Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


Going On….

Rabbi Charles S. Sherman is Senior Rabbi of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park, PA. He has written a book called The Broken and The Whole, Discovering Joy After Heartbreak: Lessons from a Life of Faith. (Scribner/Simon and Schuster). His son Eyal suffered a brain stem stroke at the age of 4, and for the ensuing 30 years, lived as a quadriplegic, with numerous cognitive difficulties and the inability to speak. Eyal died not long ago. Rabbi Sherman posted this on his Facebook page this past December 7. I was so moved that I asked his permission to share it with you. He granted it unreservedly.

Vacation After….

My wife and I just returned from a week’s vacation to Los Angeles, visiting two of our kids. We did the whole tourist thing, Warner Brothers studio tour, a walk down Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica pier. But what made it noteworthy was that it was the first time my wife and I were able to vacation together for almost 30 years. For those 30 years, we always made sure that one of us was with our profoundly-challenged son Eyal, who, after a stroke as a little boy, was a quadriplegic and required around-the-clock care. Eyal passed away a few months ago.

The vacation was bittersweet. It was great to get away, we enjoyed ourselves, and the bright warm sunshine was delightful. Still, it was difficult. We faced a dilemma, a contradiction—were we somehow being disloyal to our son by having a good time? I know a lot of people find themselves at that same poignant intersection.

There’s a natural feeling that people experience—you may feel guilty having a good time, and feel that you are not being faithful to the person you have lost. That is a very tough emotion to deal with. People may expect someone who is grieving to “move on.” I would suggest that instead, we concentrate on “going on.” Moving on sometimes sends a message that the past is all behind us, and we should try not to think about the loss. Going on means we incorporate the loss into our new life.

It is true that things will never be the same without your loved one. Crying and feeling sad is natural and helps us heal. And other things can help us heal, as well—a bit of relaxation, a hobby we enjoy, a trip we have always wanted to take. While missing our loved one will forever be a part of our lives, that loss does not mean that our days can never be joyful again.

As we close the Book of Genesis this Shabbat with the deaths of the patriarchal/matriarchal generation; and indeed, as we close out this calendar year, I offer Rabbi Sherman’s insight for your edification. Some of our own congregants have faced overwhelming challenges in life during this year. Many of us, thank God, have maintained relatively good health, but have faced other types of challenges. Nevertheless, Rabbi Sherman reminds us of the wisdom of our tradition. After this bizarre, and in many respects, rather horrifying year, we have no choice but to gather our strength for a new year, and resolve in earnest to keep working to make things better. Even amid anger, and sadness and frustration, we cannot allow ourselves to lose hope, lest we hand our adversaries a victory they do not deserve. And with this, I wish you all renewed strength and hope in the year ahead. And this Shabbat, upon finishing the Book of Genesis, together we will proclaim: Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek! Be strong; be very strong; and we shall strengthen each other!

To Stick Our Necks Out

Joseph wants to see if his brothers have grown beyond their jealously and callousness during the 20 years since he last saw them. As Viceroy of Egypt, he arranges a ruse. He orders his steward to hide his own silver goblet in the backpack of Benjamin, his younger brother. When the goblet is then “found,” Joseph threatens to keep the lad in Egypt as a slave. The older brother Judah knows that if they return to their father Jacob in Canaan without Benjamin, Jacob will die in grief. Thus, in a moment of selfless bravery, Judah steps up and pleads with Joseph: “If I come home and the youngest lad is not with us, and the soul of the one is bound up with the soul of the other, then it shall come to pass that he shall die in sorrow. Please take me as your slave instead of Benjamin.” (Genesis 44.33)

In contemporary parlance, we might say that Judah “stuck his neck out” for his brother Benjamin. Even though he knew that he was incurring risk to himself by offering to remain in Egypt in place of his younger brother, Judah was willing to take that risk to protect Benjamin, and to spare their father the grief that almost surely would have killed him.

On his MSNBC show “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out on Wednesday evening that the three richest United States senators are Democrats: Senator Dianne Feinstein of CA, Senator Richard Blumenthal of CT, and the richest of all, Senator Mark Warner of VA. Because of their great personal wealth, they are among those who stand to gain the most from the tax bill passed by the Congress this week. Because, upwards of 80% of the benefits of this bill will go to corporate America, and the top 1% of people in this country. Nevertheless, of the three Senators who stand to gain the most, all three voted against this tax bill, and ultimately against their own personal interest. Why? Because they understand their jobs as United States senators to be protectors of the weakest among us, not brokers of the richest and most powerful. We might say, they “stuck their necks out” to protect the poor and the middle class. Not so the Republicans. This “tax reform” is designed to give big tax cuts to corporate America.

