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Hatred Leads Us To Be The Enemy We Despise

In Jerusalem, two Palestinian teenagers slashed an Arab man from Bethlehem, mistakenly thinking he was a Jew.  In Haifa, a Jewish man stabbed a Jewish pedestrian, mistakenly thinking he was an Arab.

The irony of these individual hate crimes felt like a stab wound in my increasingly broken heart.  We hate with no real knowledge of the other.  We paint “those people” with a broad bush of pernicious stereotype to justify our hatred and our anger.

What we see in our world today rightly provokes our revulsion and anger.  The hideous acts of evil we see perpetrated by radical Islamists make our blood boil.  Today’s attack on a police officer in Philadelphia by someone claiming to kill for “Allah” was simply hideous, and I am so grateful for the valor of that officer that, even after being wounded, still did all he could to incapacitate his attacker, who was eventually captured.

The beheadings of innocent captives, guilty only of the crime of wanting to make a compassionate difference in a war-torn land, the rampaging murder of scores of innocents whose only crime was sitting in a Parisian café, or enjoying a rock concert, and the slaughter of innocent men and women gathering for a holiday party all rightly evoke in me, and I suspect in all of us, overwhelming anger and anguish.

Terrorism makes us feel vulnerable and scared.  The threat of random attack makes us all wonder if we are safe, no matter how unlikely it may be that we will be affected.  Electronic media and the 24 hour news cycle amplifies the evil acts of a very few to seem much larger and more pernicious than they are.

Feeling threatened, we want to feel safe.  Feeling vulnerable, we want to feel secure.  Feeling powerless, we want to feel powerful.

The problem is that our natural responses only make the problem worse.  The narrative of the Islamist organizations declares that America hates Islam and wants to destroy it.  Thus they teach they are justified to attack the West.

So to feel safe, we fall into the trap of stereotype.  When we say, “let’s ban Muslims from our shores”, or declare that all Muslims are suspected of evil motives until they prove otherwise, we ratify their awful narrative.  When Mosques and Islamic community centers get vandalized and attacked, we validate the warped thinking Islamists purvey.

But worse, when we tolerate our own bigotry and hatred, we fall even further into a place where we can look just like them.

For decades Israel has suffered nearly unrelenting terrorist attacks.  It’s understandable how we can become hardened when scores of people are murdered in restaurants and city buses by suicide murderers, and now daily attempts to stab innocent pedestrians or to ram a car into a bus stop.  But in our resentment and our anger, we cannot turn a blind eye to the acts of terrorism spawned in response.

Dozens of so-called “price tag” acts of vandalism and terror have been committed by members of extremist Jewish organizations of the past years.  Beginning with acts of slashing tires of scores of cars, spray painting hate-filled messages anti-Christian or anti-Muslim messages like “Death to Arabs” or “Arabs Out!” or “Jesus was a Monkey and Mary a Cow” have grown to include acts of arson against churches and mosques and homes.

Finally on July 31, 2015 the home of the Dawabsha family in the village of Duma near Nablus was set on fire, killing an 18 month old boy, Ali Dawabsha, and eventually claiming the lives of three others, including his four year old brother and his mother, who had rescued her older son, and ran back into the fire to try to rescue Ali.

Even though there was nearly universal condemnation of the attack, still at a wedding last week, dozens of young men celebrated with guns and knives and stabbed a picture of baby Ali.

Incredulously, the rabbi who officiated at the wedding claimed that it was the Israeli Shin-Bet intelligence service that had committed the act of arson, in order to blame it on the settler movement.

Listening to the deranged comments of the extremist rabbi sounded shockingly like the claims of Islamist leaders that it was the CIA and the Mossad who committed the terror acts of 9/11 just to make war against Islam.

We must guard against the rise of hatred in our community, else we will be drawn to become the enemy we detest.  The answer to terrorism cannot be found in asking the TSA to implement the inquisition.  We will not defeat terrorism through bigotry, stereotype, xenophobia, or anti-Muslim hatred.  While we may feel insecure, labels will not protect us.  While we may feel disempowered, the dark power of hatred will not make us stronger.

What will protect us from terrorism is a combination of constant vigilance and an unwavering commitment to the ideals of understanding, justice, compassion, and love.  The more we can break down pernicious stereotypes, the more we resist the temptation to paint people with a broad brush, the more we stand up and say “NO!” to bigotry, violence, and hatred, in all its forms, the stronger and safer we will ultimately be.

We, of all people, know how dangerous bigoted propaganda, misinformation, and stereotype can be.  We, of all people, know how important it is for good people to stand up together and say “NO!”  The Torah teaches that we cannot remain indifferent to the plight of our neighbor, and we cannot remain indifferent when we see the rise in hatred and bigotry among our own people.

The strength of our society is found in the admonition our tradition has taught for centuries: to love the stranger and to love our neighbors as ourselves, for as Gandhi taught: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”



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Yom Kippur 5776 – Utopia In The Real World

Tradition teaches that we are not supposed to wait until Yom Kippur to atone for our sins; Teshuva and repentance is supposed to be an ongoing process that takes place each and every day throughout the year.  So, we took it very seriously when our eleven year old informed us last year that we were bad parents.  What was our sin?  We had never taken our daughter to Disneyworld.

And so, because we want to be good parents and because, at times we are more than willing to purchase the love and affection of our youngest child, we planned a trip to Disney World this past summer.

It was expensive, but it was wonderful.  Aside from one or two little squabbles, we had a truly fantastic time.  How can you not have a great time at Disney?  It’s designed to be perfect.

When Walt Disney built Disneyland, his vision was to build a utopia.  In dedicating the opening of Disneyland in California on July 17, 1955, Disney said: “To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

Walt Disney grew up during a difficult time.  His father Elias Disney, was a stern, severe man who despite several attempts throughout his life to achieve significant success, never was able to realize his dreams. When Walt was a young boy, Elias Disney moved the family to Marceline, Missouri, a remote farming town that captured for young Walt a sense of dreamy perfection.  It was not simply the conventional features of small-town America that captivated Disney’s soul – the earnest and honest simple businesses lining Kansas Avenue, the town’s mainstreet, or the carefree simple life of a young boy with freedom to grow.  It was the spirit of the community. In Marceline people cared for one another and were tolerant of one another, collaborating to help each other and support one another.  For Walt, Marceline was a vision of utopia, the template of what life was supposed to possess – a sense of well-being, freedom, and community – beautiful and free.[1]

Walt knew, as do we, that the world is not like Marceline.  Coming through the Great Depression and the second world war, he knew that the world is full of painful struggle – poverty, disease, hatred, and strife, dishonesty, and discord.  Walt wanted to heal that, to help people to escape from that to a better world, whether for a few hours in a movie theater or a day in his park.  Leaving behind the world you know, you enter Disneyland with a walk down Main Street, and then choose either fantasy, adventure, the frontier, or the future – a trip through the park is a metaphor for possibility.

But more than an hour or a day, Disney wanted to change the world.  When the acreage was quietly purchased in Orlando for what would become Walt Disney World, Walt himself had little interest in recreating the amusement park that was his oasis in California.  “The appeal of Disney World to Walt – its only real appeal to him – was that he would finally have a chance to build a utopian city…”[2]  He called it an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or EPCOT.

Originally, EPCOT was to be a “living, breathing community” of 20,000, and Walt imagined that it would eventually grow to 60 or even 100,000.  He imagined that it would worry about pre-school education, home environment, employment, with a teen center, and a facility for senior citizens.  It would have recreational zones, and houses of worship.  He imagined houses that would be completely self-sufficient, with their own power plants, electricity, and waste systems that would make this town the “first accident free, noise free, pollution free city center in America.”  But Walt would not live to see his utopian vision come to fruition. The EPCOT we visited was in some ways a testimony to his vision – a celebration of idealism where human cultures and human ingenuity together can transform our world.

There is something about utopia.  It’s magnetic.  In 2014, the Magic Kingdom welcomed over 19 million visitors, EPCOT 11 and a half.  We will pay $105 per person just to experience utopia for a day.  Dreaming of a better world is transformative; it revitalizes the soul.

We gather here on Yom Kippur, and it seems an awkward time to be talking about utopia.  After all, we come here expecting to spend the day focused on what’s wrong with our lives, what isn’t working in our world, and in ourselves.

But I think there is a reason we start this day with the recitation of Kol Nidrei.  More than the haunting chant that penetrates our souls in ways no words can hope to achieve, the words themselves atone for all we might fail to accomplish next year. We’re clear from the start.  “Vayomer Adonai, Salachti Kidvarecha – And God said, I have pardoned in response to your plea. (Numbers 14:20)”

So what do we have left to do today (and tomorrow)?  Well, I think we have a choice.  We can either spend our time mired in cynicism about the way things are, or we can spend our time dreaming about the way things could be.

There are times in our life when we afford ourselves the chance to dream and dream big.  When I was a kid, I would spend hours pitching baseballs against the back wall of my house, imagining it was game 7 of the World Series, bottom of the ninth inning, our team nursing a one-run lead.  Ask a kid what she wants to be when she grows up, and she will be glad to share with you her perfectly logical plans for Broadway or the Oval Office.

But at some point, someone says: “Grow up.  Welcome to the real world!” and we turn out the light on our idealism. The real world is … real.  We all have to come to grips with the fact that there are certain questions we need to learn how to answer: How are you going to do that?  How long is that going to take? How much is that going to cost?  How are you going to get people to do that?  Can you prove that’s worth doing?  Anybody else ever do that before? The fact is, in order to live in the real world, we have to answer those questions, and we have to teach our children to answer them too.

But as noted thinker and management consultant Peter Block explains, the problem is that too often those are the only questions we ask.  In his book The Answer To How Is Yes, Block suggests that we live in a culture that lavishes rewards on “what works more than it values what matters.”[3]

Living in the real world demands accountability, value, and results that can be quantified and measured.  And in so many ways, that is how we seem to measure our business and personal success in life.  How much did we produce?  How many clients did we serve?  What was our earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization?  What was our GPA?  How much do we have in the bank?

