eDvar Shabbat Parashat B’ha’alot’cha 5777

Nonsense and good sense “It will be my pleasure and my honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking.  I also invited friends from Hamas to come and speak as well.”  Britain’s biggest winner this week, Jeremy Corbyn has proven instrumental in normalizing anti-Semitism among progressives.  Although he professes that his contempt for Israel is not contempt for Jews, his reliable and persistent distaste for the nation state of the Jewish People both illustrates and legitimizes today’s leftist anti-Semitic mind. Leadership matters.  When it is troubling, alarming, or failing, what are we to do?  Consult sources of wisdom that specialize in troubling, alarming, and failed leadership.  There is no better biblical book for such advice than the Book of Numbers.  Within its pages we find that progress along the arc of the moral universe often presents reversals and misadventures. In general the Torah runs counter to classical hero narratives. Instead of the young lad who is raised among peasants to discover that he is royalty, Moses is raised in the palace to discover he belongs with the slaves.  Unlike mythic stories that are fated to inevitable outcomes, the Five Books of Moses conclude with the unreachable Promised Land.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elegantly points out why the Book of Numbers casts Israel as the anti-hero.  Instead of struggling to defeat relentless external forces, Judaism’s internalizes the challenge.  “By attributing its successes to God and its failures to itself, the Israel of the Bible knows that its fate is in its hands” Rabbi Sacks continues. “It knows that the real battle is ‘in here’ rather than ‘out there.’  If it is victorious against destructive and dysfunctional drives it will be

ט״ו בסיון ה׳תשע״ז (June 9, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Naso 5777

  Making loss matter Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is coping with the sudden death of her husband by schooling readers in resilience.  Her important new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, makes a compelling point:  “Tragedy does not have to be personal, pervasive, and permanent, but resilience can be.” This wisdom feels germane in the wake of a particularly ugly hate crime last Friday on a Portland, Oregon train.  Three men intervened to defend two women being assaulted with venomous slurs and threats for practicing the Muslim faith.  The attacker stabbed two of the men to death and wounded the other.  Although these three men could not have come from more different backgrounds - one a recent College graduate, another a 53-year-old Army Veteran, and the third a poet who studies at Portland State University - they shared an insistence that malignant hatred must be repelled.  They represent what is best in our Country’s moral fiber, the opposite of what became known as the Kitty Genovese bystander effect. It recalls how back in 1964, 38 witnesses did nothing to prevent her from being stabbed to death on a New York City street.  Yet two of these defenders of decency lost their lives.  How do we begin to recover with lessons learned from their wrongful deaths? A subtle lesson is found in the way time is treated as we deepen our learning of the Torah’s fourth book.  Time actually moves backward. As the blessing offered by the Priests and the leaders’ dedicatory gifts assemble in this week’s portion of Torah (Num. 6:22-2; 7), we become aware that this ceremony is taking place a month earlier than the book of Numbers began.  What

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

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Bemidbar Sinai 5777

JFK at 100: Timely lessons for a new century “I first saw Palestine in 1939” John F. Kennedy described in the summer of 1960. “There the neglect and ruin left by centuries of Ottoman misrule were slowly being transformed by miracles of labor and sacrifice.  I returned in 1951 to see the grandeur of Israel. In 3 years this new state had opened its doors to 600,000 immigrants and refugees. Even while fighting for its own survival, Israel had given new hope to the persecuted and new dignity to the pattern of Jewish life.” The Prophet Hosea in this week’s Haftorah anticipated Kennedy’s observations as a transformation from “a valley of desolation to a gateway of hope (petach tikvah)” (Hos. 2:17). President Kennedy’s reflections on his visits to the Holy Land feel fitting this weekend as we observe the 100th anniversary of his birth on May 29, 1917.   Just up the Street from Kehillath Israel JFK came into this world.  When his assassination ruthlessly took him from this world, our Congregation’s esteemed leaders led an historic memorial for our nation’s 35th President. Of course President Kennedy is best known for his inspiring call to duty.  He became a change-agent, forging a promising spirit of possibility and responsibility.  One reason why he was so successful at awakening and empowering a new generation was due to his esteem for the brilliance of our Nation’s founding figures.  He once reflected, “I run into the results of their work every day.” Personalizing a rapport with fore-bearers is also in evidence in this week’s portions of Torah and Haftorah.  Bonds are personalized between God and our People.  Three times the Hebrew word meaning “to me” (Li) appears regarding Levites (Num.

