Friday, December 30, 2011

Vayiggash 5772 - Judah and Judaism


You may have heard this week about eight-year-old Naama Margolese, the daughter of American Modern Orthodox Jews who made aliyah and who now live in Beit Shemesh, an increasingly haredi or ultra-Orthodox enclave in Israel.

“...Naama had become terrified of walking to her elementary school … after ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code” (The New York Times, “Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism,” December 27, 2011). Their attack has escalated into riots, where hundreds of men and boys from the haredi community have demonstrated, at times violently, to defend gender separation and their rigorous definition of modesty.

Several hundred haredi residents of Beit Shemesh have now become sufficiently emboldened to consider it appropriate to bully a schoolgirl. They call themselves Sicarii after the so-called “dagger men” who used stealth tactics to assassinate not only Roman enemies during the Judean war of the first century CE but also their own Jewish compatriots who did not share their hardline rejection of Roman authority. I call these men Jewish extremists, because that’s what they are, as much today as they were 2,000 years ago.

This virulent strain of Jewish extremism does not incubate in a vacuum, nor does it represent a totally anomalous expression of Judaism in Israel today. Spitting on a schoolgirl represents only the latest and perhaps most offensive of a string of public behaviors that illustrate what happens when a group of anti-modern extremists bump up against a burgeoning modern, socially progressive society.

As reported in this week’s New York Times, in recent weeks and months, “Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly ‘kosher’ [that is to say, gender-segregated] buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back” (Ibid).

Adding fuel to the fire, there is the political reality, that Israel’s governments continue to empower extremist constituencies so that ultra-Orthodox parties end up influencing policy. In the Knesset, whose structure necessitates government by coalition, any ruling party needs to team up with a number of smaller parties representing various voting blocs in order to maintain an ever-tenuous hold on power. Should the ruling party fail to mollify its ultra-Orthodox partners, these smaller parties can and will bring down the government. The very threat of dissolution usually leads more mainstream Israeli leaders to bite their tongues, hold their noses, avert their eyes while haredi lawmakers assert their backward views and insert their draconian vision of Jewish law into the law of the land.

There is also the demographic reality. The haredi are growing well out of proportion to the rest of Israeli society and their rising voices reflect their multiplying numbers. Indeed, the only other demographic group reproducing at a similar rate in this part of the world is the Palestinians, a polarizing intensification of society’s extremes that sets up the Holy Land for aggravated conflict, even conflagration.

As the Beit Shemesh brouhaha unfolded, a congregant sent me an earnest, anguished, and probing e-mail that read, in part, “it is increasingly difficult to voice support for Israel.”

I pause here to acknowledge that there may well be among you joining us for Shabbat this evening a number who find my remarks uncomfortable. Israel, some would argue, does not need American rabbis exposing the seamiest underbelly of Israeli society. Reform Jewish communities in particular, some may argue, not inaccurately, already suffer from a debilitating malaise of Israel apathy, and what they do know about Israel is twisted and biased.
So--if you’re one of those people--just hang on. I’m not done.

The news from Beit Shemesh this week is a snapshot of the real-world Israel. To me, Israel means more than history and hopes and dreams although it also means all of those things. The real-world Israel enfolds all its dualities--triumphs and tribulations, progress and its regress. The real-world Israel embraces signature paradoxes: hi-tech and backwards, brave and bellicose, altruistic and self-serving, tolerant and repressive. The Israel of the real world and the Israel of historic hopes and dreams: one does not exist without the other.

I know that discussing the paradoxical dualities of Israel carries risks, but this week’s news is about so much more than a man spitting on a girl. It’s about a self-righteous fanatical community spitting on the soul of Judaism. Therefore we stand up and speak out.

And now a word about this week’s Torah portion.

For the past few weeks we’ve been reading the story of Joseph but this week the spotlight illuminates Judah who emerges as the real hero of the story. Joseph, now vice-regent to Pharaoh, vizier of all Egypt, has imprisoned his kid brother Benjamin as a ransom, testing his brothers who long ago mistreated Joseph, selling him into servitude, leaving him for dead, bereaving their father Jacob of his beloved son. Now Joseph has the upper hand. He wishes to find out if his brothers have become honest men, stand-up guys who have repented, changed their ways. With Benjamin in custody the brothers face an existential test: stand up for their brother and risk coming away empty-handed, or grab their rations and hightail it to Canaan without him.

At that moment, Vayiggash--a verb meaning, “he stepped up” and the title of this week’s portion. Judah stood up. He, alone among his brothers, stepped forward, stood before Joseph, stood up for his vulnerable youngest brother. “The boy cannot leave his father,” Judah insisted, “for if he leaves his father, he will die.” He alone took responsibility. He knew that if he failed to bring him home, he would “have sinned against” his “father forever.” “So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord,” he pleaded, “and let the boy go back home with his brothers."

This is Judah’s finest moment, this moment of stepping forward and standing up, this moment of Vayiggash that gives our portion its name, and it is not only Judah’s defining moment it is a defining moment for the Jewish people. For who are we but Yehudim--a word meaning Jews but more literally, the people of Judah?

We are people of Judah, we Jews, because like Judah of the Bible we stand up for the little guy. What is the most repeated instruction in the Torah? “You shall not oppress the stranger--for you know the heart of the stranger, the vulnerable, the needy--having been slaves in the land of Egypt.” 36 times it finds expression in the Five Books of Moses. Judah’s essential moment foreshadows the Jew’s essential mission.

And this is also what we have seen this week--because in the wake of the repugnant behavior coming out of Beit Shemesh we have also seen tens of thousands of Israelis rallying in Beit Shemesh to protest ultra-Orthodox extremism. “We are fighting for the soul of the nation,” President Shimon Peres said.

A day after the protests, a leading Israeli rabbi--a haredi Jew by any standard, by the way--ruled that gender segregated buses violate Jewish law.

These voices also represent the real-world Israel, proof-positive that Israel is a thriving democracy, not a theocracy that will allow itself to be bullied into submission by its most fanatical fringes. This is an Israel worth celebrating, the Israel I love, an Israel with the soul of Judah--that is, a Jewish soul.

Meanwhile, reassuring condemnations continue to pour in from all parts of the Jewish world and from every denomination. On Wednesday, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and contributor to the Jerusalem Post did what Judah did--he stood up and spoke out. “Attacking and spitting on a child is wrong, wrong wrong,” wrote Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg. “We are meant to be a light unto the nations, and not in the headlines of the New York Times for such unbelievably appalling behavior.”

Noting that most haredi Jews do not read the secular media (and therefore their silence should not be mistaken for approval) Ginzberg added, “I am not the spokesmen for Charedi Jewry--but I am a member of that segment of society, and proudly so. That said--this turn of events does not represent me, nor 99.9% of the people I know.”

I for one am not so sure that 99.9% of the haredi world disavow this week’s ugliness, and I would not so blithely let the collective haredi community off the hook for their silence to which Rabbi Ginzberg’s remark is a notable and refreshing exception. Nor should we excuse the obstinate unscrupulousness of the Israeli government in furthering the politics of appeasement toward the most repellent elements of Jewish religious society.

At the same time, I would caution us about impugning Israel entire. The fact of the matter is, religious fundamentalism is ugly in any guise, and America is no less a host to fundamentalists, even violent fanatics, than Israel, or for that matter, Iran. The difference is, in Israel as in America, we the people stand up in protest like Judah. In Iran the fanatics are running the show and those who dare stand up find themselves facing down the pepper spray cans, batons, and the gunsights of the Basij, Iran’s notorious paramilitary group.

The Jewish response is never to abandon Israel. To do so is to become no better than the brothers who left Joseph for dead. The Jewish response is to be like Judah, Vayiggash, who stood up, put himself in the shoes of the little guy, and spoke truth to power.

Our tradition summons us to engage with Israel all the more deeply now, standing with the vast majority of Israelis who understand that there’s more than one way to be Jewish and that the haredim do not speak for us.

We are one people--we American Jews, we Israeli Jews--with one Jewish soul and one glorious heritage that impels us to pursue justice. We call that heritage Judaism, or, more to the point, Judah-ism.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Shabbat Wishes from The URJ Biennial

Dear Friends,

Every 2 years, the Reform Movement convenes its Biennial Convention. This year, just outside Washington, DC, the Reform Movement has gathered together for its largest-ever Biennial (over 6,000 registrants!)

President Obama will be addressing the convention momentarily (as I write this at 2:35 PM on Friday). Throughout the weekend, the Biennial will sponsor inspiring worship, tributes to outgoing President of the URJ Eric Yoffie and incoming President Richard Jacobs (of Westchester Reform Temple).

