Kol Nidrei 2017: Truth


We’ve arrived on the shores of a day overflowing with speech. Every other day of the year, we fill with deeds, but today with words: proclamations and entreaties, prayers and admissions, resolutions and articulations of remorse. No it all opens with Kol Nidre, which highlights the gravity of the spoken word.

“All vows, obligations and promises that we vow, swear, and impose upon ourselves from this Yom Kippur onward—may they come to good for us!—we renounce them all; they are null and void.” Like the High Priest who approached the Holy of Holies in awe and trepidation, we tremble lest one false declaration, one insincere promise, one disingenuous confession cross our lips and vitiate our atonement. Knowing in advance that we are going to fail in our awesome responsibility to uphold rigorous honesty on this sacred day, we seek, through the Kol Nidre, a kind of meta-absolution—which is to say, not just forgiveness for what we have done, but forgiveness for the distortions and deceptions we are about to employ in the very act of asking for forgiveness. At the outset of Yom Kippur, we establish telling the truth as the bedrock principle upon which atonement depends, although we acknowledge in the same breath our inability to fully live up to it.  

God is Truth. Whenever we proclaim out loud the Shema, “Adonai our God is One,” we conclude: Adonai Eloheichem Emet, “Adonai our God is Truth.” The Zohar amplifies in a passage we read every Shabbat morning: “Not on mortals do I rely, but on the God of Truth, whose Torah is Truth, whose prophets are Truth, who performs deeds of goodness and Truth.” Truth is a basic element within the Yom Kippur liturgy. The special High Holiday Amidah blessing is augmented with the phrase: udevarcha emet ve-qayam la’ad, “Your word is truth, enduring forever.” The centrality of Truth as a divine attribute authenticates our appeal for forgiveness: Adonai Adonai… ve-rav chesed v’emet, “Adonai, Adonai,… abounding in lovingkindness and Truth.” 

The problem is that we now live in a post-truth society. These days, some claims look truthier than others, because their tweets have the most followers, or the Facebook page on which they appear has the most hits. On the Internet, anyone can say anything, and there’s often no way of verifying the facts. Besides, objective facts no longer seem to carry much weight. Unfounded accusations go viral, but their repudiations are hardly noticed. I don’t know if officials deliberately intend to manipulate the public, or if they actually believe what they’re saying, but, either way, the “fake news” and “alternative facts” they peddle are corrosive.

Many people assume that the new technological platforms of social media, which proliferate information without regard for its veracity, are entirely responsible for the post-truth phenomenon. However, argues Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it is nothing new to our age. In the 6th century BCE, the prophet Jeremiah inveighed against his own people, who “make ready their tongues like a bow to shoot falsehoods. Their tongues have become accustomed to lie; they no longer realize they traffic in lies. They live amidst deception; in their deception, they refuse all knowledge of Me, declares Adonai.” (Jeremiah 9) Shortly after this prophecy, the Temple was destroyed, not, says Jeremiah, because Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian conquerors, but because the people turned away from God. Similarly, free democracy will crumble, warns Rabbi Sacks, not from external threats, like the nuclear missiles of North Korea or Iran, but from our own abandonment of universally accepted moral principles. “A free society is a moral achievement. Without [Truth as a norm] we will lose it. Without a shared moral code that places Truth at the center, to which we are all accountable, into which we are all educated, and which we have all internalized, we will lose the trust in public life on which our very freedom depends.”

Discussions about Truth in Judaism distinguish two forms of honesty: ethical versus intellectual. The Talmudic precepts of ethical honesty concern dealings with our fellow human beings: maintain just weights and measures; do not defraud by overcharging the buyer or underpaying the seller; do not say one thing with your mouth and another in your heart; fulfill the promises you make to your neighbor; and so on. No less important, intellectual honesty obligates us to seek out and expand knowledge, wherever rational inquiry may lead. The notable saying Talmud Torah keneged kulam, “the study of Torah is equal to all other mitzvot,” speaks to this emphasis. Our Sages add that "an ignorant person cannot be pious.” (Avot 2:6). Effective Torah study requires intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and fierce independence.

Torah must be grounded in reason—so taught Maimonides, preeminent Jewish authority of all time (second to Moses alone). The highest aspiration of human existence is to come to know God, beginning with knowledge of God’s creation. Maimonides states: “When a person contemplates God’s great and wondrous works and creatures, she may obtain a glimpse of divine wisdom, which is incomparable and infinite.” Maimonides was not averse to integrating science with Jewish teaching; indeed, the Mishneh Torah, his giant compendium of Jewish law, begins with the fundamentals of cosmology and chemistry as they were understood in his day. Also a highly skilled physician, Maimonides propounded his own medical expertise even when it contradicted earlier remedies cited in the Talmud. If he were alive today, he would have no problem embracing Darwin, and Einstein, and others whose discoveries overturned prevailing doctrine. He would approve of the T-shirt I saw at the eclipse gathering I attended: “science doesn’t care what you believe.” For Maimonides, Torah encompasses every field of knowledge, the physical and the metaphysical, and it is our religious duty to pursue them all.

Science and religion are often considered inherently at odds. If you accept creationism then you must reject the theory of evolution, and vice versa. I used to reconcile science and religion by contending that they occupy distinct, non-overlapping realms: science being descriptive, and religion prescriptive. Science explores what the universe is made of and how it functions, while religion addresses why we’re placed here on Earth and how we’re supposed to act in the world. Influenced by Maimonides, I no longer think that way. Both science and religion are concerned with understanding Creation and our role in it. When advancements in science cause us to revise previously held religious convictions, we, like Maimonides, should not be afraid to do so. That’s because the goals of science and religion are aligned in the service of self-understanding, as well as the bettering of our society and our world.

Just as the separation between science and religion is artificial, it seems to me that the boundary between intellectual honesty and ethical honesty also breaks down. In the 50s and 60s, while tobacco companies suppressed medical studies documenting the clear connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, tens of thousands of Americans kept dying. In 2017, when public officials discredit, censor and reject scientific data establishing the reality of climate change, the property, quality of life, and survival of millions of people in flood-prone areas are placed at risk—if not, eventually, that of every person on the planet. Intellectual fraud is a supreme ethical transgression. Our duty as adherents of the God of Truth is no less sacred to denounce falsehood in public discourse than it is to eschew deception in our personal relationships.

“Now, hold on just a minute!” I can hear the rebuff already. “You can’t tell me what to believe! This is a free country. I can say and think what I want, and if I think that the Earth is flat, that’s my prerogative.” Yes, up to a point. In terms of running our own life, we may subscribe to any proposition we please. However, once our creed begins to cause actual harm to others, we have crossed the line from moral autonomy to reckless, possibly deliberate, endangerment. This past June, an inflammatory billboard appeared on I-465, attacking Muslims by denigrating their prophet, Muhammed. In the press release I wrote on behalf of the Indiana Board of Rabbis, I responded: “Jewish tradition recognizes the vast power of words to create or destroy. The sages of old likened lashon hara, ‘the evil tongue,’ to murder. The legal right to free speech in America does not give moral justification to the dissemination of hatred.” Now, this example has to do with hate speech, as opposed to false speech, but the point is the same: just because we’re permitted to say something doesn’t mean we ought to say it.

“Not on mortals do I rely, but on the God of Truth.”

To believe in the God of Truth is to affirm that there is a moral order and a natural order, not subject to feeling, not subject to opinion, not subject to the majority, but which transcend all human authority. As a people consecrated to the God of Truth, our imperative is to maintain scrupulous adherence to the Truth, in word and deed, not only in our personal interactions with others but also as fearlessly pursue all lines of rational inquiry, including scientific inquiry, wherever they may lead.

To believe in the God of Truth is to believe in the God of Redemption. We Jews are the most inveterate people on the planet, surviving centuries of oppression and persecution, outliving civilizations, because we have never given up the vision of a universal fellowship of humankind bound together in common allegiance to the Sovereign of Truth.

To believe in the God of Truth is to speak the Truth, to ourselves and to others, within our hearts and with our lips, in private conversation with our closest intimates and to broad assemblies in front of thousands.  During the Yom Kippur service, we are about to recite: “You know the mysteries of the universe, as well as the deepest secrets of everyone alive. You probe the innermost chambers of our hearts; You examine all our feelings and thoughts. Only let our secrets enter our own minds; and let our words reach our own ears, that we may regret, and resolve, and return to You.”

On this holy day, full of confessions, replete with promises, overflowing with speech, may one unifying principle guide us throughout: “Every word uttered in truth is the Holy Name of God.”

Rosh Hashanah 2017: Cultivating Integrity, Humility, & Joy

Rosh Hashanah: Cultivating Integrity, Humility, and Joy in Difficult Times


Tonight, we stand, once again, on the threshold of the New Year. What will it bring? Think of all that’s happened since last Rosh Hashanah. Who could have predicted it? Consider developments in your own life. Maybe a new employment status or living situation, the loss or gain of a significant relationship, a health crisis, or the death of a loved one. On the national scene, the presidential election took many of us by surprise. Dangers America hasn’t faced in a generation or more are resurfacing, even the prospect of nuclear war. We’ve witnessed scenes of brazen antisemitism that we never would have imagined in America in 2017. Many of us have responded by becoming involved in social and environmental causes as never before. In my case, I have become more outspoken as a public figure this past year: denouncing bigotry, advocating for the most vulnerable in American society, including refugees, immigrants and the homeless, and fighting climate change.

Rosh Hashanah is the most universal of Jewish holidays. Other festivals commemorate historical events for the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt or the giving of the Torah. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Creation of all existence. On Rosh Hashanah, the entire world stands in judgment; humans, angels, and even the animals pass under the Shepherd’s staff. Our fate as Jews is conjoined with the fate of humanity and the fate of the Planet! The earliest addition to the High Holiday Amidah begins with the words: “may all whom You have created become one, bound in Your service, performing Your will with a full heart…”

Judaism conceives social responsibility as a series of concentric circles. First, we care for our family, next, the community, then, the Jewish people, and, finally, the world at large. The ways we implement the theoretical model for giving tzedakah will vary from person to person. But this evening I want to tackle a more basic dilemma than how we manage universal versus particular obligations: how do we manage our obligations at all? When we contemplate the enormity and complexity of the global challenges we face, what prevents us from succumbing to paralysis and despair? How to get through times like these? –that’s this evening’s topic. How are we going to make it through 5778?

Let me introduce three spiritual qualities for cultivating hope during difficult times: integrity, humility, and serenity. Integrity is the steadfast adherence to principles and values. Many are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King’s eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the evening of his assassination. He likens himself to Moses, looking down upon the Promised Land (incidentally, in this week’s Torah portion). Dr. King knows that he may not get there himself, but as a people, as Americans, we will get there. What’s not so familiar is what he says earlier in the speech:

“If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the whole sweep of human history unfolding in a panoramic view before me, and the Almighty asked me, ‘Martin Luther, which age would you like to be born in?’ strangely enough, I would turn to Him and reply, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick, and trouble is in the land. But I know that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

We live for times such as these. Only when challenges and obstacles force us to make sacrifices for what we believe in do we discover our mettle. Integrity means that our actions are determined not by external authority but by our own internal moral compass. We are liberated the moment we refuse to take marching orders from the power structures in which we are embedded —like the Israelite women, Shifrah and Puah, who feared not Pharaoh but their God.

