregationalists in Massachusetts, Catholics in Maryland and different Protestant groups, not to mention a smattering of Jews throughout the colonies, a compromise was needed, which led to the idea of freedom of religion for all.

With that as the historical reality we are truly blessed with the First Amendment of the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?” Its basic idea is that government cannot favor any one religion, act in a way that establishes any one religion or religion in general, nor interfere with the practice of religion. This constitutional guarantee has enabled the flourishing of religion in America. As a result the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. From the perspective of the Jewish community, there has never been a country where Jews as a minority have been as safe and as prosperous as they have in this land. Still, we continue to struggle over the role of religion in America.

The great tug of war is between those who want religion to have a strong voice in the public arena and those who feel it has a voice, but not absolute authority. Recently Senator Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer. Among the many praying for his healing was Cal Thomas, conservative columnist and former spokesman for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, clearly not political allies. Thomas admiringly wrote of how Kennedy essentially invited himself to speak at Liberty University and proceeded to address issues of faith, truth and tolerance, saying:

“I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society.”

“When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways. For truly we are all yoked together as Americans and the yoke is the happy one of individual freedom and mutual respect.”

“Separation of church and state cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power: The challenge today is to recall the origin of the principle, to define its purpose, and refine its application to the politics of the present.” That is the position I personally embrace as well.

This brings us to two kinds of issues. The first involve those which are subtle or not so subtle attempts to circumvent the first amendment. Included in this group are subjects such as school prayer, the placement of the ten commandments in the public domain and a current concern- school vouchers/scholarships for private school education.

School vouchers or as is being touted in Louisiana right now “scholarships,” are still under legal scrutiny. Most will agree that public education is not what it needs to be, prompting many families to select private schools, many of which are parochial. Voucher legislation is an attempt to funnel governmental funds from failing public schools to assist families to pay for private school education, whether parochial or secular private. While being expressed as a scholarship for families, it is a boon for the private schools. I will not go into the question of private or public schools as the answer to educational quality. That is a whole different subject. My main qualm is that government has no business funding religious education. As most of you know this is coming from a founding member and Past President of our New Orleans Jewish Day School.

Do I want to see our Jewish community parochial school have more students and receive more funding? Certainly! Do I want that money to come from public coffers? From your hard earned taxes? Absolutely not!

I recently learned of another overzealous attempt to intermingle government and religion. It seems that in South Carolina, like many states, you can purchase license plates that promote certain causes- education, save the manatee, brown bears or support organizations- your favorite university, veterans and more. Usually the plates cost a little more and some of the money goes to the cause. The South Carolina legislature unanimously voted to create religion license plates with a big cross against a stained glass window. Now they were wise enough to realize that they could not be collecting money for these plates and then donating it to the church, but have no problem essentially saying the State of South Carolina supports Christianity. The Governor refuses to sign the law, but it will go into effect anyway, undoubtedly leading to costly litigation. Please understand that I am not opposed to an individual wishing to promote faith, but the state should not be the vehicle for that program. Print as many bumper stickers as you like on your own.

The second category of issues includes those where some voices are attempting to impose their religious views on all others, insinuating that anything different is sinful, immoral and abhorrent. One of the great challenges of America is how to differ over policy and still be respectful of differences.

A prime example which is happening right now is an oldie, but goody: Creationism vs. evolution. Perhaps you thought it went away with the Scopes trial decades ago, but it’s back. Instead of being called creationism, its first new name is “Intelligent Design.” Intelligent design (ID) suggests that life on earth is too complex to have evolved through natural selection alone, and therefore must have been “guided” by a “supernatural” or “intelligent” force, which is to say, God. Opponents of teaching intelligent design in public school science courses, argue that ID is little more than an attempt by certain religious groups to continue to promote the concept of creationism in public schools, despite the fact that it has repeatedly been found unconstitutional. Rather, they advocate the teaching of the theory of evolution, which most mainstream scientists agree has been well-tested and supported. One is science; the other is religion. It has been ruled illegal in some states.

Not to worry, our Louisiana legislators have simply given it another new name: “science education.” Who can oppose that? A current bill that is now on the Governor’s desk to be signed calls upon school boards and state authorities to allow the use of “supplemental materials when teaching subjects such as evolution, global warming, cloning and the origin of life.” Proponents argue that this is simply a way to broaden honest discourse of science. Who do they think are they kidding? Teachers have always been free to bring in legitimate supplementary material. This is another way that the religious right is attempting to bring their religious views on creationism and when life begins into the classroom. Again, this is not science or education, but religion. It belongs in the church and synagogue, but not the public school. Once again our legislators with religious agenda have passed unnecessary and inappropriate legislation, which I can hope will only lead to the waste of tax dollars as it is defeated in court. We need to urge Governor Jindal, with his biology degree from Brown University, to veto the law.

My friends, let us celebrate all the freedoms we enjoy in this country. And let us continue the struggle when governmental bodies attempt to teach religion, endorse religion or impose one religion’s views upon us all. We need to speak out and let our legislators know that we differ with these attempts to break down the protective wall that has served this country well. Even if we know our protests seem futile, we cannot be silent. We are One nation and we are blessed by God, but the great strength of this country is the unity we enjoy, because of our respect for diversity. May God continue to bless America as we fully respect each others’ freedoms!


The Other Abraham


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


This morning I would like to speak of the famous legislator from the State of Illinois, a man renowned for his engaging oratorical skills, who rose from humble origins. Perhaps he is best known for being on the cutting edge of race relations in America, breaking down traditional barriers, as well as from the beginning of his political career being opposed to a popular war on the grounds that “you can’t allow the President to invade a neighboring nation… whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.” This would be the kind of man to lead America during a time of great peril. I am of course speaking of….Abraham Lincoln.

Gotcha!! It was President Polk’s war against Mexico that he opposed.

It is not surprising that both Barack Obama and John McCain try to lay claim to the legacy of this great American. Senator Obama announced his presidential race and later introduced his Vice Presidential choice on the steps of the Illinois State House, as did Lincoln before him. Senator McCain frequently invokes the idea that Republicans are the party of Lincoln.

But why speak of Abraham Lincoln today? This is not my typical High Holy Day sermon topic. As you will be hearing more this coming year, Abraham Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809. Thus it will be the 200th anniversary of his birth prompting reflection on the man and his pivotal role in American history. Earlier this year at the CCAR national convention of Reform Rabbis, I had the opportunity to hear presidential scholar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, discuss, and later I read, her book, “Team of Rivals” the story of Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency as he competed with his political opponents and how once in office, melded these same men into the team, which led the country.

As Lincoln entered the White House, our country was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. I do not believe divisions in America are as bad today, but still there are major issues that need to be addressed. We Jews are a people who learn from history, not limited to Jewish history. With Presidential and congressional elections approaching, the qualities that Abraham Lincoln exemplified throughout his life are attributes that we might like to see in those men and women, who seek to lead our country. On a more personal level, he possessed traits applicable to our own lives. Is that not one of the purposes of being here today, to reevaluate how we interact with others and conduct our daily affairs? Teachers come from many places.

Many of you are familiar with parts of Lincoln’s life story. His childhood was challenging as his mother died when he was 9 years old, so that his sister Sarah helped to raise him. She, too, later died at a young age during childbirth. He had a total of 12 months of formal education, since he needed to earn for the family, working on the river barges and famously splitting rails and building log cabins. Physically, he was tall and gangly, with sharp not necessarily attractive facial features.

Though judged by history as one of the greats, Lincoln endured numerous failures throughout his years. At one particularly low point early in his life, he suffered from a broken engagement, the collapse of one of his pet projects as a state legislator, and his dearest friend, Joshua Speed, was leaving town. Clearly he was depressed and the friend was concerned lest Lincoln be suicidal. To relieve Speed’s worry, Lincoln confided that to that point in his life he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived, and that … to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.”  (p. 99) He wanted his life to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Years later, following the Emancipation Proclamation he stated, “I believe that by this measure my fondest hopes will be realized.” (p. 501)

So who was Abraham Lincoln and what were some of his attributes that we might seek in our elected officials or find admirable and worthy of emulation for ourselves? In many ways he was an exemplar of the “middot- Jewish values” for quality living.

Though his formal education was limited, he was always learning. Reading was his window to the world of knowledge from classics to contemporary literature and philosophy, fiction and non-fiction. He understood that the science and technology provided great avenues for advancement of civilization, knowledge that became quite useful in the execution of the Civil War. As Jews we know that the person who continues to learn continues to grow.