א׳ בסיון ה׳תשע״ז (May 26, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Emor 5777

Rest, Hope, and Order “How should Shabbat effect my life? a candidate for conversion recently asked me.  “Like everybody I welcome weekly rest, a time to collect and refresh.  But does the Torah have any other designs for Shabbat’s impact on me?”  We considered how the Ten Commandments associate Shabbat with Creation and the Exodus.  I replied, “Beyond creativity and possibility Shabbat is also associated with order.  And order’s esteem for boundaries and distinctions is made clearest in this week’s portion of Torah.” The repetition of an individual’s name in Scripture signals a defining moment.  Abraham, Abraham (Gen. 22:11).  Jacob, Jacob (Gen. 46:2).  Moses, Moses (Ex. 3:4).  Even the repetition of God’s Name signals God’s essential rapport to humankind (Ex. 34:6).  So too the repetition in this week of “On the Sabbath day, on the Sabbath day” (b’yom haShabbat, b’yom haShabbat) signals a defining moment for the Sabbath’s identity (Lev. 24:8).   The Torah’s third book offers a third significance to seventh day.  Not only is Yom Kippur renamed the Sabbath of Sabbaths, every Festival gets called Shabbat in the book of Leviticus where land and even economic systems enjoy Sabbatical restoration.  Shabbat thus grants rest from labor, hope from despair, and order from anarchy. Generosity from each of these Sabbath gifts is appreciated these days.  Challenges to order and law abound.  Daily we find ourselves face-to-face with those who sow dissent and dissolution.  We are developing new muscle memory for leaping to conclusions.  Verdicts are sealed before cases are heard.  Seldom do we listen.  Rarely do we learn. Shabbat restores our capacity to weigh and measure.  It liberates the potential to go high when others go low.  As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman likes to say,

ט״ז באייר ה׳תשע״ז (May 12, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parshiyot Acharei Mot Kedoshim 5777

Israel: Jewish life’s change-agent Two thousand years ago Jewish life underwent revolutionary change in response to exile from our homeland.  Dynastic leadership was democratized as priests gave way to rabbinic sages. Temple-centered offerings were replaced by local prayer communities. The Pascal offering was succeeded by the Seder plate; the altar by the Sabbath table.  It is time to ask: How has our return to our homeland revolutionized Jewish life?  If historic destruction remade Judaism, how has restoration changed Jewish ways and means in our times? At home, Israeli Judaism is undergoing profound changes.  Previously areligious Israelis are reclaiming their religion with purpose.  The fervor of the fundamentalist is being countersigned by passionate paths of young Israeli seekers imbued with Jewish meaning and empowered agency. Abroad, North American Jewish life is changing dramatically.  Israel is now a major pillar of Jewish identity.   Israel stirs feelings more palpably than any other aspect of Judaism.  So many Jews around the world viscerally understand what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “To dwell in the land is to sense that the idols of cynicism are tottering.” Of course, the picture is considerably more complex.  For some who now self-identify as ‘Israel-conflicted’, the Conflict has deposed enthusiasm for our national rebirth.  Moreover, the dynamic between polarizing views reveals a troubling trend.  It has shifted from a healthy tension between inward and outward turns, to one group’s passion accelerating another’s disaffection.  This is not good for Jews or Judaism. A lesson from this week’s portions of Torah offers a helpful reminder for how the center may continue to hold.  Tucked within categorical distinctions and boundaries the Torah twice encourages similarity.  Sandwiching the clarification of forbidden mixtures between wool and linen, harvesting

ט׳ באייר ה׳תשע״ז (May 5, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parshiyot Tazria Metzora 5777 