Okay, there are some minimal cuts for the middle class and the poor. But, whereas the cuts for the corporations are permanent, the cuts for the middle class and poor will reverse themselves within ten years. In addition, this bill will blow an additional $1.5 trillion hole in the national debt—a hole that my son, and all our children, and their children, will have to figure out how plug in the decades to come. But one result of this increasing debt will be automatic cuts in social programs: Meals on Wheels, farm aid like the Crop Insurance Fund, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, the National Flood Insurance Program, the Department of Justice’s Crime Victims Fund, and more, too numerous to mention. And of course, it won’t be long before Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, find themselves directly in the cross-hairs of the architects of this unconscionable plan.

The Republicans have stuck their necks out, alright. They have stuck them out for the benefit of the wealthiest 1% of the people in this country, and they have turned their backs on the rest of us.

This is not the American dream. Nor is it what we learn from Jewish tradition. We learn to aid the poor; care for the sick; protect the elderly, the weak, and the powerless among us.

Because of his heroism and personal integrity, Judah became the progenitor of King David, and then, according to tradition, of the Messiah himself. But our society has a long way to go before we even come close to realizing the messianic vision of our tradition. This bill has driven even further off course.

As we anticipate the end of this calendar year, we absolutely must return to the humanitarian teachings of our faith, and renew our energy to work to realize them. There is way too much at stake now.

When Judah offered himself instead of Benjamin, Joseph “could no longer control himself,” and he sobbed out loud. “Joseph said to his brother, ‘I am Joseph, your brother. . . Do not be distressed. . . I will provide for you.” (from Genesis, Chapter 45)

We are part of the same human family, and part of the family of America. We cannot turn our backs on each other. “I am Joseph, your brother….”

History of the Miracle

A review of history. . .

Between 167 and 164 BCE, the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who was politically and militarily in control of Judea at the time, imposed a series of decrees upon the population of Judea, effectively banning the observance of Judaism. Though throughout the preceding centuries there had been many wars for territory and military and political hegemony in the Ancient Near East, this was the first pointed and deliberate religious persecution imposed by one people upon another.

These were the decrees handed down by Antiochus:

  1.  No Jewish sacrifices may be offered in the Temple of God. (This was the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, built for Jewish worship of the God of Israel.) Instead, mandatory sacrifices of pigs and impure animals must be dedicated to Zeus on the Temple’s altar.
  2.  Pagan temples were to be built throughout Judea.
  3.  No circumcisions were allowed, on pain of death to child, parent, and mohel.
  4.  The Torah was to be forgotten, and its legal system replaced with Greek law.
  5.  Shabbat and holy days were to be desecrated.
  6. The celebration of Antiochus’ birthday was enforced including the eating of sacrifices made in his honor.
  7.  Participation in Dionysian processions crowned with ivy wreaths was required.
  8.  It was prohibited to identify oneself as a Jew (including a prohibition on the use of Jewish names).

During the time that these decrees were imposed, a priest named Mattathias lived in Jerusalem, but moved to Modi’in. Mattathias had five sons: John, Simon, Judah (called “the Maccabee”), Elazar, and Jonathan. But Antiochus’ officers traveled throughout Judea, trying to persuade the Jews to abandon their religion and offer sacrifices to the Greek god Zeus. Mattathias refused. When he witnessed a Jew in Modi’in step up to the altar to offer the pagan sacrifice, he was overcome with anger, and he rose up and slaughtered the Jew on the altar. Then he and his sons fled into the hills.*

Eventually, Judah created a fighting force, returned to Jerusalem, and defeated the army of Antiochus. It was a stunning military victory

 The above is culled from the Book of Maccabees.
In addition to the war between the armies of Judah and Antiochus, there was also an internecine war among the Jews themselves. In 332 BCE, when Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the entire area of Persia, Asia Minor, Egypt—generally what we now know as the Middle East—he brought with him Hellenistic culture and spread it throughout the region. Many Jews were attracted to its language, culture, and aesthetics. Within Judea, the institution of the gymnasium became a central locus of activity for many Jewish men. In pursuit of the Hellenistic ideal of “perfection,” they often took drastic steps to hide the signs of their circumcision. But there were those Jews, like Mattathias, his sons, and his community, who rejected the culture of Hellenism, and saw in it danger for the Jews of losing their national identity, and loyalty to God and Jewish religion. The victory of the Maccabees in taking back control of the Temple was not only a victory over the Syrians; it was a victory of Jewish assertion over the loss of adherence to Jewish practice and faith in the God of Israel.

This is history.

Now, for the miracle.

Several hundred years after the Maccabean Revolt, the Rabbis wrote the following story into the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, from Megillat Ta’anit:

“Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Chanukah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by th

e High Priest. It contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit [with that oil] for eight days. The following year they were established as a festival with Hallel (Praise) and Thanksgiving.”

For Jews around the world, Chanukah is one of the most beloved and celebrated of all times during our Jewish year. Nevertheless, Chanukah is not ordained in the Torah, nor does it even appear anywhere in the Tanakh—the entire Hebrew Bible. In fact, most of what we know about it comes from the Books of Maccabees, which are included in the canonical Jewish Bible, though they are included in the New Testament.

Chances are, if you were to ask many Jews in our time what Chanukah is about, the “knee-jerk” answer would be, “the miracle of the oil,” or “the oil lasted for 8 nights,” or some permutation thereof. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in and of itself. But in fact, this tale of the miracle of Chanukah is just that—a tale. Not that celebrating miracles is a bad thing, necessarily. In fact, on a daily basis, we Jews recognize and give thanks for a whole host of miracles, including our very lives, our health and families, and the world around us. On the other hand, our celebration of Chanukah also demands that we remember our history as a people.

 Chanukah is the commemoration of a military victory by a civilian army that saw the elevation of Judah “the Maccabee,” of priestly descent, to the status of a military general. It is also the story of an internal struggle within the Jewish community—a struggle which, in different iterations, continues to this day. And, it is the commemoration of the re-dedication of the Temple on Mount Zion to the God of Israel, after it had been defiled by the Syrian army.

On the other hand, as a people, we have witnessed countless events that we might justifiably characterize as “miracles” throughout our history. But in fact, most of them have come about because we have refused to relinquish our faith and our strength, both physical and spiritual, despite the challenges, both internal and external, that we have endured and overcome throughout our history.

And so, as we celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, we also celebrate the miracle of our history as a people, which is ongoing even on this day. And we pray for a long, vibrant, and peaceful future.

Chag Urim Sameach to all—a joyous Festival of Lights!

*The material on the decrees of Antiochus and the actions of Mattathias may be found in A Different Light, a brilliant compendium on Chanukah by Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, the City of Peace

Jacob now settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 37:1)

So begins our Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev. There is no doubt that our people have lived in what ultimately became known as the Land of Israel for well over 3,000 years. Historically, we always have identified Jerusalem as our people’s capital city. Nevertheless, I must voice my agreement with the leaders of the Reform Movement this week, as I denounce President Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and begin plans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While we maintain our attachment to, and identification of Jerusalem as our spiritual center, in the practicality of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, this was a poke in the eye of the Palestinians, and in my view, creates an even greater obstacle to achieving the hope of some sort of equitable agreement between our two peoples. There is no greater dream than for Jerusalem to realize its own self-definition as “the city of peace.”

I would offer for your consideration statements by two of my rabbinic colleagues. The first was issued earlier this week by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, and endorsed by the entire Reform Movement, represented in the list of organizations at the end. The second is from Rabbi Jill Jacobs (no relation), Director of T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Boston, MA; December 5, 2017:

“President Trump’s ill-timed, but expected, announcement affirms what the      Reform Jewish Movement has long held: that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Yet while we share the President’s belief that the U.S. Embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process. Additionally, any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be conceived and executed in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The President has said that achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is “the ultimate deal.” Just this weekend, his advisor Jared Kushner noted the importance of such an agreement to regional stability overall. While the President took the right step in announcing that he would sign the waiver, as have his Republican and Democratic predecessors, the White House should not undermine these efforts by making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.

We urge the President to do everything in his power to move forward with efforts to bring true peace to the region and take no unilateral steps that will make that dream more distant. We welcome the opportunity to work with the White House to realize the day when Jerusalem truly becomes a beacon of peace.”

American Conference of Cantors
Association of Reform Jewish Educators
Association of Reform Zionists of America
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Men of Reform Judaism
National Association for Temple Administration
North American Federation of Temple Youth
Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Union for Reform Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism
Women’s Rabbinic Network
World Union for Progressive Judaism

Rabbi Jill Jacobs:

“Jerusalem has been the spiritual and political center for the Jewish people since King David established his throne there thousands of years ago. Even after the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from the city, Jews have continued to pray three times a day for a return to Jerusalem. In our prayers, Jerusalem embodies the peace and wholeness suggested by its name. As Jews, we do not need a political declaration by any head of state to affirm our connection to this sacred place. And we also affirm its sanctity for Christians and Muslims.

Despite the rhetoric about the ‘eternal, undivided capital of Israel,’ Jerusalem remains a deeply divided city. Although Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six Day War, the international community has not recognized this annexation. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, most of whom are not citizens of Israel, do not have the same access to building permits or municipal services as residents of West Jerusalem do. Palestinian East Jerusalem residents are subject to curfews and raids similar to those that take place in the West Bank. The separation barrier cuts off part of East Jerusalem from the rest. The current parameters of Jerusalem, as understood by the Israeli government, include a far greater swath of land than that which David declared as his capital.

T’ruah supports the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. In order to be acceptable to both parties, this resolution will necessarily include a capital for each state in Jerusalem. But today, we find ourselves very far from this resolution.

President Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel constitutes a symbolic gesture that serves no useful purpose, moves us no closer to a peace agreement, indicates his lack of understanding of the complexities of the region, and will likely lead to unrest and even violence.

This unilateral move sends a strong signal to the world that the United States is relinquishing its position as a peacekeeper and choosing instead to appease those on the far Right who have no interest in finding a path toward peace.

Jerusalem is among the most complicated of cities. An ancient midrash declares,“There are ten measures of beauty in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. There are ten measures of suffering in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of wisdom in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of flattery in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 48). Rather than exacerbate the suffering of Jerusalem, the United States should support both Israelis and Palestinians in bringing their collective wisdom to bear on creating a lasting peace.”

A Week of Wrestling

Our Torah portion this week features one of the most seminal moments in our history as a people. Jacob is returning to Canaan after his hasty exit some 20 years earlier. Esau, as the older brother, even if only by a few minutes, was rightly entitled to inherit the birthright of land and leadership, and also the blessing from their father Jacob. Instead, Jacob manipulates both his brother and father so that he receives both the birthright and the blessing. To escape what is sure to be an enraged older brother, Jacob, with their mother Rebecca’s help, quickly flees from their home to Haran, the ancestral home of their grandparents Abraham and Sarah, to the estate of his uncle Laban. Now, he returns with his wives, their handmaidens, his children, his servants, and seeming great wealth. But he fears his brother, so when night falls, he sends his family and household ahead, and he remains alone at the River Jabok. There, in the dead of night, a “man” comes upon him and they wrestle. The implication is that this was a divine messenger. The “man” wrenches Jacob’s hip at the socket, and disappears before the dawn. Thus, Jacob becomes “Israel”—“who has wrestled with God, and survived;” as he prepares to meet his brother once again.

Previously I have noted that our tendency in reading the story of Jacob and Esau is to separate the two personalities into caricatures. Esau is ruddy, wild and boorish, without any discipline or consciousness of the consequences of his words and his actions. Jacob is smooth and calculating; thinking of the future, always calm and controlled. Then again, some interpreters have posited the notion that Jacob and Esau are actually one person, and the exaggerations are actually two sides of the same personality. I suspect this is not what the Biblical author intended, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless.

There are similar commentaries regarding Jacob’s wrestling with the “man.” Perhaps this was actually Jacob wrestling with himself; struggling with the part of himself that he feared, or even hated.

This has been a week of wrestling for us. One, after the other, after the other, men whom we have known and trusted in their public roles; whether in government, in the entertainment industry, and this week most notably, reporting and interpreting the news, have been accused of various levels of sexual misconduct. First and foremost, sexual misconduct is unacceptable, period. But also in this mix is the fact that they have taken advantage of their powerful positions to engage in this misconduct. This crosses over into the realm of abuse. In any equation in which there is one person who commands power of any kind over another, and takes advantage of the less powerful person, particularly in this way, this is an abuse of power. But the revelations of the past few weeks have left us confused and disappointed at times; and at others, frustrated and angry.

All of us have to confront the fact that people—ourselves included—are not monolithic entities. We are complex personalities. While this does not always manifest itself in such harmful ways as misconduct and abuse, it generally necessitates our having to wrestle with the effects of our decisions and behavior throughout our lives. When we brand people as either all good or all bad, that is very seldom the case. Our job as human beings, and particularly as Jews, is, as our tradition teaches, to constantly examine our deeds and motivations; our behavior, the words that we allow to come out of our mouths, and their effect on other people. We constantly are obligated to exercise judgment over ourselves as to whether or not we are doing the right thing. It is a lifelong wrestling match, if you will. It is difficult, and at times painful. But the reward is being able to emerge from our wrestling with our dignity and integrity intact.


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.


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


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.