The Talmud teaches that we should receive all people pleasantly. Lincoln knew this intuitively. Following his election it was the President’s role to screen potential job seekers within his administration, not just the Cabinet, but the myriad of other positions in government. Hour after hour he met with would-be office holders, yet with a positive demeanor. It prompted a journalist to report: “he is the very embodiment of good temper and affability. They (the seekers) will all concede that he has a kind word, an encouraging smile, a humorous remark for nearly everyone that seeks his presence, and that but few if any, emerge from his reception room without being strongly and favorably impressed with his disposition.” (p. 281) Lincoln came into office with many doubters, winning many over simply with his warmth of personality, treating all people decently.

Torah teaches us to love others as we love ourselves. In other words a starting point in human relations is to be empathetic, to put ourselves in others’ positions, not to assume that we have the absolute high ground when it comes to differences of opinion.  Slavery was of course the great issue of his day and he was opposed to it. Still, unlike others, he did not demonize or castigate those with whom he differed. As a pragmatist he initially was willing to allow slavery to continue where it was, but opposed its spread into new territories as the country grew.

In framing his speeches against the spread of slavery he sought common ground with those with whom he differed. Reflecting on the founding principles of the country, he argued: “No man is good enough to govern another man, without the other’s consent.” (p. 167) He recognized that slavery had been in existence for years and that the southern economic way of life was dependent upon it. Rather than demean southern slaveholders, he identified with them saying, “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst us, they would not introduce it.” He chose empathy as a means to advance his position, saying: “To win a man to your cause, you must first reach his heart, the great high road to his reason.” (p. 168)

When the rabbis of the great academies debated points of law, they respectfully maintained the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim- these and these are the words of the living God.” While there was competition among the rabbis to win their points of law, they respected their opponents. The same was true with Lincoln. He refused to denigrate his opponents with negative campaigning. In fact he and Steven Douglas, with whom he debated and to whom he lost the senatorial election, were good friends.

The thrust of the Goodwin book, “Team of Rivals,” is to emphasize how Lincoln competed with William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates for the presidency, men who were very different from him. In truth they generally looked upon him contemptuously, as the unsophisticated, uneducated country bumpkin. Yet, when he formed his cabinet of the best men he could find, the first became Secretary of State, the second, Secretary of the Treasury and the third, Attorney General.

Earlier in Lincoln’s life he also met Edwin Stanton, a leading litigator of the time. Lincoln had been hired to argue the biggest case of his career in Ohio, spending hours preparing his brief. Stanton was later called into the case to lead the legal team and pompously opined about Lincoln: “Why did you bring that long armed ape here?… He does not know anything and can do you no good.” Lincoln was then dismissed from the case. As President he would appoint Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton came to respect and love the “long armed ape” more than any person outside his immediate family. (p. 175) His former rivals became his trusted counselors providing real wisdom, not serving as “yes” men. Our tradition teaches us to learn from all people and turn our enemies into friends.

Lincoln knew that life needed its lighter moments. He could spend hours listening to and telling stories. As serious as life could be, it requires moments of levity even in the darkest of times. Prior to revealing the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, a document that would change the course of human events in America, he read from a light hearted story book. When Lincoln faced a reporter’s criticism of one of his most successful generals for drinking too much, he asked what kind of whiskey it was, so that he could send it to some of his other generals. When someone told him he was “two faced,” he responded, “if I had two, would I keep this one.”

Like the rabbis of old, he employed parables to make a point. On one occasion, following a series of highly critical newspaper articles lambasting his leadership, he responded with the following: “A traveler on the frontier found himself out of his reckoning one night in a most inhospitable region. A terrific thunderstorm came up to add to his trouble. He floundered along until his horse gave out. The lightning afforded him the only clue to his way, but the peals of thunder were frightful. One bolt, which seemed to crush the earth beneath him, brought him to his knees. By no means a praying man, his petition was short and to the point: “O Lord, if it’s all the same to you, give us a little more light and a little less noise.” And this was long before blogs, internet and cable television.

Though Lincoln may not have known the word “teshuvah,” he certainly understood the concept. First he was one who readily acknowledged his own errors and was willing to learn from his mistakes. When the Union Army was routed at Bull Run at the beginning of the war, he accepted responsibility and went about ensuring that nothing similar would happen again. On a number of occasions he accepted the blame for blunders by his Cabinet members, even when he was not directly responsible. He realized that we are all responsible. Similar to the way we will recite “for the sin that WE have sinned on Yom Kippur, he discussed the sin of slavery for which all must share in his famous 2nd Inaugural address.

We all have moments of weakness. On some occasions when Lincoln gave in to his temper, he regularly followed up with sorrow and sincere apologies. He was wise enough to recognize that sometimes frustration with others could be best expressed by highly critical letters that never are sent.

And Lincoln had the ability to forgive. Many individuals during his lifetime acted against him. Some would say that he could be too forgiving, but mostly this attribute enabled him to stand out from others. Salmon Chase performed his role as Treasury Secretary admirably, arranging for the finance of the War, but he continued as a critical thorn in Lincoln’s side. Finally, when Lincoln could stand no more, he eased him from office, but shortly thereafter appointed him to the Supreme Court, prompting one of Lincoln’s aides to observe: “Probably no other man than Lincoln would have had the degree of magnanimity to thus forgive and exalt a rival who had so deeply and so unjustifiably intrigued against him.” (p. 680)

As the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln’s message became one of forgiveness and reconciliation. In his own family, he invited his sister-in-law, whose husband fought and died for the South to come and live in the White House. He arranged for Robert E. Lee and all the southern soldiers to return to their homes with dignity. Rather than prolong the pain of war, he secretly allowed Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin to live out their days in exile, rather than face trials for treason. Sometimes forgiveness involves simply moving on after the pain.

When Lincoln first ran for office at the age of 23, he wrote to his possible constituents: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other ambition so great as that of truly being esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed.” With the hindsight of the years, we can all agree that he was successful. But more than that, as we enter our new Jewish year, we can be inspired by his goal, instructed by his example and strive to emulate the qualities of the man who came to be known as “Father Abraham.”



This sermon was based upon and all page references are from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.






Living With Uncertainty

Rosh Hashanah Evening 2008-5769

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            How wonderful it is to be together for this Rosh Hashanah evening. Earlier this month I was concerned we might not be here. I refused to believe that history was going to repeat itself, but there was definitely the distinct possibility.

As Gustav approached I scrutinized every report, each path projection. I remember turning to Lynn in exasperation saying: “Why can’t they just tell us where it is going?” Of course I knew the answer. Prognosticators were providing us with every bit of information possible, but experience has taught us that after all is said and done, these storms seem to have minds of their own. And so, with dire predictions possible, I pursued the appropriate path like most of you: evacuation.

At first we went to Jacobs Camp and how wonderful it is that our URJ camp is available to all of us in this situation. It was our first refuge. Then when it seemed clear that we would not be returning home any time soon, we traveled to my in-laws who have a dairy farm in Waco, TX.

Fortunately, Gustav weakened, moved west from Greater New Orleans, resulting in much less damage than anticipated. Still, it would necessitate a few days away from home. Sitting in Waco, I began to go a little stir crazy, first waiting to learn when we would be allowed back, and then whether or not we had electricity. I was clearly not my normal, in control self. Rather, I was anxious and for me, a bit irritable.

I was bored, frustrated and wanted to be home, to see that all was well and pursue my usual activities in this busy season of the year. But that was not to be. Of course residing on a dairy farm is radically different than refuge at a hotel, in camp or someone’s home. So one afternoon in order to relieve stress, I spent a few hours accompanying my nephew as he plowed a field. I got to drive a huge tractor with a GPS system for creating straight rows. In other words, any idiot city boy could do it.

Then there was “big excitement.” The phone rang as a neighbor reported that a cow was loose from the pasture and roaming in the road. Now, you should know that on a dairy farm, this is a regular occurrence, but not for your city boy rabbi. We all jumped in the car, found the cow and I single handedly saved the day. Actually, as soon as I exited the car, it saw me and headed back to the pasture. All I had to do was open the gate.  I’d say this is “no bull,” but it was.

Passing the time was a challenge. I tried working on a sermon for this evening. Ironically, it was the same sermon I had been preparing in the summer of 2005. I had researched and taken notes on the subject, but it was just not coming together. For diversion I tried watching satellite TV with hundreds of stations, but nothing captured my attention. I read one of my professional journals…boring!

Then I picked up another book, which I had brought with me entitled: “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. Rabbi Kula has the marvelous ability to apply our Jewish teachings to daily living, elevating mundane challenges to the sacred. As I read through a chapter entitled, “Dancing With Uncertainty,” it all clicked. He was speaking to me and hopefully to all of you for this moment.

