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The Miracle Within the Miracle

Next Wednesday night and Thursday we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of independence of the State of Israel. For the Jewish people, the establishment of the state was a modern miracle. And, even while dealing with serious internal and international problems, like any modern nation, Israel’s life continues to be miraculous. For my commentary this week, however, I’d like to focus briefly on a miracle within the miracle, which is possibly one of the most extraordinary of all. That is the transformation of the ancient Hebrew language into a living, spoken, ever-evolving organism. For several millennia, Hebrew existed in the Bible, in Rabbinic writings, in liturgy (the language of prayer) and in literature. It was spoken as an ancient language even before these bodies of literature evolved. But along with the development of modern Zionism came the realization that a new, modern nation would need a common language for communication between its citizens.

In this light, I offer a salute to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, z”l, who may rightly be called the Father of Modern Hebrew. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Lithuania. He studied in cheyder, and after his bar mitzvah, he was sent to his uncle in Polotsk to study in a yeshiva. The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, was secretly a participant in the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment Movement. Bloyker introduced young Eliezer to Enlightenment literature, and also to Hebrew grammar, which was forbidden to learn at the time. Ben-Yehuda became a journalist, but also adopted as his mission, the revitalization not only of Israel itself, but also the revitalization of the Hebrew language.

After founding several preliminary committees, in 1889 Ben-Yehuda and several colleagues founded the organization Safa Brura (“clear speech”), and in 1890, the organization formed the Literature Committee charged with the goal of “instilling in all the residents of our ancestral land one clear language, the tongue of our early ancestors, which is of utmost sacristy.”

What grew out of the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues was the Academy of the Hebrew Language, founded in 1904, and still flourishing today. At the dizzying pace of modern social, political, and technological development in our time, we can only imagine the gargantuan task of the Academy, and appreciate the seriousness with which it studies the development of new words, based upon the solid foundation of Hebrew grammar.

Here is an excellent example, close to home for us, of how new modern Hebrew words evolve. Take the word shinshin, for instance (accent on the 2nd syllable— shinSHIN). This is a word that many of you have probably heard around Union Temple for the past few years, because we have had a shinshin in our midst. A shinshin is a person, and our shinshin this year is named Aviv Kurnas. (It’s a good name for this time of year, because aviv means spring.) Here is how the word evolves.

As we know, in Israel, when young people graduate high school, generally at the age of 18, the expectation is that they will begin serving in the Israeli Army. However, some young Israelis choose to defer their army service for a year, and voluntarily embark on a service project of some sort. There are numerous opportunities in Israel. For instance, the Reform Movement there has a mechina program which is excellent. (Mechina means preparation.) Young men and women live and study in a common residence. They prepare their meals and assume full responsibilities of communal life. They generally devote their mornings to the beit midrash—the house of study. They study together, both with teachers from the Reform Movement, and also in hevruta —partnered study. Then in the afternoons, they fan out to the various projects in which they have committed to work. Some serve in senior centers. Some work with children who are disabled in one way or another: physically, emotionally, socially, etc. Some work on alleviating social distress in the neighborhood. When our own congregants journeyed to Israel in 2015, we visited the kids in the Reform Mechina located in Jaffa—a diverse neighborhood with a mixed population and a number of social and economic challenges, but also with an exciting tenor of progress. But this is only the Reform Mechina. In fact, there are similar programs in many communities all over Israel. The name shinshin emerges from this voluntary year of service.

Some of these young people devote this year to volunteer for an overseas adventure through the Jewish Agency. Their mission is to come to various neighborhoods in the United States and work in American Jewish day schools and religious schools, JCC’s and college Hillels, to help foster a more personal and helpful dialogue between Israelis and American Jews. (This program exists in Canada and elsewhere as well.) Union Temple in now concluding its 4th year in the program that exists in Brownstone Brooklyn. Our shinshinim have become integral members of our Religious School community, and while they have taught us a great deal about Israel. But in return, we in turn have taught them a great deal about us, and about the vibrancy of a pluralistic Jewish life in the United States.

As you may know, the “sh” sound is represented by the Hebrew letter shin (ש) . This letter begins both Hebrew words for the year of service, which is shnat sheirut—שנת שירות. So, since both words begin with shin, the volunteers of this program are known by the acronym that is formed from the first letters: shinshin, and in the plural, shinshinim. A small, but wonderful example, of the ongoing evolution of modern spoken Hebrew.

Israel, and those of us who are connected to her and love her, have embraced as our mission as well, to one degree or another, the learning of the Hebrew language. In my studies all these years, I can say without a doubt that the inter-relationships and conceptual connections of modern Hebrew words and expressions is indeed—a miracle. One of my goals in life is to keep improving my knowledge of Hebrew, and my ability to communicate within it. A formidable task, of course, sometimes overwhelming, but always infinitely rewarding.

