Monday, September 12, 2016

Is there really such a person as a Secular Jew? A Question for the Upcoming Season of Jewish Holidays

Elul has begun, the Hebrew month that precedes the month of so many celebrations – Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. As an observant Jew in every respect I am fully aware of how all plans and aspects of life are defined at this point as “things I MUST do before the holidays” and “those things that will have to wait until after the holidays.” Further, as the interfacing of the general calendar we all follow in our day to day lives and the Jewish calendar that marks our religious/spiritual/cultural life result in “a later season of Hagim” this year, nonetheless, so many in Jewish circles are rewarded by these later celebrations by being able to obsess for an additional month! Lucky us!

I am privileged to be able to work with and learn from and share thoughts with people from across the ideological divide within the Jewish community as well as with colleagues and friends of other religious traditions. It is so fascinating to watch an entire society go into an altered state of apoplexy during different seasons of the year as they prepare for the big Thanksgiving Feast, for the High Holiday Observance that is part of the Moslem Community, etc. and clearly this is the case with virtually everyone I know who identifies as Jewish on any level, including “secular Jewish” Israeli and/or culturally or religiously Jewish in our widest circles of community.

I wonder if this unified feeling of “I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO TO GET READY” is something to use as a rallying and unifying cry for All Jews, regardless of how they identify as persons of faith and/or practice. Clearly, it is easy enough to apply this to Moslem, Christian and other communities of shared practices and foundational beliefs on any level. In the month of Elul, we are aware of our relationship to G-d, with the letters of the month itself forming an acronym that references a verse in Hebrew, “Ani LeDodi v’Dodi Li,” meaning “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” As we ready for our annual LOVEFEST of the Hagim/holidays of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, it reminds me of the mild to more intense hysteria that might be associated with planning a huge event or celebration, say a wedding! And we all want to be and are part of it!

I have been listening to and learning so much from wonderful discussions that are conducted by Dov Elbaum relating to the weekly Torah portions in Israel. Here is the link for those who want to access it, but note that these conversations are completely in Hebrew -- http://www.dovelbaum.com/page.php?id=121&pic_limit=0&top=103 I love listening to how Dov, who identifies as a Secular Jew, interviews so many other Secular Jews, and pushes them to acknowledge that religion does factor into their identify on many levels. Clearly this is the case with him as well. One of his guests, as Israeli poet by the name of Haim Guri, tells the story of how in an Israeli Moshav (communal living entity – think condominium) there were people who were guarding the community during a time of concern. They heard a disturbance around the perimeter and readied themselves to defend their neighbors and friends. The outsiders shouted “WE ARE TZAHAL” – that is members of the Israeli army. The ones on guard were not certain and finally said, “Okay, prove it, what is the weekly Torah Portion?” This is funny to those of us who live by this marker as religiously observant Jews. The point is that secular Jews in Israel live by the same marker so often. Yossi Beilin, a well known political figure in Israel, who also identifies as “Hiloni” or a secular Jew, talks about how he LOVES the culture of being Jewish, including for him, study of Torah, Talmud, being in synagogue and so on – actions and involvements that many define almost exclusively as religious, but in fact they are so much more.

I love that the Lubavitch teach that every Jew does many Mitzvot (commanded Jewish actions) every day and that we are all religious in so many different ways. So many students of all ages have said to me through the years “Oh, I am not religious.” I often try to challenge them to think of themselves as religious but perhaps they might not be “ritualistically observant” which is one way to be religious. I share with them that in fact there are so many more options for one to identify as religious or a person of faith. This is what my Lubavitch friends are teaching and this is what Yossi Beilin, Dov Elbaum, and I along with so many others are trying to convey through our work and our lives.

Our identity as people of faith is part of our reality as human being. We are all people of belief systems, religion, if you will; even if, and perhaps especially when we do not feel connected to G-d for whatever reasons. We may and do certainly connect differently but we should all remember that we are all included in the larger entity. It is in this mode that Jews of many different types of religious identity, ritual observance and level of connection will approach the coming season of holidays. As for me, I would like to think the fact that we all connect in some way to each other, to community, to time-honored practices and traditions and to a Being Higher than We is what brings us together and unites us, not just the hysteria of preparing for the season in which we reflect upon all of this. A good year of health, happiness and fulfillment to all! Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

I raise my eyes to the mountains, from where comes my support?! (Tehilim/Psalms 121)



We just returned from an absolutely amazing week in Arizona. We used the excuse (or legitimate reason?) of taking our son Brian back to Northern Arizona University, where he is a student, to spend some time in Sedona and the Grand Canyon, two places about which too many people have said “You just have to go there.” So being the obedient child I am, we went!

To be in the presence of the mountains and the terrain that defines that area is truly awe inspiring to the highest degree. I never cease to be amazed by G-d’s artistry. As everyone kept stating that these are natural phenomena, I saw intricate designs and artistic effects everywhere and the references to G-d as the one who fashions, who is the potter, who is the crafter, etc. that we will state several times in the upcoming High Holiday liturgy just kept going through my mind. G-d is truly the most magnificent artisan of all and we are privileged to live as the beneficiaries of this magnificent work. But, too often, people forget that. Spending some time in either of these amazing locales cannot help but remind us. Yes, G-d did create the Heavens and the Earth, and as the clouds, stars, mountains and sunset and sunrise all meld together, it is so clear that the firmaments are there as well!

