Thursday, August 26, 2010

Navigating the High Holidays at WRT

Planning to celebrate the High Holidays at Westchester Reform Temple this year? Pay attention these important instructions so that your experience will be safe and comfortable.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ki Tavo 5770 / Elul

Dear Friends:

These days most of my energies are directed toward the High Holidays and temple programs for the coming year which all are shaping up to be very exciting. Thus my blogging time is a bit short, so I am pleased to share with you a D'var Torah on this week's parasha that I delivered to the congregation in 2006.

Happy studying and in the spirit of Elul, meaningful reflecting.

KI TAVO 5767

September 8, 2006

Two weeks from tonight, most if not all of us will gather here again—if not in this exact space, then in one very much like it—to usher in the year our people names 5767. So I was thinking about what I could say to you tonight by way of a sermon, without giving too much of a sermon. That is to say, I promise to keep my remarks succint—though, it should be noted, not so much as Salvador Dali, who, in what has been called the world’s shortest public speech, once said, “I will be so brief that I have already finished.”

I have not already finished, so let me get on with it. It turns out this Torah portion contains an appropriate message for the season. We’re nearing the end of the Torah, and Parashat Ki Tavo contains some of Moses’ final remarks to the Israelites. With promises of abundant blessings and threats of hideous curses, Moses exhorts the people to obey God’s commandments, to the end that they will live long and prosper. But Moses is old and, truth be told, crotchety, and he can’t help periodically blurting out his frustration with a people that over the past forty years of wandering in the wilderness has given him more than a few grey hairs. He says, “…You have seen all that the Eternal did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt . . . the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet to this day the Eternal has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:1-3).

Poor Moses! Forty years of schlepping this people from wilderness to promised land, and they can’t even recognize a good thing when they see it. Within minutes of their deliverance from Pharaoh and his murderous slave captains, they’re begging to go back to Egypt. Within minutes of manna dropping at their feet, they’re begging for meat. Within minutes of arriving at Mount Sinai they’re building a golden calf, that monstrous idol, and dancing around it in a frenzy. Within minutes of scouting out the land of milk and honey, they’ve declared it unsuitable on account of its inhabitants, who are, by at least one account, big. So Moses derides them: “You lack the eyes to see!”

Which takes me to my very simple theme, what I would wish for us in the new year, if I could have only one wish. My wish is that we would have eyes to see, in this new year.

Thousands of years ago, the Bible’s gentle cynic Kohelet famously declared, “There is nothing new under the heavens,” and how well we know the feeling. How easily we say that we’ve seen it all before, that we’ve “been there, done that.” Our colleague Rabbi Charles Sherman, whose congregation is in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that “the real enemy of religion is not atheism but boredom. Being jaded is the opposite of being religious. The great Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin wrote: ‘If you look at the stars and yawn . . . I created you in vain, says God.’”

Rabbi Sherman also shared the story of Bob Edens, who was born blind but who, thanks to a delicate and complex operation which involved attaching a detached retina and implanting a transplanted cornea, has gained the ability to see.

This is how he describes his new world.

“To me, yellow is amazing, but red is the best; although, I haven’t seen anything yet that I don’t find wondrous.

I never would have dreamed that yellow was so, so yellow. I don’t have any words with which to describe it. I am amazed by yellow. I am simply dazzled by yellow.

But red is my favorite color. I just can’t believe red,” said Edens who says that the first thing he ever saw in his life was an eyedropper in the hands of a nurse, a week after his surgery.

“Grass is something I had to get used to,” he said. “I always thought it was just fuzz. But to see each individual stalk, and to see the hair on my arms, growing like trees, and to see birds flying through the air, and everything, it’s like starting a whole new life. It’s the most amazing thing in the world to see things you never thought you’d see.

I saw the purple and orange recently in the face of a tiger. I could see the individual hairs and the color of his eyes.

I can see the shape of the moon now and I like nothing better than seeing a jet plane flying across the sky, leaving a vapor trail. And of course sunsets and sunrises.”

“I can’t wait to get up each day to see what I can see. I am still seeing most of it for the first time.”

“And at night I look at the stars in the sky and at the flashing lights on the highway. And I am learning how to read and write like a first grader. Everything is like a constant high. You could never know how wonderful everything is!”

Edens had been blind from birth and yet he managed to graduate from Furman University, learned Braille, married and had a daughter. He even coached a Little League baseball team, while working as a masseur! He claims that every single governor of South Carolina since 1963 has come to him for a massage. But right now, he would rather talk about what he can see than about what he has done.

“I saw some bees the other day,” confided Edens, almost as if telling a secret. “And they were incredible. And I jumped a covey of quail too. I had heard of quail before, but to actually see them, what an experience!”

“And I saw a truck drive by in the rain the other day. It threw a spray into the air. It was marvelous!”

“And did I mention,” he said, genuine rapture in his voice, “did I mention that I saw a falling leaf, just drifting in the air! What a wonder that was!”

I was moved by Bob Edens’ account of what it is like to see things for the first time, and I hope you are too. And I hope we could spend a few minutes on the cusp of this new year, just trying to recapture the feeling. Maybe you keep safe somewhere deep within the thrill you felt the first time you saw something magnificent, like the Grand Canyon with its sunset-hued striations plunging a mile beneath your feet, or you saw Israel, its low coastline breaking through the clouds as the airplane descended, or you first set eyes on the person you would someday marry.

The Psalmist was right when he exclaimed, “Ma rabu ma’asecha Adonai” – O God, how wondrous are your works. And Abraham Joshua Heschel was right when he said that the religious experience begins when we learn to cultivate a sense of sublime wonder at the universe. That, in its most literal sense, is why we call this season the Days of Awe. And that is why my wish for us is to open our eyes in wonder and, just two weeks from tonight, stand in awe, alongside Bob Edens, and Heschel, and the Psalmist,

. . . and this child:

Kevin was in the first grade of school and his teacher asked the class, “What is the color of apples?” Answers were red and green. Kevin raised his hand and said, “White.” The teacher explained that apples could be red, green and sometimes golden, but never white. Kevin was insistent and finally said, “Look inside.”

I wish we’ll all have eyes like Kevin’s in this new year, eyes that can’t wait to get up each day to see what they can see, eyes to see the majesty and the mystery of this world, shot through with God’s presence.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Shortest Blog Post of My Rabbinate

Dear Friends,

Consider one half of one verse from this week's parasha, Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-26:19), and comment as you see fit.

Deut. 23:8b: "...You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land."

Upon reading the parasha this week, I was struck by the Torah's words in this verse. In multiple places, all over the Torah, we are instructed by similar wisdom not to "oppress" or "mistreat" the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. But this is the only instance, to my knowledge, in which we are specifically commanded not to abhor an Egyptian.

Given the slavemaster-to-slave relationship that the Torah depicts between Egyptians and Israelites, this verse becomes all the more noteworthy and surprising. And given the recent barrage of anti-Muslim bigotry defiling the spirit of religious freedom on which our country was founded, I believe that this verse offers meaningful wisdom for the moment in which we're living.

Never one to shy away from a noble "controversy for the sake of Heaven," I am eager to read your remarks.

Happy studying.

Respectfully submitted.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue, in this week's portion, Shoftim.

Dear Friends,

I'm away this weekend and will miss you at Torah Study, but here's some Torah-related food for thought.

Consider the texts first. After the study texts, I've offered a derasha (homily).


Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 39b.


Anyone who performs a single mitzvah receives good fortune.

Deuteronomy 22:6-7 (from this week's portion, Shoftim).



If you come across a bird’s nest along the way, whether in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother bird hovering over the fledglings or eggs, you must not take the mother bird with her young. Instead, send away the mother bird, but take the young, so that it go well for you, and that your days are prolonged.

Milton Steinberg, As A Driven Leaf (1939), 248-249, based on B. Kiddushin 39b.

At the edge of a garden, down a long slope of lawn, a peasant and a boy circled about the foot of a lone tall tree.

“Get all the eggs, my son,” the man said in a voice that reached the rabbis but faintly. “Be careful to send the mother bird away.”

Nodding the boy set about climbing the tree.

One of the sages shook himself from his hypnotic trance. “That boy will live long,” he muttered whimsically. “For observe, in one act he is fulfilling two commandments, the reward of which is expressly stated as length of days. He is obeying his father, and it is written, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be prolonged upon the earth.’ He will send the mother bird away, thus conforming to the injunction. ‘If a bird’s nest chance before thee … thou shalt surely send the mother bird free that it may go well with thee and that thou mayest prolong your days.’”

A few moments later wings fluttered about a treetop and a bare, slender arm waved toward it from among the branches.

Then a treble cry shattered the silence.

A sprawling body plummeted downward. Simultaneously a deeper voice sounded, inarticulate with panic.

Instantly the rabbis rushed headlong down the grassy slope.

The peasant was already on his knees gathering the boy into his arms.

“Tell me,” he said, lifting a distorted face to them, “does he still live?”

One of the sages bent over the boy, then rose, shaking his head. “Blessed be the Righteous Judge.”

Translations from the Hebrew: J. Blake

Let’s consider the sages who witnessed this death. Most famous, or infamous, among them is Elisha ben Abuyah, who until now has distinguished himself with a handful of wise sayings. The boy’s death, however, proved too much. Even as his colleagues pronounced the blessing Baruch Dayyan Ha-Emet, Blessed be the Righteous Judge, Elisha proclaimed Leit din v’leit Dayyan—There is no justice and there is no Judge.

At this point, Elisha’s story turns tragic. The Sages excommunicate him; he renounces his faith, and is rumored to have become a practitioner of pagan disciplines. A mysterious story elsewhere in the Talmud refers to Elisha as having stepped into a lush orchard, where he “mutilated the plants” in corrupting Jewish teaching. Like the villain Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter’s world, He-Who-Is-Not-To-Be-Named, Elisha’s very name becomes a curse, and he is forever after called Acher, the "Other One."

Leit din v’leit Dayyan—There is no justice and there is no Judge: A shattering cry. A familiar cry.

Tomorrow we will read news from Afghanistan or Israel or some other far-flung part of the world, of another soldier ambushed. Every week brings news of a bombing, a lone gunman gone rampant, an act that strikes terror into the hearts of the innocent.

Like the tender boy tumbling headlong out of the tree, too many victims of terror and violent crime have died fulfilling a mitzvah: In houses of prayer. Defending a friend's life. Helping a stranger out of a burning building. Headlines from across the globe frighten us. How easy to say with Elisha, Leit din v’leit Dayyan. There is no justice. There is no Judge.

Too often there is no justice here at home either. Some of us have amassed wealth through hard work, only to see it devoured by circumstances beyond us. Some have expected a promotion, only to be passed over in favor of someone less experienced. Some have battled baseless lawsuits, endured public humiliation. Some have been deprived of a life’s work by debilitating illness. Others of us have buried friends, siblings, and parents who died too young, wives and husbands, our own sons and daughters.

Kohelet, the gentle cynic of the Hebrew Bible, writes, “In my own brief span of life, I have seen both these things: sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness. So don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumfounded” (Ecclesiastes 7:15-16).

Hard words for a hard world.

They hit even harder because we so crave the idea of fairness, that we hold out hope against all odds that the world will follow our expectations of fair play. Our religion teaches it, does it not? “A person who performs a single mitzvah will have good fortune.” We see how that passage ends: nauseatingly, with a boy falling out of a tree, to his death. We all know good people with terrible fortune. It not only disproves the rule; it is the rule.

A midrash asks what happened to the Tablets of the Commandments that Moses shattered when he saw his people frolicking around the Golden Calf. It concludes that the broken pieces must have been gathered into the Ark alongside the newer tablets. Each one of us resembles that Ark, carrying around our broken pieces, the parts of us mutilated, shattered by injustices we have witnessed or endured. We cannot let them go. They belong to us. We must live with them.

But can we respond to injustice without becoming another Elisha ben Abuyah, who threw away everything he had earned, everything he had learned, to flout his colleagues—and his faith—with “Leit din v’leit Dayyan!”?

I am not yet a cynic, gentle or otherwise. I don’t believe that you can “overdo goodness.” And I draw hope, today, for a meaningful response to injustice from two sources. One is this week's Torah portion. The other is this week's placement in the Jewish calendar. Briefly, let us consider them.

Our Torah portion, Shoftim, contains one of the most celebrated lines in the Torah. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice, you shall pursue. But why say “justice” twice? The Medieval Rabbis grappled for an explanation. Ibn Ezra says: pursue justice that you may profit from it; pursue justice even if you will incur a loss. Or: pursue justice not only once, but every day of your life. Justice, justice.

We would add: justice in the courtroom, justice in your household; justice for the entitled, justice for the deprived; justice in business; justice in games; justice in a scandal-besmirched Congress; justice to the Taliban; justice to religious extremists everywhere; justice for unfairly maligned Muslims; justice for Israelis; justice for Palestinians; justice, justice, you must pursue!

The emphasis on our pursuit of justice also comes as a rejoinder to Elisha’s dilemma. The Torah would have no need to command “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” if it in fact wished to persuade us that God’s justice is perfect, that the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished, that life really is fair, you just can’t see it. No; justice, justice, you shall pursue.

As with so much in Judaism, we will shoulder the burden. We will live up to our covenant to exist in partnership with the Holy One. Where God’s justice does not prevail in our world, we will, we will pursue. Martin Luther King’s 16-minute “I Have A Dream” speech still calls to us, still challenges us: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

This week we began the month of Elul. Traditionally we dedicate these thirty days in advance of the New Year to cheshbon ha-nefesh, to self-evaluation. This first week of Elul, let us acknowledge that we cannot reasonably expect justice from our world if we do not demand it of ourselves.

How well do we respect rules of fair play? Do we demand honesty from our children but then pass them off as younger to get discounted theater or chair lift tickets? Do we demand full disclosure from our loved ones while keeping secrets to ourselves? Do we demand precision from our employees while cutting corners in our own work? Even as we are forced to contemplate the minefield of random injustice that pockmarks our world, Elul urges us to consider: in the past year, what have I done to make myself more just?

These concerns laid heavy on the heart of Rabbi Levi of Berditchev, who sat lonesome by his window on the first day of Elul, three centuries ago. A cobbler looking for business passed by and asked if he had anything to mend. Reb Levi broke down. “Rosh Ha-Shanah is almost here,” he sobbed softly, “and I have still not begun to mend myself.”

We too repeat the words, Tzedek, tzedek: Justice in our world; justice in ourselves.

On Rosh Ha-Shanah, less than a month from today, if you look at the night sky, you can see the sign of the Zodiac for the month of Tishri. It is a balance, a scale—symbol of justice. That night we will stand as if before the Supreme Judge and pray as if our fates hang in the balance, deeds weighed on a Divine scale of merit.

I say this not to cause alarm, but so that we might use these days to consider our commitment to justice—in our community, in ourselves—to prepare for our "day in court." May we judge ourselves in such a way as to bring strength and honor to our names, our loved ones, the Jewish people, and all God's children everywhere.

I wish you a Chodesh Tov: a month of personal growth, self awareness, and spiritual balance.

Shabbat Shalom!

Adapted from remarks delivered at Westchester Reform Temple in August, 2003

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Dear Friends:

Of late I have been challenged by friends and congregants about my sharp-tongued response to the Anti-Defamation League’s official statement about the proposed Cordoba House, a project aimed at achieving “a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions” (as cited on the website of the project). Before you read my remarks, you will find it helpful (essential?) to go the Cordoba Initiative (CI) website and learn about the organization and the proposed project. You will find that CI promotes, among other objectives, women’s rights within Islam. You will find that the proposed Cordoba House intends to use art and culture as primary vehicles for developing understanding among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

On my Facebook page last week, I accused the ADL of outright “bigotry” and condemned their position with the words, “Shame on you, ADL.”

I hope to use this forum to clarify my meaning and explain why I am upset about the ADL statement of July 28, which reads in full:

We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship.

We categorically reject appeals to bigotry on the basis of religion, and condemn those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.

However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.

The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process. Therefore, under these unique circumstances, we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.

In recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center, we are mindful that some legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values. These questions deserve a response, and we hope those backing the project will be transparent and forthcoming. But regardless of how they respond, the issue at stake is a broader one.

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.

I trust that you can draw your own conclusions, and I am confident that not all readers of my remarks here will share my appraisal. Here are my three specific objections to the ADL statement:

1. The “bait-and-switch” form of the text. Framing its true message (opposition to Cordoba House) with two opening paragraphs in response to “bigotry” strikes me as nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Clearly the ADL anticipated that Jewish supporters of the project would feel betrayed by the statement’s opposition to Cordoba House, and wanted to defuse tension from the get-go. The ADL makes it sound like they’re coming out against bigotry, when in fact the aim of this statement is to object to Cordoba House.

2. The lack of specificity about the allegedly “legitimate questions” that “have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values.” If the ADL knows something that we do not about the funding of Cordoba House, this statement would have been the moment to speak up. But alleging that the funding “might” come from sources whose “ideologies stand in contradiction to our [whose?] shared values [what values are meant here?]” strikes me as a wobbly accusation. Are we now meant to suspect that Cordoba House has ties to Islamic extremists? To Islamic regimes opposed to Israel? How are we supposed to interpret this hesitation? To plant a suspicion in the mind of the reader without any further clarification strikes me as duplicitous.

3. I challenge the conclusion that “building an Islamic center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain--unnecessarily--and that is not right.” Obviously for some family and friends of victims of 9/11, the mere mention of Islam “causes pain.” The mention of Islam “causes pain” for a lot of anti-Muslim bigots, too. That does not provide reason to conclude that the proposed building of Cordoba House is “not right.”

Indeed, I have reached the opposite conclusion: that building a center dedicated to improving Muslim-West relations is right and good and long overdue. How long have we been waiting for Muslim leaders to stand up and offer the world a vision of Islam as a religion of tolerance, peace, and pluralism? How long have we been waiting for Muslim leaders to stand up and decry fundamentalism within its ranks? For even if 1% of the world’s Muslims were “extremists” of one sort or another (and many scholars believe the percentage may be closer to 10%), that would still be about 15 or 16 million Muslim extremists worldwide -- exceeding the world’s total Jewish population, by the way. Now consider the possibility that perhaps up to 150 million vehemently anti-Western Muslims may be responsible for the overwhelmingly negative image that Americans have of Islam, and you can understand why I rejoice to hear, after too much silence, a true Muslim voice crying out for religious and political tolerance and bridge-building.

At the very least, give the Cordoba Initiative a fair chance before shouting it down. The very fact that our media have presented the project, almost without exception, as a “mosque at Ground Zero” is deeply upsetting to me. By the way, the ADL’s use of the phrase “in the shadow of the World Trade Center” is also loaded and unfair. The proposed center is two blocks away from the site of the former WTC! Do you know how much real estate is contained in two New York City blocks?! By the time you walk there from Ground Zero, you will have passed literally hundreds of apartments, stores, civic and religious buildings, and more.

Such biased portrayals define sensationalist journalism at its worst--aimed at turning the hearts of even the most open-minded Americans against the project before it has a chance to get off the ground. The fact that the ADL statement took to task this open bigotry does not excuse its ultimate resistance to the project--for which the ADL’s stated objections seem mighty flimsy.

This week’s Torah portion is called Re’eh. It’s a word that means “see” -- a word about vision. Within its chapters we find a Deuteronomic vision of Israelite society whose strength comes in part from its iron-clad prohibitions against meddling with anything associated with pagan religions. In warning the Israelites against idolatry in all of its seductive forms, the writers of this part of the Torah hoped to shore up Israelite hegemony in the face of rising tides of assimilation within the Canaanite cults that populated the ancient near East. Idolatrous shrines and icons are to be destroyed, pagan religious officials put to death. Even asking about pagan gods and pagan practices is forbidden. To ensure yet further that Biblical Israelites would not associate with Canaanites, the Torah restricts their diet to prevent them from dining with others.

How foolish, how shortsighted, and how deeply wrong we would be to conclude that such policies, that such an isolationist outlook, ought to dictate Jewish relations with Islam today, particularly with the (all too infrequently heard) voices of moderation and tolerance within Islam. After all, we have never regarded Islam as we did the Canaanite pagans, nor have Muslims historically treated Jews as infidels throughout most of our shared history. In fact, in the city of Cordoba, Spain, for which the project is named, Jewish and Muslim civilizations flourished side-by-side and cross-pollinated for centuries during one of the “Golden Ages” of Jewish history. Did you know that some of the most important works of Medieval Jewish poetry and philosophy were composed in Arabic? Could you imagine a return to the kind of harmonious relations between our people? No, friends, Muslims are not pagans. Their extremists are hideous and ugly, as are extremists of every faith, including our own Jewish extremists. But we are, at our core, common monotheists who call upon the same God. All we need is a little vision to give us the courage to do what is right.

So I humbly retract the words “shame on you” that I blurted out into cyberspace without proper preamble or explanation. But I share with you my disappointment in the ADL’s decision to oppose a unique and heretofore unexplored opportunity that aims to improve relations among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

More importantly, I do not hesitate to challenge those people--many of them ill-informed, if informed at all--who have jumped to conclusions about the Cordoba Initiative.

Please view the following televised interview with WRT's Rabbi Rick Jacobs, featured on CNN on August 5th after a rally of rabbis in support of the mosque/cultural center. Rabbi Jacobs' impassioned plea for sensitivity and understanding of the true nature of the project is a welcome tonic.

Let’s not lack vision when it comes to this opportunity. We need it so much. I hope and pray that we’ll open our eyes.

As always, I welcome your comments, so long as they are offered in the spirit with which I write these words: the spirit of shalom.