Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bitter Heshvan

Thank God, Wednesday night begins the new month of Kislev. I can hardly wait until this current month of Heshvan is over. The Rabbis nick-named Heshvan Mar-Heshvan, bitter Heshvan, because it has no holidays in it.  Tishre, the month before is chocked full of holidays including Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah.  We celebrate Hanukkah at the end of Kilsev, the new month. Only Heshvan has no holidays to celebrate in it.

Usually I enjoy the calm of Heshvan without the crush of holiday preparations.  Normal life resumes and that is a mechaya!  This Heshvan; however, has turned out to be truly bitter because I officiated at 3 members’ funerals and another friend originally from Springfield passed away this month.  Many of us joke about the dysfunctional Jewish family, but we forget about all the wonderful mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and siblings who live their lives as role models for the rest of us.  Each in his or her own way makes his/her little corner of the world a little bit better, brighter, and cleaner.  Let me share from my eulogies to explain why those people’s deaths made Heshvan all the more bitter.

Milton Rothman of blessed memory had a large heart.  Helping others gave him pleasure.  He was a wonderful father testified his sons.  He would go out of his way to get what they needed or what just interested them. More likely than not he would just surprise them with what ever they had mentioned. What ever he did, Milt did in a big way like bringing a trunk load of NY bagels or deli to his children so they could have the New York style food they had grown up with but now unavailable now in Maryland. But he would share the food with people along the way as he drove down for his visit.  His son told me a story how a car got limped off the Grand Central Parkway and died right in front of his house.  These strangers were distraught because they were on their way to their mother’s house to celebrate Mother’s Day and now they wouldn’t make it.  Milton gave them the keys to his car and let perfect strangers drive off to their mother’s house with only a promise to return at the end of the day.  These grateful strangers returned the car and couldn’t thank him enough.  This is not the typical New Yorker I heard about growing up in Cleveland.

Irving Kleinman of blessed memory was the gentlest person you would ever want to meet. Irving had a Hebrew name that was unforgettable. cegh ic ejmh ovrct.  As you can hear, it included all of our 3 Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  According to the Kabbalah, the unknowable God sent forth 10 sefirot or emanations which symbolical represent 10 different aspects of God’s personality. The kabbalists insist that these figures of speech shouldn’t be taken literally.  They are intended to convey something of the beyond.

The sefirot are known by many names and I find it compelling to note that 3 are known as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Irving combined the attributes of Abraham/hesed or love and compassion, Isaac/din or restraint, with Jacob/teferret or beauty to be a shaina mench.  Everybody loved him.  He would give the shirt of his back to anybody for he could never say no.  Few people knew the extent of his volunteer work in so many different organizations.  His daughter told me that he had three loves, his family, his department store, and the Knights of Pythias. Irv was such an optimistic person.  He always saw the bright side of things for there wasn’t one negative bone in his body.

Sylvia Shapiro of blessed memory reminded me of Miriam Mendilow. For a couple of summers I had the privilege of introducing Jewish teenagers to the tzedakah work of Miriam Mendilow.  Israel awarded her the Israel prize for creating Yad Lakashish, an institution which restores dignity to the elderly.  Although short of stature she truly was one of the giants of Jerusalem.  She appreciated when I taught those USYers that she wasn’t short but concentrated.

Sylvia was like that too.  At 4’ 11” she was comfortable in her own skin.  She was a powerhouse, a dynamo. She was proud of who she was.  When I was speaking to the family, somebody described her saying that good things come in small packages.  I immediate thought to myself that she was just like Miriam Mendilow.  She wasn’t short; she was concentrated. 

I love the story her husband shared with me.  They weren’t only the perfect dance couple they were the perfect husband and wife for 61 years of happily married life.  They never raised their voices; they never argued.  This perplexed their neighbors because the walls of the Deepdale apartments are paper thin.  Somebody actually asked them “Where do you go to fight?”  She was also a dedicated and hard working member of her local Hadassah chapter whose name appears on one of the walls of Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

To tell you the truth, I had really lost touch with Ellen and her husband Jeffrey.  I moved on from Springfield, MA to Framingham, MA, and ultimately landed here in Douglaston, NY and they moved to Florida.  We reacquainted ourselves when she came up to the City for her fight against her cancer.  Both Judy and I went to visit her and at the end to comfort Jeffery as she was dying after the doctors couldn’t help her any longer during her last trip up north.  I was moved by Jeff’s absolute love, devotion, and care of his wife.