I remember a few years ago when we were in Boulder, Colorado, also being considered by our son for his college years, I had the same feeling. Wherever you walk, you see mountains, clear skies and generally calm people. As a person with my learning disability of DDD (Directionality Deficit Disorder) there was another benefit. Directions like “walk with the mountains, towards the mountains or away from that mountain range” actually worked… I felt much more grounded, pun perhaps intended! At any rate, I asked one person why the people are so different as I experienced personally that Western USA phenomenon that I knew intellectually exists. The answer I received was as clear as the air, “You see,” said the young man, “when you live alongside the mountains and not sky scrapers and buildings that are the result of human architecture, but rather natural architecture, there is much less hubris.” The quote is probably not exact with the passage of time, but pretty close… and it has definitely stayed with me.

People are different there, really they are nice, they stop to say hi to total strangers and conversations are easy to begin in random places with random people. The pace is different and so appreciated by this resident of the generally hyper Northeastern part of the United States. I totally GET why Brian loves that pace of life in that place and space; it is quite intoxicating in a wonderful way.

One of the topics that I have explored in my own learning and teaching and sharing is that of our connection to the Environment in which we live. We spent time with people who refer to the Grand Canyon as Mother Earth; we use the phrase in Hebrew IMA ADAMAH, and just yesterday I was spending yet another day learning about Native Americans and other peoples on a Museum date with a really close friend (yes JS that’s you!) and saw the French expression MERE TERRE…. The earth is truly our mother and the Creater of All parented her if we think of bringing together our faith traditions and the reality of the land that we way too often ignore.

I am beyond happy as a mom that our son has found his, as one of the locals had put it in January when we first took him there, his “happy place.” But to be honest and a little selfish, Brian, I am so glad that we now have a reason (not an excuse) to continue to come visit (not too much, I promise!) you and spend time in what many people call G-d’s country in which one indeed looks to the mountains for our source, our understanding of so much that is bigger than us and more. For me that is exactly what it is!

As for the rest of us, really YOU HAVE TO GO TO SEDONA and to the GRAND CANYON. And no, I am NOT getting any commission from any tourist bureau for saying so!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

THINKING SERIOUSLY ABOUT LEADERSHIP



I have been here before; WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE too many times. As an American, as a Jew, as a human being, as a woman, as a participating member of a democracy, I just shake my head and wonder how we got to this point with these choices for our next Leader of the Free World and the United States of America. I know that many others share my concern.

That being said, I am particularly horrified that so little respect for us as Americans and as human beings is being shown consistently by one of the candidates who seeks this office. What does this say about our country that we are in this situation, where a candidate for this office consistently maligns, offends, and makes fun of so many in our lives? For any of us who are immigrants or the children of those who came here for a better and more accepting life, who have loved ones who are women, LGBTQ, mentally challenged or different, in any way disabled, veterans who have suffered, who have people in our lives who are Muslims or members of any other faith, have non-American born family members, and are not rich and entitled, I do not understand how any of us can cast a vote for this individual. For anyone who does not believe that one can learn foreign policy from “watching the shows” or that “I am rich, really rich” qualifies one to take on such a daunting responsibility as that which is at stake, how can anyone vote for this individual? For anyone who understands that our world is complex and complicated and the threats that face us are beyond comprehensible, how can we “trust” one who sees things as problems he can solve just because he is! For anyone who is honest and law-abiding, both in terms of the letter and the spirit of our laws, how can we vote for one who abuses financial practices for his own benefit or who does not honor contracts he signed, and is not trusted by his own peers in business? ( I know, they are #@$### according to him as well!)

This situation is made even more difficult by the fact that we have a second candidate with low likeability ratings. Interestingly enough, according to Gallup Polls, likeability ratings for our Presidents have only been between 45% and 65% since they were calculated beginning with Harry Truman, with the sole exception of John F. Kennedy, who gleaned 70%. Obviously, given the tragic circumstances of his truncated presidency, more than a few experts have posited that had he finished out his term, this rating would not have been that high. Hillary Clinton is presently at the lower end of this range.

I often say that we all have to remember that 100% of the people will NOT be 100% happy 100% of the time. Further, each and every President or person in that type of office has stated that one cannot understand what is at stake until one is there; and I subscribe to the Jewish teaching of “do not judge your fellow until you have reached his (or her) place.” I totally agree that we have concerns across the board. Our world is indeed complicated and difficult and I often wonder how different Presidents in our past would have fared under the present circumstances. I loved the energy around Bernie Sanders’ presidency bid and the idealism he brought back to so many of us, whether we agreed or disagreed with him. It very much reminded me from the beginning of George McGovern in the 1972 campaign which I remember well. Interestingly enough, many commentators have made exactly that observation more recently. That being said, we need someone who has personal experience…. not from shows, not from opinion pieces, and not informed above all from hubris and the sense that “I can fix all of the problems.”

