Thursday, October 1, 2009

Not the Health Care Sermon You Were Expecting

You may have read this in your email in-box, but it’s worth a repeat:
The first Jewish woman President is elected.
She calls her Mother: "Mama, I've won the elections, I’d like you to come to the swearing-in ceremony."
"I don't know, what would I wear?"
"Don't worry, I'll send you a dressmaker"
"But I only eat kosher food"
"Mama, I am going to be President of the United States, I can get you kosher food"
"But how will I get there?"
"I'll send a limo, just come mama"
"Ok, Ok, if it makes you happy.”
The great day comes and Mama is seated between the Supreme Court Justices and the Future Cabinet members. She nudges the gentleman on her right and says, "You see that girl, the one with her hand on the Bible?...Her brother's a doctor!"

How many of us here tonight ever had a parent nudge them toward medical school—successfully or not? And the rest of you…law school, right?

The medical field is a bit of an obsession for the Jewish people. From having the best chicken soup recipe to believing that we know everything about skin cancer because we had a mole in 5th grade, we are a medically focused people. Health care is incredibly important to us.

Now don’t leave just yet. I am not going to talk about politics tonight or the national plan for health care. While it is a good idea to discuss Health Insurance Reform, that is not our topic for this forum. The truth behind the joke of the mother at her daughter’s inauguration is that for us medicine has greater significance than politics.

The Jewish view is that health care is imperative, preventative, and collective. We must care for ourselves when we are sick, we must do everything in our power to stay healthy, and we must take care of those who are sick as a community. Let’s take a look at each of these three facets of Jewish Health care.

Jewish health care is imperative.

Above all else, Judaism teaches that human life is the most important thing there is. Deuteronomy tells us we are to choose life and live (30:19). Genesis tells us we are all created in the Divine image (1:27), which means we need to treat the form our souls inhabit with respect and dignity. Leviticus tells us not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors (19:16).

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, recently cited these texts. From them he points out two central ideals that Judaism adheres to. The first is that an individual’s life is more valuable than anything, and saving the life supersedes almost all else. Second, God has endowed us with the understanding and responsibility to be God’s partner in making a better world. Using our ability to cure illnesses has been a central thought in Jewish history.

From these two ideals—that life is sacred and that we are commanded to protect it—the Rabbis from Talmudic times to today have continually offered requirements for us to fulfill both of them.

The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin (17b), lists ten things we must have in any city where we would reside. It says:
A Jewish person should not reside in a city where the following ten things are not found: (1) A court of justice; (2) a charity fund; (3) a synagogue; (4) public baths; (5) toilet facilities; (6) a mohel; (7) a doctor; (8) a notary; (9) a shohet; and (10) a school-master. Rabbi Akiba is quoted [as including] also several kinds of fruit [in the list] because they are beneficial for eyesight.
Six items on the Talmud’s list are directly related to health care issues. Public baths because cleanliness helps prevent certain skin afflictions, infections, and bacteria. You know all those signs that tell us to wash our hands? Well, the Talmud knew about that almost 2000 years ago.

Toilet facilities—well, I hope I don’t have to go into detail about why keeping waste away from homes is beneficial. Having bath houses and restrooms also increases the town’s general aesthetic and decreases its environmental impact.

A mohel, because the very first time a Jew has elective surgery, it should be done right.

Having a doctor in town is also obvious, and often when this passage of Talmud is quoted, “doctor” is the only requirement cited.

A shochet is a kosher butcher, which is related to the preventative aspect about health care. We need to get our food from a trusted source—someone who knows the ins and outs of preparation of anything we would put into our bodies. This is also why Rabbi Akiva, like many of our parents, tells us we should eat a little fruit. It’s good for you.

The charity fund is also part of health care. It is the Jewish belief that the public is responsible for helping the poor pay when they cannot afford the best care. The Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Caro’s 16th-century compendium on Jewish Law, takes it a step further. Caro writes that Jewish doctors must cover all costs of treatment when their patients cannot afford to pay. But I promised this would not get political, so we’ll move on.

Six out of ten things we must live near relate to health care. It is a Jewish imperative to take care of our bodies, to get proper treatment when we are sick, and to ensure that our neighbors are cared for as well.

Jewish health care is preventative.

Even before we are required to take care of anything wrong with us, we are required to keep bad things from happening to us.

We believe that God owns everything, including our bodies. Since they are gifts from God, it is our responsibility to care for them. Just as we are obligated to take care of a car on lease or a house we rent, we must take care of that which God has loaned us. Exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep, and maintaining good hygiene are not for appearances. These are religious duties that keep our covenant with God regarding our bodies.

One of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, Maimonides, was both a rabbi and a physician. Boy was his mother proud!

One of Maimonides’ writings is called Mishneh Torah, a 14-book compendium of Jewish law, philosophy, and practices. Early in this work, in the section call “Laws of Ethics,” he writes:
…when one eats and drinks it should not be done simply for pleasure, or else a person might eat and drink only sugary foods. Rather, pay attention to eat and drink in order to maintain the body health. Therefore, one should…eat things that are good for the body—whether they are sweet or bitter. Also, one should avoid eating that which is bad for the body, even if they are sweet to the palate (Hilchot De’ot 3:2).
Maimonides also speaks out against over-indulging and the sicknesses that can come from it, and he presents a plan for regulating the diet. His nutritional guidelines are almost exactly what the USDA teaches grade school students in the form of the healthy eating pyramid.

A note regarding over-indulging: Judaism often appears to give mixed messages about eating and drinking. We sanctify with wine. We use bread at our meals. We encourage certain foods for certain holidays, such as jelly donuts, hamantashen, and blintzes—none of which are considered healthful. On Purim we are even commanded to drink alcohol until we cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Do not think that this means we are to put our health at risk.

Anyone who cannot physically or psychologically handle sweets or alcohol or any other type of food is forbidden to take part in these practices. We are allowed to use grape juice in place of wine. We can replace our sugary confections with a piece of fruit. If we can handle it, then we are permitted to celebrate according to the dictum, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” If we cannot, it constitutes a danger to our health, and according to the Shulchan Aruch, “One should avoid all things that might lead to danger, because avoiding a danger to life is more important than complying with a ritual” (Yoreh De’ah 116:5).

Knowing that we are to avoid danger easily gives us understanding of what Jewish law says about smoking. We have known the dangers of smoking for years, and the negative effects it has on our health, even if we are only bystanders. Cigarettes are the only products legally sold to us that, if used the way they are intended, will kill the users. It’s only a matter of when.

We are commanded to do whatever we can to avoid the need to receive medical treatment. Eat right, exercise, maintain good hygiene, use alcohol sparingly, and stay away from cigarettes and recreational drugs. We do what we can to prevent the need for health care.

Jewish health care is collective.

Health care is a communal concern. When someone in our community is sick or in need of healing, we react together. When we pray, our daily liturgy is full of prayers that thank God for our health or asking God to keep us healthy. We recite Mi Shebeirach for the sick when the Torah is open to demonstrate its severity. There is a prayer for healing in the Amidah, as a part of Asher Yatzar, and elements of health and protection in Haskiveinu. We thank God for giving strength to the weary and lifting up the fallen.

At Temple Sinai when we recite Mi Shebeirach during a Shabbat morning service, we read a list of names. These are people who might have asked for our prayers and people who might have been put on the list by our partners. If anyone ever feels they need us to pray for their healing, we will absolutely say a Mi Shebeirach for you. All you have to do is let us know you are in need.

Do we believe that God miraculously grants healing to the sick? That by praying the sick will be healed? Not necessarily. But we do believe that there is great power in community, and that together our prayers do reach God. If our prayers do nothing else, then they give comfort to the sick. Comfort helps to relieve stress, and less stress means more healing. So maybe our prayers can be effective.

We add to our prayers with action. The morning blessing Eilu Devarim reminds us that Bikkur Cholim, visiting the sick is one of the duties whose worth is immeasurable. Bikkur Cholim, is a central Jewish value. Rabbi Litwak, Cantor Kruk and I visit partners in the hospital or at their homes regularly. Our caring community does it as well. Spending time with someone who is sick is an easy way to show that we care, and it brings a little light into a dark time.

The practice of Bikkur Cholim is exemplified in a Midrash:
When Abraham was circumcised and was in pain from the circumcision, God told the angels to go and visit him. But before they arrived, God came in first, as the Torah says, “And God appeared to [Abraham] and after that, “He lifted his eyes and saw three men approaching” (Tanhuma Vayera 2).
Abraham circumcised himself at 90 years old. He was in a great deal of pain, and God came to visit him. The 41st Psalm tells us that “Adonai supports one who lies on a sickbed.” So it is not just biblical characters that merit God’s attention, but anyone who is ill. Like the poem about the footprints in the sand, God is with us when times are hardest. If Bikkur Cholim is important enough of a duty for God to practice it, think about how much more so is it incumbent upon us to visit the sick. In fact, when we sit with someone who is ill, we are representing God.

