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What Are We Building?

In 2014, the Pew center found that 55 percent of Americans say that they pray every day.  That’s good.  I find myself praying a lot recently too.

But prayer can mean different things.  In Jewish tradition, prayer is not only a petitional exercise, asking God for the things we cannot deliver for ourselves.  Prayer is also a values-clarification exercise, a reminder of what really matters and what doesn’t.

In chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus, each of us are enjoined to strive for holiness in our lives and together to create a holy society.  The commandments here demand of us not simply fastidiousness in our personal behavior, but also describes how we are to interact with each other.  In defining for us what constitutes holy behavior, they also define how we build a good society.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you must leave unharvested the edges of the field and you may not gather in the gleanings that fall to the ground as you reap.  They must be left for the poor and the stranger.

You shall not steal; neither shall you deal falsely or lie to one another.  You shall not swear falsely.

You shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob him; you shall not delay in paying the wages of a hired worker.

You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.  You shall not commit unrighteousness in judgment, neither favoring the poor or the mighty.

You shall not go around as a gossip or bearer of tales.  You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.  You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall offer rebuke.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself. (Lev. 19:9-34)

Essentially, a holy society is one where we care for the poor and the vulnerable.  A holy society is one where we tell each other the truth.  A holy society is one where we are fair and honest, and we do not abuse or take advantage of each other.  A holy society is one where we make it easier for those who have a difficult journey, and see all as equal before the law.

A holy society is one where we guard not simply each other’s physical security, but also our emotional well-being.  A holy society is one where the stranger is made to feel safe and secure.  A holy society is one where we open our hearts to each other, where we feel each other’s pain, and where we suffer when others are suffering.

Think about where we are as a society at the end of 2017.  How wide is the gap between the society we were asked to create and the society we have created for ourselves?  More importantly, as we think about the direction the leaders of our country want to take us, are their proposals leading us toward a holy society or will their proposals make that gap even wider?

These are not partisan questions.  To me these are questions of fundamental morality.  I want our country to be a holy society.  And I am blessed to witness extraordinary acts of holiness by members of our community every day.  Members of my community volunteer to help care for the homeless and feed the hungry and ease the way of the poor.  Members of my community rally to help children coming into adulthood from foster homes.  Members of my community run and march to help find cures to pernicious disease.  Members of my community work to build bonds of understanding and friendship with people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths.

But it is also important to demand that our national leaders ask themselves if each vote they take is helping to build our country into a holier society.  What are the foundational values and principles on which they are building their policies?

Do their proposals help the poor and the vulnerable?  Do they make it easier for the average person to get a quality education?  Do they make it easier for them to get care when they are sick?  Do they champion the humanity of the worker?  Do they make our society more fair and just, more caring and humane?

Do we, as a society, condone those who are not honest with us?  Are we ignoring the suffering of the Other?  Are we welcoming the stranger? Are we, as individuals, carrying hatred for each other in our hearts?

It is up to us to decide what kind of a society we want America to be. We must cultivate enough personal humility to admit where we fall short of our ideals, but we must also demand, of ourselves and of our leaders, that we do everything we can to build a society that is just, compassionate, and holy.

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Two Truths – Sermon For Yom Kippur 5778

In the Midrash, Rabbi Shimon said: When the Holy One was about to create humanity, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups.  Some of them said, “Create humanity!” while others urged, “Don’t create humanity.”

Love said, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love”; Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of lies”; 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 Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground.[1]

Centuries later, the great Hasidic sage Menachem Mendl of Kotzk – the Kotzker Rebbe – reflected on this teaching.  “Why did God only throw Truth down and not Peace as well, when Peace had also argued that humanity should not be created?”  So he answered: “The source of strife is that each person fights for his own truth.  But if one pushes Truth aside, there is no longer a cause to quarrel, there are no disputes, and no one to denounce Peace.”

Truth is a complicated thing.  Maybe the Kotzker Rebbe is right.  Battles over truth seem to fuel the conflicts that roil the globe. When we look at the great human conflicts in history, they often were not simply contests for land and treasure, but also conflicts of ideas and competing truths.  Fascism vs. democracy.  Communism versus capitalism.  Shiite versus Sunni, Catholic versus Protestant, orthodox versus Reform.  Right versus left.