I am personally scared… that so many people in this country are responding to scare tactics, and forgetting basic reason and potentially putting all of us at great risk. A dear friend of ours (Thank you MS) asked me for Torah sources to respond to people who think that the candidate who plays on fear and conveys that candidate is the only one who can fix everything, taking a page, by the way, from the playbook of too many dictators that have caused our world to be in the precarious situation it presently finds itself in. I responded that there are so many, but I will choose one here – from a Parsha we will be reading the second Shabbat in September, Parshat Shoftim.

We read in Devarim/Deuteronomy 17: 18 – 19 the various standards for a ruler, amongst which is the necessity to keep the Law (Torah) by their side at all times to remind them that they are accountable and are not just ruling due to their own right. They are not to be excessively rich, because they will forget the injunction with which this weekly portion begins, namely “Justice, Justice you shall pursue.” While these words are directed to the People of Israel as they are readying to occupy their promised land and begin a new chapter in their lives, the sense that we are subject to the law and must abide by that law and KNOW that law is critical to any constructive leadership. THAT LAW talks about caring for those that are disadvantaged, and in fact, the entire well being of the Israelite nation is severely compromised when this is forgotten, as we see throughout the books and the diatribes of the Prophets. Judging fairly, paying one’s workers on time for work done, not speaking ill of others and other dictates are all clearly stated as part of this Law and its expectations.

Good and critically needed advice as we think about the future of the United States of America and its role in the world. We need the Bernies with their idealism and moral compass. We are part of a democracy where ALL voices are to be heard and considered with respect, not responded to by shouting down and kindergarten schoolyard level of name-calling and making distasteful faces. We need reason and dignity and respect for all, for if our leader is incapable of showing this for our own citizenry, what does that say about our position in the world? How are we better than any number of other countries with dictators and autocratic leaders who do as they please and would agree that they could go and shoot someone in the middle of the street and maintain their rule? Later, in Samuel I, chapter 8, the people of Israel do indeed ask for a King “so they can be like all of the other nations.” At this point, they are warned carefully about the excesses of one in such a position, who DOES NOT carry the law with him and know it well as well as understand his accountability to it. Indeed, this will come back to haunt the Israelites on their journey.

This is what we need to think carefully about at this hour. How do our values and lessons from our past inform what we are about to do? So many hard fought battles for women’s rights, respect for each others’ faiths and background, rights for those amongst us who are less able-bodies, LGBTQ inclusion, and so much more….. WE MUST PROTECT ALL OF THIS and understand the potential risks that face us with the wrong decision at this critical juncture.

As for Hillary Clinton, I would humbly suggest that she considers the urgency needed to truly respond to all points of view and not always lead with “That is not what I heard….” We need her to be more liked and more respected for integrity, for honesty, for collaboration, for an able mind and proper words and so much more. If anyone who is reading this has her ear, PLEASE convey to her the tenuous nature of the hour. I know… 100% of the people will never be 100% satisfied 100% of the time. That being said, we have to acknowledge that in this day of changed rules and instant messages and even more quick opinions, we must consider that it is not just a matter of what we do, but how we are perceived, and I would challenge all those working with her to think about how far a paradigm of steady hand and respectful reason (oh ues, and grace and grit) will go and are needed at this hour.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

BEING WHO WE ARE AMONGST OTHERS –MOVING FROM OUR COMFORT ZONE TO OUR COURAGE ZONE

Several weeks ago, I gave this D’var Torah for Parshat Shelach Lecha. As we are in the middle of the book of our travails and challenges (BaMidbar) in the cycle of weekly Torah readings in the Jewish community, I thought it appropriate to share the general contours of what I said then, with some changes appropriate for this setting as we all think about our difficult world today. Here is generally what I shared two weeks ago.

In our world today, we are painfully aware of the results of harmful reports. I was thinking of the many times I sit with different friends in my Orthodox Jewish world of observance and we talk about what has been going on in the world. I find myself in these settings too often sharing the need with others to constantly remain objective and to not vilify any group of people because of the actions of individual members of that group, a teaching that can indeed be found in our own code of language practices, Shmirat HaLashon. Obviously, there has been much in the media for some time about Islamicists, that is extremists and radicalists, not to be confused with good honest caring Moslems, of which I count quite a few amongst my personal friends and colleagues through the years. Within these discussions among my more religiously observant Jewish friends, I too often get challenged with something along the lines of “Tell me, Sunnie, you don’t really believe there is any such thing as a good Moslem, do you?” Sadly, I get this type of question way too often in my life, given the intersection of people in religious communities, political affiliations, ethnicities, etc. that are part of our personal and communal lives. I then proceed to share wonderful stories about people in my life who happen to be Moslem, and yes, they are quite good Moslems in the same way we hope to be good Jews but unfortunately not everyone in that grouping is necessarily practicing what is considered good and correct according to our sacred texts either!

Harmful reports. This is how we begin Parshat Shelach Lecha, with the Israelites sending members of their group to check out the land they are about to enter – Canaan historically, for our purposes today, what we call Israel. Nechama Leibowitz poses the question as to why the Israelites preferred to rely on the scary and off-putting reports brought by their chosen reconnaissance team as opposed to what they had already been told by G-d. She speaks of this adventure as an opportunity to check their own prejudices and fears, while remembering who they are as human beings and members of the Jewish Nation. We are left with many opinions regarding the degree to which they succeeded or failed in this undertaking.

