Mr. President, Journalists Are Our Allies, Not Our Enemies

(Originally published by Forward.com).  forward.com/opinion/364008/mister-president-journalists-are-our-allies-not-our-enemies

Long before I thought of entering the rabbinate, I dreamed of becoming a journalist.

I served as a reporter on my high school newspaper, and when I was in 11th grade, the local school board threatened to close our high school. I remember my heart pounding when I had to pick up the phone to call a member of the board for an interview. I remember how powerful it felt to ask her to explain to me and my fellow students why she supported closing the school we loved.

I spent five weeks that summer at Northwestern University’s National High School Institute’s journalism workshop, where my teachers pounded into our heads the importance of fair, objective, honest reporting:  “If your mother says she loves you,” they urged us, “check it out!”

In America, the freedom of the press emerged to facilitate opportunities for individuals to challenge the government. Most of the early newspapers in the American colonies were partisan outlets for speaking out against the British monarchy. As America grew, political parties owned most newspapers, which promoted the party’s platform and ridiculed the opposition.

But by the turn of the 20th Century, with advances in technology and the advent of the Progressive Era, publishers realized they could profit from advertising and expand their subscriber base by becoming independent of the political parties.

Journalists began to report on the major issues of the day, shedding light on societal ills. Upton Sinclair exposed the horrendous conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing plants. Murrey Marder of the Washington Post stood up to Joseph McCarthy, disproving accusations by the red-baiting Senator that soldiers at Fort Monmouth engaged in espionage. Woodward and Bernstein, of course, revealed the Nixon administration’s corruption.

At times, newspapers and television have also abused the public’s trust, by libeling individuals, exposing salacious details of celebrities’ private lives, and reporting half-truths. I subscribed to Newsweek while living in Jerusalem during the late 1980s, and wondered how the magazine’s stories could be believed when the Israel I experienced every day was so different from what they told their readers. I have personally felt the sting of being misquoted by reporters.

But the repeated attacks on the media by the President of the United States are dangerous, and represents an attack on America itself. His recent statement that the mainstream news media is the enemy of the American people recalls the attacks on independent journalism by despotic totalitarian regimes. As Amanda Erickson of the Washington Post chronicled, dictators from Lenin and Stalin, to Hitler and Mao, used the moniker “enemy of the people” to persecute their political enemies, especially those who dared to challenge the ideology and rule of the State.

Journalists are often tasked with telling difficult, uncomfortable truths, whether it was Seymour Hersh detailing the My-Lai massacre, or The Spotlight team at the Boston Globe uncovering the sexual abuse perpetrated by local Catholic priests. The stories reporters tell may anger us or confound us with disbelief. We may fundamentally disagree with a journalist’s analysis or conclusions, and we may take great issue with what we read on the editorial pages of national and local newspapers.

But there is great value in being forced to consider that which runs counter to what we think we know. The rabbis of the Talmud teach us that debate and argument can be great forces for good: “Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure (Avot 5:20).” The hallmark of a great society is one that embraces dialogue and difference, one that promotes a robust exchange of ideas and that demands strong thinking grounded in verifiable fact and powerful, sensitive, thoughtful analysis.

Part of the reason I decided to become a rabbi was due to my love for journalism. Journalists learn and teach and strive to help their readers to be better informed and more responsible citizens. It is that same passion for learning and teaching and helping to expand the wisdom and understanding of my community that led me to the rabbinate.

Mister President, the news media is the ally of the American people, not its enemy. It is only through dogged reporting and persistent questioning that the American people can hold accountable those in positions of power. It is what truly makes America great.

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A Thought For Inauguration Day

This week, we begin to read the book of Exodus. When I began to study Torah many years ago, this was the first passage my teacher explored with me.

The first verse of Exodus begins: “These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…” It’s strange that the passage refers to both Israel and Jacob – they are two names for the same person. So why use both names? Why do we need to know that both Israel and Jacob went to Egypt?

Jacob is the twin son of Isaac and Rebecca, named Ya’akov because he was born holding onto his brother Esau’s heel. In some ways, Jacob’s name Ya’akov defines who he is: a heel-grabber. Over the course of his life, Jacob grows from a young man sheltered in his tent, unsure of himself or who he ought to be, to become a shrewd and proud man who realizes he has to confront his demons to become what God needs him to be.

In the course of that journey, Jacob comes to realize what are the most important morals and principles for which he will live and fight. Pitted in a wrestling match with God and himself, Jacob refuses to back down from what he knows is his life’s mission, and from who he knows he must become. And so Jacob becomes Israel – one who wrestles with God.

Ultimately, Jacob and Israel are one and the same. Each name represents a different aspect of our selves and our spirit. At once he is growing and grounded, changing and steadfast. He is constantly learning who he needs to be; in a process of self-discovery he uncovers the man he always knew he was.  

And when one is descending into a narrow and complicated place like Egypt, one needs to bring both sides of one’s self. We need to bring our Jacob side, that shrewd and savvy self, one that knows how to work the system and how to get things done. And at the same time we have to bring our Israel side, that passionate moral self who will never waver from what we know to be truly right and good.

Our nation needs Jacobs and Israels. We need voices that tell us we have to be cautious and shrewd in our dealings with other nations. We need voices that tell us to see the world as it really is, and not only as we wish it would be. We need voices that tell us not to be naive, to be wary and careful in a world that is often dangerous and where people cannot always be trusted. We need voices that tell us to look after our own best interests, to insist that we take responsibility for ourselves, and that each of us contribute only what is fair, and never to take more than we need.

At the same time, we need voices that call for utopian optimism and that dream of a higher and holier reality than the one we inhabit. We need voices that demand we envision a world that is both just and compassionate. We need voices that tell us to reach deep within to the wellsprings of our own humanity and to raise up the humanity that lies in those we don’t know or fully understand. We need voices that tell us that the measure of a person is not found in their race or ethnicity or gender or sexual-orientation, but in the holiness of their spirit and the content of their character.

What we need, if America is to realize its promise and its potential, is to turn the cacophony of selfish voices that listen only to themselves into a chorus that listens to each other, blending those disparate voices into one harmonious whole. We need to leaders who take more seriously their oath to serve the whole complex array of the American people than their promise to defend their party’s narrow interests. We need to appreciate that sometimes the truths we need to learn are to be found in the voices of those who disagree with us, but at the same time never to lose our own voice when we need to speak the moral truths we know.

Ours is a tradition that values life and love, knowledge and wisdom, justice and compassion, freedom and peace. We are a people that have always championed the plight of the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy. We believe that we must take responsibility for our actions and to strive each day to be one rung higher on that infinite ladder of Jacob’s dream that reaches from our world to heaven. May all who are invested with the privilege and responsibility of leading this great nation train their focus on those values and never turn away to the right or to the left. May they be blessed with wisdom and insight to employ their power with decency, with integrity, with courage, and with compassion. May all of us as citizens support those leaders when they lead us on paths that secure life and health and dignity for those that dwell in our nation and across the globe. 

And may we all, with humility and respect, never shy away from raising our voices when those leaders lose their way, when they turn their gaze from those ultimate values in favor of short term advantage, or when they fail to consider the depth and breadth of how their decisions will affect the most vulnerable in our society and our world.

