Unity and Humility:  Ancient Values Needed Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Israel: A Paradox I Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greetings and Thoughts from Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promises and Mini-Markets

Promises are important.  They have the power to instill hope and excitement, and can establish trustworthiness and integrity.  Four key promises are noted in this week’s parasha, where we read these words spoken by God to Moses:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord.  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and will deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:6-7)

These key promises—the end of physical enslavement, of mental enslavement, of redemption, and of relationship with God—form the basis for the pattern of four in the Passover Seder.  We drink four cups of wine, ask four questions, there are four distinct tellings of the story, there is the tale of four children, etc.

A fifth promise– I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I will give it to you as a possession, I the Lord (Exodus 6:8)—is represented by Elijah’s Cup, over which no blessing is recited.  Tradition holds that when the Messianic Era begins, to be heralded by Elijah the Prophet, we will learn if the Talmudic Sages should have included the fifth promise in the Passover Seder.

Though the “jury is out” on whether the fifth promise should have been grouped with the first four, it still looms very large in our tradition.  The promise of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people lies at the foundation of our very existence.  Our connection to the Land of Israel makes us unique.  Judaism is not only a religion espousing beliefs, customs and a common story.  We are also a nation, a people rooted in a special place.  It is in the Land of Israel that our nation was born, and it is to the Land of Israel that we have been spiritually connected since Abraham and Sarah walked the earth.

Here’s what one commentator– Rabbi Shalom Isaac Lewitan, 20th century, Norway—wrote about the importance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people:

The Torah uses the word “morasha” (inheritance) only twice:  here, and in Deuteronomy, where it says “Moses commanded Torah as a morasha.”  From this we can draw a parallel between Eretz Yisrael and the Torah, and and that our right to inheritance in Eretz Yisrael is strengthened when we act in accordance with the laws of the Torah.

Rabbi Lewitan seems to reinforce the idea, commonly held by strictly Orthodox Jews, that the purpose of the Jews’ presence in the Land of Israel is to live according to the laws and principles of the Torah.  Following that line of thinking, God brought us out of Egypt to deliver His Torah to us at Mt. Sinai and bring us into the land promised to Abraham, where we would be a holy people living according to the values set forth in its pages.

This is precisely the ideology of Religious Zionists, who believe that the purpose of Jews living in Israel is to follow the ways of the Torah.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews would want to see the State of Israel turned into a theocracy, a state governed by Torah and not civil law.  Extreme Ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as the Neturei Karta, believe that the modern State of Israel is illegitimate since it was brought into existence by secular Jews and not by a Divine act of redemption.

The problem is that modern Zionism is not comprised of only one ideology.  There are Zionists who believe that the purpose of the State of Israel is for Jewish culture to flourish, while others believe that the purpose of Zionism is political, a guarantee of Jewish safety in a world hostile to Jews.

It seems that God’s fifth promise doesn’t mean only one thing to our people.  Some believe that God promised us a land so that we can uphold the laws of the Torah, while others believe that we were promised a land so that we could live there as a people in all our colorful diversity.

This brings me to mini-markets.  Among the headlines out of Israel this past week was a little noticed story about the Knesset voting to give the Minister of the Interior control over what business establishments can stay open on Shabbat throughout the State of Israel.  The current Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri (an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who also happens to be a convicted criminal), introduced a bill that would enable him to force the closure of mini-markets in Israel on Shabbat.  Threatening to topple the government’s ruling coalition if the “mini-market bill” wasn’t passed, the Knesset voted, by a margin of 58-57, to give Minister Deri the power to force the closure on Shabbat of mini-markets throughout Israel.  The city of Tel Aviv was exempt from the law, but attempts to exempt Eilat, a city that attracts a lot of tourists, failed.  Soon after the bill passed, Deri claimed that it was a victory for what he called the “silent majority” of Shabbat observers.  He later changed his tune and said that the bill wasn’t his idea and that implementing it would be impossible.

Two ideas about the mini-market bill come to mind.  First, the State of Israel came into being as a democracy where people are be free to choose how to live their lives.  True, Jewish values permeate Israeli life.  Personally, I appreciate the spirit of Shabbat descending on the entire country on a late Friday afternoon in Israel.  But the Ultra-Orthodox shouldn’t be allowed to force people to conform to a religious standard that they don’t want to embrace, whether in matters of Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, marriage or divorce.  The Ultra-Orthodox are free to educate and to inspire, but should not be allowed to demand and extort the results they want.  Holding the government hostage until people capitulate to a religious standard they don’t want to uphold is simply ugly and wrong.

Beyond that, the mini-market bill reminds me that Zionism isn’t only about upholding Torah values in the land of Israel.  There’s more than one way to be a Zionist.  God’s fifth promise—that the Jewish people would live in our own land—should be interpreted in a variety of ways.  We can only hope that Minister Deri and other Ultra-Orthodox politicians in the Israeli government grow to see that truth.

