Monthly Archives: June 2014

A Response to my Presbyterian Friend and Minister

Dear Lisa,

 The vote in Detroit cannot evoke little else but great sadness and regret across Jewish America.  We have worked to build bridges and foster relationships with Presbyterians that we thought were based on an abiding mutual respect of the truths embodied in each other’s commitment to our faiths and traditions.  Today however, it is hard to feel something other than betrayal.

 The Jewish people have a deep connection and commitment to the State of Israel.  They are inextricably bound together.  However, there is a great rise of anti-Semitism in the world.  It is becoming blatant in many places and in others it is cloaked in the garb of anti-Zionism or anti-Israel policy.  Anti-Semitism exists in this country too.  We are watching our young people under assault on college campuses across the country, targeted with deliberate and calculated attacks against their identity and intimidation tactics that repress any exchange of ideas other than ideas sanctioned by those that have usurped control of the conversation.

 Many of us are dissatisfied with the actions of the settlements.  Many of us believe it undermines efforts toward the creation of a respect that permits the emergence of a state for the Palestinian people. This however, is far different from actions that are taken as a result of existing hostilities that represent an existential threat to Israel and its citizens.

 The construction of the fence/wall was done in response to a history of violence perpetrated by those willing to inflict damage and destruction on a civilian population within Israel.  As ugly as this harsh concrete barrier may appear, it has in fact all but eliminated bombings and other murderous violence.  The responsibility for peace resides on both sides of this conflict.  The history of violence and the existential threat that continues to be espoused from the Palestinian side can only be willfully ignored.

 Also, within Israel the need to continue to expand civil rights protection undoubtedly exists.  Many of us actively work to promote the broader and fuller equal application of the law to all who live in Israel.  There has been much progress made in this realm, although much more work needs to be done.  We are proud of our active role in promoting and broadening civil rights in Israel.  We are deeply committed to the State.

The existence of the State of Israel has been part of our DNA, an aspiration as a people for two thousand years.  The State was bought on the back of hardship and persecution unlike anything the world had ever seen.  The State of Israel exists and she has a right to do so.  That does not delegitimize the rights of the Palestinian people.  But it unequivocally says that the existence of the State of Israel is undeniable and irrefutable.  The efforts to delegitimize Israel cannot be tolerated or supported.

Unfortunately, the actions taken by the Presbyterians do precisely that.  The BDS movement has declared this a great victory.  Whether that was the intent of the resolution, the effect is a victory for BDS and those ultimately seeking the elimination of Israel.  This happens on the heels of the release of Zionism Unsettled, a book of vitriol and falsehood.  It is a volume that vehemently denounces Israel, Zionism and ultimately the Jewish people.  It is a shameful and terribly hurtful treatise that remains on sale and available.

The acts that can be construed as hurtful, the publications that can be construed as hateful and the complete insensitivity to the history and values of my people makes this vote a horrible breach of faith and trust.  You cannot claim to love me, if you are willing to engage in actions so egregious, deeply hurtful and offensive to me. There are other and more constructive ways to promote change.

I believe that it is a moral obligation to only invest in companies that do not profit from persecution or oppression.  For Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar and Motorola an interesting and rather broad understanding of persecution and oppression seems to have been applied. I cannot help but wonder whether the same level of scrutiny has been applied to every investment held in the portfolio and a stand against oppression and persecution is consistently applied to the many horrors and traumas suffered by victims of hatred and war across the globe and even here in this country.

 There are many ways to constructively engage in the Middle East.  I understand the Presbyterian community has been so involved in the West Bank and in Israel.  These were areas where we were in agreement, where we could work together where we would not undermine or attack the intrinsic values of the other.  However, the Church has decided to take another course.  It is a divisive course that has done great damage to our relationship.

 I deeply hope for peace in the Middle East.  It is good for everyone in the region and it is good for humanity.  I hope that we can find ways to repair the damage that has been caused by this action.  I know your commitment to the principles of your faith and I hope you can appreciate the effect these actions have.

Thank you for the chance to share this with you.



A Quest for Meaning

 In Naso, we are introduced to the Nazir. A Nazir is one who purposefully separates himself or herself of the community by abstaining from certain luxuries or conventions, taking a vow as part of a spiritual search. This is the issue of the individual’s quest for meaning.

 We see the idea of a vow as a chance to be in closer communion with God. It is an extraordinary commitment as the individual, man or woman, commits to refraining from some basic of things. This particular vow seems to contradict the idea that we are in community; the Nazir does things that by their nature separates him/her from societal norms: The Nazir does not drink, does not cut his/her hair, not to be near the dead, even including those for whom even a Kohen would. At the end of the vow’s timeframe, the Nazir brings a sacrifice as a Sin offering and a second as an offering of well-being signaling the vow is now concluded and fulfilled.

 Once the Nazir has made the appropriate sacrifices, Aaron blesses the people with the Priestly blessing. This is as though through the process the Nazir endures in the sacred separating and the sacred re-joining, the whole people become worthy of God’s blessings.

 Like the Nazir we too try to find meaning in our lives. We reflect and act to give life purpose. The path we walk in that process can be difficult and often lonesome. We might find a need to separate ourselves from those we love or things that are familiar in order learn and grapple with the hard questions we confront in our lives. We do things that set us apart, not unlike the Nazir. However, our tradition teaches are not hermits or ascetics.   Parashah Naso teaches that our path needs to lead us back to the community. When we return, we are changed and, we pray, better off for the journey. When we return and again become a participant in our community, we enrich our community as well.

 We see this understanding of the Nazir play itself out all the time in our modern lives as well. Our young people for example, venture out from the family in their quest to find their paths, to challenge the paradigms they have learned in their youth and as they seek wisdom and growth. We call this going off to college. Our children leave us as adolescents and hopefully return as thoughtful young adults. In other even more noble pursuits, many of our best and brightest make a vow in the form of enlisting in the military to serve their country. The ideals they embrace they are willing to defend with their lives.

 We give our young the best we can. And then they leave. We pray that they will be safe on the journey and return to us whole. Then we know that indeed The Eternal has blessed us and protected us and caused The Divine Countenance to shine upon us.

My father was God

A beautiful poem I shared for Yizkor Shavuot by Yehuda Amichai-

My father was God and did not know it.

He gave me
The Ten Commandments
neither in thunder nor in fury; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat         In a single melody and he pleaded and

cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,“Do not take the name of God in vain,”       do not take it, not in vain,I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”           And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear“
Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”

And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing.“Honor, love, that your days might be long On the earth.”  And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.

אבי היה אלוהים / יהודה עמיחי

אבי היה אלוהים ולא ידע.הוא נתן לי את עשרת הדיברות לא ברעם ולא בזעם, לא באש ולא בענן אלא ברכות ובאהבה. והוסיף לטופים והוסיף מילים טובות, והוסיף “אנא” והוסיף “בבקשה”. וזמר זכור ושמור בניגון אחד והתחנן ובכה בשקט בין דבר לדבר, לא תשא שם אלוהיך לשוא, לא תשא, לא לשוא, אנא, אל תענה ברעך עד שקר.וחבק אותי חזק ולחש באוזני, לא תגנב, לא תנאף, לא תרצח. ושם את כפות ידיו הפתוחות על ראשי בברכת יום כפור. כבד, אהב, למען יאריכון ימיך על פני האדמה. וקול אבי לבן כמו שער ראשו. אחר כך הפנה את פניו אלי בפעם האחרונה כמו ביום שבו מת בזרועותיי, ואמר:”אני רוצה להוסיף שנים לעשרת הדברות:הדבר האחד-עשר, “לא תשתנה”והדבר השנים-עשר,”השתנה, תשתנה”כך אמר אבי ופנה ממני והלך ונעלם במרחקיו המוזרים.

—Yehuda Amichai

The Give and Take of Torah

Our sages impress on us that Shavuot is the time of the Giving of Torah.  Giving and Receiving are seen as two separate acts.  The Giving is important because it is a one-time event and it is in the Receiving of Torah that we experience ongoing revelation. However, I think it is more complicated than that.  Both the Giving and the Receiving are inextricably bound together, two sides of the same coin. Both come with their own set of expectations and obligations.


A true gift is given freely and without strings attached.  Like so many of us, I have commented in the aftermath of the giving of a gift, with the gift box open and wrapping paper strewn, that “If you don’t like it, you can always bring it back.”  And that is true.  I do not want a gift to be kept merely to keep from offending me.  But whenever I give a gift, I select it thoughtfully and with care.  I want the gift I am giving to convey the meaning and love with which it was given. And I also want it to be loved and enjoyed.   So I rarely shop for Jewelry for my wife, unless I find something truly extraordinary that I know will fit her aesthetic sense.

Similarly, I believe the Gift of Torah is given with a similar intention.  It is given as an extraordinary expression of love that God has for his people.  And, if you will permit the anthropomorphism, I cannot help but think the Almighty would be crestfallen if we asked whether the receipt was still in the box somewhere.  Torah was not given just as a something for us to have.  It is to be a prized possession.  It is the greatest gift of all, short of life itself arguably.  There is an expectation and hope that we will embrace it fully and use it to guide our lives.

 Matan Torateinu, the Giving of our Torah, is more than something given in love.  This extraordinary act of Giving requires an equally extraordinary act of Receiving.  Sadly Torah can be rejected and “returned” as it were. It can be ignored, or possibly worse, misused as a means to exert power or personal gain at the expense of others.  All of us are diminished when one rejects Torah. Instead we hope to we turn it and turn it delving into its beauty and depth, revealing wisdom and ways for us to make meaning both in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.


The Receiving of a gift is another matter.  I recall my mom teaching me as a boy, that it was proper to receive gifts with graciousness and gratitude.  The value of a gift lies in the intention with which it was given, not the price paid.  So understanding how a gift is given is very important to the receiver.  But what we actually do with the gift is up to us.

We determine how a gift is to be used.  A gift can be placed on a shelf.  It can be an object to be admired and appreciated.  But without interaction, it often does little more than collect dust.  Our willingness to engage it will determine how much it will mean to us.  But we must decide how to do this.  Even when the giver advises us how to use our gift, it is ultimately up to us.

And certainly when we do interact with it, the way we do it is also under our control, even when the gift is Torah.  We can return to it regularly or sporadically, we can be ready to engage fully or we could be more nonchalant, ready to pick up where we left off or to start afresh, we can be literal or figurative in interpretation.   We can plumb its depth and seek ways that it speaks to us and guides us.  It is said that when a piece of art or great literature leaves its creator, it becomes that which the recipient decides it will become.  All the more so Torah; for Torah is the supreme such work and yet still can only have as much meaning as we are willing to impart to it.

 I recall a Midrash spinning a story about the moment the people received Torah.  God lifts the mountain and suspends it over B’nei Yisrael by a thread.  The people are told they have a choice to accept or reject Torah.  But if they reject Torah, God will let go.  I actually prefer to understand the story another way.  The gift of Torah is the thread itself.  The world, as the mountain, can be harsh and cruel and the weight of the world can be crushing.  Torah gives us the ability to live under the reality that is our world and keep it from destroying us, instead giving us the opportunity for a full and meaningful existence.  Torah is the ultimate lifeline.

 In this case, both the receiving and the giving are dynamic.  We are always in the process of receiving, and arguably God is also always in the process of giving.  The Torah writ large is a living work, continuing to expand and evolve.  Both giver and receiver are actively involved in the process.  Both are intimately involved in the give and take.

 So how do we do justice to the gift of Torah?

For one thing, it is to embrace it with vigor to engage it and find how it speaks to us in ways that can affect our lives.  How do we grapple and test and probe with a sense of reverence and gratitude that comes from knowing Torah is given in love and the giver hopes that this priceless gift will be used for all its worth.