“Send for yourself people [to scout]” Rashi makes a point that we must remember that these individuals had to be men of distinction (not just rank and file members of the group as אנשים might convey in other cases in which this seemingly non-descript term is employed). Nechama and many others also point to the fact that the people who were sent were indeed of known repute. As Nechama teaches, the preferred policy would have indeed for them to have relied on what G-d had told them; but given that this was the way they chose to go, G-d held back as G-d often did and did not interfere. Therefore, when these chosen leaders in whom the collective ישראל בני had placed their trust come back and talk about giants, and exceedingly huge grapes and terrible terrain, there is fear that might be expressed in the question, “So tell me, is there anything good about this land?” Even the two members of the reconnaissance team that did give a report that was not negative were not necessarily enough to dispel fears that had been mounting. Fear is definitely a most explosive element that leads to a tendency to believe in harmful reports.

Then of course, we have to look at the players who create and facilitate the chaos that can be caused by such harmful reports and their aftermath in this drama as reported in the words of our Torah. We have the people who choose the reconnaissance team, a piece of the story that we see in the version that is repeated later in Devarim (1:6 ff) but is not indicated here. Then there are the leaders who are chosen to go and check out the land; the people waiting for the report and the various circumstances that provide the backdrop in which these findings are reported. We could clearly have had a narrative that was cast quite differently, having the leaders return and talk about people who are so healthy and large, fruits that are large and sweet, and land that is just waiting to be tilled, but this is not the spirit in which the report is handed over nor how it is heard. Alternatively, the leaders could have returned having discussed and offering a strategy of how this people, the Israelites could go and settle the land that they knew was theirs and do so given that other nations knew about them and their G-d, their successes. This too did not happen, apparently.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks the following question, almost incredulously, How is it that the Israelites of whom others were afraid feared them? What happened; what had they lost? How do we note that they even thought the grasshoppers could not be overpowered by either them, or even G-d, according to some of the commentaries distillation of what happened?

Rabbi Sacks clarifies what he believes is going on according to a teaching that he hands over from the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

The spies were not afraid of failure, he said. They were afraid of success.

What was their situation now? They were eating manna from heaven. They were drinking water from a miraculous well. They were surrounded by Clouds of Glory. They were camped around the Sanctuary. They were in continuous contact with the Shekhinah. Never had a people lived so close to God.

What would be their situation if they entered the land? They would have to fight battles, maintain an army, create an economy, farm the land, worry about whether there would be enough rain to produce a crop, and all the other thousand distractions that come from living in the world. What would happen to their closeness to God? They would be preoccupied with mundane and material pursuits. Here they could spend their entire lives learning Torah, lit by the radiance of the Divine. There they would be no more than one more nation in a world of nations, with the same kind of economic, social and political problems that every nation has to deal with.


Isolationism is something we are seeing more and more in our world today – religious isolationism, political isolationism, socio-economic isolationism; and it is too often this isolationism that breeds fear. While taking the approach that the King does in the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam, it is so much easier to think that you are the only one who is right, who is best, who is the most, who simply is! It is much more difficult to listen to the “OTHER” who Anna is taken to be and to learn about other nations who are bigger than you, who have different ways than you and who may look differently than you. How will you negotiate with them? How will you live with them? Will you become lesser by doing so?

Interesting enough, I am quoting a screenplay that clearly told a story of a world in which this dynamic of collective whole and individual sovereignty were playing out as dynamics that were not necessarily complementary to each other. And here we are 70 years later watching this old battle play out yet again. So how do we as Jews today think about this dialectical relationship and the balance of the maintenance of our collective while joining other communities of faith in shared visions and goals?

Rabbi Sacks continues by teaching as follows:

But that (isolated sovereignty) is not the Jewish project, the Jewish mission. God wanted the Israelites to create a model society where human beings were not treated as slaves, where rulers were not worshipped as demigods, where human dignity was respected, where law was impartially administered to rich and poor alike, where no one was destitute, no one was abandoned to isolation, no one was above the law and no realm of life was a morality-free zone. That requires a society, and a society needs a land. It requires an economy, an army, fields and flocks, labour and enterprise. All these, in Judaism, become ways of bringing the Shekhinah into the shared spaces of our collective life.

The receiving and settling of this land is a responsibility and a privilege to be earned, not a right to be assumed. Gunther Plaut and so many others point to the failure of the B’nai Yisrael to acknowledge that their time had come to grow and mature and take on the next part of their journey. They were just not yet up to the task. Perhaps G-d had to pull back a bit and not make it so easy for them, you know, take incremental steps of teaching them how to fend for themselves. We will continue to see this play out in the weeks to come.

So, here we are, with an opportunity to look deep into ourselves, and our fears, and not take the easy way of saying “We are right, they (whoever they may be) are wrong!” As David Hartman and Nehama Leibowitz constantly teach in their various drashas, to look at ourselves with the myopic view of always being right and righteous is to MISS THE POINT of what Jonathan Sacks has identified as our mission. WE ARE TO BE PART OF THE WORLD and to interact with others, work through challenges, accept that there will be hard and difficult steps along the way and always stay true to the mission of being involved with the nations of the world, not be afraid of them.

Just as the B’nai Yisrael had to NOT BE AFRAID and report generalizations that were indeed daunting, so too we today have a responsibility to not react with fear in a similar manner to what we hear and pass on harmful reports. Let us instead be true to our mission to be a light amongst all of the nations who have lights of their own to shine for us as well and recognize the good that G-d placed in all of us. Further, let us remember that people such as Balaam, who will bless the nation of Israel in two weeks in our Torah reading, Jethro who was a treasured advisor, and so many others DO SHOW US DIFFERENT WAYS OF HOW TO remain who we are and interact with others who are different than we are. This does not TAKE AWAY from our identity but can add immeasurably to it. THIS IS MOVING FROM OUR COMFORT ZONE TO OUR COURAGE ZONE and to take ALL THAT WE ARE into that zone as we work to better understand others.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My Memories of Elie Wiesel



Motzei Shabbat (this past Saturday night) we all heard that a giant for all of us, Elie Wiesel, passed from his sojourn on this earth. In the obituary that appeared in the New York Times, people were asked to share memories, so here I go. While this is a name that is known to all, I have the particular Zechut (privilege) of having had several meaningful interactions with Elie Wiesel through my life and I would like to add these little snipets to what we know about this amazing human being who was truly G-d’s gift to us all, not just for his memories of how horrible mankind can experience but how honorable and amazing we can aspire to be.

My first experience was in 1970 during one of the huge Soviet Jewry rallies and protests in Washington D.C. I was staying with my girlfriend (Hi JK, if you are reading this) in Silver Spring and we were planning to go to the rally. My parents did not know of my plans but there was no way I was not going to be part of this important event. So off we go, at the age of 17 to this amazing and very emotionally charged gathering. Elie Wiesel was one of the leaders of the march and as it turns out I was standing not too far behind him. This was one of the famous (infamous?) gatherings at which everyone sat in the middle of the street and the police arrested every fourth person they counted. It turns out that while I was actually involved intimately in one of the planning committees for this Rally, I was rather young and looked younger, so no one was carting me off to jail. However, friends of mine told me that I was on the television because they were filming exactly where I was standing behind the man that was leading our very large and noisy group. I called my parents to tell them not to worry and lets just say they were not pleased, actually more than that! I will not even repeat what my sweet father said to me on that occasion! But I remember being so taken by the commitment of the crowd and the stature of this quietly powerful man who was rallying us on.

A few years go by and it is the winter of 1972-73 (I think I have that right). Elie Wiesel was being awarded a citation by B’nai Brith International, and they chose the Presidents of the Hillel campus organizations of University of Maryland and George Washington University to present the award to him. I was the President of the GWU Hillel at the time and therefore was chosen to be able to honor him. I remember snipets of the event, his wife, Marian who was a rather striking woman (and taller than him in high heels) with a great deal of class in a beautiful fitted red dress with her hair in what would now be called an up do. The other student and I were standing with Elie and Marian Wiesel after the presentation and were able to have a conversation about life and their perspectives. I distinctly remember them telling us they would NEVER have children because as survivors who had seen what they saw, they could not subject a child to the horrors of this world. I was so sad because I thought they more than deserved the joy of bringing a new life into the world. So, as the saying goes, “man plans and G-d laughs.” At the time, Marian was already pregnant and their son, Shlomo Elisha would be born later that year. I remember thinking how glad I was that these two soulful people brought another soul into this world. I am pretty sure that this would be what G-d had in mind, if I could be so presumptuous.

More years pass and it is now the mid-eighties. I am being given an award by the Second Generation Children of Holocaust Survivors for curriculum I had written and programs I had created for meaningful Holocaust education. Guess who the speaker is! You guessed! After the program, I had the opportunity once again to stand with Elie Wiesel and I shared my story with him. I asked him, “Do you remember when you received your award from B’nai Brith International?” Of course, he replied, I remember it was one of (if not) my first awards and it was in Washington D.C. I then asked if he remembered who presented the award. He did not but remembered there were students there. So I explained who I was and what I remember him saying and then wished him Mazel Tov on Elisha’s Bar Mitzvah because he would have been 13 by now. At this point, Elie Wiesel was in tears and hugged me. One friend wanted to know what I did to the poor man because as he put it, “He makes others cry, what did you do to make him break down in tears?”

Some years after that, in the later 90’s I was a speaker at a conference in Baltimore, where Elie Wiesel gave the Keynote Address. Afterwards, we spoke and again acknowledged our passing connection in the shared space that brought us together in earlier years. That would be the last time I would see him.

Elie Wiesel was indeed a soulful and important voice for all of us, our children, and for those not even here yet as well. He was and will continue to be a most important voice for our collective memory as we consider the terrible injustices mankind can inflict on us if we are not careful. This was precisely why he led that Soviet Jewry Rally so long ago and why he has continued to be a voice for all injustices that are inflicted on various groups in our human family. It is now on all of us to continue to tell his stories and to continue sharing his voice with others. In this way, WE WILL NEVER FORGET!

