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.