Is Passover Fake News?

This year I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a group of Oheb Shalom members once a month at a Midtown Manhattan law office.  The study group is dubbed “Prophets and Profits” because we discuss that week’s Haftarah portion from the prophetic section of the Bible and then receive a market report.  (The group is open to anyone who wants to join—for more information contact Paul Schechner.)

At a recent session, I shared the idea that the events of Passover, including the enslavement of the Israelites, the Ten Plagues, the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, probably never happened.  We have absolutely no material historical evidence that there were such events, other than the Bible itself.  We can prove that there was a Temple in Jerusalem (both the First and Second Temples) and that our ancestors lived in the Land of Israel during the 1,000-year period prior to being defeated by the Romans and exiled from our land.  There’s archaeological evidence of those things.  But there’s no hard evidence that anything connected to the holiday of Passover actually happened.

Jaws dropped.  People turned white.  One person said, “Rabbi, you’re killing me…I just can’t accept that none of this stuff is true. Passover will never be the same for me.”  I answered that all of it is true, it’s just not historically factual.  There’s truth in the story, there’s inspiration in the celebration of the holiday, and the Seder still has meaning and purpose, even if we can’t prove that it’s historically accurate.

To borrow a term from the current political climate, Passover isn’t “fake news.”  The story wasn’t invented to create an alternative reality or to be a diversion from the truth.  Likely, the story of Passover as recounted in the Torah is a collection of communal myths and legends that became embedded into the people’s national religious consciousness over a period of many centuries.  That theory explains the conflicting details in the story (for example, we are commanded both to refrain from eating leaven and to eat matzah for seven days, and there’s no reason to conclude that we eat matzah because the Israelites had no time for their dough to rise).  Passover is the story of who we are as a people, where we came from, and what we aspire to become.  It is a story about the quest for faith and the meaning of freedom.  The Haggadah is not a history book as much as it is a collection of poetry and allegorical tales meant to prod us to feel more deeply about human suffering and animate us to do more to achieve justice in our world.

It doesn’t matter if the events of Passover are historically accurate or not.  Its meaning and message, its call to summon us all to work for the freedom and dignity of all human beings, its urging to see the holiday in the context of the struggles and challenges of today, such as the largest number of refugees in history, human trafficking, racial injustice, gender inequality and bias against LGBTQ people, all combine to remind us that Passover has something to say regardless of whether the story is real or not.

If you’d prefer to believe that the story of Passover is real, that’s fine.  And it’s also fine if you see it as a mythical story that has something to say to us, for in a very real way it does.

My entire family—Amy, Eitan, Dita, Noam, Josh, Yoni, Benji and Aaron—join me in wishing you a meaningful and fulfilling Pesach celebration.

Note:  If you would like to be a guest at a Seder, or if you have room at your Seder table for guests, please let me know and I’ll try to make a match.

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Enough is Enough

A few months ago, when we celebrated the beginning of 2017, I happened to read an article listing someone’s suggestions for New Year resolutions.  They included the usual things, like gaining control over finances, exercising more, eating a healthier diet, being outdoors more and doing more of what you’re passionate about.  One suggestion stuck with me, in part because I had already gone a long way toward fulfilling it—possess what you actually need rather than collect and store things that you don’t really need or use.  In the fall of last year, Amy and I decided to sell our home and move to an apartment.  With only one child still living at home, we felt that our house had become too big for us.    We had things stored in the basement, in the attic and in the garage that we simply didn’t need and never used.  When we moved to our new home (at The Avenue in South Orange), we donated furniture and kitchen appliances, including things we hadn’t used in years.  In our new apartment, we have exactly what we need and use.

We live in a country where some Americans have an abundance of material goods and almost unlimited access to what we want.  It’s not even necessary to be mega wealthy to have so much.  We need to be reminded that there are millions of people in this country, and billions more elsewhere in the world, who either barely have what they need or have much less than they need to survive.  Recently, Ruth Messinger, Global Ambassador of the American Jewish World Service and Finkelstein Institute Social Justice Fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote in The Forward about the need for each of us to conduct a “self-audit for sufficiency.”  She noted the following facts:

  • Rabbis who travel with her to the developing world report that one of their worst moments upon returning home is entering an American supermarket that sells more than 50 kinds of cereal.
  • Although the United States has 4.5% of the world’s population, we use on average 20% of the world’s energy.
  • Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily, while 16 million people in Africa are on the brink of death by starvation in the next few months.
  • The richest eight people in the world have assets equal to those of the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world (half the world’s population).

