Chinese Food & a Movie, Jews & Christmas: 12-25-2015

When I turned 14, I was excited to get my first job at Publix. I bagged groceries until just after my 18th birthday.

For the most part, I enjoyed interacting with people on the short walk to their cars. But around mid-December, I'd be filled with anxiety during my chats with customers. They'd ask about holiday plans, and then talk about their holiday plans. So far, so good. But then they'd say two words. And despite the dozens of interactions that ended with these two words, I never knew how I should respond. 

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In a Place Where There is No Man, Become One: Noah 10-16-2015

I'm guessing that many of you are familiar with Ghandi's exhortation to "be the change that you wish to see in the world."

I don't know if Ghandi was a Talmudic scholar, but it does not come as a surprise to me that a similar teaching is in our Jewish texts. Pirke Avot* (2:5) reads: "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man."

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Three Lessons of Sukkot: 10-02-2015

1) We shake the lulav and etrog in all directions when we enter the sukkah. As a Hebrew school student, I learned that this is because God is in all directions, and God's blessings are everywhere. We can feel God's blessing in every area of our lives. This is true, and a great lesson. But I like to think that another reason we shake the four species in every direction is to remind us that each of *us* can radiate blessing and goodness in every area of our lives. We don't have to wait for God to give it to us. We can give it to the world.

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5776: Kol Nidrei is NOT About Promises

Kol Nidrei.

Tonight's service is named for this prayer that we heard toward the beginning of our service. Kol Nidrei is so powerful, so important, so meaningful - that we stand during its threefold recitation. In fact, it is only during the singing of Kol Nidrei that we take all of our Torahs scrolls out of the ark and stand before their holy words, messages and inspirations. You may not know the name of Moses' wife, you may not know the difference between the Mishna and the Talmud, but I bet that you can hum the beginning of the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei.

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5776: Sometimes, Being Perfect is not Good Enough.

I've always wanted to be on Jeopardy.

I love everything about it - its competitive spirit, the display of lightning like intellectual and physical reflexes that recall all matters of intellectual ephemera, and the sometimes witty banter between contestants and Alex Trebek.

Several friends of mine have applied to be contestants. One, a reform rabbi in New York City, even made it on earlier this year. I've learned that if you completely ace the tryout questions, you will most likely not be asked to continue to the next steps of the tryout process. In other words, if you are perfect, you're not good enough.

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5776: Rosh Hashanah is not a Period at the end of the Year; It's a Semi-colon.

High School. First kiss. Graduation. College. First job. Marriage. Yesteryear. The good ole days. 

Nostalgia is a booming business.

In recent years, social media has popularized what has come to be known as 'tbt' - throwback Thursday. On Thursdays, it takes one quick glance on Facebook to see pictures of friends with that crazy hair from high school, or a gorgeous wedding portrait from over 40 years ago. We use our present technologies to go back to the past. Apps, services and Web sites try and tap into our yearnings for yesterday.

There's a bad joke incoming, but nostalgia is just not what it used to be.

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Deuteronomy is Revisionist History, and Here's Why: 07-24-2015

On this Shabbat, we begin the 5th book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. The name of the book derives from two sources, one Hebrew and one Greek.

The first line of Deuteronomy is: Eleh ha-d'varim - These are the words (that Moses spoke to all of Israel). Each of our 54 Torah portions are named after a word that occurs very close to the beginning of the portion. Each of our 5 books of the Torah are named after the first portion contained within; B'reishit, Sh'mot, Vayikra, Bamidbar, and now, D'varim.

Deuteronomy has a second etymological source; Greek. Deuteronomium means second law. The book of Deuteronomy relates to Moses' re-telling of the Israelites' history. Most of the book is a recapitulation, a summary, as Moses recounts his peoples' remarkable journey.

But these D'varim, these words that Moses addressed to all of Israel are not a repeat of everything that has happened before. If we read closely Moses' recapitulation of what happened, we see that he gets some things wrong.

In this sense, Deuteronomy is a kind of revisionist history. It contains inaccuracies, inconsistencies, changes of timeline ... so much so, in fact, that when the 10 commandments are repeated, they are different!

Deuteronomy is indeed a second law, as Deuteronomy comes from Moses' words ... Moses' perspective. Perhaps Moses did in fact remember events in this manner. And perhaps, he needed to remember events in this manner, so that he could be at peace with his life and his choices. Each of us undoubtedly has several powerful memories that are also Deuteronomical in that they probably did not happen exactly as we remember.

Deuteronomy is the textual counterpart to Picasso's cubism. Taken from our secular Torah of Wikipedia, In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.

The book of Deuteronomy is one viewpoint. The narration of the previous books is another.

Deuteronomy forces us to look at these different perspectives, and also to form our own Deuteronomy - our own 're-telling.' After all, this is the entire point of Torah, to make it ours - to take the Torah into our hearts and lives. We see how Moses made it his. What is yours?

Rick Santorum, the Pope, and the Menorah: 06-05-2015 B'haalot'cha

Earlier this week, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum criticized Pope Francis for getting involved in scientific matters. In the past year, the Pope has urged his more than one billion followers to act more responsibly toward our earth and our resources. Santorum, a Catholic himself, was quoted as saying, The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists.

It's certainly true that religion continues to sometimes place a stumbling block before the progress of scientific advancement. One needs to only refresh their memory of high school science to wince at the treatment of thinkers such as Socrates, Galileo ... Einstein.

Given these historical realities, is it the case that religious thought operates under a completely different paradigm than scientific thought? Should religious thinkers completely excise scientific discourse from their thinking and writing?

In a twist of irony, it is the case that Pope Francis is a scientist, as he received a Masters degree in Chemistry prior to becoming a priest. But regardless, the question still stands: Do religion and science belong in two different worlds, and never the twain shall meet?

This week's Torah portion has something to say about this.

B'haalot'cha begins with God instructing Moses about several accoutrements to be found in the tabernacle. One of them is the Menorah: When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lamp stand. This menorah that stood in the temple had six branches, with a slightly raised seventh branch in the middle. This Menorah is of course a bit different than the menorah we light on Hannukah, the Hannukiyah.

The Menorah has become one of the most recognizable and powerful symbols in Judaism. This seven-branched m'norah is the seal of the State of Israel, symbolizing faith, determination, strength, knowledge and tradition.

One of my favorite teachings refers to this Menorah. It comes from Isaac Luria, a 16th century scholar who is considered to be the founder of Kabbalah. He taught that the six branches of the Menorah represent rational, scientific thought and observation. The center light represents the light of the Torah.

Maimonides thought similarly. He used the philosophical teachings of non-Jewish thinkers like Plato and Aristotle in constructing his Jewish world-view. Luria and Maimonides teach us that a life of Torah must explore outside of the words of Torah.

...

When he was persecuted by the Catholic Church, Galileo wrote a letter. He said that God wrote two different books. One is the book of creation and revelation. The other is the book of science and observation. Since God wrote both books, he argued, they are both equally important and, what's more, they both must be 'read' together.

Religion and science do indeed speak to each other.

As Luria's teaching suggests, Judaism challenges us to constantly incorporate modern life into our Jewish lives, replete with its scientific discoveries and technological advancements, with Jewish thought and theology.

But we must also remember that without the Torah, all of our rational and scientific discoveries are just unlit candles. It is the spark of Torah that ignites them. The spark of wonder, of community, faith, hope, tradition ... Only together do these create the beautiful Menorah.

Strange Fire, Tragic Fire: Sh'mini 04-10-2015

One month ago, a family in Brooklyn started to celebrate Shabbat. Gabriel Sassoon, father of eight children, was at a Jewish conference away from home. His wife Gayle was taking care of their children. I imagine that they lit Shabbat candles and had a beautiful Shabbat meal before Gayle tucked her children into bed.

As is customary in traditional homes, Gayle was using a hot plate on her stove to warm food for the continuation of Shabbat on Saturday. Commonly called a blech, this hot plate allows Jews to have hot food on Shabbat without violating the prohibition of lighting a fire on Shabbat. If you have ever experienced a traditional Shabbat afternoon meal, it is often a very thick and hearty (and delicious) stew called cholent.

Shortly before midnight, the hot plate malfunctioned and caught fire. Unimaginable tragedy ensued as Gabriel & Gayle lost seven of their eight children to this horrific accident. Thousands continue to mourn with them in their tight-knit community of Midwood.

...

This recent incident bears a painful resemblance to our Torah portion this week, Sh'mini.

Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire-holder, and they put fire in them and set incense on it. They brought forward unfitting fire, which God had not commanded. Fire came out from in front of God and consumed them, and they died in front of God.

Aaron was the high priest, the Kohen HaGadol. He was a righteous man, following the laws that he learned from his brother Moses. He made mistakes ... when Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 day, Aaron coordinated the building of the golden calf. But this is to say that he was human. Leaders make mistakes. But what is the mistake of his sons? All the Torah says is that they brought eish zara, strange fire. It also says that God did not command this fire. But taken at face value, isn't it possible that Aaron's children were trying to imitate their father? They, like their father, were trying to be role-models. Even if they did make a mistake, what could be so egregious as to deserve death?

I could spend the six weeks between tonight and Shavuot talking about the various rabbinic midrashim concerning this portion. The rabbis go through all manner of intellectual gymnastics to make Aaron's sons sinful, prideful sons that wanted to wrest power away from their father and uncle so that they could wield it themselves. I talked about this last year when I explained the concept of Tziduk HaDin. Rather than display anger toward God, there are instead various justifications of God's actions that create stories blaming Nadav and Avihu. This is Tziduk HaDin, the justification of God's actions.

The Sassoon's have experienced their share of Tziduk HaDin as well. On Facebook, many friends and colleagues implicitly blamed them for this tragedy, if not explicitly: If it weren't for the antiquated rules of Shabbat, some said, the tragedy would have been avoided. Some people wrote things like, This is why I am not Orthodox.

...

I shudder at such comments.

It's probably true that all of us drove here tonight. I'm guessing that some of us will turn on TV's in the next twenty-four hours, shop, turn on lights in our homes, cook, write, build things, and so on. But, as we discuss quite often in adult education, the way that we live our Jewish lives is sometimes antithetical to Jewish law. It is ... strange fire.

The Sassoon children did not die because they lived an Orthodox lifestyle. They died because they did not have a working smoke alarm on one of the floors in their home. I have been neglectful of protective measures like this, and I guess the same goes for many here. Jewish observance did not cause this tragedy. Orthodoxy did not cause this tragedy.

...

Ultimately, the story of Nadav and Avihu reminds us that sometimes, there are no words, no explanations, no logical reasoning. Creation is filled with randomness and pain, with the same chaos and void - Tohu VaVohu - that even God had to contend with. We may want to come up with rational explanations of Tziduk HaDin, but instead, let us mourn. This is not only the right response, it is the Jewish response.

...

After Aaron's sons die, Aaron is told to stand silently. When I learned this as a child, I thought that this added even more pain to an already unbearable situation, as Aaron must be suffering torment, especially as he has to continue with his responsibilities as high priest. But now I read it a bit differently. Perhaps this is my own Tziduk HaDin, but so be it.

He is silent because sometimes, words, explanations and rationalizations do not help. We can only be one community standing together, facing each other, and ultimately, helping each other cross the Red Sea into the promised land.

Building a Sanctuary of Identity: Ki Tissa 03-06-2015

The beginning of this portion, Ki Tissa, starts with a census. God commands Moses to count the heads of the Children of Israel.

This census is interesting, especially when compared to the two previous Torah portions.

Starting in T'rumah, God commands the building of the Tabernacle - the Mishkan. God proceeds to delineate very concrete and deliberate specifications with regard to its construction. Cubits, thread, stone, ink ... all are discussed. The portion almost reads like an architectural digest at times.

But despite its lengthy measurements of building and painting and constructing, the ultimate goal is not the place itself. The sanctuary is not an end to itself, just as our beautiful building here at 115 Dudley Drive is not an end to itself.

The construction of the Tabernacle is so that we can better feel God's presence dwell amongst us. As was discussed in adult ed last week, it is not God that needs or desires the Mishkan. It is us. We need it. We need a specific place that is special and beautiful, a place dedicated to the worship of our God and the learning of our religion.

Here in the beginning of Ki Tissa, we can understand this more, as God has Moses count the Israelites. It's important to realize that this census occurs after the specifications of the previous two portions, because it shows us that people. matter. More than the gold, more than the fine linens ... Even more than the Torah itself. It is the people. It is us.

...

There is a very strange line in the second verse of this week's portion.

God spoke to Moses, saying, when you add up the heads of the children of Israel, each of them shall give a ransom for his life to God when counting them, so there will not be a plague among them when counting them.

What?! Did we read that correctly? As we see later, Each Israelite must pay a half-shekel so there not be a plague? What is going on here?

Our Torah commentary points out that in the book of Samuel, David takes a census of his people. What follows is a plague upon the people.

It's understood that counting people is not a positive thing. We see this superstition today: When counting men to see if there is a minyan of 10 present, some Jews count by using a Hebrew phrase that has 10 words, rather than count from 1 to 10.

Here, there is an even stronger sentiment. Counting people can help to give a leader control over his people. As Dick Friedman points out in the footnote, conscription, forced labor and taxation are some ways where counting can be used a means of subjugation and authority.

The Torah goes to extra effort to show us the opposite. We should not count people. Rather, we must make sure that people count. Therefore, each person contributes a half-shekel, displaying both ownership and leadership in the continuity of our people.

...

We construct the Mishkan, yes, but what is more important is that we continually construct ourselves and our community. When each of us shows ownership and leadership here in our community, God indeed dwells amongst us in our Mishkan.

When Will God Appear? Vaera 01-16-2015

The past week has been a difficult one. In the span of a few days, terrorists killed 17 people in France. The four Jewish citizens at the kosher grocery store were buried in Israel for fear that their graves would be desecrated, yet another fearful sign of Europe's growing anti-semitism. In Nigeria, two *thousand* people were killed because of hatred, and intolerance, a fact even more bothersome because it's quite possible that many of you are hearing that for the first time right now. The world is in mourning.

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What is the Right Way to Spell Hannukah?! Hannukah - 12.19.2014

So how do you spell Hannukah?

There actually is a correct way: Chet, nun, vav, kaf, hey. But in English, there's disagreement. Some prefer to spell it phonetically, starting it with a "ch." Some, like myself, like the simplicity of a sole "h" to begin the name. But there are so many variations even beyond that; One or two n's? Do you use a solo "k" or do you need a "ck" combinationt? And how do we end the English nomenclature of our Festival of Lights? With an a? an ah? A friend told me that she learned that you can spell it any way you want so long as the word has 8 letters.

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I am 'The Luckiest' 11-02-2014

When Emily walked down the aisle at our wedding one week ago, our guests saw me collapse into a ball of emotion, tears rolling down my cheeks. I’m guessing that most assumed it was because of the power of the moment, seeing my bride for the first time in her wedding dress. As a matter of fact, friends of mine had an ‘over/under’ bet as to how long it would take until I lost it. Most put me at about 3 minutes. ‘Under’ was the way to go.

Yes, Emily was amazingly beautiful. Yes, I was full of emotion as I gazed out onto friends and family. But there’s more to the story. If you’ve ever seen the movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise, you may know what I mean when I tell you that she ‘spooked’ me. She got me good. Real good.

To explain, I need to talk about wedding planning, and our choice of first dance.

Emily and I had an idea to put the first dance up to a vote for our guests. Each of us would pick a song that was a surprise to the other, the guests would vote, and the DJ would play that song.

I picked The Luckiest by Ben Folds, and she picked For the Longest Time by Billy Joel. Her and I are a bit competitive, and we both were sure that we had the winning song. We asked a few close friends what they thought (without telling each other the song), and without question, everyone picked Emily’s. Another one lost. Sigh.

Months later, we went to see the movie About Time.

It’s a romantic comedy with a beautiful message, and without giving away anything, the end gets very emotional. As is typically the case during such moments, Emily looked at me, gently teasing me … Are you crying again?

As the last few minutes of the movie played, Ben Fold’s The Luckiest played underneath. And I lost it. Completely. I explained to Emily that this was the song I had picked as our first dance, and it makes me think of her, and it’s beautiful … etc, etc …

Fast forward to more wedding planning:

I am in a klezmer band in Athens, and our violinist is also a marvelous vocalist. She sings an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Erev Shel Shoshanim, a traditional Hebrew love song. It is often sung as the bride walks down the aisle. For months Emily said that she didn’t love that song, and would prefer if the band sang another song.

Finally, she gave in, knowing that I really love the version that my band sings. I was so excited as I visualized Emily coming down the aisle to this beautiful melody.

Just three days before the wedding, I practiced with the band, as I would be rapping to Emily (Rabbi’s Delight, a take on Rapper’s Delight) in between a marvelously energetic 40-minute hora. At that practice, I mentioned how excited I was to hear Erev Shel Shoshanim on my wedding day.

Unbeknownst to me, Emily had surreptitiously gotten the band to switch out Erev Shel Shoshanim with The Luckiest.

I realized something was amiss when I noticed that the words sung were not in Hebrew. It took me a few seconds, but all eventually came clear. And then, enter afore-mentioned collapsing.

Here are the words to this beautiful song. I will forever think of them and my even-more beautiful bride. I am indeed The Luckiest.


I don't get many things right the first time

In fact, I am told that a lot

Now I know all the wrong turns

The stumbles and falls brought me here

And where was I before the day

That I first saw your lovely face?

Now I see it everyday

And I know that I am

I am, I am the luckiest

What if I'd been born fifty years before you

In a house on the street where you live?

Maybe I'd be outside as you passed on your bike

Would I know?

And in a wide sea of eyes

I see one pair that I recognize

And I know that I am

I am, I am the luckiest

I love you more than I have

Ever found a way to say to you

Next door, there's an old man who lived to his 90's

And one day, passed away in his sleep

And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days

And passed away

I'm sorry, I know that's a strange way

To tell you that I know we belong

That I know that I am

I am, I am the luckiest

Don't Go Hungry: Pinchas 07-11-2014

A poor woman had two children, and all of them were starving. One morning, the woman came upon a perfectly round egg. The children squealed with delight, excited that they would finally eat.

The mother said, "Now children ... we musn't be hasty! If we wait, the egg will hatch and it will be a chicken. And we won't cook the chicken, because if we wait, the chicken will have more eggs, and then we'll have a bunch of chickens. And we can go to the market and sell the chickens for a cow. And then, we'll wait some more, and we'll trade the cow's milk for chickens and goats and hens ... and we'll have a whole farm and enough food to feed all of us so that we'll never go hungry again!

And in her excitement, wouldn't ya know it, the woman drops the egg ....

So it is with us - all of us have good intentions. Most of the time, we WANT to do the right thing. We want to work out, we want to eat healthier, we want to be nicer to that one person that gets on our nerves ... But as we all know, there is a gap between the loftiness of our intentions and our ability to bring those intentions to fruition.

This week's Torah portion teaches the same lesson.

The parsha of Pinchas starts with God saying to Pinchas, Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.

Earlier, we read that Pinchas snuck into the tent of a fellow Israelite, and his new Mideonite bride. Mideonites were not well respected ... Pinchas, upset that his clansman married a non-Jew, decides to take matters into his own hands. He kills the Israelite man and his wife.

Now, this is highly problematic. Pinchas kills two people, and for THIS God reflects that Pinchas turned back God's wrath from the Israelites?

The story also troubles me for its implicit harsh judgement of intermarried couples, many who make up the backbone of congregations across the country, including our own.

So why praise Pinchas to the point of having an entire Torah portion named after him?

I think it's because unlike the old lady in our story, Pinchas did not deliberate. He acted. and as God later tells him, he acted zealously.

There are many elements of Pinchas' action that are objectionable to one degree, or downright horrid to another. But, he teaches us a few very important lessons regarding Judaism.

1) It is a religion of action. We have 613 mitzvot, 613 laws. A VERY small majority of these commandments relate to how we should feel, or what we believe. The vast majority revolves around visible actions that we do with our body. As a matter of fact, I once learned that the reason that some Jews "shuckle" while davening, is to remind themselves that after prayer is over, they need to actualize the words of prayer. We do that with our bodies - through action.

2) You are enough. In Judaism, there are no theological intermediaries, such as in Catholicism. You can be your own teacher, your own rabbi. Now, that should be balanced with a healthy dose of intellectual rigor and community discourse, but as a Jew, YOU decide how to live Jewishly.

3) Judaism is intensely emotional and personal. Larry Hoffman, one of my favorite professors, said to us time and again, "Theology is autobiography." Judaism is filled with intellectual activity. We have the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the commentaries, the Midrash .... There is always more to learn, another class to take, a book to read. But more to the point, it's not a religion to be learned, but to be lived. Pinchas' zealousness shows that Judaism is not just about the rote recitation of prayer, or the habitual practice of commandments. It is about meaning, spirituality, passion ... zealousness.

I do want our beliefs to be filled with joy, spirituality and warmth. But more importantly, I want our lives to be filled by the actions we take. Then, we will never be hungry again.