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

Parshat Ahrei Mot-Kedoshim Sermon Saturday Morning 2012

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Parshat Ahrei Mot-Kedoshim
Sermon Saturday Morning
2012
1.      Shabbat Shalom
2.      When you hear the words, “God loves you!” what comes to your mind? My colleague, David Wolpe in Los Angeles likes to start his lectures with the phrase, “God loves you!” because it is a phrase that makes Jews squirm.  This is just not the way Jews talk about God.  When we hear “God loves you!” we immediately think of Christian evangelists on television who say it just before reminding their listeners that Jesus died for their sins.
3.      There is no reason, however, that a Rabbi can’t proclaim to his congregation, “God loves you”. After all, God brought us up out of the land of Mitzrayim with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. God gave our people food and water in the wilderness and gave us the Torah on Mt. Sinai. God led us to the Promised Land and helped our people settle that land. God was there when we battled the Philistines, the Persians, the Syrian Greeks, and the Romans. God was with us in our exile, protecting us from random death and violence.  God helped us reestablish the State of Israel in our own day, protecting Israel from invasion and terrorism. God has blessed us with safety and prosperity in this country.  There are so many reasons to thank God and to proclaim that in all God does, God loves us.
4.      Of course, we who live in the modern world, in the shadow of the Holocaust, struggle to find God’s love after this extraordinary catastrophe in our history. Millions of Jews died wondering why God had forsaken them; wondering if they were being punished by God; wondering how a loving God could cause such pain and suffering. There are some who look at their own personal lives and do not see a loving God at all. They see only a life filled with suffering and disaster, death and despair. If this is God’s love, they want no part of it anymore.
5.      I can’t explain why there is suffering in the world. I don’t know why bad things happen. I can get as angry as anyone else when I see injustice in the world and wonder where God is in all of this. I pray to God, I cry out to God, I even, at times, scream at God.  What I do know is that if God were an angry and punishing God, then anger at God would be punished. But God loves us, and God understands our pain and hurt.  Even when we hate God, God still loves us.
6.      God gives us the laws of this Parsha, laws relating to sexual love, laws relating to atonement, laws relating to how we must love others. God does not give us these laws because God is some kind of a bully; “Do as I say or you will be punished”. God gives us commandments/Mitzvot as an act of love.  The late Rabbi Sydney Greenberg once wrote, “A good parent does not say to her child, ‘do whatever you want;’ that is not a loving parent, that is an abdication of the parents duty. A good parent says to a child, ‘I love you very much and I don’t want to see you get hurt so here are the rules to live by and to help you get along in the world.” In the same way God does not let us fend for ourselves in trying to build a better life on this planet. God loves us so much that God gave us the Torah as a guide to help us live meaningfully.
7.      The real focus of our Parsha, however, is not to show us how much God loves us, but to ask the question, “How do we express our love of God?”  We can see easily what God has done for us. What then do we do for God?  How we answer this question cuts to the very heart of what it means to live a Jewish life.
8.      First of all, how important is it for us to take time to show our love of God? How often do we show our love? Three days a year? Once every six months? Monthly? Weekly? Every day? When we want to show our love of God what do we do?  Recite the Shema? Daven Shacharit? Come to shul early? Study Torah? Attend a lecture? Read a Jewish book? Give Tzedaka? Help a neighbor in need? Do we express our love of God privately or do we express that love publicly. Which do you think God prefers?
9.      Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, once wrote about how his pregnant wife woke him up in the middle of a snowy winter night to ask him to get her a chocolate bar with almonds.  Recognizing this as one of the legendary cravings of a pregnant woman, and wanting to be a good husband to her in this moment, he got dressed and drove out into the snow to find a candy machine that had the required candy bar. He returned with the candy some time later and his wife was a bit embarrassed about sending him out in the snow but she was also grateful for his understanding.
10.  The key to this story was that Rabbi Kushner himself understood what he had done as something extraordinary. For the time it took him to retrieve a candy bar, he was no longer Rabbi Kushner, he was an extension of his wife, making the effort to  fulfill her desires.  His own ego was gone and the only thing important in that moment was his wife’s needs.  He did not go out in the snow because she nagged him, or threatened him or embarrassed him. He went out because of his love for her.
11.  Any of us who are or were once married, understand this. It is an act of love to do whatever is necessary to fulfill the needs of our spouse. Yes that means washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, being supportive in a difficult time and writing a love note for no special reason; all of these are the ways we show our  partner that we are prepared to put aside our own needs and desires just to make our partner happy.
12.  When we are asked, then, what are we prepared to do to show our love of God, well, we already know what we need to do. Can we put aside what we want to do and fulfill in that moment what God wants us to do? If we are in a hurry and we see someone who needs a helping hand how can we show, in that moment, our love of God? When we are watching the news and we see something that is not right or fair, can we get up out of our chair and write the letter, make the donation, and attend the rally that will bring about real change in the world?
13.  When we are sick and then have a complete recovery, do we go on with our lives and not express our thanks to God for our healing? Do we have to be thankful to God? I don’t think that God heals us because God needs the expression of gratitude. But if we want to show our love of God, shouldn’t we do it anyway? If we want to live a good life, shouldn’t we make the time to go to synagogue and listen there for God to tell us what a good life is all about? Rabbi Jack Riemer tells a story of a man who tells his Rabbi that he does not need to come to shul to talk to God, God is everywhere and so he can talk to God wherever he may be. The Rabbi replied, “It is true that you can talk to God anywhere but perhaps you should come to shul because God wants to talk to you!” If God loves us enough to listen to us when we are in need, shouldn’t we show our love of God by listening to what God wants from us?
14.  An unknown soldier once wrote the following poem:
I asked God for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.
15.  It seems that sometimes God loves us and we don’t often realize that love until the day is over and we have time to reflect on the course of our lives.  But when we do have the time for reflection, do we also reflect on the importance of expressing our love to God? Do we realize how blessed we are and do we respond to the blessing with love? How do YOU express your love of God? How can you incorporate that love into your life?
16.  May God bless us with divine love every day we are alive and may each day present us with new ways to express our love to our Creator.  Let us never forget that among all people, we are most richly blessed
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM

Israel Independence Day Saturday Morning 2012

Israel Independence Day
Saturday Morning
2012
1.      Shabbat Shalom
2.      As Israel celebrates 64 years of independence, the one question that Rabbis all over this country are asking is “Why is it so hard to have a civil discussion about Israel?” No matter where you go and no matter what you read, there seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Jews’ discussion of Israel.
3.      On the one side are what I call the “hard core Zionists.” These are the Jews who remember very vividly what the world looked like when there was no State of Israel. Every battle for Israel was hard fought and they will not give an inch to those who have opposed Israel in any way.
4.      Sixty-five years ago, as we worked so hard to make the vision of a Jewish state a reality and as we tried to build that state from the ashes of Europe after World War II, we remember the hatred for Jews in Europe. Even though the Nazis were gone, Jews who attempted to return home after the war in Poland and Russia found others living in their homes that were unwilling to give back what the Nazis had stolen. Jews who fought for what was once theirs were murdered in the streets. The defeat of Nazi Germany did not end European anti-Semitism. Jews who had opposed Zionism in the past were all killed in the gas chambers. The nations of the world were ready to give the Jews a chance to build their own state. We have taken on that challenge and we will let nobody stand in our way to making our state one of the great nations of the world.
5.      On the other side are, what I call the Modern Zionists. They do not look at the history of Zionism; they look at the State of Israel today and hold up a candle to see what it has become. Like all political states, Israel is a messy mix of politics and policies. These Zionists don’t like the kind of state that Israel has become
6.      Over the past sixty-four years, Israel, like any nation, has had to make some hard decisions. Unlike other nations, living in a state of war for all of her life, Israel has had to make some compromises to democracy in the name of national security. Certain civil liberties had to be suspended. Newspapers had to be censored; and there were political prisoners that had to be jailed. There were controversial decisions about the role of ultra-orthodox Jews in the political process of the Jewish State. How could democracy and theology exist in one country? How could there be egalitarianism in Israel and still have separate seating for women in the synagogue? Was there discrimination in our Jewish state against the Sefardim, against woman, against Ethiopians, against homosexuals? These Modern Zionists were unhappy that their concerns were buried under the constant state of war and the need for national unity. They want change in the very fabric of Israel in order to make her more like the great democracies of the West.
7.      Over the years, first, the two sides started bickering, then arguing, then drawing lines in the sand and now, today, they shout at each other as if the one who yells the loudest wins. AIPAC declares a crisis if there is a hint about any possible space that might compromise the American – Israel partnership. Their insistence on bipartisan support for Israel has indeed made the relationship between the United States and Israel an unbreakable bond. Their work has been a great service to Israel for many years.
8.      J-Street, a newer model of Israel support, tries to build a partnership between Israel and the United States based on mutual understanding and peace. They see Israel as a work in progress and that America has a lot to teach Israel. They raise concerns that if American support for Israel is used to make the forces that undermine democracy in Israel stronger, then such support will not help Israel, it will ultimately hurt her. Will this willingness to engage in discussions about the social fabric of Israel open a wedge between Israel and Americans? So far it has not, but what happens if it does affect American support in the future?  Without the questions J-Street asks, however, will Israel be able to continue as a democracy?