Opening the Door for Elijah

As I was growing up, there were two highlights of Passover Seders for me—the reading of the Four Questions and opening the door for Elijah. My family followed the tradition at the time of assigning the reading of the Four Questions to the youngest son—never the daughter. So even though I was younger than my male cousins, I would always listen patiently as they read the Four Questions. And yes, of course, I very much enjoyed their renditions and I was proud of my cousins. I did wish, though, that just once, I could have taken center stage for that central moment in our family Seders. Then again, I got my moment too. Yes, the girls got to open the door for Elijah! And with the door open, my uncle would encourage us all to sing Eliyahu HaNavi at the top of our lungs.

One could safely argue that opening the door for Elijah is the most climactic moment in the Seder ritual. But it has only been through my intense study of the Haggadah over the years that I have come to appreciate the true centrality  of this moment, even though it did not find its way into the Seder text until the Middle Ages, over a millennium after the core of the Haggadah text was put together.

A little bit about Elijah himself… Elijah was a prophet in the kingdom of Israel—the Northern Kingdom—during the 9th century BCE. No, he was not one of the actual Prophets whose writings and pronouncements are included in the second section of the Tanakh called “Prophets,” or “Nevi’im.” He was more of a magic man, as I have often described him. He was a healer, a miracle worker, a tireless opponent of the Canaanite god Baal. According to the Book of II Kings (2.11), he never really died, but ascended into Heaven in a fiery chariot. “As such,” the late Rabbi Neil Gillman observed, “he is the ultimate liminal personality who has mastered the threshold between life and death.”

As the “liminal” character described by Rabbi Gillman, z”l, Elijah goes on to occupy a critical place in later Rabbinic tradition. At a B’rit Milah—a circumcision—a chair is set aside for Elijah. In addition, when legal arguments arise among Jewish scholars, Elijah is said to appear and settle the halakhic dispute. According to tradition, Elijah is said to be the herald of the Messiah. We evoke this messianic quality every Saturday night at the end of the Havdalah ceremony. Shabbat, of course, is thought to be a foretaste of what it will be like for us in the Messianic Era—a time of peace, and joy, and security. At Havdalah, as Shabbat departs, we sing Eliyahu HaNavi, to try to hasten the coming of that idyllic time.

In Medieval Europe, Passover was often a difficult time for Jews. Because of its proximity in time to Easter, blood libels were rampant, and Jews were often subjected to harassment and attacks. Against the backdrop of the Crusades, the ritual of Elijah’s Cup is thus paired at this time with three selected verses from the Tanakh, expressing our own frustration and anger toward those who pursue us. It is unclear as to how the opening of the door ritual developed. There are some who place it in Medieval England, when Jews began opening their doors during their Seders so that their Christian neighbors could see into their homes, and realize that there was no black magic going on inside; but rather, a celebration of freedom from slavery, and an expression of hope for the future. Others speculate that it was so the Jews themselves could look out from their homes into the future, as it were, hoping that they could catch of glimpse of our messianic hopes coming to fruition. Eventually, probably as late as the 15th Century, the fifth cup of wine that had appeared not long before at the Seder became identified as Elijah’s Cup, and was linked to the opening of the door. We open the door for Elijah, not only as a figure who has saved our people from many previous disasters, but also hoping that he will come to herald the Messiah—in liberal terms, the Messianic Age. And thus, we might say that Elijah’s Cup, and the rituals surrounding it, are in fact the central, and most important piece within the entire Seder. Yes of course, we have gathered to remember and retell our redemption from slavery to freedom, from degradation to glory. But ultimately, these are in the past. With Elijah’s Cup, we voice our hope for the future—for the coming of a better day on this Earth—for the fulfillment of our vision of Tikkun Olam, the reparation of our broken world.

In this light, I would like to reference a wonderful perspective expressed by Abigail Pogrebin in her new book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (2017: Fig Tree Books). Ms. Pogrebin spent many years as a producer at PBS. She now serves as President of Central Synagogue of New York. Her “take” on the ritual of opening the door for Elijah is that it requires a positive and deliberate act on our part. In order for Elijah to come, we have to get up and open the door. In short, the prophet Elijah needs us. He needs us to open the door. The realization of our messianic vision as a people, then, rests squarely upon our shoulders, and in our hands.

This Shabbat before the Festival of Passover is Shabbat HaGadol, The Great Sabbath. The name comes from the Haftarah of the day, taken from the Prophet Malachi—the last of the Prophetic books in the Tanakh. The end of the Haftarah, and indeed, the end of the book (Chapter 3), reads:

22 Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God. 24 He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you “lifnei bo yom Adonai HaGadol v’HaNorah”. —before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.

As we prepare for our Passover Seders, I wish you all peace and reconciliation, justice and compassion, as we contemplate our responsibility to bring them about. Can we do the work required? Only we can answer that—before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.

