My Sermons from Rosh haShanah 5778

Toward Righteous Indignation

Rosh haShanah Eve 5778 – September 20, 2017

They say that we “store” our emotions in our bodies. I’ve experienced this in the past and am experiencing it in the present. I remember one massage session when the masseuse touched a particularly “frozen” muscle and asked me, “What’s that?!” I didn’t know but I certainly had some good guesses as to what events in my life were stuck in there.

So, is anyone else suffering from some chronic ache or pain since last November – headaches, back or neck pain, tight shoulders and the like? My tight muscle isn’t contagious but the number of people who tell me they’ve been physically impacted by our political situation makes me think that “something’s going around” like a flu or a virus.

What are we to do? How are we to find a sense of normalcy in this unprecedented time? Part of the challenge is to constantly work our way out of any doubts we might have about our ability to resist and/or create the society that we believe best reflects our national and spiritual morality and values. I love the Talmudic dictum that says, “Remove doubt”. It doesn’t say, “Don’t doubt” but rather, “When you doubt, move with it. Work through it, even with it! Let it motivate you. Climb out!”

 

Our doubting is like our frozen muscles. When we are so afflicted, we feel like it will never get better. However, when we understand that at least some of our frozen muscles can be the result of an internalization of our doubting ourselves and our capability to speak out and fix the world around us, then we know that we can, eventually, move those muscles. As Jews, we are mandated to speak out and move those muscles. It’s a “spiritual must”, a mitzvah. In Leviticus 19:17 the Torah says,

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֨יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹֽא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא

“Do not hate your neighbor in your heart. You must surely rebuke your neighbor and do not cause yourself to do wrong on [the wrongdoers] account.” The center of the verse, “you must surely rebuke your neighbor” is not a suggestion; it’s a command. If we have an opportunity to sign a petition, we sign. Go to a protest, we go. Call our Congressperson or Senators, we call!

But what about those curious parts of the biblical verse at the beginning and the end, “Do not hate your neighbor in your heart” and, “Do not cause yourself to do wrong on [the wrongdoers] account”? The first phrase, “Do not hate your neighbor in your heart” can certainly underscore the commandment to “surely rebuke”. But it is also saying much more. In our hearts, it is easy to hate, to not merely perceive that someone is doing or saying something wrong or hurtful, but to jump to conclusions and “hate” this person. That is why we are told not to keep silent but rather to express ourselves when another is acting in a way that we perceive as immoral – acting toward or even with another person’s humility – not against it.

And the phrase “Do not cause yourself to do wrong on [the wrongdoers] account”?  The simple understanding of these words might be, “Don’t compound the wrong by saying nothing”. On the other hand, the early medieval French commentator Rabbi Shlomo the son of Yitzchak, know better as “Rashi”, said, “[In the course of your rebuking your fellow,] do not embarrass her/him in public.” [Torat Kohanim 19:43; Arachin 16b. Another commentary says: “When rebuking another, address him in keeping with his qualities, his intellectual abilities, and his character, rather than your own qualities, intellectual abilities, and character. When the Torah says that ‘you shall surely rebuke your neighbor’, rebuke him as ‘your neighbor’ – as he is, and not as you are.”

Rebuking is serious business, and can often seduce us into narcissism, being sanctimonious and even aggressive. Many of us know the power of attending a large rally and feeling the “roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd” and the intoxicating feeling that comes along with it. We feel emboldened, empowered and sometimes we actually become intoxicated by the rhetoric of others, become thoughtless, and slide toward being the least of the people we are supposed to be or want to be.  It is so easy in those exciting and purposeful moments to feel better, superior and indignant. We feel like the superheroes we create in fiction, comic books and on film: fighting for justice, having absolute visions of right and wrong and the way that society must journey in order to progress. Sometimes, those superheroes, instead of being righteous, become self-righteous. So can we. It’s a thin line of which we must be aware.

You know, there’s a Jewish story of a superhero with which some of us may be familiar. It’s the story of the Golem. In the book of Psalms and in medieval writing the term golem refers to amorphous, unformed material. Later, a folkloric vision grew of a Golem as an animate, anthropomorphic being that can be magically created entirely from inanimate matter (often clay or mud). In the classic tale of the Golem from 16th century Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, using a series of mystical incantations and ceremonies, fashions a golem to defend the Jewish community from anti-Semitic attacks. Eventually, the golem becomes unpredictable, uncontrollable and violent against friend and foe alike and Rabbi Loew is forced to destroy it. As one website describes the aftermath of the advent of the Golem: “The power of life is so strong, that it brings both promise and terror.”

In a story told about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi it is said that the Rabbi invited a simple local teacher to come before him and rebuke him to correct and balance the Rabbi’s ways. The teacher was terrified. How could he, a learned man, yes, but nowhere near the intellectual brilliance of achievements of the great Schneur Zalman, in any way even propose to reproach the great rabbi? So, the teacher thought and thought and finally said, “Reb Scheur Zalman, you know so much and I know so much less. I have much to learn to ever reach your stature. “Even so, the difference between that which I have not yet attained and you have already attained is far less than the difference between what you have already attained and that which you have not yet attained.” At that, Rabbi Schneur Zalman burst into tears. The lesson: we must hold on to our own humility as we call upon others to be humble and/or contrite. We are fortunate in America that not only are we permitted to call our leaders to task when they are doing what we believe is wrong, we are expected to. Our rights to freedom of speech, press and assembly are irrevocable and, even though threatened, ultimately sacrosanct behind thick walls of legal precedent. Still, Jewish tradition is clear: how we say what we say matters.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s dear friend and confidant, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught us that mere indignation, an emotion into which it is so easy to descend, cannot be our goal. Instead, righteous indignation is that for which we strive. We must resist and push back against immorality, hatred, the degradation and scapegoating of others, the overvaluing of monetary wealth over richness of character with morality and kindness. We must be exemplars of true pluralism and continually deepen our strength of character so that no matter the provocation or the momentary inspiration, we hold fast to a set of values and mandates that push us to be righteously indignant and not merely overcome with despair and futility or the momentary high of a protest.

