How To Say Yizkor

Dear Friends,

As Yom Kippur draws near, many of us will recite Yizkor prayers.  I want to share these thoughts that I posted two years ago on how to say Yizkor.  I wish you a meaningful and thoughtful Yom Kippur observance.

On Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere will gather to pray.  Among the most familiar and popular prayers is the Yizkor service, memorial prayers for the dead recited by those who have lost loved ones.  In the midst of praying about our own vulnerability and matters of life and death, we pause to remember family members and friends who have died.

While Yizkor is also recited on the last day of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), the Yom Kippur Yizkor was the first to be instituted as a part of Jewish liturgy.  The Rabbinic sages reasoned that praying about those who have died would cause people to focus intensely on their own mortality, which is one of the themes of Yom Kippur.  Originally the Yizkor prayers were focused on martyrs who had been killed—their names were read aloud in the synagogue.  As the service evolved, people began to pray about their own loved ones.  That is the focus of Yizkor today—memorial prayers for family members and friends.

A common custom is for people who have never been mourners to leave the sanctuary during the recitation of Yizkor.  Many reasons have been offered for this practice.  Some say it developed to avoid causing mourners to feel envious that others around them had not suffered the pain of loss and still had their loved ones around them.  Others say the practice of leaving was intended to prevent people who were not mourners from saying Yizkor by mistake, thus tempting fate.  I know that my own parents never wanted me to stay in the sanctuary when Yizkor prayers were recited, a practice that continues in my own family.

The Sephardic custom is for everyone to stay in the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayers.  That custom seems to me to be the most meaningful.  People who don’t have a personal reason to recite Yizkor should nonetheless stay in the room in order to be supportive to those who are saying memorial prayers.  It’s good and healthy to help a fellow congregant to face their pain and to help soften their sorrow.  And it’s good for everyone, those who have been mourners and those who have been spared the pain of loss, to think about mortality.  Our culture encourages us to avoid thinking about death and dying.  But Jewish tradition encourages us to face the reality of death with our eyes open.  Doing so should not diminish our zest for life or our life span.

How are the Yizkor prayers recited?  Here are some suggestions for a meaningful Yizkor experience.

  • Connect to others. Yizkor is a blend of an intensely private experience and a public one.  Before delving into the private prayers, look around the room.  See who else is saying Yizkor.  Imagine yourself as part of a community of people that strengthen one another.
  • Listen to the music. The Yizkor service is more than a formulaic recitation of prayers.  The service begins and ends with music.  Close your eyes and listen to the music, participating when you can and want to.
  • Bring a photo of your loved ones. Having an image of your loved ones to gaze at during the Yizkor prayers will deepen and enhance your memory of them as you speak their names.
  • Take your time. During the portion of the Yizkor service, take your time reciting the passage for each of the people you are remembering.  Speak their names quietly.  Conjure up a fulfilling and uplifting memory.

The Yizkor service can be a very meaningful time.  By being mindful and attentive to its purpose, we can be reminded of the beauty and blessing of the lives of our loved ones and feel that we have been strengthened by the experience of sharing life with them.

Let me take this opportunity to wish you a Gemar Chatima Tova.  May you be “sealed in the Book of Life” for the year that lies ahead and beyond.

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This Rosh Hashana, Don’t Beat Yourself Up

As we leaf through the pages of the High Holiday Mahzor, what feelings does it leave us with?  Some prayers help us to soar and fill us with hope.  Others remind us of the finiteness of life.  Still other prayers remind us of our moral and behavioral failings.  Many of the prayers the Talmudic sages composed and passed down to us emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check.  Throughout the centuries, Jewish philosophers and sages counsel us to underestimate our own worth and value, at least in the way we present ourselves to others.  The Spanish mystic and philosopher Nachmamides, gave this advice to his children in his Ethical Will: “Let your voice be low and your head bowed; let your eyes turn earthwards—every man should seem in your own eyes as one greater than yourselves.”

Candidly, that’s not a very uplifting or cheery idea to ponder.  Do any of us really want to spend these days being told that we are nothing, that we should walk around with our heads bowed low, deferential to everyone we meet, positioning ourselves as a doormat for others to walk across?  Don’t we want to go home from these days of prayer and celebration feeling strong and content?

Reading between the lines, we can see the message that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up as we sit in the pews and pray with the congregation.  In a famous Talmudic passage, we read of the legendary “Three Books” that are opened on Rosh Hashana:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana:  one is of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one for those inbetween.  The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life, the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death, and the “beinonim” (inbetween) hang in the balance from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur.  If they merit it, they are written for life.  If they do not merit it, they are written for death.”   (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16b)

When I read that passage, what comes to mind is that the first two books are useless.  I don’t know anyone who is either completely righteous or completely wicked.  Our tradition teaches that human beings are imperfect.  In fact, we are taught that it is sacrilegious even to strive for perfection.  Instead, we are expected to live with the fact that we are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil.  Most of us are average or above-average people who do a lot of good things for others and for our community.  But none of us are entirely good or entirely evil.  (For what it’s worth, I presume that Rabbi Kruspedai knew this and wrote his derash about the three books to encourage people to consider their behavior and make a special, concentrated effort to repent during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.)

