Category Archives: ethics

If not now? A call for change on Yom Kippur

#4 What do we do now- Be Kind

 

We come to the Third part of Hillel’s quote: If not now, When? The answer is NOW.

I have refrained from speaking directly about Charlottesville with you thus far.

I am sure that the public display of hate deeply pained you.

The horrible chants, torch-lit marching, gun-toting thugs,

40 Jews inside Congregation Beth Israel that evening,

spiriting their Torahs out the back door, expecting the Temple to be burned, it sickens me.

 

The Nazi march was vile and despicable behavior by people who live on the fringes of our society,

a group that trucks in hatred,

truly disenfranchised miscreants who crawled out from the dark underbelly of this great nation

and are mired in their own bizarre fantasies of violence and white supremacy.

I am very angry and deeply saddened by this horrific display.

And I am equally appalled by the lack of moral leadership on this and all issues at the highest levels in our land.

However, I am not fearful.

And in response to the horrors of Charlottesville

I have a one-word reply:

Houston.

 

Charlottesville and many other places make it clear we have a long way to go in the battle for life, liberty, and equal justice for all.

Again I say Houston. For there in Houston, there is hope.

 

In response to the devastating Hurricane Harvey that dumped floodwaters of biblical proportions on the region,

the very best of humanity showed up to the rescue.

There were only two groups in the city:

The rescuers and those in need of rescue.

Race, religion, color, creed, age, sex, gender identification, political affiliation, economic class, social class-

Nothing mattered except the need to save lives of people.

The Cajun Navy spontaneously appeared, people helped people, human chains literally reaching out into the floodwaters,

holding tight to each other

so that another life could be saved from the torrents of water. Everyone was on both ends of that lifeline.

In losing everything, the people of Houston found something truly precious, their humanity.

My response to the horror of Charlottesville is the beauty of Houston.

We seem to be at our best in the aftermath of a calamity.

Houston, Sandyhook, 9/11- these are only a few catastrophes to which we have risen up as a people,

United in bonds of love and fellowship.

Why must we reserve our best in response to tragedy?

This Yom Kippur, I suggest we preemptively deploy our best behavior in our everyday lives.

 

Let us shine light into the darkness

and illumine a path that leads out of the narrow places,

the Mitzrayim- the Egypt- those spaces both literal and figurative that both confine and oppress us.

Let us join together doing acts of loving-kindness.

Let us not sit helplessly and lament the world we long for.

Let us reach out to one another and build the world that should be. Let the humanity of Houston be our inspiration.

 

 

Together let us march forward

carrying love in our hearts and good deeds in our arms.

We have come to the proverbial edge of the Red Sea,

yet one more time in our history. Let us cross over together.

 

(And if I sound a bit like a Southern Baptist preacher, I can only say, Thanks, Grandma.)

 

How do we do this?

For you may say, I am only a single individual-

what effect can I possibly have?

I recall the story told of Mother Theresa,

that saint who tended the poorest of the poor in India.

A cynic asked her how she intended to feed the overwhelming masses who were hungry- she responded simply,

One Mouth at a Time.

And that is how we do it.

Each of us has the power to effect change.

The V’ahavta prayer says VeLo Taturu.

Never underestimate the power to make a difference- each of us.

It is about meeting people, one person at a time.

It is about individuals building relationships with one another

and building these connections into bigger connections,

building a community with shared values and purpose.

And it all starts with one simple idea: You.

 

Rabbi Hillel says in Pirkei Avot,

“In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”

As Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic insightfully translates,

it means to be a mature, courageous human being;

it also means to be a mensch. So I sum it up and say simply to you: Be Kind.

 

In an age and culture where we have become coarse and combative,

BE KIND.

In a world filled with overwhelming loneliness and alienation,

BE KIND.

In a world quick to cynically chastise and separate with fractiousness and divisiveness,

BE KIND.

Hillel condensed all Torah to this:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to another.”

BE KIND. This as our call to action.

 

Start with yourself.

Let us free ourselves from the shackles of guilt and sin keeping us mired in the past.

Learn from it to live next year better.

Be kind and forgiving of your self. Starting now.

Promise yourself to engage.

 

Jews are taught to awake with the words “I am Thankful.”

“Modeh Ani Lifanecha, Elohai Nishama Shenatati bi tihora hi.” ‘Thank you God for restoring my pure soul.”

What a beautiful intention to start the day.

A fresh slate, built on gratitude for our blessings

and hopeful for the possibilities that await us.

Use the day to engage in the things that motivate you- your Why. Actively support something you believe in,

a philanthropy or a cause,

be part of something greater than yourself.

 

End your day with a bedtime Shema- prayer.

Go to sleep knowing

you are in the sheltering arms of the One who loves and protects you.

 

Nurture your relationships.

Be compassionate and forgiving; for they too are as flawed, seeking wholeness and love.

BE KIND.

 

Find your community and

BE KIND.

We need a caring community to support and comfort us

During times of celebration and sorrow.

Temple Micah is an extraordinary community to find people with shared values.

And together we can make a difference

rising up our voices as one,

speaking with more power than one alone to affect greater change. Give to the food bank,

give to help the suffering victims on Puerto Rico.

BE KIND.

 

Our greater communities, both our nation and the world,

need people to champion our values now more than ever.

Your voice, your time and your money are all necessary

to champion the things you believe in.

There is no shortage of need, and we cannot be silent.

 

“Kol Arevim Zeh BaZeh.”

All Israel is responsible for each other.

Whether you see Israel literally or metaphorically,

you can make a difference in

the genocide of the Rohingya, happening as we speak,

climate change, Israel, healthcare, the political debate both national and local.

These issues are our issues.

Find the one that resonates with your and pursue it.

 

We need to build a better world.

I believe it can happen.

But only if we are willing to roll up our sleeves and do the work necessary,

for it cannot happen on its own.

As it says in Psalm 89 verses 3,

Olam Chesed Yibaneh. “We will build this world with love.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jewish Love is not romantic love.

We learn Jewish love in the Shema and V’ahavta prayer.

Love is an active verb.

Jewish love is not a state of being, it is a state of doing.

The prayer instructs us to Love God by living the commandments, teaching them to our children

and fully embracing them in all of our thoughts and actions.

Jewish wisdom sees the Heart as the guide to emotion and action.   I am the change I want to see.

This is the empowering message of the Torah.

It implores us to embrace that

only through our own action will we begin to build the world that should be.

 

The people of our nation have always had to fight for the values we hold dear;

from the moment we first expressed them through the present day. This amazing country of ours is both resilient and great.

But we remain a work in progress with a long way to go before all of her children will enjoy the aspirations of our foundational documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty.

Life, liberty, and equal justice for all remain the promise we still strive to achieve.

This promise is the beacon of light shining from on top of the hill to the other nations of the world.

We will build this nation on love.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh. We will build this world on love.

 

As we move toward the end of our prayers today

we will hear that the gates are closing and also

that the gates of repentance are never closed.

These two seemingly contradicting ideas both live in our texts.

I believe that with Ne’ilah, our closing prayers,

the liturgists are exhorting us to act.

It is the urgency of now. We cannot wait.

The prophetic tradition that is ours,

The fragility of life that makes each day a gift-

they combine to say “don’t wait another minute.”

So here is this sacred space, as we conclude our services this day,

I encourage everyone here to smile at one another,

kiss and embrace your loved ones,

and kiss and embrace whoever is near you.

This is the start of something new.

We will build this world with love.

 

G’mar Tov- May you be sealed for Good

Olam Chesed Yibaneh  (sing)

 

 

 

Conversations for Life and Legacy

I am excited to announce the launch of Conversations for Life and Legacy™.

Conversations for Life and Legacy™ is a whole new approach to sharing our wisdom, making meaning in our lives, and connecting beyond ourselves drawing upon the insights of Jewish tradition and text.

Conversations for Life and Legacy™ goes far beyond an Ethical Will to share our sacred stories in unique new ways. Among the particular innovations are using a rabbi trained in chaplaincy to guide the interview and capturing it all on video.

Please look at our new website: www.ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy.com to explore this new approach; see what it can mean to you and how it can be brought to your community.

Today we also launch a Facebook page: ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy and we will be on Twitter as well @rabbidavidlevincll.

It’s time to have the Conversations of your Life!

Conversations for Life and Legacy™

www.ConversationsForLifeAndLegacy.com

 

Happy Fourth of July

Celebrate the 4th of July!

Today is a celebration. Barbecues, Beaches (even in NJ) and Booms (I mean fireworks, but I was going for alliteration). Enjoy this day. It is more than a tribute to our independence, it is a proclamation of values that have made this country the envy of people throughout the world.

So as you consume the food and participate in the festivities of the day, remember that we are a nation founded upon extraordinary principles. We have so much more work to do both here and in the world to extend those principles to everyone yearning to breathe free. So today let us rededicate ourselves to the amazing idea this nation represents.

Happy Fourth of July!

How do you serve two masters-the interfaith marriage debate

How do you serve two masters?

We are called upon to do this regularly including in the current discussion about the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew. As Rabbis, we serve Jews and we serve Judaism. These often do not align. How these two competing missions live in tension and how we resolve the issues is something our wisdom tradition teaches us.

We serve Jews. As I have been taught, my service to them requires me to go where they are to help them along their paths, using the wisdom of our tradition to connect and shine light upon the journey. I am also in service to Judaism, charged with Shamor v’Zachor in all of its complexity. These often align with each other, but often they do not. We live in a complicated world where we usually do not choose between good and evil (that’s an easy one of course) but we choose between competing good things. Which one takes primacy? Must they be mutually exclusive, or can they co-exist? Our great tradition including Talmud urges us to grapple with these questions.

We all know minority opinions are kept because they add value, depth, and nuance to the conversation. We have seen Hillel and Shammai duel. Even though Hillel usually prevails, Shammai remains as insight into important issues that cannot be overlooked. It is incorrect to dismiss Shammai as wrong.

We all recall the story of Teaching Torah on one foot. Two radically different approaches are offered, both containing deep wisdom. Ultimately we are left with, “What is hateful to you do not do to another, the rest is all commentary. Now go study,” but not before we understand the gravitas and respect that one must have to approach the process.

The conversation about officiating weddings between Jews and Non-Jews should be viewed through this lens. Is our primary allegiance to preserving and protecting Judaism, or to reaching out to Jews wherever they may be? What precisely does each of these things look like? Where we ultimately define ourselves and cast our allegiance will determine what each of us can do and what is beyond our ability. I have no doubt about the seriousness that each of us approaches this task. And I am not criticizing the considered decision of anyone.   However, there are real ramifications to our decisions. How we are perceived in our respective communities and how will our decisions affect the couple requesting our services as officiant are two profoundly important questions we must ask ourselves as we consider the issue.

There is a substantial segment of Jews who seek to marry someone who is not Jewish. How we approach them may forever affect them and their relationship to Judaism. When someone approaches us, what will we do? If we cannot officiate based on a principled position, do we dismiss them, or find a colleague who can be present in this important and critical time? Will you be Hillel or Shammai?

 

 

Shabbat Shalom- A Reflection from Mt. Carmel

I have just returned from Mt. Carmel Cemetery to provide presence and support to the volunteers who came here. I was moved, being with people honoring the past and affirming their identities.

 

As Americans and Jews, we arise with a sense of unity and rededication of purpose. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we stand arm in arm with all victims of hatred and domestic terrorism. Our values bring us together.

 

Although disturbing acts underlie this awakening of spirit, we need to focus on the good that has come from these cowardly and ugly actions. From ugliness comes beauty, from despair comes hope, from aloneness comes community, and from hatred comes love.

 

We stand together against hate.

Hate has no home here.

Shabbat Shalom.

Talmud teachings about the ACA

 

Yesterday’s reading of the Daf Yomi (daily page of Talmud), was remarkably timely in its discussion about destroying and replacing things. Rav Hisda taught that a Beit Knesset, synagogue, cannot be destroyed until a new one is ready to replace it. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) seems to be the modern day equivalent of this conversation.

The Gemara explains that just ripping down what exists opens the real possibility that irresponsible people will never follow through with the replacement, and the people will be left without a place for prayer. As we watch the government begin steps to dismantle “ObamaCare” through Executive Order and Congressional actions, we must ask, what is there to replace it?

What does Healthcare for our people look like? What is our responsibility to our fellow Americans? This is an important conversation for our nation. Regardless of the flaws both real and perceived in the existing structure, it is grossly irresponsible to destroy the ACA without a clear plan to replace it seamlessly with something clearly articulated before we take a sledgehammer to what we have.

As long as our government is of, by and for the people, there is no king with the authority to decree what shall be. Our elected representatives must be accountable for building not destroying.

This essay is based on the insights of Rabbi Steinsaltz as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.