It was the uncertainty of the situation that had me so ill at ease. Most of the time, we are in control of our world, or at least we think we are. Then along comes a Katrina or Gustav. We quickly appreciate that there are forces well beyond our manipulation. We can react to what happens, but even then we cannot be sure we are making the right decision. Do I evacuate to Jacobs Camp or Texas, Birmingham or Baton Rouge? Which route will deliver me with the least traffic? On the one hand uncertainty can be a source of great distress, but as Rabbi Kula points out: “Doubt is a prerequisite for any meaningful journey. When we can acknowledge the built-in anxiety rather than maintaining the illusion of certainty, we become humble- which in turn creates a new and more authentic confidence.” (p. 89) By accepting uncertainty as a natural part of life, we can better cope with the challenges that come our way.

Uncertainty is actually built into some activities and we would have it no other way. While I root for our Saints and Hornets and want them to win, I watch or attend the games because of the uncertainty. I am not sure of victory until the game is over. The closer the game, the more fun it is. If we know who wins in advance, it is not nearly as enjoyable.

The same is true with television, film and literature. We watch television, view movies and read novels expecting the unexpected, delighting in the uncertainty. We hate it when we DVR a show, plan to see a movie or read a book and someone informs us of the ending in advance. Describing a plot as “predictable” is often a reviewer’s most devastating criticism.

But most of the time life is uncertain, unpredictable. One of life’s great challenges is learning to live with uncertainty. Consider parenting for a moment. Is there anything certain about being a parent? It starts with trying to conceive. For many this can be a great challenge. Then once that fetus is there, the worrying begins. Is it a boy or girl? Some find out, while others do not. Will the baby be healthy? Nothing is certain and this is just the beginning.

Every parent wants to make the best choices for his/her child. When should we start Gates of Prayer Nursery School? (Note the shameless plug.) This will be the first of many academic choices. Then comes: public or private? If private, Jewish, secular or Christian parochial? We agonize over these decisions, striving for the certainty that we are ensuring the quality of life for our children. After all this decision will be the difference ultimately between Harvard and Podunk U. (At least we act that way.) Sometimes we are correct and sometimes not. With perspective, we realize that most decisions are not irreversible. When one school doesn’t work out, there is always another. So, Karate may not be little Chaim’s forte. Instead he is a natural at soccer, or dance or piano. At one moment we wrestle with the uncertainty of our decisions, believing them to be so significant. Ultimately we may reach a point and say to ourselves, “what’s the big deal?’ and we go with it.

Friends, life is a journey and it is filled with uncertainty. Our Biblical ancestors understood this reality. Did Abram really know his future when he departed his homeland based upon a promise from some invisible God? Babylonia was comfortable and civilized, while Canaan was “the sticks.” Filled with uncertainty, he took the risk and became the father of the Jewish people. Similarly Moses had no idea what would happen when he spoke truth to power. He could have been killed on the spot. Instead, he was able to lead the people to the Promised Land.

They both had moments of doubt, turning to God for the assurance that they were on the right path. They wanted certainty, but neither really receives absolute answers. Rather they moved forward with the best insights available and with the faith that sometimes that will have to be enough.

In many situations, we know what we are doing and what the results will be, but sometimes that is not the case. “Uncertain times create anxiety, fear and vulnerability.” We confront life challenges and questions, some more significant than others: selecting the right restaurant for dinner or a location for vacation, how to respond to another in a sensitive moment, deciding which candidate to support, what college to attend, which job to accept, finding a life partner, when to change jobs, leave one career and venture forth to another, or eventually to retire. For some whether the choice is momentous or not, the desire to be certain can be overwhelming. Rabbi Kula teaches that we can be paralyzed by uncertainty or harness it as we realize we can all move forward. The anxiety of failure can disable us or it can motivate us to make decisions, but recognize that failure is not the worst thing in the world.

I remember when I accepted the position to become rabbi of this congregation, now almost 25 years ago. It happened very quickly. Talk about decisions and uncertainty! I was very comfortable in my role as associate rabbi in Houston and had plans to stay there for many years. Then a call came on a Tuesday morning in June: would I consider submitting my name? On Thursday night I had a phone interview with the Search Committee, flew to New Orleans on Sunday for a personal meeting and had a job offer on Monday morning. This was not the usual rabbinic placement process. We were filled with uncertainty, fear and excitement as we arrived in August of 1984. I think I can safely say that it seems to have worked out well for all concerned. And if it had not, then an alternative would have to go into effect.

An important lesson in all this is that we do not have to be 100% certain before we make decisions and act. Maybe 60%, even 51% is good enough. When opportunities arise, challenges are before us, decisions need to be made, we weigh the pros and cons, without seeking absolute certainty. By this process we can be good to ourselves and compassionate to others as they make choices. We should also realize that success may be temporary. A right decision today may not continue to be right for tomorrow. We make the best choices possible and when they don’t develop the way we imagined, we can always change without beating ourselves up in the process. Rather, we begin anew.

Rabbi Kula writes: “It’s not that life is a crapshoot. It’s that vagaries and uncertainties are a part of the human drama. Our journey presents us with catastrophes, traumas, losses, gains, wonders and miracles. And in the end we must act on faith, not that it will all work out as we want, but that our best guess is good enough, that it will somehow lead us to a place of discovery, of new perspective, of a wider self.” (p. 91)

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world. In rabbinic literature there are stories that when God began to create the world, God created and destroyed ten worlds before settling upon this one. Early on God saw that this one was not perfect either, but finally realized that even for God there is no certainty. Just because you create something does not mean you have control.

During this season of the year we say, “L’shanah tovah tikotevu” to one another. Within those words is hope that we will be inscribed for a good year, a year of life, but there lingers the possibility, the implication, that it might not be. Help us O God to live with this and all other uncertainties.



All quotations are from Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, by Rabbi Irwin Kula, Hyperion Publishing, 2006.


I am Jewish

Yom Kippur Eve 5769

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Hearing Kol Nidre…. sitting in the sanctuary…. scanning the room…. These are the sights and sounds and senses, which remind us of who we are. We are linked to those around us, those who preceded us and who will follow after us. This embracing moment enables most here tonight to comfortably say, “I am Jewish.” I say, “most,” since I gratefully acknowledge that our congregational family includes a number of wonderfully supportive men and women for whom this is respectfully not their faith tradition, but are very much part of our congregation.

This evening, let us ask what it really means to say, “I am Jewish?” I know that may seem like a straight line for any number of jokes, but this evening I present it as a challenge. During the course of the next 24 hours, I invite you to reflect upon your answer to this essential question. Through words of prayer, teaching from this pulpit and your own private pondering, I hope that as we conclude our worship tomorrow afternoon you will have formulated a response that is both meaningful to you and will prompt your actions in the year to come.

Do you recall the tragic story of Daniel Pearl? He was the Wall Street Journal reporter, who in 2002 was captured and executed by Al Quaida terrorists in Pakistan. Videotaped moments before his execution, he stated, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” Then, his life was snuffed out. Why he expressed what he did, we will never really know, but we are free to examine its potential meaning. In death he left behind his parents, Judea and Ruth, a sister Tamara, and his pregnant wife Mariane, who would later bear his son, Adam. This past year, Mariane’s book on the subject, “A Mighty Heart” became a film starring Angelina Jolie.

In response to this horrific act, Alana Frey, a 12 year old Bat Mitzvah girl launched a project to collect writings from people she knew on what it means to say, “I am Jewish.” This was to be a gift to Daniel’s newborn son, Adam, that he might know the possibilities of what his father meant by those words. Inspired by this, Daniel’s parents similarly solicited responses from a cross section of Jewish men and women around the world to create the book, I Am Jewish- Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. This too would be a gift for Adam, but for all of us as well. By exploring the responses of others, perhaps we can formulate an answer for ourselves, which will motivate us for the future. There is of course no single definition to the question, but one can discern a number of patterns to the responses.

For many, to say “I am Jewish” is a matter of identity. It all starts with biology. When your parents are Jewish, it automatically connects you to being Jewish. If even just one parent is Jewish, you feel linked in some way, whether or not you are raised as a Jewish child. In my Judaism class at Loyola University, invariably a few of the students enroll because they have a Jewish parent or grandparent and feel a kinship with being Jewish. It is also not unusual when one who approaches me for conversion, there lurks a Jewish ancestor somewhere in the family tree.