Messinger notes that people often speak of what they need when what they’re really referring to is what they want, and that we should strive to distinguish between needs and wants in our thinking, our possessions and our consumption.  She suggests that we should ask ourselves if we really “need” the item we are about to acquire, and if we are truly helping our children by giving them what they say they need.

Passover is an opportunity to focus on what we possess versus what we actually need.  In general, Pesach summons us to think about the burdens and suffering of those who are enslaved, oppressed and impoverished.  I often think of something my father used to say: “I felt sorry for myself that I had no shoes until I met the man who had no feet.”  His point seemed to be that there’s always someone who has less than you do, and it’s always possible to make do with less than you have.  Pesach reminds of this truth.

The Seder song Dayyenu is another reminder that we can get by with less than we possess or think we need.  Dayyenu was probably written about 1,000 years ago and was included in the Haggadah of Rav Amram Gaon, the first sage in Jewish history to produce a formal prayer book.  It has a catchy melody to go along with a precise literary structure.  Containing 15 verses, each one denoting a gift from God, the lyrics represent a step-by-step accounting of the creation of the Jewish nation from the Exodus to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The verses are considered “ma’a lot tovot” (steps of kindness) where each step is greater than the one before it.  (The Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah eliminates four of the 15 verses, three of which deal with the defeat of the Egyptians, something we are not supposed to emphasize, and one of which seems to be repetitive.  And The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices by Moshe Saks Zion offers a contemporary version of Dayyenu with the theme of the establishment of the modern State of Israel.)

Dayyenu, in addition to expressing gratitude to God for the gifts we have received, carries the message that any one of the steps would have been sufficient for us (indeed, that’s exactly what the word “Dayyenu” means).  It expresses the idea that we should be satisfied with what we have and ought to feel extraordinarily blessed to have more than that.

What a remarkable and important idea to ponder in this age of abundance—acquire and possess only what you need.  This is not meant to be an urging of asceticism or an embrace of poverty.  Jews are not expected to shun material possessions.  But we can say Dayyenu!  It’s enough to be alive, to breathe, to live each day in this remarkable world, to give and receive love.  A “Dayyenu attitude” serves to increase our appreciation of the gifts and blessings we receive each day.  It prompts us to appreciate what we do have, to be more generous, more compassionate, more sensitive and understanding of those who have less than they need for a dignified, healthy life.

Isn’t that a good reason to celebrate Passover?

My Grandson’s Bris

Recently I experienced what may be the most deeply spiritual moment of my life—my first grandson’s bris.  The ceremony, held in my son and daughter-in-law’s synagogue in Riverdale, New York, emphasized for me the profound and enduring importance and meaning of Brit Milah, the ceremony of welcoming a baby boy into the family of the Jewish people with prayers and the ritual of circumcision.   That this bris was so spiritually meaningful may not seem unusual, except for three things:  I am a congregational rabbi in the 31st year of my career and thus no stranger to Jewish life cycle events, I have been a Mohel with an active practice for nearly 24 years during which I have performed thousands of circumcisions, and I am the father of five sons, each of whom was welcomed with a bris.  For those who may be wondering, I did perform circumcision for my sons (the three younger ones, as I wasn’t yet a Mohel when the first two were born).  Unlike a surgeon in an operating room, a father has a Jewish legal obligation to circumcise his own son, though in almost every instance the obligation is transferred to a Mohel.

In my work as a Mohel, I’ve observed a fair amount of discomfort with the idea of ritual circumcision, often expressed in the form of crude and stale jokes (I can no longer count the number of times I’ve been asked what I think of the 1993 Seinfeld episode about the drunken, crazy Mohel).  I’ve met people who have misgivings about performing circumcision in public in the name of religion.  Because there is so much misunderstanding about the meaning of Brit Milah, my job is to present this time-honored experience as what it should be—a sacred religious gathering that celebrates the miracle of new life, the joys of parenthood and the blessing of family, and as a time to affirm that there will be another generation of the Jewish people, something that is in its own way miraculous.  Circumcision, while important (it happens to be the oldest continuously practiced Jewish ritual), is merely the physical symbol of our commitment to the continuity of the Jewish way of life and performing it takes no more than three minutes of a 30-minute ceremony.