At the same time, integrity must be tempered with humility. We need to acknowledge that thoughtful people maintain a variety of views on what constitutes progress. Some of us decry the policies of the new administration, while others applaud them. Who’s right? In today’s era of polarization, political and religious, it’s dangerous for any single person or group to claim a monopoly on Truth, or certain knowledge of God’s will, for that matter. Within Judaism, Torah represents the sum total of wisdom. But Torah itself is perennially unfolding, revealing new insights in every generation. There is no point at which one can claim: I have mastered it! A little doubt must accompany even the most fervently held convictions.

I learned a great deal about the constructive potential of humility to bridge ideological divides from a workshop I took part in, entitled the Public Conversations Project. It turns out that when we express absolute confidence in our own position and never admit uncertainty, when we cast complex issues in stark, black-and-white terms, and when we listen only to find fault and speak only to persuade or ridicule, we perpetuate and increase hostility between factions and forestall the possibility of collaboration. If, instead, we listen to understand and speak to be understood, acknowledge our own misgivings and ask genuinely curious questions, and focus more on exploring a variety of perspectives than winning the debate, we develop trust, build a common sense of community, and open new opportunities for jointly solving problems. I attended the seminar in December, and for the first time since the presidential election, I began to feel optimistic that the country’s divisions might be healable.

Finally, the more turbulent things get, the more vital it becomes to actively pursue serenity. A cartoon magnet on my friend’s refrigerator shows a woman walking along the beach with her husband. She turns to him and says: “the best part of my day is the moment between waking up and remembering what’s going on in the world.” But, all jokes aside, whether to be peaceful inside is a choice we make. We alone are ultimately responsible for our emotional reactions, no matter what anyone says or does on the news.

Shabbat is our tradition’s great institution for replenishing the soul. Shabbat lets us unplug the computer, detach from all the commotion, and immerse ourselves in nourishing activities. But once a week is not enough! We need daily reprieves to offset the stressors constantly bombarding us. There are two commands regarding Shabbat: Shamor ve-zachor, keep and remember. “Keep Shabbat” refers to what we do on Shabbat to elevate Shabbat-awareness, and “remember Shabbat” indicates what we do, not on Shabbat, to foster Shabbat-consciousness.

I, for one, no longer consume the first part of my morning by heading from bed directly to the New York Times on my computer, coffee in hand, a compulsion that used to put me on edge before I got my day started. If there was anything sensational, it would hook me, in which case I’d have to check spasmodically for the latest “breaking” development throughout the day. Nowadays, I set aside a time once a day, and once a day only, to read the headlines and selectively follow up on what seems important to be informed about. Then I go to a certain armchair in the living room, put on my Tefillin, and sit in meditation. This discipline stills whatever mental chatter the news generated, focuses me on the tasks in my daily schedule, and lets me let go of all the things I cannot control in the world. (This is what I do, and I’m not necessarily prescribing it for you. What I am recommending is some kind of regular “Shabbat discipline” for the workweek, when you need it most.)

Another way to enhance serenity is to broaden your outlook and adopt the long view! The most distressing situations sometimes contain seeds of progress. For example, white supremacists have lurked beyond the margins of American society for decades, only now, since Charlottesville, they’ve come out of the woodwork to be exposed, condemned and repudiated—and that’s not an entirely bad thing. Although climate change has been underway for years, when flooding and storm surges suddenly disrupt the lives of millions of Americans, as during the recent back-to-back hurricanes, maybe now we’ll sit up and pay attention—and that’s not an entirely bad thing. So, the next time you despair that society is unraveling or the world is coming to an end, remember that progress often unfolds in zigs and zags, and the next chapter of history has yet to be written.

“Trust in Adonai” is a formula we find in Scripture and in our liturgy, but it’s commonly misconstrued. It’s not a prescription for passivity and fatalism. It doesn’t justify our saying: “I’ll do nothing, because God will provide.” Quite the opposite. God lives inside each one of us. “Trust in Adonai” promulgates the fundamental goodness of human nature and the purity of the human soul. “Trust in Adonai” affirms our God-given capacity as human beings to regret and repair, to grow and change, to do teshuvah and to do good, to choose good over evil. “Trust in Adonai” means, in the words of our Siddur: “The good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done. We will look back at the pages of written history, and be amazed, and then we will laugh and sing, and the good that is in us, children in their cradles, will have won.”

My prayer for you and for all of us as we enter the New Year: no matter it brings, events both positive and negative, challenges both personal and societal, triumphs and disappointments, may we meet them all with integrity, humility, and serenity. Shanah tovah.

Kol Nidre 2016: Seeing Others in Ourselves

Empathy: For Others and Ourselves

One of the tributes to Israeli leader Shimon Peres upon his death read as follows: “Most leaders in the Middle East have become so hard-bitten that they have completely lost their ability empathize with anyone other than their own tribe. Peres was unique among both Arabs and Israelis in that he could stand in the other guy’s shoes.” Empathy is the cornerstone of reconciliation: between world nations, between groups within the same community, and between individuals.

Last week, my Rosh Hashanah sermon focused on the commandment: “you shall love the stranger as yourself,” as the first step toward restoring harmony within American society. On Yom Kippur, let’s take up a more personal concern: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as the basis for restoring harmony in our relationships with one another. The Golden Rule entails more than simply treating the other person as you would like to be treated. After all, her needs and desires may be different from yours. What you want for yourself may not be what she wants. “Love your neighbor as yourself” means looking at yourself from her perspective, and treating her accordingly.

Let’s say a friend calls you on the phone to berate you for a slight that you committed. (By the way, by reproaching you, she’s fulfilling the Levitical commandment that immediately precedes “love your neighbor”: “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk;” plus, she’s acting to your benefit. Better for her to confront you directly than nurse silent grievances and avoid you without telling you why, or—worse still—complain to others about you behind your back, which is quintessential lashon hara. But that’s another sermon.) She accuses you of asking her to do something, and then you went ahead and did it yourself. If you’re anything like me, your first reaction will be defensive: “I was doing you a favor! I was trying to spare you the trouble.” Then she says: “but you never let me help you. You always brush me aside when I offer.” By now, you’re feeling flush, your head is pounding, and thoughts are racing: “she’s making a mountain out of a molehill. What’s the big deal? I don’t have time for this.” So you blurt out: “Look! You’re making this too complicated. I wasn’t trying to offend you; I was just trying to meet my deadline.” Then you go a step further: “Besides! I can never depend upon you. The last time you were supposed to come over to give me a hand, I was waiting on you for hours.” (As the saying goes: the best defense is a strong offense!) At this point, both parties are consumed by their own grievances, and the conversation is unlikely to end amicably.

But let’s consider an alternate scenario. Let’s rewind the altercation to the moment you feel the surge of anger well up. This time, instead of ramping up the counterattack, you take a deep breath. You remember that there have been times when people other than she have been upset with you for taking over tasks that you had assigned to them. You see that it’s a pattern of behavior that you occasionally fall into. So you reply: “you know what. I’m sorry. Maybe deep down I don’t want to be beholden to other people. I guess somewhere inside I believe no one will ever do as good a job as I can, and that’s an attitude I need to let go of.” This is the moment of teshuvah, which is the act of turning away from blaming others and external circumstances and instead turning inward, examining one’s own motives.

Now, contrition is a curious thing. It’s amazing how one person’s admission can sometimes spark another’s. She responds: “Well, to tell you the truth, I got agitated because I worry what I do is never going to live up to your standards. In fact, the reason why sometimes I promise to come over and give you a hand, and then I change my mind and not show up, is because I don’t feel that I have anything of value to contribute.” Suddenly, you gain new understanding of the entire situation. You begin to realize that your fear of letting go of control dovetails with her lack of confidence in her own abilities. Like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each character flaw fits with the other to elicit mutual feelings of hurt and recrimination. Now not every interchange is going to feature this level of candid confession, nor is it necessary. The point of moral growth is to cultivate an attitude of humility concerning our own character traits and empathy for those of others.

Empathy, meaning viewing situations from the other’s perspective, is the basic ingredient in apology. Consider Maimonides’s basic steps of teshuvah: acknowledging what we have done to the person we harmed, expressing remorse, taking responsibility for our misdeed, and making restitution. These actions are effective for restoring harmony because they focus on the other person, not on us. When want to say “I’m sorry,” we need to be specific; we should avoid expressions such as “I regret it if I hurt you.” We mustn’t qualify our apologies, with statements such as “it was not my intention to cause you distress,” nor justify our behavior, as in “I was stressed out,” or “you made me so mad,” because that’s taking away with one hand what we are trying to give with the other. An apology works only if it is offered in humility: when we make the other person’s feelings paramount and our own experience insignificant. Genuine repentance is painful, which is why we avoid it in the first place. But, here’s the thing: if it hurts, if you’re feeling bad, then take that is a sure sign that your apology is genuine.

Conversely, empathy is also necessary to forgive. In Judaism, granting forgiveness is not an act of generosity that we perform out of good will, but a commandment. But how does one grant forgiveness, in practice? Unforgiving people tend to be those who are conditioned to experience negativity concerning those who offended them, especially fear, and that leads to avoidance and retaliation. Any stimulus that reminds them of past wrongs, even just seeing the offender in passing, reawakens the old hurts and resentments. Victims do not have to wait, and should not wait, until feelings of warmth well up spontaneously, because that may never happen. They can train ourselves to be empathetic.

In his book Wounds Not Healed by Time, Dr. Sol Schimmel presents several clinical models of forgiveness, which include the following practical suggestions: Try to speculate what the offender might have been thinking of feeling during the hurtful event. What were some of his preoccupations that might have had nothing to do with you? Assume that he was not acting with malice or intent to wound you but that his motives were understandable. If so, what might be some explanations for his behavior? Maybe you could even see yourself acting that way under similar circumstances. In fact, call to mind times when you yourself have misbehaved and caused hurt to someone else. Viewing his failures in light of your own will help you cultivate compassion. Finally, recall pleasant experiences you’ve had in the past with the offender, times when you’ve felt connected with him. Instead of zeroing in on the painful episode, it’s important to view the other person in his totality, as a multifaceted person with flaws as well as redeeming qualities, just as you are.
Repentance and forgiveness, the key processes for achieving atonement between human beings, both entail empathy, which is the ability to detach from our own position and adopt the position of the other as if it were our own. So let’s take a moment to think about what that implies. After all, we can’t really know with certainty what’s going on inside another person. It requires an act of imagination. We have to take as an unverifiable axiom that human reactions are the same in all of us. Anyone with normal eyesight agrees that strawberries, cardinals and the planet Mars all have a similar color. But couldn’t it be that what you call red is what I call blue? If no uniform standard exists regarding vision, how much more so regarding emotions. Let’s say you tell me, as your friend, that you are anxious and felling helpless because, God forbid, your daughter is very ill. Now, I don’t have a daughter, and even if I did, it wouldn’t be your daughter. So what does it mean to relate to you in that situation? I’ll never forget the time when, as hospital chaplain, I was trying to comfort a suicidal patient, and she suddenly turned on me, shouting: “you don’t know what I’m going through! You’ll never understand! No one can understand.” Now, I recognized in her outburst the symptoms of severe depression, the feeling of being engulfed in a black hole, beyond the reach of all human contact. All the same, I realized that on some level, she was right. I didn’t know exactly what she was going through. Each of us perceives the world uniquely, nor can we ever directly partake of another’s perception. Consider this very moment: I’m up here on the Bimah speaking the words of this sermon, and all of you are listening (well, many of you, anyway!)—and yet, if there are 200 of us in this room, then there are 200 different versions of what is happening right now.

