Pray for the Government


“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This is the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. In it, our founding fathers speak about the role that government is supposed to play in the lives of people. In Judaism, our founding document is the Torah, the five books that record the experience of the people of Israel from the time of creation until they are ready to enter the Promised Land. The Jewish Bible, however does not have a preamble that speaks to its purpose. When it says at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God” it is telling us that these laws are God’s will for how people should live. When it says, “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord alone.” It is telling us that the rules are from the one God and there are no other Gods who can tell us to abrogate it. When the Torah reads, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God is holy.” It is giving us a framework on how to live our lives, much the same way as the preamble to the Constitution does. 
There has been a lot of discussion in this election year in this country about the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Certainly there are times when government is too intrusive and times when it needs to intrude more. It is always a balance between letting people do what they know is right and having government regulate what we do. The problem is not the government, I think, but we human beings who make up the population. I think we all agree that people can be selfish and self-serving. The Bible, even with all its laws, understands that there is no law code in the universe that can cover all the things a person should or should not do. We have to learn to be moral, fair and kind. The prophet Micha tells us that we know what God wants from us, “Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Justice makes sure we act fairly. Mercy gives us a break when we just make a mistake and walking humbly with God reminds us that we are not God but we have an obligation to try our best to do what God expects from us. 
When the founding fathers of the United States wrote the Constitution, they were living in world where things did not go according to God’s law. Each state had its own version of justice. There were disputes between people and states that were not being mediated. Each state had its own version of a militia and no sense of working together with other states. Each state, each city and each person did what was profitable for themselves and not for the welfare of others. Being free required the people to be fair and the definition of fair often depended on what was at stake for the parties. 
The role of government, therefore for the United States and for Judaism is summed up in this lesson from the Talmud, “pray for the welfare of the government, for without it people would devour each other alive.” I remember years ago, when police went on strike in a city in Canada, that rioting and lawlessness ruled the streets until they could get the officers back on patrol. I understood that the Talmud was not being theoretical. Law is what makes civilization possible. 
I understand that nobody likes taxes. Rich people did not become rich by giving away money; they earned it and saved it so why should government be able to take it away? It is functionally no different from the blue color worker who gets a paycheck and wonders why the government can take out taxes from what she has earned. The problem, of course, is that the money collected from both rich and poor goes to provide the infrastructure we all depend on and makes sure that basic services are available for everyone in areas of health and retirement/disability income. Better to pay a little each day than to have a big bill show up when we are not expecting it. Judaism required everyone to pay taxes and it empowered the government to collect it no matter if the person wanted to pay or not.
The same applies to regulations. Nobody likes government telling us how to run our business. Yet who would clear and salt the walkways in front of their store in the winter if they were not told they have to do it? After all, snow removal costs money. The United States has a long history of requiring business to provide a safe work environment because business could not be relied upon to do it. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company had dozens of women die in a fire because they were saving money by not dealing with fire safety and they had locked doors so that the workers could not get out.  From pollution issues to workers safety to standard benefits, business could not be relied upon to do what was right without government intervention. Greed and single-mindedness had corporations looking the other way when it came to doing what they should.  I often say, “Human Beings have an infinite capacity to delude themselves”. We don’t think something will go wrong even as we make decisions that will all but insure problems. The role of Government is to bring a shot of reality into the way we live and the way we do business. 
We can argue about who is responsible when people do stupid things. Does government have to regulate every possibility for the dumb things people do? (a month or so ago there was a disabled man who tried to drive his “scooter” up an escalator with disastrous results.) Finding the right balance is also the role of government and it is the responsibility of those electing representatives to elect those who will legislate with eye to where the voters stand on this issue. 
Judaism teaches us that Government has to sometimes be the grownup in the room to make sure that we don’t hurt ourselves or others; that we will not “devour each other alive”. When I insist that Wall Street and Banks need regulation, I am not taking a political stand, I am reflecting the Jewish understanding that these institutions are not about a level playing field for all investors, they are about doing what will make money for their stockholders. To make sure what they do is fair for everyone will take government regulations. There is a long history, in this country of all kinds of fraud and insider trading going back hundreds of years. In my own life, there has been, from the junk bonds scandals of the 80’s to the Libor scandal of this year plenty of evidence that regulation is appropriate and needed. Rabbi in Ancient Israel set limits on what was an appropriate profit on a given sale; too much was price gouging.
There can be no free markets and no freedom for people if there are not sensible interventions by government. It is not about politics, it is about the natural role of government. Without government, is there any doubt that we would cannibalize each other?

