The subject sequence of the first few parashot of the Torah is logical, narrowing with each step.  They begin with a focus on the creation of the world (universe), followed by the creation of humanity, which hits the glitch of falling into ultra violence, so in parashat Noach the point is about rebooting humanity.  We see by the end of that parashah, through the story of the Tower of Babel, that despite the rebooting, humanity has consistent moral problems.  In this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha, the focus narrows even more, on the story of Abraham, Sarah and the family they create that begins the basis for the Israelite people.

Beginning with this week’s parashah, the balance of Genesis lays the groundwork for how our ancestors ended up in Egypt, which is the basis for the rest of the Torah.  Many of the individual stories and myths establish thoughts on the essence of God and how these thoughts are applied to our way of life.  Here is one story about Abraham in Lech L’chathat pushes us to think about God.

A fugitive informed Avram (Abraham’s name at this point of the Torah) that a group of kings invaded the homeland taking prisoners and possessions from local kings and cities. One of the prisoners taken was Avram’s nephew, Lot.  Avram gathered his crew, went and defeated the invaders, and brought back the possessions taken as well as the captured people.  Here is what happened next, Genesis 14:17 – 24

“When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Shalembrought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High.  He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator (koneh)of heaven and earth.   And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.  Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.”   But Abram said to the  king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the LORD, God Most High, Creator (koneh) of heaven and earth:’”  I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’

There are numerous ways to interpret the words and actions of Melchizedek, the king of Shalem, as well as comparing him to the king of Sodom.  A first and obvious one, brought up by Or Hachaym, is how Melchizedek brought out food and drink for those who saved his people and possessions whereas the king of Sodom brought nothing.  Avram notices the difference and pays an unrequested tithe to Avimelech.  Avram then refuses to accept anything from the king of Sodom other than what his crew needed to recover themselves.

But there is a lot more in understanding the depth of Melchizedek, described as a priest of “God Most High.”  One question is whether he believes in monotheism like Avram or  follows another God.  A midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer refers to Melchizedek as Noah’s son, Shem, ergo a monotheist.  However, at this time, given what would be the impossible age of Shem, it is better to recognize Melchitzedek as a seperate from Shem.  His name can be translated as “my king of righteousness or justice” and the place he rules, Shalem, can be translated as “peace.” Some commentators say that Shalem is actually Jerusalem, ergo, Melchitzedek is already attached to God in the place Jewish tradition sees as God’s closest connection to this world. So one lesson to draw from this is the only way to truly establish peace and connection to God, is by a life of righteousness and justice.

We can take this even further by looking at the term Melchitzedek uses for God, koneh.  Numerous commentators translate konehas “creator.”  However, the root of this word means “to acquire,” ergo, Ramban and other commentators translate this as “owner.”  The implication is that God did not just create the world, but owns it as well.

This is a critical difference; not because Judaism teaches that God controls how everything happens before we do it, but to remind us that our supposed ownership of any part of the world is very transient compared to the eternity of God. There are numerous examples in the written and oral Torah that can be tied to the idea that God owns the world, not us.  One is in Leviticus 25, where the Israelites are told they must not bother to plant crops every 7thyear, as the land must have a sabbath for rest. Another is Deuteronomy 15 in which any indentured servants must be set free in that 7th year.  Yet one more example is a midrash that tells a story about God instructing Adam and Eve that they must take proper care of trees and plants of the world as if they do not, they are the ones responsible for ruining the world.

Look at the responsibilities implied by God, who is eternal, owning the world.  Our use is temporary and not true ownership. We must treat fellow humans with proper respect, the land needed for planting with limitation and the existence of the environment in a way that will preserve it.  Our personal profit is not as important as the life of righteousness and justice we must follow in order to create a place of “Shalem,” and a deeper connection to God.

When Avram refuses to accept any material payment from the king of Sodom, he uses the same word for God, koneh, as Melchitzedek, illustrating he is perceiving God in a way that acknowledges he must put his personal desires under control to create a better society and preserve the beauty of this world.  You will see a way this plays out in next week’s parashah.  If we want to consider ourselves the descendents of Avram (Abraham), then we must do the same.

When personal immoral disasters occur, trying to figure out who caused it is often complicated.  It is usually possible to find a justification to condemn any participant in the situation that results in moral (and sometimes physical) decimation.  Yes, there are incidents in which a witness can confirm a horrible misconduct (rape, abuse, bullying etc.), but there are more cases in which trying to clarify the problem source is a difficult and complex discussion. In Noach, this week’s Torah portion, there is an episode demonstrating this.  Here it is from Genesis 9:20 through 25.

“And Noah began to be a man of the earth and he planted a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk; and he laid uncovered inside his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Yafet took a garment, laid it upon both of their shoulders, and went backward, covering the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.  And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’”

Here are some observations and questions you can ask about this episode:

  • What is the true sin that happened here?
  • Who is to blame for the problem, Noah, who got drunk, Ham who saw his father’s nakedness, or Canaan, who is the one being punished?
  • Ham is actually the middle son, not the youngest son, so who is meant by the youngest son?
  • Why is the punishment and curse going on Noah’s grandson, Canaan, instead of Ham?

In the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin (on 70a), the actual sin is described as either a castration of Noah or a Sodomizing of Noah.  One argument says it is both.  In either case it is Ham that is declared the one who committed the sin.  This is based on the used word vayar, and he (Ham) saw.  This word appears in other places in the Tanach when someone is about to be abused.  The example given in commentary is when Dinah was seen then abused.  One reason given that Canaan is the one being cursed by Noah is Noah wanted to have a fourth son, and after being castrated could not, so he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan.  Another reason given is that in verse 9:1 God has blessed all three of Noah’s sons, so the only way Noah can get revenge is to curse one of Ham’s sons.

Here is the problem with blaming Ham.  Noah got himself drunk.  The overdrinking of wine is an item addressed in Jewish tradition.  Ergo, what Noah did begins this problem.  Indeed, the larger context of the above explanation of the sin given in Sanhedrin is a series of explanations about the problems with those who do not control their drinking of wine.  So now we can see the complication in the question of who is to blame for the moral outrage occurring here?

Here is another perspective. The story in Sanhedrin is not matching the literal translation of the Noah story.  Ham is said only to see the nakedness of his father.  Noah seems so embarrassed by this, that he decides to take it out on his grandson, Ham’s son, which certainly hurts Ham more than if he were cursed himself.  If all Ham did was to see the nakedness and then inform his brothers, what was he guilty of other than not covering Noah himself.  Ham’s biggest sin was to expose his son to a punishment for something he had nothing to do with.  Ham was protected by the privilege of being blessed by God.  His son was not.

Perhaps that is truly the sin that must be most avoided.  How often do we take our actions in a way to protect the following generations?  How often do we act simply for ourselves versus those who will exist after we are gone? Do we care only about our privilege, or attempting to improve life for those who come after us?

There is a Talmudic story in tractate Ta’anit that Choni Hamagil took a 70 year nap.  When he woke up he saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked him why he was doing this and he answered, “When I came into this world I found a carob tree that others had planted for me.  Just as my ancestors planted for me, I plant for my descendents.”

In the story from the Torah and the version from Sanhedrin, Noah and Ham are both morally irresponsible.  Both seem to care more about themselves then the following generations.  While the story of Noah surviving the flood is one explaining how humanity survived, the story of his wine drinking, nakedness and whatever Ham did illustrates their moral failure that impacts the next round of humanity’s existence.  A question we must ask ourselves is this:  how do we stop acting like Noah and Ham and create the right world for the children to come?  And the follow up question is this:  are we over focused on pointing at a person to blame or on creating a better world?

The past couple of weeks have brought out illustrations of what is seriously going wrong with the values of our country.  Some call it polarization.  That is a true label, but I would go even further and say that polarization is based on the refusal to tolerate any diversity of thought.  Each side of the political spectrum is becoming hyper focused on getting its folks to think and believe the same, and not accept different ways of thinking or analyzing issues and events at the center of their attention.

Here is example number one. It has become clear that a significant group of people in the left wing are insisting that the only way to establish a health care system that best serves the American people is to create “Medicare for all” which must include the elimination of all private health insurance.  There is refusal to even consider how the private health insurance held by so many American workers through their employers is their preference.  Democratic candidates who even start to question the best solution or combination are being condemned as too conservative and not worthy of the nomination for president.  There are other issues starting to fall into the same mud hole – how to handle creating more education opportunities for those at the bottom of our economy and the best way to handle serious environmental/climate change issues are just two examples.  These are all serious issues that need diverse thought in order to find the best solutions.  The left, however, is becoming too obstinate placing the necessity to think alike in order to be accepted in place of diversity of thought.

This is an undermining of the best definition of “liberalism,” which is “open mindedness.”

The right’s obstinance was demonstrated by their embracing of Trump’s change to the celebration of American Independence Day – July 4th.  Yes, it is understandable that some folks would enjoy and appreciate honoring the American military, yet it is also very understandable why so many people would question the manner in which Trump decided to do this – at a large public expense with funds taken from original intended uses.  However the real exposure of the right wing’s true problem, which is dedication to a personal figure (Trump) as opposed to support of true American values is through postings and comments in social media.

Trump made ignorant historical comments that many news organizations reported and/or put in a satiric manner.  Yes, sometimes Trump makes a correct decision (correct left wingers?), but Trump supporters illustrated their own narrow mind set by either trying to explain his remarks as actually true, or by saying he was really referring to something else, or by simply stating their dedication to the president they admire, refusing to acknowledge the truth of the following:  his constant lying, his constant misstatement of historic facts, his constantly proven immorality, his stating of policy position through narcissistic praise of himself.  A large chunk of Trump supporters have become simple demagogic followers.  Being dedicated to Trump has become more important to them than standing for true American and moral values.

Why do I see this lesson coming from July 4th?   Not really because of the celebration in Washington, DC.  No, I have been researching the heroic life of my great uncle Richard.  Part of his heroism came in World War II while serving in the 48thEngineer Combat Battalion.  I found a book written about the history of this battalion during the war, and here is what I read in the prologue of the book on July 4th:  “An outfit isn’t a machine…It’s a group of 600 individual personalities who are thinking 600 different ways towards getting the job done.  It’s the 600 ways of thinking that makes an outfit good.”

Wow, imagine the worthiness of an army battalion being judged not by the single mindedness of its members, but of its diversity of thought!  This battalion was cited by President Roosevelt for the excellence of its performance during a very difficult and critical section of its campaign in Italy.  The book shows the diversity of the soldiers and their approaches to solving the issues confronting them.

Our country needs to reject mental obstinance and embrace the diversity of individuals and their thoughts, fulfilling the basic American value exemplified by an army battalion in World War II.  Then we are true Americans.


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”)


The anti-abortion laws recently passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri have raised a range of objections and questions.  One powerful objection is the legal wording makes it impossible for a 12 year old girl, who was raped, to avoid going through a pregnancy that potentially ruins her entire life.  The most popular question raised about this legislation is if their purpose is to present a case to the Supreme Court in order to overturn Roe v Wade.  These are the perspectives of those who are advocating to protect women’s reproductive rights.

There is, however, another question that needs to be raised about this legislation.  Is it an attempt by those of a very particular evangelical Christian perspective, to undermine religious diversity in the United States? Considering a fetus being aborted to be the same as the murder of 14 year old teenager at a public high school is not a universal religious perspective. The key issue to raise about this group of Christians is do they truly see fetal life the equivalent of life outside of the womb.  In addition, we need to realize there are extremely different religious perspectives defining what is fully formed human life.  To understand this we must look at the Jewish perspective on the various aspects of issues that can be tied to abortion.

Jewish teachings originate from the Torah’s description of a potential incident.  In Exodus 21:22 and 23 we read that if two men have a violent quarrel that results in a pregnant woman loses her fetus, then a fine will be laid upon the man who caused the miscarriage (verse 22).  The very next verse states that if there is further harm, then the punishment is life for a life, eye for an eye, etc.  Generally, further harm is seen as applicable to the woman ergo, “life for a life” means the death penalty for killing the woman. This is largely interpreted in Jewish law as meaning the life of a fetus is not on the same level as fully formed human life.  In addition, Jewish tradition teaches that our soul arrives as our body is being born – another way to define fully formed human life.

One example of how this difference in the level of life is applied is how the death of a fetus is ritually observed versus the death of a fully formed human.  A person who dies is supposed to have ritual washing (taharah), be guarded leading to the funeral by a person sitting with them and reciting Psalms, a full funeral with a eulogy plus a full mourning period beginning with the first 7 days (shivah).  Those who lose a fetus are not required to do the same set of rituals.  They can opt to do them but only if these observances do not interfere with other mitzvoth required by Jewish law.  The key point is that death rituals are not required for a lost fetus.

Now let’s consider another subject, not abortion but potentially related to abortion.  A passage from Nazir 51a-b states that one rabbinic master observes that a fetus is actually part of a woman’s body, same as her thigh.  The context being discussed is whether a fetus in a dead woman’s body is considered a separate body just because it would eventually leave the womb.  There is not agreement on the status of the fetus here, just showing how as early as the development of the Talmud, there were rabbis who saw the fetus as part of a woman.  The perspective of a fetus being part of a woman’s body arises again in Gittin 23b, in a discussion if a woman who is a slave can advocate for the freedom of her unborn child.  Again the fetus is proclaimed to be like her thigh in the matter of obtaining freedom from slavery.  This is another way of seeing, from a Jewish perspective, that a fetus is not fully formed human life.

Now we come to a specific teaching on abortion.  In the Mishnah, Oholot 7:6 it states that if a woman’s life is in danger during the delivery of a child, the child must be cut up in her womb, for her life takes precedence over the life of the child not yet delivered.  Indeed, even if the child is almost delivered, as long as the greater part has not emerged, the child can be killed in order to save the woman’s life, as the Mishnah states that the life of the mother has precedence over the life of the child.  This specific abortion teaching demonstrates an application of the difference in the level of life between a fetus and a fully formed human.

The disagreement among rabbis over many centuries is not that the mother’s life takes precedence, but does this passage allow abortions for reasons other than saving the mother’s life. One basis for the argument it does not is connected to Sanhedrin 57b, which states that descendants of Noah (i.e. non Jews) can be convicted as murderers for killing a fetus.  Further, rabbis who feel that abortion is like a murder might argue that the reason a child being born can be killed if the mother’s life is in danger is connected to the law din rodef that says anyone can kill a person who is chasing someone in attempt to murder them.

While there are rabbis who have ruled against abortion, it is important to point out that the general approach of how Judaism defines life gives much more flexibility for having an abortion beyond an actual threat to end the mother’s life.  This is not a conclusion about modern progressive rabbis, but rabbis across the Jewish spectrum for centuries.  One example is the opinion of Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, a former chief Rabbi of Israel from the early 20thcentury, who gave permission to a woman to have an abortion when her doctor determined the presence of the fetus would cause her to be permanently deaf.  Clearly, this rabbi was concerned not just about the woman dying, but the quality of her life.

Based on rabbinic texts as well as a large range of rabbis’ opinions across time and various movements, here is a summary of what I would classify as a majority Jewish perspective. First, it must be clear that a fetus IS life, and should not be ended callously.  However, it is not considered life on the same level as a fully formed human such as a 14 year old teenager.  A fetus does not have its soul.  Second, there is text showing the opinion of some Talmud era rabbis that the fetus is considered part of the woman’s body; ergo in today’s context the decisions made about the body are up to the woman.  Abortion, as something that affects a woman’s body, cannot then be strictly prohibited.  Third, and perhaps most important, making the decision on aborting a fetus is not just based on a threat that ends the woman’s life, but about the quality of life that woman can lead.  We understand today this must include psychology as well as physical health. We simply need to care that a woman’s quality of life is given the same consideration as a man’s.

However, the laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri are not just based on men’s attempts to control women.  There are many women who vehemently oppose abortion.  Another reality is the attempts of certain Evangelical Christian groups to force their religious views on the rest of America.  It is generally the same religious groups that oppose the existence of same sex marriage.  The larger context, therefore, is for us to protect the right of various religious perspectives to exist in our country, and not allow a particular one to define specific laws that can be proven to detriment many who are affected.  Opposition to these strict anti-abortion laws must include the stand that no religious group has the right to impose their religious beliefs onto the rest of us.  Judaism represents a belief in the respect for life, but a difference in life at different times of development.

If we recognize that fully formed human life requires a different approach than life developing in a woman’s womb, then we must also believe in the obligation not to oppress fellow humans and to give them the help they need to develop their best possible life.  Our obligations to fully developed humans are repeated again and again in the Bible (Hebrew and Christian) so the question we must ask ourselves is this:  by accepting a particular religious perspective what is the greatest impact we can have on improving a person’s life?


“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.






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

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


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


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