We can also help by healing with our feet. In a few weeks, the weekend of October 16th, we will hold our second annual Pink Shabbat for breast cancer awareness. We will pray for those who a re struggling with breast cancer, rejoice with those who have survived it, and remember those who have succumbed to it. On Friday evening, October 16th, we will have a special Shabbat service here in the sanctuary. On Saturday morning we will join the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. We will meet bright and early for a very brief Shabbat service in the amphitheatre at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. After services we will attend the Survivor Ceremony, followed by the 5K Run or Walk for the Cure.

Temple Sinai is currently the only Jewish organization sponsoring this event. Even though the Race for the Cure is on a Saturday, we feel that participating falls under the guidelines that saving a life supersedes all else. We hope you can join Team Sinai, put your pink on, and walk with us. More details are on flyers in the Bloom lobby.

Whether we are praying, visiting, or walking, we respond to issues of healing as a collective—a strong caring community—emissaries of God.

Not everyone can be the doctor that would make our mothers so proud. But everyone can and should be a part of the healing process. It is imperative for us to be healers. It is crucial that we keep ourselves healthy through preventative measures. We face health issues as a collective.

May this year be a year of good health for all of us and our families.

A year of providing necessary care.
A year of maintaining our health with our good habits.
A year of caring for each other and staying active in our caring community.

21st Century Jews

Pay attention, this may be the only time you hear me make a sports reference in a sermon:

A few years ago, someone from the congregation I was working with approached me just after Rosh Hashanah. “Rabbi,” he said, “I know next week is Kol Nidrei, but that night the Steelers are playing. The Steelers are my second religion. I’ve got to watch that game on TV.” I said “that’s what VCRs are for.” “Oh!” he said, looking surprised, “you mean I can tape Kol Nidrei?”

How many of you are on Facebook? Look around at the people in this room with our hands up. For the few of you who have not yet connected to the phenomenon created by Mark Zuckerberg, allow me to offer a brief explanation. Facebook is a social netweorking website. "Users can add friends and send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves. Additionally, users can join networks organized by city, workplace, school, and region." This definition is according to Wikipedia, an online collaborative encyclopedia, where users can edit the encyclopedia’s entries, which were until very recently immediately posted to the site, and later submitted for review. Now a panel reviews all submissions before they go live.

But there are other wikis, which allow users to collaborate immediately about documents or other projects….

Wait. Am I going too fast here?

Does anyone know what this is?

This is the Gutenberg Printing Press. Built in the 15th century, it revolutionized reading, making it possible for the average person to afford books. In 1455, the Gutenberg Bible was first printed and has remained number 1 on best-seller lists ever since. Before the printing press, only the wealthy were literate. Writing implements and parchment were expensive, and most literature was transcribed by professionals who had to be paid. Plus it took time to read, and time was also a luxury of the rich.

Today we live in a literate society, thanks in part to Gutenberg and his Printing Press. Of course if you don’t want to lug around books, you can use one of these:

The Amazon Kindle is a book-reading tool that allows users to read from a “paper quality” screen held easily in one hand. The first version of the Kindle came out in November, 2007, and was sold out in five and a half hours. The latest version, the Kindle DX, which you see here, is the size and weight of an average magazine, holds approximately 3500 non-illustrated books, and has a battery life of two weeks. The price tag hasn’t yet made it accessible to everyone, but to everyone who missed my birthday a week ago, if you each kick in a dollar….

I have one more bit of technology to show you. Does anybody know what this is?
This is called a node, or a touch graph. It is a graphic display of about half of my Facebook friends, grouped according to network. I’m the larger red circle in the middle. Some of you might be in the red group, which represents my Miami connections. Perhaps the best thing about Facebook is demonstrated by the node. What keeps me intrigued about nodes is the knowledge that every one of these dots on my node has a node of their own. If you were to pick any random dot on this Touch Graph, you would see a similar graph with that person in the center, connecting me and everyone on my node to them indirectly. The combinations are infinite to connect any two people on Facebook. There are hardly six degrees anymore.
Facebook has revolutionized networking, allowing people to connect with others to help them find a job in this difficult economy. Employers are now checking Facebook pages of applicants before offering them a job. It has become the final stage of the interview process—what is your social networking image?

Admittedly, I am a bit of a technophile. I was among a small group of rabbinical students with palm pilots plugged in to collapsible keyboards in rabbinical school. I rarely used a pen and paper. I was among the first to get a laser keyboard that projected onto my desk and sensed where my fingers were—when it worked I could type by tapping my desk. I use Facebook daily, I use a Zune at the gym, I text with an average rate of 1400 outgoing and incoming each month. At a meeting about technology for about 50 Miami Jewish professionals, I was the only one in the room with a blog. This sermon was intentionally edited and discussed using as much technology as possible with the help of Rabbi Bradley Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta. We used a wiki, Twitter, Facebook, email, and cell phones both for talking and for texting.

Temple Sinai is integrating technology into our practice regularly. We use a program called Hineynu to help us know who in our congregation is celebrating a simcha or suffering a loss. Temple Sinai has a Facebook Group, as does the Jacobson Sinai Academy and the Sinai Parents’ Association. We have a beautiful new web site that Debbie Blooomfield and Cantor Kruk spent most of the summer putting together. On the web site a JSA parent can find the Digital Backpack, David Prashker’s answer to the problem of too much paper being sent home. Our newest toy is an internet camera which we have used for three webinars so far. Our Log-in Lunch and Learns for the High Holy Days have been well attended on line, and we are very excited to offer more interactive learning opportunities. New innovations in technology allow us to do amazing things. We hope to keep taking advantage of all of them.

There are also some drawbacks to overuse of technology. Seven years ago my father (z”l) and I were driving Natalie’s and my things from storage in Cincinnati to our new apartment in New York. He spent most of the time on his cell phone, and I spent most of the time with my headphones on. Neither of us did it to avoid the other. We enjoyed each other’s company and had a great time chatting at restaurants and in our hotel room during the day-and-a-half journey. It just happened because we wanted to plug in. We were close enough to touch, and yet with our devices we put bubbles around ourselves and hardly spoke a word to each other in the car.

We see this kind of thing all the time. Kids in restaurants texting or playing hand-held video games. Parents at the dinner table answering the cell phone instead of talking to the people in front of them. Drivers. Oh, Miami drivers. The average speed while talking on the cell phone with a hands-free device is 10 mph slower than while not using the phone at all.
In the 21st Century we have a great task ahead of us. It is our responsibility to make technology accessible to as many people as possible, and at the same time to stay plugged in to each other and not just to our machines. We need to revel in physical contact as much as we enjoy wi-fi connections.

Natalie and I recently had the “good touch/bad touch” conversation with our five-year-old Gabriel. Gabriel loves to pick apart details of any instructions we give him, so he kept asking which kind of touch certain activities were from non-strangers. “Hitting?” “Bad touch.” “Hugging?” “Good touch.” “Kissing?” “Good touch if both people want to kiss.” “Tickling?” “Usually good touch.” “Spanking?” “Bad.” “Potching?” “Good.” After exhausting his list, he came to a conclusion. “Daddy,” he said, “there are lots more kinds of good touch.”

I hope he’s right. Touching is generally a very, very good thing. We know that newborns need to be held. Holding hands with a new romantic interest can be electric, and holding hands with our spouse can be comforting. We hug and kiss people we haven’t seen in a while, and some of us hug and kiss every time we see certain people.

In the 1986 remake of The Fly, Jeff Goldblum’s character is trying to make a teleportation machine, but whenever he sends an animal through it ends up destroyed on the other side. Geena Davis’ character helps him make his transporter work when describing how it makes grandma’s crazy to pinch babies’ cheeks. He can only send a live creature through his teleporter after he teaches his computer to love flesh, to go crazy over it like a grandmother over a baby’s cheeks.

Technology can keep us simultaneously connected with hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. I can send an e-card to my sister on her birthday. This sermon will be posted on my blog.

We cannot use technology to hug our friends. I won’t be able to see the look of surprise on my sister’s face when I actually remember her birthday. And while we appreciate emails and calls after a loss, nothing compares to the warmth of an embrace and the comfort of the loving presence of family and friends.

There are very few of us who would deny that in person is better than on line for certain connections. Taping Kol Nidre just doesn’t cut it. And isn’t it better to go to the stadium than to watch the game on TV?
So what does Judaism say about Modern Technology? It is pretty hard to find a Biblical story about the internet or a Pesikta from the Talmud about web-based technologies. But we can glean the Biblical lesson about modern technology by reading about the technological achievements of Genesis. First, The Tower of Babel.

[The people of earth] said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard." -- Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. -- And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." Adonai came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and Adonai said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's speech." Thus Adonai scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there Adonai confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there Adonai scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:3-9).
The inhabitants of the ancient world did not have electronics. Their technological advances were the bricks and mortar they used to build a tower. The Torah would not mention the architectural style—using bricks burned hard—if it was not significant. We can learn from this that they were utilizing the very best of their engineering abilities. The tower of Babel was the most technologically advanced design of the day.