More and more we see people retreating to their corners, refusing to work to compromise or even talk to people with whom they disagree.  We refuse to accept that the other side might actually have something to teach us.  We become so fixated on our vision of the truth, that not only do we refuse to accept that there is another truth, we demonize those who hold that different truth.  People who take positions opposite to the truth we know are either “useful idiots” or belong in a “basket of deplorables.”

The Psalms teach us that “Truth springs up from the earth (Psalm 85:12).” And sometimes it seems like truths grow like weeds. So perhaps the best things we can do is stop worrying so much about truth.  Maybe if we just stop spending so much time thinking and arguing about who was right and who was wrong, our world would be a much more peaceful place.

At the same time, imagine what would happen if we no longer were willing to fight for what we believe in?  With the dawning of the enlightenment in the 1700’s a new truth sprang forth from earth that changed the world: the idea that all people are created equal. This truth which rose up from the core of our texts and tradition is what gave birth to this nation.  The authors of this nation enshrined that truth in our founding documents, and posited the idea that Government should no longer be determined by the whims of a monarch, but instead government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

They were willing to stake their lives on those ideas.  Patrick Henry famously said: “Give me liberty or give me death!”  So convinced they were of the rightness of their ideas, they were willing to risk everything to advance their truths.

Similarly, after nearly two thousand years of living in exile from the land of Israel, at the end of the 19th century Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists realized that the Jewish people, like all peoples, had a right to live in peace, safety, and security in our own homeland.  Herzl worked himself into exhaustion fighting for this idea, a truth that had never been extinguished from the Jewish soul.  The proclamation: “Next year in Jerusalem” would no longer be a fantasy, but a reality.  “If you will it,” Herzl said, “then it is no dream.”

The struggle to realize that truth came to fruition just 70 years ago in the UN Partition plan which created the State of Israel, and is a truth thousands of our people have given their lives to secure.

But as committed as many are in fighting for the truth, the fact is that we, as human beings, have fundamental limitations on our ability to understand what is true. Gandhi once said: “What may appear as Truth to one person, will often appear as untruth to another person.”

We ought to fear anyone who claims with any certainty that they possess a monopoly on the truth. At the same time, to abandon a pursuit of the truth, or to shirk our responsibility to fight for what we know to be good and right can be a dangerous and grievous sin.

So what do we do?  I think the answer lies in a profound teaching from our tradition. There is a midrash which teaches that when God created humanity, God fashioned just one human creature, androgynous – male and female together. This first human being was created with two faces and no back.  But to create us as individuals, God sawed us in two – male and female, and suddenly each had a back.

The face is where we encounter and interact with the world. When we are little, our parents teach us – “look at me when I’m talking with you.”  When we want to disengage, we turn our faces away and turn our back to the world.[2]

From the beginning humanity was supposed to be able to look out at the world from all directions.  We had to learn to see in two directions at once, to see the world in 360 degrees, to embrace the full complexity and diversity of life.  We had to appreciate that there was more than one way of looking at a problem, more than one way of seeing the world.

As individuals and we have come to love our backs. We like to believe that there is only one right answer, only one right way, only one truth. And sometimes there is. But our lives are filled with contradictions.  What’s the right thing to do – take on additional responsibility at work or to spend more time at home with our children?  What’s the right thing to do – stretch for a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel and experience the world or to be more conservative and save for a rainy day?  What’s the right thing to do – try one more experimental treatment or let nature take its course?

Our world is filled with contradictions too.  There is a passionate debate going on in our country about the challenge of immigration.  How open should our society be to immigrants or to refugees? What should we do about individuals and families whose residence in America may not have been secured through the legal process?

For example, let’s suppose Hector comes from Honduras, where the menacing violence of the drug cartels make it impossible for his son to go to school without being forced to join a drug gang.  So he takes his son on summer break to visit cousins in America.  During his visit, he tells his family the horrors of everyday life in his home country.  So they encourage him to stay with them.  His cousin helps Hector get a job with his friend’s landscaping company, and his son starts going to school in the fall.  They thrive.  Hector and his cousin eventually start their own landscaping company which employs 20 people, he buys a house, his son becomes a straight-A student and applies to college.  They realize the America dream.

So the truth of the matter is this.  The rule of law is intrinsic to the essence of Judaism and is fundamental to a moral society.  In the midrash, the rabbis teach: “The whole Torah is dependent on the rule of law – that is why the Holy One gave a set of laws that follow the 10 commandments.”[3]  Judaism is about creating a moral and just society that is dependent on the rule of law.  In rendering judgment, the Torah teaches us not to show favor to the rich or the poor, but to adhere simply to the facts of the case and the law.  Hector, like millions of immigrants who did not follow the legal process, broke the law, and so he must be prepared to accept the consequences of his decision to break the law.

