Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

You know of my family background, that I am a first American in my family who were all from Germany, getting to the USA as refugees, Mom in 1936, Dad in 1939.  The story I will use to start is not about them, but about a Jew from Vienna, Austria in 1939.  I told it in 2001, so some of you might remember it.  

         The Jew goes to a travel agent’s office and says he wants to buy a steamship ticket.

         “Where to?” the clerk asks.

         “Let me look at your globe, please.”

         The Jew starts to examine the globe.  Every time he suggests, a country the clerk raises an objection.  This included the United States, as they were only allowing few Jews to immigrate to here, as there were many people very against Jews.  There was basically no place for him to go, so he finally said, “Pardon me, do you have another globe?”

         Jewish history seems to bear out the pathos of this story.  The places that some Jews had gone to or had living, there were often times of prosperity and relative peace, but ultimately things turn out badly for the Jews.  There is no question that while I was growing up a lot was going well for us in this country.  A number of years ago I saw things were starting to change.  The biggest bad piece that shows how things have been changing happened in my last fall with this congregation, fall of 2018, the killing of 11 in the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh.  Over the past 4 years I have seen that there are more folks coming out with antisemitism.  Many of the parashahs in the Torah, including last week’s of Shemot and this week’s of Va’eira show history connected to antisemitism.  

         The Israelites had moved to Egypt when things got bad in their area while Joseph wasthe vizier.  But we read in the beginning of Exodus, that after Joseph and his brothers all passed, the Israelites did well.  They were free, fertile, and over the years grew to a large group.  A new Pharaoh, who did not know anything about Joseph, converted the Israelites to slaves.  This is an early example of how not only Jews, but many different folks (such as African Americans) were mistreated by a place they were living as the bulk of people decided they did not like or truly want them.  In our history we saw this happen in Germany – emancipation for Jews in 1812, yet at times still persecuted, at other times they grew and did very well until the Nazis took power in 1933.  

The key for us to learn from the Torah we should be paying attention to.  Yes, we are supposed to see how our difficult history is similar to so many other folk’s later history, but there is something even more we are supposed focus on.  The focus is what the real kind of action we should learn to do as Jews.  According to the Torah, God takes a particular position, and attitude. The importance of God for us is not a particular belief, but an inspiration to act a certain way.  Yes, there are commands from God in the Torah, but there are actions and attitudes we should be inspired to make part of our life.

Starting in Shemot, when Moses meets God for the first time as God wants him to be the human who would go to the Pharaoh to ask for the Israelites freedom to leave Egypt and return to their original home, the area that would become Judea and Israel. God had not been worshipped so much by the Israelites, yet they were asking God to get them out of slavery.  God cared deeply about getting them out of slavery, away from Egypt, and back to their homeland; far more than caring about being worshipped.  God knew there would need to be hard actions done to Egypt, because the Pharaoh would likely not be willing to let the Israelites have a more normal life and/or go back to their home.  This continues in this week’s parashah while Moses and Aaron meet a lot with the Pharaoh. 

God is really trying to teach us that there are sublimes we must have in our brains, not just for the benefit of our lives, but also that we can help benefit others who are suffering or struggling in their life.  The Torah shows us that God has the sublimes that we are supposed to work as best as we can as humans to have them as well.  These include humility, patience, gratitude, honor, and compassion.

Humility has us keep away from being arrogant.  We should not be overly proud, rude, or misbehaving to increase our stature.  This is not about being a nobody, but being the kind of person we should be.  If we are not only thinking about ourselves, we can start to understand other folks as well.  Humility should push us to help the people who truly need help.

When we want things in the world to improve it will likely not happen as quickly we would like.  We need patience.  Our upsetting with other individuals who do things we do not agree with, pushes us to become impatient.  As long as their activity is not illegal or not truly hurting other folks, we need to have patience on the way we approach and talk to them.  Perhaps most important is the patience for our own situation so we can give help to other people having agony.

Whether it is ourself who is suffering or another person who is suffering, we should feel gratitude for the goodness for the work that would push to remove the suffering.  Comparing ourselves to those who are different than us in opinions, or wealth, or health, or religion can often create bitterness in our minds.  Cultivating gratitude for most people would help to counter bitterness when we are overreacting.  Gratitude for our own lives would help us be willing to help those folks who are suffering.

The vast majority of people deserve to be honored, or the synonym – respected.  It is hard for us to feel we should honor most people.  Instead, we more generally criticize or harshly judge them.  This has grown so much in the last number of years.  To honor each other, even if we have some different opinions, would enable us to work together to improve the community, country, or the world.  And we must push ourselves and others to honor instead of persecuting certain people.

Perhaps the most important feeling is compassion.  There are so many folks who suffer.  It could be from health, poorness, but also so awful from persecution, racism, and hatred.  God’s compassion for our people as slaves in Egypt should inspire us to have compassion for other people who are being mistreated.  Compassion is needed for those people with power to help those who are suffering in so many of the ways individuals or groups have experienced.  

This week’s parashah shows an example of someone who does not have compassion for other people – the Pharaoh – whose refuses to let the Israelites go, creates a pile of suffering that happens to the Egyptians.  Exodus overall shows the difficulty the Israelites have, how they escape from Egypt, and what they must learn.  It also shows how the uncaring of the Egyptians ends up with suffering for them.

Look at the comparable to the US Civil War.  So much of the south did not care about the suffering of the African American slaves, and so many of the African Americans were deeply mistreated.  The Civil War ended with a lot of suffering for white southerners as well.  So sadly, a lot of them believed they should find another way to mistreat the African Americans and never learned the appropriate lesson on how to have humility, patience, gratitude, honor, and compassion. 

What is the real purpose of the Torah?  Yes, it talks a lot about God.  Yes, it teaches us the history of the Israelites that will eventually lead to the existence of the Jews in the rest of the Tanach.  Yes, it tells us Jews about a lot of religious traditions that many Jews feel to observe.  However, the most important purpose of the Torah is how all people should perform to and with other people.  An important part of our ethic is not to hate people who are different than ourselves, whether that is a physical difference, a belief difference or opinion difference.  Of course, this is not referring deep criminals, but to most other people who are different than ourself.  There are many rules and suggestions throughout the whole Torah.

The ways we should act are way beyond the 10 commandments.  Great examples are in Leviticus chapter 19 and Deuteronomy chapter 15.  Being a true Jew is not just by doing religious actions such as holidays, but how to act with and too other folks.  I am saying that we are in a time in which so many people focus mostly on themselves and ignore others.  I close with this blessing for all people.

Yevarech’chah Adonai v’yishm’rechah

Ya’er Adonai panav alecha v’yechunekah

Yesa Adonai panav alecha v’yashem lecha shalom.

May the Eternal bless you and protect you.

May the Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you.

May the Eternal bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!

And may we do exactly what we pray the Eternal will do for us!   

Read Full Post »

What Is Conservatism?

Today’s nasty politics bring up the question of what is an actual conservative.  Is conservatism Trumpism?  That question also forces us to think about liberalism.  Is liberalism a path to socialism and/or Communism?  We sadly live in an era in which those who call themselves conservatives or liberals use the opposite term to insult people with a different perspective.  Too many ignore the basic definitions of each term.

Being conservative is a synonym for being traditional, holding back from innovation in order to preserve traditional values.  Put into a long-established political perspective, conservatism was centered on free enterprise, private business ownership, and individual rights.  American traditionalism is preservation of our republic’s democratic characteristics, such as people’s rights to vote.  In addition, American conservatism focused on state’s rights, pushing that many policies should be overseen on the state level, and in numerous cases a very local level, mostly not the federal level.  Further, conservatives have consistently argued that the government’s budget should be balanced.  

Being liberal is respect for other people’s thoughts/opinions, openness to new ideas – general broadmindedness.  Politically oriented liberalism pushes for civil rights, democracy, and free enterprise.  Liberals are much more open for issues being decided on the federal level.  An important example was the passing of the civil rights legislations in 1964 and 1965.  Despite the  differences between conservatism and liberalism, there are aspects both might share.  The basic rights of individuals plus the importance of free enterprise are values held by conservatives and liberals.  The best scenario is a balance between both, preserving the right traditional values and innovating what is necessary.

An appropriate debate between liberals and conservatives would not be over individual’s civil rights, but whether their rights should be overseen at the federal or state level.  An example was the approach of Senator Barry Goldwater to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  He opposed segregation and suppression of African Americans but opposed this particular act because of two segments he felt needed to be determined at the state, not federal level.  He believed federalism would result as negative for African Americans.  It turned out that over two thirds of the senate thought he was wrong when they passed the Act.

Throughout his career, Goldwater pushed a conservative approach to issues within the Republican Party, yet many of today’s conservatives would condemn him as a phony conservative, accusing him of being a liberal.  Here are some examples why.  Goldwater defended the rights of gay Americans stating, “The big thing is to make this country – quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay.  You don’t have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay.  They’re American citizens.”  A lot of his quotes in favor of gays were expressed when their presence in the military came up as a controversy.  In 1992, he also expressed his support for women choosing to get an abortion.  All of this was part of an opposition he began expressing in 1981 to what he called the “new right,” which was essentially the New Majority, a religious group led by Rev. Jerry Falwell.  Here is one of his thoughts about the effect of this religious group.  “Religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy.  They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives.”  Almost 30 years ago, Goldwater, an historical conservative, predicted how conservatism could terribly decline.

Today, Christian Nationalists are controlling a lot of conservative perspective. They see their views as the only alternatives.  They claim that liberals are trying to eliminate Christianity, not accepting the version of Christianity followed by anyone who is liberal.  Included in Christian Nationalists are people connected to Proud Boys, Boogaloo, believers in the falsehoods of QAnon and many people connected to many white supremacist groups.  Some participants are even members of neo-Nazi groups. The most awful event done by these groups was the riot which led to the invasion of the capital in D.C. on January 6, 2021, while congress was meeting to approve the presidential electoral votes.  There were participants wearing shirts with anti-Semitic content.  Some carried Confederate flags.  This article by Dr. Michael Pasek gives an insight into the motives of the Christian Nationalists for this riot.  https://beyondconflictint.org/news/why-white-supremacists-and-christian-nationalists-tried-to-subvert-american-democracy/?fbclid=IwAR03mubHnpEpS9OjIjBYPhn3ABEjP-thz_zJ6_ZANDuWXfO3sHBR7hUNXQs

The Christian Nationalism of today’s conservatism is so intolerable of other viewpoints, that they accept falsehoods instead of proven facts, to justify their actions protecting their positions.  The most recent and obvious is President Trump’s constant claim of his losing the election because of voter fraud.  That was the cause of the riot.  A following lie was a claim that disguised Antifa people were the ones who caused the violence.  Further, Christian Nationalists accept the nasty, false words that Trump and other key leaders use to degrade their opponents, because Trump expresses support for their positions.  A typical example is the claim that the Democrats and/or liberals are becoming Socialist, even Communist.  While some leftwing Democrats favor certain policies that are called “socialist,” these are policies practiced by Great Britain and many European countries, even when conservative parties are leading their governments.  A typically criticized policy is universal health care, which exists to help people in need.

The priority of Christian Nationalism is to convert people to their beliefs, and to strongly oppose those who do not have their beliefs.  They believe their religious position must direct our country’s policies, not tolerating the input of Judaism, Islam, or even segments of Christianity they see as too liberal.  The worst segments of Christian Nationalism are racist, anti-Semitic, plus they are open to violence.  Their goal is to attain ruling power over the country, even if it means destroying our democratic traditions.  That makes Christian Nationalism parallel to the German conservative movements of the 1920s that destroyed the Weimar Republic by caving into following the Nazi party in 1933.  This version of conservatism mis-defines liberalism in order to condemn their opposition.