Be part of the excitement this weekend by following the live webstream of the Biennial of the URJ by clicking here:

Friday, December 2, 2011

Jacobs' Farewell - Vayetze 5772

No, the apostrophe is not misplaced....

In this week's portion, Jacob leaves home -- the opening word and title of the parasha, Vayetze, means "he left":

"So Jacob left Be'er-sheva and went to Haran" (Gen. 28:10).

And so begins the saga of Jacob as a man away from his home for the first time: he will go to his family's ancestral land, to Paddan-Aram, there to serve Laban who will be his father-in-law and employer....

Our own WRT community is preparing to say farewell to Rabbi Richard Jacobs, so Jacob's departure corresponds in poetic symmetry with Jacobs' departure. Tonight at WRT at 6:15 please join us for a service honoring Rabbi Jacobs' 20 years of devoted service as the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple. Rabbi Jacobs' imprimatur is felt in every dimension of our congregation's life--in our approach to worship, education, social justice, Israel, and community--and in the very building itself, this magnificent campus that was just awarded the 2011 American Architecture Award (to Rogers Marvel Architects).

Please join us tonight to celebrate Rabbi Jacobs' service to our community, the incredible legacy of Jewish leadership and inspiration that he leaves our temple and that will ever abide among us, and wish him well in his new leadership role as the incoming President of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Please also use this page to offer comments and tributes honoring Rabbi Jacobs -- it will be deeply moving to have your words and well wishes recorded here.

Speaking personally, I am forever indebted to my rabbi, friend, mentor, and teacher. May God bless him in this special moment of transition.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Friday, November 25, 2011

Seeing And Not Seeing: A Reflection on Parashat Toldot (5772)


D’var Torah for Parashat Toldot 5772

November 25, 2011 - 6:15 PM

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Taken at face value, this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, gives us every reason to conclude that Isaac, son of Abraham, father of Jacob and Esau, was a complete idiot.

“When Isaac was old, and his eyes too dim to see, he summoned his older son Esau and said to him, “My son!” And Esau replied “Here I am.” Isaac sent Esau out to the fields, to hunt some game for preparing a delicious meal for Papa.

Rebecca saw in this an opportunity for Jacob to seize his father’s blessing. They schemed for him to impersonate his brother, wearing hairy goat skins to simulate the hirsute Esau, presenting a delicious goat stew which mom had made lickety split while Esau was out hunting.

Now pay attention to how many times Isaac seems on the verge of figuring out what’s going on… but then, doesn’t.

Jacob “came to his father and said, ‘My father!’ And he replied, ‘Here I am. Who are you, my son?’”

“Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you have instructed me. Please get up, sit down and eat of my game, so that you may give me your innermost blessing.’”

“Then Isaac asked his son, ‘How is it that you have found [it] so quickly, my son?’ And he said, “Because the Lord your God prepared it in my presence.’”

(I want to interject here, that Jacob has just told his father that the reason dinner came out so fast is because God made dinner.)

This did not seem to faze him. “Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.’”

“So Jacob approached Isaac his father, and he felt him, and said, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau!’”

And then,” the Torah tells us, Isaac “did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau, and so he blessed him.”

But that’s not even the end of the episode!

"'Are you [really] my son Esau?’" Isaac asked again. And Jacob answered, "I am!"

After enjoying dinner, Isaac said, "Please come closer and kiss me, my son."

So Jacob came closer. Isaac kissed him, smelled his garments, and blessed him, saying, "Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed!”

Three times did Isaac directly confront Jacob: “Who are you, for real?” He felt him, kissed him, smelled him, ate his food. Deprived of eyesight he relied on hearing, touch, smell and taste. The voice gave Jacob away; but the hairy disguise, the outdoorsy smell, the delicious dinner all said “Esau” so again, taken at face value, Isaac was duped.

But come now. Are we really to believe that Jacob tricked his father into transferring a precious family heritage to the wrong son? The stakes were so high. How could Isaac have let it happen? If even a shred of doubt nagged at him, why would he have gone through with it?

For with this blessing Isaac set in motion the rest of the Jewish story: Jacob will inherit the mantle of leadership. “Nations shall serve you and kingdoms shall bow down to you.... You shall be master over your brothers, and your mother's sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed.”

An anguished Esau burst into the room after Jacob departed, pleading with his father for another blessing. “Bless me too, father! Bless me too!” he wept. It is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of literature. But the deed is done and not even the promise that one day Esau will break Jacob’s yoke can ameliorate his hurt feelings.

Esau flew into a murderous rage and Jacob fled, initiating a pattern that will persist throughout the story of our people: Jacob, that is, Israel, imperiled by brutish enemies. (Esau will come to represent the Roman Empire.) The people of the book always having to outwit or outrun the hunter.

All because, it would seem, Isaac was a complete idiot.

I mean, really? Could he really not figure out what was going on? There is a difference, after all, between visually impaired and comprehensively blind to reality. Could he not have just switched the blessing when he found out? “Oops, sorry boys. My bad. Do-over.”

Something about this face-value reading doesn’t add up. Idiocy does not explain Isaac’s behavior, and, for that matter, neither does blindness. Maybe Isaac’s condition conveniently allowed him to get away with subverting a cultural norm--the blessing of the firstborn son--in order to privilege the son better suited to spiritual leadership.

As it turns out, a number of noted commentators on this passage believed that Isaac knew exactly what he was doing by bestowing the responsibility of leadership on Jacob. The 19th century Russian rabbi known as Malbim concluded that Isaac deliberately bypassed Esau who had forfeited all claim to future Jewish leadership when he intermarried with idolatrous women.

And the supreme authority RaSHI, drawing on earlier midrash, takes great pains to portray Isaac as a willing partner in Jacob’s deception (which, however improbably, he concludes was not really a deception at all).

So before we smear Isaac with a reputation for idiocy we could give the old man the benefit of the doubt. It seems to me that this story comments meaningfully on a common phenomenon among us human beings: not being blind so much as refusing to see what’s right in front of our faces, especially if what’s right in front of our faces makes us uncomfortable, challenges our ways of looking at the world, conflicts with our stated beliefs, preconceived ideas, or deeply held convictions and intentions.

In short, we don’t see what we don’t want to see.

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks published a provocative op-ed that went, in part, like this:

“First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history—during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods—the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

...Some people don’t look at the things that make them uncomfortable. In one experiment, people were shown pictures, some of which contained sexual imagery. Machines tracked their eye movements. The people who were uncomfortable with sex never let their eyes dart over to the uncomfortable parts of the pictures.

As Daniel Goleman wrote in his book ‘Vital Lies, Simple Truths,’ ‘In order to avoid looking, some element of the mind must have known first what the picture contained, so that it knew what to avoid. The mind somehow grasps what is going on and rushes a protective filter into place, thus steering awareness away from what threatens.’

Even in cases where people consciously register some offense, they still often don’t intervene. In research done at Penn State and published in 1999, students were asked if they would make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence. Half said yes. When researchers arranged for that to happen, only 16 percent protested.

...So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene.

...A woman was recently murdered at a yoga clothing store in Maryland while employees at the Apple Store next door heard the disturbing noises but did not investigate. Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was tortured for 24 days by 20 Moroccan kidnappers, with the full knowledge of neighbors. Nobody did anything, and Halimi eventually was murdered.

People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do.

...The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive? That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”

We have a phrase for this all-too-human tendency to overlook the things that disturb us, that threaten to knock us from a place of complacency to a place of concern; we call it “turning a blind eye.” How many kids turn a blind eye when we see a classmate being teased? How many of us turn a blind eye when we see a fellow man or woman being mistreated, because to get involved might exact a cost, entail a risk?

Even more:

Most of us--and I am certainly as guilty as anyone on this--tend not to want to know every last detail of exactly what and whom our mutual fund investments are supporting; exactly where and how our food and clothing and electronics and household items are produced; exactly how much the cooks who prepared our last four-star dinner in Manhattan are taking home and how much they are sending home each month to family members in, say, Guatemala; exactly how big our carbon footprints have become and how dependent we remain on fossil fuels. We know that our American way of life depends in large measure on cheap foreign labor and foreign oil but we usually remain deliberately vague on the specifics.

Even in these lean times we are, most of us, coming to services with bellies still full of Thanksgiving dinner and hearts appropriately full of gratitude for our blessings. From a place of comfort and contentment it becomes easy not to see what we don’t want to see--like the nagging knowledge that, for instance, while we were eating Thanksgiving dinner last night, the better part of 50 million Americans were wondering where their next meal would come from.

But our Jewish tradition teaches that we have to see not only what we want to see but also what we do not want to see. The road to Jewish spiritual enlightenment does not lead to a monastery cloistered from the world.

The road to Jewish spiritual enlightenment leads directly through the experience of human suffering, down the ladder of economic injustice, deep into the belly of the the real world, with all its hurting, all its aching... and all its redemptive possibilities for helping and healing.

And the only way to walk that crooked road is with eyes wide open.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chayei Sarah 5772: A Pre-Thanksgiving Reflection

Shalom, friends!

A few reflections before the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us....
You may want to see Gen. 24:52 and RaSHI ad loc. as well as the surrounding material for reference.

I will be away this weekend in Great Barrington on our annual Confirmation Class Retreat at the URJ Eisner Camp, but I'll be eager to follow your comments on the blog!

With warm wishes as the weather turns cold....
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Friday, November 11, 2011

Vayera 5772 - The Healing Effect of Being Present for Others

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your patience while I've been recovering from an injury over the past 10 days. I am grateful for all of your prayers and supportive wishes.

Please view this little video comment on this week's reading (Vayera, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24) where I explore the intersection between being present for others and healing, in a very personal way!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Blake
Westchester Reform Temple
Scarsdale, New York

Friday, October 28, 2011

NOACH 5772

I’m sure many of you know the story of the Tower of Babel, at the very end of this week’s parasha, Noach. It depicts a group of settlers establishing a city and building a tower extending into the heavens in order “to make a name for themselves.” Displeased with the building project, God confuses the languages of the builders so that they can no longer communicate and then disperses them to all the lands of the earth.

This is what we might call an etiological folk tale, a story designed to explain some feature of the world as we know it, like, how the tiger got its stripes. In this case, our story responds to the question, Why do people speak different languages? Even more to the point, why is human civilization so fractured and fractious? Why can’t we all just get along?

The Rabbis pay special attention to a feature of the story that I wish to highlight for us tonight. The way in which the text describes God’s behavior particularly interests them. Rather than summarily scattering and confusing the builders from a heavenly perch, the text reports that God, using something like the “royal we,” says, Hava Nerdah, “Hey, let’s go down there” before taking action. Two verses later the story says, “So God went down to see the city and the tower that the people were building.”

Why on earth would God need to leave the heavens, to come down, in order to see what was going on in Babel? Does not the Omnipresent One know all, see all? This question fuels the Rabbinic imagination.

It was not the case, concludes the midrash, that God needed to go down in order to see what what going on so much as God wished to model for human beings the proper way to evaluate any situation. RaSHI says that God said Hava Nerdah, “Let’s go down there,” in order to teach us that anyone who would judge a situation cannot determine if it is really bad [or good] until actually seeing it and comprehending it in person.” If you want to understand, first see with your own eyes.

We are living in a time and place that has made it possible, indeed, so easy, to formulate opinions and make judgments at a remove, without first-hand knowledge. The digital age has made every media image unreliable: what looks like cereal glistening with droplets of milk and ripe red strawberries in an advertisement is really some unholy and unpalatable combination of corn syrup and heavy cream or even glue. You really want to know how things are? Hava Nerdah, the Torah says. You have to see things with your own eyes.

The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with media images of people and places we will never see with our own eyes, surrounds the images with “expert” commentary, and then gives anyone with an Internet connection free reign to bloviate at will. The “comment” pages of any online news article or op-ed have become a repository for the worst sort of bilious nonsense, a soapbox for the ignorant and petulant.

Not long ago, an Orthodox Jewish guest to WRT’s online Torah Study blog used our forum for disparaging remarks about Reform Judaism and Reform Jews. In the spirit of Hava Nerdah, of seeing it for oneself, our Torah study community responded with open and sincere invitations to come to WRT and experience firsthand a thriving, engaged Reform Jewish community. And this cuts both ways; too many Reform Jews have a mental image of what goes on in Orthodox synagogues informed not by eyewitness testimony but by a combination of imagination, invention, hearsay, and childhood recollections. To promote interdenominational harmony, we need a serious dose of Hava Nerdah, of going down and seeing with our own eyes before passing judgment.

What about our perceptions of Israel? One interesting exercise is to hand a classroom of Jewish teenagers some blank paper and markers and ask them first to draw “a typical American home.” Then draw “a typical Japanese home.” Finally we ask them to draw “a typical Israeli home.” The pictures speak volumes about this week’s Torah lesson. The “American homes” feature green lawns, colorful furniture, happy children, televisions, and dogs. “Japanese homes” come out in black-and-white with serious children. And the pictures of “Israeli homes” often feature barbed-wire fences, explosions, military aircraft, and anguished faces, with backdrops of sandy deserts and camels. It would make us laugh if it weren’t so sad. In December I will be leading a WRT Family Trip to Israel and I again invite you to fulfill the precept of Hava Nerdah, of seeing for yourself the beauty, the exuberance, the high-tech, ecologically diverse, complex multicultural tapestry of modern-day Israel. We have a few spots still available and anyone who is interested can ask me about it.

When I think of the far-reaching wisdom of this week’s teaching, I wonder aloud: How many Americans have actually been inside a mosque? To experience the ritual of respectfully removing one’s shoes and peacefully stepping inside an ornately inscribed prayer space, observing the ritual movement and chanted liturgies of a Muslim community in the act of prayer? The word “mosque” conjures, for millions of non-Muslims, images that do not comport with what one might actually see.

How many Americans who have never visited New York carry an image of our beloved city informed more by the smoldering ruins of 9/11 than by the city blocks of the Upper East Side, the shops of SoHo, and picnics in Central Park?

This is nothing new, of course. If you’ve ever looked at very old maps you’ve probably gawked at the inaccuracies and omissions, some earnest cartographer’s attempt to illustrate the world without being able to see it with his own eyes. An astonishing passage in Cormac McCarthy’s landmark book Blood Meridian speaks of “those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where the is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds” (p. 152).

Medieval artists almost invariably portrayed the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as a shiny, red apple even though the Bible never specifies the fruit. Sometimes art tells an even more provocative, even dangerous, version of events. Despite the portrayal of almost every Christian masterwork, Jesus was surely not Caucasian.

So it was with this week’s lesson in mind that I took the 6 train downtown this past Sunday, accompanied by my friend Michael Friedman, who was my first rabbinical intern at WRT and who now is a rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, to see with our own eyes what’s happening in Zuccotti Square near Wall Street. We went not in neckties but in jeans, and did not identify ourselves as rabbis. Using a small videocamera to record our experience, we approached some of the demonstrators who have occupied this public square since September 17th but whom we had only seen on the news day after day. Hava Nerdah, we said: Hey, let’s go down there and see for ourselves what this is all about.

Mike and I spent some time listening to some demonstrators speak about a number of causes including fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing, a process of using pressurized fluid to create a fracture in a rock layer to release petroleum or natural gas, which has come under fire for environmental and health concerns), student loan reduction, campaign finance reform, and unemployment. We also heard from opportunistic vendors and hangers-on, Hare Krishnas, Christian evangelicals, a synchronized drumming circle, and a sing-along to Madonna’s song “Material Girl.” Before departing we encountered an old-timey string band with an enthusiastic leader who taught us how to square dance. Upon departing, Mike and I turned to each other and in a unison voice that could only be described as ironic, said, “It’s Babel.” Babel, that place of confused speech.

I also spent some time this week applying the lesson of Hava Nerdah, of seeing things up close, by speaking one-on-one with members of New York’s financial community about their experience of the Movement. Fortunately we have a number in our congregational directory who were eager to share their perspective with me. One thoughtful respondent shared with me a sense of frustration in the Wall Street and business community about the way in which this Movement taints even well-intentioned people in the business world. “There is a sense,” he said, “that we share the frustration of a growing discrepancy between rich and poor in America. This, it seems to me, is fair game. But it is social-policy oriented, which has been misdirected at Wall Street instead of at Washington which sets the boundaries for what companies can and cannot do.” “I get it that we’re in a tough economy and that there is paralysis in Washington, D.C.,” he added. But the business community feels unjustly maligned that not only investment banking in its entirety, but capitalism in general, have come under fire.

Another respondent reminded me, “you could say that everything we see around us we built with our capital investment system.”

Still others shared their sense that the Movement’s original intentions have become distorted by hangers-on and hypocrites like the rappers Kanye West who joined the protesters wearing a suit estimated to cost $30,000 and Jay-Z who pulled up in his Bentley. And more than a few noted their exasperation with the protesters having become “media darlings” given the problems with their message.

More than once the Talmud resolves a dispute in a matter of Jewish law with the advice, “Puk Hazei Mai Amma Davar - go see what the people are doing” (Berachot 45a, Eiruvin 14b). When we really make the effort to see things up close, to ask the important questions on all sides of a public matter, the image we obtain gradually takes focus. Even more, a genuine conversation emerges. It becomes harder to talk past one another with black-and-white statements spoken from a position of ignorance or limited information.

You could say that seeing things up-close make our picture of the world three dimensional.

For me, the opportunity to apply the wisdom of Hava Nerdah, of going down and seeing things with my own eyes and hearing things with my own ears, is one I will cherish in my forthcoming role at WRT. As I see it my greatest immediate privilege and responsibility will be to see and hear you up close and personal, sharing the stories, beliefs, and values, that make WRT such a vibrant and beautiful expression of the multicolored tapestry of Reform Jewish life in America.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah Remarks

Just follow this link.

Wishing all of our readers a very sweet and meaningful new year.
L'Shanah Tovah!


Friday, September 23, 2011

Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5771

These are the remarks I will deliver to the congregation at 7:45 services this evening. If you'd rather hear them there, then stop reading!

Shabbat Shalom,


The double portion of Torah we read this week, the last one before the Holidays, is called Nitzavim-Vayeilech. The portion frames some of the most inspirational verses in all of literature including the stirring passage that we will read in our community on the morning of Yom Kippur, in which Moses concludes the covenant between God and the People of Israel.

This has been a most special week for me and for Kelly; just Tuesday night I accepted the invitation of the congregation of Westchester Reform Temple to serve as its next senior rabbi, an honor held by very few rabbis in the 58-year history of this distinguished congregation, and most recently (meaning, the last 50 of those 58 years) by only two rabbis, two of the greatest rabbis of their respective generations, two men I am proud to call my rabbis, Jack Stern of blessed memory, and Rick Jacobs who has taught me so much. Really, this is, in more ways than one, kinda like trying to follow Michael Jordan after he left the Bulls. (I mean, Rick even taught me how to use a sports metaphor in a sermon! How’d I do, boss?)

As I considered the Torah portion this week, my thoughts raced from one idea to another. So many things to talk about, so many ideas I am eager to share with you! The portion begins with an image of all the people in the Israelite community standing together: “You are standing here today, all of you, in the presence of Adonai your God, your officials, your tribal heads, your elders, your magistrates, every Israelite person; your young ones, your women, and the stranger who resides among you, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water…” so maybe I could talk about my vision of an inclusive community here at WRT.

It includes my favorite pep talk about the Jewish people’s encounter with our sacred tradition: “See, the Instruction I command you this day is not too wondrous for you, nor too far away. It is not in the heavens… nor is it across the sea; no, it is so very close, in your mouth, and in your heart, and you can do it”; so maybe I could talk about my vision of sacred study and sacred action here at WRT.

Or, maybe I could try to come up with something to say about the second half of this week’s reading, in which Moses announces that he’s about to depart, and that leadership will be handed over to his successor, Joshua. Moses leaves much parting wisdom for his people and his successor, three times exhorting them to “be strong and courageous.” He even puts in place a kind of transition plan, which includes downloading a lot of advice to Joshua and reminding the people to study and follow the Torah. It’s kind of like that wonderful scene in the Coen brothers’ recent movie A Serious Man in which the wizened old Rabbi Marshak whispers his final word of advice to the nervously expectant Bar Mitzvah: “Be a good boy.”

But as I read this section, I began to lose courage, especially when I got to the very end of the parasha in which Moshe Rabbeinu, the departing leader, the outgoing rabbi, as it were, says to the people that, after he leaves, “you will surely become corrupted, and deviate from the way which I had commanded you. Consequently, evil will befall you in the long run, because you did wrong by God.” Yikes.

So instead I took a deep breath and looked again at this double-parasha, and stopped short, actually, right at the title. Nitzavim - Vayeilech. As I contemplated these two words, I realized that the entire message I wanted to share with you tonight is encapsulated in these two words. Nitzavim - Vayeilech. The first word, Nitzavim, means to stand still. The second word, Vayeilech, means to go forward. It occurred to me: so much of living a meaningful life is about knowing when and how to stand still, and when and how to move forward.

I am reminded of an old teaching that compares these two dimensions of living to two different forces observable in Nature. One is the power of the wind that can sway the mighty oak. This is the power to move forward, to push things forward. The other is the power of the oak that can withstand the power of the wind. This is the power to stand still, even in the face of mighty forces.

Moving and standing still, standing still and moving: the twin dynamics of our lives. I have met rare individuals who excelled at both; people who, for instance, could stop and grieve a beloved spouse who died too soon, give thanks for the blessings of their years together, and then, when the period of their mourning had come to an end, their period of standing still concluded, somehow summoned the courage to move forward with their lives and even find happiness again, in work or play or relationships or all of the above.

Standing still and moving forward, Nitzavim-Vayeilech: the ability to stop and appreciate where you are, when you are there, before moving on to the next thing. The Torah tells us that God summoned Moses up Mount Sinai with an unusual phrase: Alei Eilai ha-hara, v’heyeh sham. Come up the mountain to Me, God says, and be there. The apparently redundant phrase--“and be there”--puzzled the Rabbis who believed the Torah to be perfect and therefore incapable of carrying extraneous words. I mean, after all, where else would Moses be after coming up the mountain? Would he not already “be there?”

Examining the phrase closely, the Kotzker Rebbe (so named for his town of Kotzk in Poland), taught that even if a person strains to climb all the way up a high mountaintop, and reaches the summit, it is nevertheless possible for him or her not to be there. “Even standing on the very peak itself, one’s head may be somewhere else.” What the Kotzker was saying is that getting up the mountain is often the easy part. The hard part is standing there, Nitzavim, not being distracted away from that place and that moment.

One of my favorite writers, the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was interviewed not long ago in the New York Times. He said, “In the 60’s, there was a famous slogan, ‘Be Here Now’…. Today, with the cellphones, the fax, the Internet, the whole schmear -- the slogan you have today is ‘Be Somewhere Else Now.’” How true! How many of us can’t even make it through dinner with our families without stopping to check our cell phones, our e-mail, the Dow Jones? How hard we sometimes find just being here. Nitzavim then Vayeilich. Stand still, then move forward.

In the coming weeks and months, together we will do both: stand still and move forward. These activities do not mutually exclude each other. Actually, if we do it right, they will reinforce each other.

We will stand still in order to discover who we are, where we are, right now. Our exceptional lay leaders have already begun this process by conducting a series of Community Visioning Conversations, hearing from congregants how they feel about WRT right now and what they might hope for the future. I will need to stand still--not only to collect my thoughts--but also to encounter who we are and what this congregation is, with open eyes, and, especially, to encounter you anew. Kelly and I are eager to be introduced and re-introduced and I look forward to sharing with you the ways in which the temple will provide such opportunities for our congregants. We will need to stand still in order to honor the two decades of devoted service that Rabbi Jacobs has given to this congregation, and to acknowledge what it feels like for all of us simply to be here after his tireless efforts to bring us up the mountain. The view is already spectacular. Nitzavim, we will stand still.

But standing still does not mean to stagnate. We will move forward. We will not fear change the way so many synagogues fear change. We will discover new ways of praying together; experiencing Shabbat and holidays together; learning Torah together, becoming an ever more inclusive and caring community, encountering our neighboring Westchester communities of faith; traveling to places in the world in which the Jewish people have made their mark; doing God’s work on earth in our commitment to a more just and equitable society; exploring the intersection between Judaism and the arts; creating a synagogue whose vitality and vibrancy continues to set a benchmark for the Reform Movement and for progressive synagogues everywhere. Vayeilech, we will move forward.

Each one of these ways of moving forward represents a piece of the vision statement for Westchester Reform Temple that I have already shared with our search committee and that I look forward to sharing with you. On selected Friday nights and at other times throughout the coming months, I will be exploring and expounding different elements of my vision for Westchester Reform Temple. Some of my words may lift you up; some may bring you down; and some may bore you to tears. But I hope to offer all of them in the spirit of what it means to be a rabbi: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (More of the former, I promise.)

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: standing still and moving forward. I am overjoyed (and not a little bit overwhelmed) to accept your invitation to be here, with you, as we undertake the two dimensions of our sacred journey... together.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Remarks Upon Accepting the Congregation's Vote


acceptance of congregational vote

Next week we will enter a new year, a year we call 5772, adding another chapter to our storied history. I cannot say what the year will bring for the Jewish People entire, but if the proceedings before the UN this week give any indication, it will not always be easy. I do know it will be a dynamic year at Westchester Reform Temple.

For eight years I have experienced the joy of serving this kehillah kedosha, this holy congregation. Being invited into the sacred moments in our congregants’ lives has helped to cultivate within me compassion, humility, and wisdom day by day. From you I continue to learn “living Torah.” I consider it the most rewarding of blessings to accept your invitation to serve as Westchester Reform Temple’s next senior rabbi.

More than eleven years ago, I became a rabbi because I believed then as now in the power of progressive, organized religion--call it Enlightened Faith--to respond the needs of a hurting world, to imbue individual lives with purpose and sanctity, to create inclusive communities of compassion and purpose, and to bring us closer to God. Enlightened Faith, Reform Judaism in particular, gives us a powerful set of tools to transform the world from the way it is into the way it ought to be. Life is messy. Excruciating challenges and exceptional opportunities upend our expectations at every turn. Yet our continual engagement with the Jewish tradition helps to feed our souls, create space for the holy, and make meaning out of this exquisite and exquisitely complicated world.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, I look forward to sharing with you my vision for the future of WRT--both on and off the bimah, starting with the D’var Torah that I will offer this Friday night. My vision has coalesced here, in a congregation distinguished for its commitment to excellence, its wariness of complacency, its eagerness to explore new and exciting ways of being Jewish and bringing the values of our faith into the world. Loving relationships with exceptional colleagues and congregants, lay leaders and mentors, have nurtured this vision. My rabbi and cantor friends lovingly (and some not so lovingly!) covet my good fortune to work with the most exceptional clergy team in America, with Jill Abramson, Dan Sklar, and Mia Fram Davidson.

No rabbi has influenced my outlook more than my friend, my rabbi, Rick Jacobs, whose vision for WRT has inspired my own. Imagining what this congregation will become after Rabbi Jacobs departs is very hard for you as it is for me. At the same time I feel relieved that the incoming President of the Union for Reform Judaism has already agreed to take my calls. I know that you join me in wishing that God’s choicest blessings will accompany Rabbi Jacobs in his undertaking. As for me: what an incomparable honor to accept this position, standing as I do on the shoulders of Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Jack Stern of blessed memory -- two giants of Reform Judaism (one literally and both figuratively so).

I want you to know that the way in which the Search Committee fulfilled its responsibilities provided not only an opportunity for the congregation to share its hopes and dreams for the future, but also proved catalytic for my leadership. I am grateful for the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of their work, and especially for prompting me to articulate my outlook for the synagogue, my core convictions, and the spirituality that animates my rabbinate and my life. The process was fair, transparent, and deeply respectful of the congregation and of me. Moreover, the search process has provided me with unprecedented professional and personal growth. WRT is blessed to have capable and dedicated volunteer leaders whose love for the congregation translates into so many labors of love on its behalf--on our behalf.

Kelly and I have shed tears of joy in embracing the opportunity to continue to call WRT our home. We look forward to being introduced and re-introduced to you in the weeks to come. We happily anticipate much growth together on the journey ahead. On a personal note, I give heartfelt thanks to Kelly for her unceasing devotion. From the very first she has embraced WRT and has done everything possible to support my service to this congregation that we love so dearly, all while going full steam ahead in her extraordinary career. The Rebbetzin McCormick is a blessing not only to me and my family, not only to our WRT family, but really as an exemplar for the Jewish world.

In my innermost prayers I often return to a line from the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible: “Unless the Eternal One builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (127:1). My prayer for the coming year is that we will unite in our willingness to become instruments of the Most High. May 5772 fill us with a spirit of collaboration and hope.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011





I’ll say to you what I said when I appeared before the Search Committee to interview for the job: thank you for this opportunity to introduce myself.

Only superlatives featuring the prefix “over-” suffice to convey the depth of my feeling at receiving this opportunity and this welcome. Overjoyed, overcome with feeling, not a little bit overwhelmed. It is no overstatement to say that Kelly and I are overflowing with gratitude. What’s more you’ve given my mom and dad something to kvell about over and over again, so thank you.

It’s tempting to interpret your invitation to serve as the next senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple as a vote of confidence in the last eight years … which have nurtured my rabbinate inestimably. I choose, however, to accept your invitation as a challenge, a summons to new dimensions in my leadership and in the possibilities for this congregation. Let your vote of confidence be in the rabbi I hope to become.

As for what lies in store for us on the journey we will take together, I am inclined to repurpose words that a groom composed for his bride at the wedding I officiated just this past Sunday:

“There will, no doubt, be detours, wrong turns, even five-car pile-ups along the way. Our intended destination might change—heck, I don’t think I either of us knows what it is yet or ever will—but I can’t wait to hit the road.”

I became a rabbi out of a desire to immerse myself in the literature of sacred Jewish tradition but it is the life of sacred Jewish connection that keeps me going. Moments like the one I shared with bride and groom this weekend, on the bimah with B’nei Mitzvah, in hospital rooms, standing by the grave--these intimate encounters are where ordinary life touches the numinous. How blessed I feel to be invited into them every day.

We live in a society that zealously protects the privacy of the individual and the part of us that cherishes our freedoms should give thanks for that; but one of the sadder trade-offs of this arrangement is that very few Americans today get to see life the way a congregational rabbi does, in all its sacred, beautiful messiness.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Our parents and grandparents lived in more intimately interconnected communities, where one person’s business often agreeably commingled with another’s, a world of mom-and-pop stores and lunch-counter conversations, where, for instance, Bar Mitzvahs were community affairs, not private life-cycle events. I say this not to romanticize the old ways, only to illustrate some of the harder compromises attendant to our pervasive pursuit of privacy.

The Torah portion this week, called Ki Tetze, shows us that the Jewish tradition seeks to find points of intersection between private and public in ways that reinforce each dimension of living, as individuals in the context of a Jewish community. Two notable examples, one negative and one positive, stand out:

The first is the infamous case of the “wayward and rebellious son,” a child so unrepentant in his bad behavior that his parents have deemed him beyond hope of rehabilitation. The Torah instructs the parents to take said wayward and rebellious son before the elders of the community, publicly declare him to be a “glutton and a drunkard,” after which all the people of the town would assemble to stone him to death. The Rabbis pay special heed to the public nature of the punishment in contrast to the private nature of the offense. This is, first and foremost, someone’s child, and what he has done only the parents know. Instead of giving him a time out or grounding him, taking away his camel for the week or whatever, the boy must appear in public and if the community wishes to dispense with the rotten egg altogether, they must join forces and cast the stones as one.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) further suggests that no child ever went so far as to prompt the punishment, and no community could ever in good conscience have brought itself to perform their responsibility, so, crisis averted. But what endured was the understanding that in Jewish communities what one person does touches on everyone else and that kol Yisrael arevin zeh ba-zeh, each of us is responsible for every other.

In the second example, our portion permits a person to stroll into a neighbor’s vineyard or cornfield, pluck grapes off the vine or ears off the stalk, eat as much as he or she pleases, until feeling completely stuffed, so long as one stops shy of putting the grapes in a basket or taking a sickle to the corn. Can you imagine this flying in our world? But the Torah’s world envisions an ethic of “What’s mine is mine, but what’s mine is also yours,” an attitude the Rabbis would later define as the essence of religious piety (Pirkei Avot 5:14).

For me, this is what being a rabbi, and, more to the point, being a Jew is really all about: giving a community context for all the sacred, intimate, private experiences of our lives, and making every community gathering into an experience that moves us privately to the core of our being, that allows us to emerge from a prayer service, a Torah class, a social action engagement, internally transformed in the most intimate of ways.

To know that I get to do this work here, with exceptional collaborators in you, our temple leadership; and with our amazing clergy, professional, educational, and administrative staff; with the peerless wisdom that my cherished friends Rabbi Rick Jacobs and, indeed, Rabbi Jack Stern of blessed memory have imparted to me--well, that is the greatest blessing of all.

Kelly and I are so grateful to embrace WRT--the community as it is and as it could be--as our spiritual home. Thank you!

Parashat Shoftim: Blogging by WRT's Own Rabbi Dan Sklar - Last Week's D'var Torah

I'm happy to post (belatedly) this d'rash by our own Rabbi Dan Sklar.

Happy studying!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake


09.02.11 - Rabbi Dan Sklar

I know it’s been a rather dull week. Not much going on in these final dog days of summer. Not much except for an earthquake and a once in a hundred years event known as Hurricane Irene. Whether you thought all the coverage was much ado about nothing, or if you have iReporting relatives upstate or in Vermont, you know from the coverage of the aftermath that we dodged a bullet. My wife and I didn’t have power in Connecticut until Tuesday but the house was intact, everyone was safe and we counted our blessings. I must say that between our isolation in the woods, our well, and a delivery of a cord of firewood, I felt a bit of the pioneering spirit this week. I’m not sure that spirit would hold out very long against another nor’easter or the first frost of winter, but stacking the firewood transported me back a century or two and the whole experience has given me a greater sense of awe concerning the powerful forces of nature. It’s humbling, but even in our whizbang world of electronic gadgetry, we’re still utterly lost when the power goes out. Even with advanced weather prediction systems and satellite imagery, we still couldn’t help but whisper a prayer of protection for our loved ones and our homes. Can you imagine what the destructive force of nature must have seemed like in biblical times?

We don’t have to look very far to see the inextricable link between God and nature in the worldview of our ancestors. Our new prayerbook, Mishkan Tefilah, has even gone so far as to readmit the phrases Morid haTal and Mashiv HaRuach uMorid haGashem in the Amidah prayer- each in their season. The phrases defer to God’s power to make the winds blow and the rains fall. But the editors of the prayerbook were still disinclined to include the second paragraph of the shema that our conservative and orthodox co-religionists recite quietly at every service. The excised paragraph from Deuteronomy explains the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” approach to God and the weather. If we’re faithful and dutiful Jews, God will provide rain and a bountiful harvest. If we’re not: drought and famine. Not so subtle subtext here- our own morality and good or bad deeds directly impact the weather. The Reform movement decided long ago that this cosmology was too problematic to include in our daily prayers and simply removed the offending passage.

But the desire to hold God accountable for the weather runs deep. Polytheistic cultures living alongside Jews had a certain advantage over monotheism. They could assign all manner of natural phenomena their own gods. Zeus himself was known for throwing lighting bolts from the sky. Judaism sought to conflate the properties of many gods onto the one God of the heavens and the earth. But the Greco-Roman influence was strong and some of the oldest synagogue floors we have yet uncovered bear witness to some old habits that were hard to break. The mosaic floors at the 4th century Hamat Tiberias synagogue and the 6th century Beit Alpha synagogue contain Jewish elements that we all know well. A scene depicting the Binding of Isaac, a seven-branched menorah and a Holy Ark. But the lions’ share of both floors is occupied by none other than a zodiac, with Hebrew names for the twelve signs and the sun god Helios smack dab in the middle of the floor. Old habits are hard to break.

The Torah portion this week Shoftim cautions any who might be tempted to worship other gods, specifically the sun or the moon or any other astrological deities. The penalty for such a transgression is, you guessed it, death by stoning but as with many of the exhortations and commandments of the Torah- if the good book says “thou shalt not...” we can bet dollars to doughnuts that many of the people were doing just that. Polytheism was popular because it was convenient. The sun god holds sway during the day, the moon god by night. If you’re traveling by sea, you appeal to the good graces of Poseidon or Neptune. It may seem to us overly simplistic, but it was orderly and it certainly made sense. Monotheism’s greatest challenge was to explain a beneficent God responsible for all- good, bad and indifferent. The prophet Isaiah didn’t mince words, yotzeir or- I form the light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil- ani Adonai oseh chol eileh- I the Lord do all these things. This statement is the dark underbelly of the shema prayer. If God is indeed one, then God is responsible for all.

But again, the liturgist stepped in to soften this severe decree. In the morning prayer Yotzeir Or, which begins with the famous line from Isaiah, the word evil is replaced so we don’t have to face this grim prospect each morning we recite the prayer. The statement, I make peace and create evil became I make peace and create everything. The change is welcomed by every denomination and is part of the traditional liturgy but those in the know, know the original verse and the word replacement is a subtle wink that is to say, of course you know what “everything” entails. The message of our portion and of our liturgy is clear: as tempting as it may seem, don’t look to other gods- our God is one. The portion goes on to prohibit consulting with soothsayers and fortune tellers. Our Torah has no patience for other gods and it isn’t in the business of telling the future, despite what the Bible Code enthusiasts would have you believe.

We’re not so different from our biblical ancestors. Psychics and Tarot card readers abound and people today as in the past are still hungry for news of the future. But today, as in the past, the future is not ours to know. Even in an age of sophisticated weather prediction systems, we still don’t know precisely the path a storm might take until it is just about upon us. Make no mistake, the evacuations this past weekend were necessary and could well have save lives, even if our region didn’t bear the brunt of the storm. Technology is a tool, but it is not a crystal ball. Medical screenings can tell us part but not all of the story. When we say the words, Who shall live and who shall die in the Un’taneh Tokef prayer in just a few weeks time, we feel a kinship with our ancestors when we ask the really big questions and come up wanting. The Torah knows full well that it is simply unhealthy to fixate on what will be. Better to make good use of the time we have and to work for a better future. In the words of another great sage, Doris Day, “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, que sera sera.”

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Re'eh 5771

Dear Friends,

This week's (well, last week's, technically) D'var Torah comes from WRT "alumna" Sarah Weingarten who is a rising senior at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland! It was delivered to our congregation on Friday, August 26th, 2011.

Hope everyone is safe and warm post-Irene.

Shavua Tov,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Shabbat Shalom.

I thought I would begin by acknowledging the 900-pound gorilla in the room by pointing out that this week’s portion, Re’eh, is filled with so many incredibly important and well-known commandments that I was, at first, slightly daunted by the spiritual and secular weight this portion carries for our lives. This Shabbat evening, I hope to share with you just a small part of what I think is beautiful about this portion, especially now, when we are in between the seasons and a new Jewish year lies just ahead.

Re’eh teaches that it is a combination of personal ritual and wider social consciousness that will lead the Israelites on a path towards holiness. God first presents the Jews with a choice, commanding them with the words: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”. In other words, God affirms the Israelites’ freedom to choose either to obey or to disobey the laws God decrees. Re’eh, which translates as “See,” is thus, in a way, the very first commandment in the portion, and remains a constant reminder throughout that a state of holiness is not only a result of God-decreed ritual but is also a mindset – a choice from within ourselves.

That is not to say that there is any shortage of rules to which the Israelites must adhere. Later in the portion, God commands that the Israelites follow the kosher laws and grant their slaves freedom after six years of service. God also commands the Israelites to remit debts owed to them every seven years and to periodically leave a portion of their yield on their land so that the needy and the stranger in their midst can eat. Thus, in these few pages, God gives us personal rituals and a more general ethical code with the ultimate result of enabling us to instill purity on several levels – in our bodies, in our homes, and in our communities.

As I said earlier, this portion could not fall at a better time. Between end-of-summer vacations and back-to-school shopping, August is a very busy month – and a very expensive one, too. I was interested to see how often Re’eh addresses money matters with the dynamic between personal doctrine and humanitarian concerns. By the same token, I was equally surprised at the relevance of God’s financial advice to modern-day economics. God says to the Israelites, “You will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself,” a piece of advice which certainly applies, or should apply, not only to our personal practices, but also to current events in our national and global economies. When it comes to money, however, God also advises the Israelites to “wrap up” their money before they spend it, which, according to one commentator, is meant to suggest that we must choose to rule over our money, and not have it rule over us.

It is with this in mind that I would like to explore the portion’s emphasis on charity as an individual and community-wide requirement for attaining holiness. God’s commandment in Re’eh is that we periodically leave a portion of our harvest for the needy, an act of tzedakah and organized social justice that got me wondering: How charitable are Americans? I read an article in Forbes from 2008 that claimed that Americans give more to charity than the citizens of any other nation. Most of the article sought to figure out why this was, and one line in particular caught my attention. It seems that while our wealthiest citizens give the most in dollar amounts at any given time, it is, in fact, low-income Americans who tend to give the highest portion of their income to charity. That we live in such a culture of giving, particularly among those who have the lowest income, is a testament to the choice God presents to us in Re’eh – that the act of giving is also a mindset that we, all of us, must choose in order to purify both ourselves and our communities.

As a final note, I want to mention one aspect of Re’eh that I found very unusual, but which I now understand to be an important foundation for the path to holiness prescribed in the Torah. When God commands the Israelites to give – whether it is by donating food or granting freedom to a slave – God always adds that they should “have no regrets” and “not feel aggrieved” by what they are losing. I was struck, at first, that God is here commanding not only our physical act of giving, but also our instinctive and emotional reactions to giving.

I now see, however, that it all comes back to the freedom God gave us by allowing us to choose between blessing and curse. Our responsibility is, as ever, to the purification of the community, but it is also to the purification of our minds and hearts. Between the personal ritual and the social action, in order for us to walk the path to holiness, it must be the joy we feel in performing the mitzvah that is, ultimately, the holiest gift of all.

Something, I think, that we all need to keep in mind as we approach the season of our High Holy Days and the opportunity for atonement and renewal that God offers us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Eikev 5771

Dear Friends,

This week's D'var Torah comes from the remarks presented by our congregant Fran Scheffler-Siegel. Thank you, Fran!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

D'var Torah - August 19, 2011 - Eikev

Fran Scheffler-Siegel

About six weeks ago, Rabbi Blake invited me to present this week's D'var Torah. It seemed to me that I had plenty of time to prepare, and he did say that Eikev was a particularly interesting parashah. So, off I went to prepare, and prepare, and prepare...... I have read Eikev many times, reviewed the more accessible commentaries, met with two rabbis, and thought about Eikev when I am at home and when I am away, when I lie down, and when I rise up.....

When I think about the responsibility of creating a meaningful D'var Torah, my mind goes to an meditation based on Ahavat Olam, that appears in Mishkan Tefila, our prayer book:

"As you taught Torah to those whose names I bear, teach me Torah too. Its mystery beckons, yet I struggle with its truth. You meant Torah for me: did you mean the struggle for me, too?......"

So, what follows is the results of my struggle:

Eikev is the third parashah in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is speaking to the Israelites at the near end of their 40 year journey through the wilderness as they are soon to enter the Promised Land. Moses warns the Israelites to take note of all the evidence of God's love and to return it by keeping the covenant He made with Abraham Isaac and Jacob. After all, Moses says, God has protected you during your journey through all the hardships you have endured; God has provided manna when you were hungry; protected you from illnesses; sustained you and empowered you to fight and win many battles as you crossed through or around hostile territories. God has shown you love and has considered you above all the other people of the earth.

Moses is old, and won't be entering the Promised Land with them. Moses's speech is filled with his fears for the Israelites. He has fears about their future. Without him there to intercede with God and to teach them His laws, he fears that they will revert back to their pagan ways and become no better than the peoples they defeated. His message is a strong one filled with threats of punishments. Moses wants them to "own" his fears. He wants them to be more fearful of defying God, than of the hardships they will still endure.

Fear is a familiar experience for the Israelites. Fear of annihilation is what most likely drove them in battles; Fear for the well-being of their families is mostly likely what gave them resourcefulness during famines, or illnesses, or natural disasters. A deep and abiding feeling of fear was familiar to our ancestors in ways most of us have never experienced. Moses' message to the Israelites is, "you know what fear is - you felt fear when you battled a powerful enemy. You felt fear when you were hungry in the desert. You felt the fear of uncertainty when you were driven to construct the Golden Calf. You have been driven by fear many times in your lives. That visceral fear - fear of your powerlessness belongs only to God. God has proven many times during your 40 year journey that He can cause you to confront great and powerful enemies and then give you the tools to fight and vanquish them. He can cause the drought that starves your crops, and then produce the rains to nourish them. He can cause you tobe childless and then to produce many children. And so, you know what fear is. Fear of other people, and of the natural elements is misplaced. God is more powerful than any of those. You should fear God.

Moses tells them how to show their fear of God: That you fear God, is to go in all His ways,

And, he tells them how to show their love of God: serve God with all your heart and all your soul" (10:12).

And, so, the Israelites must fear and love God and show Him both by their deeds or be punished.

For me, fear of God is a troublesome concept. Moses suggests in Eikev that there is a direct relationship between one's actions - good and wicked - and the rewards bestowed and punishments inflicted. At first, this did not resonate with me - we all know that bad things happen to good people - there is no one to one relationship between legal, moral, and ethical behavior, and whether or not we will be healthy, or have healthy children, or achieve great wealth, or live a care-free life. I have only to remember my friend from the time I was a toddler, Gail, who died of muscular dystrophy at 32 years of age, or my college roommate, Barbara who was killed by a drunk driver at age 34, or the many children with developmental challenges I have known, or the world news that informs me about suicide bombers, or natural disasters that take the lives of innocent people - I have only to remember these tragedies to know that some things have nothing to do with living a life reflecting the covenant God made with our ancestors.

My struggle with the "fear of God" concept brought me to realize that my original interpretations of Eikev were too literal. My struggle shifted my understanding to a more spiritual level. Moses was actually telling the Israelites, "if you live by God's laws, you will acquire great strength of character. You will withstand hardships with courage, and you will flourish. You will acquire the ability to be empathetic so you can be of service to others and thereby build a strong society. And in these ways you will live with purpose. You must perform mitzvoth in every step you take and every breath you breathe."

Moses wasn't concerned with their material mundane well-being - he was concerned with their spiritual health. If they live in God's way "[they] shall be blessed above all other peoples". If they perform God's mitzvoth, God will continue to bless them - this relationship - God's blessing and their performance of mitzvoth provide them a special place in the world. If they don't follow God's teaching they will perish - essentially because they would have no place, no mission, no purpose.

So how does Eikev inform us in these modern times to elevate ourselves to become spiritual Jewish seekers of justice and truth? Mitzvoth are still the answer. Our mitzvoth may take different forms for each of us, but the message is that we must do them mindfully each day. We all do mitzvoth every day - Being here tonight is a mitzvah!

We perform Mitzvoth through acts of loving kindness toward our family, friends, and strangers. We do it by teaching our children to to respect their peers, and be gentle with animals. We do it as adults when we choose to work in the helping professions - like policeman, or teacher, or doctor, or speech-language pathologist. We do it as volunteers by donating money, or by donating time to good causes. We do it by words of thanks to those who are helpful to us.

There so many ways of performing mitzvoth that sustain us by sustaining others..... "Befriend the stranger", Moses says.

In many parts of the world, there are people who live in material fear every day. Hunger, poverty, and crime dominate them. We don't have to go far from home to see examples of abject poverty. In Mt Vernon, many people live in poverty. They live in homeless shelters, or in dilapidated buildings. They are loving parents who are unable to find work. They have children who they fear for every day as these children must walk to and from school with the fear of being accosted by other children who are worse off than they, or by adults who hang around street corners up to no good.

But there are loving parents who are members of WRT who empathize with the parents of Mt. Vernon. They take on the role of mentor, benefactor, advisor, tutor, coach. And there are high school students at Scarsdale High School, who empathize with the children of Mt Vernon, and take on the role of 'big brother" or "big sister".

In the midst of Mt Vernon, there is a school, The Edwards Williams Elementary School, where most of the children live below the poverty line. Where school is a kind of safe haven, and an after-school program is a necessity, not a luxury. There is an exemplary after school program there known as the Amazing Afternoons. This program gives 120 children in first through fifth grades a safe place to play and learn and to acquire the basics donated by others: food, clothing, household goods and appliances. There are 80 volunteers, adults and high school students, who show up Monday through Friday from October through June to help with homework, coach in basketball and chess, teach dance and music. There are parent discussion programs led by professional therapists and concerts organized by professional musicians. There have been many mitzvoth performed at Amazing Afternoons over the past 10 years.

Up until this year, the New York State Department of Education funded approximately 60% of the Amazing Afternoons. Last June, NYS defaulted. Amazing Afternoons would have to close. To many of the WRT volunteers, this was not a tolerable option.

So, they formed a SAVE AMAZING AFTERNOONS COMMITTEE and have over the past 4 months done the impossible. They raised enough funds to reopen Amazing Afternoons in the fall. They did it by requesting donations from all their friends, from many local organizations, and from foundation grants. They need to raise more money, but it doesn't seem as daunting a job now - the funds are coming in. The children will have their Amazing Afternoons. Moses would be proud!

My struggle with Moses' message elevated my understanding of a fundamental concept in Judaism ---- performing mitzvoth bring us closer to God and develop in us a sense of awe for His earth and its inhabitants. Moses tells the Israelites to remember not to forget their humility, to avoid arrogance. Stop complaining, appreciate your hardships as a test of courage, give of yourself to others: So, the choice is theirs: Follow God's laws and have a happy life; Refuse God's laws and become extinct. These are spiritual choices!

To follow God's laws does not insure material health wealth and happiness. It does something much greater! It insures us of spiritual health wealth and happiness, and a reason to live. After all, man does not live on bread alone (Deut. 8:3)! The work of living according to the laws of Torah is worth the struggle!

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Va'etchanan 5771

Dear Friends,

I'm delighted to share with you the following remarks, to be delivered at WRT this evening at 6:15, by Melissa Fisch who recently graduated Scarsdale High School and who will enter the freshman class at Duke University in the coming days.

Melissa will be at services tonight for our annual College and College-Age Sendoff Service; please join us in the CJL!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

"It was not with out ancestors that the Eternal made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today." - Deuteronomy

"This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us...." - David Foster Wallace, "This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life"

As I, and I’m sure my fellow graduates, begin to pack for college, I attempt the impossible, to try to fit my entire life into two duffel bags. Yet, as I stuff in shirts and desk fans, I feel as if something’s missing. Judaism has always been a large part of my life, from Sunday morning Hebrew school to Bat Mitzvah to Confirmation to today. As I stand on the bimah ready to be “sent off” to college, I know this is not a send off from Judaism as well. On the contrary, I think my Jewish education and upbringing will be more important than ever. There are so many online resources for Torah reading, or Jewish learning but if I were to remember only one Torah portion as I enter this new stage in my life, it would have to be today’s portion, Va’et’chanan. Va’et’chanan is in the book of Deuteronomy, a book which contains Moses’s final teachings and speeches as he readies his people to enter the Promised Land without him. Va’et’chanan has everything; it includes the 10 commandments, the Shema, and the V’ahavta. However, what I found most important and applicable for this send-off service as we soon part ways was Moses’s teachings on entering a new home. As it so appropriately is written in our portion, “See, I have imparted you laws and rulers, as the Eternal my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in th eland that you are about to enter and occupy.”

The first rule about which Moses reminds Moses the people is to make no graven images and to worship no false gods. As we enter the new environments ahead of us, we must remember this rule. What it boils down to is that God wants the people to be free of distractions so that they can focus on what is truly important.

With college comes new freedoms, more time, and unquestionably, many distractions. Sometimes distractions help further our education, whether it means joining a club, playing a sport or even just being social and hanging out with friends, but we must remember what is truly important. However, while God decreed that absolutely no graven images at all should be created, perhaps in college, a compromise would be more appropriate. The college student who never leaves the library except to attend class and uses every minute of his or her time to be studious is not really a college student at all. On the other hand, the student who skips every class and sees college as one big party is no student at all either. The most important thing is balance and could perhaps be the ultimate goal of our journey at college.

It so happens that the next law in our portion is to observe the Sabbath. I am not here to promote or demean the Sabbath, but I think the adaptation of this rule is God’s way of further endorsing balance. The Sabbath is the day where no work is done and people are not simply permitted, but commanded to relax. In the high stress environment of college, taking even a small break to relax is necessary for survival. With the pressure to do well in school, be social, and stay true to one’s identity all building up, a student could burst if he or she does not find some way to release their stress and tension. For some, it might mean getting out of the dorm and running around for an hour, for others it could be listening to music or talking to someone. In all cases, relaxation and stress relief is essential. Blowing off work for fun is not what this law teaches, but when we find ourselves inundated with our responsibilities, we can take a deep breath and remember that taking a break does not show weakness, but rather it is what God has commanded for us.

Finding a balance is never easy. Everyone in this room has and is constantly balancing and rebalancing their lives as the “new or unexpected” eventually comes along and impedes or ruins our balance. As a newly graduated senior, that “new or unexpected” is college or a gap year or another program that we will soon partake in; or, as a parent, that “new and unexpected” could be sending that child off to their new life, leaving a large void in that balance. As David Foster Wallace, an author and professor once so wisely said of the value of an education, “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.” Wherever our lives take us, through college and what comes after, we must enter (and constantly reevaluate) into our balance what we find meaningful, and worthy of our efforts.

While Moses was not interested in creating a spiritually balanced people after he was gone. He wanted assurances that their religious values, traditions, ad heritage would be preserved in their new home. After all, he had no guarantee that Judaism would survive after him. This is true in our lives as well. Our clergy hope that they have given us and taught us thoroughly enough that we will have a strong enough sense of self and self of religion that will carry us through our futures. So what will be do to ensure that our Judaism comes with us when we go to college. On many college campuses there are organizations such as Hillel that hold services and host events to bring together the Jewish students, and often curious students of other religions, on campus. It is a great way to meet Jewish people that might be just like you or could be the polar opposite. It’s also nice to have somewhere to go for services on the Jewish holidays that we can’t come home to WRT for. As it is written in today’s portion, “If you search there, you will find the Eternal you God, if only you seek with all your heart and soul.” In our new homes and new lands, it might not be as easy as it always has been to stay true to oneself, not only religiously but in general as well. As long as you can and are willing to put in the effort to search to find God or find yourself, He, and you, will always be there.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Devarim 5771

Shalom to all our readers!

This week's remarks come from Leah Citrin, "alumna" of WRT and 2nd-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. Leah delivered these remarks tonight at the temple and will explore these themes with us in greater depth at 9:00 AM at Torah study. Please join us in the Sifriyah as we enter a new book of the Torah (Devarim/Deuteronomy), share our insights, and celebrate Shabbat together.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

D’varim 5771

Leah Citrin

A year ago this past Monday, Rosh Chodesh Av, I was barely two weeks into my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. Saying I was still overwhelmed would be an understatement. There were new people, a new school, a new city all waiting for me to get to know them. So many ways to spend my time! But I knew there was one experience open to me on that day that I did not want to miss out on. That is why I woke up at 5 o’clock, put on a skirt that reached below my knees along with a shirt that had sleeves, and set out on the forty minute walk from my apartment to the Old City. Why, you might ask? Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall.

It turned out to be a very eventful gathering on that July morning. After taking out a Torah in the Kotel plaza and beginning the hakafa to Robinson’s Arch, where it was to be read, Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was pushed instead into the back of a police car, Sacred Scroll still held tight in her arms. There are so many ways to describe my first experience with Nashot HaKotel last summer: confusing, unfamiliar, frustrating, surprising, exciting. But meaningful? Important? I wasn’t sure. Was it the battle that I wanted to fight? What exactly was the battle being fought?

In this week’s Torah portion, D’varim, we read again about the battles the Israelites fought as they gained possession of the Promised Land. Additionally, we are again reminded of the request by the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menasseh to settle outside of the land of Israel. Their request is granted, under the stipulation that “ חיל בני כל ישראל בני אכיכם לפני תעברו חלוצים ” (Deut. 3:18), “as shock troops, all your soldiers, you must pass over [the Jordan], before your Israelite brothers.” In other words, they are the front line into the land that they will not share a piece of; they are going to be the first to die.

I see several options for interpretation here. Maybe, being the front line is punishment for requesting to settle outside Eretz Yisrael. Or perhaps, God is looking to establish a stronger bond between these two and a half tribes and the rest of b’nei Yisrael, reinforcing the “all in this together” sentiment. Another option is to look at this logistically: if you are in the front of the pack, you cannot retreat or abandon your fellow kinsmen. Maybe this was a concern since the land for the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasseh had already been conquered.

To add even more complexity, we can look back two weeks to parashat Matot in Numbers, chapter 32, verse 17, where this request initially came up. Here, these three tribes volunteered to go as shock troops. In this week’s parasha from Deuteronomy, they are commanded to go first. What a difference two weeks can make!

In the end, where does this take us? The question I find embedded in our text this week remains the same, regardless of interpretation—it is about fights and battles. What are the battles worth fighting? Beyond that, how do we know?

According to Jewish tradition, some battles are not only worth fighting, but are commanded. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides introduces a concept of “milchemet mitzvah”, or commanded war. Specifically, Maimonides views “milchemet mitzvah” as war that is authorized by a specific obligation in the Torah. An example of this type of war is the Israelites’ annihilation of the seven Canaanite nations that we read about (again) this week. Another, perhaps more palatable example of milchemet mitzvah is the obligation to defend a fellow Jew. While typically, this refers to defending a fellow Jew against an attacking nation, perhaps we can broaden the interpretation a little as we remove it from its physical and literal context.

There are many who believe that the fight Women of the Wall is waging is a worthy battle in the best tradition of milchemet mitzvah. It is our obligation to fight for the equality of women. Many of us in this room right now—irrespective of gender—feel that at a place important to all Jews, such as the Kotel, women should be permitted to pray donning kippot or tallitot if they choose, or singing out loud in a group, or reading from Torah. Needless to say, Anat Hoffman and her followers would also agree. In some ways, I too am in line with this way of thinking.

On the other hand, our Tradition also identifies some wars that while permissible, are not required, and therefore, whether or not they are worthwhile may also be questioned. This might fall under the category identified by Maimonides as milchemet reshut. For some, the battle being waged by Nashot HaKotel would more appropriately fit into this category.

Particularly in Israel, there are many people in the progressive Jewish world who feel that while Nashot HaKotel may valiantly be fighting for the rights of women in an Orthodox setting, this battle does little in the way of advocating for religious pluralism. They feel that in a country such as Israel, where the recognition and embrace of Progressive Judaism is still a very real and daily battle, spending efforts to further women’s rights in an Orthodox setting are efforts that may be better spent elsewhere.

So, how do we know? How do we know what battle is worth fighting?

Let me be clear, I am not questioning whether or not the battle being fought by Women of the Wall is one worth fighting. My goal in using it as an example is to get us to think about the complexity of the battles we choose. For us to consider that we don’t always know which battles to choose.

What did I choose? I’m still not sure. I returned to Nashot HaKotel the following month to welcome Elul. I even participated in services by blowing the shofar. One month later, so much felt different. I was more comfortable davening—yes davening—out of a traditional prayer book. I saw my presence and participation as a Reform Jew as its own example of religious pluralism. Nonetheless I continued—and continue—to be torn.

I don’t have the answers. But I have started to think about it.

As we enter this time of reflection and introspection that leads us to Rosh Hashanah, may we have the strength and courage to search. May we consider the complexities of the struggles we choose as well as those that we don’t choose. May we constantly strive for a deeper understanding of others as well as of ourselves. Shabbat Shalom.