9.      Recently, The Shalom Hartman Institute, under the direction of Rabbi Doniel Hartman and his father, the philosopher Rabbi David Hartman, is making an effort to find a third way to discuss Israel, one that does not depend on yelling and shouting. Through their I-engage program, they are using a new approach to understanding Israel, cutting through the posturing that makes a normal discussion so hard to conduct. They propose that the way to keep Israel a Jewish State and still discuss the ideals of a secular democracy is to use the Judaic practice that Jews have always used to navigate the differences between our tradition and the secular world.
10. Judaism has been for centuries, the practice that Jews have used to find their way through the secular world. Each time a new idea appeared, Judaism tried to find a way to incorporate that idea  into Jewish life. Judaic practice helped change the way we look at business law when the world moved away from agriculture and into a more urban world. Judaic practice changed the way we look at religious leadership as priests gave way to scholar and sage. Dress codes in Judaism were modified as Judaism encountered Europe after the Enlightenment. The laws of Shabbat were modified as Jews in America moved from the cities to the suburbs. Laws relating to the role of women in Judaism changed as the role of women in society changed.
11. When it comes to Israel, we need to use our faith to find our way in a new world where Jews once again are rulers of our own country. How will the country defend itself when there are religious soldiers in the ranks? How will we settle the land where there are disputes about borders and land ownership? How can political parties compromise when alternatives are incompatible with their understanding of the world? Jewish civil law, found in the Talmud in massechtot like Sanhedrin and Bava Metzia, can do much to further our understanding of the issues of today and how they might be solved.
12. It seems self-evident that the Jewish state should use Judaism to find answers to the sticky issues that plague her today. Judaism discusses the relationship between Jews and non-Jews declaring that there has to be one law for everyone. Judaism teaches that learning and studying Torah are ideals but it does not exempt anyone from getting a job, supporting their family, paying taxes and not being a burden to society. On the other hand, Judaism does not allow people to act immorally. Crime must be punished; the government must keep people safe and provide for their needs. Life has to be sacred and so does marriage. The “anything goes” attitude of Tel Aviv is just as wrong Jewishly as the discrimination in Bet Shemesh.
13. I can understand how an Arab member of the Knesset could have a hard time singing the words of Israel’s national anthem. I can understand why a Masorti congregation would want the same governmental support that the Orthodox community is given. I can feel for the couple who are not allowed to marry because of other Jewish laws that no longer have any meaning in Jewish life, laws that prevent a cohen from marring a divorced woman, laws that chain a woman to a husband who no longer cares about her; laws that demand a brother-in-law have the first “right” to marry a widow who did not have any children before her husband died. Shouting will not solve these problems, but members of the Knesset can find solutions if they look to the sources in Jewish law.
14.  Jewish law is about tradition and change. It is about God and our relationship with God both as individuals and as a society. It is about what God wants of us and at the same time making sure that we understand what God wants always needs to be “just and moral”, even though the definitions of “just and moral” can sometimes change. The Talmud teaches that when two people grab hold of a tallit, and each one declares that “It is mine”, the law requires that the tallit be divided and each person gets a half to keep. You can’t win it all when both sides have a valid claim. Israeli lawmakers could learn a lesson from the Talmud, and for that matter, our Congress could stand to learn that lesson too. There is always a middle way in life, and more often than not, we will find Judaism waiting for us in the middle. That was the wisdom of the Sages and it is why we still study them today.
15. Happy Birthday Israel; may your differences be your source of strength and may the faith of the people who fight and die for you, also bring you honor and hope. May God bless you, your leaders, those who fight for your defense and those who support you around the world. May you be a source of blessing to all of us and may we be a source of blessing to you as we say …
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Eighth Day of Pesach Yizkor Sermon 2012

