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Self-Control

Our Torah portion recounts the birth of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau.

Genesis, Chapter 25

25 The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. 26 Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. . . 27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. 28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”— which is why he was named Edom. 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is by birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.

Though these two are twins, albeit fraternal, ostensibly, they are different as night and day—polar opposites. We always have tended to see these two as extremes of the human personality—one smart and calculating, thinking of the future; the other, impulsive and crude, thinking only of immediate gratification for his own physical needs.

I have addressed the plague of sexual harassment and improper behavior before, and we will be addressing it again, no doubt. What I would prefer to look at for this particular moment is the more global issue of human nature. On the High Holy Days, we remind ourselves that we are created with two y’tzirot—two inclinations: the yeitzer tov and the yeitzer ra—the good inclination and the evil inclination. No one is inherently all good, or all evil. We all have the capacity for both. But the Holidays also remind us that we are created with the ability to control the yeitzer ra and steer ourselves in the direction of the yeitzer tov. Self-control: that seems to be the operative issue here.

For too long, there has been an assumption in our society that “boys will be boys,” and later on, “men will be men,” as it were. And thus, the sexual drive of men is beyond their control, and improper behavior—and that includes verbal behavior—is just part of their nature. Baloney! This is precisely the mentality that led to separation of men and women in synagogues, on buses, at the Western Wall, and so on. And as a liberal Jewish community, we flatly rejected that thinking. I know too many wonderful, accomplished men who are fully in control of their impulses, and do have the ability to control themselves, and behave appropriately around women: whether in the workplace, or in synagogue, or in social settings, or what-have-you. But as a society, for way too long, we have winked and nodded, as it were, in the full knowledge that there are men who have transgressed boundaries, from a little, to a lot. As a teenager, a college student, a graduate student, and a professional in two different professional worlds, I have seen it; and without any doubt in my mind, virtually every woman I know can say the same thing. But I believe that we, as a society, have allowed it. We have not adequately insisted that men, and yes, a small minority of women as well, must be held to the standard of self-control of which we are capable as human beings. That is what our tradition teaches us, and if our religious affiliation demands nothing else of us, it demands this.

As I said, this conversation will have to continue; but for now, I wish us all a little peace on this Shabbat.

Laughter and Tears

This is a sermon I wrote a number of years ago, and delivered at our temple on Sisterhood Shabbat, back in November of 2004. During that Shabbat, the Sisterhood made a point of honoring our mothers and grandmothers, as is mentioned at the beginning of the sermon. The sermon is based on this week’s Torah portion, “Chayei Sarah.”   I entitled it “Laughter and Tears.”  In these very strange and disturbing times, I found that it has once again struck a chord of poignancy for me, and if you have a few minutes to read it, I hope it will for you as well.

 

Laughter and Tears

This is a sad day in the story of our ancestors. Sarah Imeinu, Sarah our mother, has died, and now her husband Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, must accord her the final respect of burial. We read that Abraham comes to mourn and bewail his wife: Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotahLispodto eulogize–an opportunity to speak well of the dead. So on this day, as we gather to honor each other, and especially our mothers and grandmothers, we offer our own hesped–a eulogy for Sarah Imeinu.

As you know, a eulogy involves looking back on the life of a person, and pulling together elements of that life that will portray who and what that person really was. But how can we find adequate words to describe a woman who herself spoke so very few? After all, from what we can glean from the text, Sarah did not speak much at all; not with her family, nor with anyone else, for that matter. But perhaps it is in this very silence that we might gain a clue as to who Sarah was, and what she felt in her heart.

Think back to our earliest memories of Sarah. The first time we meet her we are told 3 things: (1) Her name was originally Sarai; (2) She was the wife of Avram, the original name of Avraham; (3) She had no children. Is this the kind of introduction that a woman of such stature deserves? “This is Sarai, she has no children.” Is that the sum total of a human being’s significance? Later on in the Book of Numbers, when Moses was taking a census in the wilderness, God specifically instructed him not to ask how many children each person had, but instead to remember that his or her worth as an individual was paramount. Yet here in Genesis, in our first meeting of Sarah we hear, “This is Sarai, she has no children.” How did this kind of presentation affect the heart and soul of Sarah Imeinu? Let’s ponder this, as we turn momentarily to other chapters of her life.

