Offered on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5778

The story is told of a rabbi who, one Kol Nidrei eve, was overcome with emotion as he recited the opening prayer that acknowledges the sins of the synagogue’s leaders and asks for God’s help to lead the congregation. He threw himself on the floor before the open ark and cried out, “God, I am a nothing!”  When the Cantor heard the murmur of approval from the congregation, he also threw himself down and shouted, “God I am a nothing!”  As the buzz in the congregation grew even louder, the synagogue president followed suit, practically screaming as his body hit the carpet, “God, I am a nothing!”  At which the Cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, “Hmm, look who wants to be a nothing now.”

Humility—a modest view of oneself and one’s own importance—isn’t something that a lot of people identify with as a personal virtue or quality.  In fact, the watchword of our time may be the exact opposite—arrogance, or when a person thinks that he knows it all and that she doesn’t need to improve because she’s already so great.  There’s a lot of arrogance around us—in our politics, in our national discourse, in our society’s emphasis on the importance and centrality of the self.  And there’s not enough humility displayed around us.  And that’s regrettable because the virtue of humility, one that is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, is an important key to building a society that is guided by tolerance, coexistence and harmony, qualities that often seem to be sorely lacking in our nation and our world.

The Jewish tradition urges us to embrace the attribute of anavah, or humility, repeatedly declaring it to be the greatest of all the moral virtues.  What exactly is it that the Talmudic sages want us to emulate?  They emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check.  They point to the heroes of the Bible as role models of suppressing boastfulness and excessive pride.  Abraham refers to himself as being “dust and ashes.”  Moses famously resists God’s call to lead his people out of slavery because he feels that he is underqualified and unworthy for the task.  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.”  Even the High Holiday Machzor is overflowing with phrases that try to persuade us that we shouldn’t think too much of ourselves, like the one at the end of the Unetaneh Tokef that reminds us that our origins are dust and our end is dust.

Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, 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, reluctant to express ourselves, 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, proud and content?

The truth is that our tradition does not counsel us toward self-denigration.  We are not asked to abuse or punish ourselves—that is not the essence of humility.  Rather, in embracing the attribute of humility we are encouraged to diminish ourselves just a bit to make some room for others.  The humble person does not castigate herself, but suppresses the inclination toward vanity and boastful pride in order to see the value and blessing in others.  Instead of entertaining the metaphor of a doormat, we could consider the image of a threshold.  In that spirit, the Talmudic sage Rava teaches us:  “A low threshold across the house of your soul makes it possible for doors to close and open.”  Humility isn’t about becoming a doormat.  It’s about making a space for others to cross the low threshold of your being and enter your world.  A humble person doesn’t take up lots of space.  He makes space in his heart for others.  A humble person does not have an outlook that is self-important, self-satisfied, pompous or arrogant.  A humble person has room in her mind and soul for other people’s ideas and concerns.  The great sage Rashi tells us that there was a good reason that God gave the Torah to the People of Israel in the Sinai desert, a place where a person feels humbled by the elements.  Only by humbling ourselves, by subduing the notion we so often have that we know everything already, can we be open to the words and wisdom of the Torah.

Humility is also the reason offered in the Midrashic tradition that Joshua was chosen to succeed Moses.  Despite the macho image assigned to Joshua in movies, he is depicted in the Midrash as a very humble, even timid person who listened attentively and refrained from making bold, brash statements.  It could be debated whether those qualities are ideal for a leader, but God clearly preferred him to someone else who might have made big decisions without considering the opinions of those around him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the attribute of humility in recent weeks as we have all witnessed the terrible hurricanes and the flooding and destruction they caused in Houston and Southern Florida.  Scores of people tragically lost their lives to the ferocity of nature, and the lives of thousands more have been upended.  At virtually the same time, we barely noticed that the largest wildfire in California history could not be contained as it destroyed thousands of acres of forest and dozens of homes.  These catastrophic events certainly call us to offer empathy and support to those who are suffering.  And perhaps they are also humbling reminders that despite our mastery of our world, the forces of nature can subdue and overwhelm us without mercy.  They remind us that we don’t know as much as we think we do and that we could all use a dose of humility.

There’s a term for the cluster of attitudes that we ought to embrace, both individually and collectively, that spur us to recognize and accept our own fallibility and own our limitations and biases.  Michael Lynch, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, calls it “Intellectual Humility.”  And we sorely need it to creep into our national dialogue.  It’s not unreasonable for people to disagree with one another on important matters.  But people seem to disagree on so much that there are no facts any longer.  People hold onto their understanding of truth so fiercely that they lose all objectivity.  They lose the capacity to talk and listen to others, and to learn from others.  Intellectual Humility compels us to see our views as capable of improvement because of what others contribute to our understanding of the world.