My take-away from the legend of the Three Books is this:  give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up as you make your way through the High Holidays.  You’re not perfectly good, but you’re not perfectly evil either.  If you’re like most people, you’re a basically good person who possesses some flaws that need to be corrected.  Accept the fact that you won’t be able to correct all the flaws you possess.  If you’re trying to reinvent yourself as a perfect human being, whether during these sacred New Year days or afterward, you should know in advance that such a state of being will never, ever be achieved by any of us.

Rather, use these days for some reasonable introspection and honest self-examination.  Pick two or three negative qualities you see in yourself and meditate on them, thinking about ways to change or eliminate those behaviors.  The result will be a better, if not perfect, you.

I imagine that the first two of Rabbi Kruspedai’s Three Books are thin and contain few if any entries.  It’s the third book, the one of average people who are trying to be better people, that is filled with names of God’s creatures, His good but flawed human partners on whom He relies to make this a better world.  Rather than beating ourselves up for not being perfect, let’s spend these days trying to be just a little better than we were last year.  The world will be a better place for our efforts.

I wish you a Shana Tova- a year of fulfillment, blessing and good fortune.  I look forward to sharing these sacred days with you and your loved ones as we gather to usher in the New Year.

 

Why We Sound the Shofar During the Month of Elul

One of the most familiar and exciting elements of the Rosh Hashana service is the sounding of the shofar.  The eerie, wailing sounds of the shofar are meant to be a spiritual wake-up call to the opportunities awaiting us in the new year, as well as a summons to self-reflection.

During Elul, there are several practices that encourage us to prepare spiritually and emotionally for the coming New Year.  Psalm 27 is recited twice daily, likely because of its theme of seeking deeper faith.  Selichot (penitential) prayers are recited early each morning by Ashkenazic Jews during the last week of Elul and by Sephardic Jews during the entire month.  And, perhaps most familiar, is the practice of sounding the shofar each day every day of Elul except for Shabbat.

As with many Jewish customs, there is no definitive reason why the shofar is sounded during Elul.  An old superstition suggests that the practice was meant to confuse Satan, an angelic being portrayed in rabbinic literature as a sort of prosecuting attorney against human beings who are being judged before God. By sounding the shofar during Elul, the idea was to avoid an evil decree by causing Satan to show up in the Divine court on the wrong day!

A more cogent reason for sounding the shofar during Elul is based on a story found in the Torah (Exodus 32-34) concerning the worship of the Golden Calf, which is essentially a tale of sin and repentance.  According to the story, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to commune with God and receive the Torah.  The Israelites, fearing that he has left them for good, compel Aaron to build an idol for them and then proceed to worship it.  This act of apostasy is regarded in the Torah, and in subsequent rabbinic literature, as a catastrophic sin committed by the people.  God becomes furious and announces to Moses that he plans to destroy the entire people and make him the leader of a new people that will soon be created.

Moses, known in the Torah for his bold leadership, confronts God and demands that the Divine plan be withdrawn.  He says, “If that’s what you plan to do, then count me out…wipe me from your Divine book as well!”  God relents and, with the encouragement of Moses, ultimately reconciles with the people.

The story is deeply connected to the idea of sin and repentance.  In Exodus 32:34, God says to Moses, “When I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins.”  Setting aside the stark tone of the passage, it hints at the idea that the pathway to forgiveness and renewal is accountability.  It is not possible to make a fresh start or to receive forgiveness without being held accountable for what we have done wrong.  Sometimes that accountability is a private, inner process and sometimes it needs to be shared with those we’ve wronged.

Chapter 34 opens with Moses carving two new tablets to replace the ones he smashed in anger.  Here we have another hint at an important element of forgiveness and renewal- the chance to make a new beginning.  The promise to renew the Divine-Human relationship is not left to a matter of faith or hope.  Rather, it is represented in tangible reality by the new tablets that replace the old ones.  We need to be assured, sometimes in tangible ways, that we can start over with a second chance at living our lives the we know we should.

Later in chapter 34, Moses asks God to reveal the Divine essence, so he can know Him “face-to-face.”  God rejects His request, telling Moses that he could not survive an encounter with the Divine, and then proceeds to enumerate His attributes.  Known as the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” the passage has made its way into the High Holiday liturgy and is recited throughout Yom Kippur services.  God describes Himself as, among other things, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, and forgiving sin.  The Thirteen Attributes can be understood not only as a description of God’s qualities, but, more importantly, they should be understood as aspirational for human beings.  When I hear them articulated, I ask myself if I can integrate those qualities more deeply into my life.

