“Refugee” – My Rosh haShanah morning sermon

          Here are two “jokes” that circulated after World War II.

A Viennese Jew entered the office of a travel bureau and said to one of the clerks, “I want a steamship ticket.”

Where to?” asked the clerk.

“Where to? Yes, where to?” repeated the Jew meditatively. “I wish I could answer this question. Let me look at your globe, if you don’t mind.”

Thereupon the Jew turned the globe around several times, studying carefully countries and continents. After a few minutes, he raised his eyes to the clerk and said, “Pardon me, got anything else?”

Felix Mendelsohn, Let Laughter Ring (Philadelphia, 1946; orig. pub. 1941), 135-136.

A harassed attaché of the American Consulate at Lisbon told the story of a gray-faced little man who leaned over his desk one morning and anxiously inquired: “Can you tell me if there is any possibility, I could get entrance to your wonderful country?”

The attaché pressed by thousands of such requests and haggard from sleepless nights, roughly replied: “Impossible now. Come back in another ten years.”

The little refugee moved toward the door, stopped, turned and, with a wan smile, asked, “Morning or afternoon?”

Bennet Cerf, Pocket Book of War Humor (New York, 1943), 181

          We do not have an immigration challenge at our southern border; we have a refugee challenge. Part of the problem is that we even call it an immigration crisis. That’s looking at it from the wrong side of the issue and of the border. Immigration is about the reception of emigrants, the rescuing of refugees. Those whose happenstance of birth ||| places them within a sovereign state, look at what happens at their border as something concerning immigration. Those who are struggling to reach the safety of a place like the United States, don’t have the luxury of seeing themselves as immigrants. Until they step foot here, they are still emigrants – seeking refuge, seeking asylum. These people left their home country in order to go somewhere else. The choice to leave is not their own in the sense that circumstances that surround them force them to make that choice. The moment they left their homelands to seek safety, they were refugees.

          Of all the peoples on the planet, the Jewish people have good reason to see ourselves as involuntary refugee experts, as illustrated by the two stories with which I began. Even more, the Torah indicates that our refugee status is essentially inherent if not genetic.

        We have no idea why our patriarch Avram, who would later be called Avraham, Abraham, left his “land, his birthplace and his father’s house” and venture forth to a land that he hoped he would somehow find. In fact, it wasn’t even his journey to begin with. His father, Terach, began the journey. We don’t know what motivated Terach to pick up his family and move from the relative comfort and stability of the Sumarian City of Ur. Travel in those days was dangerous and physically trying. One had to way the pros and cons very carefully. Clearly something happened that spurred Terach into action. Was it a drought or flood? Was it an economic or societal calamity? Perhaps, as some commentaries posit, it wasn’t Abraham, who first received what he felt was a divine call, it was Terach. Terach died along the way and Abraham continued the trek, but only after he felt as though he was divinely instructed. Besides that message, did Abraham have another reason to continue his father’s mission? Was there danger back in Ur, overt or covert, known or unknown, something already experienced or lying in wait? Even if he felt as though he received a “text” from God, he could have ignored it. What was going on? Here’s what the Torah says:

“Avram [as he was called at that point] took his wife, Sarai [she would later have her name changed, too] his brother’s son, Lot, all the possessions they had amassed, and the people they had acquired… They set forth for…and (later) arrived in the land of Canaan. Avram then passed over the land as far as the sacred site of Shechem, as far as the Oak of Moreh…” Genesis 12:5-6

          Later in the story, we learn that Abraham’s status follows him around now as a label, he is called “ha-Ivri”, the “one who passes over”. We are his descendants. We are Ivrim.

          Abraham is not called a palit, Hebrew’s actual word for “refugee”.  Palit is expanded from the root p-a-l-a-t, which means to discharge or to vomit. A bit more pleasantly, it can also mean escape. In other forms, the direction of the word’s intent is inverted, and it means to “save” or “rescue”. Abraham, the “one who passes over,” isn’t considered to be escaping in the lands he is traversing, and he wasn’t exactly given refuge. He’s not even passing through. The passer over, the Ivri, the Hebrew, doesn’t even touch the ground. According those whose land he is “passing over”, he was spewed out whence he came.

          So, who’s at our Southern border now, p’litim or Ivrim, refugees or “passers over”? The Administration wants to see them only as the latter, people who are “passing over”, not touching the ground, people who were vomited out – or caused themselves to be.

Which, of course, brings me to Stephen Miller, who seems to give me sermons one year after another. Thanks to you, Mr. Miller, my new title is “The Childhood Rabbi of…”. Thanks to your policies, Mr. Miller, thousands of people are being warehoused on both sides of the border with Mexico, languishing as they wait for their asylum cases to come up, which may take years because it’s not on your priority list to expedite those cases so that, one way or the other, those poor people in “nowhere and no one” status can be released from those concentration camps. Yes, Mr. Miller, they are “concentration camps”. Here’s the definition of such places from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.” The museum goes on to distinguish between concentration camps and a prison in that the camp “functions outside of a judicial system. The prisoners are not indicted or convicted of any crime by judicial process.” That doesn’t leave you much wiggle room to deny that these really are concentration camps. Does it?

          OK, Mr. Miller, let me state what has happened since I tried to get your attention last year. I really want to make sure I’m getting this right. If someone arrives at our border saying they are refugees, you cage them, kids, too. You prefer to cage them in Mexico so it’s not really “our” concern. Those people, who are the victims of physical, emotional, political and societal violence in another country and are fleeing here for safety, sometimes to literally save their lives, don’t get any help from us. But I, who just by happenstance was born here, I have the right to seek protection from gangs or unjust detainment or xenophobia or anti-Semitism or bias in public places or government-run institutions. I didn’t do anything to earn that status. It’s the result of my grandparents not remaining in Europe, getting my family here and having been fortunate enough to be allowed in, the same being true for many who sit here in this congregation today. Did I get that right?