Being Jewish by “identity” implies that we are part of a large Jewish family for good and for ill. We identify with our fellow Jews wherever they are. We’re all cousins. This often comes up in connection with oppressed Jews or acts of anti-Semitism. The reality is that prejudice and persecution of Jews continues in our world, whether in diatribes from Iran, violence in Europe or incidents here at home. I believe this to be a negative, even destructive base for identity. Martin Peretz, Harvard educator and long time editor of the New Republic states, “Jewish meaning is made out of life, not out of martyrdom.” (p. 60) I believe we are stronger as a community when we focus on what we have done, not what has been done to us.

From our own recent experience, we identify with Jewish communities in a different kind of trouble- nature. As Jews we relate to all victims of natural disasters, but to say “I am Jewish” prompts us to identify with our particular people, like family. As the poster in our lobby so magnificently depicts, we were the beneficiaries of thousands of Jews who reached out to us following Hurricane Katrina. This past year, we in turn have responded to the Jewish communities in San Diego, devastated by fires, Iowa deluged by floods, and most recently in Texas, ravished by Hurricane Ike.

“I am Jewish” also means that we identify with individual Jews as they achieve success and fame in secular realms, including Jewish athletes, celebrities, performers, Nobel or Pulitzer prize winners, politicians, authors, composers and many others. Their prominence may have little or much to do with their being Jewish. Regardless, they are part of our family, and so we identity with them, even bask a bit in their glory. On the flip side, when we discover Jews behaving badly, we feel personally embarrassed and ashamed.

However, I argue that simply being Jewish as a matter of identity is not enough to sustain us as Jews. Modern reality demonstrates that Jews freely enter and exit our community at will. There must be something more than a biological identifying link. Certainly that is true for the wonderful, dedicated members of our community who have come to us through conversion!

Many speak of heritage as the key component of what it means to say, “I am Jewish.” We relate to past historical trials and triumphs, the teachings we have contributed to civilization and accomplishments we have attained, while hopefully building upon them. For example, Larry King, like many others, describes himself as a “cultural Jew.” He writes: “I love the Jewish sense of humor. The shtick of the Jewish comedian burns in me. I love a good joke.” Though he doesn’t observe High Holy Days, he admits to a certain reverence at that time of year as he thinks about his parents. (The rabbi in me hopes it is guilt, not always such a bad feeling, when it prompts us to do what is right.) He goes on to say, “It’s an imprint I carry with me everywhere. I was taught to hate prejudice. I was taught the value of loyalty- the value of family…I was certainly embedded with strong Jewish values of education and learning, no matter what the form.” (p. 52) The problem I have with this approach to being Jewish is that while it gives meaning to his life today, it will neither transcend him or be transmitted to a future generation.

German born Michael Blumenthal, former Secretary of Treasury and now President and CEO of the Berlin Jewish Museum, also embraces heritage as his link to being Jewish. He writes: “Without strong religious anchors there was a time when still young, I wondered whether my Jewish heritage was only a burden to be borne, rather than a privilege and blessing to be acknowledged with pride….The Jewish religion is the foundation for the sum total of ethical and moral values of the Western World. Jewish men and women, wherever they lived, have contributed enormously to every facet of human life. It is a tradition and a heritage to be cherished and valued.” (p. 54) For him, “I am Jewish,” combines appreciation of the past leading to responsibility for the future.

Similarly, Daniel Gill, a childhood friend of Daniel Pearl’s, draws upon heritage as a rallying cry for action. He states: “Being a survivor is not what I think when I say ‘I am a Jewish’.. I think about how we’re different.. We are a people of the book, of law…We question, challenge, debate, extrapolate, construct and deconstruct… We focus on this life, not what comes after…Being Jewish means striving for Tikkun Olam, a repairing of the world, of hesed and rachamim and tsedakah…We built nations, changed the histories of music, arts, science, law and jurisprudence, politics, academia, philosophy, finance, agriculture, every field imaginable. We marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and made Duck Soup and E.T.” (p. 86) We can proudly reflect upon our heritage and say, “we are different and we have made a difference.” Heritage can be a source of nostalgia or a foundation for the future.

Many express their being Jewish through “Tikun Olam- repairing the world.” Numerous respondents stressed that saying “I am Jewish” is an imperative to make the world a better place. In many ways, this was Daniel Pearl’s kind of Judaism. A history of oppression and martyrdom becomes the impetus to shape this world as less cruel and more humane. “I am Jewish” is to side with the oppressed, rather than with the oppressor.” (p. 165) For others- “we are raised to believe that the world can be made better. That the work of creation is a joint venture, with God and humanity partners- maybe even equal partners.” (p. 203) To say “I am Jewish” means to stand upon our Judaism as the foundation for improving the world.

Tomorrow afternoon we will read the story of Jonah. It teaches that God’s love and our concern extends beyond our own particular community. We care about the Ninevites, who were our enemies, even the vegetation which we did not plant. Tikun Olam is the Jewish mandate to be universalists.

Identity, heritage, Tikun Olam are all important. They are significant aspects of what it means to be Jewish, branches and limbs of the Jewish tree of life. However, I believe that the trunk and roots lie in our covenantal relationship with God, which is linked to the faith of Judaism.

Rabbi Harold Kushner discusses how heritage and identity focuses on the past, while the statement of “I am Jewish” needs to address the present and future. “To say ‘I am a Jew’ says something about how I will live this day: how I will treat other people in my life, how honest will I be in my business dealings, how much of my income will I set aside for tsedakah, will I find time in my day for prayer and study? And it says something about the future: what sort of world do I envision and work for? What are the most important values I will strive to impart to my children and grandchildren?…“Life’s challenge is to realize that divine potential in me and the Torah is the instruction manual to guide me to do that.” (p. 165)

My friends, this kind of Jewish self definition does not just happen. It is not achieved by eating Jewish food, socializing with fellow Jews, or even donating to Jewish causes. Rather it requires an investment of self in prayer and ritual to connect with the God, who is understood in so many different ways in our faith; it springs from studying Jewish texts to appreciate the values that will guide our lives; it is inspired by spending significant time in the land of Israel to feel a greater link to our past and current history;

I know that the concept of “requirement” sounds onerous, burdensome. It does not have to be that way. We begin most of our services with the words emblazoned on our gates: Ivdu et Adonai B’simcha. Serve God, whether through prayer, study, daily activity, tikun olam, but serve God with a sense of joy.

7 year old Jade Ransohoff says it so well: “I am Jewish means having fun being a Jew.” This is why so many of you and our children loved going to Jewish cultural summer camps. It can be fun being a Jew. Our Nursery and Religious Schools embrace that philosophy as well. One of the many reasons I became a rabbi was that I concluded, “what could be more fun and fulfilling than being Jewish as my life’s work?” I encourage you to venture forth, experience and celebrate Jewish life with joy.

So what do I mean when I say “I am Jewish?” It begins with indebtedness to my parents, who by their words and deeds made it clear to me who I was. Through formal and informal education I have come to appreciate that I am part of a history and community much larger than myself. The historical episodes of the past, both the valleys of travail and the peaks of triumph are part of my Jewish family heritage. All of this is rooted in a relationship with a loving God, who in mysterious ways instructed our people in the past and continues as an active presence in the future. Through God inspired teachings I possess a moral compass that guides my daily activity and prompts me to realize that I am linked and have a responsibility to all people. And as I navigate my way through each day, I am able to serve God with joy.

Part of Daniel Pearl’s legacy was his final words. They were perceived as an expression of community, a challenge to his executioners, an acceptance of his fate. They have become a source of inspiration for us. I invite us all to consider what it means to say, “I am Jewish” throughout this holy day and then live accordingly in the year to come.



Quotations in this sermon are from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired By the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004.






Coping With Loss: Models To Consider


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            Let me begin this afternoon with a word of thanks. I have had the mitzvah opportunity of standing with many of you during your times of loss. This past year was our time to mourn, first with the death of my father, Edwin Loewy and then a few weeks later, my father-in-law, Justin Rosenfeld. My family and I most sincerely appreciated the outpouring of support, expressions of condolence and donations of caring.

On one occasion I was sitting with a congregant, who while dealing with her sorrow, was also consoling me. I explained to her that we all are served the same plate. It is just a matter of timing when it comes to us. This year was our time. The great challenge is how to cope. There are many approaches and sources from which we can learn.

On Rosh Hashanah morning I shared insights to be gleaned from the life of Abraham Lincoln by way of Doris Kearn Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals.” As she describes the life of Lincoln, along with the rivals, who would one day become part of his leadership team, there is a subtext of death and how it impacted upon each of the men. We can learn from them as we develop our own coping skills.

