Does Everything Happen for a Reason: Shmini 2014-03-21

Everything happens for a reason.

Many of us have probably said this, and if not, we’ve certainly heard it. Someone loses a job, ends a relationship, or the Bulldawgs lose a game. And to make sense of these sorts of things, we have this ubiquitous response, Well … everything happens for a reason.

We want things to be meaningful – to make sense. And sometimes we justify what happens to us (and to those around us) by alluding to some larger reality, or truth, or meaning, or comfort. We say Everything happens for a reason to assuage our anger or fear, or guilt, or sadness. It points to a higher “meaning” that reminds us that although this experience may be sad, there’s a treasure that’s waiting to be discovered behind it. And so, we are comforted that perhaps the world isn’t a harsh place of suffering and randomness, but rather purpose and meaning.

Judaism is filled with this sentiment. There is a Jewish concept of Tziduk HaDin”that I want to talk about tonight. You probably know both words; Tziduk comes from the same root as Tzedakah. And Din is the same word we use when we talk about a Beit Din; a Jewish court. Tziduk HaDin, then, is the justification of God’s judgment, or the righteousness of God’s judgment.

Here’s an example: God floods the Earth and kills every single human being on the planet, except for Noah and his immediate family. Rather than denounce God for enacting a cruel, destructive act, we maintain that humanity was selfish and mean, not respecting God or each other. And in so doing, we do Tziduk HaDin – we justify God’s actions.

This week’s Torah portion has what might be the most egregious, painful example of Tziduk HaDin.

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, approach the altar, and they make a sacrifice to God. Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.

They had not been asked to make a sacrifice. They had not been commanded. This is akin to you surprising your spouse or a friend by taking them out to a favorite restaurant. The “strange fire” the Torah speaks of alludes to an incorrect practice; they did not perform the sacrifice correctly. They made a mistake.

So what happens?

Fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them. They died at the instance of the Eternal.

God killed them.

If we were to read commentaries and midrashim, we would read that Nadav and Abihu were surreptitiously staging a coup d’état, attempting to steal power and prestige from their uncle Moses and their father, Aaron. We would learn that they were selfish, desiring God’s blessing for themselves. They were not leading the people with the spiritual wholesomeness of their father and uncle. And so, because of the reasons listed above, they got what they deserved.

But here’s the thing; the Torah does not say that. There is nary a hint of the kind of malignancies that our rabbis are trying to inculcate into our understanding. The two sons simply approached the altar, without being asked, and performed a sacrifice, and may have gotten it not quite 100% correct.

Aaron's sons deviated from the law. Think about this for a moment ... don't each of us deviate from Jewish law when we drive to synagogue on Friday night? Tonight, we are also playing instruments. From the pshat, the plain meaning of the Torah portoin, Aaron's sons are not troublemakers. They are two Jews trying to experience holiness in the best way that they know to do. We are Nadav and Abihu. We also try our best ... And sometimes what we do may in face also be "strange fire."

The story of Aaron's sons challenges us that perhaps we should refrain from our inclinations to find order and meaning in our lives. Sometimes, things don't make sense. Perhaps sometimes, God does something mean ... or wrong ... or immoral. Tziduk HaDin is an easy way out. Instead, let's embrace the ambiguity of our tradition. Let us accept the inconsistencies, the stories that may not make sense ... these are a part of our Jewish identities. It is up to us to create the meanings from them. In that sense, maybe everything does happen for a reason after all.

Remembering to Forget: Shabbat Zachor 03-14-2014

Judaism has lots of interesting, unique, perhaps even esoteric rituals. But the most interesting that I've learned revolves involves a sofer, a Torah scribe. The ritual involves Amalek, an awful enemy of the Jewish people. Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, Amalek attacked the Israelites from behind, killing the elderly along with defenseless women and children. There is an incredibly amount of midrashic material on Amalek, especially considering the few brief passages that mention him by name.

But let us get back to the ritual I was speaking about: When a sofer begins to write a Torah, he takes a scrap of kosher k'laf, parchment, and writes the Hebrew word, Amalek. Immediately after inscribing the word, the sofer scribbles back and forth on the word until the word is illegible. Only then does he proceed to begin to write the Torah.

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Tonight is Shabbat Zachor - the Shabbat of memory. It occurs on the Sabbath before Purim. On this night, we read from Parashat Tzav, our current portion in Leviticus. But because this is the Shabbat before Purim, we also add an extra portion from Deuteronomy. The additional verses have to do with the aforementioned Amalek, and his heinous cruelty toward the Israelites.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - 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. Therefore, when God grants you safety from all your enemies in the land that God is giving you, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

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Let's fast forward to Purim. The villain of the Purim story, Haman ... let's try that again ... Haman (pause for boos) is descended from Amalek. Our Megillah of Esther tells us that he is an Amalekite. And so, we also read these verses from Deuteronomy concerning Amalek.

You may know that the verb zachor - remember appears more than any other verb in our entire Torah. Our Torah scribe enacts this interesting ritual of writing Amalek's name and then crossing it for a few reasons. First, he is following the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek, much as we will do tomorrow when we talk about Ha ... I almost got you there.

But more importantly, the sofer does this so that he remembers that the Torah is a model for how to do good, and not evil.

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These Deuteronomy verses are very interesting. They ask us to remember what Amalek did to us, but they also urge us to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. We could argue that by writing Amalek's name, we are not blotting out his memory.

As we ponder these verses one day before celebrating the holiday of Purim, we think on this interesting interplay between the importance to remember the awful deeds of our enemies on the one hand and the desire to blot out their memories on the other. Just as the sofer intentionally writes Amalek's name just to cross it out, we too say Haman's name intentionally so that we can then drown it out with our shouts and our groggers.

We Jews have long memories. We reflect on creation, we remember our ancestors. We think back to the Exodus. But whereas we reflect on the past, we are not meant to dwell in the past. We remember Haman's cruelty, but we focus our rituals on celebrating our victory over him. We remember Amalek, but yet we focus on celebration, not tragedy, when we sing Mi Chamocha.

Shabbat Zachor reminds us that memory is important, but not more important than our present or future selves. As we go into our joyous holiday of Purim, that is something worth remembering.

Drawing Close to God: Vayikra 03-07-2014

This week starts the beginning of the middle book of our Torah, Leviticus. The editors of the Torah were the Levites, the priestly caste that enforced all of the laws and rituals that pertained to the Israelites. It is not surprising that they placed the book about themselves smack dab in the middle of the Torah, where it would be the most prominent.

It may be prominent, but it does not come across as that exciting. Unlike Genesis and most of Exodus, Leviticus is not filled with narrative stories. There is no bravery of Abraham, courage of Moses, or journey of Jacob. Instead, it mostly consists of a litany of laws relating to one specific ritual that we don't even do anymore - sacrifice. A professor I had at Hebrew Union College once said that if the Reform movement had intellectual fortitude, it would excise Leviticus from the religious canon.

This first portion serves as an introduction to the sacrificial system. There are different sacrifices for different actions. There is a thanksgiving sacrifice, there is a penitential sacrifice, there is the Georgia Bulldawg sacrifice ....

Just as there were different sacrifices for different occasions, we now have various prayers that serve specific functions. There are prayers of gratitude, forgiveness, love, wonder, grief ... Prayers were meant to replace sacrifice. Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70AD, there was no longer a central place to participate in the sacrifice of animals. Instead of drama relating to the slaughtering of an animal, we now have a certain drama to our service, with various prayers rising and falling in crescendo and diminuendo.
The rabbis were so precise about this switch, in fact, that the Amidah prayer is meant to literally replicate the moment at which the high priest would slaughter an animal.

The verb meaning to sacrifice is l'hakriv. It can also mean, to draw close or to come near. When we pray, this is what we hope to do - to draw close to ourselves, our community, our God.

And the Lord called to Moses Vayikra el Moshe. This is how this third book of Torah starts. In Biblical times, Israelites heard God's call through the performance of sacrifice. Now, we hear it through prayer.

Last week I talked about the differences between the Shabbat concept of "rest," and the idiomatic meaning of "rest."

Sacrifice deserves a similar treatment. The sacrifice that we offer today of prayer is not a sacrifice as we mean in the colloquial sense. Typically, a sacrifice is something that you are willing to let go of, or give up. But prayer is an addition that we make to and for ourselves. Full prayer requires a full presence, of being able to say I am here - Hineni, so that each of us can l'hakriv, draw closer.

If we continue to study Torah, if we continue to pray and sing, perhaps we too will hear God call out to us. And our prayer will bring us closer to ourselves and to our God.

Is Shabbat Really a Day of Rest? Vayak'heil 02-21-14

These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal, whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)

Shabbat is extremely important to the Jewish people. One of the founders of cultural Zionism, Ahad Ha'am, is often quoted as saying: More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.

We know that Shabbat is important; the 4th commandment is entirely devoted to its observance. We also know that it is a day of rest; there can be no work on Shabbat. But this requires a bit of semantic unpacking, as our colloquial definition of "work" and "rest" do not necessarily translate exactly to the underpinnings of Shabbat.

In this section of portions in the Torah, God commands the building of the tabernacle. It turns out that there are 39 actions that God instructs. The Israelites paint, sculpt. They light fires, they hammer and nail ... If we made a spreadsheet consisting of each instruction to the Israelites, we would see 39 verbs repeated over and over. Taken together, these 39 actions are exactly what is considered avodah - work.

This explains why you can walk 5 miles in the hot sun to synagogue on Shabbat, but you can't drive, because driving is akin to "lighting a fire." Similarly, one can't watch TV, but you can read a book. I'll put it this way: On Shabbat, Jewish law prohibits us from performing the exact 39 actions that were done when constructing the tabernacle and the mishkan.

Somewhat ironically, it actually takes quite a lot of work to celebrate Shabbat. It isn't a day of laziness. It is meant to be a day of intention and of serious engagement and learning. It is also meant to be different than the other days of the week. During the week, we build. On Shabbat, we reflect and consider. During the rest of the week, we petition God for those things lacking in our lives. On Shabbat, we only show gratitude and joy.

Why do we celebrate Shabbat?

One answer comes easily. We rest on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day. After God's 'work-week' of the 6 days of creation, God stopped creating in order to reflect upon creation. Shabbat becomes an example of imitateo dei - the imitation of God. This point is emphasized again when the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy ... For in six days God made the heaven and earth...

But as you may know, the 10 commandments are repeated again in the book of Deuteronomy. But here, the reason for our Shabbat does not have anything to do with creation: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

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For this one holiday, Shabbat, the Torah gives us two very important reasons for its observance.

We celebrate Shabbat because of our connection to God. Because we are created in the image of God, we are meant to emulate God's holiness: God creates ... we create. God is holy ... we are holy. God rests on the seventh day ... we rest on the seventh day.

But we also celebrate Shabbat because of history. The commandment in Deuteronomy teaches us that Shabbat connects us to events in our past. Shabbat helps to reconnect us with God, but also with each other, as we remember the miracles that God has performed for our ancestors, in our history ... and in our own lives.

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We keep Shabbat so that we can rest and have a day that's different than the other days of the week. But we also keep Shabbat so that we stay connected to our tradition, our God and ourselves.

Jews Like to Touch Things: Ki Tissah 02-14-2014

Jews like to touch things.

When we parade the Torah around the congregation in the hakafah, we place our prayerbook onto the Torah cover and then kiss it. Some of us will tap a finger onto a mezuzah before entering a Jewish home. Upon visiting the holy site of the Western Wall, we write down prayers and insert them compactly into the crevices scattered along the surface.

Our God can't be seen, touched, smelled or heard ... at least not in ways that we normally see, touch, smell and hear things. One of our 10 commandments even bars us from creating images of God. Theological encounter is intellectual, not sensual.

And yet, perhaps even to make up for this, Judaism has its share of sensory triggers. Even looking around our sanctuary, we notice the eternal light, the ark, the Torah ... These things are not just sanctuary-dressing. They are not only for decoration. They matter.

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In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tissah, God continues to instruct Moses about the details of the holy tabernacle; the Mishkan.

God talks about the tells Moses about the "biggies" - the ark and the Torah and the Ten of Meeting. But God also gives very specific instructions about certain fragrances - stacte and onycha and galbanum. This portion can seem more like architectural blueprints than theological insights.

Toward the middle of the passage, God says:

You shall anoint the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Testimony with oil and the table and all its equipment and the menorah and its equipment and the incense altar and the altar of burnt offering and all its equipment and the basin and the its stand. And you shall make them holy. Anyone who touches them will be holy.

Anyone who touches them will be holy.

When first thinking about this verse, I thought it perplexing. Think about the Golden Calf for a moment. The Israelites performed one of the most egregious communal sins exactly because of their desire to touch God, to see God, to know God through something tangible - something they could touch.

But in this portion, God tells Moses that we should place a high value on touching various religious items. It seems difficult to blame the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf when God explicitly talks about the holiness that is conferred by touching religious objects.

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Judaism is quite clear that physical objects do not hold some sort of mystical, magical power. You don't get some sort of divine reward for kissing the Torah, or for placing your hands on the Western Wall. But then, why does our Torah spend a few portions talking about entirely about physical objects and their importance?

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I think that it goes back to the line God uttered a in T'rumah: Make me a sanctuary that I might dwell inside. But this is the important piece; God does not require a special tabernacle in order to dwell amongst us. WE do. When we construct a building that takes effort, sacrifice, passion, spirit and talent, we find more value in that place.

Similarly, I think that God instructs us to build the tabernacle with such precise specifications and ornamentations so that when we are present, we feel a stronger sense of community, of spirituality, and of holiness.

It's not the act of touching objects that makes us holy. But it is partially the objects that bring us together to pray, to sing, to celebrate, to mourn, to perform mitzvot, and to become the best parts of ourselves. And that is holy.

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The Best Gift you can Give: T'rumah 01-31-2014

Why do we need this sanctuary? This room, with its Torahs and arks, the pews and prayerbooks, the ark and the Torah. Don't get me wrong, I love when we gather in here, especially when the heat is working ... There's a sense of community, friendship, meaning, power, spirituality -- all the reasons we want to worship in the first place. But why do we have to do it in this specific place?

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In our torah portion, T'rumah, God instructs the building of the first sanctuary, the mishkan. God says:

Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take my offering.

The Israelites bring all sorts of materials together so that they can construct the tabernacle. They bring oils, rams' skins dyed red, onyx stones, gold, silver, linen ... oh, and don't forget the goat's hair!

The Israelites bring t'rumah - gifts. They contribute to the building of their future home.

And this room is our home. This sanctuary is a gateway to our temple.

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You and the other members of our synagogue sitting here tonight do not just belong to Congregation Children of Israel; you help to continually create and strengthen Congregation Children of Israel.

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I think this is why God instructs the Israelites to each contribute to the mishkan. In order for God to truly dwell amongst the community, it's important that everyone in the community contributes t'rumah.

The mishkan is not a start-up company. God did not look for a small number venture capitalists to insure the building of the structure. God looked to everyone in the community.

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And so, I ask each of us what our contribution is, our t'rumah. Each of us has talents, abilities and knowledge to contribute to the community. What are your gifts that you bring to us? It is these gifts that make our congregation.

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After the Israelites bring a surplus of materials, God then says:

Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

I don't think God is so vain that God requires us to build a specific room where we can pray and come together. But we need a regular meeting place. The sanctuary is for us.

But it's only after we bring our gifts, our contributions, our t'rumah that God dwells amongst us. It's not that God needs us to bring physical materials of wealth and substance. God does, however, ask that we bring our most precious possession - ourselves.

Trust in God but Tie Your Camel: B'shalach 01-10-14

Here is the translation of the first two verses that I chanted from this week's Torah portion, Bshalach.

And God said to Moses, 'Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move! And you, lift your staff and reach your hand out over the sea - and split it!

And here is a famous Arab proverb: Trust in God, but tie your camel.

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After appearing to Moses in a burning bush, after performing 10 miracles and wonders in Egypt to get the Israelites attention, showcasing God's power, here we find the Israelites on the precipice of freedom. They are so close. There is but one more obstacle. The huge expanse of the Red Sea in front of them. They can hear the echoes of the Pharoah's best chariot riders getting louder and louder. After everything that has happened, it looks like the Israelites are going to be enslaved yet again.

In the previous verse, Moses tries to calm the people: Don't be afraid. Stand still and see God's salvation that God will do for you today.

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We're taught that God performed the plagues, God appeared in the burning bush and that God split the Red Sea. But even the text of the Torah suggests that God wants the Israelites to do something. God wants us to act: Speak to the children of Israel that they should move!

Praying to God is necessary but not sufficient. We must act in order to actualize our prayers.

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Midrash suggests that while the Israelites were waiting around, hoping for a miracle, a man named Nachson took matters into his own hands. He started singing Mi Chamocha and walked slowly into the waters of the Red Sea. All around him, his brothers and sisters, family and friends were beseeching God for a miracle, but Nachson continued to sing. Mi Chamocha Baelim Adonai - Who is Like You O God?

He was knee deep into the water, a good bit from the shoreline. As he sang the second verse, he sunk down into the sea and water entered his mouth. This is why we sing Mi Chamocha for the first verse and Mi Kamocha for the second.

He did not stop. He hummed while he walked underwater. After 30 seconds or so, he needed to come up for breath. It was at that point that God split the waters of the Red Sea.

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Looking at our Torah portion with the added perspective of this midrash, we see that yes, God did perform a great miracle. But it was predicated first on the Israelites showing courage, action, faith, and hope.

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In a few portions, we will recount the giving of the Ten Commandments as the Israelites stood under Mount Sinai. The first commandment hearkens back to the song of the sea and to our jubilant cries of freedom and joy: I am the God that freed you from Egypt.

God helps those that help themselves. It reminds me of the joke in which an old man is upset that he never once has won the lottery, despite never once buying a lottery ticket. Nachson did not just pray. He did not throw his hands up and wait for God to do something. Nachson took action, which led to the Israelite's prayer being answered. So yes, we can trust in God, praying and beseeching Adonai in prayer and supplication. But I think that God also expects to trust in us - to take action ... to sing songs of miracles so that we can experience the reality of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom.

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The Miracle(s) of the Plagues: Bo 01-03-2014

One day the Pharoah awoke in his bed, there were frogs on his pillow and frogs on his bed. Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes. Frogs here … Frogs there … Frogs were jumping everywhere.

The ten plagues. They are a part of our Torah and our history. They play a significant part in our Passover seder. Some of you might have bags with different nick-nacks used to portray the plagues. Ping pong balls for hail, a red sheet for blood, and my own favorite, sunglasses for darkness.

These toys and visual aids add a sensory element to our holiday. By seeing and touching, the rabbis hope that we are also able not just to remember, but to experience.

To me, this is the essence of our Torah, and of Judaism. THAT book in there – that is the source of our identity. It houses our memories and dreams, fears and hopes, history and ancestry. But that is ONLY the beginning. It becomes our own when we link it to our OWN lives; like when we drink four cups of wine and then sing at the tops of our lungs, “had gadya.” Yes, we're singing and having fun and spending time with family and friends. But more importantly, we are creating our Jewish identity anew.

Just a few minutes ago, we all stood for the Amidah. Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, Elohai Ya’akov, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. But, wait a second, we only believe in one God. What’s with this God of Abraham, God of Isaac business? It teaches us that just as Abraham had a unique relationship with God, so did Isaac, so did Jacob, and SO DO WE. So,we study Torah, daven our liturgy, go to Hebrew School, have Bar Mitzvah, go to adult education classes first in order to learn from our collective history, but then to create it ourselves.

Which brings me back to the plagues.

The stories of the ten plagues resides very deeply in the Jewish soul. Actually, to call them the 10 plagues isn’t quite correct; a better translation is 10 “signs and portents,” “ten miracles.”

These miracles; these signs of God – they are so powerful because they are exactly that, they are signs of God. They were right in front of the Israelites faces. They weren’t private theophanies – moments in which one has direct, but private, contact with the divine. They were publicly shared experiences, moments in which there was no doubt of two things: 1) There is a God. 2) That God cares about ME and 3) That God cares about US.

I like to think that the miracles play such a role in our seders because we yearn desperately for the same.

We search for definitive actions from God – from a God that interacts in history, interacts in our lives. From a God that we know cares about us and protects us, from a God that will lead us to OUR promised lands, wherever, and whatever they might be.

And many of us may feel that we haven’t had those moments, or don’t have those experiences. And so, our Passover story – the story we tell ourselves ABOUT ourselves, gives us hope that indeed, that kind of God DOES exist, watching us, loving us, protecting us.

It can seem depressing – all too often, we rely solely on our history to illumine God and God’s relationship with us. Our Torah portion this week, in which God performs more miracles challenges us with a question. It calls from the past, “This was OUR reality as your ancestors, as we were strangers in a strange land. This was OUR truth. But what is YOURS?”

This Torah portion – our entire Torah - beseeches us to take its words, its stories and its experiences with God, and then go to find our own. As God says to Abraham, lech l’cha. Go forward – to our own divine encounters, our own history. Perhaps if we’re willing to look to the future with our OWN eyes, we too will see God’s miracles and portents. Shabbat Shalom.

Dreaming & Living; Joseph & Mandela: Vayigash 12-06-13

Our rabbis point to this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, as a central story of t'suvah.

Many years earlier, Joseph's brothers sold Joseph into slavery. They deceived their father into thinking that his youngest and most beloved son was dead, and did not express any remorse about abandoning their brother.

It would have been understandable and perhaps even predictable for Joseph's narrative to end there. We might expect him to have lived a despondent, lonely life, suffering from the torments of his youth.

But instead, he harnesses the powers of his interpretive powers for the betterment of those around him. He leaves jail and eventually comes to serve the Pharaoh. Through his amazing gifts he is able to save the Egyptian people from what would have been certain starvation.

Meanwhile, his brothers experience a famine, and they come to Egypt to beg the leadership for some food. Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers. Through a bit of chicanery Joseph devises a plot to see if Judah and the rest of the brothers have matured since abandoning Joseph those many years ago. After a short while, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, saying, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" He also says, "Don't be sad and let there be no anger in your eyes because you sold me here, because God sent me before you to preserve life." After speaking, Joseph kisses each of his brothers.

This story is amazing. It is powerful ... even more powerful given the number of words that are allotted to it. The story of Joseph takes up three full Torah portions. His narrative is one of the most important in the entire Torah. The beauty of the words leap off the page, and we do not need any outside interpretation in order to feel the emotional depth of the words.

Joseph was an amazing man. He grew up abandoned and lonely. He could have lived with hate in his heart, but instead he learned to harness this great gift of dream interpretation so that he could be a blessing to others. Years later when he had power over his brothers, we might expect him to exact a certain amount of revenge. But instead, he responds with forgiveness. He responds with love.

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It's unfortunate that there are not more Joseph's in our world, helping us interpret our dreams, and challenging us to respond with love to the forces of oppression that strike our lives.

It's thus fitting that we read this Torah portion one day after the passing of a modern-day Joseph, Nelson Mandela. Like Joseph, Mandela lived with hope in his heart and gentleness in his actions. He helped us interpret our dreams so that we could lives filled with the bounty of spirit and freedom, friendship and community, friendship and love.

In 1962, Mandela was convicted of treason by the South African white government minority, and he spent 27 years in prison. Like Joseph, we can imagine him living a painful life after emancipation; but instead he used his gifts to be a blessing to others.

In 2007, he was asked how he kept his hatred in check. His answer: "Hatred clouds the mind."

In his autobiography, he wrote: For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others It seems like the narrative of Joseph is not just a story.

Many of us will not be able to unify a country like Mandela, or to serve the head of state like Joseph. But all of us can live with hope in our hearts. All of us can use our gifts to be blessings to others. We have wonderful role models. And I would like to think that if Nelson Mandela were talking to us, he would say that we have the power of ourselves.

Tonight, we mourn the death of a modern Joseph. But as we mourn, we also become dream interpreters of our own lives. Let us follow the paths of our role-models, our teachers, our dreamers.

I join together with the millions of our South African brothers and sisters as they remember Nelson Mendela: Hamba Gashle Tata Madiba - Go well ... Farewell Madiba.

I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me: Vayigash 11-15-2013

In this portion, Jacob does tsuvah.

Earlier, he and his mother conspired so that his dying father Isaac would bestow a blessing upon Jacob instead of on the first-born, Esau. Fearful for his life, Jacob ran away from home and came upon Lavan and his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. In a fitting twist of irony, Jacob thought he was marrying Lavan's younger daughter Rachel, but Lavan tricked him into marrying Leah. Jacob stayed with Lavan for 21 long years before he could take Rachel for a wife.

In this portion, Jacob comes full-circle, ready to reconcile the mistakes he made with his older brother. They have not seen each other in over 21 years, since that fateful day when Jacob intentionally tricked his father Isaac and his brother Esau.

Jacob is scared. When his messengers come back, they tell him that Esau is approaching along with 400 men. Again, Jacob is scared for his life.

But this time, Jacob does not run away. Instead, he prays to God:

God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, God who said to me, 'Go back to your land and to your birthplace and I'll deal well with you,' I am not worthy of all the kindnesses and all the faithfulness that you've done with your servant. Save me from Esau's hand, because I fear him.

Jacob is honest and vulnerable. He has grown up.

Later in that same night, Jacob finds himself alone. We can imagine the anxiety beating in his heart. We can emphasize with the remorse he feels for swindling his brother Esau. We wince at the 21 hard years Jacob spent toiling under Lavan's ruthless encampment. But now at sunset, Jacob is again in the liminal space between the past and the future.

A man accosts Jacob and wrestles with him until the dawn. The inside of Jacob's leg was dislocated. The man said to Jacob, Let me go, because the dawn has risen. Jacob responds, I will not let you go until you bless me.

At this point, the man tells Jacob that his name will no longer be Jacob, but Yisrael, because he has struggled with God and with people. And this is what the word Yisrael means - "he that struggles with God."

This is perhaps the most powerful story in all of Torah. It practically begs us to interpret it and discuss it, and we search for relevancy in our own lives as we wrestle ... as we struggle.

But tonight, I want to focus on just one line in this exhilarating narrative. After wrestling all night, Jacob exclaims, I will not let you go until you bless me.

...

The Jewish people have experienced more than its share of struggles. But regardless of situation or historical era, we continue forward through history, enriching our beautiful heritage that started with Jacob's grandfather, Abraham.

Abraham left everything that he knew behind to start an unknown journey. Abraham teaches us that comfort is not a Jewish value. Jacob teaches us that struggle, however, is a Jewish value.

It's a very Jewish thing to struggle. Our identity of Am Yisrael hearkens back to these moments of Jacob's struggle, reminding us that pain and struggle are not only necessary ... they are holy. But we have to do work to find and create the holiness. We have to hold on to the experiences until we discover the insights that they teach.

I will not let you go until you bless me.

Judaism teaches us that pain, struggle and tragedy are a part of life. But so too are holiness and blessing. We encounter various struggles in our lives- a difficulty, a fear, a sickness, a loss ... and we try to remind ourselves that these are a part of life. But Jacob teaches us not merely to "get through" these difficult moments. Jacob challenges us that we can not let go of the struggle until we have found a measure of blessing resulting from the struggle. This is the Jewish way. Through struggle and conflict that started even when in the womb, Jacob becomes Yisrael. And we become his legacy.

75th Commemoration of Kristallnacht: Vayetzei 11-08-13

This morning, many of my colleagues and friends were commenting on an article in the New York Times. It was the front page of the New York Regional section. It begins with an upsetting headline: Swastikas, Slurs and Torment in Town's Schools. A student informed her teacher that someone had painted a swastika onto a picture of President Obama. The picture was in a classroom, and it remained there for over a month after the student told her teacher. Jewish students are being pelted with coins, and are the recipients of taunts, threats, and shouts of "white power."

It's painfully ironic for us to speak of this 75 years after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. In early November, 1938, Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria were terrorized. Stores, synagogues and homes were burned, ravaged and destroyed. 91 Jewish residents died, and over 30,000 were arrested and taken to concentration camps. On November 11, the New York Times wrote: No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday. This tragic night was named Kristallnacht named after the shards of broken glass that filled the German streets, a result of this devastating anti-Semitic pogrom.

Jews are filled with painful memories. And as we know, our tragedies did not begin 75 years ago. During our 4,000 year history, we have been exiled, excommunicated, killed, jailed, taunted, hated and feared. Even so, this night of Kristallnacht burns vividly in our memory; it was part of a process that led to the killing of 6 million of our brother and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters.

Judaism does indeed have painful memories. I've always found it fascinating is that our religion does not shy our minds away from thinking on these painful events of our history. It's quite the opposite in fact; our religion actually forces us to confront these painful memories. We observe Tisha B'av, in which we cry at the Western Wall and read Lamentations, bereft at the destruction of the Temple. We dip vegetables into salt water on Passover, forcing ourselves to recall the tears of 420 years of servitude to Pharaoh. And tonight, Jewish people around the world recall this 20th century tragedy of Kristallnacht.

I often comment that there is no verb that is repeated more often in our Torah than the verb to remember, zachor. The act of remembering is a holy act. There are so many of our prayers, most notably the Mourner's Kaddish, which highlight this utter importance on the mitzvah of remembering.

But why? On this day of Kristallnacht, our memory causes sadness and pain and anger. Why do we make special effort to feel pain, when there's enough to feel without even trying?

...

In this week's Torah portion, Jacob has run away from his home of Beer-Sheva. He has just swindled Esau out of the blessing that was meant for him. Jacob and his mother tricked his dying, blind father Isaac into thinking that the younger Isaac was his older son Esau. Fearful for his life, Jacob ran away. After a bit of a journey he stopped at sunset, and laid down on a pillow made of stones and went to sleep, and had the strangest dream.

He dreamt of a ladder that reached the entire span between the earth and the heavens. Angels were climbing up and down the ladder. God was on the ladder and blessed Jacob, continuing the covenantal blessing that started with Jacob's grand-father, Abraham.

Jacob wakes up and says: God was was in this place, and I did not know.

...

God was in this place and I did not know. This may be the most powerful verse of our entire Torah.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav used to ask his students where they find God. After hearing their various answers the students of course wanted to know the answer from their master. Nachman would answer: I feel God ... whenever I allow myself to feel God.

Our Torah, our religion and perhaps most importantly, our lives - these all remind us that holiness and blessing can be found anywhere and in any moment. We only need to recognize it. We only need to see it.

...

Jacob ran away from his painful past. But it was exactly his past that started him on another journey. Of all people in the Torah, his life was perhaps most-filled with pain and hurt. But those angels moving up and down caused Jacob to realize that pain and sadness, loss and tragedy ... these are holy too. Or at least, they can be. Like us, Jacob too followed the commandment of remembering, as he recalled his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca. And through this, he transformed. He went from being Jacob to our namesake of Yisrael.

God is in this place, and God was there amongst the shards of broken glass 75 years ago. God was present in a father that went hungry while giving his daughter a piece of bread. God was present in the many heroic non-Jews that sheltered Jews from the storm of hatred and intolerance. And God is present in the comfort that we give ourselves amidst painful memories from years ago. Midrash suggests that when human beings are persecuted, God cries along with us.

...

On this night of Kristallnacht, we go to sleep on a pillow of painful memories that are stuffed with lost childhoods, broken lives and the infinite loss of human potential, as each life is worth more than the entirety of the universe. And as we remember, we are also pained that for some, present reality lies dangerously close to what happened 75 years ago.

But when we wake up ... when we remember and reflect, we can choose to be a blessing. We can choose to say, Never again. And our actions can create a reality of Never again.

God was in this place and I did not know.

For the sake of our painful memories, and for the honor of those whose lives were shattered starting on this night of Kristallnacht, let us know that yes, God and holiness are in this place ... and we do know.

Is Halloween "Traif" or "Treat?" 11-01-2013

How many people here love Halloween? I do. As a kid, my mom and I would carve pumpkins and then make pumpkin seeds with lots of salt on them. I love putting together elaborate Halloween costumes and then parading around town and most of all I love collecting and devouring bagfuls of decadent candy.

About 12 years ago, I worked at a Jewish Day School in Washington, DC. It was the week before Halloween and one of my friends wanted to do a math lesson using pumpkin seeds. The principal would not allow her to do it, because Halloween is not a Jewish holiday.

This year, Halloween was on a Thursday, one night after Hebrew school and one night before Shabbat. There have been times when Halloween falls on one of these, and it creates a bit of a dilemma: Should classes be cancelled given the popularity of Halloween and the reality that few kids will come to Hebrew school? Or should it remain open out of principle? What should we as a Jewish religious establishment decide? What would you do?

Put another way—is Halloween Treif or Treat?

I do not intend on swaying your opinion to one side or the other, but I would like to briefly explore the ritual of trick or treating. This practice of going from house to house in costume and asking for treats is ingrained in our culture. Or for some of our parents, it's the practice of walking around with your children while they do so, and then "sharing" in some of the candy.

This practice is believed to date back to the Middle Ages—in the form of a Christian tradition called souling when poor people would go door to door asking for food—usually requesting soul cakes—which were made out of bread and currents. In exchange for the cakes, the soulers would promise to say prayers on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors.

Later when practice of going door to door at this time of year was brought to the United States by Irish, Scottish and English immigrants, the ritual took on a new form. In the 1930’s trick or treating became something of an extortion plot initiated by older kids or teenagers that acted like gangsters, hence the expression "trick or treat."

For many, Halloween is the only time people see or meet their neighbors. And the only reason to be friendly and hospitable at this time of year is that most Americans have bought into the this ritual game of trick or treat visits. Trick or treat—ok I’ll open my doors for you now —I will even offer you something to eat—although we both know that I have barely spoke to you this entire year—if ever.

Neighbors are often people we don't know that well, strangers.. We are taught to fear strangers, and we may sometimes feel that offering help to a stranger is an inconvenience at best and a risk our own safety at worse.

By contrast—Abraham and Sarah provide a Jewish model of what it really means to be hospitable. When Abraham sees three men approaching his tent, he jumps up and runs toward them to greet them. Abraham then bows to the ground and happily offers the strangers water so that they could bathe their feet. He then provides a place in the shade for them to recline. Next Abraham arraigns for the strangers to have cakes made from his best flour, a calf from his herd is prepared and the strangers are given curds and milk.

What’s so striking and inspiring about this story is Abraham’s openhearted, generous, eager hospitality to people who were total strangers. It seems so different than us. With Abraham the strangers who came to him did not have to approach his house and beg. They did not have to say Trick or Treat. Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent—each and everyday just hoping…praying that people would show up to which he could show a measure of kindness.

The Jewish value of Haknasat Orchim—hospitality to guests is one I believe can vastly improve the quality of each and every one of our lives—not to mention those we welcome through our kindness. Through our offers of hospitality to guests, strangers, neighbors, friends and family members we find a new sense of connection, community and belonging.

I think this extends from the person who lives next door to us to the hungry or homeless person who begs us for some change while standing in the cold.

In conclusion while many of us, myself included, will continue to enjoy the fun and excitement of Halloween—Sometimes even go trick or treating, I think we might all consider new and different ways how each of us can contribute to a society where all who come to us in friendship and all who come to us in need are welcomed, respected and taken care of.

Drawing Near to God - Vayera 10-18-13

Abraham got circumcised when he was 99, in this Torah portion. His changed name of Avraham highlights the importance of the sacred covenant between himself and God. We now see him acting, praying, and thinking as a different man - as a Jew conscious of his role in our history. Just a few minutes ago we chanted the Amidah which hearkens back to this watershed moment of God's covenant with Abraham

I was always fascinated with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God informs Abraham that Sodom will be destroyed due to the wickedness of the people there. Abraham then questions God's decision.

Will you destroy the righteousness along with the wicked? Following this caustic reproach of God, Abraham proceeds to argue with God, hoping to spare the two cities. God amends God's divine judgement, telling Abraham that if there are 50 righteous individuals, the cities will be spared. Abraham whittles down the requisite number from 50 down to 10. As a boy, I imagined Abraham as a take-no-compromise businessman, bargaining down for the best deal that he could find.

I am aware that things are just a bit more complex than my childhood Sunday School recollections.

Toward the beginning of the portion, God thinks to Godself, akin to a Shakespearean soliloquy. God reflects, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I intend to do? Perhaps God wanted to see how Abraham would react to the news.

After Abraham argues with God to spare the wicked cities, the Torah tells us that Abraham stood yet before the Lord. And Abraham drew near.

Rashi expands upon Abraham's drawing near to God. He gives us three insights that relate to this expression.

  1. It can imply that Abraham speak harshly. One approaches someone with the intent of speaking criticism or harsh words. And here we have Abraham criticizing God. It even reads as if Abraham is angry.

  2. It can also refer to appeasement. Abraham acknowledges that he is but dust and ashes. This is in deference to his God that will make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; the God that will grant Abraham a son that will continue to carry out the established covenant.

  3. Lastly, One draws near in order to pray. Abraham turns to God in prayer. He prays for a different fate for Sodom. He also prays that God will heed him rather than turn away. Similarly, in the Amidah, we too thank God for hearkening to prayer.

Prayer. Thousands of years after Abraham, we too draw near to God for this purpose. We pray for supplication as we ask God for forgiveness, beseeching our creator to let us back into favor once more. We pray for the arrival of health, of happiness and of peace. Abraham is the first congregant – the first worshipper – the first person to draw near to god – the first to pray to God.

You may remember that Abraham comes 10 generations after Noah. It's most likely that Abraham knew about the flood and Noah's ark. He knew that God is capable of mass destruction and prone to anger and harsh judgments. And yet, Abraham still has the moxi, the courage and the chutzpah to confront God in anger and argument.

We have a responsibility to approach God in order to dialogue, to pray, and yes, even to argue. Abraham's argument with God shows that Abraham was an important voice in the continuation of creation.

...

As a young school boy, Elie Wiesel would come home from school, and his mother would sit him down and pour him a cold glass of milk. After talking for a bit, she would ask most intently, Did you ask any good questions today?

Wiesel's mother would have been proud of Abraham as he asks God about the death of the righteous along with the wicked.

By asking a question of God's impending action, Abraham was a participant in the divine covenant, the chain of which we find ourselves standing upon.

And what will we choose to do? We who are the generations blessed through Abraham? Will we turn to face God, or will we take refuge along with Noah in an ark, safe amidst the tempestuous waters? Will we hide our inner thoughts, or confront them in a dialogue turned towards God?

We are all but dust and ashes. But just like Abraham, who came 20 generations after Adam, the entire world was created for us. We are prone to catastrophic events and unanswered tragedies. And yet, we have the power to alter the subsequent fate of creation by questioning the reality that we experience. If only we turn and stand before the Lord in moments of strength and truth.

As we continue on our path of drawing near to ourselves, our communities and God, what questions will we ask?

Journey's are not only Geographical: Lech L'cha 10-11-13

I want to talk about Geography.

Immediately after Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit, they hear the sound of God walking in the garden. They hide in the bushes, presumably ashamed at themselves for disobeying the one command that God gave to them. God then does something that God does not do too often in the Torah: God asks a question.

God called the human and said to him, 'Where are you?

It's an interesting question. Rashi points out that it poses a theological challenge because it intimates that God did not know exactly where Adam was hiding. There's a koshi here, a textual difficulty.

Rashi resolves the koshi by teaching us that God's exhortation to Adam was not a geographical question. God did not care about the latitude and longitude of Adam's physical coordinates. Instead, God was asking Adam a spiritual question. God asked Adam, In your life ... In your relationships ... Where are you?

Our spiritual location is much more important than our physical.

This is demonstrated by the difference between saying Ani po - I am physically here and the powerful admission of Hineni - I am fully present.

...

In this weeks Torah portion, geography plays a central role.

In what may be the greatest act of courage and faith displayed in the entirety of our Torah, Avram leaves everything he knows behind to start a new nation. Speaking of physical geography, God does not tell Avram where he will end up, only that it will be a place of blessing and prosperity, and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the sea. Please note that these promises are ones of spiritual benefit. Avram trusts in God, following the command of Lech L'cha, - go forth.

Here are the first few verses of this powerful portion:

God said to Avram, 'Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I'll make you into a big nation, and I'll bless you and make your name great.

The first verse appears to be one of geographical import. Abraham is to leave his land and go to a new place.

But there's something fascinating about this verse, but to understand it, I want to talk about how to get to New York City.

...

Pretend that you are going to New York City and you want directions from Athens GA. It would make sense to say: Well, first you have to leave your house. Then you'll leave Athens. And after you leave Athens, you'll leave GA to make your way to New York. It wouldn't make sense to say: Leave Georgia, leave Athens, and leave your house. And yet, the order of God's command is exactly this kind of counter-intuitive description! I'll read it again:

Go from your land and from your birthplace and fro your father's house.

If giving geographical directions, the directions would be said in reverse: Leave your father's house, your birthplace and your land.

Yet again, this shows us that God is not concerned with GPS directions. God is concerned with spiritual directions. God knows that whereas the land is bigger than Avram's father's house, it is exactly Avram's father's house that looms the largest in his heart. And so, God says them in order of spiritual importance.

...

There's one more geographical example that I'd like us to look at, and it's the name of the Torah portion, Lech L'cha.

It is commonly translated as go forth, as God commands Avram to leave his native home. But theres another interpretation that suggests that yet again, the command is not one of physical location, but spiritual growth.

In addition to meaning Go forth, it can also mean Go inside yourself. God tells Avram that by physically journeying, he will also start a spiritual journey that will bring him to his true self. Avram will become Avraham.

...

And so it is with us. We journey, we travel. We move from place to place, sometimes in our neighborhood, and sometimes to far-flung places around the globe. But as we continue the journey of our lives, let us remember the spiritual journey that God continually calls each of us to embark upon: Lech L'cha.

The Comfort of Noah: Noach 10-04-13

(singing) God said to Noah, we’re going to build an arky arky God said to Noah we’re going to build an arky arky. Build it out of gopher barky barky, Children of the Lord.

The story of Noah and Noah’s ark is a beloved fable. In Hebrew Schools across the world, children draw pictures of Noah, make animal cookies and sing about the flood, the rainbow and the dove. This parsha is a fun story of adventure and excitement. It's a perfect children's story.

But wait a minute … God destroys the world, killing every single human being except for Noah and his family. Additionally, God kills every animal except for those on the ark and the fish in the sea. And what does Noah do upon finally reaching dry land 40 days after the onset of the storm? Noah … well, he gets drunk.

As we look for relevant teaching in this story, we have to look at the etymology of Noah's name. Noach means comfort or rest. 10 generations after God creates Adam and Eve, God creates Noah and his family. A familiar teaching suggests that Noah brings comfort to us because he followed God's instructions so that he could start humanity 2.0. Noah is our father.

...

Let's talk about comfort for a bit. Comfort is good, right? We want the air in the sanctuary to be at just the right temperature. Is it too cold right now?

We like nice hotels, relaxing vacations, massages, pedicures, manicures. We want big-screen TV's and the latest smartphones. We crave convenience and instant gratification. But amongst all of this, is it possible that there can be too much comfort? Judaism teaches that comfort is a neighbor to apathy.

God tells Noah, Build a boat. Because out of every human being on the entire planet, I’m only saving you, your wife and your children. And how does Noah respond to God?

Ok.

Noah doesn't wonder why God is destroying the world. Noah expresses no regret for the unfathomable loss of life. Noah simply builds his ark according to God's specifications.

The Torah uses Abraham as a huge contrast to Noah: Because ten generations after Noah, God informs Abraham that God is going to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gemmorah. And instead of simply saying, Ok, Abraham argues with God!

But here we have Noah, relaxing with the knowledge that he will be safe from God's wrath. Noah rests. Noah rests comfortably in the safe confines of his arky army.

Noah has much to teach us. Noah was quiet when pervasive turmoil surrounded him. He sheltered himself from it. He was silent. He was complacent. He was Noach, comfortable. Too comfortable. As a matter of fact, I think that the Torah's authors do not want us to look favorably upon Noah. The very first verse of the passage gives us a hint, when we are taught that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. We don't hear that Noah was a righteous man. The text needs to be amended with the caveat that he was a righteous man, but only in his generation. The rest of humanity was so bad, that Noah could only be considered righteous in his age. The symmetry between Adam, Noah and Abraham is telling. Noah rests, Abraham acts. It's no wonder that Abraham was the first Jew.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be part of a college class on diversity. I was part of a panel that consisted of a Zen Buddhist, a Muslim and myself. One poignant question asked us to reflect on the role of suffering in our respective religions. I mentioned that Judaism does not try to eliminate suffering from our lives: When a new home is built, one is supposed to leave a corner of a room unfinished to remember the Temple's Destruction. When the groom steps on the glass at a wedding ceremony, we remember the brokenness of the world. During our celebratory Passover seder, we purposefully call to mind the bitterness of the slaves as well as the suffering of the Egyptians. No, we are a tradition that does not shy away from pain. A professor mine often remarked: Comfort is not a Jewish value.

As Genesis moves from Noah to Abraham, we learn that a holy life is not one of comfort, but one of meaning. We should not yearn for a life of bliss, but rather a life of responsibility.

Noah teaches us that when we build an ark, we must get everyone aboard. Only then can we be comfortable. But until that time, let us have the strength to swim in the storming seas rather than sheltering ourselves from their waves. Our lives lie not in the safety of the ensconced ark. We are truly alive only when we eschew some comfort and dive head first into the unpredictable waters of our lives.

Reflection on 9/11, 12 Years Later

The world changed 12 years ago, on 9/11/01.

On that day, thousands of American lives were lost to hatred and intolerance. Our sense of tranquility and security was shattered, as fear and suspicion took their place.

On this day, our world is no more stable than it was in 2001. We watch nervously as Syria continues to make and store chemical weapons. We mourn as death tolls rise in Afghanistan. Despite two wars, countless government policy changes and billions of dollars, our security is fragile.

But please remember these words that we say during the High Holidays:

Repentance, Prayer and Charity can temper judgement's severe decree.

Let us remember that hundreds of heroes walked into the Twin Towers to save lives. Let us remember the way in which our country came together to rally behind those whose lives were devastated. Let us remember that hope and perseverance can not be squelched by hatred and intolerance.

On this anniversary of 9/11 that takes place between our two most sacred holidays, let us remember the awfulness of that day, but let us also remember the hope, the friendship, and the strength. May these be with us as we continue onto a g'mar tov, a sealing into the Book of Life.

Rosh Hashanah Eve 5774: Michelangelo, a German photographer and an Israeli Poet walk into Rosh Hashanah services ...

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Michelangelo, an Israeli poet and a German photographer walk into Rosh Hashanah services …

The Accademia Gallery is located in Florence, Italy. Founded in 1563 by the Medici family, it is perhaps best known for housing one of the the famous Michelangelo sculpture, David. In 1873, Michelangelo’s majestic work was moved to the Accademia where it stands today.

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