But mostly, may we all learn to bridge that which separates us from one another, to heal the fractures that have broken across our nation and our world. Let us push ourselves out of our comfort zones to reach across the divide to grasp the hand of the other, that we may become one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

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Faith – Israel’s Future

(My deepest appreciation goes to Micah Goodman who shared with me this paradigm for thinking about Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute – July 2016).

In April of 1903, a Ukranian boy was found killed in the town of Dubossary.  Soon after, a Ukranian girl committed suicide by poisoning herself and died in a Jewish hospital.  The anti-Semitic newspaper Bessarabetz linked their deaths to the infamous blood-libel, claiming the children were killed so that their blood could be used to produce Passover Matzah.

At the urging of the Russian Orthodox priests on Easter Sunday, a mob poured out of the churches in Kishinev and over two days attacked the Jewish community with a viciousness that cannot be described.  Dozens of people, including infant children, were hideously murdered.  Dozens more women were gang raped and hundreds of houses destroyed.

The Hebrew poet Chaim Nahman Bialik was asked to visit Kishinev not long after and instead of submitting a report on the pogrom, he instead composed a poem called “The City of Slaughter.”  But Bialik’s reaction was not what one would typically expect. Instead of saying that the victims died in the sanctification of God’s name, he instead claims that their lives were taken in vain.  Bialik rails against the Jews for what he saw as their cowering passivity, their refusal to stand and fight.

Come, now, and I will bring you to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering — the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!

A young journalist named Vladimir Jabotinsky translated Bialik’s poem into Russian and from that inspiration became one of the most influential Zionist voices leading to the creation of the State of Israel.

Jabotinsky was born in 1880 in Odessa, which at the time was one of the most sophisticated centers of Jewish life in Europe.  As Zionist scholar Arthur Hertzberg explains, Jabotinsky “was raised much more on Russian than on Jewish culture.”[1]  At the age of 18, he skipped his last year of high school to become a foreign correspondent for one of the Odessa newspapers.  After a few months in Bern, he made his way to Rome, where he spent three years studying in the University.  He became a skilled orator and a talented writer, and he balanced both talents in his journalism career and his support for the growing Zionist movement.  Eventually Jabotinsky learned to speak eleven languages and could write in seven.

For Jabotinsky, Zionism represented the resuscitation of the Maccabees, the reclamation of the Jewish people’s ability to defend themselves.  The creation of a Jewish state, he thought, was necessary for the very survival of the Jewish people.  During World War I, Jabotinsky foresaw that the Ottoman Empire would collapse, and so single-handedly pushed the British to allow the creation of three Jewish battalions, where he himself enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of lieutenant.  Following the war and the periodic Arab riots and revolts of the 1920s, Jabotinsky lobbied for a rapid mass immigration of Jews to Palestine, a position rejected by Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist elite.

There was another young journalist named Theodor Herzl who built a very different vision of Zionism.  Twenty years older than Jabotinsky, Herzl was a young foreign correspondent who had also been raised in an assimilated household.  He was assigned to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military, who was framed on charges of treason.  Covering the trial, Herzl was astounded when he heard cries of protesters outside the courthouse chanting, “Death to the Jews!  Death to the Jews!”  Despite all the claims of the enlightenment, Herzl had an epiphany that Europe would never accept the Jews.  He believed that if the Jews could actualize their dream of a homeland, and become a “normal” nation among the family of nations, then anti-Semitism would disappear.

Herzl wrote a book called Altneuland, meaning “Old-New Land”.  The book begins with the main characters, Friedrich Lowenberg, a young intellectual from Vienna, and his friend Kingscourt, who tired from European bourgeois decadence, and decide in 1903 to retire to the Cook islands in the South Pacific.  On their way, they stop in Jaffa, and find Palestine a pathetic, destitute, and backward land.  Twenty years later, on their way back to Europe, they stop again in Jaffa and find a thriving utopia.  The land is filled with technologically advanced industries, a booming economy and a growing, diverse population.  The Arabs enjoy equal rights with Jews, and people from all over the world live together in a free, sophisticated, harmonious society.

Building this utopian Jewish society, in Herzl’s imagination, would erase anti-Semitism.  The Arabs and the Jews live together in harmony because the Jews brought them a prosperity they never imagined they would enjoy.  As my teacher this summer Micah Goodman explained, in Herzl’s mind the Jews will want Zionism because it will allow them to leave Europe.  The Arabs will want Zionism because it will bring them the richness of Europe.

Herzl died on July 3, 1904.  Jabotinsky died on August 4, 1940.  Neither lived to see the birth of the State they both worked so hard to create.  But each of their voices continue to echo throughout the land.

Tal Becker is the principal deputy legal adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team, including in the last round of talks mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. I had the privilege of studying with him during my weeks at the Hartman Institute this summer.  He explains that Israel sits in a Middle East today that can be divided into four groups:

  • There is a growing Shia Crescent, led by Iran and includes Hizbullah, Iraq, Lebanon, Assad, and now has a partner in Russia.
  • There are the Global Jihadists – the Sunni extremists like ISIS and Al Qaeda, each of which hates the other but both believe in an anti-Shia global agenda.
  • There are the Political Islamists, which include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and their sponsors in Qatar, which have a nationalist character to their ideologies
  • Then there are the Old Guard Sunni countries which have not yet fallen – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, who spend their time shoring up their own defenses against the threats they perceive from each of the first three groups.

Israel, he says, is essentially a Jewish old guard sunni country.  Looking around at the violent chaos and convulsions in the Sunni / Shia Islamist struggles, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, Israel’s senior objective seems to be to do whatever is necessary to prevent the rise of extremists from within and on Israel’s doorstep.

This is the echo of Jabotinsky.  Jabotinsky believed that the key to the saving the Jewish people was to build an army that would make us strong.  He believed that Zionism was about restoring Jewish honor and pride by promoting self-sufficiency and an ability to defend ourselves.  As Micah Goodman taught us, Jabotinsky believed in Isaiah’s vision of a world where the wolf would dwell with the lamb, but he believed it’s far better if you are the wolf.

But Becker asks a fundamental question: if your agenda is only prevention, is that enough to inspire people to send their children to the army?  Don’t we need a more expansive vision of what Israel should be than simply the largest Jewish ghetto in history?

This is the vision of Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.  Raised in a religious Zionist home, during her time in the army, Tamar came to appreciate the books that could be found on a different bookshelf in a Jewish home.  While studying philosophy at Hebrew University, reading the works of the great thinkers Buber, Rosenzweig and Heschel, she pondered the fact that the great voices of Jewish thinking were all dead and gone.  It was at that time that Tamar told her teacher Professor Eliezer Schweid:  “I want you to know that I am dedicating my life to the renaissance of the Jewish community in Israel.”  Tamar studied for the rabbinate with the Masorti movement, the parallel to the conservative movement in Israel, and after a short stint as an associate rabbi in Westchester, New York, returned to Jerusalem to create Tzion: A Native Israeli Community.

Tamar speaks with a prophetic voice that is riveting and inspiring.  She shared with us this summer that her deepest pain is to see an Israel that focuses solely on its survival.  Like Herzl, she laments that “what should have been the habitat for the renewal of the Jewish soul is a place focused solely on survival.”  She implored us to re-read the words of the great Israeli statesman Ahad Ha-Am, who warned that if we save the Jewish body without saving the Jewish soul, we will create the scariest Jewish ghetto in history.”  Israel, she says, must be a body that is strong enough to survive with a soul that is still hopeful enough to dream.  Israel, she says, is a test for Jews and Judaism.  “A Jewish national project with … no imagination or dream will result in our children turning their back on this project.”

