City of Peace

In just a few days, the Jewish world will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of the reunification of the City of Jerusalem. Almost 50 years ago, near the end of the Six Day War, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces entered the Old City and stood at the Kotel, the Western Wall, where they prayed and wept and sang songs of joy. A city, once divided, was once again whole and open to be explored and enjoyed.

I never tire of being in Jerusalem, more than any other city or town in Israel or anywhere in the world. There is a quiet beauty, an unspoken majesty that is also humble. There is a sense one feels when walking the streets of Jerusalem that the city holds secrets within each stone, that there are stories to be told at each turn of the road, that every corner looks unexplored and is beckoning to be discovered. Jerusalem holds the history of our people from the beginning of our time in this world to this very moment. It is ever changing and modernizing, yet seems to exist serenely blending together the old and the new. Jerusalem is as breathtaking as any place in the world, yet feels like home.

Jerusalem lies at the heart of Jewish consciousness. Its name though, while it triggers beautiful associations and is uttered countless times in prayer and poetry, enters the Jewish lexicon in an unassuming way. Scholars believe that Yerushalayim probably originated as Uru Shalmanu, “our God lives here” in an ancient Semitic language. The voice of the Midrash, waxing nostalgic and hopeful, innovated the popular idea that the name Yerushalayim has its roots in Ir Shalom, or City of Peace. We, their descendants, echo their prayers for peace in the city that we love.

But what does the word Shalom actually mean? In popular Hebrew parlance, Shalom is a greeting that is usually understood as “peace.” But there’s another way to understand Shalom, not as peace or the absence of conflict, but as everything being in its proper place. Shalom is God’s vision of a world where everyone and everything is where it’s supposed to be. If that is the case, then the opposite of Shalom is not war but Galut, exile, scattering. Galut is not a geographical concept, it’s a psychological one. When people or things are out of place, when their lives are out of order, when people are unable to fulfill their potential or live lives of dignity, then there is no Shalom.

Sha’alu Sh’lom Yerushalayim…pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the psalms tell us. On this Yom Yerushalayim, let us pray for shalom, for a world in which everyone and everything is in its proper place, both physically and spiritually. Let us resolve to do what we can to make that happen.

It’s Lag Ba-Omer…Now What?

Today is Lag Ba-Omer, to which some might say “now what?” Is this a Jewish observance that is fundamental to Jewish identity? Not especially. Are there any special foods to eat? Not really. Are there any special prayers to say, or readings to be chanted from the Torah? No. Are there any special customs? Yes, but they’re not well known or widely practiced. So what exactly is Lag Ba-Omer and what meaning does it hold for us?

To understand Lag Ba-Omer, it’s necessary to dissect its name. “Lag” is a Hebrew acronym that represents the number 33 and refers to the 33rd day of the Omer (see last week’s post to understand the counting of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot). Simply put, today is the 33rd day of the Omer. According to Jewish tradition, the first 32 days of the Omer period are considered a time of semi-mourning. Observant Jews don’t hold festive events and some don’t cut their hair. This practice is based on a somewhat vague idea found in the Talmud that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva treated one another with disrespect and therefore suffered from a plague. The disciples repented and the plague subsided on the 33rd day of the Omer, so it became an occasion for celebration.

It’s also possible that the legend of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples dying from a plague developed from a historical event, namely the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the year 135 CE when thousands of Jewish soldiers were killed. That would account for the old custom of holding picnics and playing games with bows and arrows on Lag Ba-Omer.

An entirely different explanation of the origin of Lag Ba-Omer concerns Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the legendary author of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. Francine Klagsbrun, author and commentator, writes:

“Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, who survived the Bar Kokhba revolt, is said to have died on Lag Ba-Omer. Rabbi Simeon continued to defy the Roman rulers even after Bar Kokhba’s defeat, and was forced to flee for his life and spend years in solitary hiding. Legend places him and his son Eleazar in a cave for 12 years, where a miraculous well and carob tree sustained them while they spent their days studying and praying. When they finally emerged, Simeon denigrated all practical occupations, insisting that people engage only in the study of Torah. For this God confined the two to their cave for another year, accusing Simeon of destroying the world with his rigid asceticism.”

