Category Archives: Divrei Torah

Sh’ma – Listen.

The story is told of Rabbi Akiva, who was martyred by the Romans for refusing to give up the study and teaching of Torah. As the hour of his death grew near, it was time to say the morning sh’ma. Akiva began – sh’ma yisrael. His students were amazed. “Even now, you are able to say those words?” His reply: “My entire life I have been troubled by the phrase ‘with all your soul,’ which we interpret to mean ‘even at the time your soul is taken from you.’ Would I have the chance to love God that fully? Now I know the answer.” And as the Romans took his life, he pronounced the watchword of our faith: echad. One. Continue reading

You Never Know…

My colleage and teacher, Rabbi Jeff Roth, tells a great story about a little town in Russia near the end of the nineteenth century…

Like many towns from that place and time, its residents were Jews and Gentiles, and the years passed in tense coexistence, with occasional flare-ups of anti-Jewish feeling and action spurred on by the Czar’s government. Emblematic of the two communities and their relations with each other was the strange friendship between the Chief of Police and the Rabbi, each of whom had served for forty years. Continue reading

E Pluribus Unum…Jewish Style

Remember our little town in Russia from the beginning of the service? The one with the Rabbi and the Chief? It reminds me a bit of Anatevka, of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame. I imagine that by midmorning, the news had spread throughout the town of the Rabbi’s arrest, and I imagine the Jews were scared. You never know….but sometimes you have a pretty good guess. And in a barn near the edge of town, a poor milkman named Tevye looked to the sky and said, “God, you say we’re the chosen people. How about choosing someone else once in a while?” Continue reading

Emerging from the Eclipse…

At first blush, the text I’ve chosen to read seems like an odd choice, given the reason so many of us are here this morning. A service of celebration, expressing gratitude to an extraordinary woman who is moving from our community, and here we’re going to read a passage that takes Israel to task for her unfaithfulness and has God announcing angrily that He will purposefully absent Himself from them on the day of their sorrow. I promise you, we’ll bring it around and find a message suitable for the occasion, and for this season of repentance, by the time we’re through. But for the moment, let’s dig in to this rich and powerful indictment of Israel. Continue reading

Gratitude

Todah Rabbah. Thank you.

Thank you for joining me in fulfilling the mitzvah of sh’mittah, the sabbatical, by letting me lie fallow for a season – first in 2005, and then again over the summer that is now ending. I pray that the blessings ordained by God for observance of the sabbatical year will come true for us, and that the bounty of this summer will sustain in ways we would never have thought possible. Continue reading

No Jews should be Egyptians

The title on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Why Jews Should Not Be Liberals.” Larry F. Sternberg, a politically active Jew in Orange County, California, is the author of this book, which makes the case that liberalism is fundamentally inconsistent with Jewish values. Liberalism, Sternberg maintains, erodes individual integrity and responsibility. It is non-Jewish to the core, and the fact that so many Jews vote for liberal candidates and support liberal causes constitutes a betrayal of their faith and an outright shame. Continue reading

Dear Mel

Dear Mel,

Ever since your troubles last summer, I’ve been thinking about sharing these thoughts with you. Your anti-Semitic tirade was indeed despicable – your own words – and the entirety of your comments displays an incredibly dark side to your character – misogynist, bigoted, and with a very unattractive sense of entitlement. For all that, I think it’s important to say that nothing that you said that night in your drunkenness compares with the fact that you were behind the wheel of a car, blazing down the Pacific Coast Highway, with the better part of a bottle of tequila in your belly. You may as well have been waving a loaded gun. Thank God no one was hurt. So let’s keep a perspective on what you really must atone for.

In your apology – the second one, released on August 1, you said:

I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one on one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.

Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether your desire to be forgiven and healed is a sincere one. I don’t doubt it for a minute. and were I skeptical, all I’d need to do to be convinced would be to focus for a moment on my very worst, most awful character flaw…and the time it was most evident…and then imagine it becoming public and occupying the nation’s attention, news cycle after news cycle…. How could someone not want to make that pain stop? No, I don’t doubt your sincerity when you say you want to be healed.

You say you want to meet with leaders in the Jewish community for one on one conversations. That’s a fair amount of talking, since every Jew is a leader in the Jewish community – just ask him. I’m not suggesting that you and I get together, but I want to introduce you to someone who is undeniably a Jewish leader – perhaps the greatest who ever lived.

His name is Moses Maimonides, and of him it was said, mimosheh l’mosheh, lo kam k’mosheh – from Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses. In other words, his contemporaries in the twelfth century recognized him as the greatest Jewish leader since Moses brought the Israelites out of Egypt and led them to the edge of the Promised Land. That estimation has not changed in the eight hundred years since his death. If you want advice from a Jewish leader about how to heal from your illnesses of alcoholism and anti-Semitism…Mel, meet Moshe.

Maimonides wrote a prescription for you – and for all of us – in his book called the Mishneh Torah. This book is a comprehensive guide to practical Jewish living, written in clear and concise style, meant for to be accessible to every Jew. How to light the candles, how to prepare foods, how to say prayers, how to conduct yourself in business, how to conduct yourself at home….it’s all there. An entire section of the book, ten whole chapters, is devoted to the area in which you’ve asked for guidance. The section begins:

The laws of repentance, concerning one positive commandment. Namely, that the sinner repent of his sin before God and confess. The explanation of this commandment, and the principles which derive from it, are the subject of the following chapters.

Right off the bat, Maimonides clues us into the fact that confession is the very end of the process – not the beginning. The sinner must “repent of his sin before God” and then “confess.” The opening paragraph is even more specific:

If a person transgresses against any of the Torah’s commandments — whether on purpose or by accident — he must, having repented of his sin, acknowledge/confess it before God. As it is written (Num 5:6-7a): “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done.” This refers to a confession in speech. This confession is a positive commandment.

Torah teaches us, then, that our confession—out loud — follows our repentance. Only after one realizes that one has done something wrong can he or she say “I’m sorry.”

Maimonides goes on to give rather specific instructions in how to offer a confession:

How does one perform it? One says, “O God! I have sinned, transgressed, and done wrong before You! This is what I did… And now, I regret it. I am ashamed of my actions, and I will never do it again.” This is the essence of confession. The more in-depth one’s confession is, the more praiseworthy.

The words attached to your name on August first are detailed and in-depth, and they are filled with remorse. They dwell at some length on the antisemitic outburst. You seem to credit it to a moment of insanity brought on by your abuse of alcohol – a fact about which I’ll say more later — but you are ashamed of it. You disavow antisemitism and maintain that your own faith demands charitableness toward all. You declare your intent to be healed and to never again say or do such things. This appears, on the surface, to be an extraordinary vidui.

I don’t buy it…not yet, at least. And I imagine that Maimonides wouldn’t buy it either. And this isn’t to say that it’s not an important first step. But, while he didn’t know of Hollywood publicists, it is safe to assume that Maimonides wouldn’t have been moved by an apology released through one. Remember, the vidui is specifically called a vidui d’varim – an oral confession. For it to be effective, the words must actually be spoken. And, contrary to the pundits’ proclamation that your apology was too late, I would suggest that it was far too early. It is a well-founded skepticism that doubts whether a person can be driving drunk on the Pacific Coast Highway and spouting off about the Jews on a Friday morning and then be utterly turned around in seventy-two hours.

Why is it so important that the confession be spoken aloud? A modern interpreter of Maimonides, the great twentieth century teacher Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, offers a great insight into this question. I’ll cite his teaching as transcribed by his student, Pinchas Peli. Soloveitchik taught:

Feelings, emotions, thoughts and ideas become clear, and are grasped only after they are expressed in sentences bearing a logical and grammatical structure. As long as one’s thoughts remain repressed, as long as one has not brought them out into the open, no matter how sublime or exalted they may be, they are not truly yours; they are foreign and elusive… Repentance contemplated and not verbalized is valueless.

The cynics don’t believe you even wrote the apology, and consider it to be through and through the work of your PR machine. They may be right, but even the more charitable view which credits you with thinking those thoughts is then – according to Maimonides – right in discounting them because you didn’t actually speak them.

Nitpicking? Hairsplitting? I don’t think so. Maimonides and Soloveitchik were onto something with that insight. If the words were penned by your publicist, you’ve accomplished nothing; if you wrote them down yourself, then you may be on the right path. Either way, the words were probably a bit premature. But that you allowed your publisher to even release such a statement points to a good start.

Where do you need to go next, Mel? It seems to me that you need to think carefully about the relationship between your alcoholism and your antisemitism. You seem to draw a line of connection between them. Mel, this is a poor defense. Those vicious words weren’t some sort of bonus included with the tequila. They came from somewhere else. I imagine that a part of you knows just where, but how hard it is to acknowledge it! How much harder still to say it aloud! Again, Soloveitchik interpreting Maimonides:

God instilled in man a mechanism of self-defense which enables him to ignore facts, to flee from reality, to deny existence and to avoid seeing things as they are. A man may know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he has sinned and is diverted from his life’s goal, having betrayed all his values. He even knows why—but is not ready to say so openly or to hear it from others…He lies awake at night and thinks about it; his soul cries out in the darkness; but in the light of day, in the eyes of others, he seems happy and content. In order to hide the truth that is eating away inside of him, he continues to sin, picks up speed and rushes madly toward the brink of the abyss.

Do you recognize that guy, Mel?

Mel, let me assure that I didn’t make you the subject of my Yom Kippur Morning sermon in order to embarrass or shame you, or to be cynical about your desire to repent. Quite the opposite. My tradition teaches me to give people the benefit of the doubt, and so I take you at word when you say that want to be healed of your sickness.

The people I’m praying with this morning are guilty, by and large, of small-time sins. They haven’t posed for mug shots. Rather, they…we…are quick to judge, slow to forgive, stingy with praise and love, too prone to self-absorption and narcissism. We know how good we could be, yet we set the bar so low and then shrink ourselves to meet it. We are guilty of not being the very best version of ourselves. And from all those things, we seek to turn. If considering the dynamics of your teshuvah helps us be more effective in our own, then sharing this letter with them will have served its intended purpose.

I hope your turning is complete, and I look forward to the day when you are able to face the cameras and offer your vidui from the depths.

Sincerely,

Larry

And now, we get ready to do vidui for the second time. The four expressions of vidui on Yom Kippur, it should be evident, are not just about saying the same thing over and over. With each repetition, we can go deeper, getting closer to our true self. Each time, the words touch us differently. Each time, they may hit a bit closer to home. Our confessional prayers hold tremendous power to change us. As we say them now, and again at the Afternoon Service and the Concluding Service, don’t be automotons, mindlessly mouthing the words. Don’t be content to let your publicist – the rabbi, the prayerbook, the people in the pews – carry the day. Look into the camera and mean it.

From Stranger to Neighbor

Rabbi Joy Levitt has called Yom Kippur “the day we come together to be alone.” We sit amongst a sea of people, and we go deep within ourselves. Cheshbon Hanefesh – honest soul-searching – requires a focus and a clarity, a tuning out of the people around us. Yom Kippur is the most personal and individual of Jewish holidays.

And for all that, I want to speak tonight about building community. Continue reading

Abraham the Ivri

In 1964, Look magazine ran an article on the “Vanishing American Jew,” predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in the United States. Y2K came and went with somewhere between 5.2 and 6.7 million Jews in the US population. Look magazine didn’t fare so well, vanishing in 1971. With delicious irony, Alan Dershowitz titled his 1996 book on Jewish identity The Vanishing American Jew. Continue reading

Facing the Giants

I have the privilege of speaking to a fledgling congregation across the Rio Grande in Juarez this weekend. I think the message for a tiny group of Jews just getting started is not all that different from the one that a historic congregation in a comfortable building needs to hear…

I apologize for not being able to speak to you in Spanish, and I’m grateful to Ralph for offering a translation. The number of Spanish phrases I can speak with confidence can be counted on one hand. How serendipitous, then, that one of those phrases comes right out of this week’s Torah portion, in both letter and in spirit: Si, se puede!

As the portion begins, Israel is preparing to enter the Land of Israel. In order to plan for their entry into the land, Moses sends forth a scouting expedition made up of twelve men, one from each of the tribes. Here’s how the Torah tells it:

Numbers 13:17-30 17 When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, 18 and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? 19 Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? 20 Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” — Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes. 21 They went up and scouted the land…They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes — it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them — and some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was named the wadi Eshcol because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down there.

25 At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. 26 They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. 27 This is what they told him: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. 29 Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” 30 Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, ki yachol nuchal lah – yes we, can – si, se puede!”

Perhaps you know the rest of the story. The people failed to listen to Caleb. The other spies disputed Caleb’s assessment, dwelling on the fact that the people living in the Promised Land were so large that they, the Israelites, felt like grasshoppers in their presence. The people shouted down Caleb and Joshua too, and even threatened to pelt them with stones! Our tradition looks upon their act as a tremendous failure of nerve.

For that failure of nerve, Israel was sentenced to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The pessimism of former slaves had to give way to the optimism of men and women born in freedom. A whole generation needed to be able to say yachol nuchal, si se puede, in one voice.

That two said “si, se puede” and ten said “no” is not surprising. It’s hard to say si, se puede when the obstacles are staring you in the face. They can seem insurmountable. You can feel so small, like grasshoppers looking up at giants. It takes incredible courage to say si, se puede.

And here you are, little Beit Jehudah. You are small in number. Compared to the other religions that have taken root in this city, you are small in stature, and you probably feel even smaller! A Jew in Juarez? Better you should be a grasshopper! It’s tempting to say, “Forget it. Starting a synagogue in Juarez is crazy! The obstacles are just too great! Let’s turn back, let’s play it safe. Let’s go to Temple Mount Sinai once a month and leave it at that.” The voices of Joshua and Caleb urge you on to become a congregation. And other voices shout them down, saying, “but what about the giants?”

Have no illusions, you will face giants along the way if you decide to march. You will argue about ritual. You will disagree about whether to be Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. You will argue about silly things and the arguments will take on a life of their own. You will get frustrated because you aren’t growing fast enough. Then, when you do grow, the founders will resent the new-comers and long for the days when everything was so much better. An important founding member will move on to other things and you’ll be tempted to close your doors. You will squabble over how to collect the funds it takes to pay your bills. Again and again, you will wonder if it’s worth the trouble. Yes, there are giants out there, and it will feel like they are standing between you and the promised land.

But here’s the secret, folks. The arguments, the disagreements, the fights, the squabbles, the frustrations, the doubts…they are the promised land. All of that strife is the price you pay to be yisrael. The price of admission allows you, from time to time, to experience the heights of prayer, the joys of study, the deep satisfaction that comes from creating a sacred community that lifts up you up when you are down, comforts you when you are afflicted. That is what it means to be a community in which each person has a claim on every other, in which the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. It isn’t always easy, and it’s seldom very pretty. But this landscape, with all of its hills and valleys, is very, very good.

I am here this morning to tell you that you have friends as you march. After the service we’ll talk more about how Temple Mount Sinai and the Union for Reform Judaism can help you get organized as a Reform congregation should you so choose. But the bulk of the work is yours to do. Let Caleb and Joshua be the voices ringing out loud and clear. Si, tu puedes!

Amen.