Rethinking Tisha B’Av

Rethinking Tisha B’av

One of things I hear when there are Jews in the news accused of doing terrible things is that we are are own worst enemies.

There certainly have been Jews that have done the wrong thing and should face justice. We do not, however, commit a disproportionate number of crimes, but we get a disproportionate number of accusations that these crimes were committed by Jews simply because they were Jews, and that Jews are intrinsically evil and depraved. These accusations have justified two thousand years of antisemitic violence.

I also hear the charge that we are our own worst enemies when Jews fight over Israel’s policies or American politics,

I don’t think this is true. We certainly argue and fight with each other, and we will never, ever come to a complete agreement on anything. Disagreement is fundamental to who we are, but we must never think of each other as enemies.

From the ancient Romans and Babylonians to Stalin and Hitler and their followers, our enemies have been those who refuse to allow the idea that Jews should live freely and safely in the world. It is not our divisiveness which led to so much destruction and loss. Even if we had been united, the results would have been very similar.

I want to think about Tisha b’av differently from the way we have been discussing it for many generations, which has been largely blaming ourselves and our actions and divisiveness. I do not think that is healthy or fair, especially in a post Holocaust world. Nothing we could have done would have justified what happened to us. If we blame ourselves for our suffering we are also implying that other people deserve their suffering.

Our sages say that the Holy Temples were destroyed mipne sinat chinam, because of free flowing hate. Maybe the rabbis did not mean just the divisiveness of the Jewish people, but the hate that seems to flow between all people who feel different from each other or who have different ways of viewing the world. People hate each other, and then look for a reason why.

Judaism is about choosing not to hate, not each other, and not others for being different in any way. We can hate the terrible things that people do and try to stop it or change it, but we never start with hate, especially against entire groups of people.

We can detest what their leaders do, but we have to work on connecting with the followers. This is not easy. Anger is understandable, but acting out of anger is often self destructive. Breruriah in the Talmud says to her husband that the phrase yitamu chataim min Haaretz means that sin will be eradicated, not the sinners. We must always defend ourselves, but we need to transform people, not destroy them.

This brings me to the fast on Tisha B’av, the only one except for Yom Kippur that is twenty five hours.

Why do the victims of hate fast and not the oppressors and perpetrators? Shouldn’t our enemies fast on Tisha B’av instead of us? We do so to remind ourselves of our humanity, for our capacity for grief and our potential for rebuilding no matter what happens. We remember our obligation to bring blessing into the world and not more hatred.

It is not easy. We are all really stressed and frustrated and afraid in so many ways. This is exactly when we need to find the inner resources to hate less and to try to solve problems in the world in a better way.

We can disagree on policy, but we cannot feed into the hatred that is sweeping the world again, the sinat chinam, the free flowing hate that is filling so many hearts. We can rise above that and help others, too. One fewer word said in anger, one more word said with patience and understanding could make a world of difference, even in our own families and communities.

Tisha B’av reminds us that we are not each other’s worst enemies. We may disagree on how to accomplish it, but each of us is a partner in stopping the hatred that brings so much pain into the world, even when we are afraid and suffering ourselves.

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.

A light in times of darkness

Tonight is the last night of Chanukah, when all the candles are lit, and our homes are filled with light and joy. For too many Jews, though, this week, there was a shadow of darkness within the light.

Our people has been under siege from murderous attacks in kosher grocery stores and Chanukah parties in New York, to the desecration of a synagogue in the Iranian Jewish community in California, to vandalism in Europe from London to Belgium to Ukraine, to the daily attempts of Israel’s enemies to destroy it.

These attacks have been against religious Jews and secular ones. Hatred against our people makes no differentiation. No matter our disagreements with each other over politics or ritual, we are all deeply connected to each other, Kol Yisrael aravim ze bzeh. We have a continuous history that is long and rich and meaningful, and it is because we have always found a way to come together and help each other.

We must remember that the real story of Chanukah is having courage and living our lives without giving in to despair or hate. Our enemies tell us that we do not belong, that we should hide in fear, or disappear altogether.

Our response to tragedy and adversity, from the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees, to the establishment  of the State of Israel and the blooming of Jewish education around the world after the Holocaust, is to show that we are strong, that we are here, and that we will always rebuild our lives and will do so with courage and kindness and optimism. We will always be a light in the darkness.

We are blessed to live in a wonderful community that has law enforcement dedicated to our protection, and a Jewish Federation that is constantly in touch with government agencies to make sure that we stay safe.

I think the best response to those who hate us for being Jewish is to dedicate ourselves to living deeper Jewish lives, attending services as a community, learning together, and continuing to educate our children in the beauty and richness of our tradition. That was the response of our ancestors. Our descendants will thank us for the beautiful communities that we will bequeath them.

We should also make sure to stay connected to our allies in other communities who care about us and have rallied around us. We must make sure to be there for them in their times of need.

Rav Avraham Kook, who loved all Jews, noted that when we light the Chanukah lights, we say the blessing over a single light, ner shel Chanukah, no matter now many we are actually lighting. He said that we as a people, no matter how diverse, are a single light.

We are taught to be a light to the nations. When we are together, when we live proudly and publicly and as Jews, without giving in to fear and darkness, we can be the light and example the world needs.

Am Yisrael Chai

A blog renewed

I have struggled for a long time to figure out what would be a good approach for this blog. I think I have an idea. I have been learning a lot about the idea of curation, sharing knowledge from different sources to one place. I do a lot of reading in preparation for my sermons and articles, and for just my own learning. I have often shared my conclusions. This is a way for me to share my process, so you can come to your own conclusions, as well. I will still post my own ideas and creations from time to time.

Many of the articles that I curate will focus on Jewish culture, art, music and technology. These ideas are too often neglected, but provide so much of the richness and meaning in Jewish life.


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.

Creating Places of Joy

I will be forever grateful to Rabbi Efry Spectre z’l, one of my beloved predecessors at Adat Shalom Synagogue, for introducing me to the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel zl.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s. Rabbi Spectre gave a class at the Hillel House on Heschel. I was intrigued and started reading Heschel on my own. His work spoke to me in a deep and profound way. It fueled my interest in becoming a rabbi and still influences me to this day.

One of Heschel’s great teachings centered on Shabbat, and how it was one of the great contributions of Judaism to the world, not just in having a day of rest, but in thinking about what mattered most in our lives, and how we could be partners with God in creating beauty and meaning in the world.

This is what Heschel wrote about Shabbat:

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

This approach to Shabbat is key in understanding our Torah portion. It begins, “Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them:
These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: 2 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. 3 You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:1-3).

The rest of the reading is a detailed description of the Tabernacle and the articles of the priesthood. Why is Shabbat juxtaposed with the construction of the place where God’s presence will dwell with the Israelites? As Heschel indicates, time is just as sacred as place. Without creating sacred time, a place cannot be holy. It will just be a building.

I talk to a lot of couples about the kind of home they are establishing. I tell them the single most important factor in the happiness of their home is whether they make sacred time for each other. This means that they give the best of what they have to each other on a regular basis, and not just the dregs that are left after a long week of work. A vacation to the fanciest place a week or two a year cannot make up for a lack of quality time spent together on a regular basis.

Even a modest home becomes a palace when people who say they love each other spend time in a relaxed and happy way. Our homes become like the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and Temple.

This is why Shabbat is such a gift. Every week we know that we will have a good day. That is rare in our tense and stressful times. We light candles, have a good meal, and express our appreciation for all the great good in our lives.

Heschel said, “With our bodies we belong to space; our spirit, our souls, soar to eternity, aspire to the holy. The Sabbath is an ascent to the summit.” Thanks to Shabbat, no matter where we are, we can create a place of beauty and joy.

For the Jews in France who are suffering in so many ways, from grief and fear and isolation. This is one of the most unusual versions of Hatikvah that you will hear.


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