Archive | August, 2013

Therefore Choose Life: A Response to the Syria Crisis

30 Aug

On this last Shabbat of the year, we take note with great concern the news reports coming out of Syria. According to reports, it appears that Bashar Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons against its own citizens. For years it has been suspected that Syria kept a stockpile of such weapons of mass destruction. It has has even been suspected that of the 100,000 Syrians Assad has slaughtered so far in the last two and a half years, at least some of them were victims of chemical attacks deployed on multiple occasions. President Obama has said that the use of weapons of mass destruction was a red line that would necessitate US and Western military intervention. Based on the recent reports, that red line has definitely been crossed. There are talks of an imminent missile strike on Syria. Our nation is battle weary from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and yet we know that failure to act will encourage Assad and other dictators to continue to use weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, just days before Rosh HaShanah, Israelis are stocking up on gas masks and preparing to hunker down in the event of almost certain retaliation against Israel by Assad and his allies if and when the US attacks. I’m not an expert in military affairs or national security. I just know that following the news in recent days has been a somber experience for me.

Our Torah reading on this last Shabbat of the year offers words that provide appropriate perspective, if not comfort.

We read in this week’s Torah portion:

“See, I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life–that you may live, you and your offspring. (Deut. 30:19)

God gives us a choice, a blessing or a curse, but God admonishes us to choose life. The Talmud considers what to do if a funeral and wedding procession both arrive at an intersection at exactly the same time. Who should proceed? Although in America, traffic stops when a funeral procession passes, the Talmud says it is the funeral procession that must wait for the wedding procession. Life takes precedence. The sages were guided by the basic Jewish principle that informed so many of their decisions–“Therefore choose life!” If we were to poll Jewish people around the world and asked what are the five most important Jewish values, I’m confident that love of life would be in the top five for most people Our love of life is sanctified by the blessing Shehechianu– we give thanks to God for giving us life and sustaining us and allowing us to reach this occasion.

As I’ve been following the Syria crisis, one of the most compelling commentators whose commentary on this subject is both challenging and engaging is Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of the New Republic, who happens also to be an observant Jew. He is a complex thinker and writer, and he is difficult to pigeonhole politically. On domestic issues, he might be described as left-of-center, while in foreign policy he is often a hawk. For months he’s been calling on the President Obama to respond to the humanitarian crisis of the slaughter in Syria much more aggressively.

Wieseltier writes this week
: “Assad’s cruelty against his own population has been steadily escalating in conformity with his view that there would be no retaliation from the West. Until now, his view was correct.” Wieseltier expresses concern that even as the White House plans an intervention, not much may change on the ground. He notes that the Administration is focused too narrowly on Assad’s violation of international law in using chemical weapons and not focused enough on the humanitarian crisis of the slaughter of 100,000 people.

Furthermore, he writes: the White House and its supporters are seeking intervention without interventionism…Assad will be punished and left in place; which is to say, unpunished. If he chooses never again to use chemical weapons, then his slaughter may never again be disturbed. Above all, the memory of Iraq will not be defiled. If we must do something—there is that “red line,” after all—then we will do something; but once we do something, we can go back to doing nothing.

Wieseltier criticizes the ambivalence that many Americans, myself included, have felt over the course of this crisis. He quotes the classical Jewish joke about ambivalence. The setting is a rabbinical court. The plaintiff rises and makes his case. “You know, you’re right,” the rabbi says. The defendant rises and makes his case. “You know, you’re right,” the rabbi says. The bailiff rises and says: “But rabbi, they can’t both be right.” “You know, you’re right too,” the rabbi says.

