PARTISAN SPLITS

Dvar Torah on Parashat Lekh Lekha (Gen, 12:1 - 17:27)  given at Shabbat evening service at Temple Israel on November 11, 2016

[Dvar Torah on Parashat Lekh Lekha, (Gen. 12:1 - 17:7), given at Temple Israel on Friday, 11/11/18]

Our Torah portion this week famously begins with God’s call to Abram (later known as Abraham): 

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ 

“Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.”  (Gen. 12:1).

He didn’t go alone.  Rather, as the Torah reports a few verses later: “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan...” (Gen. 12:5)

But later in the parasha, some sort of a crisis develops between Abram and Lot.  As the Torah recounts:

"Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram's cattle and those of Lot's cattle. — The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land. —"  (Gen. 13:5-7) 

What exactly was this quarreling about?  Midrashic tradition says that Lot’s shepherds were wicked people who would allow their sheep to graze in land belonging to Abram’s and Lot’s Canaanite and Perizzite neighbors.  Then Abram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherd’s would get into fights because Abram’s shepherds would scold Lot’s shepherds, calling them “robbers.”  (See Rashi on Gen. 13:7)

One can imagine Lot’s shepherds’ annoyance at the dripping condescension of Abraham’s shepherds.  And one can imagine Abraham’s shepherds’ revulsion at the low ethical standards of Lot’s shepherds.

And, of course, the Torah, which basically takes Abram’s side in the way it tells the story, can’t resist throwing in the side comment that Lot and his people would prefer to hang out among the sinners of Sodom rather than stay put in the promised land of Canaan.

As it says:

"Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Eternal."  (Gen. 13: 12-13)

If we were to try to read this story in the light of this week’s national elections, our interpretations would probably vary based on our political leanings.  Who are the condescending know-it-alls? Who are the robbers?  Who are the wicked sinners? Who are the bad neighbors?

Do we see ourselves in Abram’s party trying to "Make Canaan Great Again?"

Do we see ourselves in Lot’s party trying to be "Stronger Together?" 

Or is it the Lot Party who are trying to "Make Sodom Great Again" and the Abram party who are "Stronger Together" in Canaan?

What isn’t in dispute is that our nation has become divided just as Abram’s and Lot’s retinues had become divided.  There is even geographical separation in both cases.  Hillary Clinton’s supporters were concentrated on the coasts and in the cities. Donald Trump’s supporters were concentrated in the rural heartland.  The voting population was almost evenly divided and, though Secretary Clinton narrowly won the popular vote, the electoral vote (which gives disproportionate weight to states with small populations) gave the win to Mr. Trump.

Probably the most important aspect of the Torah’s account for our purposes is that Abram and Lot resolve their differences peacefully, for, after all, as Abram tells Lot --- “Anashim Achim Anachnu” / “We are kinsmen”  (Gen. 12:8).

The same is part and parcel of the ideals of the United States of America – E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One. 

No doubt this is a tremendous challenge.  Emotions are intense.  Feelings are raw.  And the stakes are high.

And so, whether we are mourning our side’s loss or cheering our side’s win --- the next step is to proceed peacefully and productively – as Abram and Lot did back then, and as, so far at least, the incoming and outgoing Presidential administrations seem to be doing now.

We pray on this Shabbat that our elected leaders and representatives, and we ourselves, will rise to the occasion. 

And we resolve to remain engaged citizens, advocating for a just, compassionate, prosperous, secure and united society--- even as we recognize that we don’t all define these terms – or balance these goals – in the same way. 

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg

November 2016/ Cheshvan 5777

 

Posted on November 18, 2016 .

SAME TIME NEXT YEAR

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5777

October 12, 2016

Now that we’re well into Yom Kippur, and we may be starting to get a little woozy from hunger, I think it’s a perfect time to sing some Gershwin. Don’t you agree?!  Please join me if you know it:

It ain't necessary so
Ah, it ain't necessary so
The things that you're liable
To read in the bible
Ain't necessary so

[Let’s repeat that chorus again]

It ain't necessary so
Ah, it ain't necessary so
The things that you're liable
To read in the bible
Ain't necessary so

[And now we’ll skip ahead to the Yom Kippur verse.  Oh you didn’t know there is a Yom Kippur verse?  Well….]

Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
That man made his home in that fish’s abdomen
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale

[And one more time for Jonah]

Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
That man made his home in that fish’s abdomen
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale

Yes, the Book of Jonah, which Linda Eason and Kathy Levine will present for us this afternoon [as the haftarah for the Yom Kippur mincha service], does have its fanciful elements.  Living inside a big fish for three days? Uh, I don’t think so…

And yet Jonah is a powerful book because it teaches stark and profound lessons even in the midst of its folktale-like elements.

For me, the first of these is the lesson we learn from God’s charge to Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go preach teshuvah (repentance) to the inhabitants of Nineveh.  And what does Jonah do?

Jonah hightails it in the opposite direction. 

To be sure, after he has had a chance to think and pray during those three days he spends in the belly of the fish, Jonah does realize that God is not really giving him a choice in the matter.  So, when God renews the call to Jonah to go to Nineveh and to call on them to mend their ways – this time Jonah does answer the call.

But Jonah’s first inclination had been to think to himself – “Nineveh, shminiveh – This is not my problem.  This is not my job. Those people are not my people.  What do I have to do with them?”

What I mean to say, is that one way of looking at the Book of Jonah is to see it as teaching the opposite message. The message, as I see it, is that if there is a crisis in another part of the world, even if it’s not a part of the world that we personally have much connection with, sometimes God will command us (or, if you prefer, our conscience will compel us) to concern ourselves with it.

There are a number of areas in the world today in crisis, but I think modern Syria is our contemporary analog to Biblical Nineveh.  (And, indeed, though Biblical Nineveh was located near present day Mosul, Iraq --- back in Jonah’s day it was the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire which included most of modern day Syria.)

When we gathered here a year ago on Yom Kippur morning, I also used my sermon to talk about Syria.  At that time, there were already hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions displaced and widespread destruction.

Last summer, the world responded emotionally to a photo of the dead body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as his family tried to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece in their search for a safe new home.[1] 

This summer, our hearts have been pierced by the image of the shocked and bloody visage of five-year-old Omran Dagneesh, besieged in a rebel-occupied East Aleppo under attack by Syrian and Russian bombing raids.[2] 

Last year the situation was horrific. 

This year it’s worse.

Let me share with you some excerpts from a September 2016 fact sheet[3] published by the European Commission: 

**********************

The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in Syria with intensified fighting, high levels of violence, widespread disregard for the rules of international law and the obligation to protect civilians, and major human rights abuses committed by all parties. The open conflict is increasingly hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid especially in Northern Syria: supply roads are often disrupted or closed and humanitarian organisations have been forced to downscale or suspend operations in several areas due to insecurity.

The situation in and around Aleppo city and Idleb governorate is dramatic: heavy bombing and intense fighting caused countless civilian casualties and damages to critical infrastructures, leaving more than 2 million people without water and electricity and in fear of besiegement. Aid delivery to the eastern part of Aleppo remains extremely difficult due to ongoing airstrikes. The targeting of health facilities continues unabated, hindering the access to healthcare for all citizens.

The Syrian population is highly vulnerable and 13.5 million of people are in need of humanitarian assistance: 6.6 million are internally displaced, 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas, including over 480 000 besieged. Civilians continue to be the primary victims of the conflict. Rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances, forcible displacement, recruitment of child soldiers, summary executions and deliberate shelling of civilian targets have become commonplace. 

The magnitude of humanitarian needs is overwhelming in all parts of Syria. The main priorities are treating and evacuating the wounded, providing food aid, water, sanitation and hygiene, health, and shelter. Prices of basic commodities continue to rise and the availability of food stocks in many parts of Syria is at risk. With over 11 million people having fled their homes both inside Syria and to the neighbouring countries, shelter needs are high. Children, women and the elderly are most at risk. 

