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


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!

“Ya Can’t Make This Stuff Up!”

Let’s start with this. Here’s a quote and a great explanation from this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the beginning of the book of Leviticus:

Vayikra 4:22.

אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל־מִצְוֹת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵֽעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵֽׁם:

וכי יעלה על דעתך שיהא נשיא, מנהיגם של ישראל, חוטא? אלא, אומר רבי יוסף חיים מבגדאד–ראשי התיבות של “אשר נשיא יחטא” הם אותיות “אני”: כשהנשיא מתגאה, חס-ושלום, ואומר בלבבו “אני ואפסי עוד”, אז הוא בא לידי עבירות גדולות וחמורות.

When a ruler sinned, and did something through ignorance against any of the commandments of Adonai his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty…”

Jewish tradition looks at these words VERY carefully, as should we. The very first word of this verse אשר, which means “when” in this sentence, is immediately noteworthy to the rabbis. In referring to the consequences for ANY other category of sinner and sinning, even A PRIEST, the Torah uses the word אם, meaning “if”. The Zohar, the great text of Kabbalah, our mystical tradition, says that the reason our text uses אשר/when instead of אם/with is because for a ruler…

“…surely HE HAS SINNED, for his heart is swelled with pride because all the people follow him and are under his charge. Hence, it says, “When a ruler has sinned,” namely in transgressing a negative precept and sinning against one of them. It, therefore, does not say of him ‘and if’, because this matter OF HIS SINNING is not in doubt.”

The anticipatory nature the rabbis assigned to the sinning of those in power is further underscored in the Zohar when Rabbi Yehuda comments that even though ALL the people were offered the possibility of donating semi-precious stones for the breastplate of the High Priest in the Tabernacle, the Torah specifically says, “And the rulers brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the efod, and for the breastplate” (Shemot 35:27). Rabbi Yehuda imagines a proclamation from God that explains why: “Though this donation is open for everyone, let these stones be brought by the rulers”. What is the reason for this? THE STONES are placed on the priest’s heart, so the Holy Oneness, blessed be God, said, ‘Let the rulers, whose heart is proud, come and bring these stones that are on the priest’s heart, and their heart’s pride will be atoned for’…” Ya can’t make this up, people!

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad points out that the acrostic of אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא, “when a ruler sins” is the Hebrew word, ani/אני – meaning “I/me” in English. Therefore, Rabbi Yosef Chaim explains, if a prince becomes arrogant, and says to himself “me and nothing besides me” he arrives, heaven forbid!, at a state of the commission of sins of major proportions. In other words, it’s not a matter of if the ruler will become arrogant, self-serving and/or narcissistic, he already has. To assume otherwise is not the ruler’s fault, it is the fault of his subjects. It’s not his problem it’s ours. Ya can’t make this stuff up folks!

An analysis by Rabbi Shimon haSofer of an earlier verse in this week’s portion underscores this point.

Vayikra 4:3. If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty…

Rabbi Shimon explains, “Each generation gets the leaders most appropriate for it. Therefore, if the High Priest sins, it is an indication that the people are themselves in a low state of spirituality, and that can be the cause of the priest’s sins.” Ya can’t make this up either.

Another commentator on the same verse, Rabbi Yaakov of Lita, noticing that this verse uses two words for sins chata’im/חטאים and ashamot/אשמות, says that if the leader of the people permits himself to do small sins – chata’im/חטאים, then the people will allow themselves to do ashamot/אשמות  – even greater ones. That is to say that the people look to their leaders as role models and when the leaders act or even speak sinfully or rudely, the people will do likewise but in an even more unfettered manner.

Now, chata’im/חטאים are considered inadvertent “missings of the mark”, that is we assume the person was “aiming” to do the right thing but ended up doing the wrong thing. Ashamot/אשמות, on the other hand, are sins of guilt, in which a person knows that s/he is guilty of a wrongdoing. And, because s/he knows, s/he can express remorse and atone. But of course, if the leader doesn’t apologize and repent, neither will the people. And, no, ya can’t make that up.

