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?!



My Sermons from Yom Kippur 5778 – “Resist” and “Real Miracles”


This year it is so hard to come up with sermons that are relevant to the moment. What’s a rabbi to do?! Every news cycle, no, every half-cycle, no, any given minute, some press release, or tweet or leak can turn everything upside down. As a result, I decided to begin this sermon by referencing an “old-school” technology that is still in use and it’s hard to change quickly because it involves adhesive. Yes, you’re correct, I’m talking about…bumper stickers. You know that a word or phrase is woven into the philosophical perspectives of our contemporary culture when it turns up on a bumper sticker. Some of my favorites over the years have been: “If I knew grandchildren were this much fun, I would have had them first,” “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” “What if they gave a war and nobody came,” and “Question Authority”. That last one became a theme for me in my younger days. In fact, that bumper sticker is one of the reasons I decided to become a Reform rabbi and not attend the Conservative movement’s seminary. As part of my decision-making process, I had a preliminary discussion with one of my rabbinic role models. He told me that a mandatory component for attending the Conservative seminary was for me to sign a contract that bound me to observe Shabbat and the laws of Kashrut according to the movement’s standards. Immediately, I thought of that bumper sticker, “Question authority!” and what it meant to me. The ability to question authority has always been one of the primary issues in my relationship with Judaism. I thought about my role model’s words and the Conservative movement’s mandates and I made an appointment with Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary.

My early Jewish upbringing was solidly within the Reform movement. My authority figure for that was my father, who loved his classical Reform Judaism and the decisions the movement made over the years about what mitzvot/commandments Reform Jews would follow, those to which we would not under any circumstances give any credence and those that were still under discussion or open to individual choice. When we switched affiliation to the Conservative movement, I realized that this more traditional Judaism didn’t speak the same “language” as my father taught me, so I adapted. My authorities became my Conservative clergy, my teachers and my friends. That adaptation worked, for a while, but I couldn’t stop wondering why some components of Judaism, some mitzvot, some customs, some ceremonies, some prayers were elements whose raison d’etre and format shouldn’t be queried and probed. My questions returned. Today my questions are more vital to my being Jewish, American and human as are my momentary answers. I continue to question authority.

The latest popular bumper sticker is one word, “Resist”. It’s powerful. It’s seductive. It’s emboldening. It’s evocative. It’s a call to a revolt in the name of all that is good and right. And, it’s a command and I don’t do well with those unless I’m allowed to question. My internal mandate pushes me to question: “Resist? Resist what or whom? On whose authority? For what purpose? What are its means and what are its ends?” So, let me take you on my journey to find out what it means to me as a Jew, as an American, as a rabbi, and as a human to resist.

The journey begins in the Torah and it doesn’t take too much knowledge of the Torah to realize that the great paradigm for a resister, although not in the most positive sense, is the Pharaoh. Moses held ten legendary negotiations with the Pharaoh to attempt to convince him that it was in his and his people’s best interest to let the Jews go free. He resisted, he refused each time. Each refusal resulted in a plague upon him and the all or some of the Egyptian population. Only after the tenth plague, a plague that took the life of his own son, did he relent. The Hebrew word that is used for Pharaoh’s resistance is “miyun”, מאיון. The famous image that goes along with it is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The rabbis have various opinions as to whether Pharaoh was inherently “hard of heart”, whether Pharaoh hardened his heart or it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

When I think about resistance in the Jewish context, I think about the word l’hitnaged (להתנגד) which, in modern Hebrew, means both to oppose and to resist. In rabbinic Hebrew it can also means to stand in equality to something, as in its use in the Talmudic phrase “v’talmud torah k’neged kulam”, “the study of Torah is equal to them all”, referring to a list of moral and social actions that are so important, they are priceless. The study of Torah, in its greatest sense, is considered the equal of all these actions because it embraces them and ultimately leads to them. The first Torah use of k’neged is in the text regarding Adam and Eve when God decides it is not good for Adam to be alone and resolves to make an ezer k’negdo, variously translated as a helpmate, “a suitable helper-for-him,” or “a partner equal-to-him.” In the same way that the Rabbis consider the study of Torah equal to a core list of primary mitzvot, so too, was Eve put in place not “against” Adam but as an equal.

Where does that leave those of us who feel that the strengthening of the White Supremacy movement in this country and the current emergence of anti-Semitism need to be “resisted”? I can’t react like Pharaoh because there’s a difference between purposeful resistance and obstinacy. On the other hand, what can the layered meanings of l’hitnaged teach me? Can my resistance be informed by a word that also implies some kind of equality, some kind of relationship? That’s tough. It is futile to attempt to rationally resist those who are in philosophical or ideological opposition to us. Both parties end up becoming Pharaoh-like, refusing for the sake of refusing, not budging for the sake of not budging. On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Should we be silent when anti-Semitism and bigotry rear their ugly heads? Won’t White-Supremacists, Nazis and others take our silence as their victory? What is clear from what the Torah teaches is that engaging in a continuous debate with those whose hearts are already or pre-disposed to be hardened only makes them more rigid in their views and more convinced of their rightness and our foolishness and/or delusion. And that is why many biblical scholars say this about the purpose of Moses’ and God’s ten audiences with the Pharaoh and the ten plagues that followed: those meetings were not at all designed to try to turn the Pharaoh from his malevolent ways but rather to convince the embryonic Jewish people of God’s omnipotence. In any case, we’ve learned that such debates don’t always conclude with a positive change or compromise.

History has taught us that ignoring the increasing amplitude and boldness of the anti-Semitic voice can lead to catastrophe. We have also learned that our experience with such baseless-hatred, when compared to the experiences of other groups, is differentiated primarily by the number of the murders the technology that was used to murder us. Of all peoples in the world, we know what it is to be hated, marginalized, vilified, scapegoated, demeaned and dehumanized. We experienced it for millennia and we have a special awareness when we perceive it coming for others and/or for us even in America. Each death by bigotry is a death by bigotry. The exercise of trying to determine who is the most “Who is Most Persecuted” is ultimately moot and futile. Every death by bigotry is a death by bigotry.

In America, a land in which we take so many of our freedoms and rights for granted, there are ways afforded us by those freedoms and rights for resisting the haters and the bigots, not merely to stand stubbornly in their way or to try to out shout them or create protest signs that are more biting and vicious than theirs. The best opportunity we have for our resistance is our collaboration with others. When we see the similarities in the venom that is being spewed at a variety of groups what we need to do is stand side-by-side, yes, very much in the mode of “I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine.” Ironically, the White Supremacists and Nazis who marched in Charlottesville played right into our potential strength when they articulated their vilification of people of color, immigrants and Jews. They identified our coalition! I am people of all colors, all races and all religions who stand for a vision of America that includes everyone. I am k’neged, standing equally and strongly for myself and others who are similarly targeted. Perhaps I’m not standing when I do this. Perhaps I’m taking a knee. We Jews understand that is a mitzvah for us to stand with our neighbors, facilitating their best selves while they do the same for us. We are each other’s helpmates, each other’s partners. We must be. I am the African-American parent who sits down to have “the discussion” with a young son instructing him how to interact with the police so that he will simply live through the encounter. I am the “Dreamers” and the DACA kids who are struggling to stay in the only country they have ever known and to which they contribute in a manner that is completely out of proportion to their numbers and certainly their blurred status as Americans. I am a member of the Muslim community seen as suspect by some because of the holidays I celebrate or the garb I wear or the hue of my skin or the accent with which I speak. I am a member of the LGBT community who is not living a lifestyle, but a life that should be respected in every corner of society, including the restroom. I am the woman who is still marching for equalities long-overdue from our free society. I am the person who is imprisoned not because of the viciousness of a crime or the risk I pose to others but only because of an inability to pay my bail. I am the worker who was modernized out of a living-wage job, now feeling forgotten by a society that used to value my hard day’s work. I am the worker hidden in the dark folds of the garment industry or the tunnels of a car wash or flipping mattresses in a hotel room or in the galleys of someone’s favorite restaurant whose waking hours are filled with one or more of those jobs and I am still poor. I am the person who, simply because of life’s many vicissitudes and its capriciousness, becomes ill without enough insurance to pay for my healing or comfort.

We resist by linking hands, hearts and souls with all of these hearts and souls and many more. We resist by singing into the menacing face and the venom-tipped slogan. We resist by truly grasping that we rise or fall together. We resist, we do not merely jam our feet into the dirt, in donkey-like refusal. We become helpmates, equal partners for others who are also in the crosshairs of hatred and ignorance. Resistance means honing our responses so that they are complex, nuanced and flexible not a Pavlovian reaction. Bumper sticker phrases are nice…but inadequate. Resistance isn’t about a short-term success or being stubborn. Resistance is a permanent attitude. Resistance is a commitment. Resistance cannot only be for ourselves – it must be for others as well. Today, on this Day of Days, we pledge to develop that attitude and make that commitment. Amen and amen and, in the best of senses – “Resist!”



The renowned Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, says: “People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.”

“Vision Statement: Israel as a Jewish Democratic State”, is the work of two rabbis, Uri Regev and Marc Angel. Rabbi Regev is an Israeli Reform rabbi and the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Angel is an Orthodox rabbi and is emeritus at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. Together they make an impactful pair to issue such a statement. Their document was spawned by two major shifts in Israeli policy regarding progressive Judaism. First, a 2016 plan to create an egalitarian area at the Western Wall where men and women could pray together and in equality…was scrapped. Then, came an attack on the authority of rabbis in the diaspora who were listed as unworthy of determining whether a person is Jewish.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow looked at the statement authored by Rabbis Angel and Regev and found a glaring omission. While bolding calling Israel to adhere to its own principles by honoring the basics of Jewish tradition (including, kashrut, Shabbat the teaching of the Tanach, the Jewish bible), ensuring religious freedom and removing government entanglement with the choice of local chief rabbis and the governmental sponsorship of Orthodox institutions, eliminating Orthodox authority over marriage, divorce and conversion and calling for the elimination of special exclusions for Orthodox citizens when it comes to serving in the military, the text also calls for freedom of religion in the more universal sense.

Still, Rabbi Waskow is stunned that a document about Israel’s simultaneous identities of being both Jewish and democratic does not mention that Israel is currently beginning its second half-century of occupying the Palestinian people in land with, minimally, disputed possession. How, he asks, “in any values-based (my emphasis) sense” can Israel call itself either Jewish or democratic “so long as the State rules over millions of people and denies them the power to govern themselves.” “Privileges for Reform Jews to have their rabbis marry their congregants,” he says, “do not equal democracy while the whole structure of the State leans more and more on subjugation of the Palestinians.”

He then offers what I believe to be a most pointed and apt comparison. Rabbi Waskow writes, “It is as if US Jews in 1855, facing a society heavily invested in economic and political support for slavery, had focused on discrimination against Jews as anti-democratic without even mentioning the monstrous denial of democracy involved in slavery.”

As I have always taught, the key word in Hillel’s adage: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and, if when I am only for myself, what am I?” is the word “and”. Neither of these self-imposed obligations can operate independently. THAT is the problem Rabbi Waskow had with the vision statement, “Israel as a Jewish [and] Democratic State”. Let’s say we somehow establish religious freedom within Israel for non-orthodox Jews, secular Jews and non-Jews. Nothing about that situation would make Israel particularly Jewish (other than Israel’s official days off are for Jewish holidays and holy days and for significant anniversaries in Israel’s history, which they already are). The establishment of true religious pluralism in Israel may guarantee democratic protections for some, but it would do nothing to address Israel’s 50-year-old undemocratic malignancy, the occupation of the Palestinians. In other words, Israel could be the most democratic state in the world when it comes to religious freedom, but it wouldn’t really amount to much of a sea change if, while Israeli Reform Jews and others are free to practice their religion in the way we see fit, the Palestinians are not free at all! As in Hillel’s saying, the word “and” is vital for Israel as well, Jewish “and” Democratic, Israelis “and” Palestinians.

As do some of us here, I remember June 5, 1967. The tension had been building for at least a couple of weeks as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq began massing troops in an overt threat to Israel. After Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in late May, Israel decided to pre-emptively attack rather than being on the defensive. Six days later it was all over and the Middle East had drastically changed. There is debate over whether Israel offered a land-for-peace deal to any or all the major players after the war. U.N. Resolution 242 tried to put that notion into writing only months after the conflict…but the wording is vague. The Resolution has been interpreted by any player as it suits that country or entity’s perspective. As a result, Resolution 242 is now part of the muck that is the situation between Israel and her neighbors. One of Israel’s demands regarding the Resolution is that other nations (or nation-to-be as it is for Palestine) first recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation before any negotiations ensue.  Of course, I understand the demand of recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation…but what does a Jewish nation mean? At a time when the ultra-Orthodox in Israel have gained inordinate power and influence, most of the country’s population is secular, the majority of whom rarely step foot in a synagogue. In fact, many Israeli cyclists’ observance of Yom Kippur is taking advantage of the country’s nearly empty roads and highways. I don’t begrudge anyone not going to synagogue or even riding bikes on Yom Kippur. These realities don’t detract from Israel being Jewish. On the other hand, those who go to synagogue all the time and spit on women praying at the Western Wall because they’re wearing tallitot, kippot, tefillin and reading from the Torah are dismantling Israel’s Jewish identity. An Orthodox rabbinate that is more concerned with who other Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora deem to be Jewish than they are that Israel has been an occupying force over another people for half a century are also helping to destroy Israel as a Jewish nation. It’s not unlike our president’s obsession with the peaceful protests of players, coaches and owners in the NFL when millions of Americans and non-Americans are isolated on hurricane-ravaged islands with no provisions or power. Americans are asking, where are our values? What are our priorities? Unfortunately, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out, too few Israelis and, I would dare say, even too few diaspora Jews, are asking, after 50 years of occupying the Palestinian people, “Where are our values? What are our priorities? Where are Israel’s values?” “What are Israel’s priorities?” No matter what anyone else does or says, how can this status quo be tolerable for the Israeli people, for the Jewish people? Is this how we act out being a “light to the nations?” Is this how we live out being “God’s treasured people”? Is this how we live out being a “holy people?” Is this how we live out century upon century of being occupied ourselves and detained and limited and denied full status and access to education and opportunities and ghettoized and dispossessed and marginalized and hated and stereotyped?

I love Israel and I support Israel through many avenues. I don’t love the ways in which some Israelis behave toward Palestinians or some of their fellow Jews and I don’t love Israel’s governmental policies that prolong and perpetuate Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and the Palestinian people. I love Israel because I fervently believe in its promise. That is why I become angry when Israelis or the government of Israel act in ways that aren’t very Jewish. I am a Jewish American who has a diaspora Jew’s sense of what it is to act Jewishly. I also understand responding to terrorism and the need for security.

Some of you know that our daughter, Eden, got off a bus in London during the terrorist bombings in 2005 literally seconds before the bus went around the corner and blew up. Thirteen people died in that explosion. Those terrorists tried to kill my daughter. Eden and the rest of our family could have decided to become haters that day. We could have begun to stereotype anyone associated with those terrorists by name, ethnic background, religion, country of origin and more. Where would the hatred get us? What does the hatred do besides breed more hatred?

A former member of this congregation who moved up north is fighting a very aggressive form of cancer. He’s an amazing writer. He wrote this in a post he calls “Cancerland”: “The challenge of Cancerland, as I see it, is to balance the unknown consequences of the treatment with the unknown amount of time you might receive from doing it. It’s not an easy decision…

The cards have already been dealt; all I can do is decide how to play my hand and how much to bet.”

Israel, like all nations, is always facing the possibility of a malignant aggression. Some of it comes from across her borders. Some grows within. The challenge of the cancer that invades will always be there. However, the fury of the outer cancer might be reduced if Israel treats the cancer within, the cancer of hatred and fear that will erode Israel from the inside, in its kishkes, disintegrating the possibility of Israel being Jewish or a democracy. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba-zeh, all Jews are responsible one for the other.

This Jew will not give up on Israel. The cards have already been dealt; all we can do is decide how to play our hand and how much to bet. I’m betting on peace. I’m betting on love over hate. I’m betting on religious pluralism. I’m betting on sovereignty for Palestine. I’m betting on Israel. I’m betting on the Jewish people. I’m betting on real miracles.

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.


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.


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.