[…]

Refugees from Syria are now the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation with over 4.8 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and the wider region. Countries bordering Syria are reaching dangerous saturation points, particularly Lebanon, which hosts around 1.1 million Syria refugees and has, along with Jordan, the largest per capita refugee population in the world. Turkey is currently hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees, the largest number of Syrian refugees in one country in the world.  

**********************************

In Avinu Malkeinu, we ask God --- Avinu Malkeinu, kaley dever vecherev vera’av ushevi umashchit mibnei veritekha. / "Our Parent, Our Sovereign – remove from all the children of your covenant disease, war, famine, exile and destruction."

Perhaps Jonah interpreted that covenant narrowly -----  that our concern should be only for Israelites whose covenant was with God at Sinai --- rather than concern for all humanity who are part of the Rainbow covenant with God from the time of Noah. 

His interpretation envisions Jonah as viewing the fate of Nineveh as, so to speak, "Not my problem.  Not my fault.  Not my job.  Not my concern."

However, there’s also a line of classical Jewish commentary on Jonah that says that Jonah’s disobedience was not out of apathy.  Rather, according to this alternate interpretation, Jonah initially fled God’s call out of concern for his own people.

The key thing to note here is that the Book of Jonah was probably written centuries after the time period in which it is ostensibly set, namely mid-8th century B.C.E. 

The Portuguese Jewish commentator Isaac Abarbanel experienced the expulsion of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490’s and ended up in exile in Italy.  In Abarbanel’s commentary on Jonah, he notes that Assyria was the enemy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  And, as he well knew, in 722 B.C.E. (just a few decades after the time period in which the Book of Jonah is set), the Assyrian Empire would conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and disperse its Ten Tribes who would be lost to Jewish history.

So Abarbanel asserted that God, using Jonah as God’s messenger, wanted to cause Assyria to turn from its sinful ways so that God wouldn’t destroy Assyria.  Thus, Assyria would subsequently be able to fulfill its own role as God’s instrument to destroy Israel for Israel’s sinfulness….[4]

That’s why Jonah, according to Abarbanel and other commentatories who followed him, initially fled and was even willing to drown in the sea.  He was doing so in order to protect his fellow Israelites from future danger at the hands of the Assyrians.   And yet, despite all the future danger that might await Israel --- the Book of Jonah concludes with God chiding Jonah for not caring enough about Nineveh.

I find a parallel here to contemporary politicians who want the United States to turn its back on Syrian refugees out of fear that some of them might be terrorists who would harm Americans. 

Jonah, thinking of his fellow Israelites, was afraid of Assyrians later attacking his own country.  And we, thinking of our fellow Americans, today are afraid of ISIS infiltrating the refugee population and attacking us.

Of course it’s a complex situation.

However, as we learn from a blog entry posted just this week on the website of HIAS (the refugee relief organization originally known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society):

The truth is, the U.S. Refugee Program includes extensive security vetting from five government agencies. Refugees are screened at higher levels than any other entrants to the country, including students and tourists. More importantly, refugees, by definition, are the victims of violence, not its perpetrators. A recent study by the Cato Institute calculated that “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”[5]

Near the conclusion of my Yom Kippur morning service last year I wrote: 

"The Syrian refugee crisis is, of course, not identical to the plight of the Jews who were attempting to flee Hitler.  But the images coming out of Syria and Europe today are close enough to be chilling.

"Our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading […] includes the imperative “Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha” / “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  (Lev. 19:16) The Torah’s message resonates in the face of the current crisis.

"The tangled mess of opposing forces in Syria today are challenging to sort out.  […]

"But meanwhile, the simple humanitarian need should rise to the fore."

So – now it’s a year later.

Let us hope and pray there will be relief and safety for many in Syria and many who are trying to escape it by the time we gather here same time next year.

Let’s back up our hopes by donating to organizations like HIAS or Unicef.

And let us support efforts to provide sanctuary for those in need and assistance to those in harm’s way.

And let us back up our hopes by electing leaders who will have the wisdom and judgment to play a positive force on the international scene to untangle the mess that exists in Syria today.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah/ May we all have a good sealing in the Book of Life on this Yom Kippur as we pray for all who are in distress and for ourselves as well.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg October 2016/ Yom Kippur 5777

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/world/europe/syria-boy-drowning.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/world/middleeast/omran-daqneesh-syria-aleppo.html

[3] http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf

[4] See Rabbi Steven Bob, Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives (Jewish Publication Society, 2016), p. 6

[5] http://www.hias.org/blog/what-you-should-know-when-candidates-talk-about-refugees

 

Posted on October 18, 2016 .

THE WIND AT OUR BACKS

Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5777

October 11, 2016

One morning last spring, Tuesday, June 7th to be exact, I was going for a run on the Lakewalk, heading from 36th Ave. East towards Canal Park.  It was a beautiful day, I felt great and – to be honest with you --- I was feeling somewhat self-congratulatory about how well the run was going. 

But then, after I turned around and started the run back towards home I found myself running against the wind, and, of course, the run became more difficult. 

Nothing unusual about all that. 

And yet, it seemed different to me that morning.  For suddenly, it struck me that,

during the whole first half of the run, I hadn’t noticed that the wind was at my back.  I hadn’t noticed that the wind at my back had been helping me along and making things easier for me.

I’m not sure what was so special about that particular moment, but it felt like an epiphany.  The next day I wrote in my journal:

“[…] I had been crediting myself for a great job but not realizing that I literally was being benefited by a ‘push’ that I had not necessarily merited from my own work.”

And I concluded that June 2016 journal entry with the advice to myself: “Okay.  drash that!”

And so, hineni, here I am, on Kol Nidre night doing so in this sermon.

So, my meaningful though admittedly oh so bourgeois experience out there on the Lakewalk reminded me that there are many aspects of my life concerning which, so to speak, I get to run “with the wind at my back” without realizing it. 

So many aspects of my life concerning which I don’t start out from scratch, but instead, start out with an advantage, with assistance, with resources, with privilege – which I may acknowledge intellectually but not really internalize in my gut. 

While others in society, those who do not have the same advantage, assistance, resources and privilege are, as it were, running against the wind --- no matter which direction they travel. 

Some of my privilege comes from being male in a society in which sexism exists. 

Some of my privilege comes from being cisgender – which means that I feel that my biological gender comports with my subjective gender identity --- in a world in which transphobia exists.

Some of my privilege comes from being middle class in a society in which classism exists. 

Some of my privilege comes from being able-bodied in a society in which many obstacles face those who use wheelchairs or are otherwise physically handicapped.

But a whole big chunk of my privilege that I often take for granted and don’t consciously notice comes from being white in a society in which racism exists.

Yup, I’ve experienced prejudice for being gay.  Yup, I’ve experienced prejudice for being Jewish.  But, oh, the advantages I have enjoyed for being white – advantages that I can easily fail to acknowledge –  just as I failed to acknowledge that I had been running with the wind at my back. 

In an influential 1989 paper[1], Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley College, made a list of twenty-six ways, drawn from her own life experience, in which she felt that she benefited from white privilege.  While I’ve used the metaphor of running with the wind at my back, Dr. McIntosh used the metaphor of having a backpack stuffed with goodies available only to white people like her who possessed those metaphorical backpacks.  Here are of few of the privileges she included in that backpack of white privilege:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  • I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  • I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.

In an op-ed piece earlier this year[2], Washington Post columnist Christine Emba writes: “The thing about white privilege is that it tends to be unintentional, unconscious, uncomfortable to recognize but easy to take for granted. But it’s that very invisibility that makes it that much more important to understand: Without confronting what exists, there’s no chance of leveling the field.”

Yom Kippur is a time of year when those of us who are Jewish are particularly focused on ways in which we can seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have failed to live up to our highest values.  And it’s a time when we can pray for the ability to do better in the year to come.  To be sure, as imperfect people, we will invariably fail to achieve total success in these resolutions.  The text of Kol Nidre --- in which we admit in advance that we can only fulfill our resolutions incompletely at best -- is stark acknowledgment of this.

And yet we must try.

