Tag Archives: Torah

#TieBlog #ShabbatHanukkah #Mikketz

19 Dec
Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

Dreidel tie for Hanukkah

Heading into Shabbat Hanukkah, #TieBlog proposes a connection between this tie and Parashat Mikketz. Joseph’s life has been like a game of dreidel. He landed on some hard times and is lying forgotten in an Egyptian jail. Then his fortunes turn dramatically when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and is appointed viceroy of Egypt. He saves the people from starvation and ultimately his own family as well. In the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Joseph says upon his new appointment: “Anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break!”

Yes, the game of dreidel is a game of chance and luck. At the same time, an important message of Hanukkah is that people have to make miracles happen. The rabbinic legend of Hanukkah roots the festival in the miracle of oil: when they were cleaning up the desecrated Temple, the Maccabees found only enough oil to last for one day, yet it burned for eight days. We often overlook the important human elements of this miracle. Someone at some point had to crush olives in order to extract oil. Some lonely kohen (priest) had to pour oil into a jar, and perhaps another had the foresight to hide it before the Greeks desecrated the Temple.

Similarly, the Joseph story in the Torah is the most human story in the Bible. God is not an active character in the narrative. All of the events are shaped by human action. And yet, at key junctures, Joseph acknowledges God’s guiding force (45:5).

As much as life often seems random, like the result of a dreidel spin, we are in fact the authors of our own destiny. One of the great miracles of life is that God grants humans free will. An even greater miracle is when we channel that free will to do good.

PS–Be sure to watch and share my music video “Chanukah Opens Doors.

From Fear to Trust

5 Dec
Rabbis in New York protesting non-indictment of NYPD officer implicated in Eric Garner death

Rabbis in New York protesting non-indictment of NYPD officer implicated in Eric Garner death

Johnny Carson, the late comedian and long-time host of the Tonight Show, began his career on a TV game show called “Who Do You Trust.”

I think about the name of that show today only because of a pervasive erosion of trust in our country. And it’s not funny. Not in the least.

Within the span of a week, grand juries in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island, NY, declined to indict white police officers who were alleged to have committed police brutality in killing African American men. I don’t wish to make the case that either Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York were saints. I also don’t wish to implicate all white police officers as racist hooligans, when the vast majority joined the force to serve and protect society, and they generally do. Yet I can’t help but wonder what would have happened in identical circumstances if either Michael Brown or Eric Garner was white. Probably nothing.

On a day to day basis, I’m sure there are countless examples of law enforcement officers doing their job in protecting our community in ways that don’t make the news. At the same time, to a casual observer, such as me, something seems to be broken in our law enforcement system. Our nation thrives as a nation of justice, and one of the pillars of a just society is trust. One of the greatest threats to trust is fear, particularly fear of people who are different. Fear of the other has deep roots in civilization, even in Parashat Vayishlach.

Our Torah reading this week contains an ugly, painful story that we don’t learn in Hebrew School. It is often referred to as the “Rape of Dinah.” However, it really should be known as the Massacre of Shechem. It is not at all clear that Dinah was raped; in fact, as depicted in Anita Diament’s novel, “The Red Tent,” her relationship with Shechem may have been completely consensual and loving.  Shechem goes to Dinah’s family and says he will pay any bride price for the right to take Dinah as his wife. The brothers, presumably all of them at first, issue the demand that Shechem and every other male in their town get circumcised. Lo and behold, Shechem and his father Hamor agree to this condition. All the males are circumcised. Then Shimon and Levi unleash unthinkable terror. While all the males of the town are recovering from their circumcisions, they massacre them all. The Bible does not whitewash our ancestors; this story, however, puts on full display the capacity among our ancestors for outright evil. When our fear of the ‘other’ is so great, we are at risk of committing terrible violence or tolerating the same from others in the name of justice.

I am not suggesting that Shimon and Levi’s premeditated massacre of innocents is the same as the alleged police brutality in Ferguson and New York. Police officers argue that they face great pressure in the line of duty and the heat of the moment in their efforts to protect society. However, the common threads are fear and mistrust.

With a great sense of despair across the country, I heard a glimmer of hope in an interview on NPR  with Constance Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney. She became known in the 1990s for, as she puts it, going to war with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Rice filed lawsuits against the department, mainly over their treatment of minorities in underprivileged communities. But in her interview, she bemoaned her initial tactics. Belligerence was breeding only more hostility and fear.