Eighth Day of Pesach

Yizkor Sermon

2012

1. Hag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom

2. The beginning of Pesach is all about the Exodus from Egypt. We read about the plagues, the final dinner, the death of the first born and the redemption that came so quickly that our ancestors did not even have time to bake bread for their journey. It is this journey from slavery to freedom that takes up the first two days of Pesach. Here at the end of Pesach, however, the focus of our holiday is on the miracle of the Reed Sea.

3. The Torah tells us that the splitting of the Reed Sea and the escape of our ancestors from the Egyptian army took place on the last day of Pesach. This one moment in history is, without question, the greatest miracle of all time. The people of Israel never forgot how God saved them from certain death at the hands of the enemy and then destroyed that enemy without Israel having to lift a finger. The Torah tells us that the people saw the dead bodies of the Egyptians washing ashore and then they realized the great miracle they had just witnessed and they believed at that moment in God and in God’s servant, Moses. And so the people, led perhaps by Miriam and the women, sang a song of Thanks and Praise for the great deliverance they had encountered. Whatever doubts they may have had about God and Moses, those doubts were washed away with the Egyptian army.

4. After all the singing and dancing was done, Moses then leads the people away from the sea onward in their journey to Mt. Sinai. Only the text here has a strange anomaly. Verse 22 uses the verb, “Vayasa” a word that has the connotation that the people left the sea reluctantly. Why were they so attached to this place? Why didn’t they want to get as far away from Egypt as they could? Why didn’t they set their face to the future and to whatever lies ahead?

5. The Midrash comes to tell us that the Egyptian soldiers decorated their horses and chariots with gold, silver and precious jewels. The Israelites would gather on the shore of the sea every morning to see what precious stones might have washed ashore overnight. The Midrash claims that the reason the people of Israel were reluctant to leave was because they wanted to see if the sea would yield up more of the riches that had sunk to the bottom.

6. My colleague Rabbi Neil Kurshan noted that this is the way many of us feel. It does not matter if it is a moment of happiness or sadness. We always want to stay where we are and hold on to the feelings of the moment. A child will want to hold on to a familiar doll or blanket to fight feelings of insecurity. A teenager will hold on to tickets or a corsage that reminds her of a very special date with a friend. We spend hundreds of dollars on a wedding album and video so we will remember every moment of this most happy day in our lives. We keep locks of hair from our children’s first haircut and their first school pictures to remember these important moments in their lives. And yes, even after the death of a loved one, we hold on to something that reminds us of the one we have lost. In each of these cases we cling to the memory, the moment and the object and we do not allow ourselves to move on in life.

7. You see, it may not have been greed that kept our ancestors on the shore of the sea. Perhaps they were only looking for a memento of that moment in their lives. Just like we collect the jewelry, artwork or other tangible reminders of important moments in our life, so too the Israelites were looking for a way to keep the memory of that moment alive by acquiring something that would remind them of this extraordinary event.

8. The movie, Top Gun is about the lives of military fighter pilots. The hero’s best friend and co-pilot is killed in a training accident. The pilot blames himself for the death even though a military tribunal clears him of all blame. It was only an accident, one that could not have been prevented no matter what the pilot might have done. Still, the pilot holds on to the dog tags of his friend and he can no longer trust himself in a combat situation. Where once he was the most skilled pilot on the aircraft carrier, now he is timid and unable to engage the enemy in combat. It is only when the other pilots are in extreme danger, does he finally get past his guilt and anger and saves those who were relying on his skills. Only then can he throw away the dog tags of his friend and let the memory rest in peace.