An ambivalent person will recognize that in Syria “[p]eople will die whatever we do or do not do.” Wieseltier writes that we can’t afford for our leaders to be ambivalent: “The relationship of complexity to decisiveness is, well, complex; but at some point arguments must be accepted and arguments must be rejected.” He continues, “I have sometimes wondered about Eisenhower on the night before Normandy. He knew what would happen to the thousands of soldiers who had the misfortune, and the honor, to be the first on those beaches. Ambivalence is inevitable, at least in morally scrupulous people; but ambivalence never came to the rescue of anybody. The idealization of ambivalence is a version of the search for perfection, for a wholly clean conscience, when no such human immaculateness exists and not even just causes are perfect causes. Evil is certainly unambivalent. So it is good to be warned of all the impurities of power; but we are forgetting that power, our power, may be used for good and high purposes. The recent insistence on the decline of American power is in part the expression of the wish that America be less powerful. But it is too late for that, too. If our might cannot make right, it can at least serve it.

Wieseltier’s critique is jarring and sobering. I don’t know what the right formula is for resolving this crisis. One thing that Wieseltier clarified for me is that by looking at Syria through humanitarian lenses, we adhere to the Torah’s call of “Choose life.”

The Torah reminds us that God has granted us the ability to make choices. Soon will celebrate the new year, an opportunity for new beginnings. It affords us the opportunity to return to the path of righteousness and justice. Once again, we must make life and death decisions that affect millions of people. May God give our leaders the strength always to choose life, and may God grant us that strength as well.

#TieBlog #Nitzavim

29 Aug
"It is not in heaven"  (Deuteronomy 30:12)

“It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12)

While human beings have acquired the ability to launch rockets and people into space and explore the heavens, Deuteronomy tells us that Torah–the totality of our received tradition from God–is “lo bashamayim hi,” “it is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). This phrase has been understood that the Torah is not an esoteric document. It is meant for human beings in this world to explore, interpret and reinterpret. This verse plays a central role in one of the most famous passages in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b, in which Rabbi Eliezer is in a dispute with Rabbi Joshua and the majority of sages. Rabbi Eliezer performs miracles and even has a divine voice from the heavens call out that the law is in accordance with him. Rabbi Joshua, however, says “Lo bashamayim hi,” “[The Torah] is not in heaven. God laughs in response and says, “My children have defeated me.” The Torah is meant to be studied and reinterpreted in each generation.

The Roots and the Fruits of “I Have a Dream”

23 Aug
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering "I Have a Dream speech, August 28, 1963

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963

This coming Wednesday, August 28, marks a momentous anniversary in American history. It is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was highlighted by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech is known for its soaring rhetoric and piercing, prophetic call for equality and justice for all. The concluding portion of the speech has become part of our civic liturgy, alongside the Star Spangled Banner and the Gettysburg Address. As a great piece of liturgy, Dr. King turned to three key elements: 1) history; 2) recognition of an Eternal God of all; and 3) an appeal to social justice.

It’s appropriate that this week’s Torah portion contains a classic piece of liturgy that is built upon these same three pillars. Anytime a passage from the Torah makes it into the Jewish liturgy, it is a sign that our tradition grants it a special importance and that the text embodies an aspect of the soul of Judaism. Examples include the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) and the Friday night Kiddush (Gen. 2:1-3). This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, opens with Parashat Bikkurim (the first fruits) (Deut. 26: 1-11), which includes the Bikkurim recitation that was recited once a year by those who brought Bikkurim to the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, the Sages made this passage a central component of the Passover Haggadah, from which many recognize the words: “Arami oved avi” (26: 5-10)

“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8 The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”

Rabbi David Golinkin, a leader of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel suggests that if we look closely at this passage, Parashat Bikkurim, we find that it contains three of Judaism’s most core values: 1) History, or remembering and connecting with events of our past 2) Gratitude to God for the blessings in our lives and 3) Concern for the weak and less fortunate.

Let’s look at each part more carefully. Personal identification with the history of our people is found in verses 3-10, including the text recited in the Temple and the portion of that text that made its way into the Haggadah. The text is couched in the first person singular or plural. The reciters thereby expressed their complete identification with events which had occurred hundreds or even thousands of years before their time, just as we recite in the Haggadah every year: “In every generation a person must consider himself as if he had personally gone forth from Egypt.” The mitzvah of Zakhor, Rememberance, is an essential one in our tradition, which we can all relate to. By identifying personally with events of our past, we can work to ensure that dark chapters in our history are not repeated.