Finally, in our Torah portion, as it is several other times in the book of Leviticus, the Torah distinguishes between the sacrifice brought by a poor person and the sacrifice brought by an affluent person (to the Tabernacle)… The Talmud asks: “What if a rich man brings the same sacrifice as is required of the poor man. Has he fulfilled his obligations?” The answer is that he has not, and, according to one view, it is considered as though he is מביא חולין לעזרה – bringing an unconsecrated offering to the Temple and thereby profaning the name of God. Rabbi Yaakov D’lllescas comments: “In every instance of fulfilling a Mitzvah, he who can do much, but does little, profanes the name of God.” Ya can’t make it up folks! The rich are supposed to have a completely different category of taxation than do the poor. And if they succeed in fooling the IRS and somehow end up paying less…or nothing, they’re not smart – they’ve profaned the name of God.

I’ll bet you can’t guess to whom all this refers? Turns out this week’s Torah portion, if it’s not a biblical version of a Congressional hearing, it’s at least a list of the allegations that lead to a hearing. And who’s making the allegations? The Voice-of-Everything! The Universe itself is screaming out for transparency – for one, straight-up, true narrative.

The Torah’s attitude and the rabbis’ attitude toward the powerful and the wealthy may seem a bit cynical, but it’s from real-life experience, theirs and ours. Did you ever wonder why the Torah, and specifically the book of Leviticus which contains the great bulk of our commandments in its verses, is so obsessed with the articulation of law to limit people’s behavior? Because a person doesn’t need to look very far beyond his or her own nose (or look in the mirror) to see that people can’t be trusted to be good or kind or benevolent or thoughtful or magnanimous or inclusive or embracing or respectful. There are stop signs for that. There are speed limits for that. There are seat belts for that. And there’s the Torah and all its commentaries for that. And my responsibility as a progressive Jewish American is to bring that wisdom to laps of my elected officials and stand there until they pay attention.


Coming isn’t Going

First a little Judaism 101 for those who may not know: The Jewish people read a portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) every Saturday, the same portion in every Jewish community all over the world. We do this in the order these portions arrive in the text of the Torah. It takes us a year to read through from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

Last week’s Torah portion is called “Bo“, which is the first significant word of that portion. “Bo” means “come”. The whole first phrase of the portion is Bo el Paroh, בא אל פרעה, which is often translated “Go to Pharaoh” instead of “Come to Pharaoh”. Honestly, “Go to Pharaoh” makes more sense! Why. then, would the text say “Come to Pharaoh”?

“Come” is a command of beckoning. Who is beckoning? Certainly not Pharaoh! Plus, Pharaoh’s not even doing the talking! So, it must be God! Now the question is why; why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh rather then to command him to go to Pharaoh? The answer could only be that God is there, with Pharaoh! For those who are students of this story, you might know that God has anything but a congenial relationship with Pharaoh in this part of the Torah. In fact, Torah portion Bo chronicles the last three of the Ten Plagues. God and Pharaoh are adversaries. God is proving not only that God can best all the Egyptian gods but also can manipulate Pharaoh at will, hardening the Pharaoh’s heart to Moses’ pleas to let the Jewish people go free. With all this in mind, our need to answer our questions is even more intense: why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh and why is God with Pharaoh?!

Why is God with Pharaoh? Because, in the end, God is with everyone, even those we might dismiss as the embodiment of evil. In the end, God is as much Pharaoh as God is Moses. In the end, we must see the image of God (tzelem Elohim, צלם אלהים) in everyone, in everything. After all, the Ten Plagues themselves are manifestations of God and they are certainly evil if you are an innocent Egyptian suffering their effects. God is the process of negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh. God is the Nile and the plankton that died in that water and gave it its rusty, bloody, color. God is the frogs, the flies, the disease, the locusts. God is the death of the first born. And…God is the empowerment of an enslaved people to see the slim possibility of freedom and run toward it through the sea, beckoned by the Voice-of-the-Universe. God is the complexity of their freedom in a foreboding wilderness that could consume them as much as it could be the path to their future.