Heshvan is almost a homonym in Hebrew for the phrase Heshbon Hanefesh, taking an accounting of one’s life.  Now that I have reached my seventh decade by celebrating my 60th birthday this past June, I know that I have fewer days ahead of me than behind me.  Talking with the survivors made me think about how I shall be remembered once I hit the 120th year mark of my life.  Will I be remembered as being as helpful as Milton was?  Will I be remembered as being as compassionate as Irving was?  Will I be remembered as loving as Sylvia and Jeffery were?  How will my family, friends, and all those congregants I served think of me when I am gone?

Rabbi Abraham Twerski taught me the true meaning of humility.  Being humble doesn’t mean saying “I am nothing, I am nothing” when that is obviously not true.  That’s plain old lying.  Being humble means saying, “I have yet to reach my full potential.”  That certainly applies to me.  I haven’t yet reached my full potential as a husband, father, and rabbi.  I am glad I am leaving the month of Heshvan behind me and looking for a new start in the month of Kislev.  What a wonderful time to try to be the person I can be now because my family is anticipating our first grandchild any day now.  Having Milton, Irving, Sylvia, Ellen and all of my other friends, lehebadil bechayim, as my role models, I hope and pray that I live up to all those positive examples and strive to reach my full mench potential. My future grandchild and the rest of my family and community deserve nothing but the best from me.

I think that would be my best Hanukkah present ever!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Driving Down The Road Of Life

This time of year is set aside for self-reflection. It began on the first of Elul. Every morning we've been blowing shofar to awaken ourselves to the possibility of change. Slichot services marked the time when our self-reflection intensified. And of course, the 10 Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, is the time set aside to do the hard soul work of becoming the people we truly aspire to be. You might say we come to synagogue for some “interior decorating.” As you can well imagine, I’ve been preparing for the High Holidays for some time now.  An insight came to me from an unusual place.

Judy and I purchased a new car because our old one was dying and probably wouldn't pass inspection and we knew that we would visit Boston more regularly now. Hillel and Lily are expecting their first child and we can't wait to be with our future grandchild. Being both economically concerned because of the never ending rising price of gas and being green minded, we purchased a Camry Hybrid. It has three power modes. The first is charging, meaning we are driving the car solely on battery power without using any gas. The second is the economic mode when we are driving the car with a combination of battery and gas. The last is power mode when we are only using gasoline. Driving slow is the key to a higher mpg rate. This past Sunday we drove to West Hartford for a wedding reception. I drove up there and was able save close to 3.5 mpg going from 39 + mpg to 42. 5. Judy has a heavier foot than I do so when she drove home, she only averaged 40 mpg. Still excellent, but less than what I achieved because she is more prone to speeding than I am.

Meditating on our mpg rates gave me an important but obvious insight about my life. That made me think how fast I am speeding through life. I wondered how much am I missing as I rush from place to place.  We have so many great milestones happening in the Greene family that I don't want life to pass me by. Amichai has finally found a job in his field with a salary and benefits. He has officially moved out making him the last Greene boy to leave home. Now we have to make dates to see our New York based children, Ami, Asaf, and Valery. I love my family so I better slow down and make time for them. Hillel and Lily live in Boston and future baby Greene is the real reason we bought the car for now we're planning to visit them quite more often. We certainly want to be a regular part of our grandchild's life. As an extra bonus, we can visit at the same time Roni and Rebecca too for they also live in Boston.  I pondered what else am I missing out in because I am speeding through life?

I know I am not unique. We are all running from one place to another. For some of us, it's car pooling the children from one activity to the next. For others we're running as fast as so we can make a living. For still others, we're running from one doctor to the next. It seems all of us are speeding through life without stopping to smell the flowers and just be in the moment. The antidote to this I thought of the old Simon and Garfunkle 59thStreet Bridge Song.

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.

Hello lamp-post,
What cha knowin'?
I've come to watch your flowers growin'.
Ain't cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in' doo-doo,
Feelin' groovy

I've got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.

When we slow down, we shall make the time for self-renewal, make the time to become more involved in Jewish life, make the time to show kindness, make the time to be charitable, and make the time to be parents and grandparents. Those are really worthwhile New Year resolutions. When we slow down we can actually take the time to become the people we truly want to be. No wonder we pray during these Awesome Days: “Let us number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12)

 Simon and Garfunkle were correct. That's pretty groovy!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

King of Kings or the Coach of Coahes

I think a lot about God.  I think a lot about God especially as I prepare for the High Holidays.  I guess it is a professional hazard. In ancient times the most powerful person in the world was the king.  He literally had the life and death of his subjects in his hands. No wonder the average person held him in great awe and respect. When trying to convey God’s reality our sages understood well the metaphor of kingship.  If a human king has the power of life and death in his hands and the people owe him loyalty, how much more so the King of Kings  The whole High Holiday liturgy revolves around the metaphor of God as our King.