An example comes to mind from the holy city of Jerusalem, home to what is the holiest site in all of Judaism—the Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi, or Western Wall of the ancient Temple Mount.  Soon after the Old City of Jerusalem was recaptured by the Israelis in the Six Day War and the city was reunited, the Israelis renovated the Kotel Plaza so that Jews could pray there in dignity.  It wasn’t long before the site was declared to be an official synagogue under the control of the Chief Rabbinate.  Now, if you follow Israeli politics then you know that the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism.  In fact, they consider Conservative and Reform Jews to be clowns who are engaged in nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish way of life.  And because they control the Kotel Plaza, they refuse to allow any form of worship to take place there other than their own.  Even after world Jewish leaders spent months negotiating a compromise with the government that would have enabled all three major denominations of Judaism to claim a place near the Wall, the ultra-Orthodox, who control a political party key to the governing coalition, demanded that the agreement be abandoned.  What is disheartening about this episode is not primarily that non-Orthodox Jews may not gather to pray at the Wall in a manner in keeping with our customs and traditions.  It is that some Jews are so entrenched in their own views and are so convinced that they, and they alone, possess truth and an understanding of the will of God, that they can make no room for the views and ideas of others.  It’s ironic and sad that those who claim to be fiercely loyal to Jewish law and tradition have overlooked one of our foundational teachings, namely that a person should humbly make room for the ideas and views of others rather than brashly and rudely claiming to have a monopoly on the truth.  I should add that while the example I’ve cited is from the right of the Jewish religious and political spectrum, the problem of arrogance and intolerance of the views of others is not restricted to the right.  There are many on the left, in the world of religion and politics, who are arrogant and intolerant to the point that they cannot listen to anyone but themselves.

Living with a sense of humility does not mean that we must abandon any claim to knowledge.  There is a point at which we must recognize that there is evidence to support certain facts.  There is a point that we must live with conviction.  As Prof. Lynch puts it, “Conviction allows you to know when to stop inquiring, when to realize that you know enough—that the earth really is round, that the climate is warming, that the Holocaust happened.”  To paraphrase the professor, conviction allows us to say, indeed demands that we say unhesitatingly, that racism is evil and that there were not decent people on both sides of the horrifying conflict that took place in Charlottesville last month.  Yes, we must live with an attitude of humility.  But we must balance humility with conviction.  There is a time to be humble and there is a time to stand up for the values that we know to be true.  Sometimes we must trust that we know the difference.

Among the ideas I learned and shared with the congregation on a Shabbat in the past year was this teaching brought by Rabbi Shai Held.  The Talmudic sages were fascinated by the idea that God is everywhere.  That’s what’s meant by the phrase in the Torah and Siddur, Kevodo Malei Olam…God’s presence fills the universe.  But at the same time, they wondered how, if God fills all space, there could be room for anything else to exist.  They reply to their own question by saying that God performs an act called Tzimtzum…contraction.  God withdraws the Divine presence to make room for other beings to inhabit the universe.   That is how God’s presence, otherwise filling all of space, could be contained within the Mishkan, the first Temple built by our ancestors who wandered in the desert.

So it is with us.  We, too, most often need to perform an act of tzimtzum, to contract ourselves, to reign in our instinct to fill the void with our views and ideas of what is right and true.  We, most often, ought to make room to listen to others, for in so doing we will learn and we will grow.


Coming Up Against the Wall

The big story in the Jewish world of the past few days has been the decision by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to cancel the plan to build an egalitarian entrance and guaranteed access to the Kotel (Western Wall) for all Jews who wish to pray there according to their customs.  After lengthy negotiations, a plan was approved nearly 18 months ago that would have seen the construction of a new entrance and the allocation of space for non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Kotel in egalitarian minyanim, something now prohibited by the Chief Rabbinate and the official Rabbi of the Western Wall.  Caving into pressure from Haredi Jews, who hold political power and form a part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Prime Minister shelved the deal and created another commission to study the problem (a pointless task).  All of this infuriated the people who negotiated the deal on behalf of Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel and around the world, causing some to respond with harsh statements against Israel, and Natan Sharansky, an icon of modern Jewish history and current head of the Jewish Agency, to wonder openly if trust between Israel and non-Orthodox diaspora Jewry can ever be rebuilt.

To untangle this issue, we ought to focus on three elements:  1) To whom does the Wall belong, 2) What insights can be gained from the behavior of Haredi (ultra-Orthdox) Jews? and 3) How should Diaspora Jews respond to the situation?