The narrative about the worship of the Golden Calf speaks to us about core ideas connected to the High Holidays:  personal accountability for our wrongdoing, a second chance to do what is good and right, and a vision for improving our lives.

So why do we sound Shofar during the month of Elul?  In the Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 46:2, 8th century), we read: “On the new month of Elul, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and let me sound the shofar throughout the camp’.”  In other words, the rabbinic tradition holds that on the first of Elul, Moses ascended Mt Sinai a second time to seek forgiveness and arrange for reconciliation and as he did, a shofar sounded.

We, too, sound the shofar as we head into a New Year, as a reminder of an ancient tale of renewal and reconciliation, and a message of assurance that we will be able to do what we must to make our lives what they can and should be.

Creating Shalom on Tisha B’Av

Of all the words in the Hebrew language, which one is most well-known and recognized?  Chances are most people would say “shalom.”  Shalom is a multi-purpose word, one that means hello, goodbye and peace.  At the root of the word Shalom is the notion of wholeness, which is a state of being.  To say that a person is “shaleim” is to imply that they are whole, not only in the physical sense but also spiritually.

Prof. Jacob Neusner once suggested that a fundamental idea in Judaism is that everything has its place in the world.  In that context, he noted that Shalom is not a merely greeting or a reference to peace, as in the absence of conflict.  Shalom reflects a vision of a world of completeness, a world in which everything is in its proper place.

Building on Neusner’s comment, my teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner, suggested that if the word Shalom describes a world of wholeness, of everything in its proper place, then the opposite of Shalom is not war.  Rather, it is “galut,” or exile.  As Kushner writes, Galut is not exclusively a geographical concept, as in being on the wrong train or in the wrong location.  It is also a psychological concept, as in not being where you’re supposed to be, spiritually, to fulfill God’s plan for the world.

The idea of Galut, of exile, plays an important role in the commemoration of Tisha B’Av.  A day of solemn reflection that comes on the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av (hence its name), Tisha B’Av asks us to remember the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel not once but on two occasions- in 586 B.C.E. when the Babylonians conquered the ancient nation state of Judah and destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and again in 70 C.E. when the Roman Empire conquered Judea and destroyed the Second Temple.  In both historical periods, the Jewish people were defeated militarily and exiled physically from Israel.  Through fasting, prayer and the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentatons), we reflect on the causes of those defeats, the loss of national sovereignty and the consequence of exile from our land.

Realistically, nobody living in the 21st century maintains a sense of personal loss over the destruction of an ancient structure, no matter how important a role it may have played in our history.  Nor can we live with regrets over the course of ancient history. The physical exile of the Jewish people from Israel and our banishment to other lands in antiquity isn’t a reason to mourn.

Thus, Tisha B’Av must be more than a historical remembrance of the destruction of two Temples and the imposition of physical exile.  It should be embraced as a daylong meditation on spiritual, not geographical, exile, and the reality that people are not where they are supposed to be in this world to fulfill our Divinely inspired purpose.

What does it mean to say that people are not where they are supposed to be in this world?  We look at what is happening in the world today, and we see that the world is a less whole place, a place lacking Shalom, because there are spaces between people who should be close to one another.  Racial hatred, lack of compassion for immigrants and asylum seekers, hatred and disdain for people because of their sexual orientation or gender identification, and religious intolerance are all examples of how we are in spiritual exile.  Where there should be wholeness, Shalom, there is fragmentation and distance, Galut.

So let Tisha B’Av be a time to reflect on the imperative of ending exile and bringing Shalom by making space in this world for all people.  Let us move from saying “I have what I need” and “I am content” to creating a community and a world where there is space for everyone to be where and who they are meant to be.

This Tisha B’Av, join me as we read the Book of Eicha.  Each of the five chapters will be accompanied by a story of displacement, disenfranchisement and spiritual exile in our world today, along with music.  The evening begins at 9:30 PM and should last about 90 minutes.

May our commemoration of Tisha B’Av bring Shalom to our lives and to our world.

I Don’t Care What the Bible Says

I don’t care what the Bible says.  I am a rabbi, but I don’t care what the Bible says.

This is neither an admission of atheism (I am not), nor is it a statement of indifference about the power and importance of sacred religious texts, for I do believe that our sacred texts have much to teach us and can serve as a powerful guide to life.

