eDvar Shabbat Parashat Re’eh 5777

Kindling kindness in dark times Our nation’s two bloodiest wars - the Civil War and World War II - sought to end the monstrous brutalities of racism and Nazism.  The past week has made vivid, alas, that neither of these poisons has been sufficiently degraded, much less quieted.  As Leon Wieseltier lamented, “The darkness is now in the light.” What to do?  As I’ve tried to express, today’s issue is not about free assembly.  It is about association.  Do we vocally disassociate ourselves from murder-hungry neo-Nazis beating a helpless young black man or do we silently associate ourselves with it?  For the overwhelming majority who disassociate, the urgent question follows: With what then do we associate ourselves? Among the many answers found in this week’s portion of Torah, we encounter the Passover Seder-familiar verse, “So that you may remember the day you went forth from Egypt all the days of your life” (Deut. 16:3). Noteworthy is the verse’s stress on remembering ‘the day’ (et-yom) you went forth from Egypt, ‘all the days’ (kol y’mei) of your life.  Why focus on ‘the day’ of the Exodus itself?  Perhaps to remain wakeful every day of our People’s founding day.  Why?  Because it instills commitments to stand with the stranger, to side with the powerless, and to strive to soften hardened hearts.  When we make these lessons vivid with daily works, words, and ways, ‘the day’ becomes ‘today’. What is the best we can hope for during these perilous times?  We know that personal setbacks can be confronted with a new sweep of fresh momentum toward worthy aspirations.  It may not be accidental that the coming week’s solar eclipse coincides with the custom to begin sounding the Shofar

כ״ו באב ה׳תשע״ז (August 18, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Eikev 5777

Listen and be better heard How do you get someone who is not listening to you to begin to do so?  Not by repeating yourself.  Not by talking louder.  Not even by reframing your message.  The best way to get someone to hear you when they are reluctant to do so, is for you to listen to them better.   Listening is a gift.  When we sense that we’re being heard, our reflex is to return the favor. The challenge, of course, is that listening can be painful.  Listening to someone of a different political persuasion can be impossible.  But the absence of listening in polemical settings does not reduce our appetite for it. The Torah esteems listening.  The Shema prayer invites and expects listening.  This week’s portion of Torah includes the second of the Shema’s three passages.  Among its opening words we hear, “eem shamoah teesh-m’u”, conventionally translated “if you listen exceedingly well” (Deut. 11:13).  But if we set aside the particulars of biblical grammar, we can detect traces of listening as a refined expression of favor exchange.  “If you listen (eem shamoah), they will listen (teesh-m’u). Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to distinguish between confirmatory and exploratory thinking.  The vast majority of today’s data confirms and conforms with our thinking.  Yet we still enjoy exploring.  Nature hikes and August getaways nourish this important dimension of our being. Yet exploration shouldn’t only happen when we’re on vacation.  We often find ourselves in settings with speakers - from plenaries to lectures, from TED talks to talk radio.  Studies show that three things make a speaker more likely to be heard in an explorative manner.  When she 1) knows she is accountable for what she says, 2)

י״ט באב ה׳תשע״ז (August 11, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Nachamu Parashat Va-etchanan 5777