I spent the better part of two months in Israel this summer, two weeks touring with members of our congregation and four weeks in study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  And throughout my time in nearly every conversation I could feel the tension and the pull of the dreamers and the skeptics, the descendants of Herzl and the descendants of Jabotinsky.

On the one hand, I found a state of Israel at its most cynical.  The government negotiated a plan to build an egalitarian section of the Western Wall that would be open to all who wanted to pray in Judaism’s holiest site free from the restrictions of the Haredi rabbinate, only to see the administration renounce the deal they had negotiated because of pressure from the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox.  I saw so many friends I admire shrug their shoulders in despair as they lamented the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in his 11th year of a five-year term as President of the Palestinian Authority, will not negotiate a peace agreement, and even if he would, has no power or ability to deliver it.  I saw an Israel that seeks to understand how 19 families control 60% of its wealth, how the small minority of ultra-orthodox dictate the religious lives of the larger Jewish majority, and who struggle to imagine a future in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood.

There is a painful irony in Israel today.  Goodman explains that 70% of Israelis think that we have to leave the West Bank because the occupation not only threatens Israel’s future demographically but morally as well.  And 70% of Israelis think we cannot possibly give up the West Bank because that will return Israel to indefensible borders and will invite the horror and chaos of the Middle East into the heart of the State.

But just when we feel overcome with a sense of despair, we can be inspired by what Herzl and Jabotinsky and all my teachers at Hartman share as their primary value – Emunah – faith.  They believe in the future of the Jewish people.  They believe that in strengthening Israel’s body, we can redeem Israel’s spirit. They believe that as Tamar taught me, Emunah will be the spiritual training system that will empower us to rebel against the natural stress of survival to find meaning and reason to survive.

And here is where I found that faith come alive. Last summer I visited the City of Lod, which lies adjacent to Ben Gurion airport and was once an Arab city whose Arab population was mostly expelled during Israel’s war for independence.  Today, Lod is a mixed city of Israeli Arabs, working class new Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and a growing number of religious Jews.

There is a community center in a depressed area of town, adjacent to a rutted field and the ruins of an 19th century inn.  The community center is run by two women, a Muslim woman Faten and a Jewish woman Yafit, who despite all that divides them, have built a close friendship. In the roughest section of the city, they have not only built a model of coexistence, but of collaboration and integration. “We don’t agree on most things,” Faten said, “but I’m not going anywhere and neither is she.  So we have to deal with each other, we have to know each other, we have to figure out how to understand each other so we can live together in peace.”

It is the same faith in the future for Israel we find in Faten and Yafit that I also found in my extraordinary teachers at Hartman this summer. It is the same faith that drove Herzl and Jabotinsky in years gone by, and is the faith that will sustain Israel in these turbulent and difficult times. It is a faith that despite all the obstacles we face, we are strong and resolute, idealistic and hopeful.  We still believe we can plant in that rocky and arid soil a sapling of hope that will sink deep roots and grow tall and strong, a living and vibrant Tree of life that will not only blossom with the wisdom of Torah and tradition, but provide shade for all who seek to sit together in peace.  Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – as Herzl said, If you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea. New York: JPS, 1959, p. 557.

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Tell The Truth

In second grade, Mrs. Greene brought our class to the All-purpose room at Farmland Elementary to stand around an enormous map of the United States.  She was trying to teach us about directions.  So she asked, “Who here was born in a state in the eastern part of the United States?” Since most of us were born in Maryland, a lot of hands went up.  She called on one girl who said: “New York!” so she said, “Good, go stand on New York – you are going to be Miss East!”

“OK,” she said, “Who was born in a state in the South?” A few kids raised their hands, and she called on one boy who said, “Texas!” and she said, “Good, go stand on Texas – you are going to Mr. South!”

I was starting to feel bored and a little left out. So when finally, Mrs. Greene asked, “Ok, who was born in a state in the North?” I raised my hand.  “What state were you born in?”

“Montana!” I shouted.  Mrs. Greene said, “Great Danny! Go stand on Montana – you are going to be Mr. North.

I have to admit, it was a lot more fun to be Mr. North for the morning than to be a regular old nobody from Maryland.  That is, until later that night.

“Daniel Edward!” my mother called.  I knew I was in trouble because she used my middle name. “Why did you tell Mrs. Greene that you were born in Montana today?”  “What do you mean?” I stammered.

“Well,” my mother said, “I just got a call from Mrs. Paul, who told me that your friend Sarah came home from school and said you told your class you were born in Montana.  She wanted to know when we lived in Montana.  Danny, you lied.  That’s terrible.”

I don’t remember much else, except that I had to go to school the next day and apologize to Mrs. Greene for lying to her about Montana.

Lies, deceit, and dishonesty seem to have become a hallmark of our society and our world today.  Sissela Bok in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life remarks that in the 1950s, most people had faith in our leaders, institutions, and each other. In 1960, “many Americans were genuinely astonished to learn that President Eisenhower had lied when asked about the U-2 … spy plane [that] had been forced down in the Soviet Union.” But only 15 years later, in the aftermath of the War in Vietnam and Watergate, nearly 70 percent of people surveyed said that “over the last ten years, this country’s leaders have consistently lied to the people.”[1]  According to the Pew Research Center, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).[2]  This decline in confidence spreads to our feelings about medicine, the heads of major companies, the justice system and the media.  Fact checking has become a natural part of the national debate, and we hardly bat an eye when Politifact labels a lie worthy of their “pants on fire” rating.

But the practice of deception and the degeneration of public trust literally has the power to destroy our society. Bok asks us to “imagine a society … where word and gesture could never be counted on. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged – all would be worthless … this is why some level of truthfulness has always been seen as essential to human society, no matter how deficient the observance of other moral principles.”[3]

Honesty is found in the very core of our moral tradition. In the Ten Commandments alone, two different admonitions focus on veracity – the commandment that we should not invoke God’s name for a false or vain purpose, and the commandment that we shall not offer false testimony against each other. (Exodus 20:6 and Exodus 20:12).  The Psalms teach us that “he who deals deceitfully shall not live in my house; he who speaks untruth shall not stand before my eyes. (Ps. 101:7)”

We are taught from the youngest of ages that we must always tell the truth.  Our system of justice depends on the idea that every witness tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  Trust is a social good to be protected as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink.[4]

So then why do we all lie so much?  If it is so plainly obvious that the core of our morality is embedded in integrity, honesty, and truthfulness, why is it that people lie and deceive with such terrible frequency?