When I say that I don’t care what the Bible says, I mean that I do not support the use of select quotes from the Bible to justify human cruelty.  Known as “proof texting,” isolated, out-of-context quotations from a document, in this case the Bible, are sometimes used by people to establish or justify a specific idea.  It’s not unheard of to use the Torah in this manner.  When Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated 23 years ago in Tel Aviv, some radical Jews used a verse in the Book of Exodus, one that allows the killing of a “rodef” (someone who pursues another to commit a violent act), to exonerate Rabin’s assassin and blame the prime minister for his own death.  Reasonable Jews with a conscience and a moral compass rejected out of hand the hijacking and the desecration of the Bible to justify murder.

People who claim that the Bible can be used to justify whatever human schemes are hatched are themselves falsely righteous.  They amount to what Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk called a “tzadik in peltz,” a righteous person wrapped in a fur coat.  He used to say that when it’s cold out, a truly righteous person starts a fire to make others warm, but a person who is not genuinely righteous wraps himself in a fur coat.   Such a person uses righteousness as a façade but it is not an inner quality.

That was my reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who used a quote from the New Testament to support the cruel separation of children from their parents.  He cited the Apostle Paul and his “clear and wise” command to obey the laws of the government because “God ordained them for the purpose of order.”  Said AG Sessions, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and the lawful.”

Of course, the application of fair and consistent law is the foundation of a decent and civil society.  But I’d push back on the assertion that order and law are good in themselves and protect the weak and the lawful.  It’s reasonable to counter argue that the strict upholding of law doesn’t always protect the weak and innocent.  That’s why Jewish law distinguishes between law and ethics, between doing what the law requires, and what we sense is good and right.  Jewish law requires that we implement a standard of “lifnim meshurat ha-din,” or going above and beyond the letter of the law to seek out the spirit of the law.

But a debate on the rule of law is beside the point, as Mr. Sessions was using the Bible in a deceptive manner.  Can it really be argued that the Bible endorses the separation of families, even families who are violating US law by illegally crossing our border?  Mr. Sessions, as do others who act in a similar manner, was weaponizing the Bible, using its verses out of context to justify whatever end he has in mind.  I had the same reaction to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a deeply religious man who is committed to the application of his religious principles to his work as EPA administrator, who claimed that the Bible endorses the idea of “harvesting the earth’s natural resources for use by mankind.”  I’m not sure what verses he was quoting, but if I had an opportunity speak with Mr. Pruitt I’d convey the Jewish perspective that we are partners with God in preserving the earth for future generations, not permitted to use whatever we want in whatever reckless manner we choose for today’s needs.  Put differently, I’d tell him that from my point of view, the Bible actually endorses the use of clean energy, not coal.

There’s no doubt that illegal immigration is a problem that must be solved.  But I hope that reasonable people will concur that separating families does absolutely nothing to achieve the goal of immigration reform.  By admission of more than one senior member of the administration, the tactic is being used as a deterrent to migrant families.  The hope apparently is that word will spread to others who have not yet made it to the border not to try to cross, as they will risk being separated from their children and will likely see their children traumatized.  In this regard, a policy of separating families is the equivalent of child abuse.

An open, honest debate on immigration reform is certainly needed.  But in such a debate no one should selectively quote from the Bible to apply a veneer of righteousness and honorable faith to justify doing something that is, by all measures, simply cruel.

To such a misuse of the Bible, I’d say “I don’t care what the Bible says.”

Yosef Kibita Belongs in Israel

Much has been said recently about fraying relations between Israel and the Diaspora, with tension centered around several key issues connected to Israel’s democratic nature.  Those who are critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank often express the concern that the occupation is unacceptable in a just and democratic society, and engage in activism in order to change the status quo.  The push back to that point of view is often that those who do not live in Israel, and thus do not assume the risks of living in a dangerous region, should not criticize the political decisions made by Israelis, who do assume those risks.

The tension between Israel and North American Jewry also centers around the issue of religious pluralism and the power of the state sanctioned and funded Chief Rabbinate to impose religious law on Israeli society.  If Israel is the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people from around the world, then all Jews, no matter where they live, should have a stake in how Judaism is lived and expressed in our common homeland.  Jews who make their home in New Jersey, wherever they happen to be on the denominational spectrum, have a right to have their religious ideology recognized and respected in the State of Israel.  The current situation, which gives undue power to the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to oversee marriage, conversion, divorce and kashrut, stifles the very idea of religious pluralism, tolerance and choice.  One cannot argue that only those who live in Israel should be entitled to shape religious policy in the Jewish state, even if that policy is government driven and funded with taxpayer money.  All Jews, wherever they live, have a stake in how Judaism is lived and expressed in Israel.  Conservative rabbis in Israel should have the right to officiate at weddings and divorces, and welcome Jews-by-Choice as they see fit. That right should not be eclipsed by state empowered rabbis, acting with hubris, to exclude and dismiss those who hold different views than they do.  It’s simply not the Jewish way.