Salmon Chase of Ohio was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, a brilliant financier who enabled Lincoln to fund the Civil War. We are familiar with his name, as in Chase Manhattan Bank. His father died when he was 9 years old and he went to live with a domineering uncle. There was always gloom in his life. It is reported that he simply did not know how to have fun. His father had died of a stroke following major financial reversals, so that fear of failure plagued Chase throughout his life.

Death continued to stalk Chase in adulthood. Between the ages of 25-44 he buried three wives. Granted, death in childbirth and other diseases was not unusual in the 19th century, it was still a lot for one man to handle. He accepted death as a burden, which weighed him down. An intense work ethic and a fixation on raising his daughter as a perfect woman and proper partner became his focus. He once said, “Death has pursued me incessantly ever since I was twenty-five … Sometimes I feel as if I could give up- as if I MUST give up. And then after all I rise & press on.” (p. 36) Never fully satisfied with his own accomplishments, the main solace he found was belief in a world to come for his loved ones. He coped by immersing himself in work and as a result in many ways was a bitter man. Wallowing in pain is not a foundation for healthy living.

Edward Bates of Missouri was Lincoln’s Attorney General. Like Chase, his father died when he was 11 years old and like Chase a belief in an afterlife brought him comfort. His father’s death impacted upon him as well, but not in the burdensome way of Chase. Rather, Bates was committed to provide and protect his family in ways that his father never could. Not having had a stable home as a youth, Bates delighted in his marriage to his wife Julia and was pleased to consider himself “a very domestic, home man.” While he led an active public career, home and family eclipsed politics as the main pleasure of his life. (p. 63) Bates coped with his early loss by creating the kind of life he would have liked as a child and by all accounts was highly successful.

Edwin Stanton was Lincoln’s Secretary of War. While he did not lose a parent at an early age, first his daughter died and then his wife, at the age of 29. His younger brother also met a tragic end. Dealing with his losses he withdrew from his world for months. Then somewhat like Chase, Stanton immersed himself in his work. Many claimed that the multiple deaths turned him from outgoing to gloomy. As a litigator he became very aggressive in court, intimidating witnesses unnecessarily and antagonizing fellow lawyers, as he did Lincoln. His primary pleasure came from his growing reputation and amassing of wealth. (p. 178) None of this would I describe as healthy coping skills.

However, he remained warm and tender towards his family and especially his son, who was 2 years old when his mother died. Realizing that the boy would have no real memories of his mother, Stanton wrote a letter of over 100 pages telling the boy about his mother, the kind of woman she was, details of the love that he had with her and more. Preserving memory is indeed a positive way to cope with loss.

And then there was Abraham Lincoln. His mother, Nancy Hanks, died when he was 9 years old. His older sister Sarah helped to raise him, but sadly, she too died at a young age. Then the love of his life, Ann Rutledge, died at the tender age of 22. Upon her death he fell into a deep depression. Unlike Chase and Stanton, Lincoln did not believe in a world to come. In truth he was not necessarily very religious at all. As a young man he confided to a neighbor, “It isn’t a pleasant thing to think that when we die that is the last of us.” There are those who suggest that all this loss at a young age provided Lincoln with strength and a deep understanding of human frailty.

Then came his years as President. The catastrophic loss of life during the Civil War weighed heavily upon him. He became a bit more philosophical as he came to embrace the idea that we live on through what we have done. As President, he often penned notes to families upon the death of a soldier. In one such message of condolence to a young girl he wrote, “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and to the young it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. And yet this is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

Indeed Lincoln had vast experience on the topic, losing his mother, sister and beloved at a young age. And like many others of his era, two of his children died as well. First was his son Eddie, who died of tuberculosis in 1850. At the time, his wife, Mary, was inconsolable, until she embraced a belief in an afterlife, but Abraham simply maintained a stoic attitude. He did find a measure of consolation in the belief that some part of us remains alive in the memory of others.

Their son Willie was born shortly thereafter. He was inquisitive and playful as he grew into adolescence. The White House became a big playground for him, until Typhoid fever snuffed out his life. Again Mary sunk into a deep depression, while Abraham deeply grieved, held onto the mementoes of the young boy’s life, believing deeply that the dead live on through memory. He would face difficult hours of loss and found comfort in looking at a picture Willie had painted along with a scrapbook he had maintained. Though surrounded by the death of war, the loss of his son caused him to relate to others during their times of loss in a more profound way. In that same letter I mentioned earlier, he wrote, “In time the memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”

Ironically the day before his assassination Lincoln spoke of future life. Perhaps like many who begin to face their own mortality, the hope for a world to come came into his mind.

Friends, there is no one model guaranteed to help us cope with our losses. Each situation and individual is unique. No one philosophy will ensure solace. Looking at the exampless I have presented this afternoon we can learn positively and negatively from each. Certainly when death comes we are entitled to be sad, lost, even inconsolable. Hopefully that phase will pass with time. For some a belief in the afterlife provides great comfort. Please know that this path is open to us as Jews. While the rational founders of Reform Judaism tended to minimize the emphasis on concepts of afterlife, the belief in a world to come, open to the righteous of all people, is a strong part of Jewish tradition. I cannot tell you what that world is like or definitively that it even exists, but if that is a belief that provides strength and hope, I am not about to deny or demean that possibility.

Our friend Lincoln coped with his losses with what he knew and what we can confirm. Loved ones do live on in our memories and the impact of their lives resonates in the world in which they once lived.

As for me, I embrace all of the above. Though in my early years I rarely thought in terms of a world to come, I am now comfortably open to that possibility. I do not depend upon it, nor will I devote my life to reaching that end. Still, the traditional Jewish belief that our loved ones live on in ways beyond our knowledge provides a measure of solace and the hope of a future time of reconnection. And like Lincoln the gift of memory and the knowledge of lives well lived provides me with comfort, even as I continue to mourn.

At this hour of Yizkor, a time of sacred memory, may we learn from those who have gone before us as we hallow the lives of our loved ones.



This sermon is inspired by the speech of Doris Kearns Goodwin at the 2007 CCAR National Convention, based upon her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.






An Ancient Holiday With Modern Meanings

October 17, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

This evening we find ourselves in the midst of the beautiful Festival of Sukkot, the Fall Harvest holiday of Jewish tradition. Its major symbols are the etrog and lulav, four species of nature, which remind us to appreciate the world around us, as well as to give thanks with all of our being.

The second is of course the sukkah, the temporary booth that we are supposed to construct outside our homes and only utilize for the seven days of the holiday, as a reminder of the temporary huts that in which our ancestors dwelt as they sojourned from Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land.

In the past building a sukkah was not a major problem, but in our day there can be legal problems. One Jewish family built their sukkah, but a not so understanding, perhaps even anti-Semitic neighbor immediately took them to court, since it did not meet the various codes and building ordinances of the community. They wanted it torn down.

Fortunately, the case came before Judge Cohen or was it Waltzer? The judge fairly and impartially listened to the complaint and in a Solomonic ruling ordered that the sukkah had to be dismantled, but gave the family ten days to do so.

This festival is loaded with meaning, including ancient themes that continue to resonate in our day and modern ideas that address our contemporary situation. When I think of Sukkot, my memories go back to childhood. We did not have a sukkah in our home, but we did at the synagogue. I distinctly recall that this was the holiday when we brought canned goods, which were distributed to the poor. This was long before programs like Second Harvesters were standard in every community across America. That message of sharing our bounty is as meaningful today as it was in days gone by.

Then there is the custom of Ushpizin. During Sukkot we are called upon to be hospitable as we welcome our friends to our sukkah to share a meal. But more than just our current connections, we also have the opportunity to conjure up the great heroes of the Jewish past to symbolically invite them into our sukkah as we link ourselves in a spiritual way to the generations: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, Moses, Miriam and Aaron, Joshua and many more from the Bible.

In a moment I will ask you to share who you might like to enjoy some time with in your sukkah. “Hero” is a bit of a strong term. Let’s say these are people from across time and space that we admire and would appreciate their company. For example I might include: Elijah the prophet, who undoubtedly would have some great stories; Maimonides from the middle ages, who seems to know everything; Baruch Spinoza, whose ideas were revolutionary and was actually excommunicated from the Jewish people or perhaps Emma Lazarus to share some 19th century American Jewish poetry.

Who might you invite into your sukkah and why?