Money For Wheat

After our celebration of Purim last week, we are now full on in our anticipation of, and our preparations for, Passover. I have spoken often about an ancient custom at this time of year, and now I will speak about it again, because it is that important. The custom is known as Ma’ot Hittin (money for wheat). In the Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud), Tractate Bava Batra 1:6, we learn about a 3rd-century custom to provide wheat to the poor so that they could bake matzah. The residents of a community were subject to a special Passover tzedakah tax, in order to provide assistance to the poor. The recipients of the collection would then take the wheat to the mill, grind it to flour, and bake their matzah.

In addition, the Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud), Tractate Pesachim 99b, speaks of a mandatory distribution of wine to the poor, so that they could fulfill the obligation of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder. The mitzvah is for every person to be able to proclaim and celebrate the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt.

Throughout the past 2,000 years, the principle has remained the same: everyone is obligated to share in the joy of Passover. Thus, the fund of Ma’ot Hittin has remained a time-honored tradition in the Jewish community worldwide. While the administration of the fund has varied from place to place and from one generation to the next, the principle has remained essentially the same: anyone who did not need to take from it was required to give to it.

The American Jewish community, for instance, sent packages of matzah all over Europe in the years following World War II. In the 1970’s, American congregations sent matzot to refusniks in the Former Soviet Union. More recently, the American Jewish community has sponsored the construction of new matzah bakeries throughout the FSU.

Now, we have a convenient opportunity to participate in this time-honored Jewish tradition of Ma’ot Hittin. It is by contributing to the Annual Passover Appeal, conducted year in and year out by the New York Board of Rabbis. Through our contributions to this appeal, the chaplains of the NYBR have been able to provide matzah and other Passover food and supplies to thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the New York Metropolitan Area who are in need. I have always been most grateful that our congregation has responded to this appeal most graciously each year. I hope that you will join me again this year in fulfilling this great mitzvah.

To contribute, you may either write a check to “Union Temple” for whatever amount is comfortable, and then write in the memo note “Passover Appeal.” Or, you may contribute online on our website at: PassoverAppeal@Union-Temple.org. The temple will put together the contributions and send a collective check to the NYBR.

On behalf of my colleagues at the New York Board of Rabbis, I offer my heartfelt thanks to all of you for participating in this great mitzvah.

Mitzvah—A Holy Obligation

Toward the end of January, I received a call from my good friend Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis. He was calling on behalf of a synagogue in Bedford Stuyvesant that suffered a construction fire in late November, which rendered the building uninhabitable for the time being. The congregation is B’nai Adath Kol Beth Israel, located on Patchen and Greene Avenues. You may read a bit about the history of the congregation here: http://bnai-adath.org/about-us/ The current spiritual leader of the congregation is Rabbi Baruch Yehuda. Rabbi Yehuda told Rabbi Potasnik that since the fire, his congregation has been traipsing from one place to the other on Shabbat, and really had no place to call home and come together as a congregation since that awful morning. Rabbi Potasnik called me and asked if we could help. That afternoon I discussed the matter with Bea and Ross. We then quickly put the question to the officers, and then to the Board of Trustees, via an E-mail poll. We asked if they would approve our hosting the congregation, made up of Jews of Ethiopian, African American, Caribbean, and other ethnic backgrounds, on Shabbat mornings until just after Passover. We said that it would be fine for the congregation to meet in our sanctuary and hold Kiddush in the lobby. We could extend this offer until after the Passover holiday, when our Bar/Bat Mitzvah schedule would start up again, and we would need the sanctuary. I am grateful and pleased that the Board answered this E-mail virtually within an hour, and by the beginning of February, Rabbi Yehuda and his congregation began their Shabbat observance in the Union Temple sanctuary on a weekly basis. In addition, Rabbi Yehuda and his friend Asher joined us at the Rabbis’ table for the Dreyfus Memorial Lecture on February 10, for dinner, and then for the outstanding lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson.

Our Torah portion begins with the words “V’atah Tetzaveh,” “You shall command…” God charges Aaron to instruct his sons regarding the duties and ritual requirements of the priesthood. “Tetzaveh” is the future tense of the noun “mitzvah.” A mitzvah, of course, is a commandment. We often hear it translated as “good deed,” because most commandments are, in fact, good deeds. (Of course, there are so-called “negative” mitzvot as well—“do not steal,” “do not commit murder,” etc.) So in its real meaning, a “mitzvah” is a commandment—a holy obligation which we as Jews take upon ourselves. Sometimes we can only do what it possible, and not what is impossible. But in this case, it was clearly possible for us to perform this mitzvah of welcoming our fellow Jews into our congregational home in their hour of need.

There will be some future interaction between our two congregations, and we will apprise you of that opportunity. Meanwhile, here is a photo taken at the Dreyfus Lecture. Rabbi Yehuda is standing in back of me. Those in the photo, from left to right, are: Rabbi Stephen Wise Goodman, Rabbi Joshua Minkin, Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Baruch Yehuda, myself, Mindy Sherry, Student Cantor Ben Harris.

The Way Out of Hell

Camp Coleman is located in Cleveland, GA. It is the Union for Reform Judaism camp that services the communities in the Southeast region of the United States. It is the equivalent of Camps Eisner, Crane Lake, and Six Points, which are our URJ camps here in the Northeast.