These elements were all present at my grandson Noam’s bris.  He was ushered into the sanctuary on a pillow by his great grandmother and two grandmothers while everyone in the room soulfully sang “Hamalach Ha-Goel,” a song based on a verse from Genesis 48:16: “May the angel who has delivered me from all harm bless this child.”   We offered prayers that the world become a world of co-existence and tolerance and sang “Eliyahu Hanavi” as the baby was placed on the Chair of Elijah.

Next was the actual milah (circumcision), the physical ritual that symbolizes the welcoming of the baby into the covenant.  Serving as Mohel for one’s own son or grandson is a complex task.  Obviously, it’s necessary to remain focused on the technical aspects of the procedure.  But performing this ancient ritual for a grandson also draws forth a unique emotional response.  My eyes filled with tears as the baby, lying on a pillow, was placed on my father-in-law’s lap as he sat in the Chair of Elijah.  In the days leading up to the bris my son pondered if he should fulfill the mitzvah of milah, required of Jewish fathers, by performing a key step of the circumcision.  It’s uncommon for a father to do this, but Eitan had obtained some training and experience in performing ritual circumcision while living in Israel.  We agreed that I would perform most of the elements of the ritual but would guide him in fulfilling the actual mitzvah, the particular step that involves the removal of the foreskin.  When the moment came, I urged Eitan to embrace the moment as a deeply spiritual one.  In performing this part of the ritual for his son, he should have in mind the Kavanah, the spiritual intention, that he was doing so to give tangible expression to his and his wife’s commitment to inspire their son to make the world a place of greater holiness and blessing because of the Jewish traditions and values that they would teach him.

The moment the circumcision ritual was performed was deeply emotional and meaningful for me.  Family and friends quietly sang a beautiful song called Ve-Zakeini which asks God that we merit the privilege of raising children who are devoted to bringing goodness into the world.  Four generations of our family—a great grandfather, me, Eitan and Noam—were in one place for the sacred purpose of welcoming this beautiful new baby into the family of the Jewish people and affirming that he, along with the rest of his generation, would carry the story of the Jewish people into the future.

It’s not every day that a Mohel officiates at his own grandson’s bris.  For me, this day vividly confirmed what Brit Milah is all about.  It’s not a time for jokes, nor is it a time for someone to rapidly recite a few Hebrew prayers and then perform a ritual that people may find awkward and inaccessible.  For me, a bris is nothing less than a celebration of the miracle of new life and the affirmation of a solemn promise that the story of the People of Israel will have a new, promising chapter.  That’s what it wasfor my grandson Noams, and that’s what I strive for it to be every time I officiate at a bris.

Why We Wear Masks

Purim is our most fun holiday, celebrated with parties, food and drinking, giving each other gifts of baked goods and candy, and by wearing costumes and masks.  But even a day of fun on the Jewish calendar contains some serious and important lessons.  Wearing a mask on Purim can teach us something about how to live in the world.

No one is certain of the reason for wearing costumes, and especially masks, on Purim.  Some suggest it is reminiscent of the parties that Esther held for King Achashverosh and Haman, occasions she used to reveal Haman’s plot to kill the Jews and save our people from destruction.  Others suggest it is indicative of the “hidden face of God,” an idea found in the Book of Deuteronomy (31:18) where God declares that He will “hide His face” because the people don’t trust in Him.  The Book of Esther is one of only two Biblical books that do not contain the name of God.  Despite the omission, the Talmudic sages included it in the Biblical canon and taught that there was a reason God’s name is omitted.  Sometimes the presence of God is not obvious.  Like the director of a play who stands in the shadows and is nowhere to be seen on the night of a performance, sometimes the Divine presence is hidden, even if the miracles that sustain us are evident.  So it is with the story of Esther, said the rabbis, in that it teaches us that God is present in our lives and in the world in ways that cannot be discerned overtly.