There is a fundamental loneliness to the human condition resulting from our existence as separate beings. How to bridge the chasm between Self and Other? Ideas, images or sensations can’t do it, because they are constructs and projections in one’s own mind. Connection is possible, however, through love. To be in another’s living presence, to encounter “the face of the Other,” using the terminology of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, is a transcendent phenomenon. In fact, maybe the very definition of love includes the notion of transcendence: going beyond the confines of the ego to meet the other person in the fullness of their individuality, irreducible to personal wants and desires, to feel what she feels, and experience what she experiences. Love takes place not entirely within the Self, not entirely within the Other, but by extending, reaching into the space between Self and other. The existence of Love and the existence of God are equally preposterous. Both are objectively unverifiable powers. Both entail a leap of faith. For Levinas, the only way we have to experience God is through our loving encounters with other human beings.

The moment you rise above your own concerns and imagine what it’s like to view the world, including your own behavior, from the vantage point of another person is the moment you have fulfilled the commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, inasmuch as existentially, we are alien to each other since we can know objectively each other’s reality, maybe it’s more apt to say that at that moment, you have fulfilled the commandment: “love the stranger as yourself.” It is as if you have taken flight and can look down from above at your interior landscape, the other person’s inner landscape, and the ground between you. To perceive all of reality from outside your own mental preoccupations is a transcendent experience and a spiritual gift. At such times, a wellspring of compassion surges up from your heart: for you, for the other, and for the human condition.

Which brings us to the last application of “you shall love the stranger”—applying the commandment to ourselves. The depth of the psyche is unfathomable. Thoughts incessantly come and go in our own heads with no discernable pattern; emotions can shift within seconds without provocation; we are a morass of internal contradictions. One could spend a lifetime in therapy and still only scratch the surface of self-understanding. In this context, “loving the stranger” means accepting with humility that we don’t always have a handle on what drives us, let alone what generates behavior in others. The admission of our own limitations is a cause for wonder and celebration, because it makes the art of living a grand adventure. Realizing that it’s perfectly normal to make mistakes and act foolishly, that hurting other people is an inevitable facet of taking part in family and community life, that we’re all flawed creatures, just trying to make our way through life the best we know how, means we can spend less mental and physical energy protecting our egos and more of it owning up to our responsibility. We begin to treat ourselves and others with compassion, and maybe a little bit of humor thrown in.

Rosh Hashanah 2016 Sermon: Seeing Ourselves in Others

Judaism is a love-based religion. In three different ways, we are commanded to love. Famously, in Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Throughout the Torah, “you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Finally, in Deuteronomy, “you shall love Adonai your God.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev said: “A person’s love for God can be determined by the love she bears toward others.”

It is not difficult to love your neighbor as yourself because in many ways your neighbor is like yourself. He belongs to the same nation, the same social class, or the same political persuasion. What is difficult is loving the person who is different. That’s why the Torah reiterates the commandment to love the stranger 36 times (but “love your neighbor” only once).

Unfortunately, we’re apt to greet outsiders with more suspicion than generosity. The ones marginalized from the mainstream to begin with are routinely denigrated these days: Muslim Americans, Mexican immigrants, transgender people, Syrian refugees, and others. The practice of reducing entire classes of people to a single stereotype pervades public discourse. We objectify them. They are no longer living, breathing souls who feel and suffer as we do but flat projections of our own fears and anxieties.

In his recent book Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks chronicles the process that leads inexorably to genocide. Mass atrocity does not erupt spontaneously. It is the product of a gradual breakdown in moral sensibility that begins, innocuously enough, with a division in the mind between “us” and “them.” Once we mentally and emotionally detach from others, the next step is to blame them for our problems. Our prevailing preoccupation becomes to remove them from society. Their hardship and misfortune are of no concern to us. From here it’s a short leap to stripping them of their humanity altogether.

The recent upsurge in antisemitism worldwide, as well as increasing hostility against foreigners in our own country, are both gravely worrisome. Why now? Massive immigration, the globalization of the economy, the rise in terrorism, and increasing ethnic and cultural diversity within populations—these are some of the potent forces currently fraying the fabric of Western civilization. When people feel threatened that their standard of living and way of life are under siege, they tend to look for a scapegoat.

Social and economic instability has always constituted a breeding ground for xenophobia. Such was the condition of Weimar Germany in 1920’s and 30s, and such are the circumstances in 2016 in the United States. Lest you think it alarmist to suggest a comparison between today’s political climate and the environment that gave rise to Nazism, consider the following observation from a Holocaust survivor who attended one of this year’s political rallies. “It’s not so much what the speaker said at the podium, it was its effect on the crowd, working them up into a frenzy,” she said. “History is repeating itself, and again it’s our inattention to real cues that is so frightening.” In light of this grim warning, we can appreciate all the more Judaism’s insistence on loving the stranger. Not only during periods of prosperity, but especially when under stress, we as a society must guard against the impulse to demonize any members of the human family.

More than any other occasion, Rosh Hashanah proclaims the common bond of humanity among all peoples on Earth. Other festivals celebrate important episodes in Jewish history (the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, etc.). Rosh Hashanah alone commemorates an event of universal import: the creation of the world and the concomitant emergence of the first human being. On Rosh Hashanah, all humanity—indeed, all living creatures—stand together in judgment before their Maker. Rosh Hashanah anticipates the day when the entire world will unite under the glorious sovereignty of the Almighty.

In addition to upholding universal fellowship, Rosh Hashanah specifically focuses on the plight of the foreigner. Many commentators wonder at the selection for the traditional Torah portion. Surely, on this exalted occasion, we would expect a suitably lofty scriptural reading. Why not the obvious choice: Genesis 1, the magnificent account of Creation? What we get instead is Genesis 21. Abraham, at the behest of his wife, Sarah, expels Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, leaving Ishmael to die of thirst. (Hagar is the Egyptian handmaiden, and Ishmael is the son Hagar bore Abraham.) Why did the Rabbis deem this sordid tale of domestic strife and rejection worthy for recitation at the very outset of the year?

It’s instructive to compare the readings on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah, two consecutive chapters in the Torah. In both, Abraham is bidden to sacrifice his son to death (explicitly, with Isaac, indirectly, in the case of Ishmael); the child himself is passive, likely unaware of his fate, and helpless to change it; his life is saved only through the intervention of God’s angel. The plots may be similar, but the tone of the narrative is completely different. Genesis 22 reports the drama matter-of-factly, almost callously. We have no idea what Isaac feels as he’s led to the altar to be slaughtered, and we can only guess at Abraham’s state of mind while he lifts the knife. By contrast, Genesis 21 drips with pathos. “When the water was gone from the jug, Hagar left the child under one of the bushes, went off and sat down at a distance, for she said: let me not look on as [my son] dies, and… she burst into tears.” There is no question toward whom the Torah intends to arouse our sympathies. Rabbi Sacks observes: “we are awed by Abraham and Isaac, but we identify with Hagar and Ishmael.” When Hagar weeps, we are meant to weep alongside her.

God, too, weeps for the outcast. The name Ishmael literally means “the one whom God hears.” Although Ishmael is not destined to inherit the Covenant, the Torah goes out of its way to emphasize God’s special concern for Ishmael. The angel comforts Hagar in her distress by saying: “Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy… and [God] will make him a great nation.” Let’s not forget the significant detail that Hagar comes from Egypt, the very nation that subsequently assails Israel. More relevant to our own age, Ishmael is universally recognized as the forefather of the Arabs. Given these associations, the first day Rosh Hashanah Torah reading delivers an extraordinarily forceful message: God sends blessing upon all people, not only those whose destiny diverges from ours, but even our enemies.

One of Torah’s remarkable features is that, far from idealizing its heroes, it exhibits their flaws along with their virtues. One cannot remain indifferent to Sarah’s harsh conduct toward Hagar. The wording is deliberately crafted to elicit our disapproval. For example, the text describes Sarah’s actions as abusive: “and Sarah tormented Hagar,” using the same verb (anah) elsewhere reserved for describing Egypt’s oppression of Israel: “and the Egyptians tormented the children of Israel ruthlessly.” Indeed, Midrash relates the two cases: because Sarah enslaved the Egyptian, Hagar, Egypt eventually retaliated by enslaving Israel.

During the High Holiday season, we are supposed to look inward. Introspection is the crucial first step of teshuvah. The Torah invites us to examine the crosscurrents of our own motives by identifying with the psychic struggles of its protagonists. Sarah’s hatred toward Hagar, the foreigner, seems to be instigated by feelings of jealousy and competition. (cf. Genesis 16:5) Underneath her jealousy is fear, fear that Ishmael threatens the legitimacy of her beloved son Isaac as heir to the Covenant. These all-too-human emotional reactions—animosity, jealousy, competition, and, above all, fear—are the same impulses driving the backlash against foreigners today. Like our foremother Sarah, we Americans fear for our own status and security, as well as our children’s.

Abraham’s motives are more entangled than Sarah’s. He clearly loves his son Ishmael. When Sarah insists upon Ishmael’s banishment, the text states that “Abraham was greatly aggrieved,” but he gives into her demand anyway. Similarly, pressures from family members, peers and leaders can sometimes compel us to act against our better judgment, especially when they tap into pre-existing inner conflicts of our own.

Each of us comprises a multitude of inconsistencies. Some of our traits are admirable, others contemptible, and many fall in between. We are all xenophobic to some degree. It is basic human nature to feel threatened by outsiders. At this time of year devoted to moral scrutiny, our tradition challenges us to root out our own prejudices. Tikkun olam begins with tikkun ha-nefesh. To change the world, we start by changing ourselves.

Throughout Jewish literature, Abraham and Sarah are singled out as exemplars of chesed, lovingkindness, for their generosity toward the stranger. They open their tent on four sides, to welcome desert wanderers from every direction the compass. That’s why, in the designated reading for Rosh Hashanah, their cruel treatment of their own resident alien is so extraordinary and ironic. It goes to show that there is a streak of distrust and fear in the best of us.

“Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah,” declaims the Talmud. “One for the thoroughly righteous, one for the thoroughly wicked, and one for the beinoni, those in between. The fate of the first two groups is written and sealed immediately, but the fate of third remains suspended until Yom Kippur.” We are, all of us, beinoni. Just as Abraham and Sarah once fell short of the virtue of chesed with which they are identified, we too will sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. But Rosh Hashanah calls to our highest selves. Throughout this day, in the liturgical themes and the scriptural passages, Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our affinity with all people on Earth and our special obligation to “love the stranger.” May we rise to the summons of this season. May compassion in our hearts dissolve all our inner anxieties and fears. May an abundance of chesed overcome hatred and bigotry in our society and throughout the world.

Kol Nidre 2015 Sermon: Forgiveness

I float in shallow waters. Puffy clouds drift lazily against the deep sky’s backdrop. Blue herons and Canadian geese fly low overhead. Egrets graze among the reeds. I withdraw the paddle, let the kayak drift, and inhale deeply. Somewhere out of sight a chain saw starts up. The buzzing seems to enter my brain. “How long is this going to go on? Stop already!” Then I think: “These are only sound waves. It’s my judgment, that’s all, that breaks the peace.” And I let it go.

Atonement is letting go. “At-one-ment:” to feel at one, to be at peace. Atonement means accepting who we are, as we are—including all our imperfections. In her book There Is Nothing Wrong With You, Zen teacher Cheri Huber, writes: “If a voice—your internal critic or another person’s remark—is speaking from a place of judgment, it has nothing worthwhile to tell you. Everything you need to know will come to you in compassion.” This perspective may be Buddhist, but it also comes close to the basic meaning in Judaism of kippur, or kapparah, “atonement.”

The great twentieth century theologian, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, defines kapparah as the removal of past transgression. He quotes Rashi, who says: “whenever the term refers to sin, kapparah connotes erasing or wiping away.” King David, after committing adultery by sleeping with Bathsheba, begs God to restore him to his former state of innocence, before his degradation. “Be gracious to me, God. Blot out my willfulness, and wash me clean of my iniquities. Purge till I am whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51) This is the very psalm we read at the Tashlich ceremony, when we symbolically cast our transgressions into the water in the form of bread morsels and watch the stream carry them off, out of sight.

God grants atonement as an expression of boundless love. Justice demands that King David remain a marked man for life on account of his sexual misconduct, like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, or like registered sex offenders today. Instead, divine love wipes away his immorality, so much so that the very progeny of the illicit union, Solomon, inherits the throne after him. This is exactly the side of God’s nature over which the prophet Jonah takes God to task. Jonah is enraged by God’s unreasonable compassion, in pardoning the people of Ninevah. “I knew you would renounce punishment,” he cries, “because you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness”— hurling God’s own epithet back at God as if it were an insult! Jonah is correct to take umbrage. Forgiveness is antithetical to truth, justice, and common sense.

There is another aspect to repentance besides the obliteration of transgression. There is another dimension to Yom Kippur in addition to atonement, as indicated in the verse from Torah: “On this very day shall atonement be made for you, in order to cleanse you of all your sins; before God you shall be cleansed.” (Leviticus 16:30) Apparently, repentance consists of two separate steps: atonement, and cleansing. What is the distinction? According to Rav Soloveitchik, only God can grant atonement, but human beings must cleanse themselves through the hard work of psychological and moral self-examination. Atonement is a spiritual experience, whereas cleansing is a rational process that entails analyzing our behavior and our motives, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, making amends to those we have harmed, and paying the penalties for our misconduct.

To achieve teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance, atonement and cleansing are both necessary. Transgressions don’t occur singly in a vacuum, but pile up into patterns of misbehavior. Our misconduct eats away at us little by little from the inside, until we cannot be free of it, even if we want to, even if we feel tremendous shame and express remorse for what we have done. Beset with debts, a person might go to one friend to pay off another. He soon finds himself unable to repay either of them. He moves away to another town, where we can look people in the eye again and start over. He cannot see—or won’t admit—that “wherever he goes, there he is.” It is not enough to regret particular actions. We must also renounce the pathway and the lifestyle that led to them in the first place.

Cleansing goes further than atonement. When we ask God to pardon us, we seek to leave our sins behind us and move on. When we engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, a thorough and honest moral inventory, we take hold of our sins, incorporate them, and embrace every facet of ourselves, virtues as well as shortcomings. The Rav writes: “cleansing is a springboard for increased inspiration. It does not entail reinstating the individual to her former status. It must activate a new one, or else the misdeed itself serves no purpose and is superfluous. It must energize an ever-ascending spiral in her spiritual state.”

Life without lapses is not only impossible but undesirable. We ought not to lament our missteps but appreciate them for the lessons they teach us. In fact, Cheri Huber goes so far as to say that on the path to moral improvement, there’s no such thing as failure. “She compares our journey to that of an infant learning to walk. “At one point should he have condemned himself?” she asks. “All of the times he pitched over on his head or fell back on his bottom? They may have been unsuccessful attempts according to the definition of walking, but they were an inevitable part of the process of learning to walk.” (There Is Nothing Wrong, page 160)

The perspective that sees the potential benefit of wrongdoing—and, remember, the Hebrew word cheit, for sin, simply means “missing the mark”—explains the paradoxical Talmudic statement: “in the place where the fully repentant person stands, the completely righteous person cannot stand.” (bBerachot 34b) That’s right! The one who learns from her mistake ends up with greater self-awareness and more maturity than if she had never stumbled to begin with. Imagine for a moment that you were perfect, whatever that could possibly mean. You never offended anybody. You never did anything you regretted. Nothing and no one ever annoyed you. You would probably be dead! So, the next time something or someone agitates you, take a deep breath and ask yourself: what am I supposed to learn from this?

We have been considering two necessary sides to repentance: forgiveness versus judgment, acceptance versus improvement, or, in Rav Soloveitchik’s vocabulary, atonement versus cleansing. One entails eradicating our transgressions and reversing our status to an original stage of innocence. The other calls for transforming our transgressions into assets, which catapults us to a higher level of self-awareness and moral maturity. Which comes first? The Rav seems to regard atonement as the starting point from which to mount the real objective, which is cleansing. For him, the goal of repentance is to change our ways.

Perhaps, though, it’s the other way around. Perhaps self-scrutiny is merely a precursor to self-acceptance. After all, the work of self-improvement is endless. A lifetime in therapy is only enough to scratch the surface of our inner drives and motivations. At a certain point, we reach the limit of our capacity to understand ourselves, and we must yield to the unfathomable mystery of the psyche. That is the point of forgiveness.

Humans are ultimately enigmatic beings. “Who can ever know the depth of her own errors?” exclaims the Psalmist. “Therefore, God, cleanse me from all invisible faults.” I never understood that line: how can we repent of faults we don’t even know we have? But the other day hearing the psalm at services, with this sermon already swimming around in my head, I realized that the lesser part of forgiveness is for the behavior we comprehend, and the greater part of forgiveness is for everything we cannot know. Imagine that someone offends you with a rude remark. Later, you learn he had just received devastating personal news. In an instant, your anger dissolves into compassion. But what if you never were to find out the hidden information? That is the point of forgiveness.

I want to stray from my prepared remarks for reasons that will become obvious. I decided at the 11th hour to subject this sermon to my mother’s red pen… My mother has always been my best editor going back to reports for 5th grade Social Studies… She turns to me and says “it’s confusing… I can’t follow it…” Well, this was just a few hours ago, she must have seen the distress on my face, and so she immediately reversed herself and said: “You know, leave it be, it’s just fine.” That is the point of forgiveness. When turn to someone and say: it’s okay, you’ve done enough now, you can let it rest, that’s the very definition of forgiveness.

A Christian colleague asked me last week: “so what do Jews think about perfection—is it something that you strive for, or is it hopelessly out of reach?” I thought for a moment. We have Shabbat, of course, when we cease all creative activity, but we cannot stay there forever. Heschel beautifully describes the dialectic: “Six days a week, we wrestle with the earth, but on the Sabbath, we care especially for the seed of eternity planted within the soul.” (The Sabbath, p. 13) So, I replied to my friend: “Both, actually. God did not complete the work of Creation, but left us with the task of perfecting it. Every other commandment buttresses Tikkun Olam, Judaism’s supreme injunction to repair the world. But at the moment of candlelighting on Friday evening, we let it all go. On Shabbat, nothing needs improvement, because the world is already perfect, just as it is.”

Since only one day out of seven is spent at rest, you might conclude that Tikkun Olam takes precedence over Shabbat. Not necessarily. Even when the Jew is working, she keeps Shabbat ever present in her mind. As Heschel puts it: “The Sabbath is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength in order to become fit for the forthcoming labor. It’s the other way around. Labor is the means to an end, and that end is the Sabbath.”

The same principle applies to teshuvah as Tikkun Olam. Just as the struggle to right the injustices of society has no endpoint, so too we will be engaged in the work of rectifying our relationships till the day we die. Nevertheless, there comes a point in both endeavors where we must pause, and say: “everything is okay, right here, right now.” Or, in the words of Cheri Huber: “There is nothing wrong with you. You are good, exactly as you are.”

Yom Kippur is such a time. If Shabbat is a weekly day of wholeness and contentment, then Yom Kippur all the more so, for it is called “the Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Rosh Hashanah, last week, was the Day of Judgment, but today, Yom Kippur, is the Day of “At-one-ment.” The period for judgment, criticism and blame is over and done. Now is the time for, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. All the ways that you disappoint yourself—let them go. All the ways you fail to live up to others’ expectations—let them go. The grudge you are nursing because someone wronged you in the past—for goodness sake, let it go already! With every confession you recite this evening—tap gently on your heart. Remember: the soul within you is pure.

I float along, reveling in the sensuous warmth of sunlight on my arms, even as a soft breeze caresses my face. A faint buzzing comes from beyond the shoreline trees, but it merely mingles with the song of the birds and rustle of the leaves. I am at one.

Kol Nidre 2014: Israel: Principles of Discourse

Three Jewish mothers get together for lunch. As they are being seated in the restaurant, one takes a deep breath and gives a long, slow "oy." The second answers with another prolonged sigh: "oy." The third interrupts impatiently: "Girls, girls, I thought we agreed that we weren't going to talk about our children!”

So what’s our unmentionable, our elephant in the middle of the room? What is the one essential topic of Jewish discourse that we don’t know how to broach? A few weeks ago, a congregant advised me: “Don’t talk about Israel. What’s the point? You’ll just stir up trouble.” Another e-mailed me: “I feel sorry for you that you’re going to have to talk about Israel from the Bimah on the High Holidays.” A third observed: “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!” Nor are we the only congregation, nor I the only Rabbi, struggling with how to dialogue meaningfully and constructively on Israel. In a recent article entitled “Muzzled by the Minority,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote: “North American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.” Indeed, just since I completed the first draft of this sermon, several articles in the New York Times and elsewhere have appeared, each describing strife in some American Jewish circles over this summer’s war in Gaza. Two weeks ago, the beloved Rabbi of a large suburban synagogue near Chicago resigned over the issue after seventeen years of devoted service to his congregation.

Despite the risk, I have decided to use the highest-profile occasion of the Jewish calendar to offer heartfelt reflections. Israel is on all of our minds, including my own. Furthermore, many of you look to the Rabbi for spiritual guidance. I have confidence that the trust and—I’ll say it—love that has developed over the past two years between us (you, my congregation, and me, your Rabbi) have developed and solidified to the point where they will not rupture by what I am about to express, even in this difficult area.