Immediately after Sarai is introduced to us, God tells Avram to leave Haran: Lech lecha mei’artz’chahGo forth from your native land, from your father’s house, and go to the land which I will show you. And, in an instant, Avram takes his belongings, his nephew Lot, and Sarai his wife, and picks up to leave Haran–without so much as a word to Sarai! How could this happen?  Can any of us imagine being treated that way? Was this not also her land–the place of her birth? –her father’s house as well? But this does not phase Avram. So together they leave, lock, stock, and barrel, without a single word passing between them.

Not long after this move, as we recall, the two find themselves in Egypt. But Avram is frightened. Sarai is a beautiful woman; her name, after all, means “princess.” He fears that when the king of Egypt sees her and lusts after her, he, Avram, will be killed. Thus the very first words we hear him speak to his faithful wife were: “Look, you are very attractive. Please–say you are my sister–so that it may go well with me.” And, perfectly in character, Sarai does as her husband asks, sacrificing her virtue; giving herself to another man; without so much as a word.

But now, back to the issue of her childlessness. Regardless of what it says in Numbers, this issue is indeed a serious one; both within the context of the Ancient Near East, and within the relationship between Avram and Sarai. If we think about it, the fact that her childlessness is the first thing we learn about her really is not so surprising. This issue often exists first and foremost in the mind of a woman such as Sarai, and in the soul of the relationship between husband and wife, between spouses, not without its measure of anguish. And sure enough, the problem eventually does play itself out in the triangle that forms around Avram, Sarai, and the Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. Sarai, still true to the role of the self-sacrificing helpmate, offers Hagar to Avraham so that he might not be deprived of an heir, and the experience of fatherhood. Kind of like a modern-day “surrogate mother,” if you will. But once the deed is done, and Hagar becomes pregnant, the scene very quickly deteriorates. Hagar becomes haughty, and Sarai’s pain is exacerbated as she is reminded of her feelings of inadequacy. The confluence of emotions is more than she can bear: guilt, hatred, self-recrimination, anger at the whole predicament. And then, after all she has done for Avraham, when finallyshe cries out to him for help, how does he respond? “She’s your handmaiden, do with her as you please.” Imagine Sarai’s frustration and feelings of helplessness. Imagine her fear that Avraham would lose all interest in her in favor of Hagar. Not much encouragement for her to express herself in the future. And Avram, we might say, with 21st-century hindsight of course, was not very helpful to her when she needed him. Not very understanding. Not a very comforting husband.

Just by way of comparison, we can find another model in the Bible of the exchange between husband and wife experiencing the same kind of problem–Hannah and Elkanah, parents of the prophet Samuel. Elkanah had 2 wives, Hannah and Pnina. Pnina had children, Hannah did not. Pnina, like Hagar, used this to taunt Hannah–a convenient, but vicious way of demoralizing one’s rival. But Elkanah responds in a different way. When Hannah comes crying he implores her: “Why do you cry so? Is not my love for you enough to take the place of 10 children?” True, Hannah certainly was happier once she had Samuel. But her real happiness might well have come from the comfort and security offered her by her beloved husband Elkanah–comfort and security denied to Sarah. Is this to say that Abraham was a horrible and unfeeling person? Not necessarily. It is just an observation–of how much better the relationship functioned for Hannah and Elkanah.

The happiest moment in Sarah’s life came when she learned that she wasdestined to give birth, even at the age of 90. Remember that some time earlier, God had told Avram that he would be the father of many nations–av hamon goyim–and thus his name would be changed to Avraham. “And God then said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her…” And Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed–vayitzhak–as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at 90?…” And God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, Isaac.” So it was Abraham who laughed out loud at God. But God does not respond to his laughter, except to name his son because of it. But what happens when Sarah hears the news? First of all, she is not told about directly! She happens to overhear it when the 3 “visitors” are talking with Abraham at the tent. “Your wife, Sarah, shall have a son.” And she laughed within herself saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” “And Sarah laughed beqirbah–within herself.”

Sarah did not laugh out loud, as Abraham had before her. But what was God’s response to Abraham? “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for God?”

Why was Sarah blamed for laughing? And even if she had laughed, what would have been so terrible? What’s so bad about laughing? God seems to be worried that she doubts divine power. But how was she supposed to know that these 3 “visitors” were divine messengers? They never talked to her! The 16th-century commentator Sforno says that Sarah made a category error. She couldn’t be expected to know what was going on here. We would expect her to laugh. The text itself says that she merely laughed within herself. Remember that it was Abraham who laughed out loud. But he was not reprimanded at all! And why did he withhold it from Sarah to begin with? Where is the communication between these two?!

