“It’s a Poor Sort of Memory that Only Works Backward.”  – Lewis Carroll

Yizkor, Yom Kippur Afternoon, 5780

9 October 2019

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

“Some moments feel so important, we believe there is a perfect recording of them, etched in our minds.”  

So begins actor Emma Stone’s voiceover of a new Netflix mini-series called “The Mind, Explained,” which tackles memory as the subject of its first episode.  

“And yet,” explains neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, “Your memories… are probably not as accurate as you think.  We know about 50% of the details of [a] memory change within a year, even though most people are convinced they’re 100% right.”

Human memory is not like a computer’s memory, where data gets stored and can be retrieved with absolute fidelity.  A sermon I wrote 20 years ago (when I first became a rabbi!) can be called up with a few keystrokes and there it is, word-for-word.  But human memory is simultaneously much less accurate and much more complex. You would think that the purpose of memory is to preserve the past.  But even our most significant memories, we learn—the ones that inform our life-story, our foundational identity—tend to warp and mutate over time. Memories are not perfect recordings.  In fact, as far as recordings go, our memories are fairly unreliable.  

Why?

Why does memory work this way—why do our brains twist the past while fooling us into thinking that we’re remembering it exactly as it happened?

This seems a fitting inquiry as any for a service called Yizkor which comes from the Hebrew לזכור, “to remember.”  After all, we come here because of our memories. Yizkor matters because we recognize that memory gives us a certain power over death.  So long as we remember, so long as we can replay in our minds a parent’s embrace, a lover’s caress, a child’s first halting steps, a sister’s favorite recipe, a friend’s laugh, then we possess some of their life-force, their essence, what we call in Hebrew the neshama, the breath or spirit of the human beings who once walked with us on life’s journey.  

And yet, what could it mean that our memories—no matter how vivid or three-dimensional they may feel, no matter how earnestly we might swear by their accuracy—have most likely shifted, deteriorated, and reassembled themselves over time?

A man named Henry Molaison, who went by his initials H.M., suffered from debilitating epileptic seizures following a childhood bicycle accident.  In 1953, at the age of 31, he underwent a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy to resect parts of his brain in an attempt to cure his epilepsy.  Although the surgery succeeded in controlling his seizures, it also produced a severe side effect.  He became unable to form new memories. It was so severe, in fact, that it prevented him from navigating his own house or recognizing the faces of his own doctors.  

His brain, which continued to be examined up until and well after his death in 2008, provided one of neuroscience’s seminal case studies in how human memory works.  (In fact, you can even look up a scientific atlas of his brain, which was uploaded to the internet five years ago.)

H.M. demonstrated how different areas of the brain perform different memory-related tasks, with separate parts of the brain responsible for short-term memory, long-term memory, spatial memory, and motor skill learning. 

My friend Lisa Faden and I met at Amherst College in 1991, when I was a freshman and she was a sophomore.  I wish I could tell you how we met but, here, as with so many other details of our friendship, memory fails me.  I do remember us bonding over a love of wordplay, and in particular a mutual appreciation for bad puns. It was I who pointed out to her that the phrase “in a nutshell” could, with the simple insertion of an apostrophe, now be read as “in a nut’s hell,” and the fact that she actually found this amusing, in a nutshell (or is it a nut’s hell?) tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my taste in friends.

Memory does not fail me here:  After college, when Lisa was teaching up in Newton and I was living in Providence, she came down for a visit and I invited her to dinner on Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy.  After a hearty meal of pasta and gravy and gelato, we took a stroll around the neighborhood. It was a beautiful June evening and lots of pedestrians crowded the streets. Then, Lisa blurted out, “So, hey, I hear there’s a big mafia presence in Providence, is that true?”  I do not remember what happened next because I was too busy fumbling for the car keys and trying to get us into the car and speed off before she could say another word.

Lisa was the byproduct of a Japanese Buddhist Mother and an American Jewish father, and, after she married Rob, and they moved to Ontario where she got her Ph.D., and they had their children, a girl first and then a boy, Judaism again became an important part of her family’s life—indeed, her spiritual anchor.  

I remember that Lisa reached out to me as she became more involved in their lovely little Reform temple in London, Ontario, and soon decided to prepare for what she called her, “big, fat, 40-year old Bat Mitzvah.”

And I remember the August day three years ago, when Lisa emailed to tell me she had been diagnosed out of the blue with metastatic breast cancer, which prompted her to begin a blog reflecting on life with cancer.  But, mostly, it’s a blog about life (with cancer).

Two years in, after surgery, chemo, radiation, and another surgery to remove the lesions from her brain where the cancer had metastasized, Lisa’s daughter celebrated her own bat mitzvah.  Lisa reflected in her blog:

“…I remember [not long after my diagnosis] going to a bat mitzvah and standing in the back, fortuitously next to a box of tissues. As the congregation went through the steps of a normal service, I remember crying the entire time. The girl at the front that day… was a cerebral petite blonde that I could easily see as a stand-in for [my daughter]. Knowing that I would be bat mitzvahed soon and my daughter would be someday, it was like we were all linked by an invisible chain. I was simultaneously watching my 5-year-old daughter, myself, and an amazing young woman. 

Two weekends ago [our daughter] had her bat mitzvah….  The whole ceremony was a reminder about how the past, present, and future connect because you can’t have a future without a present spent connecting to the past.  Plus, you have young adults in the present reading from the past… so that they can carry their learning into the future. And when she read, she read from a Torah that was itself rescued from wartime Czechoslovakia” just like the one we read at WRT this afternoon.

“…Go to a service, in any tradition,” Lisa concludes, “and it is easy to think that there must be something more interesting and worthwhile to do than this.  But is there, really?” (Published online on Lisa’s blog, Breathing in Breathing Out:  Dum Spiro Spero, https://breathinginbreathingout.blog/2019/05/24/can-you-see-yourself/, May 24, 2019.)

Lisa died on Wednesday, June 19th, at the age of 47.  Her children are 13 and 10. I last saw Lisa and Rob about 18 months before she died, over lunch at a cute little café called The Squirrel Cage, in Windsor, Ontario, a short distance from the Detroit area where we usually visit Kelly’s family over winter break.  Kelly had the good fortune to give Lisa, Rob and the kids a backstage tour of Carousel on Broadway last summer when they came to visit New York while I was traveling in Israel.  

Lisa now “belongs to eternity,” to borrow a metaphor I sometimes use at funeral services.  

But, to be honest, I prefer to say, “Now Lisa is committed to memory.”

And here is where the story of the patient H.M. takes on special significance.  

Because, as it turns out, when H.M. had a big chunk of his brain removed, he lost something more than his ability to form new memories.  After his surgery, not only could H.M. not remember the past, he also struggled to answer questions about the future. He had no conception of “tomorrow.”  

The same part of his brain that stored memories of the past also seemed vital to imagining a future – the two are linked, the same way that Lisa’s own Bat Mitzvah, and her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, and the old rescued Czech Torah scroll, and the ability to imagine a next generation’s Bat Mitzvah were linked.  

The Hebrew root for the verb remember, Zayin – Kaf – Resh, or Zecher, literally means, well, we’re not exactly sure.  It may mean “to point,” like an arrow; or to pierce, or perforate; or bore down, as with a drill bit.  The point, the amazing thing, is that a deep, Jewish understanding of memory synchronizes almost exactly with a scientific understanding of memory:  that what memory really does is not so much preserve the past, word for word, image for image or note for note, but, rather, link the past, present, and future—a combination of remembering and imagining.  Memory both drills down and points ahead.

Without memory—where we’ve been, with whom we’ve traveled life’s journey, what we’ve discovered along the way—we cannot imagine where we’re going.  Without memory, we cannot realize who we must now become.

The Talmud tells us that God’s memory is perfect.  When we sounded the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah last week, we said, “There is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory.”  

But human memory, the kind of memory God gave us, is different.  It is not perfect.  It bends and breaks down over time.  Pieces drop away and new pieces get incorporated.  Memory and imagination intertwine.  

But in a way, human memory, the kind of memory we bring to this service of Yizkor, may be even better—because it helps us to move forward, we, the living, who have loved so many, so much, and who have had to let go.  

No good comes from memorializing our loved ones in endless pain.  Memory does not exist to keep us stuck in the past.  

We gather up our memories, beautifully imperfect, and let them move us gently forward, to the next uncharted destination.

 

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The Life-Changing Difference between Honor and Dignity 

YOM KIPPUR MORNING 5780 – October 9, 2019

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Here’s a question.  What is the most important verse in the Torah?

