Eat, Pray, Love: A Jewish Response to Tragedy

Rabbi Elan S. Babchuck
Temple Emanu-El, Providence
December 22nd, 2012
Eat, Pray, Love: A Jewish Response to Tragedy

In my second year of rabbinical school, I took a class on how to write divrei Torah – short, poignant talks about all things Torah.  My teacher – Rabbi Shawn
Fields-Meyer – began with a very simple piece of advice. She said: “Write what
you know”. In other words, as tempting as it might be to comment on
anything that your heart tells you, stick to what you know. Don’t quote Buber
if you haven’t read “I, Thou”, don’t paraphrase Heschel if you don’t know his
book “The Sabbath” inside and out. However, with great respect to my teacher
and friend, I’m not in rabbinical school anymore, so it’s time I broke a rule or

I’ve never read the book “Eat, Pray, Love”, but from what I have gleaned from
a cursory look at the Wikipedia page, it’s a delightful 2006 memoir that tells
the story of a middle-aged divorced woman who goes on a year-long, revelatory
exploration of self by eating her way through Italy, learning to pray in India,
and finding love in Indonesia. I have no doubt that the book is worth reading,
and that the movie – starring Julia Roberts – is eminently watchable. But I
haven’t read the book, haven’t seen the movie, and don’t plan to do either
anytime soon. I am, however, going to discuss the title, rabbinical school rules
be damned.

On Thursday afternoon, I sat on a conference call with 175 rabbis from around
the country, Reform and Conservative, discussing ways to react to the
unspeakable tragedy of 8 days ago in Newtown, Connecticut. Some rabbis
shared beautiful sermon topics, others shared texts from our tradition to offer
guidance in moments like these, and still others discussed plans to take
political action to decrease gun violence. Perpetually multi-tasking, I put the
call on speaker phone and answered emails, tuning in and out from moment to
moment, until the host of the call introduced Rabbi Jeff Silberman, a Chaplain
and spiritual leader at Danbury Hospital, where many of the Sandy Hook
victims have been – and continue to be – treated.
“We’re still in triage mode,” he shared, “running on fumes.” He wasn’t sure
what he could offer, other than the same advice that he’s been giving to the
staff at the hospital, to good samaritans who have called to offer help and
support, and to patients and their families.

“Eat, Pray, Love,” he advised. “That’s all there is to it.” He proceeded to share
stories of how the community has come together to do each of these things, to
find goodness in the world and to embrace it in one of our nation’s darkest
moments. So, in the spirit of a man I’ve only met by phone and a book I only
know by name, I’d like to share a few stories of the goodness that has shone
through in Newtown over this past week.

A man named Tom Cavanaugh, a New Jersey native who lives in Los Angeles
and works as a police dispatcher, felt like he needed to do something, despite R
being almost 3,000 miles away from Newtown. The words of his Sicilian
mother echoed in his head: “When someone’s in mourning, when they lose
someone important, you send them prayers and food.” So he called up the
Newtown General Store and gave them his credit card number, paying for the
next 100 cups of coffee that they would sell that day. And later, when he
posted about his wonderful gesture on Facebook, many of his friends and
family followed suit, so much so that the stores and restaurants in the area
have struggled to keep enough stock and supplies due to all the generous
donations from good samaritans all around the country.

At 9:30 on Friday morning, the nation observed a moment of silence to honor
the victims of the shooting. On the heels of countless candlelight vigils around
the country and the world, this moment of silence gave us all an opportunity to
say our collective prayers – prayers of healing, prayers of hope, and prayers of

Finally, on the topic of love, Chaplain Silberman shared that the entire
surrounding area – inside and outside of Newtown – has become filled with
love. Love in all forms: letters, calls, gestures, visits, donations, and everything
in between. Pure, unadulterated love. On the off-ramp from I-84 into Sandy
Hook, he explained, a massive white tent stands tall above the highway, big
enough to fit a small army, and filled with teddy bears. A teddy bear ten!.
People have been searching far and wide for a way to share their love, leading
countless numbers of them to the nearest toy store, where they picked up the
biggest teddy bear they could find, and shipped it off to the teddy bear tent in
Newtown, Connecticut.

Eat, Pray, Love. That’s all it takes.
The trio shouldn’t sound alien to our Jewish ears, as they’re deeply embedded
in both ritual custom and ritual law surrounding Jewish mourning rites. We
often joke about how many bagels and kugels show up in our houses of
mourning, but the truth is that we find great comfort in these foods, all the
more so when the bagels are hand-delivered by our friends and the kugels
home-baked by our colleagues.

Our tradition requires us to pray three times a day as we mourn our loved ones,
always surrounded by a minya” (group of 10 Jewish adults) of community
members, never alone. This is an instance in which our tradition has provided
us a halakhic (legal) framework to give our community’s mourners exactly what
they need. We say the Mourner’s Kaddish in the company of others not only
because Jewish law requires a minya”, but because we know in our hearts that
mourners should never have to go it alone.

That’s where the love comes in. When we say “HaMakom Yenachem Etche#”,
we ask that God comfort the mourners among all the other mourners of
Israel. Nobody mourns alone.

Jewish law may only requir$ prayer, but Jewish ethics demand all three. And at
the end of shiva, as the mourners rise up to begin inching back into a new
routine out in the world, we say to them:
“No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be
an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end,” (Isaiah 60:20).
With regard to the tragedy in Newtown, our sun has not yet risen, nor our
moon illuminated. While the last of the funerals will be held today, we haven’t
even begun the first stage of national aveilu! (mourning) for the unthinkable
tragedy and unspeakable losses we have suffered. Parents have lost their
children, a town has lost its innocence, and a nation has lost its patience with
the growing regularity of gun-related tragedies.
And yet, in the midst of this ever-growing darkness among us and inside of us,
there is a light. An eternal light. A light to guide, a light to warm, a light to
comfort, a light to battle the darkness. That light, per Isaiah, is God. Through
all the darkness, we must find a way to recognize and lift up the goodness that
remains in the world, because it is from the abundant goodness in the world
that God’s loving light shines.

This coming July will mark 10 years since one of my closest friends left the
world abruptly, at age 20. There’s a longer story to tell, and I will tell it at some
point, but for now you should know that his death was sudden, it was tragic,
and nobody that he left behind has been the same without him. A couple of
years after he died, I visited his father, and at some point during the visit I
asked him how he has managed to cope with such a horrific loss. I asked him
what he did to make it through each day, what it took to get to a place where
he could recall – with a smile – his son’s beautiful life before thoughts about his
tragic death would overshadow the brief moments of happiness.
I’ll never forget what he told me that day. He said that – for a long time – life
didn’t feel like life anymore. Food didn’t taste like food. Hugs didn’t feel like
hugs. Love didn’t feel like love. And then he reminded himself of a passion
that his son had in this world – his insatiable appetite for goodness, for
Godliness – anywhere and everywhere he could find it. And he was always

As time began to pass, and the minutes turned to hours turned to months, he
began incorporating his son’s advice into his life more. While he would still
wake up with the familiar feeling of emptiness – that indescribable vacuum in
his stomach – he would force himself to stand in front of his bay windows for a
minute before beginning his morning routine so that he could soak up the
sunlight, embracing goodness for just a moment. When it came time for
breakfast, one day he decided to pass on his regular breakfast of a bowl of
cereal, opting instead for a decadent stack of chocolate chip pancakes, fresh
berries on the side, and the most sticky-sweet, fresh-from-Vermont, maple
syrup he could find. And he took his time to savor each and every bite.

At the other end of the day, as he wound down from the rigors of work and life,
he would listen to one of his and his son’s favorite albums – the debut album of
Norah Jones – and say a prayer in his son’s memory.
In short, he told me, he survived the tragedy – and continues to survive the
tragedy 10 years later – by searching for and embracing the goodness that
remained in the wake of his darkest hour. By embracing the search for light, he
eventually would come to find it.

There is no piece of halakhah telling us how we as a community, as a
congregation, as members of a broken nation, should observe the mourning
rites in memory of the 20 first-graders and six educators who perished 8 days
ago in Newtown, Connecticut. We’re not commanded to tear our clothing, to
cover the mirrors, to say kaddish. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.
So in the absence of both ritual custom and ritual law, I want to propose that
we take guidance from the title of a book I’ve never read, but which has
already brought great light to a place of darkness: let us Eat, Pray, and Love.

Let’s go downstairs in a few minutes, and let’s Eat. I have it on good authority
that – thanks to the USY Pre-Convention – we have 80 pounds of mac and
cheese and farfalle al pesto downstairs. Let’s eat it all – every last morsel, and
let’s take time to taste each bite. If we feel like it, let’s go over the dessert table
first, have a brownie, a cookie, a cupcake, maybe all three. Sure, there’s butter,
there’s sugar, there are carbs and fat, but there’s goodness in those brownies.
There’s comfort in those brownies. Especially when we enjoy them together.
Let’s Pray. Let’s pray musaf together, pooling our voices and directing our
collective kavannah – intention – to God, to each other, and to the southwest,
down 95 and up the 15, to Newtown, Connecticut.

Most importantly – in my humble opinion – let’s Love. Let’s love ourselves,
love our parents, love our spouses, and love our precious, innocent children.
Let’s love strangers like we’ve known them for years. Let’s love our families,
our communities, our nation enough to know when it’s time to say “Enough!”.
Enough hate. Enough violence. Enough guns. Enough death.

Let’s eat, pray, love our country back to life. Back to light. And let’s start right

The Value of Echad

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769
The Value of Echad
by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Just over a week ago, my friends, our shul hosted two important events, both were
connected to our love of the State of Israel, and our passion for our Jewish identity: First,
on Shabbat, we hosted a well respected politician, Member of Knesset, Aryeh Eldad, and
his wife, Elyorah. MK Eldad is from the right of center Moledet Party.– some I know
would think them way to the right, others would call them “just right”. And he has strong
views against many of the policies of the former government and the main ruling parties.
Moledet used to be the party of voluntary transfer, but now is a little more discreet . But
this is Anshe Sholom and we believe that someone who loves Israel and loves the Jewish
people and is a civil, mentschlich person, deserves to be able to address those in the
community who want to hear him.

Then, just two days later, we hosted our fourth annual Iftar co-sponsored with the Jewish
Council on Urban Affairs, which many would describe as a left of center, social justice
organization. The Iftar, literally, a breakfast in Arabic, has been a time to share our Jewish
religious passions with Muslims in Chicago who are interested in coming to a synagogue to
break their Ramadan fast. Who came? Of the 80, about half were Jews, some from our
shul, some not from any shul, about thirty Muslims, men, women and children, and a few
Christians and people from other religions. People from all over Chicago . Some were
individuals who worked for organizations I have to say that are not seen as great friends of
Israel .

But everyone who came was interested in learning about Judaism, eating a kosher meal,
and, if they were observant Muslims, breaking their Ramadan fast in a synagogue. As
typical of our own members, people did not all arrive exactly on time at 5:30 – even Imam
Ryan was late. But by 6:00 PM, thirty or forty, Muslims, Jews and others sat in the
Marovitz Sanctuary, with our Israeli and American flags flying high over all of us, and
listened to me and Imam Ryan talk about Tzedaka and Zaqat, about Ramadan and the
Jewish month of Elul, and about how our religions speak to us about issues in the

Imam Ryan, wanting to be respectful, asked his five year old son, Omar, to cover his head
in shul. So of course Omar took out what looked like a black, knitted kipa from his pocket.
And when it came time to daven mincha – about 18 minutes before sunset that ends the
Jewish day and ends the Muslim day of fasting – everyone stayed, and all the men in shul –
and all the religious Muslim women – covered their hair out of respect for our shul.
In fact, everyone seemed so into the davening – especially the women – that after we
started Ma’ariv, I had to tell those Muslims who were fasting: Higya z’man shel Kriyat
Shma shel Arvit! It’s sunset, time for evening sh’mai, but also time to go downstairs to the
Shlensky Social Hall to break your Ramadan!My friends, hosting the Moledet Party and Iftar in one weekend, all at our shul, is not only
the Anshe Sholom way, but the embodiment of the Sh’ma of the evening and sh’ma of the
morning: Where we tell ourselves that God is ECHAAAAAD. Where we tell ourselves to
think of how Hashem can bring together all of reality, and challenge ourselves, Can we do
something like it as well? Can we fulfill Vehalachta bidrachav – you will go in God’s ways
– with the mitzvah of Echad?
Echad is not easy and it doesn’t always make sense.

In today’s world, we know all too well that Yishmael – who in the Jewish tradition
represents the Arab peoples – is still Metzachek – still overwhelmingly plotting against
Yitzchak – Yitchak who was not allowed by God to leave Israel . We take Achmedinajad
seriously, when he calls for our destruction the destruction of our beloved State, and is
allowed to address the community of nations with impunity. It’s fine to come together and
pray and talk and eat, but the reality is that Yishmael and Yitzchak are not “Echad”, and
were not Echad even in the house of Avraham. But the reality also is that Avraham wanted
Yishmael and Yitzchak, his two boys, to one Echad. He was desperate for them to grow up
together – to learn from each other, to help each other in an idolatrous world. Sarah new
the reality – they were not going to survive as Echad. Yishma’el had to be sent out. But our
instinct to drive towards Echad needs to be there. We can’t just ignore Avraham – we need
to feel his frustration – we need to feel his irrational desire – even blind desire for Echad.
This passionate yearning for Echad is even more important when we are not talking about
Yitzchak and Yishmael, but when we are talking about Yitzchak and Yitzchak.
Just a week before MK Eldad and the Iftar came to Anshe Sholom, I was invited to be part
of The Conversation which is an annual Jewish think tank with people from all over the
world talking about anything we wanted to talk about relating to Judaism and Jews. The
session that I initiated came from my own frustration and passion for Echad: Starting with
the Conversion issue, but then moving on to issues of Who is a Jew? Who is a halachic
Jew? Who’s grandmother didn’t have an Orthodox conversion? Boy meets girl, Jewish boy
meet Jewish girl –Bubbie is delighted – Who tells her that a Reform conversion was
involved 60 years ago? Reports from Birthright Israel : So many passionate Jews, who
grew up totally Jewish, but found out there mother wasn’t Jewish. Soldiers who came to
Israel as Jews, fought for the IDF, gave up their lives for Israel and for us, but are not
“Jewish” enough to be buried together with other “halachic” Jews. How do we deal with
this? How do we deal with those who fall outside those laws?
Should the Orthodox community tell them: Sorry, no luck for you: Either you become fully
observant, every detail, or we are not interested in your converting, we don’t need you, we
are fine without you! And those who want to marry passionate, committed Jews who are
not-halachically Jewish – what do we say to them? Are we Sarah and say “Go away”?
Ahah- it was easy being Sarah when it came to her sending away Yishma’el, but is it so
easy being Sarah when it comes to chasing away hundreds of thousands in Israel, and,
millions in America, who are part of the Jewish community, part of the destiny of Judaism,
but are not halachically Jewish by Orthodox standards?

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 2 And in my session there were voices there who spoke like our mother Sarah, and said:
Look at the entrance of the conference center lobby– and we were in a nice conference
center: The sign says Shoes and shirt required: Well we as the community can say: Halacha
required! Halchic Jews only! Keep our standards, or you don’t belong here! There were
voices who said: That is our right – to defend who we are, to protect our autonomous
selves. You are welcome to come in, but on our terms.

And yet, Echad screams out at us – are we really going to complacently reject so many – so
many who are part of us, so many Yitzchaks who are so passionate about their Judaism, so
committed to the Jewish people, willing even – in Israel – to die for the Jewish people by
fighting for the Jewish state – are we willing to tell those people: Chaval – sorry, “Shirt and
shoes required”. And you just don’t have the right shirt, or the right shoes to make it in to
our definition of who is a halachic Jew. Is that Echad?

And don’t think that God doesn’t hear Avraham: Vegam et ben Ha’ama l’goi asimenu, KI
ZARACHA HU – the son of the slave – Yishmael – God says is also going to be a great
nation, God tells Avraham, because he is your descendent. He may not be your halachic
descendent, but he is your son because you love him like a son!
My friend – there has to be tension and struggle: We need to jump into the lives of
Avraham and Sarah, and we need to be the voice of both of them.

Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, sh’lita, has heard the voice of Avraham – and he has head the
voice of Echad: He has directed his followers to reach out to those who are Jewish only
through their father, and not their mother, those who are Jewish because of a non-halachic
conversion, or merely clutching on to the Jewish people by being in a serious relationship
with a Jew. Rav Eliashiv – the leader of Hareidi Orthodoxy –hears the voice of Avraham,
and the answer of God – Avraham I hear you – and I struggle with you as well. Echad.
Tova Hartman, an Orthodox thinker and practitioner in Jerusalem , finds the voice of Echad
in feminist thought, which is Jewish thought, not just feminist thought. Tova Hartman
challenges the classics of Modern Orthodoxy who are not as sensitive to Echad in her new
book, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: She writes:

“Modern Orthodox thinkers have to a large extent assimilated Western liberal ideals and
values in their religious philosophies, especially the ideal of human autonomy… “The
Modern Orthodox person must see him/herself as committed to …autonomy … and
individualism” (Ravitsky). Thus for example, Rav Soloveitchik did not hesitate to integrate
some of modern philosophy’s view of autonomy into his phenomenology of Halakhic Man.
“…The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.” (108 – 109)…
Y. Leibowitz (1976) establishes a strong connection between the performance of mitzvot
and the achievement of a form of human autonomy as its outcomes. “The one who lives in
the world of Halakha… is autonomous…free…only the autonomous creature deserves to
be called Man” (Hartman’s translation of p. 60).

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 3“Feminist theory,” continues Hartman, “has called into question the assumptions,
presumption and contentions of autonomy as a universal human value. It has posited
alternative models of morality and identity, based on women’s experience, that hold
relationship as a central concern… [I]t asks: How can I grow in connection to the friends,
relatives, traditions and institutions that figure so prominently in my life?”
So we struggle for relationship; we struggle for echad; we struggle to connect with our
brothers and sisters, and even, sometimes, with those beyond. And sometimes Avraham
wins, and sometimes Sarah wins: Sometimes we can come together and build a lasting
relationship, and sometimes and an Iftar is just once a year, and we go back to our passion
for Israel , and they go back to their passions. But we can never forget that Echad is a
value; Echad is a something worth fighting for and struggling for. If Rav Eliashav can tell
his Chareidi Talmidim to look harder for Echad within halacha, we can do so as well.
Yes, sometimes we may have to say, “Shoes and shirt required.” But it should hurt us, it
should cause us to squirm, and to struggle– that we had to put “Echad” aside. And then
there are the moments when maybe Echad can break through: When we realize Hashem’s
Oneness through our own efforts at oneness. When we realize that if our State of Israel –
not the Rabbanut, but Israel itself – can bring together Jews of such diversity, maybe we
should as well. Maybe we should see who struggles for their Jewishness, who would die
for their Jewishness, and we should re-examine how to open the gates of halacha to such
blessed people.

In a few minutes we will surround the every single broken t’ruah and the broken sh’varim
with the connected sound of t’kiah.
We hear the arguments of Sarah and Avraham – but we don’t let Sarah’s autonomy along
without a t’kiah – without the sound of Echad. Do we want God to tell us, “Shirt and shoes
required?” Of course we need to shape up, to do t’shuva, be we need to know that Hashem
wants “Echad”, that Hashem believes in Echad, that Hashem hears the voice of Avraham as
much as the voice of Sarah.

Let us answer God not only by putting on our shirt and shoes, but by understanding Echad
– the eternal struggle, the eternal value, to connect with our brothers and sisters, and even
with those who have been our enemies. Sarah and Avraham call out to us: Let us listen to
both of them as we say every day, twice or three times a day, Sh’ma Yisrael…Hear O
Israel, God is our Lord – God sets our standards – but God is One.
May this year bring Echad to the Jewish people and bring Hashem’s blessings to God’s one
land – to our beloved State of Israel – and to God’s united city of Jerusalem and may we
continue to struggle for Echad – for the T’kiah – in a broken world of T’ruah – to bring all
Jews together and bring peace to our world.

L’shana tova tikateivu veteichateimu

A Happy and Healthy New Year for all of us

The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 4The Rabbi’s Sermon for Rosh Hashana, Day 1 5769 5

Lack of Ethics

Lack of Ethics

a sermon by Rabbi Marx

I have a confession to make.  I read the newspaper Jewish-style.  I look for those articles that are about Jews and things that affect Jews.  All events can be interpreted by the question, “Is it good for the Jews?”  “Economy falters.”  Is it good for the Jews?  Middle East flare up…Is it good for the Jews?  All heroes and criminals are subject to that probing question: are they Jewish and will their behavior influence public opinion about the Jews?

For years, I never knew whether the public figure, Benjamin Jacob Grimm was Jewish.  He had a Jewish sounding name, but he never identified himself as a Jew.  True, he came from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to which so many Jewish immigrants came fresh from Elllis Island, but I wasn’t sure.  Ben Grimm was not a real person.  Two Jewish men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced him in 1961in a comic book.  They, as we might remember, created the Fantastic Four.  One man had limbs that could stretch to preposterous lengths.  One could light himself on fire; a woman could become invisible.  And then there was Ben, “The Thing,” who was a superhero with rocky orange skin.  Over the summer, it was revealed to comic book fans, that Ben came out of the closet to reveal his Jewish roots.  Standing in the lower parts of Manhattan, a villain asks, “You’re really Jewish?”  “There a problem with that?” replies the Thing.  “No,” says the bad guy looking into Ben’s craggy, orange facade.  “It’s just… don’t look Jewish.”

Readership has been overwhelmingly positive.  We take pride in our Jewish heroes.  Don’t we?  Tonight, I want to talk about other types of Jews who are in the news.  And it doesn’t make me proud.

I read recently that Jews from Israel are the leading importers of Ecstasy into this country.  That’s right, the drug lords of New York speak Hebrew.  Last summer, New York police seized over one million Ecstasy pills from Israelis David Roash and Israel Ahkenzi.  They had a street value of forty million dollars.  Those of us who travel on El Al, are not only with Yeshiva students and Zionists, we are traveling with drug dealers as well.  And who are the carriers?  According to the Jerusalem Report, Bobover Chassidim are paid $1500 and a free trip to Europe for carrying up to $500,000 in cash to Amsterdam and returning with a load of Ecstasy.  They travel back to Israel with 30,000 to 40,000 aspirin-sized pills, which are then sent to America, Australia and New Zealand for sale.

Colleagues that I work with have deeply disappointed me.  In Florida, a colleague of mine is currently in prison, serving a multi-year term for soliciting minors on the Internet.  He solicited a 14-year-old boy and was caught establishing a liaison with the youth.  In his depravity he decided not to prey on his Bar/Bat Mitzvah students, but went instead to outside youths that he met in Internet chat rooms and subsequently dark parking lots.  We still await the beginning of the retrial for a south Jersey rabbi who is accused of hiring a troubled man in his congregation to bludgeon his wife to death.  Then there are the cantors from New York and Harrisburg who are accused of molesting young boys in their own family and beyond.  And of course, a neighboring synagogue suffered for the past year, having discovered that its trusted employee allegedly embezzled over $1.2 million.  While the staff was taking pay cuts in order to stem the financial hemorrhage, two employees were allegedly cutting checks to themselves for thousands of dollars a week.  [i]

More often than I care to admit, Jews in the news are not making us proud.  There was a time when Jews sought pardons in synagogues.  They prayed before an open ark, to right their wrongs, before the most important Judge of all.  Now, that’s passé.  Jews from Brooklyn and beyond sought pardons another way: they bought them last year from the President of the United States just before he left office.  They were seeking to buy their forgiveness.  Aren’t we supposed to earn it?  Aren’t we encouraged to take restitution seriously?

Four Chassidim ripped off the government to the tune of millions and millions of dollars by getting federal grants for schools that didn’t even exist! And that didn’t stop their fellow Chassidim from coming to the defense of their cohorts by claiming they didn’t keep any of the money for themselves.  The chief rabbis of the community defended their actions, because it was strengthening the religious efforts of the community against the evils of secularization.

What is happening to our community?  Rabbi Elimelech Naiman was given a prison sentence for mail fraud and misappropriation of government funds.  He was the deputy director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Borough Park.  Rabbi Jacob Lustig got 3 years’ probation and a million-dollar fine for skimming more than 2 million dollars from his synagogue’s bingo proceeds.  Rabbi Hertz Frankel got nabbed for cheating the government out of six million dollars. Recently, Rabbi Yizchok Fried was arrested for dealing in drugs.  Two Chassidim were jailed for rigging an election in England! And headlines in the New York Post and Daily News told the world of the arrest of 14 Satmar Chassidim of running a multi-million dollars “full service fraud factory,” which bilked banks, credit card companies, individuals and the IRS of millions of dollars. These are just a few from within the Orthodox community!

And there’s no comfort in knowing that it’s found amongst non-Orthodox Jews as well – like financier Martin Frankel, who was accused of stealing more than $200 million from insurance companies.  And a Chicago area Conservative cantor and his wife who recently pleaded guilty to charges of involvement in a prostitution ring.  Let’s not forget Ira Einhorn, who promises to embarrass our community for years to come.  Do you remember this annoying little man’s hunger strike at Graterford prison?  He was protesting his high carbohydrate diet.  What did he want salad nicoise?  And look at Ed Mezvinsky, who took refusal to accept blame to extreme lengths. This first generation American Jew rose to prominence as a congressman and chairman of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee, only to go down in disgrace.  When faced with a federal indictment for defrauding friends and family out of more than $10 million, he frivolously blamed his behavior on mental illness and an anti-malarial drug.  Not only have Jews in the news sunk to moral lows, but worse still, they have failed to accept responsibility for their moral wrongdoings.  I will never forget officiating at the funeral of a mother of two infants who was allegedly stabbed to death by her husband.  Her two children are too young to remember the events that changed their lives, but when they mature, they will sadly come to understand their loss of innocence, the intrusion of violence and the betrayal of trust that turned their lives upside down.  One parent gone, another in jail for the murder.  I know that it goes on all around us.  It’s part of the daily news that makes up Philadelphia and the larger world.  But I’m not talking to the larger world.  I’m talking to our community.  You’re the only ones who will listen.

We Jews are supposed to be a light unto the nations.  We are supposed to define our characters by our behavior.  And judging from the past years, we are in terrible shape.  We are not here to carry on our traditions at all costs, to get the best of the situation no matter what.  We are here to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.   That’s why God brought us out of Egypt.  Indeed, according to our sages, that’s why God had us go through the whole Egyptian experience.  In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “Our bondage in Egypt – the Galut experience – was meant to sharpen and refine the Jews ethical sensitivity and moral awareness.”   Thirty-six times in the Torah we are told to be just and fair and moral and sensitive, “ki gerim heyitim b’eretz mitzrayim – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We, who experienced oppression and discrimination and injustice and being taken advantage of, are expected to know how it feels, and are expected to make sure that we don’t act in that very same way.  God took us out of Egypt because more was expected of us.  Our conduct was supposed to be sacred and holy, as an example for others.  We were taken out of Egypt not simply to no longer be slaves and act as we want, but in the words that God spoke to Isaiah, “Avdi attah Yisroel asher b’cha espaar – you are my servants Israel, in whom I take pride.”  Is the behavior of Jews these days something that God can take pride in?

When I speak with families at Beth Or and beyond, and I ask them about the purpose of Judaism, most will tell me that our purpose is to survive as Jews.  Survival is essential, especially as our numbers decline, but I don’t for a moment worry that Jews will cease to be.  When we finally colonize Mars, there will be some Lubavitch Jew greeting us at the rocket port, asking whether or not we put on tefillin this morning.  Instead, I worry that our survival might become irrelevant.  We are here to improve the world, to share our prophetic message of goodness, righteousness and morality.  We are here to remind the world, that deeds not faith redeem the world.  If we lose sight of this teaching, if we forget to live like decent people, then we loose the essence of our faith.  We become irrelevant.  The world won’t need Jews anymore.

With all these recent revelations and scandals, it’s not so much my concern what God thinks about it, and it is not even my concern what non-Jews think and say about it.  My deepest concern is how our own Jewish children feel about it!  A congregant told me that she swelled with pride when she discovered her elementary school-aged children avidly reading a front-page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  But then she was horrified to learn what article they were reading.  It was the headline about jury selection for a rabbi accused of murdering his wife.  Who would have dreamed that a Jewish standard bearer would gain national prominence before children’s eyes in this way?[ii]

Over the summer, I met with one of your children, who asked me why he should remain a Jew.  It’s a legitimate question in this age of choice.  After all, today non-Jews eat bagels and Jews eat sushi.  More and more Christian churches sponsor Pesach Seders and more and more Jewish homes have Christmas trees.  So yes, “Why be Jewish?” is being asked by many.  And “Why marry Jewish?” is being asked by many more.  Can I still say because of our moral passion?  Can I still say, that it’s because we Jews have historically taken the ethical high road?  What do I say when our children are bombarded every day with stories of Jews who are corrupt and murderous.

The fact of the matter is, sad to say but it must be said, our people are no longer known chiefly for our goodness.  We ain’t what we used to be!  We Jews used to produce idealists by the bushels.  Our kids marched for social justice.  Our lawyers were fighters; our doctors were there to help those who couldn’t pay.  Our artists inspired us to repair the world, and our social workers actually did.  We used to feel good about the ethical underpinnings that commanded us to help those less fortunately endowed than ourselves.

Hillel, one of our greatest teachers wrote, “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human.”  Even if we are surrounded by immorality, even if everyone else is failing to live up to even the lowest ethical standards, even if we honesty is scarce in the corporate board rooms of America, that is no excuse to lower our standards.  The Jewish people have a calling to do the right thing.  The essence of Torah is to behave like a mench.  You don’t have to be perfect.  But you do have to hold your head up high and do the right thing.

When we fail, and we will fail, we can and must repent.  That is the very purpose of these High Holidays.  We recite a long list of our failings, Al cheit……For the sin we have committed against You by fraud and falsehood, and by exploiting the weak and by giving and taking bribes, and by giving way to our hostile impulses and by running to do evil.  But then we read, “It is not the destruction of the sinner that God seeks,” but that we look at the paths we have chosen, and when we can, come clean.  We come for serious introspection, prayer, reflection and repentance.  I am proud to know many in this shul who have done just that.  We must and should judge ourselves for our sincere desire to make amends.  All of us have sinned.  Maybe that’s why there are so many of us here today.  It’s not just to see our friends, as good as that is.  In truth we’re here, because we know in our hearts, that we have sinned.  No one is immune.  While our sins may not make the evening news, neither is any of us above reproach.  We don’t need the evening news to take notice, before we acknowledge our own personal need to atone.  This sacred day comes, so we can think about our sins and the sins of our people and do teshuvah.  I believe in the power of atonement to transform lives.  Now is our sacred time to search our souls and atone, seeking to be better in the coming year.  Only then, once we have owned up, before our community and our God, for our breaches, can we hope for the forgiveness that these Days of Awe offer.

If we want our children to know that Jews are covenanted to maintain a high moral and ethical standard, it does not depend upon the behavior of others in this world.  It depends upon the behavior of each and every one of us in our own homes.   We are not here to condemn the sins of others, but to censure them in ourselves.  We must set personal examples of upright character, and we must take responsibility for our acts.

We Jews are the possessors of a beautiful heritage, a moral heritage grounded in the principled teachings of Sinai.  It is that heritage that made us an ohr lagoyim – a light unto the nations.  It is that heritage that provided us with the mandate: l’takein olam b’malchut Shadai – to make this world perfect under the kingdom of God, for Jew and Gentile, white and black, Israeli and Arab. God willing, we will teach our children, by shining example, to remember who we are and what our tradition and God demand.   It is our sacred trust to infuse our children with this rich and ancient heritage, for us in this Beit Or, this House of Light, Beth Or.


[i]  Rabbi Jack Reimer

[ii]  Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg


Gregory S. Marx Rabbi, Yom Kippur Sep ‘02

Sex, Death and Taxes: What Does Religion Say? Death

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

Stanford University

University Public Worship

27 July 2008/24 Tammuz 5768

Sex, Death and Taxes:  What Does Religion Say?


(Genesis 23,1-20; Leviticus, 10,1-3)

            It was a decision that could only bring agony.  Two weeks ago, following much soul-searching and national discussion, Israel participated in a prisoner exchange. In exchange for the bodies of two young reservists, Sergeant First Class Ehud Goldwasser and Staff Sergeant Eldad Regev, kidnapped by Hezbollah two years ago, Israel released five prisoners.  One of them was a reviled terrorist who had killed four policemen, before brutally murdering a young father and his four-year old daughter. Indeed, Hezbollah boasted that they had captured the two Israelis soldiers with this very trade in their sights.  Predictably, Hezbollah greeted the released prisoners with a heroes’ welcome, displaying all the trappings of triumph[1]. Israelis were overcome with mourning. Hezbollah did not confirm their deaths prior to the handoff.  But Israelis understood, from the injuries they sustained upon capture, that it was unlikely that they were alive.  In fact, they had already been declared dead in Israel. Everyone grasped what was likely to, and did ultimately transpire in the swap. Terrorists for soldiers.  Life for death.  Why would Israel agree to such a Faustian bargain, one that could only embolden further brutality? What could balance those scales?  Only a longstanding promise to honor the service of their citizenry, only an abiding adherence to the religious obligation to honor the dead could explain or justify this painful decision.  For the Israeli Defense Forces, for Israel as a nation, for Jews as a people, burying and mourning the dead is a sacred obligation, and while the cost of doing so, in this case, was very dear, many voices cried out that the soul of the country was at stake in keeping faith with this sacred obligation.

Jewish tradition is explicit about kvod hamet, honoring the dead, and one of the ways that honor takes place is through an appropriate burial.  Proper burials have been a concern of the Jewish people as far back as the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Bible.  In order to insure a proper burial for his wife Sarah, the stranger and sojourner Abraham negotiated with the Hittites for the Cave of Machpelah.  The townspeople magnanimously offered a resting place for Abraham to bury Sarah; there was no need to pay for the property. But Abraham insisted that he wanted to pay for it—and pay for it, he did, at top dollar.  He wanted it to be properly deeded in perpetuity.  He wanted it to be undeniable that a place of eternal rest would indeed, be eternal.  He wanted to be certain that, although Abraham and Sarah wandered for much of their lives, they would never be uprooted in death.

Abraham recognized the power of a resting place. Abraham knew that how and where he and Sarah were buried conveys volumes about who they were and what they valued. So it is for us as well.  In her book, The American Resting Place, Marilyn Yalom provides, through our resting places, stories about who we are as Americans and what we value.  She tells that country folk from Mississippi still have the habit of asking newcomers, “Where do you bury?”  That simple question contains a host of others about identity—Where do you come from?  Who are your kin?  Where do you call home?[2]

Where do you come from?  Who are your kin?  Where do you call home?  What do you value?  How do you hope to be remembered?  Death and burial are the Rorschach blots of our lives, and of what we want to be revealed about ourselves.  Sometimes what they convey gives us pause.  Do you know about Gina Gray and the Arlington National Cemetery?   Arlington itself is one of the most evocative icons of our national identity—the name alone conjures humble patriotism and pride, the magnitude and majesty of heroism, the selfless “last full measure of devotion”.  But along with those lofty ideals, for Gina Gray, Arlington now also evokes politics and public opinion, manipulation and meting out access.  Gina Gray asserts that last month she was fired from her position as Public Affairs Director at Arlington because she challenged new media restrictions which had been imposed on the funerals of the Iraq war dead, even when the families of the fallen granted permission for the coverage.  Previously, when families agreed, the media had been permitted to be stationed close enough to hear the prayers and eulogies and to film the presentation of the folded flag to the next of kin.  But under the new rules, the media was placed fifty yards away, too far to hear or to photograph the funerals.[3]  A grieving family disturbed by the new rules said that their entire town mourned the loss of their native son, but they could not all travel to Arlington.  Having the funeral covered by the media enabled their whole community to be present at the funeral. But such coverage also reminds a distracted nation of an unpopular war whose costs have been all too invisible for many of us.  Reminiscent of the prohibition against filming and photographing the flag-draped coffins of soldiers returning for burial, those who imposed the new restrictions are loath to call attention to the cost of that war.  They prefer the antiseptic and the invisible.

While this particular decision may have been about the dissonance between the reality of war and the illusion of peace, Yalom tells us that the impulse to create distance between life and death is not a new one in America.  Early burial places were in the center of the city. Parishioners walked through the burial markers in the churchyard on their way to worship.  But by the turn of the nineteenth century, people began to believe that city burial grounds were a source of contamination. They dug up bones and moved them to new burial sites on the outskirts of the city[4]. In the past, relatives and friends lovingly prepared the body for burial in family parlors as a final act of kindness–until the inception of the funeral industry, when undertakers began to use chemicals and cosmetics to prepare the body to rest in expensive and ornate coffins. The distancing and estrangement from death that began with moving burial places out of sight continued through the twentieth century.  With the development of Forest Lawn, perhaps the best-known burial place in America, the denial of death reached its apex. In Forest Lawn, flat bronze plaques and replicas of famous statues dot the sweeping landscape. There, the “Disneyland of Death” was born.  In the shadow of Hollywood, “death was represented as a transition to a sunny sphere where one awoke amid angels and long-departed family members”[5]­ Death at Forest Lawn was the ultimate fantasy experience.  The philosophy of Forest Lawn’s founder Hubert Eaton is emblazoned on a huge stone wall tablet, “I believe in a happy eternal life…I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness.  It is to be filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, singing birds, beautiful statuary, cheerful flowers, in contrast to traditional cemeteries containing misshapen monuments and other customary signs of earthly death.”[6]

While most of us probably find Eaton’s airbrushed view of death a bit much, we nevertheless assume a fair amount of distance from death in our daily lives.  Even our language reflects this distance.  We speak of “passing away” rather than dying.  We commemorate those we have lost by gathering for “celebrations of life” rather than for funerals.  Undertakers are now morticians.  Ashes are “cremains”.  And if our language keeps death at arm’s length, how do we offer our own presence for those who are grieving?  More and more, we don’t know how to comfort mourners.  We don’t know what to say, what to bring, how to act.  We expect people to move on, to go back to work, to return to normalcy.  We want them to shield us from their deep sorrow. And when we are the mourners, we chastise ourselves for not getting over our losses more quickly, for not getting on with the program of our overscheduled lives.  After all, we don’t have time to grieve.