But despite the questions over who laughed and why, there’s a deeper issue here. What is the laughter all about? Remember, that the condition of her childlessness had been a source of great anxiety and deep sadness for Sarah. She had suffered humiliation and anger, and she was probably quite depressed. And now, the extraordinary news that she will be given the gift of parenthood!….   Have you ever had the experience of laughing until you cry? The laughter seems to unlock the emotions, and if given half a chance, they will flow naturally to tap those more deeply hidden. Could this not have been true for Sarah Imeinu? She only laughed within herself. But it could well be that if she had really laughed, and then been allowed to continue laughing, she probably would have started to cry–for all the pain she had endured in the past; for all that was missing in her marriage to Abraham; for the dreams that she thought she had lost; and of course, for the relief that some of them, at least, finally would be realized.  Laughter and tears… perhaps for Sarah, they were one and the same.

But even after that triumphal moment of joy, Sarah’s trials continued. The crowning blow soon followed, as her husband took her son Isaac, and went riding off into the early morning sun, without a single word about it to her. And she never saw either of them again. For the rest of her days on this earth, Sarah our mother lived, bereft of her son, and apart from her husband–perhaps the final blow to a marriage that was never all that close to begin with.

So here we are, “after these things,” still faced with the challenge of finding words for our mother Sarah. But we might take our lead from the Torah itself, as it begins on this very day: “Sarah’s lifetime–the span of Sarah’s life–came to 127 years.” 127 years–when the blessing for which we all pray is a mere 120! Sarah not only lived a complete life, she merited completeness and then some. Even more interesting is the way in which this total is expressed in the Hebrew: “And the span of Sarah’s life was 100 years, and 20 years, and 7 years.” This, we learn from the commentators, is because of the righteousness of Sarah Imeinu. Rashi says that she was such a virtuous woman that when she was 100, she seemed like 20. Add to this the sacred number of 7, and Sarah becomes the most honored woman of the Bible. Age did not diminish her beauty, and all her years were goodness. Remember, her very name means “princess.” But perhaps her age is expressed as it is to recall a note of sadness as well. Perhaps in Sarah’s own mind, it was as though she already had lived 3 lifetimes. Perhaps the words of the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” are words that Sarah could have sung herself. But despite the trials, and the sadness, Sarah Imeinu never relinquished her grace, her courage, her determination, and her loyalty.

Sarah was indeed the mother of us all. Her laughter and tears are our laughter and tears. Her family is our family, and the heritage she initiated is ours. She was a righteous woman and a beautiful soul. May her memory live through us, her children, and may it be a blessing forever.

A Postscript: 

This week began with the tears that we all have shed as Americans, in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell the people of Sutherland Springs, TX, who had gathered in church for Sunday morning prayer. As people of faith, our hearts are heavy with grief as we think about the innocent victims, mercilessly and brutally gunned down in their house of worship. Our sadness is deep as we contemplate the sorrow of those they leave behind. We pray that their loved ones may eventually find some way to go on with life, comforted in their own understanding of God’s loving embrace.

But, my friends, we are forced once again to confront the reality that our tears, our prayers, and our sorrow are simply not enough. Nor are they enough from all the members of Congress who expressed them this week. No. It is time for them to act. It is time for them to act with courage. It is time for them to overcome the hold that the NRA has on them. How many lives will it take? How many children? How many tears? How many prayers? It is time for them to find some integrity, even at the possible cost of the seats they hold. Enough…enough…enough….

Welcome the Stranger

And so, we are here again. A horrifying week. Senseless loss of innocent life. Pain, fear, trauma. Such a sad week for us as Americans, and particularly as New Yorkers. In the very shadow of Freedom Tower—our tribute to the World Trade Center, and our will to go on in the face of terrorism—we endured yet another act of terrorism, and depraved, wanton murder. But, as a city and as a people, though we were shocked and traumatized, we did not, and will not, allow terrorism to shut us down. Our mayor, our governor, the police commissioner, and representatives of the incredible police force and anti-terrorism units that we have built up in this city, spoke strongly and informatively to all of us, and also with profound sympathy to those who lost loved ones. They did this because they are leaders; and that is what we need from them at such a time, and have every right to expect.