The people declare they want to build the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves, and to not be scattered all over the world. They want to make themselves great. God comes down, sees what they are doing, and punishes them with the very thing they were trying to avoid in the first place. God knows that if they are only concerned with themselves, they will suffer for their egotism. Perhaps if they were building a tower to be able to visualize the grand scheme of world issues, we would all still be speaking Hebrew today. When technology is used only to better ourselves, we lose sight of the world at large.

The other side of Biblical technology comes a few chapters earlier, from the story of Noah. God gives Noah instructions about how to build a contraption that will, in essence, save the world:

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks (Genesis 6:14-16).
While the reenactment of this story from the movie Evan Allmighty makes this technique look ancient, in Biblical times this was top-notch shipbuilding. Again the important distinction is not only that Noah was able to build an ark that could hold all of the world’s animals. Noah’s purpose was not self-serving. He was acting at God’s command to save the world. Noah’s technology provided protection from the destruction of the world.

So it is not technology that causes problems. It is how we use it that matters.

Sometimes we can become too focused on the technology itself and not enough on what it can do to help others. We can connect with people across the globe for free. We can donate money to Israel with a click of our mouse. We can express our solidarity by joining the fast for Darfur. We can learn from incredible resources and inspirational leaders.
Just as the High Holy Days is our time to reconnect with ourselves, we need to find that balance between connecting on line and connecting face to face. May our connections this year bring us great fulfillment and joy. May we find our hearts more linked than our modems, and our ability to reach out enhanced.

Shanah Tovah

Monday, September 21, 2009


Last year over the High Holy Days I spoke about Shabbat. This year I am thinking about Passover. Passover is by far my favorite Jewish holiday. We celebrate in such a tactile way, using all of our senses to celebrate. My favorite section of the Haggadah is the section that begins, “The Torah alludes to four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask.” Part of its charm is the memory it elicits. My father z”l would assign us to read the children we embodied. These children sit with us at our Seder, and we welcome their questions. We answer them according to the script of the Haggadah, and we move on to “Dayeinu,” and “Chad Gadya.”

The first child is the Chacham, the wise one. This child asks the details and minutia of the laws of Passover. The question comes directly from Deuteronomy 6:20, “What are the precepts, statutes, and laws that Adonai our God commanded you?” We are to answer that it is forbidden to conclude the afikomen after the Passover offering. This is a confusing answer. By reading through the Mishnah on the laws of Passover, creatively named Mishnah Pesachim, we find that this law is the very last law about conducting a Seder. Most haggadot take this to mean that we should explain every detail of the laws to this child—from the first to the last. Perhaps we should take a second look at the law itself. We do not conclude with the afikomen. Why not? Because Afikomen does not just mean dessert, it also means drunken revelry. We don’t end our Seder with debauchery, we end it with Hallel and Nirtzah—praising God and a declaration of acceptance of the Seder ritual. Studying the details of the laws of Pesach keeps the Chacham entertained, and reminds this child that there is always more to learn.

The next child is called Rasha, which is usually translated as “wicked.” This was my sister’s part at the Seder. The Rasha’s question is, “What is this service to you?” and we are to chastise this child because of the “to you” in the question. By putting the question in 2nd person, this child is thought to be separating from the community. The Haggadah instructs us to teach that child in first person in return, saying “This is what Adonai did for me when I came out of Egypt.” I have never really been satisfied with this answer. First, the understanding that a child can be wicked is disturbing. Children are simply mirrors of the world we present to them, so it is perhaps we who are wicked when a child challenges us. Second, hinging the child’s personality on the phrase “to you” is silly to the attentive reader. Second person is not unique to the Rasha’s question. The Chacham’s question ends, “that Adonai our God commanded you.” So perhaps this is not a wicked child, but a rebellious one. The Chacham wants to know the rules and follow them, while the Rasha needs to know the reasoning behind the rules. If we are offensive to them or rebuke them for questioning, we end up ostracizing them instead of welcoming them as participants at our table. The Rasha requires us to think carefully about our answers.

The next child is the simple child—the Tam. This is the role my father would assign to me. The Tam’s question during the Pesach Seder is just like the child’s name. It is a simple question. The tam asks, “Ma zot?” or “What is all this?” The Haggadah instructs the parent to tell this child, “With a mighty hand Adonai brought us out of Egypt.” It is a simple answer for a simple understanding. This answer explains the reasoning behind everything at the Seder, without any details or further explanation. The simple child can easily digest this answer, even though it holds within it the reasoning for everything we do at the Passover Seder. Worst case scenario, the Tam will say, “Ok,” and move on. At best, the answer will elicit more questions, and the Tam can start to have a serious conversation about the rituals we perform.

The fourth child is called Sh’eino Yode’a Lishol—The One Who Does Not Know To Ask. This child sits quietly at the table. Not a word is uttered about the Seder. No questions come to mind. So we explain to the Un-asking child, “This is what Adonai did for me when I came out of Egypt.” Sound familiar? This is exactly the script we are given for the Rasha! According to the Seder ritual, we are to answer the child who asks no question exactly the way we respond to the one the Rabbis called wicked! It is as if the Mishnaic Rabbis of the 5th Century formulated the popular dictum, “The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked.”

Most of our Haggadot would tell us to explain to the Unasking Child all the laws of Pesach from beginning to end. We assume that when no question is asked, there are too many questions to know what to ask first! So we explain everything. Eventually this child will know enough to ask a question.

Surely tonight, about halfway between last Pesach and next, the four children are still sitting among us. Even though we only talk about them on Passover, we deal with them every day. On the High Holy Days we tend to sit quietly (some of us not-so-quietly), read from the machzor, and listen to the music. We don’t often ask questions or encourage questions from our children. This year we should do just that. Let’s think about what the four children might be asking on the High Holy Days.

The Chacham asks about all the precepts, laws, and statutes about the Days of Awe. Our challenge is the same as it was on Pesach. We try to keep this child engaged. Perhaps we would answer with the opening of Tractate Yoma:
“Seven days before Yom Kippur, the High Priest goes from his home to [a special location]….”

Yoma is the tractate of the Talmud that deals with the rituals of the High Holy Days. This suggests a different approach than our answer to this child on Pesach, with hopefully the same result. Instead of citing the very last law of Yom Kippur, we cite the first. Perhaps this will inspire the Chacham to study the Talmud. By starting at the beginning of the tractate, we can illustrate the myriad of opinions that emanate from it. The Talmud is not a list of rules, it is a discussion among rabbis who lived over generations. The Talmud reminds us that knowing the laws is not enough. We must discuss, question, and debate. This particular law also reminds us that the High Holy Days are not about getting to the end, they are about the process of repentance. This process does not begin on Yom Kippur or even seven or ten days before. We begin on the first of Elul, a month ago tonight. If the High Priest, the most respected figure in Ancient Jewish practice, had to spend a week in solitude preparing for Yom Kippur, how much more important is it for us to spend time reflecting?

The Rasha is probably the one who leaves Rosh Hashanah services right as the sermon starts. While they are here, they might ask, “What is the meaning of this service to you?” Instead of rebuking the child, we can think about what this child might really be asking. Maybe the question points to the service itself, as in “why do we have to sit through all this stuff?” Show the rebellious child the readings in the front of the Gates of Repentance. Explain that there are a great many ways to think about this holiday. Maybe this child is challenging our own views on the High Holy Days. If this is the case, accept the Rasha’s challenge. Think about what the High Holy Days mean. How do we react to the concept of Tshuva? What bits of wickedness do we have within us that we would strive to turn around for the better?

Tonight the Tam is asking “Ma zot?” What is this? The simple child seems to have a sense of wonder. This child might be overcome by our beautiful sanctuary, by the drama of opening the ark as the clergy enter to lead us in prayer, by the powerful music emanating form the organ and the cantor. Perhaps the Tam does not have the vocabulary to ask deeper questions about our rituals, but at least a question is asked. Our answer to the Tam could be: Avinu malkeinu choneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim. Avinu Makeinu, have compassion and answer us, for we have little merit. This answer evokes deep emotion from us, and its layers of meaning allow for more questions. Why do we sing it so many times? Why is God a parent and ruler? Why don’t we deserve forgiveness?

The answer is also simple. The Days of Awe are about asking forgiveness. In the words of Rabbi Akiva, “Everything else is commentary.” The architecture of the sanctuary, the music, the liturgy, everything else is an attempt to enhance the experience. The tam reminds us to focus on the basic meaning of High Holy Days.

The Sh’eino Yodea Lishol might be here with us tonight too. Be careful. The Unasking child is not the one sitting quietly and following along in the machzor. The Unasking is here, but not present. This is the person texting through services or playing a video game, blissfully ignorant to the fact that we on the bimah can see everything that happens in the congregation.