9. We are all here today because we are like the ancient Israelites. We hold on to the tokens of the lives of those we have lost. We hang on so that the memory will stay with us forever. We do not want to forget a single moment in the lives of those we once loved. It could be a picture, a piece of jewelry, a family heirloom, a tool our father once used. A bowl that once decorated our mother’s table. We look on the object and we are transported back to the moments when their presence filled our lives and our love for them was full and alive.

10. The problem is that time does march on. The memories in our heads are of a loved one as they were five, ten or twenty years ago. If we are 80 years old today, our parents would be over 110. We have forgotten the illnesses, the accidents, the ravages of time that those we once loved suffered. Maybe they were ready to let go of life, maybe not. But when they slipped away from us, we froze their memory in a happier place. All too often, we refuse to travel on from that place and face our own future.

11. Moses had to gently move Israel from the shore of the sea into the desert to face new dangers and new miracles. Yizkor, the service we are about to begin, calls to us in much the same way. It is true, our loved one once sat at our Seder table, once joined with us in chanting the Haggada and helping us to steal the afikoman. The challenge to us, as we recite the memorial prayers, is not to hang on to a token of their lives, but to translate their lives into some meaningful action in our own world. That our lives should testify to the kind of life they once lived. In this way their memory is not frozen in a moment, but alive in every action we perform.

12. When I give charity in memory of my father, many people understand that the way he lived his life taught his children to be charitable. When I make a contribution in his memory, I am keeping the meaning of his life alive. When I dedicate my writing to the memory of my father, I keep alive in my heart that which he shared with me from his. My father insisted that he arrive for every Shabbat service before it began, and I still arrive early to shul as a living testimony of what I learned at his side.

13. Yizkor is not a ritual that helps us cling to old memories. It is a chance to make that memory come alive again in our lives. The point of this service is not just to cry at what we have lost, but to also rejoice over what we still have, what we still carry in our hearts. When I think of my father and my brother as I recite the prayers of Yizkor, I think not of how they once said these words, but I think about how much pride and satisfaction they would get, knowing that I have never forgotten the lessons they taught me.

14. We should not use this time wishing we could go back in time to happier days. We can no more go back in time as the Israelites could go back to the shore of the sea. We should use this time of Yizkor to rededicate our lives to the values they stood for. To live for ourselves the lessons we learned from them. We should use this moment of remembrance to remember how they have shaped our lives and how we are the real memorial to who they were and what they accomplished in life. This hour is not about what we have lost, but about all that we are because of the memories we carry inside. It is about what we can do today to make our lives a living memorial to theirs.

15. Do we only have a plaque on the wall in their memory, or have we dedicated a siddur or bible in their memory that others can use in their hour of prayer or praise? Will we donate to our synagogue like they once donated to theirs? Will we reach out to the soup kitchen or food pantry as a way of creating a living legacy of their live? Will we sponsor some learning, a page of Torah, or sponsor some kind of a living tribute to their memory because they once considered such things important? Do we have enough pride in who we are and all we have become that we can make a Yizkor contribution to Temple Emeth as our way of keeping our memories alive? You have the envelope in your hand. Think about what you can do in honor those we remember today. $150 will buy six prayer books or two bibles that will carry their names. Take the envelopes home and mail them back to Temple Emeth after the holiday.

16. We don’t have to go back to remember those we have lost. We can carry their memories into the future. We can make, in their names, a better, kinder and more just world. And that is the greatest legacy we can receive from their memories and then we can turn and give that legacy to our own children.

May the memories we recall this day inspire us to deepen the meaning of our own lives and then let us turn and leave these values as an inheritance for those who will someday remember us.

May we always look to the future and not live in the past as we say …

AMEN, SHABBAT SHALOM AND HAG SAMEACH

Second Day Pesach Sermon 2012

Second Day Pesach

Sermon

2012

  1. Hag Sameach

  1. Every day, at daily minyan, we have been studying Mishna together. Ever since last Hanukah, we have studied Massechet Pesachin, the section of the Mishna that deals with Pesach. We finished it just last Friday morning, just in time to be used as the focus of our Siyyun Bechor, the text we finish so we can celebrate its completion and allow the first born men and women in our community to not have to fast the day before Pesach.