Undoubtedly, the Kotel or Western Wall is among the most recognized symbols of the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel.  Built by Herod (73-4 BCE), Jewish ruler of Judea during the time of the Roman occupation, the Wall was reclaimed by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.  Since then, it has become a popular place to pray, stuff notes between the crevices of its massive stones and visit to appreciate the power of Jewish history in the land of Israel.  The Kotel is also an official synagogue under the supervision of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, an arm of the government.  Is the Wall the possession of the State of Israel, so that the way it is accessed and used is the sole determination of Israel’s government?  Or is it the possession of worldwide Jewry, meaning that every Jew, regardless of denomination or the way we choose to practice Judaism, has a share in its ownership and thus a voice and vote in how it is managed?

That is certainly not a simple question to answer.  We who live here in America do not serve in the IDF, nor do we pay taxes in Israel.  What right do we have to determine the policies of Israel’s government?  On the other hand,Israel is not only home to Israelis, but also the spiritual home of worldwide Jewry.  Our relationship to Israel is different from our relationship to any other foreign country.  Our relationship to Israel ought to be an aspect of our Jewish identity.  There is a sense of belonging and connection to Israel that many Diaspora Jews feel.  We need to nurture that relationship, especially among Millennials, many of whom are increasingly alienated from Israel because of the unsolved dispute with the Palestinians, an issue that is far more important to them than whether or not Conservative Jews have equal access to the Kotel.

The question of “who owns the Wall” is also symbolic of a larger issue—are the views and needs of non-Orthodox Jews, in Israel and here in America, taken seriously by the Israeli government?  Or are we dismissed, primarily by the Haredim, as illegitimate clowns who pose a threat to the Jewish way of life by the way we practice Judaism?  That is certainly how the Haredim see us, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s acquiescence to their demands was seen as an endorsement of their views, nothing less than an insulting slap in the face to the millions of Conservative and Reform Jews here and in Israel.

What insights can we gain from the behavior of Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews?  These are people who claim to have exclusive understanding of God’s will and to have a monopoly on the truth.  Such a viewpoint is simply antithetical to the fundamental values of Judaism.  They exude intolerance and arrogance.  What they have not been able to achieve through education and gentle persuasion they try to achieve through coercion and even violence.  In the face of such obnoxious and offensive behavior, we must retain our dignity and our principles.  We must be unwavering in our assertion that all Jews matter, and unflinching in our upholding of the idea that no one has as a right to claim that they know and understand God’s will and thus have a right to impose their views on others.  Nothing good in human history has ever come from one group forcing another to submit to its will.

How should Diaspora Jews respond to this situation?  I do not believe that we should attack the Israeli government, threaten to withhold financial resources from the State of Israel, or make bold statements about how Israel is no longer a home for the entire Jewish people.  Rather, we must see the bigger picture.  Yes, egalitarian access to the Kotel would be a meaningful expression of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry in Israel and around the world.  But we ought not view this as a single-issue situation.  At the core of the problem is that Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Jews in Israel are perceived as too small and weak to matter.  Those who care about pluralism in Israel should invest resources in growing and strengthening the Masorti Movement.  Learn about the work of the movement and support it with your charitable dollars.  There is power and influence in numbers, and we must seek to gain influence by becoming bigger and stronger.

I welcome your comments on this powerful issue and look forward to a robust debate.

Shabbat Shalom,




Empathy for the Outsider

This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the 12 scouts who are sent by Moses on a reconnaissance mission to determine if the land of Israel that God has promised they will inhabit is indeed all that it has been described to be.  In his orders to the scouts, he tells them:

“Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of a country it is.  Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?  And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”  (Numbers 13:17-20)

 While the premise of the story seems to be a scouting mission into the land, its deeper meaning and message may be that the struggle between God and Israel over matters of faith and fidelity to the covenant is a complex and turbulent one.  God demands that His people demonstrate faith that His promises will be fulfilled, yet the people’s doubts must be satisfied by seeing the land for themselves before they attempt to inhabit it.  At the end of the story, God becomes angry that ten of the scouts return from the mission with a discouraging report that says that the land cannot be conquered, and threatens once again to obliterate the people and start over again with Moses as leader.  If this type of interaction were experienced in the realm of human relationships, we might deem it a relationship in trouble and need of help.

Even more intriguing is the companion story to the Torah portion that is told in the Haftarah for Parashat Shelakh-Lekha.  Taken from the second chapter of the Book of Joshua, it tells the story of a scouting mission ordered by Joshua after he assumed the leadership role from Moses.  Joshua sends two scouts, not 12, to check out the city of Jericho, a key stronghold that will need to be conquered.  The scouts approach the city and come upon the home of a prostitute named Rahav, which is squeezed into the small space of the broad wall surrounding the city.  While she could turn them in to the authorities, she instead protects the two scouts, diverting the guards who come to capture them and hiding them in her house.  She does this because, as the text says, the people of her land are “filled with the dread of God.”  It’s likely that this story was written at a time of higher national confidence than the Torah story, or perhaps written as a statement of wishful thinking.

