Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

#TieBlog #HappyBirthdayDrSeuss #BeHappyIt’sAdar

2 Mar
Horton the Elephant

Horton the Elephant

Advertisements

A Free Press As the Root of Democracy: Reflections on Shabbat Shekalim

25 Feb

3819608-the-first-amendment-freedom-of-press

When I was a youngster, before I discovered the rabbinate as my career, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player. Remember, the Chicago Cubs weren’t good in those days, and I thought maybe I’d have a chance. Alas, I did not. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their reporting they spoke truth to power. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched as much TV as anyone, including all the reruns—The Lone Ranger, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, and others. But I was also drawn to the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. I realized early on that journalists had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth.

Our free society depends on a free press. It shines a light on those who serve in public office to hold them to account for the the oaths of office they take to serve the public and our Constitution with integrity. A robust free press asks tough questions of government officials, irrespective of their party affiliation. Even Washington and Lincoln were often savaged by the press during their administrations, and so too with every President until today. Every president is in a bubble in which they surround themselves with supporters and are sensitive to criticism. Yet, time and again, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words ring true: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The free press hold our leaders to account.

Our public officials swear to uphold the Constitution and by extension protect the public’s most vital assets such as clean air, clean water, fair labor laws, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination laws, financial protections, food and drug safety, national education standards, as well as national defense.  It’s impossible for each of us to become experts on public policy on the myriad issues facing our society, and the free press provides a great public service to protect transparency and our right to know whether our public officials are serving us with integrity.

This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs the Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30: 13):  זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ

This they shall give. Every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary. Why does the verse begin with zeh, “this they shall give”? Usually a verb in the Bible begins Waw-consecutive, including in cases like this involving instruction.   Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a half-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk).

Throughout the history of our democracy, numerous politicians of different political persuasions have served our nation. Some have succeeded and provided warmth and comfort, while others failed, including those whose corruption threatened to consume and destroy our society. At every juncture a vibrant free press has served as a check on government. As George Orwell wrote: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

We should be most concerned when the President repeatedly calls the mainstream news media the “enemy of the people”  and that he even goes so far as to demand that reporters stop utilizing anonymous sources.  Marc Felt  would never have confided to Bob Woodward the crimes of the Nixon White House unless he was certain of Woodward’s rock-solid assurance that his identity would not be revealed. For decades, he was known as Deep Throat, and he was an American hero for exposing a national crisis. Reporters must and will continue to rely on anonymous sources to reveal difficult truths.

And yet even in the Nixon years, as fraught as that administration’s relations with the press were, never were they barred from the White House briefing room as happened yesterday.

The press is not perfect, just like any human endeavor. They get things wrong, including the predictions of most news organizations of the outcome of the last election. The spike in fake news and alternative facts also do not exist in a vacuum. They exist because for multiple reasons, many Americans have lost trust in the mainstream media.

J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, has a remarkable story. He grew up in poor, white  Appalachia and went on to Yale Law School. He has become a go-to interpreter of working class whites and their distrust of mainstream institutions. He said recently in an interview :

“The news media seems to be approaching Trump in a very oppositional way. And whether it’s Trump or Obama, it’s always important for the media to take a somewhat oppositional tact because that’s one of their main roles as the fourth estate. But I also wish news executives would think about this credibility gap and think constructively about how to repair it…We may just be in a different media environment where people consume information in their bubbles.”

I think Vance raises an important issue in noting the lack of trust towards the news media, that news organizations would be advised to earn back. Part of the challenge is that journalism is a business as well as a craft. In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. We as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus.

Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists, and let us also reject any efforts to from officials to threaten the free press as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us to preserve the integrity of our public institutions. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

A glimmer of hope in a trying week

3 Feb
Muslim and Jewish families unite in protest over Executive Order

Muslim and Jewish families unite in protest over Executive Order

What is the essential mitzvah of Passover? It’s not eating matzah. It’s not cleaning your house and getting rid of hametz. Yes, the Torah mentions those as mitzvot, but I believe they serve a larger purpose that is spelled out in Parashat Bo: passing on our tradition to the next generation.