Our president, like all presidents, is, relatively speaking, a momentary president. He has been described by some as mean-spirited and crass. If this is so, we cannot become him, in any way. We must never give ourselves permission to act in ways that are counterproductive and antithetical to our goals because of the ways in which some who are now in power choose to behave or those who organize a particular protest choose to behave. I’ve heard that chant “Not my President!” around me at protests and even at dinner conversations. I won’t say it. Not because I approve of my President. I disagree with just about everything for which he stands. Still, I believe too much in the benefits of this democracy, no matter how blurry and distant they feel at times, to say he’s not my President. He is my President, and that’s why I’m on the street, at the airport and speaking from this pulpit. I am one among millions. I am small…but mighty.  So is each one of us.

We must remember that we are powerful and impacting simply by being present. Our role is to bring justice where there isn’t any and preserve justice where it is being threatened. And…we must always do so with justice, with respect and a sense of righteous indignation so that when we look back not only on what we accomplished but how we accomplished it, we, and the generations that follow us, will be proud.

Let us use the great advantages of this glorious democracy to speak out and to express what we oppose. Like other giant souls, Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Gandhi, Caesar Chavez, Heather Heyer from Charlottesville, we are able to look Golems in the eye, stand our ground without becoming Golems ourselves and be superheroes whose strength comes from an ethical backbone that works for the equality of all people.

Let us use this unprecedented time to defrost our moral muscles to not only rebuke those with whom we disagree, but also challenge ourselves to create a vibrant platform to express what we are for: Liberty, justice and peace…for ALL.

Happiness

Rosh haShanah 5778 – September 21, 2017

In a favorite e e cummings of mine and many of us, he writes:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

We can receive a similar message from Bobby McFerrin’s song:

In every life we have some trouble

When you worry you make it double

Don’t worry, be happy…

Don’t worry, BE happy!” What a concept! Yes, but is it Jewish?!

In his book “Zen Judaism”, David M. Bader notes:

“Unhappiness stems from not having what is desired, or from having what is not desired. This can be avoided by neither having nor desiring. You can also try to exchange what you have but do not desire for what you desire but do not have. This requires knowing what store it came from.”

“Accept misfortune as a blessing.

Do not wish for perfect health or a life without problems.

What would you talk about?”

“To find the Buddha, look within.

Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.

Each flower blossoms ten thousand times

Each blossom has ten thousand petals.

You might want to see a specialist.”

These days happiness seems so far out of reach, so impossible, especially when we look at our world squarely in the eyes: Wars, floods, earthquakes, the resurgence of the international nuclear arms race, the resurgence of the Cold War, the warming of the planet, the demise of the bees, mortgages and rents that only an ever-smaller minority can afford, the continued misreading of the First Amendment, leading to the protection of bigotry, the continued misreading of the Second Amendment resulting in the endless proliferation of guns, the hard-lining of borders and the definitions of “immigrant” and “refugee” and brazen appearances by Nazis and White Supremacists in our streets and even at the meetings of the Democratic Club and the Committee for Racial Justice…in Santa Monica.

And yet – people have babies, go to school and work, create, eat, laugh, care for each other and about each other, care about themselves and try to fix that which is broken. Why is this so? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to surrender to depression and hopelessness? That’s not Jewish either. Otherwise, we Jews wouldn’t be here. We would have given up and given in long ago. Perhaps the reason we’ve sustained so long is because happiness is not really emphasized in Judaism. Judaism’s goal is for us to be good, not happy. Happiness cannot be a goal. Happiness is an attitude! In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, ben Zoma asks rhetorically, “Who is rich?”, and he answers, “The one who is happy with his/her portion.”

The secret is how to maintain such an attitude. An interpretation of the famous image of the pillar of cloud that led us by day through the desert for 40 years and the pillar of fire that led us at night helps to frame the perspective:

Exodus 13:21

וַֽיהֹוָה הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ

לְהָאִיר לָהֶם לָלֶכֶת יוֹמָם וָלָֽיְלָה

The Eternal went on ahead to guide them during the day in a cloud shaped like a pillar; at night Adonai appeared to them in a fire shaped like a pillar to light their way. So they were able to travel by day and by night.

One would think that this verse is self-explanatory: The softness of the cloud kept us comforted and confident during the days and the fire would help us feel protected and secure at night, lighting the path. Not so, says at least one rabbi. In his commentary Menachem Tzion, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov calls upon us to look at these two powerful symbols, not as relics from an ancient past, but rather as active images in our contemporary lives. As such, they have a different meaning for us than they did for ancestors. In the eyes of the Rymanover, we need to make the cloud present in our lives and know that it is there to remind us of…well, exactly that, clouds. He teaches that days filled with sunlight, prosperity and happiness can be seductive and lead us to believe in our own power to maintain these conditions. He teaches: the cloud is a reminder “that suddenly a cloud can appear and darken our bright skies, for no one knows what a day will bring. The thought of this potential ‘cloud’ will help lead us on the straight path in the eyes of God and other people.” Similarly, night is a symbol itself for times “when the world is dark for a person and poverty and severe sickness are her lot in life.” The presence of the pillar of fire says that even so, “[a person] should not give up hope. Rather, she must have faith in the light of God which will chase away the shadows of the dark night and light up her path in life.”

 

“Thus,” he says, “if a person will think about the ‘pillar of cloud in the daytime and about the ‘pillar of fire’ at night, she will find herself protected and cheered by these powerful and strong pillars to help her walk on the proper and straight path day and night.”

 

And what is this “proper and straight” path to which the rabbi alludes? How do we get there and do our best to stay there? Another biblical image, again, not what it seems in the eyes of rabbinic interpretation, concerns the description of the keruvim atop the Ark that was in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem:

Exodus 21:20

וְהָיוּ הַכְּרֻבִים פֹּֽרְשֵׂי כְנָפַיִם לְמַעְלָה סֹֽכְכִים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם עַל־הַכַּפֹּרֶת וּפְנֵיהֶם אִישׁ אֶל־אָחִיו אֶל־הַכַּפֹּרֶת יִֽהְיוּ פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻב

And the keruvim shall stretch out their wings on high, covering the cover with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another…”

The term keruvim was anglicized and are now what we call “cherubs”. Images of two keruvim, two cherubs, were placed on the top of the cover of the ark facing one another, their wings stretched out from one to the other with the tips of those wings touching. Beautiful. “But wait!”, say the rabbis of the Talmud (Baba Batra 99a). They notice a contradiction between this image of the cherubs facing one another and another image from the book of Chronicles (3:13) in which it says ‘their faces were towards the building”. The Talmud comments: “When Israel does the will of God, the Cherubim face each other. When they do not do the will of God, they face the house.”