How did the American Jewish community get to this point, especially since we as a people are famously argumentative? You’ve heard the old saw: “two Jews, three opinions!” Indeed, machloqet, entering into disagreement, is the defining feature of our religion since the Rabbinic era. The Talmud is built upon impassioned debate. Hillel and Shammai, the greatest sages of them all, famously argued for three years over an arcane point of law and still never reached consensus. Prospective converts in my Introduction to Judaism class are often surprised to learn—and, furthermore, find it refreshing—that unlike the Christianity that they grew up with, in which adherents must subscribe to a single dogma, Judaism encourages a wide range of convictions. You don’t even have to believe in God to be a good Jew, so why is Israel such a difficult subject?

In his classic work The Rabbinic Mind, scholar Max Kadushin devised the term “value concept” to denote the dominant themes that pervade Jewish discourse. Examples include: “tzedek (justice),” “hesed (lovingkindness),” “Torah,” and—yes—“Israel.” These are the fundamental captions of Jewish vocabulary that all of us employ in our conversations with each other. Jewish value concepts bind us together as a distinct culture, and yet no two of us mean precisely the same thing when we invoke one of them. Take the word “Torah.” When you say “Torah,” you might believe in Holy Scripture as the word of God on Mount Sinai transcribed verbatim by Moses. Your neighbor might refer to the work that began as several different oral traditions, was later redacted, and became the primary source of guidance and inspiration for Jews throughout the generations ever since. For another Jew, “Torah” might signify, expansively, not the Hebrew document at all but the summation of human wisdom accrued since the beginning of civilization until the present day, including all of science, ethics, and philosophy. Although the word varies in meaning, one really can’t be Jewish without some connection to, or personal notion of, Torah. According to Kadushin, the Talmud abounds in contradictions because the Rabbis did not attempt to develop a logically consistent set of beliefs. Rather, they were interested in “expressing and responding to the differences of human personalities.” (The Rabbinic Mind, page 2) Rabbinic culture cohered not because people thought alike but because people had license to think differently within the basic parameters delimited by Jewish value concepts.

What are our fundamental value concepts that underlie our discussions about Israel? Foremost is the land itself. Just as being Jewish entails a relationship with Torah, it also implies an attachment to eretz Yisra’eil. The land of Israel has been inextricably associated with the people of Israel ever since Abraham. In the words of Hatikvah, “so long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sang, so long as the eye looked eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope was never lost—the hope of two thousand years.” We kept alive the dream of return in our daily worship, praying the lines: “gather us from the four corners of the earth; have mercy and bring us back to Jerusalem.” When the Dalai Lama first met a delegation of leading Rabbis in the 90s, he asked them: “what is your secret?” His people were forced to leave Tibet only fifty years ago, but no nation on Earth has survived exile through centuries of dispersal and persecution, except for Israel.

I’ll never forget looking out from the window seat as a twelve-year old, glimpsing the brown shoreline when it first appeared above the distant horizon of the sea, watching it get larger and larger as the plane approached, eventually making out buildings, then sunbathers on the beaches, my heart swelling with joy and anticipation. How to explain the thrill of homecoming, when I had never set foot in the country before? Many of us feel a visceral, inexplicable, quasi-mystical sense of belonging and love for the land itself.

A second, distinctly modern value concept entwines every consideration of Israel—namely, the Holocaust. Our collective Jewish psyche will forever bear its indelible scar. As a defining marker, the Shoah rivals, if not supersedes, the first momentous event of Jewish history, yetziyat Mitzrayim. Just as Torah imposes a religious obligation to “see ourselves,” every day of our lives, “as if we personally went forth from Egypt,” so too the martyrs of the Holocaust charge us with the sacred task of inculcating in our children from generation to generation the message of “never again!”

What are the dreadful lessons of the Holocaust? For a number of us, “never again” means “never again will we Jews render ourselves vulnerable, defenseless, and at the mercy of adversaries out to destroy us.” Belatedly after World War Two, much of the world came to recognize the imperative to establish a Jewish homeland. That the modern State of Israel was founded on the heels of Nazi genocide feels nothing short of miraculous. However, seventy years later, anti-Semitism intensifies anew, not only through the incendiary proclamations of the Hamas charter and Islamist leaders throughout the Middle East but even at peace rallies in the West. Apparently, Europe’s shame at having permitted the slaughter of the Jews in its midst is wearing off. For these reasons, memory of the Holocaust ensures that Israel’s security remain a top concern.

However, “never again” has an additional, universal application: “never again will we sit idly while a group of human beings—any group—is marginalized, persecuted and threatened.” Thus, many Jews cited the Holocaust when they positioned themselves at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and rallied against the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. Closer to home, our unhappy legacy as victims of atrocities, from Pharaoh to Hitler, admonishes us lest we cause the suffering of others. “Do not oppress the foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) When some of us criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, we are not “self-hating Jews.” Rather, we act according to the loftiest prescriptions of our tradition, as well as with full awareness of our age-old experience of persecution.

The notion of am Yisra’eil, the people of Israel—as distinct from eretz Yisra’eil, the land of Israel—yields a third pertinent value concept. We involve ourselves with the State of Israel’s concerns for the elemental reason that so many of our fellow Jews live there or plan to make aliyah (move there), including our own loved ones, members of the Beth Shalom community, and some of you here tonight. Israel has now surpassed the United States as the country containing the largest Jewish population; in a few years, one out of every two Jews in the world will live in Israel. Its security entails the fate of six million of our sisters and brothers. The Rabbinic dictum, kol Yisra’eil areivim zeh bazeh, “all of Israel is responsible one for the other,” directs us to stand up for our own kin before we advance the interests of others. A key principle of tzedakah ranks commitment in concentric circles. One must tend first to one’s family, then one’s community, then the Jewish people generally, and, finally, all of humanity (to which in our day we might add: the natural world). (cf. http://shma.com/2011/10/ creating-a-tzedakah-standard/) Therefore, when the news and social media attack Israel, we take it personally. Loyalty impels us to come to her defense as we would for a close relative.

However, kol Yisra’eil areivim zeh bazeh confers an additional obligation: to be responsible not only for the safety and wellbeing of fellow Jews but for their actions as well. Many of us shudder if the culprit of the latest public financial or sexual scandal seems to bear a Jewish-sounding name, lest his offense reflect upon us and upon our faith. Hoche’ach tochiach et amitecha, exhorts the Torah, “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk,” (Leviticus 19:17) implying greater license to censure one’s own relation than a person with whom one has no connection. Some contend that because Diaspora Jews lack Israeli citizenship and have not endured the hardships of war, they do not have the right to criticize the policies of the Israeli government. However, this argument disregards our close affiliation with each other no matter where we live. We are all one people the world over. We share in each other’s suffering, and we partake of the same destiny.

It is instructive that in the Holiness Code, “love your neighbor as yourself” follows closely upon the heels of “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk.” Reproach must be grounded in love. It is precisely our devotion to Israel that underlies any disapproval we may express. Once again, the analogy to Torah as a value concept is relevant. One might decry certain passages that one finds repugnant, such as the verses in the Book of Numbers that condone the utter destruction of Israel’s enemies, but being Jewish means that love of Torah resides deep within and complete detachment is impossible. Likewise, one might deplore certain Israeli operations and modes of conduct, but love for am Yisra’eil precludes turning one’s back on fellow Jews.

So far, the examination of three value concepts—the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the somber legacy of the Holocaust—has focused on the substance of our conversations on Israel, but what about the manner of discourse itself? Returning to the example with which we started, the Talmud sets forth the exemplars of upright disputation: “Any argument for the sake of heaven is destined to endure… What is an argument for the sake of heaven? This is the one between Hillel and Shammai.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17) The key characteristic of meaningful and constructive dialogue is described by the phrase lesheim shamayim, literally, “in the name of heaven.” Heaven represents the source of ultimate Truth that transcends human understanding. The operative value concept is humility, which Max Kadushin termed yir’at shamayim, “awe of heaven,” the idea that we bow in reverence before the unknowable. As the Talmud asserts elsewhere: “The disciples of Hillel were kindly and humble. They would teach both the words of Shammai and the words of Hillel, and, not only that, they would give Shammai’s position preeminence over their own.” (bEruvim 13b)

Humility, the acknowledgement that each of our perspectives is limited—on Israel, or on any significant topic for that matter—engenders tolerance and respect for one another. We recognize that our own subjective ties and experiences shape our own mindset, and we acknowledge that different ties and experiences may produce divergent worldviews for other individuals and, certainly, for other groups. If we were to construct a composite narrative of what is happening in Israel by compiling all of the undisputed facts plus all of our personal opinions, even then, we would still fall short of telling the complete story.

If we could find a way to dialogue about Israel without splintering our beloved community, no conversation would have to remain off the table. My highest vision for Beth Shalom is that we be a holy community: judging one another lechaf zechut, that is, ascribing to one another only the best of intentions, forgiving one another’s limitations, and grounding all of our interactions in our basic caring for one another. As we prayed together in the invocation just a few minutes ago: “How fine it is to gather, people with firm beliefs, together with people with questions in their hearts, in the house of a God who values deeds of caring and justice far above the recitation of creeds.” Many of us hold solid opinions when it comes to Israel, and many of us harbor strong doubts. If you believe that the land of Israel is the inalienable inheritance of the people of Israel, a claim rooted in the Bible, justified by ancient precedent, and cemented through thousands of years of joint association, you are welcome here. If you maintain that above all, we must staunchly uphold solidarity with Israel in the face of anti-Zionist and especially anti-Semitic rhetoric, you are welcome here. If you fear for the safety of loved ones and fellow Jews living in the State of Israel, who have endured repeated attack since its founding, and before, you are welcome here. If you are sympathetic to the plight and suffering of Palestinians, you are welcome here. If you grieve for victims on both sides and mourn the devastation of war, you are welcome here. If you are outraged by certain decisions of the Israeli government, you are welcome here. If you worry that the moral fiber of Israel is eroding, or that Israeli society is losing its sense of national purpose and direction, you are welcome here. If you wake up every day in awe and gratitude for the privilege of living in the age that witnessed and experienced the miracle of Israel’s rebirth sixty-six years ago, you are welcome here. If you fear that Israel will not be around in another sixty-six years and are willing to go to any lengths to prevent such a tragedy, you are welcome here. If you hold several of these sometimes contradictory concerns simultaneously, you are welcome here. Above all, if you express the truth of your own heart and the yearning of your own soul, you are welcome here.

The principles that govern how we talk about Israel apply to speech in general. We are about to utter many words on this Day of Atonement. If our expressions of atonement are to signify anything, we must adhere to the value concepts that bind us together as Jews. Just as love for am Yisra’eil, the people of Israel, informs every discussion of eretz Yisra’eil, the Land of Israel, and medinat Yisra’eil, the State of Israel, may our underlying love and concern for each other here, in this community, ground every prayer we are about to recite and every vow we are about to undertake. Just as the Holocaust casts a shadow over Israel, now and forever, may we remain aware of, and compassionate toward, our own and each other’s brokenness and suffering throughout the coming day and the coming year. Finally, may all of our utterances be lesheim shamayim, for the sake of heaven and in the name of heaven. May our ongoing humility be the gateway to forgiveness—for ourselves, for our community, for all Israel, and for the world.