And the truth of the matter is this.  The admonition to love the stranger is intrinsic to the essence of Judaism and is fundamental to a moral society.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses commands us to: “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts, and don’t be so stiff-necked. For Adonai your God … upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.  You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).”  The command to care for the stranger recurs no less than 36 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment, and demands that we protect the stranger not simply from physical violence, but economic oppression and emotional harm.  As Jews who have wandered the globe for two thousand years, always the people who were “not from here” we know what it is to need safe haven and to have doors slammed in our face, to suffer expulsion, deportation, and xenophobic hatred.  We also know that our people has benefited from the American dream perhaps more than any immigrant community in our nation’s history – how can we not be moved with compassion by those who follow in our footsteps?

The truth of the matter is this:  there is more than one truth. It is right and fair and honest to say that the moral core of our tradition teaches two truths – that the rule of law must be venerated as a primary moral value, AND that our responsibility to protect the vulnerable and welcome the stranger is also a primary moral value.  When we cultivate the ability to hold two truths in tension, we can use the energy that tension generates to find a creative and moral solution.

Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is a day that demands Teshuva which means engaging a process of repentance and return.  But a return to what?  To whom?  Perhaps what we need to return to on this Yom Kippur is the core essence of who we were at the beginning of our human journey.  Perhaps we need to return to a time when we had no back, when we had two faces and could see more than one truth at a time.

Maybe instead of seeing only one truth, and turning our back on the other, perhaps we can open our hearts a little wider to see if we can find room for more than one truth – the truth we know and the truths others know.  Making room for more than one truth does not mean abandoning the truth you know.  But if we can hold more than one truth at a time, we may find that we learn a great deal from simply listening to both.

Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy teaches that in a world of competing truths, we need two things: chutzpah and humility.  “By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.  By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all – so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other’ as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction.”[4]

The fact is that none of us possesses the entire truth.  In the course of our lifetimes, with education and experience, we can learn to appreciate just a fraction.  We must begin to realize that the way to heal our broken society is not to destroy those whose truth is different from our own, but to expand our hearts to hold the tension of multiple truths. Ultimately, it is when we are willing to hold two different truths together, even contradictory truths, that is when we get closer to understanding the larger truth that only the Holy One possesses.

The Talmud teaches us that in ancient times there was a dispute between the two great academies of Hillel and Shammai that threatened to split the Jewish people itself.  One asserted, the law is in keeping with our view, and the other contended, the law is in keeping with our view.  Then the rabbis suggest something amazing: A voice from the Holy One called out from the heavens saying: “Elu V’Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim – these words and those words are the words of the living God.”[5]

We will begin to heal our fractured world when we can begin to see in the truth others hold an echo of the Holy One’s commanding voice.  Learning to see the world through two sets of eyes will teach us to see the world as God sees it.  Elu V’Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim – these words and those words are the words of the living God. Just as the psalms teach us that “Truth springs up from the earth (Psalm 85:12), so may we endeavor in our lives to cultivate in our world a garden where different truths may take root and grow and thrive.  In this New Year, may we gather from that garden a beautiful bouquet, a larger truth whose fragrance and sprit will inspire us to be more at one with God, and more at one with each other.

[1] Bereishit Rabba 8:5

[2] My deepest thanks to Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for sharing this insight in her webinar “On The Threshold of a New Year”.

[3] Nachmanides commentary to Exodus 21:1 in The Commentators Bible: Exodus edited by Michael Carasik.  Philadelphia: JPS, 2005 p. 168.

[4] Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 43.

[5] Talmud Babli – Eruvin 13b

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Fear and Vision – Sermon for Rosh HaShanah 5778

Two weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time doing what I suspect we all were doing – carefully watching the storm track for Hurricane Irma.  Every six hours, at 11 and 5, I would jump onto the internet to see where the latest computer models and storm track would put the infamous “cone”.  Irma was a Category Five monster aiming straight at Boca Raton.

I looked at pictures of the awful damage Irma had already wrought in the Caribbean, in St. Martin and Barbuda, where more than 90% of the structures were rendered uninhabitable.  I heard friends and neighbors retelling stories of Hurricane Andrew, and I remember the awful destruction that storm brought to Homestead.  And I got this feeling.  It was a sinking feeling in my gut, my heart quickening and filling with butterflies. “What is this feeling?” I asked myself.  Was it nervousness, anxiety … and then I knew.  It was fear.

