Monday, December 17, 2012

Parashat Miketz 5773

Often at this time of year we are so focused on Chanukah and preparing for a hiatus from school and/or professional life that we get the Andrew Lloyd Weber version of this week’s Parashah:  Pharaoh has a dream, Joseph interprets it correctly and becomes Vizier.  His brothers come to buy some food during the Egyptian surplus; Joseph frames one of them for stealing, tune in again next week for more.  Insert song and dance.

In today’s Parashah, Pharaoh is astounded by Joseph’s ability to correctly interpret his dreams and set forth a plan of action.  He declares to his courtiers that Joseph has within him ruach elohim, “the spirit of God.”  Joseph becomes second-in-command in all of Egypt, with only Pharaoh above him.    Part of Pharaoh’s reasoning for promoting Joseph to such a high post comes in the form of a question posed to his courtiers: “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?”

Such a strange question to ask.  Of course, the courtiers would not have defied Pharaoh if they knew the truth.  They could find another like Joseph.  After all, dream interpreting was as natural to Joseph as shepherding.  His family was skilled in dream interpretation.  His father Jacob dreamt of a ladder with angels going up and down.  When he wakes up he immediately understands his own dream, declaring that God’s very presence was in that place (Genesis 28).  When Joseph was younger, he would relay his dreams to his family, who reacted with anger, claiming that Joseph’s dreams meant they were to be subservient to him (Genesis 37).  Neither of the previous scenes describes Jacob or any of his children wondering what the dreams mean.  They immediately understand the symbolism of their dreams.  They react with anger to Joseph because he seems arrogant in their eyes. 

So when Pharaoh asks Joseph to interpret his dreams of grain and cattle, for Joseph there is also no question.  He immediately understands just like he did with the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer.  He interprets correctly, just like anyone from his family would have.

Further, the Pharaoh is impressed that Joseph has in him ruach elohim, “the spirit of God.”  He wonders aloud where another like him could be found.  If only Pharaoh had more contact with Israelites, he would have known the answer.  The spirit of God is in many of the Israelites from Joseph onward.  The seventy elders of the Israelite camp, including Eldad and Medad, have God’s spirit put upon them, making them speak in ecstasy (Numbers 11).  Many of the shoftim from the book of Judges have the spirit of God in them, including Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson.  Saul is gripped by the spirit of God, as are David, Elijah, and Micah.  Isaiah likens the spirit of God to “A spirit of wisdom and insight, A spirit of counsel and valor, A spirit of devotion and reverence for the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2).  Moses, Joshua, Bezalel, and every Israelite who offered gifts for the building of the tabernacle were endowed with the spirit of God.

In fact, it can be argued that every one of the community of Israel has the ability to be touched by the spirit of God.  It has been taught that any of us can experience God if only we let God in.  God is constantly a part of each of us.  The spirit of God is implanted within every human being.  If we take the time to open ourselves to the God within, we too can have within us ruach elohim, the spirit of God.

I personally believe that the spirit of God is stronger in the children of our community.  When I walk around the religious school, the ECE, and the day school, I am often greeted with shouts and high-fives that make my day.  Their energy is contagious, and the joy they bring to our lives is unparalleled. 

That is why this week it is especially difficult for us to focus on the magic and miracle of our Torah tale and our Chanukah traditions.  It is even more difficult to sing and dance.  The news from Connecticut drowns out the story of Joseph.  Pharaoh’s dreams are overshadowed by the dreams cut off and the lives cut short.  The spirit of God was snuffed out by a gunman’s bullets.

In the Mishnah, Tractate Niddah says, “A day-old son who dies is to his father and mother like a full bridegroom.”  This is a reminder that when we lose a child we do not just lose the person we love.  We lose the future with that child.  We lose the joy of celebrating that young person becoming a part of the Jewish community, becoming a Bar of Bat Mitzvah, a graduate, a bride or groom, a parent.  We are cut off from the spirit of God that provides us with dreams of our own about the future of our children. 

Pharaoh asks, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?”  Yes you could.  Anywhere you look.  In the people of our community and in the children all around us.  Hold on to your children today.  Thank God for them and keep them safe. 

The spirit of God within us inspires us to keep moving forward.  We pray for the people touched by the tragedy in Newtown, and we continue with our lives, looking for inspiration, comfort, and strength in the words of our Torah.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gomel Benchen

Here’s what happened: on Friday night, heading west on 595 in the rain, I hit a wet spot that I did not see.  (Two hands on the wheel, happily listening to the Comedy Channel on Pandora.)  My car hydroplaned and began to spin.  I cut the wheel into the spin to no avail and realized I was out of control.  As I shouted an expletive and time slowed down, I heard a passing car honk at me as I spun.  I hit a guard rail on the left of the highway with the passenger side of my car, and on impact, smacked my nose into the inside of the passenger door, which conveniently had come to meet me halfway.  As the car spun the other way I felt blood running out my nose, and I prayed a broken nose would be the worst of my injuries.  The car continued to spin in slow motion until it landed next to a muddy gravel pile in a construction site.

Thankful that I was alive and still conscious, I found the auxiliary cord and used it to pull my phone up from the floor.  I dialed 911 and told the operator what had happened.  She asked where I was.  I tried to guess.  She told me an ambulance and FHP had been dispatched, and that a Davie Police Officer had seen me spin out and was head toward me.  She asked me to stay on the line, talked me through the standard questions.  I wiggled my toes and felt my knees.  I looked in the mirror to see if anything beside my nose was bleeding.  I looked around to see if I had sustained any other injuries.  So far, so good.  When the Davie squad car pulled up I thanked the 911 Operator and we hung up.  He looked me up and down, told me my nose was probably broken, and that the car was totaled.