Rahab asks that she and her family be protected during a future invasion.  Assured that they’re safe and will be able to return to base with an accurate report, the scouts promise Rahab they’ll take care of her and tell her to place a sign outside of her house so the conquering Israelites will know to leave her alone.

Is there a significance to the story that Rahab is a prostitute?  Bible scholar Danna Nolan Fewell asserts that there is.  She writes:

“From Israel’s perspective Madame Rahab is the epitome of the outsider.  She is a woman, a prostitute and a foreigner.  As a prostitute, she is marginal even in her own culture, and her marginality is symbolized by her dwelling in the city wall, in the very boundary between the inside and the outside.  And it is Rahab who saves the lives of the feeble Israelite spies, who willing cavort with foreigners, indeed with a woman whom they would have eventually slaughtered in battle.”

Rahab is the quintessential outsider.  She is marginalized by being a prostitute, hardly the kind of work for which someone is honored at a testimonial dinner.  Because she is a woman, she is already marginalized by her society.  And according to the story, she is a foreigner who faces the additional stigma of being outcast.

Her status as an outsider makes her the perfect savior for Joshua’s two scouts, and by extension for the nation of Israel.  In the times in which the story was written, the Israelite nation was very much an outsider, enslaved, demeaned and brutalized by a powerful nation and facing the arduous task of establishing themselves in the world.  Across the centuries, the People of Israel has faced oppression, exile and torment.  There have been times we have had to navigate our way through social systems that denied our legitimacy, even our right to exist.  It could be said that we, the People of Israel, are also the quintessential “Outsider Nation,” marginalized, facing discrimination and rejection.  Who better to save the Israelites than Rahab, herself an outsider?

The Haftarah chanted this week can serve as a powerful reminder that we, the members of this “Outsider Nation” that has so often been compelled to seek acceptance, must practice acceptance and tolerance.  There are, distressingly, so many opportunities to do so.  All around us there are people who ostracized—refugees, immigrants, people who appear “different” and are thus unfairly perceived as a threat.  It is our obligation as Jews to end their ostracization and isolation, and to bring those who are forced to the fringe of society into its heart.

In that spirit, I encourage you to attend this year’s Pride Shabbat in celebration of LGTTQ+ individuals.  This year’s theme is “Hineni: Bearing Witness as a Response to Discrimination, Exclusion, Hatred and Violence.”  Join us for a Music Lover’s Shabbat Service at 7:45 PM, followed by a presentation by Les Skolnick of Keshet, an important organization devoted to the full inclusion and equality of LGBTQ people in Jewish life.  Les will speak about how we can create a culture of acceptance in our synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom!

Race, Nation or People?

Last night’s Annual Meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey was a wonderful event.  Lifelong Oheb Shalom member Arthur Schechner received the first-ever President’s Bamberger Award for his wonderful accomplishments as a communal leader.  Leslie Rosenthal, longtime member and past president of Oheb Shalom, was deservedly honored on the conclusion of her 3-year term as Federation President.  The room was packed for these testimonials, as well as for the other meeting agenda items, including a report from Leslie and Federation CEO Dov Ben Shimon on this year’s Federation achievements on behalf of our community, our Israeli partners and Jewish communities around the world.

Each year, the Federation Annual Meeting is enriched with a presentation by a notable Jewish leader or scholar.  This year’s speaker was Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel International and Consultant on Tikun Olam to the Reut Institute in Israel.  I had the privilege of sitting next to Dr. Infeld during the meeting, so I asked him what he intended to speak about.  He thought for a moment, then answered: “the Jewish people!”  At first, I thought his answer was tongue-in-cheek, as if he had said that he would speak about Judaism.  After hearing his remarks, passionately delivered, I see that he meant what he said.  In his speech he referred to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read aloud by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948, which declares the establishment of “a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”  Infeld noted the peculiarity of the term “Jewish state.”  What does the phrase mean?  Can a state be Jewish?  Does it keep Shabbat?  Does it keep kosher?  Of course not, he confirmed.  Infeld went on to say that the key to understanding the notion of a “Jewish” state is to see being Jewish not solely as a matter of religious affiliation but as belonging to a people.

Religion can be divisive rather than unifying, and the Jewish religion is no exception.  We see animosity and conflict all around us caused by the way some understand and practice the Jewish religion.  Some Orthodox Jews reject outright those who are not Orthodox.  This is especially true in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox Jews with political power deny legitimacy and support to the Masorti and Reform Movements that are established there.