For us moderns that metaphor just doesn’t work any more.  Rabbi Abraham Twersky sums up our dilemma in his commentary on the Machzor Rosh Hashana:  “Who nowadays conceive of this combined feeling of awe and fear for a human king? This may not have much impact upon us, since we do not relate to a mortal king.  We elect a president for a period of time, and he does not have unrestrained powers.  To the contrary, his powers are limited by congress and the courts.  Once his term of office has ended, he is once again an ordinary citizen.  Even in countries that do have a king, it is usually a ceremonial position, with power resting int he hands of an elected government.” (page12)

As I was thinking about new metaphors for God my thoughts drifted back to my high school track coach, Coach Rojack.  I was a sophomore on the Junior Varsity team.  The coach had us run and run and run.  I was ok but not fast enough to catch anybody’s attention until one of the last meets of the year.  I had a break through and I remember the coach asking where did I come from all of the sudden.  I remember how proud I was that the coach took notice of my potential because he asked me to go out for the cross country team in the fall. (I didn’t go out for the team after my summer study teen tour of Israel because my whole life focus changed, but that is another story for another time.)

Reflecting upon my track career, I understood that Coach Rojack inspired me and the rest of the team to work harder, to be the best we could be, and to achieve lofty goals. At least for me, I found a metaphor that works.  God is my coach.  God inspires me to follow His example to work harder, to be the best I can be, and achieve lofty goals.  Just as the Merciful One is compassionate, I should be compassionate.  Because integrity is God’s middle name so to speak, integrity should be the hallmark of all my actions. When ever God’s greatness is mentioned in our Bible, His humility and concern for the powerlessness immediately follows.  Humility and concern for the downtrodden should inform all my actions. My earthly coach made me run countless 220 yard dashes in a row for my improvement, My heavenly Coach has given me the mitzvot to refine my soul and body for my improvement.  If I wanted my track coach to be proud of me, how much more so do I desire that God finds all my deeds pleasing in His sight.  God, my Coach, has inspired me to be the person I truly want to become.

I like this metaphor very much because I am an equal partner in this God-human relationship.  Although I depend upon God’s grace and forgiveness when I fall short, my Coach empowers me to take an active role in my development as a mensch, a human being.  I doubt whether Rabbi Twerski would adopt my metaphor, but certainly in his unique interpretation of a difficult verse supports me and my understanding of my Coach of Coaches.

“Rosh Hashanah does not commemorate the day the world was created. Rather, it represents the sixth day of Creation, the day on which Hashem said, ‘Let  us make man...' Genesis 1:26)

“Nowhere else in the account of Creation do we find Hashem saying, ‘Let us.”  Whose participation was Hashem seeking-and why only the creation of man?

“The Baal Shem Tov explains that all other living things were created in a state of completion.  Animals are not required to voluntarily exert themselves to change.  Caterpillars become butterflies because this transformation is programmed in their genes.  The only creature that must make a voluntary effort to become something other than it was at creation is man. Job said that man comes into the world as ‘a wild mule’ (Job 11:120, and man, by his own efforts, must change himself from an animal state into a spiritual human individual. Hence, Hashem required man’s participation in his own creation, and therefore He aid, ‘Let us make man.’ We are indeed partners with Hashem in our creation as spiritual beings.” (page 22-3)

That’s exactly like my track coach or perhaps your life coach.  So this High Holiday season to paraphrase a famous line: “Do Teshuvah (repentance) this New Year for the Gipper!”

Monday, April 30, 2012

There is nothing new underneath the sun. (sigh)

There is nothing new under the Sun 

Marathon Jewish Community Center’s library has a lot of hidden gems on the shelves.  I came across one just the other day. It was Harry Golden’s book Your Entitle’, and contains his columns syndicated and distributed by the McClure Newspaper Syndicate.  If he were writing these columns today, they would most likely appear in his blog.

Kohellet’s famous line, “There is nothing new beneath the sun. (1:9)” in the Biblical book Ecclesiastes came to my mind when reading his column “The conscience of Mr. Goldwater” ( page167)

The English conservatives recently won an election with promises to expand the program of the Socialists.  Like his British cousin, the American conservative whose own programs remain in vacuo finds his strength in the existence of such liberal programs as the New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and social security.  His strength is a strength by nostalgia.  Senator Goldwater opens his book, The Conscience of a Conservative, with the statement, “The ancient and tested truths that guided our Republic through its early days will do equally well for us.”  But the conservatives has no intention of abandoning or repealing the Securities Exchange Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, or social security, which are certainly no ancient and tested truths.  Thus they speak of the great “conservative” South, but let us see a minute.  In my State (North Carolina) there are one hundred and seventy-five thousand conservative Southerners who would not have electricity, telephones, refrigerators, washing machines, or television sets were it not for the “radicals” who instituted the rural electrification program.  Rural homes and farmhouses light up today for the simple reason that privately owned power companies could not possibly have stretched their lines to them without doing grave injustice to their stockholders.  For electricity and power stations these conservative Southerners were perfectly willing to let the Federal Government encroach upon their States’ rights.  The conscience of a conservative is no more than a dream, the same sort of dream that nourishes the segregationist, a dream of a past that cannot, and should not, be recalled.

Basically, the primaries are over.  Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate facing President Barak Obama for the 2012 elections.  But after reading Golden’s article I saw that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

The Republican Party has lurched to the right led by the Tea Party.  Their strength is the strength of a false nostalgia. They have the ability not to confuse the issues with the facts. Remember some time last year at a Tea Party rally, some person held a sign that read, “Don’t touch my Social Security” not realizing that Social Security was one of the governmental programs the “radicals” put in place.  Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare helps those Tea Party members as well as almost every citizen of our country.

Despite the absence of any statistically significant voter fraud, Republican controlled states have enacted strict voter id laws.   In states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio new laws dampen the ability of citizens to vote.  Getting newcomers into the electorate has gotten more difficult. A required photo ID, shorter windows of opportunity for voter registration, and more complicated rules are regular features of these ID laws.  Of course these laws primary affect minority voters’ ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The only logical reason to prevent these people from voting is the fact that they would most likely vote for the Democratic Party candidates.  Under the banner of states’ rights, freedom is being perverted.   ID legislation doesn’t lead us to the dream of a better future, but the return of the nightmare of our past.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I shall not hate

Yesterday we said good bye to the Egyptians.  On the 7th day of Passover, the fleeing Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds after it split and never looked back.

Our tradition is amazing.  After all that Joseph had done for Pharaoh and Egypt, the new Pharaoh didn’t remember him and enslaved the Jewish people. If Israel had reasons to hate any nation, it would expectably be Egypt.  Nevertheless, God commands Israel “You shall not abhor an Egyptian for you were a stranger in his land.” (Dt. 23:8)  Rashi explains that even though they threw the males into the Nile to drown them, we owe them a debt of gratitude “for they were your host at a time of pressing need (i.e., the time of the famine in the days of Jacob and Joseph) therefore (we’re not to hate them.). Ha-Emek Devar (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) elaborates in his commentary that God wanted to elevate our souls by recognizing the good and not become base people by denying that good.  Consequently, the Holy one wanted us to internalize this commandment.  Thanks to my time in Israrel, I was introduced to a modern role model from the ranks of the unexpected.

After the official Seminar was over, I remained in Israel instead of rushing back home.  I joined a colleague and her friend, a college professor who had studied at the Albright Institute in East Jerusalem, and went on an explore of East Jerusalem.  Being academics all, of course, we had to stop at several bookstores.  Those bookstores were eye openers for I saw volume after volume of books which you never see in Jewish Jerusalem.  They presented a completely different narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli story.  One book caught my eye, I shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish so I bought it.

Izzeldin Abuelaish was born and raised in Gaza.  He was the first Gazan physician admitted to a residency program in Israel.  In Dr. Marek Glezerman’s introduction to the book, he writes, “In 1995, at about the time I moved on to a chairmanship at another hospital, Izzeldin was admitted to the residency program in obstetrics at Soroka Medical Center.  It was an individually designed residency, not aimed at board exams but at completion of the curriculum.  He completed against all-odds-all the different departments and rotations, with schedules.  For instance, if you don’t show up, someone else has to pitch n for you on short notice, and nobody likes to do that.  Depending on what was happening at the border, there were times when Izzeldin, along with other Palestinians from Gaza, were not allowed to enter Israel.  Sometimes after night shifts when the border was closed, he couldn’t get back home to his family in Gaza. But he never called it quits.  He completed the six year program, he acquired full command of the Hebrew language, and he became a skilled gynecologist and obstetrician.” (page x)

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish details the deprivations, problems, and hopelessness of the average Gazan in his book.  Tragedy struck his family during the Operation Cast Lead in 2009 when Israel invaded Gaza to put an end to the incessant shelling of Sederot and other Israeli communities.  Three of his daughters and a niece were killed when an Israeli tank fired point blank at their third floor room. Dr. Abuelaish is a well know Gazan who has repeatedly spoke out for co-existence and against terrorism both in Gaza and in the Israeli media.  His address was well known by Palestinian and Israelis.  The death of his daughters and neice was a needless tragedy of the greatest proportions.  Once again Dr. Glezerman writes that the Ministry of Defense has responded by stalling and evasion to the growing number of Israelis demanding a formal and independent Israeli investigation. (page xiii)

Dr. Abuelaish does not hate and still speaks out for peace and reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  His words are worth reading and actualizing.

Revenge was on the lips and in the minds of most people I talked to in the days after my daughters and niece were killed…We struggled together, my children and I, and I tried to respond to the chorus of people calling for Israeli blood to atone the deaths of my girls.  One said, “Don’t you hate the Israelis?”  Which Israelis am I supposed to hate? I replied.  The doctors and the nurses I work with?  The ones trying to save Ghaida’s life and Shatha’s eyesight? The babies I have delivered?  Families like the Madmoonys (Israelis) who gave me work and shelter when I was a kid?

Still, the cries for reprisals didn’t stop.  What about the soldier who fired the deadly volleys from the tank?  Didn’t I hate him?  But that’s how the system works here: we use hatred and blame to avoid the reality that eventually we need to come together.  As for the soldier who shelled my house, I believe that in his conscience he has already punished himself, that he is asking himself, “What have I done?”  And even if he doesn’t think that now, tomorrow he will be a father.  He will suffer for his actions when he sees how precious is the life of his child.

To those who seek retaliation, I say, even if I got revenge on all the Israeli people, would it bring my daughters back?  Hatred is an illness.  It prevents healing and peace. (page 187-8)

That’s how things happen in the Middle East – the size of the rhetoric trumps the facts on the ground.  In my experience, the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians were horrified by the terrifying events of the three week war.  The reaction of ordinary people strengthens the case for our need to talk to each other, to listen to act.  And it reinforces my lifelong belief that out of bad comes something good.  Maybe now I really have to believe that; the alternative is too dark to consider.  My three precious daughters and my niece are dead.  Revenge, a disorder that is epidemic in the Middle East, won’t get them back for me.  It is important to feel anger in the wake of events like this; anger that signals that you do not accept what has happened, that spurs you to make a difference.  But you have to choose not to spiral into hate.  All the desire for revenge and hatred does is to drive away wisdom, increase sorrow, and prolong strife.  The potential good that could come out of this soul-searing bad is that together we might bridge the fractious divide that has kept us apart for six decades.

The catastrophe of the deaths of my daughters and niece has strengthened my thinking, deepened my belief about how to bridge the divide.  I understand down to my bones that violence is futile.  It is a waste of time, lives, and resources, and has been proven only to beget more violence.  It does not work.  It just perpetuates a vicious cycle.  There’s only one way to bridge the divide, to live together, to realize the goals of two people:  we have to find the light to guide us to our goal.  I’m not talking about the light of religious faith here, but light as a symbol of truth.  The light that allows you to see, to clear away the fog – to find wisdom.  To find the light of truth, you have to talk to, listen to, and respect each other.  Instead of wasting energy on hatred, use it to open your eyes and see what’s really going on.  Surely, if we can see the truth, we can live side by side.

I am a physician, and as a consequence I see thinks most clearly in medical terms.  I am arguing that we need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and equality, one that inoculates them against hatred. (195)

Recently, Rabbi David Wise taught me that the Hebrew word for   
Revenge (Nekamah) is only one letter away from the Hebrew word Comfort (Nechamah).  Today is Yizkor and we gain a sense of comfort as we remember our dearly departed.  Similarly, may the Jewish people and the Palestinian people choose Nechamah over Nekamah so that peace may envelope us all.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!

Food plays such an important role at our seders.  Of course there is the symbolic food on the seder plate.  No seder would be complete without matzahs, marror, charoset, and salt water.  Menu planning, shopping, and cooking the festive meal requires weeks in advance planning.  Despite scouring all the advertisements for Passover sales, our grocery bills go through the roof.  One local cantor posted a parody called Matzah Balls lamenting this fact.  He sings “I have blown my whole life savings shopping for food and it’s all made from over priced cardboard.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xm9zYat_U3I)

Besides the symbolic food and the actual food on the table, food serves as one of the thematic threads that tie the Haggadah together. Raising the matzah the leader of the seder begins the Maggid section of the Haggadah saying “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.  Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!”  

Immediately afterwards the youngest child asks the four question.  Do you really think that eating matzah and having hor dourves, the dipping the karpas in salt water prompts him or her to say “How different this night is from all other nights!”  Passover isn’t the only time we eat matzah.  Many times people use matzah for lechem mishnah (the second loaf of bread) on the Shabbat table when they don’t have a second Hallah.  Although not customary, everybody has seen hors dourves served at a cocktail hour.  These things are different but really not so strange to raise questions.


A long time ago, I read a commentary that states the invitation “Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!”  prompts the child to question the father’s behavior.  For on all other nights whenever the father sees a poor person begging for food in the street, he crosses the street in order to avoid all and any contact with the hungry beggar.  Tonight he invites him into their home.  No wonder the child says, “Ma Nishtana-How different this night is from all other nights!”


Too many of us are like the parent above who avoids or just doesn’t see hunger in our midst.  I wonder how can there be so people going to bed hungry every night in America, this land of plenty.  World hunger is great tragedy. The world is facing a hunger crisis unlike anything it has seen in more than 50 years.  925 million people are hungry.  Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That's one child every five seconds.  There were 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty in 2005. The World Bank estimates that the spike in global food prices in 2008, followed by the global economic recession in 2009 and 2010 has pushed between 100-150 million people into poverty.
Like Rabbi Elezar be Azariah in the Haggadah who wasn’t able to show that the Exodus must be recited at night until Ben Zoma gave him the correct interpretation, I was always troubled by the penultimate line of birkat hamzon, grace after meals.  That line “I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” just doesn’t jive with reality.   We all have witnessed when bad things happen to good people and children going to bed hungry.  I use to say this line silently because I just couldn’t pray a lie out loud.   I didn’t know how to understand that sentence until Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ interpretation.
He writes:

I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.

This line, from Psalms 37:25, has often raised questions.  Surely throughout history there were times when the righteous were forsaken?  Indeed this is one of the questions that, according to the Talmud, Moses asked God:  “Why do the righteous suffer?

I once heard a beautiful explanation from R. Moses Feuerstein of Boston. The key phrase in the verse is lo ra’iti, standardly translated as “I have not seen.”  The verb ra’iti, though, occurs twice in the Book of Esther with a quite a different meaning. “How can I bear to watch (eicha uchal vera’iti) with the disaster which will befall my people? And how can I bear to watch the destruction of my family?” (Esther 8:6) The verb there doesn’t mean “to see.”  It means “to stand by and watch, to be a passive witness, a disengaged spectator.” Ra’iti  in this sense means to see and do nothing to help.  That for Esther as for the Psalmist, is a moral impossibility.  We may not “stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.”  We are our brother’s keeper.

Translated thus, the verse states:  “I was young and now am old and I have not merely stood still and watched when the righteous was forsaken and his children forced to beg for bread.”  Read this way, not only does it make sense. It also emerges from the core of Jewish sensibility. It ends grace after meals with a moral commitment. Yes, we have eaten and are satisfied.  But that has not made us indifferent to the needs of others.

The conclusion of the meal, so understood, echoes the opening of the seder service with its invitation to “all who are needy-Come and eat.”

The challenge of Passover is to refashion the outside world so that all may be free.  Of course supporting organizations like Mazon and Hazon are worthwhile endeavors.  Beyond that, the Haggadah may just be the educational tool to teach our children how our tradition demands us to bring redemption nigh.  Maybe the act which rouses the child’s question in the first case can spur us to action in our own little corner of the world.  Perhaps instead of stepping over or crossing the street to avoid a hungry person, we can buy them something to eat to satisfy his/her immediate needs.  This would be such a valuable chesed example to teach our children to imitate. 

Our final redemption would be all that closer when our children see us invite the hungry to our table and not think, “How different this night is from all other nights!”


Thursday, March 29, 2012

My Fifth Question

Every year I study one or two new commentaries on the Haggadah to enrich my seder.  This year’s Haggadah is one of the best commentaries I have ever read and one that really resonates with me after our Israel seminar.  I can’t recommend highly enough Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s Haggadah.  The religious lessons he gleans from the tradition text truly moves me. 

The Maggid section of the Haggadah begins with “Ha Lachma Onya.”  This paragraph ends: “This year we are slaves – next year, may we be free.”  Rabbi Sack writes:

There are two words for freedom in Hebrew, chofesh and cherut.  Chofesh is ‘freedom from’.  Cherut is ‘freedom to’. Chofesh is what a slave acquires when released from slavery.  He or she is free from being subject to someone else’s will.  But this kind of liberty is not enough to create a free society.  A world in which everyone is free to do what they like begins in anarchy and ends in tyranny.  That is why chofesh is only the beginning of freedom, not its ultimate destination.  Cherut is collective freedom, a society in which my freedom respects yours.  A free society is always a moral achievement.  It rests on self-restraint and regard for others.  The ultimate aim of the Torah is to fashion a society on the foundations of justice and compassion, both of which depend on recognizing the sovereignty of God and the integrity of creation.  Thus we say, ‘Next year may we be bnei chorin,’ invoking cherut not chofesh.  It means, ‘May we be free in a way that honours the freedom of all.’

After reading his understanding of cherut, I couldn’t help think but about the some of the social justice issues I confronted during mystay in Israel as part of the Leadership Institute.  I visited kav le’oved (an agency that protects the rights workers whether they be Israeli or migrant workers and works to help women out of white slavery) and my group also learned about the asylum seekers from war torn Africa like the Sudan and Eritrea.  Our speaker took us on a walking tour to South Tel Aviv where these asylum seekers sleep out doors in the park no matter what the weather might be.  Besides no housing, hunger, employment, education, and other necessities of life which lead to human dignity are sorely lacking or at best inadequate.

The Israeli government certainly isn’t living up to the ideals of our Torah as taught in the Haggadah by creating a society built on the foundation of both justice and compassion.  Instead of giving these people refugee status which would guarantee them certain legal rights, they have no rights at all.  Instead of creating refugee camps or other living facilities for them, Israel is building a 10,000 bed prison to house them because the government has enacted laws that make the trek to safety and freedom a crime.  Thank God, individual Israelis are stepping up in lieu of the government.  But more needs to be done.

I don’t have solutions, but Passover, the Haggadah, and Rabbi Sack’s commentary challenges me.  What should I be doing to alleviate their suffering so to honor the freedom of all?  That’s my fifth question for my seder.

If you are more interested in learning more about these asylum seekers and the daily problems and challenges, I encourage you to read my friend Allen Katzoff’s blog, Seven Months in Tel Aviv.  Allen is a past director of Camp Ramah in New England and is now in Israel while his wife Joan Leegant teaches literature and writing at the Bar Ilan University.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Purim, Revelation, and Tel Aviv

Purim, Revelation, and Bus Routes in Tel Aviv

One of the literary threads that tie Megillat Esther together is “Nahafoch Hu” or reversals.  Let me share just two examples of this literary device.  Haman plots to kill all the Jews and at the very end he, his 10 sons, and all of his supporters are put to death.  One night when sleep evades King Achashverosh, he asks that his book of records be read to him.  He learns that nothing had been done to reward Mordechai for saving his life.  Who should be in the court but Haman to ask permission to hang Mordechai.  The King asks Haman “what honor should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor.”  *(6:6)  Haman thinks the king is speaking about himself and advises him to dress the honoree in the king’s clothing, be ridden around town on the king’s horse, and let them shout before the honoree “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor.”   To Haman’s utter shock and dismay the king said, “Quick, then! Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordechai the Jew who sits in the king’s gate. Omit nothing of all you have proposed.” ()

The Rabbis have always loved Megillat Esther. They taught: “The truth of the Book of Esther is like the truth of Torah…just as the Torah requires interpretation, so does the book of Esther.  (Jer. Talmuld Megillah 1:1)  The Book of Esther was given to Moses on Sinai, but since there is no chronological order in the Torah, it appears after the Five Books of Moses.  Rabbi Yochanan said that the Prophets and the Writings will one day be annulled, but the words of the Torah will not…Resh Lakish added that the Book of Esther will also never be invalidated. (Jer. Talmud Megillah 1:5)

They saw an even deeper connection and more between Purim and Torah which bears on the current situation in Tel Aviv.  “And they stood under the mountain.” (Ex. 19:17). Rav Avdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain and suspended it upon them like a barrel and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, well and good, but if not-there shall be your burial!”  Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: “This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.” (i.e., a blanket excuse for nonobservance of a covenant ratified under duress). (The same principal is being applied when art work is being returned to survivors and their descendants since the sale of these paintings were not volitional but coerced by the Nazis.) Said Rava: “Yet even so, they accepted it again in the days of Ahashverosh, for it is written: ‘They confirmed and they assumed, the Jews, upon themselves’ (Esther 9:27); they ratified (with the institution of Purim) what they took upon them long before (at Sinai).” (Shabbat 88a) 

Because accepting the covenant at Sinai was under duress, Jews could now nullify the agreement. Rabbi David Hartman extrapolated an important lesson from this Gemarra. “What began at Sinai as an externally imposed system of norms had become a successful internalization of those norms when Purim was identified as the celebration of the free acceptance of the Torah.  (A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Tradition Judaism, page 219)  I understand this to mean that Judaism can only be meaningful and valid if it is accepted voluntarily and not coerced by God or the Rabbis.

All this Purim Torah made me return to reflect upon the first Shabbat in Tel Aviv of our Leadership Institute seminar in Israel.  Jews generally gravitate to Jerusalem for Shabbat because there is a shul on every corner as well as the opportunity to daven at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the Old City.  On the other hand, Tel Aviv has the reputation of a secular city that never sleeps.  We were asked to reflect upon our Shabbat there because Tel Aviv isn’t a usual Shabbat destination. 

As my small group walked to Yakar, the shul we chose to daven in, I was amazed how few cars were on the road and how few stores and restaurants were opened. I came up with two possible reasons.  One, perhaps there are more traditional Jews in Tel Aviv than I suspected. Or two, everybody was still sleeping in from the previous night’s revelry at the numerous night clubs that rock until dawn.

Later on the trip the newspapers reported “Green light, red light: Tel Aviv okays buses on Shabbat, fears brakes to be put on plan   Resolution needs approval by Transportation Ministry, which city officials consider unlikely to come through." The municipality will submit a detailed request to the Transportation Ministry to operate essential [bus] lines on Shabbat," states Monday's resolution, which passed in a 13-7 vote and was sponsored by city council member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz ). "This is out of a desire to allow public transportation from neighborhoods in the north, the south and Jaffa to the center of town, the sea and recreation venues." Zandberg said maintaining the existing religious balance was not adequate justification for keeping residents from using public transit. (Ha’aretz published Feb. 21, 2012)

Of course, the Orthodox religious political parties came out decrying this change of the status quo.  In response, I truly feel like a Purim Jew who has gone through “Nahafoch Hu.”  I love the quiet Shabbat atmosphere in Israel when cars are off the road and businesses are closed.  It truly is a taste of the World to Come. Nevertheless, for Shabbat to be a meaningful part of one’s life, its observance can’t be compelled.  For all those who love Shabbat we need to persuade others of the beauty and need for a Shabbat in one’s life and act as positive role models.  Our message can be heard as proof of the thousand secular Jews joining in prayer on the beach of Tel Aviv each Shabbat as we learned.  Even though I am a traditional observant Conservative Rabbi, if I were on the Tel Aviv City Counsel I would have voted with the majority to allow buses to run on Shabbat.  Let those who want to ride, ride and those who don’t, don’t.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I learned a brand new blessing just in time for Tu Bishvat

I earned a double degree when I was an undergraduate student.  I graduated the joint program between Teachers Institute, now known as List College, of JTS and Columbia University.  I earned a BA from Columbia and a BHL, Bachelors of Hebrew Letters from T.I.  Despite carrying a full load of Judaic courses at the Seminary as an undergraduate and rabbinical student, I always found chevrutot, study partners, to study Torah Lishma, Torah for its own sake, unrelated to my class work.

I continued this tradition of Torah Lshma, first in Springfield, MA, next in Framingham, MA, and now in Queens.  Ever Since I moved to NY some 8 ½ years ago, I’ve been studying with Rabbi Marvin Richardson of the Jericho Jewish Center once a week.  I have studied Talmud, Biblical commentaries, and Hassidic Masters.  I am constantly surprised how interconnected my Jewish life is.  Inevitably what I am learning lishma, for its own sake without any conscious connection to my practical life, is relevant to what I happen to be learning or doing elsewhere.  This happens too often for it to be a coincidence.

Take my latest example.  For the last 4 years Rabbi Richardson and I have been working our way through the tractate Brachot.  As I am preparing to leave for Israel on my Leadership Institute for Hebrew School Principals Israel Seminar next week, Rabbi Richardson and I learned a new blessing.  “The Rabbis taught in a baraita:  If one sees Houses of Israel in their inhabited state, he says ‘Blessed are You…who establishes the boundary of the widow.  (58b)  Rashi in his commentary says this refers to the Second Temple period  because it was only after the destruction of the First Temple was Israel describe as a widow in the book of Lamentations, Eicha. Rashi implies that this refers only in the Land of Israel. 

Wouldn’t you know we leave for Israel on Tu Bishvat! I know from all my previous trips that the National bird of Israel should be the Building Crane.  There is constant construction go on, changing the landscape.  I am constantly impressed by the beauty of these new apartment buildings.  I can hardly wait to land in Israel and be able to recite this bracha when I see the land of Israel being redeemed and flourishing with Jews living in their own houses in their own state.  Baruch Matziv Gevul Almana!”Amen!