Wearing a mask on Purim also can remind us that there are times when our own identity should rightly be hidden.  We should do certain things not because we get credit or are seen doing them, but because it’s right to do them.  Our pleasure and gratification should come from the knowledge that we have done something that helps another person.  Wearing a mask on Purim emphasizes that certain acts should be done anonymously, especially the act of tzedakah.

Purim affords us the opportunity not only to celebrate and have a good time, but to help the needy.  There are four mitzvot associated with Purim.  Three of these are well known: hearing the Megillah being read, giving each other gifts of baked goods and candy, and having a Purim meal on the afternoon of the holiday.  The fourth Mitzvah may be the least familiar but is no less important:  giving to the needy, or Matanot La-Evyonim.  This is our response to injustice and cruelty—working to make the world a bit more whole and to remove a small measure of the pain and suffering of our fellow human beings.  Oheb Shalom’s teen community and Social Action Committee will help us to perform this Mitzvah on Purim eve by preparing 200 boxed meals that will be delivered to the Willing Hearts Community Care Center in Newark.

Purim teaches us that such acts, on this day of celebration, or any day of the year, should be performed quietly, purposefully and, equally important, without seeking attention or credit for doing something helpful and virtuous.  Perhaps that’s the most compelling symbol behind wearing a mask.

I hope you will join us for a wonderful Purim celebration that begins on Saturday, March 11 at 6:15 PM.  We have transformed the synagogue into the Village of Shushan, and we await your arrival!

Anti-Semitism: Why and What To Do

The increase in anti-Semitic incidents is alarming to us all.  Bomb threats called into JCCs and Jewish Day Schools at an alarming rate, the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, graffiti sprayed on walls and public buildings, swastikas burned into the carpet of college dorm hallways in front of the rooms of Jewish students, vicious and threatening letters sent to heads of Jewish organizations who are working for social justice.  And this is only a partial list of the evidence of anti-Semitism.  The problem has become so pervasive that it was the first thing mentioned by President Trump in this week’s address to a joint session of Congress (though possibly because of criticism that he had waited too long to offer words of condemnation), and is major story in national news coverage.

Our own community has been affected as well, though not with violence.  In recent months, there have been incidents at South Orange Middle School and Maplewood Middle School that raise concerns of anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior among students.  And just yesterday, the new pedestrian bridge in the South Mountain Reservation was extensively defaced with graffiti which prominently included swastikas and intimidating language.

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When we encounter anti-Semitism, we are compelled to ask why it is so prevalent.  Anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior are not new—they are as old as Judaism itself.  Still, in every era and at every ugly incident, we want to know why Jews are so often the target of hatred and violence.

There are no clear and obvious answers, though many have offered theories.  Some have said that Jews have been historically hated because we are the world’s conscience, the first to sound the call to moral behavior.  Our voices have been the loudest to declare that the pursuit of goodness and decency requires sacrifice, self-discipline and the ability to control human impulse and temptation.

Others have suggested that anti-Semites are nothing more than people who hate themselves, often with good reason, so they find someone as different from themselves as possible, and whatever they don’t like about themselves they project onto this other person or people.  The result of their self-loathing is an attack on the “other,” including the expression of racial hatred, religious hatred and hatred of people who are expressing their sexual or gender identity.  In this context, we, as Jews, must continue to take a strong and determined stand against hatred against all people.  We must resist discrimination, hatred and violence not only when it affects our people and our community, but when it comes along to sting and insult any person.  This has long been a teaching and core principal of Judaism—we oppose hatred and discrimination in all its ugly forms and against all people.

Whatever the reason, the question now is why is there an upsurge in anti-Semitic activity and violence at this time?  Again, we have theories, such as the ideas offered by Dr. Stephen Windmueller who suggests that the current surge in anti-Semitism can be ascribed to three causes:  1)  the current political climate, 2) the “Cycle of Hate,” and 3) changing perspectives about Jews.

Whatever the cause of the current upsurge in anti-Semitism, we surely must respond assertively.  I urge us all to be vigilant.  While it may have come to sound a bit cliché, “if you see something, say something” is more relevant than ever.  Don’t be dismissive of the appearance of hateful graffiti as just something that’s part of our culture or the new norm.  We are supported by a strong and concerned community and by effective and dedicated law enforcement officials on every level– we are not alone.

