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.

 

#TieBlog #Behukotai

3 Jun

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" evokes the emotions intended by the reading of the "Tochecha" (reproof) Leviticus 26: 14-45. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” evokes the emotions intended by the reading of the “Tokheha” (reproof) Leviticus 26: 14-45.

Parashat Behukotai concludes the book of Leviticus. The portion begins with a promise of blessings for the Israelites if they follow God’s ways. This section is then followed by a lengthy and chilling series of curses known as the Tokheha (Reproof). The curses are spelled out in length in the hope that they will put fear into the hearts of those who cannot be persuaded to do what is right by any other means. As this portion is read in synagogue, it is customary for the reader to read through the Tokheha in an undertone, perhaps because its vision of disaster is so frightening–or perhaps in keeping with Leviticus’s commitment to the reality of words, to say something aloud is halfway to making it happen. (Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, p…

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Love Finer Than Wine in New York

23 May
Rabbi Ed Bernstein with Arline Duker, May 23, 2016, at the Town & Village Synagogue in New York

Rabbi Ed Bernstein with Arline Duker, May 23, 2016, at the Town & Village Synagogue in New York

Here’s a podcast of Rabbi Ed Bernstein‘s discussion of Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker at the Town & Village Synagogue in New York, 5/23/16.

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