Archive | November, 2014

#TieBlog #Vayetze #Jacob’s Ladder

28 Nov

In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. They next morning, Jacob awakes and says, “God was in this place, and I did not even know it.” Herein lies a subtle but clear message that while other faith traditions view heavenly bliss as the ultimate religious achievement, for Judaism,  the ultimate religious expression is bringing a bit of heaven onto earth.

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Jacob's Ladder Jacob’s Ladder

A stairway to heaven that could very well be Jacob’s ladder.

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#TieBlog #Toledot 2014

21 Nov
Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week's tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.


Food and sustenance play a prominent role in Parashat Toledot. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. He later deceives his blind father by wearing hairy skins to appear like his brother as if he had just returned from a hunt. His mother Rebecca prepares the purported game for Jacob to present to Isaac and receive in return his innermost blessing intended for the first born. In between these two narratives centered around food, we learn that Isaac reclaims the wells that his father had dug in Canaan. The family legacy cannot continue without sustenance from water, nor can it continue without nourishment from food. Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, we read Toledot a few days before Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

A true hero

14 Nov
Walter Payton (1953-1999) meeting fans at the Chicago Auto Show.

Walter Payton (1953-1999) meeting fans at the Chicago Auto Show.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Robert Dorfman, Z”L.

This week, a lifelong friend of mine lost his father after a prolonged illness. When I spoke to my friend this week I shared a favorite memory, probably when we were nine- or ten-years-old, when his father took us to the Chicago Auto Show. We weren’t interested in the cars. We couldn’t drive, after all. Our focus was to make a beeline for the Buick section for the meet-and-greet with Walter Payton, the legendary running back for the Chicago Bears. He was then in the prime of his career.  Payton shattered numerous records in his Hall of Fame career and helped lead the Bears to a Superbowl victory in 1986. He retired as one of the great legends of sports. A soft-spoken, kind man by nature, he was known by fans as Sweetness. Tragically, Payton died of liver cancer in 1999 at the age of 46.


Three years ago, I read a gripping biography about Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman , “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” Through meticulous reporting, Pearlman uncovers shocking truths about Payton. He was a womanizer and fathered a child out of wedlock whom he never met. He was addicted to pain killers, which the author reports is linked to liver disease. He was deeply depressed. He was a reckless driver. Despite all of these things, he maintained a pristine public image as a model husband, father and citizen and generous philanthropist. Pearlman’s book attempts to uncover the enigma of a man who went out of his way to visit sick children in the hospital and neglected his family.


When Pearlman’s book was published, it was criticized by those who sought to preserve Payton’s pristine, almost god-like image. I disagree. As a Walter Payton fan, Jeff Pearlman did us a great service by illustrating a star athlete as a flawed human being. Pearlman describes how Payton, late in life, thought he was a candidate for a liver transplant. He actually wasn’t. But his last act of communal service was to encourage people to become organ donors. The number of donors in Illinois multiplied exponentially as a result of Payton’s plea. He redeemed himself and brought great meaning to his life through his actions in his final days. Pearlman’s work on Payton anticipates the mountain of evidence that has emerged in the past year or so pointing to the problems endemic to the game of football itself and the toll it takes on those who play the game and our society, which pays big bucks to watch it. Pearlman shows that Walter Payton’s heroism grew out of his humanity, not the touchdowns he scored.


Like Pearlman’s assessment of Walter Payton, the Torah describes the Biblical heroes in human terms. They did great things, to be sure, but they were flawed like you and me. For instance, the Torah highlights Abraham’s great achievements such as discovering monotheism and bringing justice and morality into the world. At the same time, the Torah does not hide Abraham’s human faults. He passes his wife off as his sister not once, but twice, saving his life while risking hers. He throws Hagar and Ishamael out of the house into the desert to die. They are only saved by divine intervention. He fails to protest God’s final test and nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. Isaac is traumatized, perhaps even blinded by the event, and never speaks with Abraham again. He definitely has his human flaws.