Rosh Hashanah 2014: Vision, Action, Celebration

The modern Hasidic master Netivot Shalom writes: “There are multiple gates in a person’s life. Each new day is an opening, and each month—a larger portal. Then there is the grand gateway of Rosh Hashanah, the threshold of an entire year. What is a gateway? It’s the border between past and future; a place to pause and contemplate where it is you are about to enter and why you are going there.” On a global level, the world may feel more turbulent than ever before, but here at Beth Shalom we are enjoying a period of stability. Our lay leaders and staff are conscientious and devoted. Gan Shalom and our religious school are thriving. Our committees—Adult Programming, Till and Tend, Mitzvah, Chevra Kadisha, the Gathering, and many more—are providing us all with rich resources, support and guidance. Our membership is expanding vigorously; we are approaching two hundred families for the first time in years, and they include beloved friends who are returning. Just take a look around at the most tangible, recent symbol of our prosperity—our beautifully remodeled sanctuary, the product of strong vision, committed volunteers, and successful fundraising to which many of us contributed. Today, we can afford to pause on the threshold of the new year and take stock of who we are as a community and where we are heading.

Every summer, the Board and Rabbi set overlapping goals for our endeavors. This year, our primary objectives are threefold: to envision the future of Beth Shalom, to reinvigorate social action, and to celebrate our community. The priorities can be summarized under the headline: “see! do! party!” Now is the time to examine our future, strengthen the work in which we are engaged in the present, and celebrate the achievements of the past (because those successes made us into this thriving congregation). The triple framework corresponds to the fundamental activities that the High Holidays enjoin upon us—teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.

Let’s look first at teshuvah, which pairs with vision. Teshuvah entails reminding ourselves of our true intentions and correcting course when we have deviated. But there’s more to it. As Ron Wolfson writes in his book Relational Judaism: “Most of us look at others and see [only the mask]. Great people see through the mask and see others for who they are. The greatest of the great see others for who they are capable of becoming.” (p. 95) Wolfson’s observation on leadership applies equally well to each of us as individuals. Although the first stage of repentance requires breaking through layers of denial and returning to our true selves, a higher level of repentance involves “returning” (in quotes) to our augmented selves. To come back merely to the person we recognize today would be to sell ourselves short; a loftier goal is to envision the one we might yet become. We shift the baseline from present reality to an exalted reality that we haven’t realized yet. Vision is not the same thing as seeing. Seeing is descriptive; it describes things as they are Vision is prescriptive; it describes things the way they should be.

How do you envision Beth Shalom fifty years from now? Here’s a simple exercise for which, if you wish, you can close your eyes… Consider your ideal congregation, the synagogue of your hopes and dreams, the community that would make you feel proud to be part of, or else would make you want to join…. What are the three words that immediately come to mind to describe it?... Focus on the first word. What can you specifically do, what action can you take, to help bring Beth Shalom into alignment with this attribute?... I invite you to email me after the holiday your three-word list to describe the image of your ideal community. In the coming months, conversations are to be organized among all Beth Shalom members so that we may formulate a joint vision of our future together. Expect to be contacted and engaged. Like the great prophets of old, we seek a community that embodies and upholds the basic values of our tradition—tzedek u-mishpat, chesed ve-rachamim, justice and righteousness, compassion and caring.

Vision leads to action. As soon as we articulate of our noblest aspirations for Beth Shalom, we place upon ourselves the obligation to work toward fulfilling them. As private citizens, many of us already give our time and money generously to worthy local and global causes. We also donate freely to Jewish philanthropies, such as the Jewish Federations of North America, Hadassah, New Israel Fund, and others. Furthermore, Beth Shalom currently offers an array of volunteer opportunities throughout the year: participating in the CROP Walk (coming up in a few weeks), staffing the interfaith winter homeless shelter, serving Christmas lunch at the Shalom Center, the Homeward Bound walk in April, the Habitat for Humanity Women’s Build in May, and so on. What’s new for the coming year is that our recently formed Tikkun Olam “think tank” is developing social action initiatives that are focused, systemic, and embrace all members of the congregation. Just as the High Holiday liturgy places tzedakah at the fore of our consciousness (along with teshuvah and tefillah), we will be integrating social justice into every aspect of Beth Shalom programming (and, by the way, following the lead of the Till and Tend Committee, which has already raised awareness and successfully changed our patters of energy consumption community-wide).

Here’s another bit of introspection. Please answer the following question to yourself: “what is it that keeps you up at night the most?” The worry that preoccupies you—you don’t have to exit the Beth Shalom community in order to address it. Again, I’d like to hear from you. Email me your top concern, and together let’s find like-minded members who want to undertake the same challenge. Lest you consider the thought exercise academic and the invitation pro forma—just a few weeks ago, Deb Myerson asked me and Didi, our education director, to investigate Jewish resources for allowing pupils with special needs to participate fully in religious school life. With our encouragement, her request expanded into a proposal that the Board has quickly embraced, to form a new Beth Shalom Inclusion Committee charged with making our community welcoming and accessible to members and visitors of every age group, regardless of physical, mental or emotional limitations and challenges. If a member of Beth Shalom cares passionately about a cause and approaches me with her vision, then it is my job to help her find a way to develop and implement it as part of her Jewish practice.

The contemplation of humanity’s endless list of intractable problems—violence, bigotry, genocide, poverty, environmental degradation, and on and on—could easily paralyze us with despair. Why set out to perform tikkun olam, to repair the world, when the needs are so vast? It turns out that this Rosh Hashanah, 5775, ushers in the so-called shmitah year, literally, “the year of release.” The Torah redresses the environmental and economic evils of society once every seven years with two, sweeping stipulations: all land shall lie fallow, and all debts shall be cancelled. These commandments promote a conception of human beings living in harmony with each other and with the Earth. But are they realistic? How could the most basic economic system function, let alone today’s complex global economy, if agriculture and commerce ceased for even a single day? Indeed, many Biblical scholars believe that ancient Israel never actually enacted the utopian provisions of shmitah. Rather, like Shabbat, upon which it is modeled, shmitah serves to curb the innately human drive to “wrestle with the world and wring profit from the Earth.” (Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 13) Shabbat and shmitah teach us that because only God holds ultimate dominion over the human being and the Earth, we may exploit neither.

Why does the Torah demand that we pursue the unachievable goal of absolute social and environmental justice? Recently, in her drash entitled “something is better than nothing,” Aviva Orenstein quoted the Rabbinic adage: “it is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to be idle from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) One can turn the saying around: “to be free, you must be engaged in the task.” Our continual efforts to improve the world, even when we know our impact will be limited, are the mark of human agency and endurance—characteristics that set us part from all other living creatures. Besides, sometimes we do make a difference. For example, the Bloomington Friends of Israel recently met to plan fundraising for Israelis who suffered under this summer’s Hamas rockets. Rather than donating to a large philanthropy such as Magen David Adom, for which the proceeds amount to a drop in the bucket, they are researching and identifying a specific school, hospital, or township for which the contribution can satisfy a particular need.

The story of the starfish will have this evening’s final word on Tikkun Olam: “Once a man was walking along a beach littered with thousands of starfish stranded by the low tide, when he came upon a child throwing them back into the sea, one by one. ‘What are you doing?’ the man asked. ‘I'm saving the starfish,’ the child replied. ‘Why waste your time? There are so many you can't possibly rescue them all, so what does it matter?’ The child picked up another starfish and tossed it back into the water. ‘It mattered to this one,’ he said.”

We should measure our progress not by the number of starfish still lying in front of us but by the expanse of clean beach stretching behind. From time to time, we ought to pause on our journey to celebrate how far we’ve come. The coming year marks a conspicuous milestone. In May 1965, 43 Bloomington families and six individuals voted to establish the University Jewish Community. In the decades since, hundreds of others joined them to develop it into the thriving Congregation Beth Shalom that exists today. Two of the original four UJC officers are among us this evening: Joe Belth, vice-president, and Fran Weinberg, secretary. The Fiftieth Anniversary Planning Group has begun organizing and coordinating a variety of programs and activities, which will culminate in a gala dinner currently scheduled for May 16, 2015. Besides—of course—creating a grand opportunity to simply have fun, our goals include: to honor our ancestors, promote our history, strengthen existing relationships among us, build our community for the future, and recognize that Beth Shalom is bigger than any one of us. The last point—that each person takes part in, and benefits from, relations that transcend the individual—aligns celebration with tefillah, worship (the other element among the three High Holiday prescriptions). Both prayer and celebration are forms of praise, in which we express gratitude for our blessings. So, let’s take a moment for a final bit of introspection. This time, please identify one idea for our festive semi-centennial commemoration that you consider essential. What, in your mind, does every good party need? You guessed it: please send me your suggestion after the holidays. There’s nothing that I’d rather see more than my inbox flooded with emails.

If the ideals of shemitah, the seventh “year of release,” can animate social action at Beth Shalom, then the yovel, the fiftieth “year of the Jubilee,” can frame our anniversary celebration. The Jubilee features the same laws as for shemitah, plus one additional provision: all indentured servants are set free and return to their original landholdings. You just heard it! All Beth Shalom volunteers: go home! Actually, no—quite the opposite.

The primary concern of the Jubilee year is encapsulated in its ringing rejoinder: “proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof”—literally, ringing, because these words are inscribed upon the Liberty Bell. The Hebrew term for “liberty,” deror, occurs in only two other instances in the entire Bible, in contrast to the much more common words, chofesh and cheirut. Scholar Nechama Leibowitz sums up the difference. Chofesh and cheirut are negative attributes in relation to some obstacle—such as freedom from oppression, or freedom from work and obligations. Deror is a positive state of being that does not depend upon external circumstances. When we take a vacation (chofesh in modern Hebrew), going for long walks on the beach with no worries and no responsibilities—that’s not freedom, that’s escape. When we voluntarily give of ourselves to others, devoting our time and energy to worthy causes, even with their concomitant worries and responsibilities—that’s the true freedom of deror.

Celebration entails obligation. The recognition of past accomplishments motivates us to build upon them for the future. Thus, celebration leads full circle back to vision. Celebration, action, and vision are the intertwined practices that continuously link past, present, and future. No sooner do we achieve one goal than we are on to the next. In the words of Israeli songwriter Yoram Taharlev: “In this place toward which I am walking, there were people long before me.
They left a path;
they left a tree;
they left a stone for my feet. And what about me?
Shall I leave anything behind?” Here is my prayer for the shmitah year commencing this evening throughout the Jewish world and for the Jubilee year within our own community: may the age-old prophetic visions of a just society, the accomplishments of our Jewish forebears throughout the generations, and the devotion of Beth Shalom members since the day of the incorporation of the Bloomington Jewish community until today guide, sustain and inspire our efforts, so that at the centennial, may our successors celebrate with pride Congregation Beth Shalom’s continued strength and endurance, and remember us with gratitude.