The problem is that the imperative to be practical often quashes our need to be idealistic.  We spend so much time asking ourselves “What works?” that we forget to ask the fundamental question “What matters?”  “The goal is to balance a life that works with a life that counts.  The challenge is to acknowledge that just because something works, it doesn’t mean that it matters.”[4]

What I want us to consider is that to truly live in the real world, we cannot sacrifice our idealism.  “What is lost in a materialistic and pragmatic culture is idealism.” And it is idealism, Block asserts, “that has the potential to bring together our larger purpose with our day to day doing.”[5]

In 1894, two young Jewish men were intently following the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who was accused of passing secrets to the Germans.  It became apparent that the charges were fabricated and the trial simply an anti-Semitic charade. The first was a thirty-four year old writer named Theodor Herzl and the other was a twenty-two year old writer named Leon Blum.

Following the trial, in which the crowds were chanting, “Death to the Jews,” each man chose a remarkably idealistic but different path.  Herzl came to the realization that Jews would never be secure in Europe, and that the time had come to pursue Jewish nationalism.  Herzl locked himself in his room, and wrote his ideas in what would become his book The Jewish State. He began his work to convince Jewish leaders and the political leaders of his time that the time had come for the world to embrace Zionism as the nationalistic aspirations of the Jewish people.  Herzl devoted the next ten years of his life to building the State of Israel – convening six Zionist Congress meetings in Basel, Switzerland which brought together delegates from all over Europe and the world, traveling throughout the continent to build support for the Jewish state.  In the last years of his life, Herzl wrote Altneuland, “Old-New land” in which he dreamed of the utopia that would be built in a Jewish homeland, combining the best of European culture with the best of Jewish heritage, a country in which Jew and non-Jew would work together in brotherly collaboration, where there would be peace, prosperity, and justice for all.

Unlike Herzl, Leon Blum chose to build his utopia in France.  Growing up in an assimilated French home, Leon learned early from his mother the importance of fairness and a passion for justice.  After studying law, he began his life’s work to build his vision of a better France, a society where humanity concerned itself with those who are, as he said, “bruised by life, ignored by society.  … [where] pity and anger … is aroused in every honest heart by the intolerable spectacle of poverty, unemployment, cold, and hunger… The life of each individual,” he said, “should be protected by all other human beings.”

Soon he became active in politics, leaving his law practice to serve in parliament and became a leader of France’s left-wing republicans.

In the aftermath of the Depression, Leon Blum unified the various parties on the left in a broad movement to improve the lives of France’s working class called the Popular Front.  As fascism and totalitarianism grew in Italy and Germany, Blum believed it was imperative to speak out and to rally the people to stay true to the principles of freedom, justice, and democracy.

Despite an assassination attempt in February 1936 by right wing groups who sought to dismantle French democracy, still he would not back down.  In June of that year, Leon Blum was elected Prime Minister – the first Jewish person ever to hold that post.  During his tenure he instituted the 40 hour work week, paid vacation, and other reforms that would later be embraced throughout the world.  A champion of women’s rights, he also included three women in his cabinet even before women had the right to vote.

With his wife Thérèse dying of cancer, the economy still languishing, and the rise of fascist opposition, Blum resigned in June of 1937.  Still he never stopped fighting for what he knew was right and good for France.  In June of 1940, when Marshall Pétain became leader of the fascist Vichy government, Blum was encouraged to leave France, but he chose to remain, and was arrested and imprisoned.  During the years of his imprisonment, Blum wrote his masterwork For All Mankind.  Even from his cell in the Fort du Portalet, and while defending charges of treason, Blum remained true to his idealism and the causes that had animated him his entire life.  Writing his book as a letter to the youth of France, even as France seemed to betray him, he still dreamed of a future French utopia: “Like all other peoples,” he wrote, “the French people will … build the world of their ideals – only if they show themselves able to cultivate and cherish in themselves … the virtues of courage, generosity of heart, righteousness of mind and conscience, [and] abnegation of self in favor of the good of all.”[6]

During his trial, despite the danger to himself, Blum used his platform to attack the Vichy government, and was so successful, that the Nazi’s demanded the trial be abandoned.  Blum was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he was kept in a special section for VIP prisoners.  He survived the war, and chose to return to his beloved France, becoming Prime Minister again for a short time in the provisional government, helping to negotiate American aid for the postwar rebuilding of France.

Herzl and Blum never stopped living in the real world, but they never abandoned their idealism.  On the contrary, it was their idealism that filled their real-world existence with purpose and meaning.

“Idealism is the pursuit of the way we think things should be… past the point of practicality,”[7] Block tells us. “Choosing to act on ‘what matters’ is the choice to live a passionate existence.”  It is not an existence that is always safe and secure.  “Giving priority to what matters is the path of risk and adventure.”  But perhaps the greatest risk in life is never to risk at all.

I think Peter Block is right when he tells us that “Idealism is hard to defend, for data and history seem to be on the side of realism and practicality … Cynicism is a defense against idealism, and cynicism is so powerful because it has experience on its side.  We each have our wounds.  We each have our story of idealism unrewarded or even punished.”[8]  Just ask Elias Disney what happens to your idealism when your best laid plans don’t come to fruition.

There are times when it would seem ridiculous to hold onto our ideals.  How ridiculous it must have seemed in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 to see the delegates to the first Zionist Congress, dressed in their formal attire, discuss the possibilities of building a homeland for the Jewish people.  But Herzl wrote in his own diary, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”

How ridiculous it must have seemed in 1941 for Leon Blum to spend hours in his prison cell writing an epistle celebrating French democracy and predicting the end of German fascism?  And yet he not only wrote that the Axis would suffer an overwhelming defeat, but that France needed to reconstitute itself on the basis of that which would lead to the utopia Blum always imagined France could become, a free country in which the people built a social democracy rooted in an international order that secured peace and justice for all.

Like Herzl, like Blum, like Disney, we too need to take upon ourselves the responsibilities of citizens, not consumers.  We are not simply players in the marketplace of our society, seeing what we can amass simply for ourselves, but we must be responsible stewards of our society, working together to build our world into the utopia the eternal values we celebrate this Yom Kippur will guide us to create.

At the end of Altneuland, Herzl writes: “Dreams … are a fulfillment of the days of our sojourn on Earth. Dreams are not so different from Deeds as some may think. All the Deeds of men are only Dreams at first.  And in the end, their Deeds dissolve into Dreams…”  Let us in this new year commit ourselves to build the world of our dreams, to shake off the cynicism that keeps us from contributing to a better world, for that better world, that utopia, is there for us inhabit – Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – if you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Neal Gabler, Walt Disney: the Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 2006, pp. 10-18.

[2] Ibid., p. 608.

[3] Peter Block, The Answer To How Is Yes. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002, p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 27.

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Leon Blum, For All Mankind, trans. by William Pickles. New York: Viking Press, 1946, p. 174.

[7] Op Cit. Block, pp. 53-56.

[8] Op Cit. Block, p. 54.

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Rosh HaShanah Morning 5776 – A Call To The Covenant

Ever since I was a young boy, I was enthralled with the shofar.  I remember fidgeting through services, until that moment when the Ba’al Tekiah, the shofar sounder stood in the middle of the bima and then I stood rock solid still while those distinctive sounds echoed throughout the sanctuary.  The sound of the shofar stirred something inside, even in the soul of a little boy.

After learning French Horn in 8th grade, I asked the rabbi if I could be the Ba’al Tekia.  He listened to me play, and then gave me a large shofar to practice with.  Thanks, I said, but I have a question:  “can you strap this thing to my bicycle?”

I was our congregation’s ba’al tekiah for many years.  I remember the butterflies in my stomach churning as I stood preparing to hear the calls, licking my lips to keep them moist. At a time when I was unsure of my feelings for Judaism and our synagogue, the shofar was the root that kept calling me back.

When I got to college, I brought my shofar with me, and got asked to sound the shofar that first semester at school.  That shofar got me involved in Jewish life on campus, and in many ways, it was the sound of the shofar that drew me to Jewish life and ultimately to my rabbinate.

There is something about the sound of the shofar.  Hearing that sound is the primary obligation we are asked to fulfill for Rosh HaShanah, and it’s the one I think deep down we look forward to the most.

The shofar calls out to us with alarm:  “Awake you slumberers from your sleep! Examine your deeds, turn away from the silliness of the times and do not waste your years on foolishness and emptiness. Look to your souls and improve your ways and mistakes.”

But the shofar does more than wake us up.  It calls us to turn around and return.  Just as it called to me as a boy, the shofar calls us to return.  It says: Return to the root of your being. Return to the wellspring of your identity.  Return to your people, and the covenant that defines us and binds us together as Jews.

Jewish tradition calls marriage Kiddushin, holy things, because the establishment of a household and the commitment to a covenant are the most holy acts a person can perform.

The Jewish people are a household of sorts.  We descend from the household created by Abraham and Sarah.  But their household was transformed when they entered into a covenant with the Holy One.  In addition to their responsibilities to each other, they now bore responsibilities to God as well.

But just as Abraham and Sarah brought God into their household when they began the journey of our people, so too did we as a nation invite God into our collective household.  Having liberated us from slavery in Egypt, God brought us to a mountain in the wilderness to forge with us a covenant.  It was a covenant that demanded we build a society of based on sacred relationships with each other and a sacred relationship with the Divine, a covenant that demanded we love ourselves, that we love each other, and that we love God with all our heart, soul, and might.

As in any relationship, those bonds of connection fray and tear when we hurt one another. And this season asks us to think about how we respond when our mistakes and misdeeds loosen the bonds that weave us together.

I recently read an article by noted scholar Dr. Louis Newman[1] in which he asks if there is an empirical moral obligation to forgive.  Let’s say I do something, perhaps inadvertently, that hurts you.  The wrong I have done creates a moral debt that fractures our relationship.  Then we each have a choice.  I can seek to heal that fracture by resolving that debt, by making amends, apologizing, and seeking your forgiveness.  You can accept my contrition and relinquish your resentment, forgiving me and the moral debt I owe you.  Or … either of us can walk away.