          Someone who’s born in another country and has the chutzpah to try to get into this one, will have their children taken from them as punishment for even trying to come here and claim to be a refugee. Yes, Mr. Miller, we know you are still separating families. They can’t stay unless they can get specific about why their life or lives are in danger if they were sent back. My grandparents couldn’t have done that. They wouldn’t have been able to predict a pogrom hitting their town or, that decades later, they would be rounded up for extermination.

          Oh, and because of a very recent Supreme court decision, people who want to come here, have to first go somewhere they’d rather not be, where the gang situation, or the corruption level of the government or the economy isn’t much better there than where they came from and they must get rejected from that country before they can apply to come here?

          Here’s a policy you supposedly completely reversed recently, but only after major outcry from the media, the public and the Congress. Your policy was in place for about a month, but it was a harrowing month for many sick children and their families. Your policy said that if I was lucky enough to be brought to this country to help me fight a rare disease and perhaps even help come up with a cure that ends up being FDA approved for others, that I had 33 days to get out, even if that expulsion would be lethal for me. Or, if I had a disease that’s not so rare, perhaps cancer that inhabited and attacked my body after I was already here, perhaps as a DACA kid or while my status was being determined and I was already receiving treatment without which I might die, I would have had to leave, too. Or if a family was desperate to get their child here to save her life, because the kind of treatment she needs isn’t available in her home country, under your now forcibly defunct policy, she would have first had to be rejected and ordered for deportation, which she and her family could have then appealed, for months or years. I can only pray that in your heart-of-hearts, you, too, along with an outraged country, realized that this policy was cruel and immoral.

        Here’s the Jewish part, Mr. Miller. Your great, great grandfather, Wolf Lee Glosser, came to this country in 1903 fleeing pogroms and poverty – he had $8 in his pocket and he spoke no English. He was fortunate because, at the time, the United States had no official definition of a refugee. That only came to be after World War II, and it focused on the refugee being able to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Your lucky your great-great grandfather was prescient enough to sneak in before he had to prove that, Mr. Miller. Otherwise you might be trying to get across the Southern border, yourself, right now. On the other hand, you might not exist at all.

          How would you want them to treat you at the border, Mr. Miller? As a palit, a refugee, or as an Ivri, one who’s merely passing over. Would you want them to hold your feet to the fire to see if you could prove a “well-founded fear of persecution” or would you want them to believe you. Here’s what you’d get now, Mr. Miller, they won’t even let you touch the ground. Just keep walking, Mr. Miller, see if somewhere else will take you in.

          Your childhood rabbi is praying for you. I pray with the Breah-of-All that you and others who espouse hate in order to fuel their power, feel, instead, Teshuva, the Turning, so that they find love. May that be a love filled with compassion, from hearts that can bridge fear. I pray with the Breath-of-All that those in the current Administration look beneath the color of skin and language and culture to deconstruct the walls around their souls so that they stop caging children. I pray for empathy to overwhelm what some consider privilege. I pray for all of us to do justice and find mercy for ourselves and for those who are lonely, without family or home.

          And I pray, before and within the Oneness-of-All, for a vision of peace – peace so strong, so mighty and so powerful, Mr. Miller, that you finally hear our song of peace. Let that song reverberate in your soul and in the souls of those like you so that you join us as we make the world whole.

          In the meantime, we will sing, march, sign petitions, send emails, make phone calls and…vote to ensure that the message of Beth Shir Shalom, the Home of the Song of Peace, is heard from Santa Monica all the way to the White House.

“Nurse” – My Rosh haShanah Eve Sermon

My first year of rabbinical school was spent in Israel. It was 1973 and we were an eclectic bunch. We came from all kinds of Jewish, philosophical and academic backgrounds. We went through the Yom Kippur War together and honed our skills of support and empathy because we were all nervous about what would happen next while we were there. One of my friends during that time was Mark Mahler who was few years older than I and sort of a big brother figure. During the war and after, many a Shabbat meal was held at his apartment that he shared with his later to be wife, Alice. We created a bright space in their home, surrounded by the darkness of the war and its aftermath. The maturity of their relationship created a cocoon of safety and warmth for us. We became family.

As a result it wasn’t much of a surprise to me when I put two-and-two together and realized the “Jewish Emergency Room nurse” who treated the wounded Robert Bowers, the suspect in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting when he was brought to the hospital, was my old friend’s son. Leave it to Mark and Alice to help nurture a human who could rise to the emotional, medical, physical and moral needs of that moment.

Ari Mahler shared his experience in an online news outlet called “News and Guts”. In the article, he writes that he felt very alone in the days following the shooting. He knew others were writing and speaking about him and assuming things about him and his Jewish identity because of what he was…required to do? his job to do? willing to do? paid to do? had to do? compelled to do? commanded to do?

Nurse Mahler recalls that his soon-to-be patient shouted “Death to all Jews” as he was wheeled into the building. You can’t have that ringing in your ears and not have at least some questions, perhaps even misgivings about what will ensue. As he tells his story, Ari Mahler shares with us what he wants us to understand about him as a person, a nurse, a Jew and as an “RK”, a rabbi’s kid.

Ari tells us that the requirements of his job are “compassion and empathy over everything”. He surmises that the fact that he did the job the way he did it was newsworthy “…because [he’s] Jewish. Even more so because [his] dad’s a Rabbi.” On the other hand, Ari also says that when people find out he’s Jewish and that his dad’s a rabbi he tells them, “I’m not that religious” which he feels is like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not that Jewish, therefore, I’m not so different than you.” Sort of seems like a contradiction in terms.

