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.