When God beckons Moses to come to Pharaoh, Moses is coming face-to-face with the inscrutability of Life – how much potential there is for good and evil in everyone and everything. The difference between Moses and Pharaoh  was that at the same moment in time that Moses was beginning to understand the mystery of God/Life/All, seeing himself as a small but significant part of Something-much-Larger, Pharaoh was retreating from It. As Pharaoh’s heart became more and more petrified (in both senses of the word), his horizon became more and more narrow. He was desperately trying to aggrandize himself within a very small world rather than seeing himself as part of Everything. Eventually, he was defeated, not by an external punishing God, but rather by the same God of which he was a part that beckoned Moses and Pharaoh perceived an outside enemy.

In our day, too, we are faced with leaders whose horizons are self-limited, who’ve created an artificial universe in which they see themselves as pharaohs. The only way to countermand them is to maintain our humble understanding that they are no bigger than we are. That humility, as it was for Moses, is empowering. When leaders’ own misperceptions of the wholeness of the world, of the Universe, of Life Itself cause them to narrow their vision, we must keep ours wide, even when we feel beckoned toward what seems at first glance to be an overwhelming confrontation with evil. It isn’t evil. It’s Life – in all of its intricacy, simplicity, incomprehensibility and comprehensibility. We have as much power and influence in that Life as those who claim they have it all.

Two Chants that I Won’t Chant

Like many of you, I’ve been out there already, on the street and at the airport. I know there’ll be many more occasions. I am clear as to what values and principles brought me to those events. I went because I am a Jewish-American. I went because I am a human being. I went because I am a small part of the Holy-Everything with a voice that had to speak.

Here’s what may be surprising to those who know me: I went because Donald Trump IS my president. I couldn’t chant along with others when they shouted, “Not my president!” Don’t get me wrong, I feel that sentiment deep inside me. Still, I’m marching because Donald Trump IS my president and I disagree with everything he stands for. I am marching because I believe in America and the grand purposes and values for which it was created and for which it ultimately stands. I believe in those who created our freedoms and our systems of checks and balances. As a Jew, I am commanded to rebuke those whom I believe are acting immorally and, as an American, I have the right to do so. I am exercising that right and that obligation because I can and because I must and NOT  because he isn’t my president, but rather because he IS and I won’t allow his narcissism, his petty tweets, his selfishness, his small mindedness and his “alternative facts” to hijack America.

I was recently introduced to another chant, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!” Several Jews who were around me reacted in horror and amazement when they heard those words and that simplistic, conflated thinking. I also felt that reaction and I felt that a chant like that in this new movement was inevitable. I am a Zionist. I love Israel. Still, if Israel insists on building more settlements, I believe, if she is not completely destroying her own future, she is certainly destroying a future in which she could be at peace with her neighbors. However, what those in the growing movement against the agenda of the Trump administration need to learn is that not all walls are the same. The proposed wall between Mexico and the US is certainly unkind, closed-minded, short-sighted and against the best interest of the United States. Who more do we want in our country than those willing to work and pay taxes and who appreciate our guaranteed freedoms  The wall between the U.S. and Mexico borders (pun intended) on being immoral because it would need to be enforced by those who would have to ignore the basic humanity of those trying to enter the United States. I know that if my grandparents had faced a land barrier rather than an ocean between them and the possibility of a better life, they would have done anything to make that dream a reality, even if it meant crossing that border without documents.

On the other hand, the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank has a two-fold reality. On the Israeli side, it’s a security fence. It has dramatically reduced violent attackers coming into Israel, especially suicide bombers. For the most part, Israel kids are pretty safe now riding the buses and going to buy pizza. However, on the Palestinian side, it’s just a wall, a wall that keeps those behind it in prison, without the freedoms or hopes or possibilities that exist on the other side. That wall is more complex, it’s reality is more nuanced and in order for it to come down, both sides are going to have to own the other’s narrative about the wall and what it means. That wall cannot stand forever. Every day of its existence, it weakens Israel’s personality, democracy, and freedom. Every day of its existence, the possibility of a real Palestine living with a modicum of prosperity and in an economic and cultural symbiosis with Israel becomes more and more impossible.