A case in point should draw our attention and even outrage.  It concerns Yosef Kibita, a Ugandan Jew who belongs to the Abayudaya Jewish community which numbers over 2,000 members and began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago.  They are a formally recognized group, in their case embraced by the worldwide Conservative-Masorti movement, which is a standard that must be met to qualify for the Law of Return, a provision that enables any Jew to claim immediate citizenship in the State of Israel.  Converts are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return regardless of what movement they are affiliated with, provided they come from a recognized Jewish community.  Yosef Kibita was converted by a Conservative Rabbi and is now in Israel under a tourist visa.  He has been informed by the Ministry of the Interior that he must leave the country by June 14 or risk deportation, which has asserted that his conversion does not meet the standards necessary to satisfy the Law of Return.

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The refusal of the Interior Ministry to approve Mr. Kibita’s application for citizenship under the Law of Return is an outrage.  Motivating Rabbi Aryeh Deri, Minister of the Interior, and all those under him, is the narrow view that only their understanding of what constitutes a proper conversion is acceptable.  The interior minister declared the Jewish community of Abayudaya to be unrecognized as belonging to the Jewish people.  In so doing, he has dismissed out of hand the standing and legitimacy of Conservative rabbis.

Could there be any other motivation behind this blatant refusal to grant citizenship to Yosef Kibita?  There is some reason to believe that racism exists in Israel, as it does in the United States, and that it is racism that lurks behind the decision to bar Ugandan Jews from becoming citizens of Israel.  Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel a generation ago faced terrible and humiliating racism from “established” Israelis, and many Sephardic Jews have been ostracized economically and socially for generations.  It’s not pleasant to recognize and admit it, but it’s an unavoidable conclusion that Yosef Kibita is being refused citizenship because he is an African with dark skin.

What can we, who live in New Jersey, do in response to the Israeli government’s rejection of a Jewish community from Africa?  How can we stand up for the legitimacy of our movement and understanding of Judaism?  And how can we oppose the ugliness of racism, even if it is to be found in our beloved Israel?

We can support the efforts of the Masorti Movement to petition this terrible decision in Israel’s Supreme Court.  A fund has been set up to cover the legal costs.  I encourage you to donate by clicking here or by sending a check, with the word “Abayudaya” on it, to:

Masorti Foundation

475 Riverside Dr, Suite 832

New York, New York 10115

Israel is our spiritual homeland, and we have a right, even a duty, to do what we can to ensure that our way of life is recognized and respected, even from all the way across the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI MARK COOPER

 

 

 

Unity and Humility:  Ancient Values Needed Today

Beginning this Saturday night, we celebrate Shavuot, the second of our three “Pilgrimage Festivals.”  In notable ways, Shavuot is the least popular and least interesting of these three Biblical celebrations, as it includes no intriguing rituals like those practiced on Passover and Sukkot.  It’s celebrated entirely in the synagogue with worship services and has no home-based customs at all.  There’s oddly very little that’s tangible about Shavuot for parents to transmit to children.  No wonder that many in the non-Orthodox world aren’t even aware that we’re about to celebrate a major Jewish holiday.

There is a great deal, however, that Shavuot can teach us about our lives today.  While the Bible defines Shavuot exclusively as a harvest holiday on which a special offering was made in the ancient Temple exactly seven weeks after the start of Passover (hence the name “Shavuot,” Hebrew for “weeks”), after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Rabbinic sages transformed the occasion into the celebration of the anniversary of the “Revelation” when God introduced Himself to the Israelite nation at Mt. Sinai.  Customs such as reading the Ten Commandments and the story of the Revelation from the Torah (Exodus chapter 19-20), and chanting the Book of Ruth, ostensibly a story about one woman’s deep devotion to the values of Torah, were made a part of celebrating Shavuot.

The Talmudic sages taught that Shavuot opens our eyes to two important values:  humility and unity.  We learn about humility from the observation that the Torah was given to the Israelites in the desert.  Why the desert and not the Land of Israel, ask the sages?  The great medieval commentator Rashi wrote that the Torah was given at Sinai so that a person “will make himself like a desert,” namely a place that inspires humility.  A desert is cold and vast and unpredictable.  Being in the desert, where we are away from familiar surroundings, can make a person feel dependent on the whims of nature and not entirely in control of what happens to us.  The realization that our fate and fortunes are dependent on factors beyond our control is the beginning of humility.  And a cogent argument could be made that humility- the notion that we are have much to learn and gain from others and that human beings depend on each other not only to thrive but to survive- lies at the very foundation of human existence.