Alyssa Alhadeff was a camper at URJ Camp Coleman. She was looking forward to returning there this summer. The staff at Coleman describes Alyssa as being “like an angel,” and “always happy to help out and quick to adjust to a new environment.”

Alyssa was 15 years old. On Wednesday, she was brutally and mercilessly shot to death as she sat in her classroom at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Sixteen other children and teachers were also killed in the rampage of a mentally unstable 19-year-old who was able to walk into a store and purchase an AR-15 assault rifle.

They were all innocents, looking forward to school dismissal time on Valentine’s Day. I mention Alyssa specifically only because of the URJ Coleman connection—because she was a member of our URJ family. Like my son, who attended Camp Eisner for six years. Like many of your kids, who have gone to Eisner, or Crane Lake, or Six Points. Like those of us who have worked and taught at these camps.Like thousands upon thousands of other kids, who are part of the URJ camp community all over the country. In this way, Alyssa was part of our family. Yesterday, her mother had to arrange for her funeral. And our hearts are broken for her in her grief.

There is an interesting area in the Old City of Jerusalem, deep down into the lowest level of craggy earth and hard rock—a ravine known as Gei Ben Hinnom—The Valley of the son of Hinnom—or more commonly, just Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom. Hinnom was probably the name of the family who either once held title to the area, or who at least had enough authority over it to establish a shrine there, at least 3 millennia ago. Down in this valley, Canaanite sacrificial rites included ecstatic rituals of passing children through fire to a statue of Molech—the underling of the chief Canaanite god, Baal. Those of us with even a smattering of Yiddish have probably heard the expression, Gei in gehenna. It means go to hell. It is a combination of the Yiddish gehen—go—and Hebrew Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom. So of all the possible imaginings of what Hell must be like, one of the most prominent is Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom—the place of greatest abomination—the ritual of child sacrifice.

Our society seems to be locked in an ongoing cycle of child sacrifice. Does this mean that we are in Hell? I’m willing to leave that question to you. But I’m not willing to leave it to our national leaders who have sold their souls to the devil, and are more concerned with their support from the NRA than with rescuing our country from Hell.

After a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR in 2015, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation, as he had had to do all too many times before, including after the massacre at Sandy Hook. In part, he said:

“America will wrap everyone who’s grieving with our prayers and our love. But as I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America—next week, or a couple of months from now.

“We don’t yet know why this individual did what he did. And it’s fair to say that anybody who does this has a sickness in their minds, regardless of what they think their motivations may be. But we are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or want to do harm to other people. We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months…

“And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.

“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.”

As Americans, we owe it to our children to unlock the gates of hell and free ourselves from the tyranny of the NRA and its supporters. As Reform Jewish Americans, we remember Alyssa Alhadeff, and all the innocents who were sacrificed to gun violence in this latest national abomination. On this Shabbat we will need to pray that God may comfort their families and friends, and that they may somehow find the strength to go on from this devastation, that now has changed their lives forever. And after Shabbat, we must find the power we have to take back our country from the depths of hell.

Zecher Tzaddikim Livrachah—May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Truth and Lies

The centerpiece of our Torah portion this week is the Ten Commandments, or as the code is commonly identified in Hebrew, Aseret HaDibrot -“The Ten Words.” There are two in particular that deal with honesty. The third commandment: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name (Exodus 20.7). The ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20.13).

Rooted within one of the most fundamental ethical codes of Biblical teaching is the obligation to tell the truth; to be honest. The consequences for violating these commandments is very grave. Later in the Torah, for example, we see the result of deliberately bringing false witness against another person, particularly in a situation that might cause that person to incur capital punishment: If the one who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst… (Deuteronomy 19.18-19). 

So lying in general, and in the more specific case, bringing false testimony, are very serious offenses. They are offenses we would commit against each other, and against God.

Within the past year, virtually with every new morning, we have been waking up to news of lies and falsehoods, half-truths and deceptions, obfuscation and false testimony. And these violations of the most fundamental teachings of our Biblical tradition have been committed by none other than the leaders of our own government—no less than the President of the United States, and the advisors with whom he has surrounded himself. Our vocabulary has expanded in this new, almost surreal environment, to include such phrases as “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Excuse me? “Alternative facts?” “Fake news?” But in fact, these newly-invented phrases by the president and his advisors are nothing more than cold, bare, bold-faced lies. Lies. They are liars. With virtually every word, they violate one of the most basic ethical precepts of the code that has helped to inform our entire system of laws and government.

We know the phrase “the court of public opinion.” While as private citizens we do not carry the same legal power as the courts, “we the people” do indeed possess a great deal of power. Ultimately, we are the ones who are responsible for demanding that the liars in our government be called into account, and be called upon to answer for their lies.

Just before the Revelation of Torah, as represented by this iteration of the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes the scene at Mount Sinai: Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19.18-19). The emergence of this ethical framework, while not the first of its type in the Ancient Near East, was nevertheless revolutionary in the place it would occupy as an entire people adopted an ethical framework as its guide for living. In reading this description of the smoke, and the trumpets, and the thunder, we might say that it was an earth-shattering moment. We are going to be a people that lives by the law, founded upon basic ethical mandates. Perhaps God was trying to “get our attention.”

What will it take to get our attention, as it were, as Americans, and as citizens of the modern world? How long can our society withstand the flagrant violation of basic principles of honesty and decency? The answer is in our hands.

And You Shall Be a Blessing

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, so-called because the Torah portion, Beshallach, contains Shirat HaYamThe Song of the Sea (Exodus 15.1-21), a beautiful paean of praise that Moses led the Israelites in singing as they walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land. It is also called The Song of Miriam, because it concludes with Miriam’s leading the women in the song, as they took up their timbrels and danced. Our Haftarah is the Song of Deborah, taken from the Book of Judges.

In celebration of Shabbat Shirah, this evening for “Fourth Friday,” Student Cantor Ben Harris and Dr. Shinae Kim will team up with Student Cantor Alexandra Kurland for a Kabbalat Shabbat service of glorious music. I hope you will come, 6:30 as always, followed by Shabbat dinner.

In addition, tomorrow morning I will have the pleasure of chanting Shirat HaYam with the special trope reserved for this song. As some of you know, I got in the way of the virus that has been making its way around New York this month, and I couldn’t speak for a few weeks. But thankfully, though not 100%, there’s enough voice there now to chant this song. I have to say that having had the opportunity, virtually each year, to chant this song, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. And I will relish the opportunity this Shabbat.

As you know, the Hebrew calendar only approximately coincides with the Gregorian calendar. In the year 2009, the Torah portion we are reading this week, Beshallach, was being read during the week of January 9th, and concluded with the chanting of Shirat HaYam on Saturday, January 15.

I recall that particular date because in the midst of a week of praise and song, we also we lost one of the sweetest angels of song that ever graced our world. Early in the morning, on Sunday, January 9, 2009, Debbie Friedman died.

It is almost as though it were pre-ordained—that Debbie Friedman’s name will forever be recited for yahrzeit on the Sabbath of Song, along with the names of Miriam and Devorah, about whom she sang so resolutely….

In tribute to Debbie, I would like to recall for you a portion of the sermon I delivered some nine months after her death, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, 2009…

Debbie belonged to a women’s group in Jerusalem, led by several well-known feminists, chief among them, the outstanding scholar and social activist Alice Shalvi. At Debbie’s funeral, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College, read a letter that Debbie wrote to Dr. Shalvi not long before. Debbie wrote:

“I hardly ever made it to the Rosh Chodesh group. Most of the time it was because I was out of the city and sometimes it was because I was too frightened to be amongst so many people. Given who I am and what I do, one would think that would not be the case… These few comments about my fears, though self-indulgent, are relevant to what I think to be the subject of one’s own death. I think we are frightened of our own death for a few reasons.

“First of all, we wonder if we have given anything to the world—enough that we will be remembered. Then, we are terrified that we are going to be forgotten—that we will have lived and worked hard to make a difference in the world and it will all have been for nothing because it is forgotten, and we are forgotten; that, in fact, we are nothing more than dust and ashes. Another reason is because death is an unknown…and I like to plan my day for the most part. I like to know what is waiting for me. I don’t mind a bit of spontaneity, but I would prefer to know more about Olam Haba.

“But I think the thing I fear most about death is my fear of life. I haven’t yet mastered the art of living. How can I leave this world when I haven’t yet learned to live in it and manage it? If I don’t know how to live with openness and without fear, how will I ever be able to look at death’s face when we meet? How can I possibly be gracious? It would seem that before I die I must learn to live life without fear. I must learn to live with chen and chesed (grace and mercy) and a loving and open heart. Once I accept this, embrace the beauty of this world, both life, and the way in which I see death will be transformed. This is not an intellectual exercise that can be remedied by a passage from text. The answers will come from the text of our experience. This is clearly a matter of the soul with which we all must struggle.”

Dr. Ellenson’s response to Debbie’s thoughts?

“How could you, Debbie, ever think you would be forgotten, or that your life would be for nothing! Your soul will not perish, and your spirit and your voice, your being, will touch and comfort us in moments of sadness and joy forever.”

And indeed, the School of Sacred Music—the Cantorial School of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion—the same school that once rejected Debbie’s application for admittance as a student—now has been renamed The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

Most of us live less public lives, and do the best we can with the talents we have, and also, within our limitations. Most of our names will not be known throughout the world, and we will live our lives within more limited spheres of influence. Nevertheless, our tradition goes to great lengths to teach us that the meaning of our lives is not derived from extraordinary accomplishments known the world over, nor is it derived from the size of our bank accounts, or the length of our CV’s. Rather, it consists in the relationships we have forged, one with the other: with our families, our close friends, our colleagues and co-workers; and the satisfaction of knowing that we did what we did in this life in the best way we could. Maybe we even have made someone else’s life better because they knew us, and because they know that we loved them.

If there is one thing that perhaps we ought to take away with us on this Day of Atonement, it is what Debbie Friedman, I dare say, would have wanted us to take away. It is that each of our lives is infinitely valuable, and that each of our lives has meaning. That is what our Jewish tradition teaches us. Thus we are commanded to value each other, and to value ourselves.

And we shall be a blessing.

To See Through the Darkness

As our Torah portion begins, there have been eight plagues upon Egypt. And now we read: Then the LORD said to Moses: “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and a thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days, no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings (Exodus 10.21-23).

Sages of previous generations have pondered the question of why the Egyptians did not simply light a candle to banish the darkness. In response, the medieval commentators Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides explained that the darkness was a dense fog-like condition that extinguished all flames.

In April of 1981, when I was in Israel, I witnessed a khamsin—a southern wind that blows across Egypt from the Sahara Desert, and travels throughout the Middle East. It is infused with dust and sand. It often blows in around the time of the spring equinox, just the time at which I witnessed it. It brings on an eerie sort of darkness that accompanies the discomfort that hangs in the air.

Was the darkness that enveloped Egypt merely a desert khamsin? Perhaps. Since it immediately preceded the death of the first-born of Egypt—the final, most devastating of the ten plagues—the spring equinox, just before Pesach, would fit the time frame perfectly. But other commentators explain that the darkness wasspiritual darkness. No one felt any responsibility or compassion toward anyone else. Midrash Exodus Rabba posits that this internal darkness paralyzed the Egyptians so thoroughly that they would not dare leave their homes in fear that their own fellow Egyptian neighbors would attack them. Miraculously, “for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” The midrash explains that the innate fellowship between one Israelite and another was not destroyed by the plagues or by the Egyptians’ attempt to dehumanize them.

It would seem at this moment in our history that America is enveloped in spiritual darkness. Our leadership is unable to see the humanity in other people. The “dreamers” of DACA—for all practical purposes, our fellow Americans—are being used as pawns in a political chess game that, at its core, is vicious and heartless. Earlier this week, on the day honoring the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., z”l, a Michigan man, Jorge Garcia, was mercilessly deported to Mexico, as he was torn away from his wife and his teenage children. Jorge Garcia was brought to this country 30 years ago by his parents, when he was 10. He has worked as a landscaper and paid taxes. He has spent more than $125,000 trying to gain citizenship, as his wife and children have. He has never even incurred so much as a traffic ticket. We watched the agonizing video taken at the Detroit Metro Airport on Monday, as his wife and children cried bitter tears, carefully watched by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement guard. Jorge Garcia was not being sent home. He was being exiled to a foreign country and ripped from the loving embrace of his family and friends. Can any of us even imagine being forcibly separated from the ones we love the most in this world, and sent to live without them in a country we do not know?

Is this the America that all our ancestors worked so hard to build for us, and for future generations? Is this the country they saw as they first gazed upon the Statue of Liberty’s torch of freedom? No, my fellow Americans, it is not. It is a country that has been plunged into darkness by the closed-mindedness and hard-heartedness of our president and his followers.

The founder of a Hasidic dynasty, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger (1799-1866), offered the following interpretation of the plague of darkness. He understood the verse (Exodus 10:23) that states that during the darkness, “no man could see his brother,” to be a metaphoric description of blindness induced by a lack of empathy and compassion. “When one cannot sense his brother’s pain,” said the Gerrer Rebbe, “that is true darkness.”

There is a midrashic observation that I have quoted to you before. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, z”l, referenced it often as he opined about the imperatives of sincere negotiation and the pursuit of peace. As so many midrashim do, it pictures a rabbi in the academy with his students. The midrash talks about darkness and light.

The question was presented: “How do we know when the night ends and the day begins?”

One student said, “When you can distinguish from afar between a goat and a lamb, the night is over, and the day has begun.” Another student said, “When you can distinguish between an olive tree and a fig tree, the night is over, and the day begun.” The rabbi kept silent, and the students turned to him and asked, “Rabbi, what is your indication?” He looked at them and answered, “When you meet a woman, whether black or white, and you say, `You are my sister;’ when you meet a man, whether rich or poor, and you say, `You are my brother,’ then, the night is over, and the day has begun.'”

Voices in the Wilderness: The Courage of the Clergy in Georgia

This weekend is devoted to commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, z”l. The inspiring, poetic style of his soaring oratory became the voice for so many African Americans whose voices were never heard before, after centuries of the brutality and racism that marked racial segregation and discrimination in virtually every area of American life. We remember Dr. King on this weekend, and on Monday when his birthday is celebrated, we will join Americans all over our country in our Day of Service.