This imaginary connection with heroes of our past is fun and as far as I am concerned if we do not enjoy ourselves as Jews, we are missing out on an essential principle of Judaism. Sukkot is the precise time for this idea. Literally, the Torah calls upon us to “rejoice in this Festival.” It is called “zeman simchateinu- the time of our rejoicing.” Joy, pleasure, happiness are essential parts of living and while they cannot be the essence of life, neither should they be subjugated. Tradition prescribes the Book of Ecclesiastes to be linked to Sukkot. This is the Biblical Book that reminds us to appreciate all the aspects of life with times to be born and die, to laugh and mourn.

Sukkot and its link to nature is clearly a 21st century message that can be derived from this holiday, but I will leave that angle to our Bar Mitzvah boy for tomorrow.

However a theme that will certainly resonate with all of us when we see our sukkah is how fragile life can be, how transient our dwelling places are and how we must always keep our values in perspective. Rashbam, a 12th century commentator, the grandson of Rashi suggested that the sukkah should inspire us to gain perspective on the blessings we enjoy, lest we say in our hearts: “My own power and wealth have won this wealth for me.”

On this theme a story is told of Anshel Rothschild, the founding father of the European banking family, an observant Jew, who lived in the middle of 19th century Austria. With his vast fortune he had a close relationship with Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria.

From time to time the Emperor would send visitors to the luxurious and famous palace of Anshel Rothschild.  It was the most lavish, luxurious and well-appointed palace in all of Austria, and everyone wanted to see its beauty and wealth.

During one visit Anshel took his guest, an important government official whose position was just under Emperor Franz Joseph, on a tour of the palace.  He showed him room after room, and the guest was awed by the beauty of the gold, the silver, the furnishings, the chandeliers, the imported fabrics.  Everything was a sight to behold.  There existed nothing like it in all of Austria.

When Anshel passed a certain door, he continued walking, but the guest asked to be shown the room behind the door.

“I am sorry” said Anshel.  “This is the one room in the palace that I cannot show you.”

“Why not?” asked the guest.  I would love to see every nook and cranny of your remarkable palace.

“I simply cannot,” answered Anshel, and continued walking.

The tour concluded, and the official returned to his master, and reported everything he saw.  The palace was even more than one could image.  “However,” said the official to the Emperor, “there was one room that Anshel refused to show me.”

“Why not?” asked the Emperor.

“I do not know.  But I can guess.  You know how wealthy those Jews are.  My theory is that in that room there is a magic money-making machine.  That is why he is so wealthy.  Behind that door must be a machine that creates the wealth of Anshel Rothschild.”

The Emperor did not know whether to believe his official, so he sent a second government official to see the palace of Anshel Rothschild.  The second official came back with the same story.  And a third, and a fourth.

This time the curiosity of Emperor Franz Joseph was greatly aroused, so he decided to go himself and visit the palace.  Anshel took the Emperor for the same tour as he did all the other visitors from Franz Joseph’s government.  And when they reached the “forbidden room,” the Emperor asked to go inside and see what was there.

Anshel explained that that was the one place he could not show anyone.  After the Emperor insisted, Anshel gave in, and agreed to show the Emperor the secret room.  He took out his keys, opened the door, and invited the Emperor to enter.  Franz Joseph looked, and was amazed at what he saw.  There, in a small room, was a simple pine box, and some plain white cloth on a table.  That was all there was!

“What is this all about?” asked the Emperor.

“We Jews have strict rules about burial customs,” explained Anshel.  When a person dies, he must be buried in a very simple coffin, a plain pine box.  And his body must be enveloped in a plain white shroud.  This is to maintain the equality of all God’s creatures.  No one is permitted to be buried in a fancy, expensive coffin, or in luxurious clothing.  Though some may live affluent lives, and others may suffer dire, abject poverty, in death all are equal.”

“But why is this here in this room?”  asked the Emperor, impressed but still confused.

“At the end of each day, I come to this room, and view the coffin and the shrouds, and I am reminded that even though I have great wealth and power and I have important influence in the highest echelons of the Austrian Empire, I am still one of God’s simple creatures, and at the end of my life, this is the end I will come to like all of God’s other children.  I do this lest after a day filled with high finance and major financial transactions, I think too highly of myself, and develop a bloated sense of myself.”

Franz Joseph was amazed, and in fact, he was speechless.  His respect for Anshel Rothschild grew even greater than before.  He never questioned the sincerity, honesty or integrity of Anshel again.


Sukkot is our multi-meaninged holiday. Let us rejoice in our festival and be inspired by its many messages.


Dear Mr. President-Elect

November 21, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Thanksgiving is coming and of course we are looking forward to food, family and football. Of course Thanksgiving is both a quasi-religious holiday and a national holiday and so the following poem speaks to the moment:

Ode to Thanksgiving

To our national birds
The American Eagle
The Thanksgiving Turkey
May one give us peace in all our states
And the other a piece for all our plates

Hopefully, as we all sit down to our Thanksgiving dinners we will pause for a moment to appreciate our many blessings. There is indeed much for which we can be thankful. While this holiday has a religious message, it is also a patriotic holiday hearkening back to the origins of our country. With all of its defects, we are blessed to be living in the United States of America and should be thankful for that reality.

As a country we have recently completed a rite of passage- the presidential election. Regardless of whom one supported we can all agree that the election of Barack Obama is a landmark in American history. 200 years after Lincoln the first African American is elected President of the United States. There is excitement throughout the land, especially in the African-American community. As Jews we can certainly identify, “for we were once slaves in Egypt.” His election is a positive omen for all minorities in this country, which is becoming more and more pluralistic.

Like many of you, I am concerned for President-elect Obama’s health and well-being. There are all too many haters in our society, including those living not far from our Bat Mitzvah girl on the North Shore and those who would burn hated symbols in lawns down the street from us. Blacks are their primary target, but Jews are in their cross-hairs as well. Let us all pray for his safety.

The new President will need the support and counsel of all Americans to face the challenges ahead. With this sermon and letter to Barack Obama, I’ll add my two cents, from a Jewish perspective of course:


Dear Mr. President-elect,

When George Washington became our first President, the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island wrote him a letter of congratulations. In his response he picked up on a phrase from the letter sent to him when he wrote: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” We the spiritual descendants of that community give thanks that Washington’s expression is our contemporary reality as you become our 44th President.

Every new administration faces challenges, but we recognize that the issues you must immediately confront are daunting. May God give you insight and wisdom as you lead us.

Our economy seems to be the most pressing concern both domestic and international, and I will not pretend to provide specific meaningful solutions. However, as you battle this multi-headed monster, I offer you a number of faith principles from tradition for guidance. From Genesis we learn that we are all our brothers’ keepers, which is to say there is communal responsibility when individuals are suffering. Free markets do not have a conscience, but we the people do. The Book of Leviticus recognizes that there is always a gap between rich and poor, but that measures should be taken to minimize that reality. The original expression to “proclaim liberty throughout the land,” was precisely addressing that point as it preceded the Jubilee year. And though no one likes to pay taxes, Torah tradition long ago understood that all have to pay their fair share to maintain the institutions and services of a community. Along with the Prophets of old we merely ask that there be justice, integrity, honesty and safe guards to avoid inefficiency, abuse and corruption.

You enter office with multiple issues on the international stage. Foremost are the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no question that our country has real enemies out there as we experienced on 9/11. As a country we must be militarily strong if there is to be security and we pray for the safety of all our troops, naming in our hearts those friends and family currently serving abroad. But neither conflict seems open to clear-cut military solutions. We have potential friends whom we have alienated in recent years. Your election provides a unique opportunity to create channels of communication to pursue diplomatic progress. I am not so naïve to believe that words alone will suffice, but they are better than stone-walled silence. The Prophet teaches, “Not by might, nor by power, but by spirit shall we all live in peace.”

Certainly the fervent prayer of our Jewish community is that meaningful, sustainable, secure peace will come to Israel. It can be rightly argued that calm in Iraq will contribute to that, as will better relations between the United States and Israel’s neighbors. Palestinian leadership is fractured with no truly reliable partners for dialogue, while Israel’s government not infrequently takes actions, which complicate matters. Israel’s coming elections will likely result in new leadership with which to negotiate. I know that the Israel/Palestinian challenge can swallow up all your time. Here I do have a specific suggestion. Consider appointing someone with skill, credibility and clout to be solely dedicated to bringing about a real settlement between the two parties. (If Hillary’s not your Secretary of State, perhaps a Democratic past-President might be available and I most certainly am not referring to Jimmy Carter.) Israel is one of the highest priorities for the American Jewish community, but not the only concern.

Consistent with our values we believe your domestic agenda should include health care for all and quality education for all children. Again, I will not prescribe one specific approach over another, only that you keep your eye on the ultimate goal.

Since I am writing to you from New Orleans, I only somewhat selfishly ask that you not forget us. Katrina and subsequent storms have battered our city. We are a part of America providing countless gifts and benefits to all the country. Our tradition understood that in times past, one of the roles of government was to surround a community with protection, often with a wall. In our case that wall of protection consists of levees and wetlands. Positive steps have been taken, but much more needs to be done before we can feel safe. We look to you for that leadership.

Our community is like many others in that there continue to be difficult issues of equality. Immigration reform failed in the previous administration and passions run high on this issue. Almost all Americans were immigrants at one time and we should not close our doors to this land of opportunity. I encourage you to enact policies which will meaningfully protect our borders, but embrace hard working decent people who make a difference in our society. Let us also open our borders to allow those who seek freedom and can contribute to our society to do so, lest we stagnate.

Lastly, I call your attention to a subject for which you are uniquely qualified: Race in America. Your election alone is an important statement to our country and the world. Still there is hatred, prejudice, discrimination and unequal opportunity, as well as lack of understanding and compassion. You began to address this in a major speech in Philadelphia, relating to your connections with Rev. Wright. While this issue need not be at the top of your list, it will continue to be a festering sore that can not simply be solved with a band-aid if not addressed. You understand that this is not solely a matter of pigment, but includes economics and education and opportunity. Then we must address those root problems for all Americans. I doubt that we will ever be fully color blind, but let us at least do all we can to expose prejudice and injustice. People can and will have inappropriate feelings, but if we can teach them not to act upon them, then that will be progress.

Mr. President-elect we recognize that yours is an overwhelming agenda. We pledge our support to you as you begin this historic mission. In the same words that were expressed to our first President long ago by the Jews of Newport, we say to you: “May the angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the Promised Land conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life.”

Most Sincerely,

Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Mumbai Remembered

December 12, 2008

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, this the first real opportunity I have had to share my thoughts with you about the attacks upon civilians in Mumbai, which occurred over two weeks ago. My guess is that two weeks is a long time ago and so, sadly like other terrorist events it is already fading in our memories. It descends to become just one of numerous, similar episodes- along with the Bali hotel bombings, Indian train explosions, London bus and subway attacks, all of Israel’s travails, even 9-11. There are just so many of these that they tend to merge in our minds. If we are honest with ourselves, we become a bit numb to it all.

Surely the events in Mumbai from November 26-29 have not been forgotten by the 171 or more victims of the attack. And we know that they continue to deeply impact the families of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, Rivka Holtzberg, Bentzion Kruman, Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum, Yoheved Orpaz and Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, who are still observing the sheloshim mourning period of our faith.

From our Jewish tradition we learn that we should not be like Pharaoh, who hardened his heart in the face of pain, suffering and oppression. Though these events are far away and not subject to our direct influence, we cannot be spiritually callous, sitting idly by while our neighbors bleed. In our global economy and interconnected world, we are more linked now than ever before. We dial an 800 service number and find ourselves speaking with someone in India, often in Mumbai. Perhaps that person with whom we spoke is now mourning. Let us not forget their pain and loss. There are a number of perspectives on these events for us to explore.

First, we need to understand what happened, who was involved and why the attack was perpetrated. The answers to some of these questions are still being developed. From many accounts we now believe that on November 26, ten armed men, who were part of a Pakistani Moslem terrorist group called Lashkar-e-Taiba fanned out through downtown Mumbai to destroy Indian Hindu citizens, Mumbai’s flourishing tourism industry and westernized culture, and the small Chabad Lubavitch Jewish enclave in the city. Their goal was death, destruction and terror. Some of the victims were random, while Westerners and Jews were clearly targeted. This attack needs to be seen in the context of the 60 year old conflict between Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, with a particular flash point of Kashmir. But with links to Al Qaida this is also part of fundamentalist Islam’s war with western values and culture, an extension of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the ongoing issues between Israel and the Palestinians. With one attack, the perpetrators confronted multiple issues.

As Americans we are concerned about all the controversy points that are involved. As Jews we poignantly feel the attack upon Nariman House, the Chabad Headquarters in Mumbai. Yes, Americans were attacked because they were Americans. We are proudly American citizens and relate to this injustice. But when Jews are attacked it is different, even when they are Jews who are very different from us in so many ways. We react on an emotional and historical level. We like to think about Jewish oppression as a vestige of yesteryear, but when it raises its ugly head, we are reminded that it is still with us.

Some have questions about Chabad and what they are doing in India. This is the same organized Jewish group of Chasidic Jews, who in our community have Centers down the street from us on West Esplanade and Uptown on Freret St. They sponsor the community Chanukah program in Spanish Plaza and numerous classes. Theirs is an Orthodox approach to Jewish life with one particular difference from what we refer to as “mainstream Orthodoxy” such as is practiced at Beth Israel. Part of this group’s philosophy is outreach to their fellow Jews. Their goal is to attract, entice and engage all Jews to practice Judaism the way they do. I am not on this occasion going to discuss the merits of their program. Whether here in New Orleans, or in Mumbai, their purpose is to be a venue for Jews to be more involved with their Judaism.

Why Mumbai? For many years India has been a destination for Jewish spiritual seekers. It started with our American Jewish hippies in the 1970s and continues today with many young Israelis, who travel to India when they complete their initial 3 years of military service. Regardless of how we feel about Chabad, their activities and philosophy, we relate and hurt with them at this time of sorrow. After all, “we are one” is more than a fundraising slogan as far as I am concerned.

On the Monday following the massacre, I, along with others, attended a memorial service and program at the Metairie Chabad Center. There were some attempts to deal with the events on a theological level. How could God allow innocent, righteous people to be randomly and not so randomly gunned down? Of course this question has been asked in one form or another for centuries, particularly taking us back to the Book of Job. Much will depend upon our understanding of God and how God is involved in the world. If one believes that God controls all, then God has to take the rap for this event, mediated by the belief that only God understands why things happen. For those who understand God as all powerful, but also granting free will to all of humanity, then the sadness can be interpreted as the result of humans expressing their free will badly. Or you might embrace the Harold Kushner approach to such occurrences. Simply put, God is limited;  there is chaos in the world and we turn to God to help us cope with this most recent challenge.

Internationally the Chabad movement is responding to horror by transforming an act of evil into something good. They have launched the “Holtzberg Mitzvah Initiative,” named after Mumbai’s Chabad Director Rabbi Gabi Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, who were killed, leaving their son Moshe an orphan. Consistent with their philosophy they are calling upon all Jews to embrace a new mitzvah as an expression of grief and solidarity with those who lost their lives. This can include regularly taking on a new ritual like lighting Shabbat candles or keeping Kosher, embarking on Torah study, increasing tsedakah involvement or any of a number of other mitzvot. The Chabad program believes: “A mitzvah has the power to reach deep into the core of our being, where a positive deed can help bring peace and goodness to this troubled world.” Part of this statement has mystical Jewish implications to which you may or may not subscribe, but on a practical level it is the way we often memorialize loved ones, which is to live according to their goals and values. Rabbi Zelig Rivkin stated it succinctly when he said, “Goodness and holiness is permanent. Evil is temporary.”

Friends, we are a people of hope. Even in the darkness of this most recent act of terror, I am hopeful. This week we have seen the arrest of one of the leaders of the attack by Pakistani forces working with India. This is a positive development.

While I do not believe that an Obama presidency will instantly change the world, I am optimistic that there will be more steps towards global reconciliation and security. For the past eight years the sole policy of our country to confront conflict has been military. Strong military without concomitant diplomatic offensives will not yield results. I am hopeful that we will see progress in the years ahead.

We are a people of hope. If you had not noticed, each and every one of our worship services concludes with an expression of hope. Some call it messianic, while others recognize that until that time comes, it is up to us to bring wholeness and unity. Only then will that day come when God shall be one and God’s name be one.

Along with our hope, we offer this prayer:

“Merciful God, author of all life, we ask Your blessing for those whose lives were forever altered by the events in Mumbai, India.

For world leaders and the governments of nations: May they set aside petty concern and work together, ensuring justice and peace for all men and women.

For those who perished in these terrorist assaults: May they rest in peace, and may peace be the tribute that we build in memory of their lives.

For those who continue to grieve, for the wives and husbands, the parents, family and friends: May their hearts saddened by the loss of loved ones be strengthened with courage, and come to know the immortal promise of life renewed.

For the children, those left without a parent, and the children who witnessed the attacks: May they flourish in the embrace of loving hearts, and the promise of life well-lived and love unceasingly given.

Our most fervent prayer is that we find newer and better ways to fashion a future of freedom and peace. We pray for courage, wisdom and strength of heart to live every day in hope for a world in which every human being can truly say of each one of its inhabitants: This person too is a child of God.

God of the ages, before Your eyes all empires rise and fall, yet You are changeless. Be near us in this age of terror. Uphold those who work and watch and wait and weep and love, and by Your Spirit give rise in us to broad sympathy for all the peoples of your earth. Strengthen us to comfort those who mourn and to work in ways both large and small for those acts of braveness, honor and human decency that make for peace. Bless all nations so that terror and warfare might one day only be found in our history books.” (Rabbi Billy Dreskin, Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY)

Let us be able to say with the Psalmist: “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.”


Moses As CFO

March 20, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


A man went to his ATM the other day and the message popped up, “insufficient funds.” He wondered out loud. “Does that mean me or the bank?”

We had a program here the other night with an economist and a stock broker. They were asked, “what is the best way in this economy to maintain a small fortune?” Both responded, “start with a large one.”

The financial crisis surrounds us, but it’s Shabbat a time for rest, an opportunity to put the worries of the world behind us or at least in a different perspective, a Jewish context.

Let’s begin by speaking of Moses. Most often he is “Moshe Rabbeinu,” Moses our Rabbi or teacher. We know him as “lawgiver,” or the “shepherd,” who lovingly led the Israelites through the wilderness. We think of him as the reluctant prophet, who assumed leadership with great hesitation.

Yet it is in this week’s Torah portion that we encounter a different role for Moses. The Tabernacle, which required a capital campaign to gather the necessary items for construction is now complete. Moses then provides a detailed accounting of everything that was utilized: the gold, silver, yarns and resources. It is clear that he seeks absolute monetary transparency. To this episode of Torah the midrash comments:

“Our sages taught, in communal finances one should never give the responsibility to fewer than two or even three persons- yet Moses was given sole charge of all contributions. (Now you know the origin of two signatures on non-profit checks.) But as soon as the Tabernacle was finished, Moses, out of his own choice, had an audit made.”

A further commentator adds:

“There was no requirement for an accounting, but it was done at Moses’ insistence. Moses demanded it because we learn in Num. 32:22, ‘You shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel,’ that no one should think that he had benefitted from the money collected for the Sanctuary.” (Or-ha-hayim)

Thus, we now encounter with a different title, Moses the first of the Jewish CFOs. As we would hope, his behavior in the financial realm is exemplary, reflecting the highest of ethics. Contrary to the stereotypes and occasional exceptions to the rule, like Bernard Madoff, we can be proud of the many Jewish men and women who conduct themselves according to the clear ethical standards of financial integrity. For every scoundrel like Madoff, we have many more people like Leonard Abess, the man recently cited by President Obama, who sold City National Bank of Florida and gave $60 million in bonuses to 399 employees and 72 former employees.

It is not a coincidence that as our country confronts the greatest financial crisis in decades, a time when we need a Moses to lead us to the Promised Land of security, that the brain trust called upon to tackle the challenge disproportionately consists of Jews. There is good news and bad news in this. For those who think Jews have extraordinary financial acumen, and contribute to the betterment of our society, have we got a team for you? The bad news is that when I googled, “Jews on Obama’s Financial Recovery Team,” the first article with the information needed was titled:

Obama’s ‘Jewish Inspired’ Stimulus Will Not Work

The blog goes on to say: “OBAMA’S STIMULUS PLAN IS A SCHEME hatched by Jewish financial insiders. Representing the interests of Wall Street’s Jewish financial institutions, a group of Zionist Jews, (loyal to Jewish interests before those of America), have been appointed by Obama as his economic advisors:  (and then we see the list of our Jewish all-star team)

Timothy Geithner: Treasury Secretary – Jewish.

Steven Rattner: Treasury Advisor For Auto Sector – Jewish.

Larry Summers: Economic Advisor to the President – Jewish.

Robert Rubin: Economic Advisor to the President – Jewish.

Alan Blinder: Economic Advisor to the President – Jewish.

Jason Furman: Director Of Economic Policy – Jewish.

Peter Orszag: Head of Budget – Jewish.

Jon Leibowitz: Chairman Of Federal Trade Commission – Jewish.


While they were at it, they could have included Benjamin Shlomo Bernanke as Head of the Federal Reserve, Rahm Emanuel, as President Obama’s Chief of Staff and numerous others.

I think we all hope and pray that these individuals know what they are doing. To be honest I have no idea how Jewishly learned or committed some of these people are. I can only hope that they might be guided by basic principles that have become part of Jewish tradition over the centuries. They are not taught at Harvard and Yale, but hopefully have found their way into their Jewish subconscious. These are the real Jewish values, not the bogus blabbering  of anti-Semites.

Let me share a number of them with you this evening. We can start with a few fundamental Jewish teachings. In Ex. 15:26, we learn a preamble to proper living, that being to “heed the Lord your God diligently and do what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all of God’s laws.” To this Biblical text, midrash adds, “When people act in business with integrity and their fellow human beings are pleased with them, it is accounted to them as if they had fulfilled the whole Torah.” (Mekhilta Va-yassa 1) In Judaism, how one leads his/her daily life, including one’s work activities, is not separate from religious life.

Our Talmud is even stronger, stating: “When a person is brought before the Heavenly Court, they first ask him, ‘Were you honest in your business dealings?’.” (Talmud Shabbat 33b) We can be the most pious persons in synagogue, but if we do not live our days with integrity, honesty and respect for others in the marketplace, then all is for naught. Early on the Prophets decried those who brought sacrifices, but oppressed their workers.

The Biblical and Rabbinic concept of “Ona’ah”- wronging or oppressing others is often connected with the business world. Torah teaches that if you buy or sell something from your neighbor, you shall not wrong that person and then the injunction that you should not wrong another is repeated. There is recognition that a market economy involves give and take, profit and loss. There is acceptance that there will always be rich and poor, haves and have nots. The premise of our teaching is that there must be a degree of fairness and even compassion in the business realm. Employers and employees need protection and fair treatment. From this general statement has come a variety of related, more specific ideas.

For starters, there is a concern about “over-charging.” Whether involving a housing market or credit cards, the price of groceries or clothing, our rabbinic tradition teaches that all are entitled to fair treatment. From the rabbinic times, they established a floor of 1/6. You should not charge more than 1/6 of the actual value of a product or purchase it at less than 1/6 of the actual value. This refers to necessities, not luxuries. We can debate and analyze the details, but the bottom line is that Jewish tradition attempts to regulate fairness in the marketplace. Our government leaders must do the same.

It also includes protection against abuse. The category of “Genevat Da’at,” literally, “stealing of knowledge,” addresses the concept of fraud. Torah teaches that we do not put stumbling blocks before the blind, which is to say, we should not be tricking or deceiving others in commercial transactions. This includes the victims of Madoff’s crimes, who blindly trusted him. Talmud warned against those who might water down wine, but it also can be applied to buying those fresh luscious strawberries in a container visible from the top and the rotten ones underneath.

Contrary to the stereotype, Jewish tradition discusses how all of these standards apply to our dealings with both Jews and non-Jews. While our reaction to a Jew cheating a fellow Jew is often, “How could he do this to his own family, his own people?”, Jewish tradition actually comes down harder when fraud is perpetrated against non-Jews. For in that instance, not only has one gone against Jewish values, but it also is considered “chilul hashem.” You are profaning God’s name, giving God’s people a bad reputation. We are indeed linked to one another, for good or for ill.

We can study these laws and precepts in detail and if interested, we will do so a little on Wednesday night. But perhaps indicative of the real Jewish attitude towards the market is the following story:

Once, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetakh bought a donkey from an Arab. When his disciples went to claim it, they found a precious jewel hanging around its neck.

They came to Shimon ben Shetakh and said, “Master, now you no longer need to work, for God’s blessing brings you wealth.”

“How is this so?” he asked.

“We found this precious jewel on the donkey you just bought.”

“Did the Arab know about this?”

“No,” they answered.

“Then return it to him at once. I bought a donkey, not a jewel.”

When they returned the jewel to the Arab, he exclaimed, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetakh!”

Friends, we are called upon not just to study Torah, the basis of our Jewish values, but to live by Torah, not just in synagogue, but in all aspects of our lives, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we are in our homes or out in the world. And as Moses understood, this especially includes how we lead the economic aspect of our lives. May we and our kinsmen walk in his footsteps.