Regarding unity, we read in the Revelation story that “Israel encamped at the foot of the mountain.” Interestingly, the Hebrew uses the singular form of the verb (he, not they, encamped). Citing Rashi again, he notes the odd use of the singular verb to describe a multitude of people, and writes: “In that moment, the Israelites were united with one mind and one heart.” Being united invited God’s presence.

Can the Jewish people be united? Can the denominations of North American Judaism live peacefully with one another, expressing mutual respect, tolerance and understanding that we each legitimately hear the voice of God in our own way?  Can Israelis and North American Jews find common ground so that the State of Israel can truly become a spiritual home to all of world Jewry?  Recent events, especially in the often-tense relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, spark concern that unity is more elusive than ever.

Along comes Shavuot, the lesser known and least popular of the major Biblical holidays, to remind us that unity and humility, two values that are imbedded in this festival, are inextricably bound to one another.  If we can embrace humility as a core value, then we can reach for unity.

The quality of our lives, from our experience as Jews to our relationship with Israel to our national politics and the direction America is heading, demands that we do just that.

I invite you to take part in our Shavuot celebration at Oheb Shalom.   Click here for the schedule and details.  The holiday begins on Saturday, May 19 @ 9:00 PM with a service and study session on the topic of Is Lying Ever Ethical?

Israel: A Paradox I Love

Today Israel is marking 70 years of independence as a state and those who love and support the Jewish state around the world are elated.  As Yom Ha’atsmaut is celebrated, we can rightly say that what Israel has accomplished in the relatively short span of 70 years is nothing less than remarkable.  It has grown from a fledgling entity whose survival was far from sure to a world class start-up nation that has made astounding advances in science and technology.  More than that, Israel has fulfilled the promise to gather in our exiled and oppressed people and provide safety and security to the Jewish people.  The modern State of Israel has become a source of pride for the Jewish people everywhere.  Indeed, if asked to choose a single word to describe Israel, one is likely to hear the word “pride.”

Yet another word used to describe Israel might be “paradox.”  How so?  By logic and reason, Israel should not exist today.  In the early years of statehood, the Jewish state faced the nearly impossible task of welcoming millions of immigrants who needed housing and jobs.  That task was successfully undertaken while facing the constant threat of military pressure and terrorism from hostile neighbors who sought her destruction.  Despite the odds against survival, Israel found ways to thrive and prosper.

Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel, wrote in the Forward that Israel is a paradox.  He writes, “Israel projects a muscular self-confidence [having] faced threats from Arab armies that are no more.  [It boasts] a motivated citizenry, high-quality leadership and cutting-edge technology, and ever strengthening alliances with the United States, and Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  On the other hand, there remains a deep sense of vulnerability. Some of that is left over from earlier traumas, and some relates to current threats and the reality of most families sending their children to military service. A new, potential existential threat could emerge some years down the road if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. Waves of terrorist bombings, stabbings, rocket and missile attacks, and tunnel attacks have touched many families.”

This week, I attended a Rabbinic lunch sponsored by AIPAC featuring Yossi Klein Halevi, author and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  He also described Israel as a paradox.  On the one hand, Israel is the spiritual homeland of world Jewry, yet it is also the nation-state of all people who live there, Jewish and Arab.  Israel continues to search for ways to resolve that paradox in ways that are just and democratic.

Israel is also a paradox in that it is a secular state in the Holy Land.  The struggle between its identity as a theocratic state governed by religious law and Jewish values on the one hand, and a democratic state governed by secular laws on the other hand, is not entirely resolved.  Shulamit Aloni, the founder of the left leaning Meretz party, once quipped that it was inconceivable for the Jewish state to subsidize the opera but not mikva’ot (ritual baths).  The empowerment of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to control marriage, divorce and conversion is seen as a stranglehold on Israeli society by many.

Yossi Klein Halevi noted that Israel’s paradoxical nature is quite understandable.  After wandering as exiles for 2,000 years, Jews brought back the diverse and colorful lessons learned over that span of time spent in countless countries and cultures around the world.  We brought back to Israel the challenge of arguing with one another about what it means to be authentically and meaningfully Jewish and about what role Israel should play in Jewish life and in the experience of the Jewish people.  Living in a society of paradoxes, he said, requires the persistent accommodation of contradictions.

A paradox doesn’t imply a state of confusion or disarray.  Rather, it is a “seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that, when investigated or explained, may prove to be well founded or true.”  That is Israel.  It may seem that Israel is consumed with self-contradictory realities.  Working through the paradoxes and apparent contradictions takes time, patience and understanding.  Despite the conflicts, Israel remains a magnificent place whose essence is truth.

Happy Anniversary to Eretz Yisrael, a beautiful place that has achieved so much in such a short span of time, a place that has uplifted and glorified the Jewish people.  Israel may be a paradox…but it’s a paradox that I love.