Sometimes it’s actually okay for us to lie.  A friend asks you for your opinion on their new haircut – “you look marvelous!”  The Talmud permits us to lie in order to cultivate modesty or to protect someone from embarrassment.  Hillel tells us that we must always compliment the beauty of a bride, even if we personally don’t find her beautiful.  In cases of personal danger, we are sometimes even obligated to lie.  When Abraham and Sarah make their way to Egypt, Abraham says to her: “When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘this is his wife’; and they will kill me, but keep you alive. So please, say you are my sister that it may go well with me for your sake… (Genesis 12:12-13).”  When Pharaoh orders the murder of male infants, the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah lie to Pharaoh to protect the mothers and sons of the Israelites, and the Torah tells us they were greatly blessed with goodness (Exodus 1:15-20)

But mostly Jewish tradition represents a passionate exhortation for truth.  Integrity and honesty are prized virtues.  There is even a tradition in the Talmud that when Rabbi Abaye would buy meat from partners, he would pay each partner separately, and settle up later, so that neither partner would think that he left without paying.[5]

But despite the fact that honesty is rooted in our moral core, dishonesty is pervasive throughout our society.  A survey conducted by Accenture found that nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults approved of overstating the value of claims to insurance companies.[6]  75 percent of college students report having cheated at least once during their college careers. Scores of dishonest mortgage brokers deceived millions of Americans into buying homes they never could afford, setting up the financial collapse that created the Great Recession, causing untold pain and heartache for millions of people. And don’t even get started with the political campaign, where even the candidates tell you to check the fact-checkers.

So why do people lie and cheat?  The classic economic theory teaches that each of us are inherently selfish human beings, interested only in how to maximize our economic self-interest.  The decision to be dishonest depends on how we balance the expected benefits, like getting money, increasing business, or professional advancement, and the expected cost, like paying a fine, losing a job, or going to jail. According to this perspective, people think of three things as they pass a convenience store: how much cash could I get from robbing the place, what’s the probability of getting arrested, and the magnitude of the consequences if I am caught.[7]

But there is also an internal mechanism that governs our decisions. Psychologists show that people internalize the norms and values of their society. If it’s a general moral expectation to be honest, then when we do things that are honest, which matching up with society’s values, our internal system provides a positive reward – you did good.  Brain imaging studies show that the same reward centers in the brain are stimulated from doing what society teaches are good social acts with other pleasure stimuli like eating chocolate.[8]

Like most people, we like to think of ourselves as honest. Most of us have some sense of our own morality and we want to maintain our perception of ourselves as good, moral, and honest people. For example, let’s suppose we’re at a restaurant and when the bill comes, we see that the waiter forgot to charge us for one of the entrees. We can save a few dollars by paying the bill as is, or we can tell the waiter to add the forgotten item. If we don’t pay, then our actions won’t comply with our sense of honesty, and we will have to tell ourselves that we are dishonest, which is something that is naturally abhorrent.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from this conflict can sometimes be enough to regulate our behavior.

The space between the reality of the world as it is and the reality of the world as we wish it would be creates a psychological and spiritual pain – and just as your hand will automatically jerk back when it touches a hot stove, so will we do nearly anything to get out of that pain.

So we lie.  When I was a kid, the real life I lived was not the life I wanted to lead.  I wanted to be cool and accepted, so I made up stories that I thought would get other people to like me.  I couldn’t handle the fear of not succeeding at school, so I would lie and say I had finished my homework when I hadn’t opened the book.  Someone wants to believe he’s a good provider but isn’t making enough money to cover everything, so he lies and moves a little money around, always intending to pay it back.  Someone wants to believe she’s a good person but isn’t fulfilled in her marriage so she lies to her spouse and has an affair.

Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson call this dissonance reduction. A person gets addicted to drugs and convinces himself that he can handle it because he simply can’t admit to himself that he’s lost control. We hurt someone we love, but we can’t admit that.  We tell ourselves, “I’m a kind person; you’re telling me I hurt you?  You started this fight so you deserve whatever I did to you.”

The implications of these self-deceptions are immense, because they show how many problems arise not just from bad people who do bad things, but from good people who justify the bad things they do, in order to preserve their belief that they are good people.[9]

If we couple the natural instinct to protect ourselves from confronting painful realities with a world that is more and more dishonest then we find ourselves in a place that is incredibly dangerous.  If we have a society that tells us it’s acceptable to be dishonest, then we remove that internal moral mechanism that keeps our tendency toward dishonesty in check.  We begin to justify dishonesty as an acceptable means to achieve some greater end. My political campaign doesn’t need to be honest because it’s more important to win the election. We don’t have to tell the truth about a potentially fatal flaw in our copmany’s product because acknowledging it will cost us so much money we will have to let people go or lose the business altogether.

And it’s not just the lies we tell each other – it’s the lies we tell ourselves. If a person begins to feel tightness in her chest, a pain in the jaw and a tingling down the arm, and lies to herself and says, “Oh, it’s just a bit of indigestion,” that refusal to confront reality may ultimately be fatal.  If a young person starts to smoke cigarettes, and lies to himself that he can kick the habit any time he wants, that smoking really isn’t that bad, and hey, there are people who smoke every day who live until their 90’s, he may not pay the price right away.  It may wait until he’s in the middle part of his life, when his family is growing, he has kids who are depending on him, and a career that is just taking off when the doctor tells him he has cancer.  If we continue to deny the reality of climate change, and insist that the science isn’t conclusive, that human contribution to global warming is a hoax, and that we shouldn’t have to change how we live and power our world because, after all, the Chinese are the real culprits, then we may find that our grandchildren, who didn’t create this problem, will be forced to live in a world of ever more dangerous storms, desertification, drought, famine, and mass migration that will make the refugee crisis in Syria pale in comparison.

Eventually the slippery slope of deceit and dishonesty will rot the foundation of our society, and cause it to come crashing down around us, destroying everything we hold sacred, even our very lives.

As Sissela Bok writes, “trust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse.”  Society only works if we can have some degree of trust and faith that people will tell us the truth, and it’s not fair to expect others to tell us the truth if we are unwilling to tell the truth to ourselves.

Our society is not condemned to be destroyed by deceit.  As this holy day reminds us, our moral lives are founded on choice.  As Sissela Bok writes, “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity [and truth].”

If we really mean it when we say we’re tired of all the lying and cheating we see in our world, then we have to start with ourselves. Each of us can choose to build our lives on a foundation of integrity and honesty. We cannot confront the personal challenges we face in our individual lives and the awesome problems we face in our collective world if we cannot find within the moral courage to be honest with ourselves and each other.  It may make us feel better to deceive ourselves by finding stories and random facts to fit the theories we already believe about ourselves and the world, but what we really need is to have the courage to see our world as it really is, and to see ourselves as we really are.

But it’s more than that.  Just as my parents taught me in my teens, if we are honest with ourselves, we may begin to really know ourselves.  If we can summon the courage to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror, we may see reflected there a beauty we never saw, a wisdom we never understood, a strength we never knew.  And if instead of lying to each other we told each other the truth, we might be able to rebuild the bonds of trust that our indulgence with dishonesty has torn apart.

The words of Psalm 15 teach us: Adonai who may dwell in your house, who may abide in your holy mountain?  Those who are upright; who do justly; who speak the truth within their hearts. Who do not slander others, or wrong them, or bring shame upon them, who scorn the lawless but honor those who revere God; who give their word and come what may do not retract; who do not exploit others and who never take bribes. Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.

In this New Year 5777, if we truly want to live in a world that is more honest and secure, then we need to start, each one of us, by being honest with each other, and by being honest with ourselves.

[1] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1999, p. xxx.

[2] http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/public-trust-in-government-1958-2015

[3] Op. Cit. Bok, p. 18.

