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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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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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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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A New Pair of Shoes – Passover 5776

My father died eight years ago just 10 days before Passover.  The day before, as we were packing to go up for what we thought was just another visit, my wife asked, “Are you packing a suit?”

“What for?” I asked.  I guess denial is more than just a river in Egypt.

Part of Jewish custom when you commemorate the loss of a parent is to tear your shirt over your heart, a ritual called Kriah in Hebrew.  The Ba’al Shem Tov, the great Hasidic sage, teaches that when you tear Kriah for a parent, it is like opening your heart to express all the love you carry inside.  Problem for me was, I didn’t have a shirt.

So the next day, I went to the store to buy a shirt.  Anyone from the Washington, DC area knows a store called “Syms,” where you could buy dress clothes for reasonable prices: “An educated consumer is our best customer…” went the slogan.

As a kid, my father introduced me to the stock market.  One of the stocks he carried in his portfolio was “Hart, Schaffner, and Marx” – a clothing company.  I used to joke that it was an imaginary stock, since I never saw a Hart, Schaffner, and Marx label on anyone I knew.

So as looked through the rack for a white shirt my size, I had to stop and catch my breath.  There was a white shirt, hanging on the rack – Hart, Schaffner, and Marx.  I decided to buy two.  One I would destroy with Kriah at the funeral; the other I would keep to remember my father.

As I was walking through the store, I happened to look down at the dress shoes.  My father had taught me to buy dress shoes where the sole was sewn to the main body of the shoe: “The glue-on soles fall apart too quickly,” my father counseled.  A pair of black Cole-Hahn’s caught my eye – $64.99.  That was an amazing price for such good shoes.  So though I wasn’t shopping for dress shoes, I knew my father would approve.

I have worn those Cole-Hahn’s for the last eight years.  My father was a big believer in repairing good shoes, so every time over the years the heels or soles would wear out, I would have them repaired.  There was something about those shoes.  Like the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx shirt or the small collection of my father’s ties I wear for special occasions, those shoes were a connection I didn’t want to lose to my father.

Losing a parent goes in stages.  There are many steps in letting go.  Beyond the immediate experience of death and loss, the funeral and the shiva, there are little lettings go along the way.  Changing the voice-mail message; cleaning out belongings; changing a residence – each is another letting go.  The celebration of annual holidays or milestone occasions – a Bar Mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding – these occasions are other little pieces of letting go.

Each year on my father’s yahrtzeit we gather to tell stories of my father before lighting the candle.  My children were very young when their grandfather died, and their memories of him, like mine, no longer continue to grow.  They rely on me to tell the story of his journey, of my journey with him, so that his journey can be part of their journey.  Their memories of him grow by making my stories their stories.  And my memories of him grow as I carry him in my heart day after day, year after year, along the journey of my own life.

The Passover Seder works the same way.  By telling and retelling the story, we make the experience of our ancestors who journeyed from slavery to freedom our experience and our story.  By keeping the memory of their journey fresh in our minds, we keep ourselves from fully letting go of them.  Matzah, Maror, and Charoset, like shirts, ties, and shoes, each are symbols we hold onto so that we do not lose our connection to our past, or lose our way in the wilderness.

Despite my best efforts, my Cole-Hahns have worn out beyond repair.  And yet I wasn’t able to replace them.  I wasn’t ready to let go.

But then, one day just before my father’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, I was walking through Costco.  There, on display, were boxes and boxes of Cole-Hahn’s.  I saw a box in my size – black with sewn soles.  I looked up at the price – $64.99.  I smiled.  It was time to let go.

It will be hard to break in those new shoes, and hard to let go of my old Cole-Hahns.  But memory is stronger than leather, and my father and I can keep walking forward together, even in a new pair of shoes.

Happy Passover.

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