Shabbat Shalom,


This Time I Will Offer Thanks

The reasons that lie behind the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah are fascinating. What’s striking about Leah’s choices is that they seem tragic and self-serving. She chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved,” the name Naftali because she won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.”

These names express Leah’s despondency that she is not loved, even hated, by her husband Jacob.  The pattern of tragic self-expression through her children’s names is broken when Judah is born.  The origin of the word Jewish, Judah is chosen for reasons that are not self-absorbed at all. Leah names her fourth son Judah as an expression of gratitude for those things that are above and beyond what she felt she had a right to expect in life. When Leah gives birth to Judah, she says “ha-pa’am odeh et Adonai…this time I will thank God” (Genesis 29:35). Why did Leah feel the need to thank God when Judah was born?  On this verse, the Midrash comments that Leah chose the name Judah “because I have assumed more than my share, from now on I should praise God.”  Because he was her fourth child, and she had assumed that each of Jacob’s four wives would be entitled to bear three sons who would become one of the ancestors of the twelve tribes. Judah was extra, more than she felt she was entitled to have, so she felt compelled to offer thanks to God.

I don’t consider this interpretation of Leah’s motivation for choosing the name Judah to be a satisfying explanation of the idea of gratitude.  Yes, we can all expect certain basic entitlements in life.  Americans have come to expect a safe place to live, food to eat, healthcare and education for ourselves and our children.  These are among the basic privileges offered to the people of a decent society, and we have come to expect them.  Beyond expecting them for ourselves, we are called to fight for the underprivileged among us who do not receive an adequate share of these minimum rights and benefits, if they have them at all.  But true gratitude asks us to be thankful for life itself and for each of the blessings we enjoy each day.  Nothing we have should be taken for granted or assumed to be owed to us.  That is why a Jew is asked to express gratitude as the first utterance upon waking in the morning, why we pause to say thanks for every morsel of food we eat before sitting down to a meal, and why we offer our gratitude for the clothing we wear.

Before we establish what think we are entitled to have and only express thanks for what we are given beyond that, we ought to consider that much of the rest of the world lives in poverty and destitution.  When we consider the material blessings that what we have each day of our lives, and the blessings of freedom afforded by our country, we might amend “this time I will thank God” to “I will thank God every time.”

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I encourage you to offer the following prayer when you gather to share a meal with family and friends.

A Thanksgiving Prayer

(By Rabbi Naomi Levy)

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these.  Amen.



There’s Nothing Like Being There

Not much distinguishes Isaac as one of the three great patriarchs of our people.  Though we recite his name every time we pray the Amidah, there isn’t anything particularly dramatic about his life story.

Abraham is a pioneer, the one to promote a revolutionary idea to the world.  His faith is complex and challenging.  His family relationships are equally so.

Jacob lives a turbulent life on his own terms.  He knows he will inherit the weighty mantle of leadership, but we are not sure he possesses the moral certainty carry on his family’s tradition.  He is a person of questionable character who inspires scrutiny and admiration for his behavior toward others.

But the most that can be said of Isaac is that he is the necessary link between the generations.  He is a passive figure, bound to the altar by his father in the role of victim, not trailblazer.

True, there are times to be a trailblazer and there are times to maintain the status quo.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his book Biblical Images writes that, “It is known that the sons of great fathers, talented and significant as they may be in their own right, have to contend with the parental glory and from the beginning feel themselves as inadequate, burdened with a lesser or with greater degrees of helplessness.”  Frankly, who remembers the child of a revolutionary?  The point Rabbi Steinsaltz makes is that the generation to follow a revolutionary often must quietly maintain what was achieved.

On the surface, Isaac’s story is not unique and inspiring.  But the rabbinic sages credit him with one achievement in particular—he remained in the Land of Israel.  In chapter 26 of Genesis, we read that God tells him to stay in the land and that he will prosper by staying.

One might think that never leaving one’s homeland is hardly an impressive accomplishment.  But the sages credit Isaac with reinforcing the idea that a Jew must be closely connected to the Land of Israel not only spiritually but also physically.  For them, the land was a crucial aspect of Jewish identity.  They viewed the land as not an abstract promise made to Abraham but the place in which communal and cultural identity was formed and strengthened.  Simply put, they affirmed that Jews are not only a religion but also a nation.  We have in common not only values, folkways, history and customs, but also a shared connection to a certain place.

What was true for the Talmudic sages should be true for us.  Jews are not only members of a religion, but also a nation.  Our connection to the Land of Israel has been maintained from all the generations from Abraham to our day.  Our religious identity is expressed not only in prayer, study, holiday celebration and cultural experience.  It ought to be expressed through connection to the Land of Israel as well.

In that spirit, I share with you two opportunities to visit Israel with me.