Elie Wiesel, thank you for all that you have been and done and will continue to do through those who have learned so much from you. Now rest in peace and may your memory always be for a blessing.

Friday, June 24, 2016

PARSHAT BEHAALOTECHA 2016



Three weeks ago, during the Shabbat of June 3rd through June 4th Rabbis Aviad Bodner and Gavriel Bellino welcomed a community group for a Shabbaton in their respective shuls in New York. This group was ESHEL, the Orthodox consortium for LGBTQ Jews. As a result, a group of about six Orthodox Rabbis shouted loudly and vehemently that these two Rabbis should be put in Cherem and should not be considered Rabbis for accepting LGBT community members and validating them. Rabbis Bodner and Bollino stood their ground and took the heat. The Shabbaton was an amazing success, I am told.

Two weeks ago, my husband, Ken and I were at a wonderful gathering of about 300 Jews from all parts of the continuum of Jewish observance as part of the Center City Kehillah’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot for the Greater Philadlephia area. People in our home community of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania as well stayed up all night to learn, share and think seriously and intentionally about what it means to be who we are in a real and personal way. We did as so many Jews did around the world did -- as we re-enacted the waiting for the receiving of torah, as Shavuot commemorates for us annually. In the early morning hours, news began to sift to all of us about a horrible tragedy in Orlando. We were stopped in our tracks – within the joy and uplifting nature of the celebration of which we were in the midst.

Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi in Washington D.C., quickly responded as follows to the tragedy that occurred:

When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah.

As Orthodox Jews, we don’t travel or use the Internet on the Sabbath or on holidays, such as Shavuot. But on Sunday night, as we heard the news, I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.

We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers. I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.

Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.


Here in our community of Elkins Park/Cheltenham, my colleagues Rabbi Lance Sussman and Dr. Ruth Sandberg immediately began to plan a Memorial for Orlando service on Sunday, waiting for me to finish my observance on Monday night to finalize plans. We had 24 hours to plan a service for Wednesday night, at which I am told by some who counted we had about 140 in attendance. Moslems, Jews and Christians – gay and straight – people of all colors – people across the Jewish spectrum – and just human beings all came together to mourn, to share and to gain strength from each other as we all work together to reboot after yet another assault on who we are as members of the family of humanity. As one gay woman said to me afterwards, “This was really important, I hadn’t thought about how this had an impact on the Moslem community.” That says it all – this impacted all of us in different ways, and our respective recoveries will take time and while they may follow different trajectories there is so much we will all share.

So, what would Yitro think? You know, the Midianite Leader that was Moshe Rabbeinu’s chief advisor! We have often read and discussed his advise to Moshe, his Jewish son-in-law. In this week’s Parsha, BeHaalotecha, we confront a question that began in the Parsha that carries his name and has followed us up to this point regarding Yitro, that is fundamental to our understanding of who he was and appreciation of what he did.

We read as follows in Chapter 10 of this week’s Parsha: 29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.' 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.' 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.' 33 And they set forward from the mount of the LORD three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting-place for them.

It is of note that we read texts dealing with both יתרו and רות during שבועות which we all just observed and it is the journey of רות that is chosen for our model of conversion and affirmation of faith while יתרו comes to teach us something completely different in our reading today. While some of our commentaries such as Rashi want to pitch the idea that יתרו did convert (for how could we have a Midianite priest be the chief advisor to the leader of the B’nai Yisrael – it just would not look right! – and here point to his name used -- חובב – to indicate his unwavering love of Torah and Ramban proposes that this was the new name he took upon his conversion in שמות to indicate his love of the Jewish people, here we are taught by these and other commentaries of the same ilk that יתרו is given many reasons by Moshe not to leave the people and to return to his land where he knows he has designated property. His knowledge of the Jewish people, familiarity with other nations, witnessing to the greatness of HaShem are all good reasons, actually GREAT reasons for him to stay. YET, the Torah DOES NOT DEFINITIVELY LET US KNOW the end of this interchange. These commentaries assume he stayed with the Jewish People for the self-same obvious reasons. However, others, such as Sforno, say NO – he did indeed return to his people.

Sforno finds colleagues who are willing to take this perspective in more modern iterations of interpretations of the Torah text. In the Etz Chaim edition of Torah commentary, for example, we are actually confronted with a question regarding Moshe’s motivation, namely “Why does Moshe plead with his non-Israelite relative to be their guide?” Notice that this question presupposes that Yitro did NOT convert back in the series of events narrated in Sefer Shemot. Yes, Yitro, according to this reading, heard all of the wonderful deeds that HaShem did for Moshe and his people and did in fact join in celebration with Moshe’s brethren but does this effect in toto conversion, as Rashi would have it? Clearly there is not agreement on this point.

What distinguishes Yitro in terms of the decisions he makes, when compared with say Avraham when he states that he WILL LEAVE all of those familiar places to which Yirto wants to return and Ruth when she claims that she too WILL LEAVE all that is familiar to join with Naomi and her people and place? Can we carefully consider the text at hand with minimal interpretive lenses? Maybe, just maybe, Yitro comes to teach us something completely different also needed in our lives.

Sharon Sobel teaches as follows (on the Reform Judaism website) regarding Yitro:

The Torah portion …Yitro, teaches us that we must look beyond the superficial qualities when it comes to choosing a good leader. It helps us understand that there are certain criteria for leadership that transcend political, ethnic, and socioeconomic boundaries. Parashat Yitro enables us to make a distinction between the characteristics that make a great leader and those that make only a good leader. Ultimately, these qualities enable leaders to create meaningful relationships with those around them so that together they can work for the betterment of all.

Yitro provides us with two models of excellent leaders: Jethro, the Midianite priest who is also Moses' father-in-law, and Moses. Jethro is an example of a wise and seasoned leader. He is an impartial observer who is willing to share his knowledge, understanding, and wisdom with Moses. Moses is still in the first stages of his career as the leader of the Jewish people. He is a reluctant leader who ascended to his position only at God's insistence. Moses is humble: His ego does not get in the way. He is an excellent example of a leader who is able to listen to and learn from others. One of his great strengths is that he listens carefully to Jethro's wise advice and does not hesitate to integrate and incorporate that advice into the manner in which he leads.


So Yitro teaches us about outside impartiality and wisdom and Moshe teaches us the value of listening to everyone, both inside our camp and outside! These are two very valuable lessons.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and so many others teach often about the value of interfacing with and listening to others as we build bridges of understanding. He points to anthropological research in terms of the value of listening to our innermost beings in understanding who we are and balancing that with what we learn about ourselves from the objective outside. Perhaps this is what Yitro teaches us – the value of advising from the outside and appreciating the anthropological value of the people whom he was advising while acknowledging at the end that his place was really with his own. Does this make him any less of a role model for us … or perhaps even more so an important model?

Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld was definitely someone from the outside when he walked into the gay bar in Washington and yet he built really important bridges as an outsider. Many of us who were involved in Memorial services these past two weeks crossed numerous lines of gender identity, religious belief, ethnicity and nationality, sexuality and so much else in becoming part of these collectives. YET NO ONE SUFFERED THE GENUINE NATURE OF THEIR IDENTITY BY LISTENING TO AND INTENTIONALLY SHARING SPACE WITH SO MANY OTHERS. This helped ALL of us through very difficult days.

I think that Yitro understood this. When Moshe implored him to stay with these words from 7:31:

31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes.

Yitro responded…. Well, as already indicated, we do not know how he responded. I personally suspect that if he joined the B’nai Yisrael, this would have been reported as such given the general tone and choice of topics we find in the Torah. I do believe that he returned to his people, understanding that we can all come together in times of pain and angst and hardship and help each other while never negating who we are. We do NOT need to leave our people to be helpful to others. While Ruth may serve as the DUGMA of the Convert for us, I think we need to think of YITRO as the DUGMA of the leader from another people with whom we can negotiate. Both of these models are so important when we think of the giving and receiving of Torah in our lives and how we apply it’s teachings. Rabbi Sacks is always asking us and challenging us to be on the lookout for such leaders and to be that ourselves when we join public spaces with others. This I believe is the lesson of Yitro and it is a lesson that the Rabbis who threatened Rabbis Bodner and Bollino, and others who refuse to understand someone “other” than themselves would do well to learn. And those of us who do frequent these shared spaces are hopefully here to teach precisely this lesson through our actions and so much more.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

PARSHAT BECHUKOTEI 2016/5776



This week we finished the third book of the Torah, ויקרא ספר . This past Wednesday, I taught my last Parsha Shiyur of the year to an adorable group of Kindergarten and First Grade students at Perelman (other side of town). When we completed the Parshiot of שמות several months ago, one of these budding scholars asked me what we were going to do the rest of the year. I was a bit perplexed and just said we will continue to learn the Parshiot. But, he replied, the next book is VaYikra and we are too young to learn that part of the Torah – our teachers do not allow it. So, I quickly replied, tell your teachers and parents this is an HONORS CLASS and we are continuing with VaYikra!

Now, I knew where this was coming from. We think that the details and the focus on so many levels of reaching often difficult to attain degrees of קדושה are better left to older students; of course the reality is that too many of our students, even graduates of Day Schools, NEVER GET TO this book of rules and regulations. What a shame! Actually, long ago, children at a young age BEGAN their intentional study of Torah with this very text. And I am happy to report that my cute little students have done well, learning about how we are supposed to behave, the reality of how we often behave, the standards set for us by Ribbonu shel Olam, why those standards are set, how we can incorporate them in our lives and so on. Most of all, they have learned about the values of intentionality, sincerity and honesty in our actions in our daily lives and how these values are so rooted foundationally in our Torah.