After initially battling the LAPD, and specifically captain Charlie Beck, who is now LA’s police chief, Rice changed tactics and found ways to work with the department. They worked together to reform the department and established trust.

Some of that change included LAPD officers going into housing projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities closer together.

Rice described interviewing over 900 police officers and was surprised by the extent to which they opened up to her, as if in a therapy session:

“They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men.” I mean this [comes from] cops who are 6’4″. You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6’4″ talking about he was terrified. But when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

On whether or not racism plays a factor in police force:

“[The police officer] doesn’t feel like it’s racism, [but] [T]he black community experiences it as racism, that’s very clear. So what I’m saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots and scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops. You have to be able to distinguish between all of those human experiences and bring them together. On a single platform of we’re going to solve this by empathizing. We’re going to solve it with compassion and we’re going to solve it with common sense.”

On whether improving life in poor neighborhoods causes police to be less fearful:

“Not only does it cause cops to be less fearful, it causes the community to embrace them. I have taken a group of 50 cops and the chief (Charlie) Beck let me train them. I trained them in what I community partnership policing. The first thing I tell these cops is that you are not in the arrest business; you are in the trust business. We are going to train you in Public Trust Policing. It goes beyond community policing. What it does is it puts police in a position of helping a community solve its problems. These cops come into the black housing projects and they said to these populations who hate them “We know you hate us, but we’re here to serve. We’re going to win your trust.””

Our nation has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust and overcome fear of the other.  Throughout the centuries since the time of the Torah we find that fear of the other brings out the worst in people. It was true for Shimon and Levi, and it is true on the streets of our cities today.

The Prophet Zechariah says (8:16): Dabru emet ish et re’eyhu emet u’mishpat shalomshiftu b’shaareychem—Speak everyone the truth to one another; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates; and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against your neighbor.

May the prophet’s words inspire us to reimagine our society not rooted in fear of the other but in emet and shalom, truth and peace and inherent trust in one another.

#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.

 

 

Nothing But the Truth

24 Oct
Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was a busy news week with many reports of tragedies, including horrific terror attacks both in Jerusalem and the Canadian capital of Ottawa. I’ll come back to these incidents shortly. A news story that gave me pause, though, was the report I heard on the car radio Wednesday morning that Ben Bradlee died at the age of 93. The former Executive Editor of the Washington Post was an American hero who championed the First Amendment’s call for freedom of the press. He spoke truth to power when he made his historic decision to publish the Pentagon papers that exposed the abuses of the Johnson Administration’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. He then entrusted two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to pursue the report of a suspicious burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Their reporting exposed the corruption of the Nixon White House and contributed to Nixon’s ultimate resignation.

In reading various obituaries of Bradlee this week, I was struck by a tribute to him by Bob Woodward who remembered the words that as a young reporter he most hated to hear from Mr. Bradlee: “You don’t have it yet, kid.”

As important as freedom of the press and accountability of leaders were to Ben Bradlee, of utmost importance to Bradlee was the truth. The story had to be right before it could go to press.

At this point, I could pivot to the Torah reading and draw a nice analogy between our Torah portion, Parashat Noach, and the legacy of Ben Bradlee. The Torah reading notes Va-tishahet haaretz lifnei Ha-Elohim, va-timale haaretz hamas. “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness” (Gen. 6:11; Hamas here is not related etymologically to the terrorist organization by the same name).  Through a close reading, the Sages wonder why the verse must add the phrase “before God.” Isn’t that obvious? Rather, the Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as “lawlessness” (hamas) to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them (JT BM 4:2). This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy (from Etz Hayim, p. 41). When the truth was ignored, society crumbled. Noah, though he had his faults, was uncorrupted by the pervasive lies around him, and God saved him. In modern times, Ben Bradlee stood for the truth and reminded our nation that our government’s credibility must rest on the foundation of truth.

That could be a decent enough D’var Torah, and we could call it a day and wish each other Shabbat Shalom. However, that same Wednesday, we learned of a terrible terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian terrorist rammed his car into a crowded train stop killing a precious three-month-old baby girl, Chasya Zissel Braun, z”l . Her parents had struggled for years to conceive, and they had just returned from taking their daughter to the Kotel for the first time. In addition to the death of this baby, several others were injured, and police on the scene quickly shot and killed the driver.

The Associated Press reported this crime with the following headline: Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem. They added the following summary: “Israeli police say they shot a man whose car slammed into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, in what they suspect was an intentional attack.”

The Internet soon lit up with criticism of the Associated Press biased, out-of-context headline. The AP responded by “correcting” the headline, which they changed to “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station.” That darn automobile just had anti-Semitism flowing through its engine, spark plugs and wiper fluid! Finally, after even more widespread outrage on social media, they changed the headline to “Palestinian kills baby at Jerusalem station.” Benji Lovitt, a blogger on the Times of Israel, lampooned the AP with a number of hypothetical headlines such as: “Noah Abducts Entire Animal Kingdom” or “John Lennon Drives Fan to Crime” or “Abraham Lincoln Interrupts Play.” This is dark humor at its best.

The good news is that the AP responded to criticism and wrote a more accurate headline that reflected the actual tragedy that occurred. Nevertheless, the original headline highlighted an inherent bias in the press that tends to view Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as victims.

Unfortunately, the same day this attack occurred in Jerusalem, there was also a terrorist attack at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario, reminding us that the cancerous scourge of terror can and does reach our shores. The press had no problems reporting this story. The New York Times headline read: “Gunman Panics Ottawa, Killing Soldier in Spree at Capital.” There was no hiding behind passive language or the government’s just actions in defending its citizens and government leaders.

In response to the murder of the baby girl in Israel and the Associated Press’s initial coverage, another blogger on The Times of Israel, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, wrote a chilling but poetic reflection. She asks us to imagine the joy of the Braun family over their newborn daughter and her first trip to the Kotel. Then she is killed before their eyes.
“Can you imagine their horror? The screams and then the silence…
“A baby girl is dead.
“Her family is shattered.
“Meanwhile, international media reports that “Israeli police shot an E. Jerusalem man.” (AP may have changed the headline, but the url exists forever and ever.)
“I kind of hate the world right now.
“Let’s all light a candle. It’s really dark here.”

In Parashat Noach, pervasive lying and lawlessness brought darkness to the universe. Only Noah and his family lit a candle of truth, and God saved them. Similarly, in our own time, the darkness of falsehood is spreading. When the world tolerates terror against the Jews and ignores the truth that militant Islam stands for death and destruction of Western civilization, it will continue to metastasize around the world. We’ve seen terror in America on 9/11, and now, unfortunately it has come to Canada as well. The Western free press is the first line of defense against anti-democratic trends around the world, and the credibility of journalism rests on getting it right.

Maybe the Associated Press’s response to criticism is a sign of hope. A large number of critics mustered a bit of Ben Bradlee and said to the AP: “You don’t have it yet, kid.” When we hold a mirror to the press and remind it what it stands for, we’ll not only help them get it right, we may even save lives. May God grant us the strength to bring truth and light into the world.

#TieBlog #Sukkot & #EtrogandLulav

7 Oct
The four species that are brought together on Sukkot, as described in Leviticus, 23:40.

The four species that are brought together on Sukkot, as described in Leviticus, 23:40.

In time for Sukkot, here is the newest tie in the #TieBlog collection. Two central commandments from the Torah related to this harvest festival are dwelling in the Sukkah (booth) for 7 days. The other is to gather four species of plants and wave them (based on Leviticus 23:40).

The Midrash (Lev. R. 30:9-12) notes that each of the species has different qualities. The Etrog (citron) has both a sweet taste and a fragrant smell. The lulav (date palm branch) has no smell but its fruit tastes sweet. The Hadas (myrtle) has a fragrant smell and no taste. The Aravah (willow) has no taste and no smell. Taste and order represent Torah and good deeds, respectively. Some Jews possess both, some perform better at one and some do not perform well at either. Yet we gather the species together to symbolize the unity of Israel. For more on Sukkot and Etrog and Lulav, watch the following YouTube videos:

Introduction to Sukkot

Introduction to Lulav and Etrog

How to Make the Lulav Shake

#TieBlog #YomKippur 5775

2 Oct
Goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur

Goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur

The goats on my tie are of course in honor of the goats of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple. This ritual is mentioned in the Torah:

Leviticus, Chapter 16: “7 Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; 8 and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; 10 while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.”

We no longer have the Temple nor this arcane ritual. We instead offer our sincere prayers, fasting and genuine teshuvah (return to the ways of God). May we be inscribed for life and good health.

Our Communal Mulligan: Rosh HaShanah, First Night, September 24, 2014

28 Sep

Shanah Tovah,
As we begin Rosh HaShanah tonight, I’d like to share with you a thought experiment. Imagine an American activity that for generations has had millions of practitioners. People would devote significant time and money to this activity every week. Strong traditions developed around how one should dress to these activities and what items one had to bring to participate. The activity involved a high degree of skill, and practitioners were expected to adhere closely to the rules. The traditions of this activity were passed down from generation to generation until one day younger people stopped participating in this activity. It took too much time, cost too much money and was too difficult.

The scenario I just described is true; however, I am not talking about Judaism or even religion. I’m talking about golf. According to a recent New York Times article, golf in America has lost some five million participants over the last decade. Like many Jewish organizations as well as many other religious groups, golf clubs are struggling to attract a new generation of golfers. People under 35 have especially spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn and has too many tiresome rules.

Recently, the PGA and other golf industry leaders are so fearful of losing the next generation of golfers that there are now experiments with alternative forms of golf with new equipment, new rules and radical changes to courses. The goal is to alter the game’s reputation in order to recruit lapsed golfers and a younger demographic. There are now–get this–15-inch holes, the size of pizza pans. There are games based on time, rather than completion of 18-holes, with limits at six or nine holes. There are newly designed balls that don’t slice. Some courses have introduced kicking a soccer ball down a fairway, and, yes, most importantly, players are allowed mulligans on every hole. Of course, golf traditionalists are up in arms over the dumbing down of the game. Industry leaders say they have no choice if they are going to pass the tradition of golf to a new generation. They’ve got to make it less time consuming, more accessible and non-judgmental.

Does any of this sound familiar? Indeed, the American Jewish community faces similar challenges. I could speak at length about the many parallels between the challenges faced by golf and those faced by Jewish institutions in terms of how to be relevant to younger generations. Just as golf attempts to reinvent itself, many Jewish institutions around the country are engaged in creative innovation that preserves Jewish tradition while making it more accessible. I’ll let you consider for yourselves the numerous parallels between Judaism and golf. For now, I wish to offer instead a major difference between Judaism and golf.

Judaism has a secret sauce that golf is only just discovering now: the value of renewal and reinvention. Judaism has renewal built into our DNA.

For golf, traditionalists might consider it a heresy to allow mulligans, or do-overs. In Judaism, we allow mulligans all the time. Pirke Avot teaches hashev yom echad lifnei motcha, repent one day before you die. The understanding is that since we never actually know when our final day will be, we must do teshuvah every day. Every day in the Amidah we say to God Slach lanu…m’hal lanu, forgive us, pardon us for our sins. We say this three times a day, every day of the year. And if that’s not enough, we also have Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of Penitence that we begin tonight. These ten days are all mulligans all the time. It is a reset button for the entire year. We take stock of our deeds, we make amends, we seek forgiveness from one another and willingly grant it when asked of us.

Among Judaism’s greatest gifts to civilization is the notion that people can change. Nothing is pre-ordained. We find our way through life one mulligan at a time. This notion is not obvious. The ancient Greeks, for instance, believed that we are what we are, and we cannot change. They believed that character is destiny, and the character itself is something we are born with, although it may take great courage to realize our potential. Heroes are born, not made. Before the birth of Oedipus, his fate had already been foretold by the Delphic Oracle, and nothing can avert it.

This is precisely the opposite of the key sentence we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: uteshuvah ut’fillah utzedakah maavirin et roa hagezeirah: “Repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the evil decree.” While difficult stuff happens in the world, we have control over our destiny. No fate that is final, No diagnosis without a second opinion – half of Jewish jokes are based on this idea.

As Isaac Bashevis Singer wittily put it, “We have to be free; we have no choice.”

On these High Holy Days, we renew our tradition of renewal itself. While golf widens holes on the putting green, let us widen our hearts. While golf shortens its games, let us make the time we have with one another in our families and in this synagogue community as meaningful as possible. While golf adds mulligans to allow players multiple chances to hit the ball well, let us reengage in our ancient tradition of Teshuvah, so that we may begin this year truly renewed.

It’s time for us now to tee off on a ten-day journey of introspection and renewal. May God grant us the strength to make these days meaningful and transformative so that we may bring positive change into our lives, our relationships and the world.
Amen.

#TieBlog #Ki-Tavo

12 Sep
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.

Zakhor: The Meaning of Steven Sotloff’s Death

5 Sep
Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Steven Sotloff, 1983-2014

Parashat Ki Tetze, ends with the mitzvah of Zakhor: Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amalek: 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

This Shabbat we remember Steven Sotloff, z”l. An American journalist from Miami, he was also Jewish. In 2008 he made aliyah and held dual American and Israeli citizenship. As a journalist, he was committed to uncovering the truth, even if it meant putting himself in great danger. While on assignment in Syria last year, he was kidnapped by the Islamic State. When another American journalist, James Foley, of blessed memory, was brutally murdered and beheaded by ISIS, the terrorists announced that Sotloff was next. Despite an emotional appeal by his mother, Sotloff was brutally executed and beheaded this week. Our nation mourns. Within our shock and outrage, we ask how it is that these ISIS terrorists can imagine the brutality that they have committed.

Within our tradition, the rabbis ask the same question about Amalek. In the Midrash, the rabbis ask what was Amalek’s motive? After all, following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites showed the world they had God on their side. What could a nation hope to gain by attacking Israel?

The Midrash uses the analogy of a boiling hot bath. The first person that jumps in gets badly burned – but cools the bath off considerably, making it easier for the next person to jump in. Amalek so badly wanted the Israelites destroyed, that they were willing to attack Israel even after having witnessed how God’s powerful hand had protected them. Amalek was defeated, as the Torah tells us, but their gutsy, almost suicidal, attack on the Jews did a lot to alter the prevalent thinking of the time that the Jews and their God were invincible.

The world has a bad habit of standing by watching terrorists brutalize innocent civilians. The world has been particularly tolerant of Hamas terrorists who threaten the lives of millions of Israelis with rockets and tunnels and then put their own children in harm’s way as defensive shields when Israel retaliates against the rocket fire. When the democratic nation of Israel defends her citizens from terrorism, Israel is reviled throughout the world and accused of war crimes. What many around the world fail to understand is that if terrorism fueled by Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to exist in Israel, it will spread to the rest of the civilized world. As Prime Minister Netanyahu says, if Israel is forced to tolerate terror, it will come soon to a theater near you. Tragically, that is what we are witnessing with ISIS. President Obama called ISIS a cancer that must be stopped before it spreads even more. It’s an apt metaphor; however, we must recognize both the source of the cancer and prior failures to fight it.

James Foley and Steven Sotloff are hardly the first Americans to fall victims to the diabolical terror of Islamic fundamentalism. This week, we mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11 when 3,000 people died on our soil. The mitzvah of Zakhor extends beyond words and tributes to those who perished at the hands of terrorists. Zakhor requires further action.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I believe our nation failed to seize the moment to challenge Americans to make our society better and more respected in the world. The mitzvah of remembering Amalek caps a parasha with more mitzvoth than any other parasha: fair weights and measures in business, safe building practices in home construction, and protection of the weaker members of society. It’s as if a message of our parasha is that the best antidote to evil is a society that lives by laws and high moral principles. When there is a breakdown of that structure, Amalek is invited to enter.

In the midst of self-reflection of how we in Western civilization have allowed terrorism to spread, there’s another angle to explore. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote three years ago how Osama bin Laden thought he could get away with it. The same question applies today to ISIS and their genocidal rampage. Rav Sacks writes that bin Laden thought he could get away with it because he saw the West in decline.

Sacks writes about the moral decline of our society and the diminishing commitment to communal values throughout the West. He writes: “Whenever Me takes precedence over We, and pleasure today over viability tomorrow, a society is in trouble. If so, then the enemy is not radical Islam, it is us and our by now unsustainable self-indulgence.
The West has expended much energy and courage fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq abroad and defeating terror at home. It has spent far less, if any, in renewing its own morality and the institutions — families, communities, ethical codes, standards in public life — where it is created and sustained. But if I am right, this is the West’s greatest weakness in the eyes of its enemies as well as its friends.”

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and other radical groups scoff at our values in which preservation of life reigns supreme. Like Amalek generations ago, they willingly jump into a hot bath to show the world that beheadings can be done. Our leaders must have the moral gumption to fight this tyranny and stop it. Moreover, we as citizens must continue to build a society rooted in the highest values of human dignity.

Rav Sacks’ words about 9/11 ring true today. He writes:

“The only way to save the world is to begin with ourselves. Our burden after 9/11 is to renew the moral disciplines of freedom. Some say it can’t be done. They are wrong: it can and must. Surely we owe the dead no less.”

May we be inspired by Parashat Ki Tetze to create a just society that prevents Amalek from rearing its ugly head. That will be the best way we can honor Steven Sotloff’s memory, may his memory be for a blessing.