In this spirit, I would like to bring you the voice of another member of the clergy, this one closer to home for our family. In 2016 a book was published Rabbi P. Allen Krause, who unfortunately died soon after the publication. The book is entitled To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and The Civil Rights Movement.* It brings to light the stories of twelve courageous Reform rabbis throughout the Deep South, who stood up and raised their voices in the Prophetic tradition of Reform Judaism against the evils of racism and segregation in their communities. The stories are based on interviews that Rabbi Krause conducted with these rabbis in 1966, as the basis of his rabbinic thesis at Hebrew Union College. One of the interviewees was Rabbi Alfred L. Goodman, z”lmy husband Stephen’s fatherwho served as Rabbi of Temple Israel of Columbus, GA from 1950-1983. These are but a few brief excerpts of a much more extensive interview. I commend Rabbi Krause’s book to all of you. Lest any of us forget, it reminds us of our long and deep commitment to social justice, and our profound historical and social connection with our African American sisters and brothers. (An additional note, brought to my attention by our congregant Ralph Julius, who grew up in Columbus. Rabbi Beth Schwartz, who currently serves as Rabbi of Temple Israel, will be reading some excerpts of the chapter with the congregation on this Shabbat.)

In his introduction to the interview, Rabbi Krause, along with co-author Mark K. Bauman, provides a bit of background about Columbus:

In the early 1900s it had the reputation as the lynching mecca of the South. Indeed, like many Deep South cities, the mayor and police chief endorsed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and the community took violence for granted… The celebrated author Carson McCullers, who grew up in Columbus during the 1930s and ’40s, later called the city “an intolerable place to live,” a comment reflective of the prevalent racism.

Ezra Johnston, who called himself “Parson Jack,” acted as a key force of bigotry in Georgia. He founded the Baptist Tabernacle in Columbus in 1931, broadcasted a weekly radio show, and published two statewide newspapers, one of which had more subscribers than either Columbus daily. Johnston used these media and pulpit to relentlessly attack unions and “race mixing,” and was very influential in the local Klan Klavern. Johnston and the KKK often marched in full regalia down the streets of the main business district.

The US Army base at Fort Benning is located in Columbus, and Steve’s dad served as unofficial chaplain there for much of the time that he was at Temple Israel. About this base, Krause and Bauman write:

Even the black soldiers based at Fort Benning were routinely subjected to embarrassment and acts of intimidation. Colin Powell, who later served as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, recounts in his autobiography how, just prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he went into a local hamburger joint and was admonished by the waitress: “You’re a Negro. You’ll have to go to the back door.” Four other soldiers, two white and two black, were on a shopping trip in civilian clothes when police accosted and handcuffed them, then drove them in a paddy wagon to court. The presiding judge used a form of logic then common to the South when he proclaimed: “You’re two white guys and two black guys walking together. That’s disturbing the peace. Guilty.” In 1941, a black soldier was found hanged in a wooded area at the fort.

One section of this background stands out for me particularly because it concerns a Presbyterian minister named Robert McNeill, with whom my father-in-law worked closely. Just this past December, when we were down in Columbus visiting Steve’s mom Rayna, we passed by the church where Pastor McNeill had served, and which unceremoniously dismissed him in 1959 because of his activities to dismantle segregation in Columbus, and to combat racism. Rayna told us about that night, and the days that followed the firing. In the trauma of these events, Pastor McNeill, who was relatively young at the time, suffered a heart attack, and his young children came over to sleep at the Goodmans’ home so that they could comfort them, and so that his wife could be at the hospital with him.

P. Allen Krause (PAK): Did the non-Jewish community react violently in any way to the changes that were taking place, and… what was their reaction?

Alfred Louis Goodman (ALG): There was no real violence. There were some tempers that flared, and when our human relations council became active, and when I and this Presbyterian minister became active in the human relations council, for instance, a telephone threat was made to a member of the board of trustees of my congregation saying that if I continued my activity in the human relations council that what had happened to the Presbyterian minister, who by that time was already gone from the community, would be peanuts. However, this matter was taken up with our board of trustees, because they were concerned for me, not because they objected to my activities, but because they were concerned, and I had made it quite clear to them at that time that what I did in this area I did as a matter of conscience, and that it was not a board concern.

PAK: Did you make such arrangements in advance of taking a position with this congregation?

ALG: Oh no, no this had nothing to do with the temple board of trustees. This was, I was acting in my role as a rabbi.

PAK: Did you come to an understanding with these people before you took the job that you would be able to have some sort of freedom of the pulpit or something like this …?

ALG: With which people? With my own congregation? There has never been any question of the freedom of the pulpit—never.

While I can’t reprint the entire interview within the limitations of this short Davar, I would offer the summation to you as representative, not only of Rabbi Goodman’s approach to this endeavor, but of his eleven colleagues throughout the South whom then Student Rabbi Krause interviewed for his thesis:

PAK: What would you say—in more or less summation—would be the role that the rabbis played in your state, or, if that is too broad, in specific areas in your state, and then overall in the South in general, in the area of civil rights activity?