Let me tell you a story. I once was asked to fill in officiating a funeral by a colleague of mine who was ill. The rabbi and the deceased were personal friends so I called the my colleague to have him tell me about the gentleman we were remembering. The man used to attend the rabbi’s Passover seder every year and every year he would enjoy it so much! He enjoyed all the rituals, all the prayers – each word of the story. And…every year, the rabbi would say to him, “Come on! You love the Seder so much. Each year you come here and it’s so meaningful to you. You should come to synagogue. You should come to my classes. You should participate in being Jewish.” And…every year, the man would shrug, his shoulders and throw down his hand and say, “Nah. Not so much. It’s really not my thing.” Both my colleague and I were confused by what seem to be a contradiction in this man’s perspective. He LOVED Pesach! He ate it up. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the company. Maybe it was nostalgia. Still, other “Jewish” he didn’t want to do.

After I spoke with my colleague, I did more intake about the deceased – listening to his family and friends. They told me about how much they loved him…and why. One of the “why’s” about him turned out to be a “how”, that is, how he was in the world. He was very active in the community, putting his presence, energy and resources where his heart and mind were. He supported a host of liberal causes, working to put justice where it was absent and peace where there was strife. He never went to synagogue. He didn’t keep kosher or keep Shabbat. In fact, he had nothing to do with formal Judaism – except Pesach. So what was my answer to the seeming contradiction in this man’s life between his intense enjoyment of every component of a Passover Seder and the rest of his activities that were devoid of any Judaism at all? I themed his eulogy, “He Was Too Busy Being Jewish to Be Jewish”. In the ensuing years, it has not been infrequent that I have described others as “Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish.” In fact, I realize there’s a large number of such Jews, especially within the American context, who are not Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Renewal. They’re just Jewish – not by genetics (which is a misnomer, racist and even sexist) or because they “identify” is Jews. In fact, some of these people, depending on the circumstances, do not identify themselves as Jews, much like nurse Ari Mahler. They act Jewish. They behave Jewish. They do Jewish. They respond Jewish. For them, “Jewish” is not a label. It’s not a noun. “Jewish” a verb. In fact, by that definition, I know many non-Jews who, unaffiliated and unidentified with any religious tradition or institution, are “Jewish”, too.

Now, as a rabbi, would I like these people to come to synagogue more often? Would I like them to attend a class or two, find some meaning in Shabbat, holidays, holy days and keeping kosher? Would I like them to acknowledge that the values they espouse are rooted in centuries of Jewish debate among scholars and laypeople to determine what a Jewish reply is to a given personal, communal, national or global situation? Would I like them to discover that we can actually trace those discussions and lift out texts that strengthen these values because they are deep in our tradition and have the wisdom of millennia of practical application within them and that Jews who are “Too-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” are not setting a precedent but standing on a venerable foundation of moral and ethical choices by millions of Jews before them? Would I like “Too-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” Jews to realize that what happens in the sanctuary or within the walls of Barnum Hall is virtual prayer? That such prayer and ritual are only intended to inspire, to model, to speak in eloquent metaphor, to help us find and keep our moral compass – so that we engage in real prayer and real ritual when we leave the place we call or utilize as a sanctuary? Yes. An enormous “yes” to all my rhetorical questions.

It is amazing the way nurse Ari Mahler, who will always be known as “The Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers” wrote about his experience. Ari recounts that when he grew up in Pittsburgh “it was a different time”. He remembers that he “found drawings on (school) desks of [his] family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on [his] locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, ‘Die Jew. Love, Hitler.’” Partially because of his childhood traumas, Ari was not surprised that the mass killing at Tree of Life synagogue took place and is downright cynical about feeling that anything will change. He writes, “it’s only a matter of time before the next one happens. History refutes hope that things will change. My heart yearns for change, but today’s climate doesn’t foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility. Even before this shooting took place, there’s no real evidence supporting otherwise. The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center note that Jews only account for two percent of the U.S. population, yet 60% of all religious hate crimes are committed against them. I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.”

Nurse Ari displayed remarkable courage when he took care of Robert Bowers and was courageous again when he revealed this part of himself to the world. Here is Ari’s response to those who tried to determine why he did what he did. “I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you? Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”

The film, “The Quarrel”, which I always show to my Introduction to Judaism class for the session on the Holocaust, takes place in 1948 Montreal on Rosh haShanah. Early in the film we meet Chaim Kovler, a secularist Yiddish writer who, because of the traditional import of that day and several events that occur to him, has an internal spiritual debate.  Chaim escaped the Nazis and had lost his faith when he was in yeshivah. As he sits by a pond in a park watching Jews performing the Rosh haShanah afternoon ritual of tashlich, he suddenly sees an old friend whom he hasn’t seen since they learned and argued together long ago in Bialystok. The friend is Hersh Rasseyner, who survived Auschwitz and whose faith was strengthened by the ordeal. The two walk together, reminisce, and passionately continue their old quarrel, and their friendship. In what is for me one of the most beautiful exchanges in the script, Chaim tells the story about meeting an old Lithuanian atheist woman who risked her life to help Jews during the war. She did this, she says, because she believes in human beings and loves them. He says, “This is my faith, too, that people must help one another.”

Ari Mahler could have said that. All Jews should say that. Would it really be so bad if we whittled Judaism down to such basic notions – that “people must help one another,” and that “The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings.”? Jews don’t really do that, do they? Hillel the Elder said that the principle, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” expresses the essence of the entire Torah. The rest of Jewish law, he maintained, is commentary on that core idea. Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” might well be the central commandment of the Torah. Another commentator says that true reading of the phrase should be, “Love your neighbor who is yourself.” Perhaps you believe that God is in everything or believe that God is everything, then loving your neighbor and avoiding doing to your neighbor that which is abhorrent to you, is behaving that way to God.