This year those of us who are not persons of color, have been challenged to recognize our white privilege.  And all of us --- including those of us who identify ourselves as people of color --- have been challenged to acknowledge our implicit racial biases. 

Our society has faced these issues throughout its history.  However, these issues have become especially prominent of late in the wake of an epidemic of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers.

In a particularly stark fashion, columnist Ed Raymond in this week’s Duluth Weekly Reader writes: “We used to have a reign of terror by lynching --- Now

we have a reign of terror by shooting.”[3] 

And the racial implications of these killings has further brought to mind the many ways in which racism permeates our society. 

Earlier this year, an umbrella group of civil rights organizations disseminated a massive document presenting what it calls “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, & Justice.”[4]

The policy demands in this Movement for Black Lives Platform are grouped into six categories: 

·        “End the War on Black People”

·        “Reparations”

·        “Divest-Invest”

·        “Economic Justice”

·        “Community Control”, and

·        “Political Power”

Within those six categories there are dozens of specific demands, backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and to organizations working on those issues. It’s breathtaking in its depth and in its passion.

However, one particular section of one of the six categories has caused controversy in the Jewish community.  It’s in the category entitled “Divest-Invest.” There we find language labeling the State of Israel an apartheid State and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people. 

The accusations sting.  They may be inaccurate and tendentious, but we still can’t honestly say in response that the State of Israel is free of discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens who comprise over 20% of the population within the Green Line. 

Nor can we honestly say in response that the State of Israel has done its utmost to pursue wholeheartedly the creation of a Palestinian State in areas that have been under its administrative control since 1967.

It’s tragic that the Movement for Black Lives coalition went out of its way to alienate Jews who might otherwise support many elements of its platform.

However, we should still put this into some context.  We may disagree with the arguably anti-Semitic tone of its characterization of Israel.  However, that defamatory language is part of a category of the document --- “Divest-Invest” – which is not primarily focused on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Rather, here’s how the category of “Divest-Invest” is summarized in the platform:

“We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.”[5]

In August, I joined in as a signatory of a Minnesota rabbinic response to the controversy over the characterization of Israel in the Movement for Black Lives platform.  The statement is entitled“Minnesota Rabbinic Statement On Working For Racial Justice and Speaking Truthfully About Israel.”

It opens with a quotation from Pirke Avot: "Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata bein horin libatel mimena”  -- "One is not obligated to finish a task, but one is not free to disengage from it" (Pirke Avot 2:21)

And here’s the text of the rabbinic statement:

“We write this reflection with sorrow. Our commitment to Israel and to truth is being tested in the public square against our commitment to racial justice. Calling Israel genocidal and an apartheid state is offensive and grossly inaccurate. It also indicates a failure of dialogue about Israel in progressive circles. This reflection is meant to help our community talk about how to continue the work for racial justice in the United States, stand clearly against falsehoods about Israel, and commit ourselves to opening doors to partnership when possible.

“As rabbis we are often asked to offer moral clarity.  We stand on the side of racial justice and racial equality.  That fight has been something that the American rabbinate and the organized Jewish community have been engaged in for the better part of a century.   National and local Jewish organizations and countless numbers of individual Jews continue to engage in myriad ways to address the systemic causes of racism. Indeed the American Jewish community has a long and treasured history of standing shoulder to shoulder with the African-American community [Note: These are not mutually exclusive categories - DS] in countless numbers of actions designed to address the root causes of inequality in our society. It is a moral issue that we as rabbis today continue with renewed responsibility. Torah and the voice of generations of rabbis teachthat human dignity is non-negotiable and that the indignity suffered by any one person or group pains our entire community and nation.

“At the same time and with no apology, we reject any statement that suggests that the Jewish people in our national homeland are engaged in genocidal acts against anyone.  That lie must be denounced in the strongest language possible.  There are many Israeli governmental decisions with which each of us take issue. And indeed we have been vocal in our communities about them.  We have all worked for and promoted a two-state solution where the legitimate aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis are realized. Labeling Israel as a genocidal state, when the facts counter this completely and the effect is to render truth meaningless, is shocking. Endorsing calls to end foreign aid and to engage in economic boycott and divestment hurts Palestinians even more than Israelis and makes the dream of a two state solution even more complicated. 

“For us as rabbis, we look to the coming New Year with profound concern and with hope.  We are concerned that Jews will forget that the battle for inclusion in our society is one to which we must remain committed.   Our own fight to address anti-semitism in our society and to find allies with whom we could work to eliminate it, mandates that we now must also work even stronger to fight to eliminate racial bias in society writ-large as well. Hate is hate and it must stop now. And we stand firm and united in opposing those voices who seek to denigrate either or both the Jewish people and the Jewish State.  These causes are not mutually exclusive and we will continue our work and our commitment to both.  We pray that the coming year is a year of peace and reconciliation.” 

The list of signatories includes:

Rabbi Morris Allen

Rabbi Norman Cohen

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Jeremy Fine

Rabbi Avram Ettedgui

Rabbi Sim Glaser

Rabbi Tamar Grimm

Rabbi Hayim Herring  

Rabbi Harold Kravitz

Rabbi Lynn Liberman  

Rabbi David Locketz

Rabbi Cathy Nemiroff

Rabbi AviOlitzsky

Rabbi Debra Rappaport

Rabbi Adam Spilker

Rabbi David Steinberg

Rabbi Sharon Stiefel

Rabbi Aaron Weininger  

Rabbi Marcy Zimmerman

***********************************************

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur versions of the Amidah include a number of liturgical additions and alterations as compared to the versions of the Amidah used during the rest of the year.

One of those High Holiday Amidah passages that always sticks in my mind is this one:

וְּבְכֵן צַדִּיקִים יִרְאוּ וְיִשְׂמָֽחוּ, וִישָׁרִים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ, וַחֲסִידִים בְּרִנָּה יָגִֽילוּ. וְעוֹלָֽתָה תִּקְפָּץ־פִּֽיהָ, וְכָל הָרִשְׁעָה כֻּלָּהּ כְּעָשָׁן תִּכְלֶה -- כִּי תַעֲבִיר מֶמְשֶֽׁלֶת זָדוֹן מִן הָאָֽרֶץ.

“Then will the righteous see and be glad, the upright rejoice, and the pious celebrate in song. For the mouth of injustice shall be shut, and all evil will vanish like smoke --- when you remove the dominion of arrogance from the earth.”

It would be arrogant indeed to deny that there is not a great deal of work to be done to heal ourselves, to heal our country and to heal our world from the scourge of racism. 

But we thank God for the drive that God has implanted within us to continue the struggle against it.

Gmar chatimah tovah.  May the soulful confessions and prayers of this Day of Atonement lead us to be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

And may the wind be at everyone’s backs.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg  (October 2016/ Yom Kippur 5777)

[1] "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"  http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/01/16/white-privilege-explained/?utm_term=.1ed977bef3b6

[3] http://duluthreader.com/articles/2016/10/05/8075_a_country_divided_by_money_and_colors

[4] https://policy.m4bl.org/

[5] https://policy.m4bl.org/

 

Posted on October 18, 2016 .

VOICES

Sermon for First Morning of Rosh Hashanah 5777 (October 3, 2016)

Last night, in my Rosh Hashanah evening sermon, I spoke about the meaning of teshuvah --- How the word is often translated as “repentance” but how it might be more meaningful for us to translate “teshuvah” as “return”

But there’s another definition for “teshuvah” – which, outside of the context of sin and atonement, is probably its most common definition.

Teshuvah in its most general application means “answer” or “response”. The plural form of the word teshuvah is teshuvot.  And there is a whole genre of Jewish texts called “she’eylot u’teshuvot”(questions and answers… inquiries and responses…).  In English we often put fancy Latin endings on that latter word ---- using the singular form “responsum” and the plural form “response.” 

All through the middle ages esteemed rabbis would receive she’eylot from questioners near and far, and their teshuvot/responsa would sometimes be preserved for posterity. 

In modern times, we also have collections of responsa from the various modern Jewish movements.  In the Reform movement, for example, there is a Responsa Committee within the Central Conference of American Rabbis that produces such documents. 

In any event, I would venture to guess that for most of us, we consult the responsa of another authority much more often than we read up on the latest responsa of the law committee of the Conservative movement, or the Responsa committee of the Reform movement, or of any traditional Orthodox Responsa.

I refer here, of course, to the she’eylot u’teshuvot/ the inquiries and responsa that we see in the Duluth News Tribune every day in the column “Dear Abby.”

I’ve cut out the following “Dear Abby” column (or teshuvah or responsum, if you will) from my copy of the DNT in which it appeared last month.  I’ve been carrying it with me since then because it seems so relevant to what must be on many of our minds as we gather here today on Rosh Hashanah:

DEAR ABBY: I can’t wait until election season is over. One side of my family is liberal; the other side is conservative. At my request, they don’t argue when we are all together. There are occasional disagreements, but fortunately, they never escalate.

The problem is, when I spend time with any of them separately I am lectured nonstop about the “evils” of the other side. They don’t quit. I just want to scream, “Shut up! Shut up! I don’t care!” I am at the point that I no longer want to vote. I don’t know what to do. There’s no way I can avoid my family completely. Please advise.

“SHUT UP!” IN NEW MEXICO

DEAR S.U.: Please don’t allow your family drama to stop YOU from voting. Try this: The next time your relatives inject politics into the conversation, smile, look them in the eye and say, “Let’s talk about something pleasant, shall we?” and change the subject.[1]

Dear Abby’s advice to “’SHUT UP!’ IN NEW MEXICO” is often excellent advice for congregational rabbis. 

For just as there are multiple voices within the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, and just as there are multiple voices within the Talmud, and multiple voices within the world of medieval and modern Jewish philosophy --- so there are multiple voices within any Jewish congregation. 

We don’t all relate to the concept of God the same way, we don’t all practice Judaism in the same way --- and we don’t all agree on all of the political issues of the day.

But in Judaism this is generally considered a strength.  Our goal is not uniformity of opinion but rather a sufficiently open community that we can accommodate diversity.  As it says in Isaiah 54:2 in one of the haftarot we’ve read during the seven Sabbaths of consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah ---

 

 הַרְחִיבִי מְקוֹם אָהֳלֵךְ, וִירִיעוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתַיִךְ יַטּוּ--אַל-תַּחְשֹׂכִי; הַאֲרִיכִי, מֵיתָרַיִךְ, וִיתֵדֹתַיִךְ, חַזֵּקִי.

"Enlarge the space of your tent, and let them stretch forth the canvas of your habitations, spare not; lengthen your ropes, and strengthen your tent pegs."

So, as strongly as I personally or you personally may feel about a particular issue or candidate in this heated electoral season – we must find a way to encourage, metaphorically speaking, a big tent, embracing one another amid our differences.  And that’s true whether were divided 51 per cent to 49 per cent or whether we’re divided 90 per cent to 10 per cent.  That’s true within our congregation and that’s true within our nation.

And in this contest of ideas, the loudest voice in not always the most profound voice – as is expressed in the words from“Unetaneh Tokef” that we sang and read earlier this morning:

“Uveshofar gadol yitaka, vkol demama dakah yishama”/ “A great shofar sounds --- and a still, small voice is heard.”

This evocative imagery seems intended to remind us of a famous tale of Eliyahu Hanavi/ Elijah the Prophet, in chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings. 

Elijah has escaped to the wilderness after his life is threatened by the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  He reaches Mt. Chorev (a.k.a. Mt. Sinai) where he goes to sleep inside a cave.  And then scripture recounts:

The word of the Eternal came to him. [God] said to him, "Why are you here, Elijah?" He replied, "I am moved by zeal for the Eternal, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life." "Come out," [God] called, "and stand on the mountain before the Eternal."

And lo, the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind--an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake--fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire—kol demamah dakah/ a still small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: "Why are you here, Elijah?" He answered, "I am moved by zeal for Adonai, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life."

And Adonai said to him, "Go back by the way you came, [and] on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet.

(1 Kings 19: 9-16)

You know, sometimes the barrage of political ads, the figurative and literal shouting matches, and the bitter feelings of an election season can seem as loud as earthquakes.  They can seem as destructive as a blazing fire. 

The loud blast of the shofar is indeed an attention getter. 

As are big campaign rallies and warring internet memes. 

But when it comes down to our own solitary moment in the voting booth, we still must listen to the kol demama dakah, the still small voice, the voice of conscience within us, which ultimately must guide us.

For Elijah, that kol demama dakah told him that he should anoint Hazael as King of Aram.  Yehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel and Elisha son of Shaphat as his prophetic successor.

As for us, it’s the sum of our many individual kolot demamot dakot/ our many “still small voices” that will determine our next President as well as determine the results of other election contests taking place on November 8th.

How shall we choose?  I’ll echo Dear Abby’s advice here and implore you not to let family arguments --- or, I might add, ---  apathy or cynicism or logistical inconvenience --- keep you from voting. 

And I’ll follow the advice of Dear Abby and the Internal Revenue Service by not using my pulpit to tell you whom to vote for:

But we can look to the Torah portion that we read just this past Shabbat, Parashat Nitzavim, near the end of the parasha at Deuteronomy 30:19, to give us all the advice we need.  That’s where Moses sums of his long series of farewell admonitions by teaching us:

וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים

Choose life!

That sums it up. 

Today, with the help of our friend Maureen O’Brien, who served as our Ba'alat Tekiah, we have fulfilled the paradigmatic ritual mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah – the mitzvah of “lishmoa kol shofar” – which literally translates as “to hear the voice of the shofar.” 

May that kol shofar – that loud, commanding voice of the Shofar ----- as well as the kol demamah dakah --- that still small voice of conscience within us --- remind us of the importance of expressing our own kolot – our own voices --- on election day and throughout the year.

Shanah tovah u’metukah/ May 5777 be a good and sweet year for us, for our nation, for all Israel, and for all the world--- and may we do our part in making it so.

 

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)

 

 

[1] https://www.abqjournal.com/845930/headline.html 

 

Posted on October 6, 2016 .

Return and Renewal

Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 (October 2, 2016)

 

With the arrival of Rosh Hashanah tonight, we begin the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah/ The 10 Days of Teshuva.  But what does “Teshuvah” mean?  We most commonly translate “Aseret Ymey Teshuvah” as the “Ten Days of Repentance.” However, “Repentance” is just one possible translation of the Hebrew word “Teshuvah.”

The noun “teshuvah” and the corresponding verbs “lashuv” and “lehashiv” are more closely equivalent to the English “return”.

That translation definitely resonates for me more than “Repentance”.

When I hear the word “Repentance” I think of a big, booming Cecil B. Demille-ish voice proclaiming “REPENT YE SINNERS!!!!”

And, truly, that style of preaching totally turns me off.  It sounds so hackneyed, so tele-evangelist---ish, so judgmental.

Sure, I suppose that a thundering tone like that is appropriate for confronting the worst of the worst – the terrorists of the world. 

But my sense is that none of us gathered here tonight are, God forbid, terrorists.  We’re just regular, imperfect folks, trying our best to navigate the moral choices that face us each day of our lives. 

And so, to guide our actions, we look to our tradition. 

And we look to the examples of those we respect. 

And we look within our hearts and consciences.

Some of us might say that there – within our hearts and consciences -- is where we find God. 

Some of us who are less theologically inclined might say that there – within our hearts and consciences --  is where we find the human traits that have naturally evolved in our species so as to help our species to survive.

Personally, I don’t think those two approaches are mutually exclusive.

But no matter how any of us may understand the source of our ethical impulses, Judaism teaches that we should be exercising those ethical impulses every day.  Torah teaches:

רְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

 (Re’eh, anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom berakha u’kelalalh)

“See, I set before you today, blessing and curse.”  (Deut. 11:26 – I always remember that verse because it’s the opening verse of my Bar Mitzvah portion).

And the word “Hayom” (“Today”) of course implies each and every day.  As we learn in Masechet Shabbat 153a in the Babylonian Talmud:

  רבי אליעזר אומר שוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך שאלו תלמידיו את ר"א וכי אדם יודע איזהו יום ימות אמר להן וכל שכן ישוב היום שמא ימות למחר ונמצא כל ימיו בתשובה

“Rabbi Eliezer teaches – do teshuvah one day before you die.  His students asked Rabbi Eliezer --- does anyone know the day they will die?  -- He said to them, all the more so --- let each person do teshuvah today (hayom) lest one die tomorrow; and may each of us be found – on each of our days -- in a state of teshuvah.”

If you’re a regular (or even occasional) davvener, the words of the fifth of the nineteen blessings of the weekday Amidah – recited throughout the year --- are there as a reminder of this mitzvah:

Hashiveinu avinu letoratekha, vekarveinu malkeinu la’avodatekha, vehachazireynu biteshuvah sheleymah lefanekha.  Barukh atath Adonai harotzeh biteshuva/  “Return us, divine source, to your Torah, bring us nearer, our sovereign, to your service, and restore us, ‘biteshuvah sheleymah”/in complete teshuvah, into your presence.  Barukh atah Adonai harotzeh biteshuvah. Blessed are you, Adonai, who desires TESHUVAH.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah – The 10 Days of Teshuvah that connect them --- thus are merely an intensified version of what Jewish tradition would encourage us to be doing all year long.

I don’t think this is all primarily about groveling and putting ourselves down, though such language and choreography does have its place in our High Holiday liturgy.

Rather, in my own life and in my observations of others in all my years, I have found way more people who struggle with not having enough ego than those who have too much of it.    

By all means, repent as you need to, but remember to still love yourself.  That’s often so much harder to do than berating yourself. 

TESHUVAH is not just repentance.  TESHUVAH is “return.” 

And so we ask ourselves:  How can we return to the unjaded, idealistic, open-hearted versions of ourselves that were there once upon a time?

Once upon a time before we experienced loss, or heartbreak, or illness; before we succumbed to cynicism?

The basic Jewish metaphor for this state is “Gan Eden” – the Garden of Eden.  Gan Eden in the Torah is a paradise vision of the infancy of humanity.  But “Gan Eden” is also the way the sages described the heavenly world to come. 

Which is to say --- Teshuvah/Return is about envisioning and moving towards an ideal that has elements of both nostalgia and progress.

In doing teshuvah, we seek to return to God --- but we strive for this journey to be a forward journey, not just a trip down memory lane.

I think this is what Megilat Eicha/ The Book of Lamentations is saying in its famous penultimate verse:

כא  הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.

21  Cause us to return to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

We sing this verse not only on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the ancient Temples when we chant Megillat Eichah in its entirety.

We also sing it whenever we return the scroll or scrolls to the ark after a Torah service.  

I’m always moved by the dynamic tension in that verse.

We ask God ---- Hashiveinu --- Cause us to return…. It’s as if I’m an automobile whose engine has stalled and I’m calling on the divine version of triple A to give me a jump-start.

V’nashuvah ----    And we will return ----   O God, give me that spiritual jump start and then will I follow your ways. 

We pray for a jump start --- But after that we can – and we swear that we will --- persevere from our own effort.

Or, perhaps our prayer for the jump start is – in and of itself – the jump start.

And what about the second half of that verse --- Chadesh yameinu kekedem –

“Renew our days as of old.”

Which is it?  A hope for a new world or a hope for the return of an old world?

It’s neither – and both.

It’s the hope for a future to which we can bring the best of what was good about the past. 

At the end of a recent Shabbat morning Torah service, I felt myself carried away while singing that verse: 

  הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.

"Cause us to return to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old."

On that recent Shabbat morning I was thinking about my mother, who died on June 26th, after a tumultuous back and forth between severe illness and relative health over the previous eight or nine months.

The words --- “Chadesh Yameinu Kekedem” --- prompted me to pray in my heart  --- O God, may you give me the ability to take all the fond memories I have of my mother from those “ymei kedem” – those former days.  And may the comfort of those memories --- and the Torah she taught me --- help me --- lechadesh yamai (to renew my days) ---  to bring renewal and a continued embrace of life in the days, months and years to come.

As far back as I can remember, my mother always taught my brother and sister and me never to hold grudges.  “Don’t stand on ceremony,” she would say, “because life is too short for that.”

I’m eternally grateful for having been in this same earthly existence as that of my mother for almost 55 of my mother’s 77 years.

I’ve now joined that club of people who have lost a parent.  But all of you who are in the same boat know that life does go on.  And life is with people.  And renewal is not just a pipe dream.

Harachaman, hu yechadesh aleynu et Hashanah hazot letovah veliverakha.

May the All-Merciful One, renew this year for us with goodness and blessing.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)

 

Posted on October 6, 2016 .

FORTY LASHES

(Devar Torah on Parashat Ki Tetze, Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 9/16/16)

My late mother used to say, if she or someone else made some minor faux pas, that the offending party should be punished with “forty lashes with a wet noodle.”  I looked that expression up on line and got a reference to Eppie Lederer (aka “Ann Landers”) using the phrase periodically in this way.

It seems to me no coincidence that my mother and Ann Landers were both Jewish because it seems that the expression might come out of rabbinic commentary on this week’s Torah portion.

In Deuteronomy 25: 1-3, from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tetze, we learn:

 א כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֥ה רִיב֙ בֵּ֣ין אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְנִגְּשׁ֥וּ אֶל־הַמִּשְׁפָּ֖ט וּשְׁפָט֑וּם וְהִצְדִּ֨יקוּ֙ אֶת־הַצַּדִּ֔יק וְהִרְשִׁ֖יעוּ אֶת־הָֽרָשָֽׁע׃ ב וְהָיָ֛ה אִם־בִּ֥ן הַכּ֖וֹת הָֽרָשָׁ֑ע וְהִפִּיל֤וֹ הַשֹּׁפֵט֙ וְהִכָּ֣הוּ לְפָנָ֔יו כְּדֵ֥י רִשְׁעָת֖וֹ בְּמִסְפָּֽר׃ ג אַרְבָּעִ֥ים יַכֶּ֖נּוּ לֹ֣א יֹסִ֑יף פֶּן־יֹסִ֨יף לְהַכֹּת֤וֹ עַל־אֵ֨לֶּה֙ מַכָּ֣ה רַבָּ֔ה וְנִקְלָ֥ה אָחִ֖יךָ לְעֵינֶֽיךָ׃

1 When there is a dispute between people and they go to law, and a decision is rendered declaring the one in the right and the other in the wrong — 2 if the guilty one is to be flogged, the magistrate shall have him lie down and be given lashes in his presence, by count, as his guilt warrants. 3 He may be given up to forty lashes, but not more, lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes.

For us modern readers, it would seem obvious that any sort of corporal punishment coming out of a civil or criminal case would be contrary to our contemporary values.  However, according to Rabbi Melanie Aron in a 2011 dvar torah on this topic, “[i]n ancient Israel there was no long-term imprisonment.  People were held until their case could be heard, but the choices for punishment were fines and lashes, or, in the most extreme cases, the death penalty.” [1]

(And I’ll add here, that the Talmud adds so many evidentiary requirements that it rendered the death penalty virtually theoretical.)

We often hear voices in contemporary society calling for harsh treatment of criminal offenders, for punishing prison conditions and for denial of voting rights to those who have completed their sentences.  All under the general rubric of being “tough on crime.”

However, the Torah – especially as filtered through the lens of the Talmud and later rabbinic tradition --- argues instead for compassion.  This idea jumps out at us in Deuteronomy 25:3, where the convict who is subject to flogging is pointedly referred to as “"אחיך/”achikha”/ “your brother.”  Rashi[2], citing the earlier rabbinic commentary Sifrei, comments on this verse: “All day long he has been the ‘guilty one’ but now that his flogging is over, he is once again ‘your brother.’” 

Or to put it into contemporary terms, once a criminal has paid his or her debt to society, we should work to integrate them back into society recognizing them as a fellow citizen.  (Which is why, for example, I’ve never been able to understand how it could possibly be justified to deny voting rights to ex-felons, as some states continue to do, even if such denial of voting rights has some historical precedent in common and civil law systems that predate the birth of the United States.)[3]

As for the number forty in the above passage, Nachmanides[4] says that this refers to the forty days that Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah.  Rejecting Torah, says Nachmanides, should be worthy of death, but instead, the Torah calls for forty lashes because (according to the understanding of the early rabbis) forty days was the amount of time it took after conception for a fetus to be formed in the womb.

Actually, the Talmud rules that the maximum number of lashes should be no more than 39, lest there be a miscount and one exceeds 40 lashes.

And, moreover, the guilty party is to be examined carefully by the judge so that, if it looks like he or she might not be able to withstand 39 lashes, then fewer lashes, as low as just 3 lashes, can be given.

And, moreover, according to the Talmud’s tractate on lashes (Masechet Makkot 23a), those appointed to administer the lashes should be weak in body but strong in understanding. 

Basically, the idea is that the administration of justice should never cause us to reject the humanity of the guilty party.

I think this idea can be extended to our personal relationships, which I needn’t remind you should never include physical violence or the threat of physical violence. 

Rather, I think a contemporary lesson that we can draw from this passage in the Torah is that we should always remember that anyone against whom we may have a grievance is still a human being --- still, in the terminology of the Torah, “achikha” – “your brother” (or your sister).

The traditional blessing that precedes the bedtime recitation of the Shema includes the declaration: I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or provoked me or sinned against me, physically or financially or by failing to give me due respect, or in any other matter relating to me, involuntarily or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether in word or deed […] – may no person be punished on my account.”[5]

As we approach the Yamim Nora’im/ The Days of Awe – may we be able to find it in our hearts to forgive others, and may our own transgressions be purged with no more pain that that which would be caused by forty lashes with a wet noodle.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (Elul 5776/ September 2016)

 

[1] http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/ki-teitzei/respecting-criminal

[2] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/rashi.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felony_disenfranchisement

[4] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Nachmanides.html

[5] See http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/732811/jewish/Before-Retiring-at-Night-10th-Step.htm

 

Posted on September 19, 2016 .

WORDS MATTER

(Devar Torah on Parashat Devarim given August 12, 2016)

This week we begin our annual traversal through Sefer Devarim/ the Book of Deuteronomy.    The so-called “English” title of the book, “Deuteronomy” comes from the Greek and means “Second Law.”  In Jewish tradition as well, one of the traditional nicknames for the book is “Mishneh Torah” which can be translated as “Second Law” or, alternatively, as  “Repetition of the Law.”

As for the Hebrew title, “Devarim” (דברים), like all other books of the Torah, the Hebrew name comes from the first unique word in the text.  Since the opening words are – “Eyleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe el kawl yisrael”/ “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel”/ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, the book came to be known as “Sefer Devarim”/ “The Book of Words”.    

But there’s another level to the Hebrew here. 

In Hebrew, the word “devarim” means not just “words” but also “things” or “matters”.  “Devarim” are substantive.  “Devarim” are weighty.  “Devarim” are significant.

Spoken words can give rise to hurt or embarrassment, and this is no light matter.  The Talmud teaches:  “If anyone makes his friend’s face turn white [from embarrassment] in public, it is as if he spilled blood.“ (Bava Metzia 58b). 

I often advise people that sarcasm goes over my head.  To a certain extent, I really am just dense about sarcasm.  But to a certain extent I also cultivate this density in myself.  “Devarim” are “words” but they are not “just” words.  “Devarim” are substantive “things” that matter, and, in my own life, I try not to opt in to conversation that is laced with sarcasm.

Over recent days and weeks and months, our country has been subjected to the devarim of a particular politician that are full of Islamophobia, incitement to violence, demagoguery and insult.  And in a number of these incidents, this politician has later been compelled to backtrack from such talk, claiming that the words in question were meant jokingly or sarcastically.

Our Jewish tradition doesn’t condemn joking.  Indeed, just the opposite.  A story in the Talmud  (Ta’anit 22a) recounts Elijah the Prophet visiting a marketplace and speaking with a certain Rabbi Beroka, when Elijah sees two men passing by.  Elijah remarks:

“These two have a share in the world to come! Rabbi Beroka then approached and asked them, What is your occupation? They replied, ‘We are jesters, when we see people depressed we cheer them up; furthermore when we see two people quarreling we strive hard to make peace between them.’”

But it’s no joke to encourage violence against one’s political opponents. And it’s no joke to accuse an elected leader of having been the “founder” of a terrorist organization.  And it doesn’t solve the problem to later on just dismiss such words as sarcasm or joking.

Such political discourse is unworthy of our democracy.

Debate and disputation is good.  And we hope and pray that our national politics might be elevated to the level of “makhlekot leshem shamayim” (“arguments for the sake of Heaven”[1]). 

Or, to put it in more secular terminology:  Let’s debate over the issues, using words as tools for communication and not as weapons for denigration or incitement.

It may seem a lot to ask to try to elevate our discourse in a world in which insults and hate speech are all too common. 

But, as with so many aspirations in life, half the battle is first to envision the world we want to create.

In this respect, I was moved by a commentary I came across this week concerning this week’s Torah portion. 

The opening verse of the Book of Deuteronomy, after starting out with the statement: – – “Eyleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe el kawl yisrael”/ “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel”/ אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל --- continues with the words:  “be’ever hayarden”   (בעבר הירדן), which means “on the other side of the Jordan.”

So we have:  “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…”

But which side of the Jordan River is “the other side” – “be’ever ha-yarden?”

We’ve already learned, from the end of the Book of Numbers , that the Israelites at this point are encamped “b’arvot Moav”/ “on the steppes of Moab.” (Num. 36:13).  And at Deuteronomy 1:5, it’s explicitly reiterated that Moses is speaking “be’ever hayarden b’eretz moav”/ “on the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab.”

Chaim Potok’s commentary on the phrase “on the other side of the Jordan” in the Etz Hayyim chumash points out that “Although Moses never crossed over to the western side of the Jordan, this is written from the point of view of one already in the Land [of Israel].”[2]

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Shneerson waxes more poetically on this.  He teaches that this phrase “be'ever hayarden” / “on the other side of the Jordan” means that they already saw themselves as being in the promised land. Their current physical location, the land of Moav could be thought of as being “on the other side” – which is to say that, in a spiritual or psychological sense, they were already in the land of Israel – and their present physical location in Moav was thus “on the other side of the Jordan.” 

Or, to put it in Rabbi Shneerson’s words:  “The message for us is that […] we should already be so focused on our final destination that it is as if we were already living in it.  […] The first prerequisite of redemption is the awareness that we belong in the redemptive state, and that the present preceding state of exile is precisely that, exile, not home.”  [3]

Let those who aspire to leadership, and all of us as well, imagine ourselves to be in a world of constructive dialogue, brotherhood and sisterhood, justice and compassion --- and we will be well on our way to making it a reality.

Shabbat shalom.

 

[1] See Pirke Avot 5:17 (“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure [i.e., to be productive]. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”)

[2] https://jps.org/books/etz-hayim/ (p. 981)

[3] http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2267652/jewish/Chassidic-Insights.htm

Posted on August 16, 2016 .

HOW GOOD

Thoughts on Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2 - 25:9)  – after Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge, Dallas and Nice.

When we enter a synagogue it is traditional to recite this verse from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak:

 מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

How good your tents are, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5)

In the context of the Torah portion, this is the view of Bilam, the outsider, as he stands on a hill overlooking the peaceful Israelite encampment.

The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that what so impresses Bilam about the encampment below him is that the tents are set up on an angle from one another. Thus one family, in its own tent, could not see directly into the neighboring family’s tent.

In effect this is the requisite counterbalance to the theme of another Biblical verse that we often sing at the start of our synagogue worship from Psalm 133 ---“Hiney Mah Tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad”/ “How good and pleasant it is to dwell together as brothers and sisters.”

We live in community with one another – yet at the same time we give each other enough space so that we don’t end up oppressing one another.  And the balance of these qualities – the balance between “Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov” and “Hiney Mah Tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad” --  gives us harmony, well-being, shalom.

Parashat Balak takes its name from the evil King Balak of Moab, who hires Bilam to curse the Israelites.  Yet Bilam, his eyes open to the reality before him, instead blesses the Israelites.

And, after this scenario has been repeated several times, at Numbers 24:25 we come to what might reasonably be expected to be the conclusion of the parasha, when the Torah reports:

“Bilam rose and went and returned to his place, and Balak, too, went on his way.”

This is the world I’m sure we’d all like to see.  A world of communal friendship balanced with individual autonomy, where we care about one another but also where we “live and let live,” giving each other ample breathing space.

And yet, sadly, we would all have to be blind and deaf not to acknowledge that these recent days, weeks and months have also had their share of violence and terror totally inconsistent with the visions of “Mah Tovu ohalekha”  or “Hiney Mah Tov u mah na’im”.

Our world today – with fatal acts of police brutality against African-Americans in some localities, with targeted murder of police officers in others, with terrorist attacks by Islamist fanatics here and there, and with prejudicial animosity against peace-loving Muslims there and here --- Our world today can also be seen like the world described at the end of our Torah portion.

For after Bilam and Balak part ways at the end of Numbers chapter 24, a different scene emerges in Numbers chapter 25.  Those Israelites who had been so harmoniously dwelling together have now turned to apostasy ---- and religious zealots within their midst now engage in murder of the infidels No more “Mah Tovu Ohalekha, Yisrael”.  Instead we have a plague in which 24000 souls are lost. 

Which of these two versions of reality are preferable to us? If we read the Torah alone, we might get the impression that it’s the latter vision.  The murders are committed by the leaders of the Israelites in response to Moses’ command in response to what Moses understands to be God’s will.

Extremists of all religious traditions – be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or otherwise --- and extremists of all secular political schools – be they capitalist or collectivist --- might embrace the sort of zealotry that the Torah at first glance seems to embrace ---

The sort of zealotry that prompts Pinchas, the son of the High Priest, to skewer an interfaith couple with a single thrust of his spear at the end of our Torah portion.  Indeed, at the start of next week’s parasha, God rewards Pinchas with “brit kehunah olam tachat asher kiney leylohav” --- “the eternal covenant of the priesthood because of his zealotry for his God.” (Num. 25:13)

However, it has been Jewish tradition for the past two thousand years that the weekly Torah portion is accompanied by a “haftarah” --- a reading from the prophetic books of the bible which responds to themes in the Torah portion.

Haftarat Balak is from the Book of Micah, and Micah provides a much-needed counterpoint to the account of Pinchas’s zealotry.

He hearkens back to the language of that other vision of society earlier in our Torah portion, when Bilam had declared:  “MAH TOVU OHALEKHA” / “How fair are your tents!”

Micah in the Haftarah (6:8) echoes back:

  הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 

It has been told to you, O Mortal, what is good, and what does the Eternal seek from you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. 

Justice must be tempered by mercy.

Zealotry must be tempered by humility.

And cynicism must be tempered by hope.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg (July 15, 2016/ 10 Tammuz 5776)

 

Posted on July 15, 2016 .

LOOK WHO'S BACK

Dvar Torah for Shabbat Vayikra/ Shabbat Zachor 5776/2016

(Leviticus 1:1 - 5:23; Deuteronomy 27: 17-19)

I delivered this Dvar Torah at Temple Israel on Friday evening 3/18/16, a couple of days before the start of the annual policy meeting of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C.

  מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה;    מְאֹד, עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ.

"How great are your works, Adonai! How profound your designs!" (Psalms 92:9)

Those words from Psalm 92, the Psalm for the Sabbath Day, strike a powerful chord within us.  

We surely know that when we’re dealing with questions of faith and spirituality, our words are inadequate to the task.  The mere fact of existence boggles the mind.  The grandeur of the universe, the interconnectedness of all life --- “Mah Gadlu”/ How great is all this!  “Mah Nora”/ “How awesome!

You really can’t put that all into a little box.

You really can’t put that all into a little ritual.

But, our ancestors tried to do this nevertheless.  They were only human.  And we do so as well.  For we too are only human.

I think that’s the sort of mind-space we need to be in as we enter the Book of Leviticus, opening chapters of which comprise this week’s Torah portion.

א וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.  ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, אָדָם כִּי-יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן, לַיהוָה--מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה, מִן-הַבָּקָר וּמִן-הַצֹּאן, תַּקְרִיבוּ, אֶת-קָרְבַּנְכֶם.

 1 The Eternal called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When an individual from among you presents an animal offering to the Eternal, their offering shall be from the herd or from the flock..

The remainder of the first chapter of Leviticus talks in particular about the details of a particular category of offering called in Hebrew “olah” and includes a number of ritual specifications.  But the defining detail is found in verse 13 of the chapter:

וְהִקְרִיב הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַכֹּל, וְהִקְטִיר הַמִּזְבֵּחָה--עֹלָה הוּא אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ, לַיהוָה.

The priest shall offer up the entirety of the animal , turning it into smokeon the altar. It is a “burnt offering” (Hebrew: “olah”), an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Eternal.

The early Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint translated “olah” as “Holocasten”.

The website “The Free Dictionary” notes further:

Totality of destruction has been central to the meaning of holocaust since it first appeared in Middle English in the 1300s, used in reference to the biblical sacrifice in which a male animal was wholly burnt on the altar in worship of God. Holocaust comes from Greek holokauston, "that which is completely burnt," which was a translation of Hebrew 'ōlâ (literally "that which goes up," that is, in smoke). In this sense of "burnt sacrifice," holocaust is still used in some versions of the Bible.[1]

Actually, nowadays you’d have to search quite a bit to find any contemporary English Bibles or Torah commentaries to find “olah” translated as “holocaust.”  The word “Holocaust” is so explicitly associated in our minds with the Nazi’s genocide against our people during World War that it would be jarring to continue to use it as a translation for olah in the Book of Leviticus, even if it was good enough for the Septuagint and some early English versions circa 1600 or earlier. The Jewish Publication Society translation used in our Plaut Torah commentary translates “Olah” as “Burnt Offering”.

Indeed, many contemporary Jews prefer not to use the term “Holocaust” to refer to the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe because of that early connection of the term with the olah offering described in Leviticus 1.  The preferred term is “Sho’ah” a Hebrew term meaning “catastrophe.”  For the genocide of one third of the world’s Jews less than a century ago was no pious offering to express our awe of God and our desire to be closer to God. Rather, it was a catastrophe for which our response must be: “Never Again!”

******************

This Shabbat of Parashat Vayikra (the Sabbath of the opening portion of Sefer Vaykra/ The Book of Leviticus) is also a special Shabbat on the Jewish calendar known as Shabbat Zachor.

Shabbat Zachor gets its name from the first word of the additional reading that we do on a second Torah scroll tomorrow morning.  From Deuteronomy chapter 25, the reading begins “Zachor et asher asah lekha Amalek!”  (“Remember what Amalek did to you!”).  We include this reading each year on the Sabbath immediately preceding Purim because tradition says that Amalek was an ancestor of Haman – both genealogically as well as in his evil nature.

The Maftir passage from Deuteronomy 25 concludes with the admonition “Timcheh et zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim – lo tishkach”  (“You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from heaven – do not forget!”.)     

It can seem paradoxical to say --- on the one hand – Remember what Amalek did to you;  but on the other hand – blot out the memory of Amalek….

But I think the true sense of the passage is that we are charged with blotting out all manifestations of Amalek-like behavior in our world.

Genocide is certainly the epitome of Amalek-like behavior. And, indeed, Hitler, yimach shemo(“may his name be wiped out”), has often been compared to Amalek.  But the terrible truth is that there have indeed been new Amalek’s in the decades since the Shoah -- most prominently in Cambodia in the 1970’s and in Rwanda in the 1990’s.  

This week, the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL or Da’esh, was officially designated by the United States government as a perpetrator of genocide.

As the New York Times reported yesterday:

Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Thursday that the Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims who have fallen under its control in Syria and Iraq.  The militants, who have also targeted Kurds and other Sunni Muslims, have tried to slaughter whole communities, enslaved captive women and girls for sex, and sought to erase thousands of years of cultural heritage by destroying churches, monasteries and ancient monuments, Mr. Kerry said. The Islamic State’s “entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology,” he said.[2]

This action by our government is an important step, even if it’s largely symbolic.  A clear line connects the deeds of Amalek to the deeds of ISIS.

But there is also another important teaching we get from the Shabbat Zachor maftir.  Specifically, we get this teaching from the Torah’s description of the condition of our people when Amalek attacked us:

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ--וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ

“how, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” (Deut. 25:18)

Two key translation points here:  First, the Hebrew word “karkha” is translated above as “he surprised you” but the word “kar” also means ”cool” or“cold” in Hebrew.  And Rashi notes that one of the possible interpretations of “asher karcha” is that the Amalekites “cooled” us.  

For Rashi, what this meant is that the attack by Amalek made our people seem more vulnerable to additional, future attacks by other potential enemies.

However, to my mind (and I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest this interpretation), Rashi’s linguistic analysis instead leads me to the interpretation that Amalek made us “cold,” “insensitive”, “unfeeling” towards the “necheshalim” (translated above as “stragglers”) among us.   

(Many commentators and scholars see the Hebrew word “necheshalim” as synonymous with its anagram “nechelashim”  -- meaning enfeebled or stumbling.)

In other words, if we hadn’t been “cold” towards the “enfeebled” among us, Amalek would not have been able to cut them down.

And this brings me to Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump is scheduled to speak Monday evening in Washington, D.C. at the annual convention of AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC considers itself to be a non-partisan organization whose mission is [and I quote here from their website]

“to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”[3]

To that end, they routinely invite all of the major party’s presidential candidates to speak.  Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump are all scheduled to speak next week.  Bernie Sanders was invited but declined the invitation. (AIPAC didn't give him the opportunity to speak by videocast so he ended up giving the speech he would have given to AIPAC in Salt Lake City where he was campaigning in advance of the March 22 Utah primary)

In recent days, both the Reconstructionist movement and the Reform movement have gone on record with their concerns about Mr. Trump.

The Reform movement, in a joint press release with the Central Conference of American Rabbis states:

As a religious movement, we do not endorse or oppose any candidates – and we do not do so now. We have often listened to and, more importantly, engaged with candidates and officeholders whose views sharply differ from our own; such interactions are the essence of our political system. But Mr. Trump is not simply another candidate. In his words and actions, he makes clear that he is engaging in a new form of political discourse, and so the response to his candidacy demands a new approach, as well. The Reform Movement and our leaders will engage with Mr. Trump at the AIPAC Policy Conference in a way that affirms our nation's democracy and our most cherished Jewish values. We will find an appropriate and powerful way to make our voices heard.

And the Reconstructionist movement statement says:

The leadership of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement urges the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to rescind its invitation to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at its annual gathering next week. At a minimum, we call on AIPAC to clearly affirm that Muslims are welcome in the United States and to condemn all racist statements. The AIPAC gathering, which is the largest annual gathering of American Jews, should not be a platform for espousing hateful rhetoric and racist policies.
 
We understand that AIPAC invited all presidential candidates and that an invitation is not an endorsement. However, when the values a candidate espouses are inimical to both the lessons of Jewish history and our Jewish ethical values, we must avoid any misunderstanding. This invitation confers an unwarranted legitimacy on Donald Trump’s positions, which include the outright banning of all Muslims from entering the United States.

I know a number of rabbinic colleagues who will be attending the AIPAC meeting next week.

Apparently, some are planning to walk out when Trump begins speaking, others intend to hear what he has to say, others plan to protest outside the venue.

My sister even texted me from Florida today asking me --- what do you think about all this and I texted her back saying funny you should mention that because I’m in the middle of writing a dvar torah on that very topic!

So, here’s my two shekels:

Trump is not Hitler.

The brutal murderers who call themselves the Islamic State, as Secretary of State Kerry affirmed this week, are the ones who are the perpetrators of genocide.

As such, I’d say that ISIS is a much more direct analog to Hitler.

But, Donald Trump still has something in common with Amalek – whom on this Shabbat we are commanded to remember and whose memory on this Shabbat we are commanded to blot out.

ISIS is a group of murderous terrorists.  But Trump’s lumping together of them with the hundreds of millions of peace-loving Muslims of the world is racist, dangerous to our society, and inimical to Jewish values.  Indeed, the refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and the surrounding region are for the most part analogous to “hanecheshalim”  -- the enfeebled stragglers who were the direct victims of Amalek.  And Trump, like Amalek, seeks to make us “kar”/ “cold” – “unfeeling” and “unsympathetic” to them.

Let Trump speak.  But let AIPAC and all of us make our arguments in response.

Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5776/2016      

[1] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/holocaust

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/18/world/middleeast/citing-atrocities-john-kerry-calls-isis-actions-genocide.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.aipac.org/en/about/mission

Originally posted on March 23rd, 2016

Posted on April 13, 2016 .

DVAR TORAH FOR TEMPLE ISRAEL ANNUAL MEETING DEC. 13th 2015

Originally posted Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27), in which the story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax.  It starts out with Judah pleading to Joseph on behalf of their youngest brother Benjamin.  This heartfelt plea is the final straw that leads Joseph to reveal who he is to his brothers and that leads to their reconciliation. 

After this, Pharaoh urges Joseph to encourage his whole family to settle in Egypt, where food supplies are plentiful in the midst of worldwide famine.  And the entire family does indeed settle in Egypt, unaware that this safe haven will later become a place in which they will be enslaved.

For those of us whose Jewish ancestors came to this country from Europe,  America was seen as the “Goldene Medina”  --- The Golden Land --- a land that promised economic opportunity and freedom from oppression. But still it was, and always has been a complicated balance.  How can we best adapt our Jewish traditions to a country in which we are a small minority so that we can be accepted as full members of society?

That was probably the most critical question two or three generations ago.

In more recent times, the more critical question for American Jews has been how we can retain our distinct religious and cultural identity when we are so successfully assimilated into American society that many of us have lost the sense of Jewishness that can only come from Jewish education and from having immersive experiences of Jewish life and practice.

The Passover Haggadah recounts that it was in Egypt that the extended family of Jacob became the nation of Israel, in part because they dwelt apart and they didn’t change their names. 

In contemporary times we recognize that identity is a not a simple either-or scenario.  Rather, we have multiple identities within each of us.  Identities related to religion, to gender identity, to sexual orientation, to ethnicity, to race, to socioeconomic status, to political philosophies, to occupation, to physical and mental health.

Our Temple is at one level a place for the transmission, cultivation and celebration of Jewish tradition.  Our active involvement in it and our support of it is critical to Jewish life in our region.

And our Temple is also the sum of its people, with all of our diverse backgrounds, outlooks, experiences and aspirations.  And we know that when we come together for prayer, study, fellowship and social action, we are more than the sum of our parts.  When we unite as a kehilah kedoshah/ a holy congregation --- we experience the fulfillment of God’s commandment in Exodus 25:8--  וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם/ “ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham”  (“They shall make for me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.”)

In addition to taking care of the official business required by State law and by our bylaws, our Annual Meeting is also a time to express our thanks to one another for all of our ongoing efforts to maintain and deepen our mutual fellowship.  May we, with the help of God who dwells within us and among us, go from strength to strength in the coming year, and may we be a force for peace, justice and compassion in our neighborhood and in our world, motivated and informed by our highest Jewish values.

Posted on April 13, 2016 .