The Question


My daughter, this morning, asked if I now regret leaving my pulpit of 17 years. I left a comfortable position to try leading different congregations and to return to school to learn new skills to improve my abilities. Instead of looking forward to a 25th anniversary of my work, I chose to take on new pulpits and face new challenges. It has been difficult at times and so my daughter wondered if I considered the decision made seven years ago a mistake. 
I left my pulpit in 2007 not because I had to. In fact, there were some members who were angry that I was leaving. I left a community that had been very good to me, a professional staff that worked together well and I left my own personal comfort zone because I felt that something was missing; that the world was changing and I did not understand what was happening. I thought that a different congregation would offer more opportunities to discover myself and what was changing in the Jewish world.  I did not know that I would be facing an economic downturn and seven years of rabbinic upheaval. It has not been an easy time and I am thankful for the many colleagues and friends who have supported me through the past years. 
But I have no regrets. In spite of the challenges, I found what I was searching for.  I have seen congregations from new and different perspectives. I am no longer the kind of rabbi I once was. I can’t do “typical Conservative services” anymore.  I don’t see congregations the way I was once trained to see them (and now they train new colleagues differently than the way we were once trained). What the Jewish community needs is not more of the same, but a new approach to understanding our faith. From my time of searching, I have matured in my leadership in ways I had never considered before my wanderings.
The first thing I have learned is that Conservative services are in fact changing. There are rabbis and cantors who are still invested in the old style, but there are also colleagues who are making prayer more meaningful and less boring. I know that when a congregation says that services are too long, it means they are not being engaged in the process of prayer; that Jews want to feel that they are a part of prayer and not just spectators. This is not a change rabbis should fear but one we should embrace.
I have learned that the number of people who attend a service is not as important as the number of people who are involved in the service.  A small room, with movable chairs, a low or entirely missing bima, no formal lectern and a mediocre sound system can be a more inspiring service than one in a suburban “cathedral”.  Anyplace where Jews come to be fully engaged, heart, soul and body is a successful community.
I have learned that I am a better rabbi when I am a teacher. There are some who would like me to tell them how to do everything in life, but then they go home and forget everything I said in my sermon. The real work of a rabbi is teaching the congregation how to lead the service without you; congregants can teach a lesson, explain the Torah reading and chant the service without professional help. What they want is to do these things themselves and to do them exceptionally well. They want me/they need me to teach them how to do these things better. My “ego” is stroked when my students do a good job, not when I “do” a good service. They don’t need me to call the page numbers or to tell them to sit down or stand up.
I have learned that the best place for a rabbi sometimes is not out front but at the door, welcoming new faces and old alike. In the same way I meet my personal guests at the door of my home, I should meet those who are coming to synagogue at the door and welcome them in. And not just the adults; I leaned to greet the children when they arrive to school during the week. I learned to get down on my knees and greet even the pre-school children when they come for their Shabbat service on Friday.  Everyone needs to know that they are welcome here.
I have learned that synagogues are imposing buildings and sometimes strangers literally can’t find the door to come in. They don’t know where to park a car. They can’t find the main entrance. They can’t find the office entrance. They can’t find the Rabbi’s office. They don’t know where the daily minyan meets and the special door they often use when the building is closed. Even when they are inside they don’t know their way around and feel very lost. How can they discover their Judaism if they can’t find their way around the building?
I have learned that synagogues have lost their way as an organization. So many synagogue board members think of themselves as fundraising associations and have forgotten why they are raising the money. I have learned to get up each morning and consider how I will change the world and I don’t think about how I will pay for it until after breakfast. Synagogues need to be mission first. We need to envision all we can be and then figure out how to pay for it. We can’t raise money and then later decide how we will spend it. We don’t think of our family finances this way, why should we think of synagogue finances this way.
I have learned that in Judaism as in life, “one size does not fit all”. When we have different models of services and service to the community, we engage more people in all that we do.  What is important is to catch a man or woman with a hot idea and be able to give them the chance to use synagogue resources to make a difference in the community. This is how a shul can connect a family for a lifetime; by helping them live their dreams. Not a dream of all the things they want, but a dream of how they can help others.  When we help people find meaning in their lives, we make the synagogue a meaningful institution. 