For Jews who are “Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-To-Be-Jewish” the God stuff doesn’t matter. For them, behaving is believing. So, yes, I want you to participate with and belong to this synagogue. I want you to be inspired by our music, our words and our messages. I want you to study with us and learn the long and glowing history of how, despite all our persecutions and the near destruction our people, we maintained and acted out our values of tzedakah and Tikkun Olam. And that’s not enough. Even if it’s Shabbat and there’s an protest against our obscene immigration policies or a women’s march or a beach clean-up or school that needs painting that day, I want us to be the kind of Jews who will pray with our legs, feet, mouths and hearts and show up. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that transcend categories and labels. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that come from an internal sense of mandate. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that broadcast that our actions have Jewish roots. I want us to be Jewish in ways that demonstrate that despite our sufferings we refuse to treat others as we have too often been treated. I want us to leave this hall and be Jewish in ways that exude love.

Do I want us to be Jews-Who-Are-Too-Busy-Being-Jewish-Too-Be-Jewish? I’m your rabbi! I believe in the power of Jewish ritual and holy moments like this gathering. I want us to be VERY Jewish. Yes, I want us to be Jews who are inspired by Jewish holidays and Holy Days, by the messages that they hold. And…I want us to be Jews who are busy being Jews in all the ways that create Tikkun, Tzedek, and Tzedakah, healing, justice and righteous giving. I want us to be Jews who by deed, prayer and heart live with love and compassion on this day and every day.

On the Gun Violence This Past Weekend

Undocumented people were already afraid that ICE officers might show up at their doorstep, or their place of work or at their children’s school. They feared that they might make a slight mistake while driving, get pulled over and be “discovered”. They are too afraid to speak up at a job at which they are working under abusive conditions or to call the police when there are illegal and threatening activities in their neighborhoods. Now, they have to be afraid to gather together at a shopping mall,or a festival or a party or at the park because someone stoked by the hate-filled rhetoric that is being spit from the lips of the President and oozes from his fingers when he tweets, can pick up a machine that was designed as a weapon of war and indiscriminately shoot them. I’m a Jew and my tradition demands of me that I not stand idly by.

I am tired of mental illness and those who suffer from it being prostituted as “those who pull the trigger” every time there is a mass shooting. The statistics demonstrate that those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of gun violence than the perpetrators. It is very convenient for the gun lobby and those whom that lobby has bought in the halls of Congress to label someone who is a white male American mass murderer as “crazy” rather than a terrorist, especially when they would never use mental illness to explain or excuse a foreign born person who committed the same atrocity. Instead of addressing the problem directly, Congressional obstructionists want to “red flag” the mentally ill. How about “red flagging” those who spew this racist, xenophobic hate, starting with Donald Trump and Stephen Miller? I am a Jew and my tradition demands of me that I call out those whose behavior is immoral, unethical and sociopathic.

And what about those weapons of war that are so readily available to be bought in person or on the internet from Gilroy to Dayton to El Paso? What kind of nation would make it so easy for people to get these instruments of mass destruction in the hands of its citizens? How can a government, that has as part of its mandate the protection of the nation, allow people to own these instruments whose only function is to kill and maim? These are often the same people who are oh-so-ready to give full human status to a fetus in the womb and protect its existence while at the same time their policies (or lack thereof) endanger us all. I am a Jew and my tradition wants me to be among those working for a day when weapons will be converted into implements of nurturing and sustenance.

And what is this about only wringing our hands when there is massive carnage, all in one place at the same time? Add up what happens in Watts or the South side of Chicago in a week and there is a mass murder in those places 52 times a year. Why don’t we even notice these deaths caused by guns? I am a Jew and I’m supposed to open the eyes of the blind – even my own.

Call your Congressperson. Call your Senator. Tell them that they work for you and you want them to do everything they can and as immediately as they can so that the haters are cordoned off onto a little island in our society where their words and thoughts can no longer harm and destroy.

“torah” from Everywhere and Everyone

J Street
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I’m honored that J Street asked me to write this month’s “The Two-Way Street”, a d’var Torah about Shavuot. I hope you enjoy it. Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’Simcha. – Rabbi Neil

“torah” from Everywhere and Everyone

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels

Years ago, I was taught the difference between “Torah” and “torah,” the former being a subset of the latter. Torah is a noun. “torah” is a verb. This beautiful notion is one of the most attractive things to me about our heritage and the way we study — “Revelation” is a fluid notion; the idea that the first nugget of Jewish interplay with the Universe was just the beginning of a never-ending unraveling. 

On Shavuot, we celebrate “torah” rather than “Torah” — the beautifully complex, exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, limitless process of “receiving.” Our tradition sees Shavuot as z’man matan Torahteinu, the season of the giving of our Torah. “torah,” on the other hand, is different. The emphasis of the process of “torah” is receiving. It is also searching. It is a journey of the heart, a journey for sincerity — for the emotive over the intellectual. “torah” is not the speaking, but rather the hearing. Better yet, it is the listening to what is spoken. “torah” assumes the boundaries of “Torah” are porous; a continual flow of perspectives and ideas going in and out. “torah” assumes the “Torah” was not given pre-formed and rigid, but rather as clay that bids the receiver to begin kneading and molding. “torah” never dries into inflexibility. “torah” is open and inviting. “torah” includes all knowledge and all quests for understanding. 

I began engaging with “torah” just weeks after I became Bar Mitzvah. I was following along with the Hebrew when I decided to scan the English at the same time. What I read was phrase after phrase of a theology that I could not believe. I didn’t know what to do. As the years went on, I began a wrestling match that was both difficult and fruitful. I began to say one thing and think another (or several “others”), trying to put into words what my heart was feeling. The struggle has continued to this day, and it is my comfort zone. If I’m not struggling, I don’t feel as though I’m receiving “torah.” That initial experience when I was thirteen was a Sinai moment. I was there, at the bottom of the mountain, being handed a small piece of my tradition — a taste of being inside the wrestling matches that had gone on before me, and a still-small-voice was saying, “Here, Neil. It’s your turn. What are you going to do with this?” The vision appeared to be about giving, but I felt it much more as the process and responsibility of receiving. 

There have been many Sinai moments since then, and I am grateful for them all. I welcome them. I seek them out. I realize it is the sacred task of every Jew to be in that process, that “discussion,” as my teacher Dr. Larry Hoffman says. 