The wall between Israel and the West Bank prevents Palestinians who would do Israelis harm from coming into the country. It also prevents that great majority of Palestinians who desire a life with a bit of security, a decent job, a government that operates with integrity and access to health care and education from getting anything near that.

Mexicans are not coming into America with the intention of blowing themselves up and taking as many people as they can with them when they die. They are coming here to work. That’s all. That’s different.

See you on the street.Me at Lax 2.jpg

Praying and Marching Together – My Words at Macedonia Baptist Church

Jewish American and African-Americans, are both diaspora peoples. We are both people living in exile whence we came. As Jews who do not live in Israel, our diaspora has lasted since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70. However, our first taste of diaspora came in 586 BCE when the First Temple was destroyed and we were forced into exile into the Babylonian kingdom. Despite the fact that Cyrus the Great came along half a century later and let us return to the land of Israel, some of us stayed. We became another kind of Jew, diaspora Jews whose identity was forged more by custom, ceremony, values and law than geography. As a result, it is the Babylonian Talmud, the Babylonian compendium of commentary on the 613 commandments in the Torah and the commentaries on the commentaries, which became the backbone of Jewish jurisprudence.

The Babylonian Exile forced us to come face-to-face with something with which we previously had no need to contend: the reality of being Jewish in a non-Jewish host culture. Certainly, a good deal of this had to do with day-to-day custom but more-so it would appear in legal matters, particularly when there was a disparity between the way in which Jewish law views a particular matter compared to the way the host government saw things.

For several hundred years, the Jews lived fairly autonomously in Persia. Things changed somewhat in the latter part of the 3rd century BCE. As a result, Samuel, the Jewish leader of the Persian Jewish community, promulgated a consciousness that the Jews must be reconciled to the government, obeying its laws and paying the imposed taxes as long as they were fairly and equitably administered. Samuel’s perspective is summed up in the Talmudic phrase dina de-malchuta dina, essentially meaning that the law of the land is the law. Since his was a view strongly influenced by the geopolitical conditions of his time, especially his personal friendship with the Persian King, Shapur I, dina de-malchuta dina was tweaked over the centuries by generations of later rabbis but the basic principle has remained a part of Judaism.

Similarly, for the African-American community, yours, too, is a community that was forced into diaspora. For you, you came here via the horrors of the Middle Passage and, upon landing, relegated to slavery. My ancient ancestors were brought to Babylonian involuntarily. Likewise, your ancestors are the only group who DID NOT come to this country by choice. African-Americans, like the Jews of ancient Persia, had to reconcile themselves to certain aspects of the overall American reality. Still, you did that in ways that you made your own. The African-American church, the Black church, is unique. It’s beautiful, strong, powerful, wondrously musical and lyrical and the place where African-American values are kept alive. There would have been no Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without the Black Church.

I remind you of the apocryphal story of my senior colleague, Rabbi Harvey Fields, who, while a rabbinical student here in Los Angeles, was assigned to pick up Dr. King from the airport and take him to a speaking engagement. Along the way, Dr. King informed Rabbi Fields that he was intending to begin an organization to concretize the movement for civil rights and the working title was the “Southern Christian Leadership Conference”. Ever aware of and sensitive to the support of other communities, especially the Jewish community, that were enabling his work, Dr. King asked young Harvey how he thought the Jewish community would respond to the use of the word “Christian” in the title of the conference. Harvey Fields, who would later make interfaith relations a hallmark of his rabbinate, replied, “It will be fine, Dr. King. That word is authentic for you. It’s whence you come. The word “Christian” won’t affect our involvement with you or the Civil Rights Movement.”