But as Jews we are forbidden to walk away. In the 12th century Maimonides wrote that if we hurt or trespass against someone, it is our obligation to make restitution and to seek forgiveness.  If the other person refuses to grant forgiveness, we must return with a group of three people and ask again.  If the other still refuses, then we must return a second or a third time. But if the person then still will not grant forgiveness, then we are cleared of our responsibility; it is the other person who becomes guilty of the sin.  Our tradition teaches that we have a fundamental moral obligation not only to seek forgiveness but also to grant forgiveness.[2]

As Jews, we don’t get to opt out of our relationship with each other.  The covenant demands that we never give up on that relationship, and that we do what it takes to heal our fractures.  Our tradition teaches that it is in the web of that relationship that we draw nearer not simply to each other but more importantly to God, and if we separate from each other and disengage, ultimately we lose everything that matters.

Two thousand years ago, the oppression of the Roman empire was proving too difficult to bear, and our people was divided against itself in choosing how to respond.  The elite establishment believed in cooperating with the Roman government in order to avoid conflict.  The Zealots believed that the people of Judea should rise up against the Romans in revolt.  The differences were nasty and divisive, and led ultimately to our national defeat and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Years later, the rabbis in the Talmud taught “The first Temple was destroyed because of the [three cardinal] sins of idolatry, harlotry, and murder.  The second fell because … of Sinat Chinam, senseless hatred, and this teaches us that senseless hatred is a sin that weighs as heavily as idolatry, harlotry, and murder.”[3]

The history of our people is one of divisions and schisms, punctuated with senseless hatred. Sinat Chinam – senseless hatred is the enemy of our covenant.  It is the toxin that poisons our relationships and dissolves the bonds that make us one.

In 1920, Jewish settlers in Palestine organized a defensive militia called the Haganah to defend Jewish settlements from attacks by armed Arab groups.  By 1931, a second group spun off that was called Irgun Bet, or second division, later just called the Irgun.  The chief difference between the groups was that the Haganah believed in a policy of Havlagah – restraint, while the Irgun urged retaliation for Arab terror attacks on Jews.  The Haganah was loyal to the Labor Zionists, led by David Ben Gurion, while the Irgun was loyal to the Revisionists, led by Menachem Begin.[4]

For years, the two factions profoundly disagreed as to how best to defend the Jews of Palestine.  Begin believed the British had essentially declared war on the Jews by barring entry to Palestine for Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  The Irgun conducted a campaign of retaliatory attacks against the British, most notably the famous attack on the King David hotel that killed nearly 100 people.  Ben Gurion however believed that the violent provocations employed by the Irgun made Jews not only vulnerable to Arab attacks, but to British reprisals.[5]

When Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, as Israel’s new Prime Minister Ben Gurion ordered that for the new state to survive the existential threat posed by its Arab neighbors, the fighting forces had to come together as one army.

On June 11, 1948, less than a month after the creation of the State of Israel, a landing tank ship named the Altalena set sail from France for the newly created Jewish state.  The ship carried hundreds of volunteer fighters trained by the Irgun, and more than 150 million francs worth of French weaponry and military materiel.

The arms and weapons on board would prove vital to the defense of the Jewish state in the face of the coming Arab attack.  But Ben Gurion believed those same arms would provide for the retrenchment of the Irgun as a separate Jewish militia, and that was something he refused to accept.

When Irgun volunteers began to unload the Altalena’s cargo at Kfar Vitkin in northern Israel, Ben Gurion ordered the Haganah to fire on the ship.  Begin himself was aboard the Altalena, and the ship began to head toward Tel Aviv.  As the ship landed just yards off the crowded Tel Aviv shore, gunfire erupted and a mortar set fire to the Altalena.  The heat of the fire caused the munitions on board to begin to explode and eventually, Begin and the crew had to abandon ship.

Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed in the confrontation, along with three IDF soldiers.  But the most amazing thing came in the form of Begin’s response.  On the Irgun radio channel that night, Begin said:  “Raise not your hand against your brother… Not even today.  We shall continue to love Israel, the good and the bad, the misled and the mistaken.  We shall continue to love Israel and to fight for it.”  Later in life, Begin would write: “After my death, I hope that I will be remembered, above all, as someone who prevented civil war.”

How difficult must it have been for Ben Gurion to give the order, in the shadow of the Holocaust and on the precipice of war, for the Haganah to fire on Jewish soldiers aboard a desperately needed Jewish supply ship?  How difficult must it have been for Begin to order his troops to stand down and not retaliate?  But both men came to realize a truth that we today need not to forget: that we can only meet the existential threats we face as a people when we remember our covenant with each other and sacrifice whatever is necessary to come together as one.

For many years, America and Israel’s most vocal enemy in the world is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Iran refers to the United States as “the Great Satan” and repeatedly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, most recently last week when Iran’s Supreme Leader declared that Israel will not exist in 25 years.  We have watched with fear and deep-seated concern as Iran over the past two decades has worked to build a nuclear infrastructure despite crushing international sanctions and covert operations to thwart their ambitions.

We learned last week that the congress will not prevent the so called “deal” with Iran from going through.  Many people I respect support the deal because they think despite its weaknesses and flaws, it’s better than no deal at all, and while it fails to address so many of our concerns, it certainly is a step in the right direction.

Others whom I respect reject the deal because they believe that whatever benefits the deal achieves are far outweighed by the deal’s long-term cost. It legitimates the Iranian regime as a nuclear threshold state, it eventually removes the arms embargo that keeps Iran from developing the full conventional threat it might amass, it relieves the sanctions that have created havoc with the Iranian economy, and restores billions of dollars in frozen assets.  Iran which possesses the fourth largest proven oil reserves in the world sees a failed Shi’a state to its west, with the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the world.  To the west of Iraq is Syria, whose murderous and nefarious regime Iran arms, funds, and essentially controls, and to the west of Syria is Lebanon, which Iran has controlled through its Hizbullah proxy for decades.  Add that together and you have a large and powerful Persian empire whose depth and breadth we have not seen since the Sasanian empire of 621 CE.

This is an enemy which we should rightly fear, but we can only resist this enemy if we come together as one.  Vitriolic declarations that supporters of this deal hate the State of Israel and are somehow complicit in doing Hitler’s work, or pronouncements that people who reject the deal are warmongers, whose loyalties and patriotism should be called into question creates an environment too eerily similar to that which brought about our people’s destruction two thousand years ago.

We need to do everything in our power to ensure that support for Israel is not a Democratic objective, or a Republican objective, a liberal objective or a conservative objective but an American objective. Israel is America’s most important ally in one of the most dangerous parts of our world, and while there can be honest and civil disagreement between America and Israel’s leaders, we must reweave the fraying fabric that binds America and Israel together.

But even with the challenges we face as a people externally, I wonder if the challenges we face internally are not more profound. The same senseless hatred that threatened us in ancient times still tears us apart today.  What does it mean when the Minister for Religious Services of the Jewish State declares that we as Reform Jews cannot be considered Jewish?  What does it mean when an ultra-orthodox Jew stabs six people at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, and the response by some in the Ultra-Orthodox community is, “that’s terrible, but…”  Can we blame young non-orthodox Jews for feeling alienated from Israel when Israel so publicly denigrates the Judaism they practice?

And here in our community, an ever growing number of Jewish men and women are abandoning the covenant.  More and more non-orthodox Jews are leaving Jews and Judaism behind, rapidly divesting themselves and their families of any sense of connection or commitment to Judaism, the Jewish community and the Jewish people.  Despite what our tradition has taught for centuries, we are using the extraordinary freedom American society affords us to walk away from the covenant of Israel.  Studies of non-orthodox Jews show that we practice fewer rituals, we ignore Shabbat, we worship less and less frequently, we belittle the value of Jewish education and condemn ourselves and our children to ignorance and illiteracy, we give less tzedakah to Jewish charitable causes, and we share a growing disillusionment and lack of connection to the State of Israel and our fellow Jews around the world.  Not only have we abandoned our covenant that links us together as Jews, we have abandoned any meaningful pursuit of Jewish spirituality.[6]

That apathy towards Jewish life we see in the massive majority of non-orthodox Jews has the potential to wipe us off the map as surely as any of our enemy’s armies.

We are drawn here today because we are part of a covenant, a covenant that not only binds us individually to God, but that binds us collectively one to another as Jews.  We must in this New Year come back together and recommit ourselves to the project of Judaism and the Jewish people.  On this Rosh HaShanah we let us heed the Shofar’s call to return.  Let us reject the politics of demonization and division, and come together to counter the existential threats we face as a people.  Let us come together to face the threats that are posed to us externally by our enemies and anti-Semitism, and let us come together to counter the threats that are posed to us internally by senseless hatred, divisiveness, and apathy.

Let us resolve to return to our covenant and recommit to investing ourselves in the richness of Jewish life.  Let us promise to be more engaged, more educated, more committed to actively seek the inspiration that Torah and tradition can ignite.

We turn to page 282 and we rise for the sounding of the Shofar.  And as we rise, let us rise up together to thwart those enemies that would seek our destruction, and rise up together against the senseless hatreds and apathy that threaten us from within. Let the sound of the shofar harken us back to Sinai, so that soon in our own day, we will find our people one with each other, and one with our God who is one.

[1] “The Quality of Mercy: On The Duty To Forgive in the Judaic Tradition” by Dr. Louis E. Newman in The Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall, 1987), pp. 155-172.

[2] Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 2:9-10

[3] Yoma 9b

[4] Menachem Begin: The Battle For Israel’s Soul, by Daniel Gordis.  New York: Nextbook, 2014, chapter 7 pp. 79-97.

[5] Ben-Gurion: The Biography of an extraordinary man, by Robert St. John. Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1959, pp. 158-163.