  • The first opportunity is Oheb Shalom Congregation’s Family Israel Adventure, a 10-day tour from August 19-29, 2018. These dates come after summer camp sessions have ended.  Together, we will travel to places in Israel both historic and modern, seeing for ourselves how this remarkable and beautiful nation has grown over 70 years of statehood.  Each day will be packed with experiences and memorable moments that we will share together.  Oheb Shalom members and their extended family members are welcome to join.  The itinerary and registration form for Oheb Shalom’s Family Israel Adventure are both online.
  • The second opportunity is a Community Mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. From October 14-22, 2018, hundreds of people from our community will travel together to Israel for a remarkable and memorable visit.  The cost is $1,999 (land only) for the first 400 registrants, and $3,499 (land only) for subsequent registrants.  I plan to be there, and we are hoping for a substantial representation from Oheb Shalom on this mission!

Isaac did not capture the headlines that his father or son did.  But he is known by our tradition for his close connection to the Land of Israel.  Let’s emulate his example.

Shabbat Shalom,


Old- and Current- Attitudes Toward Women

The stories in the Torah often seem subordinating of women.  One of the two creation stories in Genesis describes Eve as being created from Adam’s rib because he needed a “helper.”  Sarah is depicted as a mostly passive character.  Her voice isn’t heard in the chilling story of the attempted sacrifice of her son Isaac, and her husband Abraham profits materially from his urging her to spend the night with another man.  Isaac does the same to his wife.  Decisions seemed to be made and directions determined largely by men.

That shouldn’t be too surprising.  We’re often tempted to judge the content of Bible stories through the lens of our own times and values, but that would be a mistake.  Ancient Israelite society was male dominated.  Women, for the most part, weren’t granted public or legal standing.  The Jewish law, upheld today by strict observers of Halakha, that women may not serve as witnesses for the completion of a Jewish legal document such as a Ketubah (wedding contract) or Get (divorce contract) is rooted in an obsolete assumption that women shouldn’t have a role in public matters.  Even the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony commonly practiced today is based on a law in the Mishna stipulating that a woman is “acquired” by a man, a sort of property concerning which a man had rights (many non-Orthodox Jews are choosing to make the ceremony more egalitarian).  It’s true that a balanced view of Talmudic laws regarding marriage and divorce would require us to acknowledge that women also had rights and were afforded protection from abuse enshrined in law.  But it’s indisputable that Jewish society from the past was male dominated.

We can object to these historic realities, though we shouldn’t express too much shock about how women were depicted and treated in Bible stories and in the times following the period of the Bible.  The fact is that here in America it wasn’t until 1920 that women were given the right to vote.  And the glass ceiling that prevents women from earning equal pay for equal work still hasn’t been broken.  Attitudes about women from the past that led to the subordination and subjugation of women very much exist today in our world and our nation.

Thus, we shouldn’t be shocked or surprised at the countless #MeToo stories of sexual harassment and abuse finally being shared by women who have quietly suffered at the hands of men who seem to think that their impulses and perverse needs can be fulfilled at their whim at the expense of women.  We need to listen with sensitivity and empathy to their stories of abuse, suffering and coercion, hold perpetrators accountable, and begin to create a culture in which men do not feel a license to dominate and abuse women.

And we need to be sure to emphasize, especially to children, those parts of the Torah that do depict women as smart, decisive and in control of their own lives, their families and their people.  One such character, whom we meet in this week’s Parasha, is Rebecca.  She is consulted before her marriage to Isaac is finalized.  And her character is described as someone in charge and who steers her husband toward an outcome that she thinks is best for her family, even if she can’t count on him to support her.  Rebecca stands out from most other females in the Bible as someone who is a leader.  We need to make sure that her story is told as an example of an empowered female.

We shouldn’t judge too harshly stories from the Bible, as they were written in a time long ago.  But, sadly, some of those ancient attitudes toward women persist today and we must do what needs to be done to make a change in our own times and stop subordination and abuse of women.

Shabbat Shalom,


An Ethical Life

Note: At the end of this post is a reminder about our Adult B’nai Mitzvah service that will take place this Saturday, November 4.

I shared these words with our congregation in The Review, our bi-monthly printed newsletter.  I offer them here as well, along with my hope that many of you will take the opportunity to learn with me.

What is the essence of Judaism?  Is it prayer and worship, perhaps so because we wish to come closer to God?  Is it study and learning, perhaps so because we wish to discover faith?  Is it repair of the world, for there can be nothing more urgent than using our strength and resources to help the suffering?  Indeed, each of these practices has its place.  Yet, the strongest argument may be that the essence of Judaism is to live a life devoted to goodness, to being a good person in our actions and our thoughts.  All of Jewish life is a preparation for the ultimate human condition—to develop our lives into a symphony of goodness.