We can seek understanding of the Palestinians through the lens of a Sinai moment. We who are passionate about a two-state solution being the only dignified and respectable outcome for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must look to Palestinian texts as part of what descends from Sinai. In 1974, I found some early Palestinian poetry about “The Land” that sounds just like early Zionist pieces. Such love, such yearning, cannot come from a different mountain. This must be “torah” too.

Have a “receptive” Shavuot.

LOVER FROM PALESTINE

I saw you on thorny hills
A sheepless shepherd — chased 
I saw you on the ruins and once
You were a green orchard 
I stood a stranger 
Knocking at your door
The doors, the windows, the cemented stone 
Vibrated

I saw your face in the wells
In the granaries — torn 
I saw you a waitress in the night cafes 
I saw through the tears and wounds
And you are the words on my lips 
You are the fire
And the water

I saw you at the mouth of a cave 
Hanging your orphan’s rags
I saw you in the stalls, in the streets 
Warming yourself by the fire
I saw you in the lamentations of misery 
In blood dripping from the sun
In the salt of the sea and the sand 
And yet 
You were as beautiful as the earth
As children

I swear
From my eyelashes I shall weave you
A kerchief
With words sweeter than honey 
And kisses I shall write: 
Palestinian you were
And so you will remain

 – Mahmoud Darweesh

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels is the spiritual leader of Beth Shir Shalom, the progressive Reform synagogue in Santa Monica/West Los Angeles. He facilitates spiritual celebrations and observances that are tapestries of music, poetry, meditative moments, learning and reflective translations of traditional prayers from a non-dual theological perspective.

Can There Be a Jewish White Nationalist?

On April 9, President Trump Tweeted a message featuring a quote from a Fox News interview with Jeff Ballabon, the CEO of B2 Strategic. Mr. Ballabon is a major supporter of the President nd is now considered an advisor to the President. In the Fox interview, Ballabon reacted to a statement by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in which she labeled Stephen Miller, Senior White House Advisor to the President, a “White Nationalist.” The Congresswoman made this remark after it surfaced that Mr. Miller was apparently behind the ousting of the now former Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, and the plan for increasing immigration restrictions including a revival of the family separation policy.

Mr. Ballabon opened the interview by saying, “What’s completely unacceptable is for Congresswoman Omar to target Jews, in this case Stephen Miller.” This statement by Mr. Ballabon is purposefully inflammatory, did not take into account that Ms. Ilhan was responding to Mr. Miller’s attitudes and actions regarding immigration and was clearly intended to divide the Jewish and Muslim communities. It is true that some of Ms. Omar’s recent comments were received by the Jewish community with various levels of discomfort, surprise and even outrage. In response, Congresswoman Ilhan apologized for hurting Jewish hearts and is now in consultation with leaders of the Jewish community. Mr. Ballabon took none of this into account when he characterized the Congresswoman placing Mr. Miller in the White Nationalist camp as an attack on “Jews”. Doing so, makes Ballabon’s opinion that much more extreme, damaging, inappropriate and completely off the mark.

Jewish and Muslim identities are defined by behavior. We respond to mandates. Ironically, even our values are mandated. Within both of our religious cultures, welcoming the stranger is a basic value. We consider ourselves Abrahamic peoples because we share Abraham as an ancestor (making Muslims and Jews more like step brothers and sisters than “cousins”, as some categorize us). According to Jewish tradition, the tent of Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had a flap of their tent open to each direction of the wind, so that all who approached their home would know that they were welcome. In fact, had that not been the case, then Abraham and Sarah would not have welcomed in three strangers who turned out to be three angels. Those angels’ message to the old couple was that they were going to have a child of their own, 13 years after their first son, Ishmael, was born between Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s concubine. Ishmael is the patriarch of the Muslim people and Abraham and Sarah’s second son, Isaac, inherited the mantel of leading the fledgling Jewish ideology from his parents. In other words, the “open tent” made it possible for Muslims and Jews to be family.

Both as a nation and globally, we see in the response to recent hate crimes that most Jews and Muslims embrace the feeling of being family to one another (as do the authors of this statement). We are a common target of those who openly call themselves “White Supremacists” and those who covertly embrace White Supremacist attitude and posture, as Stephen Miller apparently does. One doesn’t have to be a non-Jewish Caucasian in order to qualify as a person with White Nationalist attitudes and one does not need to affiliate with any particular group in order to be so described. Jews and Muslims are not races, evidenced by the many Muslims and Jews in the world who are of various racial, ethnic and national backgrounds. A person who articulates and/or promotes the superiority of Caucasians, in any way, should not be surprised when s/he is identified by others as a White Nationalist. White Nationalism is an aggressive and violent stance. Accordingly, when those who are the targets of such a such hatred perceive a person behaving and articulating a philosophy that echoes White Nationalism, in consideration fpr their own safety, they must identify that danger for what it is. Stephen Miller, despite his Jewish origins, acts and speaks like a White Nationalist. It is too dangerous for Muslims and Jews to see him any other way.

Because we are family, Mr. Ballabon, Mr. Miller or Mr. Trump cannot divide us and we will resist their racist attitudes and actions in any way we can. We will act to dismantle the walls that people like that triumvirate attempt to put between us. We will act to dismantle the walls that people like that triumvirate put between races. We will act to dismantle the walls that people like that triumvirate put up in our cities, creating areas of racial isolation. We will act to dismantle the walls that people like that triumvirate put up in our legal system, targeting people of color and those who they see as “other”. We will act to dismantle the walls that people like that triumvirate put up at our borders, walls whose underlying purpose is to keep out people of color and/or ethnic differences. The President may try to change America via Tweet, and the Jeff Ballabons and Stephen Millers of the world may give them their support but their attempts are shallow and thin against value systems that come from the Core-of-the-Universe.

No Walls in the New Year

Dear Friends,

          The turn of the new secular/Gregorian calendar year can be symbolic in many ways. One of the least known is that January 1st marks the occasion of…Jesus’s Bris! That’s correct; Jesus’s birthday, widely accepted amongst scholars as being historically sometime in the Spring, was adjusted to have significance in the larger, Roman Empire. His mythical birthday was timed to veneer a new layer of meaning upon the Winter Solstice. It was also rearranged perfectly (if you count the days from his birth according to our Jewish way of acknowledging a day, sundown to sundown) to create an eight-day interval between his “birth” and the beginning of the calendar so that new meaning was also laid upon January 1st as well. After all, Jesus and all his followers were Jews. It was important for them to celebrate his Bris!

          This added, Christian connotation of January 1 lends credence to the formal use of the initials “A.D.” after the notation of a year. We live in the year 2018 A. D., anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”, taken from the full phrase, “anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi”, “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”. A.D. does not mean “After Death” as so many interpret it. It is understandably confusing though, because the letters “B.C.”, referring to the time before Jesus lived, do indeed stand for the English words “Before Christ”. In that light, it is still off the mark to understand “A.D.” as after death because that would leave no years for Jesus to live!

“A.D.” not only refers to the time in which Jesus was physically alive, it also acknowledges that Jesus did not die and has taken the form of the Holy Ghost until he “returns”, according to Christian theology. For Jews (and Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and many others), it is difficult for us to use the terminology of “B.C.” and “A.D.” As a result, many of us use the broader, more universal expressions “B.C.E.” and “C.E.”, “before the Common Era” and “after the Common Era” respectively.

As Americans, we have just passed through the weeks of the American year in which it is most evident that Christmas, if not Christianity, in its most general sense, is the “default” for our country. Even though the nomenclature of “A.D.” certainly isn’t used nearly as much as “B.C.”, coming to grips with the reality that one religion’s way of marking time and that their way is recognized as the “Common”, it is still not completely comfortable. After all, Christianity divides time into two large eras, the second of those beginning with the day in which its adherents mark the advent of God in human form.

How am I, a Jewish American, supposed to maneuver myself in and around the “Christian year” 2018 A.D. and the Jewish year 5779? Should I worry about it? No one uses the letters “A.D.” pejoratively any more. After all, the world wasn’t created 5779 years ago, even though Jewish tradition insists on it. With homage to the band “Chicago” we might ask, “Does anybody really know what time it is?”

No one does, or should be granted a monopoly on what time it is, what times are more significant than others and whether or not God is more or less present in certain periods of time. In our era, in our period of time, that is filled with such divisiveness, ugliness, walls, bigotry, hate crimes, a dramatic resurgence in anti-Semitism, a constant rise in Islamophobia and with xenophobia at a fever pitch among some of us, it is ironic that something as innocent as the way in which we count the years should become emblematic of our state of affairs. The only way in which America will continue to work is when everyone’s calendars, customs, ceremonies, perspectives and reasons for living here or desiring to come here are considered “common”. We all belong to a large commonality to which we all contribute and from which we all benefit. The reasons for people coming to this country are no different now than they’ve ever been – they are fleeing violence, possible or probable death at the hands of others, and economic despair with no opportunities for improvement.

Walls between periods of time are arbitrary and supersessionist. Walls between people are also arbitrary and they are also elitist, and they represent the antithesis of any era in which God is present.

Thanksgiving Every Day

Around our Thanksgiving table, as I’m certain around many of yours, we begin by having everyone say something about which they are particularly grateful this year. Sometimes the words don’t come that easily. In Jewish tradition, we send out our gratitude into the universe every day. Here are some suggestions I compiled for your Thanksgiving table and/or your Shabbat table for Thanksgiving weekend. The second offering is this link to a wonderful “game” of thanks called”Attitude of Gratitude” by Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, the National Director of the School of Education for the Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion.

The First Thing on a Jews Lips in the Morning

.מוֹדֶה\מוֹדָה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ

Mo-deh/Mo-dah a-ni l’fa-ne-Cha Me-lech chai v’ka-yam she-he-che-zar-ta bi nish-ma-ti b’chem-la ra-bah e-mu-na-te-Cha.

I am overwhelming grateful within the Livingness-and Eternity-of-Everything, for the feeling of being vital, once again, in this morning.  The world is so wonderfully reliable; it’s hard to believe how marvelous this is.

Early Morning Prayer of Gratitude for Our Bodies

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים, גָלוּי וְיָֽדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ שֶאִם יִפָּתֵֽחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵים וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶֽיךָ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר, וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, a-sher ya-tzar et ha-adam b’chawch-ma u’va-ra vo n’ka-vim n’ka-vim cha-lu-lim cha-lu-lim.  Ga-lu-i v’ya-du-a lif-ney chi-sey ch’vo-de-cha she-im y’pa-tey-ach e-chad mey-hem o y’sa-teym e-chad mey-hem ee ef-shar l’hit-ka-yem v’la-a-mod l’fa-ne-cha. Baruch Ata Adonai ro-fey chawl ba-sar u’maf-li la-a-sot.

We are humbled by the creative power of the Holy-Oneness-of-Being.  May we perceive an artistry in the Oneness that causes us to give thanks for our bodies that reflect an innate and intricate wisdom.  Within our bodies is a vast system of open places and closed places.  The Consciousness-of-Everything holds the understanding that should one of the opened places close or if one of the closed places should open, we could not exist in our physical way. We are humbled by the creative power of the Holy-Oneness-of-Being and we give thanks for the potential for healing infused into the world; it seems so miraculous to us!

Prayer of Gratitude (said three times each day)

מוֹדִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ לָךְ, שָׁאַתָּה הוּא, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד, צוּר חַיֵּֽינוּ, מָגֵן יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ, אַתָּה הוּא לְדוֹר וָדוֹר, נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ, עַל חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ, וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ, וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ, וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת, עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְצָהֳרָֽיִם, הַטּוֹב, כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמֶֽיךָ, וְהַמְרַחֵם, כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ, מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּֽינוּ לָךְ

וְעַל כֻּלָּם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרוֹמַם שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ תָּמִיד לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד
וְכֹל הַחַיִּים יוֹדֽוּךָ סֶּֽלָה, וִיהַלְלוּ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת, הָאֵל יְשׁוּעָתֵֽנוּ וְעֶזְרָתֵֽנוּ סֶֽלָה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַטּוֹב שִׁמְךָ וּלְךָ נָאֶה לְהוֹדוֹת

Modim anachnu lach, sha’atah hu Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu l’olam va-ed. Tzur chayeinu, magen yisheinu atah hu l’dor vador. Nodeh l’cha un’sapeir t’hilatecha. Al chayeinu ham’surim b’yadecha, v’al nishmoteinu hap’kudot lach, v’al nisecha sheb’chol yom imanu, v’al niflotecha v’tovotecha sheb’chol eit, erev vavoker v’tzohorayim. Hatov ki lo chalu rachamecha, v’ham’racheim ki lo tamu chasadecha, mei-olam kivinu lach. V’chol hachayim yoducha selah, viv’hal’lu et shimcha be-emet. y’shuateinu v’ezrateinu selah. Baruch atah Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot.

May our gratitude become part of the many waves of thanks for life and its blessings that have been offered throughout time.  Life holds us in loving hands, enfolds us in the All, and fosters moments that feel miraculous and wondrous.  May we direct our living toward a Grand Goodness and a Womb-like Mercy each and every day. All life gives thanks to the same Source with many names that are true, with many names that are One.  We join all life in giving thanks.


Discussion Starters

1.   Yiddush Proverb

If a Jew breaks a leg, he thanks God that he did not break both legs.

If he breaks both legs, he thanks God that he did not break his neck.

2.  Commentary on Leviticus 7:15 by the Gerer Rebbe (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, late 19th c.)

וּבְשַׂר זֶבַח תּוֹדַת שְׁלָמָיו בְּיוֹם קָרְבָּנוֹ יֵֽאָכֵל לֹֽא־יַנִּיחַ מִמֶּנּוּ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר

And the meat of the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten the same day that it is offered; he shall not leave any of it until the morning.

A Korban Todah )Thanksgiving Offering in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem) is an expression of thanks for an event which assumes the importance of a miracle***. Daily, there are miracles that occur for every person, as we mention in our prayers: “And for your miracles which accompany us every day”. Therefore, we must be alert every day to thank God for His help and not consider it sufficient that we gave thanks yesterday, since every day brings new opportunities.

(***Maimonides said that there is no such thing as a miracle – only what is perceived as a miracle.)

3.  A Commentary about Shavuot from Masechet Chochma (“The Price of Wisdom by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, late 19th to early 20th c.)

וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת־קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹֽא־תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָֽׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ וְלֶקֶט קְצִֽירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶֽעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּֽעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם

Leviticus 23:22. And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not make clean riddance up to the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger; I am the Lord your God.

You are to observe Shavuot, the festival commemorating the Giving of the Law, not only because of the statutes for which we would never have felt a need if they had not been set down in the Torah, but also in thanksgiving for the laws which make sense even to the human mind, such as the laws pertaining to compassion for the unfortunate and charity to the poor. Experience has shown that, without faith in God, people are liable to become like wild beasts which do not have a spark of compassion, and therefore they are capable of committing the basest crimes in order to satisfy their selfish desires.

Only if you observe the commandments concerning the leaving of parts of your harvest for the poor and the stranger are you permitted to proclaim the festival of Shavuot “a holy convocation”, to give thanks even for such readily understandable commandments of charity and compassion as these, for had the Torah not been given, you might never have come to observe them.

An Important Convergence

Today marks two anniversaries: The anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and the anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. As to the latter, you might not be aware that both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism building in Washington, D.C., under the aegis of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (which for decades was housed in the Center). That historic connection creates a strong, and, to my mind, an inexhaustible commitment by Reform Jews to both the overarching issues and the specifics of civil rights in this country and a pledge to be vigilant that those rights are strong and protected for all and for all time.

How is this important and serious association between the Civil Rights Movement and Reform Judaism connected to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima? First, I should tell you that my personal relationship with that fateful event comes from opposite poles. During World War II, my uncles were stationed in the Pacific Arena. As the secret mission to bomb Hiroshima (and, three days later, Nagasaki) was taking place, my uncles along with hundreds of thousands of others were preparing for the invasion of Japan. The estimated casualties of that invasion were so enormous as to border on the obscene. Had the bombs not been dropped, I probably would have grown up without uncles.

On the other hand, I began protesting nuclear proliferation in rabbinical school. The destruction and human tragedy that was wrought by those weapons were beyond the border of obscenity and those weapons not only should never be used again, but they should not even be in existence to be used as a threat. As Albert Einstein is memorably quoted: “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. The very prevention of war requires more faith, courage and resolution than are needed to prepare for war.” ( In a letter to Congressman Robert Hale, 1946; later published in Einstein on Peace, 1988).  

The connection between the anniversaries of the Voting Rights Act and the bombing of Hiroshima boils down to an important distinction in the way in which Judaism frames the “Golden Rule”. While many traditions say “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” Judaism (in the words of Hillel, Talmud Shabbat 31a) inverts the idea: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”

In other words, no one in this country wants to be the victim of the racial and ethnic bigotry and the very real hatred and divisiveness that lie behind any and all attempts to infringe upon their voting rights. No one wants the skin of their children melted off their bodies or to be incinerated or radiated or blinded by a nuclear weapon. We must remember that we cannot prevent nuclear war from happening by rattling sabers and missiles of our own.

The convergence of these two anniversaries teaches us what is truly important in life: freedom, mutual and empathetic caring, love and peace. These are goals that can only be reached actively and with a vigor that outmatches and outlasts those who would seek to block the way.

  • “…that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.”
  • “The very prevention of war requires more faith, courage and resolution than are needed to prepare for war.”

Make sure you and all your friends, families and neighbors are registered to vote and they engage in their civil right to vote on November 6. Make sure everyone studies the issues and the candidates profiles.

Let’s bring into the voting booth the values of “refusing to do to others what we wouldn’t want to be done to us and our families” and may we “beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.”

Thoughts on Memorial Day

When I was a student at UCLA, I lived across the street from the Westwood Veteran’s Cemetary. Several things struck me about that experience: 1) I used to watch one of the groundskeepers ride his large mower around and over the graves and wondered whether he was thinking about any of those buried in the earth below him. I wondered, too, what they thought about him. 2) Those were the latter years of the Vietnam War and, although my activism bloomed late, I had, by then, a well-established estranged relationship with my government and pride in my country. When, every year, in honor of several American holidays, each grave was adorned with a small, American flag, I was unsettled. I felt sorrow for each of the soldiers and former soldiers in those graves. I also felt that advantage was being taken of these dead women and men to sell those notions of support of government and pride in country. 3) I kept wondering about the rest of the lives of those who were buried there. I knew that each one was so much more than merely a soldier. They were fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, children, friends, professionals, husbands and wives, grandparents and more. It seemed to me that being buried beneath the lawn of the Veterans Cemetary that they might be doomed to be soldiers for eternity!

I’m a bit older and wiser (I hope) now. Still, I have those feelings of ambivalence about my country that is still at war – not in Vietnam, of course, but still at war. I still feel sorrow for the soldiers. I support them as people and feel sorrow for them needing to be soldiers. Mostly I feel sorrow that they cannot be present during their tours-of-duty to fulfill their non-soldier roles or, worse, have their lives cut short and never be able to fulfill those roles.

Every Memorial Day, I pray that the next Memorial Day there will be no fresh graves to adorn with flags. Call me old-fashioned, I still believe in that beating-swords-into plowshares stuff. I especially like what the Israeli writer Yehuda Amichai said about it:

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels

Do We Really Need to Say “Gun… Violence”?

My rabbinic colleagues of ancient times were masters of textual interpretation…and they noticed everything – every phrase, every word, every letter. They took nothing for granted and very little if anything at face value. For example, they noticed that in the book of Numbers, when the Jewish people arrive at the borders of Canaan (the Promised Land) for the first time, the text says more than what is necessary. God says to Moses, שלח-לך, “Shelach-lecha”, usually just translated as the command-form, “(You) Send!”. The commentaries point out that to say “(You) Send!” all the text needed was the word שלח, shelach, which, as you can see by the way I translated it, already implies the word “You”, a purpose which is served, apparently redundantly by adding לך, lechawhich also means “You”! Why say “You” twice, ask the rabbis? And, of course, because they are the rabbis, they have an answer! The rabbis imagine that the Jewish people came to Moses demanding spies enter the land first because they were afraid to enter, despite God’s promise that they would inherit the land and their enemies would fall away before them. When Moses shared the people’s demand with God, God was taken aback by their cowardice in light of God’s promise. So the word “You” is repeated in the phrase שלח-לך, “Shelach-lecha” to indicate that God is saying to Moses, “YOU can send in spies if you want, you know you don’t need to. “I told them long ago that [the land] is good, as it is said, (Exodus 3:17): ‘I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt … [unto a land flowing with milk and honey]’.”

In light of the insanity that occurred in Las Vegas a few days ago, even though we are not as discerning and creative as the ancient rabbis, we should all take note of a similar redundancy in our lives that leads us to misunderstand our true state of affairs. We don’t need to say phrases like “Gun Violence“. If its a gun, it’s purpose is violence. Guns aren’t really made for anything else. Some may say that they only shoot at targets. If the target shooter keeps a gun (or more) at home, in their car, at the office or secretly carried, the intended purpose of that gun is to defend against someone who is perceived as a threat, i.e., to do violence to the perceived threatener before, or in response to, violence on the part of the threatener. I emphasize the words “intended” and “perceived” because the statistics bear out neither the intention nor the perception holds true in most cases. In most cases, very unlike what happened in Las Vegas, most guns are used by “normal” individuals to do violence to someone the shooter knows, often family. This happens when the “normal” range of human emotions is coupled with a gun, a piece of technology whose sole purpose is to do violence. To say gun violence is redundant.

One more redundancy: The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, like the shooting in Las Vegas, is referred to as a “mass” shooting. I’m on the mailing list of “Sandy Hook Promise”, the organization begun by the families of those who were killed, 20 children and 6 adults. In their emails, they rarely speak about the “massiveness” of the event. For each family, the impact is massive. It will always be massive for the surviving loving ones and friends.

When he spoke at our synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom, only a few weeks after Sandy Hook, Pastor Shane Scott of Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts,  reminded our combined congregations that Watts experiences a “mass shooting” every month, if not every two weeks if you add up all the shooting incidents in that period. For the individual who died and for his/her family and friends, it’s a “mass shooting” every time an individual is murdered, accidentally killed or uses a gun to die by suicide. To say that what happened in Las Vegas is somehow more impacting or more important because of the numbers involved is easier said by those of us who weren’t there and it’s insulting to the dead or the wounded and their families in Watts, Las Vegas and anywhere else. Those who were, or those who are in mourning or who are wounded or supporting someone who was wounded, they speak about one death or pray for one emotional and physical recovery for one person. 

Every time, every shooting is “violent” and “massive” because they already are “violent” and “massive”. No need to repeat ourselves.

The rabbis took words seriously. We should, too.

I invite you to listen to the song I wrote after the shootings at

Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Such a shame that it’s still relevant. THIS time?!