Dr. King invoked history at the very beginning of his speech:

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Our Torah portion’s call to us to internalize our history may at times seem ominous, particularly when recalling slavery, whether in Egypt or the American South. Therefore, this message is tempered by the call to express gratitude for the blessings in our lives. In the Bikkurim prayer, the theme of gratitude is emphasized through the repetition of the verb “natan” “gave.” Six times this word appears in our portion, reminding us that God gives the gift of first fruits and other blessings, which requires the people to thank him anew every year.

As Dr. King was building towards his climactic conclusion, he said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2 He was quoting one of Isaiah’s messages of consolation, the section we read in synagogue in the weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah. Like in the Bikkurim prayer, King reminded us that God is a force for sustenance and good.

By taking stock of our own past misfortunes as well as the blessings in our lives, the Bikkurim passage then reminds us of the next step, which is to improve the lot of those around us who less fortunate. Concern for the weak is found in verse 11. The text reads, “You and the Levite and the stranger shall enjoy all the bounty which the Lord your God has bestowed upon you.” In other words, the Israelite farmer must share his harvest with the strangers in the Land. Indeed, this message repeats itself many times in the Torah where we are instructed to leave gleanings (leket) and the corner of the field (pe’ah) and forgotten sheaves (shikheha) “to the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan” so that we should remember that we too were once strangers in Egypt.

Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric on social justice is unparalleled in modern history:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Jewish tradition carries the themes of the Bikkurim prayer into the most solemn prayer of the upcoming penitential season, “Un’tane Tokef,” recited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We declare: U’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roa ha-gezeira, Repentance, Prayer and Righteousness avert the severity of the decree.” Through repentance, we take account of our history and make an effort to change our ways. Through prayer, we not only express hope for a better future, but give thanks to God for the blessings of Creation. Through acts of righteousness and loving kindness we maintain Judaism’s longtime concern for the weak and downtrodden.

In the final peroration of Dr. King’s speech, he quotes the American song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and focuses on the words “let freedom ring.” In so doing, he neatly brings together history, God’s goodness, and an appeal to social justice:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!3

As the High Holiday season approaches, may we be inspired by our Torah and our liturgy to examine our past, give thanks for the gifts God has given us and promote justice for all.

#TieBlog #Ki-Tavo

21 Aug
A cornucopia of fruit, reminiscent of the Bikkurim/first fruits

A cornucopia of fruit, reminiscent of the Bikkurim/first fruits

Parashat Ki-Tavo opens with the passage describing the Bikkurim/First fruits offering. The Talmud describes this offering as the centerpiece of Shavuot, the second of the major festivals. One can picture a humble farmer bringing precious first fruits to the Temple for this thanksgiving offering. The Torah provides a specific liturgical text to be said upon presenting this gift to the kohen/priest. The text notes the humble origins of the Israelites, their plight in Egypt as slaves, their miraculous freedom and their return to the Land of Israel. While this text was originally associated with this ritual on Shavuot, after the destruction of the Temple and the end of sacrifices, the rabbis re-appropriated this text as a central passage in the Passover Seder. The cornucopia of fruit on this week’s tie represents the gift of first fruits.

#TieBlog #Ki-Tetze

14 Aug
"When you go out to war..." (Deut. 21:10)

“When you go out to war…” (Deut. 21:10)

This week’s Torah portion, Ki-Tetze, begins and ends with accounts of war. The midrash interprets the various laws of the opening section (Deuteronomy 21: 10-21) as a narrative thread underscoring the ravages of war. A soldier in the heat of battle covets a female prisoner and, under the power of lust, marries her (vv. 10-14); in the end, he will lose feelings of affection for her and for the children he fathers with her (15-17), and those children will grow up disrespectful (vv. 18-21) of their parents.