Facing adversity, Finding resilience   “It occurred to me” a mourner shared about her recent Shiva experience “that I was surrounded by platitudes as much as by people.”  Well-intentioned Shiva sharing can veer toward formulaic phrases.  “You’ll be ok.” “We’ve all been there.”  “Be grateful for all you had.”  Yet quiet presence can be more articulate than perfunctory adages. Grief can be a difficult companion. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant write about resilience at crippling times.  When she felt lowest, it was making a list of accomplishments, daily things done well, that actually helped Sheryl more than listing the things for which she was grateful.  Counting blessings was less effective than counting contributions.  This is because gratitude can be passive. Contributions, by contrast, are active, and can restore confidence in our capacity and in our impact.  Gratitude, of course, is central to a humble sense of indebtedness for gifts we often consider givens.  But when we’re feeling low, we may need to reacquaint ourselves with our strengths. The particular Shabbat is identified for the consolation and comfort it seeks to impart.  Annually following the calendar’s saddest day, Tisha B’av, a particular word - Shamor, meaning ‘be watchful’ - recurs twenty times in this week’s portion of Torah (also introducing the mitzvah of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments). Why?  In the Bible, being a watch-person, a Shomer,, means more than observing.  It means more than preventing harm or misconduct.  It connotes active responsibility.  Cain memorably asks, “Am I my brother’s watchman (Gen. 4:9) and Abraham’s merit is derived from having “kept my watch” (Gen. 26:5).  Watching is not passive. It is a forceful engagement that impels responsible deeds.  Watching and doing always go together.  This is

י״ב באב ה׳תשע״ז (August 4, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Devarim 5777

Getting to ‘Perhaps’ A critic of military might recently reminded me that Israel is an elite global military power.  “Fair enough” I replied.  “But symbolic losses remain security threats.  Take Hezbollah” I continued.  “While they do not anticipate defeating Israel (much as this remains one of their foremost dreams), they do present grave security threats.   For example, were they to capture and hold hostage a boarder Kibbutz for just one hour, such an incursion would represent a decisive victory.  Beyond the killing and hostage situations Israel would be forced to endure, ceding temporary sovereignty over any portion of her bordered land would be an ominous victory for Israel’s enemies.”  His response, “Hmm.  Perhaps global military ranking isn’t the only factor that’s important to consider.”  What was memorable about this exchange was his willingness to get to perhaps. Today, we live under the reign of reductionism.  We draw categorical conclusions about people based upon their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and political persuasion.  Learning is increasingly rare.  Ideological differences deepen.  Daily data is available to conform to our beliefs and to confirm them.  We dislike stories that do not agree with our assumptions.  So why would anyone want to get to perhaps? Two reasons.  First, although confirmatory information makes us feel good, new credible information can also feel nourishing because it expands the scope of what we know.  Physical exercise that expands our muscles, hurts during exertion but makes us feel healthier later on.  Secondly, getting to perhaps can generate hope, and feeling hopeful also makes us feel better. A biblical Jeremiah is not the first prophet to invoke the lament Eicha, “How did Jerusalem become desolate” (Lam. 1:1).  Moses earlier invokes the word Eicha in

ה׳ באב ה׳תשע״ז (July 28, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parshiyot Mattot Ma’asei 5777

Essential Israel The Bible’s overall story is driven by a journey to the land.  Abraham and Sarah’s arrival in the land launches our Jewish story.  Their descendants’ return to the land under Cyrus the Persian ruler brings the Bible to a close.  Within this week’s portions of Torah, we encounter the injunction to settle the land of Israel. “Taken possession of the land and settle it for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:53).  Yet land does not promise cohesion or quietude.  From the outset and until today, statecraft is replete with reversals. Today’s volatility on the Temple Mount and around the Western Wall capture the relentless challenges of balancing religious fervor with civic order.  Even when calmer times prevail, there are inevitable tensions between lofty aspirations and terrestrial disappointments.  How can we retain fidelity with Israel’s enduring blessings? A lesson from Moses’ adroit handling of the wishes of two-and-a-half Tribes to settle outside the land can guide us.  He instructs them to join the rest of the Children of Israel in crossing the Jordan to conquer the Promised Land.  Only after successful settlement is realized, may they return to establish their homes in the cattle-rich lands on the east bank of the Jordan. If you do thus, concludes Moses, then “you will be free and clear (v’ha-yitem n’kiim) before God and Israel” (Num. 32:22). One commentator (Or HaChaim) stresses the centrality of proper intent.  They must execute their responsibility for heaven’s sake (l’shem shamayim) not for their own benefit (hana’atam).  Indeed, the phrase “in front of God” (lifnei Adonai) recurs seven times in this passage.  The implication of such repetition is telling.  Right things should be done for their intrinsic rightness