During this last session of the year, I ended our study together with an important lesson from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, one of my favorite teachers, as you have by now figured out no doubt. Rabbi Sacks teaches a most important lesson about these verses that was not lost on my students. We focused on the following verses:

I will bring despair into the hearts of those of you who survive in enemy territory. Just the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to running, and they will run scared as if running from a sword! They will fall even when no one is chasing them! They will stumble over each other as they would before a sword, even though no one is chasing them! You will have no power to stand before your enemies. (Lev. 26: 36-37)

After scaling back the language just a bit and sharing this, I asked the kids, So who or what is the enemy territory and the enemies of which Rabbi Sacks speaks? THEY GOT IT! The enemy that will cause us to stumble is not always external, it is not always THEM; rather it is too often internal, it is US! It is US when we do not act according to the standards that are set for us. It is US when we are not intentional about our doing Mitzvot. It is US when we take ourselves, G-d, our land and each other too casually and doing what we do out of some misguided sense of perfunctory duty instead of truly understanding and considering what we do and its impact on all aspects of the equation we call LIFE!

This text appears as part of the profound warnings given us in this Parsha. We are told in these verses and those preceding as well as after them that the entire system that G-d has put together needs us to maintain it – otherwise, it will fall apart. If we do not observe the Sabbatical year as we are adjoined to in verse 34, then the appeasement (or תקנה if you will) will be we will lose the land and it will rest in our absence. If we are not scrupulous in observing laws of ownership and redeeming land, we will lose our sense of being. If we do not remember our accountability to and for each other, than we will be fighting each other as we have just read in the painful words, באחיו איש וכשלו – we will become weak because of and with each other instead of strengthened by the ties that bind us – worse than the enemy from external sources, the real threat to our well being is to become the enemy within!

In short the entire system of G-D, COMMUNITY, LAND and INDIVIDUAL that is so carefully scripted throughout the words of TORAH and specifically, Sefer VaYikra, will be destroyed, and there will be no one to blame except for ourselves. So now what?

Rabbi Sacks explains as follows:

[We must remember] that there is nothing unique to Judaism in the idea that we are all implicated in one another’s fate. That is true of the citizens of any nation. If the economy is booming, most people benefit. If there is a recession many people suffer. If a neighborhood is scarred by crime, people are scared to walk the streets. If there is law and order, if people are polite to one another and come to one another’s aid, there is a general sense of well-being. We are social animals, and our horizons of possibility are shaped by the society and culture within which we live.

All of this applied to the Israelites so long as they were a nation in their own land. But what happened when they suffered defeat and exile and were eventually scattered across the earth? They no longer had any of the conventional lineaments of a nation. They were not living in the same place. They did not share the same language of everyday life.

So how did the members of the Jewish nation maintain or lose those features that defined them --- US --- as a people – this is Rabbi Sacks’ fundamental question? Let us look back for a moment at verses 21 and those that follow in Perek כו.

קרי עמכם אני אף … קרי עמי תלכו אם If you behave XXX with me (and my Mitzvot) I will behave XXX with you…

Specifically, I want for us to consider the word קרי, which appears five times in the short span of 8 Pasukim AND ONLY at this point in the Torah, no other! After verse 41 of this chapter, we will not see this word again. Rashi takes this word to mean “casual” as in קרה or מקרה all of which share their derivation – this is the definition appearing in most of our texts that follow Rashi’s interpretive translation. Onkeles, on the other hand, indicates that there is a sense of contrariness or rebellion here, preferred by the BDB in its explanation and in other translations that are not beholden to Rashi. How do we get from such a benign meaning to one that is potentially explosive or why did Rashi take the kick out of the word? What was CONTRARY about what the Jews were doing here? Was it that they were not observing and practicing according to all of the carefully laid out plans, or was it something else? What does it mean if we go with Rashi on this and take the word קרי to mean CASUAL? What could possibly be the problem?

There is an old story told from the earlier days of email and technology. Someone approached his Rabbi asking why the various Mitzvot as prescribed were so detailed and complicated? The Rabbi explained that every detail and every precise element had a purpose and for the total effect to be felt, all details had to be included in the whole entity. The person inquiring just continued to indicate disagreement with this approach and became first careless in his reasoning and then moved on to being contrary. At this point the Rabbi said, okay, lets stop this conversation because I have to leave. I will email you the rest of my response. The Rabbi did as he promised, but did not hear from the individual with whom he had the discussion. He then began to bombard the Rabbi with emails asking why he had not heard. The Rabbi continued to resend his original response. Then the phone call came. “Why did you not answer me? Does that mean I am correct about the details not being important?” The Rabbi said he definitely responded and began to read back the email to the person. Everything was correct in the address except for one problem – the “.” Was missing before the last letters “org” in the address. The individual was completely frustrated with the Rabbi, who simply responded “but it was only one little dot – such an insignificant detail!”

We may not always understand the details. Or those details may not be beneficial to us individually. But if we are casual in their observance and then move to being careless in observing them and so forth down that slippery slope to fighting their very existence, the entirety of our work may very well be for naught. To not care or to not be attentive to the details of our lives as caring and responsible people – this could potentially lead us to become our own worst enemies – acting in a way that is contrary to the intended way we are to be. As we repeated the words upon completing this book of our Torah (until next year) indicating strength in our learning (CHAZAK CHAZAK V’NITCHAZEK) let us remember that the strength of our identity is indeed in the details of that identity and it is KAVANAH we strive for, not to be קרי or casual in our observance . Shabbat Shalom!