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Rosh HaShanah Evening 5776 – The Holiness of Regret

When our kids were little, we as parents often had to make decisions that were unpopular for our children.  They would whine and complain – why can’t we do it our way?  And we would with same wise words our parents used to say:  “Because we said so.” But they would argue and say, “We live in America – we should all get to vote.”

And I would say: “Fine.  But here’s how it works:  Everyone gets one vote for every year you’ve been alive. Now, let’s see – Ari gets 10 votes, Meredith gets 8 votes, and Eliana gets 3 votes: 21.  Now I say you need to go to bed, and I get … well a lot more votes than you.  I win – Now go to bed.”

But our little kids aren’t so little anymore.  My son just left for college, my older daughter is in her junior year of high school, and we are planning for our youngest daughter’s bat mitzvah in just over a year.  Recently, a new acquaintance asked how old my children are.  18, 16, and 11, I responded.  Wow.  Those are some pretty big numbers.  After a recent family vote the kids shared with me that by the end of 2015, they will be old enough to out-vote me.

We all have the same reaction when we pass these kind of milestones.  Wow – where did the time go?  It seems like yesterday we were gathered here in this very sanctuary to celebrate that boy’s bris, and in what seemed like a blink of an eye, he’s grown and gone.

Of course there’s been so much that’s happened in those years.  We went out to dinner the night before Ari left and sat around reminiscing our favorite stories.  We shared a lot of wonderful memories of times we spent together, on special trips, special occasions, and just funny, silly times on random evenings.

I can’t help thinking that we get one shot at this parenthood thing, and I secretly wonder if I didn’t mess up too badly.  I think about lots of times I didn’t get it right as a parent.  I think about times I pushed too hard, and others when I didn’t push hard enough.  I think about the times I got too angry, and times where perhaps I was too lenient.  I think about the things I should have taught, and the things I tried so hard to impart that probably don’t really matter.

This holy day has many names in our tradition. Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year, is also called Yom Teruah – the day of the shofar blast, and Yom Harat HaOlam, the day of the world’s formation.  But it is also called, Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance.  And for so many of us, the walk down memory lane these holy days ask us to take can be a very difficult journey.

I’ve often spoken with people who when they talk about their lives will profess: “I have no regrets.”  I am never going to be one of those people.  Frankly I have lots of regrets.  There are so many times in the course of my life’s journey where I look back with a reasonable measure of embarrassment, regret, and shame.  I think of times as a child when I was deceitful and dishonest.  I think of times as a teenager when I was a striver, and said and did things that were disingenuous, but I thought would make me popular.  I think of times as a young adult when I arrogantly pretended to know more than I really did.  I think of times when I made snap judgments without really knowing the facts, when I made assumptions before understanding the full picture, when I dismissed people because of stereotypes, when I lost control of my emotions or lashed out at those I love.

On this Yom HaZikaron, this day of remembrance, I look back at my life filled with mistakes, and I wonder how it is that with my amazing resume of flaws and imperfections that I am even here this evening – that you are here this evening with me.

But the fact is that regret is good.  In his book How Good Do We Have To Be, Rabbi Harold Kushner remembers that when Charles Darwin shocked the world with his theory that human beings and apes had a common ancestry, someone asked him whether there was still anything unique about the human being.  Darwin thought for a moment and then answered, “Man is the only animal that blushes.”[1]

Almost three years ago on Mitzvah Day, we got our first dog.  We have a joke in our house.  “What did the dog do all day?  He dogged.”  That’s what dogs do.  They dog.  Included in dogging is barking, eating, sleeping, walking around the neighborhood, peeing (sometimes on the carpet), pooping (hopefully not on the carpet), and lots of cuddling.  He’s small, he’s tan, and he’s exactly what a dog is supposed to be.

I was remembering this recently with two b’nai mitzvah students who are celebrating their big day when we read the story of creation.  There’s a very interesting facet to that story.  Each day, after God brings something into being, God stands back and judges it:  “And God saw that it was good.”  This is true for light and land, sun and moon, plants and birds and fish and animals.  But when God creates humanity there are two key differences.  First, God creates us in God’s own image.  More about that in a minute.  But second, God does not declare us to be good.  The quality of our goodness is not predetermined.

Charlie the Wonderdog is created exactly as he is meant to be. There is no expectation that he grows.  Sure we hope he doesn’t pee on the carpet, and yes we wish he wouldn’t bark so much when people come to the door, but ultimately, that’s who he’s supposed to be.  He’s already good.

But there’s a big difference between us and our dogs.  Created in God’s image, we carry with us the ability to contemplate the meaning of our own existence.  We can organize our world not simply by instinct but on the basis of values and moral truths that we can use to modify our behaviors.  We may desire material gain, but we can master that desire by refusing for ourselves that which was not acquired through honest gain.  We may desire love and acceptance, but we can master that desire by refusing for ourselves simple lust and infidelity.  We can set for ourselves a bar based on a sense of what is compassionate and just, on what is generous and fair, on what links us to others in bonds of love and understanding.  And when we fail to meet that bar, we can blush from that sense that we didn’t hit our mark, that we didn’t fulfill our expectations, that we failed, or that we sinned.

If, as we leaf in the book of our lives, we feel no measure of regret, If we can look back through the pages of our memories and see no faults, no flaws, no moments for embarrassment or regret, then we have to wonder if we asked enough of ourselves or did we set the bar too low?  Shouldn’t we expect enough of ourselves that perfection is not easily achieved?

We may choose to set the bar wherever we like, but I believe the Holy One sets the bar higher.  I believe that in creating each of us in the image of the Divine that we are as the Psalmist said: “a little lower than the angels. (Psalm 8:5)”  And we ought to try to act like it.  But when we are not all that we can be, when we do not live as we know we should, should we not feel some measure of regret?

It makes us wonder what does God ultimately want us to be?  The Torah answers us very clearly in the book of Leviticus:  “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am Holy. (Leviticus 19:1)” It seems that what is asked of us is to strive to be like God, to reach ever higher in how we seek to live.

If God wanted us to be perfect, there would be no need for us to gather here tonight, to compile our חשבון הנפש – our resume of regret, our accounting of fallibility and imperfection before which we, in the fullness of our humanity, naturally blush.

No, ultimately what God wants us to be is not perfect, but holy.  Imagine that each of us is a clay jar or vessel.  All year long, every day, we try to fill that vessel with a collection of acts and deeds that will help us realize that vision of perfection we imagine it is our obligation to pursue.  But it seems that no matter how hard we try, we never are able to fill that jar.  It’s as if our failings create that empty space between our lives as they are, and the rim of that vessel.

But that empty space is not failure.  That empty space is holiness.  Judaism is a tradition that teaches from the beginning that we ought never to worship idols, that God is not something we can see or touch.  God is not the work of our hands, our accomplishments or achievements.  God is not something.  God is no-thing.  Holiness is that empty space between what we are and what we ought to be. And what God wants is for us to embrace not simply what we were able to achieve, but also what we weren’t.

I look back on the moments of my deepest regrets.  I think about how because of my personal failings and imperfections there were times that I not only let down the people I care about the most, I let myself down.  In reflecting on those moments, I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and anguish.  I wish I could go back and relive those moments, make different choices, somehow undo the damage I caused and fix the pain that I never meant to inflict.  But I can’t.  And I finally realized, as I reflected on my regrets, what that spirit squeezing pain in my chest is truly called:  a broken heart.

When we sit with a broken heart we feel so embarrassed and ashamed.  We often refuse to talk about it, even with those we love and trust the most.  It hurts too much.  We feel too much shame and embarrassment.  We wonder if admitting to what we did that left us so brokenhearted will cause even more separation from those we love and cherish.

But it is when we are most broken-hearted that God is nearest to us.  Tomorrow we will read the famous story of the binding of Isaac.  Abraham in his fervor to show God how perfect is his faith, takes his son, his only son, whom he loves, Isaac, and brings him to the summit of Mount Moriah and prepares to offer him up as a burnt offering.  With his son bound tight on top of the altar he built to perfection, Abraham lifts the knife, when the angel tells him that’s not at all what God wants.  God doesn’t want Abraham’s offering to perfection.  God wants Abraham to be holy. Imagine Abraham’s shame when he finally looks down and sees what he has done.  His heart broken, Abraham names that place Adonai Yireh – God sees, for it is when we are most broken hearted that Adonai Yeraeh – God is seen.

From the horn of the ram that Abraham sacrifices there instead of his son comes the shofar we sound to bring in the new year.  The Shofar’s blasts are not the triumphant sounds of perfection, but the mournful cries of the broken-hearted.

The story is told that the great Hasidic sage the Ba’al Shem Tov would hold auditions each year before Rosh HaShanah to select the Ba’al Tekiah, the one to sound the 100 blasts of the Shofar.  More than being able to make the ram’s horn sound the proper notes, the Ba’al Tekiah had to master the 100 special prayers or Kavanot, so that the Ba’al Tekiah could fill each sound with complete spiritual power to lift our prayers to the Holy One on high.  There was a man who dreamed of serving as the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Ba’al Tekiah, so he studied for two years to master the Kavanot and to perfect his technique.  The day arrived for his audition, and he stood before the Holy Ba’al Shem Tov.  And he froze.  He was so overwhelmed with his need to be perfect that he could not remember a single one of the holy prayers, and could hardly sound a single note.  He was devastated.  He stood before the Ba’al Shem Tov, crestfallen and heart-broken, and lost himself in tears of grief.

“I select you,” the Ba’al Shem Tov said.  “But I completely failed,” the man said. “I could remember none of the kavanot, and I could hardly make a sound.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov explained with a parable:  In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax.  The King is the Holy One, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained.  The palace is the spiritual world of God’s domain.  The secret chambers are those essences of God that lead us closer and closer to who we ultimately should strive to be, and the secret keys are the kavanot and mitzvot and holy acts we perform that open those spiritual portals.  But the ax, the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the Divine Presence is the broken heart.  It is your broken heart, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained, that will carry all our petitions into the presence of the Most High.  For as Psalm 34 reminds us: “God is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

God doesn’t need us to be perfect.  God needs us to be human.  Fully, profoundly, flawed, and human.