The battle for historic truth never stays won A parent shared a story from last week’s dinner conversation.  She told her children “If a minute of silence were held for every Jewish victim of the Holocaust, the silence would continue for eleven-and-a-half years.”  One of her daughters immediately responded, “Mommy that’s as long as I’ve been alive.” Rescuing Holocaust memory is so important today.  We live in times of Holocaust minimization (6 million is an exaggerated number), Holocaust equalization (the Holocaust is no different from other genocides and ethnic-cleanings), Holocaust reversal (what the Nazis did to the Jews, the Jews now do to others), Holocaust marginalization (others were also killed in the War), Holocaust by association (the Palestinians are the secondary victims of the Holocaust), and also Holocaust politicization (the immediate threat of another Holocaust defines every public policy).  This week’s witnessing of Holocaust memory seemed to collide with a whole new vocabulary for efforts to defile and disfigure it. What to do?  Portions of Torah we learn this Shabbat touch upon a lesson which may be utilized in the service of an honest reckoning with history.  The skin-deep affliction, often described as leprosy, is consistently called a nega (affliction).  Elsewhere the Torah associates nega with plague (Gen. 12:17, Ex. 11:1).  And there is an entire Talmudic Tractate (negaim) devoted to the bodily ailments that are diagnosed, treated, and healed in this week’s passages.  A reason why the Torah is so concerned with containment of this nega has been expressed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  “To enter sacred space…in which we feel close to the presence of infinity and eternity, we must divest ourselves of any consciousness of mortality, disease, and decay.”  Most remarkable, however, is

ב׳ באייר ה׳תשע״ז (April 28, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Shemini 5777 

Faithful to Holocaust memory Some years ago I introduced Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold (z”l) - a Holocaust survivor who led the Harvard Hillel community for decades - to present his book The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust.  I spoke about the behavioral phenomenon known as projection.  What we see in others is often something that is familiar inside ourselves.  The world saw those who perished in the Holocaust as passive.  This was because they, the international community, was passive.  Victims of the Holocaust, rather than being lambs limping to slaughter, resisted, fought back, and defied the Nazis with force and courage. Rabbi Gold began to speak by respectfully challenging my assertion.  Although he affirmed that spiritual and physical resistance were pervasive, he added: “I was a yeshiva bocher.  If someone had handed me a rifle, I wouldn’t have had any idea what to do with it.”  He reminded me of the need to be cautious about projecting a post-1948 Jewish self-image onto those who came before. Holocaust remembrance annually coincides with resistance.  The date selected for Yom HaShoah is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when heroes fought against the Nazis for four weeks, longer than the entire Polish army lasted before being defeated in 1939.  Memory is dated to might.  Projecting activism and agency onto those who were slaughtered by the boundlessly wicked is appropriate as long as it is done in a measured and faithful manner.  We honor them best by being faithful to how they lived, not just to how they died. The faith we keep with the Six Million feels covenantal.  It must not be misappropriated.  It may never be exploited.  The biblical number associated with covenant is

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

eDvar Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach 5777

Feeling our stories Someone asked the good question at our Seder this year: “Why is the biblical Song of Songs traditionally associated with Passover?”  I responded, “Because it symbolizes youthful love between God and Israel which commences with the Exodus.”  Someone else emphasized, “Springtime’s prominence in the scroll.”  Still another offered, “The figs, dates, apples, and nuts in the Charoset are recurring ingredients throughout the scroll.”  What I now realize I should have answered is, “Emotion.  The emotionally saturated Song of Songs evokes sensations that are compatible with Passover’s master story.”  When we personalize the Exodus we do so with the pathos and passion of the Song of Songs. Personal stories are often freighted with emotion.  This is one reason why stories enjoy a certain immunity from argument.   A liberal cannot respond to a personal experience shared by a conservative by claiming “You are mistaken.  That did not happen to you.”  Stories don’t require the same cognitive consistency that convictions do.  Of course, people can disagree about what ‘the moral of the story’ is.  One person emerges from an incident of injustice by vowing to become strong enough to never again be victimized.  Another may walk away from the same experience with fresh empathy for how others suffer similar injustices.  All can agree that poignant experiences evoke deep feelings. When we witness the brutal removal of a passenger from an airplane we feel indignant.  When spokespeople wrongfully liken contemporary leaders to the most wicked (Hitler) or the most inspiring (Rev. Martin Luther King), such comparisons are infuriating. So too with sorrow.  The prophetic portion assigned for this Shabbat brings us to a national low point.  “These dried bones are the whole House of Israel.”  They