The very end of the portion (25: 17-19) recounts the Amelekites’ surprise attack on the Israelites in which they preyed upon the most vulnerable. We have the paradoxical instructions both to “Remember!” and to “blot out the memory of Amalek.” Rashi notes that immediately prior to this section we have the commandment to keep fair weights and measures. He says that the juxtaposition of these texts shows that when we are lax in business ethics, we open ourselves up to communal disaster in which the weakest members of the community will pay the steepest price. Indeed, all of the laws in Ki-Tetze underscore what Rabbi Harold Kushner calls “the irreducible dignity and worth of a human being.” Without this societal norm, we are vulnerable to the scourge of war.

This summer marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was one of the bloodiest battles in America’s bloodiest war that paved the way for a more just society free of slavery. The Civil War theme of this week’s tie connects the Torah portion to this chapter of American history.

Israel’s aid to wounded Syrians shines light in world of indifference

9 Aug
The Israel-Syrian border

The Israeli-Syrian border


One of Elie Wiesel’s most eloquent, prophetic statements is: “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.”

In following current events, there is a hardly any place on earth where the world as a whole has shown more indifference than Syria. The tragedy of the civil war there is beyond measure. The brutality of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad knows no bounds. According to estimates he has slaughtered over 100,000 of his own people over the last two years in his desperate effort to cling to power. The only tragedy greater than the loss of life in this conflict is the world’s indifference to it. I say this with great sensitivity to the fragile situation. It’s easy to blame our government and others for not intervening more than it has on behalf of the uprising, though I understand the caution on their part. The United States fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were costly in both blood and treasure, and our nation is understandably war-weary. Our economy is weak, and we have a lot of nation-building to do at home. Furthermore, it’s hard to know exactly who the rebels are and what connections they might have to anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists. The presence of American boots on the ground in Syria could spark a direct war between the US and Assad’s chief patron, Iran, and Israel would face certain danger. What is happening in Syria, therefore, is a humanitarian and geo-political nightmare. Yes, there are all of these grave concerns. And yes, the world has still been indifferent.

In the midst of this impossible situation in Syria, the New York Times published a report this week that provides a glimmer of hope. Scores of Syrians injured in the fighting have been discreetly spirited across the border into Israel for advanced medical treatment. This story is remarkable given the official state of war between Israel and Syria and the tight security around the border. According to the report, the first patients were young men in their 20’s and 30’s who were suffering from gunshot wounds. More and more, women and children are also being treated for injuries sustained in explosions.

While Israel is careful not to open its borders to refugees as Turkey and Jordan have done, the Israeli government has authorized and is picking up the bill for the treatment of these wounded Syrians. They are careful to protect their identity out of fear that when they return to Syria they will face abuse for accepting treatment in Israel.  Details as to how the Syrians are crossing into and out of Israel are not entirely known, except that this humanitarian operation is coordinated by the Israeli military.

It would be easy for Israel to seal its border completely and not allow anyone in. Israel has an official policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. And yet, with the background of the Syrian cauldron of hatred and war, we find Israel bringing a semblance of peace, compassion and healing.  When it would be politically expedient for Israel to be indifferent to Arabs in surrounding countries slaughtering each other, Israel is not indifferent.

Indeed, the Torah instructs us not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 18-21: 9), a portion dedicated to establishing a just society, expands on this theme and concludes with a peculiar ritual surrounding an unsolved murder. The text reads:

“If…someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke and…they shall break the heifer’s neck….Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken….And they shall declare: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel’” (Deut. 21: 1-9).

In the context in which this text was written, the spilling of innocent blood pollutes the Land of Israel and causes the Divine Presence to leave the community’s midst. In the absence of prosecuting the murderer, the ritual of the eglah arufah (broken-necked heifer) fills the void created by the murder in the community’s pursuit of justice. In modern terminology, the ritual is intended to provide a sense of closure following a senseless act. It also forces the community to bear the burden of responsibility for the breach of justice among their neighbors. The town elders ask for forgiveness that they may have caused in some way the death of a single human being.