[4] Op Cit. Bok, p. 26.

[5] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86a

[6] “Dishonesty in Everyday Life and its Policy Implications” by Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, No. 06-3, January 2006, p. 2.

[7] “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance” by Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely. Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid., p. 5.

[9] “Why We Lie to Ourselves When We Make Mistakes” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Time, October 30, 2015.

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We Don’t Need A Superhero

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning

October 3, 2016 – 1 Tishri, 5777

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Daniel Levin

 

Over last spring break, my sister came to visit and my son suggested that we all go see a movie together.  “Let’s go see Batman vs. Superman!” he said.  And so we did.  In Imax.  In 3-D.

In the film, Superman is blamed for destroying Metropolis after his previous battle with General Zod. People are conflicted about whether Superman is a hero of hope or an alien threat.  Billionaire socialite Bruce Wayne, also known as Batman, sees Superman as a potential threat to humanity and becomes obsessed with him. He decides to build a Kryptonite weapon to use as a defense against Superman.

Meanwhile the evil Lex Luthor, who has manipulated Batman into his fight against Superman, kidnaps Superman’s mother Martha, and demands that Superman kill Batman or else.  In the midst of their epic struggle, when Batman has nearly overpowered Superman with his kryptonite weapon, they realize both of their mothers are named Martha and understand they are really on the same side.  Together, they fight to defeat Lex Luthor, who has fashioned a superpowered monster, but at the end, the monster is destroyed. Then, in its dying breath, the monster kills Superman … or does he???

In a spirit of shared suffering, I have related this story to you in this abbreviated fashion.  This movie stole 151 minutes of my life that I can’t get back.  I love my son, and it is because of that love that I have chosen this Rosh HaShanah to forgive him for bringing our family to see this film.

But I can’t really blame him.  The film grossed $166 million dollars in the opening weekend.  The fact is people love superheroes.  We always have.

Back in the 1930s, two creative Jewish high school friends, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began to invent a comic strip called Dr. Occult, a supernatural “ghost detective” who would battle vampires, ghosts, and sorcerers.  Soon, Dr. Occult was dressed in blue tights and a red cape and began to demonstrate supernatural powers.  They called their new character: Superman.

Arie Kaplan, who chronicles the group of Jews who created the comic book industry, notes that Siegel and Shuster created Superman as adolescents in the midst of the Great Depression and as Hitler was rising to power in Germany. “The Superman narrative is … rich in Jewish symbolism. He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, “All that is God”) from the planet Krypton, whose population of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons. In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports – the evacuation of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain. Angst-ridden adolescent fans, Jewish and not, shared Siegel and Shuster’s feelings of helplessness and yearned for a super-savior.”[1]

Comics scholar Peter Coogan defines a Superhero as “A heroic character with a universal, self-less, prosocial mission; who possesses superpowers – extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills… The superhero’s mission is to fight evil and protect the innocent.”[2]  As superheroes evolved, they came to hide their superhero identities with alter-ego personalities: Superman was mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, Batman was billionaire orphaned playboy Bruce Wayne.  The messianic overtones to the message seem clear – even the average person you would least suspect could potentially be the savior of the world.

And wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t it be great if we could be protected from all that we fear by some perfectly altruistic selfless superhero?  Wouldn’t it be great if someone with superpowers could rescue us from our scary, corrupt, and broken world and just fix it once and for all?

It’s something we’ve dreamed of forever.  When our people were enslaved in Egypt, there appeared from out of nowhere the perfect Jewish superhero – Moses.  It was as if he came in from outer space, wandering into Pharaoh’s palace as if he belonged there.  A savior.  He even appeared to have superpowers.  He could turn his staff into a snake, he could strike the waters of the Nile and turn the river into blood, he could hold his arm over the waters and caused the sea to part.

But as they journeyed through the wilderness the Israelites were taught that Moses was not a superhero.  Moses was not their God.  He was just like them, fully and profoundly human.

There is a midrash that talks about the moments before the revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Moses had returned to the mountain to get God’s instructions.  The midrash imagines that God had wanted to give the Torah right then and there, but Moses was in the way. “God thought: When I am revealed to them and say: ‘I am YHVH your God,’ they will ask, ‘Who is speaking? God or Moses?’ Let Moses, therefore, descend and then I will proclaim:  “I am YHVH your God.”[3]  God is afraid that the Israelites will think that Moses is God, but Moses isn’t God. He is simply one of them.

The Israelites in the wilderness are vulnerable and scared.  They feel powerless against all the threats they face to their survival. Stamped in their consciousness is one word – slave – a person who cannot make his own decisions, a person who cannot control her own destiny.  As slaves, their lives were in Pharaoh’s hands, for after all, Pharaoh was a God.  And so now they wonder if their lives are in Moses’ hands, and they wonder if Moses is their God.

The fact is in many ways we are those same Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  We also feel vulnerable and scared.  We worry that our destiny and our future is not under our control.

And so we look for superheroes.  We look for superheroes who will come and save us, superheroes who will protect us from evil, who will right the wrongs of our world and make us safe.

So often this is what we expect from our leaders.  We expect our president to be a superhero – who can come into office and instantaneously fix everything that’s wrong with America and the world.  We expect that the president can single-handedly make our adversaries stop hating us, lead us into battle and painlessly vanquish our enemies, restore us to prosperity, protect us from those who would seek to hurt us, and ensure that the injustices in our world and our country are made right.  We expect the president to be free of fault, to be of pristine morality, to live with altruistic integrity, to be constantly of good humor, agreeable, never given over to anger or frustration. We demand that our president be all-knowing, all-powerful, and clairvoyant.

We want our president, we expect our president, to be a superhero.  And in order for the president to be a superhero, then it only follows that whoever opposes the president must therefore be a villain – these days a supervillain.

If the superhero is the one who makes you feel safe, then the supervillain is the one who makes you feel afraid. Robin Rosenberg writes in her book What is a Superhero? that there are lots of different kinds of villains. A villain may be simply a straightforward criminal, or maybe a person who is out for revenge to hurt those who hurt him. A villain can be seemingly heroic, who, with a warped sense of altruism, employs evil means for what may seem a worthy goal, and sometimes a villain is a sadist, who takes grotesque pleasure in wreaking death and destruction.[4]

To be sure, there are supervillains in our world.  Want to see a supervillain in action – look to Bashar Assad in Syria, dropping barrel bombs on innocent civilians, attacking aid workers who seek only to help the humanitarian crisis, deploying chemical weapons on his own people.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdati is another supervillain. The founder of the Islamic State or ISIS, he employs gruesome and sadistic means to cultivate fear and effect control over portions of Iraq and Syria.  He twists the teachings of Islam to inspire others to commit hideous acts of terror and violence in ISIS’ name throughout the world.

The list of villains is long.  And in some ways they are winning.  Not because they tactically can do much damage to any of us, but because they have succeeded in making us afraid.