Remarks at Bloomington Courthouse Steps at Keystone Pipeline Rally, 2014

I’m not here to speak about why the Keystone pipeline should be opposed—others can do that, and have. Instead, I’d like to address something else: what do you do to bolster courage, to stoke the flames of passion and commitment, when the road is long, when we are so little and the challenge is so great?

Last week a professional commitment happened to take me to Southern California. I once lived in California for fifteen years. So I know—even without reading that the current drought exceeds in severity any in recorded history—that late January should be bursting with new growth, the grasses should be tall and thick by now, and the hillsides should be clothed in green. Instead, Simi Valley looked more like Death Valley, barren fields and dust, dead leaves crunching underfoot from California live oaks that should never drop them. The ridge of high pressure stalled off the Pacific Coast fending off the winter rains is part of the same polar vortex that swirls over Indiana.

Just as weather patterns are all interconnected, human beings are all interconnected. The oil that flows through the Nebraska pipeline from the Alberta tar sands fuels automobiles on the streets of Beijing, and those emissions warm the same atmosphere that blankets Nebraska. Rabbinic literature tells the story of a group of people traveling in a boat. One passenger takes out a drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. The other passengers start yelling at him. "Why should this bother you?" the man responds, “I am only drilling under my own seat." (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6)

If a single individual action affects every other passenger on life raft Earth as she rides the ocean of empty space, then so does a single voice raised in protest. When people gather on the courthouse lawn in Bloomington, Indiana, their voices join with vigils taking place right at this moment, in Union Square in lower Manhattan, at the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco, on the green in Woodstock, Vermont, along the planned route of the pipeline in Vermillion, South Dakota, in front of the White House, and at hundreds of other locations across the nation. Yes, there are countervailing voices too, we know that—the voices of the drillers who drill under their own seats, who deny that the entire ship is in danger, including their own seat. So, yes, we know that Obama’s veto pen is wavering in his hand, because he hears those other voices loud and clear, and the rallies this evening throughout the United States will make sure that he listens to these voices as well. However, even if the president is convinced to shelve the Keystone Pipeline project permanently, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere worldwide continues to increase exponentially. Only a defensive battle will have been won. The ongoing effort, the achievement with greater long-term significance, which is the ultimate goal, is not merely to reduce the rate of destruction but to reverse the destruction.

How do we maintain our strength and commitment over the long haul? This very question was posed to one of the great American warriors of our age, a man who exemplified the power of the individual to change society, a man who, if he thought something was worth standing up for, he did it himself, a man who, just weeks before he died, was spotted on the waterfront of his hometown scooping litter into a plastic bag. The little story that Pete Seeger liked to tell is the parable of the teaspoon brigades (and it also features sand!) Here it is in his own words.

“Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it's got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, ‘People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.’ Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years -- who knows -- that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, ‘How did it happen so suddenly?’ And we answer, ‘Us and our little teaspoons.’ (Huffington Post, January 28, 2014)

We will never know everything. But I think if we can learn within the next few decades to face the danger we all are in, I believe there will be tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of human beings working wherever they are to do something good.”

That’s what Pete Seeger wrote: “if we can learn within the next few decades…” But that was a few decades ago! So, has time run out? Is it now too late to stop global destruction? Who knows when we will have crossed the line of no return? We are not omniscient, any more than the oncologist who tells the patient you have x number of months. Like the cancer patient, our job is to face the diagnosis with honesty, with truth, and with courage, not to deny it, not to try to run away from it, but to make the best choices with the life that we have today, choices that extend life, that enhance life, the life of this planet, the only life that we know, the only life that we have ever been given. Unlike the cancer patient, we are not fighting for ourselves alone, but for our children and grandchildren, that they may endure and thrive, and with them, all life on Earth.

November 26, 2013: Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Remarks at St. Thomas Lutheran Church


Psalm 104 presents an idyllic image of nature in harmony with itself. “The springs gush water into ravines; they flow between the hills and give water to all the beasts of the field, the wild donkeys, and the birds nesting by the waters and singing among the branches.” But more than an image of nature in harmony with itself, Psalm 104 presents nature in harmony with humanity. In this picture, the lion is not a fierce and dangerous beast to be feared; he is merely one of God’s many creatures, including human beings, who “seek their food” from their divine Provider. It’s just that the lion seeks his food by night, then goes home as the sun comes up, yielding the daytime as the domain for people. It is now people’s turn to go out to work and labor for their own sustenance. In this picture, Leviathan is not the arch-symbol of chaos, evil and everything anathema to civilization and order, the way he is usually depicted throughout the Bible. Rather, he frolics in the seas right alongside the ships as they cross the surface to and fro. Here, all forces of Nature come together in balance. Human beings do not dominate. They do not even occupy center stage. “How many are the things You have made, O God! The earth is full of your creatures.” And we humans—we fit within the overall the picture, not ruling over our fellow creatures, but going about our business as they do and among them.

The significance of Thanksgiving as an opportunity to express gratitude for the bounties of the harvest is familiar. However, we forget the other theme of the celebration, which in many respects was much more fundamental to its original purpose. The Pilgrims established the first Thanksgiving to thank their Creator for having sustained them so far, to be sure, but they were much more concerned with how they were going to endure the harsh winter that lay ahead for them in an unfamiliar, threatening environment. For them, giving thanks was secondary to beseeching the Lord’s protection and throwing themselves upon His providence—because they knew deeply that their continued survival did not depend upon their own power. The Puritans conscientiously based Thanksgiving upon the ancient Jewish festival of Sukkot, which they called the “Feast of Tabernacles” (having encountered Jewish ritual practices both through their own intimate knowledge of the Old Testament as well as during their ten-year sojourn in Amsterdam, where they came into close contact with the thriving Dutch Jewish community prior to setting sail for the New World). Like Thanksgiving, Sukkot also emphasizes the twin themes of celebration and dependency. “Open Your hand, and [Your creatures] are satisfied with good. But hide Your face, and they are terrified.” The paramount preoccupation of Sukkot in ancient Israel was water (as it still remains in modern Israel to this day)—would the rains come in their proper season, ensuring sustenance for another year?

In the modern world, I fear that we have lost our humility with regard to the forces of Nature. We consider Nature’s bounty as an entitlement rather than as a gift. We think of the environment as our servant rather than as our helper. We seek to dominate and master our world, rather than live as one constituent part within the whole of it. Ironically, we are more dependent upon Nature than ever. The greater the human species’ influence on climate on a global scale, the more extreme the ferocity of Nature’s backlash in the form of super-hurricanes, super-typhoons and rising sea levels.

So today, let us evoke both aspects of the Thanksgiving celebration: gratitude for the richness and abundance of the Earth, as well as acknowledgement of our human limitations, lest we destroy the very blessings for which we give thanks. “It is absolutely necessary for us to get over the idea that man is God,” said an American spiritual leader several generations ago, and his warning has become all the more relevant in the 21st century. Let us hold fast to the psalmist’s vision of a humanity that plies the seas alongside all the other living things, small and large, of human beings going out by day to bring forth bread from the earth even as our fellow living beings go out for their own nourishment, of people living among all life forms of the Earth, rather than exploiting them. Then, indeed, the glory of God will endure forever, and we will live to chant praises to God.

June 26, 2013: Remarks at Rally for Marriage Equality

Some say: the government has no business extending legal rights to gay people, because that’s a violation of “church and state,” and the secular values of equality should not encroach upon religious family values. However, belief in the worth and dignity of every human being is not only a secular value; it is a statement of religious faith. My own convictions, as a man of faith, are grounded in the Torah; they stem directly from the Bible. It is the Bible that tells me that every human being is blessed with the capacity and the right and to sanctify her or his love in a covenanted relationship with another human being, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of categories for which we don’t have names yet, because it is the Bible that proclaims that God created the human being—every human being—in the divine image. We all have a right to our own religious views, but, please, don’t impose your religious view upon my religious view.

I believe in the Word of God. I believe in the Torah as the source of Truth. Leviticus says: “man shall not lie down with man.” Leviticus also says, only one chapter later; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What privileges one verse over another? What gives the preacher the right to extract one piece of Scripture above the rest? What litmus test shall we apply when one directive contradicts another? A wise student of mine recently answered this way: “The correct passage, the correct interpretation, the correct reading is always the one that is the most… just.”

I believe the proclamation of Psalm 19: “the teaching of the Lord is perfect, renewing life; the decrees of the Lord are enduring, making the simple wise; the precepts of the Lord are just, rejoicing the heart.” I believe in the perfection, infallibility and eternality of Truth. It’s only we humans who are imperfect, fallible, and temporal. As the Holy Scripture of one of my sister religions puts it (and I hope the Christians in the room won’t mind my quoting the New Testament): “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Today, we celebrate a great victory for equality. Today, we make history. But let’s not kid ourselves that we are now liberated. Like Southern Jews who celebrated the great Passover festival of Redemption even as their African American slaves served them the Seder feast, we, too, only partially grasp the concept of right and wrong. We don’t know what we don’t know.

When Dr. Martin Luther King stated: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends toward justice,” he didn’t mean that someday, the entire world would come to embrace his vision of justice. He meant that all visions of justice, including his own, were necessarily imperfect and incomplete, but that over the long haul, they progressed and converged upon one end point. Moral truth is like the North Star, a guidepost by which to navigate the ocean of life, but ultimately unreachable, not because it is so far away, but because it lies entirely above the earthly plane. So today, even as we celebrate our great milestone, let us retain the humility, not only to acknowledge that we still have a much longer road to travel before we achieve full equality, but also to admit that we don’t even know yet what full equality might someday mean to future generations.

January 18, 2012: Rabbi's Installation Remarks (Bo)

By pure chance or serendipity, this Shabbat closes out exactly one year since my interview weekend, when I arrived in Bloomington, we met each other in person for the first time, and we began to build together our relationship. The Torah portion was Beshallach, depicting the exact moment that the Children of Israel cross the Sea into freedom. The Torah portion this evening, on the occasion of my installation, is the preceding one, Bo, depicting the culmination of the long struggle of the Israelites to achieve freedom. Fittingly, the parsha overlaps this year with the weekend commemorating Martin Luther King, who marched toward the same goal.

“Turn it and turn it,” concludes the Wisdom of the Sages, “for it contains everything therein.” We read the Torah in a continuous cycle. As we reverse the scroll on Simchat Torah, we connect in one uninterrupted breath the last word of Deuteronomy, “Yisrael,” and the first word of Genesis, “Breishit,” gliding smoothly in our narration from the account of one particular people to the account of all of creation. On a finer level, observe that the very last letter of the Torah, Lamed, joins with the very first letter, Beit, forming the Hebrew word leiv, or the English word Love. Love, the same underlying force that animates the entire universe, is also the invisible thread that stitches one end of the parchment seamlessly to the other, so that there is no end to Torah, and no beginning. Thus, we can jump into the sacred stream of words at any point.