Finally, I learned that Judaism has been around for a long time. It has seen many different styles and configurations but it keeps coming back to the basics. Synagogues are about Torah (learning), Avoda (praying) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of kindness and compassion); everything else is extra. History’s dustbin is filled with those who thought that it should be different. The changes in life are in how we approach learning, how we join together in prayer and how we serve others in need. Successful rabbis and synagogues never forget the fundamentals. 
My life did not stop when I left my pulpit of 17 years. I have grown and changed over the years and I am a better Rabbi for all of it. Would I like to find a home, a synagogue and a community to spend the next 20 years and beyond? Sure! And I have faith that God will get me there at a time when I can do the most good; for my community, for the Jewish People and for God.

Opening the Door


I have been writing about Synagogues and how to fix them now for two years. I have spoken with anyone who will listen to me and I have now a pretty firm group of followers who respond when I write about fixing American Synagogues. . (If you have not read my thoughts on all of this, you can find them on my website using this link:  RevitalizingSynagogues )
What I find astonishing is how synagogues are so resistant to change. I have had members of synagogue boards and even a few synagogue presidents tell me that my assessment of the situation today is spot on and that my ideas about resolving them seem well reasoned and easy to apply. But, then they tell me that it could  never work in their congregation, because of a host of reasons that all boil down to, “This is just too risky for our community, we prefer to keep things as they are and see what happens.” Guess what? When there is no change, the situation remains the same, falling membership, falling income and more wondering why more people don’t join the synagogue.  The more things change the more they stay the same (French proverb). Or maybe Einstein is appropriate here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”
Here are some important realizations for those involved in synagogue life who feel that something has to be done.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has said and he may not have been the first to say it; The business of a synagogue is NOT fundraising.  Fundraising is important and even necessary, but it is not the reason that synagogues exist.  We need to stop acting as if it is the most important task we do. It is not. It is at best, a secondary part of synagogue life.  Any entrepreneur can tell you that if you want to succeed in your field, first you have to know what you are selling and then you have to promote what you are selling.  Anyone who only wants to “make a lot of money” is doomed to fail.  Anyone who thinks that people will throw money at them has no business plan.  
In business, they rely on customer surveys to know what is working and what is not. In synagogue life we need to do the same. The first question we need to ask is “Why would any Jew need our congregation?” What reason do they have to come here and join with us? If you don’t know the answer you have to survey your success stories.  Go and ask the most active members why they joined and got active, you will almost always get the same reply: “Someone welcomed us when we first visited, and we felt that this place was so warm and friendly that we thought we would give it a try.” So they came to a couple of events, liked what they saw and joined. Usually the first visit takes place during worship. 
We can learn a lot from this reply:
1.       Welcoming people and being friendly is a crucial part of synagogue life. If someone can attend a function at your congregation, sit down, get up and leave and nobody says “hello”, you are doomed. That is the kiss of death.  
2.       It is everyone’s responsibility to be warm and friendly. Not just the usher, the Rabbi or the staff.
3.       Your programming, from worship thru social events needs to be engaging, every moment is a chance to bring someone in. What kind of programming do you have? Would you invite your best friend to come and be a part of what your synagogue does?
4.       Do you follow through with those who visit your congregation? Do they get on email lists? Do you have printed material to give them if they ask? Does someone give them a call and invite them to a future event?  Or is the first contact also the first time you ask them for money? 
Ask yourself why you go back to the same restaurant over and over. Is there someone on wait staff that you like? Do they make your favorite food the way you like it?  Were they constantly trying to get you to buy something you didn’t want or were their suggestions about the menu helpful? Translating this into synagogue life is not too difficult. Do new members find people they like in shul? Do we do things that people want/like to do? Are we always asking for money or do we show then why the shul is a meaningful part of our life and invite them to join us. The money always follows interest. Are we getting people interested?
The Rabbi and staff don’t need to be “Pied Pipers” and social media is not going to be the salvation of the synagogue.  Success begins with these two ideas: People will attend events where they are made to feel welcome and when you engage them, they will quickly become active and then tell others about what they found in your community.  To be sure, you have to do a lot of things behind the scenes to make sure that there is something to get people interested. But a synagogue is, first of all about relationships, then it is about Torah, Worship and acts of Hesed. Then it is about making a difference in people’s lives. Only then can we begin to ask them to help keep these programs and projects alive. 
So, be honest. How does your congregation compare?