But peoplehood is an all-encompassing enterprise.  It is a wide umbrella that can include all those who are connected to the Jewish people.  Peoplehood offers not only religious life but cultural, intellectual and communal experiences.  This is an important framework for understanding the State of Israel, which is a state not only for people who want to practice the Jewish religion but for those who want to express their affiliation with the Jewish people through cultural and communal ways as well.  In this way, Israel is a “Jewish State.”  It is the land in which the Jewish people were born.  As the first line of Israel’s Declaration of Independence says, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

We can only hope that those Jews who believe that they possess the truth about what it means to be a Jew and how a Jew should live and behave, that those who believe they can and should use political power to coerce their fellow Jews into practicing the Jewish religion as they believe it should be practiced, should come to understand that throughout our history our source of strength has been the unifying notion of Jewish peoplehood.

In seeking to define Judaism, it’s not uncommon to ask this question:  Are Jews a religion, a nation, or a race?  It can be argued that even if we do not now share common racial traits, Jews once did.  Hitler certainly saw Jews as a race that had to be exterminated.  We are certainly a religion, as there are norms of religious practice that define Jewish life, even if they are interpreted and lived differently by Jews around the world.  And we are certainly a nation, as a connection to the land of Israel is fundamental to what it means to be a Jew.

But perhaps the best definition of what it means to be a Jew is that we all belong to a people, one that shares a common history and a destiny.  Our strength and our future lie in the simple adage that says “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Ba-zeh…All members of the people of Israel are responsible for one another.”  Perhaps that simple phrase is the most profoundly important of all Jewish teachings.

Running for Ramah

On Sunday morning June 11, I will participate in a 5K run to raise needed scholarship funds for Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.  This will be the first time I’ve ever run in a 5K, and I can’t think of a better cause to support.   Camp Ramah has been a crucially important part of my life and my family’s life for decades.  I spent six impactful and formative summers at Camp Ramah in California during a time in my life when my Jewish identity needed to be strengthened and reinforced.  I have Camp Ramah to thank for meeting my wife—we are one of countless “Ramah couples” who found each other at Ramah.  In the summer of 1984 we were both working as Rashei Eidah (Division Heads) for Camp Ramah in New England.  We met three months before the start of camp at a gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Amy was intent on being the best Rosh Eidah possible and I was intent on getting to know her!).  Our family spent two summers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and all five of our children have spent nearly every summer of their lives either at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack or at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  Amy is the National Associate Director of the Ramah Movement and this summer is her 20th year as Director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.  For us, there is nothing that can compare to a summer spent at Ramah.

Since its founding in 1947, Camp Ramah has provided thousands of people with the nourishing and supportive community so crucially needed for the formation of a strong Jewish sense of self.  Ramah is a magical place where Jewish life is comfortably lived every moment of the day, seven days a week.  It is an oasis where children and staff need not face choices between Jewish and secular, since Jewish values are a part of daily life at Ramah, from the way sports games are played, to the way people treat each other, to the comfortable use of Hebrew, to the way Shabbat is celebrated as a way of life.  Spending a summer at Ramah opens the door to a lifetime of engagement with Judaism.  Our sons have all received a strong and deep Jewish education.  All five boys attended Jewish day schools from pre-K through 12th grade.  Our family has traveled to Israel on a nearly annual basis and we have brought our children to synagogue on nearly every Shabbat and Yomtov of their lives.  It’s fair to say that, while those things are crucially important in Jewish identity formation, spending their summers at Camp Ramah has been the driving force in encouraging our children to live committed Jewish lives.

As I train to run my first 5K, I’m proud to be running in support of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack. This remarkable place draws hundreds of children from New York and New Jersey where they find a magnificent summer camp and a warm and nurturing Jewish community.  Children and staff comfortably embrace Jewish living, form a love of Israel and find friends that will be with them for life.  It is not an understatement to say that Ramah in Nyack has had a positive and enduring impact on the Jewish choices made by countless young adults who spend summers there, learn and develop leadership skills and grow as Jews in ways they could not have imagined when they were younger.

Scholarship funds are needed so that no children will ever be denied the benefit of a summer at Ramah.  I ask you to consider supporting Ramah Day Camp in Nyack by sponsoring my 5K run next month.  Click on the link below to link to my Scholarship Run page.  I thank you in advance for your support and encouragement!


The Prophet Jeremiah and Mahmoud Abbas

The prophet Jeremiah was a fascinating character who lived at one of the most significant turning points in Jewish history, the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia.  As did most prophets, Jeremiah railed against his people’s lack of faith and their worship of pagan gods and idols and cited their apparent inability to trust God as the reason for their demise.  As the Babylonians threatened the Jewish nation, Jeremiah urged not resistance but submission, knowing full well that exile lie ahead for his people, something for which he was persecuted and threatened with death by Israel’s priests and King.  Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians and was exiled to Egypt with his trusted scribe, Baruch ben Neriah, where he likely died.