I urge us all not to be afraid or intimidated.  If anything, that’s what haters want—to make their targets feel afraid and abandon what they enjoy and love about life.  Nothing would make an anti-Semite happier than to see Jews stop doing the things that they enjoy about being Jewish.

I urge us to work for goodness and decency in our community and national life and to oppose anyone who targets “the other” because they don’t conform to their own view of what normal and acceptable should look and behave like.

And I urge us all to continue to be proud of our Jewish identity.

Because of the upsurge in anti-Semitic activity, I have invited Josh Cohen, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey Office, to speak to our congregation on Saturday, March 11 during Shabbat morning services on the topic of “Toward a World Without Hate: The Quest to Defeat Anti-Semitism.”  The service starts at 9:45 AM and the presentation will begin at approximately 11:15 AM.
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JTS Is Doing Remarkable Things

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In this week’s blog I want to share a message about the work being done by JTS- The Jewish Theological Seminary- to deepen Jewish learning and create and strengthen the next generation of Jewish leaders.  JTS is my Alma Mater- I was ordained by the Seminary in 1985 and then immediately began my career as a Rabbi.  Under the leadership of Chancellor Arnold Eisen, a brilliant scholar and visionary, JTS is growing and deepening its impact on the modern Jewish world.  What follows is a message sent this week by Marc Gary, Executive Vice-chancellor and Chief Operating Officer of JTS, to alumni.  This message explains the great successes and tremendous reach of JTS.  If you care about meaningful Jewish learning, if you care about nurturing the next generation of Rabbis, Cantors and Jewish educators, then supporting JTS will help achieve those aspirations.

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An emphasis on social action.  JTS is teaching students to be changes agents who help enact the Jewish values they study. 

  • Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, associate dean of The Rabbinical School, is using her deep background in social justice to infuse this learning throughout the school and all of JTS.
  • JustCity, JTS’s summer program, brings teens to JTS to learn the fundamentals of change leadership through a Jewish lens.
  • Ruth Messinger, former president of the American Jewish World Service, recently joined JTS as the inaugural Finkelstein Institute Social Justice Fellow.

Read about a recent project.

Teaching and modeling the spiritual arts.  Through the Block/Kolker Center for the Spiritual Arts, JTS is developing students’ skills in the art of prayer.

  • JTS is modeling meaningful and innovative tefillah to the entire community through holiday and Shabbat services.
  • Rabbinical and Cantorial students have a new curriculum on the art of creating and leading inspiring prayer.

Read about the Block/Kolker Center for the Spiritual Arts, headed by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, a deeply gifted teacher who has presented at Oheb Shalom several times in recent years.

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A renewed focus on Israel.  JTS is preparing students to be deeply knowledgeable leaders of the Israel dialogue.

  • Dr. Hillel Gruenberg is JTS’s new director of Israel Engagement.
  • JTS has revamped the Israel Year for rabbinical students, which is now headquartered at JTS’s own historic building, the Schocken Institute, in the heart of Jerusalem.
  • The Davidson School has launched a new Experiential Educators Program in Israel, an MA degree in partnership with the Pardes Institute.

Read about the Rabbinic Year in Israel

Growing Demand for Beit Midrash Learning.  Nishma, JTS’s summer Beit Midrash program, continues to grow.

  • The number of Nishma students has risen from 11 three years ago to 33 last summer. This year JTS expects a record number of students.
  • 20 Nishma students have gone on to The Rabbinical School of JTS.
  • JTS is bringing its Beit Midrash style of learning to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.

Read about the Nisma Program.

Expanded Learning Community.  JTS is expanding opportunities for Jewish learning for learners across the country and around the world.

  • The number of adults joining JTS for in-person courses throughout North America has more than doubled, to 3,000 a year.
  • 400 rabbis annually are served by JTS’s continuing education programs, both in-person and online.
  • Last year JTS began live streaming its public lectures, allowing communities to build educational programs around our public events.
  • This year JTS launched its first turnkey educational program for synagogues and other organizations, entitled “The Ethical Life,” which is already being implemented to great acclaim by 50 congregations.
  • JTS Torah Online offers an ever-growing collection of contemporary Jewish content.

Explore JTS Community Learning

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Greater Access to Library Treasurers.  Through technology and an expanded loan program, JTS is bringing its library treasures to the world.

  • In addition to library material on view at major museums across North America and overseas, several pieces were featured recently in the New York Metropolitan Museum’s acclaimed exhibit “Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven.”
  • JTS has begun offering virtual tours of library artifacts on our web site. The first virtual tour focused on its unparralelled collection of Haggadot, including the oldest extant Haggadah in the world. Next up: a virtual tour of “Luxury (18th Century) Manuscripts for Court Jews.”

See where the library treasures are on exhibit.

 

 

You Shall Not Steal…But What?

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we read the story of God’s revelation to the People of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  Tradition has infused this moment with great significance.  It is revered by the Talmudic sages, and is seen as evidence that God wishes to enter into a personal relationship with His people as a community and with each individual.  The “Revelation,” as it is called, is also the moment when God communicates the essence of a proper life to the People of Israel through the Ten Commandments.  While the Torah contains many laws and teachings, the Ten Commandments are offered by the Torah as the foundation of an ethical and moral life.  According to tradition, it is only after the Revelation and the presentation of the Ten Commandments that Moses ascends the mountain to commune with God and receive the Torah that he will present to the People of Israel.

The Ten Commandments have become a cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian heritage and have been embraced and studied for as long as Jews and Christians have walked the earth.  Rabbinic teaching has found meaning and insight in the story of the Revelation, as well as in each of the commandments.  One of the commandments, “You shall not steal,” is a good example.  While its meaning may seem straightforward, the sages debated what it actually means.

Rashi (1040-1105, France) taught that the eighth commandment, presented simply as two Hebrew words in the Torah (“Lo Tignov”) can refer to stealing money, material items, or even kidnapping people.

Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir ha-Kohen, known as the “Shakh,” (Lithuania and Poland, 1621-1662) taught that since the eighth commandment doesn’t specify what should not be stolen, it therefore can be understood to apply not only to stealing someone’s money and possessions, but also to lying and deceit.

From this teaching and others like it, Jewish law developed a prohibition against a particular type of theft:  Geneivat Da’at, or “theft of the mind,” by which they intended to prohibit various forms of misrepresentation and deception.  While it is permissible to avoid the truth to preserve someone’s dignity and avoid embarrassment or ridicule, it is not permissible to knowingly deceive someone in order to secure an advantage, especially in business.  It is forbidden by Jewish law to offer goods for sale that are not of the quality that is advertised.  Similarly, it is not permissible for a merchant to offer goods for sale based on a false premise, such as an announcement that someone is going out of business, for that would create the false impression that there is a limited time to make a discounted purchase.

Geneivat Da’at also applies to persuading someone to do something or donate money on a false premise, such as asking for charitable funds when the need is not real.  Geneivat Da’at  forbids shielding assets based on a false premise, such as transferring funds to another party such as a dependent child in order to qualify for federal assistance like Medicaid.  Similarly, one is forbidden from creating an impression of accomplishment or importance when the circumstances do warrant such for personal gain, whether in a tangible form or in the form of prestige.

There are numerous applications of Geneivat Da’at to the realm of ethics and business, as well as interpersonal relationships, the fruit of interpretation of two simple Hebrew words- Lo Tignov.  Such a treasure chest of ideas and meaning reinforces my belief that the Torah is truly an infinite reservoir of understanding and teaching that can guide our lives in the times in which we live.

There is no Messiah

I don’t believe in the coming of the Messiah.  Despite the moving and inspirational affirmations of generations of Jews across the centuries who expressed their faith in the Mashiach (Hebrew for Messiah), I cannot bring myself to believe in a personal Messiah who will deliver us from catastrophe and usher in an era of peace, serenity and faith.  What I do believe in is the possibility of a Messianic era which, in my mind, is nothing less than all of humanity creating an existence marked by tolerance, co-existence, acceptance of the other and peace.  We’re clearly not there yet, nor do I necessarily believe that humankind will reach that state of being in my lifetime.  But I am convinced that we have the potential to get there and that religion, at its best, can inspire its adherents to work for such an existence.  The task of reaching that existence is squarely in our hands, and we shouldn’t expect Divine intervention to make it happen for us.