One of the most famous Rabbis of his time—and of all time—Akiva, who lived in the first and second centuries of the Common Era, reduced the Torah to one essential principle that could guide a person throughout his or her life:  

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Akiva taught, citing the central verse from Leviticus that we will read this afternoon (19:18).  

“Love your neighbor as yourself” creates a kind of pragmatic social compact, an “I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine” approach to life.  

The verse assumes that most people operate out of self-interest and can therefore use self-interest to relate to others.  If I know what I want for myself, I can apply the same to others and everyone wins.  

Akiva often sparred, academically, with a man named Ben Azzai who wasn’t even a rabbi but whose opinions are nevertheless venerated.  Ben Azzai had a different idea about the most important verse in the Torah. He looked to Genesis, where the Torah teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and belong equally in the family of humankind (Paraphrasing Gen. 5:1.  See Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b.). 

For Ben Azzai, that we are made in God’s image is the key principle of our existence.  We tend to the needs of others, not, as Akiva suggested, in the hope that others will reciprocate and tend to our needs, but because it is the Godly thing to do.  Self-interest plays no role here. We treat each other in accordance with each person’s inherent Dignity, that God-given spark that makes us human, and which, consequently, implies that no human has any more or less “worth” than any other.

While Akiva’s point about loving one’s neighbor as oneself is easily understood and applied, the Talmud ultimately favors Ben Azzai’s view.  

Recognizing the spark of divinity in every human being comprehensively changes our outlook on life.  How we treat other people becomes an exercise not in assessing what we would want for ourselves, but in imagining the world through God’s eyes, as it were, imagining ourselves as equally God’s children.  That act of inspired imagination fundamentally changes our relationship to every other person.

Akiva tells us what to do—love your neighbor as yourself—but doesn’t explain why.  Ben Azzai cannot tell us how to live our lives, but he does tell us that the essential feature of human existence is our inherent Divinity, a quality that we know as Dignity.

Most civilizations have not oriented themselves around this quality of Dignity.  For most of human history, including the present day, we can observe societies attuned to a quality called Honor instead.  Although we often use the words “Honor” and “Dignity” interchangeably, their innermost meanings could not be more different.  Whereas Honor refers to an attribute that one attains, builds, polishes, Dignity is inherent, inviolable, God-given. 

 Now, here’s another question.  Have you ever wondered why Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr decided to duel inof all placesWeehawken, New Jersey?

I have.

The answer goes like this.  In 1804, dueling was in the process of being outlawed in the northern United States.  Both New York and New Jersey had prohibited the practice.  Even Ben Franklin—who was twelve times challenged to a duel himself, and never accepted once—joined the chorus of prominent anti-dueling activists in Revolutionary America.

Hamilton and Burr, like Akiva and Ben Azzai, also often sparred with each other in writing.  But Hamilton and Burr didn’t keep their beefs academic. Refusing to be dissuaded, even by the law (or by Ben Franklin!), they took their duel to Weehawken because New Jersey was not as aggressive in prosecuting dueling participants.  The same site, along the Hudson river, beneath the towering cliffs of the Palisades, hosted eighteen known duels between 1700 and 1845.

In other words, in New Jersey, it was well known, you could easily get away with murder.  

In fact, Aaron Burr did.  After surviving the duel, Burr was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but the charges were later dismissed or resulted in acquittal.  

It took the better part of another hundred years to abolish the practice in America.  It seems that the Civil War induced sufficient fatigue from bloodshed to bring about an end to dueling, once and for all.   

But dueling is just one symptom of a larger phenomenon called “Honor Culture.”  Honor cultures emerge when a centralized state authority is either absent, or deemed illegitimate, or weak, and when people feel materially vulnerable.  Under these conditions, people take offense easily, feel threatened quickly, and engage in higher rates of pre-emptive aggression and vigilante justice to settle their disputes.  They go to great lengths to demonstrate physical bravery and avoid appearing weak.  (I commend to you McCaffree, Kevin. “Honor, Dignity, Victim: A Tale of Three Moral Cultures” (2018), published online at https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/honor-dignity-victim-cultures/, as well as Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking; Black, Donald. 2011. Moral Time. New York: Oxford University Press.)

In the worst-case scenarios, this pre-emptive aggression develops into bloody feuds enveloping whole families, gangs, or tribes.  

Whereas in Europe, the privilege of fighting duels was restricted to aristocratic gentlemen, in America, it tended to be politicians, newspaper editors, attorneysmen whose professions required them to make public remarks or whose public reputations were deemed of the utmost importancewho most often received and accepted challenges to fight.  

In those days, elected officials couldn’t settle their scores over social media, so guns would have to do.  Andrew Jackson challenged his enemies, real and perceived, to duels, more than 100 of them. (One opponent, Charles Dickinson, whom Jackson challenged after Dickinson accused him of reneging on a $2,000 horse bet, even died, a fact that did not prevent Jackson from winning the presidency several years later!)

Gradually, along with dueling, many other hallmarks of Honor Culture in America have waned.  But they have not faded away entirely. Consider:  

The prevalence of dueling in American history gives us some insight into this country’s obsession with guns and the phenomenon of the now ubiquitous mass shooting, in which a grievance is “resolved,” so to speak, in the most horrific way imaginable.  In the South, where Honor Culture has its deepest roots in the US, high school students are more likely to bring a weapon to school, and there have been more than twice as many school shootings per capita (Osterman, L. L. & Brown, R. P., “Culture of Honor and Violence Against the Self,” 37(12) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1611-1623 (2011), available online at https://www.academia.edu/1069747/Culture_of_Honor_and_Violence_Against_the_Self).

Or consider this:  It used to be the case that a man who refused a challenge to duel was humiliated publicly with a uniquely Southern form of punishment called “posting.”  A man who refused to fight would find his name smeared as a coward on a written statement hung in public places and published in newspapers. Nowadays, character assassination has moved online where it can inflict exponentially more damage.

Honor Culture posits that a person’s worth derives from his station in society, his family name, his public reputation, his wealth, his accomplishments.  Such a culture begins with the presumption that “honor” is something one earns, builds, hones, and protects. Consequently, people who occupied lower rungs on the social ladder—people of color, women, the poor, ordinary laborers, the infirm or differently abled—never got caught up in having to defend their honor, because, according to the assumptions of Honor Culture, they didn’t have any to begin with. 

Have we really come that far?  How much moral progress have we really made?  How much effort, how much emotional and material investment, do we continue to place in achievement, clout, social stature?  

The college bribery scandal that blew up this spring suggests that we have not come far from the idea that wealth and privilege, celebrity and influence, status and attainment, academic and athletic credentials, social rank and reputation, matter more to many than, say, equality, fairness, and human dignity.

In such a culture, should any of us be surprised at the shockingly high rates of students going off to college with anxiety disorders, and the similarly high rates of adults of all ages reporting feeling that their lives lack purpose, that their careers fall short of their hopes for personal and professional joy and contentment, that their minds feel overfull and their hearts feel empty?  In such a culture, should any of us be surprised at how easily we substitute net worth for self-worth?

One of my favorite stories begins with a ship sailing through the Atlantic on a cold and foggy day.  Suddenly a voice is heard from somewhere out on the water. It is a cry for help. The captain runs to the side of his ship, only to realize that the fog is so thick he is unable to see exactly where the cry is coming from.  But he can hear a frightened voice yelling, “Save me; I am in a boat that has sprung a leak. Save me!”

The captain quickly grabs a bullhorn and shouts in the general direction of the boat.  “We are trying to get to you. What is your position? What is your position?”

The voice answers back, “Senior Vice President of a bank!  Senior Vice President of a bank!”   

Our inherent, human dignity is the anchor that keeps us moored to our true self-worth, and connects us to our fellow humanity, and, ultimately, as Ben Azzai taught, to God.  Anything else will ultimately fail us.  

The late author David Foster Wallace tapped into this truth when he said:

“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough.  Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you….  Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  And so on” (This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009). 

Dignity is not the same as “honor” or “respect.”  We can command respect in accordance with our positions of authority in the workplace, or our role as parents, grandparents, elders, and so on.  

Society confers honor on us for having attended this or that university, or having won public recognition for our accomplishments, or for our athletic prowess, or artistic talent, for our grades, or our income, or our philanthropy, or our social influence.  

 But, usually, when we say, “I want respect,” what we really mean is, “Treat me with dignity.”  “Treat me as your equal in the eyes of God, because I am.”  

It is concern for human dignity that motivates the Torah to build in societal protections for the vulnerable, the marginalized:  the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor, the elderly, the infirm (cf., among many other verses, Exodus 22:21-24, Lev. 19:34 & 25-35, Deut. 10:18, 14:28-29, 15:7-11, 24:17-18, 26:12, 27:19, and 31:12).  