Yes, there are those on the left who are also radical.  Yes, there are those on the left who refuse to have an open mind to different viewpoints, commonly on university campuses.  Yes, there are some leftist groups that have caused problems.  But the reason a segment of the left limits their perspective is because they are opposing racism and favoring political policies that will benefit the lives of people in need.  Their increase in the refusal to tolerate other viewpoints over the last 30 years is in response to the unreasonable rise of narrowminded religious factions in conservatism and the Republican Party, just as Goldwater predicted and opposed.  

Trump’s rise is linked to the success of Christian Nationalism controlling a greater segment of the Republican Party thus changing how many people judge what is conservatism.  Many more approve of the nasty condemnation of people with different points of view.  If we are going to save our country, we need a large group of very diverse people, including true conservatives, to be “liberal,” i.e. willing to have open minds, accept actual facts, and work with each other.    

Read Full Post »

The Meaning of Selah

Last Sermon in Tallahassee

I begin with a quote from Psalms 39:5 and 6.  Hodi’eini Adonai kitzi, umidat yamei ma he, eid’ah mah chadeil ani.  “Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days that I may know how frail I am.”  Verse 6 continues, “You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”

The first verse seems somewhat mysterious, if not redundant; for the words “my term” and “measure of my days” would appear to mean the same thing.  But the Hebrew words are very different.  The word kitzi, translated as “term,” also means end. The word midat, translated as measure, also means “type” or “quality.” The Psalmist is asking two things. One is to know the length of life, through the number of days.  The other is to know the tenor of what will fill those days.  The rest of the quote is a declaration of the shortness and fragility of life, punctuated at its end by the Hebrew word, Selah.

Is this an impossible request?  Perhaps.  There are moments we can know the limit of our time, or how long a “term” might be. But we can never foresee the quality that measures our days.  We do not know what we will learn and what we will fail to learn.  We do not know who we will meet and who we will wish we might have met.  We do not know who we will impact or who will impact us.  We cannot know the fullness of each day, each moment, until we experience it.  We cannot know if our time together will be rewarding or not, happy or sad, short or long, loving or hateful.  All we can ever know, with surety, is that every segment of time eventually comes to an end.  We are finite Creatures.  Any of our time is merely a “breath.”

“Tell me O God what my term is, what is the measure of my days?”  I had no idea that I would spend an 18 year career at Temple Israel in Tallahassee. My original contract was for 3 years. For Audrey and me, coming here was an experiment, a diversion from the comfortable path we had by staying in the Philadelphia area.  I had an offer there, 30 minutes from our home.  We decided, however, to try something different, by moving to a place in the south, a place I had never imagined I would even consider.  Our thought was if it did not work, then we would just transfer to a congregation in an area that felt more like home.

At the end of my 2ndyear here, the president, Ed Stafman, came to me and said it was time to negotiate my next contract. I already loved my work here, the relationships being formed with members of Temple Israel, the progress in education, the quality of services, and the connections I had begun to make to some people around the community.  I knew, however, that unless Audrey felt comfortable, we could not stay.  We had already made dear friends here, and she had found a job she loved.  So when I told her it was time to make a decision her response was, “You are not going to make me leave here, are you?”

In 2007 I faced another decision.  The director of rabbinic placement suggested that I apply to two large congregations.  Both were in need of stability.  In addition, one of my mentors said the experience of applying would help me learn whether or not I truly wanted to do my career in Tallahassee.  I had no interest in one of those congregations. The other, however, was in the north, close to family, and a very historical place.  Being the senior rabbi there would have given me the chance to be part of national leadership.  As the interview process went forward, I became one of the leading candidates. When I went to my on site interview, I took the approach of needing to learn what I truly wanted.  While I was there my career choices became clear.  If I took that job, I would be a CEO.  If I stayed at Temple Israel, I would be a rabbi. While interviewing there, it became obvious I wanted to be a rabbi, and that I was unbelievably lucky to be serving in this wonderful congregation in Tallahassee.  As I was flying home I called our president at that time, Wendy Wiener, and told her I was not leaving.

I have a number of rabbinical colleagues who are serving or have served in toxic congregations.  I have always told my colleagues that Temple Israel is the complete opposite of toxic.  It is warm, relaxed, moral, flexible, yearning for more education, dedicated to helping improve our general community, and incredibly respectful of clergy. As I retire from serving you, I must thank you for being a congregation that has made my life feel so meaningful.  I thank you for providing the best environment any rabbi could ever imagine.

There is a story I have told before, but will tell again, as I see its context for all of us.  It is about a man and wife who are very poor.  They had heard a rumor of the existence of an island on which the ground was strewn with diamonds.  All someone had to do was to get to the island, and fill their pockets with diamonds. The husband told his wife that he had to try and find that island, to get the diamonds, so that they would no longer be poor.  His wife reluctantly agreed that he should do the search, so he left.  He traveled to many shores, seeking word about the island, but heard nothing; of no ship that had passed it, of no sailor who knew of its existence. Finally, in a distant port he heard a rumor of a sea in which the island existed.  He boarded a ship that was journeying to that sea, which had never been explored by this group of sailors.

They found the island.  The man asked to be let off and to be picked up when the ship would return to the area.  The captain informed him it would be at about a year until the ship would return.  The man went ashore.  Indeed, the diamonds existed all over the ground.  But, as diamonds were so common, the island’s culture did not treasure them as the man’s home did.  In order to survive, he had to earn a living, so he learned a trade; to create something he could trade for food and clothing.  He became a candle maker.  After some months he became the best candle maker on the island. His ability to make candles enabled him to acquire anything needed.

After a year, the ship returned for him.  So he gathered his candles, and sailed home. When he arrived his wife asked about the diamonds.  He showed her the candles, but he had forgotten to take the diamonds with him. At home, the candles were almost worthless.

The candles, of course, represent the nitty gritty of everyday life and functioning – things that must happen in order to live normally.  The diamonds, however, represent those precious moments that stay in our souls.  They are gems we can appreciate because of their high quality, their beauty, their durability.

My friends, we can enumerate many candles that we have done together.  Religious services occur as scheduled every week.  Religious school happens as it should with few problems.  Over the years I cannot even count how many children have had their bar or bat mitzvah.  A huge number of teens have either gone through Confirmation or our current teen program.  Babies have been named, people married.  There have been over 100 converts to Judaism.  We have had 4 adult b’nai mitzvah classes.  We have done study sessions of the entire Torah and almost all of the prophetic books of the Tanach.  In 2007/2008 we rebuilt this sanctuary and part of the building into the beautiful rooms they are.  There have been many Intro to Judaism classes as well as other adult education classes. If we bother to measure these items by numbers, then we are saying we have been successful at making candles.

But I believe that we have NOT made candles.  Together, we have collected diamonds.  Each Shabbat service, each High Holiday, each bar or bat mitzvah, each wedding, each class with the teens, each adult education class session has been a moment to treasure.  Together we have laughed and cried, prayed and sang, argued and agreed.  Every one of these moments has been precious.  For me, they are diamonds.  I will never forget working with FSU musical students in leading services. Two became actual cantors.  I will never forget the incredible ruachthat Stefanie and Angel have created in our choirs.  I will never forget the fun of our special Chanukah services, or the laughter of our Purim celebrations.  I will never forget how the 12 week Lunch and Learn class from the winter of 2002 became an 18 year unique interfaith deep learning class, in which non-Jews have learned to appreciate the depth of Jewish learning.  I will never forget the creation of Bagels and Biscuits, or how wonderful it has been to lead services with Brian and to work with him and Melanie to create a beautiful teen program.  I will never forget working with wonderful Temple presidents.  I will never forget the countless great conversations with Lisa as we tried to handle a wide range of issues and subjects.  I will never forget how dedicated Akol is to doing anything necessary to improve our congregation.  I will never forget how Alex Molina grew from an 8thgrader who seemed to always be in trouble to a deep hearted human being who models true caring for all people.  I will never forget how Angel has become such a treasured part of our congregation.  I will never forget how Stefanie has been my beloved partner in deepening Jewish life for our community.  I will never forget the exceptional quality of you, the members of this congregation, who have caused me to love every moment of my service here.  Each of these is a diamond.

“You have made my days like handbreadths; its span is as nothing in Your sight; no man endures any longer than a breath, Selah.”  These words from Psalm 39 are the essence of our relationship with God and time, as explained by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  God IS that which is eternal.  We are temporal.  The dissonance between us and God is caused by that fact.  We are constantly reaching to understand that which is eternal.  We are rarely open to hear or feel God’s reaching out for us.  That openness, says Heschel, must begin with the sense of radical amazement.  Radical amazement is the realization of the grandeur of creation itself. It is the realization that our time in that creation is precious, and not to be wasted.  It is the realization that our use of that time is what will connect us to each other, and ultimately to God.  Our time together, 18 years, has been just a breath from the perspective of God’s existence.  But I believe it has been a holy breath.  Through you, I have felt the presence of God.

The verse from Psalms ends with the word selah.  Selacan mean 2 things within a Psalm.  Selahcan be the command for vocal silence, so that the instrumentation may take over.  After this Shabbat, my voice as your rabbinic leader comes to an end.  But the instrumentation of this congregation will continue.  You will decide which symphony it is that you will play.  Choose well.  Make music of beauty and harmony.  In Rabbi Michael Shields, you have a high quality person and rabbi joining your orchestra.  The combination of a new voice with your instruments should not result in a cacophony, but in a symphony.  Selahis the command for all of you to participate in a harmonious way.

However, Selahcan have another meaning.  Selahcan mean the raising up, the exultation of a voice.  While either your or my time is limited, Selahis the command to raise our voices, even though they will last for only a breath!  Selahis the call for us to do the most with our allotted time.  Selahtells us that our time together, while ending, is something to celebrate, not mourn.  Selahis the word telling us we are allowed to sing HalleluyahSelahtells us that we are not only to experience sadness at the end of a time, but the gladness of a beginning – for you and I are both at a time of beginning something new.  Selahtells us not to cry, but to sing.  It is a word that punctuates the music of our lives.  So I now end my words by simply telling you, Selah!

(Our soloist then sang and led Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluyah”)


Read Full Post »

“Where is Abraham?” Sarah wondered.  “For that matter, where is Isaac?  Did the two of them go wandering off somewhere?”  It had been almost three days since she had seen either her son or her husband.  Her last conversation with Abraham had not been pleasant.  After watching Ishmael threaten and abuse her beloved Isaac, she had asked, no demanded that Abraham send the boy and her Egyptian mother away from the camp.  She knew  that Abraham thought she was cruel for demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, but Abraham, typical throughout their over 100 years of being together, had no understanding of her feelings, of her fatigue from the constant demands and strains that he had placed on their relationship.

Life was simple enough when she first met and married Abraham, so many decades ago in the land of Ur.  She was young, naïve, filled with the hopes and dreams of a young woman; marrying into what she though was a fine family.  Abraham’s father, Terach, had been a famous sculpture in the land of the Chaldeans.  People tended to idolize his work.  Abraham, at that point simply known as Avram, was in conflict with his father over going into the family business.  When Sarah, then known as Sarai, had married Abraham, it was clear that this conflict had been ongoing since Abraham’s childhood.  Their argument had even come before King Nimrod, who was a great patron of Terach’s work.  The stridency of Abraham’s arguments in front of Nimrod had resulted in the death of Terach’s youngest son, Haran.  It was the first of a string of family tragedies that Sarah would be forced to endure.

After the death of Haran, Abraham yearned for a son of his own.  Sarah wondered if this might be the result of his guilt over the death of his youngest brother.  Perhaps Abraham felt the need to present Terach with a grandson to replace the son he had lost in Ur.  Perhaps Abraham felt guilty over his role in Haran’s death.  Perhaps Abraham felt the need to teach the next generation differently than his father had taught him.  In any case, it was clear that Abraham wanted a son and he was not happy that Sarah seemed incapable of providing one.  But Abraham was nothing else if not loyal, so other than a few obscure mumblings, Abraham said little and never even thought of leaving Sarah.  She was, after all, the most beautiful woman in all of Ur.

Haran’s death simply began a litany of difficulty for Sarah.  Terach could not bear to remain in Ur, so he decided to leave there and move to the city for which his son had been named, the city of Haran.  To Sarah, this seemed a morbid, unhealthy reminder of her deceased brother in law.  Abraham’s brother Nahor refused to go with Terach, but Abraham, not able to assuage his guilt over Haran’s death through having a son, insisted that he and Sarah go with Terach.  So Sarah was forced to leave the land, the city, the friends, the family she had known all of her life, and travel with her husband to a new land.

There Abraham grew rich.  He was talented in managing livestock and people and soon parlayed this skill into sizable holdings.  He supported his father in Haran, and after a few years Sarah thought that life would settle again into a safe, predictable pattern.  Little did she know.

Abraham had always insisted that it was God, not his own abilities, that had facilitated his wealth.  Now he claimed that the same God was telling him to leave his father’s house in Haran and to go to Canaan.  Abraham claimed that God was going to provide him with significant real estate holdings in Canaan, if he would only get out of his father’s house and move his own family there.  Sarah had mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand she had often wondered why, at age 75, Abraham had felt it necessary to still live with his father.  So she certainly approved of his finally cutting the umbilical cord and leaving his father’s house.  Besides, she was growing tired of the pressure from Terach to produce another heir, as well as the silent criticism when it did not happen.  On the other hand, simply moving to the other side of Haran would have sufficed.  Did they really have to go all the way to Canaan, dragging their substantial holdings, employees, servants and retainers with them?  That was what God demanded, Abraham said.  And so they went.

Abraham had told her that God promised him blessings in Canaan, yet all was not so rosy once they arrived there.  They had not been in their new location long before famine set in, and the whole household had to move into Egypt in order to obtain food.  There, Pharaoh cast his eye on Sarah, and wanted to acquire her for his own court.  Abraham was too afraid to tell Pharaoh that Sarah was already married.  He claimed that Sarah was his sister, and only after Pharaoh’s courtiers brought her to the palace to meet Pharaoh was it revealed that she was indeed Abraham’s wife.  This caused Pharaoh great embarrassment and he told Abraham that he and his household were no longer welcome in Egypt.  So back to Canaan they journeyed once more.

Once there, she begged Abraham to find a spot where they could settle.  No sooner had they begun a new life in an agreeable place, that Lot, Haran’s son for whom Abraham had assumed responsibility, began to quarrel with his uncle over grazing spots for his sheep.  Sarah had always thought that Lot was more trouble than he was worth.  He was a man with no talent other than finding and causing trouble.  Sarah was never sure how much Lot knew about Abraham’s role in his father’s death.  She only knew that Lot took every occasion to find fault with his uncle.  Sarah did admire Abraham’s patience with his nephew, especially in the pasturing dispute.  He simply told Lot that there was plenty of land, and Lot could have first choice of which land he took.  Of course Lot, eager to finally get out from Abraham’s control, chose wrongly.

Once rid of Lot, Abraham no longer had a young man to occupy his attention, so once again he began to agitate for a son.  Sarah had noticed, to her credit without too much jealousy, that Abraham had taken a fancy to her very attractive handmaiden, Hagar, who had joined Sarah’s retinue in Egypt.  Sarah, at this point well into her 80’s, figured she was beyond envy, and offered her to Abraham to produce a child.  In truth, Sarah figured Abraham was way too old to father a child, so imagine her shock when Hagar turned up pregnant!

While technically the boy, Ishmael, belonged to Sarah and Abraham, Sarah could not escape the feeling that the boy had been fathered by someone other than Abraham.  After all their years of infertility, she just never thought the old coot would really get anywhere with Hagar.  And handmaidens, typical of all employees, just could not be trusted.  So it was a double insult to Sarah that not only did Hagar produce a child, but she began to lord it over Sarah as well.  When she appealed to Abraham to help with the situation, his was a typically male response, “Look, you offered her to me.  If you have a problem with her, then you deal with her.”  So it was up to Sarah to discipline Hagar and put her back in her place.

Even though the family had stopped wandering around Canaan, life with Abraham was never easy for Sarah.  He was always off on some mission.  One time he left to recapture Lot who had been taken captive by enemies of the cities in Canaan.  “Good riddance,” Sarah thought.  Lot had never shown any gratitude to his uncle for all his years of supporting his business and personal failures.  But Abraham had that quality of loyalty, so he went after Lot.  It did not hurt that some of the local nobility’s children had been captured with Lot, and Abraham volunteered to retrieve them.

Even when Abraham was home things were never quiet.  He was always inviting wandering strangers in for a visit.  While she admired his friendly nature with strangers, this hospitality only resulted in more work for her.  Invariably, Abraham liked to show off his success, so he only served the choicest of his flock, and demanded she prepare breads and cakes from their choicest flour.  Abraham’s reputation for good entertainment was known for miles around, but Sarah never heard of any credit given to the hours of cooking and supervising of the staff she did to make him a success.

One time, while Abraham was recovering from some self inflicted wounds, three strangers appeared at his tent entrance.  Naturally Abraham, despite being in pain, jumped up to welcome the strangers, and quickly got Sarah to prepare his very favorite meal, veal stew.  “Somehow it seems wrong to be boiling this calf in its mother’s milk,” thought Sarah.  She resolved that if she ever did have children, this would be one recipe that she would not hand down.  Abraham must have known there was something special about these strangers, because he even had Sarah wash their feet.  Later in the evening she overheard the strangest conversation.  The strangers claimed that Sarah would conceive and bear a son.  Now Sarah, although not a doctor, knew enough about female biology to laugh at the very idea that she could still become pregnant.  Abraham, who seemed to be clueless about such things, chided her for laughing.

To her shock, she did become pregnant!  And they named the little boy Isaac.  All of the nurturing instincts that Sarah had repressed for so long burst forth.  She was able to nurse the child.  She found she was enchanted by motherhood.  She was exceedingly protective of her child.  She hesitated to wean him, even at three years old.  When she did, there was Ishmael, glowering threateningly at her son.  She tried to mention this to Abraham.  She had seen the signs of jealousy in Ishmael from the moment Isaac was born.  Yet Abraham paid her no heed.  He told her he was tired of her constant worrying.  He was tired of her habit of always seeing the negative side of things.  Couldn’t she just be happy that they now had two sons, including one which she had bore?

So when she caught Ishmael abusing Isaac, she had seen enough.  She snapped and gave Abraham an ultimatum, Ishmael and Hagar simply had to go.  This exchange distressed Abraham greatly.  He yelled, he cried, he sulked, he pleaded with the God to whom he always turned when he was in doubt.  And now, Abraham had disappeared.  With Isaac.  With his donkey.  With two other servant lads from their household.

Sarah sent servants to the surrounding communities seeking some word, some sign as to where Abraham and Isaac might be.  When three days had passed a stranger asked to see her.  Servants ushered a tall, handsome but darkly mysterious man into her tent.  His name was Sama’el.  He said he had learned that she was seeking word of a man with a young boy.  “I saw them on top of Mount Moriah,” he told her.  “I saw the man tie up the boy, and place him on top of an altar they must have built.  The man kept muttering, ‘God has seen to the lamb for the sacrifice, my son.’”

At that moment, Sarah saw a summary of her life.  At every turn, there she was, being flexible, enduring criticism, uproot, and hardship.  At every turn there she was trying to be supportive, forgiving, waiting for a moment she could know some peace, some serenity.  Sarah saw her life end with the stranger’s words.  She screamed, clutched her chest, collapsed and died.  The stranger, Sama’el, watched, and to her crumpled heap on the tent floor he said, “By the way, I stopped him from harming the child and gave him a ram to sacrifice instead.”

”Vayahi chayei Sarah mei’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, sh’nei chayei Sarah.” So begins this week’s Torah portion, “This was the life of Sarah, one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years – the years of Sarah’s life.”  Midrash teaches that Sarah never lost the innocence of 7, nor the beauty of 20 even as she acquired the wisdom of 100.  It does not say if she was happy.  It does not say if she ever felt fulfilled.  It does not say if she ever, in her long and difficult life, felt at peace.  We only know she died.  Torah then says, “And Abraham mourned for Sarah, and cried over her.”  Sad, how the emotional display of Abraham’s appreciation for Sarah, his life’s companion, came just a little too late.


Read Full Post »





The past few days have been filled with emotions.  I know many of my fellow Jews are travelling this path.  I will share mine in what I hope is a larger context.

The first is anger.  I am angry that the violent anti-Semitism we saw in Paris just a few years ago, is now present in our own country.  I am angry that the racism and bigotry based violence done in the Mother Emanuel Church has gotten worse, not better.  I am angry that our political leaderships’ tone of words encourages hatred instead of caring.  I am angry that anti-Semitic actions, according to the Anti-Defamation League, have risen dramatically since 2016.  The slaughter of 11 at the Tree of Life synagogue is the worst anti-Semitic episode in American history.  I am angry and I am sure most of my fellow Jews are angry.

I feel despair. Pittsburgh was my home for the 4 years I went to the University of Pittsburgh.  Squirrel Hill, that historic Jewish neighborhood, is a place where close friends of mine from college grew up.  It is a place I went to go to synagogue, to the movies, to eat at a Jewish deli.  But my deeper despair is connected to my dad, Rudi Romberg, a Jewish refugee from Germany barely making it to America in September of 1939.  From the time I was 6 or 7 years old, dad taught me what he had suffered in Germany.  He wanted to make sure that as a Jew, I could never, ever behave like a Nazi, to have any kind of bigotry.  He taught me how much he loved our country as a place of freedom.  Yes, dad experienced some anti-Semitism even in America.  When we lived in Fairmont, W.VA in the 1950’s my parents were denied membership in a social club because they were Jews.  But the friends who sponsored them resigned in protest.  Dad fought for the United States in World War II.  I am in despair because the country dad loved and taught me to love is not the country we are becoming.  I feel despair and I am sure most of my fellow Jews feel despair as well.

I feel fear.  First I was fearful for a longtime friend of mine from college, a former roommate, who lives in Pittsburgh.  He is extremely active in the Jewish community there, a key member of the Chevra Kadishah, the group that provides traditional Jewish rituals for those who die.  He was married in the synagogue where the shooting took place.  I was relieved when I called him Saturday afternoon and heard he was safe, but fearful of friends he knew were at the synagogue that morning. I am fearful for the safety of my congregation here in Tallahassee.  It only takes one crazy bigot, who can live anywhere, to create a disaster.  I am fearful for the world in which my grandchildren are growing up.  I feel fear and I am sure most of my fellow Jews feel fear.

I feel tearful. Yesterday I heard from my college friend that four of the 11 Jews killed were his friends.  But feeling tearful is not only the result of hearing bad news. It is also the result of experiencing the caring of others.  Yesterday, as I spoke to my dear friends, Father Dave Killeen and Pastor Betsy Oulette Zierden, I shed tears from the caring they expressed.  As I saw the messages coming to me from a member of St. John’s, setting up child care for tonight and help in organizing parking, I became tearful.  In speaking to the new Tallahassee city manager, Reese Goad,hearing his true caring and concerns as he arranged police protection for Temple Israel, my eyes filled with tears.  Yesterday, when I went to thank the policeman in our parking lot and heard him express his dedication to doing whatever was necessary to help us, I became tearful. And my wife will tell you, that when I finally came home yesterday afternoon, I sat down and cried, because of the combination of the memories of my dad and the caring outreach from this beautiful city – from people at all levels.  I am tearful and I am sure my fellow Jews feel tearful as well.

I feel love.  I feel the love of the huge number of you in this room who are not Jewish, who are Christian, who are Muslim.  I feel the love of those who are local leaders or everyday citizens.  I feel the love of clergy colleagues.  I feel the love of the Pittsburgh Muslim community, who in 24 hours raised 70 thousand dollars to pay for the funerals of the victims.  I feel the love in person, on social media, through emails, messages and phone calls.  I feel love and I pray that my fellow Jews will feel that love as well.

Now I feel another emotion – determination.  I am determined to live as my dad lived – to NEVER give up my Judaism, to never be afraid to be at synagogue with my fellow Jews, to show those who are attempting to scare us from our commitment their attempt is a failure.  Even more important, I am determined to stand against all forms of bigotry.  If you are African American I stand with you in your fight.  If you are Muslim I stand with you.  If you are Hispanic or Asian I stand with you.  If you are a refugee or an immigrant I stand with you.  It is important to note the killer in Pittsburgh posted his objection to the Tree of Life synagogue participating in initiatives led by HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – which provides aids to all immigrants and refugees.  Please note that last weekend, Temple Israel participated in the HIAS Shabbat to honor immigrants.  Most of all, I am determined to urge everyone to stand together and oppose all forms of bigotry.  I am determined to urge everyone to show love not hate to each other.  I am determined to convert my moment of anger from Saturday, into a life of commitment to justice and love.  I pray all will do the same.

It says in our traditional text from Pirkei Avot, Al shelosha devarim ha’olam omeid, “On three things the world stands.”  Al hatorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim, “On the Torah, on service, and on acts of loving kindness.  The Torah represents the words and commandments of God.  The service means serving God through prayer.  And acts of loving kindness, of course is what the first two should be driving us to do, as God wants us to love and care for each other, for we must “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

I pray to God for all of the following:

Help us to lose our anger.

Help us to overcome our despair

Help us change fear of what is happening in life, to reverence for life.

Help us turn our tears of sadness to tears of joy.

Help us embrace each other with love.

Help us have the determination to stand for justice, to oppose all bigotry, and to truly understand each other.

As it says in Psalm 29: Adonai oz l’amo yetein, May God give strength to all of God’s people.  Adonai y’vareich et amo vashalom,  May God bless all of us with the gift of peace. May we all say, Amen

Read Full Post »

Opening Our Minds

A second grade teacher collected a group of well known proverbs.  She gave the first part of each one to a child in her class and asked them to complete it.  Here are some of the results:

Better to be safe than (sorry)….to punch a fifth grader.

Strike while the (iron is hot)….bug is close.

It’s always darkest before (the dawn)….Daylight Savings time.

Don’t bite the hand that (feeds you)….looks dirty.

You can’t teach an old dog (new tricks)….math.

A penny saved is (a penny earned)….not much.

Two’s company, three’s (a crowd)….the Musketeers.

Children should be seen and not (heard)….spanked.

If at first you don’t succeed (try, try again)….get new batteries.

A journey of a thousand miles begins (with a single step)….by getting in your car.

Are the children’s endings to the proverbs wrong?  Although they are different than the versions we grew up hearing, we can see the logic in each one, based on the perspective of that child.  Because these are children’s perspectives, we chuckle, but add theirs to ours.  That is what rabbinic tradition urges us to do.  I have often cited this quote from the Talmud, eilu v’eilu d’varim Adonai, “these and these are the words of the living God.”  God’s voice announces this in the middle of an argument between the disciples of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai.  One of the lessons I draw from this is the necessity for us to open our minds and accept different perspectives on issues.  We do NOT have to agree with a perspective different from ours, just understand it has legitimacy, or at least the person having that perspective has a legitimate reason for believing it.  Further, rabbinic tradition is clear that our arguments can be done fiercely. They can be strong and energetic. We just have to end themwith respect for the other side, even in disagreement.

Here is a current example. Liberals often condemn capitalism as a means of extortion from the working class and the poor.  What they often fail to acknowledge is that free enterprise in business is the best way to uplift an economy, to create jobs, to bring financial energy to more people.  It encourages ordinary people to enter the business world, and our country is filled with stories of people coming from poverty and building great success. On the other hand, conservatives see the policies of liberals as undermining business, and classify them as socialist.  Current rhetoric from the right claims if we institute Medicare for all, increase state  corporate taxes, and raise the minimum wage, we will downgrade our country into Venezuela. They claim liberals want everything to be free for all.  They misrepresent what socialism truly is – a system by which the government promotes community ownership of all land and businesses instead of individual ownership. These progressive policies are not intended to replace individual business ownership.  Typically, neither side’s minds are open to understanding the true purpose of the other side’s position.  Neither side wants to acknowledge that we need the other’s perspective to properly balance policies.

I am a liberal who used to own a manufacturing business.  I have seen the benefits of free enterprise, how my business’s growth created jobs. From 1977 to 1983 we went from employing 12 people to 50.  We provided good salaries, with our base well above minimum wage.  We provided health insurance for our employees’ families. Our success was never affected by the taxes we had to pay in Pennsylvania, which were much more than any business has to pay in Florida.  I embrace the current proposals of raising the minimum wage, giving all people the option of Medicare, and raising the state (not federal) corporate taxes to help fund things like raising teachers’ salaries.  I can see a bigger picture of how these policies can help people who are struggling, as well as improve some aspects for businesses.  I bet the typical right wing conservative has no understanding of my perspective at all.  Both political sides need to open their minds.

The sadness existing in our Jewish world is how this same close mindedness, the refusal to understand the perspectives of the person who thinks differently than you, exists today largely through an issue that used to unite the overwhelming bulk of the Jewish people – support for the state of Israel.  The dominant perspectives on Israel now are the two most extreme.  One is blind support of anything Israel does, to the point of accusing a fellow Jew who is critical of Israel as being a “self hating” Jew.  The other is represented by the BDS movement, which claims to use boycotts, divestments and sanctions to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.  BDS supporters will classify those who do not support it as racist, or xenophobic.  If you are a non-criticizing acolyte supporter of anything Israel does, you are failing to face many of the realities of the Netanyahu government.  If you are a BDS supporter, you do not realize many of the movement’s leaders oppose the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.  Both sides are failing to acknowledge the complications and nuances of the history of Israel.

Consider the earliest Jewish settlers from Europe, who began immigration in the late 1880’s, and expanding in the first years of the 20thcentury, when the Zionist movement formally came into being.  It was common for European Jews moving to Palestine to have false impressions.  The famous Jewish essayist, Ahad Ha’Am, after visiting Palestine in 1891 for 3 months, wrote, “We abroad are used to believing that Eretz Yisrael is now almost totally desolate, a desert that is not sowed…But in truth this is not the case.  Throughout the country it is difficult to find fields that are not sowed.” Indeed, when the first waves of Jewish settlers arrived, there were around 500,000 Arabs living in Palestine. But it was not an independent country. It was territory controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

What were the attitudes of Jewish settlers and the native Arabs?  They were diverse and complicated.  Some Jewish settlements trained their folks to speak Arabic wanting to establish good relationships with the local Arabs.  Others saw the native Arabs as many Europeans saw the native residents of other areas colonized by European countries – as inferior savages who needed to be modernized.  Some saw the Moslem Arabs in particular as aggressive, and others were just shocked to find them living there at all, confirming the observation of Ahad Ha’Am. Some Jewish settlements set up just councils, that took in complaints by Arabs, judging them at the same level as complaints by Jews.  Others treated the local Arabs as a threat.

How did the Arabs see the Jewish settlers?  The response was as diverse, but we must acknowledge an added component.  Islam created an atmosphere that did not like Jews and forbade land controlled by Islam to be handed over to any foreign group. In addition, the Turkish rulers and the local Arabs often had a xenophobic view of foreigners, and saw their presence as a threat.  Some of this inborn dislike of foreigners was exacerbated by certain groups of Jewish immigrants.  Those coming from Russia were often socialists, anarchists and atheists – revolutionaries in a way that annoyed the local Arab population.  After a number of years some of the Jewish immigrants began to behave like lords and masters over the Arabs, again creating a bad atmosphere. A significant amount of the land occupied by European Jews had been bought from absentee Arab landowners.  In some cases there were no problems.  In others the new settlers pushed out the Arabs who had been farming the land for the absentee owners.  Who would those Arabs blame, the absentee owners or the local Jews who took over the land?

There is plenty of documentation for all of this, but here is the bottom line.  If you are a blind supporter of Israel, you will ignore the difficulties caused by many of the early settlers for the native Arab population. You will ignore the attitude of colonialism, not typical of Jews, but Europeans.  If you are a supporter of the BDS movement, you will ignore the reality of anti-Semitism and xenophobia that already pre-existed in the Arab population. You will ignore the attempts by many Jewish settlers to establish an existence of fairness for all.  Here is another reality, while a population of a bit more than a half million in 1900 seems like a lot, today we are talking about a segment of land that houses 10 million people.  Why would it be wrong for some of the Jews of that era to move to Palestine?

These issues continued during the years Israel gained independence.  During the 1948 war, it is a fact that some Arabs were forced from their homes by armed Israelis, sometimes the Irgun, Jewish terrorists, sometimes the official military.  It is also a fact that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was a serious anti-Semite, who cooperated with Hitler during WW II.  He broadcast that Arabs should leave their homes while the war was on, so the Arab armies could come in and destroy the Jews.  We also know that many Arabs fled their homes simply because they could not stand living in the middle of a violent war.  I must ask, could you?

We see a continuation of all these issues today.  From 1977 onward, beginning with the Begin government, the building of settlements on the West Bank, to the dismay of Palestinians living there, increased tremendously.  Many of the settlements were built by Orthodox Jewish extremists, who claimed that the West Bank rightfully belonged to Israel, based on their interpretation of ancient Biblical boundaries that increase, the size of the Jewish state. There are other Biblical boundaries that decrease that size.  In recent years the Netanyahu government has made the establishing of Jewish outposts legal, even ones that have taken over Palestinian property.  It is morally wrong to legalize stealing land from Palestinians.  Supporters of the Netanyahu government refuse to see that as wrong.

Those who support the BDS movement often try to justify Hamas’s terrorist actions.  Their advocacy for Palestinian rights blinds them to Hamas’s hatred of Jews.  They refuse to acknowledge that in the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas used little children to help dig tunnels for terrorists to enter Israel.  They refuse to acknowledge that just this past spring, the protests that happened at the Gaza border, were not just by peaceful Palestinians, but included violent members of Hamas who actually drove the whole series of incidents. Hamas admitted this.  Most of all, there is little admission that large hatred of Jews exists in the Arab world in general, let alone the Palestinian world.

Yet, and here is the saddest, both sides fail to acknowledge that most Palestinians, just want to have normal family lives.  They fail to acknowledge that among Israelis there are many who do oppose the Netanyahu government.  While I was on a river cruise in France in June of 2017, we became friends with a couple from Israel, owners of an extremely successful business, who are so upset with the current government they voted for the Arab party in the last Knesset election.

Finally, we have the current policies of the Netanyahu government that is deepening divisions in the Jewish world, not just between Israeli Jews and American Jews, but among all Jews in the diaspora.  Here is one example.  After making an agreement with non-Orthodox Jews to create an area at the Western Wall where non-Orthodox men and women can worship together, he revoked that agreement in order to preserve his political alliance with orthodox political parties. It is also clear that Netanyahu is now focused on an alliance with Christian evangelicals who give unquestioning support to his policies, while dismissing the bulk of the American Jewish community that has, through the years, helped to finance so much of Israel’s development.  If you are a supporter of Netanyahu, you fail to acknowledge he is under constant investigations for corruption, as well as his dismissing of the majority of American Jews.  If you are a critique of Netanyahu, too often you judge all Israelis based on his actions, instead of continuing to embrace the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. And you fail to acknowledge that Israelis do many things to help others, providing relief services to countries suffering a disaster, or initiatives by Israeli Jews to help Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

In the early 2,000s I gave a sermon on how too many Jews made Israel the focus of their Jewish identity, as well as too many Jews made remembering the Shoah as the focus of their Jewish identity.  I said while both of these were important, the focus of Jews should be on strengthening our Jewish communities, by strengthening our knowledge of Jewish tradition, theology, values and strengthening our commitment to each other. It says in Pirkei Avot, kol Yisra’el aravim zeh l’zeh,  meaning all the Jewish people are responsible for each other.  I said that we need to find the proper balance between particularism and universalism. I think all of that is still true. What is so sad for our people is how, in today’s world in particular, the disagreements over our relationship with Israel, are tearing us apart.

Why is this?  Because the Jewish world, is mirroring the state of American society.  Like everyone else in America, we are reinforcing our political and religious divides by refusing to acknowledge factual truth, especially about history. We reject factual nuance.  We are refusing to even listen to a narrative that contradicts our ideological bubble. As a result, most of us understand nothing about the true feelings, intentions, and actions of other Jews who think differently from us.  Instead we condemn them.  We fail to open our minds.

The Torah portion we read this morning begins with these words, Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai elohaichem, rosheichem shivteichem, v’zikneichem v’sotreichem col ish Yisra’el, tapchem n’sheichem v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, meichoteiv eitzecha ad sho’eiv meimecha.“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God, your tribal leaders, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel. Your children, your wives, even the alien within your camp, from the wood chopper to the water carrier.” All of the people of Israel are standing there to begin our covenant with God.  Notice, this includes everyone, from leadership to children, from actual Israelites to aliens working at the lowest level jobs.  Do you think all of the people standing there had the same thoughts, the same beliefs?  Do you think they all approached life the same way?

Of course not.  Our people have always been filled with multiple opinions, arguments and thoughts.  As the joke goes, the only thing two Jews can ever agree on is what their friend should donate to the synagogue.  What unites us, is our covenant with God, our understanding that we should be a “light to the nations,” a model of how to live, how to manage our diversity of thought.  It is time to cry, because we are failing.  How incredibly sad that Israel, the land representing our covenant with God, and the fulfillment of so many modern Jewish dreams; now represents the issues breaking our people apart.

Today, Yom Kippur, is the final day we are supposed to examine ourselves, to finish our repentance and ask God for atonement, forgiveness.  But God will only forgive each of us if we have made peace, shalom, with each other.  Do it! Reach out to those who think the opposite of you.  Listen to their narratives, their thoughts, their emotions.  You do not have to agree.  You can even argue fiercely.  Nevertheless you must embrace them as a fellow Jew, a fellow human.  You must open your mind.

The second word of the Torah portion is one of the reasons we read this today, nitzavim, to stand.  We should stand together.  That verb is connected to this noun, matzeivah, which can be translated to mean either a tombstone or a pillar.  A tombstone memorizes that which is dead. A pillar gives support to the living. If we insist on degrading the fellow Jew who holds a different perspective than us, we will just be tombstones of a Jewish memory.  If we work to understand each other, to listen to each Jewish narrative, we will be pillars supporting the life of the Jewish people.  May all of us choose to be pillars, to support the life and well being of our people.  If we are pillars for the Jewish people, including Israel, then we will making the Jewish people a pillar for the world.  Kein yehi ratzon, may that be God’s will

Read Full Post »


Love makes the world go round

Love makes the world go round

Somebody soon, will love you

If no one loves you now.


High in some silent sky

Love sings a silver song,

Making the earth whirl softly

Love makes the world go round.                 From Carnival, by Bob Merrill

You know I love Broadway musicals.  So how can I talk about love, without sharing a song of love, from a show that I love, Carnival.  It is a show about love, about the conflicts between feelings of love and our hateful instincts, caused by the difficulties we suffer.  In the end, it is the giving of love that wins, but the source of love is hidden from its recipient, Lili.  So yes, while love may make the world go round, often it is hidden, hardly revealed, and mixed with surrounding difficulties, at least according to the show, Carnival.

How necessary is love? Well, if you agree with Vulcans on Star Trek, love is just an emotion that gets in the way of logical decisions. If you prefer the Beatles then, “all you need is love.”  While I love Star Trek, I agree with the Beatles.  The circles of our lives are driven by love.  As children, the love from our parents shapes so much of our whole lives.  When we have children, our love for them drives so many of the life decisions we make. As we age, we need our children to show their love for us, even sometimes making sure we are cared for much the same way we cared for them as infants.  Love makes our lives go round.

What does Judaism say?

Well, growing up, love was presented as the focus of Christianity, not Judaism.  An example was this quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  I remember our rabbi saying it is not realistic to think people can be forced to love someone, particularly an enemy.  It is more realistic, and better, to advocate for justice, not love.

Indeed, the texts highlighted by Jewish teachers are the prophetic texts about bringing justice to the poor, the orphan and the widow.  The Torah texts we rabbis typically love to teach are about justice and righteousness, such as tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “justice, justice you shall pursue.”  Yes the Torah teaches us to “love the stranger,” but we almost always put that a political context.  Yes, the Torah teaches “love your neighbor as yourself,” but we automatically defer to the Hillel version: “what is hateful to yourself do not do to your neighbor.”  We debate if love of our neighbor is really meant to be particularistic, or universalistic. In other words, it becomes the subject of an intellectual discussion.

It is hard to find a traditional Jewish text that discusses love.  Instead there are stories showing how we confuse infatuation with love.  For example, there is a story about Rabbi Chiya ben Ashi, whose wife was feeling very neglected by him.  So she put on a wig, perfume, dressed up, and passed in front of him while he was studying.  He asked who she was and she answered “Charusa, I have just returned from my travels.”  He then propositioned her.  When she revealed her real identity, he felt so guilty he fasted until he died. Another story tells of an observant man who was so overwhelmed by the beauty of a harlot, he paid 200 pieces of gold to sleep with her.  But when he climbed into her bed, his tzitzitraised up, and hit him in the head, waking him up to the sin he was about to commit.

Judaism tends to teach about life mostly in the light of justice and intellect.  I have come to believe, however, that love is key to life. So now I will share two stories, each about a man I believe demonstrated love.  Both lived in Cologne, Germany.  Both were my dad’s father.  One was his biological father.  The other was the man who actually raised him.  They hated each other.

Walter Romberg was my grandfather.   He died in 1942; the result of forced labor in a chemical factory in Nazi Germany.   My father only met him once, while getting his signature on the paperwork needed to leave Germany.  Dad’s parents were divorced before he was 3.  While growing up, he was told by his mother and uncle, that Walter was despicable. Certainly it is easy to understand how bitter his mother, Martha Stern, felt about her experience with Walter. In 1922 Walter fathered a boy, with another woman.  This half brother died in a street accident when Dad was a toddler.  In  January of 1923 Walter married Martha.  My dad’s birthday was July 11, 1923.  Clearly, this marriage was a “shotgun” wedding.  To put it in today’s language, Walter was a “player.”  Nobody in Martha’s family had anything good to say about Walter.

Even much of Walter’s family considered him the black sheep of the family.  He was a gambler.  He failed in every business venture or job he took.  He was a member of the German Communist party, which put him in opposition to most of the Romberg family.  He served Germany in World War I, and had the strange view that the war was fun, not tragic.  His younger brother Karl, the most successful of the Romberg brothers, often gave him financial aid.  Karl’s son Ralph was one of the few to say something positive about Walter.   Every time Walter came to see his brother in Essen, he brought treats for Ralph, who found his uncle kind and funny.

In 1932, Walter married Margaret, a Catholic woman, about 1 month after their first child Charlotte was born.  It was Charlotte who told me about her father, my grandfather.  Walter had no relationship with my father, but he had deep love for the 4 children he fathered with Margaret.  Each child felt their father’s love.  He would play this game, calling each one by their name, gathering them into his arms one by one until he was hugging all four.

As the 1930’s progressed, Walter was forbidden by the Nazis to continue his career.  Instead, he was pressed into hard labor on road crews. This paid very little, so the family moved into progressively worse apartments – from one with an inside toilette to one with the toilette in a hall shared by many families.  Food grew scarcer, but Walter made a game of saving food for his children.  He would not eat all of the lunch he took to work.   He brought some home then made a festival of cutting it into little sections for each of his children, humorously calling it “rabbit food.”

Walter scrounged to find things to make his children happy.  Charlotte wanted a toy pram, but they could not afford one.  An acquaintance of Walter’s found one, but it was so old and out of style that Charlotte was ashamed to wheel it home with her father. They stopped at a kiosk to eat an ice cream cone, leaving the pram outside, laughing together over what should be its fate – perhaps someone would walk off with it while they were eating.

Even though he was married to a Catholic woman, Walter wore a yellow Jewish star like all Jews.  His children were kept out of certain schools and once the war was on, he was forbidden from using the bomb shelters with German families.  Still, Walter was determined to help other Jewish families.  He knew a lot about the paperwork families needed to fill out to get out of Germany.  He would help them get their paperwork done.  He owned a small handcart and used it to help families being deported take their possessions to either train stations or deportation facilities – not realizing that the Nazis would often take these things from families especially if they were sending them to concentration camps.  Walter, after putting in long, hard days of forced labor, helped these families almost every night.

One of the saddest cases was a Jewish family with two little girls Charlotte’s age who were told in 1941 they had to evacuate Cologne, and to report to a camp outside of the city. Walter used his small handcart and helped this family transport their belongings, not knowing this was a useless exercise, as this family was sent to a concentration camp in the east.  In Minsk, this family was put on a truck and told they were being taken to a work camp, but the truck was a rolling gas chamber and they were slaughtered.

Walter Romberg died on a warm, sunny Sunday in early August 1942.  He was home and sick in bed, probably because of the poisonous chemicals he was handling in forced labor.  He came into the kitchen, clutched his chest, and collapsed in front of his wife and daughter.  As his body was being carried from the building, another girl, the daughter of a Nazi family, asked Charlotte why she was crying.  It was, after all, only a Jew.

As a young man, Walter was enchanted with looks and sex.  In a little over a year he fathered two boys with two different women.  In the 1930’s, as life for Jews became harder every year, he did all he could without concern for his own health, for his children and other Jewish families.  His love grew as life degenerated.  His love inspired his children for the rest of their lives.

The second story is about Richard Stern, the man who raised my father.  I have spoken about him before, being a hero and a protestor, but this is not about his heroism.  This is about the love that drove his life.  Unlike my grandfather Walter, Uncle Richard was a deep part of my early life, dying about 6 months after my bar mitzvah.  Externally he could be a little gruff.  Yet his heart was soft and filled with love.  I saw this many times but the real story of his love begins on January 23, 1928, the day Richard and his sister’s father, Marcus Stern, died.

Marcus had been caring for his divorced daughter and her 5 year old son.  They lived with him in the apartment above his bedding store in Cologne, Germany.  Richard promised his father, that upon his death, he would take over the business and look after his sister and her son.  In 1928 it was impossible to know how this would affect his entire life.  He could not have known the Nazis would take power in 1933 and overturn his future.

For the first few years of caring for his sister and nephew, life was normal.  The business provided a nice income.  Richard was active in local politics as a member of the Social Democratic party.  He was a well-liked citizen in Cologne, and was the emcee for some events during the annual Karnival.  He should have been able to attract a wife as successful businessman in his early 30’s, but on January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed the chancellor of Germany. After April 1, 1933, when he was arrested for protesting the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, his business declined. After the passing of the Nuremburg laws in 1935, life became extremely difficult, yet Richard placed the wellbeing and safety of his sister and nephew as his first priority.  November 9, 1938 was Krystallnacht, and Richard survived by fleeing to a hiding place outside of Cologne.  His sister and nephew were hidden by neighbors.  All of the products in the store were stolen, destroyed or thrown into the street by the Nazis.

A few months earlier, Richard already realized he needed to get his sister and nephew out of Germany, so he applied to the US consulate for visas for all 3 of them.  He was able to leave Germany in May of 1939, to get to New York, find a job, and begin a new life structure for his family.  Instead of being an entrepreneur, he became a dishwasher.  His sister and her son made it to New York in early September, 1939, while Germany invaded Poland.

What tore at Richard’s heart, even though he, Martha and my dad made it safely to America, was the splitting of their greater family.  His brother, Heinrich, was put into a concentration camp shortly after Richard left Germany.  They never heard from him after 1942.   Heinrich was murdered by the Nazis.  His sister Tekla, who was married to a non-Jew, Heinz, had made it with their daughter Ellen, to Brussels, Belgium, where she hid during the war.  His sister Hilda and her husband Ludwig, made it to the United States.  Richard worked hard to provide for Martha, buying life insurance and war bonds to make sure there were assets for her if something happened to him.

The possibility of Richard being killed became a reality when he decided to take a position in the US army corps of engineers in October of 1942.  He then created a letter to his family, outlining how to utilize the few assets he had obtained if he died in the war.  His main concern was Martha, who had no husband and whose son was now about to enter the army.

There is no doubt that Richard felt conflict about going into the army at age 43, knowing he had promised his father he would never abandon his sister Martha.  But he made his choice because he felt opposing the Nazis would determine the ultimate safety of any of his family that survived. It is clear Martha worried constantly about her brother, as a letter from my dad to Richard in August of 1943, assured his uncle not to worry about dad’s mother.  Dad wrote, “Uncle Richard, you have always been my very best friend.  If today you are going into combat again on your own will, I respect you even more yet.  If anything should ever happen to you, you can be sure that I will take care of mother.”

Richard’s love for my father never ceased.  In the winter of 1945, Dad was standing guard with his unit somewhere in France.  It was pouring rain.  Dad looked up and saw his Uncle Richard walking towards him with tears pouring down his cheeks.  They hugged and spent a couple of hours together.  This was the only time from October 1942 until the end of the war that Richard and dad got to see each other.

Once the war with Germany ended, Richard applied for a pass to travel to Brussels to find his sister Tekla and to Cologne to try to trace the fate of missing family members.  In Brussels, Tekla’s husband Heinz had gotten into some kind of legal trouble and was being held by Belgium authorities. Richard visited him and tried to help. I am not sure what he was able to do, but I have a picture taken in Brussels in June of 1945 of Richard and my dad, with Tekla, Heinz and their daughter Ellen.  I also know, as I have a copy of the affidavit he filed in November of 1945, he sponsored his sister and her family as immigrants to America, swearing to use his income to insure their ability to settle in NY.

In 1949, at 50 years old, Richard was finally able to marry.  His sister was doing well.  My dad was building his own life.  But that was not the end of Richard’s expressions  of love.  In 1959 Martha was diagnosed with cancer, dying in 1960 at 58 years old.  Richard, living then in Allentown, Pa and already dealing with heart problems, spent so much time at her side, writing to my dad, then living in West Virginia, giving constant reports on his mother.  In 1963, his sister Tekla was fighting illness as well. Richard went to NY to be with her and learned she had died a few days earlier.  Her daughter, Ruth, never bothered to let the man who got her parents into the United States know his beloved sister had died.  The funeral had already taken place and Richard was heartbroken.

Richard Stern wrote a short summary of his life in 1959.  He saw his life as messed up.  I never did. Uncle Richard saw me as his grandson. Being with him was so much fun. While visiting us in West Virginia, we took a walk to look for Indians.  At the edge of a forest, we saw an old, thrown out chair.  He told me it belonged to Sitting Bull.  In December of 1967, just a few days before Uncle Richard died, I visited him in the hospital.  Uncle Richard knew I saw him as a hero.  When I walked in he broke down and cried, so upset that I was seeing him suffering from heart failure.  To this day I still feel his love when I think of that moment.

What is love?  Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, from the early 20thcentury writes this, “We see that love and giving always come together. Is the giving a consequence of love, or is perhaps the reverse true: is the love a result of giving?  We usually think it is love which causes giving…But there is another side to the argument.  Giving may bring about love for the same reason that a person loves what he himself has created or nurtured…”

Love is what motivates us to give at key moments during the cycle of our life.  The best we can try to do is to begin, and end, with love.

Walter Romberg and Richard Stern each nurtured, gave, and loved.  Walter’s life was so unsteady.  He was an outcast from much of his family.  His love, however grew under stress, and steadied his life.  Richard’s life was stable.  When Nazism destroyed that stability, his life was driven by love.   Why did I pick a song from the show Carnival for this sermon? Both men lived in Cologne, Germany.  The Karnival of Cologne was part of both of their lives, connecting two opposites. It represents the cycle of their lives. So I sing.

Love makes the world go round

Love makes the world go round

Somebody soon, will love you

If no one loves you now.


High in some silent sky

Love sings a silver song,

Making the earth whirl softly

Love makes the world go round.                 From Carnival, by Bob Merrill


Read Full Post »

It seems like every day we are seeing tweets, FaceBook posts, and news reports about fake news. Every time we read or hear any of this it raises the question, what is true?  What is false?  American politics seems to be the center of fake news, so let me share a great example from American politics.

How many of you know about the XYZ affair?

In 1797, at the beginning of the John Adams administration, relations with France, our ally during the Revolutionary War, became quite tense.  The French Revolution had changed France’s nature, with executions quite prominent, and many Americans, particularly in the Federalist party, no longer trusted the French at all.  President Washington, before retiring from office, even acknowledged that the former ally from our Revolution was in total chaos, and could not be trusted. Washington declared the United States should stay neutral in any conflict between France and Great Britain. The Democratic Republican party members, however, saw the French Revolution as a continuation of the ideals from our revolution, despite evidence that the fall of the French monarchy resulted in the madness of murders and oppression of many French citizens, eventually leading to a dictatorship – Napoleon.

President Adams was a Federalist, and his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, was a Democratic Republican. Great Britain was at war with France.  Jefferson, wanted the US to side with the French.  Adams, abiding by Washington’s policy, wanted to stay neutral. Jefferson met secretly with a French representative in Philadelphia, undermining Adam’s plans.  Then, Adams sent a three person delegation to France to negotiate with the French foreign minister, Talleyrand.  Talleyrand refused to see them, instead having them meet with 3 minor officials.  He insisted that the United States give a large loan to France (in reality at extortion) as well as America paying for the damage French naval ships had done to American merchant ships.  This became known as the XYZ Affair.  Thomas Jefferson believed, and put forward the idea, this affair was a hoax created by the Federalist party, despite factual confirmation of the despicable ways the French were operating.  What made Jefferson’s actions even more reprehensible, was that he and President Adams, had been friends coordinating on numerous previous items for America, including the Continental Congress passing the Declaration of Independence.

A key figure in pushing American neutrality, during the Washington and Adams administrations was Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s treasury secretary.  Hamilton was a realist, recognizing the disaster unfolding in France. Further, he knew that for our newly established country to reach a level of economic strength, we needed a trade agreement with Great Britain.  Jefferson hated Hamilton so much he secretly supported an extremely partisan newspaper, the Aurora, that condemned Hamilton as a monarchist, someone wanting to reestablish American submission to the British monarchy.  Anyone knowing Hamilton’s history recognizes the falsehood of this claim.  Yet Jefferson and his political allies constantly claimed Hamilton and the Federalists were monarchists.  Further, they claimed Hamilton’s financial policies were meant to create his own personal wealth.  The truth is Hamilton was being sensible by knowing America was not ready to participate in a war.  His economic policies formed the basis of American capitalism that would bring our country amazing strength.  Jefferson lacked moral consciousness, shown by his embracing of falsehood.  As our 3rdpresident, he utilized executive powers in the same way he condemned Washington and Adams.

You can see that whatever exists today has deep roots in American history.  Our tendency to ignore truth and to embrace falsehood that supports our ideology seems as strong now as in 1797.  To put this in language we hear a lot today, they were living in their isolated bubbles without caring about the boundaries of others.  I am sure you have heard lots of discussion, for example, how your FaceBook page is filled with links, stories, and postings that feed your political, religious, and personal perspectives.  And I would also guess that most of us have been guilty of posting comments that feed our egos and feelings without caring about the feelings of others.

What is at the core of this problem?  Well, there is never one answer.  The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt would say that we are driven mostly by our instinct and not by our intellect.  He came to that conclusion while analyzing why most people are stuck in their ideological political bubbles, despite what certain information might prove.  I agree with Dr. Haidt but I will add a couple of other aspects, both of which are appropriate for us to reflect upon as part of our process of repentance and atonement during the High Holidays.

If we were to make a real attempt to be morally conscious, we would be sensitive to the impact the words we write or speak will have on others.  I am not saying we should just hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” together. There will always be disagreement. We just too often fail to handle that disagreement in a moral manner.  However, I believe there is a second question we need to ask about what pours out of our mouths – what actually is falsehood and what actually is truth?

Jewish tradition has strong statements on falsehood and truth.

Exodus 23:7 states, “Keep far from a false matter.”  The first dozen verses of chapter 23 are focused on certain themes.  First, nothing should undermine justice, that is, no one should do any action to skew a court case to favor either the wealthy or the poor.  It should be based on fact.  Second, there is a definite attempt to create peace and acceptance of others.  We are told to aid our enemy if their animal has gone astray or has fallen under a burden.  We are told to not oppress the stranger, as we were strangers in Egypt. Perhaps most significantly, is the stress on avoiding falsehood and its impact on justice for all, especially the poor – their needs should not be undermined by the desires of the wealthy.

The Talmud (Shavuot 30b – 31a) puts the statement “Keep far from a false matter” more explicitly in the context of how a judge in a court should operate.  The judge cannot accept bribes.  He cannot advocate for his own statements.  He cannot sit on a court with another judge he knows to be a criminal.  He cannot provide an advantage for a wealthy person over a poor person.  He cannot arrange for a second person to be a witness but not speak, having him there only for the appearance there are the required 2 witnesses.  He cannot even have a student who is an ignoramus sitting before him to observe the court as the mere presence of an ignoramus might cause the judge to err.  In short, the judge must do everything possible to distance himself from falsehood.