כ״ז בתמוז ה׳תשע״ז (July 21, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Pinchas 5777

Warming chilled faith Police investigators have a truism they try to keep in mind in the immediate aftermath of a crime, “The first story you hear about an incident will always change”.  Ours is an age of impulsive verdicts.  But rushed conclusions often require the leavening of time to achieve fuller understanding. The most flagrant sin in the entire Torah occurred in last week’s portion.  The Children of Israel were seduced into licentious idolatry on a massive scale at Baal Peor.  Pinhas’ zealous intervention prevents God from bringing about the People’s demise “his zeal prevented Me from finishing the Children of Israel” (Num. 25:11).  Curiously, we wait a week’s time to learn of how God’s Torah appraises Pinhas’ zealotry.  Even more curiously, we will wait another week to learn that the person responsible for inciting the orgiastic idolatry was none other than the Prophet Bilaam (Num. 31:16). Why does the Torah wait so long to tell us of Bilaam’s culpability? Perhaps in waiting to share this information, the Torah conveys that things are not always as they seem.  Bilaam’s bias toward blessing instead of curse is not so clear, after all is said and done.  Maybe the Torah prefers to focus on Israel’s behavior.  Highlighting Bilaam’s involvement might deflect attention away from showing how quickly people can succumb to carnal urges.  Or perhaps the Torah is conveying that nobody can escape reckoning.   Even when a person’s misdeed appears to go undetected, eventually it is unmasked.  There is yet another reason to delay the revelation of Bilaam’s involvement that draws upon all of these explanations.  Making Bilaam’s guilt too conspicuous would have outsourced too much responsibility.  The Prophet may have encouraged the Midianite women’s actions, but

כ׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ז (July 14, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Balak 5777

Insist on the good, Reclaim the sacred “In an age when religious closed-mindedness and coercion are among the most dangerous threats we face” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote this week “promoting religious openness is a sacred task.”  The deep wisdom imbedded in this challenge - which urges us to insist as a means to resist - resonates powerfully for me since my recent return from a wonderful visit to Israel. Reactions to Israeli leadership’s failure to keep faith with its commitments to our commitments have ranged from retaliation to resignation.  Financial retaliation may be impactful but it makes a dysfunctional relationship much more transactional (what it should not be) and less covenantal (what it should be).  So too, turning our backs on those who broke faith with us awards them a dominion they have done little to deserve. A different flavor of despair surfaced through many conversations from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. “What can we do? The high birthrate and expanding power of those with coercive designs is worrisome.  This will only get harder.”  True.  Yet, the values espoused by God’s Torah are not inert.  They cannot be suppressed or disfigured for long.  Religious malpractice will not get the last word. Significantly, many Orthodox leaders and practitioners oppose the bullying of the House of Israel.   Rabbi Benny Lau was in good company last Shabbat among respected Israeli religious leaders in mobilizing his community to re-earn faith and integrity among the People of Israel.  And while some look at the growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox now serving in the IDF as a troubling trend, I believe it will make the Haredi more Israeli than it will have the inverse effect. A commitment to goodness abides in this week’s portions of Torah and Haftorah.  Between the foreign Prophet known

י״ג בתמוז ה׳תשע״ז (July 7, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

July President’s Letter

This is the ninth edition of a monthly column intended to provide members with a perspective on  what is happening at KI and to invite feedback and discussion. Earlier editions have focused on the High Holiday season and collaboration with our partners, the Jewish Community Study, Hanukkah, adult education, the KI Centennial, Purim, Israel and preparation for Phase II construction. Please let me know what you think –and what you’d like me to write about—by emailing president@congki.org or calling (617) 731-3182. Last month we marked a number of milestones on the path toward fulfillment of the KI Next vision: the final service in the main sanctuary before renovations, temporary transition of all activities to the Epstein building, successful closeout of the Omer Project matching gift campaign, celebration of the first anniversary of our partnership with Congregation Mishkan Tefila, and the election of four new board members to help guide KI into its next phase. The main sanctuary was home to several joyful and solemn lifecycle events in the month before the transition: a baby naming, multiple b’nai mitzvah, a wedding, and a funeral. The final Shabbat morning service on June 17 was particularly poignant. The sanctuary was brimming with worshippers for the bar mitzvah of Gabe Kramer (pictured left), whose extended family has been members of KI since its founding days, and the naming of Sari and Casey Fein’s baby girl, Mira (pictured right). You really had to be there to experience the special warmth generated by the community as we savored our last Shabbat in the sanctuary until we return to a renovated, accessible and inviting space in time for the High Holidays in 2018. For the last year, an able and dedicated team led by

ח׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ז (July 2, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Hukkat 5777

Amen-able Faith Last night I decided to pay a visit to an old friend, a leading rabbinic figure of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community.  For nearly an hour I made the case to the Kopitchinitzer Rebbe for why it is essential that there be a permanent, government-established pluralistic prayer pavilion adjacent to the Western Wall.  Even as he disagreed, he was very respectful as he always is.  “Jews can pray how ever they wish to pray.  But the Wall is not the place for this” he gently insisted.  I turned to our shared liturgy for support, “In order for a new light to shine upon Zion, ‘every one of us must merit’ (nizke kulanu) hastening to radiate its glow.”  Again his problem was the venue.  I told him a story from years ago about a mother whose son died liberating the Wall in 1967 who sought to pray for him on the exact place where he fell - which was located in the section of the Wall traditionally associated with men’s prayer.  The mother was not allowed entry.  He conceded that this situation should have been handled better.  “If she would have approached a rabbi on duty” he said, “it would have been proper for him to ask the men to vacate the men’s section so that she could pray there and honor her son’s memory.” On my way back to my hotel I realized that I had been mistaken to make my forceful case with him.  He was no more likely to change his conviction than I was.  Each of us comes from a place of deep faith.  The person who broke faith was Israel’s Prime Minister by abruptly suspending his prior commitment to honor the convictions

ו׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ז (June 30, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Parashat Korah 5777

Power or Influence “The only place of consensus is the cemetery” laments Rikva Carmi, President of Ben Gurion University. This sobering observation about the deep divisions in our discourse was reinforced this week in the wake of the wrongful death of Otto Warmbier after a brutal year of unjust incarceration by the North Korean regime. Power-hungry conflict is the centerpiece of this week’s portion of Torah. Rebellions by Korah and his cohort are punitively put down. Yet the people’s immediate response is agitation. “All the congregation of Israel complained the next day (memacharat) against Moses and Aaron” (Num. 17:6). The people repudiate the demise of even those deserving punishment (Num. 16:32-34). What puts a stop to this infernal escalation of anger and violence? Not an earth-jolting reprimand, but a fragrant and gentle message. “It was on the next day (memacharat) that Aaron’s staff had blossomed, flowering with a blossom that produced almonds” (Num. 17:23). Calm presides only after the flowering of Aaron’s staff (va-yatzeitz tzitz). The mention of tzitz brings us back to the fringes of our garments (tzitzit) for help in addressing our society’s knottiest problems. These four quarter fringes with which last week’s portion concluded, surround us with an aromatic scent designed to dispel odious toxins. Incense acts to vacate the incensed. This resolution points to an important biblical bias in favor of influence over power. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes a thought experiment. Imagine you have total power. You then decide to share it with nine others. The result: you have one-tenth of the power you used to have. Imagine, by contrast, that you elect to share your measure of influence with nine others. How much influence do you have left? Not less,

כ״ט בסיון ה׳תשע״ז (June 23, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|