On at least three occasions, we find in Parashat Bo mention of children:

1. God brings two more plagues on Egypt, locusts and a thick darkness, where people could not see one another for three days. Pharaoh tries to work out a compromise, letting the Israelites go taking their elders, but not their young ones. Moses insists, bin’a’areinu uvizkuneinu neleikh—with our young and with our old we will go.” Moses will not settle for anything less. He states his case loud and clear that we, the Israelite people, are all in this together. We need one another. The young need the old and the old need the young.

2.

In today’s Torah reading, we study the foundation of what we recognize as the Passover seder. The Paschal lamb must be eaten with matzah and maror.  I find one verse in this section to be particularly striking (Exodus 13:8): V’higadata l’vincha bayom hahu leimor, ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li b’tzeiti mi-Mitzrayim—“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” From this verse, we derive the mitzvah of telling the story of our people. It was not enough for the Israelites to get out of Egypt. They committed themselves in a public ritual to tell their story from one generation to the next for all time. We should all remember where we came from, and we should always remember our responsibility to make the world a bit brighter and a bit better for the next generation.

3. וְהָיָ֕ה כִּי־יֹֽאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם:

“Your children will ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’”

This is the origin of the familiar seder custom of having the children present ask the Four Questions. This verse is also one of three references in this parashah plus one in Deuteronomy that the Haggadah connects to the prototypical Four Children whom parents are obliged to engage in discussion at the seder. The whole point of the seder is to connect with the next generation so that they may connect with Jewish tradition.

In our day, our children are watching to see how their Jewish mothers and fathers respond to the Trump administration’s abuse of vulnerable populations. On January 27, President Trump issued an Executive Order banning refugees and permanent residents who originated from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  A number of permanent residents were detained and denied entry at US airports. The order had the effect of discriminating against our Muslim neighbors on the basis of their religion. Protests erupted spontaneously across the country protesting this illegal and immoral action.

I attended a rally on Sunday at Palm Beach International Airport and was inspired by the large cross section of our community united to raise our voices in protest against this action.

As protests continued throughout the week, there was a rally at Chicago’s O’hare International Airport on Monday that got a lot of attention. A photo from that rally went viral. In the photo were a Jewish man wearing a kippah and his young son on his shoulders wearing a black velvet kippah. The young boy was holding a sign that read “Hate has no home here.” Standing just a few feet away was a Muslim man with a young girl on his shoulders. She was wearing a hijab and was holding a sign that said “Love.” The boy and the girl were looking at each other and smiling.

The Chicago Tribune published this photo and within hours it was retweeted 16,000 times. After the photo went viral, the Tribune ran a follow-up story in which the reporter tracked down the two fathers, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appel and Fatih Yildirim. The boy’s name is Adin, and the girl’s name in Meryem. The families had never met until that rally. The fathers exchanged phone numbers.

When they started hearing from hundreds of friends and acquaintances after the picture was published, they texted each other, in awe of the way the small moment became momentous.

“I know the tension between the Jews and the Muslims. People think we hate each other. But we’re not fighting. When we come next to each other we can have normal conversations,” Yildirim said. “We can promote the peace together.”

Bendat-Appel said:

“I just feel like if this picture, in some small way, can bring a bit more light and love into the world, I’m so happy about that.”

According to the report, the Bendat-Appel family invited the Yildirim family to their home for Shabbat dinner last night, which hopefully took place.

This magical moment captured in photograph of a Jewish child and a Muslim child coming together to promote justice gives me hope that the message of Passover continues to ring true. Passover is meaningless unless we transmit our tradition to the next generation, inspire them, and engage them in the cause to create a better world.
Our children are watching us and the events around us. When they ask מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם —what does this mean to you?—We’d better be prepared to respond in a way that will inspire them to fulfill the values of our people.  I pray that the innocent bond between two young children, one Jew, one Muslim, will lay the groundwork for healing in our country and our world.

National Jewish Book Award Finalist honor for Rabbi Bernstein’s book

11 Jan

 

Rabbi Bernstein at the JTS Beit Midrash, May, 2016

Rabbi Bernstein at the JTS Beit Midrash, May, 2016

I’m pleased to share that the book I edited Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker has been honored as a 2016 National Jewish Book Award Finalist in the category of Anthologies and Collections.