The Torah teaches this same idea.  In this week’s parasha, Beshalach, we read the final chapter in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the rescue of the Israelites at the shore of the sea as they were being pursued by the Egyptian army.  As the story goes, Moses responds to his people’s cries of despair by telling them to “stand by and witness the deliverance the Lord will work for you today.”  But in the next verse, God rebuts Moses’ assertion that the people need only stand by to achieve redemption:  “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”   To paraphrase God’s rebuke, He says to Moses something like: “You think that they can just sit by and have no skin in this game?  You think they just have to stand by and I’ll solve their problems?  Think again!”

Responding to the idea that Moses advised the Israelites to simply stand by and wait for God to save them, a Chasidic master (whose name has been lost to history but whose teaching has endured) taught the following:

“The Kotzker rebbe greeted his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Leib: ‘I love you deeply, but why is it that you cry out to the Holy One each day to send the Messiah?  Why don’t you cry out to our brethren, the people Israel, to repent their evil ways?  Then the messiah will actually come! This is the meaning of ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites.'”

Judaism has never supported the idea that we need only rely on God to make our world and our lives whole.  That’s our job.  Indeed, we already have quite an arsenal of Divine gifts to make it happen—wisdom, compassion, scientific knowledge and skill, and love.  In the words of a well-known proverbial saying that originated in ancient Greece and found its way into the Bible (both Jewish and Christian), “God helps those who help themselves.”  We are expected to solve our own problems, using the resources and gifts at our disposal.

That is a message that should resonate in the times in which we are living.  Whatever problems and challenges we are facing in our country and in the world, don’t wait for someone else (especially God) to solve them.

Each of us must become an activist.  Pick your cause.  Pick your strategy.

As God said to Moses and the Israelites, “Don’t cry out to me…go forward!”

Israel’s Settlement Movement:  What Do You Know?

For your calendar:

From Gush Emunim to Amona:  The Story and History of the Settlers Movement

Presenter: Moshe Levi, Community Shaliach for the Jewish Greater Federation of MetroWest New Jersey.

Wednesday, February 1 at 7:45 PM at Oheb Shalom.

Free and open to the community.

Two days ago, Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, announced on behalf of the Israeli government that it has approved the construction of 2,500 new West Bank settlement homes, most, but not all, of them to be built within the existing settlement blocs that Israel hopes to keep in a future negotiated deal with the Palestinians.  An additional 566 units are approved for construction in East Jerusalem.  Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, taking questions from Knesset members, said that the new homes in the settlements were “just a taste” of what is to come.  The Prime Minister expressed his delight at the departure of President Obama and the inauguration of President Trump, noting the Obama administration’s “not one brick” policy of opposing any construction beyond the Green Line (the armistice line that was Israel’s border from the end of the 1948 War of Independence until the 1967 Six Day War).  Mr. Netanyahu indicated that he would discuss the issue of settlements, along with other key issues Israel faces, with President Trump when he visits Washington next month.  Mr. Netanyahu is, no doubt, quite pleased with the initial statements made by President Trump about Israeli settlement activity and his appointment of David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel.

Some may react to this news by cheering new Israeli settlement activity and would likely say that it’s Israel’s right to build settlements anywhere in the land it wants to either because it’s the Jewish people’s God-given right to do so, or perhaps because we won the land fair and square in a defensive war, or because the Arabs hate the Jews and want to destroy the State of Israel, or because Israel does not face a demographic problem at all and is not risking being outnumbered by the Palestinians, or because Israel needs to protect itself from the threat of Islamic terrorism that would most certainly take root in any newly created Palestinian state.

Some may react to the news of new Israeli settlement activity by condemning the construction of new West Bank homes and would likely say that Israel is destroying any hope of a two-state solution by creating facts on the ground that cannot be reversed, or perhaps that Israel is denying the very character and nature of Zionism by occupying another people, or perhaps that Israel is risking its democratic nature as a nation-state by occupying another people that has no opportunity for national self-expression, or perhaps because Israel, as the Jewish State, must never act unjustly.