While I am not particularly fond of Mr. Trump (just in case any of you might have been in doubt), I actually do wish that, at the very least, he had some ability to understand and fulfill this role of leadership as President of the United States. That is my wish for sake of the well-being of our people, and the safety of our country. Unfortunately, our president is utterly incapable; both of understanding, and fulfilling. On the contrary. Mr. Trump immediately used this tragedy to jump onto his Twitter feed and accuse our own Senator Chuck Schumer of having caused this horrific act, because of a particular immigration policy that in fact was a bi-partisan effort, enacted during the first Bush administration in 1990, and which Schumer then participated in reversing in 2013, again in a bi-partisan effort. But on Trump’s part, this was just one more chapter in the fear mongering that he has fomented since he invented the “birther” nonsense, all of which has been directed against immigrants, and home-born Americans whom he deems to be “different,” and thus “not one of us.” Trump is obsessed; consumed by xenophobia; driven by his own hatred of anyone he considers to be “the other.” And the circle seems to be widening by the day.

Our Torah portion opens as Abraham sits by his tent in the heat of the day. Three men approach, and he welcomes them with open arms. Immediately, he invites them to sit down and share a meal with him. This episode becomes our paradigm for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—welcoming the stranger. Beginning with Abraham’s journey that we read about last week, continuing on through the Book of Genesis, on through our entire Torah narrative, and indeed, throughout our history as a people, we have become all too well acquainted with the plight of the stranger, because it has been our plight. We have been strangers in strange lands throughout the millennia of our existence as a people. And here in our sidra, we also learn to welcome and care for others who are in that same position.

Our government officials and counter-terrorism intelligence experts will have to work overtime, in these dangerous times, to ferret out the type of “home-grown radicalization,” as it has been characterized, that drove this terrorist to act this past Tuesday. But the knee-jerk impulse on the part of the president to shut down immigration is wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That is not what we have been about as a nation, or as a people. Losing our cherished freedom is a dangerously high price that looms before us. Losing our heart is an even higher one. We cannot let that happen.

A Day to Celebrate the Bond

Lech lecha mei-artz’cha – Go forth from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12.1-3)

Thus begins our Torah portion for this week, and thus begins the unfolding of our destiny as a people, which continues to unfold to this day, and will continue on, we pray, for all time.

On this particular day, the 7th of Cheshvan, there is a celebration among our people that may go completely unnoticed by many of us. It is called “Diaspora-Israel Day,” and grows out of the “Domim-aLike Project,” a relatively new joint initiative of the Reform Movement and the Israeli Government. Its aim is to express and celebrate the unique, ongoing, and complex relationship between Jewish people wherever we live: in Israel, in the United States and Canada, in Europe, in South America, everywhere. The word domim itself means alike. Wherever our people have lived throughout our long and amazing history, we have maintained a bond with each other that, despite a number of intense strains, remains intact to this day. We often hear the term “Jewish Peoplehood.” The term generally refers to the sense of belonging that we share with Jews around the world. Of course, it has taken many forms throughout our history, and on a certain level is an intangible; yet it remains one of the dominant components of Jewish identity and culture.

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. This principle has been a driving force of our connection as a people, and our working to maintain our ties throughout history. It has been a primary motivator to help our people wherever they live, whether in times of trouble, or in times of great celebration. If you should have the occasion to visit the headquarters of UJA-Federation in New York City, you will see this principle emblazoned starkly upon the walls throughout the building. It is a short, yet powerful statement of the organization’s reason for being.

For us in Brownstone Brooklyn, one of the most wonderful developments of this bond is the Sh’lichut Program—the program of emissaries from Israel. One of the initiatives of this program is to bring young shinshinim to our area to become a part of our community each year. The term shinshin is an acronym for sh’nat sheirut—a year of service. When Israeli students graduate high school, they generally begin their mandatory service in the Army. Many, however, choose to delay their service by a year, and embark upon a voluntary year of community service. Many of the programs are structured within Israel.This particular program, however, funded by UJA-Federation, brings a small group of these wonderful young people to different areas within the US and Canada, both to learn about the vibrancy of North American Jewry, and to teach our students about the vibrancy of Israel. This is now Union Temple’s fourth year of participation in this program. Our kids, and we as well, have been blessed by Ido, Paz, Naomi, and now Aviv, in this extraordinary demonstration of domim—a learning experience to teach us that even though we are different in some ways, in many fundamental ways, we are alike.

Ayelet Zioni and Gili Liber formed a band in Israel in 1997 called Gaya. A Song for Love is perhaps their best-known song, and has become an unofficial anthem representing Jewish hope and connection.

A song for love

Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up and see the light in the sky
Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up with hope for love.