We matter: Confessing our goodness makes a difference

11 Oct
Positive confessions

Positive confessions

 

Most of us recognize Yom Kippur as a solemn day. But is it? It is true that the season confronts us with life’s fragility. In fact, three experiences recently have reminded me how fragile life is.

The first was Hurricane Matthew. Fortunately, for us, there was no significant damage in our area. However, north of us and south of us, especially Haiti, communities suffered significant damage, humbling reminders of the randomness of nature and our fragility. Waiting out the hurricane was like living in a state of limbo. The TV stations had 24/7 coverage of the pending storm and doomsday warnings about the worst possible effects.  For two days, I was tuning in for constant updates. Is the storm staying out to sea or is it turning west towards land? I couldn’t do a thing about it except get my house ready and pray. The lack of control caused me great anxiety.

Second, on the heals of the hurricane coverage, our nation’s political climate reminded me of life’s fragility. I’m not discussing politics or the Presidential race itself. I must express how sad I was Sunday evening leading up to the debate. Many parents wrote on Facebook that they could not allow their children to watch the debate because of concern there would be inappropriate material for children, given the video controversy that erupted over the weekend. At least one middle school in our community sent out an email on Sunday advising parents that the social studies faculty no longer recommended students watch the debate when they had previously been assigned to watch it for school.  During a presidential campaign the debates should be the ultimate civics lesson for our children to see democracy in action. Where have we gone wrong as a society if we must shield our children from the most important civics lesson in the free world? Given all of the negative influences in society, the responsibility that parents have to teach important values to our children is sometimes daunting and another reminder of life’s fragility.

The third reason that  I’m reminded of fragility is a New York Times article  published last Sunday in which I had the honor to be quoted. Sam Freedman in his column “On Religion” commemorated a sermon by the late Rabbi Kenneth Berger at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa on Yom Kippur, 1986, 30 years ago today. I have cited this sermon in the past, and in his reporting Freedman was inquiring what drew me and other rabbis over the years to Rabbi Berger’s message. Rabbi Berger asked his congregation, “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?”

The premise of Rabbi Berger’s question was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”

 

Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.

Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 from Denver to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Out of 296 passengers, 111 were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those final moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, I imagine that Rabbi Berger thought about his own sermon.

My interview with Sam Freedman returned me to Rabbi Berger’s powerful message. It has withstood the test of time for three reasons: Rabbi Berger used a vivd story that everyone could relate to, the Challenger disaster; he drew from that a compelling message of living a life that matters; and, finally, Rabbi Berger’s own tragic death turned his sermon into a prophecy and gave his words added kedushah, holiness. For these reasons, “Five Minutes to Live” is a classic, and its message has a poignant urgency for me this year. The Rabbi Berger story on one level is a tragic story of life’s fragility. However, Rabbi Berger’s message is also one of hope and renewal that relates to the deeper meaning of Yom Kippur.

In fact, while many of the symbols and rituals of Yom Kippur remind us of our fragility and mortality, Yom Kippur is really in its essence a joyous day. Yes, we gather for Yizkor to remember our departed loved ones. However, as we remember our departed we affirm life. Yom Kippur as a whole is a day that affirms and celebrates life.

The Jerusalem Talmud puts it this way:

Said Rabbi Abahu: The way of the word is that when one comes to be judged, one wears black clothes.  This is not the case concerning the People of Israel. The Book of Life and Death are before us, who will live and who will die. And yet, we wear white, we wrap ourselves in white garments, and we believe that the Holy One will act kindly towards us. (Rosh Hashanah 1:3)

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook adds another element regarding the act of confession:

A person should also be joyous concerning the good he or she has done. It follows that just as there is a great benefit to self-improvement through confessing one’s sins, so is there great benefit to confessing one’s good deeds. (Rabbi Kook’s Commentary to Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:10)

For Rav Kook, reminding ourselves of what we’ve done well builds self-confidence, which is critical to our belief in our ability to do and accomplish for ourselves for the Jewish people and for the world.

Inspired by this approach, I’d like to introduce a prayer  composed by  Rabbi Avi Weiss  that affirms life through noting our positive actions. It supplements the Ashamnu confessional that we say throughout the day to confess the things that we have done wrong. This new vidui confessional highlights the things we have done right.

אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ  יֹפִי

We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.

הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ

We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,

חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת

We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,

יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ

We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,

נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ

We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,

פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ

We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,

רִחַמְנוּ, שָקַדְנוּ

We have been merciful, we have given full effort,

תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ we have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.

I am not discounting the traditional Ashamnu. We will continue to say it today. At the same time, Ahavnu is a welcome supplement that is true to the spirit of today.  When we feel good about our accomplishments both as individuals and within our community, we may feel extra motivation to do more good. We will be inspired to make the next five minutes of our lives count.

Perhaps everyone should consider reflecting upon his or her good attributes by writing out a personal Ahavnu in English or Hebrew alphabetical order. It would also be good to do the same relative to the Jewish community, our country and the State of Israel. With all of our challenges, there is so much to be proud of.

Last week, when a hurricane approached we got our homes ready, we stayed home with our families and ahavnu, we loved one another just by being there together. I pray that our affirmation of our love inspire us to bring more love into the new year.

When recent news reports revealed the dishonorable speech of public figures, many of us instinctively thought how best we could teach our children honor and respect of others. Kibadnu—we honored and respected. I pray that our sense of kavod inspire us to infuse our lives this year with intense kavod habriyot, honor of all human beings.

When we are confronted with life’s mortality and the figurative sense that we may just have five minutes to live, we instinctively bless those close to us. Beirachnu—we have blessed. I pray that our instinct to bless those dear to us in times of turmoil, inspire us to bless our dear ones frequently and to bring greater berachah, blessing, into our world.

As we remember the lives of our departed loved ones and the lessons that they taught us, let us honor their memory by taking note of our goodness that we strive to increase. With all of our faults, let us recognize our inner decency. Through our combined efforts, may God grant us the strength to bring love, honor and blessing into our world.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Like Dreamers

11 Oct

flyer_iengage_2016_values_communities-2

It was June 30, 1976. An Air France Jet that took off from Ben Gurion Airport was hijacked in Athens and taken to Entebbe in Uganda. The hijackers separated the Jews from other passengers. The hijackers were demanding that Israel free terrorists by 2:00 pm the next day. Tension filled the Israeli cabinet meeting. IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur examined options, but none looked good. Many in the cabinet, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, were ready to consider giving in to the demands. Rabin said: “I feel it might end up being a lot like the ‘Bay of Pigs.’

But Shimon Peres, the Defense Minister, raised the concern that a surrender would set a precedent that would endanger lives in the future. Recognizing the risks involved, he insisted: “If there is a military operation, it’s preferable. Until now, I admit that there’s no concrete proposal, only ideas and imagination.”

Imagination. Sitting in that cabinet meeting, that was all they had. For Shimon Peres, that was enough. The Defense Minister prevailed in that debate and helped to orchestrate the historic raid on Entebbe on July 4 that saved the hostages. The action sent a clarion call to the world that Israel would not negotiate with terrorists nor sit idly by when Israelis or Jews were in harm’s way.

Shimon Peres had the gift of imagination. He employed it in war, and he also employed it in peace. Saeb Erakat, one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinian Authority, once recalled meeting Peres for the first time many years ago. “When I met him…, I was a young professor. I was angry about something, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Saeb, negotiation in pain and frustration for five years is cheaper than exchanging bullets for five minutes.’”

These two stories combine to share an important aspect of Shimon Peres’s legacy. He was a dreamer who dared to challenge conventional wisdom. When it came to saving the lives of Jews at Entebbe, conventional wisdom said, “impossible.” Peres dared to dream that it was possible. When it came to achieving a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians, he dared to challenge both Israeli and Palestinian naysayers there too. The Oslo peace process, his vision, offered a glimmer of hope that peace was possible.

Alas, despite his tireless efforts, a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not yet come to fruition. Just this week, we mourn the murders of two Israelis on at a Jerusalem light rail stop, a stark reminder that there would be no peace without security. Peres believed this. He also believed there would be no security without peace. This was his dream. In 2012, Peres was interviewed by Charlie Rose who asked him, “What do you want your legacy to be?”

Peres, who was then ONLY 89, quipped, “It’s too early for me to think about it.” Then, he said, “I’m more concerned about tomorrow than I am about yesterday.”

Shimon Peres was not satisfied with the status quo. He made mistakes along the way, and he lost his share of political battles. Through all the hardships, he never lost integrity. He continued to challenge. He continued to question. To his dying day he continued to dream.

To dream is at the heart of the Zionist ethos.

Psalm 126 recalls the first great return to Zion after the destruction of the first Temple.
שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּֽ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב ה’ אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים
A song of ascents. When the LORD restored Zion —we were like dreamers.

The Psalmist then describes the great joy of the people in returning to Jerusalem:
אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֢א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֘ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֢נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה אָ֭ז יֹאמְר֣וּ בַגּוֹיִ֑ם הִגְדִּ֥יל ה’ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִם־אֵֽלֶּה

Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them!”
הִגְדִּ֣יל ה’ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּ֗נוּ הָ֘יִ֥ינוּ שְׂמֵחִֽים

The LORD will do great things for us and we shall rejoice.

After waking up from the dream and the experience of unbridled joy, a dose of reality sets in:

הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ
They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.
Yes, there will be joy at the end of the road, but great challenges must be overcome.

הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֘ נֹשֵׂ֢א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע בֹּֽ֬א־יָב֥וֹא בְרִנָּ֑ה נֹ֝שֵׂ֗א אֲלֻמֹּתָֽיו

One who goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.

This psalm was once considered the Zionist anthem before Hatikvah won out. The return to Zion in modern times is a joyous event for the Jewish people, but one that has required more than its fair share of tears, sweat, and, far too often, blood.

Nearly seven decades after Israel’s founding, we have much reason to rejoice. Israel is a strong nation that boasts a thriving economy and strong democratic institutions. Israel is a fountain of Jewish religious and cultural inspiration. Hebrew, the language of the Bible, is the language of the people. At the same time, Israel continues to face great challenges. Shimon Peres championed the dream of a Jewish democratic state with secure and recognized borders. This dream has not yet been fully realized. For 2000 years the Jewish diaspora prevented our people from controlling our destiny; but it also freed us of the responsibility of governance. In 1948, that radically changed.

The late religious philosopher Rabbi David Hartman grappled with the religious and moral implications of Jewish power.

He writes (A Living Covenant):
“I live with the guarded hope that out of this complex and vibrant new Jewish reality [the State of Israel] will emerge new spiritual directions for the way Judaism will be lived in the modern world.”

In other words, no longer is Judaism confined to the home and synagogue. In a Jewish state, Jewish values are engrained in the national ethos.

Rabbi Hartman writes further: “Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social, and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness. …[T]he fact that Israel enables us to make the whole of life the carrier of the covenant is in itself sufficient to ascribe profound religious significance to the secular revolt that led to Israel’s rebirth. I celebrate Israel’s Independence Day with the recitation of the Hallel psalms, thus expressing gratitude to God for having been given the opportunity to renew the full scope of the covenantal spirit of Judaism.”

For Rabbi Hartman, the dream of shivat tzion, return to Zion, has not yet been fully realized, but he rejoices that the Jewish people are in a position to shape the dream. Israelis, joined by Jews around the world, have the responsibility to grapple with the meaning of Jewish power and to wrestle with the moral implications of power in ways we had not been able to do prior to 1948. Rabbi Hartman created the Shalom Hartman Institute, an important center of learning in Jerusalem that engages Jews in Israel and around the world across the religious and ideological spectrum in thoughtful study of Zionism and its future.

Therefore, I am pleased to introduce to Temple Torat Emet the Shalom Hartman Institute’s program iEngage: Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The goal of iEngage is to provide tools to engage with and discuss the wide spectrum of views on this complex topic. Through video presentations by Hartman scholars and my facilitation of interactive discussions of Jewish texts selected by Hartman, we will deepen our understanding of the present conflict and figure out how better to grapple with it in our community. The course does not aim to shape or change politics on Israel. It does aim to change and shape the way we think about politics and the way you and I talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will learn together nuances of the conflict and become more engaged in the issues for the sake of strengthening our own community, strengthening love for Israel and creating an atmosphere in which an eventual peace can succeed.

