Thursday, October 3, 2019

Responding to antisemitism in America (adapted from sermon for the 1st day of Rosh haShanah, 2019 / 5780)

I began my sermon with a brief description of my trip to Pittsburgh this January to spend a shabbat filling in for Rabbi Jonathan Perlman at the New Light Congregation, which lost 3 congregants in the terrible Tree of Life massacre.

(If you are curious why I have chosen the spelling ‘antisemitism’ (uncapitalized and without a hyphen), see here.)

….Rabbi Perlman’s community, called New Light, used to have its own building, but a few years ago they sold their building and began to rent space from the Tree of Life synagogue. Rabbi Perlman says he had never heard live gunfire before, but the moment he heard the sound, he knew what it was and that he had to hide and get others into hiding. He was able to hustle the other three people with him at the front of the room into a safe area, an electrical storage closet behind the wall where the aron kodesh, holy ark is.

So in that storage closet, which was pitch-black because they couldn’t find the light switch -- were four people: Rabbi Perlman, who has high-school-age and college-age children, And 3 congregants - a woman in her 60s, a man in his 70s, and a man in his upper 80s.

Then there was a lull in the shooting. And Melvin Wax, the man in his 80s, because of his hearing loss, was not able to hear the others instructing him not to open the door. So he opened the door - and was immediately shot and killed before their eyes.

The gunman then entered the closet and fumbled around in the dark for a moment and then left, leaving Rabbi Perlman and the other two people in the closet alive. And the gunman proceeded to the Tree of Life sanctuary where he killed his remaining victims. (and we plan to remember them all by name on Yom Kippur.)

The New Light community lost several of the people who had been instrumental in every part of synagogue life. For example, Mel Wax of blessed memory had been leading Psukei Dezimra at the time when the shooting began. Two of the regular Torah and haftarah readers were also murdered.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"Making modest changes" (Adapted from sermon from Rosh HaShanah eve 2018)

Last November, the record was set in Israel for the most expensive document ever to be sold at auction in Israel.

The story of that document starts nearly 100 years ago. In 1922, Albert Einstein had recently learned that he had won the Nobel Prize. He had a previously scheduled lecture in Tokyo, so in Tokyo he was receiving numerous letters and telegrams congratulating him on winning the Nobel Prize. Someone had sent him a package, so a bellboy from the hotel came up to deliver the package to Einstein, who looked in his pocket to find some change to give as a tip to the bellboy. But he didn’t have any.
So he told the bellboy instead: “Let me write you a note. Maybe someday it will become more valuable than a regular tip. And if not, then well I’m just giving you some good advice from my experience.” So he wrote, in German, on the Japanese hotel stationery, these words:

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Seder trivia - 2019 / 5779 edition

For the last several years, I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community: two true stories, and one fictional story. Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false. (If you have listened to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.) You can see previous editions of this game on my web site here

Here are the stories that I shared at our congregational seder last year. Answer (and relevant links) at the bottom. Feel free to use it if you wish!



 American Jewish history is full of conflicts between Jewish tradition and sports. Hank Greenberg didn’t play in the World Series on Rosh HaShanah. Sandy Koufax didn’t play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. Many elementary school age kids get to relive these famous values clarification dilemmas on a weekly basis when soccer practice conflicts with Hebrew school. And for some University of Michigan fans I know, the 2018 Second Seder posed a real dilemma, with the Wolverines reaching the Final Four.

But… did you know about the Canadian version of this dilemma? Canada’s national sport, of course, is hockey. And before the lengthening of the NHL season, hockey fans often had to contend with the Stanley Cup playoffs or finals coinciding with the Passover Seders.

It was the Stanley Cup finals of 1953 which were the crescendo of this conflict between religion and sports.

Friday, November 9, 2018

After the Massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

These are the thoughts I shared with the community on Saturday, November 3, one week after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

In the Torah reading this shabbat, Abraham suffers the loss of his wife Sarah.
We read ויבוא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולבכותה - Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and cry for her.
But then Abraham has to begin negotiations to find a burial plot for his wife Sarah.
And so he approaches his neighbors, the Hittites, and says גר ותושב אנכי עמכם ger ve-toshav anokhi imakhem - I am a stranger and resident alien in your midst. Will you sell me a grave so I can bury my wife?
And they respond to him -- נשיא אלקים אתה בתוכנו -- nesi elokim atah be-tokheinu - Abraham, you may think of yourself as a stranger and resident alien, but to us, you are a leader. In fact, you are נשיא אלקים- you are raised up by God! We hold you in high esteem!
Well, if you read to the end of this passage, it turns out that the Hittites don’t end up holding him in high esteem - but Rabbi Harold Kushner has long used these two phrases to describe two different ways that Jews and others understand the Jewish community.
Sometimes, Jews see ourselves, or are seen by others, as גר ותושב ger ve-toshav. As strangers and resident aliens, not really belonging, not really accepted. And often persecuted and oppressed.
And sometimes Jews see ourselves, or are seen by others, as נשיא אלקים בתוכנו nesi elokim be-tokheinu - as leaders, those raised up, even respected for having a special relationship with God, fully welcomed into the societies in which we live, and having a responsibility to shape those societies.
And here’s the challenge: both were true about Abraham, and both are true about every Jewish community in Jewish history.
The assailant on Shabbat thought of Jews as interlopers who don’t belong, who are pulling the strings to create every disadvantage for the people he regards as authentic Americans; who are even perpetrating a genocide against European-Americans.
And his words and acts of violence are in sad continuity with thousands of years of antisemitic words and acts of violence -- because this is nothing new.
When we had discussions with our older Learning Center students about this incident, we said ‘this is not the first time you are hearing about this sad fact that some people don’t like Jews. You know about this from as far back as the stories of Passover and Purim and Hanukkah.’
And just as his words and acts of violence are in sad continuity with the history of antisemitism,
they are ALSO in sad continuity with hundreds of years of American home-grown racism and nativism, that labels various people INCLUDING Jews as dangerous outsiders.
Just confining ourselves to attacks on people at prayer: In recent years we have seen hate-filled murderous attacks on African-American Christians at prayer in Charleston; on Muslims at prayer in Quebec City; on Sikhs at prayer in Wisconsin -- all perpetrated by white supremacists. And had the Pittsburgh attack not happened, we would all be talking more about the Petersburg Kentucky attack, in which two people were murdered by yet another white supremacist solely because they are African-American -- and because the gunman was not able to get into the African-American church that was his real target.
And even THIS WEEK -- since this terrible incident - there are hateful slogans painted on a synagogue in Irvine CA; there are swastikas painted on a synagogue on Thursday in Brooklyn Heights, when there is a dramatic escalation of antisemitic chatter on social media celebrating last shabbat’s attack -- and the result is that many of us can feel flashbacks to earlier times in Jewish history.
How painful it is for me to hear more than one person say to me: “I am just glad that my {parent; grandparent; other relative} did not survive to see this happen in the United States.”
One of my friends asked: “Will the American Jewish community come to look back at this event as our Kristallnacht?
As you may know, this week we commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, referred to in German as Reichspogromnacht, the terrible Night of Broken Glass in 1938 that marked the beginning of the Shoah period.
Tor many German Jews, Kristallnacht was a wake-up call that the Jewish experience under the Nazis would be just as bad or worse than they had feared.
So my friend asks: is this Kristallnacht?
My answer is clear. Let’s look at some of the differences.
During Kristallnacht, the police were on the side of the assailants, providing no protection to the Jewish homes, synagogues, institutions and businesses that were destroyed.
And this week, four police officers are still in the hospital because of the bullets that they took as they subdued the assailant.
This week, even before the incident had been reported on the news, our own Chief of Police in Hoboken was informed and sent officers immediately to protect our synagogue and to send a message that they are standing by us.
During Kristallnacht, the Jews were isolated.
And this week, hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths and no faith came out to stand by the Jewish community in communities around the country - plus many more this shabbat.
On Monday night, less than 72 hours after the incident, our sanctuary was full to overflowing -- we had political leaders, as well as religious leaders representing Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Sikh communities, standing with us, standing up to hate, proclaiming that what happened in Pittsburgh is the opposite of what is supposed to happen in a sanctuary, in a house of worship.
And that they treasure us for the ways we are different -
As we treasure them for the ways they are different.
And they know that in similar circumstances we have stood up for them.
(By the way: when people ask me why I spend so much of my time focused on interfaith cooperation activities -- part of the answer is that I feel that Jewish ethics and values demand this of me, but part of the answer is that there’s an element of self-interest. Truly, planning Monday night’s event did not take just 2 days -- it took several years of building and nurturing relationships.)
And you should see - - the bouquets of flowers, the bundles of roses,
The envelopes of letters and notes from our neighbors’ churches, some of which I have reprinted on the sheets that have been distributed;
The posters outside our neighboring houses of worship that announce prayers for the Jewish community -
The Pittsburgh Gazette front page headline that reads in Aramaic in Hebrew letters - יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא - the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish. (That’s the kind of ‘dog whistle’ that I can get behind.).
I do long for a time when it could simply be expected that all political leaders would have the agenda of uniting the nation, especially at times of tragedy - helping us to come together and sense a common purpose rather than to sow division.
Not all political leaders today are interested in or capable of doing this, and we could use some help in forging more unity.
But apparently, when necessary, we know how to make the unity ourselves.
Sometimes we feel like the גר ותושב ger ve-toshav- the stranger or alien - but at other times we realize that in this society we are נשיא אלהים בתוכנו - nesi elohim be-tokheinu - we are treasured and raised up. We are a proud part of the mosaic of this country, sharing in the responsibility for its present and future.
And if we are both the strangers and the treasured ones -- it means we need to be vigilant but not afraid.
It means that we will NOT stop gathering in synagogues,
We will NOT stop practicing Jewish values as we understand them.
We will NOT stop emulating Abraham who welcomed strangers into his tent.
We will NOT stop fulfilling the Torah’s commandment to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
We will NOT stop emulating Joseph and Esther and Daniel who ascended to leadership roles in their lands and then sought to make wise decisions that would benefit EVERYONE.
We will NOT stop emulating the prophets Isaiah and Micah who preached a message of peace for ALL nations.
We will NOT stop emulating Cecil and David of blessed memory, who would invite people every week into their spiritual home.
We will NOT stop emulating Jerry and and Richard and Bernice and Joyce of blessed memory, generous healers and sensitive teachers.
We will NOT stop emulating Rose and Sylvan and Daniel and Melvin and Irving of blessed memory, who built and sustained families and communities where the traditions of their ancestors could be passed on.
Each shabbat, when we recite the Mi Sheberakh le-holim, the prayer for people who are ill, we add six extra words, essentially to apologize to God that we are disturbing Shabbat by crying out on this day. We say: שבת היא מלזעוק ורפואה קרובה לבוא Shabbat hi mi-liz’ok, ur’fuah kerovah lavo. “Today is Shabbat, when one is not supposed to cry out in agony - and but we pray for healing soon.”
And this is our prayer today:
שבת היא מלזעוק Shabbat hi mi-liz’ok.
Today is Shabbat, when one should never have to cry out in agony - though we are crying out anyway.
May this and every future shabbat be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace, the peace that was tragically absent last week in Pittsburgh.
May it be a Shabbat of security, of community, of gratitude even at a terrible time.
ורפואה קרובה לבוא ur’fuah kerovah lavo.
And may healing come soon --
To those who are injured and remain hospitalized,
To those who are bereaved,
To those who are traumatized,
To those who are terrified,
To those who are sad and angry and exhausted.
May we find healing soon - because we have urgent work to do.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hadasim / Myrtles: the branches that bind

See my other essays on the remaining plants of the Arba Minim (4 Species): 

Among the Four Species used on Sukkot, the myrtle branches (Hadasim) seemed to me to be the most innocuously pleasant.  The Etrog is fragile; the Lulav is dangerous with its sharp leaves; the willows quickly dry out. The myrtle branches are, in my experience,most likely to survive Sukkot intact without harming itself or others.  And the myrtle leaves have a fresh, vaguely Mediterranean scent  - best unleashed by crumpling up the leaves, or by scratching the myrtle branch itself.  In fact, unlike all the other parts of the Four Species, it is not particularly difficult to keep the myrtles fresh and fragrant for weeks and even months after Sukkot is over - just put them in a little bit of water.

The myrtle tree gives its name to Hadasah, the hero of the Purim story (better known by her Persian name, Esther).  That Jewish tradition describes a queen named after the myrtle should not be surprising; pliable twigs of the myrtle, together with the fresh scent of the leaves, make it especially appropriate for weaving into wreaths and victory crowns.  Maybe for a similar reason, the Talmud ( includes a small cameo role for myrtle branches, at the conclusion of the story of Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who spent several years studying torah in a cave to escape persecution by the Romans. When they emerge from the cave after twelve years, they are clearly unprepared to return to the regular world after such a period of ethereal seclusion. They return to the cave for one more year.  When they exit again, they see a person who is racing home, holding two myrtle branches.  When they inquire about why he has these branches, he informs them that they are special for Shabbat, and he has two of them to correspond to the two versions of the Shabbat commandment in the Ten Commandments.   Shimon bar Yochai and his son are cheered to see that the people of Israel are taking such pleasure in observance of the commandments (maybe they had feared the worst during their seclusion), and they consent to leave the cave permanently.  Maybe the myrtle branches reminded them of the simple sweetness that exists in the world - and maybe the branches help to bind them to the rest of the community.

A cryptic verse in the Hallel Psalms ( may also make reference to the pliability of the myrtle branches.  In what appears to be a “stage direction” in the midst of words of praise, we are told Isru chag ba-avotim ad karnot ha-mizbeach - - “Bind the festal offering to the altar with cords.”  The word translated as “cords” here, “avotim,” is the same word used to describe the myrtle branches in the book of Leviticus.  This could refer to the myrtle branches being used as a kind of strong twine in the time of the Temple.

Looking at the myrtle branches, smelling their scent, and thinking about how they have been used historically for tying and binding, I ask myself: how do I feel bound to the most ancient parts of my tradition?  How do I plan to keep the sweet scent of the myrtles alive well into the coming year?

Friday, September 14, 2018

"Through the narrow passage" (Sermon for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah, 2018)

The story is told of a rabbi, a priest, and an imam who all receive a message from God.  The message is that God has finally had it with all of humanity’s sins once and for all. And in six months time, God is going to punish everyone with a flood, but there will be no Noah’s Ark this time. The religious leaders go to their people to share this grim news.  

The priest and imam say to their people:  “We now have six months to purify ourselves before we meet our God. We have six months to pray, to beg for forgiveness, and hopefully our God will be merciful to us.”

And the rabbi goes to his people and says, "Fellow Jews:  we now have 6 months to learn to breathe under water."

Why was I thinking of this old old joke throughout the summer?  Because of a story in the news that you certainly saw. In a year full of so many terrible news stories, with so much sadness and heartache, there was at least one news item that everyone could celebrate - even though it was so stressful when it was going on.  It took place in Northern Thailand.  As you no doubt remember, there was a youth soccer team in Thailand who spent what they were hoping would be a fun day exploring some local caves.  However, they got seriously lost, and then the rains came and the caves started to get filled up with water. For almost 2 weeks, there were intensive searches to find them. Many feared the worst, that they would not be found alive. But then, two expert cave divers discovered them, alive and relatively safe, but miles deep in the cave.

However, this is when the real international drama began. Because  so many of the cave passageways were flooded, and efforts to drill new holes into the cave were not successful, the initial plan was that the only way for them to get out of the cave was for them to engage in some of the most challenging cave scuba diving that could be done anywhere in the world, going through some narrow passages under water that were only 15 inches wide.

And so they started the process of teaching these kids the skills of scuba diving - skills that none of them had, but skills that it was expected that they would need in order to get out of the cave alive. Then in a remarkable demonstration of international cooperation of thousands of people,
after 18 days of captivity, all the boys and their coach were successfully rescued.  (As it happens, the boys did not have to put into practice any skills of swimming or diving, as it was decided that it would be safer if they would be entirely in the care of professional divers during their journey.)

There are so many implications of this incredible story that have spiritual import. The 25 year old coach, who had previously been a Buddhist monk, teaching the kids techniques of prayer and meditation so that they would consume less oxygen and have an easier time dealing with their lack of food day after day. (As someone who had engaged in a lot of fasting as a spiritual discipline, he was able to guide the kids about what fasting would feel like so they wouldn’t panic.)  After being discovered but before being rescued, the coach sent a note of abject apology to the parents, acknowledging that he had made a terrible mistake in authorizing this visit to the cave.  And the parents sent a gracious message back to him in the cave, to let him know that they were so relieved that he was there together with their children and that they were so thankful that he was keeping them safe.  (Which truly he was, in ways that the parents would not learn until after the rescue.)   And after their rescue, the boys spent several days taking temporary vows of Buddhist monkhood in memory of the Thai Navy SEAL who had died trying to rescue them, and also in tribute to the role that prayer and meditation had played in keeping them safe.

So all in all, this is a story about prayer and meditation and fasting and apology and forgiveness, and self-sacrifice and cooperation and generosity, and doing acts of kindness in memory of the deceased.

Or in other words, there is absolutely NO theme from the HH that is absent from this story!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Listen to the Stories" (Rosh HaShanah sermon at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, September 10, 2018)

I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in astrology.  With one exception.

I find it very moving that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales - which have been a symbol of justice for so many centuries.

One nickname of Rosh HaShanah is Yom Ha-Din - the day of judgment.  Throughout the high holiday season, our prayers use the image of a courtroom.  This is the day when, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, we each feel judged, and we make every effort to judge ourselves.  In the stirring prayer Unetaneh Tokef, we confront the elaborate metaphor that each of us has our verdict inscribed in a fearsome heavenly book, determining our fate for the coming year.

So for the sages of our tradition, who were more interested in the zodiac than you might have thought, it was no surprise that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales of justice - which our sages referred to by the Hebrew name - ‘מאזניים Moznayim.’  For them, this was yet another demonstration that this is the time of year when all of creation passes before God one by one -   תעביר ותספור ותמנה ותפקוד נפש כל  חי - “You take note of and count and attend to every living thing.  ותחתוך קצבה לכל בריאה - and You determine the fate of every creature.”

As we stand today in the presence of these scales of justice, I want to tell you a story of how the scales of justice have a different meaning for me this year נecause of an troubling experience I had this year in an American courtroom.  This story, which some of you already know, has political implications.  But I am sharing this story with you not because of its political implications but because I think it helps us to better understand one of the themes of Rosh HaShanah.  Fortunately we’re not the kind of synagogue where people get up and dramatically walk out when the rabbi says something they disagree with.  (Or if we are that kind of synagogue, you have never done it dramatically enough for me to have noticed.)   But I want to promise you that, first of all, we have a politically diverse community and on this and other issues I respect where you’re coming from whether I agree with you or not, and I deeply believe that the story I am sharing with you can help you to better  understand Rosh HaShanah whether or not you and I are in sync politically.