ALG: Well I think I can speak for the state of Georgia, and pretty well for the whole South, because we have a Southeastern Association of Rabbis, so I am acquainted with what is going on in at least five states of the southeast region. I think the first responsibility, of course, of a rabbi in the civil rights area is in his immediate community. He has to sensitize people to the moral imperatives of Judaism, and this means beginning, of course, with his own congregation. They have to be made aware of what Judaism demands of them as human beings in their relations to other human beings. If he fails in this, of course, then his congregation is going to respond obviously with the same kind of prejudice that has been inbred in the southern community for a number of generations. Then he has to extend his activities beyond his immediate community to the larger local community in which he resides; he has to participate in as many kinds of civil rights activities as he feels can legitimately and purposefully accomplish the goals which he has set for himself.

When Steve and I were first engaged in January of 1980, I went down to Columbus with him to meet his family. He took me to see the newly-built convention center in the historic downtown area. There was a Confederate flag flying outside. But that is not the case anymore. Far from it. As a result of the work of Rabbi Goodman, Pastor McNeill, and a number of their colleagues in the ministerial alliance that Rabbi Goodman was instrumental in putting together, once the order to desegregate the schools, the lunch counters, and the city in general came down, Columbus was desegregated in peace. While it took several years, the process did indeed take place. Today, Columbus has a flourishing downtown historic area, a vibrant cultural life, and an active civic association. Because of these brave men, the city once characterized as “the lynching mecca of the South” is a very different place now.

Our Torah portion this Shabbat opens with the cries of the Children of Israel:

God spoke to Moses and said to him…“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (Exodus 6.2,5). The Children of Israel had been enslaved for some 400 years. But they were so beaten down that they did not feel enough strength to raise their voices in anguish or in protest. And so, they remained enslaved. But the text of the Passover Haggadah infers from these verses of our sidra, that when the Israelites finally began to raise their voices, God took notice, and set in motion the miraculous Redemption that was at the heart of God’s prophecy to Abraham, and the Covenant that was sealed between the two of them on that day. Once the Children of Israel raised their own voices, they began their emergence from bondage to freedom, from degradation to glory.

As Reform Jews, time and again we have raised our voices for justice in the wilderness of racism and intolerance. While there are those, like Dr. King, Rabbi Goodman, and Pastor McNeill, whose voices have been particularly resonant, it isall our voices that must continue to rise in the Prophetic tradition that has sustained us from the beginning.

*To Stand Aside or Stand Alone: Southern Reform Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement
by P. Allen Krause, edited by Mark K. Bauman and Stephen Krause
introduction by P. Allen Krause and Mark K. Bauman

University of Alabama Press, 2016

President or King

We open the Book of Exodus this week upon the cruel and despotic king of Egypt, who abuses his title of “Pharaoh” in all the worst ways. He is self-absorbed, power-hungry, narcissistic and paranoid. He has enslaved an entire people to build cities for his own glorification, and then he fears that their baby boys will someday grow up to overpower and defeat him. In his mind, of course, the world, and everything that happens in it, revolves around him.

I needn’t belabor the comparison. We have a president in the White House who has shown sure signs of narcissistic, paranoid, power-hungry self-absorption. The difference, of course, as we have been reminded often, is that Mr. Trump is not a king, he is President of the United States. His powers are limited, and he was, theoretically, at least, elected in a democratic election by the people of our country, albeit given the now painfully obvious flaws in our electoral system. But he does not seem to understand that distinction. He has referred to the Department of Justice as “his” Department of Justice. But it is not his; it is a government agency, belonging to the people of the United States—not to him. He has referred to the military as “his” military, and its leadership as “his generals.” But he is wrong. In an attempt to create as many distractions as possible from the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, he has continuously thrown accusations and threats at Secretary Clinton and many members of her team. But this is not our way in the United States. Dictators may be in the habit of incarcerating their political opponents and exacting vengeance, but not United States presidents. That is one of the things that is supposed to distinguish democracies from dictatorships and oligarchies.

From the latest bombshell excerpts from Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, it is apparent that the erratic and narcissistic behavior that we have come to expect from Donald Trump after all these years, has now become the overriding characteristic of the White House environment over which he ostensibly presides. It is a common characteristic that a disturbed person within an organization will tend to generate a maelstrom of craziness around him/herself, throwing the entire organization into disarray. Nevertheless, what we need to remember during this new calendar year and beyond, is that we are not the ones who are disturbed and dysfunctional—he is. And, in fact, our governmental structure is strong enough in principle to help us maintain our democracy and prevent it from being usurped by a narcissistic individual who doesn’t understand the nature of that democracy, or the arms of the government designed to protect it.

As Jews we remember the terrible enslavement imposed upon us by a cruel and despotic king. As Jewish Americans we always have risen up in defense of our country to protect our democracy. I have full confidence that our community will uphold that historical record. This is our country, sure as it is anyone else’s, and we will not allow the likes of Donald Trump to trample upon it.