I remember another time I had that same feeling.  It was a number of years ago, and I had felt a lump in my leg – a soreness and bruise that wouldn’t go away.  I went to the doctor and he seemed concerned. “Let’s get some pictures of this,” he said.  So we got an X-Ray, and he called me a couple of days later.  “There’s something there, but we don’t know what it is. I want you to have an MRI.”  I felt that same chill wash over me – the butterflies rose up, and I could feel the color drain from my face.  I had the scan and then as I waited three days for the results, I remember that same feeling of dread and fear. “What if this is something serious?  What could it be?  How will I handle this?  What will it mean for my wife, my children, for you – my congregation?”  I did my best to keep walking, going about my normal business even with my heart in my throat.  And then the call.  “Don’t worry.  It’s nothing.”

Fear is an unwelcome and painful companion on our journey of life.  We naturally assume that life is supposed to be full and free, joyous and tranquil.  And then something happens and all that we assumed would be is suddenly in thrown into jeopardy. We feel like we’re in danger, unsafe, vulnerable … afraid.

Fear is an immensely powerful force.  It shapes us.  It transforms us. Fear is a paradox.  Fear destroys but it also saves.  Fear paralyzes, but also catalyzes. Fear hardens but also softens.  Fear reminds us that we can die, but fear also reminds us that we can live.

At different points in our lives, we live with all kinds of fears.  When we are little, we find ourselves afraid of a dog or the dark.  In our adolescence we fear that we might not fit in, that we will never find our place, that we won’t measure up to our parents’ expectations or our own.  As we grow into adulthood we fear that we will not find a career, that we will not find our soulmate.  We fear that our businesses might fail, that our careers might not flourish, that we may lose or never find our economic security.  We fear for our physical safety and our emotional equanimity. We fear for our children, and we fear for our parents, and we fear for ourselves – that happiness may erode, that health may fail, that we won’t get to do everything we planned, that we may get hurt, or even die.

But beyond the natural fears that are a normal part of our life’s journey, other fears seem to consume our society as well.  These days we see a growing sense of fear of the Other – a xenophobic fear of foreigners, fear of people whose skin is a different color, fear of people whose sexuality is different from our own, fear of people whose religious beliefs we don’t understand, and even now a fear of people whose politics may tack away from ours toward the Left or the Right.

Many of us carry the scars of when we were hurt, and the remembrance of those traumas inspires more lasting fears.  An injury makes us afraid to venture out or walk or run. An abusive parent makes us afraid of conflict.  An unfaithful partner makes us afraid to love.

Fear comes from feeling unsafe and vulnerable.  We fear the fact that there are things we cannot control and that we do not understand. Ultimately, what we fear is the awesome fact and reality that we are human.

Rosh HaShanah is a celebration of life and our humanity, and in that celebration a painful reminder of what truly makes us human. To be human is to be mortal, fallible, limited and scared.  This morning we declared, “ונתנה תקף קדושת היום – Let us proclaim the power of this day – a day whose holiness awakens deepest awe!” In this New Year some of us will live, and some of us will die.  Some will see ripe age and some will not.  Some of us will fall victim to the vicissitudes of living in a broken world.  Some of us will be secure and some will be driven, some will be tranquil and some will be troubled. Some of us will be poor, and some will be rich. Some will be humbled and some exalted.

The High Holy Days are designed to make us embrace the fact of our mortality.  These days remind us that our time here is limited, our days are numbered, that we are human.  They are called the Yamim Noraim – the days of Awe.  But the root of the Hebrew word for Awe – נורא – is the same root as that for fear יראה.  These Days of Awe are also Days of Fear.

There are different ways we can choose to live with fear.  One response can be to give in to our fears, to allow them to dictate how we live.  That response can make us feel safe, but it also can be crippling. A friend in our congregation told me she had always longed to visit Israel. “Come with us on our trip in June!  Take your family – you’ll meet fantastic people.  I would love to share Israel with you.”  She shook her head with sadness.  “I can’t,” she said.  “I’ve always been afraid to fly.  I would love to, but I simply can’t do it.”  And so her fears will keep her from fulfilling one of her life’s dreams.

