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.

Enough is Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that a good reason to celebrate Passover?

My Grandson’s Bris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Wear Masks

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

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

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

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

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

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