It is concern for human dignity that moves the Torah to demand that the corners of the field are left unharvested and fallen sheaves of grain uncollected, so that the needy could come and take under the cover of nightfall, without having to demean themselves by asking for a handout (Deut. 24:19).  

It is concern for human dignity that prompts the Torah to provide rules of ethical treatment of the other in warfare, even of women captured in battle (Deut. 21:10-14).

It is concern for human dignity that causes the Torah to prohibit insulting the deaf, or placing a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:14)… and remember, we’re talking about more than physical disabilities here.  Everyone has blind spots; everyone has tones to which we are deaf. 

It is concern for human dignity that has the Torah insist that the young and able-bodied rise and show deference before the aged (Lev. 19:32)     

It is concern for human dignity that informs the Torah’s rule against accepting a laborer’s clothing in pawn for services rendered, asking rhetorically, in the Torah’s memorable phrasing:  “What else is he supposed to sleep in?” (Exodus 22:7; cf. also Deut. 24:17, which legislates against taking a widow’s garment in pawn.)  

It is concern for human dignity that led the Rabbis to teach that to embarrass another person in public is tantamount to having shed blood (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b-59a).

My friend and teacher Rabbi Shai Held summarizes:  “[T]he Bible cannot inform us precisely what legal protections are needed to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable in our times, but it can tell us—if we listen to it, it *does* tell us—that who we are as a society depends to a great extent on how we answer that question….  The Bible offers no more forceful message than this one: people on the margins matter, and their wellbeing is the responsibility of each of us, and of all of us” (From Held’s forthcoming book, as yet untitled/unpublished. Posted by the author on Facebook, July 19, 2019).

The Bible envisions a Dignity Culture, a culture that puts the inherent, God-given dignity of the other as its foremost concern.  

I believe that the safeguarding of human dignity is at the heart of America’s great promise, too.  The Declaration of Independence, which declared “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” hints at this, even if the transformation from Honor Culture to Dignity Culture in this country has come about slowly and painfully, and has a long way yet to go. 

After all, our founding documents do not recognize the inherent dignity of enslaved Africans, or women, or, for that matter, non-landowners.  

“The moral arc of the universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.”  This is more than just wishful thinking; I believe that the centuries-old American story is, on the whole, a story of moral progress.  And yet, now, again, Dignity is under siege, as our country swings perilously away from this guiding principle toward old ideas about Honor and meritocracy. 

On this Day of Atonement, I implore us to make the restoration of human Dignity our foremost Jewish obligation in the coming year.  

We must reassert the divinity that inheres within every human being, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, age, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, or country of origin.  

Let this restoration of human dignity be our Teshuvah, our turning back to the essence of our humanity and the essential call of our faith.

Today, in this sanctuary, sit dozens of congregants who have quietly undertaken this effort with extraordinary diligence and joy.  

On Yom Kippur, three years ago, we publicly affirmed that WRT had approached the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—HIAS—with the intention to help settle a family of refugees.  Ten days later, during Sukkot, 125 WRT volunteers showed up for our first organizing meeting. By Chanukah, the State Department approved Westchester County for up to fifty refugees, or about eight families, and by the first week of January 2017, WRT had secured HIAS’s blessing as a host congregation.  

It took another two and a half years for WRT to be matched with a refugee family.  At first we thought that we might receive a family fleeing the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.  As the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the US dropped precipitously, Iraq and Afghanistan seemed likely candidates.  But, in the end, it was the little-known Central African Republic that would send us our first two family members, adult sisters named Achta and Mariam.  

The Central African Republic, or CAR, is one of the world’s most atrocious conflict zones.  Mariam and Achta, who arrived this spring, have seen their lives ripped apart by war and genocide, and sought shelter in a refugee camp in neighboring Chad for five years before their approval came through.  They left behind an aging mother, three other sisters, three brothers, and a four-year-old nephew. The other men—their father, husbands, brothers—have presumably either been killed or “disappeared” in war. Our brave sisters squeezed through an ever more restrictive vetting process that begins with the UN and entails authorization by no fewer than five executive-branch agencies, from Homeland Security to the State Department.  They came here as two of only about 22,500 refugees admitted in the last year—less than ten percent of the number admitted in the early 80’s under Reagan, at a time when the humanitarian crisis of refugees now exceeds, in number and severity, any previous era since World War II.  (According to Pew Research Center, approximately 22,500 refugees were admitted in Fiscal Year 2018, when the cap was set at 30,000.  The current administration intends to cap refugee admissions for FY 2020 at 18,000. Historical averages have been about 95,000 refugees admitted to the US each year.) 

They came here with, quite literally, the clothes on their backs and an overstuffed suitcase. And a sewing machine. Achta, the elder, also schlepped a giant satchel of textbooks:  her most precious possession, as a teacher of Arabic language and literature. (I know: I hauled her fraying bag up to their apartment in White Plains on a 95-degree moving day in June).  

Since then, every moment of their lives has been compassionately attended by our tireless volunteers.  Your fellow congregants have restored and protected the basic human dignity that war, and torture, and racial and religious discrimination, and an unfairly restrictive vetting process, would have deprived them.  

Your fellow congregants have brought them to daily English Language classes, fitted them with donated clothes, furnished an apartment rented to them below cost, helped navigate appointments with any number of governmental agencies, translated countless documents from their native French to English, provided much-needed medical care, and have even explained to them how a Con-Ed bill works. 

They have elucidated innumerable cultural differences between Africa and America.  On her first week here, Achta asked Kelly where she could buy a massive stone pylon for grinding seeds and grains into flour.  Let’s just say the education has gone both ways, as is often the case when one does a mitzvah:  the giver finds herself enriched in the giving.  

A few weeks ago, Mariam and Achta, who spoke virtually no English when they arrived just five months ago, secured their first jobs and are now working at Target in White Plains.  One aspires to teach again; the other, to advance in the field of Human Resources. They are highly motivated to succeed, to contribute to the country that welcomed them, to make a better life in America, not only for themselves and their family, but for their community and country. 

You have helped them reclaim their stolen dignity.  Can there be any work more Jewish, more holy, than this?  

At this time, I’d like for us to acknowledge all of our volunteers who have donated time and resources toward this effort.  (Volunteers Rise)

Our Resettlement effort still needs your help.  We ask for your assistance in whatever form you can offer it, as we have taken on the obligation to help our sisters achieve financial independence within a year.  A card has been provided outside the sanctuary for all who want to learn more and support this effort.  

Let me leave you with an image of what restoring human dignity feels like.  Two weeks after arriving in the US, our volunteers brought Mariam and Achta to an Iftara sundown break-the-fast meal held each night during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  To their delight, the sisters met there a couple who spoke Fulbe, their African mother tongue.  Later that night, Mariam sent a text message to our volunteers, on her donated iPhone, enthusing about making new friends here in America.  She wrote (in French, her adopted language; we’ve translated):

“We love you so much, because, thanks to you, we have once again found God’s smile.”

Your dignity, your inherent self-worth, is a precious gift from God.  You did nothing to earn it. But it is yours, to love forever.

On Yom Kippur, remember this:  No matter how far we may stray, our dignity is waiting for us to reclaim it.  

Let us cherish it.  Nurture it. Acknowledge it in our fellow human travelers.  Do our part to help those whose dignity has been neglected to reclaim theirs.

To do all this is to see God’s smile.

 

G’mar Chatimah Tovah

May you be sealed for life and blessing

From the Ruin to the Road: Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning, 5780

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE, SCARSDALE, NEW YORK

There we stood, forty-three of us, on the deserted rail platform, where no train had come or gone for decades.  We came as mourners, bundled against the unseasonable chill on the afternoon of the 2nd of May, carrying a matchbook and small candles, six of them, one for every million Jews murdered by the Nazis, there to kindle flames of remembrance on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Gleis Siebzehn, Track 17, the Berlin-Gruenwald Station where, from 1941 to 1945 more than 50,000 Jews were deported from Berlin, first to the Polish ghettos at Litzmannstadt and Warsaw, then, directly to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. 

When we first announced this temple trip, many asked, “Why Germany?  Why would you want to go back there, after what they did to us?” What sense did it make for a rabbi, a rebbetzin, and forty-one congregants to go back to “the scene of the crime?”

To understand the meaning of our pilgrimage requires that we take a long, hard look at where we were coming from.  Our country. Home.