י״ח בניסן ה׳תשע״ז (April 14, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Tzav 5777

Jerusalem - the Seder’s last word    Sages debate about where the Seder storytelling should begin.  All agree about where it needs to end - Jerusalem.  Always the compass for next year’s aspirations, Jerusalem was wondrously restored 50 years ago.  This year’s Seder invites us to appreciate four dimensions of Jerusalem that are precious. First, Jerusalem has never enjoyed more religious freedom than it does today.  Two thousand years ago, the last time Judaism was freely practiced there, Christianity and Islam had not yet developed.  Jerusalem’s diverse mosaic of religious energy has never been richer.  Occasional flare-ups of extremists notwithstanding, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have enjoyed sacred rights and responsibilities since her restoration in 1967. Second, Jerusalem evokes deep emotions.  Joy.  Sorrow.  Awe.  But the most dominant emotional condition associated with Jerusalem is compassion. Our prayer book entreats God’s compassion for a city that has endured so much and is preeminent to so many.  And compassion is what this Holy City should generate in us.  It is where people meet.  It is where strangers become familiar and old friends accidentally reconnect.  Coincidence seems baked into Jerusalem stone. Third, Jerusalem has a prolific past, present, and future.  Jerusalem’s Jewish journey began with foundational acts of Abraham and King David.  Ever since her walls both listen and evoke.  They stirred Hezekiah, grieved Jeremiah, and were first restored by Nehemiah.  Today she is youthful.  Once retiring neighborhoods like the Machane Yehuda market-area come to life after dark.  And Jerusalem is shaping tomorrow too,  named in 2015 by Time magazine as the world’s top emerging technological hub. Fourth, Jerusalem’s beauty - her limestone aesthetic, her orderliness, her smells and tastes - reliably transport her guests and residents.  The Talmud teaches,

י״א בניסן ה׳תשע״ז (April 7, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|

eDvar Shabbat Parashat Vayikra 5777

‘Beauty grows at the greatest distance from the center of the ego’ “Israel has faced three challenges in her history” Knesset member Rachel Azaria shared at the Ruderman Foundation’s Town Hall this past Wednesday night. “The original challenge was demographic.  Later it was military.  Today it is over legitimacy.”  How can we stay fresh and bring our best to today’s challenge? An answer lies at the heart of this week’s portion of Torah.  Entering the Torah’s central book, we learn about daily deeds designed to keep God close. “Your offering shall be brought from domesticated animals (b’heima), cattle (bakar) and flocks (tzon) (Lev. 1:2).  Each of these offering-sources symbolizes a deeper drive which we are called to surmount. The animal known as b’heima signifies instinct - the hungers, urges and primal emotions that are at the core of survival.  Yet we are called to do more with our lives than just survive.  The cattle identified as bakar symbolizes discernment.  Its Hebrew root also means to critically visit the ideas, people, and experiences we meet in life.  Superficial soundbites and simplistic claims deserve deeper consideration.  And the flocks called tzon indicate the herd mentality so pervasive in today’s groupthink political culture.  Since Abraham founded our faith, we have known the dignity that comes from standing apart from the herd. Transcending each of these drives is essential to living morally handsome lives.  We draw nearer to God - the aim of an offering - when we do.  But they also help us weather Zionism’s current challenge.  There is more in our destiny than survival (b’heima).  Israel’s vocation is to change the condition of the Jewish People in ways that help us fulfill our God-given task to be

ד׳ בניסן ה׳תשע״ז (March 31, 2017)|Categories: archive, edvar, news|