Sparing the details of the ride to and in the hospital, it turns out the police officer was wrong about my nose.  Nothing broken, no concussion, just a bloody nose, a headache, and sore muscles.  Natalie met me at the hospital and drove me home with pain killers and muscle relaxers.

So all in all, not really a big deal.  The car is a total wreck.  The right side is completely gone, even though the left side has nary a scratch.  It looks like half a car.  I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if anyone else was in the car.  But it is hard to not think about the “what-if’s.”  I pulled over to take pictures of the crash site, and realized that the 30 feet of gap in the divider that I spun through was the only clear space in the 10 miles of highway on my route on 595.  Had I lost control anywhere else I would probably have bounced back into the highway.  Had I hit another part of my car I may not have walked away.  Had anyone else been in my car they might not have walked away.  Had any other car been involved, someone else might have been hurt.  I have a stack of woulda-coulda’s in my head a mile high.

I suspect that anyone in this situation could feel horrible and wonder about how such bad things could happen.  I look at my stack of woulda-coulda’s, and I realize that I am truly blessed.  I feel so lucky to have gotten out of this alive, and to be able to hug my children and kiss my wife another day.  I feel blessed to read all the well-wishes and good thoughts from my friends and wife’s friends on Facebook, and I am thankful to be spending this Thanksgiving with my growing family.  (No Natalie’s not pregnant—my mom’s getting married.)

So to all the people in my life who have reached out during this scary time, thank you.  You mean the world to me, and I am thrilled to be able to continue telling you that.
Everyone who is able is more than welcome to join us on Saturday morning at Temple Sinai, when I will bench Gomel, the blessing said when one has come safely out of a dangerous situation.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Kol Nidre Sermon 5773: "Is This the Challenge I Desire?"

     Jewish holidays seem to be dominated by food.  Of course we all know the triumvirate that Rabbi Litwak mentioned on Rosh Hashanah: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”

Perhaps it is unfair of me to offer a sermon about food on Yom Kippur, when we have just begun our fast.  You might be wondering why I would offer a food sermon tonight of all nights.  Maybe you are already looking forward to the breakfast tomorrow night, to the apple that we know awaits us as we exit Neilah service tomorrow evening.  As a people who regularly celebrate around food, we understand the excitement that can surround it.  The anticipation of Grandma’s matzah ball soup, the nose-holding over pickled herring and gefilte fish, the challenge over cooking on Passover.  These are all joys that characterize the Jewish people, and joys that millions of Americans cannot experience because they cannot afford food for themselves or their families.

1 in 7 families in the US receive food stamp benefits.  That’s over 42 million Americans, including 16.2 million children.  15% of Americans currently live below the poverty line, averaging an income of $693 per month per household. The average American family of four spends $950 per month on groceries alone!  To make up some of the difference, many of these people rely on the SNAP program to be able to afford to feed themselves.  SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and used to be known simply as “Food Stamps.”  It provides low-income households with electronic benefits they can use to purchase food at stores authorized by the US Department of Agriculture. SNAP is the cornerstone of federal food assistance programs and provides crucial support to needy households and to those making the transition from welfare to work.  And it is in danger of getting huge cuts as a part of a congressional initiative to cut $1.5 trillion from the budget.

This year I decided to participate in the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Food Stamp Challenge.  This year is the 5th annual Food Stamp Challenge, which usually takes place in November around Thanksgiving.  This year they added one to target the Jewish community the week before the High Holy Days began.

So, what is the Food Stamp Challenge?  It is a way for participants to experience firsthand the challenges of hunger in the United States. 

The average weekly SNAP benefit is $31.50 per person.  This is where the challenge comes in.  For one week—from September 7 to September 13—I spent only $31.50 on food for myself.  That averages out to $1.50 per meal.  To put this into perspective, when planning a teen trip, we typically budget $50 per person per day.  A SNAP recipient spends $31.50 per week.  So I did the same.  No sushi, no Yogurtland, not even a Veggie Burger—I carefully budgeted my $31.50 worth of food.

The program has pretty strict rules.  I wasn’t allowed to accept food from friends and family.  I wasn’t allowed to take food from work, which includes the Oneg table.  I couldn’t even take leftovers from a friend unless I deduct the cost of their food from my weekly budget.  It is a very stringent set of rules set for a very challenging week.  My own eating habits—my love of fresh fruits and vegetables, my vegetarianism, my epicurean tendencies—made this especially challenging on a personal level. 

So why did I submit myself to such a torturous challenge?

As we fast tomorrow we will be reminded of the prophet Isaiah’s words.  In Chapter 58, Isaiah asks,

Why do we fast without recognizing? Why do we afflict our soul without knowing [why]?...Is this the fast I have chosen? A day for afflicting the soul?...Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day for Adonai?

Is not this the fast I have chosen? To loose the chains of wickedness and undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your home?...If you draw out your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light will rise in the darkness and your gloom will be as the [bright noonday sun]

(Isa 58:5-10).

We are reminded by Isaiah of the real reasons we fast.  Not to make a show of it, not to demonstrate what good fasters we are, not to compare who is having a harder time with their fast.  We do this to cleanse our bodies so we can focus on our souls.  We fast to empathize with those who do not have as much as we do.  This is a regular theme throughout Jewish practice.  We are often reminded to help out those in need and to feel what they are feeling.  Consider just a few examples from our tradition:

The Passover Seder reminds us that all who are hungry should join us and eat, and all who are in need should come share in our bounty.

Leviticus teaches us to leave the corners of our field so that the poor can come and glean.

Deuteronomy contains the instruction, “If there is a poor person among you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother [or sister]” (Deut. 15:7). 

Perhaps the best way to soften our hearts to the plight of the poor is to walk a mile in their shoes.  The Food Stamp Challenge in no way gave me complete empathy for people who participate regularly in SNAP.  There is no way I could claim to fully understand what they go through on a regular basis.  Instead, it only gave me a glimpse into what they go through each and every week.

Tonight I want to give you a glimpse into what I experienced during my week on the Food Stamp Challenge.

I went shopping the night before I began.  I found myself walking through the aisles of Wal-Mart with a calculator, deciding what I could and could not afford that week.  Not surprising, I could not afford much in the realm of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Bananas are cheap (and filling), so that was good, but all the vegetables in my cart were frozen or canned.  I am a salad eater.  A typical lunch for me is a salad with a can of tuna on top.  This week, however, it was rice and beans, spaghetti, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Speaking of grilled cheese, this is one of the huge decisions I had to make: peanut butter or cheese.  I knew that both one would give me protein and I could put it on bread all week, but which one would suit me better for the week?  I think about decisions like this and I marvel at the millions of people who have to think like that every time they are in the grocery store.  Cheese or peanut butter is certainly not as severe of a decision as food or medicine, which is the very real choice many SNAP participants have to face regularly. 

Day one was Friday, September 7.  I realized what was probably going to be the hardest part about this week: coffee.  I bought a container of instant coffee called “Pampa,” which I have never heard of before.  It is appropriately named, however, because it kind of tastes like licking a diaper.  When it is hot, it is kind of bland with a rotten-nut aftertaste, but when it gets cold—yuck!  By 11am on my first day I was seriously considering spending every penny I had left on better coffee.


There were plenty of other difficulties for me during the Food Stamp Challenge.  Saturday night was S’lichot, the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, and as is tradition, we held a study session before S’lichot services.  After services there was an overnight with teenagers.  When we started the teen portion of the evening, we opened a huge bag of pretzels and another of pita chips, and I was suddenly confronted by a trio of teens asking, “Do we have any hummus?”  I apologized and acknowledged that that would have been a good idea, and then the complaining increased.  “No hummus? Who buys pita chips without hummus? We get the big thing of hummus at my house, and it’s gone in days.  Have you had the spinach and artichoke one? It’s awesome!”

I told the teens all about the Food Stamp Challenge.  I explained that some people in our country can’t even afford to eat pita chips, much less hummus.  I told them that they wouldn’t see me eating anything they were enjoying tonight because I am eating on $31.50 this week.  My friends, there is nobody in the world quite like a teenager.  They got it right away.  They were amazed.  They admitted they would not be able to do something like that, and asked if it was ok if they eat in front of me.

And the next morning, not one person complained about the no-brand breakfast foods I had bought.


When I was a kid, we used to go shopping with mom on the weekends.  Very often she would intentionally take us around lunch time and we would have was my mom called “Tasting Lunch.”  We would walk around Kroger (our version of Publix) and take from the samples all over the store.  We would eat our fill on crackers and cheese, mini sausages, and pizza bites.  My sister and I thought it was fun, and a unique way to try things mom would never buy.  We later learned that those were difficult financial times for my parents.  My dad was trying to start a business, and while we were not impoverished, saving money was incredibly important to my parents at that time, so a chance to feed us for free was welcomed.

One of the rules of this challenge is, “Don’t feed the rabbi.”  I was not allowed to accept food as gifts, nor was I allowed to seek out free food.  I am sure there are food stamp recipients who work in restaurants, grocery stores, and other areas in the food service industry.  I know from my experiences that people in restaurants take food home.  They are given free meals and they might even nibble off of leftovers.

I vividly remember a skinny old man named Charles who washed dishes at a place I worked in Cincinnati called Watson Brothers.  One of the managers found out the Charles was eating food off of the plates we gave him, so a crack-down began.  All servers had to scrape plates before giving them to the dishwashers.  The service staff knew that Charles was poor.  He had six kids at home, and his wife wasn’t working so she could take care of them.  He was on food stamps and told us he would often go without so his kids could eat.  We didn’t agree with the manager’s decision to not allow Charles to eat for free, so we modified the new rule.  Whenever we had to bring back an untouched meal—either because it was returned or cold or the wrong item was sent out—we would pass the plate to Charles.  Over the course of a shift he would probably eat five or six meals worth of food, and chances are he only really ate when he was standing in the dish station.

It makes a difference when it is someone we know verses a statistic.  To say, “There are 16.2 million children living in poverty,” gets a sigh and a mumbled apology to nobody, but to say, “I’m hungry,” elicits a slew of culinary offerings from my co-workers.  That is why the servers at Watson Brother’s collectively, instinctively bucked the system to make sure Charles got fed.  We knew there was something we could do, and we did it.  It didn’t harm anyone, didn’t take any money away from the restaurant.  All it did was give a plate a pitstop on its way to the garbage, and help a man to be able to eat so that he could spend his money feeding his children.


Going back to the Food Stamp Challenge, by the fourth day I started to notice physical changes.  I was having difficulty at the gym.  My heart rate was low, and I could not lift my usual amount of weights by 25%.  It was more than a noticeable fact, it was disheartening—depressing, even.  By the time I couldn’t push the weights up on two of my usual machines, I simply stopped, went to the showers, and cried.

I felt a need to get nutrients and protein into my body.  I wasn’t hungry any more, but I was craving certain foods.  When I was first shopping for the Food Stamp Challenge my thoughts were along the lines of, “How much food can I get for less money?”  By the middle of the week my focus had changed to, “What is the healthiest thing I can buy for $5?”

I had trouble getting focused.  This was the time I was supposed to be hardcore into my sermon writing, but I couldn’t concentrate.  I was tired, I went to bed earlier than usual, snapped regularly at Natalie and the kids, and felt miserable.


The last day of the challenge was September 13, my birthday.  Typically on a staff member’s birthday at Temple Sinai the person is called in for a “meeting” and presented with a cake, a card, and singing.  For the last week people have been saying things like, “Really? You’re not even going to be allowed to have cake with us?”  So this year, knowing I was not going to partake in cake, several staffers came in to my office holding a fruit basket and a candle.  They knew I couldn’t eat the fruit then and there, but expressed their hope that it would get eaten over the next few days, as soon as I could start eating what I want again.  We took a picture of me holding a candle stuck into—nothing, and another of me holding the fruit basket.

It was incredibly thoughtful, fun, and supportive to know that I work at a place where they would still want to celebrate on my birthday with me and offer as much as they thought I could handle.  I know that it takes away from their joy as well, because they surely like to have a little cake whenever it is someone else’s birthday, but had to forgo it because of the Food Stamp Challenge that they weren’t even participating in.

This was one of the unanticipated side effects of this challenge.  People love to give other people food.  Whether it is watching a loved one enjoy a dish you cooked or celebrating birthdays with co-workers, we use food to express our joy.  It makes me realize how lucky we are to have such things provided for us and to be able to provide such things in return.


My last two hours of the Food Stamp Challenge I realized another lesson.  I knew when my time on a tight food budget was going to end.  I could count down and get excited about the midnight snack of a salad that was waiting for me in the refrigerator.  People on welfare and using food stamps cannot do that.  They can’t countdown to the point where everything’s going to be ok.  They have to work hard, have faith, and hope that any day might be the moment when they can make enough money to get off of food stamps.  They don’t know when they will get the job that will get them out of their financial situation.  They don’t know when they will get to make healthful choices in the supermarket because they will have more than $31.50.

Now that I know I can do this challenge, I will be doing it again.  The Food Stamp Challenge is offered both over the week before Rosh Hashanah and the week before Thanksgiving.  So this November I will most likely be doing the Food Stamp Challenge again.  But this time I hope to not do it alone.  I would ask that you all join me.  Whether you do it as a family or as individuals, can you spend only $31.50 per person on food for one week?  As I mentioned earlier, the average family of four in America spends around $950 for one month’s worth of groceries, or about $60 per person per week.  This does not include dining out or snacks bought at vending machines or morning stops at Starbucks, and it is already twice what the average food stamps recipient gets per week.

This is why I am inviting every individual, every couple, and every family from Temple Sinai to join me in the Food Stamp Challenge this coming November.  The week of November 11-17, the week before Thanksgiving, will be the next national Food Stamp Challenge.  If you and your family are willing, join me in raising awareness about America’s Hungry, and see what a mile feels like in their shoes.  You can sign up to join this challenge by emailing me at, or by signing the petition in the main office.  By signing up for this challenge, you are pledging to do two things.  First, you will spend no more than $31.50 on food per person for the week.  This is food and beverage.  It’s not easy, and I am here to support you if you want recipe ideas, shopping tips, or money-saving options.  The rules are pretty simple:

1.    Spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week.

2.    All food purchased and eaten, including fast food and dining out, must be included in the total spending.

3.    During the challenge, eat only the food that you purchase for the project.  Do not eat food you already own, with the exception of spices and condiments.

4.    Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or at work, including food at receptions or coffee in the office.

5.    Keep track of all receipts on food and try to note your experiences throughout the week as through journaling.

Second, donate the remainder of your weekly food bill to help Americans on food stamps get out of their situation.  If you spend $31.50 on yourself, consider sending the same amount or more to those in need.  You can choose your hunger relief organization: Mazon, Miami’s own Kosher Food Bank, Jewish Community Services, or any other organization about which you are passionate.  You can also write a check to my discretionary fund, and on November 18 I will send a check to The Jewish Council for Public Affairs Confronting Poverty Campaign, the organizers of the Food Stamp Challenge.

Not everyone can participate.  People with special food requirements might not be able to handle such a low cost diet.  If you cannot take the Food Stamp Challenge, please consider donating anyways.  If you can, I promise you will feel different by the end of the week. 

If you cannot give and you cannot participate, then advocate.  Write letters to your government representatives asking them to start subsidizing fresh vegetables more than they subsidize meat and corn.  Ask for tax credits for poor families who shop at farmers’ markets and buy local produce.  We need to make it easier to be healthier.  As families, try to go on a fast food fast.  Can you go a week without eating at a fast food restaurant?  How about a month?  Let’s use November, especially the week of the 11th, as a way to make a concerted group effort to make healthful choices with our food.  November 16, the Friday night of the next Food Stamp Challenge, happens to be a Religious School Shabbat dinner.  So I have an offer for all of you who plan on participating.  Let’s make a cheap, under $1.50 per person, healthy meal that night.  I bet if we pool our resources we can come up with something delicious and good for us.

This is the fast God asks of us: To share our bread with the hungry and bring the poor into our homes.  The Food Stamp Challenge gives us the opportunity to share our bread with the hungry, and to bring understanding of the plight of the poor into our homes.  I hope you will join me the week of November 11, and I pray that you will help other Americans end their struggle with hunger.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Technology and God: iPray, iConnect

When I was growing up, the neighborhood kids would watch this man walk up and down our street.  He would pace back and forth and around the cul-de-sac, yelling at someone for whatever the problem was that week.  If we were outside we would stop what we were doing to watch.  Subtly at first, until we learned that he was completely oblivious to our presence.  Pacing and screaming, gesturing and swearing.  I learned a lot of wonderful phrases from him that I would never dream of sharing with you.  At least not from the bimah.  Some of the things he would scream would make us laugh with glee at his creative usage of profanity.  We wondered out loud what was wrong with him.  Was he mentally ill?  Was he dangerous?  Was he planning on hurting the person he was yelling at?

30 years ago anyone walking around like that was instantly assumed to be crazy.  Only someone mentally deranged would have walked around talking out loud to himself.  Today, when we see someone behaving like that, we assume he’s on Bluetooth.

We’ve come a long way.

It amazes me how advanced we have become.  Bluetooth technology allows us to talk to whoever we want with our hands free to focus on whatever we are doing to ignore them.  Our cell phones have become little computers, allowing us to send emails, find a restaurant nearby, catch up on the big game or our favorite TV shows, and play Words With Friends.  A phone without texting is a dinosaur, and almost everyone texts regularly with their friends and family.  In the movies.  Oh, and they also make phone calls.  Did everyone remember to turn their cell phone off?  If you leave it on during services, God will make someone call you at an inopportune moment.


Wow, I couldn’t have planned that any better.


OK, let’s hit the silent button, please.  If you touch one of the buttons on the side your phone will stop doing that.


All right, this isn’t funny anymore.  Will everyone please check to see if…….uh, oh.  I think it’s mine.


Oh, this is embarrassing.  Hold on just a moment.





Really…This is God?

Prove it….

You saw that?!?  I’m glad you’re not on speaker.

Yes, sorry, I’ll listen.

 But how do I talk about You when we all think of something different when we think of You?

 Oh, uh, ok…I’ll try.

 Um, I love you too.

 If only it was that easy. 

 During my second year of rabbinical school, we took a course called “Practical Rabbinics.”  It was supposed to be all about the things we need to know on the job.  On one of the first class days, we were asked, “What should be the requirements for acceptance to rabbinical school?”  I listened to my classmates list attributes such as a sense of justice, teaching experience, positive outlook, academics, philosophy, and more.  I sat stunned, because I saw a gaping hole in the suggestions of my classmates.  I raised my hand and offered, “Belief in God.”  A couple of my classmates shot me inquisitive glances.  I thought it was obvious, but apparently I was wrong.

Once the chalk board was filled with suggestions, we voted on the top five requirements.  The professor pointed at each one and we raised our hands if we wanted that requirement to be counted.  When he came to “Belief in God,” I shot my hand in the air like Hermione Granger.  I was so proud of my suggestion and feeling sure I was owed congratulations for my keen observation of what had been missing from our admissions process.  The teacher tallied all the votes and wrote the number next to “Belief in God.”  One.  I was the only one in my class of 25 future rabbis to think Belief in God should be a requirement for rabbinical school.

Perhaps my classmates did not want to make God a requirement because of an overexposure to Political Correctness.  They didn’t want to make belief a requirement because we cannot define belief.  Or perhaps they didn’t want to offend any proclaimed agnostics or atheists who might want to apply to rabbinical school in the future.  Maybe they just didn’t want to feel like they were shoving God down anyone’s throat.  Whatever their reasons, I then and now respectfully disagree.

We need God in our lives, in our homes, in our religious experiences.  We don’t need God in our public schools or political campaigns, but that’s another sermon for another time.  As a Jewish people, we have long been connected with the One we call Adonai, Elohim, Tzur, Eyhey-Asher-Ehyeh, Hashem, Shaddai, Makom, and Avinu Malkeinu.  As we can understand from the variety of names for God, there are as many and more ways to view God.  Our understanding of God is limited only to our imagination and how we interpret our own experiences.

In Dr. Harvey Karp’s book for parents, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, he explains that children go through millions of years of evolution in the first few years of their lives.   They start out as the creatures who have just crawled from the water onto dry land.  They eventually learn to crawl like four-legged animals, and then they walk like bipeds.  They communicate with grunts, screams, and motions, and they become very possessive of their space and things.  Then they learn to work as a community and begin to ask for what they need and bargain for what they want.  He parallels each stage of development in a child to a stage in development of ancient society.

A parallel case could be made for the development of Jewish theology.  Each of us goes through phases of belief as we struggle through the development of our own view of God.  Millions of years of evolution in the theological life of every human being.  As we go through the stages of belief, some of us get to a point and never advance from there.  Happy with where we have found our definition of God, we never move along the evolutionary road.  That’s fine, as long as we respect each other’s path.

The first stage is the Biblical God.  This is the God that we believe in as children.  Anthropomorphized, masculine, and acting in the world: giving tablets on mountains and making calls on cell phones.  When someone declares to me that they do not believe in God, I often ask the question, “Describe the God you do not believe in.”  This is that God.

The Biblical God is covenantal.  God gives us rules—commandments.  If we obey them we are guaranteed personal, familial, and national success.  If we do not, we are contractually obligated to accept God’s punishments.  God of the Bible is simultaneously a parent, teacher, ruler, lover, commander, shepherd, comfort, judge, and more.  This is the God that people struggle with most, because there are so many contradictions in the Biblical God.  Mostly because the Bible is written in so many voices.  Once we realize that this God is a metaphor, we can start to develop our own concept of God, and our evolution can begin.


The rabbis of the Talmud build off of the biblical God.  They no longer worshiped a God that physically reacted to their prayers in this world.  Instead they had a personal God that has messengers who act in dreams and imagery.  God still had a hand and a voice, still shows justice and mercy, and still loves us and is loved in return.  The trials of the Jewish community are seen as divine retribution for sins of the past, and the job of humanity is to please God by acting out Mitzvot, commandments, and bringing about the Messianic Age.  The concept of a Messiah is a Talmudic construct, allowing for the notion that there will be a return to a saved Jerusalem in the next world.

The philosophical age of Philo and Aristotle bring us to the teenage years of dealing with God.  The conversation about God becomes more about what God isn’t.  God has no hand or face.  God’s existence can be systematically proven but not described.  Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher, taught that once we apply language to God, we are limiting God, because language is limiting. 

As theology developed the God of Jewish Mysticism came to be.  Rabbi Isaac Luria, born in 16th Century Jerusalem, and his students of Tzfat envisioned God as emanations of energy.  To the Mystics, if someone could connect with a part of that energy, they would understand that God permeates everything.  For just a moment they might be able to sense the godliness that is within them and emanates outward to every living thing.  Then, like a drop of water in the ocean, they lose complete sense of self and feel as if they are part of the whole.  This version of our developmental theology makes us feel like we can do anything because we know we are a part of the Divine.

Martin Buber finds God in relationship, in what he refers to as the Eternal Thou.  As he writes, “The relation with man is the real simile of the relation with God; in it true address receives true response.”  It is in connection with others that we find God.

Mordechai Kaplan came up with the concept of Naturalism.  He believed that whatever human beings did that benefitted the world for other people, that was God. 

The 20th and 21st Centuries brings us all kinds of different theologies, such as feminist theology, polydoxy, humanism, ethical monotheism, and more.  As we develop our own personal theologies, we emulate the Cave-Toddlers of Harvey Karp’s world.  We go through thousands of years of theological evolution in one lifetime.  Some of us go one or two stages and stop there.  Others go exploring through all kinds of different versions of connecting with God, and never stop.  Judaism teaches us that that’s ok.

We are supposed to struggle with our theology.  That’s a good thing to do.  In fact, the name for our people, Yisrael, means “God-strugglers.”  We have come a long way in many areas of advancement, yet continue to struggle with God.

Of course, God might be able to call us on our cell phones, but these probably aren’t the right tools to use to connect.  They are amazing devices.  Miraculous, even.  But they don’t bring us closer to God.  It is possible that they bring us farther away.

Rabbi Yehiel Mikhael of Zlotchov taught that people have a tendency to imagine themselves as measured by their things.  They attach themselves to earthly things and leave their Creator in pursuit of more.  Then they believe they exist and they become great and important in their own eyes.  But what happens when they are gone?  Their days pass like a shadow and their things remain behind.  But the Eternal One is with us all forever.  Therefore, we should instead cleave to God and direct our thoughts to God.

A wonderful idea, if it were possible.  Life happens, reality sets in and we have to deal with phone calls and texts and emails and instant messages.  In order to really make connections, though, we have to decide not if we will use technology to connect, but when.

A friend of mine recently told me that one of her pet peeves is when women use their cell phones in the bathroom.  She finds herself in an odd position because a) she is left out of what is often a very vibrant conversation, and b) she wonders if she is being rude when she flushes.  We are often so involved in the world within our technology that we forget to pay attention to the world around us.  We cleave to our things instead of what is out there.

A regular notion in the Bible is that of yisa et eynayim, lifting the eyes.  Abraham lifted his eyes twice yesterday when we read the story of the Akeidah.  He lifted his eyes and saw the mountain where God sent him.  He lifted his eyes and saw the ram caught in the thicket.  Lifting his eyes facilitated his ability to offer a sacrifice to God, as well as not offering up his only son.

When characters lift their eyes, they are taking notice of the world around them, more specifically they notice a sign from God.  Joshua lifts his eyes and sees an angel prepared to fight with the Israelites before they march on Jericho.  The prophet Zechariah lifts his eyes before each of his prophecies.  Even the wicked prophet Balaam lifts his eyes just before his curse against the Israelites turns into a blessing.  “Lifting the eyes” is more than just looking.  Anyone can look.  Lifting the eyes means they really see.

As a parent I often remind my children to look me in the eyes when we talk.  It is considered good form to look someone in the eyes when shaking hands.  It has been said that the eyes are the window to the soul.  If we do not lift our eyes, we cannot make the real connections that caring people make when they engage with one another.  If we do not lift our eyes, we cannot connect with the Divine.

All this technology is great.  I love my computers, my iPad, my iPhone.  I write my sermons on them.  I post on Facebook.  I play Words With Friends.  I blog my sermons and Elul thoughts.  As a youth worker I could not connect with the children I work with without it.  At the same time, nothing drives me crazy quite like my teens with their technology.  They text in class, they text while they talk to someone else.  They text during services, in movies, while they drive, watch TV, eat, and probably even while they sleep!  To rephrase a commercial from the 80’s: “they learned it by watching us.”

When we look down at our screens we often feel like we are connecting with the world.  We can send messages and pictures to friends all over the world.  We can hold on line learning sessions and conference for work or for fun.  We keep track of congregants who need pastoral care using an on line web service.  There are congregations that live-stream their weekly Shabbat as well as their High Holy Day services.  As a tool there is no parallel to the power of our handheld devices.  But that’s just it.  It’s a tool.  Like Rabbi Litwak said yesterday, relying on these devices diminishes the I within us, as their very names suggest.

When using a tool you have to use the right tool for the job.  We wouldn’t change a tire with a screwdriver, so we don’t make real connections with our devices.  Real connections can only be made when we lift our eyes.  No matter where we are in our theological evolution, we cannot evolve through our devices.  We can only do that by connecting with God and with our community.  With the people sitting around you right now.

There is really only one way to truly connect.

[turn off the iPad]


Monday, September 17, 2012

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Abraham's Daughter:
Abraham took Isaac’s hand

and led him to the lonesome hill,
while his daughter hid and watched

she dared not breathe she was so still.

Just as an angel cried for the slaughter,

Abraham’s daughter raised her voice.

Then the angel asked her what her

name was she said, “I have none.”

Then he asked, “How can this be?”

“My father never gave me one.”

And when he saw her raised for the slaughter,

Abraham’s daughter raised her bow.

“How darest you, child, defy your father?”

“You better let young Isaac go.”

That song comes from the movie, “The Hunger Games.”  It is played during the closing credits, and though it ends the movie, it is very fitting for the beginning of the Jewish year.
On Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the Akeidah from the Torah.  Tomorrow morning we will read about how God tests Abraham.  God commands him to take his son, his special son, the one he loves, Isaac, and brings him up a mountain to sacrifice him to God.  In the story from our Torah, Abraham binds Isaac, puts him on a pile of wood on an altar, and raises a knife to slaughter his son.  At this point in the story, our only comfort comes from knowing how it ends.  Until now it’s an awful story.
“Sacrifice your only child” is not something we want to hear from a God who has promised us innumerable offspring in future generations.  If Abraham sacrifices Isaac, from whom will these multitudes spring?  After all, he’s over 100 years old.  So he trudges up a mountain and Isaac even asks him, “I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  Abraham’s haunting reply is, “God will provide the sacrifice, my son.”
They get to the top and Abraham seems to be about to plunge the knife into his son.  In the Torah, an angel stops him.  An angel calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” and Isaac is saved.  A ram is offered from the bushes and God knows Abraham has complete faith in God.  We read this on Rosh Hashanah for many reasons, including the symbolism of the ram, whose horn we blow on Rosh Hashanah.  When we hear the sound of the shofar, according to Rav Huna in the Talmud (B. Rosh Hashanah), we are reminded of the binding of Isaac.  We put ourselves in his place, and we ready ourselves to make sacrifices for the coming year. Isaac is saved, but God wants us to give of ourselves, as fully and willingly as Abraham does in Genesis.
It is difficult to think of a story that we are familiar with as having a different ending or added character.  Usually when this happens we treat it as a comedy or simply reject it.  In this case, the change is a positive one, but it takes a little digging to let it seep in.  This unnamed daughter of Abraham is given a voice by the band Arcade Fire, and she becomes the angel that stays his hand—not by calling his name, but with action.  Violent action, granted, but not nearly as violent as child sacrifice.
In the Torah, Isaac is saved by an angel and a ram.  In the song, Isaac’s savior is his sister: a young girl that the Torah does not mention.  An archer, like the heroine of the Hunger Games, who bravely stands up to anyone who would condemn an innocent child.  Of course, it was written to illustrate the parallels between the movie and the biblical story.  The movie (and the books) occur in a world where the government sacrifices children for a game that makes Survivor look like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  Abraham’s daughter calls attention to the girl who stands up, bow in hand, to defy the establishment and who will eventually (SEQUEL SPOILER ALERT), topple the corrupt system.  In addition to drawing a fascinating parallel to our sacred text, the song is a Midrash, a story that explores Torah in a new light.  It changes the story.  Abraham can still be the faithful servant of God, Isaac still survives, and the Jewish people can grow as numerous as the stars in the sky.  But the catalyst is no longer a Divine voice, but a young woman.  Arcade Fire creates this unnamed daughter of Abraham that has never been heard of before.  Or has she?
Actually, the Talmud writes a similar Midrash.  In a discussion about Gen. 24:1, “God blessed Abraham in all things,” the rabbis wonder what “all things” means.  R. Judah says that he was blessed in all things because he had a daughter [who is not mentioned in the Torah] (B. Baba Batra 16b).  So sometimes we make changes to our tradition.  It’s just the way of Judaism.  We alter, update, modify, react, struggle, and occasionally reject the stories of our ancient tradition.  We read the Akeidah year after year on Rosh Hashanah, and our tradition gives us permission to change details in the story to import meaning to it.
Sometimes these changes can be disturbing.  Listening to an pop song and calling it Midrash might be a little much for a traditionalist, but we must acknowledge our need to make Torah relevant in our own day.  Baba Metzia (59b) tells the story of the Oven of Achnai, which all the rabbis agreed was "unkosher" except Rebbe Eliezer.  Eliezer performs all these miracles to prove his point.  He makes a tree move, a river flow backwards, the walls of the study hall move, and a voice from heaven declare that he is correct.  Rebbe Yehoshua then shouts to the heavenly voice, quoting from the Torah portion we read just yesterday, “Lo bashamayim hi!”—“It is not in Heaven!”  It does not matter what a heavenly voice says, because the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai to us.  It is now in our hands.  We have the right—no, the responsibility—to constantly plumb the depths of our tradition in the hope that we can make Torah speak to us today.

No matter how correct or learned a person might be, we have to make concessions to reality.  The way things really are is the way we must react to them.  Though Eliezer does amazing feats of wonder in this story, Yehoshua is the true hero.  Even God laughs at this event, saying “My children have bested me, my children have bested me!”  When the student can use the teachings of the master to best the master, it is the greatest joy a teacher can have.
So today we understand that the interpretation of Torah is up to us.  The Torah is not about the past, it is about today and how to deal with our world and its realities.  We are not instructed to hide ourselves away from reality, but to choose life and live.  We have a responsibility to learn from Torah, to apply its teachings to this world, and to pass the teachings to those who will someday best us. 
We come from a thousands-of-years-old tradition of altering our sacred texts.  We need to make these changes in order to keep them relevant.  The rabbis of the Talmud did it, scholars and writers for centuries have done it, and even bands like Arcade Fire do it.  We need to do it too.
Change helps import new meaning into tradition.

Very often when I am at a shiva minyan, it is the first time many of the people present have ever been at any kind of service outside of the High Holy Days.  They have some basic familiarity of the rules, but usually these are informed by hazy memories of grandpa’s traditions.  So when I pass out prayer books to women, it never ceases to amaze me how often they look at me like, “You mean I get one, too?”  Some women will even say things like, “We can’t start until a few more men show up.”  To which I will respond, “It’s ok, you count here too.”
Change can bring the uncounted back to the community.
Going back to Abraham’s Daughter, this Midrash also brings a new voice to light.  If this daughter has been around this whole time, as the rabbis of the Talmud might suggest, where has she been?  What has she been doing?  Why hasn’t the Torah bothered to mention her?
Usually the Torah doesn’t ever mention someone’s daughters unless she has a significant role to play in the plot.  We know of Jacob’s daughter Dina, Amram’s daughter Miriam, and all five of Zelophechad’s daughters.  We know Lot had two daughters, but the Torah only names them as “the older one” and “the younger one.”  Like Abraham’s Midrashic daughter, they go unnamed.  The same is true with many of the wives of our biblical heroes.  The joke around our Torah study table when someone asks, “Did she have a name?” is to answer, “Yes, it was eshet.”  Eshet means “wife of…”  Most of the biblical women don’t get a name and are known only as their husband’s property.
And yet, the Torah tells us over and over again to speak out for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan.  These are the people who have no voice, and who need others to stand up for them.  So why is it that half of the biblical world has no voice?  Thankfully for the last few generations we have begun to give women an equal voice in our society.  We still have a little farther to go, but we are getting there.  Our society has spent the last few hundred years changing into a world where women and men have equal voices.  From what is sometimes called the proto-feminist movement as early as the 15th century; to Florence Nightingale and her struggle with career equality, to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her works on women and their role in religion in the 19th century; to the 19th Amendment in 1919; to the millions of women working toward equality in the 20th and 21st centuries.  In 1972 Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi ordained by Hebrew Union College, and by the time I became a rabbi the women outnumbered the men 3 to 2.  And we’re still trying to work on bringing women’s voices to the table.  Workplace equality and reproductive rights are battles currently being waged on a daily basis, because many men would simply prefer that women remain silent, unnamed, non-participants in the public arena.
We are changing, and the road has been long but we can see the day when the voices that were previously silent will be heard.  Not just women, but all minorities.  All colors, races, religions, sexualities, abilities, classes, tastes, and styles will be treated with respect and dignity.  We will all be heard because we are pushing for such change.  We push because our tradition tells us to.  Speak out for the orphan and the stranger, the widow and the poor.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Do not put a stumbling block before the blind nor insult the deaf.  Since it began Judaism has spoken out for the silent, and as we advance we open ourselves up to more and more voices that were silent for too long.
Change gives voice to those who were previously unheard.

Real change is neither fast nor easy.
We are going through a lot of changes this year in our congregation.  Some of them are physical.  Did you notice the beautiful new roof?  It doesn’t leak—look, the bimah is dry!  That’s a very positive change, even if we all have to chip in to make it a reality.  Have you noticed all of the beautiful programs we are offering?  Some of them are new versions of old favorites.  Mitzvah Day is around the corner (October 21!), and we are going for a family-friendly atmosphere where children and parents will be able to work together to do good around our community. We’re having sushi in the Sukkah—that the dads are getting together to build.  Our teens are going on their Tikkun Olam trip to New Orleans for the fifth time, and we’ve invited two other Miami congregations to join us.  And for the first time, your rabbis will battle it out Iron Chef style this winter.  There are all sorts of changes happening at Temple Sinai.  Check out the bounty of fliers in the loby to see what interests you.  Of course, these activities will best make our community stronger if we all join together.
Lasting change can be like physical therapy.  It can be pretty rigorous.  There are stretching and strengthening exercises, small weights and elastic bands, electrodes to attach to muscles, and hours spent at physical therapy clinics.  If it is done right, the body can heal and transform into a better version than it was previously.  It hurts, and it is difficult, but it makes everything after it so much better.
Change can be painful, but if it is done right it will make us stronger.

Just this morning I was listening to an NPR story about high school students in Urban Chicago who are re-learning how to learn.  Author Paul Tough suggests that success is not about test scores and IQ, but about how young people build character.  He has mentored and intervened with young people who had not been nurtured as young children.  Of course, their performance in school suffered, probably because of this.  So he selected a group of inner-city kids and counseled them instead of tutoring them.  He focuses on what he calls non-cognitive skills: character strengths like tenacity, resilience, impulse control.  Tough claims these are at least as important or even more important in a child’s success.
Today many of these kids are successfully building toward college diplomas.  Among his group of high school freshmen, 85% went on to graduate college, compared to the average in those areas of 6%.
This is a huge change, and there is no way it was easy on these kids.  They are certainly better off for the change they put in to themselves.

The most important changes are right in front of you.  What do you want to change about yourself?  We all have flaws that we want to make better.  We all have changes we want to make in ourselves.  How can we help you become the best version of yourself?  Come during the week and sit with your clergy for a little bit.  Talk to us when we can really give you the attention you deserve.  We just might even be able to help.
Let’s use 5773 to change together.
This is the time of year when we take stock of our lives and make the changes we most need.  Like the stories in our sacred tradition, we can be jarred when something within us changes.  But change brings us into today, allows us to face the future with strength, and with a voice that we might not even know is within us.
May we all work hard for the changes we desire for ourselves and our community this year and always.
Shanah tovah

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Elul 28

As we draw near to the end of Elul, I want to thank Rabbi Bradley G. Levenberg of Temple Sinai in Atlanta; Rabbi Eric Linder of Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, GA; and Rabbi Jason NEvarez of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, NY for helping to make these Elul Thoughts possible.  Collaborating with good friends and respected colleagues is one of the many things that brings me into 5773 with joy.

The first thing that God says to Avram (Abraham) is: Lech L’cha. - Go forth.

This injunction is one of the central essences of Judaism.

By heeding this command, Abraham merits becoming the first of our avot, our ancestors. He demonstrates a willing to go into an unknown future, leaving the comforts of the past behind.

Each of us must heed this command for ourselves. But we have an advantage over Abraham; we have a community of fellow journeyers to walk with.

Biblical Hebrew is interesting. The imperative Lech L’cha can certainly mean: Hey you, GO! This is how we typically interpret the verse; God tells Abraham to start a very long journey … a journey that will lead to a promised land of milk and honey at a place that is far, far away.

But, there is another possible meaning of the command. The two words can also imply: Go Towards Yourself!!

At the close of this Elul, let us all heed the command that started the peoplehood of Israel: Lech L’cha. Our journeys will continue taking us toward the best parts of ourselves.