The day we left for Berlin—the last day of Pesach, six months to the day after the Pittsburgh massacre which murdered eleven (and inspired in part by its perpetrator, Robert Bowers)—19-year-old John Timothy Earnest, another virulent Anti-Semite, White Supremacist, Neo-Nazi, domestic terrorist, stormed into the Chabad of Poway outside San Diego, and, firing from the foyer, wounded Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and murdered 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who died shielding her rabbi from the gunman.

Bowers and Earnest are not lone wolves.  They operate within a larger movement, emerging from the Internet’s shadowiest realms where they have sheltered for years, taking to the streets in places like Poland, where, this summer, Israeli students were assaulted after leaving a Warsaw nightclub; France, where Yellow Vest demonstrators have embraced Anti-Semitic language and endorsed violence against Jews; and here in the United States.  

This neo-Nazi flavor of Anti-Semitism, long festering beneath the surface of Western society, now thrives in the daylight of the same social forces that are forcing democracy into retreat while emboldening autocracy, that are promoting White supremacy and demonizing communities of color while trafficking in fear-mongering about immigrants and refugees.  

This ancient Jew-hatred—that the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler’s brownshirts enacted in violence—that neither warfare nor activism nor legislation can pull out, root and stem, once and for all—is very much alive today, and we must confront it head on.  

And, like a weed, it keeps emerging, stubbornly, indiscriminately.  Once a phenomenon relegated to the farthermost margins of the right, Anti-Semitism has begun to creep closer to the center of American life—from both right and left.

The BDS movement, a global effort to harm Israel through Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, has Anti-Semitism written all over it.  Even though many of its supporters vigorously deny that Jew-hatred has anything to do with their anti-Israel activism, consider their record and form your own conclusions:

BDS singles out the world’s only Jewish State for opprobrium.

They traffic in the language of “peace” and “justice,” but when it comes to the only peaceful and just resolution to the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, BDS proponents speak not a two-state solution, but rather of one state, Palestine.  They coerce rather than compromise. Unable to convince the Israeli electorate of the merits of their views, BDS activists demonize Israel and call for outsiders to punish her citizens until they capitulate. 

BDS creates toxic college campus environments, polarizing students and faculty who might otherwise feel encouraged to enter into constructive dialogue about the best approaches to the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

Jewish students—note well, Jews, not Israelis—are targeted with propaganda and abusive language.  Jewish lecturers with even tenuous support for Israel are shouted down and prevented from speaking.  Jewish voices are silenced when, for instance, BDS resolutions are presented for a student council vote on the first night of Passover.

And BDS was very much the agenda of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s intended visit to Israel this summer, only the latest in a disturbing pattern of messages from the freshman Congresswomen.  Putting aside for a moment—if we can—Israel’s ill-begotten choice to bar their entry, let’s not forget that the two Representatives chose not to join a bipartisan congressional delegation to Israel in favor of a trip arranged by Miftah, an organization that has accused Jews of using the blood of Christians in the Passover ritual, engaged in Holocaust denial, and praised terrorists who attack Israeli civilians.  

 Here’s the bottom line.  Anti-Semitism isn’t a right-wing thing or a left-wing thing.  It isn’t a Republican Party thing or a Democratic Party thing, despite the efforts of many to paint it that way.  In fact, Anti-Semitism doesn’t even need Jews to breathe, as evidenced by the prevalence of Anti-Semitic attitudes in places with scarcely any Jews, like Japan and Indonesia.

When we politicize Anti-Semitism, using it to smear our political enemies—when we tar entire groups with the charge of Anti-Semitism—we distort the truth and dismiss the pain of the victims.  If you cannot recognize that no one political movement, party, or “side” of the fractured national conversation has a monopoly on Anti-Semitism, then you simply aren’t looking hard enough.  

Anti-Semitism is too serious to be exploited in the interest of scoring points with voters.  We reject the politicization of Anti-Semitism, whether it involves the misappropriation the term “concentration camps” to describe the wretched condition of detention centers on our southern border, or the charge of “disloyalty” in reference to American Jews. 

And the US-Israel relationship—premised, as it is, on vital economic, military, and technological support, shared intelligence, and common democratic values and geopolitical goals—is too important to be sacrificed on the altars of ego and election prospects.  When alliances forged to eradicate Anti-Semitism fall apart over this or that political squabble, everyone loses: Israelis, Americans, and Jewish people everywhere.

The story is told in the Babylonian Talmud of Rabbi Yosi, the great second-century Sage, who, while walking along the road, chanced upon one of the ruins of Jerusalem, which the Romans had sacked twice:  once in the year 70, destroying the Temple, and again, in the year 135, after the failed Bar Kochba rebellion, at this time exiling the Jews into diaspora.  

Drawn to the ancient ruin, Yosi entered to pray.  Upon completing his prayers, he discovered the Prophet Elijah guarding the entrance to the ruin.  “Greetings to you, my Rabbi,” said Elijah.  

“Greetings to you, my Rabbi, my teacher,” replied Yosi.  

“My son,” said Elijah, “Why did you enter this ruin?”  “In order to pray,” answered Yosi.  

“You should have prayed on the road,” Elijah admonished.  

“I was afraid that my prayers might get interrupted by travelers,” and I’d be unable to focus, said Yosi.  

Elijah answered, “You should have abbreviated your prayers,” rather than pray inside of a ruin (Berakhot 3a).

If you study the surrounding passages, you’ll learn about the dangers of such places.  Apparently, ruins were known to attract bandits, prostitutes, and even demons, who would lurk, waiting in the shadows for their prey.  Elijah’s reprimand seems warranted on strictly pragmatic grounds.  

But something deeper is at work here, something about the allure of ruins, the human desire to sanctify such places, to turn ruins into holy places.  

This tendency is well demonstrated throughout human history and we Jews, no less than others, have enshrined our ruins.  After all, what is the Kotel, the Western Wall, the retaining wall of a massive platform where the destroyed Temple once stood, but the greatest ruin in Jewish history?  

Here, then, is one interpretation of the passage:  Judaism discourages us from hunkering down in our tragedy, fetishizing our devastation, making a shrine of our suffering.  

Prayer should be joyful, purposeful, transformative.  Prayer can give comfort, lift the spirit, refine our moral commitments, realign our spiritual priorities.  Praying in a ruin—metaphorically speaking—locates our Jewish identity in tragedy, hardship, and pain, building our Jewishness on a foundation of sorrow, the rubble of anxiety.

What does it say about Jews today that the landmark Pew Research Center survey of Jewish identity reports that remembering the Holocaust is, by far, the number-one attribute that Jews consider essential to being Jewish?  Not living an ethical life, which came in a distant second, or caring about Israel, or being part of a Jewish community (which actually ranked well below “having a good sense of humor,” so there you go).  

Without a doubt, Judaism cherishes memory—and the memory of the Shoah can and does impel us toward the Jewish values of justice and compassion.  But remembrance of our past devastation cannot substitute for our investment in a joyful, transformative Jewish present and future. 

What does it say about us that the average age of a Pittsburgh victim—that is to say, the average age of a synagogue-goer on what started out as a typical Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life Congregation—was 74 years old?  How can we expect the generations of our children and grandchildren to stand up against anti-Semitism if they don’t feel a connection to the Jewish tradition or the Jewish People today?  

Have we done enough to share our own joy in Judaism with our generations?  Have we taught them that those Shabbat candles aren’t going to light themselves?  Have we ever shared with them our own reasons for caring enough to be part of a synagogue, a community of faith and action?  Have we inculcated a sense of joyful responsibility for the welfare of our people, for tzedakah and mitzvot?  Have we given them reasons to feel that their Judaism is a treasured inheritance and not an anxious burden—or, worse, a hollow and meaningless practice, a tired obligation, a going-through of the motions?  

We give a lot of time and attention to the anti-Semites who want to harm us.  Have we given the same time and attention to the tradition that binds us together?

I know it all feels so discouraging—heartrending, really.  But I come here today to tell you that there is a sunlit pathway from the ruin back to the road.  Like all chapters of adversity in our long and storied history, we will meet this one with a mixture of anguish, courage, determination, and yes, that most quintessentially Jewish of all human qualities, hope, tikvah.

Today, I want to share with you why I feel hopeful.

The reason is you.  This congregation, this WRT family, you, and I, all of us, together.  We are the reason I feel joy in our present and hopeful about our Jewish future.  We, who showed up in this sanctuary, 600 strong, the Friday after Pittsburgh, to say that hate has no place in our synagogue, and that we are not afraid.   

You know who makes me feel hopeful?  The almost fifty twelfth graders who came with us to Israel over the last two years, where we ate too much falafel and danced with Israeli Reform Jewish teens at Shabbat dinner and crocheted baskets with Eritrean asylum-seekers and where our biggest dilemma concerned how to recover a student’s credit card that an Israeli ATM decided to swallow twenty minutes after landing at Ben-Gurion airport.

Here’s a ray of hope.  Last Wednesday, in our 10th grade Confirmation class, we had a frank conversation about dating and relationships and the challenges of living in an interfaith world.  Every student in the class declared it important to create a Jewish family and a Jewish home. (One student added, helpfully, “My dad said that my mom will kill me if I don’t.”)  

Hope, to me, is officiating at a wedding of a bride or groom whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah I conducted, whose Confirmation we celebrated.  I have thirteen of those this coming year. 

I feel hope because WRT is going to Poland early next summer.  It will break our hearts to stand at Auschwitz. But hearts will mend when we dance at the 30th annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival.  Last year, they had a band called “The Honorable Mentshn,” get it?  And how great is that?  

I spent Friday morning in this sanctuary with our preschoolers, singing Bim-Bam and playing the shofar, and hanging out with our official ECC mascot, a giant stuffed dinosaur who, any of our children will tell you, loves challah.  That dinosaur gives me a lot of hope for the Jewish future.  

So does the four-year-old who, in the video montage of last year’s graduating preschoolers, declared that when he grows up, he wants to be a “white collar crime lawyer.”  Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. There were a lot of students who said they want to become teachers just like the ones they adore here at WRT.

And all of you adult learners inspire me.  Nothing gives me greater joy and satisfaction than discussing the Jewish view of the purpose of humankind, as we did last week in our new Melton curriculum, or when a veteran Torah study participant asks me if I happen to know any ancient Egyptian grammar, because it might really improve her understanding of the text.  We have some really smart congregants here, you know. Come to one of our classes sometime. You’ll leave feeling better about the Jewish future, too.

And then there are all of you who show up on a Monday morning to chop vegetables into soup for our hungry neighbors.  And the Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids who follow up a long day of school by going down to Mount Vernon where they help first graders with spelling and math.  And all of you who’ve taken the time to figure out why we have four separate receptacles for tossing your food waste and why the one marked “Trash” is almost always empty… because here at WRT, we model a world in which nothing goes to waste, and almost everything we consume can be reused, recycled, or composted.  And that gives me a lot of hope. 

Oh, and so much hope comes from the nearly 100 volunteers who have helped to rebuild the lives of two women who have come to the US from the Central African Republic, a major humanitarian resettlement effort about which I will say more on Yom Kippur.

And let me tell you about the hope I feel when we pray together.  You really do get it, WRT. You get that prayer is an act of love, a shared practice that brings us joy and stirs our souls and makes us want to sing.  Prayer is kids running up to the front of the room at Sharing Shabbat, to join in the choreography of “V’shinantam”; and prayer is the couple that chose to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary with a Friday night aliyah to the Torah; and prayer is all the soul-stirring voices and instruments that Cantor Kleinman leads and brings together on these glorious High Holidays, and prayer is our awesome outdoor harvest festival, Sukkah Slam, in just under two weeks, and if you’re not there, under the moonlight, with the live Middle Eastern band and the food trucks and the spirits-tasting, then, well, I give up, because you’ve missed my whole point!

Listen closely.  We are the antidote to the anti-Semitism infecting our world.  We won’t win this fight just by reinforcing our facility and training our staff and volunteers in cutting-edge security.  Yes, we’ve done that, with diligence and seriousness.  

But, if you really want to stand up to anti-Semitism—if you really want to make a difference—then you have to live so as to proclaim that being Jewish matters; that Judaism is a noble and beautiful heritage worthy not just of safeguarding but of living, really living, with joy and vigor; that the Jewish People are our family, deserving of our love and support; and that Judaism gives us powerful tools for addressing the ills plaguing our aching world. 

So here’s my advice.  Hold your heads high. Lift your voices with joy.  Stop obsessing over Anti-Semitism, and start getting down with some fellow Semites!  

CODA

Now, come back to Berlin with me for one last moment, because I never told you what we were doing there in the first place.  

Most of us understood that it was important to return to “the scene of the crime” in order to understand our history and the threats that have imperiled us.  What most of us did not expect was to meet Dalia Grinfeld, age 24, whose family had fled Ukraine and who has just been named Assistant Director of European Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.  Her Jewish activism began in university, when she established a German Jewish Students’ Union that quickly grew into a nationwide network of over 25,000 students and young professionals. 

Or Anja Olejnik, a former child refugee of the Bosnian War, who is now raising a Jewish family in Berlin while directing all of Germany’s programs for the Joint Distribution Committee, the global Jewish rescue service;

Or Nina Peretz, a young woman who met and fell in love with an Israeli living in Berlin, converted to Judaism, and who now serves as the first female temple president in Germany.

We went to remember.  We returned with stories of Jewish life reborn.  The German Jewish community, now 250,000 strong, will not content itself to pray inside a ruin.  They have decided that the best way to live out the meaning of “never again” is to live openly and Jewishly, to build new synagogues, new Jewish community centers, new Jewish performance venues, out of the ruins.

Late one afternoon, our group arrived at the Villa at Wannsee, a serene lakeside country-home about a half-hour outside Berlin.  On January 20, 1942, fifteen senior Nazi officials convened at Wannsee to devise what came to be known as “The Final Solution.”

There, on the manicured front lawn, a certain tree stump caught Kelly’s eye.  It had been a magnificent specimen, the many rings proclaiming generations and generations of stored up history.  How many leaves had once crowned its great trunk, no one will ever know. How many people had once sought shelter in its shade, we cannot say.  The tree had been sawed off clean just above the roots, which, you could tell, still went deep and spread wide.

But—and this is what moved Kelly to examine it—new shoots were growing out of the stump, bright green tendrils of life, thriving:  stubbornly, joyfully, reaching for the light. 

It’s the first beautiful new morning of a beautiful new year.  Let’s do what our people always do—insist on thriving: stubbornly, joyfully, reaching for the light.

Shanah Tovah

 

Into the Heart of Darkness

SERMON DELIVERED AT GREATER CENTENNIAL A.M.E. ZION CHURCH

MOUNT VERNON, NEW YORK

SUNDAY, MAY 19, 2019

Good morning, Greater Centennial.  I am always so happy to worship with you and to bring our congregations together as we did just a few weeks ago when the Pastor spoke at WRT.  To Rev. Pogue, to Iris and their family, to all of the wonderful staff here at Greater Centennial, thank you for making Kelly, me, and our congregants always feel like we are part of your family too.

The Scripture I share with you this morning is taken from the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20, verses 18-21; notably, this passage comes immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai:

Exodus 20:18-21 (My Translation)

18 When all the people saw the thunder and lightning, the sound of the ram’s horn, and the mountain smoking, they became afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.  19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you, and to put the fear of God upon you, so that you will not go astray.”  21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

Moses walked into the darkness, because he knew that was the way to God.

And now I ask you the question that will be the theme of my remarks this morning:

Are you willing to walk into the darkness? 

Picture the scene:  Delivered from slavery—God having broken the chains of bondage only weeks ago—the Children of Israel have miraculously crossed the Red Sea escaped Pharaoh’s armies, their rampaging horses and chariots, arrived at the wilderness, and made their way to the foot of Mount Sinai, which is robed in smoke, quaking with thunder and lightning. 

The shofar, the ram’s horn, blasts louder and louder.  There, God speaks into being the laws that will be carved in tablets of stone:  the Ten Commandments.  There, the people stand, amid the thunder and the spark and the smoke.  The Hebrew Scripture tells us that the people could actually see the thunder, an experience of what scientists call synesthesia—when certain people, under certain circumstances, associate certain sounds with certain colors, or certain shapes or letters with certain smells or tastes. 

Mount Sinai must have been overwhelming!    

And the people are afraid.  They stand at a distance.  They say to Moses, “You go.  We’re fine over here.  We’ll just stay back and listen.”

Moses tries to reassure them—“It’s okay; you won’t die; God is just testing you.”  But the people do not budge.  And Moses steps forward, alone, into the thick darkness, where God is.

And so I ask you again:  Are you willing to walk into the darkness?    

This past New Year’s, Kelly and I visited Charleston, South Carolina which is nicknamed the “Holy City” for the number of church steeples dotting its downtown skyline.  Turns out, our hotel was just a half a block away from Mother Emanuel, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where, four years ago next month, Dylann Roof, a 21-year old white supremacist, murdered nine people during Bible Study, including their pastor, South Carolina State Senator Clem Pinckney. 

We thought we were just in Charleston on a charming little getaway—and there, we found ourselves standing in the heart of darkness.

Since Dylann Roof committed his atrocity in Mother Emanuel Church, the headlines have not stopped: 

Eleven Jews murdered in Shabbat prayers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh last October.

51 Muslims shot to death and 49 injured at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past March.

290 murdered in coordinated suicide bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.

A woman murdered and a rabbi injured three weeks ago in a synagogue shooting outside of San Diego, again by a white supremacist, this one only 19 years old… to say nothing of the countless mass shootings in classrooms, concert halls, theaters and public buildings all over this country. 

And where are we?  Are we standing on the sidelines, trembling at the darkness, terrified by the thunder and the spark and the smoke?  Are we waiting for Moses?

But what if no Moses steps up?  What if there is no way past the thick cloud, the smoke, the fire and the darkness— except through? 

For is it not written:  “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…?” (Psalms 23:4, KJV)

There is no way around the Valley of the Shadow.  The only way out is through.  And when we walk, forward, through, into the Valley of the Shadow, how good it is to know that Thou art with me, O God.

Recently I returned from a week traveling in and around Berlin, Germany, with Kelly, my parents, and 40 other members of Westchester Reform Temple.  When we announced this trip, a lot of our congregants asked, “Why Germany?  Why would you ever want to go back there, after what they did to our people?” 

And, indeed, I was a bit hesitant about going back to the “scene of the crime,” to the place where, only about 75 years ago, men with advanced academic degrees, bureaucrats wearing expensive suits, gathered in a serene lakeside villa in a place called Wansee, thirty minutes outside Germany’s capital to devise what came to be known as “The Final Solution”:  the intended mass murder of 11 million Jews and millions of other human beings, including ethnic minorities like the Roma and Sinti (sometimes called “Gypsies”), people of color, the elderly and infirm, people with disabilities, and the gay population.  The Final Solution would allow the Nazi regime to mechanize murder like an assembly line—efficient and with a minimum of psychic strain on the perpetrators, who now could simply flip a switch on a gas chamber, rather than have to confront their victims face-to-face as they died.   

In Berlin, we met Margot Friedländer, age 98.  As a young woman she hid herself from the Nazis for 15 months while every one of her family members was rounded up and murdered.  After surviving, she moved to America and created a life for herself and her husband in New York.  As an 88-year-old widow, she decided to move back to Berlin to educate her home city—from young to old—about her experience during the War.  She refused to stand on the sidelines in a climate of rising antisemitism and hatred around the world.  She moved back to Berlin—to the very heart of darkness—to do God’s work, to teach of the worst of humankind, so as to make a better future for humankind. 

She walked into the darkness.   

There, we met young leaders of new Jewish communities who have returned to Europe—from Russia and the former Soviet Union, from conflict zones like Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, even from Israel.  They have come to rebuild.  They have decided that if Judaism is to have a role in the future of Germany then they must not wait for others to create it. 

And there in Germany, we reckoned with the wickedness of the past.  Unlike every other place in the world, in Germany, remembrance of the Holocaust takes place in countless moments, in countless places.  Engraved brass plates interrupt the cobblestones of the sidewalk wherever people were evicted from their homes and sent to the camps.  These are called stollpersteine—literally, “stumbling stones”—you cannot miss them.  They acknowledge the crimes of the past without mincing words:  “Here, Dr. Julius Hoffman, age 43, was taken from his home.  He was murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis.” 

Public memorials educate and force a confrontation with the past.  A monument to the murdered communities of Europe comprises 2,711 massive concrete pillars occupying two city blocks.  Pedestrians enter the maze of stones and quickly find themself encased in an imposing darkness.  Children run through and play hide-and-seek.  This is not a museum where you pay to get an education about the Holocaust.  This is public space where you enter, sometimes totally unaware of its significance, and then it dawns on you where you are.  This is all part of how Germany has made a choice, to confront the darkness and not to stand on the sidelines or run away.  This, I believe, also partially explains why Germany has led Europe in granting safe haven to asylum seekers from some of the the world’s worst conflict zones.  It recognizes that stepping into the darkness of its past also means stepping into some of the most difficult challenges of today’s world.

My friends, I wonder what America would look like if our country undertook the same approach to our past, particularly with regard to the crimes of slavery, our treatment of indigenous populations, and our history of disenfranchisement of people of color, women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ population.  I wonder what effect such a reckoning with our past would have on our actions today—on everything from how we deal with Confederate War monuments in public spaces, to immigration policy, to our accountability to refugees and asylum seekers, to our treatment of our own minority populations, including Muslims and Jews who are targets of rising Islamophobia and antisemitism.

I wonder what America would look like if we undertook a reckoning with our country’s obsession with guns.  Just last week, New York Times opinion columnist Charlie Warzel made the case for a broad effort to collect and preserve the “firsthand accounts of America’s mass shooting epidemic. Otherwise the horror, as witnessed by the victims, may be lost to the digital ether.”  He observes that during the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students live-tweeted, interviewed classmates barricaded in closets, and posted images of the devastation on social media—broadcasts from the heart of darkness that spurred a student movement into action.

Mainstream news has proved reluctant to show the carnage of mass shootings.  But at this point, our country seems so inoculated to the violence, so weary of gridlock in Congress, that whatever we’re doing is failing to disturb us toward real action.  It’s become: another day, another mass shooting – yawn.

Jamelle Bouie, who also writes for the New York Times, recently observed that

The fight to pass a federal anti-lynching law stalled for decades before it was propelled, in part, by gruesome images of Southern lynchings, printed in newspapers and circulated by black activists and sympathetic allies. The horrific violence done to Emmett Till, captured in photos and published for the world to see, helped energize the civil rights movement….  [I]mages of fighting and death [during the Vietnam War] played a real part in pushing some Americans from quiet disagreement to staunch opposition. Images from Abu Ghraib contributed to the wide sense among Americans that U.S. officials were condoning torture in Iraq.  And more recently, graphic videos and images from police shootings of black Americans have galvanized a broad protest movement and led to real change in public opinion.

There is, in other words, an important link between confronting, head-on, the most disturbing, dreadful, and disastrous deeds of which we human beings are capable, and changing the ultimate outcome. 

Those Israelites who escaped slavery knew the worst in us—they knew the slave-master’s whip.  They knew the torment of being treated like a farm animal, or, worse, like vermin.  It is understandable that when they came to a mountain enveloped in smoke, shaking with thunder, illuminated by lightning, they cowered at a distance.  This, after all, was a traumatized people.  I understand them.  I understand why they said to Moses, “You go.  We’re fine over here.”   

But God wanted them to move forward, into the darkness, to meet the storm, head-on.

God wanted the Children of Israel to enter the darkness.  For is it not written:  “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light?” (Is. 9:2, KJV)

Out of the darkness would come the light of law and justice and compassion.  Out of the darkness would come a new vision for human civilization—a new compact between God and the people, a covenant, founded on love of God, love of neighbor, and loving self-respect. 

Out of the darkness would come the dawn of a new day.

And so I ask you again: 

Are you willing to walk into the darkness?

God is waiting for us!

Love and Critique, Together Forever

YOM HA-ATZMA’UT / KEDOSHIM 5779

MAY 10, 2019 – 7:45 PM

LOVE AND CRITIQUE, TOGETHER FOREVER

One of the most confounding verses in Torah appears in this week’s parasha, Kedoshim.  At the center of Leviticus 19—the celebrated “Holiness Code” that outlines the terms of a life of Jewish sanctity, the same passage that, famously, demands, “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha,” “Love your neighbor as yourself”—we read:

Lo tisna achicha bilvavecha; hocheach tochiach et amitecha, v’lo tisa alav chet. 

There is no one perfect way to translate the verse, but here’s my attempt:

“You must not keep bad blood toward your brother in your heart; rather, you should admonish your fellow, so that you will not have to bear his guilt” (Lev. 19:17).

In other words, “If you see something, say something.”  If you observe your brother—probably here meaning a fellow Israelite or Jew—going astray, it’s up to you to call him out, lest the transgression be yours to bear for not having done anything about it. 

The verse follows in the vein of much other Biblical law concerning the structure of Jewish society, in which, for lack of a better way of putting it, everybody’s stuff was all up in everybody else’s.  In America, we have “Mind your own business”; in Torah, we have, “your business is my business,” a sharp contrast that may shed light on particular characteristics of Jewish people to this day. 

And so we derive from this verse the premise that it is not only okay, but sometimes required—indeed, a mitzvah or commandment—for us to critique another, when we see someone going astray. 

