eDvar Shabbat Parashat Vayeitzei 5778

Empathy or Apathy? “In a high-trust relationship” writes Stephen Covey, “you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning.  In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.” Suspicion has become more normative than trust.  Our highly anxious times fuel skepticism as readily as they fuel extremism.  How can we know whom to trust? Distrust saturates a biblical Jacob’s world in this week’s portion of Torah.  We can chart a decline in trust across three experiences involving stones.  Trust is at its highest as the portion opens when Jacob turns his stone pillow into a pillar upon which he vows to God.  Next, Jacob rolls a large stone off the mouth of the well, indicating his love for Rachel.  Yet even this spousal bond will end tragically because of mistrust.  Rachel deceives Jacob when she steals her father Laban’s idols, inviting a fatal vow from Jacob: “let the person with whom you (Laban) find your idols not continue to live” (Gen. 31:32).  Finally, escaping from Laban, who thrives in distrust, requires a stone and the gathering of stones to consummate a non-aggression pact (Gen. 31:45-46).  God’s protection and promise save Jacob. For us today, knowing ‘who to believe in’ can prove very elusive.  Perhaps an outcomes-based approach can help. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel applies such an approach to discerning divine authenticity. Does a sacred act or text generate excessive pride, indifference to the suffering of others, or an unawareness of evil’s dangers?  If it does generate these things, then it is counterfeit.  But when a religious experience has the effect of uniting what lies in strife, stirring empathy, or inspiring responsibility, then it is likely an

ו׳ בכסלו ה׳תשע״ח (November 24, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Toldot 5778

Closure and Disclosure “I write to seek the Rebbe’s help.  My life is in disarray.  I pray, yet my prayers seem not to help me.  I don’t know where else to turn.  I eagerly await the Rebbe’s advice.”  Many years ago the Lubavitcher Rebbe did respond to this letter.  But he did so without writing a single word.  Instead he circled the first word of every sentence.  The message was clear.  Self-encased living would not enable healing. Studies show that post-war mental health among Veterans is determined less by the atrocities they witnessed than by the supportive communities that welcome them home.  Compassion can prove more healing than the passage of time. Raw feelings like sadness and fear are prominent in this week’s portion of Torah.  The bestowing of covenantal blessing from Isaac to Jacob is fraught with trembling and trepidation.  Jacob deceptively impersonates his elder brother Esau, inciting anguish.  Why the Torah associates this transmission with such trauma is unclear. That it does, can help school us in coping with emotional rawness. Rebecca sends Jacob away to keep him at a safe distance from his brother’s wrath. “Until your brother’s fury will turn back, until your brother’s anger turns back” (Gen. 27:44,45).  Curiously, the verb (tashuv) used to depict the quieting of aroused emotion is related to the word for repentance (teshuva).  Like the journey to fulfilling penitent promises, emotions have directionality.  They flow to and fro, readily reawakened by reminders of past wrongs. The text’s distinction between fury (cheima) and anger (af) suggests that while time helps fury reverse course, still residual anger may not subside.  Reversing course may not guarantee a reversal of coarseness. Deference and healing actions will enable sibling reconciliation decades later.  The path

כ״ח במרחשון ה׳תשע״ח (November 17, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Hayei Sarah 5778

Listen and Speak Out “I am angry,” Olympic gold-medalist Aly Raisman expresses as part of this Sunday evening’s 60 Minutes interview. “I just want to create change so [that young girls] never, ever have to go through this.”  This morning Time published the news of Aly’s having suffered sexual abuse perpetrated by the US Gymnastics team doctor.  She joins an alarming and escalating number of individuals who have begun to speak publicly of the pain of having been defiled, molested, and harassed. The pain is deep.  It is pervasive and prevalent.  It is outrageous that it has been sustained and even supported for so long. The pain being disclosed daily deserves to be treated with the utmost gravity. What should be our response?  My thinking has changed.  I had been of the opinion that men should stop talking and start listening.  I still believe we should be listening with more sensitivity to those who courageously share.  Sacred communities earn their sanctity when they provide safe, confidential, healing space  for such sharing.   But I now realize that we should also be audible with our support.  Listening empathically is necessary.  But speaking vocally in support of those who are still doubted or whose vulnerability is scorned is increasingly important.  Anita Hill conveyed this last night on CNN.  “It will take men who are willing to stand up for equality in the workplace, on the streets, and in the schools” to begin to repair the climate that enables abuse. In this week’s portion of Torah, Abraham remarries.  “And Abraham additionally married a woman named Keturah” (Gen 25:1).  The commentator Rashi offers a telling clarification.  Abraham’s new bride, having honorably buried a deceased Sarah, is none other than Hagar.  She has

כ״א במרחשון ה׳תשע״ח (November 10, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Vayera 5778

Faith comes to life not when it is one-sided but reciprocal “Abraham complained to Avimelech about the water well that his servants had wrongfully seized.  Avimelech responded, ‘I was unaware of this, you never told me of it, and I heard nothing about it until now’” (Gen. 21:25-26).  His answer is unimpressive.  It assumes no responsibility.  It actually shifts blame to Abraham for failing to inform him earlier of the iniquity.  Yet, Abraham immediately responds by making a covenant with Avimelech (Gen. 21:27-32).  Why does Abraham overlook Avimelech’s unimpressive conduct in favor of establishing such a covenant? Abraham is keeping faith with his larger project - establishing permanent roots in the land of promise.  Ownership of land covenanted by God is geopolitically strengthened by a mutual commitment between Abraham and Avimelech.  This is too important to be disrupted by miscommunication or irresponsible leadership.  Note that they establish not a contract but a covenant. Earlier this Fall the Head of New York’s Trinity School sent shockwaves through the city’s elite private school system by calling for a complete overhaul in how his school educates more responsibly.  John Allman’s back-to-school letter drew heavily from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ juxtaposition between covenants and contracts.  Contracts involve self-interest and mutual advantage.  Covenants are about moral commitments and are held together not by legalese, but by loyalty and faithfulness.  Contracts are about what we gain; covenants are about what we give. Victimhood is contagious today.  North Korea, Iran, Antifa, neo-Nazis all claim they are victims.  Groups now self-define around common allegations more than around common dreams.  This epidemic of group victimization - aside from degrading freedom’s responsibilities and beyond turning dark very quickly - actually devalues authentic victims.  Importantly, the current

י״ד במרחשון ה׳תשע״ח (November 3, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

Sweet Sukkot & Shabbat from KI

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Breisheet 5778 Warming faith at chilly times “If you should see my son Cain, tell him…”  These words, attributed to Cain’s biblical mother Eve, were penciled onto the wall of a railcar heading to the gas chambers.  Thus the late poet Dan Pagis sought to capture the blood-shedding legacy of humanity’s first murderer, condemned to wander and witness future human depravity. What do we believe about people?  This Shabbat we return to the dawn of human history and a post-Garden of Eden world.  What does the Torah believe about human nature?  The answer is revealed within God’s curiosity about Cain’s dejection in the face of Divine inattention to his offering, in contrast to the Divine appreciation for Abel’s offering.  Prior to Cain’s murder of Abel, God urges Cain not to let his hurt feelings incite violence against his brother.  God is essentially saying, “Hurt feelings, even anger, are understandable.  But violence is not inevitable. You don’t necessarily have to let your emotions get the better of you.” The text subtlety suggests that sin is not as powerful as human connections are.  The Hebrew words for ‘dominant urge’ (timshal and teshuka) recur in God’s conversations with Eve and with Cain (Gen. 3:16, 4:7).  For Eve the relational bond is potent enough to transcend free will.  But for Cain, God seeks to convey that sin’s urge does not overwhelm the freedom to choose.  The lesson: loving relationships built upon shared faith can withstand the allure of iniquity.  The goodness and generosity of people transcends the greediness and violence of people. Two powerful examples from this past summer drive this home.  Consider the inspiring story of how eighty strangers on a Florida beach locked arms

כ״א בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 11, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Sukkot 5778

'Each of us is more than the best thing we've ever done'  “We choose the story we wish to tell. This may be the most important lesson I could ever teach.” Thus a colleague lovingly reflected in the wake of the sudden, agonizing passing of Rabbi Reuven Cohen (may his memory bless) - beloved teacher and precious soul - just after Yom Kippur this week.  “The story I choose to tell is not to try and make sense of God’s inscrutable ways, but to affirm that Reuven was taken from us fully forgiven, restored to his ancestors fully atoned and cleansed.” What stories do we like to tell?  Given today’s uncertain world, do we tell of fear and danger?  Or do we focus on resilience and helpfulness?  Do we favor sharing unflattering details about others?  Or do we prefer to show and tell of their positive qualities? The stories we choose to tell are telling in another way. ‘What is told’ and ‘how it is told’ says a lot about the person doing the telling.  This is because we have agency when we tell a story.  It is in our hands.  So much of what happens to us is not.  Being in the wrong place at the wrong time - whether in central Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Las Vegas - being in harm’s way is often not in our hands.  Yet the story we elect to tell says a lot about the kind of people we are. The Festival of Sukkot holds many different stories.  Moments of joy amidst the fragile and fleeting.  Returning to nature in a way that may ennoble human nature.  God’s sheltering presence.  Ingathering inclusively.  Curiously, King David is prominent.  His fallen

י״ד בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (October 4, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Yom Kippur 5778

‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’ Our sages tell a story of a wealthy landowner whose worker had accidentally dropped some crates, destroying their valuable content.  The landowner took his worker to court, seeking restitution.  The Judge, having heard the case, ruled that the law was on his side and that his employee owed him a lot of money.  Then the Judge added: “Although the law dictates that your worker fully repay you, it is a large sum for him and meeting his obligation will put him through much hardship.  I recommend, on the basis of Hesed (pure kindness), that you release him from his obligation.  In so doing, you might hope that in the future someone else might extend to you the same Hesed someday when you’re in a similarly difficult position.”  The landowner took the Judge’s advice and forgave his worker. This is what forgiveness looks like.  We all know people who don’t deserve kindness, generosity, or our faith in their unreliability.  Someone slights you.  Another demeans you.  It is natural to return the disfavor.  Yet Yom Kippur is when we note that the most disagreeable parts of a person are not the totality of a person.  As racial-Justice champion Bryan Stevenson likes to say, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” What does God’s pardon look like?  Kol Nidre's summarizing forgiveness-verse does something surprising.  “And it will be forgiven for all the congregation of the children of Israel and the alien who resides among them, because it was by mistake (bish’gaga) for all the people” (Num.15:26).  God’s forgiveness for our past sins shifts intent - based on our sincere regret for,

ט׳ בתשרי ה׳תשע״ח (September 29, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parshiyot Niztavim Vayelech 5777

This changes everything “Any yahrzeits this morning?” I inquired as we prepared to return the Torah to the Ark this past Monday morning.  Since nobody present had any, we continued with the service.  It was only as we concluded, that the date dawned on me.  Yes, of course, it was September 11 and nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on this day just sixteen short years ago.  The combination of present urgencies and the passage of time cause slippage in the prominence of the unforgettable trauma our nation endured on that crisp, clear day back in 2001.  Still, I regret forgetting to pray in their collective memory. This year’s September 11 observances were faithfully honored and attended.  But the collective interest in pausing to re-enter that painful period seemed to have waned.  Perhaps one additional reason is particularly sobering.  We look back to the aftermath of that attack on America and we realize, sixteen years hence, how little progress we’ve made.  Back then the most common response to the suddenness and scope of the loss was, “This changes everything.”  Well, how much or how little has changed since then? What changes us is related to why we change.  Do we change because of fear or because of love?  Within this week’s portions of Torah we find an appreciation for the difference.  Change that is caused by fear dissipates with the receding of the danger. The same is true of conditional love, evoking our Sages maxim: “If love depends upon a specific cause, when the cause ends, so does the love” (Pirke Avot 5:19).  Conversely, change that is stirred by unconditional love is more likely to endure long after temporary urgencies and distractions.  This is why the

כ״ד באלול ה׳תשע״ז (September 15, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo 5777

What’s our story? “Public sentiment is everything.  With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed” Abraham Lincoln further observed. “Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces judicial decisions.”  The chief way we shape public sentiment according to Mark Lilla in his important new book is through storytelling.  Aspirational stories stir generations and change history. Lilla asserts that American public sentiment has been inspired by two different stories over the past century.  From the 1940s through the early 1970s, we were motivated around a picture of fellow citizens seeking to “guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights. It’s watchwords were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty.”  From the 1980s until recently, a second story took hold which pictured “a more individualistic America where families and communities and businesses flourished once freed from the shackles of the state.  Its watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government.”  The next generation of public leadership, Lilla argues, will belong to those who can tell and instill the most compelling new story - a new story that our country hungrily awaits. This weekend we again witness the ferocious devastation wrought by hurricanes revealing human vulnerability and heroism.   We also anticipate the sixteenth anniversary of September 11, when wickedness took the lives of thousands revealing that the deepest challenges at the turn of the millennium would be ideological rather than technological.   As we witness calamities and devastation which demand the triage of sturdy systems and institutions, we await and deserve a shared story that can inspire our collective righteousness. God’s Torah shares an esteem for the influence and reach of stories.  For this reason the declaration made upon bringing the first fruits in this

י״ז באלול ה׳תשע״ז (September 8, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Shoftim 5777

Instead of right or left, straight ahead  “Can I help you on, sir?” a young man asked an elderly gentleman who was nervous about stepping onto a descending escalator at a mall in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  He had a scary experience once before so he was pleased to receive the assistance.  Back in June this pedestrian act of kindness quickly became viral on social media.  People want to believe in human goodness.  Our long, hot summer began with the faith-warming kindness of a young stranger steadying the balance of an elder. Balance.  It feels particularly remote these days.  We’re increasingly unmoored and unnerved. We ask ourselves, “Is this really happening in 2017 America?”  Do rabbis still have to remove Torah scrolls from sanctuaries in response to arson threats?  Do statues standing throughout the halls of the US Capital suddenly need to be taken down?  Does the wickedness of Nazis now need to be re-learned?  Will a college campus disinvite a speaker for expressing a non-conforming worldview?  We worry about where this is all heading.  Will free expression and facing history become additional casualties of hate? Our portion of Torah re-directs to our moral compass.  “You shall not turn from the thing that they will instruct you, right or left” (Deut. 17:11).  Checks and balances are also set in place for the King, “So he will not turn from the commandment, right or left” (Deut. 17:20).  Tilting right or left does more than impair balance.  Swaying right or left can careen toward staggering outcomes.  Balance is restored in the final words of our portion: “purge the ‘wrongly punished’ by doing what is straight (yashar) in the Lord’s eyes” (Deut. 21:9).  The Hebrew word yashar, straight or upright,

ג׳ באלול ה׳תשע״ז (August 25, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|