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan of Kovno explained…as follows: “When Israel does the will of God” …“their faces are towards their fellows”,…they turn face and heart to each other and each one is interested in the condition of his fellow, happy in his joy and sad in his misfortune, a brother to him in a time of trouble, a help and support when he feels bitter.

“When Israel does not do the will of God” that is when ‘they face the house’, and each one worries only about himself, his soul and [his] house, not asking or inquiring about the welfare of his brother, not worrying about the condition of the other person.”

And here’s the commentary of my new ‘rabbi”, my new teacher. His name is Terrance Veal, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and recently Hurricane Harvey. Mr. Veal was interviewed on National Public Radio a couple of weeks ago. Given what he went through, he was amazingly articulate and positive. I hope you find him as inspiring as I do. Terrance lived the metaphors we’ve been painting. The Veal family, Terrance, his wife Zida and their six children, relocated to Houston from New Orleans after Katrina because as Terrance notes, Houston was “where FEMA had…set up infrastructure.” The interviewer, the gifted Michel Martin, asked him how it was in Houston when they arrived as refugees from Katrina. Mr. Veal replied, “Overall, Houston was…prepared for us.” That preparation, he noted, was not just in the form of supplies and shelter, it came in informal ways as well. “In New Orleans,” he says, “we have a strong accent.” Houstonians could identify people from New Orleans pretty easily. He recalled, “…there were times when if I was…in Walgreens just [talking]. “…people just kind of walked up to me and put $10 or $20 in my hands. You know, Houston was…an amazing, welcoming place from my personal experience.” So, Houstonians were acting just as the rabbis of the Talmud encouraged us, mirroring the Cherubs facing one another, being concerned with, about and for the other.

But, Mr. Veal notes, Houstonians were also filled with what he calls an “arrogance”. He remembered feeling that arrogance first in New Orleans. In 2004, a year before Katrina, there was an evacuation as a precaution for the landfall of Hurricane Ivan that many, in retrospect, considered unnecessary because Ivan did little damage in New Orleans. As a result, as Terrance puts it, the “arrogance” grew toward “Mother Nature”

“…like we can just withstand her, you know.” It was the seduction of days filled with sunshine when nothing happens that humans can’t control or handle. Mr. Veal describes the same arrogance in Houston, “[Houston] was my big brother that rescued me from the bully Katrina. [So, I felt like there]’s no way that anything can happen bad in Houston. So, I had that arrogance.”

Then on the day that Hurricane Harvey arrived, Terrance weighed the necessity for evacuation again. “…My marker was the mailbox. So, the water got up to the mailboxes. And then it came into the driveway. And it came to my doorstep. At that point, I knew I had to get my family out because my wife…can’t swim. She’s terrified of water. You know, I had two [of] my kids here. And I had my son’s girlfriend. And so we had to get out… So I walked out into the water.” “Walked out into the water…”, like the folkloric figure, Nachshon, who walked into the Red Sea when the Jewish people were caught between the water and the advancing Egyptian army. Nachshon walked not knowing if a miracle would arrive. So did Terrance.  He narrates, “And then…just right when I walked out there, [there were]…some random guys doing…rescues in canoes. There was one guy on a kayak. He was…paddling the streets, seeing who needed help. And then behind him, there was…some gentleman with a canoe. And I flagged them down. And they came over and loaded up my family and took us to safety.”

“…I asked them, hey, are you guys an organization or whatever?” The boatman answered, “No,…I just had a boat, so I came to help. And then I met this guy over here, and we just…started helping together. It was an absolute community effort, you know, just…strangers…helping each other. …It’s a real beautiful thing.” Thanks, Rabbi Terrance for showing us this “real beautiful thing.”

Isn’t this just another version of that old adage: “God helps people who help themselves”? Perhaps, unless you see God as the canoe, as the person paddling the canoe. Of course, the canoe arrived at Terrance’s home floating on flood waters from the hurricane. The hurricane and its consequences are also God! God is definitely not the word or concept “good” with an “o” left out. God is. We bring the goodness. We bring the canoes. We’re part of God, too.

In a Torah portion from only a couple of weeks ago, we find words forecasting how wonderful it will be once we, the Jewish people, are out of the desert and responsible for growing our own food. When referring to how full our storehouses will be, we are told in the book of Deuteronomy: “Adonai will command the blessing upon your barns and all your undertakings. [Adonai] will bless you in the land which Adonai-of-Everything is giving you.” (Deut. 28:8). That phrase “Adonai will command blessing upon your barns” is a curious one, noted by the rabbis, because they understand it really doesn’t say exactly that. The Hebrew, יְצַ֨ו יְהוָֹ֤ה אִתְּךָ֙ אֶת־הַבְּרָכָ֔ה, y’tzav Adonai it-cha et ha-b’racha, actually means, “Adonai will command the blessing with you…” “With you…?!” What could that possibly mean? Blessings emanate from God to us, don’t they? What business would God have making manifest a blessing with us? Quite a bit of business, actually, as noted by the commentator we cited above, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov: “The blessing takes effect only אִתְּךָ֙, it-chawith your participation, when you have done everything you can do.” Menachem Mendel quotes an earlier verse in Deuteronomy (15:18) to prove his point: “And Adonai of Everything will bless you in everything that you do.” Menachem Mendel doesn’t stop there. He quotes another commentary called the Sifre in which it says: “I might think even if you stand by idly [you would be blessed], [but that is why] the verse says: ‘[Adonai of Everything will bless you in everything] that you do’. It is not for you to sit with folded hands and hope for God’s blessing without your active participation.” And then the Sifre quotes yet another commentary to prove its point!  “…It says in the Tanhuma (Vayeitze 13) “…A person must not say: “I will eat and drink and enjoy the good things of life, but I will not work, for heaven will protect me.” It is said: [Adonai] blessed the work of [Job’s] hands (Job 1:10). Hence, a person must toil and labor with his/her two hands, before the Holy Oneness sends blessing.”

By the way, the rabbis make no guarantee there’s some kind of award banquet awaiting all the canoers and kayakers of Houston, the Cajun Flotilla. We do just because, לשמה, lishma, as the rabbis say, for its own sake. Will these acts make us happy? Will they make someone else happy? Perhaps, not necessarily. It’s just a small pillar of fire, a tiny pillar of cloud, people acting, for just a moment, like the cherubs atop the Ark, looking into one another, the tips of their wings touching.

 

There’s No Wrong Way to Have a Body

The title words of this blog are from my colleague Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the Reform Jewish seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. I heard him speak at a convening of T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Kukla’s presentation, teaching really, was so powerful to me because I realized as i listened to him, how blind I’ve been to the realities of a person being part of the LGBT community,  how insensitive my heart, how far I need to go. His emphasis was on personhood and, I recall saying to myself “Well, of course!”, as he spoke about the personhood of every person, no matter how they see and feel their bodies as part of the way they articulate themselves into the universe.  I began to relate the identity journey of a trans person to some of my own journeys: moving from a child into adulthood, the craziness of early adolescence, becoming a husband, a father and certainly being a rabbi. I realized that none of my journeys could compare to the spiritual journey of a transgender person considering that there is (and has been) a dissonance between his/her/their sense of self and his/her/their gender reality. As I said, I have a long way to go, but thanks to Rabbi Kukla’s excellent teaching, I think I’ve taken a few more steps. There’s no wrong way to have a body.

And that is why I need to say to my LGBT relatives, friends and colleagues, I am so sorry for the pain that the President inflicted on you today when he signed a directive banning transgender troops from serving in our nation’s military. It is such an insult, to all of our personhoods because there’s no wrong way to have a body. It is such an insult to all of our personhoods because we are all guaranteed life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality. No person, even the President, has the right to invalidate another person’s sense of self. No person, even the President, has the right to limit the participation of some in our society from full participation in that society. No person, even the President, has the right to even infer that someone else’s sense of body is wrong.

Thus far, our military, which has integrated all of us into its ranks and has often been the pioneers of such integration, has held strong and refused to implement the President’s declaration , now turned directive. I will lobby, and I hope you do, to make sure they keep doing that because there’s no wrong way to have a body. In the meantime, a bit of Torah:

And God said, “Let US create a human in OUR image, after OUR likeness” Gen. 1:26. Need we say more? Well there is more. We should also remember that in the second creation story, the first human being was created as a hermaphrodite, both male and female. At least according to that version of humanity, that was OUR original form, all of us, every one. There is no wrong way to have a body.

Charlottesville

I often relay teachings of my favorite Chasidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, also known as the Kotzker Rebbe. Once, the Kotzker asked his students, “Where is God.” “Simple!” they exclaimed. “God lives everywhere!”. “No,” the Kotzker replied. “God lives where people let God in.” From what I know of the Kotzker, he didn’t mean his response to be taken literally. It’s not as if there is some magical portal, a spiritual membrane, through which we can invite God into our lives or shut up tightly with a series of locks and bolts so that God cannot enter.

Charlottesville? I’ll get there.

What the Kotzker is talking about is our attitude. If we perceive God as present in a situation, then God is there. If we don’t, then God isn’t. God is all probability and possibility. God is all there is and all there isn’t. God, as the Jewish mystics refer to God, is the Ein Sof, that which has no end. In other words, limitless, boundless. Every thing and no thing. God is.

Charlottesville? In a minute.

God doesn’t decide. God doesn’t judge. God didn’t decide that Heather Heyer would die on Saturday or the other people wouldn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with who let God in and who did not, in the literal sense. Many who were there felt that God was “in” and “on” their side. God doesn’t take sides.

Charlottesville? Now.

So, no presumptions about where God is or God isn’t, whether God is “in” or “out”, whether God was in Charlottesville on Saturday or whether God’s there now.

I can be in! We must be in! We are tiny pieces of God, of Everything, and we must choose to be “in”. In all that I do and say, I will choose to work against racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and violence. I will petition. I will email. I will make phone calls. I will march. I will demand that the leaders of this country act like adults. With all my heart, with all my soul, and with everything I have I will strive to bring justice where it is absent. I do not pretend to love everyone. I don’t love neo-Nazis or White Supremacists. I don’t pity them. And…I can’t become them in trying to counter them. I will not be filled with hate, but I won’t necessarily be filled with love.

I will be filled with hope. I will give myself no other choice but to hope. I will be filled with courage, even when I am most afraid. I will give myself no other choice but to believe that the world can be, must be, better. I will believe that I play a vital role in that change. I am in. 

Important and Famous People

As is usually the case when we gather outside in our Gan Shalom to celebrate Shabbat together as a community, our gathering this past Friday was a mixture of adults, a few JELLI (Religious School) kids and young children from our Early Childhood Center. So, Rebecca Itow and I facilitated a Shabbat with elements that would speak to everyone. When we arrived at the end of our time together and it was time for me to introduce the Kaddish, I tried to do so with the kids in mind, giving them just enough to fill them in on what was about to happen. After I read all the Yahrtzeit names and we recited the Kaddish, I was preparing to lead Oseh Shalom. At that moment, one of our JELLI kids, Asher Zaczepinski, who has some of the best (and perhaps the most frequent) questions on the planet, asked me, “Rabbi, was that a list of famous or important people? Is that why you read their names?” I was stumped for a minute. Finally, I said to Asher, “Well, the people we named were famous to their family and friends. To them, they were very important.”

So much of our focus these days is on people we consider to somehow be nationally or internationally famous and/or important – politicians, musicians, chefs, sports figures and those filled with self-importance who too often end up on “reality” TV. Perhaps we should take our energy away from such folks (they’ll have plenty of admirers left anyway) and look right in front of our noses to the people around us, family, friends, people at work or school, the people who serve our food, clean up after us and many others who are “famous” and/or “important” in our lives.

You may know the urban tale of the professor who, the way I heard it, put a question on a final exam that said something like, “Who is Tony Esposito (In the story I heard, another name was used, but I can’t remember it)?” The students began to go over their notes in their heads – was Mr. Esposito a noteworthy spokesperson on that course’s field of study, one of their professor’s teachers or colleagues? Who could Tony Esposito be? How was he mentioned? Was it a footnote or something more major? When the students received their graded tests and gathered for the last time with the professor, they realized that not one of them knew who Tony Esposito was. They asked the professor and he told them that Mr. Esposito was the custodian for the building in which their class was held.

They started to giggle in surprise and with some resentment that their professor would have the audacity to put such a frivolous question on their final exam and thus reduce all their scores and final grades. The professor told them, “Whatever you end up doing in your professional life or whatever the personality and context of your personal life, it will never be complete unless you do not merely notice but care about those around you whom many others consider expendable and invisible.”

Perhaps we all need to ask ourselves a version of Asher’s question: “Who are the people who are famous and important in my life?”

When Leaders Don’t Act Like Leaders

This week, I am infuriated by the actions of three leaders: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump and the leaders of the “Dyke March” in Chicago. Mr. Netanyahu bowed to his most right-wing supporters on two issues: reneging on the agreement to create an egalitarian section at the Western Wall and he also gave his backing to a return to Orthodox control over conversions.  As for Mr. Trump, there are so many things about him at which I am piqued. My disquiet has often stemmed from the base, acidic and venomous manner in which he expresses himself, but this week, his tweet about the hosts of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC was absolutely vicious. He was especially animalisticly ferocious toward the female host of the program, Mika Brzezinski. He tweeted: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe [Scarborough], came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” As for the organizer/leaders of the Dyke March in Chicago, what they did is at first glance a misunderstanding but then it becomes clear that those leader/organizers knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what they were doing when they assumed that one of the marchers, who wished to proclaim both being a lesbian and being a Jew, marched with a rainbow flag (for gay pride) with a Star of David superimposed on the rainbow colors. She was given the choice of rolling up her flag or leaving the march. She was told that the star was a symbol of the State of Israel, therefore a symbol of oppression and as such was a “trigger” that made others “feel unsafe”.

Years ago, I heard a wonderful Israeli whom I admire, Yitzchak Frankenthal, who turned his grief over his son, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists, into activism by becoming a voice for peace, use a talmudic phrase to describe the Israeli government’s attitude toward making peace. The phrase is “your leaders act like dogs”. The phrase took me aback until I understood it’s context. This section of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) paints of picture of the generation preceding the coming of the Messiah as absolutely corrupt. “It has been taught: R. Nehorai said: in the generation when Messiah comes, young men will insult the old, and old men will stand before the young [to give them honor]; daughters will rise up against their mothers, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. The people shall be dog-faced, and a son will not be abashed in his father’s presence.” Mr. Frankenthal took his interpretation of the “people shall be dog-faced” from Rabbi Yisroel Salanter who “explains that a dog always runs in front of its master, almost to the point where it appears as if the dog is leading and its master is following after it and obeying its directions. The truth is, however, that the master is going where he wants to go, and the dog is constantly looking behind to see where its master is headed. If he notices that his master is turning, the dog quickly adjusts and turns to run in front of where the master is going. This scenario will describe the people of the generation of the Moshiach [Messiah]. In previous generations, the leaders determined where and what the people would do, and the community followed behind faithfully. At the time of Moshiach, however, the people will run ahead and appear to direct their own leaders, who will be following behind.”

And so it was with these three scenarios, Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Trump and the organizers of the Dyke March, all leaders who were entrusted with guiding their constituencies to the highest moral ground. Instead, they have entrenched their countries and communities deeper into misogyny, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, anti-Semitism, reneging on promises, and cycles of punishment and vengeance that ultimately cause societies to tailspin out of control. Of course, if we follow Rabbi Salanter’s thoughts, this might means that things are getting so bad that the coming of the Messiah is imminent. I don’t believe in that kind of Messiah. I believe in the kind put forth by my colleague Rabbi Robert Levine, who’s book, entitled, “There is No Messiah – and You’re It” pretty much articulates my view. There’s no one or nothing to wait for. There’s no one or nothing going to rescue us. If we’re going to be more tolerant, it’s up to us. If we’re going to stop scapegoating, it’s up to us. If the cycle of hurt and vengeance is going to stop, it’s up to us. If we’re going to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless, it’s up to us. Should we still keep trying to elect leaders who will help us with this work? Of course, we should. In the meantime, let’s get to work.

It is Upon Him – “I am God”

This past week I had the privilege of studying for a day and a half with my fellow Reform colleagues, rabbis, and cantors, at an annual gathering called Hava Tefillah, which loosely translated means “Let’s Pray”. Our discussion and sharing centered on the Shabbat morning celebration, and I am inspired and motivated to bring some of the suggestions and innovations from my colleagues to Beth Shir Shalom. Since it was a Shabbat morning experience, when we modeled that gathering, the reading of the Torah was included and, of course, we used this past week’s Torah portion, Emor. My colleague, Rabbi Robin Nafshi, who led one of the Torah reading simulations, pointed to something unusual in the portion which I will both try to explain to you and show you.

Leviticus 21-12

 

“He shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the Lord’s.”

Those three highlighted spots are what are called trope marks. Some of us may be familiar with them as musical notes. However, they began as grammatical marks for phrasing. What Rabbi Nafshi pointed out is that the tropes indicate that the last three words of this verse form one phrase although that doesn’t make sense in the context of the entire verse. When we translate just those three words themselves as a phrase it comes out: “Upon him I am God”! How can we make sense of a phrase that says, “Upon him I am God”?!  It was surprising to me that when Rabbi Nafshi asked the question I immediately understood!  If everything is God and the text says, “Upon him I am God”, then the text says that the consciousness, the awareness, the perspective of “I am God” must be “upon” the priest.  In other words, the priest must be aware that he is not God, that he’s only part of God and a small part at that!  The complex and ornate ceremony that initially ordained him as a priest and now dictates his function in the community can easily make the priest feel elevated, God-like, set apart and above everyone else. The phrase, “Upon him I am God” is a polemic against narcissism, against a self-serving attitude, against self-preservation to the exclusion of all other concerns.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this line of thought and you’re right, but first, let me speak about something that I intended to speak about last Shabbat and then let me expand the notion to recent events in our nation’s capital. For those of us who live in Los Angeles, there is a charter Amendment on the ballot today call Charter Amendment C.  Those who support it feel that this amendment will be a huge step to ensure that there is civilian oversight over the police department. According to my friends at the ACLU and the Black Jewish Justice Alliance, this proposed amendment will actually do the opposite. Charter Amendment C modifies the process for disciplinary appeals at the Los Angeles Police Department.  Currently, the civilian Police Commission decides whether shootings and other serious uses of force are within policy or not, and the Chief of Police makes recommendations about serious discipline.  But if the Chief recommends that an officer be fired, that officer may appeal the decision to a Board of Rights — a panel made up of two command-level LAPD officers and one civilian drawn from a pool of approved panelists.  Charter Amendment C proposes that the officer may appeal to a panel that is made up of only civilians. That looks like civilian oversight but it’s not. This new panel would have very limited power period it can only reduce the disciplinary measures that have been proposed by the police chief – it cannot increase them. Even more troubling is the small pool from which these civilians on this panel may be chosen. According to the City’s current regulations, civilian panelists must have seven years of experience in either arbitration, mediation or administrative hearings. These are not civilians who are drawn from the community, especially the community that is most impacted by police misconduct.

How does this intersect with our Torah portion? If our ancient priests were admonished to keep in mind that within the grandness of everything that is God, they are just small functionaries and they shouldn’t let their elevated position in society “go to their heads”, how much the more so should those who comprise a small panel in the city of Los Angeles charged with the weighty task deciding whether police officers should be allowed to continue with his or her career be humbled by their assignment and recognize that they are not divine and therefore should do everything they can to adjudicate with compassion to both the alleged victims and the officer. Constituting this decision-making panel with officers and so-called civilians, the latter of whom are as much chained and prejudiced by their expertise as they are empowered by it, creates anything but a fair process.  Those who are placed into such positions of responsibility must remember that upon them should always be the awareness that “Ani Adonai – I am God” is greater than they are.  Charter Amendment C creates the opposite of that, a bubble, an encapsulated, narrow perspective that favors the officers. I urge a “no” vote on Charter Amendment C.

Last week, I naively thought that speaking about this amendment wouldn’t be eclipsed by any national or international concerns. I guess I was wrong!  What effected our president this past week and this week can also be understood as not understanding “Alav Ani Adonai”, he must have a full consciousness that it is “upon” him, that is it his constant and consistent responsibility to know that, he is a small part of God, ultimately equal to all the other parts, especially knowing that not one of us is above the law. He cannot use his position as President and his power to hire and fire as a sword of Damocles to suspend over others. More appropriately, when a leader truly understands Alav Ani Adonai, that he is within or even beneath God, then the Sword of Damocles hangs over him and he knows it because he hung it there to keep himself in check.

On Israel’s 70th Birthday – One Way Toward Peace

I began life as a non-Zionist because thaarrow on roadt was the essential stance of the Reform movement at the time. I do remember when, very indirectly, I realized that the Movement’s position had changed. I was in my first year or two of Hebrew school and we were informed that from this day forward, we would be pronouncing Hebrew “as they did in Israel”. As a result, we need to relearn the ways in which we were pronouncing certain letters and vowels because we had been taught a Yiddishized, Eastern European, Ashkenazi pronunciation. Now all the “aw’s” and many “o’s” were “ah’s” and most of the “s” sounds were now “t” sounds. Oy! It’s hard to be a Reform Jew!

Despite the linguistic change, there wasn’t much else that was different. An official prayer for Israel would be long in coming and the Reform Movement was slow to adopt the placing of an Israeli flag on the bimah. I don’t recall celebrating Yom haAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, when I was growing up. All of that remained fairly constant until 1967. My family had joined the Conservative Movement four years earlier and Conservative Judaism was very much a Zionist Judaism. As many know and some of us remember, 1967 was the year that Israel was bracing for an attack on all of its fronts, Syria and Lebanon to the north, Jordan to the east and Egypt to the southwest. It was clear that all of those nations were massing troops on the border. Israel wasn’t going to wait around for the inevitable invasion. Israel struck preemptively and was victorious in what was dubbed the Six-Day War. When the war began, I recall that we all went to the synagogue. I was just sixteen. I don’t remember many of the details. I can imagine that there was fundraising going on and no doubt people were signing postcards to be delivered to Congress advocating for the government’s support of Israel to remain firm during Israel’s crisis. If that was the case, I didn’t notice. What struck me was a feeling, a sense, a rich swirl of emotion, a deep notion of Jewish communality. This, I now know in hindsight, is what the Talmud means when it says, “all Jews are responsible one for the other” (Shavuot 39a). I was struck by how intensely palpable was that interconnectedness, that tribalism, that sense of responsibility. It was thick and I was part of it. It was incredible to feel every set of Jewish eyes focused on Israel and every Jewish heart pounding in anxiety for Israel and praying for her safety.

And, then, nothing. At least not much until I went to rabbinical school the first year of which was in Jerusalem. I know part of the reason I became a Zionist that year was because it was the year of another war, the Yom Kippur War. I never felt invaded or threatened before. I did then. I told my rabbi that I hoped they would train me and give me an Uzi so that I could do my part to defend Israel (about whom I now felt extremely hawkish – contrasting with my peace and non-violence stance about the Vietnam War during my college years). After all, “All Jews are responsible one for the other.”

That belief was struck down or at least defused when I met an Arab gentleman who returned to work in the sugar and flour factory at which I was volunteering during the War. He was a good soul with many children for whom he provided. He told me, “This is not my war.” I had been so blinded by my new-found hawkishness that I believed the every Arab was at war with Israel…and me. Clearly, it was not so. I was still a Zionist but now a confused Zionist. I even wanted to stay in Israel when the year was over but if I did, I was told, there would be no rabbinical program (there is now!) and if I was to continue that journey of study, I’d have to return to America.

On my way home from Israel, I stopped in Copenhagen for a couple of days. The emotional contrast from being in Israel, a country, now my country in a way it had never been, a country that, I now understood, was under constant threat and whose day-to-day reality was both incredibly strong and overwhelmingly fragile, to then be in Denmark, a country that, comparatively, seemed not to have a care in the world – that contrast was immense. I began to gain some perspective.

It wasn’t long before I became part of the American support group for those working for peace and a two-state solution for Israel. Some of my heroes became the Israelis who were and are involved in the peace movement. I know how much they were swimming upstream – how much they are still swimming upstream! Because of those early experiences in Israel and my experiences since, I am more convinced than ever, as are hundreds of Israel’s former military officers, that the only hope for a future for Israel is a sovereign and complete Palestine. Of all the people in the world, we should know that. We waited for a return to our own sovereignty for two-thousand years, sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently. We know that you can’t forcibly stuff that yearning back into its womb once it is born in a people’s consciousness. Will there be difficulties along the way? Of course!

Paraphrasing the words of Member of the Knesset, Eyal ben-Reuven, a retired major general, our obstacles are and will be the ease of the promulgation of fear, the megalomania and power-mongering of Benjamin Netanyahu, the need for a truly open democratic election (for a candidate rather than party), draconian legislation toward Arab Israelis, critics of Israeli policy and liberal Judaism, and bad actors within the Israeli Defense Forces who, whether it is out of frustration or because of the power of their uniforms, over-response to Palestinian provocation, creating provocations of their own. To that list, I would add rabid pro-Israelists in America who consider the two-state solution a weak choice for Israel and do everything they can to undermine it. And, of course, there is that small percentage of Palestinians who use violence to communicate their frustrations and anger, killing and maiming innocent Israeli citizens and Israel soldiers only because they wear the IDF uniform.

MK ben-Reuven said that Israel’s democracy is in trouble. Part of the reason for that is that Israel still hasn’t determined what it means to be both a Jewish state and a democracy. Ben-Reuven was clear that this was our responsibility to figure out, not the Palestinians. Just as it is their responsibility to determine what a sovereign Palestine at peace with and hopefully symbiotically involved Israel is going to look like. This is why Prime Minster Netanyahu’s insistence upon waiting for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a complete red herring. Israel and Israelis don’t even know what means for Israel to be a Jewish state AND a democracy! Are the Palestinians supposed to determine that via their recognition of Israel as a Jewish state? Would we ever accept their definition of what it means for Israel to be Jewish?

Similarly, we (Israel and world Jewry) are not responsible for how the Palestinians will mold the personality of their sovereign state. The Palestinians are. On the other hand, we can do much to positively influence and encourage that process via good faith negotiations, infrastructure support, transparent diplomatic coordination and communication, economic investment, etc.

MK ben-Reuven said that he knows it will take international pressure to turn the Israeli government and society in that direction. He expects little or nothing from Abbas and Netanyahu, and that it will mean a sea-change in the attitudes of both the Israeli and Palestinian citizenry. Still, he and many others are there, on the ground, working for it every day. We cannot abandon them!

I love Israel too much and believe in our Jewish state so much that I can’t stand idle as she goes in the wrong direction. It will take a Samson-like strength to turn the Israel ship around. But, “all Jews are responsible one for the other”. When we finally act that way, it will happen.

Zachor – זכור- Remember

Zachor – זכור– Remember

Note: I wrote this before President Trump’s address at the United States Museum of the Holocaust on the occasion of Yom haShoah, in which he referred to both anti-Semitism and the six-million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. While I assume his words were specifically crafted to compensate for the fact that he didn’t mention either of those on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they do not. Neither does his speech repair the damage done by the President’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. Below, please find the sermon on delivered this past Friday evening, April 21st.


Sunday evening begins Yom haShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. International Holocaust Memorial Day has already past. The international commemoration was established by the United Nations in 2005 using the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yom haShoah was established in 1951 coinciding with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. As Yael Shahar wrote in Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, “The choice of date was an attempt to focus on those who fought against the Nazis, rather than on those who never had that chance… Israel’s version of Holocaust memorial day was not a commemoration, but a denial of memory.”

Not a denial of history, a denial of memory. It was an attempt to take the focus away from the majority who did NOT survive the Holocaust and place it rather on the foundations of the new Jewish state’s strength and determination to become a new kind of survivor: Jews who survived because they fought, not by chance. Israel’s Yom haShoah is as much about the present as it is about the past. It was established only three years after Israel was founded and only seven years after the war in Europe ended. At that time, in 1951, new Israelis who had emigrated from Europe out of the ashes of the camps were the living reality of the commemoration and the memory. Their children were the inheritors of the memories and were living it out speaking Hebrew in the new state of Israel. The memory of the Holocaust did not need to be recognized in those early days of Israel. It was walking down the street.

In some ways, the Holocaust is still walking down the street in Israel, certainly on Yom haShoah. Israel is the only country in the world that nationally acknowledges Yom haShoah. On that day, air raid sirens sound at noon throughout the country and everyone stops whatever they are doing – literally – and stand silently. People stand in the street. Cars, buses, and trucks stop and everyone gets out. The last time I was in Israel for Yom haShoah I even saw surfers stop surfing and sit on their boards. Of course, Israel conducts more solemn ceremonies on Yom haShoah, but the simplicity and the enormity of all Israelis standing silently is the deepest and most profound articulation of the memory and the history of the Holocaust in the world. Given how many genocides have been carried out or attempted since the Holocaust,  it is clear that the world would be better off to acknowledge not merely the history of the Holocaust and not even to honor the memories of our Jewish six million and the five to six million other persons who were murdered but rather to acknowledge what the Holocaust says about the animal that lies deep within the marrow of humanity, ready to blindly and viciously pounce and tear apart victims for minimal or no reason.

And that, my friends, is what is so ominous about the statement that came from the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the comments made by President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. The statement from the White House did not have any mention of the six million murdered Jews, anti-Semitism or the Jewish community. It remains to be seen if the White House will issue a statement on Yom haShoah as well and whether or not the wording of that statement will be any different. The Press Secretary was inexcusably inept and insulting when he, apparently spontaneously, contrasted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical gassing of Syrians with Hitler’s use of gas. Hitler, he said, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” and later tried to clarify his words by adding, “”He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.” Were the six-million not people, his own people? Even if most of them were not Germans, they were conquered people under German authority. In later statements, Spicer did say that he apologized, but he apologized for a bad reference, not for or to anyone he insulted. He apologized for an “inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison”. He also said he made “mistakes” and that was “wrong”. He asked for people’s forgiveness. First of all, Judaism emphasizes apology much more than forgiveness and a person cannot apologize to a “bad and insensitive reference”. A person apologizes to other people. A Press Secretary does that. A President does that, too. Here’s what we got from the White House: another spokesperson, Hope Hicks, who told CNN that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Not even close to an apology. Not even close to mentioning our six million.

The only eye witnesses to the Holocaust are quite old now and will soon die, taking their memories and the truth with them. We are all, Jew and non-Jew, responsible, to carry out the one imperative that is the Holocaust’s legacy, “zachor/זכור/remember”. When those with such significant bully pulpits as the President of the United States and his Press Secretary blithely fail to mention the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust or clumsily and unintelligently prostitute their memories and the significance of how technology finally caught up with anti-Semitism, insulting the Jews who were murdered and those who survived, our task of zachor becomes that much more difficult. The incline of the mountain of memory and responsibility steepens when careless words give ignorance deeper roots.

The Quarrel

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Last night I showed what I think is one of the most important films about the Holocaust to my Introduction to Judaism students. The Film is called “The Quarrel”. The setting is Montreal a few years after World War II and it involves a chance meeting between two former yeshiva students both of whom thought the other was murdered in the Holocaust. One of the men, Hersh Rasseyner, has become a rabbi and now lives in Montreal teaching in a yeshiva he founded. Most of his students are also survivors. The other, Chaim Kovler, is a secularist Jew, a Yiddish writer and is Montreal on a reading tour. Because it is Rosh haShanah, the two take the opportunity to spend the day talking and arguing with one another, picking up right where they left off before the war. Their argument is their prayer. Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together, releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions

Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and Life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged, traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions and the impact of the other’s. Many times during their “quarrel” they were brought to the brink of tearing their long-lost relationship apart. Somehow, they are able to maintain their basic respect for one another as human beings and as Jews.

I told my students that Judaism, post-Holocaust Judaism, now lives squarely in the middle between the two perspectives of these study partners and their responses to the Holocaust, one a deepened commitment to traditional, Jewish observance and the other a secular-human brand of Judaism whose horizons have no limits. That tension is what animates Judaism in the post-Holocaust era and both extremities are essential to fueling that animation.

At this time in history, when the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust are reaching the ends of their lives, it is incumbent on those of us who will become the survivors-of-the-survivors to keep this centuries-old philosophical tension alive. This will not be easy for us because we have become so dichotomized and we too often live in completely different worlds. Still, I truly believe that it is this dissonance, the disharmony of this “quarrel” and so many others like it within Judaism, that has kept us alive as a people. We really cannot afford to disengage from these quarrels. In a strange and beautiful way, the ability to so struggle is our gift to humanity. These wrestling matches, which have always been a vital part of Jewish life, are the paths to change, the paths to betterment, the paths to justice, the paths to respect and equity, the paths to peace. There’s even a term for such a struggle in Judaism, it is called a Machloket l’Sheym Shamayim, מחלקת לשם שמים, a “dispute for the sake of heaven”!

This Yom haShoah, this Holocaust Memorial Day and during the Shabbat that precedes it, may we dedicate ourselves to honor both the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust by becoming survivors ourselves. In their memories, and for the future, let us quarrel – for the preservation of Judaism and Jewishness, for the sake of humanity and the potential for a “heaven” that can be created among us, and for the sake of wholeness and peace.

Let’s Not Make Fun of Suffering at Our Seders

Over the last few years, there have been all kinds of innovative products introduced to enhance our seders (sedarim/סדרים) in order to keep the kids alert and interested (adults, too!). Unfortunately, too many of these gadgets use the Ten Plagues as the butt of their joking and mindlessness. All those things you can buy to have “fun” with the plagues – little finger puppets and toy frogs and locusts you can throw around (the latest is green colored, frog-shaped ice in your water!) – takes the Jewish soul in a dangerous direction. Look at this brilliant Talmudic story-about-the-story (which we’ve included in our Friday evening siddur as a prelude to Mi Chamocha) and see if you can juxtapose it with all those frivolous games and toys and somehow make it fit. Think about whether or not you’re ready to make fun of the killing of the first born after reading this:
“At the very moment when the Egyptian armies were perishing in the sea, the ministering angels were about to sing to God in jubilation. God silenced them and said, ‘My creatures are drowning; how can you sing?!'”(Sanhedrin 39b)
To which I added:
When we sing our people’s ancient song of freedom, let us pray for a day when one people’s freedom will not depend upon another people’s defeat.
The seder is a great celebration, quintessential to who we are as Jews, filled with great ceremony, beauty, and purpose. My ancient colleagues created the seder in order to imprint the Exodus from Egypt, and the resulting mission of our people to free the enslaved, on our hearts. It was never the rabbis intent to have a component of the seder be poking fun at the Egyptians and their suffering like some warped, ceremonial version of “America’s Funniest Videos”. There’s plenty to be festive and joyous about at the seder without doing it at the expense of others.
When we recall the Ten Plagues at our seders and reduce our joy by taking ten drops of juice or wine from our cups, I hope many of us will be talking about the contemporary, humanly-manifested plagues from which the world suffers today: the innocent victims of war and violence (and, while we’re at it, let’s ask ourselves why we tolerate “conventional weapons” and only get upset when empowered criminals and despots use gas?), the innocent species and the innocent earth itself that have become “collateral damage” to human progress, the demotion of healthcare to a “product” instead of an “inalienable right” (the Declaration of Independence refers to it as “life”!), the categorizing of some of us as “illegal” rather than “brave-souls-seeking-a-better-life-and-safety-for-themselves-and-their-families” (precisely like our ancestors who preceded us in this country), our self-imposed impotence about the growing gap between those who have so much and those who have so little, our blase attitude about the oxymoronic reality of the “working poor”, the trafficking of our fellow humans which is very much a modern slavery, and so much more. Throwing around little plastic locusts becomes incongruent at a gathering that considers the seder to be both a wonderful and upbeat celebration of our freedom and simultaneously a recognition of the responsibilities that freedom brings.
Have a ziesen Pesach, a Passover filled with joy, hope, family, friends and a purpose!