As the heart opens up
It embraces the world
And with a great shout
To sing for love.

Say everything’s possible
It’s not too late
The dawn has already broken
It’s time for love.

Together…

And only if we believe
Without any mucking around
In the road rising up
It’s a song for love.

Together…

Me Too

For those of us on Facebook, the past week has been both startling and sobering. In the wake of the revelations concerning movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, women on Facebook have been encouraged to bear witness to their own experiences with some form of sexual harassment, with the simple phrase, “Me too.” During this entire week, one, after the other, after the other, women of all ages, some of whom I personally know well, have begun their posts with what now has become a haunting refrain: “Me too.” And then, the personal narratives unfold.

I was reminded on CNN during this week that perhaps the earliest and most public case of sexual harassment in this generation was brought by Anita Hill, now Professor of Law, Social Policy, and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, against Judge Clarence Thomas, during his confirmation hearings for appointment as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.

As we know, Hill’s allegations were deemed unfounded, and Thomas was appointed to the bench.  It is not my intention to offer a personal assessment of the veracity of Professor Hill’s allegations. What I will say, however, is that all over America, there were women of all colors, ages, and stations in life, who watched those hearings with rapt attention, and had no trouble whatsoever believing that it was at least plausible that such encounters could have occurred within a work environment such as the one in which Hill found herself at the time.  Again, I would state that this is not a commentary on Justice Thomas. It is, however, an observation that the type of abusive encounters such as those described in Hill’s allegations happen. They happen all the time. And, lest we forget, just about a year ago, the Republican candidate for President was heard on tape boasting about taking advantage of women professionally, and physically assaulting them in the process. And then, our fellow Americans elected him President anyway.

Our Torah portion begins with the story of the Flood, which wiped out the Earth and all its inhabitants, save for a righteous man named Noah, and his family, and two of every type of creature. Why?  The Torah tells us that God had reached the end of the line with humanity, because “the earth was filled with hamas.”  The term hamas is generally translated as violence, which the Rabbis tend to interpret as economic corruption.  But in light of this dreadful week of revelations about a powerful and wealthy man, who continuously used his position to violate and humiliate women, I would offer as an alternative interpretation and manifestation of hamas, harassment and violence against women, in all its many forms.

In the coming weeks, we will be reading stories in the Genesis narratives that involve blatant violation and oppression of women. Sarah is taken against her will into the harems of Pharaoh and Avimelech, and forced to have sex with them. Hagar is brought into a subservient position to Abraham and Sarah, and used both for sex and procreation, only to be cast out into the wilderness with her son. Rachel and Leah are sisters are pitted against each other for the affections of Jacob, and are locked in a painful competition to bear children. Dina is taken against her will by Shechem. Tamar is brutally raped by Amnon. And this is just in the Book of Genesis!

On the one hand, we can understand these stories as reflections of the ancient world, in which women were generally treated as chattel. On the other, they provide important instructional value for us in our own time. While the structure of our society has changed dramatically, of course, the fact that women often find themselves on the losing end of sexual harassment and abuse is a reality that we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug. In this respect, it might be safe to say that Harvey Weinstein has done us all a big favor.  (Though of course, it’s the women he abused and intimidated who finally found the courage to step forward, who really have done us the favor!) It’s not as though revelations of personal immorality and abuse of power are new to us. But there’s something about this particular case that has finally struck a nerve, to the point at which women are willing to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, and declare “Me too.”

What all of us would do well to consider in light of the Weinstein scandal is how it could happen in the first place. Harvey Weinstein has been one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, putting his money and support behind a number of important and successful, often ground-breaking movies. He also has donated untold amounts of money to liberal causes and candidates.  (An interesting aside:  In Oscar acceptance speeches, the most “thanked” individual has been Steven Spielberg, with 54 mentions. Next on the list, second only to Spielberg, is a tie with 34 mentions. The tie is between Harvey Weinstein – and God.)  What happens to turn the mind of such an individual to convince him that he can do the things he is accused of doing, with utter impunity, and with no fear of consequences? It would seem that relegating it to a “power trip” is too facile. Of course it’s a power trip! A manifestation of sexual perversion? Perhaps. But I would suggest that a Harvey Weinstein, and all those like him, are created, and shaped, and encouraged, by the society that has objectified women since the days of Noah—the society that all of us have inherited.

Harvey Weinstein has been expelled from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. But the Academy has a long way to go to make adequate teshuva, as it were.  But the Academy is just the tip of the iceberg, and we all know it. This is a much longer conversation that has to continue. For now, I offer my thanks and support to every “me too” who has written this week, and all those as well who have not.