In the midst of this upheaval and chaos, Jeremiah oddly makes a purchase of land in Israel.  In the Haftarah for Parashat Behar (it’s not read this year since Behar is read together with Parashat Bechukotai and we read the second of the two Haftarot), we read Jeremiah’s words:

Jeremiah said: The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will come to you and say, “Buy my land in Anatot, for you are next in succession to redeem it by purchase.” And just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the prison compound and said to me, “Please buy my land in Anatot, in the territory of Benjamin; for the right of succession is yours, and you have the duty of redemption. Buy it.” Then I knew that it was indeed the word of the Lord.  So I bought the land in Anatot from my cousin Hanamel. I weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I wrote a deed, sealed it, and had it witnessed; and I weighed out the silver on a balance. I took the deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one according to rule and law, and gave the deed to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah in the presence of my kinsman Hanamel, of the witnesses who were named in the deed, and all the Judeans who were sitting in the prison compound.  (Jeremiah 32:6-12)

The passage from Jeremiah is linked to the Torah reading because Parashat Behar includes laws about the requirement of the Jubilee Year to facilitate the return of land to its original owners.  Jeremiah claims that God has instructed him to exercise his right to reacquire land in his hometown of Anatot.  He pays for the land, has a deed of purchase signed and sealed by his scribe Baruch, and, knowing that he will never live on that land himself, has the document placed in a clay jar so a future generation can claim it.

The passage is remarkable because purchasing land in a place that is being overrun by a powerful enemy requires a great depth of faith in the future.  Perhaps Jeremiah purchased land in Israel as a symbolic act meant to kindle faith in the future during a desperate time.  Perhaps he never actually believed that his descendants would return to Israel to live there on their own land.  Either he was an inspiring leader, or a lunatic.

But the passage is also remarkable because it demonstrates that the Jewish people have never relinquished our connection to the Land of Israel, the place of our birth as a nation.  Whether one chooses to see the writings of Jeremiah as factual history or as lore doesn’t matter.  Either way, the passage speaks to the enduring, centuries-old tie between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.  Never in our history as a people have we severed that tie.  Israel has always been our spiritual home, wherever in the world we have chosen, or been compelled, to live.

I’m not one to cite Biblical writing as evidence in political negotiations.  But the writings of Jeremiah, and the writings of other prophets and Biblical books, and the contents of the Jewish prayer book, all reinforce the idea that the Jewish people have a history in the Land of Israel.  It is the place where the Jewish enterprise came into being.  Our claim to the land is not invented, and it is not recent.

I make this point because I believe it is fundamental to achieving any resolution between Israel and the Palestinians.   Any discussion of the details of a future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must be preceded by this understanding.  The Israelis, indeed the Jewish people, have a historic claim to live in the Land of Israel.  Zionism is not an invention of the modern era (although there is a specific history to Zionism beginning in the 19th century).  Mr. Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, must be able to accept this fundamental point if Israel is to have a legitimate partner for resolving the conflict.  That means that he must stop denying that Jews have a history in the Land of Israel (a history that, inconveniently for him, pre-dates the history of Palestinians and Arabs).

David Horvitz, Editor-in-Chief of The Times of Israel, wrote in an editorial this week on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Israel that if Mr. Abbas is serious about creating a “culture of peace” (as he claimed to Mr. Trump when he was in the Oval Office), he must move from seeking “normalization” with Israel to acknowledging that Israel has a right to be there.  He must give that which he seeks for his own people to the Israelis.  He wrote:

Courageous leadership requires “No more incitement, no more glorification of terrorism. [It requires] an effort, in the interests of both sides, to confound the cynics and the doubters. And the extremists.”

None of this exempts the Israeli government from meeting the Palestinians halfway.  Israel faces a problem that, though not of their choosing or making, must be solved for the sake of Israel’s future.  Israelis must acknowledge that Palestinians have a history in the land as well, and that they wish to make their home there.  Poll after poll taken in Israel shows that if the Israelis did not perceive an existential threat, they would be more than willing to figure out a fair way to share the land.  Is it possible that Israelis have elected right-leaning governments in recent years  in part because they sense that concessions are futile in an environment where the Palestinian educational system denies the legitimacy of Zionism and denigrates Jews?

Only when Mr. Abbas and his people do what Jeremiah did 2,500 years ago—express the conviction that the Jewish people have roots in the Land of Israel—will the door be open to both sides creating a more hopeful future.