The study of ethics is a priority in Judaism.  A Jewish examination of ethics considers the values of Torah and the wisdom of the Talmudic sages and their intellectual and spiritual heirs.  The study of ethics from a Jewish perspective examines critical, current issues from a Jewish lens.

The Jewish Theological Seminary has produced a truly outstanding curriculum for adults to engage in the study of ethics from a Jewish perspective.  Here’s how the course is described:

From political and financial scandals to rapid progress in biomedical science and technology, the complex issues of modern society are, at their core, issues of ethical and moral concern. Now more than ever, we require a solid understanding of how Jewish ethics can inform our discussions and decisions about the critical questions of the day. Judaism has a long history of wrestling with moral questions, responding to them in a way that considers all sides of an issue. 

The course includes video presentations by JTS faculty members, as well as short videos featuring people who grapple with ethical challenges in their professional work.  Participants will be able to access all course materials, including videos, online.  Eight sessions of “The Ethical Life” will be offered, four on a Monday night and four on a Shabbat morning from November through March.  The Monday night sessions will be streamed online for those who cannot be physically present at the synagogue.  The Shabbat morning sessions will take place shortly after the start of the Kiddush luncheon (videos will be shown at the Monday sessions but not on Shabbat).

The topics are varied and interesting, and are presented independent of each other so that participants can attend sessions selectively.  Participants will chose which topics will be studied.

Ethical issues that will be offered for study include: food production; fracking; mass incarceration; modern-day slavery; torture and war; end-of-Life care; disabilities and inclusion; physical enhancement; and lying.

Monday dates: November 20, December 18, January 8, January 22 (8:00-9:30 PM)

Shabbat dates: December 2, February 3, March 3, March 17 (shortly after the start of the kiddush lunch)

I do hope that you will join me for what promises to be a stimulating and important time of learning and discussion.

Adult B’nai Mitzvah celebration- THIS SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 4

I hope that you will attend Shabbat morning services this week as we celebrate with five adults who are becoming B’nai Mitzvah.  Rick Gilman, Adele Nagelberg, Debra Ginsberg, Susan Waters and Harriet Siegerman have been studying with me for nearly a year and have prepared to participate in the service.  For each of these people, becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah as adults means something different.  Their personal journeys are unique.  For all of them, becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a moment of affirmation of their Jewish identity and their place in the Jewish community.   I hope that you will be present to celebrate with them and their families.

Miracle People

We’ve come to the part of Genesis where God establishes a covenant with Abraham.  Near the end of Parashat Lech Lecha, in the opening verses of chapter 17, God summons Abraham to walk with Him and to strive to be wholehearted.  He promises him that his descendants will “exceedingly multiply,” will live in a land of their own, and that he will become the father of many generations.  To mark this moment in Abraham’s life and relationship to God, two things happen.  First, his name is changed from “Abram” to “Abraham.”  The difference between the two versions of the name is the single Hebrew letter “hey,” which symbolizes God’s essence.  The second thing is that Abraham is told that he, and all of his male descendants, must be circumcised as an outward, physical symbol of continuity of tradition and heritage between generations.  Abraham fulfills this command at an advanced age, by himself, while newborns males are entered into our Covenant with God on the eighth day of life.

Whenever we read this passage, it especially resonates with me.  I am a Mohel and am present at Brit Milah celebrations at which newborn boys are welcomed into the family of the Jewish people through the recitation of prayers and the ritual of circumcision.  When I officiate at a Bris, I most often tell the crowd that we have gathered to affirm that the story of the People of Israel continues in the life and generation of the newborn baby.  It is a story that began with Abraham, who began the Jewish journey centuries ago in a land far way and at a very different time in human history.  That our story continues in the times in which we live, that the Jewish people continues to thrive in the 21st century in a land of our own, that we continue to make major contributions to the welfare of humankind in every conceivable area of life, is nothing short of a miracle.  Those who know the history of the Jewish people know well that the is no logical reason that we continue to exist.  There are too many points in our history when we should have exited the world stage through military defeat or genocide.  That other nations and civilizations have vanished, and the Jewish people is still here, is simply astonishing.  Other than the part about his descendants being numerous, the promise made by God to Abraham has been kept.

That makes us the “miracle people.”  When a person encounters a miracle, how should he respond?  By expressing gratitude and awe, and by doing everything possible to preserve it.  That is what we the descendants of Abraham, are summoned to do.  As the People of Israel, we are called on to express gratitude that the Jewish story continues in our times and that we are part of that story.  And we are ought to do everything we can to preserve the miracle.  We must do our part to preserve our traditions, while at the same time responding with creativity and innovation to the challenges of our own day.

Every generation of our people must say to itself two things.  First, our continued existence is nothing less than miraculous.  And second, that miracle can end at any time.  Let’s not allow it to be on our watch.

Shabbat Shalom.