Terrorism works because it attacks people seemingly at random – a pizza restaurant, a dance club, a random street corner, with no immediate justification or rationale.  Terrorism succeeds when we recoil in fear at the prospect of doing what should be simply part of a normal day. As Daniel Gardner writes in his book The Science of Fear, “Terrorism is vivid, violent, unjust, and potentially catastrophic.  It presses all of [our] buttons.”[5]

Ironically, despite our growing fear of terrorism, the likelihood that any of us here today will be hurt in an act of terror is infinitesimally small.  The University of Maryland reports that in the twenty years from 1995 to 2014, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attack in the United States was 3264, the overwhelming majority killed on September 11, 2001.[6] The number of people killed in automobile accidents in the United States in the same period was 785,195.  In 2013 alone, almost 57,000 people died from the flu and pneumonia.  A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine reported that “Americans were more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), or a deer (one in two million).[7]

We must not be naïve.  Forces like ISIS are truly evil, and we must do all we can to vanquish that evil.  But we have a choice with what we do with our fear.

One option is to tell ourselves to be afraid.  We can, if we choose, succumb to the fear that a terrorist seeks to instill.  We can listen to those who would seek to be our leaders who tell us that we need to be afraid, afraid of our neighbors who practice Islam, afraid of refugees fleeing their war-torn country, afraid of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, or south Asia.  We can criticize and mock those who do not foment our fears as not sufficiently patriotic or as somehow in cahoots with our enemies.

Fear is natural and useful. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman explains, “fear instinctively causes us to go into defense mode, to shift our attention to our own needs, and protect ourselves from the real or supposed dangers that threaten us.”  Moral behavior, however, is based on the ability “to see others, their pain, their needs, and to respond.”  But then fear becomes dangerous: “At times,” he says, “fear does not merely shift our vision from the ‘other’ to ourselves, it also changes the way we see the other. Fear can lead to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to vilification, and vilification to denigration.”  Fear he says, can be like an infectious disease, depriving us of the ability to hope.  “Hope,” Hartman says, “cannot be constructed from the building blocks of fear. Its foundation must be the reaffirmation of our vision of both the world as we want it to be and ourselves as we ought to be.”[8]

We cannot conquer our fears by waiting for a superhero to tell us what we should fear and how he and he alone can make us safe.  That’s what villains do.  Villains do everything they can to make us afraid.  Like Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman, villains use lies and deception and half-truths to divide us from one another, to make us afraid of one another, and to seize power through that division and fear.

We do not need leaders who pretend to be superheroes.  The fact is there are no superheroes.  We don’t need leaders who pretend to be Pharaoh, who think they are gods, infallible and all-powerful.  What we need are leaders who bring us together to face our fears with courage and hope and faith. What we really need are people like you and me to refuse to be cowed by fear, to come together each and every day to do the right and good and loving thing, even when we are scared, even when we feel vulnerable, threatened, and weak.

This is the truth that Sebastian Junger uncovers in his book Tribe.  In this extraordinary little volume, Junger seeks to uncover why veterans returning from war have such a difficult time adjusting to civilian life in America today.  He explains that throughout the centuries and in a variety of different cultures, we learn that a healthy society is one in which people come together as a tribe, and take mutual responsibility for each other, working for the common good.

Junger writes that “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.  It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary…  To make matters worse,” he writes, “politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country – a charge so destructive … that most past societies would probably have punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness,” Junger writes, “and the veterans know this.”[9]

Junger explains that it is a platoon’s tribal bonds of love and sense of collective responsibility that is the source of its strength. “A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit group … back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”[10]

We don’t need superheroes to save us from our fears.  We need each other.  We need to know that we can rely on each other, that we can depend on each other. We need to be willing to sacrifice for each other, and in turn, trust that there will be others who will sacrifice for us.  We need to turn away from the politics of derision and division, to replace our own selfish cares and concerns with what is in our collective interest and the collective good.

Junger writes that “The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone…[11] But that isn’t the way it has to be.

In the year 5777, our nation and we as individuals face monumental choices.  What kind of a society do we want for ourselves, and what kind of leaders do we want to lead us?  But even more importantly, we must also ask ourselves what kind of citizens ought we to be, how will we face the challenges that lie ahead, and how will we confront all that rightly causes us anxiety and trepidation and fear?  In making those choices, let us choose not to give over to fear but instead to cultivate hope.  Let us choose to reject selfish care and concern and realize that our strength lies in how we choose to break down the barriers of division and fear.  In this New Year 5777, may the sounding of the shofar call us to embrace the truth our people has taught for centuries, the truth embedded in the motto of this great nation – E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, We shall be One.

[1] “How The Jews Created The Comic Book Industry,” by Arie Kaplan. Reform Judaism Magazine, Fall 2003, Vol. 32. No. 1.

[2] What Is A Superhero? Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 3-4.

[3] Exodus Rabbah 28:3

[4] Op. Cit. Rosenberg, pp. 107-111

[5] Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear. New York: Dutton 2008, pp. 282-283.

[6] https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_AmericanTerrorismDeaths_FactSheet_

Oct2015.pdf

[7] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-08-15/how-safe-are-we

[8] “Fear and Hope: The Core Emotions of our Moral DNA” by Donniel Hartman.  Delivered at the Shalom Hartman Institute July 10, 2016, Jerusalem, ISRAEL.

[9]  Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twleve, pp. 124-125.

[10] Ibid., p.93.

[11] Ibid, pp. 127-128.

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The Light Within

Sermon For Rosh HaShanah Evening

October 2, 2016 – 1 Tishri, 5777

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Dan Levin

 

There once was a man who visited a winery.  He had been told that it was perhaps the most beautiful winery in the world. As he drove in, he passed by breathtaking rows of grape vines in the vineyard, and then to the stunning winery.  As he drove in he was amazed to see the parking lot empty. The tasting room was exquisite – and yet also … empty.  The vintner greeted him and offered him a tour.  He showed him the vineyards, his pristine operation, and took him into the cellar, where he saw row after row of the most beautiful, finely crafted barrels he had ever seen.

They returned to the tasting room and the vintner thanked him for the visit and turned to leave.  “Aren’t we going to have a tasting?” asked the man.

“Oh, we don’t have any wine,” said the vintner.

“How is that possible?” asked the man.

“Well,” he said, “You see, I wanted to make the most beautiful winery in the world.  I wanted it to be perfectly magnificent, so I spent all my time and energy in building our welcome center, designing our interiors, and crafting our cellar and our barrels.  But I never learned how to make wine, so I have none to offer you.”

This little parable seems absurd.  Why go through the effort to build a winery if you have no intention of making wine?  We might agree that what the winery looks like from the outside isn’t really what’s important.

Rabbi Weisman, our resident wine expert, told me that one of his favorite wineries in Santa Barbara is called Carhartt.  The facility is unremarkable – it’s a shack really.  But the wine they have there is delicious – it’s one of his favorites.  The wine is made in an industrial facility – stainless steel, concrete, rubber hoses, not particularly attractive, but the vintner, whose name is Brooke Carhartt, doesn’t care.  Her interest is in making the best wine she possibly can, and she doesn’t spend much energy thinking about the beauty of the vessels that will carry it.

Wine has a long history of symbolic value in Jewish tradition.  The rabbis in the Talmud thought of wine as a symbol of wisdom.  In the Pirke Avot, we read:

Rabbi Yossi bar Yehuda of Kefar HaBavli said: To what shall we compare someone who learns wisdom from the young? To someone who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from his vat; and to what shall we compare someone who learns wisdom from the old? To someone who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.