To Our Mothers

This Sunday we celebrate Mother’s Day, an occasion to express love and gratitude to our mothers for giving us life and sustaining us.  The mother-child relationship is a mysterious one, beautiful and complex, able to withstand tension and stress perhaps because its foundation is pure love.  The most gratifying experience of my life has been fatherhood, yet I quietly acknowledge that the maternal bond can be deeper and more spiritual.  We can speculate as to why this might be so, and of course there can be no single correct answer.  But there must be a reason that close to 150 million phone calls are placed to mothers on Mother’s Day and more flowers are sold and delivered on this day than any other in the year.

Mother’s Day has been celebrated since the beginning of the 20th century and became a legal holiday in the United States in 1914.  But of course, reverence for our mothers did not begin only 100 years ago.  Indeed, the Torah exalts mothers and depicts them as zealous and unwavering in protecting their children and securing the welfare of their families.  Sarah suffers the humiliation of seeing Hagar conceive a child with her husband Abraham, and when she has her own child she seeks to shelter him by demanding that Hagar and her son Ishmael be banished from the family home.  We may not wish to emulate such an act but we can see Sarah as someone determined to keep her child from being hurt.  Rebecca takes charge of her family and secures Isaac’s innermost blessing for Jacob.  Perhaps she was simply fulfilling a divinely ordained result.  Or perhaps she took matters into her own hand, being able to see, in a way that Isaac couldn’t, that Jacob and not Esav was the right choice to lead the family and his people in the next generation.  The Midrash teaches that Tziporah saved the life of her husband Moses by quickly circumcising their son when Moses had neglected to do so.  Might we say that Tziporah ensured the survival of our people by her determination to see the tradition continue?  Each of these stories is complex and layered with multiple meanings, but they share a common thread of strong mothers who act out of love to protect their children, their families and their people.  This is the image of the Jewish mother—someone who is deeply committed to education, family cohesiveness, hard work, loyalty and love. The image of the self-sacrificing mother has become the source of countless jokes, but at its core it’s an authentic idea.  Jewish women so often sacrifice their own needs for the sake of their children and families.

So, let’s consider Mother’s Day not as a secular holiday but as one associated with Jewish values.  On this Mother’s Day, take a moment to offer your mother a blessing.  I’ve taken the liberty of offering a sample here, one that is blended from several different texts.  Of course, many people no longer have their mothers in their lives.  Consider saying these words of blessing anyway, perhaps with a photo of your mother in hand, or with her image firmly planted in your mind and heart.

Harachaman, Hu yevarech et imi morati…Merciful One, bless my mother, my teacher.  To my mother, I offer my thanks for the traits you have modeled, for showing me that love can overcome obstacles, for sharing celebration and pain, for teaching me about fragility and strength.  I am grateful for the life you have given me, and for your wisdom, your guidance, your concern and, most important, your love.  There are no words to express my gratitude for all the blessings you have given me.  Still, I tell you, thank you.  May God bless you as you have blessed me.

To all the mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, may you have a special day filled with love and joy, surrounded by your children.

Yom Hazikaron

On Monday, the State of Israel and much of the Jewish world will observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.  Unlike America’s Memorial Day, which is marked by a handful of tributes to those who have been killed in the line of duty but is mostly taken as a vacation day and seen as the unofficial start of summer, Yom Hazikaron is a day of true national reflection and mourning.  In Israel, time stands still on Yom Hazikaron.  Families visit cemeteries and weep as they confront yet again the death of their loved ones in battle and contemplate the human cost of Israel’s independence.  Perhaps that is because in Israel, virtually everybody serves in the army.  It’s impossible to feel detached from Israel’s soldiers because they are members of your own family, or they are your close friends, or they are your neighbor.

I am not an Israeli and I live my life here in America, on the other side of the world from the State of Israel.  But even here in New Jersey, I feel the emotional pull of Yom Hazikaron.  That is because to me, Israel is not just another country in the Near East.  Israel is, in a real sense, my spiritual homeland.  I am proud of Israel’s achievements and I feel worry and concern about the threats and challenges Israel faces.  I feel completely at home when I am there, not only because I speak the language (I certainly wouldn’t feel at home in Spain just because I could speak Spanish fluently) but because Israel is a part of my identity.  When an Israeli soldier is killed, it feels eerily personal to me.  I try to learn something about the soldier’s life story and identity.  On Yom Hazikaron, I contemplate the lives of young people ended far too soon so that the State of Israel and exist and thrive.  In a way that is not merely abstract, those soldiers died serving in an army that ensures the State of Israel can be there for me.  I say this with humility, fully aware that I have not made any real sacrifices to ensure the survival and security of the State of Israel.

As I’ve shared with you, my son Josh is an Israeli who just completed six months of service in the IDF.  I recently asked him what message and meaning he sees in Yom Hazikaron.  He told me that at the funeral for a Lone Soldier (a Chayal Boded), a soldier who has no family living in Israel, it’s common for thousands upon thousands of people to show up.  Those who attend these funerals do so to become the family of the soldier, to mourn for him, to pay tribute to his sacrifice, to ensure that he is not alone as he is laid to rest.  In truth, the thousands of people who show up at these funerals are his family.  As Josh told me, that is because the people of Israel “are all in this together.”  That Lone Soldier is not alone…he belongs to the entire nation.

On Yom Hazikaron, I urge you to set aside a few moments for reflection about the men and women who have given their lives so that the State of Israel can exist and thrive.  You may wish to light a Ner Zikaron (memorial candle or yahrtzeit candle).  As you light the candle, you may wish to read this classic poem by Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s most influential poets of the 20th century:

The Silver Platter by Natan Alterman

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers,

As the nation arises, torn at heart but breathing, to receive its miracle, the only miracle,

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy,

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation.

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly.

To change garb, to wipe their brow.  They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field.

Full of endless fatigue and unrested, yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head.

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death.

Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows.

And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel

I also encourage you to become familiar with Friends of the IDF, an important organization that sponsors programs in support of Israel’s soldiers, including Lone Soldiers.

And link to the website of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey for information on opportunities in our community to celebrate Yom Ha’atsmaut, Israel Independence Day.

Free or Not Free?

At our Passover Seder this year, one of the guests introduced an interesting discussion spark—a set of cards with photos of people who, depending on one’s perspective, could be considered either free or not free.  One of these photos especially caught my attention.  It shows the last Passover Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto, taken on April 19, 1943, the night that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.  The Germans entered the ghetto that night, intentionally on the Festival of Passover, planning to remove or kill the last Jewish inhabitants.  Perhaps strengthened in their resolve by the message of Passover, a handful of Jews faced off against the German army and held out for three weeks until the ghetto was finally overwhelmed and destroyed on May 16.


The crowd gathered around the Seder table included people of all ages, most bearing desperate and grim expressions.  The man seated at the head of the table is breaking the middle matzah (“yachatz” is a symbol of the brokenness of the world…for whom would this act have been more real and vivid?).  His expression seems determined and resolute.  The question the card poses is this:  Are these people free or not free?  Perhaps they are free because, despite facing terrible evil and the fear and dread of the executioner’s sword hanging over their heads, they are embracing and celebrating their tradition, the very religious tradition for which they are being exterminated.  Perhaps they are not free because even they know that their suffering will soon increase and they will perish in anguish.  Is celebrating Passover in a ghetto, doomed to die, freedom?

When we discussed this question in shul on the last day of Pesach, most people felt that the question of whether the Jews at the last Passover Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto were free or not free cannot be answered objectively.  That is because freedom is not solely a legal status.  Freedom is as much a state of mind, an ever-evolving potential of the human spirit.  Freedom is a way of life to which we must aspire, and for which we must work, every minute of every day.

The celebration of Passover is not merely about history, a recollection of what happened to our people centuries ago.  For Passover to be not only relevant but meaningful, it must address the present and the future.  The questions of the Haggadah must be understood not only as “how were our people liberated from Egyptian bondage centuries ago?” but, more pressingly, “how does the message of Passover inspire and motivate us to increase the blessing of freedom for all of humanity?”

If that is true for Passover, it must also be true for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).  Observed beginning this Sunday evening, April 23rd, Yom Hashoah is rightly about the suffering of our people during the dark years of the Nazi regime in Europe.  It is also about the determination and will of those Jews who resisted, and the valiant acts of righteous gentiles who saved so many of us.  But Yom Hashoah is also about being inspired and motivated by the terrible anguish of the Holocaust to work to end the oppression of all human beings.  The lessons of the Holocaust summon us to be aware of the places in the world where people suffer, sometimes in silence, at the hand of tyrants, where they are murdered and gassed, where women are sold into sexual slavery, where children are forced to fight as soldiers rather than get an education and develop their minds and lives.  These things are happening in our world today, in Syria, in South Sudan, in Somalia, in Yemen, and countless other places around the world.

As Yom Hashoah begins at nightfall this Sunday, please light the candle provided to every Oheb Shalom member by our Men’s Club.  As you light the flame, reflect not only on the suffering of our people during those dark years but also on the suffering of human beings in today’s world.  As the light begins to spread, imagine that the freedom, like the flame, grows and spreads.  May the light of the candle symbolize our potential to spread freedom to each person who lives in this world.

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.