Tag Archives: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

From Tears of Anguish to Tears of Joy (Rosh HaShanah Day 1)

13 Sep

Mets infielder Wilmer Flores wept publicly during a game upon hearing that he may have been traded. His emotion struck a chord for the common fear of vulnerability we all share. Mets infielder Wilmer Flores wept publicly during a game upon hearing that he may have been traded. His emotion struck a chord for the common fear of vulnerability we all share.

Shanah Tovah!

It is a joy to see everyone, and I wish you all a joyous and healthy year. We all love heroes, and I would like to share a story of a baseball player who became a great hero this summer.  As the July trading deadline was approaching, it was announced on the news that New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores was going to be traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Mets were in the middle of a game against the Padres when the story broke. Flores came in from the infield in between innings as the Mets prepared to go to bat. Suddenly the fans were shouting to Flores the news that he would be traded. The shouts of the fans were the first that Flores heard about it. How did he react? He cried. TV cameras caught him shedding tears throughout the rest of the game. He was sad about leaving his teammates in the midst of a pennant race.  He was upset about the way he heard the news and his complete lack of control. In this raw moment of human vulnerability, Flores felt abandoned, flummoxed and shocked. I think this story shows that curve balls are often thrown at us. We know that often things happen that are beyond our control.


In another era, Wilmer Flores might have been ridiculed as a wimp or a sissy. Someone might have told him to suck it up like a man. Such a reaction might still occur in segments of our society. Wilmer Flores’s public weeping, however, struck a chord with many. His crying was a profound moment that resonated with the public for its genuine humanity. We all can identify with Wilmer Flores.  His tears remind us that no matter how much we try to order our lives, things unfold in ways beyond our control. In the end, the trade was called off, and Flores has been playing very well for the Mets. For one brief moment this summer, though, Flores reminded us that we are all vulnerable to fear and uncertainty when we lose our sense of control.


If we can empathize with Wilmer Flores over the mundane matter of playing baseball, then we also can and must empathize with those facing life and death decisions.  Imagine the the fear of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and north Africa who are seeking asylum in the West. Imagine the impossible choice faced by most of these people. They could stay in their homeland dominated by rampaging murderous thugs who enslave and rape children. They could also try to leave and risk the lives of their family on an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean bound for Europe. If the boat doesn’t sink, as many have, they then face great uncertainty as to what will happen to them in Europe. Will they be granted asylum or deported to their home countries?  The news media coverage of the plight of these refugees whose lives are in limbo underscores the fear of the unknown that these mothers, fathers and children must feel. The uncertainty of it all is enough to make any of us cry.


In today’s Torah reading, we read about Hagar, Abraham’s handmaiden and mother of Ishmael. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Ishmael is seen as a threat, and Sarah prevails upon Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. It is a tragic tale of a mother and her son forced the leave their home with meager rations and left to face almost certain death in the wilderness. Our classical Jewish texts do not shy away from difficult situations in the lives of our ancestors that depict them as flawed human beings who don’t always make the best choices. Perhaps Abraham and Sarah might have found another solution to their household woes but the story that we have is that Hagar and Ishmael were banished into the desert. As Ishmael lay before his mother dying, the text describes Hagar’s moment of desperation: Va tisa et kolah va-tevk—she raised her voice and cried over the suffering of her son Ishmael. In the depths of her crisis, she is heard. God provides aide to Ishmael Baasher hu sham, right where he is.


In the other Torah and Haftarah readings during Rosh HaShanah we find other examples of our ancestors who out to God in anguish and are heard. God remembers those who cry out in despair and meets all of them Baasher hu sham—wherever they are. In case the selected Biblical texts are not clear enough that genuine cries of sadness and desperation are heard, the main ritual of this holiday hammers home the point. The sound of the shofar mimics different kinds of crying—cries of anguish, cries of brokenness and cries of hope. We blow the shofar to induce ourselves to awaken ourselves to be vulnerable and pour out that which troubles us. Our Biblical ancestors cried to God at their greatest vulnerability and were answered. In our moment of anguish and uncertainty we pray that God will be there for us.


Rosh HaShanah reminds us as we start the new year that so much in life is beyond our control. Our cries express that innate human acknowledgement of vulnerability.  We go through much of our lives thinking we’re in command of our own destiny. The truth is, we’re not. How can we function in this state of helplessness? Thankfully, we are able to turn once again to our High Holiday liturgy for some guidance.


Un’tane Tokef  is a climactic moment in the Musaf service in which we acknowledge our abject frailty in our world. In the coming year, we do not know who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. This first section of Un’tane Tokef  is the ultimate expression of humility and powerlessness in a vast and complex universe. Umalakhim yehapeizun, even the angels are trembling from their sense of powerlessness and uncertainty. Then, in a stroke of genius, the payytan, the poet, shifts gears and says: ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה, repentance, prayer and righteousness can help the pain of the decree pass. In other words, through our actions, we can reclaim a measure of control. We can’t always change the decree, but we can make its effects less harsh so that we can live with a new normal and help others do the same.


We feel the tension between helplessness and assertive action in all aspects of our lives from the global scale to the communal scale to our  personal tragedies. The essence of this season is to transform our sense of helplessness into hope. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.


Let me return to the deep horrific refugee crisis that is gripping Europe as hundreds of thousands of people seek to rebuild their lives shattered by war, persecution and terror. The image of a toddler boy Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey has churned stomachs and galvanized attention to this harrowing situation. Hundreds of drownings in the Mediterranean from overloaded capsized boats, scores of people found dead in a truck in Austria and the desperation in the Budapest train station compound the horror of this situation. The civil war in Syria and the savagery of ISIS have gone on for years. We’ve seen beheadings, chemical warfare, slaughter of Christians and Yazidis, and bloodshed of Muslim Shi’ites and Sunnis towards each other. All of this has gone on for at least four years, and the world has done virtually nothing. Va-tisa et kolah va-tevk. Thousands of people are crying out in despair.  With desperate throngs of asylum seekers landing on the shores and in the train stations of Europe, the world is finally beginning to hear the desperate cries of the suffering. The question is will we be there—Baasher hu shamfor them. The development of this crisis wasn’t in our control, but our response to it is. We all know reasons cited for not turning away Syrians and others. There is fear of radical Islamic inspired terrorism spreading to the West. Many Jews fear rising anti-Semitism in a European environment already hostile to Jews. There is the valid critique that the US and Europe should have done more years ago to prevent the explosion of violence and anarchy in the refugees’ countries of origin. The renowned Holocaust scholar Dr. Deborah Lipstadt expressed these concerns, even as she said she is still writing a check to refugee relief. In times such as these, we help first and ask questions later. After all, we know what it’s like. It wasn’t so long ago that the Jewish people were shunned in Europe and the United States. In the 1938 Evian Conference, 32 European countries effectively slammed the door on the Jews, refusing to offer them refuge from Hitler. Remember the “Voyage of the Damned”? The SS St. Louis  carried nearly 1000 Jews from Germany across the Atlantic. They were denied entry into Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe. Many of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Before Hitler enacted the Final Solution, the Nazis were willing to let Jews emigrate to British Mandate Palestine, but the British enforced strict quotas and denied Jews entry to their own homeland as European Jewry was about to go up in flames. Of course, we know that even after the Holocaust, the British prevented desperate survivors from entering Israel. Our communal memory knows what it’s like to be refugees as our homes and families are burning.


England’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers,’ resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”


It is ironic that the destination of choice for many of the asylum seekers is Germany, 70 years after the world finally stopped the Nazi reign of terror. To its credit, Germany has welcomed close to a million refugees. Other nations have been less forthcoming. Rabbi Sacks has called on England to carry out the equivalent of the kindertransport that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to England and saved them from certain death in the Shoah. Rabbi Sacks notes that the Torah reminds us to love the stranger because we were once strangers. In this world gone mad, it is easy to feel helpless; yet, somewhere, there must be some measure of human decency that will bring shelter and peace to the asylum seekers. Other rabbis in England have organized efforts in their community to support refugees and aide their absorption. All of the major American-based or American supported Jewish defense organizations are leading the way in helping with resettlement of refugees in Europe. In particular, HIAS  and the JDC are working with Jewish communities throughout Europe to provide both financial and hands on support. These efforts are worthy of our support.


On the day that we read of the plight of Hagar and Ishamel, we note with pain and sorrow the anguish felt by many of the spiritual descendants of Hagar and Ishmael who are seeking lives of freedom and tranquility. Va-tisa et kolah va-tevk. Like Hagar, they are raising their voices and crying out in despair. God met them Baasher hu sham—right where they were and provided for them. The Jewish people, along with the entire Western world are pressed with the challenge to imitate God and be Baasher hu sham for these people. Furthermore, while the development of this crisis was beyond our control our response to it is not. We need to direct our teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to respond to the harsh decrees of the past year. We’re called upon to stop the pain. This is our test of the moment.


The last year drew to a close with fear and cries of despair from across the ocean. My prayer is that this time next year that the tears we shed will be tears of joy as the children of Abraham come together to rejoice in a more peaceful world.


Drawing hope from the depths of despair: Rosh HaShanah Message, September 25, 2014

28 Sep

There’s an old story about the political science professor who was asked to sum up the situation in Israel in one word. He thought about it for a while, and finally said, “Good.”

Then he was asked, “All right, if you had one more word, if you were asked to sum up the situation in two words, what would you say?

So he thought about it for a while, and then he said, “Not good.”

I believe it’s safe to say that if any of us were asked to summarize this past summer for Israel and the Jewish people, most of us would say “not good.” The truth is, we all know it has been a very difficult summer. Even with the benefit of the Iron Dome, Israel was forced to carry out a difficult operation in Gaza to protect its citizens from rocket fire from above and terror tunnels from below. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired their rockets against Israeli civilians while hiding their rocket launchers and weapons amidst their own civilians. Imagine what could have been had Hamas spent years investing in science and technology, hospitals, schools and playgrounds. Instead they spent billions of dollars on rockets and terror tunnels and used schools and hospitals they did have as launch sites for the rockets. The moral clarity is crystal clear. Israel uses rockets to protect its children. Hamas uses children to protect their rockets.

As we take a broader view of the world, the scourge of fundamentalist Islam is spreading like a cancer throughout the Middle East. The brutal terror of Hamas was exported to ISIS and honed into barbarism the likes of which we’ve not seen in modern times. The beheadings of American journalists and a British aide worker have sickened us and galvanized our nation to respond militarily.

So how was this summer? It was not good.

Nevertheless, if we dig beneath the surface, we will find reason not to despair. After Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during July and August, the month of June seems like ancient history. Let’s take a look back at June, though, and recall the prelude to Gaza. Three Israeli teenage boys Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrah and Gilead Shaar, were hitchhiking their way home from yeshiva when they were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. Their whereabouts were not known for weeks until their mutilated bodies were found near Hebron. We all felt pain and outrage over this crime. The only thing that could make it worse would be Jews sinking to that level and perpetrating revenge terror attacks against Palestinians. Indeed, such a horror occurred when Jewish terrorists abducted and burned to death a teenager named Muhammed Abu Khdeir, just one day after the three Israeli teenagers were laid to rest. Amidst this charged atmosphere, Hamas ramped up its rocket attacks from Gaza, and Israel launched the operation to protect its citizens.

With our attention on Gaza and the threat to Israeli citizens that Hamas posed, the murders of the four teenagers faded into the background. With the perspective now of a few months, let’s look back to the aftermath of those murders. While the Israeli families were sitting shiva, the Abu Khdeir family was also mourning their son in their tent of mourning. In the midst of observing shiva, Rachel Frankel, the mother of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Frankel, made a courageous emotional statement condemning Abu Khdeir’s murder. “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder,” she said. Her family went a step further and called the Abu Khdeir family to express condolences from one house of mourning to another. Amidst the most wretched violence humans could afflict upon one another, we must take inspiration from this spark of humanity, decency and courage. The Frankel family reminded us who we are as a people and what Israel is all about. Out of the depths of despair, a bold Israeli family in the depths of mourning dared to be decent. Rachel Frankel’s courage and compassion provided a glimmer of hope that Israel will be ok.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, wrote a moving piece this month on how Israelis are able to cope in the midst of anxiety and despair. He writes:
“We cope because we have no choice. This is the only corner of the planet where Jews are sovereign. Many of us continue to struggle to preserve a decent Israel. Despite growing mutual suspicion, coexistence efforts between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews persist. The Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli media are among the most vigorous anywhere. In a seemingly endless conflict, we can’t take those achievements for granted. Other democracies have broken under far less pressure.”

Klein-Halevi continues: “And through it all Jews keep coming home. This year, 1% of France’s 600,000 Jews are moving to Israel. Even as the missiles fell on Israeli cities, planeloads of French immigrants continued to land. They are fleeing growing anti-Jewish violence. But these well-educated immigrants aren’t going to Canada, they’re coming to the Jewish state. The final shore.”

Klein-Halevi adds a personal note driving with his 16-year-old son and fighting traffic in Jerusalem. “Here we are, in a traffic jam in Jerusalem,” Klein-Halevi writes. “But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors.”

His son replied, “I think about that a lot.”
Klein-Halevi concludes: “That was all he said. But that was enough. I knew he would be able to survive here.

Israel is a symbol to the Jewish people and to the world that from amidst despair we must draw hope. In a world of injustice, tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue. Bimkom she’ein ish, hishtadel l’hiyot ish, in a place in which there are no decent people, strive to be a decent person. Amidst all of its internal political strife and external threats, Israel inspires us to the ideal that we can dare to make the world a better place. Od lo avdah tikvateinu–our hope is not lost–we stubbornly declare when we sing Hatikvah. The ethos of Israel, drawing upon the well springs of Jewish tradition, is to look forward, to have hope.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, Rosh HaShanah as a holiday bids us to look forward. This is odd. We are starting the Ten Days of Penitence. It would seem that first we should reflect on the past, then resolve to do better in the future. Both steps are essential to teshuvah; however our calendar and our liturgy buck conventional wisdom and the order of actions towards attaining teshuvah. Rabbi Sacks notes that Rosh HaShanah contains no confessions, no penitential prayer. We don’t beat our chests today and say Ashamnu (We have sinned) or Al Het, (“For the sin that we have committed before you…”).We save these for Yom Kippur, ten days into the new year. Why? Teshuvah is driven by two different mindsets: Rosh HaShanah is about the future, Yom Kippur is about the past. Rosh means head, and the default position of the head is to look forward not back. The placement of Rosh HaShanah before Yom Kippur means that our determination to act better in the future takes priority to our feelings of remorse about the past. To which we might add that this is why we blow the shofar on RH. The shofar turns our attention to what lies ahead, not behind.

As Rabbi Sacks writes: “Rosh HaShanah reminds us that to mend the past, first we must secure the future.”  This idea is amplified in the three sections of the Musaf Amidah: Malkhiyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot.

Malkhiyot proclaims the majesty of God. We are reminded that no human ruler or government has absolute authority. As we know, among human beings absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our humility before God as a people and as a civilization will fortify us in the face of today’s current evil regimes such as Hamas and ISIS. As we look ahead to a new year with great anticipation, a sense of humility before God tempers us and leads us to act more wisely and with more compassion.
Zikhronot is about memory, but not about our memory. We call upon God to remember the merits of our ancestors and to credit us in turn. In the process we strive to be worthy of our ancestors’ rewards by refining our own actions. We appeal to the past, but for the sake of a better future.

Finally, Shofarot invokes the image of the shofar, the very symbol of a call to the future. The sounds of the shofar penetrate our hearts, evoking God’s cry to us. We know that we are mortal, and this season we reaffirm our mortality. When we hear the wailing sounds of the shofar, we know each one of us will not live forever. Yet, we defeat death by living by values that live forever. The shofar calls upon us to be compassionate, like Rachel Frankel, and create blessings in this world that will live on after us for generations to come.

There is no doubt that we live in challenging times. Yet, we gather today at the dawn of a new year not to cry about what was but to plant the seeds for a more hopeful future. For inspiration, we must turn to our brothers and sisters in Israel who do this day in and day out. Rachel Frankel sitting shiva for her murdered son refused to be consumed by hate. Israelis went about their business working, celebrating weddings, inventing, affirming life, even as rocket attacks disrupted their daily routine. Immigrants made Aliyah because the Jewish people have no other land to call our own. Jerusalem residents were snarled in traffic in their daily commutes. We have great reason for hope. In fact, we have no choice. Let us resolve in this new year to look forward. Let us be vigilant against those who seek us harm and at the same time stay true to our deepest principles and values that have sustained us throughout the generations. Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai yevarech et amo ba-shalom; may God grant His people strength, may God bless His people with peace. Amen.

#TieBlog #Aharei Mot

11 Apr
Goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur

Goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur

On this Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” prior to Passover, our Torah reading, Parashat Aharei Mot, takes us to the opposite pole of the Jewish calendar. The reading describes the elaborate rites carried out by the kohanim (priests), and particularly the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. At the center of the the atonement rituals we find goats. In his Yom Kippur Mahzor commentary, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the words shnei se’irei izim, two goats (Leviticus 16:5) that served different roles in the atonement ritual.

Rabbi Sacks writes: “The two goats were identical in appearance but different in their fate. One was sacrificed to God, the other–the “scapegoat”–was sent into the desert. They represent, respectively, the polarities of the human condition: on the one hand sanctity and order, symbolized by the Tabernacle; on the other, formlessness and void, symbolized by the desert. The ceremony of the two goats is similar to the acts of separation and division that took place during creation (Gen. 1). They represent the light and darkness within the human personality. The darkness–sin–is sent into the dark: the desert with its dangers. The light–the gift of love we bring to God when we offer Him a sacrifice–is transmuted by divine fire into forgiveness and love” (Koren-Sacks Yom Kippur Mahzor, p. 729.).

The goats on my tie are not your average “Billy Goats Gruff.” They are goats of personal transformation and renewal.