When my closest friend was a psychology graduate student, she sustained a tragic loss.  Her foster son–a tough, funny, Laotian refugee who had experienced too much suffering and sorrow in his young life, committed suicide. His death was as far from the clean, sunshine fantasy of Forest Lawn as one could imagine. Every decision was messy.   He had been raised a Buddhist, but he attended in a fundamentalist Christian church.  My friend is a secular Christian, married to a secular Jew. Where and with what rituals could they honor him.  What did Buddhism say about cremation? Could they donate his organs? Where should they bury him? Let alone the questions of how to explain his untimely death to their young daughter.  My friend’s classmates in the psychology program steered clear of her.   They didn’t know what to say, or how to help.  They were made intensely uneasy by the complexity and tragedy of this death.  And if psychology students, studying how to be a helping professional, couldn’t handle grief, how much the more so people with less training and willingness to care for others?

If psychology and its proponents do not always help us with diminishing the distance between death and life, then what about religion—the place where the cycle of life is made the most explicit? Dr. Michael Mendiola is a professor of Christian Ethics at the Graduate Theological Union and a former Catholic priest.  He describes how pervasive is the distancing from death, even within the Christian Church.  Dr. Mendiola teaches that within the Christian story there is a persistent and ambivalent tension.  On the one hand, human sadness and loss is present at death—the loss of self, agency and the world, the loss of community and even, potentially, the loss of God.  All of these are so often experienced in the face of death.  But on the other hand, Christians affirm a theology of resurrection, of death transformed, symbolizing the eternality of life and the defeat of death[7].

Dr. Mendiola argues that death stigmatizes; and because it makes us uncomfortable, we linger over it as little as possible.  He quotes the strong words of Christian ethicist William May in his essay, “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience”. “The attempt to cover up death in the funeral service is an unmitigated disaster for the church, preceded and prepared for by the church’s failure to reckon with death in its own preaching and pastoral life.  Many persons have said that they have never heard their minister take up frontally in a sermon the question of their own dying.  This state of affairs once again, is not entirely the fault of the professional.  People tend to expect from the church service an hour’s relief from the demons that plague them in the course of the week.  In this atmosphere sermons on death would seem intrusive and unsettling.   Better to avoid them and protect this hour from everything that jangles the nerves—even though the service comes to an end and the demons must be faced once again on Monday, fully intact, unexorcized and screeching.  The melancholic effect of this arrangement is that the church offers a temporary sanctuary, a momentary respite, from one’s secret apprehensions about death, but inevitably they take over once again, without so much as a candid word of comfort intervening.”[8]

This absence, this silence can be found in the bible as well. In today’s Leviticus text we read of the death of Aaron’s sons. The Bible notes that when Aaron receivedword of his sons’ death, “Vayidom Aharon”, “And Aaron was silent.” This silence speaks to the enormity of death.  In the face of losing two sons in the same moment, no words of theology can comfort; no explanation can provide solace.  But if Dr. Mendiola and Dr. May are correct, Aaron’s silence speaks as well, to a radical break in communication, to the utter loneliness that accompanies death. “There but for fortune” we think, and too often, it causes us to turn away, to distance ourselves from tragedy. With our fear of death comes the presence of isolation, the loss of words as a means to connect.  Silence begets isolation, and isolation, so often, begets enduring distress.

I see this in the student grief and bereavement group that I lead together with Counseling and Psychological Services and the Residence Deans.  This group is so important to the students because in most of their lives here at Stanford, about grief and mourning, they experience only silence.  That they mourn is a terrible and isolating secret.  There are so few of their contemporaries who carry the burden of being mourners, of knowing loss in their young lives.  The students are uncertain when to reveal to a potential friend that a parent has died.  They struggle with how to answer when a dorm-mate innocently asks how many siblings they have.  The reality of loss that so pervades their lives is invisible to others.  In their day-to-day lives, they weary of explaining who they are.  Vayidom Aharon.  And so, like Aaron, they are silent.

If we are to tell our secrets, if we are to break our silence, if we are to bridge the distance, if we are to embrace death as the part of life that will eventually come to us all, then we must begin to seek models of harmony between life and death.

We lost such a model this week, when Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch succumbed to cancer.  Professor Pausch gave a poignant “last lecture” a few months after receiving his fatal prognosis.  That lecture, viewed around the world by millions on YouTube and turned into a book that has remained on the best-seller list since its publication, inspired millions.  He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time, and one of three “persons of the year” last year by ABC.[9]  He received this recognition because he broke the silence—and by doing so, he embodied how to live with wonder and joy. He spoke directly yet simply of the opportunities of life even as he refused to exile death.

Marilyn Yalom and her photographer son Reid journeyed from South Carolina to Hawaii, from Chicago to New Orleans, describing and depicting the “tombstones we live by”[10] But through their travels, they singled out one particular cemetery that moved them profoundly.  This burial place was in the Amish country in Pennsylvania, in a field enclosed by a whitewashed wooden fence, filled with evenly spaced, carefully crafted tombstones.  The same family names, found on similar stone after stone spoke of continuity–a community burying their dead in the same hallowed ground generation after generation.  The tranquility of the burial ground harmonized with the pastoral surroundings.  Yalom writes, “Here, a two-acre rectangle reserved for the dead was part and parcel of the countryside, a familiar setting for those who had spent their lives laboring in the fields and preparing the fruits of the earth.  The only sounds we could hear were the clop-clops of an occasional horse and buggy.  Such was the stillness of the scene that I imagined skeletons underground stirring to the vibration of the passing carriages.”[11] This deep silence that Yalom describes was borne not of dread, distance or discontinuity; rather it was a companionable silence, the silence of familiarity, acceptance and respect. Death here is not feared, but recognized as part and parcel of life. The dead were their neighbors.  Indeed, their living takes place in close proximity to the dead.  In the homes in the Amish countryside, there is a room to lay out the bodies of the dead, and doors wide enough for pallbearers to carry coffins in and out.  Local carpenters construct the coffins.  Friends and neighbors dig the graves.[12]

While we, busy at Stanford might find this harmony difficult to replicate, what we can take from Pausch’s last lecture and from that quiet burial place is the understanding that keeping death at a distance does little to enrich our lives.  Indeed, when we refuse to exile death, we come closer to embracing life.

As we reflect upon death and resting places, let us remember that the life we find so priceless grows yet more imperishable when we bridge the distance between life and death.  Let us break the silence of Aaron even as we absorb the silence pervading places of eternal rest.  Let us find comfort—and inspiration—in our own awareness of death and in our own celebration of the richness of life.  Amen

[1] New York Times, Wednesday, July 16, 2008 and Thursday, July 17, 2008

[3] Washington Post, Thursday, July 10, 2008, and Monday, July 14, 2008

[4] Yalom, p. 43ff

[5] Yalom, p. 225

[6] Yalom, p. 225

[7] Dr. Michael Mendiola, Panel discussion on “Death in Different Traditions”, Pacific School of Religion, April 2003

[8] “The Sacral Power of Death in Contemporary Experience”, William F. May, On Moral Medicine, Stephen E Lammers and Allen Verhey (eds) Eerdmans 1987/repr 1989

[9] New York Times, July 26, 2008

[10] Yalom, xi

[11] Yalom, p. 106

[12] Yalom, p. 107

Go Jew Go

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5771

Scott A. Gurdin, Rabbi

Temple Sinai

Newport News, Virginia

Thur. Morning, September 9, 2010

“Go Jew Go”

Vuvuzelas & Shofarot:  There Are Apps for Those


I have entitled this part of our Rosh HaShanah sermon:  “There is an App for that.”

“There is an App for that” is a trademarked advertising tag-line first used in Apple’s iPhone commercials.  Although one would need to have been living on the Planet Zorcon in order to have not heard this expression before, I quite understand that some of you may not really know what it actually means. Particularly, if you don’t use a so-called “smart phone” or an iPod Touch.

“App” is a contraction for the phrase Application Software.  Application software is a computer program that helps a user to perform specific tasks.   In practical terms, an application on a smart phone will enable a person to play a game, do something clever, or venture onto the World Wide Web in a particular way.

I want to begin this sermon, by playing an audio app.  So, I am playing this app on my own iPod Touch.

[Play Vuvuzela App]

Do you recognize that sound?  If you watched any part of the hugely popular World Cup soccer tournament this past summer, you could not escape it.  Yes, it was one of those blasted horns.

The horns are called vuvuzelas.  And there is an App for that.

In preparation for this particular moment, I actually did some exhaustive research to learn more about the vuvuzela.

Some highlights of what I discovered:

A vuvuzela is a plastic blowing horn, just over 2 feet in length.  It produces a loud, distinctive monotone note.

The origins of the vuvuzela are South African.  Traditionally made and inspired from a kudu horn, the vuvuzela was used to summon distant villagers to attend community gatherings.

Nowadays, the vuvuzela is used almost exclusively at soccer matches.  The plastic versions of the vuvuzela go back, at most, to the 1970’s, but really the ones most folks are familiar with have been popularized just in the last few years.

The blowing of vuvuzelas at soccer matches began as a way for fans to demonstrate their excitement and spirit.  In many corners, though, vuvuzelas are viewed as annoying distractions that might very well lead to hearing loss if one is overexposed to their …melodies.

Vuvuzelas have actually already been banned in some places:

For instance:

Yankee Stadium [Commentator and comedian, Peter Sagal has remarked that: [Yes there is]  something [that is] too obnoxious even for Yankees fans.]

(I checked – Vuvuzelas have not been officially banned yet at Fenway Park.)

But they have been banned at:


Ultimate Fighting Championships

Throughout the United Arab Emirates

Most settings where Pope Benedict is appearing

I don’t know if this is a “first,” but I have here, on this Rosh Hashanah – a real vuvuzela.  (Borrowed, incidentally from my wife.)  Yes, this is the genuine article.  Now, I have resolved not to blow the vuvuzela here today.  But, let me say this – if I look out in the congregation during these High Holy Days, and I observe perchance that one from amongst our flock has, say… entered a different realm of consciousness…. Well, please consider this as your notice.

“There is an App for that.”  When I played that vuvuzela sound a few minutes ago, maybe – just maybe – you mistakenly thought – “Hey, that’s a Shofar App.”  By the way, I checked – There are several Apps for that.

But that vuvuzela App – that one really made me think. Not long ago, I performed an experiment. I tested the vuvuzela sound on a number of unsuspecting Jews – and without prompting, most of them mistook the vuvuzela sound for a Shofar.

Granted, the experiment had some built-in biases.  A rabbi was playing a horn-sounding App.  If the App had been played in an athletic context, perhaps the experiment would have turned out differently.  But those were the results of my most unscientific experiment.

Two horns that, in some real respects, sound very much alike.  Each is generally heard in particular circumstances, and usually in the midst of crowds.  Each is quite capable of, say, attracting one’s attention.

But we should not confuse the two horns.  For in truth, they could not be more different!

The vuvuzela is cute and clever.  But, for what?  To announce that the blower is an avid fan of a certain athletic event or team? To annoy the dickens out of anyone who happens to be situated near to blast of the horn?

The intent behind the Shofar blasts, is likewise designed to attract our attention.  But for entirely different reasons.  A Shofar is neither cute nor clever.

Ultimately, the message behind the vuvuzela is, rather trivial.  It says:  “Go Team Go!”

The message associated with the Shofar  — that message is powerfully meaningful.  Soul piercing, in fact.  The message that comes from the call of the Shofar is this:  “Go Jew Go!”

“Go Jew Go!”  Wake up to the heritage you that has been lovingly passed to you.  For our traditions go back, not 40 years, like the vuvuzela – but rather 5,000 years, all the way to Abraham.   Take pride in that long, rich heritage.  Whether you were born as a Jew, or whether you came to Judaism of your own choosing – you now own that legacy.  And frankly, you have a responsibility to take pride in it, and to do it proud.   “Go Jew Go!”  Get moving and take seriously the obligations you have.  In our world, there is far too much injustice, hunger, poverty, gratuitous violence and untreated illness.  “Go Jew Go” – You have a responsibility to start fixing those problems.

“Go Jew Go!”  Hear the call of the Shofar.  Its message is as far from trivial as it could possibly be!

“Go Jew Go!”  The call of the Shofar is also very much an inward command.  It is an inspirational command.  A command to keep clinging to hope, no matter what.

Hear, for a moment, this teaching that comes from Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, a very talented teacher in Princeton, New Jersey:

According to a traditional interpretation, the fact that the sounds [of the shofar calls] are made in different lengths indicates a powerful message…

We start with a full, uninterrupted blast – TEKIAH!  It’s as if the Shofar is saying: “I’m whole!”

Next, we have a three-part blast – SHVARIM – the word literally means “broken.”  The Shofar says to us:  “I was whole, but now I’m broken.”

The third set of blasts is called “TERUAH – a staccato series of short blasts – even more broken than the previous set.  Its message is:  I was broken, and now I’m smashed to pieces.”

The main lesson, however, is that the final blast in each series is a TEKIAH – again.  Another, solid, uninterrupted blast.  You see, the promise of wholeness is there, even though there has been brokenness and destruction.

There are customarily 100 separate blasts that are blown from a Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  Some are long.  Some are short.  Some seem whole.  Others broken.  And that last blast – that TEKIAH GEDOLAH – that is the longest, most un-interrupted blast of them all.

One hundred times the Shofar brings this message to us:  You were whole once; then you were broken; you may even have been smashed and ground to pieces.  But soon you shall be whole once more.

Now, “Go Jew Go!”

That message is directed at us – It says:  Use this day, and every day, to fix the world.  It also communicates a truth about our internal spiritual lives.  For we seem to exist in a continual loop that transitions from wholeness to brokenness, and then, we pray, back to wholeness.

“Go Jew Go!”

I would like to finish this morning’s message by sharing with you a story.  I’m not sure whether the story is true.  That almost doesn’t matter.  There are several versions of the story.  The version I am going to tell you, I have adapted from Rabbi Stephen Pearce, a brilliant, creative, trailblazing rabbi at Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco.

Just a little over five hundred years ago, the Spanish Inquisition was raging, Torquemada, the grand inquisitor, was rounding up hundreds of Jews and burning their bodies in order to save their souls.  Many Jews continued their Jewish practices in secret, in closed rooms, and in damp cellars.  Though they longed to be in the synagogue to hear the somber blasts of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah… they knew that it would be impossible because the agents of the hated Torquemada were everywhere, and any display of Jewish custom or ritual could betray family and friends.  The Jews of 1492 Spain knew that they could not fulfill the sacred commandment to hear the Shofar.

But then a rumor began to spread in the street:  “Shhh, keep it to yourself.”  It was in the city of Barcelona that word began to spread of a special concert to be given to Spanish royalty and church officials.  Jews bristled at the thought of spending Rosh Hashanah eve, one of the most sacred days of the year, in the Royal Concert Hall, but it was also an opportunity to pretend to their tormentors that no ties remained to the despised religion, Judaism.

And undercurrent, a whisper went around, “Just go, you won’t be sorry.”  The hall was filled to capacity and there were huge crowds outside.  Spanish royalty believed that the full house was due to the prominence of the composer, Don Fernando Aguilar.  Don Fernando, himself a secret Jew, had announced that on Rosh Hashanah eve he would present a concert featuring instrumental music of various peoples.  The compositions were many and the instruments unusual.

Interesting.  At the crescendo of one very moving piece – it was unmistakable, if only to the secret Jews who were present.  But there they were.  Shofar sounds, embedded into the melody of Don Fernando Aguilar’s symphony.  Shofar sounds – Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah – as clear as day, to those who understood, on Rosh Hashanah in Barcelona in 1492.

None of the dignitaries was aware of the significance of what they were hearing.   All the royalty and the leading figures of the inquisition were present – they all heard, and saw, but they understood nothing.  They could not sense the hidden emotion that electrified the air all around them.  Do you wonder why these Jews imperiled their lives to hear this call that we can listen to in this land of freedom?

There have been other times in Jewish history when Jews risked death to hear the sound of the Shofar.  Among the many things that it has come to signify, it is a reminder of the indomitable spirit that struggles to survive all attempts at subjugation and repression.  But there is more to the call of the s\Shofar than just a reminder of the will to survive in a hostile world.

If we listen carefully, the Shofar will speak to us, just as it has spoken to Jews across the span of time, and the bridge of years.  In its voice, you will hear the voice of childhood, the dialogue of youth, the wisdom of adulthood, the judgment and discernment of advanced age.

The Shofar is a call to life.  It is a loud announcement of hope.

“Go Jew Go!”

There is no need to have an App for that!  For, in truth, we are blessed with the real thing.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah teekateivu – May you and those you love be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year.

Our Regrets and Our Dreams

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx

Temple Beth Or

I want to begin my remarks before Yizkor with a thought that I pray you take home with you.  Every once in a while, I read something that truly stays with me.

Well, John Barrymore, said in Good Night, Sweet Prince,  A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.”  Isn’t that a powerful statement?  We know that we are old, when our dreams, normally associated with the young are replaced by our regrets, usually associated with maturity.  We can remember the dreams that we had when we were in college.  We dreamed of a future full of love, success, passion and purpose.  What happens to us when those dreams vanish and we are left with regrets over the mistakes that we made or worse, the opportunities that were lost?  I surmise that many of us in this room are filled with regrets for harsh words we wish we had not said or things we failed to say to those we mourn.  Too many of us have the added burden of regret for lost moments of love, forgiveness and intimacy with those who are now gone.  That is indeed a tragedy.  It makes us old.

A student of  Leo Buscaglia  submitted a poem during the Vietnam War.  Its message is clear; if we don’t seize the special moments that come along, regret a powerful emotion, may be all that’s left.

Remember the day I borrowed your brand new car and scratched it and I thought you’d kill me, but you didn’t.

And the time I nagged you to take me to the beach and you said it would rain and it did.  I thought you’d say, “I told you so,” but you didn’t.

And the time I flirted with all the guys to make you jealous and you were.  I thought you’d leave me, but you didn’t.

And the time I spilled pie all over your brand new strawberry rug.  I thought you’d yell at me, but you didn’t.

And the time I forgot to tell you that the dance was formal and you showed up in jeans.  I thought you’d drop me, but you didn’t.

There were lot of things you didn’t do.   You put up with me and you loved me and you protected me.  There lots of things I wanted to make up to you when you returned from Vietnam.  But you didn’t.

No one, however wise, has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. After a while we get weighed down with regret.  Guilt induces feelings of unworthiness and perpetual pain.  True moments of pleasure are often destroyed by these regrets which can haunt us for the rest of our lives John Whittier wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!”  This indeed ages us before our time.

As we are about to begin Yizkor, we must face the truth that for some, our sacred task is to find forgiveness from our lost loves.  Theocentrists argue that only God can release us from self-tormenting guilt.  Humanocentrists believe that it must come from within.  We alone have the power to grant self-absolution.  Our tradition is a combination of the two.  It wisely understands that the path to self-forgiveness is through the forgiveness of others.  Remember our liturgy.  First we forgive others for their sins committed against us and only then, do we seek forgiveness for our own misdeeds towards them from God.  The door to inner peace opens outward.

Forgiving others releases us from pain, anger and bitterness.  But it does so much more.  It makes us believe in that one moment of transcendent grace that forgiveness is possible.  And if we can forgive others, then they can forgive us.  And we can find ultimate forgiveness from ourselves and from God.

So, as we are about to observe Yizkor, we must ask ourselves, how can we find forgiveness from the dead?   How can we make peace for the hurts we inflicted upon  those who are no longer among us?  Many of us in this room are filled with remorse for bitter words uttered, loving words never said, caring deeds never done and moments remembered for our insensitivity or outright hostility.  How can we find release from the burden of self-torment?

I would like to suggest that we find it by forgiving others who are still with us.  We find it by loving others who are still with us.  We find it by reaching out to others who are still with us.  Is it the same as reaching out to those now gone?  No.  But it is the best we can do.  And if we fail to do so, we will forever be trapped in yesterday, racked with remorse, and we will grow old far before our time.  We must find the strength to reach out and love, or perish emotionally.

I remember reading a poem by Marge Piercy, which struck me to the core.

When I die

Give what’s left of me away.

To children

And old men that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking down the street beside you.

And when you need me,

Put your arms

Around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something

Something better

Than words

Or sounds.

Look for me

In the people I’ve known

Or loved.

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live in your eyes

And not in  your mind.

You can love me most

By letting

Hands touch bodies,

And by letting go

Of children

That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die. People do. So, when all that’s left of me Is love, Give me away. When Adam and Eve lost Abel in the Bible, they felt that their lives had come to an end.  The rabbis remind us that they were hopeless and despondent.  They had no way to make peace with their murdered son.  Commentators have pointed out that Adam and Eve felt partly responsible for Abel’s murder, having raised Cain, who wrought such death and callousness.  But if we read the Torah carefully, we soon realize that Adam and Eve made peace with Abel, by bringing new life into the world.  They had Enoch and Seth.  The text gives us a coarse translation; “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him.”  A better understanding of the text is that Seth and Enoch were certainly not a replacement for Abel but rather a vehicle by which Adam and Eve, the grieving parents, could love again.  And through the love of another, they were able to more deeply love their lost one and heal their hurts.  Through their love of renewed life, they were able to surmount their regrets and escape the death of the soul.  They found forgiveness and peace by loving those closest to them, even in the shadow of their loss.

My friends, as we begin our Yizkor service, many of us are suffering from the daunting pain of losing beloved family members and companions who have departed this Earth, and some, far too early or far too cruelly.  To be sure, climbing out of the morass of regret is not a cure-all for mourners; but for the many of us whose mourning is enmeshed with regret, this is one gulf we can cross to help ease our pain.  Even in the darkness of our deep losses, even in the anguish and agony that we feel from missing our loved ones, we must remember that there is a way to conquer our regrets.  There is a path to forgiveness from those now gone.  It is to love those still with us. It is to forgive those who are standing beside us.

Our regrets will paralyze life; our love and forgiveness can give it power.  Our regrets will imprison life; our love and forgiveness can release it.   Our regrets will sour life; our love and forgiveness can make it sweet.  Our regrets will sicken life; our love and forgiveness will heal it.  Our regrets will blind us to life, while our love and forgiveness will anoint our eyes. Our regrets will age us, while our love and forgiveness will keep us young.

Kol Nidre Sermon 10 Tishre 5773

BI-TWT Kol Nidre Sermon

September 25, 2012 – 10 Tishre 5773

 I do not get to go to the movies very often – and lately, Harry and I have been visiting the library and selecting films that we missed during their first-run status. We had heard much about the film Avatar – as well as all the hoopla about the super-advanced technology used to film it and the 3-D aspect that makes the figures jump off the screen… It was time to see it – and we did… on our very not-up-to-date television and without the 3-D glasses.  And despite the absence of super-technology – or maybe because of it – I was very moved by this movie and knew that it would make its way into one of my sermons.  And so it has.

As it came out a while ago, a short synopsis of the of the film is in order: Avatar tells the story of Pandora, a distant moon in the year 2154 where there is a conflict between human colonialists of the Crusher Corporation, who are mining Pandora’s resources because they have exhausted earth’s, and the indigenous inhabitants called the Na’vi, who are trying to expel the foreigners.

The film follows Jake Sully, a former marine who is paralyzed during combat on Earth. His twin brother was working for the Avatar Program on Pandora which constructed genetically engineered human-Na’vi hybrids that allow the humans to control these “avatars” with their minds while their own bodies sleep. An avatar can only be controlled by a person who shares its unique genetic material and when Sully’s twin brother dies, he is asked to take his place and join the squad, as he is the only one who has the genetic make-up to control that particular avatar.

On his first assignment, Jake’s avatar gets lost and is attacked by a gang of dangerous creatures. It looks like he might not make it until he is saved by a female Na’vi named Neytiri. While her people fear outsiders, Neytiri feels like there is something different about Jake – something special. So she takes him to the Na’vi Hometree, the spiritual and physical home of her clan. The Na’vi then decide to teach Jake about their culture.

However, once back at his base, Jake is ordered by Colonel Miles Quaritch to initiate a diplomatic mission, in order to obtain the trust of the Na’vi tribe and is given three months to convince them to abandon their Hometree, which sits above a large deposit of unobtainium – the valuable substance that the humans are mining. [And, as you can tell from its name, it is fairly unobtainable.]  As Jake learns the way of the Na’vi, he gradually finds himself caught between the military-industrial forces of Earth and a new found love for his adopted home and people. In fact, Jake is successfully initiated into the tribe after passing their rites of passage to become a man of the Na’vi .

At the end of Jake’s three months, because he has not convinced the Na’vi to abandon Hometree, Colonel Quaritch leads a military campaign and destroys the Na’vi’s beloved home. The Na’vi are devastated and when they find out that Jake knew of the plan, they are furious and abandon him. Faced with a decision of fighting with his race, the people who are destroying Pandora and wiping out the Na’vi, or his newfound tribe whom he has come to love, he chooses the Na’vi and leads them in a revolt against Colonel Quaritch. With the help of the Na’vi, the other tribes on Pandora, and even all of the Pandorian wildlife, Jake is successful in fending off the attack and sending the human mission home.