For the Good We Have Done

Tomorrow evening, we will gather as the Jewish community of Brownstone Brooklyn for Selichot, as we have done each year now for some six years. It is a most moving experience, as all the rabbis and cantors join together, our shinshinim this year from Israel, along with our various congregants and neighbors, in prayers of introspection in search of teshuva—repentance (Saturday night, 9:30PM, Park Slope Jewish Center, 14th Street/8th Avenue). At the service last year, I offered the following reading from our High Holy Day Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh – Sanctuary of the Soul. It is a different take on the traditional litany of “Al Cheyt Shechatanu…” “For the sin we have committed against You…” It is on page 313 of our Yom Kippur volume in the Vidui and S’lichot – Confession and Seeking Forgiveness – segment at the end of the Morning Service. Our Torah portion for this Shabbat, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, begins with the same declaration as that which we read on the morning of Yom Kippur: You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God – from the elders and judges to all of your families, to the choppers of wood and the drawers of water (Deuteronomy 29.9-10). As we read the original Al Cheyt and also this alternative interpretation, we do it together, as we stand before the Creator of us all. May our teshuva during this Holy Day season be sincere, and may the coming year be a good year for all of us and those we love.

For Every Act of Goodness
Let us affirm the good we have done;
let us acknowledge our acts of healing and repair…

For the good we have done
by acting with self-restraint and self-control;

For the good we have done
through acts of generosity and compassion;

For the good we have done
by offering children our love and support;

For the good we have done
by honoring our parents with care and respect;

For the good we have done
through acts of friendship and hospitality;

For the good we have done
through acts of forgiveness and reconciliation;

For the good we have done
by keeping promises and honoring commitments’

For the good we have done
by caring for the earth and sustaining its creatures;

For the good we have done
by housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger;

For the good we have done
by acting with integrity and honesty;

For the good we have done
through thoughtful and encouraging words;

For the good we have done
by caring for our health and that of our loved ones;

For the good we have done
by strengthening our Jewish community;

For the good we have done
through acts of civic engagement and tikkun olam;

All these have brought light and healing into the world.
May these acts inspire us to renew our efforts in the year to come.

DACA and the Torah

During the past few weeks, as we have been reading the Book of Deuteronomy, we have rehearsed a number of times one of the core values of Jewish tradition: You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. In this very week’s sidra as well we read, Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 27.19). No fewer than 36 times does this admonition appear throughout our Torah. Again, and again, and yet again, we are taught never to forget what it was like for us; in Egypt, yes, but also in virtually every generation of our people’s life until and including this very moment. Could there be any doubt that we of all people must remember the plight of the stranger?

How bitterly ironic, that of all weeks, we are studying this teaching now, as our most fundamental values as Jews, and as Americans, are under brazen and unconscionable attack.The people of DACA—people who were brought here as children by their families, who went to school and grew up here, and who now are working and many raising families by now—are, for all practical purposes, our fellow Americans. They know and love this country as their own, because in fact, it is their own. And now, Mr. Trump wants to ruin their lives.

My great-grandfather Philip Posner came to New York from Germany in the mid-19th century. He wanted to avoid being forcibly interned into the Kaiser’s army. But in fact, he also simply wanted a better life. He wanted to breathe the air of freedom, and make a good life for his family. My grandfather Isidore Abrams came to New York as he fled from a Russian pogrom, in the early 20th century. He wanted to breathe the air of freedom, and look forward to a good life for the family he would build.

I am the beneficiary of the hopes and dreams of both these men, because America had the heart to take them in. All of you as well are the beneficiaries of your ancestors’ dreams, and the America that took them in. And, indeed, every one of us has friends or relatives who themselves came to these shores from elsewhere, some of them, our fellow congregants, looking for a better life in America.

Every one of us—every single one of us—has our own story to tell. Some of those stories involve children, who crossed the seas on those ships, holding tightly to their parents’ hands. Those children, many of them our own ancestors, were just like the people whom Trump is gunning for now. If Trump had his way back then, none of us would be here, and America itself would be immeasurably weakened.

The destruction of DACA is morally reprehensible, and contrary to everything we love and believe about this nation. For the life of me, I can’t imagine who among these people trying to kill DACA believe themselves to be anything other than sons and daughters of immigrants!

Now we must stand up and say, “No! You will not do this with impunity!”

This Tuesday I attended a rally in the lobby of City Hall. Mayor Di Blasio and his wife, Chirlene McCray, spoke with great determination. So did City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, followed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Rev. Al Sharpton, with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik at their side. So did a representative from the NYC Police Department. All these people assured New Yorkers that nothing will change here in New York. No one will be asked to produce immigration papers. No one will be deported. No one will be thrown out of school. New York City’s administration is determined to fight and resist this attack on immigrants—particularly the DACA dreamers—and will work with the state government as well, which is also committed to their protection. The speakers on Tuesday were surrounded by teachers, union leaders, clergy, and DACA kids and adults, all of whom have internalized one of the most fundamental precepts of Biblical teaching: You shall love the stranger—for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is a core value for Jews, and a core value for all Americans. That is what we’re about as a nation, and we will not allow it to be taken away.

In the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25.17-19)

So concludes Parashat Ki Teitzei for this Shabbat. We know this passage not only as the end of this week’s Torah portion, but also as the extra reading for Shabbat Zachor—the Sabbath of Remembrance—immediately preceding the Festival of Purim. The evil Haman, whose name we “blot out” on Purim, is said to be a descendant of Amalek, whose army’s most heinous act as they attacked our ancestors in the Wilderness was to attack from behind, cutting down those in the rear. Of course, who is it that generally ends up at the rear of a large group of people? The stragglers; the weak; the children; the elderly; those with disabilities; those who are most vulnerable. This was the real crime of the Amalakites.
Please allow me a midrashic stretch, if you will. This week we have witnessed an attack upon some of the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow Americans; not by an army, but by Nature herself. Twelve years ago, just this week, we had to confront the same reality. When a hurricane is barreling toward a city, the residents are warned to evacuate. But the reality we confronted in Katrina is the same one we are dealing with now, as the unprecedented horror of Harvey has devastated Houston, Beaumont, and many of the surrounding areas in Texas, and on into Louisiana, Alabama, and now Tennessee. Yes, obviously evacuation is essential, to save life and limb first and foremost. But there are those among us who simply have nowhere to go, and no means to get there. This does not apply to everyone caught in this storm, many of whom were indeed caught by surprise as the flood waters invaded their homes and rose several feet high. But for many, evacuation was just not possible. We have heard and seen the reports of children and elderly people, those in wheelchairs and hospitals, being hoisted into helicopters and pulled onto boats. Many now have run out of medication. Hot food is at a premium. The standing water will soon become a health hazard. While Nature knows no bounds and is unaware of class distinctions, disasters like these remind us that those who are often affected the most seriously are those who are the most vulnerable in the first place.
As it has done time and time again, the Union for Reform Judaism has stepped up to the plate as a clearing house for contributions. We need not remain powerless in the face of destruction. Please access the link to the URJ site and contribute to the efforts of our movement: Donate to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Or, if you prefer, the American Red Cross is also working round the clock to help, and they could use your help as well.
After this week of destruction and turbulence, it is my hope that our fellow Americans in the South will begin to experience some relief. And for us, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, and a pleasant and peaceful Labor Day Weekend.

No Justice This Year

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16.18-20)

Our Torah portion this week contains one of the most well-known commandments concerning the formation of a just society. The leaders whom we, the people, set in authority, are charged with the responsibility to govern impartially, and not allow themselves to be influenced by the promise of personal financial gain, or swayed by personal prejudice.

Last week, the President of the United States tried to present a façade of impartiality—at least some may think that’s what it was—in condemning violence and hatred “on all sides” in Charlottesville, VA. But this case, as it were, has already been tried and settled. Nazism is the very embodiment of evil, and has wrought nothing but hatred, violence, brutality and genocide. This was not a time for impartiality. In this case, justice required clear and swift condemnation from the leader of the free world. But when it finally came, it was too little, too late.

The pursuit of justice is not the interest of this president. Because of this, the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Rabbinic bodies of North America have jointly arrived at a painful and sad decision. Every year before the High Holy Days, we arrange a joint conference call with the President of the United States. Whether Republican or Democrat, presidents have understood the importance of addressing and speaking with Rabbinic leadership of this country, particularly at this solemn and sensitive time of year. This year, however, in light of the outrageous and unacceptable behavior of this president, our Rabbinic organizations have jointly decided to forego this phone call. We are not interested in speaking with this president, and must make this joint statement of opposition to his behavior and his words over these past eight months, and particularly in light of these most recent ghastly events.