Once we unpack the complex syntax of the verse, the concept is simple to understand, but difficult to apply. 

The Babylonian Talmud offers an exchange between prominent rabbis, in which one, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, complains that no one of his generation seems able to accept critique.  Rabbi Akiva interjects, “By God, I don’t know of anyone in this generation who knows how to deliver critique” (Arakhin 16b).

Hearing and delivering critical feedback are difficult, but necessary, practices, what we might call “essential life skills.”  No genuine relationship can thrive without them.  In Midrash, Rabbi Yosi notes that “love without reproof is not real love,” and the Sage Resh Lakish replies, “And peace where there has been no reproof is not real peace” (Bereshit Rabbah 54:3).

I share these comments with you as a shaky peace, a welcome but unpredictable cease-fire, holds in Israel, following last week’s unprovoked rocket fire from Gaza on Jewish population centers that resulted in four civilian casualties.  There are more than a million bomb shelters in Israel—that’s one for almost every eight people—and last Shabbat, that’s where you could find a million or more Israelis, seeking refuge. 

WRT joins the Reform Movement in condemning the attacks. 

Our Movement leadership has written:  “We hope and pray that the cease fire holds, and at the same time, the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis deplore the massive rocket attack unleashed upon Israel and its citizens by Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the terrorist clients of the Iranian regime, which controls the Gaza Strip. 

We mourn the innocents who have lost their lives in this new round of violence. We pray for the healing of the injured and for the safety of the Israel Defense Forces as they strive to combat this murderous assault on Israeli sovereignty and security. As we send strength and blessings to our congregations in the south of Israel, we are grateful that peril to life and limb in Israel has been greatly limited by the effectiveness of the Iron Dome, emblematic of longstanding U.S.-Israeli security cooperation.

As this week, together with Jews across the globe, we prepare to celebrate Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, we stand in solidarity with the State of Israel and all Israelis even as we pray for Israel’s safety and security, for an end to this tragic violence, and for a future of real, lasting, and sustainable peace for Israel and for the Palestinian people.”

As we celebrate Israel’s independence, we recognize that it ought never be taken for granted.  As rockets target Israel civilians; as Jews all over the world feel—and are—more threatened today than in a generation or more by antisemitism; as we confront an ancient hatred perpetrated anew on college campuses, in the pages of the international news, and by disturbed gunmen firing on Jews praying in shul—we stand with Israel and for Israel:  a home, a haven, and a harbinger of hope.     

And yet, in light of the verse we have examined, might we still dare to ask:  Does the Jewish obligation to reprove your fellow ever apply to our relationship with Israel? 

I know plenty who say no.  They say:  What Israel needs most from the Jewish community, especially now, is our unconditional support.  They say critique is damaging, even dangerous.  They say Jewish critique of Israel is the mark of the self-hating Jew.  They suspect any critique of Israel of being a cover for antisemitism. 

I reject this view, even if it means that I am thereby protecting the right of the actual antisemites to broadcast their noxious opinions.  The ability to give and receive critical feedback is a sign of any healthy relationship.  Stifling all criticism is both unwarranted and unhelpful.  As we have learned:  “Love without critique is not love.  Peace without critique is not peace.”  It is intentional that the Torah places the verse about rebuking your neighbor directly next to the words, “Love your neighbor.”  The two are inextricably linked.

And so, as we stand unwaveringly with Israel, especially when besieged—as we celebrate her independence, renew our commitment, pledge to make travel to Israel a priority, and support the special relationship between the United States and Israel that helps to guarantee Israel’s security—we also do not flinch when it comes to holding Israel to the highest moral standards of our Jewish faith. 

Following services tonight, we’ll enjoy the opportunity to reflect on last month’s general election in Israel.  I am always grateful to our congregant, teacher, erstwhile Executive Director and friend, the erudite and insightful Yoel Magid, who will join me in conversation about the meaning of the election and where Israel, and we, might go from here. 

As we do, Yoel and I will endeavor to keep in mind what the Talmud teaches, that it’s hard to hear critique, and even harder to deliver it properly—with sensitivity and love.  We hope not to miss the mark. 

Some may feel uncomfortable with our sponsoring a dialogue that raises concerns about the way in which security and nationalism may be exploited to undermine Israel’s democratic character; or about growing threats to religious pluralism; or about incitement against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens of Israel who comprise one fifth of the population; or about the alarming rise in public acts of anti-Arab racism; or about the empowerment of religious intolerance in the form of Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians who seek to deny the equal place of women, converts, the LGBTQ population, and all non-Orthodox Jews, in the world’s only Jewish State.  All this, before we even touch the seemingly ever-receding prospect of meaningful reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

“But rabbi,” I can hear them say—this is no time to speak of such things.  Tonight is Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, a time for celebration, a time for unconditional love. 

To which I say, “Our celebration continues unabated.  And our love for Israel is indeed unconditional, the same word we use to describe the love for our siblings, parents, and children—unconditional, yes, but not uncritical, and there’s a critical difference between the two. 

I for one would not wish to be part of any society, country, group or above all religious tradition where thoughtful dissent is silenced.  Having just returned from a week in and around Berlin, in large measure spent excavating the history of Jews in Germany, having stood in the public squares where the Nazis burned our books, and on the train tracks where the Nazis deported us to our deaths (on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less), I feel obliged to remind us that we Jewish people are all too familiar with the silencing of dissenting voices, with the way in which autocracy thrives on fear and intimidation, and dictators often strike first against a free press precisely because they cannot abide even a modicum of public censure.

So tonight we celebrate and confirm our unique and permanent bond, between our people and our homeland.  And tonight, we also question, challenge, probe, critique, and converse. 

We do this because we are Jews, and that’s how we Jews show our love. 

Shabbat Shalom.

COMMENTS ON THE ISRAELI ELECTION OF APRIL 9, 2019

Following this Tuesday’s national election in Israel, I write to offer comments here on the outcome, as well as to invite you to participate in an opportunity this spring to continue the conversation at the temple.

As of this writing, it appears as if incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu is best positioned to form a coalition government. While the right-wing Likud party captured 35 seats (out of the required 61 to govern, a simple majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament), tying his rival Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue & White Party’s 35 seats, it seems that Netanyahu is in the best position to  assemble a right-wing governing coalition. This will also put Netanyahu on track to become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, exceeding founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.  At the same time, the strong showing by Gantz shows that Israelis are far from unified behind their Prime Minister’s policies, rhetoric, and choice of allies.

This is a moment that calls for thoughtful reflection and renewal of our commitment to Israel. 

Renewal of our commitment:  because it is important for Israelis to know that America, and American Jews especially, stand by Israel’s side and will do our part to support the world’s only Jewish State—a goal that transcends policies and political parties. 

It is important for Israelis to know that we respect the democratic process that has created the present outcome, and that we support Israel’s democratic and Jewish aspirations.

It is important for Israelis to know that, as Americans and as Jews, we seek Israel’s prosperity, value Israel’s security, and see Israel as our chief strategic partner in the Middle East, and a key ally in a rapidly changing, complex and challenging world.

Israel is a central tenet of Jewish peoplehood. Her existence is paramount. Her values are fundamentally our values. Our shared commitment to her future must never waver.

This is also moment for thoughtful reflection, especially for us American Reform Jews.  The re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, and the anticipated formation of a coalition drawn from Likud and far-right political parties, should give pause to anyone who does not wish to see Israel’s democratic aspirations and character diminished in the name of security or nationalism. 

We should be on guard about the empowerment of Israel’s most extremist voices and ideologies.  Anti-Arab incitement, invective directed by Netanyahu and his associates against Israel’s own non-Jewish citizens (more than 20% of its population), has been a distressing feature of this election cycle. 

We should feel concerned that this election will give newfound leverage to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, politicians, and rabbis, who are intolerant of religious pluralism and especially hostile to Reform and Conservative Judaism, our Judaism.  We should worry that the right of every Jew to feel fully at home as a Jew in the Jewish State will be infringed, and that non-Orthodox Jews will be subjected to further marginalization. 

We should feel concerned about the direction in which the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be heading.  A strategy that eventually leads to the morally commendable outcome of two states for two peoples seems ever more distant.  Recent talk of Israeli “annexation” of the West Bank is deeply distressing to all who seek a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict.

And, finally, we should feel concerned about Israel further becoming a wedge issue in American political life, dividing the American Jewish community against itself so as to harm Jewish unity and erode a longstanding tradition of bipartisan American support for Israel.

All of these concerns arise from the outcome of this election, alongside our unwavering support to do our part to help Israel fulfill its mandate to be a light unto the nations of the world and a secure haven for world Jewry—always. 

WRT affirms, as one of our pillars or foundational precepts, the value of Clal Yisrael, of responsibility for our People everywhere, including and especially in Israel.  This is why we will take not one, but two congregational trips to Israel in the coming year:  a family trip in December 2019, and a High School seniors trip in February 2020—and yes, there’s still time to sign up.  It is why we advocate vigorously and give generously to support Israeli causes and work tirelessly to grow and strengthen the the Jewish state.  And it is why we raise our voices in support, in solidarity, and in shared concern over the future of our beloved Jewish homeland. 

Please consider strengthening WRT’s efforts by donating to Israeli causes (I have a list of recommendations that I’m happy to share), making plans to travel to Israel, and participating in the many educational and celebratory programs about Israel that WRT sponsors throughout the year.

Thursday April 11th actually happens to be a historic day in Israel’s history and a celebratory day for all of us. Last week, the Israeli rocket ship Beresheet successfully entered into the moon’s orbit and tonight, it is anticipated, it will land on the moon!  This will mark a tremendous accomplishment for Israel and space exploration, as Israel will become only the fourth nation to land on the moon.  You can follow organized “watch parties” taking place all over Israel where they have prepared large screens and activities for children. You can find that information by clicking HERE.

Finally, we hope you’ll be part of our conversation in person.  Our congregant Yoel Magid, who regularly teaches classes about Israel at WRT, will join me in dialogue about the outcome of the elections on Friday, May 10th, when we publicly celebrate Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day, which falls this year on Thursday, May 9th), during and following Friday night services at 7:45 PM.

Until then, I wish you a sweet Pesach season of freedom, and a beautiful spring. 

Shalom Al Yisrael,

Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake

Chayei Sarah 5779: Response to Pittsburgh Massacre

REMARKS DELIVERED FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2018

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

The Torah portion we read this Shabbat is called Chayei Sarah, which means “the life of Sarah” but whose first verse records the matriarch’s death.  No cause of death is announced, but there it is, staring us in the face—the first death to touch the first Jewish couple.

The Rabbis looked around for a cause of death, and found it in the verses immediately preceding this week’s opening line—that is to say, the last verses of last week’s portion.  That portion concludes with the harrowing story of the Binding of Isaac, and the last thing we read is that Abraham returned to his tent alone.  Maybe Isaac, traumatized by the near-death experience, went off on his own, without his father, without his mother.  All we know is what happens next—Sarah dies.  Midrash makes it possible to conclude that Sarah died of a broken heart.

This week, we understand how Sarah felt.  Every heart in this room is staggering to carry the weight of the grief and anger and bewilderment that we feel at the murder of eleven of our brothers and sisters as they sat in their synagogue, the Tree of Life congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, last Shabbat. 

They had come to shul to pray, to celebrate Shabbat, and to welcome a newborn boy into their community.  They were just like we are.

Like broken-hearted Sarah collapsing at the news of her traumatized son, each one of us must now grapple with the reality that this is what can happen to Jewish people in the United States of America in the year 2018.

Over the last week, too many have described last Saturday’s atrocity as “senseless.”  Of all the adjectives befitting this crime, “senseless” does not come to mind.  Sadly, it makes all too much sense, given current realities.

We must understand that, in America in 2018, this nightmare is not some random aberration, but a sign of the times in which we are living, a representation of three larger forces that are colliding to make violence against Jewish communities a predictable phenomenon:

First and foremost:  a resurgence of anti-Semitism.  In its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, ADL found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017 – the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.  This is not a politically one-sided issue.  Anti-Semitism finds expression on the left among supporters of BDS (the Boycotts, Divestment, & Sanctions movement) and in surging anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses and in the media.  Virulent demagogues like the unrepentant antisemite Louis Farrakhan have enjoyed increasing support from prominent public figures over the last year, including activist Tamika Mallory, national co-chair of the Women’s March.   On the right, Anti-Semitism has been taken up with new boldness by a loose coalition of white nationalists and anti-immigration zealots who have exploited nativist fears of foreigners in order to foment hate.  And of course Anti-Semitism currently finds a hospitable audience abroad, both in Europe and in the Middle East, particularly among jihadist extremists And their sympathizers.  We must recognize that, in 2018, when a person declares “All Jews must die”—in speech, or on Facebook, or by tweet—this must be interpreted as a statement of intent.  That person should be taken at his word.  In my lifetime, we have never had greater cause to be vigilant than at this moment.

Secondly, a fractured national conversation.  When hateful and divisive speech is given a public platform, we should not be surprised when violence follows.  It is heartening that, following the Pittsburgh attack, the President of the United States vigorously called out Anti-Semitism as a “hateful poison,” a sentiment echoed by many of our elected officials.

Still, history has shown that whenever nativism and xenophobia are given the ability to flourish, it often ends badly for the Jews.  There is a direct line between neo-Nazis marching on Charlottesville in August 2017 and the mass murder perpetrated by Robert Bowers in Pittsburgh in October 2018.     

It is true:  not all nativists are Anti-Semites.  But, the inverse is also true:  most hardened Anti-Semities hold strongly nativist views.  The murderer at the center of the Pittsburgh massacre, we now know, channeled his rage into demonizing foreigners, immigrants, and refugees.  In this regard, the criminal was given aid and comfort by all who espouse similarly toxic prejudices.    

In such a divisive climate, It is only a matter of time before some deranged and disaffected individual, whose wrath and sense of grievance has been stoked to a white-hot flame, takes a gun and acts on his worst impulses. 

And that takes us to the third reality:  unchecked access to dangerous weapons, by dangerous people.  We are the only first-world country that regularly experiences mass shootings.  More than 30,000 Americans die each year by bullet.  We have done too little to enforce and strengthen existing laws, and we have done too little to create legislation that could require safe and responsible use of firearms (see how Israel does this for one compelling example).  We have failed to use promising new technologies to create safer firearms, like fingerprint-recognizing weapons.  And we have continued to allow lobbyists and elected officials to tell us that the answer is more guns. 

So, that’s the reality.  The question now is, what can we do?

First and most importantly, you are here.  You came tonight.  You came because you always come to Shabbat services; or because you read about our fantastic rabbi-in-residence, Jeff Salkin who will join us and our Jewish Learning Lab families throughout the weekend for family education; or because you are celebrating a simcha like a Bat Mitzvah or a forthcoming wedding and your synagogue is where you mark the meaningful moments of your life; or because you needed to mourn; or because praying for healing for others does a lot to heal our broken spirits, too; or because you discovered that millions of people, in churches and mosques and communities of every kind, are also with us tonight in love and in prayer; or because you saw the hashtag #showupforshabbat and you did; or because you don’t know why, but you needed to be in your synagogue tonight, and here you are.  You are here.  You are where you belong.

Secondly, we have prepared a resource packet so that you can direct your funds, your energies, and your activism toward some of the people and organizations that need you most, in Pittsburgh, in the Jewish community, and in the world.  Please take one on your way out tonight.  But above all, the best way you can turn your thoughts into action is to get up on Tuesday morning and go out and vote—and tell your children and grandchildren of eighteen years and older that they must also vote. 

Finally, there is one last thing we all can do, right now.  Months ago, we designated this Shabbat service as a night for honoring our civil servants—our police officers, firefighters, ambulance corps, emergency responders, and so many others who give of themselves and who put themselves in danger in order to create a community that is safe, joyful, and thriving.  As I ask all those who are here tonight to be recognized to rise, I also ask the congregation please to take a moment to join me in thanking our civil servants for their tireless work on behalf of our community. 

In their moment of need, the Tree of Life congregation immediately received the support of brave civil servants who came to their rescue and were wounded in the effort, who evacuated and treated the injured and who brought the accused into custody.  Here at WRT we are grateful every single day for all that our civil servants do to keep us safe and to allow us to continue to mark the moments of our lives, great and small, in our shared spiritual home.  Thank you.

Our portion this week reminds us that we have endured much trauma as a people.  Too many Jewish lives have ended in violence.  Too many Sarahs have collapsed in horror, grieving children who never came home. 

And yet, at the end of this most difficult week, we stand together, resolute, grateful, united, determined that our enemies will not be given the last word, that we have too much holy work left to do, too much light left to bring into a hurting world, to be scared away from our synagogues.        

Let this Shabbat Chayei Sarah—this Sabbath of mourning for all the slain, of praying for healing for all the hurting, be also a Sabbath of love and solidarity for the Jewish people and all people of goodwill, and let us say, Amen.