To this day, Jews visit the tomb of Simeon bar Yohai in the town of Meron in the Galilee where they pray, sing, and play games. Putting aside that this Kabbalistic rabbi is revered, the legend reminds us that Torah study, while virtuous, must be balanced with active engagement with the world. Good deeds and active participation in efforts to make our society a better place are fundamental to Jewish life.

So there you have two worthwhile messages from a little known, minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. People owe one another proper treatment and respectful language, and study must be balanced with meaningful action. Whether you spend the day at a picnic, busy at work or at home with family members, I hope that Lag Ba-Omer will have some meaning for you.

It Counts!

 

“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. 

(Leviticus 23:15-16)

 This verse from the Torah portion we read this week- Emor- outlines the practice of counting the days from Passover to the next festival, called Shavuot (meaning “weeks” and referring to the exactly seven weeks between the two holidays). Actually, the Torah doesn’t explicitly mention that the festival celebrated seven weeks after Passover is called “Shavuot.” Instead, it is a called “Chag Ha-Katzir” (the harvest festival) and “Chag Ha-Bikurim” (the festival of the first fruits). How it came to be called Shavuot, and associated with God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai and the Ten Commandments, is another story. But the idea of counting 49 days/7 weeks from Passover to Shavuot is unmistakably found in the Torah and provides some insight into our own lives.

The counting of the 49 days/7 weeks is itself a Jewish ritual known as “counting the omer” (the term “omer” comes from the grain offering mentioned in the verse above). Observant Jews count scrupulously, making an effort not to miss even one day of the sequence, since the mitzvah is to count all the days from the first to the last. The mitzvah is performed after dark beginning with the night of the second Seder and ending on the night before Shavuot. It is customary not to announce the number of the next day in the sequence until actually performing the ritual, since doing so is considered to “pre-empt” the counting. A blessing is recited and then the day of the Omer sequence is recited according to a liturgical formula. Of course, there are smartphone apps that can be downloaded for free that remind someone what day is to be counted, along with meditations and prayers to be recited.

What insight can we gain from counting the days from Passover to Shavuot? Here are three takeaways:

  1. Each day matters. That each day of our lives matters, that each new day represents the potential for each of us to do something good and helpful, to experience some measure of growth, to find some measure of fulfillment and joy, is conventional wisdom. But it’s nice to have a period of time specifically focused on the idea that each day counts.
  2. Counting emphasizes responsibility. Passover is about redemption from oppression and Shavuot is about agreeing to be governed by communal laws and norms. The freedom won on Passover finds its greatest fulfillment when we express our ultimate purpose and power as human beings to change the world for the better. As a people, we embrace that challenge collectively and affirm our purpose on Shavuot. Counting the days from Passover to Shavuot underscores that freedom is valuable only if we use it constructively.
  3. Counting emphasizes personal growth. As we note that each day matters, we can also consider how we might grow with each new day. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the Kabbalists saw the counting of the omer as an opportunity to cleanse the soul:

“The forty-nine days, connecting the exodus from Egypt with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, are a time of preparation and growth – of leaving a world of slavery and getting ready to enter a world of personal, social and spiritual responsibility. The Jewish mystics attached special significance to this period of the year as one in which the various facets of the soul were cleansed, one by one.”

As each day of the omer is counted, ask yourself how you can and wish to grow personally, socially, spiritually. What aspects of your life need attention and change? Pick one area of your life on which to concentrate each week of the seven weeks of counting. Meditate on that part of your life, or start a journal that express your feelings and hopes. In that way the counting of the omer can be transformed from an obscure and obsolete ritual to one that is relevant and powerful.

By the way, today is the 26th day of the Omer, which is three weeks and five days into the counting!