And, finally, Jake decides that he has become more Na’vi than human, so he agrees to have his soul transplanted from his human body into his Na’vi avatar at the “holy” Tree of Souls. As in all good Hollywood films, Jake ends up marrying Neytiri, the Na’vi princess who discovered him three months prior.

Yes, it’s very Hollywood.  But there are some subtle – and not so subtle – themes that are quite moving.  Indeed, it shouldn’t escape us that as one of those rare films meant to be watched ideally in 3-D, it literally begs to be viewed in every dimension, with keener vision and deeper understanding. And, indeed, as we examine certain aspects of the movie, the themes of vision, understanding and community come into focus.


The name of the heroic people who live in the Garden-of-Eden-like moon of Pandora is Na’vi. Interestingly, the Hebrew word navi means prophet; but not in the sense of prophet able to predict the future. The root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.

With all the technological prowess of the earthly invaders, the humans who came to despoil this new-found planet simply could not see – they did not have the vision; they could not see what the far simpler and “less civilized” inhabitants recognized so clearly.  The inhabitants of Pandora lived together in a balanced system – a balanced eco-system – with their environment.  Their Hometree was indeed their Tree of Life, the center of their system.  James Cameron, the movie’s director, explained that he saw his movie as a metaphor for our presence here on our own planet Earth. “We’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains; we therefore are entitled to every thing on this planet and beyond. But… that’s not how it works, and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth.”


Along with vision, comes understanding – a deeper understanding of one’s surroundings and those who are in it.

The Na’vi, when they are in a total reciprocal relationship with someone, will say “I see you.” This is a deep type of seeing, the type that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber would have called an “I-Thou” relationship and explicitly makes the act of seeing into a spiritual discipline. For Pandora’s people, the Na’vi, these words “I see you” express what, in Hebrew is “yode’a,” an interactive “knowing” that is emotional, intellectual, physical, sexual, and spiritual all at once. 

In contrast, the invading business and military presence is completely blind to the presence of others – seeing only their needs and making it very evident that when we do not truly see another, when another is seen only as “other,” [Martin Buber would call that kind of relationship “I-It”] – we will indeed become destructive toward them.

Dr. Michael Rand, a member of our congregation and professor of Communications at Cleveland State University, focuses on this “I-It” relationship in his documentary film “Defining Race.”  When a person (or a group of people) is seen as “other” (as not human) that enables the haters, the bigots, the Nazis – to negate the humanity of that person or group.  And in their disregard of the humanity of that person (or group of people), they in turn, think nothing about destroying that person (or group of people).


         With true vision comes an awareness of, an appreciation of, and an understanding of one’s surroundings.  And with this larger, fuller understanding comes a true sense of community.  For the Na’vi, this sense of community is found in the sense of interconnectedness they feel with their environment, with each other, and with their goddess – Eywa – all are truly part of the Pandoran web of life.

Set against the uber-technology of the earthly invaders, the Na’vi appear to have no technological resources.  But that is not true.  They have a technology, but it is not mechanical. It is organic. The Pandoran ecology forms a vast neural network spanning the entire lunar surface into which the Na’vi and other creatures can connect.

The biological fringes with which they connect to each other are living, pulsating versions of the tzitziot, the fringes on the corners of the tallit.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow describes them as “… the technology of organic intimacy.” There is even a point in the film when one of the Crusher Corporation’s engineers sees, in an uncharacteristic moment of deep vision, that their biological fringes make possible a “global network.”

I must admit, when I saw these fringes and how they were used to connect to fellow Na’vi-im, and to the creatures they rode upon, and to the Tree of Souls to connect to their goddess – I saw tzitzit. Through their fringes they made their connections, they made their community.  Through our fringes, through our tzitzit, we, too, have the spiritual technology to make connections – to each other, to our environment, and to the Holy Presence in our lives.

In the book of Numbers (chapter 15, verses 37-41), we are instructed to make tzitzit on the corners of our garments and to look at – to see – the tzitzit and be reminded of what we are called upon to do.

Traditionally, the collective number of strands and knots of the four tzitzit on our prayer shawl equals 613, the traditional number of mitzvot – of holy actions that connect us to each other, to our world, and to God.

When we visit the sick, we are connecting to each other through the mitzvah of bikkur holim.

When we recycle and re-use, we are connecting to our world through the mitzvah of baal taschhit, in helping to sustain our planet.

When we light Shabbat candles, when we hang the mezuzah on our doorpost, when we study Torah – we are connecting to the Holy Presence in our lives through the mitzvot of l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat, lichbo’ah mezuzah, and la’asok b’divrei Torah.

Am I asking you to take on all 613?  No.  It would be impossible, anyway, since many of the mitzvoth have to do with the Temple and the ritual of offerings and sacrifices.

I am not talking about those.

The English translation of Yom Kippur is “Day of Atonement.”  The word “Atonement” can also be read as “at one-ment”… and, indeed, that is what we are to seek on this day… on this day and throughout the coming year.  As we think of the tzitzit as symbolizing the mitzvot – the holy actions in our lives – they can provide us with the spiritual technology to truly be at-one with each other, with our world, and with the divine.  Our goal is to connect broadly and deeply, by seeking out what is truly important in our lives.

Although many of us recognize the word avatar as a representation of the self in computer games (a “mini-me,” so to speak), in fact the term originates in Hindu mythology. An avatar is a personification or an embodiment of a divine principle. 

So, let us take Avatar’s themes to heart and make the conscious effort:

  • to see and appreciate each other and the world around us,
  • to more deeply understand each other, and
  • to connect with each other and build our community in a richer and more meaningful way… in a holy way.

Then, truly, each of us will embody the divine.

L’Shanah Tovah u’Metukhah Tikateivu v’ Chotmeinu – May we all be written and sealed for a good and sweet year.


Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Second Morning

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Second Morning


September 19, 2012 – 2 Tishri, 5773

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Daniel Levin

On the first Sunday in May in 2003 in the affluent Chicago suburb of Northbrook, girls in the junior and senior clases met at a park for the annual “powder puff” football game.  But the game was not about good-natured fun.  In fact some say no one even brought a ball.

As part of a hazing ritual in which senior girls initiated their junior classmates, videotape of the so-called game shows how junior girls were punched and slapped, covered with urine, paint, fish guts and trash, wrapped in pig intestines and smeared with excrement.  One girl needed stitches from the beating; another suffered a broken ankle.  The tape also shows that alcohol was available to the participants, all of them underage.

Upon learning of the incident, the school principal suspended 28 girls and four boys for 10 days.  And then came the phone calls.

Three families sought legal orders to rescind the suspensions, claiming that missing school would cause the students irreparable damage.  The father of one 18-year-old boy allegedly involved in the hazing told the Chicago Tribune, “They make one mistake, and you’re punishing them for the rest of their lives… This may affect college.”  One student’s complaint notes that the suspension would preclude her from attending the prom.

A Kansas City teacher found that 28 students had plagiarized on their botany projects.  After parents protested, the school board ordered the teacher to lower the weight of the project in the final grading.  In Bethesda, Maryland, the family of a boy who was kicked out of school for helping another student cheat on the SAT filed suit asking for $1.1 million to compensate for the “loss of invaluable childhood friendships … and loss to his reputation.”

Think of the message these parents are communicating to their children.  While many parents say they think bad actions should yield bad consequences, when push comes to shove, a good college is often seen as more important than good character.  Joy Behar, who wrote an advice column in Good Housekeeping magazine, received a letter from a parent whose daughter had been admitted to a prestigious college, and afterward read her essay in which she wrote a deeply moving story of overcoming the hardship of losing her brother to cancer.  Problem was, however that the girl is an only child and had made up the entire essay.  Her mom wanted to know if her daughter should inform the college that she was not truthful in her essay.  And the response?  Joy said her daughter needed a good talking-to, but they ought not inform the college.

A 2010 Ethics of American Youth survey found that 59 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test at least once during the previous year, and 34 percent said they cheated at least twice.  One in three said they had stolen something from a store, and 39 percent said that you had to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.

I mention these stories because in many ways we are all guilty of the massive erosion in character and integrity we find in our society today.  Far too often we are taught and teach each other that nothing is worth doing unless it looks good on your resume, that nothing is wrong unless you get caught, and if you do get caught, evade, cover up, obfuscate, litigate, but under no circumstances should you stand up and take responsibility.

This was the advice given to Commander Scott Waddle of the U.S.S. Greenville submarine.  In 2001, the Greenville surfaced underneath a Japanese trawler called the Ehime Maru, sinking the vessel and killing nine of the passengers and crew in one of the worst accidents involving a submarine in the history of the U.S. Navy.  In the aftermath of the accident, Commander Waddle asked his superiors if he could apologize to the families of the victims and was denied the opportunity.  When the court of inquiry denied Commander Waddle immunity from testimony he might offer, he chose to testify anyway, to explain in his own words what happened.  Here is the opening of his remarks to the court:  “I accept full responsibility for the actions of the crew of the USS Greenville on 9 February 2001.  As the commanding officer, I am solely responsible for this truly tragic accident.  And for the rest of my life, I will live with the horrible consequences of my decisions and actions that resulted in the loss of the Ehime Maru and nine of its crew instructors and students.  I am truly sorry for the loss of life and the incalculable grief that those losses caused the honorable families of those lost at sea. … I understand by speaking now I may be forfeiting my ability to successfully defend myself at a court-martial.  This court and the families need to hear from me, despite the personal legal prejudice to me … and because it is the right thing to do.”

Throughout his testimony, Commander Waddle refused to pass the buck on to those officers below him whose mistakes had not averted the accident.  A gifted and talented Navy officer, his entire career was torpedoed because of an eight minute span in which he and his men did not perform at their peak.  As Commander Waddle writes in his account – “Eight minutes and how eternal are the results.”  Sometimes what we do in eight minutes can change our life forever, but we can transcend our mistakes and move forward. If we are willing to accept the consequences of our mistakes, we may come to learn that deep down, we are more than the mistakes we commit on a given day.

Each of us who comes here this Rosh HaShanah, each of us who enters this sanctuary today, has done things we regret.  But what will redeem us these High Holy days is a resolve to stand up and take responsibility for our lives, to own up to our faults, our mistakes, and the harms we have committed.  We must dedicate ourselves to doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing to do.

In 2003 and 2004, I was privileged to chair a task force of leaders in Livingston, New Jersey that sought to build a more emotionally and spiritually safe community.  In one of our discussions, we spent more than an hour trying to identify how the community defined success.  We came up with lots of criteria – success meant attaining a level of economic wealth equal to or better than the wealth from which we came.  Success meant being the best at what you do, be it on the athletic field, in the arts, in the classroom, in our varied professions.  Success meant ensuring that our children have a solid foundation on which to build their lives – high achievement in school, attendance at highly competitive colleges and universities.

And if that is all that success entails, then why not lie to get a job, why not cheat on a standardized test, why not steal from a store – after all, if success is all that matters, then who cares how you get there?

Success ought to mean more than what we can list on our resume.  Success should be defined not by being the best, but by doing our best.  Success should be defined by not by our place in line but by what we accomplished to earn our advancement.  Success should not be defined by the quantity of our assets but by the quality of our character.

The ironic thing is that we are happier and more at peace when we stand up and accept responsibility for who we are and what we do.  Real living is found in the struggle, in the growth that comes in looking ourselves square in the mirror and honestly coming to terms with the image that looks back at us.  Real living comes in saying “my fault” not “your fault”.

My good friend Michael Brooks serves as the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Michigan, and received a phone call many years ago from the father of a young man who got caught cheating on an exam, and the university had decided to expel him.  The father asked if Michael would meet with the young man.  Michael met with the student and over the course of their conversation said to him, “What were you thinking?  You cheated on an exam.  That’s terrible.  They’re going to expel you.  They should expel you.  But I’ll tell you what.  If you spend the next year doing some real soul searching, and you take real stock of who you are and who you want to be, you call me, and I’ll get you back in.

And so the young man left.  And he took stock of himself, and called Michael who got him back in.  The young man thrived at Michigan, went to the University of Michigan medical school, did his residency in cardiology at the University of Michigan, and now practices in Ann Arbor. Michael turned to him recently and said to him:  “You know what was the best thing you ever did in your life?  It was cheating on that test.  Because if you hadn’t cheated on that test, you never would have engaged the struggles that you fought, and you probably would never have grown to be the fine and sensitive person you are today.

If God had wanted us to be perfect, then God would have made us perfect.  But God understood that real living comes from growth, and real growth comes from struggle.  I once got a fortune cookie that explained it best – it said:  “Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

But if we never take responsibility for ourselves, if we never take responsibility for our faults and our failures, then we will never grow.  Owning up to our misdeeds and mistakes is hard – it hurts, it’s embarrassing, but it’s so necessary if we are to realize our spiritual potential.  Because a life that endures no struggle, a life in which there is no struggle, is not really living.

What do we teach our kids when they come home with a 79, and we call their teachers and beg for the “b”?  And what do we teach our kids when the teacher won’t change the grade, and we call the guidance counselor?  And when the guidance counselor won’t change the grade, so we call the principal?  We teach them that what matters is not the struggle, but the grade.  We teach them that it is not their personhood that matters but their report card.  Better we should teach our kids that they are more than their GPA, more than their test scores, more than their athletic statistics and more than the trophies they may or may not collect. We think that by running interference we are easing their way, but instead we may leave them completely ill-equipped to face the struggles of the real world.

At one of our task-force meetings, someone shared just the right metaphor.  When you see a butterfly trying to emerge from a cocoon, and you see it struggle to break free of its chamber, you would think that the right thing to do is to help it, to rip open the cocoon and release the butterfly.  But if we do this, then the butterfly will never take wing.  Through its struggle to emerge from the cocoon, the butterfly cleans the mucous off its wings.  Without the struggle, its wings will be laden with mucous and it will never fly and die.  It is only through its own personal struggle that it can survive.  And it is only in our own personal struggles that we can survive as well.

I wonder what would have happened to that young woman who lied on her college essay if she had confessed to her dishonesty.  What do you suppose would have happened if she had called the dean of admission and taken responsibility for her lie.  If she had said:  “I’m young and I made a mistake.  I thought that my life wasn’t interesting enough, so I made up a fantasy because I thought that was what you wanted.  But I’ve learned that it’s more important for me to be just me than to live a lie.  And so here’s another essay that explains what I’ve learned.”  Maybe the Dean would have rescinded her admission, but I suspect not.  I suspect he would have admired her decency, her integrity, her character, and said this is the kind of kid we need at our school.  And even if he had rescinded the admission, think of how good her essay would be when she applied the next year, an essay that reflected on the idea that there is more to life than admission to college.

I pray that we might find within the strength to struggle, we who are called Yisrael – God wrestlers.  I pray that in the coming year we will take ownership of our lives and assume responsibility for the choices that we make.  I pray that we will have the faith to see that though we may get battered and bruised in the struggle to live life with honesty and integrity, the strength of our character and our soul will only grow from the battle.  I pray that like the butterfly who must assume for itself the lonely mission of its own redemption, that at the end of the struggle, having taken responsibility for ourselves and our lives, we will find that we have wings with which to soar.  On these holidays, God opens the Book of Life to our page and asks us to take responsibility for all that we are and have become.  May it be that as we sign our names to that page, that our signatures also inscribe us for a New Year of blessing, of meaning, of wholeness, and peace.

A Sermon Regarding Anti-Semitism


September 29, 2011

Rabbi Dr. Ronald L. Androphy

East Meadow Jewish Center

         If it were not for a judge’s ruling, on Tuesday, November 8th, the citizens of San Francisco would be going to the polls to vote on a referendum to ban the practice of circumcision.

We may ridicule this attempt to outlaw a ritual that is at the very core of Judaism.  We may laughingly dismiss the anti-circumcision ban as being so “left coast,” thinking, “It is, after all, San Francisco.”  We may have felt certain that the referendum would have been defeated; we may have had faith that even if it were enacted the circumcision ban would be ruled unconstitutional by a court.

But, my friends, let us not be so smug in our assumptions, for San Francisco is not the only locale where circumcision is being condemned, nor is circumcision the only Jewish practice that is being challenged.  At this very moment the Netherlands is considering whether to ban shechitah, the traditional Jewish method of slaughtering animals for kosher food.  If passed, Holland will join Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden in banning the practice.  At this very moment, similar anti- shechitah campaigns are underway in Australia, New Zealand, England, and Denmark.  And lest you think that this type of campaign takes place only overseas, an anti-shechitah initiative was recently ruled off the ballot in Washington state.

As those of you who have been with me for the past twenty-eight years are keenly aware, I am not, nor have I been, a person or a rabbi who sees anti-Semitism lurking behind every tree.  In fact, I have delivered sermons, even on the High Holy Days, in which I have declared that anti-Semitism is no longer a major challenge or issue for us Jews, and should not consume a tremendous amount of American Jewry’s energy or resources.  I have suggested that the fact that almost every one of the Ivy League colleges and universities and their Sisters – schools that not so long ago placed quotas on the number of Jewish students they would accept – have had Jewish presidents or deans of their constituent schools; the fact that most Gentile families do not oppose their children’s marrying a Jew; and the fact that few Fortune 500 businesses are Jew-less – all demonstrate that anti-Semitism has virtually been vanquished.

Well, the High Holy Days are the occasion on which we admit our mistakes.  So let me admit my error: Anti-Semitism is not dead; rather it has reemerged in a particularly insidious form: this contemporary anti-Semitism is not an attempt to kill Jews. No; understand it for what it is:  Today’s anti-Semitism is an attempt to delegitimize Judaism.  That’s right: it is an attempt – curiously not primarily from the right, but equally, and I might even add “especially,” from the left – to delegitimize our Jewish religion.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s examine the San Francisco referendum.  Those who were proposing the ban claim that circumcision is a form of mutilation over which the victim, in our case the eight-day old boy, has no say.  They claim that it is unfair to inflict such permanent damage on a child who has not reached the age of consent.  But let me ask a question:  why are these people fighting only circumcision?  Why don’t they seek to abolish, for example, the piercing of young children’s body parts?  I am certain you have seen babies who have had their ears pierced.  Now you might argue that ear piercing is reversible in that a person can let the holes fill in.  Not always.  And I am sure you have seen young children with other parts of their body pierced, obviously before the age of legal consent.  Why not ban that?  You know, we live in an age in which tattooing has become the rage.  How many men and women did you see this past summer — when people wear shorts, and short-sleeve shirts or tank-tops — sporting tattoos on one part of their body or another?  How many times have you seen men and women who look like walking cartoons with their arms and legs almost fully tattooed?  I have also seen children with tattoos, children far below the age of legal consent, and I have a feeling that there are more cases in San Francisco than there are on Long Island, and despite laser abrasion, tattoos are still extremely difficult to remove.  Why don’t the anti-circumcision supporters try to abolish child tattooing and/or child piercings?  I’ll tell you why: because their goal is to delegitimize Judaism.

Need further proof? – Look at the rhetoric they use.  They employ words like “mutilation,” barbaric,” and “child abuse” to describe circumcision.  These are words of delegitimization.  Is anyone here in favor of mutilation? barbarism? child abuse?  Of course not.  What they fail to mention is that a brit milah, a circumcision performed by a skilled mohel, is not barbaric at all; it is invariably quick and safe.  While I am not going to tell you that a bris is painless, I doubt very much if any of us males remembers his bris or was irreparably harmed by it.

As all of us know, brit milah is one of the foundational mitzvot of our Jewish religion.  Every Jewish family knows that circumcising our infant males at the age of eight days is what we Jews do; it is constitutive of being Jewish.  That is why bris is probably the most observed Jewish ritual, even amongst unreligious or non-observant Jews.  A Jewish boy without a bris, while still Jewish, is an incomplete Jew; he always stands in need of repair.  A bris is the hallmark of male Jewish identity; it is the quintessential symbol of male Jewishness.  That is why throughout history Jews have fought and sacrificed their lives in order to circumcise their young.

And what about the anti-kosher slaughter campaigns?  Shechitah, the traditional Jewish method of killing an animal in a kosher manner, reflects the Jewish concern for what is called in Hebrew tsa-ar baalay chaim — not causing pain to an animal.  In the hands of a skilled shochet, using the required razor-sharp knife, an animal is killed almost instantaneously, and virtually painlessly.  When I was in rabbinical school, I saw kosher slaughter performed.  I was as close to the animal as I am to the people seated in the third row.  The shochet drew his long, sharp knife across the cow’s neck, there was a massive outpouring of blood, and, almost instantaneously, the animal was dead.  No lowing, no contortions of the animal’s face, no screaming; the animal didn’t even blink its eyes.

What the anti-shechitah movement is campaigning for is to require that all animals be stunned, either electrically or percussively, prior to slaughter.  Supposedly, this causes the animal less pain, but I cannot imagine that being shocked with electricity or being smashed on the skull with a high-powered pneumatic device, is painless for the animal.  From the kosher standpoint, stunning is problematic because it causes coagulation of the blood, and prevents its free flow, as is required.

By banning kosher slaughter, these people are undermining one of our cardinal Jewish observances.  Whether you personally keep kosher or not, you must be concerned that attempts are being made to ban a traditional Jewish practice, a ritual that has been observed by our people for thousands of years.  And, again, the opposers of kosher slaughter are using the language of delegitimization: they call shechitah “cruel,” “barbaric,” “inhumane,” etc.  And who is in favor of anything “cruel,” “barbaric,” or “inhumane?”

Switzerland first enacted its anti-shechitah ban in order to keep Jews out of the country.  Once Jews began fleeing Russia and Poland in the face of pogroms, Switzerland did not want to be inundated with what they considered to be backwards, dirty Jews. So it passed laws to prohibit kosher slaughter so that Jews would not immigrate to Switzerland.  See, even in the 1890s the Swiss did not want us, a situation that would be repeated during the Holocaust.   But in Europe today the anti-Semitic, anti-kosher slaughter campaign is more devious.  The European Union is considering a requirement that all meat bear a label indicating whether an animal was stunned before slaughter.  Obviously, kosher-killed meat would not bear such a stamp; some treyf meat would, some would not.  Sounds harmless, no? But here’s the insidious part: what would happen next is that there would be a campaign to pressure stores to carry only meat that was stunned prior to slaughter, and/or to boycott meat that was not derived from animals that were stunned.  Sounds relatively benign, right?  But, as you probably know, only the front quarters of an animal are koshered in the United States and Europe; the hind quarters are sold to non-kosher meat packing companies.  This helps keep the price of kosher meat lower than it would otherwise be. But imagine that under pressure from the anti-shechitah movement, stores would no longer buy meat that came from the hind quarters of kosher-killed animals.  The price of kosher meat would at least double or triple, rendering keeping kosher extremely difficult.

And the attempt to delegitimize Judaism does not end with bris and shechitah.  It even goes to the very heart of Judaism.  As all of you know, I have earned a doctorate in Bible.  Those of you who took a Bible course in college undoubtedly learned about the Documentary Hypothesis, the theory, enunciated in its clearest form over 120 years ago by the German Protestant scholar, Julius Wellhausen.  This theory suggests that the Torah is not a monolithic text, but rather an edited book comprised of four different strands written over a period of approximately 500 years.  As a Bible scholar, I can tell you that much of the Documentary Hypothesis is beneficial for the study of the Bible, and much of it is simply wrong and is no longer accepted in the realm of modern Bible study.  Today, however, an even more daring theory has gained considerable acceptance: this minimalist hypothesis claims that none of the Bible was written before the Persian Period. What this theory suggests is that there never was an Israelite/Jewish presence in the land of Canaan/Israel prior to the fifth century B.C.E.  In other words, there was no Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; no Moses and Exodus; no Joshua and Conquest; no King Saul, David, and Solomon; no Kingdom of Judah or Kingdom of Israel.  Its more radical expression denies the historicity of such great prophets as Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah.  While I am not a Biblical fundamentalist, while I do not believe that everything the Bible records occurred exactly as stated, while I realize that the texts and stories of the Bible were subject to the some of the same forces of transmission and story-telling that characterize all literature, nonetheless, I maintain that substantial evidence – archaeological, linguistic, etc., — supports much of the Bible.  Do you realize what this theory – the product of European universities – means for us Jews?  It totally delegitimizes our religion; it totally delegitimizes our claim to the Land of Israel.  It says that the Jewish religion is a sham, and that we Jews have no right to the Land of Israel.

Which leads me to the most concentrated attack against the Jewish people, and that is the attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel.  And, my friends, at this point the attacks against Israel – especially in Europe, but also here in the United States – go far beyond demanding that Israel surrender the West Bank and Golan Heights. These attacks deny that Israel has any right to exist as a Jewish state.  In other words, these assaults delegitimize Israel.  Israel, they claim, has no right to exist – not within the 1947 Partition borders, not within the 1949 armistice borders (which are the pre-Six Day War borders), and certainly not within Israel’s current borders.  They would argue that the Jewish State of Israel should be erased.  Just look at the boycotts against Israeli products that have been organized around the world.  Until recently these embargos were directed only against products that emanated from the West Bank, Golan, or Gaza.  More recently, however, the sanctions have involved a boycott of all products made in Israel, no matter whether those items derive from the West Bank, etc., or whether those Israeli products are produced within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.  Some of these boycotts have been successful in Europe (witness the recent closing of the Ahava store in London), some have failed on college campuses here in this country – but almost all of these boycotts today unjustifiably equate Israel with South Africa of the apartheid era, and just as many people refused to buy goods from South Africa, so, according to these anti-Zionists, should people boycott Israeli products.  And these attempts to delegitimize Israel will only become more pronounced and more vociferous with last week’s appearance by Mahmoud Abbas before the United Nations seeking the UN’s recognition of a Palestinian State.

As all of us know from seeing the article that has circulated on the internet, if a person boycotts Israeli products, he/she will have to give up his smartphone, her computer, etc., since all of these technological devices were invented in Israel.  Such a person would also have to refuse many forms of medical treatment since many medical devices and pharmaceuticals were developed in Israel. Nonetheless, these Israel delegitimizers should have all of us worried.  With the Palestinians about to proclaim unilaterally a Palestinian State, these delegitimizers will make Israel’s already tenuous standing in such international forums as the United Nations even more unstable.  Israel’s existence as we know it is very much in the balance.

So what do we have here?  We have an attempt to delegitimize bris, the basic Jewish symbol of identification for males; a challenge to the legitimacy of shechitah, the indispensible method of eating kosher meat; the denial of the sacredness and basic historicity of our Bible, the foundation of everything we Jews hold sacred – our religion, our rituals, our morals and ethics, our history, our homeland; and a massive campaign to deny Israel’s right to exist as an independent Jewish state.        So what is left?  Not much, and that’s the whole point.  By delegitimizing much of what is Jewish, these modern anti-Semites do not intend to kill us physically; they are out to destroy us spiritually and to rob of us all Jewish distinctiveness.

And this attack against us is not coming from its usual sources: right-wing, super-nationalistic groups like the skinheads and neo-Nazis.  These attacks against Jewish individuality are coming from the academic and political left.

I am certain that most of us here today, including me, consider ourselves liberal to one degree or another, though I am well aware that here on Long Island there is a tendency for former liberals to magically transform into conservatives.  Nonetheless, those of us who view ourselves as liberal must realize that liberalism today, at least in its academic form, has changed radically.  No longer is liberalism about supporting rights of all people, like fighting against discrimination and supporting liberalization of immigration laws, and the like. Academic liberalism today basically works toward the elimination of all distinctions amongst people, especially those associated with First World groups like Jews, and in its political forms its goal is the elimination (which is a polite word for “destruction”) of all supposedly bourgeois societies.  It does so by branding a group’s distinctive practices as “barbaric,” and its society as “evil.”  And since we Jews are one of the most distinctive ethnic/religious groups, and since these delegitimizers know that Jewish rituals and our Bible are major factors in our distinctiveness, they label our practices “barbaric,” and question the validity of our sacred texts.  And since the State of Israel has been one of the most successful countries on the face of this earth in terms of economy, technology, education, social services, and integrating immigrants; and since Israel does exert authority over more than a million Arabs on land that these groups erroneously consider Arab land, the State of Israel is vilified and its legitimacy denied.

That modern academic liberalism is the epitome of hypocrisy is manifest in a phenomenon that occurs on many college campuses, an action that defies logic.  As you probably know, Israel is frequently maligned on college campuses, and pro-Israel speakers are commonly heckled and prevented from speaking, even though a university campus is supposed to be a bastion of free speech.  But the ludicrousness goes beyond that.  Isn’t it farcical that many feminist groups on college campuses have issued anti-Israel resolutions and taken anti-Israel, pro-Arab stances?  Something is wrong here.  How free exactly are women in Arab countries?  In many they cannot vote.  In some they are not allowed to drive a car.  In all Arab countries they are legally subservient to their husbands, fathers, and brothers.  How many Arab women have been murdered in honor killings by male members of their very own families?  Yet, these women’s groups on campus, which include many Jews, incidentally, praise the Palestinians and condemn Israel, the very country in which women have more rights, have achieved more equality, and have attained the highest levels of success than in any other country in the Middle East or in the rest of the world, for that matter.  Let me ask a question: would any woman here today want to live in an Arab country?

Or what about gay and lesbian groups on college campuses that have denounced Israel and proclaimed their solidarity with the Arabs, or those GLBT groups that have prevented Israeli representatives from marching in gay pride parades in Europe?  How can they condemn Israel and voice support for the Palestinians and Arabs when homosexuals have been executed in Iran and other Arab countries, have been maimed and imprisoned in others, and have been victims of, for lack of a better term, embarrassment killings in the Palestinian controlled areas?  Do you know that many Palestinian homosexuals flee their homes in the West Bank or Gaza, and settle where? – In Israel, which takes a live and let live attitude towards GLBT people and hosts one of the most popular gay pride parades in Tel Aviv.   I would love to ask the members of these college LGBT organizations if they would want to live as open, active homosexuals in any Arab country; somehow I doubt that they would. Yet, the delegitimization of Israel and anything Jewish is so rampant that it causes these activist groups to endorse ridiculous positions that fly in the face of the very principles for which they were created.  That’s how deep and pernicious this anti-Israel, anti-Jewish campaign has become.

My friends, these modern anti-Semites are out to deny the validity of everything we Jews hold sacred: our Bible, our religious traditions, our Jewish way of life, and our ancestral homeland.  It is not that they are out to kill us; instead, they want to destroy us spiritually, they want to destroy us religiously, they want to destroy us politically.  They want to obliterate everything that is unique about the Jewish people.

And we must not let that happen.

Those of you who have been here over the years know exactly in what direction this sermon is heading.  You can probably guess – correctly – that I am going to suggest that the way we counter this modern anti-Semitism that seeks to deprive us of our uniqueness and our identity is through greater devotion to Judaism; more observance of Jewish laws, rituals, practices, and traditions; stronger determination to conduct our lives according to Jewish morals, ethics, and values; and greater allegiance to the State of Israel.

Specifically, if bris is under attack – we make sure that we circumcise our male children.  If attempts are being made to outlaw the traditional Jewish method of slaughter – we keep kosher.  If the validity of our Bible is challenged – we both study and live by the Bible.  If the very existence of the State of Israel is questioned and threatened – we increase our support for Israel, through visits, through financial donations, and through political activism.  If Jewish uniqueness is derided – we celebrate our uniqueness.

All of us here today must decide what Jewish course of action we want to undertake this year.  All of us here today must decide what Jewish rituals, traditions, and observances we are willing to assume this year.  All of us here today must decide on those Jewish values and ethics by which to live this year. All of us here today must decide on how we will demonstrate our support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people this year.  All of us here today must decide how we will demonstrate our support for the synagogue and the Jewish community this year.  And every person here today must decide on how he/she will express through ongoing deed and action his/her uniqueness as a Jew.

If we fail to engage in any of these actions, then we will hand a victory to these modern anti-Semites who seek our delegitimization, and, trust me,  Judaism will become a bastard religion, our Bible will be viewed as a forgery, and Israel will become even more of a pariah state, God forbid.

One final thought:  as a Rabbi, I do not want anti-Semites to define how I express my Judaism.  Yes, I have just asked you to assume greater Jewish commitment and identity in the coming year in the face of the multitudinous attempts to delegitimize much of what is Jewish.  But that should not be the only reason we embark upon a more intense Jewish way of life.  We must do so primarily because it is the right course of action to undertake, and because it can add tremendous meaning and significance to our lives.

Remember: it has been the Jewish willingness to be distinct and unique that has not only molded us into the extraordinary people we are as individuals and as a people; through our distinctiveness and our uniqueness we Jews have contributed disproportionately to the betterment of the entire world, the world whose creation we celebrate this day.

I call upon each and every one of you: do your share so that עם ישראל חי  — the Jewish people continues to exist!

Shana Tova.

When Hatred Becomes the Core Value

Yom Kippur Morning 2012/5773

When Hatred Becomes the Core Value

I am proud to be your Rabbi.  I am proud to be an Israeli.  I am proud to be a Jew.  I am proud to be a Rodefet Shalom v’tzedek… one who at her core pursues, teaches and insists upon peace and justice.  The essence of Yom Kippur is exactly that.  It is the opportunity for each of us to do an honest accounting of where we are and what our deeds have been…and to commit to and insist upon the changes necessary to protect, sustain and prioritize “sacred living”.

Atonement is reaching for the sacred.  True atonement requires a stubborn refusal to succumb to or make excuses for or tolerate evil.

Three weeks ago during the days of Elul, the period of heightened awareness leading up to these days of Awe… as I prepared my Shabbat Sermon on Parashat Shoftim, the portion named “Judges”, I was inspired by the words of Deuteronomy 16:20 Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof; justice justice you shall surely pursue.  And as the teaching of the weekly Torah portion came into focus so did the breaking news from Israeli newspapers that in downtown Jerusalem, Tzion Square, a late night hangout for young people, 10-15 Jewish youth, their ages ranging from 13-19, beat a 17 year old East Jerusalem teenager Jamal Julani until he was unconscious.

What can I tell you, my Congregation.  How do we make sense of this heinous act?  Jamal was beaten almost to death…by a group of Jewish Israeli teens, for no other reason than because he was Arab.  The attack was unprovoked.  He was set upon by with a ferocity and hatred and willingness to kill.  But as if that is not devastating enough, a few dozen other young people stood by and watched without intervening.

In the aftermath of the incident eight young Israeli’s were arrested, two of them girls.  After his arrest a 13 year old countered: “he could die for all I care he is an Arab.”  The Times of Israel ran an article entitled “The Kids are not okay and neither are their parents”.  The discourse evolving from Israel described not an aberrant tragic incident but rather a world view that has tragically become tolerated.

Two weeks ago Germany was shaken by a series of anti-Semitic incidents.  In one incident a Rabbi wearing a kippah was approached by several youths who asked him if he was a Jew.  When he answered in the affirmative they attacked and beat him.  Horrendous, intolerable… the Rabbi was beaten…by a group of German teens, for no other reason than because he was Jew.

Tzedek Tzedek tirdof , the word for Justice appears twice in succession.  Wanting justice for ourselves, that is simple.  The repetition of the word suggests implicit reciprocity; justice must be assured for the other as well.  The phrase Tirdof is the assurance, we will surely pursue.

Justice Justice you shall pursue.  Do not pervert justice.  Do not oppress your neighbor.  Love the Stranger as Yourself.  More than any other mitzvah commanded in the Torah, 36 times we are implored to love the other.  Thirty six times because when we really care for the other, then we forge justice.

It is too easy to hear these stories and point a finger at the anti-semitism that rears its ugly head in Germany.  It is too easy to point at the Arab communities and remind ourselves that they teach violence and hatred to their children.  But ultimately, the only way forward is for us to ask ourselves, what are we teaching our children.  What message do we justify in our hearts.  Are we ourselves harboring, justifying and tolerating racism?  What action do we take in this world that we live?  There is only justice for us when we assure justice for the other.

Let me tell you what followed in Germany.  A kippah campaign was launched in response to the unprovoked attack on the Rabbi.  Prominent German actors and politicians were asked to and elected to wear a kippah in an act of solidarity with the Rabbi and defiance of the resurgence of racism.

Let me tell you what happened in Israel.  Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin visited Jamal Julani in the hospital.  He said these words “we are sorry… it is hard to see you hospitalized because of an inconceivable act… what happened is the responsibility of every leader and Member of Knesset.”  The Education Ministry ordered schools to confront the episode in the opening day of the school year in EVERY middle and high school classroom throughout Israel.  Educators were told to let they youngsters express themselves, but that “the unequivocal message must be a condemnation of racism and violence.”  I am proud of these steps that Israel has taken but we all must recognize that an unequivocal message of condemnation of racism and violence must emanate from the very top of Israeli leadership and must be reflected not only perfunctory platitudes but must be protected and preserved as policy and creed.

As your Rabbi, a proud Israeli and a proud Rabbi I cannot accept that racism will be tolerated by us.  Whether we are behaving poorly and inadequately with our Ethiopian Brethren, whether it is our intolerance and lack of compassion for illegal African immigrant workers in Israel or illegal immigrants in the United States arriving from Central and South America or whether it is a hatred of Arabs that is fostered and tolerated in Israeli Society and in the fear tactics and nuances of American society, this we cannot afford to condone or allow.

Last year I delivered a sermon describing an act of racism in the parking lot of my children’s high school.  Here we are today Yom Kippur 5773 once again racism is a topic that I feel compelled to address if we are to make an honest accounting of where we have been and where we are going.

May our teshuvah lead us to an insistence of tzedek.  We must be vigilant, not about other’s racism, but about the racism that we harbor through our ignorance, justifications and complacency.  Real teshuvah means that we do not repeat the same mistakes.   Tzedek tzedek tirdof, we will have justice for ourselves only when we assure justice for the other.

– Rabbi Yael Romer