Regarding the elders’ statement, “Our hands have not shed this blood,” R. Yitzhak Meir Bunim, a Hasidic sage comments:

“If a murdered person is found, the elders of the city have to make confession, as stated in this verse. They are to an extent to blame, for if they had led the people better such a tragedy would not have occurred. While the word in Hebrew for “have shed” is read as shaf’khu, in the plural, it is written in the traditional Hebrew text as shaf’kha, in the singular. This is because the elders are never able to say that “we did everything possible with our two hands to prevent such an event.” Whatever we did was with only one hand, and we will always be to blame for not having done enough” (A. Greenberg, Ed., Torah Gems, Vol. 3, p. 268).

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz writes on this portion in Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion: “The Torah instructs us not to be bystanders. It teaches us not to profess indifference. If there is any way for us to make a difference in the world, then we must act immediately. If there is a life to be saved, a person to be fed, a sojourner to be housed, a solitary individual needing hospitality, we must be there. While the elders were not suspected of actual murder, they could not even profess indifference to the plight of another human being.”

As the world looks upon the Syrian blood bath with indifference, the Israeli medical response is an inspiration that the world does not have to accept the status quo. It’s my sincere hope that Israel’s modest but significant action will remind the world not to be bystanders, not to be indifferent.

As Wiesel states: “Indifference is never an option. It is not the beginning of a process; it is the end of a process. The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of education is not ignorance; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”


My relationship with Chicago’s baseball teams: It’s complicated

7 Aug
Opening night at Chicago's Wrigley Field, 8/8/88

Opening night at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, 8/8/88

Twenty-Five years ago today, 8/8/88, the Chicago Cubs turned the lights on for the first time for a night game at Wrigley Field. At the time, I identified as a die-hard Cubs fan. As a native South-Sider, however, I found myself in adulthood gravitating towards the White Sox as the first box score I check in the morning. The White Sox won the 2005 World Series. More recently, the Chicago Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four years, so all of Chicago’s major sports teams have won at least one championship in my lifetime–except the Cubs. What’s more, they haven’t even won a championship in the lifetime of my 99-year-old grandmother. On this momentous anniversary in Chicago sports, here is a sermon that I delivered eight years ago in Cleveland after the White Sox won the pennant in which I describe my complicated relationship with Chicago’s two baseball teams.

Baseball and Sukkot: Lessons in Irony
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein

This past Monday night as we sat down in our Sukkot for the first time this year, we said the traditional sheheheyanu prayer of thanksgiving in which we express our gratitude to God for giving us life and sustaining us and allowing us to reach this occasion. For me, this blessing had special significance. You see, as a native of Chicago I entered Sukkot with the knowledge that for the first time in my life, a Chicago baseball team was going to play in the World Series. Tonight, the Chicago White Sox face the Houston Astros in their return to the World Series for the first time since 1959 and seek to win their first championship since 1917. I am still pinching myself that this is really happening.

Some of you may be sitting here wondering, isn’t Bernstein a Cubs fan? Two years ago he was kvetching about the Cubs falling short, now we’ve got to hear about the White Sox!? It is complicated, I admit. But the confluence of the White Sox winning the pennant with both Yom Kippur and Sukkot have forced me to reflect on the religious significance of this historical moment in my life.

First, Yom Kippur. It was only a week ago, after all, and the spirit of confession is still in the air. Furthermore, our tradition holds that final, final judgments aren’t made until Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot, and that it is appropriate to offer confessions through that time. So, I have a confession to make. I always liked the Cubs and the White Sox, but having grown up on the South Side of Chicago, I was originally more of a Sox fan than a Cubs fan. In 1984, when the Cubs made a valiant run for the pennant, I shifted my allegiance to the Cubs. For many White Sox fans, including close members of my own family, this was utter heresy. They accused me of being a fair-weather fan. For various reasons that I won’t burden you with now, I don’t think this was the case. For one thing, time has proven that I have stuck with the Cubs for over 20 mostly futile years. Nevertheless, I have retained an affinity for the White Sox. While they don’t always have the glitz or media attention of the Cubs, there is a certain charm about them. As the second team of the Second City, they are very much the team of common working folks, who, with some justification, see the Cubs as an elitist team that excludes working fans by playing mostly day games. While I think the Cubs’ commitment to baseball in the daytime is family friendly and good for children, I have always respected the loyal White Sox fan. The problem is that over the years their teams have been so darn boring. Until this year.