The un-asking child is not the child who does not know how to ask questions or which questions to ask, it is the child who does not even know to ask. Think of the four children as four generations of Jewish men. The Chacham is the one who is active in the synagogue, participates in programs, is a Chai donor, goes to every Shabbat he can. The Rasha is then the one who rejects synagogue life, thinking dad’s interest in this stuff is irrelevant. Being Jewish is enough to him. Doing Jewish, not so much. Jewish learning? Out of the question. He no longer comes here unless he is dragged in by his family, and he complains about it before, during, and after. His son the Tam learns from his example. The Tam comes to believe that the rituals and practices of Jewish life are “just for grandpa.” Maybe he comes to services on the High Holy Days, but not if it’s on a school night or if he has soccer practice. So he grows up with no vocabulary for Jewish life, no real exposure to Jewish rituals. His son, therefore, is the Sh’eino Yodea Lishol. He has been taught by his father the Tam and his grandfather the Rasha that there are more important things to do than engage in Jewish life. He has absolutely no exposure to the synagogue, never sets foot in that door. He has no questions because he has nothing to question.

That is exactly why we must take the Unasking child under our wing and teach him everything we can. We start with apples and honey to lure him back to us with their sweetness and the prospect of a sweet new year. We talk about the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, how exciting it is to be a part of a community that gets to celebrate together. We listen together to the sound of the shofar, the wail that awakens our soul every year at this time. We discuss repentance and the need to say we’re sorry.

Clearly we would all like to be the Chacham. We want to be thought of as intelligent, knowledgeable about our customs and wise enough to know how to apply them. Sometimes we do all emulate the Chacham. We have a little of each of the four children in us. We are wise at times, rebellious at others. We occasionally need to take information in its simple form, and sometimes we are completely ignorant.

Just before we read about the four children in our Passover Haggadah we say this blessing: Baruch Hamakom; Baruch Hu; Baruch Shenatan Torah le’amo Yisrael; Baruch Hu. Blessed is Source of Life, Blessed is the One; Blessed is the Giver of Torah to the people Israel; Blessed is the One. In the first century CE, around the time the Passover rituals were being developed, this four-part blessing was commonly used to introduce Torah study. Since the inspiration for the story of the four children comes from the Torah, it makes sense to recite such a blessing at this point in the Passover Seder. But something stands out about this particular blessing. Every line begins with the word Baruch, or blessed. Four times we repeat the word Baruch just before we discuss the four children. Implicit here is the understanding that every type of child—wise, wicked, simple, and un-asking—is a blessing. We are thankful to have all four children at our tables and in the sanctuary. We are proud to be a community made of all kinds of different personalities.

Temple Sinai’s leadership has spent quite a bit of time lately discussing how we might engage each of these different personalities. We have discovered that in general if someone thinks, “I don’t know anything about X or Y,” that person will is not likely to come to the synagogue to find out, at risk of being thought of as ignorant. Or perhaps that person just does not know everything that Temple Sinai has to offer.

In our endeavor to engage all the varied personalities in our community, Temple Sinai offers plenty of ways to stay connected. We offer something for each of the four children within us.

We have spent the last month thinking about the past year and how we can improve ourselves. The whole month of Elul we get ready for the High Holy Days. Every day for the last month Rabbi Litwak has sent out an Elul thought. We have been able to read thoughts from many of you Chachamim here tonight. We have read your thoughts about health and healing, family and friends, summers at camp and Chanukah at college. Our Elul thoughts are a way to share ideas across the range of experiences represented by our partners. To see all of our Elul thoughts, go to our web site, as you can see conveniently written on your program.

The four children within us have a wide range of opportunities to engage with our community in learning. Our energetic Ruach and Torah Study 101 groups meet every Saturday morning. Ruach gathers in the library for a little breakfast and lively discussion and questioning about the weekly Torah portion. Torah Study 101 meets in Rabbi Litwak’s study, where we take a simple, story by story look at the entire Torah. We have been on this track for a year now, and we’re barely halfway through Genesis.

Every other Thursday we offer simple tastes of Talmud in Rabbi Litwak’s study. No prior knowledge is required for any of these classes, just a sense of wonder and a desire to learn.

The best way to find out what works for you is to try a little of everything. We have learning opportunities at Temple Sinai on a regular basis, including our amazing discussion about Israel last week with Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, and our discussion this coming December with a Palestinian and an Israeli from the organization Seeds of Peace. Rabbi David Saperstein will join us in January as Scholar-in-Residence, and this coming Wednesday is the last of our four Log-in Lunch and Learn sessions. For our learners who are actually children we are offering a new Sinai Chai this year for 7th and 8th graders, and we are participating in Melton’s Communiteen at the JCC for high school students.

For details on any of these programs, all you have to do is ask a question. Or better yet, call or email to let us know what you are questioning. What do you want to learn about? How can we help connect you to other like-minded partners? Remember, we work for you. We will do our best to put together what interests you.

The High Holy season gives us a chance to improve ourselves. The only way to do that is through learning. Jewish learning is not about facts and figures. It is about connecting. Or in the words of the 20th Century scholar Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, “When I pray I speak to God. When I study God speaks to me.”

May we all stay connected throughout 5770. May we acknowledge the different children around us and within us. May we keep them actively engaged in life at Temple Sinai and the Jewish community around us.

Shanah Tovah.


I am thrilled to have my first "Guest Blogger," Rabbi Alan E. Litwak, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai of North Dade, and my boss.

Can we ever really overcome our faults? Is our sinful behavior so deeply engraved in our nature that we are only deluding ourselves when we believe we can eradicate it? Is the popular adage, “You can not change human nature” really true?

Our congregant, Marylou Brotherson, sent me an article written last week in the wake of Senator Edward Kennedy’s death, asking the same question. The author of the article quoted the poet John Berryman, in his "Sonnets for Chris" -- which was about an earlier act of adultery. Berryman asked "Is wickedness soluble in art?" What the poet wanted to know was whether he could be forgiven -- or redeemed -- for his act of immorality by striving for the artistic heights? Are we, in some way, able to get past our past, through our subsequent actions?

Let’s get it right out of the way: Edward Kennedy was a weak, flawed and, occasionally wicked human being. Yes, he cheated on a Harvard exam hoping to stay eligible for football. Yes, in his early days in the senate he was looked upon as a lightweight who got by on charm, a famous name and a great staff. Yes, his indiscretions and infidelities were, in part, the cause of his divorce. And yes, he closed down many a bar in Palm Beach and Cape Cod.

With all that said, we are now able to examine his good deeds.

Entering the Senate in 1962 at age 30, Senator Kennedy brought with him a storied name and virtually nothing else. Now, at his death some 47 years later, he leaves the Senate as one of the most effective senators of the past 100 years. He drafted and shaped some of the most significant legislation in the past century. Among the over 300 laws that never would have been enacted without Kennedy are:

  • The 1964 Civil Rights Act

  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965.

  • Expanding voting to 18-year olds.

  • The 1985 legislation that imposed sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa.

  • The 1988 bill that provided $1.2 billion for AIDS testing, treatment and research.

  • The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

  • The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.

  • The Kennedy-Hatch Act of 1997, which provided health insurance for children.

  • Heightened taxes on tobacco.

  • The Kennedy-Kassebaum bill which made health insurance portable for workers.

  • The "Patients' Bill of Rights" which he co-sponsored with John McCain

One wonders how, with all the loss, tragedy and foibles, Kennedy could have fought on for so many decades. What was it that made him get up each day and do the best he could to make this a better world? Was it an intense desire to tip the scales? Although no one can ever know for certain, this drive, according to one of his friends, has always been his defining quality.

Because of all he went through in his family, Ted Kennedy became what the great political writer Jack Newfield called "America's grief counselor." By way of example, Newfield noted that "when two planes were hijacked out of Boston's Logan Airport on 9/11 and 93 residents of Massachusetts went to their deaths; Senator Kennedy personally called more than 125 family members offering assistance and solace." One conversation with a grieving father so moved the senator that he sent the man a copy of a letter that his father, Ambassador Kennedy, had written to a friend in 1958 upon hearing of the death of the friend's son. That note, perhaps better than anything else, provides the key to what, when all is said and done, made Senator Ted Kennedy so utterly unique.

"When one of your loved one goes out of your life, you think of what he might have done for a few more years, and you wonder what you are going to do with the rest of yours. Then one day, because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself a part of it, trying to accomplish something -- something he did not have time to do. And, perhaps, that is the reason for all. I hope so."

In the end, despite all his personal foibles and humiliations, his public losses and private tragedies, he has done well. He has done more than his share to help make this world a better place. There are those who would say that wickedness can never be soluble in good deeds; that “once a sinner always a sinner.” I will certainly not dismiss him because of what happened that one night in 1969 in a place called Chappaquiddick. Nor, will I release him from responsibility for his sins simply because he spent the better part of his life engaged in the act of overcoming loss, tragedy, and personal shortcomings. And, neither would Judaism.

Judaism’s answer to the question of whether we can escape our past is to reject any and every kind of fatalism that denies us the freedom to choose our way and to strike out in new directions. We are not enslaved by the impersonal laws of nature. God encourages and awaits our return. There is a wonderful Midrash that teaches “God said to Israel, "My children, Open the door of repentance as wide as the 'eye of a needle,' and I will expand it so wide that wagons and carriages can pass through." (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 24)

HERE IS THE KEY POINT: According to our tradition, great action, in and of itself, cannot redeem a person’s sins. The action must be directly linked and in response to the sin. Senator Edward Kennedy was a great man, a brilliant legislator, a tireless champion of those without a voice. The question of his redemption can only be answered by God and by those against whom he transgressed, and it is determined by his teshuvah.