The statement of our organizations appears below. This is a sad day in America.

Rabbis Forgo Annual High Holy Days Call with President
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come.

In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holy Day greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.

The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.

The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuvah for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.

Central Conference of American Rabbis
The Rabbinical Assembly
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Domestic Terror in Charlottesville

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day. . . (Deuteronomy 11.26-28)

So begins our Torah portion this Shabbat. Blessing or curse—the choice is ours.

Oh, my dear friends—what a horrible week this has been—A lovely young woman was buried on Wednesday; a resident of Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, z”l. Heather was a paralegal by profession, and as an individual she stood up against hatred and bigotry. That is what she was doing on Saturday when her life came to a violent end in a mindless act of domestic terrorism, perpetrated by a 20-year-old from Ohio. Having intentionally traveled to Charlottesville to march with the Alt-Right, according to his mother, he deliberately rammed his car into the crowd, killing Heather and injuring 19 other people. 20 years old, and already so poisoned; so damaged. He will spend his life in prison, and Heather’s life is over. And our country is wounded and bleeding.

On Tuesday, I participated in a webinar co-sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. We heard from several of our colleagues; most notably, Rabbi Tom Gutherz, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. He explained to us that the synagogue is located right in the thick of things in the downtown area of the city—one block away from Emancipation Park in one direction, and one block from Justice Park in another. I looked up these two parks. Apparently, “Emancipation Park” used to be known as “Lee Park,” after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose statue was at the center of the maelstrom last weekend. “Justice Park” used to be known as “Jackson Park,” after Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general. This is the reality of the history of the South, and there are statutes, parks, streets, towns, and monuments throughout the South that commemorate the Confederacy.

An excellent account of what Rabbi Gutherz and his congregation experienced may be found in this fine article by the president of his congregation, Alan Zimmerman. Though some of you have already seen this article, I would commend it to all of you. It appeared in Monday’s edition of the Reform Judaism Blog: In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On. Of particular note is not only the response of the congregation and clergy, but also of their non-Jewish neighbors who came to stand with them in support. We will be discussing additional initiatives of the Reform Movement in the coming weeks.

On Monday, August 28, Stephen and I will be marching in Washington, DC, in the “Ministers March for Justice.” It is co-sponsored by the National Action Network and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Early in the morning, the RAC will hold a prayer session for rabbis, after which we will join our colleagues of other faiths at the Martin Luther King Memorial, for the 1.7-mile march to the Department of Justice, where we will present a list of demands concerning voting rights, healthcare, criminal justice reform, and economic justice. The hope is that we will be 1,000 strong. But in the current atmosphere of open, blatant, unabashed racism and bigotry, aided and abetted by no less than the President of the United States, I hope and expect that we will far exceed that number.

On August 28, 1963, The Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., z”l, sent out a clarion call for justice to this country, founded upon the ideals of freedom and liberty for all human beings. While we have made progress since that day, it is excruciatingly clear that we have a long road ahead of us to realize these ideals, particularly as Dr. King so eloquently expressed them.

Our Torah puts before us a choice between blessing and curse. There are those in our country who have chosen the curse. We must stand up and demonstrate that the blessing is far more powerful. I know that our hearts are united in praying that this coming Shabbat will be peaceful for all of us, and for all who live within our borders.

The following is the statement issued yesterday by the CCAR, of which I am a proud member.

Central Conference of American Rabbis Condemns President Trump’s Response to White Supremacist Domestic Terrorists

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is outraged that the President of the United States has repeatedly equivocated in condemnation of the white supremacists who rained terror and violence upon Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. The President’s failure to differentiate Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and white supremacists of the self-proclaimed “Alt-Right,” on the one hand, from those who stood up to that threat and an imaginary “Alt-Left,” on the other, only encourages racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic hate-mongers to continue their reign of terror.

Reform rabbis across America and around the world join in solidarity with our colleagues in Charlottesville and the community they serve. We are grateful to Alan Zimmerman, President of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, for eloquently sharing the congregation’s story with the world. That community bravely gathered on Shabbat to serve God and humanity in an atmosphere that no Jewish community has ever faced in this country, reminiscent of Germany as Nazis were coming to power.

We grieve with all who mourn the death of Heather Heyer. May her memory be a blessing to the loving family and community she leaves behind. We pray for the healing of all who were injured. We pray for our country, that it may once again reflect the words of its first President, George Washington, who wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Rabbi David Stern
President

 

Rabbi Steven A. Fox
Chief Executive