Sensible Fools


We don’t need any gun control in this country.
You have to ask yourself what will it take to have sensible gun control in this country?  In the wake of the slaughter in Aurora, Colorado, everyone wants to talk about the tragedy but nobody will look at the reason behind the shooting. A young man, mentally falling apart is able to amass a small arsenal of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition and nobody is to blame, nobody has any way of knowing what is going on.
We don’t need any gun control in this country.
We have shootings in schools, at stores, in offices, at post offices, on the street, in our homes and the number of guns continues to increase. The strictest laws have loopholes so big the laws may as well not exist. When given the opportunity, the laws that we do have regulating guns are in danger of being repealed. The sheriff deputies I ride with carry a small arsenal of guns and rifles because the bad guys on the streets are so heavily armed.  Ask  yourself, why is it possible in this country to purchase automatic and semi-automatic rifles? Why are these weapons not banned? They once were banned but  our Congress let the ban expire. Does that make sense?
We don’t need any gun control in this country.
Since the latest shooting in Colorado, gun sales in the state have jumped exponentially. I guess people don’t trust the police to arrive in time to save them from another shooter. It took six or seven minutes for the police to arrive at the movie theater in Aurora. It was enough time for 12 to die and 32 to be wounded. If someone in the theater would have had a gun, he could have shot the shooter within seconds and saved many lives. Let me ask you; would you feel safer if there were others in the theater carrying guns to the movies? Would you feel safer having a gun concealed on your person? Or just maybe, more people would get hurt with all the crossfire in the theater as they exchanged gunfire? Does that make sense to you?
We don’t need any gun control in this country.
Judaism puts safety issues like this under the law of the parapet. You have to have laws that protect the public from harm. You have to have a rail around the roof of your home so nobody can fall off. You have to put a fence around a pit so nobody falls in. By extension, you have to wear a seat belt to save your life in an accident. I think it also means sensible gun control. People who own guns have to take on the responsibility and the liability for them.  I may not be a fan of hunting but I can respect the rights of those who do. You just have to be responsible about how you transport guns, care for guns, and secure guns at the end of the day. Target shooters have the same responsibilities.  We need to be sensible about this. How many guns does one person and one family need to own? How much ammunition is enough? We regulate pain medication, we regulate explosives, why not bullets? What possible reason, other than defending the country, is there for automatic rifles? Why would any civilian need a working weapon like this? Why isn’t a gun license like a driver’s license since both can cause great bodily harm? But any mention of gun control drives many people crazy. It is too much government telling us what to do with our lives. 
 And people still are dying. 
 And people are wringing their hands over the killings. 
And nobody wants to talk about sensible gun control.
We don’t need any gun control in this country?                  I’m sorry, but I think we do.

When Nothing is Something

I was reading a fiction short story the other day and it was a typical story of a couple with empty lives and no idea how to break out of the emptiness. So they indulge their egos and their fantasies and the story doesn’t end well. It is the kind of story that always leaves me sad because they live such a meaningless life.
 We want our actions to be for a purpose but there is so much in life that conspires against meaning. We are told over and over what we need to do to be successful, popular, cool and complete but no matter how hard we try, we never seem to get over the emptiness. We educate ourselves for jobs that we think will be fulfilling and purposeful but the idea of doing one thing for a lifetime doesn’t seem to inspire us. We go places but each one ends up looking the same as the last. We try all kinds of activities; bungee jump, parachute from planes, indulge in drugs and drink, go for whatever we think will give us the next “rush”. We always want more, and when it is over, we still don’t think it was enough. We spend all kinds of money trying to look our best but we are still unhappy when we look in the mirror. The problem isn’t outside, the problem is inside
I think this is also why this election season is so upsetting. I understand that the economy is bad and there are people out there suffering but to listen to the candidates for government offices, there are no real solutions other than “I am better than he is”. No matter what ails the country, the solution is always “vote for me”. We want what will be good for us and our personal needs and the candidates are only happy to tell us what we want to hear. The conversation is just as vapid as our lives.  So we tune out the election noise and of course, if we choose not to vote, we choose not to be a part of making a difference.  The problem is not about what will be good for me, but what will be, in the end, good for the country and that is a very hard decision that takes time and effort to research and decide. It means we will have to see beyond ourselves and take into account the needs of others.
I think the issue here is that we are always putting ourselves first and then not understanding why this does not make us feel any better. The more we build up ourselves, the more we feel our lives are empty. Perhaps this is just one of the many illusions of life. We keep doing more and yet we don’t get any satisfaction from any of it. We think we just need to buy one more thing and we will be happy but we are deluding ourselves and the more we delude ourselves, the more unhappy we are.
Pirke Avot, the ethical teachings of the rabbis, has this teaching from the sage  ben Zoma, “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has. Who is wise? He who learns from everyone. Who is strong? He who controls his passions. Who is honored? He who honors others.”  In every case, the real answer is the opposite of what we might think.  Wealth is not about what you have, but how you feel about it. Wisdom is not about what you know, but about where you go to learn. Strength is not about lifting weights, but about controlling our cravings and honor is not what you get, but what you give.
Mystics like to say that only when we dissolve our ego can we begin to make a difference We need so much humility so that we virtually cease to exist as a separate entity; only then can we really begin to exist as part of the human organism, as part of life itself. Our ego needs be reduced to nothing before we can begin to become something. Only when we lose ourselves in the source of all existence, can we begin to have a meaningful existence.
The same applies to life, it is not about me, it is about others. Notice how the people who are at peace with themselves and life are those who have God at the center of their world. Maybe they don’t see their center being about God but when they put others at the center, the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the weak, the helpless, the wounded, etc. at the center of their world, they understand what really making a difference is all about. The world looks different after you put a sandwich into the hand of another person who will only have that sandwich to eat all day. Your world will never be the same when the child you are tutoring finally gets the math you are teaching. Life is different when  we help someone overcome their obstacles. It is not about us. It is always about others. Happiness is about relationships. Accomplishments are about the success of others.  Satisfaction comes when we help others achieve their goals.

Dear Rabbi Amar

Dear Rabbi Amar
I don’t know you. We have never met. We don’t travel in the same circles and we don’t have any friends that I know of in common. You are a chief Rabbi in Israel; I am a Conservative Rabbi in South Florida. We are literally and figuratively worlds apart. 
I am not afraid of you and your state power, but apparently, you are very afraid of me.  We have some very serious differences in the way we approach Judaism. You are a fundamentalist and I am not. I see Judaism as a rainbow of ideas and possibilities and you do not.  In any conversation I have had with other Jews or non-Jews, I have never disparaged you or your position. You cannot say the same about me and my position. I have never disparaged any Jew in my search to bring them closer to God and Torah. You have disparaged those Jews who have found meaning and commitment in my synagogue. 
I understand that there will always be Jews who want and need the kind of Judaism you teach. There will always be Jews who need the structure and tight community; a community that will make decisions for them because they are unable to decide for themselves. These Jews will need your Halacha to show them the path every minute of every day in their lives. They will study Torah and be happy to only see it as interpreted by you. I don’t have a problem with that at all. 
But you seem to have a problem with Jews who believe that there are many ways to approach Judaism. There are many different opinions of what the Torah says, how to interpret Jewish law and how to celebrate Jewish holidays. There are Jews who are not afraid to see how different authorities have ruled differently in history and who then feel they can and should decide which authority they should follow, even if that authority is not you. These Jews are not afraid to ask the Rabbi, “Why?” and if they don’t like his answer, they will go on searching. 
You accuse me of “poisoning the well” when they come to satisfy their spiritual thirst. But I don’t believe that Jews who thirst would drink poison. They just don’t find your stagnant water refreshing to their souls. They seek the living waters of Judaism; the rapids of the Jewish river where Rambam and Ramban disagree; where Ashkenazi and Sephardi differ; where Hasid and non-Hassid approach their Judaism differently. They don’t seem to have the same problem that you have of seeing both “Hillel and Shammai as the words of the living God”.
Rabbi Amar, you don’t have to fear me or my fellow Rabbis. You don’t need your high Israeli office or fancy ministry to protect you and the Jewish people from the likes of me. If you are so sure of what you teach and the reasons behind it and if you believe that every Jew should be exposed to your version of Judaism, then come out here with me and let us teach side by side. Let the Jewish people, “who may not be prophets but they are sons of prophets”, decide if your teachings move them more than my teachings.  But don’t hide behind your chief rabbinate office and make pronouncements about the Jewish People who have rejected your teachings and who have rejected you.
God does not need police to enforce God’s law. God does not need border patrols to keep undesirables out. God does not need you to defend God’s honor. I prefer the approach of Rabbi Benny Lau who said, “Delegitimization and war doesn’t work. The best way to reach out to people not connected to Judaism is to do what is good and what is right and to be professional, to serve the community, to provide the best possible service and then the public will choose those who are good in their eyes.”
Neither you nor I can make any Jew love God. We can only teach what we know and model a good life and the rest is in God’s hands. If you can’t do that, then you are not a chief rabbi, you are just another politician protecting your power and your turf.
And if that were true, that would be a true Hillul HaShem and it would not be my poison in the well.

Sacred Words

As part of my spirituality training, I have been exploring issues relating to personal prayer.  Many of the articles I have read put down those people who use fixed prayer. A prayer book, many say, is a waste of time. Real prayer comes from the heart and must speak about what we are carrying in our soul. Fixed prayer is a performance and if we truly want to pray, we have to get out of our seats and put ourselves into the action.  I understand the importance of personal prayer. I understand what it means to open your heart before God and spill out the pain, the hurt and the frustration as well as expressing the joy, the happiness and the gratefulness that reside there.
I was reading Rabbi Naomi Levy, the introduction to her book “Talking to God”. She writes, “When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I were often trying to diet. Our motto was: A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips. It meant that an act that took just an instant could remain with you forever. I like to apply this phrase to the process of prayer. A prayer takes just a matter of seconds to utter, but its influence on our lives, on our behavior, on our hearts, on our perception can be permanent.  A moment on our lips is a lifetime on our souls. A simple prayer can change us; can lead us on the path to healing ourselves and our world.”
There is no doubt in my heart that her words are true. Words uttered in sincerity and words that come from the heart are some of the most powerful words in the world.  These are the kinds of words that can inspire a heart, a community, a nation to move to make life better. These words can set our souls free to soar closer to God. Words that come from the heart break out of the walls that we build around our hearts and around our lives so that we don’t have to care or be concerned about the injustice and the hurt. They can bring about an Arab Spring, motivate a Mother Theresa. When we can break out from behind the walls that protect and confine us, we are able to do the most amazing things. Personal prayer, the expression of our soul before God, can do all of this.
And yet, I know that this is not enough.
What are the words that keep us going when life is tough? What are the words that give us courage, hope and strength when our bodies are about to fail? What are the prayers that that are sung when we are climbing that impossible hill that separates us from our dreams? What words do we repeat over and over when we need to renew our hope and our resolve? It seems there is a role for a fixed liturgy after all. 
A fixed liturgy represents the best words of some of our greatest minds. They are the map that shows us where others have marked the trail so we do not feel that we are alone and lost. Others have been here and have left us the words that helped them when they were in this dark and lonely stretch of highway. Are there not Jews who have faced the fears of the night by quoting Moshe Rabbenu saying, “Shema Yisroel…?” Every day Jews celebrate the joys of life by quoting the Sages of the Talmud saying, “Shehechiyanu  V’Kiamanu …” It is very rare indeed to find a mourner who does not find comfort reciting, “Yitgadal v’Yitkadash…” In a modern congregation, it is hard to find those who would be uncomfortable praying for the sick by singing “Mi Shabyrach” with the new liturgical melody by Debbie Friedman.
The fixed liturgy is where we turn when we have no more words in our heart; when we face life and we don’t know what we should say, or what we could dare to say to God in that moment.
Some prayers are personal and need to be recited by the heart that carries them inside. Some prayers allow us to take the words of other people and make them our own. Personal prayers are about our longing; the fixed liturgy is about our responsibilities. Personal prayer starts in the heart and explodes outward into the rest of our life. The fixed liturgy starts on the outside and penetrates deep within our souls.
The ancient Rabbis were very wise. They gave us the fixed liturgy of the Shema and the personal space that comes with the Amida in every collection of prayer. When we have the words in our hearts, we have the space to express them in prayer. When our hearts seem empty, we have the liturgy to “prime the pump” to remind us of what prayer can be and what it should be.  Sure, we could recite a fixed liturgy by rote. But just like an old love song can mean more to us when we hear it because of our history with that song, how it was played when we met our beloved, and when we married, and at our 50 anniversary; so too, a fixed liturgy can be an old friend, always there to express the everyday feelings that make up our lives. 
I like this way of looking at words: Old and new friends helping us find our way to God.
6/19/12

The One Who Shouts First Loses

The One Who Shouts First Loses
There is an old story of a Japanese village where the people never argue. An outsider is fascinated with this modern wonder and asks the villagers why they never find anything to argue about. “Oh, we argue,” was the reply, “but we have a rule that the person who raises his or her voice first, loses.”
Could somebody please codify that rule in the United States soon!
In the past couple of months I have seen a good Rabbi slandered on YouTube for having the UN ambassador speak at a community event in his congregation. Another local synagogue had to cancel a political education event because the other party wanted to immediately respond to the issues that were raised. Emails are flying fast and furious about whether politicians can speak in synagogues without the synagogues losing their status as non-profit organizations.  All of this to silence Jewish leadership about taking a stand on issues that are important to our communities.
What bothers me is that what passes for political conversation today is all about yelling. One cannot take any position, right or left, without first passing some kind of “purity test” to make sure that they will speak the “truth” according to the extremist position. Forget about the end of the middle class family, we are seeing the end of the moderate thinker. Critical thinking is no longer needed. Nuanced positions are to be “swift boat-ed”. “Fair and balanced” has become a cynical motto and no longer a moral aspiration. Like the most fanatical religious observer, you are all in or you are sinner.  “He rides an elevator on Shabbat; he can’t be trusted” “She reads banned books; so she is a heretic”.
In the Jewish community, if one says the words, “Two State Solution” you are anti-Zionist and if you say “Settlements are a problem” you are an anti-Semite. If you say, “There are some Israeli policies that I am not sure about” then you are the definition of a traitorous Jew.
In Parshat Bahaalotecha, just last Shabbat, we see the story of Moses who begs God to assign some elders to help Moses lead the people. Seventy Elders are chosen and they are given a vision of God and begin to speak prophetic words in the camp. When Joshua is concerned that this will devalue the leadership of Moses, the great prophet replies, “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29).
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School at The American Jewish University in Los Angeles has written; “Through the authorization of seventy sages, God establishes diversity as a Jewish virtue. By providing the leadership, the prototype of the Second Temple, and the rabbinic Sanhedrin with dissenting opinions, God assures that every possible view will be articulated and considered. Diversity, then, is not a threat. Instead, the Torah presents diverse viewpoints as a source of richness, stability and vitality for Judaism; indeed the Rambam suggests that this pluralism of viewpoint is at the very center of Jewish law, from the time of Moses to our own day” (The Bedside Torah, p. 236).
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. What is not allowed is drowning out all the dissenting opinions. Diversity is a God given mandate. Pluralistic thoughts are the way to make better decisions. Those who claim that there is only one way, one solution, one course of action are not only wrong, they are lying to us.  There is always another way, maybe it is better, maybe not, but we will never know if those who espouse it are shouted down, drowned out and refused a platform to speak.
And if we don’t speak up, we will get the discussion we deserve, which is no discussion at all. Rather than accept the fact that distorted ideas and defamatory remarks are what will go “viral” in our hypersensitive age, we need to stand up for diversity, pluralism and common sense. Such a stand will not be easy or pleasant. But it is the right stand in the end. 
Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem “If”: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop to build them up with worn out tools. … If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and, which is more, you will be a man my son.” 
I read it as “you will be a MENTCH”. 
What kind of a world is it that vilifies a kind, caring and considerate human being? Not a Jewish world; we believe in diversity. Not an American world, because we believe that everyone has the right to speak freely.  I vote for pluralism and diversity. Where will your vote go?

Parshat Behar/Behukotai Saturday Morning 2012

Parshat Behar/Behukotai
Saturday Morning
2012
1.      Shabbat Shalom
2.      Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day. Sunday is the day we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem after more than 2000 years of exile. It was on this day, in 1967 that Israeli soldiers, during the Six Day War, fought hand to hand in the streets of Jerusalem and captured the old city from Jordan. It has been Israel’s undivided capital ever since.
3.      I think that we should remember the difficult history of this city. Jerusalem was burned by the Romans in 70 CE and the Jews of the city were carried off into captivity.  In 135 CE, there was another revolt that was completely crushed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. From that time, Jews were forbidden to neither set foot in Jerusalem nor rebuild it. Jews were finally able to return to the city by the Moslem general Saladin. They kept to their own quarter of the city and lived in relative poverty. Jews all over the world sent money to aid those who lived in the city but only in the time of Turkish rule, did the Baron Rothschild and other great Jewish philanthropists of Europe send money to build the neighborhoods outside the walls of the city.  Jerusalem now had two parts, the old city built by the Moslems and the new city that was being constantly built by the Jews under Turkish and then British rule.
4.      In 1948, the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem barely were able to hold on to the new city, suffering a terrible siege. They tried to also hang on to the old city but could not breach the walls. From 1948 until 1967 Jerusalem was a city divided. On Sunday we will celebrate its becoming one city again.
5.      There was a recent dialogue between two modern thinkers about the State of Israel. One of the participants was Peter Beinart. He is the author of a recent book called “The Crisis of Zionism”, a controversial book about how Israel’s government has corrupted the notion of Zionism. He was debating Zionism with Rabbi David Gordis, a rather outspoken Conservative Rabbi who lives and writes in Israel about politics there. Rabbi Gordis is a friend of mine; we graduated Rabbinical School together, long before he made aliyah to Israel.  After the debate, there was time for some questions. One of the questioners asked: “Both of you have written about the tragedy of young American Jews who have no connection to Judaism and the fate of the Jewish state. So let’s say you were stuck in an elevator with one of the people from that demographic, and you had two minutes to sell them about why they should re-engage with Jewishness and Zionism and the Jewish people, what would you say?”
6.      Before I give their answers let me just explain that this is not a trick question. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, young people today don’t like to read long articles of well-reasoned opinions. They like short answers and condensed ideas. Twitter requires that all messages be reduced to just 130 characters. An elevator speech is where you try to boil down your entire philosophy into the time it takes to ride an elevator to an upper floor. You get only two minutes. The questioner was asking how these two writers would engage a young person with only two minutes to engage them.
7.      While their answer are longer than I can use here today, let me just say that Rabbi Gordis replied, “The question itself is an outrageously obnoxious question. … I wouldn’t take two minutes while standing in an elevator to try and explain everything that makes my world meaningful or to try to convince somebody to be a moral human being, and I wouldn’t take two minutes in an elevator to try to convince another person why a life spent loving another person is a life that … is infinitely worthwhile. … There are certain conversations that don’t deserve two minutes; they deserve years of upbringing.”
8.      Peter Beinart then said, “I could not more profoundly agree with what he said… It’s too late at that point, and the kids who ask that question have in fact been failed by our community.”  Then he noted the failure of our Jewish schools and added, “That’s precisely why we end up with kids who would ask such an insulting question in the elevator.”
9.      While both of these authors disagree on many topics relating to Israel, here was one where they could both agree. They have both written many books about the problems of life in Israel, the issues that Israel has to face and the failure of Israeli politicians to solve these problems; that to summarize their entire world view into a two minute speech was really asking them too much. Short of asking the person in the elevator to buy and read their books, how could anyone expect them to summarize their life’s work in a two minute conversation?
10.  A number of people walked away from that exchange surprised and unhappy with their pessimistic view of young Jews. Both seemed to make the case that the next generation of American Jews will be a lost generation. They will have little connection to their religion, little connection to Israel and no feelings at all for the history of Israel that we in this room witnessed in our lives. They lay that blame on our shoulders, that we did not do enough to pay for the schools nor provide for the education and the indoctrination of a generation of Jews to love Israel and the Jewish people.
11.  Let me first say that while I have had my issues with both Rabbi Gordis and Peter Beinart, in this case, I believe, along with several others who have commented on this exchange, that they are both wrong.  If there is a lost generation it could only be if we give up on our efforts to reach them. It does not take a long time to change a mind. It does not take a lifetime of education to form an opinion. It is true that you can’t teach all there is to know about Judaism and Israel while standing on one foot, but you can spark an interest that could trigger a lifetime of Jewish learning.
12.  The odds are that you will not win the lottery in your lifetime.  The odds of winning are very long odds indeed. But if you never buy a lottery ticket, you will certainly never win. Similarly, if young Jews today are not connected with Israel while they are in school, then it will be hard to connect them once they are out in the world. But if we give up on them, they certainly will never connect with Israel, or worse, will come to believe that those detractors of Israel are right and that Israel is just another failed state. I am not prepared to cede that ground to the Palestinians, the anti-Semites or any of the other groups that would like to see Israel destroyed.
13.  Before I give you my elevator speech, however, let me ask you to think about this for a while. What would you say in the elevator to a young Jew asking why you think Judaism and Israel are important, so important that this person should rethink their own position? What do you consider a compelling answer? Would you talk about our ancient connection to the faith and land of our ancestors? Do you think that remembering the Holocaust is the most compelling argument? If you have been to Israel, could you find something from your visit that makes Israel worth advocating for in the public square? What could you say to your grandchildren that would help them understand the love you have for Israel?
14.   If I were asked the question about why a young Jew should rethink a position on Israel, I might first ask why it is that every ethnic group, every religious group in the world has a nation to call home. Why should Jews be denied their home? No matter what the ethnicity, Jews have never been fully welcome, fully at home anywhere. Now that we have a state of our own, why should anyone ask us to give it back? Until the Jews came the land of Israel was barren and full of disease; Jews have pushed back the desert and made the country a great success. Why did they do it? Because that is what you do when you are home.
15.  I might also remind this young Jew that while democracy is sometimes a messy way to run a country, it is still the best government that can be found in the Middle East. Israel had protests in the streets just as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. But Israel did not repress its demonstrators. They had the right to protest and now they are working to make the country better, without fighting, gun battles and foreign intervention.
16.  I would also add that in many cases, the reason that so many oppose Israel is because, even in the 21stcentury, there are still nations and people who don’t like to see Jews be successful. They see Israel as a country that defies their view of the place Jews should be in the world, that we don’t fit their theology nor their world view. Maybe not in the United States, but when Jews were attacked in Argentina, Ethiopia, Russia and France, unlike in 1948, these Jews have a place to go, a place that will take them in without questions. Israel has also taken in other refugees when nobody else would take them. Ask me why there are so many Southeast Asians in Israel? When no other country would have them, Israeli ships picked them up at sea and brought them to Israel. And when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, one of the first countries to send humanitarian aid is Israel.
17.  If you have never been to Israel, you should and see for yourself how minorities are treated, how other faiths are respected and how the country is run by the rule of law. I would tell you to visit the other countries in the area but most of them are too dangerous for foreigners to visit.  And yet they want to take over our Jewish State.
18.  Is Israel perfect? Not hardly, but it is only 60 years old or so, and already it has picked itself up from a third world country to a first world country.  I think that anyone who is unhappy with what Israel is about should take another look. Next time you hear someone talking down about Israel, ask yourself if he or she has an ax to grind.  Israel is the land that all Jews can call home. It can be your home too. So stop by and see for yourself if Israel makes you proud.
19.  As we celebrate Yom Yershalayim this Sunday, let us all be proud, of a reunified Jerusalem and of a strong state of Israel. May God make her better and stronger as every year goes by as we say…
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Behar/Behukotai Saturday Morning 2012

Parshat Behar/Behukotai
Saturday Morning
2012
1.      Shabbat Shalom
2.      Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day. Sunday is the day we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem after more than 2000 years of exile. It was on this day, in 1967 that Israeli soldiers, during the Six Day War, fought hand to hand in the streets of Jerusalem and captured the old city from Jordan. It has been Israel’s undivided capital ever since.
3.      I think that we should remember the difficult history of this city. Jerusalem was burned by the Romans in 70 CE and the Jews of the city were carried off into captivity.  In 135 CE, there was another revolt that was completely crushed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. From that time, Jews were forbidden to neither set foot in Jerusalem nor rebuild it. Jews were finally able to return to the city by the Moslem general Saladin. They kept to their own quarter of the city and lived in relative poverty. Jews all over the world sent money to aid those who lived in the city but only in the time of Turkish rule, did the Baron Rothschild and other great Jewish philanthropists of Europe send money to build the neighborhoods outside the walls of the city.  Jerusalem now had two parts, the old city built by the Moslems and the new city that was being constantly built by the Jews under Turkish and then British rule.
4.      In 1948, the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem barely were able to hold on to the new city, suffering a terrible siege. They tried to also hang on to the old city but could not breach the walls. From 1948 until 1967 Jerusalem was a city divided. On Sunday we will celebrate its becoming one city again.
5.      There was a recent dialogue between two modern thinkers about the State of Israel. One of the participants was Peter Beinart. He is the author of a recent book called “The Crisis of Zionism”, a controversial book about how Israel’s government has corrupted the notion of Zionism. He was debating Zionism with Rabbi David Gordis, a rather outspoken Conservative Rabbi who lives and writes in Israel about politics there. Rabbi Gordis is a friend of mine; we graduated Rabbinical School together, long before he made aliyah to Israel.  After the debate, there was time for some questions. One of the questioners asked: “Both of you have written about the tragedy of young American Jews who have no connection to Judaism and the fate of the Jewish state. So let’s say you were stuck in an elevator with one of the people from that demographic, and you had two minutes to sell them about why they should re-engage with Jewishness and Zionism and the Jewish people, what would you say?”
6.      Before I give their answers let me just explain that this is not a trick question. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, young people today don’t like to read long articles of well-reasoned opinions. They like short answers and condensed ideas. Twitter requires that all messages be reduced to just 130 characters. An elevator speech is where you try to boil down your entire philosophy into the time it takes to ride an elevator to an upper floor. You get only two minutes. The questioner was asking how these two writers would engage a young person with only two minutes to engage them.
7.      While their answer are longer than I can use here today, let me just say that Rabbi Gordis replied, “The question itself is an outrageously obnoxious question. … I wouldn’t take two minutes while standing in an elevator to try and explain everything that makes my world meaningful or to try to convince somebody to be a moral human being, and I wouldn’t take two minutes in an elevator to try to convince another person why a life spent loving another person is a life that … is infinitely worthwhile. … There are certain conversations that don’t deserve two minutes; they deserve years of upbringing.”
8.      Peter Beinart then said, “I could not more profoundly agree with what he said… It’s too late at that point, and the kids who ask that question have in fact been failed by our community.”  Then he noted the failure of our Jewish schools and added, “That’s precisely why we end up with kids who would ask such an insulting question in the elevator.”
9.      While both of these authors disagree on many topics relating to Israel, here was one where they could both agree. They have both written many books about the problems of life in Israel, the issues that Israel has to face and the failure of Israeli politicians to solve these problems; that to summarize their entire world view into a two minute speech was really asking them too much. Short of asking the person in the elevator to buy and read their books, how could anyone expect them to summarize their life’s work in a two minute conversation?
10.  A number of people walked away from that exchange surprised and unhappy with their pessimistic view of young Jews. Both seemed to make the case that the next generation of American Jews will be a lost generation. They will have little connection to their religion, little connection to Israel and no feelings at all for the history of Israel that we in this room witnessed in our lives. They lay that blame on our shoulders, that we did not do enough to pay for the schools nor provide for the education and the indoctrination of a generation of Jews to love Israel and the Jewish people.
11.  Let me first say that while I have had my issues with both Rabbi Gordis and Peter Beinart, in this case, I believe, along with several others who have commented on this exchange, that they are both wrong.  If there is a lost generation it could only be if we give up on our efforts to reach them. It does not take a long time to change a mind. It does not take a lifetime of education to form an opinion. It is true that you can’t teach all there is to know about Judaism and Israel while standing on one foot, but you can spark an interest that could trigger a lifetime of Jewish learning.
12.  The odds are that you will not win the lottery in your lifetime.  The odds of winning are very long odds indeed. But if you never buy a lottery ticket, you will certainly never win. Similarly, if young Jews today are not connected with Israel while they are in school, then it will be hard to connect them once they are out in the world. But if we give up on them, they certainly will never connect with Israel, or worse, will come to believe that those detractors of Israel are right and that Israel is just another failed state. I am not prepared to cede that ground to the Palestinians, the anti-Semites or any of the other groups that would like to see Israel destroyed.
13.  Before I give you my elevator speech, however, let me ask you to think about this for a while. What would you say in the elevator to a young Jew asking why you think Judaism and Israel are important, so important that this person should rethink their own position? What do you consider a compelling answer? Would you talk about our ancient connection to the faith and land of our ancestors? Do you think that remembering the Holocaust is the most compelling argument? If you have been to Israel, could you find something from your visit that makes Israel worth advocating for in the public square? What could you say to your grandchildren that would help them understand the love you have for Israel?
14.   If I were asked the question about why a young Jew should rethink a position on Israel, I might first ask why it is that every ethnic group, every religious group in the world has a nation to call home. Why should Jews be denied their home? No matter what the ethnicity, Jews have never been fully welcome, fully at home anywhere. Now that we have a state of our own, why should anyone ask us to give it back? Until the Jews came the land of Israel was barren and full of disease; Jews have pushed back the desert and made the country a great success. Why did they do it? Because that is what you do when you are home.
15.  I might also remind this young Jew that while democracy is sometimes a messy way to run a country, it is still the best government that can be found in the Middle East. Israel had protests in the streets just as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. But Israel did not repress its demonstrators. They had the right to protest and now they are working to make the country better, without fighting, gun battles and foreign intervention.
16.  I would also add that in many cases, the reason that so many oppose Israel is because, even in the 21stcentury, there are still nations and people who don’t like to see Jews be successful. They see Israel as a country that defies their view of the place Jews should be in the world, that we don’t fit their theology nor their world view. Maybe not in the United States, but when Jews were attacked in Argentina, Ethiopia, Russia and France, unlike in 1948, these Jews have a place to go, a place that will take them in without questions. Israel has also taken in other refugees when nobody else would take them. Ask me why there are so many Southeast Asians in Israel? When no other country would have them, Israeli ships picked them up at sea and brought them to Israel. And when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, one of the first countries to send humanitarian aid is Israel.
17.  If you have never been to Israel, you should and see for yourself how minorities are treated, how other faiths are respected and how the country is run by the rule of law. I would tell you to visit the other countries in the area but most of them are too dangerous for foreigners to visit.  And yet they want to take over our Jewish State.
18.  Is Israel perfect? Not hardly, but it is only 60 years old or so, and already it has picked itself up from a third world country to a first world country.  I think that anyone who is unhappy with what Israel is about should take another look. Next time you hear someone talking down about Israel, ask yourself if he or she has an ax to grind.  Israel is the land that all Jews can call home. It can be your home too. So stop by and see for yourself if Israel makes you proud.
19.  As we celebrate Yom Yershalayim this Sunday, let us all be proud, of a reunified Jerusalem and of a strong state of Israel. May God make her better and stronger as every year goes by as we say…
Amen and Shabbat Shalom