 

 

What Would You Do If You Encountered Hate?

“He who can restrain the members of his household from committing a sin but does not will be held responsible for his household. If he can restrain the people of his city, he will be held responsible for the people of his city. If he can restrain the whole world – all of it – he will be held responsible for the whole world, all of it.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b)

It’s simple. Because we live in a community, because we share life with others, we each bear a responsibility for making our community a better place, a place of goodness, a place where the dignity of all people is upheld and honored, a place that is free from intolerance and hatred. The Talmud passage quoted above says even more than that. It says that if we can stop an act of evil, if we can do something to thwart an act that is morally wrong, if we can prevent someone from expressing hatred or intolerance, and we don’t act, then we are responsible for the consequences of that evil.

The Talmudic passage above is a comment on a verse in this week’s Torah portion:

“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. You shall surely reprove your fellow but incur no guilt because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17)

The Torah instructs us to “reprove our fellow,” to correct bad behavior when we see it. Some of the commentaries on the verse say that we must do this under all circumstances, even if we find it uncomfortable or awkward or even if we are risking making the other person feel bad or embarrassed. Other commentaries suggest that the second part of the verse— ‘incur no guilt because of him’—teaches us that when rebuking someone for an error they committed we must uphold their dignity and prevent them (not the one doing the rebuking) from feeling guilty. Still others suggest that we cannot meaningfully rebuke someone with whom we are not friendly. A rebuke that is the product of love is more effective.

Of course, it requires judgement to know when, and if, to rebuke someone or correct their behavior. Certainly the Torah isn’t calling on us to rebuke someone for doing something we don’t happen to like or find personally annoying. The verse instead seems to focus on breaches of proper behavior between people, such as insults and expressions of disrespect, ethical lapses, and moral infractions that offend society’s values.

The Torah’s urging to reprove someone who is doing something wrong, and the Talmud’s statement that if we don’t do something about bad behavior then we are responsible for its consequences, were put to the test in our community in recent days. Two children from South Orange Middle School posted on Instagram, an online social media site, a collage of hateful images– a swastika surrounded by Stars of David, symbols of the Soviet Union, raised middle fingers and a photo of the collapse of the World Trade Center, set against a background of the rainbow flag, as well as two students standing on a porch, looking into the distance, with a caption that said “views from the schwitz,” likely a reference to Auschwitz. What was perhaps most disturbing about this incident was the fact that the posts received 90 “likes,” which could be interpreted as anything from an endorsement of the message to a desire to conform to whatever a group is doing even if the group is doing something offensive or wrong.

To be clear, the school administration quickly responded to the incident by meeting with the children and their families. As I wrote to you a couple of days ago, a meeting attended by the Rabbis of South Orange and other clergy, a representative of the New Jersey chapter of the ADL, Principal Irby and school officials, district officials and social workers, was also held this week to discuss how our community should respond to such hateful gestures. What emerged from the meeting was that, while there were some threads of anti-Semitism in the posts and other expressions made offline to Jewish children, the boys who posted and the families they come from are certainly not hardcore anti-Semites or White Supremacists.

Of greater concern is that almost nobody was willing to confront the boys who posted hateful messages online. Students were not willing to reject the expression of hate and intolerance. They could have posted comments of opposition online or could have spoken out against what they read on Instagram. Perhaps that didn’t happen because children are often more concerned about fitting in and social acceptance. Even some parents wanted their children to stay out of the fray for fear they would be caught up in something ugly. We live in a community that prides itself in its diversity, tolerance and harmony. But there is some reason to believe that we still have problems to solve and divisions to overcome.

It takes courage to stand up, sometimes alone, against hate and intolerance. But the Talmud and our tradition teaches us that the fate of our community, and our world, may rest on our willingness to “rebuke our fellow,” to stand up even if we feel it’s unpopular or awkward to do so, for what is right and true.

What Do You Want in a Leader?

A presidential campaign always focuses our attention on the qualities we seek in our leaders. While we tend to idealize our leaders, scrutinize their behavior and exaggerate their faults and virtues, the race for president can also trigger thoughtful dialogue about what personal traits and skills we seek in the people who lead us.

Insights into what we might seek in our leaders can also be gleaned from the Torah, including this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. Spanning Chapters 16-18 of the Book of Leviticus, the parasha includes a detailed description of how Yom Kippur was observed centuries ago in Biblical days. In that context, we read this verse:

“Aaron is to offer his own bull of purification offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household.” (Leviticus 16:6)

 As with most Torah verses, this one also invites commentary and explanation. For example, if Aaron is the religious leader of the people and is charged with officiating at a ceremony that appeals to God for forgiveness for the nation, why must he first “make expiation for himself and his household?” Why not simply enact the required sacrificial rituals and recite the appropriate prayers? Why must the first round of sacrifices be focused specifically on Aaron personally and on his household?

A compelling answer could be that being an effective leader requires a great deal of introspection. Before Aaron can ask for forgiveness on behalf of his people, he must first examine his own behavior and come to terms with his own faults. Consider this commentary:

“Before we can think about fixing the world, we need to fix ourselves and our immediate surroundings. A single positive action can have the effect of improving ourselves, our families, and the nation. Finding ways to improve ourselves has a cumulative effect far greater than the improvements themselves.” (Rabbi Shlomo Ressler, modern American Rabbi)

Ressler suggests that when leaders are mindful of their own behavior and take responsibility for their faults and shortcomings, they grow in their impact on others, including the communities they lead.

A commentary in the Etz Hayim Humash, quoting a midrash, suggests that the phrase “for himself and his household” should be interpreted to mean that the Kohen Gadol must be married. Why? Because the Kohen couldn’t possibly bear the hopes and dreams of his community unless he has personal experience caring for the hopes and dreams of another person. We must acknowledge that in this case, the midrash is out of touch with the social sensibilities of our own day. One need not be married, or even in an intimate relationship with another person, to have experience in caring for others. We all know plenty of people who are caring and compassionate without being married or in a relationship (and Catholics would certainly disagree that their priests must be married in order to be capable of guiding their flock). But the idea that one must be empathetic and understanding of the needs of others on a personal level before representing a community in seeking forgiveness is a compelling one.

 As we contemplate what we want from our leaders, perhaps we should make compassion, empathy and the inclination to care about others a high priority. That is apparently what was required from Aaron as a pre-requisite for addressing the needs of his nation.

 

Interfaith Holocaust Service This Sunday

holocaust_serviceFor Jews, remembering is a sacred task both as individuals and as a community.  For us, memory serves the purpose of connecting us with our past and strengthening us on our journey into the future.

Remembering the darkness of the Holocaust is perhaps the most important act of remembrance of our time. We should consider ourselves obligated to remember the Six Million victims of Hitler’s war against our people in the same way that we consider ourselves obligated to fast on Yom Kippur or take part in a Passover Seder.

I am asking you to fulfill the mitzvah of remembering at our community’s annual Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance service. This year’s service will take place on Sunday, May 1 at 4:00 PM at Oheb Shalom. The service is attended by hundreds of people of all faiths. Because we are the hosts of this year’s event, it is especially important that members of our congregation are present in significant numbers.

I also ask you to take part in the March of Remembrance beginning at 3:00 PM at Spiotta Park (located at the corner of South Orange Avenue and Village Plaza near the Chase Bank). The march will be led by members of the South Orange-Maplewood Clergy, who will offer prayers and readings on the theme of support for refugees.

Please park on side streets surrounding the synagogue, as our parking lot will be reserved for those for whom walking is difficult.  If you wish, you may drop off passengers at the main entrance to our building and then park off premises.  You will be able to enter the building through the glass doors on the street level entrance until the start of the service at 4:00 PM.

I look forward to seeing you at this year’s Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Service.

Sincerely,

RABBI COOPER

P.S. I hope you will join in the celebration of the final days of Passover. We usher in the seventh day with an evening service tonight (Thursday, April 28) at 6:15 PM. Morning services for the seventh day will take place on Friday, April 29 beginning at 9:45 AM. Evening services for Shabbat and the eighth and final day of Passover will take place on Friday at 6:15 PM. And services for the final day of Passover will take place on Saturday, April 30 beginning at 9:45 AM, during which the Yizkor prayers will be recited. After Shabbat ends eat as much Chametz as you want! Chag Sameach!

 

Do Something!

In his book Teacher and Child, Haim Ginott tells a story about two boys who get into a verbal fight in school. The boys are yelling at each other and the argument is on the verge of becoming physical. Trying to be helpful, the teacher starts to lecture the boys about the importance of respect and tolerance. Suddenly, they turn to the teacher and say “Don’t just stand there…do something!” Ginott offers the story to demonstrate why it’s important for teachers to show that while words matter, action is sometimes necessary to make a difference.   That message is not only relevant to teachers and parents, it’s very much part of the Passover story.

In the Book of Exodus, we read the familiar story of the Ten Plagues, the last of which was the killing of the firstborn of Egypt. In order to prevent the death of their own firstborn, the Israelites are instructed to paint blood on the doorposts of their homes. 

And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:13)

That the Israelites had to paint the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the doorposts of their homes has always been a bit of a puzzle. Since God is omniscient, why was it necessary to place a sign on the doors of the Israelites’ homes? Didn’t God, or God’s angelic representative in Egypt, know which homes were occupied by Israelite families? There must be some reason that they were asked to paint blood on their homes. A 19th century German rabbi offers one possible explanation:

The Israelites had to procure the lamb, lead it through the streets without fear of Egyptian reaction, slaughter it family by family in groups, and finally they had to sprinkle its blood on the doorposts for every Egyptian passerby to see, braving the vengeance of their former persecutors. Their fulfillment of every detail of this rite would be a proof of their complete faith in God. (Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865, Germany)

In other words, the Israelites were told to paint the blood of the Passover sacrifice as an act of defiance of their Egyptian masters. Lambs were worshipped by the Egyptians. Killing a lamb was a sacrilegious act in the eyes of the Egyptians, and would take courage. Rabbi Mecklenburg implies that defying their tormentors would not only be a courageous act, it also be a demonstration of the Israelites’ faith in God. If the people truly believed that God was behind them, then they would have no fear of killing a lamb in public and putting its blood on display for all to see.

It could also be said that requiring the Israelites to paint the blood of the sacrificed lamb on their doorposts was a way of involving the people in the drama of their own redemption. Rather than make them passive participants, essentially observers, in the release from bondage, the Israelites were told to do something. Freedom must be earned, not bestowed. Painting blood may have been only a symbolic act, but it spoke volumes to the Israelites about being partners in securing their own freedom.

That’s a Passover message worth noting. Soon, we’ll gather around the Seder table to tell our people’s story. We’ll fulfill the customary rituals and sing the traditional songs. What does it all say to us? In two words, the Seder summons us to “do something.” It’s not enough to observe the plight of the world, to take note that there are people still enslaved, still oppressed, still suffering, even in our day. After all the rituals, songs and foods, the Seder must serve the purpose of motivating us to do something to make a difference.

I hope that your Seder will inspire you to find a way to be involved in the redemption of the world, for there is much about our world that needs to be redeemed.

Note: This Shabbat is both Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the Jewish month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs) and also “Shabbat Ha-Chodesh.” Shabbat Ha-Chodesh (the Sabbat of THE month) inaugurates Nisan with a special reading from the Book of Exodus (12:1-20), a passage that begins to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. With the beginning of the month of Nisan, we begin the spiritual build up toward the celebration of Passover. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan and Shabbat Ha-Chodesh occur on the same day, and we’ll read passages from three separate Torah scrolls. We’ll read the first six aliyot of Parashat Tazria from the first scroll; we’ll read the verses for Rosh Chodesh (Numbers 29:9-15) from the second scroll; and we’ll read the verses for Shabbat Ha-Chodesh as the Maftir from the third scroll.

 

What To Do With Our Ancestors’ Customs Placed In Our Hands

The holiday of Passover is around the corner and with it comes the oft-asked question: Can we eat kitniyot? “Huh?” you ask! “What’s kitniyot? And why can’t I eat it?” The answer is an interesting example of the intersection between tradition and change.

To understand the issue of kitniyot, it’s necessary to know what “chametz” or leaven is. Jewish law prohibits the consumption of leaven during Passover, which is any one of five grains—wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt—that have come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment. Jews are also prohibited from actually owning chametz on Passover (which is why so many people actually “sell” their chametz prior to the holiday), deriving any benefit from it, or even seeing it (hard to accommodate that part of the law nowadays). The prohibition on the consumption of chametz is pretty extensive, including leaven that is both visible and mixed into other foods as well as dishes and utensils on which it is served and cooked. Strictly speaking, even a speck of chametz is disallowed during the holiday.

Up until about 700 years ago, eating on Passover was pretty much just about setting aside chametz. During the 13th century, some Ashkenazic rabbis began talking about prohibiting rice, beans, millet and legumes, collectively known as “kitniyot.” Some suggested that these foods should be prohibited either because they were prepared in ways similar to chametz or were stored in similar containers and in the same location. They were apparently concerned that some people might wrongly assume that if “kitniyot” are permitted, then so are the prohibited chametz grains. (Sephardic rabbis had no problem with kitniyot, likely because of different agricultural and consumption practices in Sephardic lands, and to this day Sephardic Jews have no problem eating them.)

Some scholars across the centuries supported the ban on kitniyot. But mostly, the ban was acknowledged as pointless and even confusing. Some saw it as heaping unnecessary restrictions on people during a holiday that is meant to be joyous but is often experienced as a burdensome time. But the Ashkenazic ban on kitniyot stood the test of time. That is, until a few years ago. First, Rabbi David Golinkin, President Emeritus of The Schechter Institutes in Israel wrote an extensive paper (known as a teshuva) permitting the consumption of kitniyot. And just a few months ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) published a teshuva by Rabbi Amy Levin and Rabbi Avram Reisner permitting the consumption of kitniyot on Passover by Conservative Jews.

Rabbis Levin and Reisner acknowledge that there is a long standing practice of honoring the decisions and practices of our ancestors, even in cases when we don’t agree with their reasoning or understand what prompted them to embrace those practices. There is a principle in play here: minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands. In other words, we should be careful to respect and honor the practices of previous generations. Judaism is a religion based on tradition, and we are typically not quick to dismiss what the past has given to us.

But tradition must be balanced with change, an open and honest embrace of the present and the future. We must consider seriously the values and priorities of our own times if our religion is to have meaning and relevance. Thus the teshuva written by Rabbis Levin and Reisner also addresses the inapplicability of the primary concerns that once gave rise to the ban on kitniyot, the need to create a Jewish experience that is unencumbered by burdens and needless prohibitions, the need to lower the cost of “making Passover,” and even the health benefits of eating legumes (the teshuva reminds us that all processed foods should have a Passover “hechsher”).

So eat rice and beans during Passover! Embrace change even while maintaining a healthy respect for the traditions practiced by the generations of Jews who came before us. And remember that Passover should be about more than what foods are permitted and what foods are not. It’s about celebrating the fundamental freedoms that are the right of all human beings and our obligation to uphold them.

Chag Sameach v’Kasher!

 

Report from AIPAC

I’ve just returned from the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington where more than 18,000 people gathered to learn about Israel and the Middle East, discuss pro-Israel strategies and find new inspiration for supporting Israel. This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference set a record for attendance. The number of people in attendance was so large that general sessions could no longer be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (a massive and sprawling complex) so they were relocated to the Verizon Center, a sports arena a few blocks away that seats well over 20,000 people.

This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference was controversial because Donald Trump was invited to address the convention along with other leading candidates for President and political leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice-President Joe Biden. Some people, viewing Trump’s statements and positions are bigoted, insulting and racist, felt that AIPAC should not have invited him. Others stressed that AIPAC is about political strategy and accomplishes its pro-Israel mission by creating and nurturing bipartisan ties to members of Congress. As AIPAC’s Executive Director Howard Kohr said, an invitation to speak at Policy Conference is not an endorsement of the speaker’s views. It is, rather, part of a strategy to engage all leading political figures in dialogue about supporting Israel.   Listening to Donald Trump’s speech does not require endorsing what he says, let alone voting for him.

Mr. Trump’s speech on Monday night was hardly boycotted. The arena was packed with more than 18,000 people. Yet, I was appalled at the response he received. Rather than disrupt him (which I think would have been inappropriate and undignified), he received numerous rounds of applause and standing ovations. Perhaps this is typical behavior when someone well known addresses a large gathering and makes pro-Israel statements. But there was no rejection of Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric, his statements condemning an entire faith group, his comments that denigrate women, or his failure to forcefully condemn white supremacists.   As a whole, the group shockingly embraced him, even when he made ugly and inappropriate comments about President Obama (the next morning, Lillian Pinkus, the newly installed President of AIPAC, tearfully apologized to the convention attendees at the general session for the divisive tone set by those comments). I rejected the idea of boycotting Mr. Trump’s speech, advising instead that we must hear what Mr. Trump, and the others, have to say about their views on Israel. But I was terribly disappointed and dismayed to see how enthusiastically he was received. Where was the rejection of hate and bigotry? Where was the Jewish stance against discrimination? I only wish that it had been possible to mobilize the crowd to mute its response to Mr. Trump and thereby demonstrate to him that while we are willing to hear his views on Israel, we are unwilling to tolerate positions that are racist and unjust.

In general, the reaction of the crowd to pro-Israel speeches was at times bewildering.  This is not a commentary on AIPAC as an organization or its supporters, but rather an insight into crowd behavior in general.  Some speakers made statements that are simply unrealistic or unbelievable.  For example, Trump mentioned the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist nature of education in the Palestinian school system.  That’s a concern of course, one raised by others, including Ellie Wiesel (here, I invoke the Hebrew word l’havdil, which means to separate, and is used to convey that two people shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence).  It’s worth noting that Palestinian educational culture is shaping a generation of young people to hate Israel, but Trump added that if he becomes President, “that will stop.”  When I heard that, I wondered how on earth he would, as President of the United States, change the curriculum and educational culture of Palestinian schools.  But the crowd applauded and gave him a standing ovation.  Another example is the statement, made by several candidates, that as President they would quickly move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (normally an embassy is in a nation’s capitol and some have pushed for the United States to make a statement about Israel’s capitol by moving our embassy to Jerusalem).  Frankly, moving the embassy is a fairly low priority issue.  But saying it gets a good reaction from a large, staunchly pro-Israel crowd.  Here, too, people stood up and applauded loudly.  (I preferred Hilary Clinton’s approach on this issue, who said that moving the embassy is unnecessarily provocative and would harm any potential progress toward a two-state solution.)  So not only was the applause bewildering because it appeared to embrace Donald Trump despite his rhetoric, but also because it seemed to be a virtually pavlovian response to hearing anything a candidate might say that sounds pro-Israel.

Putting aside the controversy generated by Mr. Trump, I want to encourage you to get involved with AIPAC. This is an organization whose sole purpose is to support Israel by strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership. Those who attend Policy Conference come away inspired to support Israel, having learned something valuable about Israel, the Middle East and world politics, and feeling the power and strength that come from such a large pro-Israel gathering. Beyond hearing from politicians, AIPAC is a place to learn about how Israel is an innovator in the field of technology, especially technology that is designed to help people overcome life’s obstacles. It’s a place to learn how Israel reaches out a helping hand to distressed communities and countries that experience disaster and tragedy. Next year’s policy conference will take place on March 26-28, 2017. But even before that, there will be opportunities in the next few months to gather together to learn about AIPAC from members of our own synagogue delegation and other speakers.

Israel is a strong, democratic nation that still needs the support and love of people around the world, and AIPAC is one of the most important and successful ways to mobilize that support. I hope you will get involved.

Are You Your Brother’s Keeper?

It can be argued that a central theme of the Book of Genesis is our obligation to care for others. Cain kills his brother Abel and when God asks him to account for himself he sarcastically answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That answer is the prelude to the struggle that unfolds in the rest of the book between the various descendants of Abraham, one that culminates with Judah putting his life on the line for Benjamin and Joseph forgiving the brothers that had mistreated him. When he breaks down in tears and embraces them, he answers the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an unequivocal yes. We are not meant to struggle or live in perpetual strife with our brothers but to live in harmony.

The theme of living harmoniously with our siblings continues in the Book of Exodus, which we conclude this Shabbat with the reading of the final parasha, Pekudei. The construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) has been completed, along with the special vestments worn by Aaron and his sons who will serve as Kohanim (priests). The Mishkan will soon be dedicated and then become an active hub of religious life for the Israelites. In this context, God commands Moses to oversee the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim:

“Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest. Then bring his sons forward, put tunics on them, and anoint them as you have anointed their father, that they may serve Me as priests. Their anointing shall serve them for everlasting priesthood throughout the ages.” (Exodus 40:13-15)

 The verse in question seems straightforward, but some commentators wonder how Moses truly felt about presiding over his brother’s consecration as High Priest. Was he proud of him? Did he feel honored to be God’s representative in enacting such an important and powerful ritual? Or did he feel envious that his brother was being elevated to a position of prominence and power that he coveted for himself? And why, wonders one scholar, does the Torah specifically state that Moses was to “anoint and consecrate Aaron” and then add “bring his sons forward and anoint them as you have anointed their father…”? Why was it necessary to mention the consecration of Aaron’s sons separately?

“It was necessary to tell Moses to anoint the sons of Aaron just as he had their father to signify to him the spirit in which he was to perform the ceremony. Moses had not been jealous of the priestly sanctity conferred upon his brother Aaron because he, Moses, had himself been prophet and king of his people and even fulfilled the functions of high priest during the seven days of preparation which preceded the Giving of the Torah. But Moses might well have resented the fact that his own children could not have been raised to lofty position… It was for this reason that the Lord reminded Moses that when he would anoint Aaron’s sons he must do it with the same joy and eagerness as he had shown when consecrating their father.” (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Lithuania)

Rabbi Dvinsk asserts that Moses was not at all jealous of his brother becoming the High Priest because he enjoyed an equivalent, if not higher, position as God’s prophet. He even functioned as High Priest himself for a week. If Moses was envious of Aaron at all, it was because his nephews, the sons of Aaron, would inherit the priesthood while his own children would not enjoy any significant position of communal leadership. It was for this reason that God reminds Moses to “anoint Aaron’s sons with the same joy and eagerness” that he displayed in anointing his brother.

These commentaries ask us to reflect on whether we are proud of the success of our siblings, family members and friends and happy for them, or if their success causes us to feel envious. There is no absolute answer to such a question. At our best, we do not feel envy or resentment of the success of others, especially those closest to us. At our worst, we are bitter and annoyed when others earn or have things that we do not. Most of us are likely somewhere in between two extremes in our emotional responses to life’s challenges.

As we close out this year’s reading of the Book of Exodus, we end on an encouraging and inspirational note. We are reminded to subordinate feelings of envy when those close to us achieve success or prominence. And we are reminded to answer some of the Torah’s key questions—Are we our brother’s keeper…do we truly care about what happens to those close to us…do we care about the people with whom we share a community and the world…do we act on that caring?—with a resounding yes.