When Moses descends from Mt. Sinai, carrying the tablets of the Ten Commandments he encounters his people celebrating a failure of epic proportion.  Not 40 days removed from their collective encounter with God, the Israelites built themselves a Golden Calf, and in full throated celebration proclaim their fidelity to the God they have fashioned for themselves.  And it breaks Moses’ heart.  And in his broken-heartedness, Moses shatters the tablets and seeks to restore order among the people.  But what happens next is what is most extraordinary.  Moses with his broken heart, is summoned again to the summit of Mount Sinai, and fashions a second set of tablets.

And when he descends with the second set of tablets, he declares words we echo throughout the celebration of these High Holy Days:  “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum V’Chanun, Erech Apayim, V’Rav Chesed V’Emet – Adonai, a God of compassion and graciousness, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)”  The midrash teaches that Moses took his new tablets and placed them into the holy ark, right next to the broken tablets.  What is most holy to God, and to us, is both perfection and brokenness.

If we are to be holy like God, then we need to be forgiving like God, not simply forgiving of others but forgiving of ourselves.  God is gracious, accepting, and patient, and so should we be as well. God loves our broken hearts, because it is only when we feel the fullness of regret that we may be inspired to grow, to change, to improve, to be a little closer to a vision of what we could ultimately choose to be.

These are the High Holy Days because these are the days that we embrace our regrets, that empty space inside that makes each one of us a complete and holy vessel. These days are the High Holy Days because when we inhabit our brokenness, we hope that our repentance, our prayer, and our resolve to learn and grow will inspire us to transcend the morass of our embarrassment and our shame.

Henry David Thoreau said:  “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret,” he said, “is to live afresh.”

As we reflect this Rosh HaShanah on the year and years that have passed, let us indeed make the most of our regrets.  May our broken hearts open the gates to a new year where God will inspire us to find forgiveness, healing, love, and peace.

[1] Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have To Be?: New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 1996, p. 35.


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Thoughts In Elul – Viewing and Reviewing

I have a terrible habit that I am going to try to break in the coming year.  Often, late at night, as I am winding down from the day, I turn on the TV and surf the movie channels.  I’m not really interested in watching a new movie. At that time of night, I don’t have the patience or desire to have to concentrate on something unfamiliar.  Instead, I usually look for a movie I’ve seen before – usually one that I’ve caught pieces of many times.

There’s something very soothing and relaxing about coming back to a story that’s ultimately familiar.  A familiar movie is a great escape from whatever is happening.  For a few minutes I get to leave my world behind and go inhabit someone else’s world.  It’s no longer my problems that dominate my consciousness; a movie invites me to spend time worried about someone else’s issues.  Even though I know how it’s going to end, I still rejoice when the main characters triumph, and I cry each time when they suffer and fall.  A good movie invites me to transcend my own experience to inhabit the life of someone else – even if that person is real only on screen.

I’m sure I could use those last minutes of the day more productively – I could read a book, or, God forbid, go to sleep a little earlier.  But what I would suggest is that during Elul we take some time to escape our present and jump into another world – the world of our memory.

Rosh HaShanah is called Yom HaZikaron – the day of memory.  Memory is a powerful spiritual tool.  Memory allows us to transcend our physical reality.  We can leave behind the here and now, and travel back to a different time and place.  Memory invites us to gain a different perspective on that which we once experienced, to look more carefully at what occurred, to reflect not only on the experience itself, but on what that experience meant.  Memory allows us to inhabit our own life in a new and different way.

Many of us like to spend time looking at pictures of important occasions.  We celebrate a simcha or return from a trip.  In real-time, it all seemed to go by so fast.  When we flip through the pictures, we can slow down the clock and savor an experience.  We can think about what we saw, what we heard, how we felt, and ultimately what we’ve learned.  We can look even deeper, and see how a particular experience or event affected what happened to us next, or how we were transformed by what transpired.  It’s that process of taking a good hard look at ourselves and our experience that can be so spiritually powerful and transformative.

This is how Jewish ritual works – it forces us to stop the business and busy-ness of our lives to remember and reflect.  A baby is born, and the experience of the delivery can be overwhelming and powerful.  But then, eight days later, we stop and look back on that miracle and think about what it all means.  We think not only about the miracle of life, but also to what we are dedicating that life.  Whose memory do we want to honor, what values and principles do we hope to impart, what do we pray this child will come to know and understand in the course of his/her life?

So do these holy days force us to look inward and explore the realm of memory.  The moments when we stop, look back, and reflect on the meaning we choose to draw from the memory of our lives can be the most powerful moments in our spiritual lives.  They are transcendent because they invite us truly to transcend the boundaries of physical existence.  It is this work and this process that makes them truly  high holy days.

Let us all afford ourselves the oppotunity this month to take that spiritual journey down memory lane, and let that experience of transcendence inspire us as we look forward to our own life’s journey.

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Looking Outward and Inward – beginning the Journey of Elul

Today marks the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul 5775.  Traditionally this marks the beginning of our preparation for the High Holy day celebrations of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur next month.  The month of Elul invites us each day to hear the sound of the shofar, calling us to begin the process of introspection and reflection that make this season so spiritually powerful.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, we read: “The eye never has its fill of seeing, nor the mind of knowing.”  Ultimately, this month invites us to use the power of sight and insight to think about our lives.  We look outward to see the world in which we are privileged to live for such a short span of time.  We look at the blessings of our existence – our comparable comfort, modern technologies that allow us to travel and communicate as never before, advances in healthcare and medicine that extend life’s quantity and quality, the safety and security we enjoy in this country and the blessing of living in a time when our people controls its fate and destiny in our own homeland.  We think about the gift of relationships with family and friends, who so deeply enrich our lives through the sharing of the power of their love, their intellect, their passion and compassion.

At the same time we look inward to examine our inner life.  We think about how we have chosen to construct our lives. We consider how we chose to use our talent and ability, toward what we devoted our resources and our energies.  We reexamine our dreams, reflect on our purposes, consider how we chose to serve our own individual needs and the needs of others.

Each day this month, I will invite you to examine some element of life and our individual and collective journeys.  I hope that by sharing this journey with you, that we all will greet the year 5776 with better wisdom for what life can ultimately mean, and with better understanding of how we can enrich our lives – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – in the New Year.

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The Framework With Iran – Dayenu?

Yesterday, the president announced that “together with our allies and partners, has reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

As I prepare to sit down with family and friends for our seder meals, I don’t know what to feel.  Part of me wants to feel some sense of joy or relief.  The leaders of the strongest nations on the planet, each with different and competing agendas for their own place in the world, came together united to prevent Iran from developing the most fearsome weapon humanity has devised or known.  The Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi wrote that “The nuclear limits – particularly those on the Iranian supply chain – are surprisingly strong and significant.”[1]

William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former deputy secretary of state summed up the challenge facing negotiators.  “In a perfect world,” he wrote, “there would be no nuclear enrichment in Iran, and its existing enrichment facilities would be dismantled. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We can’t wish or bomb away the basic know-how and enrichment capability that Iran has developed. What we can do is sharply constrain it over a long duration, monitor it with unprecedented intrusiveness, and prevent the Iranian leadership from enriching material to weapons grade and building a bomb.”[2]

There has been much commentary as to whether such an arms control scheme can work.  Will Iran try to deceive the monitors?  Will such monitoring effectively prevent Iran from moving forward on their designs toward a nuclear weapon?  At the AIPAC conference in early March, I heard Ambassador Brad Gordon remind us that inspectors are just that: inspectors.  Even if their inspections turn up evidence that Iran has decided to break provisions of the agreement, what can they do?  How fast can the world’s leaders come together to address that eventuality?  It took years of careful diplomacy and negotiations to impose the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table.  How long would it take to impose such sanctions again, and how long would it take for their effects to be felt in Tehran?

We are not fortune tellers, sooth-sayers, or clairvoyant prophets with a crystal ball into the future.  We will have to see what the deal looks like with meat on its bones.  For example, as Michael Levi writes, it is unclear how Iran will reduce its stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium from 10,000 kg to 300 kg. Will Iran ship the material out of country? Will it blend it down to LEU that’s enriched to less than 3.67 percent? Will it convert the LEU into fuel?”  It is also unclear as to the pace and method of sanctions relief.  Which sanctions will be removed first?  How quickly will Iran’s economy realize the benefits from normalizing its banking relationships and energy sales?

But what worries me more, frankly, is what happens next.  Iran used its nuclear ambition to gain economic concessions from the west.  We have already seen that despite the pressures and constraints on Iran’s economy, they have still found the resources and willingness to project what Prime Minister Netanyahu aptly described as “tentacles of terror” throughout the region.  Iran projects power into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and now Yemen.  Despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the complete disarmament of militia groups in Lebanon, Iran has armed Hizbullah with what some claim is an arsenal of nearly 100,000 missiles.

In 2006, Hizbullah launched more than 4,000 missiles at Israel.  It is estimated that Hizbullah now has double the arsenal, and according to Col. Aviram Hasson, Iran is a “train engine that is not stopping for a moment. It is manufacturing new and advanced ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters.”[3]

Iran’s military continues to state its goal of “wiping Israel off the map”.  According to a Kol Yisrael report, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of Iran’s volunteer Basij Force, reaffirmed during a recent conference the goal of Israel’s destruction is non-negotiable. Can Iran achieve this goal?  No.  Israel is too strong and possesses its own nuclear threat.

But the nuclear threat does not completely deter aggression.  Despite America’s massive nuclear capability, we still have fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of lives in the war zones themselves.  Even without nuclear capability, Iran has used its proxies to project its power throughout the region.

There are many countries in the world who possess the technology Iran seeks to hold who do not have a nuclear bomb.  Canada produces 16 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, but possesses no nuclear weapon. Spain produces nearly 20 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, but possesses no nuclear weapon.  And of all the countries in the world whom you would expect to want a nuclear weapon, since they alone have experienced the horror of what those weapons can impose, Japan possesses no nuclear weapon.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on Wednesday that he believes that this agreement may help create “the conditions for Iran to become a normal country.”[4]  But I can’t help thinking that normal countries do not threaten to wipe others off the map.