Some may react by opposing Israeli settlement construction, but only because they feel that Israel must take a wait and see approach to what happens next in the Middle East.  With Syria in shambles, with ISIS still a potent threat that is inching closer to Israel (ISIS took credit for the recent murder of four Israeli soldiers who were run over by a truck in Jerusalem), with Iran on the rise and its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon growing stronger, some would say that this is no time to relinquish territory, but neither is it a time to build settlements on the land.

And, of course, some may not react to new Israeli settlement activity at all, either because they don’t care one way or the other, or perhaps because they don’t understand the complexity of the issue.  But people who care about Israel even a little should be neither apathetic nor ignorant about what the State of Israel does.  People are entitled to their opinions about how the Israeli government manages its society, including how it approaches the relationship to the Palestinians.  But, like so many important issues in life, apathy and ignorance do not help to bring about solutions to problems.

Because it is so crucially important that we are knowledgeable about Israeli settlement building, I have invited Moshe Levi, the Jewish Agency’s Community Shaliach (representative) to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, and an expert in the history of the Israeli settlement movement, to present on this important topic on Wednesday, February 1st at 7:45 PM at Oheb Shalom.  The title of Moshe’s lecture will be “From Gush Emunim to Amona:  The Story and History of the Settlers Movement.” Using multi-media images and video, Moshe will discuss the origins of the settlement movement, the ideology of its supporters, and its relationship to the quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It’s important to note that the presentation will be objective and neither pro-settlement nor anti-settlement.  The purpose of the lecture is to educate and inform, not to make a case either for or against Israeli settlement construction.  Whether you consider yourself knowledgeable and informed, or a novice on this topic, I urge you to attend.

In the weeks following this presentation, I will invite our congregation to discuss our views on Israel’s settlement movement and what American Jews can and should do to advocate for those views.  I anticipate a lively but civil discussion, as is appropriate even when a topic is controversial.  Date and time will be shared on the night of Moshe’s presentation.

A Prayer for Our Country As a New President is Inaugurated

Ribon Ha-Olam, Sovereign of the Universe and Master of all creation, as we prepare to inaugurate a new president to lead this great country, we ask for Your blessing.  But what should that blessing be?

We need not ask You for freedom, for we are already blessed to live in a country that endows all who live here with the unalienable right to choose our leaders, to speak our mind openly and without fear of recrimination, to pursue our dreams and to fulfill our potential, to be who we are and wish to be, and to believe what we wish to believe.

We need not ask You for material sustenance, for You have already blessed us with more than we could possibly need or use.  There is ample food and shelter for every person who lives in this great land so that no human being needs to be hungry or homeless.  We need only learn how to share what we have with those in need.

We need not ask You to make our communities safe from gratuitous violence and crime, for You have already shown us the supreme importance of treating every human being as sacred and made in Your image.

We need not ask You to protect this marvelous and beautiful Earth You have bequeathed to us, for You have already given us the skill and wisdom to correct the harm that has been done to our planet and to chart a course that will prevent us from permanently damaging the world we live in and endangering the life it sustains.

We have already received a great many blessings from You.  So, as we welcome a new president and begin a new chapter in our nation’s life, let us ask for this simple blessing:  open our eyes that we may see one another with honesty and truth.  As we see one another for who we are, remind us not to judge one another harshly and to try to see the best in one another.  Bless us with the capacity to trust one another.  Reinforce in each of us the message of your prophet Malachi, who said: ”Have we not all one Creator? Has not one God fashioned us? Why do we deal treacherously every person against his brother and sister, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?”  Bless us by reaffirming Your holy truth that whatever our skin color may be, whatever our nationality or ethnicity may be, whatever religion we may choose to practice, whatever our sexual orientation or gender identity may be, we are all Your children and all deserving of respect and love.

Bless us by calming the fears of those who are afraid that our newly elected leaders may not uphold this truth and may seek to place divisions between the people of our nation and our world.  Inspire them to see the best in all humankind and to work honestly and uprightly for the good of all.

Open our eyes, Lord, and give us the courage and desire to see one another, to accept one another, and to love one another.

Amen.