The iEngage series will meet for nine sessions on Sundays, 9:30-11:30 AM starting November 20. The course is open to all. I particularly encourage parents of Religious School students to join me for these vital discussions that affect the future of our children and the world they will face.

Shimon Peres was the last great leader from Israel’s founding generation. Our community joins Israelis and Jews around the world in mourning his loss. At the same time, we must honor his memory by ensuring that his dreams do not die with him. Peres’s legacy is that he was more concerned about tomorrow than yesterday. He dared to dream. We cannot solve Israel’s problems, but we can honor Shimon Peres’s legacy. We can dream. We can challenge others to dream. We can challenge ourselves to listen to others with care and respect. My prayer is that the memory of Shimon Peres will inspire us to dream, to learn and to grow and thus help us bring peace and healing to us, the Jewish people and the world.

Roadmap to Reconciliation

2 Oct

untitled_000001

Dr. Erica Brown, a Jewish scholar and author, wrote a book called Happier Endings. Similar to a story I shared yesterday, she writes that a rabbi she knows shared with her the story of a dying man who was losing capacity to speak. He had an estranged son who hadn’t finished college. The father had disapproved of his son’s professional ambitions and lack of them. In his criticism of his son, the son pulled away. Now the father was dying and his wife went to the rabbi to express her pain over the estrangement between her husband and son.

What do you think the rabbi should do?

Today we reread Binding of Issac. It’s a story we think we know so well. Yet, by looking for some tiny clues, particularly from the aftermath of the story —we’re going to come up with what rabbi should do and then learn what he actually did do.

In our culture, we are used to Hollywood endings. The heroes overcome their challenge and ride off into the sunset. We know know that in the end Abraham does not kill Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The story, though, does not have a Hollywood ending. Have you ever noticed that Abraham and Isaac do not walk off together? Have you ever noticed that they never speak to each other again? After this episode, the very next piece of information we learn about the house of Abraham is that Sarah dies, presumably from shock over the news from Mt. Moriah.

There are tragic consequences to the Akeidah. More than a paradigm of faith, the Akeidah is the ultimate recipe for how to screw up a family. Within this complex story, though, or at least in its aftermath, we find a layer of hope and redemption. Who is the hero of the redemption of this family? Without a doubt, it is Isaac. This may come as a surprise. Because of his submission in the binding episode, we tend to regard Isaac as passive. A fresh reading of the text yields a new perspective of Isaac. The secret to understanding Isaac’s greatness lies in a map.

We know from the end of the Binding of Isaac narrative that Abraham travels to Beersheva, a distance of more than forty miles. This is curious because we are told in the next chapter that Sarah dies and is buried in Hevron, only 20 miles from Jerusalem. This suggests that Abraham knowingly bypassed Hevron on his way to Beersheva. He knew Sarah was there and would probably kill him if she heard about the Akeidah. We suspect word does reach her soon enough, and indeed she dies from the shock. Abraham retraces his steps and walks 20 miles back to Hevron to bury Sarah.

Meanwhile, Isaac is missing in action. He does not accompany his father to Beersheva and is not present at his mother’s funeral in Hevron. This is odd because we’re told later how sad Isaac was over the death of his mother and that he does not overcome his grief until he marries Rebecca. So where is Isaac? In the lead-up to Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, we are finally told his location, Beer Lahai Ro’i (Gen 24: 62). This is an oasis deep in the Negev desert, perhaps another 40 miles from Beersheva. After the Akeidah, Isaac ran as far away as he could from his father and the life he knew. Except, there are two people in Beer Lahai Ro’i whom Isaac knows and knows well: Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, and Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother. We read about their banishment from the house of Abraham on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. When we learn from the Torah that Be’er Lahai Ro’i becomes Isaac’s home, bells should go off in our minds that he went to live near Hagar and Ishmael.

Isaac probably heard stories from his father over the dinner table about how evil Hagar and Ishmael were, but after the Akeidah, Isaac sees the world differently. Isaac now understands what it’s like to be abandoned. Hagar and Ishmael are the only two people on earth who would understand the trauma he experienced with his father. Moreover, he understands what they went through when they were banished into the desert.

We have no record of any conversations in Beer Lahai Ro’i. We only know that when Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah. This often overlooked scene is one of the most powerful in the Bible: Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham and fathers of two separate nations, stand side by side in brotherhood at their father’s grave.

Think about all that transpired beforehand. The family of Abraham had collapsed. Hagar and Ishmael had been banished, and Isaac had nearly been killed on the altar. Abraham feels he will never be forgiven and cannot face Sarah ever again. Sarah, to the extent she was able to process the events before her death, probably felt betrayed and abandoned. Five people, five lives, five hearts wracked by pain.

I believe that Isaac earned his greatness as a patriarch by doing the quiet work behind the scenes to enable this reconciliation to occur. When Isaac emerges from the trauma on Mt. Moriah, he could have taken different routes. A more outward-driven personality might have seized the moment for PR. He could have broadcast his victimhood to the world. Had he been alive today he could have made millions off of a book deal or reality TV show. That is not Isaac’s approach. Rabbi Sharon Brous calls the aftermath of the Akeidah Isaac’s “birth moment of empathy.”

Isaac is not passive, but he’s also not a publicity hound. He actively works behind the scenes to change the picture. He broke with the script that we find in too many families. Instead of living with hurt and resentment, Isaac directs his pain towards a path of renewal. He taps into his pain to seek out an opportunity for reconciliation. Earlier, the pain was so raw he couldn’t even bear to meet his father at his own mother’s funeral. We might have forgiven Isaac if he had gone to live out his years as a hermit in a cave all by himself. Isaac understands, though, the need to connect. He may feel abandoned by his father, but he is not resigned to a life of abandonment.Through Isaac’s insight and courageous initiative, the sons of Abraham reconciled.
Isaac’s example provides an important guide for us today. We, like Isaac, feel a need to connect with others. Yet, like Isaac, we also feel the weight of baggage in our families. Many of us bear the weight of family narratives of the past. Some of us might broadcast how much we were slighted by someone else because we feel that victimhood brings us sympathy. In truth, we are only hurting ourselves by cultivating pain and resentment. There is a different path.

Healing takes place through quiet acts of kindness and decency. Our natural reflex from infancy is to think only of ourselves. However, when we learn how to turn towards others, we open ourselves to healing and wholeness that will enrich our lives.

Returning to the story of the rabbi and the estranged father and son, the mother desperately longed for her son and the father to reconcile before he died. She knew that the key would be for the father to apologize to the son so that he could go on with his life without such a heavy burden. She couldn’t bring herself to broach the topic with her husband, so she turned to the rabbi.

The rabbi goes in to speak to the father. He said, “I know you can’t speak much, but I need to know if you can say two words, ‘I’m sorry.’” The father said yes. Then the rabbi said, “I need you to say three more words: ‘I love you.’ Can you do that? That’s the only thing you need to do before you leave this world.” The father agreed. The rabbi called the son. He said he couldn’t believe his father wanted to speak to him, but the rabbi insisted that he really did. The son went ahead but wanted his mother to come with him. The mother pushed him into the bedroom alone. Forty-five minutes later the son came out, his face awash in tears. He said, “Dad said sorry, and Dad loves me.” The rabbi facilitated that moment because this family was stuck and couldn’t get there on their own. The mother is also a hero for recognizing the importance of reconciliation and seeking help to realize it. This moment was transformational for every member of that family, allowing the father to go in peace, allowing the mother to live in peace and allowing the son to not live with the burden of his father’s judgement.

Both father and son in this story could have protected their pride and avoided each other. Had that continued, they would have carried their pain and estrangement into eternity. Instead, they found a way to open their hearts to bring about healing and closure. This is the type of work we all should do now. Let’s not wait for death bed reconciliations. Instead, let us follow a roadmap to healing. Let this be the year we open our hearts to heal ourselves, our families and our world.