#CarpoolKaraoke for the #JewishNewYear – Happy 5777!

25 Sep
Temple Torat Emet staff sing in the Jewish New Year with #CarpoolKaraoke

Temple Torat Emet staff sing in the Jewish New Year with #CarpoolKaraoke

Warm wishes to all for a sweet Jewish New Year. May it be filled with joy and song. Enjoy this video I produced!

The Legacy of Justice Louis D. Brandeis

9 Sep
Justice Louis D. Brandeis

Justice Louis D. Brandeis

“Other people’s money.” Think about that phrase for a moment and what it triggers in your mind. For me, the phrase conjures the notion that when one is entrusted with the care of someone else’s money or property, you have to take special care of it, even more so than if it were your own. Do you know who coined that phrase? Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice on the United States Supreme Court. This year marks the 100th anniversary since his nomination by President Woodrow Wilson and the start of his distinguished 23-year term as the first Jewish Justice on our nation’s highest court.

 

Jeffrey Rosen, a leading Constitutional scholar and author of  the recent book Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet, describes Brandeis as “the most farseeing, progressive justice of the 20th century, the one whose judicial philosophy is most relevant for the court today as it confronts questions involving regulation in a time of economic crisis and the preservation of constitutional liberty in a time of technological change.

 

On this Shabbat of Parashat Shofetim, it’s natural for us to recall a towering presence in American jurisprudence and one of the most prominent Jewish Americans in the history of this country. However, there are three specific matters in Parashat Shofetim that invite an appreciation of the Brandeis legacy.

 

  1. Other people’s money: The Torah discusses the appointment of a king. Public leadership is necessary for the security and overall welfare of the community. However, unlike other nations of the time, the king is not divine. The king is a human being subject to the Torah’s laws like everyone else. In this context, the Torah emphasizes the importance of integrity of the office. רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽיהוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃     Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses. Integrity of the office mandates not using public funds for personal enrichment. Louis D. Brandeis was passionate about this issue and wrote a book titled “Other People’s Money.” Brandeis was the most important critic of bigness in business and government since Thomas Jefferson. He was a fierce opponent of oligarchs like J.P. Morgan, who took reckless risks with other people’s money by investing in complicated financial instruments whose value they couldn’t possibly understand. Brandeis forecast the crash of 1929 that launched the Great Depression, and his wisdom anticipates the financial crisis of 2008.
  2. As a Justice, one of his great legacies is defining the right to privacy within the Constitution. Here too, there are roots to be found in Parashat Shofetim (19:14). We learn:

לֹ֤א תַסִּיג֙ גְּב֣וּל רֵֽעֲךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּבְל֖וּ רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים בְּנַחֲלָֽתְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּנְחַ֔ל בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

 

You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.

 

 

In other words, don’t move the fence between your property and your neighbor’s to add to your field. Why does the Torah have to mention such a specific type of theft? The Torah already stated numerous times that it is forbidden to steal!

It is suggested that the Torah is teaching the value of privacy. A fence serves two purposes. It marks the property line between neighbors. It also protects each neighbor from peering into what the other party is doing. Each homeowner can do what he pleases in his yard without feeling that someone is looking over his shoulder. When one moves the fence over and intrudes on his neighbors property he’s not only stealing his physical space, he is also taking away his emotional security. He’s stealing his right to peace of mind. The Torah is more than just a handbook of laws and commandments. It teaches us how to live respectfully with others by ensuring everyone the necessary privacy to pursue his or her individual interests.

 

Brandeis was a champion of the modern right to privacy. He was a visionary in anticipating challenges created through the development of technology and potential encroachment on individual liberty. He writes in one case: “  The progress of science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. Ways may someday be developed by which the government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home. Advances in the psychic and related sciences may bring means of exploring unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions.”

 

Rosen notes that Brandeis anticipates FMRI technology, brain scans, things that can reveal our unexpressed emotions. And he’s insisting you can’t just focus on the legal principle the framers were embracing – that you had to break into someone’s house and trespass on their lands – you have to focus on the value they were trying to protect, which is intellectual privacy. So Brandeis is challenging us – take the framers values, translate them in light of these new technologies and make them our own.

 

 

  1. Finally, Brandeis was a Zionist who rallied the American Jewish community to support a Jewish state in our national homeland. Parashat Shofetim opens: Judges and officials you shall appoint בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ within all your gates, in the dwelling places which Adonai you God is giving you (16:18). Two verses later is the clarion call צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָֽרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ Justice justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you. God promises our ancestors the Land, but it must be a place of justice. In the early twentieth century Jews fleeing persecution began rebuilding a Jewish national home. They sought justice and launched the Zionist project to realize the ideals of the Jewish people in control of their own destiny.  It’s hard to believe today, but American Jews at the time were not sold on Zionism. Many American Jews  a century ago from all points on the religious spectrum were wary of Zionism and concerned about the perception of dual loyalties. Brandeis, on the other hand, championed Zionism and made it an American value. “The highest Jewish ideals are essentially American in a very important particular,” he proclaimed. “It is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideal of the twentieth century.” Brandeis often said: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” His influence on President Wilson and the British government helped pave the way to the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that was an important milestone in the path to Jewish statehood.

 

On this Shabbat, Jews around the world are reminded of the necessity to pursue justice and build societal institutions rooted in justice. Louis Brandeis was an outstanding Jewish American whose vision for justice reaches into our own generation. We remember him for his personal integrity, his commitment to liberty and his dedication to Zionism, which transformed the Jewish people. He embodied the Torah’s call צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף. May his memory be for a blessing.

Remembering Matt and Sara on Tisha B’Av

14 Aug
Love Finer Than Wine Edited by Edward C. Bernstein Foreword by Mike Kelly, author of The Bus on Jaffa Road

Love Finer Than Wine
Edited by Edward C. Bernstein
Foreword by Mike Kelly, author of The Bus on Jaffa Road

On this Tisha B’Av Day, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem is paying tribute to its four alumni who were murdered by terrorism: Sara Duker, Matt Eisenfeld, Marla Bennett and Ben Blutstein. I’m honored that Pardes asked me to produce this short video and discuss Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker to be included in today’s commemoration. May their memories be for a blessing.

Rabbi Bernstein interviewed on radio by Rabbi Wayne Dosick

20 Jul

Rabbi Bernstein discusses his recent book Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker in a radio interview with Rabbi Wayne Dosick on his radio show SPIRITTALK Live!

The Void Elie Wiesel Leaves Behind

8 Jul
Elie Wiesel spoke at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago in May, 1987, his first appearance in Chicago after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Ed Bernstein (left) was then the youth group president of the synagogue and his mother, Roberta (right), was the synagogue's executive director.

Elie Wiesel spoke at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago in May, 1987, his first appearance in Chicago after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Ed Bernstein (left) was then the youth group president of the synagogue and his mother, Roberta (right), was the synagogue’s executive director.

It has been a week since we learned the devastating news about the passing of Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, last Shabbat. He was the Hebrew prophet of our time. He bore witness to the Shoah, as he wrote in 1978:

“The only role I sought was that of witness. I believed that having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life.” (from “Why I Write,” 1978).

The very week that Wiesel passed, we need his prophetic voice and conscience more than ever. Our nation is reeling from a spat of horrific violence in recent days and weeks. Our hearts grieve for the police force of Dallas that lost five of its officers in a vicious attack at which the police were protecting a peaceful rally protesting the senseless killings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul where young African American men were shot dead by white police officers.

The very week we lose Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prophet of peace, our society explodes in hatred and bloodshed.

Our Torah portion this week, Korah, depicts the breakdown of civility and order in the Israelite camp thousands of years ago.

The portion begins: Vayikach Korach ben Yitzhar ben Kehat ben Levi, Now Korach, a Levite, a cousin of Moses, betook himself, along with Dathan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuven, to rise up against Moses.

The text continues:
וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה וַֽאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד אַנְשֵׁי־שֵֽׁם:

And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown (Num. 16:1-2).

In other words, these rebels were prominent people. They were anshei shem, men whose names were known in the community.

The Hasidic master R. Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, notes the following: Logically, a person who is a descendant of distinguished ancestors—“who has yichus”—should be modest and humble. He should always think: “When will my deeds be as great as those of my ancestors?” In reality, we see that the opposite tends to be true. Such people are likely to be proud and arrogant. Perhaps they take their cue from Korah and his assembly. Because they were anshei shem, men of renown, they were arrogant and quarrelsome—and so it has always been.

Elie Wiesel not only bore witness to the Shoah, he bore witness to the Hasidic civilization of the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary where he was reared. The wisdom and stories of Hasidic masters such as R. Naftali of Ropshitz, sustained Wiesel who helped ensure that their wisdom was not lost to humanity. As Wiesel grew in confidence and stature in the years since the Shoah, he became an ish shem, a man of renown. He could have easily succumbed to arrogance and conceit. And yet, his humility and love for humanity made him one of the truly great anshei shem of our time.

Wiesel once said in an interview, “If I survived, it must be for some reason. I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot.”

Wiesel channeled his voice of conscience to speak truth to power. In 1985, he addressed President Reagan and implored him on live television not to attend a ceremony with German Chancellor Kohl at Bitburg where Waffen SS were buried. Wiesel said, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS. . . The issue here is not politics, but good and evil.” Wiesel later addressed President Clinton on the genocide in the former Yugoslavia and President Obama on the nuclear arms deal with Iran.

Wiesel was first and foremost concerned with the well-being of the Jewish people. However, as a Jew, he was pained by suffering around the world. As noted by Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, “Though he thought the Holocaust “singularly” unique, he was shattered that in its wake the world seemed to have learned nothing from it. Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the Sudan all suggested that rather than ‘Never Again,’ it was far more accurate to say, “Again and Again and Again.” Deeply troubled by these events, he spoke out about them again and again.”

Indeed, Wiesel’s enduring legacy as a humanitarian is his rejection of indifference towards suffering. He said in an interview: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” (Interview with U.S. media, 1986)

He also said: “Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.”

And, “Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.”

And, “Look, if I were alone in the world, I would have the right to choose despair, solitude and self-fulfillment. But I am not alone.”
Wiesel exemplified the fullness of the name of our people Yisrael—the people who wrestle with God. He writes in his book The Trial of God: “For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God–that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference? No. You can be a Jew with God. You can be a Jew against God. But not without God.”

When Jacob the Patriarch was renamed Yisrael, it was because he wrestled not only with God but also with man and prevailed. More than Wiesel wrestled with God he wrestled with humanity and the brutality of which we are capable.

He said in a New York Times interview: “I am pessimistic because I don’t trust history. But at the same time, I am optimistic. Out of despair, one creates. What else can one do? There is no good reason to go on living, but you must go on living. There is no good reason to bring a child into this world but you must have children to give the world a new innocence, a new reason to aspire towards innocence. As Camus said, in a world of unhappiness, you must create happiness.”

In light of recent events, I am on the verge of despair. I reflect on this past week and the bloodshed in Dallas, Baton Rouge and St. Paul. I reflect on other recent massacres in Orlando, Tel Aviv and Istanbul and wonder how this world has simply gone mad. At a moment in history that needs the conscience of Elie Wiesel more than ever, he is no longer with us. The void is incomprehensible. Our solace is the wisdom that he left behind. Out of our despair, we must not be indifferent. We must not despair. We must create a world that ends the cult of violence that engulfs us.
Parashat Korah warns us of the consequences of anshei shem, people of renown, who are indifferent to and even complicit with evil. If we are the anshei shem, people of renown of our generation, it is our task to continue the work of Elie Wiesel. Let us honor his memory through our fervent efforts to bring about healing in our society.

#TieBlog #Shelach Lecha #ISpy

1 Jul

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

"I Spy" lots of spies in this week's Torah and Haftarah portions. “I Spy” lots of spies in this week’s Torah and Haftarah portions.

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, describes the debacle of the twelve spies who go into the Promised Land to scout it out and report back to the people. Ten of them report that it will be too dangerous. The people protest that they would rather go back to Egypt. Only Joshua and Caleb give a positive report. In response to their lack of faith, God decrees that the generation of the Exodus must wander in the desert for 40 years, as they are not fit to inherit the Promised Land. Only their children will have the fresh outlook and confidence necessary to carry out this mission. In this week’s Haftarah/Prophetic reading, we fast forward to the next generation. Joshua appoints two trusted spies to scout out Jericho prior to the Israelites’ conquest. This more subdued, but…

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Faces and Names

17 Jun

 

(Inspired by Shavuot 5776 sermon by Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt)

 

Last Sunday we celebrated Shavuot. Zman Matan Torateinu, the season of the giving of the Torah. The holiday completes 49 days of anticipation from Passover in which we count the days towards a great celebration. Yet, when we woke up on Sunday morning there was hardly a celebratory mood in our country at large. Less than 200 miles from here in Orlando, a terrorist infected with the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism massacred 49—49!—innocent men and women at Pulse, a popular gay bar. Our celebration of 49 became the mourning of 49. This was the worst terror attack on our shores since 9/11 and the worst gun massacre in American history.

 

The terrorist was the face of evil. Let’s reflect on that metaphor for a moment. What does it mean? It means that the terrorist was blind to the very humanity of his fellow human beings. The face of evil is one that is blind to the faces of other human beings.

 

Today’s Torah portion, Naso, presents the priestly blessing in which the kohen invokes and attempts to channel the face of God, as it were, onto the people. We all know this blessing:

 

Yevaraech’cha Adonai V’yishmerecha

Ya’eir Adonai Panav Eilecha Vichuneka

Yisa Adonai Panav Eilecha V’yasem l’kha Shalom

May Adonai bless you and guard you,

May Adonai shine favor upon you and be gracious unto you

May Adonai shine favor upon you and grant you peace.

 

Notice the repetition of the word panav, referring to God’s face. The repetition is no accident. The face of God is invoked to shine upon us and lift us up.

 

The human face is endowed with a great sense of power.  Let’s think about times in which we have experienced a sense of that positive energy. Perhaps we received a warm smile from someone we care about. Perhaps in a moment of distress, someone gave us a sympathetic glance. Of course there are times a face conveys power in a negative way. It conveys stress, pain, anger, sadness. Human beings are hard-wired to attune ourselves to another person’s face and adopt his or her expression of emotion.

 

The face is our gateway to our humanity, and the name is a marker of our identity. Every human being has a name.  Last week’s terror attack in Orlando and similar attacks in Israel and around the world remind all of us of the danger when one or more people becomes blind to the humanity of others. When we strip away people’s names, they become “other.” Tragically, in the long history of the Jewish people we know what it’s like when we are made “other.” One of Israel’s most popular and beloved poets, Zelda Schneurson Mishkovksy, known simply as Zelda, wrote a poem widely recited on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron called, “L’chol Ish Yesh Shem, Everyone Has a Name.”

 

Having grown up in a traditional Jewish home, her poem was inspired by a famous midrash in Kohelet Rabbah which says that “A person is known by three names.  One that he is called by his father and mother.  One that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself.”   She wrote:

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו אלהים

ונתנו לו אביו ואמו

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his father and his mother.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו

ונתן לו האריג

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by the fabric he wears.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו ההרים

ונתנו לו כתליו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו המזלות

ונתנו לו שכניו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the constellations of stars
and given to him by his neighbors.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חטאיו

ונתנה לו כמיהתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longings.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו שונאיו

ונתנה לו אהבתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו חגיו

ונתנה לו מלאכתו

Everyone has a name
given to him by his celebrations
and given to him by his work.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתנו לו תקופות השנה

ונתן לו עיורונו

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons of the year
and given to him by his blindness.

לכל איש יש שם

שנתן לו הים

ונתן לו מותו.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.

 

As the poet teaches, each name represents a life, and that each life is precious. When we read the priestly blessing, we are reminded that the divine face as it were is open to all and that each one of us can channel a spark of that divine face. There were 49 sparks of the divine face that were snuffed out on Sunday morning. Each of them had a name.

 

Stanley Almodovar III, 23

Amanda Alvear, 25

Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33

Antonio Davon Brown, 29

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25

Luis Daniel Conde, 39

Cory James Connell, 21

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22

Paul Terrell Henry, 41

Frank Hernandez, 27

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25

Kimberly Morris, 37

Akyra Monet Murray, 18

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34

Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33

Martin Benitez Torres, 33

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37

Luis S. Vielma, 22

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

 

Know that each of them had a name, and more than that, each had a life.  In the words of the Talmud, each life was a world to their loved ones.  Each had hopes and dreams, aspirations and accomplishments, and loved ones.  As the poet Zelda reminds us each name had a life.

 

How to respond to the face of evil?

 

One response, modeled far too often by our brothers and sisters in Israel, is not to give in to terror.  The Sarona market in Tel Aviv where four Israelis were murdered last week was open for business the next day. In the wake of Orlando, our lives have gone on. We carried on our celebration of Shavuot. Baseball, hockey and basketball games were played. The Tony Awards ceremony continued as scheduled. That is exactly as it should have been. We will not forfeit our open, free society to terrorism.

 

Another response is to do whatever we can as citizens of this country to make sure that attacks like Orlando do not happen again. Our nation has become callously numb to the scourge of gun violence in our country. After Newtown, San Bernardino and now Orlando, our country needs more than our thoughts and prayers. We need sensible laws and vigilant enforcement of laws to keep guns out of hands of terrorists. The shooter in Orlando had been monitored by the FBI, yet he could still purchase assault rifles and ammunition. If individuals who are mentally ill or on terror watch lists can purchase assault rifles and we fail to act, the blood of the victims is partially on our hands.

 

The Rabbinical Assembly passed a resolution at our convention last month addressing the epidemic of gun violence in our nation. A portion reads:

 

Be it resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly encourage its members to lobby local, state and federal lawmakers to support required background checks on all public and private gun sales, bans on military style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and legislation making gun trafficking a federal crime with severe penalties; and

Be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly commit to deepening our gun violence prevention advocacy effort; and

Be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly urge the members of its affiliated communities to demand that their representatives and senators enact effective gun violence prevention legislation.

 

If the terrorist in Orlando was the face of hatred and evil, then another response that we must provide is love.   The LGBTQ community is reeling from this vicious assault. They need not just our sympathy but our love. Similarly, we need to love the Hispanic community and the Muslim community and anyone else who is regarded as “other” by segments of society. The terrorist masterminds seek to create division and hatred among segments of society, and we dare not provide them such a victory.

 

Finally, a classic Jewish response to evil is zakhor, remember, not to forget.  Honor their memories.  Remember each of their faces. Remember that each has a name. L’khol ish yesh shem. Every person has a name.
 

Shabbat Shalom.