The great composer Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism is not mitigated by the brilliance of his musical compositions. O.J. Simpson’s talent on the football field does not outweigh or excuse his past sins.

Did Senator Edward Kennedy do the necessary teshuvah? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, he or we need not be seen in the light of either/or. Human beings are not wholly sinful; nor are they completely pure. The great legacy of Judaism is to recognize that we are both. One does not erase the other.

The month of Elul and the subsequent High Holy Days bring us a reassuring message that we are not eternally bound by what we have been. We can throw off the oppression of enslaving habits. Our tomorrow can be freed from the shackles of yesterday. We can conquer the selfishness that shrinks us, the prejudice that blinds us, the envy that gnaws at us, and the greed that impels us. The verdict is still out on whether we can actually change human nature. However, it is human nature to change human actions, and that is what these days of teshuvah are all about.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

God Within

Elul Thought #27

Last night I read Murphy Leopold’s beautiful Elul thought, and today I am going to riff off of a part of her thought.

She wrote, “Does anyone else hear Charlton Heston as the voice of God in the Torah?” in reference to the burning bush scene from The Ten Commandments. Moses, played by Charleton Heston, approaches the burning bush, and God’s voice speaks, also played by Charleton Heston. The same dual-casting is used in the animated The Prince of Egypt for the same scene, but with Val Kilmer playing both voices.

This casting choice is also a theological choice. It says, in essence, that when Moses hears God’s voice, he hears his own voice. In other words, God’s voice is not the cinematic presentation of a booming, masculine voice from the clouds. It is the still, small voice within us. This is why the Hebrew word l’hitpalel, “to pray,” is a reflexive verb. We do not direct our prayers outward; we direct them inward, to the Divine Spark nestled deep in our soul.

When I am reading or thinking and I “hear” words in my head, the voice of those thoughts is my voice. I assume it is the same with all of us. Who knows? Maybe we all hear God’s voice, disguised as our own. Perhaps what we call the voice of conscience is that same voice that Moses heard at the burning bush, that all the Israelites heard at Mt. Sinai, and anyone can hear if we are able to recognize our own connection with God.

Have a very sweet and happy 5770.

Shanah Tovah!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering September 11

Eight years ago, I was living in Jerusalem. It was almost 4 in the afternoon, and my classmates and I were moving to the large classroom for our Tuesday afternoon seminar. My cell phone rang. It was my mother. She was calling to tell me that there had been a terrible accident in New York City at the World Trade Center. (Remember those 5 minutes? In between horror that there could be such a terrible accident and the realization that this was no accident?)

When the second plane hit, my mother said something to the effect of, “Oh my God, a plane just hit the second tower.” I told her, “Please, don’t hang up, we’ll never get this connection back.”

For a while my mother was one of two phone connections we had to the states. One of my classmates ran around the school looking for someone who could bring a TV to where we were. Another ran to the library to get on the internet for updates. Whoever had a spouse with them in Israel was either calling frantically or running home. I stood at the front of the classroom, relaying information from my mother to the other 62 students in the year in Israel program.

When the TV arrived and we were able to tune in to CNN, I hung up my phone and sat with Natalie to watch in horror as they showed the planes crashing and the buildings falling, over and over. After sitting in the classroom for a couple of hours, two classmates who lived across the street from HUC offered their homes to all of us. So most of us crammed into the two apartments, which happened to be in the same building, one floor apart. We used the Markleys’ apartment to watch news, and the Cytron-Walkers’ apartment to watch movies over the next two days.

For my four classmates with family or friends in New York City, those first hours were gut-wrenching. It was not until 2 in the morning our time that we heard that the last relative was safe. Most of us slept on the floor or couches in our friends’ apartments. We couldn’t be alone. We felt so helpless watching from half a world away. We held each other as tightly as we could. We wondered if we were safe as American Jews in Israel. We prayed.

My friend Heidi was living in New York at the time. Her brother was working in the World Financial Center, near the World Trade Center. She was able to talk to him only for a second before the connection was lost. She would learn much later that he was under the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. He ran when debris got too close for comfort, and made it to safety. Meanwhile, Heidi’s office was evacuated, and she and some co-workers got on a subway. It stopped in a tunnel in between two stations for what she describes as the longest 45 minutes of her life. After walking, riding a ferry, and walking more, she found her way to a bar where she was a regular. Her mother actually called the bar when she could not reach her by cell, and said it was the first time she was ever thankful her daughter was in a bar.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Stephen Wise was also at HUC when the planes hit the World Trade Center, but he was at the New York campus. They were holding morning services when they heard what sounded like a bomb exploding. They went to the street to see what had happened, then made their way to the roof of the building where they saw the second plane hit and the towers fall. Instead of standing in awe, they went to the blood centers and hospitals en masse. They rolled up their sleeves to give blood to those who needed it. They prepared triage areas in hospital parking lots for the wounded. Only the wounded never arrived. There were no wounded on September 11, only victims and the rest of us.

There are so many stories, so many memories. There are memories of tragedies and miracles. A man decides he needs coffee an hour earlier than usual. A woman sleeps in and doesn’t get to work that day. A firefighter goes back up the stairs to try to save one more life.

Memory is central to the Jewish belief system. We are commanded, “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of ages past” (Deut 32:7). In our weekly practice, remembering is one of two ways the Torah tells us to sanctify Shabbat. We are constantly reminded that we were slaves in Egypt. Two weeks ago we read from Parashat Ki Teitze, “Remember what Amalek did to you….do not forget” (Deut 25:17-19). Memory is powerful—palpable. A memory can make us laugh or cry. It can activate our senses and stir our souls.

So tonight we remember September 11, 2001. Like the memory of Amalek, we remember the evils that befall us as a people. Even when we feel helpless, when we think there is nothing we can do, we can remember. Our memories bind us as a nation, and strengthen us as a people. We remember that even in the darkest hour of our nation, we can find a glimpse of light.

My good friend Brian called me on September 12, 2001. Brian is ex-military, and I knew that the attack would have a serious impact on him. I had been expecting his call, but I did not anticipate what he had to tell me. You see, he had missed most of the drama of the day. He spent most of it in the hospital delivery room. His wife Colleen had given birth to a beautiful baby boy on September 11th, 2001. Brian had called to ask me if I would be Nathan’s Godfather. So for me September 11th is both a day of unfathomable dread and a day of uplifting joy. A day remembered for the end of lives, and the beginning of life.

I want to close with a thought posted on Facebook this morning by Pete Pirro, my freshman year roommate at Bradley University:

Exactly eight years ago... Vulnerability crept into our nation and murdered the
innocent. War unfulfilled, life, men and women still underappreciated. Souls
sent to rest too early, fears perked, hearts swooned and time stopped.
Understand the brevity of life, remain vigilant, give of yourself and never
forget that we rest beneath a blanket of freedom stained with sweat and blood.
God Bless each and every one of you.

Zichronam livracha. May the memory of the victims of 9/11 be a source of blessing for us personally and as a nation.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Elul Thought

As I write this, I am in Cincinnati for my nephew’s b’rit milah. He was born on the last day of Av, and his birth reminds me of some of our Elul themes.

As Elul begins, we are given the opportunity to look back and seriously consider how we would like to live our lives. Like a newborn baby, we are full of potential. The High Holy Days are a time to tap in to our potential and create the best version of ourselves for the coming year. Elul provides for us a full month of preparation for the Days of Awe. We cannot expect to go to synagogue once or twice a year and immediately feel renewed. Just like we give a newborn milk or formula before solid foods, we take time to prepare before our feast of the spirit over the High Holy Days.

Thinking about the new arrival in my family gives Elul even greater significance this year. In holding with Ashkenazi custom, my sister has named him after our father Victor Young z”l. My nephew will spend his life honoring my father’s memory by carrying his name. Sad as we are that our father will not be here to hold his grandson, make fun of him, and hunt for pine cones with him, we know that Victor Aaron Dujan carries with him a legacy that we are all proud to bestow upon him.

As it says in Pirkei Avot 4:13, “A good name surpasses all else.” In his name is a great deal of potential. Victor means “conqueror,” and Aaron means “mountain of strength.” We pray that Victor Aaron Dujan will be able to conquer everything that comes his way with great strength of character.

May we all find the strength to use Elul to realize our fullest potential. May the month ahead bring us into a year of conquering the changes we wish to make in ourselves.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Attack in Tel Aviv

Last Saturday night there was a terrible attack in Tel Aviv. It was not a terrorist attack or a strike by Palestinian militants. It was Jew to Jew—an attack by one Jewish person on a group of people. A masked man stormed into a basement and sprayed automatic gunfire into a crowd of people. Two were killed that evening, and 15 others wounded. Police still hunt for the man responsible for this horrifying act, an act of hatred and prejudice.

For the past week much of the media has been referring to this tragedy as happening in a club. This is true, but it is also misleading. When we hear of an event happening at 11 at night in a club, we think of a nightclub, especially when it comes to light that this was a GLBT club—a place for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender youth. It was not that kind of club. The shooting happened at the Agunah Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Association building. This masked man opened fire in a room where gay teenagers were holding a weekly support group. They were sitting with their counselor, with friends who understood them. Perhaps they spoke about the issues they faced as teenagers in a society whose rules are based on a stringent interpretation of their religion. Perhaps they were wondering how and when they would tell their families that they did not live under the assumptions that a heterosexual society puts on people. Instead of counsel and comfort, last Saturday evening they instead endured hate and violence.

Last Saturday night, Liz Trobish and Nir Katz were gunned down in a place they believe was safe. Liz was 17, Nir was 26. Nir was the counselor at the center, working to help others through what their families see as subversive lifestyles. It is scary to think of the teens who have to tell their parents that they have been hospitalized at the same moment they tell their parents that they are gay or lesbian. It is terribly painful to know that several of those parents have not yet visited their children in ICU because they are gay or lesbian.

This is not the first time such an attack has been executed against Israel’s GLBT community. In 2007 a bomb was planted at an entrance to a settlement with a note that said, “Sodomites Out.” A device was planted in an attempt to prevent people from attending the 2006 Israeli Pride Parade in Tel Aviv. In 2005 at the Pride Parade in Jerusalem, a man ran into a crowd brandishing a knife, wounding three parade-goers. Of all these hate crimes, the knife-wielder is the only one who has been caught.

Throughout the past week, Israel has heard loud condemnations from both sides of the issue. Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz, Israel's only openly gay elected official, condemned the attack this past Sunday, saying:
This is undoubtedly the worst incident targeting the gay community in Israel. It
has the characteristics of a hate crime, of someone who attacked to blindly
strike out at every person on the spot...

The leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party decried the attack as well, stressing Judaism’s belief in the sanctity of human life. Last Saturday’s shooter ignored this sanctity in a blind display of hatred.

While it fills me with pride that so many Jewish leaders from all walks of our faith would speak out against this bloodshed, I am reminded that many of the criminals who perpetrate these acts of hatred do so inspired by guidance from “spiritual leaders.” Let me be clear: I do not blame any particular person or religious movement for the shooting last weekend. We don’t know who the shooter is. At the same time, I am suspicious when bombers leave signs like the 2007 “Sodomites Out”—a clear cut Biblical reference left at a settlement entrance next door to a far-right-wing yeshiva. But the police have no suspects for that one.

The Torah teaches us to pursue justice. It teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It teaches that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine. Pursuit of justice means we stand up for the orphan, the widow, the poor, and anyone whose voice is not being heard. When we combine that with love for our neighbor, it means when we see injustices heaped on our neighbors, we take it to heart because our loved ones are not being treated as if they are created in the image of God.

Earlier this week, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism hosted a vigil in Washington, DC. Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, made a statement asking that the Jewish community make a promise:
A promise to preach respect. A promise to seek justice, to speak for
righteousness, and to always, always demand equality. A promise to proclaim that
bigotry and hatred have no place in our society and that love and tolerance are
our cherished religious values. Values that cannot be compromised and cannot be
shaken. Values that do not falter in the face of violence and hate.

May the memories of Liz Tronbish and Nir Katz serve as constant reminders that our work in this world is not finished. We have much to do to fight against the hatred and violence enacted upon our neighbors. May God bring speedy healing to those still being treated in Tel Aviv hospitals, and may the families of the victims come to soon know peace.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Visions and Visionaries

Yesterday morning I was watching The Today show as I got ready for work. Meredith Viera was interviewing Susan Boyle, the famous Britain’s Got Talent contestant who has been all over the news this summer. For those of you without a television or internet access, Susan Boyle walked on to the Britain’s Got Talent microphone and endured eye-rolling and taunting by the judges because of her frumpy looks and socially awkward comments. Then she began to sing. Her stunning, powerful voice filled the theater and immediately brought the audience to their feet. Famous naysayer Simon Cowell stared open-mouthed and teary-eyed as she belted from Les Miserables, “I Dreamed A Dream.”

Immediately Susan Boyle was catapulted into super-stardom. The YouTube video of her performance got over 3 million hits in one day. It has since gotten ten times that many. Though she ultimately lost the television program’s competition, it takes a Goodsearch to find out the name of the winner. It is Susan Boyle who we remember, and who we most certainly had not heard the last of.

The coincidence of her song choice, “I Dreamed A Dream” has not been lost on those who cover her story. Her dream was to sing, and sing she did. Perhaps this is the very reason for her popularity. That a person can tap into a talent so special that physical appearances, social ability, and mental ability melt away into inconsequential trivialities. All that matters is doing what she does best. She had a vision and worked to make it a success.

Very few of us have the vision to accomplish all of our dreams. We may be successful and happy, yet there is still the possibility there is something we still want. One of the best ways to accomplish our goals is to envision them already completed. We can close our eyes and see the health, wealth, family, happiness, whatever it is that we feel we desire. Sometimes our vision is out of focus and we need meditation and prayer to pull ourselves back together. Some of us are better at having the visions than others.

In Hebrew the word for vision is chazon. We find it in this week’s Haftarah, from the beginning of the book of Isaiah: Chazon Yishayahu ben Amotz, asher chazzan al yehuda v’yerushalayim. “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, which he envisioned about Judah and Jerusalem.” This Saturday is called Shabbat Chazon, in reference to the first word of the Haftarah. Typically the Haftarah will point to an element of the Torah portion. A word or a theme from the Parashah will be reflected in the Haftarah selection, allowing us to connect the later parts of the Bible to the weekly Torah reading. This week, however, the Haftarah is tied to the calendar, the last of three Haftarot of rebuke leading up to Tisha B’av this coming Thursday.

Isaiah alternates between harsh scolding of the Israelites’ behavior and compassionate consoling and reminding that if they change their ways, his destructive prophesies will not come true. In Isaiah 1:18, the prophet offers a deal with Israel:

"Come, let us reach an understanding, declares the Lord.
Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece."

In other words, no matter how bad it gets, no matter what we have done or what situation we find ourselves in, we can always make it better and succeed. Isaiah is referring specifically to the sins of Israel. Crimson is the color of blood and reminds us of the evil we do, the harm we do to others. Turning our deeds snow-white is absolution. When we do good, good things happen.
Isaiah is talking about the major sins of Judah, especially giving in to the idolatrous practices of their neighbors. But the concept holds true for lesser things in our lives, too. If we can purify our thoughts and our actions, envision our lives the way we want them to be and behave in a way that will get us there, our visions will be realized just as easily as red dyed wool can become like fleece.

Perhaps what we need now is not a vision of doom and gloom. Not a vision of cause and effect theology. What we need is a vision of optimism. In Yiddish, the term alle mailis refers to all the best that life has to offer. When a person has alle mailis, they have looks, brains, and talent all rolled in to one with the added bonus of loving family and friends. When we envision all these things for ourselves, it is the first step in making our vision a reality.

May all our positive visions this week come true.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Pre-Shabbat Thought


“The most profound change came when I turned off the TV. That suddenly transformed the whole Shabbat experience. It wasn’t about the electricity; it had more to do with the noise, the intrusion of the mundane into the sacred.”
“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”
“No soup for you!”
“How you doin’?”
“To the moon, Alice!”
“Say goodnight, Gracie!”

Surely at least one of these popular TV catch phrases is familiar to you. Television informs our world. It is one of our major sources of information and entertainment. When I was in Religious School in Cincinnati, it was impossible to participate in conversations on Sunday mornings unless you had seen the previous evening’s Saturday Night Live. Thursday nights were dedicated to The Cosby Show and Family Ties (and if the President was on, it would ruin the whole evening). We couldn’t leave our Tuesday night dinners at Grandma and Grandpa’s house until after we had all watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! Before DVR’s, we would drive ourselves crazy making sure we were in front of the TV at the right time.

In the movie The Princess Bride, the narrator tells his grandson at the beginning, “When I was your age, television was called books!” When the rabbis of the Talmud were prescribing rules about keeping Shabbat (including the 36 categories of forbidden work), they had no idea what television was. They didn’t even know radio, electricity, or the printing press. Life was work and study. Families gathered around a table and listened to a wise master instead of staring at an electronic box for hours on end. To forego work on Shabbat provided an opportunity to focus more on reading our beloved texts.

Summer is a great opportunity to catch up on reading. We do it at the beach, at parks, and in bed at night. (It doesn’t hurt that most of our TV shows are on summer hiatus.) This week, in the spirit of both Shabbat and summer, I have two suggestions. First, spend a little extra time reading this Shabbat. Read with your family or friends, join a book club, or just pour a cold drink and relax with a book in your favorite spot. Second, let us know what you’re reading. I would love to learn from your suggestions, and I would be glad to share. Shabbat Shalom, and happy reading!

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Pre-Shabbat Thought

From the Union for Reform Judaism's, "Gift of Shabbat" Deck of cards:


“I differentiate Shabbat by keeping kosher: no milk and meat together, no otherwise forbidden foods, paper plates, etc.”
I am a “foodie,” or as much of one as a pescetarian can be. I love to cook and to eat. I watch Food Network and listen to The Splendid Table. I adore entertaining and cooking for family and friends. Food is very much a part of my physical and spiritual nourishment. (I’m even the one who typically comes home from a day at the office and cooks for my family.)

Cooking can be a chore, but it can be incredibly relaxing. The rhythm of the knife going through the vegetables, the creative nature of putting together a meal, and the soothing kitchen sounds of bubbling pots and clinking spoons can put me into a Zen-like state. Cooking before Shabbat dinner is even more special. Every Shabbat Natalie, the boys, and I gather around our kitchen table and recite the blessings over the candles, the kids, the wine, and the meal before we eat.

Food is eaten. A meal is experienced. The Shabbat meal is a special, shared experience. In our home, we don’t eat leftovers or throw together sandwiches. We spend time talking about what we want. We think about what foods go well together, what we have not had in a while, and whether I have time to make something as fancy as what I envision. Whatever ends up on the table is made with love and care, which is what the Shabbat meal is all about.

May your Shabbat meal bring you closer to the ones you love this week and always.

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, June 29, 2009

From the URJ's DAVAR ACHER section of Ten Minutes of Torah, posted a week ago on the URJ site:

Challenging God

Throughout the Bible, God is challenged. Abraham challenges God. Pharaoh challenges God. Jezebel challenges God. The Israelites constantly challenge God.

What is it that distinguishes these challenges and God’s responses to them? Parashat Korach gives us a little insight. We read of four different challenges this week, and four levels of response. Korah bands with Dathan and Abiram against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites gather against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron beseech God not to destroy the entire community. The chieftains of Israel accept the challenge God puts forth for the right to be in the Divine Presence.

Korah’s rebellion is the most severe. As Jacob Milgrom points out, Korah and his band are "demoralized by the majority report of the scouts and condemned by their God to die in the wilderness"(The JPS Torah Commentary, Numbers [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990] p. 129). They are angry, and perhaps jealous of their cousin Moses, and they express their anger by inciting the community. Even our typically humble Moses denounces the revolt, telling Korah rav lachem, "You have gone too far,"echoing Korah’s his own words from a few verses earlier (Numbers 16:3, 7). The people of the Korahite rebellion are utterly destroyed, either sent to Sheol or burned to ash by fire from God.

When the Israelites rebel as a community, they do so out of fear. They have just seen 250 of their religious leaders die, and they are afraid that it is because of Moses and Aaron and this invisible God they are following around the wilderness. God sees this as punishable by death, but Moses and Aaron intervene, challenging God to reconsider punishing them with the same ferocity as Korah. God does reconsider, and the reaction to the Israelites is modified. When the chieftains accept God’s challenge, none are punished because God sets the terms. Their acceptance shows a willingness to adhere to the results of the challenge. Their staffs do not sprout, and only Aaron is given the right to be in the Ohel Mo-eid the "Tent of Meeting.”

God can take a challenge, but not every confrontation is equal. The difference is in the intent of the challenger. If we are acting out of anger, jealousy, or fear, we are demonstrating a lack of faith in God’s leadership and ability to protect us. If we put forth a challenge out of a desire to change the world for the better, perhaps God will regard our request. Our greatest hope of this comes when we challenge ourselves to become better versions of ourselves. May these challenges help us to nurture our communities to fuller Jewish lives.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Eulogy for Dr. George Tiller

The poet Marcia Falk adapted a poem ascribed only to the name Zelda, called “Each of Us Has a Name,” which reads in part:

Each of us has a name
given by the source of life
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

This past Sunday in Wichita, KS, a man whose name is known to many in the political, social action, and medical communities was shot and killed in his church. He was serving as an usher, handing out programs much like our Shabbat greeters do here at Temple Sinai. His wife was singing in the choir when a man walked in, shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, and ran away.

Dr. Tiller made a name for himself, given to him in many forms. He was named a friend and supporter of Kathleen Sebelius, our current Health and Human Services Secretary. He was dubbed “Tiller the Baby Killer” by Bill O’Reilly. He was labeled hero by the hundreds of cards and letters that line the walls of the Women’s Health Care Center. He was named “Godless Murderer,” and “Church-Going Martyr,” in the same article of the Wichita daily newspaper. He was called father to four, and grandfather to 10.

I have been to Wichita only once—April 9th to 15th, 2006. Natalie and I met Dr. Tiller, and spent time with him in his clinic for a week. We did not want to go, but to us there was no real choice. About a month before our ordination and investiture from HUC, Natalie was 34 weeks pregnant, and we discovered that the baby had microcephaly and lissencephaly. In plain English, the head was too small, and the brain was not developing. The first, second, and third opinions all told us the same thing. Our baby would not live outside the womb. So Natalie and I made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.

In the United States, abortion is legal, but it is up to the states to determine limitations or restrictions on these laws. The Women’s Health Care Center in Wichita is one of three locations in the US that legally performs late-term abortions, or abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy. Dr. Tiller was referred to us as the best of those three, so we quickly made plans to fly to Wichita.

Though I do not wish this experience on anyone, I can say that Dr. Tiller deserves his designation as a caring, compassionate professional in his field. My memory is weak about our time there, perhaps subconsciously as a defense mechanism. I remember fake wood paneling on the walls, worn couches in several different waiting areas, and sympathetic faces on everyone on staff.

We were there with three other couples, all going through the same thing, though for different reasons. Not one person was there because of an unwanted pregnancy. All of us were distraught that our babies could not survive outside the womb. Dr. Tiller and his staff guided us gently and honestly through this incredibly painful process.

Throughout our week there, Natalie spent a lot of time asleep or in a drug-induced haze, so I had a lot of time to sit in our hotel room and think. I kept a journal when I could handle it emotionally, and I read. I read emails and magazines, and studied a little Mishnah. I took in the words of Tractate Niddah (5:3) which says, “A day-old son who dies is to his father and mother like a full bridegroom.” This phrase stuck in my mind, especially the use of the word “bridegroom.” There are many words the Talmud uses to distinguish different stages of life. It could have said elderly man, full-grown son, or young man with equal gravity to describe a parent’s loss. Using “bridegroom” must be intentional, and it works on two fronts.

The first is independence. A bridegroom is clearly of an age where the parents have completed raising the child until he is ready to be on his own. They know who he is, the kind of person he is, what interests he has, and what his aspirations are. Their loss equals the loss of a fully developed human being, no matter what age he is.

The second speaks to emptiness. Even before a woman gets pregnant, she is making plans for the child’s life. When a couple discovers that they are going to have a child, the plans begin. If this is the birthday, then this will the Bar Mitzvah. This will be graduation, and hopefully around here is the chuppah. Who knows, maybe by this year we’ll be grandparents! Describing the loss as “like a full bridegroom” reminds us that we are going to miss out on every simchah that might have been, from birth to the wedding and beyond.

Dr. Tiller had an understanding of this pain, perhaps better than anyone who has never gone through it personally. As a doctor he was upfront about everything he was about to do and everything we needed to do to make things go well. When we arrived, he sat all four couples down and told us everything that was going to happen. He showed us the instruments he was going to use. He told us how the drugs would make the women feel. He told them flat out that it was going to hurt and she needed to be ready. He was brutally honest. He told us that he had lost a patient about a year and a half prior to our visit. He asked if we had questions, and when challenged, he answered respectfully and honestly.

He also asked about us. He wanted to know who we were, what we did, and how we lived as couples and families. When it came out that Natalie and I were about to become Jewish clergy, he mentioned that his on-staff chaplain was not Jewish, but he wrote down the name and number of a local Reform rabbi who we might want to talk to. Admittedly, we did not use the number. So the next evening, that rabbi called us in our hotel room. He said Dr. Tiller had called the synagogue, let them know we were in town, and said he suspected we weren’t in a place where we could make the first move. He invited us to Passover Seder at his home two nights later, and said we could decide anytime up to dessert being served that we wanted to show up, and that he would understand if we wanted to keep to ourselves. All because Dr. Tiller cared enough to make sure someone was reaching out to us.

Judaism acknowledges that life is sacred. Dr. Tiller personified the value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, putting his own life at risk every day in order to fulfill this value. Jewish tradition dictates that before Kaddish we do not say the name of non-Jews unless they fall under the category of gerei tzedek, the righteous gentiles who live ethical and valiant lives. In that vein we will add Dr. Tiller to Temple Sinai's Kaddish list tonight, honoring him as a ger tzedek.

In the words of Dr. Cheryl Gutmann, Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism: "As our hearts and prayers go out to Dr. Tiller’s family, we think of his personal heroism and that of the other brave and courageous providers and professionals who are part of reproductive health centers across this country."

Zelda’s poem closes:

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given
by our death

Zichrono livrachah: May his name be remembered for a blessing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tying the Knot

I should never promise to post on my blog right before I go on vacation. Nevertheless, here is last week's sermon on Marriage Equality:

In between undergraduate school and rabbinical school, I lived in Los Angeles. For about two years I worked for a company called “Cootie Shots.” We were a small theatre company—with actors, director, and stage manager we were six people. We would travel to elementary schools and high schools all over LA and the surrounding areas to deliver what we called, “Theatrical inoculations against bigotry,” in the form of a 30 minute play comprised of short vignettes.

One of my favorite of these vignettes is a Dr. Seuss-like tale by Mark Rosenthal called “The Parable of the Stimples.” Here is a brief synopsis:

In a faraway land there lived a people who were just like us in almost every way. They were all different. They were different shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities. Some of them were born with a special ability. The ability to make funny noises. These people were called Stimples, and making funny noises made them very happy.

People who couldn’t make funny noises were called Blimbers. Blimbers and Stimples lived among one another. They were friends, relatives, or colleagues. They would go through life not knowing who was who unless a Stimple got caught making a funny noise. That’s right, got caught. You see, funny noises were considered wrong, weird, or something to fear!
Nobody really knows why Blimbers didn’t like Stimples. That’s just always the way things were. Mama and Papa Blimbers made sure their children knew that being a Blimber was the only proper way to be, because Stimples were strange.

Some Blimbers didn’t care what the Stimples did. They were fine being friends, or they just ignored them. Others really didn’t like the noises, and they believed funny noises were evil. They tried to change any Stimples they met. They would even try to keep them from making funny noises by making laws to get them in trouble if they made funny noises.

The parable continues to tell the story of Gilbert, a happy little boy who discovers that he is a Stimple, and cannot be convinced that there is anything wrong with it. In fact, Gilbert has a teacher who they find out is a Stimple, and the Blimbers try to get her fired, but Gilbert stands up for her and all the other Stimples in town.

And everyone lives happily and noisily ever after.

If only it were that easy.

Gilbert’s tale is just a story, but it is so much like real life for so many Americans. Every day, Americans are denied some of the rights that many of us hold sacred because they are different.
This week we celebrate Passover, our Festival of Freedom. We declare at our Seder tables that we empathize with the plight of our ancestors who were enslaved in Egypt. We declare during the Ha Lachma Anya section, “This year we are slaves. Next year may we be free.” Everyone has something that keeps us enslaved. We all have Pharaohs that rule us, often harshly. For approximately 10% of Americans, there are laws that forbid them to marry whomever they want. For our gay and lesbian population, civil liberty is being denied. In most of the country, a loving, long term relationship between two people who pay taxes and contribute to society is not legally recognized if they happen to be the same gender.

Why? I have no idea.

Marriage is a legally binding relationship that two people enter into when they love each other so much, that they want to share everything, including their rights. According to organizations against marriage equality, marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The problem with this limiting definiton is that no two marriages are the same. We cannot truly understand marriage based on a definition. We should understand marriage based on the positive examples of such a union. Marriage should be defined as mutual love, respect, support, and building a life together in partnership.

We often hear organizations claiming that gay marriage is “a threat to the sanctity of marriage.” I have never heard this talking point explained. How can it possibly be a threat? The way I understand it, when gay people marry, they don’t use up the state’s marriage licenses; my marriage is still legally recognized; Natalie and I will not suddenly fall out of love; and our children will still be legitimate. In the words of Evan Wolfson, director of Freedom to Marry, “The idea that treating gay people as equal under the civil rights laws of this country would be a threat to other people is bogus.”

But there is good news in our recent national history. This Tuesday the state legislature of Vermont passed a law recognizing same-sex marriage. Vermont joins the ranks of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa as leaders in marriage equality. In the words of Barbara Weinstein, Legislative Director of the RAC,
The Vermont legislature made clear that all loving, committed couples, regardless of the sexual orientation of those involved, deserve respect and recognition from their government.

I am proud of the four states that have legalized marriage for everyone, just as I am hopeful for states like New York, whose governor has declared he would sign a marriage equality bill into law. I am thrilled to live in a world where we can make a noise. Not a silly noise like the Stimples, but a loud noise. A noise that will ring in the ears of our legislators and let them know that we want everyone in America to be legally bound to their basheret, their soul’s true mate. We can make this noise with what we probably have close to us right now—our cell phones. Program your state and federal politicians’ phone numbers into your phones. For Floridians, Senator Nelson is 202-224-5274, Senator Martinez is 202-224-3041, Governor Christ is 850-488-7146, and Representative Wasserman-Schultz is 202-225-7931. For other states or to find your representative, go to It is so easy to call the people whose job it is to represent you to your government. Usually the people who answer the phone are friendly, well-informed, and willing to help. Make a noise, tell them you are a tax payer and a voter. Tell them you want marriage right for all Floridians and all Americans.

Not every statement has to make noise. Some of the boldest statements are made without a sound.

Perhaps you have already noticed the white knot on my lapel. You may have noticed similar knots on the tuxedo lapels of several attendees at the most recent Academy Awards: Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins, Anne Hathaway’s father and many more sported white knots on their lapels. We have all been to, an organization that recently started using a white knot as the sign of support for marriage equality. Pinning a white knot to our clothing declares to the world that we believe everyone should have the right to tie the knot.

I recently purchased enough white ribbon and pins to make 200 white knots for anyone who so desires. After services tonight I will be pinning anyone who asks with a white knot. The ribbon and pins will remain on my desk, and I will gladly help everyone who wants to make a noise for marriage equality do so. Together we can make a bold statement in favor of marriage equality. On the phone and close to our heart.

As the closing of “The Parable of the Stimples” reminds us:

Once the Blimbers saw there was nothing to fear,
Then those weird, funky Stimples did not seem so queer.
They laughed at the same things! They didn’t have warts!
Some were very religious. Some even played sports.
But the one thing in common all these folks did share
Wasn’t their tastes or the clothes they would wear.
It’s that they’re all human, with blood in their veins,
And air in their lungs, and thoughts in their brains.
It’s hard enough really to know who you are,
To try to judge others is harder by far.
May we soon see the day when marriage is for everyone, and anyone can be emotionally, physically, and legally with the person they love.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Parashat Tetzaveh

In a terrible accident at a railroad crossing a train smashed into a car and pushed it nearly four hundred yards down the track. The driver of the car survived and took the train company to court.At the trial, the engineer insisted that he had given the driver ample warning by waving his lantern back and forth for nearly a minute. He even stood and convincingly demonstrated how he'd done it. The court believed the engineer, and the suit was dismissed."Congratulations," the lawyer said to the engineer when it was over. "You did superbly under cross-examination."
"Thanks," he said, "but he sure had me worried."
"How's that?" the lawyer asked.
"I was afraid he was going to ask if the lantern was lit!

Up to this point in the Torah, the commandments have focused on the building and lay-out of the Tabernacle. This week we get to hear how it is put to action. The Parashah begins:
"You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, leha’alot ner tamid, to raise an eternal light" (Exod 27:20).

This is a bit of an odd place to begin the Parashah. For one thing, this is the second-to-last verse of the previous chapter. Why not simply finish the chapter? Another oddity is topical. Most of Parashat Tetzaveh deals with the priests. Lighting the ner tamid is about the menorah. Last week we dealt with the structure of the Tabernacle, including the menorah. So why do we deal these verses separately?

Because these verses stand out, there is a wealth of commentary on them, including several midrashim. Leviticus Rabbah tells a story related to this verse. A rabbi gives examples of why God does not need our light. God created the sun, which is so strong we cannot look into it. God created lightning, which dazzles the world from end to end. God created the eyeball, which takes in light through the black part, and nothing is perceived through the white part. To each of these examples of God’s greatness, another rabbi responds with a verse from Isaiah: “Adonai delights in righteousness. He will make Torah great and glorious” (42:21). In other words, I have come, says God, for no other purpose than to endow you [to whom the Torah was given] with the merit [of observing her precepts].

Here, the rabbis compare the Torah to the light that God creates. God makes miraculous light in the huge natural forms of sun and lightning. God also makes miraculous light in the miniscule cells of the eye. It sets a wonderful contrast between the great and the small, all of which are under God’s domain. And the Torah is what gives us our light. The Torah is our guide in the darkness, allowing us to see our way in the world.

This Midrash continues with a further comment. Humans light lamps from fire that is already kindled. But God creates light out of darkness. If out of darkness God created light, why does God need our light? Because kindling fire raises us as eternal lights. This play on the verse from our Torah portion adds another source of light—the Jewish people. We become the light that burns eternally, we become the beacon in the darkness, we are the righteous in whom God delights.

An 11th century Midrash called Exodus Rabbah also comments on our verse. In this Midrash we are reminded that when we light a flame from another flame, the light is not diminished. Both fires burn equally, and the light is doubled. The same is true of our deeds. When we give money or objects, we no longer have that money or object. When we give of ourselves, we give of our light. We can bring wick after wick after wick to our flame, and keep lighting them infinitely. That light is not lost—it is increased, just like when we light one flame from another it doubles the light.

That is why these two verses appear at the beginning of this week’s Parashah. The first words we read this week teach us to establish an eternal light above the holy ark for the Torah as well as in our heart. Only after we understand our role in the community are we ready to understand the role of our ritual leaders. We bring the light of Torah and our own light to as many people as we can, behaving as a nation of priests and an or lagoyim, a light to the nations.