A few weeks ago as the Cleveland Indians, the team of my adopted hometown, made a serious challenge to overtaking the Chicago White Sox, I was forced to reflect more closely on my views of the White Sox. As my official biography on the Shaarey Tikvah web site notes, I am a Cubs fan. This year, though, with the tremendous season enjoyed by the White Sox, I have been repeatedly asked by members of this congregation how I feel about it. My stock answer has been that I am a Cubs fan, but still support the Sox. Of course, I was rooting for the Indians to make the playoffs, but not at the expense of the Sox. My public confession is that I have a complicated history in rooting for the White Sox, and I hope they win.

With Yom Kippur out of the way, let me turn to Sukkot. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are both known as z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy. Certainly, for Chicago White Sox fans, this is a great season of joy. Yet, the name z’man simchateinu is somewhat of a paradox. In Chicago, people are excited about playing a summertime sport on a 40-degree, drizzly October night in Chicago. Furthermore, the history of Chicago sports, particularly baseball, is one of such futility, Chicagoans have a fatalistic attitude. We question if this is really happening and if a World Series victory will ever actually occur. Is another Black Sox scandal looming, God forbid? Will an innocent fan interfere with the game and lead to defeat, as happened with the Cubs two years ago? Will the Sox continue to benefit from the umpires’ calls or will they go against them this time? Or, more prosaically, will the Houston pitching simply be better than their own? If they fail this year to win it all, will it take another 46 years to get this far?

A Bartlett Giamatti, the late Commissioner of Major League Baseball, once wrote about baseball:

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Giamatti, a New Englander and former president of Yale University, wrote these words in the 1970s after his beloved Boston Red Sox endured another season of just falling short. Little did he know then that Boston would eventually win a World Series in 2004, after an 86 year drought. This year, it is Chicago that seeks to end an 88-year drought, but Giamatti’s fatalistic attitude resonates for us Chicagoans. There is a great paradox in rooting for a Chicago baseball team in October: abundant joy and hope mingled with fatalism and doubt.

Indeed, this paradox precisely parallels the rituals associated with Judaism’s season of joy. For seven days, we leave the comfort of our homes and dwell in sukkot, fragile, open-air booths. We do this not in the summer months when it would be more convenient, but in the fall when the weather is much more capricious. We do not pamper ourselves with luxuries or recline like we do on Passover. The sukkah reminds us not of our strength and security, but of our vulnerability.

There are other practices that contradict the nickname z’man simchateinu. Every day of Sukkot we beseech God, Hosha Na, please save us! In the season of our joy, one of the holiday’s central liturgical pieces cries out that we are mere mortals and that we need God to save us. Is this a declaration of our joy?

In a little while, we will read from the cynical, fatalistic Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). “Vanity of vanities, all is in vain,” Kohelet teaches us. All of life is hollow, meaningless, amounting to nothing. “There is nothing new under the sun.” Our striving for knowledge and power is futile. We are all mortal. So begins the special Biblical book that we read on Sukkot, the season of our joy.

This coming week, on Shemini Atzeret, we will pray that God will bless us with rain so that we don’t starve. Furthermore, we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers in memory of our loved ones who have passed away. The next day, on Simchat Torah, the day we rejoice over the gift of the Torah, we read about the death of Moses. All of this again on z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy.

The renowned theologian Rabbi Neil Gillman calls this paradox “the emotional ambiguity of Sukkot.” This ambiguity is captured in the book of Kohelet, which is why we read it on this holiday. Kohelet’s conclusion is the opposite of our first impressions. Kohelet’s message in the end is that we should not give up. We must confront and live with the inherent ambiguities of life. “We can find joy,” Rabbi Gillman writes, “in the sheer fact of living, in work, in love, in companionship, in the serenity that comes with understanding and accepting our limitations.”

The statement z’man simchateinu, therefore, is a statement of defiance. Despite all of the pain and suffering in the world, we will go on living. Despite it all, we will express joy. Despite all of the curveballs life throws us, we will not be deterred from celebrating life’s blessings.

For a Chicagoan like me, and I suspect for Clevelanders as well, October baseball is a precarious time. We are joyful over the success that helped us reach this point and hopeful for the future. At the same time, we are humbled by the countless failures in the past and cynical, like Kohelet, that it can ever be any different. Baseball, like Sukkot, is a metaphor for life: joy and frustration playing off each other in a never-ending cycle. For Chicagoans of my generation, never has the cold chill of October felt so good, and yet we acknowledge that it is still cold.

During this season, despite our sense of fragility and uncertainty, let us heed the Psalmist’s teaching, ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, serve God with joy!


#TieBlog #Shofetim

7 Aug
The scales of justice

The scales of justice

“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” This is the clarion call of Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 20). It is in the context of Moses instructing the Israelites to create the institutional infrastructure for a just society. The scales of justice on my tie evoke this central and eternal Jewish quest for justice.

5 Aug

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

2 Aug


Rabbi David Blau (left), new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and Pope Francis (right) each have displayed different approaches to the Spider-Man credo, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Rabbi David Blau (left), new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and Pope Francis (right) each have displayed different approaches to the Spider-Man credo, “With great power comes great responsibility.”


My children enjoy a good superhero film, as do I. The magnetic appeal that superheroes have on pop-culture may be best summed up by Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. In his dying breath told his powerful nephew, “With great power comes great responsibility.” There are many claims as to the source that inspired Spider-Man creator Stan Lee to use that statement. I’d like to suggest that the sentiment behind “With great power comes great responsibility” is rooted in the Torah.

More than any other book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy is concerned with social justice. Time and again, Deuteronomy expresses concern for the weakest, most vulnerable members of Israelite society: the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the Levites who were a landless class who subsisted on the donations of the rest of the nation. Other parts of the Torah call for caring for the weak and vulnerable. The book of Leviticus, particularly Chapter 19, frames helping the weak in terms of holiness; the Israelites are set apart through their virtue. The narratives of Genesis and Exodus highlight the triumph of the underdog who taps into inner strength and courage to overcome incredible odds. Deuteronomy takes the advocacy of social justice to another level. It appeals to the people’s empathy. We are reminded repeatedly that the Israelites were strangers and slaves in Egypt. Therefore, they must remember the suffering of the stranger in their midst. As the Israelites become a strong nation in their own right, it is as if Moses reminds them “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Parashat Re’eh hits on this theme at various points. Chapters 14 and 15 address social justice issues explicitly. The aide to the Levites, the remission of debts, the call to lend to the poor and the freeing of slaves all appeal to the nation’s empathy. What is striking is that even in Chapter 16, which is concerned with the observance of the pilgrimage festivals, the Torah appeals to the Exodus experience. Regarding the middle festival, Shavuot, (vv. 9-12) the Torah describes a highly egalitarian celebration:

You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws.”

How striking it is indeed that even in describing a ritual observance, the Torah appeals to empathy and social justice. The great responsibility on the shoulders of the nation is to live an exemplary, ethical life in their daily activities and in ritual observance. Rabbinic Judaism classifies two kinds of law: mitzvot bein adam l’Makom, commandments between people and God (ritual laws), and mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments concerning interpersonal relationships. The Torah presents an ideal of laws governing ritual and interpersonal relationships complementing each other. By extension, one can reasonably conclude that responsible leaders of a religious community must embody these norms simultaneously. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.

This past week we saw snapshots of two different prominent religious leaders, each one of whom is fairly new on the global scene. I don’t know how much stock we should put in either of these snapshots, but they may offer a glimpse into larger character. The figures are Pope Francis and Rabbi David Lau, new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.

In a remarkable in-flight news conference on a flight from Brazil to Rome, a reporter asked about his stance on acceptance of priests who have a homosexual orientation. Prior Popes and other Church leaders might have retorted with hard line anti-gay Church doctrine. Instead, Pope Francis said “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” This humble statement of compassion towards gay Catholics who had previously felt ostracized by Church hierarchy was like a breath of fresh air to many Catholics. He did not change Church doctrine, but he sure did change the tone. A teacher of mine, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Co-President of CLAL, wrote on a blog this week:
“Who is he to judge? He’s the pope. Isn’t that part of his job?! He is the leader of a millennia old institution – one steeped in legal tradition and religious norms. How could he not judge? If not him, then who?

“Has Pope Francis become some kind of relativist? A post-modern paralytic unable to take a stand when asked what many would deem to be a straightforward question, and one with what many more would assume is an equally straightforward answer? Hardly.

“What Pope Francis did in answering as he did, was to distinguish between making a judgment and being judgmental.”

Rabbi Hirschfield elaborates and writes: “The ability to exercise judgment without becoming judgmental is fast becoming something of this pope’s trademark, so it should really come as no great surprise that he answered as he did.”

In contrast to the new Pope’s humility and non-judgmentalism, Israelis this week were treated to an ill-considered statement by the newly installed Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi David Lau. In a recorded interview for a Haredi news service, he exhorted yeshiva students not to waste time watching basketball games in neighborhood convenience stores when they should be in yeshiva studying Torah. He said: “Why do you care about whether the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Tel Aviv beat the ‘kushim’ who get paid in Greece?” In the Bible, Kush refers to Ethiopia, but in modern Israel ‘kushim’ is a derogatory word for anyone with black skin or of African descent. It is regarded by Israelis as equivalent to the “N” word in English or “shvartze” in Yiddish, terms that people of good will should shun. Derogatory terms such as these create a sense of “otherness” for people who are different. To paraphrase Martin Buber, our goal should be to seek “I-Thou” relationships where we regard fellow human beings as created in the image of God. Rabbi Lau later said his basketball comment was intended as a joke. Not too many people were laughing.

Rabbi Lau’s ill-considered remarks were more striking particularly as they stand in contrast to his father Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who previously held the office of Chief Rabbi. While I was not a fan of the elder Rabbi Lau’s adherence to fervently Orthodox religious policies that I think are detrimental to the pluralistic character of Israel, I have great respect for him as a dignified man of character and integrity. Ironically, his legacy is linked with a prominent African American basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with whom he developed a friendship. At the age of eight, Rabbi Lau was liberated in Buchenwald by a US Army unit of African-American soldiers. A close friend of Abdul-Jabbar’s father personally liberated Rabbi Lau. The two found each other as Abdul-Jabbar was researching the legacy of this army unit and travelled to Israel to meet Rabbi Lau in 1997. It’s a great “feel-good” story of an Israeli rabbi befriending an African-American Muslim basketball star. Based on the younger Rabbi Lau’s first week on the job in which he denigrated black basketball players, he could learn a lot from his father.

Now, nobody is perfect; however, when you hold the title of Chief Rabbi, I think it’s fair for the public to expect more consideration and thoughtfulness, especially in your first week on the job.

This week we got two glimpses of different models of religious leadership. The Pope displayed humility and sound judgment. The Chief Rabbi displayed a parochial and doctrinaire judgmentalism. I’d suggest he get some executive coaching from Pope Francis. For religious leaders of all faiths, our Torah portion this week teaches us three things: Remember where you came from; remember we are all God’s creatures; remember that with great power comes great responsibility.