Now let’s look at truth. It says in the midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah, “What is God’s seal?  Truth (emet).  And why emet?  It consists of three letters, alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, mem, the middle letter, andtavthe final letter, confirming what it says in Isaiah 44:9, ‘I am the first, and I am the last and beside me there is no God.’”  The Talmud then shares this story about speaking truth:

Rava said, I once thought there was no one person who speaks only the truth. One of the rabbis said to me that even if they would give him all the riches in the world, he would not tell a lie, and told this story.  Once he visited a town called Kushta; whose inhabitants would not tell a lie.  And none of the people there died before his or her time.  He married a woman from there and had 2 sons with her.  One day, his wife was washing her hair.  A neighbor came and knocked on the door.  Thinking it would not be proper to tell the neighbor his wife was washing her hair, he said, “she is not here.”  Subsequently his 2 sons died.  The people of the town came and asked him, “What is the reason for this?” He told them what happened and they said to him, “We beg you, leave our town, and do not incite death against us.” (Sanhedrin 97a)

I am sure you are sensing the same questions as me this story raises.  Truth might indeed be God’s seal, but does that mean we must always tell the truth?  Are there situations in which we can or even should state something false, a lie? Have we, in reality, misunderstood what the concepts of truth and falsehood truly are?  The Talmud wrestles with these questions.

In Baba Metzia Rav Yehuda says there are 3 times one can deviate from the truth.  You can say you did not study a text even if you did. This promotes the value of humility. You can say you did not sleep in a bed, even if you did – as there might be some unseemly residue found in the bed, and you can lie to avoid shame.  Third – you can say you were not treated well by a host in order to prevent others from taking advantage of that person’s hospitality.  In summary, you can lie in order to be humble, to avoid shame, and to protect someone else’s situation.

In Ketubot we get a different approach.  In a debate between the conflicting schools of Shammai and Hillel, the question is how or if you should praise a bride who is  ugly. The school of Shammai says to stick to the truth and only praise the specific good qualities of the bride. The school of Hillel says you should call any bride fair and attractive.  The school of Shammai asks, should you praise her beauty even if she is ugly?  To which the school of Hillel replies that if you limit what you praise about the bride, it implies that the rest of her can be denigrated.  Hillel is not saying to praise anyone truthfully or falsely every time, but know there are certain occasions on which you must only issue praise in a full manner.

Perhaps the strongest argument in the Talmud justifying a lie (Kevamot) states that it is a mitzvah to not be truthful in a situation that will bring peace.  This teaching is based on a lie recorded in the Torah spoken by God. Here it is from Genesis 18, “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years.  Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself saying ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?’  Then God said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?”  There are numerous Jewish texts that draw on this passage from Torah to teach that a falsehood which keeps peace in a household is acceptable, even necessary.

Now comes a key question. How do we reconcile 2 connected teachings with a third that seems in contradiction?  Exodus 23:7 commands us to distance ourselves from falsehood. Truth is the value that should drive and connect everything – it is God’s seal.  Yet God’s lie is used to exemplify how there are times we should use falsehood to push forward other values: humility, avoiding shame, preserving respect for others, and advancing peace.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, an Orthodox rabbi, philosopher and theologian from the early 20thcentury, gives a key insight.  From Michtav mi Eliyahu, a book of his letters compiled by his students we get this thought.  “We had better define truth as that which is conducive to good and which conforms to the will of the Creator; and falsehood as that which furthers the scheme of evil in the world.”

Truth, in other words, is not simply what is factually correct.  Truth is an element that pushes forward goodness in our world; that helps us bring divine presence to our world.  This conforms to the midrash that proclaims truth to be the seal of God. We should not and cannot dismiss factual correctness.  We must always be aware of facts, and then put that awareness in a context that will forward goodness in the world.  Falsehood is more than pushing forward lies.  It is misusing knowledge to advance immorality.  If we tie this back to Exodus 23, it is misusing knowledge to advance the immorality we are commanded NOT to tolerate: the undermining of justice, especially for the poor, the undermining of peace, the abuse of the stranger.

We struggle with this because we tend to cling to idealized, inflexible definitions of morality and truth. Too many of us condemn those who perceive new knowledge changing how we should deal with morality as “moral relativists.”  Years ago I read an article in Newsweek written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  Williams stated we are not moral relativists.  We are simply always discussing what is our idealized truth – meaning the highest ideals that will push forward morality and God’s presence. The more knowledge we gain, the more our idealized truth changes.

Archbishop Williams also made an interesting observation about the relationship between our moral system and science.  We accept a system of science that is always being challenged, ergo always changing as our knowledge increases.  We also accept the need for having moral standards, but change in knowledge forces us to reconsider the parameters of the moral ideal.  The ending of slavery, the increased rights of women, and the acceptance of LGBTQ relationships are just 3 examples of how increasing our knowledge changed our moral idealism.  Those who do not accept those changes then call those of us who do, “moral relativists.”

Truth, then, is also accepting the reality of change in our understanding of how to best follow the moral commandments from the Torah.  As we mature, as we learn, our understanding grows and changes.  Truth is our commitment to improving and expanding our understanding of morality.  Denial of the reality that we are constantly learning new facts, thus adjusting our understanding of morality, is falsehood.  We must have faith that truthfulness exists, and that justice and peace are the highest goals we can pursue.  For God has always represented justice, as well as the high hope for humanity to use truth to reach up and embrace it.  As it says in Psalm 85, “Faithfulness and truth met, justice and peace kiss. Truth springs up from the earth, justice looks down from the heavens.”

Our attempt to constantly understand truth and falsehood, that is to understand what really advances morality at the highest level, is our human method to reach up and try to connect with God.  It is not only about fact and fiction.  It is about our attempts to reach the highest ideals.  As we begin our High Holidays, our time of teshuvahand atonement, let us look into our hearts and souls with the highest goal in mind, a deepening connection to each other that will lead to a deepening connection to the Divine.  May we strive for an embracing of truth.

Shanah Tova metukah

Read Full Post »

Once upon a time, a Chasidic rabbi, Rav Ya’akov Yitzchak told his student, Simcha Bunem, to make a journey to a distant hamlet.  When Simcha Bunem asked what the purpose of the journey was, his teacher remained silent. So Simcha Bunem took several of his fellow Chasidic students with him and traveled.  By the time they arrived at the small village the sky had already turned to dusk.  Because the village had no inn, Simcha Bunem ordered his coachman to stop at the first cottage.  He knocked at the door and was invited in along with his fellow students.  When they asked whether they could join their host for dinner.  The man replied that he had no dairy food and could only offer them a meat meal.

Instantly the Chasidim bombarded the man with questions about his level of keeping kosher.  Who slaughtered the meat? They demanded to know. Were the animal’s lungs free of even the smallest blemish, and was the meat salted enough to draw out all traces of blood as required by kosher law?  The interrogation would have continued had not a commanding voice from the back of the cottage called out to them.  They turned their attention from the owner of the home to a man who looked like a beggar sitting near the hearth smoking a pipe.  “My dear Chasidim,” the beggar began, “With regard to what goes into your mouths, you are scrupulous.  Yet, regarding what comes out of your mouths, you make no inquiries at all.”  When Simcha Bunem heard these words, he knew exactly the reason his teacher had sent him on this journey.

It is significant that a story from Chasidic tradition, a culture that embraces strict observance of Jewish law, reminds us that our commitment to a particular belief should not justify cruel action.  Last night I spoke about how real truth is our attempt to increase goodness in our world. Today we will explore a different approach – the undermining of kindness by cruelty.  And, I will ask each of us to honestly question ourselves:  are we cruel?

We begin with another question.  What is a basic source of cruelty?  The answer is pretty clear – anger.  Unless someone is so mentally or emotionally sick that they gain pleasure out of cruelty, it is anger that pushes us to a cruel action or belief.  The easier we become angry, the faster we slip from exhibiting kindness.  Many of us regret anger, and try to control it.  Some of us see anger as a justification for a belief or action we are taking.

Further, we need to consider what cruelty actually is.  Here I think we can draw on traditional Jewish teachings.  Yes, Judaism is filled with all kinds of rituals and laws a traditionally observant Jew will emphasize and follow.  Yet, there is also an amazing amount of focus between the Torah, Tanach, and Talmud on the necessity for kindness and a discussion of anger and cruelty.

Here is an aggadahfrom the Talmud. (Berachot 7a)

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi, “From where do we learn that the Holy One, Blessed be He, prays?”  As it is stated in Isaiah 56:7, “I will bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in the house of My prayer.”  It does not say “their prayer” but rather “my prayer.”  From here we see that the Holy One prays.  What does God pray?  Rav Zutra bar Tovia said, God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger towards My people for their transgressions, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes, and may I conduct myself towards my children with the attribute of mercy, and may I enter before them beyond strict law.  Rabbi Yishma’el ben Elisha taught, “Once I entered the innermost sanctuary of the Holy of Holies to offer incense, and I saw the Lord of Hosts seated upon a high and exalted throne.  He said to me, ‘Yishma’el, My son, bless Me.’  I said to Him, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger and may Your mercy prevail over You other attributes, and my You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and may you enter before them beyond strict law.’  The Holy One Blessed be He, nodded His head.  This teaches us that you should not take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly.”  (Berachot 7a)

Interesting that God’s sole prayer is one to help God with anger management. Remember, we are taught in the first chapter of Genesis that humans are created in the image of God.  As Jews do not believe God is a physical being, “image of God” is not about appearance.  It is about emotions, intentions, spirituality and intellect. So we can draw certain lessons from this Talmudic story.  First, that God experiences anger yet understands how kindness, mercy, and caring must take precedence over anger, and all other attributes.  We humans should be imitating God’s priorities. Second, God struggles, ergo, of course we struggle.  God’s use of prayer is significant as the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is related to the verb l’hitpaleil, which means “to judge oneself.”  True prayer, then, is not about asking God to do us favors, but about examining if we are behaving the way God requires and models.  Third, God appreciates a blessing from a human, teaching us we should not look at fellow human beings in denigration.  Rather, we should be open to accept any person’s offered blessing.

Here is another question. How extensive is God’s anger?  The same page of Talmud addresses this.  It says in Psalms 7:12 that God has anger every day.  Yet, that anger lasts less than a 58 thousandth of an hour.  Indeed, Psalms also teaches us that the vast majority of God’s day is spent in kindness and mercy.  This page of Talmud also teaches that an evil person knows when God’s moment of anger occurs and uses that brief moment to justify their cruel actions. Now let’s consider this question: what is cruelty?

Rabbi Akiba, one of the key early Talmudic contributors, teaches this: “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a fundamental principle of the Torah, so that you will not say, “I was degraded, let my fellow be degraded with me; I was cursed, let my fellow be cursed with me.”  Rabbi Tanchuma adds to Akiba’s teaching saying, “If you do this, know whom you are degrading, for each person was made in God’s image.”  Cruelty, then, is degrading a fellow human being; ANY other human being, as we are all made in God’s image.  And remember, God’s image is not physical, but intellectual and spiritual.  A person’s physical appearance is irrelevant to God. It is their soul that must try to be as God tries to be.  Why am I stressing the need to dismiss the importance of physicality?  Because so much of our anger and cruelty is based on a physical appearance that makes us uncomfortable.  We are now experiencing a despicable episode of this in our country.

I sadly share some incidents.  A Yemenite American man, who along with his 3 youngest children were American citizens, committed suicide when his wife and 2 older children who were not citizens, were denied visas to join him because of the travel ban.

A middle-aged couple living peacefully in Brooklyn for 2 decades decided to visit their daughter and son in law – an American army sergeant who just returned from duty in Afghanistan – at his military base in upstate NY.  They were turned over to ICE and face possible deportation to their home country of Mexico.

A 63 year old Peruvian born grandmother, who became an American citizen, now has US agents trying to take her citizenship away from her, presumably because she was working for a fraudster boss.  This is despite the fact she fully cooperated with the police in the probe into her boss’s business.

