Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


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.

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.

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.