For Our Neighbors in Pain

My heart aches for those whose hearts are broken, for those who feel that this country has turned against them, for those who feel that no one cares if their child gets home safely and unharmed, for those who feel that the very systems of our society neglect them, and in fact criminalize them because of who they are and what they look like.

We often recall MLK’s I have a Dream speech in 1963, but I feel that this country is still haunted by Governor George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural speech, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” MLK, in fact, wrote his speech in reaction to Wallace.

The black community in America has continuously experienced terrible forms of racism, including redlining and overt attacks like lynchings. I remember the events in Detroit of 1967, and if you had told me that in 2020 we would still be facing issues of racism, discrimination and intolerance at the levels we are seeing now, I would not have believed it. Detroit had literally built brick walls, so whites would not have to see blacks. Is there any clearer expression of contempt? Is there any wonder at how much hurt and pain that caused?

There has been a great deal of discrimination against other groups in America, but only the black community was brought to America involuntarily. If you say that was a long time ago, and why keep bringing that up, what are you going to say to the people who said the Holocaust was a long time ago, and why do we keep bringing it up? Pain that never heals becomes a generational affliction, both to the victim and to the perpetrator. As a people who have suffered so much, we should be the most empathetic to the suffering of others.

Our sages understood that a society collapses if there is no trust in government and its ability to create justice. In Pirkei Avot, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: “on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: ‘execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates’ (Zechariah 8:16).”

The purpose of a justice system is to make sure that everyone without exception has their rights upheld and has the full protection of that system during the process of arrest, arraignment, trial, and if found guilty, penalty and incarceration. Being accused of a crime should not lead immediately to the death penalty. Most law enforcement officers know this and act honorably and well. The ones who do not must face the justice system. Otherwise, there will never be trust and credibility, there will never be a belief that the system is fair.

There is no excuse for violence or looting, but that does not remove the rights of other people to protest peacefully, which the vast majority have done.

The US Constitution guarantees the right of the people to assemble:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This was expanded by the Supreme Court in 1876:
United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876). The Supreme Court said that the “right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers and duties of the national government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and as such, under the protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States.”

The Torah tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our sages understand that all of humanity are our neighbors, because each person is loved by God. So many of our neighbors are in pain and need our love and kindness, not our judgment. We suffered throughout history, because others hated us for who we are. We can break that cycle of hate.

I do not have any easy answers or quick fixes. We can start, though, with open minds and ears, and most importantly, open hearts. We can never understand someone’s pain, but we can understand that they are in pain. We can demand justice and accountability from public servants. We can vote for those who stand for justice, and make sure that all voters’ rights are protected. We can donate to causes that reflect our values. We can remember that the Jewish people has always stood with the oppressed and against tyranny and injustice. We are the people of Moses, not Pharaoh.

Dr. King said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Let us fulfill his vision, and that of the Jewish prophet Amos, “Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.” Let us be the generation that brings this vision to life.

Blacks and Jews in America' explores complex relationship ...

Shavuot and Justice

There is a reason that in the Ten Commandments, whose revelation we celebrate beginning tonight at Shavuot, the commandment of I am the Lord Your God is juxtaposed with Do Not Murder.

The great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that every commandment to not do something implied a commandment to do something. The commandment to not murder means to not allow murder to happen or to allow murderers to go unpunished.

When look the other way at injustice, even if we did not commit a crime ourselves, we remove God’s presence from the world. Standing up for others, standing with others, and standing for justice is not just part of Judaism. It is the very foundational idea. It is how we create the world that God can feel at home in.

This is a painting I did a number of years ago to celebrate the strength and courage of Ethiopian Jewry, who has lifted all of us to greater spiritual heights. It is a reminder that there is no “they” only “us.”

A sweet and joyous and meaningful Shavuot to all.

The Real Value of Living a Spiritual Life

Based on The Torah Portion Mishpatim

Many people turn to religion because they have a deep spiritual hunger, and feel there is a hole in their heart or in their soul. They believe there are answers to life’s mysteries and solutions to all our problems. If we just prayed enough, or studied enough we would achieve enlightenment and perfect equanimity. We would never get angry again or sad. The world would no longer be scary.

Among this group are people who had one incredible spiritual moment, when everything came together and made sense.

They spend the rest of their lives chasing that feeling, but are usually frustrated. They believe if they could recreate that moment, all their problems would be solved. The moment never returns. Their lives are still confusing, and a day to day struggle to keep up.

This is a challenge even for clergy. Many of us became rabbis or cantors because we had one extraordinary moment, and then dedicated their lives to finding it again for themselves, or at least helping others find theirs. I will admit that I am one of them.

Many of us who pursue more spirituality oriented lives think that we will be enlightened at the end of the process, that we will never be thrown off balance, and that everyone will respond to our enlightenment by doing pretty much everything we say. This rarely happens.

Suzuki Roshi had a great comment. He said there are no enlightened people, just enlightened activities. That is, there is not permanent happy state of mind, only opportunities to be helpful and kind to others, opportunities to fight for the freedom and well being of others.

This is the overall theme of our Torah portion.

People had just stood at Sinai, the greatest revelation of God and spirituality in human history. They probably assumed everything would be perfect from then on. No more messiness, no more difficult relationships, no more real effort.

That is not what happens. In our Torah portion we see that life continued to be and endless series of challenges and dangers and unpredictable events. There are ethical dilemmas that are not solvable, only manageable.

As Jack Kornfeld puts it, after the ecstasy, you still have to do the laundry.

Religion is not about solving and fixing everything. It is not even about understanding everything. If that is what we are waiting to happen, we will wait for the rest of our lives in increased frustration, or we may just abandon the spiritual quest. Any religion or at least religious leader that promises that if you follow all of its tenets you will no longer have problems is either fraudulent or delusional.

I believe that we should try to understand things as much as possible, to make the attempt to understand how the world works, what motivates people and what matters most to us. We should study history and science and psychology and art. At some point though, we have to give up the idea that we can understand why everything happens, especially things that are painful. For some situations, there will never be satisfying answers.

What then is the ultimate value of religion? I cannot speak on behalf of other faiths. I would like to share what it is about Judaism that I find so helpful.

Judaism to me is about having the courage and strength to face those challenges, and the kindness and compassion to help other people face theirs. It is about knowing that we are part of a people who stood together at Sinai, and then struggled through an uncertain future together, until they made it into the promised land. And even then, they knew their work was not done. They knew that life is not a mystery to be solved, but an opportunity for growth in wisdom and kindness, for appreciating the treasure of our lives, and for helping others, both our loved ones and strangers, to live meaningful and loving lives.

On the 50th Yahrtzeit of MLK

Image result for mlk and passover
I grew up in Oak Park, and went to Einstein elementary school. If you went there, you knew one of the best things about it was Mrs. Halsey, our school librarian. Mrs. Halsey a great big hug of a woman, warm as sunshine, whose smile made you feel like you mattered. One day when I was in kindergarten she came in very quietly, without a smile, and with tears on her cheeks. What happened, we asked. She said, A man I loved very much died yesterday. Who was so great to make Mrs. Halsey cry? This day was Friday, April 5th, 1968. It was Dr. King who she loved. We cried with her. I wanted to know more about the man who meant so much to her. I learned to love Dr. King, too. I am moved by everything he said, it is his mountain top speech, the last speech he ever gave, that I listen to at least once a year, and I cry each time.

This is from the end of that speech:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

This is the main lesson I learned from Dr. King. We have to have the courage to do what is good and right in the eyes of the lord, even when we are afraid, especially when we are afraid. He taught us that we should work everyday to fulfill the promise of a just and peaceful world, even if that promise is not fulfilled in our life time. He taught us to live the torah’s words, Vahavta, You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your might. Not someone else’s. Yours. Because of that, He did not just see the glory of the coming of the Lord. He brought the glory of the lord. He was the glory of the lord.

May we live with courage and determination and faith, and we always be worthy of the love that Mrs. Halsey had for Dr. King.

Four Questions to Connect the Generations

Four Questions to Connect the Generations

Elections by nature are always divisive. It is part of the democratic process. This year seems different. There is more anger and frustration than I have seen in a long time.

We are in the middle of one of the biggest generational divides in decades, if not longer. This includes the Jewish community, which is internally divided in so many ways. There is no consensus on issues like Israel, intermarriage, race, gender identity, good financial practices and the role of institutions such as synagogues, schools and federations. There are very few good conversations between people. There is a lot of blaming and yelling, but not a lot of talking.

The Purpose of the Passover seder is to create peace between generations.

It allows us to sit together, to question, to answer, and to listen. The goal is not to agree with each other, but to make room for each other. We put aside our egos and take a genuine interest in each other.

Here are four questions for your Seder to help with the conversation:

1-Who do you think are today’s liberators, our Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and who do you think are today’s oppressors, our Pharoah?

2-What makes a country into an Egypt and what can turn it into a Promised Land?

3-For the older generation, what would the child you were ask the adult you are today? For the younger generation, what will you ask the older person you will become?

4-When have you been wise, when have you been difficult, when have you been confused, and when have you been silent?

Ruth and I and our family wish you a very sweet and happy Pesach.

Purim-Taking ourselves seriously through laughter

A real religion encourages making fun of itself

Every year, a month before Passover, Jews dress up in fun costumes, host parties, deliver tasty packages to friends and give donations to charity. We do all this because it’s actually mandated by the holiday, Purim, which is a Jewish Halloween of sorts – except there are no ghouls or goblins or tricks.

Purim is the day on the Jewish calendar when our brethren around the world dedicate the day to poking fun of our religion, making fun of our rabbis and engaging in parody and satire about the very thing we usually take so seriously: what we believe.

Especially in light of recent current events around the globe, not taking yourself so seriously is an important part of any religion. On Purim, students are allowed to make fun of their rabbis. Congregants make goofy jokes about the liturgy and the tradition. It’s a very light-hearted and celebratory day, tied to the idea that if you take yourself so seriously all the time, it creates a problem.

Every fall, after the solemnity of our Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is a 25-hour fast day to avenge our sins, we have another light-hearted holiday called Sukkot. The juxtaposition is no coincidence – sure, we have the serious and the harsh, the contemplative and the reprimand. And then we have the fun.

Balance is key in any organized community. It’s imperative, actually. In Judaism, and in all religions, we have mechanisms built-in so we won’t take ourselves that seriously.

Although it falls on March 5th this year (beginning at sundown on the 4th), Purim is actually the last holiday of the Jewish calendar because Passover is considered the start. That’s the holiday that’s all about God doing everything for us, where the Purim story is about human beings taking some responsibility.

The celebration of Purim is very lighthearted, but the story of Purim itself is quite serious. It takes place after the Babylonians destroyed the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and took the Jewish people to Babylonia as captives in exile. The Persians then conquered the Babylonians.

The Jewish people lived safely in Persia for a while until a vicious anti-Semite named Haman tried to convince his King Achashverosh to destroy the Jewish community. Thanks to the bravery of a Jewish woman named Esther and the strategies of her uncle Mordecai, Haman fails and is himself destroyed.

Purim is a reminder of how quickly our safe and comfortable world can be turned upside down by fanatics, and how much diligence and courage is needed to prevent that from happening. Mordecai and Esther took their responsibilities very seriously, but did not take themselves too seriously. They did what was needed.

Part of being responsible includes knowing when to take things seriously and knowing when to let things go. It’s the wisdom of realizing that we shouldn’t fight over everything and that we can laugh at ourselves a little bit.

If a tradition is good, it can take a little poking at. Only insecure people are afraid of parody or criticism. Most religions include built-in checks and balances – while we are responsible for setting an example, doing right, making the world a better place, we can also have fun and enjoy our lives.

Those who are forbidden from criticizing the establishment build up resentments. And at a certain critical mass, those resentments explode.

In one of our sacred texts, Pirkei Avot, which translates as Lessons of the Fathers, we are reminded that rabbis are not to separate from the community. I interpret that as preventing the leaders of a community from building an inflated sense of their own importance.

On Purim, everyone comes together to eat, drink and be merry. We get silly. We dress up. We make fun. We regain a healthy sense of perspective that tempers any lingering anger or hostility. It’s like our built-in release valve, showing us that religion is important but not more important than people.

My father at Auschwitz

This is a picture of my father, my brother and me in front of the gates of Auschwitz during the March of the Living in the spring of 1999. In 1944, my father said goodbye there to his mother, brother and sister. He was later separated from his father at Plaszow, the camp that was near Schindler’s factory. My father was the only one to survive. To this I day I cannot watch the movie, Schindler’s List, knowing that someone in there was my grandfather, and that he was not saved. It is unbearable to think about.

My father was not liberated at Auschwitz, but he was liberated by the Americans, something for which he is eternally grateful. He returned to Germany in the 1950s, but this time as an America soldier.

Below is an unusual picture. How do you pose with your dad, a survivor of Auschwitz, at the very gate he had entered decades earlier. My brother and I decided independently on very serious looks. My dad is smiling broadly. He made it back, and he brought the next generation he and my mom, Sharon, created.

We as a people are still, and always will be, vital and alive no matter what.

Am Yisrael Chai.


Dad at Auschwitz







Here is a link to my father’s story, including video of his testimony:


A time of darkness is when we must remember that we can be the light the world needs.

Some of my best friends are professors of Jewish history. They are wonderful people, and love what they do. However, they spend a lot of time trying to make sense of something completely illogical and improbable, namely the continued existence and flourishing of the Jewish people.

If the history of the Jewish people were a novel it would already be on the discount sale rack because the story is just so preposterous. We should have vanished into history many times over, but here we are.

The questions I would like to look at are where do we come from, why are we still here, and what are we here for?

Let’s take a quick look at the last thirty eight hundred years of Jewish history, because I want to show you that at no point was our survival as a people predictable or probable. Even our origin defies logic.

Think about Abraham and Sarah. God wants to start a new people. Who would you start with? Would you pick an elderly couple who was childless, homeless and jobless? Probably not, but that is who Abraham and Sarah were. God chose them because they were always on the side of the oppressed, the disenfranchised and those for whom society could find no use. They saw things in others that no one else did and created the family that would become the Jewish people.

Let’s go forward 1800 years. In the year 70 the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and set in motion the exile of the Jewish people around the world that would last into our own time. The reason you destroy a temple is to show that your god is more powerful than the god of the people you conquered. It would be logical and reasonable for that people to adopt the god or gods of their conquerors. We did not do that. We believed that God was not done with us, that God still loved us, though, it must be admitted that it seems at times God has a funny way of showing that love. Nonetheless, the Jews who went through that terrible period persisted in their faith.

The Jews of that time had, though, in some ways a bigger problem than the Roman occupation. The temple and its system of sacrifice was the one place for Jews that served for the expiation and forgiveness of sin. If you could not have your sins forgiven, then you could not have a relationship with God. Therefore, Judaism really should have stopped there. Instead, our sages said that there was a substitute for sacrifice that God actually preferred. That is Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness to others above and beyond the minimum. This becomes Judaism as we know it today.

The sages created a system that was no longer dependent on a particular place, nor on an elitist priesthood, and made it accessible to every Jew, including those who went into exile. You cannot carry a temple with you, but you can carry your heart, mind and soul. Acts of kindness toward others, Jewish or not Jewish, was the equivalent of the high priest bringing the Yom Kippur sacrifice.

The idea was so revolutionary and against any conventional thinking about religion, that if they were to try it today they would be scorned by the very people who benefited from their courage.

Our sages, though, believed that we still had something to offer the world, the belief that might does not make right, and that there is no one stronger than the one that shows kindness to others, even during the worst of circumstances, even when it seems that that world has gone dark.

A thousand years later were the Crusades which destroyed so many Jewish communities of Europe. At this same time, Rashi and his students were writing some of the greatest Torah commentaries of all time, commentaries we study to this day. If you read their works, you would never guess the complete chaos of their lives. They refused to give in to that chaos, and created intellectual beauty, because they still believed in the essential or at least potential goodness of humanity.

Four hundred years later is the Spanish inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It is also the flourishing of Jewish mysticism, of kabbalah, as we know it. The kabbalists knew that their physical homes may be under threats from others, but the spiritual homes they built were permanent and eternal.

The most extraordinary period in all of Jewish history was of course the middle of the twentieth century. The holocaust should have meant an end to Judaism. Who would ever want to be Jewish afterward? Who would ever want to raise a Jewish family again? One of the most impressive acts of courage was the fact that so many survivors began families after everything they went through. Some of them started new families after having lost everyone in their previous family. They refused to allow the darkness to win.

Who could have imagined after such devastation, after such helplessness, that we would have our own country, or that in other countries such as America you would have more synagogues and yeshivot and day school and religious schools than in any point in our history? We should have disappeared from history, but instead we became a critical part of the world.

It sounds like a big part of being Jewish is experiencing tragedy. There are some who say that we have suffered more than anyone else in history. We certainly have had our share, but everybody suffers. The difference is that while so many other people’s have vanished or became marginal after their suffering, we have always found ways to recreate ourselves and continue to grow and develop.

None of this was predictable. None of this was logical. How did it happen? I think what we see is that throughout our history, we have always made a commitment to find meaning in life in times of tragedy and optimism in times of despair. We have always found light in the darkness, and have tried to bring that light to others. I believe that is the main reason for the Jewish people, and what we must always do if we are to continue as a people. If we do not, then Judaism becomes empty ritual and ethnic exclusivity.

The idea of revealing the light hidden in the world has been built into all aspects of Judaism since its beginning. In the Torah, the first thing that God creates is light. It cannot be sunlight, because the sun is not created until the fourth day. The kabbalists understand that light to be God’s spirit on earth. The world was a place of darkness and chaos, and God bring light and warmth to it. When humanity is cruel, then that light diminishes. When humanity is kind, then the light it revealed. Judaism, both in ritual and practice is about revealing that light.

On Shabbat we have two sets of light. Friday night when it begins, and Saturday night when it ends. The first set of lights are for you and your family at the end of the week. It is a reminder of the spark of God found within each of us, and a sign that we somehow made it through a week we may have thought we could not have. The lights of havdallah, though, are for us to bring that light with us wherever we go during the week. It is to remind us to be a source of light and comfort to everyone we encounter, including people we find difficult. It is amazing how quickly a kind word can change a challenging person into a grateful one.

The most famous lights of all are probably the Chanukah candles. This is more than bringing some light during the darkest time of the year, but remembering that we have survived the darkest moments in history and are here to celebrate. I want to share a story with you that I find so powerful. Our enemies have always tried to demoralize our leaders, because if the leader gives in, then all the followers will, too. During the holocaust a chasidic rabbi and his followers were all brought into a large warehouse. They had been in the camp for a while and were on the verge of starvation. The commandant of the camp when up to the rabbi and asked him if he would like the stick of margarine in his hand, which had enough calories to sustain a person for a number of days. All he had to do was fall on his knees and beg. The followers assumed the rabbi would refuse, but the rabbi begged. The commandant laughed, put the margarine on the floor, and ground it with the heel of his boot. He then left the warehouse to tell the others of how he had gotten the rabbi to beg. As soon as the commandant left, the rabbi told his disciples, “Don’t you know tonight is chanukah.” He pulled a button off his jacket, pulled off a few threads for a wick, gathered the margarine, and created a menorah. When the commandant returned, he found four hundred Jews singing maoz tzur. I wish I could tell you that they were all saved. They weren’t, but for that moment they showed the potential of the human spirit.

This is what it means when God tells us to be a light to the nations of the world. A light to nations, not to the world as a whole, but each nation and its individual needs. It is our task to help each country find the best within themselves. This is one of the reasons it is hard to neatly define the Jewish people. Who we are depends so much on where we live, and the people with whom we live. The goal is always the same, to make wherever we live better for all people. Every country we have lived in has been better because of us. It is no just a matter of business or science and technology. We have helped spread democracy and tolerance. We have stood up for the poor and disenfranchised often against our own economic interests. We have risked our lives for others, even those who do not love us. We have shown that loyalty to the country you live in and loyalty to your faith are not a compromise, but the fulfillment of that faith.

Jewish mysticism says that when God was creating the world he tried to contain the light in special vessels, but those vessels shattered. The shards of those vessels fell to earth, with a spark of that light attached to each broken peace.

The chasidic masters understood this as a metaphor for all the brokenness in people, that could be repaired if we found that spark of light within them.

This why so many Jews created organizations like JARC, Yad Ezra, Kadima and Friendship Circle, and have supported endless numbers of non-Jewish charities.

It is why so many Jews got involved in civil rights. For example, the late Rabbi Ernst Conrad was in Germany during kristallnacht. He ironically had just left a Wagner opera, when the riots began all around him. When he came to America, he fought for the rights of others, because he knew that the oppression of one group leads to the oppression of all.

The idea that each person has a spark of God within is even a reason that so many Jews became therapists. There is evidence that even Sigmund Freud was influenced by this idea of finding the light within the shards of the shattered vessel. Psychotherapy and other therapeutic treatments became a way of repairing the world, and saving people from the darkness of their lives.

The chasidic rabbis even extended this idea to how we think about our enemies. We must always defend ourselves, but we must still remember that our enemies are human, and have within them a spark of God as well, deeply buried as it may be. We must fight our enemies, not by our enemies standards, but by the standards of Jewish ethics. Psalm 27, the Psalm for the high holidays, says, Do not put within me the spirit of my enemies.

When we remember this we have done well. Our worst defeats have been when we have forgotten this. There is nothing greater that we can do than transform hatred into enlightenment. I believe this is the reason that we have returned to the land of Israel. It was not to build a Jewish fortress, but to help create a promised land for everyone. It is taking longer than we would like, but there is a reason that the national anthem is called Hatikvah, the hope. To be a Jew means to always have hope, even when there does not seem to be a chance. There is nothing logical about this hope, but as I have mentioned nothing about our history is logical. We might be the ones who truly see the dream of our ancestors fulfilled, that nation will not lift up sword against nation, and that humanity will no longer no war.

In every synagogue in the world there is an eternal light. It means that every generation before us defied the reality of the world, defied all the forces that tried to extinguish what was best in humanity, and chose life. It is also a challenge to us to stay strong, to not become bitter or cynical, and to embrace lives of meaning for us, our loved ones, and all of humanity even when things seem hopeless. If we do, we will be the light of a splendid and brilliant future.

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Painting copyright Aaron Bergman

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