Our fears can dictate how we live in the world.  We feel afraid and vulnerable that people who are not like us might come to hurt us.  So we build walls around our neighborhoods, and we build walls around our countries in an effort to make us feel more safe.  We fear the effects of longevity and age, so we do everything we can to stay young – obsessively searching for the perfect diet, exercise regimen, and sometimes surgical remedies to ward off aging.  We fear the unknown, and so we bury ourselves in echo chambers, right and left, that constantly reinforce what we already think and feel, never pushing us to look at things through a different lens or consider a different point of view.

Fear makes us feel insecure and weak, and that is why fear is often used as a weapon. In the course of a normal day, we walk down the street, go to a pizza restaurant, or join friends at a dance club or a concert, without a care or concern. But then a terrorist takes what should be secure and makes it dangerous, insinuating fear into the safety of our normal routine.  What should be safe, suddenly isn’t.  When White Supremacists stand armed with assault rifles across the street from a synagogue in Charlottesville, VA, suddenly the fear they impose destroys the basic sanctity and peace of Shabbat.

Fear can take us to awful and ugly places, especially when it spawns cynicism, callousness, hardness and hatred.  This is the lesson in the story of the Exodus.

Exodus begins with a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, who did not understand this foreign people, the Israelites, living on his northern border.  The Israelites were different.  They came from a different land. They had different customs and ways of life.  They spoke a different language.  And Pharaoh was afraid: “in the event of a war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us… (Exodus 1:10)”.  So Pharaoh sought to dominate them through ruthless oppression, enslavement, and hard labor. Pharaoh’s fear drove him to become hard and cold and mean and cruel.  His fear even leads him to commit genocide – ordering the Israelites to cast their infant sons into the Nile River.  Pharaoh’s evil lies in his insistence on pretending he is god and not a human being, and that is what dooms his nation, his people, and his family to destruction.

But fear need not be the force that destroys our societies from without and our souls from within.  Fear can also inspire us to pursue paths that are constructive and healing and holy.

Fear of a Category Five hurricane can prompt us to pack up our cars and flee, to prepare our homes with proper materials and resources to keep ourselves safe, and to reach out to others who are vulnerable and in need.  Fear of illness can drive us to get into the gym and get healthy.  Fear can inspire the deepest courage and resilience. But more importantly, fear can remind us of what it really means to be a human being.

The journey of Abraham teaches us about our own journeys in life.  In the Ten Trials Abraham is made to endure, his journey is one of constant encounters with fear.  He is asked to leave all he knows and all that is familiar to journey to a land he has never seen for a future he could not possibly imagine.  He is asked to confront hunger and famine, infertility and family drama, to see his loved-ones taken captive and fight to redeem them, – I mean could there be anything scarier than being asked at age 99 to perform your own circumcision?!

Yes.  There is something even scarier than that.  And that is to contemplate your own mortality, or God forbid, the loss of your own child. Abraham’s last trial is one that asks him to confront the greatest imaginable fear.

Think of the fear Abraham carried as he walked those three days with his son toward Mount Moriah.  Imagine how difficult it was to pretend everything was normal.   How did he do that?  How can we, like Abraham, learn to live day after day, year after year, in fear?

What Abraham discovered is what these Holy Days are meant for us to discover.  We all live with fear.  It is the inescapable essence of human experience.  But what makes human life holy is how we choose to respond to fear, and tradition on these holy days teaches us that there are three holy answers to a life filled with fear: Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah.

What is Teshuva?  Teshuva is the process that reminds us what we’re here for.  Fear warps our ability to see, and takes us off the path we’re meant to follow.  God wants us to love, but fear hardens our hearts.  God wants us to be just, but fear makes us selfish.  God wants us to be understanding, but fear makes us ignorant.  God wants us to achieve, but fear makes us paralyzed.  So what is required is for us to transcend our fears so that we champion love and justice and understanding even though we’re afraid.

In the Kabbalah, the Zohar teaches us that God wants us to transform our fear into reverence, into awe, to wonder, and to love[1]. Teshuva is the process whereby we refocus our attention – turning from what we fear to what God wants.  Teshuva asks us to recommit ourselves to live as God would want us to live – pursuing a life of meaning, purpose and holiness.

But how do we do that when we are so afraid?  The answer is in the second holy response – Tefilah – meditation, petition and prayer. In her book Hope Will Find You, Rabbi Naomi Levy describes her arduous journey learning how to raise a daughter with a rare degenerative disease. When her daughter was very young, doctors offered her a terrible diagnosis, but said they would only know for sure if she had this dreaded condition when she was older.  She writes how she spent years wallowing in fear, in anger, in sadness, losing her sense of self, her spirituality, her hope.