The biggest problem with the deal is that it fails to address the underlying real threat that Iran represents, which is a desire to foment belligerency, extremism, and war throughout a region over which it seeks to expand its hegemony.  A “good deal” would not simply have blocked all paths for Iran to build a nuclear bomb, but would have blocked all paths for Iran to pursue its hegemonic aims.  A good deal would have tied sanctions relief to Iran pulling back its weaponization and military support for proxies like Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hizbullah.

Sadly, the real threat that Iran poses to Israel and the region is only bolstered now by the billions of dollars Iran will eventually realize from sanctions relief.  Iran has strategically used its investment in nuclear technology to strengthen its position to project its power into a region that has much to fear from it.

I wish I could look at the framework for the agreement with Iran and say, “Dayenu – it’s enough for us.”  Sadly, I don’t really think it is.  But the Holy One did not stop with taking us out of Egypt. It wasn’t enough. We needed the sea to split for us, we needed to be satisfied in the desert, we needed Shabbat and to be led to Mount Sinai.  I pray that the Holy One will continue to help us be defended from our enemies, and that we will soon open the door for Elijah to see the blessings of peace fill our homes and the world we all share.

[1] “Five Thoughts on the Iran Nuclear Agreement” by Micahel Levi.  Council on Foreign Relations,  April 2, 2015.

[2] “The Fruits of Diplomacy With Iran” by William J. Burns.  The Washington Post, April 3, 2015.

[3] “Iran Is Placing Guided Warheads on Hezbollah Rockets” by Yaakov Lapin. The Jerusalem Post, March 31, 2015

[4] “A Nuclear Deal With Iran Is Not Just About Bombs” by Nicholas Kristof. The New York Times, April 1, 2015.


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America, Israel, and Iran: Now That The Speech Is Said…

Now that the dust has settled from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on my thoughts on this crucial period for America and Israel.

At the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC this week, the Prime Minister said this about Israel’s relationship with America: “We’re like a family. We’re practically mishpocha.” There is no question, despite the challenges of the past several years, that America and Israel are very much like family.  We share a deep and abiding commitment to the eternal values our people has taught for centuries.  Part of the reason our people have prospered so magnificently in America comes from the separation of religion and state, which has allowed Jewish life to flourish and grow in expressions remarkably creative and passionate.  But the other reason we fit so well in America is that the values of our people have become synonymous with American values.

Thus Israel, while being founded from the echoes of a dream reverberating across two millennia and being born into the aftershocks of the most violent human conflict in history, is in many ways a reflection of what America seeks to be in itself.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds, they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.

If America and Israel are family, then we are witnessing the tensions that arise from a family quarrel.  Like all family quarrels, the discord and antagonism of a few of its members has the potential to explode into a full-blown rift.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama sit at the epicenter of that quarrel.  Throughout the long tenure both have shared as leaders of their respective nations, neither has found the way or professed much desire to build any sense of a meaningful friendship.  Both are committed to the family to which they belong.  In many ways, President Obama, as acknowledged by leaders on both sides, has done more to support Israel than his predecessors.  He has ensured that the billions in foreign aid that Israel enjoys has grown.  He has supplied Israel with vital technologies, like the missile interceptor technology that has grown into the Iron Dome that has saved countless lives.  Military and intelligence collaboration has never been stronger.  And he has done everything he can to shield Israel from the UN’s psychopathic obsession with the State of Israel.

But the growing sense of alienation between the two leaders has created a vacuum into which partisan politics has seen fit to enter.  From Netanyahu’s clear support for Mitt Romney in the last American presidential campaign, to the Republican party’s growing insistence that they are the true friends of Israel, we are beginning to see a trend toward support for Israel as a partisan wedge issue.

I am grateful that every message I heard at AIPAC and from nearly every member of congress was to support the bipartisan nature of the American-Israeli partnership.  From many members, there was a lament that the Prime Minister’s invitation to speak to congress seemed to tear at the fiber of that ideal.

What bothers me most about the invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu was that it was done without collaboration with the White House.  Part of the genius of the American political system is the separation and balance of powers between the executive, legislature, and judiciary.  But while these branches of government may be separate, they are all part of one government, and that government cannot have more than one leader conduct foreign policy.

The American people elected Barack Obama to be their leader.  John Boehner was elected by several thousand people in Ohio to be their representative.  Even though he is third in line to the presidency, I don’t believe the Speaker of the House ought to be conducting foreign policy apart from the President.  They don’t have to like each other, and they most certainly don’t have to agree.  But they must work in some measure of collaboration or America risks despoiling its ability to conduct foreign policy.  It was wrong, in my judgment, to have invited the Prime Minister to speak without consulting the White House, and it was wrong, in my judgment for the Prime Minister to accept the invitation without ensuring that the President had been consulted or at least informed.

It is also unfortunate, given the proximity of the speech to Israeli elections, that the speech was scheduled when it was.  It gives the veneer of American interference in Israeli elections, and that is wrong.  Whether or not the speech will influence the Israeli voter remains to be seen, but America ought not be seen as siding with one Israeli candidate over another.  For example, what if Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni win?  Will they wonder if they will enjoy the same support from Congress as did their predecessor, whom they defeated?

With all that said, I am disappointed that so many members of congress elected not to attend the speech.  The rationale given by many was that they were offended that the speech had become politicized, but by choosing not to attend, and then holding a press conference later, they added fuel to the fire.  I appreciate the response I heard from several members of congress that said while they were disappointed in the process for the reasons I explained above, the relationship America shares with Israel, and the issue of the negotiations with Iran, were too important to absent themselves.

America and Israel together face a terrible quagmire when confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  As Ambassador Brad Gordon said at the AIPAC conference, the time to have dealt with this problem was years ago.  It has taken time for the sanctions regime to take effect, but the effects have been severe.  Iran’s economy has suffered terribly from the sanctions the world has imposed.  The Rial has dropped 50 percent in value, and the Iranian oil industry has suffered billions of dollars in lost revenue.  The purpose of the sanctions was to bring Iran to the table, and now Iran is sitting at the table.

I would have wished that America and our partners would have required stronger concessions to begin negotiations, including halting the enrichment of uranium.  By allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium during negotiations already conceded that enrichment would go on as part of any deal.  I am deeply concerned that America is not negotiating a deal that will be strong enough to secure our interests.

Iran is a terrifying regime.  I think the Prime Minister’s description of tentacles of terror is apt.  Iran has extended its reach to Iraq through its connections to the Shia regime.  For years, Iran has supported Hizbullah, helping it to build a massive stockpile of 100,000 rockets and missiles under the nose of the UN, which promised in 2006 to prevent Hizbullah from rearming.  Iran has funded and supported Hamas, who used Iranian weaponry in its war with Israel last summer.  Iran has destabilized the Yemenite government, and helped in the overthrow of the regime there.  Iran is the leading sponsor of state-sponsored terror in the world, and is certainly responsible for the bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina in 1993.  Iran even attempted to attack the Saudi diplomatic mission here in the United States.

Imagine an Iran with a nuclear weapon.  What limits could the world impose on an emboldened Iran?  Can we be sure that Iran would not proliferate or sell its nuclear technology to the array of non-state terror organizations they support throughout the region?  Iran has repeatedly called for the destruction and annihilation of Israel.  What would it mean if they then secured the technology to make good on that threat?

The Jewish people and the world learned an important lesson in the last century:  when someone says it is their goal to annihilate you, you have to take them seriously.

I think there is agreement between America and Israel that Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon.  So when we hear that a deal with Iran lasts only ten or fifteen years, with no restrictions on what Iran may do following that period, that it permits the continued enrichment of uranium, that it leaves at best a year break-out for Iran to develop a bomb … that sounds like a very bad deal.

But what might be the alternative?  There are many constraints on what America can ultimately do.

First, America is not the only party to these negotiations.  America’s partners, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany need to be convinced that a stronger deal is also in their interests and as far as China and Russia goes, that will be heavy lifting indeed.  Second, consider the alternative if Iran walks away from the table.  They may resume the installation of centrifuges, the enrichment of uranium, and whatever other undertakings they may choose without any constraint at all.

Between 2003 and 2005, Iran began negotiations to limit their nuclear program.  Negotiating with Britain, Iran agreed to cap its centrifuges at very low levels, keep enrichment levels well below those that could be used for weapons and convert its existing stockpile of uranium into fuel rods that could not be used for military purposes.  The Bush administration vetoed that idea.  As Fareed Zakaria writes in The Washington Post, “Harvard University’s Graham Allison, one of the United States’ foremost experts on nuclear issues, pointed out that “by insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.”[1] Since then, Iran has built 19,000 centrifuges, enriched 17,000 pounds of uranium, built a heavy water reactor at Arak to produce weapons-grade plutonium.  As painful as the current sanctions regime is, it has not, and likely will not deter Iran from moving forward with its nuclear program.

Which leaves a military option.  In September of 2012, the Iran Project published a paper titled: “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran.”[2]  The report concluded that there could be significant benefits to military action.  It could damage or destroy Iran’s current enrichment facilities, it could damage Iranian military capabilities, it could enhance the perception of America’s seriousness and credibility, and it could also help deter weapons proliferation.

But there would be serious costs as well.  First, military action would provoke a strong Iranian reaction against both the United States and Israel, either directly by Iranian military action or more likely through non-state actors and terrorist organizations.  We can be certain that an attack on Iran would provoke missile attacks from Hamas in Gaza and significant missile attacks from Hizbullah in Lebanon.  While Israel’s Iron Dome technology will blunt much of these attacks, it won’t stop them all, and one must expect significant Israeli casualties.  In addition, terror attacks on U.S. targets, at home and abroad, will likely create significant American casualties as well.  We could lose the hard-won world consensus against Iran’s nuclear program, especially if Iran suffers significant casualties as would likely result from any campaign.  There would certainly be global political and economic instability from a military campaign, and disruptions in energy supply and security. It would foment popularity and support for anti-American extremist groups in the Middle East and around the world.  And it would result in the unification of Iranian society against America and American interests, hardening Iran in its resolve to produce a nuclear deterrent to such attacks in the future.[3]

While we may be able to destroy Iran’s infrastructure, we cannot destroy Iran’s know-how, and the best estimates indicate that a military strike would only set Iran back by several years.[4]  And then what?  Iran would be determined to rebuild its nuclear infrastructure, only in more hardened locations like the installation at Fodor and in secret, so the world will have no knowledge of where Iran is in its nuclear capability.

So where does that leave us?  Ultimately there is a very large gap between the vision of the future we want and the future we can have.  A poignant moment at the AIPAC Policy Conference came during National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s address.  She said, that we might wish for an Iran where all their nuclear infrastructure was dismantled and was interrupted by applause before she could finish her sentence.  The completed sentence, however, concluded with “If we insist on no enrichment, our partners will abandon us. Simply put, that is not a viable nor obtainable negotiating position.”

In his message to Congress, the Prime Minister related the negotiations to bargaining in a Persian Bazaar.  It is my hope that the public pressure the Prime Minister’s address and Congress’s legislative response to propose additional tougher sanctions will strengthen America and the P5+1 negotiators at the table. I am hopeful they will realize the unique opportunity that the sanctions and the precipitous drop in the price of oil has in bringing international pressure to bear on Iran to get the strongest possible deal to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

I appreciate the administration’s statements that they will insist on a deal that cuts off all pathways for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, and that they will, as Susan Rice said, “distrust, and verify.”  I am grateful that the administration agreed that a “bad deal is worse than no deal” and for reiterating that “all options are on the table to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

I believe it is crucial for us all to continue to advocate for Israel, to help our neighbors and our friends to understand the unique nature of Israel’s history, culture, and democracy, and the way in which Israel proves again and again to be America’s best and most reliable ally in the cauldron of the Middle East.

Lastly, I hope that with this episode now behind us, America and Israel can recommit to the collaboration and trust that needs to be the hallmark of this special relationship.  America is Israel’s attorney in these negotiations.  Since Israel cannot advocate for herself at the table, they must rely on America to advocate for her.  The breakdown between the American and Israeli leaders and their administrations has caused Israel to lose faith in their lawyer.  It is my hope that together that faith and trust can be restored.

[1] “Netanyahu Enters Never Never Land,” by Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post, March 5, 2015

[2] “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” by The Iran Project, September 24, 2012.

[3] Ibid. pp. 11-13.

[4] Ibid. p. 38.


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Moving Forward Together – Opening Remarks

Today we honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and the epic struggle for civil rights he led, and for which he paid the ultimate sacrifice.  In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.  That is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

We cannot allow our own comfort and security to satiate us and callous us to the suffering of others.  We cannot ignore the injustice rendered to some because we ourselves are not victims of injustice.  It was Dr. King who taught us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  And for men and women who are gay, bisexual, or transgendered, there is profound injustice in the State of Florida, in the United States of America, and around the world.

Just an hour ago, I had the privilege of standing beneath the Chuppah, the wedding canopy with David Hanowitz and Eric Gottlieb, surrounded by close friends and family, as we celebrated the first legally sanctioned wedding between two men on the bima of Temple Beth El.  It was magical, it was holy, and it was legal.  And it was redundant.  It was redundant because two years ago, in that very space, we consecrated their wedding and their love in a celebration that was also magical, and holy, but not legal.

But more than the celebration of that wedding, why are we here tonight?  Why has this congregation joined hands with the Anti Defamation League, Equality Florida and Northern Trust Bank to bring you all here?

The fact is I believe securing civil rights for the LGBT community is a Jewish imperative.  In the Talmud, the rabbis try to find the once verse in the Bible that sums up the totality of Judaism.  First they turn to the prophet Micah, who qualified Judaism into three ideas.  He said:

“What is it that God demands of you?  Only this: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly in God’s presence.” – (Micah 6:8)

Isaiah based all the mitzvot on two ideas:  “Keep Justice and Righteousness” – (Isaiah 56:1)

Amos reduced it to one:  “Seek me and live.” – (Amos 7:5-6)

Rabbi Akiva said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)  This is the most important precept of the Torah.

But Ben Azzai said:  “This is the book of the Generations … Humanity was created in God’s image.”   This is an even greater principle.

Ultimately, the entirety of Judaism rests on these two ideas.  The fact is, as Jews, we are obligated to love.  We are obligated to reach beyond the confines of our own immediate selves and seek to build bonds of love and intimacy with each other.

The Holy One clearly had a problem with sex for its own sake.  Pages of proscriptions in the book of Leviticus describe sexual encounters that are not founded in real intimacy and love as abominations.  But what Ben Azzai tells us is that humanity is created in God’s own image.  And that image is not gendered.  The essential nature of our humanity is not male or female.  The essential nature of our humanity is the spiritual energy that comes from love.  All we are is love.

But too often we focus on the vessel that carries that love.  We focus on the color of that vessel, or its gender, and assume that the vessel is really the self.

The fact is, God does not care whom we love, but that we love.  And Ben Azzai taught us that the core of Torah is that we treasure the sanctity of each and every individual life, created in God’s holy image.

As we look back on our nation’s history, we see too many examples of where we as a society allowed for horrible injustices to be perpetrated because we were blinded by bigotry and ignorance, and unable and unwilling to treasure that sacred human sanctity embedded within us all. We look back with horror on the idea that we once considered a person 3/5 of a human being simply because of their African origin.  We look back in disgrace that we once believed it appropriate for there to be separate water-fountains or restroom facilities for Caucasian and those of color.  We look back with shame that we interred thousands of Japanese Americans and challenged their loyalty and their patriotism.

And we look back equally with disgust at the idea that there were once laws that banned sexual intimacy between two men, that our country devoted millions of dollars to root out men and women who sought to serve in their nation’s armed forces if they were found to be manifesting their love for someone of the same gender.

And someday, someday soon, God willing, we will look back on our society today with the same sense of disgust and embarrassment.  God willing, soon and in our day, we will look back and ask ourselves how could we deny gay men and women the right to marry whomever they chose to love, how could we not think it criminal to deny someone housing, or employment, or service in a restaurant or hotel on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation.

It’s amazing to me that just ten years ago, a significant majority of the citizens of our state thought it right and just to enshrine in our state’s constitution the unjust banishment of the right for a person to marry another of his/her own gender.  But, as Dr. King said, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself …”

And it is manifesting itself here tonight.  We who come together this evening are heeding the call from Moses across the centuries: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue.”

On March 12, 1930, Mohandas Gandhi set out from his Ashram with a few dozen followers on a 240 mile march to the sea to make salt and establish justice for the oppressed people of India.  By the time he arrived at the seashore almost a month later, there were tens of thousands of people walking with him.

The struggle for civil rights begins with a few dozen and culminates when a whole society says, no.  We will no longer tolerate injustice.  We will Move Forward Together until we achieve our dream of justice and peace.

We are on our way.  Together let us move forward into a world that is healed of bigotry, injustice, and fear, into a new world where we raise the chuppah to celebrate the creation of a society where justice is championed for all, and God’s love and ours will spread a shelter of peace over everyone.


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Living With Your Whole Brain – Yom Kippur 5775

In tenth grade, my parents encouraged me to acquire a skill that changed my life.  For an entire year, first period, I took touch-typing.  Ms. Griffin, my teacher, who hailed from Mississippi would admonish us in the morning to put our hands in the home position – asdf jkl; – and begin our exercises.  It was a great way to wake up in the morning.  Imagine the machine-gun like chatter of 32 IBM Selectrics rattling at 8:00 a.m.

Eventually, I got good.  By the end of the year, I could type nearly 90 words per minute.  It was a particularly useful skill.  I’ve always had terrible handwriting, and I found that by typing I was much more free to express myself.  The ability to touch-type opened a doorway through which I fell in love with writing.  It was also quite lucrative – I made a lot of money in summer jobs working as a secretary and in college typing my friends’ papers.

But in rabbinical school, when I was writing my thesis, I had to learn a different skill – touch-typing in Hebrew.  It was so much harder.  Not only did I have to figure out where the new letters were on the keyboard, but I had to learn how to keep changing left to right – then right to left – then back again. I eventually got the hang of it, but I’m nowhere near as proficient typing in Hebrew as I am in English.  Somehow typing in Hebrew is like using a different part of my brain.

Then this summer, I found out I was right.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his phenomenal book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search For Meaning describes a particular “eureka” moment he had in school.  In the last 150 years, neuroscientists have discovered the incredible differences between the two sides of our brain.  The left side of our brain tends to be where we process linear, analytical, mechanical thoughts.  The left brain breaks things down into component parts, categorizes and classifies them, and figures out their logic and sequence.  The right side of our brain tends to be where we find empathy and emotion and social intelligence.  The right brain integrates ideas, irony, and metaphor and humor.

Rabbi Sacks, who was the former chief rabbi of England, notes that in languages where there are letters for vowels, words can be recognized one by one with limited ambiguity, but in Hebrew, there are no letters for vowels.  When you read the Torah, there are no vowels at all, and so the meaning of words depends significantly on the context.  From English, you can figure out the meaning from the phonics; in Hebrew you figure out the phonics from the meaning.  English, is a left-brained activity; Hebrew, more a right-brained kind of thing.[1]

Over time, the western world evolved into a left-brained kind of world.  With Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the advent of science and philosophy, the West began to prize rational inquiry and scientific thought.  And while Judaism has always prized that left-brained perspective, Judaism is founded more on the importance of love and relationship, compassion and covenant: what we need from our right-brain.

The fact is we need both: to be all we can be in the world, we need to use our whole brain – right and left.  There are times we need to be logical, rational, and physical, and there are times we need to be emotional, passionate, and spiritual.  As Rabbi Sacks relates: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”[2]

When I was a kid I loved to grab a screwdriver and take things apart, but what I found is that it was often much more difficult to figure out how to put things together.  Building a world of meaning is not nearly as simple as a mathematical proof. Moral truths are hard to determine.  For example, we may say that murder is wrong.  We know that to be true.  But how?  There are any number of philosophical arguments we might make, but those arguments are based on an idea, on a belief.  Murder is only wrong if we believe that human life is sacred.  And that truth, though we embrace it with every fiber of our being, is not one that we can prove.  It is one that we take on faith.

What is faith?  Faith is that which you believe that you cannot truly prove.  And faith is hard to come by.  In the story of the Exodus, our people are given plenty of signs of God’s presence and power, wonders that Moses performs, plagues that afflict the land of Egypt and its people, a sea that parts, manna in the wilderness, water from a rock, even their own experience of revelation at Mt. Sinai.  But as powerful as were these signs, they could not offer the proof the Israelites craved.  So when Moses is gone, the people lose their faith.  They say to Aaron, “make for us a God that will go before us, for that man Moses – who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what’s happened to him (Exodus 32:1).”  Why do they need Aaron to build them a God?  They had witnessed the plagues, and all the other miracles, had even heard God speak to them directly the month before.  The evidence was strong, but their faith was weak.  They needed proof that God was with them, so they built an idol, a God they could see and touch, proof that God was with them.

And in many ways, we are just like them.  We want rational and scientific answers to prove that Judaism and the Torah are true.  It’s amazing to see the pretzels we turn ourselves into to prove scientifically that the Bible is true.

Every year, two or three people will email me an article claiming to understand the scientific basis for the ten plagues, the rational basis for the laws of kashrut, and the Discovery Channel will inevitably show how the story of Noah and other biblical events can be traced back to astronomical and meteorological phenomena.  There … I guess that proves the Torah is true.

But the Truth value of Torah is not found in left-brain analysis, but in right-brain appreciation.  The stories of the Torah are not meant to be taken as literal scientific truth.  They are allegorical narratives designed to help us figure out the purpose and meaning to our lives.

But we cannot abandon the importance of what left-brain truths we constantly learn.  People who abandon their left-brain rationality and reason are dangerous.

This is what groups like ISIS in the Middle East are trying to achieve.  They want to turn the clock back a thousand years to establish a society built solely around the dictates of religion.  They want to build their whole society around ancient Muslim Sharia Law.  A 23 year-old young man who goes by the name of Abu Tareq grew up in Denmark and decided last year to travel to Syria to join the fight for the Islamic State.  While visiting the city of Raqqa, he saw a man was arrested for drinking alcohol.  After the charge was leveled, the man was beaten seventy times with a lash, after which he kissed the two men who delivered the punishment.  “I could tell he regretted his offense,” recalls Abu Tareq. “It was the most beautiful moment to me, illustrating the peaceful, beautiful life under Sharia, under ISIS.”

But in truth, a world where we live by the literal world of religious texts is a scary, horrifying place.  Life under Sharia law is draconian and negates all the progress society has enjoyed since the middle ages.  According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the news report Syria Deeply, life under ISIS in Raqqa is a “nightmare” in which crucifixions and beheadings take place on a regular basis, and women are forbidden access to employment or education or even sunlight on their skin. Just recently, within the span of twenty-four hours in late July, two women who were accused of adultery were reportedly stoned to death.[3]

We cringe with horror as gruesome acts of inhumanity, intolerance, terror and murder are committed in the name of religion.  We live in an age where ultra-orthodox Jewish men spit on an eight year old girl and call her a whore because she had the audacity to wear a long-sleeved, high-collared shirt that wasn’t long and high enough for their taste.  We live in an age where fundamentalist Christians demand that biology curricula teach creationism as science and evolution as merely a theory.  We live in an age where pathological Muslim men shout “Allahu Akhbar – God is great” as they steer an airplane at over 500 miles an hour into the side of an office tower.  Living in a completely right-brain world where religion, and only religion holds sway is like living with half a brain.

If that’s what religion brings, then who wouldn’t turn away from religion?  Everyone from Bill Maher to many members of our own congregation profess to me some measure of atheism.  When I talk to many people who feel disaffected with religious life, inevitably they point to the history of war, bloodshed, tyranny and oppression religion leaves in its wake.

But as dangerous as the world seems to be from religion, a world without religion is even more dangerous.  There are many modern day scholars, writers, and people like us who worship science and atheism with the same ferocious commitment as the most religious fundamentalists.  Certainly we can look at religious movements and be repulsed by the wake of destruction they seem to leave, but when we look at movements that cast out religion, they are far more destructive.  Count up the millions who were murdered by Hitler, and Stalin, and Mao to see how infinitely more dangerous and horrifying is a world without religion.

This idea was brought home to me several years ago by a young man from our congregation who was home visiting his family.  He had studied at the University of Florida and majored in Sociology with a minor in Chinese, and he wanted to see how good his Chinese actually was.  So after graduation, he moved to Shanghai, where he eventually built a business consulting on design and operations for Chinese night clubs.  He had met a beautiful Chinese woman and was wondering whether he should actually built his life in China.

“What’s holding you back,” I asked him.  “Sounds like you’ve built a great life for yourself.”

“The problem is, Rabbi,” he said, “I don’t know if I can live in a country where people don’t believe in God.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “the Chinese people I’ve met have almost no sense of morality like we do.  They love their immediate families and will do anything for them.  They are generally nice people.  But for anyone else, most of the people I know wouldn’t hesitate to lie, cheat, or steal if it would help them get ahead.  Because they have no religious life, they have no sense of moral code, nothing that tells them this is right, and this is wrong.  There is no sense that they should care about each other, no sense that they should be generous for those less fortunate.  The ideas of morality I was taught to value they think of as quaint and naive.  I don’t know if I can really live in that kind of society.”

This isn’t to paint the Chinese with a broad brush but to make a point: if we put all of our trust in science and reason, and leave no room in our hearts for faith and purpose, it’s like living life with half a brain.

We come here today because in some measure we believe in something sacred.  We believe in the creation and maintenance of a moral universe that is founded on a very distinct set of values and principles: wisdom and understanding, compassion and justice.  The Prophet Micah said it best: “What is it that God demands of you?  Only this: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly in God’s presence. (Micah 6:8)” We believe in generosity and kindness, in protecting the vulnerable and the weak, in the sacred nature of the bonds of love that unite us in a web of interdependent relationship, and in cherishing and honoring the infinite value of life itself.  We have taught, and we believe, that all this is good.  And you know what’s amazing?  We believe all this and we can’t prove any of it.

The fact is that the moral underpinnings of our society got there because we live in a world founded on religious truths – faith-based truths.  And unless we take seriously the religious foundations on which that moral framework is built, then it will eventually give way, crumble, and fall.  Tolstoy wrote in A Confession and Other Religious Writings: “The instructions of a secular morality that is not based on religious doctrines are exactly what a person ignorant of music might do if he were made a conductor and started to wave his hands in front of musicians well-rehearsed in what they are performing.  By virtue of its own momentum, and from what previous conductors had taught the musicians, the music might continue for a while, but obviously the gesticulations made with a stick by a person who knows nothing about music would be useless and eventually confuse the musicians and throw the orchestra off course. … It is truly desirable,” he said, “that moral teaching should not be adulterated by superstition, but the truth of the matter is that moral teaching is only the result of a particular relationship established between man and the universe, or God.”  For us as Jews, the particular relationship Tolstoy describes we call the covenant.  A covenant we are admonished on Yom Kippur to embrace with more deliberation and seriousness.

The fact is that science and reason may teach us how to build a better IPhone but it can’t teach us how to build a better world.  Science and reason may teach us how to make more money, but it can’t teach us what we should use that money for.  Science and reason may teach us why things happen the way they do, but science and reason will never tell us what it all means.  Science and reason may explain how the world is, but only the Torah will tell us how the world ought to be.

On this Yom Kippur, we have to finally admit to ourselves that it’s not okay to be ignorant of our religious teachings and it’s not okay to have a half-hearted commitment to religious life.  We have to know our people’s story, understand our people’s teachings, and practice our traditions.  It’s not enough just to “feel Jewish in our hearts” or simply to “try to be a good person.”  We need to know where being good comes from.  We need to take a leap of faith and build for ourselves a Jewish life and a Jewish understanding that feeds the other side of our brain without having to check our mind at the door.

Each of us today has a responsibility – a responsibility not to let religious life take a backseat to, well, just about everything else. If not through religious life, in the home or the synagogue, how will we, our children, and our children’s children ever learn the wisdom and the moral values that make for the kind of society we want to have?

We need to lead by example, and make the observance of Shabbat, holidays, and Jewish learning a real priority for ourselves and our families.  We need to admit that to end our children’s Jewish education after Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a sin. It’s not their sin; it’s our sin.  It’s a sin to think that a 13 or 14 year old child has the wherewithal to decide if he or she needs to lead a religious life. We need to admit that it’s a sin to drop our kids off at Temple for Youth Group on Friday night, or a holiday, and then drive off and go do something somewhere else. It’s time for us to devote the same time and commitment to taking care of our spirits as we devote to taking care of our bodies.  It’s time for us to devote as much attention to developing our right brain as to our left.

What we discover as we go deeper in Jewish learning and living is that a religious life is not just reasonable, but good.  We learn, as have our people throughout the centuries, that acts of faith make rational sense.  Judaism is ultimately not simply a religion of reason, but the transformer from which we can draw the power of a deeply meaningful spiritual life. Join me.  In this New Year 5775, see how a more serious investment in building a life of religious meaning can make perfect sense.  And let us more fully embrace our collective mission to secure the moral framework on which we can build a world filled with understanding, love, and peace.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, New York: Schocken Books, 2011, pp. 39-41.

[2] Ibid., p. 55.

[3] “Inside ISIS: The Making of a Radical,” by Louise Stigsgaard Nissen in

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