Greetings and Thoughts from Israel

I’m in the city of Jerusalem this Pesach, staying in a neighborhood called Arnona with my entire family.  The holiday has been one of tremendous joy and delight, first and foremost because we’re all sharing it together.  Our Seder (yes, our one Seder!) was memorable in large part because four generations of our family sat around the table.  Amy and I have been especially thrilled to spend the week not only with our sons and daughter-in-law but also with our grandson Noam.

Passover is a special experience here in Israel, much different than New Jersey.  Everybody is celebrating the holiday in one way or another (the Passover Seder is observed by the largest number of Jews worldwide).  Schools are on vacation for the week.  Many businesses close or work half-days, with signs on shop windows wishing passersby “Chag Sameach.”  The Chareidim (ultra-Orthodox) walk around in their finest garb the entire week.  National parks and hiking destinations, leisure destinations and attractions, and stores that remain open are packed with people.  Kosher for Passover food is available in massively abundant quantities everywhere (it’s so good that one is tempted to wonder if it’s chametz free!).  Restaurants serving Passover food either post a “Teudat Kashrut” (Rabbinic certification) or a sign that says, “We don’t sell our chametz, but we serve Passover bread,” an option for liberal Jews who aren’t concerned about the particulars of Halakha.  Grocery stores are stocked to overflowing with Passover foods, including take out, all marked to indicate whether they contain Kitniyot (legumes), which are eaten by some and not others on Passover.  All told, it’s a thrill to be here at this season of the year.

Aside from the celebration of Passover, this week has seen its share of controversies here in Israel.  On Erev Pesach, thousands of Palestinians gathered on the border between Gaza and Israel and staged a protest march.  Designed to coincide with Land Day, an annual event observed by Palestinians that recalls the expropriation of land by the Israeli government on March 30, 1976, the march on the border grew violent and resulted in the deaths of 17 Palestinians, among whom were 10 terrorists.  Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, has vowed to increase the size of marches planned until they culminate on May 18, a day known as “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”) that marks the day that Israel became an independent state. 

Israeli newspapers struggled to explain the sequence of events that led to 17 deaths.  The most obvious explanation is that the Israeli army could not allow people to charge the border, throwing Molotov cocktails and perhaps armed with weapons, in attempt to enter Israel.  Even after warnings by the IDF that there were snipers posted, a handful of people charged the border fence anyway and were fatally shot.  Still, anytime someone is killed by an IDF soldier is cause for scrutiny and internal investigation.  The Israeli government does not take such matters lightly, nor does it rejoice over the death of an enemy.  The incident has triggered concern and speculation about the possible intensification of the marches in the weeks ahead and what would happen if a group 10 times the size tried to force its way into Israel from Gaza or perhaps even Lebanon. 

The Gaza march was also a catalyst for thoughtful conversation about Israel’s predicament in the Gaza strip and the West Bank.  I had a long and in-depth talk with my cousin Neta, an Israeli physician.  Neta genuinely feels a sense of angst about the occupation, and its implications for Israel and for the Palestinians themselves.  She told me that, from her perspective, if the Israeli government isn’t going to do everything it can to end the occupation, then it must alternatively assume full responsibility for the welfare of the people who live in the territories.  She lives a life of fulfillment and abundance, married to our cousin Ilan and with two children who have every advantage and opportunity for growth possible available to them.  She is among those Israelis who live with a haunting sense of responsibility for those living under occupation. 

The marches sparked a lively conversation at our Seder table where we discussed how Israel became entangled in its current predicament of millions of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank with no end to the occupation in sight.  We agreed that its too simplistic, and ultimately unhelpful toward the larger goal of sustaining Israel as a democratic state, to say that the State of Israel was attacked on numerous occasions and miraculously won the wars it fought, and as victors even offered peace terms on numerous occasions.  True, Hamas is evil, and they spend most of the money available to them on building tunnels and rockets to attack Israel.  But it’s not in Israel’s interest to allow Gaza to fester and collapse, nor is it in Israel’s interest to continue to control the lives of the people of the West Bank.  I found myself thinking that, for its own sake and for the sake of people who are subject to corrupt and tyrannical leaders, Israel must do something to alleviate the problem.

In addition to Gaza, this week saw an improbable sequence of events in which Prime Minister Netanyahu at first announced that Israel had reached an agreement with the United Nations for the resettlement of thousands of refugees, with about half going to countries in Africa and the other half staying in Israel.  Within 24 hours, Netanyahu cancelled the deal because of pressure from his coalition and from the right, who claimed either that the individuals are not true asylum seekers, or that their presence in Israel, particularly Southern Tel Aviv, would increase crime and instability.  Stunningly, Netanyahu claimed that the deal was torpedoed by the New Israel Fund, who he said had intervened with the government of Rwanda to scuttle the deal.  The refugee controversy, which draws heated opinions on both sides, is a reminder that Israel still struggles to define itself and understand what it means to be a Jewish State. 

Strikingly, the Times of Israel reported yesterday that even after Netanyahu’s legal problems and his bungling of the refugee problem, the popularity of his Likud party has only grown and, should elections be held today, would increase its representation in the Knesset from 30 to 32 seats.

So here I am, in this beautiful country that has accomplished so much in a mere 70 years, surrounded by my family celebrating Passover in the City of Jerusalem.  Israelis spend their days trying to live productive, meaningful lives in this homeland of the Jewish people.  There is an awareness among people, some more stinging than for others, that Israel has many challenges yet to overcome, some imposed and some of their own making. 

It’s magnificent here…I’m grateful to be in Eretz Yisrael.

Shared Kindness and Love: The Foundation of a Decent, and Democratic, Society

We often hear about the importance of being united as a people.  We hear the call for unity in America, which is increasingly fragmented along racial, political and socio-economic lines.  And we persistently hear the call for unity among the Jewish people who throughout our history have had more than our share of disputes and infighting.  But what does it mean to be unified?  Does it mean that we must all think the same way and believe the same things?  That hardly seems desirable or even possible for a group of people that is not a cult but a large community or nation.  Diversity among people is a good thing.  So, what does it mean to be unified?

This week’s Torah portion- Yitro- gives us a glimpse of what the concept of unity might mean.  In Exodus chapter 19, we read that the Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian enslavement, prepare to meet God at Mt. Sinai: “They entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness.  Israel camped there in front of the mountain.”  In the verse there is an odd grammatical form used in the Hebrew text that is not mirrored in the English translation.  The phrase “Israel camped there in front of the mountain” uses the singular form of the verb “camped” while all other references to the Israelites use the plural form.  It’s as if the Hebrew text is referring to the Israelite nation as a single person, not many people.

Several commentators interpret this quirk in the Hebrew text by saying that in this moment, the Israelites were unified as a nation.  For example, Rashi famously writes that the text uses the singular form because the people were “one nation with one heart as they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai.”  But Rashi’s comment still doesn’t explain what it means to be unified.  Surely, it couldn’t be that all the people had the same emotional and spiritual response to the Revelation by God.  In what way were they of one heart?

A midrash called the Mechilta offers an especially meaningful and helpful insight:

When it says “Israel encamped” there (Sinai), it uses the singular form “vayichan.” When they were traveling, as in the Book of Numbers, it uses a plural form. This implies that at other times they were divided, but here they were unified. When they gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai they felt a shared kindness, loved one another, and were thus ready and able to receive the Torah. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai)

Based on the interpretation of the Midrash, unity does not imply consistency of thought or belief among people.  Rather, it suggests shared kindness and love, understanding and tolerance.  Unity implies the capacity to make room for the ideas, feelings and needs of others, even when we disagree with them.  Unity therefore demands compromise and acceptance of the idea that no single member of a large and diverse community or nation will get everything he/she wants.  In the context of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites behaved toward one another with kindness and love, thus they were unified as a people.  Their unity made Divine revelation possible.

These interpretations convey to us that shared kindness and love lie at the foundation of a decent, and democratic, society.  To be a democracy requires respect for the voices and opinions of its people.  A democratic society thrives not only on the rule of law but on tolerance and understanding.

I write this message with a special and focused concern about the modern-day nation of Israel living in the State of Israel.  Israel is a democracy where cherished human and civil rights are upheld.  Israel has a truly democratically elected government, and guarantees the freedom of speech, of assembly and of the press.

But, oddly and disturbingly, freedom of religion is imperiled in Israel.  While the State of Israel does not mandate the practice of any religion, and each citizen’s freedom to practice or not practice religion is steadfastly defended, the government gives control of key social institutions, among them marriage, divorce and conversion, to the Chief Rabbinate, a union of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who, empowered and funded by the State, impose their strict religious views on Israeli society.  Unable to achieve their aims through education and persuasion, the ultra-Orthodox use coercion, threats and the state authority granted to them to sustain the religious ideals they believe must underlie Israeli society.

This complex issue deserves to be thoroughly discussed and understood.  A place to start is by reading the Vision Statement authored by Rabbi Marc Angel, Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel.  At the end of the statement, you will find scores of signatures of Jewish leaders.  I encourage you to add your own name in support of the Vision Statement and thus express your own passion and wish that the State of Israel enrich its democracy by strengthening the freedom of religion afforded its citizens.

True democracy, in Israel or anywhere else in the world, is made possible not by imposing uniform ideas on people but by living by the values of respect, kindness and shared love of our fellow Jew and human beings.