But then, she is reminded of a teaching from the great Hasidic sage Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who himself knew something of fear, having lost four of his children in infancy and his wife at a young age to tuberculosis. It was one of his most famous teachings that captured Rabbi Levy in her moment of deepest fear: “כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאד. והאיקר לא לפחד כלל – The whole world is like a very narrow bridge, but the most important part is not to be afraid.”[2]

She learned that through prayer – through deliberately pushing away her fears and opening up her soul and her spirit she could harness her fears and walk that narrow bridge.  In prayer she cultivated that sense of wonder and awe, of deep appreciation and gratitude for life’s awesome and holy gifts, even if those gifts are fragile and fleeting.

“Our challenge as humans,” she teaches, “is to recognize our frailty, to understand how brief our time here is.  There is a rumbling beneath the surface of all things.  We don’t know what today will bring, what any day will bring.”  Life can be difficult – it is fragile, it is tenuous and it is scary.  But as Rabbi Levy says, “If all I’ve got is this brief tenuous existence, I’d better live it to its fullest… All I can do is strive to live passionately and fearlessly as long as I can.”

And that’s what leads us to Tzedakah – to act in the world with righteousness and goodness.  The greatest way to live with fear is to live – to live with passion and compassion, to live with kindness and generosity, to laugh and to love, to pursue justice and peace.  To keep walking, one step at a time, on that scary narrow bridge, confident that we are walking toward a holy place, toward a greater good, toward a better world.

No matter what is asked of him, no matter how frightened he is, Abraham keeps walking.  He knows somehow, that with enough faith, with enough courage, he can triumph over even the most powerful fears.  And that’s why, when Abraham’s trial is over, his son is safe, and he is finally relieved of his fear, he names that place Adonai Yireh – God will see, because it was in that place that Adoani Yeraeh – God is seen.  But what’s amazing is that those two words – Yireh and Yeraeh are spelled exactly the same as Yirah.  That place of fear – Yirah – became a place of vision – Yireh.  What did Abraham see in that place?  Abraham saw that even though human life is fragile and finite and fraught with fear, it can be, with faith and fortitude, nonetheless holy and Divine.

In this New year 5778, let us embrace the fullness of our humanity.  Let our fears gives way to an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder for the gift of life, of love, and courage and of light. And may the sound of the shofar announce for us a New Year of vision, of understanding, of love and of peace.

[1] Zohar I:11b-12a

[2] Likutei Moharan II:48

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The Idolatry of Hatred

Why is the human spirit so consistently and powerfully drawn to hatred?

A natural part of human experience is sometimes to feel vulnerable or weak or scared. Often, we are most afraid when forces over which we have no control threaten our power or our well-being. It is when we are most vulnerable that many people find someone to blame for their feelings of frustration and impotence. For many, blaming someone else restores a sense of power and importance.

Hatred is a powerful generator of human energy. Having someone to hate makes us feel strong and powerful. Hate is magnetic; it draws people together to feed off the angry and hateful energy of others.

I believe that hatred stems from the same source as idolatry, what we as a people have always believed is the ultimate of sins.

People worship idols because they become infatuated with what they perceive their idols are on the outside, without ever stopping to check if their false idols have anything of value on the inside. The idolater thinks that it is only what can be seen on the surface that has any meaning or power, without taking the time understand what lies within that cannot be seen. Those that are drawn to bigotry are no different.

What makes the neo-Nazis and white-supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend so evil is that they think a person’s worth is found a person’s exterior, in the color of their skin or their ethnicity.

Neo-Nazis and white-supremacists know nothing of those whom they hate. They seek to find power and preserve privilege in society not by virtue of their own personal merit and achievement, but because they worship the superficial and have found scapegoats to blame for their frustrations and resentments.

Our tradition teaches us that hatred, like idolatry, is a potent and dangerous force, with the power to destroy individual lives, entire peoples and even societies. The Holy One commanded us to eradicate idolatry because the real value of person is found within. Like our God whom we cannot see and touch, each of us is of infinite value because of who we are on the inside, The color of our skin, the outer features of our identity are not what matters; it is the essential holiness that lies within that determines our value.

Hatred arises from an obsession with the superficial. Love is drawn to the power of what lies within. It is love that gives life real meaning, that builds what is lasting and real and good. It is through love that we understand who another person really is on the inside, and it is the bonds we build with love that truly bring us the power and sense of worth we all desire. It is love that we must learn to practice and employ as the tool for building the society we want.

What we know from our people’s long and painful experience is that hatred is like a cancer that will grow ever more powerful and destructive if it is not conquered and repressed. Hatred must be condemned whenever its ugliness appears, and those that practice hatred must be shunned by society.

Realizing that hatred is society’s cancer is a universal truth. We must realize, as Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We may hold strong differences in how we would like to see our nation governed, and we may have significant disagreements about what is the best way forward for our country, but we must stand united as a people and as a nation against those who espouse bigotry, intolerance, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. It is not simply in our national interest, or for personal expediency. It is a moral imperative that stems from the roots of our Jewish tradition – a moral imperative that everyone with whom we share this life must embrace.

May the Holy One bring comfort to the families of Heather Heyer, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates, who lost their lives in the wake of this eruption of the scourge of hate.

May our response in some measure redeem the tragedy of their deaths.

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What We Mourn On Tisha B’Av

“Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to Adonai…(Lamentations 3:40)”

What gives life its real meaning, its real value?  What fills the moments we most treasure?  Summer provides a time for many of us to think about that question.

The great 20th century philosopher and teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book Between God and Man: “Life passes on in proximity to the sacred, and it is this proximity that endows existence with ultimate significance.”

Life demands that we invest great effort in taking care of everyday needs, but we hunger for holiness. We crave meaning and purpose.  We have an insatiable need not simply to fill ourselves with food and drink but also with something larger and more lasting.  Instinctively, we seek the sacred: love and life, knowledge and wisdom, justice and compassion, beauty, accomplishment, and awe.

Today is Tisha B’Av – a day that commemorates the destruction of holiness.  It was on this day centuries ago that the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.  It is a day of mourning and sadness – a day when Jews traditionally fast and express grief for the awful memory of the destruction.

But to me, the Temple itself is not worthy of such mourning.  Buildings are built and destroyed all the time.  Judaism teaches that God’s presence was never fixed in place in the Temple, but joined us in all our wanderings.  When asked to build the Tabernacle, God said, “Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in you. (Exodus 25:8)”  In you, it states, not in it.  We turn our hearts and heads in prayer toward Jerusalem not because God is there but because of the teachings that went forth from that place.

It was not just the Temple the Babylonians and the Romans sought to destroy, but the moral teachings and traditions that make Judaism holy itself.  They sought to destroy the idea that each and every human life is created in God’s image.  They sought to destroy the idea that none of us is an island, but that we must live in a state of communal trust and interdependence.  They sought to destroy the idea of a society which cherishes justice and fairness, compassion and kindness – a society that commits itself to protecting the vulnerable and the weak, that calls us love our neighbors as ourselves, and that demands we seek peace and pursue it.

It was not a city or a building that was assaulted.  It was an idea – the idea of a holy society.  But what we have taught the world through the generations of our wanderings is this. You can destroy our cities, and you can destroy our Temples. You can exile us from our homeland and make us wander the continents of the earth.  You can lock us in ghettos and expel us from countries, you can attack us with pogroms and with holocaust.  You may shake our faith to the core.  But we will be destroyed only when we let go of our ideals and relinquish our values.  That is up to us.

What I mourn today on Tisha B’Av is the sense that while we are safe and secure and Jerusalem itself is vibrant and rebuilt, nonetheless we are giving up on the sacred.  In response to the natural fears that come with insecurity for our livelihoods and our future, I worry that we no longer hold fast to the essential values that make life holy.  I look around at the two lands that I call home, America and Israel, and I ask: is this a society that is championing the sacred values of life?  Are we becoming so obsessed with power and privilege that we have lost the humility to ask if the Other has wisdom or truth we might need?  Can we honestly say that what animates our society is a commitment to elevating life, love, wisdom, understanding, justice, compassion, beauty and peace?

The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed because we turned away from the moral teachings God lent to our people, and turned instead to senseless hatred.  Ultimately the Temple is not destroyed from the outside but the inside.

The book of Lamentations, which we read today ends with this admonition – “Hashivenu Adonai Elecha V’Nashuva, Chadesh Yameinu K’Kedem – Bring us back to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old. (Lamentations 5:22)”  Let us recommit ourselves not to rebuilding ancient Temples of stone, but to societies of humanity, humility, holiness, and peace.

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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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