What if Torah began, not with Creation, but with Redemption? What if the Torah concluded, not with the children of Israel standing on the edge of the Jordan River, peering over into the Promised Land, but with the children of Israel standing on the edge of the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army bearing down on them from behind? In fact, the preeminent sage Rashi himself suggested that the Torah might easily have opened, not with Bereishit, Genesis Chapter 1, but with this week’s parsha Bo, Exodus Chapter 12. In his own opening commentary to the Torah, he writes: “the Torah should have begun with the verse, ‘this month, the month of redemption, shall mark for you the beginning of all months...,’ (Exodus 12:1) except that the entire world is God’s.” (Rashi on Genesis 1:1) In other words, instead of setting our Hebrew calendars as we do, year 5773 since the Creation of the world, we should mark time instead from the pivotal event of our emerging peoplehood, the Exodus from Egypt, much as Muslims mark the years on their calendar starting with the nascent moment of their history. Only, the Torah is not concerned with the nation of Israel alone, but with all of humanity, and, indeed, with all of Creation. Israel’s particular history cannot be severed from the universal destiny of the entire world.

On a global scale, the Torah expresses the fundamental human condition of galut, of spiritual exile. Every year on Simchat Torah, at the precise moment when we expect to see our ancestors culminate their journey by arriving in the Promised Land, we roll the scroll back to the beginning of Creation. We live in an unredeemed world. On a societal level, this means, in Kantian terms, that "what is" will always fall short of "what ought to be." However, the unfulfilled state of the world as a whole does not imply that our personal lives and our individual communities must remain unfulfilled. Franz Rosenzweig once stated: “I do not seek salvation with my Father in Heaven someday, because I already live with my Heavenly Father today.” (Nahum N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought, p. xix) Rosenzweig meant that the observant Jew fully experiences redemption here on earth by immersing herself in communal worship, the cycle of the days of rest and the rhythm of the holy days that constitute the liturgical calendar, and, most of all, the performance of Mitzvot, which imbue the fleeting moment with the aspect of eternity. (Glatzer, p. xxv) Rosenzweig’s prescription for a richly rewarding Jewish life can provide a blueprint for us as well. It is through worshipping together, learning together, celebrating festivals and life cycles together, performing acts of tzedakah and tikkun olam, comforting one another, and grieving with one another that we can achieve fulfillment at Beth Shalom.

My sermon on last week’s parsha associated with Creation the name for God of Elohim and with Redemption the ineffable name of Adonai. Just as at critical junctures Avram becomes Abraham and Jacob becomes Israel, so too, when He is about to liberate the Children of Israel, Elohim Himself declares: “I am Adonai.” (Exodus 6:2) That is to say, behind the divine Force of Creation, which is responsible for all that exists around us, lies the divine Force of Redemption, which enables human beings to overcome pain and injustice, to improve themselves and society, and, ultimately, to transform the world. This week, building on the distinction, I’d like to suggest that whereas the Force of Creation manifests itself broadly and universally, the Force of Redemption operates locally and on a case-by-case basis. The visions of the prophet, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not life up sword against nation, and they shall never again know war,” (Isaiah 2:4) constitute a utopian pipedream that will never materialize this side of Eden. However, redemption is certainly available to the human individual, as well as to the small community of individuals bound together in common purpose, if we define redemption as fulfilling one’s purpose, carrying out one’s mission, and living harmoniously with oneself and with one's neighbors.

The hackneyed directive “think globally, act locally” reflects a profound theological truth: redemption can only take place one individual at a time. We should not lightly dismiss the supreme significance of redemption defined so narrowly. After all, the Talmud reminds us: “the one who sustains one life is considered as one who sustained an entire world.” (mSanhedrin 4:5) Every person and every community is a world in microcosm. As Rabbi Green writes in Radical Judaism: our task, as Israel, is to be “ a dwelling place for God in this world, a living mishkan, to constitute a human community in which God is present, in which that presence is felt from within and seen from without.” (p. 131) Holiness may never pervade all of Creation, but there’s no reason why holiness cannot emanate from this one community in Bloomington, Indiana— Beth Shalom.

I am proud and honored to join with you in the work of Redemption. Let us build together a mishkan for the divine Presence to be actualized in the everyday activities of our particular community—worshipping, studying, creating, giving to others, forgiving each other, caring for each other, and repairing the world. Furthermore, what we accomplish here at Beth Shalom can serve as a model for Jewish communities everywhere, indeed, for people everywhere. Today, you and I join together to write the next chapter of the chronicles of Beth Shalom. The Torah as a whole may begin with the story of Creation, but it is entirely fitting that we here begin with the story of Redemption. Redemption is achievable, Redemption is among us, and Redemption is now.

Meditation for Shabbat Shuvah


Do you ever talk to yourself? I’ve had conversations with myself since I was a little boy. He’s a voice that speaks from deep inside me. He cheers me up when I’m sad, he picks me up when I’m listless, and he goads me to do things I’m resistant to doing. He’s a talking conscience. He articulates my wisest thoughts. Because he knows me so well, he knows just what to say without putting me on the defensive. Even when I’m lonely, I never feel isolated from him.

I thought of my alter ego in the context of the Haftarah portion that designates this Sabbath as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. Of course, the dictate shuvah gives rise to teshuvah, the word for repentance. Shuvah Yisra’eil ad Adonai Eloheicha, “return, Israel, to Adonai your God,” exhorts the prophet Hosea, (Hosea 14:2) and in the next verse, shuvah el adonai, “return toward Adonai.” (Hosea 14:3) The change in preposition is curious; what’s the difference, if any, between shuvah ad Adonai and shuvah eil Adonai, between returning to God and returning toward God?

The Haftarah continues with Hosea’s formula for confession. Nowadays, our Yom Kippur confessional is highly stylized, although we at Beth Shalom expand it annually with our unconventional practice of compiling our own list of transgressions. What are the words that Hosea prescribes? Not much. Not a litany of sins but a short, rather opaque declaration: kol tisa avon veqach tov uneshalmah parim sefateinu, which JPS translates: “forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips.” (Hosea 14:3) I want to convince you that the translation is inaccurate and that in his terse formulation, Hosea teaches us some important principles of teshuvah.

The first line, kol tisa avon, alludes to the thirteen attributes of divine mercy, a declaration that underlies and pervades the High Holiday season, beginning Adonai Adonai Eil rachum vechanum…, “Adonai Adonai, God of mercy and compassion…,” and ending nosei avon vaphesha vechata’ah, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Exodus 34:7) Although in the Biblical context, the three designations may be nearly synonymous, the later sages distinguish three levels of wrongdoing. Cheit, the least severe, is a term borrowed from archery, and literally means ‘missing the mark.’ It refers to sins committed inadvertently, accidentally, or unknowingly. Pesha, the most severe, is the nominal form of the verb pasha, “to rebel,” and refers to willful, wanton, malicious actions. Avon, the word used by Hosea in our Haftarah, occupies a middle ground. Avonot are intentional, but they’re not malevolent. They represent actions against other people or against God committed when we merely pursue our own desires and cause harm as a byproduct through inattention, insensitivity, or selfishness. I daresay most of our transgressions fall into this category. I’m particularly interested in the expression nosei avon, “forgiving guilt.” “Forgive” is an idiom, because nosei literally means “carry.” When we cry out tisa avon, we are asking God to carry our transgression. What could it mean for God to carry our transgression?

I think that most wrongdoings are cases of normal human instincts gone awry. For example, a person becomes so obsessed with financial security that he wants to do nothing but hoard money. Another is so insecure that she makes unreasonable demands upon others for attention, protection, and love. Another places his sexual desire above everything else. Avon derives from the root aveit, “twisted”. We begin with natural urges that become bent out of shape through misuse and misappropriation. At core, we are not evil. Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi, the soul that God implanted within us is pure. We just do selfish things sometimes, because we’re so caught up in ourselves, we’re full of fear or shame, we act out old, ingrained roles, or we lash out in pain.

But God knows us. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Can we allow ourselves to bring to God the pain of our wrongdoing, all of it—not just the deed itself, but the hurt deep inside us that gave rise to the deed in the first place? Hosea continues: qach tov, “accept the good.” I would add: don’t “accept the good” instead of our shortcomings; rather, accept the good that lies underneath our shortcomings. Hosea emphasizes the completeness of our confession with unusual syntax, in which the word kol, “all of it,” precedes and subordinates the rest of the sentence: not just tisa kol avon, “forgive every guilt,” but kol tisa avon ve-qach tov, “all of it—carry our twistedness and accept our good,” not just the evil of our action, but the goodness of who we are inside, with all our pain and suffering. Ecclesiastes claims that “a twisted thing can never be repaired” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) — but that’s only if we try to untwist it ourselves.

In light of our expansive interpretation of confession, bringing to God everything that is in our hearts, we are in a position to read the final line of Hosea’s declaration differently. JPS translates uneshalmah parim sefateinu as: “instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips.” However, some scholars suggest reading pri instead of parah, “fruit” instead of “bulls,” with the advantage that if so, the verse now connects literarily to the imagery of flowering and blossoming later in the Haftarah, and especially in its penultimate verse. (Hosea 14:9) Furthermore, the root definition of shaleim is not “to pay” but “to complete.” I would prefer to translate: “we will make whole the fruit of our lips,” that is to say, full confession entails bringing everything to God, our weaknesses and our strengths, our failures and our successes, and, especially, our good instinct that drove our bad behavior.

Sometimes, when we are engulfed in the morass of our shame, we don’t have the compassion for ourselves to fulfill the directive shuvah ad Adonai, return to God. At times like those, all we can do is take the smallest step toward God: shuvah eil Adonai. But it’s enough. On the passage in Song of Songs where God is depicted as knocking on the door of His beloved: “Open for me, my one and only, my darling, my innocent dove,” Midrash Rabbah comments: “The Holy One said to Israel: “my child. If you open to me the gate of teshuvah just a tiny crack, then I will swing the gates open for you so wide that chariots and wagons can drive through them.’’ (Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2)

Hashiveinu Adonai Eleicha venashuvah. “Return us to You God, and we will return.” Who actually takes the first step toward reconciliation? God? Ourselves? By the end of the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, in the concluding verses of the entire Book of Hosea, in fact, the dialogue between God and Israel becomes so tight that scholars argue over the speaker of each particular line. The text resembles a play featuring two characters in rapid-fire exchange—only the characters’ names are missing from the manuscript. Who is saying what? At a certain point, the voice of God and the voice of Israel echo each other and become indistinguishable.

So, what about this fellow with whom I am in the habit of conducting conversations when I’m out for a long hike in the woods? I like to think that my inner voice is a conduit for the divine. I like to think that the voice of God emerges when “we exchange words with ourselves.” (Hosea 14:2) Our confessions before God are really confessions before ourselves. “Indeed, You know the mysteries of the universe, and the best kept secrets of every human being,” says the Yom Kippur liturgy. “You search out the innermost rooms of our soul; You examine all our feelings, all our thoughts. Only let our words reach our own ears, and our secrets enter our own hearts; … so we may regret and resolve, and thus return.”