But then, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi tells us something important:

Do not look at the flask, but at what it contains.  A new flask may contain old wine, but an old flask may not even contain new wine. (Avot 4:20)

To Rabbi Yehuda, it wasn’t the vessel that was important, but what it contained.  But is Rabbi Yossi wrong?  Can we ignore the vessel in which that wine matures?

Last spring, I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi and my 25th college reunion.  As I watch my children mature and make their way into their own lives, I am conscious of the fact that I am no longer a new flask.  My body doesn’t recover as quickly as it once did from the bumps and bruises of a normal game of soccer, and I find myself reaching for names and for words that get lost in the jumble of my mind.

And so, I am proud to share with you, that I actually fulfilled one of my New Year’s resolutions from last year: I started working out with a trainer – Joel. Joel is fantastic. He calls me “Mr. Dan Sir.”  He pushes me hard.  He is the only person in the course of a week who will say: “Come on Mr. Dan Sir, be a warrior!”  He has inspired me to take better care of my physical self, to eat better, to exercise more, and to get more fit and strong.

Krista Tippett, the well-known host of the NPR Radio program On Being, recently published a book titled Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into The Mystery and Art of Living. There she writes, “We are matter, kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone … I taste, touch, smell, see, and hear, and my mind entwines with my senses and experiences. I live and move and have my being … therein I become.”[1]

Watching the Olympic games this summer was like visiting a museum of the fine art of physical prowess.  It’s so inspiring to see these athletes perform at such a high level, to see how they have trained and honed their bodies to jump and twirl and run and swim higher and further and faster than anyone in the history of the world. But what’s so interesting is that all of these athletes will tell you how their performance is so much more than the physical act we see.  The grit and drive, concentration and determination to push oneself so far beyond the limits of what we imagine a person can do comes from a deeper place, a spiritual place, a place rooted deep within that drives us throughout the course of our lives to accomplish and to conquer all that we might aspire to achieve.

Too often, however, in our efforts to take ever better care of our bodies, we make fewer and fewer efforts to take care of our spirits.  We as a society have become obsessed with the vessel.  We spend an extraordinary amount of our time and our resources focused on building and maintaining our bodies.  We spend enormous amounts of money making sure we look right – hair, body, skin, clothing.  We kvetch constantly about how we look, obsessing over every pound we gain or lose, keeping up with the latest fashions and trends.

And without question, it’s important.  But at the same time we are out of balance.  We spend much more time and energy taking care of our bodies than we do in taking care of our spirituality.  There are times when it seems we are like vintners who are trying to build ever more beautiful wineries without focusing on the wine we make.

And the wine matters.  What lies within matters.  Our spirits and our souls require the same dedication and care as do the vessels that carry them.

But why do we neglect our spirits?  Why do we refuse to take time to nurture our spirituality?  Most of us take very little time to appreciate the arts, to learn wisdom, to be quiet and meditate and pray.  We as a people grow further and further away from font of spiritual wisdom and energy that flows from Jewish tradition and Jewish practice.  Many of us make it our priority to get to the gym a few days a week, but we come to services just a few times a year, and we take a class or come to Torah study … well almost never.

We are blessed beyond measure – not simply because we have these wondrous bodies that give us so much capacity to navigate and experience our world; not simply because we have minds that can comprehend and analyze and judge and remember; and not even simply that we are blessed with a spirit that can love and feel and yearn.  We are blessed because we have been given the gift of Torah – a gift that we, in our hubris and our arrogance, leave to collect dust tucked away on a bookshelf.

I want to take a moment to share with you a little Kabbalah – some wisdom from Jewish mystical tradition.  It may seem a little deep, but let’s go there together.  In the Zohar, the central book of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Shimon said, “Woe to the human being who says that the Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words!”[2]  The Zohar teaches that the Torah comes from a place deep within the Holy One, from the root of the source of love and energy in the Universe, and thus is too powerful and precious to be revealed in its pure essence.  To protect it, God covers it with garments, layers of protective corporeality so that it can exist for us in this world.

Think of a Torah scroll, like the ones we just saw in the ark moments ago.  Each is covered with an exquisite garment, carefully crafted and suited to the individual scroll that lies within.  But the garment, as beautiful as it is, is not the real Torah.  There is more to find underneath that garment.

Underneath we find the panels of parchment, carefully sewn together and attached to the wooden spools, the Atzei Chayim, the trees of life that hold it together.  But that is not the real Torah.  Laid upon that parchment are the droplets of ink, meticulously drawn into 304,805 individual letters.  Those letters represent yet another garment the Torah wears, the garment of human syntax and semantics, Hebrew, the holy language which captures those letters into 79,976 individual words.

Those words, like a bouquet of flowers, tell the stories of the five books of Moses.  But these stories too, are but another garment, another layer covering what lies beneath.

“Come and see,” says the Zohar.  “the essence of the garment is the body that lies beneath, and the essence of the body is the soul.”

The body of Torah, beneath the cover of stories and language, parchment, ink, and fabric, is the corpus of ideals, teachings, values and lessons, the commandments we are asked to follow.  But within the body of Torah is a soul – the essential meaning that is found at the core of human experience, the awe and wonder, our competing compulsion for justice and compassion, our drive for knowledge and wisdom.  And there, deep, deep within, is where we find that essential core of truth and love and holiness.

And this is true for each one of us.  Sitting here tonight each of us is covered with beautiful garments.  But beneath those garments is our body, more essential than the garments it wears.  And deep within is our soul, which truly makes us who we are.

I want you to think very carefully about yourself and think hard about who you really are.  As important is the vessel that carries us, the real essence of who we are is not the vessel.

Who are you?  In some sense, we are the physical beings seated together this evening.  We are men and women, tall and short, large and small, old and not so old. Some of us have dark skin and some have light skin.  Some of us have dark hair, some have light hair, some don’t have any hair at all.  But we are more than what we appear to be to each other.

Who are you?  In some sense we are our talents and our abilities, our professional acumens and our hobbies and skills.  We are teachers and nurses, lawyers and businesspeople, homemakers and breadwinners and students. We are athletes and card, knitters and crafts people, artists and musicians, talkers and readers.

Who are you? In some sense we are our ideas and our ideals, our thoughts and our opinions.  We are democrats and republicans, libertarians and socialists and independents. We are rugged individualists and we are community-oriented collectivists.  We value justice and fairness, compassion and kindness, knowledge and wisdom, freedom and peace.  We think we should be prudent and conservative, save for the future and plan for “what if…”  We scream “Carpe-Diem – seize the day!” and we explore our world and try new things.

Who are you?  In some sense we are our personalities and ourselves.  We are strong and we are soft.  We are loud and we are quiet.  We are extroverted and introverted.  And deeper still.  We are scared and we are confident.  We doubt and we have faith.  We have wounds and insecurities and fears.  We have scars where we have healed, and we have pride in what we believe.  We love, in some ways very deeply.  We regret, and we feel shame.  We yearn to be more whole, to be more secure, to be safe and serene.

Deep, deep, down.  In the essence of who we are.  When we peel away all the layers, all the garments that cover our truest selves … what do we find?  It’s simple.  We find beauty.  We find a radiant, glorious, holy and blessed light that is so beautiful to behold that it reduces us to tears.

We don’t often get to see that light.  It takes so much effort to dig down deep inside and really try to use our minds to explore our spiritual essence.  It takes enormous courage and faith and humanity to allow that light within us to be exposed to the world.  And it takes an investment of time and energy to look for the light that shines inside those we love, with whom we share life’s journey.

What would it look like if we could discover that inner being, and allow that light to shine in our outer selves? You know it when you see it – a person whose light is right there on the surface.

Years ago, a young man named Josh Marcus was Temple Beth El’s star Ba’al Tekiah – our shofar blower.  He was not much taller than the shofar, but from that small frame came a powerful sound.  As Josh grew older, he never got very tall, but he did get very strong.

One day, after his first semester of law school, Josh was out with his brother in the ocean on a jet ski. They were towing a raft when suddenly they hit a wave.  Josh fell into the water and felt a sharp pain in his left arm.  When he looked down to see what was wrong, he saw that his left arm was missing.  The rope from the raft had amputated his arm just below the shoulder.

His brother got him back to the jet ski and a nearby boat radioed in for help and they got Josh to the Trauma center.  I will never forget seeing Josh the next day in the ICU – he looked up at me, and with the same twinkle in his eye that I had seen when he was a little boy said, “Well Rabbi Dan, I’m going to be the best one-armed lawyer they have ever seen.”

Despite his catastrophic injury, Josh didn’t miss a day of law school.  From the love of family, friends, and community, he found an inner strength that far surpassed his muscular frame. He graduated law school, married Ms. Deborah Bogdanoff who grew up at Temple Beth El, and they just bought a home together a few minutes from here.

Josh’s accident may have diminished his body, but his spirit is stronger than ever.  To spend time with him is to see the light of his soul plastered all over his face.

When Moses returns from Mount Sinai, having spent so many hours in study with the Holy One, the book of Exodus relates that “Moses was not aware that his face was radiant from speaking with God.”  We too may find that if we invest ourselves in studying Torah, if we take the time to seek out the light that is found in our text and tradition, if we devote ourselves to building our spiritual core, we will build the inner strength we need to meet the challenges we face in our own lives, and we will find the wisdom and energy to make our spirits strong.

In the New Year, let us devote ourselves to exercising our spirituality in addition to our bodies.  Let us apply more of our time, our energy, and our resources to building our spirits and nurturing our souls.  Go to a concert, visit a museum, take time to sit and meditate and pray.  Make a resolution to keep Shabbat, to allow some time each week for sacred rest and quiet, prayer and meditation.  And take some time for Torah.  Hillel said, “Do not say I will study when I have leisure; you may never have that leisure.”  Make learning and study a priority – seek out the wisdom and energy of our sacred texts and tradition, for that wisdom, like good wine, will make this year a celebration of light and life.  L’Chayim.

[1] Krista Tippett. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. New York: Penguin, 2016, pp. 57-58.

[2] Zohar 3:152a

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The Mosaic of Unity

 

On June 12, 2014 three teenage boys were standing at a junction near their yeshiva in the Gush Etzion block, looking for a ride home.  They were abducted by men affiliated with Hamas, and for 18 days, the families of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel waited for news of their sons.

They were not alone.  While hundreds of soldiers combed the West Bank to find the boys, the entire Jewish world came together.  There was a sense that these three boys were our boys, that their families were our family.  And when their murdered bodies were found, their grief was our grief.

What was even more amazing was how these three families managed to find meaning in their loss.  They sought to capture the holy energy they felt from how the entire Jewish world came together for them.  They believed that the best way to honor the memory of their murdered sons was to see if that energy could be captured.  And so was created Jewish Unity Day.

For the second year in a row, the Jewish community of South Palm Beach County has pulled together our community to join with communities all over the world to consecrate the sense of unity we work so hard to create to the memories of Eyal, Gil-ad, and Naftali.  Under the leadership of Rabbi Josh Broide, the event this year drew nearly 2,000 people to embrace the idea that we can have “unity, not uniformity.”

I was blessed to be asked to share words on the theme of peace at this year’s event. Following are the words I shared with our community.

Feel the energy in this room – the energy that lives deep within us, that we share between us, that connects all together tonight to be one with each other here in our community, and that unites our people here with peoples everywhere, in lands close and distant, but that seem as near as the air we breathe.

In the midrash, we find a debate on high concerning whether the Holy One should create humanity.  Love said: “Let him be created, for he will perform acts of love.”  Truth said: “Let him not be created, for he is compounded of falsehood.”  Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds.”  Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.”  What did the Holy One do?  God took Truth and cast it to the ground. (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5)”

Centuries later, the Kotzker Rebbe asks: “What good would it do to only banish Truth, leaving Peace, which had also argued against the creation of humanity?”  The answer was that in banishing Truth, Peace could be ultimately be realized.

What never ceases to amaze me is the overwhelming diversity of life.  In just this small world of ours, we find a nearly unlimited explosion of life – from plants of every size, shape, color, and variety to the smallest insect to the largest of mammals.

And among us as human beings there seems an infinite number of ways in which we express ourselves, a limitless potential to create and refine new ideas, perspectives, or understandings.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) reminds us that when the Holy One created the world, God created swarms of fish, and ferrets, and falcons, but just one human being.  This was to teach us that whoever destroys a single human life is as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single human life it is as if she saved an entire world.

The horror of the world in which we live lies in how many worlds are destroyed in the name of some or other truth every single day. Two years ago, I was sitting at a Shabbat table of my dear friend Rabbi Nir Barkin in Modiin. His son Omri serves in an elite unit.  He had just come home that afternoon for Shabbat, but was packing his bag to return to the base, so that his unit could deploy to find Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha-er – all of blessed memory.  I remember as we sat together feeling like the glass of our Shabbat peace had been shattered. We all offered prayers for the safe return of Naftali, Eyal, and Gilad … and Omri too.

I think about how three holy worlds were destroyed. I cannot imagine the anguish of these three families to have these singular, precious, holy souls ripped so hideously from their arms and this world. I think of all they might have accomplished, all the love they would have shared, all the good they would have done, all the wisdom they would have learned, and then passed on to children and grandchildren that now will exist only in our imaginations.

We are taught that each of us is created in the image of the Holy One.  We each have implanted within us a piece of the Divine that animates us, captures us, and makes us individuals – unique, and special, and different. My teacher Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught me that the closer you get to a true paradox, the closer you get to the Holy One, for two things that are diametrically opposed can only both be true in the Oneness of God.  The paradox and challenge of Jewish life is to simultaneously celebrate what makes each of us precious, unique, and holy while we also embrace a covenantal responsibility to grow to be one.

Jewish life is a mosaic – made up of millions of individual stones of many different shapes, sizes, and colors. If a mosaic has just one color stone, it expresses nothing.  But when those different stones are set down by a thoughtful artist, the image they create together is divine. I thank God every day for the infinite beauty of the mosaic of life, and for the privilege of playing the smallest part in that grand design.

In a few short days on Shavuot, we will gather in our homes and our shuls and together return to Sinai.  It was there at Mount Sinai that every Israelite – every single, different, precious, special, unique, and holy Israelite – came together to be one with each other.  For it is only when we are one with each other that we can be truly one with the Holy One. And it is only when we are truly one with each other that real peace will descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom, Aleinu V’Al Kol Yisrael V’Imru, Amen.  May the One who makes peace in the high heavens, grant peace to us, to all Israel, and to all the world.

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