When the sixth annual celebration of Dr. King’s birthday by Macedonia Baptist Church and Beth Shir Shalom commenced at my synagogue on Friday night, our Pastor Scott was on fire! Depressed, inspired, exhausted and made determined by his participation in the protest against Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be the next Attorney General, Shane Scott was impassioned about what our response to this nomination and other actions by the transition team should be, must be. During his preaching, the pastor referred to Donald Trump as “your President-elect”. Some in the congregation took umbrage at that assumption and shouted out, “He’s not my President-elect!” Wisely protecting the religious non-profit status of both Macedonia Church and Beth Shir Shalom, Pastor Scott did not respond specifically to those protestations. I guess he left that to me.

Donald J. Trump is my President-elect, not because I agree with anything that he has thus far proclaimed to be his intentions for the policies and direction of this country, the often hateful and offensive ways in which he has said them and the values they represent, but rather because: Dina de-malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law. The transition between Barack Obama’s administration and the incoming one will be peaceful, as all the previous transitions in this country have been. But I am not at peace with it. I say dina de-malchuta dina not in a defeatist sense. Personally, I’m not defeated. I can’t afford to be; we can’t afford to be defeated. There’s no time for it. It’s a waste of our energy.

Diaspora peoples are survivors. We have to be. We have no choice. For Jews, the possibility of returning to Israel is relatively recent in our history and only a minority of us have taken advantage of it. Like the ancient Jews of Babylonia, for the great majority of us, we have made a life in diaspora. Unlike our ancestors, we refer to the United States as our country. This country does not belong to the President. For the next few days, America does not belong to President Barack Obama; Barack Obama belongs to America. I do. We do. Being an African-American or Jewish-American is being a kind of an American, not the other way around. As African-Americans and Jewish-Americans our individual and mutual experiences in this country fuel us with a passion to ensure that those experiences, and our values, the values of embrace, inclusiveness, justice, fairness, kindness, equity, and peace, are prioritized as our duly-elected representatives, make their decisions and take their actions.

Dr. King and his dear friend, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, were kindred spirits. They expressed themselves in similar ways, ways that articulate some of what our communities have in common. In the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King wrote: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: ‘My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.’”

Dr. Heschel said: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Neither Dr. King nor Dr. Heschel thought of prayer in a passive way. Dr. King prayed: “…We thank thee for thy Church, founded upon thy Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon Thee.”

And Dr. Heschel said: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

Today, for the next four years and beyond let us pray and let us walk together!


It’s hard not to notice that Chanukah and Christmas occur simultaneously this year! Some are calling it Chrismakah. Fun, but the symbolic possibilities are much richer than that. The holiday of Chanukah and the holy day of Christmas both have their roots in the winter solstice, each spiritual community cajoling its participants to incorporate that beautiful pagan practice into something specific to each religion’s perspective. Both Christmas and Chanukah are festivals of light.

In Jewish tradition, there is a morning prayer that welcomes the light of each new day. It has many glorious images and wonderful poetic phrases. For me, the most wonderful of these phrases is that which celebrates the Oneness-of-All for the “lights of light”. We often hear a similar phrase, referring to God as the “Light of lights”, that God is the ultimate “light.” “Lights of light”, on the other hand, emphasizes and expresses awe and wonder at the many lights that “Light” creates. Jews create light. Christians create light. Muslims create light. Hindus create light. Buddhists create light. Sikhs create light. All spiritual paths, whether they are of a group or individuals, create light.

The coming together of Chanukah and Christmas creates a symbolic opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us not to merge these lights but rather to recognize and celebrate them for their uniquenesses and for the greater light they create when their individualities stand together, not melded, but honored for their differences. Most importantly, if we only create this greater light only during this “season”, we’re missing the point. We need to do it every day and always.

Today and tomorrow we need each other’s respect. Today and tomorrow we need each other’s love. Today, tomorrow and every day we need each other’s light.

[I’ve attached my song “Two Candles” written with Larry Steelman. Larry’s playing keyboard and the additional vocals are from Lisa Sharlin. Enjoy]