However, Abraham is still a hero. A clue to his greatness is that he is content with his lot. As Abraham’s days draw to a close we read v’Adonai berach et Avraham bakol, God blessed Abraham with all things, (Gen. 24:1). Later, as Abraham is about to die, we’re told that when he died he was b’seivah tovah zaken v’saveiah—a good ripe age, old and contented (25:8). The text tells us that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. The midrash imagines that Abraham reconciled with his sons and the two of them with each other before he died. With this final act of teshuvah, Abraham dies content that there is peace in his family, and his legacy will continue. Abraham lives a full life with many successes and a number of mistakes. Through it all, he recognizes the mistakes and reconciles with his sons, or at least brings about their reconciliation with each other.


Abraham’s long life in which he died old and satisfied stands in contrast to football players in our era. The best of the best are paid millions of dollars, but they often are scarred with physical and emotional pain and truncated lives. Others barely last a year or two, maybe three in the NFL, after which they lack direction for the rest of their lives. The narcissistic behavior by some players who assault and rape women reflects on men who are not happy but who are angry, entitled spoiled brats whose bullying of others has been tolerated because they can clobber other players and score touchdowns.


As I reflect on Pearlman’s reporting on Walter Payton three years ago, I see it now as a prelude to the mountain of stories in the last year or so linking the multi-billion dollar football industry to a host of problems such as early onset dementia, violent crimes committed by active and former players and severe depression and suicide. This season alone three high school students from around the country died from head injuries sustained while playing. These trends should give us pause to assess our values as a society. What does it mean to earn the status of hero? When we tune into a football game on TV, and the broadcast replays both the pictures and sounds of a devastating tackle, we bear responsibility. The networks are playing to primal desires within us to watch other human beings hurt each other for sport. Our society is paying a price for our indulgence of our modern day gladiators as heroes.


For too long our nation has looked askance when former football players have developed a host of physical and mental problems from years of getting their brains bashed in hundreds of times per day. Former NFL players live on average 20 years less than normal male life expectancy in our country. Among the 1985 Chicago Bears who won the Superbowl, Walter Payton died of liver disease, likely spurred by addiction to pain killers; Dave Duerson, All Pro safety, committed suicide at the age of 50; Quarterback Jim McMahon now suffers from dementia and is a lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit against the NFL.


The problems go much deeper than former players’ health, unfortunately, as discussed in Steve Almond’s new book “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.” Because of our indulgence of football, school districts struggle for funds while municipalities build lavish stadiums often with significant tax breaks for the owners. Universities that make billions of dollars from football have tolerated star football players raping women. Only now are we starting to wake up to the deep systemic problems in society at large that this violent game has bestowed upon our society.


Walter Payton was no Abraham. He certainly was not blessed to live out the fullness of his years. However, at the end of his life he overcame his many human flaws and inspired others to do good. His final act of kindness saved many lives, and for that he is a hero. His legacy should be reexamined to bring safety and common sense into American sports and to remind us all of what truly matters.



#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

6 Nov

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock. Or…

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The “Sorry” Button: In Memory of “Car Talk’s” Tom Magliozzi

4 Nov
Half of NPR's "Car Talk" duo, Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014

Half of NPR’s “Car Talk” duo, Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014


This was originally delivered as a sermon Rosh HaShanah Night, September 16, 2012. 

“Car Talk,” has been one of the most popular radio shows for a generation. This fall, its hosts are retiring. Yes, Ray and Tom Magliazzi, also known as Click and Clack, are “pulling into the garage,” so to speak. For 35 years, Ray and Tom have entertained listeners with their thick Boston accents, self-deprecating humor and occasional advice about cars. I know next to nothing about cars–most things mechanical, for that matter. What attracts me to listen to Car Talk is not Ray and Tom’s advice about cars, but their advice about life and relationships, couched in their advice about cars.

A few months ago, they produced a list, somewhat tongue-in cheek, of the top ten new features that they would like to see in all new cars. Their top potential innovation is the ‘Sorry!’ Button. We know all cars have horns. As things stand now the only way drivers have to communicate with each other is with their horns—or their fingers. This state of affairs makes it difficult to create a friendly atmosphere on the roads. So, in the words of Ray and Tom: “Is there anything that we need more on the roads today than a ‘Sorry!’ button? We often do bad or dumb things when we drive, and we have no way to communicate remorse. It might just lead to a little more civility.

“As it stands now, when you tick off another driver, he or she has little choice but to remind you that you’re a moron [HONK!]. Then you have to retaliate with a clever retort like, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, you’re a moron, too! [HONK!]’ Say you’re sorry, though, and you break the cycle. A ‘Sorry!’ button could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.”

Imagine occasions for using the “Sorry” button. Say, I cut you off because I didn’t see you. Or, you’re stopped at a green light and your honking at the car in front of you to move already. Then you realize there’s a poor lady with a car full of kids she’s taking care of. Or, perhaps I got too close behind you, and it wasn’t my intention. Right now, the only mode of communication is a loud HONK! It’s shocking, aggressive, sometimes even abusive. The Car Talk brothers say let’s try something different. Let’s push a button that says “I’m sorry.” This would expand our repertory of communication. I cut you off, and I didn’t see you–I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had kids in the car–I’m sorry. I know I got too close and wasn’t paying attention–I’m sorry.

Why is it that in so much of our travels, our only mode of communication is the testosterone-fueled aggressive horn? HONK! You’re in my way, GOSHDOGGIT! (or fill in blank). Get out of my way! What if Ray and Tom’s idea came to be and instead of strictly aggressive behavior, we could just say, “Hey, I’m sorry.”

Now, imagine if we had an “I’m Sorry” button for life. “You know, I just said something I shouldn’t have said–I’m sorry. I was wrong; I offended you; I’m sorry.

In the pressures of life, we often fall into easy but harmful habits of communication. We are conditioned to make ourselves understood before we seek to understand. We may know intellectually that the opposite is the best practice: first seek to understand, then to be understood. Cultivating that habit requires effort, and many of us fall short, even in our closest relationships.

Imagine if every married couple took a course titled, “How to lose a fight.” Picture some typical marital bikkering. Those of us who are married have probably experienced this at some point. But there’s a twist. All of a sudden, let’s say the husband says mid-fight: “Time out. I’m going to shut up. Tell me again what you just said.” The wife says her piece, and then the husband reflects back: “You’re telling me that when I come home from work and I’m grouchy and hungry and had a hard day that you’ve had a hard day too and that I’m not sympathetic enough to you? Boy, you’re probably right.” Imagine this type of conversation taking place not only with married couples but between siblings, children and parents, co-workers, business associates and synagogue members. That’s an example of bringing the I’m Sorry Button into life.

Well, I have good news, everybody. We do have an “I’m Sorry” button for life. We Jews call it Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of returning that we begin tonight. This is our reset button. While ideally we should be in a constant state of teshuvah every day, during this season teshuvah is especially prevalent on our minds. Our tradition allows us the time and space to think, “What can I do differently to make myself or the world better?” In teshuvah, we dare to think about ways in which we can change our habits, getting rid of harmful habits and embracing nourishing ones.

There is an emerging science of habits. This year a fascinating book came out titled: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. The author unpacks the neuroanatomy of habits. He breaks down the formation of habits of individuals. Then he studies habits of companies and organizations. Finally, he demonstrates how entire societies can be conditioned by habits for better and for worse.

Duhigg posits that habits–even once they are rooted in our minds–aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Over the course of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I plan to explore in greater depth the role of habits in our lives. They have enormous effect on our personal lives, on our community life including here at Temple Torah, and on society as a whole. I invite you to join me on a journey over the next ten days to explore how we can embrace new, wholesome habits for ourselves and our community.

I don’t know if engineers in Detroit will ever equip cars with “I’m Sorry” buttons; however, if we cultivate the right habits perhaps we’ll never need them. May we be so blessed in this New Year.
Shanah Tovah

Inspired by and largely derived from D’var Torah by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom, Los Angeles, before the Chicago Board of Rabbis, August 22, 2012.