A Guatemalan mother who crossed the Rio Grande this spring with her 8 year old son got caught by the U.S. border patrol, had her son taken away from her just before she was put on a plane back to Guatemala.  She cried that she could not go without her son.

Let’s add to these individual episodes the policy decision to retract the Temporary Protected Status of 195,000 El Salvadorians, 57,000 Hondurans, and 50,000 Haitians.  Yes, one can argue that legally that status is supposed to be temporary, yet, all of these folks fled their countries because of natural disasters or oppressive circumstances, and they are NOT living off of welfare here.  94% of the men and 82% of the women are working, contributing 4.5 billion dollars in pre-tax wages annually to our GDP.  Some are small business owners.  Reality is they have established positive lives here.  Why can we not modify the law and embrace their presence and contributions instead of just throwing them out?

We can add the annual increase of arrests of undocumented immigrants by 40,000 – most of whom have no criminal records.  We can add to that the still unresolved question about those protected by DACA or the “Dreamers.”  We can add to this an increase in the retraction of American citizenship from Hispanics born close to the Mexican border in Texas because of claims a midwife or doctor falsified the birth certificate – even though these investigations were concluded in 2009 and despite the fact that those under investigation are not criminals, but often people who served in our military or even the border patrol.

Those who support these policies will cite the necessity to abide by the law.  They will point out the need to keep criminal elements from coming into our country.  Those who oppose these policies will cite the fact that the criminal rate among immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, is less than the rest of our population.  They will say that opposition to current immigration policy is in the same class as opposition to racist policies overturned in the 1960’s.  I will add that no one of any common sense supports open borders allowing the admittance of criminals into America.  The problem is how we define criminality.  Is trying to illegally enter our country, while running from a horror in your native land, a wrong act?  Here, however, is the key question I ask of everyone debating these issues, what is the true common thread shared by all of the incidents and policies I just shared?

The answer is the center of my concern – we are talking about opposition to non-white people establishing their lives in our country.  If you doubt this opposition exists, then here is what Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham said on August 8, “In some parts of the country it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.  Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”  While Ingraham tried to qualify that she did not mean ethnicity, David Duke certainly saw it that way and embraced her statement.  Indeed, how can you be referring to a change in our population’s demographics, including immigration (which Ingraham later mentioned) and not be referring to people of color?  Ingraham, without intending to, made clear the true cruel, bigoted feelings of a significant segment of our country.

If we will be perfectly honest with ourselves, we must ask if we are part of that group of people who are scared over the demographics changing at a rate where white people will become a minority sometime between 2040 and 2045.  I am convinced that fear is the basis of support for the current policy approaches to immigration and the repeal of Temporary Protected Status for non-whites.  I am convinced that fear is why the status of the Dreamers has failed to be resolved.  I am convinced this racist stream is confirmed by the inarguable increase in the public presence of white nationalism.  By the way, this group includes an increased amount of anti-Semites who take anti-Jewish public positions such as Holocaust denial. If you need evidence of the climbing of white supremacy, just read about the racist robo-calls received even by some members of our congregation after Mayor Gillum won the Democratic primary for governor last month.

What I have just described is one of the worst examples of cruelty condemned by Jewish tradition – consistently so from Torah through Talmud to today.  If we are truly trying to act in the image of God, we cannot focus on the physicality of others, but their soulfulness.  Here are 2 clear citations from Torah.

From Exodus 23:9  “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), since you know the stranger’s soul, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

From Leviticus 19:34,35 “When a stranger (ger) lives with you in your land, do not persecute him.  The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your citizens. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”

The Hebrew word ger in these quotes can be translated as either alien or stranger.  The quote from Exodus reminds us that it is the soul, not the appearance that takes precedence, for we share elements of the soul with the stranger.  The Leviticus quote teaches our treatment of the stranger should not just be tolerance, but love.  By ending the verse with the phrase “I am the Lord your God,” we are reminded it is our task to try and emulate God.  The importance to our people of kind treatment of the stranger is amplified by constant repetition throughout the Torah.  It is re-enforced by teachings in Jeremiah and Ezekiel – all stressing not to mistreat the ger.

Yes, cruelty is failing to follow this very clear commandment from the Torah, but there is another part to cruelty as well.  Recall I shared an aggadah about God’s anger. Recall that the Talmud teaches God’s daily anger is about a 58 thousandth of an hour.  The same page also shows how a cruel person draws on the limited  moments of God’s anger to justify their cruelty.

The example it gives is Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet who is hired by king Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites.  Balaam is considered evil by most of rabbinic literature, but someone God took control of to convert his words from curses to blessings.  Talmud teaches that Balaam had knowledge of when God’s anger occurred. In Numbers 24:16 it refers to him as someone who has knowledge of the one who is most high (God).  In Numbers 23:6 Balaam declares, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed?”  The rabbis interpret this to mean that Balaam, indeed, any person who is evil, will use their knowledge of God to curse and oppress people.  They will take their knowledge that God has a brief moment each day of feeling anger, and use that to justify actions based on God’s anger. They will stress Psalms 7:12 that teaches us about the daily moment of God’s anger but will ignore Psalms 30:6 that states, “His anger is just for a moment, his favor for a lifetime.”

The person trying to justify an evil act will draw on a Biblical verse to justify that action, often ignoring the full context of the verse as well as the general direction of Biblical teachings.  Historically, this has been done by bigots, drawing on Biblical verses to support slavery, oppose equal rights for women, to condemn gays and lesbians.  All of this is a metaphor for a person drawing on the brief moment of God’s anger to justify an evil position.  When this happens, they are purposely ignoring the overall dominant themes of the Bible, Christian or Jewish, on justice, on acceptance of all people as children of God.

Last night I concluded my definition of truth by saying it is not simply about factual correctness, but real truth is what pushes morality forward in our world.  The truth we all must embrace is to search our own hearts and souls, to confront our own prejudices, our own bigotries.  A real truth is that we too often make our judgments based on appearance.  A real truth is that we need to connect to other people’s hearts and souls.  A real truth is that the atmosphere in our country today is inhibiting our ability to do this.  A real truth is that our treatment of immigrants and refugees is an expression of our personal moral failures.  A real truth is that too many of us worship the wrong elements of our world, those elements that feed our anger and help us justify wrong actions, even if they are technically legal actions.

What is it that causes God’s anger?  Rabbi Meir teaches that when the sun rises and the kings of different countries place their crowns on their heads and bow down to the sun, God grows angry.  So each day starts with that flashing moment of God’s anger, caused by ego and worshipping an idol.  But that moment flashes by and God’s compassion and faith in us drives the rest of the day.  The final questions we must ask ourselves are these.  What are we doing to justify God’s compassion for us?   Are we trying to be in God’s image by connecting to the hearts and souls of the strangers?  And finally, ask yourself – Am I cruel?

Now is the time when we are supposed to look into ourselves, to judge ourselves, as we know God will. Then, we must begin to change. The section of the Talmud I have been teaching closes with this thought.  A single regret or pang of guilt in one’s heart is preferable to many lashes by others that cause physical pain.  It is the shape of our soul that concerns God, not our body.  It is our willingness to judge ourselves in truth, not judge others that concerns God.  It is our actions to create shalom, with others that please God.  If we are serious about our teshuvah, our repentance, it will center not on our needs, but how we treat the needs of others.  May our journey in these Yamim n’orim, these High Holidays, bring us to a place not just of acceptance, but of love for the stranger.  May we truly live our lives in the image of God.  Amen.


Read Full Post »

The following is a letter I sent to each county commissioner.

To Our Leon County Commissioners:

I am writing to express my disappointment (well actually my anger) at the increased hesitation over proceeding to establish a Leon County Children’s Services Council.  The only concern I truly understand is over making sure it passes, so as NOT to deprive the underserved children of Leon County of the support they need.  In reality it is not only the children who need the services the CSC would provide. Our community at large will reap huge benefits when these children become adults.

One of the objections I am hearing, from numerous parties who oppose the CSC (in particular the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce) is we do not know the necessary details.  I am curious as to what details are missing. In fact, much research has been conducted and the proof has been long established about the needs to improve early childhood learning, literacy, as well as mental and physical health of young children.  Let’s look at just one example – reduction of crime

Multiple studies indicate that improving literacy will reduce the percentage of people arrested for a wide range of crime.  Here is one link to research:  https://literacymidsouth.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/incarceration-and-low-literacy/

The state of Florida uses 3rdgrade literacy rates to predict the number of prison cells that will be needed in the future.  Texas uses 4thgrade literacy rates.  A CSC that invests in a combination of early childhood education, literacy programs and mental health will impact the crime rate in Leon County. Further, the benefits will go far beyond reducing crime.  Businesses will benefit from an increased population that can provide workers and customers.  Our economic system will both save money (less folks put in prison) as well as be more productive.

There is a slew of evidence/research that covers many aspects of the benefits of the CSC. Perhaps most significant is the need to increase the self confidence and vocabulary levels of children by the time they are 3 years old.  Brains are about 90% developed by the time a child is 3 years old.  While development continues through adolescence, indeed until about 25 years old, the need to have positive programs for children 0 to 5 is obvious and will have the greatest impact on improving the adult population of the next generation.  A University of Chicago research program from 2016 gives the details on many of the benefits from improved early childhood learning programs.

Enough about details.  There are professionals in our community who are better able than me to inform you on the research done that addressing both needs and programmatic solutions.  In truth, the opposition mostly has nothing to do with either details or concern it will not pass.  Rather, the opposition to the CSC is fearful it WILL pass.


Well, because this opposition is led by folks who either:

  • Are very shortsighted in their assessment of what will truly benefit the community in the long run verses the short run.
  • Are mostly concerned about giving up some money in increased taxes.
  • Are opposed to any government program that is perceived as adding to “big government.”Some prefer to have it as part of the commission’s budget/agenda.
  • A combination of all of the above.

Allow me to address each of these “concerns.”

  • As stated above, the research on the long term benefits is clear. Providing necessary services especially to children 0 to 5 will bring the benefits to our community as stated above.
  • The half mil increase translates to just an increase of $50 of tax per every $100 thousand of property ownership. A person with a half million dollar house will pay $250.  This is affordable at every level especially when considering the long term improvements to the general community.  In addition, we have just received a tax decrease on the federal government level, and if we are honest, we must admit Florida is one of the lowest taxing states in the country.  Property owners can afford this with no problem.
  • This is not creating big government. This is a local decision that has to be renewed by voters.  Further, having children’s services be part of the commission’s budget and decision making every year, puts them at the mercy of political lobbying as opposed to assessment by professionals who know how to address the needs and have a built in cash flow to do so.  While I do not oppose programs for elderly or veterans, children’s needs are the only ones that truly affect the future of the community. They should NOT be at the yearly disposal of a group of county politicians.  The result might be the ending of programs that need a number of years to change the path of children, due to the pressure of folks lobbying for other needs or a budget difficulty.  All of this is why the independence of a CSC is actually critical.

You will hear from all those who are opposing the CSC that they care about children.  Here is the reality.  If you truly care about children, your focus should be on how to best get this done, not to find excuses to not pursue a CSC.  If you are concerned about the complexity of this fall’s ballot, put it on the primary ballot or declare a path to have it voted on for sure ASAP after this fall’s election.

I will be very blunt. If you do not find a way to create an independent council that provides needs for underserved children; which will in turn create numerous long term benefits for our community, then do NOT say you care about children.  Your words will be as meaningless as people who offer “prayers and thoughts” as their only response to school shootings.

Rabbi Jack Romberg

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »