LIKE A ROLLING STONE – REFLECTIONS ON BOB DYLAN’S 80th BIRTHDAY

MAY 28, 2021

Shabbat Beha’alotecha 5781

It begins with the drum shot heard ‘round the world: a mighty thwack, followed a split-second later by the reverb of the kick-drum, a one-two punch that Bruce Springsteen recalled this way in 1989, twenty-four years after Columbia Records released “Like a Rolling Stone”:

I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.

The door to my mind got kicked open, it must have been, around 1983—when, rifling through my parents’ vinyl—as I often did after school—I stopped on the one with the cover photo of the surly 24-year-old with the rat’s nest haircut.  I slipped the record from its well-worn cardboard sleeve, lifted the lid off the walnut cabinet on the old KLH, turned the volume up, unlatched the needle, and let it rip—

Wham!  What a sound.  After the drum shot comes this fantastic cacophony of organ and bass and electric guitar, and then that unmistakable adenoidal sneer, declaiming in a cadence that could only be described as mythical (I mean, it begins with “once upon a time,” for crying out loud):

Once upon a time

You dressed so fine

Threw the bums a dime

In your prime

Didn’t you?

And nothing would ever be the same again.

This Monday, Bob Dylan celebrated his 80th birthday.  It should be clear by now that I’m a fan.  Maybe not as big a fan as my buddy Rabbi Seth Limmer of Chicago Sinai Congregation, who, last Shabbat, delivered a sermon in celebration of Dylan’s milestone, in which he referenced the sixteen times he’s seen Dylan live, annotating each performance with extensive footnotes.  As for me, I’ve only seen the Man in concert a measly eight times, and I forget most of the details, which I think, by the way, may be a sign that you’ve really been at a Dylan concert.  

The other sign of really being at a Dylan concert is that you have no idea what he’s singing.  Limmer and I concur that the friends we’ve taken to see Dylan who have failed to appreciate the experience mainly share the same critique:  they can’t tell what song he’s playing.  And we both know people whose main complaint is that they don’t like his voice anymore, if they ever did in the first place.  But I’m with what Bob once said on this issue:  “I’m like Enrico Caruso… if you listen closely, I hit all the right notes.”  

The way I see it, the voice is a lot like anchovies.  Either you think they taste delicious or you don’t, but—and I don’t care what you say here—a salad isn’t a Caesar without them.

In any case:  Love him or hate him, I have publicly committed to celebrating Dylan’s 80th with a year’s worth of remarks on “The Torah of Bob,” so tonight, for the first such sermon in this cycle, let’s bring it all back home, back to

Once upon a time

You dressed so fine

Threw the bums a dime

In your prime

Didn’t you?

It’s important to understand that when “Like a Rolling Stone” came out, on July 20th, 1965, nothing in popular music had ever sounded like this.  

Columbia Records was unhappy with everything about it—starting with its six-minute length, which was more than double what passed for a pop song back then (but which, to Dylan’s credit as an editor of his own muse, began its life as what he described as “this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long”).  

They also hated its electrified sound. (At his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance just five days after the record came out, Dylan doubled down by plugging in and playing the second set extremely loud.)

And the record execs were none too thrilled with the song’s confrontational tone and message.  No one was used to hearing a song on the radio that so vindictively accused the listener.

Like this:

…nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street

And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it

Or this:

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

And this:

You used to laugh about

Everybody that was hangin’ out

Now you don’t talk so loud

Now you don’t seem so proud

About having to be scrounging for your next meal

And most definitely this:

How does it feel

How does it feel

To be without a home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone?

The whole song is one long withering indictment, a verse-chorus-verse takedown of entitlement and privilege and the hypocrisy of the well-to-do, the ones who’ve “gone to the finest schools…,” all “drinkin’, thinkin’ that they’ve got it made / exchanging all precious gifts / But you’d better take your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe,” Dylan heckles, his voice dripping with contempt.  

Even the so-called “protest songs” of Dylan’s early folk period never came close to this.  Long gone is “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind / the answer is blowing in the wind.”  No, now—Dylan seems to be shouting—the answer is blowing in your face, and you are most certainly not “my friend.” 

Where does a song like this come from?  How might we appreciate its power?

There’s a wonderful, disturbing, and truly bizarre episode in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha from the Book of Numbers, that sheds light on Dylan’s work, his art in general, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” specifically.

Let me set the scene.  While wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites periodically stop, make camp, and set up the Tent of Meeting where the leadership would encounter God and await direction.  

Moses has charged seventy elders of the community as his official “cabinet,” if you will, and God has even imbued these 70 officials with some of Moses’s own prophetic ability.  The Torah tells us that, even as Moses could communicate the very word of God to the people, so did God draw from the Divine spirit that rested upon Moses, and conferred it upon the elders.  When touched by the Divine ruach, God’s “wind” or “spirit,” the elders became prophets—like Moses, they could speak God-talk, or something like that, but they appear to have kept their mouths shut.

All of a sudden there’s a commotion in the Israelite camp.  A youth has discovered two men, apparently registered officials as well, who have not joined the official cabinet of elders-turned-prophets.  These two men, Eldad and Medad by name, begin to “speak in ecstasy”—they begin to issue forth prophecy.  

What exactly were they doing?  Speaking in tongues?  Channeling some kind of Divine message without Moses’s direct authorization, and outside the company of their recently commissioned comrades?  We will never know, but the young man who sees and hears them reacts with distress.  He runs to Moses and, out of breath, exclaims, “Eldad and Medad are acting like Prophets in the camp!”  And Joshua, Moses’s right-hand-man (and eventual successor), is so unnerved that he demands, “My lord Moses, lock them up!”

But Moses replies, “Why are you acting like such a zealot on my behalf?  If it were up to me, all the people would be prophets of God, with the Divine Spirit conferred upon them!” (Numbers 11:24-29)

There’s a conventional view of prophecy in the Jewish tradition, that God bestowed it upon a select group of Biblical folks—among them preeminent figures like Moses and Samuel and Elijah, as well as three “major prophets,” Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, twelve so-called “minor prophets,” including guys like Amos and Hosea and Malachi, and even a handful of prophetesses such as Miriam and Deborah—and then, after a time, specifically, after the destruction of the Temple in 586, followed by the Babylonian exile, prophecy ceased.  (It is probably no coincidence that prophecy is said to have ended at exactly the time that the religious officials in charge of the 2nd Temple, after the Exile, wanted to shore up their own authority as the official spokesmen for God.)  

Centuries later, the Rabbis, the Master Teachers of the Tradition, upheld this view—that prophecy declined and eventually ended—again, not inconveniently for the sake of their own religious authority.

I’m of the other view—the less conventional view—the view of Moses about those two fellas prophesying by themselves in the camp:  “Would that all the people were prophets, with the Divine Spirit upon them.”  I’m actually of the mind that any of us could be a Prophet, and most of us in fact are prophets, imbued with Divine spirit; it’s just that we don’t know it.  

This last point—our not knowing it—is where Bob Dylan may not be like most of us.  Now, to be clear, Dylan himself has never gone on record claiming to be a prophet.  But he’s never exactly denied the allegation, either.  In fact, on his most recent album, the brilliant Rough and Rowdy Ways, which came out last summer, fifty-five years after “Like a Rolling Stone,” he sings with a wink and a nod in exactly this direction.  

It’s a dirge-like blues called False Prophet and it starts like this:

Another day that don’t end – another ship going out

Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt

I know how it happened – I saw it begin

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in

And then he growls:

I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife

I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life

I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know

I go where only the lonely can go.

Okay, so he won’t cop to being a full-on Moses, but Dylan “ain’t no false prophet,” either.  

It’s not just this song.  And it’s not just “Like a Rolling Stone,” either, which, in its uncompromising, take-no-prisoners attitude, resembles nothing so much as the Biblical Prophets, who, more than fortune-tellers, were the great Social Critics of their time:  impugning the rich who ignored the poor while making a great show of their public piety and their gifts to the religious establishment; impugning the priests who preached God’s unity while indulging in idol worship; impugning the officials who broke faith with the Torah while clothing themselves in the mantle of Jewish authority.  Pardon the anachronism, but if that isn’t Dylan-esque, I don’t know what is.

You say that sometimes Dylan’s lyrics sound like surrealistic gibberish?  Same goes for the Prophets, as anyone who’s tried to learn a Haftarah portion will report.  When he set out to write “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan recalls that the song came to him as a blast of sound and fury.  “It wasn’t called anything,” he once said, “just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest.”  

And if that ain’t prophecy, I don’t know what it is.

Every other voice Dylan has taken on throughout his career of six decades also finds its echo in the Biblical Prophets.

There are the countless references to the Bible itself, warped and repurposed, but with the Biblical dialect intact – the “hard rain” of Noah’s Flood now visualized as nuclear fallout; Isaiah’s watchmen stationed “all along the watchtower”; “the first ones now will later be last”; “I can see the Master’s hand / in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”

There’s also the Questioning Prophet:  

“Something is happening here / and you don’t know what it is / do you, Mr. Jones?” 

And

“How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?”

There’s the Wounded Prophet, like the Biblical Hosea, ripping apart a faithless lover:  

“You just kind of wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

And there’s the Comforting Prophet, invoking the Biblical Jacob, no less:  

“May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / And may you stay / Forever young.”

My friends, there’s another word for Prophecy—when the Divine comes to touch a human being—and it’s called Inspiration, from the Latin “spiritus” meaning “spirit” or “breath.”

As Dylan puts it: “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.”

I believe we all have this ability, to open our heart to the world and let the world come in—to let God’s spirit enter our consciousness—to move us, guide us, transform us.

We all have the capacity for Inspiration: to receive the spirit, the muse, that “rhythm thing,” and to transform it into Art.

I agree with Moses: “Would that all the people were prophets, with the Divine Spirit upon them.”

Are you open to Inspiration?

How does it feel?

NEVER LOST, ONLY DELAYED

REMARKS FOR SHAVUOT – CONFIRMATION 5781

MONDAY, MAY 17, 2021

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Dear Confirmation Class of 5781,

I recently made my first trip into New York City after more than a year away on account of the pandemic. My old MetroCard had expired so I needed to get a new one. As I followed the prompts on the screen, the kiosk presented me with an existential question.

“What would you like to add?” the kiosk asked me.

It then gave me two choices:

Add Value Add Time

What kind of magical machine is this?  I wondered.  Does it know I’m a rabbi?  Does it know I think about these kinds of questions all the time?

I’m sure you’ve been thinking about these kinds of questions too. What would you like to add? I’m sure most of us would happily hit the “Add Time” button if we knew it could bring back all the moments we’ve lost. All the missed classes, the summer camp that never materialized, the cancelled parties and family get-togethers, the empty seats at the Passover Seders. Even today, when we are so grateful to gather in intimate numbers, in person, here in our cherished WRT sanctuary—we feel these losses; we know that Zoom anything is no substitute for the Real Thing.

And these losses–it must be added–seem small, compared to the lost lives, the lost jobs, the lost relationships, the lost hugs and kisses, the lost joy.  Cumulatively, the losses are simply staggering.

Perhaps you’ve heard references to what parents and teachers and mental health professionals are now calling the “Lost Year.” Adolescents, they say, have fared particularly poorly during the pandemic.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that “the proportion of emergency room visits that were mental health-related for 12 to 17 year olds increased by 31 percent from April to October 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.” 

“And there’s no question,” the New York Times notes, “that witnessing their loneliness, difficulties with online learning and seemingly endless hours on social media has been enormously stressful” — not just for the kids, but also “for the adults who care about them the most.”

Students, parents, loved ones, and friends:  We see you.  We care about you.  We share your sense of loss, bewilderment, and worry—worry about damage already inflicted, and worry about the long road ahead that will lead us to whatever “new normal” emerges on the other side of Covid.  

These are extraordinary times that demand extraordinary resilience, courage, and hope.  Above all, these accumulated losses require that each of us might summon a spirit of Confirmation, and I mean that literally:  that we might confirm, each in our own hearts, that we must accept what we cannot change, and yet also confirm what our Jewish tradition teaches us to believe: that each one of us can change the world.

And that is why we come here today.  I recognize that one Confirmation service—and what a beautiful and meaningful act of devotion you have made this service, Confirmation Class of 5781—cannot make up for all the lost time.  If none of us were ever again to hear the phrases “hybrid learning” or “social distancing” or even “new normal,” which I used about one minute ago—let alone have to live with their meaning—I’m sure we could all be perfectly content.

But as we all know, there is no “Add Time” button on the Great Kiosk of Life.   There’s no way to “Add Time” to our fleeting days.  

All we can do is select the other option:  “Add Value.”

Let me explain what this means, first with a Jewish text, and then with a little story.  Yes, first a Jewish text.  What?  You thought this whole sermon would be about four words on the screen of a MetroCard Kiosk?  So, yes, a Jewish text.  This one, specifically, about the holiday of Shavuot that we are presently celebrating and to which our Reform Jewish observance links its time-honored ritual of Confirmation.

So, Shavuot is a holiday with a bit of an identity crisis.  Nowadays most of us associate Shavuot with what we call in Hebrew Matan Torah, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai.  On this holiday we renew our relationship with Torah; as a case in point, when the holiday began, last night, WRT joined with seven other local congregations for an online festival of Torah learning, including classes taught by our own Rabbi Levy and cantorial intern Isaac Sonett-Assor.  

But in Biblical times, our ancestors thought of this holiday in agricultural terms.  For fifty days following the onset of Passover, Israelite pilgrims would bring sheaves of barley—the first grain to ripen in the Spring—as a token of their devotion to God.  And then, on Shavuot itself, when they could harvest the next crop to ripen in its season, which is wheat, they would bring all the so-called “first fruits” of the land, filling up baskets with fresh Spring produce and loaves of fresh-baked bread, and would present them to the priest in charge of the temple rituals, while making a declaration of gratitude to God.  

The Torah says:  

….וּבְי֣וֹם הַבִּכּוּרִ֗ים בְּהַקְרִ֨יבְכֶ֜ם מִנְחָ֤ה חֲדָשָׁה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה בְּשָׁבֻעֹ֖תֵיכֶ֑ם מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם

“On the day of First-Fruits, when you bring your offerings of new grain before God, on your observance of Shavuot, you should hold a sacred occasion…”(Numbers 28:26).  

So that was old-timey Shavuot.  Go gather your grain; go pluck your first-fruits; go fill your basket high; and go and offer it up.  You say you had a rough harvest this season?  Go gather the best of what you have to give, and offer it up.  You say you haven’t had enough time to let the crops really get lush and full, rich and sweet?  Go gather the best of what you have to give, and offer it up.  You say:  There are so many other people whose gifts are bigger and better than mine; what use are these?  Go gather the best of what you have to give, and offer it up.

This is the wisdom of Shavuot, the secret of the First-Fruits, which has also been the secret to this Confirmation year.  Confirmation class of 5781:  life handed you some lemons this year.  And you gathered them up, made the best of what you had, gave the best you had to give, and made some very tasty first-fruit lemonade for us all to savor on this Shavuot.  Whenever conditions permitted, you showed up with masks on and smiles behind them. (Yes, you can always still tell when someone is smiling behind the mask; it’s in the eyes.) 

This past fall—I’ll be the first to admit—I was pretty cranky heading into the so-called Confirmation “Retreat” that wasn’t:  for the first time in my 18 years serving WRT, we wouldn’t be jumping on a bus to our beloved URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington.  There would be no camp-style sleepover, no frosty morning walks by the lake, no early morning coffee runs with Rabbi Levy to fuel us up for a long day of sacred work and play.  We were “retreating” only as far as the back parking lot of Westchester Reform Temple for a bonfire and some individually wrapped, super safe S’mores, after a long day of bonding and learning and praying and singing (quietly singing, so as not to infect anyone).  

And guess who brought their first fruits, showing up with ruach (that’s Hebrew for “spirit”) and joy?  Confirmation Class, I am delighted that the only infectious thing you brought to our Retreat this year was a great attitude.  And you’ve just continued to bring it, and bring it again, even when the chips were down.  And you are most definitely bringing it tonight.

I am grateful to have learned from you, this year, a lesson that many of us struggle our whole lives to learn:  that we have no choice about what does or does not happen to us in life.  We do have a choice—we always have a choice—about how we shall respond.  Rather than ask “Why?” of life, we should ask, “Okay, life, now what must I do? Now who must I become?”  And we become our fullest selves when we keep showing up, keep bringing our first fruits, the best of ourselves, day after day after day, for fifty days and fifty years and so on for a lifetime.   

Because, you see, there is no “Add Time” button when it comes to life.  There is only the “Add Value” button.  And, let me share my personal view, that embracing and living your Judaism with dedication and eagerness is one—only one of many, but one—excellent way to add value to life.  

Now, I also promised you a little story so here it is.  A number of years ago my wife, Kelly, was performing a solo cabaret benefiting the Arizona Theatre Company.  She’s actually done a few performances there over the years and she always returns with wonderful stories and cherished memories.  

This one time, however, she also returned without something, and that was her luggage.  A snowstorm had diverted her flight from Phoenix through Chicago O’Hare and she made it back to New York but her checked bag did not.  So, she filled out a form and took a toll-free number and headed home empty-handed.  

In the days that followed, Kelly was assigned a case manager for her missing luggage, a gentleman whose accent gave him away as having come from the Indian subcontinent; we would not have been surprised to learn that he was speaking from a call center in Bangalore or Sri Lanka.  He was friendly, and he was lucky that Kelly is also friendly, as a general rule–even in situations like this, which I, as a general rule, am not.  

Days turned into weeks and the matter of the lost luggage became less an episode and more a saga.  Eventually, around three weeks after the flight, with still no sign of her Samsonite, Kelly said to her friendly case manager, “I think that at this point, we should just admit that the bag is lost.”  

“Madam,” said he, not skipping a beat, “I must ask you, please be patient, just a little longer.  Bags are never lost.  Only delayed.”

“But sir,” Kelly began—

“Madam,” he repeated, “Please be patient, just a little longer.  Bags are never lost, only delayed.”

This charming refrain did keep us—just barely—sane, while we waited it out.  This, of course, would not be the last time she called; indeed, the weekly call to our friendly case manager persisted for quite some time, inevitably concluding with a plea that began, “Madam, please be patient, just a little bit longer,” and which ended, “Bags are never lost, only delayed.”

(As an aside:  to this day, on the website of this airline, you can still find information pertaining to “delayed or damaged” bags, but nothing referencing bags that are “lost.”)

This story does have a happy ending.  After ten weeks, Kelly and her luggage were reunited.  The airline had finally located the bag… in Belgium.  

So, here, Confirmation Class of 5781, I want to share with you something I’ve learned both from this story and from this last year, which is that time is never lost… only delayed.

Behind us, we look back on a strange and trying year.  Hopes and dreams have been subverted and diverted.  Not lost.  Only delayed.  

Ahead of us, we have nothing but time:  time worth spending wisely and well, time worth spending making life better for ourselves, and especially, time spent making life better for the numberless lives in need of your help.  

Confirmation class of 5781, you have so much value to add to life.  

May God speed your steps and strengthen your resolve.  

And mazal tov. We’re proud of you.

Reflections on Israel

IYYUN FOR SHABBAT

DELIVERED MAY 14, 2021

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE, SCARSDALE, NY

Shabbat Shalom and welcome.  I want to begin these comments, intended to address the situation, and the escalating violence in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank with a little bit of what we call in Hebrew Hakarat Ha-Tov.  It’s a phrase that means “acknowledging the good,” and it’s a kind of spiritual discipline—to recognize that even in difficult circumstances, our Jewish tradition calls us to seek God and God’s blessing.  

So, first, let us acknowledge that today, exactly, marks the 73rd anniversary of independent Israeli statehood – that on May 14, 1948, in the late afternoon—also, just before Shabbat—Ben Gurion stood before an assembly of leaders and officials and proclaimed the birth of the State of Israel, a miraculous new reality for the Jewish People.  

Let us never take for granted that we are blessed to have an Israel, blessed to have a sovereign Jewish homeland.  This hasn’t always been the case.   History is replete with precarious times like these, when Jewish People feel endangered and vulnerable; but for most of Jewish history, we haven’t had an Israel, a place of refuge and safety for all Jews.  

The recently established fact of the Abraham Accords—marking the warming relations and thawing hostilities between Israel and a significant number of Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—is another blessing worth acknowledging and even celebrating.  The relationship between Israel and these Arab nations is surely being tested now, but it’s still holding strong, which is noteworthy and deserving of our gratitude.  In fact, earlier this week, an Iftar celebration of break-the-fast marking the end of Ramadan was held in Washington, DC, and Israelis, Bahrainis, Emiratis, and Morrocans all showed up at the table.   And even as the rockets fly from Gaza into Israel, and violence consumes the streets of towns and cities in Israel with mixed Arab and Jewish population, these countries continue to sit at the same table with Israel.  This represents a meaningful and positive shift in the balance of power in the region, and in Israel not feeling abandoned as it defends itself.

So that’s our Hakarat Ha-Tov, our recognition of the good.

Now for the hard stuff.  

  • We are allowed to be upset at the factors that led Israelis and Palestinians into this horrific situation, for which there is blame to be shared on both sides.  Indeed, I believe that Judaism’s insistence on acknowledging the humanity of the person who disagrees with you—even your sworn enemy—requires that we acknowledge that both Israelis and Palestinians, and especially leaders of both peoples, should be held accountable for moral failures that caused the current conflict to escalate, when it likely could have been tempered.
    • To wit, the dangers of fanaticism have been on full display leading up to, and during, the present exchange of rockets and military counterstrikes, and in the mob violence between fanatical groups of Jews and Arabs in some of Israel’s mixed-population towns.  Again, the dangers of religious and nationalistic extremism have been brought to the fore by both Israelis and Palestinians, and, to my outrage, by certain religious and political leaders of both.
    • Moreover, you’d have to lack a heart, you’d have to lack a soul, not to be moved by what’s happening both in the streets in Israel and on the ground in Gaza.  It is absolutely heart-wrenching.  Let us never dehumanize even our enemies by characterizing them as “collateral damage.”  God’s children in Gaza are hurt and suffering and too many already have been killed.  God’s children in Israel are hurt and suffering and too many already have been killed; and, what’s more, an entire population feels terrorized by the current onslaught.

Which takes me to my main point tonight:

Now that more than 2,000 rockets have been fired into sovereign Israeli territory — fired indiscriminately on Jews, Muslims, Christians, and on plenty of people who don’t care about religion, all of them, together, the citizens of Israel; now that Hamas has targeted Israeli homes, kibbutzim, schools, hospitals, densely populated cities, with Hamas’s singular, unchanging goal, which is to kill as many Israelis as possible, and to terrorize and traumatize those it cannot kill—then our calculus must change.  

Let me be perfectly clear.  You don’t fire thousands of rockets toward civilian targets—at Tel Aviv and Ashkelon and Jerusalem—if your goal is to seek justice for the provocations of Sheikh Jarrah or Al-Aqsa, much less if your goal is peace or two states for two peoples.  You don’t use foreign aid money that should have been spent on desperately needed humanitarian assistance toward the building up of an infrastructure of terror—building tunnels whose sole purpose is to convey militants into sovereign Israeli territory to carry out kidnappings and killings—if your objective is Palestinian self-determination and an end to the enterprise of settlements in the occupied West Bank, for example. We must remain clear-eyed and level-headed about what Hamas is after, which, as its own charter declares, is the destruction of the Jewish State.  And its rocket barrage can only be understood as a means toward that end.  Even if Hamas knows it cannot inflict a military defeat on Israel, it can demoralize a population, earn the sympathy of much of the world by calling attention to themselves as victims, portray Israel’s leaders as both callous and ineffectual, and, further, raise Hamas’s own stock among Palestinians, including in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority, their political rivals, are increasingly seen as weak and ineffectual. 

And as for Hamas, it’s important to realize that they have already “won” in terms of accomplishing their short-term objectives:

  • They’ve demonstrated that they have the ability to send rockets into Israel’s capital.
  • They’ve reasserted their own power and relevance, and underscored the irrelevance/weakness of Fatah (the Palestinian Authority, or PA).

So now, Israel sees its own need to re-assert its deterrence capabilities by degrading Hamas’s abilities to inflict further damage.

Let us acknowledge with appreciation, as well, that the Biden administration has been very strong in supporting and defending Israel in this campagin, against intense pressure both internationally and domestically.  Biden and his team have been pushing back on pressures for Israel to “stand down”; and we can expect for these pressures—whether from countries like Norway, or Tunisia, or the UN, or from within the left flank of the Democratic Party—to continue. 

But invariably, this is how this conflict will end—be it in a matter of days, weeks, or more:

Hamas will launch a final barrage of rockets and declare victory.

Israel will declare that it has also achieved “victory,” at least by accomplishing its military objectives—to degrade Hamas’s ability to inflict damage.  And perhaps when both parties are nearing that point, they’ll be open to a cease-fire, probably one proposed by a foreign ally and supported by the United States.

That much is clear enough.

But how things “end” here in the US is a different matter:

  • We may not be fighting “on the ground” with weapons, but we American Jews are most certainly part of a fight over the narrative.
    • This is a fight between people who want to blunt America’s support for Israel and people who want to bolster it.
      • The first sign of trouble in Congress is when we see our friends going quiet, or “hedging” their bets.  Observe Andrew Yang, who, earlier this week spoke out strongly in support of Israel, and then bowed to pressure to walk his comments back.
  • Political activism is something that each of us, members of WRT, people who care about Israel and who care about our civic engagement, can flex, individually and collectively.  We have elected officials who need to hear from us now.
    • On that subject, please remember that our goal—whatever our political leanings or affiliations—should never be to vilify members of the “other” political party, but rather to shore up support for a pro-Israel Congress and a pro-Israel approach to foreign policy from our elected officials.
  • And finally:  above all, we need to remind ourselves that EMPATHY can co-exist with MORAL CLARITY, but that the two are not interchangeable with each other.  Our hearts can break for every single one of the Palestinians who have been killed, maimed, and who are suffering, and yet we still are able to understand why Israel cannot, from a moral standpoint, tolerate indiscriminate rocket attacks aimed at terrorizing, traumatizing, injuring and killing its citizens.

My friends, I want to leave you with what we call in Hebrew a nechemta, a word of comfort for these harrowing hours.  The following meditation was composed by my dear friend Lisa Grushcow, Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in Montreal.  She says so much of what’s in my heart right now, and I am grateful to share her words with you.

Reflections on Israel by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Friends, my heart is heavy.

Nothing I say here could – or should – influence what is happening in Israel and Gaza.

What I can say is this:

For friends and family running to bomb shelters, I am praying for your safety.

For those who have no bomb shelters to run to, I am praying for your safety too.

For progressive Jews outside Israel, feeling dismayed at some of the Israeli government actions which helped spark this flame, and also feeling betrayed by the anti-Semitism they are seeing all around them, I hear you and am here for you.

For Jews of all political stripes, we hold our breath together for the land that we love, knowing our destinies are intertwined.

For Muslim dialogue partners and friends, I know we are probably getting our news from very different places, and feeling very different emotions.

Whatever those differences, our work of building bridges goes on. 

May this time, which is usually one of celebration for both our faiths, help us hold onto hope. 

I am not trying to cover all my bases, or say everything that could be said. But I am privileged to have a wide range of people in this space, and I am grateful for all of you, especially in times like these.

Be strong and of good courage, friends.

Why We Chai

SERMON:  CHAI SOCIETY SHABBAT 5781

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

APRIL 23, 2021 – SHABBAT ACHAREI MOT-KEDOSHIM

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Many ubiquitous Jewish practices have obscure origins.  Take, for instance, the eating of hamantaschen on Purim, a custom nowhere discussed in the Torah, Talmud, or even the Book of Esther.  Rather, it seems that hamantaschen’s association with Purim comes by way of a pun—and not a particularly good one at that—from the Medieval German cookies known as mohn-taschen, or poppy-pockets — mohn, poppyseed, and, taschen, pockets— which, I guess, kind of sounds like Haman-taschen, which, I guess, kind of sounds like it comes from the wicked Haman, or Haman.

Or take the custom of reciting your loved ones’ names on yahrzeit—the so-called “Kaddish list.”  Not only is this custom nowhere found in the classical literature, it even seems to have provoked the consternation of a great many Rabbis, some of whom, around the 10th Century, tried to outlaw communities from reading the names of their dead.  These Rabbis likened the practice to consulting the spirits of the dead, which the Torah directly outlaws as idolatry—in this week’s Torah portion, as a matter of fact (Leviticus 19:31). 

Only after much stern letter-writing, most of which went totally ignored, did the opposing Rabbis finally relent, conceding that naming our loved ones before Kaddish had become so popular and widespread that it was no longer a fringe custom but rather a mainstream Jewish practice.  And so it remains, a thousand years later.

And here’s one more for us to consider on this Chai Society Shabbat, which is the wearing of a chai medallion.  The word chai means “living” or “alive” (technically, not “life,” although that’s how it’s usually translated; “life” in Hebrew is the plural form, Chayim). On Chai Society Shabbat, WRT recognizes congregants who have affiliated with WRT for eighteen years or more and who are, despite it all, still very much alive—18 being the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai, comprised of the letters Chet (the 8th letter in the aleph-bet) and Yod (the 10th letter in the aleph-bet).  

And this, as you well may know, is why Jews tend to give monetary gifts in denominations of eighteen.  But have you ever considered the custom of wearing a chai as a piece of jewelry?  Wearing a chai necklace is as Jewish as gefilte fish and rugelach (both of which also have obscure origins).  The prominent display of a chai around the neck has also become something of a kind of pop-culture shorthand for “overtly Jewish,” especially in Hollywood, where the larger the medallion, the more shiny the gold (always gold!), the more unbuttoned the lapel, and the more hirsute the torso of the wearer, the better, or so it seems.  

Canadian rapper Drake has shown off his Jewish pride by wearing a prominent chai during publicity shoots.  It has even spread beyond the Jewish People to include some celebrity chai-wearers who adopted the practice, perhaps, out of an emotional affinity for Judaism, or for good luck, or as a chutzpahdik fashion statement.  These include late-period Elvis Presley, who never met a piece of bling he didn’t like, and baseball Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew, who had a Jewish wife and kids but who never converted to Judaism himself.

In any case, nowhere in Torah, Talmud, or Midrash do we find any mention of wearing a chai.  The Forward’s resident linguistics columnist posits that wearing a chai as an amulet around the neck probably originated in the second half of the 20th century, out of a belief that the word chai confers upon the wearer some life-saving or protective benefit — that is to say, it’s a superstition.

Even the custom of venerating the word chai may be as recent as the 18th century, which, in Jewish-historical terms, is very recent, indeed. 

There’s a reason, however, that our tradition lionizes certain words and phrases, among them, chai, shalom,” and “Shema Yisrael,” as well as certain non-verbal symbols and images, like the Magen David (Star of David), the menorah, and even the hamsa which is a good-luck charm whose origins may go all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia.  These utterances and images function as powerful reminders of what our religious tradition values:  whether the light of sacred service in the ancient temple (the menorah), or the value of simply being alive (the word chai).

As it turns out, the fascination with chai may originate in a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.  That verse, Leviticus chapter 18, verse 5, says:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃ 

You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which a person shall live [Heb., “va-chai bahem”]. I am Adonai.

The straightforward, idiomatic meaning of these words seems clear enough:  You should “live by” the laws of God, where the words “live by” simply mean “to follow” or “observe.”  

But the Rabbis rarely stuck to straightforward, idiomatic readings of anything, and it is the specific use of the word chai, as in va-chai ba-hem, that a person should live by the rules of the Torah, that the Babylonian Talmud expounds as signifying that the laws of the Torah are specifically for the purpose of living, and not dying (Sanhedrin, 74).

The 18th Century Moroccan Rabbi fittingly known as the “Or Ha-Chayim,” meaning “The Light of Life,” after his popular commentary on the Torah, explains that the point of including the words “va-chai bahem,” “and live by them,” is that “if a Jew is forced to violate one of God’s commandments, better to violate such a commandment than to accept martyrdom.”  

With very few exceptions, it is always preferable for a Jew to save a life (his, hers, or someone else’s) than to accept death.  Judaism does not encourage us to become martyrs for our faith—a meaningful contrast to Christianity and Islam, both of which have prominent pro-martyrdom themes and sects running throughout their tradition and history.  Consider Jesus, the ultimate martyr for his faith, in one way of looking at things, and the central role that martyrdom plays in Christian art, iconography, literature, and belief and you will detect a stark contrast with Judaism, where, in general, martyrdom is frowned upon.  The Talmud goes on to say that a person may violate any and all of the mitzvot in order to save life, with the exception of murder, sexual crimes, and idolatry.  In general, Judaism prefers its faithful to live by their faith, not to die by it—va-chai bahem.   

Further, Judaism insists that our obligation to life almost always exceeds our obligation to law.  Take, for instance, our admonition notto fast on Yom Kippur if doing so may jeopardize one’s health.  And yet, every year, people unwisely choose to fast, even at great personal risk.  I assure you that Halakha, Jewish law, would prefer you full but alive to hungry but dead.  

Judaism is a tradition of life and its life-affirming commandments are for the living.  Judaism teaches that every day we are alive is a day to do mitzvot, a day to do a little good, a day to leave the world a little bit better.  Every day, that is, is an exercise in affirming and sustaining life. 

This year of pandemic living, this turbulent year of injustice and unrest, has, for me, underscored the relevancy of our verse, “va-chai bahem,” which conveys Judaism’s insistence on the preciousness of life and the priority of the Jewish obligation to safeguard it.

This is why, from a Jewish perspective, the threefold guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd strikes me as so significant.  

Above all, this verdict affirmed what Judaism has been saying all along:  that each life carries intrinsic, infinite worth; that each life is immeasurably precious in the eyes of God.  This same tradition proclaims in the Talmud that one who snuffs out the life of another has murdered a world entire, and that one who saves one life has saved the world entire (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 37a).  

When we affirm, as the Torah does in its very first chapter, that humankind is made in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27), it means that we are committed to the precept that Black lives matter as much as everyone else’s lives.  

When we affirm that humankind is made in the Divine image, it follows that to destroy the life of one is to desecrate the God of all.  It also follows that God’s image on earth can never be fully realized, our human potential never fulfilled, our uniquely American sins, wounds, and traumas originating in Black slavery never remedied, never healed, until we come to experience the justice that was rendered on Tuesday as the ordinary course of events in a world that puts chai at the center, in a world that venerates life, which urges every human being born to live, to thrive—not merely to exist but to live;   to elevate the act of living to an art; to infuse life with joy and purpose and transformative power.

Judaism does not espouse a laissez-faire attitude about matters of life and death.  

Judaism does not think that one Black man suffocated beneath the knee, and far too many other Black men and women, boys and girls, dead at the hands of law enforcement, is just a problem for Black people or communities of color.  Justice denied one is justice deprived all.  One life murdered is a world destroyed.

Judaism does not consider two million dead to Covid, more than half a million of them our fellow citizens, is an acceptable tradeoff for stubbornly insisting on “business as usual.”  These are extraordinary times that demand an extraordinary commitment to chai.

Judaism would also admonish us that it did not have to be this way; that it still does not have to be this way, with the dead and the dying piling up even as the vaccine stockpile gets used.  With still too many fellow citizens dying day by day in mass shootings even as our elected officials sit on their hands.  With still too many people who have reason to fear law enforcement more than to revere it, conditioned by experience to believe that the firearm intended to protect lives will instead rob them of theirs.  With still too many of these same people, many of them from communities of color, among the most likely to get sick, and suffer, and die, as the pandemic continues to rage.  

Judaism would, invite us, in every instance, to take the words va-chai bahem as if our lives depended on them, because they do.  

That beautiful chai around your neck may show off your Jewish pride, but it won’t save your life or anyone else’s.  If we really want to save lives, sustain lives, protect lives, there are things we can do right here and now:  

  • continue to follow public health guidelines;
  • fight for sensible legislation to curb mass gun violence;
  • stand up to make sure that the Chauvin verdict will not be the only one of its kind;
  • remember that this verdict provides accountability for a single crime, not justice for a battered population; much less a solution for a broken system;
  • give tzedakah, give food, give blood, give facts, give life-sustaining assistance to support the needy whose lives have become even more perilous during the pandemic; 
  • and please put the health and safety of others—particularly the nearly four out of five of your fellow citizens who are still unvaccinated—at the forefront of every consideration.

We may understandably give thanks to God for the so-called “gift” of life.  But every day we are alive, the responsibility to preserve, prolong, and promote what life is in our hands.  

As is written:  “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).  

Life is not only a gift from God.  Life is a choice that God charges us to keep choosing, steadfastly and unceasingly, for ourselves, for every other human being made in the divine image…

…this day, and every day.  Amen.

Don’t Look Back? An Election Week Sermon for Shabbat Vayera, 5781

Friday, November 6, 2020

Don’t look back.

If we learn anything from the sad tale of Lot’s wife—recounted in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera—it is this:  Don’t look back.

Perhaps a little recap is in order:

Our story concerns the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, two of the five “Cities of the Plain” that, the Bible tells us, were located in the Jordan Valley, near the Dead Sea.  If you’ve ever visited the region, you will recall a landscape as barren as any on Earth:  fierce desert heat; a body of water so glutted with salt that nothing can survive; jagged outcroppings at every turn; and the all-pervasive stink of sulfur.  The last time I led a temple trip to Israel, we had to re-route our visit to the Dead Sea on account of a mysterious sinkhole that appeared out of nowhere and threatened to swallow up any hapless passersby, tour bus and all.  It is a wasteland of wreckage and ruin; a desolate wilderness that surely fueled the Biblical imagination.

Sodom and Gomorrah were bad places.  How bad?  When I think of Sodom and Gomorrah, I call to mind Obi Wan Kenobi’s grim appraisal of Mos Eisley Spaceport on the desert planet of Tattooine: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”  

How bad were Sodom and Gomorrah?  Think 2020, but worse.  Cruelty, arrogance, and mendacity ruled the land.  Rabbinic legend is replete with references to the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah as greedy, self-absorbed, and particularly suspicious of, and inhospitable to, immigrants and foreigners.  In this week’s parasha, an angry mob assembles at the doorstep of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, threatening to assault those inside, all because Lot had the audacity to harbor two visitors.  Lot begs the mob to leave the men alone; appallingly, he even offers up his two daughters instead.  Such was the effect that Sodom and Gomorrah seemed to have on its residents. 

God prepares to do away with these cities of sin, but first discloses the apocalyptic plan to Abraham, who pushes back:  “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent along with the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25) 

A famous round of bargaining ensues.  Abraham persuades God to spare the cities for the sake of just fifty innocent people, should they find them, then forty, thirty, twenty, even ten.  

How bad were Sodom and Gomorrah?  So bad that not even ten righteous souls can be counted.  God’s plan proceeds.  The wayfarers whom Lot had sheltered overnight turn out to be divine messengers.  After repelling the fevered mob, they all hunker down for the night.  The next morning they bring Lot outside.  “… And one said, ‘Flee for your life!  Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away!’” (Gen. 19:17)  

Lot and his family make their escape while God rains down sulfurous fire on the cities and all the surrounding farmland.  The Torah describes the scene as one of utter devastation, with “the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln” (Gen. 19:28).  

Lot’s wife turns around and immediately turns into a pillar of salt.

I think many of us can relate to poor Mrs. Lot.  For the last few days we’ve turned into zombies, our gaze constantly on the election returns, paralyzed, hardly able to do much else.  I’ve been teaching classes online for teens and adults since Wednesday and my cheerful greeting, “How’s everyone doing?” has been met with vacant stares and gape-mouthed mumbles of exhaustion.    

The story of Lot’s wife is a cautionary tale.  The moral?  “Don’t look back.”  Midrash elaborates.  The Rabbis teach that Lot’s wife was punished because in gazing back at the burning cities, she indulged her nostalgia, her longing for the life she was leaving behind—specifically, a life of luxury and ease, but also a life of greed, self-absorption, and inhospitality, as elaborated elsewhere in the legends about Sodom and Gomorrah.  Lot’s wife failed because of her attachment to the status quo, because she fully embraced and did not repudiate the ruinous society she was ordered to leave behind.  

Other midrashim view her more sympathetically.  One fable explains that Lot’s wife looked back anxiously to make sure that her grown daughters had made it out.  And while the Torah never says so, we learn in midrash that Lot’s wife went by the name Edith, or Idit in Hebrew, which comes from a root word meaning “witness.”  Indeed, much interesting folklore has accrued around one particularly evocative geological formation at Mount Sodom near the Dead Sea that everyone, to this day, calls “Lot’s Wife”: 

This formation is one of many rock pillars across the world also nicknamed “Lot’s Wife,” including one in Dover, England and another in Singapore.  The difference is that the one in Israel is made of halite, or rock salt.  There she stands, a forlorn testament to the obliteration of her home.  Like salt itself, a preservative that allows food to be eaten long after it should have expired, Lot’s wife remains frozen in time, fixed, unmoving and unmoved.  A witness.

Whether we sympathize with Lot’s wife or disapprove of her, the Torah clearly wishes for us to learn from her example.  Consider that, in the Torah, every time the Israelites fail to move forward, they suffer.  Time and again they complain to their leaders that they’d rather go back to Egypt than to the great land and destiny that God has in store for them.  Time and again, God punishes them for their backward gaze.  

Don’t look back.  Don’t dwell on what has passed.  We have endured an excruciating election season and a period of partisan rancor unseen in generations.  Let’s move forward.  This is no time to wallow in endless recrimination and reprisals.  If you are hurting from this election, it’s time to stop longing for the past and move forward.  If you are pleased with the results, now is no time to gloat or re-litigate old grievances.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom.  

The Gap—the casual clothing chain—capitalized on this theme the day after the election with the following tweet:

The image depicts a Gap hoodie, one side blue, the other side red, joined at the zipper, with the caption, “The one thing we know is that together, we can move forward.” 

The backlash was swift and merciless.  Twitter users went ballistic, blasting the brand, according to Time Magazine, “for appearing to gloss over polarizing political divides—divides that were dramatically clear in the lead-up to the 2020 election—in service of marketing. It was also confirmed that the sweatshirt was not an item actually for sale.”

“The message might have seemed noncontroversial,” the report continued, “but in many ways the reaction to the tweet illustrated just how deep American wounds run. Feel-good messages of unity, once considered bland and unremarkable, have become themselves the subject of division.”

Less than two hours—and close to a million views—later, The Gap pulled the offending tweet and published the following message:

“From the start we have been a brand that bridges the gap between individuals, cultures and generations. The intention of our social media post, that featured a red and blue hoodie, was to show the power of unity. It was just too soon for this message. We remain optimistic that our country will come together to drive positive change for all.”

I’m not sure I’m ready to hire The Gap’s marketing director, but I think it was a pretty good save—and one that comments better than just about any cable news pundit on the meaning of this moment.  

And what is the meaning of this moment?  We learn from the tragedy of Lot’s wife that  danger lurks in looking back; but we also know from our own experience—from our heads as well as our guts—that it’s premature to move forward.  Where does that leave us?

The answer, of course, is, here:  in the uncomfortable—dare I say painful—present.  In an America that is, for all intents and purposes, as bitterly divided today as it was last Monday, and will so remain tomorrow and, conceivably, for much time to come.  

To think otherwise would be naïve.  Twenty-five years ago this past Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in cold blood at a peace rally organized to bolster his efforts to pursue a two-state solution with the Palestinians.  Rabin had hoped to show his country that millions of Israelis still supported the peace process, which had in the months prior to the assassination been assailed by protests and sporadic violence perpetrated by both Palestinians and Israelis.  

Any such hopes were dashed by the two bullets fired into the 73-year old Prime Minister’s arm and back by a 27-year old Jewish law student and religious extremist named Yigal Amir who was immediately arrested by Israeli police.  At his arraignment, Amir explained that he murdered Rabin because he planned “to give our country to the Arabs.”  

Only after the assassination did it begin to dawn on most Israelis that their country had become irreconcilably divided.  Only after the assassination did most Israelis undertake a kind of collective soul-searching which continues to this day, a quarter-century later, in a country still scarred by Rabin’s murder, still divided along ideological lines, but perhaps more wary of the danger of political and religious fanaticism.  

At the time, in November of 1995, I was a first-year rabbinical student renting a small apartment in Jerusalem just three blocks from the Prime Minister’s residence. 

I have seen with my own eyes what can happen when a nation fails to acknowledge its own brokenness. 

I am a witness.  

So let us take the time and make the effort to recognize and reckon with the import of this moment.  We may have a new President come January, but we should not conclude that all that much has changed.  Let’s sit, for a moment or longer, in the stuck-ness of the now, in the right where we are:  perhaps not pining for the past, but hardly ready to march arm-in-arm into the future.  Let’s each be a witness to the tattered state of our Union:  a union divided, a union still without a clear direction.

The outcome of the battle for this presidency may appear, at least for the moment, close to decided, but the outcome of the battle for the soul of our country remains very much an open question.  By “battle for the soul of our country,” I refer to the unresolved questions about the character and direction of our nation, issues of dramatic significance not just for us as Americans but for us as Jews, because they touch on so many issues about which Judaism offers its wisdom and raises its voice.  Questions such as these:

  • At a time of a devastating global pandemic, what will be our approach to public health and safety?
  • As we grapple with a concomitant economic crisis, what will we do to ensure the financial viability and dignity of workers and all who depend on our economy for their livelihoods?
  • At a time where the effects of climate change become more undeniable with each passing week, each new devastating fire or hurricane, what will we do to address the devastating human impact on our fragile planet?
  • At a time when we are having a hard time telling facts from fiction, truth from conspiracy theories, what will be the role of science and rigorous investigation in shaping policy?
  • How can we create a society founded on mutual interest when we remain so divided over the role of racism in providing opportunity to some while denying it to others?  
  • How will we regard the immigrant, the refugee, the foreigner who comes to our country seeking safety, opportunity, or both?
  • How will we safeguard the liberties of all people, especially at time when communities of color fear rising hostility, Jews fear rising anti-Semitism, Muslims fear rising Islamophobia, and the LGBTQ+ community fears rising homophobia and transphobia?
  • At a time when we are more divided than ever about the role of guns in our society, how will we deal with the fact that, every day, more than 100 Americans are killed with guns and 200 more are shot and wounded?
  • What will be our orientation to the rest of the world, toward countries both friendly and hostile to our interests?  How will we even define these interests, going forward?
  • What kind of relationship will we pursue with Israel and its role—and our role—in the Middle East?  

I share these vexing questions with you in the context of a Shabbat sermon because I believe that Judaism offers us the opportunity to join an age-old conversation filled with relevant wisdom that does not follow this or that political party, but which also does not allow us the luxury of disinterest on urgent public matters.  As the Rabbis wrote in Pirkei Avot, “al tifrosh min ha-tzibur”:  “Do not withdraw from the public” (Mishna, Avot 2:5).  

Or, as I remind my students:  Judaism isn’t only that thing you do when you’re in synagogue, or only when you’re around a holiday table at home.  Judaism is a comprehensive way of looking at, and responding to, the world.  Inasmuch as “politics” refers to our public lives, “the total complex of relations between people living in society” (as per Merriam-Webster), then Judaism most certainly has a voice to bear on these important matters, one that we can, and should, bring to our civic engagement.  

And as we remain stuck in this tense and tumultuous moment in the life of our nation, let us also affirm that, at WRT, our values remain steadfast—no matter who’s in the White House or Congress. 

Presidents, Representatives, Senators—they come and go. 

But our Jewish values abide:  

In the name of pikuach nefesh, the mitzvah of saving life and preserving life, WRT will continue to do all that we can to protect and promote the health, safety, and security of our congregation, community, nation, and world—especially in the face of this pandemic, and in a climate of rising hostility against Jewish communities.

In the spirit of tzedakah—righteous action on behalf of the disadvantaged—and with a particular eye toward the challenges of today’s economy—WRT will not discriminate against anyone who wishes to participate in the life of our congregation on account of financial need.

In the spirit of Reform Judaism, which grew out of the Enlightenment, and in accordance with the teachings of Maimonides, we will strive to “accept truth from whatever source it comes,” and to pay particular heed to how science and fact must inform all our pursuits, including spiritual pursuits.  Ours is not a blind faith but rather what the great Jewish theologian Hermann Cohen proudly called “a religion of reason.”

In accordance with the Torah’s oft-repeated mandate to acknowledge and address the plight of the widow, the stranger, the orphan, the immigrant, and the refugee, WRT will continue to respond to the needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable people and groups.

In keeping with Reform Judaism’s unwavering commitment to equality, WRT will insist on justice and inclusion for all of God’s children, regardless of ability, age, gender, sexual orientation, background, faith, or skin color.  

In the interest of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, WRT will always remind us that we are part of a global community, with special ties to Israel—and therefore special responsibilities to safeguard, support, and invest in the physical, spiritual, and moral vitality of the world’s only Jewish State. 

In the name of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world—we will strive to transform the world as it is into the world as it ought to be. 

It is my hope and prayer that, with these principles to guide us, WRT will provide us with sufficient strength, inspiration, and shared commitments to move us forward, out of the stuckness of the present, our gaze, with God’s help, ever on the horizon.    

Shabbat Shalom

Masks – Yizkor, Yom Kippur 5781

September 28, 2020

Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York

When the story of 2020 is told, some day long from now, we will see a picture of the total devastation wrought by Covid-19, painted in stark and staggering numbers.  

What may not come through so clearly will be the spiritual and psychological toll it has inflicted.  How do you measure the pain of a millionfold broken hearts?  How do you describe the collective loneliness of human beings deprived of human contact, of sleepless nights thinking about a faraway loved one facing a life-threatening disease, or the terror of slipping away without a hand to hold, without a kiss on the forehead, without a proper goodbye?  

Enforced distance compounds our loss.  And the wearing of masks—while a simple, necessary, lifesaving measure—has imposed on us yet another dimension of distance, another layer of loss.  What used to be a rare neurological condition called “Face Blindness”—the inability to recognize or remember peoples’ faces—has now become a societal syndrome.  I sometimes feel embarrassed when I don’t recognize a congregant’s face behind the mask, even one familiar to me over many years; I console myself with the knowledge that we are all in the same boat.    

I also console myself in the knowledge that you wear your mask to protect me, and I wear my mask to protect you.  And when I do, I also get to wear–with affection and admiration–one of the many beautiful and highly functional masks that Kelly has sewn during the past six months.  Never having before touched a sewing machine, necessity did indeed become the mother of invention over these months of quarantine, and Kelly took to the art and craft of sewing masks with characteristic alacrity.  

She had an assist in the form of a congregant, who, after a pandemic spring cleaning, dropped off a real warhorse of a sewing machine of around 70 years’ vintage, and with a great back story, too.  His mother, a talented seamstress, had used it to sew Mamie Eisenhower’s celebrated 1953 Inaugural ball gown, a gorgeous pink peau de soie dress designed by Nettie Rosenstein and embroidered with more than 2,000 rhinestones.  In any case, I am grateful not only for my many masks’ protective benefits, but also for their sartorial stylishness.  (As most of you who know me already know, I never met an accessory I didn’t like.)   

Turns out that the word mask also has a fascinating backstory.  It derives from the Italian maschera, but may also be related to the Arabic word maskhara, which means “mockery” or “buffoonery,” and which is preserved in the English word mascara.  There is a fine line, it would seem, between putting on makeup and putting on a disguise, between dressing up and dressing to deceive.

And then there’s the curious story of the Hebrew word for mask, masecha, which may or may not be related.  What we do know is that the Torah uses this word, מסכה, when it discusses molten or graven images:  idols, like the Golden Calf, which in the Torah is called Egel Masecha.  That unholy relic was a counterfeit, a decoy god, and so its name is fitting.  A mask, after, is all a kind of lie:  a false front, a deception.   

Masks hide, conceal, obfuscate.  In Shakespeare, masks figure prominently in comedies that traffic in cases of mistaken identity.  In Melville, the mask is a metaphor for the way in which the physical world conceals deeper truths that always elude us.  While Ahab’s rage is externally projected onto Moby-Dick, the white whale, what Ahab really hates is the uncertainty, the mystery, the inscrutability lurking in the heart of existence.  “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks,” he fumes.  “But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”  In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the mask—particularly the mask of blackface—symbolizes how society imposes an artificial and grotesque identity on Black Americans.   

But today is no day for disguises, no time for hiding.  Today is Yom Kippur, a day for stripping away all pretenses, dropping the armor we carry into the world, standing before God and humankind and ourselves with total honesty.  We come as we are.  We take off our masks.  

I think of Eleanor Rigby, that indelible character in the Beatles song that bears her name; she, like so many of us, just one among “all the lonely people,” “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” 

“All the lonely people; where do they all belong?”

On this Yom Kippur, we do not have to stretch our imaginations to conjure up images of lonely people wondering where they belong.  We are witnesses to a whole world of people who have had to confront being alone, and in too many cases, there have been none to comfort them. 

If you have come to Yom Kippur seeking comfort, trying to access your intimate personal relationship to God, then now is your moment, during Yizkor, to remember people that you have loved and who loved you, who remind you of your best self. 

“All the lonely people; where do they all belong?”  On this Yom Kippur—and especially at this hour of Yizkor—they belong here.  We belong here, we, especially, who have been marked by loss, and touched by grief.  We come here with our masks removed:  exposed, vulnerable.  

Back in prehistoric times, by which I mean February of this year (I refer to anything pre-pandemic as prehistoric, for so it feels, and might as well be), Kelly and I availed ourselves of an opportunity to travel to Egypt with a delegation of rabbis.  Among the many eye-popping artifacts on display in The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, right behind our hotel in Cairo, were a number of ancient funeral masks, including that of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun or King Tut.  Such a mask was believed to strengthen the spirit of the mummy and guard the king’s soul from evil spirits on its way to the afterworld.

By contrast, Jewish tradition declares that death is the greatest unmasking of them all.  We traditionally bury our dead, unembalmed, in plain shrouds and unadorned boxes, so as to declare that all the stuff we accumulate in life, even the physical stuff of our bodies, matters not at all when compared to the spiritual attainment of a good name and a life of loving good deeds.  

We mourn for all the stuff behind the mask, beneath the veneer.  We continue to love our dead at this Yizkor hour precisely because these are the ones who let us in behind the mask.  We knew them for who they truly were, in all their contradiction and complexity.  The rest of the world got to see a persona:  another wonderful word, taken directly into English from Latin.  That word also means “mask”:  the public figure; the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.  But we saw the essence beneath the mask, and our lives were made so much the more rich, more relevant, more real, for that reveal.  

Others saw persona.  We beheld character—a word that means, “deeply etched.”  The stuff that cuts deep and true.  

Today we stand before God in that place where no masks are worn and only truth is spoken.  We pour out our souls before the altar of a God whose compassion for the wounded, the bereaved, knows no bounds, who loves us just the way we are, including our own broken hearts; the God who asks of us only one thing:  that, for the sake of all whom we have loved and lost, we keep on living.  

Let us acknowledge with special sympathy all those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 and its related impact; those who had to let go without being able to hold a family member’s hand, with only a computer screen for connection and consolation.  In this time of so much death, so much loss, we stand with you on this Yom Kippur, unmasked in our anguish, sharing the pain and bewilderment that the past year has inflicted on every feeling heart and every caring soul.

God:  Do not hide your face, even when, in order to be safe, we must hide ours.

Turn us, God, to your face, on this day where nothing is hidden.  We pray:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃

May God bless you and protect you.

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May God’s face shine light on you, and be gracious to you.

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God’s countenance be lifted up to you, and give you peace.

Other? or Brother? Yom Kippur Morning, 5781

September 28, 2020

Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York

Let me tell you about my brother, Jacob.

Though we share the same last name, we could not be more different:  

I am forty-seven.  He is twenty-nine, eighteen years my junior.

I live in the Northeast and he lives in the Midwest.

I am named Moshe in Hebrew, for my late grandfather, Morris Blake, z’l.  He is named for his late grandfather, the Rev. Jacob Blake Sr., a Civil Rights activist.

I am a Jew. I don’t know anything about my brother Jacob’s religion, what God he prays to, what tribe he affiliates with. We do know that his outspoken father has a dismaying record of making outrageous antisemitic and anti-Christian statements and supporting the notorious antisemite Louis Farrakhan. 

Like I said, my brother and I could not be more different. 

I am White, and my brother is Black.  

And right now, I am standing on my own two feet, while Jacob Blake is  paralyzed from the waist down, having taken seven bullets to the back, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23rd.  

Blake is, of course, only one in a long list of names of Black men and women brutalized by law enforcement, a list that includes George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Daniel Prude, and so many, so many names before theirs.  

I come here today not to acquit or convict, although I would remind us, that in America—as in Judaism—extrajudicial killings violate the law, even when a person is suspected of a crime.

No, today I bring a different message, one for the Day of Reckoning, this day of Yom Kippur.  There will be other days to talk about what’s broken and needs mending in our politics, what’s broken and needs mending in our system of policing, what’s broken and needs mending in our public discourse.  But today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Today, I want to talk about what’s broken in my heart, what needs mending in our humanity.   

Today, I want to talk about brothers.     

Now, brothers are all over the Bible, and it would be an understatement to say that the business between and among Biblical brothers can get complicated.  Cain murders the first brother, Abel, in a frenzy of jealousy and then rages back at God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)—a question that God never directly answers but which echoes throughout the Torah, down to the present day.  

Ishmael and Isaac, common sons of Abraham, live a life estranged.  The bitter rivalry of fraternal twins, Jacob and Esau, occupies ten full chapters of the Book of Genesis.  And what can we say about Joseph and his brothers that hasn’t already been sung in an amazing, technicolor Broadway musical?

And then there’s the troubling fact that the Jewish tradition can’t even agree on what the Torah means when it uses the word “brother.” 

Does it mean only a sibling, one who shares the same family unit?  The Book of Leviticus uses the word “brother” much more broadly: 

וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ׃

If your brother falls on hard times, and is unable to support himself in your midst, you should support him as if he were a stranger or sojourner, and let him live among you.

אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ׃

Do not take any profit or interest from him, but rather, act out of reverence for God and let him live by your side as your brother (Lev. 25:35-36).

Clearly, what’s meant here is something more than a literal sibling; we’re talking about a person in need, whom the Torah considers more like a resident alien who has become poor, requires assistance, and we are expected to do the right thing and treat another human being as part of the family.

Along comes the Book of Deuteronomy with a modified take on “brother.”  The context in which the word appears is similar; we’re still talking about the prohibition against lending at interest or financially exploiting the disadvantaged:

לֹא־תַשִּׁ֣יךְ לְאָחִ֔יךָ נֶ֥שֶׁךְ כֶּ֖סֶף נֶ֣שֶׁךְ אֹ֑כֶל נֶ֕שֶׁךְ כָּל־דָּבָ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִשָּֽׁךְ׃

You shall not deduct interest from loans to your brother, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest;

לַנָּכְרִ֣י תַשִּׁ֔יךְ …:

but you may deduct interest from loans to foreigners (Deut. 23:20-21, emphasis added).

So, by adding one tiny clause, two Hebrew words, l’nochri tashich, “but you may take interest from foreigners,” Deuteronomy implicitly changes the meaning of “brother,” defining it more narrowly.  Your “brother,” it seems to say, means, one of your ownNot a “foreigner.”  Not “other.”  Someone from your tribe.  What we might call in Yiddish, landsman, a fellow Jew, or, even more narrowly, a fellow Jew from the same part of the Old Country, maybe even the same shtetl.  (This same passage, by the way, gives rise to the concept of a “Hebrew Free Loan Society:”  a lending association by Jews, for Jews, specifically developed by already established American Jews to help their landsmen obtain a foothold in the New World.)

This passage also made it possible for Medieval Jews to work as much-reviled moneylenders in Christian Europe, a vocation considered dishonorable for good, God-fearing Christians.  With Deuteronomy’s more narrow read, Jews could lend at interest to Christians, so long as they did not charge interest to their fellow Jews.  (You can imagine how this played out in Christian European society, where antisemitism had already run rampant for centuries, in the worst cases actively sponsored by the Church, and the State, which were often indistinguishable from one another.) 

Still, I am not convinced that what the Torah originally meant by “brother” referred only to one’s own “folk” or “tribe” or “landsman.”  The Book of Leviticus, by not qualifying the term at all—by simply saying, let the needy “live by your side as your brother,” without any special treatment stipulated for fellow Jews, nor exceptions made for non-Jews—suggests to me that, at its most noble and expansive, our Torah tradition sees every human being as our brother, our sister.  

Such a read derives as much from Levitical laws of lending as it does from the Torah’s opening words, which declare that God created humankind B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image.  “Male and female, God created them.”  Every human being, of every color and creed, ethnicity and nationality.  Every human being, of every state and social station, every gender and sexual orientation, every ability and disability.  Every human being, of every size and shape, age and language.  Every human being might be my brother, my sister.  Surely, by beginning with this lofty declaration, the Torah wishes to set out its overarching vision for humanity (cf. Gen. 1:26-27).  

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Cain’s question is still alive.  Each of us must answer with our actions.  

So how shall we respond to the manacled and the maimed, the marginalized and the murdered, when we see their faces on TV?  Do we see them, and think “other?”  Or “brother?”  Stranger?  Or Sister?  Which impulse do we follow?  

Before you answer, let me share with you a Yom Kippur story, from the Yerushalmi, the so-called “Jerusalem Talmud,” which was compiled in the Galilee around the same time that its more famous sibling, the Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, was being written in Babylonia.  It’s a story about a venerated teacher of Torah named Shimon ben Shetach, and it goes like this:  

Shimon ben Shetach was struggling in the cotton business.  His students said:  “Rabbi, … let us buy you a donkey [to ease your travels], so you will not have to work so hard.”  They went and bought a donkey from a Gentile, which had a precious pearl [tucked away in the saddle bag] hanging from its neck.  They returned to [Shimon] gleefully, saying, “With this good luck, you’ll never have to work again!”  When Shimon learned about the pearl, he asked his students whether the Gentile had known of it at the time of sale.  When they said no, he ordered them to return [the jewel] (Talmud Yerushalmi, Bava Metzia, 2:5). 

So far, so good.  Here we have a Master Teacher of Torah living out Torah values.  Shimon assesses a case of potential fraud here—that his students have taken something of value from another person, without the seller’s knowledge—and orders the property returned.  But listen to how his students respond.

Well trained in the intricate study of Jewish texts, Shimon’s disciples know a thing or two about how to argue with their Rabbi.  They quote another teaching right back at him, with an impressive pedigree of Rabbis to back them up.  They retort:

“But did not Rav Huna Bivi bar Gozlon teach, in the name of Rav—and authorized by none other than the great Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi—that even if we agree that outright stealing from a heathen is forbidden, nonetheless, appropriating his lost property is totally permitted?”  

Now, Shimon’s students are no dummies.  They are also no saints.  When they made the purchase of the donkey, and found this precious jewel in its saddlebag, don’t you think it occurred to them that keeping it was, well, not exactly kosher?  So they come up with a way to rationalize their decision.  They think to themselves:  “This Gentile, who sold us his donkey–it’s not as if he’s our brother.  He is ‘other.’  What difference does it make if we profit from his loss, especially if he doesn’t even realize what’s happened?  What’s the harm?  And, not only that, do we not have a teaching from some of the most esteemed rabbis who ever lived that suggests that it’s okay to ‘appropriate lost property’ from another person, so long as it’s not a fellow Jew?  Who is this heathen to us, anyway?”  

So they present this legal argument to their Teacher, who loses his patience and exclaims, 

“What?  Who do you think I am, a barbarian?!  I would rather hear [others say], “Blessed be the God of the Jews” than have all the money in the world! (Ibid)

End of story.  You see, Shimon understood that the issue at hand is ethical, not legal.  Shimon cared not only about what was permitted, but also–and more importantly–what was right.  Shimon wanted Jews and Judaism to be not so much smart, or clever, but righteous.

Now, I have promised you that I would “talk about what’s broken in my heart, what needs mending in our humanity,” and we have arrived at the moment of truth.  Because, as I studied the story of Shimon and his disciples, I realized that, no matter how much I wish that our religious tradition would declare unanimously and consistently that the word brother always and forever means any other member of the human family, I arrive at a different conclusion—a more complicated conclusion, a conclusion that requires each of us to search our hearts—which is that Judaism (which rarely gives anything less than two opinions for any big question) offers two competing outlooks, two perspectives at odds with each other:  on the one hand, the universal, to see ourselves first and foremost as part of all humankind; and, on the other hand, the particular, to see ourselves first and foremost as part of a small and specific group of people, one with a unique history and destiny, different from everyone else.

Come to think of it, we Jews need both of these outlooks:  the universal and the particular, the global and the tribal.  Without a tribal outlook, we miss the beauty and power of our specific religious tradition—our Torah, our ways of expressing ourselves, our language and culture and holidays and foods and music, our calendar and our customs, our mores and our mitzvot.  And without a global outlook, we miss the overarching function of Judaism, what the Rabbis called L’taken Olam b’Malchut Shaddai, “to restore the world under the sovereignty of the Divine,” or Tikkun Olam for short.  

With only a tribal outlook, everyone else becomes OtherOnly my fellow Jews are “brother.”  Or, worse, we subdivide ourselves into smaller and smaller clans with pettier and pettier distinctions and definitions.  Only my landsman.  Only the landsman from my shtetl.  Only the ones who affiliate the way I do, Reform or Conservative or Orthodox.  Only the ones who come to Shabbat services or Torah study or Freebirds events or who have the same teacher as my kids.  Only the ones who support Israel the way I do, or who vote the way I do.  They are my brothers. The others are just that, Other.  

Keep this up and we end up like Cain, wiping our hands of our own sibling’s blood.

But the fact remains that Judaism gives us both the choice, and the textual justification, for how we shall view every human being:  either as brother, or other, either as a member of our family, or as part of the human family.  

It’s easy—easy for me; easy, I think, for most of us—to look at Jacob Blake and see Other.  Somewhere along the way, our paths diverged.  His ancestors came to America under very different circumstances from mine.  Both of our great and great-great grandparents were surely persecuted minorities; but our family’s destinies in America took different roads.  

The fact of our shared surname is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a coincidence.  My ancestors did not come to these shores with the name “Blake,” of course.  In the Old Country, it was Blecher, Yiddish for “tinsmith.  When my paternal great-grandfather, Abraham Blecher, emigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century, he arrived through Ellis Island.  Believing that America was a country in which a Jew could openly be a Jew, he determined that he would in fact be a “top Jew”— a Kohen.  

His documentation was altered so that he assumed the surname “Cohen” under which he lived, married, and had children of whom my grandfather, Morris Cohen, was one.  Undeniably bright and ambitious, and having attained a high school diploma, he nonetheless could not find better than menial employment.  He and two brothers, Harold and William, correctly deduced that the name “Cohen” was not an asset in the troubled years of World War II, and had it changed back to the original Blecher with one important modification:  they now shared a surname with a famous non-Jewish English poet.   

Within weeks, Morris Cohen, re-Christened Mo Blake, found employment at the Trenton Pipe & Nipple Company, a vital war industry supplying the Navy, and soon became Plant Superintendent.  

But then again, as Rabbi Reiser taught us in his Rosh Ha-Shanah remarks, American Jews seeking to assimilate into a White, Christian milieu have always had an advantage over our Black brothers and sisters.  Like most American Jews of the post-war Era, my grandparents, parents and I all have benefited from being seen as White.  My family had an opportunity to change their name.  Jacob Blake and his family will never have the opportunity to change the color of their skin.

CODA

So, today, I ask us to reckon with the choice before us:  how, in this new year,  in a world riven by division, will we regard our fellow human beings?  As Other?  Or Brother?  Sister?  Or Stranger?      

I don’t know if asking this question will mend the brokenness in our world.  But I do think we could use this Yom Kippur to work on what’s broken in our hearts.  “If the Earth were your body, you would be able to feel the many areas where it is suffering,” says Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn.  Compassion begins with the awareness of suffering.  Empathy comes from the hurt places in me that recognize the hurt places in you.  

My own broken heart will begin to heal when the world sees the bond between Blakes as deriving from the fundamental fact of our shared humanity, and not the coincidence of our shared surnames.  I began by saying that my brother and I could not be more different.  I conclude by saying that we—brothers and sisters, each of us, all of us—could not be more the same.  Jacob Blake deserves to be standing upright on his own two feet, the same way I stand before you today.  Each one of us deserves to fulfill our human potential as reflections of God, creatures made in the Divine Image.

The essential truth of our existence is this:  that there is only one thing, and we are all it.  

So let us give thanks:  first, to our Jewish tradition, which teaches us the value in perspectives both particular and universal, both local and global.  

Let us give thanks, as well, for having reached another Day of Atonement, still alive, and perhaps a little wiser, a little more humane, and a whole lot more inspired to do God’s work here on earth. 

And let us give thanks, above all, to the Eternal, in whose Unity, every difference becomes part of the grand mosaic of life; in whose totality each one—each individual life, every nerve ending and every ocean, every beating heart and every pulsing star—becomes part of the One.

Blessed be the God of the Jews.

Blessed be the God of the human family.

Blessed be the God of all Creation.

Amen.

A New Covenant: Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning, 5781

September 19, 2020

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York

Suppose someone had come to you this time last year to tell you that something bad was coming:  something earth-shaking, something so cataclysmic that people all over the world, in its wake, would come to understand time itself as riven in two:  Before.  And After.

Suppose, further, that this someone had told you that all hope was not yet lost; that, yes, there was no stopping the disaster—that fate already having been sealed—but that you still had a choice:  to save life—your own and others’—that you had, what’s more, a responsibility:  to warn others, to bring them on board, or, disregarding the warning, to be swept up in the undertow. 

Suppose all this, and you may have an inkling of what it felt like to be Noah.

And yet Noah endured all manner of ridicule.  For 120 years, midrash speculates, he planted and felled trees, over and over, planting and chopping, planting and chopping.  When people asked him what he planned to do with all that gopher wood, Noah told them that he was building an Ark, to escape catastrophe.  But the people ignored him.  They mocked him.  They hurled obscenities at him.  They even resorted to violence.

Noah, undaunted, kept at it.

For fifty-two years, midrash tells us, Noah assembled the Ark, taking his sweet time, the Rabbis reason, so that the people would see him hard at work, repent of their foolishness, and get on board.  But they did not repent, and—needless to say—they did not get on board. (Aggadah, Jewish folklore, records these traditions in various locations.  See Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a-b; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 22; Genesis Rabbah 30:7; Leviticus Rabbah 27:5; and Sefer Ha-Yashar.)

The day came.  The terror arrived with such blinding force that, before long, the waters had covered the tallest mountains, and “all flesh that stirred upon the earth perished:  birds, cattle, beasts, all the creatures that swarmed over the land, and all humankind.  The breath of life was squeezed out of every nostril….  All existence was blotted out… so that only Noah was left, together with the creatures inside the ark” (Gen. 7:22).

There’s a meme circulating the internet depicting Noah’s tempest-tossed Ark, with the caption, “World’s First Quarantined Family.”

Imagine the scene, as perhaps, only now, you can:  The Bible tells us that, in addition to Noah and Mrs. Noah, their three grown children, and all their spouses, all boarded the ark.  Forget the animals; how did Noah’s family get along?

Further, consider this:  When you examine the timeline of the Noah story, a striking detail emerges.  Noah and his crew stayed cooped up in that ark for a whole lot longer than “forty days and forty nights”; that was just the period of rainfall.  The actual time aboard the Ark would tally a year and ten days, all told, and as weeks turned to months, Noah had no idea when it would be safe to disembark.    

So he devised a testing protocol:  he sent out a bird—

a raven—which flitted about to and fro but still found no place to land.

Seven more days and a second bird, this time, a dove: 

וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵאִתּ֑וֹ לִרְאוֹת֙ הֲקַ֣לּוּ הַמַּ֔יִם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃   

He sent forth a dove from himself, to see if the waters had receded from the face of the earth (Gen. 8:8).

Still no place for the bird to land.  So it flew back, perching on Noah’s outstretched hand.  And then:

וַיָּ֣חֶל ע֔וֹד שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וַיֹּ֛סֶף שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה׃

He waited another seven days, and once again, sent forth the dove from the ark (Gen. 8:10). 

This time, success!  The dove came back that same evening, an olive branch in its beak, signifying that the water had come down, at least to the treetops.  It had now been nearly ten months since the start of the flood.

And still Noah played it safe.  Once more he sent out the dove; this time it did not return.  Noah looked around and saw the surface of the earth drying.  And finally, finally—one year and ten days from the first raindrops—Noah, his family, and the remaining survivors of life on earth, took their first cautious steps on terra firma.  In the sky above, a rainbow, and the Voice of God:

I have set my bow in the clouds; it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth (Gen. 9:13). 

To this day, whenever a rainbow appears, we say this blessing:  Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Zocheir Ha-B’rit.  Blessed are You, Sovereign of Creation, who Remembers the Covenant.

So, here we are, this first day of a new year, we Americans more or less exactly half a year into the Great Pandemic of 2020, or, in Noah-terms, perhaps, about halfway through the ordeal.  Who knows?  Maybe it’s more, maybe less.  Even Noah seemed to have a more reliable testing protocol for knowing when it was safe to leave the Ark.    

Today I want to reflect with you on what wisdom Judaism offers for living in a world forever changed by the deluge, and propose that this moment calls for a New Covenant between ourselves and the world.

Like the howl of the shofar piercing the dawn, the period of massive upheaval through which we are living is a cry of alarm, a wake-up call, a hard reset.  It declares:  We need to do so much better at taking care of each other.  Because we’re all on this little Ark together.  

We learn much by studying the Noah story, and, in particular, from the details surrounding the birds that Noah sent forth to survey the waterlogged world.  The raven went to and fro but found no place to land.  Noah then sent out a dove; it returned empty-beaked.  Noah waited another week and sent out the dove a second time.  Only then did the dove’s mission meet with success.  What made the difference?

The first time, the text says וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵאִתּ֑וֹ, that Noah “sent forth the dove me’ito,” literally, “from himself.”  It was Noah’s personal bird, on a personal mission.  Some have even interpreted the dove as Noah’s pet, distinguished from all the other animals.  When Noah sent out the dove me’ito, from himself, the dove came back, and, indeed, came to rest on Noah’s very own, outstretched hand.  

But the second mission is different, by a factor of one Hebrew word:  instead of me’ito, “from himself,” this time Noah sends out the dove min ha-teivah, from the Ark.  The dove now has a greater mission:  not to serve one man, but to serve the entire, fragile, floating ship.  Only when carrying the responsibility for all life, together, does the dove’s mission meet with success, the olive branch in its beak a sign of hope, for all life.

These months we’ve spent cooped up in the Ark have cast in high relief both the greatness of generosity, the nobility of human beings striving for the collective good, and the pettiness of egocentrism, the meanness of human beings striving out of naked self-interest, heedless of the needs of the collective.   

My heart has swelled with appreciation and hope, these months, as heroes in our midst—both lauded and unsung—have exemplified the truest measure of sacrifice, the selflessness that animates true holiness.  

Today we sound a shofar of thanksgiving to all of our healthcare workers, both those on the frontlines of the crisis, who have, day after day, and night after night,  for days and nights on end, donned whatever personal protective equipment available at the time, and ministered to the sick, the dying, the lonely, the scared.  At the end of March, our congregant Darlene LeFrancois, doctor of internal medicine at Montefiore in the Bronx, wrote:  

“The best we can often do is hold a patient’s hand for the minute they pass, as they lie there alone.  Maybe we can ask about a family member we can call before they die.  Acknowledge them by saying their name aloud, and keeping silent for 5 seconds before moving on to the next patient.  When the patient in the next bed dies, you see the terror in the roommate’s eyes.  They know they’re next, and we do too.  Many of these patients have never been sick before, or even ever in a hospital before.”  

Let that shofar sound for all the doctors who continued to practice telemedicine, all the nurses, and aides, and ambulance drivers; the hospital custodians, and clinic workers, and medical technicians swabbing anxious patients’ noses, the phlebotomists and lab techs, and equipment suppliers; all the therapists and social workers who will be tending to broken hearts and despondent thoughts, for a long time to come.  

Let that shofar sound for all the delivery drivers, and the grocery workers, the mail carriers and the childcare providers, the bakers and chefs, the teachers and construction workers and mask-makers and manufacturers of hand sanitizer. 

And, oh!, for all the plumbers and electricians!  (Kelly and I went through two fridge repairs and one dishwasher replacement in the first three months of quarantine and we’re still putting our kitchen through more abuse than ever.)

For all of you who have sent forth a dove of hope and help on behalf of this whole rickety Ark:  thank you.

And yet.

And yet, my heart, which has swelled with admiration at the best of humanity on display, has also—in just a half a year—shrunk in revulsion at some of humanity’s worst, meanest, stupidest, most ignorant, most entitled, most selfish behavior.  

The sound of our shofar has been muted as close to 200,000 American voices have fallen silent in death, an outcome made more horrific, more tragic, because tens–if not hundreds–of thousands of lives could have been saved, potentially millions of deaths across the world, prevented.

And still we fail to buckle down and make the necessary sacrifices to bring the spread of the virus under control:  keep your quarantine and wear a mask in public.  I wear my mask to protect you.  You wear your mask to protect me.  Why is this so hard?  You can blame foreign countries; you can blame our leaders; but when it all comes down to it, the responsibility for getting this disease under control—and the blame for failing to do so—rests squarely with us.

The Talmud includes a best-seller, a small handbook of Rabbinic aphorisms called Pirkei Avot,  which includes this teaching:  “A person who says, ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’ is an average person, but also a Sodomite” (Mishna, Avot 5:13), referencing the doomed Biblical city known for its avarice and cruelty.  

“What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is yours”:  Mind your own business.  Keep to your own lane.  Or, as Billy Joel put it:  “I don’t care anymore what you say, this is my life; go ahead with your own life, leave me alone.”  It’s a perspective deeply embedded in the American psyche.  

It’s also deeply un-Jewish.  In Judaism we have, “your business is my business,” which, if you’ve ever had Jewish in-laws, you already know.  And yet, if we ever hope to prevail—as a country, as a collective, as a human family—we need to understand what these six months have been telling us all along:  that we are all interconnected.  What I do affects you.  What you do affects me.  

“Globalism” is not a political choice anymore; it’s a fact:  what happens over there affects me over here, and vice versa.  The virus does not heed its hosts’ political preferences or nationality.  It preys with special ferocity on those with underlying health conditions or who have the misfortune to be born poor, or Black, or Brown, or Indigenous, without access to the kind of health care, nutrition, education, and social services that our community takes for granted.  

And if that isn’t our collective problem, and our collective responsibility, then whose is it?  

When Noah sent out the dove me’ito, “from himself,” the world remained underwater.  Self-interest will drown us.  When Noah sent out a dove min ha-teivah, for the benefit of the whole Ark, in the interest of the collective, the mission succeeded.  Remember the Hindu proverb:  “Help your brother’s boat across, and lo!  Your own has reached the shore.”    

The societal model envisioned by the Torah places the welfare of the collective above the success of the individual.  Those who work in agriculture must leave behind the fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger, must leave the corners of fields unharvested and of vineyards, unpicked.  Shepherds must sacrifice of the flock; ranchers of the herd; every laborer must contribute tithes and offerings; no one was exempt from giving.  Again and again the Torah exhorts us to help the poor, the stranger, the orphan, the widow—the unseen, the neglected—to give without hesitation or reservation, recognizing, in language that Noah himself might have understood, that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  

Most boldly, the Torah provides its own “hard reset” for when accumulated wealth and property and power began to privilege the very few over the very many.  With words now famously engraved on the Liberty Bell, the Torah announces:  “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).  Every fifty years, with this very pronouncement, the Torah declares a Yovel, a Jubilee year:  a rebalancing of the scales of economic justice, during which slaves would go free, debts would be forgiven, and so-called “landowners” would be reminded that their relationship with property was nothing more than a lease, and the land would be redistributed to its ancestral tribes.  

The word Jubilee, Yovel in Hebrew, is a Biblical word referring to the blast of the shofar.  The wake up call.  The sound we need to hear today, after our own fifty years and more of unchecked accumulation by the few at the expense of the many.  Throw in a vicious pandemic which has exposed the human face of inequality, and you see what happens to society.  “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” paves the way to Sodom.  The dove of hope circles overhead with no safe place to land, and returns defeated.  The suffering mounts.  

We need a New Covenant.  One that begins and ends with the recognition that everything is connected.  The great teachers, in every religion and every philosophy, all arrived at this same, fundamental truth:  There is only one thing and we are all it.

Listen to Albert Einstein who understood the nature of existence better than, well, anyone:  

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. (Excerpted from a letter that Einstein wrote in 1950 to an ordained rabbi, Norman Salit, who was seeking in vain to comfort his 19-year-old daughter over the death of her 16-year-old sister.)

Einstein was talking about a New Covenant, a covenant with all life, a covenant with the Cosmos.

Of all the things that break my heart these days, the politicization of ethical stewardship for the world, the politicization of environmentalism, perhaps ranks highest of all.  It didn’t have to be this way.  We get one planet, one Ark, on which we all have to live together.  And yet we continue to treat our home like an AirBnB that’s someone else’s problem to clean up after we leave, expending and discarding with little heed to the suffering we are already inflicting, in a way, that, once again, injures with special ferocity the world’s most vulnerable people, creatures, and habitats.  

I echo the Biblical Amos who said, “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet.”  And yet I find in all the great Israelite Prophets a refreshing disregard for saying the popular thing and instead speaking the truth.  And the truth is this:  whether the “point of no return” for the climate crisis is now, or twelve years from now—as the more alarming models suggest—or as much as seventy years from now, who really cares?  Why would we gamble with the risk so staggeringly high?  Why would we treat even a 70-year window as anything other than a blunt wake-up call, today?  Why waste even a minute, while our own West Coast burns?

And yet, we continue to act me’ito, each person for him and herself, instead of min ha-teivah, each one of us acting for the good of the whole Ark.  

On this first morning of a new year, here is the only “prophecy” worth considering:

Schools will come back.

In-person services at the temple will come back.

Football will come back.

Theatre will come back.

Concerts will come back.

Restaurants will come back.

Travel will come back.

Dating and romance and falling in love and all that jazz will come back.

The economy will come back.

And none of it will matter unless we come back to our senses and stop acting as if “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.”

CODA

One evening after a refreshing spring rain, Kelly and I took to one of the new practices we adopted during quarantine, a “daily constitutional,” a long neighborhood walk.  It’s good for the body, the mind, the soul, and the connection between homebound people.  These walks have been just lovely, an opening of all the senses.

Without cars barreling up and down Soundview Avenue, we could hear a cacophony of rival birds—no ravens or doves, alas, but the shriek of a hawk, the song of warblers—and leaves rustling in the breeze, chipmunks scampering and all of it suddenly punctuated by the squeal of a boy being chased across the lawn by his big sister.  

Without exhaust glutting the air, we could distinguish individual scents:  each flower with its own aroma, the smell of freshly-cut grass, from this backyard the smell of a charcoal grill, from that patio, a propane grill; underneath it all, wet moss and rich soil, and bags of slowly decomposing branches and twigs.  The hydrangeas bloomed electric blue and neon magenta, as if finally allowed to attend the debutante’s ball, coming out in all their splendor.  

And everywhere we walked, the dance of living things:  earthworms crawling out of the saturated ground, and squirrels trying their darndest to raid our vegetable garden, rabbits holding court on every lawn.  We came back from our walk, sat on our back deck, and I swear that we heard the throaty grumble of a coyote padding around underneath the floorboards, just days after learning of a family of black bears encroaching on nearby streets.  All around us the world was re-wilding, Nature asserting herself, inevitably, inexorably, reminding us that we are just visitors, lessees, tenants in God’s world.  Reminding us that there’s only one thing and we are all it.  

Up above, I could have sworn I saw a rainbow.      

Baruch Ata Adonai, Zocheir Ha-Brit.  Blessed is the One who remembers the covenant.

On Zionism & Annexation

June 29, 2020 / 7 Tammuz 5780

I write to you today with reflections on time-sensitive developments in Israel and the West Bank, namely, the Netanyahu government’s stipulated intention to annex, unilaterally, parts of the West Bank. My thoughts are rooted in my analysis of Jewish history and Jewish destiny. As always, I welcome dialogue on this subject and would be happy to provide a time in the coming days for discussion.


Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It begins with a moral imperative: that the Jewish people, having suffered centuries of persecution as unwanted or, at best, merely tolerated “guests” of foreign regimes, would at last enjoy freedom, sovereignty, security, and peace, as an independent Jewish nation.



Israel’s Declaration of Independence envisions a thriving Jewish democracy. Balancing the Jewish character and self-determination of the Jewish State alongside its intention to protect the rights and aspirations of its non-Jewish citizens and neighboring peoples has often proved difficult and painful. Yet promoting and achieving such balance remains critical to Israel’s success, both politically and morally.



Today, attacks on the Zionist dream abound. My rabbinate remains committed to defending Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people. Over the last twenty years, I have forcefully and consistently opposed BDS. I presently serve on Aipac’s National Council. I have refused to indulge the lie that support for Israel disqualifies one’s allegiance to other progressive causes and liberation movements.

I’ve also called out attacks from the right, when it weaponizes support for Israel for partisan political gain, and when it proposes that any critique of Israel—a basic right within any thriving democracy, one on which Israelis themselves depend—constitutes a betrayal of Israel.

But nothing breaks my heart more than watching attacks on the character of Zionism come from the Israeli government itself.



Zionism’s morality derives from its promise of national self-determination for the historically oppressed Jewish people. Zionism finds no virtue in interminable Jewish subservience and second-class citizenship. Rather, Zionism presents an alternative to Jewish powerlessness: to embrace national self-determination, and to wield power, ethically and responsibly.

Jewish nationalism can and must exist alongside Palestinian nationalism, no matter how difficult these two national aspirations have been to reconcile.

Zionism must not deny to others what it seeks to provide for Jews. My unwavering advocacy for two states for two peoples derives from my understanding of Zionism. Two states for two peoples remains the only way that a thriving Jewish democracy can hope to be preserved. Unilateral steps to undermine the status quo function only to undermine the essential character and principles of Zionism itself.

This is why I oppose all talk of annexation.

Many challenges inhibit the attainment of an enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Threats to Israel’s security are real and ongoing. Israelis and Palestinians and, especially, their current leadership, have given ample reason for each group to fear and mistrust the other.

Now more than ever we must double down on the true character of Zionism. We must reject the mercenary politics of division and cynical point-scoring that betrays the Zionist vision of a thriving Jewish state that guarantees the rights of its non-Jewish citizens and co-exists peaceably with its neighbors.

Zionism is a movement of liberation, not subjugation. Annexation would erode not only Israel’s security but also its moral credibility. Indeed, annexation threatens not only to undermine Zionism’s character, but also to erase its gains.

For the Jewish past, the Jewish future, and for the sake of all who seek peace and justice, annexation must be opposed.

Please join me in praying for the peace of Israel, the region, and all of God’s children.

L’Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake