When we lived on Long Island, in a largely Jewish, and heavily Orthodox neighborhood, it was the norm to say “Good Shabbos” to those we walked past on Friday night or Saturday. In our earlier years there, 90% of the time or more, even a total stranger would return the greeting. We were shocked when, by the time we prepared to move on, some 17 years later, that number had declined to more like 60%. Still more than half, but why did it drop? I theorized that it geographic – depending on areas from which newcomers had moved. Was greeting others not a thing in Brooklyn? Did people move from neighborhoods where it was unsafe to greet someone, even a fellow Jew? Was there some new theological thing that limited who one could be friendly to? Had the divisiveness that permeates America today done its damage? I never conclusively learned the answer.
Moving to Florida, I found that, once again, it was and still is the norm to say “Shabbat Shalom” [North Dade County] or “Good Shabbos”[some of my Hollywood peeps…we’re still guessing who is a Good Shabbos and who is a Shabbat Shalom person]. We were, and are feeling very good about this, and even more delighted that many who are not Jewish (including my work colleagues) appreciate Shabbat Shalom greetings, and often even initiate them.
So, I was actually disappointed and quite surprised when I was speaking to a homeowner not far from us, who described himself as “the only goy” in the development in which he lives. He is a wonderful gentleman, who saw my kippah, learned that I was a rabbi and described his hurt: So many of the observant Jews that are his neighbors don’t bother to say hello to him or even acknowledge his greetings to them. My explanation to him (an insufficient one, but the best I could manage) was that religion does not always prevent a person from being a jerk.
We are guided, in Judaism, by three great texts from the rabbinic tradition:
שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר…וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת
Shammai used to say…receive all people with a pleasant countenance. (Avot 1:15)
רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַקְדִּים בִּשְׁלוֹם כָּל אָדָם
Rabbi Mathia ben Harash said: Upon meeting people, be the first to extend greetings (Avot 4:15)
And the coolest of the texts:
והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות כיצד מלמד שאם נתן אדם לחבירו כל מתנות טובות שבעולם ופניו (זעומות) [כבושים] בארץ מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו לא נתן לו כלום אבל המקבל את חבירו בסבר פנים יפות אפי’ לא נתן לו כלום מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו נתן לו כל מתנות טובות שבעולם
Greet everyone with a smile. How so? This teaches that if a person gives his friend all the finest gifts in the world, but does so with a pained face, Scripture considers it as if he had given him nothing. But one who receives his friend with a smile, even if he gives him nothing, Scripture considers it as if he had given him all the finest gifts in the world.
So, my message is as follows: The person who is walking along near you? They are in the image of the Divine. They may be having a terrible day and can use a smile. They may be the gentile person who is waiting to see if you’re a mensch. They may be enjoying their Shabbat and want to share the joy with you. The rabbinic teachings don’t care, they just say: remember to greet another person and smile.
Oh, and Shabbat Shalom!
Rosh Hashana Day 2 – 5782 – 2021
Shana tova, Good Yom Tov. This d’var Torah continues my High Holiday theme: Where Are We, How Did We Get Here, and What Do We Do Now.
Over the past several years, we have seen a frightening growth in antisemitism in the United States and in Europe. Never have we witnessed the mass attacks that occurred in synagogues in Pittsburgh, in Poway, California, and at a Chanuka gathering in Monsey, not all that far from here. These have been wakeup calls that remind us that so much has not changed when it comes to antisemitism and to hatred and bigotry of all types.
Oddly enough, at the same time, there has been a disturbing uptick in anti-Israel sentiment. It’s bad enough when it comes from some elected political leaders here and abroad. But what’s even more concerning is the sentiment that is coming from fellow Jews, particularly of the younger generation.
For the record, the love of the land and people of Israel, and indeed the roots of what became known as Zionism in the late 19th century didn’t begin then. It began with the central figure of the Rosh Hashanah day 2 Torah reading, Abraham. In the aftermath of the akeda, the binding of Isaac, Abraham is told that his people, who will in the future become known as the people Israel, will become “numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore”.
Throughout Abraham’s career and life, and repeated to his descendants, is the promise of the Land of Israel. Lech Lecha, Abraham is told, go forth for yourself to the land I will show you. And this Torah portion occurs on Moriah, traditionally understood as what later became the Temple Mount, and today is part of the Al Aqsa complex in Jerusalem. And it ends in the Negev, the southern part of Israel, in the ancient city of Beer Sheva.
In that land of Israel, the biblical chieftains led, followed by kings such as David and Solomon. It was in that land that the Hasmoneans and the later followers of Bar Kochba revolted against foreign domination. And it was a return to the land and to self-governance that was prayed for in prayers written as early as a few hundred years BCE, and recited over 2000 years.
So when modern political Zionism emerged in the late 1800’s, it wasn’t out of a vacuum. It was out of a commitment for an indigenous people to enlarge its presence there once again, and to work toward taking Jewish values and mitzvot, many of them specific to how a Jewish state should work, and begin operationalizing a Jewish government for the first time in millennia.
Over the past few years, to use the phrase I used in the first day of the holiday, we became stupid again. There is a deeply troubling tendency for Jewish people, and particularly some in the younger generation, to want to rewind the clock to 1880, and live Jewish lives that are untouched by modern Zionism or the State of Israel. These primarily young folks, are idealistic. They see an Israel that has been deadlocked in a process that, 20 years ago, seemed so promising, a process that was to have led to a lasting and just peace between peoples that share the land – Israel’s Jews, Israel’s Arabs, and the Palestinians. And they’re right, it has been frustrating. In 1968, Professor Yishayahu Leibowitz of Hebrew University wrote that the capture of the West Bank a year earlier, if it would not lead to some sort of territorial solution, would change the very nature of the State of Israel. He was not wrong. Our brothers and sisters in Israel are locked in a bad situation.
But the mistake of our idealists is that they look at the wrongs and the difficulties that have been locked in place and believe that by becoming 1880 Jews, all problems will be resolved. What they miss is that fact that the situation of the Jews in 1880 and their situation from that time until 1947 was untenable. And they miss the rise in antisemitism that is as frightening now as it was 140 years ago.
We have a few battles that we must all fight together. I’ll lay them out for you:
- Love of Israel and Zionism, if you will, are part of the package that is contemporary Judaism. Period. The opposition that many in the Reform and Orthodox camps had to political Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th century is gone. And yes, the Holocaust was the last straw, but Israel likely would have become a reality even had that not occurred. And the rise in antisemitism across the globe is a reminder that, in addition to being a remarkable country and the only Jewish state in the world, it continues to be an insurance policy for all Jews living everywhere. An assurance that, whatever happens, we have a home to go to.
- There is an obligation of hocheach tocheach, a mitzvah that says: when you see something being done that is just plain wrong, we are obligated to confront it vocally. But, as many rabbis point out, that mitzva, of confronting others who are going down a bad path, is predicated on a loving relationship with the person being criticized. We confront them out of love of a fellow human being, not as a disinterested outsider. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Judy Cohen-Rosenberg once taught me a lesson that I remember many years later. She told me that she would sometimes get up in her congregation and criticize Israel for some of its policies. Then she realized: When I criticize Israel, it’s a conversation within the family. But for so many of my community, there is not a loving relationship to Israel to base it on. So yes, within the family of the Jewish people, there must be plenty of space to criticize violence that has occurred against Arabs and Palestinians, attacks against women wishing to pray according to their own practice at the Western Wall, and lack of equality between men and women in divorce laws. Israel is a young country, just over 70 years old. It still has a lot to work out. But we begin from a place of love for the state and the people of Israel.
- Education, for ourselves, and for our children and grandchildren, is essential. Everyone should know the basic history of the Jewish people and of the state of Israel. I’m talking about videos that exist online through groups such as Open Dor Media, that take a factual and even-handed approach to where Israel came from and why it matters. I’m talking about reading Noa Tishby’s recent book on Israel, in which she describes, in a light and entertaining way, her family’s Israel journey and a deep knowledge of history and of international affairs.
As I stated on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the year we begin, 5782 holds great opportunities and great threats. We need to get our house in order. The promise to Abraham is still valid today. May we all take action to assure the peace and security of the land and people of Israel, take the steps to educate those around us as to why Israel exists and must exist, and find constructive ways to encourage Israel towards becoming the beacon of light unto the nations that it was founded to be.
Rosh Hashana Day 1 – 5782 – 2021
Shana tova. As I was thinking about creating a High Holiday theme for this year for the sermons and Torah study I would be leading, I did what I often do: went to my online friends on social media, specifically Twitter and Facebook and asked the following:
As we near Rosh Hashana, the conclusion of the Jewish New Year, what image summarizes the year for you? The images that came in (not sharing them here but feel free to look at my twitter feed to see them @Jewishconnectiv), were those of bafflement, shock, exhaustion, and, probably my favorite: a gift box that when opened, led to a response that was basically: What the…? (fill in the blank as you wish). Looking back at 5781, I’d summarize all the responses as: How in the heck did we get here, how did we collectively get so stoopid, and how are we supposed to get out of this, and progress?
Thus my first day thinking: We’re created in the likeness of God, ate from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, were given insights inspired or even given directly by a benevolent God. So how, in 2020-2021, did we collectively get stupid?
Never in the history of the U.S., or for that matter, throughout much of the world, have we been better educated. More people than ever graduate high school, attend university and even get graduate degrees. More books are written and read, we have more access to genuine information and facts in a handheld phone than earlier generations had in the Library of Congress. We have the best physicians and medical researchers working to cure every illness known to humanity. So it’s pretty obvious what we should do: use the knowledge God gave us and work to heal our world.
After all, every day we praise God:
אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּֽעַת וּמְלַמֵּד לֶאֱנוֹשׁ בִּינָה: חָנֵּֽנוּ מֵאִתְּ֒ךָ דֵּעָה בִּינָה וְהַשְׂכֵּל: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה חוֹנֵן הַדָּֽעַת:
You favor humanity with knowledge and give mankind understanding. Grant us knowledge, understanding and enlightenment from You. Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, Grantor of knowledge.
But somehow we, collectively as a society, have lost our way. Instead of recognizing that the medical scientists who have worked 24/7 to make sure we stay safe, as we did in past generations, we are witnessing many political, religious, and community leaders recommending that we, davka, specifically, do not follow what science and knowledge tell us as fact, we must do to heal our communities and our world, whether that is vaccinating or wearing a mask in closed and crowded spaces. Rather than demonstrating humility towards worldwide scientists that said: we are destroying the world and changing the very climate of our planet and we need to change our behavior immediately in order to save it, we haughtily declare: We know more than scientists, we don’t believe what scientists are saying. Keep on doing what we’re doing. We know better, because we took high school earth science.
We Jews have an interesting relationship with science and medicine. Yes, we recite mi sheberach prayers for those who are ill. But we don’t believe in faith healing. Reciting the mi sheberach goes hand-in-hand with seeking the best medical care possible. One of the most interesting Hasidic groups in America are the so-called Bostoner Chasidim. They’re hard-core Hasidim. And their movement and their rebbe are known for, among other things, interceding with some of the top physicians and hospitals in the country to make sure that people who ask for their help get the medical attention of those experts. Do they pray for ill individuals? Absolutely. Do they make sure those individuals get the best medical care, darn right.
Just listen to some of the words of Tehillim/Psalm 107, talking about how God helps us and the difference between the wise person and the fool:
Praise the LORD, for He is good; His steadfast love is eternal!… Let them praise the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind, For He shattered gates of bronze, He broke their iron bars. There were fools who suffered for their sinful way, and for their iniquities. All food was loathsome to them; they reached the gates of death. In their adversity they cried to the LORD and He saved them from their troubles. He gave an order and healed them; He delivered them from the pits. Let them praise the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind. …He pours contempt on great men and makes them lose their way in trackless deserts; but the needy He secures from suffering, and increases their families like flocks. The upright see it and rejoice; the mouth of all wrongdoers is stopped. The wise person will take note of these things; he will consider the steadfast love of the LORD.
That’s the Judaism we believe in. The one that says: Yes, God will protect and heal you. Not because we checked our mezuzot or uttered the right psalms. Those are all fine. But mostly, God heals us because it was God who gave the Dr. Fauci’s of the world and the scientists of Pfizer and Moderna the wisdom and knowledge to create vaccines and cures, it was God that gave the scientists of the U.N. and of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the insight to say: people, we need to act now to avoid climate and planetary disaster.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away this year, wrote a final book, Morality. While he was to my way of thinking not a political liberal, in the book, he criticized the populism that has taken root across the world. A populism in which charismatic and often authoritarian leaders will say: Don’t believe anyone other than me. Everyone else, scientists, other politicians, the free press, even many of the clergy, are all lying to you. Only believe me and what I tell you is true. That, according the Rabbi Sacks, is dangerous populism. At the same time, Rabbi Sacks criticized the demagoguery of social media, the way in which unexamined opinions and feelings become magnified and take on ridiculous dimensions. Indeed, what do we call people on social media? Influencers. Not scientists, not experts. Influencers. Judged by how many followers or how amplified voices become, no matter how inane the opinions expressed.
Check it out: The Torah portion we read today has Abraham, a widely recognized prophet in his own generation, disturbed by Sarah insisting that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out from their home. It would have been well within Abraham’s right to say: Sarah, I know you’re to be the first of the Matriarchs. I know that in the future, Jewish tradition will say that you were an even greater prophet than me. But hey, I, and only I know best. And indeed, he may have been going down that path when God intervenes and says “Do whatever Sarah tells you”. So, yes, Abraham is a great man. He’s recognized as a social influencer, he has strong opinions, he’s even a great prophet. But, God points out: Sir: you do not have all the answers. I’ve given Sarah specialized knowledge in this. Follow her wisdom.
The year we begin, 5782 holds great opportunities and great threats. We have the opportunity to make decisions that, in the words of the Torah “choose life”. Or we can make choices that sound simple for the short term, but lead to death and destruction.
May we make the commitments over these holidays to commit ourselves to maximizing the opportunities and to opposing the threats. May we bless those around us – in our families, our communities, our worlds, with the blessings of deah binah v’haskel, bringing God’s blessings of true knowledge, insights and enlightenment, that we and our descendants may safely and long live upon this earth.
When I became fully observant some 50 years ago, I found that I was a novice in what I’ve come to refer to as “Orthospeak”. It is a strange (to me) version of English, that sometimes sounds like it is being spoken by someone who is not a native English speaker (most likely a remnant of the immigrant parents or grandparents), and, among Ashkenazim, the Yiddishisms tossed in. Yinglish, many call it.
But there is also some butchering of the English language in ways that are deeply disturbing, and certainly to those who didn’t grow up in observant families.
Today’s pet peeve is the use of the word “People” or “Everyone”. As in the synagogue announcement in which the rabbi states: “It’s Simchat Torah, so we need to make sure everyone gets an aliya” (called to the Torah). In the synagogues I’m writing about, not everyone gets an aliya. Every man gets an aliya. Regardless of one’s opinion on the subject of women’s role in the synagogue, we can all agree that, in the vast majority of Orthodox synagogues, not everyone is called to the Torah. And by announcing it the way I’ve heard it announced dozens of times over the past 50 years, the rabbis making the announcements have shown their dis-counting of women. And that dis-counting then carries into other parts of religious life that I’ve witnessed: women being told to recite Kaddish in a whisper only (if at all), women being told that they cannot shovel dirt at a funeral (as is the traditional practice), and, in some Orthodox publications, the elimination of all photographs of girls and women.
It isn’t only women who are dis-counted in the modern Orthodox community in which I’ve generally chosen to be a part of. It’s also about those who are not Jewish. Example: in one modern Orthodox social media group I belong to, a woman raised the question about a certain neighborhood’s Orthodox Jewish population, by asking “Do any people live in —-?” Thinking on my toes, I responded “No, all the houses there are abandoned and are being overrun by wolves.”
Again, when we dis-count groups of people, we cannot be surprised when those who are being marginalized are then treated with disrespect by those in our Jewish communities.
The Chofetz Chaim, in his many writings on the topic, reminded all Jewish people that they must be careful with their speech. We need to take that teaching to heart and make sure that our speech reflects an inclusivity and a recognition that all humanity is created “in the image of God”.
Let me begin with a few important points, folks:
- I have no meaningful background in science or genetics, and am therefore completely unqualified to write this article. But it’s 2020 and expertise is no longer apparently required. For anything: Government, Public Health advice, and certainly, religion.
- If the reader thinks this idea has value, then it was written seriously. If the reader thinks it’s nonsense, then it was written as attempted comedy.
It has been hypothesized that there is a higher rate of neurosis among Jews, particularly Ashkenazi Jews. Actual data is conflicting, however, it does appear that Jews are more likely than others to be in treatment for mental health concerns (hey, a Jew invented psychoanalysis) and we Jews seem oddly proud of our neuroses, publicly joking about it, writing novels about it, making movies about it. So, I’m just going to own the stereotype. For purposes of this post, I’m going to take a leap of faith and propose that there is some truth to Jewish people tending to the neurotic, with tendencies toward anxiety disorders and depression. The question is: Why?
With only a high schooler’s level of knowledge of Darwin and natural selection, here’s my hypothesis.
Eastern Europe was rough. VERY rough. Like crusades, pogroms, and worse kind of rough. My ancestors in Yarun, Ukraine, presumably had to stay one step ahead of the next disaster [for them, Bolshevism sent them over the edge and onto the boat to America]. The problem about staying a step ahead is: How many Jewish track and field stars do you know? OK, there’s Beatie Deutsch. But she’s the exception that proves the rule. Let’s face it: We Jews developed our own track and field (and sports) competitions world-wide. Partially to develop healthy Jews. And maybe just a little to change the perception that, well, we just weren’t athletic.
So, if you can’t outrun the enemy, the only way to stay one step ahead of him [and for some reason, it seems to be mostly “hims”, males] is to sense danger way ahead of time. Now, you ask, who senses danger way ahead of time? Obviously the most neurotic and/or paranoid person, who perceives danger even before it exists, or even whether it exists. Everyone once in a while that individual gets it right and gets out of town before the next tragedy occurs. S/he survives intact because of his anxiety. And guess who he finds as a marriage partner? Another person from the next town over, who has also gotten out of town, because s/he was also perceiving danger before it was even there. They marry and procreate. Two wonderfully neurotic Jewish individuals. Now whether nature or nurture kick in, the next generation either inherits or is raised into the same anxious survival mechanism that will keep the Jews intact. And guess who the children marry? That’s right, partners with the anxious survival mechanism. Survival of the fittest, or most sensitive to potential danger.
And here we are. Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen), Woody Allen (Allen Konigsberg), Phillip Roth, Albert Brooks (Albert Einstein), Sarah Silverman, all wearing their mishigas proudly in their work. Oh, and me. Obviously.
So think about this, comment on my blog post. But don’t tell the Gentiles. We need to hide the secret of our survival.
At every Yizkor / Memorial Service I have attended, the rabbi has spoken about the tenderness of parents and the undying, unfailing love and respect we had for our parents and for other family members that we in the congregation had lost. The assumption made in countless Yizkor sermons and even by the prayers themselves was that we all had wonderful, loving parents and a healthy family. I knew it wasn’t true. In my life and career, I’ve encountered those whose trauma was such that it brought them to the point of refusing to attend a parent’s funeral or to recite kaddish for them.
Our Jewish communities have those who are reciting Yizkor for an abusive parent or spouse, for a family member who was a criminal, for a relative whose drug or alcohol abuse made them impossible to live with, for a parent whose mental illness prevented them from being a loving parent, for a loved one whose death showed that they were living a secret life they couldn’t or wouldn’t share, for a parent or spouse who abandoned them.
Those of us who lived with these traumas recite Yizkor differently than the rest of the community (when we choose to recite it). There might be love for those departed. There might be anger. There might even be hate. Almost certainly there is ambivalence. We know that our Yizkor memorial is not what the rabbi often describes, what the prayer book says, or what others around us experience.
It is for you (and me) that I share a personal prayer that I invite you to add to your Yizkor prayer (and to feel free to share with others, asking only that if distributing to large numbers, you please mention my authorship)
Our God and God of our Ancestors,
I stand before you at this time remembering those who have departed from my life (and from my family). I pray for the insight to learn from that which was positive in the live (lives) of [name/s of those departed]. Knowing that s/he suffered and was often led down wrong paths, I pray that s/he is now eternally at peace beneath your sheltering wings.
At this holy time, I pray that you heal my scars and pain and that you send healing to those around me who were hurt by the dysfunction we experienced. May I and all who suffered be blessed with the empathy and strength that can result from our experiences. As we bring healing to our selves, may we continue to grow to be a force for healing in our households, our community and our world.
– Rabbi Arnie Samlan
As synagogues began to carefully and slowly reopen for limited in-person services, I found that I and many others were not in a hurry to return, despite being long-time weekly, if not daily, participants. Being a traditionally-observant Jew and a rabbi, putting on a tallit at home, and davening/praying/reflecting, sitting on my front driveway, has been wonderful. And when thinking about what I missed (or didn’t) about being in synagogue, I was surpised at my answers. So, I reached out through my social media network for some reality testing.
“What do you miss about being in synagogue?” was the question. Responses clustered in two areas:
- Spiritual / Religious – People who genuinely missed the communal prayer experience
- Communal / Social – People who missed being with people to socialize, shmooze, share kiddush
To the fair, the split was 50/50. Full disclosure, I’m defintely more the social/communal synagogue person.
What really struck me was: Lockdown and pandemic have put these questions front and center: What are the value propositions of the American synagogue? What does being part of a synagogue add to my Jewish (and general) life?
During my years as a synagogue rabbi, not once did I ever ask a member: What do you most value about being part of this congregation and community? How does being here help you to lead a better life? What could we do better to help you get what you need from being part of the synagogue? And as a synagogue member, not once has a synagogue I’ve belonged to asked me any of these questions. The first time a rabbi did ask was when I zoomed into early Friday night services at a local Reform congregation during this pandemic. The following week, the rabbi, a total mensch, called me to say: I hope you enjoyed the services. What did you like about it? What would you have done differently? Well done, Rabbi!
Rant #1: In one community, we were visited by a leader of a local congregation. The visitor never asked what we were looking for in a synagogue. He never told me the value-added of being part of their community. His welcome to us was to tell us that the synagogue was great, and all the benefits of membership (including details of cemetery plots!). And of course, he handed us a membership application. The following weekend we visited a different nearby synagogue, where the humor and warmth permeated the walls. Needless to say, that was where we chose to join.
Rant #2: Don’t assume your rabbi or leaders in the congregation you belong to has been at shiva homes, checked in on those who are home-bound, or visited or called those who are hospitalized. Won’t go into personal details, just take my word on this. Some synagogues and rabbis are good at this. Others are terrible. Really terrible.
Rant #3: I seek inspiration and a little musar (instruction on character growth) from shul. I want to learn something about Torah, understand how to translate Torah to real life, be inspired to action. Too often I’ve instead received lessons on Zionism (which is very important to me, but not my primary need from shul attendance), frequent references to the Holocaust (very important to me, but also not what I focus on for my shul needs). I’ve sat through speakers going up on the bima and endorsing political candidates and rabbis making snide remarks about political figures they don’t like. Oddly enough, in the political “sermons”, never did the speeches include reference to the specific core values that the speaker found he had in common with the political figure. Just a generic “good for the Jews” or “good for Israel”. Forget about the fact that they are risking their tax exempt status, it’s just unacceptable.
Rant #4: Only a small hard core group of people sit engrossed through a 2-3 hour weekly service. The rest of us zone out periodically or spend quality time in the hall catching up with friends. Or (in my case), open a sefer (book of religious texts) and study, when services have dragged on. Here’s the thing: Those same synagogues that hold three hour Shabbat services are now finding ways to hold Rosh Hashana services that last one hour!
So, I’m going to be in shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We’ll all have our masks and social distancing. It will be good to see some people that I haven’t seen in months. I’m sure the one-hour service will be good. And when the holidays are over, I’ll have some deep soul-searching about what I actually do value about synagogue life, and whether I am getting it.
If you’re reading this and are a synagogue rabbi or leaders, think for a moment about what your people are looking for now. It may be the same as before the pandemic, but it may not be. Some of them have zoomed into other congregations and have found models and approaches they never knew about. Ask your people if they’re getting what they want and need. And listen. Please.
Wishing everyone a shana tova, a happy and sweet New Year!
It’s still a little early for Yom Kippur, but today I was thinking about the Al Chet confessional that we recite then. Specifically the part that says:
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ
For the sin we committed before You
with haughty eyes.
So here’s the thing: In 1973, I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life. And not just for a short flight, but I was travelling to Israel, the first time I had been outside of the United States. As we passed over the Atlantic, my mind was also flying. “Wait, the world is round”, “Oh, I’m not in America anymore”, “English isn’t the major language where I’m going (or in most of the world)”. It was an eye-opener for a 17-year old kid, who grew up thinking that the entire civilized world was the United States of America.
After spending that trip and the year that followed studying in Israel, my perspective was never the same. The realizations were that: there is civilization in other places, there is science and research throughout the world, people my age were going to universities everywhere, folks worked at deli counters like my dad and at law offices like my cousins not only in the U.S. And let’s be honest, we weren’t even building the best or coolest cars in the U.S.
And I realized that we Americans weren’t just proud of our country (a good thing), but we were flat-out arrogant about our country (not a good thing). Despite growing up seeing racism and poverty, I was taught that America was just the best country imaginable. Despite watching elected officials who took bribes, turned off the microphones of opponents at goverment meetings and knowing how serious voter fraud was in 1970’s Chicago, I learned that American democracy was just the perfect form of government. Despite knowing that our family didn’t have the money to send me to college, I heard over and over how any kid could get anywhere and accomplish anything in America. The lessons were inspiring. And not as true as I was led to believe.
Along came 2020 and the truth came out: All protestations aside, we didn’t have the “best testing”, or the “best research” or even consistent policies to combat a pandemic. The racism that we middle class white folks thought had magically disappeared with the civil rights movement was alive and well. The antisemitism that was just a childhood memory in which Jews couldn’t move to Kenilworth or join certain country clubs, ended its historic downward trend with a strong upsurge and with actual mass killings in synagogues. And many Americans shut their eyes to it all, preferring lies to truthful bad news.
Humility is a tough practice. Like many kids, my parents overpraised me and my abilities. And my rabbinic training gave me a hightened sense of importance. Humility has to be acheived through hard work, every day. But the only way we can ever achieve personal improvement is the recognition that “we are but dust”, balanced by the Talmudic affirmation that “for my sake was the world created”.
We can go into the High Holiday season as Jews (or whatever season for any human) in one of two ways: We can choose to continue to affirm personal, group, religious, racial, or national superiority. Or we can choose to recognize that the same blood pulses through the bodies of every human being. We can boast about being the best and continually compete with everyone else. Or we can accept the reality that we’re on this journey together, that nobody has all the answers, and that we and our countries need to learn to collaborate and cooperate.
So let’s examine ourselves, our society, our countries, our world. during this season. The great leader Moses is praised not because of his giving of the law, certainly his greatest acheivement, but because he was the most humble human being. And that humility gave him the opportunity to be good and to be great.
And let’s make a choice, to be humble so that we can all improve, personally and societally. And work to make our world both good and great.
I know what you’re thinking: That I am going to tell you who I am backing in the 2020 presidential elections in the United States. I’m actually going to do better than than that! I’m going to tell you who I am voting for in the August primaries here in Florida, in the 2020 presidential elections and in every single election I will ever be voting in! Not only that, but it will be reflected through very Jewish lenses.
I am voting for candidates who:
- Demonstrate responsible leadership and management – Real leaders take responsibility and take charge. In the book of Shemot (Exodus), Moshe, the prince, witnesses a taskmaster beating and Israelite. He takes charge of the situation, responds, and accepts the consequences of his action (self-imposed exile). It is during that exile that it revealed to him that he has earned the right to the leadership of the Israelites.
- Empathy – Both Moshe and David in the bible are chosen for their roles as they are leading sheep. The Jewish lens is teaching us that if you can show concern for lowly animals, you will most certainly empathize and be able to lead human communities
- Ability to work with others, across all lines of authority and approaches. Two Jewish teachings: In the creation story, God actually consults with his “cabinet” before creating the first human (“Let US create…). And in the Talmud, the quote “These teachings and these teachings are both words of the Living God” remind us to value and respect differences of opinions. Without differing opinions, the Talmud doesn’t exist. Without Talmud, Judaism as we know it doesn’t exist.
- Love of humanity – In my experience I have seen educators who “don’t like children” and politicians who don’t love and respect those they lead. It doesn’t work. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” applies to everyone. but it’s especially important to live that mitzvah in leadership.
- Honesty and Integrity – Personal and professional integrity matter. A LOT. Because the phrase Adonai Eloheichem Emet, which ends the rectation of the Sh’ma is often translated as “The Lord your God is true” is sometimes (also correctly) translated as “The Lord your God is truth” – that is, is manifested through truth. Oh, and a name for God is Shalom, peace. The word Shalom, derives from the root Sh-L-M, meaning complete and denotes integrity. I expect my leaders to demonstrate those Godly qualities.
- Values-driven – Those who are driven by consistent core values may be swayed in specific situations for political reasons, but will remain faithful to the values they hold dearest. Israelite leaders in the bible stray. Often. But the prophets move leaders like David and other kings back to their core values. And the good kings in the bible recognize that they’ve gone astray and find their way back.
- Humility – Good leaders never believe that they have all the answers. Looking at Moshe again, he readily accepts the constructive criticism of his father-in-law, Jethro, and fashions an entire system of justice around the advice he is given. The ultimate praise of Moshe appears later in the Torah, which describes him as the most humble of all people
- Stands on issues that matter – That’s right. This is the last on my list for a reason. Yes, I want to know that my political leaders care about healthcare for all. Yes, I want to know that my leaders will confront racism and bigotry wherever they raise their ugly heads. Yes, I want leaders that will support Israel (even if they disagree with specific policies of Israel). But politicians are gonna politic. And that means that there will be a lot of bartering because that’s how the game is played. So I will go with the leadership and character of candidates I will vote for, and expect that, when those considerations align, the specific policy platforms will fall into place.
And there you have it, my endorsements for this year and forever.
True story: The day after the siyum – celebration of the end of a unit of study – for those who had studied the daf yomi – two sides of a Talmud page daily, Lenny Dykstra (THE Lenny Dykstra) tagged me in a Twitter post, in which he congratulated those who had completed the 7 1/2 year cycle and challenged those who would be starting the new cycle. I’m a veteran of significant Talmud study but definitely not disciplined enough to have done the daily study. But, when Lenny Dykstra gives you musar, well, why would I ignore it? So in I jumped.
I was pleased to see that there are great online as well as face-to-face communities banding together, through which people on this journey are supporting one another. There are podcasts, online guides and even specialized women’s resources to daf yomi that Rabbi Meir Shapira, who dreamt up the idea at his yeshiva in Lublin, Poland couldn’t have imagined. Personally, I’m enjoying the astonishment of the Talmud newbies as they discover the rather chaotic and stream of consciousness nature of the Talmud.
Now, while I’m not a newbie to Talmud study, I’m by no means a scholar. Nonetheless, for those who are less experienced, I am pleased to offer some reflections that I hope will be of value:
- The Talmud was a response to new realities on the ground. The nation that was Judea became a Roman province, Jewish self-government was gone, the Temple was destroyed, the priesthood became irrelevant, the prophetic period ended, “rabbis” or “sages” became the community leaders, the centers of Jewish life shifted to Yavneh, Tiberias, Babylonia.
- The Talmud was a revolutionary set of documents that transformed “Jewish” from a nation that included religious components into a culture that had religion and ethics at its core. It created a version of “Jewish” that could be put in a suitcase and unpacked wherever Jews would live.
- The Talmud is your extended Jewish family’s dinner (or Seder), if 500 years of relatives were invited to the conversation. Or Knesset meeting, if that’s your frame of reference. It’s the rabbinic equivalent of the Annie Hall scene where a Jewish family, living under the Coney Island Thunderbolt roller coaster, brings everything they want to talk about to the table. But with Jewish scholars and their guests.
- There is a lot of wisdom in the Talmud, as well as some mundane and sometimes outright disturbing content. There will be discussions of Jewish practice. There will be sharing of superstitions. There will be deep conversations about the course of history. There will be theological wanderings and wonderings about the nature of God. There will be gossip. There will be potshots at different nationalities. The rabbis and authorities will occasionally insult each other. What you’re watching is the drama of (re-)invention of what it means to be a Jew.through a dialogue that spans over 500 years.
- The Talmud is human. There are spiritual high moments and moments of pettiness. The characters that appear are intelligent, articulate, well-read, and yet, very human.
- The Talmud is a collection that reflects the values of its time. If you’re looking for gender equality, you’ll find some hints of it, but for the most part, that was not the value of that time. If you’re looking for universalism, it shows up occasionally, but that was not the primary concern of the sages.
- If you want to get a sense of how the diversity of who we are today as Jews – traditionalist/Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Zionist, anti-Zionist Jews, Hasidim, atheists/agnostics, converts, ba’alei teshuva – had a stage of development during an absolutely revolutionary era of Jewish history, you’re in the right place.
- Pet peeve: Mishnah is written in Hebrew. Gemara is mostly Aramaic with an occasional Greek or Persian work thrown in.
- The apocryphal story about a law school dean telling new students: “Look to your left and look to your right, because one of you will not be here next year” is going to be true for daf yomi learners. And that’s OK, because as far as you get, you’ve learned more Torah than you had coming in.
We’re in this thing together, my fellow travellers. Hope you see you along the journey and at the finish line.
B’hatzlacha, wishing you all success in your learning.
P.S.: Since being daf yomi-shamed, Lenny Dykstra’s twitter feed totally stopped its Jewish content. In all likelihood he happened to have a very Jewy social media director who was including all sorts of Jewish references to his feed. Probably no longer doing it for him. But I’m still doing daf yomi.