  1. Massechet Pesachin is organized in a chronological sequence. The first chapter deals with the search for Hametz on the 13th day of Nisan and then, it talks about the Paschal sacrifice, what has to be done, when it has to be done and how it is to be done for the next eight chapters. We don’t sacrifice a Paschal lamb or goat anymore. We stopped sacrifices when the second Temple was destroyed over 2000 years ago. But, for our ancestors, this Paschal sacrifice was the centerpiece of the ritual for Pesach; without it, one could not sit down to a Seder.

  1. In spite of the fact that Judaism no longer sacrifices any animals, we have spent the last four weeks, as we concluded the book of Shemot and began the book of Vayikra, reading about how the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary our ancestors built in the wilderness was constructed and how sacrifices were to be performed there. Two weeks from now, when we get back to our weekly Torah reading, we will read about how the priests were installed, the sacrifices they performed and the deadly consequences of their making a mistake. Sacrifices may be gone from Jewish worship but they are not forgotten. We may have replaced them with the words of prayer but their lessons still echo in Jewish life. We need no further evidence of this than the shank bone and roasted egg that were on our Seder plates last night.

  1. My friend and colleague in San Francisco, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, recently pointed out an interesting lesson from Torah in relationship to the korbanot/sacrifices. When the Mishkan is finished and assembled at the end of sefer Shemot, the cloud of God’s glory fills the holy of holies and is so thick that Moses is unable to enter the tent. The tent is so full of God that there is no room for Moses!

  1. But the first thing that God does at the beginning of sefer Vayikra, is to call to Moses so he will come and listen to God’s words. How is it possible now for Moses to enter the tent if it is filled with the glory of God? Jewish mystics explain that the only way Moses can enter the tent is if God performs “tzimtzum” a contraction, making space for Moses by contracting God contracting the divine self. Perhaps this is why the word “Vayikra” which gives the book of Leviticus its name, is spelled with a small aleph at the end. The letter is contracted in size just as God contracted to call Moses forward.

  1. Jewish Mysticism takes this understanding of tzimtzum even further. We all know that God is everywhere, but if God is everywhere, how can there be room for everything else? If God’s presence fills the universe, where is there room for the universe? Rabbi Isaac Luria in the 16th century first taught the concept of tzimtzum as a way of understanding how the world is possible. God contracts/tzimtzum the divine self, creating the void in which the world is created. Just as in the case of Moses, God contracts in order to make room for the rest of us. It is a sign of how much God loves us that God performed tzimtzum so that we could have the room we need to exist.

  1. I remember Sedarim with my family when I was a child. My grandfather always led the service, sitting at the head of the table on a throne of pillows. Under those pillows he stashed the Afikomen and we children had to sneak up on him and steal it out from under him. We used the Maxwell House Haggada because it was given away free and we never skipped a word.

  1. I was already in college when my grandfather died. I had always assumed that my father would take up leading the Seder when Grandpa could no longer lead. I was surprised and a bit shocked when my father, knowing that already I was thinking about Rabbinical School, turned to me to lead the family Seder. I wanted to do it just like my grandfather did it. My little nephew was trying to steal the Afikomen from under my pillow and was not trying too hard. I kept telling him to try harder. My brother took him in the next room, dressed him up like a bandit with a toy pistol and the next thing I knew, he had stolen the Afikomen at gunpoint!

  1. A few years later I attended my first Seder outside my family. It opened my eyes to the realm of possibilities that the Seder offered. I learned new tunes, new questions to ask, and new readings to add. For the first time I used a different Haggada. Soon the things I had learned at other tables came home to our family Sedarim as well. This was NOT my grandfather’s Seder. It was mine.

  1. This is how tzimtzum played out in my family. The memory of my grandfather had to contract so that there would be room for me to create a new family Seder for a new generation of the Konigsburg family. New Haggadot came to our table and we stopped having the Seder at the dining room table, moving it to the living room where we could sit in comfort and discuss the meaning of slavery and freedom.

  1. Four years ago we went to Ramah Darom where my Rabbi daughter spends Pesach with professors from JTS. I have to tell you, Michelle loved not having to cook and while there was a large public Seder in the next room, we held our own Seder with one of Ashira’s professors. It was a wonderful discussion, on all levels of scholarship, and at the end of the night we didn’t even have to wash any dishes. Ashria looked at me to see if I approved of the way she was doing the Seder. Remembering the days when I started, I gave her the room she needed to make her Seder her own.

  1. Pesach is not a “shul” holiday. It is a holiday of families. So many of our members are away this week, celebrating Seder with their families and so many other families are here celebrating Seder together with their grandparents. Generations join with each other and family traditions are born. But something else happens at the same time. Just as God had to contract to make humanity possible so to do we have to perform tzimtzum in our lives as well.

  1. Rabbi Creditor writes:”I think of my precious children. If I wasn’t ready to do tzimtzum, to contract myself enough to give them the room to make their own decisions – decisions that I might not make nor approve of – I shouldn’t have had a child. If we aren’t ready to do tzimtzum and thereby provide “space” for for our partners to act and think independently from us we aren’t prepared to be a couple. All healthy relationships include tzimtzum and are infused with the obligation to grant others the right to inhabit their own place. “

  1. But Rabbi Creditor goes on and sees even a bigger picture. He writes, “tzimtzum is the heart of a mindful, relational practice. When I recognize the power of someone close to self-determine, my life changes. I become freer. A quest for God requires honest and open self reflection and the recognition that God’s image is just as surely in the face of another as it is in mine is key. Did I give up some control over my life by becoming a father or a life-partner? Absolutely. Am I willing to continue working on my own tzimtzum? With all my heart.”

  1. I still can imitate, to this day the way my grandfather sang the Kiddush. But I will never be him. I have my own way to sing Kiddush, and sometimes, I have Michelle or my children recite it, just to hear how they might do it differently. When I pull myself out of the way, I have found I have learned new lessons from my family and can see how my teachings have found new life in their lives. As we sit together with our families this Pesach, whether last night at the Seder or today for lunch after this service. We need to remember that each member of our family is not required to be just like us or to do things exactly the way we would do them. We need to contract so they can have the space they need to grow and so they can find new love for us in their hearts.

  1. We should never tell anyone, “Hey, you are doing that wrong.” We should instead do a little tzimtzum and give them the space to try something different. It will help our children and family find their own way in the world and it will help us grow wiser too. Every generation has to find their own way to tell the story of the Exodus. And we are given the gift each year, to hear it in new ways from new hearts.

May your Pesach be a holiday of love, learning and respect. As we make way for the next generation, may our tzimtzum also be a lesson, one that our children will cherish forever.

Hag Sameach

First Day of Pesach Sermon 2012

First Day of Pesach

Sermon

2012

  1. Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

  1. One of the hardest commandments associated with Pesach is the Mitzvah that we should conduct our Sedarim as if we were the ones being liberated from Egypt. The only way possible to understand the meaning of freedom is to experience the slavery and once again know the moment of liberation, the sweetness that comes when we leave behind the darkness in our lives and once again stand tall by the light of day.

  1. This is why we have to eat the Maror dipped in Haroset; to know the bitterness even if it is covered in the sweetness. The symbol of the matzah, a poor bread that had to be baked in a hurry because we had a master who demanded every moment of our time, turns into the bread of our redemption. We are still baking bread in a hurry, only now it is not a master who calls us but the spirit of liberation. We must not keep the miracle of freedom waiting.

  1. Modern Sages do not talk about liberation from slavery nor from Egypt. There is still slavery in the world and there still is a nation of Egypt. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, can be translated as “the narrow place” the place of constriction, of bondage, the place of imprisonment. It does not matter if we are no longer physically slaves of Pharaoh, but we are still slaves to our habits, our emotions; we are still slaves to our past and to our fears. The entire Torah is about how the physical slavery came to an end but the psychological slavery, the conviction of our people that they could not conquer the land, could not overcome their obstacles, could not be masters of their own destiny; this slavery remained with them. You could take the Israelites out of slavery but it was much harder to take the slavery out of Israel.

  1. So it is in our lives. We who live in freedom all too often allow ourselves to be enslaved by the way things always have been. We stay in the narrow, restricted place and refuse to move into the open light of freedom. We repeat the slogans we hear on television or read in the news and never stop to think about how narrow our horizon has become.

  1. Do we really think about what liberation means? Take Gilad Shalit. The soldier who spent five years as a captive of Hamas and was liberated this year. What kind of a Pesach Seder did he have last night? Five years as a prisoner, finally, at home with his family, can we see the meaning of freedom in his eyes? Can we experience the way he tastes the Maror and how he enjoys this year the taste of matzah? If a mixed multitude of assorted riff raff accompanied Israel out of Egypt, so too over a thousand convicted terrorists found their freedom with his. Last year he was a prisoner, today he is free. Gilad Shalit should be the face of Pesach this year.

  1. Or maybe he was the face of Pesach last year. He has completed his journey from the narrow place to the promised land. Gilad Shalit does not say “Next year in Jerusalem”. He has already been redeemed. He has returned to his family and has rejoined their Seder. We celebrate with the Shalit family their liberation. Who then is the one who is still in darkness who needs us to show him the way out of the dungeon?

  1. There are many who could serve as the face of our Pesach this year. There are the citizens of the many Arab countries, especially Syria who live in the darkness of dictatorships and who long for the fresh air of freedom. There are the child slaves of Indonesia, who work for virtually no pay producing the goods that sell so well in Western countries. They are in the darkness of the greed of their masters and who yearn to be in the light of freedom and dignity. There are the child brides of India and other countries who are sold to their husbands by their own fathers, who endure rape, torture and slavery every day as they yearn to live normal lives, in freedom to live and love as their hearts demand.

  1. But there is one Jew who is still a prisoner. One who has languished in jail for over 26 years. He is not a prisoner of terrorists or of a rogue nation. He is a prisoner of the United States. His name is Jonathan Pollard. He was convicted of spying and given a life sentence. He continues to serve his sentence long after other spies were long ago set free. The anger of some in our own government is as strong today as it was way back in 1985 when he was first convicted.

  1. Do we even remember the story of Jonathan Pollard? He was convicted not of spying for Russia or N. Korea, our enemies of the 1980’s. He was sentenced for giving state secrets to an American ally. He gave top secret information to Israel, a nation with whom we often shared important intelligence. The normal sentence for this crime should have been 14 years in prison. Instead he was given a life sentence. To fully understand his fate, we have to fully understand his crime.

  1. It was against the law to give to the government of Israel classified documents. Jonathan Pollard felt that the United States was not being fair to Israel, by withholding information that he felt was crucial to their security. We do not know what information he released. That remains classified information. What we do know was that the information he released contained the identities of many intelligence agents working for the United States. It was possible that their work could be compromised and their lives endangered. As far as we know, no operative lost his life in this breach of security. But the possibility of putting their lives in the open brought about calls from American Security personnel for harsh punishment.

  1. He was given a life sentence. And since 1985 he has been serving his time as a model prisoner. He was not permitted to attend the funeral of his father in Israel. Now his health is in decline. We now have to ask ourselves why, after 27 years, Jonathan Pollard is still in prison?

  1. There are now a number of former government officials who have asked our President to grant clemency to Jonathan Pollard. Former CIA Director James Woolsey has written a letter and gone public with his support for Pollard. He says that there is no security or national interest in keeping Jonathan Pollard in jail. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz both have written that Pollard should be released. After 27 years, the Soviet Union is no more, our enemies are now terrorists not Communists and our methods of collecting intelligence is so different that whatever state secrets Pollard once knew, they are now all irrelevant.

  1. Vice President Joe Biden said recently that he does not believe that Jonathan Pollard will ever deserve clemency. There are now a growing chorus of officials who disagree. Today, spies who pass information to allies or neutral countries are only given ten year sentences. Justice is not served by keeping Jonathan Pollard locked up anymore. What does our country gain by keeping this man in jail?

  1. Please send a card or letter to President Obama asking for clemency for Jonathan Pollard and ask our congressman and senators to put his release from prison on their agenda. Who knows, maybe our efforts will tip the balance and convince our government that the time has come to forgive and let justice give way to compassion.

  1. This Pesach, let us reach out and help Jonathan Pollard as he seeks to leave his place of confinement and find freedom. If we celebrate our freedom today, let us be determined to help Pollard find freedom as well. May he soon taste the bread of redemption. May he celebrate Pesach next year in Jerusalem, and may we merit to celebrate it with him there as we say …

Amen – Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach